Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bosworth piece values

Bosworth is touted as "The Game You Already Know How to Play" because the pieces sin the game use the well-known moves of chess -- sort of.

I say sort of, because the pawns actually move a little different than their chess counterparts and Bosworth also doesn't have any of the special moves -- en passant and castling -- of chess.

I think Bosworth could have just as easily been called "knife fight chess" because that's how it really strikes me. The main battlefield is just a  four-by-four square -- a quarter of a chess board -- with an additional four-square "field camp" for each player for most of the game. Into this tiny battle field will foray up to 32 (in a 2-player games), 48 (3-player) or 64 (4-player) chess pieces!

It's a cvery close-range and chaotic fight that will leave players weighing captures and their relative values nearly every turn. But evaluating those captures by the tried-and-true valuations of regular chess is a mistake. The real values of the pieces in Bosworth are different.

In standard chess a pawn is usually valued as a "1." Knights and bishops are "3," with some authors giving the Bishop a slight edge. Rooks are usually valued at "5" while the queen is considered to be worth 9 pawns. The king, naturally, has an infinite value in regular chess because checkmate ends the game.

A pawn in Bosworth is actually more powerful than a pawn in regular chess.  While like a normal chess pawn a Bosworth pawn can only move forward, in Bosworth forward is defined as towards an enemy field camp, which means the pawn can move sideways in the three and four-player games. And with a three or four players a Bosworth pawn can capture in any of the four diagonal directions so long as it doesn't end in its own field camp. The Bosworth pawn can even capture on its very first move in 4-player game. The relative mobility of the pawn is also greater in Bosworth because the board is so small. In regular chess a pawn 's normal move can only cover one-eighth of the board. In Bosworth it covers a fourth of the board. Bosworth pawns do give up the ability to be promoted, however.  So we can still rate a Bosworth pawn as being worth "1" for comparative purposes, keeping in mind that it's a a little better than a standard chess pawn if there are three or more players.

The Bosworth knight retains its value of a "3," largely because of its ability to jump, which has a heightened value on such a congested board. The knight's mobility is constricted compared to regular chess because it's almost always close to an edge. Only from the center four squares can the knight enjoy the full 8 potential landing squares that it enjoys from 16 squares in regular chess. Still, the jump makes up for that and a Bosworth knight is still worth three pawns so long as the board is crowded. In a 2-player game, however, I'd rate a knight as worth just 2 pawns. The jump move is more constricted by the board edges, the board is less crowded and the knight's moves more predictable.

The Bosworth bishop is worth just 2 pawns. The small board reduces the value of sweeping mobility  that bishops,rooks and queens have in regular chess. In many squares the bishop has no advantage over a pawn as far as captures. The longest-range strike by a  bishop is just four squares -- and that's only possible to and from the end squares in the field camps.The maximum strike distance from a center square is just two squares.

A Bosworth rook is likewise not quite a s valuable as a regular rook and should be considered being wortj four pawns. The configuration of the board makes files more useful than diagonal moves. A rook can move up to five squares to make an attack and threatens an opposing field camp from its own field camp.

The Bosworth queen, on the other hand, is probably still worth 9 pawns and should always be saved for deployment near the end of the game when the battlefield has been cleared and she can use her mobility to the fullest. While the smaller board does constrict her mobility, the flexibility inherent in the queen move makes up for that in the end game.

A Bosworth king's value depends on how many kings are left. If he's the last king, then like a chess king his value is that of "game," but in a 3- or 4-player game a king's value has to be assessed against the board situation. Taking an opposing king doesn't just move a player closer to victory. It also instantly changes the geography of the board  as pieces are removed and field camp squares filled and adds a queen to the captor's hand as well.

The overall effect is that pawns in Bosworth play a much more aggressive role than they do in standard chess. They  essentially start at "mid-board" in standard chess terms. Pieces, other than the queen, are relatively less valuable than they are in standard chess, especially in the 3-player and 4-player set-ups. More important than the mere value of the chessmen is the timing and placement of them.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Patent a peel

The usual intellectual property protections available for games are copyrights and trademarks. It's the rare game that breaks such new ground that it can win a patent.

So I was surprised to see a patent number on my Banagrams game.

The game pieces are just 144 letter tiles. Nothing new there.

There aren't many rules to the game either -- just five in number, adding up to around 350 words of text. While clever and fun, also not really anything profoundly new.

So I looked up the patent number and wouldn't you know, the patent is for the banana-shaped pouch the game comes in!

This actually makes a lot of sense, when I think about it, because as clever as the game is, and it is fun, I think the main reason why it took off was the clever marketing. Like a lot of the other popular "fad" game over the last few decades, the game combines a very simple mechanic with a very high-quality presentation and clever marketing gimmick to stand out from the crowd, This isn't to imply the game isn't fun, it is, and marketing alone won't turn a turd into a  triumph. But there isn't really a deep game there and I don't think Bananagrams will end up with the kind of devoted following that Scrabble has.

Here's what the pouch looks like in the patent application:

US Patent No. D551,451S

Friday, April 27, 2012

The South Georgia campaign in the Falklands War

Santa Fe scuttled at South Georgia Island

The campaign over South Georgia in the Falklands War offers a microcosm of the entire conflict, as British pluck overcome some hairy moments while Argentine valor was no match for strategic ineptitude.

The entire war erupted when it did because of  an incident involving Argentine workmen landing on South Georgia in March without permission to dismantle a whaling station and raising the Argentine flag to proclaim possession. The Argentine Junta, which had already planned to invade the Falklands in September, suddenly moved up the timetable by six months, with doleful consequences for its war effort.

Jointly with its invasion of the main Falkland islands on April 2, the Argentine landed troops on South Georgia on April 3 and captured it, but not before taking embarrassingly heavy damage from the tiny garrison of just 22 Royal Marines with light arms. A helicopter was shot down, a second helicopter was damaged and an Argentine frigate was disabled.

Before the month was out, however, the British were back in possession of the barren island. The initial British efforts barely escaped disaster when bad weather threatened the lives of special forces troops landed on the Fortuna Glacier on April 21. On April 22 two helicopters were lost due to the weather and the troops had to be rescued.

The strategic ineptitude of the Argentinians was revealed by the misuse of the submarine Santa Fe.  While old and not very effective, the mere presence of the Santa Fe was enough to disrupt British operations and cause them to pull their naval forces away from the island, But it turned out that the Santa Fe was not there to stalk the British ship but merely to deliver reinforcements of 40 marines to the island. This mission caused the submarine to be caught on the surface as it was departing the island by a British helicopter on April 25. The Wessex used depth charges to damage the Sante Fe and prevent it from diving and a follow-up attack by a Wasp helicopter with an AS.12 air-to-surface missile damaged the sub further. It fled back to South Georgia and was scuttled in the harbor.

Later that same day the British landed troops on South Georgia and by the next day the Argentine garrison of 137 surrendered, so the reinforcements brought by the Sante Fe did absolutely nothing to beef up the defenses and just added to the haul of prisoners. If, instead, the submarine had been used to interdict the approaches to the island the British effort to retake it would have been more complicated.

While there may be a role for the submarine insertion of clandestine special operation forces, using submarines as transports for conventional  forces seems like a huge waste of resources. The Japanese also tried it a few times in World War II but to little effect. It's hard to see how riflemen brought in by the limited carrying capacity of a submarine could possibly have as much use as simply using the submarine properly as a warship. Losing the Santa Fe was a huge blow to the Argentine effort because it wiped out half of their operational submarines. While they had four boats on paper, only the Santa Fe, a US-made Guppy II class sub and the San Luis, a German-made Type 209 sub were usable . The other Guppy in the Argentine Navy, Santiago del Estero was cannibalized for parts and the other Type 209, the Salta, had  a noise problem that rendered it unserviceable.  The San Luis made several unsuccessful attacks on the British task force over the course of the war, and the British task force made equally unsuccessful attempts to sink her.  It was a major distraction for the task force, however, and one wonders what effect the presence of another submarine might have had. Indeed, had the Argentinians actually had four operational submarines instead of one, they might have foiled the invasion. They only had to get lucky once.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Abalone at 25, new classic or just another game?

Abalone in close up

With a new variant for Abalone called Off Board apparently on its way to America, it's worth taking a look at how the original game has fared now that a quarter century has passed.

Abalone is in that family of games known as "abstracts" or "perfect information" games, so called because there are no hidden or random elements. Both players have complete information about the board situation at all times and perfect control over their own moves. The classic games of chess and go are probably the best known of this type of game, but creating new ones has been a fascination for game designers for generations.

Yet despite thousands of attempts, no new abstract has ever really threatened the preeminence of chess in the West or Go in the East. While neither of those classic games is the top dog among the denizens of Boardgame Geek's gamer hobbyists, both rate reasonably high and neither has any real context in the general culture. Both Chess and Go have their own devoted cadres of hobbyists with their own Internet sites, publications, tournaments, professional players and general infiltration into the popular culture. Some modern games have also achieved this status such as Monopoly and Magic: The Gathering, but there are themed games with random elements and/or hidden information.

Standard set up for Abalone
When it first appeared in the late 1980s and 1990 Abalone caused quite a stir and was widely available in non-game retailers. It won a bunch of awards at various game festivals and publications and the company even started a "North American Federation of Abalone." (Oddly, while abalone is a fish, the game's name is either a play off the graphic design of the word which can be read "3 2 ONE" on its side or from an odd combo of Latin and English  AB (Latin away from) + ALONE = ABALONE (Unity in strength) according to Vol. 1 No. 1 of the NAFA Newsletter in 1991. Evidently there was no issue No. 2.

There were cash prizes for tournament winners and the other trappings of new game hype. I remember seeing a very nice over sized wooden version of the game played at Origins around 1995.

And it is a very nice looking game. The large glass marbles are striking and the unique, patented game board are very eye-pleasing.

Abalone is hardly dead. BoardGame Geek reported plays show it has  steady fan base. In 2011, for example, there were 31 to110 plays reported each month by between 1 and 27 unique users, a very respectable pace for a two-decade old game. Its wide availability is attested by the fact that 3,555 BGG members report owning a copy.

Abalone's claim to fame is it's unique "pushing" mechanic, where the players battle over the board by using groups of two or three marbles to literally push a smaller group of one or two marbles as part of their move. If a marble is pushed off the board it is captured and the first player to push off six marbles wins the game.

It can be a very fast playing game, illustrated by many of ts fans who report playing a couple of dozen games in a session. it's easy to teach to children and unlike many abstracts it has a nice tactile element that's hard to replicate on  a screen, so I think it has some resistance to being replaced entirely by electronic versions.

The original game is just two-player, but more marbles in additional colors can be purchased and there are some multiplayer variants. I have a third set of marbles and have played the 3-player variant. The new Off Board edition appears to be a 4-player version of the game.

"A New Classic" Vol. 1, No. 1, Oct. 1991
Yet despite being widely available, still played and an award-winning game, Abalone is still no real contender for the "Classic" crown. I think the basic problem for the game is that there's really not all that much there there. One problem endemic to evenly matched perfect information games is the tendency to be  drawish. While it's very hard to actually stalemate a game of Abalone (I have read that it's possible) the course of the game between two evenly matched players is likely to be very much like a sumo match. Am awful lot of pushing and shoving that;s opportunistic but very little in the way of actual strategy.

And this, I think, is its problem, While there are plenty of players who aren't into having a heavy dose of strategy in their games, they don't tend to be the players of perfect information abstracts. Abalone is, really, what I like to call a "trivial" game, in that it can be fun, but there's little incentive to indulging in a lot of analysis. In other genres game like this tend to have heavy luck elements such as the card games Fluxx and Munchkin or dice games like Cosmic Wimpout or Can't Stop. Not so much with perfect information abstracts where there's too much of a risk of becoming a solvable puzzle like Tic Tac Toe.

Among all the forum postings about Abalone on BGG there's just one short one on strategy, that points out the value of holding the center space on the board. That's just not much to build a "classic" game on after 25 years.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Peacetime naval colors at the turn of the previous century

Warships are often magnificent sights -- especially the grandest ones like aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers -- but one has to admit they're a little bioring, too. I mean, everything is grey! Unless they are close they can be hard to see. Maybe very useful in battle but not much fun for us taxpayers and naval aficionados.

Back in the late Nineteenth century and early Twentieth Century navies gave their citizens eye candy for those huge tax expenditure with some striking color schemes. Of course, when war came the ships were quickly painted gray, but  wars come rarely and most warships never se combat. But they're always in the public eye.

The 1:1250 model ship manufacturer Navis offers specially painted ships to show off this resplendent era of naval history. here are some ships from the ALNAVCO catalog:

USS Minneapolis

IJN Mikasa

Imperial Russian cruiser Rurik

SMS Emden

HMS London

USS Oregon

SMS Scharnhorst in China Station colors

SMS Scharnhorst in gray -- not quite as snazzy, but obviously more practical

Friday, April 20, 2012

A fascinating image from the Civil War

This image from The Atlantic's fabulous Civil War Centennial issue is an interesting juxtaposition. We have a black union soldier sitting in front of a slave auctioneers place of business.  No doubt the photogrpaher was well aware of the irony of his image -- one wonders what the soldier thought. Civil war era photographers were not above staging theirr shots -- perhaps understandable as true candid shots were not possible given the tehcnology of the time.

The caption says: A black Union soldier sits, posted in front of a slave auction house on Whitehall Street in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1864. The sign reads "Auction & Negro Sales". George N. Barnard/LOC)

An Axis & Allies too far?

Apparently there's going to be a new edition of the "base" Axis & Allies game, the 1942 edition -- and I'm decidedly "meh" about it.

The pricing puts it about 50% more than the current 1942 edition. The announcement reports a bigger board, some new sculpts and a new piece (AA gun) but unlike the other editions recently (The huge Anniversary Edition and the even more huge 1940 versions) I'm not sure what this brings to the game. The other versions were grander versions of the base game, but this sounds like it's more or less the same as the existing 1942 version. So why buy it?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Speaking of Doolittle, here's another famous one

The Battle of Lexington 1775 engraving by Amos Doolittle

It's easy to forget that, while there certainly were a number of important battles during the Revolutionary War, the first battle the Patriots had to win was the battle for public opinion. And in that battle they were aided by some silversmiths and engravers such as Paul Revere and Amos Doolittle. Revere was responsible for a famous and widely disseminated engraving depiction the "Boston Massacre."

Doolittle did four engravings depicting the events of the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, that played a key role in publicizing the Patriot view of events. The first of the four engravings is shown above, showing the incident at Lexington Green. Note that the British troops are shown firing a full volley while the minutemen are dispersing.

Most wargames concentrate on the battlefield, although a few, like the excellent Washington's War, pay some attention to the politics which, in a revolutionary struggle, is the most important part. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Much ado about Doolittle

I think World War II will have enduring interest for many centuries to come -- it was such a vast event full of remarkable stories -- but few of its stories are as remarkable as the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, 70 years ago today.

The Dooltittle raid is a cautionary tale for anyone who has the hubris to imagine that the contours of the next war will be clear. The idea that land-based bombers would be able to mount a raid from the decks of an aircraft carrier would have been inconceivable before the war started. And it is rather amazing the the idea even got  a hearing, really, and wasn't dismissed out of hand as being a crackpot idea.

From an initial proposal by Navy Capt. Francis Low on Jan. 10 to the raid on April 18 was just 108 days. In that brief time brand-new B-25 bombers were modified, crews selected and trained, naval forces marshaled and deployed and the raid executed by 16 bombers.

While all the bombers were lost to either crashes or internment, 11 crew lost as killed in action or POWs and actual damage was minimal, the strategic impact of the raid was immense.

The Japanese navy's main striking force of carriers was recalled from the Indian Ocean where it had been rampaging against the British and plans were set in motion for the naval confrontation at Midway i early June that decisively changed the course of the war in the Pacific.

Lt. Col. James Doolittle, already a famous aviator before the war, was made and general and awarded the medal of honor and went on to other important air force commands during the war.

The raid, itself, isn't the sort of thing that lends itself well to wargames, but there is at least one reference to it in a wargames. In Axis & Allies War at Sea Naval Miniatures the USS Hornet has a special ability that lets it launch a B-25 bomber squadron once per game.

And, of course, the most lasting impact of the raid was on morale. It provide a huge boost to Americans still reeling from the shock of Pearl Harbor while shocking the Japanese -- providing a harbinger of the not-to-distant future when bombers over the cities of Japan would be coming in the hundreds not singles.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

 From the Daily History of World War II widget:

"1942 - French General Henri Giraud, who was captured in 1940, escaped from a castle prison at Konigstein. He lowered himself down the castle wall and jumped on board a moving train, which took him to the French border. "

Pretty cool, if I do say.

And it was the second time he escaped from the Germans, too, having been captured duringt he First World War as well!

The fellow, however, had many less than admirable qualities, as his Wikipedia bio demonstrates and overall I'm not sure he was a positive influence for the Allied war effort. As difficult as Charles De Gaulle could undoubtedly be, he seemed to recognize the need to cooperate with the allies somewhat.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic tale of a troubled trio

First to go
The Titanic is getting a  lot of ink today on the centennial of the ship's tragic sinking in 1912, but it's worth noting that the Titanic was merely the unluckiest of a trio of ships that seemed to have a habit of running into things -- which generally resulted in something sinking.

The Titanic was a member of the Olympic class of luxury liners.

As is well known, the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage after running into an iceberg, but even at that point she wasn't the first of the class to have run into something. On the previous Sept. 20, 1911, the Olympic had collided with the British protected cruiser HMS Hawke, which got much the worse of the encounter., losing its bow. The subsequent inquiry blamed the Olympic for the accident. After being repaired the Hawke was later torpedoed on Oct.15, 1914, during World War I and blew up, with only 70 survivors from its 594-man crew.

No. 2 was Brittanic
After the sinking of the Titanic the Olympic was refitted with safety improvements, which were also incorporated in the last of the line, the RMS Brittanic. The Brittanic was converted into a hospital ship for World War I. The jinx afflicting the class was not long in coming and the ship ran into a mine on Nov. 21, 1916 (an alternative theory is that it was a torpedo, but there doesn't seem to be a claim). The resulting explosion did tremendous damage, exacerbated by portholes that had been left open and the ship sank in less than an hour. Loss of life was, however, relatively low at just 30 crew.

Olympic in dazzle camouflage
The Olympic was also pressed into wartime service, as a troop transport, and it was while seving in this role that it next ran into something -- although this time on purpose. On May 12, 1918, while ferrying American troops to France the Olympic spotted the German submarine U-103 trying to torpedo her and turned to ram. The U-boat was run down. There were 31 survivors from the U-boat crew, which was authorized to have 39 men. They were rescued later by another ship. There were no casualties on Olympic.

Sadly the Olympic class reign of running into things was not quite over. The Olympic returned to civilian service after the war and after more than a decade of runs, on May 15. 1934, the ship cut through the  Nantucket lightship, killing 7 of the 11 men aboard. The very next year the star-crossed liner was taken out of service for good and broken up for scrap a few years later.

Seamen are often seen as a superstitious lot, but when you consider the history of the Olympic-class ships you can begin to understand why.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Very exciting news about Ogre and Kickstarter

Until a few hours ago I had never heard of Kickstarter, but when news broke that Steve Jackson Games was putting Ogre on something called Kickstarter rather than do a Pre-order systen I checked it out.

First, let me say that there's no question I'll be getting at least one copy of this game. It's one of my all-time favorites and there's no way I can pass up getting a swag-rich copy like this one.

But I'm also excited about this leading me to Kickstarter. What a fantastic idea for creative types like myself. I'm already working on a way to leverage this fantastic idea to help me raise capital for my online newspaper -- more on that later.

In the meantime, though, I'm looking forward to seeing this come out. The response has been amazing -- the game reached its funding goal in just two hours! And I haven't even pledged yet! Just need to run some numbers first to make my decision. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Axis & Allies miniatures session -- Armored Carjacking

Dutch armored car gets disrupted by defensive fire as it tries to slip by Japanese forces. In the ensuing Assault phase it will be destroyed.

Knocked off a quick game of Axis &Allies Miniatures official scenario DI-2, "Armored Carjacking" at the game shop recently, facing the redoubtable Game Store Tony.

Tony has a soft spot for the Dutch after kicking some Nazi ass in a Memoir '44 scenario last year so he took the Dutch force in this quick, 5-turn scenario based on a Feb. 14, 1942 fight at Palambang, Sumatra.

Her a Dutch force, all represented by British troops, tries to bull its way through a Japanese roadblock.

The Dutch force is comprised of three SMLE rifle squads and a Vickers MG team, all riding in jeeps, which I presume represent light trucks or cars, supported by a Humber Scout Car -- which I presume is also a stand-in for some local Dutch colonial armored car of some sort.

The Japanese are represented by an Imperial Sergent leading three squads of SNLF paratroopers and a Type 92 MG team.

Scenario special rules specify that all the clear terrain on the map is woods, so essentially the significant terrain feature is a single road -- surrounded by woods except where it is surrounded by swamp. The Japanese lie in wait using hidden placement and the Dutch really have little recourse bu to try to fight heir way up the road.

And so the Dutch made their way up the road, leading with a jeep-mounted squad, followed by the MG-team, the AC and the the other two squads.

The first squad was gunned down as it drove by the hidden Japanese but the MG team was able successfully dismount. The Japanese pulled back a little to hide deeper in the trees.

Tony tried a wide outflanking move with one squad mounted on its jeep but they found the going very slow in the trees and by game's end they were deep in the jungle with no chance of getting off the map. The armored car tried a shorter flanking move but was slowed by disrupting fire from the Japanese MG team and then dispatched in close combat. The Dutch MG team was able to infiltrate off the map, but the last foot-slogging rifle squad found itself disrupted far shot of being able to get off the map and the game was called on Turn 4 as it was impossible for the Dutch to win at that point.

Casualties were on the low side for an AAM fight, with just a squad dead on each side, although the Dutch also lost one jeep and the armored car destroyed.

All-in-all a tough-looking scenario for the Dutch. The terrain restrictions really rule out any outflanking moves and the Dutch have to find a way to fight their way up the road.

Monday, April 9, 2012

A couple of interesting Civil War blogs

The Civil War 150th has naturally prompted a relook at some aspects of the war. Two blogs that I have found fascinating are Civil War Memory, which is devoted to the whole "black confederate" mythology and the new Grand Army Blog, which looks ta the postwar experiences of Union vetrans and especially the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization.

One thing that strikes me about the latter blog, is how pervasive the effects of what we would now recognize as PTSD were among the veterans of that war. It's evident that the same problems of homelessness, unemployment and chronic medial problems that we see in veterans from modern conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan were pretty commonplace after the Civil War -- although with much less public sympathy, medical understanding or official help. Just one more thing that armchair strategists and beltway pundits who blithely advocate bombs and bullets as solutions should consider. As this post entitled Haunted by Gettysburg illustrates, often the casualties are not tallied until many years after the battle.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Shiloh 150th

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh.

I've always wondered how the course of the war would have changed if the Rebels ahd been just a little more successful that first day. Grant was so vital to the Union cause, yet there can be no doubt losing this battle would have ended his career.

He would have been just one more general, like Pope or McClellan, who seemed promising at first but then exhibited a fatal flaw.

The line between glory and disgrace can be a thin one.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

30 years ago the Falklands were invaded

And so began the only large-scale air-naval war since World War II.

The Falklands War still seems an unlikely one, despite the advantage of hindsight.

While of considerable military interest, as it was the only conventional war involving significant naval action in the last 60 years or so, it may be more instructive for the way that nations can talk themselves into ill-advised military conflicts. The Argentine Junta persuaded itself that Britain was too weak to fight back and that they'd be allowed to keep the seized islands at an acceptable cost.

And, had they kept to their original planning, they might well have done it. The original strategy was to capture the islands in October when the Argentine conscript would have been trained up, the Navy would have carrier-qualified and Excocet-equipped fighters for its aircraft carrier and the British Navy would have have started a severe downsizing.

But events precipitated the Argentine timetable and on this date in 1982, they captured South Georgia Island, having secured the Falklands proper the day before. And yet by now the British were already reacting with astounding speed, having dispatched Admiral Woodward and a squadron of warships from Gibraltar -- the leading elements of a task force that would include aircraft carriers and infantry brigades before it was done.