Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Harpoon Naval Review 2009

There's a lot of worthwhile material in this 2009 edition of the Harpoon Naval Review.

The lead article is a 16-page comprehensive accounting of the Spanish Navy as of mid-2008, something you won't find a lot of information about anywhere else. Given its very long naval tradition, it's nice to see that the Spanish Navy is enjoying something of a resurgence. The article ends with a small-scale scenario depicting a potential conflict between Spain and a Jihadist Morocco. Like many more recent Harpoon scenarios this is suitable for play between two players or a small group, useful given how hard it can be to gather a large group these days.

The second piece looks at a possible fighting between Venezuela and Columbia back in 1987 with two scenarios, again suitable for two or three players.

Venezuela is featured again in the third article, where a Venezuelan sub duels with US Navy forces in another small-scale engagement.

The fourth article is a scenario based on Larry Bond's book Cauldron and pits US forces against "EurCom" (mostly French/German) in a series of engagements in the Baltic and Atlantic. Most of these are bets for a team.

The fifth piece is, perhaps, the most ambitious to actually try to play, as it examines massive air attacks against a US carrier battle group at various times from the 60s right through 2010. In each case the CVBG is based around the USS Enterprise with the escorts and air groups changing through time as well as the attacking Soviet (later Chinese) bomber force. Very interesting but definitely needing several players to pull off.

The sixth article is very topical, as Western naval forces try to run ships past Somali pirates in a small scenario.

The last article is a Sub vs. Convoy scenario generator.

The balance of the book is made of of ship forms and aircraft forms for most of the ships and planes involved in all the scenarios except the convoy generator. Everything is brought up to Harpoon 4 standards.

A good buy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Geek alert!

It's not quite as stark of a contrast as this ....

But I wonder if the updated look for The Enterprise in the new Star Trek might be retconning things a little too much. Undoubtedly it will depend on how good a story the movie tells.
The fact is that the number of old gezzers like me who remember the old series is dwindling. The original series, which used to be a staple of syndicated TV, hasn't seen much air time lately. The advent of CGI has made cool special effects much cheaper to achieve and even some fairly low-budget Sci Fi channel (or is it SyFy now? ech) original series routinle use effects that leave Star Trek looking too cheesy. Lucas was smart to update the Star Wars originals, I think, for that reason.

Harpoon Naval Review 2009

Got the 2009 Harpoon Naval Review today in the mail.

It's filled with a lot of good stuff, including an 11-page article on the current Spanish Navy, scenarios involving fighting between Venezuela and Columbia, an attack on a US Carrier battle group and even one on Somali pirates! Quite topical.

Unfortunately I don't have any local naval miniatures opponents at the moment, so I'm not sure when I'll get to try out any of the battles. On the other hand, Harpoon and indeed all the Admiralty trilogy games are so chock full of information that they are worth having even if never played.

Indeed, they are really more like reference books in game form than games.

As I digest the book over the week I'll try to give capsule reviews of the contents.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A session report from the dim mists of time

In 1965 I was among the thousands of Massachusetts schoolchildren who contributed my pennies to help bring "Big Mamie," the Battleship Massachusetts, to Fall River, Mass. as a war memorial and floating museum.

Naturally Battleship Cove wasn't as polished and professional then as it is now. I remember getting a tour conducted by a man who had once served on the battleship, but large parts of the ship weren't open to the public yet in the 1960s and the organization running the exhibit was still feeling its way around on how to best display it to the public. They were in the very early stages of their Scout sleepover program, which has since become the bread-and-butter for the museum. Since then Battleship Cove has expanded into the largest collection of museum ships in the world, with a destroyer, a submarine, two PT boats and a former East German Navy missile corvette in addition to the battleship.

There are a number of aircraft, a Japanese suicide boat and thousands of models as well as historical artifacts. It's well worth a visit.

In 1971 and 1972 the battleship was also the site for a couple of early wargame conventions, which was a tremendous break for me. I was a teen wargame newbie with limited funds and here was a "national" wargame con just a dozen miles away from my house!

Sponsored by the Spartan International Competition League, one of the first national wargame organizations, the 1971 con was attended by about 100 or so wargamers. The hobby back then was wasn't big enough to have split into niche markets, so there was an eclectic mix of activities.

Among the offerings was a tournament of Avalon Hill classics, some Napoleonic miniatures and naval wargaming.

The latter was what I had come for, being first attracted to the hobby by naval wargaming. I was primarily a board wargamer, but that was driven mostly by budget considerations and my friends' lack of interest in naval gaming. I had been entertained by lively battle reports in the Alnavco Log (an early naval wargaming journal) and was excited about the chance to actually play.

At that time the standard naval wargaming rules in use were still Fletcher Pratt's pioneering set from the 1940s, although usually modified. Just starting to make their appearance were some new approaches, among them was Victory at Sea, "Realistic Naval Miniatures Rules" by A.J. Morales. I think the Battleship Massachusetts convention may have been the "national" debut of the rules, and Morales was running a tournament to show off his rules and drum up interest. I have copy No. 186.

By later standards the rules are very sketchy, little more than an outline. This was long before the era of the "rules lawyer" and players were still expected to conduct themselves with restraint and good sportsmanship and not rely on picayune points of order for an advantage.

Still, despite their brevity, the Victory at Sea rules manage to cover a lot of ground, with tactical rules for surface, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare, mines and minesweeping, smokescreens and logistics. There were strategic rules for setting up battles. The rules covered everything from the pre-dreadnought era to nuclear submarines. -- in 14 pages!

Included in the booklet were three scenarios and that is what Morales used to organize his tournament, with three single-elimination rounds.

Battle of the Denmark Straits

We started off with the Battle of the Denmark Straits, 1941, the famous confrontation between the Bismarck and the British fleet.

Through the luck of the draw I ended up with the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which as fortunate because this was my first-ever naval wargame. I was a 16-year-old rookie and I didn't have a much of a clue. I don't remember much about my opponent except that I think he was a little older and more experienced. Things got off to a somewhat dicey start for me when I tried to split off the Prinz Eugen to deal with the shadowing British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk. My opponent said there ought to be a chance for a collision because the ship models got within a quarter-inch during the turn. I'm still not sure where he got this, as there were no collision rules in the game and realistically there shouldn't have been any chance of the two ships getting tangled up, the Prinz Eugen was faster and just making a simple starboard turn. Morales decided on the spot that his rules needed to consider the chances of a collision and ruled we should dice for for it. I still had beginner's luck and there was no collision. I don't remember what transpired between the Prinz Eugen and the British cruisers, but the German warship had a considerable range advantage and I suppose the British cruisers sheered off. They played no role in the battle.

My beginner's luck continued unabated. Within the first couple of salvos I got a critical hit on the Hood. In Victory at Sea the damage from heavy shell hits was checked with a card draw from a standard deck of cards for any additional effects. My draw was a jack of spades, which was, unbelievably, a magazine hit! The Hood blew up! I got a few more damaging hits on the Prince of Wales before time for the round expired. The Bismarck's damage was minor so I was declared the winner. Cool.

Battle of the River Plate, 1939

The second round was the Battle of the River Plate, which involved the German raider Graf Spee against three British cruisers. I drew the British. This one went quickly. I remember nothing at all about my opponent except that he made the mistake of closing the range right off the bat. While armed with battlecruiser-caliber main guns, the Graf Spee was otherwise really just a slow heavy cruiser and was quickly overwhelmed by a blizzard of 8-inch and 6-inch shells from the Exeter, Ajax and Achilles. I'm not sure if the British ships were even hit.This created somewhat of a conundrum for Morales, though, as there hadn't been an even number of players in the first rounds and he had to pick the top two for the finals. I clearly had less game experience than the other guys, but I had won my two battles most decisively. I the end I faced an older dude (well, he seemed older to me, he was probably no more than 30) who seemed quite annoyed he was playing against a kid.

Battle of Coronel, 1914

My beginner's luck left me at this point, as I drew the British. This was the encounter between the German cruiser squadron led by Admiral Graf Spee (for whom the armored ship in the previous battle was named) and an intercepting British force. The Coronel scenario departed from the historical battle by adding the pre-dreadnought battleship Canopus to the British force while subtracting the useless auxiliary cruiser Oranto. Even with these changes, however, the Germans were stronger.

I overheard my opponent telling a friend of his that he planned to keep the range long (which was clearly the correct plan as he had a broadside of 12 long-range tubes against just 6 for the British squadron). It felt somehow wrong to take advantage of this inadvertent intel, so I was disinclined to close with him at first. Looking back from across the years this was kind of a silly way to feel, but that's how the kid felt.

In any case, I didn't have a clear plan on how to cope with the German firepower advantage and it didn't take long for the Germans to chew up the Good Hope and Monmouth. With the Canopus too slow to catch the untouched German armored cruisers the battle was over.

I ended the night pretty satisfied with how things turned out. I won two out of three games I played and ended up in the finals for the tournament, which I didn't feel was too bad for a kid. It was a good convention.

Despite the passage of 37 years I remember a surprising amount of what happened that day because it was my first experience with a game convention or naval miniatures gaming.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Axis & Allies: D-Day quick session report

Had an enjoyable game with Mike Powell and grandson Justin. The senior Powell was Bradley while the 11 y.o. was Monty. I played the Axis and went down to decisive defeat with the game called on Turn 6 with St. Lo apparently quite doomed.

Key seemed to be exceptional shooting by Monty's navy which blasted the pillboxes and the bombers, which meant Allied beach losses were quite mild. The darn fighters chewed me up too.
This was preceded by a series of drubbings at the hands of the Powells in Bosworth, with two wins by Granddad Powell and one by the young fella.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Games help mitigate tough quarter for Hasbro

The bottom line from Hasbro's earning conference call today was that the board games and puzzles category was a bright spot, showing a 2 percent increase in revenues in a time when all other sectors showed a decline, which the company blamed on the overall economic situation.

The company plans to keep boosting its Hasbro Family Game Night promotion over the summer, expecting the economy to keep people home more.

In other game significant news, Hasbro and Marvel have extended their marketing agreement until 2017.

Chess book review: The Immortal Game - A History of Chess by David Shenk

Most chess books are by chess experts, often the top-ranked players of the game. This is all well and good most of the time, but it does leave a gap in the literature for this remarkable game, because most of us are not experts and never will be. Yet chess is more than just a game for experts. It has infiltrated the culture so deeply that every educated person is expected to know enough about how the game is played that they can make sense of analogies to pawns, understand that a contest is over when checkmated and that the queen in chess is the most powerful piece.

With the possible exception of Monopoly, no game has such a lock on popular references, so it's appropriate to look at chess not just as a game, but as a phenomenon. Describing the fascinating history of chess in a way that is not dry or too technical is a challenge, however, but David Shenk hit upon an interesting solution with his 2006 book by framing his narrative around what may be the most famous single game of chess ever played, The Immortal Game played in 1851 between Adolph Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritsky. This astounding game saw Anderssen sacrifice both of his rooks AND his queen on his way to checkmating Kieseritsky! I think it's truly an eye-opening game for any novice chess player to view, because it shook shake them out of any overly materialistic or attrition-based view of strategy.

On his way through describing The Immortal Game Shenk discusses the hsitory of the game from its obscure origins somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, through its popularization by Arab culture to its signifaicnt rules changes at the hands of Europeans that resulted in the game that's become the global standard. He discusses the great figures of chess such as Morphy, Nimzowitsch, Fischer and Kaparov. He explains the different styles of play such as Romantic, Scietific and Hypermodern. And he takes us through a personal journey that any casual player of the game can understand.

Shenk has more than a casual connection to the game. His great great grandfather was Samuel Rosenthal, a noted player in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century himself. Shenk, himself, dabbled in the game as a young man, then didn't play for years before rediscovering the game in 2002. Unwilling to devote the effort needed to become even a bad chess player, he decided instead to write a good chess book.

The Immortal Game is well-worth the read. I doubt experienced chess players will learn much new to them, but for the rest of us it's a great read.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reviewing collectible games from a wargamer's perspective: Heroclix

One of the more successful collectible miniatures games, Heroclix was going quite strong, with dozens of expansion sets and more than a thousand figures when Wizkids suddenly plled the plug in late 2008.

There are efforts afoot to resurrect the game line under a different publisher, but what will emerge from that effort, if anything, and how compatible it will be with older stuff is impossible to say. It may or may not be a dead game.

Heroclix is a superhero-themed skirmish level wargame. Each figure generally represents a super being, although there are a few that represent a pair such as Batman and Robin and there are some minor characters that are represented by cardboard tokens. Locally they were called "POGS" because they resembled those toys, but I don't know how widespread that was.

The key feature of the game is the patented dialable plastic base on each figure. As the figure takes hits from damage the dial is "clicked" to show new values which often include new or different superpowers. It's a neat idea and it fits the superhero theme well, although attempts to port it to other genres such as mecha, Halo, horror, fantasy and sports have had mixed success.

Because it's about comic-book style combat between super beings, tactics definitely take second place to interactions between powers and the metagame of selecting figures.

Being a collectible game it also suffers from the generally unsettled rules common to that sort of game and the problem of deep-pocketed players having access to better figures.

All-in-all I don't think there's much to interest wargamers in this line, unless they also have a strong interest in comic books.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Strategy in First Bull Run

The First Battle of Bull Run is a fascinating little affair. It was the first major battle of the Civil War, yet it was almost like a prologue to the Real Thing, with little direct continuity. Oh, sure, there were some familiar names like Jackson, Sherman, Ewell and Burnside there. And there were some troops in Blue and in Gray on the field, although not necessarily on the expected side.

But in many ways it was an anomaly and not a representative Civil War fight. It was small, both armies not much larger than a later-war corps. While it's toll surprised contemporary observers, it was a particularly bloody fight -- Shiloh the following spring was a much better harbinger of what was in store for the country.

It's small scale and colorfully garbed troops have made it a favorite topic for wargamers and there are a large number of games on the topic. Indeed, I think it's fair to say that every systemic approach to depicting Civil War combat includes a Bull Run game sooner or later.

So it's a little surprising that the famous SPI Blue & Gray series never got around to showing the battle and it didn't appear in the system until Decision Games re-issued the quad. That B&G quad game is a fairly popular title among players since it appeared.

According to statistics on Hexwar, out of every 10 games played, the Union wins 5, the Confederates win 3 and 2 games are draws. While Hexwar's stats don't differentiate between games played with their special Fog of War rules (only practical for online play) and games played with all units visible as a face-to-face game would be, the circumstances of the battle probably mean the differences between the two styles of play are negligible. The general lines of play are obvious and visibility is good enough that there's little scope for tricky play. The Confederate forces are frozen in place until Turn 3, making FOW inapplicable to them and most of the Union army will be visible on Turn 3 as they launch their assault. Neither army is big enough to withhold substantial forces from the fight.

The Federal army has just 11 brigades of usable troops, totaling 74 combat factors. Ten of those brigades are strength 6, 7 or 8, with one (Franklin) of just 4 strength points. There's a 10-factor division as well, but it's stuck in Centerville unless the Rebels cross Bull Run. As they have little reason to do so, this division should never enter play.

The opposing Rebel force is almost exactly the same size at 77 fcombat actors but it has a few more units so the average strength is a little lower. It's somewhat more diverse than the Union's purely infantry order of battle, including a couple of weak cavalry squadrons and small artillery battalions. There are also a couple of small infantry detachments. All of these small units have strengths of 1 or 2. The core of the Rebel army are their 10 infantry brigades of 6, 7 or 8 strength points.

The dominating terrain features of the battlefield are Bull Run, an uncrossable (in the game) creek lying between the armies with some fords and bridges scattered along its length. On the western side of the battlefield are some extensive woods, which form a significant terrain obstacle in this battle. Because both armies are very inexperienced, the game assigns most of the infantry units on both sides movement allowances of 5, instead of the usual B&G value of 6. While it appears to be just a 1/6 reduction in speed, it's really a 50% cut as soon as woods get involved, because each woods hex costs 3 movement points. In effect, most infantry units can only enter one woods hex per turn. This comes close to making woods "no-go" instead of "slow-go" terrain.

This game only appears in the Decision Games package which use the revised B&G rules, with "Attacker Effectiveness," and not the original "classic"rules. The victory conditions take advantage of this to make attacker effectiveness an integral part of winning or losing, which fits the historical situation rather well. Both armies had fragile morale and it was mostly a matter of the fortunes of war that the Federal Army broke before the Rebels did. It could have easily gone the other way. At the end of every turn each side adds up points for ineffective units (1 each) and eliminated units (2 each) and adds the result of a D6 roll. If the total is 17 or more than that army routs and the other side wins. If neither army routs then victory is determined by who holds two of the small towns on the map, Groveton and New Market. The rub comes from the fact that Groveton is practically indefensible for the Confederates and New Market hard to seize for the Federals, so the usual state of affairs is for each side to hold one town and therefore it's a draw.

The fact that more games don't end up as draws is a testimony to the aggressiveness of the players.

The burden of attack in on the Federals. the Union commander, Brig. Gen. McDowell, actually developed a pretty good plan, albeit one that would be challenging for a green army to execute. Unwilling to try fighting his way across Bull Run in the teeth of the Rebel army, he conceived the idea of executing a flank march around the Rebel left flank. It might have worked. too, except that the Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley failed to pin down the Rebel army in that area and that force of four brigades had just arrived to reinforce the army facing McDowell. Even with those reinforcements it was a near-run thing, because the Rebel command was caught by surprise.

This surprise is reflected in the game by allowing the Union forces to move three times before the Confederates can move. Naturally the Union layer needs to make the most of this advantage and hit the Rebel flank hard on Turn 3.

It can be worthwhile to leave Franklin along the river to deprive several Confederate brigades of strategic movement, which will basically mean they will enter the fight a turn later than they would otherwise, a significant factor in an 8-turn game. It's probably NOT worthwhile to send a second unit (usually Richardson's 7-factor brigade) to the river front to deprive the rest of the Rebels their strategic movement. The Union will miss those 7 factors and the affected Rebels are close enough to the action that it hurts them less to be slowed down.

I like to use Richardson to cover Ball's Ford (1216) instead, ready to cross over once the rest of the Federal army comes up.

Two brigades (Sherman and Porter as good choices) should drive Radford's cavalry away from Lewis Ford. Radford will probably (and should) use the cavalry retreat ability to avoid the risk of a DE result.

Two more brigades (Burnside and Davies) should attack across the Stone Bridge at 3-1. It's possible to use Franklin here so that an exchange (1/6 chance) only costs 4 combat factors instead of 6 but this means you've either given the Rebels an unmolested run to the flank or wasted a stronger unit on that economy of force mission. Unlike most Blue & Gray games, there are no strength-based victory points, so losing Davies 1/6 of the time isn't much worse than losing Franklin would be. In any case Burnside will advance, setting up Evans and the Potomac artillery for a poor-odds counterattack. The rest of the Union host can either cross farther upriver around Sudley Ford or stack up behind Burnside. So long as somebody swings through Groveton it doesn't matter much what the exact paths are.

The objective is to wipe out Evans and the artillery quickly for 4 morale points and set up for an attack on New Market as soon as possible. The Rebels can probably stack enough units in that town so that all the Federals will get is a 2-1 attack or even just a 1-1 attempt. If that try fails, the Federals may get a second try, although almost certainly THAT one will have to be a 1-1. About half the time the Union will take New market and not lose it to the immediate Confederate counterattack. The other half the time the Union will end up with about half their army rendered ineffective. The trick then for the Federal player is knowing when to quit. The Union player can almost guarantee a draw by pulling back if he fails to grab New Market after having half his brigades knocked out of action. If the Confederates press too hard in an effort to take Groveton they may very well lose on morale.

The Rebel player has a harder path to victory. It's just a 6-turn game for that side, and they have to spend a big portion of that time rushing to redeploy from the right flank. Evans and the Potomac artillery can be written off. If they survive it will be through a combination of great luck and a gift from the Union player. The two cavalry units should always retreat if attacked and be careful to never take positions where they can be surrounded. Don't forget that a dead 1-8 costs just as much morale as a full-strength infantry brigade.

The first priority is to defend New Market and force the Union army to batter itself senseless trying to gain entry. An incautious Union player can easily lose on morale, perhaps helped along at the end by a judicious CSA counterattack. The difficult part for the Confederates is if the Union backs off upon failure to accept a draw. The Rebels at that point usually have too little time and insufficient forces left to have a good chance of taking Groveton for the win. Often an energetic drive for Groveton ends up handing a victory to the Federal side after all as the CSA losses put them in range of a morale loss. The Rebel player should pay particular attention to careful placement of the 1-factor artillery battery and Stonewall Jackson's 8-6 brigade. The artilelry can be useful for jacking up the attack factor of a CSA brigade to match a Union 7 or 8 in a pinch (much better to do a 1-1 than a 1-2) and Jackson's brigade is the only infantry unit able to traverse two woods hexes in a turn, making him useful in the trees. Unfortunately all the speedy CSA units put together (Jackson, guns and horse) can't muster any better than a 1-1 on even a weak Union brigade, so their offensive punch is best saved for desperate times.

Given that the Union wins half the time, taking a draw as the Confederates is at least a morale victory and sets up a good chance to win a match set.

I think that draws should actually be more common than they seem to be. Both sides have it in their power to drive things in that direction and I think close to half of all games played properly should be draws, with nearly all the remaining ones being Union wins. I'd expect the breakdown to be 5 draws, 4 USA wins and 1 CSA win out of every 10 plays. Out of 15 recent Hexwar plays I was involved in there were 5 Union victories (3 mine) 2 CSA wins (one mine) and 8 draws (4 each US and CS).

Lincoln died today

On April 15, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln died from the wound he suffered the night before.

Lincoln wrote many admirable things, but I think his Second Inaugural is one of the most poignant, because you can't help but wonder how much pain America might have avoided if he had lived.

Fellow Countrymen:
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.' If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'.
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fluxx 4.0, a review

Fluxx is a chaotic, fun family card game that's completely silly.

It's definitely not for everyone, and it's especially NOT for the kind of player who worries absolute winning or likes to design and execute intricate plans. Fluxx is, instead, an ever-changing game that rewards flexibility and seizing opportunities. Fairly often the winner of the game will be a complete accident.

The basic rules of Fluxx are very simple. Every player starts the game with three cards, draws one card and then plays one card. The twist in the game is that many of the cards are yellow "New Rule" cards that change the rules instantly (maybe you'll now draw three cards every turn). Others are blue "Action" cards that allow you to perform a one-time action like draw three new cards or exchange hands with an opponent. Some cards are green Keepers that you play in front of you and "Keep" and these are important because you generally win the game by matching the Keepers you have with the red "Goal" cards. A typical Goal card may ward victory to whoever happens to have the Keepers "Chocolate" and "Cookies" in front of them.

And that's basically it. Like other break-the-rules style games such as Nuclear War, Cosmic Encounter of Magic: The Gathering, almost any kind of rules variation is possible.

Fluxx has been around for more than 10 years now and gone through several editions and spawned a number of popular spin-off games such as Eco-Fluxx, Zombie Fluxx and Monty Python Fluxx. All the games are more or less compatible and use a common game back, although the company cautions that mixing cards between decks can create unanticipated contradictions. They suggest just adding a few favorite cards from other decks into a Fluxx game. An example of this is provided by some small themed expansions such as Christian Fluxx, which adds one New Rule, one Action, two Keepers and three Goal cards for a total of 7 new cards.

If you didn't like the original Fluxx or its variations nothing about the new Fluxx will appeal to you. On the other hand, if you liked Fluxx, the new game is an improvement and worth adding to your collection. It adds just a little more oomph to the game.

The biggest change is a new class of cards, Creepers. First seen in Zombie Fluxx and appearing recently in Monty Python Fluxx, their inclusion in Fluxx 4.0 elevates them to a standard part of the game. Creepers are similar to Keepers, in that they are played in front of the player, but unlike Keepers playing a Creeper is not voluntary and they generally have the negative effect of preventing a player from winning so long as they have a Creeper in front of them -- but not always! Some Goals require a Creeper in order to win.

Several Keepers from the older version of Fluxx such as War, Death and Taxes are now Creepers, as wella s some new ones. There are 100 cards in the new set, up from the previous 84, but they are mostly the same, although there have been some changes. For example the new deck doesn't include the Reverse Order New Rule card. There are now 29 ways to win, up from 23.

Oh yeah, and the cards are prettier, in full color. All-in-all, if you like Fluxx,you'll like the new version.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dave Arneson has passed

Several sites are independently reporting Mr. Arneson has indeed passed away. Over at Dork Tower John says he has talked to the family.

Link here:

Memorial service is planned for April 20th.

While always the more low-key of the co-creators of D&D, Dave and the late Gary Gygax did do a lot for our hobby.

Dave Arneson is Ill

Dave Arneson, who was instrumental in the growth of Dungeons & Dragons is reportedly in Hospice care at age 61 fighting cancer.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

First impression Hotz Mats

Eric Hotz was the artist behind a lot of Columbia Games artwork, including the uniform illustrations used in Dixie and Eagles collectible card games.

He has his own art operation now, and from a wargamer's perspective the most interesting products are his lines of felt playing mats.

I bought the European Fields 72-inch by 45-inch mat with 2-inch hexagons. My primary intention is to use it for playing World War II aerial combat games using the Check Your Six! rules and Axis & Allies Miniatures planes, but I selected that pattern and size because it should also be able to do duty for Heroscape, Lord of the Rings Tradeable Miniatures and Axis & Allies Miniatures as well.

My main concern prior to buying the mat was durability, but now that I've had a chance to toss it around a little and set up some miniatures on it I think it will be a sturdy enough playing surface, at least as durable as the Geo-Hex terrain system I bought more than a decade ago.

This image from the Hotz game site ( ) gives an idea of what it looks like in use.

The mat is very flexible and should lie over hills and other irregularities rather well. It's lightweight as well and can fold easily. If it wrinkles the creases can be ironed out. Hotz warns against trying to wash the material, but spills for most common liquids should be able to be blotted out easily enough. Still, I would definitely enforce a no-liquids rule to avoid any problems.
The European Fields mat is one of the more expensive ones, at $44.99, but the shipping cost from Canada added another $25. My budget didn't allow for spending more at the time, but if thinking of buying multiples it makes sense to buy them all at once to save on the shipping costs. A group purchase by a club, for example, would be a good idea.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

First Bull Run quick review

One of the smallest games in the Blue & Gray series, First Bull Run only appears in the Decision Games edition. It shares the same map as the Second Bull Run game in the same box, although it doesn't bear much resemblance to the later fight.

The game follows all the usual rules for B&G.

There are just a couple of special rules. The most important being that the Confederate units can't move during the first two turns unless Union units cross Bull Run. There's a similar rule preventing Runyon's Division, a 10-factor Federal unit, from moving unless released by the Confederates crossing Bull Run.

Both armies are very small.

The Federal force comprises 11 infantry brigades with a total of 74 combat factors. There's also Runyon's 10-factor "division" garrisoning Centerville but it only enters play if the CSA crosses Bull Run. Considering the Rebels have no reason to cross said waterway that unit almost never plays a role in the game.

The Confederate forces are considerably more diverse. There are a dozen infantry brigades ranging in strength from 2 to 8, a pair of one-factor cavalry units and a pair of artillery units with combat strengths of 1 and 2. The total CSA force adds up to 77 factors, so the two sides are very evenly matched.

Victory comes from routing the enemy army. At the end of every game turn each player rolls a die. If the die roll is 17 or higher then his army routs. There's a +1 die roll modifier for every ineffective unit and a +2 for each eliminated unit.If neither side routs by the end of turn 8 then geographical objectives come into play. There are two, Groveton and New Market. Control of both is needed to win.

There are two ways for the battle to end in a draw. If neither army routs and each controls one objective, it's a draw. If both armies rout in the same turn, it is also a draw.

The general edge in the game goes to the Union side, according to results on the wargaming site, which show 770 U.S. wins, 439 C.S. wins and 308 draws as of Jan. 22, 2008.

While the Federal side doesn't have a strength advantage, it does have the initiative from the start of the game and a more compact striking force. Typically the initial Federal attack will destroy the 2-factor infantry and artillery units guarding Stone Bridge, putting them up +4 in the contest to force a rout. Still, the Union player as to be careful because one set of bad rolls can easily render a large part of his army ineffective. Besides adding to the rout probability, this will often gut any further offensive potential for the Federals.

The Confederates have some trouble forcing a win, however, unless they can entice the Federals into pushing their offensive too far. It's fairly easy for the Federal player to settle for a draw if they end up with a large number of ineffective units. Groveton is not too hard to defend in the limited time available for a CSA counteroffensive and there's a real possibility such a counterattack could end up handing the Union player a victory after all through adverse combat results against the Rebels.

Still, it's a quick-playing contest so the scenario can be played several times in a single session.

More on Heroscape Wave 9

First off, here's the official press release:

Among the features/creatures mentioned are dwarves, which will be a welcome addition. Any game that has elves and orcs, not to mention dragons, really ought to have dwarves as well.

Heroscape lives!

So a Wave 9 will be coming out this summer, it appears.

That's excellent news, and rather unexpected in some quarters, although I always expected the game to continue. I think the reset under WOTC took some time and I also think there wasn't a big rush, due to the economic difficulty. Hasbro wasn't going to spend anything extra to do it fast.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Very bad move, MMP

This "interesting" news from MMP, taken from a BGG Geeklist on the P500 staus for April.

In other news, and perhaps best put under the heading NOOOO!, MMP staff (SCS/OCS designer Dean Essig I believe) posted that the company would not support (or even allow others to make) electronic versions of its games. Needless to say, the CSW forums filled with even more ... "witty banter" then usual. And rightfully so, it's one thing in this reporter's humble opinion to not create online modules for games, quite another to exercise your right to restrict others from creating them.

My initial reaction to this is negative and I'll explain why. I'm a big fan of several systems published by MMP, namely TCS, GCACW and ASL. What they all have in common is that they are A) very 'grognardy' B) expensive and C) time-consuming to play . What all these features add up to are an extensive collection of games that have a real hard time hitting the game table anyway. So creating a barrier to online play doesn't seem very customer-friendly to me. While I may very well keep buying these lines (TCS and GCACW anyway, I've already bailed on ASL) I definitely will think twice before buying into any other systems.

Now, if this proprietary system turns out to be very easy to use (like AND not too expensive (don't make me buy the damn game twice!) then I might be mollified. On the other hand, I may very well just say to heck with it and spend my money elsewhere on games I'll get to play more.

There's no doubt MMP is within their legal rights here. But if they don't impart sufficient added value then they may just kill off the customer base. Some of their games are pretty popular (ASL, OCS, SCS, GCACW) by wargame standards but none of them are wildly popular by any other measure and they can ill-afford to turn off dedicated players.

On the other hand, if they offer a very good product, then they may have something there. VASSEL and Cyberboard are very good for what they do, but their strength is also their weakness. They are generic enough to have the flexibility to handle most any game, but that also means they can't focus on providing a hassle-free game experience. I find that VASSEL and Cyberboard games take a significant time commitment, although not an unreasonable one. But I find it worthwhile to subscribe to the Hexwar game service because it's easy to play a lot. And I do that even though I'm not otherwise a big fan of the games they offer (mostly old SPI quads)

Bottom line is that I'm skeptical, but could be convinced. If, on the other hand, it starts to smell like just a way to wring a few more bucks out of players without offering them anything they can't get elsewhere for less then I'm outta there.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Battle Line, why the hate?

One thing I don't get is why there's negativity about Battle Line from fans of Schotten Totten. They're basically the same game, The biggets difference is the Tactics Cards, which have now been added to S-T I understand.