Monday, March 23, 2020

Dave Brockie 1963 - 2014

RIP Dave Brockie / Oderus Urungus - gone six years today. Gwar's combination of bloody carnage, offensive humor, and metal riffs were a huge influence on me in my 20's - and would later bring a lot cool things into my life. My first big professional work was doing layout and design on Brockie's Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure Towers Two. It was also through that book that I became friends with Jobe Bittman who was hired to complete the manuscript after Brockie's untimely death.

Sail on Scumdog. The slaves you left behind on Earth miss your punishments dearly.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Have a map!

When you write an adventure, its likely that there will be a lot of stuff that gets cut or altered. With my upcoming Lamentations of the Flame Princess book Long Live the New Flesh I have whole notebooks of stuff that didn't make it into the final manuscript. Like seriously - it's a small stack of books. That's just how I do things. I sit and scribble handwritten notes and drawings in my notebooks until something gels - then I do it some more. Eventually that pile of nonsense turns into a typewritten manuscript but the process leading there is total chaos.

Anyway, what you have here is one of the maps I drew for Long Live the New Flesh. Don't worry about spoilers, because I completely re-wrote the section of the book where this was supposed to go so it's effectively obsolete.

I hate to see stuff like this go to waste, though - so I figured what the heck. I'll polish that sucker up and give it away! So here's a link to a folder containing the full files. Inside the folder are two subfolders, one containing low resolution jpeg files and another containing hi resolution tifs. One of the tifs has all the layers I used (although don't look at those...the layers are an organizational nightmare because I just wanted to knock the darn thing out and give it away).

I made a few changes to the final map, mostly omitting stuff I didn't like. And don't bother asking me what any of the stuff on the map is - because some of it did make it into the final adventure, albeit in a different form or location. Just make up your own thing.

You have my full permission to use these maps in any way you wish - either for personal or commercial use. All I ask is that if you use them for a commercial product you give me credit.

End of the World Movie Club: Wings of Desire

When things go down the shitter I often turn to films to keep my spirits up. I'll admit that I'm a bit of wallower...when I'm really miserable I don't necessarily want a good cheering-up, I want a comforting confirmation that everything is exactly as awful and bleak as I thought it was. (I recently attended a showing of Elen Klimov's Come and See - which is pretty much a dictionary definition of 'bleak').

That said, underneath this Black Metal-loving exterior I'm also kind of a hopeless romantic.

I guess it's that combination of stark melancholy and tender yearning that makes Wim Wenders' 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire my all-time favorite film. No matter what mood I'm in, Wenders' tale of an angel's search for meaning set amongst a divided Berlin makes me feel - well, if not better, then at least justified.

Damiel's search for meaning and love is largely an allegory for Wenders desire to see his country reuinted, and as the angel Damiel and human trapeze artist Marion find harmony so too would Wenders Germany a mere three years after the film's release.

Wings of Desire is a love story for the ages and remains timeless, despite being rooted in the events of the recent past. Plus, who doesn't love seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at their prime?

Lonely Fun Part Deux: Pavlov's House

So - I guess killing Nazis is a thing with me.

World War II is a not-insignificant part of my family history. My maternal grandfather spent 1944-45 in France and Belgium murdering fascists. Before that he was stationed in the UK where he was in charge of an anti-aircraft battery tasked with shooting down buzzbombs being lobbed over the English Channel. He had some stories, I can tell you that. He shared a lot of them with me when I was growing up, which was the start of my lifelong fascination with the Second World War.

I've also been a lifelong gamer. I first encountered Dungeons and Dragons at the age of 9, via  a stack of game books and Dragon magazines gifted to me by a guy my mom was dating. I don't remember who that dude was but I guess I owe him an immense debt of gratitude as, many years later I somehow stumbled my way into a career in the game industry.

Lucky for me then that World War II has been the fertile ground from which countless games have sprung. My first real wargaming experience was Avalon Hill's Panzer Leader which I received as a Christmas gift in my early teens. Squad Leader came next, which shifted my interest to the Eastern Front. There's something fascinating about the frozen urban hell of Stalingrad and the costly victory the Soviets there achieved against Hitler's war machine. We Americans love to think we single-handedly saved Europe from German aggression, but the truth is that those five months of bitter fighting in Stalingrad is where the tide broke against Hitler.

I'm clearly not the only one who harbors a lingering interest in the Eastern Front, as there have been a bewildering number of World War II games set there. So many that it's become kind of a thing in wargaming circles to bemoan the arrival of each new take on the subject matter. At this point if you want to release an Eastern Front wargame you have to either do it exceptionally well or do something different.

Pavlov's House (DVG), I'm happy to say, does both of those things.

In case you're not a WWII history nerd, Pavlov's House refers to a famous building in Stalingrad in which a group of Soviet soldiers fortified themselves against the Wehrmacht for two months. The building, a modest four-story apartment complex, was dubbed 'Pavlov's House' after Sgt. Yakov Pavlov, who led a platoon to recapture the building and hold it against counter-attacks from September 27th, 1942 until late November when Pavlov and his men were relieved by elements of the Red Army.

The first thing you'll notice about Pavlov's House when you lay the board out for play is the way it divides the play area into three sections. The rightmost section is a bird's eye view of the Volga river and serves as a staging area for the Soviet 62nd Army. The center section is a closer view of the house, and is where the Wehrmacht forces are arranged as they approach. The leftmost section is a cutaway view of the house itself and it is here where you will assign individual soldiers to cover various approaches so they can suppress and kill incoming enemies.

It sounds weird at first but once you grasp how the three levels of gameplay interlock it makes perfect sense. The entire game, in fact, turns on understanding how its various systems and economies are balanced against each other. It may sound daunting but once you play a couple of turns and you grokk what David Thompson (the game's designer) is up to the game is revealed to be a master-class in elegant game design.

On the operational end of things, you are trying to ferry goods and men into Pavlov's House. You can send food, medicine, ammunition, etc. as well as individual soldiers and weapons. The ammunition is a good example of how the game works across all three sections. Using one of your available actions you can load ammunition into a staging area box. Another action allows you to load the ammunition onto a flotilla across the Volga, and eventually transport it to the Reserves area of the house itself. Once the ammo arrives at the house, however, it is exchanged for Suppression tokens at a rate of five Suppression tokens for every ammo counter. You cannot immediately make use of these tokens, however - to do so you must first use a soldier or team of soldiers manning a machinegun to take these tokens from the Reserves and place them into sectors covered by those soldiers. When Wehrmacht soldiers are then placed onto the center section of the board you can spend these suppression tokens to roll a die - one per token - to prevent the enemy from making it to the board, provided there are tokens assigned to the correct sector. It sounds like a lot to think about but you will very quickly internalize these systems and learn how to balance them to achieve victory. If you're lucky.

Understanding how everything works is one thing - turning this understanding in to a win is another thing altogether. When Stuka dive bombers start disrupting your operational capabilities and enemy forces creep ever closer to Pavlov's House you will feel a very real sense of wild desperation as you spend your limited actions and resources to fend them off. The game is played on a timer - the Wehrmacht deck, which depletes at a rate of three cards per turn. Each of these cards makes your life hell - either by adding troops and armor units to the center section of the board, by revealing snipers which murder your defenders, or via assaults in which the forces arrayed against you will make concentrated attacks against your men. There's also a real chance of losing your troops to starvation if you fail to bring enough food across the Volga.

Every turn feels like a desperate scramble to make the best of your limited options and in the game's last few turns you'll likely be cursing your luck as the Germans you cleared from your left flank - thus allowing you to perform a valuable Storm Group action which will net you valuable victory points - suddenly re-appear, dashing all your hopes.

Pavlov's House is a tight piece of game design, and is broadly representative of a whole breed of wargames that have begun to emerge the last few years that borrow as much from modern boardgame design principles as they do traditional wargames. Back in the day, soiltaire wargames basically boiled down to taking a basic hex-and-chit wargaming experience and bolting on a kind of artificial intelligence to handle the other side's actions. Pavlov's House is built from the ground up for solo play and thus feels less compromised by vestigial gameplay mechanics. There are rules included for co-op and competitive play but honestly I haven't bothered with them, and I'm okay with that. I also think Pavlov's House would appeal to boardgamers who have shied away from traditional hex-and-chit wargames because of the complexity. There are no tables and charts here - just a couple of reference sheets that explain the use of various actions...and honestly, after a couple of games you won't need to refer to them at all.

I also applaud the game's streamlined graphic design. I've seen some people complain about the game's simplified iconography and design, but I think it works perfectly well - every card and chit is easily, and quickly identifiable making gameplay a breeze.

I can't recommend Pavlov's House highly enough. It sets up quick, plays smoothly, and perfectly conveys its theme through gameplay and mechanics. Solid, solid stuff.

(Note: David Thompson has released a second game using the same system as Pavlov's House - Castle Itter: The Strangest Battle of WWII. I haven't played it but I dearly want to based on that title alone...)

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Lonely Fun and Bombing Nazis

Even for someone who works from home, and therefore spends a lot of time cocooned indoors, being forced to do so because of a global pandemic gets kind of old pretty quick. Thankfully I've spent the last five years or so hoarding a bunch of solitaire wargames, a habit which has been nicely abetted by a recent small explosion of such offerings from various wargame publishers.

One such game I bought in 2019 was Legion Wargames' Target For Today, a spiritual successor of sorts to Avalon Hill's beloved (but sadly long out of print) B-17 Queen of the Skies. I say beloved in a vicarious sense as B-17 was one AH offering I never encountered as a young gamer and I can only rely on the memories of other gamers who endlessly sing its praises.

Despite my lack of nostalgia for the original game, the reviews for Target For Today were strong enough to convince me to order a copy sorta sat on my shelf for a year. I say sorta because I did furtively lay the thing out and play a single mission some months ago. It was a bit daunting, to say the least. The game essentially boils down to a very convoluted series of tables that, via random die rolls, guide you through a single bombing run. You choose your aircraft and mission timeframe, crew the plane, and then make a bunch of die rolls on charts spread across three booklets to determine the outcome of the mission. The only real input you have as a player is determining which guns you will train on incoming fighters when the Germans inevitably send sorties of Luftwaffe aircraft to intercept your bomber group. The rest of the time you're just rolling on numerous tables to see how badly you are shot up on the way in and out and whether or not you hit your target.

It's a lot to wrap your head around the first time through. I'd be lying by omission if I didn't admit the experience feels a little bit like doing your taxes - except the part where you get to kill Nazis. To make matters worse, the rulebook isn't particularly well-organized. It does smartly guide you through the game, allowing you to sit down with the book and play through your first session using the rulebook as a guide - but as a work of reference it's practically useless. Finding a specific rule can be a pain. And the tables - oh the tables. There are a thousand of them, although you'll only refer to a good dozen or so for the majority of the game. But many of the tables sport an endless series of conditional modifiers which make your eyes swim. For a game that can take a good 2-3 hours for a single bombing run, that's a lot of time spent flipping through charts and rolling dice.

That first game went...okay. I fucked up a bunch of things and had to rewind from time to time - but I got through it. Afterwards I put it back on the shelf, resolving to give it another go.

Which I finally did today, nearly a year later. I almost went with Field Commander: Napoleon - another game that deserves more love than I've given it - but it felt like it was time to give Target For Today another chance.

I'm glad I did.

Something about having internalized the game's rules a little bit - even after a one-year gap - made a huge difference when it came to working through the game's procedures to build the unfolding narrative. And make no mistake about it, it's that last word - narrative - which makes Target For Today a worthwhile experience.

Every detail in Target For Today is ruthlessly modeled  - you can even die before you get in the air, as the game forces you to roll on a chart to determine if you safely take off from your home airfield. The first leg of your journey - at least in the early-war campaign - is relatively safe, your only hazard being the possibility of rolling poorly on the random event table. But when you start to hit resistance, and the air fills with Me-109 and Fw-190 fighter start to worry a little bit about the aircrew under your command. You assign each of them a name when you create your bomber, and over the course of the game you wince every time an enemy plane evades your defensive fire and lines up a series of shots....any one of which has the potential to kill a crew member, disable a vital system, or destroy your plane. Early in my mission, The Due Diligence took a bomb hit from a green Luftwaffe pilot that could have detonated the payload, instantly killing everyone on board. It was blind dumb luck that the resulting die roll indicated mere superficial damage - but it certainly got my pulse up for a moment as I contemplated losing my entire crew to a lucky shot.

The game is full of these moments, and as you get closer to your target the threat slowly ramps up until you're fending off wave after wave of angry enemy fighters determined to protect your target (in this case the U-Boat dock located in Saint-Nazaire, France).

In the end the crew of the Due Diligence dropped their payload, but due to bad weather and some crap rolls that left them out of formation (earlier my #1 engine stopped working due to a random event, forcing me to either prematurely drop my payload or carry on) the bombs missed their target entirely. There was only one serious casualty - Tail Gunner Hernandez who suffered a crushed pelvis from a Me-110 fighter that shot up the plane's tail section just before the target zone.

The real joy, I suspect, will come with subsequent play sessions as you send the crew up time and time again, hoping to achieve a goal of 25 total survived missions. At this point doing so seems like a daunting task - and in this sense Target For Today shares a bit of DNA with another game I've been playing recently, Kingdom Death: Monster. I'll save my thoughts about that for a separate post - suffice to say they're both wonderful story generators, mostly in the way they turn adversity into a challenge...a challenge which, if overcome, will provide you with a tale you'll not soon forget.