Monday, May 29, 2006

Life Is Gray

Fortunately.

Too often people try to paint everything as black and white, when, in fact, nothing is. We are confined to a reality between theoretical extremes that only exist in our minds.

I got thinking about this topic when I saw someone correct someone else about the improper use of a phrase like "almost unique". It triggered memories of elementary school when I learned that the phrase "more perfect"--right from the US Constitution--is improper English. Rubbish.

Words like perfect and unique are extremes. Denying the use of adverbs with them in comparisons is basically saying that you are not allowed to compare anything to them.

Surely if there are only two of some object in the world, then it is almost unique. It is also not unique. But it is more unique than something of which there are a million copies.

What is a perfect sphere? It is a set of all points in three dimensions that are the same distance from a common point. Do any exist? No. But we use the definition to compare real objects to. The Earth is a more perfect sphere than a Rubik's Cube.

Language is complex, subtle, and vitally important. Let's not handcuff ourselves with it. Leave that to the lawyers.

Life and games are full of shades of gray between the two extremes of every measurable property. Embrace the gray.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Ties

What is it with games and ties? Everyone seems to hate the fact that something might end inconclusively. I just don't get it. I have no problem sharing a win...or a loss.

Two sports teams spend a couple hours in heavy competition. The game "ends" 28-28. You'd think everyone could just say, "Wow! I guess these two teams are just about as even as you could get!" Not so. They must continue to play until someone scores again.

Why? Is it really a further test of skill to have a sudden death? Is it really a test of skill in a board game to have a tie breaker that has nothing to do with the normal goal of the game?

Yes and no.

The obvious answer is that since the rules of the game include rules for breaking ties, then players must account for any and all possible outcomes. This affects their choices during the game. It is a skill to be able to win by rule A, and if not then to win by rule B, etc.

But at some point--in some games--it seems like the rules go to great length to pick an arbitrary winner from the set of those players who tied. This really doesn't interest me. Might as well roll a die to see who wins. Might as well just share it.

So let's examine some games and the ways that they handle ties.

Samurai: This game is more about scoring than it is about tile laying. You collect as many figures as possible, but you can win even if you have the fewest. From the point of view of most games, the scoring rules are crazy, yet they are very logical and simple. Ties are broken by "other" figure counts and "total" figure counts, but ultimately there can still be ties. Very cool.

Carcassonnes: Fight tooth and nail for every point. All scoring meeples on the highest numbered space get to hug.

Around the World in 80 Days: A couple of things going on here. First, the player who reaches London last (not on the same turn as any other player) cannot win. A similar mechanism occurs in other games (eg High Society). Secondly, player order reaching London is saved, which breaks any ties in days. I'm not so fond of this as it is sensitive to player order.

Kahuna: The player who wins the final round of scoring wins in a tie. So if player A scored 1 and 2 points in the first 2 rounds, and player B scores 3 points in the final round, player B wins. I'd prefer to let the tie stand.

China: This is one of several games that breaks ties based on efficiency of play. The more "stuff" you have unplayed, the better.

Hansa: In contrast, some games break ties based on inefficiency. That is, the more "stuff" played, the better. This one always bothers me.

Jambo: Some games allow all the rest of the players to have one more round of play after a player triggers the game end. In Jambo, you win if you can tie or beat that player's score. This is a really nice mechanic. It forces you to evaluate whether ending the game is a good idea, since the advantage goes to the opponent. Of course, this works best in a 2-player game.

Antike: Some games use the "race" mechanism. The first player to reach some condition wins. There can be no tie. This is very nice as long as there are lots and lots of turns--mostly eliminating the start player bias.

I will always play games as written unless the rules are truly broken. However, I do feel in many cases that tie-breakers are thrown in at the last minute. They have no relationship to the flow of the game, have some player order bias, or are simply based on luck.

What games have the best/worst tie-breaking rules?


[Samurai image by Aldie]

Saturday, May 20, 2006

My Kid...

You know those annoying bumper stickers where proud parents taunt you with their kids' achievements? Well, what do you do if you are a proud parent of a kid who is a gamer? Fear not! The solution is here. I'll leave it up to you to figure what the games are.


MY KID BLOCKED YOUR KID'S NEW YORK TO SEATTLE ROUTE

MY KID ATE YOUR KID'S PINK CAMELS

MY KID CRAPPED IN YOUR KID'S WEAVING HUT

MY KID CONDEMNED YOUR KID'S MINISTER TO SIBERIA

MY KID STOLE YOUR KID'S SHEEP

MY KID 1-1'D YOUR KID'S 9-2 LEADER

MY KID MURDERED YOUR KID DURING THE NIGHT AND LIED ABOUT IT IN THE MORNING

MY KID BEAT YOUR KID OVER THE HEAD WITH AN AUTHENTIC KARL GLITTER

MY KID BOMBED YOUR KID'S 112233445566

MY KID SACKED YOUR KID'S TEMPLE

MY KID SHIPS YOUR KID'S TV DINNERS

MY KID MATED YOUR KID IN TWO

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ebb and Flow

I recently played a game of Jambo, and it occurred to me that this game has more of what I call Ebb and Flow than any other game I know.

In probably all games, you can be ahead one turn, then behind the next, then ahead the next. This is not what I mean.

In Jambo, you have 5 basic resources to manage: gold, market size, wares, cards in hand, and utilities in play. Although gold is the way you measure victory, it is not the way you measure your position during play.

You may be way behind in gold, but have 11 wares or a mitt-full of cards when your opponent has none. This is the Ebb and Flow of Jambo.

I was behind in gold 40 to 5, and was wondering how I could ever catch up. But then I noticed that I had a larger market, more wares, more cards, and more utilities in play. Several turns later, I had more gold, no cards, no utilities, and a smaller market. Although I was closer to victory in gold, I felt a little vulnerable.

I suppose you could say that, in this respect, that Ebb and Flow is simply an investment mechanic at work, ultimately paying off in gold. But it doesn't quite feel that way. I started think about other games in which this concept might apply.

Kahuna was the first game I considered--partially because we had just played that as well. The number of stones and bridges you have relative to your opponent can change dramatically in a single turn. But it surely never feels like having fewer components on the board is positionally better in any way, especially with the 5-card limit.

What about Carolus Magnus? Victory is measured by the towers you have in play. A single cube can cause all the towers in one combined region to change hands. That's a big swing, but again doesn't feel like Ebb and Flow.

Maybe St Petersburg then. Here you have 3 resources: cards, money, and victory points. As the game progresses, you ramp down on money and ramp up on VP. But you can't "spend" victory points.

That has to have something to do with it. What games allow you to spend your victory points (or whatever resource is counted for winning) in order to improve your position? Magna Grecia, Princes of Florence, Hansa, Magic: The Gathering (and probably other CCG's), and Traders of Genoa (and other games where cash wins). Of these, only Hansa comes close to that feeling for me. You can use a bunch of goods to build market booths rather than sell them. This can put you way behind in VP but set you up for later. But you are not spending VP; you are merely using what could be VP for something else.

What other games qualify? They have to have multiple resources being managed. The resource that counts for the win must be spendable. Is Jambo the king of Ebb and Flow?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

ASL Primer II

As promised, this is the second post about ASL. Here I will take the information laid out in the first post, and discuss it in terms of the phases of play.

While, in a sense, ASL is about moving and shooting, it is also about timing, control, and opportunity. Some of the realities of combat are included "as-is", and some are abstracted. For example, ASL includes some of the "fun" parts of combat tactics like drawing the enemy's fire in order to advance elsewhere, but does not include wounds and other ill effects on squad individuals.

In ASL, one full game turn represents a full turn--of 8 phases--for each side. The scenario will specify which side goes first. Although each side takes a turn being the active player, both sides participate in almost every phase and every action. One side will be the active player for a full turn, then the other side will do the same. Remember: a turn represents 2 minutes of real time.

The image above was captured from VASL (Virtual Advanced Squad Leader, which is a separate program from the more generic Vassal). It is a marker that can be placed next to the board on the screen to help players keep track of the current phase. I use the mnemonic RPM-DARAC to remember the 8 phases: Rally, Prep Fire, Movement, Defensive Fire, Advancing Fire, Rout, Advance, Close Combat.

Note that the phase acronyms on the marker each have a different color. This color matches the color of the informational counters used on the board. The phase color shows when the counters are removed. DM+4 counters are blue; they are removed at the end of the Rally Phase. Residual Fire counters are green; they are removed at the end of the Movement Phase. First Fire and Final Fire counters are purple; they are removed at the end of the Defensive Fire Phase.

Since 7 of the 8 phases involve moving and/or shooting, it can be cumbersome for a beginner to put it all together. Trust me; I am one. It all comes down to what your units are doing (or planning to do) on a turn.

Rally Phase: The active player takes any new units that will enter the board this turn (defined by the scenario), and places them at any allowed location on the board edge.

The active player then rallies his broken units. First, he may attempt to rally one broken unit where no leader present. Then, he rallies any broken leaders, followed by any broken units where unbroken leaders are present.

The inactive player may then do the same thing, except he does not get the free non-leader rally attempt.

Rallying is simply a 2d6 roll less than or equal to the unit's morale level. If the rally is in a building, the unit gets a -1 bonus. If a leader is performing the rally on a unit, you can add the leader bonus. If the unit was just broken in the previous turn (and from other factors) it will have a DM+4 (Desperation Morale) counter on it. This represents the temporarily disorganized state when a unit falls apart due to overwhelming fire. The counter is removed whether the unit rallies or not.

Prep Fire Phase: The active player may fire any/all units that have an enemy in range (normal or long) and LOS. Units that fire get PREP FIRE counters which means they cannot fire or move again during that turn (all units can move during the Advance Phase).

Movement Phase: The active player may now move any/all units that did not Prep Fire. Each unit that is going to move must make all the movements it is going to before moving another unit; once another unit is moved, you cannot move a previously moved unit again during the Movement Phase.

A basic unit gets 4 movement points (MP). A units moving its entire movement (starting and ending) along a road gets an additional 2 MP. A leader (and any units moving with it) gets 6 MP (7 along a road).

Expending MP represents a normally cautious military advance. Assault Movement is when units use extra caution. In this case they can move only a single hex. Units using normal movement are said to be using Non-Assault Movement and give a -1 bonus to any shots fired upon them while moving.

Defensive Fire Phase: This is the most complicated part of ASL (at least for me). This phase can be pictured as overlapping the Movement Phase as well as occurring after it. This is when the inactive player can fire at the active player's units that are moving (or otherwise expending MP). After the Movement Phase, defensive firing can continue, but without certain benefits.

Each MP expended by a unit provides an opportunity for it to be fired upon. For example, if a unit expended 2 MP to enter a building hex, it could be fired on twice by an enemy unit. This is an attempt to convey the time it takes to stop and open a door, etc.

The inactive player's units can fire an unlimited number of times (per turn, still only once per MP) but with less and less effect as well as increased requirements. The first time a unit fires it has no restrictions, but receives a FIRST FIRE counter. The second time a unit fires it must be within normal range, and no farther than the closest known enemy unit. This is called Subsequent First Fire and the firepower is halved. If you wait until after the Movement Phase, you can only fire a second time at an adjacent hex. After the second shot, a unit receives a FINAL FIRE counter. From this point on, the unit may only fire when an enemy unit enters an adjacent hex. This is called Final Protective Fire, and can only occur during the Movement Phase. Firepower is halved since the unit has already fired, but doubled because the enemy is in an adjacent hex. Units using this form of attack are desperate and have a chance to break. [This paragraph, for me, is the meat of ASL. I may even have some details wrong.]

All defensive fire shots during the Movement Phase leave half their firepower as Residual Fire in the target hex. This amount is further reduced by one column on the IFT for every hex of hindrance. For example, if a shot is made in the 12 column on the IFT, then a Residual Fire 6 counter is placed. Units moving into that hex later in the Movement Phase undergo an attack of 6. Remember that everything is happening [sort of] simultaneously.

Advancing Fire Phase: The active player may now fire with any unit that did not Prep Fire (even those that moved) at half FP. Some units are better at this than others, possessing what is called Assault Fire capability. This is indicated on the counter by an underlined FP value. When units of this type fire during this phase, you halve their FP, round up, and add 1. These are the kinds of units you want to use when moving and shooting at the same time.

Rout Phase: The active player must now Rout all units with a DM+4 counter. Units in a building may stay where they are unless adjacent to an enemy unit. Routing units have 6 MP to spend. This represents a general lack of discipline. They are not moving with any caution, just running away. They must move no closer to any known enemy (that they can see), and must enter the nearest building or woods if they can.

Each hex the unit moves into that has an open LOS to an enemy unit can cause Interdiction. The enemy unit doesn't have to fire. Just the fact that it could fire is enough. The routing unit must make a Morale Check and follow all normal results. If it is able, it may then continue its rout, subject to further Interdiction.

A routing unit may also use Low Crawl. I would compare this to Assault Movement. They can move only 1 hex, but are immune from Interdiction, even if in the open.

Morale and Routing are key components of ASL. In many games with conflict, you can leave a unit in a hopeless situation until it is obliterated. In ASL, units will break and rout when subject to overwhelming attacks. You can do nothing to force them. You must manage your leaders and your unit's morale effectively.

Advance Phase: The active player may move all of his unbroken units 1 hex regardless of previous fire or movement. This is the only time a unit may enter a hex with an enemy unit. If so, a Close Combat (CC) counter is placed on the hex.

Close Combat Phase: Any hexes where there are units of both sides now perform a round of Close Combat. The active player decides the order. The process is different from normal combat. First is a check for Ambush. Each side rolls a d6 and adds in any of several modifiers based on leaders, broken units, etc. If one side is less than the other by 3 or more, they have ambushed them. In an ambush, the attacks occur sequentially, applying the effects of the first before resolving the counter-attack. If there is no ambush, the attacks are resolved simultaneously.

The strengths of the opposing units are turned into a ratio (eg 1-4, 1-2, 1-1, 3-2, 2-1), which a chart resolves to a Kill#. Rolling lower than this number eliminates the enemy units. Matching the number causes a Casualty Reduction (full squad becomes half squad, half squad is eliminated). In a non-ambush situation, it is possible that both sides eliminate each other.

If, after the Close Combat round, there are still opposing units in the hex, it is marked with a MELEE counter, indicating that the Close Combat will continue into the next turn.


In summary, the active player fires his units during the Prep Fire and Advancing Fire Phases, and moves his units during the Movement, Advance, and Rout Phases. The inactive player fires his units during the Movement and Defensive Fire Phases, and only moves his units during the Rout Phase.

The above 8 phases are repeated for each player until a victory condition has been met, or until the prescribed number of turns has elapsed.

These 2 posts were probably over 50% of the rules in Starter Kit #1, but just the tiniest speck of the full ASL rules. There are many many more types of terrain, support weapons, ordnance, tanks and other vehicles, snipers, demolition, smoke, on and on.

The beauty of the Starter Kits is that you can learn the concepts one step at a time, and stop when you reach your comfort level. At this point, the concepts in Starter Kit #1 are more than enough for me. I was able to write these 2 posts mostly from memory, but there's a lot of details that I left out--partly because they would be too much, and partly because I don't know them.

"Keep your powder dry."

Friday, May 12, 2006

ASL Primer I

In this post--and probably the next--I will be giving a very light overview of ASL for those of you with little or no exposure to it. I am not trying to get everyone to try this game; it is clearly not for everyone. But for those of you on the edge--like I was--it might help you decide if this game is for you. Note that I am only learning Starter Kit #1, so my knowledge is limited to the simplified rules therein.

ASL is a tactical squad-level wargame representing the events, terrain, units, and weapons of WWII. Each turn represents 2 minutes. Each hex is 40 meters across.

I described ASL once to someone, and they said, "Oh, it's just a more complex form of Risk." Well...no and no. The first issue is that, in ASL, soldiers act like soldiers. In Risk, you can have 3 units attack 10 with the hopes of taking a unit or 2 with you. In ASL, you can't order a unit to run across open ground against 3 machine guns. Well, you can, but they will likely break and run back, if they survive at all. The second issue is about goals. The goal of Risk is to Wipe every other player off the map. The goals of each ASL scenario are different, perhaps even different for each player. You may have to get unit(s) off the edge of the map, or occupy specific locations, etc...all within some turn limit. In effect, you have been given orders, and you must carry them out.

Let's start with the counters. These represent the leaders, squads, and other game conditions on the map.

This is a basic full-squad counter (3 soldiers pictured). ASL takes all of the real-world attributes of a squad (weapon types, weapon strength, weapon range, training, experience, willingness to fight) and abstracts them into 3 primary values. This is a 5-3-6 squad. These 3 values stand for firepower-range-morale. I'll ignore the other information pictured since it's not relevant to this overview.

Firepower: This squad attacks with a base firepower of 5. If there are 3 of these squads attacking together, the base FP is 15.

Range: This squad can attack a target at normal range up to 3 hexes away. Targets from 4 to 6 hexes away are considered long range.

Morale: This squad has a morale of 6. This represents the likelihood of a bad result when the squad is fired upon, and the ability of the squad to get back into the fight if it breaks. The higher the morale the better. When a unit fails a Morale Check (rolls greater than its morale number), it is Broken. This indicates a complete breakdown in its effectiveness due to the overwhelming attack it suffered and the training level of its soldiers. Broken units will run for cover and hide. Broken units must be rallied, usually by a leader. When a unit makes a Morale Check and rolls its morale number exactly, it is Pinned. It may no longer move, and its effectiveness is hindered for the rest of the turn.

Note: Almost everywhere in ASL where a roll is required, 2d6 are used. In all cases, lower is better.

This is a basic half-squad counter (2 soldiers pictured). These may be given as part of a scenario setup, or created when the abilities of a full-squad are reduced in battle (Casualty Reduction). In this case, the 2-2-6 unit has a firepower of 2, a range of 2, and a morale of 6.

The change in firepower and range is a measure of the loss of effectiveness of the men and the weapons in the half-state. In this case, the morale is the same as the full squad, but it is not always true.

This is a basic leader counter (1 soldier pictured). Leaders do not have firepower, and hence no range. This 9-2 leader has a morale of 9 (very tough). For leaders, the dash between the numbers is not a simple separator. It is a minus sign. This leader has a -2 bonus (remember that lower is better?). This bonus is applied when units in the leader's hex fire, when units in the leader's hex must check results when fired upon, and when units in the leader's hex are trying to Rally (ie get back into the fight).

Each scenario defines a board (or set of boards) upon which to setup the starting positions for each side.

Here's a close-up of some common terrain for Starter Kit #1. E7 is a woods hex. D8 is a wooden building hex. F7 is a stone building hex. G8 is an orchard hex. All hexes with no feature in them, including those with a road, are open hexes.

Movement is from hex to adjacent hex. A normal squad has 4 movement points (MP) each turn. Open ground and orchards cost 1 MP to enter. Woods and buildings cost 2 MP. There are other types of terrain with different movement costs (eg grain in-season costs 1.5 MP). Each time you expend 1 MP, you may be fired upon. I'll get more into movement and combat sequence in the next post.

Line-of-sight (LOS) is a vital component of ASL. If you can see an enemy unit, you may fire upon it, and it may fire upon you. LOS is measured by drawing a line (using string) from the center of the shooter's hex to the center of the target's hex. Do not count the terrain of the hex the shooter is in. If the line touches the image of a building (not simply the hex) or the image of woods, then there is no LOS. However, you cannot check for LOS unless you are actually taking the shot. If LOS is blocked, then you are considered to have shot and missed. Note that by checking LOS, you are also informing the opponent about this information.

The 3 lines in the image show 3 different LOS checks, each with a range of 3 hexes. The RED line has LOS. The GREEN line is blocked by the building. The BLUE line has LOS, but the orchard hex acts as a hindrance (see below).

To make an attack, you need to know 2 values: the total firepower, and the modifiers.

The total firepower is the sum of the firepower of all the units firing. Any unit firing at an adjacent hex gets its firepower doubled. Any unit firing at a target at long range gets its firepower halved (keep all fractions, and add them). There are many other adjustments to all this in the complete rules.

The total firepower is then converted to a column on the Infantry Firepower Table (see image), rounding down to the nearest FP value.

The second value to calculate is the modifier. The basic modifiers are: leader, target movement, hindrances, and terrain.

Leader: The 9-2 leader above would provide a -2 bonus to any attacks that he directed.

Target Movement: If the target unit is moving in open ground (in an open hex with no intervening hindrances) when fired upon, there's a -1 bonus (to the shooter). If the target unit is not using Assault Movement (a slow and careful single-hex move), there's an additional -1 bonus.

Hindrance: Any hindrance crossed by the LOS (but not in the shooter's or target's hex) creates a penalty. Any LOS crossing an orchard hex (anywhere in the hex, not just a tree dot) adds +1. There are other penalties for other types of hindrances (eg smoke).

Terrain: If the target is in Woods, there's a +1 penalty. If the target is in a Wooden Building, there's a +2 penalty. If the target is in a Stone Building, there's a +3 penalty.

Add all the above bonuses and penalties. That is the total modifier. Roll 2d6, add the modifier, and consult the proper IFT column. If you roll doubles (and there is no leader directing the fire), the firing unit(s) Cower. This means you shift one column to the left. Units without a leader are not as reliable.

Here's a complex example covering all of the above. The shooting units are firing along the BLUE LOS line in the image above.

A 9-2 leader, two 5-3-6 squads, and a 2-2-6 half squad are in the wooden building in D8. An enemy 4-6-7 moves (using normal movement) into the open hex G9. The stack of 4 counters decides to fire. The range is 3 hexes. There is LOS, but it does go through a hindrance.

The two full squad's firepower is normal (5+5) since the enemy is within normal range. The half-squad's is halved (1) since the enemy is at long range for him. The total firepower is 11, which translates to 8 on the IFT. Too bad the half-squad is long range, huh? Otherwise it would have been on the 12 column.

What are the modifiers? The leader provides -2. The target is using Non-Assault Movement, which provides -1. The target is also moving in open ground, but from the point of view of the shooter, it is not open ground because of the hindrance. So no modifier there. The hindrance itself provides +1. The terrain (open ground) provides nothing.

So the shot will take place on the 8 column, with a -2 modifier to the roll. You roll 2d6 and get a 9. The final result is a 7, which on the 8 column is a 1MC. This means the target unit has to make a Morale Check with a +1 modifier. The unit has a morale of 7. He rolls 2d6 and gets a 7, modified to an 8. The unit breaks. The counter is flipped over (showing the broken state) and a DM+4 (Desperation Morale) counter is placed on top. This unit no longer has the will to fight, and will run for cover at the first opportunity. It may take some effort to get them back into the battle.

If G9 had been a Stone Building, then the total modifiers would have been +1 (-2 leader, -1 non-assault movement, +1 hindrance, +3 stone building). The roll of 9 would have been modified to a 10, resulting in no effect. The building would have made a huge difference!

The next post will be all about the sequence of play. You see, you don't just take turns moving and shooting each other...not quite.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Wargaming

Well, I certainly never expected to be writing a post quite like this one. A few months back, I stumbled onto the Point2Point podcast. I listened to their first show and decided to send them some feedback.

My question was basically this: Why aren't wargames more euro-gamer-friendly? Surely, more people would play wargames if the publishers made more of an effort to make the rules read a little less like VCR instructions, and the components a higher quality. I was aware of my own personal standards about rules, so perhaps I was the only one who thought this way. Recently, more posts with this same question have shown up on BGG.

Since then, I have done a complete 180. What could possibly cause me to do this? Did some burly wargamer stand over me with a baseball bat and say, "That's a nice euro collection you've got there. Shame if anything was to happen to it."? Not quite.

Before getting into this, I need to define ASLSK#1. It stands for Advanced Squad Leader: Starter Kit #1. It's basically a subset of the original ASL. It includes a set of simplified rules for Infantry and Terrain--all in 12 pages (including charts). It has a sheet of counters, 2 map boards, and 6 scenarios. It is the first in a series of Starter Kits so you can learn the system one step at a time. Kit #2 adds light ordnance. Kit #3 adds tanks and other vehicles.

I have had the extreme pleasure of being taught ASLSK#1 by Kevin Moody. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this task, let me say that I have never spent more than 20 minutes teaching any euro game without starting to play. I also feel that I learn very quickly in most cases--not that I necessarily play the game well, but that I internalize the mechanics easily.

Over 3 Skype sessions, Kevin spent 10-12 hours going over the concepts and the phases of a turn. Of course, there was quite a bit of intermixed chit-chat (no pun intended), but I would say at least 8 hours were pure rules.

Since then we started a game using Scenario 1. We played 2 turns (out of the full 5) in about 3 hours. We ended up not being able to hook up again for over 3 weeks, so we decided to start over. We've now played 3 turns of the same Scenario in about 3.5 hours.

What have I learned from this?

One: I am so glad I decided to give ASL a shot. I don't think I would have made it on my own, but being taught over Skype is awesome. Kevin is a very patient teacher, and a pleasure to talk to. ASLSK#1 is on my want list, and I am eagerly awaiting the reprint. I can't speak to the rules as I don't have them yet.

Two: I am willing to teach any euro game to anyone who is interested. However, I would not try to teach ASL to someone unless they were able to show that they were willing to commit to learning the game. It would take too much effort to have the person go, "Ok, thanks. This doesn't sound very fun after all." In other words, they would have to meet me half way either by having tried to understand the rules on their own, or having tried other wargames. In this respect, I think Kevin took a big chance with me.

Three: ASL is not simply a complex euro game. In fact, just having learned ASLSK#1, I don't even think it belongs in the same BGG weight system with euro games. Alhambra's weight is 2.07. ASLSK#1's weight is 4.00. Is it really twice as complex? No. It's about 50 times more complex. This is not wargame snobbery or elitism speaking. It simply is a lot of work to learn it. The only comparison in my experience would be trying to understand every card from every expansion of Magic: The Gathering--and how they interact--all at the same time.

So what does all this mean?

Say you go to the doctor and get a blood test. The result is a chart with perhaps 20-30 numbers on it. You ask the doctor to explain. He notes that all the values are in the expected ranges and tells you everything is normal. Then you ask if he will explain what a specific number means. He can say, "That helps us detect problems in your liver," but he can't really get into the science of it. He doesn't have the time to give every patient a lesson in remedial medicine. The only way you will really be able to completely understand is by going to medical school, or minimally looking it up on your own and learning as much as you can assimilate.

Also, my original question to Point2Point was kind of like going to a Mexican restaurant and saying, "I like Chinese food. Do you have anything that's less Mexican and more like Chinese?" I shouldn't be insulted if they say, "Why don't you just go to a Chinese place?" This is exactly what is happening when a wargamer says, "Maybe wargaming isn't for you." If you want to try it, you have to dive into their world, and not expect them to bring their world to yours.

ASL is full of acronyms like PTC, NMC, DM, CX, FFNAM, FFMO, DRM, FP, LOS, TEM, FG, MG, PBF, IFT, MMC, and SMC. It's not at all sufficient to simply have a glossary to define these terms. What's important is to see the acronym and immediately think of the concept. After having learned the little I have, I am already able to conceptualize FFNAM long before I think of what it translates to (First Fire Non-Assault Movement). They might as well be symbols. What this means is that your first pass through the rules is going to be gibberish. When the acronyms start to translate to mental concepts, then the paragraphs in which they appear (which is pretty much all paragraphs) will start to mean something.

I am not making excuses either. Sure, the rules and components could be better. That is true of any game. But wargaming is a different world. When the boards for Railroad Tycoon warped, many euro gamers started to circle the wagons. Even I took the game off my order. I get the feeling this just doesn't happen with wargames. If the game is playable and provides the appropriate historic-theme-to-mechanics representation, then wargamers are happy.

Wargame publishers are small-time. They try to cut costs in a big way just to stay alive. By comparison the euro-game industry is massive. The flip side of the coin is that there really are lots of wargamers. They don't really care to bring in thousands of euro-gamers most of whom don't really care about wargaming other than perhaps as a curiosity.

The complexity of the wargame rules is natural not artificial. They are complex because they try to cover a variety of interesting aspects of the game's period. They are not a fence keeping you out, but more like a scary house with an open gate. If you are willing to walk up and ring the bell, you will be welcome inside.

[The image is a screenshot of VASL with ASLSK#1 Scenario 1 loaded. It is Axis turn 4. The stars show the 4 buildings that the Allies (greeenish-yellow counters, played by me) are trying to defend. The Germans (in blue, played by Kevin) are coming from the North, South, and East. Additional Allies entered from the East, and are trying to put enough pressure on the Germans to keep them from being able to effectively advance on the buildings. The 3 DM counters are showing units under Desperation Morale. This means that they were subject to enough firepower that their will to fight was temporarily broken. In ASL, you cannot force units to commit suicide (eg Risk). They will behave like soldiers do when their lives are threatened. Sound fun?]

Friday, May 05, 2006

Playing With Vassal

Ever since I was first shown how to use Vassal by Kevin Moody, I have become more and more interested in it as a generic online gaming system. In case you haven't heard about it, Vassal is a Java application that allows you to design and play games online. It does not "run the game" like other online real-time or play-by-web sites. It simply provides a virtual table top that all players see and can interact with. The name Vassal originally comes from VASL (Virtual Advanced Squad Leader). The current system provides functionality for much more than just wargames. Check out all the modules.

Basic module design is fairly simple. Create all the graphics for the board, pieces, cards, etc. Enter them into the module designer and provide each object's properties. Of course, the more generic something is, the more options that need to be offered to allow for all sorts of gaming possibilities. Does the game need a grid? Do some objects snap to that grid? Does each object have a flipped side? Do some objects get stacked? Shuffled? What shows on top of what? In fact, the system as a whole looks very complicated. And if you want to extend the functionality, you can write your own Java routines.

So why am I even discussing this? Because I am trying my hand at a Vassal module. At this point, there seems to be as much of a learning curve as ASLSK#1 itself. Getting the basic objects defined was pretty easy, but getting everything to behave like I want is going to take more effort.

I'll post more information on my progress (including the super secret game identity) when I am further along.