Friday, October 31, 2008

Distraction 4: Memories

Three years ago today – Halloween 2005 – my wife and I, along with our newly-adopted son, found ourselves sitting in the lobby of the US Embassy in Guatemala City. The issue at hand was the approval of our son’s visa, which would finally allow him to travel home with us.

Earlier in the day we had completed the last bits of paperwork and tendered final payment for the processing of our son’s immigration packet – a receipt hastily scribbled on note paper said as much. We were all a bit aggravated and apprehensive because the embassy employees seemed to being devoting much more time to decorating for a Halloween party than they were to anything else. In fact during our adoption process we had encountered enough seemingly random embassy re-scheduling that I firmly believed they were going to chase us all out and close for the party before issuing our visa – which would have really been a problem because it was a Friday and our flight home was scheduled the following day.

It’s difficult to join in the merriment or laugh at people in silly costumes when your main thought is that they’re screwing off instead of helping you get your child back home to America.

Can I have a moment to be grumpy? Thanks.

Over the last couple of years I know that immigration has been a hot topic for political discussion. Here’s the deal: If you have never been through the process of dealing with US Immigraton – please shut right the hell up, because you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

Just in case you think a US Embassy is a shining beacon of freedom and democracy to both citizens and those wishing to legally become citizens, I’ve got a little reality check for you. A US Embassy is a fortress of bureaucracy, surrounded by razor wire, full of bureaucrats, working on their own schedule to do whatever suits them whenever they choose to do it. Period.

The only embassies that get US Marine guards are the ‘prestige’ embassies and those in the movies. The rest of them get locally-hired, unfriendly, unhelpful, shotgun-toting Whackenhut security guards who think nothing of keeping a mother and her 7-month old infant standing in the rain for an hour at 8 in the morning.

On the whole, our process was easy compared to what the average immigration applicant from Guatemala endured. It only took us about 5 months of dealing with the Guatemalan and US governments to bring our son home. You want to know why so many people resort to illegal immigration? How about this: An embassy waiting room full of families dressed up in their finest clothes, ready for the 5-minute immigration interview that they have been waiting TEN YEARS to get.

Is that a no-shit, life-changing moment? You’re a skilled worker and this is your one shot to immigrate with your family to a country where you can find a decent job and make a living for them. Good luck, screwhead. Hope you don’t blow the interview or catch your immigration agent on one of those ‘headache’ days.

Whatever happened to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”? See, the crap you get taught in school isn’t always the way the real world works. I probably wouldn’t be such a lefty on the topic, except that I understand that Guatemala is one of those central American countries that we’ve screwed with (just for fun) for over 50 years, sucking away their resources and wrecking their economy.

Anyway, it seemed a minor miracle at the time – but the embassy issued our son’s visa that afternoon. I’d like to think it was just an efficient moment, but I also know that a coordinated phone-call campaign from family back home had generated ‘concerned faxes’ from the offices of our US Representative AND one of Florida’s US Senators. Never hurts to twang the strings of power every once in a while.

Democracy in action, right?

So. Forgive me if I have a slightly different attitude toward Halloween than a lot of other people. It’s a day of special memories for our family – and a day that serves to remind me how much better America can become.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Distraction 3: Kiev-to-Rostov

Barbarossa: Kiev to Rostov landed in the swamp toward the end of last week. I ordered it on P500 from GMT some time ago, so I was happy to see it finally arrive.

Eastern Front games typically rate high on my list of favorites. War for the Motherland/Red Star Rising tops them all, I think, but various PanzerGrenadier and ATS modules set amidst the titanic struggle aren’t far behind. Other favorites from the period include GMT’s Ukraine ’43 and most of the East Front games in the Operational Combat Series (MMP/The Gamers).

I have all of the games in the EFS, with the exception of Typhoon (which was more of a fore-runner to the ‘series’). It’s been a couple of years since I’ve messed with any of them (Army Group North most recently) so picking up on all of the changes to the rules isn’t that difficult because I basically don’t remember any of the ‘old’ rules. One of the advantages of being an old, bald guy I suppose.

While the series is built around a map scale similar to OCS (5 miles per hex), there are few similarities beyond that. I find it rather interesting to play both systems and compare the different treatments given to operational combat in the same theater at the same ground scale.

EFS has a number of mechanisms that are slightly more abstract, which means it plays a bit more quickly on the tabletop (or in Cyberboard, whatever). What it sacrifices is flexibility. The system is highly tailored to the situation found at the opening of the war on the eastern front. The sequence of play is assymetrical and favors coordination on the part of the Germans, while it also imposes headquarters-bound restraints on the Soviets that their counterparts do not face.

OCS, on the other hand, is a system flexible enough to be used across theaters and time-frames – although it can get a bit complicated in spots. I also happen to believe that OCS works best for the games set on the eastern front and begins to break down a little bit when applied to theaters with either low density or high positional attrition.

But my point today isn’t to compare the two systems. I really just want to observe and report that Kiev-to-Rostov appears to be a worthy addition to the series. Half a bazillion counters and four well-done maps continue eastward with the action from Army Group South. The box also includes a couple of ‘mini’ maps printed on cardstock that reproduce small slices of the main maps for use with the game’s introductory scenarios.

I want to dwell for a moment on the mini-maps. It’s a concept that I can’t praise highly enough. It’s a single 8.5 x 11 inch bit of cardstock, each side printed with a different mini-map AND the setup charts needed to play the scenario. The scenarios cover fairly small areas, use small forces and are 3-4 turns long. The mini-maps couldn’t make setup or gameplay any simpler. They seem the perfect setting for a manageable introduction to a fairly complex, sprawling game system.

Maybe in future ‘monster’ games we’ll see some more of the same. Hope springs eternal, etc.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Distraction 2: Arctic Front Deluxe

PanzerGrenadier: Arctic Front Deluxe is an upgrade of APL’s earlier Arctic Front supplement for the system. It’s pretty much a given that anything game-related with ‘Deluxe’ in the title is a re-make of something.

I have the original Arctic Front supplement, but the ‘Deluxe’ version certainly appears to be well-worth the $15 I paid for it. It includes more scenarios than the first version (and all of them are tooled for the new mappage), bigger scenarios and two identical half-sheets of counters for the Finns.

This supplement appears much more accessible than East of Suez, primarily because it doesn’t require ownership of a $200 monster game. Most of the scenarios can be played with ownership of only East Front Deluxe, the system’s core game. Scenarios range from small 1-mappers to several 4-mappers with lots of counters.

All three main episodes of Finnish involvement in the war are represented. Scenarios cover the Winter War, what the Finns call the Continuation War and the final fighting in Finland in 1944 (both against the Soviets initially, then against the Germans in a few instances).

The scenarios set in the different ‘episodes’ provide an interesting view of the progression of the Soviet army through the war years. The Finns are fairly consistent throughout the course of the war – skilled, motivated, well-led but always short on heavy hardware. The Soviets, however, change considerably over the course of the module’s scenarios.

In the Winter War, they are stumbling goobs with low-average morale and a dearth of leadership – certainly not well-suited to offensive operations in strange territory. The Continuation War sees their troops become a bit more motivated (and on the defensive), but leadership is still weak and it’s still obviously a bastard theater of operations with low priority for the good hardware. Then fast-forward to the Soviet offensives in 1944 that convinced Finland to seek an armistace. The Soviet formations involved in the attacks weren’t the tip of the Red Army’s spear (it was still sort of a bastard theater), but the troops are better, leadership is more plentiful and considerably improved and they bring a good deal of nasty hardware to the battle. It’s easy to see how the Finns were initially overwhelmed during the opening days of the offensive.

Historical commentary in the supplement is less plentiful than it is in East of Suez. More space is devoted to the scenarios. Still, you can read the historical notes and come to a good understanding of the underpinnings of the Finnish army and find a good basic primer on Finland’s military involvements during the war years.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Distraction 1: East of Suez

To kick off this little ‘interruption’ thread – in which I will chronicle my holiday-season game-buying madness – I’ll note that my little order from Bunker Hill Games arrived yesterday.

In response to the owner’s “help me stay in business” posting, I ordered a couple of APL game supplements. Stuff I’ve been putting off because while interesting, they weren’t eating in a hole in my brain. But since John at Bunker Hill has always done an excellent job by me over the years, I thought I should kick in a little something, even if I didn’t want to spring for a ‘boxed’ title.

So I got both PG: Arctic Front Deluxe and SWWAS: East of Suez. I cracked into the naval book last night as I sat grumping about the rain-soaked World Series baseball game (which should never have started in that crummy weather, BTW).

East of Suez is a very nice supplement with two half-sheets of counters – mostly British, but some Dutch, Japanese and various others mixed in. The first thing about it that hit me, though, was that it seems a lot of effort for something that’s actually kind of dopey. By that I mean none of the scenarios in the book are playable unless you own SWWAS: Leyte Gulf.

I don’t know what sales of Leyte have been, but I can’t help but wonder if they didn’t print more supplements than they did monster games. I imagine a number of guys don’t care – they just want to fondle the counters and see the stats – but at the very least it had to be something of a trap for retailers. I couldn’t help but notice that Bunker Hill (he posts stock levels in his item details) had 43 of the damned supplements in stock. I’ll bet he hasn’t sold that many copies of Leyte, and I notice he has just 1 copy of the monster in stock (at $175).

Count me as one of the zany bunch who bought Leyte Gulf (at some or another terrific discount during one of APL’s big sales). So for me, nearly everything in the supplement is playable (except anything requiring Strike South, which I don’t have).

Anyway, it reads like a supplement that the boss wanted to print (as opposed to one that marketing wanted to sell). Some very nice historical articles, including probably the most extensive discussion of the Dutch navy that I think I’ve ever seen in a wargame. A number of large-ish operational scenarios that span a range from ‘really happened’ to ‘almost happened’ to ‘Churchill’s wet dreams’.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Addiction: The Marines have landed

Monday night I continued to thrash around in the throes of the tabletop addiction by reading through my just-arrived copy of the new WH40k 5th Edition Space Marine codex. Naturally, I’ve got some observations.

First, I have to say that the three initial publications under 5th Edition (which I’ll call 5E from now on) are taking the game’s resources in an interesting direction. The new rulebook, the Black Reach ‘Getting Started’ book and the 5E Marine codex all contain quite a bit of ‘fluff’, or background for the 40k universe. That’s not a bad thing, but notable nevertheless.

The new codex, in fact, is very fluff-heavy. It’s 144 pages, but the unit descriptions, stats and the army list – the ‘hard’ info in the codex – takes up less space than it did in the 4E Marine codex.

The change is primarily due to the elimination of 4E’s ‘chapter variations’ – which gave SM players the ability to create ‘custom’ armies based on a set of give-and-take options. You could, for example, select options that allowed your squads to take a second assault weapon (instead of a heavy weapon), balanced by a negative option (for example) that eliminated an Elite slot from their force organization. [Note: That’s an outta-my-butt example because I don’t have the 4E codex handy and I never used the deviations anyway. So don’t go digging through the book to check my work, geek.]

I don’t hang around any of the 40k forums on Teh Intrarwebs, but I imagine the deviations have been eliminated for the sake of clarity and sanity. I think they increased the pre-game, rules-related fiddle factor and likely drove more than one tournament organizer to the edge of insanity. Eliminating the rules-based deviations puts home-grown chapter creation back where it belongs – in the player’s imagination – and returns more focus to tabletop play.

Eliminating the deviations doesn’t mean all Marine forces will now look alike, however. The codex is far from being a straightjacket for “Codex Chapters”. A quick look through the unit descriptions and various tables shows that there are now more unit types available to Marine players, and that each of those unit types now has more ‘gear’ options than were previously available.

I’ll shortly be busting into my bitz box, for example, to arm both of my Assault Squads with the newly-available flamer option. Stompy squads with a 12-inch move AND a template weapon? Got to git me summa dat.

From what I’ve read in it so far, I like the new 5E codex a lot. Its content bodes well for the notion of increasing focus on the tabletop. Future codices (for other factions) will likely follow the same pattern. I’d bet that the concept of ‘Doctrines’ introduced in the 4E Imperial Guard codex will get the chop.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Holla to the addiction

Out of the Wrapper: “Assault on Black Reach”, the new ‘starter’ box set for Warhammer 40k. GW obviously still understand the art of peddling their tabletop addiction because they’ve created a very clever lure for the unwary gamer. It’s a box chock-full of Plastic Crack.

MSRP is $60. That’s pricier (by $10, IIRC) than the previous starter box (“Battle for Macragge) – but for the money it provides a much broader look into how the game plays. In fact, it’s interesting to compare the different approaches taken by the two sets.

The 4th Edition starter box, Battle for Macragge, contained only enough figures to build a couple of small ‘demo’ forces. 10 Space Marines and a pilot (who is more of an objective than anything else) compose one force. They contest the field against a minor swarm of Tyranids: 10 gaunts, 6 genestealers and 8 spore mines. The plastic in the box was rounded out by a nice ‘crashed shuttle’ piece of terrain and a few flimsy doodads the Marines use as an electronic fence of sorts. The set also includes a small-format rulebook (with just rules, no fluff), a Getting Started booklet, dice and templates.

The new 5th Edition starter includes enough figures to build a couple of forces that are more along the lines of real ‘starter’ armies. There’s the ubiquitous 10-man Space Marine tactical squad, but it includes a Veteran Sergeant figure. The Marines also get a Captain (independent character), a 5-man squad of Terminators and a Dreadnought (walker-vehicle). Their opponents are a force of Orks: a Warboss (independent character), 20 boyz, 5 nobz and a squadron of three Deffkopters (vehicles). Plus the same furniture as the Macragge set – including a stripped-down rule book (5th Edition, of course).

Black Reach packs a lot more plastic into the box, and the Getting Started booklet takes a completely different approach. The Macragge booklet presented several scenarios that form a narrative and bring in various rules complexities as they progress, almost a ‘programmed’ approach. It’s simple infantry-on-infantry fare – but it is an instructional approach. That said, once you got past those intro scenarios you didn’t have much of an army in hand to play anything else.

The Black Reach intro book is descriptive but it lacks the scenario-based ‘game’ content. It contains information about the figures and how they relate to their game statistics, how to paint them, how a typical game sets up and lots of fluff on the 40k setting in general. But the only thing that approaches a ‘scenario’ is basically a diagram (albeit a very nice diagram) of how to set up some Marines and Orks 12 inches apart with the encouragement to have a go at it. Oh, and buy the army codices to discover the special rules and buy the full rulebook to read about the different scenario setups.

I would like to have seen a couple of scenarios in the Black Reach booklet because the rest of the ‘Getting Started’ content is quite appealing. If you’re brand-new to figure gaming, however, it does leave you casting about a bit for what to do ‘next’.

Generally, though, the Black Reach box set is far superior to its predecessor as a starter kit. Not only are the forces included more robust, but the figures themselves are well done. The sculpts on the Marines and Orks are more lively (the sculpts on the Macragge Marines reminded me a lot of the clone-like figures that came in the 2nd Edition box). Even more of a surprise, the vehicles almost – almost – fit together. You don’t have to be an expert with modeling putty in order to build a credible Dreaddie.

I also give credit to GW for using ‘basic’ factions for BOTH starter box armies. Space Marines vs. Orks are one of 40k’s classic matchups. A Space Marine tac squad (with flamer and missile launcher) has appeared in each starter box from 2nd edition on out. 2nd edition’s starter also featured Orks (and Grots) – but the ‘OPFOR’ selections for 3rd and 4th editions were both marketing misfires, IMHO. 3rd edition’s boxed starter included the newly-introduced Dark Eldar. Unfortunately, the Dark Eldar were (and remain) a ‘finesse’ faction that’s difficult for beginners to handle. The Tyranids in 4th edition’s Macragge box are also a specialty faction which, in addition to everything else, require some skill to paint up properly.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Elsenborn Ridge: Getting started

After getting the last of counters for Elsenborn Ridge trimmed out last night, I bulldozed around the scenario book for a smallish scenario to start in with. I settled on scenario 9, called “St. Vith: First Probe.” The Germans have an infantry battalion supported by an assault gun company – 6 x GREN, 3 x ENG, 3 x StuIIIG. Their job is to push the initial American defense completely off the east-west road that crosses the map through the town. The Americans start with the divisional cavalry squadron of the 7th Armored Division - 3 x INF, 3 x M3 (halftracks), 3 x M8 (armored cars). Random American reinforcements arrive at some point, consisting of a company of Shermans from 7th Armored – 3 x M4.

It’s interesting in that at the beginning of the scenario, the Americans have no answer to the German Stugs. The M8 armored cars have an A-T attack of 2, the Stugs’ armor is 4. Absent a cross-fire modifier, that’s pretty hopeless. And, of course, being armored cars the M8s have puny armor.

The scenario is set on Map 24, inverted. There’s a big blop of woods to the north, a fairly good size town (maybe 8 or 9 town hexes) just above the fold and a 1-hex town sitting on a ridge to the south. The large town (St. Vith, I guess) has both east-west and north-south roads running through it.

The US deploys anywhere in towns or on hills, or anywhere else on or west of the north-south road. The Germans enter from the east edge of the map, which means they’ve got maybe 6 hexes of open terrain to cross to get at the town.

I think the armored cav will be best served by hiding in the town and whacking the German grunts with artillery as they approach the town. The US has a decent amount of artillery considerring the size of the forces involved – 1 x 24, 3 x 18 – while the Germans counter with 2 x 16. Leadership is 1 x CAPT, 1 x LT for the US and 1 x CAP, 2 x LT for the Germans.

The Americans generally get a LOT of artillery in this game. In some of the scenarios set later in the battle, they also benefit from the introduction of V-T proximity fuzing – which gives all US artillery an automatic 3-column bonus shift against infantry in the open. That’s a shift in addition to anything else. My St. Vith scenario doesn’t use the rule, but it’s something that looks like it could be pretty devastating against a careless German player.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Logic in short supply around here

Nothing follows a logical sequence in my world. And that includes this blog. So here’s the perfect sequel to September’s out-of-the-zippy post concerning ATS Dien Bien Phu.

I’m not playing it right now. Bwahahahaha. It’s my table and I can do what I want.

Since last we met there have been, in no particular order: Sinus infection, vacation cruise, a couple of games of Day of Heroes and the extreme baseball distraction of the Rays winning their division and advancing in the playoffs.

In the middle of all of that, I lost the urge for more squad-level gaming – finding it replaced by the urge for some platoon-level gaming. Therefore, I am now in the middle of punching and trimming the counters for PanzerGrenadier: Bulge II Elsenborn Ridge.

Last week was consumed by a 5-night cruise that hit highlights in Key West, Cozumel and Belize City. I took along a few bits of wargaming rulebookishness to peruse during the trip, but of course I didn’t touch any of it. That I even bother to lug the stuff along is proof indeed that ‘hope springs eternal’ . That was our fifth cruise. Every time we cruise I lug along game reading. Never have I struck a lick at any of it. Duh. Still, it’s better to travel prepared. You just never know when you’ll need to look up something in the rule book for ASL SK-3.