Monday, August 31, 2009

A Prayer For Roger

Sorry for the lack of posts, recently; things have been very busy here and I hope to start posting again soon on some of the cool new games that keeps showing up.

In the meantime, I've just learned that my very good friend and mentor Roger has been diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. A few years ago, one of my good college friends and groomsmen, Pat, died of this same disease, although for him it was a relatively short process - he died less than nine months after learning he had it. It is a terrible and insidious disease, gradually shutting down your motor functions until finally you are unable to swallow or even breathe. There is no known cure, and they really don't even understand the cause.

Like me, Roger is not a religious man, although he has a very strong spiritual life through his practice of music. That said, please include him and his wife Kay in your prayers and thoughts, regardless of your personal faith.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

CC: Stalingrad Campaign - Battle #4

Matt came over for our recently revived Third Monday session, and we got in the fourth battle of our Combat Commander: Stalingrad game. Matt said he had been reading up on strategy articles for playing the Germans in CC, and it showed as he played quite well.

The battle situation was set in CP G1, or the big open map that is placed just before the hill summit. By now, however, we had 16 rubble counters to place, and let me tell you it plays all sorts of hell with figuring out LOS. Most of the rubble seemed to be in a bit of a "strip" through the middle of the board. When we both chose a single platoon to add to our command platoon and reinforcements, we found we were at exactly 0 VP and so no support rolls at all and straight to Recon posture for both of us. I found my Campaign Game cheat sheet (available on the 'Geek in the Stalingrad module's file section) to be very useful in this process, and I only found one or two things I'll need to add to make things clearer.

The initial open Objective was 1 VP per objective space, plus my secret objective was three VP for Obj3, unfortunately on Matt's board edge. He was able to reveal it via an event early in the game, so the question was how things would turn out with his secret objective!

Matt placed both of his platoons as far forward as he could, choosing trenches for these troops. As it was, the extra benefit from trenches didn't end up playing much of a role, and I felt I got more value from my six foxholes that cost the same amount of Fort points. He was able to get his troops up and into Obj 5 quickly, though, and that was very important later on.

I try to use my platoons as separate platoons, each with it's own mission - this isn't a game requirement, but it makes the game feel a little more like a story when I do it. The Guards Rifle platoon was set along the line marked by the (unused due to the Stalingrad rules) road, which also defined where the Obj spaces were, figuring that with their greater range they'd be better in a defensive role. The "regular" Rifle platoon was set up on the other flank, with the idea that they'd advance, use their Molotov Cocktails at close range, and get stuck in.

Silly me, I hadn't taken the rubble distribution into account at all, nor the fact that I couldn't lay smoke. As things went, I would have been better switching the two platoons, and using the Guards better range to lay down fire. As it was, the regulars hardly moved at all, and the Guards did most of the advancing. The reason was that there was a single line of open hexes near the Guards, and a well-timed Advance in conjunction with a Dig In action at a Time trigger created a solid line of cover that allowed me to steadily Advance on the German positions.

And advance I did, and regularly. I can't complain about my drawing of Advance cards, and I even had Ambushes much of the time when I needed them. Unfortunately, we ended up getting a Blaze marker placed in Obj 5 before I was able to take it, and my reading of the rules says that it stays in possession of the side that last held it. If I have a serious problem with the game, it's with statistical outliers such as this, but really, what were the chances of this being the random hex? First, you had to have the event drawn by the right side, and then there's a 1-36 chance of it hitting that hex. Oh well.

My advances continued apace, killing three German units to the one routed Russian (foolishly placed back near the home line and broken by a sniper - lots more hits with snipers in this game than in previous sessions). I finally died when I'd forgotten that Matt held the +2 Urban Sniper counter, even though I had a three point advantage going in. I'd gone in with a squad and a Hero, and Matt had ended up with nothing left but a broken unit! BTW, Matt had the initiative at the beginning of the game, and held it throughout, mostly because I'd gotten the Sudden Death rules for the *campaign* wrong - I thought you advanced the Battle marker before checking, but Victory is the one thing you check before moving it.

After a few more turns, I was again in position to advance into the Obj2 space, and I was up 2VP when we hit the first Sudden Death check for the game, which Matt missed, so on we went. I was trying to dig up an Ambush card or two when we drew yet another Time event, and this time it went down. My two point advantage was negated by Matt's 2VP per Obj objective, which gave him the two points he needed to tie the score, and thus win the game as he'd held the Initiative card. In other words, by suggesting that the Initiative card would be very useful to have when deciding Sudden Death for the campaign, I'd set Matt up to win the scenario on a tie.

At scenario's end, Matt had seven units on the board, including his two Veteran units (one of which had *just* started making a run on my backfield, which was a bit uncovered), while I had 15. Because the next battle is the fifth one, that meant that while I had more than twice as many units as Matt did, I only got three reinforcements for the next round while Matt got two (taking his two Vet units, wisely). Interestingly, for the Division replacement roll, I had to decide whether to bring back Bulganin as a reinforcement, or Gordov (who had reinforced the previous turn). I chose Bulganin as a superior unit, even though an 8 would negate that gain, while a 5 would negate choosing Gordov. Hilariously, I rolled a 5 and got Gordov back in the pool and so apparently made *one* good choice in my game.

The two things that I screwed up were a) leaving a weak unit near the backfield early to gain that Obj when I should have done as Matt did and just brought in a reinforcement there, and b) tried to get clever and burn some cards to give myself the chance to draw another Ambush card, but ended up with Matt getting an event to discard one of my hand cards. He chose the Ambush card, which may not have been the best choice, but hard to say in hindsight. I would have chosen the Advance, as you can always hope that your opponent will feel obligated to use the Ambush (usually a Fire order/action as well) for Op fire at some point. I ended up drawing another Ambush card as it happened, but that experience taught me to try to use my cards a little more carefully when I had something set up. It may have been the difference, but in a game that close there are usually several things that may have been the difference.

As it is, it's back to the Gully for us, this time with 20 (!) Rubble markers. It will certainly be an interesting situation if we get up to 32 or so markers as they'll really start to pile up.

One thing we did screw up rules-wise, and something I've been screwing up with rubble counters all along, is that you add to their cover for *adjacent* rubble markers. For some reason, I'd thought it had to do with *additional* rubble landing as the result of destroyed buildings, which we haven't had to deal with yet as all of the games have been fought on neutral or German territory so far. In fact, you *can't* have multiple rubble markers in a space. When we figured this out, it was halfway into the game and we chose to continue with the "wrong" rules. With more and more rubble showing up, though this will become more and more of an issue. To be fair, most of our combat was against "lone" rubble units or melee, in other words situations where this rule wasn't really an issue, but it will be going forward.

We actually finished the game well within three hours, so we cleared enough to try out Hive, which I've been wanting to try for a while. Matt won with a very clever use of his beetle piece, while I immediately started out misunderstanding the victory conditions (I thought you needed to completely surround your opponent's Bee Queen with *your* pieces, not with *any* pieces) and spent a little time just trying to get myself out of the jam I put myself in early. I also missed the beetle slide move Matt did right at the end, which was brilliant and unstoppable, while I was one move further away from surrounding his Queen. I find abstracts to be pretty difficult to grok most of the time, but this one is a real winner for me, especially with the edition with the nice bakelite pieces and abstracted bugs (the original had photo-realistic bugs, which put me off to be honest). A 2-player game that I'll pull out more often as a filler, no question.

Thanks to Matt for coming over and continuing our campaign that has run pretty much since the start of the year (Feb, IIRC). With some luck we'll finish before the end of 2009, but frankly that's a very nice way to play out the campaign game as there is a certain degree of "sameness" to it after a while.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9

Many years ago there was this really great movie about life crises (both mid- and teen) called American Beauty. It was and is one of my favorite movies ever, if for no other reason that a naked Annette Benning having, ahem, vigorous sex and shouting "F*ck me, your majesty!"

I mention this movie, aside from the prurient joy of mentioning the sex scene, because it was a movie that was marketed about as badly as you could market a movie. When it was being plugged pre-release style, the initial trailers were all pretty serious, which made sense because in the end it was a very serious movie. Somewhere along the line, however, someone at the studio decided that they weren't going to get enough butts in the seats, and they started advertising it as a teen comedy.

It was not a teen comedy, nor was it really a movie aimed at teens, although there were teen characters acting in a realistic fashion. It certainly had some funny moments, but the core of the movie wasn't funny but instead poignant.

Yesterday, we went to go see District 9, the new South African made movie produced by Peter Jackson, of LotR fame. The movie features bug-like aliens, a giant ship hovering over Johannesburg, and a documentary-like quality that is perfect for telling the tale they wish to tell. While there are some action scenes, in general the movie is not an action movie, nor is it really intended to be a science fiction movie as, say, Star Wars was. In fact, almost the entire film takes place in a slum, albeit one filled with the "prawn" as the aliens are called (in a derogatory fashion, you never learn what they call themselves but I'm pretty sure it involves a lot of clicking).

I'll get this out of the way now - the movie is very good, but it doesn't cast humans in a particularly good light. In fact, with three exceptions (and one of which isn't an exception at all for most of the film), people look like major d*cks, and the ones that don't are pretty minor characters. What it does do is show how little we are really able and/or willing to do for those in need if those in need don't look or talk or act like us. Set in a post-apartheid South Africa, it's pretty obvious what the message is, and it's one that I for one feel Americans need to be exposed to more often.

But I digress. Most of the film trailers I've seen so far on television focus on the action parts of the film, which is not surprising. However, you can tell who the studio is *really* trying to market to by what trailers are shown before the film starts. In the case of District 9, every trailer was for a teen slasher flick or similar. Jennifer's Body, Final Destination God Help Us In 3D, Someone's Killing Sorority Sisters And It's Damned Well About Time, Saw/Horror Porn VI, a litany of movies I wasn't that interested in when I *was* a teenager, and am certainly not interested in now.

Which means that a bunch of teenagers are going to see this movie thinking it's all exploding humans and attacking aliens and it's not at all like that. And I think it's brilliant. Because this is an audience that isn't going to see anything that's socially or politically thought-provoking, at least on purpose, and Peter Jackson is tricking them all into going to what for all practical purposes is an art house movie with some fairly realistic liquification scenes tossed in for spice.

I'll also note that there was a pretty forceful attempt to set up for a sequel, but to be honest the real meat of the film had nothing to do with the aliens and everything to do with us, and I can't see that there will be nearly as strong or valuable a lesson in a sequel. Then again, there haven't been too many sequels that outdid the original, at least in terms of art and not boom-boom (both kinds). Alien was a quintessential horror film, and James Cameron came back with an action chase film in Aliens. He did the same with Terminator, which was mostly intended to rehabilitate Arnold as a "good" robot. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is about the only modern sequel I can think of other than The Empire Strikes Back that outdid the it's direct ancestor.

I left the theater actually kind of depressed after the film, although I enjoyed it immensely. Mostly because I have such little faith in humanity's ability to get beyond our physiology and DNA, and this movie only reinforced that belief. When faced with massive suffering of people that aren't like us, we do the minimum possible to make it appear that we're helping, then at the first opportunity we try to get them as far out of sight and the 24 hour news cycle as possible. I was brought up to believe that people are good and kind and noble, but the first time you take a corporate job you realize how untrue that is. Part of what made this film so horrific was how *easily* people made decisions based on quarterly profits and market advantage, or even out of pure hatred of The Other.

Not that this should stop you from seeing the movie. I only hope that some of the kids who go to see some very impressive weaponry get something a bit deeper from the film, because I'm fairly certain that that is the film's basic intent. I'm also looking forward to more films from South Africa. Highly recommended.

Alert LifeFlight, I Have A Bike

Not that LifeFlight needs to come get me right now. It's just that they almost certainly will at some point in the fairly near future, as I've invested in a road bike to get some exercise riding around the French Prairie area near Wilsonville, OR.

The bike in question is a Trek 7.5 FX, which seemed to represent a good mid-point between lightness, toughness, and comfort. My goal for the summer is to build up to rides of 20 miles or so, which is about the distance from my house to Champoeg Park, and I think this bike will do the trick. You can learn more about the technical aspects of the bike (and see pictures) here, although most of that information is pretty much Klingon to me. I know just enough about bikes to be dangerous!

In fact, I even bought cleated shoes and a pair of Shimano pedals. I've used toe clips before, although like all of my serious bicycle riding that was many years ago, and this shouldn't be that different. The trick, I'm told, is to practice getting your cleat into and out of the pedal very smoothly. However, I expect that I will probably spend about a month just getting used to riding again after such a long hiatus before strapping these bad boys on.

Much thanks to Laurent, who not only went with me to buy the bike, but also went for a good test ride with me in Lake Oswego.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why I'm Enjoying B-29

I've posted some pretty harsh comments about The Kaiser's Pirates, especially the solitaire version, recently. I found the solitaire game to have few decision points and a ton of running the AI, and didn't even make it through an entire game.

So why is it that I'm playing and enjoying B-29, which arguably has one decision point that runs through the entire game - when do you say "this mission is a bogey" and abort? The entire game is running the AI for all practical purposes.

After playing my fourth mission with an online wing (we play simultaneously using the same weather profile, and our results affect the overall success of the campaign, but that's about it for being a "group" game), I think I know why. B-29 tells a very compelling story where you name all of your crew and your aircraft, and when things go horribly, horribly wrong, you get a little sad that these fictitious airmen met their doom.

In my first three missions with the wing, I didn't lose a single plane or crew, and hit the target every time. My fourth mission was no different with the exception that I had no auxiliary fuel tanks and was flying 12 zones out from base. That meant that if everything went according to plan, and no major course corrections or avoiding bad weather, that I'd get home with three fuel points remaining, and you need to have one available just to enter the zone.

Just before flying over Iwo Jima (which we are playing cannot be used as an emergency airbase) on my outbound leg, I got off course for one zone, but had to make a significant course correction. I had also been given a full load of gunners along as "observers", and I used up an extra fuel on takeoff because of them. That meant I was at that very moment going to land on fumes, but I figured that if I lost another fuel before getting to Japan I could always abort then and make it back. However, at the time I thought I had one to give because I figured you didn't need to have that extra fuel to move into the next zone, just once you got there.

Of course, I got lost just before going over target, and lost another fuel box that I couldn't lose right as I went over target. At this point, I was screwed because I wasn't going to make it back, but because I didn't understand the rules I figured I might as well bomb the target. This meant spending an extra fuel turning around after the bomb run rather than just dumping and running. I did manage to nail the target (80%, a very good number even for an Urban Area), and saw no flak and no enemy fighters.

I watched two more fuel disappear due to course corrections on the inbound let, and I knew I'd be ditching. It also meant I'd be a ways away from Tinian rather than up close where your odds of survival improve, and Iwo wasn't an option. As I tried to move from Zone 4 to Zone 3, I knew I was going to ditch just by looking at the drms on the table, and when I rolled for very rough seas I knew I was in serious trouble. The aircraft wrecked on landing, and half my crew died instantly, the rest split between serious and light wounds. It didn't matter, though, as every single one died before being rescued. The whole crew.

The crazy thing is that I think I've lost one fuel to being off course in three previous missions, and in this one I lost four, then had a string of terrible die rolls as I tried to ditch. I felt like I'd let my crew down by not understanding the process, figuring I'd learn it as I went. At least I had *some* inkling of the risks, but even that one extra fuel I could have saved by aborting at the last minute wouldn't have mattered. I also had my first Random Event in four missions, the thing that usually wipes you out (aside from a good hit on your plane by flak or a fighter), but because I was flying at Low altitude it didn't hurt me at all. Just bad rolls four out of five times I went off course and got back on.

In contrast, TKP felt remarkably like I was playing a card game with a war theme. There was no sense of being on a German commerce raider or warship, as both sides have them. There was no sense that I was even German, as I played attacks on the Germans as much as the AI did. In the end, it was an exercise in running a system, while every other solitaire wargame I have feels like you're in a movie. Ambush!, Patton's Best, RAF, Fields of Fire, they all do a varying job of making you feel like you are, in a very abstract and detached in a good way sense, there. TKP did no such thing other than being a very long game of Klondike with warship pictures on the cards and less to do.

I guess I'm a little insulted that this game was published (twice!) and sold as having a valid solitaire variant. I guess I also assumed that GMT had learned that (Battlelines aside) they aren't a euro-game publisher and shouldn't be, although I knew they'd published the PTO version of Atlantic Storm, which I had the same reaction to (but of course it had no solitaire variant).

Oh well.

Monday Gaming (Huh?)

Rip City Gamers is having trouble with consistent hosting this summer, so I've been looking for alternate gaming opportunities. I've enjoyed gaming with Greg at Mike's at various times, so when he invited me to come to his group on Monday evenings, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and enjoyed a very pleasant evening with he, David, and Ryan. I'm sure I'm screwing up at least one of these names, for which I apologize in advance. [Note: and in fact I did. Sorry, Ryan. I've fixed it in the entire post, I hope.}

On the table were Ra: The Dice Game and Canal Mania, both first plays for me.

I'm a huge fan of the original Ra boardgame, although I'm one of those people who feels strongly that the game is really only playable with three, but then it's a fantastic game. The game changes radically with more players, and once you get to five there's so little control that the game loses it's charm. Ra:TDG had me a little worried in that attempts to make some of the classic Euros into a different form (such as the Tigris and Euprhates Card Game) were abysmal failures. Would Ra stand up to such abuse?

The game has scoring that will be very familiar to the players - three epochs, you score Nile points if you've also gotten a flood, most pharoahs, number of Civs, and monuments get scored at game end. That's about it for similarities.

Unlike the boardgame, where you moved very briskly during your turn (mostly drawing a tile and putting it on the auction track), you now roll a set of five special dice that have a symbol for each of the four scoring tracks, an ankh "wild card" symbol, and a "Ra" advance the timer symbol. When you roll the Ra symbol, it leaves your pool and will advance the timer one space, but you are allowed to reroll any other dice. To get a Flood, you need to roll three Nile symbols at once, but only one to advance on the Nile Track. You need three civs at least to place, and you have to choose one of the dice colors with an actual Civ symbol on it. Monuments work in much the same way. Ankh's can increase the number of a given die symbol you've rolled, but you have to have one of those symbols in order to "match" it, and you can't use the color of an ankh to place a Civ or Monument. You get three rolls total if you want them, and if you get too many Ra symbols you'll at least get a few points, as happens if you have Ankh's you can't match up.

As you can imagine, this does nothing to improve the briskness of the original game. There's also no calling "Ra" to force a bidding for the auction lot, as there's no auction. Like in the four and five player version of the board game, I discovered very quickly that maxing the number of different monuments you have is not nearly as effective as shooting for multiples in the same monument, and in this game you have a lot more discretion in accomplishing that. A strong Nile strategy is tough to do, as you have to waste three dice just to allow for scoring in that round with the Flood, and it seemed that we only got four or five rolls before the track filled up.

As such, with four I have to give this a thumbs down, just as I would to the board game, but at least in the board game there are interesting elements whereas this didn't have them at all. However, I am interested in giving it another try with two players to see if it doesn't make for a more interesting game (although because you cut the number of Ra spaces in half, I'm not holding out a lot of hope). In a nutshell, this game was to the original as the Lost Cities boardgame is to it's original, but in reverse. In the LC card game, what you play down both on your play area and to the discards is critical, but in the board version that gets lost to a large extent because you rarely feel like you *must* make one of a set of bad choices. In Ra:TDG, it's like the interesting choices have disappeared to make a lighter game. What's crazy is that Ra is a very elegant game with very complex scoring, and the dice version lightens only the decision making but not the scoring at all - in fact, you could say it's more complex to a very small degree.

If you thought the original Ra gave you too many choices, or want to play with the same scoring and theme with two players, this may be a good game for you. However, it's not more portable, it's not as interesting, and I don't even think it's a cleaner game. I'm also pretty sure the original reprint edition comes in a smaller box. Stick with it.

I should also note that Cooley's Law did not apply in this game - I won rather handily once I figured out that it was generally a good idea to stack monuments rather than line them up, unfortunately near the end of the second epoch. Points were very tight in the game, and I believe I won with something like 20-25 points total at the most.

Next up was Canal Mania, from the guys who brought you History of the World, the Ragnar Brothers. This is a somewhat more directed version of Railway Tycoon, with some nice changes to make it more of a thinking game. For example, instead of getting a secret scoring card, you get an engineer that people can swap out. You can build over other people's canals in much the same way that you can build over track in 18xx, but without the limitations of the track tile set. Rather than building willy nilly, you take contracts that have you building specific canals (although you can build one short line of your choice during the game). When you move the single-colored goods, you can move them over any lines you like so long as the last canal travelled is yours and you don't touch two like-colored cities during the run. How goods get placed is tied closely to the card drafting mechanism, which gives that element an additional decision point.

My biggest knock on the game was that you were somewhat at the mercy of those contracts, and thus it could be difficult to get a nice long run going. I learned by mid-game that I needed to go for the longer routes early to build off of them, but the fact was that my routes were all over the board. If there is a single contract in the pool, you may take it and one from the five-contract refreshed pool if you didn't have one you were already working on, but I was never in a position to do that during the game. It requires a little more advanced thinking, much like Power Grid, and I'm sure I'd do better in my next game. As it was, Ryan was sitting to my immediate right and took pretty much every contract and space I wanted to take as the game went on.

The thing I liked best about the game was that there are three phases, and in every phase you have a choice of two to four things you can do, but only one per phase. For example, you can draft cards or build tiles, but not both. You can move goods or draw a blind card in the third phase. I found that I could have my turn planned out without too much screwage playing into it because there weren't *too* many choices, and so my turns went by pretty quickly. However, the game did go on for quite a while with four, nearly three hours with 'splainin' (which Greg did quite well). Of course, I came in last by quite a margin, being the only newbie to the game, while Ryan did a masterful job of pulling a long route with a lot of special tiles (and thus points) fairly early, and my lack of understanding of the subtleties of moving goods cubes cost me and helped him as the game went on. David did make a very strong comeback at the end to come within ten points of Ryan (who was around 105 points at game end), but it wasn't enough.

Despite Cooley's First Law (just not a good night for my laws, I guess), I enjoyed the game quite a bit, despite the contract taking chaos. However, I think that this would be a most excellent three player game where it would be easier to come up with nice long lines and have less downtime. With four it was still very interesting and kept me engaged, but like Ra this one looks like it will shine with three and I plan to pick up a copy. I hear Mike has one he might consider selling...

By now it was 10:30, and I needed to get home, but the other three were ready to continue on, and in fact another player, Holly, had showed up as well.

Thanks to Greg for hosting and to his lovely wife Aurora for dinner and a wonderful fig crisp. I probably won't make it there too often because of other weeknight commitments, but it's good to know I have some options when RCG isn't meeting or my band isn't rehearsing.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Health Care Hijack

I've stayed away from the political commentary, partly because it's just a bit of a relief to do so (for me, as I suspect, it is for you). The recent shenanigans surrounding the health care debate concerns me on a couple of points:
  1. Rush Limbaugh town hall tactics. Come on. We saw this tactic used during the 2000 election process in Florida. Scream, yell, and don't let anyone explain themselves. You have free speech, but what you don't seem to understand is that gives everyone else the right to speak too. By screaming over anyone you don't agree with, you are actually denying everyone else in the space their right to give their opinion. We have perhaps the first actual debate on health care in this country in my lifetime, and you're going to scream over anyone you disagree with?
  2. End of life care. As someone with an 86 year old mother who is very concerned with end of life care, I can state categorically that this has to do with more choice rather than less. It is not a rubber stamp for euthanasia. It is an open discussion on whether replacing a kidney in a 95 year old person is really a great idea (hint: it's not, for either the person who would otherwise receive the kidney nor for the elderly recipient). In fact, I'll go on record saying that we need more doctors who understand the needs of elderly patients rather than just throwing meds at them. After having my mother go to both types of doctors, there's no question which I'd choose for myself or anyone I loved. We freak out about end of life because we think that death is a bad thing. In many cases, it is, but at the same time we're all going sometime, and no one is making you face that fact. Having the option to is valuable, no matter what you think is going to happen after you cross over.
  3. Government interference. The only people who could possibly be complaining about this are people who don't understand how the system works. We've got rooms of people complaining they don't want the government involved, only to raise their hands when asked if anyone is on Medicare (a government program). And while there are good HMOs, we should remember that every problem posed by those seeking to avoid "socialized" medicine is extant in the current system. Faceless bureaucrats are faceless bureaucrats, whether working in the government or in a corporation. The biggest thing that single payer brings is that you can't be denied or dropped from coverage because you've gotten too sick. And, of course, how much longer do you think the current system can limp along? Would you rather replace it *after* it's collapsed, because that sort of thing always goes well - think the Katrina aftermath.
The truth is that health care as we know it hasn't been in place for 25 years since HMOs took over deciding who gets what care. We keep thinking it's the same, right up until we no longer get insurance through our work (and even then, I pay nearly $400/mo as my personal premium for my wife's work-supplied health care). We had insurance for a few months that wasn't related to her work, and it was a disaster - we paid everything out of pocket and never got anything from our premiums.

Given the economy, businesses are cutting everywhere they can, and the last thing to go is usually health care insurance, but they're at that point. The system simply can't support itself any longer and we have to change. Whatever we choose won't be perfect, there will be unanticipated problems, people who are unhappy things are different (many of them currently getting bonuses for denying care). Really, though, compared to where we are now can it be *that* much worse? Compared to what health care will look like in ten years with no changes (say hello to the ER, everyone!), could it be *any* worse?

So please, those of you currently shouting down any and all dissenting opinion, please stop. You can give your opinion, but do so in a civilized fashion instead of behaving like a spoiled child. By continuing this behavior, you and your compatriots risk looking like birthers, flat-earthers, and alien abductees. In fact, you already do. Thought you'd want to know. Do let me know if your anal probes were covered by your HMO, though...

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Bulge 20 - First Play

I've been fairly impressed with Alan Emrich's titles from Victory Point Games (as publisher and sometimes developer), especially with how he gives some insight into DTP press publishing in much the way that Dan Verssen does for small "professional" publishing. While the games are small, they are also relatively cheap compared to retail for most wargames currently being published (which run from $40 to over $400 if we're going to accept the high end outliers, more like $90 if we exclude the monsters). Avalanche Press does do a few small box games like Defiant Russia for $20, but in general the quality of counters coming from VPG is in my opinion superior, especially if you're willing to spend a little time and money on applying a matte clear coat before you play.

So it was with some surprise that VPG published Bulge 20, which lists at $40. There are more counters in this game than in others, and there is a *lot* of paper comparatively speaking, but the game uses very few counters on the map (certainly less than the 20 implied, although there are other counters on the organizational charts) and the published playing time is 75 minutes. At first blush that seems like quite a bit of money for a DTP game, although to be fair the business model isn't really geared to games with this many components. Alan does a great job of explaining that on his website, and if you've ever wondered why so few DTP companies put out die-cut counters I recommend you check out to find out just what a painstaking process it is.

However, I'm a total slut when it comes to wargames, so I picked up a copy, and I'm very glad I did. Bulge 20 is, in terms of scope, system, and POV, unlike any other wargame I've played.

The trick in B20 is that you are put in the position of a Staff officer on your given side, in charge of planning and running the operation (or the defense). The level is very high in terms of abstraction - there are maybe 12 units on the point-to-point map at any time, although the various Armies hold up to four corps each. And there are less than 30 points on the map itself, and they run from Antwerp in the northwest to Luxembourg City in the southeast. In other words, the map takes a lot of additional space into account than most Bulge maps.

The most important decision you make on each side is choosing the cards that will determine what choices you have during your turn. It's best to think in terms of a standard high-end card-driven game, such as Paths of Glory. The difference is that you *choose* what cards you wish to use during a given turn in advance. The number of cards you can use is determined by what turn you are drawing them, so the German hand size drops while the Allied hand size increases over time. You are also picking your cards at the end of your turn, so you are planning for what you'll need defensively during your opponent's turn as well as what you'll need during your own turn to do what needs doing.

The cards are grouped into four areas along the lines of US planning doctrine. G-1 cards are for organization, such as rearranging your corps into armies on your hidden organizational card, or dropping corps off to extend a line. Understanding how this works is a critical part of the game, as there are definite limitations. For example, if you drop a corps off from an army to an adjacent space, you can't just move over it and pick it up again later. It must first be absorbed by your Army HQ (one G-1 card), then transferred to a specific army (another G-1 card). You also use G-1 cards to flip reduced units back to full strength.

This is a good time to explain the supply rules, as they are critical for the German player and more or less dictate axes of advance. To play many cards (especially organizational G-1 cards) you need to have a Line of Communication (LOC) from your Army HQ (printed on the map for each nationality) to the unit (which can be a corps or an army) that doesn't exceed a certain distance, which for the Germans is a whopping two spaces (three for the Allies). You can take Strategic Crossroads and Supply Depot spaces that will extend this supply line, much as Extenders do in the OCS system. Crossroads are at Bastogne and St. Vith, and the Allied Depots of particular use are in the Meuse cities of Liege and Namur. St. Vith leads to Liege, Bastogne to Namur. You'll need Liege or Namur to take Brussels or Antwerp. These are the historic limitations the Germans faced, and while at this scale it might feel a little limiting, at the same time from a Staff planning perspective, it makes perfect sense.

The next type of card is the G-2 Intelligence card. These cards can be used to allow the attacker to Fire First (or prevent that from happening) during combat, to look at your opponent's hand, or for the Allied player to look at which of the three plan cards the German *didn't* pick. Because, you see, Antwerp may not be the actual goal. The Allies certainly weren't sure of what the Germans were trying to do, and in fact there were two smaller-scale competing plans for what the operation would try to accomplish. One aimed at retaking Aachen, while the other aimed at Luxembourg City and one of the Meuse cities. Interestingly, the Allied player must be careful not to commit Patton's 3rd Army or the Strategic Reserves (which were to be used to cross the Rhine once the weather was more cooperative) as if they are and one of these smaller operations is the goal they actually give victory points to the Germans. G-2 cards can be used to look at cards that are not identified as the actual plan, allowing the Allies to bring those units in that won't hurt them but at a cost of one card.

The third card type is the G-3 card, which comes in two flavors. The first allows movement or combat by a single unit. The stacking limit in this game is one unit per space, enforced at all times, so if you end up with a unit in the way you'll need to plan an extra G-3 card to get it out of the way, or a G-1 card (if it's a corps) to return it to HQ. You can also use multiple G-3 cards to attack a space from multiple directions, which is hard to do but also almost certainly necessary to take a well-defended city. Combat can see the use of various card types, and is of the "roll the number of dice your factors allow, hits on 6, retreats on 5, and you only get one retreat before the 5's become hits" variety. Terrain will play a role in limiting the number of attacking corps from a given army or allow the defender to ignore hits or retreats. An important note is that you do *not* need an LOC to attack or move, but you will need one in order to make use of a VP space, depot, or crossroads.

The other type of G-3 card is air power, which is largely unusable over most of the game until the weather improves (although it may get worse again too). If good, you can use these cards to increase the number of dice you roll in combat, or can be played from the hand to negate an opponent's air card. In any weather, you can take a 50% shot at forcing your opponent to discard a random card through Interdiction. Fortunately for the Germans, they always have one turn's grace of knowing what the weather will be, as you roll for it at the end of the turn but it doesn't actually change for another full turn. Interdiction is marginally useful early, but the Allies are generally so strapped that it may be more useful to have an extra G-3 card instead, but if you end up never using the card at least it has *some* use.

The final type of card is the G-4 card, which I think has to do with Build-Up. You can use these cards to bring back eliminated units based on a die-roll to see how long they take to return. Since you get VP for having eliminated three more of your opponent's units at end of game than they eliminated of yours, that can end up being what the two sides fight over. You can also use it to add extra dice to combat, and also to allow for strategic movement (an extra space but only through friendly spaces), so they can be useful if you're running out of G-3 cards to add to your hand.

Every card type also has "special" versions of the cards, most of them single use (regardless of whether you use them for their intended purpose). For example, the Germans have three special G-3 cards that give specific units (such as the 5th Panzer Army) a bonus in combat, and a G-2 card that gives them First Fire in the turn the card is played in two combats. As the game goes on and these cards are used up, you'll find that the Germans are limited to two of every type of card during a turn except for three G-3 cards (not counting their replayable air card). When you use these is important, especially as one or two allow you to advance into a space that normally isn't allowed because of terrain, although read the text carefully and check to see if you're attacking over a river as this can become a problem (it sure did for me with Liege).

Turns move along pretty quickly, as you're spending the bulk of your cards for fairly quick actions, even combat moves quickly. While Mike and I took three hours to play, much of that was verifying a few rules that weren't clearly worded (such as how eliminated armies came out of the Army HQ space), plus making sure we had the subtleties down. I could see this taking about 90 minutes with some experience, familiarity with the two card decks, and a better understanding of how to manage a handful of pieces on the board that get in each other's way surprisingly often. The planning phase at the end of your turn is the least interesting for the other player, although by then you should be replanning how you'll use the cards that you didn't use defensively on your impending turn. However, it's the planning phase that is intentionally the most critical as you'll need to think of how to use each card type to it's best advantage, and how you'll advance into that city you just eliminated the last unit of but can't just advance into after combat because of the river you forgot about.

As an introductory wargame, I don't know that this is the right game for that. It uses so many alien concepts that it would be difficult to leverage it to other games (although I suspect that this system will become very popular in certain circles). There are no hexes, no odds, organization and planning are everything, and I do mean everything. I also suspect that because of the various victory conditions that many games will end in a tie, which suggests that perhaps it won't produce what many would consider to be "historical" results very often. For example, in our game I was going for Antwerp/Brussels, but came very close to taking Liege (and, seeing as my Peiper card was negated by one of Mike's special cards when it shouldn't have been), I probably would have had an extra card cycle to do what I needed to do to take Liege. While I wouldn't have necessarily gotten to Antwerp or Brussels, at the same time it would have given me back the VP for not taking the final objective and we would have tied. As it was, Mike brought in the 3rd Army and we spent a lot of time learning how dangerous it was to leave an army with no retreat path and with no LOC.

I'm very interested in giving this game another try, now that I've gotten the system down. I'm also hopeful that a company that puts out a more professionally-produced product (from a component standpoint) tries a game in this system out. For a DTP company, the components are pretty nice (they even diecut the counters), but $40 is a lot of money considering that it would be this much discounted with nicers parts from, say, GMT, perhaps less. Alan Emrich even goes so far as to say that this was an experiment in the limits of what VPG could produce, and while there is one more "mini-monster" in the pipeline, he doesn't know that there will be any more based on some pretty strong customer feedback that the game is too expensive given what other companies are doing.

Me, I figure that if the game is actually worth $30 in parts and I spend $40 for a good game, I'm OK with that. I know that this could easily become a WBC-West filler for our group if people knew the system. It's very easy to teach once you've grokked the rules (all 8 pages of them), and the most complex part is just remembering what each card can do, although it's also written on the card in brief.

If you don't mind spending a little extra for a little less component wise, you may find you really like this game. While I think that history will show it was a fairly limited version of what may become a very popular system, sort of like Israeli Independence compared to Zulus on the Ramparts!, at the same time remember that people said the same of We The People, which is still a very popular game despite it's drawbacks compared to later titles such as Hannibal. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

WoW Update August 2009

It's been a while since I updated what I'm doing in World of Warcraft, so here goes. Those of you who don't care can stop reading now, nothing to see here, move along.

WoW continues to be my computer game of choice, with total hours spent compared to other commercial games running at about a ratio of 100:1 or so. Really. I rarely play anything else, although I did have spate of playing Quake 4 a few months ago. I even tried out Spore and got bored pretty fast, and I never got past The Sims 1 and have no interest in trying out the later versions. I did try a few PC games when I got the Mac Pro and installed a separate hard drive just to run XP, but I found Age of Conan to be bland and uninteresting after the first 20 levels and City of Heroes simply never captured my interest either. I think that you need to really enjoy playing a particular character to get very far with one in an MMO, and I was very fortunate to have made a good choice with both of my mains, a gnomish rogue HVAC engineer and a Tauren feral druidess leatherworker.

I should note that while I do pick up console games to some degree, it's rare that they keep my attention. It's no surprise that I own about 1/2 the titles for the Wii that I did for the Gamecube, mostly because it's been so difficult for Wii developers to come up with a system that works well with the Wiimote. Given that they needed a better motion sensor, as evidenced by the new Resort Sports game, that's no surprise. I'm hopeful that new development will ensue now that there's something useful in place. My point being that aside from a few console games that capture my attention (Metroid, Lego Indy) there's nothing I play regularly. Except WoW.

It's been a few months since I've played my Tauren druid, although she's clearly my second favorite character. At first, my motivation was to play a few zones in Northrend with each of my toons, then switch over, but it became clear after the two entry zones that while there is some differentiation, at the same time the 72+ level progression is pretty similar in both factions. As such, I decided to just run to level 80 with my original toon, Leonadril, which I accomplished a couple of months back. I was also pretty involved with trying to complete the quest achievements in each zone, although I seemed to run into trouble with finishing both the Troll Ruins area (all those Zul'Blahblah names sound alike to me) as well as Icecrown, which requires a lot of grouping which I don't seem to do much of. I did manage to get my Explorer title from going pretty much everywhere in the world, though!

Leonadril was an excellent choice for me for a lot of reasons. Being a rogue meant I could slip in and out of a lot of places without a lot of muss and fuss, good for both finishing quests and also being able to grab ore. It also meant I could take on two or three equally leveled mobs through sapping and blinding, so a lot of things were soloable for me that might not have been for other characters. Choosing an engineer was the best choice, though, as I love the crazy gnomish stuff I get to build. At this point, my mount of choice is my Turbo-charged Flying Machine and my Mechanostrider, both of which I've posted screenshots of on this blog. Now, though, the cool thing to build is the Mechanohog (or whatever the Alliance calls it), a motorcycle that allows you to bring a rider along in the sidecar.

Unfortunately, getting a mechanohog is a bit of a trick. First, you need to become Exalted status with the Alliance Vanguard, an amalgam of four different groups in Northrend. One of these wasn't hard because they involve so many quests, but the other three are more difficult. The Frostborn have only one daily you can do, and it's kind of worthless unless you're in Storm Peaks. The only real choice I had was to take part in the Argent Tournament, where you get to joust and have a lot of options to go through various Champion levels for the different races. Once you get Champion status with one race, you can more or less double up the daily quests to some degree by going for Champion status with the next. The jousting itself is interesting to a point, but fortunately gets a lot easier once you figure out how the AI works. I managed to get to Exalted status with the Vanguard after gaining champion status with three of the five races, and am about halfway to finishing up with the Night Elves. As a bonus, I've gotten Exalted status with those races too, which allows purchasing mounts from them. If, of course, I wanted something that wasn't mechanically oriented.

So now I've got the status and can buy the plans and parts. And hooray! they only cost about 12,500 gold. After all of this grinding, I'm only at about 6000 gp, so I've got some distance to go. Fortunately, I can now spend time doing other quests than the ones for the Argent Tournament, which while I can burn through in about an hour going solo (30 minutes if I group), it does get a little old after a while. I went through the same grind with Consortium Rep back when I wanted to get my flying machine, so I guess it's not such a big deal. Something to look forward to, I guess.

As I'm typing, the 3.2 patch is out, which includes some new content and a lot of changes to the pricing and level acquisition of mounts. Apparently you can now get a mount at level 20, when back in the day I was able to get one at level 40 (and couldn't afford the training until level 48). While the relative cost for that level is about the same, I can't stress how nice it would have been to have had that extra 1000 gold lying around at level 40 and forward. At this point, you can dual-spec your talents for that much, something I haven't done.

As for my guild, they're a nice enough bunch, but I haven't done much grouping or instancing with them. They usually want to run off and run Naxx at Heroic level, something I'm not quite specced to do just yet (although one nice side effect of the Tournament has been to get some nice Blue gear, particularly much more effective daggers). I may make a point of looking for PUGs to do the handful of group quests that I need to get over the top for my Icecrown and Zul'Whatever quests (about 8 in each zone to get the achievement). I'll probably also look into what other factions it would be smart to gain rep in for extra trade potential.

I think I'm also pretty close to putting down Leonadril for a few months to get Amahiah up to level 80. She's currently right at the end of the Grizzly Hills quests, so it's time for TrollLand and Storm Peaks. There's a lot of opportunity for skinning in Storm Peaks with all of those Ice Rhinos dying near that big pit thats the endgame area for one of the big quest lines in that region, and that's always handy. On the plus side, a well-played feral druid can take on quite a bit more than a solo assassin rogue, and it will be nice to see these zones from the Horde side.

The updater is telling me that I'm ready to go explore 3.2 now, so off I go.

How long until we get another major update? ;-)

Monday, August 03, 2009

Tales of the Arabian Nights: Out Of My Mind

Matt G and Alex came by on Saturday afternoon to try out the new edition of Tales of the Arabian Nights. As mentioned in the previous entry, this edition is truly gorgeous, aside from a couple of poor choices in how to represent each player's Victory Formula. We used paper and pencil, although to be quite honest we probably could have just remembered what we were shooting for and trusted each other.

Matt had also pointed out the the initial paragraph that you look up is on one of about eight pages at the beginning of the Book of Tales, and so I downloaded a shrunken version of it that I could barely read, but it saved a lot of time in the book by giving that duty to the person with the matrix sheet as well.

My initial impression: this game would be a whole lot faster if the whole look up process were put into an iPhone app. A *lot* faster. Not that this would necessarily be a good thing - you don't want to eat a nice steak dinner over 15 minutes, you want to enjoy the meal and take a couple of hours.

Not that TotAN is a steak dinner. I guess it comes down to what you're looking for. If you want a game where you plan out what you're going to do, and playing competitively is important, you are going to want to hit your Back button on your browser right now and pretend you never heard of this game. It is considerably less a game than a theme park ride, although one where you get to pick which random door you're going to go through next.

Of course, I knew that going in. I don't mind games like this at all - most of my very favorite games have tons of flavor and usually a decent amount of chaos, so long as it's done well. Combat Commander springs to mind, which almost always gives great story. TotAN did much the same thing, although when you hear my tale of woe you will perhaps wonder why I didn't just start drinking after the first encounter.

The first random thing you do is pick three skills. I chose Wilderness Lore, which was never used, Appearance, and Weapon Use. In my very first encounter, I attacked the Strange Dark forms thinking that Weapon Use would help me out. No. I ended up being Wounded, which negated both my Appearance and Weapon Use. From being rolled in a pit of coals.

After blowing a Story point to get better, I then got an 'Efreetah (the kind men like) all hot and bothered over me, and she gave me a kiss that made me particularly hot, in an Appearance kind of way. Which was great right up until I tried to do the Unitarian thing and embrace the Strange Customs, only to be buried alive with my very attractive wife. I was down there a long time, and when I got out, I fell in a pit of snakes. The whole Pit thing kept coming up. I ended up Wounded again *and* Crippled. No Appearance for me, since getting uncrippled takes a lot of luck, so I just stayed Wounded too.

Oh, and I also went Insane. For only one turn, and fortunately Matt had me *question* the Strange Customs this time, which involved having your pinky cut off. It also involved me becoming a Vizier of some city and I also ended up married. I got a *lot* of Destiny and (especially) Story points out of that adventure, enough to almost get me back in the running.

Sadly, Alex had hit his numbers and he headed for Baghdad, and there was no way I was going to make it there being all Crippled and stuff. Matt, however, had drawn an Echo Horse (or something - I never finished my quest and never saw any treasure the entire game), which let him go wherever on the board he wanted to, and he'd finished his formula as well. He nosed out Alex on the basis of having more statuses (statusi?) Me, I was the King (or Vizier) of statuses, with five total, but not enough Destiny because being Crippled apparently gives you a lot of Story points and that was what I was looking for the least.

From a "How Much Worse Can It Get?" perspective, the game was actually pretty entertaining. With three players it moved along briskly and everyone had something to do on every turn. Except when I was trying to stop being Wounded. The statuses can end up with some pretty crazy combinations, such as Matt having a situation where we picked the die roll he got, although he got to choose it too. Believe me, if you're the kind of gamer who doesn't tolerate this sort of thing not being in a FAQ, this is the wrong game for you. Given that there is a pretty loose correlation between having Weapon Skill and succeeding in attacking things (often it will be better to have Courtly Graces or Plays Well With Others or Big Weasel as your status even when it makes absolutely no sense, at least in Western eyes), the game is really about enjoying how the stories turn out. When it comes down to it, that's how you win - by getting into the stories by having a good reason for your matrix choices.

Our game took about 90 minutes including pizza arriving and a few rules lookups. That was about the right amount of time, given that you were more or less spreading the burden of running the AI across three people. Matt said he went home and played solo using the rules from the original edition and said he enjoyed it. I have enough solitaire games to keep me busy, I'm afraid.

When it's all said and done, this is the kind of game that would be a nice wind-down game late at night at a game retreat, or a good one to play with my nieces and nephews (the eight year olds in particular). For Rip City Gamers, though, this one will probably never get on the table. It has it's charms, and it's certainly a better deal than buying the original, but I can't see anyone in my circle wanting to blow more than an hour on it. Maybe with that iPhone helper app...

One note: the original game came with counters and charts for a Merchant variant, where you could move goods between various cities based on an evolving trade network. There is supposed to be a variant online for this, but there are no counters in the game so it would be a much different beast. If you liked this variant in the original, you will probably want to hang onto your original copy if you still have it. As I write this, there is no merchant variant on the web site, although there is a solitaire version, a character interaction version (which would be a nice change) and a storytelling version. I'll probably try the storytelling version, which requires you to reach Fabulous wealth *and* complete your formula before exhausting the Encounter deck. Of course, that whole Wealth thing is as much a crap shoot as anything else, but that's not why you're playing the game. Right?

In a nutshell, if you're the kind of person who loves this kind of game, you'll love this game.