Friday 25 April 2014

Game Review: Twilight Struggle


Yesterday my wife and I went hunting for a new board game. We have been playing the likes of Risk, Ticket to Ride and, our old fall-back, Carcassonne for many years now. We wanted something that worked well for two players, as those other games seem to be more fun when you have a larger group. We did some research on the net and this game turned up everywhere:

We picked it up a Games Paradise in Sydney and cracked it open as soon as we got the little ones off to sleep. After a solid 3 hours of play, obviously drawn out as we learned all of the mechanics, I feel like I know enough to give a quick review.
Firstly, Twilight Struggle is not about vampires that sparkle in the sunlight (thank goodness). It is a simulation of the Cold War years that utilises a Risk-like atlas and a card based system for “combat” and events. I hesitate to say those last couple of things, because it goes so far beyond the global context of Risk and “combat” in such an eloquent and sophisticated way, that I may as well come up with an entirely new vernacular. Play it and you will see what I mean.

The board has a few different features that allow you to track progress through the game. It has a Turn Record Track for the ten turns of the game (3 early war, 4 mid-war and 3 late war). The turns get longer and the deck of cards evolves as the game does, which keeps you on your toes. There is a Round track which records which round of the turn you are up to. Each player gets 6 rounds per turn, which increases as the game progresses (7 mid-war, 8 late war). As players spread their influence across the globe and combat each other’s influence, the DEFCON Status track (below) records how close you are to triggering a nuclear holocaust. It is amazing how quickly this thing can escalate! In one round we cranked it all the way up to DEFCON 2 (and suffered the consequences) before I played a Nuclear Test Ban event that cooled things down.
Instead of playing cards as Events you can use their Action Points value to increase your influence in countries, reduce your opponents influence, incite a coup de tat, or make advances in the Space Race. Coups will move you up the Required Military Operations track whilst successful research moves you up the Space Race track (unlocking various benefits). Finally there is the Victory Points track, which can be manipulated in various ways and is set up like a 40 point tug of war.

The value of all of these things, including the historical events on the cards, is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is down-right eerie how this game reflects such complicated history and geopolitical struggle. You find yourself trying to influence countries just because your opponent is trying to. You cut off ideologically different states by influencing their neighbours, then try to unsettle them. You incite coups in unstable states because it is easier to make a difference there (Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Panama, Argentina, Pakistan etc.). You avoid provocative attacks in some states in favour for attacks that will not raise the DEFCON level. You wait for opportune events to make changes in stable states. You perform military operations just to keep up with your enemy’s number of operations (not because you value the actual outcome).
Interestingly, triggering a nuclear war ends the game (and severely punishes the person who “pulls the trigger”). The designers state that this most accurately reflects the consequence of nuclear war and within the boundaries of this mechanism, the game is truly scintillating. I would give it 4/5, but only because I don't know what the endgame is like. This could very well be a 5/5 game.

After 3 hours, my wife and I are tied on points despite the victory point track getting a tremendous workout. The Ruskies are, however, hammering me in the Space Race. Who knows what tonight will bring…
Lest we forget,


Monday 21 April 2014


Last night I cracked out my old MtG decks and brushed off the cobwebs. It hasn't been that long since I played; I took a few decks to Japan with me last year and we played quite a few times, but recent games have been played with more recent decks. This time around I dug deep and went for the special reserve black label decks. Aged in an antique wooden chest since 1999 (ish), these decks have seen and dealt a lot of punishment.

This deck was created in response to friendly criticism against my mono-red "burn-of-all-your-eyebrows" deck of the mid-90's. It is based thematically around the Hurloon Minotaur from my very first starter deck, but contains cards from a myriad of different sets that existed during the 90's and early 00’s. If the card says "minotaur" on it, chances are it is in this deck. Due to the Labyrinth Minotaur being blue, it is not a mono-red deck anymore. To make taking islands more worthwhile, I rolled in some Flights, Jumps and Enchantments in there that allow me to get my minotaurs in behind enemy lines. On the red side we have Hurloons, Anaba Shamans, Spirit Callers and Ancestors as well as some direct damage from Fireballs, Disintegrates and Lightning bolts. I also have Firebreathing in there to increase the damage output of the minos. Basically, I pump out weak minotaurs that get buffed very quickly and flexibly, which are more than likely able to fly. If that doesn’t work, I disintegrate you. Hurray!

Something Wicked…
This is a green and black deck to make the skin crawl. It is full of instant buffs that make small things much bigger without any warning (Giant Growth, Howl from Beyond, Pufferfish Extract), as well as a ton of essentially unblockable creatures. It also contains a lot of green damage avoidance cards (Fog, Regeneration) and mana generation (Llanawar Elves), as well as black cards that kill things dead (Terror, Disembowel, Eradicate, Engineered Plague, Vile Requiem). On top of that, there are a handful whopping great big monsters.

Thus armed we played a couple of rounds of MtG. Within minutes I had a flying, firebreathing minotaur out, so I was happy for the night! I got Wade down to 2 life points before he dragged himself back with a 6 point Stream of Life. He then wiped out my minotaurs with Vile Requiem and cut me down over the next couple of turns with a Craw Wurm enchanted with Fear.
In the second game I was a little short on lands, so took some bad hits early on. Even after I got some defences out Wade had enough 1/1 creatures (including 10 thrull tokens) to finish me off. When any one of those 1/1’s can be buffed to 4/4 or higher at a moment’s notice you know you are in trouble! I was one land away from dumping an Inferno on the whole lot of them (6 damage to each creature and player) but that would have ended my game as well instantly.

We swapped decks over and I had another shocker, picking up no swamps during the game with a hand full of black creatures and spells. I managed to summon some walls (Wall of Brambles) and deal some damage with Llanawar Elves and Giant Growth early on, but against flying firebreathing minotaurs, I stood no chance. Still, it was great to get the old decks out again. I think next time I will have to shuffle better!
We spent the rest of the night playing Star Wars Duels, which saw Luke Skywalker “I will not fight you”ing, Jango Fett rocket jump-sniping, Mace Windu purple lightsabering and Vader relentlessly force choking. Leia was quickly throttled to death, leaving me with a hand full of useless cards. Despite that, I got Vader down to 3 or 4 hits before Jango shot Luke to pieces from across the board. Vader finally got his redemption (read: he got a purple lightsaber to the face) but Jango again finished off the good guy and inherited the universe. Seriously, who is that guy anyway? Overall, not a very lucky night for me gaming-wise but still great fun.
I’ll leave you with a happy snap shot of the “work-in-progress” during the night. I managed to paint the tiny white dots on the jewelled cockpits of half-a-dozen Clan Wolf Mechs, whilst the guys were busy doing all kinds of things. Try and see how much old school stuff you can see in the pic below…

See you across the table,


Friday 18 April 2014

Old School Hero of the Week: Raphael

When I reached my 4th Kyu purple belt I was given my choice of Okinawan weapons to learn. I immediately chose the tonfa. I had seen a lot of demonstrations by my older friends (all boys) and they all seemed to like using them. The other obvious option, sai, were only really used by one other person in the club and she was a girl (obviously making the sai a girly weapon in my eyes; hurray for pre-teen maturity!). To cement my opinion, my female training partner picked sai. After waiting a few weeks for the club to receive my order, I was told the crushing news that they could not get me a pair of tonfa due to new restrictions on the sale of the weapon. I think the police had just started stuffing around with them, which meant that nobody else could own them. This is of course ridiculous for so many reasons. Anyway, I received my shiny pair of sais and began a gruelling campaign of wrist strengthening exercises in front of the television. During class I would train with my partner: endless repetitions of kata, block and counter-attack, the snapping of gi sleeves, trying to get the damn things in position before stabbing myself on a yoku (fork, prong, whatever you want to call it). A friend of my Dad, who had taught me some martial arts at a very early age, had a chat to me about them. I lamented the fact that they weren’t exactly as cool as a pair of tonfa, as well as being bit girly. The next time I saw him he gave me this:   

Now, let’s not dwell on the appropriateness of handing an incredibly violent comic to a 7-8 year old child: I will be the last to complain. Raphael used sais like a fricken beast. He was a weird Ninja Turtle thing. He was my new hero. I was utterly hooked. Let’s just say, I stopped complaining about sais after reading that comic.
When the TMNT cartoon was released shortly after I was vaguely disappointed (where was the blood, and why do they all have different coloured masks?). I desperately wanted to take my collection of comics into school but my parents didn’t think it was a great idea. Raphael appeared as a playable character in a side-scrolling arcade game (below), which quickly became a Timezone Birthday party staple. I would always pick Raphael, despite the obvious disadvantage he had, having such short range.

Since then, TMNT have gone through several generations and makeovers (below), with another one on the way. A rose by any other name still has thorns, and Raphael is my very thorny Old School Hero of the Week.

Name: Raphael
Background: If you don’t know the genesis story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I don’t know if we can be friends. Seriously. Just in case, here’s an 80’s rap song that explains the whole thing.

Raphael was named after the famous renaissance artist. For those with knowledge of the times, Raphael was an exceptional artist with an ego to match. He worked with Michaelangelo in the Vatican whilst the Sistine Chapel was being painted, with some historians suggesting there was a certain competitiveness between them. In the TMNT universe, Raphael is the most militant turtle with a volcanic temper. He has a somewhat cynical and sarcastic sense of humor, with a phobia of the supernatural.

Within the family, Raphael is a dark horse that tends to keep to himself. He is closest to the youngest turtle, Michelangelo, often looking out for him emotionally as well as on the battlefield. Raphael ferociously protects his brothers despite the tension that sometimes exists between them. Raphael is also close friends with the human vigilante Casey Jones. Casey is his foil, being both more violent (if less skilled) and unstable than his turtle wingman.
Weapon of choice: Sai. Sai are usually carried in pairs and were traditionally used for crowd control and arresting criminals. They usually had a blunt tip and were used as a non-lethal weapon for forcing submission through blunt trauma and strikes to pressure points. They could also be thrown, though they were traditionally thrown at the feet of fleeing criminals to either pin them or cause them to trip. From experience, the technique for employing sai in combat revolves around the ability to make rapid transitions between hand positions/grips to bring the appropriate part of the weapon into contact with the foe, or to execute blocks/locking manoeuvres. Raph’s sai are sharp, and when he throws them he aims for the head, not the feet!

Claim to fame: Raphael is famous for his bad temper. The reason for his anger isn’t directly explored, though I have a feeling it stems from his relationship with Leonardo. Leonardo is the eldest brother and chosen by Splinter to be the leader of the group. Raphael, the second eldest, begrudges his brother’s position as he feels that Leo is not as skilled at fighting. In Raphael’s mind, the best fighter should be the leader and he feels that Splinter has not judged his skills fairly. Of course, the leadership of the turtles was not decided by martial skill alone. Raphael finally understands this during the following scene from the 2007 TMNT film. The film in general was utterly forgettable, apart from Sarah Michelle Geller voicing April and this scene. Thematically it is wonderful, you can see the moment Raphael realises why he isn’t the leader, having bested Leo in combat. Additionally, the sai-work is better than any other martial arts in the TMNT franchise. Enjoy!

See you across the table,


Friday 11 April 2014

Camp Krusty

I have been away for a while supervising a Year 7 camp for work. It got me thinking about the gaming I used to do while I was on school camps. This particular camp reminded me a lot of the infamous “Camp Krusty” when I was in Year 10. Ironically, we didn’t play many games that year, just shot a lot of arrows and sang "The Lumberjack Song". Our Year 8 camp was something else entirely; let me paint a picture for you. Late the year before, we had all started playing Magic the Gathering...

It all began in at the Chapman’s residence in Tahmoor, just a couple of mates mucking about with a big brother's starter deck (I think it was 2nd or 3rd Edition). We split the deck in half and played the game out. I don’t think we even checked that both decks had lands in them! I was captivated by the artwork and the simple and satisfying way in which it captured Fantasy combat in a card game format. I asked my parents if I could start getting some pocket money specifically so that I could get a starter deck. It took me 2 weeks to save up for it and I went to the local tobacco shop to buy a pack. Don’t ask me what the link between Tobacco and MtG is, I still don’t have a clue (...but I need more...MOAR!).
I still remember my first deck quite vividly. My two rare cards were Demonic Hordes and Demonic Attorney, which should have steered me towards collecting black, but it never really did.
Fast forward a few months and we were on this long bus trip to camp woop woop. I started swapping away my deck for green and red cards, with a focus on dealing direct damage in any way that I could. It was all about lightning bolts and thorn thallids. After a quick pit stop in which I got to test out my new deck, I went even further and culled the deck down to mono-red. As far as I know this was the first time anyone in our group had tried to create such a deck. I swapped away a lot of good cards to get the common red cards that I wanted in the right quantity, then unleashed hell. Here is a little snapshot of what it amounted to (think fireballs, disintegrates and earthquakes as well):
This is the closest I think I have ever gotten to “power gaming” in any game, ever. The deck was horrendously powerful and was very quickly identified by my friends as being crap to play against. After a few weeks everyone had moved towards building more potent decks, each with powerful combinations and foils for other people’s tricks. My deck was still very dangerous and demoralising to play against. I think only one deck could stand against it (on average anyway), which was a mono-blue deck that could destroy my spells before they could do the damage. After retiring that deck I swung the other way completely and focused on themes, such as the famous “Minotaur” deck. It still packed some direct damage potential, but generally focused on getting as many cows in the air as possible (flying, fire breathing cows, to be exact!).
Many an afternoon was spent in the local library waiting for a lift home playing MtG. Many games were played on the concrete at school or in front of the fire in Tahmoor. Early on I played quite a bit of ante with friends during the Christmas break, which we found pretty hardcore. I won quite a few special cards which I gave away when I got back to school (I remember winning a Shyft and a Hand of Justice to replace someone’s stolen cards; damn you to Hades forever Milroy). The mechanics of the game were pretty simple back then, it was all about trample and regeneration, firebreathing and banding. Drudgees and Uncle Istvan, Kird Apes and Personal Incarnations. Things have obviously changed a lot since then, but I still enjoy getting out the old Minotaur deck every now and then. Man, now I want to play some cards! Maybe I can rope some people into it sometime soon…stay posted. In the meantime, here are some combos from back in the day. Some people reading may even recognise who owned them!

See you across the table,


...and here's a cryptic one for my old high school buddies: