Goodbye 2017

Goodbye 2017. You are almost gone, and it’s time to say farewell. You have been a good year, and you’ll be missed.

Welcome 2018. May you be a year of health, happiness, and prosperity. And especially, a year of peace for all.

Happy New Year!

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War on the Sidelines

This week’s session saw something old and something new.

The old was Sheer repeating his impressive teaching of Great Western Trail to new players: Avri, Azriel, and Ken. The new was Peleg and I trying out Columbia Games’ Combat Patrol.

There’s danger on the trail

I watched the Great Western Trail game from the sidelines and was impressed at how quickly the three newcomers picked up the game mechanics. There were very few rule questions after Sheer had finished his explanation. That having been said, how many of them were playing the game well?

Azriel was struggling a bit with the variety of choices. Also, he misunderstood how the train track victory points (VP) worked, and suffered a 10 VP reduction. Ouch. The inevitable result was that he finished fourth.

Ken seemed quite happy, working away at his strategy. It just turned out not be a very good one… Ken’s best performance was in collecting hazards for VP, but he also had a loss (7 VP) from the train track. Ken finished third.

Sheer was the favorite to win given his playing experience with the game, but Avri performed an amazing feat of game analysis. He not only worked out how to play the game, but also how to crush everyone else at the board. His score was so high that it would have taken Sheer and Ken’s combined score to just beat him! Sheer may have been misdirected from his mission by trying to keep the other players – pardon the expression – on track, but it might also be that Avri found a crack in the design.

I previously thought that the game did a reasonable job of hiding the winner. Avri thought otherwise. He also thought that once a player got in to the lead, it was impossible to catch him – given competent play – and that the lead would grow and grow. His play suggested that was true. I suspect Sheer will want a rematch, and I would like to see that, preferably from the sidelines again, if only to test Avri’s theory.

Everyone did seem to enjoy the game, and in all the circumstances it is likely to end up back on the table again, even though I don’t like it.

Away from GWT, Peleg and I played Combat Patrol for the first time. This is a block game – your forces are hidden from the enemy – on tactical WW2 combat. We played the first scenario which is a beach landing by the American forces (Peleg) against the German defenders (me).

If only I could have seen things from this angle

The rules are not that complex, and although despite that I am sure we made a few mistakes, things seemed to go well. The game plays fast, and we fairly rattled through the seven turns.

At the start, the Americans were held up by the defenders. But once the Americans broke out of the beachhead, it was just a matter of time. Peleg drew well fro his company support units – at least a couple of tanks – and they were effective. My artillery managed to kill two German steps by friendly fire. Not my finest hour on the battlefield.

Lying in wait, but badly outnumbered

Eventually, the Americans had just about cleared the map and I conceded. Well played Peleg. This was fun, and although there were some wrinkles I was not completely happy with, a reread of the rulebook should be enough to sort things out.

Thanks to all who came to make the night so enjoyable.

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Don’t Let Go – Harlan Coben

This is a standalone book which shows the author deploying his well developed technique of presenting a tragic event from one perspective, and slowly revealing what actually happened. Coben is a master at this genre, and he’s on good form here.

The tragic event is that fifteen years ago, teenagers Leo Dumas and his girlfriend, were killed by a train. Did they commit suicide? If so, why? They had everything to live for.

The first person narrative is given by Leo’s twin, Nap (short for Napoleon) who is a policeman with a vigilante streak. He has never given up on getting to the truth. In the present, as Nap tells it, things began to unravel in their community, and the common thread seems to be the death of the two youngsters and some mystery they may have been investigating.

This is a neat bit of storytelling, with a central character that is fairly well rounded, though far from Mister Straight Laced. The plot, as usual, is brilliantly revealed, and the twists are often fast and furious.

The major downside for me is that it all felt familiar. The characters may have changed, and the plot materially different, but the overall impact is the same as in many of Coben’s other books. They are all variations on a theme – good ones, but still variations. So, it was enjoyable, and definitely a good read, but I am looking for the author to stretch himself a bit more. This type of book is too much within his comfort zone.

 

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Lightning Strike

According to this article in Globes:

“The Ministry of Justice has begun investigating law and accounting firms suspected of non-compliance with ‘know your client’ anti-money laundering rules.”

By way of background, these regulations put obligations on lawyers, accountants, and banks to make sure their client is who he says he is.

In some quarters these regulations have the nickname “Business Prevention Rules” because asking people for copy passports, utility bills, certificates of corporate status and so on, are seen as a barrier to doing business. In practice, 100% of the honest population are mildly inconvenienced so as to try and restrict the unlawful activities of the dishonest minority.

That background explains why sometimes professionals do not properly enforce the regulations. And from time to time, whether in Israel, the UK, or Europe, the authorities clamp down and maybe prosecute a few bad apples as an example pour encourager les autres.

The Globes article is worth looking at only because of this gem of a typo:

“Sources inform “Globes” that Adv. Adi Comeriner Peled, the supervisor in the Ministry of Justice for non-financial businesses and professionals, has begun conducting lightening visits to law and accounting firms suspected of violating provisions of the law concerning documentation of deals and services provided to clients.”

I can just hear the conversation now:

“I’ve come on a lightening visit.”

“Great. Which burden are you going to lighten?”

English in Israel is often an adventure into the absurd.

[I see that some other diligent reader spotted the typo. Maybe they will fix the article. Too bad.]

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Go West

This week’s session was a genuine teaching session as I asked Sheer to teach Peleg and I how to play a new game – new to me and Peleg – Great Western Trail (GWT).

In many respects, GWT is another Terra Mystica: there are several ways to score victory points, there are lots of possible combinations of actions, the choices are difficult, and experienced players will much more readily discern the better route to take – in this game that is a literal route – and which options to exercise and when.

The theme is presented as cowboys driving cattle to Kansas. The cattle are cards and a small sub game in themselves: you start with a set of low value cattle, and you can buy more. You use cattle cards and draw from your pile. There are actions available to discard or remove cards from your deck, and you draw to fill your hand each time you go. So, there is a mini deckbuilding aspect.

Your token must make its way across the trail (route). There can be obstacles – some placed by your fellow players – and opportunities for you to build (settlements?) with action possibilities of their own. For example, a building might let you discard cards for money, or buy a person. There are three types of persons available: one helps you with your train (I will get back to that), one helps you buy cattle, and one helps you build buildings. The trail has some options as to tracks to take, and part of the game involves you trying to place your buldings on the part of the trail that best suits you and least suits your opponents.

Another stream of game activity is the objective cards. You start with one. You have to acquire certain tokens or build certain buildings to get the victroy points (VP) on the objective card. Some actions allow you to gain more objective cards. Most of the objective vards you acquire later come with a penalty in VP if you do not meet their requirements. Some even come with a one off special bonus – like being able to discard three cards – adding to the depth of that part of the game.

As well as your own token trying to get to Kansas – where you cash in your cattle cards for money – there is a train track where you move your own train counter. One action available is to move your train counter along the train track, separately from your cattle journey. Each time you get to Kansas you can place a token alongside the train track up to the point where your train is, or pay a difference. The tokens you play come from your own player board, each of which unlocks more actions and powers.

In summary, a whole lot going on.

In summary, I didn’t greatly enjoy it.

Why?

The theme didn’t work for me, and it seemed like too much hard work.  Too abstract. Too bland. Too bad. That having been said, the game does a good job of hiding the scores until the end, and that’s both unusual and welcome. And as I said to Sheer and Peleg, I would play it again if they wanted to play it, and maybe I would like it more the next time. I do admire the design skill and effort that went into this game.

If you like Terra Mystica and its ilk, this game is for you. It’s not bad to look at, though the icons are not as good as they should be. Thankfully, they are not as bad as Race for the Galaxy, and I may be being over critical since everyone else had no issue with them. It looks as if it will have lots of replay value given the many permutations and different, er, trails to victory.

Thanks to Sheer for the lesson, and Peleg for joining in.

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200 Years of Misery?

Naftali Bennett (Source: Wikimedia)

If there’s one Israeli who comes close to being ritually demonized as often and as automatically as Bibi Netanyahu, it’s probably Naftali Bennett, leader of the Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party and Minister of Education. One reason: the two state solution. While Bibi is superficially at least in favor, Naftali Bennett is opposed. That makes him close to public enemy number one. (Or, more accurately, salon anti-Zionists’ enemy number one of a million.) He doesn’t get a fair reflection of his views in the western media, and certainly precious little opportunity to be debated on the details of his proposals. So, I was pleased to see a decent interview of Mr B by Calev Ben-Dor on the Fathom site, which you can read here.

Here’s a summary of his overview:

“Essentially forming a Palestinian state along the lines that many of the readership of Fathom believe is the way forward would guarantee 200 years of misery for the two peoples.”

To be clear, I do not agree with Naftali Bennett’s proposals, though I do sympathize with some of his assessments. For example, as matters stand, were a two state solution implemented tomorrow, 200 years of misery might be an understatement! However, for me it is important to shed light on the topic and discuss the issues, regardless of my personal differences of opinion with him. For sure, his heart is in the right place, but that may not be enough.

My suggestion: read and decide for yourself. Use your powers of critical thinking and your intellectual muscle. Enjoy the exercise. Maybe you will see things from a new perspective. Maybe you will think he’s right…

If you are too lazy to read the interview, maybe this closing snippet will entice you:

“I am very optimistic. When you look at the world through Oslo and cocktail parties the world looks dire. But I spend a lot of time on ground, my family lives here and I see the quality of life for Israeli Arabs when I visit their schools, and for Palestinians, and the actual picture is a very good picture. It could be much better if we focus on making lives better from the bottom-up.”

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Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly – Adrian McKinty

The sixth of the excellent Detective Inspector Sean Duffy series of crime novels set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Although not the best of the books, it’s good and keeps up the generally high standard. (Search on this site for Adrian McKinty to see my posts about the other books in the series.)

This time around, Duffy is dealing with the case of a murder by crossbow. A strange occurrence in a land awash with guns and shooters. And a troubling case whose retelling starts with masked gunmen leading Duffy in to the woods to dig his own grave.

Before that, in addition to trying to find the killer, Duffy has to deal with some major personal issues in his life, police station politics, and close attention from Internal Affairs.

Gritty, realistic, and engrossing, this tale does an excellent job of transporting the reader back to the late 1980s and offering some astute observations on the world as it was.

The only blot is that Duffy is the one fully rounded character. There are occasional sparks of life in his police colleagues, McCrabban and Lawson, but not much else. Duffy is strong enough to carry the book on his own, but this is a focused first person narrative with no respite. It wasn’t a problem for me, but I have heard other readers criticize such books, in my opinion unfairly, for not having a broader reach. To my mind, the humor, the tension, and the infusions of literary and musical points of reference, are more than enough to avoid any suggestion of a one dimensional character or world.

No, this is – to coin a phrase – the full monty, and very highly recommended.

Incidentally, the title is from a Tom Waits song:

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In the Field of Fire

I recently finished an extended session of Ben Hull‘s excellent solitaire game Fields of Fire. The game puts you in charge of a company of soldiers in one of three different campaigns: WW2, Korea, or Vitenam. You can play one-off scenarios in each of these wars, or a campaign. The campaigns give you the challenge of not only dealing with today’s battle, but managing for the next one: replacing casualties, rotating troops for rest and recovery, building up experience, and so on.

I restarted the WW2 campaign from the beginning because of the release of the second edition – updated rulebook and some components – and thoroughly enjoyed it. Also, by dint of much more preparation, thought, and care, I was able to get through the first four scenarios with wins and my company of soldiers in good order.

The solitaire engine in this game is a good one, so there’s a real sense of satisfaction in the progress made. I am, however, itching to play other games, so this campaign will be temporarily suspended as I move on. I did spot that there is a Vassal (game support) module for this, allowing you to play it on the PC. I am off to investigate that.

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