Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fortress America

Fortress America is one of my most favorite games ever. It was the next-to-last game produced as part of Milton Bradley's Gamemaster Series in the mid '80s, and is set in an alternate early 21st century where the Soviet Union never fell, and in fact it has conquered all of Europe and the Middle-East, and has influenced successful rebellions such that most of Asia as well as Central and South America band together and join in it a massive invasion of the United States.

The game itself is a fairly light-complexity wargame for two to four players. One player will always play the United States, while the other players handle the invaders. If there is only one invader player, he plays all three invading groups. With three players, one player handles the west and east coast invaders, while another handles the southern invaders. With four players, each power is handled by a separate player.

One of my favorite aspects of this game is the fact that each power group plays differently. While there are definitely similarities to the invaders, the invasion areas for each are different enough that you can't just use the same strategy no matter which group you are playing and expect to win. The western invaders have five American cities to capture right near the coast, but then you have to push inland pretty quickly. The southern invader has to decide if he wants to push straight up or cut to the right, while the eastern invader has to decide if he wants to push more towards the weak southern area or try to push harder into the extremely lucrative by heavily defended NE corridor. And, when playing with more than two players, the invaders can actually come to blows among themselves, as if the invaders win an individual winner is chosen based on how many points they have. Points are earned by capturing American cities, as well as territories with resource symbols and destroying laser stations. I've been the American player before and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by convincing one of the invading players to leave me alone and to attack another invader to grab points. Man, I love doing that.

The American player has a pretty hard time if the invaders know what they are doing, and playing the American is a very different experience. While the invaders are on the offensive, the American player has to balance defense and offense while trying to keep the invaders from capturing 18 or more cities. The American player has two unique things to help try to win. First, each turn you get to place a laser tower in any of your cities. On each turn, each laser tower on the board gets to fire at any space, with a 60% chance to kill any unit in that space. Since you add one every turn, this can add up pretty fast. Second, rather than having the set reinforcements that the invaders have, you draw reinforcement cards every turn. The cards all have different effects, from placing new units on the board in various spaces (sometimes you have a choice, and sometimes you don't, in where the units are placed) to destroying invader units. The cards are the only way to get the unique American units, partisans. Representing minuteman survivalist groups and other "non-traditional" warfighting assets, these units act like regular infantry unless they are by themselves, in which case they fight like hovertanks, representing their use of guerilla tactics when not combined with regular military units.

Combat itself is pretty straight-forward. Infantry and mobile units (like APCs and IFVs) roll a D6, hovertanks and helicopters roll a D8, and bombers roll a D10 in combat. You usually score a hit on a 5 or higher, though if attacking a city or a mountain space you only score a hit on a 6 or higher unless you have "combined arms," which means you have at least one infantry, at least one armor unit, and at least one air unit involved in the attack. This adds to the strategy because to successfully attack these spaces you need to make sure you have the units you want in position to attack. Since infantry are slow, this can often result in a choice to press an attack with armor and air units now, taking the harder to hit number, or waiting a turn (or more...) to bring up infantry while teh American player continually reinforces his position and gets more lasers on the board. Combats go fast, and can be quite tense when one side doesn't have overwhelming numbers.

In fact, the thing that I like best about Fortress America is the asymmetrical nature of the game. Each side just feels different from the others, especially the American side. Also, unlike many of the Gamemaster Series games, this one will not run on forever if the players decide to go defensive. See, the units that the invaders have in their trays at the start of the game are all the units they will ever have. You start with 20, and then on turns two through six you put eight more on the board each turn. After that, you get no more, ever. So, the invader needs to push hard and fast, because by the time you run out of new units the American player will have six lasers on the board killing your units. And more die every turn, which can never be replaced. It can get tense. The American player never runs out of possible reinforcements, so the American player is just trying to hold out as long as possible. Usually if the American player hasn't lost by turn eight, they can turn the tide as they keep getting new units and the invaders get none.

Definitely one of my favorite games of all time, this is the first game ever to get a "10" rating from me on the Geek. Used copies can be very expensive, but if you like light wargames with good production values and high toy factor (as every piece in the game is a molded plastic piece), it could be worth the money to get your own copy.

Monday, June 29, 2009

True North, Day Four

aka, "The Journey of Death!" See, my flight schedule had me landing in St. Louis at 10:55 AM Central time, which would have given me the whole afternoon to get back into the swing of things in St. Louis. Instead, my connecting flight from Chicago landed at 4 PM Central time, which is a bit later in the day. See, when I landed in Chicago, I was greeted with the news that my connecting flight to St. Louis had been cancelled. Oh joy, oh rapture! No explanation, which is par for the course for American. What wasn't par for the course was that they automatically booked me on the next scheduled flight, which was a step up in service from their usual handling of things.

However, it went downhill from there. The new flight should have landed me in St. Louis at 1 PM, which wasn't too bad, just a two hour delay. So, we boarded the plane on time, got everything stowed, and then sat there at the gate, not going anywhere. Turns out the plane radio had a problem, and the mechanics were working on it, and working on it, and then they left to do something and nobody had any idea what was going on. Eventually, after an hour or so of sitting there, they had us deplane. So we stood around in the terminal for a while before learning that we were getting a new plane. There was much rejoicing. So, we all trundled over to a different terminal, to the new gate, and then things kept going downhill.

See, the new plane, which had just landed (from either Newark or Philly, I don't remember which), had a brake problem, and they needed to drain the brake lines and then put new fluid in. So, another hour of standing around in the terminal. Then we finally board the plane, only to sit in it for over half an hour while mysterious goings on were occurring the cockpit. Eventually they got us off the ground and to St. Louis, but I want those five hours of my life back. Those were five annual leave hours! Those are precious!

So, in the end, the old rule was reinforced: CHICAGO RUINS EVERYTHING!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

True North, Day Three

I started the day by calling HSBC again, and telling my story again. The non-Indian lady who took the call agreed that what I was told yesterday was wrong, and my card was not one of those involved in the potential vendor fraud. Thus, it should not be suspended, and she released the lock on it. Yeah! It turns out that Mastercard is not an evil empire, after all. HSBC just has poorly trained phone support personnel. Who knew?

After clearing that all up, I headed off to the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is a pretty cool place, though smaller than I had anticipated. I had figured that they had some kind of exhibit that at least listed all of the people that have been inducted, but they had nothing of the kind. They had a huge exhibit, right up front, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens hockey club, and a number of cool exhibits focusing on specific individuals of major importance in the NHL, such as Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. That makes sense. What I hadn't counted on was the fact that this is not just the NHL hall of fame, it is truly the world hockey hall of fame. For example, an entire wing was dedicated to the International Ice Hockey Federation. The coolest part of this was all of the jerseys from various countries that you wouldn't think of as hockey places, such as South Africa, Ireland, Mongolia, and Mexico.

After seeing all of that I headed off to the section that focuses on North American hockey, which is pretty cool because they had a lot of displays focusing on Collegiate and minor league hockey on the continent. Until you really pay attention to minor league hockey, you just don't realize how many teams there are out there. Probably not as many as baseball, but it seems close. Each NHL team has at least two affiliated minor league teams, and there are many more out there, especially when you consider the Canadian development leagues. One thing I learned today that I had never known before was that every minor league follows the NHL's lead by having a championship trophy (or plaque, or cup, or whatever) that just gets passed around every year, rather than creating a whole new trophy for each season or tournament.

Speaking of that, the best part was of course going into the trophy room and seeing the Stanley Cup as well as the other major trophies (Hart, Vezina, Calder, Lady Byng, etc.) that are handed out every year. Everything but the Stanley Cup was in a plastic casing, but the Stanley Cup is just right there on the back wall (with an employee that does nothing but watch it and make sure you don't engage in inappropriate behavior with it), completely free and open. Coolness! I had last seen the Cup in 1996 in St. Louis during the entry draft that year, but seeing it in its home was great. Speaking of it, the trophy room is a total cathedral, with nice wood paneling, carved designs in the ceiling, and a wonderful stained glass dome right in the middle. The design of the room really lets you know that while the displays of players and jerseys, sticks and pucks, skates and masks are all nice, the trophy room is serious. This is why you trek in from all over the world, for the trophies, and specifically for the Cup. At the risk of being sacreligeous, it's kind of like making your hajj journey for a hockey fan, you're just going to the Hall in Toronto rather than Mecca.

Speaking of the cup, did you know that what you see on TV, and is displayed in the trophy room, isn't the original? The original is in the "vault" (which opens to the trophy room), and looks basically the same, but there have been lots of changes in the rings underneath it, and at some point in the '40s, I think, they made a whole new trophy based on the original. Pretty interesting. They even kept all of the old silver rings that used to be on it, and they are mounted around the room.

My journey ended in a trip to the gift shop, at which I spent lots of money getting various books and tchotchkes that I don't need, but you don't buy a book of hockey quotes because you need it, you buy it because it is funny (example: "How would you like it if, at your job, every time you made the slightest mistake a little red light went on over your head and 18,000 people stood up and screamed at you?" by Hall of Fame Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante). I also bought a really dorky looking mug with my name on it, which is rad.

After that, my legs were tired so I headed back to the hotel to rest up a bit. For dinner I am going to go to St. Louis Bar and Grill, which is right across the street from the Rogers Centre, because I'm from St. Louis, so of course I need to eat there. I shouldn't even have to explain this to you.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

True North, Day Two

Today was a baseball day. The day started with breakfast, and then a lazy walk around the Rogers Centre, just checking out the nice-looking apartment and condo high-rises that surround this part of the city. I think everyone who lives near the lack has more money than they know what to do with. Well, either that or they are in debt up to their eyeballs, there is that possibility.

Before the ballgame, I went to the official team store and spent a lot of money. Well, I actually only spent a little bit of my own money on a Blue Jays t-shirt. However, I used two American Express gift cheques I got from my boss to get a Blue Jays hat and a replica jersey. I even got the jersey customized with "Thorne" ('cuz that's my name) and "35," as today is my 35th birthday. Yes, happy birthday to ME!

Well, it would have been if the Blues Jays had cooperated. However, they, in their infinite wisdom, decided to send some young punk just up from the minor to pitch, and he got beat like a drum. The Phillies hit two home runs in the first inning. That just doesn't bode well, does it? By the end of the day, the game ended in a 10-0 drubbing that we will never speak of again. Seriously, the Jays couldn't do anything right. So frustrating.

After the game, I chilled in my hotel room for an hour or so, and then I headed next door to the CN Tower. This is supposed to be the tallest "free standing structure" in the world. Please do not ask me the difference between a "free standing structure" and a regular building, because I have no idea. Anyway, it is really tall. The upper observation deck, called the Sky Pod, is about 1.5 kilometres up, and you can see forever from up there. Seriously, I could see the U.S. on the far side of Lake Ontario, over a hundred miles away. Craziness. The clear sky helped a lot with that. The only other time I've been up in an observation tower was about four years ago in Seattle when I was in the Space Needle, when it was cloudy and hazy. Yeah, that didn't work so good. I'm not sure if it was worth $24 bucks, but it was kind of neat.

After that, I got an interesting call from HSBC, the bank that issued the Mastercard I use. They said that Mastercard had contacted them and informed them of some kind of potential fraud involving my account, and to cancel that account immediately and issue me a new card with a new account number. The nice lady in India who talked to me (I mean, where else would she be from? She works phone support.) informed me that HSBC had no actual information on the situation, they were just given a dictate by Mastercard. I didn't realize that Mastercard was god and could do whatever they wanted without explanation. I think it might be time to get myself a Visa card, because I'm pretty sure that being in a foreign country with no active credit card is going to pose some problems. Yeah, this trip could end up being a lot more adventuresome than I had anticipated. Thanks, Mastercard! Now go die or something.

After that was an attempt at a healthy dinner (a salad with spinach, oranges, almonds, and what I think were onions of some sort, and something else I couldn't recognize), and now it's time to rest up for tomorrow, when I go to the Hall.

P.S. Mr. Brad Mills, enjoy your trip right back to triple-A Las Vegas, and I hope somebody ruins your birthday, too. I mean, I've only waited 25 years to actually go to a Blue Jays game in Toronto, so it isnt like this game was important to me or anything. Hey, maybe Mastercard will do it! Lord knows they have the power...

Friday, June 26, 2009

True North, Day One

Greetings from Toronto, Ontario, Canada! I flew up here today to take a brief vacation and enjoy my 35th birthday while doing two things I have never done before, but wanted to do: go to the Hockey hall of Fame, and a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game. Tomorrow is the ball game, and then on Sunday I'm going to the Hall.

The flights up here were generally on time, and I saved ~$35 by taking a bus downtown, rather than taking a cab straight to the hotel. I was able to talk the bus driver into taking me about half a block away, though, so it was very little extra distance I had to cover on foot. I am staying at the Renaissance Hotel inside the Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays baseball stadium. My room is pretty nice, with a king-size bed, a nice bathroom, a full couch, and a sitting chair. My view out the windows isn't very good, but considering that I'm not paying any actual money for the room, I'm not going to complain!

I hit the hotel bar/restaurant for dinner, which has a full wall of windows that looks out into the Rogers Centre field, so you can watch the ball game while eating. Sweet! Granted, I spent my time glued to the TV watching the first few picks in the NHL entry draft currently underway in Montreal. Let me tell you, the NHL draft coverage in Canada is light years away from what you can usually get in the States. Gee, I wonder why I'm here?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Don't Believe What I Just Saw!!!

Whoah! The U.S. Men's team just beat Spain! #1 in the world Spain! European champions Spain! Cesc Fabregas (who played great) is from Spain! Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!!!

(Sane posting will resume at some time in the distant future after I find a way to get over the ridiculous awesomeness of this moment.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009


For the next entry in my walk through my game collection, we come to Runebound, a fantasy adventure board game. I picked this up about two years ago because I had heard that you could play it solitaire against the board quite easily, and that is true, especially if you use the solitaire-specific rules from boardgamegeek.com. There are many different expansions available for the game, but I have only ever played the base game. I have played it solitaire, as well as against opponents, and it is a fun, though not great, board game.

The basic premise is that each player has a character, and you wander the board having adventures to earn experience points, which you can spend to improve your character abilities. Once you feel you are strong enough, you can go after the big bad guys and try to win the game by defeating them. There are 12 different characters in the base game, all with different abilities and attribute scores. The way the game handles character attributes is a bit like console RPGs do, where you start with a fairly low number and can increase them as much as you want, with no limits other than your opposition.

As you move your character around the map, you can have adventures when you land on a space with a colored dot. The colors indicate roughly how tough the encounter will be. Green spaces are the easiest encounters, yellow are harder, blue are harder still, and red encounters are reserved for the main bad guys. Each colored space has a deck of cards that goes with it. When you land on a space of a specific color you draw a card and resolve the encounter, usually by rolling dice along with an attribute to determine if you win the encounter or not. Combats run until one side is defeated, though you can have non-combat encounters, as well. Successfully completing an encounter gives you experience points, which as noted before, you can spend to get better. The number of points needed to improve an attribute varies depending on the number of players, which works out well in actual play. For example, with one or two players, you need five points to improve an attribute. With five players, you only need three. This helps the game because the more players, the more time each individual spends watching other people play the game.

This leads me to the big fault with the game, the lack of interaction between players. Generally, when it is not your turn, you have nothing to do. There are a few times when you can play a card to hinder another player from doing what they want to do, and players can have their characters fight each other if in the same space on the board, but generally you just take actions when it is your turn and watch other people take actions when it is their turn. Because of this, I would not recommend playing the game with more than four players, max. Anything more has you spending too much time not doing anything.

But back to the game. The aforementioned mechanics are OK, but not very interesting. However, the board also includes a number of towns. Towns are great because if your character is in one you can heal wounds, buy new equipment, and maybe hire allies to aid you in your quest. Allies are really, really important, in my experience, as having an ally that has complimentary strengths and weaknesses to your main character means that there shouldn't be any encounters that you don't have a good chance to beat. Granted, it can take work to find a complimentary ally, and the luck of card draws has something to do with it, but getting good allies (and keeping them alive!) is part of the strategy of the game. Some of the items are pretty amazing, too, and having that special armor when the dragon is beating on you can literally be a life saver.

So, Runebound is a fun fantasy adventure game, but I wish it had more inter-action between players. As it is, it makes for a nice "RPG lite" diversion every once in a while, but it isn't something I'm always trying to get on the table.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Knightmare Chess

To be honest with you, I have never been much of a Chess player. As much as I like playing board games, the subtleties of Chess have always eluded me. It is a popular game, though, so I used to feel like I needed to learn it better, making myself suffer through many humiliating defeats before I was able to find peace with my weakness and peacefully go my own way.

During the time that I was trying to "get" Chess, I picked up a deck of cards called Knightmare Chess, published by Steve Jackson Games a dozen years ago. The basic gist of this add-on is that you have a deck of cards, each of which breaks the rules of Chess in one way or another. The changes are highly varied, from letting you swap pieces on the board, or move a piece differently than they normally move, or my favorite, the Fireball, which blows up one of your pawns and every piece in an adjacent space. That card is awesome. The basic result of playing Knightmare Chess is that while you know how pieces can normally move, you never know what cards your opponent has in his hands, and how that will break the game. Thus, you can end up being more cautious than normal, while trying to put your own pieces in position to do something crazy.

The way that Knightmare Chess is supposed to work is that each player has their own set of cards, and then you create your own play deck. Each card has a points value, from 1 to 10, and you have 150 points with which to build your own deck. Some cards are unique, and you can only have one of them in your deck, while you can have multiple copies of non-unique cards. I have never actually played the game that way, though. I have always used the optional rule where you just use the entire card deck that comes in the box, and both players draw from the same deck. The normal rules add a deck-building aspect to the game that apes collectible card games, but the optional way that I play has easier set-up, and you only need one deck between both players.

I find Knightmare Chess to be a fun diversion, but it is not my favorite game, so I hardly ever break it out. In fact, I think the last time I had played it prior to getting it out just to write this blog post was in 2002, which was the last time I had used my Chess set. If you like Chess, though, and want to add some chaos to your games, then Knightmare Chess is a good way to do that.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Last Flight of the Eagles

So this weekend the F-15 fighters from the Air National Guard that have operated out of St. Louis for I don't even remember how many years will be gone. I have a number of memories of sitting in Lambert airport waiting to take a flight out of town, and having one of "Lindbergh's Own" buzz a little closer to the terminal than was technically considered appropriate while on a training flight. One time one of the pilots got a little crazy and pulled one of those stunts where they fly really slow over the runway, and then tilt the nose 85 degrees up and hit the afterburners, blasting straight up and threatening to blow the windows out. Good times, but they are now gone. Because, let's be honest, what is the current risk of an enemy nation putting planes in the air near eastern Missouri?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rational Discussions on Abortion

I don't usually cover more "serious" topics on my blog, but I thought that this Slate article was actually really interesting, and worthy of pondering. With the current approach to abortion rights in the US, more middle-of-the-road positions get drowned out all the time, such that the situation remains constantly polarized. Until we as a country decide to actually try to compromise and find a middle ground, we won't be able to actually try to bring the situation to any kind of fruition.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Happy D-Day!

So, what did you do to celebrate the Allies' invasion of Europe?


I got up early this morning to go hiking. I'm trying to do at least one good hike every quarter, on varous trails around the area. My friend George went with me, and we decided to do the Lewis and Clark Trail out in St. Charles County, which is part of the Katy Trail system throughout the state. The weather was great for it (if the trail itself was too wet in some places), and it included one real good overlook on a bluff over the Missouri River. There were too many mosquitos, though; they were everywhere in the lower areas. And I got us lost just a little bit, but it's not my fault, because the trails were not properly marked. Seriously, there's a good use for some stimulus money, putting up new trail signs. At least one tree we passed had a rusted out sign laying on the ground next to it, which isn't exactly helping, you know?

After at least 5 1/2 miles (it was supposed to be 5 1/4, but we kind of made a little circle about halfway through), both George and I were very happy to hit the parking lot again, none the worse for wear, but quite tired. I immediately came home and passed out on the couch, which is a little surprising, since 5 1/2 miles isn't really all that long. We did go up and down hills quite a bit, so maybe that was it.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Comic Books

As most people who read this blog know, I collect comic books. While I read G. I. Joe and a bit of Transformers in my childhood, I really got into the scene while I was in undergrad at Missouri State. I blame my Star Wars fandom, because I was knee deep in that scene when Dark Horse released their Dark Empire series, and I couldn't exactly ignore an entire new way of experience the Star Wars universe. That then led to innocent little experiments with other series that looked interesting, like Shadow Empires: Faith Conquers, and Tempus Fugitive, and... it just snowballed from there.

With the looming demise of Geocities, I wanted to find a new place to do comic book stuff online. I know I mentioned this already in a blog post, because an ex-coworker of mine found a link to my blog from my LinkedIn profile, and then wrote me an email to let me know about a website that a friend of his runs, Comic Book Realm. it is a pretty interesting place. You can discuss comic books, and rate comic books, and even better, you can log your entire collection and get pricing estimates. Being the obsessive-compulsive nerd that I am, I couldn't resist that temptation, and I recently did exactly that. And, sure enough, my collection breaks the $10,000 barrier in estimated value (when I include the books I am interested in selling). I gotta upgrade my insurance on those comics (yes, I specifically include my collection in my condo insurance. Why would I not?) There were some strange surprises in that process, though. I have a couple old Whitman comics like Scrooge McDuck and Looney Tunes. Just random issues mind, and they are worth about $15 a pop. Those old Radio Shack Tandy computer comics? $16 a pop. Even that old Robotix one-shot that I was sure nobody would care about was worth $7.

But the big surprise was a G. I. Joe comic, which ties back into my days at Missouri State. Sometime in the mid '90s Marvel cancelled the long-running G. I. Joe series they had published non-stop since 1981. Even though I hadn't picked up a copy in years, I figured I should get the last issue, dropping a good $1.50 to do so at that oddball comic and gaming store just a few blocks south of the east side of campus. Know what it is worth these days? $80. I was floored. Talk about a good investment.