Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

I am not and have never been in my country's military. While my uncle served as a PBY pilot in WW2, he didn't like to talk about it. My mother's second husband (hard to call someone a "stepfather" when you are in your 40's), and he not only served in the Pacific but also as a brigadier general in the Army Reserves. My "son-in-law"s brother recently mustered out of the Marines after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. My good friend Chris served in the Air Force for some time. I had many friends in college who were part of the ROTC program.

Beyond that, I have little contact with those in the military. My uncle and "stepfather" are both gone, but from old age and not from combat.

That is why it is so important for me, and those like me who are not part of the minuscule percentage of the population in the US that does serve in the armed forces, to thank those who have gone before and sacrificed their lives for their country and for the citizens of this country. I do not always agree with the choices the leaders of my country make, and in some cases I consider them close to criminal, but there is no question that those who serve do so at the risk of their lives, from training accidents to hot combat zones and they do so because they serve, not because they always agree with me or their leadership. They do it because they understand that the idea of the United States of America is bigger than me, bigger than our leaders, bigger than themselves.

Thank you. Your sacrifices, whether it be in disruption to your lives, your health, your psyche, or your life itself, does not go unnoticed and unappreciated. May you remember that throughout the year, not just on this one day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

WBC West 2011 - Wrap Up

Chuck and I began WBC West back in 2003 (I think) after sitting on a tarmac for a few hours in Baltimore waiting for weather delays to clear out on the way home from the real WBC in 2002. While we were waiting, Chuck said that perhaps we'd have just as much fun going to Sunriver for a few days and wargaming there, and WBC West was born. It was a pretty sparsely attended affair for the first couple of years, with no more than two to four people present, and only four full days. Eventually it grew to a full week, and this year for the first time we had eight gamers present and ready to go the first full day of the event (albeit by the evening), where normally we will have four or five by that time at most.

These kinds of numbers present us with some logistical issues, mainly where the hell everyone sleeps. You can fit seven people (more if there are SOs present) if people are willing to take couches in my family's place, so with eleven we had to rent an additional house, which was subsidized by Chuck and myself. Ken has a place out there too, but I am loathe to ask someone for the use of their house as it tends to make me look like an asshole and puts them in the position of feeling obligated to attend even if things go horribly horribly wrong (in my case, my nephew Alex can always take over hosting for me if necessary). However, this year Ken, who has a new job, really wasn't able to participate, but he did come out and work from his house but we had already rented a second house and he had some friends stopping by anyway to stay one or two nights. Next year, Ken thinks he can commit to being present and putting up a few people (and having a few games run at his house as well, more on that later).

Amazingly, we were able to find space for ten people to game through the entire week. At one point we had one game in the nook, two on the long dining table, one on a card table adjacent, and another on a corner table in the loft. Kind of crazy, but it's nice to have everyone in the same space. If there was a problem, it was in keeping the kitchen clean. That requires a certain amount of leadership on my part, and I just never got around to making a formal announcement so my bad there, although I suspect I have a higher level of cleanliness than most other people when it comes to kitchens.

Here's the thing - If even two more people come next year than this year, we will be able to sleep everyone in a bed (probably), but we won't have enough space to fit everyone on a table. If we break up the group into two spaces for gaming, that means that the "satellite" group has to move to a house that doesn't have their drinks, their lunch, their snacks and their stuff present, and there is a chance that they will have that house all to themselves, which in most people's minds didn't seem to be a good thing.

Here's a breakdown of the sorts of things that I got from people regarding what they value about the retreat and what they'd like to see in the future:

o Longer games, up to four or five days (or even the entire week) in some cases. That means finding committed space that we don't need the rest of the week, which includes the lighter evening games. Like last year, we did have one two-day game run, but it was in the nook and with Chuck and Mike (Ardennes '44). At the same time, not everyone wants a longer game.

o Fun atmosphere. For most, that means a certain number of people in a given space to lend more of a party vibe.

o Well stocked house. Drinks, snacks, extra dice, gaming supplies such as dice towers and poster frames or plexi. At a rental, all of these things must be brought in from the central location. You could include tunage in this list.

o Comfortable sleeping quarters. People don't mind sharing a room for a week, but they do want a bed that doesn't include someone grinding coffee beans in your ear in the morning because there's no wall between you and the grinder.

Interestingly, I had the people who wanted longer games also suggesting that we limit participation, which I felt was a false dichotomy. If you want to play a game for four or five days, you really are going to need a dedicated space, something that we can't really do in my house. There were suggestions to set up tables in bedrooms, but then all you've done is make the supplies handy, and that can be managed relatively easily by simply remembering to take supplies with you when you play at a satellite house. I think we could even set up webcams between the two houses, as most places have wi-fi, and keep the vibe going. Better to have the long game set up at a satellite location so that the core house can host evening games, and more people makes it easier to justify the satellite location.

My personal philosophy is one of inclusion - I really don't want to be in a position where I have to decide if one person can't go because there's an odd number, or because we're tight on tables. Those are very solvable problems and the thought of denying someone some of our WBC West goodness just doesn't sit right with me at an elemental level. If anything, I'd like to see this grow a bit over time - keep it invite only, so it's only people who fit into the general group gestalt (which I see as the biggest asset of WBC West), but expand it over time. The fact that Alex and his friend Dan came out and played a ton of games that were new to them (especially Dan, who took to wargaming like me to bourbon) was worth any extra pain that having extra people might have caused, and it didn't cause much.

In fact, there are several people who I'd have loved to have seen at this retreat who were unable to attend for personal or work reasons. I could see this group getting up to 15 or 16 gamers easily without going outside of wargamers I already know and play against. At that point, we're probably talking my house, Ken's house, and maybe one more for a few nights, depending upon when people come out, and probably gaming in two if not three houses. I think the more likely number is 12 gamers, which would have come close to taking every bed we had in the two houses we did have.

One thing that I noticed this year was that it was harder for people to get scheduled up quite as well as in the past, but there were two issues present in this case. One was Doug and Mimi being out of town for a month up to about two weeks before the retreat, making it hard to nail him down for what games he'd play when. The other was Dan's unfamiliarity with the pool of games, meaning that he had to rely on others to choose games to play. That worked out, but it required a little prodding. I don't think either of these was a huge issue or one that will carry over if there are more people involved, and the newer players understand well why we need to schedule games ahead of time, at least those we play during the day. The fact remains that when you add people into an event, the complexity both stays constant (the "startup" costs) and goes up exponentially (the "support" costs). To my mind, the startup costs have been taken care of and we have an effective process for everything from games played to providing dinner. The trick will be in determining the support costs in the face of uncertain but almost certainly increasing attendance numbers. Those who came earlier this year had a great time and I suspect will make every attempt to continue to do so, and those who came later will make an effort to come earlier.

The biggest adjustment will be in terms of learning to anticipate one's own supply needs when using a satellite house. It would be great to have one close by, preferably within 100 feet as the gamer walks, but a shift in mindset will still be necessary. I believe strongly in continuous improvement - examining how effective a system is and deciding what needs fixing and what would augment that system. That means that I take some small risks by trying out new ideas and seeing how they work. While it is still very early, I strongly suspect that next year we will be trying out the idea of satellite houses for not only sleeping, but gaming as well. Having someone take on a long-term game would help in that effort, and I don't think I'll have too much trouble finding people to do that (although it won't be me - I like to play a lot of games against a lot of opponents if possible). Depending on the game, it may even be possible to have people drop in and out of the long game as long as there are two consistent generals playing.

Of course, I'll also want to have more conversations with the stakeholders to get as clear a picture as I can, but in general we have a strong event with a strong set of attendees and I am extremely confident that we can withstand a certain amount of experimentation as we move forward. At the same time, I have no intention of messing with our core values - good games, good people, good fun. That means a continued vetting of people who attend, a commitment to preserving those elements (such as scheduled games during the day) that are working well for us, and being as inclusive as possible - look at what a find Dan has turned out to be! The important thing is about the community, and while there is some risk in having multiple houses with gaming, at the same time you can also look at it as having two houses full of people having a blast as opposed to one house.

If there was one place we fell down, it was in coordinating the evening games. I sent out a list of the games I was bringing, but I don't think people realized that there were a few games that people wanted to play that I *wasn't* bringing, such as Battlestar Galactica. I will take more of an active role in making sure someone brings all of the games people want to play rather than assuming people are checking.

As for the games I played this year, it was a bit surprising to have so many tactical and naval/air games going. I'm usually much more of a CDG player, and the only games I played of that nature was Here I Stand and Labyrinth. No traditional hex and counter games at all, such as A Victory Lost. There are some traditions starting to build up, such as a Fleet game and Burning Blue, and I'd like to see Here I Stand become a staple as well. I'd like to see Manifest Destiny make a return to the evening game table. I'd also like to find a game that we can play in some tournament form, as we've attempted with Maneuver in the past, probably very light and probably in the evenings, although I don't think Maneuver was successful enough to warrant giving another try and I recognize that this is a bit of a reach for this particular group. Maybe a Resident Evil tournament, which seemed to go over well in two plays - not a perfect game by any stretch, but it certainly seemed to evoke the right atmosphere and people enjoyed shooting the hell out of zombies.

As for this particular retreat, I would grade it very highly among already highly graded retreats of the past few years. The sleeping situation was better for everyone, people didn't mind having to walk five minutes to go to the main house and they spent all their time there, and people seemed fresher than in years past. I was also extremely happy to have such a full house so early in the week, with nine people there within 30 hours of opening up the house. For the most part people were relaxed and while a couple of people got frustrated with dice on a handful of occasions, they managed to deal with it before things got *really* uncomfortable. That sort of thing is really about just accepting that it's a game and that the outcome is much less important than the company and giving your head a massive workout. Best of all for me was once again recognizing that the end of the week was not so much something to be grieved over but something to celebrate, that instead of potential I now had more great gaming memories and some new games that I could play.

There is one postscript to the week that I was sort of expecting, although in the end it crept up on me. That realization is that there are several wargaming systems that I've invested heavily in over time (in terms of money and space, not so much in terms of play time) that I have finally accepted are neither games I am going to play or games I particularly want to play. Those systems are Panzer Grenadier, Second World War at Sea, The Great War at Sea, and Great Battles of History. I'd already made a decision to sell and stop collecting anything that was anything other than a strategic treatment of pre-20th Century subjects, and even a lot of the strategic treatments are going bye-bye. Including expansions, that's probably close to 100 games in my collection. It's also virtually everything I own published by Avalanche Press, with a few small-box exceptions. I'm also selling Pax Romana, Rise of Rome/Carthage, The Conquerors: Alexander, and quite a few more. I'll hold on to Successors and Sword of Rome, as well as Hellenes, but Athens and Sparta will go and a few more of the less successful Columbia block games. This will be the largest divestment of wargames I've ever done, something I've struggled with in the past because I didn't want to lose a game that I might end up liking later. This time, however, I've given all of these systems a shot and there is really no reason for me to keep them since I have so many other and better choices. I have several other games on the bubble, including many of the old AH/Smithsonian titles like Midway, and I'll need to do some work to make sure they're all complete (the GBoH games will take the most work, as there are so many C3i scenario counters that have been included in them).

Strangely, pulling all of these games hasn't helped my shelf space as much as I'd have liked, but I think this is a good step for me. The collection has become more of a burden than a joy in the past couple of years, and the acquisitiveness has to collapse at some point. A little discipline is a good thing and while I expect my actual gaming time will be going up, at the same time my collection is going to start to level out. It's still a *lot* of games.

Now if we can just get to the point where they're played using "smart" components, then I'll be a very happy man (and one with much lower moving costs)...

I hope you've enjoyed my navel gazing about what has to be the most challenging and fun weeks of my year. I honestly feel like I've studied for a dissertation defense by the time I get into the actual play, and it takes a couple of days for my brain and body to recover, but what a week it is. Thanks as always to my most marvelous opponents and comrades, without whom this would be me sitting in a room by myself playing solitaire. We make this thing work, and we come out of it better for the experience. In the end, that's the truly important thing. I'm honored to call all of you friends.

WBC West 2011 - Day 8

Sunday dawned after I had gotten perhaps the only eight hours of sleep the entire week. WBC West is not about sleep, but at some point you have to let it catch up with you, and Sunday morning was that morning. I still got up around 8, and was off to a very good start with closing up the house. The only game that seemed to be going on was an OCS demo, using a DAK2 scenario, run by Eric with Roger and Chris on the learning end. It seemed to go very well. There was, of course, some Ascension being played by Alex and Dan, which seemed to be their standard filler game (I got one in as well, although I barely count it because Dan spanked me *so* badly when he got a ton of Mechana constructs all working together within a couple of turns).

So it was that at 10am I decided that I could get in a game of Combat Commander: Pacific with Matt, who wanted to play a roll-your-own scenario. These work surprisingly well - the only real downside is that there are no special rules to take a specific action into account, but since you never know what sort of situation is going to pop up it makes for a very cool anything can happen type of game. Matt says he may only play this game using DIY setups in the future, and I can see why.

Matt took the US and I took the Japanese. Matt was defending a bridge over a deep ravine in the middle of a jungle, and the initial open objective was indeed that bridge for 5 points. He set up along the top of the ridge on my right side, with his other force flanking the bridge on my left. However, there was an unobserved path leading through the stream at the bottom of the ravine, and I sent a large force over there to both contest his high ground as well as dash out and take control of the bridge, which worked in the latter case. However, my strong melee force, which had the advantage of an Ambush card, failed miserably in melee and I lost my best leader right away, leaving three squads leaderless on that side of the map. Even a surprise hero that came onto the map got shot down almost immediately with no success. The last squad on that side of the map managed to get into melee against two Marine Rifle squads, aided by a combination of Ambush cards and Bayonets, but I got my usual low roll for melee while Matt had a huge roll. He kept the Initiative card throughout the entire game, btw, a wise move.

That left my small force of two squads and an average leader on the left flank, where I had had a single successful melee against a Rifle unit. When Matt knocked me down to a single squad and leader after two fast time events, I conceded. It was still a blast to play, and I felt I'd played in a very Japanese manner, with aggressive play trying to leverage decent melee situations, and had that first attempt worked I would have been in good position. A nice way to end the gaming, and we finished getting the house closed up and were home for dinner.

Quite an array of games played, and extremely good camaraderie.

Wrap up to follow...

WBC West 2011 - Day 7

And so we arrived at Saturday, the saddest key of them all. Or so it had been in years past, but this year I was looking forward to the games more than disappointed that the week was coming to a close. Today, I was to play both The Burning Blue in a rematch with Roger, and learn PQ-17 from Tex.

Burning Blue is an interesting game in that it puts you in the position of sector air commander, in charge of sending out RAF squadrons to protect England from Luftwaffe bombing. A big part of the tension in the game is that you don't have the vaguest idea of how big a raid will be, and so you don't want to overcommit your forces because there might be a bigger (and notional) raid later in the day and you don't want to fatigue your pilots. Of course, you may have had raids earlier (again notional rather than real) and that's reflected in your readiness rolls.

This time, Roger got to plan the raids as the Luftwaffe, and I think he enjoyed the planning and what is essentially GMing (you get very few choices as the Luftwaffe once things start) as much as I did the last time we played. The game itself is made up of what are really fairly basic but heavily sequenced mechanisms, but they tend to be intertwined with each other, so that you are wondering when to tally (sight) opposing aircraft during what phase, or exactly when combat takes place. Next time I will put together a cheat sheet that lists the specific times when tallying takes place, much as I did for the Fleet game we played earlier in the week, assuming there isn't one already on the eight panel player aid that has the many many tables associated with the game. However, if you follow the sequence of play exactly, you will do alright so long as you understand that tallying and combat take place at several points during the turn and are aware of them. There's no question that we need to get together at some point in the next few months and give this another try so that we can internalize the system better and not spend so much time refreshing at the moment of play. And this despite us both rereading the rules!

Roger's raids formed up over France in fairly impressive form - there was a 200+ form-up that was rather frightening, plus a few more 30-40+ raids that took the numbers well over 300, meaning that I got a pretty good Early Warning of 3 Early squadrons in the air and another 2 Late squadrons (Early squadrons have established Orbits, which are helpful in tallying during enemy movement). I put these in staggered picket lines starting at Dover and working back to England. For some reason I thought that Patrol Lines were more effective, but really you want orbits if you can get them. The first raids to reach me were of course the smaller ones, and the first one turned out to be Freie Jagd, or a fighter sweep, and it broke the cohesion of my lead squadrons, forcing them to pancake (land) early. That's what the FJ are supposed to do, and Roger's were very effective. Of the seven initial squadrons scrambled, I don't think a single one touched a bomber, but they did mostly manage to Raid Match them, which just means that the raid was intercepted by my squadrons and thus did not bomb as effectively.

In fact, I think we shot down about 10 aircraft total the entire game, with largely ineffective rolls in combat throughout, mostly as it was fighter to fighter combat with only four actual attempts on bombers. What I *was* good at was keeping cohesion, and at least four or five attacks resulted in my planes staying in the air after a round of combat, which is both unusual and welcome as it only takes a single cohesion hit for a squadron to be forced to pancake. I was most effective against a small raid that had ME-110 close escort, although all I really did was send the ME-110's home. Also interesting was a 0 Angels ultra-low altitude bombing run featuring Erpro 210, the only organization that can make such an attempt. Roger sent them in underneath a larger raid and it made for an exciting surprise.

In the end, I had three squadrons in the air while Roger had one Freie Jagd mission still orbiting over the mouth of the Thames and one large raid (that had downgraded to 100+ from it's initial 200+). I was very nervous about sending up more than 8 squadrons and risking VP, but I thought that three squadrons just might cause the 3 cohesion hits necessary to send it home. Unfortunately, his Erpro 210 bombers had blown the Kenley sector comm network, and so a squadron I had *just* sent up was going to pancake as soon as it made it to it's vector location, which would be the next turn, so the only way it would attack was if it got a very lucky tally at long distance (made more difficult by an Air Picture that had degraded very quickly with a lot of low Cohesion rolls early on). Amazingly, not only that squadron, but all three of my remaining squadrons did indeed tally right at the point where Roger's final raid broke into three components. While I was unsuccessful in doing much damage to the bombers, perhaps shooting down one or two, I did successfully raid match them and thus kept his points down a bit. In the end, Roger scored 43.5 points, needing 44 to win. As it turned out, I could have launched one more squadron since the readiness level was 9.5 (the assumption on my part was that it was 8). I did not win, however, as the VP would have had to be 22 points, half of Roger's total, for the win, but I considered it a moral victory.

This game is a lot of fun, but it's more about watching a plan unfold and trying to react to it. There is not a huge amount of combat - I figure we rolled combat about 20 times total in four hours, and many of those were dogfights held over from previous phases or turns. Also, like in naval games luck plays a huge roll - if your pilot is looking left, he will tally the raid, but if he's looking right, he will miss it completely - so it's more about replaying history and an exciting narrative than about a competitive experience, although that is not to say that good players won't have a markedly better chance of success against poor players, just that you don't play this kind of game to be competitive. In the end, I came away liking the game even more than before having played both sides, and I feel I have enough of the rules internalized to give this a try with one or two of the solitaire scenarios available online. A really nice change of pace from the land-based games I usually play.

We finished right at 1pm, as planned, and Tex and I jumped right into PQ-17, a recent game that uses blocks in a slightly different way to game the Murmansk convoys in the Barents Sea. We played the first scenario, which allowed Tex to refresh the rules, me to learn them, but didn't leave much for the Axis player to do. My planes were grounded because of bad weather, and it was only after figuring out that the Random Events table would let them fly that it became apparent why I was assigned them in the first place. That left me with a U-Boat and five destroyers, one of which was inoperable (present solely for the Allies to bomb with their aircraft carrier, I guess). Tex, on the other hand, had a task force that featured an aircraft carrier with recon-capable aircraft so he could try to attack me with them.

I'm pretty sure we screwed up the dummy rules, which are pretty specific in how and when you can generate dummies, although Tex did a *lot* of breaking up and recombining of his naval vessels, and I never was able to get a successful search in any space that had his convoy, although I did have one very exciting moment when my three destroyers (one had been sunk by light drift ice) found his two destroyers and the carrier. Unfortunately, my crews were green and I failed to hit any of his boats, while he sunk one of mine and fled. Aside from a little sub-on-sub action, that was about it for combat. Like Burning Blue, this one hinges dramatically on how well you are able to locate the other player's units, and for the most part I failed. Perhaps I should have broken my destroyer task force up to improve my odds, but in any event the idea was to learn the system.

And here's the thing - PQ-17 has gotten a lot of flak for having incomprehensible rules, and there's some truth to that, although the main issues are ones of making the terminology clear as well as the way the rules are structured. At it's core, however, the systems are all pretty simple, although every type of combat has it's own process. And there aren't all that many of them. Ice, for example, simply means that you make a roll on a table based on the type of ice you are heading into. Fuel means that you track fuel based on your movement and combat for a given task force, and when the time marker hits that TF's fuel marker, it's status changes. Like Burning Blue, the most important thing to know is when you can make Recon attempts. Perhaps the most confusing is that the block sides don't reflect combat strength, as in every other block game, but how well identified the force is. To make that issue more confusing, the counters, which stay on your force display for the most part, *do* represent combat strength, but sometimes that means multiple ships and sometimes it means damage to a single ship. The designer is trying to make these concepts clearer in the Norway 1940 expansion he's working on, and I'm trying to help out, which will be easier now that I've played the game.

All of that said, it's a fun game that plays relatively quickly when someone understands the system. In most turns, you move, you search, and maybe there's some shooty-shooty. That's it. The complexity comes from when you search. You plot your moves, but that's largely for planning and unlike Burning Blue doesn't lock you into motion (in fact, Tex ran into a gale on his first move out of port and scrapped his entire plan). You need to move steadily toward the target because of fuel issues (and fewer chances to get sunk), but you've got options.

I found this to be the most satisfying naval game on this scale I own (Fleet is a different feel, much bloodier), whereas this one is more like one of those old "duel at sea" movies where a U-Boat and a destroyer are playing cat and mouse, with the roles switching from time to time. I found it to be extremely satisfying even with no Axis air power (other than the sector recon), and I'm looking forward to giving it another try in the near future.

As you can imagine, putting the two most demanding games, at least in terms of me learning the systems, right up at the end of what is usually a very long and demanding week, and I walked away from both feeling that I had a very good grip on the systems. An excellent time to go out for dinner, which we did at 7pm at the new Hola! restaurant that has taken over the old Trout House venue recently. If you're in the Sunriver area, or even the Bend area of Oregon, you would do worse than to try these venues out - excellent Peruvian/Mexican cuisine, really good drinks (I had the tamarind margarita, which came with chili-infused salt rimming the glass and a shaker filled with another serving), and nice decor. This is not your average cheese-bombed bad Mexican/American food, this is the real deal and well worth the trip.

After an excellent meal, we were all a little tired and I was barely able to get through five or so hands of Sticheln before my brain failed and I needed to get to bed to get one good night's sleep before leaving the next day.

And that, as far as I knew, was the end of gaming for me, as I planned to close up the house on Sunday while others played. Or was it...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

WBC West 2011 - Day 6

Friday, Friday, Friday. Friday has traditionally been a bittersweet day at WBC West for me, as it means we are getting close to the end. This year, I made a conscious decision to take a different approach to the week, looking at it as coming closer to completing the cycle and having experienced such great games and generated such great memories. It was a successful paradigm shift for me, and I enjoyed the second half of the week much more overall than in past years. After all, while the point of the journey is not to arrive, at the same time when you do that arrival should be a source of joy rather than of regret that the journey is over. Because there will be more journeys - at least if you're doing it right.

Friday was my day with Chris S, who I have surprisingly little experience playing games with. Despite us working together as part of the Board Game Triumvirate for GameStorm in 2010 (along with Chris B), I can't think of a time when we'd played a game together up to that point. Chris likes 18xx games and Die Macher, which I am not as excited about, so while we've seen each other at cons and Chris has started to show up to occasional Rip City Gamers sessions, this was our very first one-on-one session.

First up was Labyrinth, a game that I've played more solitaire than two-player. The game is a different beast with two, and I take the chance to play the Jihadist when I can, which I did in this game, as I did when Chuck and I played some time ago. I've blogged on the game repeatedly, so I won't go into any details about how it works here.

Chris started out by making lots of War of Ideas rolls which were very successful in general. He managed to get the Gulf States to Good in no time at all, then did a great job of moving his troops around to good effect. I, on the other hand, had trouble doing anything that involved rolling dice, failing in all three attempts to get Central Asian/Russian WMDs in all three attempts in the first deck, the first time I've seen that happen. I also had half of my Major Jihads fail in a big way, which of course slowed me down tremendously. By the end of the game I started to remember that the dice had been similarly uncooperative for the Jihadists in my previous game (and cooperative for the US with their tan die) and I think that these dice are a bad lot and am going to replace them in the future. I have had similar problems with the dice in Barbarossa to Berlin, so it does happen.

My play, otherwise, was competent but not stellar. I came within a couple of ideal rolls of winning the game when there was an Oil Price Spike, but in general it was hard to win when most countries tested
Fair, when Chris made the majority of his War of Ideas rolls (helped tremendously by the quick success of the Gulf States, which in retrospect I should have made a focus early instead of Pakistan), and my inability to roll better than 30% of my recruitment rolls, even in Poor countries. At least my funding was mostly in very good shape. We got through about a third of the second deck before Chris won. I had a very good time, and Chris was a superior player and should have won, but it's hard to get full enjoyment when the dice are clearly a problem over multiple games. Even so, I like this game much more than I like Twilight Struggle with it's scoring card and precarious balance issues.

Next up for us was Warriors of God,  a game that tends to generate a certain amount of controversy in our group because of it's unique use of chaos, specifically in that you can lose a lot of leaders because of a bad set of rolls and severely hamper your capabilities. And, while I had some major issues with that on the second turn, which more or less eliminated all but two of my leaders with almost no troops at all, my downfall was self-inflicted. I made two major errors, the first being that I forgot that leaders count as troops and thus there is absolutely no reason to "kill" a leader if there are any troops remaining to him (or to other leaders in the same space). My other mistake was to forget that a two star leader in jail was going to be a problem if he lasted a few turns. And so, I happily handed a two-star leader to Chris for incarceration who sat in jail for four turns and me with no way to get him out because I controlled almost nothing on the map.

The result was me trying desperately to regain board and troop position for the rest of the game. There was some bad luck, including the loss of leaders on the second turn (which only exacerbated the prisoner situation), and a long series of turns where I had the Initiative, so Chris got to pick his independent leaders first for a while, and in the end we were looking at the final turn with me down 15 VP, having finally staunched the tide around turn 5. Losing Ile-de-France for most of the game did not help, and therein was my third major error - forgetting that you can hide in the castle and accept siege, which would probably have provided another six points over the course of the game, very close to where we ended up. Unfortunate, especially when it's your own lack of experience with a game that is the source of your downfall, but that's the price those of us who like a lot of variety in the wargaming hobby have to pay from time to time. WofG is a pretty simple game at it's core from a mechanism standpoint, but it is not an easy game to play because there *is* so much chaos. As I've said before, however, wargames encourage you to hope for the best and plan for the worst, and in WofG there is a lot of worst to plan for.

And how do you plan in a game where your military position can evaporate overnight? The biggest trick is to understand what leaders will be joining you at the end of the turn and arranging so that the areas you control are going to concentrate troops so that you can place the leader there instead of in his home area, but hopefully close by so that you can move him there to take it at the end of the next turn if you don't have it already. There are other tricks too, but my point is that this is demonstrably not Candyland, as one person at the retreat called the game. On the contrary, my experience with so many "naval" and air games over the weekend showed me that they are equally chaotic due to the nature of searching for your enemy. Look right, and you find them, look left and you miss them. Given the chaotic nature of the conflict (we played the Lion in Winter scenario so we could get Robin Hood, who was an exciting character, working for both sides and a real game changer), I think it's perfectly acceptable and historical to have leaders who are there one minute and gone the next, especially in a game of this length.

Regardless, this is a game I'll continue to pull out in the future, and it's complexity level (now that I've refreshed on when to accept siege) is good for less-experienced gamers as well. It's a damned shame that the developer is more interested in being cute that providing helpful info on the counters, but that's my own thing.

For our evening game, we played Mansions of Madness, with Chris taking the role of the Keeper, while Matt, Mimi, Dan, and myself tried to get through the mansion. I admit that while I was very interested in playing the game, it was very clear to me on every turn what it was that my character needed to do and so when it came to my turn it took about 10 seconds to resolve, leaving a whole lot of downtime. I lost interest pretty quickly, which was not helped by one too many glasses of wine and a newly released version of Ticket to Ride on the iPad, and as such I spent about 30 minutes total on what ended up being about a four or five hour game that went far too late into the night. Kind of funny, as I was the character that found all of the important keys and clues that got us to the endgame, and I nearly got the goal item to the front door, only to get sucked back down the ladder to the lower levels, then went mad, then died irrevocably. The rest of the party followed fairly quickly and Chris' forces of evil won the day.

Chris felt that the game had too much downtime as well, and felt that perhaps it was best with three, although he also said that this was as close to winning as he'd seen any group go.

When it comes down to it, I think that my problem with this game, as with most semi-coop games where there is one person against several, that I much prefer being the one against a thousand. I like turning people into monkeys when they try to open a chest. I like springing surprises on people. I like knowing where everything is when no one else does. As such, this is a game I'm glad I have (it feels much more thematic than Descent, and that's saying something), but I don't know that I enjoy playing as one of the "mundanes" at all.

And that was Friday.

WBC West 2011 - Day 5

It was now Thursday, and time for what I considered to be the high point of the week - 2nd Fleet with a robust scenario and four players (Chuck, Alex, Matt R, and myself). I had chosen scenario 8, which has a mixed UK/US set of forces guarding a convoy headed for Holy Loch (the big points, but a long way away) or Reykjavik (the small points, but close and fairly safe). Chuck and Matt took the NATO forces, with Chuck taking the US while Matt took the UK, while Alex and I took the Soviets, each of us with a "carrier" surface group of goodly size, Alex on sub duty and me as air marshall. The Soviet subs started out all over the south end of the map, while the surface groups were located at various points along the Norwegian coast and the air forces all up on the Kola Peninsula. Alex and Chuck had been playing the game over the past few weeks, while I had gotten in a game of 5th Fleet with Chuck a couple of months ago. It was Matt's first game, and he did well considering that my instruction consisted almost exclusively of the turn sequence and how detection worked (including my almost correct player aid that I'd prepared the week before).

We played using the printed rules for 2nd Fleet rather than try to dig up all of the necessary units from the various games, and I think this is the best way to proceed in the future. There are some significant changes from game to game in the series, and if you play regularly that can screw you up, but in general I think that since it's a hypothetical conflict and, other than air operations and defense, the systems have never really been tested to do what they were designed to do, so the actual capabilities for the most part remain on paper. That's the story I'm sticking with, anyway.

The biggest problem the Soviets face in this scenario is how to protect their recon forces in the southern end of the map during the Strategic Air Segment. I'd forgotten that the recon units were treated as a group, and had thought that by simply moving four units to the British Isles Zone that I'd have no problem finding someone to detect. As such, they got bounced and we were at a severe disadvantage the first two turns. We'd have been much better off going for onesie-twosie detections in various zones and focusing on picking off the convoys instead of prepping to attack the small UK task forces in their home waters.

What we finally figured out we should be doing was getting our surface groups down into the British Isles zone by the end of turn 3, then using our carrier interceptors to cover the recon missions in that zone. Even though Matt and Chuck put up a pretty good air cover in the zone, we managed to bounce them along with ourselves and get good intel. That changed the game for us in a big way.

My air wing had mixed success in it's tactical missions. On the first turn, I did a lot of bombing in Norway (and one attempt in Reykjavik, which convinced Chuck to use those interceptors for CAP rather than strategic use), and had good success that first three turns (one day), gaining 15 VP. I even got one Badger down to the south end of the map and sunk a transport, which was a surprise to the NATO forces. That's kind of the other half of the game (the first half being detection and how you get there) - you can't cover everything, so you have to make choices. NATO sent the Rooseveldt carrier group (not a big group, but that air wing is as capable as the entire Soviet air force in this scenario when it comes down to it and when it's in the right area) around the north side of Iceland, and my thought was that they were going to neutralize the bombing of Norway (which ended up being safe after those first three turns as I couldn't hit *anything*), seeing as I'd gained 15 points in a couple of turns. As it was, that force got nervous about a couple of Soviet subs in the area and hung out off the north coast of Iceland, where they ceased to be a major part of operations for the late stages of the game. Just like in real life, naval commanders get nervous about committing the big target that they can't afford to lose. Amazing how 12 VP can do that in a game like this.

In the end, Alex's front surface group, more or less identical to mine (but a little more capable in the SSM department) took most of NATO's fury, and by the late game there wasn't much left of it. However, that left my group ample room to get in and start causing serious problems for the remaining convoys, as did Alex's subs. Our last turn was turn 7, and at that point the sole remaining convoy was surrounded and down to only four of it's original thirteen ships and NATO had no chance of getting enough points without sinking every ship we had and they conceded.

Lessons learned, at least for me - a threat in being is better than the actual attack if it reduces the capabilities of your opponent. OK, I knew that one, but it was applied well here. The Soviets are a force that is intended to get stuck in to the fight as quickly as possible, but at the same time appropriate forces are critical to success. Case in point, having some fighter cover for recon at long range, which is what the surface groups are there for right up to the point where they can start shooting their long range SSMs. Finally, identify the big-ticket items in terms of VP, which in our case were the merchantmen. While they were only worth 3VP each to us, at the same time they denied 1 to 4VP for our opponent, and thus were really worth between 4 and 7VP, matched only by the Rooseveldt at 12VP and the UK carriers and guided-missile cruisers at 4VP each, not to mention the UK/Iceland airbases which were worth 4VP as well.

I was a bit surprised that the game took so long to play - we finished up around 5pm after starting around 9am - but there is a lot to think about when you have to consider which arm of your forces to activate at a given time. No question that the game was more fun with teams, especially when the dice went terribly cold (as they did for us for the most part during the second day of three turns) and you could blame your partner. It was also fun to hash out strategy. I was very fortunate to have Alex as a partner, as he has developed his analytical skills quite a bit over the past few years and is now a formidable, if still a bit inexperienced, wargamer. I think we are going to try to take on a larger-scale scenario if we can next year, probably using the 5th or 7th Fleet set, which will allow for teams of three easily, which will probably be divvied up by either nationalities or by area of the map. A big success, and the only reason this wasn't the high point of the week for me was because we had so much fun playing Fighting Formations a couple of days before.

Our night time game was Wealth of Nations, which was the first play for all of us but Tex, who played using the first edition rules. I could see how the original ruleset, which limited purchases and sales to a single cube during the Trade phase and forced a sell-off at the end that took as long as the preceding game, was a bust, but the revised rules with the limit improved to three cubes bought/sold and a streamlined endgame were more than acceptable. While most economic games tend to take me a while to understand (and WoN was no exception), I did well once I got past the initial confusion of what I needed to use. The War Clouds expansion, which includes military rules that we did not play with (and thankfully so, the game we complex enough with a first play without them), they did include a very useful planning sheet that I used extensively that helped me understand the process much more quickly and with much less brain burn.

For those who haven't played, WoN is at it's heart a simple economic game where you need certain resources to produce other resources that allow you to build up your infrastructure so that you can produce more of the initial resources and start the whole thing over again. Each resource has it's own market where prices rise as demand increases and drop as demand decreases. It's capitalism in it's purest form, even to the extent that there will be limitations as to how much of a given resource can be produced on a global level as the production tiles run out. I enjoyed the game, although economic games are not the sort of thing I typically reach for first, and I'm looking forward to giving it another try with the military rules at some point in the future. I'm glad I purchased a copy, even happier I got the War Clouds expansion (which also changes up the initial Industrial and Commerce "packages" that bootstrap the game). I'm even looking forward to trying it two-player to see how well it works. Considering that Container left me a little cold, this is high praise indeed.

The results? Chuck spanked us all, going immediately for a large banking complex. I came in second, despite not making enough of an effort to leverage my large initial cash position - I took one loan the entire game whereas others took multiple loans. Not far behind me were Matt ("I see how it is...") and Tex ("If you don't take loans, you lose"). A good game, despite the warpage to the central board and the strange attempts to differentiate the different player colors exclusively through flavor rather than any special mutant powers.

And that was Thursday.

Monday, May 23, 2011

WBC West 2011 - Day 4

It was just too hard to use the computer in the loft to blog while at the retreat, as someone was usually up there watching TV or trying to relax, so I gave up after a couple of days and decided to just do the blogging after the fact. The iPad using a wireless keyboard worked to a point, but there's still nothing like using a desktop system for comfort.

Day 4, Wednesday, saw Alex and I scheduled to play Federation Commander, and something else if that game finished early (which it did). I got in a very short game in the evening as well before I drove up to Redmond to pick up Chris, who was coming in from Minneapolis from a work-related trip.

Fed Com is the streamlined version of Star Fleet Battles, a game I owned once upon a time in both the original ziplock version as well as the deluxe boxed version, back when Task Force Games published them. Back then, it was just the Federation, Klingons, Romulans, and maybe the Orion Pirates, but I remember the Kzinti, the Tholians, and the Andromedans coming out over time. By then, I had gone to college where gaming meant "AD&D" and I ended up selling all of my SFB stuff (which wasn't a lot) after I got out of school.

FC feels a lot more like the original game, with the biggest difference being that the 32 impulses are now organized as 8 impulses, each with four sub-pulses followed by some shooty-shooty. Trying to keep track of all of this while driving three Klingon battlecruisers, each of which is shooting off three drones per turn, and when each can turn or "slip" to another hex is a little overwhelming, I have to say. FC tries to make things easier to do with larger numbers of ships by having a "Fleet" scale with half the number of damage boxes on each ship card, but that does nothing to mitigate having one turn take about an hour and trying to remember which ship is at what speed, etc. This is a game meant for a computer to help you out, no lie. In fact, it would be great fun, as your drones would move by themselves and you'd be notified when it was time to move your ships. As it is, it's more than I can handle.

We played the first scenario in the Klingon Attacks expansion (I have the Klingon Border set, KA, and the suggested booster packs, which I later learned gave you ships that you don't already have rather than ships that you will need for the scenarios in the book). I ended up needing to print out one of my ship sheets, which required me to have a pencil as well as a dry-erase marker, which was incredibly annoying. I'd also purchased the PDF version of the combined rules, which have the advantage of having free updates, and it seems they update the rules pretty regularly. I was able to get around them using my iPad pretty well with some bookmarks, but it is annoying to "page" through the rules and have the chapters separated by pages of background info, maps, etc. Put all that stuff in an appendix! The same goes for the bad line art, which is just amateurish. The publisher must have gotten a really good deal back in the day when Star Trek was just an old TV show in syndication, and there must not have been much of a time limit on the franchising deal, because the game lives in a universe that borrows from the original series (and a bit from the animated series) but clearly takes the mythos in much different directions than the television shows went in.

The scenario we played pits three Klingons against a Federation Heavy Cruiser (think Enterprise) that has to hold them off for seven turns while staying within 25 hexes of a specific planet. I won't go into tremendous detail other than to say that I got a *ton* of hits on a couple of shields in turn 2 on the USS Hood (Alex's ship) and never looked back. The drones were a complete waste of time, all they did was require us to remember more about them than was worthwhile (like putting counters under them to denote that they had slipped or turned in the last turn, and thus couldn't slip but could turn). The Hood blew up after four turns and a long run around the perimeter of the area it was required to stay within. I can't imagine Alex had much fun, and we probably should have restarted after it became clear that his plan to stay in one place for the first turn turned out to be a bad idea - he should have run off at a 120 degree angle, and kept doing that for the entire game to keep me at as great a distance as possible.

I just couldn't bring myself to do all of that sub-impulse counting any more, so I talked Alex into playing White Star Rising, which Mark Walker asked me to learn to play to compare with Fighting Formations. I'm not going to go into great detail about how the game plays other than to say that it's very similar to his World at War series (set in a fictitious Cold War conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact), that it is a very streamlined game at a low level of complexity, that the superscript numbers on the counters (and there are a lot of numbers on the counters, up to 12 per!), and that we had a good time once we'd figured out some of the less clear rules.

WSR is set in 1944 France, pitting the Allies against the Germans. Units are generic rather than historic, although they invoke historical units and the OoB is, as far as I know, historical. Scenarios are also based on historic firefights, much as is done with ASL, Panzer Grenadier, and Combat Commander, but the maps are intended to evoke the terrain rather than present the historical terrain. In a move that has been criticized elsewhere, the towns on the map have fictitious names, which allows them to be identified but otherwise is a little jarring when the historical background uses one name and the map uses another for the same town.

The game is based on chit pulls which activate units of a given organization, which I think is at the division level but I'm really not sure. There are two end turn chits that go in the cup as well, and when the second one comes out, the turn is over, so it's possible that no one activates on a turn. However, there is also a fairly clever mechanism that lets you keep an end turn chit if you have unactivated units, and you put it back in the cup once those chits have been pulled. In other words, your divisions will activate once or twice every two turns. This adds a good amount of tension to the game, in my opinion, although it can be frustrating to constantly have your divisions be the ones that get activated once rather than twice.

We played the first basic scenario in the book, which had Alex trying to get a panzer division across a bridge (with supporting elements popping up in one of three spots, two of which were on the flanks of the US forces) against a paratrooper division hiding in the woods and a tank division holding the mission objective, which was a three-hex town at the other end of the map. I learned very quickly that my infantry units, essentially the entire paratrooper division, was pretty much useless, but they made good speed bumps. Alex was at the middle of the board and had taken out most of my own armor by that time, leaving me with a Stuart tank company and a bunch of infantry that needed to get stuck in with the armor if they wanted any chance at all.

And a good chance they had, too. By the 7th turn (there were 8 in this scenario), Alex was right on top of the town, and I was holding two hexes with weak units. Fortunately, both end turn chits came up right away, which meant we'd each get one shot at holding it. Both of my chits came up, which meant that the unit hiding behind the town couldn't just jump in and melee for it, and I was unable to get much done other than have most of my units die trying to get into close combat with his tanks. However, Alex's dice did not cooperate, and in the end he was unable to take one of the two hexes, with the game coming down to the final die roll.

I'll be honest - about two turns in I thought this game was a fail, at least this scenario. By the end of the game, however, I was finding all sorts of good tension and things to like about it. Like I said earlier, I'll go into more detail later, but there's no question that this game does a lot of things that I like, and at a scale that only Panzer Grenadier and PanzerBlitz really take on at this complexity level (Devil's Cauldron is a whole other kettle of fish). That said, the rules were a headache for me, written in Mark's casual style rather than in a technical style that I find much more usable for rulesets. As a result, I tend to struggle to learn LnL games when I should be able to read a few pages and jump right in. Compared with my experience with Fighting Formations the day before, the result was fairly clunky when it should have been much more accessible.

This isn't to say that I didn't have fun, just that the day ended up giving me my biggest disappointment (FC) and my biggest surprise (WSR) of the week. FC because the movement system was so clunky, WSR because on the surface the game feels like a war-themed game rather than a wargame, per se. Sort of like Axis and Allies.

I took the evening off as I needed to leave around 9 to go pick up Chris, but Chuck and I spent about 45 minutes trying to work our way through Spearpoint 1943, a card game that I picked up because I have this bad habit of picking up war-themed card games that constantly disappoint me. This one has some interesting elements, including pairing crews with guns and tanks and two levels of lines (plus aircraft that are powerful but short lived). I really didn't get enough of the game in to get any sense of whether it's worth keeping or not, but I know that Chuck and Ken played later that evening after I'd left.

And with that, I made it to half time. Three and a half days down, three and a half to go.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

WBC West 2011, Day 3

Day 3 was the last day to come together for me in terms of my schedule. Originally we'd had three people looking to play something with no real consensus on what we wanted to do, but in the end Matt, Alex, and Dan ended up coming out on Monday evening and thus we had eight gamers for Tuesday. Tex and Matt played Labyrinth (with me helping them learn the game), Alex and Dan played Attack Vector, only to give up after finding that while the math was gradeschool level, the *amount* of math was not, and Mike and Chuck started their two day Ardennes '44 game. Eric and I played Fighting Formations, his first game and my second.

We played scenario 6, a one mapper with a decent range of unit types and numbers of units and a pretty cool situation with the Germans trying to attain objectives while the Soviets try to kill Germans. Eric was the Hun and I was the Slavs. I've discussed this game quite a bit recently, and I will go so far as to say that our game was in the top five wargaming experiences I've had (and I've had a lot). While neither of us played what I might call a stellar game (I was barely competent), there was a lot of back and forth and the decisions you got to make gave the game a lot of tension. At this point, I'm rating the game a 10, something I may have done once or twice in the past.

While we can argue about how effectively the game models real-life situations, the truth of the matter is that while I need a certain amount of what I'll call "plausible deniability" in a wargame, I do not need the entire ToE with fourteen variants of PzIVs. And you don't. The units, while modeling actual equipment, represents relatively few units. There is one variant of the T-34, for example, and it's used all over the place. And whether the Order/Initiative/Command complex models anything at all is definitely debated.

What does matter is that this game is great fun, and not only fun but the damned thing just makes sense. Every time you want to do something, you know what to do. There are some things we missed (like me putting my tanks in entrenchments, which I thought was equivalent to a hull-down condition), but we must have looked up rules about ten times. For Eric's first game, and my first game with a lot of new concepts, it was such a pleasant experience that you'd have thought we were playing the game for the tenth or twentieth time. Every order decision was difficult to make, combat flew by and there was almost no looking up of modifiers. We had a rolling melee in the middle of the board (where the road comes up the hill to the town) that took about half of the game to resolve. The hidden units are perhaps the most elegant solution to that problem I've ever seen.

Yeah, I'm gushing. And it's not just because I won because I managed to get a lot of really fortunate rolls that killed off enough of Eric's units to put the win out of reach for him. It's because we had a blast. Our game took about five or six hours not including 'splainin' and the day just flew by. Don't get me wrong, games like Combat Commander and Conflict of Heroes (and even ASL, to some extent) will have a place in my library, but there are other game series whose names will not be mentioned that are going on the sell pile when I get home because this is my game of choice at this level for 5-8 hour games.

We had a little down time before dinner (Eric's chili, which is still with me as I type, and I mean that in a good way - for me!), and then pulled out Dominant Species, played by Matt, Eric, and Dan and Alex (who played for the first time). First game for Dan and Alex, and like most people they had some trouble grokking the game, but by the end I think they started to see how things worked. Matt looked to be running away with it near the end of the game after I had some success in the mid-game, but a couple of nasty event cards played by Eric, who made an awesome comeback on the final turn, put me out of it and I stalled fairly badly. Enough to score 50 points in the last turn, but not enough to win, especially when I forgot that I needed to save myself from Regression in the last turn, instead wasting my play on Adaptation only to lose the chit immediately from regression (and all of my other elements as well). Eric came very close with his Reptiles, but in the end Matt won the game as the Arachnids. I continue to enjoy this game quite a bit, although it has gotten mixed reviews in our group, in my opinion unfairly as the game requires multiple plays to play effectively and most people who don't care for it aren't interested in playing again. Eric and I, however, consider it to be similar enough to Die Macher (and with none of the moronic graphic problems of the Valley edition) that I'd much rather play DS. The nice thing about Sunriver, however, is that we all can play the games we want to, and there are a *lot* of games to be played.

And that was Day 3, Tuesday.

WBC West 2011, Day 2 PM

So far, the wargaming retreat had gone well, although only for about 24 hours. Now people started to arrive, with Tex and Mimi around noon, Eric right behind them, and Alex, Matt, and Dan coming in in the mid-evening. Tex and Chuck went off to play Clash of Giants II, the Race to the Sea scenario, which I'm fairly sure Chuck won as the Allies. 

Meanwhile, Mike and Eric and I played Maria, which is almost more of a Euro than a wargame, but it definitely blurs the line. A follow-on game to Friedrich, Maria covers the Austrian War of Succession, with one player taking Austria (Eric), one taking the French and Bavarians (me), and one player taking the Prussians (who were allied with the French) and the Pragmatic Army (who were allied with Austria!) on the other, as well as the Saxons, who may well switch sides at some point (Mike). The map is also a bit schizophrenic, taking up two separate parts of Europe joined along the southern part of the east/west bifurcation. The two parts of the map aren't even oriented in the same direction (there's a picture on the back of the map that shows how the two halves fit in Europe), but it is possible for the Austrians and French to move between the two. 

There are two huge keys to playing Maria well, one being managing your hand of cards that are used for both combat as well as for playing a political game that can result in nerfs and buffs to various powers and in one case change the loyalty of Saxony. When you fight a battle, you play cards that are in the same suit as the area of the map where your army is. As such, there are some good strategies to pin an enemy army in a Spaces space (for example) while your armies come at them from two directions, possibly using different suits, with the idea being to wipe the enemy's hand of his defensive suit. Seeing as each country has it's own hand of cards, getting that kind of synergy is desirable, if sometimes difficult. The result, however, definitely feels more Euro than War, with you choosing areas to defend on a map based on what suits are in your hand. I suppose you could generate a gratuitous explanation for why this is so, but really it's intended to make an interesting game rather than something that actually feels historical, at least in terms of combat. 

The other key is managing your supply trains. The major powers have two, the minors one, but Prussia has to conquer Silesia and then make a short peace with Austria to gain it (and a VP). Being in enemy territory without supply will end your offensive pretty fast, and managing where your supply train is requires more strategy than I was able to put to bear. For the Austrians, losing one of their trains, especially on the border with France (basically the Low Countries in today's world, back then partly controlled by Austria) means that they'll just sit and guard their fortresses because none of them are Major forts (required to bring a train back in). 

There's quite a bit more to the game, but that should give you enough of an idea of how it works to appreciate our game. 

One of the things you try to do as France is control four of the Electorates on the west map to gain a VP, and also to control enough electorates on both maps to get the French contender for the Austrian throne to win, while Austria tries to do the same. I started by going after these aggressively, and in fact I was able to score two VP for those two things, although eventually I lost the western Electorates before the game ended. However, I was not using my supply train well, and was trying to do two things with one train in enemy territory when I should have been guarding my frontiers. At the same time, the Bavarians and French were doing fairly well in western Austria, and I came within a couple of chips of winning the game about halfway through. 

Meanwhile, Mike had been struggling as the Prussian, although he did manage to conquer Silesia and declare peace with Austria for a turn and a half. After doing so, Mike started to complain about the card distribution, that he was getting small denominations and managed to lose his train for the Pragmatic Army, forcing them to withdraw back to Holland. Eric took the opportunity to make a good run on the French in the east, destroying my supply train *and* both French armies, at which point I decided to use the French Limits War Objectives rule, so it was quite historical, but Eric looked like he was going to pull out the win. Protip: keep your enemies close, and your supply trains closer. About this time, the only thing that stopped Eric was the destruction of his own supply train in the west. 

At this point, Mike's Prussians declared war on Austria again, and Eric had been pretty beat up in his victories over the French, and he rolled all over the eastern portion of Austria. So well that he ended up winning the game after being so unhappy about his card draws. There's a lesson here, I think. 

Maria is a strange duck. You need to understand how best to utilize your supply trains and manage your cards (and your armies' positions on the map) to play well, and while all of us had a shot at winning at some point, I felt that I made huge mistakes in play that ended up costing me the game, such as neglecting Eric's use of Hussars to screw with my supply. There's no question that the game is in many ways superior to Friedrich, partly because there are no random exits of major powers that can make it difficult for some players to buy into a multiplayer game, seeing as you might be done in a turn or two. As such, it's probably best as a two, possibly three player game. No problem like that in Maria. 

In the end, though, the game succeeds as a heavy Euro, perhaps too heavy, but too light as a wargame since the combat is *so* abstracted. There are a dearth of games that fit three players this well in this complexity level and length, but I think that perhaps maybe there is a reason why there's a dearth. In the end, Maria was a bit of a letdown after such a fun game of Here I Stand. As such, I will gladly play in the future, but it will almost certainly be a WBC West or Euro Retreat game rather than something we gather to play on a weekend afternoon, and I won't be adding it to my library. 

On to the evening! Ken came by at a couple of points (he's out here relaxing a bit, but also doing some work during the day, so he plays at night at best), and was there for us to play the Resident Evil Deckbuilding Game. I continue to be amazed that a game with possibly the worst documentation and rules I've ever seen (the first version's rules were so bad that there were major typesetting errors that were fixed in the v1.1 rules, but the information is still a mess) can be so much fun to play. Ken, Alex, Eric, and I had a ball, getting into the spirit of the game in a big way. In the end, I managed to win the game despite Eric taking down the big bad (after drawing the Gatling Gun and Rocket Launcher early). That meant no "see who gets the boss at the same time as getting a lot of good cards" problem that so many other's see. I like the game quite a bit, but don't recommend it if you need a game that's well-produced in terms of clarity and errors (fortunately none I'm aware of in the cards themselves). It's also a little strange in that you don't randomize the set, but instead either use one of the many they suggest or make up your own, but no randomizer cards at all. Nevertheless, we had a ball. 

And that was the end of Day 2, with a record breaking nine people present on the second day, eight of them gamers. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

WBC West 2011, Day 1 into Day 2 AM

The first day of WBC West, and I'm smiling all the way out to Sunriver in the car. Kind of a carwash on the drive, but not much traffic and that always makes for a more pleasant drive.

I arrive an hour before Chuck and Mike, and spend most of the time loading in and getting Here I Stand set up (HiS). I was getting pretty close when Mike and Chuck showed up. We had pre-determined that I would be the English/Protestants, Mike the Haps and Paps, and Chuck the King Louis XVI Ottoman furniture store. Mike had played a long time ago, and for all practical purposes hadn't played other than to understand the very basic concepts. Chuck and I had played a little more, and I'd refreshed the rules, but that didn't stop us from making several major errors early in the game (placing control markers on fortified spaces without sieging, for example). However, we plunged through and had what I considered a satisfying game.

I've tried to enjoy HiS in the past, but since every game has been a learning game (and with very slow play, not that our game was speedy) it's been hard for me to decide how I feel about the game. One of the biggest issues I've had has been that you can't retreat an army into a fortified space unless you have four or fewer units, making it hard to defend said space. This time, I figured out that they still have to siege, even with no units in the fort, so that gives the guy running away a chance to come back in and save the city. I can't tell you what a big deal this was for me, and it's improved my sense of the game immensely.

The game started out normal enough. France and England allied to keep the Hapsburgs down, and the Protestants got out to a strong start, taking 10 spaces in Germany. I had Schmalkaldic League, but never quite got to the 12 to play it early, and I'm not sure that it was a great idea that early anyway. The Ottomans advanced up through Hungary, the Hapsburgs fought the French for the most part and left England alone, and the Papacy started out it's series of theological debates by having their weak debater disgraced.

The second turn saw a huge change to my fortures. Schmalkaldic came out again, but in the discard pile, and I was tempted to grab and play it, but in the end decided I wanted more Protestant spaces, and that was a good idea. However, my hot die rolling in the first turn went totally cold, and I ended up losing ground in Germany. Plus I lost one of my best debater on a fluke roll (3 points to the Papacy!) On the bright side, Henry asked for a divorce (through card play) and started down the road to a healthy son, which happened finally with Anne of Cleves (after both Anne Bolynn and Jane Seymour turned out to be horn dogs, although that did move my Marital Status along).

By the end of the fourth turn, things were looking good for the Protestants and English. The Prots had taken the bulk of Germany when the Schmalkaldic League got played by default, although I was missing two Electorates. Unfortunately, I was thinking there were five Electorates, so I thought I only had three and didn't take my extra Prot card. King Hank had his male heir (and healthy), and pretty much all of England was Protestant. By the end of turn five, the scores were tightly clustered in the low 20s, so everyone had a shot at taking the prize. Sadly, I was in such a position that I either needed Edward to come out or a really awesome Prot turn, but it wasn't to be. I held my own but it wasn't enough. The French managed to hold off the Papacy in a free-for-all in Italy (including the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, everyone but me!) and the end result was the French hitting 25 right at the end of the turn, giving Chuck the win.

I really found the challenge of building up from a weak position (both the Prots and British) and came close to winning. Oddly, neither Chuck nor Mike was nearly as enthusiastic as I was, but perhaps I'm more interested in the overall arc of how the game develops rather than in finding interesting things to do. I hear that the six player game is good, but my experience has been with people learning the game and it goes *slow*. Even our game took about 90-120 minutes per turn, and it really didn't need to - I was ready to go with my play on both sides a good 60% of the time, and I would imagine that 45-60 minutes for a turn is doable.

For me, an excellent start to the festivities.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

WBC West 2011 - Final Preparations

Tomorrow I leave in the morning for what is arguably the high point of my gaming year, our "WBC West" nanocon in Central Oregon at the Sunriver resort. This year we will have ten gamers attending, eight of them present and accounted for by Monday night. Every year there are more challenges and problems to solve, and this year has been no exception. Fortunately, almost all of those problems have been because we have more people, and soon we'll see if throwing money at them helped or hurt.

No doubt the biggest issue this year is not only where everyone will sleep, but where everyone will game. Ten gamers means up to five games going at once, some of which will require more space than you can generate using a card table. Our vacation house can barely accommodate four games (as well as Mimi's jigsaw puzzle) and we need that kind of space fairly early this year (Tuesday morning). Starting Thursday, we need the fifth table, but we've rented an extra house this year to ease the pressure, and it has a table that should hold two more games if necessary. While I like having all of the games going on in a single space, at the same time it's becoming harder and harder to do without renting some sort of event space.

A few things were still up in the air as of my last prep post, all of which have been resolved (I think there may still be a couple of people with open slots, but I'm not one of them). What Eric, Tex, and myself were going to play on Tuesday was a huge mess, but we ended up getting a white knight in the form of Matt R, who is coming out on Monday evening with Alex and Dan. This fills the house, as we had every bed filled on Monday night *without* them, but at the same time we have an odd number to match our existing odd number and that's a good thing. It looks like Eric and I will be playing Fighting Formations that day, Matt and Tex playing Labyrinth, and Alex and Dan playing Attack Vector. Chuck and Mike are playing a two-day game of Ardennes '44 starting that day.

We were also able to get a copy of Maria, the Frederich descendent on the War of the Austrian Succession, so Eric and Mike and I are set to go for Monday afternoon.

For our Fleet game, after a bit of wrangling I decided to go with the 2nd Fleet ruleset rather than try to cobble together the correct pieces and use the 3rd Fleet rules/counters/charts. If we played these regularly, a unified ruleset would have been awesome, but we don't and so using 2nd Fleet's rules will be fine. I prepped two play aids for this session, one a player-by-player set that covers what air units are based where (very handy for remembering where they all go after the strategic units return at the end of the day), as well as limited ammo units and victory conditions. The other is a breakdown of detection, how it is acquired, and how it is lost. The combat processes are already in play aid form. I'll post these to the 'Geek after we've used them and vetted their correctness and usefulness.

Dinner has been arranged for every night. One of the side benefits of renting a house that only two of the people attending are funding is that the two of us get out of cooking. Yeah, it's *my* rule, but I think it's a good one. Keeping the kitchen clean will be a challenge, and we'll need to institute a regular "sweep" to keep it tidy, that and use of paper plates and plastic cups (particularly the latter, which we put our names on with masking tape) help too.

As for my personal prep, it has gone fairly well, and I am ready to go on almost everything. Almost. There are two issues here - the first is that I'm not ready for any of the "new" evening games that we'll probably play, such as Wealth of Nations and Mansions of Madness. Hopefully someone else will have those games down. I'm also not ready just yet for PQ-17, which Tex knows but I'll need to know as well. I am going to do a quick read-through of those rules today, and will try to get in some refresher reading as the week goes on, although I frankly will need that for Burning Blue as well. No matter how much I try to get things managed out front (and I did that this year) it always seems like I'm scrambling at the end. Perhaps next year I'll go solely with games I'm familiar with.

I also ran out of room and have to decide if I'm going to bring some of the bigger boxed games like Wrath of Ashardalon or Cosmic Encounter which will sit outside of the bins. I was a little amazed at how well the games I am bringing fit in, but then wargames typically come in smaller boxes than Euros and I fit nearly every game I'm playing during the day into one bin. Nice.

I also have the necessary information for the second house we've rented starting Wednesday, which is a good thing to have. Fortunately, it's all done by lock-box, so no extra trips out to the realty office, which is about a 25 minute round trip.

The last surprise was kind of a big one, at least for those of us who go to Sunriver regularly. The Trout House restaurant, which has sat at the "marina" for 20 years, has gone out of business to be replaced with a Mexican/Peruvian restaurant called "Hola!" The last Hispanic restaurant, located in the mall, had gotten worse and worse as time went on, and I think they went out of business as well. It's a very difficult climate to run a small business out there, as the clientele is extremely seasonal (skiers in the winter, and the real bonanza of summer families), so I'm not surprised to see businesses come and go, but there has been an enormous upheaval over the past five or six years, partly due to the recession and partly due to the owners of the space who are either indifferent, hostile, or clueless depending on which owner we're talking about and who is doing the talking. It will be interesting to see who is still there this summer, as we won't spend much (if any) time at the mall on this trip. Regardless, Hola! is where we will hold our Saturday dinner festivities.

My last issue is getting a bike down to the shop for some major work, and I'll probably need to take a bike rack for my car to get it there and back. It's my own bike, purchased about ten years ago, and I've since learned a lot about what makes a good bike and almost nothing about this bike qualifies if you plan to ride it more than about five miles. It certainly doesn't work for off-road use, largely because the shifters are integrated into the handlebars and a tight grip can result in downshifting far too often. It's more for use as a "anyone can use it" bike, but it needs major maintenance so I might as well bite the bullet and get it done now.

This is our ninth WBC West, and it's gratifying to have seen it grow so much over the years. What started out as Chuck and I getting in five days of gaming has turned into a full seven days and ten gamers for most of the week. In some ways, this iteration will be a bellwether for what is to come. I'm hoping to keep the overall intimate vibe while making it possible for more people to attend, but those may not be possible. We will have a much better sense of where we want to go in another week.

Regardless, I am very excited about the trip this year. Now all I have to do today is finish reading the rules for PQ-17, do my laundry, get my food together, pack my clothes, carry two heavy bins of games out to the car, collect the hooch (bourbon, peppar vodka, and Benedictine, not to be combined at the same time of course), run a few more errands, and I'm done.

This year, I plan to make three posts a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Getting in my posts is one of the more difficult challenges in a week that is already busy, but it's also one of my favorite parts of the week since it reinforces the memories so well. I hope you enjoy following along!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

I am an extremely fortunate man to have a family that gets along and can function together when we need to. We enjoy seeing each other at gatherings, and while we have our frictions and scars we also understand the importance of family. A big part of why we get along as well as we do is because of my mother's influence.

As some of you are aware, my mother suffered a subdural hematoma last June. After a short period where we were so certain she was going to die that she was under hospice care, she came back with a determination that I have found impressive. Unfortunately at 88, comebacks are difficult to pull off, and she's slipped back quite a bit. Her short term memory is very poor, although she remembers people she knows well. A year ago she and her partner won a charity Bridge league in an environment with some very good players, and now she struggles to remember what the bid was. If the rest of this post sounds like I'm speaking of her in the past tense, it's because in some senses she *has* gone on.

As the fourth of four kids, and fifteen years after my closest sibling at that, I perhaps had the best of all worlds. When I was born, I'm told that my mother looked at my father and told him that she was raising me her way this time out. "Her way" meant that I was encouraged in every endeavor I tried, some of which I needed a bit of a push to do, but mostly in the sense that I grew up thinking that anything was possible and there was nothing I couldn't do if I wanted to do it. The long term result is that I *still* think I can do anything I set out to do. OK, not basketball. Or golf. But anything else. That attitude allows me to keep an open mind about the world in general, something that seems to be sorely lacking in American culture in the early 21st century.

When I expressed interest in learning to play the organ after she got a small home console and took a few lessons, her support that turned into a lifetime of music performance for me that has paid so many dividends I cannot list them all. The primary one is almost certainly the confidence to play the fool when called for. Actually, it would be more correct to say that I am not afraid to play the fool or appear foolish, and the irony is that quite often by removing that fear we do not in fact appear foolish after all. That skill has served me well in many capacities, not the least of which is how I interact with my 2 year old granddaughter.

When I discovered wargames at 10 years of age, she encouraged the hobby, helping me to buy games and start what has become a bit of an obsession over the years, but one that has brought great joy and great friendships to my life. She may never have understood them in the slightest sense, but I am fairly sure that she would look at a game set up in my room and be proud that she had a son who could figure these things out and was learning history, all on his own initiative. What I'm not sure she considered was how much of her encouragement and love led to that point.

At this point in my life, I find myself using her example in my relationship with my son-in-law (and my daughter, were she willing) to help him become as good a parent to my granddaughter as my mother was to me. My mother is not and never has been perfect, but she was perfect for me, and I consider myself about as lucky as it is possible to be in that regard.

As my mother fades, I am starting to think that this may be the last Mother's Day I celebrate with her still in my life. The truth is, of course, that when she is gone she is not actually gone. Her DNA continues in four children, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. The example she provided is equally strong. Certainly her memory will last for a while, and I am thankful that my granddaughter has had the chance to spend time with her, even if eventually she will be more of an impression than a clear memory. She will live on in me and my siblings, in our children, and in their children.

Mom, thank you for everything you have done for me, all the sacrifices you have made, all the hard choices, the example and the ethical foundation. I am a much better person for being your son. I love you. Happy Mother's Day.