Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Tragedy of Warhammer 40K

I recently bought a lot of miniatures for the Warhammer 40,000 game through Craigslist. A man was selling his son's collection because his son had stopped playing the game. I sent them through eBay and did alright but walked away with the sense that Warhammer 40K is just a tragic game.

For one, I can't count how many times I've purchased from parents who got their kids piles of 40K miniatures and watched as the child lost interest and moved on. In my hobby of historical and fantasy miniatures you Never give away your minis. You play Basic Dungeons and Dragons and WRG at age 14 and then thirty years later you've played Warhammer Ancient Battles, Hail Caesar, Songs of Blades and Heroes and, well, Dungeons and Dragons with the exact same figures. As my friend William once said, "Games come and go but minis are forever." But pity the poor 40K army, it seems to have a lifespan of a few years at best.

Then what's worse is that the value of the pieces drops by about 70% the moment you open the box. It's astounding how little you can get for a miniature that retails for $60 on the shelf. I might expect as little as 10$ for some items. There's something just sad about a $45 Dreadnaught that sells for less than the price of a plate of Pad Thai. Poor thing!

I know many older Warhammer 40K players so this is not meant to be a universal, but this game just seems designed to be purchased by hopeful dads for their sons to play and then forget a few years later, and then for the sad neglected army to be sold cut rate online. Harumph! My son is going to inherit a thousand lovingly preserved lead soldiers and if he has a mind to (time will tell) he'll be able to put them on the field of battle and rack up more battle honours. And if he has better things to do, as crazy as that sounds, the troops will have a lively time playing on someone else's table, not languishing in the dusty corner of eBay.

Railways of the World- Rail Fun

Since moving to rural New Hampshire I've become more aware of railways. This is in part because this area has many scenic rail bridges and lines, and in part because a freight train goes through our back yard every night at 2 AM. So the Train Game which seemed quite esoteric in suburban Boston is much more a part of our lives.

This week I played Railways of the World. This is quite a sizable game and allows you to build and manage a rail line. Railways is different from Ticket to Ride in that it actually simulates a railway business, as opposed to Ticket which is a sort of 3 dimensional Gin Rummy. I personally find Ticket to be terrific fun, so how was a more realistic simulation? Happily it was a great game as well. In Railways you take out loans and then use the money to lengthen rail lines or improve your trains. You can then deliver freight to various cities and make money. Upgraded trains can travel along longer rail routes and players make more money with progressively longer distance deliveries. The game becomes a balancing act between making sure to borrow enough to build your line effectively and not borrowing so much that your debt cripples you for the rest of the game. There are some other elements at play to make each game slightly different but that's the basic premise.

Railways of the World is a fun challenge. You have to manage your funds, make a long term plan, and pay attention to where freight and markets are located. None of the game elements are terribly complicated but an organized player with a vision is going to do well. The map is very pretty and it's quite satisfying to create your rail empire and watch it in action. The game moves quickly and there is minimal waiting time between players.

One caveat I found with the game is that it does take 90-120 minutes to play and once you fall behind it may be difficult or impossible to catch up. I'm sure a skilled player could do it but family members and younger folks may find this frustrating. I think this makes Railways best suited for people who are present to spend time together and also play a game, rather than people who are there to play and win and only by coincidence talk and socialize. This game has a potential to be frustrating if you're a bad or impatient loser.

As with many contemporary games there is also the question of whether this is actually fun. For whatever reason I thought it was fun to manage a rail empire while I found managing a power station empire left me cold. Still, it's worth considering whether this train game is right for Your family. Unlike Ticket, Railways is pretty clearly a rail simulation. For the right people it's a great deal of fun and a nice looking game.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Magazine Followup- Wargames, Soldiers, et al

A few months ago I listened to an interview with the editors of Wargames, Soldiers and Strategy (WSS). They explained that their business plan was to produce a magazine that catered to the historical gamer, but primarily in the aspect of gaming. Thus, rather that presenting extensive historical background the magazine would get right to the play itself. At that time I had read the first of the new issues and found it decent but not remarkable.

With the second of the new series WSS has become a very exciting magazine that delivers exactly what it promised. This month's issues has so many good qualities I don't even know where to start. For starters, WSS has developed a distinctive editorial voice. In the majority of articles I feel like I'm chatting with an upbeat enthusiastic chap (heh) who loves gaming in the same way I do- a bloke (and yes, I'm loving the British terms) who likes a fun, friendly game where the object is a relaxed afternoon with friends rather than a cutthroat tournament battle ending in in an argument over obscure rules. The writers in WSS seem like people you'd want to hang out with.

Further, the theme of WSS is clearly that all miniatures gaming is fun and who wouldn't want to know about more periods, styles of gaming, scenarios, and hobby techniques? This month featured pieces about a pirate battle, a series of battles in the English Civil War, and a playtest of ancient battle rules. I'm left wanting to play pirates, ECW, and ancients! There's a review of a set of rules for a fantasy pirates campaign and news regarding new plastic War of the Roses figures. Well, I always did want a WotR army and fantasy pirates- sign me up!

Finally, WSS features a great selection of photos that are taken from personal collections of actual players. Many of the miniatures are of showcase quality but some are simply well done- well done enough to be inspiring in that I could do a similar job. Once again WSS is getting me excited about the hobby.

Now in reality I'm studying for a medical exam and will not be painting up pirates, pikemen, or men at arms anytime soon. Still, WSS is proving a very enjoyable magazine. I'm looking forward to the upcoming issues.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Commands and Colors Followup

I picked up a copy of Commands and Colors: Ancients a few years ago and maybe played it once. It was too much of a board game for the wargaming crowd and too much of a war game for the boardgamers. I recently unpacked it and gave it a run at Triple Play in NH for an ostensible miniature gaming night at which I had forgotten any actual miniatures.

In a game of C&C you move tiles around a board. Each group of tiles represents a party of soldiers- cavalry, bowmen, swordsmen, etc. The players have miniature battle on the board and the game supplies a variety of sample scenarios from history to play out.

C&C has several qualities that are really just charming. For one, it's fairly simple. I taught the rules in maybe fifteen minutes and we played with a minimum of time spent glancing back in the book for clarification. Further, it's fairly exciting. The players have a hand of random cards that determine what sort of orders they can give their troops. You may not have exactly the card you want and find yourself struggling to make the best of what fate has handed you. I don't like that mechanism for a game set in modern times but it's pretty fitting for an ancient battle.

Finally, as the above suggests, the game plays out fairly realistically. Even if you don't know the rules you can do well just by using good tactics. Or, if you do know the rules, you can learn good tactics by remembering what works best. I think it's rare to find a historical miniatures game that's both simple and realistic.

Of course, this isn't a miniatures game, it's a board game with wooden tiles. Except that industrious players could replace the tiles with miniature soldiers and the board with a hex marked cloth and voila! Miniatures game!

I would once again recommend Commands and Colors for anyone interested in ancient warfare. I think it's especially well suited for beginners and happily enough is also a challenge and pleasure for experienced gamers.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Megawatts- More Cerebral Eurofun

I got lucky and ended up settling near Triple Play Games in New Hampshire. Each week Triple Play hosts a board game night and I've been able to play oodles of new games. The plus side of this is getting to play weird but fun games like Chaos in the Old World. The downside is noticing a trend in some games towards clever rules that are increasingly disconnected from actual visceral fun.

Megawatts is part of the Power Grid line of games. In these games the players compete improve and enlarge their power plants and to provide power to more and more cities. Megawatts is set in Eastern Canada and allows you to serve Quebec, Montreal, and nearby areas. Other versions of the game cover other regions of the world, in a fashion similar to the Ticket to Ride line.

Play in Megawatts has several phases. Players bid on a random selection of power plants. Next the players buy resources which activate the plants and then claim areas of the board to serve. Each area that is successfully powered earns you money with which to buy better power plants, more resources, and serve more regions. The game combines a bidding mechanic which is fun enough with some basic math as you try and make sure you have enough money to purchase resources and expand your services.

Megawatts is fun. It's fun to bid well and plan your power empire. But I'm not sure it's any More fun than successfully saving and paying your real life taxes, or more fun than budgeting for your week and successfully having money left over for more games. So yes, there is the thrill of successfully completing a task, but is that task really entertaining per se? The success of the Power Grid line suggests that enough people find it plenty fun indeed but I'm feeling a certain failure in visceral enjoyment.

I think Megawatts is probably a great group game for people who enjoy an intellectual challenge. It is well designed and seems balanced. But creating the best power delivery structure seems to me to be even less thrilling than Airlines:Europe. In summary- a great system design but for me- lacking in narrative strength.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Dystopian Wars- Lovely Incoherent Fun

Some time ago Spartan Games out of the UK released Uncharted Seas, a fantasy naval combat game. I enjoyed Uncharted Seas- it was simple and fun. It did suffer from being set in a vaguely defined fantasy world that didn't provide enough gripping backstory to really pull you in. That, combined with pleasant but not incredible miniatures, left Uncharted Seas on the "yeah I should play that again some time..." table. Recently Spartan Games released Dystopian Wars, a semi-modern naval combat game. How does it fare in comparison?

Dystopian Wars (DW) is set in the early 20th century in some alternate "steam punk" universe. There are ships and planes but also giant robots, energy weapons, personal jetpacks, and super scientists living in a buried utopia in Antarctica. The backstory is completely jumbled and appears to be written by a committee of manatees holding science textbooks and atlases from the 1920s. It's improbable and not in the good way.

That being said, the game play is surprisingly... realistic. In a game of DW you marshal a force of tanks, blimps, ships and what-not and battle another player. In our trial games we used ships, dirigibles, and aircraft. The rules are simple and involve taking turns moving squadrons of vehicles and then firing. I hadn't read the rules carefully and so just tried to play as though I was commanding Napoleonic ships and Great War aircraft. The result was historically appropriate! DW rewards players who use careful formations and manage air and sea assets realistically. Granted there were few (well, zero, really) battles combining sail and torpedo bombers But if there had been then DW would simulate those encounters pretty closely. I think its a good sign when you can score well in a game not through knowing every small rule but rather by playing historically.

Further, Spartan Games has really stepped up their game in the miniatures department. The figures for DW and well crafted and designed, look good, and paint up well. These miniatures will look good when beginners paint them and they'll look great when good painters get at them. And at $50 or so for a usable force they're priced pretty well in the world of miniatures gaming.

I'm looking forward to playing more Dystopian Wars. While the backstory is loopy the product is affordable, of great quality, and fun to play.