Monday, 12 October 2015

Spiel Essen 2015: I came, I saw...

This year's visit to Spiel was the most relaxed and pleasant in years. I hadn't prepared much, I didn't tweet and I didn't feel the need nor urge to play reporter. This meant that I chose my own path rather than to check out what might be hot. My list of games that might prove interesting was even slightly shorter than before. It may also have helped that we went home after the second day which saved us a lot of fuss in buying and preparing games for the second night and third day. 

Tomorrow I'll go into the stuff we played, but let's kick off with the stuff I only saw. Very much first impressions!

  • Peeked at Shakespeare, but it looked like any Ystari solo puzzle. Nippon looked good, but also felt more like a puzzle, although I am open to be convinced otherwise.
  • Bloody Inn and Scythe looked promising, but I didn’t get round to trying it or having it explained.
  • I got Euro Crisis explained to me and it really sounds like a good game with the appropriate level of cynicism. As an international bank your goal in the game is to buy up as many national assets (the Akropolis of course!) as possible.
  • I didn’t see Churchill of Triumph & Tragedy played, but they look like a lot of work to get in to.
  • Waterloo: Enemy Mistakes came across like yet another tactical hex & counter game about the battle, with a hefty price tag attached. On the other hand W1815 provides the essentials in a 15 minute game with a refreshing new approach.
  • Lembitu is a cooperative challenge, but the fact that it was advertised on the strength that the wife of the designer was so good at it because she is a mathematician put me off.
  • Celestia is beautiful, but I already had my fix of kids games by the time I saw it
  • Had a quick look at Haspelknecht, which seems fine.
  • Sapiens has some interesting ideas, but the design seems to suggest it’s a kids game. I don’t think that’s the target audience.
  • Bad Medicine is a party game which is more about smooth talking. But the fact that you are a marketer for a major medicine corporation gets you in the right mood.
  • I think I would like Raptor, but too bad it’s two players only
  • Fabulous Beasts was being demoed and looked okay, but I felt the addition of a tablet didn’t fulfil its potential.
  • I was looking forward to the Age of Conan expansion, hoping that it would somehow breathe new life into the game. It was not available for demoing, but it seems to include a number of new miniatures, which were on display
It also dawned on me this time why East Asian designers are unable to conquer the European market on their own. We played a couple of turns of the disappointing Generalship, which remained stuck in abstractions and a generic game board without much added value.

And I would have been happy to buy Tank Hunter on a hunch if vital rules text on some cards hadn’t been in Japanese. To add a sheet of white stickers, which ruin the visual design, is not a solution.

The most promising was the medieval zombie game by the very friendly guys from Hong Kong, which was a whole lot of fuss in the wrong areas. There is no lack of talent and interesting takes on interesting themes, that much is clear, but so far only western editions of East Asian games have been successful.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

From The Vault Of History

Yesterday I had my first public talk as a result of the Waterloo book. I’d done a sort of interview for a historical society in September, but this was my first one that I needed to prepare for. I had decided that I wouldn’t summarise the book as everyone should read it, and that the talk needed a different approach, giving added value.

I had been invited to cover for my friend and co-author at a famous Rotterdam book store, where I often used to go in my school days. So that was an added bonus. The location was really interesting, in the vault of an old bank building where the book shop is housed temporarily. It really added to the historic atmosphere.

There were about thirty people in the audience, mostly above retirement age. The atmosphere was pleasant from the start and I got off to a good start by introducing a picture of a group of youngsters from Rotterdam, recreating the battle in uniform for the jubilee in 1865. That was my handle for explaining that the memory of Waterloo was alive in the Netherlands long after the battle. In fact, Waterloo day was commemorated up to the Second World War. I then elaborated on commemoration in other countries and up to 2015.

I then used Prussia as the story to explain the wider context of the battle. The picture below of king Friedrich Wilhelm III shows how deeply the confidence of even the most powerful monarchs in Europe was shaken by Napoleon, and therefore why they were determined never to let him be that kind of threat again. Then the reforms, 1813 and finishing of with Blücher in 1815.

Blücher was also the introduction to the challenge of being in command of an army (see my original blog post). Of course everybody was interesting in what sex had to do with it. Napoleon’s  troubles with his marshals and what that meant for him politically and militarily rounded off my talk.

I spoke longer than I had intended (an important lesson), but the crowd joined in early on and the questions were very good, ranging from those who definitely knew their Napoleon from their Napoleon III and those who only had their history lessons to fall back on. 

Considering that about a third of the audience then came up with a book to sign or ask further questions, I guess the talk was reasonably successful, also for the book shop. Now hopefully this will result more invitations.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Essen 2014 Roundup - Marchia Orientalis

With Essen nearing and the Essen 2014 list still not complete, in August I managed to slip in a game of Marchia Orientalis, or the Ostmark as the Germans would say these days. The Ostmark was on of the eastern border provinces of the medieval German empire, won at great cost from the Slav population. At Essen I bought the game based on the theme and the low price, considering that even if I didn’t know beforehand what the game would be like, at least I wouldn’t suffer much.

And while this not a bad game, it is also not very good. The low production values that result from the low price aren’t really a problem. The problem is that this game reuses mechanisms from other games, without adding anything interesting. There’s tile laying, with limitations on connecting tiles for which there are then some exceptions. There’s a central market, and some competition for different tiles, but in the end the amount of interaction is low. Worst of all is of course that it has nothing to do with the border struggles Middle Ages. The theme is just stuck on a bunch of mechanisms.

I’ll spare you the details of the rules. Suffice to say that there is an interesting puzzle in there which Gerard managed to maximize. I felt sorry a bit for Rob who had decided straight away that this was game was not worth his time. His plan to sabotage the game was foiled and the variable game ending drove the game to the extreme. But then again, I occasionally sacrifice myself in similar circumstances because others seem to enjoy a game.

The evening was not lost, however. Before and after Marchia Orientalis we played Port Royal, a simple card game that let’s you gamble on drawing a pirate ship type twice. On your turn you keep drawing cards from the deck until that event occurs, or you choose to stop yourself. You can then pick one of the cards and sell it for money or buy it for its special option. The whole game hinges on balancing your need for money, your long term strategy and opportunism. Surprisingly deep for 100+ cards and nothing else. And partially because of the gambling element, a lot of fun too. Recommended.

Anyway, Essen 2015 is on the doorstep and still one more to go. Problem is, it’s a four player game and we didn't have four players on any occasion in the last months. A luxury! So if that’s the reason why I won’t fulfill Essen 2014, well…

Monday, 5 October 2015

Essen 2015 - What I Will Be Checking Out

Okay people,

I got my BoardgameGeeklist of interesting games ready for Spiel this year.

There's a couple of games with interesting (historical) themes: 1714: Case of the Catalans, Apollo XIII, Bloody Inn, Churchill, DRCongo, Foreign King, Germania Magna, Lembitu, Manifest, Nippon,  Race to Berlin, SchinderhannesTesla vs EdisonThunderbirds, Trenches of Hell, Triumph & Tragedy, Waterloo: Enemy Mistakes, €uro Crisis,

A few from designers that I keep an eye on: RaptorPax Pamir, Ships,

Some expansions for games I already have (or other guys in my game group): Age of Conan, Concordia: Salsa, Metro 2033,

Some games which I have heard positive things about and wish to check: Agents of SMERSH, Arctic Scavengers, Battle at Kemble's Cascade, Luchador, Space Cadets,

Stuff that the kids might like (and me!), or some friends: Celestia, Flock, Tank Hunter, Tiger Leader,

Games that attracted my attention for no clear reason: Bad Medicine, Dogs of War, La Glace et le Ciel, Haspelknecht, Predator deck builder, Raid & Trade, Sapiens, Scythe, Shakespeare.

Not all of my interest is serious, and quite a few of them could easily be rubbish or good but not brilliant. However, at least some of this should appeal. Especially not too sure about the games on display for crowdfunding, but I think it is a great development that people can actually try out these games. Too many kickstarters have been sold on theme and juicy bits alone. I'm not sure that many of them have actually made much of an impression in terms of gameplay.

Last year there were a couple of games that were cheap and I bought on a hunch. Not too impressed with most of them, so I might not do that again. On the other hand, I like to have a game ready to play on Thursday night. So some simple game will probably be bought, but I hope to have a better idea of what it will be like.

Only three more nights before the fun starts. I just hope I can sleep!

Essen 2014 roundup - 15 Dias

Well, only a few days left before Essen. As in the last few years, I'm trying to play all the games I bought at Essen before the next issue. A few of these games we managed to play right after the show (Lost Legacy: Starship, Unicum and Auge um Auge. We also had fun with Mat Goceng, Lost Legacy: Flying Garden and Verone.

In July I managed to play 15 Dias. We had six players (it needs an even number from 2 to 8). The game takes the power struggle between the Lerma and Olivares clans on the death of Spanish king Philip III as its starting point. It is quite a complex game for the number of cards involved, and it has a pretty steep learning curve.

The good thing is that it pits two teams (families) against each other, but that players also score individually. So there is an incentive not to use your best cards in the interest of the team.

It also makes both families decide on which type of power they want to contest the other family: through church, bureaucratic or court offices. Hopefully the choice you make is your strongest and your opponents' weakest, but you can't count on it. The third option is then used to decide the contest between individual players. Those good cards you would have liked to spend on your own advancement might therefore be necessary to support the family.

It was a good night that also included Mat Goceng, Love Letter and 8 Minute Empires.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Miniature painting projects for last part of 2015

I promised myself two small painting projects for the 2nd half of 2015. I had already compiled a short list of possible projects in the early part of the year.

And then by chance I started off on the 1815 Prussians for the Battle of Waterloo, a game that was put on for the end of August. Somebody put a few batallions up for sale in May and I decided to buy them, including some unpainted stuff, adding up to two batallions of Landwehr. It was a pretty tough job finishing in time for that, but as always a deadline helps.

I've managed to resist the temptation of buying more unpainted lead/plastic, because once this deadline's gone, there's not much chance of me painting it. I bought a bunch of painted limbers and guns and staff officers was offered by someone at the club. Good buy, but it also included a bag of unpainted cuirassiers...

The good thing is that I felt so happy about painting that I picked up another tiny project last Monday, spraying a base coat and putting on three colours on a set of six medieval monks useful for either Dux Brittanniarum or SAGA. And then some more work this weekend! Pretty easy to paint and limited detail, which is good to keep momentum going!

So what after this short project? This is what I'm thinking off:
  • Finish the vehicles for my American WWII Chain of Command force. It will be a bit of glueing, and not too much painting. Mostly spray painting and finishing. It's good to finish a project!
  • Scenery for Dark Ages which will be useful for either Dux Brittanniarum or SAGA

More distant and ambitious projects:

  • Muskets and Tomahawks. I've got Indians, French and Americans, so I can try both French & Indian Wars and American War of Independence. M&T doesn't require many troops, so doable. With an added Maroon project stemming from my interest in slavery in the West Indies. There's also this big project a number of people are starting for a big AWI battle day...
  • I've got loads of Fantasy stuff lying around for some vague project. goblins, skaven, an unfinished batch of bats, and loads more. Tempting. I might also join in the Frostgrave fun, which doesn't require a lot of figures, but with the risk of buying their plastic soldiers set, which will make excellent adventurers...
  • Normans. I bought a good sized army but half of it only in base coating. It's already enough for what I intended with them (SAGA), but finishing the force would give a feeling of completion. It does however pose questions about matching the quality and style of the miniatures already finished. That will be very hard
  • Vikings and Late Saxons. I've got two Gripping Beast boxes of plastics which with some army painter treatment might finish in good time.
  • Welsh. I've got this Welsh starter army for SAGA which can also be used against the Saxons. And Picts. And Normans. And Vikings. And Late Saxons.
  • Samurai and fantasy Japanese. Some lovely stuff from the Indiegogo, and some buildings. It's just that my painting technique is not good enough to do it justice

Oh well... I can still try to get somebody else to paint some of this stuff, which is what I decided on two years ago.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Big Battles, Big Challenges

So last Saturday I could reap the fruits of my hard work on a Landwehr battallion! A very well organised day, with a lavish lunch, good company and a feast for the eyes. It was clear that more talented painters than I had spent more time on building their armies. Mine were swamped a bit, but at least gave a good account of themselves, especially the Jäger.

My Landwehr joining the fray, but outpaced by cavalry

I am very grateful to the guys who made it possible: Patrick for organising, Erwin for writing the scenarios (with a little help), Jelle for selling his troops to me and Peter for lending part of his troops to me for the day.

Black Powder didn't disappoint. After 8 turns, which took us close to 6 hours to play, the Prussian troops had hardly entered Plancenoit. So instead of sweeping changes in the tide of battle, as in 1815, is was now a overloaded table with troops queuing whilst those at the front waited for the dice to roll their way. It made me wonder whether the BP guys that wrote the scenario actually playtested it.

Turn 2: You are almost in Plancenoit!

It's good to have some disorganisation, but you can just expect a 2D6 command roll to fail 4 out of 10 rolls if you rating is 8 and you need to roll that or lower. Which hamstrings most of your commands needlessly and raises frustration similarly. If that happens a couple of times of your 8 turns you play, well...

"This is why I don't play toy soldier games any more" a wise man once said...

Beautiful La Haye Sainte Model

On the other three tables they were able to (just about) finish their scenarios in time, but I have no idea whether those games felt historical. Then again, that was not the issue of the day. It was an excuse to paint miniatures and have a nice chat. Both those aims were achieved. I might be tempted to join the project next year if it helps me engage my American War of Independence miniatures. I might even pretend to play Black Powder.

Hougoumont holds out

Some day I will write the ultimate book on how Big Battles should be fought in miniature, but I'll just start with a few rules I've picked up over the years:

  • Rules. Most commercial rules are too complex for big battles. Too many exceptions, too much waiting for other players. But you don't need complex rules with lots of chance (i.e. dice rolls): the decisions of generals should play the main role. So use only the barest minimum of rules
  • Amount of troops. Limit this to about 7 units per player. More than that will mean they have to resolve combat with more than one player which slows resolution down. It also puts a lot of pressure on one player while others sit idly waiting for their troops to enter the table.
  • Time pressure. The big battles I have participated in which gave the most excitement and sense of fulfilment were those with a pretty sharp turn sequence mercilessly enforced by the umpires.
  • Hierarchy. Have commanders and sub commanders. In a tightly run battle, the challenge of command and control is at least as interesting as that of shoving units and rolling dice. It also gives the players the sense of being part of a bigger event.
  • Umpires. Last Saturday was a very pleasant occasion, and rules arguments were few and readily solved. But be prepared for rules lawyers and have umpires to decide calls quickly. The game needs to move on. Also, make sure the umpires have the same interpretation or else the space between them will be exploited by competitive players. Umpires are also very useful in keeping the game moving

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Phases of a Miniature Painting Project

Tomorrow I will be participating in one of four simultaneous battles from the Waterloo campaign. Slight problem is that the rules will be Black Powder for which I have little love, or any ruleset of its ilk. I go there to meet some really nice people. And because I bought a bunch of figures. Which has become a bit of a circular argument.

As I progressed with the painting last weekend, I started to recognise a number of phases in my painting. Whilst I have enjoyed preparing the miniatures and spray painting them, the painting itself became increasingly discouraging. Trying to follow the Army Painter philosophy you should refrain as much as possible from highlighting. I did a few highlights in blue, put a layer of light gray under the white trousers. Once I got to the white leatherwork, the many mistakes started to get me down. Although I persevered in the belief that Army Painter dip would solve all my problems, my religion was sorely tested when a came to the piping of the Landwehr field caps.

My hand may have been less steady, or I was starting to get irritated by not being able to reach the miniatures as easily when individually mounted. I was disappointed in the result and I resolved to go over all the caps again to redress the mistakes. I went over most colours. That made me feel better, but it also required extra time.

But what a difference the army painter dip made. It is very forgiving! By this time I was pretty happy with the look of the miniatures. The hardest part still had to come: basing them. I got a lot of useful suggestions from my facebook friend at Dutch Miniature Wargames, but I was being stupid and didn't have the right tools to hand for applying the plaster, but when I improved a sort of plastic spatula my aggression levels dropped off a bit.

I still believe that basing is the worst kind of job and psychologically at the toughest time in the process as you try to finish the project in time. I also am happy to go on record to say that re-basing miniatures is of the devil and a clean waste of time. No ruleset is worth that kind of shit.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Finding Arthur

Somehow, what started out as an anything-but-Waterloo summer has turned in to a medieval reading tournament. After the wonderful Quest for El-Cid, I turned to Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur. And of course it’s hard not to compare the books.

Essentially the books have a similar approach: to use the story of one semi-mythical character to gain a wider understanding of the time and place they lived in. And they face similar challenges: a flood of artistically and ideologically embellished literature obscuring a dearth of dependable sources.

Rodrigo was retroactively incorporated into the Reconquista propaganda and 19th and 20th century Spanish-Castilian nationalism. Much of the popular image of Arthur is based on 12th century romantic literature, which by the way has strong ideological or at least moralistic overtones, as Halsall points out. This has not been improved by 20th century fantasts who have claimed to have proven certain myths based on very crude and fanciful interpretation of isolated snippets of evidence.

There are differences too: while Rodrigo can be proven to have lived and the main occurrences in his life are beyond doubt, Arthur’s best bet is that it cannot be disproven that he has existed, but that it is unclear when exactly and where. But the fundamental challenge remains to construct a narrative from very slim and unreliable evidence.

"Indeed, whether or not one of the post-imperial British kings was called Arthur is probably the least interesting question that one can ask about this important period."

Like Fletcher, Halsall is less interested in the main character than in the society that he (supposedly) lived in. Halsall effectively dismantles the 'barbarian invasion' interpretation of British medieval history. But the historical discourse which has replaced it (well presented by Robin Fleming in Britain after Rome), and focusses more on non-violent and cultural domination by relatively small groups of immigrants, also doesn't satisfy him entirely.

First of all, Halsall more strongly emphasises that Britain was not an island but part of a North Sea cultural zone where migration, like trade, was not a one-way phenomenon. This means that cultural change was not the result of conquest, but of interaction and shows parallels on the continent.

Halsall agrees with the new historiography of British decline even before the end of Roman presence and that for a long time the population of Britain saw the removal of Roman forces to the continent as temporary. Also the coming of the Saxons started as allies to the local population some time before the Roman departure. This may have been part of a civil war(s) between Roman competitors.

Finally, post-Roman Britain probably had larger political units than long assumed. Even if not strongly unified, patterns of overlordship by weak states existed, in connection to mainland Europe.

Reading Halsall it is clear that he has a very deep and keen insight into the different material available. His scientific criticism of the written sources is unparalleled and his points out many logical pitfalls in the interpretation of archeological findings. It is clear that what we can infer from them is very limited. So when he keeps open the possibility that Arthur may have really existed this is more from the viewpoint that there is no evidence to disprove his existence, just as there is no proof that he actually did. I think the book is a must read for any serious student of ancient and medieval for its state of the approach and methods.

But in the end, it's the organisation of the book where Fletcher prevails. Halsall's convoluted break up of the development of the 'historiography' of Arthur makes the book tough to finish and the part that is most interesting, Halsall's alternative view of post-Roman Britain, suffers from the reader's desire just to be done with it. Which is a shame.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Zieten's Landwehr To Reach Waterloo In Time

Hurrah for deadlines! Significant strides were made painting my Landwehr. Now preparing to base the minis and allocating magnabase. I might not have to do frantic last minute work on Friday evening...

I've been able to do some painting the last two weekends, so that I got it almost done tonight. All that remains to be done is the drum and the drummer's shoulder wings. I also need to do the shoulder straps of the soldiers. I only decided today what unit they were going to be. I wanted them to be from Zieten's Corps at Waterloo because then they can fight at Ligny as well as Waterloo. Which basically leaves you with Westphalian Landwehr. Not the best of troops, but probably more fun and challenging than the French Guard. I've picked the 4th Westphalian regiment because I like light blue. 

It's not high quality painting of course. But it's fit for purpose and so far within the project constraints. There is still one issue outstanding, though. I still haven't got the materials to base my troops on. I also haven't prepared anything for basing: no flock no other stuff. I might just leave them as they are and just stick em on.