Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Turkish un-delight (DANG IX)

Monday was the ninth running of Dave's Annual Naval Game (DANG). This is a tradition among a group of friends. Dave Schueler, former submariner and fellow technical writer, hosts a naval game that gets about 6 to 8 of us together for a day-long operational/tactical naval affair. Dave provided a compendium of DANGs past on his blog Naval Gazing.

For all but DANG I, Dave has provided a small set of possible themes that we can vote on to determine the year's game. This year's voting inclined towards the Battle of Lepanto where Turkish naval forces under Ali Pasha got shellacked by the Holy League lead by Don John of Austria. To put your suspense at ease: no, history was not stood on its head in our game.

The ships were Figurehead/Hallmark 1:2400 scale galleys. Dave bought these in October and painted both fleets in record time. The ships come with their own bases, but Dave put these on 20mm x 40mm Litko 3mm thick wooden bases for better movement and getting the ships to line up in formations better.

The Christian fleet, galleasses in front
After a brief intro by Dave, we chose sides. The Turks were Kevin Smyth, Dave Creager, Paul Hannah, and me. The Holy League was Dale Mickel, George Kettler, Scott Murphy, and Mark Waddington. The game started with each side choosing its admirals. We had a list of historical characters with a small bit of information about each choice. After choosing, we were given more information about each admiral, such as how they may react in a battle. The final characteristic of the admirals would not be known until they actually got into a battle, when we would roll to see if they are superior, average, or poor. More on that below.

The first part of the game was an operational phase where each side jockeyed about attempting to raid enemy ports, consolidating our fleets, and seeking out the enemy. The Holy League managed one successful raid on the Turkish-held Dalmatian coast. Our attempted raid on Crete was a disaster resulting in a great loss of fighting crews. We had to slink back to a friendly port to get more soldiers for the fleet.

The fleets consolidating for the big clash
Paul seemed very interested in a raid on Venice, which looked much too formidable—especially after our Crete disaster. We feinted that way with a dummy fleet, but the Holy Leaguers didn't bite. As it was, the operational phase ended when our fully consolidated fleets met off the coast of southern Greece.

Now we rolled to see what our admirals' qualities would be. Of our for admirals, three were sucky and one was merely adequate. This would affect how well we handled our fleets. (The Christians, I believe, rolled better.)

The rules we used for the naval action were Christian Fire and Turkish Fury by David Manley. The rules are an adaptation of the popular American Civil War rules Fire and Fury. Manley's take on the galley-style naval actions is that galley fleets behave more like formations in a land battle than individual ships. He did an earlier set of rules for ancient naval gaming called Greek Fire and Roman Fury, which put shape to his ideas. Christian Fire and Turkish Fury extends that concept to the gunpowder era. It's unclear how to get copies of the rules. They were published in a magazine some time ago. Dave has copies he got from David Manley.

Dave set up the playing area according to his predetermined idea of how coastal islands would feature for any given area on the operational map. The island placement restricted us to a narrow front. The Turkish ships are faster, so we might have attempted a flanking run if we had open water. However, we had to adapt our thinking to what was pretty much a head-on fight.

One restriction to our battle plan was Paul's admiral. Sucky though he was, Hassan, the son of the great Turkish admiral Barbarossa, was a fire eater. The wing he commanded must move at full speed towards the nearest Christian squadron. We lined up with my two Turkish squadrons in line abreast in the center. Paul was on our left in line astern, with the plan to skirt the island there and then form up against the Christian right. Kevin's Barbary squadron, our only elite formation, was behind me as a reserve, and Dave Creager's squadrons were on our right.

The Turks arrayed
We thought, well hoped, that we would have an advantage in numbers to offset the Christian advantage in technology. But that didn't seem to be so. Also, many of our "numbers" were smaller ships with paltry combat value. Against us were several elite Christian squadrons and their galleasses. In the Mediterranean of 1571, the galleass was the dreadnought of its day. With a much broader beam, it could mount a heavier battery, including broadsides, that provided all-around fire rather than being limited to straight-ahead fire as other galleys were. The Leaguers concentrated their three galleasses in the center between two galley squadrons.

The Christian center
We set up far enough apart that it took a few turns of movement before we came in gun range of each other. Paul (a.k.a. Hassan) ran up at full speed, while the rest of the Turks came on at half speed so as to be near enough to support Paul, without being the first into the narrows between the island groups.

The action started, as expected, with Paul's squadrons meeting the Christian right wing. Paul's two leading squadrons were wee galiots with poor long-range fire. The initial long-range volleys had little effect. But in the ensuing close range fire and melee, Paul's galiots fared for the worse worse. In the first couple turns of the game, our left wing was in severe trouble.

Christian fire! Dale shoots Paul's lead squadrons
In the center, I came on with my two large Turkish squadrons right into the teeth of Scott's galleasses. The result was predictable. Both squadrons got shot to bits. My lefthand squadron managed to get into melee contact with its tormentor, but that didn't change things. The Venetian galleys I fought had the upper hand throughout and my squadron was flotsam in just a few rounds. My other squadron held out long enough to inflict a bit of gunfire damage on Scott's ships. I even managed to put a galleass into disorder a couple times, although there was no chance of sinking one.

The fleets closing in after Paul and Dale's first clash
My squadrons engage - poorly
Kevin brought up his elite Barbary squadron and its supporting squadron of fustas. In just a few rounds, Kevin managed to shoot up Scott's lefthand squadron and then close in to destroy it. In the follow-up to that he also managed to contact a galleass that had been disordered by my feeble gunfire (my only tangible contribution to the game) and destroy it.

Kevin's Barbary squadron makes its presence felt
while only two ships remain of my two squadrons
On our right (the Christian left), Dave Creager and George slugged it out in the shadow of the hampering islets. The result was much like the legendary Kilkenny cats. Dave C. came out on top, but with only the bare minimum of ships in one squadron and only his wing flagship surviving out of the other locked in mortal combat with George's flagship, which was George's only survivor.

Turkish Barbary fury! Kevin's squadrons break through
supported on the right by the remnants of Dave C.'s squadrons
The situation by now was Dale victorious over Paul, with little damage to himself. Scott was somewhat diminished in the center, but with two of three galleasses remaining. George vanquished on the Christian left. My two squadrons were as gone as Paul's. Dave C. had just a few ships. Kevin was victorious and undamaged in our center. However, Dale's squadrons were turning in and Kevin had yet to bear the fire of Scott's galleasses. We called it a Christian win.

The day was another DANG success. Much thanks to Dave and his wife Lynn for their hospitality. In addition to a great game, they provide a spread of delicious food. One treat this year were Lynn's rum balls. I haven't had a run ball since the 1970s. My friend Chet's mother used to make rum balls and brandy balls every Christmas and I couldn't get my fill of them. I don't think I ever got drunk on them, but I did retain a fondness for rum well into my 20s.

The day ended with us admiring George's latest model aircraft creations. He's been making masters for 1/285th scale planes for about ten years. He had Phantoms, MiG 21s, MiG 17s, F-105s, and others that were being readied to be sent for casting. It brought to ind how long it's been since we played an air game. We also, discussed options for next year's DANG, although it will be October before we get down to voting on choices.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!

I saw the new release of True Grit on Sunday. I've been anticipating this movie since I saw the preview for it this summer. The 1969 version with John Wayne, Glen Campbell, and Kim Darby is one of my favorite movies. If it's not the favorite, it's at least in my top five. The movie is memorable for many things: John Wayne's only Oscar, Kim Darby's breakout role (although it never flourished after that), and early performances by Dennis Hopper as Moon and Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper. The movie also featured uncredited performances by Wilford Brimley and Jay Silverheels.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the remake, but it's a Coen brothers movie, which is always a good sign. It also features Jeff Bridges, the Dude (or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing) as Rooster Cogburn. I'm a big Jeff Bridges fan and he did a great job in the role. I wasn't too sure about Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, but he was good in the role. The LeBoeuf character in the new version is the biggest departure from the 1969 version.

The biggest uncertainty was about Mattie Ross. Kim Darby gained a great deal of recognition for her acting in that role. Although 24 at the time, her small size and slender frame made her pass well enough for a 14-year old girl. That fact that she was an adult herself, contributed to her ability to portray Mattie's precociousness when dealing with, and getting the best of, her elders. Hailee Steinfeld, who is actually 14, plays Mattie in the new version. She is brilliant. She has put her stamp on the role.

The Coen brothers' remake is said to have followed the novel by Charles Portis more closely than the original. I'm eager to read the book to see for myself—but it's not available for the Nook yet! There are noticeable differences between the two versions, but it's endearing, too, to see how much alike they are in many respects. Much of the more memorable dialogue in the 1969 version is repeated in the 2010 version, which means either that the Coen brothers kept it from Marguerite Robert's 1969 screenplay or that the dialogue comes from the book. In either case, any remake would be the poorer without the climactic exchange between Rooster Cogburn and "Lucky" Ned Pepper as well as other lines and exchanges between the characters.

One interesting homage in the movie is the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms". The tune plays at times through the movie and the hymn is sung by Iris Dement during the ending credits. The only other western that Jeff Bridges has done, as far as I know, is Wild Bill, where "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" is also sung at the movie's end (with the chorus variation "Leaning on Jesus").

As I watched the movie, I unconsciously ticked off every favorite quote from the 1969 version that was retained, in some form, in the 2010 version, but not everything got in. Here are a few favorites that didn't make it:

Rooster Cogburn: By God. She reminds me of me.
LaBoeuf: Well, then we might just not get along.

Mattie Ross: I won't rest until Tom Chaney's barking in hell.

Mattie Ross: Those horses can't get away from Little Blackie - they're loaded down with fat men and iron.

Rooster Cogburn: When's the last time you saw Ned Pepper?
Emmett Quincy: I don't remember any Ned Pepper.
Rooster Cogburn: Short feisty fella, nervous and quick, got a messed-up lower lip.
Emmett Quincy: That don't bring nobody to mind. A funny lip?
Rooster Cogburn: Wasn't always like that, I shot him in it.
Emmett Quincy: In the lower lip? What was you aiming at?
Rooster Cogburn: His upper lip.

Tom Chaney: What are you doin'?
Mattie Ross: I'm getting some water so I can wash my hands.
Tom Chaney: A little smut won't hurt you.
Mattie Ross: That's true - or else you and your chums would surely be dead.

Rooster Cogburn: You can't serve papers on a rat, baby sister. You gotta kill him or let him be.

Mattie Ross: Why do you keep that one chamber empty?
Rooster Cogburn: So I won't shoot my foot off.

Mattie Ross: Do you know a Marshal Rooster Cogburn?
Col. G. Stonehill: Most people around here have heard of Rooster Cogburn and some people live to regret it. I would not be surprised to learn that he's a relative of yours.

LaBoeuf: I wouldn't count too much on bein' able to shade somebody I didn't know, fella.
Rooster Cogburn: I ain't never seen nobody from Texas I couldn't shade.

Rooster Cogburn: LaBoeuf, you get cross ways of me and you'll think a thousand of brick have fell on you! You'll wish you was back at the Alamo with Travis!

Rooster Cogburn: Baby sister, I was born game and I intend to go out that way.

Rooster Cogburn: Any man who packs a big bore Sharps carbine could come in mighty handy, if we're attacked by buffalo... or elephants.

The new True Grit is a great film in its own right and I recommend it for any westerns fan or anyone looking for a good adventure film.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holiday gaming: Part Un

Being currently out of work, "holiday" gaming is a bit of a misnomer. Apart from looking for work and waiting, waiting, waiting to hear about positions I've interviewed for, I have a lot of time on my hands. However, in this formulation, time does not equal money. When I'm making money, I have no time. When I have time, I'm not making money. Why can't I have time and money?

So, during this—hopefully brief—period between jobs, I have been able to get some gaming in.

Boardgaming is a kind of first love for me. I started in the hobby with it, left it for some years, and am now re-enjoying it. My friend Rick recommended a game released this year called Nations at War: White Star Rising from Lock 'n Load games (which I've mentioned in my last posting). It's tactical combat in Western Europe in WW2. I ordered a copy straight away and I've managed to get a number of games in in the past week. I expect to play a few more times in the next week.

White Star Rising (WSR) uses the same games scale as PanzerBlitz/Panzer Leader where a single counter/unit represents a platoon. But after that WSR departs considerably. WSR uses a chit-pull command activation system that limits what you can move at a given point, randomizes who gets to move what when, and may cause one or more formations to skip a turn, which can matter much for an attacker who needs to take an objective within the game's turn limit. Formations, when activated by their chit being pulled, can fire, move, overrun, or close assault. After they complete an action, they are marked as Ops Complete. Meanwhile, enemy units can opportunity fire against an activated unit moving.

Rick and I have learned through the game that infantry, especially panzergrenadiers, armored infantry, and paratroopers, are tough. Somewhat easily killed in the open but formidable in close combat against tanks, infantry is best when holding woods or built-up areas against attacking armored forces.

The system uses hit dice and saving rolls, which is novel in a board game. The system is reminiscent of Flames of War in some ways, but more sophisticated. It would make a good translation to miniatures. (Note to self: translate to miniatures.) All you would need to do is make up charts indicating the combat values for the units in a formation and convert the hex distances to inches. There may be some other tweaking desired; for example, it may be a good idea to make standard range bands that apply to all units. You would also need to work out combat, armor, and movement values for vehicles not yet covered in the system.

I like WSR so much that I've ordered some of the the World at War (WaW) system games from Lock 'n Load. This series predates WSR by a few years and is the genesis for the system, except that WaW depicts hypothetical conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces circa 1985.

WaW should arrive tomorrow via UPS, so I hope to get a game or two in this coming week. I also have the Vassal module for it, so I can practice online and work out the rules kinks.

I got my long-awaited pre-ordered-back-before-the-earth-cooled copy of Columbia's Shiloh: April 1862 just before Christmas. I've played one partial game with Rick, just enough to get a feel for it. Its rating on BoardGameGeek is a wopping 8.17 out of 10, so it's been well received in its first month.

As is inevitable in playing a new game, we fumbled through the turns we played. I was Grant, Rick was Johnston/Beauregard. He came on pretty strong in the first turns, but I got lucky on a counterattack and set him back a bit. It bears replaying to see whether or not I was truly lucky or if we got something wrong.

I've only been able to get one miniatures game in. This was a Kampfgruppe Commander game run bu Mark Serafin. The scenario was set Russia 1941 with a pretty poor Soviet force defending a bridge and ford on a river line against a pretty good German force. Pz 38(t)s went up against T-28s, T-26s, and early model T-34s. Unfortunately, all the Soviet tanks were, well, crap. Poor training, low morale, and feeble response ratings pretty much made them fodder for the panzertruppen. Of course, my singular excellence in rolling 10s (the worst result) for my defensive rolls helped considerably.

The game played well, even if a German win was almost inevitable. It provided a good example of the early Barbarossa actions: good German armored forces concentrated against unready infantry forces supported only by a few tanks here and there. Alas, I didn't get photos.

Other stuff
Don't be shocked, but I managed to some painting done as well. I have a box of 15mm buildings cleaned and primed for painting that have sat unmolested in my garage for a few years now. I finally got to a couple. When painted one by one, they go pretty quickly. They're all western European types. Because my WW2 figures are exclusively Russian and German, they'll be good for scenarios where the Russians are running roughshod over the Reich in '45.

I got to some of my half-finished WW2 vehicles, too. Closer to be done are some Russian T-28s, T-70s, and T-34/85s. I also got well along with some StuG IIIs and a Hornisse.

I've also pulled out some 28mm Copplestone Castings Future Wars figures that I've had sitting about for some time. I have long had a desire to use them for playing Stargrunt II. I have enough for a single side with a small section of power-armored troops. (I've been a fan of power armor since I read Heinlein's Starship Troopers.) The Stargrunt II rules are a solid system, but seem a bit cumbersome for larger games. However, if I keep the scale small—just infantry and support weapons—it should make for some nice games.

Monday is DANG. We're playing Lepanto, so I hope to get some photos and do a write-up.

Monday, December 20, 2010

I am a Vassal

I've been aware of the Vassal online game engine for some years, but my initial foray into its use didn't impress me. It seemed flaky on the Mac, which was the only computer I had back then, and I was somewhat confused by it all. I immediately gave up. However, I gave it another try today using my PC and I've been having quite a time downloading modules and playing a few solo games—even though Vassal is ideal for playing a board game with an online opponent.

The engine supports modules that someone has designed and uploaded to the Vassal web site. Creating these modules no doubt requires developer/coding skills I lack, but I am curious. Many thanks to the guys who create these modules for no remuneration. They are heroes in the hobby—although I suspect that if I had skills, I would create modules a) for bragging rights and b) so I could play my favorite board game on Vassal.

The number of modules available is pretty impressive. The quality varies and several modules have multiple versions that are either incremental improvements or creations by different designers.

The first module I downloaded was, of course, PanzerBlitz/Panzer Leader. I'm pretty impressed at how well this module works. The graphics are great and all the charts and situation cards are available.

Initial Russian attack: Lots of wrecks.
I played a solo game using the Vassal engine, Situation 6.

Russians get past the hill defense and prepare to push onto board 3
The Germans squeaked out a tactical victory, but it was close. The challenge for the Russians is to get from Board 1 to Board 3 by way of Board 2, which is lousy with Germans. It was a nice solo game. I avoid solo board games at Chez Dave because les chats vilains tend to fiddle with the pieces even when I'm right there; to leave the game unguarded is inviting disaster. But with Vassal, the cats are reduced to merely walking back and forth in front of the computer, or sitting on the laptop.

Save your sorry panzer division or feed me. Choose wisely.
Vassal also has a module for The Arab-Israeli Wars, so you get the Avalon Hill trifecta. I hope someone does the Panzer Leader 1940 variant...

Another online game is the fairly recent Nations at War: White Star Rising, which is my new favorite board game. The graphics quality for this module is excellent:

S.Pz.Abt. 501 heading into disaster.
I fiddled around with this solo as well, although I didn't play a full scenario game. My friend Rick and I played WSR scenario 1 yesterday and we debated and alternate approach for the Germans. I tried that approach using even better units that were in the scenario and I think that my avoidance tactics of yesterday was the better course. In the few turns I played, the Tiger were burning, the other panzers were burning, and the SS detachment was cowering in the woods and town to avoid getting shot to bits.

Vassal has modules for several GMT games, such as Men of Iron and Nothing Gained but Glory. There are modules for the World at War series from Lock N Load Publishing (an earlier released system similar to WSR for hypothetical tactical combat circa 1985 in western Europe). I have these games on order, so I look forward to playing them on Vassal.

The Vassal module provides all the graphical elements you need (map, counters, etc.) and provides the dice-rolling mechanisms. It does not provide the rules of play or, in most cases, the game scenarios. You need to buy the games to get those. In some cases, however, you can download game rules for very old games. I downloaded the 1965 and 1975 versions of the Avalon Hill Blitzkrieg game.

I'm not sure how much I'll play with online opponents. For a while, I'll just fiddle with the engine doing solo games and getting to know the ropes. The Vassal modules have no controls that limit your actions. They play just like a board game except that the board, pieces, and die roll results are online. I fear that I'll screw up so badly when playing a live opponent that they'll interpret my stupidty as deviousness.

One sad note about Vassal is that there is a very small number of copyright owners who won't allow Vassal modules for their games. One of these is SPI. That's a shame. I don't know who actually owns the SPI copyrights. Most of these games are 30-40+ years old. I see no intellectual property that they are protecting. None of the old SPI games are available for sale—nor have been for many, many years. Maybe I should start a campaign to get the SI copyright owners to unclench and let those of us who own decaying copies of their board games to play them online. Heck, I'd even pay to get a Vassal module of games like Armageddon or Musket & Pike.

The mystery of SPI's exclusion from Vassal is solved. Decision Games, who holds the copyright on SPI, has it's own online server called HexWar. SPI games will only be available there. HexWar is subscription based and currently offers only 41 games—none of which are the ones I want to play. However, HexWar, unlike Vassal, provides rules and has the game constraints built into the engine. Users don't need to have the game to play it online because everything is provided.

After fiddling with the PanzerBlitz/Panzer Leader module, I've discovered that the module designer included a large number of counters for variants. Even though the Panzer Leader 1940 scenarios aren't included as preset games, you can easily play them using the scenarios from the variant that appeared in The General. You can also create new situations for either game using counters that extend PanzerBlitz back to 1941 with Panzer IIs, Panzer IIIs, Russian KVs, T-26s, T-28s, T-35s, etc. I'm very impressed with that module.