Friday, January 30, 2009

Tonight's menu...

... is chickpeas with winter vegetables and saffron. This variation on the Turkish turlu turlu substitutes winter vegetables for the mediterranean of the original recipie. A spicy, herby, hearty vegetable stew with parsnip and fennel, 2 vegetables I like but've rarely used? Lovely. ;)


From the readpile
Top of the pile now is Matthew Parker's Monte Cassino: The Story of the Hardest-fought Battle of World War Two. This is a very readable book, with lots of detail about the grim conditions soldiers faced in the cold and wet mountains of 'sunny' Italy during 1943-44. It's another book to feature Spike Milligan's war memoirs as source material. I wonder what Spike thought about that? Did he even know? But this isn't about the mad Milligan. No, it's about the Abruzzo.

Regular readers might remember the Millefoglie alla 'guardiese' I've served up a couple of times. It turns out that the Abruzzo, where that dish has its origins, was the scene of a major operation to break the Gustav Line in January 1944, as the Allied armies closed in on Monte Cassino. At the heart of the manoeuvre was the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC). Their attacks through mountainous conditions shocking even to German Gebirgsjäger Russian front veterans played a significant role in rehabilitating the tattered reputation of French soldiery.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The fickle finger of fate

Battlestar Galactica
All present and correct come lunchtime, Andy, Donald, Tony and myself set straight to the game of Battlestar Galactica to which I, for one, had been looking forward all week. There was quite a lot to play for this week. Would the humans win out over the Cylon menace? Would BSG prove to be more than just a flash in the pan?

Tony got 1st player, and took the opportunity to cast himself as our resident hotdog pilot and glamourpuss, so that this week's lineup was:
  • Andy: Giaus Baltar.
  • Donald: Saul Tigh.
  • Tony: Starbuck.
  • Me: Tom Zarek.
Andy had the last pick after I'd chosen Zarek, which put him in the position of being able to choose whether to be President or Admiral himself (he wanted a change from playing a Support character after last week), so choosing whether I'd be President or Donald would be Admiral. In the end I was cut out of the privileges of office, which I didn't mind too much.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Done down by dastardly Donald's devious duplicity!

Battlestar Galatica
Back in December 'My 2009 gaming wishlist #2' outlined my hopes for FFG's new Battlestar Galactica: the Board Game. Andy, Donald and Tony were round on Sunday for 2009's inaugural Sunday session, and none took any persuasion to start with the Cylon menace (or should that've been start as the Cylon menace?).

Will it? Won't it?
Cross-media adaptions of geekery's icons are always troublesome, inevitably alienating some horrified fans as each must. With zero investment in the TV series, my question was whether the semi-cooperative procedural play would be at all interesting. In other words, would the BSG game be less the letdown that is FFG's Arkham Horror, and more the intense test of wit and will that is their Descent?

Friday, January 23, 2009


I'm hard at work still on last Sunday's session report, which I hope to publish by Saturday. Here're a couple of quick stories in the meantime.

It's official!
Since its 2007 launch, UK Games Expo has established itself as the biggest modern adventure gaming convention in Britain. This year's UK Expo'09 takes place at The Clarendon Suites June 5th, 6th and 7th.

I can now confirm that I will be GM'ing a Combat Commander tournament at UK Expo on the Friday night and the Saturday. All other details are to be confirmed, but you can expect to hear more, here at RD/KA!, and on UK Expo@facebook, and CC@CSW plus CC@BGG, as you'd expect. ;)

It's a first!
Recent facebooking prompted by the wish for a network to support my 2009 tournament intentions led, last Tuesday, to a long-awaited premiere: my first ever game of Combat Commander using the VASSAL engine. I played a game or two of M44@VASSAL a couple of years ago. All I've done with CC@VASSAL is take the pictures I use for my CC maps here at RD/KA! Anything more than that, anything which involved using VASSAL actually to play CC, I just couldn't figure out a damn thing about it! And I was being slack about asking someone to teach me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bloody irregulars!

Badger was round on Friday night as advertised, fighting fit and ready for action. I had, of course, managed to get hold of Combat Commander: Pacific and Battle Pack 2: Stalingrad, and had spent Thursday night in a counter-clipping session to get the first scenarios in each new set ready for play. So, a quick revisit to sausages braised in red wine later, we set to.

Bloody Bessarabia
As I'd noted at xmas, I was motivated finally to return to this very enjoyable scenario by a discussion - about the odds for and against the Russians - over at CSW. Just as had been the case with the BGG discussion about Scenario 20, A March in December, I took this as a challenge, which was why Badger was only too keen to play again on Friday, naturally enough.

My setup was really pretty good this time. I didn't manage to get any leaders stacked with other units (although I came close at least once, with Cpl. Bulganin IIRC). Even without enjoying that most favoured of circumstances though, I was in a strong position:
  • Both my leaders were in a position immediately to activate 2 units, and to regroup them with other units.
  • These platoons were then in a good position to advance on objectives.
  • The general massing of my units was going to make it hard for Badger to follow the typical German strategy of picking out isolated units - especially the leaders - for quick early kills.
And so it proved. Badger followed his previous strategy of literally surrounding one of my units, although in this case it was that militia squad toting the German light mortar, right in the centre of the map. I could live with this:
  • There're always bound to be some stragglers somewhere to be picked on by the Germans.
  • Militia squads are second only to green teams as expendable units.
  • Light mortars have their uses in woods, but the terrain here is just so dense that lines of sight are minimal, so getting any use at all out of that mortar in this scenario should probably be considered a bonus (in this case the bonus was probably providing a juicy target for Badger as far away as possible from my leaders, thus buying me time to regroup).
Badger wasn't able to maintain the same momentum in this game that he'd enjoyed at xmas, with the result that my hidden unit appeared much earlier, a circumstance which proved doubly advantageous when Sgt. Pyotor - an 8-2 leader! - popped up in hex M7 to the north of the map. Now I had 3 platoons to mobilise: difficult to coordinate with a mere 1 order; but enabling coherent dispositions which I hoped would be difficult for Badger to assault.

Our early manoeuvres continued throughout the 1st time period:
  • Lt. Schrader's platoon had seized the central objective and was facing off against Sgt. Pyotor's platoon who were marching south to meet them.
  • Sgt. Maisky's platoon had grabbed the northern objectives and was moving to establish a pincer attack against the fascist Schrader.
  • Cpl. Bulganin's platoon were preparing to hold the southern objective (#4) against the rapidly advancing Sgt. Bierman and his lads.
I got lucky with some reinforcements, and brought in a rifle squad on the southern edge; perfectly placed I thought to support Bulganin's platoon against the fascist invaders. Badger had other ideas, promptly advancing into close combat to kill off my new unit. It was after that when everything really kicked off.

Lt. Schrader ordered his platoon across the railway line into the teeth of the partisans' guns. Unbeknownst to Badger my hand consisted of:
  • Op fire.
  • Hand grenades.
  • Hidden mines.
  • Hidden wire.
The first German unit to move was the Volkgrenadier squad in row G. I dropped mines on it as it entered the woods after crossing the railway, then opened fire with Pyotor and his platoon. The German squad was scathed, but it survived. The squad with the LMG was next to move off, moving across the railway hex where you can see it into the adjacent woods, where I fired on it with the hand grenades.

Badger was clearly seeking to establish Schrader's platoon in a line through those woods hexes adjacent to the railway. But I'd been husbanding my wire card especially for Schrader's stack, which I expected to be crossing the railway into that hex adjacent to both of my stacks. My rationale was simple: by dropping the wire were you can see it, Schrader's platoon was effectively split into 3, dealing a useful blow against the Germans' superior command capability in this fight.

By this time I'd emptied my 4-card hand, which led to a funny moment when Badger drew the Interrogation event allowing you to look at your opponent's hand and discard the card of your choice. I was also left wide open in the south. I don't remember that Badger was able immediately to exploit that opening, but he threw a serious spanner in my works soon enough, advancing into close combat against Cpl. Bulganin's stack. I lost, despite my best efforts with a Light Wounds action against Badger's inevitable Ambushes. The fate of my remaining 2 units in the south escapes me, but I do remember that objective #4 fell to Badger shortly thereafter.

The battle raged on through 2 time triggers, including a 12 rolled almost immediately after the deck exhaustion which had given us our first. I was being punished by a series of 3's on my attack rolls, with the result that the VP total was shifting in Badger's favour, from 16VP at the end of time 1 to 10VP at the end of time 3.

Meanwhile, I drew the Walking Wounded event: pick a KIA unit, to be placed at random on the map, broken. I chose Cpl. Bulganin, who appeared just south of where you can see Maisky's platoon on the map. This good fortune was to prove decisive. Bulganin rallied and began a 1-man charge to victory. First he grabbed the German-held objective #1. Elsewhere Pyotor's platoon had regained objective #5 in the centre, giving me 4 out of the 5. Bulganin charged on, heading for objective #4 in the south, by now left open by Germans moving north to support Schrader's harrassed platoon in the centre.

Badger twigged to what was going on, and detached a squad to deal with Bulganin. He was too late though. Dug-in on the objective, Bulganin was too tough to shift with fire attacks from a mere squad, and Badger didn't get the Advance he needed to enter close combat. The time trigger I'd been waiting for came round soon enough, and I won on the special victory condition of holding all 5 objectives at a sudden death check - a first!

It was a great victory, but very closely fought. I was on a mere 3VP when the game ended. Even just 1 more time period might've been enough for Badger to shift that in his favour. All hail Cpl. Bulganin then. ;)

Surf's up dude!
The fascist hordes on the Russian front well and truly in their place, it was time to grab my new copy of Combat Commander: Pacific and to head round the world for our first visit to the Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO), a trip Badger and I were equally keen to make.

Starting at the beginning as you do, we found ourselves on Mindanao Island, the Philippines, in the closing months of the war. Random selection gave Badger the US against my Japanese, and off we went.

Badger's setup was credible enough, giving him 2 forces each capable independently of carrying out fire and manoeuvre while he waited for his guerilla squads to appear behind the Japanese lines later in the game.

Facing those strong rifle units with their stronger MG's, I was at a bit of an initial advantage because I'd been reading battle reports and tactical chat on the BGG and CSW. As a result of this, I decided on a forward defence. This decision was encouraged by:
  • My units' high morale and fortifications - these guys were going to be hard to shift with fire attacks.
  • The Japanese Infiltration ability.
Infiltration is one of the interesting new rules in CC:P. The Japanese have 3 tracking boxes into which they can put units and markers (eg. fortifications). Labelled A, B or C, each box corresponds to an Infiltration order which is used to hide or reveal infiltrating units. There are also Sighting markers, which go on the board, and which mark the hexes into which offboard infiltrators can be placed.

So, for those alert readers who've been wondering where 2 of my squads and a foxhole had gone in that setup map, the answer is: they're infiltrators. I put them all in box A, and placed that sighting marker so that they could appear behind my lines in a position to deal with any of those pesky guerillas who might try to get up to some funny business behind Japanese lines.

The game was determined by the battle for objective #5, in the SE corner. Already known to both of us to be worth 10VP, I knew it to be worth an additional 4VP thanks to my secret objective. Naturally enough, Badger's guerillas made a strong play for this objective when they appeared. Equally naturally, my infiltrators moved in to put a stop to that.

The firefight in the north raged back and forth as the Yanks tried to break though my bunker position. The tipping point came when I was forced to decided whether to rally Lt. Dainichi in the bunker, or the squad who was fighting for the decisive objective. Painful as it was, the choice was easy to make. Badger's units poured yet more fire into my bunker, finally clearing the position. I wasn't too worried though. The terrain and my forces meant that Badger's units wouldn't be sweeping south towards objective #5 quickly enough to grab it off me; I was going to hold.

And so it turned out. I won with 17VP on time 7.

Badger and I both enjoyed this game a lot. We agreed that the new rules were a lot of fun. They are colourful and logical where they are specific to the PTO; and neat tweaks to the core system where they might enjoy wider application. What was most clear was that a few simple rules changes (which are summarised in a single page, sufficient for experienced players to get CC:P up and running with ease) have created a whole new experience, a game which is most definitely not just CC:E with the serial numbers filed off. Another hit for Chad Jensen in other words.

Badger 0
John 2

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The final countdown?

So I went to a FLGS on Tuesday in search of my copies of the latest Combat Commander goodies: the much-anticipated Pacific expansion, and the similarly long awaited Stalingrad Battle Pack. Out of luck, I was told that I'd be able to pick them up by the end of the week (and I will, you can be sure!). So that's another couple of days through which I'll have to have endured the frustration of reading enthusiastic reports about the new CC stuff from the US fans who got their copies last December because they'd all pre-ordered it through GMT's P500 scheme. Gah! ;-b

Fear the vengance of a... Badger?
In the meantime, I'm consoling myself by looking forward to another Friday Night Firefight with Badger. As I expected, he's looking for a rematch of Scenario #7. Bloody Bessarabia, which we'd played last xmas. A high stakes encounter this, I'll try to ensure that we take enough notes so that I can put up a few more pictures. I'll certainly make sure that my GIMP scenario #7 XCF file is ready for quick action when I come to write up Friday's events for my readers.

Back to CC at last! Heh. ;)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Prague games roundup #2: the Up Front

Gloating carefully husbanded
Readers curious enough (verb and adverb? -: you decide) recently to have checked out my boardgame collection over at the BGG might just have noticed the addition late last December of Desert War, 1984's 2nd and final official Avalon Hill expansion to the legendary Up Front WW2 tactical CDG. I've never owned this, and only played it a few times with (IIRC) 'Uncle' Martin's copy, so you can imagine how pleased I am finally to have picked up a copy via the ubiquitous ebay. And I must add that I was really delighted when I eventually realised that I'd picked up a fully-expanded Up Front set for little more than what I'd've paid back in the early 80's when it was all originally released.

Of course, I had other plans for the bits of this bargain which were already in my possession: they were to go to Prague with me as a present for Bill (a gamer and his Up Front should not be parted!). Which led, naturally enough, to some games after we'd finished Warcraft: the Board Game.

Lessons learned à bounds
Patrol was the familiar place to start, random selection giving Bill the Germans against my Russians. Bill went for the familiar 2-group setup featuring a strong 6-man firebase at group B, and the 'wimps' at group A. I chose to go with the 3-group Russian setup I've adopted from 'Uncle' Martin's approach. This retains the 4-man assault group and the 7-man firebase already familiar to Up Front veterans - at groups C and B respectively; it simply puts the Russians' 4 wimps into a single group A.

My firebase was quickly able to advance to Range Chit 2 before the German firebase got off its startline. This put the Germans into their most feared position against the Russians; namely their firebase being forced to make its 1st bound into the teeth of the Russian RR3 killzone. I also managed to get some good cards (an early wire or somesuch IIRC) so that Bill's group was left pinned in poor cover while I just chucked hand after hand searching for fire attacks to rain down on his hapless men.

I got some good kills before Bill got himself out of the hole and regrouped. Well behind now, and needing to pull something special out of the hat to save the situation, Bill's best efforts proved insufficient and I won a comfortable VP victory at game end.

I was quite happy to go along with Bill's desire for a replay. Unfortunately Bill's firebase made its 1st bound first, leaving my Russians facing the German long range firepower advantage. The details that I can remember are vague, but involve much effort on my part to rebuild a badly mauled firebase by transferring into it all the men from the assault group; all to no avail I have to note. I seem to remember that I'd finally transferred Sgt. Rostov when the essential futility of the situation bore down upon me. Whatever, I lost.

Rumble in the jungle

At 1-all it was clearly time for a change of pace. Sure enough, Bill's choice was the inevitable Jungle Meeting Engagment, which gave him the Japanese. I ended up with the British. I confess to a sinking feeling as this all unfolded, but I went ahead with traditional pluck all the same.

Bill went for the traditional Japanese setup: 2 wimps at group A; 7-man firebase at group B; and 4-man assault group at C. I used my now standard British 3-group setup: strong 3-man assault group at C; 5-man firebase at B; and 2 wimps at C - the ML2 rifleman is to transfer into the firebase at the earliest opportunity. The precise interpretation of this last point was key for me.

Y'see past experience with the Brits against the Japs in the jungle, which had been confirmed by my Russian victory earlier that night, had taught me the absolute importance of your firebase making its 1st bound before the enemy's firebase makes its 2nd. Time after time my Brits'd lost games against the Japanese when I'd let them make those 2 bounds. So Bill was audibly surprised when he saw my firebase go straight to open ground after they'd moved almost immediately off of their baseline. But his Japanese had already moved off before me; I had no terrain; and I certainly wasn't going to waste any time before opening fire, not to mention not leaving my firebase open to streams or marshes.

Unfortunately for me, Bill had a fistful of wire cards (or something like that?). By the time my hapless firebase had reorganised itself, it was a 3-man group from which I'd already lost 4 other men (I was doing a lot of transferring again). So, I wasn't making my first bounds into the Japanese firebase's killzone, but I had 6 men facing an intact Jap squad. One thing was for sure, I wasn't going to get anywhere just sitting around, so some kind of advance was necessary. But just moving forward would surely prove fatal; all the more so since I was just so sure that Bill had a marsh or stream waiting for any of my groups which moved.

Twisting on the horns of this dilemma, I decided to transfer my Bren into the assault group. This done, I sat around twiddling my thumbs for a few turns more before I finally noticed that group C - now containing a Bren at RR2 - was actually flanking Bill's firebase (I'd done this ages previously for card cycle and to prevent Bill from flanking my group C). So I opened fire with the 13FP this gave me. Before either of us knew where we were, Bill's 7-man firebase was a 2-man LMG team. I was back in the game.

I knew what was to come, naturally enough: Bill's assault group were coming forward so that Sgt. Okimoto and his lads could save the day with a bit of bayonetting. So I started collecting cards to stop them. I didn't see any streams or marshes, but I did end up with 2 wire cards ready to play when they hit RR5.

Before that though, Bill threw his 2 wimps forward as a stalking horse. They died quickly enough to satisfy me. Meanwhile, a RR4 fire attack from my LMG group against Bill's assault group broke Sgt. Vasey's sten, which I was unable to repair before the Jap assault group made their final charge; by which time I was in the process of transferring a 5th man into my LMG group, with the effect that neither group was able to move when those mad bayonet men closed in for the kill.

With Okimoto and his lads at RR5 I slapped down those wires, which both stayed, to my satisfaction. My LMG group opened fire before Cpl. Barnard managed to infiltrate the Jap group to hinder their own infiltration. Moving and under 2 wire cards, I really hoped that that'd be enough so that I'd mow Oki's men down in droves sufficient to win the day (I had to kill 3 out of 4). It was not to be though. With a broken sten gun and a man caught in individual transfer both my firepower and my mobility were seriously hampered. So I threw Cpl. Barnard into close combat in a desperate ploy to turn things round with a bit of sheer dumb luck. Barnard died, mourned even by his enemies.

The wire was gone by about now, and Bill had started his infiltration. Once his group hit cover this was inevitably successful, which led equally inevitably to the close combat kill which won Bill the game because he'd broken my squad. Argh! I'd been so close, especially when I looked back to the moment when Bill's movement and those 4 quick kills had given him a VP cushion I'd imagined was impenetrable. It was a great game!

Bill 2
Me 1

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Prague games roundup #1: the family front

Hogmanay's Settlers was soon followed by a session of this stalwart. I was hoping to repeat my previous feat of winning on both Catan and Ivanhoe's field of honour. It was not to be.

Our 1st game started in a fashion that was to prove to be typical on the night: Bill leading the charge in a bout he ultimately lost. Bill's sitting on Radka's left made this so typical, because she won 3 out of the 5 games we played. Some of these were the closest possible, with all 4 of us sitting on 3 of the 4 tokens needed to win. Radka's victory on the night was complete though, as she won both more games, and more tokens overall (Daniel was keeping count). Bill and I trailed on 1 game each, with me pipping him by a single token.

The manner of my lone victory was pleasing, winning as I did with an uncontested 4-card purple laydown which had left me with an empty hand.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sunday session postponed by riotous assembly, and other stories

Facebooking last week I decided a day in Edinburgh was called for Saturday. The city of my birth, my student days and some years beyond, Edinburgh is a city of strong associations for me, one in which some of my oldest friends still live. So you can imagine I was expecting to enjoy myself.

Before heading out I made sure to attach the carrying strap to my digicam (Samsung P1000). Poking the thing through an open window, some 60m up, of Prague's Rozhledna (Petrin Observation Tower) to take these pictures had convinced me of the importance of that piece of kit, which I'd stupidly decided wasn't needed when I took the camera on holiday for the first time!

I visited the Petrin twice. The first day was the day I was mugged by the sheer cold. Catching the tram into the city centre I missed my stop and got lost. Wandering around in blind circles for what seemed like an age was cold and miserable until I hit on the downward sloping streets. By the time I reached the Vltava I needed to stop at the already familiar Cafe Slavia, upon which I'd happened.

Warmed up, and revived by coffee and a sandwich I set off again. Crossing the most Legii (Bridge of Legion) to reach Malá Strana (the Lesser Quarter) I suddenly walked out into cold more bitter even than that I'd experienced tramping up from the station to the Hrad Karlštejn the day before. It felt crippling. Completely exposed to the elements; gloves serving little purpose other than to cover frozen ears foolishly unprotected by any hat; I was so cold that it seemed utterly pointless to continue into the quickening dusk a journey which had already taken me some 3 or 4 times as long as the simple 30-minute jaunt I'd expected to this point. I was after some photos after all. I actually spent some 5 or more minutes just standing out there deciding what to do. Believe me that standing still didn't seem to make me feel any colder than moving did!

But I wanted those levels in Tourist, so I pressed on. By the time I'd taken a seat in the Petrin Hill funicular railway I was literally dazed with the cold (that's literally literally, not figuratively literally). And it was too dark to take any photos, so I didn't bother with the Rozhledna until I returned the next day to take these other pictures from the observation platform.

The Charles Bridge from the Rozhledna

Hradcany (Prague Castle)

Národní divadlo (the National Theatre)

It was at least as cold the day I took these pictures as it'd been the day before, but I was mentally prepared this time; I made sure I got in and out quickly; and I fortified myself with some hot wine in the Rozhledna cafe before heading back down across the Vlatva into town.

Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh on Saturday my expected rendezvous for dinner with my old friend Hugh (last seen here, and here, at DiceConWest'07) turned into a Saturday night in the pub with the rest of the old Edinburgh mob, among whom Jim might be remembered by regular readers as the anonymous gamer with whom "I perfected the grub-and-gaming trick" using the original Squad Leader. By this time any notion of returning to Glasgow that night was long forgotten.

In the pub Hugh, Jim and myself - grognards and avid readers of military history all 3 - somehow found ourselves broaching the still vexatious topic of whether or not Britain and France could actually have won a quick war against Germany if they'd gone to the aid of Czechoslovakia in 1938 instead of staging the shameful Munich fiasco. Hugh and Jim both insisted over my voluble scepticism that new research had demonstrated conclusively that this was quite simply logistically and militarily impossible, naming more than 1 book as evidence. I'll be adding these to my read pile as quickly as possible once I'm reminded of their titles. Hmm. This should prove interesting. ;)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig!

So I flew back into Glasgow yesterday.

A week and a half in Prague was the best of ways to start 2009. As if visiting a beautiful centre of European history and culture replete with sights to delight the heart of any wargaming geek wasn't enough, staying with Bill and his family meant that I had friends for company, and their home as a base from which to set out on my tourist escapades. This already best of both worlds was topped off by, among other things, watching the first season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

There were also more games - of course, but they're for another time.

Travel is said to broaden the mind, a point I've heard some contest in the face of modern mass tourism and the gap year. Departing Prague with a good few more levels of Tourist under my belt, and passing smoothly through Ruzyně and Stanstead airports to face one of my greatest fears - takeoff, I mused on what it meant for me to have become a seasoned traveller after all these years. Enjoying flying as it mostly turned out.

Faced for some weeks with 4 flights instead of the 2 I'd at first tried to get away with, as December counted down I'd found myself thinking increasingly often of that moment when there's just no getting off; when - touchpaper lit - the roaring engines send that highly-stressed thin steel tube hurtling down the runway to hurl itself skyward; a moment that reminds me above all of nature's laws of probability. But when you're up there? Oh my. I absolutely love the view.

So, flying out late December on my late-booked (and therefore not really all that cheap) easyJet Eurobus I briefly lamented not paying the special Speedy Boarding premium for the sake of ensuring my choice of a window seat. I needn't've worried though, as I soon found out. The trick turns out to be simply boarding via the rear door, which ensured me window seats on all flights even when I was in the last-called B boarding group 3 times.

Longtime readers might remember my last flight into Prague, when I finally knew that the view was worth those takeoffs. This trip's outward flight was marked by the snow on the heights during an afternoon's crossing into a landing in a winter's quickly darkening night. What I didn't know was how all that snow would hit the lowlands a week later.

I had a brilliant time in Prague, a better start to 2009 I couldn't've hoped for. Expect more. ;)

Friday, January 02, 2009

A Guid New Year!

I'm fortunate enough to be spending a family new year in Prague with Bill, Radka and Daniel. It will come as no surprise to regular readers to hear that some gaming has been on the menu.

The Really Nasty Motor Racing Game
We started on Tuesday night with this game, which I'd bought as a present for young Daniel on the advice of Spence in a FLGS - with 'Really Nasty' in the title and finking cards in the box I figured that this would be ideal for some family fun chez King. I wasn't disappointed.

Some readers might be familiar with Formula De - the current star in the firmament of motor racing games. The older among you might also remember an abiding favourite from my own childhood days, Waddington's magnificent Formula-1. What I loved most about this game as a kid was the neat way in which you set your movement by choosing your speed based on simple principles of acceleration and deceleration, and the accompanying tasks of managing wear to your tyres and brakes. This contest of pure skill and judgement was very sophisticated for a children's game of 1962 vintage. My only regret about Formula-1 was that I never owned it, so that I couldn't play it as often as I'd've liked.

Such strong memories of an all-time favourite game meant that The Really Nasty Motor Racing Game had a lot to live up to; all the more so since it's a roll-and-move game. What made the game for me in the end was:
  • The fuel strategy rules. Chosen at random, your fuel strategy determines how often you must make a pit-stop in the 10-lap race. This adds an authentic touch to race tactics, and the random allocation should keep the game from being too samey.
  • The weather and tyre rules. Again random, the roll-and-move mechanic varies the dice - and therefore your average speed - according to whether or not your tyres match the dry or wet weather conditions.
  • And finally, the Really Nasty Cards. These provide enough finking opportunities to generate all the rivalries and petty vendettas you could wish for in a family game, and they also add another nice layer of tactics.
Bill took an early lead in Tuesday night's game, until I played a card and the weather changed from dry to wet. With intermediate tyres as compared to everyone else's mismatched dry tyres I overtook Bill to pull ahead. My lead didn't last long though, and that was the last time I saw the open circuit in front of me. I can truly say that my dice seemed cursed that night. My fellow drivers will no doubt remember the amusement they enjoyed at my expense, not to mention the standing joke of the night - that my driver had to get out to jump start his car every time he had to move off from a stop.

The lead changed once or twice after this, but Bill eventually regained a lead that was much more commanding than that which he'd previously enjoyed. The rest of us threw all our finking efforts into stopping Bill, culminating in a last ditch attempt on my part using the safety car, an effort which ultimately resulted in nothing more than confirming Bill's victory and my last place.

We all enjoyed playing The Really Nasty Motor Racing Game. It proved to be a good family game:
  • Simple rules, easy to teach make it suitable for all but the youngest children.
  • The random elements create a level playing field so that younger players can compete against the adults.
  • The tactics - especially those associated with pit stops and the Really Nasty Cards - are not as obvious as they might appear at first, so that there is a learning curve giving the game fair replay value even for adults.
  • And the kids can then go off and happily play it among themselves.
I'm not sure if I'll be playing The Really Nasty Motor Racing Game again in the near future. I hope that young Daniel gets good value out of it.

Settlers of Catan
Hogmany (New Year's Eve to all my non-Scottish readers) brought us to the table for this now traditional confrontation across the legendary isle of Catan. Regular readers might remember how I'd seized the crown of Catan from Radka in the last session back in Glasgow I'd reported on. So I was in the position of having to maintain my grip on power on the one hand, and of hoping to win my first ever game on foreign soil on the other.

The game didn't start brilliantly for me. My first settlement was in a good enough location, but my 2nd was poor - it gave me my grain on an 11 or a 12, so that I wasn't feeling hopeful about my access to this vital resource. To make matters worse, with that same settlement I decided that the 3-1 port I fancied was safe as a secondary objective, and so chose to develop in another direction. Unfortunately Bill had other ideas. He launched himself into a spate of early road building and I soon realised that the port was lost to me.

Apart from Bill's road building - which quickly netted him the longest road - the early game was dominated by Daniel, and by my use of the robber to deny all 3 of my opponents lumber or brick on what turned out to be a regular basis. Retribution soon followed. I was able to mitigate this for a while with soldier cards kept as insurance, as is my wont, but that couldn't last for ever. A particularly funny moment came when Daniel chose to put the robber on the 12-grain space where I had 2 settlements. His reasoning was that this would cost me more when it came up. I was just explaining to him how unlikely this was when Radka rolled the resource dice to generate, yes, you've guessed it - a 12! And that was only the 1st of 2 occasions on which I was forced to eat my words about that dang robber!

As we went through the midgame Radka and I were in competition to build a crucial road: if I got it Radka was trapped on a mere 3 settlements; if Radka got it my development was closed down in 1 of my 2 initial locations. In the end, Radka got her build just 2 turns before I'd've made mine. Daniel meanwhile was amassing a grain empire with city builds; and Bill was sitting on a comfortable 6 points including his longest road.

By this time I'd been buying as many development cards as I could. Initially encouraged by the difficulties I was experiencing in developing beyond 3 settlements, this strategy was helped by cities which started delivering me handfuls of resources for 4-1 off-board trades. Drawing 1 VP was nice; 2 were even better; but to draw 3 was almost too sweet for words, and presented a real challenge to my poker face, especially when I found myself with 2 soldiers down.

Bill was alert to my position and made sure that Radka and Daniel were too, but there wasn't a lot anyone could do. I was soon able to collect the resources for another development card, and sure enough, it was the soldier I needed for the largest army, and the game. I confess it was a pleasant surprise, because my position had seemed so poor for so long. I simply couldn't've done it without the VP cards, and the soldiers helped too. (6 cards @ 3 resources each= 18 resources for 5VP. Compare this to 20 resources for 5 settlements; or 22 for 2 cities and a settlement. I was getting a really good deal in other words, but it took real luck.) Radka stealing the longest road off of Bill also helped.

A good game then. ;)

And a good 2009 to all my readers. Cheers to you all! ;)

PS. How could I have forgotten?
Bill 1
Daniel 0
Radka 0
Me 1