Monday, October 07, 2013

Ulrika the Vampire: the trilogy complete

High hopes
The first volume of Nathan Long's Ulrika the Vampire series- Bloodborn, which I reviewed back in 2010, exceeded expectations sufficiently to ensure that picking up further volumes was a no-brainer for me. Volumes 2- Bloodforged, and 3- Bloodsworn, were duly added to my Warhammer Fantasy fiction bookshelf last year. I didn't know what to expect from these books but my hopes were pretty high after the first volume. Would Nathan Long be able to sustain my interest and excitement as he further developed the tale of the tragic destiny of one of my favourite characters in my favourite fantasy world?

Vivid characterisation
Freshly blooded and still bearing emotional hallmarks of her human identity- a proud young women of position, mature beyond her years by virtue of her martial experience, Ulrika chafes under the yoke of her new elders and betters- the Bloodlines: creatures for whom a year passes in the blink of an eye; who have nothing better to do than bicker, scheme and intrigue while human generations live and die as pawns in their powerplays, and as their prey and cattle. Among these, her new kind, Ulrika finds herself cast down to the status of a mere infant. Intrepid and independent she instinctively rebels against this subservience, launching herself on a quest to survive without surrendering to total damnation.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

On 'The Russian Front': a hit of that digital rush!

Opening the offensive
I said back in June that I was "going to master the first Operation on CCIII:TRF if it kills me". I procrastinated, as is my wont but eventually got down a couple of weeks ago to 'Blitzkreig: the War Begins', which links together the first 3 maps with which I am well familiar from previous battles with Close Combat: The Russian Front. I felt a bit intrepid: five days across 3 maps with a campaign system metagame of whose workings I have the barest clue- a whole new level of digital gaming ambition for yours truly. Sure, I can win the first map on autopilot, probably the second one too, but what unknown equipment might the Russians bring to the table, and what about factors like attrition, and resting and refitting? I could soon find my small platoon sorely depleted.
The first battle briefing

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Guilty pleasures and morbid imaginings

A guilty secret
The oft-mentioned mellowing effects of age are a true fact, well observed in the case of yours truly. A phenomenon which began with my increasing squeamishness in my mid-30s, the most extreme example of this effect is the case of one of the most hated figures in recent times here in Britain- the late Margaret Thatcher. I shared this hatred quite viscerally, to the extent that, back in the early/mid-80s I used break out into fits of apoplectic rage at the mere sight of her on the TV, and the sound of her in her prime still sends shivers down my spine. And yes, I went to the local party on the day of her death. I didn't sing, I didn't dance, but I'd promised myself I'd turn out and that was a promise I could not but keep, but that's another story.

"Who's got the last laugh
now you mad old bat?"
I blame ex-Chancellor and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown for spoiling my party (no, no, not the Labour Party- that had stopped being 'my' party 20 years before the moment in question). No, Brown spoiled my Thatcher's 'death-day' party when, on the occasion of becoming prime minister in 2007, he followed his predecessor Tony Blair's lead by inviting Thatcher for a photo opportunity on the steps of 10 Downing Street. The moment was truly pathetic, this one-time demented ranter cut down by senile dementia and rolled out for all the world like an old-time mummified Soviet Communist Party General Secretary to give her doddering seal of approval to the latest simpering heir to her so-called 'revolution'. And in that moment I couldn't help myself, I felt sorry for her.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Adventures in cabbage #1: "Go for your greens!"

I blog therefore I am
It is a truism that our hyperconnected world this mighty engine of commerce, knowledge and communication in which codebots endlessly war over the dupes, the data and the users' processing power and into whose coffers even our free activity is given a truism that this incredible techo-social spectacle- the crowning scientific and technical achievement of the 20th century; that this is the original Cyberpunks' mid-80s low-life visions made virtual flesh (virtual by virtue of the lack of ubiquitious direct neural jacking with its resulting sensory immersion- that emotionally empty screen so beloved of the trolls who soil and poison the social networks). When my pal's copy of William Gibson's Neuromancer circulated round to me back in 1984 little did I realise that I was about to experience with unsurpassed intensity a delicious cultural trope- getting in ahead of the avalanche unleashed by a new voice at the cutting edge of a genre-redefining honest-to-god artistic revolution. No sudden impact this. It was a slow-burning mind-bomb the full impact of which only became evident when, after a month's apparent indifference, I suddenly realised that I couldn't get the damn book out of my mind.

"It's electrifying!"

Monday, July 15, 2013

Combat Commander: RSG radio variant reprised

This is just not on chaps
I wrote back in December 2008 about my frustration with the way that Combat Commander: Mediterrean’s updated Random Scenario Generator allows only the attacker to start with a radio. This just didn’t work for me at a basic level of historical authenticity. My general reading has taught me that the German army used their company and battalion 81mm mortars as immediate on-call defensive artillery fire. And George R. Blackburn’s monumental The Guns of War is chock full of examples of British and Commonwealth forces in Europe in 1944-45 using artillery directed by an attached Forward Observation Officer to break up attacks in progress. So I just can’t go along with the idea that defenders can only get access to radios via the Reinforcement event, which has a mere 3% chance even with the Americans for whom it is most likely.

“Give me fire for effect!”
All that said I could see that the essential issue was simple enough: while it was plain that either the attacker or the defender starting with a radio worked well enough, making radios available to both sides risks turning the game into a rather uninteresting exchange of big guns: the choice being mutually available, escalation would be very tempting because why not, after all? The idea that the points cost alone of selecting a radio would be sufficient disincentive just didn’t add up for me. More important perhaps is the fact that most of the ‘Artillery Request’ cards are also prime ‘Defender Only’ actions; eg. 6/9 in the American deck, including the 2 ‘Hidden Wire’ actions. On the other hand though, 6/9 ‘Artillery Request’ cards in the American deck are ‘Dig In’ or ‘Hidden Entrenchment’ actions. It is easy to imagine how keen a defender with a radio would be to use these for the artillery strikes. So the alternative uses of the defender’s ‘Artillery Request’ cards strike me as little more of disincentive for artillery escalation than does the points cost.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hacking through the endless jungle

In full retreat
So, Badger was round last Friday for our regular Combat Commander session, which we had carefully planned to make sure we’d have time for 2 games. Committed as we are to playing all the official GMT scenarios at least once, we turned again to Battle Pack #4: New Guinea for Scenario M4. Templeton’s Crossing. This is a time and place we've visited before: Scenario G. Bitter Creek from Combat Commander: Pacific is similarly set around Eora Creek in October 1942, when the Japanese were fighting to withdraw their overstretched expeditionary forces back up the Kokoda Trail.

The Japanese advance down the Kokoda Trail

Soldiers on the
Kokoda Trail
The battles of October and November 1942 in Papua New Guinea were the last phase of a campaign which had begun in July of that year when the Japanese landed on the north coast of the southern end of the island of Papua. Their objective was Port Moresby on the coast some 150km to the southwest, from where they planned to launch an invasion of Australia. To reach Port Moresby the Japanese had to cross the Owen Stanley Range, which rises to over 3000m. The Kokoda Trail was essentially the only route suitable for military forces and the Japanese troops spent 2 months struggling through jungle and across ravines as the Australians fought a series of delaying actions to save Port Moresby. Eventually the Japanese fell foul of the perennial problem of over-extended supply lines and were then forced on the defensive as their strategic position in the Pacific was undermined by the Americans’ early gains on Guadalcanal.

Friday, July 05, 2013

In the eye of the storm: June gaming roundup

More games than you can shake a stick at
June saw a glut of games after the recent months’ paltry pickings I noted a few weeks ago- a total of 21 games played in 15 sessions. The Saturday crew turned up again for the first time in several months, and Przemek made a return appearance too. But it was 13 games of Combat Commander which turned regular hearty fare into a veritable whirlwind of boardgaming, thanks largely to the enthusiasm with which Gav and Liam took to the game after I’d managed to persuade them to give it a go: fully 10 of those games were games of CC against Gav and Liam.

Alien wars and other inhumanities
Eclipse: new gaming horizons in the penumbra
I picked up a copy of this hot new 4X multiplayer game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) early in 2012. It was an instant hit with my players and has seen play matched in recent years only by Battlestar Galactica and Cosmic Encounter,  a fact that is all the more noteworthy when you consider that Eclipse is a pretty intense game which can take as long as 4 hours or more when you’re not familiar with it. This familiarity has to be hard-won by repeated play and the Saturday crew have proved willing to play often enough to achieve that. So when we got together for our first Saturday games group in some 6 months, everyone was keen for another adventure in space, and I was primed to introduce the new material from the game’s first boxed expansion- Eclipse: Rise of the Ancients.

Friday, June 28, 2013


At the mercy of the machine?
Gav and I spent a day at Alton Towers last week. This was a bit of a turn up for the books: the trip had looked likely for September; I’d never hitherto been on a roller coaster; and I last rode a fairground ‘flyer’ ride back in 1991- a specific date I remember because it was just after my arrival in Glasgow at the dog end of Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, and the fair was one of the popular attractions of that year. I also remember that ride because all I could think about while I was on it were the nut and bolt upon which my safety depended, and the physics of shear stresses: the ride reminded us all of both often enough to be sure. That sucked all the fun out of things for yours truly I can assure you dear readers.

Me old mucker, Gav

Well, maybe not an
ancient relic like this
Anyway, long story short, Gav persuaded me to go to my first theme park. And so we were off on a 30-hour red-eye coach round trip from Glasgow. Twenty-plus years since I crapped-out on a regular fairground ride, heading off to ride ultra-modern roller coasters? I confess I was a bit nervy but, as Gav pointed out when I quipped the heading above, roller coasters are safer than buses. Which is true, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Analogue gamer finally grokks digital? #2. In which, getting neither rules nor manual, I am confounded

Analogue and digital: opposing skill sets?
Fundamental property
or fleeting perception?
Far from original, my closing remarks last time echo truisms familiar from many online discussions of, eg. how to get more younger people to play wargames (a common enough theme on the BGG Wargames subforum). Once this notion rears its head in any thread it won’t be long before someone observes that the ‘plug-and-play’ nature of computer games’ has ‘spoiled’ younger people when it comes to reading rules for a game, especially those more-or-less complex ones you’ll find in ‘heavy duty’ wargames. And these are games like, eg. the 32 pages of detailed case point of Unhappy king Charles or the similar 28 pages of Twilight Struggle ie. average complexity medium-sized wargames with clear and concise rules not ASL’s legendary monumental tome or some such monstrosity.

The basic disconnect
These displays of condescension leave me feeling a point is being missed, somewhere. I mean to say, as wargamers we seek relaxation in a hobby predicated upon higher-grade English comprehension overlaid with standard grade mental arithmetic. If you don’t enjoy exercising these skills then you’re hardly likely to enjoy games which put a high priority on them. This surely goes some way to explain why Eurogames are far more popular than wargames: their rules are simpler and they don’t emphasise the traditionally ‘studious’ skills to the same extent as wargames. Consequentially, Euros are social and cooperative in their conflict- eg. Settlers; if not indirect in their actual competition- eg. Alhambra. In this respect analogue wargames remain the niche of a niche dominated by educated aging geezers which Jim Dunnigan outlines in his Wargames Handbook.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Analogue gamer finally grokks digital? #1. In which I neither got nor 'get' computer games

My sorry excuse for a computer game collection…

Give me the damn
instruction manual!
I noted the paucity of my digital gaming experience last September in my review of Death Ray Manta. Getting a bit more precise: as far as I can remember I’ve only ever owned 5 or 6 computer games, and only 5 which I can remember for sure:-
Abe's ood, see?
  • Quake 2: played a few times but abandoned in frustration when I couldn’t get past the first level (I ended up running around banging on the walls hoping to find the secrets I knew I hadn’t uncovered).
  • Abe’s Oddysee: this charmed me but otherwise ditto because I couldn’t solve the problems of the more difficult screens- running around in endless frustrated circles was no fun, however cute.
  • Close Combat III: The Russian Front: my most-played computer game and my favourite, naturally enough- abandoned after I'd played the scenarios when I couldn’t fathom the campaign game.
  • Panzer General 3D Assault: played once or twice- meh, I'd rather'd've had a rulebook, and probably a map, counters and a FtF opponent to boot.
  • Combat Mission: Shock Force: out of the shrink, but otherwise the CD-ROM hasn’t even been inserted into the computer.
Of all of these I still own the wargames.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Confessions of a one-time would-be career gamer

“He’s not dead yet!”
By the power of
Emerging later than usual from the incommunicado of the long darkness of my annual slough of despond, I found myself drawn back into social networking via BoardGameGeek, as is my wont. One thread which attracted my attention was Deep or Wide: What kind of wargamer are you?, to which I added my tuppenceworth, you can be sure (deep, as we shall see). Before I knew where I was I’d been prompted to make an unexpected return to the keyboard for the benefit of my readers here at RD/KA!.

Never mind the depth, feel the width?
The original and
still the best?
‘Deep’ play- ie. playing a game many times to experience the full breadth of its content and to master its nuances, has been a strong characteristic of my gaming geek since I was a young adult. A quick survey of my 10 most played games shows how strong. Look at my 5 all-time favourite wargames: