Category Archives: review

The Zen-like minimalism of The Quiet Year

As I have referred to in a previous post, I went to 1d4con last week, for the first time, in Martinsburg, WV.  I had a great time!  But we’ll get to that.  I got there Saturday, played Cthulhu Wars, OGRE six, and on Sunday, I really wanted to try out a game that I had noticed before and actually downloaded the PDF (for a nominal price).  This is a small “map game” (as the designer terms it) called THE QUIET YEAR, published by Buried Without Ceremony press, designer Avery Adler.

The premise and execution of The Quiet Year are deceptively simple.  Roughly speaking, this is a cooperative game about building a community for long term survival.  Components are also deceptively simple.. you aren’t playing a character in a dungeon or anything remotely like it, so it’s pretty innovative as a “roleplaying game”, at least based on this oldster’s experience.   Instead you are given a narrative premise, which is always the same– some form of apocalypse has happened.  Your community was in a conflict with the Jackals (who are not explained) and have about one year of relative peace before some big unexplained baddy called the The Frost Shepherds are expected (which ends the game).  What will you do to keep the community alive?

The Rules, such as they are. Each person can Hold a Discussion, Start a Project, or Discover Something New.. all of which are “told”.. no dice are rolled.

The standard narrative is read aloud, from the small booklet that comprises “the rules”.  Rules is a descriptor that doesn’t seem to fit here; Almost 100% of this game is played through talking– and there are very few limitations on that.  In general, a turn proceeds around the table.  You have a blank piece of paper in front of you that becomes the map.  Each of you has a small pile of tiny dice to represent projects– since projects take time to complete the dice are a great visual marker of the passage of time, week by week, until a project completes.  Note, you don’t roll those dice.. they are just there to be project clocks.

Our Guantanamo Bay Colony, with rusty ship sunk on the docks, remnants of the old prison, my tree farm project (bottom left) the agricultural attempts (blue dice with a 1 showing), Zombie weaponization project (green dice with a 2 showing), forging recycled scrap from the shipwreck (yellow 2) and establishing a new trade route with Capitano Rodriguez (red 1 showing).

The real fun is the map itself.  You start with a generalized idea of where and when you are and what you want to accomplish.  Then you take a blank piece of paper and start drawing.  Each player draws one feature on the map and passes it around.   Then the game starts in earnest.  As turns progress, more and more is marked on the map– each turn the players introduce story concepts and new characters and challenges.. even ones that harm the colony.   For instance, in the map above, there is a zombie outbreak in the old army barracks.  The zombies become a major plot point.  There is some form of mutant sea lion that is raiding food supplies and killing people (in the water).  There is a tribe of cannibals to our Southwest, which become another major plot point as spies are sent there and found beheaded at our perimeter.

The passage of time is measured by the Seasons deck. Each player starts his or her turn by turning one of these over and reading the event on the card. The player who turns the card must, to the best of their ability, work out the events on the card and invent a new plot point to fit the card. For instance, I drew “one of your projects fails spectacularly. Which one? What caused the failure?” At the time that card was drawn we had sent one of our people over to the nearby village to see more details about the new tribe we detected to our SW. I had to choose one ongoing project to fail, so I chose the spy mission. In my narrative, the spy’s head was found in our perimeter one morning, perched on a small cairn of rocks.

The passage of time is drawn from a prepared deck of cards– the seasons deck is arranged so that Spring, Summer and Fall have active cards and I think there are relatively few Winter cards.  Once someone draws the card: “The Frost Shepherds show up”, the game ends.  That’s it, that’s all there is.

Abundance, Scarcity and Names are they only things that really change, and I get the feeling the GM just does this to remember things.

The thing is, this is a ton of fun.  I’m pretty inexperienced as an Indie RPG player, but I have tons of what we now call “Conventional RPG” experience.  I’ve never played the narrative games like Vampire or its ilk, although I have played Fiasco once or twice.   So open-ended games where there’s no experience points, no leveling up, nothing to gain from your session except the quiet satisfaction that you did a pretty good job is kind of new to me, and actually quite satisfying.   Our Guantanamo Bay project had everything going wrong with it at first– zombies in the barracks, no sustainable food, the island was losing timber quickly.  I found myself actually identifying with these nameless, conceptual people, and caring if my colony lived or died.  When a fellow colonist desired to clear cut all the trees on the island, I jumped in to passionately argue for creating a sustainable tree farm so that we would have timber forever, not just this year.  When I introduced “Capitano Rodriguez” a Portuguese coastal trader who sailed around the islands trading for food and goods, my fellow colonists wanted to capture him and his ship since it attracted sea marauders.  I argued against it, since it was yet another source of sustainable food for the colony.. “this is an island” I complained.. “there won’t be MORE land to farm..  we have to work expanding our food sources.. not just for this year, but for next year..”  They came around, and let him go after we helped fix his boat.  It’s fun how caught up you get in this stuff.

The GM was quite good and understood this system perfectly.  She kept the discussion focused and kept us steering by the minimal rule set.  One of the players had played it before and was responsible adding some really fun and Machiavellian plot lines– like the social divide between the descendants of the soldiers who used to staff Guantanamo and the “newcomers” who were looked down upon them.  I added the additions of the cannibal tribe, the slightly more advanced island that traded with Sea Rovers, and the idea of sustainable tree farms and harvesting scrap metal.  Our GM was very complimentary about our efforts to keep the colony alive.  I really enjoyed this low concept RPG, and I’d certainly play it again.


Discovery: Brother Vinni and Ganesha 28mm retro Science Fiction stuff

file under #smallwars

I recently made an interesting discovery.  I like my science fiction with a tinge of science fantasy, specifically of the pulp visual nature, prevalent in American culture from about the 40s to the 70s historically.  So I’ve been slowly pursuing a project you can see on the bottom right, under the heading “Science Fiction Bar Fight along the lines of the Draco Tavern” (Classic Niven Reference for the win).  I’ve posted on my retro SF efforts in the past on here.  Given the long winter of being homeless (see the post about the tree), I’ve had time to paint and have stuff painted.  My collection has grown dramatically.  Alas, as the Wargame Supply Dump has gone out of business I have jumped in and attempted to buy as much of his line as I can before it vanishes.

A lot of the current offerings in 28mm don’t have the exact right “fantastic feel” to them.. just a tinge of silliness and whimsy, like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Like fins and bright colors and big oversized ray guns and and goggles and leather helmets and such. I’m always looking for figures like this– I’ve been buying and painting GAFDOZ for years and recently made the aforementioned binge buy of WSD before it folded tents. The problem is where do you go from here? That’s what this post is about. Will it be possible to find more 28mm figures with the proper wacky pulp retro look and feel? Well, yes, but I’ll have to go about it judiciously.

One element of the amorphous “pulp SF universe” that I feel is is important is robots. I mean the big rounded edged clanky guys you used to see in the old serials. I found some candidates that make perfect sense in this setting.

I discovered Brother Vinni, a 28mm figure manufacturer who specializes in resin cast Science Fiction, Fantasy and Historical figures.  I believe? the manufacturer is from Russia.  I really like Brother’ Vinni’s small SF Line, particularly the “Nuclear Sandlot” category.  The humanoid figures tend to be more slender than the figures I have to compare them to– mostly in the GAFDOZ range, which are “beefy”.  However, robots don’t have to be in any specific scale, even androids.  One assumes there will be a variance.
The Nuclear Sandlot robots appear to be sculpted with an eye towards the FALLOUT computer game. If you’ve played it, you’ll see what I’m talking about. I picked up the Flying Bot  figure which looks like the robot major domo figure from the game. It’s easy to put together.  You’ll have to do some standard prep actions before painting– soak in water overnight, and be sure to drill the hole out a little.  The figure doesn’t come with a stand, per se, but does come with a transparent peg to mount on a stand of your choice.

Here is my version, after cleaning, drilling and mounting on a MDF circular base. Good choice, actually– this model can get a little top heavy and you’ll want something heavier to keep it upright.  I ended up painting the robot a gun metal color overall, with some bronze highlights, a bronze colored security weapon and bright red lenses on the security camera arms and main ray gun face.  I gave it a sort of thinned out black ink to give it a little grime and depth, and a couple of coats of medium shiny sealer– I’m giving all the pulp stuff a shiny coat because it seems to fit the subject.

I also picked  up two Observer Bots which also seem to be inspired by FallOut.  I plan to make these part of the game– any character with a comunications rig sculpted on it can use an observer bot to see down a hallway.  These tiny little floating soccer balls have a perfect look for pulp

Same approach to cleaning, drilling and mounting.  The observer bot has a little whip antenna that has to be attached, be careful, this will get away from you.  The hole for the stand up flight pole was totally filled in with resin so I had to drill it out carefully.  The model has holes in it for some sort of whisker antennas (four of them) but these were not included.  I suppose someone could heat up a piece of sprue to stretch out and make them from scratch, but I didn’t see the point of it.  That’s my only complaint about Brother Vinnie’s kits.. don’t advertise an element of a model in the assembled pictures that isn’t provided in the final product!

Last robot I got is ALSO inspired by FallOut, I think.  It matches one of the standard robot types found in the game, and Uncle Vinnie just calls this “Robot“.

This was probably the easiest figure to clean up, assemble and paint. The overall aesthetic is kind of like a pint-sized Robbie the robot character from Forbidden Planet.  He’s going to make a decent robot butler or some other kind of servant.   I also mounted him on MDF, painted an overall gun metal with bronze highlights, and gave him a little grime (thinned black ink) and a semi-gloss coat like the robots above.  “Robot” fits in well with the pulp figures I already have, being somewhat tiny but then again, who says robots have to be huge hulking figures to be useful?  Nobody, that’s who.

Now, on to some figures that I loved, loved, loved in the adverts, but the reality was kind of a mixed bag.  At least you have the bottom line up front.  On to Ganesha Games 28mm Science Fiction line, being manufactured and distributed Alternative Armies.   I was very intrigued by the latest releases that were recently trumpeted on the Alternative Armies website about Lord Phalag and his companions, Psi-Knights and Combot combat robots.   Lord Phalag is a Baron Harkonnen looking chap in a floating chair, looking very corrupt and dissolute, and slightly evil. He has an enforcer brute companion named Graul Granite who reminds me of the Thing from Fantastic Four, and some female alien type modeled to look like she has some form of psychic power or whatnot named Skarra.

(Image: Alternative Armies)

I was in as soon as I saw the floating chair. Now that’s a great sculpt. Very decadent looking.

Also of note were a gang of Psy-Knights waving about some sort of light energy beam sword weapons. Hmm. Wonder who these guys are supposed to be? You can take your guess:

Image: Alternative Armies

Well, I had to have those guys, too. I was pleased that Alternative Armies will through in a “Combot” robot with each purchase from this line and got one of those, too.

Now, here’s the rub. These are beautiful sculpts.. very pulpy, nice detail. I want to build and paint these. This is what showed up at my door.

No instructions. No bases. Nothing. Just kind of a jumble of parts. The feet aren’t even attached to a slot to go on a slotta style base. Nothing. The figure of Lord Phalag is my favorite, but I’m going to have to figure out how to put this thing together. Worse, I’m going to have to figure out the flying base too.. I know there are companies that sell these, but apparently Ganesha is not one of those. So how do I base them? (BTW, the website DOES say “sold without bases”.. and it’s my fault for jumping on this without reading, I admit that up front, but I wanted this thing to work.. and thus enthusiasm overcame common sense).

Well, it’s going to take a lot of work to make these figures work. I suppose I’ll have to find some slotta bases (I don’t have any). The figures are cast without anything at all on their feet so I expect I’ll have to drill and pin to make the figures stable on a base of any kind. The Chair figure of Lord Phalag is the big disappointment. I’ll have to buy a flying base of some kind (no idea what will work, they don’t say and they don’t sell one) and the resin part is pretty smooth. There’s some metal bits to finish out the figure but the resin is so smooth something tells me I’ll be drilling and pinning there as well. I’ll make it work but it won’t be a fast process.

In summary, it’s a mixed bag. I like the sculpts and detailing of everything I’ve purchased lately, but the Brother Vinnie models came together significantly more easily than the Ganesha Games stuff will. Everything seems to fit well with other pulp figures I already have, so I’m pleased, but grumpy about all the work I’ll have to do for the Ganesha stuff.

March Violets

March Violets (Bernard Gunther, #1)March Violets by Philip Kerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Bernie Gunther series recounts the adventures and cases of one Bernard “Bernie” Gunther, private detective, State Policeman, SS police officer, and on into the postwar era. March Violets is the first volume of the Bernie Gunther series and the Berlin Noir trilogy– apparently the author, Phillip Kerr, wrote the first three in roughly quick succession and then wrote some other things and the fan base started clamoring for more Bernie. There are now a dozen of them. Bernie Gunther is an interesting type, although not exactly a unique one in fiction. He is a basically moral individual, working as a private investigator, roughly 38 years of age, a widower, and a former State Policeman. In some respects, a classic noir archetype. In others, he is quite unique. You see, this novel is set in late 1930s Nazi Germany, on the eve of the Berlin Olympiad. Bernie is called in to help a powerful industrialist, Hermann Six, solve a robbery and murder of his daughter and son-in-law. As the case unfolds, gradually Bernie discovers more and more layers to the secret, some of which go to the highest circles of power in Nazi Germany.

I got hooked on this book and read it in record time, because it was a mix of familiar and unfamiliar, a rewiring of the classic detective with a heart of gold set in the midst of one of the most evil regimes in history. One feature of Kerr’s prose is that he liberally sprinkles his novels with real historical characters and authentic sounding fictional ones. He also doesn’t write novels in a sequence. One is set before the war, another during, another after the war.. but later ones will jump all over the time period. As a die-hard history fanatic, I appreciated the appearance of Goering, Himmler and Heydrich in the story, and the backdrop of the Olympiad. I found March Violets to be very engaging and a real page turner. I rapidly polished of the Berlin Noir trilogy and am taking a break before reading more– I don’t want to overdose.

I would not hesitate to recommend the entire Berlin Noir trilogy, for starters.

View all my reviews

Small Wars: Leonardo and his tiny tanks

LEONARDO and “Leonardo Style” TANK,

HOT102 Leonardo Da Vinci

HOT101 Da Vinci Tank

These arrived last night, about a week after ordering them overseas from is a figure distributor that focuses primarily on Science Fiction and Fantasy miniatures in the 15mm scale, which I am gaming in more and more these days.  I like a full battlefield.  Gavin Syme appears to be the alpha dog of that operation. recently announced the release of some interesting figures.  A single man figure of the great inventor, Leonardo Da Vinci, both standing and riding on a pony (I’m guessing).  Concurrent with the Leonardo figure they released a 15mm scale tank based on one of the Great Builder’s most fascinating marginalia sketches:

Leonardo was and is famous for leaving enigmatic drawings like this all over the margins of his notebooks, which provides game designers and fiction writers with all kinds of ideas about armored warfare in a Renaissance age.  Sadly, there is no definitive proof that any of these more modern ideas were ever built.  That hasn’t stopped people envisioning it, however.  I have a 15mm Leonardo army that is pretty much all based for HOTT and painted up.. and suffers from a lack of opponents.   I have organ guns and hand gunners and even a glider.  The tanks were problematic.  I actually made one by using a Motts applesauce container (with a wood grain pattern), turned up side down and with craft wheels added on the bottom and a large bombard made from a craft wood bit.  The result looks pretty great, actually.. but NOTHING like the original drawing above.  I also tried buying a plastic kit, which looked pretty spiff but it is overwhelmingly large when used with 15mm forces.  Needless to say I was quite happy to see this advert from Gavin and company, and ordered a sample forthwith.

Some pictures.
  The tank comes in two pieces of cast resin, top half and bottom. The cast was mostly clean with minimal flashing which came off with an exacto knife. I didn’t have time to do much with it last night, except glue the top to the bottom with crazy glue. The two sides bonded together reasonably well, but in retrospect it wouldn’t hurt to sand both sides that glue together with fine sandpaper to facilitate the weld a little better. The bottom and top halves are totally flat out of the box and might slide on you. Sizewise, the tank seems smallish next to a 15mm figure but it is probably more accurate than many models I have tried in this scale.

Top View. Wish I had put something in to demonstrate scale.

Bottom half of Leonardo tank detail

The distinctive row of light bore cannons around the bottom of the tank are managed with some rudimentary cannon barrels that will be glued around the bottom in short order.

The Leonardo figure combination is of the Great Inventor standing and gesticulating with a drawing (tank blueprint?) in his left hand, as if he is displaying a handbill or trying to make an important point to either a fellow engineer or mercenary captain. I like this sculpt, it has personality. The accompanying riding figure is pretty much Leo riding on a very small horse or pony, giving off a somewhat placid feel.

Leonardo standing and riding.

Sizewise the Leo figure scales well with my Renaissance army, which is a combination of Minifigs, Essex and Rank and File. I think the Vexillia infantry might be a little too substantial but if you gave Leo a thick base he might look the right height.


This is a great addition to my 15mm Renaissance HOTT army. Leo will make a fine leader figure in either riding or standing incarnations. I’m going to keep my applesauce tank because of the heavy bombard. I’ve seen some representations of the classic Leonardo design with a larger caliber gun barrel (mostly in video games) but the tank by is quite rightfully more “historically” accurate. So my applesauce tank will be the heavy siege gun that stays in the back field, lobbing shells, as my armor sweeps forward supporting the infantry. I plan to buy 3 more at least of the tank model, and I sincerely hope plans on expanding the Leonardo Da Vinci line from this great beginning.

Follow up: The Martian (the movie, not the book) short review

Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney

I almost never review movies.  I like movies just fine, especially SF and Horror movies, but there are so many opinions floating around the Internet on movies it seems like emptying a shotglass into the torrent to contribute.   In the case of the recently released movie THE MARTIAN, I’ll make an exception, as I just recently reviewed Andy Weir’s novel upon which the movie is based (enthusiastically).  I loved the book, and I love the movie, for a lot of reasons.  First of all, the script is remarkably faithful to the novel, considering it was written by Drew Goddard (of TV’s LOST, DAREDEVIL, the movie CABIN IN THE WOODS– which is a pretty good pedigree, I think).  In an interview with Andy Weir, he admits the studio didn’t ask him to write the screenplay (Just cash the check), but Goddard was insistent on drawing Weir into the creative process so what shows up on the screen is more or less (more “more” than “less”) what Weir had envisioned.  Every scriptwriter adapting a novel has to trim stuff to make a visual story, and the decisions made by Goddard made sense and added to the visual story he had to tell.

As for the visuals, well, Ridley Scott (director, of oh, I dunno. ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, and a few OTHER SF movies…) has redeemed any scathing blowback he received after PROMETHEUS, because The Martian is a visual delight.  It’s very retro in the way it demonstrates space travel as conceived by someone who knows all about the physics and physiology challenges associated with it.  The spacecraft all have a very familiar look– as if maybe we aren’t using them right now, but we could easily conceptualize these craft with today’s technology.  The Martian vistas are also astonishing.  Scott returns to an overhead shot again and again that displays Astronaut Mark Watney’s plucky little rover buggy, moving around like a tiny pinhead on the vast canvas of Mars, reminding us of Watney’s solitude.

I’m not going to touch on the plot, much– if you haven’t read the book, please do.  Andy Weir isn’t hurting for money but you’ll appreciate the recommendation.  I read it in less than a day.  It will make the movie a cinch to understand, if space exploration isn’t your thing.  The Martian is a fantastic story– no stupid romance (other than one alluded to but taking place offscreen, and in keeping with the novel), no macho heroics, no CGI explosions and grim faced dudes walking away looking cool, no pew pew pew shooty solutions to the plot. Just competent people working their butts off to solve problems. Astonishing. It’s like Hollywood trusted the audience to be smart enough to follow along for once. Sure, there was plenty of exposition, but it was done in a very intelligent manner and it wasn’t insulting– the book is a long series of log entries, after all.

In closing, this is Matt Damon’s movie and Ridley’s Scott’s movie.. certainly it’s the best performance I’ve ever seen from Damon– he has to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders, after all.  As for Ridley Scott, he has shown us that the old dog has plenty of new tricks.

VPG’s Napoleonic 20 System and Tolentino 20/Waterloo 20, a short review.

The Napoleonic 20 System Games

I’m relatively new to this series of games published by the redoubtable Victory Point Games.  To summarize up front the 20 series games are a series of low complexity wargames that are designed to be low density, fast playing and easy to learn.  The “20” in the titles of games indicates that the counter mix for every scenario module contains 20 units per side or less, plus some generic system counters for unit actions, leaders and turn markers.   Individual battles were published before in this series in VPG’s older ziploc format from 2008-2011, so this is NOT a new system– it’s just new to me!

Operational level units, doing operational level things (from the Tolentino module)

As is somewhat obvious The “Twenty” series is a System Game.. meaning the basic rules and game mechanics rarely change, and the individual scenario/game module rules always change, to create the historical scenario being gamed.  Although at some level there may be exceptions in the historical game module that might “trump” the core rules, the historical material isn’t designed to do so, so this is a rare occurrence.   My philosophy on reviewing games Napoleonic 20 games (and I have 3 of them to get to) will be to review the series rules ONCE, and the modules at the end of this article and in follow on articles.  I’m not going to repeat myself, but I will link to this review in future reviews.

Components: Note that my comments refer to the newer components published in 2014-2015, after VPG had switched formats to thicker counters, better card stock and graphics.  I have some of the earlier ZipLoc games from VPG’s 2009-2011 period (not in this series) so I imagine they did a perfectly adequate job considering the small countermix and focused smaller map areas of this series.   With the current quality standard, VPG really shines.  As I’ve stated in many previous reviews of VPG games, they’ve migrated to a much higher standard in the last 3 years.  Counters are big, laser cut and chunky, card stock is professional (albeit a tad thin), maps look fantastic, and most importantly the ink doesn’t run or rub off!  That was my major whinge factor about earlier efforts.  As I’ve mentioned, each side has roughly 20 counters and some supporting markers, leaders and system markers.  The countermix is done very well.  The map was more than adequate, certainly up to an Avalon Hill or GMT standard, with bigger (18mm?) hexes and easy to understand graphics.  Some of my previous game maps were printed in a sort-of-mounted “jigsaw pattern” that I really like (and miss, a little), the maps in this game were heavy cardstock.  On the plus side, they fold back easily and line up perfectly.  There’s also a Player Aid Mat included (full color) and it is very useful indeed (as we’ll get to), and a staple bound, color illustrated rulebook for the Standard Rules and the Individual Game Rules (which trump the Standard Rules).   The graphical improvements are well worth the investment VPG made in improving the printing process– I suspect many of you are familiar with the VPG components by now and agree with me, but if you aren’t, there’s a sort of visceral thrill to big, chunky counters on a big, thick map that is satisfying in a hard to define, umami like way– it’s savory.

Standard Rules: At the heart of all this glitz is a very workmanlike, easy to play game system, originally by Joe Miranda from Decision Games (mostly).  the series rules recreate operational level campaigns, and thus aren’t exactly on the tactical level– they are simulating, by rough order of magnitude, units from divisonal to corps level (as the rules state, 8,000 to 20,000 men, and their equipage).  Think of “operational”, in this context, as ‘making decisions about largish bodies of troops moving around the countryside and bumping into each other for combat, then seeing what happens“.  Maps are covered with a hex overlay to regulate movement and zones of control.  Each hex space equates to a distance about one-half to one mile across, though this distance will be impacted by the Exclusive Rules for each individual game.  Unit counters depict a corps, division, or cadre sized unit, with a nice icon representing the troop type and the statistics at the bottom.  Those stats are pretty basic– Movement Allowance and Combat Strength.  Counters are one-sided and don’t change unless someone a card to combine cadre units with certain units at start.

Counters from the Tolentino Battle

Counters from the Tolentino Battle

Each game (I assume) come with a card deck for each battle.  These are random events that are bifurcated to reveal an event that transpires during the course of the engagement that impacts one side, the other or both.   The text on the card is shaded with a specific color associated with the side the event applies to.

Text of one of the cards from the Waterloo Module. If the phasing player was playing the French side, the blue shaded event applies to him. If the phasing player drew the card was playing the Allied player, the pink shaded text would apply to him.

Text of one of the cards from the Waterloo Module. If the phasing player was playing the French side, the blue shaded event applies to him. If the phasing player drew the card was playing the Allied player, the pink shaded text would apply to him.

  1. Random Events are resolved as the first step in the turn sequence.  Simply draw the top card of the face-down pile and apply the text to your troops or the enemy force, whatever it says.  This is not an option for the first player playing his first turn.   Note that many event cards are the mechanism for bringing reinforcing troops into the game.  Note, also, that the FIRST PLAYER designation is (apparently) determined by scenario.  The players alternate  thereafter.
  2. First Player Movement is next.  The first player may move some, all or none of his units, subject to constraints imposed by movement rates on the counters, terrain effects and enemy zones of control.
  3.  Second Player Reacts is next– if the second player has any cavalry on the map he may elect to move these in reaction to the First Player’s movement.
  4. First Player Combat is the next step, where the first player indicates which units initiate combat, if they are in command, and if he opts to commit reserves to get a bonus.  More on combat later, as it’s the most complex thing you will attempt with this system.
  5. If the turn track is in the night zone, First Player then opts for Night Operations.  Night operations covers Rally, Morale Recovery, and recovering Concealment.
  6. The SECOND player then moves through the same sequence above, with roles reversed for reaction movement.
  7. If there is a little Dice Icon on the current box on the turn track, that indicates Rolling for Sudden Death.  That means some portentous event has occurred to bring about an early end to the battle.

I’m getting a vibe that the units “activate in a certain way, move in a certain way, fight in a certain way, and retreat in a certain way” that is very familiar to anyone who has experience with classic hex and counter wargames.  So let’s take a closer look at crucial elements to this system: Combat Operations, Card Events  and Morale/Recovery.  I think you can arrive at what makes this system unique by studying these three elements of the design.  The rest is chrome layers added by the historical scenario.  NOT that there is anything wrong with that– I expect this approach from a series game.


Combat is handled as a differential based system which the initiative player brings on by moving into the Zone of Control of a target enemy unit.  ZoCs make sense in this game scale, recall we’re talking about 8,000 plus men per cardboard chit here, and it’s easy to imagine them having flanker units out and skirmishers, provided some level of control around the parent unit.   Combat is declared in advance before the dice are rolled.  What happens next is classic 80ss era wargaming.

The Combat Resolution Table for Napoleonic 20 games.

The Combat Results Table for Napoleonic 20 games.  Yes, a CRT, much maligned by Tom Vasel and company in a recent show.  I’m sure Tom’s a savvy wargamer with lots of experience, so he knows best, but the CRT does seem to work for this game and provides meaningful results.

A) Designate Attackers and Defender(s)
B) Total combat strength, Attackers. That’s the number to the left on each unit marker. You have the option to spend a Morale Point to commit reserve troops to bolster the attacking score by one.
C) Total combat strenth, Defenders. That’s also the number to the left. Also add or subtract the single best terrain benefit from the defender’s location (if he is defending from a woods, etc.). The Defender can also commit a morale point for a bonus, if he can afford it.
D) If you have special status troops (denoted by the colored attack numbers on the bottom of the counter), basically Guard Elite (red) or Unreliable (Yellow) attack numbers will create different results during combat resolution.
E) Check the differential column on the Combat Differential table.  This is a CRT, right from classic wargames 101.  Find the right column and roll a six sider.
F) Apply any one of these results immediately for either Attacker or Defender: Break, Routed, Withdraws, Exchange, ENgaged.  If you have experience with board wargames, you’ll recognize these results, but pay particular attention to BROKEN and ROUTED troops, as they decrimate your Army Morale.

Real combat result from my first game of Tolentino. The Neapolitans, all full of themselves, move down the road to intercept the Austrian cavalry. The Cavalry (though a mix of lucky dice rolls and a card draw), end up causing the Neapolitan cavalry to Withdraw (DW result). Could have been worse, at least this wasn’t a rout!

In general, this is a pretty bloodless CRT.  The worst thing that can happen as a result is Breaking, but in game turns that IS a pretty bad thing (as we’ll see when we look at morale, next).  I think it is very fitting for operational level games.  You’re not going to see horrific blood and guts at this level– we’re talking about 8,000 men or more per unit, here.. comprised of all sorts of brigades and regiments and demibrigades, and it’s those units that do all the bleeding.  A larger unit’s commander figures out that he has something more productive to do with his men and pulls them out of action after reverses… or he should at any rate.

Morale is the big element of this design that makes or breaks the game.  Army morale is tracked with a special counter on the army moral track on the player mat, I found it cumbersome to use this and just put the morale on a corresponding square on the turn track and moved it backwards when an Army took losses.  Army morale level is the general ‘Stance’ of your side in the face of battle.   Battles are a series of events that impact on Morale levels, and mostly negatively.  Fatigue from forced marches, Lulls during the fighting, units Breaking, units Routing and inhabiting objectives all have their effects on Morale Level.   The crucial take-away is that when an Army Morale level reaches zero, that’s it, game over and you have lost.

The cards add a nice random element to the design.   Many designers are using cards as a way of adding historical detail to a board wargame, which isn’t exactly a new thing.  In the Napoleonic 20 series games, they also serve a critical function of adding reinforcements into the battle in a variable fashion.  Since there are only 20 counters maximum, this doesn’t happen very often and every unit is critical.

Cards in action. This card contributed to the Neapolitan cavalry withdrawing back where they came from in the previous example.

Conclusions, Napoleon 20 series

I like the low counter density, and I like the speedy play of this design.  I rarely have had a game go over two hours.   However, you buy that speed and low complexity at the cost of a lot of detail.  I’ve played other games at this level of scale and even own a few– Le Grande Armee du Nord, Napoleon (Columbia) and if you want to simulate the campaign level (the decisions that make those large bodies of troops move around) this would be a fun and fast way to do that.  However, La Battaille it ain’t.  There’s not a lot of unit variation (even with the special troop rules) so in my opinion, I’m not really getting the Napoleonic experience that I personally enjoy, which is more on the grand tactical side of the house.   However, it is still fun and interesting to play, since it doesn’t require huge chunks of time.

The Historical Modules for 100 Days

Waterloo 20 — Napoleon’s Last Campaign and Tolentino 20 – King Murat’s Throne

Both of these play like old SPI microgames (though not at that level) tucked into a big box, so I’ll start with the more famous one and end with the one I liked more (hey, I’m not making a secret of it!).

Waterloo: Oh, come ON, do I even need to be typing this?  Arguably one of the most famous battles in history conducted by one of the most famous generals in history.  If you haven’t heard of this you probably need to turn in your wargaming card– because that’s nothing but a big bucket of fail.

At this scale, I was reminded more of NAPOLEON (Columbia Games) than anything else.

As I’ve said, I’ve played my fair share of Waterloo games. I have yet to find one that really sings to me, and Waterloo 20 maintains that fine tradition. Why?  A couple of reasons. The scale, for one. Marching Corps around the countryside isn’t what I associate with being the Battle of Waterloo.  When I think of Waterloo, I think of the Grand Battery shelling the Allies, Wellington sheltering on the reverse slope, the cavalry charge up the center, The spirited defense of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont, The Prussians marching in in the nick of time, and the final doomed attack in the center.     You don’t really get to see any of that in Waterloo 20.  It’s not like the Rod Steiger film, it’ s more like moving big map flags on a map.  Which is fine, but not my favorite.  Secondly, and more importantly, WATERLOO IS KIND OF BORING.  What?? You’re gasping, I’m sure.  Yes, it was the final dice throw of Napoleon’s empire, but as a *battle*, it’s almost a non-event.  The British sit there., sheltering on the reverse slopes, trying to Not Die as the French pound them here there and everywhere, mostly in the center.  Sure there are interesting points like La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont chateau, and the fending off of several attacks, but they don’t really maneuver at any point except that infamous cavalry charge.  The rest of the day, it’s like trench warfare.  The French are certainly active but unfocused.

Tolentino: This is a much more interesting small campaign going on at almost exactly the same moment in history.  Murat, the current King of Naples and Napoleon’s General of Cavalry, has turned his coat on Allies present at the Congress of Vienna, after hearing he would be deposed from his throne and replaced by the old Bourbon king, Ferdinand.  The Austrians react by sending two corps South under Baron Bianchi to depose the traitorous Murat and end his short-lived dynasty.  Tolentino is an interesting matchup to be sure.. the game starts with the Austrians spread out and reinforcements due from the West and North.  The Neapolitans are much more condensed and can support each other easily.  Gradually the Austrians will blunder into the Neapolitans, and then throw more and more troops into the mix as the cards are drawn.

Tolentino all setup and ready to go, cards dealt.

I like the situation. The Neapolitans are not a pushover and can certainly stand toe to toe with Austrians. It’s a fairly balanced game.

In general, I liked my first experience with the Napoleonic 20 system. It fills a certain niche for games that play fast and are easy to learn and easy to teach. The battles are interesting and fun to play.

The Martian (a book), by Andrew Weir, Reviewed

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Martian, by Andy Weir, is the author’s first published novel. Weir took an interesting route to publication– he started the Martian in 2009 and once offered it for free, than as a .99 Kindle book. Ha! If I had only known– not that I begrudged paying full price for it.

If you haven’t figured out the plot from the movie trailers that are just now showing up online, this is indeed a story of a Mars mission that encounters calamity and is forced through an odd series of mischances to leave a crewman behind them on Mars. The crewman, Mark Watney, had been left for dead. Now he has to figure out a way to survive for the long haul on Mars– until the next Mars mission shows up. Very fortunately for us readers, fate has picked the perfect person to survive on Mars. Watney is a botanist and a mechanical engineer, and very well suited to take what he has left (a Habitat – HAB.. which was designed to hold people for 35 days, now he has to live in it for years, some rovers and a lot of junk left over from the aborted mission) and survive for a truly long haul stay.

The novel is really a series of vignettes about solving problems associated with this particular situation, and how Watney bends his engineer/problem solving mind to solving problem after problem with an endless supply of cheerful optimism. Herein lies the success of this novel– Watney tells us his story as a series of log entries, usually right after something goes spectacularly wrong or right. He preps us for the next problem by running through the math and science of the problem and then provides an AAR for each disaster as it arises.. usually in a humorous fashion (“Well, that didn’t kill me, or I wouldn’t be typing this, would I?”). The strength of the novel– Watney’s personality and Tony Stark like attitude to fixing problems, is also its weakness. There are other characters in this novel, and they are largely shortchanged in Watney’s favor, reduced to being the means of explaining the current peril and powerless to do anything about it. We barely get the same read on them as we do on Watney.

With all that said. I loved the Martian.. I mean that.. I really, freaking, LOVED the Martian. I bought the ebook and read it at night under the covers. I started it and was halfway done in less than a day. I reread portions. Yes, there will be a movie this Fall and from what I can see they are more or less faithful to the novel. I look forward to seeing it.

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Jon Southard’s CARRIER (VG) for IoS project of Mr. Cyril Jarnot

Carrier Box


Jon Southard’s CARRIER game was published by Victory Games in 1990.   Victory Games was a subsidiary group of the venerable Avalon Hill Game Company, comprised of ex SPI Staffers that were on the beach when SPI folded.  From the start, Victory Games were designed and marketed to the serious gamer crowd; their games were known for lengthy rule books chock full of detail, and games that took a lot of thought and time to commit to.  I owned several of them in my day, notably VIETNAM, AMBUSH, HELL’S HIGHWAY, 1809 and a couple of the Fleet series games.  One game I did NOT own was the subject of this post, CARRIER, a solitaire design by Jon Southard, an industry veteran.  Given how high this game is priced in the secondary and tertiary boardgame market, it’s unlikely I’ll acquire it at this juncture, which is regrettable.  I love good solitaire designs– and Carrier is definitely a game that fits that category.

Carrier is a solitaire simulation of both historical and hypothetical carrier battles in the Southwest Pacific Theater during 1942 and 1943.  The player plays the U.S. commander, maneuvering recon flights and task forces to located and destroy the enemy before he can locate and destroy the player’s forces.  Game mechanics governing the movement of the Japanese are not all that difficult to grasp.  One of the aspects of the simulation I like is the ability for the game to surprise you.  You will not know the Japanese are on top of you until they are flying bombing runs on your airfields.  Carrier, like a lot of older wargames, is also a tough, slow playing game with a lot of charts and detail.  Or so I thought.

Splash/Front Menu

Mr. Cyril Jarnot, an IoS developer of no small talents from France, has been slowly working on a conversion of the game from a series of charts and counters onto an Ipad virtual map.  I had opportunity to try out this conversion in playtesting phase and so am able to relay a few impressions.    Note Bene, all pictures reflect a playtest version, not far from final release but not final at time of their capture.

To begin with, all the chart-checking to simulate the movement of Japanese forces is still taking place, only the computer (Ipad) is now being doing all the dice rolling behind the scenes, which make the Japanese movements far more mysterious.

They could be any number of things… from a tuna boat to a task force.. but they are definitely Japanese contacts.

and closer up… details reveal themselves after you send reconnaissance planes out to check what’s under those counters…

Oh ho, see what lays in wait to bomb my airfield, eh?

When you DO bump into the Japanese, combat can be multi-stepped and sequential.  To commit planes to combat, the US Player has to move them to various ready areas on his display to simulate where they are in the process of confronting the Japanese over a combat area.

The sequence you follow to commit planes to combat… and there is a LOT of air combat in this game.

You can’t just “commit  everything I got to CAP and hope for the best”– you have to move groups to the ready state, in a sequence, as you see here (above).  Once combat does occur (The Japanese come to you, or you search out and find a Task Force or incoming flight of planes), you will see this sequence:

If there is a CAP force over the target, it would engage the incoming planes first. If not, then they attack the ships (or shore) immediately., subtracting losses for AA Defensive fire.

The game is quite challenging on the Ipod, I was very pleased at how aggressive and uncompromising the AI is.  For one thing, you are outnumbered in this time and place in the war, and that always works against you.

oh.. THAT Japanese Task force.. as opposed to those OTHER Japanese Task Forces…

The game teaches itself at a nice programmed pace, similar to the old SQUAD LEADER “programmed instruction” approach from Avalon Hill. This is just as well– the game (in paper version) is pretty complex and that’s a lot of meat to chew on in one bite. Mr. Jarnot has taken the approach of cutting your meat up for you and feeding it to you in delicate little bites, a bite at a time. So keep in mind (as of this writing) you will have to go through ALL of the tutorial modules before “free play” can happen with CARRIER for the IoS. This decision is in spirit of the old Victory Game rules and Jon Southard, apparently, approves.

Now, is it a straight port? Is it replicating every nuance of the old paper map and counters version published in 1990? I am not educated enough to say for sure. I never owned Carrier. It certainly plays in the spirit of the old VG games I played back then; lots of complexity under the surface, and thankfully (for playing time) it keeps a lot of the chart checking behind the scenes. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I have no idea what Mr. Jarnot’s plans are for this game or how to get a legal copy for yourself; I will steer you towards the CARRIER forums on Boardgamegeek, where he is easy to find. Direct any questions to him there. I sincerely hope the IOS app I helped test becomes a commercial product, I would gladly pay for the final version, and support Mr. Jarnot’s efforts.


The Burning City, by Niven/Pournelle, reviewed

The Burning CityThe Burning City by Larry Niven

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do not have much background in Larry Niven’s Magical parallel universe of Warlock and drowned Atlantis, but that’s mostly a matter of missed opportunity. I have read LIMITS, the short story collection, which references Lion’s Tower, which plays a part in this tale. Niven has a certain style, so does Pournelle, and when they write together it is often different for either author’s style on their own. The combined Niven and Pournelle authorial voice is less engaging than either writer by himself, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoyable as a team– as anyone who has read The Mote in God’s Eye, Footfall or Inferno can attest to. Still, I think both a protagonist and plot might suffer from being divided between authors, and I think that might be the case with the Burning City. I like the Magical universe setting– especially for the reason that Magic is treated as a non-renewable resource. The energy that powers the universe, Mana, started being used up long before the events in this novel and only occurs naturally in a series of unlikely places where Wizards don’t usually go. The setting for the first part of the novel is Tepps’ Town, home of Whandall Feathersnake, the novel’s protagonist. Whandall is a “Lordkin”, which is group of sanctioned thugs that routinely commit crimes against a conquered underclass, called the Kinless.  In addition to this, there is a mysterious, only semi-defined group called the Lords, who live in a better part of town that the Lordkin are not allowed in on pain of death.

Magic doesn’t appear to work in Tepp’s Town, as a result of the intervention of the local fire deity, Yangan-Atep.  Yangan Atap has almost grown dormant over the years but still wields great influence in the town. For instance, cooking fires go out when lit indoors. The central character, Whandall, spends his childhood and young adulthood in Tep’s Town, plotting to escape.. somehow. The second half is Whandall as an adult, having fled Tep’s Town to start a new life as a Trader, and the confluence of events that bring him and a Wizard comrade back to Tep’s Town again.

As I’ve mentioned, the Niven/Pournelle combination creates characters that don’t’ reveal much about their motivations and desires. So there was a lot of me rewinding, rereading passages and pondering where the heck THAT came from going on as I read. There’s a lot of allegory in this book– The crazy custom of burning the city to the ground that occurs once in a great while while the citizenry is possessed by Yangen-Atep clearly is meant to portray the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King beating (in fact, Rodney King shows up, after a fashion, in this novel, and yes, his beating does set in motion a great burning). There were a lot of quirky references to real or literary events in the Burning City, including the Tale of Othello, the O.J. Simpson murder case and others.   The entire Lord-Lordkin-Kinless relationship evokes modern imagery of race relations in Los Angeles (on purpose, I think)– and perhaps the mysterious “Toranesti” are the LA Cops?  Hard to say!

For all of their standoffish literary style I ended up liking the setting and the story of Tepp’s Town and Whandall quite a bit. It takes a while to jump in with both feet, but it is a very satisfactory read after you figure out the world that Whandall lives in.

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Review: Frontline Road to Moscow, an IoS wargame from Slitherine

Publisher: Slitherine Software
Price: 2.99

When I saw the first glimpses of Frontline: Road to Moscow online, I admit I had mixed feelings.  On the plus side, this is a Slitherine product.  They are an outfit that knows military conflict simulation games– they’ve published dozens for the PC, and a few for the Ipad and other platforms.  They know their craft.  On the negative side, I have not been that impressed with Slitherine’s game interfaces on an Ipad, which often are straight ports from computer games and are hard to read on an Ipad.  Lastly, there was something about this game that seemed very familiar, as we will see!

Probably the smallest screen on the IPAD version

First of all, you should know, unless you’re remarkably lacking in perception, THIS IS A WORLD WAR II game, about war on the Eastern Front.  It is what most people would refer to as a “Wargame”, meaning it is a game that simulates conflict in a historical context, usually involving a war of some kind.  Veteran wargamers would call this a light or “not very complex” wargame.  In Frontline: Road to Moscow, you play a role– a sort of Eastern Supreme Commander.  You start with a few representative unit types, which become a coherent army of sorts, always heading East to the main objective, Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union.   Front Line is turn based, Igo-Yugo fashion, against an AI.  As a German general you fight 12 missions that are strung together episodically.  Slitherine definitely went for the “Storyboard” concept.. having the campaign unfold as an ongoing narrative that you play in a straight linear fashion, right to the finish line. I could see where this approach might get a little tiresome after repeatedly plays, but I’m enjoying it for now.

On the road to Moscow! You can see where I had success (green circles). The Airplane Icon on Minsk indicates that Minsk was an aircraft only mission. Next on the map is Mogillev (red burst icon directly to the right)

Along the road to Moscow, you’ll earn a kind of victory point called Prestige (or honor, or glory or whatever). Prestige will give you more SUPPLY during a mission, and Supply can be converted into new, tougher units with enhanced abilities. The scale in time and distance is somewhat abstracted. You are aware of the passage of time in a general sense by the progress of technological change. This impacts what units will be available the farther along you get on the road to final victory. For instance, your first mission will start you off with a pretty crappy German tank (the Panzer II, I think), Regular Infantry, Paratroopers (which are pretty great), and some artillery against the Soviets with some half tracks, a decent tank, regular infantry, and some other units in greater abundance. Each unit does one or two things unique to them, like Entrench, or Ambush, or Snipe, etc. As the game progresses, units will get tougher and you will have more choices of unit. There are apparently two expansion IGP modules that will expand potential units even further, but I haven’t felt the need to expand game play yet, it’s just fine as it is. So far.

A scenario/episode from fairly early in the game narrative. Unit choices on both sides are limited at this point; they will get better.

Combats between units are intense and bloody affairs, even when you are doing things right.  A typical battlefield is seen above.  There is an invisible hex overlay that regulates movement, and it recognizes terrain choke points such as rivers, bridges, woods, hills, etc. and will deny movement in certain circumstances and slow it in others.  For instance, a unit may not cross across most rivers, except on a bridge.  If another unit is on the bridge, it doesn’t cross the river this turn.  If it is next to blocking terrain, such as a cliff, river or dense woods, it will become evident when you select the unit where it can’t go. Actually firing upon opposing units is easy enough– move your unit within range and the opposing unit will display an overlay that indicates that it can be shot at.  Depending on what you’re shooting, you’ll have greater or lesser chances of causing damage. Regular Infantry, for instance, don’t do much damage to an enemy tank, but an anti tank gun surely does.  One thing I liked about combat is that it never a sure thing.  Bullets miss or ricochet all the time in this game, which is closer to reality than you’d think.  Combats can cause retreats, sometimes unexpectedly.   Missions (scenarios) are laid out with a pretty standard objective on some of them (take this town, bonus points if you take that town, etc.) but also they sometimes add in something unique, like “conduct an air strike for more victory”, etc.  Most missions seem like a race– you are funneled by the terrain into making a certain avenue of advance, or maybe two or three, but the maps constrain any wild sweeping maneuver around a flank.   Thus most missions become a flat out race to either bludgeon your way past resistance or fake them out and make an end run when an objective is lightly defended.

Only FAIR victory, hey, I had a single unit left! What the?

One thing I would point out for anyone new to the game– use your supply points very wisely!  You can heal a damaged unit up in the field with supply points and buy new units with them, but those points get used up fast, and in the early game, I found myself running out before achieving my objective once or twice.  Note a few obvious things; the enemy AI can heal up HIS units, too, and never fails to.  He also either purchases new units with his supply points or has reinforcements lurking in that foggy area you see around the edges of every battlefield.  I’m not certain if the AI is cheating or not; the Soviet AI player always seems to have more units than I do and always seems to have reinforcements that I do not. No matter, it makes the game balanced, and dare I say it, FUN. The opposing AI is NOT a genius.  I have end-run around it multiple times in the ten games I played for this review. However, it does seem to out-produce the German routinely, and it can win a game on numbers alone.

Unit Iconography, from the Tutorial. You can see the overlay that indicates the German unit may fire upon the Soviet unit, plus the opportunity for advancing fire.

Unit iconography and map graphics are quite good.  Normally, I find the little isometric soldiers and tanks to look a tad too cutesy..  not in the case of Frontline, however.  They are easy to figure out, not confusing, and I was never at a loss to sort out who was who with infantry and artillery.  Tanks do tend to look a lot alike, but you can always figure out who is a Soviet and who is a German by their orientation on the map.

So, in summary, that’s generally the game of FRONTLINE: ROAD TO MOSCOW:  you’re playing a role somewhat like a German field marshal, episodically advancing on Moscow, mission by mission.  You’re earning victory to spend on more units with more capabilities so you will eventually end up on the doorstep of the Kremlin.  Pretty cool and unique, huh?

Well, no, of course it isn’t.  We’re describing Panzer General from SSI from way back in 1994, aren’t we?  Ummmm, yeah, well, we kind of are.

As paradigms go, it may be done to death, but it’s still fun.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences. Frontline has a very similar flavor, but isn’t the same dish.  The Panzer General engine did tend to flood the game with units that were all rather bland and lacking any special functions– in Frontline, the units have much more individual character and there are fewer of them to move around. This cuts down on the micromanagement aspect of the older games. I liked PG back in those days; but I really wouldn’t go back 20 years to play it again. Or even Open Panzer, the direct clone of PG on the Ipad. Way too clunky on an Ipad for my liking.

“Hold the phone!” You might be saying. Doesn’t this game resemble TANK BATTLE: EASTERN FRONT, by Hunted Cow which was released a couple months ago? Thematically, sure. Tactically? Not the same game by a long shot.

Tank Battle: Eastern Front

You either like that standard engine of Hunted Cow’s or you don’t. I tend to like the Ancient Roman game of theirs the best. Hunted Cow has improved gameplay quite a bit, but it is still fundamentally the same hex-based scenario driven wargame that they make for many periods. I give points to Frontline for being a little more unique than Tank Battle.

So, further along in our summary, you have a game that is something of a blast from the past, kind of like a more narrowly focused Panzer General with much better graphics, fighting a linear series of engagements using a limited store of units to fight combats in. Is it worth my precious 2.99? The answer is YES, it certainly is a very entertaining investment for three bucks. I’m even going to pop for the expansions. Eventually. I imagine it will eventually run out of steam after you play it a few dozen times but it’s a decent gaming engine, with good graphics and an okay, not very great, but not too stupid AI that will try its best. I’ve played over a dozen games so far and I’m still very engaged with Frontline. Recommended for wargamers and non-wargamers alike- the game doesn’t have much history to teach beyond the broad brushstrokes, and the level of decision making is rudimentary at best,  but it is easy to follow and easy enough for new players.  For 2.99, I’d definitely recommend it.  For 6.99?  Eh, maybe not so much.

Aether Captains, by Todd Sanders. My First PNP game.

I like the work of Todd Sanders.  Todd is a real polymath.. a poet, an artist, an architect, a translator and a game designer.  He has given a facelift to a large number of older games with graphic redesigns, which he gives away for free on Boardgamegeek.  He has created an entire Victorian Science Fiction universe in the Clockwork Caravel series of games, then just gives them away as free print and play games on Boardgamegeek.  One of them that I have always wanted to try was AETHER CAPTAINS, a solitary dice game where you captain an airship, represented by specialty dice you make yourself.  The airship is attacked by Aether Pirates flying a range of air units.

Print out of the specialty dice (in this case, the airship Corsair). These will be affixed to 1″ wooden blocks. Ideally I’d get these from a craft store, but I ended up having to order them. Click to see larger picture.

So I decided to give it a try.  The cubes I wanted to affix labels to were 1″ wooden cubes (see source in “related”, below).  I thought 1″ wooden cubes would be an easy find at a Michaels or A.C. Moore, but I had no luck at all, and ended up ordering them– not for very much moolah at all, but you have to consider shipping as well.   I painted the three sets of airship blocks different colors.  Then I printed the dice labels out and glued them to the blocks.  I probably should have used a paper cutter to make the cuts, but I just eyeballed it reasonably carefully with a pair of scissors.  Cut lines are in the original graphic as you can see above.

(The Airship in the base game is Dauntless (natural wood).. in the followup expansions, there are also the larger airship Dominion (pale blue), the smaller Ship Corsair (orange), and several enemy single dice aircraft representing pirates, as well as a small 3 dice pirate craft (black).  These were all constructed, printed and and glued to various dice)

There are also some cardboard counters that I improvised mounting on cardboard..

Improvised Revenant pirate counters, another variant.. click to enlarge

The results were the Dauntless, Dominion and Corsair, The Pirate Cruiser, Revenant boarding crews and a bunch of single pirate aircraft. It all fits in one small cigar box nicely.

Voila! It stores like a champ. Click to enlarge

How does it play? Pretty simple stuff, really. In the Basic game you place the Dauntless in the center grid of the playing mat (provided in your printout stuff). Roll to see what kind of pirate single craft are coming in to attack you, and what part of the craft they are hitting:

the Dauntless fights off some Aether Pirates. Two of them are stacked up on each other. Click to enlarge

They roll to attack you, you roll to attack them. If they get a hit in, you rotate your airship dice to the next damaged side. It rotates (you guessed it) four times before destroying. An Airship can’t survive Zero point sections, and will crash on you sooner or later.

I find this a fun little diversion.. my first Print and Play game!! It was a amusing to build, though I made some mistakes. The color scheme is rather bland, and when I tried to apply sealer to keep the ink from running, I ended up ruining several cubes by overspraying that I had to fix later. That accounts for the distinctly darker labels on some of the cube stickers.

The game design is simple enough and quite enjoyable. My only criticism is that this game seems WAY too easy. I will have to tinker with the design a little to make it more competitive. Good show, Todd Sanders. You can find the files for this game on BoardGamgeek, HERE.


Small Wars: Saxon 28mm Warband from Gripping Beast (SAGA)

My Saxon War band

Recently received was a 28mm Saxon Warband for the SAGA project. I won this on Ebay so I’m not sure what the MRP is on this thing, but since I won it from Architects of War’s Ebay store, I’m guessing its’ pretty close to 70 USD. That’s not at all bad for providing value.

At 2.12 a figure, that’s not bad for metal.

You get 33 figures:

  • 1 Warlord wearing chainmail, wielding shield and hand weapon (loose, to be added.. it will be a sword)
  • 4 Hearthguards, also armored at the Warlord level, with shields and mail and helmets. Less animated
  • 16 Warriors.. representing guys that have stood in a shield wall in SAGA terms, but don’t have more armor than a shield and maybe a helmet. All wielding spears.
  • 12 Levy.. these are the reluctant untrained chaps that are here out of feudal obligation. No armor, but they do have spears.

Quality is quite good. Not much of that lumpy bit of metal that makes a figure hard to stand up. No unbalanced figures. Mold lines were very clean. They were all quite sturdy, well sculpted without HUGE amounts of detail. That fits. Historically they wore wool cloaks and tunics, breeches and shoes equivalent to moccasins, maybe a big heavy belt in the middle with some pouches and knives.

The Warlord (left) and his 4 Hearthguard. Chainmail, shield, helmet, and wielding hand weapons. You can also see the spears that come with this pack.

Above you can see the Warlord and his Hearthguard. Click to enlarge.

Here are my dozen reluctant levy fighters. No shields, spears, and in need of enthusiasm.

Here’s my 12 Levy troops.. looking anxiously to their Warlord for some leadership.  Click to enlarge.

A stalwart band of Warriors who have seen the elephant at least one time and are ready to step up to the shield wall. Spears and Shields. One or two wearing a small helmet.

The 16 Warrior figures are the fellows who have stood in the shield wall and know what to expect. They will be the bulk of this Saxon Warband. Click to enlarge.

You get lots of stuff with a warband pack from Gripping Beast. In my case, lots and lots of loose, cast spears, some hand weapons, and their special flat green bases. I might have to buy some more, I don’t have enough for everyone.

Gripping Beast Saxons (Warlord, left, and two Warriors, right) compared to plastic Viking figures I’m using for SAGA.

Lastly, I thought I’d show you have the Gripping Beasts Saxons stack up against other figures I already have based and painted. In the picture above I have a Saxon Warlord facing a Viking Warlord, with two warrior types on either side squaring off. As you can see, they have a similar height, although GB figures are a tad taller foot to crown. You can solve that by using different base types. GB bases are very sturdy, but flat. (Click to enlarge photo)

Summary: I’m quite happy with my Gripping Beast SAGA Warband. This is everything I need to have someone to square off against the Vikings with. The warband is deficient in Archers, so I may make some changes there somewhere. Overall I’m glad I bought this warband and would recommend it enthusiastically. Great value!

Short Review: The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes, #1)The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Steel Remains is a book I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while.. it’s been staring at me on my Ipad for about a year without me cracking it open. I’ve been a fan of Joe Abercrombie for about three years now, and his gritty, realistic hardboiled fantasy introduced in the First Law trilogy, so I was hoping for a new series similar to that one. Richard Morgan is an author that I’m familiar with, having read Altered Carbon and tried to start Market Forces for a Goodreads book club but failed miserably. I like Richard Morgan’s style, too, and discovered he is quite capable of lending his sparse, hard boiled prose style to an epic fantasy setting. How well does he execute this transposition? Well, it’s a mixed bag, really. The Steel Remains takes place in a world that is recovering from a cataclysmic war with some Reptilian race that featured Lizardmen and apparently dragons. I liked that the story starts at least 15 years after the big “Epic Event”.. imagine a Lord of the Rings novel taking place 20 years after the One Ring was destroyed. The story is told through the primary POV characters Ringel, Archeth and Egon, all of whom were heroes of the previous war. Egon (Dragonbane) is a doughty Viking-like northman who has become to urbanized for the tribe he has returned to after the wars. Archeth (Lady kir-Archeth Indamaninarmal) is your elf-standin from the Elf-Standins in this novel, the Kiriath, who have “departed these lands” after the end of the last big war (does that sound familiar, Tolkien fans?). And the PRIMARY focus of the plot is on one Ringil Eskiath, the tough as nails warrior type and anti-hero who did something big and impressive at a place called Gallows Gap during the big war. Right up front, it’s clear, Ringil is gay, and that’s a huge driver in his character. Ringil lives in a world that isn’t very live and let live about homosexuality. Much of his plot line is influenced by societal rejection of Ringil, and society’s grudging respect for his battlefield prowess. The plot was a lot of stuff we’ve seen before in fantasy.. an ancient race called the Dwenda returning to reclaim their world. The Kiriath, their ancient enemies, have long departed these shores. Predictions of dark lords rising, etc. Morgan really amps up scenes to “Noir up” his fantasy, including explicit gay sex scenes told in explicit detail and a very modern argot that I found more off-putting than any sexual references. The casual use of “Fuck” and “Yeah” and other linguistic 20th century speech nuggets took me out of the setting.. frequently. Not a terrible sin. After all, Joe Abercrombie can sling the F-bomb on occasion too, and I love his work.

In general, the plot is decent enough, and I won’t dispute that Morgan is a good writer in the SF genre, at least. The Steel Remains reminded me of a SF novel full of genre archtypes putting on a fantasy costume. Mysterious demigods or demons. Hardbitten heroes.. we’ve kind of seen this before. Maybe Morgan intent was to play with the genre a little and experiment. I liked it enough to try more in this series, but it’s nowhere near as good as Joe Abercrombie’s novels. I’ll give it a solid mezzo-mezzo.

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An old favorite revisited: FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON

Flashman and the Dragon (The Flashman Papers, #8)Flashman and the Dragon by George MacDonald Fraser

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Flashman and the Dragon (The Flashman Papers, #8)

Flashman and the Dragon

Flashman Papers 3-Book Collection 4  Flashman and the Dragon, Flashman on the March, Flashman and the Tiger

For the sake of 100% disclosure, I’ve read the entire Flashman series before, some of them two or three times, including this novel. However, I haven’t visited anything by George Macdonald Fraser in the last decade (except Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II about five years ago). So reading Flashman and the Dragon was neither a new experience nor an unwelcome one. I haven’t reviewed ANY of George MacDonald Fraser‘s work on Goodreads prior to this, however, and I think that is a need that must be addressed. I started reading Flashy when I was a relative sprout– my father, of all people, recommended FLASHMAN (#1) to me when I was 12. That seems pretty startling in retrospect, considering how racy the novels were, but I didn’t mind, I took to them like a duck to water, and have read them many times. Of the Flashman novels, I have often said Dragon was the best, followed by Charge, then Great Game. I just might have to revisit the series to prove my theory to myself. I initiated this read because I was finishing up an audiobook, needed a new one for a trip, and my eyes caught the narrator of the Flashman books, David Case– master of dialects. If you’re listening to a Flashman book, check the narrator, because Case makes the experience memorable. He has the perfect dry, drolling English upper class accent, and a host of other dialects, besides.

Sir Harry Flashman

Onward, begad, we have a book to review here. If you have any experience with the written version of a GMF (Fraser) book, you already KNOW about the lavish care and meticulous work the late Mr. Fraser would put into the research and notes at the back of almost all of his novels, and particularly the Flashman series. For that reason, YOU SHOULD READ THE WRITTEN VERSION ALONG WITH LISTENING TO IT AS AN AUDIOBOOK. The notes (which are not narrated, alas) truly put every novel in a historical context and explain the relevance of some very important historical characters.

Historical characters are what the Flashy series is all about, of course. In THE DRAGON, we find Sir Harry, recently of Lucknow fame, heading East to the Orient in the wake of the “Mutiny Nonsense” (Indian Mutiny), as detailed in Flashman in the Great Game. For some unexplained reason, Flashman already has command of Mandarin and speaks Chinese like a native (to hear him tell it), yet the Flashman Papers do not record a prior visit. Some year I’m going to put all these unexplained gaps on a timeline, or look up if someone else has done it already. In any event, it’s 1860, after the Great Game, before the Angel of the Lord and before Flashman’s participation in the cataclysm of the American Civil War. Flashy is in China, trying to loaf off home to his beloved wife Elspeth (whom he gets positively sentimental about in spots here). Of course, he has a dalliance with a woman that ends up landing him in the middle of the TaiPing Rebellion, the worst Civil War in history (arguably) and before WWI, the most vicious and deadly war recorded. Flashman gets bamboozled into running opium, meets one of my favorite historical mercenaries, Mr. Frederick T. Ward, the creator of the Ever Victorious Army, and a host of other historical luminaries, including Hong Xiuquan (the leader of the Taiping rebellion, who fancied he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother), the The Xianfeng Emperor, Yehonala (aka the Concubine Yi), and a host of fascinating, esoteric and eccentric Victorian military characters.

If you’ve read a Flashman novel, you’ll know the outcome– Flashman emerges from the Peking expedition of Lord Elgin with vast credit to his burgeoning reputation, having seduced, philandered, run from danger, whined and sniveled, and even fought– yes, FOUGHT, his way to the finish line. This is a landmark in the series as it actually demonstrates that although Flashman is NOT courageous, when he has to, he’ll put up a decent fight (in this case, with none other than the Mongolian General Sengge Rinchen, close to the climax of the story).

Of course, if you haven’t read the novels, I apologize for a few gentle spoilers, and I envy what you are about to experience. If you love history, especially 19th century history, you are about to be hooked on the literary equivalent of black tar heroin. Go wikipedia the character FLASHMAN, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and let it sink in for a bit. This is the grown up heroic (to the world’s eyes) Flashman, no longer the bully from Eton. Sure, go ahead, start with the first one. You can thank me later, you have a lot of reading to do.

For those of us who know and enjoy this series, frankly, this was Fraser at the very height of his powers– depicting a vigorous Flashman in his thirties. Old enough to be reflective and experienced, young enough to provide the reader with all the bawdy adventure that goes with a Flashman story. Aside from the almost unheard of “Flashman actually fights” scene, there is a very interesting segment in the novel where Fraser intersects a well known incident at the Taku Forts with Flashman’s narrative, and Flashman is in sudden danger of losing his reputation. The sneaky and somewhat callous way he resolves this conundrum is a master stroke– and it dispelled any notion I had that Flashy seemed to be going soft as he got older.

So that’s that– one of my favorite Flashy novels, now and back then. I shan’t gush any more, governor. If you know Flashman, you’ve read this. If you haven’t, you are in for a treat.

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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane during the 2013 Winter holidays, so perhaps the experience left me a little melancholy– I was on a sea cruise to the Caribbean which definitely didn’t feel like Christmas, so I read voraciously to keep myself amused. My reaction to my first non-graphic novel by Neil Gaiman was mixed, leaning towards the positive. This is the story of a child and an adult looking back at the formative event of his life through a haze of selective (magical?) amnesia. The protagonist (as far as I recall, he is never named) is a middle aged man visiting the haunts of his past after a funeral. He finds himself drawn down to the end of the lane that ran before his childhood home to the home of the Hempstocks, whom he only has a vague recollection of. Upon visiting the Hempstock farm, and especially the pond behind it– the “ocean” that lends the book a title- the protagonist recalls the dramatic events of his childhood, and his friendship with Lettie Hempstock. The rest of the book is shaped around the narrative of the past events from the perspective of a lonely seven year old boy. The suicide of a lodger at his home sets in motion a chain of supernatural events tied to the Hempstock family, who are.. something.. minor deities, witches, sorceresses… it is not specified. What is certain is that the three Hempstocks (Grandmother, Mother and Daughter) are wise, powerful and much more than they appear to be. The story builds up to the inevitable confrontation between a malicious entity from.. elsewhere.. and the Hempstocks, and the price that is paid to get rid of it.

The plot is executed briskly (albeit somewhat familiar) and Gaiman’s style is very engaging. I found the nameless narrator very compelling– Gaiman’s simple description of the protagonist’s 7th birthday party that nobody came to was quietly heartbreaking. The supernatural elements, by contrast, come off as a little hurried and overly familiar. The Hempstocks appear to dwell on some fairy nexus between worlds and can easily walk from one plane to another, dragging along the POV character with them without explaining much of anything. I felt like I had seen that before somewhere, but it did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. It also seemed very abbreviated, like I was reading an expanded novella instead of a novel.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is well crafted and will be a pleasant, slightly melancholy experience to read for juveniles and adults alike.

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