Sunday, December 28, 2008

My 2009 gaming wishlist #3

My lifelong interest in WW2 and in refighting its land battles are already familiar to my regular readers. Some of you might remember too that passing reference to my "rediscovering the geek that was a teenage tankie" when I wrote a couple of weeks ago about getting hold of Conflict of Heroes, which is to say that some 3 or more years' gaming dominated first by Memoir'44 and then by Combat Commander have thoroughly rekindled that oldest of my gaming passions. For months now I've been looking for games that might tempt Badger to dip his toe into the world of operational-level wargames. I'm hoping that this next game may prove to be the one.

Corps Command: Totensonntag
The first in an intended series the 2nd of which is already in the works, Peter Bogdasarian's Corps Command: Totensonntag was published in 2007, but passed me by until I had decided to embark on the aforementioned hunt for quick'n'dirty games set at brigade or higher level. The theme of armoured desert warfare in 1941 was interesting enough; and the colourful map and counters were attractive too; but it was the game's self-proclaimed simplicity and the unique initiative system that did it for me. The game proved to be out of stock at Second Chance Games, but I eventually found a copy at the ebay shop of BattleQuest Games.

The box
I can truly say that I was initially a bit startled by the package I received: carefully boxed for the post as it was, it just looked too small to contain what I was expecting. It did. It was just that what I was getting wasn't what I was expecting. What I was expecting was a game in a standard bookcase-size box. I got instead a box the size of a medium-sized paperback (that size that comes between standard paperbacks and trade paperbacks). I'm far from complaining about this. I know minigames like this are not unique in today's industry, but I like the idea because it reminds me of the proliferation of minigames from a multitude of small publishers which was such an exciting feature of adventure gaming in the early 80's.

The pieces
Anyway, readers will by now have grasped that Corps Command: Totensonntag is a neat little package the contents of which pleased me. The counters are lovely to behold, bright and colourful with evocative pictures of tanks and armoured cars. Just as I said the other day about Battlestar Galactica, the graphic design is good, with thougtful use of text, colour and layout to convey information. Word on the net has it that there are 1 or 2 flaws here, but I am as yet in no position to comment. I can merely say that the counters are exactly as attractive as they need to be to attract someone who's not already interested in a corps-level WW2 tacsim about the first battle of Sidi Rezegh, ie. your average gamer as opposed to a confirmed WW2 geek.

I have read complaints that the counters are too thin. Well, they are very thin, it's true; thin enough to cause conniptions among some (OK, I exaggerate), they are thinner than the classic wargames counters of, say GMT, which makes them a lot thinner than what you get from companies like FFG. In a game where stacks could be as many as 6 counters high, I guess this could inconvenience some, as I will surely learn one way or another. One thing about the thin counters though: they were perfectly cut, so that they just fell out of their sheet and separated with the greatest of ease. This is exactly the right impression to create with someone for whom a game like this might be their first wargame (or even just their first product from Lock N Load games).

The map
I like the map. I'd read criticisms of the map which I couldn't understand until I got my hands on it. It's a very thick cardboard map of the sort that has to be cut halfway through at each fold. This map folds down into 8 sections in order to fit into the undersized box. I can see that this map won't sit very flat under its own weight. This is what I think people were complaining about. My answer: blutak! In any event, the map is very pretty, done in suitably sandy hues with some nicely designed player aids around the edges. And y'know, there's something about this map that reminds me of the original Ogre map. I wonder if this is just me?

The rules
The rules are remarkable. I can't yet vouch myself for how solid they are, but the game has received a lot of play and generated few errata, so that's a promising sign. What's amazing is that the rulebook is an 8-page A5 booklet; or, to look at it another way - the actual rules of play could indeed fit on 2 sides of A4. And as if brevity wasn't merit enough, the rules have that initiative system I mentioned.

This is really simple: each unit has a Initiative Rating (IR), ranging (as far I can see so far) from 1 to 5. Each phase, both players roll 1d6 to generate an Activation Number (AN); the higher roll gets to go first in that phase; only units whose IR is greater than or equal to the AN get to act in that phase; and moving units have Movement Points equal to that phase's AN. There are a few tweaks, but that's the core. I'll leave readers to figure out for themselves the implications for gameplay of how this system balances acting first, against frequency of activation, against how much a given activation might achieve. All I can say is that this deliciously simple idea looks like it should generate really tense gameplay.

Corps Command: Totensonntag looks like a real gem. As a game that might interest someone new to board wargaming it looks to me to be as well thought out as it is attractive. The rules are no more complex than those of Memoir'44. The recommended playing time of 2 hours strikes me as realistic, perhaps even on a first game, with the result that there's always time to play something else if you get this out on the table to begin a games session to try to teach it to someone. I like the look of this game a lot. More when I've played it! ;)

My 2009 gaming wishlist:
- #1: Combat Commander: Pacific
- #2: Battlestar Galactica

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The best laid plans...

So Badger came round for our wargamers' xmas as we'd been planning for months. Unfortunately he'd just gone down with the flu, so he spent most of his visit dozing in the corner!

We did get in 1 game - of Combat Commander, naturally enough. As had been the case with Scenario 20, A March in December last October, there was a particular scenario I wanted to play, prompted this time by a discussion last month over at CSW. The scenario this time was Scenario 7. Bessarabian Nights, in which I played the Russians, with the aim of investigating a viable strategy for a partisan force with a 4-card hand and a mere 1 order.

With 14 units setting up in random hexes the Russians really need some luck in this scenario. The crucial good fortune the Russians are looking for is to find 1 or both of their 2 leaders set up with a squad or team, to protect them from the standard German strategy, which involves hunting down and killing the isolated Russian leaders to cripple their already limited manoeuvrability. I didn't enjoy that bit of luck, but my deployment wasn't too bad:
  • I had a significant force deployed around the objective to the north of the map, where they were in a position to offer mutual support, and where they might quickly regroup should I get a leader up there.
  • My better leader was on top of the objective smack in the centre of the map, from where he could make a quick dash northwards if Badger gave me the chance.
Of course, Badger wasn't going to give me that chance easily. Sgt. Maisky was precisely the leader he chose to target, literally surrounding him at point-blank range with his 2 platoons. Undaunted, Maisky started the game by lobbing his satchel charge at a weak point in the German ring, in the hopes that he might blast his way out. His target unit broke, but I couldn't finish them to breakout before the Germans advanced into close combat and Maisky bit the dust.

Badger then went on a bit of a spree, picking off isolated Russian units in close combat. Things looked to be going quite well for him, but he was taking big risks attacking without prepared ambushes. Badger paid the price for his rashness soon enough, losing a squad and a leader. I promptly played No Quarter for an extra 2VP, so that Badger had lost the advantage of his early assault.

The Germans couldn't keep up their pressure for ever, and a discard eventually came, allowing me to play my carefully husbanded Hidden Unit. I couldn't really've asked for better from this: a 2-command leader, who I was able to position up north to bring a platoon south to reinforce the main action.

Badger meanwhile was striving manfully to regain the advantage through firepower and close combat. He made a neat advance with 2 ambushes which could've made all the difference, but I pulled a sneaky trick, playing the Light Wounds action to keep my leader unbroken, thus eking out an extra FP or 2 in the ensuing melee. I can't remember whether or not this was crucial, but I won in any event. This melee was pretty much the end for Badger. He waited a bit to see if his fortunes might change; when they didn't he surrendered, leaving me victorious in time 2 with 21VP.

Looking back, I'd have to say that Badger made 2 crucial tactical mistakes as the Germans:
  • He should've sent his 2 platoons off to strike in different directions, which would've had the effect of forcing the Russians to respond on 2 fronts with just 1 order.
  • He shouldn't've been quite so rash in his early close combats, because it was that early kill I achieved which completely changed the tempo of the game.
Badger would probably agree with this, but he just wants the world to know that he was full of the flu, so that it wasn't really a fair contest. He might be right, in which case all I can do is to ask for a rematch! ;)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dakka! Dakka! Dakka!

Wings of War
Sunday's session was quiet - just Andy and Donald. Andy had been wanting to play with his Wings of War toys again, so that's where we began. We decided on a scenario to test if 1 player with 3 planes might fight on equal terms against 2 players with 4 planes. The result was that Andy - with von Richthofen's legendary Fokker DRI triplane, Goering's Fokker DVII, and (IIRC) Kurt Jentsch's Albatross DVa, faced off against me and Donald. I had Eddie Rickenbacker's Spad XIII and the US AIRCO D.H. 4, while Donald took a Sopwith Camel - Aubrey Beauclerk Ellwood I think it was, and Atkey's D.H. 4.

The game started off badly for the Allies - in a bravura display of crap flying, famous US ace Eddie Rickenbacker promptly turned tail and flew away (yes, I still can't tell my left from my right when I'm playing Wings of War!). So much for testing whether communications difficulties between 2 players might be worth as much as a plane. I made up for Rickenbacker almost immediately, when I shot down Andy's Albatross DVa with a single burst!

At this point the game devolved into the familiar swirling dogfight punctuated by curses as players realised that they'd misplotted their manoeuvres. The Red Baron was Donald's and my next victim. We both put bursts into his plane, but it was my DH4 that finally finished him off. Soon after, Goring wisely fled, limping homeward in a plane reduced to 2 damage points.

With a total of 7 planes at the start this was the biggest game of Wings of War I've played. I was pleased to see that the effect of increasing numbers was the hoped for increased entertainment. Also pleasing was the discovery that rear MG's are really useful, even if the planes carrying them are real clunkers (the DH4 can't Immelmann!). In fact, with hindsight, I think we underestimated how useful the rear MG's would be. We'd thought that the big DH4's would be sufficiently unmanoeuvrable to balance the numbers. A single game isn't enough to offer proof, but I think this idea is looking a bit threadbare already.

And, of course, getting 2 kills was just fine and dandy!

Andy 0
Donald 1
Me 1

Crimson Skies
Entranced once again by the lovely WoW toys I was keen to have another go. Andy had other ideas, suggesting instead a game of Crimson Skies, another game we both like and which I remember him suggesting more than once in recent weeks. So off to the peculiar world of 1930's pulp America that is Crimson Skies it was then.

Miniatures geek that he is, Andy has the full set of the FASA Corporation aircraft miniatures, fully painted and all. They really are very nice and add another dimension to the game. So, we sorted out some pairs of planes, decided that we would use a plain sky map since it was Donald's first ever game (and I'm sure Andy was pleased since he'd lost more than 1 plane in collisions with ground obstacles in our games last year!), and allocated sides at random. I ended up with an interesting pair: small and fast with 4 MG's; and bigger and slower with heavier MG's plus a pair in a rear turret - not the 2 planes with which I'd enjoyed such success against Andy in our series of games last year, but nothing to complain about.

The familiar closing for combat and early positional manoeuvring done, first blood went to Andy, at my expense - my Devestator (top picture) took a heavy burst of fire which cut its wing off at the root. My pilot didn't even manage to bail out. Ah well, he'll be remembered for that 7G's manoeuvre he'd pulled, the most audacious manoeuvre yet seen in our Crimson Skies history.

I wasn't taking notes on Sunday, and my memories are getting vague 3 days' hence, so I'll just have to cut to the chase. Donald was forced to flee with his 2 planes, and Andy had to cut and run with one of his own [Erm, not quite - see below]. That left my Brigand in a vicious dogfight with Andy. This just went on and on, as bits flew off each plane leaving it increasingly unmanoeuvrable but still flying. The clock was getting on and tummies were starting to rumble, so we agreed that we'd stop after turn 24. And so it turned out, in what was the longest Crimson Skies dogfight we've ever seen.

Andy ½
Donald 1

Andy and I enjoyed getting back to this entertaining game, and Donald was well pleased with his first taste. So it looks like we'll be starting a Crimson Skies campaign game in 2009. Before we get there though, we're going to have to sort out quick reference sheets to save us from leafing through the rulebook in search of those damage results and so on. There's one here at the BGG, which unfortunately doesn't have the details I thought was most needed. I also found a handy liitle sheet which shows all the damage grids. This should be doubly useful since the printing on my own plastic damage grid is off-centre, which is just too annoying for words. So, Andy? Take a look at those and let me know what you think. ;)

PS. Andy's first comment adds some of the forgotten vital details from the Crimson Skies game. I'm sure Donald will appreciate this. Cheers matey!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

My 2009 gaming wishlist #2

Like I said, there's a Sunday session on today, so I'm going to post about the multiplayer games I'd like to see get a few plays in 2009. I'll start with new stuff I guess.

Battlestar Galactica
I rarely watched the original Battlestar Galactica TV show, and I watched the new one not at all. The new show's reputation did reach me though, partly through internet buzz, but mostly through Andy's enthusiasm. The new series' reimagining of the original material - with its equal-opportunities casting and darker tones - appealed to Andy where it appalled some geeks online. I have to admit it was precisely this contrast between the new and the old shows that made the new Battlestar Galactica in the slightest bit interesting to me, and then not interesting enough to get my bum in the seat in front of the TV (which says more about my TV habits than it does the show, naturally enough).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My 2009 gaming wishlist #1

The lads are coming round tomorrow for what'll probably be 2008's last Sunday session. And then Badger'll be here during the week for our regular wargamers' xmas, which'll probably be our last session this year too. So I'm going to take a look ahead at some of the games I'm keen to see hit the table in 2009. These are variously old favourites that're newly returned to my shelves, or sat too long there, or hot new games not yet played. First though, is a game I haven't quite got yet.

Combat Commander: Pacific
This, the latest long-awaited expansion to a game that will need no introduction is already shipping from GMT's warehouse, but I very much doubt it'll reach British distributors until the new year. So I'm just going to have to wait while all the Yanks get stuck into their pre-ordered copies over the festive season. Meanwhile, thanks to the web I've got a pretty good idea of what Combat Commander: Pacific is going to add to the game. I've already read the rules, which've been available for some months already. And I've seen samples of the counters and maps(ditto).

Take a look at these Japanese units for example. Just look at those guys willya? Every single Japanese unit has assault firepower, broken or not. This gives a standard close combat killstack of 21FP! (That's a Betsudotai squad@ 6FP; an elite team@ 3; and Capt. Akiyama, that 3FP, 3-command leader!) Then there's their morale on top of that: 8 or 9 for their units; and only 1 leader less than 9 (the scout). Add in leaders whose broken command rating is reduced by 1 instead of set to 0, and broken units with 2 or 3MP, and you might begin to see that the Japanese are going to play quite uniquely. I can't wait. ;)

My 2009 gaming wishlist:
- #2: Battlestar Galactica
- #3: Corps Command: Totensonntag

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Here's one I prepared earlier...

A quick introduction
Regular readers might remember my article 'Roleplaying as art? Not for me' from back in September 2006. Sometime thereafter, I realised that I was changing my mind. So, sometime last year, I wrote an article, recanting my previous opinion. I then lost interest in the subject, and the article wasn't published.

And just why have I finally decided to publish now? Because, as alert readers who've visited the site might've notice, I've started using facebook, the inspiration for which was my use of the widget which links your BGG account to your facebook account (BGG users can find this on their profile page). Looking for British gamers to network with, I met BGG's Angry Jedi, who turned out to be a fellow blogger. His I'm not Doctor Who has a title almost as snappy as my own! When you read the first post of Angry's that I read - Art/Fart, you'll see why I was prompted finally to post this piece from the rack where's it's been sat for at least a year.

I present the article exactly as it was written, so there's at least one reference to time which is out of joint. ;)


It's art Jim, but not as we know it!
Remember, remember, what I wrote last September
Last year I wrote a post called 'Roleplaying as art? Not for me', in which I developed my basic criticisms of the idea that roleplaying games are a form of art. This was an issue which had been of interest to me one way or another for many years, but my taking it up at the time was motivated by Elliot Wilen's and John H. Kim's replies to an earlier post of mine on the same subject.

Those 2 articles, especially the 2nd, attracted more widespread attention and comment at the time than anything I've posted here at RD/KA! before or since. The reactions at the time were interesting.

Quite a few comments- eg. Eliot Wilen commenting on the Sept. 2006 piece, and others commenting on John Kim's notes on his replies to my posts- revolved around issues of semantic wrangling and of elitism. Eliot at least noted that the point at issue had to be about more than mere semantics, while both he and John shared the anti-elitism which underlay my arguments at the time. All the same I was left with the feeling way back then that neither of them had effectively come to grips with my core argument, which was a capsule sociohistorical account of how roleplaying games can't be art because they are part of the very 20th century cultural developments which have most decisively undermined the old 'high art' versus 'low culture' distinction which, I claimed, remains at the centre of artistic/cultural discussion these days. (This was a point more-or-less recognised by Thomas Robertson, in his own comment last September.)

If all of these comments were interesting, perhaps the most entertaining were those posted by Victor Gijsbers to his blog The Gaming Philosopher a few weeks later. Victor pronounced he found my article "infuriating", to which my immediate response was simple amusement.

I mean to say: I wrote what I thought was a fairly simple account of something I thought might be a bit controversial, but which would be ultimately hard to deny: namely that the artistic products of the high bourgeois period, and the theoretical reflections thereupon, were as much as an expression of the self-image of the bourgeoisie as they were of any genuine human or natural universality. Further, I asserted, from these flowed the distinction between 'high art' and 'low culture', which was the cultural world as seen from the viewpoint of that bourgeoise elite, and whose essential assumptions retain a strong influence to this very day.

Against this I tried to suggest that the past century or more of cultural development has rendered this dualistic conception increasingly bankrupt. This is partly because of its inherent elitism, which should offend the most basic egalitarian sensibility. It is also because the new cultural forms, eg. roleplaying games, simply cannot be understood through these outdated aesthetics. Metaphorically then: I was trying to argue that calling roleplaying games art amounts to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Now OK, I knew at the time that I wasn't being at all original in the core sociohistorical part of my argument. If I thought I was being at all original (and I wasn't that bothered about originality really- I was just trying to get something off my chest, as bloggers do), it was in using this argument to say that roleplaying couldn't be art because roleplaying games are a quintessential product of cultural developments which I had argued were completely incompatible with the idea of art as defined above. Like I said: not terribly original really.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read Victor accusing me of all sorts of things I wasn't aware I'd written about: the death of beauty, consumerist dumbing-down, children not doing their homework, anarchy- oh lord- anarchy! I was bemused by how my short article had inspired such a tizz in Victor, but I'll admit it was satisfying enough to be a pebble in his little pond.

But something wasn't right
I didn't pursue the discussions prompted by my article very far last year. There were various reasons for this.

One was that I wasn't sure what the topic was worth. I mean to say: I was still running my WFRP campaign back then, and I was facing various issues about which I could've used some fruitful discussion. And that was one thing that I couldn't see coming out of any discussion about roleplaying and art: practical ideas which would help me actually improve my game.

Another problem I had with the discussion at the time was that it was tainted by the so-called 'war on the Swine' launched by that infamous internet self-publicist the RPGpundit. It was the Pundit's anti-Swine rants which had revived my interest in the whole debate about roleplaying games and art in the first place, and I thought that the RPGpundit has had one or two good points to make. But the longer the Pundit went on, stating and restating his same old points, posting and reposting his tired old diatribes, the more deranged I felt he was becoming as he sank ever deeper into his own private sump of vitriol.

So, when I posted my article last September, I was a bit disenchanted with the very notion of the debate I was joining because I was thoroughly fed up after too many months of pointless internet trolling. I wanted less heat and more light but wasn't sanguine that internet discourse could provide this to an effective degree which would make all the time spent at the monitor and keyboard at all worthwhile.

My doubts about the practical value of the debate about roleplaying and art, and my frustrations at the online culture in general were circumstantial though. There was a far more serious reason why I didn't follow through on the discussion last year: I was beginning to wonder if I really believed what I had written.

The seeds of this doubt had been in my mind all the time I was writing on the topic of roleplaying games and art. They go back to an article I first read online several years ago, 'I Have No Words & I Must Design', by noted games designer Greg Costikyan. A man who still commands my respect because of his RPG design work from the early 80's, Costikyan's opinion that games are- or can aspire to become- art was one that I could never quite put behind me.

It was Costikyan again who was responsible for the germination of the very seeds of doubt he'd been responsible for planting. This time it was his January 2007 article 'Super Columbine Massacre: Artwork or Menace?', written in defence of a controversial computer game. Costikyan's account of why a game like this one should be recognised as a work of art hit me right between the eyes: I simply didn't want to argue the toss with him on that one. I could see where I was heading already.

The inevitable flowering of my change of mind came in April, when Shamus posted 'Games Are Art' over on Twenty Sided, the home of the his wonderful DM of the Rings webtoon. After reading that article I not only knew that I'd changed my mind on the matter of roleplaying games and art, I also knew that sooner or later I'd be posting my recantation here at RD/KA!.

And the final countdown to this post started a couple of months ago, when I posted about the return of Katana in the supers game Bill ran. Writing about the genesis of the character, I talked of his creation being an act of "pure self expression". If you'd followed the original discussion you could easily've missed this remark made in passing, but the cat was out of the bag I felt, and I wanted to set the record straight as soon as possible.

And yet, strangely enough
So, I've accepted the proposition that roleplaying games are art. So what? Seriously: precisely what is this proposition worth? Exactly what does it contribute to our capacity to organise, play and enjoy our roleplaying? I have no idea myself. Commenting on my Sept. 2006 post, Jonathan Walton suggested 4 benefits:
  1. Raises its social status in certain circles.
  2. Enables the government funding occasionally enjoyed by our Nordic friends.
  3. Sticks it to elitist art snobs.
  4. Reclaims art for the geeks.
Without commenting on any one of these in particular, notice that they all have one thing in common: having nothing to do with actually doing roleplaying. So again: what's the point of roleplaying being art?

And as if accepting a proposition which appears to have no practical consequence for an eminently practical activity isn't enough, there is a final irony, although one I admit I find strangely satisfactory. If you actually go back and read my Sept. 2006 article (go on, give it a go if you haven't already- this next bit'll make more sense if you do), what I hope you'll find is that most of it still stands up even though I've changed my mind on the matter of where roleplaying sits in relation to art. Just to make myself clear here: most of what I wrote can be used to argue that roleplaying is art even though my arguments were marshalled in support of the view that roleplaying isn't art.

What I mean is that I was arguing that roleplaying games aren't art because it was wrong to aspire to be brought under the wing of a bankrupt elitist aesthetic whose decline is caused by a long historical development to which RPG's are a recent addition. In other words: by being part of a trend slowly but surely overturning the old 'high art' versus 'low culture' duality, roleplaying games are part of a movement towards the unity of what was held in an artificially forced polarisation under the reign of the classic high bourgeois aesthetic. Oddly enough it makes just as much sense (or should I say more, now, I hope?!) to argue that roleplaying games are art on the basis that they are part of that recent period of cultural innovation which has pushed that long historical development forward into entirely new territory, namely the art of games.

So it seems I might've arguing a bit at cross purposes eh? Maybe that's why Victor Gijsbers' response was so amusingly overwrought? I mean to say: I have to grant him that he picked out some contradictions in my argument, even if I'm not sure he gave a very good account of them. Funny thing, eh? ;)

The emperor's new clothes? The state of roleplaying theory
- #1: General gamism
- #2: A funny thing happened on my way to this article
- Roleplaying as art? Not for me

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Food, glorious food!

In which misfortune turns up a happy ending
This story really begins last Saturday, when Tony and I were playing Conflict of Heroes. Games over, I was in the kitchen, cooking. Our dinner for the night was to be haddock with bacon and mushrooms, from Good Food for Busy People, a really handy little book for the everyday cook. Before attending to that though, I had to prepare the first stage of Sunday's dinner, the first I'd cooked in some weeks. For the sake of simplicity, I'd chosen to 'do a Delia', cooking a spanish pork casserole from her stalwart Complete Cookery Course (you can find an updated version at DeliaOnline).

So there I was, beavering away at one thing and in a hurry to do another, a situation which you will realise is a recipie for disaster. And disaster duly struck. While browning the meat for the casserole I tried to shoogle the meat by flicking the pot instead of giving it a proper stir, using, y'know, a spoon. And so it was that I was splashed by a lick of hot fat, which left me with a burn stretching some dozen or more centimetres up my forearm, including a livid raw patch about the size of a £2 coin.

Preoccupied as I was with cooking 2 meals, I paid the wound as little attention as I could get away with, treating it as something of a joke as it oozed throughout the evening. Arriving the next day for our Sunday session, Donald said he thought it should be checked out at hospital, but, well, we had games to play. (Yes, I was being really clever about it all, wasn't I?!) Long story short: I finally had to go the Accident and Emergency today, where the first dressing - Donald's work - was carefully removed; the wound - thankfully not infected - was cleaned; and a new dressing was applied.

And what, you might be asking, is the happy ending in all this? Well, the Western General Infirmary where I'd gone is on Dumbarton Road in Glasgow, where only last week I'd spotted a seafood restaurant which goes by the name of Two Fat Ladies (a reference to the bingo call for 88 - the restaurant's street number, not to the 2 celebrity chefs who had a TV series of the same name). So, as you can imagine, I decided to treat myself. I really had no idea what to expect from this place, if only because its size and location are both quite unassuming. But I really like seafood, and have wished I knew of a decent seafood restaurant for years, so I had nothing to lose by giving the place a try.

By now, readers will have the idea that I liked Two Fat Ladies. Indeed I did. I liked it a lot. I liked the food, I liked their style, and I liked the atmosphere. I had Cullen Skink, north-east Scotland's legendary fish soup, to start. I just had to really, because I'd never had this before. It was lovely, with rich smokey aromas, a tasty creamy stock, and lots of nice chunky bits - real good soup in other words. I followed this with cod on a bed of tabbouleh accompanied by a pomegranate sauce. This too was utterly delightful, right down to the last carefully-scraped mouthful. It was the sort of taste sensation I've been hearing professional chefs and fulltime foodies talk about these past few years on TV programs such as Masterchef Goes Large, but which is frankly beyond my own skills. That's one thing cooks want from restaurants, something they can't do at home.

Two Fat Ladies, 88 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow is one of the most exciting restaurants I've visited in years (up in a shortlist of 4 in the last 3 years, to be precise), as witness the fact that I knew I was going to blog it even before I'd finished eating! I'll be back. In the meantime, I can give it a wholehearted recommendation to any of my readers who might find themselves in Glasgow looking for a classy eatery. ;)

Oh my, it's mine again, at long last!

I've made another score with that topped-up Paypal account the 'dangers' of which I mentioned on Saturday, this time combined with the similarly seductive eBay. And what did I get? Well, regular readers might remember when, talking about D-Day last year, I mentioned in passing the "book which was my bible as a WW2 wargamer". So yes, you've guessed it, that's the book I've just bought again. And what is it? It's John Ellis' 1980 classic The Sharp End of War: the Fighting Man in WW2.

I first got this book as a teenager on its initial release, from the book club through I which built up my collection of teenage tankie books, sadly long since sold off in a bout of poverty. It was one of those books whose unassuming appearance concealed a veritable treasure trove within. The key theme of the book is succintly summed-up by a note on the dust jacket, "the theme of John Ellis' book [is] human experience, not strategy".

It was this slant which made the book so unique at the time. Instead of the familar accounts of CO's dilemmas as battles and campaigns unfolded, The Sharp End offers profound overviews of the practical realities of life as a frontline soldier, from the terrain, through combat, and including matters such as discipline and patriotism. The result is a distilled appreciation of the concerns of the actual fighting soldiers which breathed new life into the rules-tinkering of a teenage tankie nearly 30 years ago.

This book is truly so rich that it is difficult to find any one element to pick out as an example of its content, so I'll just refer to the bit in the bibliography that always delighted me. Under the section for eye-witness accounts can be found reference to the first 2 volumes of Spike Milligan's war memoirs, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall and "Rommel?" "Gunner Who?". At the time I thought it was neat that these humourous memoirs my dad owned featured in a book like Ellis'. I came to realise that it's also a sign of the unique perspective which marks out The Sharp End from the most thorough of campaign histories, or even the most personal of war memoirs.

If the effect this book had on me is anything to go by, I'd have to say that it should be on the shelf of every actual or aspiring WW2 wargame designer. And, if you followed that link above (to, you'll see that the book is easily available, and is in fact returning to print- its 6th print run- early next year. This pleases me, because it makes me feel that my own high opinions of John Ellis' masterpiece are widely shared. ;)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brilliant beginnings and feeble finales

More than 2 years ago and full in the flush of my 2-year haul through Richard Borg's Memoir'44, I wrote 'another hymn of praise to cardplay', in which I listed some geeky stuff the reading or playing of which had most affected me. Looking back at that list I now realise that I inadvertently forgot where some of it began, namely the late lamented Avalon Hill's Squad Leader. That's a shame really, because it was with John Hill's masterpiece that I perfected the grub-and-gaming trick to get a regular WW2 boardgaming session going. And it was about Squaddie that I wrote, in a Top-10 (sadly no longer available) this was "the first game I knew I always wanted to play."

Like I said, it's a shame that I left Squad Leader off a list upon which it really deserves its place. Why? Because my experience so far of the new Conflict of Heroes- Awakening the Bear! has pushed me over an edge on the brink of which I've teetered for months, thanks, naturally enough, to Combat Commander. What am I talking about? About the fact that I have a still horrible feeling that I might never play son of Squaddie, a.k.a. Advanced Squad Leader, ever again. So it's a shame that this landmark game didn't enjoy its pride of place in that wee list of mine before better games came along definitively to render it a museum piece for this gamer.

You'll've gathered then that Tony and I really enjoyed playing CoH on Saturday. We played 2 games of Firefight 1- Partisans, a really well-considered introductory scenario: the barest minimum of pieces- 5 on each side; an objective the control of which will typically be the key to victory for either side- generating 5VP/game at 1 VP/turn, it starts under Soviet control; and simple setup variations meaning that each side faces a distinct tactical situation- the Soviets hold the field against Germans entering with immediate strength of numbers and superior firepower.

My Germans mauled Tony's Soviets 8-2, then my Soviets won 7-4, a bit of a comeback for Tony, especially since he had a great 'hail mary' play for a draw, but chance fell just the wrong side of mean for him at that crucial moment. Those scores also hide the fact that I only killed 1 more unit than Tony- if any- because 4 out of 8 of my Germans' VP were down to the objective, whereas my Russians held the objective for at least 4 turns out of 5. And it turns out that we'd been bringing the German reinforcements in in the wrong place too- they come in behind the Soviets, which would've made the firefight a whole new kettle of fish.

The simplicity and flexibility of the core AP/CAP system was what had been most striking to me last time, before I'd played CoH. What excites me most now is the realisation that CoH does something which I believe is unique in squad-scale, company/battalion-level WW2 tacsims- it handles absolutely all combat by the same single set of rules. This is such a bland statement that its significance might be lost on some people, so let me expand.

ASL has 3 different core combat systems, which are based on infantry and armour being defined by quite distinct statlines:
  • Fire attacks resolved on the Infantry Fire Table.
  • Fire attacks resolved on the AP To Kill table.
  • Close Combat.
These 3 systems each come with their own lengthy lists of DRM's.

Even Combat Commander has 2 core combat systems:
  • Fire attacks.
  • Close combat.
You could say that this is actually 1½ core combat systems, since the attack rolls are functionally identical in each case in CC.

In any event, units in CoH, be they infantry, ordnance, or vehicles- soft or armoured, all use the same statlines. This sample armour unit shows the full statline, with the typical 7 stats plus facing indicator. These are the same for infantry as they are for trucks as they are for horse-drawn units (some units have less stats because they lack the abilities those stats represent, eg. horses and carts have no FP). Different coloured stats are used to mark the differences between the key aspects of the various units:
  • Target type, ie. soft target or hard target.
  • Munitions, ie. AP or HE.
  • Movement type, ie. foot, wheeled, or tracked.
These sample foot units show some of these variations. The way the different colours of FP and DR work to give the effects of AP and HE is devilishly simple: red FP versus blue DR is halved, and vice versa. The AT gun shows the sort of neat effect this rule creates, with the blue- armoured- front DR to represent the effect of the gun shield, the single most elegant implementation of this I have seen (you should see the lengths ASL goes to to handle this detail).

And there's more. Not only do all units in CoH use the same statline, resulting in a single combat system, but the combat system involves just 1 dice roll per attack- 2d6- and a tiny handful of modifiers. Part of this is because damage is handled by chit draws, so that extra dice rolls aren't needed to determine the success and/or the effect of attacks. The simplicity of this means that you can make quick, easy and meaningful assessments of your chances in any given attack, which is a great help to a player's tactical appreciation of the situation, as you can well imagine.

The effect of all this is amazing as you leaf through the scenarios book, looking at the huge 2-4 player scenarios, using perhaps 6 or 7 times as many units on 3 or 4 boards, and you realise that all of these are done with the same, single set of combat rules which are just a delight to use. For example, a neighbour popped in for a quick visit. This guy's no gamer, though he knows another grognard, and is curious about these games. I had CoH out on the table. I showed him a map and a playing piece. He was instantly fascinated, and was soon telling me that he felt like Rommel as he pored over the scenarios and the rules. He was really excited. I was quite boggled.

That's it for CoH just now. Expect to hear more.

Tony: 0
Me: 2

Meanwhile, elsewhere... Ack!
Our recent long run of Descent came to a close on Sunday. Regular readers will probably remember that it had fallen to us to save the world after our previous heroic victory had delivered it, neatly wrapped, to another common-or-garden megavillain with the usual plans of total domination of what remained after the all-too-familiar mass carnage. I'd expected Andy to want to take his chance to win a heroic victory himself, but he had other ideas.

The result doesn't bear much examination, if only because our efforts were so feeble. Our brave party of heroes took the wrong turning, with the result that we attacked some very strong monsters with the minimum of loot (you might remember I talked a couple of weeks ago about the levelling-up effect inherent in the different grades of treasure). Andy pulled some fancy footwork to get past our fighters to attack the weaker heroes, and we were trashed without getting past the 1st room. So much for saving the world then.

We're going to take a break from Descent for a wee while now, but we'll be back.

Andy: 1
Useless no-marks: 0

We finished off with this old favourite: Dave had never played before; and Andy was interested in seeing how it worked with more than 4 players. Dave took to Settlers as quickly as he'd taken to Descent, and he made a good showing too, which just goes to show that the game's merits aren't overrated even as it becomes as achingly familiar to adventure gamers as family boardgamers are to the general public. It wasn't going to be Dave's day for a newb's upset though.

It wasn't going to be my day though. Left with a tricky choice of regions I just couldn't find a fit I liked the look of, and ended up with one which was somehow worse than what I'd imagined it could be- I had neither sheep nor grain in my initial setup. I didn't expect to get far, and I expectations were fulfilled.

Tony meanwhile followed a by now familiar tactic of going for a quick city; Andy followed his example; and Donald grabbed the longest road which he held onto despite Dave's best efforts (and my dashed hopes). As the midgame drew to a close, the other 4 were poised neck and neck around 7 while I trailed, hoping to pull off a coup with both the longest road and the largest army to surprise everyone. It was not to be though. Tony hit 8VP, enabling me to explain to Dave the importance of an all-out trade embargo, as you do. But before it could bite, Tony stole the longest road, to win with an unexpected 2VP leap. Gutted! But a good show by Tony.

Tony: 1
The other mugs: 0

Over the weekend
Andy: 1
Dave: 0
Donald: 0
Tony: 1
Me: 2

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The tanks are coming!

Oh the internet is a terrible thing, a curse and a burden upon the unwary; such as an aging gamer rediscovering the geek that was a teenage tankie, and now equipped with Paypal thus succumbing to all manner of temptations both old and new. Take, for example, the package which arrived at my door this morning, hot from Second Chance Games. It was my new copy of 2008's hottest WW2 tacsim, Academy Games' Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! - Russia 1941-1942 by Uwe Eickert.

I must confess I've been putting off buying this for months. Well, more precisely, I'd been picking up the buzz from an FLGS and from across the net, and after nearly 2 solid years of Combat Commander I was hankering for a bit of a change of pace. Tanks would be an obvious choice. So it wasn't that I wasn't interested in Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! - Russia 1941-1942. Far from it. It's just that, well, I had other irons in the fire. Badger, however, wasn't biting, so I thought I'd better run another game up the flagpole before imploding into a mixed metaphor so dense it'd endanger life, the universe and everything.

Seriously though, I'd been hearing a lot about this game, and was certainly going to buy it when it eventually reappeared on my local shelves. But it was taking a long time coming, and Badger's and my 3rd annual wargaming xmas was moving ever closer, so last week, armed only with a freshly topped-up Paypal account, I went surfing in search of some satisfaction. My business done, I read the entire CSW Conflict of Heroes thread from start to finish, and topped it off with the rules to boot.

Reading some 1900 messages at 10 messages/page took some time, but it was worth the effort. I found it really interesting to see how the design changed as the game approached final production, and I particularly enjoyed the ongoing window into the designer's thought processes (I've always liked reading and rereading designer's notes). And my appetite for the game was certainly whetted. All the more so when I read the rules. All-in-all, I think I can say I knew so much about how CoH works and why that I could've got a game running in not much more time than it'd've taken to sort out the necessary pieces, some 15 minutes I'd say. It might've clunked a bit now and again as rules'd've had to be checked, but it could've been done. And I'd venture that experienced gamers could get running in perhaps 30 minutes or so from a cold start.

The key to this ease of access is CoH's Action Point and Command Action Point system. The core concepts of this'll be familiar to any fans of GW's classic Space Hulk, which regular readers might remember is a game which has generated quite some enthusiasm on my part (#1, #2, and #3). So each unit- squads, and individual vehicles or ordnance- has its own AP allocation, while there is a pool of CAP available for each side. These are spent for the units to conduct fire, movement and other actions in a fluid interactive phase structure which looks to me like a very original implementation of the 'resource management' model of command and control which cardplay handles so well.

I'm really pleased with Conflict of Heroes so far. It scratches a definite itch, gives me another fast playing WW2 tacsim which I'm sure'll see the table regularly, and fills a niche which isn't going to render any of my other favourite games of this kind obsolete. Oh, and the board and counters really are as astonishing as people say! Thick and chunky full-colour 1" counters (think the size of a 2p piece!) with a luxurious satiny texture just pop effortlessly out of their counter sheets. The maps too are bold and heavy duty. These key components strike me as being well designed to appeal to an audience wider than the usual grognards, as CoH's brisk sales seem to demonstrate.

You've not heard the last of this game, naturally enough. Tony's coming round later so we can take CoH out for a first run. Heh. The satisfaction of new ownership and the anticipation of 'battle'. ;)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

You heard it here first!

In which- Shock! Horror! Probe!- I criticise Combat Commander

Regular readers will be only too aware of my love of Chad Jensen and GMT's Combat Commander series (at 107 registered plays to date, it's closing fast with SL/ASL as my most played company-level tacsim ever). Some of you might even remember my waxing lyrical (here, or even here) about CC's excellent Random Scenario Generator (RSG). But what I haven't aired yet is my major complaint about the RSG, which is the way that artillery support is called in. (NB. I'm here talking about the rules for adding off-board artillery (OBA) to a scenario, not the rules for using OBA during play.)

Adding my tuppenceworth earlier today to a BGG thread about the CC RSG, I included an aside about this complaint, which in turn gave me a flash of inspiration about what has been bugging me since that August session of 5 CC RSG games with Badger. What then, is this complaint? Naturally enough, to explain that, I'll have to give some background first.

In a nutshell, the CC RSG works like this:
  • One player chooses the map.
  • The other player sets its orientation.
  • Nationalities, the year, and the troop qualities are determined.
  • Each player then chooses a force.
  • The player with the cheaper force is the defender, and goes on to: roll for support, buy fortifications, and set up.
  • The attacking player may roll for artillery support, then sets up.
There are a few extra details, but that's the gist of it.