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?