Friday, December 28, 2007

Eisenbach Gap: A closer look

Time to revisit the topic of World at War: Eisenbach Gap. I’ve managed to get in a few games of this over the holidays, so I’m able to comment about it intelligently.

The nutshell version is that I like this game quite a bit. It’s not very fiddly, plays quickly, has some interesting hooks and delivers plausible results. The physical production is a pleasant enough package, the rules are fairly well written and the game’s tabletop footprint is manageable without feeling restricted.

In a way it’s what I would call a “brave” design because of the combat mechanism. There is no combat results table. This game uses what I’ll call a little buckets o’dice system for combat. “Little” because players are never rolling more than four or five dice at a time.

It’s a design element that took some guts to include because games that use any form of buckets o’dice (BOD) resolution always seem to get a mixed reaction from the wargaming community. Maybe it’s a bias against the mechanism because it’s used in a number of miniatures games? I don’t know. If a designer does his math well, combat probabilities can be modelled just fine using BOD.

More likely, some gamers dislike BOD because the mechanism does introduce a higher element of randomness into combat resolution – or at least a greater perception of randomness. Odds- or differential- based combat results tables are frequently designed to contain randomness. It’s very rare to find a CRT that offers wild swings of fortune within a single odds or differential ‘column’. (Advanced Tobruk is a system that comes to mind, and that CRT has taken it’s share of flak.)

Sometimes that sort of ‘chaos control’ is used to compress the range of possible results and make game outcomes more “predictable.” Lack of a farily narrow predictability puts many gamers out of their comfort range – thus the knee-jerk negatives concerning BOD.

But I digress. In Eisenbach Gap, to be certain, there can be some swings of fortune. But I like that combat in the game avoids the Proving Ground Syndrome of 80 percent kills at 2000 meters. Sometimes a platoon of Abrams will fire on a platoon of T-72s and completely flub. Other times they’ll turn the whole lot of them into smoking junk. The odds favor the latter result (or something in between), but the lack of narrow predictability is a key component to the game.

In some other ‘modern’ tactical games, maneuver is generally undertaken only at great sacrifice. While it’s true that modern weapons systems are very lethal, I think under most circumstances it’s highly unlikely that they will ALWAYS achieve complete mission kills against enemy units.

I think Eisenbach Gap models this notion pretty well. Stupid tricks will get you hammered pretty quickly and exposing your units to enemy fire is a very risky proposition – but I think the game achieves the right chaotic balance (is there such a thing?) and provides a highly enjoyable gaming experience.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The great electrical conspiracy

One question I have (that will obviously never be answered) is this: Since AA and AAA batteries are all packaged in even numbers (2, 4, 8, 24 to a package) why do so many toys now require THREE batteries instead of two or four? WTF up with that?

Personally, I think it’s a kickback scheme cooked up by the battery manufacturers in order to reduce the usefulness of rechargeable batteries. Why? Think about it. Battery chargers typically hold four AA or AAA batteries. If you use batteries in threes, you’ve then got an odd battery flopping around that you’ll either lose or can’t keep charged properly. Oh, sure, you can buy (and charge) 12 batteries (that will give you four sets of three) – but then you’ve bought 12 friggin rechargeable batteries when what you really need is just six.

One of the toys the kid got uses (the Geotrax train set from his godparents) three AAA batteries in the train engine and three AA batteries in the remote control. Why not all AA batteries or all AAA batteries?

It’s a friggin conspiracy, I tell you.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Changing the day after Christmas

Five or six years ago, Christmas around my house was quite a bit different.

For starters, I lived in a different house. Smaller, with just me living in it. In the morning I’d visit my parents in nearby Leesburg, exchange gifts and eat lunch. Depending on the year and scheduling sometimes I watched football with them and stayed for dinner. Other times I packed up my gear after lunch and drove into the office to make the next day’s newspaper. Somewhere in there I’d work in a stopover visit with the lady who eventually became The Missus.

I mention this as a way of noting that in the not-too-distant past, the day after Christmas was a time for me to dig in to a stack of several new games.

My goodness, how things have changed. No more post-Christmas ‘out of the wrapper’ tidbits from this old gamer.

Nowadays Christmas is all about Junior Destructo Man 2.5 and, more generally, bringing the family together to celebrate. Having a toddler zooming around the house on Christmas day certainly gives me cause to live the holidays as a brand-new experience.

Yesterday was spent primarily on three activities: 1) Watching the kid play with his stuff, 2) playing with the kid and his stuff, and 3) eating. It could scarcely have been a better time for all involved.

Hey, it only took 40-some years for me to finally get stuff figured out. Pretty good, all things considered.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Nothing like a good shoot-em-up

Whoa. Sorry. Had to take some time off after expending all of that energy on philosophizing and digesting holiday goodies. But now it’s December and – what the Hell – it’s time to stutter along some more about wargaming.

One of my last remaining game pre-orders arrived last week. Many months ago I gave up on the practice of pre-ordering, but some of these things take that long (at least) to work their way through production. I think I may have one or two pre-orders out there from over a year ago. Heck, over the summer I cancelled a bunch of pre-order ‘Pledges’ from Decision Games – all of which had been in place for over three years. That’s a crisp production schedule indeed.

Anyway, a World at War: Eisenbach Gap showed up last week. Between the usual holiday goings-on and the long-awaited completion of the Bethlehem Battlefield project (more on that in a day or two) it’s taken me this long to getting around to some kind of assessment.

In a nutshell: Pretty cool.

The game is designed by Mark Walker, so I figured going in it would be a game with a hearty emphasis on playability – which is a hallmark of his squad-level Lock ‘n’ Load system. This game is a platoon-level treatment of a subject that’s entirely hypothetical: The NATO-Soviet World War Three that never happened.

The components are well done, although the counters indeed have a bunch of numbers on them (11 for the biggest and baddest). So they’re a little squinty, but not too difficult to read.

Why are the counters so packed with info? Mainly because the game uses a combat results mechanism that’s drawn primarily from territory more familiar to miniatures gamers. There is no combat results table in this game – all of the info you need to resolve combat is printed right on the counters.

Eisenbach Gap uses a chit-pull activation system, which lends itself to high replay value. There are other little bits of chrome here and there, but for the most part it’s a straight-forward design that’s light on the rules weight.

Many non-wargamers (and more than a few grognards) wonder a bit at the appeal of the subject matter. Certainly it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, as many players generally prefer to stick to history. The weapons, formations and doctrines the game is based upon were never tested (as it were) in a head-to-head environment so there’s a lot of speculation involved.

But for some there’s that gnawing fascination with the great conflagration that never occurred. There’s the ‘what if?’ surrounding the great and desperate battle quite a few of my generation trained for but never had to fight.

I’ve pushed it around a little bit and it seems pretty darned solid. More on it in a few days once I get the hang of things.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Just a little holiday perspective

Something to think about while you’re sitting around today, still sort of druggy-acting from yesterday’s overdose of tryptophan-laden turkey and other goodies.

Last Saturday, after our big yard sale, the Missus and I loaded up all of the leftover stuff – books and warm clothing mostly – and trucked them over to the Salvation Army (this was before the tire went flat episode).

Not the Salvation Army thrift store, mind you. We took our stuff to the Salvation Army compound with their ‘soup kitchen’, emergency housing and other services. If you take the stuff to the thrift store, it gets recycled to the store where they sell it. That’s not a bad thing – Salvation Army gets the cash, duh. But we wanted the folks at the shelter to get first crack at the warm clothing, so that’s where we took it.

You want some perspective about your place in the scheme of things and a glimpse into how things are going here in the world’s richest country? Visit a Salvation Army shelter and kitchen at mealtime on the day after the season’s first serious cold snap. That’s how things are going.

Some years back, when the Missus and I used to help run Community with a Heart, we frequently delivered donations to the shelter – so the general scene wasn’t anything new. The benches and green spaces out front collect people (men mostly) sitting and smoking cigarettes - or just sitting. (The first time I visited the place, I wondered about the high rate of cigarette smoking, but then it occurred to me that people with good decision-making skills don’t typically end up at the Salvation Army shelter. )

Thanks to Compassionate Conservatism shifting our tax dollars from social services to Halliburton and Bechtel, more and more people who show up at shelters are folks who at one time would have been under some kind of taxpayer-subsidized psychiatric care. Some would be in-patients, but most would simply have access to out-patient benefits like counselling or prescription drugs in order to help them lead productive lives.

Right after a cold snap, the shelter’s population spikes. This time, there were more women and children eating at the kitchen than I’ve seen in the past. How much action do you think it can generate when word spreads that a couple of boxes of kids’ clothing have just arrived in the lobby?

One of the men who helped us cart all of the stuff into the building – a shelter client – was looking at the books we were leaving.

“That’s a lot of books,” he said. And then he looked up at me: “You know, most people think we can’t read.”

One of the images I took away was the sight of a middle-aged man combing through the books as we shuttled items into the lobby, putting a couple of books into a plastic bag and then walking off with a big smile. His haul: well-worn copies of “On Zen Practice” and “The Three Pillars of Zen”. I wish him well.

I’m not writing this to brag about our charitable donations. In fact, it’s a bit embarrasing that I originally considered we were dumping junk on the Salvation Army. It’s humbling that I required a reminder about all of the people in need right here in my own neighborhood. And it’s shameful that so many people can’t even surrender their ‘junk’ in order to help out others in need.

So. The next time you get the opportunity, donate or volunteer. Don’t just stuff your hands in your pockets and pass by the rackety bell-ringers. Do a little bit of good this holiday season every chance you get, because there are plenty of people in need.

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thessalonians)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Are my He-Man days over?

“Daddy truck broke.”

I really couldn’t argue with Junior Destructo Man 2.5. Technically, I suppose a flat tire doesn’t ‘break’ the truck – but it does make it pretty darned useless for a while.

It was pitch dark (already, at 6:30 p.m., please see “Burn In Hell, Eastern Standard Time below for more philosophy on this) and my truck was sitting seriously wounded on a city street with its hazard lights blinking. The right front tire was F-L-A-T to the rim. [Crap].

We had just pulled out of the driveway at a friend’s house, hereafter referred to as the Truck Bermuda Triangle (TBT). This is the same driveway where, a couple of months ago, one of the posts on the truck’s battery had completely corroded out. Next time we visit them, I’m parking across the street.

But back to my flat tire. I’ve only been driving it since February, and standing there I suddenly realized I barely knew where the changing tools were. After sending the family back into our friend’s house, I dug out the tools and flashlight in hand starting searching under the truck for a jack point.

My friend the owner of the Bermuda Triangle showed up a minute later while I was still rolling around under the truck.

“Do you have a road service?” he asked. “To heck with this. Why don’t you have them change it?”

Well, God Bless DriveAmerica. That’s just exactly what I did. I, He-Man, called the road service and had them send out a kid with a tow-truck to change my damned tire.

“Hey, you got your jack out,” the Kid observed. “Why did you stop?”

Because, junior, it’s dark, I’m old enough to be your daddy, twice as cranky, bald and lazy. Now get to friggin’ work. I figured being truthful was the best way to keep my manhood from falling off. It worked. My spare tire got installed and my dick is still attached.

But it did make me wonder. Are my He-Man days over? 20 years ago I would have changed that tire myself, even if it took me all night and the truck fell off the jack and took out one of my lungs. Of course, 20 years ago I wouldn’t have had a wife and a 2.5 year old waiting in a nearby house. But I would have had an assault rifle in a gun rack and just shot the thing if it really pissed me off. And I would have smoked a pipe through the whole event.

Hm. The pipe is long gone. And I’m now down to just one semi-automatic rifle. No, make that two … er, three. OK, three. But only one of them has a high-capacity magazine. And it should really be two anyway, because a Ruger 10/22 barely counts as a gun, right?

Also gone are a bunch of He-Man books, mostly either sold off at a recent garage sale or simply thrown out because they were too stupid for anybody to buy. Dumbass stuff like “Getting Even” or books on trailcraft or about survival skills. Most of them were old and yellowed, some even falling apart. Nowadays you can find better info on the Internet anyway.

Does any of that mean my He-Man days are over?

Nah. I’ve still got the Uzi.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Busy.... Very Busy!!

This week’s slow-down in the rate of blog posts can be attributed entirely to my lack of time to indulge in anything interesting or blog-worthy.

In theory, most of my ‘hobby’ time this week was planned for a large terrain-building project. Not game-related hobby terrain, though. Instead it’s a large, fixed display for our church’s Nativity scene.

That was theory. In actual practice, I have spent the week helping the Missus get stuff sorted out and organized for a yard sale. The yard sale she suddenly decided last Sunday that we needed to have. Major time-eater.

At some point in time around the weekend, I should receive one of a few gaming items that I’ve either ordered online or shopped victoriously for on Ebay. I confess to being unable to resist the temptation to buy a couple of items from the new range of widgets Games Workshop is selling as part of their new “Apocalypse” genre of 40k gaming. When I spotted it for a good price, I caved and Ebayed an Imperial Baneblade – a mega-tank model, essentially. GW has also released their new “Linebreaker Squadron”, a kit with three Space Marine Vindicator tank models in one box. Mercantile types are breaking those kits up into three sets of sprues and selling them. Thus I also Ebayed a new Vindicator model.

I have absolutely no idea when I’m going to have a chance to build these things, but I’m determined to build out my 40k forces at some point. In my hobby universe, figure gaming is a sinful indulgence akin to eating dulce de leche (only, and lots of it) for dinner. It’s something that I spend more time preparing for than doing – but isn’t that the case with most hobbies?

I also ordered a new board wargame this week, which makes it a week of splurges indeed. As part of an order with a gift game or two, I bought myself a copy of Avalanche Press’ Jutland, one of their newest offering in the Great War at Seas series. It’s been out for a number of months (late spring?). I suffered a lengthy decision cycle on it primarily because I own the original GWAS: North and Baltic Seas. Jutland is basically an upgrade of North and Baltic Seas, which was just the second game in the GWAS series.

New art work, new mappage, new shippage, new scenarios – a lot changes in Jutland. I’m surprised I’ve held off so long in purchasing it.

I’ll be giving all of the above a few words in the space after they’ve arrived. And maybe someday I’ll even build those tanks.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Some thoughts on Veterans Day

On November 11, 1918, The War to End All Wars came to a conclusion when a general armistice between the Central Powers and the Entente went into effect.

Hmm. The War to End All Wars. That didn’t exactly work out, did it?

Americans have fought in many wars since then. And the other day, while I was stuck in traffic behind a Hummer with a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker, it occurred to me that as a nation we have odd ways of supporting our veterans.

Generally speaking, we crap on them. We’ve been crapping on them for a long time, in fact. I’m not very well read on anything earlier, but I know plenty of Civil War veterans were crapped on. I know lots of World War I veterans were crapped on – in fact, wasn’t it our old buddy Doug MacArthur who chased them around Washington, DC with some bayonet-toting troopers? That’s a hell of a thank-you.

On Saturday I bundled Junior Destructo Man off to a model train show at the National Guard Armory here in town. He wasn’t so much interested in the large vendor section, but he was fascinated by the two working layouts they had setup in one of the side rooms. He stood and watched the larger scale train (S-Gauge?) for maybe 20 minutes before he even blinked. It didn’t help that the thing went “chug-chug” and “toot-toot” when the operator pushed a button on his transformer console. Bloody hell, I suppose I see what the future replacement for Thomas the Tank Engine will be.

What’s all of this got to do with Veterans Day?

Well, as we were leaving the building there were a couple of railroaders standing around, talking loudly (half deaf from the train whistles, I suppose). One of them was expounding on the proper treatment of military veterans.

“I was in the Marines in Vietnam, and when I came home they [crapped] on me,” one of them announced. “All these whiners today need to just shut up. We’re going to [crap] on them, too.”

Juan Carlos, of course, is a sponge for new sounds so I hope at some point in the near future I don’t have to talk him out of shouting [crap] at the top of his lungs. Be that as it may, it was just kind of sad (and a bit aggravating) to hear a veteran express such resignation. Or was it something more base? I had it crappy, so you’re going to have it crappy too. That would be even more sad.

Obviously, the politicians out there didn’t keep their heads down during the Sunday and Monday events that mark Veterans Day. They should have gone into hiding instead of parading around spouting off a bunch of [crap]. The way we treat our veterans is a national embarrassment.

It is our shame as a nation that a millionaire (as most of them are) can squat on his ass in the well-guarded US Senate for six years and then collect more retirement bennies (which he likely doesn’t really need) than a service veteran who, let’s say for example, has had his leg blown off in the defense of our country.

But back to the train show.

I had parked my pickup truck off to the side of the Armory building. About 30 feet away on the grass sat what remained of a decommissioned Sherman tank – you know the kind of junkchunk they usually park around Guard armories.

“Daddy, whazzat?” Juan Carlos asked. About 20 times in the span of ten seconds.

So I walked over to the rusting green junk pile, and talked to my two-year-old for a few minutes about what it once had been, and the brave men who had served in it and the evil they had defeated. And I thought about my Dad, who served in the Navy; my Papaw Edwards, the gentleman-farmer who fought in the Great War and about all of the other veterans I’ve known over the years who are now gone from this Earth.

God Bless them all. I’ll try to do better for them.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

For treadheads: ATS Stonne Heights

Another item that arrived near the Big Table during blog off-season was the ATS title Ghosts at the Meuse: The Battle for the Stonne Heights. This one is another complete boxed game and features the fighting for the town of Stonne, France in 1940.

Of all of the battles big and small during the German’s 1940 invasion of France, Stonne is one that seems to attract a lot of attention. It has a number of historical points in its favor, I suppose. It was a tooth-and-nail struggle in which the French fought the Germans to a standstill. The terrain is interesting. It was a mixed-arms affair that featured a considerable amount of armor on both sides. The German attack was spear-headed by the troops of the Grossdeutschland regiment, a formation that generated a lot of ‘ink’ in Nazi propaganda at the time.

Also, over the last 15 years or so the historical view (in American eyes) of the 1940 campaign in France has been revised away from the ‘pop history’ view of unstoppable Nazi war machine versus totally incompetent surrender monkeys. These revisions toward a more accurate overview have generated new interest in the campaign from American wargamers – which is pretty much the market force that drives which topics appear in print.

Some years ago, Stonne was the topic of The Gamers’ Tactical Combat Series game GD (Grossdeutschland) ’40. It was an interesting, well-researched game that suffered to a degree from the game system’s inability to successfully mesh armored operations with infantry. A less interesting treatment of Stonne appeared a couple of years back as the issue game in Vae Victis magazine, a French-language gaming publication.

Critical Hit – the publishers of ATS – produced a Stonne 1940 module for Advanced Squad Leader some years back, and this new ATS title is an outgrowth of that project (fairly obvious, since Pedro Ramis gets the design credit in both games).

The cartography is updated from the earlier ASL module and uses a larger sized hexgrid in order to accommodate the larger ATS counter size. It does a nice job of capturing the ruggedness of the terrain in the immediate vicinity of Stonne. In this game the focus is entirely on the fighting in the environs of the town, which means the players won’t necessarily get a feel for the ‘big picture’ of Stonne’s dominating heights with regards to the Meuse valley.

Ghosts at the Meuse also introduces the 1940 French order of battle into ATS. It’s a generous countermix that certainly includes more stuff than you’ll ever use in a single scenario. For treadheads, I’m sure the centerpiece of the OOB is the French B-1 tank.

The appearance of the B-1 certainly provide ample opportunity for the ‘what if’ crowd to get their jollies by matching the French heavy against the general more lightweight German tanks of 1940. Unfortunately, while the B-1 may have carried more armor than the German AFVs and fielded a good gun (for the time), French operational doctrine just wasn’t up to snuff.

A couple of Stonne scenarios actually made it onto the Big Table before the summer caught up with me. I didn’t set up any of the ‘big’ scenarios, but it seems to be a well-done kit with forces that match up well and provide an interesting look at a pivotal fight in the 1940 campaign.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Burn in Hell, Eastern Standard Time

Today we need to stop all of this silliness about baseball, tabletop games and other leisure pursuits and turn our thoughts to a more somber topic.

I would like everyone to join me in a moment or two of quiet contemplation regarding Eastern Standard Time and HOW MUCH IT SUCKS.

I hate the time change. I hate it with a burning passion. There are few things I despise more than working to my usual quitting time and then getting home after dark. Is that right? Is that the birthright we inherited from the founding fathers? Is that what God intended when He commanded “let there be light”?

I think not.

Many years ago (Many. Years. Ago.) my mother worked as a secretary in the offices of Kinsolving & Kinsolving in Shelbyville, Kentucky. It being a rural area and all at the time (it seems more of a Louisville suburb these days), many of their clients were either large local farms or agricultural concerns. When the time change arrived, staff had to remember who among their clients would arrive at the wrong time for all of their appointments until the time changed back.

“My cows don’t set their clocks back,” as one farmer explained it, “so neither do I.”

Sound reasoning, if you ask me.

When the time changes, I know that I am doomed to at least two weeks of waking up exactly one hour before my alarm clock goes off. That really pisses me off. I like sleep. I NEED sleep. I DO NOT need to wake up an hour before my alarm goes off.

I understand that there are weenie-headed, whining arguments in favor of the time change. Usually some crap about kids waiting for school busses in the dark. Those arguments are all worthless. Is it still dark at 8 a.m.? That’s when kids are waiting for their school busses in my neighborhood. Eight o’clock. Not six o’clock. EIGHT o’clock.

Some bunch of yahoos in Minnesota wants to start school at 7 a.m., so the rest of us have to set our clocks back? Screw ‘em. They can change when their school starts. In fact, they SHOULD change when school starts. Several scientific studies indicate that kids do better in school when they don’t have to be there at the crack of dawn. Why? Because they get more sleep when they’re not waiting for school busses at 6 a.m.

Well, duh.

The first presidential candidate to promote abolition of the time change gets my vote. I HATE Standard Time.

Monday, November 05, 2007

ATS Toktong Pass on the waiting list

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over a year since I last posted anything about one of my favorite tactical game systems – ATS. Well, as it’s been seven months since I’ve pretty much posted anything, I guess it’s not that hard to believe. Man, time sure does fly when you have a Junior Destructo Man running around the house.

So today a quick look at one of the three ATS items that landed near my Big Table during the course of baseball season: The new, complete boxed game Toktong Pass: Escape from Chosin.

This is the first game in the Advanced Tobruk Series to be set outside of the Second World War. It concentrates on the actions of Fox Company, 2/7 Marines at Toktong Pass during the Chosin Reservoir battles. You can read a bit of the history at this address

or just Google around a bit for more information.

The game map, based on the historical terrain, covers a sizeable area around the heights that eventually became known as “Fox Hill”.

The color palette for the map is a bit on the dark side, but it’s easy enough to read. My only minor beef with the whole kit is the headache-inducing color scheme that’s been assigned to the North Korean countermix in the game. Here’s a sample:

Ugh. While you’re certainly not going to overlook them on the map, it seems to me that the colors might grate on players after a few hours of play. Actually, I think after a few hours the colors might induce epileptic seizures.

Other than that, it is a pretty interesting setup. Some post-WW2 hardware in the mix (most of which isn’t used in the Toktong scenarios), the North Korean troops are a lively bunch and the scenarios look pretty interesting.

Have I had time to set it up and play it yet? Nope. But I’ll get there.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Reports of this blog's demise are mildly exaggerated

Since the last post was made after the opening day of baseball season, I guess I’d better bookend the long, blog-less season by posting something of an update.

If you pay attention to baseball at all, you will know that Scott Boras did NOT take me up on my offer. Bob Wickman DID suck. The Braves pitching DID kill them. And, unfortunately, the Red Sox ended up getting a lot more media attention.

I think that’s that highlight reel in total, right there.

Baseball season is over. Now begins the season of our discontent.

As evidenced by seven months of assorted blankness and clever nothings, during hurricane season I lapsed into pathetic non-blogging. Too many other fun things to spend time on, I suppose. Work. Chasing the kid around. Baseball. Chasing the kid around. And more chasing the kid around.

With the sad absence of baseball a reality, perhaps now I’ll be able to bludgeon myself into keeping up with this widget to one degree or another. There are some interesting new games to discuss, and a couple of holiday ‘projects’ to document – so maybe I’ll get back into it.

Then again, maybe not. I am nothing if not lazy and unpredictable.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The long, dark winter has passed

Hey, it must be the start of baseball season because I’m bitching already! The Braves bullpen was butt-puckering! The D-Rays bullpen sucked! Woooooo!

Dangerously enough, I was thinking last night. If the morons in the federal gumment can’t see fit to make Opening Day a national holiday – they should at the very least make it illegal to play baseball games on Opening Day when everybody is at friggin work. I missed every decent game that was played yesterday. What was on TV when I got home? The Royals beating the crap out of the dipstick Red Sox. The dipstick Red Sox! Who gives a flying oily turd about the dipstick Red Sox?

So I had to read all of the game stories I could find today. Truthfully, I was surprised to read that Bob Wickman pitched in yesterday’s game. I figured his lard ass would have expired by now. I can say that because I think ol’ Bob has about the same buff athletic build that I count among my own unique features. I think I may even be a few pounds lighter nowadays. And yet he’s pitching for the Braves and I’m NOT pitching for the Giants, as per my earlier plan.

Yeah, I know. He can hit the strike zone in the 90s, but so what? Ever seen anybody hit my knuckleball? Ha! NOBODY has ever hit my knuckleball. It’s a minor issue that I’ve never actually thrown a knuckleball at a batter – the point is still that NOBODY has ever hit it. It’s all about spin, baby.

Cash in on a hot commodity now, Scott Boras. Just use the comments section below and I’ll have my people get back with you soonest!

Friday, March 09, 2007

As the season approaches

If baseball season is approaching, it must be time for me to rant about what a gigantic pudwhack Mike Hampton has turned into. An oblique muscle? What a wuss! What’s he been doing for the last two years – watching Oprah and eating friggin cheeseburgers?

I don’t know who’s the bigger pudwhack – Hampton or Mark “I’ve pitched ten innings in the last three seasons” Prior. Holy sheeee-ittt!!!

I’ve thought about contacting several Major League teams – you know, the ones that are paying bundles to chronic pudwhacks. Why don’t they ditch those guys and, instead, pay me the Major League minimum to miss just as many games?

My main offer is to the Giants. Why not take the heat off of Bonds for a change? Sign Foster for the league minimum – the sports writers will go nuts and forget all about Bonds for a while. I’ll miss as many starts as, say, David Wells would. And they could write columns about Foster and Wells ‘seperated at birth’ stuff. I’d miss just as many starts as Wells will for whoever has him, but I’d only be one-quarter the grumpy asshole and ten times more engaging, personable and entertaining. Instead of pestering Bonds, the writers could pester the 48-year-old never pitched an inning fat man while I regale them with Neo-Stengalisms, tales of cosmopolitan adventure AND public challenges to Curt Schilling for an ASL cage match. I’d bust their chops about their typos and blown deadlines and incite them with clever newspaper patois.

And all for a fraction of what Hampton, Prior or Wells will pull down for sitting on their hairy butts. What a deal. Where’s Bill Veeck when baseball needs him?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Out with the old...

The busy month of February is teetering on the brink of Slackerism here in blog land, so I guess a few notes are in order.

My urge to indulge in an entire campaign of ‘Barbarossa’ waned somewhat as I progressed through the early stages of the game. It still produces an entertaining game experience, but there are enough ‘holes’ in the game that I felt time would be better spent if I moved on to something else after wrapping up the 8 turns of the opening Barbarossa scenario.

One thing apparent was the odd structure of the victory conditions. At the conclusion of 1941, basically, a look at the map seemed to tell a tale of woe for the Germans. They had managed to capture Leningrad, but were basically stoned everywhere else and faced a growing Soviet army. They were short of Moscow by several hexes and had just barely managed to squeeze into Kharkov by game’s end – losing an entire Panzer Army in the process. Still, totalling up the Victory Points, the Germans managed to squeeze out a 1-point win. Very strange.

But that one is back up on the shelf. Some new items have arrived in the last few weeks, and one of them has landed on the Big Table. The new $20 small-format game from Avalanche Press, “They Shall Not Pass”, is set up and ready to go. The game covers the first nine days of the German offensive against Verdun in February, 1916. The first snappy here is an overview of the initial setup on the game’s full-size map:

And here’s a detail of the setup along the French center, which gives a pretty good look at the map artwork.

The geographical area covered is the whole sector held by French XXX Corps. Within the constraints of the historical deployments, the German player is pretty much free to set his own agenda for racking up enough VPs to win the game.

Victory in the game is based on what I would call the objectives as the opposing Army / Corps commanders understood them at the time. German local command wasn’t clued in on Falkenhayn’s ‘meat grinder’ strategy. So they really are trying to plaster the French and drive on Verdun.

Only the Germans score VP. They get them for taking towns (1 VP per two towns captured), destroying forts (1 VP per fort) and inflicting higher casualties on the French than they take themselves (0-3 VP – I think – based on the dead-unit ratio at the end of the game). They can also take one division of optional reinforcements for a 1VP penalty. Working from memory here, I think the Germans have to score more than 8 VP to win the game. 5-8 VP is a draw, IIRC. Although it might be 5-7 VP.

Starting soon, with a little luck.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Old and flawed, but still some fun

Sometimes it can be interesting to drag out the wargaming equivalent of a Golden Oldie and take it for a spin on The Big Table just for the heck of it.

This past weekend, in the couple of hours of unstructured time I managed to eke out, I dusted off my old, old copy of SPI’s Barbarossa (2nd edition, 1971) and set up the opening of World War II in the east. The game, which saw it’s first printing in 1969, essentially is the granddaddy of most ‘contemporary’ East Front games. A lot of the design mechanisms gamers take for granted first got their chops in Barbarossa.

The particular copy of the game I’ve got on the table is the second wargame I ever bought – purchased way back in 1974. My first wargame was SPI’s venerable Tank!, which I also purchased in 1974. That was back in the days when you could find SPI games stocking bookstore shelves, and indeed both of those games were bought a few months apart at a Waldenbooks in Altamonte Springs.

I haven’t stopped buying games since, but that’s beside the point.

Today’s photo shows a section of the front before the game kicks off. The deployments are likely far from historical, but this is the area where German Army Groups North and Center operated.

As a game produced entirely before the fall of Soviet Communism opened up a wealth of new material for history researchers, it suffers from a number of flaws in the orders of battle and in the geography of the game map. As one might suspect, later games have ‘done’ many things better – but for some reason this game can still produce a compelling game session every now and then.

Compared to today’s uber-complex designs, it’s quite simple and straightforward. The complexity of the rules, in fact, is probably on a par with Avalanche Press games like Defiant Russia and Red Vengeance. Barbarossa’s assymetrical application of the zone of control rules can take a bit to get used to, and can be a special, nasty surprise for the unwary Russian player.

The attacker-favoring combat results table is also somewhat assymetrical. The game heartily rewards the German player who can catch Russian units in a web of ZOCs and then eliminate them by forcing retreats with relatively low-odds attacks (at 1:1 odds, for example, there is only one ‘negative’ result for an attacker).

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lite, fun and moving right along

After a couple of weeks of pretty intensive play (at least for me) I think I'm about to get enough of Combat Commander for the moment. It's like the kettle corn of wargaming. Entertaining and a tad addictive, but ultimately not quite filling. The variability of the card system gives it a certain just-one-more-turn quality akin to a pulp sci-fi page-turner. Quite often the system works well. Sometimes it doesn't.

Every once in a while some plain goofy crap happens. The cards fall in just the right order to make me feel like I'm fighting a battle on Bizarro World. In one of my weekend games, when the scenario ended about half the map was on fire (nearly ran out of 'Blaze' markers) for no apparent reason.

And then sometimes the cards fall in just the right order to make a very enjoyable game. In a second game, some US units had to cross a machine-gun covered road to attack an objective. As one unit crossed the road, the Germans played a Hidden Minefield card (the Americans survived, but it was a fun moment) and then played a Hidden Wire card as the US troops approached the objective (the Americans took the OBJ but it was another fun moment).

It's all rather random, which is pretty much what you run into with card-driven systems. Very often it's quite a bit of fun, but I think in only one or two of the six games I've played have I finished and thought it had come close to 'simulating' infantry combat. The others were just 'games' – like maybe playing Memoir 44 on steroids.

There's something to be said for a 'lite' wargame, of course – and CC is certainly the least 'lite' of the bunch. But it's not a game that's going to replace ATS or PG in my inventory.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

If I was a headshrinker...

If I ever lost my mind and decided to get a doctorate in psychology (there’s a pun in there somewhere), I have a ready-made topic for my doctoral thesis: How wargames can be used to demonstrate the different ways people comprehend, experience and assess the same game.

Well, from reading Boardgame Geek I suppose that could be applied to all games. But since I ‘know’ more wargamers, that would be my selected subset.

Following the online chatter about Combat Commander, it’s illuminating to read the different takes people have on the game. Most opinions are influenced to a degree by expectations. Many are additionally shaped by prior gaming experience (which I suppose shapes expectations…). It’s also interesting to speculate on people’s reasons for offering strong opinions when it’s pretty clear that they haven’t actually played the game.

CC is one of those games you have to ‘get’ before it makes sense. In that respect, it’s like PanzerGrenadier. If you don’t solve the twin Riddles of Scale and Assault (which I didn’t at first), PG doesn’t quite seem to ‘work’. With CC, to me it seems you have to solve the Riddle of Chaos.

Of course, there are some players who are simply never going to enjoy a game that doesn’t give them near-absolute control of their units. Even if those guys ‘get’ how the game works, they’re not going to enjoy it.

The guys that are really interesting to follow, though, are the ones who perceive that because of the card system, gameplay is almost totally random. That’s the part you have to ‘get’. It’s not ‘random’, although it is ‘chaotic’. Mathematically speaking, orders and actions fall within a structured range of probabilities that generally only influences WHEN things happen.

In game-speak, what this means is this: If you want your guys to get from Point A to Point B, you will be able to move them there – but you may not be able to move them at an ideal moment. If you don’t immediately have Move orders available, you either discard or do other stuff until you get them. Maybe the other side will shoot them to hell before they get going. But that’s kind of like ‘real’ combat – 2nd platoon was ordered to move out at 0600 but didn’t get the word in time and then got caught by an artillery barrage at 0605, blah blah blah.

Another critical point I see players missing is leadership. A well-placed leader can work wonders for coordinating units and getting things done. That might seem like a ‘doh!’ statement, but it really does seem to elude a lot of players. They’re probably influenced by how leaders are used in ASL or other tactical games. In CC, a ‘2’ rated leader can activate with one order a 5-hex long skirmish line – on a map that’s just 10 x 15 hexes. Seen it, done it. Good leaders are a real ‘force multiplier’.

Still taking this game through its paces, but so far, so good.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Another week, another game

As I work my way through a few games of Combat Commander, NOW I remember why I ditched all of my Advanced Squad Leader stuff years ago. Not to take anything away from ASL’s large following of dedicated gamers – it’s just that it never really ‘worked’ for me as an enjoyable wargame. Tried it for several years running, collected a bunch of modules – all to no avail. It just was never quite worth the effort for me.

Combat Commander never claims to be the ultimate in simulation, but I think the end result is a much closer approximation of infantry combat outcomes than ASL. At least for me. Mostly this is because of the game’s chaos factor. You come up with an initial plan, try to implement it and then adjust as the game moves along. Damn near anything can happen. The game Events can throw all kinds of monkey-wrenches into things – from your own squads breaking at the wrong time to the timely arrival of reinforcements. The Order and Action mechanisms insure that you can seldom do EXACTLY what you want to do.

I think it was Rommel (?) who said something like “The reason the American Army does so well in wartime is because war is chaos and they practice it on a daily basis.” This game captures a nice chunk of chaos, and at a fairly manageable level.

One of the things I like is the pacing of the game. Even ATS pesters me a little in this regard – everything happens too quickly and unfolds too cinematically (although that can be fun as well). In the few games of CC I’ve played so far, the pace feels more realistic. Movement comes in fits and starts. You’re rewarded for using your leadership well. Or, more to the point, penalized for using it poorly. If you don’t keep your leaders in a position to activate multiple units when a Move order is played, then your guys just aren’t going to go anywhere.

Nobody gets as many Move orders as they’d like. All of the Fate decks (one for each nationality) have many more Fire orders. The end result is a game narrative that ‘looks’ right. Grunts in combat don’t typically sprint around the battlefield in sneakers, because they know that moving targets attract more attention. So you try to use Move orders to get your guys quickly from one good position to the next, while simultaneously trying to keep them set up to use fire groups for maximum impact. Closing with a defended position takes a mixture of boldness, planning and patience. In that respect it reminds me of PanzerGrenadier.

Combat Commander is doubly interesting for me because I never thought I’d enjoy a ‘Card Driven Game’ quite this much. Truthfully, it was almost a moment of insanity when I pre-ordered it. I’ve tried several CDGs and the only one of the bunch I’ve really enjoyed is Twilight Struggle. I was quite disappointed with both For The People and Barbarossa to Berlin. Paths of Glory seems more carefully crafted, and is enjoyable enough that I’ve still got it.

In the ‘standard’ CDG methodology, it’s that disconnect between Operations and Events – the ‘fallacy of the false decision’ – that chaps my butt. That effect is completely absent from Combat Commander. In Twilight Struggle, the card mechanism doesn’t necessarily produce the effect because the “Operations” and “Events” are both so abstract to begin with. In CC, that type of decision cycle doesn’t exist at all.

More on this game as we go along.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Apprenticed to a pi-rate...

So how old was Horatio Nelson when he first went to sea? I'm willing to bet he was at least a shade older than 21 months.

Not that I anticipate it will lead to any kind of sea-faring career, but this past week we bundled up the Toddler of Mass Destruction and dragged him off across the bounding main for a Royal Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas.

Sunshine, salt air and the usual over-abundance of cruise ship victuals. In the photo above, my young sailor and I lounge about on the deck of the SS Sovereign of the Seas while she lay at anchor off of the cruise line's party island of Cococay. He was extremely interested in the dinosaur flashlight he'd acquired eariler in the day during some kids' activties.

He had a blast. We had a blast. Probably another cruise of some sort in our future.

Here's a health to the company, etc.

Friday, January 12, 2007

I am legion

There are this many of me as “Matthew”
LogoThere are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

And this many of me as plain ol’ “Matt”
LogoThere are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Not counting all of my cousins near Pikeville, of which there are no electronic records (of course).

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I may be a fat guy, but this is ridiculous

We got back Monday from a 3-night cruise to the Bahamas. Now I know I’m not the lean, green fighting machine of my distant and misspent youth – but keeeee-riiiiist there were some monumental porkers waddling around that boat. They made me look like an Italian runway model.

Not just waddling around. Waddling around clad only in thin strips of Speedo. Over the years I have become inured to many unpleasant sights, but I dared not venture onto the pool deck for fear of an uncontrollable urge to pluck out my own eyes and roll around screaming on the deck.

Imagine, if you will, a large group of these scantily clad, blubbery lumps completely tanked on bad American beer and trying to line dance to the shrill exhortations of the ship’s Official Director of Drunken Activities.

The horror. The horror.

Note to aspiring maritime architects: There is a reason why the swimming pools on cruise ships are always placed abaft the bridge. Cruise lines place a high priority on maintaining the sanity of their bridge crews.

A deck attendant mentioned to me that he was employed on a five-month contract. I suspect this is because science has ascertained five months is the maximum exposure to such sights that an otherwise sane man may tolerate without sustaining permanent mental disability.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Return of the Blog

Don’t you just hate it when a blog goes ‘dark’ for an extended period of time? Yeah, me too. Does the blogger get lazy? Does his brain wink out? Does he forget his username and password? What’s the deal?

Not that I’m under the (mistaken) impression that throngs of readers hang on my every word. But some times real life has a way of intervening and getting in the way of our best intentions. Work gets hectic. Life gets hectic (and, unfortunately, painfully unpleasant at times).

But the show must go on. To that end, I am determined to post to this blog more diligently this year. I don’t ‘do’ New Year’s resolutions – but at the beginning of each new year, I do engage in a bit of goal setting. One of my goals for this year is to be a better-behaved – or more regular, at any rate – blogger. I hope to at least improve upon my recent record of a very quiet three months without comment.