Picking a Bone with the Bones

February 26, 2010

No item in boardgaming is as shrouded in mystery and superstition as our dice. As Russ noted in an earlier post, part of the fun of gaming with a wide variety of people is seeing the various ways in which they use their dice–towers, cups, blown kisses, and good-luck jigs. We praise and thank them when they shower good fortune on us, according “lucky dice” positions of honor in our dice bags. We also hurl so-called “bad dice” across the room where they roll under the water heater, never to be seen again, or punish them with a few seconds of radiation in the microwave (true story, by the way–I know a guy who knew a guy…)

You’d think the boardgame manufacturers would understand. But no. In an effort to cut costs, they package their games with “weak bones.” The results speak for themselves: cheap cubes which roll on our tables like drunken fratboys down the streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras. There are two major types of offenders:

Woodies: Found primarily in Euro style games like Settlers of Catan and Small World. I swear these are made out of balsa wood. They weigh almost nothing and become quite dangerous in the hands of vigorous dice shakers. It’s not uncommon to see them bounce ten feet after hitting the tabletop, and they eventually end up in the cat’s mouth, under the china cabinet, or out the open window and into the neighbor’s yard. Pros: Will float. Cons: Energy properties of Flubber.

Chaddies: Found in all sorts of games, World at War: Blood and Bridges being the worst offender in my collection. These are cheap plastic cubes with hanging bits of waste material or irregular corners, usually as a result of a bad casting process. These dice wobble around like a carnival Tilt-a-Whirl ride, coming to rest at an angle that can only be described as “cosmically wrong.” Pros: Might look right if you’re playing while sampling “mood enhancers.” Cons: Can’t be trusted to “roll true.”

How either of these types of dice make it through quality control into our boardgames is beyond me. Any gamer worthy of the title will remove them immediately from his games. In my own case, this has led to the dreaded “reject box,” full of neglected woodies and chaddies. To replace them, I have purchased dice from Chessex. But the whole situation begs the question: why are manufacturers putting these terrible dice in our games? I have heard that it is quite expensive to get dice made for a game, and those costs are passed along to the consumer. Why not just ship games with a) quality dice (and most of us will happily pay the extra cost), or b) ship the games without any dice (thereby making the games cheaper), leaving us to make our own decisions? The half measure–terribly made dice–is just frustrating.

Battlefield Chaos

February 23, 2010

The past five games I have played have all been from the World at War series. I’ve enjoyed my immersion in the game as it has allowed me to learn the rules, be a better players, teach the game, and develop sound strategies.

For me, one of the defining characteristics of the War at War series is the activation method. Formations are activated based on a blind chit pull. Soviet formations get one activation chit, while NATO units get two. This is meant to represent the better training and initiative of the NATO forces; the force multiplier, so to speak. However, Soviet formations are larger than NATO formations. Also, into the blind pull go end-of-turn markers. The number of markers is based on the scenario, usually two, but pull two end-of-turn markers and the turn is over.

Random activation makes for a wild experience and a grand departure from the normal turn taking in all the other games I’ve played. Proper deployment of your forces at any moment is vital. To me, the combination of random activation and positioning strategy meshes well with my idea of modern warfare.

In this game, the player isn’t some general pushing blocks around a map in an air-conditioned room. He’s the commander in the middle of a raging battlefield desperately defending a city, while trying to mount a counter-attack and convince HQ to sent him some air support for once. In this game, players must accept that some things are beyond their control.

The Blood and Bridges expansion adds to this turmoil by adding a Battlefield Chaos marker and air support to the blind pull. The Battlefield Chaos marker represents everything from weather to air cover to the situation elsewhere and HQ pulling or lending support. It is an interesting mechanic and one that can totally change the nature of the game.

This was the case when I played as the British in the defense of Dattenburg against John’s Soviets. I had forced John’s units into single bottleneck approach to the city. The 1st King’s Regiment had take up a defensive position in the city and provided overwatch for the Royal Lancers who had moved out to harry the Soviets approach. And a Royal Tank Regiment was on their way to provide reinforcements and the heavy punch to keep the Soviet from crossing the Rhine. I was quite happy with my position when the Battlefield Chaos marker was drawn and a think fog covered the area. Suddenly, all my fighting ranges were reduced. The Royal Lancers’ ambush couldn’t go off. And even worse, the overwatch couldn’t cover them any more. Suffice to say, the Soviets made quick work of the Lancers and my game went down hill from there.

I know for some players, this would be unacceptable. A perfect plan ruined by a totally random event! But, I placed myself in the role of the beleaguered Brit commander trying to defend West Germany against the totalitarian forces. At the end of the day, Dattenburg was lost and it was best to retreat with the remain forces and live to fight again another day. Perhaps it is the fictional nature of this game, WWIII started by a Soviet invasion of Germany, that allows me more leeway when playing this game. Or perhaps is an understanding of history and how the tides of battles were often changed by weather or the smallest events.

But, I keep coming back to this game, because it is fun (randomness included), plays fast, and offers surprising depth.

An Actual Conversation

February 17, 2010

I recently borrowed Pandemic from Russ for my wife and I to try out. It’s nice to play a game where we can play as a team instead of as opponents. The next day on my lunch break I read through the rules so that when I got home I could teach them to my wife. After dinner, we were doing the dishes and had the following conversation:

Me: “I’m excited to try Pandemic tonight. I read the rules at lunch and think it’ll play pretty easily.”
My Wife: “I read the rules, too.”
Me, with a completely shocked looked on my face: “Really!?”
Wife: “I opened the box and read through them while the girls napped this afternoon.”
Me, reaffirmed of my choice in my bride: “Wow, that’s awesome. I’m going to have to write a blog post on this.”
Wife: “Oh great, now all my friends will find out.”
Brief Pause
Wife: “Oh wait, they don’t read your blog.”
Me: “No one reads our blog.”
We both had a good laugh over that. (And thank you to those of you who do read and comment on our blog. We appreciate it greatly!)

We went on to play two quick games (one with 4 epidemic cards and one with 5) and won them both. Although the second game got pretty intense near the end. We were at 7 outbreaks and knew that the 8th (the one that would end the game) would occur if we didn’t treat Milan. I had the card to give her for her to cure it, but couldn’t pass a card and treat Milan. She lucked out on her card draw and we won on her next turn.

World At War: Separation Session Report

February 15, 2010

22 May, 1985: 0630 hours. Oberst Meik von Rogers of the West Germany Army slammed his fist down on the radio in frustration. The sudden thunderstorm had thrown everything into chaos. The shattered elements of the 613th Panzers and the 182nd Panzer Grenadiers were streaming into his area of the battlefield with Soviet recon units hot on their heels. Everything was a mess. But if he could just get his sub-commanders to calm down, he might be able to salvage the situation…

Both teachers, Mike and I took our Presidents Day holiday to duke it out in the first Blood and Bridges scenario: Separation. The West German and Soviet forces are each trying to exit off their own map side, but begin the game in random places (possibly even beginning right next to each other!). Each player gets points for one thing: number of units exited off the map. Mike’s forces began concentrated in the northeast corner of the map in and around Faulbach. I, on the other hand, had my forces split: a weak motorized rifle company in the northwest and a small but powerful recon company in the southwest.

My plan was pretty simple: use the BTR armored personnel carriers to truck the infantry to Anhausen where they would set up a defensive position near the West German exit hex. At the same time, my recon BMPs and T-80s would take the small hill southeast of Anhausen, affording them good coverage of Mike’s northern approach route. Later, the BRDM armored cars and freed-up BTRs would race east to my exit hex and blast through.

Early on in the game, Mike slowly maneuvered his tanks west between Faulbach and Anhausen, taking potshots at my T-80s as he went. I quickly learned the danger of the slow-moving but powerfully armed M48s! He disrupted the T-80s which set me back on my heels a bit. However, things changed on Turn 3 when a Soviet airstrike decimated one platoon and the formation headquarters. Later, two Hind helicopters came roaring in and made quick work of the rest of Mike’s tanks. He placed his Redeye surface-to-air missiles in a sort of difficult spot and had to spend a few turns getting them into position. They got one shot off at my Hinds throughout the game, but missed and depleted their ammo.

I plunked the Hinds down in a copse of trees within 10 hexes of the West German units and they had control of most of his movement lanes for the entire game. These guys ended up taking out two platoons of tanks, one Marder platoon, and two infantry platoons! This was the first time I had played with helicopters and…man, they are deadly. Mike’s response to the Hind problem was to take a page from my playbook and set up an infantry ambush near my exit hex. A platoon with Milan ATGMs set up in the large hills south of Faulbach and nailed two armored car platoons before the helicopter chainguns chewed them up. With that out of the way, he had no appreciable anti-armor assets left and surrendered.

Upon further reflection, I think the West German forces are badly outmatched in this scenario. Sure they get more activations than their Soviet counterparts, but they have one anti-aircraft asset to fend off the Hinds and SU-25 airstrike. The addition of a Gepard self-prepared anti-aircraft unit would greatly help, as would some rules constraining the Hinds. In most scenarios, helicopters may only a) be on the map for a set number of turns, and/or b) be forced to exit permanently after an “ammo depleted” situation. Doing both of these things would even out this scenario quite a bit.

0815 hours. Colonel Ivan Rogashevsky exhaled slowly. His recon units had quickly found themselves cut off in the rain. But the West Germans had not been prepared for the air support that followed. It wasn’t so much his generalship as it was the superiority of his equipment, but he would still take the victory–and happily, too!

Oberst von Rogers makes the best of a bad situation.

The board at the end (click for a larger image).

World at War: The Defense of Klappebruck Session Report

February 11, 2010

[Note: I played this scenario by myself in order to fully understand the basic rules of the World at War system before teaching it to two people later on in the week.]

Defending Klappebruck in World at War: Eisenbach Gap is no easy task for NATO forces. Team Bravo has a handful of M1 Abrams tanks, an ITV (improved TOW vehicle) platoon, some infantry units, a couple of M-113 armored personnel carriers, and an attachment of TOW jeeps. At setup, I think about placing my hard hitters on the south edge of the map to achieve quick kills. However, I remember this was Russ’s mistake last time we played the scenario–setting up too close to the map edge results in a lot of dead NATO units (the Russians activate first, after all!). With this in mind, I set forces in the woods east of Klappebruck and my M1 platoon on the large hill west of Klappebruck. These areas offer a lot of narrow (1-hex) firing lanes to destroy the Soviets piecemeal. The Soviet setup is a lot more straightforward. I do my best to ensure the HQ is safe, but still able to call in a smoke mission on the all-important first dash to cover.

Original setup (click for a larger image)

Final setup (click for a larger image)

In the opening turns, the Soviet forces do just that, racing across the wide open gap on the map’s southern edge to shelter in the forest. Smoke blinds the U.S. HQ in Klappebruck proper, but the M1s and ITVs disrupt and eventually destroy two BMP platoons east of Lansamen. Most of the Soviets make it to the forest though, and crawl through to the northern edge just shy of the river; U.S. ITVs see this coming and get out just in time.

In the mid-game, the Soviets basically bog down as they try to pry U.S. infantry and TOW jeeps out of the forest just north of the river. A big problem here is that no Soviet markers are pulled for a turn or two, which wastes the turn 2-4 free activations. Despite turns of ATGM and cannon fire, coupled with two HE artillery strikes, it takes quite a while for the Americans to be destroyed and they take a couple of BMP platoons and Soviet infantry platoons with them! From my perspective as the U.S. commander, I wait until just before that group breaks, and immediately plug the hole with my last infantry platoon, causing the entire cycle to start all over again. Meanwhile, I shift the M1s and ITVs to the large hill west of Klappebruck, which denies the Soviets a clear assault lane to the town.

Seven turns in, the Soviets are pinned in the forest (click for a larger image)

The tide of battle eventually turns, but far too late for the Soviets to win. They destroy two infantry platoons, some Dragons, and the TOW jeep platoon, but in the meantime the M1s have shifted to Eisenbach and are laying down withering long-range fire. Soviet infantry assaults the ITVs in Klappebruck, destroying them them, but the infantry runs out of time before getting to Birghoff. The final score is as follows:

US losses: 2 x infantry with Dragons, ITV, TOW jeep, M113
US remaining: M1, m113,  HQ

Soviet losses: 5 x BMP, T-62, 3 x infantry platoons,  1 x Sagger.
Soviet remaining: infantry w/Sagger, infantry, reduced HQ, reduced BMP, reduced infantry, T-62, reduced T-62

Hexes controlled: U.S. has Eisenbach and Birhoff (6 total), Soviets have Lansamen and Klappebruck (2 total)

The table at the end (click for a larger image)

In the final analysis, my Soviet plan of attack was too cautious and one-sided. I left myself no alternate routes of attack, and was too afraid to sacrifice some BMPs to knock out the M1s. This limited me to one assault plan, and when that didn’t succeed as quickly as I had hoped, I was pretty much sunk. The Americans, on the other hand, did pretty well despite heavy losses. In the future, I want to try to fall back a bit more quickly, which will force the Soviets to redeploy on multiple occasions. Playing this scenario also alerted me to the critical importance of using cover (especially your own wrecked forces!) to increase the lifespan of units. It also reminded me to use bounding overwatch as much as possible in the future.

In the coming weeks, expect to see an “Inside the Box” on World at War: Blood and Bridges, and a few session reports as Russ and I continue to duke out WW III.

Arkham Horror: I’ll Hide in the Corner

February 2, 2010

I pulled Sister Mary, the nun, from a coffee cup emblazoned with the logo of an Orthodox seminary and started my battle against the deep ones. It was my first time playing Arkham Horror. It was everyone’s first time playing Arkham Horror. We were pretty sure we’d be drained of our sanity and left shells of people mumbling strange phrases about cyclopean ruins.

Sister Mary's Playing Card

Sister Mary's Playing Card

Fortunately, reading the Necromonicon doesn’t make you go crazy and the game was able to accommodate six new players with relative ease. Unfortunately for me, it took me the entire game to really figure out how effectively use Sister Mary. She had plenty of sanity, but little health. Little did I realize that my best bet was to blow through that sanity casting spells so I could run around the board slaying monsters and defeating encounters. As such, I limped around the board getting smoked by encounters and avoiding monsters. Secretly, I hoped Hastur would wake from his slumber, destroy all the characters and cover up my embarrassing play with a group lose.

Instead, I rode the coat tails of my comrades to victory. Despite my horrible play and the longer than usual play time as a result of learning the game, I found Arkham Horror to be an engaging game. Between all the tokens, colors, and quick turns, my attention remained on the game. At least, until I finally realized the end of the game was coming and I could to nothing to help win. I’m looking forward to a second play, maybe this time I can actually do something.