Turning the red planet green

So, there I was, wondering what game to play at this week’s session. Five gamers. Hmm. Terra Mystica, Puerto Rico, or Power Grid

One gamer called off.

So, there I was, wondering what game to play at this week’s session. Four gamers. Hmm. Acquire, Tigris to Euphrates, or Dominion

One gamer called off.

So, there I was, wondering what game to play at this week’s session. Three gamers. Hmm. Alhambra, Ticket To Ride, or Game of Thrones

One gamer called off.

So, there I was, wondering what game to play at this week’s session. Two gamers. Sheer and me. So, I asked Sheer, and Terraforming Mars got the nod.

In all seriousness, if only for a moment, it meant that Sheer could teach me to play this game – one I have been looking to play for a while – without any distractions. We took it easy, and before long we were up and playing.

If only I knew what the good cards were!

In short, each player is a company tasked with terraforming Mars, the famous red planet. Each company has its own special power. The extent to which Mars is improved is measured by its temperature, oxygen level, and ocean coverage. Each player is dealt cards and uses these cards to acquire the necessary building blocks to acquire the necessary cards to acquire…you get the picture.

Being card driven, there is a substantial luck element. Sheer’s house rule to alleviate the effects is a good one: using a 7-Wonders type drafting mechanism for each batch of new cards. It adds time, but was well worth it.

Like with many of these types of games – with a ton of cards and card interactions – Sheer’s extensive previous plays gave him a big advantage. I knew that before we started, but it was all about learning the game, and Sheer probably had some of the enjoyment drained out of the experience as well since he faced such a modest challenge. But it was fun, and I think Sheer enjoyed competing against himself to see how far he could boost his average score. Quite far, methinks!

Red was doing well. I wasn’t red…

I am even more keen to play the game after that first exposure. It took us, including rules briefing, about three hours. The problem is, with more than two players, it may be too long for a single night’s play midweek. Maybe I will need to wait for another night of call-offs!

Thanks To Sheer for coming and teaching me the game. A keeper.


Sirens – Joseph Knox

Modern British crime novel set in Manchester, looking at the drug scene and some of the city’s less attractive features, areas, and characters.

The hero is Aidan Waits, a loose cannon of a policeman who oversteps the law and falls into the clutches of a superior officer determined to send him into deep undercover. There, he is tasked with collecting evidence against a local drug boss, one of whose girlfriends disappeared without a trace ten years ago. At the same time, a member of parliament has a wayward daughter who has done a runner and is enmeshed in the dark underbelly of that city.

Waits is a compelling enough character to keep the reader’s interest up. The backdrop is done reasonably well, but I thought the critics were way over the top in suggesting it was outstanding. (That Observer quote on the cover is ridiculous. A friend of the author perhaps?)

The supporting characters are a believable lot, though I would have liked to seen more attention paid to some of them. The main baddie, for example, kind of makes guest appearances only, popping up from time to time to no great effect.

The closing chapters are a step up from some of the middle where the fizz went out of the tension at times. Overall, pretty good stuff.

There is more to come from Waits and here’s hoping this reasonably promising start is a true hint of better things ahead.


Billboards, Hours, and the Post

Three micro reviews of movies recently watched.

Warning: plot spoilers!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Great acting by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. Woody Harrelson plays Woody Harrelson. The film is, on the whole, enthralling and tense right up until the time Harrelson’s character dies. After that, the pace was too uneven, and the atmosphere was somewhat limp. I cannot make my mind up if Peter Dinklage is there as a court jester or a serious character. He plays it straight, but the script veers too close to exploitation comedy for my tastes. Glad I saw it, but – unsurprisingly – not the brilliant film the critics seem to think.

Darkest Hour

The story is known, and it is not an action packed encounter. Lord Halifax’s cowardly streak has been fashioned out of thin air, and stretched beyond breaking point to create dramatic tension and a counterpoint to solid Winston. Oldman’s acting is just as over the top as the real Winston was, so that’s on target. The scene in the underground is daft, though it does mean I got my name on the screen for the first time in cinema history. See if you can work out how that happened. Better overall than ‘Three Billboards’ in my opinion.

The Post

S. L. O. W. Similar to Darkest Hour in that the story is known and lacks punch. Sure, people were risking their liberty, but a movie has to do a lot more than this one does to make the threat feel real. I thought Meryl Streep was on autopilot some of the time, and the script gave her little to work with. Similarly, Hanks was left high and dry by the ineffectual narrative he is asked to portray. The film looks good in all the right places, but has no punch, no bite, and little that endured in my memory. Blah.


Entering the arena

Avri, Azriel, Efrat, Rosalynn, and Sheer joined me for this week’s regular gaming session. Surprisingly, Mr Prompt (aka Sheer) was last to arrive, and late, so a group decision was made to kick off with Between Two Cities. I’m not sure if there was a connection, but another rarity occurred: Sheer finished in last place. Who won? Glad you asked. I did. Sort of. Actually, it was a tie between Azriel and me, but for some strange, illogical, unfair, and prejudicial tie breaking rule, Azriel won. So, I sort of won, but Azriel really won.

So far as the game play itself is concerned, there was a quick rules briefing required for some, but once started the play was straightforward. The different scoring for different types of tiles is neat, and although there is some considerable luck, there is more skill than may at first appear. I like it well enough to keep playing it.

We then moved on to 7 Wonders.

  • Efrat had never played it before, and – inevitably – struggled. She hung on like a trouper, however, and kept fighting for every last point until the bitter end.
  • Rosalynn cornered the science cards and amassed a might 40 points in that category alone. Unfortunately, there was little else on her scoreboard.
  • Avri went for a military win, did well enough with that and finance, but otherwise made little impact.
  • Sheer added to his military prowess with some blue and yellow cards, doing well enough to finish 3rd.
  • Azriel scored well in the final rounds, picking up some decent guild cards, and important sets of science cards. He was 2nd.
  • My blue card strategy turned out to be a winner. A couple of guild cards in the closing rounds made sure of victory.

Rosalynn went off for an early night, and the five remaining tackled Titan the Arena, a classic Reiner Knizia design.

The game is built on the theme of monsters fighting in an arena, with one eliminated each round. You start with eight, and stop when three are left standing. Each monster has a special power (extra draw, extra discard, swap cards, and do on) but you can only use the power if you play a card of that type, and you control the monster. Control is determined by the strength of your bets. You have poker chips to signal your bets, and each round the value of your bet is decreased. There is also a maximum of one secret bet per player which is tricky. It’s valuable if it survives, but at the outset it is a guess, really, of who will survive no matter the cards in your hand.

All were new to this except me, so I explained the rules and led by example, making a suicidal secret bet, and then desperately trying for some respectability. Let it be said that there was a lot of backstabbing in this game, and some of it even had a point…

Avri put me out of the reckoning, then Azriel, Sheer, and Efrat got in a tangle. I stayed clear, but still finished last. Most others were huddled above me in the ‘respectable score’ region, with Efrat a clear winner. Good, clean fun.

Thanks to all who came. It was fun.


The damn crossroads

16 June, 1815, 14:30, on the road to Quatre Bras.

Still on the table is the Quatre Bras battle from Battles of Waterloo.

Generally, I have to fit in my wargaming in snatches of time, so I rarely get a chance for a single long session to immerse myself in a game. That’s when I get the best out of playing a wargame. It’s one reason why I love playing ASL, because you have to be at it for hours! It’s another reason why I treasure my trips to Consimworld. Therefore, this game hasn’t had the best of chances to shine. However, there’s a lot to like, and I’ve enjoyed playing and replaying the battle for the famous crossroads.

The French Cavalry are about to cross the stream and outflank the Allied line, threatening mass slaughter. Will Ney seize the chance, or is he worried what’s behind the ridge?

I want to try the Ligny battle in the Battles of Waterloo box. However, the Ligny game by Walter Vejdovsky (Ligny 1815: Last Eagles, published by Hexasim) has received rave reviews, and I am more likely to play that first.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if the original command system were given some love, care, and attention, it might be worth reusing.  That having been said, in this particular battle, there’s a need for straitjacket rules to prevent grossly ahistorical developments. No French player worth his salt would dilly-dally the way Ney did.

The combat system – like Fallen Eagles – uses both fire and shock combat. The Gamers‘ Napoleonic Battle Series (NBS) took fire combat out for infantry, and rolled up into a quite brilliant shock combat system. That does speed play enormously. I fiddled around with implementing a combat system like that into Battles of Waterloo, and it sort of worked. But, why was I going halfway towards NBS instead of just using full blown NBS? Another gaming project for retirement!


Private Eye and Israel

Private Eye, the UK news and satirical magazine (issue 1464 of 23 February) has an item about the UK’s Security and Policing event.

“The Home Office has invited some of the world’s most repressive regimes to the UK next month to browse stalls selling surveillance technology and crowd control equipment at a ‘security’ fair it is running.”

You can guess what is coming.

The article later reports that:

“The current list of invitees is secret until March, but in recent years delegates have included such cuddly bastions of human rights as Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.”

This is a nasty dig at Israel. Criticism is all very well, but this is demonization. Private Eye doesn’t like Israel. It may no longer have the institutional anti-semitism of Richard Ingrams, but that has morphed somewhat into repeated sniping attacks like this one, which nobody is going to waste any time trying to rebut, but everybody is going to get used to reading. Slowly, slowly poisoning the well.


Between Games

First, an apology to Efrat. In the report of last week’s session, I should have mentioned that she brought the Manhattan Project game we played, and I also should have thanked her for bringing it. So, belatedly, thanks Efrat!

Now onto my report of this week’s session.

Azriel, Peleg, and Sheer came along and we started with a new game to all of us: Between Two Cities. It’s a tile placement game with shades of 7 Wonders. The neat thing is that you build two cities, not one, sharing one with the opponent to your left and right. Your score is the lowest city score you have.

The game is played in three rounds, with a hand of tiles dealt to you in each round. (The middle round has duplex tiles which are somewhat trickier.) There are different types of buildings, each with its own scoring mechanism. Neat. You choose (secretly) two to play, and pass on the rest. Then, after placement, you pick up those tiles you have been passed, choose two, pass on the rest, and so on.

A city – but not a high scoring one!

The game is fast, and I suspect has greater depth than we gave it credit. For example, since you know the pool of tiles, you can guesstimate what the other players are holding and likely to play so as to improve their cities.

The scores were close, but Sheer’s two cities were top and that made his lowest score the best score. I think what was also interesting is that we played without table talk, and that smoothed and sped up play. I want to try this again.

While I remember: this game also game with a unique set of starting player cards. You draw randomly, and it tells you how to determine the starting player. For example, alphabetical by city of birth. This is a neat idea that is, of course, available to use for all games. Maybe I will adopt it as the house standard.

Then, an old favorite: Dominion: Dark Ages. We took five basic action cards and five from Dark Ages to give a slow, smouldering deck. I went for a money strategy and an early finish. Sheer and Azriel were using Rampage and Pillage cards, and Peleg was doing that too, but with a bit more variety. My strategy paid off just in time, as I was able to finish the game and claim the win by a mere two points.

We ended the night with a three handed game of Eight Minute Empire while Peleg busied himself on a conference call with Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Warren Buffet. Sheer had never played this. After playing it, he described it as ‘the worst game I have played in a long time’ so I don’t think he’ll be playing it again soon.

It was Azriel whose play was spot on, and he handily beat Sheer and me. Once again, he professed to not understand the set scoring. Once again, he scored the most for his sets…

As an aside, Sheer’s comment reminds me to note that every gamer has his own style of game that he likes or dislikes. For example, when we played Santiago, Efrat said she disliked auction based games. And then there’s my own dislike of complex abstract games. Then again, for every game we hate there will be many gamers who love it. It’s a funny old world the world of gaming. Thankfully!

Thanks to all who came and made the night so much fun. We had a lot of laughs.


A Feast of Spenser


This gallery contains 7 photos.

So, here are books seven to thirteen to in the Spenser series by Robert B Parker which I recently finished reading. For reviews of the first six, see: The Godwulf Manuscript God Save the Child Mortal Stakes Promised Land The … Continue reading

The Two of Swords – K J Parker

I finished the second and third volumes of this fantasy tale with mixed feelings. The central story is a war between two counties that seems not be to either’s advantage. The narrative is largely told through the eyes of individual contributors to the action – soldier, spy, diplomat, and so on – giving some finely observed detail to add to the sweeping grand maneuvers.

The author is a great storyteller, and the book is jam packed with twists, turns, action, and adventure. It’s also an exceedingly complex plot where, at times, it can be hard to work out if a character’s motivation is all that it seems to be. Subterfuge, deception, and treachery are ever present. But, was it worth it? Was the book too rich for my tastes?

Originally, the three books were actually a series (19 I think) of novellas that you subscribed to, and the author released to a monthly schedule. I cannot help wondering if the cramped nature of the book, especially in the closing stages, was the result of writing to a deadline and a formula.

The books are good, but not great. I don’t think the format allowed Parker to be at his best. It was a worthwhile experience, and I am glad I read it, but I hope the next book by the author follows a more traditional route.