Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More blatant consumerism

Talking of consumerism, it really is time I stopped buying new games. I'm supposed to be a student on a tight budget after all. In the last few months, I can think of at least 5 new titles that I have picked up:

Chicago Express
Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs Imperium

I just collected these today. Very excited, especially about Chicago Express, which might be a possibility for Christmas Eve with the boys.

Beyond Valor

The big one. The purchase that says "I'm serious about this ASL thing". But am I? I certainly haven't punched the counters yet.

Peloponnesian War

Kind of pre-ordered this by accident from GMT. Got stung on import duty/admin fees.

Stalingrad Pocket
Modern Art

OK these are Maths Trade acquisitions. But I also acquired an (unwanted) Drive on Stalingrad as part of the deal.

Res Publica

Vic bequeathed this to me before he left for Canada.

Roll Through the Ages

My Mum got me this for my birthday, bless her. Last time she got me a game I was about 8. I like it a lot too, especially as Sue enjoys playing it.

Napoleon's Triumph
After the Flood
Unhappy King Charles

These are purchases from slightly earlier this year, so maybe don't count. Excellent (but expensive) all three of them.

Oh. That's more than 5 isn't it.

In the same time period I have sold exactly one game (BattleLore) and traded another two (Flandern 1302 and Conquistador) , so it's clear which direction of flow predominates.

January may have to see a little clearout, I think.

More Apple dilemmas

My iPod (2006 30Gb Classic) has packed up - or at least the right channel of the jack socket has. The nice people at the Apple temple store said they could fix it for £108. Where "fix" actually means replacing it with a brand new one. Seems like a pretty good deal to me.

My iPod feels like an old friend. It goes everywhere with me. There's something very appealing about the idea of carrying at least 60% of my CD collection around in my pocket.

But do I really need one? When it comes down to it, 90% of my listening is podcasts: Guardian Film Weekly or 2 Half Squads (note the wargaming reference there). I could probably live without that. Time on my commute is better spent reading neuroscience papers really.

And I've just shelled out (after much agonizing) on a MacBook Pro. Maybe it's time to cut back on the blatant consumerism for a while?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Failing to clear Colleville actually

I had fun at London ASL yesterday, in spite of us getting a late start because the door into Starbucks had a broken lock. So we stood around outside for an hour chatting about ASL while we waited for the locksmith to turn up. I played starter kit scenario S5 "Clearing Colleville" with newbie Iain, so I was actually teaching this scarily complex game to someone. Great scenario, very tense finish, with time very short for my American attackers, and Iain put up an effective defence.

I feel a bit torn about ASL - it's a terrific fun game, and it's great to have a little ASL community on the doorstep. But there are so many other great wargames out there that I also want to explore. But having opponents available makes a huge difference. It's nowhere near so much fun wargaming solo or online.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dammit! I missed Jorge Cham of PhD comics fame giving a lecture at UCL yesterday. I knew it was happening soon, but I suppose I kept procrastinating about finding the details.....

Monday, October 26, 2009

Good times

It's been a fun weekend. Sue and I went up to visit her parents in Lancaster. At 12:30 on Wednesday we boarded the train in grimy Euston. By 4:15 we were up on the fells in glorious late afternoon sunshine. Another two great days tramping the Howgills followed.

And as a bonus the Cardiff branch of Sue's family arrived on Saturday, including my step-nephew Tom who is 11 years old and mad keen to boardgame. So we played Eco-Fluxx and Pillars of the Earth until late on Saturday evening, then got up early to continue with Settlers before I disappeared back to London after lunch. I lost everything, but who cares? And Sue even prompted me to download the 2-player rules for Settlers as she'd like to play again soon!

Another bonus - I'm heading off tonight to play Chicago Express with some Mennonite friends.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Well, I collected my first installment from the recent BGG maths trade - Stalingrad Pocket (1st ed, The Gamers), and an unwanted sweetener - Drive on Stalingrad (Decision Games). The latter is a simple, rather ugly, rather old-fashioned two-mapper. I'm wondering whether to pass it on to my 11-year-old step-nephew, a keen boardgamer, in a cynical attempt to snag him into the world of hex-and-counter wargames. Crack in the playground sort of idea. But to be honest it doesn't look like a top-flight game, and I don't want to turn him off wargaming before he starts, so maybe I should shelve the idea (and push DoS out on eBay or the next maths trade) until I can get him something really high quality.

Like Stalingrad Pocket for example.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Summer challenge

Anyone for a readers' game of Amun-Re? I'm feeling lucky - prove me wrong!
Game is called "King Scorpion" (look here), password "nimrods".

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You're one of Us now

My younger son Phil is 25 years old now. He has been initiated into many kinds of wargame: Axis & Allies, Up Front, Paths of Glory, Space Hulk......

But only last Sunday did he experience a classic hex-and-counter operational wargame of the Grand Tradition for the first time, with zones of control, terrain effect chart, combat resolution table, and all.

Clash of Giants II. 1st Ypres scenario.

Classic indeed. We had a great time. This is a beautiful game, full of tension, decision-angst, and historical interest. Didn't finish, but I recorded the positions and we plan to finish the encounter ASAP.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

They've redesigned the wargame!

I played Iain at Napoleon's Triumph last Sunday. Poor Iain wasn't really in the mood for the huge mental gear-shift involved in learning this game. Previous wargaming experience isn't much help, indeed may even be a hindrance.

In fact I destroyed him (his words not mine) after just four turns. As the Allies I managed to succeed with the plan that they failed with historically, smashing the French right wing before they reinforced it.

This is a stunning game, both visually and intellectually. Not yet sure if I *like* it, but I already have a huge respect for it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"I don't believe it!"

Don't you just hate it when you see an appealing, brand-new shrinkwrapped game that has just arrived in your local game shop, and you pick it up, have a look at it, then decide to go home and sleep on it. You arrive back a few days later, having decided that, yes, this is an essential purchase, and yes, the budget can stand it - only to find that in the meantime some half-wit customer has dropped the game, and it is now far from pristine, barely shrinkwrapped, and with a big ugly dink on one corner of its box.

This happened to me last week - the game: Yanks (ASL module 2); the shop: the Orc's Nest in London.

I think if I were ever to run a games shop I would rapidly become one of those grumpy games shop managers that hates having customers in his shop.

Come to think of it, is there any other kind?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

He looks happy, doesn't he

My best friend Simon got married to Fiona yesterday. I've known Simon for 25 years now, and our life experiences have paralleled each other in many ways. Can you guess what I bought them for a wedding present? Yes, that's right - a game! (Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

What does it mean to be a scientist?

So I went over to the Finnerty lab yesterday afternoon, and spent the whole afternoon toiling away - fixing, fetching ice, resectioning, making up solutions, calculating different dilutions of antibody, incubating in blocking solution, pipetting out the antibody solutions.

At 9pm, tired but contented, I carried my precious culture tray down the corridor to the storeroom where sits the big fridge, in which my slices were to spend the next two days rocking back and forth in their little plastic wells. The storeroom door has a heavy spring. My mind was relaxed and thinking about going home. The door sprang back heavily and knocked the tray out of my hands.....

.....which somersaulted through the air in slow motion and crashed to the ground.

Upside down.

I took it back to the lab to salvage but everything was completely trashed - so my whole day was wasted.

I guess this is what it means to be a scientist.

Le Havre, Le Shmhavre

I played Le Havre last Saturday with my friends Vic and Sharon over at the London Mennonite Center. This was my second time with Le Havre, and I'm still not convinced. It doesn't help that I lost again - though by a much smaller margin than last time.

I suppose the root of my difficulty is that I'm not convinced by the theme. If I am going to play a big, long, complicated beast of a gamer's game, then I want it to have some relationship with reality. And to me, Le Havre seems totally divorced from any kind of real economic system that I have ever come across. What is this strange world where goods are picked up for free from the dockside, where you stockpile coal in case you want to build a ship, and where a business's biggest problem is feeding its workers? (Surely you just outsource the staff canteen?) At least there is no money/VP dichotomy. But basically this is "Advanced Puerto Rico", and I think I would rather play a few games of Race for the Galaxy instead, and still have time for something else.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

It's like Beyond Valor all over again.

I've been thinking longingly about Napoleon's Triumph for a couple of years now, ever since I saw it on a table at MidCon, laid out in all its spectacular miniaturesy glory. But every time I see it in the games shop I pick it up and think "Ouch, £45. And after all, do I really need any more games?"

So recently I've been reading the reviews and listening to the podcasts and getting to the "must have" stage, so today I look on the Leisure Games website and - oh bother! - it's out of print.

I've waited too long, AGAIN!

(Like what's-his-name the elf who lingered too long in Middle Earth.)

But wait, The Orc's Nest still have one. I'll be down there tomorrow......

Sunday, June 14, 2009

It's NOT Warhammer

I played Space Hulk today with Phil - twice through the first scenario "Suicide Mission" switching sides, but with the same result both times: the Marines got creamed in short order.

It's been a while since I played Space Hulk, but I found that this old classic still retains its charms: fast, good-looking, tense, action-packed, scary. And my recently painted "Blue Moon" squad got their first combat outing. Great fun.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Playing with the big boys

Last Saturday I went along to the London ASL club. I've been pushing counters around the ASL Starter Kits for a couple of years now, playing the occasional game with Phil or Nick, but now I decided to up the stakes a bit, take advantage of my current residence in the capital, and make contact with the serious ASL hobby.

I felt nervous as I approached Fleet Street Starbucks on Saturday morning: would I get the customary cold shoulder usually meted out to new arrivals at a games club? Would there be loud arguments about the relative merits of the SdKfz 6/2 versus the SdKfz 7/1? Would the play be very competitive? Would I be looked down on for my shaky knowledge of even the Starter Kit rules? I needn't have worried - I received a warm welcome, got introduced to lots of friendly and more or less normal people, the venue was pleasant, and I had a very enjoyable day playing scenario S12 "Over Open Sights" with Scott, who was coming back to ASL after a long break.

This deceptively simple scenario actually poses a tricky tactical puzzle to both players. My Germans had 7 turns to knockout or capture 3 American artillery pieces. Scott used his scant infantry resources to deploy a light screen in front of his precious guns, which were further back, with plenty of open space around them. It took me a long time to get through this screen, and I lost at least 50% of my fighting strength in the process. But I finally wore them down, and my luck started to change too, and Scott made the mistake of throwing in his reinforcements piecemeal, and I just about managed to capture all 3 guns by the deadline. Great fun, very exciting, and a real nail-biting finish. Big lesson learned: those artillery guns are terrifyingly devastating when they get a hit against infantry - so DON'T STACK in their LOS, even if you're in cover.

LASL meet once a month - I can't wait for the next one!

Friday, May 08, 2009

This and that

I'm still looking for PhD studentships or research jobs. In the meantime I'm putting together a design for an experiment I'm hoping to do in Gez Finnerty's lab on a part-time volunteer basis. It's an immunohistochemistry project looking at molecular mechanisms of plasticity in the barrel cortex.

But before that gets going, Sue and I are setting out on the Offa's Dyke long-distance path, starting from Prestatyn on Monday morning, and finishing at Chepstow two and a half weeks later.

But first there's a reunion dinner at my old school (Manchester Grammar) on Saturday. Quite looking forward to it - I just hope there's not too much boasting about careers/cars/houses at the table (as I have none of these things at the moment!)

I've just finished a cracking PBEM game of Amun Re against Tim and Don - I think it's my first win ever at this game!

Meanwhile my idiot son Gavin is having his wrist rebuilt this morning after a cycling accident yesterday. At least he didn't land on his head I suppose, and his bike is a write-off too, so I'm hoping he might use the bus in future.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The card-driven century

There is a scale of enjoyable wargaming experiences, with playing a poor game against an opponent with personality problems at the very bottom, and playing a great game against a genial and well-matched opponent at the very top. So playing Paths of Glory against my 25-year-old son Phil last weekend must be pretty much as good as it gets.

So here he is on Saturday afternoon, looking pretty confident as his British and Russian armies easily halt my 1914 offensives in the West and East.

But here's an altogether more frantic Phil on Sunday morning, as 1917 sees the collapse of Romania, Germans pushing through Italy into Southern France, and a breakthrough by massed German armies into northern France.

Anyway, the idea is we will play out the whole 20th century in card-driven wargames. So next up is Barbarossa to Berlin, and after that we tackle the Cold war with Twilight Struggle. It should be an excellent summer!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I've just finished reading Harry Pearson's hilarious memoir of a life in wargaming Achtung Shweinehund!. (Thanks Iain for the recommendation!) I particularly enjoyed the chapters about his childhood - Airfix kits, Waddingtons games, spud guns, Commando comics, war films, Airfix OO/HO figures - my own childhood obsessions are all there. The chapter about Action Man had me gasping for air - I can't remember when I last laughed so much.

C.S. Lewis wrote "We read to know we are not alone." This book is a funny and touching reflection on what it means to live with our compelling, fascinating, but socially rather embarrassing hobby.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A New Hope

Well I tried Ubuntu but was a bit baffled by the hoops I needed to go through to get my wireless card to work. Perhaps I'll give it another try one day....

So I went back to plan B which was to reinstall Windows XP from the partition up. It's taken me longer than I thought of course - all day yesterday and still tying up loose ends this morning, but the only insurmountable problem so far has been with Adobe Photoshop Album - I lost the catalog (it was under C:\Program Files which I did not backup - silly boy!) so about 5 years of careful tagging and organizing has been lost. I've still got my photos though - that's the main thing.

The old machine (a Shuttle box with an AMD processor) certainly seems to be running a lot quicker without 5 years of accumulated spyware so I think it was worth the effort......

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Feast

Last weekend turned out to be a bit of a feast of wargaming - thanks in part to a Saturday visit from Phil, who was keen to try plugging his PS3 into my home cinema projector in order to watch "There Will Be Blood" in glorious Blu-Ray surround vision. This plan sadly ran into technical problems of the why-is-this-plug-the-wrong-shape-for-that-socket variety. So we watched "Gone With The Wind" on old-fashioned DVD instead - at least, the first 10 minutes of it until Phil fell asleep. Anyway, well before this debacle unfolded we had spent an exciting couple of hours that afternoon with Up Front and the City Fight scenario. After a slow first deck I was feeling smug, with most of my GI's safely billetted in two building at range chit 2. Undeterred, Phil infiltrated the first building with scary Sgt Hauptmann who killed 2 of my boys with his SMG, then chucked his demo charge into the second building with decisive - and squad-breaking - consequences.

So, thrashed again at Up Front by my own son. But he made up for it by cooking a delicious ribeye steak for me immediately afterwards.

On Sunday afternoon it was over to Chiswick for a game of Unhappy King Charles! with Iain. At last I can knock this one off my list of shame! I didn't do very well as the Royalists (perhaps my heart wasn't in it). I lost Oxford early in the game, and inattention to the isolation rules cost me the South. Rupert did have his Macclesfield moment when he rubbed out Brereton (I love playing a game that features Macclesfield!) but that was hardly enough to stop the rot. We played for 5 hours and had to stop with 2 turns to go, but the outome was depressingly clear at that point.

I love this game. Yes. the rules are repetitive and wilfully obtuse in places, but it is a very well thought-out game on a fascinating subject. The history feels right - the way that big "panzer commander" armies are penalized at every turn is a good example of fine historical discernment being prioritized over the power-play urges of some grognards (which is earning the game detractors in some quarters) and I love it for that. Iain - we have to book a rematch, and soon!

Monday, March 16, 2009

If I forget thee Psion

Well there was a panicky moment after I had received back my Psion 5mx from Paul at Psionflexi, after I had excitedly loaded it with batteries and switched it on for the first time in how many years, after I had started feeling my way around the half-remembered interface and found that my hands still know how to use this thing (it's all in the cerebellum), after I had spent my tube journey writing a blog posting about DaveCon and feeling smug about the guy opposite me cradling an enormous IBM laptop, after I had rushed home on Friday evening excited to transfer my purple prose to my PC and thence to Blogger........after all this, I found I could not find my Psion PC link cable. Frustration, sorting through drawers of techno-junk, remorse, several visits to the loft, finally despair - was this whole "fix my old Psion 5mx and use it as a cheap and also ultraportable and also retro-chique laptop" idea a deluded waste of time and money?

Sunday evening - another trip to the loft and a scrabble around a previously unexamined "PS2 stuff" box yielded the prodigal cable! Hurrah! Now I can write stuff (especially blog postings?) on the tube - a somewhat moot point, now I come to think of it, seeing that my Research Assistant contract comes to an end the week after next, so the opportunities for blogging on the tube won't be there any more. Still, perhaps I will blog on my Psion while I'm sitting out in the garden in my string vest, with a bottle of whisky and a cheap cigarette, waiting for my next giro to come.......

Sunday, March 15, 2009

DaveCon 2009

I spent last weekend in Salisbury enjoying Dave's hospitality, and catching up with my gaming group of yesteryear, including Nick, John and Steve. We played Powergrid. Imperium and Circus Maximus from GMT's Rome, and Odin's Ravens, but the highlight of the weekend (for me anyway) was a 6- hour Arkham Horror session on Saturday. What an immersive experience! And such a lavish production from Fantasy Flight! All sorts of clever touches. for example the way that different characters are more or less flexible about changing their stats. It was all a bit overwhelming at first. but once I had figured out that losing all your health/sanity brings nothing worse than a short spell of bedrest, I started to relax a bit. Even being lost in time and space - surely a fate worse than death - proved to be a handy bus service from one end of the board to the other.

Of course the game was too long - our 6 hours only brought us within distant sight of the end game. We seemed to be coping well enough to stave off disaster. but nowhere near well enough to win a sudden death victory. So there was a slight feeling of being suck in limbo. And the lack of serious consequences - like insanity or death - didn't feel quite right. I wanted to feel more frightened than I did. But it was an immersive experience game, and I'd happily try it again. Thanks to Nick for lugging it all the way from Cardiff and for patiently talking us through the rules. and thanks also to Dave for hosting a great weekend.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The list of shame

I have a shameful secret, hidden away inside the boxes of my games collection. Many of these games are brand new, unpunched, and have never been played (not even solo). It's my list of shame.

Empire of the Sun: fascinating subject, the nearest thing in history to a war fought in outer space. And the idea of a card-driven hex wargame sounds cool. It's just that I can't get through that rulebook.

The Burning Blue: again a very sexy subject, and a charismatic designer who actually interviewed Battle of Britain veterans for his research. But it's another massive, impenetrable rulebook - I just can't seem to muster the energy to read it.

Unhappy King Charles: another great subject, and beautiful graphic design. My excuse here is that it's a recent acquisition and I just haven't got around to it yet.

Successors: at least I've read the rules to this one. It looks very cool indeed, and I'm planning to punch the counters and get it on the table (hopefully with friends, not just solo) in March some time.

ASL Starter Kit #3: I've punched and played and hugely enjoyed the first two starter kits, but number 3 is sitting untouched in its box. Perhaps the tank rules frighten me.

In the Shadow of the Emperor: OK I have played this online, but have never got the bits out of the box and set it up in anger. This one is hard to sell to fellow gamers.

Reef Encounter: Again, I've played online but never on a table. Also hard to persuade people to try this one.

Verrater: Another gamer's game where the buzz faded years ago. Suggestions to play are met by blank looks.

Turning Point Stalingrad: This one really is shameful. A classic game, closely related to one of my favourites, Breakout Normandy, it's been on my shelf for years, and I've never even read the rules.

This Accursed Civil War: Another hefty rulebook, moreover a rulebook that has changed (and expanded) significantly since it was publised. I don't like moving targets - I get discouraged.

A House Divided: the counters punched themselves, the rules almost read themselves too, but I've never played it yet. My sure-fire ACW opponent Dave actually refused to play it!

Commands and Colors Ancients expansions 2 and 3: The first expansion is enough to keep me perfectly happy for years yet, let alone the extra scenarios that arrive with every issue of C3i.

Various Memoir 44 expansion packs: I think I've mastered the urge to buy any more of these until I actually play some of them.

Ambush: a kind gift from Marty, but alas, no time to sit down and really get to grips with it. And I kind of prefer soloing games that aren't solo games if you see what I mean - I like to feel I am preparing for a real flesh-and-blood opponent.

Attack Sub: I heard (on the Noise Before Defeat podcast) it's like Up Front. Another casualty of my wargame opponent drought.

So perhaps you can understand my New Year's resolution - play games, don't buy games. OK I'm unlikely to stick to that, but it's a good aspiration.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

LesCon report

Just back from LesCon - a weekend's gaming for 4 of us, comfortably ensconced in a luxury cabin in the snow-bound Forest of Dean, organized by the excellent Les Murrell. Travel was a bit fraught, thanks to the weather and rail strikes, but the weekend itself was great fun. Especially as I won more than my fair share of the games played:

Hansa My first play, and quite liked this, but still not sorry I traded my copy for Reef Encounter. This was my first win of the weekend.

Le Havre Wow! A real old fashioned gamer's game. Starts quietly, but the options explode. There are some AP-prone friends I would hate to play this with. I was totally out of my depth, and lost convincingly.

Race for the Galaxy Every time I play I enjoy this more. Paul won (but only after realizing that the funny little blue cardboard hexagons give you points as well!)

Princes of Machu Picchu At first this felt like a delirious hallucination induced by chewing too many coca leaves. But after a few turns started to make some kind of weird sense. I was very surprised to win this one, thanks to the arrival of the Spanish.

Vinci I had almost forgotten what fun this can be - especially with mature adults who don't get acrimonious about the kingmaking shenanigans at the end of the game. My third win of the weekend.

So thanks to Dom, Paul and especially Les for a great weekend. Looking forward to the next one.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The non-violent wargamer

A few weeks ago I took the plunge and became a Mennonite - the culmination of a six-month novice process where I was coached by my mentor (Kathy Thiessen) in "The Ways of the Mennonite". Basically this means I am now a member of tiny Wood Green Mennonite Church for whom my wife works part-time.

As part of my novice process I had to think very carefully about my attitudes to peace and war - the Mennonites are a historic peace church - and I came to the conclusion that a firm commitment to non-violence is required of anyone who claims to follow Jesus.

But wait a minute! What about all those wargames on your games shelf Peter?! And all those war movies on your DVD shelf? And all that military history on your bookshelf?

Well, I admit I am still more than a little in love with war and its mythology: Spitfires scrambling to fend off the Luftwaffe....Monty at Alamein....the squares at Waterloo....the English longbows at Agincourt.... I admire the military virtues: courage, comradeship, perseverance. And I am fascinated by the intellectual challenges of generalship, and the qualities of the great commanders of history.

And I love wargames. There is something viscerally compelling about playing a really great wargame (Breakout Normandy, Paths of Glory, War of the Ring, Up Front, to name a few) face-to-face with a genial but competitive opponent. Not sure I want to give that up, no matter how committed to non-violence I am.

"To depict is not to advocate" - that's one way I think I can square this circle. To enter imaginatively into the experience of other humans, even in extreme or violent circumstances, whether through books, movies, or games, may be to sympathize with their predicament, but does not necessarily involve condoning their actions. It would be fine (in my view), more than that, useful and constructive, for a pacifist to take a course in War Studies for example.

And so, with my copy of Twilight Struggle in one hand, and a CND newsletter in the other, bravely ignoring all internal contradictions, I proceed....