Monday, September 29, 2008


Looks like my board games play-meter is finally on the rise. Hoo-ahh! Over the past six weeks or so, I've played a whole bunch of games (at least for me) including:

  • Kingsburg
  • Cutthroat Caverns
  • Drakon
  • Shadows Over Camelot
  • Cash N Guns
  • Wings of War - Miniatures
  • Pennsylvania Underground Railroad Game
I own all of these games except for the PA Underground Railroad game, which is a self-published game designed by an old friend of mine (Mayer Foner). Many of the commercial games on this list are fairly new acquisitions (by "fairly new" I mean games that I've purchased in the last 6 months or so). So it's great to finally be getting these new games to the table.

I won't bother providing in-depth reviews of these games. You can find scads of excellent, detailed game reviews over at BoardGameGeek, so it's really not worth rehashing what has already been done there by rabid fans of these games.

But... I will at least give you my quick & dirty opinions regarding these games. Perhaps that will help if you're considering buying any of them and adding them to your games collection.

Since I'm a little strapped for time, I'm going to spread these quickie reviews over a few separate blog posts. Today, we'll begin with Kingsburg.

KINGSBURG = I'll be the first to admit that the whole genre of Euro games is very hit or miss with me. While there are lots of euros with slick, engaging game mechanisms, a huge number of them simply fall flat from utterly boring themes and the lack of exciting game play.

But Kingsburg is different. It's a euro with an interesting theme: construct buildings to expand your provincial wealth, while recruiting soldiers to protect those valuable assets from being destroyed by marauding invaders such as goblins and demons.

Like all good euros, Kingsburg features smooth game mechanics and enough interesting decisions to engage the minds of most gamers. It's also got dice and an element of confrontation (things often regarded as anti-euro by many geeks). Those are winning points for me.

The dice are used in an innovative way. You roll 3 dice and then place them on various spots on the board to claim gold/stone/wood needed to construct buildings and to recruit soldiers who are needed to fight off the invaders who arrive during the harsh winter. Suppose you roll 1-4-6 on your dice. You could place one die each on the 1, 4, and 6 spots (provided nobody else has taken those spots), or put something on 4 and 7 (1 + 6), or on 1 and 10 (4 + 6), and so forth. Part of your strategy is to choose which dice combos let you place your dice on choice-spots which will yield the materials needed to build the most valuable buildings. The other part of your strategy is to block those choice-spots from your opponents, so that they can't build what they want or recruit soldiers.

You're also balancing Greed (the need to build and gain wealth / Victory Points) versus Military Might (the need to stay strong enough to defeat invaders at the end of each turn, so your buildings aren't smashed to teeny bits).

All of these factors taken together meld into an excellent game. Once you play 1 turn, it's pretty easy to get the hang of the rules, and the strategies start to become more apparent. I would highly recommend this game to anyone who likes moderate-weight strategy games, choosing between multiple options, and a light amount of confrontation/screwage. The game artwork is also absolutely gorgeous.

On the school grade scale, Kingsburg rates a solid A.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Saving the World, One Toy Soldier at a Time

Time to get political, but in a gaming way.

MSN recently asked the question, "is America on the decline?" Many people are passionate in their belief that the USA is sinking quicker than the Titanic. The economy sucks. Just look at the stagnant housing market and the recent woes on Wall Street if you need proof about that. Consumerism runs rampant through our society.

We're mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that show no immediate signs of ending, while more and more American boys are killed and maimed each day. Diplomatically, more and more of the world hates us with each passing day.

Faith in our politicians to remedy these problems has faded to an all-time low. So what do we do about it?

Well... I'm an American. I'm also a miniature wargamer. And you can learn a lot from a miniature wargamer. Sometimes more stuff than you really care to know. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn something valuable from the way these gamers approach their hobby and use that knowledge to model changes in American culture? Hell, it's worth a shot, right?

You probably think I've been smoking crack or that I've been toking on the Wacky Weedus. Maybe you just think I'm a jackass. That's okay, but please bear with me.

It seems to me that our society is plagued by 3 evils that will eventually drive us to ruin unless eradicated. Those three bugaboos are (1) rampant consumerism, (2) an entitlement mentality, and (3) the general malaise of laziness that has crept into our culture.

Rampant consumerism revolves around our society's need to buy everything they see, whether it's really needed or not, and then throw it away in search of the next big thing to lust after. Today's American culture is burdened by the "gotta have that, and gotta have it now!" mindset. We're big-time gluttons.

Take video games as a sub-group. There's a palpable lack of innovation in the video/computer game industry. For years, vidiots have been stuck with a never ending flow of 1st-Person shooters, RPG adventure games, and interactive sports games. Not that there's anything wrong with these popular genres, but when will new ground really be broken here? The video game industry is driven by giant companies hoping that they'll produce one mega-hit out of a bunch of mostly lackluster titles and that one hit game will make them rich. If they produce a hit, they continue to make slight variations of that game formula, over and over and over again. The little software companies don't have the financial resources to develop and market their products to a large audience, and as a result, innovation on the whole suffers.

So what do video gamers do? They scarf up a butt-load of new games, churning through title after title like Pac-Man on speed. Most of them are mediocre rehashes of a few great games, and end up getting pawned back to GameStop or auctioned on eBay for pennies on the dollar. Not to mention that even the best video games don't really last. I have board games and miniatures from the 1970's that I still use today. How many video gamers can claim the same thing? Technology charges ahead, rapidly making older games extinct. It's a consumerism based industry. You gotta buy the latest & greatest games now! Once you buy into that, it's hard for addicted vidiots to jump off the merry-go-wheel.

More and more Americans have also been brainwashed to accept an Entitlement Mentality. Young people feel that society owes them a good job that pays high wages. Customers feel that no matter how unreasonable their demands are or how rudely they act, that companies simply owe them fantastic, bend-over-backwards customer service. Ultra left-wing thinkers believe that everyone should have a nice home and get free health care, even if they make zero-effort to get a job and contribute something helpful to society. People are clamoring for more and more free stuff all the time. C'mon gimme free stuff! Gimme gimme gimme! You owe us!

This mentality of entitlement fosters a delusional sense of pride in Americans. If they're entitled to good things it's only because they deserve it. Oh yes, don't you think for a minute that we don't deserve these things. By God, we're Americans. We're the greatest nation in the world. We're smarter, stronger, and richer than everyone else. We're better than everyone else. George Bush and all of our politicians believe this. They're swelling with pride. It's the kind of pride that infers we can do no wrong.

Too much pride is a dangerous thing. A self-absorbed, vain society is one that asserts how it's always right and everyone else is always wrong. And that's just ridiculous because nobody in the world is always right. We're not gods.

When I think of pride like this in terms of gaming, the great "Euro vs. Ameritrash" debate in the boardgaming world quickly comes to mind. Surf on over to the BoardGameGeek website and you will inevitably stumble upon a myriad of forum posts from Euro-gamers asserting their intellectual superiority and telling you why "their games" are so much better than the inelegant, overly time-consuming, and mindless adventure games and wargames that you play. They profess to know what true gaming genius is. If you disagree with them or criticize a Euro-game for being bland or too lightweight, they become apoplectic and spew an endless stream of venomous words.

But Euro-gamers aren't the only ones who are prideful. There's a whole contingent of Ameritrashers (those who enjoy meaty, old school, theme-rich games about war, zombies, space-men, pirates, and monsters) who can hurl insults with the best of them. In fact, the debate over at BGG has gotten so heated that a group of Ameritrash game enthusiasts, feeling unloved and jabbed in their pride-swelled egos, have formed their own website called Fortress Ameritrash. To them, it's the last bastion of sanity in a world filled with foofy Euro-snoots who don't share their impeccable taste in games.

And lastly, we come to the general malaise of laziness that pervades our culture. America didn't always act this way. We were once manufacturing giants, technological innovators, and financial gurus. American people built our country on an ethic of hard-work. We put our minds and bodies to the test and great things were accomplished.

Fast forward to today. It's sad to look at the back/bottom of so many products and see the words "Made in China" instead of "Made in the USA". We're outsourcing tons of technical jobs to India and other foreign nations. Perhaps it's because people just don't want to work as hard anymore. Why should they; they're entitled to take it easy after all. Americans just want to work hard enough to bring home a decent paycheck, and then sit back and buy more and more shiny things that provide the illusion of happiness. They can't be bothered to solve the problems of the world anymore.

Much of the gaming world has responded to our culture's overall laziness in concrete ways.

Remember back in the 80's when you played adventure games like Zork and had to figure out all the riddles yourself? Nowadays you just buy the cheat-book to your favorite video game and it tells you all the secrets you need to know. Remember when you could look at the actual source-code of games you played on your Apple II+? If you were really curious and hands-on enough, you could learn Basic programming and tweak the code to do new things. I fondly remember editing some lines in my Tuesday Night Football software so that I could play games with Dracula at QB, Frankenstein at tailback, and the Wolfman at wide-receiver instead of using the Cowboys and Steelers rosters that came with the game. I don't see too many average Joes doing those kinds of things today (most programs aren't designed to allow that sort of thing).

In the board-gaming world, the explosion of light, family-friendly Euro games is a clear indicator that the majority of people want fast-playing games where they don't have to think very hard. While Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are both fantastic games, they're certainly not brain-burners that you immerse yourself in for 3 hours. Playing long games with fairly complex rules just takes too much effort for most folks.

So what's the solution to these cultural woes? Well, you've stayed with me for this long, so let me put it to you simply: we need to think more like veteran miniature wargamers. Seriously.

Unlike the gluttons of our society who buy up all the latest mass-market stuff only to throw it away in short order in search of something new, the veteran miniature-gamer tends to hold onto his precious toy soldiers for a long time. This isn't a quick-fix hobby. Buying miniatures in any appreciable quantity can be costly. So you need to pace yourself. You buy what you can afford and build up your minis collection slowly, over a period of years. Remember that H.G. Wells wrote his famous miniature wargaming book, Little Wars, in 1913. People have been playing with toy soldiers ever since. You don't have to buy every single available model today; they're not going to run out anytime soon!

Miniature wargamers who paint their own models become very attached to their little guys. When you spend all that time putting your own love & attention into something, you don't just toss it aside willy nilly. So while many of us will be the first to admit that mini-gamers love to amass scores of toy soldiers, they're usually treated like tiny treasures, often passed down to friends and family through generations. This isn't a chew'em up, spit 'em out glutton-fest.

By and large, I never think of miniature wargamers as being lazy. They work hard to enjoy their hobby. This form of gaming takes some effort. You've got to plan what types of armies you want to build and research the marketplace to discover what available models are out there. If you buy a batch of unpainted models, then you'll need to set aside time to assemble and paint them. Or if you're lacking free time or artistic talent, you can pay someone else to paint the soldiers for you. Or you can buy pro-painted figures at conventions or off eBay. All of this requires you to get up off your ass and do some planning, and what you ultimately decide is whether you're more comfortable spending time or money.

Mini-gamers are typically a highly creative bunch; much more so than any other type of gamer. They paint. They build things. They dabble in writing their own home-grown rules. They build fictional armies and craft background stories for fictional leaders & heroes that fight for fictional countries. They read history or fantasy/sci-fi to get cool ideas to use in their games. No my friends, being a miniature wargamer is not the domain of the lazy. You need to work at your fun.

While every gaggle of gamers has its overzealous know-it-alls and holier-than-thou jerks, my experience with the majority of veteran mini-gamers is that they're an extremely hospitable bunch. We respect the effort that our peers put into painting their figures, writing their own rules, and crafting their own battle scenarios, because we've done it ourselves and appreciate all the effort it takes to accomplish those things. Miniature wargaming is such a broad-hobby from a creative perspective that you can't help but be humbled by the variety of people doing amazing things with their various talents.

While we take pride in being able to outsmart a friend in a head-to-head military conflict, us old-school tabletop generals value good sportsmanship and know that it's wise to be gracious when we've gotten the stuffing beaten out of our tiny tin army. Friendly competition is what it's all about.

What I've learned over the years as a miniature wargamer is that owning more models doesn't make you happy. Consumerism isn't the answer. When your closet is loaded with too many boxes of unpainted tin soldiers all you feel is overwhelmed that you'll never have time to paint everything.

I've learned that having an inflated sense of pride is just a quicker way to make enemies. There are all types of people involved in the miniature wargaming hobby. Some are masterful painters. Some are innovative rules writers and scenario designers. Some are historians. Some can build wondrous terrain. Some are fantastic storytellers. We should embrace them all, because they all have something to offer. You're not better than they are; you're simply a part of their number.

Happiness in the miniature wargaming hobby is gained through the journey. You can't sit back and wait for everything to magically fall into your lap. You must do something. The thrill of the hunt as you search for cool models to add to your collection is a lot of fun. Taking the time to paint your own models is artistically fulfilling. Those are your shiny little masterpieces! Crafting your own scenarios or wargame rules set is tremendously satisfying. So soak it all in and enjoy the ride for as long as you can.

So America listen to us wily miniature wargamers. When you buy things, savor them. Don't be a voracious glutton hungrily chasing down material nuggets with the hope that the more you consume, the happier you'll become. Check your pride at the door. Don't feel that you're entitled to things because you're better than everyone else. You're not. Everyone has something useful to offer. Respect that. And finally, get off your ass and do some work. Nothing good ever gets done when you sullenly lay around hoping that you'll miraculously win the PowerBall jackpot. Hard work doesn't guarantee success, but laziness is a surefire road to failure.

My name is Steve. I'm a miniature wargamer. And I'm saving America, one toy soldier at a time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Zen Again: Hot Lead Painting DVDs

Listen up miniature wargaming geeks! If you enjoy painting miniatures (toy soldiers), then you should check out the HOT LEAD website today.

Master-painter Laszlo Jakusovszky has created a series of instructional videos aimed at both newbie and veteran painters.

The Hot Lead series is comprised of 3 DVDs (1 basic and 2 advanced videos) that give you that "up close and personal" look at miniature painting. Trust me, that's something (close-ups of actual techniques) that's usually either missing or not all that nicely done in some of the other mini-painting videos I've watched. So I'm very eager to see what Laszlo has to offer.

Even someone like me, who has been painting casually on & off for 15+ years can learn some new tricks from a master.

The entire set of videos provide 8 hours of instruction. Price for the 3-disc set is $40 + shipping. That seems quite reasonable for a niche product of this sort. Let's face it, when you're used to paying $20 bucks or more for a movie DVD, it seems to me that 8 hours of instructional video for $40 is a LOT of bang for your buck.

I'll report on these videos sometime in the future once I get them and watch them. Until then, if anyone else has watched the Hot Lead DVDs, please feel free to leave a comment on this blog and share your experiences with me and everyone else who stops by for a read. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gamer Perspective -- 9/02/2008

There have been many occasions when I thought about sitting down at my PC and writing the next great deeply considered treatise about X and Y. But then I look at the clock, see how late it is, and stop myself before I ever put fingers to keyboard.

Writing an in-depth article is fulfilling, but at the end of another brain-burning workday, sometimes I just want to wing it and shoot from the hip. Can you really blame me?

While I've written random babblings several times before on this blog, I never came up with a formal name for these little forays into the world of tabletop gaming. So starting today, let's call these my Gamer Perspective series. There, I feel better now. My inner urge to categorize and organize things has finally been satisfied. For now.

So what exciting things have been happening lately in the world of board games, miniatures, and wargaming? Well let's see...

BGG Ratings

I'm starting to feel that BoardGameGeek is losing its relevance to me as a source of game ratings. Yes, it's still a fantastic website, filled with a treasure trove of useful game information, FAQs and reviews, game aids, and captivating pictures. But in my eyes, there's a strong inherent bias towards Euro games there. Euros (aka: German or Designer games) are considered "the cream of the crop" by the burgeoning cult of gaming elitists that have infested the waters of BGG.

I don't begrudge anyone for liking Euro games. There are several of them that I really enjoy including Domaine, Kingsburg, Through the Desert, and Carcassonne. But when you look at the top 100 games and see that half of them are Euros, you can't help but feel like a minority voice in the gamer world, especially if your favorites happen to be wargames, miniature games, adventure games, sports games, party games, abstracts, classic games, and the like.

The hot new board game that people are drooling all over themselves to play is Agricola, a game about farming. It has surged to #1 on the BGG game ratings, bumping Puerto Rico (another euro with a somewhat bland theme) from the top spot. I have no desire to play either of those games, simply because the themes are tremendously boring to me. Sorry gamer geeks, but good, elegant game mechanics can only take a game so far. If the theme is about exciting as filling out your federal tax return then count me out. Ain't gonna buy it and ain't gonna play it.

I wish BGG offered a feature in its database to have users categorize themselves as either Euro gamers, Ameritrash gamers (adventure and battle game oriented), Miniatures gamers, Party/Social Gamers, Wargamers, or All-Inclusive gamers (like every style pretty much equally). Then we could filter the game rankings based on how different categories of gamers rated the available games. For instance, suppose you're an Ameritrash gamer. Wouldn't it be cool and informative to see how your fellow Ameritrashers ranked each game, and see what their Top 100 rankings list looked like? It's kind of like taking the GeekBuddy analysis tool and ramping it up a few notches. I would certainly find the game rankings much more useful if such a filtering mechanism existed.

The Recession and Game Spending

I've cut back on my game-related spending of late. Some of it is simply due to a lack of funds. Blowing a large wad of dough at both Origins and Historicon definitely put the kabosh on my stash of "fun money".

The recession certainly isn't helping me any. I can't wait until Bush leaves office. Say what you will about Bill Clinton's morals and poor judgement when it comes to women, but the simple fact is that under Clinton the USA had a huge economic surplus and we weren't engaged in a protracted, senseless war in the Middle East. Under Bush, our economy has lurched into the toilet, American morale is lower than I can ever remember over the past 40 years, and an ever-increasing number of countries around the world now hate us. Thanks for nothing George W.

The recession notwithstanding, I've also come to the realization that I had been plagued by that insidious brain-eating worm which gnaws away at the reasoning center of your mind. You know the one. It's that awful thing which forces you to keep buying new games and new miniatures even though you already own scads of board games that are still unplayed and boxes of minis that remain unpainted. Call it the Consumerism Bug. In most walks of life, I don't fall prey to that. But games are my soft spot. It's taken me awhile to build up my mental defenses and resist the urge to overspend.

During the month of August the only game-related things that I purchased were the Field of Glory rulebook for ancient/medieval wargaming (which was done primarily for research purposes since I'm also a game designer) and these painted Ghouls to use in my Sword of Severnia fantasy wargame:

So far in September I haven't even peeked at eBay. Now if I can just go another 28 days! Backing away from something you love is REALLY difficult!

The Death of Gaming Magazines

Just like the internet age is killing the circulation of local newspapers, the emergence of high quality hobby gaming websites such as BoardGameGeek, The Miniatures Page, ConsimWorld, Tabletop Gaming News, Gaming Report, and others have sounded the death knell for many hardcopy game magazines. Within the past 2 years, I've seen promising magazines such as Harbinger, Ragnarok, Wargames Journal, and Knucklebones all shuffle off to the print-publishing underworld.

I miss the glossy rags. Back in the 1970's and 80's we had an assortment of cool magazines to choose from including Dragon, Different Worlds, White Wolf, Space Gamer, Adventurer, Miniature Wargames, Games Master, and White Dwarf when it was at the peak of its quality and not just a glorified GW catalog.

Sadly, those golden days when you could kick back on the couch or lie in bed and scour through a bunch of glossy games magazines has passed. There are still some good magazines out there; most notably the excellent Battlegames in the miniature wargaming field and Kobold Quarterly and Polymancer for the RPG crowd (although Polymancer could be dying as the company website has seemingly been kaput for close to a year).

I think the key to a successful game magazine nowadays is to produce "timeless" articles. Forget writing about game news or the latest releases. There are too many other places online that can beat you to the punch and provide up-to-the-minute breaking news. Creative content is king.

Battlegames does it right by focusing on battle scenarios, specialty rule sets, ideas for running wargame campaigns, how-to articles on painting, terrain building, and rules design, and so forth. Board game mags could succeed by offering house rules or variants to popular games, sets of free print & play rules, ideas for customizing game components, and providing Q&A articles with famous designers and tips on designing your own games.

Some people will argue that BGG is loaded with so much information that there's no real need for a glossy magazine covering boardgames. I argue that:

  • There's so much info on BGG, it becomes daunting to find exactly what you're looking for. A monthly magazine would be more tightly focused and would cut through all the noise which exists on BGG.
  • Oftentimes, it's much more enjoyable to read OFFLINE (on the couch or in bed).

I wonder if we'll ever see a board game equivalent of Battlegames someday? What I'd really love to see is a broad "hobby games" magazine that covers board games, card games, miniature games, and RPG's in one mega-publication. I would subscribe to it. Would you?

That's all for today... Until next time, this is SultanSevy wishing you mucho fun!