Friday, August 25, 2006

Two Things

1) London is great. Yesterday I discovered a cool little street around the back of Waterloo station called Lower Marsh. It's just a few steps away from the office, and it has several interesting bookshops (a classy independent, a second-hand, a military specialist, and a remainders), a wind instruments shop, and a classical CD shop full of bargains. Lazy lunchbreaks beckon.

2) I'm off to Greenbelt today. I am also taking my wing and may visit a Welsh hill afterwards if the wind is right. See you next week.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

I Remember When This Was All Zines

It was 1990 or thereabouts when I bought a copy of Diplomacy from a toy shop in Salisbury. I think I must have been at a loose end - I remember writing down a list of potential hobbies with "For" and "Against" columns beside each one. I can't remember what the other potential hobbies were, or whether this was before or after my Diplomacy purchase, but it must have been after, because the hobby I was deciding to take up was Postal Diplomacy. Inside my new purchase - the first game I had bought since my teenage years, and the second copy of Diplomacy I had ever owned - was a flyer, written by a man named Danny Collman, who published a zine called "Springboard". I didn't even know what a zine was at the time, but I remember the excitement of receiving Springboard every month. Even now the smell of gestetner ink brings it all flooding back. I remember my first postal Diplomacy game, played to monthly deadlines - it took about 2 years to complete! I used to take a fat folder on the train to work every day with paper, carbon paper, envelopes, stamps, Diplomacy maps, and a bundle of letters from other players that I would sift through, trying to decide who I could trust.

"The Hobby" was very well organised for welcoming newcomers back then - not only was there Danny with his flyer and Springboard, there was also something called.... er.... "The Welcome Pack" (I think) which was a booklet with an introduction to postal gaming, and strategy articles for all 7 powers in Diplomacy. The pack also included a bundle of sample zines, which led to me subscribing to "Electric Monk".

Electric Monk was a very different proposition to Springboard. It was slickly produced on a laser printer as an A5 booklet, illustrated with Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, and each game adjudication included a map - so I didn't have to draw my own any more!

Playing a game in Electric Monk I came up against Vick Hall, who was just starting his own zine "A Little Original Sin". Vick was a persuasive man and before long I found myself producing my own 4-page subzine "The Dissecting Room" which used to go out with ALOS every month. I would laboriously type this up on my Psion Series 3 on the train, print it out back home and literally cut and paste it together with some illustrations before posting it off to Vick. I ran a couple of games - Colonial Diplomacy, and Cannibalism (?) - and found this to be a substantial workload. To this day I don't understand how so many editors managed to faithfully produce their zines month after month, adjudicating dozens of games by hand.

There was a real buzz about the "zine scene" back then. The PC revolution had made it all possible - desktop publishing was an affordable reality at last. But that same revolution, in the shape of the internet, would sweep it all aside by the end of the decade.

I subscribed to other zines as well. "NERTZ (Now Eat The Rabbit)" particularly sticks in my mind. This was the opposite of slick. The insanely clever William Whyte pasted scribbled or badly typed material on top of pages ripped from old comic books. The end result was often deeply unintelligible but fascinating - I used to spend hours poring over NERTZ trying to decipher William's thoughts on "Godel Escher and Bach" or the latest Railway Rivals adjudications.

And then there was ManorCon, The Hobby's annual convention at Birmingham University in leafy Edgbaston, which was an annual pilgrimage for me for many years. 3 days of non-stop gaming, stuffed into a students' dining hall with 300 other sweaty guys on what was always without exception the hottest weekend of the year. Bliss.

There are still a few postal Diplomacy zines around of course, but the excitement has gone out of the scene now. Instead of "wave of the future" the atmosphere is more "hanging on against the odds". It was inevitable I suppose, but I still miss the heady days of the 90's when zines ruled the gaming world. Pass me that bottle of gestetner ink.....

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Pub Games

I spent a pleasant evening in The Fox in South Farnham yesterday, playing games with the ever-genial Les. Three enjoyable new experiences:

1) Tribute ale from St Austell's in Cornwall.

2) Einfach Genial, the little two-player version. This is Reiner in typical "torture the players" mode - lots of difficult decisions, hard-thinking required. One of those abstract games that is so symmetrical and graceful it almost looks discovered rather than designed. Les beat me, but by the slimmest margin.

3) Um Krone und Kragen, on its first outing since I bought it in a kitchenware shop in Austria. Gorgeous to look at, fast-playing and involving, we enjoyed this a lot. Les got to the King first, and in the final round my 9 6's were beaten by his 10 3's.

There is certainly a category of games I own that I think of as "pub games". To qualify a game must be:

a) For two players. For a relaxing evening with a pint and a friend.

b) Portable. You don't want to be humping a holdall full of big-box games into the bar. The 2-player Kosmos games are ideal. Dvonn and Yinsh, though superb in other ways, are a little too big for this purpose.

c) Compact on the table. You don't want to make yourself a nuisance to other drinkers by spreading out too much. Um Krone und Kragen is almost too spreadout - we were lucky and had a largeish table to ourselves yesterday. BattleLine is just about OK. Blue Moon is ideal.

d) Reasonably short play-time, or at least episodic like Blue Moon so that you have natural breaks for visiting the bar.

e) Not too stretching mentally. You're relaxing with a beer after all. ASL Starter Kit probably disqualifies itself here.

Looking at this list, it strikes me that Magic the Gathering would fit the bill exactly. I have a few decks at home, never used. Must try them out with Les some time.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Mike Barton has posted three first-class strategy articles about ASL Starter Kit#1 on BGG. Well-written strategy tips always get me drooling to play (or buy) the game. If I was a games company I would send freebies to people like Mike who do so much to keep interest in a game alive.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Work-Game Balance

I had to cancel a gaming session yesterday evening because I was working late. Just how late would only become fully apparent later - I didn't finish until 1am this morning! I was particularly annoyed because I was hosting this session, and so by a universally acknowledged but unwritten rule, I got to choose the game! I was going to put Elasund, or perhaps Tempus, on the table, and was very excited about either of those choices.

This is clearly a sign that my life is seriously out of balance. Which led me to meditate on what would be needed to attain a harmonious Work-Game balance in my life. Here are some of the key requirements that flitted through my mind this morning while I lingered in that horrible post-working-late-exhausted-and-trying-to-sleep-but-still-stoked-on-adrenaline state before drifting off.

1) You need a home of your own, with plenty of storage space (for games) and floor space (for game tables to be set up and left with long running games on them).

2) You probably need to avoid marriage, and you definitely need to avoid having children. The little buggers play havoc with your free time, not to mention choking on your meeples at any opportunity. Ruins the meeples.

3) You don't want a mortgage, as this means you will have to do a proper job with long hours. Note this conflicts slightly with requirement 1.

4) You should choose a quiet little part-time job, somewhere calm like a book-shop or a library where you can think about strategies or your next blog entry.

5) You need lots of disposable income to buy the latest Knizias or to fuel your ASL addiction. A credit card is indispensible for all those online retailers, eBay bargains, and GMT pre-orders. Note this conflicts slightly with requirement 4.

6) You need a regular, satisfying sex-life, so that you don't waste all your evenings chasing women instead of playing games. Note this conflicts slightly with requirement 2. But don't worry guys, this will become less of an issue as you approach old-age.

7) You need lots of opponents living nearby who can also meet these criteria. A friend of mine says that when he wins the lottery he will pay us all a salary so we can play games with him every day. My response is a) you're not going to win the lottery and b) you may have underestimated my hourly rate.

I only meet three of those - I'm not telling you which - no wonder I'm having problems.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Ethical Game Shopper

I sometimes wonder about all those plastic soldiers in Memoir 44. I really appreciated the fact that I did not have to remove them all from a sprue before I could play the game - but there must have been a sprue once. You can't make plastic soldiers without a sprue, right? So someone must have painstakingly and carefully taken them off their sprue, one by one, countless thousands of them, day after day. Who did this tedious and finger-hurting job for me? I guess it was someone in China, I wonder if it was a man or a woman or (God forbid) a child? I wonder what sort of room they worked in, was it properly ventilated, with decent toilets available? How many hours a day did they work? Did they get regular breaks? Were they allowed to belong to a union?

There are other things I would like to know about the games that I (so obsessively) collect.

All this paper, cardboard and wood, is it made from renewable forests, or even recycled pulp? Where is it made? Is it made in a way that minimizes pollution of the air and the water? How toxic are the paint, ink and bleaching agents used?

How much carbon is released during the manufacture of these games? What about their transport from cheap manufacturers in the East to their markets in Europe and North America? I want to know about game-miles as well as food-miles.

I want to know if the workers who made my games had security of employment, a fair wage, union representation, and reasonable working hours?

On these criteria I suspect that North American wargames (with their ethically dubious themes!) would probably score more highly than many Euros (with their more innocuous themes) which I suspect are often manufactured offshore in order to provide all the pretty bits we love so much at a price we are willing to pay for them.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

And yes it's Black

Well I finally did it - last week the price of the 30Gb iPod dropped a fiver on Amazon, and that was all the prompting I needed to press the Add to Shopping Basket button. I've got my entire pop/rock collection ripped to disk (but not my much larger classical collection - yet), and I've installed that fairly fragile Yahoo widget for downloading the album art, so I'm all ready to wire myself for sound.

Strangely, I waited until my colleague Mayank was not in the office before making the purchase. I wonder if this indicates a degree of residual guilt at my high levels of elective spending?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Weekend in WW2

Today we have a guest posting from my son Phil. There are many great things about Phil, one of which is his liking for tactical wargames. He also has his own blog. Today Phil brings us an after action report from last weekend when we played scenarion S3 "A Simple Equation" from the ASL Starter Kit.

It's a rare day when I call my Dad and tell him I "fancy playing a game". However, this weekend the call of the Nimrod was too strong, and I returned to the arena of many a triumph and failure to have a crack at ASL:Starter Kit, one of the least excitingly named games I have ever played.

Dad and I have played this lite version of ASL a couple of times before, and have always enjoyed it, so we had high expectations. Choosing the Aachen scenario, we set up, full of excitement and "Band of Brothers" quotes.

As the Germans, Dad had to defend a large group of buildings at all cost. As the Americans, it was my job to take control of these buildings in a pretty stingy time limit.

It is noteworthy that the first hour was wasted trying to get back to grips with the rules. If this is the simple version, I dread to think what the full, hardcore version is like. I doubt it's much fun.

Halfway through it looked distinctly like I was moving too slowly, probably taking a little too much care over the lives of my men, and worrying too much about maintaining a nice shape. Dad had taken some casualties, but was holding firm, and I hadn't even begun to take objectives.

However, in the last few turns the hard preparatory work paid off, and the Americans broke through the German front line. Once up close and personal, the superior equipment, leaders and morale of the Americans paid off, and with a quick scramble on my last turn I was able to secure the mandatory number of buildings to win!

This is a great game, of that there is no doubt. The rules are sufficiently detailed to challenge, not so crazy as to put you off for life. And the gameplay itself - well, it's fast paced, exciting, and realistic (as far as I can see). Particular respect must be given to the subtle distinctions in the rules: pinned versus broken; first fire, final fire, firing at range; rates of movement; it's all really great at capturing the decisions needed in the middle of battle (again, as far as I can see).

It is possible that the Germans have an impossible task in this scenario. I do think, however, that Dad didn't line up as effectively as he could have, and I think this led to his downfall. Still, he's a worthy adversary, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Monday, August 14, 2006


There was a sign on the door of Playin' Games:

"WANTED STORE MANAGER. Must have relevant experience"

Wow, I thought, that would be fun! I wonder how much it pays? Hmm, I don't have any experience of managing a store. But I could speak knowledgeably about almost any game you have in stock, does that count?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Sashinka, one of my favourite non-game-bloggers, is currently spotting Islamic games in shop windows....

Scoring Opponents

We all used to spend many happy hours browsing the now sadly defunct BoardGameGeek for game ratings, setting great store by the single point difference between a 7.3 and a 7.4, and carefully pushing our own scores into the mix as well. But just as big a factor in my enjoyment of a game session is the quality of my opponents. I would MUCH rather play an average game with a polite, considerate, friendly, speedy opponent, than play a totally excellent game against a whining, over-competitive rules-lawyer with a bag of crisps in his hand.

When BGG comes back (and what if it never comes back? what a terrifying thought! I hope they take regular backups!!) I propose a new ratings system that will allow us to score our opponents as well. The scale would go something like this:

10: Excellent, playing against this person is better than sex.
7: Good, will usually play this person.
5: Average, I can take him or leave him.
3: Truly obnoxious, I will always look for an excuse not to play this person.
1: Last time I played him I changed my mobile phone, my email address, and moved to another town.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Tempus Run

I got out of work early yesterday and strolled over the Hungerford bridge in the sunshine and through Covent Garden towards Belgravia. The destination? A wonderful establishment on Museum Street called Playin' Games. Long-suffering Sue was with me - she very effectively concealed her excitement at her first visit to a full-blown games shop.

A quick scan round the ground floor, then plunging down to the basement where they keep the hard-core stuff - and there it was, a shelf stacked with several new copies of Tempus. So one of those was purchased on the spot - thanks to £35 of eBay takings transferred from my PayPal account - and I also picked up two IceHouse stashes (Black and White). I am noodling with the idea of a Europe Engulfed inspired IceHouse game, and I need a few extra colours. (It's probably totally unacceptable to feel this way, but black would be sooo cool for the Germans!) Looney Labs have started selling their pyramids in mixed colour Treehouse sets, but Playin' Games have a box-full of old-style monochrome stashes at £6 each so get them while you still can!

Then it was over to the Orc's Nest where I put my foot seriously in my mouth by asking if they have any Games Workshop black spray paint. Back came a sniffy response that they "never touch that stuff". Oops! It just looks like the kind of place that would - my mistake. It's funny how much bad feeling about Games Workshop still lingers in certain sections of the hobby.

First impressions of Tempus? Expensive for a Warfrog design - we've got used to these being bargain purchases at the £25 mark. Dodgy graphics - as soon as I opened the box I was wondering what Mike Doyle could do with this. Nice solid components, it's all going to work physically. Easily the most comprehensible ruleset we have seen from Martin Wallace so far. Very simple rules, no stunning new ideas, but I expect it to play nicely as a light empire-building and progression game, sort of in the same space as Vinci, but probably more interesting. Now to persuade my local group to try it.....

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Case Against Consimworld, part 2

Let me give you a couple more examples.

Sword of Rome, as published, has a very simple if unusual combat resolution system, which has the possibility of producing surprising outcomes when the opposing forces are strongly mismatched. Now Wray Ferrell had spent the last few years reading and thinking about the period, and many of us were prepared to believe he knew what he was doing. It was simple, it worked as a game, and if there is one thing you learn if you read any history at all, it's not to be surprised by "surprising outcomes". Nevertheless, a small but vocal bunch of grognards set up the cry of "historically inaccurate!" by which they really meant "it doesn't fit with my narrow ideas of how a wargame should work" - I don't believe these people have any serious knowledge of history at all. Poor Wray, a novice designer, caved in to pressure, and now we are all stuck with a messy exception to what was once an elegant and interesting mechanic. What is worse, I believe the end result is possibly less historically accurate than before, as it eliminates the possibility of those shock upsets that are a regular feature of military history.

Barbarossa to Berlin - this time we are dealing with an experienced designer with a stellar reputation. Soon after its release, some grognards on Consimworld started who whine that they had lost as the Soviets because they did not get a big reinforcement card in their initial hand. Ted's reply, very properly, was "It's a card-driven-wargame, one of the skills you need is to play with the hand you're dealt." Nevertheless, the outcry continued, with howls of "It's broken!" In the end Ted allowed himself to be browbeaten into adding a messy mulligan rule, which can have the Soviet player hunting through the deck looking for the card he wants. But why play a card-driven-wargame at all if you want that degree of scripting?

As Chris pointed out in his comments yesterday, what is really needed is for the designers to grow some balls. As an honourable example, I present to you Rick Young, novice (at the time) designer of Europe Engulfed. A large part of his vision for this game was a short rule book, and again and again he faced down demands for exceptions, clarifications and extra chrome from the Consimworld crowd. Unfailingly polite and helpful, he nevertheless refused to let his game be ruined by the vocal minority on the forum. Years of refining and developing the game had obviously given him confidence in his design that after the hue and cry had died down, its excellence would shine through.

Finally, I don't believe that Consimworld represents the whole wargames market, not by a long way. I can think of three of my regular wargaming opponents who never use it, not even as lurkers. Why should their experience of wargaming be spoiled by the vociferous minority rabble on the Consimworld forums?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Close down Consimworld before it ruins wargaming!

I decided to read through the rules to This Accursed Civil War again, only this time I printed off the latest version from the GMT Games website just to be up-to-date. I was dismayed to find that v4 of the ruleset has bloated to an intimidating 26 pages, from the friendly 16 pages of the original out-of-the-box ruleset.

Even worse, the out-of-the-box rules were gracefully written and easy to understand, but v4 has many passages of almost impenetrable legalese - useful perhaps for a regular player who wants every last exception tied down, but very difficult for the first-time player.

I blame Consimworld.

This is the way it works. The new designer, keen to promote his new game to "the community", spends every spare moment day or night online (nearly losing his job and his marriage in the process), fielding questions from the grognards on the Consimworld forum dedicated to his new baby. He is quickly overwhelmed by a tide of queries, criticisms and suggestions from a small but vocal minority of "fans", who are usually only interested in competitive, tournament play, and who specialize in rules-lawyering and loophole-finding. Invisible to the designer is the silent majority of gamers who are happy to play the game as a friendly, sociable contest with a like-minded friend, and who have no interest in bending the rules or maintaining weird readings of ambiguous wordings in the face of all common-sense. The inexperienced designer, anxious to please, starts to make on-the-fly rulings, rewording rules, adding new rules, or even redrafting whole sections to meet the loadly articulated requirements of the tiny but vocal minority. And before you know it an elegant, beginner-friendly 16-page ruleset has mutated into a 26-page legal document.

The answer: close down Consimworld. It's damaging our hobby. Deny the grognards a platform. Now, before it's too late.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Andy Looney's perfect travelling companion

Treehouse proved to be a great portable game - 9 Icehouse pieces, a small d6, a printout of the rules, all stuffed into a small dice bag, it sat happily in the lid of my rucksack with no perceptible increase in the load. The game proved popular with Sue, who feels less intimidated by games with a reasonable quota of luck, and we played on four separate evenings, sitting in pubs or hostels after a long day tramping St Cuthbert's Way.

Treehouse (like most of Andy Looney's games) has no strategic planning, but it has nice little tactical puzzles along the way, and each round only takes a few minutes to complete. Best of all it cost me nothing (except a little ink to print out the rules) since I already own Zendo.

Question: should I go through BoardGameGeek marking as "owned" all the Icehouse games I can play with my Zendo stashes? It would seriously inflate my totals....