Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

To my family, friends, colleagues and fellow BGG denizens a Happy New Year! May God keep you all safe and bless you.

Featured Game: PanzerBlitz

Few games have had an impact as big as PanzerBlitz. It's probably the third most important commercial wargame aside from the very first Roberts game of Tactics (which invented the idea of the commercial wargame) and Gettysburg (which was the first wargame based on a historical battle). PanzerBlitz opened up entirely new ground for wargamers and it had an immediate impact.
I remember seeing it for the first time on the Battleship Massachusetts during one of the Spartan International conventions held there (I believe it was 1971 and PanzerBlitz had been out for just a few months). Everything was new back then, but even then PanzerBlitz stood out.
PanzerBlitz either introduced or first popularized many features that became standard fare in wargames, such as multiple scenarios, ranged combat, different classes of units and weapons, "geo-morphic" boards, extensive historical notes, terrain elevation and line of sight rules. It did this within the familiar framework of hexagons, cardboard counters and and odd-based Combat Results Table, providing just enough continuity to the Afrika Korps-style game for acceptance.
It did usher in an explosion of new design approaches, prompted in large measure by PanzerBlitz's designer, the prolific Jim Dunnigan. Dunnigan had already started to shake things up with his more analytical approach to wargame design with his earlier Avalon Hill games Jutland and 1914, but those were hindered by being set in the less dynamic First World War and uninspired graphics. In PanzerBlitz Dunnigan's design skills were teamed with Redmond Simonsen's graphic design talents and the synergy was electric.
PanzerBlitz still boasts one of the most striking wargame box art ever published.
Since PanzerBlitz was published there have been probably a hundred games on the same or similar topics, nearly all inspired by designer's attempts to fix the "flaws" of PanzerBlitz. Some were even done by Avalon Hill itself. Panzer Leader, which moved the action to the Western front changed the artillery rules in order to discourage the unhistorical game tactic of crowding units together in the same hex to dilute incoming fire and got rid of the ability of trucks and wagons to spot for other units which had resulted in some pretty bizarre game tactics as well. The biggest PanzerBlitz problem fixed in Panzer Leader was the infamous "PanzerBush" syndrome, where units scooted from one covered spot to another across open spaces that were literally "under the guns" of the enemy. The "Opportunity Fire" rule in Panzer Leader has been in the standard toolkit of tactical wargame designers since. Avalon Hill's later Arab-Israeli Wars further refined the game system by gutting down the range and speed of units, which the original game formula has miscalculated. This was noted early on, but a desire to make Panzer Leader fully compatible with PanzerBlitz meant to older game's incorrect values were retained. Dunnigan himself felt no qualms about starting over based on new research and his Combat Commander and later SPI games used different factors and different game mechanics as well.
For face-to-face play most players retrofitted the opportunity fire rule (and ban on truck/wagon spotting) to the earlier game but many play-by-mail games skipped using opportunity fire because of the complications it introduced to the turn sequence. Unlike most of it successors and imitators PanzerBlitz was well-suited to PBM because of its IGO-UGO turn sequence, in contrast to the multiphase and interactive turn sequences that followed. The advent of Internet-based play has reduced that consideration, and more recent designs are more sophisticated with improved historical research, leaving PanzerBlitz behind. Although once wildly popular, and still played a bit, it's a game design that does seem dated now and is most likely to be played between two old-timers than by someone new. Although Squad Leader, for example, is only seven years younger than PanzerBlitz, a lot happened during that seven years in game design and Squad Leader still seems much more modern. ASL, which came along just a few years after basic Squad Leader is still very much alive and winning over new players.
There are plans for Multi-Man Publishing to offer a new edition of PanzerBlitz, but this is not a straight reprint of the old game. Instead it appears it will be a completely new game, which may include some updated elements from the old one, but probably many new concepts as well. As such, it's really just using PanzerBlitz as a "brand name" similar to what Hasbro has done with "Avalon Hill" and "Axis & Allies."

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Our most profound danger

Of all the ill winds blowing through this administartion, none is a greater threat than torture.

The real problem is that fear isn't a good tool to use in a democratic society. We are supposed to be shareholders in our government; when a process of oppression is endorsed by our legislators and president, we should recognize that they are trying to set themselves apart from the ordinary citizenry, and it's time to rebel…before the goon squads come to your neighborhood. Anyone who supports torture is a traitor to the democratic form of government, and should be voted out of office, if not impeached.

Read the rest here:

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Featured Game: Ploy

The old 3M line included some old classics such as chess, go and backgammon and some updated versions of classic games such as Oh-Wah-Ree (mancala) and Breakthru (tablut) but much of the line were original designs such as Acquire and Stocks & Bonds. Among the latter was ploy, an abstract strategy game that affected a modernistic look and style of play.
In ploy the moves of the pieces are indicated by the shape of the plastic pieces themselves. Each piece has one or more ridges which graphically depict not only the direction the piece can go but how many points. The lances, for example, can move three points because they have three ridges, and have a choice of three directions. The shields, which have just one ridge, can move just one space in one direction.
The game board is a 9x9 criss-cross grid of points that are connected by horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, resulting in 8 potential directions of movement. The object of the game is to capture the enemy's "commander," who can move just a single point (in an exception to the usual movement scheme), but has the most options of any other pieces with four possible move directions.
The cleverness of the design is that pieces come in several varieties. While every lance can move three points, they also come in three different varieties as far as directions.
Each army deploys in three rows, with the fastest and most flexible pieces closest to the player. The back row comprises the commander flanked to either side by a total of six lances in three different varieties. The second row has five "probes" (move 2 spaces) also in three varieties and the front row has three shields (one-space move).
During a player's turn he can conduct either a "motion" move which allows a piece to move up to the number points shown by its ridges in a direction indicated by the ridges or a "direction" move, which allows a piece to rotate so it's ridges line up in new directions. A shield, only, is allowed to make a motion move followed by a direction move. (So a shield can move in the direction it started facing, but then change its facing, but it cannot change facing and then move.
Compared to chess and similar abstracts Ploy features a more wide-open style of play. There's one fewer piece on each side maneuvering on a board with 17 more spaces and double the potential move directions. Unlike chess, no pieces can sweep from one end of the board to the other. The signature feature of Ploy is that no piece can really defend itself. The most mobile pieces are still helpless in 5 out of 8 directions.
Ploy is a little easier to teach than many similar abstracts because the moves are right on the pieces, so it's a good choice for younger players. Being far less popular and analyzed than chess, it provides a more level playing field for beginners while still being a good introduction to the kind of strategic and tactical thinking needed for chess.
It's never been reissued since 3M days but it's not hard to find on eBay in good condition, so it's still a good choice to seek out.
The game includes 4-player and partnership options with a slightly different setup and mix of pieces, but otherwise the same rules.

Featured Game: Battle of Moscow

Battle of Moscow was my second Strategy & Tactics magazine issue game and the one that prompted me to change my three-issue trial subscription into the real thing that I maintained for many years afterward. I've continued to get the magazine off and on but I haven't gotten too many with the games lately, if only because I'm tired of adding to my collection of unplayed-games-that-will-never-get-played. My first S&T had the odd T-34 game which I wasn't quite sure what to make of, but Battle of Moscow was an honest-to-goodness meaty hex-and-counter wargame.
It had some interesting concepts, most notably one of the first appearances of the mechanized movement phase idea that was a staple of many SPI operational games of the 1970s. In it's primitive iteration in Battle of Moscow every unit got to have a second movement phase after the combat phase, using about half its movement allowance. Later versions of the rule accentuated the difference by giving only mechanized units a second movement phase, generally with the whole movement factor available, but even in it's early version Battle of Moscow created a much more dynamic game situation and did a pretty good job of capturing the differences between the two sides.
This was also shown by the different way the two armies were depicted. The flexible German army's order of battle comprised a large number of individuals divisions while the battered Soviets had fewer, but stronger armies as well as a bunch of ad hoc forces such as fortress garrisons, armed workers, partisans, paratroopers and tank groups.
The game played well, although by later standards the game rules were rather sketchy. For example, the rules don't specify how to treat the one German cavalry unit's second movement phase -- should it have half it's movement available (3) like all other German units? Or should it have a third of its movement available (2), like all the Soviet cavalry units? As players back in those early days we just muddled through and agreed on something at the table, but it's a little jarring to go back after all these years and see how loosely written the rules are.
Still, I think it holds up decently well, although most wargamers probably have a newer game on the same topic if they have a collection of any size. Because of that, it's more of a collector's game than a player's game these days, but unlike many of its contemporary titles I would not call it flawed. If you should happen to find a like-minded opponent to play against it will still be entertaining.
The physical components are primitive, as it appeared just before SPI started using die-cut counters. The counters have to be cut out and pasted on cardboard, although there was a reprint that included die-cut counters. Units are divisions for the Germans and Finns, with a couple of elite regiments. The Soviet forces are armies and army-sized groups, for the most part, with a few corps. The black and white mapsheet stretches from Leningrad to south of Tula and from Smolensk to east of Moscow.
The game lasts 10 weekly turns, with an optional 10-turn extension. The Germans win by occupying Moscow for 4 turns or isolating both Moscow and Leningrad four four turns.
The Germans are in a race against time and a flood of Soviet replacements and reinforcements. The Germans get a negligible number of both and never will be stronger than they are on the first turn. The Soviets can replace their entire starting army and more, in contrast.
The designer of Battle of Moscow was Dave Williams, who also designed Anzio, among other titles.
Battle of Moscow is recommended primarily for collectors at this point, although it is still playable.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Featured Game: Tuf-Abet

Everybody is familar with Scrabble. it's one of those classic family games of enduring popularity that just about everybody gets to play at some point. Some people find the crossword-style game addictive and become real fans. Scrabble has its own clubs, organized play and tournaments, which puts it in rare company.
Unlike Scrabble, Tuf-Abet is a dice game, not a tile game. Players are allocated 20 dice in five different colors. The red dice have vowels, while the green, blue, orange and yellow dice have vaiorus consonants on their faces. The more uncommon letters such as B or X are on the two orange dice or one yellow. The green and blue dice have the more common consonents such as S and T.
Players throw their dice on the table at the same time and start building words crossword style. When some player is satisfied he's got a decent array he can call "Tuf." At that point a 3-minute sand time is turned and the other players have an opportunity to keep going, trying to use more letters. When one has, "Tuffest" is called and the remaining players, including the "Tuf" caller, can keep building their setups to use still more letters. If they do they can call out "Tuffest" and there's a final one-minute round where players scramble to use more letetrs. The round ends at the end of the one minute or when one player has used all 20 letters.
Scoring is simple. Every block that's used scores one point for every word it's in. Blocks used in words six letters or longer score double.
Tuf-Abet is a game of speed, not cleverness, though. Whoever calls "Tuf" scores an 8-point bonus, whoever is the last caller (or uses all 20 letters) also gets an 8-point bonus.
Given that a a 20-letter play will probably score 25-30 points, an 8-point bonus is a big deal.
Victory is determined after five rounds.
The dynamic of play is very different from Scrabble. There's no double or triple word scores or 50-point use-all-your-letters bonus, so it's hard to make a big scoring play. Instead victory comes incremnetally, but being competitive calling "Tuf" and "Tuffest" is vital to winning. It's unlikely you can accumulate so many points through ordinary play that you can make up for losing out on too many "Tuf" and "Tuffest" bonuses.
There are two special symbols on some of the dice. The orange and yellow dice have smiley faces on one side, which can act as a wild card similar to the Scrabble blank tile. On the yellow die there's also a "bullet" symbol, which must be used as a capital letter in a proper name. (Otherwise the Scrabble rule of no proper names applies). The Bullet dice counts as 3 points when used, 6 points if doubled.
Unlike Scrabble, which proceeds at a fairly deliberate pace, Tuf-Abet is a fast-moving game that rewards quick word formations rather than very clever ones. There's no special bouns for using high-scoring Qs, Zs and Xs. Instead, they're often soemwhat of an obstacle. The key thing is to be the fastest. I'm just not sure the people attracted to word games like doing under a time pressure.
Tuf-Abet is a good family game, not quite as intimidating as Scrabble because an extensive vocabulary isn't as important.

Merry Christmas

Peace on Earth.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Featured game: 1914

1914 holds an unusual post in the annals of wargaming. It was never terribly popular, as such. It was never reprinted or updated after its original appearance. It didn't spawn an extensive line of sequels or imitators. It wasn't designer Jim Dunnigan's most famous or successful design.
For a while in the 1980s and 1990s it was highly sought after by collectors, with good copies fetching several hundred dollars at auction. But that, too, seems to have passed, and copies can be had on eBay for well under those peak prices.
But 1914 was, and is, an important milestone among wargames because it pointed out the potential for wargames as not mere games about war, but a new way to explore history in an interactive way. In 1914 one really got the impression that you were truly exploring ways in which history could have been different, has different decisions been made.
There have subsequently been interesting and entertaining discussions that have exhaustively explored how much a manual wargame can truly be a simulation of a historical event, given the many and inevitable compromises necessary to make it playable by human beings. But those discussions were made possible and necessary by 1914 and similar simulation-oriented designs that came from Dunnigan and Dunnigan-mentored game designers in the 1970s and afterwards.
More than any wargame that had gone before, and most that came afterwards, 1914 aimed to be a simulation. The game contest was clearly secondary to the history. Both players were really cooperatively working to see how the events of the Summer and fall of 1914 might have developed, instead of competing against each other in a test of wits and strategy. The game system did not reward clever gamy tactics. The overall strategies were rather obvious and not easily adjusted. Indeed, the game, when played, seemed to march inexorably forward into bloody tragedy with little ability for the "commanders' to change much at all. It was more than a little bit like a boardgame version of Tuchman's The Guns of August. No Zones of Control, no 3-1 sure-thing attacks, no D-elims, it was a break from convention in most respects.
The use of step reduction provided a graphic illustration of the grinding attrition of 1914-era fighting. More so than simple eliminations would have, watching your powerful "A" corps slowly attrit down to impotence drove home the character of the fighting.
Particularly when played with all the advanced and tournament options, 1914 was a "monster" game before monster games were conceived. The game took a long time to play, several sittings at least or a weekend. In the end, history was most likely to repeat itself, because the game depicted the forces working against changing history as very powerful indeed. In the game it's easy to see how little chance there was that the Germans could score their hoped-for knockout blow. That failure set the stage for the rest of the tragedy of World War I. As that war's centennial approaches interest in the war has grown. The passage of time allows us to see that the Great War was the pivotal event of the 20th Century, affecting everything that followed. World War II, totalitarianism in all its forms, genocide, nuclear war, post-colonialism and so much more followed in its wake. Only with the fall of Communism in 1989 and the post-Cold War reordering of affairs have the ripples of World War I started to fade away.
I wonder if interest in 1914 will be revived as 2014 nears.

Of course, it's not always pleasant even if you belong here ...

Just remember, in Bush's America you have no actual right to be left alone:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Featured Game: Breakthru

Breakthru was part of the line of 3M bookcase games from the 1960s. copyrighted 1965, although it's a development and refinement of the classic "Hunt" games such as Fox & Geese and "Sixteen Soldiers" that date back to at least the Thirteenth Century. The game features a vague "naval" theme in the box art and game piece naming convention (a "flagship" and "destroyers") but it's really a pure abstract game.
One thing worth remarking about is the outstanding durability of the 3M packaging. The 3M bookshelf box may very well be the best game packaging ever, although some of the new euro-games also have very nice, attractive and sturdy boxes. Still, my copies of the seven 3M titles in my collection are all still in very good shape despite being more than 40 years old. Even the similar Avalon Hill bookcase games show considerably more wear and damage and no other games boxes from anywhere near that age can compare to the 3M boxes. The 3M games were marketed as premium games and live up to it.
Inside the box is a black plastic white-gridded 11x11 board. The Center square is marked with a circle surrounded by a 5x5 zone of squares. This is the setup zone for the "gold" fleet, which comprises a tall brass "flagship" and a dozen smaller "destroyer escorts. The Flagship must set up on the circle, while the escorts can set up anywhere inside the 5x5 zone.
The twenty metal "silver" destroyers can set up anywhere outside gold's setup area. The zones have no effect on play after setup. While no particular formation is required for either side, several suggested setups are provided in the rules, which are simple enough to print on the inside of the game box -- a very common place to find the rules for games of that era.
The rules themselves are exceeding simple. The players alternate turns, with Gold deciding who starts. In a player's turn he can either perform a "motion move" or a "capture move." A motion move consists of moving the flagship or two destroyers. Pieces can move any distance is a straight horizontal or vertical line, but not diagonally. A capture move, in contrast, consists of moving one piece diagonally one space into an enemy-occupied square and making a replacement capture, similar to a chess pawn.
The game ends when the flagship is captured or it escapes to a board edge.
Game play is tense, as both sides maneuver to hem in the other side and threaten captures. One blunder and the game can come to a quick end.
Abstract games don't appeal to everyone, but Breakthru provides a challenging play experience while not being quite as intimidating as chess. I think it makes a good game to play with kids because it makes them don their thinking caps while not being overwhelming. There are only two kinds of pieces and they all move the same way. There are no special or odd rules and the game plays quickly enough that most sessions can involve multiple plays. Some of the older Fox & Geese-type games have balance issues with optimum play, but Breakthru gives both sides a shot at winning.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Good wargaming article on levels of abstraction

Personally, I like The Great War at Sea and Second World War at Sea game systems. I don't consider them tactical battle generators, although they can be used that way. They are operational wargames with a tactical subsystem.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Featured Game: Sid Sackson's Sleuth

These days game designers are well-known among hobbyists and often have their own followings. Often people will buy a game just because it's designed by Reiner Knizia or Richard Borg.
This is a fairly recent development however, and it used to be rare for game designers to even be credited.
But long before Borg and Knizia -- or even Dunnigan -- Sid Sackson made his mark as the first celebrity game designer. Before his time game designers, if recognized at all, would generally be recognized because of one signature hit. Sackson, while having some major hits such as Acquire and Can't Stop, is also known for the volume, breadth and creativity of his designs. His book Gamut of Games is considered a classic, containing several original designs from him, as well as others. He had a massive collection of games.
Larry Whalen, owner of a Providence game store, formed a game company called face2facegames to bring some of Sackson's designs back into print. Among those is Sackson's deduction game called Sleuth.
Like most Sackson designs, Sleuth is starkly simple in design, yet intriguing. Dispensing with a board (I believe a very early version of the game had a board) the game components comprise two decks of cards, a pad of "Sleuth Investigation Sheets" and the rules (in six languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese). The cards are completely language independent, so the game works well in any language at all. In English the rules are just over 1,100 words long.
The game is pure deduction. One card is selected from a 36-card deck of gems and hidden, with the most of the remaining cards dealt face down evenly between the 3-7 players and any remainder revealed for all to see. Gems comprise three elements: color, kind and number.
The player knows what he has among his face down cards and whatever was revealed among the leftovers and spends rest of the game trying to figure out what the missing card is.
Questioning isn't free, however. Controlling the scope of the questioning is a 54-card Search Deck. During his turn a player selects a search card from his four-card hand. One interesting point is that the available search cards in a player's hand are face up, so an observant opponent may deduce information from keeping track of which search cards an opponent neglects to use.
Search cards some in three types: One-element, two-element and Free Choice. Play of a one-element card allows a player to ask how many gem cards sharing one feature he holds. For example, If the card says "clusters" then the player has to announce how many gem cards he has that are clusters (three gems -- the other possibilities are pairs and solitaires). This is announced to everybody.
A two-element card narrows the focus of the questioning. The questioner can ask the targeted opponent to hand over (face down) - any gem cards that share both elements. For example, if the card reads "green pearls" then the player might pass over for viewing a green pearl solitaire and a green pearl cluster. (The colors are red, green, yellow and blue; the gems are opals, diamonds and pearls). The questioner records the information and hands the gem cards back. The other players only know how many cards were handed over, but not their identity.
The Free Choice cards, naturally, allow the questioner to choose what kind of card, one-element or two-element, and what characteristics to include. The only restriction is that two of the same characteristic can't be chose, so you can't pick two colors, for example. At the end of his turn a player draws a card from the search deck to replace the card just played.
At any time a player can announce he's going to solve the puzzle and can secretly check the hidden card. If right, the player wins, otherwise the game goes on, with the wrong-guessing player staying involved to answer questions but can't ask any more questions or draw any more search cards.
That's it.
People who like Clue, but want to cut to the chase of deduction without wasting time rolling dice and wandering around the board will like this game. There's just enough of a luck element because of the board play that Clue does not present an exactly equal chance for all the players. Sleuth, on the other hand, is a completely level playing field. While the card draw randomizes things a little, it isn't enough to make a big difference. Winning will primarily revolve around proper sleuthing.
Face2Face Games has provided a real service by bringing this game back into print.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Featured Game: Avalon Hill's Jutland (1967)

This year mark's the 40th anniversary of Avalon Hill's Jutland game, which is notable as Jim Dunnigan's first published wargame design.
Dunnigan had written some criticism of the lack of historical accuracy in existing AH games and Avalon Hill decided to give him the opportunity to practice what he preached. While not an academic historian, Dunnigan had the right instincts and did some primary and authoritative secondary source research that made Jutland noticeably more authentic than what had. It led directly to Dunnigan's even more realistic 1914 and his founding of SPI -- developments which changed wargaming for good.
Jutland was never a blockbusting bestseller, but it was in print for most of AH's existence. Naval games have always been a tough sell for wargamers for some reason. While there's a significant faction of naval wargame devotees, most wargamers seem to be landlubbers. Interest in the Great War wasn't as high then, either, as it would later be.
One other factor that held back Jutland's popularity was its miniatures-like game play. While more authentic than using a hex-based battleboard, 1960s-era wargamers were real hex-lovers and anything without hexagons like Jutland faced a real struggle for acceptance.
Still, the game was ground-breaking in many ways and a lot of its concepts influenced later designs, especially naval games. Avalanche Press' Great War At Sea series of games show a clear familial relationship to Jutland.
Jutland was one of my first wargames and the first one to really show me the potential for wargames to illuminate history. While not the most interesting competitive game, Jutland was an informative historical study, best played with a like-minded opponent less interested in winning than in playing the role.
The 1974 rules were more clear and added a couple of badly needed scenarios but made no significant changes to the game. Unlike the slightly older Midway, Jutland hasn't aged quite as well because it's not a great competitive game and newer games have covered the same ground better as historical studies. Avalanche's GWAS series especially exploits the potential that Jutland hinted at, with scores of scenarios and hundreds of ships.
Jutland holds onto a place in my collection as a collectible, and one that still could get played, if only with another old-timer.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Housing intervention

I don't claim any special expertise in economics. I treat it like I do any highly technical field that still requires a citizen to develop an informed opinion about because of the political decisions it affects. I read a lot and try to evaluate the credibility of the various expert opinions out there.
Now, it's always possible some outlier opinion will prove to be correct, but those outliers still need to make a reasoned and reasonable argument that fits the facts. There's no shortage of crackpots in any technical field, but time has a way of weeding them out. Sooner of later there has to be something proved out. This was the problem with cold fusion, for example. To a lay person it all sounded reasonable enough, but after all this time they've never actually managed to do it.
A counter example is the warm-blooded dinosaur theory. At first this was a real outlier, although the scientists making the argument seemed to have a good point. As time passed more evidence supporting the theory mounted. It made predictions that subsequent research verified and it's now reached the status of conventional wisdom.
Presently the government is floating some ideas that will supposedly mitigate the housing crisis. The problem is that there have been some critics warning for several years that the housing bubble was becoming a real problem and predicting dire consequences. The bubble's defenders pooh-poohed the problems, saying things have changed and the old rules no longer apply. As a reasonably-informed citizen this line of argument actually concerned me, because it seems to be a common refrain among the misguided in any field involving human actors -- things are different this time.
Of course, they rarely are different, because people are the same. Whether it's military strategy, political truths or economic fundamentals, one can rest assured that the more things change the more they stay the same. So anyone arguing that an activity that revolves largely around the human element has undergone some fundamental shift that means that time-tested rules of thumb no longer apply should be immediately suspect. Science and engineering may find entirely new ways of doing things that invalidate prior experience -- but war, politics and economics don't.
The housing bubble critics say that the government interventions that are being considered are too little, too late and will probably just make things worse. So who is more credible? The critics who said there was a bubble, or the bubble deniers who said everything was just fine?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Featured game: Afrika Korps

Although my young wargaming group played Afrika Korps some back while we were teens around 1970 it wasn't one of our main games. We tended to spend more time with Stalingrad, Waterloo and Midway, so we missed out on developing the intense, chess-like style of heavily analyzed play of the true devotees.Because of that we tended to regard AK as lighter fare, and while I've dabbled with it over the years, there's little doubt an experienced would-be Rommel would easily dispatch me in a face-to-face game. I do a little better in PBeM where there's more time to analyze things, but I'm still not tournament-ready nor ever expect to be so.From my perspective, I consider it a game that's aged reasonably well, probably the only one of the original AH classics still worth playing.On the other hand, it's not a game that I'd introduce a new wargamer to. I can really only see playing it with another veteran wargamer who already liked Afika Korps, so maybe it hasn't aged well after all.Afrika Korps' problems as a game are well known, and basically revolve around luck. The luck problem comes from two things.First, and foremost, a string of bad luck in the supply rolls can really hamper the Germans. One cardinal rule for Rommel is to never expend his last supply unit, because if he has two consecutive bad supply rolls his whole army surrenders for lack of supply.Secondly, there's the 2-1 attack on Tobruk. Even if otherwise stymied, and on the way to losing the game, Rommel can almost always try a 2-1 attack on Tobruk. Success is basically a 50/50 shot. A bad roll can mean disaster for the Germans, but if they are losing anyway then there's little to lose. A success, on the other hand, can transform defeat into a good shot at victory. It's much harder for the British to recapture Tobruk because the Germans have some strong units they can put in the port and the British units tend to be weak, meaning the British don't usually have a 2-1 option.These problems would never be accepted in a new game.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tasers for fun

This is getting a lot of play. State trooper zaps a guy after pulling him over because the motorist refused to sign the speeding ticket.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Featured Game: Midway

I can't be objective about Avalon Hill's naval wargame Midway from 1964. It was my first "real" wargame and launched me into the hobby that I've enjoyed these 38 years.
In late 1968 I saw an ad in Boy's Life magazine for an outfit called Alnavco, which sold miniature model warships (back then all in 1:1200 scale). Being a middle-school kid with no money I wasn't able to indulge in buying the beautiful ship models. I bought one, a model of the USS Olympia of Dewey fame, that sadly was destroyed through youthful carelessness.
In the Alnavco catalog they also listed some naval boardgames by a company called Avalon Hill. I think they offered U-Boat, Bismarck and Midway. The games were just $4.95 and you could fight an entire battle with a fleet of ships. As this was about the price os a single small model warship the boardgames sounded like a good deal for someone on a limited budget like me.
So I ordered a copy of Midway in March of 1969 (I still have the invoice) and a hobbyist was born. I persuaded my best friend to play and before long we had an active little gaming circle going. Besides Midway we played Stalingrad, Guadalcanal. Anzio, Afrika Korps, Waterloo, 1914. Jutland from Avalon Hill plus some of the early SPI games like Centurion and Battle of Moscow.
My best friend's older brother brought back Diplomacy from college and we also tried out nonwargames such as Football Strategy, Stock Market and Ploy.
Most wargamers have a soft spot for the game that first brought them into the hobby, even if it's not an especially good game. Fortunately Midway is better than most of its contemporaries and still holds up rather well despite the passage of 40 years. It's still possible to round up a game now and then. The situation is classic and the execution is entertaining. While newer games are more realistic, Midway is not a howler as far as historical accuracy goes and it has the virtues of playing pretty quickly and being well-balanced.
Most beginning players find it a little easier to play the Japanese, but between experienced players the game is an even match. The Japanese and U.S. fleets are very close in strength during the early going when the game will most often be decided.
The game uses a screen and separate search boards to provide limited intelligence, similar in some respects to Battleship. The U.S. has an advantage in searching power which makes up for its disadvantage in carriers.
Once fleets are located air strikes can be launched with fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes. Simple and straightforward rules cover the air-to-air and air-to-ship combat while capturing some of the nuances of strike tactics such as "anvil" attacks.
While there are simple rules for resolving surface battles, they rarely occur as the U.S. fleet normally strives mightily to avoid any surface contact with the much larger Japanese fleet.
The game succeeds in capturing the essence of the "Incredible Victory" at Midway. It's certainly possible for the U.S. player to replicate the historical result, but it's equally possible for the Japanese to achieve their sought-for "decisive victory."
One nice additional feature is Rear Adm. C. Wade McClusky's personal account of the battle contained in the battle manual.
Other valuable add-ons include the Wargamer's Guide to Midway, a 36-page booklet published in 1979 that contains a digest of the best Midway-related articles from the Avalon Hill General.
Another great add-on is the Coral Sea variant that adds counters, rules and a map to cover the other 1942 carrier battles around the Solomons. With some slight rules modifications, players can use the Midway game system to refight the battles of Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz and Guadalcanal. The system works remarkably well for these battles. While not quite as detailed as some of the other carrier battle games depicting this campaign, the Coral Sea variant plays quickly without affronts to historical sensibility.
Overall, Midway is still one of my favorite games and a real "classic" in the best sense of the term.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Featured game: Dogfight

I first played Dogfight in the mid-1960s shortly after it came out.
In my opinion Dogfight is the best of the old American Heritage line of games from Milton Bradley in the 1960s. It had the neatest pieces (model World War I SPADs and Fokker DVIIs) and the best gameplay. There was some player skill required, not just luck. Unlike the other games, Dogfight's game mechanics bore some resemblance to the history that inspired it, enough so that it could be considered a light wargame and not just a war-themed games like the rest of the American Heritage games.
Each player controlled two three-plane squadrons based at airfields in the comers of the map board. For the Germans the aircraft in Jastas 10 and 11 were Fokker DVIIs, which was considered the best fighter of the war. The American 94th and 95th Squadrons were equipped with SPAD XIII fighters. Each squadron could play one plane at a time, with the other planes staying in reserve.
Movement was controlled by dice. Each turn a player would roll two D6. If two planes were aloft, then each would use one roll (so a roll of 2, 5 meant one plane moving two squares and the other moving 5 squares -- no more, no less) If only one plane was airborne then the controlling player could pick one die roll to use.
Combat was not resolved with the dice, however. When a plane moved next to an enemy plane and pointed its nose directly at it the player was entitled to play a "burst" card from their hand. Bursts came in values of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. If the two planes were involved in a head-on pass they would compare bursts (the target plane could shoot back) with the higher card winning. The loser was shot down. In case of a tie both planes were shot down. Naturally, it was less risky to fire from the side or rear aspects where the target couldn't shoot back. A target plane was not without options in that situation because there were also two varieties of defensive cards available. A "barrel roll" caused a side shot to miss automatically. A "loop" allowed a plane being attacked from the rear to change places with its attacker and turn the tables! The target could now play a burst card against its erstwhile attacker. It was possible for the new target to play a loop card in return, reestablishing the original situation, but requiring yet another burst and possible countering loop. This could not go on indefinitely, however, because each plane had a limited number of cards, usually four, that could only be replenished by returning to the aerodrome. It was all very entertaining, however.
Besides the tactics of moving an maximizing card play, players faced strategic decisions, too. After shooting down an enemy plane a plane earned an "ace" marker that entitled it to a bonus of two additional cards the next time it took off. So instead of starting with a four-card hand the "ace" had a 6-card hand. Shooting down a second plane made a "double ace" entitled to an 8-card hand. More cards meant more options naturally, making very aces dangerous. As a matter of fact, the safest way to eliminate an ace was to attack the enemy airfield and strafe the ace while it was on the ground. This tactic had its own risks, because each airfield was protected by four "Archie" (AA guns). Two of the guns were "hits" and two would "miss" when flown over, so it could be expensive to test those defenses.
Of all the American Heritage line, Dogfight is the one best suited for a reissue. The use of quality plastic plane models and cards would let Dogfight fit in quite comfortably with contemporary designs.
I think this one is still a good play. As a simulation it's rudimentary, but it's not valueless. There is at least a passing resemblance to actual tactics. The enclosed historical booklet is very high quality. I credit Dogfight and Broadside with paving the way for me to move into more serious wargames a few years later such as Midway and 1914.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Featured Game: Gettysburg 1964

The classic edition of Avalon Hill's Gettysburg had an impact all out of proportion to its its quality -- it was the first. First published in 1958, Gettysburg was the first historical board wargame. Prior efforts like Tactics and just about every other previous military-themed wargame were either based on fictionalized settings or merely used a historical topic for inspiration
Charles Roberts' Gettysburg, on the other hand, was an attempt to model an actual historical battle with an authentic order of battle fighting over a map of the actual terrain. This game basically inaugurated the historical board wargame hobby.
That's not to say that the game doesn't have some serious shortcomings. After starting off with a square-gridded map, the game took a brief detour to hex-based before returning to a square grid in the 1964 edition, which is the version reviewed here.
Gettysburg's retro move to squares aside, hexes were the wave of the future, to the point that board wargames are commonly referred to as hex-and-counter games. Squares have significantly more distortion than hexagon grids, so Gettysburg is unusual in that respect.
The game's counters are also unusual by being rectangles instead of the typical squares. Each unit has the usual combat strength "factor" and movement "factor," but also has a directional arrow showing the facing. Rectangular counters would be unusual for many years, although more wargames have used them recently.
Although a simple game, Gettysburg has some fairly involved facing rules for that era, with attacking units getting a bonus for attacking from the side or rear.
The game uses the classic 3-1 D-elim CRT seen in many other Avalon Hill games ( By my count at least 8 games used it).
As history the game isn't all that great. The lack of any sort of morale or command control rules (headquarters units have no game function) means that the opposing armies are far more active than their historical counterparts, so the game will be played to a decision in much less than the 49 available turns. That decision is an unusually brutal one for a wargame victory condition -- total elimination. No victory points. No geographical objectives. No morale targets. Nope, it's last man standing wins.
There was considerable debate back int he 60s over which side was favored to win. The Confederate player has the usual Gettysburg battle advantage of more powerful units, while the Union player has more units. Handled well (and with good luck), the CSA can defeat the Union troops in detail. A few missteps or bad die rolls and the Union numbers start to tell. I don't think a final answer was had before players moved on to more realistic wargames, including a couple dozen on Gettysburg itself.
There's very little reason to play the game today. Like most of the AH classics outside of the possible exception of Afrika Korps, Gettysburg is mostly of interest to collectors now.

Scott Horton on torture

Torture is a crime under the law, in the face of humankind and nations. We have, each of us, an obligation independent of the responsibilities of the state to insure the enforcement of this law; to denounce those who violate it; to reveal their acts of treachery and criminality and to insure their accountability and punishment. Torture is a crime greater than most because it corrupts the core of the state and our society. It is a rot which spreads quickly, destroying all the other values on which our life and interaction with others rests. Torture breeds secrecy; it breeds tyrannical expansion of the power of the executive; it imperils the institutions of the democratic state. We underestimate the threat it presents at great risk to ourselves, our communities of faith and our society.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Featured game: Acquire

Acquire is the signature game from the late noted game designer Sid Sackson. Like many classic designs, the premise is simple, the execution elegant, but the gameplay entrancing.
Essentially it's a game about accumulating money through holding stakes in growing and merging companies. Depending on the version the companies are styled "hotel" chains or hi-tech forms, but the business the companies are in isn't important because the game is really about the mergers. When it was first published in 1962 corporate mergers didn't have the high profile they do now in popular culture, but the idea is pretty familiar to folks now.
The key to winning is to be the majority or second-place stockholder in the merging companies, earning various cash or stock bonuses.
Aside from a limited production initial 3M edition the rules to Acquire have been very stable from the bookcase 3M edition through various Avalon Hill editions to the Hasbro/AH edition of 199, which is the most handsome version. One nice touch in the 199 edition is the renaming of one of the companies in the game after Sackson.
One interesting point of variation was a difference in the number of players accommodated by the rules. Multi-player games have to balance two contradictory forces. On the one hand, it's normally better to have more players because it makes the most use of interplayer interaction. On the other hand, with too many players there can be a lot of down time. This can be mitigated somewhat if there is a chance for player interaction during every person's turn, such as in Munchkin or Naval War. Still, having too many players will tend to bog things down.
The 1962 bookcase version seems to think that more is better. The game specifies that it is for 3-8 players. The "sweet spot" seems to max out at 6 however. To accommodate 7 or 8 players the game reduces the amount of money each player starts with. The game board for the 1962 version is only 9 by 12, so crowding 8 players around the board doesn't seem practical and even 5 or 6 is probably too much.
The 1999 AH/Hasbro version uses a much bigger board and specifies that the game is for 2-6 players. When there are just two players than the "market" becomes a kind of dummy player that can can end up being the majority stockholder on occasion.
I haven't had a chance to play Acquire at the extreme ends of the player numbers, so I am not sure how well the adjustments work, but it's interesting to see the problem addressed.

Are boardgames relics? Or the future?

In some ways, boardgaming as a hobby has never been better. There's an active community online. The quality of the games, both from the standpoint of physical presentation as well as game play, have never been better.
Yet the cheesiest, most poorly-done video game sells more copies in a few days than the best-selling boardgames do in their total runs.
Personally I find video and computer games less fulfilling to play than boardgames, but to be honest I have to concede that there are probably generational factors at work. I don't think computer games -- or computers period -- can ever be as central to my life as they will be to my children's lives.
But I also wonder at the long-term staying power of computer entertainment, at least in its explicit sense. The trend in other computer uses seems to be to embed the computer to enhance everyday objects and make them easier to use. Cars, for example, have computer chips running a lot of functions -- invisibly to the driver.
I wonder if, down the road, the same may be become true for boardgames. Will there be a market for combining the computing power of games with the quality components possible with a physical game. Heroclix, for example, is a clever way of creating a mechanical "computer" of sorts for game play. What might be possible with an embedded computer chip?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Featured game: Oh-Wah-Ree

It's quite likely that the mancala family of games are the oldest games of all. There are mancala game pits carved from stone that have been found in Africa that are estimated to be about 3,500 years old. This doesn't make them the oldest games found by archeology -- Senet and game boards from Ur are older -- but considering the nature of mancala there's good reason to suspect it's much older.

For one thing, the stone-cut pits are rather unusual. Someone went through a considerable amount of trouble 3,500 years ago to create a permanent game "board" by making those pits in stone. But mancala is normally played on wooden boards with carved out pits, and is also often simply played in the dirt, with holes scooped out of the ground. Neither of these play surfaces are durable, of course, and could have been used thousands of years ago without leaving any trace. (This is a good place to remember that archeology has unavoidable biases. We can only know about what circumstances allowed to be preserved. We know about "stone age" cultures largely because of their stone tools, but it's likely that most of their belongings were made of more perishable things like wood, skins and bone that aren't often preserved.)

Likewise, mancala is normally played with common items such as pebbles, seeds, sea shells or bits of grain instead of purpose-made game pieces such as Senat had. Again, these are less likely to be preserved, and even if preserved, probably wouldn't be recognized for what they were. After all, how does one know what a pile of pebbles was used for?

Mancala games are played throughout those parts of the world where people have lived the longest. While there are many variations, they all involve the very simple game mechanic of scooping up the pieces from a pit and "sowing' them in other pits to capture the contents of other pits. This mechanic is evocative of the tasks involved in ancient agriculture, and that, indeed may be its origin. We know from our own lives that play often mimics activities of real life.

Oh-Wah-Ree was an updating of the mancala game that was first published by 3M in 1962. Played under the standard rules, Oh-Wah-Ree is simply mancala played using a circular arrangement of pits instead of the traditional side-by-side rows. The primary innovation of Oh-Wah-Ree are rules for scaling the game to 3 or 4 players. This is so simply done, one has to wonder why traditional mancala is so solidly a two-player game. The name "Oh-Wah-Ree" is simply a phonetic spelling of "Awari," the name the game goes by in the West Indies and Guyana.

Mancala games, although of worldwide popularity, don't fare all that well among hobby gamers. As is common with traditional abstract games like backgammon, chess, go and morris, mancala seems to have limited appeal with adult hobby gamers, who prefer games with more explicit themes and clever game mechanics. Oh-Wah-Ree, like other traditional games, has very few rules and is easily taught and passed on generation to generation by an oral culture. Like those other games, however, simple rules does not mean the game is simplistic, and even a standard game can be challenging if played competitively.

Under the standard rules of Oh-Wah-Ree each player starts with the same number of stones in their pits. Each player in turn picks up the contents of one pit and sows them one-by-one in consecutive pits until they run out. If sowing a stone in the last pit causes that pit to have 2 or 3 stones on the opponent's side then the sowing player captures those stones and puts them aside. If the penultimate pit also has 2 or 3 stones then those are also captured, and so on until the series ends by having 4 or more, or 1 or none or reaches the sowing player's own territory.

The game ends when one player has no stones to play and the winner is the person with the most stones. It's not allowed to count the stones and the inability of people to tell at a glance the exact number of stones when there are 5 or more prevents the game from being a simple math exercise.

The sowing mechanic is a tactilely satisfying one, and the game is a good one for parents to play with children.

Oh-Wah-Ree has rules for some more complex variations based on more involved variants of mancala played in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, but the standard game is fine for casual play.

Oh-Wah-Ree also has rules for 'Grand" Oh-Wah-Ree, where players capture pits as well as stones for another variation.

Oh-Wah-Ree is long out of print, but not that hard to find on eBay. Traditional mancala games are available everywhere and are easily fabricated. If you're on the beach a few minutes gathering sea shells and scooping out pits in the sand is all you need to get started.

Mancala, like chess, checkers, go, backgammon dominoes and cards should be part of any household's basic gaming library.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Featured game: Milton Bradley's 1962 Broadside

In retrospect the 1960s was a sort of Golden Age for history-based games, especially wargames. It was pre-computer, pre-D&D, pre-Star Wars, pre-a lot of other things.
While the Avalon Hill Game Company found a market among adults for games like Gettysburg and D-Day, the way was also being primed by family game-maker Milton Bradley (pre-Hasbro) which published a line of "American Heritage" games in conjunction with that then-popular magazine. The games themselves were more war-themed games than actual wargames, but they each included a nifty little color illustrated historical booklet that may very well have inspired the designer's note often seen in wargames.
Among the American Heritage titles was Broadside, which is basically an abstract sea fighting game set loosely in the era of the War of 1812. It doesn't represent any particular fight, and the ships don't really behave like sailing warships do, but for young boys it looked rather neat, with red and blue plastic ships with detachable white sail-bearing masts.
The basic situation is a raid by the Red Fleet of 10 ships against a harbor defended by the Blue Fleet, also of 10 ships. The Blue Fleet is slightly weaker than the Red Fleet, but it's aided by some harbor defenses, comprised of four shore batteries and six floating mines (called buoys in the game for some reason). Two of the shore batteries never miss, two never hit -- their marksmanship is revealed by turning the plastic fort over and seeing if it has the word "hit" or "miss" on the bottom. Likewise, the buoys/mines are a 50/50 shot. If run over by a ship the mine is flipped and it either sinks the ship or lets it pass.
As a matter of fact, there is no luck involved in the game at all. Ship combat is similarly deterministic. If a ship moves into a position where its broadside can fire on an enemy ship in an adjacent spot, then it inflicts one hit and removes a mast. If the enemy ship's broadside can bear, it also returns fire, causing a hit on the attacker. Given this, the only way to damage an ship without being hit in return is to move into a firing position directly in front of or behind it so you can fire without taking a return shot. In the game this is called "crossing the T," although the more historically accurate term would be a "rake." Crossing the T was more commonly used after the age of sail and usually refers to fleets rather than individual ships. I assume someone at MB thought "crossing the T" would be an easier term to understand than "rake."
Every ship fires with the same power, so the only difference is the amount of damage they can take. A Ship-of-the-line has four masts and can therefore take four hits. A frigate has three masts/three hits. A brig has two masts/two hits while the lowly cutter has but a single mast and therefore is gone after one hit. A nasty little trick is to sail a cutter between two enemy ships. You get to fire each broadside, inflicting two hits while you can only take one yourself.
Ship movement is very abstract. Basically a ship can turn and move any number of open spaces in one move. The main obstacles to flying all over the board are some land masses, friendly and enemy ships, the mines and the forts.
The object of the game is for the Red Fleet to sink four immobile merchant ships docked in the harbor which each sink if fired upon. It is possible for the Red Team to win while losing all their ships so long as they sink the fourth merchant ship at the same time they take their last hit.

Overall Broadside is a mildly amusing abstract game with a sailing warship theme and a nice presentation. It's not really a wargame except in the most liberal possible reading of the term.
I have fond memories of playing it way back in the day, but recent replaying of the game reveals that there really isn't that good a game there by current standards, so I'd say it's mostly of interest these days as part of a collection.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Rebranding the GOP

Politico reports the Republicans are trying to rebrand their "scuffed" image but cant decide on a message, They really are sounding more like Democrats.

I'll admit the GOP has a problem. Right now their brand stands for supporting torture, protecting wealthy interests, expressing disdain for gays, blacks, immigrants (especially, but not only illegal ones) war, more war, executive branch excess and extreme secrecy. Oh yes, and a complete disregard for competent governance, so long as party loyalty is steadfast.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, its hard to rebrand yourself when the image of the old brand is so solidly based on actual facts. It's rather like a fast food franchise trying to rebrand itself as a five-star premium restaurant.

Featured Game: Avalon Hill's Civil War (1961)

Back in the dim mists of wargame time, way before ASL, computer games, block games, card-driven games, Commands & Colours or even James Dunnigan -- The Avalon Hill Game Company pioneered the very first modern board wargames.
Like any pioneering effort, there were false starts, mistakes and dead ends. Among those was Avalon Hill's 1961 title Civil War. Apparently timed to take advantage of the centennial of the American War Between The States, Avalon Hill's Civil War was one of two games published that year with that title and covering the entire war on a strategic scale. Neither was much of a simulation in the sense we'd understand it today, but at least the Milton Bradley one (later renamed Battle-cry) has cute little infantry, cavalry and cannon figures.
The Avalon Hill game, on the other hand, was a peculiar hybrid of the very simple family game(red and blue generic plastic pawns for units, a page of rules) and the real wargame (hexagons, classic D-Elim combat result table). It was a slight advance over Charles Roberts' Tactics wargame in that it dealt with an actual historical situation, but it was almost as abstract as the purely fictionalized game. It was the later Gettysburg game that really launched the historical board wargame hobby by depicting a historical battle with an authentic order of battle and map.
Civil War was evidently intended to be an introductory game, being priced at $2.95 instead of the standard $4.95 of other titles in the AH catalog at the time.
It wasn't a success, however, and was soon dropped from the line.
While the game map is a reasonably accurate one, the coarseness of the OB prevents the game from developing in interesting ways. Each army has a number of pawns (of the type seen in any number of 60s-era games) that are each worth "1" in battle. There's a considerable amount of terrain that doubles defense (rivers, mountains, ports) so it's hard to achieve a 3-1. This results in a lot of risky 1-1 and 2-1 attacks. The lack of any kind of zone of control rule means that retreats aren't as deadly as they would be in later games like Afrika Korps, further reducing the utility of 1-1 and 2-1 attacks in the classic CRT.
The game often departs from history. The victory conditions and initial parity between the Union and Rebel forces encourages the CSA to attempt a quick victory by seizing two of the four federal replacement areas. Some early luck can mean a CSA win in the first few months against and unwary Union player.
If that initial Confederate offensive fails, the Union player has the edge over the long haul, with a 3-2 edge in bi-monthly replacements and a maximum army strength of 15 units compared to 9 for the Rebels. The lack of zones of control, the large frontages and small number of pieces will generally mean that a patient Union player can capture the three CSA replacement centers needed to win in plenty of time. So long as the Federal player remembers that maneuver is more useful than combat, he should be able to prevail.
From a modern player's perspective, there's little to recommend Civil War. It's primarily of interest as part of a collection for game historians.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The legacy of torture and abuse

As recently as the 1991 Gulf War, enemy soldiers were so eager to surrender to U.S. forces, who had an unparralled reputation for adherence to the Geneva Conventions, that they tried to give up to unmanned drones and journalists in jeeps. This saved untold lives on both sides.
One has to wonder if the same thing will happen the next time around.
Bush 41 must wonder what 43 hath wrought:

Friday, November 2, 2007

Early presidential preferences

There's a long way to go, of course, but it's worth making some preliminary comments about next year's election, now that we are 12 months out.
I spent the first 34 years of my political existence as a registered Republican, which shows a certain contrariness considering that I lived almost all that time in Massachusetts. It can be pretty lonely being a Massachusetts Republican! A few weeks ago I changed my registration to "unenrolled." I did this out of an abundance of disgust over Bushism, most profoundly on the subject of torture, but with strong contributions from the botched Iraq war, reckless spending and general incompetence.
So, looking at the GOP field first, I have to say I'm pretty disappointed. Ron Paul is interesting. I have libertarian sympathies, but I think the extreme libertarian positions he stakes out are impractical and Utopian, unsuited to the real world. On the other hand, he has principles and wants to get us out of Iraq immediately, which makes him the only anti-war GOP candidate. I think it goes without saying that libertarians are unlikely to be torture supporters.
I think I would find either McCain or Thompson acceptable presidents, although I'm disappointed McCain hasn't done more to distance himself from the Bush excesses. At least neither of them seems hell-bent on either torture or excessive executive branch power.
I would have been favorable disposed to the Mitt Romney that was governor of Massachusetts, but unfortunately that Mitt Romney isn't running. The one running is a completely unprincipled, pandering pretty boy in a suit that will say anything to anybody to win some votes. No thanks.
Giuliani is the closest thing to Bush II that's running, and obviously unacceptable. If there's anything worse than a Bush, it would be a Bush who was competent in his exercise of unrestrained executive power.
None of the other Republicans have a shot nor deserve one.
On the Democratic side, I can't say that I'd be happy to see Hillary elected. Oh, she's competent enough, and calculating enough to avoid screwing things up too much. On the other hand, it means another 4-8 years of bitter partisan warfare and no real progress on the issues facing the country. And she'll stay in Iraq.
Chris Dodd gets points for his principled stands against torture and executive excess, but he doesn't seem viable to win the whole thing.
I don't agree with Obama on many policy matters, but he seems to be man of character who would be a prudent president. And unlike nearly anyone else, he seems to have the potential to transcend the divisions crippling our political discourse.
Edwards also seems like he'd be a decent president and I'd probably pick him over most of the GOP field, but he's no sure thing.
The rest of the Democratic field is, like the second tier of Republicans, not worth spending much time on.

My favorite president

My favorite president has long been TR. Unlike Bush, who is a weak man who talks strong, TR was a strong man of character who understood that actions are what counts. Unsurprisingly, he made the principled call on torture, as Politico shows:

Friday, October 26, 2007

Go Sox

Congratulations to Curt Schilling. Most know him as a future Hall of Fame pitcher, but those in the gaming community also know him as the owner of the game company Multi-man Publishing and an avid fan of Advanced Squad Leader. Tonight's TV sports pundits were remarking on Schilling's strategic approach to pitching, which is no surprise to us wargamers. Go Sox!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Senate Democrats Ask Mukasey To 'Clarify" Waterboarding Testimony

AG-nominee asked to make views perfectly clear.

I still find it absolutely astounding that this is even a topic of discussion. When did we shift into a parallel universe where the USA practices torture?
It's like we're living in an alternative universe like that Star Trek episode where Kirk, McCoy and Uhura ended up in that alternate universe (the one with Spcok with a beard) where the Federation was the evil empire instead of the Klingons.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Game of the Week: Baseball Strategy

With the Red Sox forcing a Game 7 in the ALCS and the World Series ahead, it seems an appropriate time to look at the classic Avalon Hill game Baseball Strategy.
Like Football Strategy, Baseball Strategy was an original design by Tom Shaw that actually predated its Avalon Hill edition. Also like Football Strategy Baseball Strategy uses a matrix to resolve the duel between players, in this case the duel between the pitcher and the batter, which makes up the heart of baseball.
The dueling aspect makes it a pretty enjoyable game, although like Football Strategy this emphasis on one particular aspect of a very complex game reduces the "simulation" value of Baseball Strategy. In the basic game both teams field identical rosters and it's up to the managers to make the difference. There's an option in the advanced version of the game to use the statistics of actual players and I have a set of cards for the 1969 World Series matchup between the Orioles and the Mets from an issue of AH's old All-Star Replay sports game magazine, but the game is not primarily a statistical baseball game. Even when using actual players the game results will turn much more on the manager's calls than player stats.
This game never achieved the popularity of its football sister game, and I'm not sure why. In those days America was much more of a baseball country than a football country, so I don't think it was the relative popularity of the respective sports. It may simply be that Football Strategy was a more direct head-to-head duel that would appeal to non-sports fans more than Baseball Strategy did. The baseball game was definitely a more intricate reflection of its game, and maybe that meant it needed that fan base to really appreciate it.
Be that as it may, Baseball Strategy succeeds as a game depicting its chosen subject very well. It helps make clear why managers make the kinds of decisions they do, although the game really does this best when played as part of a series and not a single game.
The heart of the game is the duel between pitcher and batter. The pitcher selects a lettered pitch card and the batter then selects a numbered swing. The two are cross-referenced on a matrix which provides a number. That number is then checked against another chart which varies based on the fielding quality of the defending team. Many results also need a die roll or two to find the final outcome, so chance plays a bigger role in Baseball Strategy than Football Strategy.
Unlike real life, when pitchers get three strikes, in Baseball Strategy most matchups comprise a single pitch and swing, so the duel really represents the entire "at bat" not just one pitch.
Base-running, scoring and other aspects of the game follow regular baseball rules and the game is short on abstractions.
Unlike Football Strategy, which suffers somewhat because of the evolving style of play in the real NFL that makes the boardgame less like typical games than it used to be, Baseball Strategy still does a good job of reflecting its more conservative sport.
Like the sport it's based on, Baseball Strategy has a cerebral and slow-paced play that may not appeal as much to current tastes as other games, which is too bad, because it is a good game.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Profile in political courage

Sen. Chris Dodd shows he's willing to take a stand for the Constitution:
We'll see how he fares when the administration's long knives come out tomorrow. Avoiding any accountability for their illegal actions is Priority No. 1 for the Bushies.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Game of the Week: Football Strategy

A true gaming classic, Football Strategy has been around for almost half a century now. It was one of my neighborhood gaming group's staples back when I was a teen and has never disappeared entirely from the table in the years since.
On the other hand the game, unlike the actual NFL version, hasn't really evolved over time, so it doesn't bear as close a resemblance to the current pro game as it used to. The 1980s addition of the "Aerial" and "Ball Control" charts merely fiddled with the edges.
For those who don't know the game, the essential game mechanic is this: The Defensive player secretly selects one of 10 defense cards labeled A through J. The Offensive player then selects one of 20 offensive plays numbered 1 through 20 listed on a chart and announces it. The Defense reveals its card and the two are cross-referenced on the chart to determine the result.
For example, on a 1st Down and 10 on the Offense 40 yard line the Defense player picks "E" (a 4-3 defense). The Offense announces "4" a Slant. Cross-referencing we find that the result is a gain of 4 yards. Continuing our example, the Offense, now on the 44 yard line, calls a pass play, "14" a pop pass. The Defense reveals card "I" which the cross-referenced result shows to be an incomplete pass. And so on.
The main conceit of Football Strategy is that it is a game of pure strategy revolving around play-calling. As such, it isn't really a simulation in the same way as a wargame might be, despite the fact it was published by the well-know wargame company Avalon Hill. The game takes the approach that play-calling is the central strategic decision in football, all things being equal. There's no Tom Brady throwing the ball, nor any T.O. catching it. All player talent and most luck is stripped out of the game.
Of course, in real life all things are never equal, so the Statis-Pro style football games using actual game statistics were better simulations than Football Strategy. On the other hand, Football Strategy was in many ways more satisfying to play because the player had control over his fate. Aside from some luck in the kicking game and the long gain table there wasn't any chance in the game, and better play-calling would prevail, especially in league play.
Wargames are set in situations that are always (and deliberately) unfair, so game designers usually need to attempt to balance the players' chances of winning to a certain degree, often by redefining game victory away from its military counterpart. Its not uncommon for a player to win a "game victory" in a wargame that would still have been an actual military defeat. Few Battle of the Bulge games, for example, require German players to actually win anything like a true military victory in order to claim a game win. Usually just doing better than the historical result is enough.
Sports games, on the other hand, are set in situations that are always "fair." So differences between teams can make playing a statistically based game frustrating for players. Unless one resorts to creating a gambling-style "spread" to play against, its hard to balance it. Hence the attraction of Football Strategy. Its not a simulation because both teams have an exactly equal talent pool and precisely even chances of winning. The end result is completely up to the players, except for a small chance element.
Taken on those terms, Football Strategy, as a sports-themed game of wits, is a timeless classic.