Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Zulus on the Ramparts!

At the beginning of the year I was travelling to Detroit every week for work.  To entertain myself in the evening, I wanted some small (and thereby, portable) board games to bring with me.  Through some internet research, I discovered the game Israeli Independence, which was a quick-playing solitaire game where you played the nacent Israeli armed forces in 1948 defending your country against attacks from multiple directions.  That game used a newly developed game system called "States of Siege."  While I didn't find the game itself to be that much fun, I did like the system, which involves drawing cards or counters to determine which of your enemies (from none of them to all of them) advance on your position that turn, as well as how far they advance.  Since I liked the mechanic, I went looking for other games that use it.

I ended up getting two more games from designer Joseph Miranda that use this same system.  The first of them, Zulus on the Ramparts, I will be discussing today.  The game covers the battle of Rorke's Drift, a rather famous battle in British imperial history where a small group of British soldiers fought off thousands of Zulu tribesmen.  The game puts you in the role of the British commander, while the game system has four different groups of Zulu warriors advancing on your fortification.  Each round you pull a counter out of a cup, and it tells you which group of Zulus to advance, as well as how far to advance them.  If a group of Zulus ever reaches your inner fortification zone, you lose the game as the defenses are over-run.  To stop this, you get to take actions during your turn.  Actions generally involve the play of cards from your hand: volley cards let you roll a certain number of dice to try to kill or drive away Zulus before they reach you; character cards let you bring specific named characters into the battle, all of which have special abilities; you can build an inner fortification line (such that the Zulus have to move deeper into your fortification to defeat you); you can distribute ammunition (necessary after any large volley); form a reserve platoon (required to play certain volley cards); etc.  This is one of those games where you usually want to perform multiple actions per turn, but the game limits you to one (some characters have special abilities to allow additional plays, though always at a cost), so you have to decide which of the many things you want to do is most important.  All the while, the Zulus continue their implacable advance.

The game is, as all good solitiare games should be, hard to win.  I have about a dozen plays of this game to my credit, and I have won maybe 4 times.  There is luck involved in how fast the Zulus actually advance, and from which direction they advance, so sometimes I get jumped by a fast-moving group before I really have a chance to get my defenses set.  Sometimes, I just roll really poorly on the dice for my volley fires, and the Zulus just over-run me without even taking any hits.  Occasionally, though, you can get really lucky attack rolls and actually kill off a bunch of Zulu attackers.  One game I even killed all of the attacking units, and won the game outright, instead of barely holding on for the relief column to arrive (which involves running the deck of play cards down to the bottom).

I consider this to be a very good game.  It takes roughly 30 to 45 minutes to play once you have set it up, and it stays tense throughout, with that constant sense that disaster could befall you at any moment, but you just might pull yourself out of the fire in time.  If you have an interest in the battle, or in solitaire board games, this is worth checking out.

Monday, September 27, 2010

New Design

After over four years of blogging, I have decided it is time to update the look around here.  I don't know if this dark, depressing color scheme is what I will end up with, but it is stark enough to get me serious about figuring out how I want things to look.  Expect some more changes over the next few weeks as I keep tweaking things.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

New Kicks

Today I took advantage of a Macy's coupon and bought myself some new dress shoes for work. In the process, I discovered an interesting advantage to the orthopedic insoles I have to use in all of my shoes now. In the good old days, buying shoes was a massive pain in the rear end, because my feet are smaller than 99% of the male population of the universe, at least according to shoe companies. The end result of this is that I had to buy shoes, usually by custom order, from high end, expensive shoe stores. The upside was that I had some very nice shoes. The downside is that I would pay at least $275 per pair, and that was on sale.

Ever since I got my special insoles, though, I have to buy bigger shoes. Now, I can buy normal shoes at a normal store, because once I put in the inserts my feet now fit in a regular size 9 shoe. This means that the shoes today cost me under $70 each after the coupon. When you consider that I paid about $225 for the insoles, let's do some quick math.

Buying two pairs of shoes in the old days, on sale: $275 x 2 = $550.
Buying two pairs of shoes in the new days, plus cost of the orthopedic insoles: $225 + ($70 x 2) = $365.

Even with the added expense of having to buy the custom insoles, I saved $185. Thanks custom orthopedic insoles! You're saving me money!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Let the Fiesta Begin

Today I watched parts of the Flyers/Devils and Leafs/Senators games on the NHL Network. Just a few more days...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lightning Strike

Being under the weather today and having a day off from work, I figured this was a good time to discuss another random game from my collection, Lightning Strike. Lightning Strike is a bit different from most of the games in my collection in that it is a miniatures game, rather than a standard board game. The board for this case is whatever surface you are playing on, usually a table. A lot of miniatures games use pieces of terrain to make tactical maneuvering of your forces more interesting, but since Lightning Strike is simulating battles in the dark void of space, you generally don't have to worry about that. I have the 1st edition of Lightning Strike. There is a 2nd edition of the game, but the rules are not fundamentally different. The primary difference is that the 1st edition game comes with lots of card stock counters to represent the starships, fighter craft, and exo-armors that are fighting in the battles; whereas the 2nd edition doesn't include those because they expect you to buy and paint the miniatures the publisher wants to sell you. While I'm sure the miniatures look really cool, I am perfectly happy with my counters.

Lightning Strike is the space combat game for the Jovian Chronicles universe, which is set in the early part of the 23rd century. The set-up is that all of the inner planets of the solar system have been colonized and at least partially terraformed, and there are even colonies around Jupiter and Saturn. Due to a series of unfortunate events, the Jovian Confederation and the Central Earth Government and Authority (CEGA) are at the brink of war, and you get to use the game to play out their battles for supremacy of the solar system. Expansions to the game add in the forces of Mars, Venus, and more, but the basic game just gives you the Jovians and CEGA forces. This is enough to play many games, though.

The basic games system is not complicated. All units have a movement allowance given in centimeters, and they can move that far per turn. Small units can fly in any direction and pull off crazy stunts as desired, but warships use vector movement rules that attempt to follow Einsteinian physics (i.e., if a ship burns its engine enough to move 15cm per turn in a direction, it will keep going at that speed in that direction until it burns its engine in another direction. Units have varying weapons; when they take an action to fire, the player chooses the weapon and measures the range to the target. Each weapon has varying range bands; the closer the range, the more damage you can do with a successful hit. To make an attack (or perform any other skilled action) the player rolls a number of six-sided dice equal to the unit's skill rating. The highest die roll is the result of the roll, though each six after the first one adds one to the total. For example, a skills 3 unit that rolled 1, 2, and 4 would have a final skill check result of 4. A skills 3 unit that rolled a 2, 6, and 6 would have a final skill check result of 7. Certain things can modify those rolls (like taking careful aim, or taking evasive maneuvers, or overburning your engine), but the system itself is pretty simple. The defender also makes a skill check. The attacker's total is then compared to the defender's total. If the attacker's total exceeds the defender's total, then the attack hits. The damage is the difference between skills rolls multiplied by the weapon damage at the range band. This means that beating a defender by 1 isn't near as good as beating them by 5. This damage is then compared to the defender's armor rating. A successful hit can either do no damage, stun the defender (have to spend an action point to remove the stun before any other actions can be taken), cripple the defender (move at half speed and weapons do half damage), or kill them outright. So each side rolls some dice, and you compare the results to the attacker's weapon and the defender's armor. It goes pretty fast. Large ships have multiple systems that can be destroyed without destroying the entire unit, but exo armors and fighters go down all at once if you kill them.

For a set of miniatures rules, there is a surprisingly large amount of content here. Not only do you get some basic background on the Jovian Chronicles universe (I think that is removed in the 2nd edition of the game, though) and stats for close to two dozen different types of units, but there is also a set of campaign rules included to provide you with a framework for playing out a series of battles between Jovian and CEGA forces. It is a nice rules set. The game itself doesn't appear to be very popular. At least, I have never known another person who has ever played the game, but I hold out hope of one day finding someone to play a campaign against. Even though I almost never play it, the game is such a complete package (and the mental images of 50 feet tall mecha flying through space stabbing enemy warships with plasma swords are so awesome) that I'll probably always have it in my collection.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My Brother Makes This

My older brother, Christopher, helps make the software for this.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Crimson Skies

Wow, it has been many months since I have written about a game in my collection. The reason for that is because the game that got randomly selected was one I had just recently purchased, the old Crimson Skies boardgame from the gone but never forgotten FASA Corporation. Those of you who play video games may remember that back in 2000 Microsoft released a video game for the Xbox and PC called Crimson Skies, and the video game is set in the same game universe as the board game. The board game itself was first published in 1998, during the summer before I moved to Washington, D.C., and I never played it, or even actually saw it played, back then. In early 2001 FASA ceased publication, and the Crimson Skies boardgame was a victim of that time. Nothing new has been published for the game in about 10 years, but early this year I had a chance to buy almost everything ever published for the game for $15, and I just couldn't pass it up. Battletech, also published by FASA, is one of my favorite wargames ever, so at such a low price it was worth picking up Crimson Skies to see how it compared.

But first, a discussion of the game world for Crimson Skies. The setting for the game is in the later 1930s of an "alternate history" United States of America that shattered politically when the Great Depression started. By 1937, there are 19 separate nations where once one had stood. Because of this, land-based transportation like rail, and especially automobiles, have lost in transportation priority to airplanes and dirigibles. In the game you play pilots flying fighter planes against your opponent's fighter planes, and in some scenarios you are either attacking or defending a dirigible against the enemy. Granted, these dirigibles mount flak cannons and machine guns to defend themselves, and thus you can play out scenarios like that pictured on the box cover, which shows air pirates attacking an Empire State dirigible while Blake Aviation Security attempts to intervene. This is all very much in the vein of "pulp" adventure stories from that time, when men were men and women were women, which basically means that you are supposed to play the game in a daring and dashing manner, as if Errol Flynn was flying the plane in an action movie, fighting against sky pirates to save the beautiful dame in danger. Something like that, anyway.

The game itself is played with either cardboard counters or painted pewter miniatures on a hex map. Five different maps are provided in the boxed game, and at least two more came with expansion sets. For the most part, the maps are for looks (fighting over downtown Manhattan or just open sky has no bearing on the game), except that some maps include high-altitude terrain hexes, which are (probably) impassable to your planes. You can try to fly through it, but if you fail your maneuvering roll get ready to hit that obstacle head on at 200 miles per hour. There are a few aspects of the game that are worth pointing out, so let's get to it.

First, this is not a "pick up and play" game. First you have to decide what scenario you want to play, which can be one provided with the game or a supplement, or one the player's design themselves. This can be as simple as "let's each take two fighters and dogfight" to "let's do a zeppelin raid over Manhattan, and the zeppelin is picking up special cargo, which the pirates must try to grab with harpoon rockets without damaging the container. There will be 12 pirates and eight defenders, and the defenders will be elite and the pilots are built with 500 points instead of 450." It can get even more complex than that. Notice that comment about "500 instead of 450" for the pilots? Before each game, unless you are playing in a campaign with persistent flight crews, you have to build your pilot from scratch. There are five skills plus a Constitution rating for each pilot, and you spend your points to buy their skill levels and any increased Constitution you want. This can take a bit of time, but it does allow you to match your pilot's skills to the plane you are flying. Ah, yes, you also have to select your planes. The base game comes with 14 different models, plus the rules to design your own, and expansion sets came with more plane types. Once you select your planes, you have to decide what ammunition they are using and what rockets/bombs are mounted on the hardpoints. Only once all of that is decided are you ready to play. It can be a quite a bit of work to get that all set up and ready.

Second, movement in the game is simultaneous and mostly blind to your opponent. All movement orders are written at the beginning of the turn, and once every plane has an order then they are all carried out simultaneously. The only exception to this is if one plane is tailing the other. In that case, you add up some modifiers to determine exactly how much information the tailed plane has to provide to his tailer about that plane's movement. This mechanic is actually quite common in aircraft board games, and I have run into it before with both World War I-themed games, as well as modern air combat games. It works OK, but it does take some getting used to if you aren't familiar with that mechanic. It also makes the game about impossible to play solitiare.

Third, the way that weapons do damage is both really interesting and kind of gimmicky at the same time. Each plane has a damage diagram, which is really a collection of small boxes organized to represent the layout of the plane's mechanical components. Whenever a plane takes damage, either from enemy fire or from failing to properly perform a maneuver that exceeds the plane's flight capabilities, you use a special stencil to identify the area of the plane that got damaged, and then you blacken all of the boxes not covered by the stencil. You can see an example of the end result in this picture. The specific stencil you use is determined by the caliber of the gun you are firing as well as the ammunition you loaded it with. Different types of rockets also have different damage layouts. As you take damage and blacken boxes that represent different aircraft components, those components break. In the case of guns or rockets, you can't use that weapon anymore. In the case of wing struts, elevators, flaps, and the like, your plane becomes less maneuverable, which can be a very back thing indeed if your opponent can now literally out-maneuver you. Hits to the cockpit canopy can stun your pilot, hits to landing gear make it harder to land safely (yes, you can lose a pilot and plane to a bad landing) at the end of a mission in a campaign game, etc. Hits to a fuel tank just lose you fuel, unless you were hit in the fuel tank by "burning" ammunition, in which case you explode instantly into a nice fireball.

Fourth, the game appears to be really intended for campaign play, where each player (or each group of players) controls an entire squadron of planes and pilots, which then fly multiple missions against each other. The biggest clue to this is that during missions, pilots gain experience points for successful kills of enemy aircraft, as well as other actions. After each mission, surviving pilots can spend their accumulated experience points to improve their skills. The end result is that a successful pilot in one mission literally gets better before the next mission. This can have an affect on game play, too, as you try to make sure that your really good pilot doesn't get cut off and shot down by enemy planes.

In the end, while Crimson Skies is an interesting boardgame, I doubt that I will ever play it again. It really demands campaign play to get the most out of it, and even if I did know other people that wanted to play it, who has the time to devote to that? Certainly not I, at least not these days. However, if you ever decide to play the game and want to get additional plane counters, I highly recommend grabbing the files from this site and printing them out. The counters work very nicely.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Muddy Blues

Yesterday, since the weather was so good, my friend George and I decided to take in the Big Muddy Blues Festival being held at Laclede's Landing here in St. Louis. The music was good, though I would have preferred to hear more blues acts than soul acts. It's only got "blues" in the name, is that too much to ask, for actual blues music? Ah, well. Before we actually headed down to the Landing, since I had to park by Keiner plaza, we decided to stop by the Arch (i.e., the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) and check out the displays of the proposed upgrades to the park grounds, which are currently being considered. I found it interesting that all of the proposed changes made significant use of the low lands on the Illinois side of the river, which is currently just sitting there being an eye sore. While a number of those ideas looked good in principle, they all looked to be quite expensive; I wonder where the money is supposed to come from to pay for it all?

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Doin' Work

It has been "plant cutting" week here around the house. On Tuesday my father came up for a couple hours and cut some limbs off of the tree in the front yard. That tree hadn't been trimmed back in a few years and it was really getting too big, so it was good to thin it out a bit. Then, today, I did some work in the back yard cutting back on the lavender bush and some other plants in preparation for re-staining the deck later this month. The plants that were put around the deck had simply gotten too big, and I couldn't have painted parts of it if I didn't cut those plants back (or, in the case of what looked like weeds, remove them entirely). In the process I also found a couple wasp nests, but they must have been old and not in use anymore because dousing them with poison didn't produce any angry wasps. So it was a week of doing things that needed doing.