Giving Thanks With Gaming

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A week from now, Americans will be sitting down at Thanksgiving and joining with friends and family around tables in shared gratitude. Actually, Thanksgiving put this way sounds like what I do every week with dice, cards and game pieces instead of turkey and side dishes.

The time after Thanksgiving dinner was traditionally a time for games at my grandparents house when I was a kid. After the dishes were cleared, some of my uncles would sack out on the couch in front of a football game on TV but I always lingered at the table where the real games were happening. My grandmother, great aunts, aunts and mom would hold court at one end of the room-length table with a few rounds of Bridge and family gossip. At the far end, some other aunts and uncles hauled out a well worn Scrabble board and played a steady game of vocabulary one-upmanship. Some of my cousins would spread around on the hallway floor for games of War, Parcheesi and Hi Ho! Cherry-O. As the eldest of my many cousins, I always sat at the big table for dinner and there I mostly remained watching the adults play their games.

This year I’m particularly grateful to be hosting my brother and his family for our holiday shared meal. My brother is my oldest gaming partner dating back to the 70s and 80s when we first discovered oddly-shaped dice and little metal miniatures to paint. We are both fortunate to have wonderfully understanding wives who who have partnered with us in raising a second generation of tabletop gamers, and all of us will be present in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving this year.

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After dinner games

Our tastes in games range wider than the traditional board and card games favored by the older generations in my family. Even so, getting four adults and five kids (boys and girls ranging in ages 10 to 16) all engaged in the same game today remains a challenge. Our interests and commitments vary, but here are few which have worked for our family’s diverse audience over holidays past.

  • Dixit makes for a light but engaging game right after dinner with the various family members pairing off into story-telling and story-deciphering teams. This is a great multi-generational game to play since the kids can just as easily out-baffle the adults by using the key game component they always carry — their imaginations.
  • Guillotine switches the tone and ratchets up the humor for the Francophiles and budding historians with a twisted sense of humor. Nothing says family time at our dinner table like the beheading of aristocratic one-percenters during the French Revolution, all played with goofy cards. It might be a bit too off-color for some families, but all our kids dig this one.
  • For the classically-romantic, multiple hands of Love Letter makes for a royal crowd pleaser as cards are quickly played in a quest to win the heart of the fair princess. Lest that sound overly mushy, there’s a ton of game wrapped up in just a few cards which easily play anywhere. The Batman version will also make a first appearance this year, switching up courtiers with DC Comics heroes and super villains.
  • One Night: Ultimate Werewolf seems to fit the natural progression from dinner into evening. My extended family can be a bit on the boisterous side, so squaring off as villagers versus a werewolf threat in tense 10-minute games. I’ve heard from a lot of people who love playing this one with family around the holidays, since it inevitably brings out the liars and agendas in the crowd.
  • As the evening rolls on well past dessert, a couple pots of coffee and a few drinks, some of the kids and adults will inevitably drift away from the table. For those of us who remain, a rowdy round of our favorite Letters From Whitechapel makes for a grand late night hunt for Jack The Ripper. Set on the dark streets of Victorian London prowled by cops, prostitutes and a famed serial killer, a group of players team up to hunt for Jack as he secretly makes his way home. If the theme doesn’t seem to fit the holiday spirit for you, think of it as a way for you and your family and friends to work together in one of the better cat-and-mouse games I’ve ever played.

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Black Friday games

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a day off for many, and hoards of Americans are up early, out the door and racking-up credit card debt with overly-publicized Black Friday shopping. Since I do everything I can to avoid the masses over the holiday weekend, the Friday after our family feast presents a rare full day to be filled with gaming. This year it’s also my visiting brother’s birthday, and celebrating the day is a great opportunity to pull a few a few of the larger board games off my shelf. I usually max out at about 2-3 players in these games, so having up to five players around the table will be a treat.

  • Civilization: The Boardgame is one of the granddaddys of civilization-building games. The game built on the innovations of the original Civilization games with a progressive “tech-tree” mechanic where technologies build within a historical timeline over thousands of years. Players march toward victory through different paths of warfare, culture and technology, allowing each player to work to their strengths and interact with human history along the way. With the Fame and Fortune and Wisdom and Warfare expansions, more possibilities and a fifth player are added into a game which stretches across the eons and a few hours of play.
  • Slaughtering the undead through an apocalyptic wasteland again doesn’t sound very holiday-like, Zombicide is a great collaborative game of survivors versus mobs of zombies. Like my formative dungeon-crawling adventures with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, Zombicide follows a party as they collect weapons and other survival items, level up in ability and accomplish missions. The game quickly goes from bad to worse over a couple hours, and working together as a group is the only way of surviving.
  • One of my favorite multi-hour games is Arkham Horror, based on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. This is a big, beautiful game set in a sleepy New England Town inexplicably invaded by netherworld beasts. Adventurers team up, acquire weapons and magical items and seek to destroy the beasts who threaten the world with dominating insanity and destruction. Events, monsters and player characters all come with a deep narrative that unfolds throughout the game, taking this game off the board into a terrifically eerie role-playing experience.
  • While not a long time commitment, the card-driven Marvel Superheroes Legendary is best played in a big group of superhero players teaming up to foil the evil plans of an arch nemesis. Another collaborative game, Legendary really “feels” like a comic book to me with various hero characters growing in power and skills which play off the other characters on their team, whether it be the X-Men, Avengers or Fantastic Four. My brother and I have been huge Marvel Comics fans for decades, so getting into a game which has characters leaping from the page to the table is still as much of a thrill for us in our late 40s as it is for our kids.

Every family has their holiday traditions, and each generation builds on these and creates their own new traditions. Games remain a constant thread for my extended family through the holiday run from Thanksgiving through Christmas. The themes, mechanics and mechanics may have changed over the years, but at the root of our gaming is the chance to spend a few hours playing with those closest to us. This Thanksgiving, step away from the screens, clear the table and find your own gaming tradition with your family and friends.

New Game Weekend: New York 1901

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I’ve been a fan of old buildings for pretty much my whole life, having grown up working for my family’s historic building renovation company. I took my childhood experience of working with 19th-and-early-20th-century buildings off to graduate school and got a master’s degree at the Eastern Michigan University Historic Preservation program in the early 1990s. While eventually landing working in digital media in NYC, I spent a ton of time along the way with various internships with venerable organizations like the National Trust For Historic Preservation and the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

NYCSkylinePostcardMy panoramic NYC vintage postcard from a Brooklyn flea market

Even though my professional pursuits have moved away from old buildings, they remain a keen interest of mine. I’ve collected a fair number of books about the history of New York’s urban environment and some nice postcards of the old city, including a nifty folding panoramic vintage postcard of the old Gotham skyline view from my adopted borough of Brooklyn (above). My everyday life in New York City surrounds my in a wondrous timeline of architectural and engineering marvels. And so as a gamer, New York 1901 allows me to live through the early days of this history right from the comfort of my tabletop.

IMG_6843New York 1901 game in progress

A big hit at GenCon 2015, New York 1901 by Blue Orange Games places up to four players in the roles of early real estate developers at the southern tip of Manhattan at the dawn of the 20th-century. New York 1901 is the first foray into Euro-style strategy games from Blue Orange which is best known for family, educational and party games. The game hits the right notes of strategy, ease of play and short game time creating a great balance for players of all ages who may already be steeped in modern classics like Settlers of Catan and Ticket To Ride.

IMG_6844A player’s set-up in New York 1901

In the game, each player takes turns as burgeoning real estate developer (including a couple female roles) acquiring building lots, placing workers and erecting buildings. The lots occupy the lower Manhattan grid laced with famed streets bordering colored lots. At the beginning of the game, a ‘marketplace’ of four lot cards is set next to the board. In turn, players have two options. First, they may select a new lot and place worker to claim the lot on the board. Alternatively, a player may remove a worker or workers on contiguous lots to build a new building or demolish an existing building and construct a new one. Buildings come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including straight, square, rectangular, ell-shaped or other more complex shapes. The structures also represent three separate progressions of age — bronze, silver and gold. The combination of color and building shape gives each building a point value which is scored on the track at the edge of the board. Only once certain levels of points are achieved may a player begin to play the next color category of buildings.

IMG_6845New York 1901 Legendary Skyscraper tiles

Like real estate development in actual New York, constructing a new building may involve demolishing earlier buildings to replace them with new, larger and higher-valued structures. Multiple buildings on adjacent lots may also be torn down to allow for even larger buildings to be built. Once the gold level of buildings is reached, players may also select from four unique high-scoring ‘legendary skyscraper’ tiles, including the Metropolitan Life, Park Row, Singer and Woolworth buildings, and then mark the building with their own trophy piece marking the achievement as a master builder. Special action cards allow players to perform one-off acts like acquiring two lots at once or constructing two buildings in the same turn. The game ends when a player first depletes their building tile stock, and final bonus scoring is made according to random cards defining building dominance along prominent streets or other combinations of construction feats.

IMG_6846Workers and building tiles rise on lots in New York 1901

Fitting the buildings onto lots gives New York 1901 a spatial puzzle-like quality many have compared to Tetris. To me, the action of occupying lots and erecting buildings to block other players from doing the same gives the game a feel more akin to Cathedral. The combination of worker placement, area control and card play combine to touch on multiple major game mechanics, again making this a great intro game for newcomers and a quick, satisfying play for more experienced players.

IMG_6847A player builds the Metropolitan Life building and scores 12 points

While the game rests many popular mechanics, New York 1901 departs from many games in the Euro genre with a dazzling design of building tiles depicting graphics looking very much like the vintage postcards I collect. Steeped in history and the grid of New York’s Financial District, the game also serves as a creative potential jumping off point for families and school groups to learn more about the city’s history or tour some of the sites away from the game board of New York 1901.

News 12 Brooklyn Visits Metropolitan Wargamers

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I was fortunate to be elected as President of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY a few months back, having been a visitor and then a member for much of the past ten years. Our club occupies a private basement space on a quiet residential street in the heart of historic Park Slope. Members have 24/7 access to the space, and the walls are lined with shelves holding all manner of miniatures and board games covering just about every scale and genre imaginable. We meet up to game practically every day of the week, and our weekends can see board games and miniatures scenarios playing out on our multiple tables, including several sand tables. The games we play can last ten minutes to ten months. Our membership spans a large age group of early 20s to mid-70s, and we hail from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. What our membership has shared in over three decades of existence is a passion for gaming, and Metropolitan Wargamers continues to be one of the premier gaming spaces in New York City.

Recently, we were visited by a News 12 Brooklyn reporter who captured just a little bit of the flavor of our corner of the New York City gaming universe.

If you’re interested in joining our group, please register at our NYC Wargamers Yahoo group, introduce yourself and come by to play a game.

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New Game Weekend: The Battle Of Bushy Run

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The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 was less than satisfactory for many of the participants, especially the Native American tribes which had been entwined in decades of alliances with British and French forces. After losing their attachment to their longtime French allies in the Great Lakes Region, many Indian tribes were angered by the post-war British policies which aggressive opened white settlement to the Ohio Territory (present day Western Pennsylvania and Ohio), Illinois Country (portions of present day Illinois, Indiana and Michigan) and wider Great Lakes Region (including present day Western New York). British promises to continue the flow of gifts to the tribes in the region were also cut back, further angering the Native peoples who had become dependent on European trade goods over the years.

Feeling duped by British colonial rule, a confederation of more than a dozen tribes rose up in a unified force led by Ottawa leader Pontiac (among other tribal leaders in the region). In the spring of 1763, groups of white settlers and multiple British forts and in the disputed territories were attacked. After the destruction of several smaller forts and an unsuccessful siege at Fort Detroit, another at Fort Pitt also occurred. With a British relief column en route from the east, many of the Indians at Fort Pitt broke off to the meet the British. What resulted was the Battle of Bushy Run on August 5-6, 1763.

IMG_6397MMP’s Special Ops Issue #5 from September 2014

Multi-Man Publishing is best known for it’s 20th-century wargames (including the classic Advanced Squad Leader), but the September 2014 issue of their Special Ops magazine contains a nifty little game for the Battle of Bushy Run. Packed into just four pages of rules, 88 cardboard counters and two beautiful maps, MMP’s presentation of the two-day battle in the thick woods of Western Pennsylvania is an incredibly satisfying game.

IMG_6392Indian and British force counters for MMP’s Battle of Bushy Run

IMG_6395Fire and random turn event markers for MMP’s Battle of Bushy Run

I had a chance to punch and play a new copy of the game this past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. Giving the game it’s first spin with me was a fellow club member who is an instructor at a local college and an expert in 18th-century North American colonial warfare. The playing counters have tidy artwork and are divided into force chips and a variety of other game markers. The British force markers depict the various historic units at the battle with values for strength and movement and step losses. A supply wagon piece provides the path of victory for the British looking to move it off the board and onward to relieve Fort Pitt. Special British scout markers also play as a way to counteract the nature of how the Indian force markers work in the game.

IMG_6386Indian hidden movement map

The Indian force markers display the various tribes present at Bushy Run, and each have an identical strength and movement value. Each also has just one step loss, but the way they work in the game does not reward the Indian player for simply standing to fight against the British. Along with the larger game map where the British column begins fully deployed, the Indians deploy on a smaller hidden map. Throughout the game, the Indian player may move their units from one map to the other as they attack, hide or come back concealed. Additionally, some Indian pieces are dummy markers which can add an additional layer of confusion for the British player struggling to see where their enemy are. These simple markers and the double maps helps to create a fantastic simulation of the challenge of the regular British troops in fighting Indians fading in and out of the woods with harassing attacks. Since movement is by the area, each with it’s own defensive equal for both sides, choosing where and when to fight is important for the British and Indians alike.

IMG_6389MMP’s The Battle of Bushy Run in progress

Further adding to the unpredictability of the frontier fight is a series of random turn events which can potentially benefit each side in a turn. With the British objective of getting their wagon off the board, the European force must balance choices on when to move, when to engage the surrounding Indian forces and when to stand still to take a round of volley fire. The Indians must capture the wagon using a force which lacks the military superiority of the British, but make up for it in their ability to appear, disappear, move and reappear throughout the battle. Indian casualties can mount quickly under British fire, and the Redcoats can also win by eliminating 14 Indian units.

Our first game resulted in a narrow victory for the British, just wheeling their wagon off the board as the final mass of surviving Indians closed in on all sides. We found the British scouts to be pretty ineffective, but they didn’t hinder the game either. My Indian casualties were high, owing to my more aggressive early game engagement with the British as I worked out how effective the concealed and hidden movement could be. The British also learned some lessons by probably sitting still a turn or two too long, standing and awaiting to fire on the encroaching Indians rather than hustling their column forward from the get-go. For a tiny game depicting a small battle in a largely forgotten period of conflict in Colonial American history, MMP’s The Battle of Bushy Run is a tactical and historical thrill.

A Milestone at Brooklyn Wargaming

100KviewsThis week, this site rolled past 100,000 views and 56,000 visitors since its launch in July 2013. While Brooklyn Wargaming is by no means one of the more popular gaming sites out there, I am constantly pleased I garner so many visitors every day around the world coming to check out what’s new with me and my hobby.

Over the past few years, I written over 200 posts, played over 100 games, paid visits to numerous historic sites and museums, modeled a lot of terrain and painted a ton of miniatures. My blog has served as not only a diary of my gaming passion, but also as a way to share my love for this stuff with people who have visited my site from almost every country on the planet.

Here are some lessons learned and observations about blogging about gaming over the past two years:

Be Early

One of my earliest successes was from a post I wrote about the passing of famed wargamer and author Donald Featherstone in the autumn of 2013. Just as the story was breaking on the morning of September 4, 2013 in Europe, I noticed there wasn’t a lot of coverage in the United States as of yet. I work for a company that works partially in breaking news, so I know the value of being first to a story. By the end of the day, my traffic had spiked to nearly 200 visitors, by far the best day for my site which had just launched a couple months before.

Be Timely

As a historical wargamer, posts which tie in with anniversaries of particular battles and campaigns are great generators of traffic. My best examples are the two articles I wrote about modelling the Guards Armoured Division during Market Garden. Many months after originally posting them, the Flames of War website made the two posts featured articles in their weekly site update celebrating the anniversary of Market Garden. Traffic flooded in and each have seen about 3000 reads over their lifetime.

Be Unique

Now and then I write about my early years of gaming with my Retro Gaming the 70s & 80s series. In these posts, I look back at games from my childhood and teen years when I was just becoming passion about the hobby. Often times, these posts are love letters to obscure games which appeal to only certain people. While many of these articles get just a few views from my nostalgic visitors, I’ve been surprised that my piece on Crossbows and Catapults has become a popular post day in and day out since it was published in July 2014.

The Crossbows and Catapults article lingered in obscurity for a few months, but several months later the traffic started picking up. Since then, this piece has been getting about five reads a day. I find this to be an interesting stat given the game is not especially well-remembered nor is it played much today. What I think makes the post strong is that it is one of the few comprehensive articles about the game you can find online. The article contains a detailed history of the game and its subsequent editions plus lots of photos and scans of the original rules included in the game. Other sites have linked to the article over time, directing traffic to my site daily with people with fond memories for this game. Unwittingly, my written childhood memories have now become a go-to article online for Crossbows and Catapults.

Be Instructive

As a hobbyist, some of my favorite articles online fall into the ‘how-to’ category. It shouldn’t be surprising then that my posts which outline detailed descriptions, step-by-step guides and lots of illustrative photos are among my most popular. Over time, I’ve added more in-process descriptions and pictures of my painting and modelling projects, garnering traffic day in and day out. Whether it’s modelling 15mm Western European terrain, micro armor projects or my recent build of Pegasus Bridge in 15mm, these ‘how-to’ posts are visited multiple times day after day. The great thing about a solid, detailed instructional post is they have long ‘evergreen’ lives as both new and old hobbyists alike seek reference posts as they work their own projects.

Be Connected

People don’t find stuff online on their own, so connecting my blog to like-minded folks is an important way to get others to read my posts. Posting modelling projects and after action reports links to The Miniatures Page is the number one generator of outside traffic for my site. After that, connecting posts to various groups, museum, historic site and manufacturer pages on Facebook is the second best way to find readers. Facebook also gives the most ego-boosting immediate feedback as the likes, shares and comments flow with almost every post. Posting my articles directly to forums on manufacturer websites, like Flames of War and GHQ, also drive pretty significant views from people invested in a particular niche of the hobby. As a member and president of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, my posts also flow directly to the club’s homepage for current and prospective members to check out. I also use my Twitter account and have dabbled in Reddit, although each of these only see a trickle of visitors to the site. It’s a bit of work, but I definitely need to push my social media connectivity to keep my traffic boosted.

Getting to the next 100,000 visits…

So, with this first milestone at Brooklyn Wargaming, I’m asking myself where I go next. I’m certainly going to be continuing to post projects on a regular basis, and I’d like to break into miniatures of more eras beyond my core interest in World War II. I’m going to keep bringing reviews and plays through new board games to the site as I’m introduced to them. I’d also like to get into more feature articles, and I’ve got a few ideas churning away in the back of my head.

As a kid originally from a tiny rural Western New York town who’s been pushing little miniatures around tables and rolling dice for over thirty years, I’m grateful to my tens-of-thousands of readers who have come to my site over the past two years. Keep checking out the site, and, if you’re ever in Brooklyn, let’s play a game.

Gaming In The Shelfie Era

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Photography has been a personal and professional interest of mine for more than twenty years. One particular area of photography that has long fascinated me is frontier photography of the United States. I was turned on to the period in the 1973 classic Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy which frames a late 19th-century town’s life in photos ranging from the deeply personal to the macabre. Given the complexity and expense of early photography, I’ve always thought of the personal, logistical and financial choices made in people capturing images in the late 19th through early 20th century.

Photographs of American frontier people and their possessions have always held a big pull for me. In the photo at top (from the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Prairie Settlement collection) a family has chosen to hire a photographer to document them on the new frontier. Aside from the family in the foreground, the photo is filled with possessions. What the family owns occupies more than three-quarters of the photo — land, cattle, horses, mules, hogs, wagons and a prominently placed piano right in the middle of the family. So large are the family’s holdings the photographer has needed to climb to the top of a hill or perch on a ladder to take it all in with a shot taken from a godlike point of view from above. The photo conveys much including survival and success not only with the portrait of the family itself but in the wider portrait defining the family by what they own.

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A picture of another Nebraskan family from the same period (above) puts what is among their most valuable possessions — a team of horses — on an equal plain with the family. One of the family’s cattle stands above them all on the sod house’s roof, a quirky accident placing the ownership of livestock not only on equal par but above the family in terms of importance. A table decorated with a blanket has also been hauled out of the home and set with food, and it appears some celebration is being documented. The family’s possessions — the house, the animals and the land — dominate the photo. As with other frontier photos of the period, the celebration of success is what’s captured in the photo. It provides a document that says, “Here we are. Here’s our stuff. We’ve made it.”

PhotoBooksPhoto books of people and their possessions by Peter Menzel and Gabriele Galimberti

People, and seemingly Americans in particular, have a long tradition of defining themselves by what they own. From the 19th-century frontier until relatively recently, photos of what we own have largely been for the benefit of ourselves and perhaps the closest of family and friends. In the era of mass self-documentation of even the most mundane activities, meals, possessions and “selfies” distributed through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit and other social media platforms, what people own is now widely available for all to visually consume. Some sites critical of the trend, such as Rich Kids of Instagram, point out the more absurd edges of what we’ve all come to accept as just another part of our digital day-to-day. Photojournalists have taken a more documentary approach in such series as Material World: A Global Family Portrait, Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World and Their Favorite Things and Personified: A Photo Series on People and Possessions. It’s clear for many of us, we are what we own.

Last year I became highly aware of the trend among my own gaming subculture. Many of the online groups I had joined to share historic knowledge, miniature modelling techniques, learn about game industry news or discuss rules were quickly filling up with a photos of people’s stuff. As a subset of the “selfie,” the “shelfie” is popular among gamers as a way of showing just how committed they are to the hobby the the sheer size of their collections. Some of the photographed collections border on historical archives of out-of-print games collected over decades in the hobby. More often than not though, many of the photos appear to be presented with a flair of a “top this” subtext or alternately a “this is all I have” apology to the virtual crowd. Things amped up during the past winter holiday season with a torrent of online photographs posted to gaming sites I frequent depicting a virtual arms race of heaps of games received as gifts or bought for themselves.

BNRedDotThe Barnes & Noble “red dot” clearance sale is wildly popular with gamers

This spring the US-based bookseller Barnes & Noble is running what I quickly came to learn was an annual 50%-off game clearance sale, and there was enormous online gamer excitement and chatter in the weeks leading up to the event. Gamers plotted elaborate routes to multiple locations, connected with employees for inside connections, shared inventory reconnaissance (or lack thereof) and even concocted complex plans of buying from one store and returning at another store for a higher value of store credit (an idea not supported by many online). Others, living far away from a B&N store, lamented jealously they were being left out of the sales rush. As the sale period progressed, complaints also arose in a mix of comments on poor local selections or having to settle on buying something the person didn’t really want. Buying something — anything — was critical to many, lest a gamer somewhere feel left out during the sale. In the weeks following, photos of “the haul” have appeared in social media displaying stacks of games purchased (often in multiple copies for gifts or re-sale). Again, photos and shopping stories were met with comments ranging from congratulatory to jealousy to the feelings that this was simply another example of how life isn’t fair.

The emotions wrapped around photographic documentation of the acquisition of games are not limited to the holidays or special sales by corporate retailers. People who post pictures and tales of finding bargain second-hand games in local thrift stores are likewise met with digital slaps on the back or lamentations that some people’s thrift stores are unjustly better than others. Reviews of gaming conventions are increasingly dedicated to celebration or criticism of purchasing opportunities, and in the past year I’ve seen an increasing number of photos showing not only the fabulous games played at a convention but also of all the stuff a person managed to buy while there.

IMG_3025My own “shelfie” taken in mid-2014

I’m a lifelong collector of many things, including comics, books, model trains, music, toys and, yes, games. My comic book collection paid for a lot of my college education. My parents are collectors, too. So was my grandmother. I have great memories and stories about an insane find at a flea market, working for years to track down a long-sought item or hours of relaxed browsing through dust boxes at a yard sale. It’s in my blood — I love collecting.

Gamers I’ve known for decades are also more often than not cut from similar collector cloth. There’s always something new to buy – a board game expansion, a new army to paint, a campaign module, a new edition of rules or the latest hot release. The hobby naturally attracts collectors. I know people with more games than they will ever play or even open for that matter. I also know people who are no less passionate as gamers with small collections of games.

Within the endless stream of online photographs and stories of consumer victory and defeat in the gamer community, there’s a lot of personal information that rises to the surface from comments. Couples have babies or get divorced. Jobs are lost and others find new careers with richer paychecks. People relocate for a variety of reasons, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. Some owe taxes or are buried in household bills while others spend their hefty refunds or max out credit cards. Narratives vary, priorities shift, lives are lived and another game is purchased.

Like most games, life has a time limit. We do what we can to play the game right and by the rules, celebrating our victories along the way (sometimes with a bit too much passion) and hopefully learning from our mistakes. Like those families struggling to show in photographs how they had made a life on the 19th-century American frontier, we all want to show we’re not only surviving but thriving. The photos of shelves and hauls gamers share (again, sometimes with a bit too much passion) may possibly just be the way we’re all trying desperately to communicate, “Here I am. Here’s my stuff. I made it.”

New Game Weekend: Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

ZPrisonboxIt’s hard to escape zombies.

The Walking Dead TV series just wrapped its fifth season this past week, and my entire family huddled around the television to see where the story would leave us until our favorite survivors of the zombie apocalypse were back again. Until then, there’s a spin-off series called Fear The Walking Dead premiering this summer which tell the tale of the beginnings of the zombie outbreak from the perspective of a different group of survivors in Los Angeles. There’s also the original monthly Image Comics series (currently at 139 issues) I’ve been reading for more than ten years now for a story that both parallels and differs from the story the TV show portrays. There’s certainly plenty of zombie stuff out there to keep me going.

zombiboxAbout two years ago I also got hooked on Zombicide. Lots of people caught the bug, judging by the continued success of the game. The first game launched based on a nearly $800,000 Kickstarter funding campaign in late 2012. The following year, Zombicide Season 2 brought in over $2.25 million on the funding site. This past summer, Zombicide Season 3 topped that number with nearly $2.9 million raised. The maker of the game, Guillotine Games, has also maintained a steady flow of additional special edition products, a companion app, free customizable game resources and dozens of scenarios available online. With the new Zombicide Season 3 just being shipped to players worldwide this month, there’s even been hints at a Season 4 which throws back to a Medieval-themed zombie outbreak.

ZprisonminisSurvivors, berserker zombies and zombies miniatures from Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

The base game has been a big favorite at my house for a couple years, and this past week we added Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak to our home collection. As with the original base game, Prison Outbreak is big heavy box of zombie gaming goodness. Nine game two-sided game board tiles, about 150 cards, over 100 tokens, dice, Survivor player cards and 90 miniatures pack the box with components oozing in great design.

IMG_5680 “The Break-In” tutorial scenario from Prison Outbreak

This time around, the game adds a bunch of new aspects to play. Firstly, the miniatures come with some differences for both the zombies and survivors. Berserker zombies, cast in a muddy brown, bring a new aspect to the undead horde with Walkers, Runners, Fatties and an Abomination which must be attacked at close quarters in melee combat. This means more risk for players having to get right into a messy scrum with Berserkers using baseball bats, nightsticks, hatchets, hammers or saws, leaving ranged firearms for the original zombies molded in grey plastic like the base game.

IMG_5710The zombie horde in the “Find The Keys” scenario from Prison Outbreak

With the game amped up with more danger, the players too have received an upgrade with the possibility of coming back as Zombivors. Yeah, that’s an undead player which comes with an extra model and reverse side to the Survivor identity card. After a player is hit twice and killed by a zombie, the Zombivor comes on the table and the player fights on and may take five more wounds before truly being dead.

IMG_5708Grindlock goes toe-to-toe with a Berserker Abomination in “Find The Keys”

Things happen a lot faster in Prison Break as players are forced to quickly rack up zombie kills, pushing the experience level up in the game and spawning more and badder zombies onto the board each turn. To help out, a lot of new special skills have been added to the Survivors, allowing players to draw zombies toward them with “Taunt,” rescue other survivors from neighboring spaces with “Lifesaver” and a bunch of other new abilities once a player turns into a Zombivor.

IMG_5711The Survivors poised to make their escape in Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak

The combination of new weapons and skills balances nicely with the new threats from Berserkers in Prison Outbreak. Playing through the first few of the ten scenarios supplied in a storyline campaign, we’ve quickly found a good combination of using skills to draw zombies into close combat with characters armed with hefty melee weapons like the concrete saw while defending with nightsticks and riot shields. In a pinch, a molotov cocktail can still take out a mass of undead in one throw, but the game only amps up with so many points scored with one huge kill. Balancing skills, finding the right weapons, getting them into the best Survivor’s hands, timing when to kill and when to elude zombies, and making the decision to allow a character to die and resurrect as a Zombivor all makes Zombicide Season 2 an enormous amount of high-stakes fun over and over again.

New Game Weekend: The Battle Of The Five Armies

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Like so many of my generation, J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories from the page to the screen to the game table and back again have shaped much of my life. As a fantasy-steeped child of the 1970s standing on the threshold of a lifetime of gaming and Tolkien fandom, The Hobbit (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978) cartoons were my first intros to the mythos of Middle-Earth. From there, I began my own journey of swords, sorcery and funny-shaped dice with Dungeons & Dragons. In my teen and college years, I plowed through Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit books. After traveling through many pages and countless paper and pencil campaigns, Peter Jackson’s trilogy of The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003) turned another whole generation (including my own young kids) on to the story that became a worldwide phenomenon anew. Around the same time, I leaped into Game Workshop’s Lord of the Rings miniatures game and spent a fair amount of time re-fighting the battles of Middle-Earth on the tabletop in miniature. Ten more years on, Jackson returned to the prequel story of The Hobbit with An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). So, not coincidentally, gaming in the realm of hobbits, orcs, wizards and elves has also returned for a time.

hobbit5armiesposterThe Battle Of The Five Armies dominates the final movie from Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings and Hobbit franchises

Over four decades, I’ve come around again and again to the Battle of the Five Armies in the late-70s cartoon, my worn copy of The Hobbit, Jackson’s final blockbuster movie of last year and now with the 2014 re-issue of The Battle Of The Five Armies board game by Ares Games. The epic battle between the loose alliance of the Free Peoples of men, dwarves and elves and the evil Shadow Armies of orcs and goblins at the foot of the Lonely Mountain is a story etched into my imagination and that of many of my friends since an early age. This past week I sat down at the table with a fellow member of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY for a learning game and to meet as the forces of good and evil for control of Middle-Earth.

IMG_5479The Battle of the Five Armies begins

The two-player Battle Of The Five Armies retails for $89.99 USD but can be found online for about $60 USD, an incredible deal for a big box packed with fantastic components. The game contains 125 well-sculpted plastic miniatures depicting dwarves, men, elves and eagles of the Free Peoples in blue and goblins, orcs, warg riders and bats from the Shadow Armies in a ghastly red. Nine hero characters from the battle — Bard, Beorn, Bolg, Bilbo Baggins, Dain, Gandalf, the Elven King, Lord of the Eagles and Thorin — are each represented with an unique silver miniature and a character card outlining their special heroic abilities. Action and combat dice, numerous cardboard counters, dozens of Event, Fate and Story cards and a simple game board presenting the plains and mountains of the battlefield round out a greatly designed game.

The game begins on the eve of the battle with the Shadow Armies swarming in the mountains while the allied elves, men and dwarves work to create defensive position from the impending onslaught. Turns progress along a Fate track with the forces of evil racing to capture territory equaling ten points before time elapses or the Free Peoples are able to repel the Shadow Armies attack with the arrival of reinforcements or surprise allies like the Eagles from Misty Mountains or the ferocious shape-shifting man-bear Beorn.

IMG_5480The Shadow Armies and Free Peoples fight at the Eastern Spur

In each round, a single Story and Event card is drawn by each player up to a maximum hand size of six cards. The Free Peoples player then chooses to activate up to three hero characters in the round, allowing for extra recruits to appear, special magic attacks from the wizard Gandalf or a hail of arrows from the Elf King. Depending on the number of heroes activated, the Free Peoples player then also places Leadership tokens with some of their units. The Shadow Armies player then randomly selects Fate tiles to advance the Fate track, choosing as many tiles as the Free Peoples player chose to activate. Once the Fate track hits certain levels, additional heroes may appear in the game, bolstering the defenses of good. Thus, the Shadow Armies player needs to race against the Fate track to move and attack quickly and mercilessly before the Free Peoples can string together enough of a defense to win the day.

IMG_5481Gandalf releases a fireball from Ravenhill on the Shadow Armies in the distance

Dice and cards propel the action of the game. Each player throws a set of special Action dice, each depicting a specific type of activation within their turn — Character, Army, Muster, Muster/Army, Event and Will Of The West for the Free Peoples or Lidless Eye for the Shadow Armies. Beginning with the Free Peoples player, each chooses an Action die and resolves a given action. For example, an Army action allows a player to move or attack with armies or play a Character Event or Story card, and a Muster action allows recruitment or rally of armies or the play of a Muster Event or Story card. When a combat occurs, players collect their available unit cards into their hand and then roll dice based on the Combat ratings of their units. Along the way, other cards may be played to create specific events like dealing extra damage or negating leadership abilities. Terrain also plays a role in specific unit effectiveness during battle.

IMG_5485The Shadow Armies mass for a late game attack on the Free Peoples

Like many strategy games, The Battle Of The Five Armies becomes one of timing and getting the right cards, actions and forces in play. In our first learning game, the Shadow Armies quickly built up their horde and raged forward with fierce waves from the north and northeast. A heroic defense of the Eastern Spur by Lakemen fell to the orcs and their wargrider allies, and many dwarves also met their final end in a battle at Camp near the Front Gate. Gandalf held off the orcs and goblins to the west with a ranged fireball hurled from Ravenhill, saving the elven forces at the Fallen Bridge from imminent attack. As the Fate track moved in the late game to the eighth position, the Eagles were able to swoop down from their mountain aerie and attack the Shadow Armies in four areas, stalling the advance of evil. The Shadow Armies regrouped as additional recruits were placed throughout the realms defended by the Free Peoples. The Fate marker moved into the eleventh stage, releasing Beorn who sat at the southern border ready to wreak havoc on the encroaching Shadow Armies. Although many Free Peoples had fallen during the battle, the Shadow Armies weren’t close enough to strike a final fatal blow, and Middle-Earth remained free at the close of the game.

Our first game of The Battle Of The Five Armies, epic as it was, clocked in at over three hours as we got a hang of the rules. Lessons learned included the need for the Shadow Armies to always be on the attack since the arrival of more allies of the Free Peoples spells almost certain defeat for the forces of evil. Studying over the various cards and their effects, used by themselves or in combination, is also a big part of becoming an effective commander on either side of the battle.

Famously, Tolkien’s description of the Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit spans less than ten pages tucked in near the end of the book. For the two of us players, what we felt most from the game was how true it was to that short text and the pictures and the legends filling our imaginations over many, many years.

New Game Weekend: King of New York

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As the blog states, I’m a New Yorker (a Brooklynite to be exact), so playing a game based in my city of residence is always a plus. Prancing around a game board depicting the five boroughs as a towering, cartoonish monster with a nasty temper is even better. And so, King of New York hits the sweet spot for me as a gamer and occasionally cranky denizen of the city that never sleeps.

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Sample monsters from King of New York

Released late in 2014 by IELLO Games, KONY is a follow-up standalone game to the popular King of Tokyo from 2011. KONY expands on KOT but it is not an expansion but a largely different game based on a similar premise and set of dice and card mechanics. Each of the 2-6 players chooses to be a gargantuan monster represented by a cardboard stand up figure and a scoring card. The monsters begin the game in one of the four outer boroughs with no more than two monsters allowed per borough. Within each borough are placed three stacks of three cardboard tiles each depicting buildings on one side and military units (jeeps, tanks and jet planes) on the reverse.

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Sample cards from King of New York

A new set of six special dice are rolled by each player on their turn with faces for healing, attacks on other monsters, attacks on buildings, military attacks on monsters, energy cubes and victory point stars. Players roll the dice up to three times, keeping those dice they wish on each roll and re-rolling the rest. With the resulting dice, monsters resolve a number of actions. Buildings may be wrecked to earn healing points, victory points or energy cubes to purchase cards. Destroyed buildings flip over to reveal jeeps, tanks or jets which may attack other monsters in the same borough or across the board. Accumulated cubes are used to buy cards to provide permanent or one-time effects on monsters. Regular attacks take swipes at the other monsters on the board or the current “King of New York” romping northward through Manhattan. Monsters occupying Manhattan can remain on the island and earn victory points and energy cubes each turn or jump out to be replaced by an attacking monster. The first monster to earn 20 victory points wins the game to be crowned King of New York.

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A recent game of King of New York

There’s a lot more going on in KONY than its predecessor. New dice and the building and military unit chips add options and flavor to play. Two new special cards — Super Star and Statue of Liberty — add extra mechanics to the game as cards earned through dice rolls and then swiped by other players who also roll specific results on subsequent turns. The rest of the cards can be a bit overly wordy at times yet they pump up the interest by utilizing a lot of familiar New York landmarks like Columbia University, the Unisphere in Queens, Carnegie Hall, the Holland Tunnel, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Coney Island in Brooklyn and the infamous New York City Subway. Even with the new additions, KONY plays fast and fun with all ages.

If you’re a fan of King of Tokyo, giant monster films like the Godzilla series and board games set in New York City, King of New York is a towering success.

New Game Weekend: Fire In The Lake

FITLBox

I sometimes forget that I was born during the Vietnam War, one of the more complicated military conflicts in American history. In April 2015 we’ll be sitting 40 years after the fall of Saigon and the pullout of American involvement in the region’s conflict which began in the mid-1950s. To mark the occasion, the US government has quietly launched a special 50th anniversary Vietnam War Commemoration website this past year. Decades later, the complicated legacy of Vietnam continues to reverberate as even the website has proven to be controversial.

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Game set-up for the Fire In The Lake 1965-67 beginner’s scenario

Having played a few games of Cuba Libre over the past year, I’ve finally had a chance to dive into another in the COIN Series from GMT Games this fall with the Vietnam War themed Fire In The Lake. The counterinsurgency (COIN) games focusing on modern conflicts have fast become new favorites among a lot of us at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY, and since the summer a core group at the club have been working through multiple games of FITL and getting a decent handle of this richly complex game.

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Sample cards from Fire In The Lake

Like other games in the series, FITL uses a card-activation mechanic to drive the game among the competing factions of US forces and US-allied South Vietnamese ARVN counterinsurgency and the insurgent northern NVA and Viet Cong guerrillas and regulars. Cards provide turn order at the top of each with a symbol for each faction. Each player chooses to use the Event on a drawn active card, conduct an Operation and/or possibly also conduct a Special Activity related to the Operation. Operations include such things as Rally or Train (recruiting troops, irregulars and/or building bases); March, Patrol or Sweep (to move and expose and/or remove guerillas), Assault or Attack (to remove enemies); and, Terror (to effect support and opposition). Adding in Special Activities such as the VC’s Tax and Subvert, the devastating Air Strike from the US, Ambush and Infiltrate from the NVA and the ARVN’s Govern and Raid makes for a powerful set of player actions.

The card text contains effects beneficial to the US and ARVN COIN players at the top and NVA and VC events in a shaded box at the bottom. Events can produce either immediate benefit to the player using the card or a negative result to another player, so a player might choose to act on a card’s Event merely to prevent another player from using the Event. Keeping an eye on turn order and the next available card also drives decisions, as one player’s choice can limit or enable the next choice available to the following players. Every nine cards contains a random Coup card which pauses play for a round of faction-specific series of phases whereby resources are gained, troops are redeployed, pieces are reset and victory conditions are checked.
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FITL Support/Opposition, Control and US, NVA, ARVN and VC Victory track markers

Each of the four groups has their own path to winning the game with victory points scored at the edges of the board on a track that also marks Resources, Aid and Patronage levels. The VC score by shifting the population of provinces toward opposition and constructing bases while the somewhat allied NVA win through gaining population control and creating bases. The ARVN player gains points through population control and earning patronage from the population of the cities and provinces. The United States wins through shifting support and building up the number of available bases and troops (reflecting a victorious withdrawal of the military from Vietnam).

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Another FITL game in progress this week

The combination of random turn order, Events, Operations and Special Activities creates a dizzying amount of variation to how a FITL game plays out over a few hours. With many interdependent actions and victory conditions, an unpredictable stack of Event cards and uncertainly timed Coup scoring rounds, Fire In The Lake makes returning to Vietnam again and again a most worthy choice.
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