Winter Quarters: Friday After-Action Report

Posted: December 9, 2010 in Winter Quarters
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Winter Quarters is a week behind me now. I’ve caught up on my sleep, my game hand isn’t cramped anymore, and my ass spasms from hours planted in a plastic chair have subsided. I think I’m ready to write about it.

Raw numbers first. Gaming started on Friday afternoon around 2:00, and wrapped up on Sunday night at about 9:30 PM. We had ten gamers pass through the garage, playing sixteen sessions of eleven different games. We ate a cow, drank our weight in beer and soda, and carbed out on bags of chips. Two folks slept over for all or part of the weekend. Two Kings of Games were in attendance at this “Geekend” event, including our reigning King. No women came near this place, save for my lovely wife, Rita, who enjoyed (to a point) playing den mother to a garage-full of graying man-boys.

It was the visit of Chris Donovan, of course, that set off this madness. He’d previously visited for Le Petit Geekend, but regretted being a no-show for the Geekend proper; Winter Quarters was held in his honor and as an attempt to redress the gaming lost when Chris couldn’t make our June event.

I collected Chris from the airport, and after a stop for In & Out and propane, we dug in under my garage roof for a game of For The People, the Avalon Hill/GMT card-driven wargame about the American Civil War. I’ve played this game about ten times now, but never mastered the rules (let alone the game itself). I like it plenty but every time I play it feels like the first time — I just can’t break the back of this game’s rules, particularly the river control and cavalry brigade stuff. If ever I was going to get this thing figured out, it was now — I had played two games with Andrew just a week or so previous, and now here was Chris, all boned up on the rules himself, and eager to have a go as the Union (although I suspect his own personal loyalties were more seccessh).

Did we figure it out? Sort of. We managed two games over the weekend, both quite good, all laden with narrative and sudden reversals of fortune. Neither of our games was completed in one sitting — the first game was abandoned on Friday when the crowd started to arrive, then completed on Saturday morning. The second game began almost immediately thereafter, and concluded on Sunday. Both games concluded in Confederate victories, and I’ll take credit for both victories, but the truth is that I think the Union side is a lot harder to play in this game, and as the (slightly) more experienced player I was likely taking advantage of an overmatched Federal player. Both games were full of rules gaffes but we didn’t let that get in the way of the fun.

Mostly, I was just glad to be alive. The more I studied the FtP rules, the less I seemed to understand them. By the end, Chris was running the rules all by himself, and I was just kind of thrashing around with my Rebs, lashing out in rage-filled raids in Missouri or Pennsylvania or Ohio because I’d forgotten some critical rule, or lost a state to a clerical error, and was convinced the war was lost so I might as well go down swinging. And in both cases, those spasms of vengeful raiding and burning won me the game (in the second game, Lee took Washington and raided all he way down to Atlantic City!). Through no fault of my own, I found that aggressive raids against the North can be an effective CSA strategy, given the damage they inflict on Union “Strategic Will,” to say nothing of the opportunity cost the Federals must pay to corner the Rebel raiders and restore order in the North.

It’s a good thing this option was open to me, because Chris was grinding me up with his Northern war machine, particularly in the second game, which saw him seize control of the Mississippi early on, then start treating the river as his own personal invasion highway to burn my resource cities in Tennessee. Despite my raiding Chris might still have won that second game, had he not overextended into Texas and had an army put out of supply and destroyed at a critical juncture … still, Chris was an able opponent, deftly mastering those difficult naval rules and vastly improving as a player from Friday to Sunday, kind of following a reverse parabola to my own descent into rules confusion and crankiness.

Still we had a great time with this game. The details of the two games run together, but I remember Lee and Longstreet both dying in meaningless skirmishes (Lee because I didn’t want to pay the political cost of putting him in charge of an army, where he’d be a bit more safe). I remember one of Chris’ lesser Union generals — Pope or Price, can’t remember which — becoming a master of amphibious warfare, striking everywhere at once and panicking the entire South, before leading that army into doom in trackless Texas. I remember Stonewall Jackson force-marching across three states to attack the U.S. Congress … in Springfield, Illinois. Yeah, we had some fun.

But Winter Quarters wasn’t just about Chris D. and I playing wargames in the garage! Day turned to night while we were struggling with the War Between the States and the crowd began to drift in — Tiege, Chuck, Keefer (aka H.R.H. What If?), Ron, Dave, Mike. Games of Dominant Species and Macao broke out, the sight of which gave me a severe case of cube-aversion, so I conducted a retreat under cover of helping Rita bring in the groceries.

Those games ground to conclusion in a couple hours. I think the birds beat the spiders at one table, while cubes got shoved around in bewildering fashion at the other. Somehow Can’t Stop got to the table, with Chris D. involved (despite his “no fillers!” fatwa); even more amazing, I won the damn game, which might be a first.

Dave and Ron finished up with Glory to Rome, about which I know little, while Chris, Tiege, Mike, and I broke out Guerilla, a game I’ve had in the library for several years but never managed to play.

Guerilla is notable for having even more incomprehensible rules than For The People — all of the Greenwood with little of the underlying Mark Herman elegance, for you Avalon Hill fans scoring at home. Having played the game once before, Chris was tasked with teaching it to us cold, and he pulled it off, relying on a vernacular translation of the actual rules, referring to the real manual only when absolutely necessary. The game lurched along, in fits and starts, until 2:00 AM, a harbinger of things to come. I think Chris’ mercenaries won this first game (yes, there would be another, but that’s a story for my Saturday report). Tiege soldiered on in good humor but clearly didn’t care for the game; Mike played his usual crisp game and I think finished second; Keefer was happy to be anyplace other than work; while I had a good enough time but most of it came from making funny voices and creating false narratives around Major Dominquez, who went from corrupt, fat pig to revolutionary hero in the glare of an exploding television station.

So, not a great game, but great friends, a theme that would be repeated on Saturday (about which more in my next post).

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Comments
  1. […] gone dark here at Goblin Soup, but there’s been plenty of gaming going on. Check out the after-action reports over at my Geekend Forever! blog if you are […]

  2. Chris Donovan says:

    What an epic weekend of gaming. I never thought I would ending up playing Guerilla, let alone twice. My thanks to Paul for hosting this thing, to all who came out to game, and to Rita for her grace and especially for the steaks!

    For the People – I love this game, despite the rules. The political modeling of the problem of relieving leaders is handled very well and corrects the one great flaw of my formerly favorite strategic ACW game, “The Civil War 1861-1865” by Victory Games. I think a good rules summary is all that this game needs.

    Guerilla – I also think this is actually a very good game, similarly hampered by the rules. In this case the mechanics themselves are little baroque, but entirely manageable in my opinion. The game has deep strategies which I feel I have only just started to perceive, coupled with a high degree of chaos which can (understandably) frustrate some players. I also agree the 5 player game is just a little too long, but it’s still a keeper.

    As for “Can’t Stop!” – add some booze and you’re golden.

    • Paul O'Connor says:

      Yes, For The People requires a rules summary … and you are just the man to do it!

      Guerilla will stay in the collection because it provides a three-plus player wargame experience in a reasonable block of time but I would rate it a disappointment.

      • Chris Donovan says:

        I played Agricola last night. It was so…lonely. The other players (4 of them) were silent and we barely acknowledged one another. We used the “interactive” deck. I came in second, even though I was sure I was dead last. After a vain attempt to track who was doing what during the first turn I gave up, as each new Occupation and Improvement revealed a new block of small type, illegible from 3-5 feet away. It made me really appreciate a game like Guerilla, which is no more fiddly or complex (though the rulebook is vastly inferior) but locks every player into a zerosum, three-sided conflict. Guerilla could use a pinch of stability.

        • goldenboat says:

          Maybe Agricola could use a pinch of Guerilla, too … add Death Squads that move around like those traveling resources, and allow farmers to bury bodies in fallow fields.

          I will rise to defense of Agricola, which I quite like, and find more engaging than Guerilla, although it does suffer from the mutual solitaire/optimization exercise foibles that you mention above. Not every game needs to be loud and conflict-oriented. Well, maybe they do, but you get my drift.

          I think Agricola is more of a “shared journey” kind of a game than an interactive game. I actually think of it as being an “experience game” where the outcome is secondary (and in this it has an advantage, because while Agricola is longish by Euro standards, it is many times shorter than the typical wargamer/Ameritrash “experience” game). Agricola is so punishing sometimes that just to survive it is a rush; score and a game winner are kind of secondary. I’ve had some nailbiting finishes with Mike Nuthals in this game but the tension of the close finish emerged only as we were tallying scores. I don’t have enough of a grip on the game to accurately assess where I am versus the other players during the game itself.

          As with many of these role-selection games the key to success is watching what other players are doing and beating them to those scarce roles at key moments, but I admit I haven’t tried to keep very close track of it the few times I’ve played. Frankly — to me — Agricola seems to come down to who expands his family first. The extra actions afforded by additional labor seem to trump any other consideration. Expand one season before you feel really comfortable doing it. That’s my strategy and I’m sticking with it.

          • Chris Donovan says:

            Agricola with a pinch of Guerilla is Through the Ages…

            • Paul O'Connor says:

              Hmm. Thematically I think you are right.

              Now I’m going to deeply analyze and react to your perceptive toss-off comment.

              While it might be spiced up by more direct conflict, I think Agricola a more mechanically cohesive game than Through the Ages. One of the things that I most like about Agricola is the close bond between mechanics and theme. The whole role selection thing is hard to justify but the plant/harvest, breed/slaughter, gradually expand a farmstead stuff feels like a close match with the mechanics.

              I think one of the places where Through The Ages leaves me a little cold is in its necessary level of abstraction, given its gigantic scope and sweep. Pushing those cubes around is a little too much like a spreadsheet for me. I lack the game but the theme is less visceral for me because it is several orders of magnitude removed from the mechanics. There is narrative but it must be more actively constructed/interpreted by the players (as was the case with much of Guerilla … every ounce of personality possessed by Major Dominguez came from ME, not the game system). In Agricola I can pretty clearly relate with my hapless mud farmers slowly starving to death without resorting to funny voices or interpretive narrative.

              • Chris Donovan says:

                You’re absolutely right. Though I prefer the gameplay of TtA to Agricola, the latter has the better integrated theme. The theme of TtA doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense: you are the absolute ruler of a highly centralized command economy. Human progress is inexorable and limitless. Catastrophe, decline and extinction are not possible, though I admire the tip-of-the-hat the designer seems to give to social Darwinism.

                I read into it the same pathology which drives those who rail against religion in the name of scientism: a certain desperation. Origins, Empires of the Middle Ages, or even Outreach all have a more down-to-Earth view of the transient nature of human civilization(s), but none of those games are much fun if you are not deeply engaged with the theme.

                I appreciate a design like Magic Realm because there is absolutely nothing in it that does not directly support the theme as far as I can tell, but as we both know it comes at a hefty price. Speaking of which, I’m happy to know you can still find the time to over-extend yourself physically for the sake of playing a few overwrought games.

                • Paul O'Connor says:

                  I sense that a face-to-face game of Magic Realm is in our future. Don’t tell Tiege, though — he painstakingly created a set by hand from internet files, only to toss it in the trash after he and I tried (and failed) to appreciate this game’s virtues through have a dozen torturous attempts.

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