Monday, January 30, 2012

It is getting easier to be an Arsenal supporter

As some of you may know, I am a fan of Arsenal, the London football club.  Just a couple years ago my only real option to see them play was Fox Soccer Channel.  The Premier League is big business, though, so now I can also catch some occasional matches on ESPN 2 on Saturday mornings, and just a couple weekends ago the main Fox channel showed the match against Manchester United on Sunday morning.  I'm not sure if this accessibility will continue or not, but I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

Recently, however, I discovered ever more Arsenal to be available to me.  When I got U-Verse TV service, I signed up for the expanded sports package to have access to Fox Soccer Channel.  This package gives me access to pretty much every regional sports network throughout the country, though any live matches are blacked out since I am "out of area" for those.  I just recently learned that YES, the Yankees network out of NYC, has not one, but TWO Arsenal weekly shows that they have every week:  Arsenal World and Arsenal 360.  While I find Arsenal World to be a little too unfocused for my taste (I don't really care to see interviews with random fans before and after matches), Arsenal 360 is a pretty good summary show, though I noticed that it seems to be delayed so that it is coming out a week after it comes out in England.  Ah, well, I'll take it, anyway.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Men of Iron

As we continue to journey through my game collection, we next come to Men of Iron, a hex-and-counter wargame from GMT Games, published in 2005.  It includes six battles from the "renaissance of infantry" period in the late middle-ages.  I have played two of these battles, Falkirk and Courtrai.  Falkirk is essentially a "training scenario," as the Scottish side basically sits in position until the English shoot them with arrows, while Courtrai has more for each player to do, but not much more.  The reason for that is the way that these battles were fought in real life: one side set up in defensive terrain, and then stayed there.  For example, at Courtrai, the Flemish set up with their pikemen behind these water-filled ditches, and wait for the French to come at them.  Due to the nature of the ditches (hard to charge your mounted knights through there), the standard advantage of mounted knights is negated, so if/when the knights to attack, they die like dogs.  This is what happened historically, and is pretty much what is going to happen in the game.  I can see how some people wouldn't find this to be much fun, though.  I haven't played all of the scenarios, but from reading the scenario setups they all look to be of the same nature, with a mobile force attacking a dug-in infantry force.  With pikes.  Probably in a shield wall formation.

I have two problems with normal hex-and-counter wargames.  First, they are often quite complex (Great Battles of History, I'm looking at you...), such that it is a major pain to learn and then remember all of the rules.  Second, many of these games feature status counters, placed on top of the military unit counter.  You can literally end up with half-a-dozen status counters on top of the main counter, and then you have hundreds of unit counters, so you've got hundreds of status counters, and then you accidentally bump the table and counters go everywhere.  It is no good.  Thankfully, this game mostly dodges both of these problems.  The rulebook is a total of 12 pages in length, including diagrams and play examples.  And while there are some status counters, they are not frequently used (unless you put all of your pike into the fore-mentioned shield wall status), so I can tolerate them.  Combat is pretty simple.  A unit is either in standard order, disordered (flip the counter to show disordered status), retired (retreats), or eliminated.  That's it.  You don't have to figure out how many hit points the unit has left, or anything like that.  While charging with mounted knights is a bit fiddly, the rules work smoothly and the game plays well.

One interesting feature of the game is the lack of turns.  Per the scenario rules, one side starts the game by activating one of their sides "commands."  A command means a leader and all of that leader's units, as denoted by the colored stripe on the counter.  That command can move, fire, and fight with all of its units (as long as they are within the leader's command range, in hexes).  Once that is done, the player designates another one of his leaders, and rolls a ten-sided die.  If you roll a number equal to or lower than that leader's command rating, his command activates.  This continues until a die roll goes over the designated leader's command rating, at which time command switches to the other player, who activates one of his leaders, and play continues in this way from there.  However, whenever a side attempts to continue with a new leader, the other player can try to interrupt with one of his leaders.  The upside is that if you win that die roll, you get to move instead of the other player.  The downside is that if you fail the die roll, the other player doesn't have to roll the die to see if he activates his new leader; it automatically works.  This introduces a nice dynamic of balancing whether you want to try to steal the initiative yourself, or wait for the other guy to botch his roll and take it that way.  Since it is all reliant on the roll of the dice, there is no obvious correct answer, and it all comes down to what the odds are of getting your way.

Overall this game is pretty good, but it is somewhat let down by the tactical nature of the battles included.  Battles where one side is in obviously-better position and just waits for the poor fools on the other side to run into their prepared defenses aren't necessarily fun for all players.  While each scenario has special rules in place to try to make the games more competitive, it takes some luck of the dice to really break through.  Still, this is a solid game and a worthy part of the collection.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Mini Squadron

I first encountered the Mini Squadron game in the iTunes store, where you can purchase the game as an app for your iPhone/iPod/iPad/iEtc.  It is a simple game where you fly your plane around in a 2D side-scrolling environment and shoot down other planes.  The gameplay is pretty simple, but the designers gave the game a goofy sense of humor (flying cats?  really?), very bright colors, and a pretty cartoony sense of design (in a good way).  My only problem with the game is that I had trouble really controlling my plane properly using the touch-screen controls  The game would just work better with a real joystick, I though.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised this evening when I was rooting around in the PlayStation store on my PS3, looking at new years' sales, and I saw that you can play Mini Squadron on the PS3!  And PSP!  Best of all, the game costs just $0.99, which is exactly what the iPhone version cost me.  And I can say from experience that the game works MUCH better with an analog stick.  Aerial domination, here I come!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Arkham Horror

The next random game from my collection to discuss is one that I have lots of experience with, Arkham Horror.  This board game is based on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, many of which dealt with the creatures of what is now known as the "Cthulhu mythos" after one of the more memorable of the writer's monsters.  The game board depicts the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, at some point during the prohibition era.  The players all control one investigator, chosen at random from the 16 different characters that come with the game.  During play, the players move their characters around the town, visiting different locations, finding clues, and having encounters with the townsfolk (or worse...) in order to stop the invasion of eldritch horrors from beyond time and space, just like is done in many of H.P. Lovecraft's stories.

One of the things that really sets this game apart from others is the cooperative nature of the game.  All of the players must work together to do what needs to be done in order to beat the game.  Either everyone wins, or everyone loses.  At the beginning of the game, you determine one a dozen different big bad guys that is trying to break through to our world.  Every turn, the player whose turn it is must draw a card from the "mythos" deck, which describes where an extra-dimensional gate opens, releasing monsters into the town.  Other events can also happen based on the card draws, such as shops closing, or police raids, or dozens of other possibilities.  After this is done, the players move around the town visiting locations, which have their own separate decks.  For each player character at a location, the player draws a card from that deck to determine what happens to their character.  Characters can also encounter the monsters released from the gates, either fighting them or trying to escape from them without fighting.  Some characters are better at the combat aspect, and some are better at finding the clues needed to close the gates, so part of the strategy of the game is assigning the right roles to the right player/character combos.

To win, the player characters have to close and seal seven different gates.  It's not as easy as it sounds, as you either have to have an Elder Sign (a unique item in the game) or five clue tokens, collected from around the game board, that you have to give up in order to seal the gate.  Of course, while you are working on getting this all together, new gates keep opening and monsters keep entering Arkham.  If too many gates are open at the same time, the big bad monster shows up.  You get to fight him, but the odds of winning that fight are not good.  Also, if too many monsters are on the board, people start to leave town, resulting in the closing of the shops on the board, which cuts down on sources of new items.  So it is a race against time, with it never being clear exactly how much time you have left to close seven gates.

The best part of this game is the tension that comes into play as the players try to work together.  There will be lots of yelling, and bartering, and general interplay between all of the players as they try to win the game.  Every time a mythos card gets drawn, the tension is just delicious as the players wait with bated breath to hear what terrible thing will befall them this turn.  And if the players win, the high-fives and cheering are pretty unique to this game.

The publisher, Fantasy Flight Games, has published over a dozen different expansions for this game, of which I own some.  Some of them add new towns beyond Arkham that can be traveled to, but they all add new rules and encounter cards to change up the game some how.  With these expansions, the game should never get old.  I consider this game to be one of the best I have ever played, and I always look forward to getting to play it again.