Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Lanzarote Snapshot

Wednesday 23rd Nov, 12:22pm, the Famara ridge

Laying out my glider ready for the next flight. Make sure there are no tangles. Switch on my vario and make a note of the altitude. Switch on my radio and do a quick comms check. Bundle up my glider and walk forward to takeoff. The takeoff at Famara is intimidating. We are standing behind a low tumbledown wall which sits at the top of a 1000 foot drop down to the plain below. It's not a vertical drop, but very steep and rocky, likely to kill someone who fell down it. There is a little cinder runway from the wall down to the edge - 4 or 5 paces then nothingness - a clear view over the plain to the coast about 5 km away, little volcanoes and the beach.

The air is full of paragliders and hanggliders, they appeared seemingly from nowhere while we were driving back from a wild-goose chase to Mirador on the Northern tip of the island. The sun is coming round now and striking the rocky face of the ridge, heating it. Cumulus are building in the blue sky overhead and the wind is nicely onto the ridge and not too strong. The next couple of hours are going to be classic flying conditions.

It's my turn. Andy and Jamie are waiting to give me a hand with my launch. Glider laid out on the cinders behind me. Risers draped over my outstretched arms, brake handles in hand. Check for a gap in the airspace. Andy - "Launch when you're ready." Shoulders forward, I push forward and feel the pull of the wing inflating behind me. Andy and Jamie grab the brake lines and get the wing under control then push me forwards towards the edge. "Run, Pete, run! Brake gently, that's it, keep running!" I power forward down the runway towards the void. As I pull the brakes my feet leave the ground and suddenly I'm out over the ridge, trying to keep running even though I'm airborne, then sitting back into the harness, leaning over to turn right as I join the crowd cruising up and down the ridge.

Andy over the radio - "Good launch Pete! Keep a good look-out." I crane my head around, looking behind on both sides, below, above. Brightly coloured wings all around me. The vario is beeping in the lift coming up the face of the ridge. I carefully look behind my risers then turn left, heading back along the ridge into the crowd. Advice coming over the radio from Andy - "Get closer in to the ridge. Keep plenty of clear space around you. Look before you turn." I'm picking up strong lift from a big eroded gully at the bottom of the face. As I fly past takeoff I'm looking down on Andy and the others, tiny figures looking up at me. I give a thumbs up. I decide not to fly on to the end of the ridge where everyone else is turning, but to turn straight away back into the lift coming off the big gully. I do this for several beats, working this short stretch of the ridge where the lift is concentrated. I'm looking down on many of the other wings now. I must be 400ft above the ridge line, and decide to try a 360 turn in the lift. The wing rattles over my head in the turbulence on the edge of the thermal. I tighten my turn, fighting the thermal's tendency to push me away. The vario is beeping frantically, I keep on with the 360s.

Looking down I notice that I am drifting behind the ridge. Andy over the radio - "Push forward Pete". I point the glider into the wind and grope for the speed-bar. After a few minutes I'm clear of the ridge again and free to seek out more lift. Bumpy air - great! - that means I'm on the edge of a thermal. Turn the wing against the push, listen for the vario, turn, turn, adjusting my outside brake, feeling for the thermal's centre. Lost that one, pushing through sink now, the vario moaning. I see a gull above me, soaring effortlessly. I fly over to investigate, and catch his lift.

The crowd on the ridge has all scattered now, hunting lift out over the plain. Far out to my left a guy on a narrow orange wing is doing acro spirals. Everyone is below me, a couple of hanggliders are exploring my thermal hundreds of feet below me. Andy on the radio - "Pete's been top of the stack for half an hour!!"

Still getting higher. The air is cold, and becoming damp. Wisps of mist all around me. The clouds are beside me, all around me, no longer above me. This is it, cloudbase, I'm 3000ft above sea level, 1750ft above takeoff. I can see clear to the Northern end of the island.

This is the moment. I have fulfilled my childhood dream of flying among the clouds. The dream that prompted me to sign up for paraglider training last year. The dream that drove me on through all the tough days of ground training and getting dragged through the mud on the North Downs at Green Dragons. I finally did it - I flew to cloudbase.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I'm off to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands tomorrow, for a week of paragliding with my club Green Dragons. Packing has been challenging - my wing, harness, boots, helmet and instruments pretty well use up my 20kg allowance, so changes of clothes, washkit and towel are going as hand luggage, and a book to read has to be stuffed into my pocket. Nevertheless I'm determined to pack a game, so the cards have been removed from my Formula Motor Racing box and popped in a little ziploc bag, to be stuffed into my shoulder bag along with the rules and the little cars. Hopefully I will get a chance to try it out with my fellow flyers over a beer in the warm Saharan-longitude evenings.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

When non-gamers ASK for a game

Sue's best friend Linda (to whom I introduced Lord of the Rings last year) has recently been demanding another game session. So last Saturday evening she and her husband Balazs came over for a meal with us, and after the dishes were stacked away we adjourned to the lounge for a game of Settlers. Now for years the Settlers rules have been completely internalized for me, so I was slightly surprised by the looks of shocked puzzlement as I gently attempted to explain them to the three newbies. It's easy for us to forget how complex even our "gateway games" must seem to even intelligent outsiders. But once we were under way it all became a lot clearer to everyone. Of course I was so busy shepherding the others through the first few turns that, by the time I began to pay attention to my own position, it was irremediably screwed. Oh well, I suppose we have to make sacrifices for the good of the hobby. Any of the other three could have won, it was very close, but in the event Linda - after building her first 3 villages next to the desert for some reason! - had the edge on us and got the win.

Even Sue seemed to enjoy it, and afterwards she commented on the importance of randomness for her enjoyment of a game - because it makes it feel less like an intimidating intellectual trial. In other words, you can always blame the dice!


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The priceless gift of local opponents

I'm very thankful for Keith, Trevor and Les, my local opponents. When I moved here 2 years ago I wasn't at all sure that I would find a congenial group of gamers to play with. But thanks to Dave Farquhar, who read my blog and contacted me inviting me to visit his group in Farnborough, I found a group of friendly and hospitable guys who have become good friends as well. Tragically Dave died suddenly last year before I got a chance to meet him, but his wife Janet followed up her husband's initial email with another one giving me Keith's contact details.

I've had two good sessions with these guys over the last few days. Last Thursday we gathered at Keith's place to try out one of his Essen purchases - Caylus. I got off to a shaky start with this, struggling to see how it all fits together. Les on the other hand, who likes resource management games, took to it like a duck to water. We wound it up after 3 hours - and we were only about half way down the long and winding road - but Les was clearly in the lead. I'm a bit concerned about the playing time - we need to play again soon before we all forget the rules again - and I was getting a mild dose of that "Princes of Florence" feeling I sometimes get with Euros where fairly complex mechanics don't seem to relate to anything in the real world. But I would certainly give it another go before I formulate a strong opinion either way.

Then yesterday evening Les and I met up in The Fox for a two-player session. We got the usual curious questions from folk in the bar (must remember to take business cards from the local game shop next time) as Les introduced me to Roma, which I liked a lot. Possibly because I beat Les twice at it. It's another Schotten-Totten variant I suppose, very nicely done with lots of interesting interactions between the cards - I like the action dice choices. Both games seeemd to demonstrate the unstoppable power of the Forum card which slightly concerns me. Then we went on to Dvonn, which was new to Les. I hope I didn't put him off the game too much by beating him twice at this one too! I enjoy this game a lot and I love the way the tension slowly builds until the whole position dramatically collapses at the end. I crawled home feeling very tired but happy.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Another great tip for War of the Ring

A penny coin is exactly the right size for glueing onto the bottom of the Nazgul figures to stop them toppling over so easily. If any Americans are reading who do not have access to our royal currency, I will happily sell you some pennies for this purpose, at $2 each plus shipping.


Thursday, November 03, 2005

War of the Rings on the web

A brief guide to useful websites:

Fantasy Flight - beautiful to look at, but also has a wealth of strategy articles, plus the official FAQ, and of course the rules.

A playtester's website - ugly to look at but has some interesting stuff, especially interviews with the designers. It also has card manifests for the Free Peoples and the Shadow - useful to print out for refernce if your eyes struggle with the cards.

So you want to paint your War of the Ring set - a classic BGG article that starts with the immortal advice, "Don’t do it. Really. It isn't worth it. It is a lot of work, a whole lot of work."

An inspirational photo - again on BGG, illustrating what a superb effect can be got from a relatively quick and easy paint job.

The celebrated turn-order summary - again from BGG. To be honest I wouldn't recommend this at all. It's confusing and even a little misleading. Just read the rules.

Chris Farrell - rather damning the game with faint praise, with an interesting discussion in the comments thread.

A more positive review - from the venerable Tom Vasel.

The Festival of War, held at my flat last weekend, was a great success. Estimated casualties were about 15 million, mainly thanks to a refighting of the First World War, but the Third Crusade and the War of the Ring must have added a few hundred thousand each as well.

Quite a few games were played, not all of them out-and-out wargames:

Blue Moon: I taught this one to Dave when he turned up on Thursday evening. I love this game intensely but I suspect Dave was slightly underwhelmed. Not wargamey enough for Dave probably. I even let him play with the Mimix but he seemed blind to their charms.

Wings of War: This got played in the pub on Friday by Dave, Nick and John while they were waiting for me to get home from work and cook their dinner! We played it again on Saturday evening. I thoroughly enjoyed this, reminded me of happy hours playing SPI's Flying Circus when I was a kid. Phil had an amazing comeback, he looked like a dead duck and his partner Nick was already down in flames, but he held out for ages - after I had accidentally flown off the table he was in with a real chance of shooting John down in a final head-on shootout, but lost on the final draw of the card.

Beowolf: We played this on Friday evening, after Simon had arrived, a curry had been cooked and eaten, and significant amounts of booze consumed. It was a lot of fun, especially as Nick managed to find a sexual subtext in just about everything that happened in the game!

Paths of Glory: Dave and Nick spent most of the weekend playing this. Dave was the Germans - of course! - but got off to a slow start as he concentrated on event plays to get to Total War. Later on he broke through into Italy. The game went into 1917 on Sunday when Nick had to leave for his train, but Dave looked like a clear winner by that point.

Crusader Rex: I taught this to John on Saturday, a straightforward task - the rules to this game are so beautifully simple and brief. We drew sides and John got the Franks, a tough side to play on your first time. I managed to split the Christian beachhead in two and after taking Jerusalem cleared the whole of the southern end of the map of the infidels. I think John suffered because he couldn't resist being fairly aggressive early on in the game. This swamped his replacement pool with casualties and made for a long delay before the first crusaders finally arrived. It ended with a sudden death victory for me in the fifth turn.

War of the Ring: Dave and I finally got to play this on Sunday afternoon after everyone had left (apart from John who was snoozing). It felt tricky to explain this, the lengthy rulebook doesn't help and the rules for the companions and the hunt are not simple to convey. But once we got going (with Dave cast against type as the Free Peoples) the play flows very simply and cleanly. The biggest problem we both had as forty-somethings was reading the text on the cards! I enjoyed this a lot, even though we didn't finish. In fact I'm getting faintly obsessive about this game - rereading the rules over breakfast every morning, and planning how to paint the figures, even going so far as painting a trial figure.

Another highlight of the weekend was a trip to the Games Shop in Aldershot where we must have spent about £150 between us, on such goodies as the shop's entire stock of Wings of War expansions, ASL Starter Kit 2, San Juan and Chariot Lords.

A special mention must go to Phil who cooked a glorious four-course meal for us all on Saturday evening. Thanks also to Dave, John, Nick and Simon who made the journey to Farnham. Let's do it again soon!