Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hip-pocket wargames

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
My friend Grant and I had plans to play a three-player round of The End of the Triumvirate (designers Johannes Ackva and Max Gabrian, artist Andrea Boekhoff, publisher Z-Man Games) Friday afternoon, but our third player never showed.  Having lost an hour waiting, and me having to leave less than two hours later, we were faced with having to come up with a quick two-player game on the fly.  (We eschewed the idea of playing TEotT as a two-player game, which is possible but which, in our opinion, loses the essence of the game.)  Now, Grant has quite the collection, and I was quite happy with what we ended up playing - Traders of Carthage (which is on my "must have" wishlist) and Oz Fluxx (another in the series of light-hearted Fluxx games by Looney Labs).

Filler games like ToC and Fluxx accommodate this niche perfectly.  But both of us were wishing we'd had a wargame locked and loaded as a contingency to knock out in our hour-and-a-half window of opportunity.  In retrospect, we certainly could have played my miniatures favorite De Bellis Antiquitatis or the quick and dirty card game Down in Flames: Zero!  Even a game of chess might have worked, and I think we considered it.  Grant specifically mentioned he would have liked to have played a Columbia block game, if we'd had more time.  But when you don't have your miniatures handy or can't lay your fingers on the right game on the spur of the moment, we found it hard to whip out something that's both meaty and quick.  

So the situation spurred a conversation on Tuesday among some of us about what wargames would have fit this situation - something at hand on the shelf that can fill a contingency window of an hour and a half or so. "For short wargame, break glass."  Paul R. reminded me that Scenario 3, "Stuart's Raid," from Stonewall Jackson's Way is very quick.  He also told me that just the previous Thursday, he and Frank H. had completed a scenario of the Avalon Hill classic Caesar's Legions in two hours - including set-up, rules review, play, and clean-up.  PanzerBlitz also came up in our conversation. 

So I thought I'd review my own collection and see what candidates I have as "hot standbys" for spur-of-the-moment wargame options.  Here's what I come up with as good options from games I have on hand:

Image courtesy of
GMT Games
  • Down in Flames III: Zero! (designer Dan Verssen):  GMT's clever card game of World War II dogfighting can be knocked out in less than an hour pitting a flight of four American aircraft against four Japanese.  Always fun.
  • Memoir '44 (publisher Days of Wonder):  Richard Borg's fun, approachable World War II game that starts in northern Europe but whose expansions extend to all theaters
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men (designer S. Craig Taylor):  One of my very favorite games, an Avalon Hill classic handling of tactical naval combat in the age of sail, from single frigate engagements to large fleet actions
  • Panzer Leader (designers Dave Clark, Randall C. Reed, Nick Smith) and
    (designer Jim Dunnigan):  Two more Avalon Hill classics, timeless treatments of battalion-level armor and infantry combat on the western and eastern World War II fronts, respectively
  • Battle Cry  (Avalon Hill / Hasbro):  Richard Borg's American Civil War predecessor to Memoir '44
  • De Bellis Antiquitatis (designers Phil and Sue Barker and Richard Bodley Scott):  The only miniatures game on this list, appealing for its small scale and rapid play time.  Our collections are 15mm scale, which means each army fits in a cigar box and the battle can be played on a two-foot-square board with a half-dozen pieces of terrain.  Simple, quick, and still tactically challenging.
  • Richtofen's War (designer Randall C. Reed):  A favorite of mine way back in high school, I haven't touched this Avalon Hill World War I dogfight classic in a long time, but I remember it was a quick play with a lot of tactical maneuver.
  • Saipan (designer Kip Allen):  The only folio game I have from the SPI "Island War" quadrigame, this is a nice treatment of the US Marines' invasion of the very toughly defended island.  Play balance issues need some treatment, though.
  • Ace of Aces (designers Doug Kaufman and Alfred Leonardi):  A true "filler" wargame.  This was a fun diversion when I was on a submarine in the Navy.  My department head and I had a decent campaign going during one deployment.
So I think the lesson learned here is that I ought to have two or three of these "at the ready" for any spontaneous opportunity for a wargame encounter.  I wonder if I should carry some of them in my car?  You never know when the mood will strike ... to kill some cardboard!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Another pounding in Puerto Rico

My wife Kathy and I went back to an old favorite tonight, a two-player variant of Puerto Rico (designer Andreas Seyfarth, artist Franz Vohwinkel, publisher Rio Grande).  Whereas I was thinking it was a pretty close game, in fact I made a major error in spending my dubloons on a Wharf instead of saving for a large bonus-point building.  Kathy bought both the Fortress and the Residence.  I ended up using my Wharf only once, to ship two corn - hardly worth the investment (not to mention the opportunity cost of a large building later).  We were very close on shipping victory points and building points, but the bonuses from her big buildings earned her a huge win, 52-36.
My wife's game-winning city - only two production buildings but beefed up with the Fortress and Residence

It was a very odd game, mostly traceable to the fact that most of the coffee plantations came out early, before either of us was ready to invest in a Coffee Roaster, and most of the indigo didn't come out until the end, when we were largely committed to other crops and neither was interested in starting something new.  So except for the very last Craftsman phase, she only produced corn and tobacco, and I only produced corn and sugar.  The Trading House never filled up, because the Office became unavailable (under the two-player variant rules).  The situation made for some very odd dynamics; I left my Small and Large Markets unoccupied for most of the game because I never had the opportunity to sell sugar or corn after the second Trader phase.  
My wife's shipping points and goods at game end (custom game pieces were a Christmas gift):  The indigo was the only one produced all game.

Discovering Le Havre

I can't remember what prompted me to look into Le Havre (designer Uwe Rosenberg, artists Klemens Franz and Uwe Rosenberg, publisher Lookout Games [website in German]), but I remember getting very interested the more I read about it.  The comment I put in my wish list was, "So highly rated, so well reviewed, by the designer of Agricola, for 1-5 players ... what's not to like?"

So I was especially excited when my beautiful, loving, game-playing wife gave me a copy of Le Havre for my birthday.  We made a point of setting aside the 5:00 cocktail hour last Friday for us to learn and play this Le Havre game that I'd heard so much about and that my wife was interested in as well, if only for the Agricola comparison (inasmuch as she has been known to farm circles around me from time to time).

We have found that the best way for the two of us to discover a new game that neither of us has played is for me to sit with the game and read the rules cover to cover to get to the point of understanding.  Then I explain  to my wife how I think the game works in what I think is a reasonably organized fashion.  We have discovered that I can do this with about a 90% reliability of getting the rules right.  Invariably I will get at least one rule wrong in the first play, sometimes more, but since we treat the first run-through as a "learning game," the stakes are low, and the consequences of screwing up a rule are usually minor.  (Well, that's my story, anyway.)

Sample resources - image posted to
boardgamegeek by Jason  Begy
Now, I will say that as I read the description on the back of the box, I was afraid I was in for a warmed-over Agricola in a different theme.  But when 5:00 arrived, I made a drink for my lovely wife, and then cracked open the box to see what I was in for.  And I found that Le Havre seems to have a very different flavor indeed.    Certainly there is still the general Euro process of taking actions, accumulating resources, using those resources to acquire things to build victory-point-generation-engines.  But the mechanisms seem very different in this game, the methodologies quite original (to me at least).

As it happens, it took me so long to learn the game, and my explanation was so confusing, that we only completed two out of the eight rounds that a two-player shortened-version game is supposed to take (which the rules claim should run about 45 minutes).  So Friday evening we pretty much got as far as figuring out the processes of the turn sequence but really didn't understand the "why" behind the different actions.  (And the rule I got wrong that first time is that I missed the wooden ship that each player gets at the start of the shortened two-player game.)

Fortunately, my lovely wife was not discouraged but inspired to suggest that we try the game again on Sunday.  And we started at 4:00 rather than 5:00, and needed only the most cursory review of rules before we were able to jump into the game with both feet.  We definitely learned a lot more in today's session about how the game seems to work.

Construction and building firms allow
players to build new buildings - image
posted to boardgamegeek by Raiko Puust
Without going into detail on the rules themselves, suffice it to say that players may on each turn essentially choose either to take raw materials of one type (as many as happen to be available at that point), or to take advantage of the action of one of the buildings that has been built in the city.  The most common such action early in the game is to use raw materials to build new buildings, which are worth points and which expand the available actions in future turns.  Some buildings yield a guaranteed number of raw materials of a certain type.  Some allow conversion of raw materials to refined materials.  The Wharf allows construction of ships.  The Shipping Line allows the shipment of raw or refined materials on ships for money (which is both currency and victory points).  Other buildings allow a variety of other actions.

There is also a decidedly Agricolesque feeding concern at the end of each round of seven turns, which motivates players to convert fish to smoked fish, grain to bread, and cattle to meat for food.  Grain and cattle can also be "multiplied" (albeit slowly).  In Le Havre, unlike Agricola, the "feeding curve" grows very quickly from one round to the next.  Ships become important, because each ship provides free food every round to offset the feeding requirement.

Shipping Line - image
posted to
by "amp (beatrix)"
But my wife discovered - faster than I did - the real value in ships:  using them with the Shipping Line to sell refined goods.  In her case, she used the Abattoir to convert cattle to meat and hides, the Tannery to convert the hides to leather, and then the Shipping Line to deliver the leather to market.  I tried to outdo her success by using the Iron Works to acquire iron, the Collier to acquire coal, the Cokery to convert coal to coke, which in turn I used in the Steel Mill to convert iron to steel.  Steel sells for a great deal more than leather (twice as much, in fact), but because I needed extra steps to make it all work, I was too late to make it come together in time before the end of our shortened game.

So my beautiful wife beat me in our first complete game of Le Havre by the convincing score of 147 to 91.  Now we both understand the game better, and I expect we'll bring Le Havre to the cocktail-hour game table many more times.