Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Year In Review

One of the nice things about keeping track of my games played is that I can go back and see what that month was like in retrospect. Here's my Year In Review based on the games I played that month.

Began my one solitaire game per month goal with Field Commander: Rommel. This game *almost* does it for me, but seems to be very fragile in terms of how you do based on the dice, although good tactics tend to be rewarded. I was also playing in a B-29 online campaign that was fun. Popular games that month were Dominion, Factory Manager, Rise of Empires, and Steam. I also got in a game of CC:Pacific with my friend Connor, whom I don't play games with often enough.

February started with Lorna's EGG mini-con in Eugene, which I sadly won't make this year. I rediscovered why I dislike Agricola (too stressful), and found Steam Barons to make almost no sense at all, which surprised me considerably. At least it came with nicer bits and two more maps for Steam. I also got in a game of BStarG's Pegasus expansion, which I also wasn't terribly thrilled with, and I screwed up the rules to We the People with my nephew Alex so badly that I may never be able to get him to play a CDG again. Mosby's Raiders was my solitaire game for the month, which I liked although the period doesn't interest me much. I also got the chance to try out the depots in Ticket to Ride: Europe.

March was largely taken up with prep work for GameStorm, which I contributed to by scheduling the board game section. Over 250 games were scheduled using what I'll charitably term as beta software. The coders worked hard on the project, but they were uncompensated and did it in their spare time, so it was never really ready for the con. However, we got 'er done and the con went pretty well and I felt like I contributed quite a bit to it's success. I ran a Conflict of Heroes campaign event that was fairly well attended, and I also managed to teach the game ahead of time. Other highlights were Nautilus, Dungeon Lords, and a variant map of northwestern France in a game of Brass. That and bringing a case of beer with me. I also enjoyed a game of Richard III, and my solitaire game fo the month was the newly released Phantom Leader, a stripped down version of the 90's solitaire game Hornet Leader (which also has it's own refreshed version out now).

After the previous month's mega-gaming events, April was sure to be a bit of a let-down in terms of volume. The weather was starting to turn, and I got out a few times on my bike. We were also beginning study for the games we'd play at WBC West in May. Dungeon Lords seemed to be the popular game this month, and I got in another mission for my B-29 campaign (I'd skipped this for March because I was so busy with planning the con). My solitaire game was London's Burning, which I lost when all of my pilot's died. Also, a three hour game of El Grande, which must be a record.

May was, of course, WBC West month, and all of that planning and prep work paid off. Highlights were The Burning Blue with Roger and A Most Dangerous Time with Mike. Almost all of my other time that month was spent prepping, so no solitaire games at all. I should also mention The Battle For Normandy, which was terribly frustrating as it is so close to being a truly playable monster, but with rules that seem to encourage some strange tactics to get units out of pockets that seem very unhistorical and unlikely. The designer was very responsive but after three attempts to explain the problem met with a lack of understanding I gave up. We may just play with house rules in the future if this game sees table time again. On the plus side, I got my first multiplayer monster game in.

June should have been the calm before the storm, had I know the storm was coming. The month was dominated by my involvement in a couple of musical projects connected to my University's reunion weekend, made particularly emotional as my conducting mentor and very good friend Roger Doyle was directing perhaps his last large-scale concert with a choir of alum. I ended up not only MCing and accompanying a light cabaret of former students, but also most of the alumni concert and was even asked to direct one piece - asked less than 18 hours before the concert, and I was planning to sleep for 8 of those hours. I taught Twilight Struggle to Matt G, and my solitaire game was D-Day at Omaha Beach, a game I dearly love, as well as playing that same title with Dave and I each taking a division. I also got to try out Dominion: Alchemy, which left me a little cold. I like the system, but it doesn't come out enough to warrant so many expansions and there's quite a bit of competition now.

And then there was The Summer That Wasn't. After three large-scale events that took a large portion of my time over six months, we went to the beach with friends only to have to come home early when my mother literally fell and couldn't get back up. Fortunately we had planned to move her to an assisted living facility anyway, but the process became much more difficult because suddenly she needed someone there just to get her to the bathroom. My sister and I carried the bulk of the load, getting her moved and toileted and keeping her spirits up as best we could. It was a Herculean effort, but no good deed goes unpunished and the end of the month saw my mother fall and suffer a subdural hematoma that we thought was going to kill her. In fact, she went into hospice (more a status than a place these days) and more than another month of figuring out that we could no longer carry the burden of caring for her, even with her in an assisted living facility. As such, gaming was nearly nonexistent. I got in one B-29 mission at the very start of the month, and hosted one game night, but that was it for gaming.

The first part of August saw my mother begin to recover, although only relatively. Her memory was badly damaged, and while the physical and occupational therapy helped to a degree it was also clear that she was not going to be able to retain much. By the end of the month, after trying to figure out how best to care for her, it was clear that the buik of the weight was going to fall on my shoulders, and after two months of giving up every aspect of my life to care for my mother I rebelled against my non-involved siblings and refused to do anything other than incidental assistance. We ended up hiring caregivers 12/7 to fill the gaps that the assisted living facility couldn't cover. By mid-month I had started gaming again, both with Tuesday nights as well as with Matt R for our Third Monday sessions. High points were Frontline: D-Day and Settlers of America. By now, it was clear than most of my gaming goals for the month, as well as my bike training, was shot for the year. It was also at this time that I decided to bail on my involvement with GameStorm for 2011 because my project bucket was not only overflowing but completely submerged. I also dropped out of the B-29 campaign after two months of excused absences from missions.

September saw me moving back toward normalcy in my life in general, although there were still some adjusting to do with my mother's situation. Perhaps the biggest events that happened in the month involved my discovery of Thunderstone as both a multiplayer and solitaire game. I completely fell in love with it and have played several solo games. I also discovered the Castle Ravenloft boardgame, which some poor fool reviewed on BGG after one one play and declared it too much of a mix of a puzzle and a ride. Which, of course, is the basic design decision in *any* solitaire game, which CR is by it's very nature as a full-coop game. I'm afraid I took out the frustrations of the past two months on this guy, who called me a Review Nazi for *politely* pointing out the flaws in his reasoning and his lack of experience with the game. When he claimed that I had no right to critique because I should respect his opinion, I kind of laid down the hammer on him privately. Many games were played this month, including Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer and Fresco, both of which I also enjoyed. It was so very nice to get back to gaming and with such great people.

And then October came and made up for the rest of the year. Perhaps the best Sunriver ever in terms of games, which included me playing Sticheln drunk, a ton of Thunderstone, me scoring a copy of Alien Frontiers, a game of Mecanisburgo, a successful campaign game of RAF: Lion, the fastest game of Le Havre *ever*, and my first pass at playing The Barbarossa Campaign, a very clever solitaire game on the East Front. The annual Euro retreat at Sunriver really recharged my batteries, and I started to feel like my life was in my own hands again.

This month was my introduction to some of the best games of the year, Dominant Species and Civilization. Neither is a perfect game, but they are both a lot of fun and very engaging. I also got in a session with Jesse, my friend Connor, and a 5th Fleet scenario with Chuck. I also started playtesting scenarios for a Guadalcanal version of Conflict of Heroes with a local designer. I was also very happy to discover that I liked the redo of Brass, Age of Industry. I also wrote an analysis of Labryinth: The War On Terror which has gotten a lot of attention online, being linked to by the publisher as well as ConSimWorld. Not bad for an essay that was initially greeted with a loud "meh" by a guy who was apparently insulted that I thought that the US had largely botched the effort over the timeframe of the game. The gaming year was definitely looking up.

The year ended with a great day of gaming at Chris' house, as well as a nice three-player gaming day at Chuck's including Dave. I spent about 20 hours at Jesse's store in Wilsonville helping out and playing Game Consultant for the customers there, which while not as large a volume as one would hope, did see several people leave very happy with their choices. New games for the month were 7 Wonders, Resident Evil Deckbuiding Game, and The Fires of Midway. Matt R and I also learned Warhammer: Invasion and really liked it, and plan to play regularly. I also got my very first governor in Endeavor, something I'd failed to do in five previous attempts. All in all, a very good end to the year. I also got my resolutions for 2011 up on the Geek, which include a major project to study and game all of WW2 in the ETO chronologically over several years, probably more than a decade. Should be interesting, assuming I keep it up. My mother is fairly stable, although the perils and pitfalls of corporate end-of-life care have convinced me to start drinking a lot more heavily and working to have a major heart event right about the time I turn 75. Sadly, it also appears that our house has lost more than 25% of it's value in the past two years, and we are now stuck here, probably until we are actually old enough to have bought into a retirement community in the first place.

All in all a very challenging year for me. Perhaps the biggest highlight, however, was celebrating my granddaughter's second birthday. She bears a strong resemblance to me, and thanks to my son-in-law we have a close relationship. I can only hope that my biological daughter will decide to resume a relationship with us next year too. I also hope for my mother to remain content and continue to find the quality of caregivers that she has been blessed with for the most part this year. These people do incredible things for long hours and I could not have resumed my life without them.

As always, a very big thanks to the people I choose to game with. In a hobby that at times seems to draw in people for whom social skills were either never taught or were unachievable, I am blessed with gaming partners who are clever, funny, smart, and harder than hell to beat in a game. Without you this past year would have been nearly unbearable and I thank you.

Sorry for all of the personal stuff this time around. I guess I just needed a little catharsis this time of year. Thanks for reading and I'm looking forward to some new takes on gaming in general.

My Gaming Goals, 2011 Edition

I've posted a GeekList on BGG with my gaming goals for 2011. Of particular interest to wargamers is my new long-term project to research and game my way through the entire ETO theater of WW2, beginning with the Spanish Civil War, which will eventually have it's very own GeekList that I hope others will take part in. More on that later as I think through how best to include others as well as manage it myself. I'm very excited about this as a gaming goal!

In the past I've put the goals up here, but in the interest of keeping everything in one place and because I like the GeekList format, I'm going to do it all on BGG this year. See the link above for the resolutions, some of which are not about wargames at all.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thoughts On A Few New Games - Ironic Edition

So now I've got all of these new games, as seen in my last post. I've tried more than a few out recently, and here are my thoughts in no particular order:

Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game - Excellent distillation of the computer game. I've played three player and four player now, and while it's a little on the long side I believe that brisk and experienced play could get this down to 2.5 to 3 hours. All the game needs is a display to track coins so that you can see those amounts easily for the entire table. See my earlier comments on the game in a previous blog.

7 Wonders - Two three player games with Mike and Chris and I'm thinking that this will see a lot of table time over the coming months. It will hold up to seven comfortably (assuming you have table space) and the game changes to some extent with different numbers of players. For example, with three you know that you'll see each "hand" twice (stripped down as you go, but still the same hand) so there's a chance that the card you couldn't quite purchase will show up again later, or at least force another player to burn it in their wonder or discard for coins. High marks.

Dominant Species - Another great game, possibly the best game of the year. Only one three player game with one animal each, but there were a lot of decisions to make and a lot of thinkin' needin' doin'. With five or more, I could see this being as frustrating as Le Havre with a similar number, but I'm still interested in trying it with four. I'm motivated to get this on the table at one or two of the all-day gaming sessions I hope to attend over the holiday break.

Resident Evil Deckbuilding Game - fairly evocative of the video game series, certainly the art is all there. Think Dominion but gearing up for combat instead of VPs, and you need to match ammo to weapons (in terms of quantity only) to have success. Having characters that level is a very cool element, as is multiple game versions that range from shoot at each other to a set number of turns in the game and a gimped Infected selection. Only played with two so far, and the rules are truly terrible, to the point of not even having been printed correctly (many graphics don't align right) and good luck digging the manual out of the official website, it's hidden in the tutorial section. Oh, and the storage is about as braindead as it gets. I don't know that it will beat out Thunderstone as my favorite, but I do like it quite a bit.

Fires of Midway - Follow-on title to Hell of Stalingrad from Steve "I never met a shade of orange, red, or pink that i didn't like" Cunliff. Sorry if I misspelled your name, dude. In some ways a much superior game, although there is still a roll to see if your carrier sinks at the end of each turn. Not quite as bad as HoS, but frankly I was a bit disappointed. That said, there's more to think of and more decisions to be made, although too much luck of the draw for this to be a good competitive game as opposed to just a fairly good heavily abstracted consim - this was a period of the Pacific War where everyone was learning the ropes, having not intended for this to be a war fought using carriers, and they were still figuring out how best to do it and learning mostly from huge mistakes. The winner will largely be determined to a large degree by who gets to launch planes first and gets to their target. Still, a pretty good ride and some very novel concepts and worth a look so long as you can tolerate the game having such a high degree of chaos to it.

King Philip's War - You want chaos? This game has it built into every combat roll. And a lot of *very* pissed-off Native Americans who didn't understand what the game was all about or consim gaming in general. Every time you fight, there's a chance that the battle won't happen, or that you'll get massively gimped. I think this would make a good introduction to A Most Dangerous Time, to be honest, as many of the same wacky elements are present although with different delivery mechanisms. Major kudos for a game on a portion of history I have no recollection of being taught (early American colonial era, when there was still a Plymouth colony).

I'll have a lot to blog about over the next week or two, lots of end-of-year gaming opportunities that I'm very excited about. Even better, we start planning for WBC West in January!

I Buy Way Too Many Games

I was considering doing my own "awards" for boardgaming in 2010, and so wrote down all of the games I bought that came out this year. Of course, this is not all of the games I bought, just the ones that were published this year. The result was more than a little disturbing for everyone but my FLGS. Here's the list of euros and strategy games I bought (non-wargames):

7 Wonders
Alien Frontiers
All Things Zombie
Resident Evil Deckbuilding Game
Dominion: Prosperity
Dominion: Alchemy
Dominant Species
Castle Ravenloft
Heroes of Graxia
Leaping Lemmings
Lords of Vegas
Perry Rhodan and the Cosmic League
Railways of the World: The Card Game
Settlers of America
Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game

I estimate that this is about 50% of the non-wargames I purchased in 2010, many of which were published in late 2009 but not purchased until 2010.

Here are the wargames. I am not including magazine games, even those from Operations Special #3 (which are pretty close to "real" games). Assume there are another 10 magazine games on the list. Games that were pre-ordered have an '*' at the end of their names. Also note that there are probably a few games here that skirt the definition of wargames but go with it.

Beda Fomm
Chariots of Fire*
Conflict of Heroes: Price of Honour
Frontline D-Day
Hearts and Minds
Julius Caesar
King Philip's War*
Nations At War: White Star Rising
Normandy '44*
Nothing Gained But Glory*
Ottoman Sunset
Panzer General: Russian Front
Fires of Midway
The Spanish Civil War*
The Tide At Sunrise*
Serpents of the Seas*

At a very rough estimate, I would say that the wargame list is about 80% or more of the total number of wargames I've purchased.

Clearly I have a problem, and I don't just mean storage.

Next year I will have a very clear idea of what I purchased because I'm now tracking my acquisitions on the 'Geek. I'll also note that I have cut back my preorders for wargames to include only game that are 1900-present or pre-gunpowder (and even that I'm mostly excited only in strategic games when it comes to ancients). Even that is probably way too much.

This year I gave away or sold at firesale prices a large number of games, and still have something like 25 I'd like to get rid of. Were I to just give up on Avalanche Press entirely and sell off all of my Panzer Grenadier, Great War at Sea, and Second World War at sea games, that would free up a few shelves of space. The collector in me just can't quite do it.

I'll probably die underneath a pile of wargames when I'm in my old age, just like those hoarders you see on television recently. The neighbors will figure it out when they haven't heard my dice tower making any noise for a month. Sigh.

And the awards? I didn't think I'd played enough of these games, especially the wargames, to make any good judgements! I certainly haven't played any of the euros enough to make a call either. Bad sign, man.

I should also note that I didn't include any expansions in the list either. There are a few of those as well.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

My Gaming Resolutions For 2011, Rough Draft Edition

It's December again, so time for me to consider my 2011 Gaming Resolutions. I have about a 50% success rate with these so far, which is not quite where I want to be. Of course, RL seemed to be a particular problem this year, with massive amounts of my time being devoted to special projects through the first six months of the year followed by my mother's health problems. Even now I'm directing a choir that I had no intention of directing, and will be through January. However, after that I am devoting 2011 to taking a year off from organizational duties.

I've mentioned before that I seem to do much better with specific goals instead of vague ones. For example, saying i want to learn a new system just means I can't make up my mind which one to take on. At the same time, doing something once a month tends to run right into RL.

The ones that have had the most success were goals that involved tracking, but I'm already doing all of that.

Here is my list of preliminary goals for 2011. There aren't too many, unfortunately, so I'd like to get a few more, so please make some suggestions. Serious ones, please, unless they are *really* funny.

Here's the first set:

1) Learn and play six scenarios from the ASLSKs. I have a fair investment in ASL, and since the boxes from the original AH product were long ago broken down and recycled, it would be hard to sell this stuff off. I had the original store edition of Squad Leader (still do, as with the three expansions) and liked the system a lot, and am hopeful that at least the ASLSK version (which I also own all three of, along with the one scenario pack and a couple of MMP magazine scenarios) will give me enough of a sense of whether I want to take this as a lifestyle choice or not. There is a great group in the area, the Bezerk Commissars, so I'd have some extra impetus to learning and playing regularly. At present my goal is to play six scenarios with no requirement that I get into the guns or tanks at this point.

2) Attend a wargame con out of state. Given my increasing lack of patience in air travel, that probably means I'll be going to either a con in California (probably a GMT West Weekend) and/or BottrosCon in Vancouver, BC. I'd intended to go to BottrosCon this last year, but I'd forgotten that it was in early November and when the time came I missed it. At some point I'll return to WBC, but not just yet.

3) Develop a game app for the iPad. Right. Actually, I was a pretty good coder back in the day, although it did tend to overwhelm my life (code snippets on napkins, coding in my head in the shower, etc). The Mac has an excellent SDK for this that I've downloaded, and I already know C so Objective-C won't be that hard to learn at the same time. However, it will require me learning or refreshing three different concepts at the same time - the language, the SDK, and XCode (the coding environment). I plan to start with an extremely simple game, one that you could do on a spreadsheet - Israeli Independence. I'd eventually like to do a couple of other games, Thunderstone for solo play and The Barbarossa Campaign (which would benefit tremendously from quick management of the Soviet Initiative phase). However, those would require a lot more work and for now I just want to get my feet wet. Biggest problem will be art, so I'll be seeing if I can get original scans from Victory Point Games, the publisher. I have no intent to put any of these out at this time, as I don't want to be responsible for maintaining the code, but I would consider selling to the publisher if they were interested.

4) Play The Classics. This refers to Euros, not wargames. I intend to do this on the nights I host rather than inflicting it on anyone else's hosting, so that means 14 games next year. Playing one "classic" would be enough, so Elfenland followed by Ascension would qualify. I have yet to determine what is considered a "classic" but I think that it will need to be at the very least five years old and highly regarded. I'll need to run through my collection ahead of time to come up with the List for this goal.

5) Play a large advanced scenario of a Fleet game with Chuck. Kind of a "personal" goal, but I put it out here to see if this is the sort of thing that would qualify as a Gaming Goal worth tracking. Another goal of a similar nature is playing Federation Commander with Alex. Not sure if these will make the cut or not.

Of last year's goals, I plan to continue tracking both my collection and plays on the 'Geek. I have decided not to even consider touching Fields of Fire until there is an official ruleset that won't make me pull my hair out, which has been promised more or less since the poorly developed game was released. However, if a new official ruleset does become available, I may have a longer-term goal to add in that will take place over a couple of years instead of just one.

That's all I have for now. I'm not including my playtest efforts with CoH: Guadalcanal, nor games I plan to play at WBC unless it's something major such as the multiplayer game of Battle for Normandy we played last year. As such, just a multiplayer game isn't on the list as it's something I've already done. Goals are intended to be things that I haven't done before or want to take to a new level.

As Dr. Vasal knows, I'm not looking for ten items ;-) but I think five is probably too small a list, especially since a couple already have built-in schedules (cons, classics night). So throw me a bone!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sour Grapes

I'm a resident of Oregon, for those of you who don't know. I did not attend either of the large state universities in the area, but I do have a certain amount of pride in my state. For the record, I attended a small (2500+ student) private school, University of Portland, whose main claim to fame in collegiate sports is their women's soccer team. When I was attending school there at the Master's level, the team was doing well, but when I was an undergrad we had no sports teams that were really competitive that got any notice at all.

For the first time ever, one of the two state schools, Oregon State University and University of Oregon, is almost certainly going to the BCS Championship. This is particularly interesting as for the last five years those of us on the West Coast have felt that the BCS system is rigged against Pac-10 schools. For those who aren't aware, UofO's athletic programs have been boosted and to a fair degree funded by Phil Knight, the guy who started Nike and has more money than almost anyone.

This past Saturday saw the annual Oregon Civil War football game, which for many years was the only time either team stood a chance of winning a game the entire season (back in my high school days). The programs have clearly been revitalized in recent times, and they almost always compete well in their division, if not nationally. As such, the Civil War game tends to create a lot of buzz in the region, and often the result has bowl game implications. A few years ago, Oregon State's loss to Oregon (an upset) in the game cost them a trip to the Rose Bowl, and it's very clear there are still hard feelings about this on the Beaver side.

Yep, our state's school mascots are Beavers and Ducks. Better than the Flaming Slugs or Galloping Pedophiles I guess, but not by much. Although I have seen very aggressive Ducks before. Wait, those were geese.

This year, Oregon State had high hopes of crushing Oregon's trip to the BCS Championship as payback for the earlier upset that kept the Beavs from the Rose Bowl. It didn't turn out that way - Oregon won 37-20, and were pretty much a lock for our state's first ever trip to a very possible championship. You would think that at this point that everyone in the state would be thrilled that, in the midst of one of the worst economies and highest unemployment in the country that this would be a shining beacon of Oregon can-do attitude (along with, of course, a particularly wealthy white Knight).

Instead, OSU fans were, within minutes of losing the game, cheering for Auburn to win the BCS Championship. And as far as I can tell they haven't stopped.

Understand that Oregon won fair and square, and did it on OSU turf. This wasn't a close game decided by a bad call or two. Oregon won by three scores, two of which would have had to be touchdowns. It wasn't a blowout in college ball terms (87 to minus 42, as seems to be the case often), but it was decisive.

We live in the south part of the Portland metro area, which most of the Portland area boosters would travel through on their way home from the game, and went out for dinner at a local family restaurant chain about the time the boosters were coming home. It was crowded and noisy and more than a bit uncomfortable as both groups of boosters were there (with children, I might add, most of them pretty young). I saw repeated snarky comments, looks, and more than one interaction that I could have seen going physical were there not cooler heads present.

As I watched, I realized that this is the world Americans now live in. 16 years of uber-partisan politics, where your side can do no wrong and the other side is evil incarnate, has reduced us to nothing but tribal politics. The Other is, as stated on a ultra-right-wing blog I accidentally stumbled across, "vermin". Or, as far too many liberals would say of Republicans, "Nazis". These sorts of gross generalizations, perpetrated by uninformed bloggers and an increasingly unabashedly partisan media, are not only massively untrue, they are also ripping the country apart.

Worst of all, the major reason that we are being ripped apart is for corporate profit. The people at Fox News might have some actual ideological motives for what they do, but in the end it's to make the rich richer. How else could you explain how the Republicans want tax breaks extended for the rich and encouraging earmarks for their own districts while at the same time bemoaning the deficit, a deficit that their party created? The Democrats are, for the most part, no better - they just don't have a centralized ideology but instead a lot of people who vote for them because the Republican platform is increasingly frightening. And even then, the Republican Party is on the verge of going Populist in a big way via the Tea Party, something that hardly ever ends well if you study American history.

I will almost certainly get slammed by someone on the right claiming that I have an offensive position, and have no idea what I'm talking about. Actually, I consider myself a moderate forced to vote liberal because the right is *so* far right. Someone told me the other day that a significant percentage of Americans think that the WMDs in Iraq simply haven't been found yet (after seven years of looking). Believe me, we'd have found them by now. We had every piece of paper in the country at our disposal, and someone somewhere would have mentioned them. With this kind of misinformation continually streamed into people's brains by propaganda machines, it's not surprising but deeply troubling that we can't think critically about such obvious lies.

For those people who think I'm a liberal dupe, let me just say that I think the people who have gone around claiming that the Bush administration actively engineered 9/11 are just as crazy. It's just that the right has worked so damned *hard* at it for the past 16 years, and have been able to get away with it for so long. When someone disagrees, the right shouts them down and just keeps repeating their message over and over until we believe that we should be giving equal time to arguments that can't tread water in the kiddie pool. And there is no question that the left can't win at Fox News' game.

In the end, my side is right, your side is wrong. No, that's too generous. Your side is evil, my side is on the right hand of God. Sound like anyone we think we know? Islamo-fascists maybe?

It permeates American society, to the point where people who should be happy that a state team will be vying for an NCAA football championship are instead willing to root for Satan himself rather than their bitter rivals.

That's a lack of vision. A lack of being able to see the big picture. A lack of being able to think critically and an overabundance of thinking with your lizard brain. A knee-jerk reaction.

Americans live in a country where popular culture has become nothing but encouraging these lacks. Corporations don't want consumers to think. Corporations don't want computers to see the big picture. They want them to consume their products and make the corporation and their shareholders money, regardless of cost. They are concerned with this quarter's numbers, often this *month's* numbers. It's why so much energy has been put into "debunking" climate change when almost every scientist who knows anything about the subject understands that we're on the verge of massive disruption from the melting of the polar ice caps.

We don't even teach critical thinking in our schools. We teach enough information for people to become good workers and consumers. It's no wonder "intellectuals" are feared by the masses - they're smarter and can convince the average joe into just about anything. And they are.

Yeah, Oregon won. And they dashed OSU's hopes a few years back. But kids, the game is *over*. The election is *over*. Thinking that it's all about the next election is great until that election is over and then it's only about the next election. It's not about the next election, it's about looking at our problems and finding solutions. We've completely given up on that process. We aren't making sausage, we're flinging shit at each other and calling it fair and balanced.

Next time you're feeling smug that your side won, think for a few minutes about why that should be better (and if the reason is so that we can get that mongrel out of the White House, and isn't there some irony there, you need to think of why you're even thinking *that*). Because winning in life is about as transitory as it gets.

Next time you're feeling angry because your side didn't win and looking solely for revenge, think for a minute about whether or not that revenge isn't going to cost a whole lot more than acceptance will. When the Republicans won a contested election on very questionable grounds in a very close election (these are facts, not propaganda), most liberals were unhappy but shrugged and waited to see how Bush would do. As of 9/11, he was on track to be a lackluster and one-term president. Liberals were happy to wait it out. Then we got 9/11 and the country went mad and we invaded another country for reasons that, had the Soviets pulled it 20 years earlier (and they did) we would have been furious. And a very large part of the country couldn't see that at all, and it hasn't gotten better.

Jon Stewart threw a rally to Restore Sanity. It was remarkably unsuccessful in that the entire world completely missed the point. It wasn't to show that he could throw a bigger party than Glenn Beck. It was to point out that we have become dysfunctional to the point that we are endangering our very planet, not just our own country or way of life. It was to point out that perhaps it's better to take a *really* deep breath, step back, and look at how we conduct ourselves. On both sides. Of pretty much any argument you can think of.

In my state, we can start by hoping that our team, regardless of where you attended college (and really, is that a good reason for this kind of animosity?) does well on the national stage. Because unless you have a good reason (and by that I mean a rational reason) to root for Auburn, such as having an actual connection with the school, you should be rooting for your team. Your team in this case is Oregon, a team from your state. Hell, if you're on the West Coast, root for them, if for no other reason than to root for the Pac-10. At the very least stay neutral. Because to root for Auburn because you lost a game fair and square is exactly the sort of thing I hope to God you aren't passing on to your children. And I hope with a little thought you'll come to feel the same way.

And then, just maybe, we as a culture have a chance to survive. Because American Exceptionalism now means that we're exceptionally dunderheaded. If we're really all that exceptional, screaming at the other side is pretty clearly a Really Bad Idea that hasn't worked in almost two decades and it's time to get over it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Doug Cooley's Civilization: The Out Of The Box Impression

Civilization. What a history this particular franchise has.

Originally a board game. Then an expansion or three. Then a computer game. Then another computer game. Then another. Then a board game based on the computer game. Then another computer game. Then *another* computer game. Then another board game based on the computer game based on the board game but not the crappy board game and also presumably not the crappy computer gamer, although there were some who liked that particular computer game and to be fair I guess a few who found the board game playable although the *first* board game could go on for a bit. Sort of like this sentence.

Wow. Suck on *that*, Settlers.

My first introduction to Civilization was the classic board game, the one that got picked up by Avalon Hill in the early 80's and was a smash hit. I was just finishing my sophomore year in college and was at my folks place in Wilsonville for the summer. Just like before, it was a long way from anything (although arguable further - the closest pizza and video stores were a 15 minute drive away), and even further from my college friends. My parents were touring Europe, my girlfriend was in Grant's Pass, and those who know what Grant's Pass is like know that there's really no point in going there if you don't have to, and in any event she was *bat*-sh*t crazy. Her coat used to come out of the closet and chase her. Really. And she was a little freaked whenever she saw, y'know, the junk.

My point is that I didn't have a lot to do other than rehearse with the band I was in and play this game I'd just bought, Civilization. I set it up on the living room floor, picked a number of civs to play, faked my way through the trading phase, and must have played something like 20 games in the six weeks before my parents got back. A little sad, but I loved playing that game. Amazingly, I've only played part of a game with actual live opponents, and then George was one of the civs right next to mine so you never knew what he was going to do, and it usually ended up being taking out the person pointing out who was winning, which seemed to always be me. That boy has some trust issues. ;-)

When I was in grad school ten years later, Sid Meier's Civilization, the PC adaptation of the board game (but oh so *much* more) came out in a Mac version. I am not lying when I say that this game, coupled with the ability to play it on an early Powerbook, was very nearly responsible for me not graduating, certainly responsible for me taking longer than planned. That and realizing you had to be *bat*-sh*t crazy to be a composer, so I settled for choir directing instead. Not that you don't have to be *bat*-sh*t crazy to do *that*.

I'm sure I had a point here somewhere. Oh, there it is.

I should also mention that my nephew, Bill, loved this game as much as I did. He lived with us on a few occasions, and there were a lot of nights that we'd come home from a performance or rehearsal and he'd be in the computer room playing while his girlfriend (not crazy, and amazingly now his wife of 15 years) was asleep in front of the TV. It was extremely addictive, and still is.

As version after version of the PC game would come out, I'd buy it but I never felt the game had the same relative elegance of the first iteration. Oh sure, figuring out how to work your Einsteins and Elvii was a bit of a trick, and the game was complex, but it was just right for someone like me. Making the tech tree the size of a Sequoia only hurt the game, and then the support for the Mac version just seemed to dry up. Civ IV *never* worked right on the Mac. I just started playing Civ V, and so far it feels a bit better, although the whole "race to the Monarchy" seems to be buried within a Culture system that I haven't quite got a grip on.

But I'm not here to talk about the computer game, at least other than in the sense that the one other time someone tried to create a version of the computer game for a board system it was done by the worst possible people - Eagle Games. It had none of the charm of the PC game - no gradual discovery, a lot of clumsy systems apparently put there to make the people who played the computer version happy but that didn't really help it feel like the computer version, and the usual Eagle "advanced" rules that should have been called "Rules That Seemed Like Maybe They Would Add Something But We Have No Idea Because We Never Tested Them More Than Once". Seriously, Eagle did this with *every* game they ever put out prior to going under (and then being bought by FRED).

Really, it was a terrible, terrible game.

To be honest, I didn't have much hope for the new game from Fantasy Flight. That changed when I started seeing pictures of the board, which looks remarkably like the first PC game in a lot of ways. Top down grid based movement, waves lapping on the shores, a randomized map that I'd be very surprised if we ended up with it looking the same no matter *how* many times you play the game.

So I got a copy. I'm weak. And I love me some discovery games.

Turns out there's quite a bit to like. I got in a couple of turns just to see how it all worked, and while there are some marked differences with the board game, the feel is all there. And some of the leaders are, ahem, pretty. Hot.

Here's a quick rundown of the sequence of play and how it maps to the computer version. I'll use the original two versions just because I'm most familiar with them, although I do have some clue about later versions. As a framework, I will introduce the board game's sequence of play, which is not too long.

Unlike my blog posts.

Start The Turn Already! - The first thing you notice is that in the PC game, you do things on a unit-by-unit basis. In the board game, you do things on a process-by-process basis. That's good, because it keeps everyone involved. I don't get the sense there's a huge amount of downtime in this game. We start by converting scouts (which are a combination of Scouts and Settlers from the computer game) into cities. In the board game, you start with your capital city in a square already built for your specific empire, and you only get two more cities, so pick where they can go carefully.

This is a good time to discuss cities and empires. Cities control the eight squares surrounding them, and they don't gradually expand into other territory like they do in the later PC versions. Actually, I like this. There are a few conditions for where you can place a city (not next to goodie huts, villages, or unknown terrain, and no overlap with existing cities), but there won't be a huge land grab to try to stake out your borders before doing a little in-fill. In fact, you want your cities close so that you get the benefit of defending them. In practice, since a tile in the board game is sixteen squares, you'll see one city per tile, so space is never an issue like it can be in the PC game if you have a couple of empires crowding you on an island. I should note that you don't place your final city until you have the Irrigation tech, which is no longer part of the computer game.

As for empires, there are six. Yeah, that seems little cheap to me too, but I figure this just gives more opportunity for expansions. The starter empires are America, Germany, Russia, China, Egypt, and Rome. Each has a special starting tech, some special starting benefit, and an ongoing special mutant power. I really can't say if one is better than the others, although clearly each empire is going to be better suited to meeting one of the four victory conditions. Yeah. Four different ways to win. My head hurts already.

The other thing you can do during the "Start of turn" phase (Really? That's the best you can do? How about "Civics" phase?) is to change your government. In the PC game, this needed to happen at the right time seeing as your civ would be in Anarchy for a few turns (lots of unhappy people and no income, really a bad idea if relations with your closest sabre-rattling neighbor weren't going well). In this game, if you get a tech that allows you to go to a different government type, you can do it for free in the following "Start of Turn" phase, or spend a turn in Anarchy if you wait.

So, this turn will go quickly, although exactly where you place your cities is obviously a fairly important decision, as is shifting your government type. Just like the PC game!

So I'll Give You Meat For Your Wood - Or Spice for your Iron. Whatever. This phase actually refers to Trade in two forms, the game mechanism and the act of trading stuff, a la Settlers. First you count up your Trade icons in the outskirts of your cities, a good reason to get those cities on the board as quickly as possible. Then you also can count any trade icons on spaces your Scouts are on (this allows these units to be useful later on, sort of like Workers, after you've built both extra cities). You add this value to your Trade total, which is a wheel on your Empire sheet. Trade is useful for a few things, but you need to use it carefully to keep up as you'll see later.

Then everyone gets to barter. There are lots of things to barter in this game - Trade points, Culture tokens, Resources, Culture cards, and of course you can promise that you'll do something at some point in the future (non-binding!). Unlike Settlers, I can see this being in heavy use throughout the game, even with people you are actively fighting. I should mention that there is no "War" mechanism in the game, so no specific state you enter because you ran over another army.

Somewhere Out On That Horizon, Out Beyond The Neon Sky - Next up is the City Management Phase, but really it should be the Let's Go Shopping! phase. You can do one of three things here per city- produce something, harvest a resource, or generate culture points. Note that you can do a different action with each city. We'll take each one in turn.

Producing something means a Figure, a Unit, a Building, or a Wonder. A Figure means an Army or a Scout. Armies are closest to Units in the computer game, except in this case they are fairly malleable conceptually. In fact, as you'll see there's a very good chance you won't know exactly what will be in your Army at any given time, and you may end up having the exact same units for your army in multiple battles spread out across the board. This is a huge difference from the computer version. You are limited to six armies and two scouts on the board at any given time. Every turn you decide to produce, you count up the production icons in your outskirts or that Scouts are on, and you don't get to save any. Production, as in the computer version, is done by *city*, unlike Trade.

Units are even stranger. As you produce tech, you get incrementally better units in the four categories of Infantry, Ranged, Mounted, and Air (which you clearly don't get until late in the game). The types have a Rock-Paper-Scissors relationship in that Infantry gets first shot at Mounted, who get first shot at Ranged, who get first shot at Infantry. Units are represented by cards that have one epoch's type per side of the card. Interestingly, the values from card to card vary to some degree - 1 to 3 for the first epoch, bumping up by one per epoch. When you fight, you *randomly* draw a number of cards and play them with varying levels of carnage ensuing, then after all is done you count up your values and whoever has the higher value wins. More on this later, but you need to understand that having a ton of unit cards is not a recipe for success, while having and retaining *good* units is, but it's a crapshoot and I suspect the weakest part of the game.

Buildings are essentially "mods" to your outskirt squares, as are Wonders. You have limits on where they can be placed based on type, and some types of buildings you can't build if another "starred" unique building is in your outskirts, where it replaces the iconography. You can remove buildings to put other buildings in their place as the game goes on, and in fact each building has a "senior" version waiting for you to get the tech that allows it, just like in the PC version. Almost every tech in this game allows you to build these buildings, but in the end the game effect is strictly on the iconography, whereas the tech itself gives you various exceptions and abilities. Got that? Tech gives abilities, Buildings give icons.

I didn't really get to Wonders (they are discouraged in your first game), but they look very similar to buildings.

And that's production. The thing tying it all together is that it's done by city, so you can build one per city, and you use Production icons which are not persistent throughout the game. If you're not feeling like being a busy beaver, there are two other choices: Culture and Resources.

Culture in the original game was, at best, a very vague concept. As the PC versions have come out, it's become a major subsystem in it's own right, but in the board version it's almost unrecognizable. If you decide to devote a city to the arts, you get one Culture point for the city and one per Culture icon in the outskirts or with a Scout. Note that you only get *one* point per icon, so you can't use that Scout's icon for every city! You may use these points to purchase an advance up the Culture track, which gets more expensive as the game goes on. Early on, you only spend culture, later you have to also spend trade and (IIRC) coinage.

Every time you advance up the track, you get either a Culture Card or a Great Person, depending on the space you advance into. Cards change as you move up the track to the next Epoch, but Great Persons are always from the same pool. GPs are also just like buildings - you place them in your outskirts. Culture cards you can save to use when the card says, but you have a hand limit (two cards in the early game) and you have to dump down any time you get over the limit. Like voting, you are encouraged to commit Culture early and often.

By the way, if you get up to 17 Culture spaces, you win. The Chinese in particular seem like they are good candidates for a Culture victory.

The last thing is Resources. These were very passive in the first computer versions, now they are fairly complex. In the board game, they are currency you use to enable use of a tech in many cases. There are only four types on the game board (silk, incense (!?), iron, and wheat), although you can get spies and uranium from goodie huts or villages. If you take a resource for a city, you only get one for that city, and it has to be in the outskirts. Just like the later computer games, having resources nearby is important, and later on the only way to get these is to trade for them once the board has been explored and the villages and goodie huts have been taken.

A lot of choices, but this is really the meat of the game. Typically this is done in player order, but shouldn't take *too* long as by now everyone should know what they plan to buy and the choices, especially early on, are fairly limited by your tech tree.

You Have To Go There To Get Back - Everybody polonaise! In player order, everyone can move their figures on the board. Movement is orthagonal and everyone moves the same amount, starting with two squares at a time. Water is verboten early, but like most things in Civ tech will improve your movement ability and where you can go. No MPs based on terrain, this should be fairly straightforward except that there's this little idea of combat. This is also where you can find goodie huts with your armies (scouts can't enter the spaces, and you can't build cities next to undiscovered huts or villages).

Combat is, as I've said, a little nuts, but I can see where the designers were going. You get a random hand of cards, usually three unless you are defending a city or have multiple armies in the same space, chosen randomly from your supply. Players place them down one at a time along a "front". You don't have to put a unit across from another unit, you can always just extend the front if you choose. If a unit gets put across from another unit, they inflict damage on each other immediately based on their combat value. If the damage exceeds or meets the combat value, the unit is out. If your unit type "wins" the RPS setup, it fires first, otherwise damage happens simultaneously. Once all cards are played and any final combat occurs, you count up the total value of each card, add in any bonuses for city defense or tech, and the high value wins and the other side loses that army (*not* the units unless their damage was high enough), and the winner also gets some spoils depending upon what was involved in the battle.

Pro Tip: If you lose your capital city, the victor wins the game. That's the second way to win. This is a rather elegant way of avoiding having people kicked out of the game with nothing else to do, if you ask me.

If you move an army into a village, one of your opponent draws random unit cards for each type and uses those. That makes village-clearing a risky business early in the game unless you have some sort of bonus.

I can see some really interesting elements of combat in this system wherein when you buy crap units you have to figure out ways to get them out of your hand while keeping the good units. Since you don't get to pick units, that's a bit of a problem. However, you very definitely want to have at least six cards in hand if you are defending a city, and multiple armies if you're going to attack one. Like in the more recent iterations of the PC game, taking a city is non-trivial early in the game.

At the same time, I can see this as being a little too random for some tastes. Draw three good units early? Awesome. Having to fight people just to burn out those crap units would be, I suppose, a bit of an ordeal. However, like many great games I suspect that we'll all just have to figure out how best to work within the system as we learn the game, so I'm reserving final judgement until I've got a few games under my belt.

Is That An iPhone In Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Glad To See Me? - Yeah, some jokes are good enough to use repeatedly. The last phase is the Tech phase, where you may choose to burn your remaining Trade to buy a tech card. I have to say, this is the most elegant solution I've seen to creating an easy-to-use tech tree in a board game. You can buy as many Level 1 techs as you like, lining them up next to each other. You can buy a higher level tech if there are two below an open space, placing the higher level in that space. Thusly, you need two Level 1 techs to buy and place a Level 2 tech. The end result looks like bricks in a wall. If you go for the Tech Victory, meaning you buy the Level 5 tech of spaceflight, you'll need a total of 15 techs (5 at Lvl 1, 4 at 2, 3 at 3, 2 at 4, and 1 at 5). There are no prerequisites, no discounts, no craziness.

What you *do* need is Trade, and you'll burn it all when you're done. On your Trade wheel, you'll see little icons every so often around the wheel. If your Trade is at that tech level (6 for Level 1, 12 for Level 2, etc) you can use all of your remaining trade for any tech at that level, assuming it will fit in your tree. You don't lose Trade from turn to turn, so that lets you build it up over time. Techs typically give you the ability to build certain buildings as well as a resource-triggered special ability. Some give you "gratis" abilities (such as improving your movement rate), and some upgrade your units, which happens immediately. Note that higher level units cost more in production, so it's better to get an army going and then let them upgrade as the game goes on.

If you manage to have any coins (again, based on tech abilities), you get to preserve one Trade point for each coin. While there are coin markers that are placed on techs (mostly because they top out after a bit), you also track them on your inner wheel on your empire sheet, so it's easy to remember how much Trade to save. Thus, if you have six coins, you are guaranteed to get one level 1 tech per turn for free. Oh, and if you get enough coins, you win.

That's about it.

There are a lot of changes from the PC version, which is good and proper as long as it's all done right. I think the military system certainly errs on the side of light bookkeeping, which is very good, and you don't clutter the board with a wide range of different unit types and factors. While the wargamer in me kind of wishes this were the case, it would no doubt add a huge amount of time to game play.

In fact, the game seems to mostly compress the Civ experience down to a manageable amount of time. You'll have the board explored in a few turns, the huts off in a few more, be placing level 2 techs in 5 turns or less, and be up to your max cities in around ten turns. As the game progresses, I get the sense that things move along pretty quickly, and some victory conditions will result in wins that will come out of nowhere (coins, for example).

Even with all of the differences from the PC version (and, really, there's almost nothing about any of the PC games that feels even a little like the original Civilization other than that you buy techs that give you special abilities), I think this is about as good a system as you could expect that won't require an all nighter to finish this off. There's no "person who builds out furthest wins" issue, although there will be times when the tiles that show up are less favorable than others, and no "whoever gets a battleship first wins" syndrome like in the PC game. Governments are still there, but part of the tech tree (unlike the PC game, which now has them in a Culture Tech Tree).

The meat of the game remains in city management and what you choose to build when. There's no waiting for units or buildings to build, you just do it because you have enough production. The combat system is very simple (if rather poorly explained in the rules, especially considering that it's nothing like the PC game's system), and while it seems a little random on the surface, it's still very difficult to take down another player's city if that player has made adequate preparations such as producing walls and getting enough units to defend it effectively, even if they're crap. I'm not saying it's a great system, but it is about as clean as you're going to get in this type of game, and frankly it's a pretty clever idea. I just hope it works.

Even the ability to win using a variety of criteria (coins, culture, tech, or stompage) means that you'll have to track a lot of things that your opponents are doing and think out a turn or four so that you can prevent them from winning. On the other hand, you're going to need to decide on a strategy *early* if you want to win this game. Starting with, say, a view to a Culture victory that changes over to an Economic victory is probably going to result in someone else getting a Military victory.

The game takes up to four people, as few as two, and claims to play in 2-4 hours. I think with experienced players, even just one or two games under your belt, this is very doable, perhaps as few as 2 if everyone plays briskly in a four-player game. The biggest time sink will be selecting techs, and everyone does this simultaneously (you play them face down, so people know your tech level but not the tech), so even it's not bad so long as one player doesn't take all day.

All in all, I'm impressed and looking forward to a real game. I don't know that it will be Tuesday evening fare for more than, say, 3, but it does look like fun for Sunriver and weekends and cons.

At this extremely early stage, I recommend this if you loved the first iteration of the PC game, less so if you though that the micromanagement of Civ 3 was da bomb. Or maybe it was 4. I can't keep track...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What I'm Thankful For

I am thankful for many things this year, for a healthy and curious 2 year old granddaughter, for a content and positive 88 year old mother, for a home I don't have to worry that I won't be able to afford next month or next year, for a family that loves to get together and do so largely without drama, for a band that gets along well and works in a way that I find very satisfying and *rocks* the frakkin' house every time we get on stage, and for so many other things.

I am also very thankful that for the last twelve plus years I have had the privilege of gaming with the best folks on the planet, the Rip City Gamers, and so many others in the Portland, OR metro area. This past Tuesday showed just how much fun these people are, not only to game with, but also just to hang with. This year showed me in no small measure how important the communities I work and play in are to me, and I'm so lucky to have stumbled into this particular group. RCG, you are the best, and I thank you all for just being you.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, even those of you for whom this was just another Thursday (or whatever they call it where you live).

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Is That A Minotaur In Your Labyrinth, Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?

In what we in the west term as "Greek" mythology, the Labyrinth was a maze in the dungeons of King Minos of Crete's palace. He sent prisoners there he wished to dispose of, as the Labyrinth was also the lair of the famous Minotaur, a bull-headed (literally) warrior of incredible strength and cunning who also liked an occasional meal of Hero on the Half Shell. The term has come to mean a situation where there is no clear way out and no sense of where one is in terms of progress toward that goal.

Labyrinth: The War On Terror 2001-? is in the late throes of being sent to preorders, and is probably available in stores and online as you read this. If there were ever an appropriate use of the term, it is applicable to the War On Terror, perhaps the most expensive and bungled national effort in the history of the world. The US alone will spend a trillion dollars in Iraq alone, a country that has never been tied to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a country that had no effective nuclear development program, a country where, even seven and a half years later, we have been unable to find the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction. A war that Colin Powell staked his reputation on when he presented such myths as fait accompli to the United Nations.

Now you can see if you can do better.

The entire gaming community seems to have had a massive wet dream over Twilight Struggle, which will mistakenly be claimed as an ancestor to Labyrinth. I was not one of those people - I felt that the way the cards fell out was far too important in determining who would win the game, and let's just pretend that the scoring card mechanism was never there. TS's claim to ancestry of Lab is, fortunately, restircted to heavily abstracted military conflicts and a focus on essentially being an area control game, but with some big differences. While it's a little early for me to start evaluating the game as a whole, I do have some thoughts on how successful it is and whether it will be the game that knocks TS off of it's perch as wargame/euro/strategy crossover king.

The game pits the US against the Jihadists, and the two sides are very different both in what their goals are, but also in how they get there. Like TS, the cards that drive the game have an OPs number and an event, and if you play a card for OPs but your opponent's event is on it they get to execute the event. There are also "unassociated" events that both sides can play for the event. However, how each side plays their OPs and what they play for are very different things, which I will explain after describing the various axes of victory that you have to contend with.

First off, the map. Like TS, the map consists of a variety of boxes representing various countries or groups of countries (Central Asia, the Gulf States, etc). These are divided into two subtypes - Muslim and Non-Muslim countries. Muslim countries have a varying Governance value which is not revealed (via a die roll) until something happens in that country - the US places troops there or the Jihadist travels cells there, or an event calls for a "test". Governance ranges from Good to Fair to Poor to Islamist Rule, and also has an axis of Ally (to the US), Neutral, or Adversary. Governance and Alignment determine operational flexibility in various ways, and is different for both sides. Muslim countries can also be either Sunni or Sunni-Shia Mixed. Iran, though a Muslim country in the real world, is enough of a power broker that it is classed as unique in game terms, and it has a set governance of Fair and no alignment track.

The Non-Muslim countries have Governance values, but they are set in stone for the game, and get no worse than Fair. However, they do have Posture that is either Hard or Soft. This is an unfortunate Freudian simile, and there will be frequent and loud exhortations and lamentations when a country initially goes Hard (or Soft) as I'm sure you're imagining right at this very moment. I'm not sure how else the designer/developer could have put this, but to be honest I'm not complaining. The main function of a country being Hard or Soft will have various effects on the US depending upon the differential between the two and whether or not it maps to the US being in the same condition. The US can attempt to change the Posture of both non-Muslim countries and itself, although to do the latter is very expensive.

There are three other game conditions that affect play. The first is US Prestige, which is a fickle mistress at best. The higher the US's Prestige, the easier it is to improve Governance. If it's low enough, the Jihadist can win just by having a lot of Muslim countries with very poor Governance. The second is Troop Deployment for the US. The more troops the US puts on the ground, the fewer cards they get. Up to five troops on the board, and you get nine cards, while six to ten gets you eight cards, and more than that gets you only seven cards drawn per turn. The third condition is Jihadist Funding, which is similar but works in the opposite direction. The higher the funding, the more cells you have available to put on the board, with a max of 9 down to 7 allowing all cells to be recruited, with 6-4 only allowing 10 cells, and 3-1 only allowing 5. Various factors will affect Prestige and Funding, but the US always has the choice of how many troops are on the board, at least most of the time.

Winning the game hinges on getting a certain number of Muslim countries to have Good governance (for the US) or Islamist (for the Jihadists). Islamist countries also have the benefit of automatically allowing the Jihadists to undertake any action using OPs for that country, and if they take over a country with WMDs the game gets much more difficult for the US, as launching a Plot that has WMDs in the US wins the game for the Jihadists immediately. The victory conditions are arguably the most convoluted part of the game, but if you remember the above concept (extremes of Governance are good for one side or the other) your path through the Labyrinth will be a lot clearer.

So how does each side get where they are going? Let's start with the Jihadists. They have the following tools to use: Recruiting, Travelling, Jihads, Plots, and of course Events (which don't use OPs, they use the Jihadist and Unassociated card events). All of these other than events generally require that the Jihadist roll dice to determine the success or failure of the operation based on the OPs number of the card played, so if a 3 OPs card is played the Jihadist would have three dice to roll for one activity. You can't use one die for Travelling and the others for Recruiting, they all have to be used on the same activity. If you roll the Governance value for the target country, you succeed, otherwise you fail. Good Governance requires a 1, Fair a 2 or less, Poor a 3 or less, and Islamist is an automatic success.

Recruiting is pretty simple - moving cells from the Funding Track to the map. Cells can either be Sleepers (harder to remove, better for the Jihadist) or Active. Whenever cells are recruited or travel, they become Sleepers. Recruiting in a country under Islamist rule or under Regime Change is automatic, and some non-Muslim countries have a higher REC value than the Governance (for example, Spain has Good Governance, but the Jihadists can recruit on a 2 or less rather than a 1). You can never recruit beyond the box that the Funding Track marker is in, so having your funding drop can be a real problem for the Jihadist. However, you are still allowed to place cells beyond this limit if they are placed by event. You can attempt to recruit one cell per OPs number.

Travelling gets the cells from one country to another and converts them from Active to Sleeper. You can travel to adjacent countries, which automatically succeeds, or you can try to get them to a more distant country, but if you fail the cell goes back to the Funding Track. Thus, trying to get a cell into the US is a risky proposition until you get them into the Philippines, Canada, the UK, or the "Shengen" countries, which is the European Union (which are all considered to be an amalgam of countries all in the same virtual location but with different boxes). You can also travel within a country simply to flip a cell to it's Sleeper side. A common opening for the Jihadist is to recruit in an Islamist country, then start to move the cells out to both adjacent and good target countries.

Plots are used to various effect depending upon the country involved, usually to change posture in non-Muslim countries, lower Prestige in countries with troops, and lower Governance values in Muslim countries. Once the Jihadists gain WMDs, their effect can become much more dangerous. Plots require either an Active cell per die rolled in that country, or a Sleeper cell flipped to Active, which makes them more vulnerable in some countries. Plots can be attempted anywhere. Plots are also a way for the Jihadist to "dump" a US event in their hand - the first card they play for a plot with a US event is placed in the "1st Plot" box and the event is ignored. Think of this as the equivalent of the Space Race in TS, and the only way the Jihadist has to dump a US event.

Jihads are the tool that allows for the creation of Islamist governments, but it's hard to do. First, there are two types of Jihad, Major and Minor. The best that a Minor Jihad can do is lower the Governance down to Poor. Once that's been accomplished, the Jihadist needs to have five more cells in the target country than there are troops, and then roll two successes in one roll. Failures remove cells to the funding track, so it can be a lot of work to get the numbers in place for a Major Jihad, but at the same time if you fail the attempt the first time the country becomes a Besieged Regime and will only require one success in the future. Converting countries to Islamist is the main goal of the Jihadist, and the main counter-effort of the US in this game. Jihads may only be attempted in Muslim countries except Iran.

You can see the general path of the Jihadist at this point. Raise funding to allow Recruitment of cells, Travel those cells to other countries where they can Plot or declare Jihad with the intent of making the US's job harder or hopefully creating Islamist governments.

The US side has a complimentary set of operations it engages in. In some ways, it's job is both easier and harder. The biggest hurdle for the US is that they can only play a card for OPs to do one thing - no spreading out of OPs over various countries. To play a card for OPs, the number must be as large as the Governance value, so to do something in a Poor country the US must play a 3 card. Fortunately, both sides can commit cards to Reserves, which essentially "bank" 1-2 OPs for a future card play that turn, so even if you get no 3 OPs cards you can still operate in Poor countries (although hobbled to some extent). The US has the following options: War of Ideas, Disrupt, Alert, and Deploy, as well as using it's own and unassociated events.

The War of Ideas is used to improve Governance/Alignment or Posture, and this is where the US has to roll for success rather than simply taking an action, unlike the Jihadist's operations. In order to be successful with a WoI roll, you want to have good US Prestige, and you want there to be as few countries as possible with the opposite Posture as the US, with the optimal number being an even split between Hard and Soft or in your favor. Getting a country from Fair to Good is difficult. I'm fairly sure that Alignment plays a role, but I don't have the game available at this particular time. If you just miss hitting the target number to improve the Governance, you instead place an Aid marker that will improve your odds for the next time, with a max of one per country at a given time. Aid will enable a lot of Jihadist events, however, so you don't want a bunch of them sitting on the table at any given time.

Disrupt operations simply flip Sleeper Cells to Active, or remove Active cells. This operation can be done in any non-Muslim country, in any country where you have troops (where it is more effective) or in a Muslim Allied country (which makes Alignment important). This is why it is so difficult for the Jihadist to get things going in a non-Muslim country, such as getting WMD plots going in the US, as any card will allow the US player to simply flip or remove cells with any OPs card play, combined with the difficulty of running OPs there for the Jihadist.

Alert requires a 3 card, but will remove an active Plot on the board and is essential for the US to use once the Jihadist gets a plot going in the US. Because WMDs are difficult for the Jihadists to get, finding these in the US before they go off is critical once WMDs hit the board.

Finally, you can deploy troops from the Troop track or on the board to an allied Muslim country, or you can use them to effect Regime Change if you play a 3 card and your posture is Hard. Once a country is in Regime Change, it becomes a breeding ground for more cells (auto Recruit in that country), and you cannot move troops out of the country unless you leave at least five more than the number of cells in that country. The net effect is to tie your troops down, and it's impractical to do this in more than one country at a time. To effect Regime change, you have to move six or more troops to the country, and you only have 15 to work with, and once you use more than ten you are down to drawing only seven cards a turn. The only way to get a country *out* of Regime Change is to convert it to Good Governance. That last task is about as hard as it is for the Jihadists to get a country to become Islamist, and is the main US goal. It is possible to withdraw troops from a Regime Change country, but it requires the US to have a Soft Posture and should only be undertaken in the most dire of situations (an Islamist government in Indonesia, for example, with no Patriot Act limiting the "adjacency" of the US to the Philippines would be a good example).

In game terms, the US spent quite a bit of time with troops tied down in both Iraq and Afghanistan and became Overstretched. I think this is about as non-political a way of explaining the situation as I've seen, and the designer/developer are to be congratulated for their work in keeping this about history rather than ideology.

As such, the US game plan is to gain a Hard posture, raise US Prestige while changing the Posture of non-Muslim nations to the same position they are in through the War of Ideas, effect Regime Change in Islamist countries through Troop Deployment, use Disruption to remove cells around the world to prevent Governance from decaying, and use the War of Ideas to improve the governance of Muslim countries, eventually to Good.

One last note: each country has a Resource value, which helps determine how many countries the Jihadist needs to become Islamist to win, six points total. Oil rich countries like the Gulf States have a Resource value of 3, while Afghanistan has a Resource value of 1. I have to wonder if the recently released report that Afghanistan actually has quite a bit of valuable resources was incorporated into the game. Whether or not the Bush administration was aware of it's resource value at the time is a very good question, but I suppose most people are relatively unaware of this factor and it won't affect their enjoyment of the game regardless.

Here's the biggest twist in this game from TS: Each side plays *two* cards in a row, starting with the Jihadist. After both sides play cards, any unblocked plots on the board are executed, with the results based on the type of country the plot is in. This allows players to do a lot of things - play two cards in a row for WoI, for example, the first hoping for at least the placement of Aid. You could also play one card for it's Reserves value, then get a second card in to take it to a 3 OPs to allow for an Alert or Regime Change operation, in effect using two 1/2 OPs cards with a combined value of 3 or more as a single 3 OPs card. For the Jihadist, they could use Travel to get enough cells in a country to attempt a Major Jihad. And, because Plots take effect after the US card play, a Plot in the US can distract the US player to generate enough OPs to remove the Alert marker when they really needed to be doing something else. This is another clever evolution in CDG design that I really like, and it speeds up play.

Lab has no scoring cards. Yay! Too many games of TS went straight down the tubes with a hand of two or three scoring cards combined with your opponent playing Red Scare/Purge and effectively shutting you down for a turn. In fact, there is no turn track in the game. Instead, you and your partner decide how long you want to play based on getting through the deck a certain number of times. From my experience, I would imagine that each deck pass would last between 2-3 hours depending upon experience, possibly less but certainly more for your first play through. When there aren't enough cards to flush out the next hand and you've played through that many decks, the game is over.

I should also mention that the game will play very quickly online, as there are no response cards in the entire game. Your opponent does their thing, then you do yours. No waiting for the other player to tell you that they will or won't play a card in response. While I like that ability in other games, at the same time how nice to be able to know who is doing what, especially in a pbem game.

There's quite a lot to like in this game. The asymmetry of the two sides (which will require more of a learning curve, fortunately the game comes with a truly excellent tutorial/example of play from Joel Toppen), the components are mostly excellent and very beefy (the board is on ultra-heavy cardstock similar to Successors), and the rules and card text are crystal clear. I guess that's to be expected from Ruhnke and Winslow, who last brought us Wilderness War, perhaps the only CDG ever published without card errata and very little errata in the ruleset. I spoke with them just after WW came out (in fact, my copy was the first production copy Volko had seen when it was released at WBC), and Rob Winslow wasn't sure he'd ever develop a game again. I think I speak for the entire hobby when I say "Thank you, Rob, we're glad you're back!" And the same goes for Volko for having quite a bit of imagination when it comes to bringing new mechanisms and asymmetric play to CDGs.

Now for the nits.

First off, the event tokens are a bit of a pain to work with. Some have events on both sides, and unless you know which ones block which other ones, it can be hard to find the right chit side for a "marked" event. On top of that, there is no way to know what the event does unless you keep the card out on the table if it has a lasting effect (as opposed to a blocking effect, which is on the chit). You have to keep the card on the table to know, which is fine if the card is to be removed, but if it isn't then you just have to remember or note it on a piece of paper. For a game that can be played almost without reading the rules from the excellent play aids and the tutorial, this seems like a swing and a miss.

Second, the play aids are per side only. As such, the Jihadist has to ask to see the US play aid to know what their operation choices are. The cards are definitely large enough, being 11"x17" unfolded, but half of the aids are devoted to the flowcharts for the solitaire game. I would have preferred to have seen the tables on the board that are on both sheets (War of Ideas, the various Test tables for Governance, Posture, and Prestige) and replace them with the other side's Operations. Once these playaids go online, or by simply photocopying, you can get them, although then that's another piece of paper to deal with.

Third, the solitaire game seems very interesting, but there will be a very steep entrance cost as not only do you need to figure out what operation the Jihadist is going to do, but where they will do it, and often in multiple places. I spent about 40 minutes per turn trying to decipher this, as it's sometimes not as clear as I'd like (for example, each box in where a cell will travel to is used once then skipped in the future for that card play). There is a very good example of play for the solo game, but expect your first game or three to take a *very* long time. I would also have preferred that Joel had chosen a single deck game with no "advanced" nerfs for the US, which make it a poor choice for continuing on with play after finishing the first turn.

Finally, I'm not sure that I'm a big fan of the thick board. Not because I don't like the board, it's very nice and lays quite flat on the table. However, there are more than a few problems with it - it takes up half the box, so sleeved cards need four bags to get them all in the box; it can't be placed in a poster frame like a paper or even thick cardstock map, and it's more susceptible to warpage. There is no question in my mind that this choice was made because of the hue and cry coming from Eurogamers who picked up and enjoy TS about how the components were terrible. By wargame standards, of course, the components were pretty much par for the course, but Eurogamers want wooden blocks, mounted boards, and thick counters. These are all in the box for Labyrinth, and I'm sure it will sell well with Eurogamers, but it's a very different game and I'm not sure that it will see the same kind of acceptance as TS got. Lab is a much more involved game that will require a higher level of play than TS, and I hope that GMT isn't making a mistake by marketing it to a broader audience. However, given their success with Dominant Species (a *very* heavy Euro/strategy game that has sold out within a month of going out to *preorders*), who am I to tell them their business? Actually, if Lab does get accepted by a larger audience than GMT typically sells to, it could start to interest these gamers in other wargames, and as a player who doesn't discriminate based on the type of game (as, unfortunately, many wargamers seem to do) but rather on the quality of the game, I'm all for it.

At this point, I have the two tutorial games, a continuation of the solitaire game, and most of a one-deck two player game under my belt, not really enough for me to make more than a few blanket conclusions. I really can't say if the luck of the draw will be the downfall of this game as it can be in TS, despite no scoring cards to mess things up. I also can't say if the game can generate enough momentum for one side or the other such that the victor becomes deterministic too early in the game, assuming equal levels of experience on both sides of the board.

I will say that I'm very pleased with the design and the development of the game, that the learning tools to get you into the game are excellent, that the game itself is very engaging (and I assume that once the flowcharts are internalized that the solitaire game will do the same), and that it's nice to finally get to play a game on a truly contemporary topic that manages to avoid partisan leanings one way or the other while still acknowledging the history (the Axis of Evil speech, for example, although no Mission Accomplished card in this game either!)

I'll end by giving the caveat that this is not a trivial game to learn and play well. The Jihadist must stretch the US capacity to engage, and more than one Islamist government and/or regime change operation at a time will quickly show just how brittle the US capability is, as history has so aptly shown us. In game terms, Afghanistan is *still* in a Regime Change state nearly eight years after we began operations there, and despite the political rhetoric we are still doing it in Iraq. That we have not had to deal with another Islamist state to date is a very good thing in terms of US security, but it's not like the US has won this war - far from it.

My initial impression is that this is the two-player game that I hoped Twilight Struggle would be and wasn't. I only hope that those who would balk at playing the side of an active enemy of the US (see the kerfuffle over a Call of Duty game that allows you play Taliban fighers) can get past themselves and realize that more or less every wargame set in the 20th Century or later, and quite a few in earlier eras, means someone is playing the side of an enemy of the US. Heck, even ACW games will have Americans in all likelihood playing a side that they still hold a grudge against, and that conflict was 150 years ago. Much better to look at this as a historical study that allows you to get a better sense of at the very least the tactics that both sides use without too much concern for the reasons for the conflict. If nothing else, there's every chance that playing the Jihadists will give Americans more reason to try to see the conflict from both sides and understand not only Muslim mores but that there are as many different takes within the Muslim community toward their own culture as there are within America for our own culture. Neither are anywhere near as homogenous as they are made out to be by the pundits and masters of opinion, and breaking down that fallacy, were it all this game ever accomplished, would be a very worthy achievement.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Barbarossa Campaign - Out Of The Box

As you can imagine, Sunriver took quite a bit out of me. I've done a bit of gaming over the past couple of weeks, but not a lot that was particularly new to me. However, I've gotten the chance to play a couple of new games very recently, and thought I'd share my opinions of them.

First up is the Victory Point Games title The Barbarossa Campaign, a reworking of a DTP solitaire game that's been around for a while.

Whenever I hear there's a new game on Barbarossa, the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union (including a few recently appropriated countries or portions thereof) by Nazi Germany, I have to wonder what such a title will bring that's new to the hobby. Barbarossa is perhaps the most gamed subject occurring during World War II, with the only real competitors being D-Day and The Battle of the Bulge (and then mostly in the US). It was the largest war in history, with tens of millions of men involved. Some of the biggest battles in history took place during what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War, including the one that broke the back of the Germans at Stalingrad.

Of course, Barbarossa really only entails the initial operations by the Germans, as it was their code name for the invasion, so the game's name is a bit of a misnomer, but at the same time any wargamer or military historian will recognize that the game encompasses the entire war, running up through the Spring of 1945. TBC actually runs into Summer of 1945, presumably to allow the Germans to hold on long enough to eke out a moral victory of sorts.

For the record, I have gotten through about 80% of a campaign game, which lasts 17 turns if it goes the distance and is listed as taking about 2-3 hours in the game's printed materials. I've spent closer to 4 at this point, but then again I'm learning the game as I go, and while this is a fairly simple game it takes a much different tack than most games on the subject and thus requires a lot of study to keep things moving forward. I would expect future games to take much less time, although 2 hours seems to be based on the Germans winning or losing before Summer of 1945.

Victory Point Games has an unusual business model in that it is a DTP company that puts out fairly high quality components given it's humble operations. All printing is done in house with good printers, but the component quality still feels like a very well put together DTP game. Which, to be fair, it is. The counters are mounted and largely double-sided, which is in itself very impressive (and, which owner Alan Emerich says, is the most labor-intensive and error-prone part of the assembly process). The game is fairly expensive for such a beast, weighing in at $45 (IIRC) retail. For your money, you do get a lot of stuff - three counter sheets, a deck of cards, a map, three status record half-sheets, a sheet with special events, and a sixteen-page rule folio. The whole thing comes in a big ziplock bag, and the front and back packaging includes an extensive example of play. You won't need dice to play, but you will need three containers to draw chits from. The total game footprint is relatively small, around 50-70% of a standard one sheet map from most games.

As a solitaire game, your job is to either get the Germans to win by taking the trinity of Stalingrad/Leningrad/Moscow, or failing that to have enough success for enough turns to win through victory points. I think both of these goals will require a certain amount of luck to occur, frankly, although I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing in a solitaire game where the balance between luck and good play is the core design choice. If you can't get the love to pull off an AV situation, then the Germans get to see just how big a bitch payback is, although they can still pull some surprises out of their hat. Unlike most games covering the conflict, the retreat through Germany plays a vital role if you get that far, which I like.

The focus of the game is at the strategic level, and as a result there are a lot of game elements that might be unfamiliar to the player:

Units: Units play a much different role in this game than you'd expect. For one thing, no matter how much you stretch the lines, they won't break. In fact, the concept of a contiguous line on both sides of the conflict is critical. Punch a hole, and there are just more Russians to beat. While units are identified by corps/army, for all purposes the run of the mill "line" units are interchangeable and infinite. There are "special" units (panzer corps, Gross Deutschland, shock, guard, tank) that give you special effects and combat benefits, as well as Axis Allies that can create some problems for the German side, but for the most part the units do little more than define the front. My first reaction was that one of the things that distinguishes strategic Eastern Front games is that one side or the other is trying to push their opponent to the breaking point. In fact, it is the *map* itself that symbolizes this fact, combined with the mix of non-line units. As the Germans push more into the Russian motherland, they have relatively fewer special units to blitz with, while the few special units the Russians have tend to be diluted. As the game progresses and the Germans start to lose their special units while the Russians get more, and the front gets smaller as the Germans fall back, the opposite happens. As an abstraction, this works very well and would not have been obvious to me were I a designer.

Initiative: Every turn you will compute how well the Germans are doing, then use this to determine which side has the initiative. In the early game, the Germans will have it and thus can do Blitz combat, while the Russians will lose their Initiative step which essentially gives them "free" advances. As the initiative falls more and more to the Soviets, the Germans will eventually lose the ability to even attack. What is particularly cool is how the initiative is computed. Units which are surrounded and surrender (very easy in the first turn, much harder later on) contribute, as do advances in tank tech, Soviet industrial power, Lend Lease, strategic choices, and a certain randomized subset of captured cities. Even some combat results shift the initiative. Perhaps surprisingly, this computation is really pretty easy to do and is what I consider to be the most elegant part of the design.

Combat: This is a particularly interesting design choice. First of all, there are no dice. You draw from an ever-changing pool of combat chits in four colors to see how things go. In general, green is good for the Axis, red for the Soviets. Some chits with white X's across them are left out at the beginning, but can be added at a nerf to the German initiative computation in future turns. Black X's also come out and can be returned to the draw cup at a certain cost. There are also "splat" counters (*) that, along with X counters, have certain effects depending upon what combat phase it is. Of course, the types of units involved will have various effects as well, from column shifts to allowing different results. As mentioned above, some chits even have effects on initiative for the end of turn computation. For the most part it works very well, as you only return chits to the cup at the end of the turn. Thus, sometimes you want to pull chits just to hope that you'll get red results during the German turn in order to improve your odds of getting green chits during the counterattacks.

Strategic Focus: One particularly interesting idea is that as the German you decide where you put your emphasis at a strategic level. Depending upon who has the initiative, this will limit these choices to some extent. For example, if the Germans have initiative (or share it) they can put their efforts into tank production, or perhaps devastation (hampering industrial efforts). Later in the game, they are limited to putting up defensive works or putting their efforts into counterattacks. Many of these effects won't come into play unless specific event cards are drawn, so at times you may feel like you're just sending your wish list to Santa, but you want to be on the right focus when the card comes up. If you aren't a gambling person, you can always use the Logistics choice regardless of initiative and gain a point in your favor when you make the initiative computation.

Aside from a fairly wide range of possible events that make the game different every time (and fairly unpredictable), there are two other things that might turn people away from what is otherwise a very engaging title. The first is the difficulty in taking the three major cities in the game. If they're fortified, it requires considerable luck and a strong position, since you can't Blitz into them (and normal combat is once per unit). There are some players who say that they don't even bother because it's too much of a crap shoot and you're better off bypassing and surrounding, then trying to take the city. In my game, I was able to take and hold Moscow for a time, so it's definitely possible. I never got enough forces close to Leningrad to do this, although I did get one shot at Stalingrad.

The second problem is that the process by which you determine which Soviet Counterattack to do next is relatively cumbersome. You figure out which uncommitted German has the most Soviets next to it, then break ties based on which combat generates the best odds. In the mid game when there are a lot of units stretching across the board, this can get to be fairly painful. All I can say is that as you do it and internalize the column shift mods, it gets easier, but there's no question that the late game spends about half of play time managing this particular part of the AI. Which is a little strange as most of the scenarios that come with the game start at various points from 1943 on, meaning that you have a fairly limited set of choices compared to the early game. There are no scenarios for starting early and seeing how well you do, which I supposed can be justified by saying that this is what the AV conditions are meant to provide.

It's not that you don't have any choices near game end, you actually do because you make some choices in how Soviets advance and where, and you can create situations where the dreaded Guard Tank units end up being removed. This is intentional, but there's no question that getting your ass handed to you in the late game is nowhere near as fun as handing it to Stalin's boys early on.

In the end, TBC provides a certain amount of tradeoffs. To my knowledge, it's the only solitaire game covering the entire conflict. It plays relatively quickly, and most of the systems are very elegant. You get to make some strategic decisions that you just don't see in other games. The game also has a lot of very novel ways of doing things that might give you some new insight into the conflict.

On the down side, there's no question that the game is better suited to masochists in the late game. AI management can be a bit of a chore, especially later in the game. And, perhaps the most damning of all, this is a DTP component game with a professionally published game price. For some, getting past the components will be an issue, although I don't find them to be a real problem and I actually prefer to have games that take up less space on my shelves.

Again, the above is really more of a first impression than a hard review, so I urge you to use this as a data point rather than a strong recommendation. However, if you want a relatively small game that covers a lot of history in a short time and does it in a way you probably haven't seen before, and if you can adjust your expectations regarding component quality and price, there's a pretty cool little game here. While it won't take the place of the later States of Siege games from the same company in terms of how fast the game plays, at the same time I think you have a lot more say in how successful you are. And it's the whole freakin' Eastern Front, dude. Tell me what other game gets you from Brest-Litovsk to Stalingrad then back to Berlin in three hours.

Game on.