Monday, December 31, 2007

Christmas Haul and Looking Forward

Wow. I can't believe it has been one week since Christmas Eve! This past week has certainly been a blur. The holidays really screw with your usual schedule. I'll be happy when life gets back to normal and my sanity returns.

Truth be told, I haven't had enough down time to dig into any of my Christmas gifts yet. Yes, I unwrapped them on Christmas Eve. And low and behold, most of them were games! How cool is that? The Christmas Elf.... err... my wife... well she rocks! I eyeballed these new games longingly, but have yet to tear off the shrink-wrap and open any boxes of gaming goodness.

So which games did Santa Anna (my loving wife) bring me for Christmas? Well, here's what I scored:

Cool stuff eh?

Out of the top 10 games/expansions that I had written on my hobby games wishlist, I received 7 of them. Now that, my friends, is a killer Christmas haul in just about anyone's book! And that's especially true when you're a guy over 40 years old; a time when most men are getting the standard gifts of ties, shirts, cologne, and liquor under their tree. My wife told me, "I felt like I was buying presents for a 12-year old." Well good for you dear; you were doing it right. I've always believed that Christmas presents are supposed to be FUN, not serious or practical. You've got 364 other days of the year to be practical.

Looking forward to 2008, I hope that I'll be able to play a slew of these new games with my friends and family. Board games are not only great for exercising your mental muscles, but they provide great social interaction and often yield lasting memories. The best games are those where you can interact with real people, rather than solely with a cold, calculating computer opponent. Board games, card games, and miniatures games enable us to do that, and it's something that I plan to latch onto more strongly in 2008.

As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that most people talk about doing fun things way more often than they actually get to do them. Work, home ownership, and other day-to-day activities get in the way of our leisure pursuits. In order to avoid the "all work and no play" syndrome that affects so many Americans, you've got to plan out your fun ahead of time. That may seem like a sad commentary on today's society. It is. But the sad truth is that unless you formally make time for fun and build it into your schedule, you won't have nearly enough of it.

Although I haven't created any formal "gaming plan" for 2008 yet, there are several things kicking around in my head that I would like to include in my Master Fun Plan:

  1. HeroScape Campaign = I'm hoping to start a 4 or 5 player wargame campaign using rules that I've created. Tabletop battles that occur as a result of campaign map movement will be fought and resolved by playing games of HeroScape.

  2. Wargame Wednesdays = I'd like to set Wednesday evenings aside this year for 2-player wargames and strategy games with my friends. Between Battlelore, Battle Cry, HeroScape, AT-43, Wings of War, Hammer of the Scots, Wizard Kings, Tide of Iron, Feudal, Dungeon Twister, LOTR Confrontation, Starship Catan, Lionheart, and Battleball, I've got plenty of fun head-to-head games to play.

  3. Monday Night Family Games = Many months ago, we started a new routine where my Mom comes over to our house on Monday night and eats dinner with Anna and I. Typically, I cook dinner and then we watch TV or a Netflix movie. Recently, we started adding board games to the mix, having played Mystery of the Abbey and Ticket to Ride during the month of December. I'm hoping that trend will continue. I'm planning on mixing Carcassonne, Saboteur, Through the Desert, Acquire, Mystery Rummy, Monkeys On the Moon, Guillotine, Win Place & Show, and Scrabble into the rotation as well. I've also got my eye on acquiring Manhattan, Niagara, and Fairy Tale just to suit these Monday Night gaming sessions. I'll see how the other games go over before proceeding.

  4. Weekend Gaming = As part of my new SWABI initiative (Sevy's Wargames And Boardgames Invitational), I'm going to be scheduling weekend games to be held at my house. My hope is for these weekend sessions to occur on a regular basis, although I'm expecting this to happen very slowly. Last year showed me that building a regular gaming group is a lengthy process. Hopefully, I'll be able to break out multi-player games on the weekends. I've got plenty of good ones to play including Citadels, Cash N Guns, Shadows Over Camelot, Arkham Horror, Domaine, Acquire, Talisman, Prophecy, Pirate's Cove, Nexus Ops, Cosmic Encounter, Slapshot, Condottiere, Carcassonne, Through the Desert, Attack!, Monsters Menace America, and many more.
  5. Sword of Severnia = With rigorous playtesting soon to get underway in earnest on the miniatures wargame that I'm developing, I suspect I'll be playing Sword of Severnia more than anything else in 2008. Since setup and breakdown time is always a real factor with miniatures games, big sessions of SoS will inevitably be held during the weekends.

  6. HARL = Within the next 2 weeks, I'll see where things stand with the Harrisburg Area Rotisserie League. The 2008 season would be our 22nd consecutive year of fantasy baseball. I'm hoping that it continues and that we don't lose any old team owners. I'm going to enjoy January, because once FEB rolls around I'll probably be swamped with baseball stuff like I always am.

We'll see how well I can formulate and execute my 2008 Master Fun Plan. I'm sure it will be a challenge juggling everything, but I'll try because anything FUN is worth doing!

Here's wishing everyone a fun New Year's Eve. Don't get too sloshed.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Corporate IT vs. micro ISV

More often than not, I use this blog to share my ideas about games, especially board games, miniatures games, and wargames. But one of the sides of the Six Sided Rhinoceros involves software, and in particular, software development.

Having been a software developer (and having studied it) more than half of my life, I feel very qualified to discuss the topic from a real world, acutely human point of view. There are many so-called software experts whose heads are stuck high in the clouds of academia and arcane philosophical approaches to software design. Sometimes, their esoteric discussions of software development are interesting and inspiring. More often than not, however, they are complete heaps of self-absorbed and obfuscated rubbish.

I don't want to read rubbish. I want down-to-earth practical advice that's right to the point. I don't have the time to read your 800-page treatise on optimizing my project management process or user-acceptance testing process. I need to get things done... NOW. Too much of what's written about software development on the web is 95% horse-crap and 5% useful.

Perhaps nowhere in the world of software development are there more heaping piles of BS than in Corporate IT departments. I had the good fortune of working for a local Fortune 500 company named AMP Incorporated (now Tyco Electronics) as my first job out of college. I learned a hell of a lot about the manufacturing process, about working on large software development projects with lots of other people, about the major phases of large-scale project development, and I met many great people there, several of whom have become lifelong friends.

But I never felt that AMP (or Corporate America in general) was the place where you really learned how to become a great software developer -- or software architect as I prefer to call it. Oh sure, you'll pickup some new languages and technical knowledge along the way. But writing Cobol code or IMS database calls, copying reusable chunks of CICS code, or fiddling with JCL is NOT software development. If you think it is, you are NOT a software developer. Programming is only one component of being a true software developer/architect. There is so much more involved in the big picture.

I didn't become a TRUE software architect until I started my micro ISV (defined as a one-person independent software vendor). Only when you've experienced what it's actually like to:

  1. Think up a product idea from scratch
  2. Formulate that idea into a viable functional blueprint for software
  3. Spend months or even years to program it
  4. Test out your creation and fine-tune it
  5. Market it to the general public
  6. Let total strangers use it and provide you with unsolicited feedback
  7. Support it and upgrade it for as long as it exists

Then and only then will you understand what the term "software architect" really means.

Love them as I may, most of my friends in the Corporate IT world have absolutely no clue what it's like to be involved in the world of independent software development. Even though they're in the business of software, their world is totally foreign to what I do for a living.

For starters, in the Corporate IT world, most employees have very specific jobs. They are programmers or systems analysts or DBA's or project managers or IT executives. Of those 7 things that I mentioned above, these folks have their fingers in 2 or 3 pies at most. The IT execs think up the idea. The systems analysts, with the help of "user experts", create functional specs for the idea. The DBA's create and maintain the database that everything ties into. The specs are handed off to the programmers who code it all and do some initial testing. The project managers keep the work moving along and ensure that everyone is working together. When the time comes for serious testing, the analysts, managers, and users get together and beat the hell out the system to a reasonable degree, and then the whole shebang goes live. And then, because 80-100 people or more were involved in creating this complex beast, the inevitable period of "bug fixing and enhancement requests" comes to the fore. Everyone points their finger at somebody else because they only were involved in one small part of the overall project, and there are so many easy targets to shift the blame to. This period can literally last for years.

As a micro ISV, you are responsible for everything. You don't have the luxury of having a narrowly specific job. You need to brainstorm ideas and come up with something brilliant. You do the necessary market research to see if it's viable. You create the functional blueprint. You chose the technical tools to use, create and manage the database, do the programming, test everything out, fix the bugs, and create the installation routines. You come up with a product price. You maintain an e-commerce site so people can buy your software, and perhaps find other distributors who will carry your product. You spend your own money to market and promote the software, and answer queries from potential customers on why they should buy from you. You fulfill the orders and deal with any problems that might arise. You do your best to provide great tech support and build a happy user community. You receive and act on user feedback. You fix bugs if necessary, and are always adding little enhancements along the way to keep people happy. You deal with the occasional idiot customer who is so irrational or mean-spirited that you wonder why you ever got into the field of software development in the first place. And the support and upgrade process never ends, until you decide to stop selling your software product. Oh and once you decide to make a 2nd product, the entire process repeats itself all over again and co-mingles with the existence of product #1.

Meanwhile, back in Corporate America...

Not only do Corporate IT workers have very specific roles, but they often have a captive user audience. This was especially true at AMP, where we developed in-house software to serve our internal manufacturing processes. There was no worry or wonder about whether or not a market actually existed for the software we were creating. We built it, and those users were damn well going to use it whether they liked it or not. There was absolutely no need for "marketing" in its truest sense. This was simply, we make it, you take it.

In the outside world of independent software development, as is the case for most commercial products, you make it and pray to God that they like it enough to take it. Not only did you make several assumptions and gut decisions during your development process, and take a financial risk to get the product to market, but there are zillions of things outside of your control that determine whether your software will become a real success or not. Simply having a good product doesn't guarantee diddly squat. You've not only got to work really hard, you've got to be extremely lucky as well. Figuring out what goes over well with the fickle public is anything but an exact science. Few of my peers in Corporate IT will ever deal with any of those concerns, and most could care less about it. They simply do their particular jobs in a vacuum, realizing that they'll still get paid even if the end-users wind up hating the software or ditch it for something cheaper, newer, or glitzier.

Another fact of Corporate IT development in many cases is that there's a very narrow user base that the software is designed for. You are building a product for users who all have some degree of computer literacy (because they'll be using the software as part of their day-to-day job after all). Oftentimes, these users are also functional experts in the field that your software applies to.

While creating in-house software for AMP, it was quite evident that most of the users of our software knew a helluva lot more about the process of electronics manufacturing than the people who designed the system. That doesn't necessarily make them great software designers, but it does mean that their opinions on what major functions the software should perform should far outweigh those of the IT execs.

My most rewarding years as a systems analyst at AMP were those where my boss allowed me to work closely with the user community to create new functions that solved problems that those users felt were most important. In a sense, I was a "free agent". I worked with the users to build cool new stuff and enhanced functions that helped them tremendously. I got to use my creativity to a much greater extent than ever before. I was not just another analyst who stuck to a regimented routine and solely did tech support or addressed the backlog of system fixes. I loved that role and received many compliments from the users during those years. They found an analyst who was interested in working with them to think outside the box and solve nagging problems that "the suits" didn't seemingly care enough about.

Unfortunately, the Corporate IT mindset is not one where a "free agent" mentality is accepted in the long term. Despite my boss's pleas on my behalf, the higher-ups eventually decided that I should be reigned in and controlled a bit more. They didn't want me becoming an exception to what everyone else was doing.

Yes, I was creative and doing an excellent job. My job reviews and the user community all said so. But their thinking was that I needed to do a little less "design and development" and focus more on boring crap like divisional re-orgs and little technical details like honing my Easytrieve and JCL skills. In short, "hey Steve, you're having too much fun & success actually doing something useful, here's some horse shit project to work on so you're just like everyone else." What a bunch of idiots! Eventually, my boss left the company and I had a new boss who was determined to have me "assimilated". That was the beginning of the end for me at AMP. I gazed into the crystal ball and saw the long-term outlook there and it was just not for me. AMP had become a JOB. It was not the place for creative souls who needed to run free with their great ideas. I look back now and realize that I made a smart decision. I'd probably still be doing the same stuff if I was there today and would have missed out on an exciting chapter in my professional life as a software developer.

Being a micro ISV is all about creativity, passion, variety, and independence. You'll wear more hats than you'll ever imagine. And it's a far, far tougher job than working in Corporate America.

I used to get extremely pissed off when some of my old work-mates would kid me about being self-employed. They envisioned that I got to slack off, play games all day, and generally play hooky from the "real work" that they were doing. "What a bunch of jackasses!", I thought to myself. If they only knew that you work 10 times harder when you're on your own. Nobody is there to motivate you; it comes entirely from within. You do so many more things than you ever did in the tightly focused, insulated world of Corporate IT. Nobody is around to assign you work or keep you on schedule. You think it up, you decide what's critical, and you do it or else you go out of business real fast. You work lots of nights and weekends. And you do all that without any steady checks coming in. Great fun right?

After many years I've finally grown thick enough skin and gained the wisdom to realize that whoever thinks I'm goofing off and really not working is just a sad, sad, mentally deficient person. People often make fun of things that they know nothing about. They throw stones and make jokes, never once actually trying to do the thing that they're making fun of. I've learned to slough off the barbs of the dimwitted. I don't give dolts the time of day anymore.

If you've read down this far, you may be wondering why I bothered to write this post. I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to shed a little light on the differences between the worlds of Corporate IT and micro ISV's. They are vastly different. I respect both camps, having worked in both of them. Generally speaking, the money is much better in Corporate IT, but the level of self-satisfaction and accomplishment you can achieve is much greater in the micro ISV world. It's the old money-vs-happiness trade-off. I'm hoping to find the happy medium someday.

Secondly, I wanted to write this post for all the entrepreneurs out there who are struggling to make their personal software businesses work. I wanted them to know that the grass is NOT any greener on the corporate side of the fence. Your pocketbook will fatten, but in all likelihood, your happiness will suffer -- especially if you are a highly creative soul. The road of a micro ISV is a hard one, and unless you're very lucky, your business will fail within 5 years. But even though the odds are stacked against you, it is people like you who make the biggest difference in the world. Without people who are willing to put their heart & soul and passion out there for everyone else to share in, there would be no great advancement in society. I admire you. The world needs more of you. Keep on truckin' and I wish you much prosperity and self-fulfillment in 2008.

To all my friends in Corporate IT, I miss you and best of luck in the New Year. Even though I am no longer one of you, I still think of you on a regular basis. Don't let "the suits" get you down. They aren't any better than you, they just wield more power. And if you ever get tired of that power struggle, don't forget that there's a whole wide world out here for you. Carpe diem!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

It's Christmas Eve. Some of you will soon be opening your presents and sharing in the exhilaration that comes with getting something utterly fabulous.

Many of you may be dreaming of seeing this under your tree...

I know if that was under my Christmas tree, my wife would probably chase both of them out of the house with a large iron frying pan.

That said, here's hoping that you don't get stuck with this instead...

Although there's a good chance you would be the only guy on your block to own one!

Merry Christmas and God Bless from the Six Sided Rhinoceros!!!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Christmas Blitz

It happens every year about this time. I'm talking about the Christmas Blitz. We are inundated by a frenzy of home decorating, shopping, fighting through crowds & traffic, wrapping, party planning and attending, cooking & baking, and all the other myriad of things associated with the biggest holiday season of the year. For those of us who live in the Northeast, we also get to deal with periodic snowstorms and ice storms. It's enough to drive a brother bonkers!

All this craziness hasn't left me much spare time to post to this blog. There are tons of things I could write about, but trying to assemble some coherent thoughts from my jumbled mind isn't the easiest thing to do right now. Of course, I could do a stream of consciousness piece. Oh what the hell, let's do that!

I'm going to make it a point that 2008 will be a year in which I play lots & lots of board games and miniature wargames with my friends during my free time. Trying to organize regular gaming sessions during the last quarter of 2007 was a nightmare, but I can do better, I just know it!

I'm sure that a good chunk of time will be filled with games of Sword of Severnia, the computer-moderated fantasy wargame I'm currently developing. I'm writing a Quick Reference Guide to the core paper rules as we speak, and once that's done and the guys get their model basing ready to go, we should be scheduling battle sessions on a regular basis. I just got a whole slew of 80x60 masonite and metal bases from The Last Square, as well as 80x120 bases and peel & stick magnetic figure bases from Litko. I don't know if I have enough stuff to handle 500 models or more, but we'll see how my little basing project works out. One great thing about SoS is that you only need 50-65 models (scattered across 9-12 stands) to form an army. So I'll have multiple armies to play with. Very cool. Software development on SoS should start very soon. I've spent the past 2 years crafting the written rules, so I'm getting antsy to start playtesting them in detail with the guys and get the Troop Builder and Army Builder modules written.

I'm also hoping that I can get a HeroScape campaign going in 2008 using the rough draft campaign rules I've created for SoS. And I also want to try AT-43 on for size for the occasional sci-fi skirmish game, and Gnome Wars for pure silly fun.

On the board wargame side, I'm itching to play Battlelore, Tide of Iron, Wings of War, Hammer of the Scots, and hopefully Wizard Kings (if Santa Anna comes through for me!).

Wally and I played a great game of Hammer of the Scots a few weeks ago. The game was close at one point, but his slimey English scum (led by Edward I) eventually defeated my brave Scots, eliminating William Wallace in the final year of the "Braveheart" scenario. I was much too aggressive in the game. The Scots need to build up some forces, hit fast and grab enemy nobles at every chance, run away from big fights, and do their best to get the Scottish King and French Knights onto the map, something I failed to do.

Also looking to get some miniature planes for Wings of War (again, maybe a Christmas or Birthday present to me?). Who wants to play with cards when you can play with toy planes!!! Fokker Fokker Fokker...

By the way did I mention Battlelore? This is an awesome game and it looks to be something that will be ever-expanding over time. Gimme more monsters, and maybe some undead and mercenary forces!!

On the non-wargaming side of the fence, several board games are on my BUY ME & PLAY ME radar for 2008. These include Prophecy, LOTR Confrontation, Mr Jack, Condottiere, Hive, Colossal Arena, Manhattan, Through the Desert, Fury of Dracula, Tikal, El Grande (Decennial Edition), Fearsome Floors, Cutthroat Caverns, and Fairy Tale. I could go on and on. My personal wishlist that I keep in an Excel spreadsheet goes 105 games deep. If I got 10 new games between now and Christmas 2008, that would be more than enough, at least until regular weekly gaming sessions become the norm.

Two revamped board games that I have my eye squarely on for 2008 are Cosmic Encounter and Titan. I'm also looking forward to the Fantasy version of Piquet. Ya know, maybe I like games TOO DAMN MUCH?

Will 2008 be the year of Pre-Paints? Between Rackham's AT-43 and Confrontation games, Reaper's new Legendary Encounters range, more HeroScape stuff, Privateer's Monsterpocalypse game, Wings of War airplanes, the Mutant Chronicles CMG, and a growing range of quality 90mm toy soldiers from Schleich and Papo, it will certainly be a telling year whether the influence of pre-paints continues to rise or peter out. I'm predicting pre-paints will be on the rise. Our "I want it now, with little fuss" society is geared towards pre-paints more than traditional do-it yourself minis. DIY ain't going away, but the more pre-paints that come into the marketplace, the bigger miniature gaming will grow. Just look at all the new board games that include minis! People love the visual impact and tactile feel of playing with cool looking toys -- and no, it doesn't go away even when you're over 40!!

By the way, some idiot on BGG speculated that HeroScape may be dying simply because they couldn't find Wave 7 easily and there were delays in some upcoming expansion sets. Oh Bullshit!! This happens all the time with game companies, even the big ones. Delays are part & parcel to the game business. Hasbro came out with a new master set (Swarm of the Marro) and a new spinoff game (Marvel Heroes), plus new figure expansions. Cut them some slack for pete's sake! More goodness will arrive in 2008. It would be pure stupidity to kill off a game that's had as much positive buzz as HeroScape and which actually appeals to the adult community (something that few Hasbro products can boast).

Hey Black Industries... umm... how about Talisman (version 5) with pre-painted minis?

I may travel to Essen next year. I'm not totally sure right now. Would Anna really enjoy it? She's only a casual gamer. But she does love to travel and we've never been to Germany. Hmmm... If Essen doesn't happen, then I'm damn well sure to be going to Origins in 2008.

Once January rolls around I'll start thinking about changes I'm going to make to the 2008 edition of my venerable Rhino Baseball program. I have a few things leftover from my 2007 planned-to-do list that I could add. But to be honest, this program is so chock full of functions that there isn't much to add to the beast. I do have one or two "cool factor" things I could do, but lack of time may prevent me from doing them. We shall see.

I had visions of integrating some web tools with Rhino Baseball, but two things are holding me back. First, my ongoing design work on Sword of Severnia is eating up all my time, as it should since I desperately need new, non-sports products to help expand my business. Secondly, Rhino Baseball has always been a robust desktop program. Revamping the workings of a 10-year old desktop app is dicey from a technical perspective. Plus, if someone just wants a web-based league manager, there are other decent alternatives available. Rhino Baseball rocks because it's much more than a simple league manager. It does lots of different things that those web-apps don't do functionally (especially from a draft prep, in-season stats analysis, and custom reporting perspective). And it does those things in a desktop environment that's more graphically appealing, runs faster, and gives the user more hands-on control. Why mess with a good thing?

Four books I'm currently reading or in my to-read pile: Hobby Games: Top 100 (various authors); The Master & Margarita (Bulgakov), Ancient and Medieval Wargaming (Neil Thomas), and Fantasy Gaming (Martin Hackett).

In the reading queue for 2008: Dark Tower series (Stephen King), The Winter King (Cornwell), and assorted Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. I'm also considering Achtung Schweinhund! but don't know if an American gamer can really relate to a British author's childhood wargaming memories.

Resolution for 2008... PAINT MORE MINIATURES!

The #1 Cool Toy I got in 2007 was a video iPod. I wish I could use the video part more, but still, I have been listening to more podcasts than ever before. I think I've got about 150-200 different episodes of various shows on that darn thing. They're most gaming shows, but I'll be exploring some fantasy baseball podcasts come this Spring.

I'm not sure that I can pick one favorite overall podcast. Here are some I listen to regularly:
  • I love the detailed yet easily digestable game reviews done by Pulp Gamer.
  • The Dice Tower is simply a classic with its Top 10 Lists, sheer breadth of topics, and friendly co-hosts. Tom Vasel seems to have similar taste in games as me and I've picked up several new games based on his recommendations.
  • Mark Johnson's down-to-earth Boardgames to Go podcast is often very entertaining and I can relate to him well. He's all substance and no fluff. His recent look at light wargames was great, and his 10 year retrospective was fascinating.
  • I'm also quite fond of Neil Schuck's Meeples & Miniatures podcast because Neil goes into great depth on his subjects and is never afraid to share his honest opinion. This has become my favorite podcast for miniatures related stuff.
  • For sheer board gaming enthusiasm and inspiration (with The List, Truckloads of Goober, Game Sommelier), you won't find anything better than The Spiel. Steve and Dave, you guys rock!
  • I've always liked the All About Miniatures podcast, but the guys have gone on hiatus and I wonder if they'll return.
  • I wish the guys at Roll 2D6 did more shows because they're always fun to listen to, especially when they talk about board games.
  • The stoplight review system used by On Board Games is great, and there's no better evangelist for gaming right now than Scott Nicholson -- okay, maybe it's a tie with Tom Vasel.
  • There are other podcasts I listen to as well (Metagamers, Little Wooden Cubist, Boardgame Babylon, Point-to-Point, and Paul Tevis's show when he talks about board games -- I'm not into RPGs anymore). Maybe I should do a whole post about this...

Has anyone subscribed to MagWeb? Is it worth it?

If Games Workshop ever came out with pre-painted minis for Blood Bowl, I would start playing that game in a heartbeat. I just don't have the time to paint minis for that game, and teams are pretty expensive to buy on eBay -- especially considering all the other games and minis I'm trying to squeeze into my budget!

My personal wargame design Holy Grail: a workable solution to designing a robust Fantasy wargame (with lots of different creatures & races) without the need for a Point Cost system. Anyone with any great ideas, please respond to this post!

Is the Ragnarok fantasy/sci-fi magazine defunct? It seems like it has been stuck on issue 52 forever.... Speaking of magazines, I can't wait for Bayonets, Spears, and Blasters to come out (new mag by Polymancer). I will subscribe to it, just tell me how!!!

It's amazing how much my NHL and Flyers hockey viewing has declined now that I'm not running and playing in a fantasy hockey pool. I wish there were 48 hours in each day! Perhaps if I can start playing STIGA table hockey next year the hockey bug will return? At least I've got my Hershey Bears to watch -- even though they're very up & down this season.

I still don't have a Christmas Tree.... YIKES!!! I better get one today or else the house just isn't going to feel right. I've really been struggling with the whole Christmas spirit thing this holiday season. Since my Dad died in February, it's been harder to find the passion in several things that I used to get really excited about. Not having Pop around at Christmas is extremely sad. I miss him... every day.

What do you get your Cats for Christmas? Both Jinx and Sammy have their own stockings. Now I just need something to put in them. New cat toys? Catnip? A new blanket to curl up in? Pictures of sexy girl cats (PlayCat). I dunno...

Gotta go... I'm rambling... Until next time MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Zen Again: The Cheap Way to Go Big

No this isn't another advertisement for cheap male enhancement drugs as the title may suggest. Rather, today's topic concerns finding inexpensive, yet good quality fantasy wargame miniatures of the VERY LARGE and HUGE variety.

I must admit that when it comes to collecting wargame minis, especially fantasy figures, I'm extremely eclectic. The thought of building a 250 to 300 model army comprised entirely of orcs or barbarians is not something that really grabs me. I'd much rather have my bunch of 300 figures consist of 40 orcs, 40 beastmen, 40 lizardmen, 40 elves, 30 hoplites, 25 knights, 25 ghouls, 25 anubis warriors, 10 trolls, 10 minotaurs, 10 heroes and wizards, 3 giants, and 2 dragons. I want diversity dammit! The more variety, the better!

But variety does have a downside. Gamers and collectors who crave more & more variety often find themselves chasing after lots of different models in an attempt to own at least a few of every creature that ever raised its ugly head and marched across a fictional battlefield. I confess that I'm guilty of this. I say things like, "God, those Front Rank figures in the 100 Years War range are just beautiful; I must get some.", or "Those new Ghouls and Spartans from Crocodile Games are a must buy!", or "I love the Trollbloods in the Privateer Press range, maybe I should buy a few boxes?". And on and on it goes. It's a Pokemon-like addiction -- you just gotta catch 'em all. But catching them all means spending loads and loads of money. Once reality sets in, you realize that you can only buy what you want most and can actually afford.

Here's where the issue of BIG models comes into play. Those large dragons, giants, dinosaurs, and other nasty monstrosities typically cost a heck of a lot of money. Not to mention, if you paint them yourself, a lot of time goes into the modelling & painting of these suckers. Many casual gamers feel that it's just not worth it, so these larger models never end up appearing in their collections. But there is an alternative; a cheaper way to obtain some very cool large models that saves both money and time. Say hello to pre-paints.

I know what some wargaming purists will say: they hate pre-paints. I say to them, you can always give these pre-painted models a "touch-up or enhanced look" if you're that anal retentive about it! Oftentimes, you can achieve amazing results with a simple 2-step approach to these models:
  1. Apply a brown or black ink-wash to shade the model. This is especially good for light colored models like giants with exposed flesh or behemoths with gray/tan/whitish skin.

  2. Drybrush a lighter shade than the model's main base-color onto its high spots to highlight it. For instance a medium or lighter brown shade is great for drybrushing over Tree Men who often have dark brown bark skin.
For those of you who aren't that fussy, don't worry about it. Some pre-paints, such as the range of McFarlane Dragons are so well painted that most diehards would agree that you don't need to do anything to them -- they're already beautiful as-is.

Let's start with the biggie of them all: DRAGONS. Dragons are the beastly rulers of many a fantasy world. There are many really cool metal dragon miniatures on the market, but if you want to save a lot of time & money, there's no better bet than to look into purchasing pre-painted dragons from these sources:
  • McFarlane Dragons = Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn comic, makes a series of dragons that are absolutely fantastic. These beasts work extremely well for 28mm to 30mm fantasy wargaming. Not only are these dragons big and menacing (like a dragon should be!), but the dynamic sculpts, quality paint jobs, and attention to detail are truly excellent. These figures can be found in KB Toys, Toy R Us, Fao Schwarz, and eBay for around $8 to $13 per model. That's a steal. These are my absolute favorite pre-painted models available, and every fantasy gamer should have a few in his or her collection.

  • Schleich = German company Schleich produces an excellent range of 90mm knights. These are great for large-scale skirmish gaming. Within their Knights range, they have a very attractive Green Dragon priced at about $15. I own one of them and he's great for fantasy wargames. Highly recommended. I've found Schleich figures available at Target, AC Moore, and Fao Schwarz, and online at Michigan Toy Soldier.
  • Papo = This french company is similar to Schleich in that it makes a nice range of 90mm figures for a variety of periods and uses. You will find several dragons under their Tales and Legends range. You can find Papo figures in AC Moore, Michaels, and online at Michigan Toy Soldier.
  • Safari Ltd. = A maker of educational toys, Safari also makes a really nice range of dragons that are worth checking into. They've got Red, Green, Chinese, and 4-Headed dragons that are sweet looking and affordable. They're also available in your local craft stores such as AC Moore or Michaels.
For everything else in the way of monsters or gods, there are several sources available. My particular pick is the D&D Miniatures line. While the paint jobs are spotty in some cases, I've found that the painting on the larger models is often more attractive than on their standard (humanoid sized) minis. This is especially true of the more recently released sets. Because D&D minis are collectible, you cannot just go out and buy a box and get exactly what you're looking for. So to find specific large monsters that interest you, you're best bet is to look at eBay, where's there's a large secondary market for D&D minis. Also, the prices on eBay are usually much lower than what you'll find at online shops that sell single minis (such as

I've got a couple of very nice D&D monsters that I would feel okay using as-is. I plan on doing some touch-ups (as previously described) to a few of them when I get the chance. But for the money, you can't beat getting a decent looking plastic giant for somewhere in the $10 to $20 range, rather than buying an ultra-expensive GW giant that takes a good bit of effort to put together and paint. To me, time is money. I've already got more stuff to paint than I have time for, so any affordable time saver is very welcomed.

McFarlane Toys also has some very cool models in their fantasy/horror ranges. They're much too big for use in 28mm to 30mm wargames unless you want to use one as a GOD or TITAN. Gods should be much, much larger than life and terrifyingly impressive. If you want to scare the bejesus out of your foes, imagine summoning a Haunter of the Pits (from the Conan series) onto the battlefield! Criminy, I think I just soiled myself!

Finally, check into Safari's dinosaur ranges for some nice prehistoric terrors. The scale may not be 100% perfect, but hey they're MONSTERS after all -- big is always good when it comes to these guys!!! They're also great if you play Giant Monster skirmish battles.

I hope my little foray into the world of cheap, pre-painted monsters has been enlightening. It really is possible to bring some terror to your battlefield without breaking your bank account.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Fabulous Dice Rolling Doohickey

Repeat after me... DICE and MINIATURES do not mix. At least from a physics perspective!

Imagine the scene. You're playing a tabletop miniatures wargame, or a board game whose pieces are miniature soldiers, monsters, tanks, planes, ships, or wooden blocks. The time comes for your opponent to perform his moves or resolve his attacks. He grabs a handful of colorful dice and then, to your utmost horror, the idiotic lunkhead hurls those cubes across the table mowing down scads of tiny soldiers. After viewing the carnage, the players frequently start asking questions like "exactly where was my goblin skirmisher unit located?", or "how many strength points did this block of English Knights have left?", or "wasn't my giant robot standing on top of a hill when he attacked rather than lying in the lava pool next to your Obsidian guards?".

If you're a miniatures gamer, it's even worse. Let's say that you have spent 6 hours carefully painting your Swamp Troll hero, or spent $50 on eBay to buy an expertly painted Knight mounted atop a charging Gryphon. The models look awesome. And then the Dice Jackass strikes and rolls ten D6's into your tiny works of art, chipping the paint off or snapping a weapon in the process. I can feel my hands clenching and an irresistable urge to strangle someone as I'm writing this.

In my house, rolling dice recklessly across the game table is a NO-NO. That's why, for any game where miniatures or blocks are used and handfuls of dice are going to be rolled, I pull out my trusty dice tower.

On my 43rd birthday (a year ago), my lovely wife satisfied my inner geek and got me a very cool looking dice tower from Vixen Tor Games. My tower is one of the earlier Deluxe models called the Dice Dungeon. I've included a picture of it here. The tower is attractive and I'm very happy with it, being a big fan of fantasy/horror themes in general. It's also functional and works great. You can drop a big pile of dice in the thing and they come out fast and safely contained in a nice little wooden tray. Even the sound that the dice make when they bounce off the wooden ramps inside the tower is fun to hear.

My only complaint about the tower is a very small, niggling one. Sometimes when the dice roll into the tray, they nestle into the corner or side of the output tray and you cannot see the dice result unless you're sitting/standing right next to the tower. It's really a minor quibble, and not certainly something that would prevent me from buying the tower. In fact, some day, I'd like to get a 2nd one! A second tower would be especially handy for 2-player miniatures games played on large 4 foot by 6 foot tables (or bigger).

Vixen Tor makes the nicest towers of anyone I've seen to-date. They're not cheap by any means, running about $40 for most models. If memory serves me correctly, they used to be more expensive than that and I'm pretty sure that the price has dropped since last year. There are other cheaper alternatives such as the plastic "Dice Boot", but as they say, you get what you pay for. The Vixen Tor towers are just so much cooler. And let's face it, what gamer doesn't want to show off his or her cool toys or gadgets sometimes?

Anyway, if you're a minis gamer or a board gamer who plays lots of mini-based or block games such as Warhammer, Blood Bowl, Warmaster, HeroScape, Battlelore, Tide of Iron, Hammer of the Scots, Wizard Kings, Axis & Allies, War of the Ring, etc., then do yourself a favor and get a dice tower. The little men on your game board will no longer shudder when the time comes for some spastic gamer to roll his meat-hook full of six siders!!