Monday, November 24, 2008

United Postal Service? - Malware Alert

I got a piece of e-mail today that screamed "fraud" to me, and I didn't see anything online mentioning it, so I thought I'd let people know.

The message is from the "United Postal Service," which of course doesn't exist (it's United Parcel Service or United States Postal Service). The e-mail is written in an amateurish style, and anyone with half a clue about viruses, trojan horses, or other malware would identify it within seconds. 

Here's the text:

Sorry, we were not able to deliver postal package you sent on November the 1st in time
because the recipient’s address is not correct.

Please print out the invoice copy attached and collect the package at our office.
If you do not receive package in ten days you will have to pay 36$ per day.

Your UPS
There is an attachment that appears to be a .zip file, but it opens up to a .exe file. Since I have a Mac, I can open most attachments without fear of infection from malware (there have been cases, but it's measured in years per occurrence on Macs because of our relatively low market share). I have no idea what the malware does, but I recommend you make your less tech-savvy coworkers aware of it if you work in a Windows environment, and of course do *not* open any attachment that you are not expecting and looks in the slightest way fishy. 

Of course, I did not send a package on Nov 1, of course UPS does not charge $36 per day if the package is not collected - they simply send it back to the sender. 

I was not able to find any online reference to this malware, which is why I'm letting people know as a public service that this is malware. It amazes me that people still buy into this stuff after all the various viruses that have come out in the last ten years, but they still do. 

Edit: this malware came out in July 0f 2008, and is documented here. My initial search came up empty, but a second search on text from the message took me right to it. My apologies for spreading fear and loathing. Being on a Mac and not being in an office environment insulates me a bit sometimes.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conflict of Heroes - Big Wargame Award Winner of 2008?

I've gotten in four or five playings of Conflict of Heroes so far, all using the first scenario. Yes, the Germans have won in every case, and in some cases the outcome was dictated far in advance. However, after I taught the game to my light wargamer buddy Connor (our games have largely consisted of the lighter card-driven wargames like Hannibal as well as Combat Commander), I'm thinking that this game has the potential over time to outshine nearly every other game on that era (WW2), that level of complexity (low for rules, medium for operations), and scale (tactical). 

What makes me so high on this game? Let me count the ways:
  1. Teachability. I can have someone who understands the basics of line of sight and hex-based movement up and running on this game within about 10 minutes. For someone familiar with Combat Commander, perhaps less.
  2. Combat resolution. One of the downfalls of systems at this level is trying to show the wide range of possibilities without a billion markers or special rules. The chit pull system, like card-based systems, produces this range while keeping things extremely simple. As I've discussed with the designer, Uwe Eickart, the only thing making this less than perfect is that it's difficult to see exactly what each unit's condition is on the board without lifting a lot of combat units to see combat chits, something that could easily be remedied by using much smaller combat results chits that would fit in the middle of the unit easily. My other concern is that it becomes easier to kill units outright if there are lots of hits on units on the board, regardless of which side you are on, as it's a relatively small pool of results. 
  3. Component quality. Unlike Tide of Iron, which came with slightly warped boards right out of the box and plastic units that wouldn't fit in the bases without considerable work, CoH's components are very nice. No clipping for the units or markers (except for a bit of trim work in one or two cases in my set), the boards lay extremely flat on the table with zero warpage, and the rules are well organized and marked. Usually, "programmed instruction" rules do a fantastic job of teaching the game and a very poor job for those needing to find a rule, but the system is added on to in such a way as to make the rules   organization good for both needs. There are some problems here - a too-big rulebook in terms of footprint, the combat chit issue mentioned above, and the combat units have their flank defense strength printed toward the front of the counter rather than the rear compared to the front DS. For a first pass at a game, however, they did a fantastic job. 
  4. Story elements. While there are no condition cards as in the Lock'n'Load series (perhaps the best element of that game), there is still a wonderful sense of storytelling that CoH brings to the table. In our second turn of Thursday's game, I'd been very aggressive as the Sovs in bringing units forward to make it tougher for the Germans to advance. However, toward the end of the turn I was also down to one shot from a single used Sov unit with a +1/+2 DRM based on Command Action Points (CAPs). Connor had a single German rifle unit unused in the NW corner of the board, but he had enough Action Points to get it to the VP space in the middle of the board, although there was every chance that his unit would be wiped out. He decided to make a run for it (much as you would with a Hero unit in Combat Commander), and I waited until he was down to a single Action Point so that he couldn't then immediately rally the unit with his remaining CAPs. Of course, he pulled the Berzerk result, which lowered his range to 1 but improved nearly everything else. He ended up taking out the Rifle unit I had forward of the VP space, and once in the woods was nearly impossible for me to hit with a single unit (and you can't group in the first scenario). While I was able to take the VP space back later, the game was only really up for grabs for another turn or two, and by the fifth turn I couldn't get anything going enough to really challenge him. Keep in mind this is a small scenario with only five or six units per side once everyone has gotten on the board. 
  5. Wider range of units, including vehicles. Enough said.
  6. Multiplayer capability. While you might be able to retrofit rules for this into CC, the cards would make it tricky. CoH has specific rules and scenarios for larger actions with multiple players and/or teams. 
  7. Solitaire capability. CC is nearly impossible to play solitaire, at least without serious consideration of how to handle things like Opportunity Fire Actions. CoH does have cards, but there are rules on how to manage them. Also, there are rules for hiding units that are added into the mix fairly early, and many scenarios start with hidden units, so you have to either ignore this rule or else use rules similar to the Spotting rules in Panzer Grenadier to simulate this to a reasonable extent, but CoH seems to have the advantage at this point by at least a small margin.
  8. Geomorphic maps. CC has more maps, but they are all one size and can't be hooked together. CoH only comes with five maps, but like ASL they can be combined to form larger maps in a wide variety of ways. Of course, this is a big reason why CoH can include tanks, as they would completely dominate an area as presented in CC. CC, however, has done amazing work in providing additional maps, and I now count something like 30 maps available after the C3i #21 comes out this month with yet another double sided map included. Still, the edge goes (slightly) to CoH, in part because the maps will hold up for a longer time assuming no warpage.
These are very compelling reasons, at least for me, as to why this game holds so much promise. However, I still believe that Combat Commander has the edge for a few reasons:
  1. Breadth of subject matter. Where CoH is limited (for now) to the Eastern Front over roughly a year period, CC covers the entire war in Europe, or can at any rate. CC also covers a wider range of nationalities, as you'd expect, even in the base set. With a Pacific box coming out in about a month, you'll be able to cover almost any WWII action at squad level.
  2. Better model of leaderhip. The CAP system is brilliant, no mistake, and it abstracts the abilities of leadership pretty effectively for something so simple. However, it does not place specific leaders in specific places at specific times - in CC, if a leader is taken out at a critical moment, it can have a big effect on the opposing side's battle plan. In CoH, the leaders are (more or less) assumed to be everywhere, and are lost when the unit is lost (hence the loss of CAPs as you lose units). There is no question that the CC method is probably a better reflection of realities in combat, but there is a complexity cost associated with that model. 
  3. Random scenarios. CC has a random scenario generation system. While CC has a lot more scenarios extant as I write, that can change dramatically over time and it is the fact that you have effectively an unlimited number of scenarios through random generation that is the differentiating factor here. 
  4. Differentiation of weapons from teams. As with leaders, the weapons systems are broken out into separate counters. Thus, a team that loses use of a weapon through jamming or breakage can still be combat effective, but at a much lower level. 
  5. Differentiation of unit skills. By boxing different unit factors (movement, range, firepower) in CC, you can demonstrate that some units were capable of using different tactics, such as smoke, assault fire, or close assault improvements. 
  6. Battlefield chaos vs operational flexibility. In Combat Commander, you need a card to do anything, whether it's an action or an order, but you can keep doing it so long as you have the cards to do it. In CoH, you can do anything with anyone so long as units are either unused or you still have enough CAPs. This is a basic design tradeoff of simulation vs game. ASL chose to have extremely detailed weapon and organizational accuracy while keeping the commander firmly in charge. Both CoH and CC abstract out the detail to a large degree, but CC adds in the fact that about 90% of the men under your command can be trusted to act in their own best interest in any combat situation - in other words, stay where they are and not take chances. That's why not having a Move Order card in hand is acceptable if the simulation is the thing. CoH makes for an extremely engaging game on the other hand, that keeps things simple but pretends that your men will advance under fire whenever you'd like them to. 
  7. Uncertainty in victory conditions. As in battle, one side may have a treasure trove of valuable ground, documents, materiel, etc that the other is unaware of. This is modeled in CC through secret objective chits, which can even change as the game progresses. While this might drive some players crazy (and is a direct corollary of item 6 above), I love it. Again, realism in certain elements while preserving playability, tension, and literary elements are things I value, so like item 6, this item is more a matter of taste than anything else. 
Understand that I haven't gotten to a lot of the meat within the CoH system yet. I may find that the ability to include AFVs may put me right over the edge (and the fact that the combat systems are effectively parallel - you use units with blue (armor piercing) firepower to attack units with blue (armored) defensive values, and vehicles have their own set of combat results chits). 

Of course, when you're as compulsive as I am, there's really no reason why you can't have both game systems. After all, I also own most of the AH/MMP ASL material, most of the Avalanche Games PG material, both the original AH and first Critical Hit versions of Tobruk (later Advanced Tobruk System), Combat Commander, Tide of Iron (gotta sell this someday), and of course, Conflict of Heroes. Among other things. They definitely scratch different itches, although I would start a non-wargamer with Conflict of Heroes before I moved them on to Combat Commander just because of the leader and weapons unit breakouts in the latter and the programmed instruction rules presentation of the former.

Otherwise, both games have (so far) good support from their parent companies, with GMT providing regular additional content (both strategy and scenarios) in their house publication C3i and through Battle Packs (although at a cost), while Academy Games has provided a couple of extra scenarios and an extra board (again, at a cost). Both have very enthusiastic and accessible design teams that are willing to listen to their customers, in not agree with them every time. In conversations with Uwe about some of the component issues, he was intrigued with the idea of switching the Defensive Values on units and putting a hex symbol around them to better convey the idea of which value was associated with which part of the unit in an intuitive manner. I think he also liked the idea of smaller rulebooks and smaller combat chits, and here's hoping that they get put in the next iteration of the system. I'd also like to see scenario cards rather than booklets, although I understand there is a cost issue, and both systems present their scenarios in booklet form at present (battle packs and C3i scenarios from GMT excepted). 

All of this comparison aside, there is no question in my mind that Combat Commander was the best wargame to come out of 2007 (released in 2006, but not widely available until Jan 2007), and Conflict of Heroes should be the big award winner in 2008's wargame awards. Both of these games have made tactical-level WW2 wargaming approachable to the masses, but CoH will get even eurogamers (fussy about small counters and paper maps to a degree I'd normally associate with the Inappropriately Entitled) excited. A fantastic start for a new game company, and I wish them all the best. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Best. Semi-Cooperative. Game. EVAH.

Matt G hosted this Tuesday, and I brought both Dominion (raved over in my last entry) and the new Battlestar Galactica boardgame. Since we had six players, I managed to ram the idea of Bstar-G down everyone's throats, helped considerably by some excellent buzz on the 'Geek. Helping out with the first playthrough were Alex, KC, Rita, Mike, and of course Matt. 

Bstar-G is a relatively complex game, so I'm not going to go into too much detail on how it works other than to compare it to it's obvious predecessor, Shadows Over Camelot. SoC is a very fun game, but it is played in micro increments - you move during your turn, but that's your sole action if you do. Or you play a card. Bstar-G, on the other hand, lets you move *and* take an action, and you can even give actions to other players, so there's more to do on your turn. Since movement doesn't take long (other than figuring out what areas you should move to, as each gives you an extra choice of actions), the game moves along pretty well once people get the hang of the turn sequence. 

In SoC, you play a Bad Card every turn that makes the game harder for the players. You do the same in Bstar-G with Crisis cards, but the card does several things. First, it will either have a bunch of Cylons show up that you'll have to fight off (or jump away from), or it will provide you with a skill check to avoid some sort of danger. The whole skill check thing is not terribly involved in practice, but takes more time to explain than I wish to take in this entry, so I refer you to one of the many reviews/overviews of the game that are out there. Suffice it to say that it is structured so that the Cylons among you have the chance to do damage almost every turn without giving away their allegiance. 

In SoC, one player *may* be a traitor, it is not a given. If there is a traitor, they know who they are from the very start and it never changes. In Bstar-G, you will *always* have at least one traitor, and with more players you may have two. In SoC, you don't reveal yourself, and others must publicly accuse you at some risk. In Bstar-G, other players can *say* you're a Cylon, but until you yourself actually reveal you are a Cylon, you are free to run around Galactica right up until someone tosses you into the Brig, which requires a skill check and an action to get out of, essentially putting it to a vote. Since some players have the chance to look at other's loyalty cards during the course of the game, the opportunity for fun is very high. 

In Bstar-G, you get a second (or third, depending upon your character) Loyalty card about halfway into the game. If either card declares you to be a Cylon, you're a Cylon. There is also a Sympathizer card that must be revealed immediately that hobbles your character for a time, and may even land you in the Cylon action areas if things have been going too well for the Humans. If you end up with both Cylon cards, there is an action that will allow you to give one of your unrevealed Loyalty cards to another player after you yourself have been revealed. if the other Cylon hasn't been revealed yet, this is another way to sew discord and tension into the game, as it can either turn someone to a Cylon (if it is indeed that card) or at the very least make people look at that person funny and maybe even convince someone to send them to the brig. HiLARious. It's also a good way to make sure that there will be two Cylon players in the game in the rare event that a single player gets both cards. Brilliant design.

Crisis cards also provide an AI for the Cylons in combat, as well as an essential part of the game timer. For those who get to choose two cards from the Crisis deck, you often have the chance to help or hinder depending upon which side you're pitching for. 

Our game took about 3.5 hours, including a limited amount of 'splainin' and quite a bit of looking up rules. The game has a certain amount of reference material on the back page, but it still needs the basic Cylon rules spelled out in addition to other rules so that players may have something to reference that won't give away what happens if they suddenly realize they are Cylons. SoC puts the Traitor rules on the other side of your character card, making it kind of obvious if you suddenly start "wondering" how the traitor works. Just looking! Honest!

In the first half of our game, it was pretty clear pretty early that we were all not Cylons, unless Alex (as Admiral Saul Tigh) was screwing us over on his selection of destination cards, or President Rita Roslin was choosing the more dangerous of the two Crisis cards. It took us three jumps to get five movement points (you need four to get to the mid-game deal of cards), and it was at this time that I became a Cylon. I was loving this game already, because I was playing Baltar and as such got to look at someone else's entire set of Loyalty cards as an action, which I did even though I was stuck in the Brig thanks to a Crisis not being as averted. I looked at Alex's, and even though at that point I knew he was not a Cylon I decided to instead play it straight as I knew the very next turn I'd reveal myself and his allegiance would be in question. 

By this time, we had nearly the entire crew in the brig for various reasons, and it was at this time that I declared myself, heading off to the Cylon resurrection ship and getting a Super Crisis card (woot!). We had barely held off a single Centurion boarder early in the game (when, strangely, I would have lost because I was not yet a Cylon), which are surprisingly difficult to kill. My Super Crisis card put *two* of these bad boys on board, and then when KC revealed himself shortly thereafter, his Super Crisis damaged the Armory which made it impossible to kill the Centurions until it had been repaired, and that was going to require Matt (the Chief) who was fighting to get out of the Brig as well. Things didn't look good for the good guys at all.

However, you don't draw a Crisis card if you are a Cylon or in the Brig, so those cards were coming out less often, so less chance of moving the Centurions along in a timely fashion (and less chance of a jump, which was all the humans needed to win by this point). I did go to Caprica and use that action to draw two Crises and pick the one I wanted to play, and neither moved the Centurions but did advance the jump sequence. The humans didn't have population problems, but they were down to just one food (if you run out of any of the four resources, the Cylons immediately win), and so it looked to be coming down to a couple more turns, first Alex as Saul, then KC. Alex went to the FTL area, jumped, and saved the game for the humans. One more player turn and the Cylons would almost certainly have won by eliminating the last food. 

Compared to the one really great game of SoC I've had (a few months ago at Matt's), I feel that this game was actually better and holds the promise of being consistently more entertaining than SoC for all the reasons I give above, but also because there was considerably interaction, laughter, throwing of meaningless accusations (when Rita put Alex in the brig because he'd just put *her* in the brig, my comment as a revealed Cylon was "Well done, Madame Cylon. Well done!") and other hilarity. Other impressive moments included Mike slapping down an entire wave of Cylon raiders with a single card, killing that lone Centurion boarder one space away from Humans Lose, KC revealing himself after he'd gone out to face pretty much every Cylon unit in the game on the board, and many more. 

However, the game is not for everyone. While I'm very certain I could teach this game to a group of gamers who hadn't played and play to completion within three hours now that I've been through the drill, it was pretty clear that Mike was not enjoying the game much (he played a pilot, and we seemed to jump most of the time before he got to do much). He made several comments that it was a "long game" as the night wore on, which I strongly suspect meant "too long". The fact that he was fifth in player order and the initial turns took a while to get to him didn't help, nor did his inability to get out into a Viper and do some damage - we kept jumping before they did any damage at all, and it wasn't until the very last jump that *any* of the civvie ships were eliminated, much less a Raptor or Viper. If you play with six, you may want to make sure that people are fairly tolerant of downtime, even though it's less of a problem with Bstar G than with SoC. I think he was also a bit disappointed that he didn't get to be a Cylon, even though as Sharon Valerii he got to draw *two* Loyalty cards at the midgame break. 

Everyone else had fun, however, although it did run much later than we normally go (we were packing up at 10:40pm, and we rarely go past 10:15pm at the latest). Like I say, I think I could have gotten the game finished by close to 10pm had I been a bit more familiar with the game and not had to look up a lot of rules and been a bit more efficient in my 'splainin'. As such, this is probably not a Tuesday night pick, although if I have my way it will see play at our retreats (and probably even a night game at WBC-West). Fantasy Flight has managed to take the semi-cooperative game genre and make it work on a consistent basis, while at the same time achieving the not-inconsequential goal of evoking the feel of what has arguably been the best television series of the last four or five years (and one that is coming to a close in March with the final 11 hours beginning broadcast in mid-January 2009). 

To get this *and* Dominion within the last month is an embarrassment of riches, and one unlikely to be repeated. Given that Conflict of Heroes, perhaps the best entry-level wargame every produced, came out in the same time frame, is nothing short of a miracle, at least for patrons of St. Sid Sackson. 

My *only* concern is that our very first game of Bang! was a hoot too, which very quickly turned to tedium in the follow-on sessions. I find this unlikely, as Bstar-G has so many subsystems but keeps them within an elegant design that keeps player interest alive between their turns. In the video-game world, tying a game to a television or film franchise is almost guaranteed to produce a terrible game. I'm very happy to see that in the boardgame world, this doesn't have to be the case. If you almost liked SoC but found the micro-actions and limited Traitor options to be less than you'd hoped for, Bstar-G may be da bomb. And if you are lucky enough to be the Admiral of the fleet - Da Nuke.


The other game Matt and I played on Monday was Dominion, the new euro deck-building game that has been such a hit. Mike had taught me this game at Chris' Tuesday session the week before, and Matt was interested to learn it, so off we went. 

I admit that hearing that Dominion was a deck-building game gave me some pause. I've dabbled in CCGs in the past, and swiftly been overwhelmed by too many card choices in deck-building. In contrast, the collectible tile game Vortex was a huge hit with me because the choices were much more limited and there were never waves of expansion cards to make things more complicated. I also admit that I had purchased Dominion before learning the game simply because as a host I feel I should have the really good games on hand when people come over to play, and this game has had great buzz. 

For those living under a rock who haven't yet played, the game is fairly simple. You have a series of cards in essentially three types: VP cards, Money cards, and Kingdom cards. You always use the first two, but the last set is made up of 10 of 25 different types of cards that all do different things. The ten Kingdom "suits" you use is what will give this game tremendous replayability and freshness over a long period of time, as the various combinations will lead to different play styles and strategies. 

Every card has a cost to buy during the game, even the money cards. The Kingdom cards are, for the most part, useful only for the actions they allow you to do, although how you combine these in your personal deck will dictate how the game plays out for you. For the most part, the game is multiplayer solitaire with a number of interactions via "Attack" actions dictated by how many of these cards players pick up over the course of the game. Play is very quick, and the biggest disadvantage is that you spend a lot of time shuffling cards. I'm tempted to sleeve my copy, although as Mike pointed out you would spend about as much on sleeving (and make it much harder to handle the cards) as it would cost to buy a replacement game, so for now I'll hold off. 

Game play is very simple, enough so that I'd actually consider teaching my wife to play in social situations. Those of you who know my wife know that she refuses to play any non-party game that a) she can't blame her loss on bad luck, b) must contain no more than three rules, and c) must be explainable within about 30 seconds. Dominion actually meets these requirements, although learning how to play *well* does require a little more awareness. For Mel, though, it's the entry costs that are important, not the time spent learning effective play during the game. 

Each player begins the game with seven copper cards (each worth 1 point of money) and three 1VP cards. While it is the VP cards that win the game, they are useless for the most part during play - note the word "most", as there are ways to use these cards to help advance your position. This forms the basis of your personal deck, from which each player draws five cards to start. Each turn you do three things: First you may play one action from one of your Kingdom cards (you start with none), then you may buy one card with the money in your hand which goes into your discard pile, then you discard the rest of your hand and draw back up to five cards. The next player then takes their turn, and so on. Once either the 6VP cards are exhausted (there are eight in the pile in 2 player games, twelve if three or four), or three of any other pile (ten cards in each Kingdom pile) are exhausted, the game ends. 

It is the interaction between the kingdom cards where things get interesting. These cards have a wide variety of actions, often increasing the number of actions, buys, money, and draws you get during a turn. For example, if you play a Market card as your action, you would first get to draw an extra card (+1 Card), then play an additional action if you wished (+1 Action). Then you would get to buy an additional card (+1 Buy), which is always possible because the Copper money cards have a cost of 0, but since the Market also gives you and extra +1 coin, you'd at least have one buck to spend. Some action cards have varying combinations of these basic extensions, but others allow you to do specific things. For example, the Remodel card allows you to trash (or discard out of the game) a card in exchange for a different card costing 2 more bucks. Since the 6 VP cards have a cost of 8 and Gold has a cost of 6, you can trade the Gold cards for 6VP through this action, but only if you have the Gold card in your hand. The Militia, on the other hand, gives you a bonus to the money for the turn and forces other players to discard down to three cards unless they can show they have a Moat card to counter it. 

It is these combinations that players need to look for. In general, it is important to focus on getting effective Action card combinations early, plus perhaps some coin, then later focus on the VP cards as they are mostly useless (although cards like Cellar allow you to draw extra cards if you discard, and give an extra action as well). Since you often want specific combinations of cards in hand, as mentioned above, it's often useful to keep your deck relatively small, although a deck full of nothing but VP cards will tend to stall near the endgame. If you play with the Garden cards, though, you get VP for having cards in your deck! The nature of the game changes as you change the mix of Kingdom cards, and it is this element that brings the best elements of CCGs to a game that doesn't require a second job and weekends spent searching for specific killer cards to enjoy. The author has promised expansions, which will only improve the game over time, a la the original Cosmic Encounter (right up until the Moons. Please, no moons for Dominion). 

This was Matt's first exposure to the game, so we played the First Deck set recommended by the rules, which ended with me having the 1 VP card that made the 2 point difference. For our second game, we played the Big Money deck, which added mostly new cards and some really intriguing combinations (Throne Room allows you to play a second action card and then implement it *twice*, making the Market particularly powerful). I managed to take the fifth 6VP card one play before Matt would have, which would have resulted in a tie otherwise. When the games are that close, they're definitely more fun. 

I admit that I was terribly impressed after my first game with Mike and Ben last week (Mike cleaned up, having more points than Ben and I combined), but seeing how different the game became with different Kingdom cards simply blew me away. If this game doesn't win the Spiel da Jahre award (and a billion others) I'll be astonished. For those of you having trouble justifying paying $50 retail for a big square box full of cards, no board, and no bits, get over yourself. This game is, to my mind, the killer app of Euros at a time when I buy perhaps one or two euro titles a month - my last purchase other than the Race for the Galaxy expansion was Agricola. When deck-building *is* the game, we all come out winners. 

Hold The Line

Matt R came over for our monthly Third Monday session. He was running a little late, and had had a pretty rough day, so we jumped right into gaming. 

First up was a session of Hold The Line, the Worthington Games title that uses the Clash For A Continent system, itself a descendent of Richard Borg's Command and Colors system. Unlike C&C, HtL does not use cards nor even a division of the map into the flanks and center. Instead, a special die is used that produces rolls of 1, 2, or 3 (in equal measure) and this number is added to a scenario-specific number of Action Points (AP) that each player may use during their turn. In some cases, as in the Hobkirk's Hill scenario that we played, one side may even that that number altered - the Americans treated a "3" result as a "0", so were essentially hobbled an action per turn in addition to their one-smaller base value of 2 (the Brits got at least 3 AP per turn, so that was a two AP advantage on average for the Brits). 

There are no plastic units or blocks, but rather very heavy stock counters that have a printed "morale value" (or, as referred to copiously in the rules, "MP", which is unfortunate as in the vast majority of wargames that means movement points). Instead of removing a unit, you simply flip a unit to show the weaker side, replace an already flipped unit with a replacement units of lower value, or remove it altogether if the unit is at it's lowest morale. In addition, unlike in any of the C&C games, morale actually has a use besides in determining how brittle a unit has become - it's used to determine if units retreat when being close assaulted (an expensive but very effective form of combat). 

Perhaps the largest rule change is that of rally. A leader stacked with a unit can, for one AP and neither unit moving for the entire turn, restore a single MP to that unit. The effect of this rule is that you almost certainly want to pull back units for regrouping even when they've only lost one or two MP, and that units are only going to die if they are the subject of intense fire. 

The other thing that HtL adds to the table is a timer for one or both sides. In our scenario, the Brits had 20 turns to get 6 VP from taking my VP spaces or eliminating my units. If I was able to cause 6 VP in casualties before that happened, or if the Brits didn't have 6 VP by the end of turn 20, the Americans would win. 

We played using the advanced leader rule (they may be able to take more hits, and can give extra dice in close combat but are also much more likely to die). My Americans start on a line of hills with two leaders, an arty unit, four or so militia cowering behind the hill should they be needed, and a single dragoon who's only purpose so far as I can tell is to dart out and kill a weak unit at a critical time. In my case, I used the dragoon immediately and lost it for a single step loss in return.

Since this was our first game, Matt's Brits, starting out in a clump to one side of the American line, tried to flank the line, but he was leery of the American arty and didn't make an assault until the very end of the game which resulted in destroying his fifth unit but not taking any VP spaces. I, on the other hand, who had no reason to do anything but sit there and wait for the Brits to advance because of the time limit, thought I'd try out assault tactics but got roundly spanked for my efforts (and helped Matt get to 5 American losses by game end as a result). It became very clear that those two extra AP per turn for the Brits more than offset the burden of attack, as I could be expected to get 3 AP on average to his 5, or only 60% of his AP over the course of the game. 

The game is clearly in the C&C mold, with a very simple system, a fair amount of chaos (although I felt the AP system was better than the standard C&C card-based system as you weren't forced to let critical units sit - even during the ARW, units would protect themselves if fired on or assaulted), balanced by quick playing time, rewards for playing in a historically accurate manner (to a point), and a good number of scenarios. Matt assured me that Clash for a Continent had somewhat different rules, although the systems of war hadn't evolved much in the 12 years or so between the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. I haven't played that earlier title, so I can't say. 

As such, HtL is a bit of an odd duck for me. I feel like C&C: Ancients (by quite a margin my favorite of these titles up to this point) does a better job of simulating the warfare of the period (I would think that close assault should inflict casualties on both sides in HtL, especially because it's so bloody, but there is no Battle Back rule as in Ancients), but while I like what some of the action cards do in Ancients I do like that you have more flexibility in your operations. Communications in and of themselves hadn't changed much - you still sent runners with orders to a sub-commander - although command structures had improved a bit. Flintlocks and rifles and artillery are clearly more useful at range than the javelins and arrows of the earlier era. I'm not sure if I prefer the dice method of Ancients (you need certain symbols to show up on the various dice) as opposed to HtL (you just need to roll "in range"). 

Plus, of course, with Ancients you get to put all of those stickers on all of those blocks (I actually enjoy this, much as I enjoy clipping counters), but setup is a pain and with three expansions I now need six different Plano boxes to hold them all (Roman 1, Roman 2, Macedonia, Carthage, Persia, Barbarians). It would be much easier to stick expansions to HtL into the base box as the cardboard units just go in baggies. 

All in all I think I'll see where the series goes from here in terms of innovation. Fortunately, I have room for both series (although I suspect Battlelore is going to go on the block soon for a variety of reasons), so only time will tell. If you don't own a C&C game but were thinking of taking the plunge, I think that you are best served by choosing the milieu you find most appealing - if you like elephants charging across a field only to stomp your own units (and who doesn't), then Ancients may be for you. If you're a fan of the Age of Reason and the ARW, Hold the Line may be your ticket. Otherwise, I'd recommend playing both games before making a decision.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Wrath of the Lich King - Very Early Impressions

WotLK has been out for a few days now, and of course it's having the usual effect on office productivity and kids feigning illness for a chance to get in a few uninterrupted hours of play in the new continent of Northrend. I've spent about five hours total playing in the new areas, and here are my very preliminary impressions:

  • Graphically, very nice. I've only been to the Borean Tundra area (taking the zeppelin from Ogrimmar), and even then I've only really visited a few areas, but they all look very interesting so far. The one really impressive spot is the area just SW of Warsong Hold (the main Horde hub in the area), where Kel'Thuzzad is waging a big war with these amazing floating pyramids. My framerates have varied from 30 to 80 fps, not too bad, but there has been quite a bit of stutter, and on one occasion I got kicked off the server (and fortunately not in a terrible spot).
  • The mobs seem to be buffed up a bit, and I'd imagine that if you had a poorly spec'ed or geared character coming in at level 68 you'd find your work cut out for you. Even I, a level 70 feral druid (arguably the most buffed class in the game), found myself having to fight off quite a few of the spideroids that fill the quarry around Warsong Hold at a time. Those things respawn at a murderous rate, and at one point I found myself fighting seven in a row, barely surviving and then finding myself being attacked while I healed up a bit. Yikes.
  • Quests are what you'd expect - quest chains in specific areas that fill you in on the environment (the beach area gets you familiar with the walrusoids, for example), and the usual stuff - find x of this, kill y of that, escort Princess Moo Cow across the beach. There are a lot of characters running around, so you spend a lot of time trying to find x of this or y of that to kill, but the escort or task-based quests are very easy because everyone is killing things. The one really cool quest, based off of the misty beach, is to drive a tank around and kill Scourge led by Kel'Thuzzad. You have a new interface to do this, lots of interesting weapons to deploy, fuel drums to run over that give you more mana to run the various weapons, and some of the weapons are seriously bad-ass. When you're done, you get ejected from the tank and parachute down to the ground. That was a cool surprise!
  • Warsong Hold is a good hub, but for some reason they chose to put profession trainers for pretty much everything but the Skinning and Leatherworking professions there. For those (which my character is), you have to run up to a quasi-Tauren village up the road, something you're unlikely to do as a new player to the area. On the plus side, there are a *lot* of things to skin, they all skin very easily if you're at 375 skill (as you almost certainly will be), and the scraps can be combined pretty easily. Plus, everyone and their dog is running around killing stuff, so lots of targets of opportunity. That may be why the profession trainers got put in a different location, but it sure was frustrating running around the Hold for an hour trying to find if there was somewhere I'd missed. 
  • Death Knights are already getting old. This is the new "hero" class that you can train in once you hit level 55. Since my characters were either at 70 or 40 and below, that means I'm unlikely to create one for a little while. Right now they are all over the place as many players were very excited about this new class and had characters all prepped to go as soon as the expansion came out. For now, I think I'll wait a while until the novelty wears off, then maybe start working my orc shammy (the one 40 I have) up once I've forgotten what it was like to grind in what was once the high levels of the game. 
  • I haven't seen any new instances yet, nor the siege going on as one of the major new parts of the game in Northrend. In fact, I'm only at 353 in Leatherworking, and will probably have to grind quite a bit in Outland just to level up to 375 so that I can use all of the new leather I found. I expect it will take something like 120 knothide leather just to create enough to get me to 360, and those last 15 levels might take a month. I know I spent a huge amount of time getting up to 300 in preparation for Outland. I'll tell you one thing - the odds of me working fishing up to 375 just so I can fish in Northrend is going south rapidly. 
  • For those wondering, I did indeed pick up the collector's edition, and I did it solely so that I could get the vanity pet, a little ice dragon whelp. Call me pathetic. The art book that comes with it is very cool, and I suspect the DVD is cool as well. Oh, and some CCG cards from one of the expansion sets I don't own, which will be great for playing the game with... no one at all. Sigh. 
All in all, I'm happy the expansion is out, but unlike some this game isn't about me getting to 80 first (saw a global achievement for the first orc character to hit 80 on my realm, Hydraxis). To be honest, the fact that Blizzard made it really easy to level up to 70 (this character took me a mere five months, unlike Leonadril who took nearly a year), and the only grinding level was getting from 60 to 61, which has always been a huge effort. Leo did every quest he could find in most of the Outland areas that didn't require a group, and did get to 70 but it was hard work. Amahiah was pretty easy in comparison. As such, I'm in no hurry to explore the entire map in a month, but would much rather be discovering things in a more organic way. Maybe I should do some fishing just to experience the entire game. Heck, I might try out some battlegrounds as well. 

One nice thing - the number of level 70's hogging the various PvP areas in Outland has gone down dramatically, although there are now a lot of level 65 Death Knights instead. Still, this gives me more of a chance to enjoy some of these aspects of the game, as before the Alliance on my server tended to camp on the towers whenever the time finally went down around Auchindown, and I never got a single tower converted. I mean, sheesh. Let the other guy convert one without have three level 70's sitting around waiting to gank them. No wonder I don't play on PvP servers. 

So, in general, a good expansion, although it is bringing a lot of players back to our server and actually forcing queues of players waiting to log in. So far I've been lucky with that, but it's just a matter of time. 

I love this game. 

Saturday, November 15, 2008

We The Meeples

Chris is headed for BGGcon later this month (maybe I'll get out there next year), and was looking forward to playing his good friend Jim in a game of We the People, Mark Herman's seminal American Revolutionary War game, while he's there. I took a stab at playing in the Wargame Room online tournament, but with most of the players on the East Coast and all of the games timed (meaning I can't just stand up and take care of things around the house, like the dogs) I just couldn't keep up and finally stopped trying. Not my finest hour, but a quick glance at the standings show that I'm far from the only one who had to give it up.

Regardless, WtP is a fantastic game, not to mention the very first of what we now call the Card-Driven Game genre. There are lots of games driven by cards, but the CDG stands out by using the event/operations choice on each card to determine how the game moves along. Do you use an event on a card to change the game state, or do you go with the operations to activate units on the board to achieve your goals? The genre has evolved tremendously over the years, seeing mutations to maps with hexes rather than point-to-point systems, separate decks not only for each player but for different phases of the game, and a wide range of periods from the ancient world to WW2. 

WtP actually does *not* use the event/operations paradigm, instead cards are either events *or* Operations. This can be a bit on the disconcerting side as it is entirely possible for you to get a handful of cards that are completely useless to you. Hopefully, your opponent doesn't get great cards either, but I've seen games hinge on what hand you get at a given point in the game. Frankly, most close games of Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage tend to be determined by who gets the most revolt or Diplomacy cards in the ninth turn. 

What saves We the People is that you never really know when the game will end. There are a bunch of Lord North's Government Falls cards in the deck, each stopping the game between 1778 and 1783 (the last possible turn). You *must* play these cards as part of your turn if you got them, although whichever card is played *last* is the one that counts. If you have cards that end the game on that turn, you might hang onto them until the end if you are winning, or play them early and hope your opponent has a later card he has to play if not. As such, that crap hand you have may not matter much, or it may matter a great deal. If you can't handle chaos, perhaps this isn't a game for you, but if you like tension and a literary feel to the game, it's a blast.

My experience with playing several different players (and some very good players) gave me an appreciation of the different things you need to do in this game. If the British get shut out of ports early in an area, it can be very difficult for them to get back into the game as they have tremendous limitations in where their reinforcements enter. They also are constrained by how their PC markers (the determination of victory, other than the possible elimination of General Washington) may be placed. A very strong strategy is to roll up the British from the south. However, you can't just let the British get a line of PC markers coming out of Canada either, as once those markers form a solid group connecting to a port it's very difficult to get them out. 

In our game, I took the British and proceeded to get very weak hands for about three turns. The British have decent generals all in all, but they require the 3 OPS cards to activate. They have no 1 generals, so your 1 cards are mostly good for bringing in reinforcements or placing the lone PC marker from time to time. In my first three hands, each hand had one 3, one 2, two 1's, and three relatively useless events, either the American's or my own. I did have a second 3 in the second hand, but Chris played a card that forced me to discard it. As such, I was having a lot of trouble getting PCs down on the board, and Chris had every port south of Norfolk, VA, and a good number of them between Alexandria, VA, and Canada - in fact, for a good chunk of the game I only had Boston up there. 

I also made the mistake of bringing both 2 generals into Virginia, meaning I only had 3 generals up in New England and Canada. 

By the fourth or fifth turn I was getting a little nervous, but then I got a hand with four 3 cards and finally started working in earnest. I sewed up Pennsylvania, Maryland, stole Rhode Island, started to convert New York and Connecticut, and was doing well in Virginia as well. I'd more or less given up on the Carolinas south, although I did make Chris sweat for those near the end of the game. It was Chris' lack of familiarity with the geometry of the board, combined with some mediocre hands, that got him into some trouble. 

In 1779, things got interesting. The French had come in the turn before, and while Cornwallis had pushed them out of Baltimore, he was more or less pinned in place. Burgoyne got cornered in Norfolk, and was wiped out with a large army, removing my Regulars combat bonus. However, Chris used a card in battle when he already had an advantage, and probably should have held it for a pass later in the turn. I, on the other hand, didn't have a single 3 card in my hand, had a single 2, and the rest were 1's. Five of them. By then the board was pretty full up on PCs with the exception of down South, so I was using those cards to play down there as well as bring some units in to bolster Boston and Howe's force. 

The thing I did have was a Minor Campaign, the only campaign card I saw the entire game. I used mine (and my 2) for my final plays of the turn, as Chris was out of cards. I used Howe to run Green out of Rhode Island, keeping it loyal to the crown, and then ran Clinton up to Connecticut to take the second space in that colony as well. I planned to use my 2 to take Delaware from Rochambeau, although it was a bit of a gamble as Washington was nearby and might have intercepted. 

As fate would have it, Chris' last card play was to have North's Government Fall on that very turn, so my play to keep RI and take Connecticut got me the win with six colonies: Penn, NY, RI, Mass, Connecticut, and Maryland. As it turned out, Delaware was my safety colony and there was no need to fight that battle. The game turned largely on my excellent cards (although Chris had a fistful of 3's as well) in 1778, where I was able to take New York City and put the colony away. Being able to snatch up Maryland while I let Chris focus on Virginia for several card plays didn't hurt either. Sometimes it's very easy to focus on a single colony at the expense of two or three you lose. 

By the end, Chris had an excellent understanding of the rules, and a better understanding of the way the game plays. However, the really good players place single CUs in critical points on the map, mostly up near the Canadian border, and that game will be a schooling. Chris was also hampered by the Declaration of Independence never coming out - we had two cards that forced reshuffles on the second and fourth turns, so we didn't get far into the deck. The only game-changer card that came up was the French Alliance, and while it allowed him to kill Burgoyne, that battle turned out to be too little too late. Like in the real war, the victory went to those who could sway public opinion, and by game end only New Jersey had enough fervor for rebellion, at least north of Virginia. 

An excellent game, and Chris noted during our session that the GMT Games reprint, Washington's War, had reached it's preorder numbers and would be in the queue for 2009. That's good news, as the map certainly needs a refresh (too hard to note which spaces go with which colony for new players), and the game has long been out of print and is very hard to find. A smaller box will be nice too. 

Thanks to Chris for hosting, and I hope you and Jim have a great time playing in Dallas. Maybe I'll go out there with you next year.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New Band

After a couple of months of searching (since mid-September), patience pays off. I've just been invited to join a classic rock/blues group called Raindriver as the keyboardist and one of three lead vocalists. Lots of old ZZ Top, Steve Miller, Pat Travers, Stevie Ray Vaughn, that sort of thing.

This was sort of a leap of faith for me, as I didn't think I was really looking for a band that had the word "blues" in it's description. I also thought I was not looking for a group that my main job would be keyboards, especially mostly Hammond organ as my primary axe. Still, these guys were relatively close in (they practice within a mile of Mike's house in Tigard, erm, Beaverton), and my initial contact with them was very promising, especially after I heard their demo material (as found on their website, which I've linked to above. After about four songs, I knew this was the right group.

What makes this a good group? First, it's a democracy rather than a strongman system, but Kent Wall knows the business and is taking on most of the leadership duties. I like having a strong and knowledgeable leader, as some of you know. Second, a very relaxed atmosphere during rehearsals, with lots of trading off of compliments and fixing problem spots quickly. Third, having three lead vocalists, especially with a nice range of styles and sounds but that still blends together well, is very nice - you can be in not great voice and still get through a gig pretty easily. Fourth, these guys know how to play and know how to play together. 

Most importantly, and something I didn't really realize I was missing, was that I don't necessarily have to learn a specific part, and I get to be creative. We did at least ten songs last night I've never played, and some I'd never heard, and I was finding all sorts of interesting riffs to work in. 

Compared with my last band, which I'm coming to realize was always the best of a bad lot at the time, this group is fun to work with and we sound *good*. After one rehearsal/audition. Nice to have it be relatively effortless - I'd forgotten that being in a band could be like this. The arena rock band I played with was very similar, but the range was just a titch too high for me and I didn't audition well. Guess there was a reason for that...

We're shooting for live work early in 2009, I will be sure to post venue information as we start to get out and play. 

Who'da thunk it. Me in a band playing blues and liking it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

World of Warcraft - Eve of the Lich King

Tomorrow will see the release of the second expansion for World of Warcraft (the MMO - funny how there are several different qualifiers now - Adventure Game, Board Game, CCG), and I'm almost certainly going to be picking up a copy, although I don't know that I'll be heading to the new continent of Northrend right away. I have a 70 Gnome Rogue who many of you have heard about in the past when he's gotten his ride or his flight mount, but he's been largely on ice for a while, mostly grinding for gold in Quel'Danas and a few dailies here and there. It's a slow process, and he's only about half way to getting his Epic Mount, which once he has enough Khorium, will be the Turbo Flying Machine. I figure once people have started heading to Northrend, that will be an excellent time to go mining. Money should be no issue once I get to Northrend, and I'd expect to get to 5000 GP pretty quickly, and I won't need to buy the epic mount. All I need is Khorium, and lots of it. 

What most of you don't know is that I started a new character last June or so to play in my friend Laurent's guild, Ten Ton Hammer on the Hydraxis server. That character, Amahiah, is a Tauren Feral Druid, and I've really enjoyed playing that class. I do best with the jack-of-all-trades classes as opposed to the single-purpose type, and while I can definitely see how people think Druids are too powerful in the game (at least for a lot of things), they are also a difficult class to learn to play because they have so many options. Best of all, though, is that they automatically get flight form at level 68, which is a huge savings in gold and lets you do those last two levels pretty quickly. 

Interestingly, as I speak we are something like five hours from the launch of the expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, and Amahiah is also about five quests away from hitting 70. I should be ready to hit the zep any time I wish to with both characters. 

However, I'm not sure that's what I want to do just yet. One of the things I hate about WoW is when 500 of your closest friends are all in the same area doing the same things. That works in some cases when you'd just as soon not have to fight your way through a mob of mobs to get to a quest item, but at the same time you spend a lot of time waiting for quest mobs or items to respawn, and that's tedious. Better, I think, to wait a few days and let the masses wash through the first few new levels and go in when things are a bit less crazy. 

Right. Who am I kidding.

Regardless, it's been a hoot so far, and the Ten Ton Hammer guild has been extremely helpful and fun to play with, even if I haven't gotten in nearly as many dungeons as I would have liked (although I *did* solo Deadmines, traditionally an Alliance instance, with my Horde Druid as I was skating through Westfall in my quest to Explore the entire world, part of the new Achievement system). 

Pretty amazing that I've stuck with this game for so long, and even more amazing that it has become pretty much the only computer game I play anymore. Aside from buying Spore recently (and admit it, who hasn't), WoW has become it. Age of Conan was a mess, although I hear that it went very well for a launch. Warhammer Online just doesn't sound all that interesting, perhaps because for some reason I thought it was Warhammer 40k Online right up until the release, and the idea of another fantasy-based MMO just doesn't do it for me at all. The good news is that WotLK should keep me busy for at least a few months, and then I may transfer one of my Level 40 characters from another realm over to try becoming a Death Knight (no point in doing this with my existing 70's, and my 40 is the closest otherwise). 

Blizzard just announced they've hit over 11 million subscribers. 11 million. Multiply that by 70,000 and you've got a financial sector bailout.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

East Front Series - Played!

One of the great regrets I have in wargaming is that I didn't pick up a copy of Barbarossa: Army Group Center some years ago when I had the chance. $70 for a wargame seemed like quite a bit at the time, especially a monster (and I didn't live in a house that would support a monster). Now, with prices on eBay hitting $300 or $400, and me with all of the other modules from Typhoon on, I'm kinda wishing I'd gotten a copy. OK, definitely wishing I'd gotten a copy.

Of course, it took until last Saturday for me to actually *play* one of these games. I now have South, North, Typhoon, and the newest edition, Kiev to Rostov, and after threatening to give this a try for years Mike and I finally got it on the table. Mike did a great job of boning up on the rules, running the tutorial on his own, checking out an awesome East Front series fan-produced webpage that even includes a Flash tutorial as well as an overview of the rules, and running one of the shorter scenarios on his own. Journeyman work, Mr. Deans. 

The East Front Series, or EFS as it's known, has been an ongoing labor of love by Vance von Borries, who must have a mind for minutiae that would stagger a normal person. His rules are, in general, very specific and in a lawyer-like style that I find to be very useful when one is trying to figure out exactly what the designer intended. EFS concerns the initial stages of the Eastern Front in Russia from June 22nd, 1941, through the end of that year. As such, it has some advantages over other systems that intend to have a much wider range of topics, such as the fantastic OCS titles such as DAK2, Burma, and Case Blue. Vance has also done games that have a smaller scale, such as Kasserine and Roads to Leningrad that use much of the same system as EFS.

The EFS games typically come with several maps, all of which (usually) can be connected to create a much larger game. In fact, the idea is that, once the Crimean set comes out next year and the much-anticipated AGC/Typhoon combo reprint is published (Typhoon used an early version of the system and almost can be considered a separate game), you will be able to play the entire Great Patriotic War through 1941 from Leningrad all the way down to the Crimea. Using the same scale as OCS (5 miles per hex), that's a really large map. I don't have an exact measurement, but I'd guess it was around 15 feet from north to south, while around 10 feel east to west (perhaps a bit more in some areas). That's just crazy talk, and I'd be impressed with anyone who played one of the set campaign games that takes up a mere three to five maps. By comparison, Case Blue (which admittedly has more ground to cover in the Caucasus and to the Volga and beyond) could use as many as ten maps alone, and merged with Guderian's Blitzkrieg and the upcoming northern theater game would be truly frightening in scope, although it focuses on 1942-43. 

Even I don't have a place to set something like that up, nor am I likely to ever do so, at least not until I'm divorced or something. 

OCS is probably one of the closest relations to EFS, so I'll use it as a comparator. Note that Mike and I played the fourth scenario, which comes with a tutorial running through the first of it's four turns, which both of us looked at before playing. We managed to get two full games in over about 4.5 hours, and the second one definitely went faster (and we learned a lot in the first game, that was for sure). As such, the game did not include supply, replacements, rail or strategic movement, and certainly no sea war rules. The map was on a single sheet of cardstock (11"x8.5"), and each side had less than 15 units to work with, plus a few air units. I will mention those rules as I go, but understand that I have yet to actually play a game that involves them.

Focusing on just one relatively short period of history and only two armies (there are Axis minors involved, but they play a very small part in general at this stage of the conflict other than Rumania) allows EFS to tailor the game system to reflect the individual strengths and weaknesses of each side. And make no mistake, the Germans are very strong in many ways, from mobility to communications to operational flexibility, while the Soviets have some very good units but getting them into the correct position to mount a counterattack requires some thought. Even the sequence of play reflects this, as the Germans have a typical Move-Fight-Exploit sequence while the Soviets can only move their mechanized and cavalry units before they fight, and get to move everyone *afterwards*. A very simple and elegant way to demonstrate an essential difference. The Germans can Reaction Move when the Soviets attack with pretty much every mech unit in range, but the Soviets must utilize their HQ units to do so, which tends to limit their actions somewhat, and a good German player will force the Soviets to make hard choices as to where to apply the hammer. 

The first time people play an OCS game, the thing they notice most is the supply. You can't really do much of anything without supply in OCS. You can't refit your aircraft after a mission, you can't move any units that are motorized or mechanized (trucks and tanks), you can't attack, you can barely defend. And every one of those supply points requires trucks to get them somewhere, or shipping points, and how you get the logistics to where you need them is a huge part of the game. EFS strips this down to Attack Supply, which has it's own organic transport built in and doesn't require separate truck units. Units can attack without Attack Supply, but risk extra losses. I really like OCS and the feel it gives - you can't mount an offensive unless you've built up the materiel and planned your attack - but EFS seems to give much of the same punch without so much of the headache of remembering how you need to allocate supply between putting gas in your tank's tank, bullets for your guns, and refit for your fighters. You still have to get it there, and you still want to use it efficiently, but it's a much easier system. 

OCS makes a big deal out of artillery and airstrikes. Arty is an important part of combat, but it's used in it's traditional role to soften up the enemy for the assault, and OCS uses a separate mechanism to do just that - Bombardment. Aircraft can be used for many different missions, including air bombardment and the ever-dangerous "hip shoot" ground attacks during the movement phase. In EFS, by comparison, arty supports combat directly, as does airpower (with some air combat thrown in). Interestingly, the Soviets are a bit hamstrung in their artillery deployment, only able to add a single arty unit to support a combat unless they stack with an HQ. The net effect is to speed things up a bit, as you don't have a Bombardment Phase adding time to combat. 

Both games have reaction movement, although (IIRC, it's been a while) OCS has separate movement phases where units placed in Reserve are allowed to move and react to the changing situation in the middle of what would normally be the opposing player's turn. EFS does this as well, but there is no Reserve mechanism - you simply need to be within three hexes of a unit under attack and a mech unit. The Soviets, of course, are hampered by requiring an HQ and having a limited number of chances even then. And here is where it gets very interesting, because the reacting units for both sides can't move through an unnegated ZOC, and they can't move if they start in an enemy ZOC. That's where the maneuver part of the game comes in, and it was in our second game with me as the Germans that I started to appreciate how critical placement of units is in EFS. Place a mech unit in reserve behind a front line unit, and now you can bring it up when the Germans attack. 

Or you would if there wasn't the opportunity to use air units to interdict hexes, which also results in preventing the Soviet HQs from allowing reaction movement. Like I say, there's a game here, and even our tiny little scenario had an excellent cat-and-mouse quality to it, but the mice had flypaper on their side. Breakthroughs can definitely be made, but a good Soviet player will be able to make the German throw fits, assuming they have the units, the time, and a little luck on their side. 

It's a really good thing they give you a couple of "warm-up" scenarios in each of these games, because you'll need them. Getting your head around the maneuver part of the game is critical, and the CRT certainly isn't intuitive (other than, in general, high rolls bad - BTW, in our first game, Mike seemed to roll an astonishingly large number of high rolls for combat as the Germans, even using the Dicenomicon app on my iPhone). However, using the extended Sequence of Play in the back of the Playbook, we were able to get through our two games pretty easily. There were a couple of interesting questions we couldn't answer (can you look through your opponent's units in a stack? OCS specifically says no, EFS didn't seem to have it spelled out), and a couple of places where the text was unclear, but between the tutorial, the online resource listed above, and a quick sweep through the rules, the game was definitely manageable. Of course, we were leaving out some pretty important rules (Attack Supply comes to mind), but on the other hand this was a much more accessible entry into the system than I had with OCS, which I wasn't getting for at *least* three hours of play until my Eureka moment hit. 

If it sounds like I'm saying that EFS is a superior system to OCS, that's not the case at all. While both games are at the same scale, OCS is intended as a general system adaptable to mid-20th Century warfare - there's a game on Korea, Burma, desert warfare, East Front, and the rumor of a France 1944 module coming out. EFS, on the other hand, is very specific in what it will support, although as I mention that allows a certain amount of customization to fit the era. While EFS clearly streamlines several systems compared to OCS, at the same time those systems feel very quick and fluid during an OCS game once you have the system in hand. Also, the v4.0 OCS rules are a relatively easy read for anyone familiar with complex wargames, while the EFS rules feel more ponderous, at least to me. 

For medium-complexity wargamers interested in moving up to monsters (even if you only plan to play the one-mappers, and there are a couple of those in the box), I'd recommend EFS before OCS, however. The support for learning EFS is very good, although there are a few OCS resources out there (but none using Flash - you have to see this example to really appreciate it). For both lines, many of the games are out of print, unfortunately. Of the EFS titles, only the latest, Kiev to Rostov is still in print, although GMT may reprint Army Group North at some point and the Center/Typhoon game is welcome news. There are many OCS games, but only Tunisia, Burma (recently reprinted) and Case Blue (a monster among monsters, and at $220 retail perhaps not a game you'd buy to see if you liked the system) are still in print. MMP, however, seems to be doing  a pretty good job of keeping these games cycling back into print if you can wait a little bit. Even Case Blue is, in a way, a reprint of the very first OCS game, Enemy at the Gates, and half of it's maps allow you to play the scenarios from that game. 

Both have gone through several "versions" over time, and that's a very good thing. Almost every wargame ruleset fails to survive contact with the enemy (Combat Commander is a rare counterexample), and having rules that have been polished and refined over many years makes it pretty easy to find things in the rules. I'll note that the newest EFS rules make a lot of changes, including changing around the sequence of play, so you'll want to delve into them before playing if you've picked up KtR. Fortunately, the changes are extremely well marked in EFS, less well in OCS. 

I've been sitting on playing EFS for years now, and I'm delighted that Mike suggested it. Among the increasing number of monster systems I have, I'd put it at slightly more complexity than the Grand Tactical Series (Devil's Cauldron), although those rules have their moments (but there are a few very good play aids to help you along). I would hesitate to compare the system to grand strategic games like World in Flames or A World At War, or even to tactical titles like ASL, as the feel is very different and the things being simulated are, largely, very different as well. 

Of the three, I'd see EFS perhaps having the best chance of seeing a campaign game played out, although mostly because of the four or five hardcore wargamers I know, it seems to be the one that no one hates ;-). I could definitely see one of these games coming out for a couple of days next year at WBC West as a team game, and given how involved the game could be with the interactive combat system, that may be a necessity as I'm not at all sure I could manage three maps at once. One may be too much. 

It's funny how things work out. I remember going to Ray Freeman's place in Palo Alto several years ago to play his recently published Tigers in the Mist against him, and he mentioned Army Group Center, and how he could never see actually playing the game, although he said it looked really good when you set it up on the table. That comment more than anything stopped me from buying Center, and here I am ten years later, with the time and space to play these games, and I'm actually doing it. Wow.

Thanks again to Mike for doing most of the heavy lifting on this, as he did with OCS and introducing me to that system. 

Friday, November 07, 2008

Freakin' Socialists

In the wake of the Obama victory (perhaps the first truly fair result in a presidential election in 12 years), there's been a lot of astonishingly vicious commentary about Obama's economic plans from the right, including quite a bit of banding about of the word "socialism". Just so we're all on the same page, let's example what Socialism really means and how socialist American society is. 

From Wikipedia -

"Socialism refers to a broad set of economic theories of social organization advocating state or collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and the creation of an egalitarian society." 

So what in our country do we collectively own?

We all own the highways, air lanes, sea lanes, although not so much the rail lines. While we in general don't own the actual transportation methods themselves, there's no question that none of them could operate without government, and thus public, regulation and maintenance. 

We all own protective services, such as your local police and fire departments. As an extension, we all own the corrections industry, so all of our jails are ours too. On the federal level, that also means the FBI, the NSA, and the CIA, although most of those are arguably in place as much to keep us in line as to protect us. 

The military is quite definitely ours. From the National Guard and Reserves to the five main branches, they are funded with public money, and for extremely good reason. 

We all own public lands, including parks, wilderness areas, libraries, monuments. In Oregon, we own our beaches, although they're nothing like, say, Hawaiian beaches. But they're ours. 

More esoterically, we own our legal system, at least in part. 

We own our school systems. While quite a few on the far right would love to dismantle public education (there's that willful ignorance idea again), the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of public servants running for public office start out at the level of their local school boards. For a while, this was the primary battleground for the Creationist/Intelligent Design folks to get their way. Not having children in school, I can't say if that's the case anymore or not, although it was always a hard sell in Oregon.

Our airwaves are all public in this country, although heavily regulated. Television and radio are all broadcast publicly, although there have been inroads into satellite or cable-based pay services, but they do not depend upon the public airwave spectrum. 

The list goes on and on. There are an incredible number of charitable organizations, lines of scientific inquiry, artistic expression, public works, etc, that are funded by tax dollars and thus are in some sense public. 

What is not public in this country are our resources. When Weyerhauser harvests trees on public land, the benefit to the individual is not nearly as clear, even though every tree they cut down belongs to all of us. The idea of land as "ownable" was such an alien concept to the people who lived here in pre-Columbian times that when Europeans put down stakes and said "Mine, now!" the original inhabitants laughed in much the same way as we laugh at flat-earthers. 

However, there's been no indication by any side that Obama wishes to force people who own land to give the resources thereon to everyone. Nor has he said that factories that process those resources into goods for sale should be nationalized. The only thing being nationalized right now, and it's happening pretty much everywhere in the world, are the banks, who have shown that they can't function effectively without oversight and regulation. That's not something that Obama has been driving. 

Of course, the goal of socialism is an egalitarian society, one of the major reasons for the Declaration of Independence. I don't think we can argue that, at least on the surface, equality and a level playing field are a core belief of Americans, at least so long as you're one of the people that would benefit from that level playing field. The hypocrisy of people around the world when it comes to egalitarianism is universal - if the field tips away from you, it's Bad, and when it tips toward you it's Good.

As such, it's pretty clear that we have a large amount of socialist elements to our society, and ones that are positive and productive. The same can be said about capitalism. If there's one thing we should have learned over the last four years, it is that ideology in one thing, but it is no substitute for evaluating the merit of an approach to a problem on an individual basis. 

The next time you start complaining that Obama is going to make us all Communists, consider that the roads you drive on, the people who protect you both locally and abroad, the schools that attempt with little support to provide a literate workforce and population, and the very airwaves that Rush Limbaugh uses to spread his brand of discontent are all owned by you. 

You, you commie. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

And We Have A Result

It's all over but for a few close states, and Obama won pretty handily, at least from an Electoral College perspective. Most amazing was some of the states he was able to win, and even if he didn't they were astonishingly close.

More disturbing is the commentary I'm seeing on a lot of blogs from the right (and from the left, to some extent). We all know the Internet is a series of pipes - oh, wait, I think that joker's out of the picture now. We all know the Internet is full of people who can barely type, much less think, and the commentary bears that out. Lots of "the country is doomed!" and "Let's watch Obama be controlled by a bunch of handlers" (insert ironic gasp here). Not as much but quite a bit of "take that, conservative assholes!" There's also been a lot of people saying that the left made Bush's presidency miserable from the moment he took office, citing such questionable "statistics" as how the "liberal" media called him "Mr. Bush" for eight years. I've *never* heard *anyone* call him "Mr. Bush", not even Jon Stewart. 

We see the problem. It's a complete absence of responsibility for the truth. While it's been very easy to point at Republicans as the problem for eight years because they've been in power, I'm just as concerned that the same could happen if the left had the sort of control the right did. Another 9/11 moment would do that. The "truth" is that while liberals weren't terribly happy about how the 2000 election was conducted (and it was demonstrably conducted in a dishonest manner), most of us were willing to put up with four years of an ineffective GW Bush. 9/11 allowed the White House to pretty much do whatever they wanted, and in fact there was a concerted effort to give the White House considerably more power than they were given by the Constitution. 

Eight years later, we now understand, painfully, why we have checks and balances. George Bush, love him or hate him, leaves office with the lowest approval rating of any president ever given such a rating. Lower than Nixon. Lower than Carter. With the exception of Israel, who is unhappy that Obama would have a dialog with Iran (hint: so would McCain), pretty much everyone in the world is pretty darned happy that Obama won. 

So I say to the hundreds of thousands of uneducated people who can't fact-check a dictionary and who think that the day after Obama's inauguration that he'll put on a turban (huh?) and make us all turn our prayer mats to face Mecca, I say this:

Guess what. Eight years of your guys didn't work out real well. In fact, they turned out really poorly. And I'm very far from alone in saying this. So maybe you might, at the very least, make some small attempt to think in terms of the incredible problems we as both a nation and a world face. The biggies are overpopulation, climate change, and consumption, all intertwined. If you want to destroy America, and in fact human civilization as we know it, I suggest you keep complaining and acting like babies and coming up with some of the lamest complaints and lies ever. 

I don't know why we keep having this conversation. Like I said, I guess if you really want to believe that the American Civil War wasn't about slavery, you'll believe pretty much anything said during the campaign. Time to grow up and think about what's important. Because it wasn't so much who we elected as much as what that person now does with their power. And if Obama turns out to be the empty suit so many of you think he is, I'll be the first one hoping he's out of office in four years. So long as the person coming to replace him isn't Sarah Palin. That woman is *scary*. 

Political Theater

Just in case you missed it, here's a link to a bit from Monday night's SNL "Presidential Bash 08", which I'm posting because I actually saw a bit of it last night. It was the part where there was a "message from Governor Sarah Palin" which was clearly intended to be satirical, but ended up being anything but. 

Here's the link. You decide if this was funny or freakin' scary. I'm aware there was some anti-NBC kerfuffle at a recent Palin rally, but this was about as funny as Bush joking about the missing weapons of mass destruction a year or so after the invasion in 2003.

To those conservatives who vote based on issues other than abortion, guns, gays, or God, can you do something about your party? Because it's clearly out of control and it's scaring the kids. And for goodness sake, don't nominate crazy people in 2012. Please. It's not funny anymore. 

Monday, November 03, 2008

Get Out There. Vote Already

Anyone who reads this blog knows my politics, which I like to classify as rationalist-progressive, perhaps known to those on the far right as Godless Commie. ;-)

Regardless of whether you've agreed with me in the past, regardless of whether or not we think each other are idiots for our worldviews, you should know that we stand at a tipping point in history, and this presidential (and both representative and senatorial) election will at the very least point us in whatever direction we are going to be headed for at least the next two years. 2004 seemed like a pretty important election, but the one we're facing now is even bigger. 

I'm a big advocate of free speech, but a bigger advocate that everyone should vote, and do so in an informed and aware way. If you are one of those people who think that Obama's first act will be to forcibly convert the entire country to Islam, I really can't help you and (along with those who think that Republicans eat their young) to be honest, you are the reason that the founding fathers created a representative democracy rather than a more direct form. 

For the rest of you, get out there and vote. Conservative and depressed because it's increasingly clear that McCain's going to lose? There are still a ton of other reasons to vote, not the least of which are the local measures on your ballot, most of which are written by insane people, but you still need to vote on them. Hate both of the folks running for Senate in your state (like we do in Oregon - I never need to see another ad against either Merkley or Smith again in my lifetime)? Close your eyes, pick one out of a hat, and vote. 

Think the War of Northern Aggression did more damage to the US Constitution (not the ship, the document) and that it wasn't about slavery? Vote. 

And in about 36 hours, it will all be over except for the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Assuming, of course, that the angry white people unleashed by Sarah Palin don't try something crazy, or (much less likely) every African-American decides that this country really *will* do anything to keep the black man down. It is at that point that every one of us, crazy or no, must take a very deep breath, hold in our bile and/or jubilation and/or frustration, and realize that we are in such deep doo-doo that it no longer matters what party you belong to. Because it's time to stop screwing around and start fixing the mess we're in, starting with the climate and working our way down from there. So no complaining. No one cares what the tax rate is if Manhattan is under water. 

See you in 36...