Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Holidays To All, See You In 2010

We're off to Hawaii in a couple of days for the rest of 2009, so I am unlikely to be posting much. There certainly won't be anything game oriented that I'm going between now and then (iPhone games excepted).

My 2010 Gaming Resolutions will come out after I get back. I have a list but I want to tailor it a little before posting, but probably my first post of the new year. I'll also be looking at The Battle For Normandy (new GMT monster) and a few other new titles as January rolls on.

In the meantime, I wish all of my readers (all twelve of you) a very Merry Sequence of State-Sponsored Holidays, and may the time you spend with family and loved ones sustain you over the coming year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Gaming Resolutions 2009 - Recap

Good Goddess, another year come and gone. Along with my eyesight and... uhm, never mind. 

Last year I came up with ten resolutions for gaming in 2009. How did I do?

  1. Play through the SPQR Deluxe battles using Simple rules. Fail. I may try this again at some point with the regular rules. Simple is nice, but it was hard to use the light troops effectively and the battles all started to feel very samey samey after three plays. Definitely too ambitious. 
  2. Team Monster Game. Fail. To my credit, we had this lined up for WBC West, but the scenario choice and Chuck's sudden legal adventure in CA killed it. This will probably resurrect itself for 2010. 
  3. Contribute back to the hobby. Sure. Maybe not in the ways I've intended, but I did do some work on this blog with the excellent D-Day on Omaha Beach solitaire game, and have tried to give my impressions of many of the games that I got this year. I will continue to praise companies that do well and critique those that don't respond when I ask them for a fix. However, this won't be a "goal" per se in 2010.
  4. Try New Companies. Success. DVG, Victory Point Games, Khyber Pass, even Perry Moore's company. I even ended up with a Fifth Column game in Where There is Discord. The market remains small and this will not be a goal that carries over to next year. 
  5. Play a full campaign game. Success. Surprisingly, I had thought this a fail until I remembered my campaign game of Combat Commander: Stalingrad with Matt R. OK, perhaps not by definition what I was trying to do, but close enough. This will probably remain a goal for 2010. 
  6. Play at least one naval game. Success. I got through most of two Flying Colors scenarios, and a good chunk of a Second World War At Sea game with Eric. However, I find that anything other than strategic level loses me to some extent. 
  7. Burning Blue. Fail. What can I say? After seeing how little the Germans had to do in RAF: Eagle, I can see why this has been so difficult to pull off. 
  8. Play two long term games on VASSAL. Fail. All the games I started died within a few days or weeks. Must be my breath. Seriously, I find that while VASSAL is a great system, I really prefer the feel of cardboard and a person sitting across the table from you. This goal won't propagate either. 
  9. Get through the Conflict of Heroes scenarios. Fail. This one may pop back up. I'm planning a major event at GameStorm in March, perhaps that will get me motivated to get through the system. Now it would be via the Storm of Steel version since it has new rules. 
  10. Attend an out of town con. Not really. I did get to Lorna's EGG mini-con in Eugene, as well as WBC West nano-con in May, but nothing out of state. I didn't even make it to the March GameStorm because of events that had been planned for me. There's a NY's Resolution, no more letting other people plan my life. This year, I intend to return to WBC, the "real" one, hell or high water. Maybe a GMT Games West as well in October. 
That's a 40% success rate, which indicates that I shot high. Part of the problem was picking goals that *seemed* like good ideas, but really weren't. SPQR is a great example - I had little experience with larger scenarios and knew the shortcomings of the Simple GBOH system, but picked it anyway. Having games that didn't fit in poster frames but needed to be set up for more than a few days was part of the problem as well. The same goes for VASSAL - online games are a distant second to face-to-face gaming for me, so pushing to settle for second was a bad choice, even if I had trouble getting opponents out to Wilsonville regularly. 

I'll put up my 2010 gaming resolutions in the next day or two after I've let them percolate for a bit. 

So You Think You Can...WTF?

I blogged about the reality dance competition show So You Think You Can Dance at the start of the season, and now that the results are in I think it worthwhile to take a look at my early picks and how they did.

Here's the original post:

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.

All four of these men made the top six, which means the finale week. In prior seasons, the show got down to four people, but I think they realized that they were killing the four dancers and this year devoted the extra show to showcases so that we could get familiar with the dancers, which was a very good choice. Ryan took sixth, and Jakob and Russell were the last two dancers standing for the win. 

Let me be clear - Russell is a crumper, with little or no training. He did a fantastic job throughout the series, taking on style after style and doing pretty well to amazing with all of them. Jakob, in contrast, is a phenom. He will become a showcase dancer in just about any company he winds up in, and it was patently clear that if the show was about the best dancer, he would win by a landslide. 

However, the winner is determined by the public, which is always a bad idea, and they gave the win to Russell. I felt he was the fourth best dancer in the final six, with Jakob the top. Have no fear, Jakob will get a *lot* of work. 

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.

Continuing my prognostication results, both Kathryn and Ellenore made it to the final six, taking third and fourth respectively. Ellenore was the female equivalent to Jakob, although not *quite* as amazing. Their work together was stunning. The person who really surprised me, though, even though I named her first, was Kathryn. She did a vintage number where she channelled Cyd Charesse (no idea if I got *that* name spelled correctly), and the final four weeks she was the single dancer besides Jakob that I looked forward to the most. Her only shortcoming that I could see (as there was no more squeaking through the rest of the competition) was that her eyes looked a little dead when she was looking at the audience. Not so much when she was dancing, though. I felt that she and Ellenore were pretty close to a tie for second, with Kathryn taking the nod. 

The sixth finalist was Ryan's wife, Ashleigh. She was a very good dancer, surprised a lot of people, but got into the finale thanks to a certain amount of sympathy when she wasn't allowed to dance the previous week due to a dislocated shoulder (and her husband Ryan begging the audience to vote for her). Molly was the victim of that, although to be fair she went home when she should have. The person who went home too soon was Molly's buddy Nicole, who amazingly ended up in the bottom two with Kathryn a week before. 

Karen was the victim of too many good women dancers, and got knocked out right before the top 10. She was my only pick who didn't make the top six. 

This year saw some fantastic choreography - a little less of NappyTabs (a good thing, I agree with Dave on this, and in fact one of their routines was dissed by the judges), a little more of newer choreographers who really did some good work. I'm happy to see the choreographers getting rototilled a bit, as it keeps interest in the show. 

On the controversial side, the attempts by Nathan (an early strong dancer unfortunately paired with another very young dancer Molly) to seek sympathy from the public with some strangely chosen tears were hard to watch. He was voted into the bottom three the week they chose the top 10, and the exec producer and judge Nigel Lythgow clearly wanted him off the tour, but the other judges apparently felt that he was going to sell tickets and so he made it in. He also seems to have really pissed off the hairdressers those last couple of weeks. Protip: be very nice to the costumers and make-up people, they have a huge effect on how you are presented. 

All in all, I was happy with the format changes that were made, unhappy with the new venue (too large of a stage for the duo numbers, too much business), very pleased with the dancers in general, very pleased with the choreography, and slightly displeased with the final result (but just a titch). Also, putting Adam Shankman up as the permanent third judge - brilliant. Lose Mary Murphy (who is fast losing her appeal - do we really need to see glitter on the chest of a middle-aged woman? Really?) and bring back Lil' C. I do like the idea of permanent judges for the first five weeks of competition, which means consistent evaluation of the dancers (and I know how much a single judge can skew results in arts competitions). Also, someone else needs to choose Cat's shoes. She looks like a gladiator in those things. 

I'm not sure of what the plans are for this show in the future (continue in the fall lineup or go with a summer replacement show - I think it will do well in either slot, although the constant changing of times and due to the freakin' World Series being on the same channel was annoying). Even if you aren't a fan of dance, this program will educate you and touch you in ways you never expected. In a year where there has been some very good television, this show held it's own, and remains the only reality show I will watch intentionally.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pulling The Train

Boy, I seem to have gotten a lot of train games in lately. Last Train To Wensleydale (or whatever it is), Steam (the "proper" version, according to McDeans), and Lancashire Rails from Winsome's Early Rails set. Three Tuesdays, three trains.

First up was Lancashire Rails at Mike's two weeks ago. This was a three player game with me, Mike, and Greg. Heck, all three games were three player! I had played this about 10 years ago at the very first (or second) Sunriver euro retreat, way back in 1998 or so. At the time, it was a huge departure for me, and the low quality of the components did nothing to endear me to the game. Nor did getting locked out almost immediately. So this time, I was ready to do better, and better I did. I grabbed one of the early two connections, but nothing was really working for me the next couple of turns as Mike and Greg grabbed a lot of the southern routes. My strategy? Go North, young man. So I did, and by game end I had pretty much locked up the trunk route running from Lancashire to points south. Of course, this game turns on how the goods cubes come out, and that helped, but it was clear from the midgame that this was mine to win or lose, and I wiped the floor with the other players. Nevertheless, a better experience for me than the first time I played. Oh, the other part of my strategy - aggressive debt management. I had no debt the second half of the game, while everyone else was digging out. At the worst, I had taken out a max of two certificates at any one time.

The next week, Chris and Mike and I played Last Train to Wensleydale. Sorry, I'm not sure how that last is spelled, but I remember there was cheese. And rocks. I did much worse at this game, completely blowing my last few turns by simply not considering what I needed to do to stay in the game. I will say that the game did not give me a favorable impression, but I'm told that it shines with four rather than three, and I'm willing to give it another go. To be honest, other than Automobile, I have not been terribly enamored of any of the new Wallace games. They feel like just another collection of mechanisms built around a theme rather than interesting games, and I hope that Martin isn't just putting games out to generate income to cover his legal costs after the great FRED brouhaha. The game has the very interesting feature of channeling very specific moves in the middle of the board (which looks like scar tissue for some reason), but it didn't grab. Perhaps it will with four (as McDeans swears). I came in dead last by a huge margin, and I saw that coming from the midgame.

Then there was my first time out with the latest incarnation of Age of Steam, called simply "Steam". We played the Standard/Advanced/Proper version, with bidding for player order. The biggest different I noted was that the randomness of the cubes coming out as the game progresses has been eliminated, turning what was a very good game into a killer title. In fact, this makes me look at AoS as I do at Agricola - a very good game marred by what appears to be an arbitrary chaos factor that doesn't sit well with the rest of the game. In comparison, Steam is more like Le Havre, where there is a lot of randomness, but at the start of the game instead of a heavy element as the game progresses. This will be the version I play. We had a great game with Mike, Matt G, and myself, with me in the south part of the US map, Matt in the NW, and Mike in the NW but mostly in the NE. I took a very long look ahead in the game, and saw that there were going to be some really great chances to do things late, but made a couple of dumb errors. Still, at the end I was able to squeak out a win by one point over *both* Matt and Mike, mostly by making sure that I had good cube runs at game end when everyone else was struggling to figure out where to put things. I would have won by more had I gone for a choo choo improvement in the penultimate turn, as well as bidding for the start position on the last turn instead of building a lone link (for a lone point). A fantastic game, so much so that I bought the base set today and will pick up Steam Barons in the very near future. It should be easy to retrofit maps, all you need to know is how many cube pools you establish at the start of the game, so my old AoS maps can work with either.

Had I gone to Chris' place on Saturday, I could have played even *more* train games. Really, though, this train may have been enough to tide me over through the rest of 2009. In fact, this will be it for gaming for me for the year, as I'll be in Hawaii with a ton of people who don't get boardgames at all. Sigh. Have a Happy Holiday anyway.

The Christmas Wars

Another holiday season, another spate of political correctness and intolerance all at the same time. With that in mind, here are some thoughts for everyone busy trying to "take the season back".

Note on terminology: I will use the term "Christian" to refer to those who feel this is a Christian holiday that has been taken by other groups. I understand that there are many Christians out there who have considerably more perspective, but it's a convenient term for my purposes. Also, I use the term "Christmas" to refer to the time of year, which coincides with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. I do not use it because it has more legitimacy, but it certainly does have more market penetration.

  • Christmas is old. Very old. A lot older than Jesus, in fact. Even the fact that Christmas occurs where it does has more to do with trying to convert pagans to Christianity than it does with an actual calendar date when Jesus was born. The turning of the seasons and the arrival of the shortest day of the year (counting daylight hours) was a matter of hope, nay, survival in the ancient world, because that meant that the sun would eventually return, and with it the growing season. Christians can celebrate it in their own way, but they do not own it (other than the term "Christmas"). 
  • The season has, if anything been taken over by commercialism. I have friends who are retailers, and this is the biggest time of the year for them. The season allows them to be in business the rest of the year. While I am right out in front in wanting to vomit when I walk into Costco on October 15th and see Christmas regalia, I also recognize that our economy not only has a major benchmark in how much people spend at Christmas, but also a major transfusion of capital. 
  • Christians speak of being singled out when public institutions put up "holiday" trees and avoid the use of religious imagery or terminology. Is it a little silly at times? Yes. At the same time, if Christians thing they are being singled out, consider everyone else. And yes, they go to the same public schools as Christians do. Imagine if you grew up as a Christian and all everyone talked about was Ramadan, complete with whatever religious imagery and terminology goes with that time during the Muslim calendar. 
  • At the same time, taking offense because someone wishes you well is ridiculous. If you don't celebrate Christmas, and someone tells you Merry Christmas, smile and wish them whatever is appropriate back (and if nothing is, you can say Happy Holidays). And vice versa. This is a time of hope and giving, not complaining that your interpretation of the holiday isn't getting it's fair due in the media and the public square. If that's how you think you "win" as *any* faith (or lack thereof), I think perhaps you don't have a very good idea of what your faith is really about. 
  • Finally, remember that the reason we seem to have this brouhaha every year is because this is the *only* public holiday that coincides (intentionally) with a sacred holiday. And those reasons, as outlined above, are commercial rather than theological. Were the founding fathers Christian? Yes, but they were almost certainly not evangelical Christians keeping score about how many souls were going to God rather than Satan. They were rationalists living in a homogenous society, and many of them thought of God as an abstract rather than personal. So that's not really an argument. 
The real problem with Christmas is that we all seem to put so much stock in it. Perhaps it's because this was the time of year as children that we all got that thing that we really wanted (or that our parents scraped for months to buy for us, even if it wasn't *the* thing). I know that as a child I started getting excited about Christmas two months in advance, and I loved the decorations, but I never got into it as a religious holiday. Clearly, I still don't. In fact, I dislike Christmas more every year. Call it the price of too many choir rehearsals in October singing carols from Norway and really hating it when people are so stressed out by the season that they can't be bothered to notice that *anyone* is in their immediate vicinity waiting for them to move their cart out of the middle of the aisle at the store because they're arguing over the phone over who was supposed to get the tinsel. I'm pretty sure that the season is *not* about killing ourselves to buy love from our children and family, but it gets worse every year. 

In other words, whether anyone likes it or not, it is both a religious holiday as well as a secular holiday. There is nothing wrong with you celebrating the day and the season in whatever manner you wish (within the standard rules, of course - human sacrifice is probably not going to go over well with the general population). You want to celebrate it your way, I wish to celebrate it in mine. I'm at a bit of a loss to figure out why Christians should win this one other than that for a very long time in this country, they won everything else. Except that this is *still* to this day not an officially Christian country. And all of those Founding Fathers wanted it not to be officially anything. I think that was a pretty smart move, because that desire means that you can celebrate it as you wish. 

So the next time you think that you get to decide how we all celebrate Christmas, I suggest that you try moving somewhere that everyone agrees with you. Like 12th Century Italy. I hear that was a great time to be alive. 

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Rockin' The PS3

I love video games, as anyone who has seen my Wall O' Media on my stairway can attest. There I have the 400 or so classical CDs I have yet to rip, all of my DVDs (yay, another dying media standard!), and my video games. I still have quite a few PlayStation games, as well as the handful of PS2 games I got back when it seemed like that was the only way I'd ever play Guitar Hero, and my GameCube and Wii titles. The Sega DreamCast is out at Sunriver, although I suspect it's not long before it will end up going to Goodwill or some other charitable use.

To be honest, I haven't done much "twitch" gaming on a console lately at all. The GameCube had some, notably the Metroid series (which has a title on the Wii as well), but it's not quite the same without that PlayStation dual thumbstick control. After I got the PS1, my wife and I spent a lot of time playing Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, etc, with her backseat driving -

Her - "What was that thing?"
Me - "What thing?"
"That one."
"I'm going to need more information than that."
"The one you just passed."
(I back up)
"This thing?"
"No, further back."
Repeat ad nauseum

And yet we had fun, except when bad control design required me to spend six hours jumping Lara Croft around on a bunch of ropes and platforms.

After the GameCube, that more or less stopped, and to be honest it had more or less stopped when I'd gotten the Sega. I still played on occasion, but the Golden Age of consoles was definitely the PS1. We have fun on the Wii, don't get me wrong, but the good games feel much different than a twitcher game.

So it was that when Sony made the PS3 console affordable (down to a base price of $299), I had to take a serious look. Blu-Ray, can be used as a media center even with a Mac, can stream NetFlix movies, can even do some *very* limited internet stuff, I had to take a much closer look.

The two things holding me back were the lack of compatibility with the PS2 (and some PS1 games too), as well as the fact that the damned thing doesn't have an IR port - it does everything via Bluetooth, the controllers, the remote, everything. Fine, I said, I guess we'll have a remote besides the Harmony that runs everything. Mel was going on a two-week trip, and that seemed like a really good time to get the system so that everything was working when she got back. Off to Costco I went, and got the bundle with the remote, the 120Gb PS3, and Uncharted 1, which after I did the math turned out to be about $10 off the regular price.

I got home, and have gradually been learning what the system can and can't do. In general, I love this system, although it has not been without it's problems. Here are some things I've learned:

  • Gaming in HD rocks. The images are incredible, at least in most games (Dragon Age: Origins is a surprising exception, where everything looks like someone spilled the earth tone paint set in the 3rd grade classroom). Our 42" TV from a few years back (an LCD projection, they didn't do screens that large back then) can't handle 1080p, but to be honest I don't find that to be a problem, although I did have it plugged into the 32" bedroom TV for a day or two when I first got it, and *it* handles 1080p. Very immersive, and while I haven't seen it yet, I understand that the facial work in Uncharted 2 is nothing short of incredible. Lesson learned: eye candy is important to this gamer.
  • I learned that Logitech makes an IR-to-Bluetooth relayer, made specifically for the PS3. It's not cheap ($53 at Amazon), but it works great, and there's a good template for the PS3 available for the Harmony remote, which we use and love. Certainly cheaper than a combo IR/Bluetooth remote, that's for sure. I should note that the latest system update seems to cause a lot of problems for Buetooth on the PS3, both remotes and controllers, and I've seen a few fixes (boot in safe mode and delete corrupted files, pull the power cord for 30 seconds, as well as reseting the system prefs - I've tried the last and will see how long/well it works), but otherwise the remote works quite well and I'm pleased that this particular problem was solved simply by throwing money at it.
  • Bug fixes for games. What a novel idea. I mean, I understand that in the past console games went out with no chance of being fixed, and that drove a very high degree of QA work, and perhaps we've seen the end of games that come out working correctly (anything you buy that's new in the last quarter of the year is probably a v0.9 version), but I can live with that. Plus I like the idea of downloadable content, although I understand there is some controversy over whether it's just raising the price of the game over time. Being an MMORPGer, I don't mind that. 
  • Online gaming. Sure, you can do this with the Wii on some titles, notably Mario Kart and Beatles: Rock Band. It's a much stronger culture on the PS3 (and the XBox), and more of the games are built to use it. I will be able to play Borderlands with my son-in-law and his friend from Hawaii, for instance, although I'm unlikely to spend a lot of time gaming with strangers in this mode.
  • Media Center. Imagine my surprise to find that I could play music and videos from my Mac, including my iTunes library (although not the "protected" AAC files, but those are a long overnight session away from having the protection stripped out). And the software is free. It isn't pretty, but it works. This more or less obviates the need for the AppleTV I bought last year when I thought I'd be able to use Boxee to stream Lost to the TV when Dish ran into a contract dispute with our local affiliate (never did work - ABC changed their streaming format the day I got it, and Hulu pulled support for Boxee a week later). The ATV is almost certainly heading for the bedroom TV. Video quality is comparable to DVD/Blu-Ray, dependent of course upon the source, and I have noticed no hiccups on the g network the PS3 requires.
  • Netflix. We are in the middle of a test drive of this system (they are offering a two-week free trial), and I was especially interested in the streaming part. The PS3 at present requires a special disc that Netflix sends you, so it's not something you can decide you want at 4am on Sunday morning, and they won't send you a disc unless you have an account, but I have to say that the video quality is as good as from a file on the computer. The drawback is that there really isn't much new (and by "new" I mean since 2005) material out there. Mostly TV shows that are new, but forget any major film produced recently. There is quite a bit of art house and foreign stuff, which is fine with me - I'm not a Transformers kind of guy. Also, not a lot of the material is in HD for streaming, mostly SD. Like I say, it's fine. I will almost certainly use the mail service to get series like Enterprise on DVD so I can rip it and stream it when I want to, and for Blu-Ray (which I can't rip as the Mac doesn't come with a Blu-Ray drive, although I understand it can be done but I'm loathe to on a nearly two-year-old tower). We watched BStar-G: The Plan (terrible unless you're a total fan, it's just a montage of scenes from the life of the series from the POV of the Cylons and what they were doing in the background), and have something else coming in the mail Monday. Regardless, this is tech that seems to work really well, and I hope they expand the service or else I will probably run out of reasons to keep it up soon.
  • Blu-Ray. Three words. Star Trek. Watchmen. One more word. Awesome. However, I just can't quite get past the price point for discs, one of the reasons I got the Netflix service. I don't even like spending $20 for a regular DVD, my price point is more like $15 for a two-hour movie, and $40-50 for a TV show series. Downside: I now want a 60" screen. 
I should also note that buying the PS3 convinced me to upgrade my AV receiver. We had a Denon from years ago, so old that the highest level of video it supported is S-Video. Nothing I have now uses S-Video, at least not if I don't want to. The new receiver, a Pioneer VSX-919AH-K (very recently discontinued, making it only $50 more than the model below it, the 819, at Amazon) supports three HDMI sources and two component video sources, which is exactly what I currently have (plus iPhone/iPod). The video looks *better* running through this receiver than it did running directly from the Dish ViP622 receiver to the same exact TV. Not sure how that works. Also, it supports the more modern audio standards including TrueHD, which means uncompressed sound to the various channels. One problem - when switching from HD to SD programming from the Dish unit, it occasionally loses the sound. Almost certainly an HDMI handshaking problem, and perhaps why the unit is being discontinued. However, I put in a soft button on the Harmony to switch to a different source and back again to reestablish the handshake and it works great. I haven't had the problem with the PS3 yet. The receiver does upscale analog sources (of which I have none), but does not upscale 480i/p sources to HD. I'm not sure that's such a great idea anyway.

The good news is that I can run the ATV, the Dish, and the PS3 through HDMI, the Wii through component/stereo, and the PS2 through component/optical connections. Strangely, the back of the AV stack is just as cluttered with cables as before. All video is going through the receiver now. Plus, it uses a MCAAC automatic process to set up your surround system using an included microphone, and the sound is quite definitely better than it was. I've always considered AV receivers as a necessary evil for watching video content at the cost of weaker audio-only content, but this system sounds awesome. It even has a system for "restoring" compressed content, like from your iPod, although I have yet to spend much time with that. 

I'm sure those of you with PS3 systems are interested in the games I've bought. Here they are in no particular order. Of these, only four were purchased at "full" price, the rest were all $20 or so:

Dragon Age: Origins - I've discussed the color palette thing above. Far from perfect, but an engaging RPG and I like that you can give limited AI to the members of your party (and in fact *must* do so to succeed in boss battles). A full price game.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - I haven't gotten very far into this, but I will say that the characters you can create are about the least attractive I've ever seen. The men look like Neanderthals. However, the game is supposed to be excellent. I couldn't find the set that included the expansions, but I'm sure it will be $20 by the time I get around to it.

Uncharted 1/2 - I've just touched 2, mostly to get the software update in place. 1 is gorgeous, and while the face animation is pretty good, it's a long way from even good cartoon work, although I hear 2 fixes that to some extent. Think Tomb Raider with more shooting and some platform stuff, and so far a pretty good story. 1 was the first game I played when I got the system. 2 was full price, 1 was part of the bundle.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 - Holy crap. I have no idea who is shooting at me, or where it's coming from, or anything. I've gotten to the first mission after you get "picked" to be part of the CIA and go to the former Soviet republics, and it's pretty hard. I hear that the single player portion is pretty short, that it's all about online play, but it does support two players on a single system (which is unusual). Full price.

Borderlands - An attempt to make an MMORPG-like experience on a console. So far it's been very entertaining, although there are complaints that it's very samey-samey after a while. Jake and I played this split-screen a couple of weeks ago, and we had a blast. Totally worth the price of the game and the second controller just for that one experience. Very interesting filled-cel animation that gives it a look similar to XIII but much more detailed. Full price.

Assassin's Creed - Man, I want to like this game. I've played it more than anything else, largely because it takes so freakin' long to get to Jerusalem, then you have to *crawl* through the city to get anywhere because of all the guards and annoying beggars (I've learned to punch the beggars to drive them off, otherwise they stand directly in front of you and impede your progress). I hear the sequel fixes many of the tempo problems with the first game, although I would like to finish this one. 

Burnout: Paradise - I thought I was getting a driving simulation, but it's really more of a driving-themed game. Mario Kart has more realistic handling and you still get to run people into obstacles. OK for what it is, and a damned shame you can't play *this* split screen with another player. I can barely *finish* any races from point to point because I don't know the streets well enough and where I need to turn if I'm in the lead (or close to it). Not recommended. 

Lost Planet - An impulse buy, mostly because of the TV ads that were out for this a year or two ago. The game is supposed to look great, but is impossible to play when there are more than a couple of enemies onscreen. I haven't even taken it out of the shrink yet. 

Dead Space - Sci-Fi/Horror shooter. Creepy as hell, and your character's costume makes you look like some sort of glowing-spined demon. Kind of a game for dummies, as it tells you exactly where you need to go to get to the next plot advancement point, but considering how large the space we're working with is, I'm grateful for it. So far very promising.

Bioshock - This was a game I was *so* excited to finally get to play when I got my Intel-powered Mac tower, only to find that the graphics requirements are insane - 512Mb video card, and mine is "only" 256Mb. The PS3 costs less than the graphics card I'd have needed! Kind of insane. However, this game is truly gorgeous on the PS3, very playable, and very highly recommended. However, it was hard to find - no local stores carried it, I got it via Amazon when I bought the receiver. 

Fallout 3 - I loved Fallout on the Mac, but Fallout 2 never worked (literally - it just wouldn't get past the title screens on my system and an effective patch was never released). I much prefer the FPS approach to the Diablo approach in the first title. I've gotten out of the Vault (funny how in FO3 you're trying to get *out* then in Borderlands you're trying to *find* the Vault!), but haven't gone any further than that for now. 

That may seem like a lot of games (11) but remember that seven of them were only $20 and cost half as much as the other four full price titles. I'm also interested in Resistance 2, Demon's Souls, Gran Turismo 5 (when it comes out), Dirt 2, Assassin's Creed 2, and a few more, but for now I've got a good starter library that should take me a while to get through. 

So far I'm very pleased with the system, bluetooth issues aside. I'm delighted to finally get into Blu-Ray and streaming Netflix videos, and if it were just me I'd ditch the Dish entirely and get a Mac Mini to act as a DVR (or some other system to record on-air programming, which is 90% of what we plan to watch - the rest is surf). I still love my Wii, and it's definitely the social gaming platform for when people come over (and I'm committed to it for Rock Band for now - I already have four, count 'em, four guitar controllers, although two are for the PS2 and Guitar Hero), but the PS3 will be what I mostly play when I'm on my own. 

It's funny - it seems that we're pretty close to a point where console systems do what we want them to do, even three years after launch. The original PS2/XBox/GameCube years seem like they were pretty short, and after three or four years we were looking at new systems coming down the pike. I'm unaware of *any* new systems in the works, just improvements to the current gen. I think that's probably a good thing, as I already have too many games for systems that include backward compatibility. Also, the system is relatively future proof when it comes to media. Blu-Ray is going to be dominant for some time, as televisions won't handle a denser format and it's unlikely we're going to see another quality bump (it took 50 years to get past NTSC). Disc-based media for video is going the way of it's audio-based brethren, and within ten years we'll all be getting it online instead of over the air or on disc. PS3 handles both formats just fine, and while it's not cheap compared to most Blu-Ray players out there now, it does do all of the things I want it to today and into the next few years at the very least. 

There will be those who say I should have gotten into XBox - better online system (if for pay), and it has a better library of games, something I confess the PS3 took a while to start generating. However, I really hate to give Microsoft money, and my understanding is that the fail rate on their devices is significant compared with the PS3. The new slim PS3s have yet to show if they'll have problems down the line, but all I have to go on is past history. 

Of course, if I move the AppleTV to the bedroom, that means I've freed up an HDMI input on the receiver, which *could* take an XBox...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Aitch Eee Double Toothpicks Of Stalingrad

I did an out of the box review of The Hell Of Stalingrad (HoS) a couple of posts back, and finally got the chance to play a face-to-face game with Jesse. Here's the updated verdict on the game.

Two player is definitely more enjoyable than playing the game solo. However, there are two specific solitaire games (one per side) available on the designer's website that are very different than the base game, and I have not tried them. I'm simply saying that playing the game as published is more interesting with an opponent than by oneself.

We played one game with the basic rules to get up to speed, and a second with the "advanced" rules. Our first game took about 90 minutes after we got things set up, and the second took about two hours. Note that the first game involved exactly five battles (we skipped a turn on the second turn because of the Soviet campaign card, and only one building hadn't been taken by the Germans), and eight in the second (we skipped all of the odd numbered turns because I drew almost all of the hourglass cards!) In both cases, there was one fight for one district to determine the winner. I won the first game, Jesse took the second.

The Advanced rules only add combat cards and the game takes six turns instead of three. The new combat cards include Heroes (combat cards without a cost, subject to snipers), as well as some really powerful combat cards that can cause a lot of hassle for the other side. We did not play four player, but those rules look very much to be a work in progress, with very little in the way of fleshing out how things are "supposed" to work, and I have no interest in trying them out.

While we didn't do enough dice to determine if there was a weighting problem with the red dice in the set, I rolled seven 1's out of nine dice thrown (1's are bad) and I abandoned those dice ASAP. I am definitely going to invest in a good set of balanced dice in the very near future, as I'm finding most games come with cheap dice that have problems.

I found the advanced combat cards/heroes to be extremely powerful. Most of them give you the use of the card, followed by an additional action. There are intercept cards that prevent their use, but there's no question that you can get completely screwed with these cards, much more so than with the "basic" combat cards. For instance, I had a card that would give me *two* overruns (adding formations to the building fight, a big advantage), and a Stalin's Ghost card that would allow me to play it essentially for "free" on a maxed out unit. Unfortunately, Jesse played a combat card that forced me to discard my entire hand before I played it (I had to kill three rifle units of my own to use it, and so had to get the rifle units on the building first). The fact that the hero cards don't count against your formation limits is a nice touch, as is the fact that they can be shot at by snipers. I did think that the cards that gave you two additional break dice (or stole one from your opponent) were a little strong in a set that was already very powerful, and there aren't enough interceptions to defend with any confidence when you do pick a card to negate.

That said, there is no reason to play this game with the basic version unless you are teaching to a non-wargamer or neither of you has played before. The advanced cards add a lot of tension to the game because of their power, and I can see redraw actions becoming more prevalent as a result, much as good Combat Commander players know when to discard their cards rather than taking a turn.

The biggest issues the game has run up against have been the gaudy component artwork, the oddly organized rules, and the Break Test that determines who wins the battle. We didn't mind the art at all, it didn't interfere with the iconography that is so critical in this game, and it is evocative of hell on earth, so I give it a pass. The rules are a bit hard to learn from reading the first time, and there are some parts that are simply not cleanly defined in the advanced rule cards, but in general everything is indeed there.

I found the Break Tests to be about what they were in my solo flythrough - a very small set of random events that determine the outcome of the game. I have two thoughts on this. The first is that this is not a game, or even really a simulation, as much as a diversion. That is not a bad thing. Most solitaire and coop games are diversions as well, even though there is a system to "beat". What makes these things a diversion instead is that while skill is required to have a better chance to win, ultimately the winner is determined by random elements. The biggest thing that HoS will have to fight in terms of image is that there are few people who understand how rolling 3 dice to your opponent's 6 improves your odds compared to 4 dice against 6. In other words, what does getting one extra die buy you in a given situation? Until we have a clear idea of how much things improve as a result of devoting extra resources (formations, combat cards) to a battle, all we have is a very vague idea of whether we get a significant improvement in our chances and that's just not good enough.

My second thought is that the game is asymmetrical, and that the Soviets need to carefully consider which forces to devote to which districts, and which to just let go. In other words, if they try to defend everything, they are likely to get nothing. That may mean token resistance in some cases, or even none. There is a very real danger that, by the end of turn 4 in the advanced game (turn one in the basic game) that this will have been the last turn if a time increment campaign card is drawn and there are no buildings on the board from the last turn, as you don't replace buildings on the very last turn. Since you draw campaign cards before you replace buildings, it's a very real possibility and the major reason why both of our games ended with a single building to be fought over. Given that this game is a diversion rather than a game/simulation, I don't think that's a bad thing and it will add tension, and I think it makes the Soviet side a very difficult side to play for new players.

The good news is that both Jesse and I enjoyed the game, despite it's flaws. This would make an excellent evening/filler game at WBC West, for example. We'll definitely play again in the future, and I'll take a copy to GameStorm in the spring for pick-up games. I don't think I'd pack it were I traveling by air, however.

The follow up game in the series, Fires of Midway, is supposed to be close to publication, and it will be interesting to see how the system maps to a much different conflict. I'll definitely pick it up, as I believe this is truly a very novel game concept with a lot of good, fresh ideas. However, as with most first titles it's a bit of an odd duck, as they say, in this first iteration, and while good it will definitely stir considerable controversy and many grognards will avoid it (and should if they like a lot of control over their situation).

I will say this - It's a vastly better game than The Kaiser's Pirates, no matter how many you play with.