Friday, October 24, 2008

Look on my works ye mighty...

Journeys in the Dark
Flush from Saturday's victory I was ready to take on the role of the Overlord in Descent when Andy, Donald and Tony turned up on Sunday for games. We played dungeon 4, with the end result that Descent's reputation as very tough on the heroes has proven to be more than deserved. I won while the heroes had only just opened their 2nd area on the map. I was taken a bit by surprise, because I hadn't realised that the kill I was just about to achieve would win me the game.

After 3 straight defeats for the heroes, the question of balance naturally came up on Sunday. I think the point is that the dungeons in Descent are supposed to be serious challenges, perhaps more so even than the missions in Doom, and I'm sure our marines took more games of Doom to beat the Invader than we've yet played of Descent altogether.

Clearly then we've not learned the necessary lessons about how to run a party of heroes in Descent. I have my own ideas about this, naturally enough, but as next Sunday's Overlord, I am reluctant to share them right now. But I can suggest that players who haven't yet done so read Kevin Wilson's Advice for Heroes. Of particular interest here are the thoughts of the man who designed dungeons to distract and divert heroes with trinkets and baubles. Also worth a look is Decrees for an Aspiring Overlord, which looks at the same things from the Overlord's viewpoint. Both of these articles contain good ideas about how to run a party of heroes in Descent.

Puny mortals 0
His Supreme Overlordship 1

Meanwhile, over at the Monolith
Descent done and with time to spare before dinner (Millefoglie alla 'guardia' as I'd done for Badger once before), we decided to play Nexus Ops. This was the first full 4-player session of the game, and it ran pretty smoothly. Even with 4 players, Nexus Ops is a game that should be playable in an hour or less.

We were following some new tactics I'd picked up off a thread over at BGG, so the game set off at a cracking pace. Donald was soon in a strong position, with a large empire and a strong VP lead. By this time though I had managed to seize the Monolith and was making good use of the extra cards this position gave me. As we entered the end game, Andy and I sat on opposite sides of a DMZ on my right, Tony had been ground down between me and Donald on my left, and Donald was looking for the breakthrough to victory.

Quite sensibly, Donald was massing to sieze the Monolith. Unfortunately for his plans, the sight of so many of Donald's units on his own borders made Andy nervous, and he launched a spoiling attack on Donald's army, which effectively saved me. Donald was justifiably miffed at this, although it has to be said that he kept quite quiet about his intentions throughout his buildup, so that Andy's misunderstanding of Donald's intentions (not shared by me I have to add) was essentially entirely Donald's fault.

In any event, with Donald's attempt to knock me off the high ground of the Monolith foiled, I swept to victory by winning 2 battles in a single turn, including swallowing up a puny human with one of my Rubium Dragons which had flown down from the Monolith.

Puny humans 0
His Supreme Overlordship and Master of the Universe 2

Monday, October 20, 2008

Saturday night firefight

Tony came round on Saturday night to play some Combat Commander. I fed him the lamb and fennel stew with which I'd my recent pepper catastrophe the first time I'd cooked it. I have moved on, beyond the simple caution that experience immediately imposed, to developing the art of tasting my cooking while I season it. I'm also measuring out my pepper by the teaspoonful instead of just pouring it in by the heap. The result was a hit, which was nice because fennel is a vegetable unfamiliar to most, and one with which I'm keen to cook regularly.

Tony hasn't played Combat Commander in a while, so I gave him his choice of scenario. He chose Scenario 8, Breakout Dance. I guess this choice was influenced by the low unit count in the scenario, which Tony must've thought would ease his return to the game. Whatever his reasons, Tony's choice was to prove unfortunate for him, as a quick card draw gave me choice of sides, and I chose the Germans. So not only was Tony forced to play the Russians he'd declared he wanted to avoid, but he had to play them at night and with a mere 1 order (yeah, well, I didn't fancy that much either!).

The effects of night on fire attacks, combined with the Russians' restriction to 1 order, means that the Germans can easily exploit any gap in the Russian lines. Accumulated wisdom therefore dictates that the Russians have to set up a simple line straight across the map. Apprised of this, Tony saw no reason to disagree, and promptly set up his line in hexrow G, ie. as far foward as allowed. He had a leader plus an MMG in the field to the west, and another in the woods on the hill in the centre.

For my part, I went for a main attack comprising a squad/LMG in the western objective building, led by the redoubtable Sgt. Ganz (8-2 leader), and a squad/LMG in foxholes on the adjacent hill. I also put foxholes in the hex where the road ends, immediately north of the position. I set up my 9-1 leader and squad/LMG in foxholes on the wooded hill, to the SE. My basic plan was for Ganz and his squads to shoot a hole in the Russian lines, then to exploit the gap. The immediate purpose of the other squad was create a 2-pronged attack to split and overload the Russian defences. In practice this would have to amount to aggressive exploitation of any opportunities offered by a hand otherwise to be optimised for Ganz's attack.

Tony was soon made to pay the price for what we both saw with hindsight was a foolishly foward Russian deployment. As if turn after turn of fire attacks from Ganz's hilltop vantage point from the get-go wasn't bad enough, I was also getting good use out of a German specialty I always enjoy- spray fire, by virtue of which I was able to break 2 units on Tony's most western flank. While that breakthrough point was being finally secured, I'd thrown my units forward in the east. A quick close combat ensued, with another breakthough point the result. I quickly got Schrader and his men through the Russian lines and into the woods hex on the eastern map edge.

Ganz's dash for the western gap followed almost immediately. Tony had a card for opportunity fire natually enough, so that both my moving stacks were broken some halfway, ie. somewhere adjacent to the farmhouse in those fields. Ganz's stack in particular was worrying, it being adjacent to Russian units and me with no recover cards. I was fortunate to draw an advance straight away so that a quick move to safety in the building soon followed.

The rest of the game played out with me completing my exit and re-entry on my right, while Tony quickly regrouped his dispersed force from around the central hilltop into the low ground just west of centre, from where he promptly launched a dash north along the hedgeline. His hope of establishing a firing line to block my dash for the map edge were shot down by opportunity fire from Ganz and his platoon, by now rallied and regrouped. Tony's counterthrust neutralised, Ganz and his squads began their dash for the board edge. I had the 2 move cards needed before I began, but I was slowed down for a turn or two by opportunity fire from Tony's reinforcements so carefully deployed many turns previously. An isolated squad at night couldn't do much though, and my units made their exit soon enough.

Tony's force was on the verge of surrender by this point, and he was 34VP behind, so he conceded just after the game had entered time 5.

Tony 0
Me 1

Setting up the Russians at the forward limit of their deployment area left Tony's units exposed to immediate fire of weight sufficient easily to break them, night conditions notwithstanding; in other words, it effectively surrenders the cover of night. So the Russians have to set up further back. My choice would be hexrow D. Stacking the 2 leaders and MMG's together has a twofold immediate effect:
  • Denying, to the German player, the choice of an easier flank to choose as their primary axis of advance.
  • Giving the Russians the strongest possible firebase with the best possible lines of fire.
Of course, stacking all your leaders in 1 hex is not ideal, so the Russian player can plan on moving the leader with the MMG to the appropriate flank once the primary German axis of advance is known.

Additionally, Tony helped me get round the 1-card discard imposed on the Germans by the night attack special rules. If I'd been in a position to have to move up before engaging in the firefight, then I'd've had some 17 immediately usable orders- or 24% of the deck- increasing to as much as 62% through the 28 additional actions that might spin out cardplay combos from the basic move order. Able immediately to open fire I could instead play as many as 45 orders and 16 actions, or 63% to 85% of the deck. In other words, I was gifted much increased chances of opening and sustaining a rapid attack that'd give me a card cycle overcoming my discard limitation. ;)

Friday, October 17, 2008

World of Warcraft: Azeroth beckons at last!

WoW! How weighty was thy download?!

Having been persuaded to try Blizzard's World of Warcraft 10-day free trial I registered an account and started a download. That was half past ten last night, and Blizzard Downloader has been running ever since. And I thought 3.0's download yesterday was heavy duty.

This is like no webspace I've seen before, and it's still just downloading! (99% and less than 2 minutes now... 10:48.) Yep, that was a 12-hour download. I guess that's what you get with over 10 million online. I just know that I'm going to love this to bits. I've watched the trailer, and it's lovely. This is realms of fantasy on the scale I used to dream about. I thought it was a cyberpunk fantasy. It's not. The sooner I get a character running the better.

Later still... Checking system specifications
I'm going to have to make sure my computer's well up to the mark for this. Meanwhile, I haven't got a clue as to how to being to create a character. Time to check the manual I guess. So no heroic tales of my first steps into Azeroth today then. Although just finding and recording those minimum requirements for that varied selection of hardware and software of which I'm essentially ignorant, because I've never played computer games?- I guess you could call that that a quest, of sorts. ;)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wow, just WOW!

Open is a suite of office software derived from earlier products by Sun Microsystems. It's free and, for the average user, is at least as good as MS Office. I've been using it for several years now. I just found out today that 3.0 is now available, and that the servers are heavily overloaded. And how! When I started my download some 15-20 minutes ago, the download time was some 3 hours and 20 minutes. It's now some 4 hours and 20 minutes, having shot up past the 5 hour mark in the interim. This is crazy shit! (4h39 now.) I've got to leave the house, so I'm going to have to cancel my download and come back to it later.

Like I said: wow. Just WOW! ;)

PS. 4h13 now.

Combat Commander scenario 20: a viable Russian strategy and its opacity

A reminder of the story so far
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking about how Combat Commander Scenario 20, A March in December, is unbalanced, but not broken, despite the early wave of overwhelming Finnish victories. Today, naturally enough, I'm going to lay out the Russian strategy that I think makes the scenario a fair contest.

The core of the Russian setup is simple enough as I said: you've got 15 squads and 17 available road hexes, so just pick which 2 to leave empty. I'm sure there are good reasons to choose hexes other than those I've indicated here; the 2 I've marked here are those I chose in my last game as the Russians, my 2nd attempt to get out from under that fiendish Finnish ambush.

I noted before that the key to the Russian strategy in this scenario is the denial of exit VP to the Finns. To this end the Russians have to mass their weapons for mutual support. More important perhaps even than that in my opinion is that the Russians also have to mass their leaders. Readers familiar with Combat Commander might already have recognised how unusual is the deployment of the Russian leaders on that map, because no effort is made to maximise the number of squads within the leaders' command radii. In particular, those 5 squads strung out to the SW are very vulnerable to concerted attack, being able only to fire and manoeuvre individually because they are out of command.

Facing the Finns and those molotovs
Seeing this, I wouldn't be surprised if players faced with the Russian defence in this scenario, and thinking along lines similar to myself, were to consider spreading their leaders further down that road just a bit so as to get additional squads moving more quickly and with greater coordination. It is the expected Finnish tactics which makes me think that this would be a mistake. The keys to the Finnish tactics here are:
  • The 2-hex command radius of their best leader, who can get as many as 8 squads into position on each side of the Russians strung out along that road.
  • Those 8 molotovs which, by depriving Russian units of their cover, can make the early waves of Finnish fire attacks in the centre quite devestating (they're not marked on the map, but you can assume that the leader and 7 squads in those pictures has a molotov).
There are other elements to consider (not to mention other possibilities altogether), but I think that this the best approach for the Finns because of those crossfire opportunities, and because I think the molotovs should be massed for maximum effect.

Pictures B and C show the basic variants of this setup, with setup C perhaps being the better of the 2, because, by blocking the rear of more Russian squads, it allows the Finns more chances to wreak carnage with combined fire attacks and routs. Pictures A and D show more aggressive Finnish setups which take the fight directly to the Russian leaders. This would be based on the reasonable assumption that the Russian plan involves stacking 3 of their 4 MG's with leaders (the Russians get to place their MG's after seeing the Finnish setup).

So, back to those poor harassed Russians, and that temptation to spread those leaders further down that road. Consider the simplest of options: moving the best Russian leader just 1 hex further down the road, in the hopes that another Russian squad can move early and so avoid the worst of the Finnish ambush. If you look at setup A, you'll see that this would render the Russians' best leader open to an all out assault (ie. adjacent to 4 Finnish squads and therefore to as many as 5 molotov attacks) by Finns playing the more conservative of the most aggressive attacks. Similarly, if the Russians were to setup a leader 2 hexes further down that road, then he'd be vulnerable to the same onslaught from either of the most conservative Finnish setups.

Contrariwise, the Russian setup as shown means that the Finns can only maximise their attacks on that best Russian leader by using their most aggressive setup, as per picture D. This has some immediate disadvantages for the Finns:
  • Only 3 squads are initially able to attack that best Russian leader, and none of them can form firegroups.
  • All the Finns' advantages notwithstanding, this setup is the riskiest of them all, offering the greatest opportunities for a swift and crushing Russian counter attack (eg. a quick advance into an overstacked melee could kill the Finns' leader and leave their centre essentially paralysed).
  • The maximum number of Russian squads have open lines of movement towards the Finnish map edge and the exit VP which are crucial to the Russian strategy.
  • The Russians could decide to setup their MG's elsewhere, ie. in the NE corner of the map, so that the attack on the centre loses its strategic purpose.
This scenario is one which, for the Russians, puts a priority on a feature of Combat Commander which strongly distinguishes it from other tactical board wargames: exit VP. Sure, other games often incorporate into their victory conditions units exiting the board, but Combat Commander integrates this completely into the core system, and gives additional incentives to seek exit VP by allowing units so exited to re-enter as reinforcements. From play and from reading across the net, I have learned that recognising when to cut and run instead of standing and fighting can be one of the hardest decisions to grasp. This is therefore the first feature of Scenario 20, A March in December which makes the Russian strategy opaque. On top of that need fully to understand and apply a feature of the game which makes it unique AFAIK, this scenario also requires the Russian player to deploy and use weapons and leaders in ways running counter to all normal doctrines. It is this triple layer of opacity that I think is what has given rise to the appearance that this is a no-win situation for the Russians.

A final note
That game I referred to which Badger won because he held the initiative card was closer even than I suggested last time.

Badger had effectively cleared the centre and finished off my attempts at exit VP in the SW, leaving him ahead on VP. Pretty much all I had left were that leader, those 4 squads and a MMG in the NE (better deployed for activation by the leader by now, naturally enough). Flushed with what he was sure was an inescapably imminent victory, Badger looked at me and said that I'd have to get them moving.

OK, I said, playing an Advance and moving everything forward so that they were adjacent to the Finnish units which had been sitting there throughout the game. Badger's surprise turned to something more when I played another Advance the following turn to bring my units in melee with the Finns. This included an overstacked melee to make sure that my leader wouldn't die due to Badger holding too many Ambush cards for my comfort. This was what cost me the game. The tension of the moment (coupled, no doubt, with the lateness of the hour) meant that I sent 1 unit too many into that overstacked melee, resulting in the loss of 2VP the consequence of which was that the VP marker found itself on the '0' space. The game ended almost immediately thereafter giving Badger the win as described.

So near yet so far! Ouch! ;)

- Got game!: our first game goes to the Russians.
- A Winter War. Unbalanced but not broken?: we have another go.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Quiet, but still unseemly, I gloat

So I've still not been posting much, despite my hopes about trying to think my way from a zine into a journal, and despite too several gaming sessions since my last post. Thirteen games across 3 sessions in that week and a half .

First there was a visit from Tony and Di, which saw 4 games of Settlers, 5 games of Ivanhoe, and a couple of nice curries (one chicken, as requested by Di). The question of the strategy and tactics of robber placement was as thorny in that night's 4 games as they'd been in the games played the last time we'd got together. We ended up split 2-1 on the issue, with Tony and I in favour of a strict application of picking on the person in front, and Di preferring something else.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sweet monkey jesus!

As the world holds its breath waiting to see if there's a hole at the bottom of the big bailout's bucket, I feel a bit like I'm fiddling while Rome burns to be talking about boardgames on a blog in an obscure corner of cyberspace. That sense of a disconnect isn't going to stop me any more than my usual avoidance of leftist social/political commentary is going to stop me from indulging in a quick rant.

An advocate of the still unfashionable socialist transformation of society for over 25 years now, I am boggled to hear the future of capitalism itself being called so widely into question by people from so many walks of life. Let's face it though, no matter what happens in the immediate future, the extraction of surplus value for the sake of profits, and so the rule of capital over labour, will remain 5, 10, and probably 20 and more years hence.

All the same, the global financiers who were lauded as the greatest thing since the advent of industrial mass production, these people have had absolutely everything their way for some 25 years. And what have they done, apart from reaping huge rewards and amassing vast fortunes? They've just gone and dropped us into the greatest economic crisis in the whole history of capitalism, or 'just' since the 1930's depression that gave us WW2, depending on which pundits you prefer to listen to.

This is one of those 'no going back' moments, like the end of the Cold War, and 9/11. Hmm. There's gaps of 11 then 7 years. I wonder if the next one will be along sooner than that again?

In the meantime, fuck the lot of them! ;)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Winter War. Unbalanced but not broken?

Badger and I returned to the published scenarios, as I'd talked about before. I'd had a specific scenario in mind all along, naturally enough. That was Scenario 20, A March In December, which we'd first played back in April.

It'd been a thread over at the BGG which'd got me thinking about replaying this particular scenario. The consensus on that thread was that this scenario must be broken because it appeared just too difficult for the Russians to win; an obvious challenge to me because I'd won the scenario as the Russians on that first play. And I'd been wanting to try out the Finns ever since I'd got hold of Combat Commander: Mediterranean.

We played this scenario twice that night. I was the Finns the first time and won a crushing victory, forcing a surrender on time 2 (and with 33VP). Playing the Russians in our 2nd game, I lost in the closest result I've ever seen in my Combat Commander career of more than 100 games. That is to say, the game was tied on VP when it ended on time 8, so that it went to the player holding the Initiative card, who just happened to be Badger.

It might seem obvious that 2 more Finnish victories provide grist to the mill of those who think this scenario is broken. It cannot be denied that the scenario is unbalanced. All the same, I think these results amplify Chad's remarks (on that BGG thread) about how the raw statistics might hide the different kinds of victories each side achieved, namely runaway victories for the Finns contrasting with close-fought near things for the Russians.

What I think this comes down to is that this scenario is unbalanced but not broken. The situation favours the Finns, making the scenario- the only one featuring the Finns in CC:M- a suitable exemplar of the historically outstanding feature of the 1939/40 Russo-Finnish war (wiki). But the scenario isn't broken, because there is a viable winning strategy for the Russians, one signalled in the special rules, in particular the rule denying exit VP to the Finns until they have eliminated all Russian weapons.

All the talk over at the BGG about a broken scenario therefore seems to me to be little more than players crashing and burning in the face of a tactical solution the novelty of which has escaped them on their first encounter therewith. I know it may seem obvious to state, but this is the nature of an unbalanced scenario. Not only will one side win more often than another, but it'll win disproportionately more early games until the underdog's winning strategy reveals itself.

- Got game!: our first game goes to the Russians.
- Combat Commander scenario 20: a viable Russian strategy and its opacity

Another gamers' weekend

So, Badger was round Saturday night for some gaming as noted. No prizes for guessing what we played. We got in 3 games and a nice curry supper. I took special care with the curries because I'd had a pepper catastrophe with the lamb and fennel stew I'd cooked the last time Badger was here. Long story short, it's embarassing when your guest calls out for a pizza delivery because he just can't eat what you've served up!

I've spent the week writing and rewriting my thoughts on those games we played, but I haven't been able to finish them yet. I don't expect to have more games of Combat Commander to report before those comments are completed. So I should be back to these games sometime soon.

Into the depths once more!
In the meantime, Andy and Tony turned up for a Sunday session. Andy was keen to play Descent again, keen enough to volunteer to play the Overlord, which was enough to win my agreement.

And so Tony and I ended up going into the 2nd dungeon with a sorceror and a bloodsucking undead warrior. We almost made it too, especially after we picked up a couple of magic items which turned my sorceror into a walking nuclear cannon: all of Andy's minions were instant toast unless I missed them outright (1/6 chance); while 2 hits would be enough for bosses, minor or major. Unfortunately, these mighty magic missiles notwithstanding, the crucial fact that we didn't pick up any magic weapons boosting Tony's melee attacks told against us over time.

By the way, I don't think that Tony and I really 'almost made it'. The last few turns were marked by our ever more desperate visits to town so as to avoid immediate defeat should one or other of us die. We'd've had a long way to go even if we'd've survived that moment, but the reality was that we were finding it increasingly difficult to fight our way out of Andy's endless spawns.

We're going to play again Sunday next, which means that the game has achieved one of its design goals, which is to get people to give it another try. ;)