Saturday, February 26, 2011

Thoughts on Spielbox

Last weekend I picked up the November, 2010 issue of the magazine Spielbox.  As you may be able to guess from its name, it is a German magazine about games.  As the tagline says, "All about Games in a Box," which means it covers boardgames, cardgames, dexterity games, and pretty much all games that aren't either athletic games (like soccer or hockey) or electronic games (like Final Fantasy or Doom).  They have been publishing an English version of the magazine for about a year, now, and I noticed that the November issue came with a Carcassonne expansion, so I figured this was a good issue to pick up and see what I think about it.

The magazine itself is full-color, and printed in the European standard A4 paper size.  I can't say whether all issues are the same, but this one is 64 pages.  Some of those are advertisements, though I didn't find there to be too many ads in the magazine, and therefore it is mostly content.  Again, I don't know if this is standard or not, but a little over half of the magazine appeared to be review of various games, which I liked.  Because this is simply an edition of the magazine printed in English, and not a separate magazine with the same name targeted at the US market, the reviews mostly cover games available in the German and greater European market.  The ads also appeared to be heavily German-focused, with a few exceptions for US internet retailers.  Outside of the reviews there were two interview-style articles, one with a game designer couple and the other with an artist who does a lot of boardgame art and has started getting involved with game designs.  There also was an article looking at the evolution in design principles used by Martin Wallace in a series of games, a survey of a number of recent Carcassonne expansions, the rules for the mini-Carcassonne expansion that comes with the magazine (very smartly placed in the middle, so the rules are easily removed without overly mangling the rest of the magazine), an article about a German publisher in the '70s and the games they produced, an article about the evolution of word games (Scrabble, Boggle, some German games I'd never heard of before, etc.), an article about design in economic trading games, and a one page writeup of the 2010 Wizard world championships.

In case you missed it earlier, this is a German magazine.  Even though it is in English, you occasionally find "Germanisms" sneaking in.  For example, the designers for one game reviewed are referred to as "Aron West, Ryan Amos, und Marc Kelsey."  It is easy to figure out what they mean, but it is still noticeable.  Even more noticeable is the Carcassonne article where they list out every single expansion ever published for the game, and every name is in German.  Thus, to know what they are mentioning, a little bit of German is needed.  I can work some of it out, like "Der Fluss" is "The River" and "Wirstshäuser und Kathedralen" is "Inns and Cathedrals."  "König & Späher" might be "King and Bandit," but I'm not sure.  You have to be able to deal with stuff like that to get the most out of the magazine.

The downside of the magazine is that it sells for $15, at least at Game Nite, which is where I purchased it.  While I enjoyed the magazine, I can't see myself spending that much money on a regular basis for it (I believe it publishes bi-monthly).  I very well may pick up another issue that comes with an expansion for a game I play, but I generally don't own and play enough 'euro' games to make this a valuable magazine for me.

Sound System Solution

A couple months ago I wrote about my swap of a PS3 for my old DVD player, and how everything about it was great except for the sound.  Well, yesterday while reading the instruction manual for Soul Calibur IV I found a section where it gave me step-by-step instructions for getting my awesome sound back.  I just needed to get a digital optical cable and properly modify the settings to take advantage of it.  The hardest part of the process was moving the entertainment center around so I could access the rear panel of the PS3 and the receiver.  I now have my crisp and loud 5.1 signal back, which I am going to enjoy very much.  Yes, it is probably true that a proper reading of the system manual up front would have identified that solution, but why dwell on the past?  Forward to the future!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thoughts on the Blues Moves

This weekend was quite busy for the St. Louis Blues, as they traded away three players in two different deals.  First Eric Brewer, the team's captain and senior Defenseman, was sent to Tampa Bay for a burger and fries... I mean, for a third round draft pick (the burger) and a prospect I had never heard of before (the fries).  That being said, I can understand this deal.  Barring a major miracle, the Blues won't make the playoffs.  This is going to cost the team money, as management was so convinced the team would make the playoffs that they sold a bunch of season tickets for 50% up front, 50% when the team clinches the playoffs.  Oops!  So trading Brewer for an unsigned prospect and a pick will save ~$1.5 million, which will help off-set the lost ticket revenue.  And Brewer was a free agent at the end of the season, and the Blues probably weren't going to sign him.  And Brewer had a no-trade clause, so any trade had to be with a team that he pre-approved, which limits choices.  All told, a depressing but probably fair trade.

Erik Johnson and Jay McClement getting traded, though, that one came pretty much out of nowhere.  Granted, Erik's name had started to get batted around in trade rumors because it was becoming increasingly obvious that he wasn't progressing as well as you would expect an overall #1 pick to develop.  While he will probably turn into a super stud in Colorado and make team management look like a bunch of morons, getting Chris Stewart in return is actually quite a nice swap.  Stewart is a very energetic power forward who has tons of potential, and the Blues had absolutely no offensive depth before the trade, while they have defensive depth, so I can kind of see it.  Still, this is the kind of trade that in three years will make Doug Armstrong look like either a genius or a flaming moron, depending on how well each player continues to develop.  I don't really know much about Kevin Shottenkirk, the other player the Blues acquired, but he was a 1st round pick a few years back and is an offensive Defenseman, which the Blues don't have a lot of in the system.  The kids over at The Hockey News are panning this one pretty heavily, but it really does look like a value for value trade, at least at this point.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Downside of Netflix

I have been using Netflix for over two years now, and it is pretty great.  Most of the time.  In general, their service is great value and I really enjoy using the website to find new films, as their suggestion system works quite well once you've rated over 100 films.  Recently, though, I've hit a quandary.  See, I've current got the 3rd disc from the 2nd season of Avatar: The Last Airbender sitting at home.  It's been sitting here for over 3 weeks.  I just don't really feel like watching it.  I watched one of the five episodes on the disc about a week ago, and... it just sits here.  At some point I'll feel like watching the rest of it, but how much money will I spend on monthly charges until that happens?  I don't want to send it back, though, because that would feel like failure.  So instead I pay a monthly fee to let this disc sit here and mock me with its presence.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

World at War: Eisenbach Gap

This time through the random game from my collection is World at War: Eisenbach Gap.  This game is a fairly recent wargame design from small publisher Lock 'N Load Publishing.  It is an "alternate history" game purporting a Warsaw Pact invasion of West Germany in May 1985.  World at War is actually a series of games, each with expansion packs, but Eisenbach Gap is the first game in the series.  The series is platoon level, with each counter representing either a platoon of infantry or a platoon of Armored Fighting Vehicles (whether tanks, or armored personnel carriers, or some other vehicle, whether thin-skinned or armored).  This game comes with six scenarios, and I recently played through the first two of them to remind myself how the game plays

Each scenario grants each side, either Americans or Soviets, with a set number of forces, from one or more units.  The units are either placed on the board per scenario setup rules, or they are brought in from a board edge on the first turn.  The board itself does not represent any actual location in Germany, but is intended to be a generic representation of West German terrain.  This is important because the same board is used in every scenario, but the variety comes from the fact that you usually are not using the entire game board.  Most scenarios restrict game play to specific sections of the board.  For example, in the play picture below, the rulebook has been placed over the section that is not in use for the scenario, meaning roughly half of the board was not used.  This helps provide some variety in terrain from scenario to scenario, but it also means that once you have played a few of the scenarios the board starts to get quite familiar.  A modular board setup would have been nice, and there is an expansion for the series that provides that, but in this game we've got only the one board.

This is the situation at the end of the first turn in the second scenario.  The Soviets have moved their forces near the hill by the largest town on the map, but they have already taken some losses from American TOW missiles (hence the "wreck" market in the lower right).  The white cards are artillery cards I printed from a file uploaded to the games page at boardgamegeek.

On each turn, initiative is determined through drawing counters from a cup.  At the beginning of each game, you place the activation counters from each unit involved in the scenario, plus the "end turn" markers in a cup.  Then one of the players draws a counter to see which unit activates next.  If a unit's counter is drawn, all of the platoons in that unit get to activate if so desired.  If an "end turn" marker is drawn it is placed to the side until all such markers are drawn from the cup, at which point the turn ends.  This provides randomness to the initiative, such that you never know who is going to go next.  There is even a chance that one side, or even both sides, won't activate at all in a turn, though the odds of nobody activating is low, and the rules don't allow a unit to miss two turns in a row.  I really like this turn mechanic, and it provides a nice differentiating factor between the American and Soviet forces.  The Americans pretty much are always outnumbered, but they have better C3I capabilities so they get two activation counters per unit, while the Soviets only get one.  Thus, it is possible in a turn for the Americans to activate twice.  Thus, while they have fewer units, they can do more with them.  Well, if the right counters are drawn from the cup, that is!

Combat is pretty simple.  Ranged combat has each unit rolling a certain number of dice, trying to roll a certain number or higher.  For example, a Soviet T-65 tank firing an armor piercing round rolls three dice and hits on a four or higher.  Armored targets, and soft targets in cover, roll one or more dice to try to "save" each hit from enemy fire.  Thus, both sides get to roll dice, which is always fun.  If you have ever played any of the Warhammer miniatures games you know exactly how the save mechanic works.  While it is a bit "gamey," it does lead to lots of tense dice rolling, and it is always fun when the enemy scores a bunch of hits on one of your units but you roll really well and make all your saves and don't actually take any damage.  There are three damage states for a unit.  The first hit makes a unit "disrupted," which limits their ability to take offensive actions but can be removed with a successful morale check.  A disrupted unit that takes a hit is "reduced," which means you flip the counter to its other side, which has weaker guns (reflecting that a few vehicles or men in the platoon have been eliminated).  A third hit eliminates a unit from the game.  While disruption effects can be removed, once a unit is reduced it stays that way the rest of the game (unless it is eliminated, of course).

There are a few more aspects to the game, but that is the core of the rules.  The game plays fairly quickly, and I enjoy playing it.  The scenarios in this game usually consist of hordes of Soviets attacking badly outnumbered American forces, but the makeup of the scenarios usually ensures a tightly-fought contest with the victor not being decided until the scenario is near or in its final turn.  Once you learn how to read the counters (which admittedly have a lot of numbers on them) the game moves well and shouldn't take more than two hours to play through.  This is a game I plan on keeping in my collection for a long time to come.

Dragon Age

Right before Christmas I purchased a PS3.  One of the big reasons for doing so was that I really wanted a device that would allow me to stream films from Netflix right to my TV, which the PS3 does.  In addition, the PS3 is also a Blu-Ray player, and that would be useful, as well.  Granted, it is a video game system at heart, so I couldn't get no games for it.  I picked up three games for it within a week of getting the console, but roughly six weeks later I have still only played one of them, Dragon Age: Origins.

I think this might be the best electronic role-playing game I have ever played.  One sign of how much I like it is that I have over 50 hours logged in my first play through (still not done with it yet), and I already want to play it again with a different character to see what changes that results in.  See, the game allows the player a lot of freedom to make different decisions, such as where to go, what to do, who to allow in your group,etc.  Yes, you will always be working on the overall quest that the game revolves around (in that way it is different from the Elder Scrolls series, where you can happily ignore the underlying plot and just do your own thing) but the results of your conversations with various people and decisions you make can have a noticeable impact on how the story evolves.

And, you know, you get to stab monsters, which is pretty fun.  Let's not forget about that.