Sunday, 30 September 2012

Succumbed to Descent 2nd Ed

Fell for Descent 2nd edition, especially because the conversion kit was there as well.

Descent 1st edition has been a bit of trouble, being sluggish. Descent 2nd ed. is to clear all that up and just lets you enjoy Dungeon Crawling. However, as the new Descent has new miniatures, you'll need the conversion kit to be able to use your 1st edition minis for 2nd edition. Yup, it's the FFG way.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

In gratitude to the Fates

Did some relaxing boardgaming yesterday. Two mediocre results for St Petersburg, a whooping win at Bohnanza (it helps to be generous) and a rare gift by the Fates in a game of Pickomino or Regenwormen, as we know it here.

I started out with the stunning opening of 37 points (notice these 8 dice have two sides effectively counting as 5). That gave me the highest tile in the game and after that I played a rather ruthless and defensive game. I was not going to self destruct as always. Not with this beauty!

Oh well, the Fates are fickle and for future gaming I won't count on Sister Luck handing me goodies again. I just put this one up for posterity. Much appreciated, Ladies!

And Mir, Mich and Died thanks for a.great night

Friday, 28 September 2012

First glimpse of my Saxons

Saxons are coming!
A quick snap of my newly painted figures. This was done with my not so great mobile, but I will do some better pictures with a better camera this weekend.

I am very pleased by the paint job René did, and I'll be happy to recommend his work to anyone. René really enhanced the already great sculpts of Gripping Beast.

In fact, these figures are not Saxons specific for Britain, but continental Germans. There's an overlap in miniatures between the two areas of course, but this gives my army a bit more identity.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

South of the DMZ - Vietnam Megagame Lost Youth

Last Saturday I took part in Lost Youth, the megagame on the Vietnam War designed by Jim Wallman. It was a small episode set during the early deployment of US troops, somewhere close to the DMZ, and as such it challenged many of the perceptions about this war. Our ideas of the drug ridden, gung ho US army are mostly based upon the later war and this turned out different.

The ground: open close to the DMZ, jungle to the south
The opposing forces

On the US-allied side there were four teams, an American and an Vietnamese army batallion, an American regimental command team and a press team. Their challenge was to coordinate their action while showing success towards the press and hiding the nastier side of war. They succeeded almost up to the end of the game.

The National Liberation Front consisted of three batallion teams led by a brigade HQ and a number of local cadres. These had their own, slightly lonely game in setting up booby traps and ammunition depots and maintaining local morale in the face of US activity.

The VC self criticism session. Note the red stars on the chest for ideological rigour!

Much fun was had on the NLF side during the two self criticism sessions, which didn't turn into with hunts but actually improved the planning and created a sense of united purpose. Umpires rewarded proper ideological composure and terminology.

As it happened

The scenario was a US batallion sized sweep through a a number of hamlets, which attracted a response by a Viet Cong regiment to hurt the Americans or at least take the heat of their local cadres. The US-allied forces used the main highway at the eastern edge of the map and of course helicopters to enter the map. The NLF entered from the southwest.

The US commander took a methodical approach, sweeping through open country near the DMZ while the VC decided on an attempt to draw them into an ambush in the wooded area. However, this was based on the false assumption that the US troops would drop all else to go on some kind of search and destroy mission. That didn't happen.

There's the batallion drawn up to attack the village

One of the Viet Cong batallions threatened the ARVN batalion in the southeastern corner of the map, guarding the highway, but drew no response. In a desperate attempt to force a reaction, the VC unit attacked, but by then the ARVN was well prepared and the attacked floundered unceremoniously.

By then the US troops had 'cleared' most of the open country (devastating one village under bombardment). As they prepared to move into the jungle, the VC hastily retreated.

The experience on the ground

As an operational staff officer in the VC batallion that got into the thick of it, I had an active, but straightforward day. We were first on the map and last to be off. If I say so myself I managed the approach march to the eastern edge of the map and the defensive deployment well. However, we had no orders to attack and we lost an oppportunity to attack on the first night as the ARVN were not yet dug in but this was also because of lack of preparation. Hasty attacks were not the NLF preferred option.

And that us after hurrying back to safety

By the end of the game we were set for a sharp rearguard action, covering the retreat of the other batallions, but given the presence of the ARVN batallion, this might not have ended at happily as we'd wish. The interesting picture is of course from the umpire map, showing the location of both sides and our supply status (yellow and white discs).

The umpire map shows the ARVN batallion following up... oops!

So how did it feel?

Feedback to the game was generally positive. Most players enjoyed the operational challenge and the ideological side of the game, even if for two VC batallions the day was a bit uneventfull. The local NLF cadres had difficulty in imposing themselves on the game and there was a tendency for the batallion players to focus on the military side at the expense of the local cadres.

Jim's idea is to do a number of follow up games set later in the war so players can develop some experience with asyymmetrical warfare, which is different from the set piece operational games we do more regularly.

There's a wealth of possibilities for scenarios, but maybe these are not all in the same time and ground scale. We now played on a very small battlefield (7x7 km) for three days of game time.

The umpire map: not many VC left on the map at the end

ps You might have missed the discussion the development of artillery around WWI at the Maximum Effort blog.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Feel of Napoleonic Battle: Le Feu Sacre

Yesterday was the first game of Le Feu Sacré in a long time. The rules were a bit rusty and there was some discussion, but this was all in good style. But it was a reason for me to dust of this older article and add a few new things I realised after playing again.

Le Feu Sacre is one of the many products running off the Too Fat Lardies' presses in the last few years. In general the miniature battle rule designs of this company are focussed on recreating the interesting challenges of warfare in particular era rather than providing balanced competition games. This means scenarios rather than points based army lists and command and control rather than troop types and armour specifications. To a historical gamer like me that is a huge plus.

The game is played at the corps level, with the main units being divisions although individual battalions are represented. Corps and divisional commanders, as well as the occasional detached brigadier, have a tactical ability (gifted, solid, poor) and character, with bold and cautious added to the mix.

Each division needs an order. An attack specifies an enemy formation or terrain objective to be attacked. This means that the troops generally have to move closer to the objective each turn and engage in firefight or charge at the earliest opportunity. A manoeuvre order allows more leeway in terms of movement, but only allows troops to engage when threatened or to support other divisions. The hold order requires the division to stay put and also limits its ability to attack.

The first change from the old fashioned rule sets is that units enter the table on 'blinds'. This means that the opponent doesn't know which units are where until he has 'spotted' the blinds. This becomes easier as the blinds get nearer and are in open rather than close terrain or behind other troops. Blinds can be in three formations: marching columns, half deployed and fully deployed. Marching column blinds move much faster, but when spotted the units start packed closely together and hardly able to defend themselves. The fully deployed blinds allow players to set up the units in a wider area and ready for battle. Of course there is the possibility of dummy blinds.

The traditional Igo-ugo and move-fire-melee-morale structures of the turn have been replaced by a card drawing system where each division has a card. When the unit's card is drawn, all its actions are resolved. Some cards are added to represent (grand) tactical characteristics of certain armies. The French armies in their heyday have a special card that allows the commander to move a division before its own card comes up, thus offering more opportunities. A card for bold commanders forces them to move before their own card comes up. A 'recon' card allows the blind of a light cavalry division or brigade to take an extra turn. This increases its speed and adds an extra opportunity to spot enemy blinds.

A division's turn consists of the commander rolling for PIPs (intervention points), one spotting attempt, bombardment and then all other actions. A gifted commander can score more PIPs than a poor one. One PIP may see a whole brigade execute the same order, or several PIPs may be used to have one unit execute a number of complicated manoeuvres. PIPs are also used to rally troops.

Small arms fire has been figured into the larger equation. Artillery and rifles can bombard enemy units. No figures are removed for casualties, so this requires some book keeping (we use small dice). In case of hits, the enemy is forced to take a morale test immediately.

Charges are still quite a complicated affair, but at least they are resolved straight away and counter charges and intercepts are dealt with at the same time. This means that no book keeping is required of charging units over the rest of the turn.

Similarly to small arms fire, the casualties of melee are not diced for, but come as the result of outcome of the total combat. That is, the winner and loser of the combat receive a set number of casualties. This also saves time compared to more traditional rule sets. Better still, combat involving multiple units on each side is still resolved with one die roll. This also speeds up melee considerably.

A final advantage of these rules is that they haven't fallen for the trap that British troops in line are unconquerable. A charge by several battalions in column will take out a line unless it is well supported. In this way good and historical tactics are rewarded.

So, there is a lot to like about these rules, and they seem to be an improvement on most rule sets available today. Also the game shifts the time from rolling for casualties (all the close combat is handled in one procedure) to matters of command an control, a preferable shift in my book.

Of course we haven´t played many games, so the rules are rusty, but the level of detail is a bit too high for my liking, especially the crucial rules about flanking and disorganisation. Admittedly, these are the most difficult rules to get right and their influence on the battle tends to be very high and visible.

When this is combined with the traditional wargamers' fault of too many troops in a cramped space, the game really slows down. In a IGO UGO ruleset at least you´re not waiting to see what the next unit is to move, and especially with a larger number of commands and players Le Feu Sacré doesn´t scale very well. My gut feeling now is to keep the number of units per player to 7 or 8 and above 10 it really starts to drag. More than 3 players per side also makes downtime too high.

And there's a further worry. Even the guys at Too Fat Lardies keep issuing new versions of their rules, with a tendency to increase complexity, rather than reducing it. By the end, we'll be in the same mess as with all the other rulesets.

This post was published in an earlier version on Fortress Ameritrash

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Lost in the Western Desert

As they say: a darn good read! I picked it up at Skook books which rewarded me so well on my first visit this weekend.

The desert war has always fascinated me. It's the topography of the battlefields, as Barnett says, almost empty and therefor best suited for a clash of generalship. Here the operational genius of Rommel and O'Connor would stand out against the mediocrity of most others. But there's also the strategic side, the long distances and the logistic challenge (where Rommel showed less brilliance, perhaps, but which he tried to make up for with bluff and sheer willpower).

This book is not so much about the operational and strategic issues as about the character and ability of the commanders of the Eight Army and its predecessor, the Western Desert Force. Obviously, Barnett favours O'Connor and Auchinleck, while he writes Cunningham and Richie into the ground, even if with some sympathy.

But the venom is in the tail. Barnett's account of Montgomery's command is a textbook character assassination. After exposing him as a mean but before everything else a self publicising monomaniac who furthers his carreer at the expense of others (as opposed to modest men like O'Connor, Wavell and Auchinleck of course), he then destroys Monty's military reputation.

Not only (and this is Barnett speaking, not me) does Monty steal the good ideas for Alam Halfa and Alamein from Dorman-Smith and Auchinleck, he then also bungles the planning for Alamein (presumably counting on the effect that Rommel would have to withdraw anyway due to the Torch landings) and only saves it by superior resources and bloody single mindedness. He then finally fails to catch Rommel in pursuit. And at all times Barnett implicates that Montgomery tries to shift the blame and claim the glory.

In the appendices there's also an eulogy for Eric Dorman-Smith, obviously a highly talented, but non-conformist staff officer. Barnett sees him as the creative element during much of the successfull operations who was perfectly teamed with commanders like Wavell and Auchinleck, who appreciated his talents and knew how to employt them constructively.

However, after Auchinleck's removal, Dorman-Smith's carreer went downwards and at several times he was removed from commands. Barnett claims he was doing well in all those positions and that the reasons behind his repostings had to do with his intellectualism and intolerance for the mediocrity of others.

Whether or not this explanation is 100% correct I don't know, but there is clearly a pattern in the British army of WWII where visionary and intellectual officers (think also Hobart) lost out to more practical and especially more conformist ones.

Most surprising to me is that Wavell has no more prominent role in this book. While he maybe was always more than only a desert general, his presence in the background was highly influential in the first two years of the war. Barnett is generally favourable to Wavell.

Barnett is an excellent writer, despite his biases. I'm only now becoming aware of the factionalism in British military history writing, and it's still a bit fuzzy for me, but I get the impression that Barnett is part of the Liddell Hart group.

The problem for me is that I have always instinctively taken sides with O'Connor, Wavell (I even named him my favourite general) and Auchinleck. And Barnett's story of the bright elite losing out to the mediocre establishment makes them the natural underdog and plays on my self image as talented and non-conformist (Stop laughing, please!).

But I am also wary of totally discounting Montgomery's ability. He was obviously not a nice person to be associated with professionally, but he's always seemed solid to me. I've also grown suspicious of black and white characterisations.

So while enjoying this book very much, it leaves me not entirely convinced of the characterisations of the people involved.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Bronze exhibition at Royal Academy

The Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy comes highly recommended. There are really some stunningly beautiful bronze statues out there, not the least the Nigerian ones. The Etruscan Hombre della Sera, Willem de Kooning's Clam Digger, Boccioni, Giacometti and some other modern stuff was cool as well (and a welcome change from the very figurative stuff).

There is an astonishing range of styles and techniques in bronze, and the exhibition does not attempt to be complete in themes and countries of origin, but to show those wide ranges according to human forms, animal forms, objects, reliefs and heads/bustes.

It works well that way. There's a beautiful 19th century bust of a north African Jewess that combines marble and bronze, paint and gold. There's prehistoric votive statues which we still can't interpret. There's the wonderful turkey from 1567 (when it had just been discovered in the Americas), an emaciated Buddha from Thailand which I hadn't ever seen there.

So enough to discover for the art lover. For a miniature wargamer, it was also interesting to have a look at the casting and finishing process, which was described in some detail.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Harvesting Skoob for Waterloo books

You may have already noticed that on Friday I visited the Cecil Beaton exhibition at IWM and it was real good. Afterwards, as intended, we paid a visit to Skoob Books. It was the blast I'd hoped. I took away six books which gave a pretty solid basis for further research on the battle of Waterloo.

There Hofschroer's 1815 - The German Victory, Barbero's Battle, Weller's Wellington at Waterloo, Nofi's Waterloo Campaign and Balen's A Model Victory. The people watching the picture will also notice Jeremy Black's recent book. I picked that up later at Judd books.

Two further additions were Corelli Barnett's The Desert Generals (which I finished for the largest part in bed before going to sleep. Yup, it's that smooth a read) and Pyrrhic Victory. French Strategy and Operations in the Great War by Robert Doughty. The good thing is that it was all second hand and thus relatively cheap, despite the fact that Skoob gave me a free linen bag for spending so much.

I think we can conclude that Skoob has been firmly added to the bookshop route and seems destined to add many an hour of reading pleasure (as well as shelf space).

We didn't see any other book shops on the inside this weekend, except WH Smith at Gatwick airport. Sadly, the separate bookshop has been amalgamated into the stationary shops and lost much of its space for history and military books. That was good for my wallet and my backpack, but it is also a sign of hard times for bookshops.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

St Pauls in the Blitz

I bought a card of St Pauls during the Blitz, pictured by Cecil Beaton. There's a nice exhibition of his photographical work in the Imperial War Museum.

Beaton was a socialite theater designer who became more famous for his photography.

He did lots of fashion and portraits in the 1930s, but got ostracised after an antisemitic outburst.

When war broke out, he got a second chance taking photographs of the war effort, getting himself employed for propaganda work.

He did this so well he did a series of books for the RAF and later went on tours of the Middle East, India and China.

Go and see, because his eye for composition is very good and the black & white contrasts are phenomenal.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Some WWI and plans for the weekend

I've finished my review of Tom Behan's The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini. so have a look there.

Furthermore I've booked tickets for two exhibitions this weekend, Bronze in the Royal Academy and the one on war p¨hotographer Cecil Beaton in the Imperial War Museum.

Reading for Lost Youth continues. I´ve tried to get a view from the (North) Vietnamese side. Bergerud's Dynamics of Defeat has a good insight into the tactics and strategy of the National Liberation Front/Viet Cong and one that challenges Nagl's views.

And yeah, a bit of fun. Not a terribly innovative design, I know.

Monday, 10 September 2012

My favourite bookshop route in London

It was because a friend asked that I drew up this list of favourite bookshops in London. When I go this weekend I hope to catch a few of them. Of course I only grade them in terms of (military) history books. If you want art, philosophy or science I'm sure there's better options elsewhere.

Suppose you start near Trafalgar Square, you can move up Charing Cross Rd, where you will first find 2nd hand shops Quinto, Henry Pordes and Any Amount of Books next to each other. I love to rummage the shelves here. A bit off track, on Cecil Court, there´s Motor Books for 1st hand militaria.

A bit further on is Lovejoys, for a quick browse of discounted militaria and history (also lots on movies). Then there's Foyles, an institution in bookstores. This is a place where there's too much choice so you end up taking away only the really interesting bits.

Move on across Oxford St to Bloomsbury St and Bookmarks, the leftist bookshop that has an small but often rewarding 2nd hand section. Further on you will find Waterstones at the crossing of Gower St and Torrington Place. This one has a good 2nd hand section.

My latest favourite is Judd Books on Marchmont St. This has excellent 2nd hand and remainders. I never leave empty handed. My friends tell me that Skoob Books around the corner (66 The Brunswick) is excellent as well, so that'sa definite stop for me this weekend.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Vietnam, a war the US Army didn't want to win

"I'll be damned if I permit the United States Army, its institutions, its doctrine, and its traditions to be destroyed just to win this lousy war"

I thought Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare by Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian would be a good way to get a long term perspective on counterinsurgency warfare ofr Lost Youth. Sadly, there was no time to read the whole book, so I focused on the short introduction and the chapter on Vietnam.

In the introduction the authors give a skeleton overview of the literature on the subject, as it moved from the colonial experience (think Caldwell's Small Wars) to decolonisation and Cold War. Three authors from the 1960s were formative in present thinking: Galula, Thompson and Kitson.

Galula was a French officer who worked on his experiences in Algeria. His 1964 book focussed on the political nature of the conflict and the necessity to protect/separate the population from the insurgents.

Thompson, a British officer, wrote in 1966 about the necessity for a government to clearly define it's aims, plan for the long term and operate within the law, so as to keep the population on it's side. Kitson, like Thompson a British officer with ample experience in 'low intensity' warfare, further stressed the importance of intelligence gathering. His book appeared in 1971.

From these three books Marston and Malkasian draw as the primary conclusion that insurgency is first and foremost a political conflict. Further more the have a list of general guidelines for counterinsurgency warfare:
  • aim for political compromise
  • adapt to local circumstances and be aware of ethnic and social sensibilities.
  • protect the population
  • know your enemy
  • organisational culture, home support and good cooperation between military and civil institutions are vital to successful execution.

Then I moved on to the chapter 'Counterinsurgency in Vietnam. American Organizational Culture and Learning' by John Nagl. This is based on his book Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgence Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.

Nagl's main claim is that the US Army as an institution refused to accept that the nature of the conflict in Vietnam was primarily political. Therefor they worked towards the conventional military solutions that mirrored the conflict they had fought in WWII and Korea, and which they expected to encounter elsewhere.

This was apparent in US Army doctrine, which was founded on overwhelming firepower. But this doctrine was also taught to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) from the first advisors in 1950 till the fall of Saigon in 1975. Apart from the question whether this type of army was best suited to the mission of maintaining South Vietnam as an independent state, this doctrine was unsustainable economically.

What is interesting is that the three books mentioned earlier were all published when the Vietnam war was already escalating and thus were essentialy too late to influence the discussion. As said, the official US doctrine was formulated in 1962. However, there was a wealth of experience from the 1940s and 1950s available, and of course from Vietnam itself, even if not always congested in a clear theory.

It is clear that those lessons were being learned by some Americans. Nagl shows a number of attempts to change doctrine or experiments with alternative methods to face the nature of counterinsurgency. A presidential committee in 1959, Kennedy in 1961, CIA civilian irregular defense groups, the combined action platoons of the Marines and the PROVN study in 1965/6.

At best these attempts were paid lip service by the army. A section on counterinsurgency warfare was added to the Field Manual in 1962. But in practice the Army stuck to its guns. The CIA and USMC initiatives were terminated by the Army to make way for their own, more aggressive tactics. Even general Abrams, who had been part of some of these initiatives, couldn't effect a change when he replaced Westmoreland in 1968.

The organisational culture of the US Army was thus highly resistant to change. It refused to accept that to beat the insurgency, the political struggle was the most important, rather than an 'other war'. It stubbornly continued to wage the war the way it wanted to fight. Nagl refers to a 1981 book by Summers that even argued that Vietnam was lost because too much focus was put on counterinsurgency at the expense of the big unit war.

From this perspective, the claim that the US Army won the war but was let down by the home front is thus pathetic and wrong. The US army maybe achieved the objectives it set itself, but the North Vietnamese won the real war for control of Vietnam. It is difficult to see how more US troops and firepower could have changed that outcome.

Of course in the end this was foremost a failure by successive US administrations to take control of the effort in South East Asia. By subordinating the civilian effort to that of the military, counterproductive methods like carpet bombing, burning villages, defoliants etc could continue at the expensive of protecting the population and removing the support for the insurgents. If anything, Vietnam showed that war is too important to leave to the military.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Lost Youth, Vietnam megagame

The good news yesterday was that I received my briefings in the mail for Lost Youth, the Vietnam megagame next Saturday.

Although the exact situation is unknown as yet, it will be an early war operation putting a U.S. Army regiment plus ARVN batallion against a Peoples Army brigade (ie North Vietnamese) with local Viet Cong (National Liberation Front) support.

This game will focuss on the Vietnamese experience as much as on the US and ARVN. I will be serving in a PAVN batallion staff.

On the day we'll receive the relevant information and start out planning for the operation in the morning. In the afternoon the operation will unfold, hopefully according to plan.

Looking forward to this one!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Upcoming megagames: Vietnam, Alamein and zombies

I'm using this space to plug the megagames organised by Megagame Makers in the UK the coming months. In the past 18 years I've played or umpired in many of their games and we've worked together in organising games in the Netherlands. Most of all, I think megagames are about the funnest way to spend a day gaming. The dynamics of interaction with so many real people are just way beyond anything you can experience in a two player wargame or multiplayer boardgame.

The Vietnam War megagame Lost Youth will be held at Anerley Town Hall on Saturday 15th September 2012. There's still a few spots open if you want to experience this game about asymmetrical warfare 'in country'. To give you a sense of the possible roles look at the provisional casting.

There are two more megagames coming up later this year:

End of the Beginning - an operational megagame on the Battle of Alamein, being run at Anerley on 20th October

Urban Nightmare 2 being run at the Royal Armouries, Leeds on 17th November. This is a more northerly venue than usual so if you are from oop north, take this chance to experience a zombie outbreak from the wrong side. The game handbook is downloadable from the website.

If you want to know more about what megagames are, have a look at this introduction to megagaming and my account of the megagame on Operation Goodwood last year and my examples of Operation Market Garden and Godzilla in Amsterdam (which is familiar in style to Urban Nightmare).

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Essen 2011: working my way down the list

Okay, so my minor boardgame project was to get as many of the games I bought at Essen last year played at least once before we move off eastwards again. Luckily, Matt Thrower threw a spanner in the works by focussing on why we do this to ourselves. Because it made me look at the stuff I've bought since Essen and this Essen 2011 list is in fact only the beginning. I need to cut down on buying games and make a better assessment of the likelihood a game gets played. Expect a post on this in the near future.

But first, back to Essen 2011. This should start of with the games that I bought at Essen and have already played. The first lot we managed to play at Essen in our three day gaming adventure, either at the convention, in the bar, in the roadhouse or in the hotel.

Lupin III by Pierluigi Frumusa (Ghenos)
We didn't get the rules on the first attempt, and they are not fleshed out. There's quite a learning curve due to all the equipment and special cards. But lovely concept of one player (the Commissary) planning defense, others planning the heist and the potential conflicts between Fujiko and the others. Would love to play again.

51st State New Era by Ignacy Trzewiczek (Portal)
The promise of more interaction than in the original got me tempted to buy it, because the setting and artwork are great, but the game doesn't seem to reward it. This is still a euro hidden beneath a veneer of trash.

Die Exorzisten by Henning Poehl (Sphinx)
I bought four games by German designer Henning Poehl just based on the fact that they look awesome and have really great theme. Got this one to play. Fun card game with a priest, an ex-nun, a voodoo priest and a horror movie expert taking on the possessed. Now some of the characters have the object to excorsize as many demons as possible, but others profit from helping or sabotaging these attempts. Great game to stitch each other up therefor. Beautiful cartoon art work.

Since then I've also managed to play the following:

A Few Acres of Snow by Martin Wallace (Treefrog)
I like this game a lot, despite the fact that some people argue the game is broken by the Halifax Hammer. There's a good tension arc through the game and the game is one of the first to really integrate a deckbuilder into a game, rather than being an end in itself. Played in January.

Blood Bowl: Team Manager by Jason Little (FFG)
I think I've played three or four games now and it's a real blast! It's mean, tactical direct conflict with a good question how you will pace your build up. Focus to much on fans early in the game and you won't be able to compete later, but ignore fans too long and you won't be able to catch up. Also they solved the puzzle of trying to cram a whole season into five rounds. Excellent design!

Guards!Guards! by Leonard Boyd and David Brashaw (Z-Man)
This one I played before the summer. My first impressions are here.

Tikal II by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer (Gameworks)
Played at the club this summer and was a good deal of fun (I knew that already, because I playtested, but it's a bit different now). It's pure euro and it's a combination of paddling down the river at the edge of the board picking up actions, which then help you explore the temple in the centre.

Strategy is based around a good mix of victory point scoring. The first is based on exploring of rooms. Access to rooms in the temple is based on their colour and whether you have keys in that colour. It's pretty easy to get hold of keys, but you can also use them for victory points. The third way to score is through sets rooms of the same colour you have explored.

Rare artifacts that you have picked up on your riverine tour can be sold as a fourth source of VP. And there's some additional points in the event deck. As you can see, there's a lot to keep track of, and the last turns can while a bit when everybody plots their optimal move.

By the way, the rulebook is great. I love how they introduce the game by a four page comic book intro, with all the designers involved as main characters.

So that leaves:

Apocalypse by Henning Poehl (Sphinx)

Bann der Mummie by Henning Poehl (Sphinx)

After Pablo by Nate Haydn (Blast City)

Earth Reborn by Christophe Boelinger (Z-Man)

Resistance: expansion by Don Eskridge (Indie Boards)

Dos de Mayo: Assault on Grimaldi Palace expansion by Daniel Val (Gryphon)

Revised board for Friedrich by Richard Sivel

This will be a pretty tough challenge. I might get Apocalypse, Bann der Mummie and the Resistance and Dos de Mayo expansions played in an evening, but it will be harder to get a game of After Pablo in, let alone Earth Reborn. And there's only going to be three or four occassions to do it in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Why do we buy when we know we won't play?

I was going to put up my update on the Essen 2011 project, but that was before reading The Promise of Play by Matt Thrower at Fortress Ameritrash, who puts the finger on the sore spot: we gamers keep buying even if we know the chances of the game actually getting played are slim. Maybe this post helps explaining why we get into conundrums like project Essen 2011 at all.

I'm not sure I agree that there's a collecting instinct behind this urge to buy. I think it rather connects to the idea of the anti-library, first coined by Umberto Eco, and brought to my attention by my friend and librarian Nick. The anti-library is all the unread books on your shelves, the collection of knowledge or experience that we still aspire to.

It is as much the anticipation as the real urge to know. A world of possibilities opening up as you stroke the pages, browse through the table of contents and scan the tables and illustrations.

It easily translates to the unpainted miniatures and the unplayed games in your closets. In our minds they are already marching across the fields towards the enemy and our friends are already crouched over the board after a long night's gaming, watching as the dice slow down to reveal the verdict of fate.

The purchase is part of an illusionary experience. Probably even better than the real thing, because the figures never turn out as beautiful as we imagine, nor do we add as many laurels to our triumphant parade.

So, in the knowledge of the emptiness and hopelessness of our endeavour, we pursue regardless.

Always hoping, always dreaming.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

He said/she said: a Dixit shill

Normally, you would run and hide from a Spiel des Jahres. But in this case that would rob you of a great experience.

Dixit is deceptively simple in rules, and there isn't really a lot of strategy to it. But that is not the point. The point is that you relate on a totally different level to the other players than in almost any other board game.

It all centers about the wonderful cards, that allow multiple interpretations and associations. They are slightly quirky in style, and sometimes disconcerting.

Even though there's points to be scored, and generally it pays to be specific (or nobody guesses that your card is the right one), but not too specific (or everybody guesses that your card is the right one), the game is not about the points.

It's about understanding why someone looked at a card and thought "the more things change, the more they stay the same", and trying to come up with a card that comes close to that description. It actively engages your creativity and your sense of association and it allows you to share in the creativity and association of others. It really works at that level and it is refreshing and fun.

There's an obvious comparison to Fabula, also designed by Jean-Louis Roubira, and published by Asmodée. However, while easily holding it's own in the quality of the artwork, Fabula loses when it comes to gameplay.

To fit your part in the bigger story is hard, and the subjectivity of the awards by the storyteller make it easy for the game to break down. The handbook doesn't really help to give you an idea of how to evaluate the stories of the players, and we saw the game bog down.

Competitive storytelling just doesn't work, except in Aye, Dark Overlord, when it's so obviously over the top that it doesn't matter what you say.

In Dixit the competition is not in who is best in tying in an object into a story or roleplaying, but in the intersubjectivity of the group. It doesn't result in sulking, or frustration for those that lack in storytelling skills, but generates discussion on the choice of cards. How hard it was to pick the right card, or why on earth somebody chose *that* card to relate to "when I awoke this morning, I knew this was going to be my day".

I am quite taken to this game. I think it can work in many different groups and spark conversation and interaction. It has the power to bring people together and it has changed the way I think about games, although I don't know yet where it is going.

It might do the same for you.

This post was published earlier on Fortress Ameritrash