Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The End of Cable Television

I'm saying it now - cable and satellite television will be the surprise casualties of the economic downturn. 

Local stations are starting to require higher fees in their contracts, which the cable and satellite companies are refusing to pay. In my area, Dish Network no longer carries the ABC affiliate, which will make things interesting when Lost starts airing in a few weeks. Why? Fischer, who owns the affiliates in Yakima, Seattle, and Portland, wants to get as big a piece of the pie as all of the other cable stations, claiming that the downturn has resulted in considerably less advertising revenue (all of those car dealerships going under, for example), and they can only cut staff so much. That means they have to make up the difference somewhere, and if Dish starts charging more for locals people will cut back on their other choices. Belo (which owns several NBC stations around the country, including my local affiliate) had a similar contract dispute with Cox Cable last year, just in time for the Super Bowl. 

Of course, the real issue comes down to advertising as a revenue stream for media in the US, and a huge piece of the pie it is. 26,000 journalists have lost jobs since October, and my local newspaper, The Oregonian, has already tried to cut costs by combining the business, main, and local sections into one section on Mondays, and I fully expect them to do it for the rest of the week within a couple of months as advertising revenue evaporates (they've already lost the classified ad business, the other major economic component, to Craigslist and the Web). 

So what does this mean? I believe that the One Size Fits All model that cable has been able to pioneer, where you get a bundle of channels and can't choose a la carte, is going to die, and with it the cable and satellite companies. What will take it's place is, as you might expect, Internet-delivered programming on a show-by-show basis, paid for by the end user without the middle-man (other than your ISP getting the connection fee for broadband). Suddenly, the Apple TV seems like a good idea... While you won't be able to get network financial assistance up front to put together a program, you will see a shift very similar to what happened with music over the last five years - you'll buy what you want to watch, and watch it when you want to. The biggest issue - it will require you to be computer-savvy enough to get to a web page, and it will require a broadband-speed connection. 

What will happen to the networks? They'll hold on - to a point. The really good stuff will move over to webcasts (and, arguably, they already have - most network shows are viewable on your computer shortly after they are broadcast, and with relatively few ads). The networks will still have programming, but anyone with the ability will simply buy an Apple TV-like product that allows the data to stream to their television (and the good ones will have an input for an HD antenna feed for the on-air stuff) that will allow you to record those programs. With hard disks in the terabyte range at present, and new technology promising to make larger, faster, and sturdier storage available in the very near future, you'll see even DVDs start to fade from sight. 

What's the timetable? I'll be conservative and say that most people will move to pay as you go webcast episodes of programs as well as movies within the next five years. Improved compression algorithms will make this more palatable, as will Wi-Max nets, and you'll only need one box for everything except console games (and if the big players in that market were smart, they'd create plug-in cards that you insert in the box as well, perhaps with a breakout box for controllers, etc). Given how *fast* the economy has tanked, and the enormous effects it's had on business, it could happen even faster. Because the last thing people will dump before their health insurance and the mortgage is the A/V, and they'd rather buy a device now. 

Look me up in five years and see if I'm right.

Tuesday Gaming At Mike's

Snow, a rather stubborn case of cellulitis, the holidays, a new granddaughter, and Chris' gaming retreat at the start of the month all conspired to kill Tuesday gaming in December for me. As of yesterday, I had missed all four sessions (which includes those cancelled because of all the snow we got this month - Portland is not a town that deals with snow in what anyone would term an "effective" way). Thank goodness Mike held an all-day session at his place, which I was so excited about I showed up before anyone else!

While we waited, Mike and I pulled out Dominion (which may be our new "summoning" game while we wait for more people to show up, you can even drop people into an ongoing game without too much trouble, although they'll be behind), picking random action card decks. A quick perusal on my part and it was pretty clear that by far the best strategy was going to be trying to pick up Mine cards and a couple of Cellars and just try to get those Copper cards upgraded as quickly as possible. At least, that was the strategy that looked like it would work to me, and boy howdy did it ever work. I ended with six of the eight Province cards, a good half of the Duchies, and a stack of Estates. Mike never had a chance. I may be getting this game down...

Greg showed up just in time for us to try out the new Lost Cities boardgame, and Mike had explained about half of the game (not much time at all) when Jim arrived as well. The game has gotten a certain reputation as a weak game modeled on a successful card game, but I didn't find that at all. Like the card game, you play a card, then draw a card, and you have to build them up in numeric order. There are no Agreement cards to multiply your total, nor are the high-value cards all that high-value anymore. Instead, each card allows you to move one of your explorers up the track for that suit, with big bumps from -10 to 5 and from 15 to 30 (where there is also a bridge on each track, important for ending each round). One of your explorers has a pituitary issue, and it is worth double the value on that track, even if you're in the negative range. You still discard onto a pile for each of the various suits, and can draw from those piles. There are also spaces on the board that give bonus points, extra moves, and artifact tokens that you collect throughout the game, and these are public knowledge (a good thing) and change from round to round. I found myself ignoring what was on a track in favor of getting my Big Kahuna up to the 50 space in each of the three rounds, and won handily. 

Some of the elements of the card game are simply not present. Because the 10 cards aren't handing your opponent ten points (you now play cards to move spaces, not to gain that many points), that's not a terrible discard, even early in the game. It's still better to discard cards your opponents can't use because they've passed them by, but it's not nearly as critical as in the card game. That means your decisions aren't as difficult - focus on your Big Kahuna (it was the first thing I placed in every round), and use the Extra Move spaces to get it along the track quicker if you don't have the cards. 

What saves the game is the "timer" - the round ends when five explorers have gotten over bridges over the combined tracks, or when the cards run out. In our game, one ended with explorers, one ended with cards, and one ended with both occurring simultaneously. As a result, you are trying to get in as many cycles as you can (just like the card game) before time runs out. Of course, drawing from discard piles can slow the game down a bit, but with four players that isn't going to help much unless everyone is doing it. 

The other high point of this game is that you can explain it easily to non-gamers, unlike the original. I taught my wife to play the card game, and she never did get it (or never cared to). I'm pretty confident she'd get the boardgame version, so it's probably more appropriate for families with kids in the 8-10 demographic. I walked away from the game very excited about it, but then again Cooley's Law almost certainly applies, and as I've typed out the recap I find myself seeing the big problem pretty clearly - for gamers, the decisions are all pretty obvious given your hand. This one will stay on the bubble for now.

By now a few more people had arrived - Rita and KC, and Mike's son Colin wanted to join in (his friend Rochelle came by in the next hour or so, and was a very nice addition to the group). Since there have been so many comparisons between Agricola and Le Havre recently, we decided to play side-by-side games, with Rita, Greg, and myself playing Le Havre. This was my first game, and Greg did a great job explaining the rules to me, so well that I had very few issues during play in what is a pretty involved game when you take all of the buildings into account. Greg won, of course, but that was largely because I got stalled between getting my second liner or the bank when I foolishly used one too many bricks to buy an iron (should have used a cow), and so lost one cycle. Scores were 230 to 200 to 130, with Rita in the rear having to worry a lot more about food than, say, me (I had six ships at the end of the game, enough to generate 16 food a turn!)

The game is far too complex for me to summarize here, but it's definitely in the "resource management" realm. It manages to avoid what is the Achilles' Heel of Agricola, the individual hand of Minor Improvements that can make or break your chances of winning. It was a long game (both took around 3 hours including 'splainin'), but time flew by on both tables and suddenly it was 2pm and no one had eaten lunch! I'm quite taken with the game, and am looking forward to giving it a solitaire outing or three in the future. A definite thumbs up from me, and for an impulse purchase (someone in the group had ordered several and I was the last one to sign on), a big and very pleasant surprise. My only complaint is that the board can become a bit of a mess, but that's a pretty minor complaint. 

After a little chow, I managed to convince Colin, Jim, and Rochelle to play Ghost Stories, the new coop game set in ancient China. If you liked A Chinese Ghost Story, this game uses much of the same mythological elements - Chinese ghosts are totally badass. It's also a very difficult game if you have no clue as to what you are doing. I had read the rules ahead of time, but missed the errata about reducing the cost to exorcise a ghost when a Tao marker was on the appropriate villager space BY one instead of TO one, but it didn't help much - we still got wiped after killing only 13 ghosts (20 more in the deck before Wu Feng, and our boards were all filled up). Note to self - you must start exorcising ghosts *very* quickly, as Colin had one run where he ended up placing four ghosts in *one* turn! I hear it's a tough nut, much like Pandemic, and I look forward to trying it out solitaire. Note that the rules are a hard parse, as they use white text on black paper with dark blue notes that are tough to read (although more thematic), and the icons on the cards and village tiles were a bit difficult to get used to. Still, I do like coop games right up to the point where it comes down to how the cards come out, which is the Achilles' Heel of *this* particular genre (semi-coops such as Bstar-G and Shadows Over Camelot excepted), so I'm not sure how much play this will see in the group, especially given how totally awesome Bstar-G is. Having a solitaire variant is a big plus, however, so I'm still glad I got it. 

Last up was the latest (fifth, by my count) edition of Cosmic Encounter, most recently redone by Fantasy Flight. I have the Eon (original) edition, although I never did get the last two expansions (kickers, flares for the later aliens, etc), and later the Mayfair games that were more or less a reprint of the Eon set but with all of the parts and the moons and lucre separated out into the More Cosmic box. The new set retains most of the elements of the original, tweaks some powers, excludes lucre and moons, and adds in a few new powers. The components are awesome - no more System Hex, now you just have five discrete planets in your color, and the art is the usual flashy stuff from FFG, plus really cool flying saucers for your tokens that look remarkably like nipples. Yes, I need to seek professional help, thank you for caring. 

Explaining this game took a lot more work than I'd remembered, but people seemed to get into it very quickly. Greg was the Mirror, which could transpose the digits on an attack card (from 04 to 40, for example), but it was done for both players and had to be done before cards were revealed. Dave was the Cudgel who removed extra tokens when he won, which sounded really great except he hardly ever won a challenge (he started and ended the game, so I think he ended up having exactly four challenges). I was the Vulch and got to pick up all of the Artifact cards (Cosmic Zap, etc) that other people discarded or played (an OK power), Colin was the Warrior, who got bonus attack points with every combat he won or lost, and Rochelle was the Pacifist, and as such those Negotiation cards were very useful for her (she won challenges if she played them).

Two high points of the game (at least for me) - Rochelle attacking me with a Negotiation card, me Cosmic Zapping her power, her Card Zapping my Cosmic Zap. Well done, madam, well done! The other came at the very end of the game, when everyone had four off-system bases, and Dave invited everyone to ally with him to take one of Greg's bases (note that Dave was down to just two bases, so lost his power pretty early, but was frequently invited to ally). Greg swapped the digits, but Dave had the wild Pacifist flare and played a Negotiation card, so he ended up with the same value card as Greg, and since everyone was allied with him but Greg, all of us won - but Greg. I guess Dave could have forced the two of them to negotiate a deal, and thus he and Greg could have won, which is *totally* what I would have done in his place. I actually had thought that he had some card that sent your allies back to their planets, then realized he had just drawn a new hand just before he'd chosen an encounter card, so that wasn't something he'd have planned.

All in all, this is the set to get. The gameplay is the Cosmic you remember (which may or may not be a good thing - this is old school gaming, which means things are completely random in many ways, and while good play will help you win, at the same time it's extended wackiness), the components are awesome, the rules and powers are very clear, and the whole feel makes it seem like an entirely new game. One nit - FFG apparently felt like it had to change almost every term in the game - compromise became negotiation, challenge cards became encounter cards, the hyperspace cone became the hyperspace gate, etc - and so I found myself using incorrect terminology frequently. Since many of the powers require precise terminology, experienced Cosmic players might take some time to adjust. I will say this - I don't see the older editions coming out ever again. This one is far too pretty. 

And with that my brain started to spiral down the drain after ten hours of gaming goodness. In fact, it was so much goodness that I decided to host another full-day session at my place this Saturday just to keep the party rolling. Because I've *got* to get Android on the table at some point, and this may be my only chance before Lorna's big Eugene Games Gala in about a month or so. 

Thanks again to Mike for hosting, who went out of his way to provide everyone with yummy food, not to mention a great space for gaming.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Bonus

I know there haven't been a lot of reports on gaming sessions recently, partly because of weather, but that should change very soon. I will say that I spent quite a bit of the last 10 days trying desperately to figure out all of the rules holes in Fields of Fire. Once I get some time to myself (in the next few days) I plan to give it a good try now that I've gotten my BGG group game over with (or at least as far as I was willing to continue with it). I'm also running through the rules for Unhappy King Charles!, which looks like a winner in many ways. It's so funny to read rules for games that came on the same day, and see one that makes perfect sense and the other, well, doesn't much of the time. It's frustrating, but if you are at all interested in the concepts that FoF presents (command structure which contains almost all of the decision points, combat and enemy action are all done more or less by the AI), it's worth the work. If you can't tolerate very loose and conceptually poor rules, you may want to wait a few weeks until there's a FAQ out to fill in the gaps. Man, there are a lot of gaps. 

It appears that we may actually melt out of this sloppy snowy mess we have here in Portland in the next few days. I can't imagine how many retail stores will go out of business as a result of what was essentially a weekend and a half of dangerous road conditions, and another afternoon of perhaps the worst traffic snarl in Portland history brought on by a decision by the state (ODOT) to deice a major section of I-5. We walked right into it, which necessitated a 2 hour trip from one side of the freeway to the other so that I could get a prescription filled. After observing the behavior of people, I'm pretty sure that when civilization collapses we'll all be eating each other. 

In the words of the immortal Steve Jobs...

"Oh, just one more thing..."

I am, as of Tuesday, December 23rd 2008, at 2:15pm, a grandfather. Lylah Michelle Grace Madosik, weighing in at 7.1 lbs, 20 inches. Mother and child are doing very well, but I'm still getting used to the idea that my genetic legacy is breathing on her own. Only two more years until she understands enough English to play Dominion...

Best Christmas present... ever!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I'll Be Busy For Christmas

In addition to my new favorite game, "Will My Grandchild Be Born During A Severe Weather Event?" I've been getting a lot of new stuff in the mail lately. Here are my *very* early and initial thoughts on them...

1) Fields of Fire - This is a solitaire game, a rarity these days outside of play on a computer. You play a Battalion commander focusing on a single company of soldiers who have a very specific mission (there are 21 in the game) from three different eras - 1944 Normandy, Korea, and the Vietnam lowlands. That's quite a trick to pull off, as the core of the game is the command net and getting the forces you need to where you want them, as once they get there they'll start shooting like crazy. You actually have to issue orders to them to stop, or to shoot at something more dangerous. It's a little like Burning Blue, where you set up a plan as the Luftwaffe, then send the boys off to do it. Of course, you have a little more control as you can issue orders to reflect the changing nature of the battle as it evolves, but there's no question that planning is the kernel of this game that all else revolves around. Unfortunately, a really badly organized and nearly exampleless ruleset makes learning the game much more difficult than it needs to be, and since it's a solitaire game, you're learning it in a vacuum. See my previous post for how I'm trying to both learn and teach others the system, which I think is about as well conceived as I've seen. As Lee Brincombe-Wood put it, this game will have a FAQ as long as your arm and completely rewritten rules when the next expansion comes out. 

2) Unhappy King Charles - Every so often, GMT puts out a game that was clearly something they weren't thrilled about publishing for some reason, but felt obligated to do so for legal, ethical, or PR reasons. Manifest Destiny felt like that, with it's playtest-version clip art still in place and art that spanned the gamut from copies of classic oil paintings to cartoony cel drawings. Very jarring. However, MD is a great game, one of my favorite multiplayer strategy games. UKC is like that, I think. The map is nice, but the counters look like they were done twenty years ago - teeny art scans in the middle of counters with a solid color background. I like the counters in We the People better, which is an excellent comparison as this game is based strongly on that seminal CDG title. Feedback so far has been good, and I certainly don't have any *other* games about the English Civil War (the one during the 30 Years War), at least at the strategic level. Nice to have another relatively light CDG that will play in an evening, and I have no doubt that my good friend Mike will want to play, he having been one of those socially maladjusted folks who dresses up in funny costumes and stands in a field until someone tells him he's dead.

3) Combat Commander: Pacific - The third installment of this groundbreaking series. The first volume, Europe, was incredible, and the scenarios all felt exciting. I've had more trouble getting into the Mediterranean scenarios, in part because they seem to be less balanced, although that might just be because the minor power decks have such poor discard values and card mixes. Even the Paratrooper pack (or as Mike says, seeing as there are no Brits in it (which there weren't, officially, at the time of it's release, in the CC system), Yanks and Cranks. He's very proud of the Brits in the 1st at Arnhem, perhaps there will be a Market-Garden pack at some point. Pacific brings a lot of new things to the table, especially in terms of the Japanese. There are morale values up to 11 on those guys, and they are built to close and engage. Eek. There are Banzai rules that act as a mass rally then move order, infiltration rules that look absolutely brilliant, and a few other things like caves and beach invasions. Here's hoping this game refreshes the entire system. 

4) Not enough Combat Commander? How about a Stalingrad pack? With new counters? A ton of maps? And, perhaps most exciting of all, a campaign game that plays out over multiple scenarios? I think Stalingrad is for you. If you ever played the original Squad Leader and saw the Tractor Works that was on the map at, oh, 1/1000th the size it should have been (the designer notes for that game said it would take several of the 8.5"x22" maps to fit), now you can get a map that is more or less nothing but Tractor Works, except for the rail access running through the middle. And who couldn't use a Molotov Cocktail Launcher for the holidays, especially on New Year's Eve? I have no idea how I'll get in another 23 games of Combat Commander, but it's nice to know that if I'm snowed in with another player I've got at least a few days of distraction on hand. 

5) Texas Glory - Columbia Games is a strange beast. Having met the owner, I have a small insight into why (he's a bit of a rugged individualist, which you'd have to be as an American living on the border of Canada). Some years ago he decided to stop selling to distributors entirely because he felt that discounting was killing his online store sales, selling only directly. That lasted a short time, then back to stores and online shops. Fortunately they're still cranking out the great block-based games that are their raison d'ĂȘtre. However, I had thought that they stopped using their preorder system some years ago as well, so I didn't think to contact them when I moved a bit more than a year ago, and when they *hadn't* stopped their preorder system after all, we were all surprised when Texas Glory went to my old address then came right back to them. Now I can *really* remember the Alamo. And everything around it for at least several miles. To be honest, I've pulled the rules out of the box and that's about it, but it appears to be a relatively short block game in the vein of Hammer of the Scots, at the operational level or thereabouts, so while you'll have Crockett and Co holed up in the nation's cheapest car rental agency, it isn't the focus (at least, I don't think it is). With all of these other games out, this one is likely to just sit on the shelf unless someone tells me what a great game it is.

6) I try not to boast a lot. Really. Especially about things that I've just gotten lucky at, like hitting the being born lottery and being able to retire at 40, things I had zero control or influence over. When things drop in my lap, I might bring it up once or twice, but I don't like to mention it too much because it feels like I've gotten away with something more than having earned it. The old Protestant Work Ethic, virtually a lifestyle choice for my father, just keeps hanging on in the back room of my head. So it is that I reluctantly mention that I scored perhaps the most incredible deal on wargames I've ever gotten, and it's all thanks to Eric who notified me that Avalanche Press was having it's Gold Club member sale for two days, and it appeared that the 45% discount applied even to their crazy "buy these seven huge games for $300" specials. I got in within four hours and picked up a huge Second World War at Sea bundle priced at $280 for $163, including shipping. Seven games, including the enormous Leyte Gulf package that retails for $199. In other words, six other games that are for all practical purposes free. All are smaller than that, of course, but it's close to $500 worth of games if you paid retail for them. 

I have none of the SWWaS games, partly because I have a few of the Great War at Sea games and found them a bit disturbing on a couple of levels. First of all is that while they have a tactical element, which to me means pushing a bunch of ships around in formation to keep them from ramming each other, it's completely uninterested in formations. In fact, it feels a lot more like high-level air combat but without things like momentum and vectors. Second is that the strategic game seemed to be difficult to figure out for some reason - Chuck and I gave this a good go one rainy Saturday, stopped to go to lunch, then looked at the game and decided to play something else instead after. All of those crazy pages and pages of ship damage records don't help, anything with more than six ships becomes onerous to track. 

I'm really hoping that SWWaS, with more of a focus on air operations, will have a better feel. No one cares how the ships are formed up at Midway, as trying to get down to the individual aircraft level isn't really my thing, and I'm perfectly happy to play a game with a higher level of abstraction. However, I'm the first to note that Avalanche struggles with putting together a tight set of rules, and I'm hoping that this game will be more playable than GWaS was. 

Eric noticed within a day that Avalanche had quickly figured out that this was far too good of a deal, and so they extended the exclusions on the Gold Club sale to the specials, but I've not seen anything telling me that my particular purchase has been voided, sorry. However, I also haven't seen the games yet either. Seeing as I am still waiting for one module from the Panzer Grenadier bundle I got over the summer (and the Cassino '44 module has been so late, which I paid for in July), I only feel a little guilty at getting away with this one. Assuming I have. With bad weather closing in, I'm hoping it arrives today, as otherwise there's every chance it won't get here before Christmas. The *real* trick will be to explain to my wife that it was a deal I couldn't pass up.

One last note on the Avalanche order - A lot of people buy these with the intent to resell them, that is not the case with me. That isn't to say that I won't resell it at some point, although I'm more and more loathe to do that with almost any of my wargames, but I'm not going to keep them in shrink, keep them unpunched, etc. I am going to need another bookshelf, though...

Twelve new games in a couple of weeks. And I keep whining that there are too many games and not enough time. I just hope that when all of my wargaming friends retire, all of us are mentally with it enough to keep up the wargaming, although I have a hunch we won't be able to see the board by that time, much less read the counters. Sigh. 

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Enough Whining!

No, not me. At least in a global sense. 

I got my preorder copy of GMT's new solitaire game Fields of Fire. The game looks to be very interesting, focusing on C3i at the squad/team level in three different combat eras (WW2, Korea, and Vietnam). Unfortunately, the rulebook is an unholy mess, and I am far from the only person complaining (although there are always a few who think a game can do no wrong). 

I complained on the 'Geek after a five hour exercise in frustration - the "manual" leaves considerable amounts of detail undiscussed (like how to fill out a Mission Log), claims types of assets are treated in specific fashion then contradicts those rules later on, all sorts of things. After five hours and *finally* getting to the point where I actually had combat (and needing to read six different sections to understand what amounted to a couple of card draws), I gave up and posted a bit of a flame on the 'Geek. 

After considerable discussion whether or not my arguments were valid, I decided that perhaps the best choice was not to complain but to do something about it. GMT is putting up an example of play online, but it's not up yet and in any event it doesn't help that there are simply rules that are far too vague for practical use. Plus, some of you know how I feel about the rule being in an example rather than in an actual, you know, rule. 

So what I'm doing is playing a game and detailing how I do things (based on the sequence of play), and bolding the parts that I feel like I'm forced to guess what to do. The idea is that others will read and learn or correct my misconceptions. I can't imagine no one has tried to do this on the 'Geek before, but it certainly seems warranted in this particular case. The link to the thread is here, and if you're interested in the game I suggest you play along with me over the next week or so as I try to ferret out just how this game is played. Unfortunately, I won't be covering some of the more convoluted topics (LZs, vehicles, etc), but it should be enough to get people started and point out where the rules fall desperately flat. 

How flat? There are exactly two examples in the entire book, inline or graphic. Two. Perhaps the biggest demonstration of a failure by a developer I've ever seen. I've got Don Greenwood rules that were more transparent. However, I think there's a really elegant game here, if very detailed, and I'd not only like to be able to play it, but would like others to do so as well. Follow along, and enough whining!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Salishan 2008 Gaming Retreat, Part 4

After an incredible amount of gaming on Friday, eight different games including one that took a good third of the day, Saturday was to be a bit more reasonable, mostly because I was leaving late that evening but also because I was playing somewhat longer games. Except for that Starcraft game, which would be the longest of the weekend for me. 

I have this nagging feeling that I've forgotten the first game I played that morning, but it's all a bit of a blur as you can imagine. The first game I do remember is playing "M" with KC, Rita, Ben, and Pahduma. This is a fun little tile laying abstract where there is often excellent opportunity for screwage, although (like Carcassone) you generally have few real choices of where you can play each tile. Fortunately (unlike Carc) you have four tiles, and the choices are not that big (and don't require significant more parsing as the game goes on). I really like the fact that you can choose between finding ways to steal the 10 point tokens from the person on your right, but at the same time you are often *helping* the person on your right when you set up a scoring line. I ruled in this game, winning with scores of 280-230-230-230-180, and only a single tile that I couldn't score at game end (and not many more tokens than I started with - Padhuma kept taking mine!)

After I took a quick shower and my other four gamemates played a few hands of Tichu (I think I would have preferred to have stunk the place up for a few more hours, Tichu is one of my favorite card games), we went around and around about our next game but settled on Colosseum, a Days of Wonder title that apparently has had trouble going out the door, so much so that a $50 order direct from DoY will get you this game for free. While I admit the game is far from perfect (being a little on the fiddly side) it's still a very interesting game that requires definite planning while retaining some ability to adapt when the other players don't cooperate. This was a copy of the game that Chris had won at BGGCon, so we got to punch out the vast number of bits - this is an extremely bit-heavy game, although not as gratuitous as, say, Cleo and the Builder's Club. 

Hey, wasn't that a porn movie from the 80's?

In our game, I chose to buy a relatively expensive 3-size attraction for my first purchase, while everyone else chose a loge or season tickets. My plan was that I'd have the worst attraction and stick with it for a couple of turns while working toward the most expensive of the 4-size attractions. KC, on the other hand, came out extremely strong with a 23 point attraction (once scoring was complete) and I was in the middle of the pack with 9! Since I never got the loge, I also never really got the chance to get any medals, and so by the end of the game while I had put on four different attractions I also had almost nothing in my stadium - In the second turn I had no money to buy anything but the asset tiles, having less than the $13 you'd need ($5 for the loge, $8 minimum for the asset bid), and so only added four elements to my arena, two programs and two expansions. 

In retrospect, this was the biggest mistake I made. While I did get exactly the 3-level attraction I wanted, I'd neglected to figure that I could always adapt and that the really important show was the last one. As such, I had a ton of money after I'd gotten a 44 for my 3-level attraction, but that doesn't help when the object is to have the best *single* attraction, and with Rita scoring nearly 100 points for hers (she had one of each type of celeb in each of the spaces of her arena), I was nearly half her score on my "big" 4-level attraction which was only short a single element. 

Ben made the comment that this is a pretty busy game, and that the entire celeb track (with the Senators, Consuls, and Emperor moving around the board) was a bit busy and could be eliminated completely. I'd need to give it a little more thought, but in general I think he's probably on the right track, although then you'd have to find a way to generate medals. Personally, I think that the entire key to this game is finding a 3-step program with two strong elements (to give you the Star Performer bonuses), then going for as many of the add ons as you can get, especially the season passes and a loge early to help you get more medals and perhaps points. Medals in turn will get you extra builds or extra spectators at the end (four of them will be worth 12 points, more than 10% of Rita's closing amount). Just going for the best program you can afford won't get it done, as my example showed. I like this game quite a bit, and it's actually not a terribly complex game, but there are a lot of bits and things to parse. I recommend using a few sheets of note paper (around 3"x3") to place in your corner of the board to put the assets you are willing to trade onto to make them easier to see as the board itself is a bit busy visually, but otherwise I really like the components and the fact that the game even includes a sheet to show how to store the game is a very nice touch. Definitely one to grab if you're going to take advantage of the holiday deal from DoY, and you probably should unless storage space is an issue for you.

After lunch, it was time for me to teach Ken C how to play Conflict of Heroes. Ken attended a good part of our WBC event in August and had such a good time that he's started to get back into gaming in a big way, at least as much as someone who lives in Corvallis can do with a bunch of Portland gamers. Since he played ASL back in the day, I figured that CoH would be an excellent game to teach him as it's roughly the same scale and has the same general "god's eye" view of combat as the considerably more complex title. After struggling through the now familiar explanation of what the various actions are and when they can be declared, we started with the first scenario, with me (again) defending the Motherland from the evil Nazis. 

For a small scenario, there are a lot of choices to make, and I did a couple of things differently. First off, both of Ken's LMG units were moved onto the northern flank, which set up a nice field of fire overlooking the objective hex. His two rifle units came from the south, where my SMG unit had advanced to the small copse of trees to confront any moves in that area. Ken decided to assault my SMG unit, which was used at that point, and I had a single shot from another rifle unit of my own to try to stop him. I nailed an 11 on the dice and then pulled the FOOT KILLED! chit to take out that unit. 

Ken was able to take the objective on the third turn, but good placement of my reinforcement rifle units allowed me to somehow flank and one shot his pioneer unit, another fluke of luck with a roll of 12. Which goes to show how critical cover is in this game - like Combat Commander, combat uses a differential system based on a bell curve, so as you move toward a 7 differential your odds go up more rapidly. For example, if normally you would hit on a roll of 10 or up, which is 6 in 36 odds or 1:6, an improvement of a single point to 9 means 10 in 36, or 5:18, nearly doubling your odds. Conversely, a single point of defensive terrain would reduce the attackers odds considerably. Both of Ken's units were caught in the open while I still had operational flexibility, and both paid the (very unlucky) price as a result. Ken made one more run on my objective, taking it at one point, but by the fifth turn the writing was on the wall and he only had his two LMG units, which while very powerful would struggle against five Russian units with considerably more actions in them. 

We took a little break after this first scenario so that I could show Ken how to play Dominion, which is one of those games that is almost easier to just start playing and show how it's done rather than to try to 'splain everything up front, because the complexity is in card relationships rather than in mechanisms. We got about a third of the way into the game, then decided to go play our second scenario from CoH. Yay! This was the first time I'd gotten a chance to play something other than the learning scenario in several attempts, as I'd taught the game to Jesse, Connor, Matt R, and now Ken (and I'm pretty sure someone else along the way), and every game we'd used scenario 1 and I'd been the Russians (and lost right up until I played Ken and got very lucky). 

Scenario two adds three elements that seem like they're pretty easy to incorporate, but I started running into some rules questions almost immediately. More importantly, these rules really change the game up quite a bit, and in a good way. First was the concept of group activations, where most of my rules questions were. The rules have some conflicting concepts that I'm not quite sure I understand just yet, such as if you fire with a group and one unit is in the flanking position but the supporting fire isn't, which defensive value do you use? A strict reading of the rules with a certain amount of inference suggests that it's based on where the lead unit is. Another issue was that in one paragraph it is stated that in a group action, you pay the activation cost of all units out of a single pool of 7 AP, but if you are firing then only the lead unit pays. This may have more to do with a common activation where units are doing their own thing (sort of like a leader activating units in CC).

Anyway, it's a big change. Supporting units add an additional +1 to the attack value, which in bulk can be devastating, albeit at the cost of not getting your units going. I made the mistake of setting up one unit in range of four of Ken's units, and he won the initiative and wiped out not only it up the other exposed unit I had before I even got started. Fortunately, that brings in the second element, which is the action cards. These do various things, and can be treated as activations on their own (if no AP costs are involved, at least that's what I assume as the rules are also not clear in this respect). As such, I had a card that allowed me to take a free action, and another that gave me a free rally attempt, things I used in that first bloody turn. In fact, since Ken had used up pretty much all of his actions for those front four units in firing on me, I was able to kill his front two units as well, narrowing the odds considerably and inflicting a hit on one of the other two units that had been firing on me as well (I'd inflicted more, rolling like a demon that first turn, but Ken had rally cards as well). 

The third element the second scenario introduces is hidden units. Let me simply say that while I think these boards are beautiful and in general very easy to use, both the LOS dot in the center of the hex but especially the hex designation are nearly impossible to see. Given that, unlike virtually every hex-based game I've played, the letter portion runs along the grain, trying to figure out which hex is which requires the non-hidden player to turn his head while the hidden player squints from an inch away while holding up a flashlight. Another component issue that needs to be addressed in the future. Much better, I think, to download the planning maps that Academy makes available online and use those, but I hadn't thought ahead enough to do that. 

As it was, I had one hidden unit in an almost obvious spot, near the objective marker, but the other was hidden in the woods in position to prevent a flanking move on one of the units that had been wiped out at the start of the game. Ken advanced near that unit, just in time for me to pop up and surprise him when he stopped movement in a hex next to me! I moved into his hex and we wrestled, but I ended up losing after more flukish die rolls. I have to tell you, I see more rolls that miss their target by 1 pip in this game, and on both sides. I love it. 

By now I'd lost three units, which of course had cut my CAP supply in half and made it impossible for me to get more than one shot out of every unit but my two MMGs. Ken used this to his advantage, getting a rifle unit to try to flank the objective and running into my other hidden unit, and they fought as well with the result once again going to the Germans. He was able to finally take the objective hex, but not until turn 5, and the game was very close at that point. I needed to either kill a German to give me a tie, or I could take back the objective and lose every unit I had and win. I went for this, but the action card that gave me extra AP resulted in one less than I needed to make it into the objective building and close combat (which, as we've decided, can be called "combat - with tongue"). As such, the game was effectively over with Ken the winner this time. 

CoH showed tremendous promise with the first scenario, and with the addition of the extra rules (which are the last of the truly core rules to be introduced - everything else relates to vehicles which are very similar to foot units, terrain, smoke, and fortifications) I'm finding that you have tremendous tactical flexibility at a fairly low cost in rules overhead. As I've said about this game, if you don't mind a huge amount of abstraction at certain levels, especially wrt leaders, fortunes of war, and discrete weapon systems, and can deal with the handful of component issues, we're at a point where we now have two excellent and extremely accessible tactical squad-level WW2 games out there (three if, unlike me, you like Tide of Iron). 

For euro and strategy gamers who want to get into more historically accurate wargames, I give the nod to CoH in part because of the components (which are beefier than CC), but also because the rules can come to you in small preprogrammed chunks. CC does this in a somewhat more organic fashion, as you only need to look up rules as you need them, and they are extremely well organized, but that's something that wargamers are perhaps a bit more familiar with. I still say that if you're looking for a very realistic demonstration of what happens in a squad firefight, that CC is probably the game for you, but CoH does such a good job and with such great ideas (the combat chit result pull is elegance personified, if with components that make it difficult to implement in a physically graceful manner) that it has now officially crossed the line to the best introductory tactical wargame out there. Not by a whole lot, but man this game is a hoot.

It was now just after 7pm, and time for one more game before JD and I had to hit the road with a target time of 10pm or so. I had missed out on the Friday game of Battlestar Galactica, but had been promised that there would be a second game on Saturday night. Given that both other games had taken four hours or so, I was a little concerned but hopeful that there would be enough experienced players that we wouldn't need a lot of 'splainin'. KC generously started doing just that with Ben and Ken R, as Chris had already played once. When Ken C joined us as well, I had serious concerns, and figured at worst that when the Power Grid: France game that JD was in was over, I'd consider handing over my position to someone else, but of course you want to be there for the big finale. 

Let me just state here and now that my initial opinion that this game is the best semi-coop game out on the market has only been strengthened. This was another nail-biter, but with such great tension that I'm just looking forward to putting it on the table again, even with non-gamers who like the series, as long as they can tolerate good natured paranoia. The literary elements in this game are very strong, with such a great arc and so many crux points that it leaves a smile on my face just thinking about it.

At the outset, we had a nearly identical character mix in this game as in my first game, with Starbuck taking the place of Apollo. I took Laura Roslin, although I wasn't to stay President for long. However, I did stay in office longer than Ken C, who as Saul Tigh was the Admiral. In the first crisis I picked, we ended up failing it and losing (I think) Morale, which allowed the current player (me, also the very first player) to look at the Loyalty card of either the Admiral or the President, so I looked at Ken C's card and sure enough, he was a Cylon. Good time to note that I was a deputy, er, human. I felt a little bad about outing him, although there was just as much chance from everyone else's perspective that *I* was the clever Cylon! Good times. I managed to convince them that Ken was the guy, and also for someone else to stick him in the brig before we jumped and he got to determine where we were going. For his very first turn, Ken C decided to come out of the circuit board and work against the rest of us actively. 

Or was he alone?...

Our first jump, made by Chris who was now Admiral, was out of the middle of a huge number of Cylons that just kept showing up. We were in serious danger of having a heavy raider landing and from the first game, I knew just how hazardous that could be, as both the heavies and the centurions that get onto the Galactica are difficult to get rid of, worse if there are more than one. For the next couple of jumps, we saw no Cylons at all, other than the one in our midst. And it was clear there was one in our midst as we approached the halfway point. We'd gotten Morale down just into the Red Zone, so when we did get to the halfway point the Sympathizer simply ended up in the Brig rather than as a Cylon, but it was (of course) Chris playing Starbuck, and so the Admiralty went to Chief Tyrel. Chris remained President, however, having taken it from me fairly early in the game.

Our next two jumps got us one jump away from, but by then Ben, playing the role of Baltar, outed himself and went to go assist Ken C on the Cylon fleet. Since they were sitting next to each other, we had to make hay with the human player turns while we could. By now, Population was down to 4, Morale down to one or two, and Food just into the red zone (although I had a Quorum card left over that allowed me to try to gain a food back). I'll note that that first Crisis we had that allowed me to check out Tigh's Loyalty also set us back a Morale, and also that I'd used my Special Mutant Power to look through the top four Quorum cards to try to find something to boost our Morale back up but failed the roll by (wait for it...) one pip. 

As such, we were one space away on the jump track from being able to jump to Earth, albeit with one population and one morale when we finished. I had *nearly* talked Ben into advancing the rather numerous Cylons on the board when Ken did a better job of talking him into drawing two Crisis cards and hoping one would take out that last Morale point. Sure enough, he got a card that let him *pick* a -1 Morale, and the Cylons won the game for the first time in Rip City Gamers play. While Ben felt this was a bit of an anti-climax, I didn't think so at all. That Morale track had been scaring the crap out of me the whole game, and knowing that I'd personally been responsible for (effectively) two points on it made it even more fun. Or something. 

Amazingly, we not only finished the entire game in three hours, but we also finished up exactly when the Power Grid game was done, and it was five minutes after 10pm. Just about perfect. I got home by 12:15am despite some light fog on the road home, after one of the best days of gaming I've ever had, and that's saying something. While I'd missed out on perhaps one or two games by leaving that night, I had such a busy Sunday schedule (again driving through heavy fog after 10pm after seeing the Portland Revels performance my nephew Alex was in) that it was just as well. I felt that I'd gotten in a nearly perfect amount of gaming over the roughly two days I spent at the beach.

Once again, huge thanks to Chris for hosting, especially for allowing me to be a total leech. Huge thanks to everyone who was there as well for being such great people to game with. It was wonderful to meet new opponents in Ben (who I'd played a single game with at a GameStorm a couple of years ago) and Pahduma, and technically Lorna as well. Don't sit on her left! And by her I mean both Pahduma and Lorna! As I have said before, it's not so much what you play but who you game with, and this weekend demonstrated the truth of that statement (which I think should probably be Cooley's Third Law, if no one else has yet claimed it, although that statement from me predates the First Law, that your impression of a game is strongly influenced by how well you do the first time you play it). You are all wonderful folks, and I am blessed to call you both friends and opponents. 

Now we start thinking about the next retreat...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Salishan 2008 Gaming Retreat, Part 3

On to Friday afternoon. Returning from the beach, Chris introduced JD and I to a game in a VHS video box called Scripts and Scribes. The game is a set collecting game very similar to For Sale, with a sorting segment that feels like a complex version of Honeymooner's Bridge, and an auction segment that feels remarkably like For Sale. It's a small press effort, with interesting medieval church iconography on the cards (although this game could be about absolutely anything - For Sale has a stronger theme). The entire game took about five minutes to explain and about 15 more to play. While the sorting segment is a bit more interesting than For Sale, I'm not seeing myself taking the time to find this particular title. On the other hand, if you thought For Sale needed a little sexing up, this might be a winner for you. IIRC, I beat out Chris slightly for the win.

The three of us were joined by Eric, and we pulled out Dominion, a game that uses the best elements of CCGs, and played the most entertaining game I've gotten in of this title yet. We used random card decks that included Gardens, the Witch, and the Thief, along with Moneychangers, Markets (they seem to show up in everything), and a few other things that escape me right now. At about the 2/3rds mark in the game it occurred to me that Gardens were a better buy than 2VP cards, and getting very close to being a much better buy than Provinces (which Chris was snapping up at a rapid rate), so I started grabbing every Garden I could, with Eric trying to take the others. However, I didn't think to take the cards that let you discard cards, so I was stuck with my Curse cards at the end. I also had 59 cards in my deck (Ack!), so my Gardens were only worth 5 points each instead of 6. To Chris' great disgust, we ended up tying for the win. Hee hee!

I neglected to mention a playing of Hanging Gardens, a game that Rita taught Pahdame and JD and I. It's a cute little tile collecting game with a fairly clever semi-solitaire point generation system that saves it from being meh, but saves it in a pretty big way. You get to draft cards that are divided into six sections, and one to three of those sections has symbols in them. You must place the card on your existing cards so that the symbols lie on top of other cards, but the blank spaces can extend out. Once you get three or more symbols connected orthagonally, you can place a marker on that group and pick a tile from another draft pile, based on how many symbols are in your set. The tiles themselves also form sets in varying ways, and the point is to score as many points as possible when the card stack runs out. IIRC, JD, Pahdama and I all scored 29 points and matched on every tiebreaker so we all shared the win. Cute, quick, and the card placement section has enough depth to it that this would make a good filler, although it's a bit component heavy for what it is. The board in particular seems kind of gratuitous. 

After all of this gaming and then dinner, it was time for Ben, Ken, and myself to try out Starcraft: The Boardgame. I suggested this because I've more or less lost interest in most multiplayer strategy games in the vein of Twilight Imperium and Axis and Allies, and wanted to give this title a try before selling it off. I'm very glad I did, because this game is much better than those other two for a couple of reasons. First of all, the map scales to the number of players and can be connected via "z-axes" that allow you to more or less prevent any part of the board from becoming a fortress with a single way to get there. Second, you are limited to choosing four orders to assign to various planets over the course of a turn, which you place in a stack on each planet, all players sharing the same stack. If I place an order on Planet X, then Ken places an order on top of it, when we get to the Execute part of the turn Ken's order is executed before mine will be. There are only three orders, but the timing is really crucial. It also means that you can surprise another player by playing a token on a planet they have a base on as your last placement and they may not be able to react to it, so turn order is important (although it shifts rather than using an auction mechanism). 

I have to tell you that this game is a bitch to explain. I must have spent a good 45 minutes on it, and that was with Ben helping me out. And I didn't even *get* to combat. It was insane, and a couple of turns in I was feeling that this was a game that wasn't going to see more play from me. Once we started mixing things up, it did get much more interesting, and we found that it was pretty easy to beat back the leader only to get beat back yourself on the next turn. There are various timing elements in the game to keep it from taking all night (although we did spend a good 5 to 6 hours playing, but mostly because of unfamiliarity), and I'd imagine that three knowledgeable players could cover this within a couple of hours. The sad thing is that I can't imagine that we'd ever have three knowledgeable players unless it was Ken, Ben, and myself. 

I played one of the Terran factions, and discovered that the units got expensive quickly, even compared to the other two players. We had two resource areas go fully depleted early on, and mine was a gas source, so a good half of my units, mostly the powerful ones, never got built, although I did pretty well with combat. Ken's Zergs looked almost unstoppable, but a combined Protoss (Ben)/Terran campaign did the trick, although we were *one* card away from Stage 3 and a Protoss victory through his special victory condition. On the next turn, Ken and I went after the Protoss and I very nearly met *my* special victory condition, but couldn't attack the sixth resource area I needed because I belatedly realized that Ben had built air defenses and I had to attack from the planet itself (which I could have done had I realized this and added a second Movement action to that planet). 

At this point it was after midnight and time to stop. I think we were probably a turn or two away from finishing, and everyone agreed that we'd done what we set out to do. The game is much much cooler than it appeared at first blush, with the game flowing pretty easily once we started getting through all of those nagging rules questions that required digging through the 48 page rulebook. My god, they are a mess. Still, we all felt it was pretty good, with the very strong caveat that we would not be too thrilled to play a game at a con with people we didn't know, whether they knew the game well or not (I could see major arguments breaking out over tiny rules issues), and it was a difficult game to teach (although I can see ways to streamline it now that I've gotten a game or two in). Major kudos to Ben and Ken for sitting through our play session, and I think they both walked away with the same impression I had - good game, tricky to get on the table. This one I'll keep, and hope that it works well for two players (unlikely, as it's too hard to beat someone up once you've been beat up yourself). 

That was it for Friday. The next and final report will cover Saturday in it's entirety.

Salishan 2008 Gaming Retreat, Part 2

Friday dawned bright and early. Particularly early for me, as I didn't manage to get to sleep until after 4am and I was awakened by a gorgeous vista from the loft around 7:30am. Not that I was about to let only three or so hours of sleep deter me from a great gaming day!

After Mike prepared us breakfast (a treat as I usually have cereal and OJ and not much else), the three of us sat down to play the latest Ticket to Ride game, Nordic Countries. Or, as I have put it on various occasions, TtR: Elf Edition, TtR: Santa Klaus is Komming To Town, and TtR: That Reindeer Has A Really Cold Nose Edition. The game is intended for two or three, and has it's own twists: Locos are only for the ferries and tunnels and can be picked up just like any other card (but there are tons of ferry and tunnel routes), and the bonus is for the most tickets rather than longest route. 

I was surprised to see myself all alone in the southern climes near Oslo at first, building up along the coast of Norway and over to the northern end of the Gulf of Bothia (if that's what it's called - the northern arm of the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden). I struggled to complete the northernmost route, which required either red cards and locos or the long green tunnel. Finally completed, I started grabbing tickets, which required me to do a little building but not much. I finally ran into trouble when Chris finished off his train supply (you only get forty instead of forty five train markers) and I was one card away from having what I needed to finish a shorty route I'd picked up at the end of the game. Mike had run away with the game by finishing his routes early, then drawing tickets that matched up with existing routes. I think he ended with more than 100 points in tickets, not counting the bonus. 

I really like the TtR series, but have a nagging suspicion that the game requires a larger map and more players to work effectively. The problem is that the luck of the draw in tickets can make an enormous difference in how people score as you are more likely to cover significant ground on a smaller map and thus can grab those routes easily. I did pretty well with routes, but had chosen long high-paying routes from my initial selection and that one long red route took me several cycles to collect as we sat on the draft pile for several turns. That's not to say the game isn't good (it's certainly less of a problem than it was with Switzerland), but I prefer the larger maps and especially the US and Maerklin over the others. 

At this point, Mike decided to shower, so Chris taught me Hill 218, a very simple militarily themed card game that plays in about 10 minutes or less, making it excellent filler. Each side has a deck of cards that have three attributes: where you can place it in relation to the cards you already have, what enemy cards around it you can remove based on that card play, and what pre-existing cards you must have played to support that removal. A few cards allow removal without support, the artillery card at range. The point of the game is to place a card in your opponent's home base area, which are found on either side of the central "Hill 218" card. It's a very easy game to play, and you'll need to learn the basic tactics needed to remove the opponent's cards and what positions are most critical for your own protection. Good play will defeat poor play every time if you are occasionally stymied by luck of the draw, and it's just right for the size and length it is. Highly recommended as a travel game, as it can be played in an airport if perhaps not on your tray table. Chris, of course, beat me handily in our first game after I made a rookie mistake, and while he had a tougher time in the second game he won that as well. 

Around this time, the waves of new faces started arriving: first Lorna, then KC and Rita, Ben and Pahduma, Matt R, and JD. Time to start playing the more involved games, and since Lorna was going to have to leave later that afternoon she got to select her first game, which was Age of Scheme, a Winsome Games train/stock game placed in about the same region as After the Flood, although clearly with rails or camels or something and "marriages" instead of stock. Like the well-received Wabash Cannonball game, you place wooden cubes as track, stock is relatively rare, and you want to be the one connecting two lines with the one you have all the stock in. 

In our game, we had six players and that may have been too many. With only four shares of stock per line, there was a huge advantage if you went right after people who made the connections, so it was nearly impossible to set up people taking their turn with four other players between you. Rita and I found ourselves with relatively little stock (four shares each) compared to five or six for the others, and by about halfway in it was clear that with everyone diversified there was no way I could move without helping the leaders, so I just started taking the "Business" option and giving myself $5 per turn. I came in dead last. Given the somewhat snarky nature of the game's name (related to the rift between Martin Wallace and the owner of Winsome Games over the Age of Steam copyright), and the deterministic end, I can't recommend this, at least with six. Sadly, this game was the most disappointing of anything I played over the weekend.

The other group had finished their game, so we jumped right into a great game of Power Grid: Korea with Rita, Pahduma, JD, and myself. I consider Power Grid to be one of the few games I'm particularly competitive at, which is a little strange because I'm generally poor at bidding games because I can't quickly and accurately estimate how much a given item is worth. Korea is a relatively new map, and I picked it over the China map because both JD and Pahduma had never played before and it only had one special rule: there are two resource markets, one for the North and one for the South, and you can only purchase resources from one or the other in a given turn. We chose not to use the two northernmost areas, as they typically had very expensive connections compared to the rest of the board, and so fit into the very dense South areas. JD started near Seoul, with me just to the south, Rita even further south, and Pahduma on the eastern coast. 

Our game was very unusual in that the larger plants came out early, and we got to the midgame pretty quickly, perhaps five or six turns. Once we had the good plants, however, things slowed down a lot. We had perhaps seven or eight turns where no one wanted the current plants as they would have been a drain on us, and we had more or less filled up the map at that point (preventing a win by, I think, Pahduma that JD and I had to fill in the remaining cities). After what seemed an incredibly long time where very little happened other than Rita, JD, and myself competing for either garbage or nukes, I found myself fortuitously buying first right after we hit step 3. I had amassed over 300 Elektros, burned down a little because of the city-expansion frenzy to prevent Pahduma's hitting 17 cities and taking the win with the most powered cities, and after having enough to power 13 cities, I then expanded in five or six cities, enough to hit 17 and clench the win. This was a good map for 4, and not a bad choice for a teaching map in some respects. It would have been interesting to see how the game would have come up with a more balanced plant sequence, but that's what makes the game great.

There were four more games to be played on Friday, which I will leave to the next post. JD, Chris, and myself did take a little break at this point to go see a rather spectacular sunset on the beach, with the sun merging into the haze on the horizon. Many pictures were taken, but I was glad I had both my hat and my heavy coat on. So far, I hadn't done terribly well in play other than the Power Grid game, but that was such a sweet win that I had enjoyed the weekend tremendously by this time.

Salishan 2008 Gaming Retreat, Part 1

Two years ago, the threat of inclement weather for drivers trying to negotiate the Cascade Mountain passes between Portland and Sunriver convinced me to ask Chris to host our fall game retreat at his family's vacation home in Salishan on the Oregon Coast, making it our premier weekend after the leaves begin falling. This was the first year I was able to make it out, the last two years having seen conflicts with my choir performance schedule. 

Keep in mind that most of the gaming retreats our group has, including WBC-West, have been at my family's Sunriver vacation house, and thus I've been the host for almost all of them. While I have been to a gaming retreat at Salishan at Chris' place before, it was an extra addition to the usual twice-yearly euro retreats. Still, this was really the first *big* retreat I'd been to when I wasn't the guy in charge, and I have to say that it was a very nice change. 

We had a ton of people coming in and out over the time I was there, and I left a little early, both to get back for holiday events on Sunday and so that JD could get back on Saturday night (which we accomplished about 10 minutes before midnight!) Among the attendees were myself, Chris, Mike, Matt R, KC and Rita, JD, Ken R, Eric, and non-RCG folks (technically) Lorna, Ben C, Pahduma (hope I spelled that even remotely correctly), and Ken C. That's 13 people, more than we've ever had at Sunriver. I'm hoping that we can continue this tradition in the future at Sunriver as well, as the new faces spiced things up very nicely, although of course the old-timers are always nice to have around. 

First off, a huge thanks to everyone who prepared meals. They seemed to be relatively easy to prepare, and every one was delicious and allowed everyone else to get in a lot of gaming. We may try this at Sunriver as well in the future. I chose early not to prepare a meal, mostly because I felt that I could get the pass this once due to my previous retreat hosting duties. I have to say, while I love hosting, it is nice once in a while to leave a house without feeling like I've forgotten to make a bed or turn down the thermostat and leave it to someone else to do. Of course, those who stay until the end of the Sunriver retreats know the drill and it's gotten to be very easy to do, but the break was nice and increased my enjoyment of this particular session.

Secondly, a huge thanks to Chris for his incredible prep work, hosting, and general pleasantness to be around. He and I have very similar senses of humor (ironic, perverse, quick, occasionally biting but well-intentioned), and he's a joy to game and hang with. Special kudos to using a Geeklist format to plan gaming activities, similar to what we've done with WBC-West, but the first time it's happened for a more casual retreat, and the first time I've seen it done via Geeklist. 

Thirdly, a huge thanks to everyone who came. While I wasn't involved in every game, and felt that I stayed exactly as long as I should have (Thursday evening through late Saturday), there was a great vibe in the house, and a special shout-out to Pahduma for jumping into some incredibly complex games with a smile and a willingness to enjoy herself. This woman, who is not a native English speaker, took on Power Grid twice, as well as playing a Cylon in BstarG. Ben, from what I've seen you have a keeper. Everyone, however, was a joy to game with, and that's a big part of why Rip City Gamers is such a special group. The laughter was more or less non-stop throughout the entire weekend, not an easy thing to do with twelve people crammed into a house of this size - even at Sunriver it would have been a big stretch.

Onto the games. I considered a Geeklist, but think that the blog format is a better one in this case as no tracking is really required. In this first section, I'll cover our Thursday night game.

Thursday night was Mike, Chris, and myself after Lorna and a few others discovered they couldn't come out until Friday morning, so rather than Mike and I playing Warriors of God, it was the three of us playing After the Flood, one of Wallace's new titles from his new Treefrog imprint. 

AtF, despite the acronym, is not about a government agency, nor is it particularly biblical (as the name led me to believe). Instead, it is a typical Wallace game strongly themed on the ebb and flow of civilizations in Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent from the Sumerian period through the Assyrians. It is more or less the same scope as Chariot Lords, although clearly a much different game with different objectives. Chris called it a wargame, but I felt it lacked a strong enough commitment to the historical events rather than just a framework for a very nice Euro, but it was still a very intriguing title. 

You spend the game building cities in the Crescent area of the map, which gives you some Special Mutant Powers in some locations, but also the opportunity to score particularly good points by upgrading cities as well. The outlying areas provide places to exploit various resources, which utilizes a system of cubes and disks to represent various materials and produced goods. You get these goods through the use of placing workers on the board, which costs resources in and of itself, and then trading up. For example, you might use a textile good to place two workers in a space that has metal and wood. Wood is only good for upgrading cities, but the metal can then be transformed by workers in a Tool Maker box into a Tool disk, which can then be used to upgrade to lapus lazuli. You start with a set of grain and textiles at the start of every turn, and it is understanding how to leverage these goods that will determine the winner.

Complicating matters is the presence of the armies of expanding peripheral civilizations such as Egypt and the Chaldeans. Each of the five turns there are three different civs that can appear, each of which has a particular starting area (which you must have a majority of workers in) and a strength, measured in units (this ranges from 3 up to 12). You can increase the number of units by a Special Mutant Power and by paying resources. These armies can expand across the board, and they prevent trade by anyone except the army owner in spaces they go into. They can also destroy cities, fight other armies, and generally allow players to have their way, although they do have some limits. 

This was the first game of AtF for both Mike and myself, and I found myself short of resources to do what I needed to do in the first two turns. By the third turn, I was starting to understand how to allocate the grain and textiles so that I could produce the various goods necessary to improve my cities and get the really big points, although you can generate a ton of points through army expansion as well. Chris, of course, had played twice and that was a huge advantage to him. He knew how to crank the resource machine, and managed to field enormous armies nearly every turn. While the game can tend to have huge leaps forward in points for some players and not for others, Chris was clearly winning handily by the fourth turn, and while Mike and I made a bit of a run at it we simply couldn't catch up. I was making some astute plays late in the game (the use of Scribes to shift workers is particularly useful, especially late in a turn), but in a five turn game, it's difficult to compete if you've screwed up two of them. 

All in all, I like the game, although I wouldn't quite put it at the top of the pile just yet. For one thing, it requires exactly three people, and takes a good three hours to play (our game, including 'splainin', took four hours). There is a tremendous amount of thinking required, and about turn four I was thinking that for this much work I'd just as soon be playing a wargame rather than a strategy game. There are many things to look out for, and trying to cover all of your bases can become difficult. Still, this is a very good game from Martin Wallace, and I will almost certainly invest in a copy at some point when Martin has his website updated and you can actually order it from the store (Chris' copy was from a "buy these three games in a package" deal that was as much preorder as anything else). I definitely liked it better than Steel Driver, which felt like Wabash Cannonball but more involved (not as good a think as I'd have liked). I do feel that the title could be misleading, especially for Christians looking for a game that reinforces their faith - there are no religious or Christian elements in the game at all, not even Hebrews or going into bondage. In fact, it could be argued that the game "glorifies" many of the antagonists of the Hebrews - Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Egyptians, all of the civilizations that went through the Eastern Med on their way to smack each other. Oddly, the aforementioned Chariot Lords *does* include the Hebrews, at least for a couple of turns. 

Of course, for me this isn't really a selling point (or not), just my take on a poorly chosen title from someone who almost certainly doesn't understand American religious habits. 

In my next post, I'll cover the Friday games, including a detailed description of Age of Scheme and Starcraft.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

New Year's Resolutions - The GeekList

I've created a GeekList to better track my resolutions, which you can find here. Please feel free to comment. I've tried to incorporate some of the comments made so far, but feel free to restate them if you wish. New comments are definitely welcome as well, that's why I put up the GeekList.

Special Note to TV: There are ten resolutions *just* for you, my friend. ;-)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

I figure if I start a month early, I've got a much better chance of beating the rush of resolutions and best (and worst) of 2008 blog entries that will overwhelm the 'Net in about three weeks. 

Rather than resolutions, these are some modest goals I've set for myself in 2009 vis a vis gaming. At this time, this is a working list, not a final list, and I'm always interested to see whether or not people think that these projects are a complete waste of time (or not). 

1) Play through every SPQR Deluxe battle using the Simple Great Battles of History rules. This is just the stock SPQR battles (five, I think, including Zama and Cannae), but also the Deluxe scenarios that originally came with the first four expansion modules (War Elephant through Africanus). Note that one of the original War Elephant scenarios, one including Antiochus the Lame and more elephants than you can roll rampage for in a day, was not added to the Deluxe scenarios, instead replaced with Bagradas Plains because the original scenario was much closer to Alexander's era than Hannibal's in terms of weapons systems. I'm planning at least a couple of smaller scenarios, then moving up to running through the rest in historical order. My goal is to play one every month, but get the first two learning games in before the end of this year to get myself refreshed. I will document each of these games on this blog. In case it wasn't clear, my intent is for this to be a solo effort, as most of these battles were blowouts and less than fun for one side or the other. I will not cover scenarios from C3i (other than Bagradas, which was originally from that magazine), nor from any expansions that came afterwards, such as Jurgutha or Barbarian. For now, it's about getting through that one box and that set of scenarios.

2) Play a monster game as part of a team. And by "monster," I don't mean playing the Edge of the World scenario in Case Blue, but a multi-map big game with more counters than a single person should be allowed to control. The candidates for this are a little tricky, as the wargamers in my group like different games for different reasons. OCS we might find four people for, EFS looks like there is a small chance of four, Grand Tactical (Devil's Cauldron) looks like just Jesse and I, and I don't know that I'd ever get enough people interested in 1914: Twilight in the East without traveling south on I-5 to play the designer. I suppose that you could also consider EuroFront as a monster, although like most grand strategic ETO games you have the issue of whoever runs the Western Allies sitting on their tukuses (tuki?) for the first half of the game.  Of course, WBC-West is the best chance for long-term play, and we could almost certainly get four people playing a game for two days straight, which to my mind would qualify so long as it was a really big map. However, I'm not fussy. I'd just like to try out a team game. Note that there is some slight chance I'll do this in late December with Mike and Chuck playing EFS, but with Lylah the imminent grandcritter due at exactly that time, I'm not counting on that.

3) Contribute back to the hobby. I've done this in various ways over the years, from organizing a game group and retreats, to participating in podcasts, to this very blog. Assuming, of course, that you can wade through my political diatribes to get to the gaming parts. ;-) What I'm thinking of specifically this time around is helping people to learn wargames, either through a video (a la Boardgames with Scott) or else through use of Flash animation, or even perhaps through community outreach at Jesse's store. As not only someone who generally does the 'splainin' when our group learns a new game, but someone who has actually been *paid* to both develop and deliver technical material (what fools my evil overlords were), I think that this is a good niche for me, and one that has some chance of success. Of course, if I do a good job there will be pressure to continue to produce learning materials...

4) Try games from companies other than the ones I buy from now. That list is really fairly short, and includes GMT Games, MMP on the top tier, with Columbia, L'n'L Games, DVG, Simmons, Avalanche Press, and Decision on the second tier. Academy Games is a new player with only one title (Conflict of Heroes), but it's definitely on the list. There are game companies I've learned to stay away from, including Critical Hit who had some of the most antagonistic customer support I've ever seen. However, there are tons of other, mostly tiny, wargame publishers out there, including several that do DTP designs such as Khyber Pass Games. This is an area where I could use a lot of help from the great unwashed masses out there, if anyone wanted to suggest a particular game from a publisher not listed above. Unfortunately, since I'm signed up to preorder almost everything coming from GMT and MMP, I may need extra help finding places to *put* all of these games, so I'll be picky for now. I should hurry with this effort, as the economy may kill many of the very companies I'd like to try out before I'm able to pick these games up!

5) Play a full campaign game of anything, preferably something manageable. By "campaign" I mean a game that covers the full history of a particular theater or event that is the longest scenario in the box. An example would be to play the full game of the SCS title Afrika II that runs some 30+ turns. Actually, that's probably the game I'll pick. This would be a game I'd leave set up on a sidetable and I'd play over a long period of time. There is also every possibility that this would be a solitaire specific game such as Fields of Fire, but I'd like for it to be as sweeping as possible and that game may not qualify. Note that this is unlikely to occur with a monster game in 2) above, mostly because while I'd like to play a team monster I don't think I'd be playing, say, the Case Blue game in campaign form, at least not just yet. That's almost certainly more time than I can devote without it becoming a lifestyle choice.

6) Play at least one naval game such as Flying Colors or War Galley. 

7) Play Burning Blue at least once against a live opponent. This may mesh up with 8) below.

8) Play at least two long-term games via VASSAL. Eric and I are starting a Pursuit of Glory game (after an abortive attempt screwed up by some problems with the beta module that we're leaving off after one turn), but I'd like to get one other game in. Generally this is a bad idea because historically I've tended to wake up at 2am thinking about how that Austro-Hungarian unit is out of position and that I should really have moved it somewhere else, but so far our PuG game has not had that problem, mostly because I have no idea what constitutes "out of position" so far. 

9) Get through all of the Conflict of Heroes scenarios. I've played five times, teaching the game every time with the first scenario, and usually as the Russians (which means I have yet to win). Time to get into the other scenarios and find out if this game is really the real deal when the entire system is in use.

10) Attend one out of town con focused on wargaming. That means that the Eugene Games Gala that Lorna puts on doesn't count. Chances are excellent that this will be a GMT Games weekend in April, something I can drive to now that gas is under $2/gal. 

Ten things is more than enough, even if many of them are relatively small goals, achievable with a single event or game. A few of them are more grandiose, such as the SPQR scenarios or the monster game play, and especially the training video idea, which requires me to figure out how best to present information and probably learn at least one new tool. I'll keep you posted as the year progresses as to how I'm doing.

Thanks again for feedback on the list. Suggestions for different goals or changes to the ones I've listed here are welcomed, and I'll post a final list at month's end.