Monday, February 21, 2011

And One More Try With The Labyrinth Thing

My previous solitaire effort with Labyrinth went south on a couple of levels, so I gave it one more shot with the You Can Call Me Al scenario. Same deal - three decks, no player nerfs. I got the vast majority of the rules right, and while I run into the occasional Jihadist event in the game that seems counter-intuitive (like setting a Besieged Regime marker in an Islamist Afghanistan), at the same time I think this game has been pretty well internalized for me.

First, the results. I had some good success with improving Governance early, but I'm fairly convinced that the way to win this game is to prevent Islamist Governments in a few key locations, one of them being Pakistan. If you can survive with an 8 card hand, that means you can get move two troops to three more countries other than Saudi and the Gulf. For me, that meant Pakistan, then Sudan (after Somalia went Islamist), then Jordan. By the start of the final deck, I had gained and lost Sudan as a Good government, and while the Gulf and Saudi went Good fairly early (with a certain amount of back and forth), it was Jordan that was the fourth Good country.

Making things harder were an Islamist Lebanon. Go HAMAS! Not really. The biggest problem with Lebanon is that it's right next to the Shengen countries in Europe, and so lots of travel there while there were cells present. I managed to get the Ethiopians to take out the Somali Islamists, but shortly thereafter Sudan went Islamist. Fortunately, I had pulled my troops out so no Prestige hit.

At the third deck, I got really lucky on the second hand. I had managed to turn Pakistan to Good Governance with some lucky WoI rolls (and good Prestige and a Good Gulf States nearby), and then I got the magic combo. I had had Kemalist Republic in the first hand, but no chance to really use it. Turkey was a Poor Ally, so I could have used it. However, in the second hand I ended up pulling Oil Price Spike, which let me take it back. Not only that, it gave me 11 Good Resources instead of 9, so I could go after an obvious country like Turkey for the win instead of Iraq (which was Adversary and Poor).

And, of course, I rolled the six on the WoI table to get Turkey to Good, winning with 13 Good Resources.

My impression is that, like most solitaire games, you need to use good tactics, good responses to bad combinations of events, and a long view. However, as I've said on BGG, Lady Luck is a stone cold bitch and Irony is sitting on her shoulder. There's no other way to have it in a solitaire game, if there isn't a luck element then you just have a puzzle, and what fun is that?

If you are going to play the Soft game, here are a few things I've found that seem to make a big difference:

1) Prestige is key to a win. Since you can't knock the Jihadists out by killing all of their cells, you have go to for a Good Governance win, that or getting a lot of countries to Fair as well. I think that latter method is a sucker bet, too many chances for the Islamists to Jihad and Plot your ass in too many places, and Radicalization makes extra cell placement and travel far too easy. That means you need to make WoI rolls, and you can't do that with your Prestige in the toilet.

2) So how do you get Prestige up? Disrupting cells in countries where you have 2+ troops, so early on you want to get countries to become Allies so you can place them there. As I said above, you can have up to 5 countries "corseted" like this unless you want to drop down to 7 cards per turn. Of course, if you need a little extra time, that can be worthwhile if you can get Funding down as well. Remember, however, that FATA will show up regularly, so if you are in Pakistan (and you should be in Pakistan if you're going to have an Islamist country next door) try to get the Indo-Pakistani Talks played too if at all possible. Troops are also handy if the country goes Adversary, which Saudi did with me thanks to Al-Jazeera. You need to keep those countries as "clean" as possible, because even Good countries tend to have successful Jihads from time to time.

3) Going hand in hand with keeping Prestige high is to disrupt Funding. An 8 card hand is worthwhile if the Jihadists have the same or smaller hand size, so do what you can to drop this down. Be aware that there are a lot of cards that bump this back up, but if you have the chance to drop Funding down to a 7 card hand, it will pay off in the long run.

4) Go for the Domino effect as much as possible. Adjacency is a big deal in this game when it comes to Travel for the Jihadists, so having a cluster of Good countries makes it harder for them to be infiltrated en masse. Don't get too confident, however - Radicalization will drop a cell in the middle of the pack right after you get your troops out, and that doesn't help anyone.

5) Understand which cards are not going to be usable when you aren't Hard or in Regime Change (and being in Regime Change while you're soft will make it hard to keep those troops in those Good countries). An Islamist country isn't necessarily a bad thing, and in fact I managed to win with three of them in effect at once. However, there are a lot of cards that require a Regime Change marker on the board, and they aren't all US cards, which means more Jihadist cards that you don't have to play the event to use.

6) Strive for constancy of Posture. Don't be afraid to Reassess if you can after a Posture shift. Soft is going to cause problems, but no more than Hard will, and you have a statistically better chance of GWOT not being a factor as well as countering the -1 Prestige ding you get at the end of the turn. Plus, no GWOT dings for WoI rolls too. I think that sticking with one Posture throughout *most* games is a good idea, although there are definitely times when a temporary shift can give you the benefit of an Event or two if you get lucky with the card draw. Still, WoI is the path to victory in the solitaire game, and you can't win if you have a -3 GWOT nerf against you.

I've played a lot of Labyrinth solitaire recently, and have enjoyed it quite a bit. Having the ability to play as the US using different strategies is very appealing, and adding in the US nerfs to make it harder will be interesting. I definitely think that the game will go where the cards take you (and, to a smaller extent, the dice), but in the end the game has great narrative features and works well on VASSAL (especially if you have a couple of monitors, as I do). Hopefully the suggestions I give above will help you take on the Jihadists while staying Soft.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Labyrinth Diary, Vol 4

Turn 6:

Note: One bad Jihadist card in my hand, Kashmir, which I can avoid. The really good news is that I can dig out a card from the discards with Oil Price Spike. Otherwise, Special Forces is the only real event. So only one 3 to deal with plots…

J1: IEDs (J1). Unplayable. Travel to Gulf States from Iran, auto.

J2: Al-Anbar (J2). Place cell in Iraq. Not a big deal for me at all.

US1: Special Forces (US1). Remove cell in Gulf States, place Cadre.

US2: Hizb Ut-Tahrir (1). Disrupt cell in India (removed).

Note: Getting the cells off the board. The cells in UK and Italy are targeted next, but hopefully they will attempt plots to make them easier to get rid of.

J3: FATA (J3). Event. Cell in Pakistan (three now, but with two troops it will be a long slog to Major Jihad). However, I can no longer disrupt there, which was a great place to do it because of the troops.

J4: Euro-Islam (US2). Playable. Plot attempts in UK (fail) and Italy (fail). Guess I got what I was hoping for!

US3: Zarqawi (2). Disrupt cell in UK, removed.

US4: Anbar Awakening (US2). Disrupt cell in Italy, removed.

Note: Cadres are all over the place, but at least I’ve knocked them all back quite a bit. I’ve also hit my main goal for the turn, which was to clean up the really dangerous countries for plots and cells. Now I need to seriously consider whether or not to Reassess this turn. Let’s see what the Oil Price card brings…

J5: CTR (US1). Unplayable. Recruit in Somalia (auto).

J6: NEST (US1). Playable. Plot attempt in Yemen, fails.

US5: Oil Price Spike (3). I select US Election!

US6: US Election (3). US Posture stays Hard, unfortunately. No change to Prestige. Disrupt active cell in Yemen, place cadre.

Note: Such a great combo, but no love. I suppose I should have held it and used it for Reassessment instead. Oh well.

J7: Covert Action (US2). Playable. Plots in Pakistan, two cells go active. Both plots are successful.

J8: Iran (2). Event rolls Jihad in Turkey, both rolls fail. Recruit in Somalia, one success.

US7: Sharia (US2). WoI in Caucasus, Soft. No change.

US8: Leak (J3). WoI in Caucasus again. This time, Hard. GWOT track to Soft 2. Making headway again at last.

Plot Resolution in Pakistan: +2 Funding to 8.

US discards Kashmir.

End of Turn: -1 Funding to 7, no change to Prestige.

Note: A better turn for me, no question. I cleaned up the non-Muslim countries, and made a little headway in the GWOT. Next turn I plan to work on the Philippines and whatever other countries the cards indicate. Prestige is still a problem, but better to wait for it to be rolled and hope for a big bump. However, 13 Poor/Islamist countries it too many, but I need better mods before I can start to roll WoI in the Muslim world. I also need to knock down the funding, after forgetting about the plots.

Turn 7:

Note: Not a good hand. Most of the cards are Jihadist and while only Clean Operatives is really nasty, a lot place cells for few OPS. No US cards at all, and the three unassociated events only HAMAS is helpful. Also only one 3 card that’s playable. Fortunately, I’m in decent shape, and plan to use most of my cards for WoI plays to shift the GWOT. If that’s successful, I will be in good shape going into deck 2.

J1: Pirates (J2). Playable. This will make it harder to keep Funding under control, and will make Somalia a more likely Regime Change country if it comes to that.

J2: Abu Sayyaf (J2). Playable. I may be deploying troops there this turn, as I probably should in Turkey as well.

US1: Loose Nuke (J2). Unplayable, thankfully. I use this to deploy two troops to the Philippines.

US2: Ansar al-Islam (J1). Playable. Cell is randomly placed in Iran. With my OPS I choose to WoI in India, which stays soft.

Note: I would go for Reassessment if I had more 3 cards than 1 cards this turn. I have been ignoring the benefits of having troops on the board, and there is still one more pair I could deploy. My only ally right now, though, is Turkey, although my first choice would be Yemen.

J3: Renditions (US3). Playable. Plot (1) in Philippines (success), then randomly in Iran (fail) and Somalia (fail). All three cells go active, and marker placed in the Philippines, but the troops prevent the extra -1 Prestige penalty if I don’t block it.

J4: Hizballah (2). Playable. Lebanon would go to Poor Neutral, but it’s already there. Recruit in Somalia, then Afghanistan, both auto.

US 3: Uyghur Jihad (J1). Playable. Cell to Central Asia per event. I then try a Posture test in India again (success). Finally. GWOT to 0. Prestige +1 to 2.

US4: Darfur (3). Remove plot in Philippines.

Note: Hate to use my only playable 3 card for that, but not a lot of choices. I have finally gotten the GWOT to have no penalty, and I can start working on getting the Gulf States to Good Governance. With two 2 cards, I should be able to give this a couple of shots.

J5: Predator (US2). Playable. Plots in Philippines (fail) and Iran (success). Cells already active.

J6: Jemaah Islamiya (J2). Playable. Only one cell on the track, so second OPS is for radicalization, and that will be Travel. Indonesia tests Poor, Poor/Islam to 14 (getting a little scary here). Travel to Gulf States from Somalia (auto).

US6: Hamas Elected (1). Event. I discard Clean Operatives and reduce Funding -1 to 6, Prestige -1 to 1. This seems like a bad idea, but I’m going to lose the point anyway in the not too distant future. I may rethink this if a final Poor country shows up.

US7: Zawahiri (2). I take a swing at the Gulf States to try to get it to Good status (fail).

Plot in Iran: Funding +1 to 7.

Note: I am right on the edge here. I can’t try to WoI a Poor country, not enough OPS. I played HAMAS because Radicalization was going to place a plot that I was afraid would be a real problem (like the US), and this gives me the option to discard the card. However, it also gives the Jihadists three card plays before I can really respond, five if you count the next turn. I am on a tightrope…

J7: Wahhabism (J3). Funding to 9. Sigh. At least I won’t care about plots in Muslim countries.

J8: Opium (J2). Radicalization (3). First travels a cell to Gulf States from Pakistan (active). Second lowers Good/Fair governance in a Muslim country by one. That means the Gulf States and Turkey both go to Poor, and I lose the game because my Prestige is at 1 and there are 15 Poor/Islamist countries.

End of Game Notes: Well, that fell apart fast. Oddly, my biggest problem in this game was that I didn’t stay Soft for long. I’m not sure if changing my attitude would have helped by going for Regime Change, although that has it’s own issues. I was definitely happy to have troops in Pakistan, and I think that’s a no-brainer since it makes it that much harder for the Jihadists to travel there by the AI.

My practice of dumping J3 cards rather than playing them and suffering the events may be a contributing factor as well. Certainly my efforts to both bump up my Prestige and lower Jihadist funding was a contributing factor, although had I been able to keep the OPS recruiting down I could have survived the turn (it was Radicalization that did me in).

All in all, I consider this a failed experiment, seeing as I wanted to see how well I could do with a Soft posture. I think a concerted effort to Reassess would have been in my best interest when I had a good hand. I certainly spent a lot of time and failed effort trying to get to a GWOT Penalty of 0, and while I was successful, it was a long and painful journey without enough success to get my Prestige up. Had I not been using all of my 3 cards to stop Plots, I would have been able to do this more easily. Hard has it’s advantages, but if you aren’t going to go for Regime Change somewhere, it’s not in your best interest.

Still, a very entertaining game, and one I’m ready to try again soon with the same parameters (although I will not be keeping a diary).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Labyrinth Diary, Vol 3

Turn 4:

Note: Not a great hand, but at least I can lower the funding level again. On the down side, four Jihadist cards, two of which are not great. I also have to decide if Bhutto isn’t going to show up this game, which she probably won’t seeing as I’m trying to do this without Regime Change if I can. Turkey and Yemen will see minor improvements.

J1: Amerithrax (J2). Event. US discards Benazir Bhutto.

J2: Back Channel (US3). Unplayable. Minor Jihad in Gulf States (1), the rest Radicalize. Cell activates, fails, returns to Funding track. Rad places cell in US, Travels cell to Gulf States from Pakistan, goes sleeper.

US1: Sanctions (US1). Event, Funding -1 to 6.

US2: Bhutto Shot (J2). Unplayable. WoI in Caucasus, stays soft.

Note: Took the chance to drop Bhutto Shot while no cells in Pakistan. Also dropped the funding to try to limit the number of cells coming onto the board, not that this has been working in the past. I have very strong cards left, but want to get rid of the cells in the Caucasus and Turkey before playing Kemalist Republic. Losing a US3 card hurt.

J3: Intel Community (US2). Playable. Plot (1) in US, Gulf States. Plots fail in GF, US, cells removed.

J4: Fatwa (2). Jihadist picks Quagmire, US picks Iran. Event OPS is Travel, to China (tests Hard, GWOT to Soft 1) from Yemen, travel fails. For OPS, cell is available so Recruit in Afghanistan (auto).

US3: Iran (2). A break for me. I use the event to remove the cell from Turkey.

US4: Jihadist Videos (J3).Play event first so I can mitigate it if necessary. Recruit in UK (tests Soft, GWOT to Soft2, fail, cadre), China (fail, cadre), and Iraq (success). I disrupt in the Caucasus, shifting the cell to Active.

Note: Things are going well- to clear the area around Turkey for Kemalist Republic, I will need to disrupt that Caucasus cell again, although I may get lucky and it will move somewhere else. GWOT, however, is going the wrong way again and I need to convert one Soft country before I can start WoI rolls again.

J5: Quagmire (J3). Unplayable. Travel to Gulf States, Thailand (tests Soft, GWOT to Soft 3), Pakistan from Iraq (auto), Caucasus (fail, removed), and Afghanistan (auto), respectively.

J6: Martyrdom Operation (J3). Crap. Two plots in the Gulf States. I will only be able to deal with one.

US5: Saleh (3). Remove one plot from Gulf States.

US6: Kemalist Republic (US2). Event, set Turkey to Fair Ally. Fair/Good to 2, Poor/Islamist to 13.

Plot resolves in Gulf States: +1 Funding to 7, -1 Prestige to 5, no change to Governance (Fair).

Note: Dodged a bit of a bullet there in the Gulf States, although Funding/Prestige is going the wrong way again. Also, I have a terrible card left that I don’t want to play unless I must, and the Jihadists have three left. Ack.

J7: Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (J2). Playable. Cells to Pakistan and India (tests Soft).

J8: Al-Ittihad al-Islami (J1). Playable. Cell to Somalia.

US Passes.

Note: That could have been a lot worse, although my GWOT is going straight down the tubes and fast. That will need to be a focus next turn, especially if I get stuck with a lot of 1 and 2 cards.

J9: Bin Ladin (3). Prestige -4 to 1. Jihadists Recruit three cells in Somalia (auto).

US discards card.

Note: That could have gone much worse, although having my Prestige at 1 just means I need more than ever to get the non-Muslim nations to Hard and quick. That or go back to Soft, which I’m actually kind of hoping for. There are a lot of cards to play in the deck, though, and almost no Remove cards were played, so that could be a while.

End of Turn: -1 Funding to 6, no change to Prestige (already at 1).

Turn 5:

Note: Much better hand. Ex-KGB is a bit on the nasty side, but Madrassas is easy to avoid and a 1 card I can use to boot. Backlash gives me some insurance against plots, and two more cards let me remove some cells if I’m worried about them, such as in India. Only two three cards, but no events there for competition.

J1: Jaysh al-Mahdi (2). Playable, but to no effect. Travel to Gulf States, Philippines (tests Soft, of course) from Somalia (both). Gulf States successful, Philippines fails.

J2: Moqtada al-Sadr (J2). Unplayable. Jihad (1) in Gulf States, Rad (2). Jihad fails, cell to Funding Track. Rad sends cell to Iran, Gulf States from Somalia (auto).

US1: Madrassas (J1). Unplayable. WoI in Canada, fail.

US2: Special Forces (US1). Event, remove cell in Gulf States, place Cadre.

Note: I can’t buy a break with Posture so far. I may need to consider a Reassessment as it would be much cheaper and I’m not anticipating Regime Change anytime soon. Maybe the Jihadists will cut me a break.

J3: Danish Cartoons (1). Playable. I set Scandinavia as Hard, just because. Plot is placed in India. I have not been cut a break, I needed the plot in a Muslim country. OPS travels to Gulf States from Somalia (succeeds).

J4: King Abdullah (US2). Playable. Plots to Kenya (fail) and India (fail).

US3: Pakistani Offensive (US3). Alert to remove India plot.

US4: Predator (US2). Event to remove cell in Gulf States.

Note: The dance continues. Jihadists keep sending cells to Gulf States, I keep removing them. Amazing it’s remained Fair for so long, although I have no prayer of getting it to Good without a card event for now.

J5: Enhanced Measures (US3). Playable. Plot attempts in Iran (success), Kenya (success), and India (fail).

J6: Schengen Visas (J2). Auto travel to Benelux (tests Hard) and Italy (tests Soft). No change to GWOT. Cells both from Morocco.

US5: Libyan Deal (US3). Alert to get rid of plot in Kenya.

US6: Kurdistan (2). Disrupt cell in Kenya (to Funding track).

Plot in Iran: +1 Funding to 7.

Note: Not getting much traction, and too many cells in non-Muslim countries to use Backlash. I will drive out the cell in India if no other options next turn.

J7: “The door of Itjihad was closed” (US3). Playable. Plots in Iran (fail), Benelux (fail), India (fail).

J8: Homegrown (J2). Cell placed in UK.

US7: Backlash (US1). Disrupt to remove cell in Benelux.

US8: Ex-KGB (J2). Disrupt cadre in Gulf States. Central Asia goes Adversary.

Notes: Too many cells popping up in Good countries, I will focus on removing those as I can next turn, also get my Prestige up if possible. Funding remains an issue, perhaps events will help.

End of Turn: Funding -1 to 6. Prestige still at 1.

Labyrinth Diary, Vol. 2

The diary continues..

Turn 2:

Note: Wow, I found all of the US cards! Unfortunately, that means that the Jihadist will find all of his. I can get rid of the Israel cell, although why bother. I can also get rid of some other cells and reduce Funding, which will be a priority. My 3 cards are all unplayable, but the one 3 Jihadist card I have is not good, setting up more cells in unmarked countries. FREs is not playable. All in all, I should be able to reduce funding and otherwise stay stable, although I’m concerned about Somalia.

J1: Vieira de Mello Slain (J1). Unplayable. A Major Jihad success is possible, so I activate all cells in Somalia, and roll a 3 for a single success. Somalia goes to Islamist Rule, Besieged Regime marker removed, Alignment to Adversary, Funding +1 to 9, Islamist Resources to 2. Not good.

J2: Leak (J3). Playable. Wiretapping is now blocked. US Posture stays hard, Prestige +5 to 9. Pakistan shifts to Neutral, so I guess I’m glad I got the troops in before that happened. The Prestige shift is nice, though, but not enough to counter Somalia.

US1: Sanctions (US1). Event. Time to start killing the Jihadist Funding, -2 to 7.

US2: Al-Ahar (US2). Event. Egypt tests Poor, Funding -2 to 5. Poor/Islamist to 9.

Note: Went after the funding as promised, but there are a lot of cells on the board. I can start wiping them out now, though, and they shouldn’t come back quite as fast. Somalia was an early blow, though.

J3: UN Nation Building (US2). Unplayable. OPS used for Travel to Yemen, Central Asia, from Somalia and Afghanistan, respectively. No rolls made since adjacent countries. Central Asia tests Poor.

J4: Ethiopia Strikes (US2). Playable. Plot(1) in Gulf States, Israel. Cell already active in GF, successful, marker placed. Cell goes active in Israel, fails.

US3: Sistani (US3). OPS to remove Plot in Gulf States.

US4: Special Forces (US1). Event. I remove the cell in the Gulf States, replace with a Cadre.

Note: This was a tough call between this and Yemen, but I decided Yemen was too close to Somalia to block effectively. I’m now mostly concerned about Yemen going Islamist, but it's early yet.

J5: Predator (US2). Playable. Plot(1) in Israel, Yemen. Israel cell already active, plot fails. Yemen cell goes active, plot fails.

J6: Lebanon War (J3). Playable. US discards Mossad & Shin Bet (US2), Prestige -1 to 8. Sleeper cell to Yemen.

US5: NATO (US3). OPS for WoI in Gulf States. DRM is +1 (Prestige), roll is a 5 so GF goes to Fair Governance. Fair/Good to 2, Poor/Islamist to 8.

US6: FREs (J1). Unplayable. WoI in Canada, Soft. GWOT Relations to 0.

Note: I was thinking I was going to disrupt the cell in Israel, but if I want to play Regional Al-Qaeda then better to test a country and maybe gain a little more Prestige. I will want to use the 3 card for WoI in Gulf States, no question.

J7: Kosovo (1). Playable. +1 Prestige to 9, Serbia goes Soft, GWOT Relations to 1 Soft. Jihad attempt in Yemen, cell is already active there. Attempt fails, active cell to Funding Track.

J8: Iraqi WMD (US3). Playable. Plot(1) in Yemen, Israel, Central Asia. Yemen cell goes active, plot fails. Israel cell already active, plot successful, marker placed. Central Asia cell goes active, plot successful, marker placed.

US7: Regional al-Qaeda (J3). Forced to remove the plot in Israel, which will help Funding. Six possible countries, so randomize Morocco and Turkey (Morocco gets 2 cells, Turkey 1). Both countries test Poor, Poor/Islamist +2 to 12 – I had not counted Somalia and Afghanistan before.

Plot resolution in Central Asia: +1 Funding to 6, no other effect.

J9: Gaza Withdrawal (1). Unplayable as no cells to place on Funding Track. Jihad attempt in Yemen, cell already active. Jihad successful, Yemen to Poor Governance. Poor/Islamist to 13, Fair/Poor to 1.

End of Turn: Funding -1 to 5, Prestige -1 to 8.

Note: I got the funding down, but otherwise a terrible turn. There are two Islamist countries out there, another 11 Poor countries, so I’m thankful my Prestige is good, but that could go seriously south at any time. Every cell is on the board, despite funding. Next turn I need to focus on WoI while I still have a bonus, but the other priority is to get those cells back on the funding track where they can’t do any harm. My other concern is getting the cell out of Central Asia because I haven’t seen the other WMD cards come out yet. This next turn may see me lose the game...

Turn 3:

Note: 8 Cards each, so that’s good. I have some insurance against Plots in hand, but some terrible Jihadist cards that will hamper me if I’m not careful. At least they are 3 cards, which will let me do some things, and the Gaza War will help me get rid of one Jihadist card at a cost.

J1: Hijab (3). Unplayable. Travel to Caucasus which goes Soft, adjust GWOT Relations to Soft 2, Pakistan, Gulf States. Travel from Central Asia, Somalia (successful), Somalia (successful).

J2: GTMO (3). Prestige roll lowers -4 to 4. Card to Lapsing box 1. Minor Jihad (1) in Gulf States, Radicalization (2). Jihad fails, cell to Funding Track. Radicalization sends cell on Funding Track to Russia, which tests Soft, GWOT Track to 3 Soft. Second Rad sends cell from Afghanistan to Gulf States.

US1: Foreign Fighters (J3). Play to Disrupt sleeper cell in Pakistan, +1 Prestige to 5.

US2: Saddam Captured (US2). Play to Disrupt sleeper cell in Gulf States, +1 Prestige to 6.

Note: Prestige is an issue, and WoI is out in the Muslim world while there are so many Soft countries. I can get rid of some of these cells, but only having one per country is a pain. Russia will be next as they have WMD that makes me a little nervous, plus they are soft, so I will try to WoI them as well. I’m actually hoping for a plot, too, but just one!

J3: Safer Now (US3). Unplayable (dang). Jihad(1) in Gulf States, then Radicalization (2). Jihad fails, cell removed and no cadre! Rad(1) places cell in Yemen, Rad(2) travels from Afghanistan to Gulf States.

J4: Tora Bora (2). Unplayable. Minor Jihad in Gulf States, Radicalization(1). Jihad fails, cell placed in Jordan, which tests Poor. Poor/Islamist to 14.

US3: Mass Turnout (US3). Disrupt the last cell in Pakistan, Cadre placed, Prestige +1 to 7.

US4: Former Soviet Union (2). Disrupt cell in Russia to Active.

Note: Not a great round, although I’m starting to make some progress in Prestige and the cell in Russia is going to crack soon. Here’s hoping for a Plot, I could really use the extra card…

J5: Martyrdom Operation (J3). Event. Cell in Israel replaced with two Plot markers. Be careful what you wish for, and my response doesn't work outside the Muslim world.

J6: KSM (3). Playable. Plot placed in Caucasus. Never rains but it pours. OPS used for Travel to Kenya (tests Soft, no change to GWOT), Pakistan, Egypt. From Somalia (auto success), Afghanistan (auto success), and Somalia (last cell, so it goes Sleeper instead of travel to Egypt).

US5: “Let’s Roll!” (US2). Event. Reveal Plot in Israel, draw a card (HEU), and adjust Russia to Hard. GWOT to Soft 2.

US6: Al Jazeera (J3). Playable, Saudi adjust to Neutral. Remove other plot in Israel.

Plot Resolution: Russia – Plot 1 raises Funding +1 to 6. Posture remains Soft.

Note: Be careful what you wish for. I got an extra card, but had to blow a three because so many Plots were out and you don’t want one in Israel or any Good non-Muslim country. Caucasus plot could have gone a little better, but I’ll survive with +1 to Funding. I still need to get that cell out of Russia, and then I will need to start WoIing in non-Muslim countries to get my GWOT up. I may survive this turn yet.

J7: Moro Talks (US1). Playable. Plot in Pakistan, successful.

J8: Adam Gadahn (J1). Unplayable. Travel to Gulf States from Afghanistan, successful.

US7: HEU (J2). Play the OPS before the event – Disrupt active cell in Russia, event now unplayable. Whew.

US8: Gaza War (J2). Discard random card, which is Saddam which would have been very bad for Funding. As it is, Prestige -1 to 6, Funding +1 to 7. I use the ops to Disrupt the sleeper cell in the Gulf States, +1 Prestige to 7.

Plot resolution in Pakistan: Funding +1 to 8. Maybe not that great after all. No other effect.

Note: That turn didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. Jihadists will have nine cards, they have a ton of cells on the board (but no countries threatening Islamist Rule). On the plus side, I am getting the GWOT back to a better division, but it will take some time and luck to do it. At least Serbia is a target so I have something to do with my 1 cards. Also, good to get so many Jihadist cards out of the mix, hopefully I’ll get a good hand this next round.

End of Turn: Funding -1 to 7, Prestige -1 to 6.

Labyrinth Diary, Vol. 1

When I decided to try playing Labyrinth solitaire but with the You Can Call Me Al variant (where the US begins "soft" and there is no Axis of Evil card, I thought it would also be interesting to log the game as a play-by-play diary. I'm going to put the first turn or two up here on my blog first, rather than toss it into the miasma of session reports that is BGG.

Since this is only my third game (and second solitaire game) I thought I'd leave the US nerf variants out, so I'm using the stock rules. I also chose three decks, as I think the game needs time to develop and it is *very* hard (at least at my level of expertise) to get a win in two decks. You need a couple of combos to go right, and that requires a certain amount of time to happen.

In this diary, I use a couple of notational conventions. First is in describing the card in play, which is in italics (generally), and lists the number of OPS it gives in parenthesis. For example, Quartet (US2) means the card is titled "Quartet," gives two OPS, and is a US-associated event.

For keeping track of where we are in the game, I use the format SZ, S is the side playing the card, and Z is the card play for that side for that turn. Thus, J3 means the third card play by the Jihadist AI. I denote changes in the deck and the turn number when they change (start of new turn, when you reshuffle). If the card has an Unassociated event, I leave off the side and just give the OPS number. Trying to figure out the card number was more than I wanted to do, so you'll just have to go by the title if you want to find the card.

Quite often, the Jihadist AI will call for an action that you can't do as many of as called for by the OPS number. In those cases, I will use terminology like "Plot(1)" to denote that one point of the OPS value is being used for that particular roll. I use Rad(1) to show how many points are devoted to Radicalization or to show which of multiple points are being used, which the context should make clear.

When it comes to Travel, because of the way the solitaire game implements it, I will list the countries I am traveling to, then list where they come from with their success or failure (or auto success) in parenthesis, with each to and from entry corresponding in the list (the first To country will be from the first From country).

Many events in this game are played without option. When it matters to the game flow, I will announce each card play as Unplayable or Playable.

Finally, I will try to keep the commentary out of the actual play notes, making my own observations at the end of the card play groupings (two Jihadist, two US), the end of the turn, and the start of the turn when I see my cards. I am not listing the cards I draw at the start of turn, though I may mention some at times - anyone following along can just look forward and see exactly what is in play. I do mention each action caused by the events and/or OPS. I also will say "Place a cell" which means it came from the Funding Track.

Here's the first turn, I will do two turns per blog posting after this.

This game is intended to let me try out how to play the US as Soft. Since it’s my first game doing this, I choose no nerfs and three decks. Starting hand is not terrible – only three Jihadist cards, one of which is currently playable and it won’t be that bad if Syria shifts to Poor before I play it. However, I only have two 3 cards, and one is Oil Price Spike which I may wish to use for grabbing a good discard. The other cards have good events but only if I choose to use them. Biometrics is a tricky card, but since the Jihadists will be mostly recruiting this turn, probably best to try to avoid the Radicalization it will cause with so few adjacent cells. My initial strategy is to mostly react, and to get one country moving toward Good Governance as quickly as possible.

Deck 1, Turn 1

J1: Quartet (US2). Unplayable. Recruit operation becomes Radicalization. Cell placed in Gulf States, cell travels from Afghanistan to Somalia, which tests Poor. Poor/Islamist marker to 5.

J2: Abbas (US2). Playable. Plot(1) in Gulf States, then Radicalization. Plot tests successful, marker placed, cell goes active. Radicalization places cell in Yemen, which tests Fair. Fair/Good marker to 4.

US1: Libyan WMD (US3). OPS to remove plot in Gulf States.

US2: Kazakh Strain (J2). Unplayable. Use for War of Ideas in Gulf States, -1 DRM (-1 to Good, -1 GWOT, +1 Prestige). 5 rolled, Aid marker placed.

Note: The plot forced me to be aggressive about keeping the Gulf States in good shape. I can’t afford Islamist Regimes to start popping up in this game, although I do need to start getting some troops to any country that is an Ally. Having a Good Governance country in the middle of all that will improve my odds dramatically of making more allies. I should probably have played Biometrics and FSB to try to nerf the Jihadists, but they will be doing more recruiting than anything else this turn.

J3: Patriot Act (US3). Playable. Plot(1) in Gulf States, then Radicalization. Plot fails, cell already active. Radicalization places a cell in Gulf States, then travels cell from Yemen to Somalia.

J4: Detainee Release (J2). Unplayable. Recruit in Afghanistan, fail in Somalia.

US3: Shroeder & Chirac (J2). Unplayable. WoI roll in Gulf States with 0 DRM (Aid, Prestige +1 each, To Good, GWOT -1 each). Fail Roll.

US4: FSB (US2). Unlikely I’ll use this for an event, so OPS to disrupt the Jihadists in the Gulf States. Active cell to Funding Track, Sleeper to Active.

Note: Kind of a chaotic turn. I should probably have gotten all the cells out of the Gulf States had I been a little smarter, but getting most of them out will prevent Plots, the thing I’m most concerned about. Then Somalia.

J5: “The door to Itjihad was closed.” (J3). Unplayable. Minor Jihad(1) in Gulf States, then Radicalization(2). Screwed this up in the J4 card play, I’m afraid, which should have been the same thing rather than Recruit, but that’s gonna happen occasionally. Jihad is successful. Radicalization places in US, then travels from Afghanistan to Somalia.

J6: Taliban (J3). Playable. Cells from Funding to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Prestige -3 to 4.

US5: Wiretapping (US2). Event. Cell in US removed, no cadre placed, draw card, place marker. I draw Hambali, which is good as a 3 OPS card.

US6: Musharraf (2). Event. Remove the cell in Pakistan, placing a cadre there. Pakistan becomes Poor Governance but an ally, so I will be able to place troops there, which is good. Fair/Good to 2, Poor/Islamist to 6.

Note: Not a great turn. I was going to have the Gulf States drop regardless, as it turned out, and Somalia is getting scarier. At least I can now make some inroads into Pakistan, which is the scariest part of the board because of the WMD. Also, getting to draw an extra card will help a lot too, but I’m losing ground for now.

J7: Tony Blair (US2). Playable. Plot(1) in Gulf States, the Radicalization(1). Plot is successful, place marker in Gulf States. Radicalization places cell in Israel.

J8: US Elections (3). Playable. US Posture goes Hard. Prestige +1 to 5. Recruit two cells in Afghanistan, attempt in Somalia fails.

US7: Hambali (3). Play as OPS to remove Plot in Gulf States.

US8: Oil Price Spike (3). Event. I draw Patriot Act, which is just too important to pass up. Resource spike does not trigger. Card goes to Lapsing Box 1.

Note: US elections surprised me, but I’m not sure I want to deploy into Afghanistan just yet. It may be better to try to stabilize Pakistan first, which is where I’m going with my next plays.

J9: Indo-Pakistan Talks (3). Unplayable. Recruiting in Somalia, three attempts, two are successful. Somalia now prime for Major Jihad.

US9: Patriot Act (US3). Event. Place marker, card removed.

US10: Hariri Killed (J2). Play as Reserves. Lebanon tests Poor, Syria shifts to Poor. On the plus side, the card is removed because you can’t kill the guy twice! Fair/Good to 1, Poor/Islamist to 8.

US11: Biometrics(US1). Play as OPS, using reserves to make it a 3 card. Two troops from Troops Track to Pakistan.

End of Turn: Funding -1 to 8. Prestige -1 to 4 for IR country on board. Hand size for US now 8, Jihadists remain at 9.

Note: I hope my focus on Pakistan pays out long term, because so far the Jihadists are winning. At least they'll have to get lucky to get WMD with a couple of troops holding Pakistan down. Priorities at this point are to improve Gulf State governance to Good if possible, and drive down Jihadist Funding so that they have fewer cards to play and can't recruit as effectively.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Wargaming Gone Digital: Has It's Time Come?

I have made several posts saying that I would dearly love for gaming to move into the digital realm, as music has over the last ten years, video (both content and gaming) as we speak, and print is taking the first steps into. Digital has it's downsides, especially the fact that you can't play a digital game when the power is off, but in many ways it's a far superior format. As someone who owns far too many books, CDs, DVDs, and games (they take up a surprising amount of space in my house, with the games alone requiring a large 16'x12' bedroom), the savings in the amount of space you need to enjoy your hobby is perhaps worth it alone.

Board wargaming has 'gone digital" for several years now, from games specifically designed to be played on computer to digital implementations of physical games that you can play online with programs or sites such as Cyberboard, WarGameRoom, SunTzu, and of course VASSAL. In the last cases, these games are intended to be managed by the player rather than an automated AI, and frankly I prefer that to a certain extent. I've played wargames intended for the PC, and in most cases I end up wondering what the hell just happened when the computer took it's turn and why my units are suddenly dead. Me, I like to see under the hood, but when "under the hood" requires a degree in nuclear physics, I start to lose interest.

At this pre-"Surface" stage of the tech, where we don't have smart paper we can lay down for a map or use for counters that we can move around the map, if you have opponents that you can play in a face-to-face game, paper wargames are still extremely viable, in much the way that mechanical hard drives are still viable, but you can see a future that isn't that far off where they won't be necessary. The biggest problem for the industry, of course, is that it is a niche hobby within a niche hobby and the publishers are barely able to get the paper games they sell *now* out the door. How in the world would they be able to transition to a digital world?

I suggest that the answer to that is by starting right now.

Not with everything, mind you. Just with some games. Large games intended to be played solitaire. Games like Steel Wolves.

Wolves is a very large game. There are ten or so countersheets, most of them containing representations of every German, French, and Italian U-Boat that saw service from 1939-43. There are hundreds of counters that represent shipping and naval vessels from 15 different countries that have to be resorted into "War Mix" cups every eight turns (more often if you screw up and put ships from one cup into the wrong one). In addition to a map, there are three letter sized cards with the minor ports in various parts of the world, another four sheets (two of them double-sized) for placement of those ships during combat, and another several sheets with various tables. It's a huge amount of paper requiring a lot of consideration for how it is sorted and laid out. For me to play this game on a table long term, it would require two poster frames and either dedicated space or two of the three precious slots in my "long term game" art trays.

In other words, this is not a game I'm going to play in it's physical version, at least other than the smaller scenarios. It's just too unmanageable.

This isn't to say that Wolves isn't a good game, although it might be more correct to call it a statistical simulation, sort of like Strat-0-Matic games are. You play for the tension of seeing how your fleet does over time and how your decisions affect that result in the face of constant distractions and plain bad luck (damn you, Diligent Escorts!) I loved it's predecessor, Silent War, which has the US Pacific sub fleet taking on Japanese shipping and naval forces, but that was a *smaller* game. And after my sixth resorting of the War Mix cups, of which there are a grand total of *four* (compared to around *ten* in Wolves), I moved the game over to VASSAL and never looked back.

Wolves has been out for a couple of months, but few have pulled it out and started playing, mostly because they are waiting for a VASSAL module. I didn't, and after spending quite a bit of time figuring out how to best manage the really incredible amount of work involved in just getting the game set up, not to mention "fixing" the War Mix cups for about an hour only to remember that since I'd played two game-months I should really have completely resorted them, I have come to the conclusion that I too am going to wait for the VASSAL module. Even the task of setting up a Large Convoy is incredibly tedious - you have to draw 12 counters from three different cups to put in six different areas of the display, every one of them needing to be placed face down without looking at them.

This is a game that only an obsessive-compulsive could love, at least in it's physical form. Good thing I have a little of that going on...

If this is a game that people are willing to buy and then leave in the box while they play on the computer, my question is very simple.

Why put it in a box to start with? Why not distribute this thing solely as a VASSAL module?

There are obvious reasons why this is the sort of thing a company looks at as being risky. For one thing, they don't control VASSAL, which is freeware and not under their control. Of course, neither are the computer OSes that VASSAL runs on, or the hardware that the OSes run on. That doesn't stop other software companies from doing the same thing, of course, but remember that for a while in the 90's, Aide de Camp was the app you did this sort of thing on, and it is dead dead dead. Maintaining software is often a bigger job than creating software over the long term. And, of course, if the software isn't maintained, then you no longer have a game when the newest version of the host app breaks your module. I have a *lot* of computer software that no longer runs on my computer and is less than worthless as it will take up landfill space.

At the same time, the market for Wolves, were it only the people who were willing to actually set it up and play in a physical space, would be so small as to prohibit publication, especially given the large retail price of $130. In other words, if there wasn't going to be a computer-aided option, there wouldn't be a game. And this is in a hobby where, if my experience is any indication, more than 60% of the games purchased never get played at all, and 40% never even get set up. With Wolves, I would guess that perhaps 75% of the people who buy it will never punch their copy and only play on VASSAL.

What if there was no copy to punch? What if the game simply came out as a VASSAL module, admitting that there are some issues involved?

First off, the price of the game would be incredibly low. The game has taken several years to design and develop, and that's using a system that was already in place, and there's no question that the people involved should be compensated for their efforts. However, if you assume that the retail price has been doubled repeatedly as it goes through the distribution chain to your FLGS, assuming your FLGS even carries paper wargames, and that a very large percentage of that cost involves the physical components and transportation of those components from point to point, you can see that the cost of the IP is relatively low. How low? Best to ask the designer and developer, but let's pretend that for every copy of the game that is sold they get $10. I think that's probably a little on the high side, and the number is probably closer to $5 per game.

From a software perspective, the AI is relatively simple and largely managed by the player, so we'll assume that this continues to be the case. No question that the toughest design problem in software is an effective complex AI, as evidenced by so many computer games winning by methods other than competent play (collusion by AIs, cheating on knowledge of what would be secret information in an ftf game, etc). In fact, most VASSAL modules are created for free by the user base, although more are being created under the auspices of the publisher (for a fee, I suspect and hope). My point isn't that the module should be created without compensation, my point is that in the world of software, creating a VASSAL module requires a level of coding competence that is more along the lines of scripting than of complex coding. As such, creation and maintenance have considerably lower costs than for, say, your average PC wargame.

Let's assume the digital creation of this game costs double the IP for the purposes of our exercise, so this $20 IP now costs $40. Throw in digital distribution of another $10 and we're at $50 retail since there are no printing, assembly, transportation, or distribution costs. No shelf space to be justified in a brick and mortar store. And this is almost without question a price that is a good 100% over what it would actually be, seeing as the game is discounted on the Interwebs for around $85. One of the more expensive games in the hobby, costing $25 in a form that you would be using anyway while the physical copy sits on your shelf.

Aside from the printers, distributors, and store owners (and really, how many of those are stocking this game without a preorder?), this strikes me as a much better way to get a wargame into my hands.

Yeah, there are issues. Digital means "easily copyable and distributable" to a lot of people, and certainly digital media sharing sites have shown that many many people are willing to not only download but upload illegally copied materials, even if their computers are brought to their knees over and over by malware. However, wargamers are not the general public. While many of us have to be careful with our budgets when buying games, at the same time we do just that - we buy the games, even if we are planning to play them on a computer. Some companies go so far as to prohibit distribution of their games in VASSAL form because they believe no one would buy their games, but I think this is paranoia. GMT, arguably the most successful wargame publisher in the business, seems to be doing just fine and they allow the majority of their games to be available via VASSAL for free at this point.

Most importantly, I believe that wargamers have come to the same conclusion that those of us who use less popular computing platforms such as the Mac have for years - if you don't buy the software, no one writes the software. So they buy the software. And even the software people are starting to understand, as they did at the dawn of the CD age, that you are going to have people steal from you. Every commercial enterprise factors this into their budget, it's a fact of life. You can play an awful lot of GMT games without every buying the physical copy, and they're doing just fine thank you.

I am not saying that wargame publishers need to start doing this with every game. I am saying that for large games, especially *solitaire* games such as Wolves, this may be the time for wargame publishers, especially the small agile ones like Compass, to consider publishing appropriate titles as VASSAL modules, complete with PDF rulesets. Steel Wolves had to be a risk financially for them, given the cost and the relatively small subset of the hobby interested in such a game. Silent War was one thing, and in fact it did well enough that they've published an IJN expansion for it (that no one is playing because they are waiting for the VASSAL module to incorporate it!). Wolves is a couple of steps up in terms of costs, complexity, and risk. Given how unwieldy the physical game is, it seems to me that it was a perfect candidate for a digital-only release.

Yeah, there are some risks. Just like with digital distribution models for music, for video, for video games, for books. These are much larger industries, with companies that are less susceptible to risks like format wars (remember Betamax?), pirating, and developing the distribution chain. However, there's no question that it can be done. Just look at the iTunes store, love it or hate it. Apple, on the verge of collapse in the late 90's, is now one of the most successful companies on the planet, largely due to it's role as a content provider - and they produce *none* of the content. PC software is moving this way as well, and in a hurry. Because it's more profitable for them.

Wargame companies need to move more slowly and carefully, as they are in a more precarious financial position. But it can most certainly be done and done with minimal risk by taking small steps. A pilot program from a single publisher with a game that is likely to be less popular because of cost/topic/complexity, especially a solitaire game that doesn't include a social element and you're more likely to play on a computer anyway.

And here's the real incentive for wargame publishers - the hobby will have to go there eventually. It's like setting up effective mass transit in cities; you do it now at this cost, or do it later at a much larger cost. Watching light rail go up in the Portland, OR area since the early 80's is an excellent example - the first one was expensive, but the later ones even more so. By seeing how it works on a small scale now, a company that blazes this trail will have an advantage later when *all* of their games go digital once smart paper is commercially available.

I'll note that GMT is already making some moves in this direction, getting back into the software world after what was a not terribly effective attempt back in the late 90's with their GBoH line of games. However, other than having a digital distribution network, the software element is much easier to deal with since you aren't trying to build an AI outside of the game itself. It's being done now! The only thing that changes is the distribution and long-term support, as well as choosing which platforms you want to be on. VASSAL is an excellent choice in one sense, partly because it's in extensive use, but also because it's JAVA based and therefore theoretically platform independent. While I'd love to see Wolves on my iPad (I would enjoy air travel again!), I understand that until tablet devices come of age that this is probably not the best place to put your efforts - this is more of a traditional software area, although not as complex as desktop apps.

Worth considering at the very least. Regardless, the revolution is coming and the better wargame publishers can position themselves for it, the healthier the hobby will be in the long term. Pirating or no.