Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 gaming year in retrospect

Marengo scenario setup from Napoleon's War Volume II: The Gates of Moscow, one of my 2011 purchases.

2011 is almost over and what an unusual gaming year it was for me. The biggest development of the year was being laid off from my job. While having a considerable negative effect on my finances, perversely it was a boon gaming wise.

Nothing like having an awful of of time on your hands to inspire a lot of game-buying, and as near as I can tell I acquired about three dozen new games over the twelve months, about half new 2011 titles and the rest from previous years. In addition, I picked up expansions and bought a couple of cases worth of War at Sea naval miniatures as well. My back of the envelope calculations indicate this probably cost me somewhere around $1,800. Mitigating this shocking expense, however, was a very active year on eBay which grossed me around $1,900 from game and miniatures sales. After taking into account shipping costs and fees, the total out-of-pocket impact on my budget was just a few hundred dollars. More than half of the eBay income came from selling off two major collections (My TCS series games and my Lord of the Rings Tradeable Miniatures) which were painstakingly assembled over long periods of time and unlikely to be repeatable in 2012. As a result I'm going to have to severely curtail new game purchases -- at least until I find a job!

On the other hand, this was an exceptionally good playing year. This, again, was part of the fallout from losing my job. My biggest gaming constraint for years was the mismatch between my schedule and most potential opponents because I worked an evening shift. While I had most weekends off, they were so crowded with other life activities that my gaming opportunities were limited. Being laid off sure freed up my time! Also helping was getting involved in several local Meetup groups, being able to attend the Central Connecticut wargamers occasionally and a lot of activity at the local game shop Arkham Asyklum. All-in-all I played quite a few face-to-face games this year -- perhaps the most in decades.

As far as those acquisitions went, quite a few were continuations, expansions and sequels to various series I've enjoyed, such as Napoleon's War, Fluxx, Munchkin, Small World and Commands & Colors. There were also a fair number of notable new game such as Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Conquest of Nerath and Test of Fire.

Personally, my newest enthusiasm was for cooperative style games (and their semi-cooperative kin) represented by the Fly Frog Productions line of games such as Last Night on Earth and Fortune and Glory and similar tiles such as the Dungeons & Dragons adventuring games, Star Trek: Expeditions and Forbidden Island.

This also continued a trend towards lighter fare among my purchases. While I did pick up some hard-core simulations such as Persian Incursion and Lock n Load: Day of Heroes, the vast majority of the year's acquisitions were more along the lines of Test of Fire, Shenandoah and Napoleon's War -- definitely wargames, but not really simulations.

It's not hard to trace the origin of this trend -- it's just hard to get simulation games on the table. Opponents are scarce and time is precious these days for that sort of game, which tends to be time consuming -- and not just in table time. To get the most out of a good simulation game it really helps if both players are reasonably familiar with the game rules beforehand, which adds to the imnvestment in time compared to euro games and other lighter genres.

I've pretty much given up on worrying about it. While I occasionally break down and pick up an old school wargame such as Four Roads to Moscow, Falklands Showdown or Marengo: Morning Defeat, Afternoon Victory, I usually take a pass these days no matter how tempted I am. Every time I feel the urge I just ask myself the question: And just WHEN will that get played? Unless I can justify it despite the likely answer of "Never," I probably won't buy it.

Also helping me exercise some future purchasing discipline is the likely end of the line for my only active collectible game: Axis & Allies: War at Sea. While there's some slight glimmer of hope that another set may appear, it probably won't be in 2012. In any case, I won't start another collectible game. While I don't have the same heartburn many do about the limitations of the format, there is the serious problem of what happens when the game gets canceled. Experience has shown that even a very good game such as Dreamblade or Navia Dratp becomes almost impossible to get on the table once official support dries up. The Axis & Allies Miniatures (both land and sea) and the D&D miniatures lines have some utility outside of the official game rules, but the basic problem remains that the collectible format really relies on a stream of new material to work. Once the stream dries up the lake will inevitably dry up and vanish.

While I did acquire around three dozen games, which is a lot, the good news is that I had a very successful time getting the new games on the table -- playing at least 21 of them at least once. This is important because my experience has been that if I don't get a game played within the first year of owning it, there's a very good chance I'll never play it. Several of the not-played yet were late 2011 acquisitions such as Sheandoah, Merchants & Marauders and Julius Caesar which I fully expect to get played soon. Some others were solitaire or solitaire-capable games such as Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations and the D&D adventures games that I can always get around to playing someday. There's just a handful of games like When Lions Sailed and Four Roads to Moscow that have dubious prospects for future table time.

Job prospects for the coming year are hard to predict, but it seems very unlikely I'll ever work at a newspaper again, with the evening hours that usually requires, so I expect that I'll continue to see a fair opportunity for game playing in 2012. I expect game purchases to slow down a lot, though. I've already cut down on my pre-orders (just Commands & Colors titles and Wizard Kings expansions currently) and, as I said, I am done with collectible games. Or so I say. Time will tell!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Rich Baker starts a blog

War at Sea designer Rich Baker has started a new blog which I'l be keeping a close eye on. With luck we will find out that War at Sea isn't quite dead yet.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Took the new Crusader Rex out for a spin

Game Store Tony provided the willing Guinea Pig for a play through of the newest version of Crusader Rex. While he'd played block games before, he'd never played this game or its earlier versions. Your truly had played the earlier versions a couple of times, but this was the first outing for the new edition.

Overall, my impression of the new game is that it plays well and seems more strategic in a good sense. Now that most of the units can return if eliminated (only the military orders and Saladin's family are permanently dead) there's not the severe unit shortages that could occur in the old version.

Well, at least, there's not inherently unit shortages. In our particular game Tony's Crusaders lost two early battles with devastating losses and this put his side down for the count early. He made a valiant effort to come back and did manage to conquer Egypt briefly and dispatch two of Saladin's relatives, but before long the green blocks seemed to be everywhere. Frederick Barbarossa showed up, but we called the game before playing the final year because it was obvious the westerners had no hope of success. The Muslim's held six of the seven victory cities and were in enough strength up north that there was little chance of Barbarossa taking even one -- and every chance he might lose the one he guarded.

My aim is to get it back on the table in early 2012 and see how I cna do with the Outremers.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sticker Shock

No, not for the price (although at $59.99, $89.99 with a mounted map Shenandoah is a little on the pricey side), but for the new, tougher stickers that come with the game.

Fortunately Columbia took the precaution of including in the box a little note warning purchasers that they've switched to a new and stronger adhesive, but let me reinforce that warning. These are not your father's stickers any more. I've never had a lot of trouble with stickers coming off my earlier Columbia games with the exception of an old edition of Rommel in the Desert where it was a real problem, but it does happen occasionally. But I have seen complaints online so obviously it has been a problem, so it appears that Columbia has taken heed.

But take heed of their warning as well. You WILL need a razor or thin knife to take up the stickers neatly. Trying to peel them up with your fingers risks damage to the sticker edges. Likewise, take special care in applying the stickers because you will have a hard time repositioning a misapplied sticker without leaving some adhesive behind.

The need to apply stickers has always been one of the drawbacks for block games because it usually means you can't just play it out of the box (an issue at, for example, a convention) but the new adhesive will mean this is especially true. Columbia has been pretty good on customer service but I predict they will have to replace an unusually large number of sticker sheets for customers who end up damaging their stickers. As a matter of fact, it probably would have been a good idea to include a double set of the stickers to provide spares (much like GMT's practice)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Very bad news for Axis & Allies and D&D fans

Lead D&D and A&A miniatures designer Rich Baker just posted that he's been let go from Wizards of the Coast!

This is, of course, awful personal news for him. Being laid off a week before Christmas sucks. Actually, speaking from experience, being laid off at any time sucks pretty bad, but the holidays is even worse.

It also throws the entire future of D&D and Axis & Allies miniatures products into doubt. WOTC has already indicated it was backing out of the painted miniature category. It appears that Pathfinder may have eaten in to D&D's market share a bit, but I'm inclined to think it's bigger than just one line's market share issues. I've suspected that the "Golden Era" of boxes full of plastic and painted collectible miniatures we have enjoyed over the last decade or so was an artifact of some temporary economic conditions (specifically the price differential between China and USA) and was coming to a close.

I'm not sure what WOTC's plans are for the D&D stuff. They were working on a new set of skirmish rules, but I don't know if that's going to see daylight now.

As far as the Axis & Allies miniatures line go, Baker said that his layoff did not mean any miniatures lines were being canceled and he seemed to offer some hope that he'd be able to work on some projects on a freelance basis. Realistically, I've thjought that the land miniatures line was all but certainly dead already and that the hoped-for Late War set was never happening. There was just too long a break since the last set and it would basically mean restarting the line. I also think Angels 20 (the new air game) is a dead duck. Whatever is already paid for in the pipeline will come out, but I doubt very much there's bee anything new started. I suppose there's a small bit of hope for a Set VII for War at Sea, but it's a slender one.

I think we can also lay to rest any thoughts of a reborn Heroscape. Among the other layoffs was the brand manager for the Avalon Hill and Axis & Allies lines, so even the future of the board games may now be in doubt. I know there was some talk about an exapnsion for Battle Cry and Larry Harris was working on a final set of rules for 1940 Global Axis & Allies. Without someone to guide these along I have my doubts. The sort of intensive attention wargames/RPGs need was never a good fit for Hasbro/WOTC anyway -- they're certainly no GMT!

Overall, a very sad day for fans of a number of popular games.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lest you think I'm always a loser ... .

While I got my head handed to me at Piepsk earlier in the day, I was able to make agood showing in TWO games of Acquire that night, coming out on top in both four-player games. I've only played the game a few times before, but I am starting to get a feel for the strategy.

As a side note, there are some odd gaps in my game experience Acquire has been out for decades but I only recently started playing it -- which is too bad because it really is a great classic game.

Both game developed quite differently. The first game saw a large, dominant corporation quickly get safe status and take over half the board while the other corporations did what they could with the rest. One of the seven corporations never made it onto the board at all. I was able to win because I had acquired a good position in that dominating company early on and ended up being the majority shareholder and decent positions in many nof the others. Still, it was a close game and I only won by less than $2 grand.

The second game, in contrast, shown at top. was much more free wheeling with all seven corporations making early appearances. There were even a few times players would have like dto have started new corporations but there were none available. This game was a little more decisive, as I was more than $5,00 ahead of the next player.

I'm still learning this game, but it seems important to keep money flowing and try to be at least a participant in most of the corporations. A couple f the players found themselves cash poor because they were heavily invested in some safe corps and unable to generate funds to take advantage of opportunities as they appeared. Because of this I was able to get majority or minority shareholder bonuses on the cheap by having one of a handful of shares in taken-over corporations for a nice return on the money. In afour-player game having 8 or 9 shares was often enough to control a safe corporation and even a single share might turn a tidy profit when a small chain gets taken over if no one had the money to invest in it. I hope to get this on the table a few more times over the next few months.

The massacre at Piepsk

The Russians make an early move with some Berserkers.

Well, the scenraio is actually called The Hedgehog of Piepsk, which old school wargamers will recognize was the fourth scenario in the original Squad Leader.

I hauled out the old warhorse for some old school wargaming with Game Store Tony. I haven't played the scenario in 10 or 20 years, myself, so things were more even than they may appear, especially because one of Tony's more notable qualities is that he's a quick study.

I took the Germans in the interest of saving setup time, because I could plan a clever defense ahead of time. Well, I thought it was at least solid, if not clever. I placed four LMG-equipped squads in the four buildings in the center of town to form the main position. Covering the left flank was the MMG with a squad and 9-1 leader while the right flank was coverered by the HMG with a squad and the 9-2 leader. The 8-0 and radio were also posted on the left as the lines of sight seemed better. Finally the other 9-1 and two squads were posted in reserve behind the town in the center to react to the Soviet advance.

Tony's plan was a simple, wide front advance evenly spread around the board, with the LMGs, MMG and leaders seeded throughout the force.

Things got off to a decent start as the first few defensive fires from the German machine gun teams cut down Soviet stacks like wheat. A full dozen Soviet squads were KIA'd before the first German loss. I have to say, though, that I don't really like playing the Germans in SL because it seems like they're always relying on a few key units -- so long as they're doing their job the Germans are tough, but a moment of bad luck can be very costly. I actually prefer the Soviet and US forces which are more homogeneous.

Sure enough, a bad morale check on a fairly low odds attack cleared the left flank MMG and the Russians surged forward. Bad luck with the initial artillery placement and an ineffective FFE foiled my back up plan and the 8-0 was overrun.

After this point things went down hill as Tony was able to swarm the town. German ffire groups, even massive ones with 20+ FP were not able to finish off Soviet targets. Throw in some berserk Russians, some bloody close combats and the end came swiftly. The Germans losses in the second half of the game actually exceeded Soviet.

While I felt my battle plan had legitimate promise, the fact of the matter is that Tony wiped out the Gemran force to a man and captured all five buildings in just 8 turns of the 10-turn scenario -- not a result that could be termed "close."

The Grim Finale!

Nope. I just got owned, simple as that. Still, it was fun to bring the old game to the table again after so long.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Napoleon's War II: The Gates of Moscow review

Battle of Austerlitz

The dueling Napoleonic game systems of GMT (Commands & Colors Napoleonics) and Worthington Games (Napoleon's War) continue their epic matchup with a new round of games. (No word on when, or if, there will be another entry in the third Napoleonic battle game system that came out last year, the Battles of Napoleon).

Once again Worthington Games beat GMT to the punch. While GMT will probably ship the second CC:N game this month (The Spanish Army) Worthington's Napoleon's War II: The Gates of Moscow has been out for a couple of months already.

Physically, the new game is familiar stuff -- two double-sided full-color cardstock mapboards depicting four Napoleonic battles (in this case Marengo, Aspern-Essling, Austerlitz and Borodino), a cardstock player aid card, an 8-page rule book, counters, three dice and 120 plastic figures. Once again the figures are the infantry, cavalry and cannon figures from the game Viktory II, repurposed quite well to serve here. The French are blue, as they were in the first game, with white for the Austrians and Green for the Russians -- an unsurprising and appropriate color scheme.

The rules have been streamlined a bit from the first game, with some small but significant changes. Perhaps the most important is that infantry firepower at 2-hex range has been reduced to just 1 die (hitting on a 6) instead of the previous 3-dice. This is a big improvement, as it encourages the infantry to get in close instead of engaging in ahistorical long-range firefights.

Another change which could be significant is that the Advanced Skirmisher rules have been eliminated. I say "could be" because it's an entire, lengthy section cut from the rules -- but I wouldn't know because I never tired using them. They seemed far more intricate and involved than waranted by the complexity level of the rest of the game system. Evidently many agreed. In any case, it's gone.

Artillery cannot be targeted by ranged fire until any cavalry or infantry unit in the hex is eliminated.

A few other changes and clarifications were added, all conveniently listed at the end of the rulebook for experienced players. A new optional rule for drawing the AP randomly through chits has been added, although I'm not really tempted to use it. It seems to draw out laying time and add a level of randomness to a system that's already pretty luck-driven.

The fundamentals of the game system are the same. Each turn a player rolls a D3 and adds the result to his base number to get an action point allowance for the turn, typically 4-7 CAP. Most game actions such as moving and firing cost one AP per unit, although a couple of special actions such as shock attacks cost 2. Combat typically involves rolling three dice (sometimes cut down to 2 dice for terrain) looking for a 6 to hit. Artillery and units engaged in shock combat can hit on a 5 or 6 or sometimes even a 4-6.

The four scenarios depict some of the iconic battles involving the Austrians, Russians and French and I fully expect to see a "battle pack" giving us more.

One change that I don't care for is that the setup locations are mo longer printed on the map, now players have to refer to the scenario card. This makes set up a little more work than it used to be and I don't think the small font used in earlier maps detracted from the look at all.

On the other hand, all the scenarios now include some territorial victory points for at least one side, which discourages the unhistorical gamey tactics that marred some of the first game's scenarios such as Ligny and Wavre. Now both players have to stand and fight.

The first scenario, chronologically, is Marengo, and in a first for the game system this has a free setup for one side as the standard scenario. While the French setup is fixed, the Austrian player can set up freely within a specified area. There are a lot of ways the battle can play out, depending upon the Austrian setup and this is probably one of the most replayable battle sin the whole game system. It's a pretty even match, too, as the infantry on both sides is depicted by 3-figure units.

The French start with six infantry, three cavalry and two artillery on the map, with one of each of the infantry and cavalry units being elite. The whole lot is led by Napoleon +3 (then actually Bonaparte). Coming in on turn 10 or after is the +2 leader Desaix with an elite infantry, a regular infantry, a cavalry and an artillery. The total French army is therefore 15 units with 42 figures.

The entire Austrian force starts on the map. Led by +2 Melas and +1 Zach, the Austrians have six regular and one elite infantry, 4 cavalry and 4 artillery for a total of also 15 units and 38 figures. Both sides are trying to get 7 victory points, with the Austrians having prize objective sworth 2 and 3 VPs on the French map edge.

Both sides are relatively well led. The French start with a base of just 3 CAP but jump up to 5 when the reinforcements arrive, while the Austrians have 4 CAP throughout. The scenario manages to capture the back and forth of the historical battle reasonably well.

The second scenario chronologically is Austerlitz. The Allied side uses both the white figures and the green figures, for the Austrians and Russians respectively. The Austrians are definitely weak links, however, with just 2 figures per infantry unit and no elites. The Russians will have to do most of the heavy lifting. The Austrian army totals six units with just 12 figures, while the Russians have 12 units and 32 figures. The allied leadership is abysmal, with Tsar Alexander +1 and Kaiser Francis II +1. The Allied base CAP is just 3.

Napoleon is present again, with his +3 self. He starts with 12 units and 36 figures and gets +2 Davout and four more units with 12 more figures on turn 5.

This is a long and bloody battle with a VP goal of 9 for both sides. The burden of attack in on the Allies, however, and the ensuing fight will usually bear at least a passing resemblance to the historical fight.

The third scenario is the weak sister of the bunch. At Asspern-Essling the Austrians are on their own with their 2-figure infantry and I don't see a realistic path to victory for them. It's just too easy for the French to rack up VP by killing Austrian infantry units There are territorial VP available for both sides, but they seem unlikely to come into play.

The Austrian force is comprised of 19 units but just 38 figures. Charles is a +2 leader but his assistant is just a +1. Both sides have a base of just 3 CAP, but the burden of attack is on the Austrians and their larger number of weaker units mean it is hard for them to do what they have to do with the CAP available.

Napoleon is, of course, on the field again, aided by +1 Massena. He starts with 13 units and 33 figures and potentially gets three more units with 7 figures as reinforcements. Unlike the battles of Marengo and Austerlitz, these reinforcements are not as vital to the French plans. The Austrians can spend AP to try to destroy the bridge the reinforcements need to enter, but it hardly seems worth the CAP expense.

The Austrians need to get 7 VP while the French need 8 or to avoid an Austrian victory.

The final scenario is Borodino (or Bordino as it's spelled on the scenario card!). This is, as one would expect for Borodino, a knock-down drag-out wrestling match between two evenly matched forces. The Russians have THREE leaders, Kutusov +2 and two +1 leaders. They have 15 units with 42 figures well deployed in redoubts and behind rivers.

Napoleon, on the field yet again, at +3 , has a +2 Davout and a +1 Ney to help. His 16 units have 45 figures and therefor a slight numerical edge, but it will be a challenging slog into the teeth of the Russian host. Good stuff. Both sides are striving for 8 VP, with the burden of attack on the French to win in 30 turns.

Overall, I think this game is a big success. The system has been cleaned up a bit and the scenarios seem well-selected. Games should still take aoiut an hour from opening the box, which seems to be the goal these days. There's plenty of luck to provide drama but players still seem in control of their fate a bit more than the card-driven system of CC:N. The CAP system guarantees some variability but the base CAP means that each player can count on a certain minimum level of activity every turn.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ill health gets in the way of blogging

I've had a nasty bout of the flu which crimped my style pretty hard. I hope to be back to active blogging shortly.