Tuesday, June 22, 2010


One of my New Year's Wargaming Resolutions was to shake the dust off of some number of games that were in my collection that I'd never even gone so far as to set up. When I made the resolution, I was a bit surprised to find out later that the criteria I'd set (ten years since publication, never set up, never read the rules) was a fairly small subset of my wargame collection, not counting the Command magazine games. In fact, I believe the total number of games that fit the criteria was less than ten.

Interestingly, the common thread among all of these games - more than one map. Well, no *wonder* - I haven't had a place where I could set up multiple map games for ten years, and being a host once a month for a eurogaming group I can't really leave anything that doesn't fit in a poster frame up for more than four weeks at a time even now. I do have a couple of side tables that are currently holding up a record player (yes, an actual record player) to transfer a few disks for a friend of mine, but they are only 2.5' wide and as such won't hold anything that has too much girth, which constitutes pretty much every one of the "dusty" games other than The Legend Begins, which has the additional problem of missing two Italian artillery counters. In fact, that map is at this very moment set up underneath said record player (and an old receiver that has phono inputs, and the laptop, and some other stuff).

I did set up June 6, one of the early chit-activation games that GMT put out in the late 90's. The game has a lot of errata, and while the rulebook has a "living rules" version on the GMT website, the playbook (which has a lot of rules for the invasion turn) has not. I'm also finding that there are some really basic elements that were somehow missed in playtesting (according to the errata), such as, and I am *not* making this up, whether you round a 7.5:1 attack up or down. Really? You never had an odd number of combat factors attacking two combat factors? Ever? I had it in the first combat I had to deal with! The fix? Randomize which direction it goes. Great. I should mention this game was designed by Richard Berg, who is if nothing else fairly prolific in his game designs, even in 1999. And this got *missed*?

However, I have been determined to try to do what I can to learn this system, and at the very least the invasion sequence is not that onerous (as in, say, Battle for Normandy, where it takes a couple of hours to reduce every Allied battalion down to companies, run through four mini-turns, and then build them back up again. As my experience with The Legend Begins, where I read the rules in detail ahead of time only to have more or less forgotten them by the time I got to setting the game up, has taught me that perhaps I should learn as I go instead, I've been doing just that - getting to another set of rules I need to know, reading them, and then moving forward.

My experience is showing that there are some interesting changes in the hobby over time. For one thing, the level of graphics quality, while still being the product of DTP, is improving quite a bit. I know that extensive examples of play have been a big part of wargame rules from the beginning, but there are almost none in the June 6 rulebook *and* playbook, which I take as more a function of both a desire to limit component costs but also because there was almost certainly a lack of playtesting/development (as there was on this game's conceptual ancestor, Battle for North Africa). That seems to happen a lot with Berg's games...

The map and counters, on the other hand, are about the same as they are in current games, certainly they look just like more modern GMT games.

One particularly interesting rule, taken in contrast to how things are done in The Battle For Normandy, which uses the same scale of units if not of the map, has to do with activation. In BfN, which is *not* chit-pull based, units can move and fight but at greatly reduced effectiveness if they can't trace a supply path of six MP to their divisional HQ, which must in turn trace to a corps HQ and then to an off-map supply source. In J6, getting supply to the HQ, regardless of corps HQs, is the only question. This makes a little more sense in BfN, as part of the problem the Germans had in getting their resistance going was that their units were so spread out across the area. Both games have rules to attach corps units to divisions as well, although BfN's rules are very "on the fly" which I actually like, while in J6 it's based on an entire turn, which is four times as long as in BfN. Given that BfN is by *phase*, that's quite a difference, and one that's a lot harder to remember in J6 without markers.

The main lesson for me is that the principal bugaboo in wargames has and will (sadly) always be the development process. So long as games are driven by component limitations (you must have maps of this size, you must have rulebooks with multiples of four pages, you must use countersheets of a set size with x numbers of counters of y dimensions), we're going to have developers who are more interested in getting the game into a box instead of getting a *good* game into a box, one that we'll play over and over instead of hoping the next wargame out of the gate is "the one".

And that's where I'm hoping that the move to digital wargames starts to move to the fore. Not on desktop computers, which prevent what I consider to be the best element of wargaming, which is to say your opponent (and I know that for many, this is the biggest *problem*, whether it's a lack of opponents or the guy who makes little machinegun noises every time they roll for combat), but rather on table-top systems such as the upcoming MS Surface (or the iPad, were it about four to eight times the size it is now). Personally, I'd love to see something that you could roll up, that would lay flat when unrolled, and generic counters that would be passed information for every game (and as their state changes, as in many well-coded VASSAL games).

At this point, it becomes a lot easier for people to create distribute playtest copies. Counter numbers aren't critical, other than you'll need X counters to represent X units in a given game, and those can be sold generically by the maker of the surface (or a third-party). Rules are rules. Examples of play can be built *into* the game, where you can see them play out on the board in a pop-up window to the side.

One of the biggest problems I've had with computer-based wargames has been that the mechanisms tend to be hidden, so that you fight a combat without knowing what factors went into that combat. I recently got a cribbage game for my iPad that allows you to compute your own points for each meld, and if you want to know why the meld was worth X points, there's an Explain button that you can press. Why not have this for wargames as well?

I think that one of the other problems I've had with computer-based wargames is that they try to be something else, more like video games than paper wargames, and that's been an issue for traditional wargaming companies - trying to take a paper wargame and tart it up for those who get their gratification from twitch based gaming. That and trying to come up with useful AIs. Not necessary. Just transfer the game as it exists to a surface-based system, and we'll do the rest. Most wargames already come with scenarios that allow you to ease your way into the game, usually by limiting scope but also by limiting the ruleset, so learning can be quite a bit like it is for a video game, and in fact you can build the tutorial right into the game. AIs are great, but by far the most difficult element to code in a wargame, and most companies resort to cheating. Make the surface so that it allows you to use the VASSAL log mechanism. In this case, you could have the side you're playing use physical counters, while the opponent has their counters in the screen instead of on top of it, just like VASSAL.

BTW, I only suggest that you have physical counters because it's such a big part of what makes wargaming such a satisfying experience. Since these would be generic with information imparted to them, setup is relatively easy - the game shows you exactly where each counter should go, you put any counter down, and it becomes the unit. Push a button, and the information transfers to the screen and you can remove counters. Put a counter on your unit later, and transfer the data back. Setup and storage become much quicker.

The best part?

Storage. Think of your CD collection, now in boxes after you paid your teenager to rip them. In five years, that will be your DVD collection. In five years, that will be your book collection. I don't know about you, but these (and games) are the four media types that require the most storage in my house, especially books. I love books, but when you consider that every time you move (and pay someone to lift all of those boxes, as I do) that it costs somewhere between $5 and $15 per box. I had over 20 boxes of games, 20 boxes of books, 12 boxes of DVDs and CDs, and another four boxes of LPs (which I just can't quite part with). And then I have to buy bookcases to put all of this stuff into. And then I run out of places to put them (we are at capacity for all of these media types as I speak, and I am *far* past having enough space for my games).

We are getting very close to sheet-based smart paper. We are even closer to people recognizing the value of digitized versions of music, video, and print, even with the compromises these formats generally bring (one being that you can't use them if there's no power). That means when the infrastructure goes down, we lose all of that. Of course, when the infrastructure goes down, we lose pretty much any free time to enjoy media for leisure as well, so who cares about that. And there is definitely something to be said for the material that was such a big part of recordings in my youth that has largely been lost in the iTunes world (not entirely, but to a large degree).

Still, I think it's time. No more dusty games, no more hoping that counters get updated with correct information, living rules on the fly, need-based information at your fingertips... there's a lot to love here.

And maybe, just maybe, it will look cool enough to attract a younger generation of wargamers. And wouldn't *that* be great?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Want To Preorder An iPhone? Good Luck

Three hours of two different websites (Apple and AT&T) and it's pretty clear that I'm not going to be allowed to preorder an iPhone online today. The Apple site does fine right up until it tries to get your information from AT&T, and then it stalls out. AT&T's site will get your information (although why, after having completed our two year service contract in January of this year, why we suddenly have to pay a "transfer" fee of $18 per phone is beyond me), but then it won't complete the transaction online - and even tells you not to bother calling if you are looking for anything iPhone related.

Apple, you need to expand coverage to more providers. If that wasn't clear before, it should be now. On the plus side, apparently my old phone will be worth something on eBay since it won't require a new contract to buy.

Update: The problem does in fact seem to be on AT&T's end, as is being reported. Apple is now suggesting you "reserve" a phone via their Apple Stores, but since the price is set at $699 for the 32Gb phone (as they can't be sure what your upgrade status is), I am hesitant to do so. There is also a rumor that there is a bug in the ordering software that leaks customer data. Nice. Good thing the last four digits of your SSN are part of that personal data. Can we go with another cellular provider now please, Mr. Jobs?

I think this is a mixed blessing anyway, as my wife (now, of course) has decided she wants a white iPhone. I always like hearing thi sort of thing after spending hours trying to get through to the AT&T servers for four hours, where I could only get a black one. The white ones are due out later in the summer, apparently. I may just wait until then, although I'd *love* to get my old phone replaced sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

It's Raining, It's Pouring

As I type, we are in the midst of yet another Pacific storm front moving through the area. It's 8 days into June and we've had over three inches of rain (not counting the current downpour). We normally get something like 1.25 inches in June. Also of interest is that we have yet to reach an 80 degree day for 2010, which if we don't get it today, will break the record for the latest point in the year. They're expecting 80 degrees on Saturday.

In the past, I've been able to live with the idea that it's Rose Festival time in Portland, and that means grey skies and rain. You'd think that the people who planned this might have lived here for awhile and were used to the weather patterns, but I guess not. However, we've had nearly unrelenting rain since mid-April, and it's starting to harsh my biking buzz (I don't like riding in the rain, primarily for safety reasons). I expected to have gotten in around 15 or so rides in by now and have my distance up to 20+ miles, but I've been out only four times and 14 is the most I've done. I think I got one ride in during May, none so far in June.

This is a bit of a problem, as my biking goal for 2010 is to make the 135 mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway ride (as Terry Brooks did recently for the Oregonian, our local paper) in late August. I picked late August as the weather is least likely to get hinkey and it's before the college football season starts (which increases the danger in and around pretty much every city and town we ride through). I will have a good 11 weeks to train, assuming the weather gets good enough for me to be out and building up my endurance (and hill climbing, although there are only a couple of mile-long hills on the route). If it's still raining like this in July, then I may have to push this trip out a year.

I guess I'll have to stay inside and game instead...

Monday, June 07, 2010

I Had A Great iPhone 4.0 Post, And Blogger Ate It

After spending an hour blogging about the new iPhone OS and hardware, Blogger asked me for my login info, rejected it, and ate the post. Apparently there's a problem with the "new" editor.

Fine. I'm looking for an excuse to move to a different platform that will support the iPad better anyway.

In the meantime, let's just say that I'm very happy with the new feature set on the iPhones, largely because of video and the improved camera, plus my old iPhone is 2.5 years old, practically a Methuselah at this point. No 4G, no service other than AT&T, but otherwise I'm happy with them and I'll be preordering early in the morning on June 15th (they come out on the 24th). I'll be getting the 32Gb versions for Mel and myself, which are $299 each. Thank goodness the data plan will be half the price.

So now the hunt begins for a new site host. A shame, Blogger has done a lot of things right, but if I can't use the iPad to blog and if it eats my posts, it's useless to me. Any recommendations are welcome.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

iPad Euros

I've been enjoying a lot of the Euros that are available for the iPad, here's a list of what I've tried and how I think they stack up:

Mu: Maybe my favorite. Mu is a great card game for five, but it has the downside of having a bit of a learning curve. You see, you bid to communicate, not only to get to declare trump, but also to let the high bidders know that you might make a good partner for the chief. The problem is that it takes a few hands to get used to the system, and it's hard to explain, harder yet to figure out in the first place if you can't practice.

Now you can. I've played two games to 500, each taking about an hour to complete, losing both (taking second and third). The first game I lost when I somehow ended up being "on the hook" after my bid, which I didn't realize I was doing. Don't expect the game to coddle you too much, although there is a "Shake-a-Hint" system. You can set the computer player skill level, points to win, and how many players are in the game. I don't think you can play it over a network, though.

I should mention that the game does *not* support the "Mehr" part of the boxed game, however.

Now if they could just make Tichu an iPad/iPhone app...

Money: Definitely down the scale of complexity, this is still a fun 20 minute "filler" game. Again, you can set your opponent difficulty and the number of players. While I like this app, I like playing with real people better. One rule I'd forgotten: You can swap out with one of the sets your opponents put on the table, not just the two pools on either side of the draw pile.

Small World: I don't have this game, as I preferred Vinci over the remake, even with the static map. I hear it's good, but there's no AI and so I'm unlikely to use it.

Keltis: This is the game that eventually became Lost Cities: the Boardgame. I think. You can play with up to four players in a hotseat configuration, which would be very useful for trips. Again, not something that I've tried out much yet, although now that I've got Mu down this will be the next thing I try.

Poison: Definitely a game that's better on an iPhone. A great time-filler, and this was my go-to game until I figured out the interface for...

Zooloretto: I love the board version of this game, and I love the iPhone version. It takes a while to learn the interface so that you can see what your opponents are doing, but once you do it's perhaps my favorite iPhone game.

Catan: I'd like this more if the computer players would trade with me. Even using a "dice deck" the numbers still seem to come out in their favor. I also got a random board that took forever to play because it was so hard to get wheat (3, 11, 9), and the one good wheat space got towns on either side early. This game needs a Conquer rule.

Ingenious: Also an iPhone app. I like this, but it only plays with two (although it can be AI or hotseat). Also, the Tournament settings don't work on my iPhone for some reason. You can adjust AI skill, or even give the game a time limit if you are feeling masochistic.

There are quite a few I haven't gotten around to playing yet, but (Small World aside) these are all on my iPad, and a couple on the iPhone as well.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Dating Chuck's Ugly Girlfriend

I have a love/hate relationship with Twilight Struggle. I know a lot of people love it, but then there are people who thought that The Kaiser's Pirates is a nice light card game that lasts for three hours, has great decisions, and is fun. They're right about the three hour part.

TS *is* a great game. It's been republished repeatedly, almost unheard of in the wargame industry, it's a fantastic entry point for games like Washington's War or Hannibal, and it's on a subject that we rarely get to game on in a serious fashion.

It's also incredibly fragile, being quite prone to the vagaries of the card draw and how the scoring cards come out more than anything else. We never had multiple scoring cards in our hands (we got within two turns of the game end and Matt felt he not only didn't have a chance as the USSR, but also it was getting late). If you end up having to play multiple scoring cards out of your hand, especially if you've been Red Scared/Purged that turn, it can make a slightly bad situation into a game ending situation pretty quickly.

That's not to say that the game won't see the better player win most of the time, especially if you bid Influence for sides at the beginning, just that there can be games where being the better player won't matter much.

At our regular game session, Matt G had asked if anyone was willing to play, assuming enough people present to support it, and I was very willing to be his opponent as the only person who knew the game well. This was my first experience with the "Deluxe" edition, which has a mounted folding mapboard which is very nice, the new optional cards (which I think are supposed to help the USSR, but am not terribly sure as they aren't mentioned in the rulebook at all), and the Influence counters that clearly and easily show who controls what country.

Interestingly, Cooley's Second Law held in this game as well. I'd mentioned a couple of different things that Matt needed to be aware of, the most important of which were the various events that give your opponent OPs during your turn. If the Defcon is at 2, and Matt gives me an OP, I just play a coup in a Battleground state, assuming there's one that's not in the three prohibited Regions, and the game is over with Global Thermonuclear War with me winning. Of course, about midway in, he did exactly that when he played the CIA card. Fortunately, he had played a different card with fewer OPs for Space Race just before, so we just switched the cards and he was fine. Still, a brutal play that most novice players will miss.

For the unaware, Cooley's Second Law states that no matter how carefully someone explains a game or points out a critical rule, someone involved in the game will either miss it, forget about it, or not fully appreciate how important it is. I am currently working on Cooley's Third Law, which will involve game companies not responding to customer inquiries.

That's a joke, btw.

Good Heavens, Lovey, A Yalu Man!

Now that I'm trying to access most of my wargame rules via the iPad, I'm learning some interesting things. First off, the rules for The Burning Blue, which look fine on my Mac in PDF format, look like Latin on my iPad, probably a font thing (and I plan to try a PDF reader other than GoodReader to see if that's the problem).

But the most hilarious thing I've seen yet is the rules for Yalu, from Compass Games, published this past spring (2010).

Yalu was originally published in the 70's, and covers the Chinese reaction to the UN forces in Korea crossing the Yalu River after decisively whupping the North Korean forces after the surprise landings in Inchon. The new edition includes the original edition, a move I applaud as it gives those of us interested in the design process a chance to see exactly how a design can evolve over time. The original map, rules, and even the counters (albeit on the flip side of the new counters) are all in the box.

However, the rules are organized so that if you start at one end of the rules, you get the "Classic" version, and if you "flip" the rules over, you get the "Deluxe" version. That means at some point in the middle of the rules book you get both sets of rules/notes but one is upside down.

When Compass put out the rules in PDF format, they didn't remember this part, so they used the rules as printed. That means the Deluxe rules are right side up, and the Classic rules are, well, upside down.

You can change this pretty easily in most PDF readers, of course, but it's kind of funny.

What's even funnier is that on an iPad, your first response is to turn the iPad upside down to read the different ruleset. Of course, if you haven't locked the screen not to rotate, it flips the copy around to the original downside up orientation in a helpful and pretty hilarious manner. Actually made my wife laugh about a wargame, which is fairly hard to accomplish. You have to lock the screen to read the Classic rules, which is easy to do, but I could see some barely computer-literate wargamers struggling with this even on a PC.

I let Compass know about this and they were unaware of the issue, probably because few people have bothered to try to look at the Classic rules in PDF form, or else just worked around it. While they may or may not do something about it (it would required taking the existing rules and separating them, requiring that they do an extra step every time they publish a new version of these rules, which I consider to be unlikely), but it's nice that they took the time to at least answer me. I can name at least a couple of other wargame companies that aren't that responsive unless you mention that they're unresponsive online.

That was a joke, btw.