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...

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Fun reads, Doug. Hope I can make the next retreat. I'm especially itching to play BSG again and to give Dominion a try.