Friday, September 30, 2011

Ameritrash Solitaire Shootout!!!

I really should know better than to go to any game store thinking I'm going to pick up something like card sleeves and nothing else. While I was at the Wilsonville Hobbytown (a great store, btw, if you live in the area, they have one of the top 5 boardgame selections in the Metro area), I picked up three new games that are all solitaire-friendly and I've managed to get them all on the table. Here are my early impressions of each:

Rune Age - Those of you who are burned out on deckbuilding games probably won't find enough here to  rekindle your love of the genre, but you might as well try. I hear that this game takes a few plays before you start to see the deeper game (such as it is) which includes knowing when to attack other players and when to leave well enough alone.

The big diff in RA is that it's scenario based, so there's a defined pool of common cards that everyone can draw from, but also the ability to draw from your own private piles (and there are four factions to play, at least in the core set). You can attack your opponents, or the game can be cooperative, depending on the scenario. it can also be played solo for two of the four scenarios.

Also interesting is that there's a multi-dimensional economy. In Ascension, you have Runes (money) and whatever it is you attack with. Here, there's gold that lets you buy from your private stock, influence that lets you buy from the common cards (including gold cards), and whatever it is that lets you attack other players, enemy cards, and cities/strongholds.

Each scenario also has event cards that show up once per full turn that can threaten your home base or give you things to attack to get more cards that give you influence, gold, etc. It's a little hard to feel the flow until you've played, but suffice it to say each scenario has a flow that you'll go through and thinning your deck is critical.

Perhaps the two biggest differences are that you have cards that are Rewards, which you get from defeating some enemies, cities, and strongholds. These are always in play and are exhausted like in a CCG to use them, although they are almost all in influence with a couple that give gold. Since Gold is important early and influence in the midgame, at least in the Rise of the Dragonlords scenario I played twice, that may be a little on the scripted side, but I can't say since I haven't taken a close look at the other scenarios (I like to be surprised, which mostly turns out well unless you are the Keeper in Mansions of Madness).

The other huge difference is that you can spend influence to keep cards over to the next hand, although they do count against your hand limit.

Solitaire is interesting (and not something I've mastered yet), but I think this game will really shine with three or four players and increased interaction. Some of the events go after players who have the most or the least of something, so there's some need to be paying attention to what everyone else is doing.
Component quality is a little mixed. I found the cardstock to be pretty thin and bendy, and you'll want some sleeves (American board standard size, although Euro will work in a pinch but be a little oversized), and there's some, God help us, more recycled art from the Runebound franchise, but it *is* a Runebound game (mostly, I suspect, to reuse much of the art) and really, if you're going to let the art stop you there's not much I can say in this blog that's going to be of use to you.

As a solitaire game, it's kind of cool, certainly easier to set up and get going with than my incredibly bloated Thunderstone set, and the system is no pushover. So far I like it.

One last thing - this has been compared to the LotR LCG meets Dominion and there is considerable truth to that, but you shouldn't let your opinion of either of those games stop you from giving this a try because it's really not like either game, it just has elements from both.

Elder Sign - Where Rune Age is a game I can't wait to play with other people, Elder Sign is a game that I'm going to be *very* particular about asking to play. When they say it's an Arkham Horror Yahtzee game, they aren't far off the mark, but that's also an unfair assessment. The game is basically a pick a card with specific targets, then roll to try to take them. There's a lot of resource management involved, such as deciding to burn cards that give you an extra (and, in some cases better, die) or give you the chance to set dice aside that you'll need for later. With most of the cards having multiple groups you have to build on, and since you can only complete one "task" per roll, being able to set aside a die can be very useful.

Let's be clear, though - despite components that are literally dripping with theme, the game itself is fairly themeless when it comes right down to it. I would also think that downtime would be a huge problem with anything more than two or three players (eight would be hellish and would require considerable alcohol for me to even think of playing), and I suspect that this will stay a solitaire title for me with occasional two-player gaming. And I like the game solitaire, since you're always busy and pushing your luck with the dice. There are lots of Gods and Investigators, so a lot of replay in the box.
I played two games and it seemed like everything I rolled was pushing my luck. That said, I seemed to make mistake after mistake in my first two games, especially not taking my investigator's special ability into account, and certainly missing the Elder God's power.

ES makes Alea Iacta Est look like a deep strategy game, but it still has it's charms, especially in a solitaire role.

Gears of War - While I have not played this title, I think that anyone who has ever played a first person shooter a la Doom/Quake/Call of Duty/ad nauseum will appreciate this game. I also think that people who liked Doom: The Boardgame but found it kind of fussy and, uhm, colorful may find that this game has taken that idea and done it right.

No Overlord, just an AI (and a pretty good one). Multiple scenarios and random board setup to make things interesting after you've played the scenario once or twice. Very nice sculpts, although not painted (and some of the COGs, or friendlies, look extremely similar, not a problem for playing solitaire). An extremely quick and entertaining sequence of play that will prevent serious downtime issues (and a certain amount of cooperative play potential even when it isn't your turn).

And what a story this game generates. I am not quite done with the first scenario, Emergence (scenarios define the tiles you'll use to create the map, the critters you'll blow away, and the AI deck makeup) has been a bit of a bitch for me, actually. The entire point is to blow away all of the emergence markers on the board, of which there is only one near the exit at the start, and to do that you need grenades and while you start with one you will almost certainly need more because there are AI cards that generate them. And even then you have to roll an "omen" symbol on one or more dice when you roll, and there's only one face that has it on the attack dice.

Which is why I managed, in nine attacks on three emergence holes, to close them all. It took two trips back to the grenade store, found most of the way back to the starting point of the scenario, and one near-death experience, to finally get that damned last emergence hole collapsed. Now I just have to kill eight or nine baddies, two of which are immune to my lancer chainsaw extension. That should be easier.

One interesting note: Your hand of cards? The ones you only get two of a turn, that you can't draw into if you're at your hand limit, that you also use to do all those "not my turn" thinks like overwatch and dodge? They're also your health, so if you use them to pick stuff up or dodge as well as the mandatory order play every turn, you're dropping your health points as well. Nice!

I got through two hours of learning the game as I went (which works, although be prepared to do a lot of back and forth looking for things - FFG's editorial policy is in full effect with this game! Plus be aware that you will have no idea which minis go with which locusts (bad guys) unless you look on the back page) and the whole time I was entertained, at least when I wasn't going back and forth in the rules.

This was a bit of an impulse buy for me, but my friend Jesse (owner of the store) said it was really really good and he was right. I'm looking forward to giving this a try, maybe this coming Tuesday at our regular game night.

I mean, how can you not like a game where when you drop a critter you might get a new weapon or ammo? Really great stuff.

So there you go. Three games, all of which were pretty promising and two of which were good solitaire games (and the third serviceable, but looking good for multiplayer). And, God help me, expandable. Good thing all of them have room in the box once you take out the inserts - FFG hasn't figured that out either, but then again they probably don't need to - we keep buying this stuff anyway.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Breakthrough: Cambrai - Breakout or Break-In?

When I discovered wargames at the age of 10 circa 1973, wargames came in two flavors - Avalon Hill hex and counter igo-ugo games, and SPI hex and counter igo-ugo games. It wasn't until the 80's that designers decided that a hexagonal grid placed over a map and an entire player taking their turn with little involvement from the other player wasn't written in stone for the hobby. Through the rest of the century and into the present day, wargame design has seen lots of new styles emerge, from the card-driven game to the "block" game, to maps based on point-to-point or area movement. There is still a definite appeal to the hex-based wargame, but it's not the only game in town anymore. 

Perhaps one of the most intriguing and fresh design approaches has been that of the area/impulse game, which I will simply call AIM for the purposes of this discussion. While I am no historian, it seems to me that the first widely known game was Storm Over Arnhem, published by Avalon Hill, followed in turn by Thunder Over Cassino and Turning Point: Stalingrad. It was this last game that got my attention, around the time I started returning to wargaming after my long lack of opponents starting in 1981 when I went to college and gaming meant D&D for several years. 

All of those games were novel and different and set in locations where everything was a complete slog, especially in TP:S, as every combat produced rubble that turned the entire map into a WW1 Western Front simulation. Historical yes, but interesting to game? The fact that I never got past the learning scenario, which seemed to me to be not only a good size in terms of what I could commit to a long term game as well as enough of the flavor of the system to hold my attention without overdoing it, speaks volumes. 

Of course, I had no opponents, so I was playing solitaire, which while interesting did not show off the true value of the games, which was that you had relatively little downtime since you activated a single area and could only operate with the units that started the impulse in that area. The randomness of the turn length was another attractor, as you never knew if you were going to get to do as much as you wanted to in a turn (this actually makes AIM games good solitaire exercises too). 

And then, in the 90's, AH published Breakout: Normandy, which has, until now, been the gold standard in AIMs. The game had all of the hallmarks of the earlier AIMs but in a more mobile setting, even with the bocage terrain. To this day it remains one of my top 10 wargames although I have played it nowhere near as much as I would like to. 

Since that time, there have been other attempts to create games in BK:N's image. There were successes (Monty's Gamble), and not-so-much games (Royal Tank Corps), at least in my book. The genre got out of WW2 into WW1 (RTC again) as well as at least one game set in the American Civil War. However, unlike card-driven wargames, which took off so much that it got to a point where a relatively small percentage of games coming out were of high quality, AIMs came out at a much slower pace. Since 2000, there have been dozens of CDGs, a handful of AIMs. 

Along comes Breakthrough: Cambrai (BT:C) in 2011. This is a game that has been waiting for publication for about three years since it made it's preorder numbers at MMP, kind of a long wait for that sort of thing, but then most of the smaller operations were pretty shook up by the economic issues of 2008 and the resultant disruption of printer services, many of which were the only services which had worked with wargame publishers. I'm not saying that's the only reason, but it has had an effect on the industry that most gamers don't seem to be aware of. 

BT:C walks in the footsteps to some extent of Royal Tank Corps, which modeled the same British offensive in late 1917. There aren't a lot of operational-level games that cover specific WW1 battles that take place much after 1914 in the West, largely because the offensives were of limited effectiveness at a strategic level. Not to say there aren't games out there, just that there aren't many compared to the other periods/conflicts that are commonly gamed. The Cambrai Offensive, however, stands out because it was the first use of massed tank formations and very nearly achieved it's goals. It certainly showed that tanks could be effective on the battlefield, a lesson the Germans learned very well and carried into their blitzkrieg doctrines in the early years of 1939. As such, it's no surprise that there are multiple games on the subject. 

Of course, WW1 was a very different conflict from WW2, and so the game system needed to have some changes in order to attain the right feel. Here's a partial list:
  • Alternating Impulses - A big part of how the game works has to do with the Sunset DR, which when compared with the number of the current impulse can change the weather and also end the turn. Most previous titles would see each side have their turn in a single impulse, so in Impulse 3 both sides would get one chance to activate an area or pass. In BT:C, the player with the initiative starts with impulse 0, then the other player takes impulse 1. The result is a shorter "day" and a faster game. This makes considerable sense given how much less coordination units were able to exploit in that earlier pre-wireless radio (at least at the necessary level on the battlefield - units were enormous and extremely fragile at the time). I should also note that sunset DRs only take place during the British turn, so the British are guaranteed to have the last impulse barring a Pass impulse choice. 
  • Less Exhaustion - In most AIMs, units that are activate for movement tend to become exhausted (flipped to a non-moving and less-defensible side) and must be refitted during each night phase to return to combat readiness. In BT:C, the units that tend to get exhausted are the tanks, which are readily refit, although often at a less effective level. All of the tanks (which are also all British, of course - tanks were not, and arguably are still not, a defensive weapon) have a 50% chance to lose 33% of their starting effectiveness when they are exhausted at full strength, and it goes downhill from there. The Germans, being defenders through much of the core game, are going to take hits with their infantry and garrisons, but get to refit them more easily. The garrisons, which are essentially "pre-exhausted" units with an extra step, can come back like Russians at Stalingrad, and the British can "dismount" cavalry units to refit infantry, but otherwise this entire subsystem feels very different from predecessor games. 
  • Abstracted Artillery - RTC had an elaborate artillery system that was a little gamey (you rolled to see if units ran out of shells or not) and time-consuming. BT:C, on the other hand, has abstracted artillery to a fairly small set of options, but ones that can have a big effect on the game. The idea of Bombardments from earlier titles is present only in the very limited Hurricane Barrage system, which will usually produce, at best, two attacks per full turn per side, and with no guarantee at all that you will ever get them back. For the Germans, having a fresh barrage marker available offboard also means a defensive bennie in combat, which also acts as a nice way to demonstrate the German defensive stiffening as the offensive goes on. The larger effect has to do with support markers, which can be used either as Rolling Barrages that lower movement costs in an area or as Direct Support which increments your attack value, effectively the same as having an extra fresh unit in the attack. Support markers are generally created through die rolls at the end of the day, and you can either bank the points for later or request them for the next turn, but once requested they must be used in the next turn or lost. This makes for a nice decision point in the game, although obviously the Brits will choose to take them early in general and the Germans will probably bank the first points they get. However, don't discount the ability to build them up so that you have a turn with a lot of lowered movement costs and buffed up attacks. 
  • "Scripted" Opening Offensive Moves - BK:N saw the attacking side landing at predesignated beaches, and MG:MG saw paratroopers working in very specific operational areas. BT:C has the British units limited to very specific areas and zones for the first two turns. For example, infantry divisions can't move into an area in the first turns if there is a division designator in the space that doesn't match their own division number. Tanks have more flexibility, but there are red numbers and blue numbers and the tanks are limited to those areas based on the colored dot on the counter. That means more tanks in the blue areas in the eastern part of the map. Once a breakthrough is achieved, the restrictions are lifted in the "green fields beyond" as well as once the initial plan makes contact with the enemy, but it does force the British to a pretty specific set of opening possibilities. While this may sound like a drawback to the game, it actually does a couple of things besides model the historical doctrine. For one, it lets new players start with a relatively small number of choices early on. Secondly, it allows the game to model the release schedule of the cavalry divisions, which were still at this time considered to be the units that would actually make and exploit the breakout (the tanks were considered to be the spearhead, but one that would break in the process and not be good beyond the initial fighting). Three areas on the board, when controlled by the Brits in the first turn, give immediate reinforcements available for use on the next impulse, and one also gives an infantry division plus an extra tank unit. 
  • Haig, You Dick - It's great to have turns that can end at almost any time, so why not apply it to the entire game? Historically, the British commander was very nervous about his flanks, as well as his forward progress, and this is modeled in the game as the "Haig roll" that takes place every turn starting on the second. In essence, the Brit rolls 1d6 and if the number is 7 or greater he can continue. Yeah, you read that right. The Brit can improve his chances by contesting various areas - 1 and 6 (not 5 as is in the rules and player aid sheet, the only really big mistake in the rules aside from some unfortunate multiple usages of the word "assault") which are kind of far from the tanks and thus take a little more effort to contest, as well as areas on the eastern side of the board, defined by a canal running north-south that correspond to the general goal of the offensive. The flank areas give +2 drms to the roll each for being contested or controlled, while the eastern areas are +1 for contested and +2 for control. To guarantee the offensive continuing, the Brit player must contest the two flank areas and control one eastern area, which pretty much dictates what needs doing in the first two turns. 
  • He's Not That Bad, Really! - Fortunately for the Brit, he also starts with the advantage, which does two things that are a bit different from earlier games in the genre. First, whoever has the advantage has the first impulse in a turn. This can result in a double impulse, which can be devastating if played effectively. Secondly, it can also be used to override some game results, although not like in earlier games where it let you make a reroll. Instead, there are six or seven very specific things it will do, such as improve an attack from a repulse to a stalemate, which is extremely useful, or allow a tank refit to preserve the existing quality level of that brigade without a roll. It also lets you override the Haig roll, so the British player who uses his advantage for any other purpose in the first two turns is a gambler, or in fact at any point in the game before he can guarantee the offensive will continue by taking the necessary areas and contesting or holding them. Unfortunately, these choices are not part of the player aid card, which is otherwise excellent, so you'll be looking them up frequently. Fortunately, you will internalize them by the third or fourth game turn. 
The result is a game that stays true to the AIM philosophy but does things in a different way for a different time, and in a fairly elegant manner. 

Component quality is good for this sort of thing - paper map that has clear information available while still being aesthetically pleasing; 5/8" counters that are mostly readable (I find the soldier figures in the background to be a little distracting from the counter factors, and the division numbers along the top bar are a bit small for my aging eyes); a concise and mostly clear rulebook aside from the problem mentioned above; a minimum of chrome beyond the initial turns, and that very well documented and understandable chrome; and good player aids, although I think that having setup cards for units, especially with this small a number of units, is redundant given the fact that their entry turns and areas are given on the units themselves (I understand it's good to know you have all the units you are supposed to have, but this can be done by including those four cardstock sheets into the playbook, and four is a good number of pages to add at a time). Minor nits at best. I'd also liked to have seen bridge counters that said "captured" rather than "intact" as in other games, but we just use the counters in that manner (unmarked bridges are German). 

I have only really gotten in a single game with my good friend HazMatt, who took the British as I thought it would a) be more interesting and b) be relatively accessible for a guy who hadn't played an AIM game before. In fact, I think this is an excellent learning game into the system, much more so than Storm Over Stalingrad, which while an excellent game and a good game for newer players (I even suggested it for Matt and his 10 year old son to play) is sufficiently different from other games in the system to be a poor gateway game to most of the other games in the genre. However, I could see it being a good introduction to BT:C, and then on to MG:MG, and finally BK:N. 

Matt had some mediocre rolls early, with his initial Hurricane barrages only really doing any real damage in one area in the middle of the board. The first turn's sunset DRs don't affect the day ending, although they do affect weather (which in turn affects Hurricane barrages and whether or not you get your once-per-impulse air unit attack bump), so the Brits will have up to seven impulses and the Germans six. Most of the German impulses will involve trying to blow up bridges, but there is some opportunity for moving up reserves in the first turn. As such, the Brits can't hope to take all of the cavalry release areas, some of which require moving through other German held areas, as well as the two flank areas for the Haig roll, so it's important to pick a couple to put your focus on. It's also important to be thinking about how to use the 12 support markers you've gotten for the turn. Matt focused on the Red areas, the ones more to the West and on the flank, and made some good progress but with very little movement in the Blue areas, although he was off to a good start there. In fact, he penetrated very nearly to area 6, which I would have guessed would be very tough to get to. Since one of the victory conditions is to have fresh supplied cavalry in one of three zones on the north (German) side of the board at turn end, it wasn't a terrible strategy at all. However, he did not release any of his cavalry on the first turn, although they enter normally on turn 2 if unreleased. Even more reason to focus, as you probably have a breakthrough if you control a cavalry release area. 

The second turn saw the Germans reinforcing area 6 only to be blown out, so now area 1 was contested and the Haig roll was at +4. However, Matt had used his initiative to turn a repulse in area 1 into a stalemate, allowing him to stay in the area and contest it, so he really needed one of those southern areas and the Germans weren't really cooperating. Because moving a unit doesn't exhaust it, Matt took the chance that he might be able to exploit my relative paunch of decent units near the victory point area (they were in the southeast corner aside from the eliminated units blown out in area 6) and brought up a cavalry division to try to achieve victory quickly. However, there isn't a lot of unit density in this game and I was able to stall him just long enough and get good enough combat results to prevent him from advancing, although he was getting up to 13 of the 20 areas he needed to control that would also give him a victory. Fortunately for me, the turn ended fairly quickly although Haig didn't fail the gut check and we went on to turn 3. 

Turn three also went fairly quickly. Matt was now trying to cross the southern end of the canal and as such left his backfield open, which I exploited successfully the previous turn. However, I hadn't noticed that I didn't have much in the way of reinforcements in that area on turn 3 and was a little at risk, but Matt's attempt to resupply his southeastern units failed and things were looking good. He made a couple of shots at getting his cavalry into the sudden death zones, but it was a long way from his side of the board and close to mine, and I had some good units coming in to screen them. Sadly, the turn again ended quickly, and this time Haig lost his nerve and called off the offensive. Probably a smart idea strategically - many of Matt's tanks units were either down to their last Imperial gallons of petrol, and his overall position hadn't developed quite as well as he'd hoped. Still, aside from leaving his backfield (Zone H) open to a counterthrust by my infantry division, as well as giving up the Initiative, although that was not a terrible decision as it involved a drm for that roll, Matt made good decisions through the game despite it being his first AIM. It would be interesting to see what a more easterly focus rather than northern might accomplish, and to me that's a very good thing in this game. 

My initial impressions of the game are as follows:
  • This is an excellent introductory game for new wargamers, especially those coming from the multiplayer strategy niche of the hobby. Area-based maps will be familiar to many players, the math is pretty accessible to a 12-year old (or precocious 10 year old, and aren't they all when they're yours), and the initial situation is limited enough that you can learn as you go through the first two turns. It's also short enough to be easily playable in a short afternoon or long evening for a first game, more like 2-3 hours with the core scenario with experienced players. Certainly the rules can largely be taught as you go, which is also nice in an introductory game.
  • This is also an excellent game for grognards as well, although smaller unit counts and simpler situations typically mean that the game will have fewer paths to resolution than more complex games (but not always). Time will tell on that score. Certainly there are some things to try out, and being an AIM it's very good when played solitaire as there is no hidden information and the turn length is largely out of the player's hands. 
  • Great to see the system move to a different era successfully. The same designer has an ACW game using many of the same modifications to the system, although I have not played it as that's not really my era. Certainly a more successful, IMHO, transition than RTC was. 
  • Multiple scenarios allow for quite a bit of variety regarding time commitment as well as situation. The core scenario runs for one week and covers the British offensive, but you can play the following week and the German counterattack as well, either alone or in conjunction with the first week. Unlike other games in the series that would only continue if the game was more or less undecided (based on a specific VP count), this game appears to be the kind where you can predict how long you'll be playing for. Few AIMs actually have multiple scenarios, usually just extensions to the core game, so this is a nice addition. I recommend the scenario that goes for two or three turns for new players, and the game can be taught and played to completion in three hours (about what we took at our slightly leisurely pace). 
  • The designer made some definite choices about the scope of the game (RTC included the flanks in much more detail) that I think were good ones, certainly the arty rules are very clean and effective. Unit count and density on the map is extremely manageable, so no tweezers required (which I consider to be a good thing). He includes a very good set of designer's notes at the end that are well worth reading not only for his rationale for his choices but also considerable insight into the battle that you might not get from play because of the level of abstraction chosen for that particular element. 
While I won't make a recommendation with such a small amount of play, I will say that if you are in one of the following categories this is a game you should look into:
  • Are interested in AIMs but have found BK:N's ruleset daunting;
  • Are a solitaire wargamer;
  • Have a need for a shorter or less complex wargame, possible for play with younger family members;
  • Enjoy or are curious about AIMs;
  • Have an interest in WW1 battles;
  • Want to see the effect of the first battlefield use of massed tank formations;
All in all I'm very pleased with this game at a time when I'm feeling a little saturated with new wargames and so many new releases turn out to be disappointments once they hit the table. At my age, approaching 50, I'm much more interested in shorter games with easily graspable mechanisms and systems, and they're much more likely to see table time rather than be relegated to the shelf for play "some day". BT:C has already broken through to my play table and will again in the near future, so my very early verdict is, without question: 


Monday, September 19, 2011

Sunriver Euro Retreat 2011, Wrap-Up

The Sunriver Euro Retreat for 2011 is history. What worked this year and what didn't?

Perhaps the most obvious issue was a relatively small number of gamers. Through Friday we had six, with seven from Friday evening on (with the first game of Saturday an exception). That's perhaps the fewest we've had. Ideally, I like to see nine as it breaks up so well and allows people to play nearly any game without regard to number (3 and 6, 4 and 5, even 2 and 7 if necessary). Of course, you can't play Sticheln with nine... That said, I chose games that were good for six, four, three, and two and felt that we had a good mix. One good thing about a large collection is that you have choices regardless of the number of people involved, although choosing those games to bring with you requires a bit of Plan B thinking in case the number changes at the last minute.

Food is always interesting. I enjoy eating at Hola!, and I hope everyone else does. I particularly like dining out one evening as this group enjoys each other's company whether we're gaming or just hanging, and that's really nice. I usually provide lasagna and salad, and this year prep seemed to be effortless, perhaps because we have a new (and fully functioning) range unit - the old one was so decrepit that the broiler element cracked and fell apart. Game timing was also good for me to do this effectively, unlike some past years. The food was apparently popular enough for everyone to eat it all, so I was happy about that too. The only bad night was Thursday, with the Blondie's Pizza that I found barely edible. Had I been on my own I would have tossed it all and gone out to eat somewhere else. We won't order from them again.

We seemed to have more alcohol this year, and I think I am the guy driving that to a certain extent. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know that as far as I could tell (and that includes me) no one was an unpleasant drinker. It was certainly good fun to have some mild competition and smack talk about which spirit was the best, and it's nice to try some different brands even if they aren't your cuppa. Alcohol has not been anything other than a very minor component of the event for me until the past year, so I hope that if anyone ever feels it's getting in the way of everyone enjoying themselves they will let me know and I'll ask people to pull it back a bit, myself included. That said, it didn't seem to be a problem this year at all. Hey, it's not like we start drinking before lunch. ;-)

My favorite game of the weekend was almost certainly Ascending Empires. Near-simultaneous play with flickage, bluffing, multiple paths to victory, etc. It feels kind of like playing pool in a way, as you move around the table so much and turns go quickly. Some said it brought nothing new to the table, I believe it brought a very fresh approach to the 4X style of games, which I normally am not that excited about (the latest Civilization game excepted). This was also my most anticipated game.

My least favorite game was, as noted, A Few Acres of Snow. I think a lot of my lack of reaction had to do with having an expectation of it being more of a wargame but also more of a deckbuilding game instead of a hand management game. Considering that I felt I had no control over the later parts of the game, although I freely admit I had no idea of what I was doing, I suppose I should give it another shot, but the truth is that Wallace is starting to wear on me and after being unimpressed with games like Waterloo I will probably be trying before I buy with his games from now on. There are lots of choices so I don't feel too badly about this. Of course, I did have a terrible impression of Age of Steam the first time we tried to play, and Steam is now one of my favorites (not Steam Barons, which is terrible except for the board and the bits). So there you go.

My biggest disappointment was not getting to play MattG's incredible (and incredibly packaged) War of the Ring. I have paid nearly $200 for games before, and now it seems there are enough monsters I want over $100 that it's become de rigeur after being a bit shocked about buying a $90 game (Triumph of Chaos) some years back. Certainly Case Blue cost me just under $180. I cannot imagine paying $400 unless said game comes with desirable sexual favors. And even then. Maybe window washing and weeding in my garden too. Still, this is a gorgeous edition, with readable cards, painted minis, and a huge board with tons of room. Matt, we will have to get this on the table at some point.

The most hilarious moment, and I'm very sorry MattG, was when I pointed out that Matt needed to avoid ramming my ship if he wanted to stop me from winning in Ascending Empires, and then he rammed my ship. I am a bad person. ;-)

OK, I also greatly enjoyed almost all of the RPG game, where I called Chuck's character Omar a terrorist on a regular basis. I hope my over the top role-playing wasn't too offensive or annoying, next time I'll play a saint (which will be an equal departure for me). I'd do this again in the future, it was a very nice change of pace and I think we all had a great time.

Things I did for the first time that I will probably do again - I enjoyed being able to sleep in and leave with minimal work (although I did discover that the dishwasher is not dissolving the powdered detergent enough, a function of too cold of water that I suspect has to do more with the age of the unit than anything else, a discovery that required me to wash the entire load by hand on Monday morning, delaying getting the wash going by nearly an hour. Yay). I also liked having an evening to myself the night before. In general, taking a slower pace in getting out of the house worked really well for me and I'll probably do it in the future.

I also thought that the "put all of the recycleable/returnable stuff in front of the fireplace" thing worked well for the most part. People were much less likely to put in food containers that hadn't been thoroughly cleaned, which has been an issue in the past. I didn't have to sort through anything for once, which was really nice. There was some food left (some Diet Coke, an unopened half gallon of skim milk, which I don't drink, two containers of yogurt that I had for breakfast on Monday, and an apple), but not too bad. I can use all but the skim, but really this works best when everyone remembers to take what they brought. It's worse when there are more people, or people hurrying out the door.

The other thing that was slightly different was the time of year. We've typically done the retreat sometime in October, but I think that now that there are a couple of other retreats going on (GameStorm, EGG, Salishan) during the year, that once for wargaming in spring and once for Euros in the early fall (in this case, late summer) worked well. Temperatures were a little high (into the mid 80's) but not for long enough to be a problem, and in general the temperature was very pleasant. Considering it was supposed to be approaching 100 degrees in Portland, I was very happy. My work with the Balladeers at the MAC (a glee club I direct) forced this early date, but I'm not unhappy about it at all and would consider a similar date next year (and almost certainly will).

In the end, though, Sunriver is about the community we've built up with Rip City Gamers. We all love games, and it's clear it's an important element in our collective sanity, but we also get along very well as a group. You have to to share a home for more than a night without conflict, and we don't run into conflict at all as far as I can tell. My hosting duties are mostly very light, usually someone letting me know we're out of toilet paper somewhere. The cost is minimal for pretty much everyone, and the hardest part is closing the house up but Alex and I got it done pretty quickly. Aside from having to do dishes by hand, it went as smoothly as I could have hoped.

And the company, as always, was excellent. I am truly blessed to have such a great group of good friends to game with, and I thank them for making every Sunriver truly memorable and a special time. 

Sunriver Euro Retreat 2011, Day 4

So we came to the final morning on Sunday. This was a strange day in many respects - the first "real" day of the NFL season (and with me participating in a pick'em pool with family and friends, so perhaps more involved in the overall results than normal), as well as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I managed to avoid most mention of 9/11 through the day, and was happy for it - I feel that a day like this needs to be commemorated with reflection and thought rather than with flags everywhere. This is not a day we should be proud of, in no small part because of our overreactions and missteps in the name of security over liberty that my country took in the aftermath and are still to this day taking, the very thing we were purporting to be protecting. It's not the 4th of July, yet there were enough flags around that you might get confused about what month it was. In any event, there was gaming and good company, and that seemed like a good way to mark the day - that life goes on regardless of what some will do to make a point in the name of an invisible being.

I woke up a little late, took a shower, came out to the main room, and found that everyone was waiting for me to play Power Grid on the Korea map. So away we went...

Power Grid: Korea - 

The big thing with the Korean map is that there are two markets, and you can only buy from one. They have different schedules of resources over the course of the game, and different schedules (so that there are two oil for 5 Electro in the south, but only one oil for 5 Electro in the north, for example).

The last time I played this map was at Salishan with Rita, Lorna, and some other people who now escape me. The hallmark of that game was having the big plants come out early and the little plants sitting around for the second half of the game bringing the pace to a near halt and taking forever to get to Step 3. You'll never guess how this game went?

I started out strong, placing my initial plants late (which I'm coming to realize is usually a better move than grabbing the early cheaply connected plants), especially if you can carve out your very own corner of the map. Chuck and I were the only people really competing for territory south of Seoul, and there's lots of room to work with, but I made an initial foray north that put me in really good position. I then got a 4 production plant that gave me an income advantage early as well. While I was in first place in terms of cities (and therefore last in terms of buying resources or placing new cities), I was feeling very good in terms of being able to get to 14 cities and powering the most plants.

And then I made my mistake. I didn't realize what a mistake it was at the time, but it was big.

There was one 6 output plant (3 coal) in the current markets group, and a 6 output (3 oil) plant in the futures market waiting to take it's place. I put the coal plant up, and Greg took it for 40. He later told me he'd have let me have it for 41. My thinking at the time was that the next plant into the current market would be the oil plant, as it was only one bigger.

It didn't come out for something like six turns. Instead, we got a parade of 2 and 3 output plants, which would have, at best, given me a tiny nudge up. The bummer was that at this point, even me going to 14 cities would have let Greg power more cities than I could, so I held off. If I was playing for position, it would have been much better for me to have settled for second. Instead, I kept hoping a decent plant would show up, as I could outbid nearly everyone (I ended with over 250 Electro in hand).

Of course, no decent plant showed up. We got to Step 3 after a long and painful endgame, and Greg got to 14 cities and won handily. Exactly what happened in that long ago game at Salishan, although that was BGE (Before Greg Era).

And, of course, since I was drawing for plants in the third position, I was unable to improve my position better than to 9 powered cities, which was enough for me to take, wait for it, last place.

I have never seen such a turn of fortune in a game of Power Grid as that. To have played what was, for most people, an almost perfect game (at one point I got four Step 2 cities for 77 Electro, a bargain by any stretch) and then have it all crumble away over a six turn stretch with almost no way to prevent it was very painful. There is a lesson here - pay attention to what plants are available. Since we got to Step 3 before any plants with an output greater than 3 showed up, that meant they were all either on the table, blown up, or had been passed over.

To have this happen on the exact same map was just freaky.

Thank goodness the company was good. ;-)

At this point, everyone but myself and Alex headed for home. Which left the two of us to play...

Warhammer: Invasion -

I am not a big fan of CCGs - as someone on the 'Geek put it, the novelty of new cards makes up for shallow play depth, and I think that's correct. I've never really gotten the hang of how to construct a deck that will be competitive, or really even how I'm supposed to play it. It seems like most of the time you are waiting for a good card combo, and whoever gets it first will win.

Well, I suck at LCGs as well. Even when you aren't deckbuilding.

That said, I've invested in W:I to a fair degree. Yeah, it's GW, a company I don't have much love for, at least in terms of the IP owner. I much prefer the LCG model, although FFG's initial release of their expansion decks was done to encourage serious players to purchase three copies, something I did not do. As such, I have gotten through the first three expansion cycles and the first three boxed expansions, and I think I will be stopping there. There's plenty to keep me entertained with that many cards, to be honest.

The game is a bit different from most CCGs, where you are trying to kill a specific card that represents your character (in the WoW CCG) or other critical item (like your ship in 7th Sea CCG). Amazingly, I can't speak for Magic, which I have never played. Really. Instead, you are trying to inflict damage on three different districts in the opposing player's capital. If you inflict 8 hits (plus any extras you need to cover developments in that district) the district is considered to be burning, and once two districts are burning you win. Of course, you have to fight your way through various enemy units to get there, plus the usual action cards.

There are a couple of things that make this game interesting for me. First is that you have six factions available to play, three of them (Orcs, Chaos, and Dark Elves) on the "Destruction" side and three (Dwarves, High Elves, and Humans) on the "Order" side. You can't fight against someone on your side, of course. I think this is a little like the LCG based on A Game Of Thrones, as there are multiple factions as well. The other differentiator for me is the inclusion of neutral cards that anyone can use, although some are limited to one side or the other. For example, the first expansion cycle includes a lot of Skaven cards that can only be used by the Destruction player, with a handful of Witch Hunter cards that can be used by the Order player. This idea has been expanded so that the Destruction "neutral" cards include Undead, while the Order side can draw from Lizardmen as well as most recently Wood Elves.

While you are encouraged to play a single faction (because playing cards gets cheaper as you have more cards from that faction on your play area), it's definitely possible to build multi-faction decks that have both "formal" factions as well as the "neutral" factions. I don't really feel comfortable enough with the decks to do that just yet, and in fact I believe I have yet to win a game no matter which faction I'm playing (so far Dwarves, High Elves, and Chaos). Apparently I suck at these games too.

In the games Alex and I played, we tried something a little different. I am interested in the idea of a game where you play once, then add in the first set of expansion cards from a given cycle, build your deck to 40, add in random neutral cards (you can choose faction-specific neutrals with your normal build), and then play again. Repeat using the next expansion deck. We were sticking with single factions for our purposes, and I think that was smart as I've barely played and Alex had not played at all. Since the Assault on Uluthan box set expands the two Elven factions to a point where they are playable on their own (they are not a full faction in the core set), we used all of those cards as well, so our first game was with the core decks, the faction cards from Assault, plus enough of the Core/Assault neutrals to get us to 60 cards as by then we were at about 45-47 cards in our faction decks. Neutral cards were dealt randomly. Alex took the Dwarves, and I took Chaos, which I was excited about seeing as I hadn't played them and had wanted to.

In the first game, I started strong, setting fire to one of Alex's districts (the Battlefield) quickly. My strategy was to 1) get cheap cards out to make the better cards even cheaper, and 2) corrupt Alex's units as much as possible. Corruption prevents units from attacking or defending, as well as providing some other benefits based on card text, but the owner can "uncorrupt" them one at a time, one per turn so it's better if you can get multiple units corrupted at once. Sadly, Alex went mostly for buildings (Support cards) to increase his card draws and resources early, and that seemed to be a good strategy. By halfway into the game, the point where I became completely ineffective, he was drawing close to 10 resources a turn and drawing six cards. While it's true that you lose if your deck runs out (and I've lost that way), at the same time it's hard to stop an enemy who can deploy six cards a turn and then attack you with them when you are drawing three and getting five resources, about the price of a very good unit.

And so, Alex won the first game.

We pulled out the first expansion pack from the Skaven cycle (I forget the formal name), and it was clear to me that the Skaven were going to be of no help early, having few cards and most of them required other Skaven cards. I did go for the new Chaos cards, and trimmed my faction deck to 40 so that we could play with 50 cards decks instead of 60.

It didn't help.

In fact, the arc of the game was nearly identical, although I felt I did much worse in some regards. I was able to build up some good card draws early, but not so much resources. I did take out Alex's Quest district (which does not affect cards in the area or his draws) but once again stalled out and was unable to get cards that were going to help me and he beat me even more quickly, if that was possible.

There is a draft variant that uses all the factions on your side that I may try in the future, plus some variant cards that you can add in to make the draft even more of a metagame, but that doesn't seem like it would work so well with the expansions and making it feel like a campaign game, which was what I was looking for. I guess you'd get to know the decks pretty well that way, though.

Don't get me wrong, I like this game. I like having a large number of cards to work with but still finite, and I also like the variety in ways to play the game. It's relatively quick, the component values are high, and at this point I have a ton of replayability in the box.

I'm just really terrible at this game. And, of course, it's two-player, so harder for me to get up games when most of my two-player gaming involves wargames rather than LCGs or Euros. Perhaps I need to focus on building up my production elements before going after my opponent's districts, although I did not feel like I had much in the way of choice if I wanted to take advantage of the card text, which often requires you to place cards in certain areas to get the effect, or sometimes you have no choice in the matter at all. And that is why I usually don't like CCGs, because you need to play repeatedly to get a normal statistical curve in terms of results with evenly matched players. It wasn't a faction mismatch - Chaos and the Dwarves are natural enemies, as are Orcs and Humans, and Dark and High Elves.

The biggest problem with this game is that so many cards have had their text altered, and I don't want to have to put stickers on the cards so that I don't need to constantly address the FAQ to make sure there isn't errata present. I would also like to get an updated version of the Corruption cycle (the first expansion cycle) that has three of each card, like the later cycles, but I don't know that will ever happen (Corruption had 40 cards per pack at $10, new ones are 60 cards for $15). I guess that really it's no more than a $5 difference per expansion, so $30 total. Of course, I don't need to even play with that pack, and the core sets have the same issue. Since I'm not planning to play seriously, I guess it's not an issue, although apparently there are a lot of Skaven cards that require multiple copies to be effective.

And, of course, I'm out of room for cards in the box as I premium sleeve all of them. Yeah, I've got more money than sense, something some members of Rip City Gamers have known for years.

At that point, I was getting ready to go out and have yummy Thai food with Ken and Alex was getting ready to go home. Most of the house had been closed up - beds made, towels washed, etc, and all I needed to do was to put the dishes away and do one last load of towels the next morning before I headed home as well.

My wrap-up is coming in the next post.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunriver Euro Retreat 2011, Day 3

Day 3 dawned much as Day 2 had, with me surviving far too much alcohol the day before in pretty good form. Don't worry, by Tuesday all of that imbibing had caught up with me, so much so that this past week I have consumed exactly three drinks total in a full week, and all of them in social settings. I even avoided ordering a beer at the Arts Institute graduation ceremony I attended, perhaps the first one I've been to that included a no host bar. Very strange to see so many people lifting beers to their fellow students during graduation.

But I digress.

Saturday saw the largest number of games for me, but still a fairly small number in some respects considering how short some of these games are.

Merchants & Marauders -

I'm not fond of games with Wild West themes, and pirates are actually also fairly far down the list in terms of my preferred milieux, but there's something appealing about actually playing a pirate-themed game. That the games never really come close to being as satisfying as I'd like is a bit of a bummer, but that's true of so many games. Still, M&M has so many very cool bits and so much theme, I was hopeful it would make for a good game. Jury's still out there, sadly.

M&M is unusual in that you aren't locked down into being a pirate, and in fact with some of the captains you draw you are actively encouraged to be a merchant. That was the case for both MattG and I, while Alex took the piratical route. Sort of. I think we ended up raiding exactly one merchant the entire game, and Alex spent most of his time avoiding the Spanish largely because the Spanish spent the entire game at war with the English and Alex was English. We did end up with five NPC ships on the board, my French ships being the exception.

To make matters worse, I started near a good mission and drew lots of Goods cards that were in demand at nearby ports. I also had the captain that lets you ignore storms, and we had storms about every two and a half turns, including the first two. That really hobbled my competition and I went to town. I think my opponents should have immediately gone after me once it was clear I had a head start, but it was a first game for Alex and Matt, and my second game (first was two-player with similar results for the pirate player). I ended up getting Glory all over the place with Rumors and Missions and high-yield trades, plus I successfully discovered Treasure Island and headed for home.

And it was in my home waters of Tobago that we ended up experiencing the combat system in depth when both of my opponents finally came after me and my huge sack of nuggets. Wait, that came out wrong. My vast treasure. Better. Alex was driven off with minimal damage to my ship, but Matt actually managed to board me. Sadly, I'd shot up his crew pretty badly and they were repelled, with me getting even more gold. Kind of an anti-climactic ending, and that kind of sums up my feelings about the game.

Understand, I like it. I see tremendous promise in it. But I don't think the game "works" until you have players who know it well enough to see when another player is in need of a beatdown, especially before they grab that larger-scale ship that's so much harder to take on, which I did fairly early on. As such, being a relatively long game, it's hard to drum up enthusiasm for a game that we'll need to play a few times to get in a group that has far too many game choices already. Which suggests that yes, there is a point where you can have too many games.

By now, Chuck had arrived and the 18XX game was still in full swing (as it was for pretty much the entire day), so it was time to brave the depths of space after having braved the depths of Havana's brothels...

Death Angel - Space Hulk Card Game -

Boy, if you think M&M has garnered mixed reviews, you should see DA. People love it the first time, then start to hate it later because it's so brutal - one bad die roll and you're out half of your team, and one more and you're sitting on the sidelines. I can empathize, but then the game is supposed to be pretty short and sweet and much more of an experiential ride than a truly competitive game. No question the game is dripping with theme, not to mention gore dangling from the claws of the Genestealers as they smacked us around badly.

I think part of the problem was that we were trying to maintain the theme by not discussing who would shoot when, as you can't attack in two consecutive turns (you really can't do anything consecutively in this game), and so there was little fire coordination. The rules state that you are supposed to play your action card secretly, and we extrapolated this to mean we also chose them secretly. That definitely makes it harder to win with more than three people playing, as you only get a single team.

The early game went well, except we weren't taking advantage of the door at the first location and we had drawn more than half of our spawn cards as major spawns, so there were areas with more than five Genestealers, including the door. In the second location, no door at all. We didn't make it past the second location. [Note: If you play Activate actions at the door, you will reduce the number of Genestealers that follow you to the next location. Somehow this didn't register with people when I explained it along with the rules, but I'm pretty sure it's stuck since then. I was trying to move up near the door, but we moved too quickly because so many blips turned into GS's so quickly.]

I actually like the game, and think it would be a good filler, which was it's role for this particular game. Alex went on and played it solitaire twice, beating it handily both times. I also think we did not have an optimal set of four teams, drawing them essentially randomly.

At this point, MattG and Alex took a break and Chuck and I pulled out the game that I was perhaps most keen to play during the weekend...

A Few Acres Of Snow - 

Sadly, it was also the biggest disappointment by far for me. Here I was expecting a wargame with a deck-building component, which was really much more of a hand-management component because the card set is always the same. Chuck suggested that a good start for the British was to deny the French the independent Settlers cards, which I did, but he pasted me anyway by placing all of his houses. There was one siege that failed, started on Chuck's part, and aside from that there was almost no conflict at all other than a single raid. I did not understand that I could invade Nova Scotia, or I definitely would have done so early.

I chalk most of this up to a combination of not fully understanding an effective strategy and some unfortunate card combinations (like waiting the entire hand for the card with the Cart on it to advance further south and prevent Chuck from filling in all of the Great Lakes region so quickly), but in the end the whole thing felt so "meh" that I've gone so far as to cancel my preorder with the local store. While I am a huge fan of Steam and Age of Industry, to be honest pretty much every Wallace game that's come out recently (except London, which seems to be a game most devotees don't like) has fallen very flat for me. Like Knizia, I think Wallace's best days are behind him and he's taken to simply putting out games as a moneymaking operation. His forays into serious rules expansions (Steam Barons) was an utter disaster, with six people unable to see how you could do much better than where you started at, and while I hear Gettysburg is supposed to have learned a lot from Waterloo, the latter was another game that I looked at and simply didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

It's not that I dislike the game, it's just that absolutely nothing about it grabbed me, and I loved Wilderness War. The period is very interesting to me, especially at the strategic level. I felt absolutely none of the era at all, it was dry to the point of desiccation, and by all appearances the game was going to devolve into a small set of strategies where if one player did this, the other would respond by doing that, and the vagaries of the deck (even with reserves) would determine the winner. I'm sure I'm doing the game a disservice, but quite honestly if a game isn't going to grab me at all on the first play, it's not going to get much in the way of a second chance. Biggest disappointment for the weekend by a mile.

By now we were getting ready to go out for dinner, but there was time for a quick game of San Juan with Chuck, MattR, and Greg.

San Juan w/ Treasure Box Expansions - 

For a period of about 18 months, San Juan was our "summoning" game, the one we'd play at the start of the evening while waiting for the tardy players to arrive. We could get through a game in about 10-15 minutes, and it was always interesting. Then we tired of it (or people started showing up promptly) and it went back on the shelf. When Greg suggested trying it with the Alea Treasure Box expansions, I was happy to see what changes it brought.

As it turned out, the game pretty much plays the same, but I think we would have been better served playing part of the expansion instead of all of the parts. The game was fun, but it lacked the elegance of the original. I especially didn't like the extra occupation cards that seemed to favor the person who got to pick an occupation right after they came out.

I ended up going for a Guild Hall strategy that worked to a point, but made the mistake of going for screwage instead of building up my own engine early with a Guard House that limited everyone to six cards per turn. I don't know that it helped that much, although there was much grumbling. I scored 12 points with the Guild Hall, but not nearly enough to win with whoever won.

Somehow, I'm rather proud of the fact that I had to remember that I'd won Merchants & Marauders, and could barely remember who won even a couple of the other games I played. Sunriver is never about the winning or losing, it's almost always about who you play with, just like life in general. And no question that the company was fantastic as always.

After a delicious dinner and drinks at Hola!, a Mexican/Peruvian place that has taken over the Trout House's old space on the Deschutes River, we returned for the final gaming of the evening, which meant that Alex was going to take us through a game of Dungeon World, an indie RPG.

Dungeon World - 

I love RPGs, but I mostly love GMing over being a player because I have to think on my feet and come up with a lot of characterizations for NPCs. This time, Alex was the GM (I GMed his first RPG experience at the age of five in Sunriver, so very apropos) taking us through a very cool system that encourages roleplay directly, which I liked quite a bit. This was a fairly simple dungeon with relatively few encounters but all were meaty and entertaining. My character was a hot female elf wizard with a bit of a checkered past and some real problems with authority and Muslims. As you can see, I veered wildly from reality in some respects (problems with Muslims, being hot, being female, being an elf, being a wizard, having a checkered past) and sticking with my own personality in others (problems with authority). Since I rarely play as a character, I decided to go, in the words of Tropic Thunder, "full retard," meaning that I embraced my character fully. The Scotch didn't hurt either.

Many thanks to Alex for GMing the group, which was deliciously dysfunctional in a roleplaying sense, and to the other players for running with each other's dramatic choices. It was good fun.

At that point, we were nearly done with the weekend, but one more night of rest before the denouement...

Sunriver Euro Retreat 2011, Day 2

For as much as I'd drunk the previous day, I was expecting to wake up feeling like a 2 or a 3, but thanks to a very dry climate I'd been woken up about every 90 minutes during the night by a very dry mouth, so I had consumed massive quantities of water during the night and woke up actually feeling pretty damned good. Time to jump into gaming!

Through the Ages - 

First up was Through the Ages with MattR and Alex. To be honest, what other people played was a bit of a blur to me, so I won't try to capture their experiences here other than to say that I was surprised to see a dated 18xx game that apparently included a Dragon and looked like it was played on a fantasy archipelago, only to realize later that it was Corsica and Sardina, the Dragon was some sort of overarching development company, and it was historical. So best not to trust my impressions of what was going on elsewhere.

I love TtA. It has really interesting situations throughout and every game is going to feel differently. However, I suck at it, mostly because I hardly ever play - this was my first play in what must have been 18 months, maybe more like 28. Hopefully, the iDevice version coming out later this year (oh please oh please) should help me get some chops in this game, much as it has done for my Ascension game strategies.

This game was no exception. I completely forgot about wonders going away if you hadn't built them in the third epoch (if they were Age I wonders) and lost an almost completed St. Pete's. I also thought that a tech I'd bought helped defray the costs of only new buildings, but it worked for upgrades as well and I spent more resources than was necessary over the game, perhaps 12-15, which is crippling. I was always third in the military game as well, with a few short-term exceptions. I think I got about five points in the endgame when I simply stopped receiving green military cards entirely (up until them, almost all of my culture points had been from playing green cards, so I can't complain too much).

Alex pretty  much lapped us, unfortunately. When I play it again in 18 or 28 months, though, I will be ready! Assuming the iDevice version doesn't come out in 17-27 months.

Ascending Empires, Take 2 - 

I have already expressed my deep and abiding love for this game in my recount of our three-player game. Let me just say that, with Alex added in going for the Universe's Biggest Navy (he actually built a battleship), it was even more fun, if a bit wackier. I still stand by my statement that this is as close as you get to real time play in an ordered manner, although it was very sad to see that everything had warped to an even greater degree by the time we played our second game (third game for the group).

By now it was dinnertime, and I was involved with preparing lasagna and salad for the troops, which I'm happy to say were completely consumed.

No Retreat, GMT Edition - 

After dinner, we had planned to play Battlestar Galactica, and I had hoped to play the Exodus expansion. However, I got such conflicting reports of which elements to use that I recommended we stick with the vanilla edition. However, by this time Ken had joined us and he had sat out enough games (he was in and out all weekend as he had a lot of work-related activities), so he and I pulled out the new edition of No Retreat! originally published by VPG and later in a much  more polished edition by GMT in the last month or so. This is a light complexity East Front wargame with a very low unit count but with enough meat to make it a very interesting game. Of particular interest is that you get event cards during your turn and can spend them for various things like replacements, counterblows (essentially spoiling attacks), or for the event printed on your side of the card, assuming the right side has the initiative (determined by what turn it is).

I took the Germans and in the four turns we played (there are about 28) we nailed down a lot of the chrome in the game, such as where reinforcements and replacements can go, compared to detraining units. This corresponded to just before the winter got really bad for the Germans, and I felt I'd come at the very least fairly close to a historical result - could have gotten into the Crimea, also a little closer to Moscow, but otherwise I was feeling pretty good considering I didn't kill a single unit in my initial attack. Considering I can have four attacks at most, that's not terrible, but it did allow Ken to use his cards for things other than replacements. All in all, it was good to learn the game a little better, and I'm looking forward to giving this a try again soon. I'm already slotted to play at BottosCon in early November...

By 10:30pm, i was a toasty pumpkin and ready for bed. I guess I was fortunate not to play BStarG, as the humans coasted through the entire game with hardly any mishaps, even with Mike being a Cylon Admiral for the first half of the game. I guess even the great ones are going to have their weak days, but no question I dodged a bullet for what was looking like the biggest disappointment of the weekend for most.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sunriver Euro Retreat 2011 - Day 1

Sorry to be so late with this. It's very hard for me to get an entry in at the actual event, seeing as I'm either gaming or inebriated. OK, sometimes I'm eating or showering. Life since I've returned last Monday has been kind of crazy, and I haven't even unpacked the games I took!

Anyway, here's Day 1, Thursday:

Lord of the Rings Living Card Game (LotR) -

I arrived around 12:15pm on Thursday, after a few people made the request that we start a little earlier and everyone was leaving pretty early on Sunday. After getting the car unpacked, I started checking out the house, spending some time figuring out what was wrong with the stereo receiver (bad speakers in the nook), updating the system software on the PS3, reseting the password again so that people could see Netflix movies (I have no idea how this got screwed up in two months, but that's what happens when you have a vacation home many people use), stuff like that. Around 4pm, Greg and MattG showed up, after a scenic trip through Lebanon, which by my calculations took them about 2 hours out of their way. Water under the bridge, time to game!

First up was LotR, which Greg had not played, I'd played a handful of times, and MattG had played many times. Matt had some decks set up, and chose the Hunt for Gollum quest. This first expansion pack has gotten some mixed reviews, with people being much more excited about the follow on expansions. That said, we considered that a good quest for Greg's first game.

It was a total walkthrough. I think I took four damage total the entire game, and that was on Gloin so I was trying to take damage. Part of the problem is that the encounter deck is primarily locations rather than enemies to fight, so we imply smacked them around and moved on. For our last quest phase, we generated 25 points on our side. Even the Clue cards came up quickly.

I have heard that the various quests are good with various numbers of players, and that certainly seems to be true. That said, I like the game quite a bit, and will probably pull it out more often to get in some good deck-building time for solo play (usually with two decks). I'm a terrible deck-builder when you do it in advance, so this will give me some chances to build this skill, although I eschew CCGs at this point, preferring the LCG concept by quite a bit, although my only other LCG is Warhammer: Invasion, which I'm not sure works as well.

Regardless, it was fun to play a new quest and get surprised by what we ran into, even if it was just another roadside attraction and tourist trap.

After finishing, Matt spent a little time deck building while Greg and I turned on the first NFL game of the season and we all enjoyed delicious beer and some of the worst delivery pizza I have ever had. The delivery person should have been tipping me.

Ascending Empires - 

This game has gotten a lot of buzz. It's kind of a 4X game (Explore, Exploit, Expand, Excommunicate? - Not really sure what the four X's actually are but I know how the games go), but has a physical flicking component. Turns are very short, taking something like 5 seconds if you know what you're going to do, although movement usually takes more like a minute if you actually flick something. The game is relatively luck-free, with the exception of a semi-random planet distribution (you don't know what planets contain what resources until you land or scan them), and of course the vagaries of the puzzle board which warped almost immediately. I'll be getting plexi, washers, and door bumpers soon to fix that problem, although there's something kind of entertaining about trying to get over those seams.

The result is, in my opinion anyway, a really fast and fun game that encourages screwage and planning and even a certain amount of bluffing. One player felt that it was nothing new, but I am unaware of any table top 4X game that feels like this at all. It's almost simultaneous play and one bad decision can put you out of contention, as you will see below.

Our first game was with Greg and MattG, and none of us had played. The rules are pretty straightforward, although there is a fairly extensive FAQ out there already (and you'll want it - there are few rules for what happens when the ships get turned on their sides or roll or other wackiness). Since you get points for three things during the game, and the game ends when you run out of the point pool, similar to Race for the Galaxy, you are encouraged to do those things, which include advancing your tech trees, removing troops from a planet (mining), and beating your enemies' ships by outnumbering them within "range" as measured by a little piece of cardboard. The tech tree is particularly useful, as it allows you to get various improvements to your abilities, such as more troops placed at a time, longer range attacks, and gaining more troops and ships to your pool, so you really can't skip it. You also get points for wiping out items (anything that is a player color) from the surface of a planet by getting enough ships in orbit and wiping out the owning player's ships also in orbit.

However, you also get points for having colonies and cities, and cities also grant more troops and/or ships, so you want to be doing that too. And having occupied planets. And having cities in more than two quadrants. You don't get these until game end, however, so they are longer term goals.

By the way, hitting another ship with your ship is called "ramming" and it results in both ships returning to the players' supplies. At higher tech levels, you can get VP for being rammed, or for ramming, but usually it's a bad thing unless you gain more by removing the opponent's ship than you do losing your own ship (which usually costs two half-turns, hence a single cycle, not to mention getting it back into position).

In our game, I was focused on long term points, getting cities in all four quadrants and then protecting them as this is worth a total of 18 points (four for the occupied planets, eight for the cities at 2 points each, and six points for having them in four quadrants). Matt, on the other hand, was ship rich and looking to wipe out one of my planet's items, including a city, and he had the ships in position to do so. However, as I pointed out to him, he wanted to be careful not to ram my ship in orbit. And, of course, he did that very thing and I won the game on an errant flick.

Without question this was my favorite new game of the weekend, perhaps my favorite game overall. There are without question component issues - the board is going to warp, even in a very dry environment like Sunriver, even putting the tiles back in the plastic bag and sealing it. Even the player boards were warping. Frankly, the game needs a good quality particle board map, much like Carabande has, but that would add something like $40 to the retail price. Instead, I will be buying a small sheet of plexi to go over it, and affixing washers and bumpers to the planets so they won't move on top of the plexi. As I said, though, there is some charm to having a less than smooth path to the next tile. Alternately, I may consider having a particle board built and drilled and applying a sheet to make it look identical. I would be surprised if at least one enterprising soul out there didn't do this. Fortunately, the game is, IMHO, well worth the extra cost.

Stichlen -

Last year we played a 7 or 8 player game of this the first night everyone was there, and we had a really entertaining time, especially the part where my wine (in a stemless glass, no less) ended up in the box lid with the cards we weren't using. Sadly, KC's copy. I was able to replace it and buy my own, and of course much was made of various alcoholic liquids getting into said box lid. Fortunately, the box lid survived this year unscathed.

I should mention that I brought a rather good bottle of Scotch (at least I liked it) and invited others to do the same, although it ended up being more "whiskey" (or in MattR's case, "whisky" as that's how bourbon distillers spell it) with the Irish and Bourbon varieties being represented as well. I have not been a Scotch drinker in the past, but I found the Ardmore label that I bought on a whim to be quite excellent, although I'm sure my compatriots all had their favorites.

The end result, of course, was that most of us were slightly drunk the entire weekend. Worked for me.

By now, Mike, Alex, and MattR had arrived (it was about 9 or 10pm at this point) and we were just picking up Ascending Empires, so nice timing.

In this particular game of Sticheln, Matt G had not played before, and it took him a hand or two to figure things out, but he did just fine in the end. I, however, had a massive brain fart in the third hand where I completely disassociated my pain color with what I was playing, and thought I was taking a mild chance when in fact I was setting myself up for disaster. The end result was that I was in last place for the entire game by quite a margin, although the game only lasted four hands as it was the slowest Sticheln game ever. Fun, but slow.

After four hands, we were all a little tired and I at least headed to bed. I know that Alex and Greg did some sort of draft variant for 2-player Race for the Galaxy, but I don't know much about it other than that.

Day 2 coming up soon!

RAV4 Update

Some long time readers may remember that my wife's RAV4 had some issues with a "harsh shift condition" that her mechanics thought required a multi-thousand dollar transmission replacement. Hoping to avoid such a financial hit, I did some research and found evidence that the problem was in the ECM, the computer up against the firewall behind the glove box that controls the drive system. A bunch of Serbians in Brooklyn were selling an update where they would replace the capacitors in the ECM (of very low quality, subjected to heat through the firewall, and thus not stabilizing the control voltages for the drivetrain). I sent it off, they fixed it, and the car has run fine ever since. Her mechanic has been strangely silent on the issue, even though I gave them business by having them remove and reinstall the ECM and flush the transmission fluid to get rid of any metal shavings caused by the harsh shift.

Today, friends, I received a notice of a class action suit where Toyota has agreed to reimburse people for any costs associated with repair of this problem. I'm not sure they will cover the transmission fluid flushing, and there is some chance they won't cover the Serbians (about a $300 cost to me, the mechanic cost another $200 or so) but even if they pay for nothing I am feeling even more vindicated.

You have to understand that while I understand how a car works at a very basic level, and I have changed my own oil and filter successfully on more than one occasion (though not for years, it's a freakin' mess), I do not consider myself a "car guy" by any stretch of the imagination and have no idea what to look for when buying a car. To have figured this out and been right where the mechanics were wrong is something I'm enjoying quite a bit. To not even worry if I get reimbursed is even better, as I know people who spent more like $1500, and have seen people who spent nearly $8000 getting this problem fixed.

If you did not receive a notice in the mail, check out