Sunday, May 27, 2007

Daughter getting ready to go to Japan

My daughter is about to leave for Japan for a Month. Here's wishing her love and Godspeed and a safe journey.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Golden age for tabletop troops

When I first started in the hobby wargaming meant playing with cardboard chits ("counters") on a hex-based map. If you wanted to use toy soldiers there were always lead-based miniatures, although they were usually fairly large scale and games tended to be played on the floor using rulers for measuring. Many used 54mm figures, or maybe 25mm. The most popular scale for ships was 1:1200. Being a miniatures gamer meant many hours of painting.
Over the years miniatures got smaller and tended to move onto tabletops (which helped as we got older) but recently the advent of inexpensive overseas labor has resulted in the age of the pre-painted miniature.
Most of these are used in ways that are more like board wargames than traditional ruler-based miniatures games. Some prominent examples include Axis & Allies Miniatures; Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures; Star Wars miniatures, HeroClix, Heroscape, Lord of the Rings Tradeable Miniatures Game; Wings of War, Battlefield Evolution and (soon) World Tank Museum.
At the same time there's also been an explosion of regular boardgames using "bits," such as BattleLore; Memoir'44; Nexus Ops; Tide of Iron, War of the Ring, etc.
My very first Milton Bradley "wargames" also had nice bits, back in the day, such as Broadside, Battle-cry, Dogfight and Hit The Beach, so we've almost come full circle. Still, the variety and quality of today's offerings have no precedents. It's a golden age for playing with toy soldiers.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Protests planned during Bush visit to Coast Guard Academy

One of the local papers reports that the Secret Service wants to move antiwar protesters from the street in front of the Coast Guard Academy during President Bush's visit Wednesday.
According to the report the protest organizers had already gotten permits for their demonstration and now the Secret Service wants to move them to some side street.
Obviously security is a concern during the president's visit, so some reasonable restrictions on protesters is justified. On the other hand, in many prior instances the administration has used the "security" reason to impose extreme restrictions on people's right to express themselves. Obviously the Secret Service has a duty to make sure no physical harm can come to the president and that there's no opportunity for someone with a gun or a bomb to get within range.
But a banner that says "Impeach Bush" is no physical threat and I don't see how there's any rational justification for removing it if it's otherwise allowable. Likewise, peaceful protesters should not be banished to some site a mile away just so the president's out of earshot.
None of the successful or unsuccessful attempts on the life of a president so far has come from a group of protesters. Logically this makes sense. If you're an assassin or terrorist you're not going to set up in the middle of a crowd of protesters. No, you're going to strike during a neutral or supportive venue in order to achieve surprise. You'd probably make the president safer by allowing protesters nearby!

Game of the Week: Senet

It's impossible to know when the first boardgame came to be, but the most ancient one we have evidence for is the game known now as Senet. According to R.C. Bell in the Boardgame Book, the earliest record of Senet is from a wall painting dated about 2613 BC. Ancient writers rarely seemed to bother with the mundane aspects of life, so it's hardly surprising that we don't have any written references that might describe how to play. What has survived are some paintings (always in profile, by Egyptian artistic conventions) and about 40 or so copies of the game in various tombs (in various degrees of completeness).
This means we can't be sure about how to play, but some educated guesses can and have been made and you can buy commercially made copies of the game. I have a 1998 version by Fundex Games and a nearly identical 1976 edition by Northwest Corner Inc.
Suggested rules also appear in the Boardgame Book and in The Word of Games among other places.
Everyone seems to agree that play moved back and forth down the 30 spaces rather like a game of Snakes & Ladders. Most believe play started in the upper left corner and moved to the lower right. All also seem to agree that it's in the backgammon family of games, and indeed, it may be the original founding game of the type. Each player had an equal number of identical pieces (either 5 or 7) and the "dice" were four throwing sticks that were flat on one side and rounded on the other.
The board comprised 30 spaces in three rows of 10 each. 24 of the spaces were plain or decorated with art that had no game effect. If we start the numbering system at the upper left, the first special space is No. 15. This seems to be a "starting" space of some kind, according to most authorities, although probably not the game start. Instead it seems to be a restarting space for pieces that are sent back from the "water trap" in space 27, which I'll discuss later on.
The next space of note is No. 26, which apparently usually had a symbol implying it was a "good" space. Space No. 27 is the "water trap" which is a "bad" space. Most authorities believe that pieces that landed there were sent back to Space 15. Finally, spaces 28, 29 and 30 are marked III, II and I, respectively. Most believe these were "bearing off" spaces.
Apparently these markings were remarkably stable for the several thousand years that the game was played.
Here's the general board layout, taken from a leaflet by Damian Walker:
We can't know what the "right" rules were, of course. And it's likely that over the course of several thousand years the rules changed a bit over time and from place to place. The rules were transmitted orally, so local variations and customs no doubt occurred. One only has to consider how many different ways there are to play checkers (draughts) and dominoes to see that the same set of game equipment can result in a lot of variation, even if the basic idea stays the same.
All that said, I think experienced game players can make some reasonable judgments about what's likely to have been the rules. I'm not sure that many of the Egyptologists have also been game players and some of their suggested rules don't seem to make sense to me.
For example, R.C. Bell's suggested rules have the players starting off the board and trying to marshal all their pieces into position on the board. I think this is highly doubtful. Other games in the class such as Backgammon, Ludos Duodecim Scriptorum and Snakes & Ladders bear off, not on. I think this is a fundamental aspect of play and probably has always been so. It's also much simpler in execution than the alternative. Finally, the pictorial evidence seems to show that pieces started on the board, as this illustration from the World Of Games suggests:
Some sources, such as the Fundex rules, suggest that the marked spaces are simply "safe" spaces" without any further game effect. Authorities seem pretty sure that pieces that landed on an opposing piece sent the target back to where the aggressor came from. There also seems broad agreement that a pair of adjacent friendly pieces protected each other from being bumped and a row of three friendly pieces created a block that could not be passed by the opponent.
But it seems to me that game board markings, especially those that remain stable over many centuries, certainly must have some effect on play. The III, II and I markings (and their variants, which always show three, then two and finally one thing) most likely mean that the pieces needed that exact throw to bear off. I think they were also "safe" spaces, but not just safe spaces)
The water trap's effect of sending pieces back to space 15 works well, adding a bit of fate and drama to the game , especially near the end. I'm not sure about the "good" space at No. 26. Walker's rules that it's a mandatory "stop" space that all pieces have to pause in before going further. This doesn't seem much like a "good" effect to me and just slows down a game that's not exactly torrid in its pace anyway. The Fundex rules merely treat it as another "safe" space, which doesn't seem like all that much, but it's still at least somewhat positive.
Everyone agrees that a toss of the sticks that shows 1 flat face up allows one piece to move one space and another throw. Throws that show 2 or 3 flats allow one piece to move that number of spaces and pass the sticks to the opponent. Four flats up allows a move of four spaces and another throw.
There's some difference of opinion about no flats (or four round sides up). Walker and Bell suggest it's a "five" while the Fundex rules and the Jequier rules in World of Games say it's a "six." Either way it also allows another throw. I think "six" is preferable because it adds a little more speed to the game. In cases when there is no legal forward move, then the value from the casting sticks has to be used for a retrograde move instead.

The starting setup is thus with 14 pieces (from Walker):
If using only10 pieces, such as in the Fundex set, just set up the pieces in the first row.

Game play is more interesting than it might first appear from a game with such simple rules. There's considerable scope for tactical play as the two armies claw past each other trying to exit. Forming and maintaining blocks is a big part of the game, although the water trap and the difficulty of bearing off quickly mean that it's hard for one side to run off with the game. The Fundex 1998 rules do have an option for scoring extra points in a series of games if the opponent still has pieces in the first or second rows at game end (similar to gammoning in backgammon).
The element of fate in the game appealed to Egyptian cultural sensitivities and the game eventually became associated with religious themes, although it always was played as a secular past time as well.
Modern players may find the game a little too slowly paced and repetitive and some people may not like the casting sticks. They are a little louder and more harsh in the hands than what we moderns are used to. The Fundex edition includes a modern 6-sided die for players who don't mind the anachronism.
The game can be played online in a demo version suitable for teaching at

R.C. Bell, The Boardgame Book1979 Knapp Press
Fundex Senet Rules, 1998
Northwest Corner Senet Rules 1976
Peter A. Piccione, In Search of the Meaning of Senet, University of Waterloo, 1980
Damian Walker, Senet, Traditional Board Games Series Leaflet #4
Jack Botermans et al, The World of Games, Facts On File, 1989

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pitt, thy comment

“Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” -- William Pitt, House of Commons, 11/18/1783.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Coral Sea, Chancellorsville and The Wilderness

One of my wargaming affectations is to try playing battles on or near their anniversary dates. Early May sees a few significant battle anniversaries.
One of the most significant is the Battle of the Coral Sea, fought 65 years ago in 1942. It usually rates a mention in general histories because it was the first naval battle where the opposing fleets never closed within visual range of each other. While this is a catchy headline, it's true significance rests in the fact that it took two of the Imperial Japanese Navy's fleet carriers out of action just before the Battle of Midway. While neither the Zuikaku nor the Shokaku were sunk, one was damaged and the other's air wing was battered enough that both ships were unavailable in June. It's hard to see how the USN could have prevailed against all six of the IJN fleet carriers, even with the Lexington added to the US force.
I've got quite a few games on the Coral Sea (Midway/Coral Sea variant; Smithsonian Guadalcanal/Coral Sea variant; Shipbase III; SOPAC and Carrier) but it doesn't look like I'll have a chance for an anniversary game unless I can get in a session of Carrier, which is solitaire).
I'm having better luck with the Civil War battles because of Hexwar. I'm wrapping up a batch of Mayre's Heights games (from the Battle of Chancellorsville) and close to finishing The Battle of the Wilderness, too.
Mayre's Heights was the fight that took place on the old Fredericksburg battlefield in 1862 at the same time as the main engagement at Chancellorsville. It's one of the old SPI Blue & Grey series games. It's really wild and wide-open and it looks like I'll be either splitting the matches or ending with a slight losing record. I'm having much better luck with the Wilderness (1864) matches (another Blue & Grey) and I think I'll end up having won more than I lost from that set.

Fried Green Things

My second-grader very badly wanted to play something before going to bed and suggested a game of The Awful Green Things From Outer Space (Steve Jackson Games). This is a classic and well-known game among gamer geeks, but for those who haven't heard of it it's basically kind of like the first Alien move, except humorously done. A spaceship is invaded by alien green "things" that eat the crew, grow and try to takeover the ship. The brave crew of the Znutar uses whatever weapons and tools are at hand (such as stun guns, knives, blow torches or cans of "Zgwortz") to try to beat back the menace. Oh yeah, the crew are the nonhuman denizens of five planets "somewhere out there."
The crew never knows the effect of a weapon until they try it on a green thing. With luck it may kill or stun the creature, but it might make them grow or even blast them into living fragments (which can then grow into new creatures).
The Green Things are easier to play, because all they do is move and attack, so I let him play the Green Things while I took the crew.
The objective of sending him off to bed in a reasonable time was helped along by some good luck with the weapon effects. Well, actually, it started off with some pretty bad luck at first. Three of the first weapons I used caused fragments and one had no effect. Even the ones that could hurt the aliens weren't very powerful. Just as it appeared the crew might be overwhelmed, though, they discovered that exploding rocket fuel would do the trick. The Green Things had incautiously massed in the ship's passageways, so a few blasts of rocket fuel decimated the Green Horde. The few stragglers were soon picked off.
Still, half the crew ended up being meals for the Green Things, so it was a near-run thing. Lost were the Comm and Engineer officers, the other engineer, one marine, the medic, both pilots, Sarge and Sparks and the techie.
Bunching up makes the Green Things pretty scary, but it does create a vulnerability to area effect weapons like the rocket fuel or gas grenades.

On a lighter note

Among the many pleasures of having my collegiate son visiting this weekend was to enjoy the company of a like-minded gamer. We had some fun with an evening of nonstop card-playing of a decidedly unserious kind. Rounding out our table was my second-grader stepson.
Fortunately for the old man's ego, I had given my little speech about "how much I enjoyed playing, without worrying about winning." There was at least some plausible doubt that maybe I wasn't trying too hard ... right.
We started off playing Fluxx, which my son described as a card-game version of "Calvin Ball." Fans of the old Calvin & Hobbes know that the only rule of Calvin Ball was that the rules were always changing. Fluxx is much the same. The game starts with just two rules: Draw 1 card and Play 1 card. But new cards can add new rules. Other cards allow actions (such as draw three cards). Some other cards are "keepers" (such as "war" or "cookies." And a fourth type of card provides the goal of the game (such as whoever has the goal "milk" and "cookies" on the table wins.) Supposedly there are 23 ways to win.
It's a game of extreme chaos and we had a ball. My son demonstrated exceptional luck/skill by winning three games, while the second-grader took one. Dad was a win less wonder.
Well-primed by Fluxx, we then moved on to various Munchkin-series games and even dear old Dad managed to win once. Actually everybody won once, as we played Munchkin Impossible, Munchkin Cthulhu and Munchkin Bites once each. Good stuff!