Thursday, January 28, 2010

Getting A Rise From Empires

I've made no bones about my unhappiness with Phalanx Games in this blog, especially their heavy handedness in development that leaves tons of rules questions and broken games in their path. I nearly avoided buying Conflict of Heroes because they were the US distributor. When it was announced that Martin Wallace was going to be publishing a game through them, Rise of Empires, I knew that eventually the game would come up for play in my group, and I'd see whether or not Phalanx had actually published a "good" game instead of another "kit" that required enormous amounts of designer support (as opposed to publisher support, which has historically been terrible from Phalanx, at least if you ask questions in English as opposed to Dutch).

Tuesday night was the night. Mike had gotten a copy, being a Wallace fan, and so it was that Alex, Greg, the often elusive Mark (gone from our ranks for too long), Mike, and myself gave this game a shot. While we were unable to finish the game, I have to say that there's a good game here.

I am one of those people who feels that perhaps Mr. Wallace has been putting out too many games lately, possibly with the intent of refilling his bank accounts after his well-publicized (and polarizing) issues with FRED and Winsome Games. I liked Automobile, especially after the second playing, and I hear good things about Last Train to Cheesetown (Wensleydale) although my single play of that title didn't produce the sort of enthusiasm that the 'Geek has had for it, possibly because of the number of players being suboptimal. The rest, however, I could take or leave and nothing has encouraged me to sign up for Treefrog's "bundles" prepublication.

To be fair, Rise of Empires (RoE) looks like another exercise in transforming actions to various currencies which eventually become VP if you're playing it right. During your turn, you devote one of your six action discs onto a track that lets you do one of five actions:

  1. Placing cubes on a map that expands over the course of the game via selection of Empire tiles;
  2. Taking a Territory tile representing a specific type of terrain;
  3. Buying a City tile for Gold, or a Wonder tile for a variety of costs;
  4. Spending Resource discs for VP or Gold (Trading), and;
  5. Taking a Progression tile that has a special mutant power, ongoing income effect, or one-time use.
Whoopee. Sounds like a lot of other Wallace games, doesn't it? You can even be competitive without ever being involved with the board itself, just the tiles that you select. There are even three Eras that you play through, with a set distribution of City/Wonder tiles per turn and set Progression tiles for a given Era, which consists of two turns (six turns total in the game). Empire tiles are different in the first Era, but otherwise are always the same and always known quantities. Territories are fully randomized through the first two Eras, and will all be exposed or taken by the third Era. 

Yet it was a very interesting game for one reason. Eras each have two turns, the A turn and the B turn. When you choose an action in the A turn, you take one of your six action discs and put it on a track for that action, going left to right. The tracks can fill up as the game moves ahead, preventing additional actions (similar to Chicago Express, but with many more spots in the track), and this also allows the game to scale by having different limits for differing numbers of players. 

When it gets to the B turn, however, you now will take actions by taking your discs *off* of the tracks instead of putting them on. That means that if you never bought a city in the A turn, you won't be able to buy one in the B turn. If you Traded in A but are out of resource disks in the B turn, you are going to waste a cycle, and Wallace games are all about efficient cycles. This forces a long-term approach to the game that requires everyone to understand what is coming up in terms of Cities and Progressions and what they do. Like all Wallace games, this one will take a few plays before you fully understand your choices.

Throw in the ability to "pick" your position based on VP position (worst chooses player position first), and there is tremendous opportunity to control your fate over the course of a couple of turns and set up for a strong finish. You also can only keep Cities and Progressions at the end of an Era (not a turn) by spending cubes and gold, respectively. Don't have any gold, like I failed to do at the end of the second Era, and all of those great progressions are gone with the winds of time. You also lose half (rounded *up*) of your cubes in any given area between eras. Make no mistake, this is a game that requires a certain amount of forethought or you will find yourself completely stalled. If you've played Wallace games, though, you know that's nothing new.

In our game, things were very tight after the second Era (as far as we got in three hours of play - the game is rated for 150 minutes, but it clearly takes longer with more players and we had the max) with Mike the only breakout player but one who looked to be stalling on the next turn. I was able to keep all of my cities but not my progressions, and my cube count had gone from 15 the previous turn to 6 in the next turn. Alex was looking to make a strong run based on a very aggressive cube placement strategy. 

I will also note that the credits list only Uli Blennemann as a developer, along with another person whose name I wasn't familiar with. Perhaps Phalanx has finally figured out that messing with game design solely because you think you can do better (as opposed to development as a process to make the game marketable and clearer) is a poor choice. I sure hope so, as I don't see *any* point in *any* publisher thinking that the market isn't very aware of what makes a good game. 

I should also note that while I did *not* read the rules in depth, we only found one situation where things weren't clear (as to whether or not you could place cubes in areas you already had cubes in in the New World or Far East with a non-water Empire tile - you can, although North and South America aren't adjacent). I can't think of a Phalanx game that was that well laid out in terms of rules. Most have had a particularly important rule that was particularly vague with little or no support from the publisher (Revolution, Alex the Great, Italia, all come to mind). It's nice to see that they can put out a good English ruleset where poor support won't be an issue, although I certainly hope they've improved in that category as well.

And I have *some* hope in that respect. After making a comment about poor support on the 'Geek, I was emailed by someone claiming to be Phalanx's new support guy, who asked why I had had such a bad experience. I sent back my reasons and never heard from him again, but I hope that my concerns were addressed (although it is a cardinal sin in the support world not to at the very least acknowledge that you've heard their concerns and will take them into consideration). If RoE is any indication, I am *very* hopeful that I can lift my ban on buying Phalanx products. I will almost certainly purchase RoE but will continue to "try before I buy" with Phalanx titles until such time as I feel they understand that a shiny box isn't enough to drive sales over an extended period of time. Here's hoping. 

Otherwise, I was very impressed with the game, and recommend it, with the caveat that this is definitely a gamer's game and one that you can expect to take about 45-60 minutes per player, so a five-player game is going to take a long time. I think we could have gotten through the game in another hour or so, although there is potential for significant min/maxing throughout the game and particularly at game end. If those aren't issues for you and your group, it's a winner.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Brief Review Of A Brief History Of The World

Not so much a review, really, just my initial impressions.

To start with, I've been a fan of A History Of The World (HotW) for some time. It was one of the first AH titles I snapped up when the company sold out to Hasbro in the late 90's, even though it wasn't really a game that was going to work well solitaire (and I was playing mostly solitaire at that time). I like to think I play that version competitively, and I find the Strength/VP paradigm in that game to be really excellent - you are rewarded for doing the most with the least, and on one occasion I very nearly won a game while simultaneously holding both the most VP and the least Strength for the entire game. The only thing that killed me as Britain in that last round was rolling three 1's on my leader card that I'd saved for the entire game. Sigh.

I have some experience with the later AH edition (the "Hasborg" edition), but I don't like it nearly as much, from the use of plastic figures (and different for every era) to the removal of the Strength element from the game. I also dislike the random bonus VPs you get, which encourages people to maximize points instead of trying to be a bit more subtle.

Now, the Ragnar Brothers, the original designers, have come up with a "brief" version of the game. Here are a few of the changes from the original AH edition:

  • Empires are distributed much differently. The person with the lowest VP gets N cards from the deck (where N is the number of players in the game), picks one, and passes it on. Simultaneously, the person with the highest VP gets their pick of N Event cards. It is now much easier to stick the leader with the crappy empire. 
  • Players get two Event cards at the start of the game, and they are all the same - Weaponry that lets you use four dice, and Leader with lets you use three.
  • Event cards almost all now cost VP to use! Also, you can use more than one a turn, but can't have more than one in play at a time (you have to lose that capability if it last the entire turn).
  • With the exception of the initial events, all other events are one era use only. I like this rule.
  • Combat is simplified. Attacker still rolls two dice, defender one, high roll wins, but you have to win by a differential of 2 if attacking forest or mountains. If the attacker wins by a higher differential, they can "overrun" the empire they initially attacked, removing adjacent units for one point unless in forest/mountains (2 points). If attacking by boat, the attacker loses one die. Straits are no longer significant terrain, they act as if normal adjacent territories. 
  • Forts let the defender roll two dice, and that area can't be overrun. 
  • In combat, if you fail an invasion, you can reinvade right away at +1 to your next roll. If that fails, you gain +2 on the next, and so on. In other words, persistence can pay off. If you invade something else then come back, you lose your bonus.
  • The map has been simplified in some areas. 
  • There are now six epochs instead of seven. Many of the "old" major empires have been demoted to minor Event cards, and at least one minor empire (Japan) has been promoted to major empire. 
  • There is no preservation of culture rule (which I learned to dislike anyway). 
  • Players use generic plastic counters, which are stood upright for the active empire and turned on their side after that empire is done. I think this was an excellent choice, as it lowers the bit count significantly (and thus price and box size), but still achieves what it sets out to do. 
  • You can't place multiple units in an area anymore (I think). 
  • Top three VP totals at the end of each epoch get bonus points, from 1-3. First player gets to pick from three tiles, then second, then third gets leftovers. 
  • The VP schedule for the various areas is slightly different and marked with tokens on the board instead of a chart. 
  • Some empires have special rules that apply only to them.
My expectation is that the new rules will shave about an hour off of playtime for six people. I have no idea if the game works well with a smaller number - one problem with the original AH edition is that it really only worked with six players (or three playing two empires each). 

I found the new combat system to speed things up once you got used to the various permutations. Overruns especially, although this also means that a big differential at the right time can be huge, thus adding a bit more of a luck factor. Of course, forts can be used to make overruns not nearly as effective since you can't advance into them.

The new empire distribution system seems like a good idea. If nothing else, you could be aiming for being one point behind the second or first place player rather than getting stuck with the crap empire for the turn. When the game is close early on, there is something to be said for being in last place. 

I really like event cards having a cost. Sure, you can use Weaponry for three VP your last turn as Japan, but is that really going to be worth it? This adds some nice decisions without forcing players to figure out when they can use a given Event card as in the original AH edition. 

The general strategy is still the same - try to get your units in out of the way places with a fort protecting them, and see if you can't sit there throughout the game. In my "test" game, Blue did this really well, with forts in Crete, the Upper Nile, Upper Indus, and Sumatra. That color won the game handily, despite being down to Purple on the final round by about 15 points. As usual, pulling out sequencing coups (last one turn, first the next) can bring a lot of points if you do it right. However, since even the first player to select an empire in a round will be missing at least one empire, that *might* screw up your plans if the first empire to go overlaps the last empire you played. 

HotW has a special place in my heart for a lot of reasons, but mostly just because I love the sweep of history as the Mongols focus on India, the Germans invade America, and the Portugeuse overrun Southern Africa. I still like the first AH edition the best despite it's flaws, but this one is a close second. However, given that one color got shut down early and never did catch up despite picking their empire first every turn, I have to wonder if there isn't a runaway loser/winner problem (although the winner of the game did score a ton of points, over 40, in the last round to outpace the Epoch 5 leader by about 30 points). I'm glad to see the game has a much smaller box and good bits, and I'm also happy to see a shorter playing time. If this will work better with four or five players than the previous editions, it may become my favorite simply because of that. 

And now the purple Romans from my Hasborg edition can rest easy knowing that there is very little chance they'll be called upon for a game - one of the few casualties my games have suffered from my dogs was about 10 of the little purple guys left on a table who became the Canine GI Tract Expeditionary Force, giving all of us a little bit of a start when we first discovered what had happened to them. That was some scary sh*t. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar: Driving Tech

Last night we watched James Cameron's latest blockbuster, Avatar, take the Best Director and Best Dramatic Film categories at the Golden Globes over what were very strong fields. I saw the film recently (on a 3D IMAX screen) and was struck by the effective use of 3D tech, perhaps for the first time. I'd seen only a handful of 3D films before (Coraline, Up), but this was the first time where I felt that the tech wasn't used just to drive sales for a kids movie, but as an overall enhancement of the film.

First, the usual bit of attitude. The story has been told a dozen times before in the last 20 years, perhaps the best example being Dances With Wolves, and I won't go into it other than to say that while there's nothing new here, the storytelling will still tug at your heart shamelessly. Cameron is not a man who does things in a subtle fashion.

The other thing that surprised me was that Cameron seems to have finally gotten away from the chase film. Aliens, Terminator 2, even Titanic - all were about someone who only wanted to be left alone but were constantly pursued by the bad guy/robot/alien killing machines. Of course, in Titanic the bad guy was Billy Zane with a gun, and they were trapped on a sinking ship, but Cameron stuck to what he knew. Avatar flirts with the genre, but in the end it's a clash of cultures film rather than a chase film, and thank goodness for that.

Like everyone else, I saw the movie on an IMAX screen at 0'dark:30, and I have to say that if you want a truly immersive experience, this is the way you should see it. Yes, it will be expensive - $35 for two people including the onerous but essential Fandango service charge. Welcome to the future of cinema, those IMAX projectors aren't cheap.

Even though we got to the theater 30 minutes before it started, the place was already more or less packed, and we ended up sitting near the back and to the side, although that wasn't a bad thing at all and considerably better than sitting in the very front (which filled up immediately after we got there). I recommend that you go a good 45 minutes to an hour ahead of time (depending upon the location and it's popularity in your area) to get a good seat. For us, the screen dominated but did not consume our field of vision, and I really can't say if it's better to have some anchor on reality in your peripheral vision or to have the screen be all you can really see.

I mentioned that this film made good use of the 3D tech. By this I mean that there were no real "gimmicks" thrown in to show off the tech like so many of these movies do. The preview for Shrek 4, for example, consisted of one character being hurled "into" the audience after another, while Avatar showed considerably more restraint. To be fair, the big battle scene at the end (and of course there is one, just be glad it didn't pit Ewoks against Stormtroopers) does have some spectacular footage that does exploit 3D, but you want *some* eye candy, and in this case it was applied somewhat sparingly.

At the same time, this isn't a movie like Up where the 3D was more of a "me-too" effect that didn't add a lot to the storytelling. Instead, the 3D in Avatar feels very natural and organic, providing both light *and* heat. Because the movie involves quite a bit of CGI animation throughout but combined with considerable "real" sets and actors, the 3D felt as if it were blurring the lines between the two and easing us into the elements of the alien world.

Love or hate Cameron (and after Titanic I swore I'd never watch one of his new movies again), he does some journeyman work here. While the story is a bit on the recycled side, and the writing is serviceable, it is the use of the camera that makes this a must-see film. If nothing else, Cameron uses angles and shots that are exactly what they should be for a given scene, and the use of the 3D effect in some places is quite exhilarating. For example, near the end of the film there is a shot that zooms in over a large gathering of aliens during a ritual that swoops down and takes in their outstretched fingers as it approaches the focal point. There are quite a few scenes that feature dust or embers floating in the air in the foreground where I could swear that something was about to land in my lap, and had the bottom edge of the screen not been in my lower field of vision I would have almost certainly felt it as well.

By the end of the film, I knew that we had all just bought new HD televisions only to be getting rid of them in three or four years for 3D TVs. And they are out there, just check the ads in your local newspaper. ESPN is already planning 3D broadcasts of live sporting events within the next few months. If you thought HD was going to clog your AV bandwidth, get ready for 3D. This will require ever more sophisticated compression techniques and/or fatter pipes (and thus different connection tech) to get what must be a simply incredible amount of data onto a screen from another location. And we won't even talk about Blu-Ray and whether or not 50 Gbs are enough to deliver this sort of experience, or whether that $100 player you scored over the holidays can be upgraded to play a 3D title.

Of course, I'm not talking about your grandpappy's red/green paper glasses 3D here. This is polarized 3D that requires expensive goggles for use in the home (the theater uses a passive system, but that requires expensive projectors, hence the increased cost of seeing 3D films), currently above the $150 mark per set of goggles.

However, the tech that this will *really* drive is that of fully immersive video, where you are *in* the picture in both a virtual and physical sense. Call it a holodeck, call it a holographic tank, that is where this tech will eventually take us. And that is what Avatar's legacy really is - it shows us what is possible and makes us want more and better.

The down side is that we are going to be subjected to an astonishing range of really bad 3D film trying to cash in on Avatar's success. Because Gigli wouldn't have been so bad had it been 3D, right? At least that is how the studios will see it. And the studios have to find a way to get people out of their living rooms and into theater seats, and 3D (and IMAX) are the current ways to do that. Avatar showed that you *can* make a movie that has broad appeal and is well made *and* uses 3D effectively and tastefully. It is a proof of concept that will be cited over and over in script/movie pitches for the next five years.

The other down side is that this won't be a movie that will satisfy in the home theater setting, at least for the vast majority of us. Remember Jurassic Park, and how cool it was in the theater and what a dud it was when you got it home to your 27" CRT? Yeah, it'll be like that. So if you want to see this movie in it's natural environment, suck it up, pay the exorbitant fee to go see it (more than most Blu-Ray discs for a party of two!) and marvel at what you'll be able to do in your own home in 10 years. Because that's what this movie has done - make us buy yet another television.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Give Me Steam

I've owned Age of Steam for several years, but wasn't quick enough to pick up the various "official" maps (I have some of the third party stuff, however). Even so, when I learned that Martin Wallace was going to put out a new edition of AoS, now called "Steam," because of copyright issues, I wasn't really sure I wanted to put down yet more money for what seemed to be more or less a straight reprint. After all, the only significant rules change is that you don't draw cubes randomly anymore, they're all known quantities at the start of the game. Although, for anyone who's heard my opinion of Agricola, that would be a very big change indeed as it was the wacky random element in what was otherwise a very strategic game with little luck involved.

Then I got a chance to play with Mike and Matt G before Christmas, and I liked it enough that I not only bought the base game, but also the Steam Baron expansion, which adds two maps (both suitable for five or six players) as well as a stock market option.

And so it was that when Matt R, Matt G, Patrick, JD, Mike, and myself sat down to play a game at our regular Tuesday evening session, it was the Eastern US map that came out. Would the game be interesting enough that downtime wouldn't be an issue? Would the board be so crowded that we couldn't get anything done? And would we use the player discs, or the player choo-choos?

In the last case, that was easy. Use the choo-choos! Woo Wooooo!

This map has a couple of twists. Most obvious are the addition of mountains, which are essentially hills but add 3 to the cost of building track. Also, there are several cities which are adjacent to each other, and some towns that can be upgraded to cities that are could be adjacent. You build "track" between these for $3 and put a train between the two to denote the route. Funny, as it's actually *cheaper* in many cases to just use a tight turn tile (if available). Finally, you can't just build from anywhere - you must build from a port city or from a city/town that has been connected to a port city through anyone's track. Of course, you can always extend your own track as well.

The early round started with Matt R building in the four-city block near NY/Philly, Mike starting in Chicago, and Matt G beginning in the Deep South in Charleston. The rest of us all built right around Chicago, which in retrospect was a smart move - lots of room to branch out without a lot of hills/mountains. Interestingly, there were very few grey cubes on the board or in the placement boxes, and only two were built the entire game.

The game lasts for seven turns, and it took us a full three hours to play (after I missed the part where we were only to place two cubes in each city and placement box). During that time, I ended up heading toward the NE up the St. Lawrence River. Mike headed to the NW corner, JD straight west, Matt G cut across the southern edge of the board (with me tossing in a couple of links there as well), and Patrick headed more or less SW.

The entire trick to this game is simply to build a route that you know you can sustain throughout the entire game. That means sometimes picking cubes to deliver that only net you a single point in order to leave other cubes around to be picked up later. Of course, sometimes people can sneak into a city and nab the cubes you thought were safe, but in this game (as in my previous one) I was able to play this aspect of the game well for the most part.

To illustrate my point, here are two situations that came up during the game. One was Patrick meticulously building a four-link route to move a cube from a city I was also in. There was a one-link route that allowed me to move that same cube, and after a little counting of spaces, I figured that I'd need that one point (but nowhere near as much as Patrick needed that cube - it was his only move for the turn, sadly). As it turned out, I probably could have lived without taking that cube, but as I'd won by one point over both Matt G and Mike in my previous game, I figured every point was important.

The second situation came up in the sixth turn. Matt R was making move toward the St. Lawrence and Buffalo, which I had been eyeing for a turn or two. When it came time to bid for turn order, I found myself forced to either bid high for first and not have enough money to build that track, or hope Matt missed it and do something different. As it was, Matt got busy south of Philly to prevent Matt G from moving up and I managed to snag the city and the 4-point yellow cube there. It also allowed me to build an extra link down toward NYC on the last turn of the game. Those links are important, as they all equal one point at game end.

However, it was Mike who ran away with the game. Managing not to move a goods cube more than three links, he beat me by four points for the win. I felt very good about my second place finish, especially as I felt I had struggled to get the routes I had. Matt R was behind me by two measley points, Matt G behind him by a like margin, and JD back a few more points. Poor Patrick, who lost any improvement in position at all on that one turn (which I'm feeling increasingly bad about) and also was in the most crowded part of the board.

I can't speak for JD or Patrick, but the rest of us felt it was a very interesting game, other than Matt G who I think would have preferred a three-player game instead as he felt stuck in the South. The time flew by for me, and every turn, while fairly tactical to some degree, was also fraught with planning and adjusting those plans. For example, I took a chance on that sixth turn to go last and hope I could get to Buffalo but gaining the "pass" token that helped me take first place on the all-important last turn. And it was important because I wanted to get those last couple of links in to hold onto second.

Now I've played the southern Germany and eastern US maps from the new sets, and I'm very pleased with them. I'm also happy to hear that my pre-Steam maps are easily adapted (you really only need some way to hold the additional placement goods cubes and how many to use). I'm also delighted that the game seems to play well with any number. It's a popular system with my group (as is the 18xx series), and I'm hoping that the stock market game is as good. And you can even play it with light-to-medium weight gamers by using the "Base" rules that take away the bidding mechanism, which is *always* the most difficult to figure out effectively in almost any game.

Great stuff. I highly recommend the new set even if you have the old one, although to be fair you could probably get by with the old sets and online rules for adapting the old maps. However, wouldn't you rather help a bloke out with his legal bills and put a little money in Martin Wallace's pocket?

There, that should start a flame war.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Gaming Goals Geeklist 2010

Here is a link to my gaming goals for 2010 in a BGG Geeklist. Feel free to comment on that site rather than this one if you have specific comments about a goal.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Blockade Heads

Some of you by now may have heard that a group of Americans traveling (legally) to Cuba near Christmas were turned back and refused entry to the country. The group, under the aegis of a non-profit group called Cuba AyUUda (Cuba Helps), had a few members put on an aircraft back to Cancun, while the rest, including a couple of 70-year-olds, were detained in a room at the airport overnight with no seating and no beds before being sent back the next day when there was space on the next scheduled flight.

This group, based in Portland, OR, has been traveling legally to Cuba since 2003 under a Religious Activities license. It was formed after a choir from the First Unitarian Church of Portland toured there in early 2003 and the director and his wife decided that this was just the start of what could be an effort to build bridges between the people of the two countries. Since then, there have been several trips to Cuba, every one an attempt to not only help different aspects of Cuban life, but also to help the travelers gain an understanding of what life in Cuba is like.

I have a certain amount of insight because my wife is the vice-president of Cuba AyUUda (the UUs stand for Unitarian Universalism), both of us went on the 2003 choir trip, and she has co-led four trips there since. This is not a pro-democracy group trying to overthrow the Castro regime. This is not a group trying to smuggle in things they aren't supposed to, talk to people they aren't supposed to, etc. This is a group that is simply trying to make life a little better for a country that has alternated between a de facto American colony and a country run by thugs, not unlike many of the countries in Latin America.

When we heard that this particular group had been detained, a quick Internet search showed the primary reason - a US contractor (unassociated with our group) had been arrested for working to break the "information blockade" by distributing computers and cell phones to pro-democracy groups in Cuba. His arrest on Dec 5, 2009, was not reported in the US until Christmas Eve, the day the Cuba AyUUda group left. While we are still uncertain as to the exact motivations of the Cuban government in detaining and refusing entry to our group, it isn't hard to connect the dots and realize that they were probably refusing entry to Americans of all stripes. Since it is very difficult to obtain *any* license for US citizens to travel to Cuba from the US government, it's possible that this was the first legitimate US group to try to enter the country after the Cubans decided to bar them. Interestingly, attempts to contact the Cuban Council of Churches, a requirement to enter the country for religious work, were met with silence.

Also interestingly, my wife's most recent trip returned on Nov 22, 2009, only five weeks before. This could have easily been my wife's trip instead, with her in the middle of international saber rattling.

Every authoritarian government needs someone to point to in order to frighten it's people and distract from it's own shortcomings. For Hitler it was the Jews. For the Arabs, its the Israelis. For the Americans, it's Islamic terrorists. For the Cubans, it's the Americans. And the thing that has allowed them to use the Americans as bogeymen for the past 50 years is the economic blockade.

In other words, our political stance toward Cuba gives them every excuse in the world to make us an object of hatred. The blockade, in short, bolsters the Cuban government.

And the only thing keeping the US from dropping what has gone beyond a sick joke and into collaboration with the "enemy" is Floridian electoral politics during presidential elections. Because that's where the Cuban ex-pats, what I call the "Miami Relatives" after those who tried to prevent a Cuban child from being reunited with his birth father after his birth mother died, hold the swing votes in a state with 21 electoral votes, which in 2000 and 2004 was enough to determine who ended up becoming president.

The ironic thing is, the blockade is what helps keep the Castros in power (now Raul, as Fidel is clearly on life support, if he's alive at all). Like all blockades, it hurts the common citizen much more than it does those in power, who can get whatever they need. Since the Cubans are used to a certain amount of deprivation after the withdrawal of the Soviets in the early 90's (a period in which they nearly starved with no assistance from us), and the rest of the world flocks to Cuba as a tourist destination, it's kind of ridiculous.

And let me assure you, Cuba is not what anyone would consider a threat. It's not even a threat to Haiti. Cars and gasoline are scarce enough that there is a system of cooperative hitchhiking in place in order to get from one part of the island to another. When we were there, I even saw military *officers* hitchhiking. While Cuba might have been heavily militarized during the Cold War, those days are 20 years in the past and there are no more Soviet military advisors sending Cubans to fight in proxy wars anymore. Cuba is about three thousand items down the list of serious threats to the US, far below rabid partisanship, willful ignorance, and tort law. I believe the TSA is a bigger threat.

In fact, I believe that the blockade is all that's keeping the current form of government in place in Cuba. Take away the blockade, flood the country with American tourists looking for Cuban cigars and rum, and you'd find that proximity would result in a flood of information that would destroy any grip the current government has on it's people. As an example, just look at the current situation in Iran, where attempts to control unrest over what appears to be a fraudulent election by controlling the flow of information is failing, and badly.

But every two years in the US is an election year, and even the mid-terms where we don't elect a president are now critical when the party not in power wields the threat of filibuster even when the majority party appears to have an overwhelming majority, and everyone up for election within two years (the vast majority of Congress) doesn't want to be seen as "soft on Communism" at a point in history when the only real Communist threat is now North Korea (China has long since decided that it's own interests are more important than being ideologically pure, as seen by their emerging capitalist economy).

And so we persist in giving the Cuban leadership exactly what they want for Christmas every year, like a parent who placates a child that screams every time that child has the slightest desire. The time to have lifted the blockade would have been immediately after Obama took office, although everyone at the time thought that the Republicans would spend a little time regrouping instead of deciding to fight every decision made in the new White House, even when the same decision had been made by the previous Republican administration. That time is gone, however, but there is still time to lift the blockade before the mid-terms start in earnest. Because once the mid-terms are over, we start the next two-year presidential election cycle and the opportunity will have been lost to the Miami Relatives once again. Although, to be fair, it seems they *never* forget a slight.

At the very least, however, giving them a little time to see what sort of effect the lifting of the blockade would have might change their minds. Maybe.

Yes, Cuba is a country with a crumbling infrastructure, cars that were either produced in the US in the 50's or Russian models (although there are a lot of Mexican imports like what was once the Ford Fiesta), and rampant corruption - I had a Cuban try to sell me cigars under the table *during* a tour of a cigar factory, and in *front* of the tour guide. However, I believe that to a large extent, much of these shortages are due more to decisions made by the Cuban government than by the blockade.

The sad thing is that the lifting of the blockade will almost certainly begin the erosion of those few positive things that the Revolution brought to Cuba - universal education, universal health care, the best literacy rate in Latin America, and independence from any superpowers. Lifting the blockade will, in time, destroy all of those bright dreams. Yet education and literacy are stifled when you aren't allowed to freely exchange information (although from the tenor of political discussion in this country, you'd never guess that the US has free speech), and health care is of little use if the rest of your life is spent making sure that you aren't pissing off the government and being forced into years of hard labor because you tried to make a little money on the black market when what the government provided wasn't enough.

I also fear for those Cubans who have worked with Cuba AyUUda, including one woman who was there when Fidel took Havana and very happy about it (and still is), another man who saw the end of Soviet patronage and the resulting chaos, and a younger woman who has seen the Cuban tourism revival and subsequent erosion of living conditions over the past decade. I sincerely hope that their work to help Cubans is not seen as counter-Revolutionary and that their lives are not affected negatively as a result.

Right now, the best thing we can do for the Cuban people is to remove the travel restrictions and economic sanctions as a whole between the two countries. Cuba may put their own restrictions out there, but they will no longer be able to scapegoat the US as the source of their problems if we're not the ones keeping them down. I urge the President and all members of the US Congress to think about the Cuban people instead of their own reelection for long enough to lift this blockade. Both we and Cuba will be better for it.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Gaming Goals for 2010

2010 already. It seems like I was just watching 2001 at midnight of that year right after the ball dropped! So much has happened during that time, not the least of which has been the resurgence of my wargaming hobby. While I did some collecting and playing during the 80's and 90's, it was the formation of Rip City Gamers and meeting all of the great people in this group that has given me the best opponents I could ask for.

I've thought about my goals for the year quite a bit, and have come to the conclusion that very specific goals are almost certain to fail, while more general goals are more likely to be successful. There are exceptions, such as planning to attend specific events, but even then.

A case in point: One of the things I decided I wanted to do this year was go back to WBC in Lancaster, PA. The last time I went was in 2003, and it seemed like it was a very doable goal. However, my experiences with going through airport security and the cost cutting the airlines are doing has put the very idea of airline travel in doubt for me. That means I would most likely have to drive, which is a very long way to go to play some games. If I'm unwilling to drive an hour one way to play games for three hours, then it seems like driving four days in one direction to play games for seven days is equally out of the question.

As such, I've decided to go for more generic goals. Some are held over from last year, which I'll note in the specific goal. Some are brand new. Some overlap with other goals, although when possible I'll try to keep the two separate.

With that in mind, here are my goals for the year, in order of the categories Track, Learn, Play, Help. As before, I will track these with a GeekList, which I'll post the address to in a later post once it's up, and anyone crazy enough to care can see how I'm doing.

  1. Track My Games Played. There are several people in my group who do this already, but in this case I plan to use the 'Geek system, at least to start. My goal is not to see how well I do gaming, but instead to be able to look back and see my gaming year in retrospect. 
  2. Log My Collection In The Geek. In the past, I've viewed this a bit as a "mine is bigger" activity, and I guess that somewhere in the back of my head I want to get in on this, but the real reason is to  get a better grasp on just how ridiculous this collection is. It's not one of the bigger collections out there, but it's sizeable enough to have an effect on my life in general, and this is a good way to decide if I simply have too many games. Which I do. At present this goal is limited to wargames and multiplayer strategy games, we'll see how I feel once I've gotten all of those entered in before I make any commitments to the others. 
  3. Learn And Play Four Wargames That Have Sat On My Shelf For More Than Ten Years Untouched. That means anything I've owned since before 2000, which in turn means either GMT Games or late AH titles that I picked up when they went under. To qualify, I need to have never even set the game up (although pretty much all of my games have been punched at this time except the very new ones). I'll elaborate on this more in a future posting.
  4. Learn A New Wargame System. By "new" I mean "new to me," not "new to the world". Possible systems include Advanced Tobruk System, Musket & Pike, Federation Commander, Tactical Combat System. I also mean something I haven't even read rules for yet, mostly just to make the choice easier. ASL sits on the cusp and I'm not sure it's realistic anyway, but I'm not excluding it just yet. 
  5. Learn the full Conflict of Heroes system. This is an easy one, as I'm planning to run a CoH event at GameStorm in late March. This is a holdover goal from 2009
  6. Play one full solitaire wargame each month. By solitaire, I mean games that are specifically intended to be played solitaire. That doesn't necessarily mean to completion, it just means that at the end of each month I will put the game back in the box and move on to something else. For shorter games such as the VPG catalog, I will probably play the game multiple times or else simply leave the game out of the lineup. Ongoing campaigns such as my B-29 online game don't count. First up will be RAF, playing the full campaign game. 
  7. Play a full campaign of Fields of Fire. This coincides with #6 above, but is intended to be separate. Since a full campaign could take a couple of tries at each mission, the entire campaign could take as many as 20-30 individual missions. I will almost certainly play the Normandy campaign to keep the rules questions to a minimum. Technically, this is an extension of last year's Play a full campaign game goal that went unmet. This game *has* been cleaned up, right? Especially wrt flares/colored smoke? 
  8. Play a monster game with teams. This goal is also from 2009, foiled by both the legal system and a poorly chosen OCS scenario at WBC West last May. This will probably be an OCS game, but I have some high hopes for The Battle For Normandy, which hit my doorstep late in 2009. Either way, I feel like I have a better ability to help choose a good scenario as opposed to last year when I was clueless. 
  9. Promote the hobby. I'm already doing this by putting on a Conflict of Heroes event at GameStorm (see above), but I'm hoping to find other ways of doing this. There are a lot of wargamers in Portland, but there doesn't seem to be a community at large, just a lot of small groups or individuals doing what they're doing. Western Oregon Wargamers died out about the time I got back into wargaming, and I'm not saying that a dedicated venue is the answer (although necessary if you want long-term games set up), but that might be a starting point for my thinking. I'm also looking at this from a longer view, in that I don't expect to get a lot done this year. Perhaps setting up league gaming at the handful of stores in the area that still support wargaming (Bridgetown Hobbies in inner NE, Hobbytown USA in Wilsonville - are there *any* others left?), although the preorder system has largely killed retail sales of wargames everywhere. I'm very interested in feedback on this. 
  10. No Goal Here. This one is just a shout out to Tom Vasel. Anyone who remembers my short run as Mr. Whiney on The Dice Tower might remember my bitching about Top 10 Lists. On principle, I'm sticking to nine! 

Friday, January 01, 2010

When Dreams Come True

Just back from visiting in-laws in Hawaii for the holidays. Who knew that they'd fill an aircraft leaving Honolulu at 11:55pm on New Year's Eve?

Anyway, I have to share this because it's just so cool.

I have a lot of recurring dreams. Some are pretty stock items, like the one where I'm back in college/high school/grad school and it's finals week and I realize that there's a class I forgot to take or blew off and that I'm not going to graduate as a result. I started having that one when I was 22 and about to graduate from college for the first time. Fortunately, as time has gone on, I've gone from this being a stress/panic dream to a "who the frak cares?" dream.

Another recurring dream that comes up about once every four or five months is the "found a game store that had a ton of games I'd never heard of" dream. Sadly, I almost always wake up before I actually *buy* anything from this store, but I always kind of look forward to them. One of the features of this dream is that there are some really extreme games in it, whether it's boxes that measure 4' (yes, feet) by 3' by 2" (yes, that's 2 inches), to games with dinosaurs with various weaponry strapped to them, represented on cardboard chits by silhouettes. Yes, it's that detailed. The dream is always at a different store, and there are always different games. Everyone I've told about this dream thinks I'm crazy, even gamers, who say they've never had the dream.

Rewind to 2001. We are visiting in Hawaii, and we have a rental car that three different people are using. I look up a game store located not too far from where we're staying, near Aloha Stadium (near the airport in Honolulu). I have about 90 minutes to go check it out, but because of construction and the fact that this is Hawaii, the state that built an *interstate* freeway that took 20 years because they started from two different ends and didn't actually *meet* in the middle, I had about 5 minutes at the store once I got there. It looked like a pretty cool store with a lot of wargames, but I just didn't have time to look, didn't have a cell phone to call home and see if I could extend my deadline, and figured we'd be back.

2003. We're back. The store isn't. Crap. A little research on ConSimWorld tells me that the store went out of business not long after I was there. Crap.

2009. We're back again, and I figure that maybe there's *another* store now. After all, there are military bases all over the place, and this place was pretty close to Pearl Harbor. A search on Google Maps shows a bunch of video game places, and one place with a fairly promising name, not too far from where that first store had been. It's pretty close to Christmas, though, so no time to go until after the holiday.

Then I get busy, as we decide it's time to upgrade my father-in-law's aging television (which we bought as a present for him in 1997. Really). We order a new 42" TV and Blu-Ray player from Best Buy and pick it up on the 26th, but the store clearly makes it's profit selling extravagantly priced cabling. 10' Ethernet cables for $60? Forget it.

On the 27th, my wife has a bunch of friends over, and one of them suggests checking Home Depot over near Ala Moana (plus we have to go there to get an HD-capable cable box anyway). We get a much cheaper cable, and are heading home. My father-in-law tells me to turn on Kalihi Blvd to get back to the freeway, and I think that this sounds familiar. As if every freakin' street in Hawaii doesn't sound like someone is trying to talk through a jaw that's wired shut. We pull over onto a street to see if the game store is in the area, and in fact I'm two blocks away. It's open, a tiny shop in an industrial area, and my father-in-law generously allows me to stop by "for a minute".

We walk in, and I ask the owner if he has any wargames. He mentions Axis and Allies, and my hopes sink. Then he takes me into the back where there are piles and piles and piles and piles and piles of wargames, many of which I've never seen.

I wet my pants immediately.

Two hours later, we leave. One day later, I come back because the box he gave me still has room for more games, conveniently the ones I put back in a feeble attempt to show some self-control. I end up shipping the box full of games (about 14, of which three come back in my luggage after I jettison most of the clothing I brought) via UPS. They will arrive at my house on Tuesday.

As a side note, the owner tells me that it used to be an even better selection, but four years ago a couple of lawyers from Michigan (really) came in and bought out his supply of OCS titles. Had I found a copy of Hube's Pocket, I may have had an aneurysm on the spot.

It turns out that this was the same guy, and for the most part the *same games* that I'd seen eight years before. Apparently he'd burned out on retail and quit for a while, then reopened the new store in 2005. This place was crazy. I didn't even get into the stock of S&T magazines he had, too much time trying to sort through the hundreds of games he had. And there were tons of models and movie memorabilia as well. In fact, I had to sign the credit card slip on the register itself because there was no flat surface that didn't have something on it.

I should also mention that there were even more euros laying around, many of which I'd never heard of. I decided to focus on the wargames.

I literally spent the entire time digging through piles of games, then saying, "oooooo"! Repeat. Frequently.

So what did I score? Copies of Central America and the 3rd ed Gulf Strike from Victory Games. Europa Universalis and Hispanola from Azure Wish. Bastogne or Bust from Terran games, which Randy Heller called the "best Bulge game out there by far". Edelweiss from Clash of Arms, on the Caucasus campaign of '42. Operation Mercury, an early GMT title. Hunters from the Sky and Leros from the TCS series. Duel for Kharkov from CoSim, a company I'd never heard of with *German* text on the box! And a couple more things as well.

Did I mention that every one of these games was unpunched? The boxes may not have been in the best shape, but everything that was supposed to be in the box was and in pristine condition. You cannot imagine how cool it was to open up Central America and smell that late-80's VG smell.

While the rest of the trip had it's ups and downs (particularly the battle-zone like ambience when you have a bunch of people who are *really* determined to celebrate Chinese New Year with firecrackers the size of AMC Gremlins - on an hourly basis from about Halloween on, and I'm not making this up - by the time we left I was surprised the windows weren't being blown out by the concussive charges going off every two or three minutes), and I may have finally reached a point with the TSA where I simply am not going to tolerate the crap air travellers have to go through just so that that particular agency can claim that the next attack wasn't *their* fault, but this NYE will live in my memory as "that" year when "that" dream came true in a big way.

Happy New Year to all, and may your (good) dreams come true as well.