Sunday, March 29, 2009

That Was One Wicked Musical

No Gamestorm for me this year again, thanks to my wife's work schedule. Next year, I am going to ask her to take the day off so that I can go to the convention on Saturday, and in fact may get a room rather than have to make what can be a 90 minute drive if traffic goes terribly terribly wrong. 

So what did I do this year while the rest of my gaming group went to the only local gaming con in the immediate area? On Friday, I went to visit my granddaughter. On Saturday, I played a Combat Commander scenario from Stalingrad with my friend Connor (and won a close one through fortuitous Advance draws - again), and today I went with my family to go see the traveling production of the hit musical Wicked!, which is currently playing in Portland. My wife wanted to go see it, and my brother had gotten tickets for my mother, so I got to go to.

Understand, I don't like modern musical theater. Not to put too fine point on this, but I'm not a gay man, I'm not a pre-teen or teen girl, and I'm not a pre-teen or teen gay boy. There is no doubt in my mind that Wicked was specifically produced for these demographics, especially based on the audience at Keller Auditorium. I'm not saying there's a thing wrong with being in one of these demographics, just that I'm not in them and as such musical theater isn't being written for me. In much the same way that rap music is not being written for me. I'm just saying, this isn't something I'd go to were there not some other reason for me to be there. That will help explain why I was definitely happy when the curtain went down.

I will say that I find the musicals of Stephen Sondheim to be very enjoyable (especially Sweeney Todd), and I have performed in the chorus of two Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as well as playing in the orchestra (in fact, as the orchestra) for a college production of Evita, and was musical director for Quilters. I also have a certain fondness for panto productions, and I love opera (and have seen productions in Sydney and New York). I just feel that most musical theater is about spectacle, target demographics, and has very little to do with interesting music, bold themes, or vocal technique learned from watching too much American Idol. 

Wicked did not disappoint in that regard. The musical, based on the book of the same name, turns the Wizard of Oz on it's head, showing the Wicked Witch of the West from her point of view. I don't think I'm giving a lot away when I say that she goes "bad" (in the eyes of the authorities) when she becomes an animal rights activist after the Wizard of Oz decides to start helping the citizens of Oz gain stability by taking away the ability of animals to speak. 

That's an extremely flimsy story to build off of, but it's pretty robust compared to most stories in the genre, which are really an excuse to sell soundtrack albums. In fact, in the first half there are all sorts of entertaining moments, especially when Glinda tries to make-over Elsepha (the WWotW). At our production, we had the understudy for the role of Glinda, but I have to tell you that she was fantastic with her physical comedy and stage presence, and I think we'll see more of her in the future. The woman playing Elsepha was also quite good, with very strong movements when called for but not as much frenetic energy as Glinda, making a nice contrast. 

The rest of the cast was also good, although the heroic male lead (the rich ne'er do well who develops a conscience as the play progresses) was neither a dancer nor a singer, unless the sort of N'Sync vocal histronics he did during the big love duet was the sort of thing you enjoy (and I, not being a 14 year old girl, do not). He was big and good looking and could read lines, but he has a limited repertoire and I can't see him gaining much more fame than where he's at now. 

The second half of the story left me flat. The break comes as Elsepha (forgive me if I have the names wrong, I didn't save the program) learns that the Wizard is behind animals losing their voices and rebels, and the second half tracks closely to the story, consisting of more or less a laundry list of in-jokes and mini-stories of how the various characters in the story become who they are, from the Wicked Witch, East Edition, to the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man. Most of these are silly at best, insulting at worst, and in fact many don't track with the story we see on stage because some characters (such as the Scarecrow) are created *after* Dorothy has moved on down the YBR. Yeah, it's not the point, but they all seemed like manufactured plot devices just so that all the bases got covered. 

In the end, Glinda regrets her choices, takes control of Oz, kicks out the Wizard, and imprisons the headmistress of the munchkin school who was complicit in the various Stability Initiatives put into place that Elsepha rebelled against. I'm sorry to say that there is also a happy ending, so in other words, no one ends up sacrificing unless you consider the Scarecrow isn't as good looking as he was. 

Like every musical produced since Andrew Lloyd Webber was coronated God some years ago, the singing is what can charitably be termed "brassy". To me, it's like nails on a chalkboard after three hours. Glinda, who arguably was the only character who should have been singing in that style, took it to a new level. Elsepha was better, but when duetting with Glinda (which was often) she lapsed into the same style in order to blend. I particularly hate this style because every freakin' vocal major wannabe entering into college programs auditions with that style and with a Broadway song, and the same applies to the handful of men and the scoopalicious  N'Sync style. I sat in on auditions regularly when I was a Masters student, and it was excruciating for pretty much everyone. It's loud, it's covering for a lack of sensitivity and skill, and it's teaching multiple generations of singers to require amplification to be heard past the sixth row (the projection element is poor, and in fact everyone on stage in this production was amplified). We can talk about the low "entertainment" value of opera singers and how they tend to stand and deliver, but the simple fact is that opera singers are rarely amplified, and to do what they do requires not only a tremendous amount of talent and effort, but few people in the world can really do it. To my ear, everyone thinks they can sing Broadway tunes. At least, they think they can. 

The stagecraft was quite good, with lots of interesting framing, good use and reuse of stage elements throughout, and the effects didn't take over the show the way that f*cking chandelier does in Phantom ("Oooh! Did you see the chandelier!?" Like there was nothing else in the show). The sound was very good, a bit of a surprise considering that the mixing board was located under the balcony where the sound quality couldn't have been very good. The orchestra was made up of a set of local wind and brass players (notoriously difficult to emulate with samplers), four keyboards hooked up to laptops with special software to keep them on track for where in the show they are, down to the measure number (!), a guitarist, a drummer, in a sound booth, and a percussionist. They did a great job, although I kept thinking that whoever came up with the sound palette for this show was massively hard for 80's pop and the sound of the DX7. Keyboardists everywhere are giggling right now, but the rest of you don't care - think tinkly bell-like timbres and you'll know what I mean. I remember reading about how Cats used a few Prophet-5 synths on tour with specific patches, but of course that was a long time ago and a setting of the knobs on one keyboard wasn't necessarily exactly the same as what you'd get on another, and how that was a bit of a problem (not to mention how you'd keep those sounds into the future). The problem is still out there, but since music tech hasn't changed much other than moving onto laptops (it's all samples and a handful of synthesis techniques from acoustic modeling to subtractive), I'm guessing they'll be able to hang onto these sounds for a longer period, whereas some productions of Cats still require 25-year-old P-5s. 

I also have to give the show props for teaching that sometimes authority is not concerned with the greater good, even if they themselves are simply trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. Not that I believe Dick Cheney did *anything* for anyone's good but himself and those around him, mind you. It also showed that the person painted as a "terrorist" sometimes is not at all. That's a very powerful message right now as we consider releasing all of those people we tortured at Gitmo. Considering this musical was written in 2003, and the book in 1995, it was incredibly forward looking and clearly a message that I hope to god we've finally learned. Ha. 

I will also give huge props to the casting choices that led to a lead character who has an actual normal female body. Elsepha, of course, not Glinda (who is skinny skinny skinny). They are both redeemed at the end, although Elsepha arguably never required it, and of course the base message is that your appearance doesn't dictate your ethics. Still, Elsepha was anything but skinny, and that's a message that I feel very strongly about now that I have a granddaughter who will have to grow up with continuing difficult image imprinting as she grows up. 

If you like musical theater, even Spamalot, this is probably worth your time if you don't mind the astronomical ticket prices, the lobby that looks like what Jesus must have seen at the Temple with all of the moneylenders (food! t-shirts! product tie-in crap!) - it took me ten minutes to negotiate all of the suburbanites out for quality time with their daughters in the lobby just to hit the head. At one point my wife called me a snob (I think I was the sole person in the entire theater wearing a dress jacket), and I replied that in an audience like this, I had every right. 

That, and audiences in Portland will give a standing ovation to a dancing seal. Yes, you paid an incredible amount of cash for your tickets (ours were nearly $100 each), but that doesn't mean you stand when a decent production comes to town. They do it at every Oregon Symphony Orchestra concert too, no matter how good the music was. I try not to stand on principal, but sometimes you've got to do it. Like when your 86 year old mother wants to stand up. 

Oh well, at least I kept my opinions to myself to the rest of my family. I'm pretty sure I ruined Phantom for my sister years ago when she asked how I liked it and I compared it to root canal. Hey, she asked. 

Not that *you* asked, but then if you've gotten this far I figure at least I've been entertaining.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

We Wait In Vain

Fields of Fire, the game I love to critique, has been out for more than three months now, at least from the POV of those who preordered. The game can be fairly quick to play, with a mission lasting roughly 2-3 hours depending upon the specifics, but I find it takes a good 30 minutes to get set up, even with the requisite markers in counter trays and the pieces separated out ahead of time. 

In other words, this thing is screaming for a VASSAL module. 

One of the things I've been wanting to do since the game came out is to produce a training aid that will use the VASSAL module in addition to screen capture software. Until there's a module, I can't do any of this, and my gumption is slowly being trapped away (double bonus points to whoever gets that particular, if dated, pop culture reference). Trying to do this with a Flip strikes me as an exercise in futility, at least at my level of videography skills. 

Mind you, there *is* a VASSAL module out there, and has been for years. It was used by the playtesters, and all it needs is to have the production artwork added in before release. Which was originally sometime in early January, then early February, and now there's no word from the author at all. Sort of like George R. R. Martin, who will die before A Song of Ice and Fire ends, resulting in a Ditty of Slush and Ashes. 

But I digress. The problem is that we've gotten to a point where we expect a VASSAL module to come out not long after a game is published, and for the most part that's what happens. It's a labor of love of an enthusiast of the game who also happens to have programming chops. Aide de Camp, which is a commercial product, enjoys the benefit of reaping at the very least a small amount of recompense for the programmer, but with VASSAL all you can do is put out the cup and hope that someone felt it was worth some money.

I guess it should come as no surprise that FoF is not following the standard curve, as everything about the team that put it out the door suggests that it was an afterthought on the part of everyone except the designer (who should be only occasionally consulted by the development team once the game is handed off). However, I'm about three weeks away from officially no longer caring about producing these videos if a VASSAL module doesn't come out.

As such, I think that perhaps there needs to be a greater effort on the part of game companies to provide VASSAL modules as part of their roll-out. Make it a part of the overall development process, which you probably would want to do anyway as part of playtesting. Pay the coder some money, either upfront or a piece of the profits (we're talking maybe $500-$1000 for their work, really a stipend but enough so that they feel they're being paid), which would average out to a cost of less than a dollar per unit produced assuming a print run of 1500 or more. Updating the module would be a relatively small amount of work, and I'd hope that the original author would be around to manage that, but if they weren't you could get someone who could act as a utility person to clean up the game if any large changes came more than, say, a year after release.

More importantly, the company would control their product instead of it being an ad hoc system. There would be nothing preventing people from producing their own VASSAL module if they wanted one, although distribution would have the same issues as it would now (Avalanche Press, for example, doesn't allow any electronic representation of their games, with a handful of exceptions). 

As for recompense, you could handle this in a variety of ways. Charge a small subscription price annually, say $10, and you can download whatever modules you want from a company. Pre-order the game, and get access to the module for free as a sweetener. Heck, you could even charge per module if you wanted to, much as Aide de Camp does (and yes, you could say that AdC is already providing "finished" product, but keep in mind it's Windows only and doesn't seem to get much support). The key is to make it effectively free, meaning such a small charge that people won't mind paying it, much like they snap up $0.99 iPhone apps. 

Even those VASSAL modules that come out early tend to have major problems - Unhappy King Charles had a discard pile that you couldn't get cards out of, even if you sent your reusable Core cards to it - I had a game fall apart because of that very reason. A Pursuit of Glory game had to be restarted when a beta version of the module (using a beta version of VASSAL!) was updated and it wouldn't read the previous save file. These things can be caught and fixed during playtesting, doing dual duty and encouraging people to stick with the games rather than give up and move on to the next shiny thing. 

Even more important, you might finally be able to show companies like Avalanche that there's a revenue stream out there for their products to be played online rather than sit in most people's libraries gathering dust. Were I a designer, I'd be much more interested in my games being played than in making money off of them (and for most designers, I think that's true), and this way you would maintain at least some control over your product - include software to require a code for a specific game, one that comes in the boxed version, and you'd have access to the necessary scenarios. 

I'm sure people will poke all sorts of holes in my thinking (not unusual), but the important thing is that many of us play these games *only* if we have access to an online component such as VASSAL, and leaving the production of these modules to volunteer efforts has it's shortcomings.

In the meantime, here's my nine thousandth plea to the author of the FoF VASSAL module - do you think you could either commit to getting the art inserted or hand it over to GMT so that they can find someone who *does* have the time to get this thing done? Because I mean it about the three week thing. At that point, I'll be in full-study mode for WBC West in early May and there's no chance I'll even start working on the videos until mid-July, if ever. I think there's still a need (at least until the rewritten rules come out, and maybe even then), and I'll even send you a ten-spot.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

BstarG - Requiem For A Series

The final episode of Battlestar Galactica was aired last night, and Mel and I watched it with the lights down, the sound up, and dueling senses of elation and sadness. We've been fans since the miniseries aired what must be seven or eight years ago, and have followed it loyally ever since. There's something about a good television series that you pick up exclusively from on-air broadcasts - the pacing is spaced out (although with cable shows, sometimes that spacing can last nine or more months, even between *halves* of seasons), and you have time for each episode to sink in before you go on to the next one. 

Spoilers will abound, so if you haven't seen the finale consider yourself warned. Here we go:
  • Resolution to plot lines. If there's one thing that's going to irk fans, it's that a few of the hanging plot threads were not resolved as you might think they should have been, or to your satisfaction. For us, the whole Starbuck question - if she's dead on Earth, who's running around shooting bad Cylons? - was more or less sidestepped. I'm unsatisfied with her being an angel (they seemed to know who they were, Starbuck struggled with what she was), and having her disappear from New Earth was extremely frustrating. The angels (Caprica inside Baltar's head and vice versa) also seemed a little convenient, not to mention that their sudden desire to see the Cylons and humans find peace right before Tyrel strangled Tori seemed like a bit of a 180. 
  • The final jump to New Earth. Boy, did that seem like a deus ex machina, and a weak one at that. I must have missed how they came up with the rendezvous point before going on the raid on the Cylon colony, but to have all of the ships pop out conveniently over the *one* nice planet they found on the entire voyage? A little precious, if you ask me. That and the conveniently genetically compatible humanoids on the planet. While Baltar made some comment about the hand of God at work, I felt more like I was watching Tartuffe with Louis the Sun King descending at the end to magically clean up the mess than Bstar G. 
  • WTF were all of those old-school Cylons doing running around? They looked terrible. And there were more of them on the Battlestar than defending the colony, which struck me as odd. 
  • Ron Moore's cameo shot at the end. Gratuitous and unnecessary, could have been  left out entirely. He's gotten a huge amount of air time on the various specials, webcasts of con panels, etc. No need to stick him in the final except as a private joke, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.
  • Caville's suicide during the final shoot-out at the C-in-C. 
  • The entire idea that Cylons could build a Resurrection ship, even with outside help, and not be able to reproduce it later. There's this thing called "Reverse Engineering" and I'm pretty sure that the Cylons could have done it in this case. 
  • I know things are tough, and companies are trying all sorts of new revenue streams, but I don't think that being reminded that every prop used in the show is being auctioned off online is going to help with my suspension of disbelief. Almost certainly a Sci-Fi channel stunt, it felt cheap and tawdry, and the ads for the last few weeks were truly relentless. 
There were a lot of good things about the finale, lest you think I'm a total cynic (which I am):
  • Tori pays for her killing of Tyrel's wife. That her cruelty would result in the cycle repeating was a nice touch, although I'd have liked to have seen Tyrel express deep regret that his rage had brought down what might have been an end to the cycle of violence. 
  • The description of "mitochondrial Eve" at the end, although whether that was Hera (in which case we are all half Cylon) or Laura (who we saw buried minutes before, segueing into the news reports on Eve's grave) was in some doubt. Seeing as Laura had no children, that seems a strange choice.
  • Overall, I felt that the finale brought the series to a "clean" close. Galactica all but a hulk, unable to jump; knowledge that, indeed, Earth was *not* the radioactive husk found earlier but instead given that name in tribute; that we were evolved from the colonists (and if Eve was indeed Hera, then also from Cylons, although I'm unaware of any bioengineered portions of my anatomy). 
In all, I felt that there was probably about 30-40 minutes of episode that had been cut to fit it into the timeslot, even at two hours (including ads).  A couple of the final ten episodes have felt that way to me, and I'm hoping that the DVD sets clean things up a bit in that regard with extended episodes. Much of the storytelling felt rushed, when it wasn't introspective to the point of curing insomnia, over the last several episodes. I think that two more episodes might have allowed a better flow. 

Now that this series is over, I'm looking forward to the new series Caprica, although there's a very dismal history of spinoffs of successful sci-fi shows on television. Think of everything Chris Carter has done since the X-Files, including the most recent movie, or the short-lived sequel focusing on the Rangers in the Babylon 5 universe. ST:TNG was probably the most successful, although to be honest none of those spinoffs ever captured my imagination for more than a single season (I liked Enterprise the best, and it lasted for the shortest period). While there are some good people in the show, I think that many will ignore it because there's no exotic world (other than a little advanced tech) to draw sci-fi fans in. The best stories take a mundane element and set it in an exotic setting, which Bstar G did admirably, and the setting in Caprica may not be exotic enough. We shall see. 

Farewell to thee, Bstar G. While I felt that perhaps Ron Moore was right when he said that it was all about the characters as his writing team struggled to find a way to end the series, it did so with some cost to cohesion and plot. Oddly, I felt that the series finale of X-Files, a show that arguably started a precipitous downhill slide in the fourth season that ended with the star characters all but out of the show for the last two seasons (8 and 9) was a stronger finish. At least it was better than the final Seinfeld or Sopranos episodes which were insults to their viewers in more ways than I care to remember. 

Of the series that will pick up the slack, my faves are Lost, Damages, Mad Men, Chuck, and Friday Night Lights. Battlestar, however, will always hold a special place in my heart for it's unflinching examination of the War on Terror and American adventurism under the Bush/Cheney Administration at a time when we all needed a big slap in the face to remind us that there better be a very good rationale if the ends are going to justify the means. The characters in Bstar G were all horribly flawed, just as all of us are, and they made some good decisions over time as they made bad decisions, and they had to live with the consequences. Americans like to pretend there *are* no consequences for our actions, and if nothing else this series has forced us to see that lie for what it is. 

I just wish it had ended a little better. 

Friday, March 13, 2009

New Stuff

I went a little crazy over the last month. There were a ton of new wargames that came out just in time for Christmas, then sort of a lull. They all seem to be hitting the door right about now, though...

Age of Conan. A new game from the crazy Italians who brought you War of the Ring, this time with a smaller box and map. Clearly intended to take advantage of the mega-hit MMORPG (which ended up not being such a mega-hit once everyone over the age of 15 got tired of the server issues, resolved too late for me to come back), I figure that the designers have enough cred that I'd give it a shot. Something I plan to try out solo pretty soon, but you'll see that I'm going to be using that phrase early and often in this post.

More stuff from Victory Point Games. In particular, Caesar XL (meaning "40", not Extra Large, to fit in with one of their common design criteria), the two other Paul Koenig's D-Day sets (this time the American and Canadian beaches), and also Soviet Dawn, the followup to Israeli Independence. I've already said how much I like PKDD, and how Israeli Independence was a cool little time waster (on an iPhone, it would be fantastic), but Soviet Dawn is the game that makes this a successful design. Multiple decisions every turn, the chance to turn down the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which gave both the Germans and the new Soviet government breathing room, but lost the latter a little cred), a political track you have to keep on top of, three different decks that come into play at varying times, there's a lot to like here. I haven't gotten Caesar XL punched or on the table yet, but I can almost guarantee that because it takes place in 51-44BC (the fight between Julius Caesar and Pompey at the end of the Republican era), perhaps I should be focusing first on...

Spartacus. A new CDG from Compass Games, who are doing good work for a fledgling wargame company. This game covers not only the slave revolt, but also the events that led up to the slaves seeing an opportunity to revolt, the Sertorian Wars that raged from Spain and Italy to Asia Minor. Based strongly on Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, the game includes a battle deck for those who prefer that style of combat resolution, or you can just roll the dice in a manner that looks a bit like Sword of Rome. The designer, John B. Firer, and I GMed the Successors tournament at WBC For Real for three years before I stopped going. This is the first of the games to get set up and run (besides Soviet Dawn), and I'm close to getting through the rules. 

Halls of Montezuma. CDGs seem to come in waves, which is why I've yet to play either Kutuzov or Clash of Monarchs from late last summer. HoM, which arrived just the other day, looks to be another light title in this genre, with low counter density and lots of history. Other than getting it punched and sleeved, I haven't had time to look too closely at it yet, but it looks very promising.

Bastogne. If you're a Christian, you probably often ask yourself, "What would Jesus do?" It's a good enough question, and if the event that triggered you to ask yourself that question was, "Should I put out yet *another* Bulge game?" then hopefully your answer would be "Hell, no!". Unless it was this one. The latest SCS title from MMP and what's left of the Gamers, we finally have a close-in examination of the siege of this once sleepy hamlet in the Ardennes forests of Belgium, at least until it's strategic position as a crossroads of nearly every highway through the region (and the bogging down of the German attack to the north) turned it into a little Stalingrad for the 82nd Airborne, who held out despite terrible odds. Not only a different treatment of a battle we've all got 30 different versions of on our shelf in terms of scale, it also is reputed to be a quick play as well. Mine has yet to arrive because of some changes to my credit card info when it rolled over from one period to the next, but hopefully today. 

Magazine games. I subscribe to World At War and pick up Strategy and Tactics at Jesse's shop (and will probably shift to getting both there to support him), and there have been a few games in those issues - Hannibal's War, The First Battle Over Britain (WWI airwar) and a game on the strategic bombing air war in 1943-45 over Europe. The two air war games in particular look promising. WaW is "revisioning" old SPI titles, something that would annoy me if I had a big SPI collection, but since I own *no* SPI games (they went under long before I started collecting) I don't mind too much. S&T, however, is putting out new games. Usually magazine games are those that the traditional publishers don't want to pick up because they don't think they'll do well in that environment, and they are typically played rarely if at all. Part of the problem is that if you're getting a new game from a magazine every month, plus more games from preorders, you're probably overwhelmed as it is, even if you have lots of spare time like I do. Still, I'm hoping to play around with some of these, along with games from recent issues like Cobra, Barbarossa, The Bulge (see?), and The Solomon's Campaign, all of which are old SPI revisionings. 

Federation Commander: Klingon Border. I remember the day as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was running around downtown with a couple of friends (who weren't friends for a lot longer), all of us 14-15 years old, when I saw the store. Endgames, long since out of business. They did puzzles (party games weren't around then) and a pretty wide range of board games. Up until then, I'd bought pretty much everything at a local hobby store that carried wargames and some RPG stuff (the very early D&D materials), but this was the first time I'd seen Microgames from what would eventually become Steve Jackson Games, Cosmic Encounter, GW titles like Imperium and Fire in the East, and, of course, Star Fleet Battles. This was the very first edition, back when you got a plastic page sleeve to put the ship data sheets into. With 32 impulses per turn, we never quite got into this quite as much as you'd expect (for one thing, most "starship combat" fought on the TV show - no movies yet in 1979 - was stand and fire, and having ships moving seemed very "wrong"), and while I might have picked up one or two expansions or clones (the Starfire game was very similar, just not a Trek-themed game), I never kept my copy or got into it too much. Given how insane the existing system is, at nearly an ASL-like level, that was probably a good idea. 

With the new movie coming out, though, I'm feeling like I want something more streamlined and easy to digest that I can pull out at will, and the Federation Commander line seems to fit that bill. There are a ton of expansions if I decide I like it, and it's something that I suspect my nephew Alex will play with me from time to time. The Federation and Empire game seems to be pretty interesting to, which is a strategic-scale game (which I also owned the first copy of), although I'm going to start out *very* small with this franchise for now. My copy arrived at Jesse's store today (I've been over there a lot this week), so I'll pick it up tonight.

Highway to the Reich. This is the big one, a four-map, 2200 counter monster (and one that lays more or less linearly, so I may actually be able to set it up). Originally an SPI monster from the 70's, this reprint/revision is supposed to update the OOB, the maps, tone down some of the original color choices (egg-yolk yellow, anyone?) and clean up the rules considerably, and from most quarters I hear that it was a success. There are sub-scenarios for each of the four maps (XXX Corps launch point, Einhoven, Nijmagen, and Arnhem), so certainly playable without taking over an entire room - but still tempting. I know Mike loves Market-Garden games, so perhaps this will be one I can get him to play. Hilariously, it came with a background booklet that was originally an article in World at War (Decision publishes the magazine and this game). Decision Games has a spotty record with it's reprints (it screwed up Proud Monster, made a hash of Luftwaffe, but seems to be doing well with RAF), so we'll have to see. I am *not* going to buy their ginormous War in the Pacific game, which would take up as much space as Case Blue's maps. I have my limits. They're far beyond what most people would find acceptable, but they are limits. 

Time to start clipping. 

Getting A Brazilian In Italy, c. 1944

Jesse and I continued our trek through the Combat Commander scenarios, finishing up the last of the original 12 from the Europe box. Despite having drawn sides randomly, this was my third time in a row playing the Americans (technically, as you'll see), and Jesse playing the Germans. The scenario was a mountain pass in Italy in late 1944, with a Brazilian company trying to take the mountains on either side. There are a lot of LOS things to remember with this map, there being four levels of elevation, lots of buildings and woods, and a special rule that limited the amount of visibility early in the game to simulate morning fog burning off. 

We ended up playing twice when I was able to take one of the two "big" objectives early, had run around the flank to take an undefended minor objective, and had taken the monastery and the building complex in the SW corner fairly quickly with few if any losses and had mounted a fairly big VP lead. We decided to reset and let Jesse set things up slightly differently, which he did (and felt better about). 

There are a few issues to consider when you set up a defense in this game, all of which have some tradeoffs. If exit points are involved, you almost always have to provide at least a token defense across the width of the battlefield, although in this particular scenario there weren't any "extra" points if you got someone off. You need to defend the important objectives, obviously. Fire lanes, as in any tactical game, are critical, and in this scenario the slightly more important of the two major objectives (5, the one on the clear topped hill) can see almost the entire board other than the backside of the other level 3 hill, at least the parts that don't have blind hexes. 

Perhaps the most obvious tradeoff is deciding whether to put your strong forces in the hexes your opponent needs to take, or to place them further forward to force him to burn daylight. After all, the defensive role is simple - force your opponent to burn time or manpower. In our first game, I had tons of time, and we'd only moved the Time marker up three spaces before I was in a commanding position. By placing the speedbumps further forward, you force your opponent to spend time taking them out in order to get the defensive terrain necessary to take the next spot. If they fall back, you can force even more time, especially if they've saved up Advance and Ambush cards that are no longer quite as appealing once there's no one to assault. The risk, of course, is that your less-capable forces get steam-rolled, and they lose little time and you lose manpower. 

Jesse had a more forward-oriented offense this time, and we both placed units to avoid the airburst problems of units in woods being fired on by mortars - you might as well stand out in the open, other than the morale effects of the woods when you're rallying. He also took a stand behind objective 4 rather than in it, partly for the same reason, and placed trenches in the woods to offset the airburst effect of the trees, giving him equivalent cover of a building. 

In this sort of fight with lots of cover, the only way to take the objectives is through an assault. You aren't going to knock someone out of a building with fire unless you have an incredible fire line assembled, and the adjacent terrain wasn't going to cooperate in that regard. When I started drawing Ambush cards in the second game, I knew that was a trigger for me to start looking for the relatively rare Advance cards that would let me use them. With a lot of units on the board (as in this scenario), you can almost always do something else somewhere while you wait for those cards. In the end, I got perhaps the most perfect storm of cards I'd ever seen in this game.

I had two forces moving up either side of the ridge that objective 4 was on, using smoke (the Americans/Brazilians have a lot of smoke to work with, both from their mortars, OBA, and Action cards). I had one seven-point stack adjacent to a lone German squad in a foxhole, and another two hexes away from the entrenched German stack, with the objective in between. I had the two Ambush cards, then drew a Move, a Smoke Action card, a Recovery card, and an Advance. The move would allow me to move one stack into the objective under cover of smoke, recover if necessary from Op Fire, then advance into both spaces on the next turn and use Ambush cards as necessary. Sure enough, Jesse shot up the stack that was to move, and I used the Recovery card to get them back into good order, then moved into a heavy smokescreen to take the objective and get adjacent to the main defensive group. 

That's when I drew two more Advance cards and a third Ambush card. 

Considering that there are only a handful of Advance cards in a 72 card deck, making the odds of drawing one with a full deck slightly better than one in eighteen, I'd gotten almost all of them. I cleared out three different defensive positions in one turn, got the initiative, and took something like 20 points in two turns. 

We played a while longer, although it wasn't until I was able to take the monastery and go up by close to ten points that Jesse felt he couldn't win, and I think he was correct - If I don't have to move, all he can do is hope that he can shoot up enough areas to take back a few points, and all I have to do is not allow him to do that. Since I'd pulled one of the 12 point OBA radios a few turns back, I could pound him on the hill and not put my men at risk. 

So is this an unwinnable scenario for the Germans? It's certainly problematic. You are facing a very strong force that doubles it's manpower about halfway in, which means that the Brazilians can set up multiple axes of advance and then build up either a lot of move cards to draw Op Fire or wait for the Advance/Ambush cards to start showing up, all the while trying to cause problems for the Germans. Placing an advance unit in the woods south of Objective 4 to deny the wooded approach is asking for trouble from the Brazilian medium mortars, certainly, although I roll for targeting ordnance like I roll for Austro-Hungarian flank attacks in Paths of Glory (poorly). I think that there is something to be said for denying the set of buildings in the middle of the board near the Brazilian entry point - in our second game, those units were part of the big assault on objective 4. It would certainly require quite a bit of my time and effort to have to manage those units early, although they'd almost certainly eventually be wiped out. 

Yes, this one is quite a puzzle for the Germans. I know this was a frustrating afternoon for Jesse, as it always is when your opponent's luck overwhelms the system. I have to say that there is a very special feeling one gets when you look at six cards and know that, barring a major SNAFU, you are going to move from a position where you are losing to a position where the outcome is in some doubt for both sides, and that it will take similar luck on the side of your opponent to avoid it. It's certainly a better feeling than when you discard five cards, desperately hoping for a Recovery to save the broken and exposed units about to be fired on, and draw five Rout cards (that happened in the first game to me). 

That's the thing about Combat Commander. Many of these games are going to be decided, assuming similar levels of competence and a balanced situation, on the right thing happening at the right time. Despite a huge number of my units spread around the board and snipers firing from caves (the Germans got a two-hex range for their sniper draws in this scenario), I think Jesse got to break two, maybe three units in this manner in both games combined. A well placed sniper next to that stack with the broken squad about to rally and move under the cover of smoke into objective 4 would have put a serious chill on my efforts, but there was no sniper to be found in the area. 

I had a similar experience in our game two weeks earlier, where I was advancing but couldn't draw Move cards to save my life for most of the game. It's not as much fun, to be sure, but the great thing about CC is that with so many scenarios out now (over 50 from GMT Games, and that's not counting the Pacific box) that you are almost certain to find scenarios that you'll be happy about. 

I think that the next time we play we'll play the Finns ambushing the Russians from the Med box, which despite the poor Axis Minor discard rate (2), sure felt like a Finnish snipe hunt, at least from the part of the poor Russians who never recovered from the initial ambush when Chuck and I played it. I'll let Jesse be the Finns this time to get his morale back up. ;-)

I'm very fortunate to have such a gracious and tolerant opponent (he can't enjoy me saying "Help, help, I'm being suppressed!" as an almost Pavlovian response every time that happens to a unit) so close, and one that can play wargames during the day. 

Tuesday Gaming

Dave, Alex, and myself all showed up at Matt G's for a little gaming goodness at our regular Tuesday session. Even though Matt's is a longish drive for me, I find myself enjoying his sessions in a little different way just because there are people who show up there that don't show up often in other locations. And I mean that in a good way! 

On the table were Pandemic and Tikal.

Matt had been playing Pandemic recently and had finally managed to win a game, so he was excited to try this out. Matt was the Scientist, Dave was the guy who can transfer cards easily, Alex was the Dispatcher, and I was the Research guy who could build centers. The Medic was AWOL, and in retrospect that was probably our downfall.

The big outbreak centers were relatively close together, in Riyadh, Kinshasa, and Rio, and we did a pretty good job of keeping them from going kablooie. We also managed to find cures for three diseases (all but red) in no time at all, as the card draws kept going to the right people - I drew nothing but black cards early on, while others drew different colors. I placed lots of research facilities to allow lots of movement across the board easily, and things were looking good. 

While the card draw helped tremendously, it was also killing us. We were playing with five Epidemic cards, and it seems like we got three of them pretty quickly, the time between the second and third being particularly short (less than three player turns). When the deck got reshuffled, the hotspots in London, Paris, and Milan doubled down, with London triggering an outbreak that triggered another outbreak in Paris, and that put every blue cube on the board in very short order. This is where the Medic would have come in handy, sweeping through the area and eliminating all of those cubes in London and Paris quickly. 

As such, this was as close to a win as I've ever seen, and about as quick a loss at the same time. Kind of bizarre, but that's coop games for you. 

Next up was an old school favorite that I haven't played in a very long time, Tikal. This game got some short shrift fairly early on because of the randomness of the tile draws and the potential downtime for four players. The downtime is still a bit of an issue, but we could have played with the auction variant (you auction off the right to choose a tile from a draft line). I am terrible at auction games, so I'm sure I'd have sucked big time had we done that. As it was, I didn't mind the downtime too much as this particular group always feels more like a casual party where we happen to be playing a game rather than hardcore gaming, even though we *are* hardcore gamers. Again, in a good way.

Alex got off to a good start, and he and Dave spent a lot of time fighting for various resources, temples, etc on "their" side of the board. Matt and I did a little back and forth, but at some point I ended up with a little corner of the board all to myself where I built up the temples to the midrange of 5-6 plus one sweet little temple at 9 that I cornered with only two workers for the entire game. Combined with having taken two sets of treasures fairly early (by the second scoring round), I was in the lead from that point on and never really looked back. Scores at the end were in the 112-82 range, with the midpoint players spread out astonishingly evenly between at ten point intervals. 

Historical note: Dave had remembered that *way* back in the day when I brought Alex to play some games with the group, that we'd played this at his apartment the very first time he'd met Alex. Alex was about 17 at the time, and I'd completely forgotten - there are some sessions I remember, but we must have gotten together to play games something like 400 times since RCG formed, so to me it's not only a blur but a little pink sock in the white laundry load. 

Last item on the agenda: Sugarlumps. 'Nuff said. 

Next week we go back to Chris' house, who is standing in for me on the regular schedule.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

Second World War at Sea - Midway

Eric turned me on to what was probably the biggest gaming deal in my life (even better than finding Magic Realm on eBay for $35) when I scored eight of Avalanche Press' Second World War at Sea games/expansions for $163 including shipping. The "big" box in the set, Leyte Gulf, retails at $199, so it was like getting it at discount and the rest thrown in for good measure. 

The only problem was that my experiences with Great War at Sea, which uses a very similar system, had not gone so well. Chuck and I struggled to enjoy that game when we played it, and there's a very strange rule, "Referred Pain," that can make it difficult to sink a heavily damaged ship if it had primary guns but never any secondary guns. I won't go into the details, but there was a significant issue with no sign of being "fixed" by Avalanche. Jesse and I discovered the problem when we played a tactical battle and I've simply never gone back to the game. 

Since Eric and I were the only people in the group really interested in playing SWWaS, we finally managed to get together today and give it a shot. Our verdict - despite the usual Avalanche poorly-organized and laid out rules, this is a really fun little game. We played the Relief of Wake Island scenario from the Midway boxed game, which featured a relatively small number of units (perhaps 15 or so per task force for the Americans, less for the Japanese, and three task forces for each side to start) and a situation that would force us to learn a handful of relatively simple but less used rules such as unloading cargo and assaulting a port. 

The game uses pretty much all of the rules from GWaS, although the ships are much faster, you only plot one turn ahead for TFs on Intercept missions, and you are much less likely to run into surface combat situations as most of the time your aircraft are doing the dirty work. Like most APL games, you roll dice based on a combat factor, then try to hit target numbers based on various drms. Each hit allows a roll on a damage table (torps or gunnery/bombs) and damage is marked off on various record sheets. There are two levels of the game, an operational game where you are trying to locate the enemy and hurt him before he hurts you, and a tactical game that is about as abstracted a version of naval warfare as you'll see. While each ship down to the destroyer level is represented by a single counter, you won't find any strong rules forcing you to move as a fleet would, although SWWaS does have optional rules for surface ship combat that encourage such formations. 

The bulk of the game, however, is taken up by record keeping and various other functions. We didn't make any contact at all for the first quarter of the game, and bad weather made it dangerous for aircraft to take off at all for the first three days. On the fourth day, though, the sky cleared and we got a lot of practice with the CAP system, air strikes, air searches, subs, cargo, ports, all sorts of stuff. 

Despite what seems to be a convoluted ruleset, the system is really extremely sequenced and easy to follow once you know what you are doing. The trick is getting to that point, and I think we were very successful, breaking down each subsystem and going through the rules to make sure we understood it. Part of our success was in no small part to Xander's extremely useful play aids, which collect about 90% of the information you need on two pages of charts, one for operational use and the other for tactical use. 

Also surprising was how little you really interacted with counters in the game. There are a bare handful of markers on the board, and the air units on the five carriers in the game (one of which didn't show up for 20 turns) and two airbases. Submarines were involved around Pearl Harbor, but not so much afterwards (my lone sub near Wake was sunk almost immediately). 

The game needs a few things to make it come out more often, although some of this would also require a certain amount of technical ability and resources as well. Here are my thoughts on how this game goes from being a decent boardgame with a ton of recordkeeping to a fun, fast, enjoyable game:
  1. Easy tracking of plotted routes for TF missions. For almost every mission in the game other than Intercept and Abort, you are required to plot path right up to when the TF returns to port. Since your plot may change as a result of ships not able to do what they want for a variety of reasons (weather, damage, etc), if something changes you have to erase the entire plot and re-enter it. If you have a 70 turn game where the weather turns particularly bad early and requires you to move one space per turn instead of two, you have to re-enter the plot for the entire game. What would make this about 1000 times better would be to use strategic planning maps where you simply plot the route and the planned speed. Suddenly, the whole thing takes five minutes to do and you never need to fuss with it. 
  2. Fuel tracking. I understand why everything is done in 1/24ths of a fuel point, as otherwise ships that now have ten points would need 240, and that would be an issue. However, fuel as it stands is a massive pain in the ass. If you figure it out for every destroyer in your 15 ship TF, it can take forever, and if you use an oiler to get fuel back, you have to erase close to 100 boxes if you rescaled the points. I used the campaign log to keep track of how many fuel points each TF used each turn, and it helped, but it needs to be incorporated into the game rather than left to the individual to figure out.
  3. Ship records. These are supplied as either part of the game-specific scenario booklet, or as a separate booklet altogether if there are a lot of scenarios. What would really be useful is to have these in a form where you could either get them organized by task force (my preference) rather than having to wade through 12 pages of sheets printed from the PDFs that APL supplies. Unfortunately, when you have ships that have taken damage, you have to refer to the printed record to see if they still have all of their gunnery factors, etc. 
  4. Easier aircraft handling. Aircraft come in two-step counters, but the rules constantly refer to "aircraft". Whether that means a counter, a group, or a step, is often a little unclear. To make matters worse, the aircraft status sheets have small boxes that aren't big enough to separate out the various types for a given base/carrier, and they are close together. The risk of tipping over units (and losing track of how many steps you have on board) or mixing them up is very high. 
  5. Scoring. When every aircraft step generated points, but they may or may not come back over the course of the game, it can be difficult to remember how many points were scored when and where, not to mention how you're doing in comparison to your opponent.
  6. Sequence of play in subsystems. It can be hard to remember all of the steps you're supposed to go through when flying an airstrike, or who does what when when it's time to place search markers. Having these listed out (rather than in "conversational" form as the rules do most of the time) would be very helpful. 
Fortunately, it's not difficult to fix all of these problems simply by allowing a computer to do most of the work for you. 18xx players have used custom software to manage their stock prices for years, and that's *nothing* compared to tracking info in GWaS/SWWaS. However, APL guards it's IP in a rather, ahem, manic fashion, and it doesn't allow *any* electronic versions of it's games (such as VASSAL, Cyberboard, Sun Tzu) unless it already gives it away for free, as it does with a demo scenario available on it's website. VASSAL would be the perfect way to do this, as it would allow secrecy and data tracking in a very simple form. Hit a ship with a torp? Roll the die and the necessary factors are immediately modified accordingly, including scoring. Shoot down an airplane step? The unit flips, the kill goes to the Aircraft Salvage box, and the factors change. Playing this game on paper is hard work - making it electronic would be much better. 

So since APL won't help, the next best thing is to come up with VASSAL software (or custom software, although that's much more work) that will allow two players to play the game face-to-face but with laptops to manage the data. You have a map to keep track of where your forces are, where they're plotted to move, and will allow you to do on-the-fly plotting for those TFs on intercept missions and those that have aborted, and if something delays the schedule you don't have to do anything different, just don't move the unit as far. Click on a set of ships from a list and you have an instant TF record sheet that you use to mark off which things have changed. Aircraft management is now much easier, as you can have separate windows for each base and aircraft, and it automatically remembers which base it works out of. You can even keep better track of which aircraft are on what missions, as now the game only allows tracking search, CAP, and ASW missions but not the ad hoc ones. 

Sure, this requires you to have a handy computer or laptop, actually two (one for each side), but that's less and less of an issue. While I don't think that you're going to use an iPhone for this sort of thing any time in the future (the map alone would be insane), pretty much everyone reading this *does* have a computer, and a laptop would take up less space than the tracking sheets and data sheets you need to play the game as it is. And, frankly, I'm thinking about *my* enjoyment of the game, and I *do* own a laptop. 

The obvious starting point is to use VASSAL, as it covers quite a bit of the existing data structures you'd need - counters, maps, and a wide variety of windows, plus context specific popup menus for different game elements. In live play, you could use the map in VASSAL for plotting, but move TFs on the physical operational map. You could skip the tac map entirely, as you set that up anew every time that TF is attacked. The scenario-specific ship damage charts would be a trickier proposition, but at worst you write separate software for it and run it alongside VASSAL. Heck, with VASSAL you don't even have to worry about platform dependencies.

Heck, APL could produce this and ship the module along with the game for very little cost. The art is already digital for them, you'd still need the physical game to play, and all you need is a CD in the box (or better, a code to allow a download of the specific module for your boxed game). Players who already own the game could get access with some proof of purchase, or even just give them direct access since the game would be nearly impossible to play without the counters and tac map. 

If I were a game publisher, my primary concern would be (after making sure that I put food on the table and a reasonable effort to ensure that no one was stealing my product) to know that people were playing and enjoying my game. Avalanche, unlike companies like GMT, MMP, and several others, don't seem to think that this is nearly as important as making sure that no one, and I mean *no* one, not even a single person, rips them off. Yet companies like GMT do quite well with more or less every game they've ever made available for online play via a wide variety of sources. Even their rules are online, and some games you can play entirely using VASSAL and what they make available. The simple truth is that wargamers understand that their hobby is dependent upon continued sales, and I know not a single wargamer who plays a VASSAL game without owning the boxed version as well. Not one. 

This may be a good project for me to undertake, although I won't be able to advertise that I have such a module available, much less distribute it beyond my ftf opponents. However, if I can show APL that such a proof of concept would fit their data model, I think that maybe, just maybe, this game may start to see the amount of play it deserves. Because, despite the appallingly large number of "what if" scenarios the various game sets use to pad the product line, it's a very cool game made difficult by the recordkeeping requirements. 

Friday, March 06, 2009

Watchmen - Watched.

Moore and Gibbon's Watchmen is among the best graphic novels of all time. Published in the mid-80's during the height of not only the Cold War but also the Reagan years, Moore's story of an alternate timeline where costumed heroes not only were real, but had significant effects on history (Nixon is still in office, for starters) takes on the America of that time in a very similar way to how he took on Margaret Thatcher's UK with V for Vendetta. Of all of the comic books I own, this is the one I will go back and reread every few years.

So it was, some months ago, that when my wife and I saw the first preview for the film version of Watchmen, I knew that this would be a Major Cultural Event for me. When my daughter's SO suggested we go see it at one of the midnight showings, I grudgingly went along for the ride, knowing that I hadn't stayed up until 2am (other than the occasional New Year's Eve) in years, and this puppy was going to take me to close to 4am after the drive home. 

Warning: I'm gonna spoil a few things in this review. If you haven't seen the movie, haven't read the graphic novel, or want to be surprised by what's in the movie (if you can after the constant media commentary on what's the same and what's different), stop reading now. 

Second warning: I'm coming at this as not only a fan of the book, and thus predisposed to liking the film, but also as someone who owns several thousand comic books in eleven "long" boxes, despite not having collected for 13 years. My tastes ran from the standard super-hero stuff in the mid-80's into the launch and success of the Vertigo line from DC, which included some very cutting edge stuff (it's where Neil Gaiman got his start doing Sandman). I will try to give my wife's perspective (who never did read the book), but for the most part my POV is that of someone who had good familiarity with the book. 

I won't go over the plot, as that's why you go see the film or read the book, right? I will deal with the look of the film, the use of music, the acting, and how closely the producer stuck to the original story.

First up, the look. Part of the problem with comic books is that it's very difficult to get a three-dimensional look with pen and ink drawings with color fills and a bit of shading. While the artists for comics have done an amazing job over the years of exceeding the medium, the core problem remains that if you want to do a film treatment of a comic-book property, you need to take care. It's a bit ironic, as films are storyboarded in the early part of the process, which look pretty much like comic books. 

What that leaves is the opportunity for artists to play with perspective, something that was a hallmark of the graphic novel. Originally presented in 12 issues as a "maxi-series," a novel concept back in the day (although not for Watchmen, as there had been many four or six issue "mini-series" out by the time it was published), each issue started with an image that you weren't going to understand at first, but as the perspective pulled back, both literally and figuratively, the core theme of each issue became clear. The other wonderful thing about graphic novels is that there are no technological limitations other than the medium itself - there are certainly graphic novels out there that used painted images (or other media), although the release schedule more than anything dictates the quick and dirty approach I mention above. As such, every filmmaker who wants to achieve a comic book feel has to find ways to evoke a rather different approach to storytelling, and will be challenged by some of the visual effects in a graphic novel if they choose a literalist approach.

At some point in developing this property, a decision was made: why produce a storyboard when they already *had* one? For those familiar with the book, you can see the various panels in the mind's eye reproduced almost verbatim. Remember when van Sant redid Psycho, shot for shot? It was a bit like that, with the exception that Zack Snyder wasn't reproducing a movie, but rather the early parts of the movie. The result is a film that evokes the same feeling as the graphic novel as no film I've ever seen. I understand that 300 did this to a large extent, although I had not seen the graphic novel in that case. 

The other decision, again used in 300 (overused in my opinion) was the use of slow motion fight scenes. Snyder extends some of the fight scenes from the comic book into the movie, and uses the slow-quick-quick-slow style that he's famous for. Personally, short of having onomatopoeic bubbles appear over the footage ("Pow!" "Bam!"), I think this is an admirable way of giving a graphic novel frame separation, and I felt that the scenes were all just as long as they needed to be. There have been a lot of complaints in the press that the movie would have been shorter (it's nearly 3 hours) without all of the slo-mo, but I disagree. There's maybe 10 minutes of fighting in the entire film. Compare with 300, where the fighting was a good quarter of the film and got old fast. 

Several years ago, there was an excellent example of what happens when you try to be too faithful to a property when translating it to film. The first was Fellowship of the Ring, which took a very long and complex story (and only the first third of it!) and adapted it marvelously. I would argue that FotR was more successful in this endeavor than the other two movies, especially in the 4 hour extended version on DVD. The counterexample was the first of the Harry Potter films, which we found so poorly paced and dull that we left an hour into the movie - something I haven't done in decades. There, the problem was that a book has no limits on how the story arc progresses, and as an "origins" book that was more episodic than plot-driven (the intent being to introduce us to the world of Harry Potter), the movie was terrible.

In this case, I think that because the original property, because of it's form, lent itself to direct imitation, the result was much more successful. Why mess with what is already a very good story in a very good form? Much of what made Watchmen such a great book was Gibbon's art and perspective, and to merely evoke it would have resulted in a lesser product. 

And here's the thing: when you take a beloved franchise like Watchmen and put it into a new form, you are going to anger some people, you are going to thrill some people, and no matter what you do that's going to be the situation. Some will say that Snyder was lazy, but again, I think that when you already have a great vision in place, why mess with it? I personally enjoyed recognizing frames from the book. Almost every character looked astonishingly like their graphic counterpart to a loving level of detail. 

That isn't so say that many parts of the novel weren't cut, they were. The change in the ending, for example, was necessitated by the original requiring several mentions of actors on an island, cloning efforts, all sorts of things that were needed to make people think that there had been a botched invasion by giant squids from space. There's even a scene (whether homage or due to changed plans) where you see Adrian Veidt standing in front of a device with the acronym SQUID, which completely led me astray. I felt that the change to make the manufactured villain Manhattan was a good choice and was actually an improvement on the graphic novel in some ways (it would certainly be a lot easier to pull off, that's for sure). 

There were two other elements that needed to be dealt with: the ECC-ish Pirate Comic parallel story, and the backstory, told largely through book excerpts, magazine articles, and other non-graphic devices in the back pages of the series. The first was ignored completely, aside from a couple of "cameos" by the news vendor and the kid reading the comic. It was both a simile to the main story and a tribute to the horror comics of the 50's, and leaving it out was an obvious and good choice. The core message of the book, that we are all essentially savages that are incapable of long-term good without someone watching us, but then who will watch *them*, came across very strongly for me in the film without things getting preachy, and I felt it wasn't necessary here, especially as the homage wouldn't have worked as well in translation. The flipside of that core message, of course, is that good things do come out of bad, even terrible acts. The struggle between moral certainty driving an ethos of the ends justifying the means and a more liberal sensibility trying desperately not to become that which you despise is wonderfully presented, and in the end it's the latter that seems to win out. Rorschach doesn't commit suicide in forcing Jon to kill him because he wants to, it's because he has no other choice. He knows deep down that he *must* stay with his mission because he knows no other way, and that he himself must be killed to keep him from telling the world about what he knows. In that sense, it is Rorschach's approach that wins. 

It's a timely topic, seeing as we've gone through eight years of an American Presidency that felt the ends justified the means on an increasingly less critical set of problems. The result, at least according the American electorate, seems to have swung the other way, but there is always a situation on the horizon where massive destruction and death is the best-case scenario and we can't afford to refuse the hard solution when it is also the best one. In the meantime, however, we need to realize that the hard solution needs to be considered very carefully and undertaken for the right reasons, assuming you have the objectivity to see all of that clearly. I hope I never find myself in that position.

The backstory was dealt with in large part through a brilliant series of scenes and images from the history of costumed crimefighters, giving just enough back-story to why the current heroes aren't active, as well as the craziness of the various people who were attracted to the vocation. Most of these characters are given very short shrift in the book, and the same goes here. You have little information on most of them other than the handful that are involved in the current story, such as mention of the Moth Man guy (whatever his name was) ending up in a mental institution. I was quite satisfied with this part of the story as well, as the critical parts of the backstory are presented as they were in the book, as part of the graphic novel front story through various recollections at appropriate times. There aren't many other ways this complex story could have been presented, another good reason to stick religiously to the story as originally presented.

As I mentioned above, the look of the actors was pretty much perfect, other than Sally Jupiter (she looked great in the "old" scenes, not so much in the "present day"). I would have preferred that Jon's voice was deeper - Billy Crudup did a fantastic job, mind you, but someone with that much power needed a more powerful voice. Laurie Jupiter's portrayer (sorry, I don't have a cast list handy) was the weakest of the cast, although she looked great in the slo-mo scenes. The guy playing Daniel captured his character down to the individual gesture, not easy when it's such a complex role in a complex story with a large cast. Adrian Veidt felt a bit Andy Warhol-ish (and there's a great nod to him during the credits), and my wife felt that he struggled with his accent (he's a native German), and he wasn't as much the Golden Boy as in the book, at least in terms of looks, although both characters were very slim and had strength that belied their appearance. 

The Oscar, however, goes to Rorschach, both the actor playing him when in costume (again, it was like seeing the comic brought to life), and the one playing him "without his face". Hrm. Was this the same guy who played the coonskin-capped bully in A Christmas Story? While it's arguable that he didn't look as much like the original book's character, at least as an adult, both his voice and his acting caught the character completely. I did find the constantly shifting mask a little on the distracting side, preferring to have it shift as he moved rather than just shift for the sake of shifting (in the book, the mask is made of a novelty fabric and is nothing particularly high-tech). There were also a handful of scenes with Jon where I felt that his image was a little too two-dimensional, especially in his first scene where he's in the background. 

This is a good time to mention the various "cameos" of famous people from the era - Lee Iacocca (not in the book), Nixon (in the book), Kissinger, Kennedy, Ted Koppel, etc. As in the novel, there's a lot going on in the background, and this movie will reward repeated viewings as you see all of the various twists on commercial products, locations, and services. 

The final element to be added to the film was, of course, a soundtrack. For the most part, I found the music to be extremely fitting, often adding commentary (as one would expect from a Greek chorus). Music in film is intended to both set the emotional mood as well as reinforce and cue events. Much will be made of the choice to use Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" during the (admittedly too long) sex scene aboard Archie, but I disagree with the critics who say that it was misused throughout the film. As someone with an advanced music degree, I like to think I may have a better appreciation for this aspect of film over most critics, and indeed Hollywood tends to bear me out, especially in their use of non-period keyboard instruments in every Jane Austin adaptation out there. And don't get me started on "The Piano," the music for which completely ruined this film for me. No, Watchmen, for the most part, did just fine with the music with few exceptions. OK, the Requiem Aeterna from the Mozart setting of the Requiem Mass at the end was a little over the top. At the time, it seemed OK, though.

My wife enjoyed the film almost as much as I did, although her drama degree gives her some insights into acting that I don't always catch, and she was correct in saying that Laurie Jupiter's portrayer was a poor choice (just about anyone would look right in that wig and costume), and that Adrian Veidt's accent got in the way from time to time (and he was slightly less believable that the rest of the exceptional cast). These are fine points, however, and the *really* tough stuff to adapt to film went as it should have - Jon's minute facial expression changes, Daniel's mild-manneredness out of his costume (not a cover, as with Superman, but rather his real personality), Rorschach's power, passion, and awareness of the limits and freedom through a simplified morality. In the end, these are the major characters, the one Moore put time, love, and pieces of himself into, and they came off magnificently. 

There was a note in the review in the Oregonian today that said that Zack Snyder had trouble directing women, using 300 as evidence. I would instead say simply that he hasn't had a property that gives the women anything to *do*, much less a cast that would do much with it. In both films, appearance trumped acting (not surprising given the faithfulness to the original story form), and when he *does* get a movie that has strong women characters, we'll see how he does then. The critique strikes me as telling me I'm not a great singer because I don't sound like a soprano (the range, not the crime family). 

I'll end by giving a shout out to Cinetopia, the venue we drove 45 minutes to see the film in. The place was hopping, showing the movie on pretty much every screen they had. It was nice to have an alternative to the virtual Regal Cinema monopoly they enjoy in Portland, and having someone take a food and drink order? Very cool, even if two burgers, a wrap, nachos, and three drinks ended up costing $80. Before the tip. I took two sips of Mel's small coke at what I figure was about a dollar worth of pop. I've learned not to drink anything at a movie as my bladder slowly shrinks to the size of a quarter, but I've also learned that if I was going to stay awake long enough for the drive home I was gonna need some carbs. I did smell the damned pasta salad through the whole movie. 

The best part of the theater was that you had reclining chairs, plenty of room (think first class seating on an airplane as opposed to coach at most theaters), and ottomans to put your feet on. For me, that made the high cost of the food worthwhile, although I don't know if I could have spent $7 on a slice of pizza. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I think that Jake and I will go see the new Star Trek movie at a midnight showing at Cinetopia when it comes out.

I'd also like to thank my espresso machine, which produced a single shot of espresso (leaded) consumed at 10:30pm that saw me through to 4am. I could not have driven home without you, much less stayed awake through the entire movie. Or woken up at 9am this morning. I'm gonna need a nap.

I think The Incredibles (and maybe also The Dark Knight) just got bumped off of the pedestal for Best Superhero Movie Ever. I'm definitely going to wait and get the six-disc Super Deluxe Happy Face Edition of the DVD once it comes out. 

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Luck In The Afternoon

One of the few bright spots about moving south to Wilsonville has been being close to not only Jesse's Hobbytown USA store, but also to Jesse. While it's been a spotty schedule at times, we've been making time to play games regularly on Wednesday afternoons while our respective wives are working. So far we've gotten in a game of Storm Over Stalingrad and last week was a big Combat Commander scenario. This week, another CC:E scenario as well as an "Advance" game of Through the Ages, the first time I've played this to completion. 

Our CC:E scenario was another US vs Germany, this time with the US as the defender, trying to hold a small but pointy hill with a limited number of units, as well as a disabled "tank" (represented by a bunker, a howitzer, and a .50 cal MG). I've played this before, and know that the important thing is to control the damned hill, as the scenario can fly by if you aren't careful. IIRC, this is scenario #11 in the base game.

Of course, having played before I immediately put the tank in a poor position. You don't want to put things too far forward, as there will be trouble if the Germans swarm past your position and start exiting the map, so I foolishly placed it one hex away from where it should have gone, thus giving the Germans a lot of excellent cover out of LOS of the big gun. A dumb move on my part, but I did a lot of that on this particular gaming day. 

Jesse placed his units so that there would be only one hex I could fire at, at least until he got to the hill objective, and he only needed to move into it because it was an objective (although one that never ended up scoring points). My units on the hill in their foxhole started getting shot up badly very early, and I'm sure I lost my leader in the area after only a couple of attacks, and the Line team (with yet another unused satchel charge, I seem to have a problem with these) was lost not long after. The squad held for a while, and got the benefit of a Hero (which also recovered that unit), but it eventually was lost as well, leaving only Lucas, American Hero in the hex against the rapidly approaching Germans. 

To make matters worse, I saw very few Move cards in this game, at least in my hand. I'm pretty sure I went for something like 20 draws without a Move card, and while I built up four squads and a leader in my backfield, they never even made it to the objective hill on the map. On the plus side, I did draw at least two Time! triggers within ten cards of the start of my deck, which gave Jesse relatively little time to work with. I also managed to get him to turn over the Initiative card about halfway in when the squad on the hill drew a defensive roll of 11 (he needed a 10 to survive), and I chose to keep the Initiative rather than take the low odds of rerolling. 

In the end, Jesse was literally knocking on the door of my objective when I managed to draw the Time! trigger that forced a Sudden Death roll, and sure enough I made it without having to redraw. My good friend Chuck believes that you hang onto that Initiative card for dear life unless you absolutely *must* use it to avoid losing the game, and this game showed just how important it was. While it was nice for Jesse to get that squad killed, it wasn't critical at the time, and in fact it helped me ensure the game would end when it did. 

This was a very quick game for us (about an hour!), so rather than pull out another CC scenario, we decided to play Through The Ages, which I spent some time earlier this week learning solitaire as so many people in Rip City Gamers are learning to love it. My first encounter was playing Chris, where I fell behind quickly in terms of military strength, and Chris constantly played Aggression cards to make me fall behind further. Jesse had played the Simple game several times, and we felt we had just enough time for the Advanced game rather than the Full game, and that was pretty much dead on. 

This time, I decided to have a strong military, which I accomplished, being "strongest" for nearly the entire game other than a brief run by Jesse near the end when I sacrificed nearly the entire army to gain a colony (worth 4 culture points through an Age III random event in addition to 4 strength), but came back quickly, which was important because the biggest army was worth another 10 culture. 

What I struggled with was Ideas. I never seemed to get the chance to buy into a tech that would give me more than the two measly lightbulbs from my initial Lab tech. I picked up a Drama tech early, but never got around to playing it. I'm fairly certain at one point that I moved Jesse's Idea marker up the track instead of my own, but by then I'd already "gone back" to produce resources and food on at least one occasion (with some skepticism by Jesse, although I'm quite sure that I'd forgotten), and decided if I couldn't remember to do things correctly, I wouldn't try to "fix" it once the other person was taking their turn. To my mind, that's the most problematic part of the game, as it relies on the players to remember to do all this *other* stuff after you've taken what can be a rather involved turn. 

In the end, I did manage to win thanks to the army, but felt that I definitely needed to work on the science side of things more in the next game. The thing that won the game for me, however, was my choice of first age leader: Columbus. I drew a Military card that had a territory that added three population to your set, which meant a lot of people for relatively cheap prices, and I used them to great effect. Better, I didn't have to fight for the colony as Columbus lets you take one colony from your hand for free, so I didn't have to wait for it to go through the Event deck first. 

I did get a lot of Raid military cards, but decided against using them as we both were fairly close in terms of strength (usually two points difference as the game went on). As it turned out, we were both holding Defense/Colonize cards for most of the game, so that was probably a pretty good idea. Considering that I had very little tech (I bumped up resource production, and that was *it*), only added two military tech cards (knights and swordsmen), and one special tech (Civics, which gave me an extra civil action), and never improved past Despotism, I felt that things went pretty well. I did pull Hanging Gardens, which was helpful in keeping my populace happy, something Jesse fought against in the late game, although my increased population made it so that I didn't have to think about it much as the game went on.

One other lesson for me, aside from the light bulbs: Don't take a card into your hand unless you can use it right away, or else you intend to play it (and *can* play it - those damned light bulbs screwed me up every time) and won't see many more of them (government and miltech cards especially). I got caught with four cards I couldn't get out of my hand, all of which needed ideas to play, and with only two ideas a turn it took forever to get them out. 

While I still believe that this game can have a huge downtime problem unless you have experienced players (or use a timer, which I'd consider with some opponents - not Jesse, he was fine), and I'm leery about playing with more than two. Fortunately, there's a pretty good VASSAL module online that I tried out today. While it won't support solitaire play (boo!), it seems to be a decent interface and one that I'd use if anyone else in my group a little more remote was interested in trying. 

Other than that, it's a brilliant game. There's a ton of things to think about, and a few conceptual humps to get over (the whole tech vs worker thing really threw me for my first game, and it took me forever to figure out that your urban building limit applied to workers on cards, not to cards), but it's a great game. Jesse gave me the update kit to the third edition (mine is second), which has larger play mats (with different colors?!?!?), stickers to fix the scoring track (who cares), and linen finish cards that don't seem as hefty as the ones that came with my game. In all, I'll probably keep the set I have unless I feel like trashing the insert in the box and bagging everything. 

This is one I'll push to play in the evening at WBC, and I don't think I'll have trouble finding partners. 

Thanks to Jesse for having a poor bored retired guy over to game, even if I do say, "Help, help, I'm being suppressed!" every time I have to put the marker on a unit in CC. Really, it's a compulsion.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Who Watches The Watchmen?

Who watches the Watchmen? That would be us at midnight Thursday (going into Friday) with my daughter and her SO. The look of this film, based on the trailers I've seen, is nothing short of amazing, and may end up being the best superhero film EVAH (previous holder of the title: The Incredibles). However, it's a complex and chewy series, and I fully expect both the pirate comic book and the Golden Age heroes backstories to be minimized in order to fit the rest into a two hour film. 

I will put up a full review on Friday after I get up at noon. Regardless, if you ever enjoyed superhero comic books or films, I strongly recommend you check out the graphic novel, originally published in 1986. I started collecting comic books again at that time, and kick myself for not picking up Watchmen because it was two or three issues in. My guess is they'd be worth around $100 for the set even in Very Good condition, even though the series has been collected and published repeatedly in the past 23 years. I even got a hardcopy for my father-in-law for Christmas this year, although I don't know if he's read it or not. 


Tuesday Gaming

Chris and I had swapped our Tuesday session weeks because of a trip he was taking, so I once again hosted. This time, we had a plethora of gamers - Mike, Matt G, Alex, his friend Michael (what is up with the M names!), Ken C (for Corvallis) and myself. Mike, Matt, and Michael played Alhambra followed by Ticket to Ride, Santa Edition, while Ken, Alex, and myself played California, Schnaeppen Jagd, and Zooloretto. 

The snack? M&Ms, of course. 

I'd never played California before, but had heard good things from people, especially considering that it was one of Tanga's "specials" which are usually utter crap. As it turned out, this is a clever little game. You play someone who inherited a run-down mansion in California somewhere, and your goal is to renovate it to attract your rather shallow neighbors so that they will bring you gifts. There are 12 rounds in which players may take $5 from the bank (revolving credit?) or buy a renovation or new furniture from one of the stores. The renovation/furniture costs as many $s as there are gold coins in the bank, so if you buy something early in the round it's $4, later it can get as low as $1. If you are renovating, you must also pay the amount of $ showing on the square in your home that you're placing it on, so a single tile can cost as much as $6, although usually it's much cheaper. When one of the two stores or the bank runs out of whatever it is they stock, the round ends, the remaining goods are discarded, and everything is refilled from the stocks. 

If you buy furniture, you must either place it on a matching renovated room tile (you don't pay the "extra" costs once you've renovated that space), or put it in your attic. You also attract one of your neighbors, who will bring a gift if there is another neighbor visiting. I can only imagine this is because they don't want to appear cheap to their other friends, but since you're new it's not so important! There are points for each gift you get, for each space in your home that's been renovated, and bonus points for getting specific groups of furniture tiles, or for furnishing specific types of tiles (three furnished red tiles, for example). 

As you can imagine, the fun is in trying to decide if you should take money, which makes it cheaper for others to buy things, or to take out a loan to grab something *now* before someone else gets it, or if you should try to end the round knowing your opponents will get first pick of the eight new goods in the store. Twelve rounds sounds like a lot, but the game moves along very quickly, and while you'll need to spend some time figuring out what your opponents are collecting, at the same time the game is tactical enough that the decisions aren't too agonizing. 

I managed to win my first game, beating out Alex and Ken by nabbing an extra bonus tile for three points. Part of my strategy was in taking loans when I really wanted something, and it paid off over time, even though I took out three loans (meaning I had $3 less to work with over the course of the game). Of course, *when* you have the money is at least as important as *if* you have the money, which I'm pretty sure was the difference (I was the only person taking loans). This is a fun, fast, light game and one I'd play with non-gamers. However, while I thought that my wife might enjoy it because there is decorating, I think that she'd just get upset that she couldn't arrange the furniture any way she wanted (every room type will connect to all the other tiles of that room type, and you can't move things around - actually, this sounds like Heaven to me, since I won't have to shift that coffee table another micrometer only to be told I moved it too much!)

With three players, I wanted to get in a game of Schnaeppen Jagd, or Bargain Hunter, as it's at it's best with three. The game has never been published in an English rules edition, which astonishes me - it's a great game and there's nothing else like it. The deck is made up of six suits (colors), and each suit has 18 cards ranging from 1 to 9, two of each. There are also two Super Bargain cards. In the game, you get eight cards dealt from the deck, and for the first round (only) you pick one to place face up in front of you as your "bargain" pile. As you take tricks in each round, you put the cards that match your bargain in that pile, while the rest go face down in your "odds and ends" pile. 

The trick taking part of the game is fairly straight forward with three exceptions. You have to follow suit if you can, but otherwise you can play what you like, and the winner of the trick leads the next card. If you can't follow suit, you may declare the suit you played to be trump or not, as you wish, but only if no one else has called trump. If you play the same card as someone before you played (a yellow 9, for example), you can declare that card to be above or below the previous card. Finally, you can play the Super Bargain card anytime you wish regardless of whether or not you can follow suit, and the first of these played in a trick will win that trick with no exceptions. 

Once all of the tricks have been taken for the round, you can go through your odds and ends stack and choose one group of numbered cards (for example, the 4's) to discard. Three go to a discard pile, which is shuffled once everyone has chosen their odds and ends to get rid of, then placed under the deck. Any cards over three that you have go instead to your bargain pile, and you will be collecting *these* cards in the next round, not the old ones. As such, you may be collecting more than just what's in your bargain pile so that you'll have lots of those cards in your odds and ends to put in your bargain pile at the end of the round. Since one number is known to all but the others are secret (odds and ends are face down), it makes for a very interesting game.

With three players, you play six rounds, and in the last round you can discard/collect from two different numbers (e.g.; 2 and 8). Add up all the cards in your bargain pile, one point per card, and subtract all of the cards in your odds and ends pile, one point per card. Whoever has the highest total wins the game. In our game, I cleaned up with 8 points total, compared to 1 and -1 for Ken and Alex respectively. It helps to have played this game a few times, but with only eight cards per hand it's not too hard to make decisions. Given that with six suits it's almost a given that people will have voids in their hands from the start, you never know if a 9 will win out or not as an initial lead. Again, highly recommended if you can find a copy.

Last up was Zooloretto, which is still my favorite of the "loretto" games, and I haven't even tried any of the variants yet! Like California, timing is everything, and deciding how to spend the money element (especially putting critters you know someone else will want into your barn) takes this from a very light games in it's initial form of Coloretto and makes it much more strategic. I ended with four full pens, one of every concession, one pen with three of five animals, and one critter type in my barn. Alex, however, did exactly the same but had nothing in his barn, one less concession type, and four critters in that last pen, winning by two points over me. It always amazes me that such a seemingly light game in the early rounds becomes a min/max contest in the end, deciding how to use your money with the limited number of actions you have and choosing which truck to put a given tile into to poison other people's obvious selections. 

And to think that I almost passed this one by solely because I didn't think that a simple card game could be improved as much as this one was, especially since it got put into a large box and cost five times as much. The truth is that it's worth every penny. I've only played Aquaretto once, and didn't feel like I had as much say in my own destiny, but Zooloretto will have a place on my gaming table for a long, long time. 

Thanks to everyone who came and played games, it was nice to have a full house. Next Tuesday session is at Matt's, followed by Chris. Next month we'll go back to the original rotation, so it will be six weeks until I host a Tuesday again.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fixing The Economy In Oregon

Oregon is looking at a $311,000,000 budget shortfall this year, and that's after the economic stimulus money from the Feds. Things are bad enough that they are talking about asking teachers to go without pay for 10 days, among many other things. Seeing as taking money *away* from people doesn't really help the economy too much, it occurs to me that there is one thing we could do that would help. 

Legalize pot. 

It's simple, really. You throw a good-sized tax on the product. Given that it generated an estimated $35.8 billion dollars in 2005, as much as the number 2 and number 4 crops combined (corn and hay), there's clearly a demand. 

Think of the side benefits as well. If people who smoke pot are no longer criminals, you get a lot of people out of jails, and thus less of a burden on the budget. You also save the money and effort the legal system devotes to enforcing this particularly outdated law. 

60 Minutes had a segment this evening that discussed how Mexico is being taken over by the drug cartels. Pot is one of three drugs cited as part of the problem (the others are coke and meth, neither of which I am advocating legalization for as it would create more problems than it solves), so taking a third of that business out of the equation makes the problem that much better. Mexican drug cartels have been identified as the largest organized crime problem in the US, so we have a clear and present interest in making things better on this front. 

For those who say that the government shouldn't be pushing drugs, we already do. The biggest contributers to the various "anti-drug" organizations are, as you might expect, the tobacco and alcohol lobbies. By almost any measure, pot is a "better" recreational drug than both of these licit drugs. Not to mention the therapeutic benefits for people with loss of appetite, as well as other conditions like glaucoma. 

Pot, like many recreational drugs, was given a bad rap early in the 20th Century for many reasons, but primarily because powerful business interests in the US did not want hemp competing with tree pulp as a prime source for paper. Now it's the licit drug producers that want to avoid more competition. As with so many other things, there is money to be made, but who gets that money is the question. With so much opposition and effort to avoid more "sin" taxes (Oregon is currently considering raising the miniscule beer tax, which the industry is fighting tooth and nail despite it not having been raised in 40 years), bringing a new revenue stream on a product that many people already pay for (and has no tax paid on it at all) seems like a no-brainer. 

Who would fight this? People who don't like any recreational drug use, of course, although pot certainly has a much lower per capita social cost than alcohol, which kills a quarter million Americans a year (pot has never been shown to kill a single person through simple use). It also doesn't screw with your judgement centers, which is why there's no Mothers Against Stoned Drivers. 

Besides the alcohol and tobacco industry, the other big loser is the current producers, who don't have to pay taxes on their product and can demand a premium on the black market. However, bringing these people into legitimate businesses (Oregon produces a *lot* of the pot grown in the US) would generate a considerable amount of tax for the state, and they could offer them all amnesty for any pre-illegal production crimes. My guess is something on the order of $100 million a year could be generated in Oregon alone through full legalization. 

An estimated one in six Americans smoke pot on a regular basis. It isn't corrupting your children, it isn't making minorities rape white women, it isn't a bane of civilization. It's a recreational drug, like caffeine, processed sugar, alcohol, nicotine, and chocolate. In the Netherlands, it's sold in coffeehouses. In New Mexico and Oregon, it's legal for medical use. 

The time to legalize the drug is now when our economy is at the lowest point it's been in decades. We even have a president in office who might just not scream bloody murder and sic the DEA on the state. Let's stop mistaking illegality for immorality or danger. After all, there's money to be made.

For those of you with even vaguely open minds on this subject, I strongly recommend you consult the Consumer's Union Guide To Licit And Illicit Drugs, which you can find at any bookstore. I especially urge you to read the entire book if you have pre-teen or older children for obvious reasons. The simple truth is that pot is about as benign a drug as we have out there, and to ignore what's already the biggest cash crop in the country as a revenue source strikes me as particularly dunderheaded.