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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More "phony soldiers" speak

A dozen captains who served in Iraq in 2003-2005 give their opinion:

The expert view on torture

Another good link for those wanting to see what the experts say about the usefulness of torture:

You know, even the most outlying point of view can usually find some backers. Even the creationists can trot out a handful of scientists who doubt evolution. So where are the experts (by this I mean professionally trained interrogators) who will maintain that torture works?

So far the folks supporting torture tend to be pundits (most of whom have never served in any military) sitting in their comfortable offices saying that a little sleep deprivation, forced standing or waterboarding never hurt anybody. After all, if you can pull an all-nighter, why would 50 days without sleep be a problem? Rumsfeld stood on his feet for a whole day sometimes at work, so what's the big deal being forced to stand for weeks? And jeesh, people go swimming in whole oceans all the time, so how bad can a bucket of water be?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Game of the Week: Military Chess

After about half a century of board wargaming, it's easy to forget how ground-breaking Charles Roberts was with his Tactics wargame. His innovative design broke through the chess-like mindset that hamstrung wargame designers up to that point.

Military Chess (1959) a contemporary of Roberts' Tactics design, shows the limits that kept chess-like games from evolving into real wargames as we understand them today. Set on the familiar 64-square battlefield and using abstract capabilities similar to chess, the game isn't much of a military simulation, despite the hype on the box.
It isn't really even a true chess variant, as no piece in the game has the chess knight move, which, being unique to chess, is considered its signature move.

The game board is an 8x8 grid of squares, with an alternating pattern of lighter and darker spaces overlaying a military-style contour map with various military symbols here and there. None of that affects play and is purely decorative. Even the light and dark squares don't serve any game purpose, as there is no diagonal movement or bishop's move in the game.

The two sides are separated by a river that divides the board in two, crossed at four spots by bridges. This gives the game a slight resemblance to Chinese Chess, which also has a water obstacle. Each side also has two minefields with divide its own sector into two parts. The mines obstruct two square boundaries, leaving a couple of passes.

There are 12 plastic pieces on each side showing military figures in the "flats" format that was formerly pretty popular for toy soldiers.
Deployed on the second row, in line with the bridges are four "advance guards" (pawns). These pieces have more movement capability than chess pawns, being allowed to move and capture up to two squares distant forward or sideways, but never to the rear. Like pawns they can be promoted if they make it the 8th row.
Deployed on the first row are more powerful pieces. On each flank (in the chess rook position) are "cannons." These are slow-moving but powerful pieces. They can move just a single space forward, sideways or backwards, but can "fire" up to three spaces distant to eliminate an enemy piece. The only restriction is that they have to be aimed in the proper direction, which takes a move and therefore may give the endangered piece a chance to escape. Alone among the pieces in the game, cannons are allowed to point and fire diagonally, otherwise there is no diagonal movement or capture in the game.
Next to each cannon (in the chess knight position) are "infantrymen." These are fairly weak pieces, with the same 2-square move as the advanced guards, except the infantrymen can also move backwards.
In the middle four squares are the "general" (king) "tank" (rook), "engineer" and "recon."
The engineer (also called a bazooka-man in the rules) and recon (depicted by a jeep) move exactly the same, up to three squares forwards, backwards to the side. This makes them somewhat more powerful than most other pieces, but still much less dynamic than chess bishops or knights. The tank moves like the chess rook, making it the most powerful piece in this game, which lacks a queen-equivalent. The general moves one space like the cannon. The game is won by capturing the enemy general OR advancing your general to row 8.

Overall, the game play is slower than chess, with only one piece per side (the tank) able to traverse the whole board in a single move, compared to five in chess (queen, 2 rooks, 2 bishops). In that way is resembles Chinese Chess a little. Overall it's harder for pieces to support one another, so there's less scope for intricate combinations like chess.

Apparently, despite its patent, the 1959 game is based on an 1880s-era game with the same name and similar pieces. Judging from a photograph of the older game there were fewer pieces, just infantry (6) cavalry (4) and cannons (2). Without a general there must also have been some significant rules differences as well.

All-in-all, there's not much to recommend Military Chess as a game. It's not anymore of a military simulation than regular chess and not as interesting as the parent game. It is of some interest as a collectible.


In order to make the game a true chess variant, it needs a piece with a knight's move. Fortunately a suitable piece is at hand. Give the Jeep (recon) the option of changing direction once during its move (which is otherwise prohibited in the game). This gives it the functional equivalent of a knight's move.

The game as published has no difference between the recon (jeep) and engineer (bazooka-man), which is a missed opportunity. Besides giving the jeep the knight's move, as a further variant give the engineer some special movement powers as well by allowing it to cross minefields or rivers so long as it starts its move adjacent to the obstacle. This gives the piece some engineer-like powers while opening the game up a little more.

With these two variant rules these two pieces gain powers making them more like true chess major pieces instead of slightly souped-up pawns.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

And this guy is the nut?

Ron Paul at the GOP debate:

CM: Congressman Paul, I think you have questions and concerns about the bonanza in the hedge fund industry. Do you?
Mr. Paul: Yes. I think this is not a consequence of free markets. What's happening is, there's transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy.
Mr. Paul: This comes about because of the monetary system that we have. When you inflate a currency or destroy a currency, the middle class gets wiped out.So the people who get to use the money first which is created by the Federal Reserve system benefit. So the money gravitates to the banks and to Wall Street.
That's why you have more billionaires than ever before. Today, this country is in the middle of a recession for a lot of people. Michigan knows about it. Poor people know about it. The middle class knows about it. Wall Street doesn't know about it. Washington, D.C., doesn't know about it.
But it's because of the monetary system and the excessive spending. As long as we live beyond our means we are destined to live beneath our means.
And we have lived beyond our means because we are financing a foreign policy that is so extravagant and beyond what we can control, as well as the spending here at home.And we're depending on the creation of money out of thin air, which is nothing more than debasement of the currency. It's counterfeit. And it is a natural, predictable consequence that you're going to have people benefit from it and other people suffer.
Mr. Paul: So, if you want a healthy economy, you have to study monetary theory and figure out why it is that we're suffering. And everybody doesn't suffer equally, or this wouldn't be so bad.It's always the poor people -- those who are on retired incomes -- that suffer the most. But the politicians and those who get to use the money first, like the military industrial complex, they make a lot of money and they benefit from it.

Mr. Matthews: Thank you, Congressman.(APPLAUSE)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

You don't say

White House press briefing on Burma:

Q And the protests, themselves, seem to have been stilled. What do you make of that?
MS. PERINO: Well, unfortunately, intimidation and force can chill peaceful demonstrations. And reports about very innocent people being thrown into detention, where they could be held for years without any representation or charges, is distressing; and we understand that some of the monasteries have been sealed. Now, obviously, this has, again, a chilling effect on protestors, but we would ask that everyone show restraint and allow those who want to express themselves to be able to do so in Burma.

Imagine that. Detaining people for years without representation or charges. How distressing.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Game of the Week: Scrabble

Scrabble is an odd game, because it's not really a gamer's game. While there is some strategic game play involved, its fairly straightforward and obvious. On the other hand, it definitely requires a good vocabulary -- or at least a good vocabulary of certain kinds of words.
On the other hand, there are many Scrabble players who don't play any other game. It ranks among those few games (such as Chess, Go, Backgammon, Diplomacy) that have their own devoted following with clubs, tournaments, magazines, etc. Like those other games, being a top-flight Scrabble player requires the kind of single-minded study and devotion that the casual gamer is not going to muster.
That said, it is a fun game among casual players and a great way to pass some time so long as everyone is more or less on the same level.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Truth doesn't matter

That appears to be the reality of American politcal discourse today.
Relevant quote from Andrew Sullivan, talking about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas/Bill Clinton-Paula Jones stories:

I remember the hearings vividly. I was much more comfortable within the conservative world back then. I still thought it was obvious that Hill was telling the truth. In sexual harassment suits, I tend to believe the women. And I couldn't see Hill's motive for putting herself through all that for no reason. I also believed Paula Jones, of course, and most of the other victims of Bill Clinton's petty, ugly abuses of power. But the Clinton sexual harassment wars merely confirm Somin's argument, don't they? All the conservatives believed the women in Clinton's case. And almost all the liberals - and the feminists - trashed the abused women. In the cycle America has been in since the sixties, the truth is barely relevant.

Emphasis mine.
What seems to be missing today is any sense that standards should apply to both sides. It's simply not a principle unless you hold your own people to it, folks. Right now neither left, nor right, GOP nor Dem shows any true principles at all.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Game of the Week: Stratego

The book Spin Again describes how the 1960s was the heyday for TV advertising of boardgames. I remember seeing quite a few, in particular I remember Stratego being advertised. The commercial touted the fun of "Stra Teeee Go!"
This is a different commercial that I don't remember seeing, but seems to be from about the same time:
And it was, and still is, fun.
Like many older games the pace is a little slow by current standards. Most pieces move a single space at a time and player alternate moving a single piece at a time. This isn't much of a problem in games with a few pieces such as chess or checkers, but Stratego starts with 40 on a side, so there's a few slow spots.
On the other hand, having the pieces stand upright so you can hide the value and identity of each unit adds to the excitement and adds some bluff as well as strategy to the game. It's the forerunner to concepts more fully developed in the block wargames that are popular now.
The game was my introduction to military ranks as a child, and I was fascinated by the sergeants, lieutenants, captains, etc. I made it to real-life major, myself, but I had a chance to be a colonel, general or marshal often enough on the game board.
The game is still a good introduction to strategy games. The concept is simple enough that a grade schooler can grasp it, but has a enough subtlety in play that it will wear well over time.
I lost my original game long ago, as kids will, but Target has a nice edition in a wooden box that includes plastic pieces that are exactly the same as the ones I used as a kid. Unlike the European and newer U.S. editions, which rank the marshal at 10 and go down, this edition preserves the classic ranks of 1 for a marshal, 2 for the general, etc.
In practice there's no difference in play and I haven't found that anyone has trouble remembering that No. 1 beats No. 2, so I like the old way better, but that's probably just creeping old-fartism at work. I'll admit that having high beat low is more in keeping with gaming conventions.
Whether high or low, it's still a lot of fun either way.