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.