Wednesday, October 17, 2012

September games round-up: not writing, gaming!

Getting back on track
Write-ups of gaming sessions have been a staple here at RD/KA! since the earliest days (the first use of the ‘got game’ label dates to my 5th post back in August 2005, and the label itself is second only to ‘boardgames’ as the most used label). As well as being satisfying to write, these posts have also driven the development of my use of graphics on the blog, which in turn means that they have been the engine of my learning how to use the GIMP. These posts don’t come without their problems:
  • They’ve taken ever longer to prepare the more graphic-intensive they’ve become.
  • Writing them is very much ‘of the moment’; ie. they have to be written very soon after the gaming session, when my memory is fresh.
  • Taking notes during a game- for the sake of adding detail to a session write-up, can be more than just distracting: it can also disrupt my enjoyment of a game and my attention to the flow of the game- at the expense of my decision-making.
Taken together, these are definite disincentives to the writing of detailed session reports, something which is only compounded by the fact that I’m currently playing catch-up with myself as I try to get up to speed again after the recent longest of bloglags. Still, writing about games I’ve been playing is important to me, both for the reasons noted above and because it has been the basis of my developing appreciation of some of my favourite games, eg. Battlestar Galactica. The upshot of all this is that I’m going to start writing monthly round-ups of games played in the hope that’ll get me back into the swing of things so that I can write some more detailed session reports just as soon as possible.

Return of an old favourite
September saw a satisfying 18 games played across 7 sessions. The most-played game of the month was Ivanhoe, making a surprise return to the table after an absence of more than a year. Three of these games were against Liam- my #1 Ivanhoe opponent; the other 3 were played against my new wargaming opponent Przemek and his wife Katia. Ivanhoe’s strengths were on show in both sessions: against Liam- hand-building and card-management are what makes a true test of skill from the apparent luckfest of pretty much any cardgame; against Kasia and Przemek- Ivanhoe remains a great entry-level game: just enough theme to be interesting, and mechanics — cardplay, naturally — whose essential skills are transferable from the traditional card games players new to Ivanhoe are likely to have played before, thus accelerating newbs’ learning curves for added enjoyment over a short introductory session.

A new wargaming opponent!
Regular readers will already know that the newfound responsibilites of marriage had had the inevitable impact on Badger’s gaming time (although we’ve had a good year so far, playing our way completely through the latest — and perhaps the best — expansion to CC:E: Combat Commander: Resistance!). So it was a pleasant surprise to receive, back in January, an email via RD/KA!’s ‘Contact’ link from someone looking to play wargames. Events initially moved slowly, what with one thing and another (mostly my bipolar downswing) but eventually Przemek and I (who else?) did the coffee-meet thing, meeting soon thereafter for our first wargaming session in early April. Fittingly, Przemek and I began our new gaming acquaintanceship with a game of Up Front. In subsequent months, Przemek has proved to be a tactically talented and sporting opponent with a pronounced interest in all that is most innovative in games design.

September’s wargaming sessions with Przemek saw us play 2 of Przemek’s new favourites and another classic Courtney Allen design I hadn’t played since back in the day.

Combat Commander: Europe

Przemek is very enthusiastic about Chad Jensen’s trailblazing WW2 CDG tacsim. He learned quickly from his newb’s fiasco and our subsequent games have been as good as any I’ve played. September’s game- my Americans against his Germans in Scenario 2. Hedgerows and Hand Grenades, was no different. Przemek was surprised by my use of artillery smoke to mask my manoeuvres so that I was able to smoothly to develop my attack on his key HMG strongpoint. Unfortunately I was confounded by a plague of cheap time-triggers (4 in all IIRC- certainly enough to confer legitimate whinging rights!), running out of time just as I was poised to launch what could well’ve been the game-changing assaults. Gah!

Attack Sub

The last of Courtney Allen’s great design trilogy, and a game sadly overshadowed by its progenitor- Up Front, Attack Sub has narrowly pipped Combat Commander at the post to be Przemek’s favourite among the groundbreaking games from wargaming’s last golden age to which I’ve introduced him, also sneaking past it to be our most-played game together. For my part, I’m just glad to be able to refamiliarise myself with this tensest of beer and pretzel wargames, and to savour the way that Allen tweaked his card-driven design method for a subject as radically different from that of Up Front as it is possible to get.

Storm Over Arnhem

Courtney Allen announced his innovative design vision by re-imagining space to create the area-movement genre in this peerless squad-scale game of the battle for Arnhem bridge. I bought this game without a second thought back in the day and had a lot of fun playing it back then. I added a 2nd-hand copy to my new boardgames collection a few years back, where it has quietly awaited the moment of its return to the table. That moment came a few weeks ago.

Long story short: playing the Germans, my plan was poor; my shooting mostly poorer; and I had suffered 25% casualties in a mere 2 turns!- things were looking bad. Still, my grasp of elementary fire and movement improved to the point were I was able to put some pressure on the British before we ended the game after turn 4 (of 8) due to lack of time. My defeat was assured all the same, I’m sure. Basic tactics aside, I’d also forgotten just how tense this game is: the move or fire alternating impulses; the increased vulnerability of units so committed; and the drive to engage the enemy the victory conditions impose upon the Germans- these all combine in a game of endless nerve-wracking decisions.
    There’ll be more of all these and much more in the months to come you can be sure dear readers!

    A new game in new genre
    I’ve never played a railway game, not once, ever. That’s either a shameful confession or a badge of honour, depending on your tastes I guess. For me it’s just a curious fact. Anyway, that gap in my gaming experience was finally filled that night with Kasia and Przemek when we turned to Ticket to Ride: Europe after our games of Ivanhoe. The basic mechanics of this best-selling game by veteran designer Alan R. Moon are simple enough: you collect sets of cards so that you can build rail routes between cities section-by-section; complete routes score points, the longer the route, the more points it’s worth. There are complications, naturally enough: the routes are colour-coded so that you need cards of specific colours to build on each route; each player has some secret routes- long and short, which are worth bonus points if they’re completed; and, of course, competition for routes means that there is potential for some serious screwage.

    I’ve heard it said that there is a significant flaw in Ticket to Ride: namely that it’s often more rewarding to ignore your own routes in favour of just blocking your opponents'; in other words: optimal gameplay goes against the game’s theme. I guess that might be possible, to which my answer- after that first play, is pretty much “So what?” Screwage is screwage and, as frustrating as it is when you experience it, it’s part of the fun of competitive boardgaming. Mind you, there wasn’t that much screwage going down that night, so maybe I might change my tune in the face of more malicious gameplay. But maybe not.

    Either way, I enjoyed my first game of Ticket to Ride. Kasia and Przemek are more experienced players of this game than I, so I wasn’t surprised to come last. Still, my score was respectable enough. I’m looking forward to trying again to see if I can’t do better.

    The weekend sessions
    The new Saturday group plus the revival of the old Sunday gaming (now on a monthly schedule) meant that there were 2 weekend gaming sessions last month. It turned out that we played exactly the same games in each session:
    Infiltration vindicated my decision to invest in my own copy: it’s a nice little filler game with enough variation to keep it fresh provided you don’t overplay it. I like it, and it seemed to go down well with everyone else.

    Alhambra is a game which continues to somewhat confound expections about which we should already know better by virtue of how much we enjoy it. What I’m talking about here is the fact that, being a game without direct player interaction — let alone conflict — and therefore being a sort of puzzle game, Alhambra is the sort of game we really shouldn’t like: this feature was in fact one of the issues Gav raised against the game when he first played it. And yet the more we play it, the more satisfying it becomes. I think the reality is that sometimes just sitting back and doing your own thing without having to worry too much about what your opponents are going to do to you is exactly the relaxation we need.

    One of the 2 sessions was particularly enjoyable for me because I was able to try out a new strategy for Alhambra which I’d developed in light of a previous game:
    • Pick 3 kinds of tile and concentrate on buying them first and foremost.
    • Keep lengthening your wall at almost any cost!
    The application of these 2 simple precepts were enough for me to sweep to a convincing victory: vindication in other words!

    Club night: new grudges in a familiar setting
    I managed to get to G3 one night last month. Andy P and I sat down to renew our old Crimson Skies rivalry. The game proved to be the usual comedy of errors as I brought my own fortuitous bad luck to bear against Andy’s all-too-familiar poor piloting. I showed my typical skills as my pilots were continually getting Andy’s planes in their sights. Meanwhile I was enjoying the most ridiculous luck: every time Andy’s planes would’ve got their own guns to bear, my pilots failed their piloting rolls for extreme manoeuvres, and ended up miraculously careening out from under Andy’s guns. The upshot was that, by the midgame, Andy’s 2 planes were seriously damaged while both of mine had only suffered wing-stress fractures due to their failed manoeuvres.

    Andy did eventually manage to get a shot in, but it was too late by then: one of his planes had to flee because it had lost all its weapons; the other went down in a ball of flames shortly thereafter. Both pilots lived to nurse a grudge for another day though. And you can be sure he’ll be back some time or another to exercise it!

    September turned out to be the 2nd best month’s gaming of 2012 so far, while October has already proved to be something of a quiet month. Still, there’s another Saturday session still to come; Badger will soon be back at the table after having undergone the rigours of moving house; there will most certainly be many more games with Przemek to look forward to; and Andy will have his re-wenge (or not) when our Crimson Skies pilots return to fight for supremacy once again. So I’ll be back soon with a round up of October’s gaming. ;)

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