Monday, November 07, 2011

BottosCon 2011, Day 1

Back from BC, and ready to blog. My apologies if I'm misremembering any events, the ride home was long and very tiring and I'm just starting to catch up.

I drove up to BC on Thursday, leaving an hour or so before lunchtime. I was anticipating about a 7 hour trip, including getting across the border into Canada, but actual travel time was less (more like about 5.5 hours) even with some congestion just north of Everett, WA (the northern end of the Seattle metro area, at least in my mind). I went up I-5 the entire way, and in general the drive was pleasant. The speed limit in Washington outside of urban areas is 70mph (although near Bellingham many of the seemingly rural areas areas have a lower speed limit, also more police) and I made it a point to stick to the speed limit rather than fund further municipal operations in that fine state.

The border took only a minute to get through, but I have to admit it's a little jarring to be driving at 70mph one minute and 20 the next going over speed bumps and negotiating intentional chicanes intended to make sure you go 20. The border official asked if I was selling or donating anything (the answer, I hear, is always "no") and what my profession is (always a little dicey to say "retired" and while I've learned to say "I'm an investor in income-producing property" I was tired enough to have forgotten and go through the drill). That said, it was painless and fast. The drive up the King George Highway less so, especially as I'd forgotten to check the actual address of the hotel, but I found it without incident and got my gear into the room easily, where I took a nap, grabbed some room service, and watched some movies I'd ripped onto the iPad.

Some tips if you are staying at the Compass Point Inn in Surrey, BC - Ask for a room facing away from the road. Somehow, the builder didn't get the message that single pane windows are neither energy efficient nor are they the least bit effective at masking road noise, a fact I didn't really appreciate until I was awakened at about 4am as traffic picked up on the highway outside. Thank goodness I had brought the Monster Jamz earbuds I'd picked up the month before, which create a seal in the ear canal and function equally well as earplugs. The hotel did provide complimentary bottled water and a refrigerator that did not have a lock on it (nor anything inside). The restaurants were also very acceptable.

I woke up Friday very excited about the con, but in asking the desk which ballroom we were in they pointed me in exactly the wrong direction, probably because the venue was changed twice in the days right before the con. I admire Rob for working *so* hard to give everyone a good experience - he was tireless, but also honest in his dealings, and I suspect that while most people would agree with that comment, few truly understand even in a passing sense what is involved in mounting a gathering like this. As such, I went down to the meeting rooms trying to figure out when the con was starting, and never actually saw the space until nearly noon. At that point, things started to pick up considerably. For one thing, I got to meet Rob Bottos at last, and am very glad I did. In the middle of getting things set up, he helped me get my games from the car and took time to make sure I had what I needed.

Once lunch was over, I got started with my Up Front games, first against Duncan, then against Michel, both of whom I would be gaming with later on. Fortunately, both were at about the same familiarity level as I was with the rules, and we simply played the City Fight scenario in both cases. I had prepared, at least in terms of rules, to play up to the fifth scenario, the one before vehicles, but had not actually played a game with those rules, but a few things did pop up (Entrenchments, mostly, but also wounds and a few other things I learned as we went).

It's taken me a while to really warm up to Up Front. When I first tried learning the game in the late 90's, it was because I'd picked up the game (and the expansions) not long after AH was bought by Hasborg and I was picking up a lot of AH games while I could. Turns out this was a very fortunate purchase, along with Hannibal, Successors, Breakout: Normandy, and several other games that have proved to be true wargaming classics. I took the game with me on business trips before I had a laptop to play in the hotel room in the evenings, but I struggled with the conceptual nature of the game and the flanking/encircling/infiltration rules confused me to no end. When I starting the relearning process a few weeks ago in preparation for BottosCon, things clicked into place much more quickly, in no small part because I'm older and wiser, but also because I've played more at the tactical level with so many "lighter" games published in the intervening years and the concepts are clearer to me. Regardless, even with the fussiness present (although the integrated ruleset available on the 'Geek helped a lot, as there is considerably errata and clarifications for the game), this is a great little game that plays fast (usually) and has a lot of variation. Used copies, especially with the expansions, go for very high prices (I think my copy was $50 for the whole thing, although I got a copy with a blank box bottom), but if you have one sitting on your shelf that you've never pulled out it's worth exploring.

My first game was against Duncan, who took the Germans against my Soviets. While the Sovs only get four cards at a time, they can also get rid of the entire hand if they don't activate any groups. Since a lot of good things can be done when discarding (laying wire, playing Snipers), it's actually a very strong position to be in if you don't try to plan too far ahead. Which works perfectly for me.

That said, Duncan's Germans chewed me up and spit me out real good, and I lost more than half of my men before we got through the first deck, in particular my assault squad, which had the benefit of being hit by a Demo charge after a few tries at infiltration. I had never actually seen infiltration happen, much less flanking, so it was a very good experience from the point of seeing these mechanisms in action.

With Up Front, you divide your men into groups, and those groups function together. With more groups, you get several benefits - only one group is targeted at a time, so a very strong attack affects fewer men; Rally cards typically only rally three or four men at a time, so easier to get your full group going again, and more groups makes it harder to have your opponent flank you. The downside is that your firepower is lower and so it's harder to get to use those bigger Fire cards, although it's easier to flank and thus double your firepower. In my game with Duncan, he had two groups to my three, but it didn't help as much as I'd hoped.

My second game was against Michel, who I would play Hearts and Minds with later in the evening. This was, without question, a great game. We went the full three decks, and when I managed to get a decent position in the third deck, I started getting rid of cards like there was no tomorrow. Unlike Duncan's smashing demo charge attack, Michel's was only able to wipe out the lone remaining pinned man in my assault squad, but since he'd already wiped out the rest the result was effectively the same. However, my other groups were far enough forward and unpinned enough (other than my central LMG group, which had a few men pinned briefly near the end of the game) that I took the win. This was a classic back and forth effort on both sides and has only whet my appetite for more.

After dinner at the pub attached to the hotel (which you had to leave the building to get to, same with the liquor store), a dinner which featured a distinct shortage of several types of beer, strange to see on a Friday early in the evening, Michel and I set up Hearts and Minds. Michel had been looking for an opponent, and this was a game I had but hadn't explored in any depth at all, not even reading the rules. Chuck and I got in a game before I left that saw the North wipe the table with the South in terms of Political Will, and I had heard this was a tough game for the South. Still, losing in 1966 seemed a little odd, so I was looking forward to playing someone with experience in the game. We used the v2 rules, which are apparently considerably better, and make some significant rules changes. I was very happy I hadn't tried to learn from the rules in the box!

And exactly the same thing happened, or nearly so. I went for control early and hard, as well as pressing for combat in the south. I managed to take the Saigon area through a card play, and had a massively successful attack in the upper reaches of Zone IV against an ARVN stack, and also forced a coup, all in the first turn. I had planned to focus on a Zone IV campaign in 1966, as in my game with Chuck, and I'd already taken enough areas and wiped out enough SVA forces to more or less ensure this in the first turn. Michel, on the other hand, campaigned in Zone I at the North Vietnam border. While he was very effective this turn, losing very few units while mine were melting away, at the same time I was able to generate political will in the south while he was never able to counter in the north and  I won on Political Will in 1966. Again.

As you can imagine, this concerns me a little. Historically, PW dropped a total of three points from 1965 to 1966 (according to the game), but in our case it was more like eight per turn. My control efforts were extremely successful, leading to three or four Doves per turn, another three for the coup, another four for my campaign. I think the game hinged on two events, one of which was a matter of luck the other of which was a misplay by Michel. The first was the lopsided battle in Zone IV that opened the door for the Mekong Delta campaign, combined with the coup that locked up a lot of the ARVN forces in the south. That said, Michel should have spent 1966 fighting me in the south, perhaps bringing forces from the northern coast down via sealift rather than trying to fight his own campaign in the north. Even having drawn the campaign card, it could simply be held in hand, and knowing how well I was doing in the south it would have been just as effective to confront me rather than allow me a free point per card play. Of course, this was my second game and I'm far from being an expert on the system, but it's what I would have tried.

As a side note, I was able to score a full size map from the 'Geek (the game comes with a very cramped map, one that has areas that are almost completely covered by the huge control markers - Worthington games doesn't seem to understand how development works, and hence why I very rarely buy anything from them) that included most of the tables and other information right on it. Thanks to Mike for getting this to me very quickly, my opponent and I both appreciated it immensely.

Concerns with balance aside, this is a quick playing and very cool CDG. It has some major differences with the "standard" games such as Hannibal or Paths of Glory, such as having three decks (one "neutral" deck that is shuffled and distributed equally between the players to shuffle into their own decks), a set of campaign cards that give you considerable control over where you wish to focus your efforts, and events that are part of resource point play rather than separate. Being able to stockpile resource points is also very useful. I think stockpiling those points is mandatory for the Blue (south) player in the first turn to help avoid a coup, which is perhaps the thing that hurt Michel the most in the first turn.

I was all ready to head back to the room at this point, but the Up Front tournament people were looking for one more player, so I got to take the Germans against Mat's Americans. If my UF game against Michel was a classic, this one was so bizarre as to almost defy description. First of all, you get very used to being able to dump off cards fast as the Soviet. While the Germans have a larger hand and can do stuff *and* discard a single card every turn, if all you do is draw Rally cards (as I did for a good half of the first deck) it's kind of a slow game. I figure I spent more than 50% of my turns discarding one card and drawing a card, usually something completely useless. In 90 minutes we got through one and a half decks and then Mat had to leave. Too bad, as the game was promising, although Mat was in a stronger position.

So it was that I got in two and a half games of Up Front (reinforcing my understanding of the game immensely in the process) as well as a game of Hearts and Minds, both relatively new games to me. Both are games that seem to be a bit fragile in terms of the game tipping to one side or the other with the right luck, but both good fun. Up Front in particular shouldn't take more than a couple of hours to play, and H&M has a scenario system that gives a lot of control over how long a game will take. I'm very interested in trying it out starting in different years to see how that affects game play.

And it was evening and morning, the first day.

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