Monday, November 26, 2007

A Tale of Two Gaming Weekends

Part i – Cardiff 2nd-4th November

Here's a nice write up from Nick of a recent gaming weekend we had at his place in Cardiff:

After picking up Peter from the station (and a swift pint at our local nationalist pub!) we got home and started playing pretty pronto; first up Command & Colours. Replaying the Battle of Zama I was the Romans and Pete the Carthaginians and, true to historical form I won – quite easily. Swapping sides Pete got his revenge though I though it was quite close – and here’s something that I’ve found out about this elegant excellent game; that there’s a fine margin between winning and losing and that a seemingly stable (even winning) situation can rapidly veer out of control. In my case I made the mistake of leaving one block units within reach of his units – Pete took advantage of my folly and won.

After a spot of dinner there was the return of an old favourite – Railway Rivals. Dani joined in and duly leapt into the lead with Pete coming a close second and me having a right mare!! I was never in it – at one point I was 100 points behind the leader, though I was catching up towards the end. Rarely for this game the game was going to be decided on the last race too....and this put me in a quandary. Dani was ahead of Pete by 15, but she couldn’t run the last race – Pete and I could. If I didn’t run Pete would win the game, if I did and won Dani would win......choices........choices!!! Well no choice really – I had to race and fortuitously won though I could hear Pete muttering something like ‘under the thumb’ as my train entered destination town!

Next up was a game of Sechs Nimmt (Dani won again!!!!!) after which Pete then went to bed!!!!!!!!!!.......Ahhhh....I remember the good old days, sitting up ‘til 3 in the morning talking intellectual things over a good glass of brandy and a cigar..........errm well, playing some complicated game over cheap cider until our eyes couldn’t stay open any longer! Ah more!

Still, I think I can forgive Pete (almost!) anything as for my birthday he gave me the first starter kit for Advanced Squad Leader. I spent the Friday night reading the rules to Pete’s rhythmic snoring (only joking.....he purrs!) and – despite being the worst written set of rules I’ve ever come across – I think I’ve become a true geek. The game is brilliant.

The Saturday was Up Front day – specifically a campaign version of the British vs Germans at Caen. This consisted of 10 linked scenarios with varying special rules (i.e. AFV reinforcements, night rules etc) and each side had varying points with which to build their squads in each scenario. The squads were built from a limited roster of soldiers and each individual could change (for better or worse) depending on what happened to him in a scenario. In effect it was the campaign game rules in the Up Front rulebook with minor modifications from a campaign system I found on the internet.

I wasn’t sure if it would work, but to judge from Pete’s reaction - and my own - it makes a brilliant game even better. Choosing your squad is difficult as it has to be tailored to the specific victory conditions of that scenario – if you have to close with enemy (i.e. reach range chit 4) then it’s important to stock up with chaps wielding automatic weapons (moving fire, good firepower close up), if you’re defending, rifles and LMGs/MMGs are the order of the day, if you’ve got to take a pillbox then a flamethrower and Demo charges are needed. But this is a choice that must be made by the player within the confines of the points allocated – and this choice becomes more difficult with each scenario as individuals become wounded (they come back 3 scenarios later), lose morale (from routing in the previous scenario) or die (forcing the owning player to pay VPs to bring them back – but only when all other soldiers with the same weapon have been used). After a few scenarios your squad has a different look and feel to it and (as I was playing the Germans) I was constantly reminded of that great film ‘Cross of Iron’.

Anyway – we only managed to play the first three scenarios and by that time the Germans were enjoying the best of it, though I suspect the Brits would have come right back into it. We both made mistakes – Pete sending on his AFV reinforcement (I got a Panther in the previous exciting!!) against a pillbox rather than a squad of vulnerable chappies – and me forgetting just how nasty a mortar is against infantry......even in a gully!! Nevertheless, we both enjoyed the game immensely and will certainly do the campaign again.

After a much needed rest (and curry!) we resumed (with Dani) a new Catan game ‘Struggle for Rome’. Advertised as an “educational” historical game it plays the Germanic tribes (each player represents 2 factions – a cavalry and infantry – of one tribe) crossing into the Roman empire raiding and then settling. Resource cards are gained much the same way as in usual Catan games and the first one to 10 VPs wins, with VPs gained for raiding, building cities (once a tribe starts this it can’t raid any more) and few other things. Despite getting some rules wrong (my fault) we finished and I won (getting the rules wrong didn’t affect the outcome........honest guv!!).

I’m not keen though – where the game says educational there should be an added bit saying “this game has absolutely no relation to what happened in the 4th and 5th centuries” – in effect it’s the usual unimaginative Eurogame-mechanism with a fake ‘period’ chrome. Furthermore it’s just a bit too easy and one-dimensional – there are only 2 strategies for each player and the game just gets too repetitive. Now if you could attack other tribes (as happened historically) that would open the game up completely – but it’s a Eurogame and while it’s OK to sack Roman cities it’s not OK to attack each other!!!!! Settlers of the Stone Age is altogether a better game – not because it’s (pre)historically’s nowhere close – but there is more variety and fun to be had. Interesting as they’re designed by the same person (Klaus Teuber) – but I suppose you can’t get it right all of the time.

After we finished no amount of persuading would get Pete to play another game (even Euphrat & Tigris!) so we all went to bed........well.... I sat up and stroked my ASL starter kit!!!!!

The next morning Pete had to shoot off early on Sunday – shame really – but I look forward to the next time. I certainly enjoyed myself – it’s rare that I even win one game against Pete!!!!

OP-free gaming

My experience of a con is often spoiled by encountering one of the several kinds of obnoxious person (OP) that this hobby seems to attract: know-it-alls, rules lawyers, whiners, analysis paralytics, or bullies, to name but a few. Finding yourself across the table from one of these as you embark on a long game - Civilization, Diplomacy, or 1830 for example - can be very depressing.

Thankfully, at MidCon last week I didn't meet a single OP. Almost as soon as I got there my friend old Nick Wells arrived and we had a happy couple of hours playing ASL Starter Kit and C&C:Ancients. And then things got even better when Vick Hall appeared - I hadn't seen him for a few years, but Vick was my editor when I ran a little subzine in A Little Original Sin, his postal Diplomacy zine in the twilight years of the last century. Vick is an ideal opponent - genial, courteous, swift, and a deadly player.

Next morning we set up Civilization (not Advanced) on a table and swiftly recruited two more willing volunteers, and were soon embarked on a 5-player game. Our new recruits (Steve Hilton and Bill Mayling) also turned out to be vice-free opponents, so our epic 8-hour journey through ancient history was a thoroughly pleasant experience. So here's to you: Nick, Vick, Steve and Bill - thanks for being ideal gaming partners and the very opposite of OPs.

Friday, November 16, 2007

MidCon manifesto

I'm off to MidCon this afternoon. It's a great boardgames convention held in a businessman's hotel in Birmingham, but it does have a rather Euro-ish flavour. So let's get a few things straight before I go. I will NOT be playing anything that involves:

- Collecting jewels
- Collapsing bridges in the Himalayas
- Impressing the king/queen/Cleopatra/your mum
- Fairies, elves, pixies etc

I WILL be playing games that involve:

- Building empires
- Crushing your enemies
- Getting rich and making everyone else poor
- Machine guns or death stars

I hope that's clear to everyone.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I spent last weekend in Cardiff, helping my old friend Nick to celebrate his 40th birthday by playing lots of wargames. Nick and I go back a long way. We first met in 1992 through the postal Diplomacy hobby, Nick introduced me to his gaming club in Salisbury, and we've been firm opponents ever since.

Over the weekend we played C&C Ancients, Railway Rivals, 6 Nimmt!, Struggle for Rome, and lots of Up Front! Nick had downloaded a campaign based on the 1944 struggle for Caen. This was an amazing wargaming experience. It gave a whole new flavour to each game to know that I had to guide my platoon through 12 scenarios, managing my roster for each engagement, nurturing green men, and finding replacements for casualties.

In the first scenario my plucky Brits were assaulting a pillbox. A Panther (a Panther!!!) turned up at the start of the second deck and after a few turns of being pounded by HE I decided to settle for a loss and get my men off the battlefield ASAP. In 2nd scenario we came back at night, with a (fairly puny) AFV for another crack at the pillbox. Unfortunately the Germans had laid some mines in the interval. My Staghound fought off Nick's infiltrator, but meanwhile my manoevre group was being killed off to break my squad. Scenario 3 had no pillbox - it was more like "Meeting of Patrols". At first I was doing really well, with my mortar covering an advance into a building at range 3. But Nick outflanked both my groups, wiping out the group in the building, and I withdrew with only 3 survivors for another loss.

At this point I had 13 VPs to Nick's 69! 9 out of my roster of 26 were KIA, and another 2 wounded. We had to pause at that point, but I have to say it is not looking good for the British.....

A great weekend, and I suppose appropriate that I lost pretty well everything we played - it was Nick's birthday after all.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Things are looking up....

It's always a slightly scary moment when you meet someone face-to-face that you have so far only got to know over the internet. Will he turn out to be a psychopath, or, even worse, someone with personal hygene issues? Thankfully Marty, who was fishing for local wargamers on BoardGameGeek, and who lives only a mile down the road, turned out to be neither, but was instead a charming and hospitable opponent when I met him on Monday.

He introduced me to Combat Commander: Europe, a game that has intrigued me without obsessing me, although I have been put off by negative reviews from Chris Farrell and the boys on the Point2Point podcast. We played scenario 3, with me in the attacker's role as the Germans. The mechanics of the game are nice and simple, with table-free resolution of fire attacks, and the cards add a whole dimansion of chaos and hand-management. And it is a chaotic game. Early on a fire broke out in the middle of the board, which continued to spread as the scenario wore on, so that by the end a large chunk of the battlefield was ablaze! New units popped up in strange places, and at one point I gained a hero who sprinted past the Russian HMG to capture a key victory hex.

I can't help making comparisons with the ASL Starter Kits. Compared to an ASL board, a CC:E board feels very small and cramped (in game terms - obviously the hexes are physically large). And the way the action unfolds feels strange when you are used to ASL's account of WW2 tactics. For much of the game we had infantry units in the woods blazing away at point-blank range without either running away or closing for close-combat. This felt odd - more like the American Civil War than WW2.

Still, I enjoyed it a lot, even though I lost by a huge margin, and will happily play it again. And now that I have a local wargaming opponent at last, I shouldn't have to wait too long!