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.

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.”

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:

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.

Mystical Lessons

This week’s session allowed Avri and Sheer to teach me Terra Mystica. Yes, I have played it before. But Avri and Sheer have played it much more often, have truly applied themselves to learning the key techniques required for success, and are both fastidious in their planning and execution. I have a laissez-faire attitude to game play most of the time. OK, I can be lazy. So, in the face of their superior game play, I am never going to be successful if I don’t focus and make the effort. This time around, I was so out of my depth I resolved to watch and try and learn so I would be better equipped for the next play of this intricate game.

Early on action

Sheer chose the race that gave him double bonuses from his temple builds. I chose the race that gave me one free build per turn. Avri chose another race, but I am damned if I can remember what its special power was…

Avri and I tried to establish cities early on. Sheer waited until the final turn to do that, when extra bonuses were available.

Avri and Sheer made full use of the turn by turn bonuses, whereas I didn’t.

As expected, Avri and Sheer were way ahead of me when we got to the final rounds. At that point, with me certainly no threat to either, they started to give me good advice. (Too late, guys!) Avri was the clear leader from about half way, getting points – or so it seemed – from everything he did. Sheer was concentrating on the long term investment he was making with his cultists. With the very last victory point calculation, Sheer went into first place for the first time and won by a measly two points. (I think both had scored 150+ so to say it was a narrow in would be an understatement.

Entertaining and educational.

Thanks to Avri and Sheer for the lesson. Watch out you two: next time we play this, I might even score half as many points as you…8)

The Poison Artist – Jonathan Moore

Caleb Maddox is a toxicologist. The strange and mysterious woman he encounters seems to have some connection to a series of killings that occur. Is she the killer?

That is the plot. The book is a psychological thriller, supposedly rich in threat, danger, and tension.

It is highly touted as something special.

The book bored me.

I found the writing overdone, and the character way too self absorbed, not at all interesting, and lacking in any aura of realism.

I could see the ending before I was far in to the start, and – though I finished it – almost wish I had not made the effort.

All books have their cliches, but if you are trying to portray the dark side of San Francisco, you really should be doing better than calling on the weather to set the scene. And that lack of imagination – ironically – also permeated through the scenes that were supposed to be fear ridden. I would describe them as a mix of pedestrian, overblown, and off kilter. They did not work.

In short, a disappointment. Of course, your mileage may vary. But if you try it and don’t like it, don’t blame me!

Wintergewitter

Recently, Ran and I played the ASL scenario Wintergewitter. It is set in December 1942 with the Russians defending a village, and having at start six squads, two half squads, two leaders, a medium machine gun, two light machine guns, and an anti-tank rifle. On game turn two, three T34-76 tanks arrive. The Germans have three squads, one half squad, two (good) leaders, a medium machine gun, and two light machine guns. But they also have four armored half-tracks and five tanks: two Panzer IV F2s, two Panzer III Js, and one Panzer IIIh.

The Russians win if, at the end of the scenario, within the village limits, they have a good order unit or a tank with its main gun still working. I was the Russians, and Ran was the Germans.

Many ASL games turn on the effectiveness of the setup. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes my setup is OK, and sometimes it is plain wrong. I have not yet mastered the art of analyzing the terrain and the situation the way experienced players can. This time, I got it wrong by trying to defend the whole village. This allowed Ran’s force to apply pressure at each point, and pick off the defenders one at a time. That was crucial. However, that wasn’t the end of the story.

So, the Germans come on and start eliminating the infantry defenders in the village. Ran uses vehicle by-pass sleaze – a very gamey but popular tactic – to freeze the defenders. One tank does this right into the hex with my anti-tank rifle. The anti-tank rifle breaks. Another infantry unit and half squad takes a low firepower shot at a hidden stack of mine. The next thing I know, my medium machine gun is out of action. Oh dear.

Ran sends his two good tanks to either side of the village, to go hull down in the wadi terrain there. That sets them up as tough targets for my tanks when they come on.

How not to set up the Russian defense in Wintergewitter

Ran slowly grinds down the defenders. My three tanks come on and swarm one German tank on the flank. One Russian tank is killed in the exchange, but I get the German defending tank and the road to the village is open.

Ran continues his grind. My two remaining tanks advance on the village, and Ran tries to bring back his other defending tank. Its main gun malfunctions and breaks and off it goes, home.

Next up, I lose one tank to a well positioned defender. My last tank must now get in to the village. Ran swarms it with his mixed bag of remaining tanks, and manages to immobilize it. Game over.

Thanks to Ran for his patience while I tried to work out – in vain – a solution to the rapidly declining fortunes of the Russian defenders.

On the dice and fate front, Ran’s sole experience was that tank gun breaking. I had the anti-tank rifle break, and also several blown sniper shots. Ran did not get a single sniper shot. I had two squads go berserk. This guaranteed their elimination as they charged into the teeth of the awesome German firepower. Heat of Battle? More like Time of Death.

I understand this is a popular tournament scenario, and can see why. It can be quite fast, and is tricky on both sides. Certainly, with a better Russian setup, it would have been more of a challenge for Ran. I still enjoyed it. ASL remains the stellar wargaming experience.