Friday, July 28, 2006

I have next week booked off work and lots of geeky things I would love to do in it - repainting my Sauron figures from War of the Ring, carefully punching out and trimming those beautiful counters in This Accursed Civil War, playing C&C Ancients on Vassal or Amun Re by email, soloing a few ASL Starter Kit scenarios......

Sadly it's not to be. I am travelling up to Melrose in Scotland on Saturday with Sue for a week's walking holiday. Fresh air, exercise, beautiful scenery...... but no gaming for a week.


I enjoyed Canal Mania quite a lot. I like network building games (I "grew up" with 1830 and Railway Rivals) and this one has a lot going for it. I like way the Contracts restrict your building choices - it's not just a free-for-all like RR - and I like the way that your card drafting choices can also manipulate the placement of goods. However the turn-order is fixed and seems to have a big influence on your chances - the guy who plays last gets a pretty raw deal on goods movement, though he does get the pick of the engineers as compensation. The turn-order thing felt a bit old-fashioned, even RR rotates who goes first anti-clockwise.

I came in 3rd out of 5, but I was only 4 points behind the winner, and felt I had a good chance of winning all the way through.

We had an issue with playing-time. On the box it says "About 2 hours" but we took nearly 3 and a half! I was getting a bit weary of it all by the end. But I think this was more to do with our group than the game - we hadn't met for a while, and everyone was in the mood for a friendly chat.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Playing another new game tonight with the local group - Canal Mania. I love my gaming group to bits and wouldn't change them for the world, but sometimes I think they are a little.... erm.... flighty. Always trying the next thing, always learning a new game, only to play it once then move on to the next thing. Surely all this restless searching must have an objective - to find one of the truly great games that deserves repeated play and study?

And I am just as bad. I was in Covent Garden yesterday evening and just "popped into" The Orc's Nest. What a great little shop, with a nice selection of boardgames crammed into the shelves upstairs. It was so tempting to buy something - another new game, Louis XIV perhaps, or Warrior Knights, just to try it out. But I resisted - really, I have enough truly excellent games in my collection already. I just need to play them.

Another thought - perhaps this is why I am feeling drawn towards wargaming at the moment? The investment in terms of learning a new wargame is so much greater than for a Euro, that you have to get a few replays to make all that study worthwhile.


Dave the Dark Lord

Dave drove over from Salisbury on Tuesday evening for a game of War of the Ring. I was looking forward to playing with my painted figures, but didn't anticipate the effects of this heat. When I opened up the box I found that the Sauron figures, which I had rather over-varnished, were sticky and had stuck to each other in the box. I managed to get them untangled and set up on the table by the time Dave arrived, but it looks like I will be cleaning the Sauron figures off with white spirit and re-doing the paint job. Sigh.

Dave took the Shadow this time and initially went for a heavy hunt strategy, which made life very difficult for my Fellowship - Gandalf died when they got revealed in Hollin, and they took a few more hits getting though Moria. Then as Dave got into the military side of the game the Fellowship got a reprieve and made good progress towards the Morannon. The fighting was going badly for me - my double Ent play failed to kill Saruman, and Minas Tirith fell, shortly followed by Dale, Erebor and the Woodland Realm. But I got lots of dagger dice on my final two turns which enabled a swift rush through Mordor. But it was a very close thing - Dave was only a couple of actions away from taking Dol Amroth and victory when I reached the Cracks of Doom, just in the nick of time!

I love this game and feel no desire at the moment to buy the expansion set, it seems just perfect the way it is.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Black is the New White

Pricerunner says that a white 30Gb iPod will cost you £150, whereas a black 30Gb iPod (identical spec) will cost you £180.

That says one thing to me - no-one wants white Apple stuff any more.

In the meantime, I am laboriously ripping my CD collection. The rule of deferred gratification says that only, repeat only when I have ripped ALL of my CD's, will I allow myself to buy myself an iPod.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Swimming with Grebes

Went swimming Monday evening after work at Frensham Great Pond with Mum and Sue. Sue, who instigated the expedition, is crazy about freshwater swimming, and liable to jump at short notice into any stretch of open water she comes across.

There is a miniature sandy beach running down to the water, which was lovely and warm. The highlight was being in the water a few yards from a family of Great Crested Grebes - two adults working hard to feed their extremely noisy and persistent brood.

A sunset picnic finished off a perfect evening.

Reading the Rules Again for the First Time

If you are a Type A gamer then reading rules will be a big part of your gaming life, accounting for a significant portion of the hours that you spend on your hobby.

A Type A gamer, in case you're not familiar with this classification (which is likely since I just made it up), is the kind of gamer who spends hard-earned money on his game collection, often hosts his game group, is likely to be the one who suggests what the group plays, has the game set up when everyone arrives, and is the one who explains the rules and gets everyone ready to play - and usually loses. A Type B gamer is the kind who only owns 2 games, doesn't care what gets played, just turns up and lets someone tell him how it works, no-one has ever seen where he lives - and he usually wins.

Over the course of my life I have spent many happy hours reading rules - which tells you which type of gamer I am. From preparing to play Red Star White Star with a school friend many years ago, right down to yesterday and completing my first read-through of This Accursed Civil War. It's a part of our hobby which gets scant attention, yet consumes many hours, and can be anticipatory fun or headache-inducing toil.

I think my favourite rules in terms of layout and useability are the Alea big boxes like Ra or Puerto Rico. Those summary side-bars are inspired, they make it so easy to just quickly review the rules before you play it again after a break.

Many wargame rules suffer in comparison with German games. Empire of the Sun and Grand Illusion have both recently defeated me by just being so long and impenetrable.

When you read a new set of rules you are attempting to imagine how the mechanics of this game work, picturing the pieces and how they are allowed to move on the board. For a wargame you want to know how many pieces you can stack together; does facing matter? do they have zones of control? how is combat resolved? are there markers that sit on units to mark morale or losses? will it all become unmanageable? how does retreat work? what is the sequence of play?

Nothing destroys my enthusiasm for a new game faster than errors in the rules. If I notice obvious mistakes or ambiguities on my first read-through, the game is likely to hit eBay in the near future. The same goes for big errata sheets posted on the web, or an impression that the designer is struggling to fix serious balance issues, or if the rules seem to be a moving target, with a new version posted every time you look. This was what killed my interest in Barbarossa to Berlin.

The order in which the rules are presented makes a big difference. For the first read-through, it helps a lot if they are sequenced to tell an unfolding story that makes sense. If rules refer forwards all the time to rules that come later, they will be very hard to understand on a first read-through.

This Accursed Civil War and Von Manstein's Backhand Blow are two rulesets that I have read recently that made good sense to me on the first read-through. The rules to The Napoleonic Wars on the other hand, made very little sense to me even after I had played the game 5 or 6 times!

Even the physical quality of the rules makes a difference. If they are printed on nice thick creamy paper with beautiful illustrations, it makes a big difference to how I feel about a game. Likewise with layout, font, brevity, and English style. Columbia Games score highly in this area.

The next step is to punch out the counters and set the game up on the table. Run through a few turns solo, then go back and read the rules again from front to back. You'll be amazed how many little things you got wrong, and this second reading will start to cement the game in your head. Internalize it as the grognards say.

Once you have mastered a game your requirements change. Now you need rules that are organized according to the sequence of play. A good index is essential, so are well-designed and accurate play-aids. You need to be able to find the information you want quickly. (Full marks to Commands and Colors Ancients for its superb play-aids.) Repetition is a killer in this respect. If the rules you want are repeated in several different sections, with subtle differences between them, confusion and disillusion awaits. See Empire of the Sun for example.

And please leave out the chatty asides and so-called "jokes" that pad out the rules with useless text. (Richard Berg are you listening?) Likewise historical notes or justifications for design decisions should be removed from the body of the rules - to the designers notes or a separate playbook.

One final dilemma - should I fold back the pages of a new rules booklet? I want it to stay pristine and new. But by the time I'm playing the game for real the rules will be starting to get a bit dog-eared and worn, and besides, a back-folded rules booklet takes up half the space on the table. So I usually end up folding them back at some point - it's a sign of a well-loved game.


Friday, July 21, 2006

The Quest for Civ-Lite

With all the excitement of Tempus about to arrive, I've been reminded of the ongoing quest for Civilization Lite - the nostalgia that many of us more... ahem... mature gamers have for remembered late-night Civilization sessions when we were young in years, poor in money, but rich in time. Many commercial attempts have been made over the last few years to reproduce the Civ experience in a Euro-sized package: Mare Nostrum, Vinci, Antike, Manifest Destiny, and now Tempus.

I have been wondering about another approach. Would it be possible to make a variant on Civilization that keeps the elegance and balance and epic scope of the game, but cuts out some of the time-consuming fiddle, perhaps refactors or reprices some of the elements of the game, and so carefully and respectfully trims it down to a manageable but satisfying 2 or 3 hours?

So far I have just been musing on possibilities. Here are some of the half-baked ideas I have come up with so far:

Reduce the number of turns, but keep them interesting. Also make each turn shorter.

Increase the breeding rate, perhaps double the number of tokens each turn with no cap.

Reduce city build and city support costs to 5.

Shorten the AST.

Recalibrate the catastrophes to make them less severe, especially Civil War. Also less time-consuming to resolve.

Reprice the Civilization cards.

Limit the game to fewer players (2 to 4?)

Smaller map (use the smaller areas on the Gibsons map).

Use a timer to limit trade sessions?

Drop the ships. Allow units 1 or 2 extra moves if along coastline, modified by Cloth and Astronomy. Modify the Piracy event.

Simplify the census. Count something else - number of cities? number of Civ cards? Position on AST?

Reduce the number of tokens in stock.

Allow catchup movement on AST. Discard a Civ card to move forward an extra step??

Abolish the AST altogether? Use Civ cards value as Victory/end of game condition??

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reading rules on the train

Now I have a 50 minute train trip in to the Shell Centre at Waterloo every day, that gives me 1h40m of reading time every day. I've been frittering that away reading second-rate "classics" such as Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials" trilogy, or the real thing like Ursula LeGuin's "Wizard of Earthsea" (which explains why Pullman is seeming slightly weak by comparison). But I've decided to take a break from "litritcher" and read something more useful for a few days - game rules!

So the following rulebooks were stuffed into my bag this morning in the slot where "The Subtle Knife" usually sits:

Commands & Colors Ancients: Yes I've already played this quite a bit, but I just want to make sure I'm getting it absolutely right. I've already noticed some subtleties about elephants battling back with slightly different rules to when they are the attacker. And the current noise on BGG about leader loss makes me want to go back to the rules before I get too confused.

ASL Starter Kit 2: Time I got this punched out and on the table - it's been sitting on my shelf for at least a year. Reading the rules is a good first step.

This Accursed Civil War: Time I got this punched out and on the table - it's been sitting on my shelf for at least a year. Reading the rules is a good first step. (Sorry, am I repeating myself?)

Before next Tuesday I also need to look over the rules for War of the Ring again, as Dave is coming over to Farnham to play this with me. It will be embarrassing, not to mention time-wasting, if I am umming and ahhing over the rules.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I decided to cancel my pre-order for Combat Commander. I've got Memoir 44 if I want fast and furious World War 2 playtime, and I've got the ASL Starter Kits if I want to immerse myself in the ultimate World War 2 serious tactical study game (note to self: and it's about time I did). Combat Commander seems to fall midway between the two, and they have already announced the first expansion game (Vol II Mediterranean) - the last thing I need right now is three tactical World War 2 completist obsessions.


Monday, July 17, 2006

While we are on the subject of Commands and Colors, if you are a completist like me, Memoir 44 is becoming a bit of a nightmare. The very day that I ordered the Terrain Pack to complete (so I thought) my set of expansions, I discover that the Pacific War expansion is available. I must have it of course, even though I haven't even started on the Eastern Front scenarios yet.

And now I find that World of Wonder are planning a Memoir 44 wooden carry-case to hold all this stuff. With model planes and extra rules just to make the thing indispensible. This is definitely feeding the same instinct that I believe makes ASL so popular - it's not playing the game that they enjoy, it's sorting all the stuff into carefully labelled fishing tackle boxes, and the feeling that you can pack the whole of World War 2 into the boot of your car and take it with you on holiday.....


Saturday, July 15, 2006

Talking of Ancients, I connected to ConSimWorld this week for the first time in many months, to have a look at the Ancients forum. This posting should be read by anyone interested in the game. It's a list (and what a list!) of all the scenarios to be included in the first expansion. No less than 20 battles, including all the big ones like Issus, Gaugamela, Marathon, Plataea..... And again, 3 bonus scenarios if you pre-order. (Like I have, he says smugly!)


Friday, July 14, 2006

C&C Ancients - against a real person!

It all worked out just as I had planned......

I lured Phil over to my flat yesterday evening with the promise of interesting beer, and before he knew what had happened he was setting up his Romans on the field of Beneventum. I was hoping for some more aggression from Phil, but he mirrored my slow build up - a bit of cavalry and elephant action on my left wing while we both got our lines organised ready for "the moment". My "Darken the Skies" card did little more than introduce a brief slightly overcast spell, but I had the "Line Command" card available at just the right time. My warriors and heavies did terrible damage in that first impact. Nevertheless, there was chaos in the turns that followed and opportunity for Phil to get his magic 3 flags, that brought him up to 6 cards. But as I crept ahead again he made the mistake of trying to save the day with his light troops - threw them away in futile close combat against my weakened warriors and heavies, and handed me the battle prematurely.

Loved it. We both did. What a great wargame this is.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I have started and intend to continue bingeing on solo Ancients this week. This game is so fascinating. I was playing the Ilpa scenario last night, and spending time with both sides to get my lines organised into an effective shape. In the end there were two long lines of infantry ready to crash into each other. The Carthaginians just lost with a rash decision to snatch a victory by using with an "Order Light Troops" card. Lesson learned: don't attempt to use light units as shock troops, even against weakened targets.

I am developing a style of play that takes the time to get my lines and my cards organised before moving in for the big attack. Of course this works solo because I am letting me get away with it (if you see what I mean). I desperately need an aggressive real opponent to test this style out against, and I am attempting to lure one of my offspring over to my home this week to provide such testing.

Everything you read about the physical quality of this game is true - map unmounted, dice need replacing, stickers lose their colour or even their stick - it doesn't really matter. The game is superb - a fascinating period, fast to play, tactically extremely challenging, and great great fun.

I played Maharaja last week with some friends from the London Mennonite Centre. Mennonites may be pacifists, but let me tell you that they are not above some low-level whining. Thankfully, this wasn't your toxic, overbearing whining that makes me want to gnash my teeth, rend my garments, toss the board into the air and run out of the room screaming denunciations. It was more of a good-natured, background grumbling that wasn't too hard to bear, was even fairly humorous. I think the difference is, no-one was seriously trying to use whining to affect the outcome of the game, it was more of a faintly depressive character trait in some of the players. Who knows, perhaps this gentle pessimism really is a Mennonite thing?

Maharaja struck me as a strange game, sort of like Taj Mahal only clunkier. The stroke of brilliance is the little dials - these allow everyone to make their big decisions in parallel, not in serial as in most games, which saves a lot of waiting around for other players to think. I came in a pretty poor third, which always lowers my initial opinion of a game, but I was intrigued enough to want to try it again some time. (But only if Taj Mahal is not available!)

As August arrives I start to get seriously excited about Greenbelt. Since I discovered it three years ago, the festival has been a vital part of my Christian walk, enthusing me, challenging me, irritating me and informing me in equal measures. Already I have many happy memories of Greenbelt - sitting in an inflatable church (!) listenening to a panel of writers enthusing about science fiction - singing "Jerusalem" at the top of my voice with Billy Bragg - praying my way round the Chartres Labyrinth - sharing a curry supper with more people than I would have thought it was possible to feed from a couple of camping stoves - yelling my heart out to "Letter from America" at an uproarious Proclaimers concert - listening to Gareth Higgins open windows in my mind, convincing me that it's possible to love God AND cinema......

I love the atmosphere at Greenbelt, the heady mixture of new ideas, great (and not so great) music, passion for justice, inclusivity, alternative worship, sunshine, good food, and basic sanitation - it all smells to me like an authentic whiff of Kingdom living, a foretaste of what life under God's rule could be like.

Have a look at the website at and get yourself a ticket for this year's festival (25-28 August at Cheltenham Racecourse). Maybe one day we will have a circle of tents at Greenbelt, with the banner of "Nimrods" fluttering overhead?


Wednesday, July 05, 2006


While I was in Austria waiting for a flyable day I bought Um Krone und Kragen (from a local kitchen shop!) and spent several happy hours attempting to decipher the rules and playing it through solo. When I got home I downloaded a translation and discovered to my amazement that I was getting it roughly right.

This is one of the most beautifully produced small-box games I have come across. The cards are stunning - gorgeous images on sturdy durable cardstock. "Yahtzee on steroids" is a fair summary of how it plays. It looks fascinating to me - a filler with depth and replayability - and I hope to introduce it to the local group as soon as I can (if they ever stop taking holidays and watching football that is!)


Jumping off mountains

On Saturday I got back from a week paragliding at Mayhofen in the Ziller Valley in Austria. On the minus side, three and a half of my six days were blown out - too windy or unstable to fly safely. This was very frustrating, especially as these dangerous days in the Alps can look just fine - clear blue skies, sunshine, hardly any wind - but strong southerly winds at high levels can produce massive turbulence reaching down into the valleys to catch out the unwary. On Wednesday morning for example we went up the gondola to Penken to have a look, Kelly pronounced the day "toast, man", the others went back down after coffee to find something else to do, while I spent the whole day up there sheltering from the sunshine, watching the marmots and buzzards, and even grinding my teeth in frustration as two paragliders set up their wings and flew down into the valley - apparently unscathed.

On the plus side, when we did get the go-ahead to fly, it was simply awesome. Even a simple top-to-bottom - launching at 6000ft, flying out over the woods and cliffs towards the valley floor 4000ft below - took nearly half an hour and was an incredible experience. And I had a couple of flights where I was managing to get at least some lift from small thermals along the way, though the conditions were generally very light.

I have had three foreign trips now since I qualified last autumn. I suppose I thought that getting away from England would guarantee endless days of perfect flying conditions, but the reality is that wherever you go, you are in the hands of fickle weather conditions. This sport requires huge reserves of patience wherever you go. And of course a blown-out day in Austria is costing you a whole lot more money than a blown-out day in England!

For comparison here are the figures:

November 2005
Lanzarote (Green Dragons)
Blown out days: 1 out of 6
Flying time: 4.5 hrs
Highlights: reaching cloudbase; great company

May 2006
Dune de Pyla (Flight Culture)
Blown out days: almost 6 out of 6
Flying time: 15 mins
Highlights: lots of ground handling; amazing food

June 2006
Zillertal (Austrian Arena)
Blown out days: 3.5 out of 6
Flying time: 3 hrs
Highlights: massive heights; losing my red ribbon!