Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Out Of The Box - iPad Human Factors

I alluded in my last post that I was less than thrilled with some of the iPad's "human factors" and I'll talk about that and my other thoughts on using this device in this post.

First, let me say that the iPad is a slippery little guy. While I have yet to drop it, holding it feels a little like it's right on the verge of jumping out of my hands at times. This is nothing new - both the iPod Classic and iPhone are like that for me, and I use a case to both make the devices easier to handle as well as protect them were they to fall.

With the iPad, I ordered Apple's cloth case, largely because it would double as a stand for propping the iPad up if necessary. However, they were on backorder for much longer than the iPad itself, and I won't have one in my hot little hands (or around my iPad) for about another week. In the meantime, I'm nervous that the case won't be as protective to falls as it's cloth rather than plastic or neoprene. I may end up with a bigger and less useful case (in the functional sense rather than the coliision with the floor sense).

I'm also very nervous about the screen getting scratched. The default wallpaper screen already shows falling stars which look *very* much like scratches, which I quickly swapped out after three or four false alarms. I clean the screen three or four times a day and am very careful, but I'm not going to truly relax until I've gotten a screen protector, preferably something that also helps take care of the glare caused by the uber glossy screen. However, most of the info I'm reading online is that it's very difficult to get a screen protector on without significant bubbles and even then they tend not to work very well, either making the touch functionality less effective or simply not staying put.

Regardless, I'm going to need something if this is going to get used frequently during the day. I can't imagine leaving it around kids or in a dusty environment for very long, if at all.

Second, I want to be clear that the device does not feel flimsy. Not at all. In fact, it may be just a bit *too* robust. Holding the iPad in a reading position in bed can become tiring after 20 minutes or so, and I consider myself to be in passable physical shape. The iPhone requires less struggle to keep it "up", but does require more of a "pinching" effort with the index finger and thumb, while the iPad needs extra effort to keep it from tipping forward or backward because of the weight. It's comparable to a hefty trade paperback book in terms of weight, which I had to start using a lap desk to hold upright in bed last year. The device is clearly intended for use on a lap or in hand, and weight is something that will have to be addressed in the near future. I expect that they'll move to a plastic backing rather than the existing metal, although I'm about 90% sure that the metal backing is currently a heatsink for the device. Which in turn makes me wonder if a rubberized case would defeat the heat transfer properties.

I should be very clear that the iPad is *not* a space heating device, as are most laptops these days, especially those from Apple. It is cool to the touch during operation - most of the heat in a laptop comes from the drive and the power supply, and the ten hour lifespan should give you an idea of how little energy this device requires.

Speaking of battery life, while I have yet to drive the iPad to shut down due to a lack of power, I have gotten it below the 20% threshold where it warns you that the device is very low on power. While I wasn't keeping exact records, I estimate that I used the device for a good 8 to 10 hours during the day with six or seven connections into the computer to load new software or to rearrange the app layout (I'm a bit anal about that - can't have the prime apps on the game page!) I'm convinced that I could get an easy 8 hours of video, more than enough for an airplane trip anywhere other than Asia.

Getting back to the screen protector issue, I am also a bit concerned that I'll lose some of the Bang! factor if I use a protector. While glare is indeed an issue, at the same time the screen is so pleasant to use in low light situations that I'm hesitant to screw it up. My 54" plasma TV is the same way - it's almost unwatchable if the shades are open during the day, but so so so gorgeous at night or if you close the blinds. Astonishingly, reading comic books online (I use the Comics app, which includes a lot of Marvel stuff, but sadly no DC and hence no Vertigo titles at this time) is a *more* pleasant experience than reading them in their physical form, even the ones with good quality paper. Colors pop, lines are sharp, and if the text is occasionally too small to read for my aging eyes, I can always zoom in. And no more long boxes.

And that's really where the iPad is going to take us, to the paperless office. I have no interest in buying a physical book anymore, anymore than I want to buy a CD if I don't have to. While DRM and physical backup issues will take some time to sort out to everyone's satisfaction, it's pretty clear that the days of physical media are very near their end. Imagine - no newspapers, no magazines, no books, no comics, just iPads or other readers and storage. Time to deinvest in those Hearst timber holdings in Mexico and time to invest in hard disk recovery services, because that's where we're going. Like I said before, I'm suddenly living in the future.

As for the software keyboard, I've used it both in landscape and portrait mode. There are issues, especially in portrait mode when the keyboard is much smaller. I cannot touch type in portrait mode - I constantly hit the shift and numeric shift keys and find myself going back and retyping, which is non-trivial as you need to physically place the cursor and that's much more time consuming on a touch-based screen. I resort to two-finger typing in portrait. Landscape is better, but when your return key is under your right pinkie and every time you type an "ar" combination it comes out "awr", it's still not perfect. I would use Dragon or other voice-to-text software in a note-taking situation, despite the fact that I think that the act of note taking itself reinforces the learning process better than any other single action. That said, this is new to me and I suspect that with some further experience I'll get so I've retrained my hands to not rely so heavily on the tactile feedback of a more traditional keyboard. Even those little nubs under the F and J keys are so comforting.

At this point I suppose it would be a very good time to remember that this is a first-gen device. Remember when iPhones didn't have GPS? I still have one of those. I suspect that we'll see a lighter and cheaper device in about a year, and I'm OK with that - mine has been well worth what I paid for it so far, and I expect that after WBC West I'll have an even higher opinion. The first iPods that came out were 5Gb and $500 and about twice as big as the current 160Gb version that costs $225 now. I'm just delighted to be on the bleeding edge and thrilled to be here. For now, this is the device I'll use on a daily basis, just like I use my iPhone, but as a home appliance and occasional professional tool (I can already see me using this as a lyric server with the band, possibly as an instrument if they produce good ones and things that I can hook up via a USB or MIDI cable).

I'll go into more depth on the software as I get to know the various apps better. Especially implementations of board games, which have so far been a lot of fun. Particularly intriguing but also particularly intimidating to me (for some reason) is Mu, which has an iPad native version. Now I really want to see Tichu...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Out Of The Box - iPad Edition

I've been playing with my iPad for a few days now, having downloaded a bunch of different apps, and I thought I'd give my initial impressions. This is not a detailed review, but rather how I feel about the device and the software that's available for it. Keep in mind that I already own about seven different Apple-branded iStuff devices, and that I'm still definitely in the "honeymoon" period with the iPad. That said, here's how things have gone so far.

First of all, welcome to the future. Perhaps this is how my parents felt when VCRs came out (they are/were a bit older than me, forty+ years in fact). When I'm using the iPad, I feel like I'm on the command deck of the Enterprise. I've had an iPhone for a couple of years, and it made me wish that I'd had one of them back in my grad school days, but the iPad (even with the same OS) feels like I finally got my freakin' jet packs and vacation homes on the moon. I'm not sure if it's the speed or the size of the surface that does it for me, but I know that it's almost as cool as just grabbing and rearranging data kernels in a holotank.

Second, I spent about 15 minutes with the iPad at a local mall on Sunday between my Gamestorm meeting and my choir concert while waiting for Mel to go pick up a couple of things in a store. Every person who walked by was either whispering, "That's one of those new iPads!" or coming right up and asking if they could watch for a bit. I felt like the coolest kid in school.

Third, I'm impressed with the apps so far. I've run a few things that are iPhone-specific (Weather Bug, Catan, etc), and they look suitably grainy when bumped up to 2x size for display (although Catan is very playable, it just feels old-skool). The stuff that's in HD specifically for the iPad, like Labyrinth 2, are extremely smooth and amazing to look at. Even the perspective changes as you tilt the iPad, very obvious with the walls in particular. Motion is very fluid, and it's downright astonishing how good the feel is. The same goes for The Pinball, which will allow you to watch the action either in a "pan and scan" mode where the screen follows the ball, or in a fixed mode where you can see the entire table. All that's required to change from one view to another - change the orientation of the iPad.

Here's a brief (and incomplete) list of the various apps I've downloaded. It's a lot of apps, but I wanted to get as representative an example of apps as I could.

Good Reader - I've barely scratched the surface of this app, which I'm using to read PDFs, particularly game rulesets. I'm finding that the size is a little too small for me to read a single page in portrait mode, but the zooming features work pretty well and GoodReader has tap zones that let you move around easily. The file management tools are also quite acceptable and useful.

Kindle - Integration with the iPhone (read a book one place, you pick it right back up on the other device) is fantastic. I expect iNook and similar readers to be just as good or better.

Netflix - Streaming video looks great. I have yet to get through an entire video, though, so no idea if my iPad is one of the ones with lock-up problems that I've read about online.

StreamToMe - Netflix from your personal video library. Again, very smooth, and considerably better than the PS3's streaming. This app does require a server app running on the host computer, but that's not a huge problem. Also nice - you can watch non-Quicktime formats with this app, as opposed to the Videos app that comes with the iPad.

PrintCentral - Haven't tried it out yet, I'm afraid. It also requires a server app. I guess it also provides dropbox functionality as well, also untried as of yet. Once I stop buying apps every few minutes I guess I'll start using that too.

Pianist Pro - As a musician, I need a pitch generating tool, this works quite well and has a lot of configurability. It's also the most expensive of the piano apps for the iPad.

Korg iElectribe - Emulator of a mid-00's beatbox. Actually something I'd consider using professionally, were I in a band that could use it instead of a 70's guitar-based classic rock cover band. Even has the tubes light up as you increase amp distortion! Hilarious, and very cheap at $10.

Crosswords - Expensive at $20, but the crosswords are free. You can't get the *new* NY Times crosswords, but I'm not sure what the difference is between the new ones and the "classic" puzzles you can get from ten years ago unless you really want to have clues covering brand new celebrities. The best reason to bring the iPad into the bathroom with you.

Games: Mu (untried), Money (AI only), Labyrinth 2 (awesome), Dungeon HD (very cool so far, even the virtual joystick), The Pinball, Solitaire City (great feel), Babo Crash (Bejeweled clone, perhaps my favorite game yet on the iPad).

Other stuff: Cool Wallpapers for some really great screens, Pages (passable word processing), Numbers (unused yet), NPR (little used as of yet), Comics (best way to read comics, hands down), Soundhound, Pandora Radio, etc.

Next time I'll discuss some of the human factors of using the iPad, and you'll be amazed to learn that it's not a perfect tool IMHO.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The iPad Has Landed

I've spent about 6 hours with my iPad since it arrived this morning, and so far so good. I'm totally digging it for searching PDFs, for streaming movies off of my hard drive as well as via Netflix, the games are pretty cool so far (Labyrinth 2 HD - the walls change perspective as you tilt the iPad!, along with a few other things), and I've rediscovered comic books too.

On a practical note, I'm planning to take this with me to the GameStorm meeting on Sunday and see how well it works as a note-taking device. I do not yet have a way to prop the thing up effectively, so I may just lay it on the table and see what happens.

Mike showed me a 2-player version of SmallWorld, which I'm passingly interested in, but if anyone is aware of any other Euro-style boardgames that have been implemented on the iPad, that would be awesome.

This is a busy weekend for me, so I won't be doing a huge amount of work with the iPad in the next couple of days, but I will take the time to do as complete a rundown of the functionality it comes with as well as what I've added in around the end of the month. Heck, it may be time to start an iPad specific blog that I and those friends of mine that own them can post on...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Christmas In April

Somebody's getting an iPad on Friday...

If you have any recommendations for good apps, I'd love to hear them. I'm primarily interested (today, this will almost certainly change soon) in apps that allow me to view and print (on a networked printer) various types of docs (.doc, .pdf, etc), as well as stream video over a wireless network (.11n, I don't own much video that has DRMs). In case anyone's missed it, I am a Mac guy, so no need for any apps that work well with Windows. I'm somewhat interested in games, but preferably lighter or boardgame-oriented stuff. I also plan to do some reading with the thing as well, and I'm aware of the Kindle app (I use it on the iPhone already), and have a couple of apps for it. 

I'm also interested in the idea of downloading sheet music (almost certainly in PDF form). If anyone has any information on apps that are specifically designed for reading sheet music, that would be awesome. Of particular note would be some way to turn pages without needing to touch the screen, like a footpedal. I hear there's also a very cool Korg Electribe beat box emulator, which is very cool. 

I'm also interested if people have had any good or bad experiences with shells and/or screen condoms. I use both with my iPhone and would like to have similar protection. I tend to prefer resilient (rubbery) shells, although I've got an awesome mirror finish shell for my iPod Classic. I have some concern that such a device might weaken the WiFi reception and/or create heat issues, although that latter will be harder to judge this close to the device's release. 

My, I am an Apple devotee, aren't I?

ObGameTopic: One of the reason I decided to get an iPad was because I wanted to be able to store, read, and search wargame rulesets. I'll let you know how well this works after WBC West, where I intend for the iPad to be my only manual unless it just doesn't work at all.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

London Is Burning. Yup. Definitely Burning.

For my April solitaire game, I chose London's Burning. A few reasons - I am familiar with the game so it required little ramp-up time, it plays fast (sometimes really fast), it's on an interesting subject, and I was very interested in comparing it with RAF now that I have that title too.

This was one of the later Avalon Hill games that came out in the late 90's, and IMHO one of their better ones. Ben Knight does some really neat design work, boiling the essentials of a conflict down to a very simple design.

I've gotten through the first week pretty quickly - about two hours total including a rules refresh. Once you have the system down you can get through a two-raid day in about 20 minutes with almost no AI admin, which is possibly the best aspect of the game.

Rather than give a rundown of the game, I think it's just as easy for me to compare the game with RAF now that I've gotten to play both.

Focus - RAF covers the entire air war over southern Britain in 1940, from the initial channel bombings to the entire reason the war was fought - to achieve air superiority for an amphibious assault on England, code named Seelowen (Sealion). It was probably never going to happen even if the Germans had air superiority, but it's kind of a wargamer's wet dream so designers keep incorporating it. In comparison, LB focuses solely on the southwestern corner of England and the attacks by Luftflotte 2 (based in Calais, and admittedly the air group that had the largest role in the conflict). If you want the whole enchilada, RAF is the game.

Realism - RAF puts you in the role of air sector command, assigning aircraft to various zones in anticipation of the coming raids. There are a lot of air units to assign, and this is arguably the "meat" in RAFs sandwich. However, there is almost no attention paid to things like altitude, diving out of the sun, or anything remotely tactical. The combat is abstracted to a set sequence that follows both sides' doctrine at the time. LB gives you two aircraft to worry about, and the level of abstraction is a lot lower. You take and inflict hits on very specific elements of the aircraft, such as engines and pilots. Preference between the two games really comes down to whether you want a fairly strategic sim or a more tactical one, although both do try to cover the bases the other focuses on.

Table Space - Both games require more or less the same amount of table space, although RAF does require a little extra for cards (which are a huge part of that game), while LB relies on chit pulls. LB has two boards (one map, one a combat display) that give a little extra flexibility in how they can be arranged, but when it comes down to it the footprints are pretty much identical.

Component Quality - Had I been comparing LB to the first "West End" edition of RAF, this would be no contest - that game had perforated sheets that turned into cards, very flimsy rules and map, and the usual problems that WEG titles had at the time. In comparison, LB has mounted maps, nice thick counters, and durable rules. However, the recent reprint of RAF by Decision has upped the ante a bit, and RAF now has much better cards, although the graphics are still fairly dull on the map and counters. I give this one to LB with it's painted map and great presentation, but RAF does just as well when you take functionality into account. If you like pretty, LB wins this one.

Time - I can play through a raid in LB in about 10 minutes if there's a lot going on. I can play through a raid in RAF in about 30 minutes if there's a lot going on. Admittedly, RAF is more of a resource management game, but almost everything that the British player (you, I'm not going to cover the "Eagle" game where you play the Germans) is done at the start of the turn when it comes to assigning aircraft. In comparison. LB involves the player almost constantly, and the AI admin is done on the fly. If time is of the essence, LB will get you through a long campaign in what I'll estimate *very* roughly is about 1/8th of the time, and you'll be engaged through the entire game.

Fun Factor - I like both games. They each scratch a slightly different itch because of the different focus each game brings. Note that these are not tactical flight sim games like Mustangs or Actung, Spitfire!, but rather a higher-level view (or even higher, in the case of RAF). As such, much depends upon what you're looking for in these games. I'm finding I really enjoy the combat in LB, which forces me to decide whether it's a good time to break off, whether to go after the fighter cover or straight for the bombers, and I also really like not knowing where the damned raid is going until it gets there. With RAF, I like the resource management aspect of deciding if you want to put planes in the air but at the risk that they'll be exhausted and unable to respond to later raids - it's a game that rewards a longer view compared to LB. And, of course, there's no question that RAF does a better job of representing the Luftwaffe - they have distinct aircraft limits that LB doesn't really model, they have specific "focii" on the targets they are going after, both Luftflottes are represented, along with various random events that do a great job of ruining either your (or their) plans.

Right now, at a point where I'm busy prepping for WBC West as well as some musical performances over the next couple of weeks, RAF would be far more than I could fit into a month without devoting all of my spare time to the game. LB, on the other hand, fits the bill nicely. I can literally throw ten or fifteen minutes into it and get through a raid, or a day depending on how the chits pull out. And the game is fun, no question. Deciding if you really want to go after that 6 aircraft raid with only one lowly Hurricane, but being afraid not to because it's quite possible that the target will be your base - great stuff. Not only that, but since you are dealing with specific pilots rather than air groups, you tend to take a loss rather personally. Me, I've lost two Hurricane pilots (one who had *just* become an ace) in the first week, and it was brutal. But fun. Making it worse was that I'd added a target DRM to an attacking Me109 when obviously the attacker wasn't a target and thus shouldn't have gotten the DRM, but I didn't figure that out until later. Oops.

I should note that both games come with extensive designer's notes and examples of play, and I have found the rules about as transparent (or not) as the other title. I will say that RAF is a more complex game, and thus requires a few more rules lookups after you've gotten the hang of it, but that's par for the course and not something that I consider an issue.

My game has gone fairly well. I've been trying to repair my radar stations as fast as they get hit, and cleaning up London is important (as it takes damage you start adding aircraft to raids for the Luftwaffe). I'm playing the Standard game, which runs into early September (at which point the battle had been decided but not finished), and I figure I'm about 1/3rd of the way through. I figure I'm about four hours or so out from finishing, and that's nice to know during a very busy month when I have limited time to play.

LB is, of course, long out of print, but I suspect you can find copies fairly cheaply. BGG prices run around $50 before shipping. RAF is, of course, back in print, and there's really no reason to look up the old version of the game as the new Lion version is so much like the old edition. It's a pricey bugger, though, at $70 retail.

Of course, what I'm really looking forward to is trying out Burning Blue, which I'll do (finally) at WBC West with Rog. BB looks to be about as realistic at a similar scale (of operations, not of the map) as you can get, and while there isn't a lot for the Luftwaffe player to do (sans Frei Jagd, of course), and it only covers one mission at a time for a fairly hefty time investment, I think it will give about as good an experience as a sector commander as you can find in board wargaming.

If you're in the market for a solitaire Battle of Britain game, it would be hard to go wrong with one of these so long as it matched up well with your needs and expectations.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Most Entertaining (er, Dangerous) Time

I recently had to clean out my collection a bit because my game room was getting a little crowded. I posted some Gamer Porn pictures of it a year or two ago, and suffice it to say that my habit of buying pretty much every pre-orderable wargame took it from Gamer Porn to Organizational Guru Horror Porn in quick order. One thing I learned in the process was how hard it was for me to divest myself of even passable wargames, and it's clear that in 20 years when I'm living in a house where the only way to get from room to room is via goat paths, the walls will be made of wargame boxes. And loose ziplock bags.

One of the downsides of all these games is that I rarely get to play them. As soon as one game comes in, gets punched and clipped (sounds like animal husbandry, no?), and the rules read, the next game comes in. In fact, I have something like 12 games awaiting "The Treatment" as I speak, although many of them were acquired in the great Hawaiian Wargame Orgasm of 2009 (see earlier post, now that I have your attention). One of my goals this year has been to get some of these unplayed and in some cases even unset-up games on the table, although formally that applied to games that I got ten years ago or more.

However, there are many equally deserving games of more recent vintage. One that has fascinated me is A Most Dangerous Time, part of MMP's International Game Series (IGA), although to be fair it should almost certainly be called the JGA as every game that's come out of the series was originally published in Japan by Japanese designers, and only a couple of those at that. This particular game is particularly appropriate, as it covers the unification of Japan in the late 1500's. There's a word for that, and it has a lot of syllables, and I can never remember it, but there were a lot of battles and in the end Ieyesu Tokogawa ended up being Shogun of all of Japan and there were a lot of heads on poles. And later on, movies. And, of course, games. This is one that covers the whole shootin' match (and there was some shootin' in what was the first use of gunpowder in weaponry in this part of the world).

The game is, on it's face, a pretty standard strategic light wargame with a few interesting differences. You move units, you roll dice for those units in combat, and high numbers kill enemy units. When you take the enemy clan's Home Castle (or Castles, if your the Oda clan), you get their remaining units. There are leaders that make things easier for you of varying quality. There are buckets of dice. There is also a lot more that takes it from Risk to Fun, however, and that's what I'm going to focus on.

I should mention that I have yet to actually finish a game (even a short 10 turn game), and my comments are based on about eight turns of a solitaire effort in preparation for a face-to-face game at my group's annual WBC-West "nano-con" in mid-May. Mike and I will be playing this game, and I'm not completely sure that a game with a bucketful of dice in every combat, not to mention chit-pull activations, will be able to withstand the brutal and overwhelming phenomenon that is the Deansian Statistical Distortion Field, but I figure we'll just use the Good Fortune chit and apply beer liberally and hope for the best. As such, take my comments as you will.

First, I'll discuss the Order of Battle, which has several effects on gameplay. Each side takes a "Faction" which is either Oda (the eventual winner of the conflict) or Anti-Oda. Clearly, the Anti-Oda Faction is a little more, well factionalized. Think Republicans vs Democrats. The Republicans have a large and monolithic organization that tends to work in lock-step (or did, up until the Tea Party started), while the Democrats represent a variety of interests which don't always work together but can attack from a variety of positions and tend to have greater flexibility, if not always effectiveness. The Oda faction is the Republicans, the Anti-Oda faction is the Democrats. Take that as you will.

Each faction is made of a group of Alliances. In the case of the Oda faction, that means one Alliance. That might seem to be an advantage, but it is actually a bit of a problem for them for reasons that will be clear later. The Anti-Oda Faction has several Alliances, from the Anti-Oda Minors to the dangerous Takeda and Uesugi Alliances. Each of these Alliances has from one to six Clans, what we might think of as Mafiosi families. For example, the Takeda Alliance is made of of solely the Takeda Clan, while the Oda Alliance is made up of the Oda and Tokegawa clans as well as three other very small clans. These differentiations are very important to the game, even though they may seem a little silly as the Takeda Clan and Alliance are equivalent.

Second, the game is driven by chit-pull activations. Every Alliance has a chit in the game that enters the pool when the Alliance enters the pool. Some Alliances have leaders that have their own chits that also trigger that alliance. For example, Oda Alliance has both the Oda chit and the Nobunaga chit, both of which activate the entire Oda Alliance units. When you pull that chit, that Alliance activates and can do what Alliances do during their turn. As the game goes on, Alliance and Leader chits will come and go, especially leaders, who can be killed, wounded, or just get really really sick.

Making this all the more entertaining is the "End of Turn" chit. When this gets drawn, it's turn over, baby. Yep, that means that you might have up to a series of turns where all that really happens is a bit of regrouping, some reinforcements, and the side controlling Kyo getting card draws. In my game, I had two turns in a row of this. One side or the other can go for quite a while in theory without ever getting to do anything. There is a way to mitigate this to some extent, and clearly it's a fairly unusual situation, but it can (and does) happen. In many ways, this game is much like the designer's 100 Years War game, Warriors of God, in that you must hope for the best and plan for the worst. It does lend a nice degree of tension to the game, and I'm not a terribly competitive player anyway, so I don't mind it, but I can see many people finding it a huge turn-off.

Third, there are event cards that make things even more interesting. There are two mutually exclusive ways to get cards, which tends to drive behavior in the game. If you control the central space in the game, Kyo, then you will get one card at the end of every turn. Period. That may seem like a bum deal, but you get a guaranteed card even if there are no activations that turn. If you don't control Kyo, you get a card for your faction every time an Alliance takes a space controlled by the other Faction, unless the space you're taking is Kyo (you ostensibly get your card for that at the end of the turn). As you can imagine, this might lead to interesting situations where the Ikko-Ikki take Kyo early in a turn, only to see Takeda take three spaces (and potentially three cards) only to not get any because that faction has taken Kyo and only get the one card at turn end. Unless, as in my game, the Oda take Kyo back before the end of the turn and they get the card. Fun!

The cards do a wide variety of things, from affecting combat and movement to allowing players to force specific enemy leaders to betray to the other side. Note the word "specific". Talk about driving behavior! I get a card that will cause Samurai X to defect, so I will make some effort to go after him. Unless I don't and am just fooling my opponent into moving that Samurai out of an area *thinking* he'll betray so that another faction can swoop in and take the space more easily. I strongly suggest having a list of all of the leaders who are potential betrayers just to notch up the paranoia a bit. I'll also note that this creates a particularly large luck element in the game, as you may draw your own leaders' betrayal cards. However, I'll also note that this allows those leaders to act without fear. Ha!

Clearly, the cards make it much more difficult to play the game solitaire in a satisfactory way, but the activation chits mitigate that to some extent. There is no question that this is a game that will be much more fun played against an opponent, however.

Next, let's go a little further into Betrayal, and it's red-headed stepchild, negotiation. There are two points in the game turn where you can force an enemy leader to Betray his faction - First, during the negotiation phase before players move, and second during combat. You can force a leader to betray with his *clan's* units just by having your own leader of the active *Alliance* in an adjacent space during negotiation, *if* the Alliance has a Daimyo with a Diplomatic Ability dot in play, or a Samurai in an adjacent space that has said dot. During combat, no dot is necessary, but you have to be in combat with that specific Betraying leader. This can lead to situations where suddenly a small force is much larger and *still* attacking because the space had multiple clans in it. Wackiness ensues.

You can also attempt to Negotiate with individual soldier units (as opposed to leaders) during the Negotiation Phase, but you need a leader with Diplomatic Ability next to their space, and you have to make a die-roll based on that soldier's situation. For example, an enemy soldier with a friendly leader in a space can't be negotiated away unless that force is under siege, but you *can* negotiate with a *neutral* soldier in a space if they have a friendly leader with them. I strongly suggest you download the errata/clarifications, as they lay out the specific situations and target die rolls necessary, much easier to understand than the convoluted mess that was in the original rulebook.

The result is that each clan has it's own set of starting units which are only augmented by other units (which include both soldiers and leaders) that betray their original faction, and who will also lose units through either leader death or betrayal of their own units. It is very important to keep track of what clan controls which units for purposes of combat and regrouping, and the rules do not do a good job of explaining this basic concept. In a nutshell, make sure you know which clan each unit is associated with. Of course, once a Takeda clan unit defects to Tokugawa, for example, it could then betray to one of the Anti-Oda Minor clans - there is no "memory" of what clans a particular unit has belonged to. There is also no negative effect of having betrayed, although these units are given "stains of dishonor" on their counters to differentiate them from the set up units.

It is worth noting that you get to make a negotiation roll once for every leader in that Alliance with a DipAb dot next to a legal candidate. You may, however, use all the Betrayal cards you wish assuming they are legal plays. It is possible to change the Faction of half the units on the board with the right cards and leaders with DipAb capability, although very unlikely. I'll also note that Ikko-Ikki units never betray through either betrayal or negotiation, so the Anti-Oda folks have *that* going for them. They also have no leaders, however, other than one small clan within their Alliance.

A few other interesting mechanisms. Every time an Alliance is activated and after they've negotiated, you roll a die to see how many movement points you get. As such, just because an Alliance activates does not mean you can do with them as you will. The owner of Kyo gets to add 2 to this roll, and there are cards which can increase this number as well. One point lets you move eight units between two spaces connected by a road (two spaces if there are no enemy units in the way and you control both spaces), four if you are moving by trail, and one if you are moving by sea. You must stop in an enemy controlled space. More chaos to manage, although a much better situation if you take Kyo, of course.

Combat is both complex and elegant, and while it's a little tricky to explain, in practice it's very smooth. You basically roll to see if someone gets to be the exclusive attacker in a turn (devastating, as you can imagine), based on the leaders present, if the units are OOS, or if they choose to retreat before the initiative roll. Combat involves assigning soldiers to their clan leaders (there's that clan thing again - important to remember with both the Oda faction as well as the Anti-Oda minors), then trying to roll target numbers using various DRMs such as leaderhip or if the unit is Ikko-Ikki. Leaders play a very large roll in this process, both for gaining initiative and in causing damage. Being out of communication is particularly bad, as it halves your attack dice and doubles your loses. Avoid that particular bugaboo.

Conversely, if the non-phasing player is in a "space" (meaning not a waypoint or sea area), they can choose to have a certain number of units hide in the castle or temple in that space, based on the fort value of the space (two units for every one fort point). If the attackers decide to assault the castle/temple, the defender rolls first (field combat is simultaneous in comparison, assuming both sides roll), get the benefit of both their leadership and the fort value as DRMs, and the attackers will only hit on sixes regardless of all other factors. Besieged units are also never considered OOS, which is very important. There is also only one round of siege combat, as opposed to as many rounds as both sides are willing to stomach in field combat.

Finally, each Alliance gets to regroup, putting lost units back on the board based on an Alliance-specific value. Ikko-Ikki units are an exception, using a process that was used in the original Japanese edition. I can see why Adam took that out, it can take a little time to figure everything out for the Ikko-Ikki. I should note that the I-I are treated differently in a lot of cases because they were not a "clan" per se, but instead a popular uprising of peasants and monks, and I find this particular special rule to be appropriate as such.

There is quite a bit of special chrome in the game as well, from a "15th Samurai" that the Oda can exile in exchange for bringing in some of the meatier anti-Oda alliances earlier (he can also be converted to a Daimyo by the Anti-Oda faction, important because he is the only leader on their side with a DipAb dot until Takeda shows up at the end of turn 6). Some leaders have an illness roll at the end of every turn that can take them out of the game, and (of course) there are Ninjas in a couple of different capacities.

All in all the game is a bit of a balancing act. The Oda faction needs to take out as many opposing clans and alliances as it can as quickly as possible, as later on they end up with just two activation chits while everyone else could have as many as nine or ten, greatly lowering their operational flexibility. Conversely, the various Anti-Oda alliances tend to be fairly small and can't coordinate offensive operations, often forcing them into defensive roles. Takeda and later Uesugi tend to change this up a bit, but again the increased number of activation chits tends to make it less likely that they'll be there exactly when you want them. Like Warriors of God, there is considerable chaos management, although with a bit more of an asymmetry (and along different axes).

I've mentioned that there's a bit of chaos in this game. Apparently the playtesters thought so to, and Adam added a "Good Fortune" rule that acts a bit like the Initiative counter in the area-impulse games like Breakout: Normandy. Basically, it gives you a mulligan, then passes to your opponent. However, the rules as written allow players to reorder the activation pool as one of these mulligans, which has the effect of making every other turn be all about you. Far better to allow a) the player to choose *one* activation chit, putting the rejected one back into the pool afterwards, and b) not allow the other player to use the GF chit until the next *turn* (there is no specification about when the chit is again usable in the printed rule). We'll use this modified rule when Mike and I play "for real" in May.

Components are, as with most IGS games, beautiful, from the map to the cards to the units. They are functional for the most part, although I have some trouble telling a few of the Mons of the various Anti-Oda minors apart (the clan symbols). I also recommend keeping your units oriented to your side of the board, as some become fairly ambiguous as the game goes on, such as some of the Neutral Minor clans that betray to one side or the other. As mentioned above, be very sure to know what clan betraying units have gone over to, using control markers if you must.

It would not be one of my reviews, however, if I didn't bemoan the rules. Adam Starkweather does a great service to the hobby by bringing these games to us at what is almost certainly a huge amount of effort for very little reward. That said, I continue to have issues with not only his rule-writing skills, but also in the way he answers questions. The rules have quite a bit of ambiguity in places, ambiguity that he resolves in forums but does not incorporate into the errata or clarifications. For example, it is very unclear if reinforcing units (those clans coming into the game for the first time) come in en masse, or per the regroup rules (it's en masse). Control of spaces, an elemental rule, is *never* defined. The significance of honor-stained units is also never clearly laid out other than to say it's not important (when it is, at least in terms of making sure the right clan's units are used).

The other part has to do with the way Adam answers questions online. I am the first to note that he appears to be logged on more or less constantly, answering questions quickly. However, he tends to use terminology like "sure, if the rules say that" which in one case the rules clearly *negate* the "sure" part of that sentence. I've also seen him answer a question by quoting the rule and avoid saying a simple Yes or No, making it unsure what the actual answer is without a very careful parsing of the rule, which was kind of obviating the point of the question. As I mentioned above, the answers never seem to get into the clarifications - the question about who controls spaces (which comes up in *every* game in the second turn, if not earlier, because of an unusual reinforcement) never got to the clarifications, and in fact another question gives the impression that the answer in the special case is different than it actually is.

I want to be clear that I am not questioning Adam's devotion or value to the hobby, nor suggesting that he is in any way indifferent to making sure that the game has clear-cut rules, as every wargame should have. I am suggesting that he goes about clarity (at times and certainly not most of the time, but enough) in a way that does anything but improve that quality in the ruleset. I do not know if the rules are blind-tested by tech writers, but they should be. Yes or no questions should be answered with a yes or no, and clarified appropriately.

I've made this my rallying cry in the hobby - wargame rules describe a very precise system and as such that system must be very clearly defined. Designers/developers who are too lazy to practice that level of precision need to find ways to make it a part of their product. I have stopped buying games from companies or specific developers or designers because I feel it's such a critical part of the process. I'll call out Decision Games on this - I *always* check out their rules carefully or play the game before buying because too many of their games require players to guess at designer intent rather than lay it out in a clear fashion. There are far too many good editors in the hobby who will do this work for a game credit for this to be anything other than a character flaw or the equivalent.

Adam, we love you, but *please* consider having your rules blind-tested by someone who will notice these things. I offer my services and I don't even care about the credit. As for the clarity in questions, it's just a matter of understanding that the asker wants a yes or no, not cleverness. Give them what they want, *then* be clever.

I also want to be very clear that the IGS series is perhaps my favorite in the gaming world. There is a variety and novelty (in a good way) and an elegance that is sorely lacking in many wargames, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for bringing these games to the West. Now let's go the extra yard and give them the final polish to the ruleset they deserve.

AMDT is a great game, and if you can stomach the craziness that is, IMHO, an appropriate part of the period (as it is in Warriors of God), then there's a really cool system here. Again, despite my criticism of Adam's editorial skills, this is one worth learning and digging through ConSimWorld and BGG for all of the questions that haven't been answered *and* collected. There is a thread on BGG that does this, and it's worth looking up, although understand that there are a couple of rules that are answered in a way that suggests the wrong answer, such as when you draw cards and when you can use them (you get them at the end of your activation for that alliance, not during).

Dungeon Lords, The Lightning Round

Tuesday was my first regular game day after the orgy of gaming that was GameStorm. Nice to be back at Matt's again after a two month absence, especially because he seems to bring out so many of the "old skool" crowd, such as Rita and KC, as well as Dave. Also present were Alex as usual, and Harry, a friend of Matt's who came to play as well, although I didn't get to spend much time with him. The reason why - Rita, Dave, Alex, and myself played a hilarious game of Dungeon Lords.

I don't know that I've played a game where so much of the hilarity that ensues comes from the complete breakdown of carefully laid (or, perhaps, not so careful) plans aside from Robo Rally, and if there was ever a game that completely failed to gain traction in our group, it is Robo Rally. I myself made a critical mistake in the very late game where I thought that I needed to be more concerned with avoiding having the Paladin show up in the party going against me than to save that food to buy an imp, when I should have been thinking about my monsters, which not only cost me a room to conquest, but also ended up losing half of my monsters when I couldn't pay them that food. It cost me second place (Dave won this one by several thousand percent).

Of course, Alex provided most of the entertainment by almost constantly being surprised by the various interactions. That's far from unusual in a first game of DL, but he turned it into an art form. His tunnel system, Imp population, and several other elements of his play were truly impressive, but he also managed to lose almost every point he got and had something like seven spaces in his dungeon conquered. That's more spaces than I even *had*.

And yet, we all had a blast. Perhaps that's the best thing I can say about DL, is that it is *so* not about the point total at the end (nor should it be for your first few games, or perhaps even your fifteenth few games), it's about the wonderful combination of multiplayer solitaire that still has a very big "guess what the other guy will do" element that I really love. When it comes down to it, you make very few choices in this game, but they are *really* critical choices, and you do so with about half the information you need.

For those of you who haven't played or read much about the game, here's a nutshell version. You're the proprietor of a dungeon, which has to concern itself with a certain degree of pest control, where the "pests" are so-called "heroes" who are trying (for reasons it's hard to fathom as a local business owner) to steal all of your hard won loot (which they call "conquering"). The game is played in two turns, each of which has two very different phases - the "merchandise retention effort" phase where you prepare both passive (or "trap-based") security measures as well as active (or "monster/ghost-based") security measures. You also use your local labor pool (called "imps") to expand your business (or "dungeon"), operate special production in some of your rooms, and do a little income generation (or "mining for gold"). You run through this basic process in four waves per turn, and once you're done, it's time for invasive pest control.

The meat of the game is in deciding where you'll put your resources every turn, and it's important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you have a set of eight different actions you can do, from hiring more imps to building rooms to hiring monsters to setting traps. Each action is represented by a card that you play down in one of three slots, RR style, in secret. Made more interesting (and perhaps this is the thing that gives the game it's sparkly magic) is that all of the cards that were used in the second and third slot in the previous turn are unusable and public, so that you know that, say, Dave and Rita will not be building rooms this turn. Of course, that means that whatever actions you take in *your* second and third positions will *also* not be usable by you in the next turn, and your competing local businesses will know that you can't use them next turn. It's an exceedingly simple mechanism that makes the entire game.

However, you can't just assume that whatever action you'd like to do again in the next round should go in the first slot. Oh no, that would be far too simple. Because the sequence of how your cards come out in relation to the other player's action cards will determine not only how those actions play out but also their cost. You see, each action has three slots on the board that determine who gets what and for how much. With four players, that means that it's possible you won't be able to assign a minion to a given activity if they don't get there soon enough. Also, you very well may end up paying a cost you'd have much preferred not to for your efforts.

As an example, let's say you decide you need food cubes. You are doing pretty well in terms of gold, but you're getting a little high on the old Evilometer and that means you get the tougher party members and maybe even a Paladin to deal with in the pest control part of the turn. If you are the first person to assign a minion to the Food queue, you'll get two food in exchange for one gold, which is what you're hoping for. However, if you end up second, you will instead go up on the Evilometer two spaces and get three food. As such, you'll want to maybe put your food action card in the first slot of your actions. However, let's say it's getting a little late in the day and you really need two more monsters, so you'd really rather put the monster card first because you won't get to use it again otherwise in the next round. Do you hope that no one else wants food (or can even look for it, as you can see two of each player's eight cards they can't play)? It's prioritization like this that makes the game so much fun.

Making things even more interesting is that the order in which you play your minions on the room and monster action queues ends up being the reverse order, so that whoever played a monster card third gets first pick. With rooms, you can get the room for free if you played first, but since only two rooms are available per round, you may not get one if two other people play room cards. Great stuff.

I'll freely admit that this nutshell description is more of the Humongous Brazil Nut From Space variety than a capsule summary, but bear with me. We're almost there.

Once you've gone through four rounds (which includes some other craziness such as deciding who gets what pests, taxes, wages, and what imps man rooms that produce extra stuff), it's time to go hero-stompin'. Or, if you're Alex, hero-stompeein'. Sorry, man. Suffice it to say that the heroes are pretty methodical about how they go about destroying all of your hard work in building up a dungeon, and you can only use most of your security forces, both passive and active, once, so you'll want to plan that out fairly carefully. Not all pests are alike - warriors push their way to the front of the line, rogues deflate your traps, priests undo all that damage you've done, and mages cast spells that screw you up just when your careful planning is about to come to fruition. After four rounds, the pests leave (if you haven't tossed them into your detention area), and you either enjoy your second year in business or figure out how you did in comparison to your competitors. Points are scored for dungeon tiles, pests captured, and various bonuses based on rooms and an award ceremony that rewards being the most evil, having the most monsters, etc.

Believe me, there are a lot of points given out (and taken away) in this game, and there's no way you'll figure out optimal strategies in your first go-round. Or ever, for that matter, if you're me. But I repeat, that is not the point of the game. If you're me. The point is to watch Alex's head explode for the sixth time in 30 minutes when he realizes he forgot to save gold for dungeon tile taxes, or my head explode when I realize that half my monsters just staged a walkout because I spent the food on another imp that really didn't help much.

I'm a little stunned that i find a game with relatively few decision points so much fun. After all, you only choose which cards you'll put where eight times, four rounds in each of two years. You also get to decide how to manage your traps and monsters, as well as making decisions for the pests when all of the rooms/hallways are equally close to the entrance. I guess many of the monsters also have two ways they'll stomp heroes, and there's another decision, but really this is a case of balancing chaos management with careful planning with watching Alex and my heads explode. Vladaa Chvatil has a track record of taking tired mechanisms and combining them in clever ways with clever themes, and throwing in clever rulebooks as well (which go through translation about as well as I could possibly hope for).

So far, DL is my early leader for Euro of the Year, at least in terms of when I was first exposed. Perhaps the highest praise came from Rita, who when told that it was now 10pm when the game ended, said, "Already?"

I'll note that a very good portion of the rules is dedicated to teaching the game to new players, which is a great idea. Vladaa did similar things with Space Alert, Galaxy Trucker, and even Through the Ages to some extent. While I think that it's a little too much to first describe the second part of the game (the hero-stompin' part) first because by the time you've gone over the first part everyone has forgotten how the second part works, there's no question that it's done well. It's a difficult game to teach and learn, but about as worth the effort as I've seen in a euro of this complexity. I can only hope Mechanisburg will be as much fun. (Dave, I live to set up your punch lines).

Thanks to Dave for his great teaching of the game and his equally great play. I look forward to this being a Rip City Gamers staple for years to come.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

GameStorm 12, Day 4 and Thoughts

Unlike the previous two nights, I didn't sleep nearly as well on Sunday morning. Maybe it was post-traumatic stress, I don't know. I do know that I'd agreed to play in Dave's unscheduled Nautilus game that morning at 9am, and I still wanted to get my stuff out of the room before that time, as I suspected I wouldn't be able to get it if I got into a long game. After eating some dry Apple Jacks (they had run out of milk in Hospitality), KC, Rita, Dave, and myself went fishing.

Nautilus is one of those games that I've always had a soft spot for, despite the garish colors of the various bits. It's like there was jail for Crayolas that were a *bit* too much for the general public, and they had a breakout and used the game box for their getaway. That said, the bits are otherwise fabulous, the game has both a building *and* a discovery element, as well as progressive improvement as in a role-playing game, and the board looks a whole lot different when you're done than when you started. There's something really satisfying about a game like that. However, I've felt that the game takes far too long when played with four, with too much downtime. This game proved all of that wrong - we finished in 90 minutes when you took KC's involvement in getting other GameLab sessions started and stalling our game, not to mention the 'splainin'. Frankly, this is one that will come out on the table more often.

I won't go into too much detail on how the game works. Suffice it to say that the outcome will generally hinge on two things - were you able to get the lion's share of the five bonus point chits (in a four player game, getting two is very good), and also generate enough points on the other "side" of the point scale, scored through finding the right tiles on the ocean floor. My multiplier on that side was nine to Dave's eleven, and we each scored two bonuses to get a 9 on the researcher-manned station side. When you consider that up until the very end of the game, I had found exactly one useful tile, a 1 that was upped by my "bonus" tile to 2, and three Atlantis tiles that got me third place and two more points. The other five came in the last three tiles I flipped, two gold worth two points and a zero that was upped to a 1. Dave, on the other hand, had four of the 1's that would have upped to 2's had they been mine, but he also had the symbol.

It was great to play at a table with nothing but people I knew and enjoyed playing games with, and in some ways that was the end of the con for me. As it was, I got in a game of Settlers of Catan with the con's chair, his good friend (now my good friend) Terry, and David - like the game the night before, it ended with three people in a row having the ability to end the game and win, but in this case it was the first person who got what they needed. One other note: we used a Deck of Dice with a rule to reshuffle near (but not at) the end of the deck. I may never play Settlers any other way again.

I also got in an aborted game of Galaxy Trucker, using the XL expansion. Suffice it to say that I am better off not touching this expansion until I've gotten a chance to play the base set about twenty more times. The increase in potential choices completely overwhelmed me to the point that I constantly forgot that I needed living quarters in order to house aliens. It was not pretty, and we left after the second rig in order to go to the con feedback session.

I came away from the con with the sense that from the member's point of view, the con was a great success. Given that every table in B was in constant use from 9am until midnight from Thursday evening to Sunday early afternoon, I'd say that was true. We had almost no mishaps after the first few hours on Thursday, and I made it a point to meet as many of the GMs as I could and met some very nice people.

Where the con needs "fixing" is very simple - almost any staff position is hard work, and unfortunately made harder through a lack of communication channels. Given that the staff increased around 100% this year (I believe we had close to 50 staff, most arranged in "triads" to try to spread the work out better), this isn't a big surprise. What needs doing is making being staff as much fun as being a member. To this end, I've already proposed that we have a Scheduling "Chair" that works with all of the schedulers and the schedule programmers to make sure we are doing things consistently, especially where it comes to the member experience. I'm also going to take a stab at capturing not only the timeline of what needs doing when, but also to help nail down the various roles and tasks involved with each aspect of the con. It will be a big job, but I think it's necessary for the committee to function as it needs to now that there are so many people involved. This is one of the challenges that companies face when they grow out of their startup phase, and one that many stumble over, some rather badly. My hope is that while we may not have everything nailed down, we will have the mission-critical elements captured by the next con, as well as a good chunk of everything else.

I am completely out of my mind.

GameStorm 12, Day 3

Looking back, I think that most of the anxiety I had about GameStorm had very little to do with the job of scheduling the con, but instead with me deciding to run a Conflict of Heroes event. Worse, I'd decided to come up with the system myself, which I've discussed earlier. I think the ideas are sound, but it was a lot to take on at a time when I already had taken a lot on. Fortunately, Uwe Eickert, the game's designer, came through with a campaign game that had most of the things I was looking for (interaction between boards, a variety of complexity levels, and a two-hour play time). What it didn't have was multiple rounds or more control over the situation. I still plan to develop this with the idea of it being a DYI system, but GS12 was a terrible time to be doing it. In hindsight, this was something I think I knew from the beginning and was the cause of much of the background stress I was feeling leading up to the con itself.

The good news is that I was smart enough not to book my time before the event, but instead to take the time to get the games set up (which required four sets, mostly for the decks of cards, not to mention the extra damage markers - I needed three of both foot and vehicle markers for the four boards). I also was a bit leery of teaching a game that I'd really only played basic scenarios of, certainly nothing that took everything into account. And this official campaign made sure to do that - there were mortars, trucks, APCs, hills, balkas, villages, tanks, even off-board artillery. I suspect it's intended more as a demo tool than anything else, but as it was only three of us had any real experience with the game so it did what it was supposed to do. 

We had an interesting mix of players, from one guy who had bought the game for his father as (I surmise) a way for them to connect, but they got bogged down in the rules. To be fair, these were the original Awakening The Bear rules, and he got one of the rulesets that was ordered incorrectly. I told him to contact Uwe for a replacement and in the meantime to print out the much-improved online ruleset for that set. At the other end was an experienced wargamer, but one that hadn't seen the Storm of Steel ruleset. 

I spent about an hour explaining the system and drew quite a crowd, much larger than I expected. I sort of thought that I'd see maybe five or six people, but we got over ten at times. Thanks to Walt for being there to remind me of rules I'd forgotten. If I were to do it again, I'd start with the concepts of terrain and LOS before getting into the units and what they do, which seems like the right way to do it, but is hard to cover the idea of an attack if the players don't understand LOS, which tends to be in relatively few wargames and almost no strategy or euro games. 

We then split into groups. Chris B had wanted to play, but was in the middle of something else. However, he offered to come play if we needed an eighth player, and we did indeed have exactly seven. The alternative was me sitting out, and I would have been a little disappointed if that had been the case as we wouldn't have done all four boards. As it was, Dave played the guy who had bought the game for his dad on the "infantry only" board out on one flank, and by the end of the game he felt like he had gotten a much better feel for the game. Dave lost the hill he had his arty spotter on in the second turn, and ended up losing by 10-2 and setting back the Soviet cause. 

On the other flank was Walt and Andy playing a tank-only game. Andy's Soviets mowed right over Walt's small but staunch force of a Panther, two Tiger Ie's and a couple of StuGs. Next in from there were Rowan and Matt (not one of the ones I play with regularly), who had the Marder and APC force against Russian guns. After a long battle, Rowan and Andy managed to negate Dave's loss, leaving my game with Chris (with me as the Soviets) as the one that would decide the fate of the Free World. Or something.

Poor Chris. I think that he must have rubbed up against my good friend Mike earlier in the day, and he seemed to roll one pip short of getting a hit while I made my numbers a good chunk of the time. He did one-shot one of my SMG squads, but when he started running out of units it was all but over and the Soviets took the prize. I believe that this game is all about managing your actions, and I like to think I do it pretty well most of the time, and I think that even with a streak of decent rolls (in the 7-9 range for about six straight attack rolls) that this was the difference for me. It's also difficult to make the jump across a street in an urban setting as we were in, and it requires some patience and setting up, although the scenario only gives you five turns to get it done.

The tank battle and the APCs vs Guns battle both wanted to give the game another try, this time with the Germans winning in both cases. I was very happy to see this, as it demonstrated that the gamers were enjoying the system and they were spending precious con time wanting to see what would happen if they did things differently. That's the mark of a great wargame, to me, although shorter games like CoH will always allow for multiple plays more so than the longer games. 

CoH is a bloody game, but strangely the later turns of a scenario take just as long as the early ones, mostly because by that time you have very specific goals for every unit and you want to do it right in order to win. At the same time, when it becomes obvious that you've lost the game, it's very clear. Both this game and Combat Commander have that feeling of every action counting early, but counting even more later on, which adds a nice and slow increase in tension as the game moves along. I still think that it's a great entry game, but trying to understand the action point system requires at least one playthrough. I'm glad I ran the tournament, even gladder that Uwe was able to come to my "rescue" with a campaign that was ready to go, and really glad that the game seemed to attract so much attention as well as generate a couple of reruns of the scenarios. 

Now it was 5pm, and I'd spent exactly two hours gaming, but all of my primary responsibilities had been disposed of and I could relax a bit before the Race for the Galaxy tournament. After learning that the first hour of the tournament was going to be to teach the game, I decided to take an hour to rest up in my room. Finally, the ice machine had been working earlier, and so I'd put a couple more bottles of the IPA on ice and enjoyed one while I read some wargame rules and relaxed. I am a strange man, I suspect, to most of the world, who would consider studying a ruleset and relaxation to be mutually exclusive. 

Then it was down to the tournament. It's been a while since we played this game in the group, and I was not well served to be at a table with people who played *really* fast in my first game. I was less than 50% of the total of the leader, Peter, a very nice "kid" who works for Google in NYC and was able to finagle coming out here for business to get to the con along with a couple of work friends. I think. He won rather handily. At this point, I was thinking that I'd be out of the tournament pretty fast. 

Then I won my next two games, one by a measly two points over Matt R, who scored a third of his points in his last play. I also won my third game handily as everything I needed just showed up. Note that we were playing all of the games with The Coming Storm, the first expansion set, which mostly consisted of a set of bonus point tiles that you got for either doing something first, or for doing it the most. I liked these points a lot, although there is no question that to some extent there is a fair amount of luck in who will get what. 

Finally, on to the fourth game, where I got to play the other two NYCers, and the cute-as-a-button Chinese girl (oh God, I hope she was actually Chinese and not Korean), Pei-Hsun, kicked all of our asses in as fast a fashion as her friend Peter. Where the cards had come to me in my earlier game, now they stayed away just as determinedly, and I found myself with two points. Surprisingly, this was enough for me to get into the semi-finals, but it was just after 10pm and I had signed up to play in Dave's late night Catan Express game. I was also a bit uncomfortable playing in a prize tournament as a staff member, so I excused myself and moved on to a bit of running trains around Catan.

While I've only played the Great Race and Catan Express scenarios from the Das Buch collection, there is no question in my mind that this is almost certainly the best set of games for Settlers out there. The book is in German, so the strategy and design articles are not accessible if you aren't a German reader, but the scenarios are completely accessible and generally very clever. Catan Express is no exception, although I'd forgotten I'd played it many years ago at a game night at my house. On the other hand, I've only played the Great Race once as well, and that was very memorable. 

We ended up playing with six people, which I have so far studiously avoided doing with *any* Catan game. While I enjoyed our game, there was no question that it wouldn't have taken two and a half hours, even with Dave encouraging people to keep the play brisk (you have to ask everyone if they want to build after each player's turn). As it was, the game was still fun, especially watching Melissa change who she was going to "get" the next chance she got. Made all the more entertaining as she had hair that was dyed several colors that I'm pretty sure aren't listed on a driver's license and about five feet tall in heels. 

The thing I really liked about Catan Express is that they managed to take a core mechanism from another game (in this case, Linie 1, or Streetcar as it was retitled for it's US release), where you spend half the game building a route and the other half operating a rail car on said route. In the case of CE, you use everyone's routes, although you have to pay a resource to use someone else's. We ended with a tie for first between Craig and Dave, with Craig winning as he was able to get the fifth station and thus the tiebreaker. Paul was right behind with 17 (and had blown a die roll that would have won him the game), me at 15, Melissa right in the ballpark, and Kelly back around 10. I think she just never got started, mostly because we rolled *two*, count 'em, *two* 8's in 150 minutes of play. 

And with that, it was time for bed. I played only three titles all day, although four of one of them (and, frankly, four games of RftG in a row is enough for me, thank you very much), but it was almost certainly the most rewarding day of the con so far.