Friday, November 27, 2009

Storm of Cardboard

Mike was the only person to show up this past Tuesday to the regular gaming session, which was not a huge surprise considering what for many in the US is a long four day weekend (and the infamous Black Friday shopping orgy that is going on as I type). Torn between The Caucasus Campaign (which Mike is playing against Eric next week) and Storm of Steel, the latest Conflict of Heroes game, we chose the latter. Mike had played with the updated Awakening the Bear rules (I had not), so we had to do a bit of figuring out as we went, but in general we got the game down.

AtB was on my list of 2009 gaming goals to get through all of the firefights, but that just never happened. It seems that Combat Commander tends to be the game of choice for relatively (3-4 hour) tactical WW2 games, and I played a *ton* of that in 2009. Uwe, the designer of the CoH system, made a lot of small but important changes to the rules, such as both players being able to active units at the same time, in essence breaking the limit of only being able to do Command, Card, or Opportunity actions while the other player had a unit Activated and using APs. It's a good choice, but it does kind of destroy the entire point of Opportunity actions, and in fact we never did any in the two scenarios we played. There is also the ability to burn an AP to force your opponent to do something, which I like and got used once or twice.

We played both Firefights 2 and 3 (#1 being a solitaire scenario), but for those familiar with AtB, both 2 and 1 use the same "programmed instruction" ruleset that correspond with Firefight 1 in AtB, and the same is the case for FF2 in AtB vs FF3 in SoS. Hope that made at least some sense. In other words, I am now exactly as far along the curve with the new ruleset as I was a year ago when Ken C and I played at Chris' Dec 08 Salishan gaming weekend.

FF2 did not go well for me, mostly because it was my turn not to be able to roll dice to save my life. I think I was able to kill one Soviet unit the entire game, while Mike was wiping me out regularly. I'd even saved a Command Action card to take a shot at him if he thought he could get away with a close assault on my first unit on the board, but then managed to roll a 4 when I needed a 5 or better to hit him. We also seemed to draw the sadly misspelled "Unnerverd" combat result chit repeatedly, meaning that the units had a hit and no more. I also couldn't roll rally actions either, and so it didn't take long for Mike to scrub the floor with my Germans.

FF3, if possible, went less well for Mike, although in this case it was a combination of a poor tactical decision (hiding his units immediately then grouping them in a single hex - when I took a guess at where he was in the wheat field and nailed one, then proceeded to kill them all within a few rolls, that was the effective end of his assault), but also some really *good* rolls on my part. The Soviets really have no choice but to use human wave tactics to get across the field, but with the group movement rules they *can* do so in a mad rush, and in fact they must. Hiding them and hoping that they'll get to the village within five turns won't work, and you simply don't want to stack units unless there is no chance they'll get shot at. Also, given the way that players expend activations, if you have twice as many units you'll be able to let the defenders expend their activations in time to allow at least some of your units to advance, although it is slow going through that wheatfield (but still twice as fast as with hidden movement). That's a tactical thing, though, not a poorly designed scenario.

As such, not the most satisfying of gaming experiences, but then these are early scenarios intended to teach the system. While I think the game "works" for infantry-only actions, I believe that this is a game that wants badly to see the armor hit the board, which is a key differentiator between it and Combat Commander. Given that the theme of SoS is what turned out to be the largest battle between primarily armored fighting vehicles in our history, it would make sense that we'd want to get there fairly soon, and I may run through the remaining scenarios solitaire just to finally get the system down and not have to fiddle with constantly teaching the baby steps that the rules force you into. Wargamers can handle the larger rulesets, and really there isn't that much that gets introduced from a rules standpoint (although it does tend to affect tactical decisions).

In all, I think the game is an improvement. The rules, at least what I've seen so far, are definitely clearer in describing how things work. Last year, Ken and I struggled to understand the grouping rules before we finally got it. This time, the text seemed to be much clearer in it's intent, as you would hope for a second edition (for all practical purposes). I was disappointed that some of the component issues were not dealt with - hex numbers on the boards are reversed from most games (they run the letter along the hex grain, the number crosswise), and are still far too small to read on the gameboard and some terrain obscures them even further. I suppose that it wasn't possible to make either the damage chits or units smaller so that one could sit on top of the other and make it easy to see both at the same time (valuable as the effects of the combat chits are located in the same corners as the factors of the units they are associated with), but then again the new game makes the chits hidden from the start rather than as an optional rule, which does make for a more tense game and allows compatibility with the first game. I'm still unhappy that the front arc defensive value is oriented toward the *back* of the counter rather than the front, and vice versa for the flank value, but again I'd imagine there is a compatibility issue with AtB. Also - no tuckboxes for the counters, which were handy for storage, although there seem to be a lot more counters in this game than the previous one, but I'm just not sure.

I'll also note that there needs to be a better terrain key than the weak one in the rulebook. There are lots of spaces on the wheatfield on board 8 that look like open areas but are not clear terrain, just wheatfield that look like it's been cleared or burned. Nice artistically, bad from a clarity perspective. Also, IIRC the rule is that if a center dot is surrounded by a terrain type then that hex is considered to be of that terrain type, but there is also a spot on board 8 with two tiny trees surrounding the center dot and I can't believe that those two lone trees constitute a forest. I suppose I need to be more willing to use common sense, but the problem is that two wargamers can disagree, both using common sense, and that is exactly why these games need to have everything nailed down, including terrain.

There are a lot of things that Uwe learned, however. No more square rules/scenarios, now they are standard sized (8.5"x11" in Imperial units). There is a time track on the player point tracking sheets, so you don't have to keep the firefight booklet flat and the counter on it. No more ambiguity over what types of units get the bonus in close combat, and which get the penalty, as those combat values have a white circle around them for the penalty. Certainly a cleaner ruleset, as mentioned above.

I think that the reason this game doesn't come out like Combat Commander is twofold. First, you more or less have to start from the beginning with someone who hasn't yet played. I've played AtB more than enough times to get through the entire set of firefights, but because almost all of my opponents have been new to the game I've played the first scenario 12 times and the second one once, and the rest haven't been touched. Second, the early scenarios have very few units and only a handful of turns, and thus one bad roll can really hamper your chances to win. That first scenario had exactly four Germans, and once you start losing them (and the CAPs with them) it's pretty much all over but the looting.

All of that said, I'm still planning to run a CoH event at the upcoming Gamestorm con in Portland in March. My goal is to start encouraging wargamers to attend the con (it's mostly RPGs, CCGs, and Euros right now), and this seems like a good start seeing as the game is definitely a crossover title a la Tide of Iron. Now *there* is a flawed game, when you have to move into a hex and take op fire in order to lay smoke that persists for *one* turn.

But I digress. My initial idea for a CoH event is to have a series of boards set up with two to four players per, representing the entire front of a large scale action. I think it will probably start out as a recon-type action, with both sides trying to take strategically important ground in the center of the board, and follow-on scenarios will have semi-random forces trying to knock back the forces that took the area in the previous battle, or even moving on to other maps if one side or the other is doing well. I'd like to work up some ideas for having the results of one battle on a neighboring board affect your board as well. There is no way I'm going to be able to come up with four to eight scenarios (I'm an optimist) that will take the *initial* situation in to account, much less more depending upon results, so a lot of the event will require me to throw things at the players, such as giving them hidden units that the other player doesn't know about! All in all, it should be a very interesting situation for me as GM, and one I'm really looking forward to. Fortunately, Uwe has promised both prize and play support, which will help immensely, and if it's successful I may try to leverage it into something I can do at other cons as well.

More on my thoughts on how to make a wargaming event in future posts.

Based on this play of SoS, I really can't make a strong recommendation for the system other than to say that if you really liked AtB, SoS is a massive improvement in many regards, and even better most of those improvements are already retrofitted to the original game. Once I've had the chance to get the full ruleset under my belt, I'll have a better sense of how the system fits in with other tactical systems out there.

Thanks to Mike for coming over and playing these two firefights, even if they weren't the tensest of affairs.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Hell Of Stalingrad

I'm a sucker for new wargame systems - it's not that I don't like the classic hex-and-counter, IGO-HUGO mentality, it's just that I understand that there are many ways to skin a cat (or invade Russia) and that different systems will provide different insights into the history, doctrine, etc of a given conflict or battle. I didn't used to be this way. When CDGs came out in the mid-90's, I was completely uninterested (although to be fair, my lack of interest came from a lack of opponents and the system not being terribly conducive to solo play). In fact, I didn't get Hannibal, one of my favorite wargames, until after the Hill had folded and I was picking up *everything* by them that was on the shelves at that point. Of course, Hannibal is one of the most well regarded of the CDGs, no small feat as it was a) put out by the Hill and thus had rules that made you want to cry, and b) it was the *second* CDG published and was quite a step forward from We The People in many ways - multi-use cards, for one, which have been used in every CDG I'm familiar with with the sole exception of (arguably) Unhappy King Charles.

So, when a new game comes out with a radically different system, I tend to pick it up just out of curiosity if nothing else. The Hell of Stalingrad (HoS) is such a system. The question is, would it be a *good* system, or a *bad* system? Only Toto knows for sure...

I've gotten through one basic game playing solitaire, which I'm happy to say works pretty well for reasons I'll get into more later on. For those in a hurry, here are the particulars:

Pros - Relatively short game (I could see playing an advanced game in three hours, maybe four when teaching). Graphically rich (this may be a con to some). Intuitive system. Strong sense of history on a high level.

Cons - Graphically jarring. Relatively little tactical flavor, and what is there is very abstract. Game outcome will probably hinge on luck of the dice.

OK, now for a more complete breakdown:

Components - The game is made up of a few player mats (oddly spelled "matts" in the rules), a deck of building cards (very large), several dice, and a lot of cards (of the standard sleeve size). Cards do a lot of things - they are used to represent "formations," combat cards (resources or tactics attached to the formations), campaign cards that represent effects from higher echelon units, and "Carnage" cards that randomize several game functions (snipers, initiative, and hold actions). Everything seems pretty sturdy, other than the relatively light player mats which are on flimsy paper. It's nice to have large buildings, but you'll want to be very careful shuffling them as they are 4"x6" and can't be sleeved. However, the chances that being able to identify one of these cards will effect the game are slim unless the card in question is a Volga card and on top of the deck, but you can get around this by cutting the deck if it hasn't been shuffled in a while.

There are also quite a few large counters, all about 1" or 1"x1/2", which represent leaders, various status counters, and the units each side will throw into the mix. I recommend using a tray for these, as you will be pulling various units in and out pretty often. One thing about this game - units have a life span of something approaching a minute and a half. All of the units are of the "half" counter variety, so they are easy to see and use.

The rules are not going to be most people's cup of tea. I'm not a huge fan of games that describe the iconography for 12 pages, then talk about the sequence of play starting on page 17. Really. That said, if you have learned to read rules literally, then you should be OK. I found a few things that were not well explained, mostly involving depletion effects for Soviet formations, but in general you do what the component tells you to do. That said, this game will be more fun to learn if you can find a teacher, as it's really not that complex a game in terms of the mechanisms.

Sequence of Play (SoP) - The game works very simply: you play for 3 to 6 turns (basic and advanced versions, respectively), and every turn there are two phases. The first phase involves random higher echelon activity, drawing reinforcement formations, deploying buildings or Volga cards for districts that were taken by the Germans last turn, reconstituting depleted units, and finally deploying your forces to the various districts, of which there will be a maximum of four. In other words, the admin part of the game.

The second phase is the Battle phase, and this is where all of the excitement happens. Each district will see a separate battle played on it in turn, and for the most part anything that happens happens on that building. First, players execute the "vanguard" actions ad shown on the various formation cards played to that district. Next, an initiative draw from the Carnage deck determines who goes first and who gets the quick benefit shown on the building card. It also determines how many "hold" actions must be taken before the battle ends, as well as advancing the Fire track for that building. Then the battle starts in earnest.

Players get to do one of three things in turn, alternating between sides. You do a thing, then your opponent does a thing. The three things are hold actions, draw actions, or play combat card actions. If you do a hold action, you draw a Carnage card and choose which of two icons to implement. This action also reduces the Hold value on the building, established by the Initiative draw, by one, and once the last point has been taken then you evaluate who wins this battle (more below). Drawing just means that you follow the instructions on your Leader card, which generally means drawing combat cards up to your hand max.

However, it's managing your hand of combat cards that's important, and even more importantly it's done asymmetrically to a point for each side. In general, these cards will add units to the fight for your side, or take others out from the other side (although some German cards *add* units to the Soviet side, the result of creating rubble they can use as a fort). For the Germans, it's relatively easy - each formation can add X cards (improved by one if their leader token is at +1), but the combat card type has to match the unit type. For example, you can't play a combat card with a General icon on it unless the unit has a leader token. You can't play Infantry combat cards on Armored formations. Many of the German units are combined, and can take any combat card. Again, you just do what the card tells you to do, and move on.

Soviet formations can only add so many "points" of combat cards, which can be modified in two ways - through veteran leaders (as with the Germans), but also through "motivation" units - you can discard a "motivation" unit along with a Rifle unit on the building to improve the Patriotism value of a formation by one per unit pair discarded from the building. Some Soviet combat cards have a value of 0 and can always be played, but there will be times that you don't have those types of cards and need just one bump to get that Overrun icon that will let you add a formation to that district when you really need one.

There are a host of other rules involving combat, but that's the gist. When the Hold value drops to 0, you do a "break check" for that district. This is possibly the part that will annoy the hell out of you, especially those of you who dislike games that appear to determine the winner on the final die roll (as happened in my solitaire run-through). The process is very simple: the side that has the most formations in the district gets one die (ties mean both sides get a die). The same goes for number of units, so having 20 units while your opponent has 3 is just as valuable as if you have 3 and 2 respectively. The Germans get one die for every Inferno marker (done by advancing Fire markers through card effects, in comparison to the Soviet Buckets removing Inferno markers), and the Soviets get additional dice equal to the defensive value of the building. Roll 'em, and whoever rolls the higher single number wins. Ties go to who has the most of that number. If there's still a tie, things get bloody. If the Soviets win, the building stays in place and a few units might hold on. If the Germans win, there will be a new building (or, if they're lucky, a Volga card) next turn.

If the Germans get Volga cards in all four districts, or if at the end of the turn there are no building cards in play (remember that you add them back in at the start of the next turn), they win. Otherwise, the Soviets win. As such, as more and more Volga cards come up, ending the battle in favor of the Germans in that district, the better chance the Germans will win. In my game, it came down to one last die roll for the Nail Factory in District B, with five dice rolled for both sides. The Soviets won by rolling one '6'. I saw one German die beat four Soviet dice in one case. This is the sort of thing that will drive a lot of wargamers nuts, although to be quite honest almost every wargame is going to be subject to statistical outliers and I don't see that as a problem in and of itself.

What this means is that you are trying to build up your break dice in each battle as you fight it. That means trying to win the battles for Infernos, most units, and most formations. That's an important thing to keep in mind.

One thing that really caught my attention was that the game is supposed to reflect what a meatgrinder Stalingrad was, especially for the Russians who killed over 20,000 of their *own* men to win. Units go into each district with each formation and combat card played, and their life expectancy is about as long as it takes for the other player to play their combat cards. If the unit is "elite" it will have an effect on the opposing units, usually killing one (defender chooses, can't kill shielded units), or precision killing one (attacker chooses *any* one unit). A card that gives the Germans three HMG elite units would result in six (!) unshielded Soviet units being removed, all in one card play. Once the elite unit is played, it flips to it's "core" side, which will show the basic unit types (recon, infantry, armor, motivator).

I see this as a game where players are trying to manage a limited set of resources in the form of formations and combat cards. While you can discard and redraw up to any number of cards for your action, that's an action where you are doing very little to hurt your opponent and nothing to help yourself. Also, because the formations can only take so many combat cards, at some point you can no longer play combat cards and will need to either move the battle closer to it's end through Hold actions or  keep doing Draw actions just to prevent the battle from ending quicker than you'd like. In the end, though, it just comes down to a few dice that determine the outcome.

I should also note that each district has six buildings in them, one of each set being right next to the river (and resulting in the next card being a Volga card). By drawing buildings for replacements until you get one that belongs to that district (or a Volga card) you really aren't too sure how many battles the Germans will have to win in order to break through to the river. In my game, one district got a Volga card at the start of the second turn, and two more on the start of the third turn (although both of those were the cards on the river's edge). The fourth district was never taken by the Germans through three attempts (the Nail Factory in District B). Again, it is possible for the Germans to win in one if the right building cards get drawn, or they may need to fight through all 24 buildings to win.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that this is not a game for people who like games to proceed in an orderly fashion approximate to the historical record. This is a game for people who like Combat Commander, where you don't have a lot of control over the overall situation, but instead have to do what you can with what you have. I could see there being a lot of Draw actions in order to get Combat cards that have Overrun actions to add formations to a battle, for example, sort of like drawing to find an Advance card in CC:E/M/P.

There is no question that this is a game for a new generation of wargamers, people who have played CCGs and like lots of vibrant colors and colorful language in their rules (no swearing, just a lot of purple prose, unless you count the word "hell" which is used extremely liberally throughout). For ASL players, this game won't fly.

Highly recommended for non-wargamers interested in a strongly themed historical conflict game, as well as for wargamers who like Combat Commander's simplicity and chaos management. Otherwise, I strongly recommend you try before you buy, as even the basic game can take a couple of hours if you're teaching it (but I suspect only 90 minutes once you've learned it).

I should mention the "advanced" game, which adds more combat cards that have more complex effects (usually in text form instead of icons), as well as "hero" cards that mix things up even more and give a stronger sense of story, the one thing that the basic game seems to be missing compared to Combat Commander. I'm looking forward to trying those out in the near future, athough it does double the length of the game, which makes me think that those Soviet Heroes are pretty staunch.

BTW, a well-crafted VASSAL module of this would make the game playable within about 40 minutes for the basic game, maybe no more than 90 for the advanced version.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Combat Commander: Stalingrad Campaign: The Bitter End

Matt R and I started playing our Combat Commander: Stalingrad campaign game last February, nearly 9 months ago. We've been playing one scenario from it at a time over the past months, usually once a month but with a couple of months where it just wasn't feasible. We got through seven battles, with the last one ending the campaign.

In our final game, I was knocking on the door of Mamyev Kurgan, which is to say that if I won I won the campaign. However, because we were on the 7th battle, there was a chance that if Matt won that he'd take the whole thing if the Sudden Death roll for the campaign ended it (and there's no initiative card use for that roll, either). I was left with two Russian SMG platoons to throw in (one being the worst you can use in the game), as well as several good reinforcement units left over from my assault platoon from the previous battle (and my elite command platoon). Matt had two good platoons left, including his assault platoon, but only one veteran Rifle squad to reinforce. We each ended up choosing one extra platoon, although I was hoping to be the attacker because my units were geared for that (SMGs, Assaults, a flamethrower, and a medium mortar).

Matt decided to try to hold the hill by being the defender, and spent all but his last two points on fortifications, running not only a bunch of wire to avoid a frontal assault, but also a trench line on the summit of the hill as well as a bunker in Obj5. Our open objective was 3 points for every Obj, while my secret objective was 2 more points for Obj5.

Since my flamethrower wasn't coming in until the first time trigger, I didn't have much to do other than take shots with I began by setting up the only units with decent range, my Rifle platoon, in the middle of the board on my side (the board was going the "long" direction). My SMG platoon was set to the left flank, with a single Rifle platoon and a small mortar team off to the right to discourage any shenanigans on that side. Almost all of Matt's units were at the top of the hill, with a couple guarding the rubble-filled approaches half way up. What kind of put me in a bad position early was the lack of artillery support - there was no radio available for 1942 when I rolled, although I knew that once my medium mortar showed up that I'd have at least a little ability to lay smoke.

Since I had filled up all of my foxholes and wanted to have a little space for the Assault team, leader, and mortar units coming at the first time trigger, I figured I might as well do two things - shoot and run a single SMG unit up the hill and see what happened. There was a bit of rubble at the foot of the hill that the squad went for, and despite running into some wire along the way (which seemed to happen on that end of the board about six times), he made it up to the lower level of the hill, where he even survived being broken in open terrain somehow. Meanwhile, my rifle Fire Group blew away the advance German on that flank, and the human waves began.

My good friend Mike says that CC is about who draws the Advance/Ambush combos and who doesn't, and in this game it was me. I managed to start infiltrating the trench line at the top of the hill, and then had the dream hand as I advanced into the bunker: an Advance, a Recover, and *four* Ambush cards. I wasn't even saving them up, they just kept ending up in my hand when I drew every turn. By now, Matt had four units out of the six he could afford to lose on his Surrender track, and things were looking grim. However, by now I had the flamethrower up on the top of the hill in good cover, and once that happens things aren't going to get any better any sooner. A few turns later, I'd wiped out the last unit I needed to to get him to Surrender, and the campaign was mine.

So what did I learn from this? Firstly, Matt decided pretty early on to be the defender, even though my units were almost ideal for me being the attacker (except for the lack of decent smoke). Perhaps his best option was to force a Recon rather than a classic attack/defense situation to minimalize my attacking strength. Had he had a single HMG instead of his four LMGs, defense would have been a no-brainer, and to be fair he did have a nice 13 FP group shooting at me early, although I was drawing enough Recover cards to keep my situation stable. Running that SMG squad up the hill was also an attempt to keep him occupied which went better than it should have thanks to my Rifle fire group taking out the closest German unit.

The other thing I learned was not to roll terribly when you are firing weapons. Matt had a truly Deansian string of luck in the middle part of our game, rolling no better than a seven over nearly 10 combat rolls, and then only once. Most were 3's to 5's. I didn't lose a single unit in the battle, and by the end the entire hill looked like it had been overrun by Red ants. Get it? Red ants? Ha ha! Erm...

As such, the net result was a little anti-climactic. That's the thing about CC: sometimes you get a great story (and I think this particular game *did* have an interesting story, just not for the Germans, with that lone unit rushing and making the top of the hill), and sometimes the game just goes south and it's not a lot of fun for either side. At the same time, I've had so many really memorable sessions that I love playing the game. In fact, I played one of the other Stalingrad pack scenarios with my friend Connor last week (the one where the Germans have to surround then take a house), and I got creamed. Still, you look for the exciting parts, like where I was one turn away from taking the last two perimeter objectives right when a Time trigger occurred, giving Connor two extra Russian squads with LMGs. In that game, my problem was that I was getting into position to advance without having the necessary cards to back it up, and Connor kept advancing into *my* hexes and killing me off.

Hard to believe this game came out only three years ago. In that time, I have played as many games of CC as I have of all other wargames combined. Part of the appeal is that I have many opponents because the game is so accessible and short (four hours is a very long scenario), but part is that it tends to capture the imagination of people who can think of all these little cardboard counters as actual soldiers in the field, assaulting a defensive strongpoint, walking through the forest singing just before the Finns sweep down on you, or holding out with a lone knocked out tank and a Jeep with a .50cal MG in the back against a horde of German Volksgrenadiers. I can see why ASL has such a huge following, as it has all of the same advantages with the sole exception of simplicity (although much more detail regarding individual weapons systems, plus vehicles). I can live with the tradeoffs just fine, and CC will continue to be a game that is a jewel in my collection. Although I think I'll wait a while before taking on another campaign game for nine months, though...

Thanks to Matt for sticking with the campaign over the months. We both learned a lot about the campaign metagame (as I've detailed in earlier posts), and I think he learned quite a bit about mid-20th century tactical warfare doctrine, which this game *does* encourage.

Which gives me an interesting thought - WW2 is clearly the most gamed topic in the hobby, with the possible exceptions of ACW and Napoleonics (in minis, especially), yet this war was largely unique. It saw the advent of air power as indispensable, the birth of mechanized warfare, as well as effective strategic warfare against infrastructure. Modern warfare, from (say) Viet Nam onward, is a much different affair, with the enemy consisting in large part of insurgents just trying to take their country back. Warfare prior to that point still relied heavily on defensive power with trenches and machine guns and a lack of wireless communications preventing effective exploitation of breakthroughs in the vast majority of cases. Effective doctrine and radio changed everything, then computers and insurgencies changed it again. Now, it is hard to believe that any superpower, no matter how powerful, could take and hold a country with a determined resistance movement. Seven years in Afghanistan and six in Iraq have put the lie to the value of bringing democracy to people who aren't asking for it and aren't ready for it.

So here we are in the wargaming hobby, largely playing games for a period of warfare that was exceedingly short. I can only think that the age of massive (and well documented) armies fighting over vast tracts of land is over, at least until we *really* start to run out of oil and start fighting over that (while expending it in the process). Of course, at that point none of us will have the leisure time for board wargaming...

Monday, November 02, 2009

What Else I'm Watching

Here's a list of the other shows we're watching this fall:

Flash Forward - What would happen if everyone knew where they'd be and what they'd be doing in six months? What if in the course of learning that, you and everyone else in the world passed out for just over two minutes? What if someone had done it on purpose, and killed 20 million people in the process? Aside from Joseph Fines trying to sound American and sounding instead like a recent Eastern European immigrant, this is the best new show of the year.

Community - I generally stay away from half-hour comedies because they are *so* rarely worthwhile. For every Friends there's 20 Hello Larrys. Those of you of a certain age will know what I'm talking about. This show, however, is absolutely hilarious, with a very strong ensemble cast including Chevy Chase doing his best work in years. The plot centers around a lawyer who loses his accreditation (or whatever lawyers have) and is forced to finish his degree. The usual 30 minute morality play ensues, but it's done with enough aplomb and dryness that it rises about the standard fare.

V - I missed the original for some reason (I think it had to do with going to college at a time when very few students had televisions or computers in their rooms, and did homework on bearskins with pencils made of dyed fat), but I'll be watching this one. And anyone who has seen the actress playing the face of the aliens (haha! - Whoops, didn't want to give anything away there) will know why. She was attractive on Firefly, but she owns the screen in the V trailers. Hope the show's good too.

Private Practice - Two words - Kate. Walsh. Is there any other reason to watch? Is any other reason needed? Actually, I stopped watching this at some point last year, and in fact didn't watch any this year, but felt I needed a little Kate time this week and so watched an episode my wife had DVRed. And watched Amy Brennerman do some really terrific acting. Unfortunately, the show still is using the same exact formula for each show that they were before, but like Community, it may be enough if the acting transcends the scripts.

Grey's Anatomy - Kidding. I stopped watching this after the strike. This show lost every ounce of mojo it had when Kate Walsh spun off, and now it's just another medical nighttime soap going through the late stages of ER-ness. I'll play WoW if this is on.

Dexter - While this program, on the other hand, just keeps upping the bar and then nailing it. While last season's finale might have pushed the boundaries of likelihood, this year looks to be very interesting, especially with John Lithgow as Dexter's antithetical doppelganger. I admit it, I thought the concept for this show was going to be hard for American audiences to swallow, but it's really cast quite a bright light on sociopathy and psychopathy, and in a way I think few of us thought would be palatable.

The Prisoner - Actually a six-episode retelling of the classic 60's spy/psych thriller starring Patrick Magoohan. Unlike the original, which saw a huge internal conflict for the direction of the show between the guy who conceived it (spy adventure) and Magoohan (crazy psychodrama with all the attendant 60's pop-psychology elements), this show should be not only better from a technical standpoint, but also with a clear script. Ian McKellen plays No. 2, someone I've never heard of plays No. 6. And yes, the Rovers are still with us, but the Village is now in Tunisia. Starts in about two weeks from my posting this. I'm almost certain to be hugely disappointed, but this show is a sentimental favorite of mine, and I better start running through the DVDs of the original series!

There are several other programs that are done for the summer or nearly so - Mad Men, True Blood, Weeds - most of which are on premium cable.

There is one thing I don't get, though - What the hell is Fringe still on for? X-Files for the CSI generation, I guess - why worry about characters when you have fringe science as the star?

So You Think You Can Dance? Actually, No.

In general, I dislike reality television. Personalities are chosen to create discord and drama, even in programs like Top Chef that are intended to showcase training and skills. Film is edited to make things appear even more dramatic than they are, with tense music and long looks that are straight out of Soap Opera Acting 101. The only thing that keeps these shows afloat in my mind is that they are cheap to make and Americans love to watch people who think they're smart demonstrate that they are anything but.

Remember when "The Running Man" was science fiction? Sigh.

There *is* one reality show that I watch regularly, and it's not American Idol (largely talentless hacks who are generally nice to look at and can occasionally sing) - it's So You Think You Can Dance. The format of the show is pretty standard for this sort of thing - a group of dancers are paired up and asked to go outside of their comfort zones (sometimes *far* out of their zones) and then the public votes for them. The biggest difference is that for the first 10 dancers voted off the decision is made by the judges rather than the fans (in the end) as the top 10 dancers are then under contract to go on tour, and the producers want some control about who makes that particular list.

So what is it that's different about this particular show? Aside from the "Let's make fun of the mentally ill and incompetent" audition shows (which I largely avoid), the program has a very positive spin to it. The dancers are given a style and choreographer each week, and then have to perform, and there are some huge surprises and some exquisite dancing going on, especially considering how far afield some of these kids are asked to go (a crumper did a waltz the other night, for example, and pretty well considering he had zero formal training).

What's really amazing is that while people want to win, what they end up doing is opening their minds to a fairly wide range of dance styles. In the last couple of years, we've seen crumping, ballroom dancing, Latin styles, Bollywood styles, Russian folk dancing (big mistake), disco, hip hop, even a little ballet. In order to dance these styles, you have to embrace them, just as you would as a musician. In my quasi-professional life as a musician, I can tell you that if you don't open up to the music you're performing, even if you don't like it, it will show in performance. Every time.

Not only does this program bring all of these dance styles to the masses, but the contestants most definitely bond, and in fact there is *no* funky editing done to make it appear that there's tension or drama other than when people get injured. The judging is, by and large, fair and considering it's done in a very small amount of time, useful. The choreographers are fantastic, and while not all of the dancing is fantastic, a fairly good amount of it is. Certainly more enjoyable for me than Idol, which is excruciating early on and tolerable near the end.

This season, the sixth, is the first that's come out of their normal summer replacement series slot, now a full fledged regular season program. And it seems that things are a bit crazy this year. One dancer, someone I thought was going to be a strong contender, backed out as they were making the final decision about who would be on the show because she'd gotten a movie contract. Another dancer, a kid who I thought was going to be in the final show and could potentially win the whole thing, had to leave after the first "Top 20" program for health reasons. Another woman hurt her leg a day before the show - amazingly, she gets to perform another week, apparently because they liked her work.

Right now, I have four favorites. I apologize for not getting names down just yet, it's a little hard to follow this many people. Tops is Jakob, who dances like I wish I could sing. My sentimental favorite man is Russell, the above mentioned crumper. Get that man some training, and he'll take over the world. A special mention to Ryan, the bodybuilding ballroom dancer, who will also go far.

In the women, I did not want to like but was very impressed by Kathryn's dancing. She squeaks when she talks, and burst into tears more or less regularly during the later parts of the audition process, but she can dance. My sentimental favorite is Ellenore, who has a great sense of humor in her work, but was quite good in her dance with Ryan this past week. I also think Karen, the Venezuelan Latin dancer, will do very well - a gay judge on the show spoke of how his eyes went all AOOOOGGAAAA when she was dancing, and that's not the usual reaction he has to... well, it got a little fuddled after that.

The show, like most elimination talent competitions, is a bit of a slog for the dancers, especially mentally as you are constantly learning new styles and showing your versatility, all the time keeping your personality up front to drive votes from the mostly pre-teen/teen girl and gay teen boy primary demographic (just look at the audience on any given night - it's choreographers and a *lot* of 15 year old girls). But this isn't a show just for 15 year old girls (and not that there's anything wrong with *being* a 15 year old girl, just so long as you *stop* at a reasonable point, like when you turn 16). The art produced on this program is head and shoulders above Idol. Idol is all covers, for one thing, there is no new music being created. Every dance on *this* program is an original work, produced specifically for the show. I'm a cover musician, and there's value there, but that creative work is what sets this show apart. That, and the camaraderie that this show generates, something you don't really see anywhere else. Part of it is the partnering, but it's also because dance is so frequently a collaborative art and you're doing it with other people. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of fighting and backbiting and sabotage in the world of dance, there is. But on this show, the atmosphere is to excel, not to bring down, and no one is asked who they think should go home that week.

Even if you're not a huge fan of dance (and I am not, I have never gone to see a live dance performance other than Nutcracker in my life, and then I wasn't given a choice), this is a reality show that accentuates positive relationships, art, and the creative process. If you hate reality TV for the same reasons I do, you might give it a shot one week.

I will give two criticisms: The new stage is far too big, we've lost the intimacy of the previous seasons. Part of the problem is vertical, but the other part is that there's too much emphasis on using the whole thing. With pairs, smaller is better. The other is that the lovely host, Cat, is starting to cross the line from adorable to precious, and while her genuineness is one of her strengths in a world of smarmy Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell-style personalities, she could stop acting like a very tall and attractive 15 year old girl now.

Those things aside, this show is a winner, and I'm very happy it's on in the fall at last.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Empires In America - First Impressions

Along with Nemo's War, I also picked up the fourth in the States of Siege series from VPG, Empires in America. Previous titles in this series are Israeli Independence, Soviet Dawn, and Zulus on the Ramparts. I've discussed the earlier two games, and have played Zulus but didn't blog about it. Suffice it to say that I liked the game and was happy to see Joe Miranda take on the system to take it in new directions, in this case by adding in historical personages who are placed on the map, as well as taking the game system down to the individual soldier scale.

In Empires In America (EIA, although I realize that's an acronym for another very popular game), you are the French trying to fight off the British in 1750's North America. In other words, what we in the States call the French and Indian War, which became a colonial offshoot of the Seven Years War. The subject is quite apropos for the States of Siege system, as the French never really had any chance of conquering the British colonies, which by this time were extremely well settled and established. Instead, what they needed to do was hold off the vastly more populated British colonies long enough for the war to end and them to preserve their holdings along the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes.

While many of the elements will be familiar to anyone who has played any of the previous games (with four to six "armies" advancing along various axes toward the critical position, in this case Montreal), there are a huge number of differences. For one thing, armies no longer advance if you pull their event card, but instead advance if there is a British leader in that theater driving the army forward. These leaders, in conjunction with Provincial Forces cards, will have not only a leadership value, but also a certain number of battalions with them, as well as Reputation in battle. The French also have leaders and Provincials that appear as the game progresses, and like the Brits their battalions and reputation will change as the game proceeds.

As with all States of Siege games, the core mechanism driving the game is a deck of event cards. In addition to the leaders and Provincial units that appear, you will also see World and British Events (which do various things, of course), as well as French Action cards. On some occasions, British Events will drive armies forward on the map even if they don't have leaders. Like earlier games, the idea of the game is for the player to survive until the event cards have all been drawn. One thing that is a *huge* difference from earlier games, however, is the use of "bottom" cards. And no, they don't have naked bottoms on them.

Here's how it works: At game start, the deck consists of 20 "blue" cards, but there are 24 more "red" cards that are placed underneath the blue cards, face up and pointing 90 degrees off to clearly delineate them. When leaders are "sacked" during the game, or certain provincial units meet certain criteria, they are also "bottomed" with the red cards. At some point, a World Event that triggers the Seven Years War is drawn, and at that point all bottomed cards are shuffled back into the draw pile at the end of each turn. This is somewhat similar to the Day/Night mechanism in Zulus, or the Twilight/Night/Dawn decks in Soviet Dawn. There is also a distinction between removing a card from the game (usually when leaders lose all of their battalions in battle, or World Events) and discarding cards. When there are no French or Brit leaders on the board, they come from the removed cards, and the player sometimes has the chance to draw from the discard pile to get cards back, but it's a huge crapshoot.

Battle is also very different, and happens when either the Brits move onto a French Fort or Fortress (which happens during the British phase) or if the French choose to attack them during their own phase. Regardless, each leader (other than Montcalm) is limited to one attack per turn, so managing those resources is important. Each side rolls a d6 to determine who has Initiative (a measure of leadership, whether or not each side has Light Troops capability or not, if anyone is assaulting a fortress, and occasionally other elements), which allows them to fire first. Fire is simply adding up the battalions in the leader's card, adding in any Provincials they choose to add in, and then counting the 5's and 6's and removing that many battalions from the opposing leader's card. It's a quick system, but I do wish they'd listed the Initiative DRMs on the board as well as the sequence of battle.

The way the event cards are pulled is also different. In most games, one card gets drawn and things happen. In this game, the French player draws *three* cards (four after the SYW breaks out), and implements them one at a time. As such, you can draw a French Provincial card, then have the very next card eliminate it through a British Event. It's a little crazy, but then this is a solitaire game and quite a bit depends upon what order the drawn cards come out in. If the French ever get to a point where there are no un-bottomed cards in the draw pile (which means you may have cards waiting to be shuffled back in), they win the game.

There is also a way to add French forts to the map, which function as fortresses, as well as trading posts, which allow you to get replacements. When these units are "run over" by the Brits, however, they are gone for the rest of the game. Trading posts are also worth VP so that you can see how well (or not) you did to give a little more tension to the game. I should also note that the forts are on one side of the counters, and the trading posts on the other, so using them carefully is a big part of the game. Since the trading posts give replacements (and you'll need them all), you can't just sit on them and start popping them on the board near the end of the game. This is perhaps the most clever part of the design.

The French portion of the game is pretty straightforward. You get actions equal to the total leadership value of your leaders (1-3 points), with a max of 5 and a min of 1. Placing forts/trading posts costs two actions, while attacking an advancing army, taking one replacement point (each trading post can only do this once per turn, btw), or playing an action card costs one action point. Usually, it's pretty clear what you'll need to do, at least right up until the point where three or four armies are knocking on the door.

The component quality is pretty much what you get with VPG games, which is to say first-rate DTP level. There are a lot of cards, and really more counters than in any game other than Zulus, and they're nice enough. I do worry about the cards, as there is more shuffling in this game than in most VPG titles, and the cards are small and heavy stock, so not something you'll be able to sleeve easily. I found the rules to be very clear, except that clearly at some point the forts/trading posts were intended to return to the mix rather than be removed, and in both cases the rules contradict themselves. I played the way I felt was most historical, that being that the French had limited resources in the New World and the loss of a fort would be a problem for them.

My only game so far was a walkover, in part because the SYW started on the second or third turn, and then I drew Montcalm on the next turn, who is the most capable leader in the game (even slightly better than Wolfe on the British side). He can attack twice a turn, and so long as you keep his Reputation high by having him win, he won't ever get sacked. In fact, I never lost a single French leader in battle, although I did lose a few here and there. The worst it got with the Brits was four of the five leaders on the map, but not a single army advanced into the 1 box, and they never got past Louisbourg on the critical St. Lawrence River track (4th of 5 spaces). That was pretty amazing, as some leaders can advance armies two spaces per turn if they're good. Montcalm, however, pretty much always pushes them back. I also never lost a single fortress.

That may sound like a pretty dull game, and in retrospect I suppose it wasn't terribly exciting, but then I was busy learning the system so I wasn't bored. Note that it's also very unusual for Montcalm to come out by turn 4, and I was never in a situation where I needed to put a weaker army against a stronger British army. I consider this game a bit of an anomaly. However, this system does live or die on the order the cards come out on (I've lost Zulus within three turns in much the same way), so if you don't like that sort of thing, best to stay away. I would also go so far to say that the system is more prone to this sort of thing than, say, RAF or Omaha Beach, which have quite a bit going on and so can tolerate a certain amount of statistical wackiness.

To be honest, I think this is the best of the States of Siege system, at least based on the decisions that the player gets. Most of the others are great teaching tools (for the history, if nothing else), but in this game the action point system gives you a lot more choices and (I'm imagining) some of them will be tough. I could see a player throwing a fort down just to prevent a unit from advancing on Montreal, for example (which you *can* put a fort on, btw). Also, since you *know* which armies are going to advance in a given turn so long as they have leaders for their armies, it felt like there was more control than in the other titles.

Having played Wilderness War a couple of dozen times, I felt very familiar with the events, the leaders, and the overall situation. Considering how simple this game is, I think Miranda did an amazing job of fitting everything into a small and relatively simple game, but then event cards help you do that quite a bit.

If you like solitaire games, especially the States of Siege system, and especially quicker and smaller games that you can play in an hour or so in a relatively small space, this is definitely recommended. As I said about VPG titles, however, know that this one is particularly expensive, partly because of all the counters and cards (which drives their prices). We're talking $30+, which as I've said before will put some people off for a DTP game, even a very nice one. If you can get past that and fit the target demographic, it's a pretty cool little game.

Of course, there is an expansion that will involved at the very least replacement leaders, but that's about all I know.