Thursday, May 28, 2009

Look Into My Crystal Ball...

I'm going to make a few predictions:
  • Prophecy isn't going to make it out onto the table much with my group.
  • It will make it out more often than Talisman.
  • Mike won't play it.
  • I could be wrong, I often am. Let's examine the facts.
JD and Alex came over on Tuesday night, and JD was kind enough to allow Alex and I to exercise our old-skool love of one of the most infamous board games ever, Talisman, except in this case we weren't playing Talisman but instead Prophecy. Designed by the same Czech who did Galaxy Trucker and Through The Ages, Prophecy is definitely a bit of a throwback to Talisman-type games, but in some ways better (and in some ways not quite as interesting). 

We played the Z-Man games edition, which cleans a lot of stuff up from the original, or at least so I'm informed. 

The game is played on a star-shaped board that is really a big circle scrunched up to make room for the various spaces and card decks. Unlike Talisman, where you move according to a die roll (but can go in either direction, or spend Fate points in the new edition to alter the roll), you are moving in one of four ways: moving one space in either direction, moving from Port to adjacent Port (printed on the map, about six spaces away from each other) for a gold, moving two spaces for a gold, or paying two gold to move from Magic Portal to Magic Portal (three on the board). 

The board spaces are one of four types: plains, mountain, forest, or civilized (blue). The Civilized spaces won't end up with adventure cards on them, plus they have special actions you can take on them. Some of the Civilized spaces are Guilds, where your character can spend XP to buy various Abilities that give you special mutant powers that change over the course of the game. 

Like Talisman, you have to encounter adventures in the non-civilized spaces of the board, and they come in combat and "possibility" varieties where you fight the critters first then get to use the possibility, although in Prophecy the possibility goes away after you use it (and you have to actually get some gain from it in order to use it, so you can't "heal" if you're health is already maxed, for example). Combat is almost identical to Talisman, except that if you want to force a physical battle to become a Willpower battle, you have to spend two of your Willpower points to do so, thus lowering your own starting total. The biggest difference is in how the adventures are seeded - every turn players turn over Chance cards and some of these seed the various types of spaces (mountains, plains, forests). If there are already two cards in a space, it's full up and you don't put another card there. The initial card is placed face up, so you'll always know at least one card in a space but you might not know the second.

Unlike Talisman, there are only really two "tiers" on the board, and the second tier is a set of five Astral Plane locations that can be accessed from a handful of spots on the board. You "move" to these spaces by starting in the adjacent spaces, then using your movement to attack the two guardians in the AP space, one at a time. Like in Talisman, you begin with a set amount of Health and Willpower, and want to bump it up as the game goes on in order to be able to fight these guardians, as the entire goal of the game is to collect the artifacts that they guard. Normally you need to collect four of the five artifacts to win, but we played the Weenie Short Game variant that only requires two artifacts to win, thus eliminating the whole "Final Battle" part of the game that looks a *lot* like the end of Monsters Ravage/Attack/Rampage/Sexually Compromise America.

Also unlike Talisman, the game is arranged so that as you lose Health and Willpower, those values drop as well. For example, you might start with 4 Health, but lose a fight with a Mummy, thus one of your red cubes shifts to the left of your character sheet, and now you only have 3 Health. There are lots of ways of getting this back, but sometimes it will take a little more time than you wished it to. If you are ever in a situation where you can't move a Health to the left side of your sheet, you die. There are rules for starting over, a la Talisman, but the real point is not to let yourself get into that position, and it's not hard to do. 

There is some character-based combat if you wish to engage in it, but as the losing character can choose to either lose one health or let the winner steal one item of their choice, most of the time you'll just lose the health. Going after a character before the Final Battle (when the rules change somewhat) is, in effect, allowed but not necessarily encouraged by the game. At least, unless you've used all of your health, in which case the winner can take your very cool Great Sword Of Window Washing. We had no character combat in our game at all.

Like Talisman, you build up your health and willpower over the course of the game, and there are ample opportunities to do so. Health taps out at eight for all of the characters, although we didn't have enough red cubes in the game to cover even the three of us, and you'd be hard pressed to have enough to cover five players were you nuts enough to play this game with that many. 

The characters are kind of a mixed bag. If there's one knock I have against the game, it's that the only differentiation (aside from artwork) is in your starting health and willpower, as well as which Guilds you can get abilities from for only XP (otherwise it's XP + Gold). That's it. No special abilities, no nothing. On the other hand, there aren't any Killer characters (Chaos Knight from 2nd ed Talisman, anyone?) that will zoom to a quick win. However, when playing a board game with RPG elements, it's nice to have a bit more differentiation.

Game play is pretty simple. You draw a chance card, which will generally do good things but will occasionally knock your gold down (you are encouraged to spend your resources in this game). Much of the time it will seed new adventure cards, restore health and/or willpower, put new goods in the Village or City, and add or rototill new abilities in the guilds. One particularly useful card lets you take a double turn!

Next, you decide how you'll move, noting that some spaces allow you to use a special opportunity in the space *only* if you don't move. Movement can also be used to attack the guardians in an AP space. When you get to your new space, you have to fight any monsters in the space, just like Talisman, but unlike that game you are never required to move at all if you don't wish to, and it's never randomized (a marked improvement, even with the Fate tokens in 4th ed), and you have a few options. There were a few times in our game that I didn't have much to do when I moved, but I didn't mind that so much as play was pretty brisk with very little downtime. Generally, we had lots of adventure cards in play and interesting choices of how to progress, going to various guilds to improve your abilities, buying stuff, etc. 

After you've fought off critters (and any characters, if you wish), you get to perform the Possibility of the space, whether it's associated with the space (printed on the board) or a card. Most of these are positive, although some have an optional cost (such as gaining willpower at the cost of spending health). Once you're done with that, you have to knock yourself back down to the various limits: 15 XP, 15 Gold, 7 Abilities, 7 Items. We ran into this primarily with XP and Gold, surprisingly. XP is really only useful for gaining Abilities, which sometimes are not worth the trouble to get across the board to get, and Gold was generally plentiful (and frequently spent to avoid the Economic Downturn chance card). And that's it. If you get an extra turn, it's only the move/fight/possibility part of the round. I should note that the words Turn and Round are used very specifically, and it's important to note that some things can only be used one per Turn, which you may get more than one of per Round (but rarely). 

In our game, Alex won by one turn when JD set him up by beating the Lesser Guardian in his second AP space, allowing him to beat the Greater Guardian easily. Ironically, the LG would have lowered Alex's Willpower significantly had JD not killed it, and that would have been important against the GG. My turn was next, and I'd have had a decent shot at my two baddies to take my second artifact. Game play was about 2.5 hours, which many will groan at, but I enjoyed the entire game, unlike the Talisman game Alex and I had a few months ago where I was simply never in it. In this one, I was behind in the Gaining Willpower And Strength derby, but in it when it came to gaining artifacts, which is all that really counts. We did a lot of rules lookups, which were almost all found in the rules (there's a little weirdness in organization, but once you know how things lie it's easy to find information), and played the "short" game, so I figure 3 hours with experienced players (meaning they've played for ten minutes, it's a very straightforward game) for the full game with three players. I don't know that I'd pull this out with more, certainly not with five. 

So here is my Talisman/Prophecy scorecard:
  • Components: Talisman wins. Better art, plastic sculpts for figures, wacky add-on boards, thicker card stock. Prophecy isn't terrible in this regard, just not quite as slick. 
  • Rules: Prophecy wins by a nose. Both are simple games, at least to gamers, and both are reprints that have had the rules well-vetted. The vast majority of situations are covered, but Prophecy has a special appendix that covers special situations on cards, and did it very well. 
  • RPG Elements: Tie. Characters have little to differentiate themselves in Prophecy, but you can add special abilities as you go. On the other hand, in game terms items do much the same thing, but in Prophecy there's an additional game system to make it feel a little more like you're developing your character. The varying health/willpower system in Prophecy bumps it back to a dead heat.
  • Gameplay: Prophecy, by a nose. Obviously, you have to like this sort of thing, but the non-variable movement requires more attention to looking ahead than happens most of the time with Talisman, and you have more control over it. For some reason, the turns flew by, and we seemed to have a lot of fun, perhaps because you had more information about where you were going and what you were going to face in a given space. I also suspect that Prophecy will be easier to predict game length as opposed to Talisman which could end very quickly, especially if some joker decides to make a run through the Dungeon early and gets lucky.
  • Fun Level: Prophecy by a bit more than a nose. Don't get me wrong, I love Talisman, but Prophecy seems to scratch the same itch just a bit better. The Chance deck is a little crazy, but it's also relatively small (we went through it three or four times in our game) and most things affect all players equally. The two strong elements in that deck are the extra turn and economic downturn cards, the rest are all just there to mix things up for the most part. 
At $40, the same price as a Talisman expansion, you get a pretty cool game that you can definitely play with kids, avoids the "multiplayer solitaire" feel of Runebound with more than two players, and fixes a couple of the nagging issues I have with Talisman. All in all, while I doubt many other people in my group will want to play this except as a late night game at cons or retreats, it's a fun gem that would probably be great with kids (the critters can be a little scary, but there's not as much chainmail bikini armor as in Runebound, and the art is generally of the Saturday AM Cartoon variety. 

Best of all, it's not Quest for the Dragonlords or Return of the Heroes (which is an interesting game once you get past the World's Most Insane Ruleset). Highly recommended if you want a true family game, although be aware of the length of play and that it will go up if you have more than three playing! I wouldn't even consider this game with five players. If you like Talisman, this is a no-brainer buy. And it's by that Czech guy whose name is spelled in a non-intuitive way for those of us of an Anglo persuasion! Woo hoo!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Tale Of One Wargame Company, Updated

The weekend has come and gone, and I finally got some information back from MMP (heck, we all know who I'm talking about, right?) about the Mystery Package. 

Here's the complete timeline:

March 11, 2009 - MMP contacts me about Bastogne (SCS), saying that my card is not charging. I figure that the problem is almost certainly because the expiration date has changed, as has the CVV. I reply to the email with the information, as well as calling and leaving the updated info on their answering machine. Since I'm not giving the card info itself, I don't mind not talking to a person although I am calling during their regular business hours (which extend all the way to 11am my time since I'm calling from the West Coast). 

March 18 or thereabouts - Bastogne arrives. 

March 24th - MMP attempts to charge for PanzerBlitz: Hill of Death (the game I almost never got from them). The charge fails. I am not told. 

April 9 - MMP attempts to charge a second time and fails. They send an email to me, but I never get it. I'll note that I always check the spam trap, and there have been occasions when mail to me has bounced. However, since it will become clear that the address they used to send the message isn't actually read by anyone, it's entirely possible that they wouldn't be aware of this.

Mid-April - I am successfully charged for A Most Dangerous Time. 

April 20 - I send my original email asking what's up with PB. No response, largely because the address I use (that they used to contact me about Bastogne earlier) is apparently a "dead" address that they don't read. There is no information in the original message from MMP that I should not respond to this particular address. The address is, which seems like a reasonable address to send mail to.

April 24 - MMP announces that all preorders for PB have been shipped.

Early May - AMDT arrives successfully at my house. 

May 4 - I send a second email to MMP at the address they contacted me at earlier. I get no response, again because this isn't an address they read, although I get no bounce notification. In this email, I specifically request that they *not* send me a copy of PB as I have ordered it locally, which I expected to do that week. I later decide to hold off until after I get back from WBC West because I haven't heard anything from them. 

May 8 - MMP tries to charge PB again, and it again fails. I am not notified. 

May 15 - MMP once again charges PB, this time successfully. They ship it to me. I am not notified.

May 20 - I have my credit card statement in hand showing that PB was not charged in March or April, and figuring that the order was simply lost and they aren't getting back to me, I order from Jesse's store. 

May 21 - I contact Brian Youse directly via a link on the ConSimWorld MMP support page. I hope to get a reply before the long weekend, but I'm not holding my breath. 

May 22 - I blog about my experiences with three different wargame companies and the level of support I've gotten from each. The "mystery" package from MMP arrives. Brian is told about my blog about the same time he reads my email. He is not pleased. We go back and forth a bit in email (tempers die down immediately), and he's at a loss as to what could be in the mystery package. We agree to look into it further after the long weekend. 

May 26 - I get notification from MMP about the package (it's PB, of course) and the steps they took to charge my card and contact me as outlined above. I inform them that this particular CC is used only for online purchases and thus is very easy for me to track, and no one else has had issues with the card to my knowledge despite around 10-20 purchases per month, certainly none during the time in question, and wonder if my information was updated in March correctly. I also note problems with their email system that combined to create a complete lack of communication about the matter.

While I could have gone through additional avenues to contact MMP (and eventually did), I believe that I had every reason to expect that the mail I sent would be read by someone. I also believe I had every right to assume that my preorder had been lost and that they would not send me a copy of PB, certainly not three weeks after they announced preorders were complete. 

To my mind, this is an example of an email system that isn't suitable for a business. Addresses that you shouldn't reply to because no one will read them should be very clearly marked as such (not the case for At the very least, the reply-to field for that account should be set to something that *is* read regularly, something that any email app will allow you to do in a matter of seconds. 

The other issue of course is notification. Believe me, I understand that MMP is a small outfit, that it has few employees who work part time, and that much of their time is spent assembling and shipping games. What should be happening is automation. When a game is ordered, you get a notification. The same should happen when you are charged for a game, and when that game is shipped. It should also happen when your card doesn't charge. I clearly am unaware of how MMP has their various systems set up, and I'm also aware that most wargame companies don't do this, but at the same time there's a few that do and it's very effective and useful. Even if the various systems don't talk to each other, there must be some sort of scripting that can be done that *will* allow for better notification to customers. 

My God, if Avalanche can let me know when they're shipping something to me (although for a while there I was getting assurances that things would be shipped that day only to have them shipped a week later, teaching me that you don't trust the person at Avalanche, you trust the automatic email!), anyone can do it. 

If all I had gotten was a notification that the game had shipped, it would have saved me time and trouble, and MMP reputation and more time and trouble. I wouldn't be refusing this package, they wouldn't have to credit my account, and you wouldn't be wasting your time reading this blog instead of working. In this case we can see how a couple of holes in a process can create bad buzz, a loss of goodwill (albeit temporary), and more work for everyone. 

At the same time, I'll note that everyone at MMP has responded in a professional manner (at least as professionally as my blog entry and email to Brian warranted), and that these are people trying to do a difficult job where they often take a lot of heat. My only response is that perhaps the best way to deal with heat is to figure out how not to generate it in the first place, and that requires learning from your mistakes. My mistake was to try not to play the squeaky wheel, at least at first - had I looked for other avenues to contact them sooner, we might have had a better result in terms of me getting my game, but at the same time we wouldn't have discovered the problems in communication that we did. 

Anyway, I'm considering this case closed, assuming there isn't some stinkiness with me returning the game. What they do with the information I've given them is their business, but I hope at the very least they change their reply-to addresses on unread accounts. That's just business email 101.  [note: they are looking into the reply-to addresses, as well as taking the game back. While this was a strange situation, especially with the CC not charging as you'd expect, it's the strange situations that point out where you have gaps in coverage, whether it's in you communications or your processes. Obviously, I think they made a good decision, and I'm very happy about that.]

I'll also be very happy to get the unopened box containing a wargame out of my house. Did I mention how much that bugs me?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Wii Fit vs EA Active - Fight!

I'm the worst athlete in the world. I get tired fast, my coordination ends at my wrists (and the "good" side isn't where most of me is), and I get bored with sports pretty quickly. So I'm always looking for ways to keep myself in some vague semblance of "being in shape", preferably the more entertaining the better.

When the Wii Fit came out with the balance board, that was a great way to keep in shape. The biggest problem for me is that you had to unlock everything, and then once you had most of the exercises felt kinda samey-samey (at least they did to me). Of course, I had some problems with my right wrist at the time and so couldn't do a lot of the exercises that required you to put weight on that part of your body. 

When EA brought out their new "Active" program for the Wii, I was pretty excited. Volleyball! Basketball! In-Line Skating! Soccer! Here, I thought, would be the "next-gen" Fit program, plus you could use pre-programmed exercise programs to cover different muscle groups or roll your own. I *did* do about two years of serious weight training back in so I know something about it, but like I say I'm a lazy SOB and was happy to let someone else do the hard work. 

I'm four days into the "light" 30-day workout program, and so far I have to say that I believe this software was not ready for prime time. Also, why anyone thinking that this will provide a "Fit"esque experience will be disappointed.

First, though the positives. It uses the balance board, although to my mind it's more of a prop than a balance tool. Where Fit is about balance, Active is about exercise. Active also uses a leg strap that you stick the nunchuck into, and it does give a wider range of feedback to the system about what your body is doing. There are videos with an actual person doing the exercises that you can access any time if you're a little lost, although like I say if you've done any weight training most of what they're doing is pretty easy to grok. 

The negatives are a little surprising in some cases. For example, when I run, I can't seem to get a consistent reaction from the game. I'll be running along, it will say I'm doing great, then suddenly my on-screen dude slows down and the trainer starts in on me. Except I'm running exactly like I was ten seconds ago. The only way I can get it to register a consistent pace is if I actually *run* around the living room. I guess that will prevent a wear mark in the carpet, but I want to, you know, not have to move so much. 

I find this with various exercises too. I'll do a shoulder press (lifting your arm straight up), and sometimes the system doesn't realize I've lowered my arms, and it complains at me. I also have noticed that the rhythm of the program is off from time to time, where it will have me do a motion, then it will stall, then suddenly the arms are down and on their way back up again when I haven't been told to lower mine. 

The Giant Rubber Band (tm) is OK, but it's a pain trying to get ahold of the handles when you've got the nunchuck in one hand and the Wiimote in the other, with the cable getting all tangled up. There are also some exercises where you need to double-back on the GRB, like when you're doing standing rows, but there's nothing to remind you of this unless you watch the entire video again. 

Worst of all, though, is the leg strap you put the nunchuck into. It's really not quite big enough for the nunchuck, so taking it in and out is a real pain. I've taken to leaving one nunchuck in the strap and another for the exercises where you want it in your hand. The problem is that you have to figure out something to do with the cable in the meantime, and I've had various amounts of success (or not) sticking the cable in my pocket, or draping it over the nunchuck so the cable hangs down the inside of my leg. So far, I haven't tripped and killed myself, but when I do I'll let you know.

OK, I didn't say the worst thing. The worst thing is that there are no real games here, no tennis, no soccer, no volleyball. You just do different exercises based on moves in these games. Yay. No skiing, no balance board stuff, no nothing. Just more exercises. Me, I want to have fun when I'm exercising, and while the exercises are OK (and often repeated in my short experience), I'd like a little reward other than a medal for using the program for 20 minutes. 

Also, no measuring your weight or doing balance tests. Maybe the weight thing isn't a huge loss, I guess. 

The other thing I loved about Fit was that all my Miis were on it, running through the park with me, cheering me on as I tightrope walked above the city streets. It was very nice to see my daughter's Mii smoking past me running, but the people in Active, while looking a lot more like people than Fischer Price toys, just don't quite do it for me. 

If one or two of the above problems were all that Active had, I guess it would be a huge hit. But with so many little problems, I'm really wondering if I'll get through the 30-day workout, much less taking on another one. I'm certainly not interested in doing two-person exercising, especially considering I have to really figure out where I start when I'm doing those alternating side lunges without rearranging the furniture first. 

I suppose that this will hit the sweet spot for a lot of people who are used to having to work in order to work out, but I'm really not part of that demographic. The thing Active really makes me want to do, now that my wrist is better, is to go back and use Fit with more of the strength exercises and just come up with my own exercise plan. I guess in that sense it's a success, just maybe not in the way that EA was thinking. 

So here's the challenge, Wii developers - make a better version of Fit, one with lots of games you can play as rewards, incorporate the Miis, put in exercise programs, and find some new tools to use like the GRB (but without the difficulty of using it). Because Active ain't it. 

Combat Commander: Stalingrad - The Campaign Metagame

Mike and I played a couple of games from the Combat Commander: Stalingrad campaign scenario at WBC West, and over the course of the week I began to get a clearer idea of how important the "random" scenario generation portion of that scenario is. By the time we played our final game, I'd gotten an extremely good sense of what you do and, more importantly, *why* you do it, but I didn't do a very good job of explaining it to Mike. For the benefit of the CC community, here is how the process works and why it's so freakin' important to each game you play in the campaign.

First of all, the campaign uses a heavily modified version of the DIY scenario generator, with most of the changes intended to limit your choices to those the historical commanders had. Clearly, there will be no Americans in this scenario, just Russians and Germans. Despite the fact that there is a lot of randomization going on (objectives, map orientation, etc), you have several key decisions to make that will have immense repercussions if you don't choose wisely.

The first important thing that happens is a combination of choosing map orientation and drawing objectives. While these are random, at the same time they are also the factors that will drive almost every other decision you'll make. For example, you draw an objective that grants four points to whoever controls Obj4. The map orientation roll puts Obj4 on your side of the board. Chances are good you'll want to be the defender, as your opponent will have to come take the objective from you if they want those points. Since there are two (or more) public objectives and one secret one each (or less), you may end up with a more complex situation, but in general by seeing the map, seeing where you may or may not set up, and seeing what will give you points, you can start to make some choices in what posture you want to take in the game. 

The first big choice you make is which of the campaign platoons you will use. You always get your command platoon, which may vary based on the experience level you're at as the result of previous games in the campaign, and you'll get a steadily dwindling number of reinforcement units. Depending on where you are in the campaign, and how well you've done with Divisional Reserves rolls, you may not have much choice, but we'll assume you do for this exercise.

At this point you'll want to do a little thinking in terms of what your opponent will want to do as well. If you know he'll want to attack, then you'll want to generally choose units less effective in assaults and instead choose units that are better suited for defense with a strong understanding of the terrain they'll be holding. If there are a lot of wide open spaces, you'll probably want to have units with decent range, but if you can get away with the scrubs this might be the time to do it. You probably don't want to use SMG Russians on defense, as these units have very short range and their primary use is to advance under smoke to fight up close. The same goes for Assault teams on both sides. 

You'll also want to pay careful attention to the Point Values of any campaign platoons you choose, as well as the VP cost of those reinforcements (one VP per unit or weapon). Since you choose your reinforcements before knowing the map orientation or objectives, you are generally best off choosing "high value" units such as Pioneers with good weapons as these are almost always useful to some degree. If you have the luxury of choosing leaders as the Russians, this is almost always a good choice because they have a larger number of units and leaders always help. Otherwise, go for the heavy weapons such as HMGs because they are always useful regardless of your posture. 

So why worry about your Point Values? Because that's what determines your posture. The process works like this: You choose your campaign platoons separately and secretly, then reveal them, moving the VP marker to your opponent's side for your choices. Now here's where it gets critical: Whoever chose the smaller Point Value of combined campaign platoons and reinforcements is in the driver's seat in deciding what each side's posture will be. In other words, this is where you want to be if you want to be defending. This is part of the reason you'll choose the minimum values of units you need to get the job done, not only in terms of quantity of campaign platoons, but also what types of platoons. In general, the better platoons are more useful for attacking anyway, so if you grab only a six point Rifle platoon, the only way the Germans can prevent you from choosing posture is to not choose any platoons at all, instead relying only on reinforcements and their command platoon. 

One important note: be sure that when you "spend" your Points for your campaign platoons and reinforcements that you are "giving" VP to your opponent. In other words, you move the VP marker to their side as you pay for your units. If you haven't tried DIY scenarios before (and you should), this is one of the more counter-intuitive elements and the easiest to screw up. It's also important to remember that no one has gotten the benefit of any objective-based VP at this time, but it's a good idea to keep it in the back of your head for now.

Now that you've both chosen campaign platoons and reinforcements, the final steps in determining posture take place. Whoever spent the least on units for this game will have the VP marker on their side of the track, and *must* roll on the support table and choose a unit. This is the most critical choice so far if you want to be defender, because your choice will more or less determine posture. Each choice on the support table will adjust the VP toward your opponent's side of the track, so if you choose that HMG and weapon team, you may find that your opponent has more of a say than you originally wanted him to. 

For example, let's say that prior to the support roll, you have the VP marker on the 2 space on your side of the board. One of three things can happen based on the value of the unit(s) you choose from the support table:
  1. You choose a unit that costs one VP. The VP marker moves to the 1 space on your side of the track, and you are now going to be the defender regardless of future choices made. That means you control most of the board and your opponent will probably have the burden of attacking you to generate points for themselves. Your opponent won't get a support roll.
  2. You choose a unit that costs two VP. The VP marker moves to the 0 space on the track, and both of you will be in the Recon posture. The board is evenly split with a no-man's land in the middle. This can be an excellent choice if all of the objectives are on your side, but remember that the obj5 points can be 2.5x in value to any of the others and your opponent almost certainly has one secret objective. You won't get to play defensive actions, but your opponent will have fewer cards in hand. Your opponent won't get a support roll.
  3. You choose a unit that costs three or more VP. The VP marker moves to your opponent's side of the board, and now *they* will determine posture based on their own support roll. If you want to defend, this is not the position you want to be in.
Remember, your posture not only determines hand size and what action cards you can play, but also how much of the board you control. The difference between defense and recon is not only the first two, but also which objectives you can set up in and immediately control. As the defender, you get all but the two rows on your opponent's side (when the map is short and fat) or three (if long and skinny). That means Obj5 starts on your side, probably all but one in total. If there's a Sudden Death objective on the table for taking all five objectives, you start with a big advantage there, as your opponent must preserve his position to hold that objective as he advances. The situation is reversed if you are the attacker. Recon means you both hold equal territory with the big prize (maybe) in the middle. If you understand this and know what it is you need to gain the tactical advantage, your game will go much more smoothly right up until you start drawing cards. ;-)

There are two other things to keep in mind: fortifications and artillery assets. 

Fortifications can be confusing in this game because there are two ways to buy them. The first applies to only the defender, and these fortifications cost VP. Personally, I think that you should treat these carefully but not stingily as the defender. If your opponent has a large number of platoons compared to you, these make for a great equalizer and you probably have the VP to spare. Remember that you *still* haven't gotten VP for objectives that you'll probably be able to take when you set up, and posture has been established at this point. Make this choice based on disparity of forces and you'll do well. Remember also that the trenches and bunkers create a movement channel out of LOS which can be very handy in the right situation. 

The second way to buy fortifications is important for two reasons: you have only 11 points to spend through the entire campaign, and you can buy them *as the attacker*. That means foxholes to start in. If you estimate six games for the entire campaign, that means you can spend two points per game on foxholes, especially if you're the Russians and have all of those units to set up, usually in non-advantageous terrain. Foxholes can preserve your forces early when you're the attacker, so don't be afraid to spend the points on them if the situation warrants. 

Finally, it's important to note that in defender/attacker scenarios, the defender sets up their fortifications *after* the attacker finishes their setup. That means you have some flexibility to see what secret objectives the attacker is focusing on, although there's nothing preventing them from feinting, especially as the Russians. 

The last subject I'll broach in this essay is the attacker's asset draw just before they set up their units. For units of lesser quality (meaning pretty much the entire Russian Red Army), you aren't going to have access to a lot of smoke via action cards, usually because your units don't have boxed movement. That means if there's a lot of open space between you and your objectives, you'll almost certainly be playing the old "run a guy out and see if he dies" game to advance. You'll want to roll for an artillery asset if you are the attacker, especially if you're Russian, simply because it will in all likelihood give you the opportunity to lay smoke to allow you to advance. You may not get it, but then again you might and you're gonna need it. Add in that Command Confusion Orders for the Russians act as Artillery Requests in Stalingrad scenarios, and it's really a no brainer for them. The Germans will need to make a bit more of a decision in this regard, as their troops generally can do what they need them to do, but then again having a use for Arty Request cards makes you more efficient and improves your chances of being able to lay smoke when you want to. 

I'll also note that it's a very good idea as the Russians to keep an Arty Request card handy in your hand until you've made sufficient progress as the attacker, as the last thing you want is to get two Arty Denied cards played on you and lose your smoke capability in the first handful of turns. You'll have a lot of chances between the Command Confusion cards and the Arty Request cards, so buy a little insurance to keep that smoke coming. Nothing like a sudden Breeze event to show you just how much you have hanging out of your pants as you advance!

Hopefully, this essay will give you a better idea of the importance and consequences of the choices you make when setting up the campaign scenario in CC: Stalingrad, and thus improve your enjoyment of the game. I was very sorry that Mike had such a negative experience, especially as I had tried to explain the ramifications of scenario generation, and hopefully this more cogent explanation will prevent someone else from experiencing the same fate. 

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Star Trek

Oh. My. God. 

We finally got out to see the "revisioning" of Star Trek tonight, and it was worth the wait. Literally, as we sat down and the movie started about 40 minutes later after innumerable trailers for every pre-teen boy's franchise under the sun. And it was great. 

And you got to see an annoying person die. I haven't been that happy to see that happen in a movie since DeNiro plugged Brigit Fonda in Jackie Brown. That in itself should be enough to tell you that Abrams figured out a really smart way to buck 40+ years of the Continuity Monkey and we can all just enjoy the movies now without having to listen to someone talk about how that never would have happened because in Episode 13, 5 minutes and 42 seconds into the second act, that Spock mentions that the Golubulans tripped on a subspace string 500 years ago, and now ion engine trails have a different energy signature. 

F*ck that. We've *had* movies that were supposed to bow and scrape before continuity, a good 24 years of them, and since Wrath of Khan they've just gotten worse and worse and worse. I didn't even like the one with the whales. I kept seeing them (well, right up until Nemesis, when I decided that *I* had jumped the shark), but was pretty happy to be living in a world where there were no more bad Trek spin-offs or movies. 

And now there's a good one. Better than Khan? Perhaps, as that wasn't a terribly tight movie, but it was a fun movie and it had pretty much the whole original crew running around (of course, so did V, but work with me here...) plus of course Montelbahn doing his best "Kiiiiiiiirk!!!!" noises. 

I feel sorry for all of the movies that have to come after this one. I really do. It's not a perfect movie, it's really not even a great movie (because it can't really stand on it's own in much the same way Empire Strikes Back is glossed over as the best of the Star Wars movies), but it's the best Star Trek movie *imaginable* for today, and thus satisfies the ST itch like it hasn't been satisfied in a very very long time. 

I'm sure all of you have seen it by now (we waited because we wanted to see it with my daughter, and WBC-W plus their trip to Vegas made this our first opportunity), but if you haven't, and you have *any* fondness for *any* of the ST franchise, this will be a movie you'll love. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Tale Of Three Wargame Companies

[Note: I've corrected a few thing in this post concerning one of the companies involved as I've gotten much more information on what went wrong, although not everything. As always, I leave the original post up so that readers know the full history.]

I spent six years of my life providing high-end tech support for a Portland-area CAE firm, and so I like to think I know a little about customer service, both in terms of customer expectation as well as the realities of delivering support. There are obvious differences between supporting software and published board wargames, although perhaps less than you'd think. In particular, rulesets are quite a bit like software in that they tend to change from initial availability, are generally supported online with regular updates, and have more or less the entire customer base acting as the final line of QA. 

While knowing that your purchase will be, to some extent, protected from poor development is nice, at the same time there's a less tangible element of customer support that it's apparently difficult to teach some companies. That's the ability to not only set expectations, but also to deliver on those expectations. What follows is my experiences with three different wargame publishers over the past month when I ran into problems with my expectations. I will not mention the names of the companies, but anyone with any experience with them will know immediately who I'm writing about. 

The first story involves a pre-order for a game that has been anticipated for years. Literally. Like most companies, this one has a pre-order system where you are charged for the game at some point close to it's release, within two months at most but more likely within two or three weeks of the game being shipped to pre-orders. I had not had any problem with the company up to that point, although I will note that on the lone occasion when they contacted me about a credit card that had expired and I sent back the information I got no acknowledgement that they had gotten the message. In computer systems, this is called "handshaking" and it simply means that I say something, they say something back and include the notion that they are responding to what I said, even if that's *all* they are doing - "Yes, I got your message". A store receipt is an excellent example of this - I give them money for a product, and they give me a receipt to show that there was a transaction. In this case, it wasn't a big deal, as I eventually got the game they were charging for. 

However, the next game out the door was a bit more of a problem. I heard that they were shipping the game, but as time went on and I didn't receive my copy (pre-ordered sometime in 2006, I believe, perhaps earlier [Note: It was 2006]), I started to wonder if they did indeed get the pre-order. I checked their online system, and sure enough I was listed. A little research on the 'Geek showed that they were having some issues with their database, so I sent a note asking about the status of my game. [Note: the thread noted that a big release a year ago had had issues, and obviously so did my copy of the new game. The main guy at this company has told me that if I wasn't issued an invoice for the game, that would be a problem, so we're still figuring this part out.]


[Note: It turns out that I contacted them via an address that they'd used to enquire about my credit card info with the earlier game. That original message had no material on it to suggest that I should not reply to it, and when I sent a message that was the address I used. In my head I'd misremembered me using the Contact Us links on the company's website, which I should have gone to after not getting a response to that address. I'm unsure at this point what that particular address was for, or if there was a recent change.]

A week later, I sent a second message saying that the game was starting to show up in stores, and that I couldn't tell if they'd charged my credit card because that particular card didn't have a way for me to do this easily. I also asked if they could please get back to me so that I could go out and get my own copy if they had not sent the game. 


A week later the game is in Jesse's store. I decide not to buy a copy as the last time I did this (same company) I ended up with two copies of the game in question. Another week later, I get my credit card statement and sure enough, I wasn't charged for the game. I send mail to the publisher telling them that I'm disappointed that they lost my order, despite it being in the online database, and that I could have had the game a week before had they taken two minutes to respond to my email.

[Note: Of course, they never saw my mails, so did not ignore them.]


[Note: Hilariously, the day after I send that email I post this blog entry. Within a short time, I have the full attention of the main guy at the company, although in a very Great Dice Tower Controversy kind of way, which isn't really my intent. To make matters more interesting, just before I hear from him I get a box from the company and no idea what's in it. Could be the game I'd preordered, although it was shipped three weeks after they'd finished those preorders. Could be another copy of a game they'd sent in the interim. They are going to look into the matter and figure out what's in the box so that I can refuse it if I wish to. I've urged them to figure out a way to manage their database so that when an invoice is generated that an email is sent to the recipient. Trying to keep their database updated is also an issue, but considering that GMT Games can't seem to get the old games out of their listing, I guess I can't complain more than a little. The important thing is that I'm left to guess what's in the box when it comes unless I'm constantly scanning certain CSW groups, and I'd prefer to be better informed than that. Maybe a newsletter? Either way, I have a game in a sealed box in my house and you wouldn't believe how much that bugs me!]

I'll note that this is the email address they ask people to contact them through. Their office hours stop at 2pm EDT, and my experience has been that there is *never* anyone in the office answering the phone. 

[Note: See above for the address SNAFU. The above paragraph should be ignored entirely as it's unfair and untrue.]

At this point, I'm very tempted to drop out of preorders. In general, once you add in shipping I can generally get every game for less than I give them, and they'll end up with a much smaller portion of the pie, but if I can't trust them to respond to e-mail, I'm not quite sure where to go from here. Unfortunately, they publish some good games, so I'll still buy from them, but they sure haven't done anything to engender brand loyalty. 

Story number two is also related to preorders. This time, I was charged for the games (one part of a larger order, the other a pre-order). The order comes in missing Game 1, but absolutely no notification that the game isn't in the order unless you look very closely at the manifest. No email, no nothing. I contact them and ask when they'll be back in stock, the answer is within a month, two at the outside. The preorder game is due out around the same time, so I figure no big deal. I'll note that the original order was made in July of 2008. 

As time goes by, I occasionally write and ask if either game is available, noting various pages on the company website that state that the game is available. They always ask what pages, I always send URLs, and they never update them, apparently because other pages say that the games *aren't* available and that's good enough. During this time, I order other games from them, where they say that the order is going out that day, only to get a notification two weeks later saying that the games have just shipped. 

This week, the games finally arrive. The pre-ordered game's story is detailed enough that the company's president writes an extensive article on their website telling everyone the entire sordid story of what happened. He also writes another long article about their epic interstate move and many wonder why this man is allowed to run a company. 

My copy arrives with no scenario book and two misaligned countersheets. I contact the company via their website and let them know about the problem. Three days later, I have received no notification that they've even gotten my request, much less that they are doing anything about it. I expect that I'll see the missing materials within a few weeks, but certainly no sooner than that. Maybe. If there's any poetic license in Heaven, I'll get the components one year to the day that I paid for them. 

[Note: After a week, I've yet to hear anything from this company as to the status of my request. At the very least the game is useless without the scenario books, even if they were to think the counter sheets aren't misaligned enough for replacement. My experience has been that they ship when they say they have shipped (as opposed to when they say they *will* ship), and since I haven't heard anything I expect it will be sometime in early June when the replacement components arrive based on past performance.]

[Extra Note: Here's hoping no one calls *that* company and tells them about my blog! Ha ha!]

The third story is how things should have gone in the first two stories. I get errata counters to a game that came out late in 2008, and notice that some of the counters in my set were misaligned badly enough that the critical text on them is unreadable. I contact the publisher that evening asking if I can get a replacement countersheet (assuming that they weren't all a problem, although this company would almost certainly have sent out a replacement to everyone who had preordered or purchased the game). The next morning, I have a response asking for the specific number of the countersheet, which I'm able to figure out by looking at the scans on BGG. I get back to them with the number, and by noon my replacement is in the mail, which I expect to get tomorrow based on past performance. 

[Note: I got the replacement counters today, two days after they sent them out. Geographic proximity helps, but it says something when one company has the fix in my hands before another company deigns to respond. We'll leave the first company out of this particular equation ;-)]

I do like to reward excellence, so it will come as no surprise to you when I say that the third company is GMT Games. They set the standard for not only wargame publishers, but companies of every stripe. While they have the occasional dud or underdeveloped game come out, they also recognize that they need to do whatever they can to fix things for the customers. They were the first to pioneer the P500 idea of charging for pre-orders during the production run up to ship, they were the first to do Living Rules that were downloadable, they are the first to provide Ventrilo servers to not only allow real-time demos and "town meetings" for their customers but also for use by anyone for any reason. 

Those who know me know who the other two companies are, and I've certainly dropped enough hints. I understand that most companies don't have the personnel to do everything that GMT does, but at the same time I'm more than a little alarmed that they don't have enough people to do simple things like respond to basic questions via e-mail. In both cases, I think that my business with them will be limited to purchasing through retail stores. No more preorders, no more direct sales with improved profits. I tend to like doing this because it helps keep the companies in business, but if I can't be sure that they even *have* my order/pre-order, it becomes difficult for me to work with them directly. If the games are good enough, they'll find other publishers if either was to go out of business (and in at least one case, that's extremely unlikely when they have a retired MLB player bankrolling them). 

[Note: Bankrolling is the wrong term. I don't know what the exact relationship is, but I don't think many wargame companies have owners/investors that have the kind of funds available that an ex-pro ball player and future Hall of Famer would have, even if it was simply for nostalgia value. I at no time intended to say that this company tended to be lax because they didn't care about their customers or weren't worried about staying afloat. I did mean to say that they have a better safety net than most, at least in theory. I'll also state that I'm planning on keeping my preorders going with them.]

And all it took to keep me happy was a freakin' e-mail response. 

[Note: And in the end, that's exactly what I did get, and I'm much happier. Now if I could just get this freakin' sealed shipping box out of my life!]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

WBC West - Aftermath Pt 3 - Wallace's Waterloo

My group loves Martin Wallace games. At least three or four of us invest in his "suites" of games from Treefrog, and Mike in particular gets a little gleam in his eye when someone suggests a Wallace title. So we were very curious and interested to try out Waterloo, his first attempt at a wargame. Let me be clear - this is a wargame. A light wargame, but a wargame. There is chrome to deal with specific historical realities (such as a detailed map of the battlefield and rules for using the Grand Battery) and historical placement and entry of the combatants. Compared to Axis and Allies, which is really a WW2-themed economic and area control strategy game, Waterloo passes at the very least my own personal test. 

And that was about the only test it passed for me after two plays. Against two different opponents, and with me playing both sides, I found that the Allied forces died within three turns before the Prussians could enter. Worse, because of the way the game is built, the Allies didn't seem like they could do much about it other than take their lumps and hope they roll well. As the Allies, I had exactly 11 actions over two turns (I never got to take an action in the third turn), and one was an assault just so I could use a red token. Worse, both Chuck and myself felt that we made huge mistakes as the French and still blew out the other side with little effort. 

Perhaps there are some set moves that the Allied player must do to have a chance to win. After all, they were outnumbered by quite a bit by the French, and it was only the arrival of the Prussians that saved them. When you can't even *start* to bring on the Prussians, however, I start to wonder if this isn't Wallace's first major stumble. 

There are some cool ideas. The use of random numbers of actions before you have to hand over the baton to your opponent, especially as your opponent knows the number but you don't is a great idea in theory, but in practice you simply do the important stuff first and then do the maintenance after with any orders you have left over (like reserve movement). I suppose there can be situations where you need to do three things but may only have two, but in general this is a mechanism that doesn't quite live up to it's potential. 

There's always buzz on BGG these days about how wargames use "cheap" components, as if paper maps and cardboard counters are poor substitutes for wooden blocks and mounted maps. Perhaps not surprisingly, the opposite arguments are made about whether or not Waterloo qualifies as a wargame given that it's all wooden pieces with minimal differentiation (there are various mods for various units of various nationalities, but in the end they're more or less identical for the most part). Me, the bits don't bother me at all as long as the game is interesting and fun to play. Most wargamers spend a lot of money on counter trays, poster frames, plexi sheets, baggies, even custom tables to hold the games. The fact that this game comes with a mounted board and wooden bits is irrelevant if the Allies can't hold off the French for three turns. 

I suppose that there's some chance for the Allies if they were to reinforce the two lightly held strongpoints in the river valley, something that Chuck pointed out in our game. Still, I don't know that having two or even three units in the smaller strongpoints is going to change things significantly, especially as the French get to move first and can make strong pushes on these locations with as few as two actions. 

Of course, I'll also note that my first experience with Age of Steam was a bit of a disaster as well, although it's a very unforgiving game that requires some basic tenets to play without shooting yourself in the foot. With Waterloo, I get the sense that the game has shot itself in the foot, and perhaps Martin should go back to the clever multi-player strategy games he's good at rather than trying to jump into a genre he isn't as good of a designer for. 

I could well be wrong in my assessment, so I'll refrain from making a specific recommendation. However, I'd approach this one with caution - games that go from "great" to "terrible" in one play usually is the result of me figuring out that there's a design shortcoming.

WBC West - Aftermath Pt 2 - China: The Middle Kingdom

One of the staples of WBC West has been Britannia, the classic game of playing out the history of Britain through the various invasions and influxes of various peoples who landed on her shores. This is a game system that has prompted many to reset the game in a wide variety of settings and times, from Spain to Russia, from Italia to India. This time, the game is set in China from about 400AD through the Chinese Civil War that saw the Communists come to power after World War 2. 

The game is essentially a very stripped down version of the system, with a few bits of chrome tacked on. What is missing is a need to take specific areas, so you might see quite a few empires moving in directions they didn't historically. Each nation also has a "power rating" that grants VP for eliminating them, as well as extra reinforcements, so play tends to be pretty bloody as you can *always* get points for killing units in certain situations. In fact, after the first turn we found that most of the early nations had been wiped out as if they had all been the runaway criminals in an Asian version of Dog the Bounty Hunter. 

As a disclosure, I'll note that we did finish the short "early" game that covers the first 12 turns (there's also a "Modern" version that covers the second 12). I messed up several rules early, and so we decided to start again after playing four turns. However, we played correctly the second time out. 

The game has a couple of huge problems. The first is that many of the big empires, the ones that are supposed to generate a lot of points for a given player, may never get started as they depend on a previous empire doing well. Mike's Han, for example, only got a few units on the board because the Qin hadn't done well, so the Han didn't do well, and it was his *only* big empire. There were at least three or four of these "revolutions" in the first half of the game, and they generally went poorly for everyone. 

The other problem is that the balance of active play for each faction was rather imbalanced. This is a common issue for all of the games of this ilk - think of the Yellow player in Britannia, who plays the Romans to great effect for a couple of turns, then sits around for most of the rest of the game. Red had very little to do once the Han were gone on turn 6, and I'd chosen the early game because I knew that Green had similar issues in the second half. Combined with the first problem of weak revolutions, and you have a game where not much is happening. 

Strangest of all was that I, as the Blue player, controlled pretty much all of China for the bulk of the game. And I came in last. In fact, there were often so many empty territories that people didn't really have to fight much. 

I have four of these games (five if you count the AH version of Britannia, the one with the incomprehensible raiding rules), and I have to say that all are pretty much broken other than the original. Maharaja has confusing rules for the colonial period, and there are two empires that more or less control the entire board (sort of like Rome and the Saxons in Britannia). Italia has a set of rules that only Phalanx Games could produce (and interpret), and now China, which tried mightily to reduce the rules to a manageable set succeeds only in a game where the main goal seems to be killing other armies rather than controlling historical provinces. No rush for the Welsh to York in this game. 

Which is not to say that I dislike the game, only that I think it's only really suitable for solitaire play to spur interest in the subject. I'm not sorry I got a copy (Mike, on the other hand, said he wanted to buy two so he could burn them both), but I'm very unlikely to ask anyone else to play. Like Italia, the game is set for a specific number of players (Britannia and Maharaja attempt to vary the number, but the effort was pretty much a failure - these are four player games), so that already limits it's chances of hitting the table. Given the lack of play time for various factions at various times, I'm OK with this, but it is a shame that the game was so clearly not playtested but rather vetted against history. In fact, many of the reviews on the 'Geek go into great detail about how this empire wasn't as strong as represented in the game, or that since they were mostly in Indochina they really weren't Chinese at all. Whatever. As a game, it's a bust. As a sim, it's probably worth your time if you like this series and know better than to inflict it on your gaming buddies. 

Sorry, guys!

WBC West - Aftermath Pt 1 - Age of Conan

This is the first of a series of impressions of games that were played at the recently concluded WBC West nanocon I host at my family's vacation home in Central Oregon. The first review/impression will be of Fantasy Flight's recent multiplayer strategy game "Age of Conan" which was played by Chuck, Dave, and myself. 

Note: about halfway into our game, Chuck got a call telling him he'd have to miss a few days of the nano-con to fly to California to be a witness in a court case against his company. It kind of put a damper on the mood, but I don't believe it colors my impression of the game to any great extent. 

AoC is yet another multi-player strategy game relying heavily on plastics and a tie-in to some media product, in this case the MMORPG of the same name, which in turn was based on the Robert E. Howard short stories and novels (as well as several other writers who have contributed to the mythos). Conan spawned not only a couple of movies (Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones together!), but also a *lot* of graphic novel adaptations, the best of which were drawn by Barry Winsor-Smith. His adaptation of Red Nails, which was very close to the original story, was my personal favorite as a child. 

When the MMORPG came out last year, several people in Rip City Gamers were supposed to join up and play, which I did. It turned out that only two people I knew were ever on, and as the game play deteriorated while the developers did useless tweak after useless tweak, the game was largely abandoned by MMORPGers in a case study of how *not* to launch a title like this. It looked pretty good, though. And there was a lot of cleavage, and even a little seduction (that went nowhere, only appealing to 14 year old boys). 

Still, I had not yet learned that most of the stuff FFG puts out these days in big boxes is going to disappoint to a certain extent, and picked up a copy. Jesse and I had discussed playing two-player, with the idea that I'd have a good sense of how the game worked so that I could teach it at WBC West. That learning session never happened, so the game at WBC reflects a bunch of noobs duking it out.

There are some slightly novel concepts about the game:

1) Nation-specific "kingdom" cards. These are more or less action cards, although many require you to play them in front of you for a cost in gold, and that you spend more to "refresh" the cards. These seem to be tailored to drive specific play styles with the different nations, but we didn't find the cards to be terribly useful most of the time. 

2) Conan. Since each player is a nation, you have to wonder a bit about where the hell Conan is in all of this. In fact, he's the game clock, as he runs through three ages of four adventures each. One player bids to take control of Conan, which is useful for gaining Monster/Women/Treasure tokens, but the adventures (which reference the various stories) are pretty generic - move Conan from here to there, with three or four Goodie tokens per adventure. There is a more direct benefit to controlling the Big Guy, and that's if he happens to be in an area you're fighting or conquesting in (or defending), and if you think you have more Goodie tokens than everyone else in the Third Age you can try to crown him in your home area for a Sudden Death win. 

3) Diplomacy. It's not just a fighting game with armies, as you can also send out "emissaries" to various locations to generate more gold. Gold is useful pretty much only for paying for Kingdom card use and as a bonus to VPs at game end, but they're also useful for building cities which also help you gain VP. They can also leave behind Raids which ding the other players at VP collection times. 

4) Neutral Areas. You have to spend time and manpower to take over neutral territories via "conquest" which is how we spent pretty much the entire first two ages. The board scales with two or three players, so I'd imagine that most games run like this. While the mechanism is kind of cool (you can play a Strategy card to improve your odds) and the dice mechanism would be cool if you could figure out what the various icons on the combat dice are, after a while it's just roll the dice and see how how you do for a couple of hours. 

5) Dice-based action system. Like War of the Ring, Conan uses dice to drive player actions. Unlike WotR, everyone pulls dice from a common pool. The mechanisms for activating/placing armies are very similar to the parent system, but since you are deciding what to prevent your opponent from doing as well as what you yourself are doing, it's marginally more interesting. Not enough, though. 

The victory conditions are a little on the confusing side, and in fact the player aid cards use about 1/3rd of their text to explain them. In a nutshell, you want to build forts, you want to get gold, and most of all you want to get the most of at least one type of Goodie. Other than that, I'm not sure what exactly we were trying to do besides gobble up territory. At the end of the second age, we'd filled up most of the board, but to be honest we just weren't feeling the love and decided to pack it in at that point. While I understand that we'd be doing a lot more than just grabbing up empty territories, the notion of fighting over them seemed like more than we were willing to take on. 

In the end, I think the problem was simply that the game was a theme in search of a set of mechanisms intended to exploit a marketing niche for a software product tie-in. It's kind of ironic, as anyone who plays video games knows that you *rarely* if ever buy a game with a movie tie-in, so to have a boardgame with a video-game tie-in feels a bit like putting the shoe on the other foot. 

Which is not to say that FFG hasn't put out decent games with software tie-ins. WoW the Boardgame and Starcraft are both pretty good games, although definitely on the experiential side for the former. It's just that AoC isn't one of them. I didn't feel like the game evoked much of anything other than drowsiness and a desire to play something else, and I can't imagine that it will ever hit the table with our group again. Perhaps the two-player game will be more interesting, although this is a title that I'll resist playing for at least a short time. 

It's not that the game is *bad*, per se. It's just that it's so... so. Conan's adventures are completely tacked on and lack any differentiation, there are only one type of military unit (I guess the Kingdom cards are supposed to fill that gap, but you may take a while to get the kind of card you need). The Emissaries are interesting, but to be honest it's just another pipe to allow you to get gold so that you can use Kingdom cards, and thus feels tacked on as well. 

I should also mention that when the MMORPG came out I went back and read a couple of the Howard stories (my favorites over other writers like De Camp). It was a horrific experience - basically light porn for adolescents, the male version of romance novels. Misogynistic to a fault, filled with purple (and bruised) prose, they are unreadable for an adult with any exposure to decent writing, almost cartoonish. To read the foreword where the writer compares Howard with the "greats" is comic to the point of pathos. Which is not to say that I didn't love reading the stories when I was 13 - I collected half of the series on a trip to England around that time with my parents. Now, it's just comfort food, like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Think bean burritos at 3am from 7-11. It seems like a great idea right up until it goes in your mouth. 

God help us if someone creates a Tarzan game...

I usually don't like to make a recommendation based on a single game, especially one where we never finished, but four hours just to set up the board for the third age is far too long, and there's just not enough theme here to even make it campy. If you feel like you might want this game, I strongly urge you to try before you buy. I disliked it enough that it may be my last "plastics" game from FFG. 


Sunday, May 17, 2009

WBC West 2009 - Friday Afternoon through Sunday Morning

A busy day yesterday, so no post. Sorry about that!

Chuck arrived close to 1:30pm because of a conference call he had to take on the road. Remind me never to rise high in management. At that point, it was increasingly clear that the OCS scenario wasn't really going to be a good one for multiple players - not enough clearly delineated "fronts" where people could more or less operate independently. While that kind of blew my "monster" game goal for Sunriver, at the same time I didn't mind letting Eric and Mike monopolize the big table for two full days at all, and they certainly enjoyed themselves, at least other than when the dice went hard against Mike. The DSDF was in full force all week. 

As it was, Chuck and I decided to take on Wallace's Waterloo wargame ;-) and I'm sorry to say that my opinion of this game has soured quite a bit. This time I took the Allies, and once again the French managed to wipe out 13 steps of Allies units within three turns. I'm kind of at a loss as to how the Allies can avoid this, although I'm sure there's got to be a way to do it (Wallace does tend to have well-playtested games). Chuck made about the same number of dumb moves that I did, but still had no problem coming across the low ground to his left flank and eliminating unit after unit of mine. I counted that in three turns, I got to play a grand total of 11 actions, one of which was red and the rest were green. Not much you can do with that but stand and take your lumps. This game has moved firmly off of my "buy" list and to my "avoid" list until more people have played and start to understand how the game "works". Make no mistake, Wallace games require you to play in a specific fashion (albeit often with multiple paths to victory) in order to succeed, and this one seems to be cut from the same cloth.

Next up we played the DVG edition of Down In Flames, this time playing the Guadalcanal mission. We got through three or four missions before I was able to bomb Henderson Field to smoking ruin as the Japanese. The missions all followed a very similar pattern: escorting fighters wiped out within one or two turns, bombers wiped out shortly thereafter. The Corsairs were unbeatable for the most part, and our bombers didn't survive or even cause much trouble for the attacking fighters right up until my last mission, when Wind caused us to have only two mission turns and I drew hordes of good cards for my defensive mini-hands. I went in with a tight pattern because Chuck had chosen Bombs against me, and blew the Marines away. Not the most satisfying game I've played. Perhaps I'm playing this one wrong too, but I've soured quite a bit on it in two plays. Perhaps the problem is that it's too *easy* to maneuver on an enemy now, so you see *lots* of bursts being played. Worth following up on, but I'm afraid that this version tips the pendulum too far in the other direction. 

Eric joined us in the evening to learn Through the Ages (he'd played once before, but it had been a while). My 'splainin' was strong, as he gave Chuck a run for his money, and only me wiping out his half-built Transcontinental Railroad and Chuck's building of Hollywood on the very last turn saved the game for Chuck. Me, I expect to suck at this game for a very long time until I get to know what the various strong combos are, but I still love it. The most played game of the week, and while it isn't a wargame it's certainly a great and elegant design.

Saturday morning dawned sunny and warm (at last!) and we all stayed inside to game. Eric and Mike continued with OCS, which was to last until nearly 11pm, breaking only for meals. Chuck and I set up Sparatcus, and we were determined to play the entire game through. He made mediocre progress in Spain in the first two turns, then Lepidus showed up in Etruria forcing me to bring Pompeius back to take care of him (which I was able to do in Turn 3), but the Spanish were doing much better by then. Turn 4 saw the Republicans pushing the Spaniards back in dramatic fashion, and had Chuck not gambled and brought in the Pontines a turn early they would have been in serious trouble. Perpenus never showed, which would have been a great boon to me, but I'm fairly sure that that entire storyline is a little tough to pull off in a game because of the right people getting the right cards in the right order with a single deck. 

Poor reinforcement rolls forced me to play a waiting game in Asia Minor, combined with terrible cards (I had exactly one activation I could do in three turns), and my dice rolls started to go south with one notable exception: In about 11 consecutive attempts to avoid rout, I rolled the best possible, and often only possible, result, a 1. The one time I whiffed it wiped out Pompeius's force, meaning that I had to resort to shipping a crappy consul over to run things in Spain. By the end of Turn 8, Spain was effectively Spanish and I had little if any chance of winning. 

Meanwhile, Crassus and a decent sized force took on Spartacus and lost decisively, ending the Republic's chances for survival at the end of Turn 8. I conceded at that point, having gotten the Serviles into play and accomplishing what I wanted to do - get through the majority of the game. The Sertorians had clearly gotten enough provinces that they could hold onto, and I had lost pretty much every legion I had, being down to something like five on the board. Which was a good lesson - keep every legion you can. I had been removing them during combat to avoid attrition problems, but getting them back was a real trick, even with the three Republican resource cards. The other problem was that I wasn't bringing in extra Proconsuls when I could, which would have been worth the Crisis cost (I never dropped below +10 the entire game, despite using the "Stability Goes First" errata). Especially since we'd forgotten to change the legion limits for stability once Asia Minor entered. Believe me, you need the extra help by then. 

All in all, I still like this game, but it's long (a good six to eight hours for the full game) and I'm not sure that the first four turns giving and taking in Spain is worth the two hours it will take. Next time I'm likely to try the version that starts just before Mithradates enters. That scenario seems to hit the sweet spot of both presenting an interesting situation as well as being playable within four hours of focused play. 

After that, I took a little break to prep for our evening game, Cutthroat Caverns while Alex and Matt played a little Combat Commander (Fat Lipski for the warmup and rules refresh, and the assault on the Chateau for the main event that ran into the night). We went out for a nice dinner at the Sunriver Bar and Grill, then came back for my last game of the week. 

Cutthroat Caverns is, I fear, another Bang! That early card game produced a couple of hilarious sessions that later lost any semblance of luster they once had. On the other hand, CutCav, playing the Lady of Magtherion adventure and with three people (Chuck and Dave) was perhaps one of the highlights of my week. Dave and I blew all of our healing potions on the Lady early, and while I won't say that it was a huge mistake, at the same time I sure could have used them on myself.

We played very cooperatively early on, realizing that we had some very tough monsters to fight. It wasn't until we got to the end game, however, that the knives came out. 

******Spoiler Alert********

If you haven't played this adventure from the third expansion of CutCav, stop reading now and go down to the Spoiler Alert Lifted line to continue reading. Believe me, you'll enjoy the game more if you don't know what's coming.

We'd gotten pretty much to the end of the game, then we ended up fighting the Betrayal encounter, which took the gloves off big time. I felt this was a genius move on the designer's part, as the game felt much more cooperative than it normally does. In the end, Chuck killed off Dave and the two of us were left to fight the Lich Emperor, albeit with ten whopping points each. The Lich Emperor encounter included two skeletons which we took out with only five LP lost each, and then we fought Undead Dave, which we one-shotted neatly. However, we were pretty much out of cards to fight the Lich with, and while the first attack against me was deflected onto Chuck by a fortuitous My Hero draw, knocking him out of the game, I more or less needed to draw a 100 point attack to have any chance to win. I didn't and we died feet from our goal. At least, that assumes that there's no more stuff to fight after that. 

***********Spoiler Alert Lifted*******************

All in all, the biggest knock against the game was that often you had a choice to make with no information other than random chance. On the other side, there were some very clever ideas and I enjoyed the game quite a bit, as I always do with Dave and Chuck when playing these sorts of games. Next year we intend to come up with a new adventure, which I'm already coming up with good ideas for. The expansion was worth it's cost just for this one play, and we didn't even play with the event deck!

After that, I was toast and headed for bed. As I type this on Sunday morning, we have Dave and Mike playing Command and Colors: Ancients with a Roman/Barbarian scenario, Matt and Alex playing Settlers Card Game after making a geocache run (there are apparently quite a few sites within a short distance of the Sunriver house!), and Chuck and Eric are playing SCS Bastogne while I work on laundry and get the house ready to close up. While I won't say that it's been the best WBC, considering the massive disruptions to the schedule we've run up against (Beware The Rat! You've Got A New Job! You've Been Subpoenaed!), things went fairly smoothly. Also, having a long and adrenaline filled 10 days leading up to WBC West, I haven't had nearly as much energy as usual, nor did I have the chance to prep as much as I wish I had. I'll write more on new-game burnout in the near future, as well as more detailed reviews of some of the games we played for the first time. 

We'll see several people taking off in the next few hours, and I expect to get out of here around 3pm or so, although the idea of taking a nap before leaving is sure appealing. 

Next year we plan to shoot for a couple of weeks earlier in the year, probably late April (very late April) to avoid Mother's Day as well as Tax Day. It's my hope that we can expand enough to have games going in two homes, assuming Ken C can come out. It would be great to let Mike and Eric just go at it with a massive OCS game for three or four days and not have to take out the main gaming table for that time (we ended up playing most of the games I was involved with in the loft on a slightly scary ancient card table that my folks had when I was a kid, and even then it was the "crappy" one. 

Of course, the biggest improvement I could make would be to have less drama leading up to the week itself (in my own life, of course), but that's rarely anything I have any control over. 

The next big Sunriver event will be in mid-to-late September, which will be the long Euro-gaming weekend. 

Thanks for following along, and I hope you enjoyed the posts this year and had at the very least a cathartic experience. I also hope that those of you who couldn't come are able to attend next year. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

WBC West 2009 - Thursday Afternoon into Friday Morning

While Mike and I blogged for a bit, Eric and Dave engaged in the most one-sided Combat Commander: Pacific game ever. Playing scenario A (Filipino guerillas in hemp fields, the only CC:P scenario I've got to play so far), Dave destroyed every unit Eric had on the board before the first time trigger. 

Sadly, it didn't get any better for Mike when we tried to start the Stalingrad campaign game again. This time, I insisted on playing the Russians to Mike's Germans, but this time I was aggressive in taking platoons (Krylov and Gordov), each with specific goals. Krylov's standard Rifle units were intended to hold one flank (Melenekov's were supposed to hold the other), and the mortar was intended to try to mess up the woods around Objective 5. Meanwhile, Gordov's SMG squads were supposed to advance up the gully system close to Obj5. I also managed to draw the best arty that still had smoke in the support table, and then proceeded to teach a clinic on how to use smoke to advance units across the board. 

Perhaps the most alarming harbinger of what was to come was when I set up two units adjacent to one of Mike's forward units, then drew two Ambush actions, one Advance order, and one No Quarter action in my initial cards. Of course, I took Mike's unit out immediately. That group (Melenekov) continued up the gully on that side of the board, taking Obj1 and also knocking out the LMG nest he had between that gully and the middle of the board. I also brought up my SMG units to assault the units near Obj 5 under cover of smoke. The SMG units are particularly good for that sort of thing, having boxed firepower raising their melee value to 6, a match for many of the Germans. 

Just before my deck ran out, Mike advanced into one of the gully spaces my SMG platoon was lurking in. I mentioned that since I had a couple of nearby squads that could advance into that space, he might take that into consideration. Sure enough, I had one more Advance card in hand and did just that. Mike conceded, although he seemed to think that I had a lot more VP than I did (in fact, he had 4 after that move). While I felt that his Advance into my hex was a bad idea, at the same time he didn't do much else wrong - having that much smoke and that many units I was very likely to do well, provided I could get enough units next to a space to load it up with units for melee, then get an Advance. Mike had felt that since most of my Advance cards had come out, what were the chances that I had one left in seven cards? The answer, of course, is that the Russians live and die in attacks on Advance cards, and you save them when you can, so it's not simply a matter of taking a statistical sample based on random distribution. 

I also noticed that there were several elements of the preparation portion that Mike misunderstood, although I could *swear* I'd discussed them, and even afterwards he wasn't sure how the attacker was determined and how they got artillery. Part of the problem is that we're simply overloaded with information and rules systems this week, but another is that the scenario generation requires flipping back and forth between two rulebooks. I may take the time to consolidate the entire process into a single document, adding player notes so that people understand how critical that part of the campaign game is. A flowchart might help too. Either way, I felt terrible that yet another CC game had gone so badly for Mike. 

Alex and Matt R showed up about that time, minus the Rat Patrol. George, I love you man, but you are going to take sh*t for the Rat for months. Mike joined the three of us for a quick game of Dominion while the lasagna cooked, with me failing to take full advantage of the Garden strategy. 

Our evening game was really the first that I felt was successful. Dave took the night off to watch the NBA semi-finals, while Mike took the night off to plan for our Case Blue game the next day. Eric, Alex, Matt, and myself pulled out one of my favorites, Manifest Destiny. This was the first game for Matt and Alex, and Eric had only played once or twice. Fortunately, the game comes with an excellent sequence of play sheet that more or less walks you through the game, and I'm comfortable enough with the game to have a good style of teaching it. 

Apparently it was excellent teaching, because the newbies took first and second! I had a very good start, spreading out around the board from Louisiana pretty quickly and zipping up the Profit chart. I did make a few mistakes by playing cards for events when I should have been saving them to play for commodity payouts, and I wimped out when I played Trustbusters and didn't screw anyone over (although there were very few choices as to what was going to be helpful). 

A couple of turns before the end of the game, Eric got hit with both IRS as well as a World War, and he lost nearly $100 just prior to the Investment phase, and he ended up scoring 30 points on the turn after cards ran out. I bumped one point past him at 31, and then Alex also got there, but had more money than me to win the tiebreaker. Matt, however, nailed his Breakthrough roll (as had Alex that same turn) to score 9 points in one turn and beat us all with 33 points. A photo finish, and one of the most enjoyable games of MD I've played. Eric's take was that it was about 90 minutes too long, and to be fair it was a long game - a good 4.5 hours long. However, I feel that with experienced players and brisk play you could shave an hour off of our game time, not to mention avoid the whole 'splainin' thing. 

Chuck, sadly, missed his flight and as I write this at 1pm on Friday he *still* has yet to arrive, although we expect him at any time. On the plus side, the Case Blue scenario really hasn't been in any state to accommodate multiple players on either side, so he hasn't really missed anything other than watching Mike blow his first turn on bad dierolls and little success. However, he has done much better in the next two turns, surrounding the Russians near Rostov and penetrating south toward Krasnodar and the Maikop oilfields beyond. We may just let Mike and Eric enjoy that game while we play something else. In the meantime, Dave has been teaching the Full Game of Through the Ages to Matt and Alex, and they seem to be having a good time. 

More tomorrow afternoon. The plan is to finish Case Blue (or die trying - we are three turns into a 26 turn game, although the whole "Rostov Breakout" thing clearly was going to take a lot of time and brain cells and we're past that now), while Dave/Alex/Matt play Wellington, as Sword of Rome isn't going to work with three as well as Welly will. 

I lover alliteration.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

wbc West 2009 - Tuesday Evening into Thursday Early Afternoon

A busy day on Wednesday, so I didn't get a chance to post.

Tuesday night Mike wanted to try the Stalingrad Combat Commander campaign scenarios again, and so we went at it. This time, however, we'd gotten as far as selecting our platoons before we knew what the objectives were, and as it turned out they were on my side of the (long) board. Mike's Russians didn't have a prayer, and he'd chosen support units that put us both in Recon posture. After things went rather strongly and decisively my way early, Mike conceded in frustration, very unhappy with the game as a whole. 

After sleeping on it a bit, I've come to the conclusion that a very large part of playing the campaign scenario in Stalingrad is how you game the system to tailor your forces not only for that map, but for the objectives as well. Had Mike known that he was going to need to take an objective on my side of the board, he would have chosen campaign platoons better suited to attack, and enough to be sure that he'd be the one with the higher point value. Once you get to rolling on the support table, you simply make sure you pick a unit that won't tip the VP level over to the other side, thus allowing you to roll for the all important arty. For the Russians, the arty is critical because without it you won't have smoke, and won't be able to advance. 

Knowing all of this, I think that the campaign scenarios will be much more interesting and the "construction" part much more important. It will be interesting to see if the Pathfinder campaign series in the latest C3i will follow similar rules. It will also be interesting to see if Mike ever plays CC again. :-)

Wednesday was the day for Dave and I to play games, but because of Chuck's departure we split it up so that Dave and I played in the morning and Mike and I played in the afternoon. So it was that Dave and I tried out Flying Colors, which he'd played last year and I played for the first time a couple of weeks ago. We picked the El Ferrol scenario, based on a hypothetical situation where the Spanish fleet declined to come out and fight the British, only to have the Brits take the port. This scenario assumes that the Spanish came out. Chuck and Dave played this last year, and Chuck won as the British.

I, however, was not as good an admiral with the Brits. Even with the Audacity advantage, they are fighting a Spanish fleet that is larger, has better Relative Rate with it's ships (averaging 2 compared to my 3's with a single 2), and better position early when they British are more or less firing into the wind all of the time. It wasn't pretty, and when the wind shifted after the fifth turn so that my only real options were running or dying, it was more or less all over. However, we did end up ending the game after turn 6 when my fleet ran away. I'd had three ships with struck colors out of six, although I did take one Spanish ship in retaliation. Dave won with a score of 18-10. The game is interesting, but I'm starting to think that perhaps the original scenarios are best for solitaire gaming. The new Ship of the Line expansion (which arrived the day after I left for Sunriver) has what appear to be much better balanced scenarios, so I'm hopeful. 

The afternoon game with Mike was Monty's Gamble, after we'd already gotten in our game of Waterloo. I took the Allies, and proceeded to make a couple of dumb mistakes early - I didn't go after the supply area for the British 1st Airborne, instead allowing Mike to sneak one unit in there and prevent me from pushing him out. The other was not using my air bombardment in Zone F to clear out the area quickly enough. Mike blew bridges in Eindhoven and a bit further north, and so it took me up until turn 2 to get my units well into the 101st Airborne's operational area. On the positive side, both of the US divisions did a good job of taking and holding their areas, and by turn 4 I was ready to take Nijmegen. Unfortunately, the 1st Airborne had been kicked out of Arnhem when I wasn't able to get supply restored (not to mention that the weather went bad the last half of the game), and so I ended up with six points out of the ten, which included me not having the Initiative. I was contesting Best and Wylen, and was right on the verge of taking Nijmegen when the fourth day ended four impulses in. 

I love this game, but it's a very hard game to win for the Allies under most circumstances. I did an amazing job of taking out Flak towers early (in fact, all but two were spent immediately), but failed a couple of critical bridge rolls as well as poor dice early in Zone F, and it's simply difficult to come back from any setback, especially if the weather goes bad. Maybe it's just because the tactical situation is a bit impossible. I did notice that the new 1.2 rules (which I hadn't gotten a chance to go over yet) changed several things, so if you've not gone over them in a while I recommend you do so before playing (and if you want to use those rules).

Eric arrived just before 7pm, so with four of us I proposed China: The Middle Kingdom, a Brittania clone. Decision Games published it, and so the human factors are a gawd-awful mess (it can be very difficult to distinguish the various units on the board - the lettering is completely unreadable at any distance), but the rules were pretty straightforward so we gave it a go, playing the first twelve turns. 

After about four turns, it was clear that I did *not* have the rules as down as I thought I had, and we needed to start over. The early game features the "warring states" and there's every reason to go out and kill as many enemy units as possible. That's where the trouble started, however. One of the big features of China is that you have all of these rebellions where units from the new power replace units of the old power. To decide where this is done, you roll dice until you hit an area where the old units are, which in our case took about 30 roll for Mike's Han to come in. However, the nation he was replacing hadn't done that well, and so the Han didn't have a lot of units, and they only lasted a couple of turns. At that point, he'd been wiped off of the map for the most part, and didn't have much to do for the last 2/3rd of the game. Clearly a game he won't be buying. Me, I don't mind that sort of thing so much, but then I really think that the Brittania-style games are better solitaire anyway. I don't expect this game to come out in group play again, however, but it's really no better or worse than Maharaja or Italia so there you go. 

Thursday morning had originally been scheduled for Eric, Chuck, and myself to play Here I Stand, but Chuck's courtroom hell, which had consisted of six hours of testimony and cross, was extended into Thursday morning, so he won't be getting here until later tonight. As such, Eric had cleverly brought the Elsenborne Ridge Panzer Grenadier set, and we played The Road to St. Vith, which required me to play much better than I actually did as the Americans to slow down the German onslaught. Failure to identify my M18 Hellcats (important because they can shoot and run) resulted in them being more or less wiped out fairly early, and a forward defense turned out to be a very bad idea indeed. Within 10 turns, I'd lost all of my AFVs with only half of Eric's four having been killed, so I conceded as he would be able to waltz around the board chasing my handful of remaining units until I was wiped out. 

I have to say that PG is really growing on me, and the only problems I have consist of the relatively useless Opportunity Fire mechanism and the weirdness of having a negative DRM when you fire at another unit at exactly the same level of elevation as yourself, but because they're on a "hill" they get a buff. Oh, and you can see easily over crest lines, unlike pretty much every other wargame out there. And the assault rules are a little funky in spots. All of that aside, it's a cool game and one I want to play more of. Definitely time to pull a few out for solo play now that the three month cram session that is WBC is finally over. 

Besides Chuck, tonight will see Alex and Matt R arrive. George, who may never live this down, apparently saw a rat (and by his accounts it was large enough to have opposable thumbs) in his back yard that then ran under his house into the crawl space. While I confess that I personally don't see how George's missing WBC will *help* the situation any (me, I'd call in the Army and have them call me when the little f*cker was dead), but he felt it was enough of a crisis to cancel his participation. As you can imagine, hilarity ensued on the Yahoo Group, including Chris offering to rent George his cat. I would counter-suggest a terrier, preferably a Scottie or Glen as these dogs were bred to be ratters. My own dog Hallie would *so* go all Glen of Imaal on that rat's ass! The Dutch, however, would probably just get the rat stoned and then take him down to the red light district and hope that he never came back. Whatever works. 

Thursday at WBC is always a little bittersweet for me, as I recognize that time is ticking away and in no time at all we'll be packing up and heading home. Having a monster OCS game of Case Blue for the next two days, though, will hopefully be the high point of the week and we'll all go home happy. Even Mike, who keeps trying to light my copy of China on fire. 

Hey! Get away from my game!