Monday, August 20, 2007

Start the week @ RD/KA! : Got game!

It continues to be games-a-gogo for yours truly this August with a bumper weekend's gaming, most of which was a pleasant surprise (in more ways than one).

Battlelore and more
It all began Friday night with a visit from Ros. I'd been promising to introduce her to Battlelore for some time, and we finally got round to it. So it was back to Agincourt and another chance to save the day for the English in the topsy-turvy world of the Battlelore Uchronia.

This game was an important test of my enthusiasm for Battlelore. Y'see Ros is exactly the sort of person at whom Eurogames are aimed: she likes competition without destruction and prefers player interaction which is about negotiation instead of conflict. So, for example (as regular readers will already know), she really likes Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, and for all the familiar reasons put forward by fans of those games. (You could check the BGG:Settlers and BGG:Carcassonne forums if you don't already know what these reasons are and you're interested in finding out more.)

Now I really like games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne myself. I really do. I enjoy playing them and also appreciate them as designs. But among all the familiar family games I grew up playing were games like Risk and Campaign. Plus I was a teenage tankie who shared with his brother the fun of writing our own wargames rules for our model collections, and I gravitated to professional tabletop rules and then board wargames in my teens. So there is a part of my gaming self which always yearns for the chaos and carnage of all-out battle.

So, after Ros' and my 24-game stint of Carcassonne in recent months, I couldn't help but feel it was time to step up to some butt-kicking dice-rolling for a change of pace. Battlelore struck me as the best battlegame in my collection for this purpose. I felt that Richard Borg's Commands and Colo[u]rs(!) system offers the ideal style of gameplay to appeal to Ros (who is an avid and regular Bridge player) as her introduction to tactical battlegaming. Moreover I suspected that the chivalric fantasy themes of Battlelore would appeal more to Ros than those of Memoir'44 or Commands and Colours: Ancients. On top of that, I hoped that the wide range of options offered by the fully expanded Battlelore will entice Ros into many future games.

And? Well?

I can report we got off to a good start. The limited range of options offered by her hand of Command cards made it easy for Ros to start making decisions from among an otherwise bewildering array of options, the underlying logic of most of which were beyond her understanding as she got her first ever Battlelore army moving. With the minimum of coaching she was able to form her army up nicely as my English archers maintained a steady hail of largely ineffectual fire.

The first moment of contact was indecisive IIRC, and I could see Ros' spirits wilt. But it wasn't long before the dice started going Ros' way. By this time she was standing up to watch every dice land in the dice box. The moment of her first truly decisive attack was telling: instinctively exulting as she swept my little plastic men from the board, Ros was almost as quickly taken somewhat aback. But she could scent victory and would let nothing get in her way, of her rampaging cavalry especially.

Ros' well-earned triumph followed shortly thereafter: 4-1. I decided I could live with that. I knew there'd be another day. ;)

0-1 :b

Usurpers dethroned!
The pleasant surprises began on Saturday with a call from Bill inviting us to a family boardgames night. I accepted with alacrity.

First, I regain my kingdom
The evening began with a 5-player game of Settlers of Catan (in which we all made sure to play the proper expanded board, unlike the last time we'd played- d'oh!). Facing each other across the island of Catan we had:
  • Radka, the unchallenged queen of Catan at our table.
  • Bill and I, both smarting from Martin's recent romps to victory.
  • Daniel, chomping at the bit to reassert himself after winning at his first ever game many moons ago.
  • Ros, keen to establish her winning credentials among a new group of players.
As cut-throat a bunch of colonising desperadoes as you could expect to encounter in virgin lands in other words!

The distinguishing features of that night's isle of Catan were, IIRC, a relative paucity of 6-point, 8-point and brick regions. And the gameplay? Looking back I would say that Development cards were one of the key features of the game. The particular nature of the resource base meant that lots of Development cards were being bought- we all often had both the resources and the time to spend them. The inter-turn building rule of the 5-6 player game meant that many of us were buying these Development cards in other players' turns, so that we could play them immediately in our own next turn. The net result of this was these cards were bought and played more often than is typical in an average 3 or 4-player game.

The upshot of this was that we entered the midgame with Bill in front thanks to his Largest Army while the rest of us were developing our own colonies quite nicely. For my part I was in a desperate life-or-death race based on a potentially fatal flaw in my initial setup. That flaw was the absence of Ore in my initial resource base. Without city-building resources I would be doomed.

I had only 1 way out- a 5-road build towards the centre of the board from my coastal fastness. A Road Building Development card helped me on my way, as did some careful use of the Robber to deny road-building resources to Radka and Daniel, who might've chosen to develop their own colonies towards my strategic target. I achieved my goal, but it was a close-run thing.

My road-building efforts drew attention to me thanks to the Longest Road, thus putting me in pole position for potential spoiler play via the Robber. And Ros started to build her own roads towards precisely the nexus I was aiming at just as I was collecting my resources for my final build. One or two different resource rolls or more favourable trading agreements were all it would've taken to pip me at the post to give Ros the endgame position I was aiming at, and Ros' excoriations when I finally got that settlement built (thanks again to inter-turn building) was sufficient proof that she knew this as well as I did!

And so I entered the endgame in front, with Bill a close second. This was a very dangerous position to be in. Y'see, among the many gaming skills Bill enjoys is that of being a silver-tongued devil. Last Saturday this came into play to distract the other players from his own potentially winning position while he was (with some legitimacy it must be said) rallying everyone to pick on the person in front- namely me.

On Saturday night this almost worked too: it turned out that Bill was a mere single Sheep card from gaining the resources he needed to build sufficient roads to steal the Longest Road from me for the win. In the end though the dice failed him where they didn't me, and I was able to play Year of Plenty to build my winning city.

I won by 2 points over Bill, with everyone else on 7 points. But it could easily've been very different: Bill could've lost his Largest Army but taken the Longest Road off of me. This could easily've kept the game open long enough for everyone to reach 8 or 9 points thus being in with a real shout in a whole different denouement.

1-0 :)

Then I establish my kinghood
We then moved on to play 3 games of a favourite of Radka and Daniel's: Ivanhoe. I won all 3, even after Bill decided to join the last game after having sat out the previous 2 (his Ivanhoe record against me is at least as good as his recent Up Front record!). Perhaps Bill sought to intervene to stave off the terrible fate he saw looming? I don't know, but it was to no avail in any event.

I'd love to be able to put all this down to skill, but I can't. I did play my cards well for sure, but there was also at least one time when I took a great risk in playing out most of my hand, so that I was liable to get shut out of the rest of the game while everyone else raced ahead of me. I also enjoyed some luck with the other players confounding each other so that they couldn't get ahead of me while I sat rebuilding my hand.

No matter. Be it luck or judgement, the night was mine. You can be sure that my fellow players (some at least!) were as despondent as I was delighted, although I must tell you that I was modest enough to forbear a victory dance... ;)

4-0 :b

Finally I show those French a thing or two
Returning from chez King, Ros and I rounded off our own evening with a rematch at Agincourt.

Looking back at our first game, I had concluded that my main mistake was that I hadn't been aggressive enough, ie. that I'd spent too long sitting back firing with my archers, so that my army wasn't well prepared for the moment when the French made contact. For the rematch, I was determined to change this. I did.

Dealt a Foot Onslaught card in my starting hand, I set out to form up my medium and heavy foot to exploit this to attack the French with an unexpected 2-hex charge into melee. This didn't go entirely to plan because I split my forces thanks to misreading the Foot Onslaught card, but I was still able to launch 2 medium and 1 heavy foot units right into the the French lines, then to push them further forward with the other Foot Onslaught.

Ros gamely tried to retrieve the situation, but the cards and dice were against her. I won 4-1.

Revenge aside, what was interesting about this game was the ideas it prompted about how to deal with the knotty problem of teaching basic battlefield tactics to a player to whom this kind of gameplay is utterly new. This problem is amplified by the very nature of card-driven games like Battlelore, where you simply can't separate your knowledge of your own cards from the advice you give your opponent. I hope to return to this another time.

1-0 :)

Curse you Biggles, curse you!
The weekend's (pleasant) surprises were rounded off with a call from Andy, who had some unexpected time on his hands, and was angling for some games of Wings of War. A quick visit to Static Games- our FLGS- later, we sat down to Dawn of War: Wings of War, featuring Andy's 2 Spitfires against my 2 Me109's.

Maybe it was the fact that I was too caught up in the weekend's existing medieval mindset to play my 20th century aerial steeds to their best advantage; maybe it was just that I played really badly (and I have to confess that my first game demonstrated the worst wingman play I've yet shown, with my 2 planes ending up halfway across the table from each other); or maybe it was just sheer dumb luck (and I'm sure that even Andy would admit that- short of outright one-shot kills- some of his shooting was superb beyond reasonable expectations... Hmm?).

Whatever the cause, I lost 1 plane then exited my other with just 1 damage point remaining in our first dogfight. In the second I feared my first plane's days were numbered thanks to its taking an initial 13 damage (out of 19) in our first pass. That'll be the last time I play chicken with 1 plane against 2 then I guess. My fears proved correct, although I did manage to down 1 of Andy's Spitfires in the same (IIRC) deadly pass which saw my own plane crash and burn.

The hopes thus raised were not realised. Luck was with Andy and my remaining Me109 was lost while his last surviving Spitfire flew home on spit and polish (2 damage left out of 17!). My 2 pilots parachuted into the drink quietly adding Goering's name to Biggles' as the object of their curses.

0-2 :(

Weekend's tally
Grins ;)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Got game!

With barely a pause for breath, the gaming has continued since the post-Claymore bash.

Back to the front
Katana has been on a top secret mission lately- too secret even to tell the GM, so Bill and I resorted to some more Up Front when he came round last Wednesday. We played 3 games:
  • 2 plays of City Fight featuring Bill's Germans against my British.
  • 1 play of Paratroop Drop where I took my American paras against Bill's Germans.
The details of one of the plays of City Fight completely escape my mind, other than the fact that Bill won. Actually, no, that's not true: I've just remembered that at one point I neglected to play a devestating fire attack against one of Bill's moving groups (his firebase IIRC) because I'd momentarily lost track of the Relative Range, a blunder so elementary I could easily exhaust my vocabulary of superlatives reiterating how stupid I was. Other than that I expect I was somewhat tanked, since my memories of that night's gaming have that sort of tinge about them.

The other play was more memorable, although no more successful. What happened in that game was that my British firebase strolled forward to what I'd planned would be a -3 Building at Range Chit 1- a pretty safe move early in the game. Bill's German firebase opened fire, promptly malfunctioning his LMG, which helped ensure that my own group was completely unaffected by the fire attack. With a Brush card in my hand as well as the -3 Building, I sensed an opportunity: my group hit the Brush instead of the Building, so that I could advance to the Building at Range Chit 2 instead of just at Range Chit 1.

Even as I was doing this, there was a nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me that I was making a mistake. And so it turned out. Bill managed to repair his LMG with no difficulty naturally enough. My firebase did manage to entrench in the Brush, but that didn't help: a series of Wire cards helped ensure that they'd been reduced to 3 men before they finally made it to that same Building more than a deck later.

Now this could've been put down to misfortune- as Bill tried to suggest, but I knew better. Y'see, there was no doubt whatsoever that the move I made would've been a very strong if I'd pulled it off. The problem was that I was relying on too much luck to get there. First I had to hope that the German LMG would remain broken long enough so that I didn't suffer in the Brush. And second I needed to draw a Movement card quickly enough to get forward. Both of these went against me.

In other words: the move would've been a smart play if I'd had that second Movement card in hand when the opportunity presented itself. Or perhaps if I'd been playing the Germans, the Russians, or the Japanese. As the British I should just've taken the definite gain I'd planned on and established a strong position from which to start dishing out the fire attacks against the German firebase. Hardly a numpty play like so many from the post-Claymore bash, or that missed killer fire attack from the previous game, but a sign that I've got a lot of old lessons to relearn to get my Up Front game back up to scratch.

The third game was much more straightforward. Paratroop Drop is an entertaining scenario in which the attackers set up at random. That is: the attacking player defines 4 groups, and their Group ID and Range chits are determined by random selection. Well not quite: the defender has some control over the Range chits (he picks one at random then chooses which attacking group to place it on), giving him the chance to drop an attacking group or two right under his guns. Once in place the attacker's objective is essentially to form up the squad in the hot dropzone.

Our game that night went easily for me because two of my adjacent groups landed at maximum range from the German defenders. So they were able to form up then advance, instead of forming up under heavy fire. An easy victory which taught me nothing I'm afraid.

1-2 :(
(But at least it's better than 1-6!)

Andy and I take to the skies again
With just the 2 of us presest during Andy's regular Sunday visit last weekend, we quickly decided to have a go with the new Wings of War: Watch Your Back stuff I'd picked up at Claymore the previous weekend. So we jumped straight into the combined Famous Aces and Watch Your Back scenario All Quiet on the Western Front. This scenario features 3 planes on each side:
  • Allied: a Sopwith Camel, a Nieuport 11 and a SPAD XIII.
  • Central Powers: a Fokker Dr.I, an Albatros D.Va and a Halberstadt D.III.
We managed to fit in 2 plays, and the result was essentially the same each time: the Allies won with the Central Powers losing 1 plane before the other 2 beat a hasty retreat. The difference was that I lost my Fokker Dr.I whereas Andy lost his Halberstadt.

What surprised us both about this was that we'd expected the Nieuport 11 to be more of a liability to the Allies- its 10 damage points makes it the most fragile plane in the game. It does have good guns though. And it has to be noted that the Nieuport might be a worry because it's fragile, but the Halberstadt is a worry because it's just plain rubbish- dead slow and stop with no fancy manoeuvres to pull (the Nieuport's no faster really, but it does have 1 or 2 nice tricks available). It does have the same good guns as the Nieuport, and it's not nearly so fragile, but you don't have to fly the thing long before you're cursing it for the clunker that it is!

Andy and I both had a lot of fun playing these 2 games and Fantasy Flight Games' entire Wings of War series has rapidly become a firm favourite we're happy to play pretty much anytime. We'll just have to become better pilots so that we can play it more quickly!

Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn't note a very important fact: Andy's last plane to exit the table in our second (his Albatros IIRC) had only 1 damage point remaining, and he'd oh-so-luckily taken 0 damage from a hit the turn just before the plane exited. Talk about jam, eh?!

1-1 :)

And yet more!
Erm, I expect I'll be grounded soon chaps
Donald had an unexpected free night yesterday, so he called round for some gaming. And guess what? We started with a game of Wings of War: Dawn of War!

This being Donald's first game that meant we'd be playing the old match-up of the Spitfire and the Hurricane against the Me109 and the D.520. Random selection of sides gave me the British. Good I thought- maybe this time I can keep the Spitfire flying.

I started with a minor variation on my familiar sideslipping and turning-in from the side tactics, while Donald started with the beginner's variation on the tactics Badger had tried in his first game. That is to say: he started to split left and right to come round behind me only to loose the plot completely as he worked to come to grips with basic flying. The upshot of this was that his planes were separated for most of the game and I chased his D.520 across the table and back.

I couldn't believe the luck Donald was having with this flying brick. Time after time I would shoot at it and the thing would still be flying. Meanwhile my own Hurricane had taken a couple of heavy hits. Eventually though I had both my planes flying straight in at the D.520. Unfortunately for me though the Me109 drew a bead on the Hurricane- another solid hit. One more like that and the Hurricane was lost. Luckily the Me109 fluffed its turn and the Hurricane survived.

By this time my Spitfire had passed the D.520 and was pulling an Immelman to get back into the fight. So I was faced with a choice: the Hurricane could break for the sake of survival, or it could fly straight in at the D.520 and hope for the best. Luck wasn't with me, and I lost the Hurricane. The Spitfire was soon in a good position though, and that damned flying brick was finally shot down with my next attack. I had taken 10 shots to kill the thing, which had been reduced to 2 damage points out of 16 when the Spitfire finally delivered 11 damage in 1 attack.

So now it was down to the Spitfire against the Me109. Both planes were undamaged (although Donald didn't know this, since the Spitfire had a 0-damage chit on it), so I was expecting a long fight. It wasn't to be though. Donald got a bead on my Spitfire almost straight away, and promptly drew the Explosion chit, downing my plane with a single shot. A 1/60 chance- what lousy luck! You can be sure that I turned the air blue for a wee while after that!

I save my honour at Kursk (or do I?)
Donald wanted to play Memoir'44 next, so it was off to the Russian front for Scenario 42: Ponyri.

Random selection gave me the Germans, which was both nice- look at all that armour, and daunting- look at all those dug-in Russians (3 artillery units in particular) and those minefields.

My initial hand gave me 2 left section cards, 3 right section cards (including Assault- ie. all my units) and Armour Assault. Getting all that armour moving for 2 turns had its appeal, even if the minefield would prevent the tanks from actually closing in for overruns. But I wanted some cards for my attack up the centre towards Ponyri before I committed to this. So I began on my left.

A turn later and I could see myself getting bogged down on my left without being ready to go in the centre, so I changed my mind and bit the bullet: Assault on the right. This brought 5 of my armour units into a nice line in front of the minefield, from where they promptly opened fire on the Russian tanks. A couple of turns later I'd broken the Russian line and I was 1 VP up on the exchange. Plus I was beginning to draw the kind of cards I'd need to make a decent attack on Ponyri, the capture of which was key to my strategy, seeing as it was worth 2VP if I could hold 3 hexes against Donald's 2.

And that was where the battle was decided. The game ebbed and flowed a bit, but the war of manoeuvre was over after my massed tank attack and it came down to a meatgrinder as I fed more and more infantry into Ponyri in the hopes of holding it while I sought elsewhere the VP I needed to win. I pulled it off in the end, but I was more than just a wee bit lucky: Donald was hampered by a 4-card hand and the fact that we mistakenly played the Russian command rules.

Erm, sorry about that Donald: although we weren't playing my Expanded Nationality rules, I forgot that as standard the Russian command rules only come into play when specified by the scenario. Your comments about the Russian command rules after the game suggest that this had a significant effect on your play.

Anyway, where I was lucky was that Donald wasn't able to feed his right flank infantry into the Ponyri meatgrinder. This could've had a decisive effect on the crucial battle. An entertaining scenario all-in-all, and one I'm keen to revisit, especially with the appropriate rules in play, expanded or otherwise.

1-1 (Ahem.) ;)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Got game!

The Claymore mega-session
So, as I wrote the other day, the post-Claymore gaming bash took place a couple of weekends ago. This year's was particularly epic. Martin was there as usual. So too was Alistair, an old friend of Bill's who was visiting with the express purpose of getting in some gaming. Our regular host was absent this year, so Martin drove Alistair and myself back to Glasgow from Claymore, where Bill's arrival chez yours truly was awaited with the aid of some games of Up Front.

What followed was a weekend's gaming so intense that I couldn't've detailed it all even if I'd sat down to write it up straight away, let alone at this remove. So I'll have to restrict myself to listing what we played and noting some highlights (or otherwise, as may be).

In the space of those 2 sessions, we saw played:
The scores were as follows:
  • Up Front:
  1. Alistair: 6 games out of 11.
  2. Bill: 3 games out of 3.
  3. Martin: 3 games out of 5.
  4. Me: 1 game out of 7.
  • Judge Dredd: Martin.
  • Cosmic Encounter: Bill won every game, including 1 solo victory, 2 joint victories with Alistair, and 1 joint victory each with me and Martin.
  • Settlers of Catan: Martin won both games.
  • Combat Commander: Europe: I won 2 plays of scenario 4 against Martin.
This left overall totals on the weekend as:
  • Alistair: 8 (out of 19).
  • Bill: 8 (out of 11).
  • Martin: 8 (out of 15).
  • Me: 4 (out of 17).
The first thing that readers will notice is that someone who was there those 2 sessions was keeping detailed records. I confess: it was me all along. Against the inevitable references to my sphincter I can only reply that I am a blogger after all, so these little details count. I must also note that the 4 of us there assembled that weekend are highly competitive gamers (as the trash-talking which went down made clear!). So vague references to who did, didn't or might've won what simply wouldn't've done!

The next thing that I'm going to bring to my readers' attention is that this was a truly awful weekend's gaming for me! And it wasn't just that I won a meagre 4 games out of 17 played (one of them being a joint victory at Cosmic Encounter more or less gifted to me by Bill). No, it was that I spent most of the time playing like a numpty!

In Cosmic Encounter for example I kept using my powers badly, if I remembered to use them at all.

And that game of Judge Dredd is probably the worst I've ever had. I was sitting on 4 points (thanks to the 'Gila Munja' card) well into the mid-game, which left me wondering if I'd get any arrests at all. This all the more so since I was playing with 3 master-finkers whose deviousness knows no bounds. My only comfort at the end of that game was that I won't have to endure a second term of Chief Judge Rex after he stole my office at the Grand Hall of Justice the last time Bill and I played. At least Chief Judge Lum lives far away, so he can't rub my nose in it quite so regularly. (Bitter, moi? Surely you jest?)

As for the Up Front? What can I say? Some of it could be put down playing the weaker side in difficult scenarios, or to luck (and it can, really!), but a lot of it has to go down to bad play against someone who was on the ball and who was playing the game with the right measure of aggression and daring, namely Alistair.

Take our 3 plays of the Japanese versus the Russians in 'Patrol'. I was happy to play this scenario to try out the variant Japanese setup I had used against Bill a few months ago. Our first play of this was a closely fought win for Alistair IIRC. The post-mortem led us to the conclusion that, if the setup was viable, I had lost because I hadn't pushed the Japanese forward in the aggressive manner required. So we tried again, and I did, winning with a cakewalk. Seeing what the Japanese could achieve with this setup, Alistair simply adapted his own, creating a mammoth Russian firebase with the result that my own lads died in droves as Alistair won a cakewalk of his own. So much for my variant setup was the conclusion of our post-mortem on those games.

It was the kind of flexibility demonstrated there by Alistair that I just didn't show in my games, 'preferring' instead to plug on with poor plans in the face of increasingly desperate situations. Painful as it was (and it was), I have to say that this sorry tale has reconfirmed my love of Up Front. I'm looking forward to playing more soon, and to applying the lessons I learned that weekend.

Of course, my gaming that weekend wasn't all bad: I did win those 2 games of Combat Commander against Martin. I was playing the German defence in the chateau which I have tried and failed to capture against Tony before. This was a bit of a worry to me: Martin is a great gamer, quick on the uptake, aggressive, and never afraid to take risks. So I was faced with the very real prospect that it would fall to Martin to have the honour of being our first player to win this scenario as the Americans.

That honour is still mine to win, but only just. In our second play Martin got closer to winning than I've ever managed. The key to his strategy was the smart use of smoke coupled with bypassing the chateau to gain VP by exiting his units off my board edge. This puts pressure on the German defenders in a way in which my frontal assaults of the past have simply failed to do. The result was a nail-biting game which demonstrated all the virtues of Combat Commander. And, because Martin insisted I record and report this: it is a measure of how close he came to victory that I had no leaders left, and was just 2 more eliminated units away from surrendering when I finally won thanks to Sudden Death while my MG nest was hosing down his platoon making a dash for the board-edge. Gaming is rarely better than that!

I can in all honesty report that some smart cardplay on my part (much smarter than most of my Up Front cardplay that weekend it has to be said!) played a definite role in my eventual victory. That said I must also report that sheer dumb luck played at least as great a role. Perhaps not quite so extreme in its sheer dumbness as my Egorov moment in my recent game against Tony, but a pretty hefty dose of good fortune in my favour all the same.

My own story aside, Alistair, Bill and Martin's weekends had their own highlights.

Alistair's no doubt includes his 5-1 run of victories against me at Up Front, which included several more cakewalks than the one I have already noted. Of all these, I expect that defeating my Russian Guards with his Volksgrenadiers in some 2 decks in our play of 'Elite Troops on the Attack' is one which he will savour for some time to come.

Bill meanwhile will be happy to be reminded that he won every game of Cosmic Encounter and Up Front that he played.

For his part, Martin will certainly be pleased with his own Up Front record. Two very convincing victories at Settlers of Catan which left the rest of us wondering how he'd done it will be very satisfying too no doubt. But something tells me that he'll be happiest of all at having won the prize of prizes: the best office in the Grand Hall of Justice in Megacity One. Curse you Chief Judge Lum, curse you! ;)

- Once more unto the breach! (Or: Still no room at the inn)
- Easter extravaganza #3: country-house carnage

Monday, August 13, 2007

Start the week @ RD/KA! : Ho hum, another Claymore

It's been nearly a fortnight since I posted last. This was because I've been particularly busy lately, not because my mood has swung so low I can't face the keyboard. Just thought I'd let my regular readers know the good news. Anyhoo, onwards.

A couple of weekends ago saw the first Saturday in August, meaning that it was Claymore Saturday. Run by the South East Scotland Wargames Club, Claymore is probably Scotland's largest and certainly Scotland's longest-running wargames convention. It is also caught in something of a timewarp, being essentially a hardcore miniatures games convention.

The event is held in the indoor athletics track at Meadowbank stadium in Edinburgh. When you go in you are confronted by 3 rows of exhibits: a central row of gaming tables flanked on each side by trade stands. There is a real sense of bustle for sure, but the area is cramped and gloomy. And that's all there is to it. There are no other rooms. There is no space for other activities, let alone for gamers to come along and do their own thing.

On top of all that, when you look at what's laid on, well, to be honest, it leaves me pretty cold. The gaming tables are given over to a mixture of demonstration and participation games. I really don't get this demonstration games thing. I mean to say: why should I want to watch other people play their games instead of playing games myself? I simply cannot get my head around the mentality which thinks that this is a worthwhile activity to lay on at a public event.

And the participation games are by and large little better. Why do I say that? Because most of the participation games are ongoing games which the public can join in with. That is to say: they are not games designed to be run to completion over a short period. This would seem to me to reduce any members of the public who decide to join such a game to the level of a place-filler in someone else's game.

Now maybe I'm being unfair here. There are a lot of nice models on the tables at Claymore each year, and I can well understand their appeal. I'm even faintly envious of people who have some of the miniatures collections on show. So maybe the visual spectacle itself is indeed an attraction which will help grow the hobby. And likewise not all the participation games look like demonstration games with room for a few people to join in. So maybe they too are an attraction whose power is lost on me.

But year after year I go to Claymore, and I end up feeling the same way: for all its charms, this is a backwater of the wider hobby, a timewarp in which D&D, Warhammer and Mt:G might never have happened. More and more too I find myself wondering if this is exactly what the organisers prefer. Whatever: it's their club and their event, so they can run it as they please. I just think it's a shame that our Scottish gaming community continues to lack the sort of event which represents all aspects of the hobby, which presents them attractively and comfortably, and which- above all- offers people as much time as they'd wish to play as many games as they can fit in.

If Claymore is as unattractive as I'm painting it here, why do I bother going at all? I mean, I typically pay my money at the door and only hang around for an hour or so before finding something else to do. There are several reasons. First is sheer nostalgia. I did my student drop-out days in Edinburgh 20-odd years ago. So the sheer beauty of the city is overlaid with poignant memory. On top of that there is the chance to spend some money, which I did this year naturally enough. Finally- and most importantly- there is the Claymore games bash, where I meet my old buddies, drink beer, and while away the hours playing boardgames until we drop. I wouldn't miss this for the world. This year's session was particularly spectacular. More on that anon. ;)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Got game!

More Badger-baiting
Last week's bumper boardgames bonanza continued on Thursday when Badger appeared for an evening's gaming. We were pleasantly spoiled for choice when it came to where to start:
In the end Badger couldn't resist the lure of the new, and we began with Wings of War: Dawn of War.

Spitfires wasted on me?
Given his choice of sides, Badger chose the Axis. So he took the Me109 and the D.520 up against the Spitfire and the Hurricane. Deciding to stick with a winning strategy, I started by sideslipping ready to turn in so that I could bring the guns of both my planes to bear on a single enemy. I'm beginning to feel that the winningness of this strategy is more luck than judgement, since my turn was too late and too shallow as it was against Tony last week!

Badger meanwhile had hit upon a good counter-strategy: he split to the left and right then turned inwards to bring both his planes in on my Spitfire. I knew that sooner or later someone would come up with a good alternative strategy to my own!

It didn't take long for Badger to start cursing the flying brick that is the D.520, but he was still able to get enough good shots against my Spitfire to send it spinning earthwards with disturbing ease. My Hurricane pilot was clearly more experienced than the Spitfire pilot though, because he was able to down the Me109. The game ended when Badger flew the D.520 off the table. A win! Well maybe not: unfortunately Badger was confused about the victory conditions, thinking that he'd get the VP for this instead of me. Hmm, so I think that we'll have to put that one down to a draw really.

Enthused by the game, and out for blood, Badger readily agreed to have another go. Yet again my Spitfire was the first plane to go down (this time suffering the first explosion yet seen in my plays of this game). What is it about these darn Spitfires? On the face of it they're no more vulnerable to fire than the Hurricanes, yet they always seem to be the first British planes to go down!

I was now doing everything I could with my Hurricane to keep it flying while getting a bead on the enemy. Luck had a lot to with it here as the plane took quite a few hits with no effect. Badger's frustration with the D.520 helped- he just gave up trying to get it back into the flight and flew it off the table. This over-confidence was to prove his undoing. As our planes twisted and turned in the corner of the table, he misplanned a manoeuvre, with the result that his Me109 flew off the table! Another draw!

And so, yet again, Wings of War proves to be a palpable hit.

1-1 ;)

We answer the call to arms
Dinner and a Doctor Who repeat out of the way, Badger was keen to try out Call to Arms, the new Battlelore army deployment system. Time was at a premium, so we just plumped for the first scenario, appropriately called First Encounter.

The core mechanics of Call to Arms (CtA) are really very simple. First, you set up your map:

Then you choose your deployment deck. There are 6 7-card deployment decks in CtA- 3 for each side. Each deck shows an average of 4 units, giving you the unit types and where you will set them up on your side of the map. Your deck chosen, you draw 4 cards at random from your deck. Then you look at them and decide which card will be your Vanguard, your Middle Guard and your Rearguard, and which will be your reserves. This done, you set up the Vanguard units on your right flank, your Middle Guard units in your centre section, and your Rearguard units on your left flank.

To round off the setup the player with the most light units deployed is designated the first player. The other player then chooses 2 of his reserve units to set up, after which the first player does the same. And that's about all there is to it in CtA's simplest version, known as the 'Impromptu Mode'. (If you want more detail, you can download the rules here.)

Random selection gave me the Standard banners, who set up on the bottom of the above map, and which I soon discovered is the side that gets the dwarfs. I grabbed a deployment deck at random (probably deck A), drew my cards, made my deployment decisions, and was soon set up. I had a reasonable mix of cavalry, medium and heavy infantry, and some archers. My set up looked to be without obvious weaknesses. I was content, and pleased at how quick and easy the whole system was.

With me having the dwarfs Badger had the goblins naturally enough. This meant that he had the most green units, so that I had to deploy my Reserves first. Still no problem. Then we chose our Lore Councils (we just had to play the Lore game, naturally enough!). I choose a level 2 Commander, a level 2 Cleric, a level 1 Rogue, and a level 1 Wizard (that's C2/Cl2/R1/W1 in BL jargon).

And off we went. I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but I tanked Badger in this first game. I do remember that I was able to play both Forest Frenzy and Hills Rumble. Neither had any great number of targets, and each rolled particularly puny dice against those targets they did have in any event. IIRC, the turning point was my Mounted Charge, when my 3 cavarly units were able to do some useful damage.

Mind you, my memory might be failing me here. Maybe this was the game in which I played Greater Portal to swap a dwarf medium infantry with a goblin archer unit, which hapless goblin unit I was then able to trap behind 2 units of my own and then pound into game-winning oblivion in 2 turns. However it went down, the score was 6-1.

Undaunted as ever, Badger wanted to try again. I chose deck C this time, and ended up with a strong force of heavy and medium infantry- mostly dwarfs- deployed on my left and in my centre, and a mixed medium and light force deployed to my right. Badger meanwhile was deploying an unpleasant looking horde of goblins across from me, having drawn at least one of the goblin 5-unit deployment cards from his deck. He was also setting up a Hill Giant with its rockpile.

I too had a creature up my sleeve, on my Reserve card. Facing Badger's Hill Giant I naturally wanted to take the unstoppable Earth Elemental, but Badger and I decided that the Reserve rules prevented this- you have to set your reserves up on your back row, while the Earth Elemental by definition sets up elsewhere. I was already feeling a little bit worried about the amount of cavalry massed against my own lone mounted unit, so having this choice forced upon me just added to my sense of impending doom.

The opening game lived up to those feelings of gloom as Badger was having pretty much everything his own way. But I did manage to get two good things going for me. I was able to manoeuver into a nice defensive formation on my right, at the same time creating a position from which I could support my centre. And my powerful left- 2 medium and 1 heavy dwarf foot, plus another heavy- more than held their own against Badger's attack on that flank. I was soon able to launch a counter-attack spearheaded by my lone medium cavalry unit and that Giant Spider.

Looking back I'd say that it was the Giant Spider which won me the game in the end. I used its mobility to get round the flank and then the rear of Badger's army, where it picked off 2 (maybe even 3?) of Badger's depleted units. I've never seen a Giant Spider do so much. Without it, I'm sure I'd've lost a game in which I sneaked a 6-5 victory.


All-in-all then Badger and I both really enjoyed our introduction to this latest member of the ever-expanding Battlelore family. We're both looking forward to trying it again, especially on the Epic scale. ;)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Got game!

Bloody Bessarabia
Bill was busy with something too important to put aside last Wednesday, so the next issue of 'Blades' was delayed again. This resulted in Tony and I sitting down to another game of GMT's most excellent Combat Commander: Europe. After my defeat as the Americans at the chateau of doom it was Tony's turn to choose the scenario. He plumped for Scenario 7, Bessarabian Nights.

Set during the Soviet offensive of spring 1944, this scenario features rear-echelon German infantry in action against Russian partisans on a heavily wooded map traversed by a railway.

The scenario set-up has some interesting features. First the Russian partisan units set-up randomly, using the random hex generator on their Fate Deck. This done, the Russian weapons are allocated as the Russian player wishes. Then the Germans set up anywhere they want on the map, with the proviso that all German units must be in a contiguous chain- ie. they are effectively in a column. On top of all of this, the Russians also start the game with a card in their hand which guarantees them a random reinforcement unit as soon as the German player discards (and he will), which unit can be placed pretty much anywhere on the map.

The random set-up notwithstanding, weight of numbers, those very handy SMG squads, and plenty of useful weapons give the Russian player some significant advantages in this scenario. Against this they are seriously hampered by only being allowed 1 order per turn from their 4-card hand, whereas the Germans get 3 orders from their 5-card hand. It is this limitation, and the tactical imperatives it imposes, which did for Tony's partisans in our last closely fought play of this scenario. So our game last Wednesday was something of revenge match.

What went down
Tony's set-up was mixed. Both of his leaders ended up in the southeast corner with few units available to support them. There was a significant cluster of Russian units to the northeast (near the clearing beside point 6 on the compass). The rest of the Russian units were scattered near the centre of the map or up and down the west side of the map. The satchel charges were allocated to the leaders and to 2 SMG squads, the LMG to the remaining SMG squads and to 2 Militia squads, and the mortar to a Militia squad.

The results of this set-up were that Tony's leaders were separated from the units they're supposed to lead, which would limit the Russians to ordering just a lone unit with their single order per turn. At the same time the lone leaders were exposed to my marauding platoons, whose first priority would be to kill the Russian leaders, thus throwing a spanner into the works of the Russian commmand capacity. That said, Tony's mortar was well positioned to bring some useful fire down around the centre of the map. And he'd managed to secure some objectives too. So like I said: a mixed bag.

With my foregoing comments about hunting down the Russian leaders in mind, I set up my platoons in and around those woodland paths to the west of the railway line in the southern half of the board (ie. just below points 2 and 3 on the compass). This put a Russian leader in the wood by the railway within a quick Move and Advance away for an easy kill (I didn't want to get too close straight away because of that satchel charge he was toting). The other leader was in the railway hex right down on the southern edge of the map. I could cover his attempts to move up to his troops, then mop him up at my leisure.

The first noteworthy event came with my first attack (on that first Russian leader IIRC): I drew a 12. Great result! But a Time Trigger too, and that a mere 2 or 3 cards into my first deck. I had the Initiative Card in my hand, and pondered long and hard my decision on whether or not to force the reroll. Let me explain.

One of the neat features of CC:E is that time isn't fixed the way it is in most other games: the time limit is random. How it works is this: there is a Time Track, into which goes a Time marker and a Sudden Death marker. When a Time Trigger happens (when someone exhausts their Fate Deck, or draws a Time Trigger result as I did just then), the Time marker is advanced up the Time Track. When the Time marker advances into or beyond the Sudden Death marker, there is a check to see if the game ends at that point: you draw, and if the result is less than or equal to the number on the Time Track where the Sudden Death marker is located, it's game over. If you add in the Initiative card- which allows you to reroll (or force your opponent to reroll) any dice roll as many times as either player wishes- and you might begin to get the idea that time in a game of CC:E is much more fluid and unpredictable than it is in most games.

In any case, the choice my 12 presented me with was to burn up some of my valuable time early on (with the risk that a run of such Triggers would see me under endgame time pressure before I'd even really started) or not. In the end, I chose to go with a result which I hoped would let me kill that first leader PDQ. This worked out for me, thank goodness.

While I was playing out the consequences of this 12, I faced the prospect of discarding. I briefly considered the option of not giving Tony his hidden unit so soon, but quickly decided he was going to get his unit sooner or later, so I might as well press ahead with my plans as quickly as possible. I discarded. Tony played his card and made his dice roll. Who should pop up but Captain Egorov- the single best Russian leader in the game!

Oh dear I thought. Oh dear I thought again when Tony promptly placed him right at the centre of that cluster of Russian units to the northwest. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Tony was now in a position to mobilise nearly half his force each turn. Plus he had the capability to create a truly fearsome close combat team by stacking Egorov with an SMG squad and a Green team (giving him a melee total of 15 to my best of 7). Suddenly the balance of the game had shifted very much in Tony's favour.

So, Egorov duly did what he should've, bringing that northern force storming south to assault my platoons. Meanwhile Tony's mortar brought down some useful fire on my most forward infantry beside the railway (next to point 2 on the compass). The short range coupled with the effects of airbursts made me decide on a prompt withdrawal out of LOS. At the same time I sent a platoon south to mop up a Russian squad lurking on the southwest of the map, just to make sure it couldn't screw me up with an attack from the rear.

It was at about this time that Egorov's lads crossed the railway into the woods. Not feeling ready to face them yet, I withdrew. Egorov and his lads continued their advance. By this time I had a hand which I thought was sufficient, plus I was wagering that Tony's card-cycling would leave him with a weaker close combat hand than my own. No time like the present I decided. So I played an Advance, and sent a leader and 2 squads in to attack Egorov. This was a very risky ploy. Let me explain.

Stacking limits in CC:E are very tight: effectively 1 leader, 1 squad, and 1 team per hex. Overstacked hexes result in the elimination of units. So by sending in 2 squads against Egorov's stack, I was effectively condemning myself to losing half a squad should I win the melee. But there was nothing else for it- Egorov would've made mincemeat of me otherwise, so I had to hit him with as much as possible before he could pick my units off one by one.

Then the Ambush cards were played. Let me explain again. Ambush cards are the key feature of close combat in CC:E. What an Ambush card does is force your opponent to break one of his units in the melee before cards are drawn for dice rolls. You can play multiple Ambush cards, so it is quite possible to eliminate an opposing force in close combat via a double-break without any dice rolls being needed at all. I had 1 Ambush card when I Advanced into melee. I was gambling on Tony's hand being poor. It wasn't. He had 2 Ambush cards naturally enough.

The result of this was that my best option was to eliminate one of my squads entirely, leaving me with a squad and a leader in the melee. Tony drew his card first, getting a melee total leaving me needing 11 or 12 to win and save my entire position from being ripped wide open by the rampaging Egorov. I drew a 10- mutual destruction. Deciding that keeping Egorov alive was a good idea, Tony promptly handed over the Initiative card to force a reroll- an 11! My cheers were probably heard halfway down the street. Tony's cries of you spammy git weren't so loud, but were totally justified I must admit.

This was the decisive turning point in the game. Tony tried to press home his attack, but my superior firepower and command capability made that difficult for him. For my part I was sufficiently far ahead in VP that I could afford just to sit where I was and force him to come after me. I did send a squad and leader out to finish off that leader of Tony's who'd been lurking by the railhead since the beginning of the game. We played cat and mouse for a wee while, but eventually I killed that leader too, and secured another objective.

This squad then went on to charge northwards towards an objective I wanted to grab (the railway hex on the north edge). Pausing only to eliminate another Russian squad in melee (at the cost of the leader thanks to more Ambush cards), this they did. Tony conceded soon after. I was left with 34VP.

In the post-morterm we concluded that the elimination of Egorov had been crucial to this game (no!), so much so that I expect I'll enjoy years of value from the use of the word 'Egorov' as a taunt! More than that, Tony's real problem was that he didn't regroup the rest of his forces, leaving him weak and scattered when he had to press his attack after that crucial melee.

Those details aside, what I found interesting about this game was that it was much more static than previous plays of this scenario. This was down to Egorov again. Y'see, although he died quickly, the forces he'd brought with him didn't. The result of this was that the bulk of my force stayed hunkered down in the woods where they'd deployed. I wasn't happy with this, but I needed to keep hold of at least 1 objective to secure myself against a Russian victory, and at the same time I had to maintain my forces in mutual support against the prospect of Russian advances.

All-in-all then an unusual and dramatic game.

1-0 :)

To the skies once more
Time was short after our game of CC:E, so we decided upon a game of Wings of War: Dawn of War. I ended up taking the Me109 and the D.520 against the Spitfire and the Hurricane again.

I decided to follow the same strategy as before. This left me doing the same thing as I've done in the previous games: sideslipping too fast for too long so that my turn towards the enemy comes too late and I overshoot on my first pass. Still, my extra experience told while Tony was getting to grips with his flight lessons, and I managed to shoot down the Spitfire. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, Tony's Hurricane headed for the edge of the table while I was turning to start my next pass.

I'm continuing to enjoy this game a lot. It's a vivid recreation of its subject using simple rules, making it ideal to fit in when you have the odd hour or so to fill. And there are lots of optional rules I'm looking forward to trying, plus campaign rules. On top of that, I can't wait to see the confusion of a 4-player game with 4 planes per side!

Grins ;)

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Here are some quick updates on items from recent posts.

DiceConWest 2007 tournament winners announced
I noted in my report on this year's DiceConWest that I couldn't remember the names of the tournament winners, and that I'd update you all when I could. Ellis Simpson is now back from his travels, and has updated the DiceCon website. Look here for the results of the Settlers tournament, and here for the results of the Kniziathon. Well done to all concerned!

Memoir'44 scenario correction
In my report on Badger's and my last M44 session, I commented on our discussion of apparent balance problems with Scenario 40: Breakout at Klin. I followed up our own discussion with a thread over at M44:DoW, where a useful discussion was concluded when designer Richard Borg posted a correction to the victory conditions which Badger and I had found so troubling. Sometimes internet bulletin boards generate 'discussions' which drive me to distraction, and sometimes this wonderful means of communication really proves its worth. Result!

That's all for now. ;)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Got game!

Chocks away Ginger!
Andy was round on Sunday. He brought with him his new copy of FFG's Wings of War: Dawn of War, the new WW2 version of their successful WW1 dogfighting game Wings of War. I'd first played Wings of War: Famous Aces- the initial game in the series- way back in June 2004 at DiceConWest. I was immediately delighted by the game, being particularly struck by the way the cardplay system handled preplotted movement and firing in a smooth manner without reliance on tables.

So you can imagine that I was pleased to give Wings of War: Dawn of War a go on Sunday. Andy and I duly had a game, in which my Me109E-3 and Dewoitine D.520 shot down Andy's Spitfire and Hurricane Mk.I. As we looked through the available planes to see what match-up we could choose for our next game Andy made a fateful suggestion: why don't we head down to Static so I could get my own set, and then we'd be able to play, say, 2 Spitfires?

Feeling lazy, I demurred at first. Shortly thereafter though, while making tea and coffee, I realised that one of my reasons for not having already bought Wings of War: Famous Aces had been a bit dumb- I'd imagined that my gaming table would be too small to play the game. Andy's and my game having proved me wrong on that score, I decided that there was no time like the present. And so an impromptu trip to the FLGS it was then!

There, I got myself a copy of Wings of War: Dawn of War and Andy couldn't resist getting himself Wings of War: Famous Aces. A couple of beers and a bit to eat later, and we returned to my flat where we managed to get in another game and-a-half. Our complete game was a game of Famous Aces, in which my Spad XIII and Sopwith Camel shot down Andy's Fokker Dr.I and Albatross D.vA. The game which we had to abandon featured my 2 Me109's against Andy's 2 Spitfires- a draw even if I was ahead on damage.

2½-½ :)

Utterly legitimate unseemly gloating aside, what was so interesting about the games I won was that they showed how Wings of War rewards real-life tactics, which is always a good sign in a wargame. In both games my tactics were straightforward:
  • Sideslip to one side or the other, making sure that my plane with the tightest turning circle was on the inside.
  • Keep my planes together and attack just one of Andy's plans, ignoring his other plane until my initial target was destroyed.
In other words: learn how to fly a proper pair of wingmen. Once Andy knew that this was the secret, he applied himself to his flight lessons, and was soon demonstrating that he knew how to learn them.

And how does Wings of War deliver this satisfying experience in such a playable format? Simple: through the use of cards. Instead of the logpad and pencil which is the more familiar format in which hexmap-and-counter air-combat games have delivered si-move down the years, players of Wings of War use manoeuvre cards to preplan their moves. An example of this is shown below:

Here you can see the key elements of the system:
  • The aircraft card- which moves about on the tabletop.
  • The manoeuvre card- which determines the movement of the aircraft.
  • The before and after- how an aircraft moves from the back to the front of the manoeuvre cards.
It really is as simple as that. There are rules for how certain manoeuvres must be played, and there are subtle variations between the WW1 and the WW2 games, but we are still talking about a dogfight game essentially no more complicated than Monopoly.

And those subtle variations? In Famous Aces you have to plot 3 moves at a time, then execute each move in sequence before plotting another 3 moves. In Dawn of War you only have to plot your moves 1 turn in advance, but each manoeuvre card also has slow and fast options, which you have to plot with the aid of counters when you choose your card.

Combat is just as simple. Each plane has a firing arc (the highlighted area visible on the front of the aircraft card in the picture above); plus there are range rulers, which are marked halfway down their length for short and long range. When an enemy plane is both in your firing arc and within range, you get to fire at it, which involves the player of the target plane drawing for damage. Basic damage is rated in points, which accumulates (secretly) until it is greater than or equal to a plane's damage rating, at which point it is shot down. There are also various special damage results, including the explosion- which blows a plane from the sky in a single hit!

Famous Aces features a single damage deck, whereas Dawn of War features 3 different pools of damage chits. In Famous Aces short range fire draws 2 damage cards, while in Dawn of War short and long range fire will draw different chits from the 3 pools, as defined on the plane cards. Although this is slightly more complicated than Famous Aces, it makes perfect sense because WW2 planes had a much greater range of armament than WW1 planes, which typically carried a pair of rifle-calibre MG.

(You can download PDF's of the Wings of War: Famous Aces rules here and the Wings of War: Dawn of War rules here if you'd like to find out about this in more detail.)

What was so enjoyable then about my games last Sunday- apart that is, from the simple glory of victory- was seeing how the game had evolved since my first encounter with it back in 2004. Graphics aside, the core components and the way in which they drive gameplay are pretty much the same. Nonetheless, each game feels significantly different, vividly recreating the different feel of each period.

In Famous Aces you get a real feel for the nimble little planes twisting and turning across the sky at speeds which would leave their WW2 counterparts spinning earthwards in a stall. Dawn of War on the other hand gives a real taste of the high-speed sweeps and wide turns of the much more powerful planes in WW2. And the simple system and lovely components really put you 'there' in a way not often found in the old hex-and-counter air combat games.

I can still remember the way my 2 Me109's came sweeping across the table, turned, reformed and started another run in our last unfinished game, my mind searching out clips from WW2 documentaries as they did so. But pride of place must belong to the Spitfire, which has that rolling sideslip manoeuvre; y'know, the one seen in every documentary you've ever watched which has featured the Spitfire, where it rolls over and just peels off? You remember that one? Well, it's in Dawn of War, and it's thrilling to watch because of what it does to your imagination!

Great game! We'll be back! ;)

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Not got time for a full entry, so just a quick update.

Got game!
Ros and I continued our Carcassonne contest last night. Ros won 2-1 on the night, sneaking her session-winning victory in the last few plays.

Carcassonne matches

Blades: Too Many Katanas #1
Katana and Wychblayde got up to their antics again last Wednesday. The scenario involved confronting a bunch of Katana clones in the service of Katana's evil former masters. It can only get weirder.

More soon. ;)

Monday, July 09, 2007

Start the week @ RD/KA! : 4-colour friends

Off the shelves of my local library
One of the great thing about public lending libraries these days is that they offer a much wider range of services than just the familiar book-lending. Some people like to complain about this. Me, I like it, especially when I can pick up a batch of TPB's for my enjoyment. Here's what a recent trip to my local library netted me.
Black Widow: Homecoming

Writer: Richard K. Morgan
Art: Bill Sienkiewicz and Goran Parlov
Colours: Dan Brown
Letters: Cory Petit

Apart from the cover picture of a leather-clad woman with a big gun, this book caught my interest because of the name of Bill Sienkiewicz on the art credits. Sienkiewicz was responsible for Elektra Assassin, simply one of the most visually stunning comics I have ever read. I was also interested to notice that this was written by Richard K. Morgan. I have an autographed copy of Morgan's Altered Carbon, which I bought when he sat on a panel here in Glasgow a few years ago.

To my initial disappointment Sienkiewicz's work on the book was limited, with Goran Parlov doing most of the art. This wasn't too bad, because Parlov is a good artist, and his style is close enough to that of Sienkiewicz so that there is no visual clash to irritate the eye. Overall, the art in this book is in a rangy, naturalistic style, which works nicely to take you out of the 4-colour world, and into the shadow world of intrigue in which the story is set.

As for the rest of the book? Richard Morgan delivers a taut thriller, featuring rogue agents and post-Cold War intrigue, all mixed in with a nicely executed re-imagining of the Black Widow character complete with the obligatory retconning. The story moves along at a brisk pace, the dialogue is tight, and the book's hard edge is to be found as much in the socio-political asides as in the violence you'd expect to find in a post-Iron Age treatment of an assassin.

I enjoyed this a lot. It's good enough to make me want to seek out the sequel- Black Widow: The Things They Say About Her- to see if Morgan can maintain his high standards.


Writer: Grant Morrison
Art: Philip Bond
Colours: Brian Miller
Letters: Todd Klein

I first became aware of Grant Morrison as a comic writer when I was visiting a friend, where I read Imperial, the TPB collecting #118-26 of New X-Men. Of course, it turned out that I'd already been a big fan of Morrison's Zenith, from 2000AD, but that's another story. In any event, I began collecting the New X-Men TPB's, and soon became enough of a fan of Morrison's work to pick up anything and everything with his name on it.

It was easy therefore to add this title to my pile when I was checking these TPB's out of my local library. It is a mark of Morrison's standing that Vimanarama was reviewed at the Guardian Unlimited, where it was called "a ripping yarn." I heartily agree with this sentiment.

At its heart Vimanarama is a simple tale of romance and adventure. It fuses the visionary cosmic adventure which Morrison does so well with an acute eye for soap-opera melodrama of the sort familiar to millions of TV viewers. The story involves young Ali, worried about the woman to whom he is about to be introduced for the purposes of an arranged marriage: first, because he is afraid she'll be ugly and stupid; and then because he's afraid the smart and beautiful Sofia will prefer a god to him. While Ali worries about this, everyone else is worried about the impending end of the world unwittingly unleashed by Ali and Sofia. Just another day in Bradford then.

Here again we have a story which zips along at a cracking pace, with twists and turns aplenty, and good jokes and some nice touching moments on the way. In other words: this is what we'd expect from Grant Morrison.

The artwork is also excellent. Bond's style reminds me of Cam Kennedy- high praise indeed IMO. His pages are clean, dynamic and expressive. Miller's naturalistic colours are lovely to look at too, and they work well when constrasted with the classic 4-colour stylings of the Ultrahadeen, the divine heroes who come to save humanity. Klein's lettering deserves mention too, for the sake of the 2 special styles he works up for the villains and the Ultrahedeen.

All-in-all then, Vimanarama is a little cracker. This could prove very useful for GM's looking for a new twist on Armageddon with which to challenge their PC's.

As an aside: I met Grant Morrison when he was on that same panel as Richard Morgan. In traditional Glasgow fashion we decamped to the pub afterwards, where I had a chance to talk with him. He's a very snappy dresser and a charming man who is a very interesting conversationalist. As a believer in magic and mysticism he is also barking mad, but in a good way!

Superman: For Tomorrow, Vol.1

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Art: Jim Lee and Scott Williams
Colours: Alex Sinclair
Letters: Rob Leigh and Nick J. Napolitano

Superman is a troublesome character for me. Mostly he's just dull, too powerful and squeaky clean for my liking. In the 1980's Alan Moore and Frank Miller delivered a Superman I enjoyed reading. Since then I have read the odd TPB which I enjoyed. My hopes for this volume were raised by Brian Azzarello's name on the writing credits. Azzarello writes the wonderful 100 Bullets, which I am collecting in TPB. Jim Lee's name on the art credits was just a bonus.

My expectations weren't confounded. Framing the story around Superman's seeking out a father confessor, Azzarello delivers a tale which draws inspiration from The Authority to present the Man of Steel facing up to the moral and practical consequences of his decision to intervene directly in human politics. As you might expect from a Superman comic published in 2004 and featuring these themes, this gives Superman: For Tomorrow, Vol.1 a powerful subtext relating to the war in Iraq, a theme Azzarello plants and leaves to germinate in the reader's mind without labouring the point.

Add in Jim Lee's lovely artwork and you have a very interesting Superman story indeed. I really want to find out what happens next.

Usagi Yojimbo, Vol.18: Travels with Jotaro

Writer/Art/Letters: Stan Sakai

Stan Sakai's anthropomorphic animal tale of the bunny-ronin Usagi Yojimbo is a comic whose high reputation prededed it. Although I have no special interest in samurai stories per se, I do like Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub. And, of course, there is Katana. So I was interested to see what I made of this highly popular comic.

And what did I make of it? Simple: I'm another fan for whom a complete collection of the TPB's is a goal.

Usagi Yojimbo has it all. The anthropomorphic device works really well, with the different animals giving an immediate persona to each character portrayed. Sakai's B&W line artwork is lovely to look at, with all the dynamism and expressiveness you could ask for. The stories are wonderful, with interesting plots which any GM could use for inspiration. The dialogue is good too, advancing the plot, expressing character and character relationships, and giving a real feel for the setting so smoothly that you can't see the joins. This is quality stuff exemplifying the unique qualities the comics medium can bring to storytelling.

Aliens: Nightmare Asylum

Writer: Mark Verheiden
Art: Denis Beauvais
Letters: Willie Schubert

Oh those bugs! Alien was the first X-rated movie I ever saw. Aliens is one of the greatest movie sequels ever made IMO. And I've always loved GW's take on the implacable all-consuming alien horde- the Tyranids. So I was happy to pick up this comic to give it a go.

What Verheiden and Beauvais deliver in Aliens: Nightmare Asylum is piece of hard-boiled military SF in which a group of survivors of the aliens' onslaught on planet Earth find themselves at the mercy of an utterly insane General Spears who has his own plans on how to deal with the aliens.

There is nothing fancy in this story. It develops themes familiar from the best movies in the Alien franchise. But Verheiden knows how to tell a good story, and Beauvais can certainly draw and paint. The chances are if you're a fan of this franchise you'll like this book. These chances probably increase if you're a GM who runs (or fancies running) military SF in the bughunting genre.

So I got some good reading out of this pile of TPB's from my local library. I would recommend them all to my readers. If I had to pick one to dispense with, it'd be Aliens: Nightmare Asylum. There is nothing wrong with this as such; it's just that it's the least original of the bunch. And if I had to pick one and only one? That'd have to be Usagi Yojimbo, Vol.18: Travels with Jotaro, because this is a whole new world of adventure for yours truly.

Happy reading. ;)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Got game!

Stalled before Moscow...
Last night was another Commands and Colours session with Badger. He decided that it was time to test the Russian Expanded Nationality rules for our favourite Memoir'44, so we promptly headed for Scenario 39: Operation Typhoon- At the Gates of Moscow.

Random selection of sides gave me the Germans in our first play. With all the available infantry and tank units in my force, I was well pleased.

The first thing that struck me on looking at the board from my side was that I'd need to get my forces moving as quickly as possible, because they're bunched up tight on their own board edge. The Russians had units who could bring my own units under fire immediately, so I could lose units to flags as well as hits. The next thing to strike me was how the terrain constrained the flank advances.

With these observations in mind, my opening moves involved throwing my armour forward to bring quick attacks onto the Russians. I got into the woods around Bryansk, and attacked those Russians entrenched on the western end of the hill-line, right in the centre of the map. The battle in the centre was furious, and I was soon suffering serious casualties. So I had a brainwave, and finally took my chance to form an armoured Kampfgruppe, of which more later.

The battle was being waged to and fro around Bryansk and those hills. I'd brought infantry up on my right, only to lose them when I blocked their retreat with armour units (d'oh!). Badger had brought units forward from around Kaluga and Mozhaisk to reinforce his forward hill defences.

I played Behind Enemy Lines to little avail unless memory fails me (forgetting to add my bonus battle dice didn't help). Then I threw that reformed armoured unit forward. It got across the hills and overran into the low ground to the south. Badger threw everything he had at it, but it managed to survive 9 dice while on a single model! This gave it another turn of carnage before the Russians finally took it out. And so we entered the endgame with the battle poised on a knife-edge (6-5 Badger IIRC).

I threw another armour unit forward to attack the hills, where Badger had 2 weak units. All I need was some average dice and I'd've won. The dice failed me. Badger's didn't on his next turn and I lost, 7-5.

We swapped sides for the next game. I began with Firepower. My units on the hills laid down serious attacks on Badger's armour units in the centre and on his left. I killed 1 armour unit in the centre with those 7 dice in that first turn. Badger then used his Saddle Orders to advance his armour in the centre and on his right. He reduced my westernmost hilltop infantry unit to a single model. I wasn't phased at all, because I'd cued-up Close Assault, and he'd given me more targets.

The game continued with Badger committed to clearing those units of mine off of those hills in the centre. Meanwhile I was just laying down as much fire as I could muster against his armour, especially against any units who'd suffer hits on flags. My units on the hills dealt out dreadful carnage. That artillery unit was especially heroic. Reduced to a single model it survived absolutely everything that Badger threw at it, and just kept firing and firing, to great effect.

We knew the game was mine when I'd killed 6 German armour units with only 2 losses of my own. By this time Badger had launched an attack with his left-flank infantry. That was where I mopped-up a unit to gain my eventual victory with a score of 7-3.

Having suffered this rout, Badger was determined to have another go. He applied the lessons he'd learned from the previous 2 games, and focussed his main efforts on clearing my advance guard off of those hills. My artillery was doing its stuff as usual, and I was getting ready to pick off Badger's own depleted artillery unit. Then he played Firepower to rain down 3 dice from his own artillery: 2 grenades turned up. Boom! My artillery was gone!

This had a decisive impact on the game. Badger was soon at 5 VP when I had perhaps as many as 3. I regrouped to punish the Germans when they made their final push. So Badger withdrew, forcing me to attack from a position of weakness. Knowing that I had no choice, I used the new Russian 'Urrah rule to pull together a credible attack. Unfortunately the Germans' interference spoiled it a bit- a key unit had been forced to retreat so its attack was launched from a poorer position, which proved decisive when Badger Ambushed it, killing it before it could attack. And then Badger sent an armour forward to seize the bridge by Kaluga, winning the game 7-4.


The Germans withdraw in good order
Time was short after we'd played these 3 games, so we decided to stick with M44 instead of turning to Battlelore. We moved on to the next scenario in the Eastern Front expansion set:- Scenario 40: Breakout at Klin. Regular readers might remember that I've played this before with Gav last year. Random selection giving me the Germans again, I was looking forward to another strong victory after my experience against Gav.

I wasn't to be disappointed. Badger and I played 2 games of this scenario (he gamely wanted a 2nd try with the Russians after the trouncing he suffered in our 1st game).

Minor variations aside, each game followed a similiar pattern. I would begin on my right by advancing to surround then destroy the forward Russian infantry unit. I would then follow up to destroy the 2nd Russian infantry unit on that flank before gaining further VP by occupying 1 or both hexes of Golyadi. Next I'd start laying down artillery prep. fire on the central entrenched Russian infantry units, weakening the trenchline before I sent in the Combat Engineers. If possible I'd also bring some armour out so that they could support the Engineers' advance.

In the 1st game the decisive blow was delivered with a Saddle Orders play of Infantry Assault and Their Finest Hour, which proved to be a delicious combo. In the 2nd game it was an Armoured Assault which sent 3 armoured units forward to crush the hapless Russkies. Both times I won 6-2.

Badger and I were left feeling that this scenario has balance issues. The 83-17% breakdown in favour of the Germans after 92 games which shows up on the DoW battle reports for this scenario suggests that this feeling is justified. We discussed this at some length. I won't say much about this here because I intend to start a thread on the topic over at DoW:M44. I'll let you know once that thread is up.

Grins. :)

The Expanded Nationality rules
So, how did these fare last night? I have to report that Badger and I are both happy with the rules as they work so far.

The plan card mechanic in general is working well. The ability to play 2 command cards in a single turn is a powerful one to be sure, which of course makes it fun to use. But in every case the use of the plan card requires a loss of tempo, which means that the plan card rules require nerve and timing to use.

The Germans' Saddle Orders gives them the ability to play a plan card and hold it ready for as long as they want. The Russian 'Urrah rule allows them to get their plan card played as quickly as the Germans (and more quickly than the British), but forces them to commit to the move. Badger especially made a lot of use of this when he was playing the Russians. The additional reduced hand capacity after an 'Urrah turn makes the Russian plan card rules feel right to us.

The Kampfgruppe rule finally saw use in our first game. I combined a 1-model and a 2-model armour unit into a full strength armour unit. I was later able to throw this unit into the fray. So the rule fulfilled its purpose nicely (although I can't actually remember if I got any VP back to repay the VP I had to give to Badger). Paying a VP for forming a Kampfgruppe seemed a much more sensible option than the original idea of losing a card.

So all-in-all then, we were happy with how the rules worked in play.

If the rules in play seem fine, it looks as if I can't say the same for how they are written in the current draft. Brummbär made a passing remark on the Expanded Nationality rules thread over at DoW:M44 which made me wonder how clearly the rules were written in the past. And Gav (after our recent games) and Badger last night, have both told me that they find the current draft difficult to understand, even if the rules themselves are simple enough in play. I guess I'll have to canvas for more feedback on the threads over at DoW:M44 and BGG:M44. There have been 140 downloads so far, so I'd hope to get some helpful responses. Fingers crossed I guess.

And that's it for now. ;)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Children of Atlantis #2

First to Cairo...
Last week's first issue of this new Katana/Wychblayde teamup had ended with our 2 heroes having discovered who, what, where and why:
  • Who- the Children of Atlantis.
  • What- the fragments of the Great Seal of Lemuria.
  • Where- the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo and the Guggenheim in New York.
  • Why- raising sunken cities and awakening Elder Gods.
It didn't take us long to figure out that Cairo, being closer, should be our first destination. It took us a bit longer to realise that Katana's sword and Wychblayde's polearm would make regular air travel impossible. Some time was spent considering calling on the help of one of Katana's contacts, but I felt that it was inappropriate to make this call for the sake of a taxi-service. With a little prompting from Bill we soon hit on the plan of stowing away in the hold of a plane. This proved easy to do, and we were soon in the dry heat of Cairo.

A talkative 'tourist-friendly' cabbie and a minor diversion later, Katana and Wychblayde snuck into the Museum of Antiquities in the dead of night to locate the fragment of the Great Seal to save it from the Children of Atlantis. As Katana snuck through the darkened exhibition room, Wychblayde walked boldly forward under cover of her invisibility.

Her senses more alert than Katana's, Wychblayde saw what came next before it happened. A mummy's fist shot out from between the bars of a cage, sending Wychblayde flying and knocking her cold. As ever against such creatures of darkness, Katana attacked with Shadowsword-Alpha. To his horror the mummy seemed quite unaffected by his attack. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for Katana when the mummy threw a display case at him, which hit him easily. Another hit like that and he would be KO'ed too.

Cursing his rashness Katana began to fight more defensively. This worked until frustration at the mummy's seeming immunity to his sword-strikes brought about a change of tactics which lowered Katana's defences. The telling blow landed and he was KO'ed. And so it was that Wychblayde came to to see the mummy looming over the unconscious Katana. Her efforts to turn the fight round were to no avail and she was soon KO'ed again. Our pair of heroes came to dangling from the mummy's hands just long enough to hear the museum's alarms go off before the mummy knocked their heads together and they were unconscious yet again.

Katana and Wychblayde regained consciousness lying on the floor (and not in the clutches of the leering villain as I'd expected) and to the sound of fighting nearby. Katana sprinted to the scene to see the mummy fighting 4 of the Abhoroth daemons last seen in London, while a 5th beat a hasty retreat from the scene. The fight seemed like an even match, so we went to investigate the basement which lay beyond a shattered door nearby (clever move, eh?!). Sure enough, we found that the servants of the Children of Atlantis had got there before us, and the fragment of the Great Seal was nowhere to be seen.

Upstairs, and decided to leave the mummy and the Abhoroth to their fight to follow the trail of the daemon escaping with the booty, our departure was interrupted by the arrival of a flying figure wearing gold armour marked with an ankh which made him look for all the world like an Egyptian god. He promptly joined in the battle against the daemons.

Sensing what was afoot, Katana joined in. Shadowsword-Alpha didn't let me down this time, and 2 Abhoroth were quickly felled. Now outnumbered 2-1 the remaining 2 didn't last much longer. Katana was just readying himself to attack the mummy again when the new arrival called on me to hold.

Introductions were made. Ankh and the Mummy turned out to be members of the Brotherhood, Egypt's state-sponsored superteam. More than that, Katana and Ankh had mutual acquaintances. And so it was that, on learning of what had gone down in London, Ankh agreed to use his influence to get us onto a diplomatic flight to New York so that we could try to keep the remaining fragment of the Great Seal out of the hands of the Children of Atlantis.

And then to New York
Katana and Wychblayde presented themselves at the Guggenheim museum, where we were introduced to museum director Dr. Donovan. Donovan understood the seriousness of the situation and was glad to receive any assistance we could offer, and to offer any help he could reasonably agree to.

We then found ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. Just sitting tight to wait for the cultists to arrive was unappealing not least because we had failed to stop them at that stage twice already. But setting out to investigate the Children of Atlantis in New York might leave us blindsided by the cult. A solution to this on Wychblayde's part- eg. a teleport device- was beyond her powers. In the end Katana had a brainwave [an 8 on an 8- roll on a newly acquired basic Deduction roll, bought with one of last week's EP at Bill's prompting!]- the London and Cairo attacks had both taken place at night. So we now knew that we had time to spare.

With Wychblayde checking the Children of Atlantis website, we soon learned that one Brother Edmund Stark was due to speak at one of their offices that very night. Stark was the leader from London I suspected had been lying doggo after that first fight. Things started to fall into place quickly now. A call to Ankh back in Cairo confirmed that Stark had indeed just flown out from Cairo. He was clearly responsible for the ritual implanting the Abhoroth in their human hosts. So we had a chance to prevent the attack on the Guggenheim from leaving its lair in the first place.

The denouement was quick and simple after that. We were ferried to our location in the Egyptian embassy limousine which had been at our disposal since we'd landed in New York. Wychblayde went to the meeting of the Children of Atlantis in her civilian identity. Katana lurked on the roof of the building with her weapon.

The meeting over, several people were hanging around afterwards. Wychblayde snuck out of sight, instant-changed into her costume and switched on her invisibility. Her magical powers were unfortunately detected, alerting people in the room. Noticing something was up, Katana decided to make his entrance via a skylight.

The fight which followed was fairly short. It was lengthened only by Katana's need to wait until Wychblayde joined him so he could pass her blade to her. That done, he dealt with Stark with a couple of punches. The SMG-toting goons were easily mopped-up thereafter.

Polices sirens could be heard approaching at this point. We decided to leave, taking Stark with us as our prisoner. As the day wore on we found out that our triumph was complete: the Guggenheim wasn't attacked; and Stark- who we'd delieverd to the Egyptian embassy- turned out to be wanted for crimes in Egypt. We made sure he was returned there.

We had a lot of fun with this session just like last week. I enjoyed getting into the swing of things with Katana again, and having little details of his new story develop. It was also fun working on bringing the Katana/Wychblayde relationship to life- I had Katana question Wychblayde about her powers so she could perhaps come up with a solution to our dilemma. And only just making that Deduction roll when Bill was despairing of feeding us the solution was a buzz too.

But, just like last week, the HEROmods Bill had adopted were the big star. We were all amazed at how quickly the combats run under these rules. More than that (and again, just like last week), it was clear that there is more to the initiative-based SPD system than just ease of use. The unpredictability of when you will actually get your phases is psychologically excellent. The simple fact that I have to wait for Katana to enjoy the benefits of his high SPD- instead of it coming up regular as clockwork as it does using the SPD table; this generates a frustration which makes him rash and impetuous in a way that it was so easy not to be using RAW. I really liked the way that this simple rules change brought new life to a familiar PC.

Oh, and we got 2 EP. So Katana has passed the 300pt mark at long last. And he now has the Deduction skill he's long needed to make him a proper detective. Whew! ;)