Postman Pete

Going to shul on Shabbat, I met Postman Pete in the middle of his delivery round. I stopped to have a chat with him. It just seemed the right thing to do. read on

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THE LITTLE DEATH

I first encountered the author P J Parrish in Paint It Black, a book I recall as a fine, entertaining novel. However, it was only when I reached the end of The Little Death and read the inside back cover, that I realised P J Parrish is not an author; read on

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It’s a mad, mad, world

The thrust of this report: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4073097,00.html (which, by the way, trashes Scottish geography, carelessly) is that some Scottish local authority decision makers campaigning for the Palestinians, have decided it would advance their cause to ban Israeli books. Hmm. Better pop along to the local churches and clear the shelves of the Bible, then!

Some also want to “apply a special mark on Israeli products, in order to make them easily identifiable.” Your suggestions, please, for a suitable identifying mark.

It’s times like these I am glad I live in Israel.

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Session Report – 24 May 2011

First there were four

Take It Easy

Moshe, Shlomi, Peleg and I started the night with a game of Take It Easy, a light, easily accessible, tile playing game. The newcomers took to it well and Peleg and I were well beaten; Shlomi finished ahead of Moshe.

Then there were six

Medici

Abraham and Laurie joined us for a shot at the classic Medici. My first round was a disaster and I never recovered. Shlomi was in the same boat as me, just not quite as bad. Peleg worked away quietly, but in the last round lost out to some quietly effective play by Laurie and Moshe. These two finished second equal, with Abraham’s well-timed move taking him into the winning position. Well played Abraham. (He even had time to explain to Laurie about her options in one turn, which were to his detriment. Kol hakavod.)

We played another Knizia game: Formula Motor Racing which saw Shlomi win the first race, ahead of Abraham. Moshe won the second race ahead of Peleg. Overall joint winners were Moshe and Shlomi with Abraham and Peleg not that far behind.

Then there were five

Metro
Peleg had to leave at this point. Last up was Metro, a deceptively easy tile laying game that can also be cruel and unforgiving. Abraham and Moshe got into a bit of a tussle for the lead, but were so busy concentrating on each other, they forgot about everyone else and ended up last equal! Laurie and I managed a respectable score, but were well beaten by Shlomi. Well done, sir!

A good night’s gaming. Superb.

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Someone tried to kill me today

It was an unprovoked and undeserved attack; I had done nothing to warrant it. Indeed, in the words of an old style British policeman, I was proceeding in a southerly direction, minding my own business, when – without warning – the accused launched his vicious, nasty assault. Suddenly, he was just there, right in front of me and in my path. I had no time to think, just react. There was no room to my left. There was no room to my right. I was trapped. I had no choice but to stamp on the brakes as hard as I could and pray for the best. He missed me by inches centimeters. He drove off, presumably without a care in the world, while I did my best to recover from the shock of his dreadful maneuver: forcing his way immediately in front of me, cutting in from the middle lane to the fast lane, without signalling, without enough space to make it safe, and probably without looking. That bastard nearly killed me.

If you are an Israeli, or have lived or visited here, you will probably recognize the scenario. The driving here is awful, and that’s being kind. It’s long been common knowledge that Israel has lost more people in road casualties than in war. It will take most people about 15 minutes driving on the roads to recognize why that shocking statistic is accurate. Frankly, given the attitudes on the road, I remain astonished there are not more deaths. The simple truth is that each time you get into a car in Israel, you are taking your life in your hands. You must be alert at all times. You must expect the other drivers to do stupid things at stupid times. You must expect there will be no, or little, sensible use of the indicator. Or the mirror. You must expect there will be no lane discipline. You must expect people to drive too close to you. You must expect that if you leave a reasonable braking distance between you and the car in front, some other driver will take that space. You must expect that if you don’t leave a reasonable braking distance, some other driver will still take that space. As a generalization, Israelis don’t drive, they aim their cars. It’s like the dodgems for grown ups. That is the reality.

Driving was, potentially a major issue for me. I have a commute to work which varies from 35-60 minutes; something I was not looking forward to. I was worried I would hate the driving. (I used to love driving in the UK.) I would have been prepared to cycle, but people tell me it is really dangerous. I cannot explain it, but while every day I witness suicidal and deadly driving moves, (and nearly every day, see an accident or its aftermath) I do the drive without getting stressed out. I don’t enjoy the journey, but neither do I hate it.

Perhaps one reason the driving isn’t getting to me is that I am so stuck in a British mindset; the daily driving escapades of Israelis still surprise me. I don’t expect the minibus to overtake on the inside, cut in ahead of the middle lane and on to the outside lane (all the time on the mobile phone, too). Why would I think the SUV on the side road is going to charge (and I mean ‘charge’) on to the main road bringing the flow of traffic screeching to a halt? Who could have anticipated the car in the middle lane indicating right (now there’s a novelty: indicating in advance) and moving left? Or, as happened to me earlier this week, what was it about my side of the road that the driver from the other direction liked so much he tried to stay on it? Never mind the sudden stopping on the pedestrian crossing to ask for directions, football scores or family advice. These drivers make the Wacky Races look like a documentary; an understated documentary.

One strange aspect, at the risk of being sexist, is that some of the most aggressive drivers are women. (It makes me all the more wary in the supermarket car park.) I believe there is a thesis waiting to be written about the battle of the sexes and driving in Israel. And one funny aspect, is that the very driver who cut you up, charged out of the side road or roundabout, or otherwise behaved badly, will likely treat you as if you were his best friend should you meet him in a social event. So, I keep thinking to myself, as I am introduced to people here: Someone tried to kill me today. Was it you?

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Session Report – 17 May 2011

Red wins

Red wins!

Tonight we had time for two games. First, Ticket to Ride Europe and then Dominion.

Ticket to Ride Europe is a nice, easy to play, game which strikes a good balance between luck and skill. Most importantly, it’s fun and is an excellent introduction to the hobby. Tonight, newcomer Asaf, picked up the game quickly, but made a bad choice of which starting tickets to keep. (Note to self: perhaps offer more help for new players!) Peleg was his usal focused self, but just couldn’t keep pace with Abraham or I, as we seemed to get the cards we wanted, when we wanted. There was only a single point of difference between Abraham and I, before the scoring for the longest train, but those 10 points were mine and gave me the win. Hooray! I have almost forgiven Abraham for stealing my 8 card, 21 point, route build. Almost.

Dominion was also a first time experience for Asaf, so we will call it a training game. Or, to put it another way, Peleg won…

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The Thrill of the Cup

Cup winning Jaffa team

Cup winning Jaffa team


On motzei Shabbat (Saturday night), while the red and blue parts of Manchester were celebrating their respective successes in the UK, Jaffa and Ra’anana were contesting the final of the JC Olim Cup. This Jewish Chronicle sponsored event is at least partly promoted and organized through Facebook, and features an 11 a side football (soccer!) league and cup. (There is also a 5 a side “World Cup” organised along national lines, with the Scottish team making it all the way to the final last year, before losing out to the powerhouse of England FC.)

England FC had already won the league and Jaffa finished runners up. Ra’anana – generally acknowledged as the most improved team in the league – had knocked out England FC in the cup, and must have fancied their chances after that significant achievement, even if Jaffa had come out on top in league encounters.

Although, geographically, I should be backing Ra’anana, Jaffa are chock full of Scots: brothers Daniel and Joshua Berkeley, and Simon Berkley play for the team and the unofficial manager is Peter Berkeley. So, I am a Jaffa supporter. The final was played in Ra’anana in the small ground at Lev HaPark; the pitch was in excellent condition, and there’s a fine stand to accommodate supporters. Speaking of which, given that Jaffa’s players are a mix from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – and it was a 9.30pm kick off – they had only a handful of supporters. Ra’anana had a sizeable number, including a drummer to lead the cheering on of their side.

Whatever Peter Berkeley said to Jaffa before the kick off, worked, because in the first 30 minutes they played superbly. Although occasionally guilty of giving the ball away too easily in midfield (and one dreadful goal kick straight to a Ra’anana striker), the majority of their attacking play was purposeful and threatening. Both wingers were causing Ra’anana problems, as if they didn’t have their hands full enough already with the dominating presence in the centre of attack of Joshua Berkeley. Jaffa reaped fine reward for their work with two first half goals. The first had a stroke of good fortune as the goal bound shot took a wicked deflection. The second was a delightful end to a move of passing perfection that shredded the Ra’anana defence. Hoffman and Tito scored the goals.

However, it was by no means all one way traffic. The Ra’anana team boasts a couple of veterans who kept their side in the fight. And the young strikers for Ra’anana were exceedingly talented. If they had been better served by their midfield – with more incisive passing and more support when in possession – Jaffa would have been in trouble.

Jaffa got to the break 2-0 up. At that point, Ra’anana made some changes and livened up their midfield. Their young players were fired up when, after about 20 minutes, they pulled one back with a fine piece of solo work by their key striker. Jaffa were looking tired, and although they still mounted the odd threat – with Nir, especially, looking good in possession – it was mostly a defensive performance after the Ra’anana goal. Maybe some Jaffa players thought a 2-0 lead was enough and the game was over; but it wasn’t. The Jaffa midfield was too quiet in the second half, and Ra’anana had the overwhelming balance of possession and attacking threat. Fortunately, the Jaffa goalkeeper and defence worked hard and stifled almost everything Ra’anana threw at them. However, Ra’anana did manufacture one open shot at goal which was blasted wide, luckily for Jaffa. Unluckily for Ra’anana, they could not prise open the defence again and create more clear cut chances.

When the final whistle went, Jaffa had won the cup (2-1) and suddenly found new reserves of energy to dance with delight! Well done to captain Daniel Berkeley and ALL the Jaffa team.

For Jaffa, they will be hoping this victory sparks them on to win a coveted league title. However, I would dare to caution them that they will need to work hard over the close season, because they cannot rely on the other teams standing still. Ra’anana, for example, have some exceedingly skillful players. And if they can keep these players, fashion a bit more teamwork and support going forward, they will be a hard team to beat. Also, England FC will not have been happy about missing out on the double, so they will have something to prove. Still, a cup win is not to be sniffed at, and the team deserve to have something to celebrate, because when the going was tough it was the teamwork and fighting for one another (not with one another!) that pulled them through. I can hardly wait for the start of the new season.

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PanzerBlitz – Hill of Death

Introduction

If I might be a games addict, I’m definitely a junkie when it comes to WW2 tactical level games. And the original PanzerBlitz from Avalon Hill (released in 1970) was the first such game I owned and played. (And played, and played, and played… you get the picture.)

The game included a good selection of platoon (German) and company (Soviet) sized units, fighting in 6 minute game turns, on geomorphic, mounted mapboards with 250 meter hexes. The system was a basic “I go, you go” one, and had some ahistorical features which most gamers tended to overlook in welcoming the new game on the block, perhaps because it provided such a wide ranging look at eastern front, tactical level combat. One of the ahistorical aspects was Defensive Fire which didn’t operate while the enemy units moved (from cover to cover), thus generating the affectionate nickname for the game of PanzerBush. The game also, somewhat controversially, reflected the German army’s (generally) superior command, control, leadership and quality by giving those units higher attack and defence strengths than they might have merited from the technical capabilities of their weapons and armour protection. Otherwise, the raw numbers would not have allowed the Germans to perform to their historical abilities. This approach was the only attempt to cater for the “soft” aspects of such warfare.

The game came with a dozen scenarios, but the flexibility of the mapboards almost demanded players create their own battlefields and scenarios. There were also plenty of other game situations available in the various hobby magazines. The game led to the follow ons of PanzerLeader (taking the system, with minor tweaks, to the western front) and (with major tweaks) to Arab-Israeli Wars. PanzerBlitz was a gaming phenomenon: a best-selling wargame with an enduring, active following.

Fast forward a few decades, PanzerBlitz is long out of print, and most game companies have a newer WW2 tactical game or two in their inventory. Fans of the original PanzerBlitz are still playing it and asking for a reprint. Avalon Hill is gone, bought out by Hasbro. But MMP – who took on licence Avalon Hill’s Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) rights from Hasbro – announce they are coming out with a new PanzerBlitz. Could the original game claim its crown back? No. At least, not yet. Later on in this piece, I’ll tell you why, but first a brief look at what MMP produced.

The New Game System

The new PanzerBlitz (PB), designed by Darren Emge, is a completely new game system. And the Hill of Death (HOD) tag is because it’s all about the 1944 battle for Hill 112 in the Normandy Campaign. No geomorphic mapboards to put together to create different battlefields. And, inevitably, you only get a part of the respective forces of war. So, for example, the German AFVs include some armored cars, StuG IIIs, Panzer IVs, Panthers and Tigers. But no King Tiger or Jagdpanther or the like. The Allies get some Achilles units, Shermans, Sherman Fireflies, Churchill VIIs and Crocodiles. It may be a historically authentic mix, but it lacks ‘sex’ appeal; what some would call “tank porn”. The scale is given as 250 meters a hex with 15 minute turns. Units are platoon sized.

PB: HOD uses a chit pull mechanism to reflect command and control differences and the chaos of war. Each side receives a number of Ops Chits, coloured and coded to show which side they belong to, and their value. All the chits are put in a single container and drawn randomly, one at a time, to determine who goes next and what they may do. So, for example, an Allied Ops Chit means it’s the Allies who activate. The owning player – so, in this case the Allied player – chooses where on the map to put the chit. The value on the Ops chit is the range over which it may activate friendly units, so placing the chit may demand some thought. Units, however, may only activate once per turn.

By way of illustration, at the start of the first scenario – First Crack – the British receive one Ops Chit of value 1 and two Ops Chits of value 2 to start, and an Ops Chit of value 1 as a Game Turn 5 reinforcement. The Germans also start with one Ops Chit of value 1 and two Ops Chits of value 2. But their value 1 chit degrades to a value 0 on turn 6, with a value 2 chit coming on as a turn 7 reinforcement.

This system is simple and effective; there are no HQ or leader units to keep track of, and consequently no disproportionate attention paid to hunting them down. But, the flip side is that it lacks color and atmosphere. Further, there’s no way to grind down the enemy’s command and control capabilities. The number of Ops Chits is unaffected by enemy action.

Efficiency and More, or Less

There is another game rating – Efficiency – which is a measurement of unit quality. Looking again at First Crack, the British have an Efficiency of 8 and the Germans an Efficiency of 9. Units need to roll their Efficiency or less on 2d6 to recover from Disruption (a combat result). Again, this is simple and effective, but only as far as it goes. For example, all the units on a side have the same Efficiency. It would be good to see some differentiation, but difficult because the units have no identifiers beyond unit type. In other words, there are no historical designations. This decision jars somewhat given that the game is about one battle. It does mean there’s flexibility for future modules and add-ons, but it does seem to have been an attempt at “having your cake and eating it”. And for me, it failed. For the sake of completeness, there’s no way to affect the opposing side’s Efficiency.

By way of comparison, Avalanche Press’ PanzerGrenadier series of games, give each side an Initiative (which affects the roll to see who goes first in each turn). Initiative drops according to losses suffered. And that series also gives different Morale levels – equivalent to PB’s Efficiency – to full strength and reduced strength units. This hints at the possibilities for PB. It’s worth stressing that PanzerGrenadier is not perfect, but that’s a discussion for another post.

Upon activation, units may perform the usual and expected variety of actions: fire, move, assault fire (fire and move), CAT (infantry close assault) and PanzerBlitz Assault (infantry and AFV close assault). While friendly units are moving, enemy units may use Opportunity Fire, so the PanzerBush tag should be consigned to the bin, thankfully. Combat results include the previously mentioned Disruption – a temporary state that units may recover from – as well as step losses. Most combat units have two steps with the reduced side on the back, as usual. The rules include material about air and artillery support, mines, engineers, blocks, fortifications, and improved positions. PB comes with 8 scenarios of which only the first uses the whole, gorgeous, map. That reminds me: the graphical look of the game – map and counters – is outstanding. Artist Nicolas Eskubi did a great job.

The game has no reward for the player who outflanks his opponent’s forces. As this aspect of such warfare is a constant feature of actual battle reports, it’s rarely a good sign for me if it’s not catered for. Similarly, troops in battle are at a greater risk if they bunch together. So, stacking should (as a generalization) increase vulnerability to casualties. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in PB: HOD. I recall some brief discussion about these points, but forget the detail. I was not convinced by the explanation, though others may see these matters as solid evidence of the desire to keep the game as simple to play as possible, and with minimal exceptions.

Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

The game plays reasonably quickly and though the rules are still being polished, the current version is fine. The scenarios, however, don’t show the game system in its best light because they (largely) are constrained to only parts of the map. It may be historical, but that’s not enough to light my fire. See the comment above about lack of historical designations. It is harder to become immersed in the action when one infantry unit is the same as another. (It may also have been harder for most gamers to identify with the British Allies; they surely would have preferred USA forces. That may partly explain the magazine module of Carentan.) Arguably, games like ASL and PanzerGrenadier get a huge payback from just having named leaders, because players can more readily identify with them – or against them! Another MMP tactical game series – the Tactical Combat Series delivers platoon level combat with wads of history; units have historical identification, the Order of Battle is given, and there are decent notes about the battle being portrayed. PB is obviously named at a different niche of the market, but to succeed there it needed (and needs) to deliver more than just a battle in a box.

I suspect that PB: HOD has been a disappointment for MMP. I have no evidence for this; it’s just a gut feel. There’s no buzz. For example, at the time of posting, the folder on Consimworld is not a hive of activity. The forum folders on BoardgameGeek are not exactly bursting with life. This may be because it’s a while since the game was released, and there’s no imminent new game release. I hope this is the case.

If MMP continue PB by releasing another boxed historical module, I’ll probably buy it. (I bought the Special Edition of Operations magazine with the Carentan module.) And I fervently wish that the series will be successful. But, if MMP don’t mimic the original PanzerBlitz or PanzerLeader by providing the east front or the west front in a box, I fear it may be an uphill struggle. A lot like trying to take a certain hill in Normandy, in 1944.

Snapshot Summary

Likes

      Counter and map graphics

 

      The simplicity of the Ops Chit system

 

      The speed of play

 

    Easy for solitaire play

Dislikes

      The blandness of the Ops Chit system

 

      Lack of effect of losses

 

      Absence of historical designations

 

      There’s only one full map scenario

 

      Not enough examples in the rules

 

      No flanking effects

 

    No real downside to stacking units

Conclusion

PB: HOD is a reasonable game, but it comes across as a missed opportunity. At the core is a system with a lot of potential, but it badly needs to tap that potential and develop, or it may be too bland, too lacking in historicity or scope of coverage, to succeed.

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SO COLD THE RIVER

I bought this book by Michael Koryta because of the front cover quote from one of my all time favourite authors – Dennis Lehane – who pronounced: “An icy, terrifying winner. Few novelists warrant mention alongside Stephen King or Peter Straub, Michael Koryta, however, earns comparison to both.” I have been badly misled by such marketing quotes before, but even though I bought the book without reading the back cover, had I done so that would have only increased my desire to buy. Why? It quotes another of my favourite authors – Michael Connelly – saying “The book builds like a summer storm. Beautiful to watch until it shakes the house and knocks out the lights… Masterful.” So, now that I have read the book, it’s time to report: good, bad, or indifferent?

One time rising star film-maker Eric Shaw makes a living from vanity documentary films about dead people. The deceased may have gone, but their friends and family can remember them and celebrate their life with a film from Eric. He accepts a commission to make a documentary about the (still living) millionaire Campbell Bradford. From his meeting with Bradford, he becomes involved in the mystery of the man’s early life, and the secret of the old bottle of water he has kept. Bradford dies. Shaw then travels to Bradford’s hometown and gets sucked into strange happenings and an evil awakening.

This is a modern horror story which does chill, and just about delivers a high quality reading experience. The pacing is good, and the characters are mostly interesting. I found Kellen Cage (Shaw’s sidekick) to be the one main character that least involved me; it was almost as if this individual was brought in to offer potential plot lines that were not followed up, or edited out to keep the length of the book down. However, Eric Shaw, his wife and the main protagonist are well put together and interesting.

The story is told well, and the final explanation that puts all the pieces together, is believable and comprehensive; you cannot ask for more than that. Except that this was, I thought, a horror story, and it wasn’t very frightening. (For example, Stephen King’s “It”; now that was frightening!) This book was atmospheric and interesting, but didn’t pull me in enough – or at least as much as I might have expected from the marketing promise. In short, it did not deliver for me what Lehane and Connelly promised. Your experience may differ.

I enjoyed this book, and will probably read more by the same author as he develops his career. But, for now, he is one of the pack, rather than a leader.

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