Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Geek Movie Puzzler

Head on over to this GeekList to see how much you know about obscure geek-loved movie quotes and obscure game links, or to add your own.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Essen '07 Picks

Scanning this excellent GeekList, the following are my games of interest for this year's Essen games fair:

Amyitis: (Interest B) I love Caylus and Mykerinos, Ys is ok, and Yspahan is a flop. But I'm still interested in anything Ystari puts out.

Brass: (Interest A) Martin Wallace equals immediate interest.

Civitas Hamburgum: (Interest B) I love Antike, but dislike Imperial.

Die Suche nach dem Gral: (Interest B) I remember the original (Conspiracy) from college. I found the idea very cool. Will the remake have any changes?

Kingsburg: (Interest B) I've only seen the draft rules, but it sounds pretty good.

Municipium: (Interest B) Heavier Knizia equals immediate interest.

Roma II: (Interest B) The original is a good game, but degenerates too frequently. If this new version fixes the startup issues and wild card imbalances, I'm all over it.

Through the Ages: (Interest A) If the reprint has good quality, I'll buy it without even having the rules ahead of time. That's saying a lot.

Veritas: (Interest B) The description sounds cool, although the mechanisms by which you "spread your truth" are unclear.

Knowing what I like, have I missed anything interesting?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Year in the Making

A year ago, my brother recalled having tried to play Advanced Squad Leader with me back in 1993. He remembered the game fondly. At the time, my knowledge was insufficient to play even the simplest scenario.

I wasn't so much taught the game by a co-worker as I was led through it choice by choice. Ok, you can shoot now if you want. Can I move? Only if you are done shooting. Can I rout this way? Yes, but then I get to sort of shoot at you. You are better off moving just one hex. The simplest of concepts was never internalized. I was fascinated and undaunted by the magnitude and the rules, and although I bought my own copy, was never motivated enough to try to figure things out by myself.

In July of 2006, I was motivated by my brother's interest to find a wargame for us to play--hopefully one that we would spend more time playing than learning. I knew of the existence of the ASL Starter Kits (at the time, only 1 and 2), but I wanted to do a proper search and see if something other than the ASL line was available.

I looked at a whole gamut of possibilities including Fire in the Sky, Ardennes '44, Bonaparte at Marengo, Lock & Load, Hammer of the Scots, and Empire of the Sun. I even won a copy of one of them (EotS I think) from The Dice Tower, but decided I probably would never play it, so I asked Tom to find it a better home.

I needed something that appealed to both of us, and my brother was partial to World War II tactical squad-level games. I was unimpressed with Lock & Load's graphics and posted rules snippets.

I decided to give the ASL Starter Kits a try. By this point, #2 was available, but #1 was sold out. At the time, I think it was due for reprint in August. So I waited. It was pushed to September, then November, then January, then March. Somewhere in there I found a BGG'er who was willing to teach me. I decided that by the time #1 was available, #2 would be out of print, so I bought it. At least I'd have my own copy of the rules to digest in the meantime. #2 has all the rules from #1 with fixed errata. The changes between the versions are clearly marked.

Starter Kit #1 finally came out, but was unavailable at retailers where I bought other games. I figured at least Boulder Games would have it eventually, so I waited. It wasn't happening, so I broke down and ordered it, along with A Victory Lost, from Bunker Hill Games. I got my copy, carefully cut out and clipped the counters, bought a great storage case and organized everything, and waited for the opportunity.

Tonight was that opportunity. My brother came over. We setup the board for scenario 1: Retaking Vierville. I taught him everything he needed to know--from scratch--in order to play. Thankfully, I didn't have to teach any support weapon stuff, since I don't know it too well. As I expected, Defensive Fire was the most difficult thing to explain and to understand.

My brother took the Germans, who are trying to retake the French city which the Americans occupy. Both sides get reinforcements over the first 3 turns. He played a fairly conservative game, as expected for a beginner. This keeps your units safe, but puts the pressure on during the final 2 turns. You really need to push a bit.

Once he got all his units on the board and into place around the central area, he started to work on the buildings required by the victory conditions. Any one would do. All my units were in place as well, reaching the city without much interference. This usually bodes ill for the Germans.

Following a nice Prep Fire attack, I had to rout 2 units, leaving a front-line building with just a leader. I know, bad idea. Send the leader with the routing units, right? He concentrated some effort on this lone leader, and threatened to advance into the hex. I suggested--this being a teaching game--that he first deal with my one stack that could fire as he crossed the road. He started to do this, but not quite. We are alike, he and I, so I let him experiment to see what happened.

Before I realized what was going on, his attempts to "deal with" my western stack became an outright onslaught. We was no longer going for the eastern building! Even so, he managed to get a unit unscathed into the building with the lone leader, ambush him, and take him out before I fired a shot.

This is what I love about ASL. I've played this extremely simple scenario at least 6 times before and it's never been the same twice. Even a beginner was able to surprise me, and disrupt my plans.

We had to put the game on hold in the middle of turn 4. The entire session took about 5 hours. This included teaching the game, playing it, various chit-chat, and pizza. I was very happy with this session, and I think we've found what we were looking for. I can't wait to flip sides and Retake Vierville myself.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Game Night

After 10 or so plays--the last just tonight--Power Grid is losing steam with me. I've complained before about its inelegance, but that is not really the issue. The real problem is its lack of granularity in three different areas.

One, another player cutting you off from the only city you can built to cheaply can be devastating. You can't build. Therefore, the fuel you might have just bought at less-than-reasonable prices is wasted. The money you spent on it could have been used for a better plant, or saved to build elsewhere. And I don't really enjoy the spatial aspects of this game.

Two, the fuel market can be ridiculously unfair. One player could buy coal for 1, while you might have to pay 5. Players do not have enough control over their turn order to make this huge difference a matter of strategy. It almost feels like you are caught in a machine, moving at a specific pace trying not to get ground up by the gears.

Three, the game often ends with one player spending more cash than they had in the entire first half of the game building 4 or 5 new connections. The notion of tempo is completely lost. It's all or nothing.

I rate my games with fractional values because I like to compare even those that are very close in appeal. But when it comes to picking games for game night, I pretty much have 4 categories:
A - Games I will suggest and play any time: Taj Mahal, El Grande, Age of Steam, Princes of Florence, Maharaja.

B - Games I will play if others suggest them: Caylus, Carcassonne, Santiago, Manila, Attika.

C - Games I will play, but will actively try to suggest others: Ingenious, Reef Encounter, Oasis, Yspahan, Diamante.

D - Games I will not play (skipping game night if necessary): Ticket to Ride, Fairy Tale, Hacienda, Antiquity, Runebound.
Power Grid has moved from a B game to a C game.

Next up was a 2p game of Lord of the Rings with Mary Ann--a first time for her. I've only played twice before, and both times were solo. I had to refresh a little before playing.

I'm always amazed at how bad the original rules are, as well as the expanded version by Chris Lawson. I simply fail to see how anyone not obsessed with figuring out the game, and willing to spend hours on BGG, will ever figure this thing out. It's not a complex game by any means, but both sets are missing that very important game overview that would pull it all together. And the individual sections describing the flow of, for example, the active player's turn, are horrendous. I can't believe these were written by Knizia himself. Was it Hasbro or FFG's work?

Anyways, the game rocks. We played the entire Moria board incorrectly (we played only a single card after resolving any event tiles), and still managed to win.

I don't know the special cards off the top of my head by any means. At one point I was trying to decide if I should play cards or draw cards. I decided to draw cards. Mary Ann (as Sam) said, "Master Frodo, I really think you should move us along." I was down to 3 cards, but who am I to argue with Sam...or Mary Ann for that matter. I played 2 of my precioussssss cards. On my next turn, with only a single card left, Mary Ann plays Lembas, allowing me to draw 5 more cards! Nice job.

We destroyed the ring with Frodo and Sam at 4 corruption, and Sauron at 11, a very good result compared to my previous attempts. The game was a hit. If it holds up over the next few plays, I may look into the expansions. I'd appreciate the thoughts of anyone who has played any of the expansions, which work well for 2, and why.

Lord of the Rings image by breakmanynecks

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Game Night

One of the best game nights ever just happened. We had 4 serious gamers, and played my #3 and #4 games back-to-back.

Age of Steam is not suffering at all from repeated recent plays. However, I wonder if there are any winning strategies that don't involve players keeping all their tracks connected together. Every time I consider building away from my "empire", it seems it will gain me nothing and ultimately cost me a lot.

I was doing fairly well through the mid-game. On turn 7 (out of 8), I had a critical decision to make. My best play was to Urbanize and make two 4-link deliveries. This would net me 8 income. I had enough cash to secure going 2nd from the auction, and Urbanization didn't look too attractive to the player with$ 10 more cash than me. It was clear he was going to outbid me no matter how high I went, so I settled for 2nd.

He chose Urbanize, and to rub it in, built a different city on the site I had planned to use. This forced me to use my first Move Goods action to upgrade my Locomotive, and make a 5-link delivery using 4 of my own links. This ultimately cost me 12 VPs. I think I lost by about 14.

I also had an entire wasted turn. I miscalculated a delivery, then built a link that was useless. It felt like that moment in Caylus when you place a worker on, for example, the carpenter, but are unable to acquire a wood cube before building because of the execution sequence.

The Production action was used very often this game, and proved to be valuable. After my first two games, I considered it a weak choice. But in this game, with many deliverable cubes placed during setup, the board emptied quickly.

El Grande came next. By the end of the first scoring round. one player was ahead by about 20 points. This lead only got worse after the second scoring round.

I was playing an unusual game. By the end, I had not used my 10, 11, 12, or 13 cards. Needless to say, I went last quite a bit. This works well in the scoring rounds, but also means you get the choice of only 2 action cards (in the 4p game). The King card (#5) was always taken early. I did my best with cards that let you move cubes around, and managed to position myself to score in many regions, while seriously diminishing the leader's position.

Somehow, I squeaked out a win 107, 104, 103, 95.

El Grande image by garyjames

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Unusual D&D Session

Saturday saw our party of 6 long-time adventurers once again in the unknown. The main story arc has been going on almost since the start of the campaign 3 years ago. Sometimes it feels like we are no closer to solving it now than we were then. Our situation involves a group of local cities and towns, werewolves taking over various positions of power, a strange cult planting operatives and consecrating temples, and a lot of people dying.

Our treasure finder1 was contacted by a local treasure finder guild. They had been aware of suspicious activity in the area for some time, but were unwilling to take action. When they saw us investigating, they told us of an ancient ruins in the woods where people would meet. They secretly guided us to it.

It turned out to be an old Elven temple that had long ago crumbled. Beneath the mound of collapsed columns, however, there was quite an extensive dungeon. The initial set of chambers yielded a gate trap and a couple dozen skeletal guards, some of which were wrapped with muscular tissue. Killing them--which was exceedingly difficult--only seemed to pass their powers on to the neighboring beast. In other words, we had to kill the easy ones first. The party's overall offensive capabilities were enhanced by the use of several sorcerer Fireballs and clerical Turns.

Raising the bars let us into 3 ancient and desecrated temple chambers. Behind one altar, we discovered a hidden stone panel which revealed a long-descending stairway. Having exhausted ourselves in the previous battle, we decided to make for the surface and setup camp.

Now, as usually happens in D&D, the bad guys get surprise, and the bad guys are in the dark shooting at the party in the light. In this case, the tables were turned! Our fire-less camp set into the trees on the edge of the clearing kept us hidden from the 20-odd men spotted by our watch. They were mingling around the mound talking. Some were obviously of the magical sort, and others were obviously guarding them. One in particular was being guarded more carefully. They wielded the barbed blades often accompanying the enemy we have encountered.

We whispered our plans as we carefully put ourselves into attack position. We decided initially not to use anything that would give away our location, so I refrained from magic, and set my crossbow. Three, two, one. Arrows flew from the darkness impaling the supposed leader. One! Two! Three! Four! Five! He was one tough spellcaster, if that's what he was. I dubbed him: Boromir. Six! Down he went.

The soldiers started fanning out. Our Ranger used a Wand of Entangle. This kept about half of the men, including all of the robes ones, in place for now. Another round of arrows dropped several more guards, but now they knew which direction we were in. I switched to Magic Missiles. The Cleric cast Enchanted Weapon. The Dwarf switched to his axe and charged.

About 30 seconds later, the entire group lay dead, the party stunned with success. And then it happened. The words you do not utter in the presence of the DM. Someone asked, "Did anyone take any damage?" The DM happens to be my brother. He noted the passive-aggressive taunt with a smirk, but he is not one to change anything in his campaign to make it more difficult because of something like this. Still, the karma was in place...

In the morning, we ventured back to the hidden door and continued down. We found ourselves in a medium-sized room with a statue in each corner. Bow-wielding guards appeared behind the two farther corners and began shooting. We quickly split up. Then some kind of spellcaster appeared (out of thin air!) along with a large animated stone creature.

The two guards proved easy to kill, the magician much more difficult, and the stone beast impossible! It seemed unaffected by arrows, axes, magical weapons, magical spells of fire and cold. In short, we had no way to even hurt the thing. I began to retreat from the room after seeing how much damage it was doing with a single blow. The rest of the party, having a renewed sense of invulnerability from the previous evening's fun decided to stay and have it out.

It was touch and go for a long time. We had two characters near death only to be revived by potions or our Cleric's ranged healing spells (he has a ring). By the time they decided they must retreat, one character was dead, and the party was split between two hallways by the stone beast's long reach (Attacks of Opportunity are very poorly designed in D&D).

The Paladin sacrificed himself so that we could get the dead body out. The beast chased him. His best option was to duck into a room through a door too small for the beast to follow. Unfortunately, this room contained more spellcasters. The Paladin slammed the door shut and quickly summed his warhorse. His only chance now was to gallop past the emerging men and the beast, and pray to survive all the attacks. His horse collapsed from the first hit, and the Paladin from the second.

The session closed as we were dragging the fallen Dwarf up the stairs.

1 We have a Paladin in the party.