Friday, August 27, 2010

Frontline: D-Day First Impression

Earlier in the year, Matt R and I played an entire Combat Commander: Europe campaign game from the Stalingrad Battle Pack during what we called our Third Monday gaming sessions, which took place on (wait for it) the third Monday of each month. After finishing the campaign, we decided to take a bit of a break over the next few months because of GameStorm, WBC West, and other planned events. My mother's health crisis killed any chance of renewing in July, but we did pick up our monthly light wargaming again this month, and I was very glad we did.

There have been several lighter wargames that have come out over the past year, from Panzer General: Allied Assault to Washington's War, but the one that has really grabbed my attention is Frontline: D-Day, a card-based game from Dan Verssen Games (DVG) that covers the fighting in France and Holland in 1944. While the game has, with some justification, gotten dinged for it's overly cartoonish art, I have to say that this is a game that's worth getting and playing for a number of reasons.

One hilarious note: I wrote a comment on a forum concerning Frontline: D-Day on Boardgame Geek, and shortened the name to F:DD. Astute readers will note that the middle characters are the metacode for a particular type of smiley, so my post looked a little manic when I first posted it. I will use FDD instead in this post as a shorthand.

I spend quite a bit of time discussing the system, so if all you want to know is how my game with Matt went, just skip to the end. Sorry about that.

FDD purports to game tactical combat in the above-mentioned theatre at the level of the individual soldier/vehicle/gun level through the use of cards. Like the venerable Up Front, these soldiers are organized into Sections for purposes of generating firepower, moving, or being fired upon, and indeed it's clear that the older game was an inspiration for FDD, even to the degree of abstracting terrain to some extent. However, as I said in a post on BGG, FDD is Rent to Up Front's La Boheme. UF is considerably more detailed and harder to get into, using a Programmed Instruction manual to teach gamers the game a bit at a time. FDD, on the other hand, is actually a very elegant game in comparison, although it's ruleset is not what I would call "clear".

FDD can be played as a force-building game, where both sides choose their weapons, or you can play using one of 20 preset historical scenarios, ranging from the airdrop to take Pegasus Bridge to the city fighting around Arnhem during Market-Garden. I would expect that, like other tactical level games like Combat Commander or Advanced Squad Leader, that there would be ample opportunity to recreate just about any small scale operation fought in this theatre, although at a much higher level of abstraction.

The "map" is created from a set of nine terrain cards set down in a linear fashion. Yes, the map is a straight line, which would seem to prevent much in the way of maneuver. However, there are ways the game does allow maneuver to some degree, and it is possible to "surround" and "flank" your opponent despite the linear nature of the map. Each of the nine terrain slots has three double-sided cards, each with a different terrain type, so there are a lot of permutations to the map. Some of the scenarios use special rules that do a very good job of simulating terrain in a given situation. For example, in the Pointe du Hoc scenario, where US Army Rangers scaled cliffs to reach a gun emplacement only to find that the guns had been moved, so they had to continue inland to locate and destroy them, the first three cards they have to move through are Open Ground, with Fortifications set at the 4th slot to simulate the emplacements that are considered in this scenario to be in Heavy cover rather than the marked Medium Cover. Even with a hex map, this would result in pretty much the same early part of the game without much chance for maneuver. While it's not as exciting as in Up Front, where you actually generate the terrain as you advance (or retreat), it can be more historical. Of course, the various terrain types provide varying levels of Cover (light to heavy) as well as special properties such as improved firepower, drawing of cards when you enter or leave, and requiring units to take morale hits when entering.

We only played using Soldiers, no Guns or Vehicles (such as tanks), so I will only discuss that unit type. Soldiers each represent a single person with a variety of characteristics. Perhaps most important is the firepower they produce, which I will discuss in more detail in the discussion on combat. Second most important is their Victory Point cost, which is used both to determine victory as well as count toward building a force in non-scenario games. There is a Morale factor, which is how many Morale Hits a unit can take in combat before they start converting to Wounds, a Command factor that has to do with Section organization, and an Equipment value that allows you to customize the unit to a certain extent. Soldiers may also have a Special Mutant Power (SMP, my term) that gives them, well, a Special Mutant Power, such as being able to take an additional wound, or throw a grenade further.

Soldiers are typically organized into Sections. Sections are important for a couple of reasons: it is part of the formula that dictates your maximum hand size, and when you activate units you activate them as Sections, which has a major effect on operational flexibility as we will see. A Section consists of a Soldier who acts as the Section Leader and has a Command value of 1 or greater. The Command value limits how many Soldiers can be in that Section, so a Soldier with a value of 1 is his own Led Section. Soldiers with a value of 0 can form their own Unled Section of 1 as well, but Unled Sections do not increase your hand limit, and using the optional rules may not be able to draw cards when that sections performs a Prepare action. A Soldier with a Command of 3 can lead a section with two other soldiers, both of which must have the same or lower values than he (a higher Command value on a Soldier would make him the leader). Once per scenario, you may convert a 0 Command Soldier to a 3 Command Soldier at a specific point in your turn through the Field Promotion mechanism, and sometimes that's a really good idea. You can also manipulate your Sections in a given Terrain card as well.

The currency in FDD is the Action Card. Unlike some games, you don't draw cards just because it is your turn, so how you use your cards will often determine success or failure. More cards in hand means more operational flexibility, so your maximum hand size is a direct measure of the quality of your forces. Your max hand size is determined by seeing how many terrain cards you control (which takes into account whether or not enemy units are "beihind" your forwardmost units) plus the number of Led Sections you have. Action cards can be used to initiate certain types of actions or respond to various situations, and some are persistent after being played. We found that in general the card text was very clear and did not require frequent rules lookups, although there were a couple of exceptions.

The game is played in Turns, one player followed by the other. During your Turn, you will Activate one Section at a time, which will allow your opponent to Activate one Section in response if they so choose, based upon the initial Action. Once one player has Activated all of his Sections (or passes), the Turn ends and it becomes the other player's Turn. Between turns, all Sections once again become available to be Activated, so there is no Opportunity Fire type mechanism where you "use up" a unit's firepower in reaction to a move, such as in ASL or CC. Players also have the opportunity to do some administrative chores at the start of their turn, such as reorganize Sections, use specific types of Equipment such as Bandages to remove Wounds, and get any special benefits from unit quality (an optional rule with DYI games, mandatory for scenarios).

And, quite frankly, this is where the rules more or less collapse into a counter-example of how to write a clear ruleset. First of all, the sequence of play is not discussed until page 16 of a 24 page ruleset - the preceding matter covers almost every other element of the game other than how Actions work. Even the text of Action cards comes out before this, making it hard to figure out exactly what all of the text on them means until you've read further. Second, the sequence of play is formatted in such a way that it can be confusing as to whether they happen in order or not, and also whether the action descriptions that follow are part of the SoP or not. Third, it is not at all clear that one player activates all of their Sections in turn, with the other player strictly reacting. The game flow is fairly novel, but the way it is described in a piecemeal fashion is a bit of a travesty. I love many of Dan Verssen's games and was delighted when he started his own company, but rule writing is not his strong suit and he would benefit tremendously from having a tech writer go over his material. He would also benefit from examples that covered more corner cases that discussed the more complex situations rather than lots of very simple examples. It's a bit of a shame, because I can see these rules completely flummoxing even experienced gamers who will stick what is a very good game on the shelf to collect dust. Dan put these rules out piecemeal on his website prior to publication for review, which is great, but they need to be seen in total, with the components, to be blind tested to avoid unnecessary confusion.

Enough of my complaining about the rules. I find most rulesets in wargames these days to be a mess and poorly worded, and understand that blind testing the rules with someone with editorial skills is perhaps asking a bit much. However, I will try to do more to search out publishers who make the rules available ahead of time to try to make what improvements I can prior to publication.

So back to the game itself. The meat of the game is in the actions and reactions. Players have three choices of action: Move, Combat, and Prepare. Prepare requires no card play, you simply choose a section, mark them as Acted, then each soldier in that section can do one of a number of things: draw a card, remove a Pinned marker from itself, or "reload" it's ammo. In reaction, the non-phasing player can Prepare one of their own sections, marking it as Acted as well (and thus unable to react to a different Action during this player Turn).

The Move action is a little more involved. The phasing player plays either a Move card, getting the benefit of it's action text, or plays any card as a "default" Move card and does *not* get the benefit of it's text. In other words, you need to have a card in hand to perform a Move action. As a result, you activate a section, marking it as Acted, and may either Advance it toward your opponent's end of the terrain cards, Retreat toward your own, or remain in the card you are in. You may wonder at what the value is in staying in your card, but there are Action cards such as Flanking that give you a firepower bonus and you may want to stay in the card you are in for a wide variety of reasons. And that's just one example, there are also Key Position cards, or cards that give you additional Cover that comes off of the Firepower value of an attack. You may move into and even past terrain cards with enemy units on them unless scenario rules dictate otherwise.

In response, your opponent can activate one of their Sections to Move in exactly the same way as listed above, burning a card in exactly the same way. They can also Attack (covered below) or Prepare (as above). In every case they mark the Section as having Acted for that particular player turn. The reactive Action does not have to involve the originally activated Section in any way - you don't have to Attack the activated section, for example. If the reactive action is an Attack, the phasing player may choose to activate yet another Section to Counter-Attack, which I discuss below. In brief, a Counter-Attack will reduce the firepower of the Attacking unit.

The third action type is Attack. Like Move, it requires an action card, either explicitly an Attack type using the card text, or a "default" Attack that doesn't. In this case, the Attacking section designates an enemy Section to attack. During the Attack process, the non-phasing player may react by Moving (as above, which may or may not be the attacked Section), Counter-Attacking (again, non necessarily the same section), or Prepare.

Here's how the combat system works. It's actually very elegant considering the tactical nature of the game - most tactical wargames involve line of sight, range, firepower, and cover in a fairly sophisticated system, but in this game it's all just a series of fairly straightforward choices.

First, the Attacking player declares the attack, in other words, what section they are attacking. In this game, you attack entire sections (unless you are using a sniper, outside this discussion) and the owner distributes damage in the section.

Second, the attacker computes their firepower. Each Soldier has a firepower chart that dictates a value based on range. If there is more than one value for a given range, the player gets to choose which value to use. Black numbers are "aimed" fire, which does not consume ammo, while red numbers are "rapid" fire which are typically larger but force the soldier to reload during a Prepare step before they can fire again. Range is simply the difference between the Terrain card numbers, so if you are on card 2 firing at card 7 the range is 5. Some units are limited in what ranges they can fire at at all - mortars, for example, can't fire at very short range of 0-1. Add up all of these numbers, expending ammo as necessary, to determine the base firepower.

Third, the enemy may react as given above. If they move, the range does not change, nor does the base firepower change at this time. If they counterattack, they compute their firepower in a similar fashion for the section involved, and it is subtracted from the base firepower computed in step 2. If the counterattack ends up reducing the base firepower to a negative number, the counterattack becomes the attack and the originally firing unit takes fire instead! A good reason to come with all you've got in many cases! Counterattacks use Attack cards, so a default card or Attack card must be used, same for move reactions, while Preparing does not require a card. Counterattack firepower values are always halved (rounded down) unless a Covering Fire Attack card is played to activate the counterattack.

Fourth, the player undergoing attack may play Instant cards that improve their Cover value (which always starts at 0), or a Move card may increase the cover value. This value is subtracted from the firepower, but does *not* switch who is attacking who as can happen as the result of a counterattack - the attacker always remains the attacker in this step.

Finally, you determine damage, and this is the really clever part of the game. There are a set of Hit counters in the game that have a damage type (Pin, Morale, Wound, and Dead) that each have a set of values on them which correspond to terrain cover types (heavy, medium, and light). Don't confuse terrain cover with a Cover value, they are different. For example, a Pin Hit counter absorbs one attacking firepower point in Light cover, 2 in Medium, and 3 in Heavy. Morale Hits cost 2/3/4, Wounds cost 3/4/5, and Dead cost 5/6/7. You continue drawing hit counters, assigning them to individual soldiers as they are drawn, until the incoming Firepower value has been absorbed. Soldiers must each receive a hit counter before any soldier can receive a second, then each must receive a second before each can receive a third, and so on, so you need to be careful about who gets stuck with what might be a Dead counter. Unit status is not determined until all hit counters are assigned, so a unit that gets a Dead counter can still absorb hit counters even though he will die, which can be handy.

For example, a player's total firepower after all steps is 10, firing on a Section in medium terrain. The first hit counter drawn is a Pin, which absorbs 2 firepower and is assigned to one of the soldiers, leaving 8 firepower to be absorbed. The next counter is a Dead counter, which absorbs 6 in Medium terrain, so the owning player must assign it to one of the Soldiers that has not gotten a hit counter assigned yet, and the incoming firepower is down to 2. A Wound counter is drawn next, with a value of 4 in Medium terrain, so it is ignored since it exceeds the firepower available.

Once all hit counters are assigned, you then replace them with damage counters. A Pin counter means that that soldier can't do anything other than Prepare until the pin is removed, although the Section itself might still move or attack. A second Pin result escalates to a Morale hit. Morale hits count against the Morale level of the soldier, and once that level is met additional morale hits become Wounds. A soldier can have one wound, but the second one will kill it, and wounded soldiers may not Advance (more forward), although they can retreat. Pins can be removed through a Prepare action, while wounds can be removed through the use of Bandage equipment. Morale can be removed by a Medic unit. All three can be removed using Rally actions.

As you can imagine, a unit that has a Pin, is maxed out on Morale, and has one Wound will be killed by a single Pin result - the Pin escalates to a Morale as there is already a Pin marker, the Morale can't be absorbed because there are as many markers as the unit's rating, so it becomes a wound, which is the second wound that kills the Soldier.

I really like this system. I think it accurately demonstrates several elements of tactical combat in a very easy to execute and remember fashion. A reference card lays out the effects of each type of damage. Another cool element is that Prepare actions can fix *one* thing for a given soldier per activation - remove the Pin, allowing it to perform Move or Combat actions, reload the ammo, allowing it to fire, or draw a card, allowing for Move/Combat activations. But only one. Thus, a unit that is both pinned and out of ammo and almost certain to die the next time it is attacked may give more bang for the buck if it is used to instead draw a card if you are out of cards, essentially sacrificing itself for other soldiers.

As you can also imagine, having fewer sections than your opponent means that if they all attack (and you can attack a given section multiple times in your turn) that eventually you won't be able to counterattack and lower the firepower value of the attacking section. Similarly, if you advance without a section to perform covering fire, you are at the mercy of the full firepower of a reacting enemy section, so you need to have an Instant action card that prohibits enemy reaction to advance safely, or make sure that your opponent is out of ammo, or pinned, or some other way of minimizing firepower.

It's very elegant, really. All of the core aspects of tactical combat are there, if in different forms that you might expect. Op Fire, advancing under covering fire, flanking (highly abstracted), finding a key position (also abstracted), smoke (obscured action cards), benefits *and* liabilities of various terrain, operational flexibility, leadership, even unit quality, which improves or penalizes various game factors such as who can draw cards during Prepare actions, drawing extra cards, improved hand size, etc. While the linear nature and relative lack of maneuverability may put off some hardcore wargamers, as well as things like a lack of Line of Sight rules, at the same time it does everything else and in a very easy to teach package with a ton of replayability. Throw in being able to customize units through Equipment that can improve firepower, allow you to pull up discards, draw extra cards, bind wounds, dig for cover, among other things, and also have tanks! Really, it's quite a cool little system, and one that deserves your attention if you can get past the small number of things that, frankly, weren't really all that present or well implemented in Up Front anyway, it's closest relative.

Dan's designs are clearly intended to be very accessible, and if you can get past the rules, this game meets that challenge. Highly recommended, especially if you have a budding wargamer that you'd like to introduce to tactical combat.

And did I mention the game has a solitaire system as well that can be used for any scenario or DYI game? Score.

This has been a very long post, so here's a brief recap of my game with Matt (we also played the "starter" game to get the rules down), which was scenario 2, Pointe du Hoc. Online this is referred to as "Where Rangers Go To Die" which I didn't realize until we were already playing, and Matt had chosen the Rangers. Whoops.

The situation is a bunch of Rangers scaling the cliffs west of Omaha Beach to take out a worrisome set of large bore arty. They got to the top only to realize the guns had been moved, so they had to go inland to locate and take them out. In this scenario, I had a bunch of Germans who couldn't move from terrain card 4, considered heavy fortifications, organized in two sections. The Rangers had three undermanned sections, but with very good quality troops compared to my Reserve quality troops (meaning that drawing enough action cards was going to be a challenge for me). Matt's Rangers had 15 turns to clear me out of my fort, then either take out the resulting (crap) German reinforcements or taking terrain card 8.

In the early rounds, I chewed up two of his sections rather badly, coming within one Pin result of killing the last Soldier necessary to take the game. Unfortunately, this was the one guy who could take two wounds without dying, and Matt kept drawing Rally cards to get his wounds removed. My thinking was that Matt needed to be doing more Move actions in reaction to my Attacks, but he stalled out with the tough guy in card 2 while everyone else sat in card 1. Having a soldier who could throw grenades two spaces did not hurt, as I was in High Ground which improved my range by 1.

Then, disaster struck rather quickly. First of all, he finally got a good combination of pins and me out of cards so that he could Double Time his one remaining multiman section up to terrain card 3, grabbing four cards in the process as everything was Open Terrain (which you draw when you move into *and* out of). Now his firepower was at a point where it was increasingly difficult for me to counter it, and both my lack of cards and his larger number of sections finally began to pay off. The back breaker, though, was when he drew two Dead results for his first two hits on my smaller section, and it went downhill from there quickly. His intact large section had enough firepower to take out my reinforcements from terrain card 4 (they were in 7 in Heavy terrain), and the reinforcements didn't have close to enough responding firepower to be able to mount an effective counterattack. He wiped them out in a couple of turns easily, enough to win on VP.

I love games that come within a hair of victory for one side, only to have the other side prevail and turn the tide. This was one of those game, and a great first "real" game using the system. One Pin result away! Curse you, Red Baron, urm, Ranger!

Anyway, a lot of fun, and we may end up playing a campaign series using this system (also supported in the box).

Give 'er a shot, it's a very cool little game.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Back To Gaming: Macao

July and the first half of August were extremely dry in terms of gaming opportunities for me - aside from one Tuesday game night that I hosted on July 6, I didn't play a single game again (other than a little Race for the Galaxy on the computer in free moments) until August 17th when I hosted again. I cannot tell you how much I missed the company.

Like a lot of people, part of the way I deal with stress is to, wait for it, buy more games. Buying things gives you the illusion of control over at least some part of your life, even if you are actually handing control over to your acquisitive side. Still, it was nice to get to the store and at least be distracted for a little while. There were a few new things there that I picked up, one of which was Macao. I'd remembered seeing a lot of people playing this at GameStorm (or I could have confused it with Vasco de Gama, it's been that kind of year), so I picked up a copy. Mike later said he'd played it and enjoyed it, so I was keen to get it on the table, and even keener to let someone else do the 'splainin'.

Macao is what my group calls a DALOT GABOP game (I'm sure I have this backwards, and I'm sure someone will correct me), which stands for Do A Lot Of Things, Get A Bunch Of Points. Some might say that it's more of a Many Paths To Victory game, but I'm not convinced of that just yet. It's also a game that has a lot of chaos management to it, although everyone has to deal with the same random elements. I find that DALOT games are best explained in reverse, so here goes with the nickel tour.

The theme is (surprise) about running a trading empire during the Age of Discovery. You get points for taking your ship to various trade locations, having taken control of contiguous locations in the city portion of the map, and by activating specific combinations of cards. You lose points through having cards left unactivated at game end, by not having any action cubes in the current turn area when you rotate your windrose, and by having too many unactivated cards when you have to add one to your tableau. Those last three are unintelligible until later, but you get the point. You can also buy victory points during the game with gold. Having a good balance of these various point sources seems to be important to winning.

The key to the game is the action cube mechanism. There are six colors of action cubes that can be used to activate cards and buy city spaces on the map in various combinations from one to four cubes. You get the cubes in the middle of each turn when someone rolls six dice, one for each action cube color, and everyone picks two dice that they will take that many cubes of, placing them that many turns ahead on their windrose. For example, it's turn 2, and the dice have come up 1 red, 2 green, 2 blue, 4 white, 6 purple, and 6 black. If you chose to take the black and the green, for example, you would place six black cubes in the 6 space of your windrose that you would use on turn 8 (six turns away), and two green cubes on turn 4. Everyone can pick from any color, so everyone could conceivably take the exact same set of cubes. You start with a few cubes on the first two turns, but after that you have to balance a lot of cubes that you can't use for a while vs a few cubes that you can use relatively quickly.

Before you what cubes you have, however, you get to draft cards from that turn's pool. Cards cost cubes to activate, and you are limited to five unactivated cards at a time. Everyone starts with one card, so if you haven't activated one (to use it's Special Mutant Power) by turn six, you'll get dinged six points right away. The cards come in three "flavors" of Office, Person, and City, of which you know what Office cards are coming up for every turn, but the Person and City cards you don't find out about until right when it's time to draw them. The pool is two larger than the number of players, and the draft order is determined by the location of your marker along the "Wall", so the last position on the Wall gets a choice of three cards. You need to choose carefully, but there are a *lot* of possible combinations. Office cards tend to allow you to trade cubes for Gold, which is important in and of itself.

The pool of cards also determines how many Gold it takes to buy victory points. Every card has a gold and a VP value on it, and you add up both values so that players can spend that many gold once later in the turn to get the associated VP. In our game, the numbers ranged from one or two gold to buy four or five VP to six or eight gold to buy nine VP. That may seem like you want to avoid the less efficient combinations, but since the *only* thing gold is good for is buying points it's worth pursuing if you don't have anything else you can do with your action cubes.

Now that you have cubes and cards, each player will now spend the cubes they have for the current turn on various things, from activating your cards (and once activated, you can continue to use them every turn), to buying spaces in the city (which usually give you goods) to moving your ship one space per spent action cube (which, when they arrive at the appropriate port, give you more VP), to advancing along the Wall so that you'll get to go first in the player order (which means mostly that you get more cards to choose from). Most of the cards involve trading cubes for other things, such as gold or VP, although many do things like let you skip taking a card if you don't want to or giving bonus points for getting three of a specific type of Office card at game end.

So, in a nutshell, what you are doing is taking cards that you'll need to activate with cubes, picking (hopefully adjacent) city spaces that will give you goods that you'll get points for when you've spent enough cubes to move your ship, and you're doing it without really knowing what types of cubes you'll have when or whether or not you'll even be able to put cubes in the upcoming slot on your windrose.

And it's fun anyway!

The really great part of this game is trying to plan your cubes for maximum effect. If I know I have six grey cubes coming up in three turns (because I chose the Grey 6 die three turns back), you may end up with three more purple cubes in that slot if the purple die comes up a 3 this turn (and I pick it as one of my two choices). As the game goes on, the bigger numbers convert to 1's (since there won't be a turn 13, so the 6's become 1's on turn 7), and while you are guaranteed to be able to put any color cube in your windrose for this turn, it may not get put in the slot you need to activate that specific card you need to build. Remember, you *must* take a card every turn and you lose three points for each card that isn't activated at game end. You also lose three points if you have no cubes to use in a given turn. And you must also use every cube you have for that turn, you can't hold them for the next turn. You can always use the extras to move your ship forward or advance on the Wall, but in the end the game is about making the best of what you have, and what you have is rarely what you need or want.

I was aggressive in our game with moving my ship, but I only had three goods to deliver for a total of 15 points. JD, on the other hand, had six goods and won the game handily. There is no question that you need to buy VP with gold, which requires you to *get* more gold as the game goes on, which requires office cards, which means that you get fewer Special Mutant Powers that add gold or let you skip taking cards...

Oh, the humanity. I believe there are something like 40 different Special Mutant Powers in this game, so a lot of potential combinations. Also important - There are multiple subtypes of each card type which you need to pay attention to, and many cards give you bonuses based strictly on card type or subtype, so pay close attention. Also, don't expect to have much of a clue your first several turns as to what makes for a good choice among the limited choices you will have based on card selection and cube selection. It does get easier to plan as the game goes on as the odds of what cubes will come up get higher, but don't discount backloading your cubes in the midgame so that you have a lot to work with in the last few turns. I totally stalled out the last three turns in our game, mostly because I had the Jester who allowed me to avoid taking extra cards into my tableau. I still ended up losing three points when I got the two things I needed four grey cubes for in turn eleven comingled in my mind!

Our game moved along fairly briskly, with the most downtime occurring when people chose from the card pool. Surprisingly, the individual action rounds where everyone spent their cubes went quickly, mostly because people had a good sense of what they could and couldn't do as soon as they took cubes. Still, the game took almost two and a half hours, which I would see getting down to two with a little experience for four players, perhaps down to an hour and a quarter with three players, which may be the sweet spot for this game. Still, I had a lot of fun playing and it was definitely nice to have the company of good friends after such a long drought.

Coming up, my impressions on Frontline: D-Day and Settlers of America: Trails to Rails.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Up From The Depths

It's been a *very* long time since I actively blogged. In early July my mother lost her ability to walk effectively, which had been going downhill slowly for years, and my sister and I became 24/7 caregivers for a couple of weeks while we got her into an assisted living situation, one which I had actually started the process for more than a week earlier. We got her moved, got her a power chair and combination wheelchair/power chair, and moved within two weeks of her loss of mobility in her legs.

At the end of the month, we went to our annual family vacation in Central Oregon, where Mom fell after getting out of bed in the middle of the night and suffered a brain injury. The week long vacation turned into a week of constant supervision, my mother going into hospice care (apparently a status now more than a location), and our more or less certainty that she would die shortly. We discovered several things during that week - you want to leave this sort of care to professionals, and that a week with very little effective sleep is hugely destructive to the family dynamic. That and some family is more willing to help than others.

Mom came home at the start of August, and has recovered considerably, much to everyone's surprise. She is still getting 12 hour care during the day as the assisted care only has people coming by every 2 hours and she needs a trip to the bathroom every 90 minutes or less and will try to walk there if no one comes in about a minute (which never happens). She is kind of with it, remembering people and non-recent events, but not places or things that happened that day or sometimes week. I said early in the process that family care was unsustainable, needing someone to make sure she couldn't get up in the middle of the night, fall, and do something worse to herself. I do no include dying - I mean incapacitating herself even more, such as a broken bone or increasing her pain.

I have learned that elderly care options in the US boil down to a very few poor choices, and that's if your family has resources. If they do, prepare to burn through them quickly - we estimated 24/7 professional care with mom in a rented apartment at over $250,000 per year. Adult foster care is great unless you have a high fall risk, which Mom is, and finding a good one is a trick. Nursing homes are grim. Assisted care is one-size fits all, with me being told repeatedly when I've asked for the management to collaborate with us that "perhaps you should look at other options." And this is a *nice* place with good staff, but they are horribly overloaded and it has taken more than 30 minutes on occasion for someone to get to Mom when she's pushed the alert button. If she becomes too much of a "problem" they will simply tell her she has to go somewhere else, and good luck.

Perhaps the worst is the mild dementia. I recently spent a 12 hour shift with Mom (we've resorted to giving her sleeping pills at night, aka "drugging" her, to keep her from falling) where she asked me six times when we were going home. Explaining her situation often results in her, with some prodding, admitting that she can't remember the past month, and ends with her getting angry when I explain again that we *are* home, that the people working there are all people she remembers and her things are all there, but she still gets angry and feels as if we are trying to trick her. It's like living a horrible Groundhog Day movie every 90 minutes to two hours. As you can imagine, that takes a bit of an emotional toll.

In a recent Esquire magazine, there is a small blurb that says "It is impossible to forget the sound of your mother's voice, even as she is forgetting yours."

This week, Mom went off of hospice care, which means that we no longer think she's dying. Had you told her this would happen two months ago, she would have asked for help committing suicide.

I'm generally very candid about my life, although I generally try to protect the privacy of other people, such as when I effectively "lost" my adult biological daughter last summer. This time, though, I think we as a society need a collective wake up call.

I am part of the boomer generation, just barely on the tail end, while my siblings are all on the front end. As this generation's parents are going through this process, there should be a huge wakeup call to my generation that we cannot continue to warehouse the elderly that are no longer able to care for themselves. There may be better ways for us a society to take care of people who can no longer get to the bathroom by themselves, but quite frankly I've come to the conclusion that when that day comes for me that I want the option to get it over with and euthanize myself at a time of my choosing.

Don't fool yourself, a very high percentage of seniors have this same wish today. My mother has been talking about it for years, ever since she fell and fractured a couple of lumbar and found that there was very little we could do in terms of pain management that didn't also risk her balance and thus mobility. It's enough of an unsaid reality that the Obama administration suggested that end-of-life care be something that every American should discuss with their doctor. The right went nuts, claiming that they were sponsoring Death Panels, but what they seemed to be ignoring was that a sizable percentage of seniors want more and better options than they have now. The terrible thing is that unless you are actively involved in the life of a senior with some sort of mobility or cognitive limitation, you don't understand that the choices you have now are nowhere near acceptable.

This is not to say we actively euthanize our elderly. I'm saying that when I want to go, I want the right to go in a manner that is peaceful, comfortable, quick, and that doesn't leave a mess. Unless I am diagnosed with a terminal disease that will kill me in six months, and I am in full control of my faculties, I can't do this, and the only reason I could if I did meet those criteria is because I'm in *one* small state in the US that *does* allow people to take their own lives if they wish to. If you have a religious proscription against committing suicide, then go ahead and be a burden to your children. That's your business. Because believe me, my mother is now a burden to her children, one that we have almost no effective way to lighten unless you would be affected by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Because I understand that I live in a country that no longer has political discourse, only shouting and propaganda and fingerpointing, I am not at all sure that I'll even have that choice in the next 40 years, which would put me at the same age as my mother. My goal at this time, as a result, is to enjoy all of the delicious food I can that will kill me, drink regularly (if not to excess), live a little harder. Because our bodies were never built to last as long as they do now, the UV damage done that we call aging is not reversible or stoppable, and when you hit 80 you are going to fall apart no matter how well you've taken care of yourself, which my mother did. It doesn't matter.

I am telling every 60 something I know at this point that it's time to start thinking about end of life, and what you *really* want. Having a registered Physicians Orders document that governs your resuscitative options that you update regularly, informing your children of your wishes, stocking up those pain pills if you get them, contacting your congressperson (although right now, nothing is going to get done in Washington in the next ten years or so, the environment is far too aimed at stopping the opposition rather than achieving anything for their constituents). Really, whatever you have to do, you should be preparing to do.

Of course, then I see the weather report for the world and realize that the infrastructure is all going down in the next ten to fifteen years anyway, maybe sooner, so it's probably better to just stock up on food and ammo and buy a place in the mountains with a little arable land nearby and few if any neighbors. I hear property values are at historic lows.

Grim? You bet. Maybe that's why we've avoided discussing it as a culture for so long. It's still coming, and it's coming for you and your loved ones. Ignoring it won't make it go away, so start giving it some serious thought *now*, whether that means a living will, health power of attorney, POLST, or a bottle of opiates in the freezer. Because the chances are really good that even if you *do* have resources now, they may or may not be there when you need them to keep your quality of life at a point where it's higher than quality of no more life. And believe me, you do *not* want to have to ask your children to find a way to help you die. I know.


On a lighter note, after a long series of watching the light at the end of the tunnel turn out to be an oncoming train, appear to actually be emerging from the tunnel and have started gaming and living my own life again. I will be back to writing about games again in the next few days. And this time, I mean it.