Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Epic CC:P

There's no question that I'm a fan of Chad Jensen's Combat Commander series, and no question that I think that while the Europe/Med games are excellent, the Pacific game refines the system to a point where it's hard to find fault. That's not to say that many don't like the "randomness" of having to draw certain types of cards to produce certain types of actions, and for those who want every possible weapon system available during the period there will always be some issues, but for the rest of us it's a hoot *and* a holler.

Matt R and I just finished up our two part game, the scenario Blind Man's Bluff (M5, I believe) from the recently released New Guinea battlepack. I had looked for a scenario with a little meat to it, meaning a decent number of units, something that wouldn't necessarily just entail an attacker and defender, and this one seemed to fit the bill nicely. It also featured CW forces, a side I hadn't seen a lot of in the games I've played. The game took two of our Fourth Monday sessions, with the first session actually taking place on a Third Monday because of vacations.

Here's the lowdown: My Indian units were pinned down on the Japanese side of the board at the base of a ridge, with a large and dangerous Japanese force shooting at them from the top of the ridge. Meanwhile, a relief force made up of ANZAC troops was massing on my side of the board, while a fairly large Japanese screening force was between me and relieving the Indians. In some ways, it's like two scenarios in one. I was in an Attack posture with four Orders per turn at Line quality, while Matt's Japanese were in Recon posture (so more cards but no ability to play Defensive cards and no bonus VP per time trigger) posture with three Orders per turn at Line quality. The Japanese had plenty of mortars of the Light and Medium kind, as well as a few LMGs, while my force had mostly LMGs and a single HMG (which is perhaps the least effective HMG in the game, at least in the Pacific). In general, the Japanese are better troops, being mostly Div A and all with boxed FP.

It's hard to root the Japanese out of a fixed position because they tend to be pretty good at Melee, and they have the advantage of being able to react to any Advances their opponents make into their hexes. They had a lot of good leaders, while mine were all pretty average. Making things more interesting was the ridge running the length of the map (longways, from my end to the Japanese end), with the main Japanese forces all positioned along the top. Fortunately, however, no caves. Those things suck if you aren't Japanese.

My plan was to flank the screening force on both sides to force Matt to have to divide up his force to both sides of the ridge, then come at him from three sides. My pinned force was going to just need to survive. I'll note that there are no points for exiting the map, and that there are no specific VP for saving the pinned force, you are just trying to kill the other side and take whatever VP you get for the secret objectives you each pull at game start. These ended up being fairly small (1VP for Obj5 and Obj2, which offset) and were made public through events fairly early in the game. I did get one last objective later in the game, but since it was secret right up to the end I'll do the same for you, dear reader.

Things started off slowly for the CW, and Matt put my forces under some withering firepower on the first evenings session. The result was that I lost my best leader almost immediately, then lost the one on my left flank shortly thereafter, due to melee (I think). With this many units, it is very hard to do anything without having leadership to make them efficient (imagine a six unit force that you want to move - it takes six Move cards to do without a leader!) I also began to see a lot of attrition with the pinned Indians, and they eventually lost half of their number by the end of that first session. Oh, and my HMG broke early. However, I was having some success on the right flank, and managed to get a leader, team with an LMG, and an ANZAC squad up onto the ridge into a foxhole. I also had a radio that could call in some arty, although it was not as high a caliber as I'd have liked.

Meanwhile, Matt had pulled a weaker leader back to Obj5 just to keep me honest, but he had a very strong leader in a forward position on the ridge. However, both of us were pretty banged up, especially the Japanese, with more than half of his units broken and/or suppressed. When we took the break, I was sitting on three Revive cards that would "fix" almost all of my units, but Matt had a 13 VP lead on me and with only two leaders (only one of which was useful) I was in some trouble.

We met again last night to finish the game, and in three hours we did so. That's right, this game took over six hours to play to completion, and I'll just mention that about 60% of our Time Triggers were caused by the decks running out. That tends to make for a long game, but we tend to play at a fairly casual pace so I'd expect this scenario to still take a good four hours with very brisk play assuming this sort of time trigger tempo.

Once my units were feeling a lot better, I started focusing on trying to eliminate as many of his broken units as I could, while he focused on trying to wipe out my lone remaining assault leader. In fact, he was able to do so when a light mortar (that's right, a light mortar, the most useless weapon in the game for everything but laying smoke) managed to break said leader right before a high value direct fire attack eliminated him. I was fairly sure this was game over for the CW forces, but in CC you never know who will win until the game is over so I soldiered on. I'll also note that while I'd just fixed my HMG, Matt broke it again almost immediately.

Meanwhile, the Emperor's Hero, Mifune, was having a fine old time popping out of spider holes. He'd already pulled this trick during the first session, although IIRC he was not particularly effective in doing any damage to the pinned force he showed up next to. The second time, he popped up on what was my left flank, taking out an ANZAC squad in the process in Melee (he has no range). The third time, he popped up again near the Indians, and this time he, with the help of a Div B unit, managed to eliminate my third Indian unit, a lone squad.

Heroes come in all colors and creeds, however, and in our game that was proven true when Winslow made an appearance with my forward units on the right flank, just in time to make that an effective fighting force again. I'd been able to do a little fighting with my recently re-fixed HMG, but 7 FP just wasn't enough to make hay with.

Meanwhile, the time triggers were coming fast, and we approached our first sudden death roll. I'd finally started to do some damage (although my air support ended up not being effective - always exciting to get one of those aircraft on the board) to his broken units before Matt finally started getting Revive cards, and the VP total was slowly but surely working it's way over to my side of the board. It was on one of his attacks on my forward right flank stack that I got a battlefield promotion event that gave me Pvt White (or whatever his name is) who is a pretty decent leader, if a little fragile. I got Winslow out of the hex shortly thereafter to allow me to get the full benefit of the foxhole, so now I had two stacks in play on that flank. When I got reinforcements on an event shortly thereafter, things were looking very good and I just needed to get that last seven points, excepting whatever the secret objective I had was.

Meanwhile, the time triggers kept coming, and suddenly we were making Sudden Death rolls. The first one went high (needed to be less than 8), and I was sure the second was going to bite me as well even though I had the Initiative on both rolls. It too went high, but with the SD marker on 10 my luck was coming close to running out.

As it turned out, that secret objective was going to get Matt two more points (Obj 4, right in the midst of his pinning force) and I wasn't going to get that far. So it was that I managed to advance into a hex with a broken Div A unit that I killed even with Matt's three (!) Bayonet cards. Now it was down to five points, and Matt sent in his last big forward stack, the one with the 2 leader, to take on my forces with their 2 leader in melee. He had a four point advantage after we both played Ambush cards, but I had saved my own Bayonets as well, albeit just one card. I had the Initiative, but two points is a big gap to leap in this game. Matt drew a 6, and so it was that I needed an 8 or higher just to kill his guys (although an 8 would have given us a wash in terms of points). I drew a 10, as it was, and suddenly I was up three points, leaving me one VP slop in case he took out a team before the game ended.

As it was, the game ended almost immediately with a card-based time trigger that, sure enough, came in below 10, and the blokes had pulled it off. Interestingly, had Matt chosen *not* to come after me, he probably would have won the game, assuming the time trigger fired off at the same time. I would have needed another Advance card to press the issue, and to be fair I would have been digging for Bayonets and Ambushes every turn, all the time worrying if those Indians would hold out a little longer. However, I could see him making the attack given that he had what was a four point advantage going in and an Ambush card. Had I not had the Bayonets, he would almost certainly have won, so no bust on him for the choice.

Did I mention that the scenario is rarely over until it's over? This one literally came down to the last couple of turns and in dramatic fashion. No question I got very lucky with my last two Melee attempts, not to mention those two SD rolls that gave me just enough time to pull the game out.

Oh, did I mention the jungle caught on fire too? And that Matt got an SNLF unit to infiltrate to my backfield? And the divebomber that didn't? This game is like a movie, nearly every time.

It was an epic game, the sort that makes me want to pull it out again and play *today*. Having this on an iPad or other tablet device would be *awesome*, and it's exactly the right size map so that it would work. I know GMT is looking seriously at porting some of it's games to tablet devices, and this would be a no brainer for both e-play and pass-n-play modes. And with an effective AI... Hoo mama.

Thanks Matt for the excellent company and for being an excellent opponent both during the game and in defeat. Sometimes I feel like I've earned a win, and this time, despite some luck at the end, this was one of those times.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Recent Euros I've Been Playing

After the blitz of gaming that was Sunriver for Alex and I, things have slowed down quite a bit. Well, except when it comes to iAscension, which could just as easily be called iCrack. Except a lot cheaper. I estimate I've played about 100 games of this marvelous iPad app, as well as on the iPhone when I've been stuck at the doctor's office. I'm ready for the expansion to find it's way to the app, but particularly I'd love to see achievements and the ability to interact with others in online games (although I just finished an online game that took about a week, and I can say that this game does *not* shine in that situation). I know that the iOS5 update coming in the fall is supposed to coincide with some GameCenter buffs, so hopefully that will help.

Which is not to say that I haven't been gaming, oh no. I've gotten to try out three new games, one of which is an expansion, and I'll almost certainly try out the new Thunderstone expansion solitaire very shortly. Here's my take on these "new to me" games...

7 Wonders: Leaders

I was a little nervous about this elegant game getting an extra mechanism bolted onto it, but actually it turns a game that was fairly tactical into something a little more strategic. Leaders are cards that aren't part of the regular drill but instead let you toss in special mutant powers each era. The cards each give some sort of benefit in points or abilities at a coinage cost. You go through a short draft process at the start to distribute them, with four cards in your hand at the start of the game once you're done. You have the option to buy one leader at the start of each era, and that leader's ability, if persistent, stays in play through the entire game. The abilities I had in my game gave you a one resource discount on blue card purchases, a one time 6 dollar payout (Croesus, hilarious), and two different science cards (tablet and gear).

I based my choices on my wonder, which was the one that gave you a choice of science icons for the second stage. That locked me into a science strategy, or at least the strong possibility of going hard for science, which I did. I ended up with five tablets at the end, which was sadly not enough for me to win but enough to be a strong contender. In general, the wonders give you a fairly good idea of a possible strategy for the game, but you can pick different ones based on your leaders, and even keep a certain amount of flexibility if you choose for a multi-pronged approach.

I don't recommend using these with new players, as the core iconography is going to overwhelm them anyway, but I felt the leader cards gave the game additional heft at a very low cost in terms of complexity and additional time. The core game retains it's charm (largely because of it's brevity). While I only have the one game under my belt, I was impressed enough to buy the expansion and I'll include it in games with experienced players.

Space Hulk: Death Angel 

I'm no fan of Games Workshop. They have a terrible reputation with third-party websites and retailers and like to rejigger their minis games on what seems to be a weekly basis to drive additional sales. Still, I admit a certain sick fascination with the dystopian future presented in their Warhammer 40k line. I do own some minis left over from a brief flirtation with clinical depression/OCD in the mid-90's, but now I limit myself to the occasional game such as Space Hulk and, of course, Dark Angel.

Dark Angel is a cooperative card game that is, for all practical purposes, Space Hulk Lite. The situation is the same (you are a bunch of heavily armored and armed Space Marines, although curiously not Dark Angel Space Marines, or even that chapter's Terminators - forgive me if I'm screwing up the mythology here, I'm going off of a rapidly degrading memory), and you are in a Space Hulk (abandoned space ship) that has been overrun with Genestealers (and I have *never* been able to figure out what genes they are stealing - I think they *implant* their own genetic code, which is a different thing altogether) that are bringing down property values in the neighborhood. Plus if the ship ever crashed on a planet and anything aboard survived, then there would be a problem.

So you and your friends (or just you, as the game is built to play solitaire with few if any changes) are tasked with going in and kicking some Genestealer butt. The bad news is that your butt is almost certainly going to get come kickage as well. This game is brutal.

Each player takes a combat team of two SMs in preconfigured packages. Your team has three action cards that you use to determine what you'll be up to this turn, and each SM has a range that it can shoot at stuff. Your SM also has a facing, which frankly is what turns this from a pretty dull shoot and pray game into a tense and interesting affair. You can't "activate" terrain or shoot at Genestealers unless you are facing them (there are only two directions, but those suckers are *fast*), and you can't change facing unless you move. Which means you aren't shooting.

The turn is pretty simple - pick what your SMs are up to this turn (one choice for both SMs), do it, have GS's mess with you, and draw an event that has a better than even chance of ruining your day. Your choices are to Support (give someone a Support token that can be used to reroll a combat roll when that SM is facing what's attacking it), Move + Activate (change position in the formation of SMs, change facing, and activate terrain if possible), or Attack (pretty self-explanatory). You can't do the same action with the same combat team in two consecutive turns, so no one just sits on overwatch (my term) for the entire game. Each card has a different special action that you can take in addition to the basic action, depending on which team you are playing, such as a skull result from a GS attack changing the result to a miss. Events will do random wackiness plus also add GS's to the formation as well as move some of them around on occasion.

The game runs on a timer created by location cards you travel through and "blip" piles for each side of the formation, set by the location card you are currently at. Locations are semi-randomized depending upon the number of players, and you never know what's around the corner. They also determine the terrain card placement among the formation. Event cards will determine GS placement, all coming from the blip piles, among the terrain cards, with the location determining how many. When you run out of GS's from a given blip pile, you "travel" to the next location at the end of that segment (almost always after the Event segment, but not always, which will reconfigure the terrain (if not the GS's in the formation) and some random wackiness will ensue. The final location tells you what you need to do to win the game.

The combat die has six sides, with numbers ranging from 0-5, with an additional skull icon on the middle four numbers 1-4. Combat is pretty simple - if you are attacking, you want to roll a skull to kill a GS (assuming your special mutant Attack card power doesn't override that). If you are defending, you want to roll a number higher than the number of GS's in the swarm you are facing to force a miss, otherwise it's sayonara Space Marine. If you have a support token on that SM and are facing your attacker, you can use it to force a reroll (same with attacks), but make no mistake - this is an unforgiving atmosphere and it is not hard to lose your squad *really* fast.

In fact, it is very possible to lose your entire combat team on the first turn if things go horribly wrong. Even facing a Swarm of One (tm), you have a 1-in-3 chance of getting tapped for that particular SM. In my solitaire game, I managed to do this on the first four combat rolls I made for the GS's, including one that was a reroll. If you are the kind of person that dice hate, this may not be a game for you as the chances of quick death are pretty high.

Four turns in, I was thinking this was a game that was fairly broken based on my death rate of one SM/turn, but I realized that this is part of the design. You are *supposed* to lose SMs at a prodigious rate! Unfortunately, that means that usually someone's combat team is gone pretty quickly, so I'm thinking that while six people might be kind of fun at the same time it will probably also mean someone is out of the game fairly fast. Fortunately, with fewer players you get multiple teams and thus stay involved through the entire game. Certainly you do playing solitaire.

That said, I was averaging about two rounds per location card, and made it to the final location with two SMs left, both from different teams. Really important that you consider *trying* to do this by how you place your SMs in your formation when being attacked by GS's, as if you have only one team left they both have to do the same action and that never works out. One was purple flamethrower guy, who takes out multiple GS's when he Attacks, but it didn't help. I had three or four GS's per swarm (one on each side of the formation) and both SMs were gone in the next turn.

Not a result that was surprising, however. I've heard it's a tough game to win, although less so solitaire because there's no arguing about how to proceed with the mission. Also, I'd randomly selected three teams of the six so I have no idea about how well they worked together.

In the end, I really enjoyed this as a solitaire title, and it would make a fun filler, especially at Sunriver in the late evening. If you can get past the "lose half of your team on a single roll" factor, I think this is a pretty cool little game. Certainly small enough to take with you on a trip, it's the same box size as Red November.

One caveat - the rules are supposed to be atrocious, and in fact I did not find them that way. Yes, things are scattered all over the place, but if you walk through the sequence of play all is pretty clear. What was *not* clear was that things go on one side or the other. Terrain cards are placed based on which side of the location card their icon is on. GS's go to the side with the terrain card. I was surprised that this wasn't mentioned more clearly, as this sort of thing is a little unusual as far as strategy games and Euros go. That said, I didn't think the rules were nearly as bad as many had made them out to be, and in fact the BGG "Things You'll Screw Up" thread applied to me in exactly one case out of 20. Not to say these are great rules, just not Satan personified as some might have you believe.

Spectral Rails

Last game in my wrapup. This one I've actually played twice now. It's a bit of a bear to explain, but I find it to be a surprisingly deep game given it's generally simple mechanisms. The theme is based on trying to take spirits from one ghost town to another so that they can rest in peace. Why one ghost town is better than another is beyond me, but that's your job.

At it's heart, the game is a simple pick up and deliver your load train game but with a few neat twists. The first is that you power your train with Ether cards, of which everyone has an identical deck. The cards range in value from 1-4, with most of your cards being lower valued. You use the same cards to bid to see who goes first in each turn. To make things more complex, the cards are played in order (a point the rulebook makes about 50 times) and you only get them back a handful at a time, and in First In First Out order (a "queue" for those of you familiar with data structures in computer science).

A turn consists of three phases that feel like they were taken directly from Martin Wallace's spare room. You begin by bidding to see who will be the Spirit Leader (really), using the cards to bid. Losers in the process get to take back a card, but the rest stay *in order* (as the rulebook reminds us regularly) in front of you. This Spirit Leader also gets to choose who will *be* the new Spirit Leader and thus go first in the Movement round.

The middle part of the turn consists of repeated Movement phases, which you do until people have spent their limit in Ether cards (13 points) and used their two Coins, or passed. Once everyone passes, you go to a Replenishment phase where you get half the cards in front of you rounded down, taking them from the least recently used cards, and you get your Coins back. Then you go back to bidding for a new round.

Once the three Train Wreck tokens have been taken from the board (which happens when someone enters that particular ghost town), you finish the turn and move on to the second round which looks a lot like the first but has some scoring complexities and a new set of Train Wreck tokens. In practice, a round will consist of one or two turns, and you need to be aware of the possibility of the round or game ending.

The really critical part is the movement phase, and it's best to start with how much it costs to move. Your train has a Ether Trail it leaves behind it as it moves, which looks a lot like track in any other train game. The twist here is that you cannot move over a line that has your Ether Trail on it during that particular phase, even if you pick it up, but everyone else can move along it for free. If you move along track that is open, it costs one point per Ether Trail laid down. You can move along both other people's Ether Trails as well as open track in the same turn.

Here's how it works. First, you may pick up one spirit in the ghost town you are currently in, assuming you are. Next, you choose Ether cards to play of some point value, which go down in your queue in front of you. Next, you see if you have enough Ether Trail markers in your pool, which should not be the case after the first few movement phases. If not, you pick up segments on the board that are not connected to your train directly, and if they are all connected directly, you pick up any of them, based on the number you played with the cards. Note that you don't necessarily need to *play* them all, it's based on what cards you played. Next, you move as outlined above, remembering that you can't move over segments you removed your own Trails from. It is very possible to have multiple colors of Ether Trail going between cities - this is not like Ticket to Ride where one person owns a route, nor like Union Pacific where one segment gives you access. You do not need to stop in ghost towns, but it's usually a good idea to. As you move your train, you lay down Ether Trails along the open segments you've moved through. When you finish moving, if you are in a ghost town you can drop off passengers for that town at that time in any number. Note that you *never* drop off passengers unless they are in their town, so don't pick up just anybody. Also, having more than three passengers on your train requires you to burn one Ether card that counts against your 13 point per movement phase limit, so saving a 1 card for this purpose is not a terrible idea.

If you do not spend cards, whether you actually create more Ether Trails or not, you have to burn one of your two Coins. You can use this to sit in a town if you want for a turn without spending Ether cards so that you can pick up the second ghost, or just to see what the other ghost engineers are doing. You only have two per turn, but you get them back during Replenishment.

Depending upon if there are three or four players, there are five or six states in play, each of which has three towns. In the first round, each city starts with up to two spirits in it, but any spirits that start in their own town are removed from the game. In the second round, which has lighter backgrounds on the spirit markers, there is only one per town. That means each town has at the most three spirits that want to go there.

Points are given out at the end of the game as follows: Round 1 ghosts delivered in Round 1 and Round 2 ghosts delivered in Round 2 each are worth one point. Round 1 ghosts delivered in Round 2 are worth two points, so there's some reason to carry a few over. If you have a set of one ghost from each state, that set is worth five or six points. If you have a set of one ghost from each of the three towns in a state, that set is worth three points. If you have multiple sets, each is worth the bonus. Finally, any ghosts still on your train at game end are mad as hell and they're worth -1 point. Tie goes to whoever has the most Ether cards or points on those cards or some nonsense.

As you can see, this is a difficult game to explain well, but once you've played it becomes much clearer. The game requires planning but also flexibility. Trying to collect sets is smart, but so is exploiting your opponents' Ether Trails. Figuring out how you want to proceed and dealing with the other players not cooperating is where the fun is in this game.

I will also note that the rules are pretty clear, but very verbose (like me) and with a lot of "flavor" in them that I found a little grinding the further along I got. However, everything you know is in there if you don't mind someone standing over your shoulder and reminding you not to mess with your queue every paragraph or two.

Components are great, although there is one icon on the map for placing second round Train Wreck markers that shouldn't be there. Easy mnemonic is to remember that the two sets each form a triangle, and both triangles form a six-pointed star. I'd have preferred a different way of tracking points, too, one that would allow me to keep track of sets *and* which round the  Round 1 ghosts had been delivered.

Which makes me wonder why a Round 1 marker would be happier taking longer to get to it's final resting place, but really mad if it didn't make it at all. There I go again trying to rationalize theme.

Fortunately, the game itself is really pretty cool. Play time takes about 75 minutes with experienced players, perhaps less. 'Splainin' time takes about 20 minutes, though - if you followed my explanation above you are smarter than I am. There's a lot of "new" ground in how this game works.

That said, I really like this game. It's got a lot of nice new twists on what is becoming a fairly tired genre of train games, and even though the Old West is my least favorite setting, I really enjoyed trying to parse what my best move was to set me up for the next turn, as well as the various screwage opportunities present. Seeing how the board evolves is always a lot of fun, and it goes from being pretty cohesive early to Ejaculating Skittles by the end. I am very interested to try with three, although I suspect four is the sweet spot (and perhaps the game's biggest shortcoming).

And that, as they say, is that. I'm also looking forward to giving the new Junta game a try in the near future, but not this week.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

PQ-17, or How Really Bad Weather Saved My Bacon

My main focus in wargaming has historically been land battles. I love me some Down In Flames for light play just like the next guy, but I've just never been able to get too far into naval or air operations. Over the past few years, some notable exceptions have popped up, such as Nightfighter, The Burning Blue, and Downtown on the air side, and the Fleet series from Victory Games. Actually, I've loved the Fleet series since I started collecting it in the early 90's and I'm very happy to have all of those games in my collection. Our four-player game this past WBC West playing 2nd Fleet was a high point in a week of very good gaming, and we plan to follow up next year with another large scenario.

What I've learned through these games is that there's a joy in planning and a joy in deciphering plans. There's a joy in the search, and a joy in the discovery. Even if it's 40 degrees below zero outside.

Thus it was that when Tex taught me PQ-17 as my final scheduled game of WBC West 2011, the seed was well and truly planted for me to become more interested in this genre of wargaming. I don't know that I'll ever enjoy naval games at the tactical level, certainly not so long as a game like War Galley or Flying Colors requires what my friend Tripp called "counter stew" and I will call a "countercopia". That said, the Fleet series, and now it's conceptual second cousin once removed PQ-17, will become games that are a regular part of my rotation.

PQ-17 is set in 1941-43 largely in the ocean area bounded by the UK on the south, Iceland in the west, the coast of Norway and the White Sea in the east, and Spitzbergen Is. and the polar icecap in the north. The game consists mostly (but not entirely) of convoy operations between the UK/Iceland and Murmansk, including both loaded convoys on their way to Russia and the empty "ballasted" convoys returning home. While the German surface fleet will most often be hiding in port, it remains a threat in being and can not only come out to wreak havoc but also may be assigned to an Atlantic breakout, requiring the Allies to be on their toes. The various scenarios, each lasting 15 days of two turns each, cover a wide range of historical convoys, and there is also a campaign game that allows you to play out a year's worth of "fortnights", about 25 games in length. Play time ranges from 3-6 hours depending upon how complex a given scenario is.

Tripp came over yesterday to play PQ-17, and we had a great time. This was my second game and the first game for Tripp. We played PQ-9/10, a C3i scenario that the designer, Chris Janiec, uses to demo the game at cons. Compared with the intro game that Tex and I played seven weeks ago, this is a much better choice - you have all elements active (unlike the boxed scenario that hobbles the German air force, which is grounded short of a miraculous random event roll that *might* give you a little action once or twice during the game) but the planning phase is largely skipped to get right into the game itself. Since most players aren't going to be terribly effective in planning right out of the gate, this is a good way to get started.

I'd like to mention the ruleset for this game before I go into my recap of the game and my thoughts on the system, as it's been the element that's gotten the most criticism. The designer himself has already acknowledged the ruleset's shortcomings (oh, if only some other designers were so humble, and long time readers will know exactly who I'm talking about), but I agree with his assessment that the actual rules are extremely easy to work with on a system-by-system basis, and that the main issue with the rulebook is about structure, but there are issues with the descriptive material at the front that are enormous gumption traps for anyone trying to learn the game from the rules. There are a few language issues here and there as well. That said, aside from there being a lot of small subsystems you'll need to learn over time, at it's core this is a very easy game to play - you move, you search, you shoot.

The game is based to some extent on the Fleet series, mostly in terms of the variety of combat involved. There is torpedo combat (torp bombers and subs), bombing combat, anti-aircraft fire, air-to-air combat, surface gunnery, ASW, the entire gamut. In fact, about half of the rules you need to play the non-campaign game are tied up in combat. Which is hilarious because in my experience you actually *fight* about a quarter of the time, if not less. Every time you want to shoot at a force on the map, you have to find it first, even if you've already "found" it. And it is in the searching, not the combat, where the tension and fun in this game lies.

How to best simulate air/naval operations in a boardgame? As the designer lays out in his notes, it's been a bit of a problem for designers for decades. The old AH Midway game used a double-blind system that required you to give away where your own units were, to some extent, when you searched for your opponent's forces. A large number of systems use plotting, often in advance, to simulate slow response times and the size of the area being searched. The Fleet system was probably the most accessible, although the technology is so much more advanced that it wouldn't work well in a WW2 era game.

While less accessible than Fleet, PQ-17 (just PQ from now on) does an excellent job of managing the concept, and does it in a way that creates a fair amount of detail while keeping the mechanisms themselves very manageable. The key is to use blocks, but unlike most block wargames the orientation of the block does not reflect combat strength but how well that "force" has been identified. A face-down block is in port, an upright block is at sea but unidentified. Once identified, the force is placed face up and it's orientation now shows how recently and how effectively the force has been tagged by the enemy. As time goes on, the "ID level" which ranges from 0-3 (4 if a force is photo-reconned in port) will increase or degrade, determined by combat, shadowing by enemy recon forces, movement, and time of day. Once an enemy force is identified and face up, you can send units against it, although they need to find it once they get there.

Of particular interest are the way that you detect the enemy and how you maintain that detection. The first line is the air radii, which simply means the area that each side is able to maintain regular air recon operations. For the Germans, that's the area around the entrances to the Baltic. For the Allies, it's the areas around the UK and Iceland and to some extent between the two. The Russians have an air radii, but it's very small and only around Murmansk. Obviously these areas are set in the game by map iconography. Aircraft carriers also can provide air radii in their hex, and some aircraft can provide them on a hex-by-hex basis if a player chooses.

The second level of detection involves Air Sectors, which are also delineated on the map. Each player has Air Sector counters assigned by the scenario that can be used to search individual hexes in their predefined areas. For the Germans, that means the North Sea, the waters around Trondheim, and the Barents Sea. For the Brits, it's the area around Iceland. Often the path your convoys will take are largely determined by the limits of these Air Sectors.

The third level of detection is based on having your forces in the same space as your enemy's forces. You also have the ability to try to detect forces moving through hexes you occupy, which if detected will cause combat. Forces can also be detected in port by photo recon, but aside from seeing if the German High Seas Fleet is in port or not, this is a very small part of the game (but can be very important).

Detection is accomplished through the use of cards, much as is done in The Burning Blue. I like this considerably better than simply rolling on a table for a couple of reasons. First, a card can give considerably more information and detail about whether or not a search occurs, whereas tables tend to be fairly compact and "one-size-fits-all". In PQ, the cards take into account whether a force you are searching for is already identified, and how well, whether it is being shadowed, whether it is near a coastline, whether it is a submarine, what the weather and light conditions are, and whether there are enemy air forces nearby. In addition, if the force is discovered, it can determine how well the force has been recced and set the ID level accordingly. It's a very nice evolution of the Burning Blue system, and aside from requiring frequent reshuffling (every turn, up to 30 times in a game) it's an extremely elegant system once you internalize the symbology (which takes about half of a game). Also of note is that such elements as weather and what sort of force (air, naval, or both) is doing the searching play a role in the results.

Detection is great for getting units identified, which means you can attack them. Unfortunately, you move your aircraft before you detect anything, so often you'll detect a force during a Day turn but won't be able to send your units against it until the following Day turn (assuming a Spring/Fall scenario - being this far north, some scenarios are all Day and some are all Night), so you will probably want to "shadow" the force to keep it's ID level constant. If you detected the force with an air sector marker, you can use it to shadow the force but it won't be able to search for other forces while it does so. Shadowing also improves your odds of being able to actually find the damned force when you go to attack it, which uses the same mechanism but doesn't change ID levels. In other words, just because one of your searchers finds a force doesn't mean you will successfully even *start* to attack it. The exception is if it's detected during movement through an enemy force's hex, which immediately results in combat.

Of course, there are a certain number of "dummy" blocks that are intended to keep your opponent guessing. You can only place dummies when surface groups are in port or when a force goes back to unidentified at the start of movement (if it is unshadowed and already at ID0), but they are extremely useful for eating up clock cycles as your opponent works his way through them. Some dummies are also placed by scenario rule at the start, which is generally how subs use them.

If you've seen the game, you know that there are not only the force blocks on the map, but also a bunch of actual unit counters (large square ones for the ships and subs, rounds of various sizes for air). While air units go on the map, the naval units themselves go on your force display which shows which block they belong to. Hilariously, the naval units work exactly like more traditional blocks do - they have a CS value that dictates combat strength. Named units are single ships capable of taking multiple hits, while destroyers, torpedo boats, "escorts", and merchantmen all consist of one or more ship per CS. CS dictates not only how intact a force is, it also dictates how many dice they roll in combat as well as often dictating how fast a unit can move (from one to three hexes per turn based on the color of the circle around the CS value). Superscripts dictate AA values. Air units, on the other hand, are a single CS per side, although their values are used in a similar fashion.

I believe that part of the difficulty this game has gotten gaining traction with the wargaming community is largely because the initial part of the rules tries to explain the components in some depth, in turn because the blocks are used like units and units used like blocks compared with other games. Certainly one glance at your typical air counter will reveal up to eight or nine pieces of information, and the ship counters are not much less complex. A game with this much data *has* to be confusing, right? In fact, most of the air unit info pertains simply to size, range, and capability. For example, a unit might have up to five or six letter codes that say if it is recon, torpedo, ASW, or photo capable, as well as it's anti-air value and it's home base (important because aircraft are not permitted to rebase in the fortnight scope). Within a short amount of time, you realize that these codes are all pretty readable in the scope of the game, although they are daunting when you are trying to learn the game. Even the type of unit (MB for medium bomber, for example, DB for dive bomber) really only comes into play during combat, so for most of the game you just need to know if a unit can recon and it's range.

I won't go into the combat realm other than to say that every type has a different process but all share the same basics - you have to find your target, then you roll dice based on your CS that need to hit target numbers based on the attacking and target types with various DRMs based on the environment and target/attacker status. I'd have preferred to have seen the rules follow the entire procedure for each combat type rather than give some general rules then give the remaining part of the process in the individual sections. If you are learning the game, read the first page and a half of the combat rules that are general in scope and leave the rest for when you actually need to perform the combat. A play aid would be a good idea here, and I'm surprised no one has made one yet. One other important note: subs can't move *and* attack in the same turn, so you have to do a certain amount of lying in wait. Surprisingly, wolfpack tactics can be very effective here if you have dummies floating around the ocean.

Another similarity with Burning Blue is that you don't just send all of your ships out to sea. Instead, you pay command points, which later translate into VP for the other side, every time you send a ship of a certain size out of port. Send the whole fleet and you'll end up losing the game even if you never get attacked. The Germans have even stiffer requirements, often needing to have a big enough target to risk a capital ship asset. The Soviets don't have issues with leaving port, but they can get expensive when they stray far from home, which in this case is largely defined as a couple of hexes. Even their subs are very limited in where they can go.

While the map might seem to be constant, in fact the polar ice cap plays a significant role. There are two zones of ice, east and west, which dictate what the conditions are when moving from one hex to another. If there is any ice, there is a chance that units will be damaged, but you don't always know what the conditions are in a given "band" as printed on the map. Often, a band will say "Light Drift?" meaning that once you roll on the table you'll find out. In particularly harsh conditions such as pack ice, forces have the option to "turn back" if the conditions are worse than expected with less damage. You risk the ice at your peril, but often it's a good way to throw your opponent off the scent if he suspects you are only sending a dummy force through it. Ice is set by scenario, so it can be relatively open or closed depending upon the time of year. This is the most elaborate but yet elegant system I've seen for managing this aspect of the environment in any wargame, especially after becoming more interested in Arctic exploration over the past 12 months personally

Finally, I'll mention the wacky part of the game - random events and special conditions. Random events are things that pop up during play, and they are rolled for every turn by both players, each having their own results table. In general, these will create local weather, collisions (if in foggy weather), bring in reinforcements, all sorts of things that you'd expect from a standard convoy mission.

Special conditions, however, are a much different beast and while I'm tempted to teach this game without using them, there's no question that they create a lot of extra tension and can really mix a game up. Each player draws a single chit with a letter to determine what their special condition is, which can include delivering gold back from the USSR, bombing raids on the Tirpitz by Bomber Command, the dreaded Atlantic Breakout by the German navy, various special operations to mine Murmansk's harbor or raid Norwegian ports, all sorts of stuff. The various scenarios also provide special situations, so replayability goes way up even with the 13 or so scenarios I have access to (two extras included online or to preorders, as well as one included in C3i). Even the scenarios can result in a much different mission than a convoy, so there's a lot of game in this box.

Back to the recap!

Tripp and I played the PQ-9/10 scenario included in C3i, which was historical but uneventful, so it's a bit on the alt-history side but not much so. It's definitely the best way to teach the game to an experienced wargamer as it bypasses prep without too much trouble and includes a lot of forces without overwhelming the players. My goal as the Brits was to get a convoy, already off of the east coast of Iceland, to Murmansk in more or less one piece. This is a small convoy on the verge of being a large convoy (10CS of MVs) but no return convoy from Murmansk. The Brits have an aircraft carrier, and the AM turns are daylight while the PM turns are night. The Germans can't sortie with the Tirpitz until they roll a reinforcement random event, and even then they can send out a dummy to keep the Brits guessing, but first they have to roll that reinforcement, which is not a given in any game.

My initial plan was to leave the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow but to definitely sortie the carrier group (supported by some very big guns) to help provide a certain degree of air support and search capability. I also had a CL in Scotland that needed to get to Murmansk as well. I broke my subs into two wolfpacks of two subs each, one to watch the waters around Trondheim in case the Tirpitz got out, the other to try to counter the German subs blocking the path to Murmansk.

On Tripp's part, he chose not to send out his destroyer in Kirkenes to challenge the Soviet "fleet" of one wolfpack, two destroyers, and an escort, but it did force me to leave those units in port for defense. His primary defense was to use his wolfpacks (sadly, his dummy forces were eliminated early thanks to my random events) and air units to try to find and kill my convoy.

In the early game, Tripp was very successful in locating a small destroyer TF and sinking one while crippling the other, putting it out of the game immediately. Worse, he located my Adventure TF carrying diplomats and sunk it as well, treating it like a sunk convoy. Meanwhile, my Bomber Command special condition was less than successful - you need two hits to do any lasting damage to the Tirpitz, and while my photo recon worked right away, the bombers only got one hit. It's hard to hit ships with heavy bombers!

It was in the mid-game where things got very interesting. As I approached Bear Island, the historical limit of British TF operations largely because of harsh limits on ships that can dock in Murmansk (and you need to dock them before their fuel runs out, also a very elegant system), Tripp managed to locate my convoy during a night turn, meaning that the next turn he could fly every bomber in range to attack it. Miraculously, a Gale came up that turn that prevented air operations, and while my convoy was delayed and half of the ships dispersed (very bad if there *was* an attack), he was unable to find me with his naval forces and I not only managed to become unidentified but also generated an extra dummy counter. Tripp was unable to locate the convoy for the rest of the game.

Which was also good because he got his 1CP reinforcement that allowed him to send out the Tirpitz. That was a 3VP cost to him, but we figured that if you have the chance to sortie, you do it because it's more fun that way. Despite a little bit of back and forth with a wolfpack I'd left for just such a contingency, the Tirpitz was ineffective and never saw actual combat.

In the end, the game was surprisingly close, 4VP to my side. I'd sent out maybe one or two ships too many (should have left the battleships in Reykjavik, but the carrier was very useful), and the loss of the Adventure and the DD hurt. Fortunately, every ship in the convoy arrived. Had Tripp not sortied the Tirpitz, the game would have barely been mine. I have a strong sense that I misplayed a wolfpack of mine that went into a hex with one of my taskforces on one or two occasions, and I also suspect that perhaps Tripp didn't get enough points for the CL he sank, so it may have been even closer. The important thing, however, was to learn the game (and reinforce what I'd learned in my game with Tex) and to get a sense how the game felt with all of the various forces in active play.

At this point, my very early verdict is that this is a game worth learning. You will in all likelihood want to have it taught to you rather than try to learn from the rules, although my understanding is that the designer has a 1940 Norway expansion in the works (and in fact there are components in the box solely for use in this expansion, particularly Axis convoy forces), and that he intends to do considerable rewriting of the rules in conjunction with it's release. I hope that's the case - the game isn't all that difficult, but there is a lot of chrome and a few conceptual hurdles to be met. Really, it's the only flaw I can find in a theater that I've recently become more interested in and that has struggled to find a system that does it justice.

I also understand that the designer intends to take the system to other theaters, such as the Solomons or the Med in the future. I think that's a great idea, and I plan to take a more evangelical approach to this game than I do with most.

If you bought this game but gave up after taking one look at the rules, I strongly recommend you take the time to find someone who can teach it to you. I may try to put up a demo video at some point to try to teach the game, as it teaches quite well as you play with only a very small amount of preface material to cover nomenclature and a few key concepts. It's definitely worth the effort to learn if you have even a passing interest in the topic, and it's a really fun game to boot with a lot of variety. Give it a shot.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Nightfighter - First Impressions

When the family was at Sunriver the ten days leading up to the Fourth, Alex and I got in four scenarios from Nightfighter (NF from here on out), the new WW2 aerial combat game from Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (LBW from here on out). Lee is perhaps best known for his recent designs The Burning Blue and Downtown, about the Battle of Britain and air operations over North Vietnam respectively. I have played both games a couple of times and enjoy them, but they are what some might call "simulation-heavy" and not for the faint of heart.

I have not yet played the "full" game, which isn't a big surprise as we would have had to play eight times to accomplish this. Hearkening back to the good old days, NF uses a "programmed instruction" technique to introduce a set of rules that the players then use in a scenario, followed by more rules, another scenario, etc. It's a good way to learn a complex game, with the caveat that the rules then tend to be spread around a bit. NF falls victim to this in a small way - this is not a 40 page ruleset, nor is it spread out around multiple books, as befell Squad Leader back in the day. However, there are a few rules for combat and the various radars that will see you looking around for the specifics of a given rule. I suppose that a fairly short reordering of the text would provide a better rules reference document with minimal work, but the rules as published are useable given their shorter length.

The game is organized chronologically, so earlier scenarios are, in theory, presenting earlier parts of the war. Because the game covers both theaters of WW2, and the Japanese and US Naval forces has much weaker systems in play, the PTO tends to get a little mixed up. For example, you have an early scenario "variant" presenting B-29's over Tokyo in the first few scenarios, while Japanese night attacks on US carrier groups are presented right near the end of the rules, even though the former takes place years after the latter because the Japanese radar was so primitive compared to the US's.

The scenarios are also grouped together, so that "scenario 4" actually might have one "main" scenario and up to six or seven "variants" that are actually scenarios in their own right that use the same rules subset. This is kind of a false organization because most of the variants will require later rules. For example, in the first scenario, where you have only been given the rules for "tallying" an enemy aircraft (sighting it visually), the variants will include rules for searchlights, which don't show up until the third scenario. My impression is that you are supposed to play the "non-variant" scenario the first time through and then come back to try the others once you've learned the game, or for those who are more impatient you can treat this as an alternate PI rules stream. Regardless, there's a lot of game in this box.

I'll note that Scenario 6 is the odd nightfigher out in this scheme. Unlike the others, the player (and umpire, to a very limited extent) selects from actual variants - things that vary the scenario in specific ways with specific costs. With this technique, it would take a very long time to work through the various permutations as there are something like 20 variants. It's nice to have a bit of both approaches, actually, and I think that everyone will be able to find something they enjoy playing in the box.

I've gotten a bit ahead of myself here, but it's important to understand that you learn the game as you go.

It's also important to understand that Lee's air warfare games require either a certain amount of planning followed by a fairly static realization of that planning by one side (Burning Blue), or planning by both sides with a certain amount of freedom in execution (Downtown). NF, in contrast, at least in the scenarios we played, is really about one side playing the game (the "player") and the other side creating the situation, sort of like a malignant gamemaster in an RPG (the "umpire"). The umpire generally controls the bomber stream, which has very little it can do but roll across the map at top speed. In fact, until intruders enter the picture in the last scenario (nightfighters tasked with defending the bombers), the umpire has very few tools in his kit to try to confuse the player.

First, the ump can decide to delay bombers that are entering singly by up to two turns. This kind of grouping is called "stragglers" in the campaign game. They have a specific hexagon column they will be travelling down during the scenario, but when they enter is a bit of a mystery. If the scenario calls for a "main force" of bombers, then three will enter every turn and you may not delay. However, they do get to determine which bombers enter on which designated columns, which does have a game effect due to the tally numbers (which I won't go into in depth here, only to say that groups of bombers in proximity with the same tally number have an advantage when it comes to fixing/tallying them). Secondly, in addition to when they enter, the ump can also decide how many hexes every bomber travels on it's first entry turn. It's not much, but it's something. I should also note that the ump decides whether to use the Red or Yellow side of the entry chits, which determine the columns the bombers will fly down, with the difference being which side of the map the stream will tend to be on.

The only other thing the umpire can do prior to intruders is to place the Sweep counters on the search radars when they don't make a contact in their search range. Usually this is a choice between two hexes but can still screw up the player's sense of where anything is. Beyond that, the umpire is forced to run the system.

There are still some scenarios that turn all of this on it's head. In Scenario 7, the umpire is controlling the bombers *and* the attacking nightfighters, and the player takes on the roll of intruder, trying to take out the attacking nightfighters (which have joined the bomber stream to prey on them) while avoiding shooting down their own bombers. Still, even so the umpire treats the "bad" nightfighters as bombers for the most part, and doesn't even get a say as to when they enter semi-randomly.

That might not sound like much fun for the umpire, and in a four hour game I'd agree without question. The thing is that the scenarios play in under an hour, even the big ones with 50 bombers and four nightfighters. If you *aren't* like me, and don't enjoy playing GM, you can always switch back and forth as the player, refighting the last scenario or trying a different one. In our case, Alex was always the player, in large part because I had read the rules, but also because I enjoy umpiring for the most part.

The game is fairly easy to learn, as well. The focus is on the Sequence of Play (SoP), which breaks the different search systems into manageable pieces. Thus, you have one section for ground based radar, another for aircraft mounted (AI) radar, another for searchlight activity, and finally for visual contact (tallying). The trick for the nightfighters is that they can only attack when they are in the same hex and facing the same direction as the bomber, but since the bombers are heading in one direction and you know their speed, once you've "fixed" a bomber with searchlights or AI radar you know where it will be every turn until it exits the map. The early ground-based radar will let you know the general vicinity of the aircraft as well.

As the scenarios progress, you begin to see the various developments as they occur - Schraege Musik, which were "oblique" mounted guns that allowed a fighter to shoot *up* as it passed under a bomber; Village Inn, which was a warning device for bombers; all sorts of various radars with widely varying capabilities; and all of the various tactics that were used by both sides as the war progressed. If nothing else, you will learn an enormous amount about what an incredible crapshoot night operations were at the dawn of radar and how much the various sides improved as time went on, both in defensive and offensive capabilities.

For the player, the game is, of course, a bit of a puzzle more than a game, and much depends upon when and if bombers are fixed or tallied. In our final game, where Alex's nightfighters were required to enter and follow the bomber stream, he lost a nightfighter immediately to misdirecting enemy radio communication, and while he'd shot down two bombers with other fighters, he needed one more and managed to tally and one-shot it on the last hex before it exited the map. We enjoyed all of the scenarios quite a bit, as each had a different feel while sticking with the overall concept.

One note: the first two scenarios are particularly difficult for the player to win and are primarily presented as historical studies. The first uses visual sighting only, which meant you had to end up in the same hex as a bomber for the most part, perhaps one hex away. As you can imagine, this is pretty much searching for a needle in a haystack, and in fact more nightfighers crashed on landing or on getting lost than bombers were shot down. The second scenario adds in the very coarse ground radars, which helped but still required considerable luck to tally a bomber. I recommend, as does the designer, that players who are interested in a competitive experience should just read the rules up to the third scenario. If you are new to wargaming (and this is not a bad introduction in many ways), probably best to work through them one at a time, going through the variants and adding their extra rules as you go. Certainly that's the best path for the historian.

The fact that this is a board game and not a computer game means that the umpire has to figure out some best practices for how to deal with correct updating of the game state. Moving a couple of dozen bombers exactly three spaces each on even turns and two spaces each on odd turns (which does happen) can be a little confusing, especially in a game where facing is important. However, bombers only face one way, so I learned to cock each bomber 60 degrees after it moved so that I didn't move it twice, then reset them in the correct direction once they'd all moved. You will want to be careful not to do this with any fighters on the map, and you can't do it with intruders, although they have their own rules for movement and searching. It took us about two scenarios to really start to find our rhythm in handling the components, but it can be done and done quickly - our last scenarios that had 40-50 bombers in each took less than an hour each for a 16 turn game. Just be deliberate and careful and you'll be fine, but don't be surprised if early games turn into a bit of a mess if you screw something up. It's also very important to follow the SoP very carefully and announce each phase and when you are finished.

Clearly this is not your typical wargame. Only one person is really "playing" the game, which is more a combination puzzle/slot machine than a game per se. Quite a bit depends upon what happens in the random parts of the game - where bombers enter, whether bombers respond to attacks and how, and what happens when an aircraft is shot down and the effects on the nightfighter that did it. Even the environmental conditions (visibility, clouds, and the phase of the moon) can be random. As such, I think it's best to consider this game in two ways - as a puzzle and as a literary device. The former is obvious, but the latter puts this game in more of a story-generator, with the player dealing with the historical limitations and challenges of a small window in history. There is even a campaign game that allows you to play multiple raids and manage a historic air group and its roster of pilots based in The Netherlands over the course of a month or so. This would make for an excellent long-term challenge, although you'd want an umpire that was very cool with taking that job for several play sessions. For me, that would have to be in relatively small bites, no more than three or four raids in a play session, but it would be doable over time.

I would also imagine that this game could very easily be ported to computer/tablet play, at least in the range of AI required for the scenarios I played - can't really say if intruders would pose a challenge or not at this point. I could see playing this on a regular basis on my iPad with no umpire at all, much like the recent implementation of Ascension. I suppose you could play hot seat or over the network as well, although a great many functions could be automated and reduce the role and thus enjoyment of an umpire. Still, for a campaign this would be an awesome way to play. It would even be very possible to create a variety of campaigns set in different parts of the war and at different times to give a lot of variability to the game. To be honest, I think that this is where this kind of game would shine, at least once we've got a critical mass of wargamers out there who would buy a copy. Even VASSAL could manage this sort of AI easily (if nothing else, you can randomize those few decisions the umpire *does* make). That said, the game is very easy to set up and tear down, especially if (like me) you use counter trays to separate out the various aircraft types and markers and set up one tray for each player. In the world of "filler" wargames, NF is king.

While I'm hesitant to recommend (or not) the game based on this small a sample of plays, I will go so far as to say that if you are concerned with the simulation detail of other LBW designed games, you will not have the same issues with this game. Also, if you think that this game sounds kind of boring for the umpire, I won't disagree but will say that on the bright side there is some joy to be found on that side of the screen and at worst you'll have to do it for 60 minutes at a time. Without question, if the study of the development of nightfighting air combat during WW2 interests you (or you have similar interests), this is a game that will give you a very clear sense of what a difficult and peril-filled mission it was, for both the bombers and the nightfighters. You will also see radar used for combat purposes develop before your eyes, which I personally found quite interesting. LBW provides quite a bit of background material on not only the overall situation, both in aircraft and in tech, but also in the wide variety of scenarios. The game is clearly a labor of love for LBW, and it shows.

Also, while I know very little about it, the game is supposed to tie in with another game focused on night bombing operations that the designer has in the works. I cannot say when or if this title will be published, but it's a consideration. For me, NF works well as a wargame of a different stripe and it's easy enough to teach people thanks to the SoP. The result is a game that I'm glad I preordered, at a time when preordering is starting to look like a pretty big crapshoot of it's own.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

On Patriotism

We spent the Fourth of July in Sunriver this year, largely to avoid inflicting the noise of fireworks on our dogs. I've blogged before on the effect it has on them, and while Charbonneau has much less of this sort of neighborhood pollution than when we lived in Multnomah village, it's still enough that the days leading up to the event freak my dogs out enough that I was happy to be somewhere that fireworks are not allowed at all this time of year.

When we returned home on the 5th, I noticed that the usual small flags were littering Charbonneau. In the past, a local real estate agent has put these out, although this time it seems that perhaps a local scout troop had done it. I find this sort of thing annoying as well, largely because those who put the flags out don't come and pick them up again, meaning that they are litter. I have a problem with the flag being treated as litter, personally.

All of this got me thinking a little about patriotism and what it means. Like most important concepts, it's been co-opted for the benefit of one political party in the US, primarily the conservative wing. That's a shame, because we can all be patriots. Here's a list of what Patriotism is not as well as what it is, at least for me. Full disclosure - I consider myself to be a progressive/liberal, although my definition of what that is is nothing like what some on the far fringes of the Right would claim.

What Patriotism Isn't -

  • Dressing like the flag. 
  • Shooting off fireworks. 
  • Wearing a flag pin.
  • My country - right or wrong.
  • Wearing a tri-corn hat. 
  • Screaming your opinion at the top of your lungs. 
  • Thinking that only one party or group has a lock on patriotism.
  • Getting your information only from people who agree with you.
  • Voting a particular way because your leaders tell you to. 
  • Name calling.
  • Apathy.
What Patriotism Is - 
  • Speaking your mind. Note that an uninformed opinion is less than useful. 
  • Voting with an informed opinion. 
  • Speaking out when your leaders take missteps.
  • Engaging in informed debate. 
  • Understanding the issues of the day. 
  • Respecting our military personnel and their families. Thank them when you see them, even if you felt (as I did) that the US has made some very bad decisions in the past ten years regarding their deployment. 
  • Treating the flag with respect and not as a campaign tool. 
  • Understanding that all you are entitled to is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. All of that stops when you pick my pocket or break my arm. 
  • Understanding that "freedom isn't free" means that *you* will be called upon to make sacrifices for the good of the country. 
  • Understanding that we live in a world with a lot of other countries and people, most of which are just trying to live out their lives as best they can, just like us. Sticking a label like Islamist on someone and assuming they are terrorists or an enemy is foolish at best, discriminatory at worst. You are also a citizen of the world, not just the US.
  • Valuing your freedoms and your rights. Don't give them up just because you're frightened, you don't get them back all that easily. Ironically, witness the Patriot Act which still allows people to listen to every word you utter with no reason other than they want to. 
I'm sure I can go on, but you get the picture. Patriotism is about being a good citizen. It is not about what you wear or how you vote. Patriotism is what we were taught in school, once you get past the pledge of allegiance - voting matters, let your representation know how you feel about issues, be aware and involved. Somewhere along the line people get the idea that it's more about conformity and nothing is further from the truth. Conformists would not have framed the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. The fact that no government to my knowledge has the same form of representative government suggest that it is a very hard model to start and maintain, but we have done it more or less successfully for over 235 years. 

Whether we will continue to do it is a very good question. 

Enjoy your barbecues and bunting, your fireworks (performed legally), your flag pins in your lapels. But don't for a minute think that representative democracy requires anything more from you than that. Get mad, fight back, educate yourself, but also understand that there will be others who will do the same thing. As long as they are doing it in an informed manner, they are worth listening to and understanding. Like faith, unconsidered political life is not worth inflicting on anyone else. 

And, because it bears repeating, I thank everyone who has, is, or is related to anyone serving in our armed forces. 

Ascension on iPad

I love my iPad, no question. This device allows me to bring about 80% of my entertainment with me wherever I go, and even though I don't have a 3G version I can still do a lot of stuff (with a little planning ahead, especially for video) when I don't have good wi-fi access (like most hotel rooms).

Up until now, the games have been fun, but I've found myself turning back to solitaire card games like Klondike or Spiderette on a regular basis. No more, now that Ascension is implemented.

Ascension is a "deck-building game" along the lines of Dominion and Thunderstone. What differentiates the game is that the Portal deck is always in play, but only six of the cards are visible at any time. You always have the three 'basics" to pull from, but there is no "scenario" like there is in the other DBGs where you build a pool from the available cards. Also, there are no limits on how many cards you can purchase or attack during a turn. The result is a very fast-playing game (against the AI, which is quite good) that you can hot-seat or play over the internet. The app came out only about a week ago and I think Alex and I logged something like 40 or 50 games between us at Sunriver, about 10 of them hot-seat. You just can't put it down.

The game isn't perfect. The Reactor Monk doesn't seem to give you the promised discount, and some of the constructs that should work automatically (like those that grant you an extra card draw at the start of your turn) require you to activate them. The game also works on an iPhone, but I would struggle to play on that platform for more than a game or two before my eyes started to bleed. No question it's a game for a tablet device more than a phone, but I'll almost certain call on it in a pinch. You'll also want to take careful note of how you sequence your card plays - there are no takebacks once a card is played, which will frustrate you if you've played the physical version, but that's normal for electronic versions of almost every game I play on the iPad.

The game also needs leaderboards and some other social elements (chat, for example) and the interface can be confusing at times (want to kill a game? It requires you to make some non-intuitive menu selections). I also struggled to keep a network connection during my one online game, which was annoying to the point of me wanting to play against the AI, but I'm not sure if that was the host servers being overwhelmed during the launch of a popular game or the fragile network at Sunriver. I am quite confident that the publishers will have all of these things added in shortly.

I should note that I came to this game as a relatively experienced Ascension player, having logged something like 25 games using the card version. Right now I prefer the iOS version even with missing the Rat King, the expansion that just came out, and my good friend KC's excellent Cultist variant, but I'm hopeful they'll add in the other elements as the game matures.

I will also note that I have no idea if the game is available on Android, but if it isn't it will be soon. It's far too good to leave on a single device brand, even if it would be a "killer app" for a lot of gamers or even those who have the chops to learn it as is.

I am not an employee of Gary Games nor anyone else involved with any implementation of this game, nor is anyone involved a personal friend or family member. I'm just completely blown away by how perfect this game is as a 5-10 minute timewaster (which has turned into a day waster on one occasion already).