Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The perils of pre-order

So I was checking my bank statement this week and I spotted a pre-authorized withdrawal from Columbia Games for about $18 and I was, like, huh?

I couldn't remember what I had pre-ordered from them that could possibly cost that little, but then I vaguely recalled an announcement that Slapshot was charging. Slapshot? I didn't order Slapshot, did I? I was incredulous.

Now, admittedly, I do have a weakness for silly theme card games. I have most of the Fluxx line and nearly every part of the Munchkin and Nuclear War lines as well. I even have We Didn't Playtest This At All. But I couldn't recall pre-ordering Slapshot.

Slapshot's been around a very long time -- originally published by Avalon Hill, it's enjoyed a kind of cult following at the World Boardgaming Championships. This has been my main exposure to it, and I have to admit that they always look like they're having a raucous good time at the annual Slapshot tournament. But the game have never grabbed me, despite all that. While I grew up in New England, I never warmed to hockey as a sport. Even though the Bruins recently took the Stanley Cup, I wasn't very excited about it. Hockey's behind Football, baseball, the NBA, the WNBA and even soccer among professional team sports I follow.

And yet, here it was, irrefutable documentary proof that, at some point, I was bitten by the game-buying bug and pre-ordered Slapshot! There's no question it's a legit order. I checked my pre-order page and there it was. I just can't imagine why?

One bad side effect of the pre-order system is that there's often such a lengthy delay between the opening of the pre-order status and the actual appearance of the game that this sort of thing can happen. I've ended up with tow copies of a game because I forgot I pre-ordered it. I've been hit with an unexpected charge because a pre-order hits the credit card without notice (fortunately some companies have taken to sending out reminders beforehand). and sometimes a pre-order doesn't go through because the card has expired.

The pre-order system has its good points, but I try to use it sparingly, mostly just for games I am absolutely certain I plan to get -- which still leaves Slapshot an inexplicable anomaly.

Well, it's on its way, I guess, so I see no harm in checking (pun intended) it out.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

So, Adolf, why, exactly, the rush?

Europe in 1941 with initial Barbarossa gains
Note also that significant neutral powers such as Sweden and Spain were economically within the Axis sphere

Observers generally agree that Hitler's biggest error in World War II was attacking the Soviet Union and exposing Germany to a 2-front war. It didn't work out so well, after all.

But it's often pointed out that a war between the two great European dictators was inevitable, after all, and Hitler had little choice but to settle things one way or the other. True, I think, but also missing the point. It wasn't the question of IF, but of WHEN. Part of the reason why Stalin was caught by surprise was that he judged that the Germans weren't likely to start the war so soon. And Stalin was probably right.

While Hitler was evidently trying to capitalize on a known German advantage in quality while it lasted, I see little reason to think that advantage was in any immediate danger of narrowing. Indeed, more attention to war preparedness on the German side and an earlier start to the campaign season (undistracted by Balkan adventures) in 1942 would probably have seen very similar results to the 1941 campaign -- but with another 6-8 weeks of campaigning. Sure, the T-34s and KV-1s would have been a nasty surprise, but German successes had never depended on superior tanks anyway and there's every reason to think that the Russian tank crews would have been unable to translate their better tanks into tactical success.

A delay in the start of Barbarossa until 1942 would have had some other interesting implications. For one, it would have meant Britain fighting on alone for yet another year. Undoubtedly, without the need to immediately divert resources for the upcoming Russian campaign, events in the Middle East and the Med (Greece, Crete, Iraq, Western Desert) could have easily taken a very grim turn for the Allies without requiring all that much in extra German effort. Another Panzer division or two, a Luftwaffe air group and it's easy to see the Germans overwhelming the overstretched British.

What about the Americans? Well, the trajectory of events driving the USA and Japan to war was largely independent of the Russo-German question. It's probable that Japan and the US would have gone to war more or less on the historical schedule and it's an open question whether Hitler would have repeated his historical mistake of gratuitously declaring war on the US (he wasn't required to by treaty because Japan had attacked the US) . If he didn't, it's hard to see how FDR could have even brought up declaring war on the Germans when it was Japan that had attacked, let alone following any kind of "Germany First" strategy. The natural course of events would have focused American attention on the Pacific first -- bad for Japan but a boon for Hitler. Undoubtedly the Russians and Japanese would have followed their historical course and avoided hostilities for now.

So instead of merging into one grand Second World War in 1941, we may have seen two large regional wars instead. A sputtering European/ expanded Middle Eastern theater and something similar to the historical Pacific War. There would have been a slight overlap in combatants, as the British had their Far East interests, but they may have been unable to make even a token defense given the crisis elsewhere.

A more patient Hitler, striking Russia in the spring of 1942, would have had a much more favorable strategic situation to deal with than he had in 1942. Britain, still isolated, would have beset by even more foes and without as strong help from the USA as it historically received. America would have been emotionally and logistically well and truly committed to the Pacific War and unlikely to change course in mid-stream and Russia, with the training, doctrine and leadership deficiencies from the year before still endemic, would have still been vulnrable to being blitzed into defeat.

Of course, Hitler was not known for his patience, but he could muster it on occasion. And it's hard to see what urgent requirement was driving the need to start the Russo-German War in 1941, rather than waiting less than a year more.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Last few days before the storm

David Low, Someone is taking someone for a walk (1939)

On June 22, 1941 the entire nature of World War II changed with the Gemran invasion of the Soviet Union, inaugerating the most massive land campaign seen in history -- and one unlikely to ever be matched, given the changing nature of warfare in the decades since. We won't ever see multiple army groups with millions of men locked in combat over a thousand mile front for more than four years again.

The Eastern Front has held a fascination for wargamers since the hobby's beginning. The classic Avalon Hill Stalingrad was just the first in a long series of games covering every conceivable aspect of the war, at every level. Proof that there seems to be a wargame on everything is one of the four games included in the 2010 Against the Odds Annual called Codeword: Barbarossa - Preparing for the German-Soviet War. It may be a stretch to call this a wargame at all, because it ends when the war starts, but it's an interesting exercise as the two players try to create the conditions for a successful campaign when (and if, war breaks out).

It's rated at having a "low" solitaire suitability, which is too bad because it seems to be the kind of game that will be hard to get on the table against an opponent (obscure topic magazine wargame -- in this case competing against three other wargames in the same issue). I did fiddle with it a bit solitaire and it's an unusual enough game that I think players will need to play it a few times to get the hang of it -- so I can't write a proper review.

I am intrigued though, so I do hope to get a chance to play it sometime. Essentially the players have to balance aggressive actions such as redeploying to the front and raising new troops with a need to to be so provocative that the war starts before they are ready. Each side has to select from a menu of strategies and the final victory point total depends on the interaction between the chosen strategies and how well your deployment matches the strategy.

Map detail

The choices for the Germans are "Historical," "Northern Emphasis," "Moscow Central" and "Ukraine Emphasis." Interestingly this seems to imply that the Historical German strategy lacked a clear focus. The Soviet choices don't include a "historical" option but are "Border Defense," "Defense in Depth" and "Offensive." I think the first of those is the closest to the historical strategy, although in the end the Soviets were forced into a defense in depth. An "Offensive" strategy was explicitly rejected by Stalin and it's hard to see how a real-life adoption of that strategy would have been anything other than disastrous. Still, it's an option in the game and the Soviets can try it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Component durability -- boxes

Boxes are historically the weakest component for game durability -- even considering that they get the most abuse.

Until fairly recently, game manufacturers almost invariably designed boxes primarily for their marketing suitability. And you still see the effects of this focus with the kind of family games you'll see in a discount store. Large flat boxes with garish print and flimsy construction may be OK for a game of Monopoly, Sorry or Barbie Fashion Show that's fated to end up in pieces before the week is out, but it's very frustrating for serious adult gamers who expect to get years of play out of their games. I used to hate the old Avalon Hill flat boxes. They just didn't hold up to much Geek carry at all. Invariably you ended up with split ends and if you tried stacking them more than a couple high you ended up with crushed boxes. If anything the old SPI plastic flat boxes were worse. The plastic would crack, the cardboard back would come off the tray part. Just awful.

On the other hand the Avalon Hill bookcase game format and the similar Bookshelf games from 3M were great -- especially when sleeved. I have some of those games that are more than 40 years old and still intact. While AH was in business I would sometimes order replacement boxes, although I rarely ahd to do so with bookcase boxes. On the other hand my Midway box is the third one (and it's fallen apart now).

One of the salutary effects of the German game influx has been to improve the overall quality of game boxes. Even back in the 1980s when I was stationed in Germany I was struck by how much better quality the German game components were. The boxes were much sturdier as a rule.

These days, while a few wargame makers still publish boxes that won't hold up to well, the majority seem to have realized that wargames have a long life-span and the box needs to be designed accordingly. Outstanding among the publishers is GMT with its heavy duty game boxes -- I like to call them the "armored box." These seem like they'll last many a trip to cons and game buddy houses. The squarish box design used by a lot of companies now such as Hasbro, Flying Frog, Fantasy Flight, Days of Wonder and others also seems pretty durable and stackable.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Counters, miniatures and blocks -- more durability discussion

IJN cruiser Kumano from the Avalon Hill game Midway. 1969 counter on the right, a somewhat newer one (ca. 1980) on the left

Comments on mounted vs. unmounted maps below prompted me to consider the durability of other common game components. Maps, as a matter of fact, even the paper kind, are rarely the component that fails first in my experience.

Usually the first component that starts to disintegrate is the rule book, especially if it's a complex game or one with poorly drafted rules and you're in the darn thing all the time. Good quality paper and printing is really useful in rule books, but this is an area where many companies scrimp an use cheap paper. Still, there's not an awful lot that can be done about this, past using good quality paper and writing clear rules. A rule book is necessarily going to get a lot of handling by sweaty fingers.

Another component that should use high quality material (but often doesn't) is cards, if the game uses them. It's my practice to buy extra cards if the game uses them a lot and it looks like I'll get to play it a lot. I bought an extra set of cards for Up Front, for example, although I still haven't busted the seal. While my original card are still usable, they are showing some wear and given the likelihood that Up Front will never be reprinted I'm glad I have it. Some other games where I bought back up card sets included Commands & Colors Ancients, Gunslinger and Memoir '44.

Finally there are the unit pieces. The winner in the durability contest are figures hands down. While occasionally they can get damaged or destroyed if stepped on, for the most part they remain in near pristine condition if minimally cared for. I have copies of Broadside and Dogfight from the 60s that I bought on eBay that are in pretty tough shape in many ways, but the planes and ships are in good shape. I have metal painted miniatures that are decades old and I'm quite certain will be around long after I'm gone. Even the pre-painted miniatures from collectible games I expect are virtually immortal so long as they are not abused.

Nearly as good are wooden blocks. I have had some cases where stickers have come off a block or two, but with the exception of an old copy of Rommel in the Desert, in no cases has it been common and many of my block games are getting long in the tooth. And those block games that have embossed or screen printed blocks seem as permanent as the plastic figures. They could be used as grave goods.

Card board counters, on the other hand, are another story. The oils from hands and the friction from the playing surface and stacking means that counters can get some serious wear, even if the game isn't played often. Back when Avalon Hill was in business I ordered replacement counters for a number of games over the years, such as Afrika Korps and Midway. Most companies don't offer this service though, and I can see problems down the line for some games in my collection. The main reason why this isn't a bigger problem is that I have so many games that few get the kind of intense play that AH games got back in the day. And many popular games go though multiple printings, sometimes with multiple companies, so that you can get a newer (Perhaps improved) copy later. Some games I have in my collection that are NOT the original copy I owned include OGRE, The Awful Green Things From Outer Space, A House Divided, For The People, Bitter Woods, Monopoly, War of 1812, Wizard Kings and Quebec 1759.

Another factor with cardboard counters is different degrees of wear. It's often the case that some counters and markers see more use than others. It's not unusual for the turn marker to wear down to a nub first. In games where you have to draw activation chits these often wear out fast as well. Sometimes a unit spends a lot more time on the board than others. The German panzer regiments in Afrika Korps often show a lot more wear than any other pieces -- while the British substitute units are sometimes in mint condition! Usually this doesn't have an impact in play, but I could see times when it might matter, such as if the game uses inverted units.

Counters do have many advantages, of course. They can hold much more game information than blocks or figures. They cost less to make and weigh less when shipping. You can stack them. So lots of times they're a good choice. But there is a trade off in durability.

One thing that game makers could do more often is offer replacement parts. I think cards should always be available for separate purchase. You shouldn't have to buy a whole new game just because the cards wore out. Rule books should be online. That way they can be updated easily and players can download a new and updated version oft he rules when their original comes apart. And I think counter sheets should be available. One thing I also hate seeing is blank counters on a counter sheet. Put something on it. Extra "Game Turn" makers never hurt. There's no excuse for blanks in any game that uses any kind of status markers, either.

For me, because I tend to dabble in a large range of games rather than play any one game intensively,. durability usually revolves around storage issues. But a lot of people like to play the heck out of their favorite games -- and for that sort of player how well the game components stand up to repeated usage is important. It's a real shame to have your game fall apart before you're tired of it.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Invasion From Outer Space

Played this campy Martian invasion game with the kids over the last two nights. I can't give it a full session report, as I discovered halfway through that we had been playing a few key points wrong, but it was still a lot of fun. We were playing the basic Invasion scenario, except I beefed up the number of dead Heroes needed for the Martians to win by one (to Three) given the differential in experience.

I took all the Martians, while the Fifth Grader, Third Grader and First Grader shared control of four heroes. Fifth Grader had ringmaster R.J. Flanagan and human cannonball Archibald. R.J.'s healing ability was heavily used, although he had a little troouble making the necessary die roll while healing himself. Still, despite both heroes being on the verge of death several times, they managed to survive and took out around seven or eight Martians including the 20th one for the win on the last turn.

Poor Third Grader had bad luck with her characters. Both Jo Jo the Dancing Bear and trick shooter Cassidy were taken down by swarms of Martians while only losing a few in return. Third Grader's third Hero, the Strongman, was near death at game end as well.

Little Miss First Grader was literally hot with Hannah, the Firebreather. Her first Fireball wiped out an entire 3-Martian pack and this was a harbinger of things to come. Hannah also found a sword during her searches, which wiped out another pair of Martians, Another few fireballs took out three more Martians AND the Zard Beast (with a little help from an event card). Altogether Hannah accounted for about half of the 20 dead Martians, including nearly all of the first dozen.

Everyone had a chance to get familiar with the basic mechanics, although some rules errros make me wary of deriving too many lessons from the affair. Everyone did enjoy the game, however, and was ready to play again.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mounted or not?

I'll admit to a game prejudice. I prefer mounted boards.

This may be because my formative years were spent with Avalon Hill games. I came across SPI and some of the other paper map companies a little later on.

One welcome trend I've been seeing is the proliferation of mounted map boards -- often as upgrades for games that originally came out with paper or cardboard maps. Some recent examples include Commands & Colors Ancients, Paths of Glory, Twilight Struggle, The Awful Green Things From Outer Space and Shiloh (Columbia Games).

The debate between mounted map fans and the unmounted aficionados is one that can't really be settled, one way or the other. Partisans of each can point to various reasons why their favorite display is better.

Obviously the biggest advantage of paper or cardboard maps is expense, followed closely by weight and space. A paper map game costs less to make, costs less to ship and, all things being equal, will take up less space in storage. For some purposes paper maps are indispensable -- magazines with games in them, for example, would be impractical with mounted boards for reasons of postage alone. Many players like to overlay Plexiglas on their maps to preserve the surface, smooth out wrinkles and hold the map in place. All valid points, although the reason why you need to smooth out wrinkles and hold the map down is because it's NOT mounted. In some games it's convenient to be able to write on the playing surface, which is easy to to with Plexiglas. Some players also like to use magnetized counter holders which is easy to do with a papper map placed on a metal sheet. They can be mounted on a wall or stored in drawers (specially made or map drawers) between plays. Paper maps and cardboard maps also avoid problems where map cuts meet. There can be a seamless transition between two map sections separated by a cut, whereas a mounted mapborad often is forced to leave a small gap.

Despite all these factors, when given a choice I'll opt for a mounted board. The main advantages I see in mounted boards is durability and providing a steady playing surface. Durability comes in both short-term and long-term ways. For the short-term, mounted map boards are usually more resistant to accidents such as spills and tears. For the long-term, if properly stored, mounted map boards can last decades. I have a 1961 edition of Avalon Hill's Civil War wargame which appears practically new -- despite being 50 years old! In contrast, long-term storage of a paper map is brutal and I have several games that have seen little table time that have maps splitting at the folds. A mounted map is less likely to be disturbed during a game than an unsecured paper or cardboard map. Securing the paper map usually means either taping it down or that trusty bit of Plexglas. Plexiglas isn't as portable as a folded mounted mapboard, however, a factor if you're not playing at home. A mounted mapboard can allow a game to be played on a less than ideal surface such as a picnic table, rough wooden table or even a blanket or the bed. Finally, and very subjectively, there's an aura of quality about a mounted board that makes the playing experience just a little better.

I won't thumb my nose at an game just because it has an unmounted mapboard. I have no shortage of unmounted map games in my collection. Some of my favorite manufacturers almost never use mounted boards, such as Columbia Games and MMP. But finding out a game has a mounted mapboard is definitely a selling point for me and I'm willing to lay out a little extra dough for one -- or buy one separately. I'll probably get the mounted For the People map, for example, just like I picked up the mounted maps for Commands & Colors Ancients when they became available.