Game Storm 11 After-Action Report

by Chris French

Previous: The Encounter Log | Picofarad #17 contents | Next: Corflu and Cinematic Titanic

This con came as a bit of a surprise-not least because even a week before, I had no idea I was going to it. However, the important part (money) worked out, and I was not only able to attend, but I even had a room at the hotel. (Note to Game Storm: Your con rate was $106/night; the AAA member rate is $98/night; do the math, DW.)

Day One (Thursday)

As expected for the first half-day of a three-day convention (two full days, plus two half days), a good bit of the first day involved getting checked in to the hotel (Hilton's rapid check-in works if no one else is trying to check in...), getting one's stuff up to the room (in my case, the entire Wings of War product line-not heavy, but bad-bulky), and figuring out what one is going to do with the evening, besides eating.

On the subject of Food, a note to con hotels: The business types who typically use your facilities are made of money; gamers aren't; dial back the prices a bit, OK? The Subway across the park was doing land-office business all weekend-there is a reason for this. (That said, having hotel staff pulling carts with sodas and snacks on them was a good idea, which could stand emulation elsewhere).

I did manage to get in two games. The first was Ave Caesar by Asmodee, a chariot-racing game where a player draws cards from a deck to see how far he might be able to move next turn, and which requires players to pass through a single-lane section of track to "salute Caesar" (if you think this sounds remarkably like a Pit Stop...). Each side of the game board has a track, and each track has two possible configurations. I'd like to recommend this game, except it's just not that interesting. There's no way to plan strategy beyond "OK, are there enough open spaces ahead of me to move with the cards I have", the deck has barely enough movement points total to get a player through all three laps, and the scoring system shows the failings of a flat-rate points system-I finished last in the first race, and since each race paid the same, I had exactly zero chance at the overall win; meanwhile, the overall winner was able to coast home in the second race on the basis of his good finish in the first. If I wanted to play a game like that, Formula De is sitting on my shelf at home. Avoid this game.

After that debacle, I moved on to one of the dealer's tables, who had the BattleTech quick-start rules up and running. The notable feature of this, as compared to the full game, is that once one's armor is destroyed, so is that part of one's unit-no faffing about with internal structure or criticals. This does tend to end games rather quickly, especially when coupled to the game's rules about transferring damage to further-internal locations when an external bit is destroyed (that is: If an arm is shot off, the leftover damage transfers to the torso section to which the arm was connected; thus, damage is never "wasted"). The first game saw my opponent using a Move 8/12, advanced-tech-equipped 'Mech against my Move 4/6 basic-tech 'Mech-- do I need to tell you he mopped the floor with me? I illustrated this point by requesting a rematch, with our 'Mechs swapped; I then proceeded to not only mop the floor with him, but severely pissed him off by Not Blithely Charging Headlong Into His Guns-- in BattleTech, losing Initiative means it's time to run and hide.

There is a point to this, but it was hammered home the next day...

Day Two (Friday)

Ah-now the con "gets on the cam", so to speak. Everyone's here, everyone's set up, everyone's playing-and it's at this point we discover that acoustically this facility sucks like a V-12-powered vacuum cleaner. Any sound, no matter how trivial, was magnified to the point where one could be screaming directly into the ear of the person next to one, and still not be heard. Needless to say, this makes running a game properly appallingly difficult, and slows things down horribly.

None of this aided the game I was in-- a full-rules BattleTech game run by the same bunch as yesterday's game. The setup was ostensibly during the Liberation of Terra during the Amaris Wars; the Star League Defense Force (yay) trying to clear a landing zone of Rim Worlds Republic (boo) forces.

Bluntly, this was a wonderful example of how to not set up and run a game. First and foremost was Unit Selection-it isn't enough to merely balance point totals; one must keep in mind the actual capabilities of the units in question. Here I refer back to the previous day's game-by points, the Move 8/12 and the Move 4/6 'Mechs may be equal, but in reality (so to speak), the faster 'Mech is going to hand the slower one its head almost every time; bigger guns don't help if the slower unit never has a target. And in this day's scenario, the mismatch was even worse; most of the SLDF units couldn't hit anything much beyond 9 hexes (I know mine couldn't), and were substantially lighter than the RWR units across the table. The best I could manage with what I had was a lot of running and jumping, to ensure the RWR had lousy to-hit modifiers; and kicking to death one of their lighter units who made the mistake of getting too close.

Also, remember my earlier remarks about lousy acoustics? Try keeping movement order straight or coordinating tactics when it's impossible to hear who's doing what. I saw a game at another table which had a solution to this issue: A series of largish cards with numbers on them; each player received one to indicate in what order everyone moved, and as each player moved, the card was placed face-down on the table.

I don't really know how the game ended-after four hours of screaming myself hoarse, I became bored, and left. I like BattleTech, and always have (OK, Dark Age and ClickyTech didn't thrill me...), but the experience was ruined by the poor facilities and the blundering of the referees.

After getting food for myself, I decided to find an open table and park myself and my copy of Wings of War: Dawn of War there, and see if I could find an opponent. Instead, I found myself playing "Gamer Marriage Counselor"-- I ended up teaching the game to two different married couples. The first round, I decided to take it easy on the rookies, giving them Mitsubishi A6Ms (the "Zero", as it's better known) and myself Grumman F4Fs, and deliberately ignoring Jimmy Thach's dicta on fighter operations against the A6M-the First Rule of Teaching Games to Newbies is "Never Humiliate The Newbie"; it convinces him he'll never be good enough, and he won't bother to come back. So I let the two of them demolish the F4Fs (and even then, it took them forever to accomplish); they picked up the movement and combat rules quickly, and afterwards said it was a "good game". The second couple I gave a Dewoitine D.520 each (France's top-line fighter at the time they got steamrollered), one in Free French livery and one in Vichy colors, and let them fight the French Civil War. They also picked up the movement rules quickly-in fact, so quickly, I didn't really need to do much beyond make sure they didn't walk off with any of my stuff-and also took forever to kill each other (score one for the Free French, BTW); afterwards, they also complimented the game's ease of play. Whether or not this converted into sales, I don't know; however, it looked as though I might have converted a few more people to the game.

So, if any Fantasy Flight Games folk are reading this: You owe me.

On a side note: Later that night, as an Axis and Allies game was breaking up, several of us learned that it is possible to start a Pun War using geography-- it started with names of Canadian cities, worked across the Atlantic to European rivers, and ended up using the names of cities in the Netherlands. So now you know why that area is called "the Low Countries"...

It was 1 AM-what did you expect?

Day Three: Saturday

My Gamers for Personal Hygiene T-shirt and I made the rounds of the con floor, trying to find an Axis and Allies game I could get in on-I've seen it played at every con I've ever attended, yet to that date had never actually played it myself. I wished to fill this yawning gap in my gaming experience. I did manage to find a game with an opening, and made arrangements to be there.

Before that, though, there was a Wings of War game I wanted to play in. As long-time readers may recall, the last time I was in a WoW game at Game Storm, it went badly, through no fault of my own; this would have to be rectified. (Vengeful? Moi?) This time, I wound up on the German side, flying a Fokker Dr.I (the Dreidecker, or Triplane, of infamous memory-- no, it wasn't the Red One). Unusually for WoW games I'd played in, this one used the Altitude rules as well; so some consideration for the third dimension would be needed. Fortunately for me, the Dr.I has an impressive climb rate (a pity the same could not be said for its top speed). There was also a "respawn" rule; anyone shot down could return after three turns-- a rule which came in very handy for the other guy using a Dr.I, as he managed to draw the instant-death damage card twice in one game.

Not only did I manage to avenge the abysmal performance of the previous year, I managed to make "ace in a day" status (at least, in Allied terms), swatting the lady flying the Nieuport 11 twice; destroying a Sopwith Camel ("Curse you, Camouflage Baron!"); and killing two SPADs, including the one flown by the kid who'd come closest to matching my kill score (he'd scored four before receiving a four-A-deck salute from us Fokkers-- my first card finished him off, so I got the score); and all without being shot down myself-- in fact, I took exactly one hit the entire game (granted, that took out just under 1/3 of my damage points...). I felt cleansed.

That said: I'm still not enamored of the Dr.I-- it's just too darned slow. I spent most of the game trying to chase down that kid in the SPAD; he had an Engine damage critical hit which forced him to use a minimum-forward- movement card every turn, and I still couldn't keep up with him! This was, to say the least, annoying. Note to Fantasy Flight Games: I want my Hanriot HD.1 mini, darn it!

During an interval, I heard someone mention he was putting out a bunch of his old gaming stuff, and anyone who wanted something could take it. I came away with a replacement copy of my Wolf's Dragoons sourcebook for BattleTech, and the copy of Dragon with the infamous first set of rules for Tanks and Armored Cars (which is in most respects superior to the rubbish SJG actually printed). Score.

After dinner with the SO (who had turned up for the weekend section of the con), I moved on to my first Axis and Allies game ever. Fortunately, there were at least two other first-timers there as well, so perhaps any screwups on my part would be mitigated by their errors. The experienced hands were quite polite and helpful, giving me the time I needed to read the rules, figure out what was going on, and generally not look quite so newbie-ish.

Then it came time to draw for which nation we'd be playing-I got the USA, the economic powerhouse of the game. No pressure there, then... (The saving grace was the US always plays last in a turn, so I could watch the experienced hands and see the game being played before having to do anything myself.)

The Allied side went in with a plan-the USSR would be focus for Axis attacks, while the UK swept the Italians out of the Mediterranean, and the US [cough] built up its navy for an eventual assault on Japan. I'm not sure what the Axis plan was-but the game sure-as-hell didn't go according to it.

In reality, the Germans invaded Russia, and made it to the suburbs of Moscow before having to stop; in our game, the Germans barely made it out of Byelorussia. Meanwhile, a German invasion of Gibraltar was casually crushed by UK troops; the UK then blew Italy off the African continent. My role in this consisted of a suicide-bombing-run which demolished most of the Italian fleet at the cost of a mere two bombers and one fighter; the UK then finished off the Italian navy and moved into southeast Europe (for once, Churchill's "soft underbelly" nonsense actually worked).

This was as nothing compared to what was going on in the Far East, though.

The US player, in the edition we were using, also controls China's army. China's forces, to put it mildly, suck-- apart from a single US Fighter piece (representing the Flying Tigers; this unit can't be replaced if lost), China's forces consist entirely of Infantry, which score a hit on a 1 on 1d6. Meanwhile, the Japanese get Infantry, Armor, Fighters, Bombers, Subs, Destroyer, Cruisers, Battleships-- you get the idea. The job (in the more-common and the pro-wrestling senses of the term) of the Chinese is simply to slow Japan down until one of the major powers can come along to support it.

Under my control, China did not slow Japan down.

China stopped Japan dead in its tracks.

Right now, every A&A player who reads this is screaming "No way", or more-profane versions of same. Yet it happened-- China went on the offensive, attacked Japan's forces, and beat them-- TWICE. China actually retook territory; in fact, when the game ended, China controlled more territory than it started with (only one more territory, but still more than it started with). According to the A&A players I asked about this, this had never happened before in the history of the game. Next stop-- Milliways.

Coupled to this unprecedented kanchoing at China's hands was the utter failure of Japan's navy-- it took them three attacks to finally clear the US Navy out of Hawaii, and even then they never managed a landing (in fact, the extent of Japan's territorial gains at US expense were the Philippines-- as usual-- and Wake Island; and this failed to affect the income bonus the US got for Allied control of islands in the Pacific!). Even when Japan "won", it lost- Japan got the One Epic Naval Battle they'd been looking for, off the west coast of the US, and even succeeded in wiping out the US Pacific Fleet; however, Japan exited that battle with a single battleship, and a carrier with no aircraft. Oh, did I mention that I'd taken advantage of the Research and Development rules, and had acquired the ability to build ships at a discount? I could easily replace my losses-- a point I illustrated to him by cranking out seven submarines in one turn to go after his BB and CV (which couldn't attack the subs unless either the subs attacked first, or he had a Destroyer with those ships-and he didn't have any Destroyers at that point...). That the UK had built an Industrial Complex in India, and was using that as the deployment point for a full-scale assault into Southeast Asia, was simply icing on the cake. I think it was about the time I showed the naval forces I was going to build after the subs-three Cruisers, two Aircraft Carriers, and Fighters for those CVs-that Japan's player announced his unconditional surrender. Germany and Italy followed suit.

So, at the end of the game, we had the following: The USSR parked on Germany's border with overwhelming force; Italy cleared out of all territory save Italy proper; and Japan shorn of most of its navy, and stopped cold on the continent; the USSR was looking to become dominant in continental Europe; the UK retained most of its colonial empire intact; and the US was queueing up to invade the Japanese home islands (annoyingly, I didn't get a chance to put the US on the offensive myself; my plan was to bypass the various islands and attack Japan directly).

Oh, by the way: The surrender occurred in mid-1943. History really got ripped a new one in that game. Harry Turtledove, eat your heart out.

For my first game, I consider A&A decent--it would be nice if I'd had more to do than just generate income and air power. However, I did commit the impossible in my first outing, so I'll consider that a Major Victory.

Day Four: Sunday

Ah, the fun of the last half-day of a con-- it's just like the fun of the first half-day, only in reverse (instead of moving stuff in and having lots of money, one is moving stuff out and having little money...). I got my stuff moved, and checked out of the hotel (the rapid check-out also works, if no one else is around; it's almost as if they really don't want to deal with actual human beings any more than I do), then set out to find a game.

I played a demo version of the Pirates Constructible Strategy Game with the SO, and demonstrated that I'm at my best when the game involves Stuff Blowing Up and Bodies Flying Around, as opposed to games involving resource acquisition. The SO won mainly by being first to the treasure island, and having the biggest ship in the game. I can only hope there's a bit better balance among the sets than what I saw.

Then I moved on to the main gaming area, seeing what had open slots. Unfortunately, the only open table was for a game of Zombies! by Twilight Creations. I'm not a fan of zombies, cinematic or otherwise (blame George Romero and his subtle-as-a-brick-through-a-window political commentary in Night of the Living Dead), but I figured I'd give it a shot.

Gene Siskel, late movie critic, had a test for whether a movie was any good: "Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" I believe there is a Gaming Corollary to this test: "Is this game more entertaining than simply sitting around and talking with a bunch of other gamers, while rolling dice every so often?"

In the case of Zombies!, the answer is a resounding "No". Pretty-much every die roll is a straight 50-50 chance of something happening, so the game devolves to pure luck. Worse, this game falls into the category of games whose designers think encouraging players to shaft each other is the ultimate aim of game play; and also falls into the category of games where the designers set out to shaft the players as early and as often as possible; thus, any rudiments of strategy and tactics fall by the wayside, and the game becomes one long round of "OK, who can I shaft this round?" Game designers: If I want to play a game which focuses on Killing Other Players, I'd be playing Car Wars, or Wings of War, or any of a number of games where I can kill other players while actually having to use my brain to come up with strategies and tactics with which to beat them, as opposed to "draw three cards and pray". My curiosity having been sated, I can safely say: Unless you enjoy playing your games while well past the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving in your state, stay as far away from this game as possible.

On that note, the SO and the me went home.

All in all, I'd call it a successful weekend-I got out of the house; I taught some folks a game I enjoy; I played a game I'd never played before, and enjoyed it. I committed an act which I shouldn't have been able to commit; and I shot down a bunch of other gamers. Sigh-- now if only Fantasy Flight would produce that Hanriot mini...

Previous: The Encounter Log | Picofarad #17 contents | Next: Corflu and Cinematic Titanic

Picofarad home