December 22, 2011

Gaming Report: Risk 2210

Quick note: This will be the last post of the year.

We recently acquired Risk 2210 A.D. and the kids were anxious to dive straight into it.  They really enjoy these epic, dudes-on-a-map games.  Part of me understands for the obvious reasons of how awesome they are.  But part of me is surprised, too, since the strategy is often difficult to grasp at younger ages and the down time between their turns is often agonizingly glacial.  Despite the lack of challenge (not the reason I play with my kids right now, anyway) and their sometimes frustrating lack of focus, I was more than willing to oblige.
North America was evidently quite devasted from the "last war!"
This will get a fuller treatment in a future review, but for now, Risk 2210 is a very nice improvement over the original game.  The theme is stronger.  The ocean and lunar territories significantly altar the old strategies.  And commanders and command cards throw in a fun amount of unpredictability and chaos while leveling the playing field no matter how far or behind you may think you are.  The dice can still destroy all your plans, as poor Cory discovered in trying to take Europe.  Brendon nearly beat me just in acquiring four command cards that awarded him bonus points at the end of the game.  Hope came close to victory, too, by deftly taking over the entire Moon, until I caught on in the last turn that she'd beat me if I didn't counter-attack there.  Lilly learned that, just like in old Risk, you can't try to take and hold Asia!  And they all laughed as I lost Australia to a back door sea invasion.  There's a lot to keep track of in this re-imagined version.

Hope begins her lunar conquest.

Interestingly, there is a five-turn limit, which means the game ends quite abruptly.  While certainly a great improvement over the day-long slug-fests of old, you still must plan on spending 3-4 hours, nonetheless.  Down time between your turns is also still a problem.  And ironically, the turn limit is one of the negatives I have with the game after our one play - just as you're finally gearing up to implement a massive campaign, it's all over!  Oh well, I guess that can be easily remedied if all players agree to a turn or two extension.  Although just when I agree to a 6th turn is when one of the little twerps will no doubt draw a scatter bomb card and wipe out half my MODs!
Making use of the sea.

December 19, 2011

Gaming News: Awesome-ness!

One of the all-time Ameritrash classics is finally getting a much needed re-print: Fortress America. Fantasy Flight Games is bringing back this 1986 Milton Bradley masterpiece, the Mona Lisa of that company's Game Master's Series that included the exhaustive Samurai Swords and the iconic Axis & Allies. I owned this title as a teenager, once upon a time, and wasted spent innumerable hours with friends on epic struggles as weekend benders. Sadly, I have no clue where that copy is now - but I know I did not sell or give it away. FFG promises that the finished re-print will be true to the original with some minor tweaks and optional rules - sort of like an expansion, I suppose. Their stated goal for including the add-on module is to update the game for the modern generation. Which begs a curious question: how will that generation receive it today?

You see, Fortress America pits one player as the United States trying to fend off three others who are invading the nation in a three-front war: West, South, and East. Apparently it's true that Canada never really took that whole War of 1812 thing personally. For me and my generation, the game is very much steeped in a Cold War psyche. It was published before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and two years after John Milius' hokey, teen world war three flick had all of us adolescent boys crying, "Wolverines!" While much has been discussed (and I think over-blown) about the political propaganda of Red Dawn, that movie and the game Fortress America which looks and sounds like it, no doubt tapped into the psychological impact of the era and played upon the tension of its global, political narrative. For my kids, and others whose birthdays post-date 1989, the game would resonate completely different. For them, the Fortress America re-print will just prove merely an awesome and epic dudes-on-a-map game. For the ones like me, it will resurrect memories of an awesome and epic dudes-on-a-map game that intricately intertwined with a worldview that remains only in history books.

The NRA whooping commie butt?  Sign. Me. Up.

December 15, 2011

Kids View: Axis & Allies

What is the Game About?

The Allies (America, Britain, and Russia) are trying to save the world from the Axis (Japan and Germany) during World War Two. The main idea for Russia is to buy a lot of men for defense and to attack Germany. Britain wants to build transports and men so they can attack Germany, too. America has to worry about the Japanese. When I'm America I like to build a factory and put it in Hawaii or China if I can. You also need a good navy to beat Japan. Germany needs mainly tanks and men to fight Russia. Japan can attack both Russia and America - so they should have a lot of different types of units. Turn order is the same every round and you get money by taking over other areas. Different territories give you different amounts of money that you use to buy all of your units. Fighting is done with dice - you have to roll different numbers with different kinds of units.

What do I Like?

I like that you can play any of the five major countries and each one uses a totally different strategy to win. I like to be America because I'm from there and they go last and I can plan my attacks based on what Japan does. I like war games and so that is one reason I like playing Axis & Allies. And the history is interesting. You can learn a lot. I like the newer version (1942 Edition) because tanks get to defend on a roll of 3 or less (instead of 2) and it includes cruisers and artillery. Also, all of the pieces look different for each country - little plastic men are cool!

What do I dislike?

The sea zones are hard to keep straight on the old version's board. But the board in the newer version is smaller with squished territories that make it hard to fit all your guys in one space. However, more pieces means that there is a better chance of losing some, too. And we have to be careful not to leave any laying out on the floor because of our cat. The weapons research in the old version is confusing and a lot of times a waste of money. They took this out in the newer version. I also don't like it that you have to hit battleships twice to sink them (except when it's mine!).

December 12, 2011

Gaming Report: Mission: Red Planet, Red November, Sorry! Sliders

Who would have thought that a re-worked Sorry! game would create so much fun?  Put a little ball-bearing in the bottom of the pawns, slap a track down onto a target, and laugh away a solid hour before you know it.  We also have Sorry! Spinners which creates a good deal of hilarious agony.  Just as you're one space away from crawling into your safe zone, some one spins the board and your home fades away in the rear view mirror.  That revision still includes the random card engine.  But Sliders is a pure dexterity game.  If you've seen shuffle board or curling, just imagine pushing your little pawn down a small track to a center target to score points and/or to knock off your opponents.  This simple gem comes with four different targets and a few different track configurations to provide even some surprising variety.  And it's a wonderful family game.  Despite the skill factor involved, there really isn't much advantage given to adults over kids.  Well, at least in my household!

Memorial to astronauts
after just five rounds.
Just three turns later,
the body count rises.
We played one 5-player session of Mission: Red Planet.  This game is fascinating in that it predictably finishes in one hour.  I'm still amazed every time it happens.  That length is one of this title's strongest draws.  It is quite chaotic and tends to be confrontational, but its brevity and light theme (which is nonetheless well integrated) soften the interaction.  The game is very tight with limited turns.  If you waste one of them, or are the victim to a well-timed attack, you need to recover quickly.  The kids really enjoy this, but are still working on the optimal strategy in playing the various roles.  The other issue at hand is a one-track mind in focusing on their secret bonus missions which, if completed, score extra points.  If they are able to accomplish that, they reap some big rewards.  However, if they fall short, it proves problematic because they've ignored the normal scoring method, at the same time, which is to place majorities in the different regions on Mars.  This game was particularly cut-throat - lots of astronauts paid dearly!  This is a very good game.

All rooms flooded or on fire!

The Kracken! Ironically, it would have eaten us at
the same time we ended up being crushed by the deep!

We also set out for another 5-manned mission on the Red November.  This time I was able to convince my kids we should remove all of the "Respite" cards from the Event Deck.  I'm not sure they'll go for that again!  Just after the first two gnomes played, we already had four rooms on fire.  In less than fifteen minutes, we narrowly fixed the pumps to avoid asphyxiation.  Then the Kracken came.  Luckily we had an aqualung and harpoon which Brendon bravely took out to sea and slaughtered.  Then he promptly passed out on a faint check and died.  Alas, we shared his fate not too much longer.  Every single room on the sub was either flooded or on fire.  We were descending fast, but couldn't get to the Engine Room as it was on fire and none of us had an extinguisher or grog.  Even the Captain's Room was on fire, preventing us from raiding his personal stash for some of that "liquid courage" with which to fight the blazes.  We were finally crushed in the ocean depths in the 30th minute.  Pretty funny, if you ask me.

Crushed in uncontrolled descent!

December 07, 2011

Gaming with Kids: The 4-Player Threshhold

As the old idiom goes, "Three's a crowd."  Well in the board gaming hobby, five must be also, while four is just right!  One of my minor rants with the industry is the number of games that will not accommodate more than four players.  I have four children and have had to apply the brakes on several likely buys that are a perfect family fit - except for the fact it doesn't include our entire family of five gamers.  We are not unique in this, nor certainly even a minority.  Personally, we know more families of five and more than we do with four and less.  And beyond family gaming, most gaming clubs and groups include more than four members.  So why do such a vast number of games stop with four?

Perhaps price is one aspect?  Adding components for 5-6 players would mean additional production costs.  Realistically, though, hobby gamers understand that.  Though we sometimes like to whine and complain about value (like any other hobby market), we are still willing to pay a little extra for a title that accommodates a little extra.  Believe it or not, families are willing to, also.  So then maybe game length is a consideration?  It is possible that adding that 5th and 6th person will extend playing time beyond a title's welcome.  Yet hardcore gamers are well adjusted in dealing with the added time, and family-oriented games are generally elegant enough to keep game length under control despite a couple more players.  Finally, perhaps balance is a major factor?  Before ever hitting the market, designers and volunteers playtest games to work out the flaws and kinks.  It is likely that everyone involved in this prototype-to-production process discovered that four players created a "sweet spot."  Or at most, to add mechanics and components for an additional opponent would derail the entire experience so severely, they don't even include them as an option.  That sounds like a logical explanation, yet it is weakened by the existence of a number of expansions that add additional players to a base game which originally accommodated only four, such as Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, and Stone Age, to name but a few.

Scaling a game so that it plays smoothly regardless of 2, 3, 4, 5, or more players is not always easy.  It can be an art and a science.  I get that.  But that balance, as well as value and playing time, is a subjective concept.  I would not argue that every single game must accommodate 5 or more players.  But there seem to be a great many titles that would benefit by providing at least the option to the gaming consumer.  Games on our wishlist that we may never buy because they don't accommodate more than four include: Trollhalla, Forbidden Island, Rattus, Tobago, Defenders of the Realm, Sobek, Roll Through the Ages, and Stone Age.  Going that little bit extra would include another demographic of potential buyers.  Families and gaming groups who are willing can add a player or two, while at the same time, those who prefer keeping at four (or even less) have that option.  In a world where it's impossible to please everyone all the time, providing that choice is the next best thing.  Let's call it crowd control.

December 06, 2011

CFB: Bowling

Ahhhhhh.  Look forward to it every year, I do!  That great folly known as Bowl Season.  While every other sport in America determines champions on the field, college football allows nit-wit sports writers, ignorant pollsters, illogical computers, ESPN, and billionaire bowl executives to create some fantasy popularity contest which decides the number one team in the nation.  I fall for it hook, line, and sinker.  Of course, there are too many bowls (35).  Some fans love it.  Others decry it.  It's the same sort of polarizing response to the gluttony of board games in the hobby market.  For some one like me who can watch football from the first kick-offs at 11:00 am Saturday until those West Coast stragglers winding down at midnight, I can't say I see a problem.  Well, okay, so maybe that's not entirely true.  At any rate, below I present my personal entries in the worst and best offerings of this season's matches.

The Good
  1. Allstate BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 9 - LSU vs. Alabama  Not that I'm terribly pleased with the rematch (for many reasons), but you can't argue it'll be a horrible game.  Although LSU should have just been handed the trophy after destroying Georgia, it is the title game, for better or worse, and I usually prefer defensive slug-fests, anyway.
  2. Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 3 - Stanford vs. Oklahoma State  This was a toss up with the Rose Bowl pitting Oregon and Wisconsin.  These two games will be fascinating match-ups of vastly contrasting styles: explosive offenses verse smash-mouth defenses.  Edge goes to the Fiesta with two Top 5 teams.
  3. AT&T Cotton Bowl, Jan. 6 - Kansas State vs. Arkansas  These two BCS-worthy contenders should put up the numbers, although via two different methods.  Opposing QB's Colin Klein (on the ground) and Tyler Wilson (through the air) will put on very different shows for a packed crowd of passionate fan bases in sparkling Jerry World.
  4. Bowl, Jan. 8 - Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State  What a stupid name for a bowl game.  However, it's the MAC champ taking on the Sun Belt champ.  These two, solid, mid-level programs fight hard and have potent offenses.  Though low on the totem pole, this bowl should be close and fun to watch.
  5. Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman, Dec. 28 - Air Force vs. Toledo  This has the potential of being the highest scoring game of this year's bowls.  Air Force's depleted secondary should get smoked by Rocket's receiver Eric Page.  But Toledo's questionable front seven will be hard pressed against a dangerous running attack.
The Bad
  1. MAACO Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 22 - Boise State vs. Arizona State  Surely, this can't be even close?  I know, don't call you "Shirley."  The Broncos are a missed field goal away from probably, as the year turned out, taking Alabama's spot in the title game.  Instead, they free-fall to here against a coach-less opponent that imploded in the second half of the season.  Yikes!
  2. San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, Dec. 21 - TCU vs. Louisiana Tech  Kudos to the Bulldogs for a strong finish to take the WAC crown.  But the Mountain West champs are a heavy hitter amongst the mid-tier programs and playing as well as anyone right now ranked #2-17.
  3. Valero Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29 - Baylor vs. Washington  Hopefully Bears' QB Robert Griffin III has his Heisman in hand for this game.  Even if he doesn't, he should torch an out-matched Huskies unit that should also be outnumbered by fans attending.
  4. AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31 - Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt  Vanderbilt and bowling are two words difficult to use in the same sentence.  The good news is they earned eligibility by beating another bowl team.  The bad news is that team was Wake Forest, another school rare to the environment.  Against Vandy's 2-6 record in the not-so-impressive SEC East, Cincinnati should win handily.
  5. Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, Dec. 28 - Texas vs. California  While both teams had disappointing seasons, Texas is still better.  And since the Holiday Bowl is generally an annual blow-out, I just put two and two together.
The Ugly
  1. Allstate Sugar Bowl, Jan. 3 - Michigan vs. Virginia Tech  Exhibit A of what's wrong with the current system - the bowls only care about money.  Neither team deserves to be here, except in a business sense.  Big Blue fans should travel in droves as they are parched from years of languishing in a desert of competitive mediocrity.  Va. Tech has the brand name for television ratings, but how many fans want to travel after that shellacking in the ACC title game?
  2. Gator Bowl, Jan. 2 - Ohio State vs. Florida  Exhibit B of what's wrong with the current system - a prime game takes two after-thoughts just because they're tied to their conferences.  There is nothing impressive about either Buckeyes or Gators.  So, in that sense, I guess it could be a close game.  A good game?  Unlikely.
  3. Music City Bowl, Dec. 30 - Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State  Exhibit C of what's wrong with the current system - there are way too many bowls.  We're stuck with two .500 teams?  This is not the only such match.  I know this can be exciting for the schools and its fans, but a lot of money is invested in this.  Couldn't it be used for a better purpose elsewhere?
  4. Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Dec. 31 - Illinois vs. UCLA  Exhibit D of what's wrong with the current system - special privileges are granted to the power conferences.  UCLA had a losing record and so had to apply for a waiver to even be eligible for this "reward."  A shame.  One, because this bowl supports a great cause.  Two, it meant Western Kentucky was denied their first bowl game in school history despite actually earning it.
  5. Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24 - Southern Miss vs. Nevada  Exhibit E of what's wrong with the current system - schools lose money while the bowl games and ESPN profit.  Exactly how many fans from either school will travel to this one and buy the tickets the schools are forced to eat?  With local fav Hawaii ineligible this year, there might by a few thousand in the stands.

December 05, 2011

Gaming Report: Red November

With pics, this time!  We got in two games of this chaotic, scramble-fest.  One 4 player session and one with 3 players.  The kids really enjoy the cooperative nature.  And I don't have to do all the thinking because they have caught on very nicely.  We won both games with only a couple of close shaves.  That's been the case with the last few sessions.  I'm trying to talk them into removing the "Respite" event cards in the future so we have fewer breaks.  I think it's much funnier when you're rushing to the missile room to try an prevent an ICBM from launching into your stern!  At any rate, this is a deceptively, good, puzzle-solving title.  Sure, it's got drunken gnomes trying to ward off the Kracken with a harpoon pop-gun!  But figuring out who's in the best position with the most favorable amount of time does work the brain - especially for younger gamers.

About mid-game. A couple of fires and flooding. Nothing too bad.

I'm (red) trapped in the Captain's cabin until yellow extinguishes the fire,
or I swipe some grog from his personal stash!

December 02, 2011

PnP Game Review: Battle of Marignano

Battle of Marignano (Paperworlds/Alex Kremer, 2005)
2 players / 10+ / 30 minutes

A general danced to and fro on horseback in front of the massed formations of pikemen ready for battle.  He saw the doubt and fear in their eyes as the gazed across the plains at gleaming barrels of the enemy's canon.  "Sons of Switzerland, I am Mattheus Schiner."
A young soldier in the front ranks sneered with doubt, "Mattheus Schiner is 7 feet tall.  And a Cardinal."
Spinning around in response, "Yes, I've heard.  Kills men by the hundreds, and if he were here he'd consume the French with cheeseballs from his eyes and bolts of army knives from his behind.  And, anyhow, haven't you ever heard of warrior monks?  I AM Mattheus Schiner.  And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of Frenchery.  You have come to fight as free men to defend our cheese, and free men you are. What would you do without cheese?  Will you fight?"

The timid soldier shook his head, "Fight?  Against that?  No, we will run;  and we will make watches."

The general's resolve stiffened.  "Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll make watches - at least a while. And dying in your workshop, dressed in your funny tights, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, JUST ONE chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our CHEESE!!!"

What You Get:

You won't use all of the Swiss counters in one game.
Is what you put into it.  A bit of a different review for this print-and-play game.  First, you have to download and print the image files found here.  There is only one page of counters, a one page map, and rules.  The counters are quaintly illustrated, but a little graphically crowded so that some are difficult to read.  The map is plain and simple, but then so was the real battlefield.  I pasted the counter sheet and map on 1/16 inch cardboard. Certainly not the sturdiest, but enough to pick up and provide some dimension.  I then cut it all with a straight edge and box knife.  There are also a number of plain, white counters labeled "R" and "D" to mark a unit that is reduced or disorganized.  Hey, it's definitely worth what you pay for!  A special note about the rules: while they could really benefit from some editing, they cover the necessities - even including a few illustrated examples.  And there is a substantial treatment of the historical battle which was fascinating and provided a great, thematic framework for game play.  Unfortunately, the rules are fairly ho-hum on the end game victory conditions: either destroy or force off the map all enemy units, admit defeat, or play for 30-40 turns.  Um, okay...

The Quick Rundown:

The French Cheese Invaders!
Battle of Marignano gamely recreates the climactic engagement between the French and the Swiss (yes, the Swiss) in one of the Italian Wars' many phases.  The year is 1515.  The French, as well as other European powers, have had a history of being bullied by the big, bad Swiss (yes, the Swiss).  It seems that the not-so-neutral-at-this-time Alpine power had managed quite the anachronistic military machine composed entirely of formidable phalanxes of pikemen.  These well-trained, lightly-armed, democratically-inclined volunteers with their 16 foot pikes and tight formations made quick meat of enemy infantry and brushed aside heavy cavalry as so many gnats.  They finally met their match at Marignano, however, partly because of their over-confidence even though outnumbered almost 2-1, but mostly because the Frenchies had nearly 200 bronze canon.  Artillery doesn't mind tight formations; in fact, it much prefers them!  The defeat was so resounding that it convinced the little confederacy of yodelers that maybe banking was safer.  Therefore, they officially adopted neutrality, except for in supplying mercenary units since other kings highly sought after the military prowess of the Swiss (yes, the Swiss).

Kremer's light game models the historical battle very well.  Instead of familiar hexes that many war gamers know and love, the map is composed of squares.  Each unit can move a specified number and engage the enemy when in range: eight spaces for canon, three for crossbowmen, and toe-to-toe for infantry.  The Swiss army is composed almost entirely of menacing pikemen.  The French have better guns and more of them, plus a nice contingent of cavalry.  Fighting is resolved by basic Combat Result Tables as determined by 1d6 and various modifiers.  Battle ebbs and flows as desired until you meet one of the ambiguous victory conditions or have to replace the battery in your watch.

E for Everyone:

Marignano is a light war game covering a very unique period with a lot to offer new and young war gamers.  Want to know if your kids are interested in and ready for a war game but hesitate to spend too much money on even the simplest of titles to find out?  Well, is "free" cheap enough for you?!  This game is perfect in introducing time-honored war gaming concepts, basics, and lingo.  You have counters (albeit not on the more common hexes), limited movement, combined arms, ranged attacks, zones-of-control, disorder, CRTs, facing, flanking, various combat modifiers, and to a lesser extent, terrain.  These are core principles of war gaming writ simple.  Especially for ancient to pre-modern war gaming.  Therefore, even if your child proves lukewarm to the genre, he/she will have little problem learning the standards of it with this title.  At the moment, my kids grasp the game play and enjoy the tactical thinking.  They ask for it as, "Can we play that game you glued together!"

Initial set-up.
More than just the basics, Marignano also introduces the concept of variable strategy based upon historically derived factors relevant to the battle portrayed.  This is another common denominator across the war gaming hobby.  Essentially your play is determined largely by which side you choose.  As the Swiss, you must close with your enemy - and close fast.  First, because your superior infantry are more numerous and simply fight better.  Second, when cannon and crossbowmen fire on any unit already engaged face-to-face with another, there is a 50/50 chance of friendly fire.  This rule is far more favorable to the Swiss, who have only one artillery unit and no crossbowmen, yet are constantly subject to the numerous French guns.  As the French, you need to bring your deadly canon to bear as effectively as possible, and hold on until the cavalry arrives - literally.  These reinforcements tip the numbers in the Gauls' favor - and with fast moving troops to get around the flanks and cause disruption.

Ironically, this little war game also introduces some of the drawbacks in the genre that turn off many gamers.  First, it is very fiddly, even for a game with less than 50 unit counters.  Aside from the normal pushing and lifting of small counters, Marignano adds the stacking of additional chits to mark disorganized and reduced units.  Since it takes four reduced markers to eliminate a unit, you can easily accumulate a good number of cluttered stacks spread about a small circumference of the map where most of the action is taking place.  On a humorous note, this is not as major an issue with children, as they have smaller fingers to manipulate the tiny counters!  Game length is also often a turn-off in war gaming and, while not an all-day affair like many of it's bigger brothers, Marignano is still a bit long for what it is.  If one side were to concede victory after a dozen rounds, then perhaps the 30 minute length is feasible.  However, that is a very optimistic, though misleading, suggestion.  One final, seedy characteristic of the genre to note is the dice.  There is a luck element.  It can be mitigated to a degree by using your particular strengths effectively.  Small consolation when your guns can't hit the broad side of a barn.
The French guns (bottom) must fire with care on the Swiss engaged with their own infantry.
 Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

Personally, I rate Battle of Marignano a 6 on the Board Game Geek scale (OK game, some fun or challenge at least, will play sporadically if in the right mood.).  If it weren't for it's introductory nature which will limit the desire to revisit this title, I'd go a number higher.  Still, this nice concept serves an underrated purpose: it is a light and simple experience that will introduce young war gamers to fundamental aspects in the wider world of war gaming.  Can you buy a more polished game that serves as a nice gateway into the niche?  Sure.  Manoeuvre does many of the same things in a simple manner, too.  If you already own or have access to the game, then great!  But if you don't, Marignano is a free taste test which could prove worth the effort for your kid(s) to print and assemble.