Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The wayward genius of Phil Eklund

I've just been playing Pax Renaissance, the latest masterwork from Phil Eklund at Sierra Madre games, playing it through solo to get the hang of the rules, and what an experience it has been! Deeply immersive, intriguing, satisfying, full of historical interest. Best of all, like all Phil's games, it is a game of ideas, the polar opposite to the idea-free mechanic-driven designs that dominate Euro-gaming, or indeed the high-fantasy miniature-bloated big boxes that regularly emanate from Kickstarter-world.

As you can see, I'm a bit of a fan of Phil Eklund games. And this isn't even my whole collection. I've just said that a big part of their appeal for me is that his games are games of ideas. They give you something to think about. That doesn't mean that his ideas are necessarily very palatable. For example, Phil seems to be some sort of American libertarian. I'm all in favour of personal liberty, but the Ayn Rand style libertarianism that Phil seems to espouse is more about liberty for corporations. The entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism operating in free markets is the great driver of human progress. At least that is what the rule booklet for Pax Renaissance tells me. My response to that is – tell that to the people in Bhopal. Pax Porfiriana, Phil's epic game of the Mexican revolution, teaches us that the world is divided into makers and takers, in other words taxation is simply extracting money with menaces. I prefer to think of taxation as a (very imperfect) common purse, to which we all contribute for the common good. Bios Megafauna, Phil's simply magnificent game about the last 250 million years of evolution, has a throwaway line in the rules about mankind's heroic efforts to avoid the next "snowball earth" by digging up and burning as much fossil fuel as possible. So much for the scientific consensus on climate change.

But I don't really mind all that. The great thing is that Phil Eklund reads widely and deeply, and builds his often heterodox conclusions into the structure of his truly excellent games. Giving me not only something great to play, but some truly interesting ideas to chew over and disagree with. Give me that over the latest idea-free Euro-deckbuilder any day.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

A couple more thoughts on X-Wing fatigue

My gaming background is in board wargames, I was a teenager back in the heyday of Avalon Hill and SPI, and more recently I've played a lot of GMT or Columbia ar MMP wargames. In a typical board wargame you will get, as well as the main event, a handful of usually smaller scenarios. These specify starting positions and order of battle – a list of exactly which units each side gets to play with – and victory conditons, special rules etc. In a good quality game each scenario will have been carefully playtested to make sure it is more or less balanced, so that given players of equal ability victory will go to either side roughly the same number of times. So for example Up Front, one of the the finest wargames I have ever come across, has a dozen or so scenarios printed on the back page of the rule book. Each one is a little gem of compression, specifying the exact composition of your squad and their weapons, the setup conditions, the kind of terrain you are likely to encounter, and the victory conditions. Each one (remember this was back in the golden age of Avalon Hill when they had big print runs and plenty of resources) was thoroughly polished and playtested, so you could be sure you were getting into a fair fight with your opponent.

Star Wars: X-Wing in contrast went for a points-based build-your-own-squad approach. I can understand why, after all many people thoroughly enjoy the meta-game of squad building, the obsessive poring over lists which can fill the fan's leisure hours (and some of his working hours too!) But the price of this is a certain rock-paper-scissors flavour to one's encounters down at the local club. Your obsessed-over squad is quite likely to meet an opposing squad which simply steamrollers yours, with no possibility of playing skill or luck rescuing what is from the start a hopeless situation.

Interestingly, even Up Front, which I am holding up as a shining example of balanced scenario design, gives every personnel and weapon card a points value, so points-based DIY scenarios are very much possible, and were a lot of fun whenever I tried it, back in the nineties when I was playing a lot of Up Front.

Stll, it would be nice to see FFG produce some proper balanced and playtested scenarios. I think it's unlikely, the current structure of the game with numerous upgrade packs marketed as single (or sometimes pairs of) ships, would make it difficult.  The missions are a step in that direction, but you are still choosing your forces on points value, so the meta-game intrudes even here.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

X-Wing Fatigue

I think I need a break from Star Wars: X-Wing.

I've been playing for about 15 months now, benefitting from the regular group that meets every Wednesday at Thirsty Meeples in Oxford. Great group of friendly guys ( and yes it is 95% guys), I've really enjoyed learning the game, building up my collection of rebel space ships (including 2 yes 2 Millenium Falcons!), reading the blogs, watching the matches on YouTube, listening to the podcasts, and even going to a few tournaments.

But... the last 3 weeks, taking a beating in every single game, from squads with such complicated shenanigans that I have no idea why you get to reroll that attack a third time! OK so I need to fly better and perhaps I'm not putting the hours into understanding this game and the multitude of upgrades and pilots available, but I dunno... I think I just need a break. Maybe only a short break, I'll probably be back with my tail wagging in a week or two. But for now, I think I want to think about something else. Maybe StarFarers of Catan.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

So I finally got to play "High Frontier" on Saturday. I persuaded Nick Simon and Iain to come over to Wood Green for a Big Games Day, and spent weeks preparing for the big day by studying the rules over and over.

It was a partial success I would say. It took an awful long time - 6.5 to 7 hours I would guess altogether. I was the only one who had read the rules, so the first few hours I had to answer a LOT of rules questions for every turn. I felt like I was planning everyone's missions at one point! It's not that it's a complicated game - every one of us has mastered more complicated games - but it's unfamiliar, so not much in the way of conceptual landmarks.

Having said that - I loved it! Such a fascinating game, the time just flew by for me. I did very poorly, possibly because I was so busy answering rules questions that I didn't have time to think very clearly about what I was doing. Towards the end I did make some good progress claiming asteroids with a 4.1/3 thruster and a raygun, but too late to get back into the running.

Simon and Nick both seemed to enjoy it too, both expressing a willingness to play again. But Iain, having enjoyed the first few hours, seemed to lose the will to live a few times when he was trying to figure out how to organise his next mission. He won by a good margin (lots of glory points), but his final verdict on the game was "overwrought", "a prog-rock game"! So I don't anticipate persuading Iain to play it again any time soon.

So, this is a fantastic game, but not for everyone. And I'm sure it can be played a lot quicker than we managed by even slightly experienced players. A serious contender for my top 10 list.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Civ

I'm spending Christmas with Sue's family in a luxury barn conversion buried in the snowy Herefordshire countryside. Even better, I've been playing Civilization with Sue's 12-year-old nephew Tom. We're using my old Gibson's edition, where the playing area for 2 players (Greece and Asia Minor) is helpfully colour-coded. The 2-player game is surprisingly challenging. Space is in short supply so Tom and I have been clashing for room regularly. We had an easy ride to start with, but then the calamities started coming thick and fast, and we are just emerging from a chaotic dark age of civil war, eruptions, epidemics and revolts. Love this game, still my number one.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Peaceniks at war

Another game of Struggle of Empires last night with the Mennonite boys. Just the three of us, and we were a little worried about the odd-man-out possibilities, but it seemed to work fine, and no-one felt their chances were closed down early in the game. Still, it doesn't matter how many times I play this game, I don't seem to be able to get the hang of how to win. One of my favourite tricks was much in evidence last night - buying a nice tile (such as Reserves) and then forgetting to use it at the critical moemnt. That re-roll could have spared me a lot of pain!

Darren was so inspired by the game that he resolved to buy it immediately, regardless of the OTT prices being achieved on eBay these days.

We finished with a round of Race for the Galaxy, where I managed to scrape a last-turn win against Sam's Spartan war-machine. Very satisfying.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Caucasus Campaign

I've been going quite slow on the game acquisition front - still money left in the 2010 budget - but I recently bought Caucasus Campaign (Mark Simonovitch, GMT) after reading very positive comments from Chris Farrell. Maybe I give too much weight to Chris's opinions sometimes, but I'm very pleased I followed his recommendation on this one.

I'm becoming a bit of a sucker for East Front panzer-pushers, accumulating a small stack of them on the shelf (Roads to Leningrad, Stalingrad Pocket, Von Manstein's Backhand Blow), but this one looks at first sight a little bit special. A beautiful map with large hexes, a small number of large attractive counters, 16 pages of clearly laid out rules printed in colour, and colourful and clear player-aids, all combine to make a very appealing first impression.

It's all laid out on the table awaiting my first solo play-through. Looking forward to it.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The month of gaming

I am having the most amazing month of gaming! And it's all a bit of a misunderstanding.

Months ago Sue booked up for a mediation course, which meant she would be away from home all weekend every weekend in September. So like any gaming husband would, I got my diary out and started booking the gaming sessions. Huzzah!

Then her course was cancelled.

But Sue is lovely, and so the gaming sessions still stand. And I'm getting convention-scale amounts of gaming done.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sunday part 2

It was probably a mistake to follow Maria with another "big beast" like After the Flood. It didn't help that I did not do a great job of explaining the rules, and everyone's brains were a little fried by this stage, I suspect. And to be honest, After the Flood did not benefit from the comparison. After Maria it seemed - well - unpolished. A little bit fiddly, and lacking in drama perhaps.

I still rate this as a very good game indeed, probably an 8, but a game of this complexity and length needs to be the main event. Definitely not a wind-down game. (Chicago Express or Nexus Ops might have been a better choice.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

There's something about Maria

I will eschew cheap smutticisms and just say that I finally got the chance to play Maria on Sunday. I've been excited about this game for a while, bought a copy a couple of months ago, and have been itching to play ever since. Iain "the acceptable face of gaming", and his friend John agreed to try it out last weekend.

I loved it.

As Prussia/Pragmatic I played very poorly. Not really thinking about the implications of what I was doing, I hammered into Austria with the Prussians and into Northern France with the Pragmatics. Won lots of battles, but handed the game to the French. But this game is a beautiful beautiful thing. I love the subtleties of hand management interacting with the suits on the board. I love the positional play and the simple way that the flavour of 18th century siege warfare is captured. I love the look of the board and the pieces. Maria is currently well on the way to joining my exclusive 10-rated list, alongside timeless works of art like Civilization, 1830, and Tigris & Euphrates. When can we play again?