Friday, October 30, 2009

Nemo's War

I've really seen a resurgence in solitaire wargaming over the past year, partly because I live just far enough away from other wargamers that I'm lucky to get someone out here to play something more than once a month. I'm getting a lot of good gaming in, but in-between it's been nice to play some of these new and really great titles that have been coming out recently.

I've blogged before on quite a few of these titles - B-29, D-Day at Omaha Beach, RAF: Lion v Eagle, Soviet Dawn, Where There Is Discord, Fields of Fire - just to name a few. These are titles that are specifically intended as a solitaire experience, and do an excellent job of covering different subjects using different systems while also having different levels of complexity, playing times, and levels of abstraction.

So it was that I was very happy to see that Victory Point Games had put up a few more titles just for the solitaire gamer - Nemo's War and Empires in America. The latter title concerns the so-called French and Indian War, really a colonial extension of the Seven Year's War, and uses the base system from Soviet Dawn, Israeli Independence, and Zulus on the Ramparts, also all from VPG. I've got that game set up but have yet to run through the rules, but it looks very interesting.

What I'm going to discuss today, however, is Nemo's War. As with so many aficionados of classic, nay, protean, science fiction, Jules Verne holds a special place in my heart. Going to see the Disney adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea as a child, back when we had five television channels and no way to record them or distribute movies other than through theaters, was a huge treat for me, and I briefly considered a career as an oceanographer at the time until I realized that you spent most of your time cold and wet. Heck, I even read an incredibly boring chapter from the book on the physics of how you could have a ship that went underwater. You can also learn a great deal more than you ever needed to know on how fish are classified.

The game is a retelling of the story from the point of view of Nemo, rather than Professor Arronax, the unwilling passenger whose account makes up the literary work. As Nemo, you have one of four "motives" for your actions in sinking ships, inciting revolutions of oppressed peoples against their imperialist masters, and seeking science, wonders of the world, and other treasures from sunken ships. These various point sources may be very valuable or worthless depending on whether Nemo is acting to thwart Imperialism (his motive in the original story), sink military vessels, research science, or just explore. There may also be a chance for the player to change motivation during the game if you are finding the "wrong" kind of victory points - for example, finding wonders when you're an anti-Imperialist (they are worthless).

The game system is very simple - you have two real phases in the game, one of which is the AI admin portion, which comes first. You roll 2d6, which generates (possibly) ships on the map. The map is very simple, just six regions representing different oceans (North Atlantic, East Pacific, etc), which in turn consist of a slot for the Nautilus, a slot for a treasure marker, and between two and four slots for ships. If a ship would normally go into an ocean that is "full" no ship is placed. Also, if you roll doubles, you may get to place a treasure on the map if that treasure has already been found, but you may also see your colonial agitation efforts lose ground as a result. Finally, if you roll a high enough number, you generate an event.

Events come in one of two flavors - Events, and Tests. Some Events in fact allow you to optionally take a Test. Events are either Immediate or Retained, but if you retain an event you can fulfill it's requirements later on without a cost to the actions you can take. For example, I could either retain an event until the end of the game for victory points and/or science points, or I can use it in a specific area to gain back crew points.

Which brings me to another system I should mention before discussing Tests. As Nemo, you have three different resources - Nemo's Stability (emotional, not tightrope walking skills), Crew, and Hull. Each of these fits on a track that does two things. Firstly, if your levels are high enough at game end, you get extra VP, but you lose VP if the levels are too low. There are also a few spots on the various tracks (such as Nemo deciding on his final Motivation, which is the only time you can change this particular setting) that have special actions associated with them. Secondly, you can "risk" a resource to gain a DRM to a battle or Test roll by moving it halfway down to the next slot in the track, with the applicable DRM displayed right where it should be. Make the roll, your resources return to their original positions. Fail, and they drop down one notch.

With Tests, you can use any and all resources listed on the event card, but with combat you can only use Crew *or* Hull points. At 15 VP, Hull and Nemo constitute 20% of the points you need to break into a narrow victory, so they're points I personally was loathe to give up in my game. However, while Crew and Hull DRMs drop as your levels drop, Nemo's actually get *better*, although it's also a shorter track (and you don't want *anything* hitting bottom, or you lose the game). The result is the chance to manipulate the track in order to maximize your end result, and it's not only clever but improves the game significantly.

Back to Tests. A Test is just a 2d6 roll to meet or beat a stated number, but you *can* risk resources to get up to a +6 modifier if your resources are at the appropriate levels. Different things will happen when you pass or fail tests, from getting some sort of DRM later in the game to gaining science and VPs to gaining/losing resources. When you discard both events and tests in this game, they go into a "Fail" or "Pass" discard pile. At game end, cards in your "Pass" pile will be counted in your favor. Note that some cards *must* end up in the Pass pile to count, while some must remain unplayed, so read them carefully.

One other interesting note about Event cards. The nominal roll to draw an adventure card is 10+, but if you don't draw a card that turn you flip the turn marker over to show it's 7+ side, and next turn that's all you have to roll. Once you get an event card, you flip it back to the 10+ side. The game can end when most of the cards are drawn from the pile, but there are always 4 cards set aside so you never know what mix of cards you'll get.

That's it for AI management. Now it's up to Nemo to take an action, of which you have several choices. The obvious ones are Move and Attack. Moves may cost extra time (you only have 52 weeks in the game, and every turn will eat up one week for sure), but they simply move you from one area to an adjacent one. Attacks come in two flavors - stalking and attacking. Stalking gives you a +1 DRM to combat, but you only attack one ship that turn. Attacking allows you to attack as many ships as you wish until you either fail, "capture" a ship, or run out of ships in that area, but you gain notoriety for every additional ship you attack.

Which brings me to Notoriety. There are a couple of ways that additional ships enter the blind draw pool, one of which is the simple passing of time - two different groups of ships come in through that method, as seen on the calendar track. The other way is through notoriety. If you sink a ship with the right symbol(s) on it, you will gain Notoriety. If you *fail* to sink *any* ship, you gain one. If you are Attacking, and go after an additional ship, that's one more. When you get to a certain point, more ships are added to the pool, and again later on the track. If you peg out at 33, warships get a bonus when they attack you. Since you can end the game early by running out of ships in the pool or on the board, I guess there's some motivation to keep your notoriety low, especially as most of the ships coming into the game through that track are badass, but in my game I didn't worry too much about it.

Combat is very simple. If the ship you revealed (or attacked) is a warship with a red cannon symbol and red number, you roll 2d6 and try not to roll below that number. If you do, you lose a Crew or a Hull resource. Then you try to sink the ship by rolling at or above it's defense number, applying any risked resources or other DRMs. If you sink the ship, you can choose to "capture" it, which lets you use it to gain special mutant powers like an armored hull, or sink it and put it on the Sunk Ship Matrix. This gives you extra VP at game end for being an equal-opportunity ship sinker in all of the areas of the board. If you manage to sink 36 ships, 6 in each area, you can gain an extra 35 points, but if you are short in just one area, you only get the bonus points for the smallest number of ships sunk per area. I misread this, and ended up with no ships sunk in the Indian Ocean, and thus scored no points on this track.

You have a few other choices as well. You can Search for treasure, which I was terrible at. If you roll a 1, you lose Crew or Hull. On a 2, nothing. 3-6, you get the treasure in that area. Guess what I rolled most of the time? Treasures can be a number of VP (which is modified according to your Motivation), a mini-event, or a Wonder. Numbered treasures are also useful in that they can be used to Incite revolutions, yet another action.

Inciting revolution can pay off really well, but as I learned you want to do it kind of late in the game, and unless your motivation is Anti-Imperialism, you probably won't see it as a useful tool. What you do is take a numbered treasure to "finance" the revolution with, roll 1d6, add the treasure number to it, and subtract 5. The result, if positive, is how many spots up the track you move the Incite marker. For me, these were worth 5 points apiece, compared to 1/2 value for treasure, so burning a 3 treasure was no big deal. The downsides: Roll a 1, and the level drops one. During the Ship Placement phase at the start of each turn, if you roll doubles and the number on one die is below that of the Incite track level, you lose one level. Roll a natural 6, though, and you gain an extra level. On my first roll, I burned a 3 treasure, rolled a 6, which was worth 4 levels plus one bonus. By near the end of the game this had been whittled down to a 1. Much better to save up your treasure and do the Inciting late when it won't get chipped away, that was a 25 point loss over time.

Finally, you have the option to Rest/Refit/Repair, although you can't do any of these on a turn right after you've done one of the others, so you can't Repair one turn then do *any* of them the next turn. Repair fixes your hull, Rest adds to your Crew, and Refit uses those captured ships you got earlier to buy improvements (or gain extra adventure cards, if you wish). The improvements can cost from 2-4 points in ships, and of course you'll want to get them early if you get them at all, so a good early game strategy is to go for that refit in a focused manner, if it's important to you. For instance, something that would have given me extra treasure so that I could use them to Incite would have been a good call, had I thought of it at the time. One note: These actions tend to take extra time off of the clock, so you want to consider them carefully. If you keep running into warships and your Crew/Hull are taking a beating, probably worth your time to Rest or Repair, or if you're at game end and one of these would put you back into the Green Zone for a given resource, and thus 10 or 15 more points.

For those of you suffering from a Deansian Statistical Distortion Field, there are three markers that allow you to either add pips to your dice *after* the roll, or reroll the dice completely. They are all one use only, and once used they will cost you VP (-9 for the post-roll +2!), so use them very carefully, perhaps when death is on the line. They each map to one of the three "heroes" of the book (Arronax, Ned Land, and whoever the hell it was that Peter Lorre played), and while trying to figure out how these folks would be *helpful* to Nemo can be a bit of a stretch, it's really the only non-thematic mechanism in the game.

So how did it play? Considering that the SoP consists of roll 2d6, see what happens, then do one thing, it was really very engaging. The trick is to figure out which of the four Motivations you want to follow, then make that your priority. With War!, you want to sink warships. With Anti-Imperialism, you want to sink non-warships and Incite! revolutions. With Science, you want lots of events with Science symbols. With Explore, you want Wonders and treasure, and to a lesser extent, science points.

If I had a complaint, it was the usual problem I have with remembering to advance turn and status markers when I'm supposed to. I had several turns where I couldn't remember if I'd advanced the Calendar, or when attacking a bunch of ships if I'd advanced Notoriety. That's my own bad, so not really something that's an issue for most players, and certainly not restricted to this game.

Because of the way the ships are added to the pool (via time and notoriety), you have a pretty good idea of what ships are out at any given time, at least early. There are some ships that show up according to events as well, but you get to fight them for free. You even get to at least try to mitigate the many rolls you make during the game, even if most of the time you're gambling.

Here's a good example of how this game allows players a fair amount of control in the midst of chaos. Nemo is in the South Atlantic, where there are four ships and a treasure present. One of the ships is revealed, and is a fairly nasty captial with a defense of 10, but worth a nominal 3vp if you sink it. Your Hull and Crew have been reduced enough that the best you can get is a +2 to your attack die roll, which means you need an 8 or higher, not great odds if you'd have to lose a resource. As such, you have three choices - Attack the ship in order to have a chance at others and gamble a resource, but at slightly less than 50% odds. Alternately, you could not gamble the resource, but have very little chance of success. Finally, you could *only* go after that ship using Stalking for that extra +1, which would give you a slightly *better* than 50% chance, a 1-in-6 improvement, but you wouldn't get to go after other ships. You could even ignore the warship entirely and go after another, so far unrevealed, ship, although the presence of warships gives you a negative DRM. You could even Stalk the ship without gambling the resource, an improvement from 6-in-36 to 10-in-36 (needing a 9 instead of a 10).

In other words, the game lets you play the odds the way you want to. They may still go against you (I had one, count 'em, one successful treasure search in the first half of my game, compared to two lost resources and three unsuccessful searches), but at the very least you know the odds going in.

I also strongly recommend that you read all of the flavor text on the event cards as you go, as I would with any game like this. It's really amazing how many things happened in the book, especially compared to the Disney movie, which focused on giant squid and cannibals. Funny how some things don't change...

I found Nemo's War to be a very light but short and enjoyable solitaire game with elegant rules but a surprising amount of control over how you play the game (and a certain ability to rejigger the VP schedule).

That said, I do have to note two things: there's an expansion set in the works, if not already out, and this is a DTP-quality game in terms of components, although the counters are die-cut if not at the same level as a professionally done game. The cards are heavy card stock, and will wear over time to a fair degree. Also, the game is a bit pricey for what you are getting, but this is part of Victory Point Games' growing pains - they started out as intending to produce a certain size and quality of game at a certain price point, but when they attempt to do larger games with more components, the costs rise quickly and can't take advantage of economies of scale. As such, really brilliant games like Bulge 20 are going to struggle to find an audience as they are kind of expensive for what they are. Nemo's War is no exception, as it's list price is a startling $35 before you get into shipping. That may be more than you want to pay for what is essentially a DTP game, but keep in mind that with most games of this ilk it's *you* who are mounting counters, cutting out cards, etc. I find them to be worth the money, but then I don't have the same fiscal limits that many wargamers have. If you dislike light games, this is probably not a good choice for you. On the other hand, if you travel a lot, these kinds of games are great because they fit in your suitcase and don't take up a huge amount of table space in your hotel room (although Nemo's War's map is 11"x25.5", slightly larger than most VPG titles).

If you've been happy with other VPG titles like Zulus on the Ramparts, you'll probably like Nemo's War. For those of us with a bit of a vintage sci-fi jones for Wells and Verne, it's a pretty easy call. The game is very thematic and gives a nice balance of elegance to decision making, and I highly recommend it. Having multiple Motivations only increases it's replayability. And hey, it's got an expansion pack coming.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

OMG, I Can't Believe I Did All That Grinding

One of the things I love dearly about World of Warcraft (the MMORPG) is the way you can choose goals to shoot for in any one of a number of areas. Want to play a lot of Capture the Flag? Hit the Battlegrounds. Want to play dungeons? They're adding new ones all the time. Just want to hang out and go for a particularly awesome piece of gear? Like the Mekgenieer's Chopper? Like this one my toon is riding on?

I'm what I'd term a semi-casual player - I can go for days without playing, then play for five or six hours in a single day, but usually I'm on for an hour or two. This toon, Leonadril, is still my only level 80, although I have a Tauren Druid who's at 76 that I haven't futzed with in months. Leo is my first, though, and the one closest to my heart. We discovered the entire world together, and managed to farm something like a bazillion titanium (you would not believe what a scarce resource that is), bought a couple of Arctic Fur at AH prices (again, a particularly precious commodity), and saved up the 13,000+GP you need to buy the parts and plans for this beast.

It was, in game parlance, quite a grind. However, I was surprised a couple of days ago, after a particularly good day of farming Saronite, to find myself with enough money to buy the final parts so that I could build the Chopper.

And then I was faced with a dilemma - sell it? After all, you only need to be an engineer to *build* it, not to ride it. Of course, it binds to your character once you learn to ride it, but unlike a lot of mounts it's one you can actually sell. Considering that the mats alone are probably worth close to 20,000gp at the AH, I could probably have demanded close to 30,000 or more.

But then what would I do with the money?

Besides, I'm an instant gratification kind of guy. So I hopped on and rode it.

Did I mention this thing does wheelies when you press the jump button? And you can give rides to people in your party? Aside from the War Mammoths and the various proto-Drake mounts that are rare drops (or require massive instance grinding) this is perhaps the most sought after mount in the game, and one of the few that doesn't require multiplayer work to get.

And, of course, because this toon is in many ways an extension of my own personality, especially the engineering element, I love having stuff that belches smoke and looks like parts may fall off at any moment, which is why I have the Mechanopeep pet, both Flying Machines, and three different Mechanostriders. I also got the Silver Covenant Hippogriff for all of my work in the Argent Tournament, but that was because I didn't know what else to buy with that particular currency.

Here are a couple of shots of the chopper, with Leonadril riding it (of course). Good times.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Where There Is Discord: Further Impressions

I've finished my first full game of Where There Is Discord (WTID) and have a pretty good idea of how the system works and where it's strengths are, both as "simulation" for those wanting some insights into the conflict, as well as "game". I learned a lot about the entire system, to the point where I feel like I have it down - this is not a complex game in terms of choices, but like most solitaire games it's involved in terms of  sequence of play and process.

How did I do? There are two measures of success in WTID: How many of your ten units you put onto the board (and keep them there), but it's all for naught if you end up dropping your Domestic Opinion level to 0, usually as the result of a combination of events and naval losses. I managed to make it through May 28th with my Domestic Opinion at 2, but only managed to hold 4 of the 10 landing areas for a Narrow Argentine Victory (5 would have been a draw). There were some very obvious things I would have done differently, especially with the landings, but I had a lot of very good luck at times.

In my previous entry, I didn't mention the San Carlos portion of the game, which was apparently added onto the original design after it was felt there needed to be more of a struggle for the beaches rather than just getting the troops there. I think this was a good decision, mostly because it's now the critical part of the game and there are things you can do as a player to improve your chances long before the Falklands even come into view.

A big part of solitaire wargame design is balancing player decision points vs AI admin tasks. Here's a list of the various phases and the balance in each:

  1. Weather/Event/SitRep Phases - Weather is clearly far from anyone's control, nor are the events that come up. However, almost every event gives you a choice, and the ones that don't give you one later on (such as the San Carlos events that affect the later game). Most will affect International or Domestic Opinion, which will have an effect on your overall capabilities (Intl) or drop you closer to catastrophic defeat (Dom). SitRep, on the other hand, is a major decision that is entirely within your hands. You want to pay very close attention to this as the longer it takes you to launch Operation: Sutton (where you start landing units) the more of a defense will be in place when you do land. Since some events force a Ceasefire (or can) it's generally a good idea (but not always) to advance the SitRep when you can. It's knowing when *not* to that will come in handy. An excellent example is when you have very little air cover available (since you used all your Harriers last turn), the weather is good, and moving forward would increase the number and/or chance of air raids. 
  2. Deployment of Forces (fleet) - Probably the most agonizing part of the game, particularly toward the end. The Task Force display is set up so that if you wish, you can play the odds with both your surface forces as well as your CAP, but you need to be very aware that it only takes one successful raid into your central area with your troop, support, and carriers to serious hinder your chances of winning. If there are multiple raids, and an earlier raid cleans out a picket area, you can also find yourself in serious trouble. Unfortunately, you have *just* enough forces to cover the entire perimeter early on. More ships show up later, but many of them are non-coms and will be of limited help. Be very sure to get a good mix of surface-to-air defense systems to cover the four range bands of incoming aircraft. Also, don't discount putting a weak unit in the defensive zone to help find Argentine sub incursions. I lost two ships to these, more than I lost to Exocet attacks, so be ready. 
  3. CAP/Interdiction/SAS - CAP is another thing you have to be careful with. You have 15 aircraft for the entire game, and when you lose them they don't come back. By game end, you'll want to have enough to cover both the landings as well as protect your TF as there can be up to five raids per turn at that point. Unfortunately, you'll also be largely hoping for Nimrod support to get adequate early warning, but it's almost always a good idea to have a couple of aircraft on deck in case a high-probability area gets cleared out in an early raid. I think it's also a good idea to send a single aircraft on Supply Interdiction missions early just to try to ratchet down the Argentinian supply. Believe me, you want every advantage when your troops land, and flipping the enemy units to lower strength will help more than almost anything else you do. Finally, you want to have your SAS units observing one of the various airbases, and which one you pick may mean the difference between getting a Harrier up to salvage the perimeter. Early on, the choices are fairly obvious, but I think it's not a terrible idea to focus on the Etendards and their Exocets early, then once the game gets into it's later phases, focus on Skyhawks (the second most dangerous aircraft) or perhaps whichever base has the best chance of being called on for that turn. 
  4. Sub Deployment - Fairly straightforward. I liked to put two in the Coastal Waters, one more in the Search box, with none in the Exclusion box. However, I would only do this if I had some surface ships in the Defense Zone of the TF, as there's a better chance for Argentine units to attack the TF if they somehow end up in the Exclusion box. However, it's a fairly low chance for surface vessels (three 1's on 3d6), a slightly better chance for subs (three 1's on 3d4), so YMMV. Since whiffing on 1's with these rolls means a unit stays where it is, you have an excellent chance of units sticking in the area they're already in, especially the Coastal area. Later in the game, hopefully you've killed a few of the Argentine units and this will be a minor issue. However, I can't stress enough that Argentine subs killed as many units as air attacks did, and they only went after the TF three times. 
  5. Naval Combat - Choices? You don't get no stinkin' choices! This is where you find out whether or not things are going the way you hoped they would. Shooty shooty, baby. 
  6. Air Raids - A little more in the way of choices here, mostly whether or not you scramble the remaining Harriers on your deck and when to fire your surface-to-air missiles, as surface vessels get *one* shot per raid. If you have any. Otherwise, it's a lot like Naval Combat - you made your choices, now take your chances. I'll reiterate the importance of having your various s-t-a systems spread out among the high percentage areas, and have at least *one* SeaDart system in your central TF area just in case. 
  7. Landings - The most important decisions you make are actually at the start of the game when you assign the various landing units to the various transports. I recommend you go with the stronger units early (higher numbers are better), and understand the importance of landing units on the correct beaches by spreading out units with similar emblems across transports. When you consider how you'll sequence the landings, be sure not to clog up the landing beaches too much by attacking adjacent zones. The landings themselves are a bit of a crap shoot, but by knocking down supply as much as you can and by putting the right units in the right locations, you can improve your chances considerably. I didn't understand the implications of being at the "right" beach until I'd started landing, nor how important wiping out supply was. Those two elements are probably the most critical to your success. Otherwise, just be sure to put CAP up, even in bad weather (even one squadron will help), understand the importance of having those landing craft and combat units to provide AA and gun support, and you'll be fine. Otherwise, it's all AI admin.
As you can tell, much of the game's decisions are front-loaded, much as they are in RAF:Lion (not so much Eagle, which is extremely front-loaded to the point where you have long periods with no decisions to make at all). IMO, this type of system is very common because it's very intuitive in terms of design - make decisions, see how they turn out given probability. By contrast, D-Day at Omaha Beach does an admirable job of mixing up the decision making, and the meat of the game is thick and chewy indeed when you must decide which units to activate, and you can react to the AI instead of making choices and seeing if they were the right ones (although that happens too). 

That said, a front-loaded player choice model can be very successful if the AI admin load isn't too heavy, and if the system moves quickly. WTID does this very nicely. While it will take you a while to get used to the processes involved in combat sections of the game (especially learning the exceptions that are in different sections of the rules, such as how you know if San Carlos gets bombed instead of the TF), once you've been through half the game it starts to become very second nature, and I was able to finish the final week (arguably half the game in terms of time because of frequent air raids and the San Carlos landings) in a couple of hours, including figuring out the system. Having a few more tables available would have been nice on the huge and somewhat poorly used board, but otherwise it's an extremely clean system. There *are* fiddly bits, but wargamers are quite used to those. Expect your first game to take about five or six hours, but future games should be easily playable in three or four once you have the system down (and are familiar with the rules organization).

The publisher has mentioned that they are deciding whether or not to do a reprint of this title, but as of this posting there has been no formal word either way. If this game intrigues you, I recommend sending a very nice letter to the publisher, Fifth Column Games. I do hope that in future editions they come up with a smaller box - the one they have has an insert that takes up about half the box volume and it's completely unnecessary - the entire game could fit into a box half the size, which would have to lower it's costs a tiny bit, but certainly shelf space. 

Highly recommended for those who love solitaire wargames, can tolerate a fairly high level of abstraction compared to most wargames, and are interested in modern warfare but aren't quite so interested in the complexity of a game like Harpoon or it's ilk. If you can get it, of course. I can only imagine what the prices on eBay are like. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Am A Cruel, Cruel Man

Usually, when I write down my impressions of how I like (or dislike) a game, it's with the idea in the back of my head that others may be able to use that information in their own buying decisions. That includes those who know that if I like a game, that they'll hate it!

Today, I write about a game that was difficult to get in the US in the first place, is now out of print (and, I believe, out of stock pretty much everywhere), and may or may not be reprinted by the publisher. I'm speaking of the Falklands War solitaire game Where There Is Discord, published by the UK's Fifth Column Games.

In other words, I'm going to tell everyone just how much I like this game so that you can wish you had a copy too. Sorry about that. As I type, the publisher is on the cusp of deciding whether or not to reprint, so here's hoping.

The game is a fairly abstracted simulation on the Falklands War (at least, that's what it was called in the US at the time) between the UK and Argentina. The Falklands are a small group of islands off the coast of Argentina that have been a British possession for some period of time. The junta running Argentina at the time decided that they'd had enough European colonialism/imperialism and took it back. The British (under the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher) decided they wanted it back. And took it. The last Waters-based Pink Floyd album, The Final Cut, even had a song about it called "Take Your Filthy Hands Off Of My Desert".

Brezhnev took Afghanistan, Reagan took Beirut,
Galtieri took the Union Jack,
And Maggie, over lunch one day, took a cruiser with all hands,
Apparently to make him give it back

The conflict's most notable moment was the use of a French-made Exocet anti-ship missile, which sank the above-mentioned Royal Navy cruiser, fired by an Argentine pilot. This was arguably the first example of a capital ship sunk with a single ASM in the modern era (someone will point out that I'm wrong, I'm sure), and as you can imagine it created a *lot* of concern at Whitehall. Fortunately for the British, the Argentines could only afford two of these, and wisely held the second one back (although they did do some shopping for financing and more missiles once they saw just how useful the things were). A threat is very useful right up until you've shot your bolt, after all, as anyone whose played Paths of Glory knows the MEF is.

I've gotten through several turns of the game, and will give some initial impressions below. Like the other fantastic solitaire game I picked up recently, D-Day at Omaha Beach, I like this game quite a bit because it moves quickly and you don't feel like you're spending most of your time admining the AI. It's also a very pretty game, really more Euro in its sensibilities than wargame, but with a 40+ page rulebook it would be considered *very* high end in that category, but is really a very elegant game in many respects as wargames go.

I should note here that you don't get to play the Argentines, you play the British. However, I should also note that profits for the game are going to charities for veterans of both sides of the conflict, which is a very nice touch.

First off, an assessment of the components. There are not a lot of counters in the game by wargamer standards, and they are largish (3/4" or up, not exactly sure) that mostly represent the British forces, especially the individual ships involved, including troop transports (the QE2 is even involved). The Argentine forces are represented by three different task force units, a couple of subs, and the various aircraft. There are also a ton of markers, easily identified by a brown border. The artwork is very nice (Mark Mahaffey's work), and clear for the most part. Counters are very easy to punch out and will require little if any trimming - there's a tiny bit of flash along the sides, so small that I'm unlikely to trim it.

The map is very good sized, and beautiful to look at. To be honest, a map really isn't necessary in this game, as everything is fairly abstracted. The landings by the Brits at San Carlos are abstracted, as is naval and air movement outside of the task force itself. There is a large amount of unused space on the map, and I would have liked to have seen the weather table included, as well as a few reminders of what a given indicator is for. Also, because some markers are set off literally in the middle of nowhere (like the Group Search Enhanced/Degraded markers), you can forget where they are in your first couple of turns. Considering this is a very heavy stock mat (something like 30 mils, I'm guessing), if they could have gotten it down to a single map it probably would have saved a lot of money for shipping and parts and fit on the table nicely. I'm being fussy, though, and it's really very attractive when set up on your table.

The rules are a bit of a mess, but complete. The preface material recommends you set up and play the game as you read the rules, referring to the sequence of play (SoP) as you go. While the SoP does have rules references for the various phases and subphases (and there are a lot of them), the rules are ordered in some other way. So, you end up looking up one section near the end for weather, then turn around and reference a section in the front for Event Cards. For naval combat, it comes after determining if you scramble raids against the Brit TF, which has it's rules at the front of the book. You get the idea. Also, the use of terminology is not defined anywhere, so when the word "vessel" is used, you aren't really sure if that means just surface ships, or if it includes subs. Fortunately, the rules are written in a case format (, for example) that gets you where you need to be most of the time. Unfortunately, the main headings for those cases are *only* on the side of the page where the section starts, and the full case number is not always used, especially when there is a sequence to be followed, and there is almost always a sequence to be followed.

Let me be very clear on this point - this is a game that you will learn much more quickly if you play the game as you read the rules. Forget learning the game just by reading, as I often do - there are very few illustrations (but lots of examples) in the book and one section concerning the landings won't even come up in many of your games. That section is right in the middle of the rules! However, you need to be aware that many of the special conditions that apply due to, say, weather, won't be mentioned in the rules section dealing with where it's applicable, but in another section a little later on. For example, Degraded Search Conditions isn't mentioned at all in the section on searching with a task force, but in a separate section. You'll run into these as you go in your first game, and I recommend that you take those sorts of SNAFUs as part of the learning process. It's also important to note that many (not all) of the counters/markers will have information on their backs that can be useful, although it's presented in such a way that you have no idea what the numbers mean initially and will need to refer to the rules or other play aids to figure out their relevance.

On the plus side, it's not Fields of Fire with entire rules sections left mostly to your imagination. The rules are all there (aside from exactly which attacks generate Failed Attack rolls), but they can be a bit of a challenge to wade through.

Once you've played several turns, check out the sample turn in the rulebook.

The flow of the game is involved, but the mechanisms are generally pretty straightforward. To search, you roll a given polyhedral die, and if you roll a one you succeed in locating the enemy. To fire, you do the same thing. There are other elements that come into play, but when it comes down to it, that's the core of the game.

The SoP, on the other hand, is involved as you'd expect with modern warfare. First, you do some establishing of the environment - weather roll, event card draw, and then you decide if you want to advance the "SitRep," which is in essence moving your task force closer to the islands. As you do so, you start to see more and more Argentine air forces come into range, including the Super Etenards with their Exocets. You then assign your forces to various positions in the task force, put your Sea Harriers on CAP, and assign your subs to one of the three naval boxes (Coastal, Search, and Exclusion, or where the British Task Force really doesn't want the Argentines to be). This is not the only decision points you'll have during the turn, but it is a big part of determining your success.

Next, you roll dice to see where the Argentine naval forces go. You roll three dice for each, and they are placed on the board based on how many of those dice are 1's. Subs roll d4s, surface groups roll d6s. More ones means they end up closer to your TF, but that's a difficult proposition even with 3d4.

Once the Argentine Navy has sailed, you then fight, which follows a pretty basic search/combat process with modifications based on who is looking for what. Under certain conditions, just running into a British sub is enough to send everyone in that naval zone scurrying for cover in port, which is a very accurate assessment of how naval power has been used throughout the 20th Century - these ships are huge investments, and no one wants to watch a bunch of them sinking to the bottom of the sea in a losing effort, much less a winning one. In fact, losing one of your two carriers is more or less a Game over situation, so you want to be sure that they are covered constantly.

Next, if there are Argentines still afloat, they go looking for your task force, and if they find it you need to figure out if the Brits were paying attention or not. Next, the Argentines determine whether or not they will raid the TF with either aircraft or their naval forces. This is where the SitRep card comes in, as the odds of a confrontation improved dramatically as you work through these cards, but is also affected by the weather as well. For example, say you just had a tough turn with a couple of flights of aircraft coming at your taskforce. You fought them off, but at the same time your Sea Harriers are all exhausted and you really don't want another attack coming your way. But look! The weather for next turn stinks! So it's probably OK to draw a new SitRep card and move closer to the islands, although you also probably want to throwing your Harriers up for CAP as there's a chance you'll lose them when they land in the bad weather.

There's more shooty shooty, and then you reset the game situation by landing and refitting Harriers and removing markers from the board. That's the turn.

After 28 turns in the merry month of May, you see how many zones you've become established in on the islands, and if you get to five or more of the ten you win. There's more involving that process, but I haven't seen it yet and it too appears to be pretty abstracted.

In my experience, the game moves along pretty quickly once you know what sections to look to in the rules for each phase. I got through about a week of gametime in roughly two hours, which translates to about an hour per week once things get going. However, I suspect that there will be much more contact between the two sides in later weeks, so let's say about six hours for the whole shebang.

This game has a much different feel for me than D-Day at Omaha Beach, which feels like a wargame, with traditional units and hexes. WTID feels much more like RAF or B-29 in terms of abstraction, although there are clearly more decision points in WTID than there are in B-29 (and B-29, to it's credit, is much more of a simulation than a game). If anything WTID has about the same level of AI management as RAF: Lion does, where you make some early decisions in the turn and then a few more as the game goes on, but most of the turn is spent seeing how good your decisions are. Early on, there don't seem to be that many decisions (put at least one ship in every surrounding zone of the TF, put your CAP in the high-probabilty areas, interdict Argentinian supply when you can, scramble more fighters when necessary).

That said, most of the AI management is dice rolling to see how search and combat go, and it moves along quickly once you have the system down. Early in the game, you'll get through about half of the SoP, but that will get longer as the game progresses.

So far, I'm enjoying it quite a bit. Having gorgeous components is nice, although avoiding the exploding Skittles look of Omaha Beach doesn't make the game better, just nicer to look at. Watching the situation unfold is always the draw of solitaire wargaming, and in this case you may have some tough decisions as the game unfolds but early it's more a matter of deciding whether or not to put up CAP in bad weather and where the subs patrol.

Ah, I forgot the really interesting part of the game, the one that makes every game different. You have to deal with international and domestic opinion as you go. Most of the time, these are modified by various events that come up once a turn. As your International Opinion drops, you lose various capabilities, such as Nimrod search capability, use of AIM-9 missiles, help from the Soviets and Chileans, etc. Also, you are required to roll a d10 from time to time and compare to the average Opinion level, and when it goes bad you might lose use of a couple of ships, or even be forced to stay in place for a turn rather than advance the SitRep. Often, you'll be faced with a choice of doing something now at a price, skipping it entirely, or possibly paying a higher price later. I get the impression that the really tough choices you make are in this part of the game, and they will also keep replay very high as there are a lot of events. If I have a big complaint about components, it's that the cards have very little info on them, but require you to look up the event in an extra book. Admittedly, there's a lot of text associated with some of these events, but good use of iconography would have at the very least allowed players to remember what the events do and when they are in effect. Again, a small nit, but the sort of thing I'd expect from a new publisher.

All in all, highly recommended if you are interested in the subject matter, modern naval warfare at a very high level of abstraction, or are a big fan of RAF and that style of solitaire play. Of course, that means (as I type) eBay collector prices, but if there is a reprint this is one worth picking up.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Interracial Marriage! The Horror!

I've stayed away from much political blogging since the election. Not that I think Obama has done a great job, although certainly the Republicans seem to feel that the only way to be a good minority party is to be obstructionist, but because nothing has really resonated with me like so much did during the W years.

Today in the Oregonian, I read that there is a Justice of the Peace, a government employee, who refuses to marry interracial couples. He says he's not a racist, that he has "piles and piles of black friends," and claims not to have mistreated anyone. He simply says that he won't marry interracial couples because, among other reasons, they don't stay married and that "there is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage." He also says that he has never done it, and if he did he would have to do it for all interracial couples. It's not that he doesn't want them to be allowed to marry, he claims, it's just that he's not going to do it. Apparently this is a principled stand by Mr. Bardwell, who is trying to save a lot of pain and anguish for these poor misguided families.

I'm sure someone will blame all of this on Obama.

Clearly, this guy is a bonehead from Louisiana that I'm just thankful doesn't live any closer to me. Normally, I wouldn't spend a huge amount of time on a topic like this, as he'll clearly get smacked down in the very near future, especially considering that his top-level management is, himself, the product of a mixed race marriage. However, I think there's a further lesson to be derived from this situation, so bear with me.

I should note that I myself have been in an interracial marriage for more than 20 years. I'm sure that Mr. Bardwell would amend his remarks to blacks and whites marrying if I brought this up, but at the same time that's not what he said, and to be fair there *is* a certain amount of cultural friction created by such a marriage, but certainly nothing that warrants this sort of crackerhead logic.

Here are his quotes and my refutations:

  1. "I'm not a racist."Yes, yes you are. If you make any decision based on strictly anecdotal evidence involving race, you are in fact a racist. If you refuse to deal with Asians because the Japanese ambassador's wife screwed you over in a remodel deal, that's racist (and also a choice my father made many decades ago). If you are a doctor dealing with a disease that predominantly affects a given ethnic background, that is not racism, it is a recognition of a genetic condition. There is a huge difference between someone's race and their behavior, and to say there is is, in fact, racist. 
  2. "I treat them (blacks) like everyone else." No, no you don't. If you did, you would let them marry whoever they want to, just like you let everyone else marry who they want to. Sort of. And the fact that you "let them use my bathroom" isn't helping your point. I guess it's a step up from allowing them to *clean* your bathroom, but it's not a commonly used litmus test for your acceptance of a race as up to par. 
  3. "I try to treat everyone equally." So if all the black people drink out of the same fountain, that's equal treatment? Thank you, Jim Crow. You are, not, in fact, treating everyone equally, you are discriminating against interracial couples. 
  4. "I don't think I've mistreated anybody (in a 34 year career)." Well, the couple you most recently told to go somewhere else is considering a discrimination complaint. Given the political structure of Louisiana, I suspect your punishment will be similar to that of a pedophile Catholic priest in the 70's, but there is no question that you have, in fact, mistreated somebody, enough that they have put your name in the papers and probably on the national news programs. 
  5. "I didn't tell this couple they couldn't get married, I just told them I wouldn't do it." Firstly, I don't believe you get that choice. Either the couple can get married, or they can't. You may have scheduling conflicts, but that didn't get brought up. Your job is not to determine if people can get married, and just because you have concerns that they will *gasp* produce offspring that may not get a fair shake in life is really not part of your job description. Because I'm willing to bet that the four or five couples you have refused to marry is a smaller number than the couples that you *have* married that failed quickly. By several orders of magnitude. Besides, if all of the JoPs in your area "decide" that they too don't wish to sanction interracial marriage, then there's no longer any interracial marriage. This is called a "slippery slope" argument, and I would hope that *anyone* installed in the judiciary in this country, no matter how low in the hierarchy, would have an intuitive grasp on that concept.
These are all actual quotes from the newspaper article, attributed to Mr. Bardwell. My guess is that the first thing that happened when all of this came out was that his immediate superior told him to shut the front door, and shut it now. For someone to feel OK about making statements like these to a newspaper reporter (or *anyone* you don't know *really* well) says quite a bit about race relations in Tangipahoa Parish. 

In my lifetime, interracial couples were a big deal. I remember watching a film about racism when I was in my early teens (around 1976) and one of the topics covered was interracial marriage. Of course, at that point they weren't mentioning things like "mongrels" or "racial purity" because that would imply that two people having sex produce a baby, and it wasn't quite *that* enlightened a time in America. When I started dating my wife, I had some concern that my parents would be unhappy that she is Filipina, not because my parents had been overtly racist (although my father staunchly refused to buy cars made anywhere but the US, largely because of the remodeling incident), and in fact they had tried to teach me specifically *not* to be racist. I simply didn't know how they'd react. As it was, my parents both loved my wife dearly (my father passed away 15 years ago, my mother and my wife are still very good friends to this day), and if they had the slightest qualm they made absolutely no mention of it. 

As a humorous side note, some ten years later when I got a pierced ear, my mother (very upset by this idea, very unlike her) said that Skinheads would beat me up. I replied that I was in an interracial marriage and already had that base covered. By that point, no one in my family considered me to be in an interracial marriage. 

I should also note that my Filipino in-laws, on the other hand, *were* concerned that their daughter wasn't marrying a Filipino boy, largely because their impression of White America was created from watching far too many network television programs. They seem to like me just fine now. 

I mentioned the slippery slope above. That's because pretty much all of the arguments this not-racist mentions above apply more or less directly to gay marriage as well. Certainly all of the arguments made 100 years ago regarding interracial marriage are being made today about gay marriage. It's against God's will. It's unnatural. Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. 

Who cares. These are consensual relationships that are happening whether you are personally comfortable with them or not. To nod and wink and claim that they can go to another JoP or another state or maybe it's time to call up cousin Jed to get a bunch of his buddies together to go put the fear of God into these wrong-headed people is simply wrong. Are they an abomination in the eyes of the Lord? Probably better to let Hir figure that out. Don't like officiating at those ceremonies? Learn to pilot a boat and marry whoever the hell you want offshore as a captain, but you should never take another dime from any level of the US government again, certainly not as a judge. You are violating the Constitution by doing so.

You don't get to break the law just because you don't like someone's choice of partner, especially if your job is specifically to *uphold* the law. The laws of 2009, not 1833 or 1957. As the barriers to same-sex marriage come down (and they are coming down, just as the barriers to race have been coming down for more than a century, if slowly), we will see many of the same arguments put forth. In a case like this, it is good to understand your history and better to fall on the side of more freedoms, not less. 

And, because it always seems to come up, I am not advocating bestiality, polygamy, under-age marriage, or any other non-consensual relationship (and believe me, in the vast majority of polygamy cases it *is* non-consensual when you marry 12 year olds. It's a non-consensual practice at it's core, although a handful of people make triads or other multiple-person relationships work. At this point in history, the greater good is served by keeping it illegal). 

Thank you, Justice Bardwell, for showing us all just how dunderheaded people can be when it comes to deciding what's best for everyone else. And good luck in the job search!

Monday, October 12, 2009

In Denial

Chuck came over today to try out the recent MMP title A Victory Denied, designed by Adam Starkweather, who developed the American version of A Victory Lost, one of the high points of hex and counter wargaming over the past five years. AVL is a very simple design without a ton of chrome (arguably the most complex part of the game is the exceptions you make for major rivers) combined with a chit pull activation system with a twist. The result was what will eventually be a classic thrust and parry wargame that requires close attention to detail without a huge amount of downtime (assuming Stavka isn't pulled).

AVD has been in the works for some time, but for some reason it wasn't making it's preorder numbers very quickly despite the popularity of AVL, so when it did come out I was very excited. Would the scale and situation of the post-Stalingrad Soviet offensive to the Don and beyond countered by Manstein's "backhand blow" translate well to the German advance on Moscow via Smolensk 18 months earlier, with radically different armies and goals?

The answer is that I'm not quite sure yet.

First, some of the differences between the games, point by point:

  • Russian Activations: In AVL, the activations are only for units within range of the specific HQ activated. In AVD, an activation chit can activate not only the HQ in question, but every HQ that is in range of the first HQ, as well as any HQ in range of those HQs, and so on [Note: you only activate the HQs in range of the first HQ, there is no further chaining. The confusion came from use of the word "activate" to mean both as a result of the chit pull as well as for any units and HQs in range of that HQ]. If you've got your HQs placed correctly, every chit pull is a Stavka pull for the Russians. 
  • German Activations: The Germans have 9th Army HQs that activate any HQ they wish on the board, acting in some ways like the Manstein chits from AVL. However they do *not* activate any mech units. The Germans have 3rd and 2nd Pz Gp chits that *do* allow them to activate mech units from those organizations so long as they are within three or four hexes of each other. Most importantly, they have the Guderian chit, which isn't put in the cup but can substitute for any chit pull and activate the 2nd Pz Gp. There are multiples of each type of chit other than Guderian.
  • Mandatory Activation Chits: Supply, German Air Power, reinforcements, and Soviet arty are all chits now as well, and ones that are in the cup every turn (except arty on turn 1). Arty lets the Soviets make some 3-1 attacks on the board (maybe) for free, Air Power gives Stuka units back to the Germans. 
  • Supply Chit: Supply no longer happens at a predetermined time, now it's part of the chit pull mechanism. When it shows up, a few things happen - The Russian can put German units out of supply every turn (the number depending on which turn it is) that halve their movement and attack. Then any OOS units are marked Isolated, which halves all of their values. Finally, the Soviets can voluntarily relocate their HQs, which can be very important as the situation is very fluid.
  • Reinforcements: Also now tied to a chit rather than a turn phase. Soviets get units from their reserves, off-board units get to move during the reinforcement phase (there are no rail lines in this game to bring them in, you use "strategic movement" instead). There is also the Minsk Pocket to deal with, which I'll discuss below. 
  • Asymmetrical Combat: Germans roll a d6, Soviets a d10. The extra numbers on the Soviet die basically repeat the low (read: crappy) results, so a 6 on their die is great, a 7 not so much. However, if they roll a 0 (10), they toss in a random elite unit from a cup to the mix and recalculate the odds! In other words, when the Soviets attack, the results can be wacky. Otherwise the aim is the same as in AVL - surround units and hope they have to retreat.
  • Victory Conditions: Like AVL, you have specific spaces you want to take on the board for VP. Unlike AVL, those spaces will have varying VP values that you won't know until the end of the game (unless the Russians take back one of the VP spaces, when a random token is placed face up in that space). Also like AVL, the Russians get points for killing German mech units, but unlike AVL the favor isn't returned. In fact, the Russians don't actually *lose* any units unless they are isolated when destroyed, they just go back in the reserve and elite pools.
  • Stacking: Two units per hex, as in AVL. However, Soviets can't put two "tan" units in the same hex (their "normal" units), but can have two so long as at least one is red (elite). 
  • German Mech Fragility: The big tanks are, to a high degree, even more fragile than in AVL, having a defense of 2 (but an attack of 9). These units need to be protected, as they are worth between 4 and 6 VP each for the Soviets at game end.
  • Convoluted Victory Conditions: Major wackiness here. The game length and how victory is computed relies heavily upon a die roll at the end of turn 6. At that point, Hitler may want the Germans to take Moscow, so the game runs to turn 10. If he's distracted, the game runs to turn 8. It's also possible that the German gets to pick which set of victory conditions he wishes. I guess this is historical, putting the German commanders in the same frame of mind (what the hell are we trying to do here exactly?), but for gamers who like things nailed down a bit more, it adds yet more chaos to an already fairly chaotic game. Which is not to say that I don't like the idea, it certainly makes for an entertaining solitaire game.
All in all, the game has a different feel because of the different situation (Russians popping up everywhere in the middle of turns, German infantry keeping the Minsk pocket closed), but also because so many units can be activated at once. The German disconnect between their infantry and mech units is very interesting, and presents the Germans with some puzzles as the game gets going. The Russian use of specific HQ activation chits combined with being able to relocate those HQs when the Supply chit is drawn (or placing reinforcement HQs when the Reinf chit is drawn) means that things may not go exactly as planned. Given that this game simulates the German Army at the end of it's logistical supply lines, reaching for a military objective that's one or two leaps further out than even the blitzkrieg is particularly confident in, that sort of wackiness is warranted. Make no mistake, this game is going to be *very* different every time you play *because* you never know how things will play out in the chit pulls, even more so than in AVL.

One of the particularly interesting parts of the campaign is the Minsk Pocket. Located just to the west of the map, the German 9th Army had bottled up some Soviet units in Minsk and had to decide whether those units should be supporting the continuing mech advance and risking a breakout of Soviet units, or stay put. The risk drops as the game progresses, and on turn 4 the pocket collapses entirely. However, during that time the Germans have to evaluate if they are keeping to their timetable or not. The more German units that leave the encirclement, the more chance that the Soviets may get favorable mods to their attacks, more units popping up on the board, and even some VP. By turn 3, however, it's much more unlikely that these things will happen, but it does give the German a bit of a way to counter a particularly bad first turn chit pull sequence.

The net result is that the Germans have almost nothing on the board early but their mech units, and as they advance it will clearly not be enough units to do what they want, especially if they keep the various Pz Gps close enough to activate them all. By turn 4 or 5, the infantry has come forward just as the mech units start to run out of gas and the Soviets begin to appear in earnest, as well as getting better quality units.

So, after a half game with Chuck, how do I feel about this game, especially in comparison to AVL? First off, I have some problems with the components. The color scheme in particular between the 2nd and 3rd Pz Grps is stupid - one has a grey body and black stripe across the top, the other is reversed. HQs just have the body color with no stripe, although to be fair they aren't activated along with the mech units. The map has a similar look to AVL, although it's difficult to differentiate cities vs towns, and the VP hexes can be a bit of a chore to locate on the map as they use very washed out colors and small icons. Finally, it can be difficult to see where the roads run through forest hexes. They use the same parallelogram symbols for tank units as in AVL, although as in that game there are silhouetted alternate counters (one of which has the wrong values and you'll want to use the "modern" symbol unit instead). I find these symbols to be hard to parse, especially in a game where the difference between mech and non-mech is so critical, but at least I'm given a choice in the matter.

As I said before, one of the charms of AVL is that every chit pull tends to generate a relatively small amount of activity resulting in low downtime, at least until the STAVKA chit gets pulled and the German can go run errands and take the dogs for a walk. In AVD, you can have every unit on the board activate, or at least a significant portion of them, especially as the game gets going. While there seem to be a smaller number of units on the board, at least for the Soviets early, once the Minsk Pocket collapses the game gets a lot more involved and a lot more units on the board.

After one play, and only through the early turns, it's very hard for me to give a recommendation for this game in either direction. On the one hand, while we had some rules look ups for things like what you do during the Reinf and Supply chit pulls, the game is nearly as elegant and well developed as AVL was, so you spend a lot more time playing instead of learning the rules. On the other hand, those 9th Army chit pulls are going to make for a very long game for the Russians in terms of downtime. [Note: as mentioned before, you don't activate everything that chains to everything else. As such, there is no STAVKA chit pull that will trigger the entire board, and thus nowhere near as much downtime and downside as I'd imagined.]

Perhaps the biggest issue is that of chaos. As I've said before, I'm a fan of appropriate chaos, and I believe that this game has it. That said, it seems that the outcome of the game will in large part be determined by which of the victory conditions is decided at the end of turn 6. Randomizing when the reinforcements and supply mechanisms kick in is something else that will add tension, but will annoy the hell out of those who struggle with luck and prefer a more controlled game. Like Warriors of God and Combat Commander, this may not be your game if you like executing a plan from the word go. If, on the other hand, you don't mind seeing what the dice and chits throw at you and can adapt, this may be a game you'll get along with better.

Either way, it's a slugfest.

One important note: The game comes with a sheet of errata that is very important to understand, although it's not a lot of errata. There are also a couple of rules with clarifications and changes on the 'Geek, but they are part of the game description rather than a specific file or forum, and they do not include the errata that comes with the game! To my mind, errata affects the ruleset, and a piece of scrap paper in the box is *not* part of the ruleset, so put the information on it in the same place as the rest of the errata. We're talking three paragraphs here, certainly there is no good reason *not* to include it all in one place.

We'll have to see when Chuck and I get back to this game. We spent a good five hours on it, about an hour per turn, although much of that was getting to understand the changes and I figure it's closer to 40 minutes per turn or less once you're familiar with the system and the situation. At 8 to 10 turns, that's a full day and maybe more, but not far off from the time length of AVL. Just don't go in thinking you'll be done in four hours your first go (unless you let the Germans run to Moscow early).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Block Head

Oh, my. Every once in a while, the stars align and a bunch of games all show up at the same time. Rarely, however, do they all come from one company and all involve blocks. And the company isn't Columbia Games. It's GMT, who seems to have embraced the block idea about as much as it's possible to do.

So it is that I ended up getting five, count 'em, five games involving blocks within the past month from GMT. There were a few other games in there, one of which was *not* Richard III from Columbia, the only block game they've put out so far this year (their last game was Texas Glory).

Unfortunately, I have yet to play any of these games for the obvious reason - these are *block* games, which means that they tend to have a pretty strong hidden information element. Right now, I am doing little face-to-face wargaming, most of it is solitaire (which I am enjoying quite a bit, see previous posts), so only a couple of these games will be interesting without an opponent. I remain hopeful, however.

First up is PQ-17, a game about running convoys to Russia via the Barents Sea. Obviously, this is a game that requires a high degree of uncertainty about enemy forces and positions. I met the designer some years ago at WBC, and he was a great guy (as so many of the people at WBC are). In fact, I had been telling him about how I had been a playtester of sorts for Zero! but when the developer disappeared (literally) I wasn't sure if I'd still have that vanity counter. He actually came across a ballroom to show me my counter a few days later. What a guy.

My good friend KC told me that a common acquaintance, "Tex," had invited him over to play this very game, using the example of play as a starting point. I don't know that this was a great idea given how the example turns out, not to mention that this is a pretty involved game with a *ton* of chrome, and KC has stayed away from wargames because of the ultra-high rules and often situational complexity. He was, in a word, whelmed by the game, but expressed an interest to me to try another game to see what it was that those of us who like this sort of thing find attractive. Unfortunately, I suspect this game, like Elusive Victory and a host of other games, will never see real table time. Maybe when I retire.


The game uses a wide variety of counters to represent units, from discs for aircraft (of varying sizes to distinguish broad types), 1" square counters to represent ships, and the blocks to represent the various task forces and convoys. I have to say that the game components are screaming to be played, and this sort of situation is one that I've always been interested in ever since reading 80's era Clancy novels. I may need to make the hour run out to Tex's sometime just to get a game of this in, now that I think about it.

Coming at the same time was 1805: Sea of Glory. The topic is the start of the Napoleonic Wars and the attempts by the British Navy to hunt down and destroy (or at least bottle up) the combined Spanish and French fleets. In other words, it's a game about blockade running. The Napoleonic Era has always lost me in terms of tactical or even operational games, although I do enjoy strategic games such as Wellington. The game appears to be easy enough that it might see some play at WBC West next spring if I play my cards right, or even earlier. However, it will take some doing to play it solitaire as the fog of war, as in PQ-17, is a very large part of the game. The map is gorgeous, although the blocks are significantly larger than the stickers you put on them, and in fact I'm a little concerned that they may be easy to knock over. That would be bad.

Which brings us to the games that came this week. First up is Hellenes, from the same guy who designed East Front and it's followups. I'm not sure how this game ended up at GMT while Athens & Sparta ended up at Columbia Games, but I'm sure someone will clear that up for me. All I've really had time to do is to put the stickers on the blocks for this one, although the components are very nice. However, and I'm really disappointed to see this, it appears that the designer/developer chose to stick with Columbia's brain-dead "not rules but maybe some optionals and oh yeah, a couple of really important rules or clarifications in the sidebar" format. It was a great idea, but the simple matter is that the separation between the two has been, urm, fuzzy and there are rules in the sidebar and non-rules in the rules in every game that uses them. Here's hoping that it got done right for once. On the plus side, the rules are in color, as is the very nice examples book. I'm sensing a trend here, and I *think* I like it. The problem is that the paper used for color rules tends to be glossy and relatively flimsy compared to, say, an OCS rulebook. Make them color in PDF, and heavier paper in the box, please.

The last two games are, technically, not actual games at all but expansions for the popular Command & Colors: Ancients game system. I stick by my assertion that for wargamers, this is the best of Richard Borg's C&C series for a variety of reasons involving component functionality and at least a passing attempt to model ancient warfare. The second and third expansions brought in very  nice mounted mapboards, and the fourth (Imperial Rome) and fifth (Epic) expansions bring in very nice wooden card holders.


These are kind of odd expansions. Imperial Rome adds a *third* Roman army (this one purple), although I'm not sure what the differences are with the silver and red armies. I know there are rules for Caesarian armies (as opposed to the Marian armies used in battles from roughly 100BC through 50BC), and there are also extra units for both the barbarian armies from expansion two and the "Eastern" armies from expansion one. The scenarios are apparently a catch-all for scenarios that they couldn't fit in the box from before. Still, it feels a little like they weren't sure what to do with this particular expansion once they'd announced it. Whatever. It's still fun putting all those stickers on all those blocks, although you need to be paying attention while you do it.

The Epic box is an even stranger duck. It has two more wooden card holders (which seem very nice and appropriately hefty, especially compared to the crap plastic holders from earlier games), an improved Epic ruleset, and (most importantly) an actual deck of cards for playing the Epic games. That's awesome, because that's the thing that was really missing from before. You could use the old cards, but there were so many altered cards that it was nearly impossible to keep track of what was in your hand. I *love* the Epic scenarios, even with two people, because they're, well, epic. If you have the two mounted maps from the earlier expansions, this expansion puts this particular game series over the top in terms of high end components, no question. While there aren't any plastics as with every other game in this series, to be honest I find them harder to keep track of if you have more than a couple of types, and while the tiny illustrations can be confusing initially, it only takes a few turns to get a solid grasp on which units are which.

Now what they need are some really good dice.

However, I have to say that while I'm happy to have these expansions, they feel more like add-ons instead of continuations to the system, if that makes sense. It's like having a new bike route to ride instead of a new bike, if you see what I mean. These are all good things to add to the game system, but perhaps they should have been there from the start, making the game what it should have been all along component-wise. Even the extra scenarios for the Epics are nice, but a whole box just for them, two wooden blocks to hold cards, and an extra card deck? I'm being petty here, I know. I'm happy to have a game that looks so great, but I feel a bit like I paid to get the deluxe package when I already paid to have the nearly deluxe package.


Of all of these, C&C: Music Factory will have the biggest chance of seeing table time, followed a bit by Hellenes, then 1805, then PQ-17 (unless I decide to make the drive out to Tex's place). In fact, I don't mind playing C&C solitaire at all, seeing as you can simulate a bit more of the uncertainty of the cards by simply playing an extra card "on deck" to be what that army will do in the *next* turn after the current one. It's pretty easy - The first army to move picks two cards to play, then discards the remainder and draws back up at the end of their turn. One card is used for the first turn, the other used for the second. The other side draws it's cards normally (without having seen the draw for the "first" side), and plays two cards in the same way as the first side. After that, each side plays one card as normal, although it's always going to be the "on deck" card. It works pretty well, as you don't know *two* cards that your opponent has, and allows for less intel when you have to look at your opponent's deck for the rare "response" card.

And the epic battles? That's just a good way to spend an afternoon out in the sticks when no one can come over and play. And it looks *so* cool with that giant board and all of those units. SPQR had a very similar vibe for the larger battles, but I kept running out of markers and it could get very tedious. C&C plays much faster with less rules confusion, and still maintains a pretty decent simulation of ancient warfare given the ultra-low complexity (but still decent chrome).

I will report more on these as I get the chance to play them. Coming up, though, will be my first play of the long awaited A Victory Denied, Adam Starkweather's attempt to recapture the magic of A Victory Lost, which he developed for the American market from a Japanese game on the subject. Also, the next round in my epic Combat Commander: Stalingrad campaign with Matt R, and a little more work on D-Day at Omaha Beach's late game scenario, which feels a *whole* lot different from the early game. Hard to believe that game came in one box.

Also, I'm happy to report that my B-29 campaign is still on track. I took a mission off when we went to Sunriver for the casual gaming retreat, but got my latest mission in a week early. It went really well except for the part where the bombs are supposed to fall out of the bomb bay and hit things. They did not, they did not, and I got to push them out one at a time on the way home. At least the heavy flak over Tokyo missed me.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Tuesday Gaming, 10/6/09

Mike's back on track hosting again (despite what surely appears to me to be some of the best fall golfing weather we've had in the Portland area in at least seven years, knock on wood), and this time it was Alex, JD, and myself who joined him for a couple of games.

First up was Zircus Flohcati, or Flea Circus. I have the original German edition with translation, while Mike has the clearly inferior RGG edition with a lot of rule changes. OK, one big one - if you complete the gala, you don't get an extra +10 points. This seems to me to be a pretty stupid rule, as it negates any reason you would have for ending the game other than to prevent others from improving their hands. Since you can almost certainly improve yours at the same time, why bother ending it?

Oh sure, I also *lost* the game because I ended it, by three points to Alex (53-56), which would have been 63-56 had that rule been in place. I think the other rules have to do with a couple of the draw cards special action cards, but I can't recall. The 10 point rule is pretty important, to my mind, and not just because I lost.

I should note that we were playing ZF because we were waiting for Dave to show up, but he never did, so we started a four player game of Battlestar Galactica. I've now played the game with four, five, and six, and I have to say that I prefer the game with five or six. Four was fine, but once one Cylon has been tagged then the suspense kind of drops off a bit.

The game started out with an extra basestar jumping in and kicking serious viper ass - by the time we managed to jump (and it took a *long* time) we were down to two vipers in the bay and the rest in the damaged box. Our first seven or eight (or more) Crisis cards didn't have jumps on them. We had quite a bit of damage done to the Galactica, including the Command Room (launch unmanned vipers, not that we had any free), the Weapons Room (Galactica shoots at stuff), and the FTL room.

Oh, and we figured out Mike was the Cylon before the first jump too. Good thing, as he had picked Admiral Adama, and so he never got to slow us down when we did manage to jump. He'd managed to get the heavy raider on the board set to offload centurions in his next turn when we managed the jump. However, it was expensive because so many civvie ships had been wiped out, and we were down to 5 population after the first jump. That's a Bad Thing, and the rest of us thought it was all over but the shouting.

That made me the Admiral (Helo), while Laura Roslin (JD) and Starbuck (Alex) got right to it. Because we'd used up all of the non-jump Crisis cards, we were able to do a lot of good things moving forward, getting Vipers back in shape, repairing Galactica, and getting some good jumps. In fact, we'd gotten more than halfway after the second jump. Unfortunately, the Sympathizer card put me in the brig for the rest of the game, as we couldn't seem to get enough of the right kind of cards to get me out. However, I was still drawing tons of cards and could use them to give other people actions, which I did.

We made two more jumps that put us at 8, only one jump away from a win for the humans. Unfortunately, Morale and Population were not doing well, and it was now that Mike managed to launch another attack of Cylons, as well as throw a Nuke Missile with his Super Crisis card. Fortunately for us, the Destiny Pile was good and we managed to *just* avoid the nuke (which would have killed us).

What didn't work out so well was that Mike then went after our last population (down to 1 at this point, as was Morale, with at least one more tick to go on the jump track before we could attempt anything) in the form of a Civvie ship or two. There was one unmanned viper guarding it from five raiders, and Mike started rolling terribly about this time. However, he had a few Piloting cards that allowed him to reroll, and after all the shouting was over he'd killed the ship and our last population point.

Or had he? It turned out after the fact that Cylons can't use the text on ability cards, so he couldn't have rerolled anything, although *we* could force rerolls. At this point, though, it was 10pm and we decided that it was close enough for government work. It was also possible that one of Mike's Crisis cards he'd played while on Caprica also got used for advancing the jump token, so we figured it was close enough. In any event, the game came right down to the wire, just the way we like it, so even with a botched rule we were happy.

I have to say that BStarG remains one of the premiere semi-coop games out there, certainly one of the best evocations of the theme of the original franchise it represents.

Next time, we plan to try the Pegasus expansion when we have a full load of experienced players who know all of the rules. Well, *almost* all of the rules... ;-)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Good Gig

Had a pretty good gig at the Dublin last night. This was our second time out, and it's kind of amazing how different things are once you've played a gig for the first time with a band. We'd learned a bunch of new songs (or refreshed them) for this gig to improve our danceability quotient, and as such neglected some of our previous set list for a good month or more. It was of some concern that we were not retaining the structure or endings of a lot of songs, and in fact at this gig there were at least seven or eight songs where the structure didn't go as I expected. I suspect I had something to do with at least a few of them, but the truth is that in rock and roll, little goes as planned.

We had a good turnout - not as good as previously (we get the door, which more or less shows how many people are present during our portion of the evening), but still very good. Our first show there we had 90 people show up, this time we had 81. I think there were more people that we *didn't* know this time around, which is nice. It's very hard to get a following when a band is first starting out, but it's critical to getting future bookings as it's why bar owners hire bands in the first place. If people come and drink and eat and play pool, the bar owner makes money and is happy. Otherwise, they're likely losing money on you. Me, I'd do this for nothing.

A good friend of mine who has known me since I first started playing in bands when I was 14 came out to see us. Because I've either sung in choirs or worked in corporate event/wedding bands for most of the past 20 years, he hadn't really seen me play since we were both sophomores in college back in the day. When I sat down to chat with him during the break, he had a grin across his face that was truly impressive, and he said it was because it was so much fun to watch the *band* having so much fun, and especially seeing me enjoying myself so much.

And that's true. I'm not a religious man, but as far as I can tell I get the same sort of ecstatic experience from music (not just performance, also in rehearsal or even just singing in the car) that people get from prayer. Obviously, I can't say for sure, and in fact couldn't say for sure as I suspect everyone has a slightly different experience. Maybe it's just an endorphin rush, maybe it's a link to the divine in whatever form that may be. I don't know, and I don't really care. It's the experience, the joy I derive from making music, that's important. Rock and roll is obviously different from, say, singing the Beethoven setting of the Missa Solemnis, but they are a lot closer than you'd think. There are many sections of the Missa that I compared to rock music in their intensity, and definitely sections that you had to just ride the rollercoaster like you do when playing rock and hope your brain and muscle memory would pull you through.

What I find particularly interesting is the difference in body movement. In a choir, I'm expected to stay still, partly because your instrument (your voice) requires it, while in rock I'm tethered only by my instruments and my microphone, although as anyone who has seen me will say, I stretch those limits as much as I can. I'm a terrible dancer (ask my wife), but I have no qualms at all when I gyrate and jump around on stage. None of it is posing, it's all simply expressing the joy I feel in making music.

After the band was packed up and touching base before splitting up after the gig, the band following us came up looking for Doug. It took me a minute to realize they were looking for me. This was a reggae band, mind you, and I have neither experience with reggae as a musician nor as even a listener. Their keyboardist was unable to play, and they asked if I could sit in with them. Had my wife not already left with some friends to meet me at another location, I might well have done it, just to see how I liked reggae. That would have been a sight, me with my black glow-in-the-dark Sword of Elric of Melnibone teeshirt playing music about Ja, ganga, and world peace! I guess I had a spare tee in the car, but still...

Of course, that would have been another four hours of gigging after three, which I suspect would have killed me. I guess I could have just grabbed a stool and sat down, but I'm probably too old for that sort of thing. And while it was nice to be asked, it wasn't like there were a lot of other keyboardists with gear sitting around and I'm pretty sure they'd already called all of their friends by then. Next time, guys.

Our next gig at the Dublin is December 5th, 2009, again a Saturday. For those of you in the area who haven't seen "the show" I hope to see you there. It's a really good band.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Rockin' The Dublin Pub

Just in case you have nothing to do Saturday night October 3rd and live in the Greater Portland, OR area, my band Raindriver will be playing from 7 to 10pm. I've already put up a photo from the last gig, which my lovely niece Sarah dubbed "badass". Cover is $5 at the door, of which I feel obligated I see $1 (and that's all I see, we play for the door, although we do get a couple of free beers).

We have about eight new songs we're introducing, including more slow stuff.

You can get more information on the band website here, and more info on the Dublin Pub as well as directions here. For some reason there is no info on bands on the Dublin site for more or less the entire month of October, but I"m *really* hoping that's an oversight.

Come on out and I'll mock you as you dance. A $50 value, yours for free with the cover charge!

Poppa's Got A Brand New Bike

OK, not really. It's the same bike I bought a couple of months ago. But it *feels* like a new bike.

Today, I took my Trek 7.5 FX down to the Beaverton Bike Gallery, where "Rambo" fitted it to me. As an engineer, it was a pretty interesting process to watch and be a part of.

The first part was aligning the cleats in my shoes front-to-back. Apparently I have nicely pronounced metatarsal protrusions. Who knew? Given my shoe size, that means that the third metatarsal is about 5mm back from that point. Of course, there was considerable adjustment after that point, but that came later.

Next it was time to get on the bike and ride. To nowhere. This was my first time on a "trainer", which is where you put a special spindle through the rear hub that allows you to mount onto a frame that lets you ride the bike as a stationary unit. I was happy to learn that I can leave this spindle in for the winter, and that the spindle on my trainer is actually better than the one on the bike.

This was also the first time I'd used the cleats in the SPD pedals I bought when I got the bike. I've been using the stock pedals (cleatless) since I got it, and it will take a little practice to get used to engaging and unengaging them. The tech set them pretty low, so it should be easy to get out fast if I need to. Definitely a different feel than I'm used to, but now I can use the pedal upstroke to generate energy as well as the downstroke.

He then set the seat height, which was astonishingly low. I'd had the height set when I bought the bike, but apparently it settled a bit or else was just way off. That will be a big change for me as well, but it felt more comfortable. Note that all of this fitting required measurements, including determining my flexibility on a yoga mat before I ever got on the bike.

After getting the seat height, it was time to check for the lateral setting on the cleats and the pedals. My left pedal was off enough that it required a 3mm washer as well as a pretty strong lateral adjustment to the cleat on that foot. The right leg actually bent *inward* rather than outward, but not as much, but it did require the rough equivalent of a washer under the cleat, and now I can't walk on hardwood floors with these shoes. Like I was going to.

Finally, we checked the stem and handlebar, and the stem was also pretty short. One of my few complaints about the bike was that I was with my hand position on the straight handlebars. You know how your hands flex outward when you're using a keyboard? The opposite of that. A longer stem helped there, although it's black and the old one was a powdered silver. The mutation of my bicycle has begun!

And then it was just a matter of making sure all the torque on the various nuts was correct, and off we went. I haven't gotten a chance to actually ride yet (that will be Sunday after my band's gig on Saturday - I've been told not to ride on gig days as they'd like to have me there alive), but I plan to get on the trainer on Sunday to watch football, and it will be interesting to see how much different the bike feels. I was pretty happy with it before, but with all of the changes (and the new SPD pedals, which will allow me to do one-legged pedaling on the trainer) I'm looking forward to getting back on.

Special thanks to Laurent and Nina, who both strongly urged me to get the bike fitted, and to Nina for her awesome comment last Sunday when I came out in my gear and she said, "Well, don't *you* look credible?" I am *so* using that at the gig on Saturday. That and, "I think I just lost a bet with my wife."