Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Guild Creator visits the Emerald City

(Image by Michael A. Robles)
A week ago, I did a review of The Guild.  Here's a photo I hijacked on Facebook of Guild creator, Felicia Day, being interviewed for a podcast by Shelly Mazzanoble and other members of Wizards of the Coast.  Miss Day will be one of the featured guests at the Emerald City Comicon this weekend.
Until the doors haven't opened yet at the  Washington State Convention Center, Miss Day was given a guided tour of the Wizards of the Coast facility:

(Image by Michael A. Robles)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Saturday Double Feature Movie Review: Iron Sky and No Country For Old Men

"It wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be," said my friend Joe after we finished watching Iron Sky
No it wasn't.  But it certainly wasn't as good as it could have been either. 
This Finnish production is available on DVD in the US and actually averages a 3.5 star rating, out of 5 stars.  The special effects are very good, but as to the rest of the film, I guess that depends not only on your taste in movies, but in your political beliefs as well.  (The movie paints American conservative leaders, which includes a Sarah Palin caricature as president, in a bad light). 
But even those who aren't card-carrying members of the Republican Party, or Tea Party, didn't care for the film either. Feelings ranged from the plot not measuring up to the trailer's premise, to being outright dumb. 
At least it was better than movies made by the SyFy Channel and I didn't pay a bunch of money to see this at the multiplex, nor did I buy the DVD.  So I'll give the Finnish flick 3 stars.
So if you don't want to waste your time and nearly two hours of your life, here's the plot synopsis, along with production info.  And if you're an Iron Sky fan, here's the official movie site.
(I guess this is the closest thing to the Oval Office they could find in Finland) 
Well that was the first movie Joe and I watched.  We managed to find time in our busy schedules, prior to our upcoming weddings, to get together for a Saturday "bachelor party for two."  After watching a couple of episodes of Archer, Joe plugged in No Country For Old Men
For an Academy Award winner, this movie averaged only 0.2 stars on above Iron Sky.  A lot of the 1-star grievances are on the quality of the DVD/Blu Ray disc. 
But not all of them. 
There are plenty of complaints about the plot itself.  The biggest gripe--including mine--is about the "non-ending ending."  After sitting through two hours of a thriller/caper--that doesn't end well for anyone--the movie screeches to a halt with no resolution--good or bad.
True, there are plenty of folks who love this movie, giving it 436 x 5-star reviews and 152 x 4-stars, respectively. 

I'm not one of them.

Each scene in the movie, is indeed, well crafted and acted; not only by the big-named stars, but by the minor characters as well.  The screenwriter also did a great job of introducing characters with little or no backstory, while maintaining the intensity of the drama.  However, there's no synergistic effect.  The movie as a whole does not even equal, let alone exceed, the sum of it's parts. 

I enjoyed spending a Saturday with a close friend I rarely get to see.  This, along with not paying big bucks to see the film while it was on the silver screen, or buy the DVD, I'm feeling generous and give this flick 3-stars. 

If you like movies with a happy ending or even a satisfying one, then No Country for Old Men is not for you.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Books and Program Reviews: The Guild Webseries and Graphic Novels

 Because of my rotating work schedule and extensive workout routine, to fight my personal "Battle of the Bulge," I don't have the time to play any Massively Multi-player On-Line Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). 
However, as table-top wargamer and role player, this hasn't stopped me from enjoying antics of "The Knights of Good" in the smash-hit webseries The Guild
Created by actress/gamer Felicia Day, The Guild has been popular with fans and critics alike for six seasons.  Earlier this week it was edged out of the Best Comedy Writing category by the Lizzie Bennet Diaries in the 3rd Annual Streamy Awards.  (Lizzie Bennet will be the subject of a future Program Review). 
While The Guild is also available on DVD (as of now, up to Season 5) via  These "hardcopies" come with bonus material, which makes purchasing them an attractive option. 
At a quick glance, Seasons 1 & 2 earned, on average, a fire-wall 5-star rating.  Subsequent seasons dipped a trifle to an average of 4.5 stars. I'll try to boost these ratings a bit by adding my 5-star rating to each DVD.  I think the webseries is a hoot and if you've done any gaming whatsoever, you could probably identify with all or most of mayhem the series portrays--on line and off.
Once I caught up with viewing The Guild's entire six-season history, I became interested in the characters' backstories.  Oh sure, there's the plot synopses and character sketches on Wikipedia, but it certainly lacks in the visual-appeal department. 
Instead of producing additional webisodes, Felica Day turned to another medium to delve deeper into her character Cyd Sherman/Codex:  The graphic novel.  This prequel is touching and humorous look at Cyd's life and her attempt to "transform herself" by delving into "The Game." 
While the book gets an overwhelming 16 x 5-star ratings, there are minor-to-moderate complaints about the artwork.  The most common comment was the art was inconsistent.  Maybe so, but I thought the artwork was fine and certainly will add another 5-star rating to the novel. 
Full disclosure:  I'm not an artist and I couldn't draw a straight line to save my life, so I probably don't know any better.
Cyd Sherman doesn't escape her dreary life into the world of "The Game" alone.  She's joined by a band of equally dysfunctional characters, who have interesting backstories of their own--to say the least.
Hence, the "sequel to the prequel:" The Knights of Good (The Guild Vol 2).  I snatched-up my copy during an impromptu visit to Atomic Comics
Unlike the first volume, which centered around Cyd/Codex, each chapter in this novel gives us a glimpse into the supporting cast of The Knights of Good
 While I didn't notice any artistic inconsistency, reviewers complained about in Volume 1, there is a definite distinction in styles among each of the chapters.  I don't mind, because each chapter is a seperate story dealing with a different character, so the stylistic differences provide a sense of variety to the book.
Also, it isn't until Season 6, that viewers actually get to see images of the game the guildees are gaga over.  Both graphic novels provide some nice gaming imagery to fill in the earlier seasons' lack of in-game adventures.
I'm definately happy with both of my graphic novel purchases and one day I may even buy the DVDs.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Program Review: Space Janitors

Need a laugh or three while waiting for Disney's Star Wars sequels?   Then check out the web series Space Janitors, which finished its first season three weeks ago. 
I stumbled across Space Janitors through Felicia Day's Geek & Sundry.
The initial eight episodes revolves around Custodian Darby attempting to improve his lot within the Empire--with comedic/disasterous results.  Episodes 1-6 are parody vignettes of Star Wars tropes, but also import other sci-fi staples as well. 
By Episode 7 a singular story line emerges dealing with Darby's origin.
The show certainly provides a chuckle or two, but you have to be a Star Wars fan to fully appreciate the humor.  So as a Star Wars fan myself, I'll give this show a 4-star rating.  It's an enjoyable internet diversion. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Product Review and Game Report: Wilderness War

When I joined the military, I quickly learned to tell people I was from "Upstate New York," when asked where I'm from.  If I merely said "New York," they'd assume I grew up in the concrete jungle of New York City.  And despite my clarification, some folks still believed the entire State of New York is one giant, urban sprawl. 

It's not. 


In fact, Lake George, pictured above, was a contested piece of real estate during the French and Indian War and the setting for James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans.  I remember at least two family trips to the lake, which included visits to Fort William Henry and  Fort Ticonderoga

While in high school, I made two trips to Quebec with the French Club.  By day we'd tour the old city and surrounding countryside, practicing our execrable French, while at night we'd dodge our chaperons and hit the discotheques. (Don't judge--it was the 70s).

But I digress...

These nostalgic locales (minus the discotheques) once again, became contested pieces of real estate during a game of Wilderness War my friend Joe and I played last weekend.  Unfortunately on game day, I was running late and I forgot my camera.  So this blogpost will be a general overview of the game system and our particular session.

I did manage to bring my Last of the Mohicans CD for appropriate "mood music," while we played.  (Here's a sample you can listen to while reading this post).

Wilderness War is part of a family of Card Driven Games (CDGs) that started to emerge almost ten years ago.  What I like about CDGs is that it imposes on both players events and/or situations neither player can fully control--much like real life. 

In addition to cards, the game employs a Point-to-Point Movement Mechanic (PtP) instead of the traditional square, or hexagonal grid map.  When these games first came out, I thought the PtP system was a too abstract.  But after playing a few of them, I realized this was an efficient way to streamline movement and decision making.  If designed correctly, a PtP game's easiest transit lines will correspond to "traditional invasion routes."  Meaning, it is difficult to move and supply armies in adverse terrain, like mountains and deserts, so traveling  across such features can be costly--even deadly.  (Hannibal lost nearly half his troops and almost all his elephants crossing the Alps). 

By the 1750s forests and mountains separated New England from New France.  Which in game terms, means the area of operations looks like this:

The different shapes on the map correspond to cultivated areas (white squares), wilderness (green circles) and mountainous (the brown triangle-ish shapes).  The unit counters, or playing pieces, also come in a variety of shapes.  Units representing Drilled Troops are square; while Auxiliaries, such as Indians, Rangers and Coureur des bois are round. 

Leaders are represented by stand-up counters and can command a force of several units, which is a cost-effective way of moving a bunch of units simultaneously.  It is often best that a force be comprised of both Drilled Troops and Auxiliaries in order to take advantage of each other's strengths while moving and fighting in cultivated and wilderness areas, respectively.

Each turn represents part of a year and is divided into an Early Campaign Season (Spring--Summer) and Late Campaign Season (Summer--Autumn).  Since Joe selected the Annus Mirabilis (Year of Miracles) Scenario (1757-1759) for our game, we only had six turns to pull off a table-top "mirabilis" of our own.

There are two basic strategies for winning the game:  Waging a border war, or conducting a conventional campaign.  The former means achieving victory in half-point increments by launching raids against stockades and cultivated areas.  While a conventional campaign involves marshaling Drilled Troops and striking directly at the centers of military power--the forts and fortresses of the enemy. 

The cards themselves could be played as Events (historical or situational occurrences), Activations (the ability to move Leaders and their forces, or individual units), or Construction (building fortifications).

Since I don't have any photos to provide a more focused narrative, here are my general impressions of how Joe and I waged our Wilderness War:

Joe chose to play the French under King Louis XV, leaving me to lead the forces of His Majesty King George II

This was a lucky break for me, because the hand I was dealt included:  One Campaign (where I could activate two leaders instead of one), one Amphibious Landing and a Surrender Card.  With large forces of Drilled Troops mustered at Halifax, Albany, Fort Edward and Fort William Henry, I felt I had an early advantage in conducting a series of conventional attacks against Joe.  The Amphibious Landing card would allow me to attack Louisbourg, while the Surrender Card would force it's garrison to vacate the fortress more quickly than normal--in theory.  I think I also received the Quiberon Bay card at this time.  If not, I got it shortly thereafter, which was another determining factor in pursuing a conventional strategy.

Joe on the otherhand, leaned more toward a border war strategy.  He dispatched war parties of his Indians to cause mayhem in my cultivated areas.  I was determined not to become distracted by these pesky raids.

While Louisbourg fell rather quickly, my campaign up the Hudson River-Lake Champlain avenue began to stall when Joe played a Small Pox Card.  The largest concentration of units turned out to be in Albany, so over half the troops there died without a shot being fired.  (Prior to modern medical advances, often more troops perished off, rather than on the battlefield).  This was followed up by a Stingy Provincial Assembly card, which reduced the amount of militia to counter Indian raids.  I tried countering with a Blockhouses Card, to strengthen my border fortifications, but Joe merely attacked my stockades instead. 

Then I had trouble prodding my leaders into action.  Loudon and Abercromby (I think), both needed high activation cards to get them moving.  More often than not, I had low-value cards, or needed the high-value ones for my non-discotheque adventures in Canada.

Once Louisbourg was secured, I tried advancing up the Saint Lawrence River only to be pushed back by a sizable force of French regulars.  At some point I played a Governor Vaudreuil Interferes card, in order to displace his best leader, the Marquis de Montcalm.  The effect was only temporary however, since Montcalm was able to utilize river movement and go back to where Joe wanted him in the first place.  (Before the invention of steam engines and railroads, rivers and lakes were the fastest means of transportation).

I did manage to take a French fort and tried besieging Ticonderoga, but was pushed back by a counter attack led by Montcalm.  This turned out to be something of a blessing.  The campaign season was over and Montcalm's victorious forces were decimated by the frigid forces of nature (Winter Attrition).

The next couple of turns were a blur of Joe's Indian raids vs my slogging up Lake Champlain and the Saint Lawrence.  Neither of us devoted much resources into building new fortifications.  I think I built a stockade to replace one Joe's Indians burned and I can't remember if Joe built any at all.  We needed our cards to keep our respective campaigns going, rather than diverting them to construction projects. 

We were also running out of troops--fast.  While small in comparison to the fighting going in Europe at this time, wilderness battles were vicious affairs. 

Receiving replacements and reinforcements, along with additional leaders, was only possible by playing the proper cards as Events.  So applying concept of "choosing one's battles wisely" was not merely a good idea, but a matter of strategic survival.  More often than not, both of us had cards the other needed.  In this respect, I was luckier than Joe.  I managed to augment my Rangers and regulars, while beefing up my forces with Highlander battalions.  Meanwhile, the availability of Drilled Troops for New France continued to dwindle.

By this time, Joe attempted to break the tightening Champlain-Saint Lawrence Vice and dispatched several auxiliary forces to threaten my western theater and Albany--which was still only garrisoned by the remnants of two pox-ridden battalions. 

My Indian Agent-in-Chief Sir William Johnson, couldn't convince any of the Iroquois Nations to go on the warpath for me, so he became my "fire brigade leader."  Immediately dubbed "Big Johnson," he thwarted one spoiling attack after another.  (Yes, here's where things went downhill as phallic innuendos popped up).

First, Big Johnson saved the Albany Small Pox Colony from a French attack.  (I never managed to move the afflicted survivors of the initial outbreak).  Then, when Montcalm slipped through the woods and laid seige to Boston, Big Johnson had the situation in hand as he mustered a relief force in New York City.  After a long, hard march against stiff opposition, Big Johnson annihilated the French force at the gates of Bean Town.  Montcalm survived the debacle and made his way back to Ticonderoga. 

I acquired another Surrender Card, along with a Coehorns & Howitzers Card (artillery) and had Loudon and Ambercromby evict the Marquis before he could settle back in to his old command post. 
As it turned out though, Ticonderoga became an icy death trap for the second time.  The campaign season of 1758 was over and winter was upon us.  I shot my wad keeping Big Johnson employed, so I couldn't disperse the force that just seized Ticonderoga.  Over half of the troops occupying the fort froze to death.

Once the 1759 campaign season opened, English troops made it to the gates of Quebec and Montcalm's forces retreated up Lake Champlain.  As the 1759 campaign season drew to a close, Joe and I had one card remaining in our respective hands.  My last card was Call Out Militias.
Normally, I'm rather methodical, almost to the point of caution.  I would have chosen this as an Event if we were playing the Late War or Full Campaign (both ending in 1762), since Joe's pesky Indians continued to harass my cultivated areas. 
But since this was the very last turn I threw caution to the wind, activated Ambercromby and pursued Montcalm.  I reaped the whirlwind as a result.
Joe played his last card--Ambush! 
Normally, combat is "simultaneous."  Even though one side inflicts casualties first, the opponent gets to fight back at his pre-casualty strength.  That is, unless someone plays an Ambush Card.  To pull off a successful ambush, the bushwhackers need to have more Auxiliaries than the bushwhackees.  (Joe did).  An ambush also effectively doubles the bushwhacker's attack strength.  After the butchery, the defender can only fight back with the force he has left--if any.
In Ambercromby's case, enough fugitives survived the carnage and fled back to Ticonderoga. 
Despite this ignominious retreat down Lake Champlain, the English by now, had a preponderance of troops and were poised to seize New France's capital, Montreal, within a campaign season.  My Annus Mirabilis was about a year or so behind schedule.
Final Notes
Due to our work schedules, its a rare moment when Joe and I can get together.  Its rarer still, when we can actually finish a game.  Since this was our first time playing Wilderness War, some mistakes were made regarding movement and raiding, along with getting use to other mechanics.  After a couple of turns though, we both got the hang of the game and felt the game provided an accurate, strategic feel of the French and Indian War.  The card play is both fun and frustrating.
While Wilderness War comes with the necessary playing aids, we used the cool charts Joe downloaded and printed out from the Boardgamegeek File Section
Overall, the game is rated 7.75 stars out of 10 and comes in at #28 among the wargames currently being played.