Thursday, June 25, 2009

Space Alert - Out Of The Box

I'm a big fan of coop games, at least if they're well done and you don't have too much downtime. Even then, with a game like B-Star G, you can generally be very involved throughout the game trying to convince everyone that you're really "a deputy" (a la Bang!). Sure, since you're playing against a system, there's a fair amount of luck that will determine the outcome, such as having the same card come up repeatedly in Pandemic! when you have an outbreak, but the fun is in the interaction between players as they try to figure things out.

Now, along comes a game that still has a certain amount of luck, but the real enemy in the game is... time.

Understand, I'm a huge fan of B-Star G, largely because it's really not so much a coop as a semi-coop, with some players on one side and some on the other, and the fact that you may not know which side you yourself are on until the halfway point strikes me as particularly brilliant. It will take quite a good game to knock this title off of it's perch as my favorite coop, given the right number of players with the right attitude and enough time.

Here's the thing: Space Alert plays in about 30 minutes, and that includes setting up. But what a 30 minutes it is.

The gist of the game is fairly straightforward. You are a crew of an exploration vessel in space, popping into a system, scanning it in ten minutes, then jumping out. Except that while you're scanning, the bad guys are trying to terminate you with extreme prejudice. Each player has a card track that works a little like RoboRally (we've lost Mike already, here) - you have a set of five action cards that you use to determine what actions your player will take. As you all discuss what you're going to be responsible for during the mission, various threats appear from one of three directions, meaning that the early actions are going to get you to a certain part of the ship, then you'll want to not only start shooting but also managing your energy levels. Throw in the fact that you'll eventually resolve your actions later on in a very specific order, and there's every chance that while you're under the gun things will not go as you thought maybe they would.

The thing driving the action at this point is a series of sound files (on CD, but you can download MP3s or just rip the damned thing) that tell you that various things are happening, from introducing new threats to allowing people to give cards to other players. One player is assigned the role of Comm Officer, and they are the ones who need to be paying attention to the soundtrack. I will admit that I haven't heard the soundtrack yet (I was playing solo to get the system down, not to "compete" against the game), but I can only imagine that it will raise the tension level accordingly.

Once time runs out, you resolve the various actions in sequence. If you manage to get through the round with each of the three sections of the ship intact, you get to jump out and keep score. It is possible to come out with a negative score, apparently, and anything over 10 is very good. I mentioned RoboRally before, but now think of it with five robots trying to cooperate and instead of five actions at a time, you do twelve. And under time pressure.

This is where coop euro meets party game, and I can imagine that it will be a real hoot once it finally hits the table with a group.

The biggest problem, of course, is trying to teach people the game. It's really not terribly difficult, but the time element will screw with your ability to remember what it is you can and can't do, not to mention that the actions come on cards that depend on orientation to work correctly - place the card upside down, and you're suddenly shooting a gun instead of riding the turbolift. Fortunately, the game comes with an astonishingly funny (and lengthy) tutorial system, great for teaching people who've never played before. You can learn the whole thing in about an hour if you have good gamers, which includes actually playing two or three of the special tutorial missions.

Even better, each "real" mission will be different because each threat is different and requires a different approach, and the vectors each come in on as they approach each section of the ship are also different from game to game, not to mention that there are six or so different mission tracks that mix things up. Like most coop games, there's a lot of replayability but at the same time I get the sense that it's a lot harder to end up with a "killer" situation that you have no chance to beat. The reason? The enemy is time, and how well you function under that pressure is the measure of how well you do.

The components are largely of the Galaxy Trucker variety, lots of neon purples and greens, but everything is very functional and color challenged folks shouldn't have a problem as there's always another graphical element that *isn't* color. The only problem will be with the player figures, but you're going to know who's where anyway because if you aren't discussing the situation, and with great urgency, you're going to lose.

The biggest problem is that this will be a hard sell for non-gamers unless they are puzzle nuts. There's a lot going on, and while much of it will be familiar to gamers, the overall process will take non-gamers a little time to latch onto. That's not that they won't pick up the game, just that there are a lot of tiny mechanisms that they need to keep track of.

And there's another entertaining element of the game. You can move the various pieces around the board all you want to during the timed part of the game, but when you resolve all of your actions to see if you survived or not, it all goes back to the starting position and you go from there. I imagine there will be a lot of surprises when a card you thought was in a position (they all go *face-down!*) actually isn't, or you gave it the wrong orientation by mistake, screwing up everyone else. You don't have a lot of room for error in the game.

I only played through the first "guided" tutorial mission, which only uses seven steps and a fixed set of threats and vectors. I was able to easily get through it, although I didn't play under a timer as it's very difficult for a single player to manipulate the various tracks in the kind of time you really need to have. A big part of the game is deciding who has the right cards to do a particular action, so it's really not a solitaire game (and in fact I'd go so far as to suggest at this early stage that you really need at least three, although I can't confirm this at all).

If you like being under time pressure and you like coop and party games, this could be a big winner for you. Time is an element that I really enjoy in games, from Galaxy Trucker to Space Dealer to Merchants of Amsterdam to Tamsk, but it's not employed as often as I'd like to see. Having a coop that features it as a central element is something I'm delighted to see.

I definitely give this a tentative high recommendation, and am looking forward to giving it a full tryout.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Driving Along In My...

Tuesday gaming came at us fast and furious, this time centered on the great metropolis of Sherwood and Chris' house. JD, Mike, Chris, and myself showed up to give the latest from Martin Wallace a try, in this case Automobile.

If you've played any of Wallace's latest offerings from his "vanity" imprint, Treefrog Games, you'll get what you're expecting. Lots of wooden bits (cute little cars, distributors, and even some sheets of plywood they call "factories"), effective but slightly amateurish graphics, and a ton of mechanisms with no immediately obvious correlation between them. I'm not trying to be coy, here, that's just how I've felt about everything I've seen that Treefrog has put out, from After The Flood to Steel Driver to Waterloo. They all seem like well crafted games, but the require multiple plays to enjoy and I always seem to be left with a lack of interest in giving them that commitment. Unlike Thunder's Edge.

So would Automobile break the mold for me? Not really.

Not that it isn't a good game, mind you. Wallace always does an excellent job with theme, and this is no exception. The oeuvre is the beginning of the 20th Century and the birth of not so much the car, but the car as a salable and profit-generating appliance. There are lots of descriptions that go into greater detail on the 'Geek, but I'll give a nutshell description here.

Each turn, players choose one of the seven personalities, which give various boons for that turn as well as determining turn order. Each player will take one of three actions allotted to them in turn, being able to build factories on the next new model car on the track running around the board, creating distributorships owned by the manufacturers, building cars, and occasionally closing factories that support older cars or increasing R&D budgets. At turn end, cars are sold based on a mix of how distributorships fall out and demand generated for the three tiers of car quality (luxury, standard, and budget) done in a largely random fashion. There are Executive Decisions that players can take to get their cars out the door as well, which is important because otherwise you not only spent money on cars that didn't sell, but you also take losses that add up as the game goes along for unsold cars, unbusy distributors, and obsolete factories. Do this for four turns, with some changes to demand as time goes on. Whoever ends up with the most money at the end wins.

For the mathematically astute among you, you've noticed that each player gets three actions a turn for four turns. That's a surprisingly small number of things you do, at least on the surface. It's a tight game, no question, and understanding how each car model fits into the greater scheme of things is pretty important. For example, if you build a factory for a luxury car when there aren't any more spaces for luxury cars within seven or eight models, it's more valuable because of the selling sequence than if there was another model two spaces down, because you'll have primacy for a longer time (in theory) than otherwise.

However, as it turns out there are lots of decision points. Which personality you choose determines player order, and sometimes being later is better (in fact, very often later is better, as selling order is determined by whose factory is farther ahead). Your executive decisions will also be important, as Chris learned when he didn't take the free "close factory" choice that would have saved him four loss cubes in the first turn. Even trying to guess which distributorships people will try to take at which tiers is a tough decision. The game requires a high degree of efficiency, no question, so it's by no means a light game such as Toledo or Mordred. We had four experienced gamers starting with little idea of how the various elements would fit together, and there seem to be a lot of them (and they have a fairly high degree of complexity). I'd put this game at or above the level of Brass in terms of it's complexity, so be warned if your group has members who prefer lighter games.

I had a very strong start in our game, leading by a small margin for the first two turns. My strategy was to get some distributors on the board early as I went early and thus build a factory that was third in line. Where I went wrong was going for the Luxury factory in the end game and sticking with it whereas everyone else had two factories at that point. I was thus pinned into a specific strategy, which Chris upset nicely by jumping ahead to get the next luxury factory that had been four spaces ahead on the board when the turn started. As in the third turn, I was stuck with one extra car at turn end, partly because I thought Chris would focus on his lower tier car sales instead of on the luxuries as a spoiler, and he placed a distributor in the luxury area that screwed me up.

Not that it mattered. You have to spend money to make money, and I should have purchased a second factory rather than buy twice with the luxury models. They do have a larger margin, but the demand is so much smaller (and almost completely random, compared with the regular demand process) that it's very dangerous to put your eggs all in that basket. Since you get all of that money back for unclosed factories at game end, it would have made a lot more sense to do. As it was, I came in last with $31xx, while I'm fairly certain Mike came in at nearly $4000, with JD in second and Chris behind him in a pretty even spread.

To be fair to the game, I was tired after having company for the past couple of days, plus personal drama has taken it's toll on me for the past couple of months, and I'm not sure this was the sort of thing I was really itching to play. Still, none of the Treefrog imprinted games has even sort of grabbed my interest, even on a second playing. It may be partly the graphic quality, which is what I'd expect from someone with a good computer and software and a decent eye but no formal training in human factors. The information is all there (mostly - would it have killed them to put a list of legal actions on the board somewhere?), and it's mostly effective, but at the same time it's missing something that I can't quite put my finger on. If you've ever had a professional stager come in and set your house up for sale, you know what I mean - Treefrog games look like the "before" picture instead of the "after" picture. I could make the same comparison between the way Decision Games' titles look and GMT Games' titles look (minus the crazy posterized art that MacGowan favors). Again, it isn't just Automobile, it's *all* of the games I've seen from Treefrog. It's certainly a distinctive look, it's just not a look that calls out to me.

Also to be fair, Euros just aren't what they used to be for me. I have a stack of ten or twelve Euros sitting at home unplayed, partly because I live on the moon and very few people come out to play games anymore, but also because I haven't even set them up and run through a turn or two to get the overall gist of how they work. Back in the day, I'd spend an entire day or three doing this after a big order. Now, I can't be bothered. Call it Euro-ennui.

It also doesn't help that Wallace rarely puts out a theme that I'm interested in. Many of them center around the Industrial Revolution and it's aftermath (including Automobile), a period that holds considerably less interest for me. Tinner's Trail, Automobile, Steel Driver, all were set in that general period. I did, however, like Brass quite a bit, although that was five titles ago and who knows if it will ever see table time again. Maybe that's the problem - too many Wallace games where they all fit their theme nicely but at the same time all feel similar.

In the end, like most of the other Treefrog titles, I'd play this again, and perhaps I'd like it more, although that was not the case with Tinner's Trail, the only Treefrog title I've played twice. I'm certainly unlikely to sign up to buy any of these games, which shocks even myself when it comes down to it.

Oh well. I was never a car nut anyway.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How I Became A Republican

Those of you who follow this blog, or know me personally, I apologize for the provocative title and the distinct possibility that your drink went out through your nose when you read it.

I've never been a guy who begrudged paying taxes, or complained because some of them went to causes I was morally opposed to (torturing political prisoners in offshore holding facilities, for example, although I certainly complained about the practice. I think that socialized medicine is not only a good idea, but it will be a necessity at some point. I've even run up against various local regulations that limit what I can do with my own property from time to time, but since I'm not trying to skirt around such issues in order to make a profit, it's never really bothered me.

Now I've run up against intrusive government, and it's making me pretty angry. I guess it could be worse, seeing as I'm not the guy the government is causing problems for, at least directly, and it's not really even my government because it's Washington State and I live in Oregon. But it has given me a little insight into why so many people in the country hate big government.

I will note that, as with most things, it's really *what* the government is doing, not so much that they are doing something. The most right-wing soy bean farmer on the planet is thrilled to get a subsidy, but furious when his taxes go up by $10. Let's let all of the hypocrites on both sides of the political fence moan away, preferably out of earshot.

The problem has to do with the domestic violence laws in Washington State. If you are arrested (not convicted, arrested) on a charge related to domestic violence, there is a no-contact order put into place almost immediately, with a default term of two years. Think about that for a second. If you have an argument with your spouse or significant other and anything gets damaged in the process (and I mean anything - there's anecdotal evidence that if you chip a plate that's enough), you've damaged the other person's property in the course of a domestic dispute, the police can charge you with malicious mischief, arrest you, and you aren't allowed to see your SO for the immediate future, which will probably be for at least a month or two.

For chipping a plate.

Don't get me wrong. I have very strong feelings about spousal abuse. I feel that women have for far too long been victimized by a justice system run by men who were perfectly happy in how things were. But a one-size-fits-all treatment of crimes under this banner is simply ludicrous, were it not tragic. It's like justifying colonialism because the wogs can't govern themselves (which is occasionally true, but at the same time ignores the problems of colonialism).

I'm very sure that there are people who have avoided serious injury or death thanks to the current law, and that's fantastic. I'm just wondering why there isn't a law that does that *and* protects the rights of those who are not only not guilty of anything more than getting into an argument with a loved one, but also those who are the alleged victims.

There has been quite a bit of press, as I've found in my research, full of cases with people who had no idea of the consequences when they dialed 911. In some cases, it was dialed by other people who heard the argument. And that's the real problem here, although it's not limited to Washington. My niece and her husband got into a huge fight when they lived in Phoenix (near Ashland in southern Oregon). She outweighed him and had I been in his shoes I would have tried to call 911 too, as he did. However, she ripped the phone off of the wall as he did so, triggering a police intervention. When they arrived, they were in the street and he was holding her by the wrists so she couldn't attack him. The police assumed he was attacking her and arrested him.

The DA in the case was crusading against domestic violence in that part of the state, and convinced my niece to testify against him. Because he also had a sex crime record (for mooning someone when he was 18 - really), he ended up having to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, when he was the one who called for help! On the plus side, he finally figured out that my niece wasn't worth staying with, and filed for divorce immediately afterwards. He was a really great guy, and even my entire family offering to testify on his behalf couldn't save him from a DA with a political agenda.

The net result in my mind is that when you are unable to see your spouse (and possibly your children) because *you* called 911, there's a problem. What the answer is, I'm not sure, but too many people are ending up in a situation they never intended and it's all because of intrusive government that was intended to protect people. It's doing far too good of a job. I don't know that this will make me a Republican (or at least a conservative - I think the Republican Party as it exists now will die if Obama is still president when the economy recovers), but it gives me a much clearer idea of why some feel the government is out to get them.

I'm still happy to pay my taxes, though. Especially when I get some of it *back*.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Through The Ages

Tuesday saw JD and Alex at my door, and after flipping a coin we chose to teach JD how to play Through the Ages. In the interest of time, we played the Advanced game through the second age, and this was a good decision. We didn't see any pacts, but we did see an Aggression attempt as well as a very tight game right up to the end.

I focused early on happy faces and civil actions, picking up Hammurabi early. This limited my Military card choices, but gave me the chance to do a lot of stuff, including getting the Hanging Gardens built early. My Age I leader was Michaelangelo, and I went to town on happy faces, having something like six culture points per turn from his leadership alone. My other wonder was the Transcontinental Railroad later in the game, which allowed me to do some things late.

Alex focused on the military option in the midgame, and was scoring some nice points with Genghis Khan, but when the Event I'd planted that gave us all an extra scoring round of culture points came up right after I'd gotten Michaelangelo in play with around five bonus happy face points, I took a big lead and never looked back.

Alex did make a very nice run right at the end, and he closed a fifteen point gap before scoring the four Age III events, but not quite enough. I ended up beating him by four points. Interestingly, I had to make a decision right at game end whether to spend three action points to end the game before Alex got another turn, meaning that I'd end up taking fewer culture points in the end that I wanted to - I had a ton of resources so could have bumped up a couple of different mines and placed more temples, but since I'd only score those points on one turn I figured I'd just end the damned thing by forcing the end of the game (JD was last in order, so the final Age II card was placed on his turn, and had I left one it would have gone back around for one more round).

JD picked up the game very well, and my strategy of teaching the game in reverse sequence of play order is a good one - explain the currencies, then the actions (noting cards and definitions as needed), then the military cards, then going forward. While he had some questions, I did repeatedly note certain elements (such as what happened to cards when you changed ages, etc) and he did quite well for a first game. Of course, the game is extremely elegant and well-designed for it's complexity level, so it's much easier to learn when that's the case than when things are counter-intuitive. Most impressive was that he always remembered to do his production phase, which often gets overlooked by first-time players (like, for example, me).

A big hit with JD, and I continue to be impressed. I am not finding the downtime with three players to be a problem, at least if beer is involved. I also think that the Advanced Game through Age II is perfectly acceptable when time is short, as we finished in about 2.5 hours (not including 'splaining) and a Full Game would have taken us at least another hour or so.

This game is quickly becoming my favorite heavy euro. Although why they included so many yellow tokens and so few whites is beyond me... Highly recommended.

Friday, June 12, 2009


I freely admit that I love the movies that Pixar makes. I've got many of them on DVD. This is the company that allowed Steve Jobs to return to Apple Computer and save it from almost certain death. Of course, if you suffered through Vista, I suppose you can thank Steve for bringing Mac OS X to the masses and forcing Microsoft to play catch up (and badly), but there you go. I hear the next Windows OS looks a whole lot better, so good things come to those who wait. For their system to reboot.

But I'm not talking trash about Windows, at least not today. Instead, here is a list of things you need to know about Pixar's newest offering, Up. I shall not discuss the plot in any detail, so don't be afraid of spoilers.
  1. Bring tissues. I don't care if you're a linebacker. Bring lots, because everyone around you will need them. In the first 10 minutes. I am not lying.
  2. If you're wondering if splurging for the 3D version is worth it, it isn't. There are a few scenes that are perhaps made more visually interesting, but I spent a good part of the movie taking my glasses off to make sure they worked. Frankly, I'm happy about that as 3D is yet another fad to get us to go to the theaters instead of waiting for the DVD or HBO broadcast. Or just lifting the damned thing from the web.
  3. There are some scary moments here. The auditorium was filled with fairly small children, and there are some scenes with dogs that would have freaked the heck out of me at age 4, especially in 3D. In contrast, Wall*E was very tame (although less consistent in the quality of animation - first half was stunning, second half cartoony).
  4. Joe Mortensen of the Wall Street Journal has not the slightest bit of his childhood left in his memory, and his negative review was undeserved. However, he did correctly note that the music for the movie is superb (as a musician, I tend to notice these things - Michael Nyman ruined "The Piano" with his terrible score).
  5. If you have a child in Scouting, you will particularly like this movie.
  6. Did I mention that you should bring tissues? Well, you should.
  7. If you aren't bringing a child to see the movie (and there's really no need to if you don't have one handy), you can show up about 10 minutes late so that you can miss the kid's version of "The 20" as well as the kid trailers. However, don't be *any* later than that - the first 10 minutes of the movie is a clinic on how to present backstory.
  8. The dog has the best name ever! Especially the spelling.
While I'm not terribly sure that this was the best movie of 2009, it will certainly be in the top 10, and almost certainly the best animated feature. My highest recommendation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Bite Of The Apple

Once upon a time, Hebrew legend set the first woman's name as Eve, and now we can't get rid of the damned thing. Worse, because she's blamed for tricking Adam into eating the apple, hardly anyone names their kid Eve. It's just one or two steps up from Cain, or Herod, or Jezebel.

Of course, EVE is completely different. It's an acronym, standing for something space-oriented, and is the name of a fairly popular (and exceedingly deep) MMORPG that I haven't gotten around to playing yet. Mostly because I'm a wuss.

However, I seem to be a major sucker for boardgames based on MMORPGs, with mixed success. WoW: The Boardgame I like quite a bit, WoW: The Adventure Game I will enjoy playing with younger kids, and Age of Conan was simply a mess. So why not invest in one more, in this case EVE: Conquests.

EVE has gotten a lot of criticism on the 'geek for some poor component choices, for being a set of mechanisms in search of a game, etc. Certainly it didn't have the sharpest graphic designer in many respects, and the idea that lightweight poker chips are your "units" is kind of lame when you consider how many games out there have a ton of plastics (although, to be fair, Axis and Allies uses poker chips too, although they go under specific unit types).

So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to give this a try with Jesse in our occasionally regular weekday gaming. And you know what? I think there's a lot of promise here, certainly more than the 'Geek Gods were willing to give it. I'll note now that we played two two-player games, one to 20 points and one to 10, with Jesse taking the long game and me taking the short because of a poor choice on Jesse's part at the end of the game, otherwise I think it would have been a bit of a tossup. I should also mention that Jesse has played the online version, while I haven't touched it (but may at some point).

EVE is a scalable strategy game for 2-4 players, with each player taking the role of one of the various factions in the online game (although there is no differentiation between these factions at all other than color). The game has variable length, with players choosing to play to a set VP amount or to a time limit. The board is made up of a set of circular spaces, each representing a hefty chunk of territory in the online game - unlike many MMORPGs that use multiple servers, there is only one server in EVE so everyone plays in the same "space" and that requires it to be enormous. Each space is color coded based on how far it is from the core of Known Space, with the outer systems being worth more points than inner ones. You take the highest value color space out of play as you reduce the number of players, so we only played with the Green (1vp) and Blue (2vp) spaces.

There is no wealth of units, in fact your Giant Poker Chips In Space units are only differentiated by whether or not they are in a space that you control (denoted by your chips being on the bottom of the stack) or they are "agents" in systems someone else controls. This will have an effect in combat, maybe, and it also acts a way to "encircle" systems so that you can place outposts on them. To be honest, I felt that this was a plus for the game - it strips it down to a point where you aren't concerned so much with your economy as you are with the essential factors needed to win.

The "economy" in the game is based on placing "outposts" in systems you control. For every system that you control that has all adjacent systems controlled by you or that have an agent on them, you may place an outpost of one of three colors that map to the various actions and action cards you get as the game progresses. One of the beefs with the game is that it's very easy to build up enough outposts to fund whatever you want to do in the game, but what those reviews are missing is that when you lose a system with an outpost to your opponent, they gain VPs and you lose them, so you don't place outposts lightly. I'll get back to the economy in a bit, so bear with me.

However, no one gets any VP until they start taking the spaces identified on the Political Track. Here, I'm not quite convinced that this isn't the problem with the game, but I don't have enough experience to tell just yet. Here's how it works: The PT sub-board has nine spaces, three wide by three deep. The X axis is color, based on there being three similarly colored areas surrounding the board. The Y axis is simply a series of letters, A - B - C. The various systems have cards that go on the PT based on where they are on the map, so that Red cards will be near the Red nebula (more or less). At the start of the game, players turn over a number of cards and then mark them with the appropriate lame cardboard punch out, and this is where the components really *are* weak. Suffice it to say that the problem is removed simply by placing these punch outs in plastic stands like you'd use for the figures in Talisman and there won't be a problem any more.

To score VPs, you simply need to control two of the systems displayed on the PT that match either color or letter and place outposts on both. You may take the two cards from the display (gaining VP based on the *system* color rather than the PT color) during a specific type of action. Again, if a player takes a system from you that had an outpost on it, they can take a PT card from you that is of that system color and with it the VP, so you want to choose your systems carefully. There are also some action cards (discussed below) that let you improve your score for certain combinations (like claiming two "C" systems). In a short game, which systems come up has a big effect on who wins, as it's possible that you'll get the necessary PT cards dropped in your lap, but the PT colors do give you some chance to know a general idea of where the VP systems will drop. There are four systems on each PT space in the two-player game, and it goes up as you add players.

The game progresses through a fairly clever "calendar" mechanism. In essence, each player will do three different types of actions as the game moves forward, and each corresponds to one of the outpost color types:
  1. Development - This action allows you to place units in empty systems adjacent to controlled systems (no leapfrogging, you must control the system at the start of the turn), or to place agents in areas adjacent to controlled areas, with a limit of one unit per region per turn. Like all other actions, the number of actions you take during a Development turn depends on how many blue resources you committed to it the last time you took the action. You can also claim two PT systems as mentioned above during this action.
  2. Production - This action is very easy - you get a set number of units that you can place in controlled systems, no more than three per.
  3. Logistics - The most complex action. You can draw action cards, all of which correspond to one of the three action types in this list. You can also move units from one area on the board you control to any other areas you wish, although once they move to an area no units in those areas can do anything else that turn. You can also attack an adjacent system from a controlled system.
Each action has three "stages" to it that dictate both how far in the future you'll be doing this action again as well as how many things you can do in that action, each determined by how many of that particular resource you devote to it. For example, Production will produce 3 units in 3 turns if you don't give any resources to it. Give one bronze resource at the time you take the action, and you'll do the next Production action in 4 turns but get 5 units. Apply two resources, and you place 8 units after 5 turns. Development is the same way - you get to do more things, but only over more time. Logistics is a bit of a no-brainer - you get more things to do in a shorter time.

When I say "do x actions in y turns" that's not completely true. The game is divided up into "months" and the delay is given in months rather than specific turns. Each player has a marker for each action type (color coded) so once you take the action you decide how many resources you want to commit to it. Let's say you've just taken your production action and it's January (and the months are indeed marked using the traditional Western calendar). If you decide to take the base action of gaining three units, that will place your marker forward to April, which is three months ahead. There are six slots in April, and you'll place your marker in whichever slot is currently at the end of the line for that month. If, instead, you devoted two resources, you'd instead place your Production marker in June, five months ahead.

Which is, actually, one of the more interesting parts of the game. Because of the way the movement rules work, you can't move then attack, sort of like Paths of Glory. However, if you first do a Production action followed immediately by a Logistics action, you can build units in the space you wish to attack from first, then attack in Logistics. You may also want to get in your action before another player does to beef up your defenses. I suspect there's a lot of depth to understanding the calendar and the action sequencing subsystem, just as there is to deciding when it's best to place an outpost. I should also note that if you have two actions back to back in the same month, you may choose to execute them in whatever order you choose, but it has to be in the same specific month, and you don't actually change the order of the markers on the calendar (to avoid gamey tactics if you had three markers in a row, which is unlikely but possible).

The action cards, which you draw using Logistics actions, do a lot of different things, from adjusting the position of action markers on the calendar, to letting you adjust units prior to combat, to making your agents more powerful, to affecting combat in various ways. Let me simply say that these cards can be extremely powerful, or they can be essentially useless. However, you may discard an action card to gain an additional sub-action, such as placing an extra unit during Production, or even drawing another action card. The cards are divided into three groups corresponding to the various actions/resources, so there's some sense of what kind of card you're getting. Also, some cards require you to use a resource to play them, and the resource stays as long as the card stays. In our games, while we at times had three or four cards up in front of us, we didn't have too much trouble remembering what our capabilities were. With four players and more cards, it might me a trickier proposition.

Finally, combat. When you fight, you get one die for each unit attacking or defending, and agents don't count unless you have an action card that says they do. When you pick your dice, which is done secretly, you pick from three flavors - attack, defense, and tactics. However, if you have more agents in the fight (for the defender, that means an agent in the system the attacker is coming from), you can ask your opponent how many of a specific type of die they will choose. For example, if I'm picking five dice, and you have the agent advantage, you can ask how many defense dice I'll be picking of those five. Defenders also get a bonus die if they have an outpost in the system.

You lose one unit (not agent) for each red hit symbol your opponent rolls, and save one for each blue shield symbol you roll. The tactics dice are a little more involved, with you and your opponent comparing the total number of tactics symbols rolled, and the winner gets to take a special action, which can mean adding a hit or a shield to their totals, or pulling a unit out of harm's way. If either side loses all of it's units, they lose that system and the bottom-most agent will take control, and any outposts are lost. If you have any PT planet cards of that color and lost an outpost, your opponent gets to take one of those cards and the associated VP, so where you attack from and where you attack are very important.

And that's more or less the game.

My impression was that the criticisms of the game are at times on the money, at times simply demonstrating that people don't understand how the systems work together. The components are rightfully criticized - it's difficult to see the names of systems on the board, and the PT system markers are an exercise in how *not* to design components, but in the former case it doesn't come up all the time, and in the latter case all you really need is a set of plastic stands to make the markers vertical and the problem is solved (although I can't help you if there's a color-impaired player involved). The player aids that list the various actions and levels could be more clearly delineated, but once you understand that the silver iconed number refers to sub-actions (matching your units) and the action-type colored number refers to time (matching your action markers on the calendar), it's very usable. Otherwise, I think the components are fine, poker chips and all. Because of the large number of units that can build up in a given system, the only difference between this and A&A is that there isn't a specific unit type on top of the chips, and since there's only one unit type it doesn't really matter that much.

The rules are just fine, if a little convoluted. As you can tell from my description above, there's a lot of interplay between the systems so there's really no good linear way to describe the game. I'd rather see a portrait-oriented ruleset, and I really hate white type on black backgrounds, but these are minor preferences. When it came down to it, we were able to find rules as necessary, and most of the time we didn't need to look things up repeatedly as the various systems are pretty clean.

So what did I like about the game? First off, it's elegance. I'm not a big fan of strategy games with a major economic component, like A&A where you buy different units based on how many resource production points you generate. Here, it's stripped down to basics but not so much that there's nothing to the game. I also like that the game seems to require more careful consideration of your actions than you'd get at first blush, as evidenced by the calendar action sequencing system and the fact that outposts are a blessing and a curse. I also like that you have a certain amount of compensation for chaos elements, such as being able to use cards to generate extra sub-actions, and even the political track gives you an idea of where a new VP space will appear. I like the scalability of the game, both to a given number of players but also in terms of length. I really like the stacking element, in that you can come in with an agent early, making it much less appealing to attack a given space as you're more or less handing it over to the enemy (Note: I may not have this rule right, as you won't run into this situation with two players).

So what didn't I like? Well, the chaos of the political track is still chaos, and as demonstrated in our second game can have a huge effect on the outcome. In a four player game, all but one of the nine PT spaces will be revealed, although in that case you're also looking at one of four players will probably get the space, and they can't use it until they take their Development action anyway, so this may actually be less of a problem with more players. I've already mentioned the component issues. I also wish that there was *some* differentiation between the various powers - In WoW:tBG, you were limited to specific race/class combinations, and couldn't have a rogue on both the Horde and Alliance side, but every character was different. Here, no difference at all other than what pastel color you'll have and your headquarters piece.

All of that said, it's no Twilight Imperium 3, unlike Thunder's Edge. (Inside joke for WBC-West'ers). Because I don't really care for either of those games at all. No, EVE: Conquests is a much more stripped down game that may or may not evoke the spirit of the MMORPG. Given some of the stories Jesse was telling me as we played, I'm not sure how it could. You see, the MMORPG is set up so that you are unlikely to spend much of your time in every area on the board unless you had a *lot* of time on your hands and really liked exploring. The joint is huge. Also, given the high levels of customization present in the MMORPG, you're not going to see that in any sense in this game, which takes place on a strategic level that you don't get online. You may belong to a large economic consortium, but in general everything takes place at a much lower level.

That's actually a plus for the game, as it's not a slave to evoking an online experience. WoW:tBG is a lot of fun, but it's very long and is not without it's issues (which is why I prefer it two player or solitaire), most of which can be traced back to the change in medium. EVE avoids this entirely. However, it also means that there's no compelling reason to buy the game if you like the MMORPG. Fortunately, I think the game has a lot to recommend it on it's own merits, and I'm looking forward to playing it with more than two people - like most MPSGs, it works with two but should be more interesting with three or four.

At this point, I give a tentative recommendation for EVE, and will try to get it on the table in the near future, perhaps at a future Tuesday session if we have the right number of players. It's certainly better than a lot of the BGG reviews make it out to be, and I think that often the right play will not be as obvious as some might think.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Good Wargaming Blogs

I seem to struggle in finding good gaming blogs and podcasts for some reason. Many who followed Gathering of Engineers will recall my first critical assessment of gaming podcasts, when I made some comments about The Dice Tower and we all know how that turned out!

As we seem to be in what I'll call the Late part of the Gilded Age of Eurogaming (where some very good stuff comes out, but our tastes have developed to the point where we aren't as interested in most of it), I find myself largely uninterested in new Euros, and starting to get that way about multiplayer strategy games (MSGs). The field that I continue to be interested in is board wargames, and while I will always enjoy and promote playing Euros and MSGs (an unfortunate acronym, it sounds like I play a game, get a headache, and am hungry an hour later, although that *does* happen), it's wargames where I seem to be directing most of my gaming energy these days, whether it's our WBC-West nanocon, solo gaming (see my new "What I've Played" gadget on the sidebar), or my increasing interest in monster games.

There are a few blogs that I subscribe to, but most are written by people in my own local gaming group. Searching through the various wargaming blogs, most seem to involve miniatures, and I've been there done that. For me, it's not about the toy soldiers but about the system and the insights it gives into a historical situation. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to disrespect miniatures players or their hobby by any stretch. It's just not for me, as I'm not that interested in painting the uniforms, much less getting into arguments about whether the epaulets are striped correctly. I do understand that there's a huge appeal in seeing the battlefield and the realism it lends, but then again so do reenactment groups, and I have no interest in that either. Besides, board wargaming is a time- and money-intensive hobby as it is, and I have nowhere to store terrain.

Podcasts are another issue. The most popular of the board wargaming podcasts, Point 2 Point, leaves me completely cold. I'm sure they are very nice people who love their mothers and you can count on in a crisis, but Jason simply shouldn't be conducting interviews. When it's free and the people putting out the podcast put so much work into it (and I understand just how much work goes into it, believe me), I suppose I shouldn't complain, but the truth is that when you put yourself out there for public consumption you are, in effect, putting yourself out for criticism and need to be able to take it like a wargamer. The more recent wargaming podcasts are, I suppose, interesting to a certain degree, but a good podcast requires interesting personalities as well as interesting content, and so far I have yet to find both. I was hoping the Messy Game Room would fill the void, as the guys running that are total characters, but I found their understanding of boardgaming in general to be a little too weak for my tastes.

Which is strange, as the best (IMO) World of Warcraft podcast, "The Instance," is fantastic. It's well put together, the personalities are interesting, the content is interesting, they have perhaps the best crew of guest hosts ever (including Curt Schilling!), and useful information. Occasional swearing aside, this program could be on commercial radio, and in fact from the few things I *very* rarely hear on radio, it may be better in most cases. Of course, WoW has 10 million fans worldwide, while board wargaming has perhaps ten to twenty thousand, so you'd expect that someone would rise to the challenge with a large population.

So what I'm asking for here is a set of blogs and/or podcasts concentrating on board wargaming (although they can also focus on euros or MSGs) that are interesting, topical, and fun. Heck, I'll try anything once. However, I'll only give podcasts three episodes to engage me, mostly because the amount of time I spend listening to podcasts seems to be limited mostly to the car these days, and there's not a lot I need to drive to. Blogs I can give much more time to.

Thanks for your suggestions.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Things I Learned In May 2009

My blogging (and gaming, for that matter) has taken a serious hit over the month of May, largely because my personal life has been one ongoing crisis after another. At least I got a week in at WBC West that was relatively quiet.

Here are the things I learned in the merry merry month of May. Note that most of these things didn't happen directly to me, but they did happen to people I know. 
  1. The justice system is not going to provide you with any useful information right up until they actually give it to you. Also, they tend to be closed on Sundays.
  2. Make sure you understand the implications before calling 911 regarding a domestic violence problem. Some states (for example, Washington) have some very tough laws that may not have the result you were thinking you'd have. 
  3. If you have a loved one forced to stay overnight at a hospital, a family member or friend should be there. Don't be afraid to ask what the hell is going on or make sure that your loved one is getting the right medications. (Note: Not related to items 1 and 2 above, at least necessarily).
  4. Steroid injections for back pain rock. Totally. 
  5. When you turn 80, you should get to take all the opiates you want, among other things. Who the f**k cares about long term effects at 80? 
  6. Back up your hard drive, especially if you are responsible for travel information for a group you have a leadership role in. 
  7. If you finally decide to get off your ass and do regular computer backups, make sure that you take the time to do them for your spouse's computer too, especially if you decide to be responsible about a week before said spouse's computer dies and you can't get info off of the drive anymore. Also, don't use the phrase, "That's why you back up your hard drive!" to your spouse. 
  8. If you buy a consumer-grade Mac, especially a laptop, get the extended warranty. Things will break within three years, it's a computer. 
  9. Know the rules before you start teaching the game. Good advice even if it's not a game you're teaching.
  10. Don't just rely on one review on the 'Geek before buying that expensive reprinted monster wargame. You may find afterwards that the designer hasn't issued a formal set of errata and in fact spends a lot of time on ConSimWorld contradicting himself and tossing out spot rulings. 
  11. Sometimes, you preorder (and pay) for a game nearly a year in advance. Sometimes the game has serious drawbacks, such as poorly die-cut counters. If you got a really good deal, don't complain that the river is purple on the map, but do ask repeatedly for them to send you the missing scenario book if you didn't get it.
  12. If you need to use scissors to trim counters of edge flash, use a band-aid to prevent blisters unless you've built up nice calluses. 
  13. Some solitaire wargames are pretty cool, even if you're mostly playing against a statistical model. Example: Zulus On The Ramparts (Victory Point Games).
  14. Apparently they *can* make a good Star Trek Movie that doesn't feature Ricardo Montelbahn. Or however you spell it. About freakin' time.
  15. Close the windows during a big wind storm. 
  16. Always bring a bottle of wine with you when socializing.
  17. Know what parts of your body are going to give you problems, then have them checked regularly. 
  18. Treasure the people who take care of you, whether that's in a familial, familiar, or professional. Help them when they need it. 
  19. If you can possibly manage to live with a dog that's indistinguishable from a Toon, do it. They will make all of the above a lot easier to swallow.
  20. If you get nice weather in May in Oregon, don't assume it will be nice in June too.
  21. When the local gendarmes start losing their State-based revenue streams, expect them to make it up by running non-stop saturation patrols on the local roads. This is a great time to try driving at the posted speed limit. Protip: Cruise Control can be a money-saving option on your car!