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2009 Archive

Compass Games: Silent War and My Dice Tower

posted Nov 22, 2012, 12:41 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: December 9, 2009

Inspired by the glimpses of the Pacifc War at sea in The History Channel’s recent “World War II in HD” series, I got it in my mind to pull my copy of Silent War off of the shelf and crack it open again — which rather surprised me, as I had had my doubts about whether I would ever play the game ever again.

Which is not meant to be a knock against Compass Games’ entirely impressive maiden effort at all. On the contrary, when I first played it, I found the system to be elegant and surprisingly simple, given its level of detail and seriousness with which it takes itself as a simulation. It’s easy to learn, easy to play once learned, and entirely engaging. Physically, it looks and feels gorgeous — the counters die-cut into heavy, durable stock and everything printed in bright, vivid colors. Since Brien Miller is credited with both the game design and graphic design, he deserves double kudos for his work, as does Compass for being smart enough to know that if it wanted to make a splash as a publisher, it needed a game that was done up properly. No, Silent War is an admirable piece of work, and I recommend it highly to anyone who happens to be interested in a solitaire game about the American submarine war against Japan in World War II.

Instead, the reason I doubted I would ever play it again was all about my personal quirks — perhaps an overfondness for epic, if you had to pick one out. Silent War is a strategic-level game with operational-level detail, but if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, it offers plenty of small scenarios devoted to individual campaigns, and you can finish them quickly. But no, I skipped over them because I was interested in nothing less than the big picture: the campaign game, covering the entire war from the day after Pearl Harbor to the point at which one has sunk 5.5 million tons worth of Japanese ships. In other words, I didn’t get a taste for the game; I devoured it like one of those Japanese hot dog-eating champions with prize money from Nathan’s on the line.

Now, at that level there’s no getting around the fact that Silent War takes a long time to play. It’s a simple and elegant system, yes. But it’s also detailed enough so that playing the campaign game all the way through requires you to do the same thing over and over and over again. Compass’ official estimate is that it takes 125 hours to complete the campaign game. That’s five straight days of solitaire gaming, if you go

My latest go at the Silent War campaign scenario,  c. Spring of 1942. I barely cleared the February ’42 performance threshold for tonnage sunk, but a little good luck (sinking a couple of 10k-ton merchant ships with the older, S-## Class subs) is about to put me over the May ’42 threshold with ease.

without sleep and other normal biological processes (and can somehow avoid the consequences of neglecting them). In other words, you could set up Silent War in your own little corner of ConsimWorld Expo, play straight through the con without sleeping, getting progressively more rumpled and encrusted, and only at the very end, as everyone is leaving, would you reach the point at which Nimitz and MacArthur sailed into Tokyo Bay on the USS Missouri

Mostly, it’s darn lot of die-rolling. When you first send a sub out on patrol, you roll a d10 to see if something happened to it in transit, and if something happened, you roll 2d10 to see what happened. You roll twice more to determine what sort of contacts the sub receives that turn while on patrol. When the sub attacks, you roll once again for each ship it attacks, and again for each hit it scores to determine severity of damage. You have to roll to see if the escorts inflict any damage. You have to roll to see if the sub runs out of supplies and has to return to base. At the beginning of each turn, you have to roll to determine the readiness of each sub at a base. And remember, the campaign game ultimately encompasses every single submarine that the USN put to sea between December 1941 and August 1945.

In short: I played the campaign game scenario once. I decided that I really liked Silent War’s rules mechanics. But I also decided that I could really use a dice tower. Seriously. Silent War is the game that inspired me to buy a dice tower.

Another way of looking at it is that Silent War is a solitaire monster game. It’s satisfying to play it all the way through, but in the end you can’t help but feel a little drained by the effort and doubtful that you’ll have the time to do it again anytime soon, if ever. In fact, it’s a tribute to the game that while I put it out of sight for a couple of years, it was never truly out of mind, and that all it took was a couple of looks at a TV show to get me to play it again.

The game could, however, use some digital play aids to help speed things along in the campaign scenario— especially since those tasks get pretty repetitive. It’s not so much the die-rolling, especially since there are already plenty of digital dice-rolling programs that you could use if your wrist can’t take it. I’m thinking primarily of pulling chits to generate possible targets and the targeting modifier for each attack. Over the course of a campaign game, you spent an awful lot of time pulling chits, arranging them on the display card, flipping them, and then returning them to their containers afterward. In fact, once you get into a strategic groove in terms of your decision-making, you’ll probably spend more time on these administrative tasks than on thinking about what to do with your subs. Being able to deal with them with a mouse-click would speed up the game a lot. I know that there’s a VASSAL module for Silent War — which now makes the game an excellent way to kill dead time when you’re on the road with your laptop — but I’ve never seen a VASSAL module that automates chit pulling like that. How many Silent War players have an iPhone or an iPod Touch? Perhaps there should be an app for that.

John B. Spalding Memorial Con 12/5/09

posted Nov 22, 2012, 12:35 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: December 6, 2009

It was a modest thing, as conventions go — just a day, in a small room off to the side on the second floor of the Pasadena Convention Center, and not a widely publicized, either. But for those of us who were his friends, the little event that now bears John Spalding’s name in full holds an outsized importance; it is a way of remembering him, but specifically and more importantly, it is a way of remembering him by having fun indulging in the niche hobby that we shared with him.

Of course, the convention was John’s idea in the first place; about five years ago (IIRC) he first came up with the idea of renting out a little space in the Pasadena Convention Center just so he could invite all of his gaming buddies (as well as his parents, who seemed just as  thoroughly decent as he was) to get together for a day. It wasn’t so much a convention as a party, and John was not so much the impresario as the host. I remember playing Wiz War with someone I had never met before, and then getting waxed in an Age of Imperialism game that included John, Ken Tee, and — I think — Michael Pitts and someone else. After that, John and Rob Flores shared the work involved in making it an annual event until last year.

Kudos to Rob for keeping things going in John’s absence, and for hitting upon the expedient of using the collection he left behind as an open gaming library. It’s an idea that, I’m sure, John would have found entirely agreeable.

As tends to be the case with game conventions, though, a lot of people clearly came with their
own games and their own plans in mind. Dan Holte and Paul Marjoram kept up the playtest on Supreme Commander, and over in another corner of the room, John Leggatt and Mark Kaczmarek picked away intensely at just-released The Caucasus Campaign.

Myself, I had thought to drop by just to drop by, and perhaps get in on one of the tournaments that Rob was hoping to gin up (with a turnout of not much more than 20 people, many of whom

The Wehrmacht Never Sleeps: I can’t remember the last time I went to a convention and did not see Dan Holte with a playtest copy of The Supreme Commander.

had their own plans, I don’t know if any of them came off). But then Michael Pitts called me on Friday to suggest that we at least get acquainted with the old SPI classic, To the Green Fields Beyond, and I readily agreed. Michael’s time was somewhat limited that day, but we did at least play through the first turn as part of giving the rules a good practical study, in hopes that we’ll have more time to play later on. At least, that was a healthy way for me to look at it, as Michael took the British side — and as anyone acquainted with the Battle of Cambrai can guess, on Turn 1, the German player basically does a lot of watching and hoping that the British player rolls high on his artillery barrages.

Seriously, though, it was interesting for me to watch Michael work through the paces of planning the initial British assault on Turn 1. I have only solitaired Green Fields before, and only a couple of times, at that. I enjoyed it and am rather fascinated by certain elements of the design, so I appreciate the chance to watch another experienced gamer coping with what is arguably the most complicated and demanding aspect of the game. It goes downhill for the Brits after Turn 1, as their supplies dwindle and the tanks break down. So if they don’t get it right — or at least mostly right — at the start, they have practically no chance to win. Michael acquitted himself pretty well in the limited time that we had,

Red Tide: Michael Pitts tries to figure out the best way to get to Cambrai. If and when we pick up the game again, it will merit a post of its own.

and got some good die rolls; by the end of Turn 1 he had wiped out seven German infantry regiments and crossed the canal, and there were no trenches between his most advanced elements and Cambrai. Even then, however, it’s worth noting that the sturdy German division that begins the game in Cambrai was unscathed, and I think it would have kept the British out of the city for at least another turn or two. And with German reinforcements flowing in steadily in subsequent turns (some of them entering in Cambrai), the British would still have had their work cut out for them, even given their strong start.

After Michael packed up and left, I got into a quick

pickup game of Commands & Colors: Ancients (in part, for old times’ sake, as it was a game that I probably would not have learned without John’s suggestion) and then headed for home, stopping at Wolfe Burger for dinner on the way. Again — what has become the John B. Spalding Memorial Game Convention is a modest thing, as conventions go. It’s a day, or an afternoon, spent at a time of year when people generally have places to go and things to do. I don’t know if it will ever become more than that. But it

It’s Toaster-rific!: Everywhere I go, there’s a Battlestar Galactica game going. This time, I was informed, the Cylon won.

remains what its founder intended: a chance for his friends to get together and share a common passion, in a space big enough to fit them all. It was good enough for John, and it works for me, too.

Weird Fame and Wikipedia

posted Nov 5, 2012, 12:25 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: December 6, 2009

Having written recently about using Google to track the amount of attention that I’m getting, I gratefully tip my hat to Mike Lam for discovering that I’m now on Wikipedia— sort of. Just check this out and scroll down a bit until you get to the photo that’s flush right. It’s from ConsimWorld Expo 2009, and that’s the group with which I waded through one day and change of The Three Days of Gettysburg, an experience I described at greater length here. That’s me on the far right — and moving to the left, Rob Vaughn, Tom Kaufman, Mike McClellan and Rob Mull.

The thing is, the article with which it goes has absolutely nothing to do with 3DoG, or the Battle of Gettysburg, or any of us who are actually in the picture, and only the slightest, most tenuous connection to board wargaming. The only thing I can figure is that the author (or one of the authors) of the article must have taken a picture of our game at CSW; but a bunch of people besides myself did so, and I can’t remember all of them.

So I’m in Wikipedia. But in a photo, not the text of an article — and I’m not identified by name, and the photo actually has only a peripheral relationship to the subject of the article.... Even so, it’s something, I guess.

The Not-Too-Distant Future Arrives: Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 2009 A.D.

posted Nov 5, 2012, 12:21 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: December 4, 2009

Cleaning and reorganizing my house has developed into a project not unlike an archaeological dig in both its substance and the overall complexity of the process. My latest big find is my small collection of Mystery Science Theater 3000 VHS tapes, and I resolved to convert them all to MP4 before ridding myself of analog technology all together. After moving the files to my AppleTV, I (of course) took the time to watch them all, just to make sure the conversions had gone as planned before I tossed the cassettes.

Me and MST3k go way back, almost 20 years, when we were both relatively young. I first discovered the show sometime during its Season 3 (The Amazing Colossal Man is the first episode I recall watching all the way through, and it remains one of my favorites), when it was still on The Comedy Channel, and watched it religiously through Season 5. For me, the show was never quite the same after Joel Hodgson left, but when it was hitting on all cylinders, nothing else on television (or any other medium) at the time could make me laugh in quite the same way. It soothed and nurtured my spirit during the two years of darkness and isolation that I spent in a little studio apartment in Chicago writing my doctoral thesis — and for that, I will be forever grateful to Joel, the ‘Bots, and even Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank.

But all that was a long time ago, and at least five years since I’d watched any of the Rhino Video-published tapes in my collection. So how well has the stuff aged?

The jokes actually hold up quite well. Yes, many of them are tied to ephemera, and are clearly aimed at people of about my age, who watched quite a lot of television in the '70s and 80's while young enough to have their minds permanently warped by the experience. A younger audience, coming to the show now, would probably not get them. Few yet remain for whom Wayland Flowers and Madame, or the phrase, "a Mark 7 production" are a living memory. Describing the dark and elaborately mustachioed villain of Cave Dwellers as "that mean John Saxon-type guy" no doubt strikes a much deeper chord with me than it would with someone half my age.

But the pure ephemera was never what was funniest about MST3k. The show's true heart was its hilariously savage treatment of the inability to grapple with the basics of storytelling — what the budding literary critic that I was at the time would have called their rhetorical incompetence — manifest in the films it spoofed. Some of the gags were kind of mean, if apropos, but just about all of them were clever riffs on an undeniable reality, and the best of them brought out the sheer pain of watching genuine cinematic wretchedness. Call me weird, but once you’ve seen them goof on Manos: The Hands of Fate, watching Mike Nelson playing the misshapen henchman Torgo as an impossibly slow pizza deliveryman never gets old. Never.

YouTube Video

Instead, what strikes me as most dated about MST3k is the cultural context from which it sprang, the itch that stimulated it in the first place. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing

Colossal Episode Guide is more or less mum on the subconscious origins of the show, but it always seemed pretty obvious to me that it was rooted in something that smart, funny teens and 20-somethings — at least of my generation — always do in each other's company — riff on whatever you're watching on the TV, and the worse it is the more comedy gold you can dredge from it. If you and your buds were up late, either because it was the weekend or you just didn't have morning classes the next day, what was on TV was either reruns or bad movies that the station could get for cheap (and you were probably a little buzzed on something, too, which only made the whole experience even funnier). A big part of MST3K's genius was that it took such a banal activity and built it into a viable high concept.

But while the sheer awfulness of those movies transcends the passing of time, their presence on the air has not. In their day, midnight movies were a cheap way to fill air time, to make it profitable to sell advertising at a much lower rate than prime time. But now, infomercials fill those overnight time slots — no doubt, much more profitably. By now, an entire generation of Americans have come of age snorting derisively at half-hour plugs for systems for trading real estate instead of cheaply and incompetently made movies.

And on top of that, home entertainment options have proliferated so that the notion of being stuck with nothing to watch except painfully awful movies on your local TV stations seems quaint, if not downright strange. Nowadays, if you're bored in the wee hours, you probably have a whole range of options at your fingertips: not only dozens (if not hundreds) of TV channels through your cable or satellite system, but VOD, YouTube and other Internet content sites, whatever you haven't erased from your DVR, DVDs and probably a video game console or two. There are so many ways to entertain yourself, no matter what hour of the day or night, that feeling stuck watching something as stunningly bad as The Amazing Colossal Man or Eegah just seems self-defeating. At the very least, you could always zone out in front of the pre-dawn anime reruns on Adult Swim instead. If you're with friends, you'll just fire up the XBox360 and bash each other's digital brains out.

So it's the meta-context of MST3k that has aged, not so much the show itself. Ironically, the gags still seem as ingenious as ever, but their reason for existing in the first place already feels located in history, a relic. But this also insures that the show will join the Pantheon of classic comedy sooner or later. So many of the jokes in Bugs Bunny cartoons are temporal, fixed in time, and yet so many more are brilliant enough to be timeless — as is the enduring appeal of the character himself. It's hard to fully appreciate Animal Crackers without understanding historically local references ranging from the Wall Street crash of 1929 to Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, and yet it remains some of the Marx Brothers' funniest work. And so I believe it will go for Mystery Science Theater 3000, into next Sunday A.D. and beyond.

GMT Games: More P500-dy Goodness

posted Nov 2, 2012, 6:06 PM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: November 25, 2009

A little over a week ago, GMT Games added seven more titles to its P500 List, including several that make for a natural segue from my post on the GMT Weekend West just past. I’ll just link to GMT’s announcement, which contains links to each of the seven (lazy, I know; but if you’re not using a browser with the Tab function, well, why not?)

Commands & Colors Napoleonics: I saw a test copy sitting around at GMT Weekend, and immediately the thought struck me: “Of course. Why not? This will work.” Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors: Ancients series has been a hit for GMT, and the system should transfer fairly easily to Napoleonic Era warfare. Commands & Colors is all about issues of command and control (as the title implies), and when it came to managing an individual battle, they weren’t so different for the generals of Napoleon’s time as they were for the commanders of the Classical era. It doesn’t surprise me much that C&C Napoleonics cleared 500 pre-orders within a week.

That being said, I will probably not pre-order it. John Spaulding briefly got me interested in C&C Ancients, but then my irrational disinterest in block games took over — all the more irrational, because it’s not a block game so much as a game that happens to use blocks for playing pieces — and I didn’t buy any of the expansions. But the Napoleonics titles will be hits for GMT, I predict that with confidence.

When I first arrived at GMT Weekend, Chad and Kai Jensen were in the back room with Gene Billingsley, Andy Lewis and Martin Scott, intently focused on Dominant Species. So I knew something was up with that, especially since it was the second time in a row that the Jensens had brought a test copy to GMT Weekend. I sat and watched for a good while (mostly because I wanted to catch up with Martin), and it looks like an engaging, Euro-style game.

However, Dominant Species falls into another one of my quirks as a gamer, so I will not pre-order it. Not only do I have a blind spot when it comes to Euro games, but if a multi-player game has little or no value as a simulation of some kind, I will not buy it. That’s not to say that I won’t play it; I will if asked, but that also means that generally, someone else already has a copy and just wants for players. Basically, I won’t buy the game because I won’t need a copy of my own. That’s just how I roll.

That was also my excuse when I admitted to Gene Billingsley that I probably would not pre-order Urban Sprawl after I playtested it at GMT Weekend in April. Back then, it was still titled Metropolis. I enjoyed it, as the mechanics were involved without being complicated, and it was very hard for the winning player to run away and hide — both trademarks of Chad Jensen’s best designs. Plus, the city-building conceit made it feel like a boardgame response to SimCity, which I thought was pretty neat. But again, it just fell into one of the quirky black holes in my personal gaming universe.

This time, I was a little concerned that Chad had decided to dumb it down when he told me that he had shortened the game based on feedback from other testers. But playing the revised version, I found that wasn’t the case at all, and that reducing the length of the game actually kept everyone’s energy level up and on their toes. Neither was the ‘SimCity boardgame’ effect diminished at all, and in fact, I took greater notice of the game’s ability to create amusing mini-narratives within the game, such as when I demolished a park and built a luxury hotel over it (and I would have razed the zoo to build a nuclear power plant in its place, except that it didn’t quite fall within the rules). And in the end, I decided that I would break my aforesaid rule and P500 it, in the hope that I can convince someone other than Chad and Kai to play it with me.

Labyrinth was also present in playtest copy form at GMT Weekend. It looks like an intriguing attempt to blend mega-hit Twilight Struggle with the War on Terror, but I have to admit that my first reaction to the very idea was dubious. As a game, it’s in good hands — the designer is Volko Ruhnke, who designed Wilderness War, which easily remains one of the most playable and exciting of GMT’s card-driven wargames. No doubt, it will play well.

But my gut tells me that the War on Terror is too far away from the point at which we can make sense of it in — say — the same way that game designers and historians can now make sense of the battles and campaigns of World War II for Labyrinth to be a satisfying historical wargame. We don’t even know how long the war will last at this point, or how it will end (I’m not even sure that the name ‘War on Terror’ will survive into posterity); therefore, we cannot know the relationships between causes and effects in anything close to a definitive way. And designing a wargame that satisfies as a simulation is all about connecting causes and effects in a plausible way. Games about the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001-2 and Iraq in 2003 — I can see those working at this point, because those are long over as discrete campaigns, and there has been enough time to analyze them as such. But the ongoing struggle against the jihadis is still current events, as opposed to history.

Infidel is billed as Volume II of a series beginning with Men of Iron, but it will concern itself with the cavalry-heavy battles of the Crusades rather than infantry-heavy medieval battles. I have opined — or rather guessed, I suppose — that Men of Iron would not merit becoming a series of games, but I’m glad to be proved wrong. It’s an engaging system that plays quickly and is surprisingly simple. In fact, if you’re used to Richard Berg’s affection for fiddly bits of chrome, the biggest hurdle in learning it is how little information you actually need to absorb to play the game: “Wait; that can’t possibly all there is to it...” I will definitely pre-order this one.

I will also pre-order Wild Blue Yonder, which looks like it will consolidate and reprint the contents of Rise of the Luftwaffe and Eighth Air Force, if only because it will allow me to sell my copy of the latter and have a more complete collection of Down in Flames — this in spite of the fact that whenever I play DiF, I seem to use Mike Lam’s or Ken Tee’s components anyway. I will not comment here on the parting of ways between GMT and Dan Verssen, and Dan’s decision to self-publish a new version of DiF, because that is a topic for at least one whole other post. For now, suffice it to say that I think a reprint Rise of the Luftwaffe is long overdue, as used copies have been fetching well over the MIB MSRP on eBay for years now.

The only one of the new P500 offerings on which I have no strong opinion right now is Jim Day’s Iron & Oak. As I said, I was not as impressed by The Kaiser’s Pirates as I thought I would be, but this appears to be a much different game and should probably be judged separately. Could be interesting; but for me, the proof will be in actually playing it, should I get the chance.

GMT Games: GMT Weekend West 10/2009

posted Nov 2, 2012, 6:05 PM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: November 28, 2009

I’ve already written about how Ken Tee and I brought Arctic Storm out of thaw at GMT Weekend West last month, but for the sake of the historical record, I shouldn’t let it drop there. As satisfying as it was to rack up that particular victory, it wasn’t the only noteworthy thing that happened that weekend, either to me or in general.

My first game of the weekend was actually a partial-completed go at The Kaiser’s Pirates, Jim Day’s WWI-themed card game. The game had gotten enthusiastic reviews, and it sounded like a good introductory-level game that I could recommend to friends. So when Jim Jones found me just arrived and kicking around and uninvolved in a game, that seemed as good an option as any. 

The proof is always in the play, however, and to me, Kaiser’s Pirates felt more than anything else like a set of collectible card game mechanics with an historical skin layered on them. You don’t take a side; each player has identical sets of assets (raiders and target ships) that you must use or protect, depending on the situation. As such, it felt a little too complicated for a good introductory game; not historical enough to be an historical simulation; and for all of that, not quite fast enough to keep one’s blood up. Jim and I rounded up Phil Bradley and Mark Ruggiero to fill out the group, but you

Our The Kaiser’s Pirates game just lost steam for some reason. Mark Ruggiero (r.) is engaged in conversation; Jim Jones (near l.) gazes languidly at a card; Phil Bradley needed to check up on the rules. And I obviously found time to step away from the table and take a picture.

could feel our collective energy level drop fairly quickly as we worked our way through the rules (only Phil could claim to have played before). Perhaps I’m judging the game a little
harshly just because it wasn’t what I expected, but, well... it wasn’t what I expected.

I had a more energizing experience playing Fantasy Flight’s acclaimed Battlestar Galactica boardgame, which did live up to billing. The setting aside — looking at it purely from a mechanical point of view — the consequences and benefits (which are mainly the absence of negative consequences) of the major decisions that the players have to make seem to be finely balanced, so that almost every one is a bit of a poser. Combine

that with the cooperative gameplay, and the game really does give its players the sense of being part of a team struggling to reach a common goal despite being limited by their own self-interest and finite skills. Layer the detailed setting on top of that, and you get a roleplaying component that melds with the gameplay to produce a richly rewarding game experience (“He’s the Cylon!”).

It’s always energizing when Chad and Kai Jensen bring their designs to a convention, but you had to know something was up when they brought Dominant Species and Urban Sprawl (nee Metropolis) back for return engagements. And indeed, both of those titles debuted on the P500 List last week, so I

Destroy all toasters! Battlestar Galactica, as it stood when we broke late Friday night. The Cylon had yet to be discovered, although I (playing Admiral Adama) had been accused. 

will have more to say about them in a subsequent post. I playtested Urban Sprawl and for now, I will say only that I preferred the old title to the new, but prefer the revised game to the previous version.

As always, Gene Billingsley gave a brief talk on Saturday morning — his semi-annual State of GMT Games address to some of the hardest-core of the company’s hardcore fans. I actually missed about the first half of the talk, having gotten a late start out of the Sequoia Inn that morning, but the current recession seemed to hang heavily, more so than in his last talk, in April. The gist of it — at least, the part of it for which I was present — was that GMT remains on sound financial footing, but that insecurity among the regular customer base may be cutting into their willingness to commit to P500 pre-orders, which are crucial to GMT’s business model. GMT has also become more conservative in their decisions about what to print and reprint (understandably so); my reading of this is that those who are waiting for reprints of Arctic Storm or Wilderness War should not hold their breaths.

Finally — and by no means least of all — congratulations are in order for Down in Flames honcho Mike Lam and longtime tournament partner Martin Scott. Mike brought his DiF team tournament stuff out of mothballs for this convention, and for the first time ever, he and Martin won the whole shooting match. The fact that it took the Lam-Scott duo about a decade to win the tournament for the first time is a tribute to the wild and wooly nature of Down in Flames, as they are as experienced and wily DiF players as you will find. But there it

Once again, the warehouse does not close for the night until the last Down in Flames mission is flown.


Well, Google Me!

posted Nov 2, 2012, 5:49 PM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: November 21, 2009

O Google, granter of cred and salve to petty egos, speak!

Practically from the moment I started this blog, I’ve tried tracking how much exposure it’s getting by checking in with Google’s webmaster tools. Finally, after eight months of blogging (and submitting my sitemap and tinkering with my metatags, yadda yadda), I’m starting to get some intriguing results — within the last six weeks, it seems that one of my pages has shown up in four different searches. That’s not too shabby, considering that my blogging has been sporadic for a while... and that my readership is basically limited to a small circle of people who know me personally.

What interests me most about this data point, though, is that three of the four appearances can be credited to my posts on last season’s LA Opera production of Die Walkure (here and here). And one of those appearances happened because — like the person doing the search — I misspelled the last name of Jim Svejda, movie critic and dean of classical music radio in Southern California, when I cited him at the end of one of those posts. Who would have known that ‘Hundig’ would turn out to be such an important keyword for me? Actually, Google tells me that ‘Ring’ is my most important keyword, but same difference. 

What has me just as quizzical is the fact that only one gaming-related search turned up one of my pages (and Google tells me that ‘gaming’ is my second most-important keyword). I have only a few posts about opera, and dozens about some form of gaming or another. Is there so much more Intarweb activity about gaming (relative to activity about opera, that is) that I get lost in the shuffle with regard to one, and not with regard to the other?

Cash Only, No Returns

posted Sep 22, 2012, 11:46 PM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: November 7, 2009

And speaking of shopping at Frank & Son, not having as much disposable cash as you'd like, and the prospect of going hog wild shopping there….

Last night, I finally pulled out a three-disc collection of music from Rurouni Kenshin, which I actually bought almost exactly a year ago at F&S, then promptly set aside for an evening when I would have three hours to do nothing but listen to music (perhaps while playing a computer game). The sellers were a little odd, even by F&S standards — a couple of fast-talking Korean guys who showed up out of the blue with an astounding haul of anime DVDs, graphic novels and related goods, priced to move as if they were on fire. Word had it that they were clearing out the inventory of a store that had gone belly-up. They stayed until they sold out, then came back the next week with another haul; rinse, lather and repeat until just after New Year's, when they stopped coming back. This particular item had been removed from the shrink-wrap, but they were selling it for only $5. For that price, I could take the gamble that it had no deal-breaking defects.

Well, I finally popped all three discs into my CD player tonight. I can't read the Japanese liner notes, but disc 1 appeared to be an OST, incidental music from the TV series. And that checked out, more or less. So far, so good. Disc 2 turned out to be image songs — also okay, although I couldn't quite match the voices with the characters. Disc 3 looked like more OST stuff from the series, which suited me just fine. But instead, it turned out to be a copy of disc 2,

Alas, one of these CDs is too much like the others....

printed with the disc 3 decorative art. Oy. So that was why I could snag it for $5, when the other vendors at F&S would have charged $30 for the same item. It was defective, in a fairly serious way.

Of course, even if I could track those guys down at this point, there would be no use in asking for an exchange or refund. This was a cash deal, no receipt, no buyer's remorse permitted. And in the end, I have no hard feelings against them, especially since I snagged a lot of other bargains from them while I was at it: a stack of Urusei Yatsura DVDs at $5 each, some Inuyasha graphic novels for $3 each, even some old Battletech gaming stuff for absurdly cheap. Nothing against them — in fact, if I had had the bankroll then that I have now, I probably would have bought close to half of their stash and sold most of it on eBay for a tidy profit.

But even so, I really was hoping that I'd found a comprehensive OST collection from RurouKen; I have always felt that the instrumental music was one of the anime's many real strengths, if one that tended to go unnoticed. In particular, I can think of a handful of themes that have a haunting, elegiac quality to them in that they evoke the bittersweet aspect of Kenshin's life as efficiently as any of the visuals or dialogue. You know which ones I mean; just go to Media Blasters' DVDs and pay attention to the audio loops that play over the main menu.

I've tried to pin down a good definitive OST collection without indiscriminately blowing money on every single CD in sight that looks like it might be Kenshin-related. But it's hard to tell what's what because I can’t translate any form of Japanese script. I'm not especially interested in the image songs; I have the theme song collection; and I don't want any Samurai X stuff mixed in. So here's a bleg: Anyone know which particular CD or CD set I should get? A scan of the cover art would be appreciated, so I can identify it iconically if I see it.

Not an Otaku After All

posted Sep 21, 2012, 1:27 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: November 4, 2009

It wasn’t so long ago that my disposable income generally consisted of whatever came out of rubbing two nickels together to try to get them to reproduce. During this period of my life, I would often wander around Frank & Son wondering just what I would do if ever I could walk the aisles with a good-sized wad of cash that I could spend without suffering for it afterward.

Well, I went to F&S today to get some card boxes; it was my first time back since receiving a windfall from the sale of some real estate, and it was no big deal to stuff an extra couple of hundred dollars in my pocket, secure in the knowledge that I could buy anything that caught my fancy without feeling that I’d regret it when next month’s bills came due. In fact, given that the anime goods vendors there tend to price their stuff to move, I could probably have gone at least half-crazy without subsequent regrets.

And yet, and yet... faced with the opportunity to pick up some appealing PVC figs at a very reasonable price, I just could not pull the trigger. These Lucky Star Nendoroids were priced at $37 each, which is about what you would pay for them on eBay, and without having to add shipping and sales tax like you if buying on eBay (in fact, I know that these guys sell online, as well as at F&S). But even after I’d paced the entire warehouse trying to convince myself to part with the money, I still couldn’t bring myself to pull a $50 bill out of my wallet to cover it. Sorry, Tsukasa — or

Tsukasa Hiragi (l.) and Miyuki Takara Nendoroid figs, on display at one of the vendors at Frank & Son. I have to admit, the short, chibi-fied Nendoroid look doesn’t really do justice to Miyuki, who is supposed to be tall and rather elegant. But the point is that I could have bought both, and I’m not sure why I didn’t.

would I have gotten Miyuki? I didn’t even get that far in my decision-making process.

Is thrift and self-restraint such a hard habit to break? Or am I weak in the otaku spirit? What is wrong with me? Or does that mean that actually, there’s nothing wrong with me?

GMT Games: Arctic Stormin’ With Ken Tee

posted Sep 21, 2012, 1:22 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: November 1, 2009

More to come on the GMT Weekend West event just past, but it occurs to me that my much-anticipated go at Arctic Storm with Ken Tee is probably worth a post in itself. So anyone interested in how I spent the other three days of the con will have to wait a bit longer.

As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, Arctic Storm was one of the very first GMT games to catch my attention, and I've always been very fond of it. The subject — a strategic overview of the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939-40 —is a classic example of how styles makes fights (as they say in boxing), and David James Ritchie gave it a deft treatment that is easy to grasp and plays quickly, yet feels detailed and flavorful at the same time. For me, it was almost the perfect game with which to re-enter the hobby after ten years of focusing on school because it grabbed my interest without putting me through much work. So when Ken told me that he was interested in revisiting it, he didn't have to ask me twice.

Ken started setting up right after Gene Billingsley's "State of GMT" talk on Saturday morning, while I was finishing up my Battlestar Galactica game ("I'm not the Cyclon, he's the Cylon!") from the night before, and the Soviet guns were booming by noon. Much to my surprise, Ken was eager to take the Soviet side; I recollected that the Soviets have their work cut out for them under Ritchie's rule set, but he claimed that he had a strategy worked out to roll the Finns and he wanted to try it out.

Intrigued and a little apprehensive, I waited like the black player at the beginning of a chess game for what this plan of his entailed. Having played the game solitaire before, I knew that the Soviets would have the initiative through the first half of the game in that exactly what the Finns do depends on where the Soviets choose to make their main effort. The Soviets also have serious advantages through the first few turns in their CRT column shifts, so the Finns need to conserve their forces and weather that initial onslaught. I seriously wondered if Ken had thought of something that I had never considered, like a new approach to the Ruy Lopez or the Queen's Gambit.

As it turned out, Ken's great strategic innovation was to pull the Soviet armor facing the Mannerheim Line and threaten a flanking move across the frozen-over Gulf of Finland while pressing moderately on all other fronts. His thinking, as he explained later, was that — knowing that it would be useless to batter the fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus — he wanted to draw my reserves to the southern end of Finland and away from the north, where he felt the Finns were most vulnerable.

So how well did it work? Probably not as well as he had expected. I'll cut to the chase and state that I won a decisive victory, and a thumpingly decisive one at that. The feint did force me to thin out

Ken ponders the dilemma facing the Soviets — and it’s only Turn 3. At this point, it actually looks kind of bad for the Finns, with the Reds massed on either side of Lake Ladoga and the north open for the taking. But the Soviet CRT advantages have just expired, and you can already see the key points around which I will build my northern defense line.

my defenses to cover Helsinki and the open ground south of Viipuri for a while. But I did so with units taken from the Mannerheim Line, knowing that Ken had just diluted any potential attack from that area, and knowing that he would need a truly overwhelming advantage to capture the Finnish capital. Furthermore, I knew that the rail movement rules would allow me to shift reserves rapidly from one area to another. When Ken gave up on his feint, I was able to commit those forces elsewhere within a couple of turns.

To that end, I didn't bother trying to defend anything north of the Arctic Circle, basically giving up northern Finland so that it would be easier to conduct a defense along interior lines. While Petsamo may seem like an important objective, there isn't anything in the north that can't be conceded in order to secure the VPs that the Finns will get by extending the game all way through Turn 18 — something that you can only accomplish by preserving the Finnish army. The fact that the Cloudy Skies random event makes it impossible for the Soviets to use their air power advantage anywhere except above the Arctic Circle renders this approach all the more viable. If there are no Finnish units in the north, the Sturmoviks have nothing to attack but barren ground. And with a shorter, more flexible line to defend, I was able to send smaller units across the border to capture Soviet towns for VPs. In fact I would say that at least a third of the combat south of the Arctic Circle occurred in Soviet territory.

Ken's desire to use the his armored units in a grand feint, combined with his reluctance to attack through the Karelian Isthmus, also diluted his offensive punch at exactly the point in the game where it is most advantageous for the Soviets to attack, because of the CRT column shifts that they receive on Turns 1 and 2. I'll readily grant that attacking the Mannerheim Line head-on is a daunting prospect even with the column shifts. But it's also true that if a game designer presents you with a use-or-lose-it proposition, you should consider making as much use as you can of whatever it is. One consequence of Ken’s plan was that the Soviets got practically no use out of his armor at the time when it was probably most advantageous to use them. Soviet armor units are only useful on the attack, and at that they are quite good; the closest Ken came to breaking me was when he deployed his armor reinforcements north of Lake Ladoga late in the game. They formed powerful attacking stacks when concentrated, and their mobility kept me from deploying my 1-1-4 ski-mobile units into gaps in the front to cut supply lines.

In the end, though, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the victory point schedule and the CRT effectively offset the Soviets' material edge, and that even with all of their obvious advantages, the Reds have a tough road to hoe in Arctic Storm. If they go all in early, they attack when the Finns are strongest, and they will lose VPs by incurring casualties; if they wait until the weather allows them more opportunities to use their air power, they will lose VPs the longer the game extends beyond Turn 5. There was no blaming the outcome on the dice here; as Ken himself noted, neither of us rolled any 2's or 20's. There were quite a few 11's and 12's. So the results were well within the mean for rolling 2 d10s. Cloudy Skies was the most commonly rolled random event, as one would expect. In fact, the most eccentric random event that we rolled — the arrival of Soviet paratroopers — favored the Soviet side.

For comparison, we had Mark Kaczmarek and John Leggatt's Arctic Storm game running side-by-side with ours. In a remarkable coincidence, they had decided to have their own go at it, independent of me and Ken. As the Finns, John took a somewhat different approach from mine; he was more interested in defending the north, and more aggressive about forming the dreaded motti. He, too, won pretty decisively, with Mark throwing in the towel around Turn 8. However, Mark blamed the result (and probably with some justice) on eccentric die rolls both on the CRT and for random events. I'll stop short of declaring that

Mark and John’s game; they also appear to be on Turn 3 (or they’re getting close to it). John seems to have given relatively little thought to his northern flank, even though the road from Petsamo is open. But it also seems that Mark is putting more pressure on the Mannerheim Line than Ken did. 

it's impossible for the Soviets to win Arctic Storm, especially since John swore that he's heard of occasions where the Soviet player has won, and without freak occurrences like sudden opponent insanity or the intervention of UFOs. But it does seem that Ritchie tailored the victory conditions so that the Soviet player must at least match historical performance in order to win.

As an aside, it should be noted that just before GMT West, word circulated around Consim World that David Ritchie had recently passed away. Ritchie only executed three designs for GMT — Victory in the West and Lost Victory being the other two — and he more or less disappeared from the hobby after that. It was wargaming's loss, as he was clearly a talented designer with a rare sense of how to make a game flow smoothly for the players. I like to think of these two games of Arctic Storm as an unplanned tribute to him, because it is a tribute to a designer that one of his games should still feel so fresh and engaging 15 years after it was published. Hail and farewell.

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