All the Stops

Last week, I got together with Josh to play some ASL. He had chosen scenario WO13 (All the Stops) from a Winter Offensive Action Pack. This is set in late 1944, and features a platoon of Lend-Lease Sherman’s supporting a reinforced company of Soviets in their attempt to break through the German line. The defenders are some SS PanzerGrenadiers, complete with an anti-tank gun armed half track, mortar, a PSK (bazooka like anti-tank weapon), the usual panzerfaust availability, and a couple of self propelled guns and a half-squad as reinforcements. The scenario is played on board 67, with a good mix of terrain, and plenty of decent defensive positions.

I took the Soviet side, and Josh had his German defenders all set up and ready to go when I arrived.

Ready, steady, go!

Ready, steady, go!

My plan was to use one tank as a  firebase, and advance with the others in support of the infantry. I concentrated on the left flank, hoping to overwhelm the defense there.

The Soviets get a cut down version of artillery in the scenario, and its initial barrage blew a hole in the defense line. Unfortunately, the casualties were all dummies. However, it meant I now had a fairly complete knowledge of what was real, and my tank had no targets. I sent one tank on as a probe, and was somewhat surprised that it made its way through the defenses. I followed up with the other two, but lost one to some close range fire from the anti-tank gun.

Close up of starting positions, showing artillery zone and Josh's dummy defenders (so to speak!)

Close up of starting positions, showing artillery zone and Josh’s dummy defenders (so to speak!)

The artillery must fire in the indicated zone in turn one. After that it gradually moves towards the German base line. It is harassing fire from a 70mm weapon, so its attacks are not deadly most of the time. But if you roll often enough… And, there were occasions when I had to move Soviets units through their own artillery fire.

I ran the tanks off the far side to claim some VPs. That gave me 4 VPs (I needed 12 for the win) and I was hoping to gt the rest from my infantry breaking through in the same way. It was not to be.

First, his sniper wounded one of my leaders. Then his sniper killed one of my leaders. Then the squad toting the HMG went berserk and charged to its death. I also ran in to some skillful skulking by Josh, though his handy mortar broke down (twice) and the harassing artillery did a damn fine job of keeping things close.

I did not get a single sniper attack throughout the scenario.

The real blow to me was that when I made the final push, I had to face a MG fire lane. That did not go well for the Soviets.

I managed to get one squad through, but a quick calculation showed that I could only get 10 VP maximum. The board was littred with broken Soviet squads, and a distinct lack of leaders to rally them. If only more infantry had broken through…

A good win for Josh, though I am sure I did not handle the attack as well as I could. I know I made a mistake in leaving the HMG behind, and I failed miserably, to deal with his skulking defenders. Josh suggested that I should not have run the tanks off so early, but used them to support the infantry. That’s probably good advice.

Despite the loss, as always it was great fun. Great fun.

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Five for Friday

Lonely yacht – Netanya, July 2008

Lonely yacht – Netanya, July 2008

After last week’s London excursion, this was almost a normal week, at work, rest, and play. It was a bit strange being somewhere that Shabbat came in so early again, but there was the compensation of sufficient time for a pre meal nap to charge the batteries! This week has been dominated by work and its many challenges, though there was an epic games session in the middle, so no complaints from me. Unfortunately, the current terror wave continues. I am in awe of those who daily put themselves (literally) in the firing line, and sometimes wonder if we underestimate the toll on our young people. There are no easy solutions. We keep going.

And, talking of that, here are the regular selection of links for you:

This week’s bonus

Here it is: the five best Adele ‘Hello’ parodies, so far. Enjoy.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Tied up with Netrunner

Noise-card-a

Sheer and I were able to play several games of Netrunner this week. I was the Runner, and Sheer was the Corporation. I used Gabriel Santiago twice, and Noise twice. Sheer’s games were all played using Haas-Bioroid.

haas-card

All were close, tense matches, finishing up with two wins apiece. In three out of the four games, the victory was by the slimmest of margins.

Santiago-card-a

For example, in one game I had the chance to draw the card I needed for the win from Sheer’s hand. He had three cards. Two out of three would have given me the win. I drew the wrong one. (Of course!) In the next turn, Sheer went on to claim the win.

In another game, Sheer was set up to get the win in his next turn. What could I do about it in my turn? Well, I did a run on R&D (his draw deck) which, at great costs, succeeded. The top card turned out to be an agenda, and that gave me the win, instead of him. Hooray!

We have had a lot of close games, and our general conclusion is that the game is very well balanced. Sure, there have been blowouts, but these have very much been in the minority. The more I play this game, the more I like it. I’m glad I picked up several of the expansions during my London trip.

Dominion

To finish off the night we played a couple of games of Dominion: Intrigue.

In the first, Sheer went with a Saboteur strategy, while I invested in cash. My purchases worked out faster than his Saboteur could destroy them, and that gave me the win. In the second game, the roles were reversed, and I could not keep pace with his buying. So, one win each.

A night of good gaming, with some memorable moments, thanks to a couple of great game designs. Gaming as it was meant to be.

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Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie

After Ancillary Justice (reviewed here) and Ancillary Sword (reviewed here), this is the third part of the outstanding space opera trilogy that burst on to the scene from (apparently) nowhere, becoming the first novel to win the Arthur C. Clarke, Hugo, and Nebula awards.

First, if you are interested in these books, don’t do anything other than read them in order. That is a necessity, unless you have some kind of masochistic desire not to enjoy yourself.

Now, where were we?

The book starts with the main character, Breq – having survived one assassination attempt – returning from the planet below to Atheok Station. There, she faces a mounting crisis, as various factions push and pull in a bid for power and control of the area. After the heat is turned up, things get worse – or at least more complicated – with the discovery of an ancillary from an out of system ship, the arrival of the rather strange representative of the Presger (super powerful alien race), and one instance of the Raadch Empire’s ruler. (She has multiple versions of herself.) This is no place for faint hearts!

I should have mentioned before that one of the neat aspects of this whole creation is that most of the characters are female, with males relegated to very minor roles. Leckie does not make a song and dance about this, merely reporting it as part of the story telling, and the narrative is that much stronger for it. Rightly or wrongly, we begin to take it for granted, and gradually become enmeshed in the perspectives of the characters without noticing.

Breq is obviously a standout, with Leckie’s finely restrained writing doing a great job of presenting a rounded, complex, and often intriguing character. Her crew vary from spoiled kids to smart and savvy operators, and while many are key to the tale’s development, I felt there may have been more to tell. So, the author did not bore us to death by going off on a tangential journey, but kept to the task at hand. Well done her! Perhaps these other characters will feature in other books.

One character I am still unsure about is the Presger representative, Translator Zeiat. Handled with kid gloves, the character almost plays the part of a child, with daft behavior and humor to match. It was entertaining, but it might grate. Want a comparison? Think of the character of Drax the Destroyer from Guardians of the Galaxy and his ‘Nothing goes over my head.’ line and you will get the drift. Also, this character may, instead, be Dlique, another Presger from earlier in the trilogy. Why this possibility exists, and what it says about the situation, and the Presger, are a bit of a mystery.

In this universe, one of the themes that features strongly is to do with humanity, sentience, and identity. The AIs that run the ships and the space stations are more than just token additions to portray a high tech society, and the author’s treatment of these was smart and thoughtful.

The competing forces eventually bring the conflict more into the open, and the inevitable showdown looms large. Another strong feature of the book is that even in the action scenes, somehow the author is able to bring a sharp freshness, without trying to bamboozle us with technology or tactics. In other words, the quality of the writing remains strong.

I liked the story, the characters, the pacing, the observational insights, the backdrop, the original ideas on show, and the overall effect. Quite the best science fiction I have read in a while. A wonderful trilogy. I hope Ann Leckie keeps writing in this genre.

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More Adventures at the Post Office

I do try and pay attention. I do try and learn from my mistakes. I do try and benefit from my experiences. So, earlier this week, when I went back to the local Post Office to collect a parcel, I headed straight for the ticket machine. I printed up two tickets for myself: one for general services, and one for package collection. Easy!

If this doesn’t make much sense to you, check out the background in my previous post.

OK. So now I am ready.

I have my little red notice telling me there is a parcel to collect. And I have two tickets for the queuing system. What could go wrong?

The ticket machine was working fine. Unfortunately, the queuing system wasn’t. They hadn’t even turned on the screens. There were no numbers being announced. It was first come, first served. (Or, as close to that as any queue in Israel can be.) Taking the tickets had cost me a few places in the queue. Aaargh! I suppose it could have been worse. At least I got to collect my parcel. Did I ever tell you about the time I collected somebody else’s parcel, by mistake?

Ah, the Israeli Post Office. Where East meets West, and neither seems to know what the other is doing…

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Bringing back the UK

I did bring some games back with me from London. As you will see from a later post, games were not the main purchase. I collected some Netrunner sets, like Creation and Control.

creation-control

And I also picked up a newly released Ticket to Ride variant: United Kingdom. It also includes Pennsylvania.

tttr-uk

I’m looking forward to trying them both out.

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London and back

"Created by Jim McEwan from whisky matured in American oak casks alongside Lochindaal, and chosen to represent the classic, unpeated distillery style. Bruichladdich's new signature bottling is made with 100% Scottish barley."

“Created by Jim McEwan from whisky matured in American oak casks alongside Lochindaal, and chosen to represent the classic, unpeated distillery style. Bruichladdich’s new signature bottling is made with 100% Scottish barley.”

Last weekend Susan, Lori, and I flew to London for Emma and Liam’s engagement party. The flight out (with Easyjet) was a balagan, because you have to go through check in, and all the preliminaries at Terminal 1, and then get a transfer coach across to Terminal 3. That messing about, plus the fact I was tired, made for a less than pleasant journey. Oh, and the damn seats on the flight did not move back, so that didn’t help. Then it was on to a train at Gatwick, and off at Clapham Junction where Richard kindly picked us up to take back to his place.

Although we didn’t get in till late on Thursday, we did manage to get up in time to go to shul. This was especially important, because it marked the end of the shloshim for Susan’s mum. After breakfast, Susan and I hopped on a bus to Westfield, did some shopping, and raced back in time for Shabbat. It came in at 3.45, which was somewhat of a rude reminder of a bygone life in Glasgow.

Friday night we walked along to Sarah’s parents for a lovely Shabbat evening meal. The weather was kind to us the whole time, only giving us a wee fright with some showers on the return walk.

Saturday night was the party, with Richard and Sarah’s home overrun with people having a good time. We also had a chance to catch up with some friendly faces. (I did not say old friends!)

On Sunday morning, I had time to pack and say goodbye, before starting my return  A veritable flying visit. The return flight was much better, especially because there was no transfer involved, and I got there nice and early. I had bought a collapsible suitcase for the goodies purchased there. It was pretty full…I did manage one bottle of whisky.

It’s good to be home.

 

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Warriors 3

Warriors 3 – edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

This is the final part (3/3) of a series of short story anthologies edited by two of the best known names in the business. (See the review of 1/3 here, and 2/3 here.) The absence of genre restriction means the contributing writers could have delivered a good mix, though in this volume there is much more of a common theme and setting. Inside the book are six short stories, and Diana Gabaldon’s 90 page novella.

Robin Hobb‘s The Triumph is a dark, sharply observed tale of honor and loyalty, set in the times of the Punic War between Rome and Carthage. The story fits the format perfectly, and the end result is a satisfyingly good taste of the author’s prodigious talents.

Joe R. Lansdale‘s Soldierin’ is a bittersweet war story set in the Cavalry v Indian backdrop of the good old USA. With African Americans playing the leading roles, the author cannot quite deliver enough variety to match the freshness of that idea, and the writing – while colorful and entertaining – is not enough compensation. This one was too familiar, and made little impact on me.

Lawrence Block‘s Clean Slate is the story with the best kick in its tale. It’s about a young lady, revisiting her past loves, and encountering some new ones. But not in the traditional, normal fashion. Scary, smart, and slick. Best of the bunch.

Carrie Vaughn‘s The Girls from Avenger brought me back, far too quickly, to Soldierin’ with a similarly disappointing after taste. The story, such as it is, features American women pilots contributing to the WW2 war effort. So, again, a break away from the mold. But after that, lifeless characters, and a bit of a flop. No tension, no believable drama; just a decent initial idea, let out on its own, and doomed to end with a whimper. Worst of the bunch.

James Rollins‘ The Pit is a story that volume contributors Lansdale and Vaughn should study, for it takes an interesting idea, and backs it up with solid characterization, good writing, and a better sense of timing and polish. At the core, it’s a story about a dog. But the author manages to raise questions of loyalty, humanity, and compassion into the rather steely center piece. This was an experiment that worked.

David Morrell‘s My Name is Legion gets the prize for the best ripped off title, though I doubt Roger Zelazny ever did a piece on the French Foreign Legion; that’s what you get here. It’s a story of WW2, featuring soldiers of the Legion on each side, and the inevitable bloody clash. It’s quite atmospheric, does a good job of building up the tension, and delivers a reasonable conclusion. Probably the runner up in the volume, in terms of quality.

Diana Gabaldon‘s The Custom of the Army features one of the author’s minor characters from her other fiction – John Grey – and gives him a leading role in this 18th century military adventure. It starts well, though quietly, with a strange electric eel ritual, and then goes off in several directions. As much as a couple of the stories here were perfect matches for their format, this novella tries to do too much and cannot manage the feat. I did not enjoy the journey, finding Mr Grey to be less than interesting. Admittedly the French Indian Wars are not my favorite historical setting, so that didn’t help. But overall it was the author’s writing style which just did not connect. Not for me.

Conclusion: not quite up to the same level of overall quality as the other two volumes – maybe that is why it was the last part? – but, on the whole, reasonable enough. If I had read this first, however, I would not have read the other two parts. This one is a 6/10.

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A Song for Drowned Souls – Bernard Minier

This is the second in the ‘Commandant Servaz’ series by Bernard Minier, featuring the same leading light, and many of his supporting staff. The starting point is the discovery in Marsac (a hitherto quiet little place in the Pyrenees) of a murdered teacher. In the garden, beside a swimming pool populated with floating dolls, the police find a somewhat dazed and drugged boy, who claims to remember nothing. Inevitably, he becomes the chief suspect. Unfortunately for Servaz, the boy is the son of one of his first loves – for whom he still holds affection – and she pressurizes him into trying to clear her son. From that point on, things spiral out of control somewhat.

First, and foremost, to get the best out of this book, you should read the first in the series before tackling this one. (My review is here.)

Second, this book does reveal much more of Servaz’s past, adding some weight to the character. Servaz is a fine invention, and his continuing development is a joy to follow. Thankfully, the author does spend some good and productive time with other characters as well, with Zeigler, Samira, and Van Acker being those who most intrigued me. I can see the importance of the Julian Hirtman character (aka Hannibal Lecter in French) but Mr Minier is going to have to go some to outdo the Thomas Harris creation. And Hirtman is too similar to stand out. He is not a bad characterization, but ironically is the most in danger of looking like a cliche.

Third, and partly as a consequence of the number of characters, er, floating about, the plot takes some time to come together. However, I found the build up to be well done, maintaining my interest. The trail is partly responsible for us finding out more about Servaz’s past, as well as the hidden secrets of the accused, the victim, and many of the other characters. There were a couple of occasions where I thought the book was in danger of easing up the tension too much, but the author got back on track just in time.

Fourth, the book and the characters have a somewhat different feel. This is definitely not a case of just another crime book; it stands out, is fresh, and remains very accessible. The author is neither trying to dazzle us with his vocabulary, nor impress us with how far he can stretch suspension of disbelief. He just concentrates on fine writing, good observation, and quirky characters.

Fifth, the plot is well constructed, and is skillfully revealed, with enough false leads and twists to keep up the tension.

Incidentally, Alison Anderson’s translation is invisible; a good sign.

Finally, the acid test delivered the ultimate confirmation that this was a good one: when I got to the last page, I was oh so disappointed.

 

 

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