Sunday, November 30, 2014

Vehicle Fun Part Two

The Normandy campaign for Chain of Command is moving along at a spunky pace and the Americans I command get some vehicle options. I like vehicles, especially bizarre and obscure ones. I like early war desert light tanks and the Soviets have a real talent for putting motors in things (I'm talking about you,  Aerosani!). Imagine my dismay, then, to discover that the Americans had essentially four vehicles. Trucks and halftracks, jeeps, Sherman tanks, and tank destroyers. Granted there are a few oddball creations like the M-8 and early on the Grant and M-5 are active but even so, American vehicles are just plain dull.

Resigned to equipping my fellows with Shermans and tank destroyers I picked up a pair of Armourfast models. Armourfast makes affordable models and the range is fairly decent. My initial impression when I unboxed the kit was neutral. It certainly didn't look too complex, rather the opposite. That initial impression was borne out as the construction commenced. The kit is slightly less complex than the Pegasus models and is really lacking in detail. Further, it had a good number of fit issues and I found myself puttying up a lot of spaces. Finally, the sprues attach at points that are highly visible, meaning that if you detach them carelessly you end up with big, visible gashes in the model.

I finished up a Sherman and M-10. The models are fine. Not fine like fine dining but fine like not terrible. They build fast and the price is right but if you're putting something on the table it may as well look special. And if I want simple, fast builds I think I'll go back to Pegasus.

Camel Racing!

I like racing games and I own a copy of Formula D. One drawback to the game is that I repeatedly crash my car long before the finish line. I've played a good number of games and I think I've made it to the end maybe once. Now granted this is solely my fault, the game is brilliant. Still, it's depressing. And that leaves me looking for a racing game in which I can't crash and burn both literally and figuratively.

A few weeks ago Camel Up appeared at the Myriad Games game night. Camel Up is a camel racing game and it comes with a colorful board, amusing cards, a pyramid that dispenses dice and a set of solid wooden camels. In one sense even if the game was terrible the components looked fun to play with! Happily the game is great fun. And the components Are fun to play with as well.

In Camel Up a set of camels race around a board in a series of phases, or "legs." In each leg the players bet on which camel will be in the lead. You can bet on several camels but you lose points for each incorrect bet. During the game you can also bet on which camel will be the overall winner and the overall loser. As above, you could bet on several winning or losing but each wrong bet loses you points. Further, the first right bet wins more points that bets made later in the game. And that's the central dynamic of Camel Up- you want to make guesses early but you also want to be accurate and it's hard to be both.

Big Hefty Components
The movement system of Camel Up is what make the betting "educated" rather than random. Each camel moves once per leg. There are five camels. They move in random order and one, two, or three spaces on the track, also rolled randomly. You can imagine that it's going to be harder to guess which will be in the lead when only one has moved and easier when four have moved. The overall movement system is dead simple in principal but leads to a lot of calculation and guesswork during the game.

Camel Up is simple but very exciting. The camels move on their own, your job as a player is just to calculate which will be in the lead. There's a lot of plotting and planning and then also moments of surprise as your plans fall apart over an odd die roll. It's a great game for people who like a mix of surprises and planning. Kids could play it easily enough and non-gamers should like it too.

Vehicle Fun Part One

My friend John and I are in the midst of a Chain of Command campaign set in Normandy and I've been slowly adding to my forces. John started in 1/72 scale and amassed a huge collection of great looking scenery so I went along and started up a whole new scale to collect.

Having set up a decent base of figures I turned to vehicles. There seem to be a few choices to work with. There are a number of "toy soldier" style manufacturers, a huge number of "plastic model" style sources, and finally die cast vehicles. I picked up some Plastic Soldier Company tanks, some Armourcast vehicles, and then looked for some 1/72 plastic models. I needed some late war Normandy gear but also some armor suitable for the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled into Hobbies With a Twist in Concord, New Hampshire, and found a huge pile of 1/72 obscure Russian early war vehicles. On sale!

The immediate and obvious drawback to eastern European plastic models is that the engineers have excessive confidence in my ability to manipulate and glue tiny 2mm bits and bobs. Does the tank have a knob of some sort? Then clearly it needs to be modeled! But once my initial dismay at the array of tiny soft plastic pieces dissipated I was struck by how easily the model fell together. The fit was smooth and the instructions generally clear. I needed to scratch build one section that was ruined through my doing, and I made a machine gun barrel out of syringe because the plastic barrel would have a lifespan of minutes. Otherwise the model was a real pleasure to assemble.

Early War Wunder Weapon
I'm working on another Soviet flame tank by the same manufacturer. It's going even better than the first. Once the initial tiny piece shock goes away these kits are great fun.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Hobby Fun with a Seven Year Old

Up to now letting my son "help" with hobby time has been less than satisfying. Unlike other forms of helping where something might actually get somewhat partially done he's just too young to paint small minis or do terrain. Much to his happiness and my pride that has now changed.

My 1/72 scale Russians needed some light armored vehicles and since I find armored cars to be super cool looking anyway I picked up some Pegasus BA-6's. Two vehicles is less that 15$ so it seemed reasonable. When I started cleaning the sprues my son asked to help and so each of us put one vehicle together.

My past experience with plastic models has demonstrated that engineering is everything. A well designed kit almost falls together with minimal filing and no forcing or prying. On the other hand, a badly designed kit Almost fits and that almost-y quality is a source of terrible frustration. Soon there's putty everywhere, dried glue on your fingers, and a model that looks almost decent.

Happily the Pegasus kit is very well designed. The instructions are clear, the pieces all fit nicely, and assembly is just complex enough to be interesting but certainly simple enough for a seven year old. The result- a nice looking vehicle! Painting time next, but I'll be looking at more Pegasus kits. Especially ones that have two models in the box!

Space Hulk Reprinted, Special Edition Acquired

Fans of science fiction gaming are by now aware that the classic Games Workshop product Space Hulk has been reprinted for the third time. The game features outnumbered space marines trying to reach some goal in a labyrinthine spacecraft while under attack from waves of alien genestealers. Space Hulk was a formative game for many, for me the early computer version was hugely exciting. More recently a version with cards has been released. This game, Death Angel, is terrifically designed and I've played it often.

I did muse about shelling in the $100 for the fourth edition but luckily my son preempted me by creating the special edition himself. A pile of legos, some pen and paper, and you're ready to roll. To be sure, I drew the marines but he did a credible job on the genestealers and designed to ship itself. We both contributed sound effects and cries of "Avenge me brothers," and "my bolter is jammed!"

Lego Space Hulk is still plenty fun- we played with a mishmash of Death Angel and ios Space Hulk rules. Highly recommended and you end up saving $99.80!

More Plastic Soldiers

We've been playing Chain of Command lately and one of the more active players has a large 1/72 scale set of armies. I have Second World War armies in four other scales and it seemed a bit much to invest in a fifth but the he game me a few boxes of Pegasus figures so of course I had to paint them up.

The Pegasus figures are plastic and come on sprues. The manufacture and sculpting process requires most of the figures to have a separate arm which needs to be glued on. I started by washing the sprues in order to remove the oils that coat all plastics. I failed to do to proper job on that and later on my painting efforts would be a huge pain.

The figures glued together just perfectly. I didn't have to do any adjusting or customizing and the resulting pieces looked great. Considering some of the hoops I've had to jump through with Infinity or Warmachine figures that was a treat.

The painting was initially a horrible nightmare and entirely my fault. Plastics come coated with an oil and if you don't scrub the heck out of them the primer will not stick and neither will the paint and the result is just nasty. And I've only been doing this for forty years...

The figures on the whole are quite nice. They are much more slender than the other 1/72 minis on the market so I wouldn't try mixing in Plastic Soldier Company figures into the same unit. These are all designed for winter gaming so for summer I'll probably use the chunkier models from other sources, just to have some freedom to mix and match. Still, one or two boxes of these and a pair of vehicles and I'm ready to go with winter Eastern Front Chain of Command. Not too bad.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Boston Trained Bands Now Has Something in Common with Kim Kardashian

Boston Trained Bands is one of the more active gaming clubs in Massachusetts but for some time has had a small internet footprint. New gamers in the area might have some trouble tracking the club down and that's too bad. Now they've taken the plunge and set up a functional Facebook account.

If you're in Southern New Hampshire or the Boston area then check out the new Boston Trained Bands page. There should be information on upcoming games and events and ways of contacting the gamers and getting involved etc. etc. The group meets regularly at Malden's Hobby Bunker, which is a bit of a shopper's paradise anyway.

Chain of Command- Good Platoon Level Gaming

Over the last few weeks we've been playing a new set of platoon level World War Two rules at the club called Chain of Command. They're published by Too Fat Lardies and bring with them some of the best and worst qualities that the Lardies usually deliver.

In a game of CoC each player is likely to command a platoon with some support. The basic game may include a single vehicle and some low level artillery. A game takes a few hours to play. In this there's a lot to like. Setup is fast and you don't need a huge collection of models to play. Through the course of the game each player rolls a set of dice and then uses the results to activate teams and squads. If you roll a "2," for example, you can activate a squad to
do something. Rolling a "3" let's you activate a leader who can cause a small cascade of events to occur. Generally speaking you'll have the chance to do Something useful each turn, but the dice add an element of chance. At the same time forces with more and better leaders are likely to do more things, more often, which is appropriate for this level of game.

Firing and combat results are straightforward enough, with figures delivering a number of firing dice and then attempting to roll a target number or higher. Successful firing can cause outright deaths or simply weigh down the squad with "shock," which slows movement and makes firing less effective. Inflict enough shock and casualties and the unit will break.

CoC includes a few novel elements (as is typical for a Lardies game). The activation mechanism is exciting, a little "gamey," but adds some tense tactical choice making. There is a pre-game patrol segment in which players vie for deployment options that is also exciting and challenging. The shock mechanism is effective and overall the game flows well.

On the downside the rules could really use some editing. I don't know why but I constantly struggle to make sense of Too Fat Lardies rule books. The games themselves play quite nicely but I don't think I've ever learned the rules from the book itself- it's always been from having another person teach me.

On the whole, though, CoC is a very fun game and we've been playing the heck out of it. The investment to play is very low, especially if you play in 15mm or 1/72 scale. The games go fast and feel somehow more historical than the Bolt Action games. I think the only caveat is the oddly mysterious rule book. If you can get through that you have a very nice set of platoon level rules.

More Legendary Fun Plus Aliens!

I've continued to play one game after another of Legendary: Marvel Deck Building Game. My seven year old son likes it, the people at the club like it, my wife tolerates it (which is not too bad) and each time I play it still feels fresh and interesting. Thus, it was a struggle not to buy Legendary Encounters: an Alien Deck Building Game. Not too much of a struggle though, since I caved right away and got it.

The basic Legendary system allows you to use cards in your hand to either "fight" some enemy or "buy" new cards. The new cards get added to your overall deck and over time you can draw better and more effective hands. The other Legendary mechanism is that through the course of the game new threats appear literally as a row of cards. If you do not deal with them soon they stack up and eventually cause you some negative effect.

That being said, in Encounters you play a character trying to survive one of the four Alien movies. Through the game you can improve your abilities to fight and survive and at the same time waves of enemies and threats appear which may set you back. The specific rules are quite simple and the game includes lots of play aids included in the card's text- one rarely goes back to the rules after a bit of playing.

So how does it play? It plays like you're in the movie and frantically trying to stay alive! What's more, the design sets you very specifically in a given setting and moment. At one point you're exploring a derelict ship, later in the game you're racing against time to reset the Nostromo's self destruct mechanism. I like Legendary Marvel Heroes but you do have to do a bit of work to add a narrative on to the play. In Legendary Encounters the narrative is crystal clear. It's flat out tense and exciting.

The only caveat to Legendary Encounters is that it is absolutely designed for adults only. The art is fair but what is there includes lots of grisly deaths and chest bursting and head exploding. So keep it away from the kids, not just to play but even to look at.

As a game for adults, however, Legendary Encounters is just terrific. I don't know if it would be quite as much fun for someone who has not seen the movies, but if there was such a person they should go see the films anyway! And then see Prometheus, which is awesome.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Let's Paint with Oils

As the years go on I get restless every now and they to try some new approach to painting. I have to admit that Vallejo acrylics and a nice brush will turn out some pretty nice figures but there's always that desire to mess around and see what else is out there. My project painting toy soldier style Soldiers in Plastic was a fun experiment for example- using low levels of detail and lots of gloss varnish.

Flock those Minis!
I've been following the work of Stokes Schwartz through his blog and through various pieces he's submitted to Miniature Wargames/Battlegames. Stokes does a pretty stunning job on his 18th century armies and a lot of his work is done in oils. I've tried oils in the past but in short was using them wrong and they came out looking terrible. Then I read Mr. Schwartz's piece on using oils in Miniature Wargames #371 and decided to give it another shot.

The short form is that Stokes recommends diluting alkyd oils with a substance called Liquin before using them. I set up some Perry War of the Roses infantry, put down a white gesso basecoat, and set to work.

The Liquin dilutes the otherwise pasty oils up to a point where they resemble vaseline. If you dilute them only slightly they resemble acrylics and paint on in a familiar fashion. The main difference is that the oils don't dry as quickly and so you can't paint a layer, wait a minute, and then go back and add more color. If you do the first layer just gets pushed to one side. If you dilute the colors intensely they can be used as a wash of sorts, hardly as agile as Citadel washes or inks but still serving a similar purpose.

Overall I had a pretty positive experience. Acrylics are obviously faster in all ways- faster to mix, faster to paint, faster to clean. The oils are superior in the luster of their color. They really stand out across the table and for pretty armies they will do a terrific job. They also smell good, which is not Completely trivial.

I'm not going to use oils for dark ages or WW II figures. I could well imagine using them for Blood Bowl, War of Austrian Succession, or Successors. In the future I think I'm going to aim for more wash effects and less attempt at a solid and precise color. But overall, a nice experiment.

A Tragic Bit of Bad Advice

Recently I picked up Armored Combat in Vietnam and Marine Corps Tank Battle in Vietnam. The latter, written by Marine Corp vet Oscar Gilbert, is a pretty compelling set of narratives. It chronicles the Marine's armored efforts in the war and concentrates on individual soldier's recollections and accounts. The former text is more grand tactical is scale and while interesting it doesn't pack the same emotional punch.

Both books are worth taking a look at. They agree on a number of points. First, it was harder than pulling teeth to get any armored vehicles into the theater. Planner envisioned a foot soldier war with air and artillery support.

They both also suggest that armored vehicles, including tanks, ended up playing a useful role in the war. They describe moments in which armored vehicles were mildly helpful and also moments (such as at the relief of Tan Son Nhut during first Tet) where they were pretty vital.

All that being said, it was revealing to start reading my copy of The Street Without Joy last week. This book was published in 1961 and is one of the most accessible texts describing the French experience in Indochina from the forties through the early sixties. In fact, unless one can read French, it might be one of your only sources of information regarding that conflict if you were, say, an American policymaker contemplating the region in 1962.

The stage now set, l
et's turn to the forward, written by Marshall Andrews:

     "There was no lack of equipment for modern war in the hands of the French Union Forces (FUF)... this very plentitude of heavy equipment proved a handicap in the test of battle. Not only did it tie the FUF to what few roads there were, but both the equipment and the doctrine it imposed led FUF commands time after time into easily contrived ambushes. The French contended against the jungle while the Viet-Minh made use of it."

There's more in that vein. He concludes with:

     "What is needed now, in the light of France's failure in Indochina, is a search for stout legs, stout hearts, fertile brains, and an understanding of the new relation of big politics to little wars."

It's almost enough to make you cry. For one because a great many stout hearts were identified and then snuffed out during that conflict- combatants, civilians, men, women and children. So "stout hearts," check. Further, many of the political issues that bedevil the French stay active during the American involvement. It is clearly easier to mobilize stout hearts and legs than it is to develop understanding.

But, on a much more trivial note, it's also sad how misleading this text is. I suspect Fall's book was a major influence on American tactical doctrine. From what I've read, at least, it appears that armor in Vietnam was fairly effective, especially when used as a mobile striking force and not diluted into isolated palace guard duty. But by the time the information from experience was making its way back to the States the policies had already been developed.

Now there are additional arguments against an armor heavy involvement in the war. Personnel caps made exporting a large vehicle support infrastructure difficult. And Fall's work suggests that the French also suffered from insufficient numbers of troops. So American planners probably decided to increase foot troop strength at the expense of (theoretically) inefficient armor.

If nothing else, it's an ironic cap on two books about armored combat in Vietnam and an interesting example of how policy is developed.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Mel Gibson Lets me Down Again

For people of a certain age the name Mel Gibson means Road Warrior. The young Dr. Fischer to be would never have guessed that the awesomely cool Mad Max would eventually morph into a cackling maniac with an addiction to humiliating public misbehaviour. But the present day Dr. Fischer had at least some small hopes that Mel would hold it together for We Were Soldiers, a film based on the events at Ia Drang in late 1965.

The battle of Ia Drang is important in a number of respects. It's the first major encounter between the United States and the forces of North Vietnam in that conflict. It's an example of the early use of airmobility in that war. It features many of the hallmarks of that conflict- overwhelming American air and artillery support, a generally professional level of performance by the American troops, and the vital role of intelligence in the war. Finally, it represents a mammoth and bloody encounter that takes place in an isolated and strategically meaningless area. All these elements would repeat throughout the conflict.

In terms of the movie, I was hoping for at least a decent war film and maybe some interesting looks at the terrain. I have to say that We Were Soldiers was instead just terrible. Because the movie changes the Entire Ending of the Battle. In history the Americans don't "win," they make it through the battle. Surviving the encounter and holding the position are massive challenges but the battle doesn't end on a high note. The North Vietnamese simply melt away.

In the movie the Americans find themselves about to take on a final attack. At that point the pour out of their trenches and rout the Vietnamese. Moving at a run the 400 Americans drive the 4000 enemies UP a hill. The Vietnamese gather beyond the crest of the hill and level all their weapons at the ridgeline, waiting for the Americans to come across. It's going to be a massacre! And then two American helicopters appear literally fifteen feet above the Vietnamese and blast them all into oblivion. They don't approach, they just appear, like Jason from Camp Crystal Lake appearing behind you when you look in the bathroom mirror. They're Stealth UH-1's! Mel Gibson and his troops end the film moving through the ruined Vietnamese base camp, humbled at the massive destruction.
Yet Another Bad War Movie

The rest of the movie is pretty average but the end is so wrong on so many levels. It's not editing for time, it's not combining characters to make the story manageable, it's just completely altering the event. Why not just rewrite the whole war, make it a brushfire skirmish on a small Caribbean island and have Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison lead a rag tag squad to victory against giant zombie spiders. Get Michael Bey on line one!

Spencer Smith Minis Arrive

After reading issues of Battlegames and various classic Charles Grant books it's become a fantasy to own a collection of toy soldier style Spencer Smiths. On a seemingly unrelated note, my mother in law took the wife to England this Spring. The connection?  I was able to think quickly and arrange to have a massive pile of lead delivered to their hotel and then carted back to the US in their luggage! The wife was a good sport even as she wished my hobby was feather collecting or stamps.

I've experimented with two styles of painting for the new minis. The first is to leave strong black lines as borders between colours and body parts. The second is to use only blocks of paint and ignore shading, highlight, and all the typical tricks we use in modern figure painting.

Here are the grenadiers. I used the painting guide from Nec Pluribus Impar site detailing the army of Piedmont in the War of the Austrian Succession. Because really, why not build an army from an obscure conflict that's completely overshadowed by the following massive conflagration? And even an army fighting in the less well known theater of that obscure conflict.  I'm sure I'll find oodles of opponents.

Up next are the fusiliers. I used just blocks of colour and skipped any defining lines. I have to admit, it made the process absolutely zip on by.  It almost feels like cheating to whip off a unit so quickly. In the end I think I'm going to stick with this approach. I like the speed and my skills are not up to maintaining extremely fine lines, even when I base coat in black.

In both cases I am pretty thrilled to perfect my facial hair drawing skills. Lucky this is a heavily mustachioed time period! Cavalry is next.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My New Haul!

Myriad Games in Salem had its bi-yearly charity auction this weekend and I was able to attend for the first time. The store takes donations of old games and then auctions them off, with anywhere from 20-100% of the proceeds going to charity (the remainder go to the game's donor, not the store).

A Pile 'o Fun
This auction certainly had its' highs and lows. There are plenty of copies of Munchkin and Trivial Pursuit to go around! And also Scene It, which is secretly a lot of fun to play. There were also some wild old gems including an interactive VHS game (Dragon Strike!) and a lurid oil painting of a demon from Dungeons and Dragons that was just both hard to look at And hard to look away from. But buried amidst the dross were some real treasures. Basic games like Dominion, Bang, and Carcassonne. Some more outre entries like Space Alert. And some lovely little treats. I was outbid on Blood Bowl but then my luck changed.

I managed to walk away with thirty pounds of Tide of Iron game and expansions, a copy of Hybrid and Hybrid:Nemesis, A Combat Commander set, and a huge box of Space Marines. Now some of this is headed to eBay but what's left is going to be awesome and basically have paid for itself.

So a productive afternoon, if you use the word productive in the inappropriate sense!

As an aside, how do we explain Rackham to our children? Yes kids, there was once a company that produced an endless stream of insanely beautiful miniatures but one day they all decided to change their business plan and then go bankrupt. Have fun with your horrible Mantic miniatures. Tragic. But that being said, the games are first to eBay I suspect.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Close Call

I recently picked up an iPad to use as a email and banking tool. Suffice it to say that the iPad is terrible for those things, as well as pretty much every other task but one. It's a nice gaming platform. Since it was free and full of buzz I threw down zero dollars and picked up Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is an online card game similar to Magic. You have a deck of cards and play against an opponent. Each player has some hit points and the person who can reduce their opponent to zero hit points first wins. Some cards attack your opponent, some protect you, some deploy minions who can attack or defend or both and some cards alter your minion's abilities. You can play as one of several classes, Rogue or Cleric or Warrior for example. Each class has special cards and abilities. The game has huge replay value based on the number of cards available and the various classes.

So here's the rub. The cards are available for purchase in virtual packs of five. You don't know which cards you'll get and some are more rare and powerful than others. The more packs you purchase, the greater the chances of getting some awesome and useful card. You can also earn virtual currency by playing the game enough times. In theory if you played all the time you could earn a lot of currency and then buy more packs without spending actual money. Keep in mind these "cards" and "packs" only exist on your computer.

In its favor Hearthstone is a fun game. It's fast and entertaining. That being said:

Sheer Craziness
After a Lot of playing I suddenly recoiled and grabbed my head. God d@#m, I just spent ten hours perfecting my skills of doing Nothing, wasted time earning Points so that I could waste more time doing Nothing, and lost a lot of games because I wasn't up for spending real money on cards that Don't Even Exist.  It's insane!

I like board games because they're fun, they're social, and I feel like you do tune your brain while playing. You lean to manage resources, cooperate, take chances, and focus on goals. In Hearthstone you're alone, losing a ton unless you throw down some serious time or money, and perfecting your skills at playing Hearthstone. "Hey honey, I'm going to ignore you and the kids and after three hours I'll be marginally better at a completely abstract and otherwise useless task."

So Hearthstone is gone and the next day I built a new door for the chicken coop. Whew.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Final Charlie Don't Surf Playtest

I had one more chance to test the game last weekend with trained wargamers this time. The good news is that after a few minutes of play the game flowed pretty well without my constant direction. One thing you look for in a convention game is to have the GM disappear into the background and let the players concentrate on having fun. So that was good.

I continue to be very happy with the 6mm figures. The main drawback to them is that NVA and American uniforms are pretty identical at that scale. I'm going to have to give them all banners of some sort.

The battle of Hoa Tan was a huge success for the Americans, with high NVA losses and (relatively) few US casualties. We found that Charlie Don't Surf is accurate enough in that this scenario is terribly hard for the NVA players. They are outnumbered and outgunned from the start and ambushes and snipers just don't slow down the American steamroller enough to make a difference. I hate to meddle with the historical order of battle but to make the game fun for all the players I'll be cutting down on the American troops.

The consensus in the end is that the rules are decent, the game flows quickly enough once you have played a turn or two, and that the terrain is almost con-ready. Compared to my usual games which appear at Huzzah with the paint still drying that's not too shabby at all.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The John Carter Game is Mine at Last

When I was growing up our family friends the Tsocanos had a huge supply of Joe Kubert Tarzan comics. As the old folks remember those magazines also included Korak (son of Tarzan, and I blush to imagine someone might not know that), Carson of Venus, and John Carter of Mars. As a result I grew up assuming that John Carter's adventures were commonly known pop culture, along with Captain Scarlet and the Thunderbirds.

This was not the case.

That being said I ended up reading the John Carter books, buying the John Carter miniatures, and in off moments wondering whether life on mars with a sword in my hand and a princess on my arm might in some ways be more cool that school and cub scouts. At least a John Carter movie would be pretty awesome.

Again, wrong.

Really, It's All Intuitive
All this is a lead in to my recent impulse purchase of a used copy of the John Carter: Warlord of Mars game, published by SPI in 1979. I had always been curious about this game and now as an adult I could own it and play it and try and exorcise those memories of that horrible movie. Plus, it turns out the game was designed by Mark Herman, a very famous and successful designer. Further, it has an introduction from Scott Bizar, the owner of Fantasy Games Unlimited and an old friend, mentor and employer who helped shape my early gaming years. Finally, the family was going to be out of town for a few weeks so I had plenty of time to learn the game and play!

Wrong again!

After five minutes of reading the rules I was left wondering if I had actually played games like this in the past. I could swear I remember playing Squad Leader and Panzerblitz, Arab Israeli Wars, Mordor, CA, Seventh Fleet,  but maybe I just imagined it all. Because these rules are just impenetrable. There are 28 pages of "sections" and "cases" and they're all arranged digitally (ie. case [6.53]). There are also eight pages of charts and tables (at least they have the decency to call it "Charts and Tables" and not a Quick Reference Sheet). There is a Prison Companion Table, an Arena Duel Table, and a Hand of Fate Table. Plus many others.
Counters! 400 of Them

I'm probably laying it on a little thick but I think my capacity for sections and cases has diminished. About 176%. Maybe I was just extremely clever as a teen and now just mildly clever as an adult. That's probably it! Still, it's another one of those "you can't go home again" moments.

Having said that, the Kubert comics are still awesome! Reprints are available.

Another Charlie Don't Surf Playtest

Last night I inflicted miniatures gaming upon my board gaming group at Myriad Games in Salem. Suffice it to say that they were Very Good Sports and that I completely botched any rules explanations and probably left them mystified.

That being said, what lessons were learned?

Did I mention those people were indeed Very Good Sports as well as being Inhumanly Patient? If you like board games and you're in the Salem, NH area then you should absolutely pay the store a visit.

Renee's ambushing troops accumulate some shock
Secondly, while I feel I'm not unclever, I'm still struggling with the TooFatLardies rules. Charlie Don't Surf is not complex in its' foundation but the basic structure begins to fray when various details are addressed. So, for example, squads and platoons move and fire easily enough. The rules concerning them are intuitive in that once you've moved one squad you know the system. Unfortunately there is a somewhat different system for attack helicopters. And snipers. And antiaircraft fire. And artillery. Not vastly different, but different enough that you need to know them as addition sets of rules.

And then there are the modifiers. I understand the justification for modifying die rolls but there are a Lot of modifiers in Charlie Don't Surf. I ended up just ignoring a lot of them during the game and setting an arbitrary target for success in order to speed the game up and cut down on paper cuts as I flipped through the rules.

Helicopter stand in background
So beyond needing a bit of streamlining the rules are still basically sound and do create a nicely realistic Viet Nam conflict experience. The NVA are outgunned but with snipers and bunkers have the ability to slow and blunt the American advance. They do need to stay mobile. If the Americans can pin the NVA in place that's the end of the battle- and that's very period appropriate.

The terrain was also tweaked a bit and is getting closer to where I want it. I've gone through two bottles of Fray Block as I cut up dozens of tiny rice paddies out of towel material. I'm going to need a few more before I'm done.

Hopefully I'll get one more playtest in before Huzzah. Not with the Myriad folks though, they have done their part!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Charlie Don't Surf After Action Report

Last weekend we got a chance to run through the Battle of Hoa Tan using the Charlie Don't Surf rules. For this game we had four platoons of Americans assault the South of the village and the adjacent terraced rice paddies.

I was able to obtain some very nice maps from a Charlie Troop website and it's webmaster, who kindly sent me a copy of the real battle's after action report. These allowed us to have a good order of battle and orient the game. The map shows how two of the platoons proceeded. In our game we also included the other two platoons and told the players they had to sweep the village and also relieve a reaction force on the paddies.

I had envisioned the Americans splitting into two groups to tackle the village and paddies simultaneously. I also imagined the NVA setting up bunkers and snipers to blunt the force of the American advance early on. Of course, neither happened. The Americans swept up the Eastern half of the board en masse and the NVA player committed whole platoons piecemeal into face to face firefights. The encounter was a bit of a rout for the NVA, even more so than in history.

Maneuver with Blinds
Largely I blame my game parameters for the scope of the rout. Next time I'll mandate that the American players split their forces as was done historically. I'm also going to take the NVA players aside and offer some tips that the actual participants would have been aware of. A time limit may also encourage the American player to move more quickly and take some risks.

Captain Shrader in the Air
On the whole we were happy with the rules. They are fundamentally sound. Full strength American squads will completely outgun their opponents in a face to face encounter. The NVA and VC can avoid such encounters and concentrate on ambush, sniping, and fire from cover. Helicopters can be very effective but become bullet magnets and if they are shot down get the NVA huge amounts of political victory points. Overall the rules reward historically accurate behaviour. Further, the political victory points encourage the Americans to limit casualties and evacuate the wounded whenever possible.

My table setup was a fair success as a test of concept. I'll need to mark out field boundaries better and set up the hedges with more space in between. The trees with pins at their bases stood up perfectly. That technique is going to be heavily used in the future. The board now needs to be coloured in varying shades of green, flooded rice paddies added, and the field boundaries marked.  I was able to find some amazing colour photos taken before the battle and they have been invaluable in designing the board.

Perhaps the only real criticism to the event is in relation to how the rules are written. As with many of the Too Fat Lardies products, the concepts are sound but the writing and editing lend themselves to long minutes trying to sort out specifics. I think these rules are the best on the market for the period and scale and I would recommend them to anyone with an interest, but I do wish TFL would bring in an editor.That aside, though, I'm looking forward to finishing the terrain and giving the game another go.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Little Trees, Fresh as a Breeze

My Vietnam game is set in a lush seaside valley full of rice paddies and trees. Most of the trees I own are completely unsuited for south east Asia so it was clearly time to get more terrain. Unfortunately I am struggling to do the project with some kind of financial restraint and a forest of miniature trees can be very expensive.

A Package From China!
As my wife is aware, when confronted with expense, I use schemes I have learned on the internet to save money and finish my projects. That's what I was doing when I used a power sander in the living room on insulation board. I was saving money when I burned through three cans of spray paint in on un-ventilated basement. Thrift was tops in my mind when I used her bread knives to saw through insulation board (a different project, more insulation board though) and her colander to dry lead figures washed in bulk. That being said she was very excited to learn I was going to buy a forest of tiny trees from China via eBay. I had read on The Miniatures Page that this was a good idea and the advice of an anonymous stranger on a web forum is good enough for me!

Amazingly enough my trees arrived quickly and were exactly perfect for the job. The colors are appropriate for Vietnam and at roughly 6-10mm scale the detail is fine. For a week I kept on re-examining them waiting for the punchline. Would they melt? Are they radioactive plastic trees? Illusions? Nope, they were perfect for the project and very affordable.

Awaiting flocking on the trunk base
Happily there was still opportunity for disaster and mess making in the house. The trees were supplied without bases and had to be somehow affixed to the play surface. The trunks are so very tiny that gluing them to bases would not be very durable. The trunks are also too thin to be drilled and have pins placed inside. I came up with a scheme without the internet this time. I took 17mm pins and clamped one end around the bottom of each tree. Now the trees can be pinned into a foam based mat and removed when the game is over. The clamped pin is pretty secure but I am placing a drop of white glue on each and then adding some flock. The result is stronger and the pin will be invisible.

Considering my record of disastrous goof ups and project malfunctions I'm very pleased with my trees. They were cheap, they look good, and they should do the job!

Break Time From Serious Projects

This Valentine's day my wife got my son perhaps the most awesome gift he has ever received. Two wooden catapults that you can build yourself. There are also some stickers and paper targets of evil knights and dragons. The brand here in question is Boy Craft, which while it offends my progressive sensibilities does pretty perfectly describe these cool toys. I had to settle for building bird houses and macaroni pictures as a kid. Or Pinewood Derby cars, which I really botched. If I had been offered catapults I would be one hundred times more crafty today.

My son built the catapults with minimal help from me. The instructions were clear, the pieces all fit together well and with minimal fiddling, and it even included a tube of wood glue. After some time spent waiting for glue to dry and stickers to stick we were ready to start flinging things around the house.

There really is nothing that is not suited as a catapult target. Chairs, books, people's legs. We could fling apple pieces to the chickens. We could fling cookie pieces into each other's mouths. So picking a target is a win-win endeavor. But if you are looking for a particularly fun time, try building a tower out of blocks, stocking it with guards, and then blasting away with small stones. We made our tower as tall as possible, with lots of Astro Guards perched on precarious landings and balconies.

Here we can see the progression of the tumultuous siege of Fortress Astroman. This was a good forty five minutes of stone flinging but in the end the catapults were victorious and the crew headed off for dinner. Of course I forgot to take a picture of the final ruins of the tower, we were too excited at the time. Flinging things around the living room and knocking down towers is an afternoon that's hard to beat.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Vietnam Miniatures Rundown

I'm going to be running several games at Huzzah using 15mm miniatures. At the moment there are a number of good sources of figures but postage and unexpected sales have propelled me towards a few brands.

A local store ran a huge sale on Battlefront miniatures recently following the demise of Flames of War at their site. I picked up some NVA regulars and American airmobile infantry. The American troops are decent. The pack has a good variety of poses and the sculpts are characterful, especially considering the scale. I sped through the painting process in order to generate a platoon quickly and with that level of care the minis still end up looking pretty good.

The NVA regulars, on the other hand, are embarrassing. There's far more flash than a 15mm figure from a major player should have. The poses are odd or unrealistic. Some of the body parts are bizarrely proportioned. And the insignia on the helmets are scaled to look like miner's headlamps. I think these were early works in the line but Battlefront should have pulled them and replaced them with something less horrible.

Finally, I picked up some Battle Honours/Quality Castings 15mm VC. These figures are smaller than the Battlefront types and don't attempt any real facial features. They are also a little more stylized in their poses and remind me of the Peter Pig house style. That being said, they do the job well and look good on the table. I'll be looking for more of these, especially for NVA and VC troops, who should be slighter than their American and ANZAC opponents.

I would have liked to use Peter Pig figures but the postage from the UK is crippling, especially if I'm going to be fielding a company per side. Brookhurst Hobbies carries that line as well but it remains expensive. I will use Peter Pig for civilians as their selection is better than any others. Flashpoint Miniatures carries a Vietnam line but their military figures seem no better than Battlefront's and their civilian selection strays away from straightforward farmers and bystanders.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Search and Destroy for Huzzah!

As both my readers will recall I recently ran a game of Charlie Company with the idea of either starting a campaign or running a game at Huzzah!, or both. That project lurched a bit as I tried to find some way of making squad level action relate to Vietnam specifically. Gaming the period really seems to beg for an entire company being present. With that in mind I started looking for another rule set.

Search and Destroy was published by SPI in 1975. Gamers of a certain age are now getting misty eyed and remembering flimsy flat plastic boxes, counters, and rules headings arranged in helpful numeric form ("[5.36] Under certain optional rules "Killed" or "Wounded" markers representing..."). Good times. But thanks to the modern magic of the interweb and the folks at Board Game Geek the rules and accompanying articles in Moves magazine are still available.

Search and Destroy is a board game in which each counter represents a single squad. Typically two companies will face off. The goal of the game is to score points- the American scores by collecting hidden caches of weapons and records, and by not being decimated in the process. The NVA player wins if they inflict casualties on the Americans and defend the caches.

Analog Game Tools
The designer took those basic criteria and made them period appropriate. Americans score fully if they can confirm the casualties, either being inflicting them at close range or through after action policing. The Americans score less if the casualties are inflicted through air or artillery, and further, the NVA Get points each time air and artillery are used. In essence, the American player can score a military victory with lavish air and artillery and still lose politically- and politics is the currency for victory in this game.

There are some further design tweaks. The NVA operate in blinds and until they are "searched" the American is unsure whether a counter represents decoys, troops, or peasants. NVA can also "hide" which essentially turns a known unit back into a blind. And as one could imagine killing peasants is politically damaging to either side.

The end result is that the Americans command a huge amount of firepower but have to be cautious in how they use it. The NVA can use hit and run tactics but in the end have to defend or distract to protect their weapons caches. The rules include fixed wing and rotary air, helidrops, antiaircraft fire, interrogations, and medics. I'm looking forward to playtesting them and running the game (hopefully) at Huzzah!.

For more information look on Board game Geek for more reviews, lists of related articles in Moves, and some helpful images. Phil Kosnett's article in Moves #23 is pretty essential, and has some critical errata.

Time for Huzzah! in Portland, Maine

It's that time of year when a young man's thoughts turn to game conventions and the game convention my thoughts turn to is Huzzah!

I've been attending Huzzah! since 2010 and it's been consistently my favorite wargaming convention on the East Coast (I do have to put in that caveat because of Milleniumcon in Austin, which was good fun as well). Huzzah! offers a mammoth number of games all put together with the highest attention to table and miniatures quality. Maybe more importantly, the people attending are very good sports and the gaming is typically fun and good natured. It is sad to even have to touch on that topic but some cons seem to attract prickly folks.

They sunk my battleship
This year is looking to be a lot of fun. I believe the Fletcher Pratt Naval Game will be played again, which features an entire ballroom as the playing surface(!). Boston Trained Bands is running the "too strange not to be true" Battle of Fishguard 1797. There will be the yearly Aerodrome game, which features some insanely fun but quite accessible WW 1 air combat.  Also look for game systems like Force on Force, Battlegroup Kursk, and Commands and Colors with miniatures. Finally, there will be a board gaming component that's looking to feature some pretty exceptional games.

This convention is top notch, and it's held in Portland, Maine, which is a great city to visit. I just can't recommend it more highly.

Takenoko - Another Decent Family Game With Some Depth

I have an odd perspective on Takenoko and it is hinted at in the post's title. Takenoko is a decent game. My wife tells me to never describe her cooking as "decent" and I certainly will not in the future. But the publishers of this game haven't made similar character building suggestions so there we go.

In Takenoko the players compete to grow and harvest different kinds of bamboo. Through the game you are dealt cards which give you a secret victory condition - "harvest three green bamboo plants for 3 points," for example. Other players may be trying to grow two yellow plants next to each other, or plant a row of red bamboo plots. You lay down a plot of land by placing a tile on the table. The tile will grow a color of bamboo. You can cause more growth by moving the gardener to the spot. You can harvest the bamboo by moving the panda to the spot.

Super Cute
Takenoko does have several things working in its favor. The plastic gardener and panda are super cute, as are all the art and graphics. The rules are straight forward. Some of the icons are not as self explanatory as we might expect from a 21st century game but still the game is easy to pick up. The rest of the components are hefty and the bamboo is made of wood and is quite pretty.

Takenoko's best feature perhaps is that there is some decent tactical depth to it's play. It can pay to chart out the panda's and gardener's likely paths of movement. There are times when it is better to grow and other times when you are better served trying to lay plots of bamboo. You can score in three different ways and there are fun and interesting choices to be made along the way.

That being said, it is also a game with a plastic panda and cute art and simple rules. This game would be completely appropriate for younger players and casual non-gamers.

I suppose my mixed feelings about the game stem from my total lack of interest in bamboo and the subtle art of its cultivation. I have the same feeling about Power Grid. Great game system but the theme leaves me cold. In the end I need some sort of narrative to feel excited about a game and Takenoko does not deliver that. However, it has ooodles of good qualities so if this is not a deal killer for you then it's a game well worth considering.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Charlie Company After Action Report

We ended up playing the two scenarios over roughly two hours, which for wargames is almost lightning fast. The rules themselves are pretty minimal and the players started up with only a brief tutorial.

Battlefront US
The first game was based on Mines and Men. The players start on a road having just taken two mine related casualties. To the left are rice paddies and then a small hamlet. On the right are fields and then a tree line. As the turns progress the players begin to take sniper fire from the tree line and small arms and light machine gun fire from the hamlet. The players need to protect the wounded and deal with the attack.

Quality Castings VC
This game ran smoothly and the players had fun. They got to experiment with mortar fire, medevac, and fire and maneuver. They also got to fire bazookas at hooches and in the end drive an M113 ACAV through the hamlet. The enemy force was VC and more pesky than flat out dangerous. The players did think to avoid driving across the mine-filled field and the outcome matched the historical notes, with organized regulars advancing to the hamlet and vehicles providing the punch required to rout the attackers.

The second game demonstrated some of the difficulties with Viet Nam gaming. The players were tracing a trail up the Ngok Kom Leat range prior to the battles at Dak To. In the scenario the second platoon stumbles into a NVA company and has to pull back in an organized fashion and call in artillery and air support. None of the players had that reflex to pull back and drop supporting fire and so I had to step in and suggest that this might be second nature to soldiers in 1967. The players felt that if their mission was to follow a trail then they should absolutely follow it even as bullets begin to fly. It's striking and reminds one that skills learned in Napoleonic and Second World War gaming may not apply here. They players reluctantly pulled back, weathered two human wave attacks, and then sat back as Company B at hill 823 took the worst of it.

Flashpoint Hooch
The game system as a whole worked well. A squad of Americans has fair firepower but not enough to deal with entrenched enemies. That's appropriate. VC fire causes damage through attrition, NVA fire is more likely to quickly devastate a unit. Air support is quite spectacular but tough to use at close range. IN sum I felt the game design was sound and period appropriate.

My main concern is that to play Viet Nam you either have to think period appropriately or spend several games being decimated until you learn. The latter is probably historically accurate and educational but demoralizing and time consuming. Weekend gamers may not be up for several sessions of calamity even if they learn from it.

Overall we were pleased with the rules and the games. I'm not sure I'd run this with casual gamers but for people with an interest in the period Charlie Company is well done.