Friday, September 27, 2013

The Reading of the Rules

Have you ever read anything that was so technical, or full of exposition that you couldn't understand what you were reading?

While there are a lot of well-written gaming rules, others can be great cures for insomnia.  It's even harder for someone with a working-knowledge of the rules trying to impart his wisdom on a pack of newbies, moments before they start playing.

That's the situation I chose to depict in this comic strip.

I know the game being played is Flash Point and not Squad Leader, but I couldn't find a more suitable run-on sentence for this picture.

I should also clarify (and apologize), that Chris Ewick, owner of The Game Matrix, is actually very good and enthusiastic about explaining games and their arcane rules.  During Dragonflight, he sat down with my friend Joe and I and was an invaluable help to us with our session of Last Night On Earth

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: Femme Noir--The Dark City Diaries

Beyond Sherlock Holmes I've read very little crime fiction and none of the hardboiled variety. 
Until now.
I picked up Femme Noir--The Dark City Diaries during the same shopping spree I acquired several Queen and Country books.  And I like Femme Noir for the opposite reasons I liked Queen & Country.
While Queen & Country is a series with realistic plots and settings, illustrated in stark black & white; Femme Noir is Christopher Mills and Joe Staton's homage to pulp magazines.  The artwork is rich with color and the stories themselves boil over with two-fisted action.  You'll find no personal introspection by our heroine here.
In fact, no one--not even the reader--knows the identity of the crime-fighting dame, decked out in a black trench coat, fedora and fishnet stockings.

It could be:
1. Vanessa DeMilo--the orphaned debutante daughter of a late mob boss
2. Dahlia Blue--the sultry nightclub singer, or,
3. Laurel Lye--ace reporter for The Eclipse.
None of the women are blond and each one manages to disappear when the unnamed vigilante in stiletto heals makes her appearance.  The Dark City Diaries is set in Port Nocturne, a fictionalized city closely resembling San Francisco, during a 1930s-ish time frame. 
Published in 2009, about two dozen copies of The Dark City Diaries are still available on (9 brand-spanking new and 15 used, at the time of this post).  Twelve people reviewed Femme Noir, giving it a near-grand slam 5-star rating.  The reviews themselves were entertaining to read, even the one 4-star rater who wrote this gem:
It's a rich blend that borders on giving one the pulp equivalent of a sugar headache -- but Femme Noir is too good to stop reading.
While I'm giving Femme Noir another 5-stars, a review like that is tough act to follow!


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Review: Queen & Country, Definative Edition Vol 1 and Collections Vols 4-6

If you like spy stories about secret agents attempting to thwart criminal masterminds, while wooing a gaggle of compliant women and ending with a military assault against the villain's fortified lair--then Queen & Country: The Definative Edition, Volume 1 is not for you.

The series, written by Greg Rucka, is about the dull investigations and dirty little deeds intelligence operatives conduct in order to achieve something they can claim as a victory--until the next operation. 

Q&C debuted in March 2001 as a line of comic books and won the Eisner Award for Best New Series in 2002.  From 2002--2007, Q&C was packaged into a batch of collected stories centered on a particular covert/clandestine operation, with each booklet containing about four of the original comics.  Since then, the "operations collections" have, in-turn, been repackaged into three Definative Editions.  These include the "declassified" backstories of some of the characters and a scriptbook.

I stumbled across my Definative Edition at Half Price Books during their annual Labor Day Weekend Sale.  (20% off all titles--the store also has the same deal during the Memorial Day Weekend). But copies are also available at

The stories include:  Operation Broken Ground, Operation Morning Star and Operation Crystal Ball.  Of these, only one is about a terrorist plot involving the threatened use of a WMD (weapon of mass destruction).  The rest are small-scale dramas, with low-key conclusions that I found--or at least imagine to be--more true-to-life.  Oh, there are fights, chase scenes and shootouts.  But bulk of each narrative deals with the uncertainty and anxiety before the fight/chase/shootout, or the consequences of the action afterwards.

The writing and artwork are top-notch, which made Q&C an Eisner Award winner back in '02 and a nominee in both '03 and '04. 

I loved this initial volume of Q&C's Definative Edition and gladly award it a 5-star rating.  At least five other raters on Amazon agree with me.  Half of the 14 reviewers give the series a 4-star rating, while two reviewers give it only 2-stars.  One of the low-scoring reviewers thought the stories dull, while the other merely said it was decent, without giving any specific reasons for the rating.

Most of the less-than 5-star reviewers found the styles of the different artists to be distracting.  I could see their point.  While the main character, Tara Chase was easy to identify, some of the secondary characters a bit harder to figure out since they were portrayed so differently.  However, I didn't think it was detrimental enough to the story.

Since this wasn't the only Q&C book I purchased during my spending spree, I've added some "bonus reviews:"

Operation Blackwall--Tara Chase is called-on to help a British communications tycoon, with friends in high places, thwart a blackmail plot.

Operation Stormfront:  Tara and a newbie "Minder," as agents of the Special Operations Section are known as, are sent to snoop around T'blisi, Georgia, in an attempt to find a kidnapped Russian industrialist.

Operation Dandelion:  Tara & crew are asked to look into the feasibility of sponsoring a coup against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.  (Spoiler Alert!  This story line was published between November 2003 and February 2004--and Mugabe's STILL in power, so you can guess things don't turn out as planned).

Normally, I focus on one book or graphic novel for a review.  But I couldn't help myself!  I enjoyed the series so much, I read all the books I bought in one fell swoop and give each one 5-stars.  

I intend to get all the Q&C books I can. 

If you're not a fan of graphic novels, Tara Chase's adventures continue in the novels A Gentlemen's Game, Private Wars and Last Run.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Studio Assembly Complete--Minus Some Finishing Touches

A couple weekends ago, my wife and I finished assembling my new corner desk, from Office Depot's Magellan Collection.  We both like the style and size is appropriate for my new studio.  The only problem we had was one of the shelves and the back of the drawer, each had a chunk gouged-out of them.  This was most likely caused by how the desk was packaged and then shipped.  When my wife called our local Office Depot, they knew right away what the problem was and ordered us replacements. 
By the end of last week, I was able to do the final floor and shelf/storage arrangement.  It took me nearly all day to complete, but I can honestly say I'm done.

I just have a few of the finishing touches I alluded to in the title. 
This includes installing the un-gouged drawer back, which arrived just as I was loading the desk.  While I have my PC up and running, it's not connected to the internet yet.  So we'll either run a cable to the router or get a wireless device installed in my PC.  Finally, I'll take a good look at some of my boxes-of-odds-and-ends and determine if any of the items are worth keeping. 
So, hopefully soon it will be "full speed ahead" on my writing and miniature painting projects.

Monday, September 16, 2013

That Dicey Moment

The scene depicted above is derived from one of the photos I took as I prowled around Dragonflight 2013.  I couldn't really tell what was going on, because I wanted to remain unobtrusive to the game master and players.  So I didn't know if the man with his head in his hands was:

1. Bored
2, Hung over, or
3. Dreading an impending encounter.

I thought Option #3 was the funniest possibility, so I went with that when I created this comic strip.  (Although gaming while hung over could be full of comedic possibilities too).

Role playing gamers know the feeling--a band of player-characters (PCs) have careened from one deadly enounter to another and are facing a TPK situation. 

Then the game master announces:  "Roll for initiative!"--The standard procedure for determining who goes first, which can be critical in a violent encounter.

Such an announcement is often enough to plunge PCs, barely clinging to life, into despair.

Are there any memorably despairing moments in a game you've played?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

After Action Review of Triumph and Tragedy

Prior to Dragonflight 2013, the last time I actually sat down and played a wargame was in February.  True, I've posted about a couple of game reviews since then, but I unearthed those games out of last year's picture archives.

After playing a game of Last Night on Earth, which will be the subject of a later post or movie, my friend Joe and I found ourselves once again, meandering around the Bellevue Hilton.  When we wandered into the atrium, we ended up chatting with Cory, who was helping playtest the upcoming game Triumph and Tragedy (T&T) by GMT Games

In this game, players assume the leadership roles of one of three power blocks:  The Communists, the Fascists and the Capitalists.  Players can win by gaining economic, political or technical supremacy over the others.  So the game doesn't have to end in a military conflagration.

After Cory gave us a quick brief of the rules, we chose sides and began setting up.  Here, Joe, the Fascist player (Nazis--"I hate these guys"), ponders how to dominate Europe.

Cory took over the Soviet Union (the Commies) and assumed control of the western powers (France and Britain, the Capitalist Pigs).  The game starts things off at 1935, so the initial disposition of forces looks something like this...

T&T is a "block game."  That is, the playing pieces representing military units are made of wooden block, stood upright, with the front side facing the owning player.  So the other players may not know what type of units you have, or how strong they are.

Like many of GMT's products, T&T is also card-driven game.  Cards can be used to develop advanced technology, like radar and sonar; mobilize military forces and attempt to gain control of other nations.  In the last case, other players can "trump" your political machinations by playing an identical card, or designated wild card.

There was a lot of that going on during our game session.  Once someone played three country cards, they gained full control of that nation.  The first to succumb to political pressure was Czechoslovakia..

...followed by a military build-up.  The type of units raised depended on number of factors, such as the population of the newly acquired country and the economy of the major power. 

The Low Countries became the next political arena between the Fascists and Western Powers...

...followed by Denmark and the Scandinavian countries.

While the Western Powers tried to obtain influence in Denmark, the Fascists gained control of Sweden and attempt to sway Finland.

Soviet naval and/or air units patrolled the North Sea, while Mother Russia gained control of Spain and advanced four units into Poland.

Meanwhile, the Western Powers gained control of Hungary--that lonely blue square next to Czechoslovakia.   France also added a couple of units to its military.

There was a lot of "off screen action," primarily attempt to gain control of various South American countries and most importantly--the United States.  America's entry into the Euro-rivalry was considered a major game-changer.

Here, the Soviets consolidated their naval/air units in the Baltic Sea, while a military unit was pushed closer to the German-Polish border.

Naval maneuvers began in earnest as the British, French and Italian navies put to sea in the Mediterranean and North Sea.  And speaking of highly technical forces, the research & development (R&D) race was another "off camera front" that was going full-bore throughout the game. 

As the game drew to a close, long range bombers, night fighters, heavy tanks, mechanized infantry were just a few of the military hardware that was being fielded by most of the powers.  
While America's entry into the near-conflict would  have been a game changer, the development of the atomic bomb would have been a game-ender.
But as it turned out, no one was able to harness the power of the atom.  The Soviets achieved economic domination of Europe--without firing a shot.
Cory said this was often a common outcome.  That players are often cautious about starting a war they could possibly lose in one fell swoop.  Here's the final disposition of all the forces...

Joe confessed that he was frustrated throughout the game.  He had three out of the four cards necessary to develop the atomic bomb.  Cory and I kept thwarting him by "burying" all the other atomic research cards in various ways during game play.

While in the political arena, Germany was able to gain control of Persia, but was continually thwarted in Anschluss-ing with Austria. 

I must admit I spent more time trying to counter Joe's moves than Cory's, which allowed Cory build up Mother Russia's industrial capacity.  And speaking of industry, the Western Powers industrial base is the weakest of the major powers.  The primary goal of a Capitalist player is to develop their industrial capacity and get the United States to join in the fun.  So it's in the Communist and Fascist players' best interest to keep America from becoming involved.

T&T can be considered a quick and dirty strategy game of World War II.  Sort of.   Especially since one could conceivably win without setting off a war, as happened in our game.  It certainly is more of a game than a monster simulation like War in Europe , or the The Europa Series.  But the benefit is, one can complete a game in one sitting. 

Our game lasted less than four hours and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

One Minute of Shameless Self-Promotion

 Okay, it's more like one-minute and seven seconds, according to YouTube.  I finally finished making my YouTube Channel all snazzy--or at least as snazzy as I can get it.

The biggest problem I had was how to get a picture to fit into the Channel Art frame.  That's the long banner-like image you'll find along the top of various personal channels.  Every picture I have was too small in its original format to fit into the banner, which has a pixel dimension of 2120 x 1190. 

There are on-line instructions on how to resize images, but they're written for people using Photoshop, which I don't have.

But I do have, often referred to as a "poor man's Photoshop."

One day I was playing around with the program and--behold! 

I stumbled across the Resize function, under the Image Tab of the toolbar.  I took the Raking Fire image I've been using as a logo, made some adjustments on the wording and installed it as Stern Rake Studio's Channel Art

It's not exactly how I how I envisioned it would look like, but it will certainly do for now.  At least it's better than the default black & gray cube art.

With the Channel Art in place, I then turned to making my Channel Trailer

Basically, this is a one-minute and seven second advertisement for Stern Rake Studio.  So along with a sampling of movies that are currently "on the air," there's a call for viewers to subscribe.

I also hope my current fans enjoy it.

The channel trailer is labelled as a first edition, because I intend to update it as I make more movies and hopefully get better at what I'm doing.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book Review: Battles of the Bible, 1400 BC--AD 73, From Ai to Masada

It's been a while since I've read a military history book.  While Biblical History isn't my favorite era, I do find it very intriguing that at this given point in time, Scriptures and warfare coincided.

There are a number of books on biblical warfare, including the well-regarded work of Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon.  However, instead of tackling such a scholarly book, I went for this version of Battles of the Bible because it had lots of pictures and maps.

This book was a collaborative effort by several historian/authors:

Phyllis G. Jestice

Rob S. Rice

Martin J. Dougherty and

Michael E. Haskew

These writers divvied-up the 20 chapters and focused on particular battles, campaigns or an entire wars fought within the near-1500 year span that comprises the Biblical Era (roughly 1400 B.C to 74 A.D.).

While the book primarily dealt with military operations, some larger-than life biblical heroes were mentioned in passing, such as Samson...

...and David's "celebrity deathmatch" with the Philistine champion, Goliath.

I found the book to be enjoyable, easy to read and informative. 
However, two out of the three reviewers on Amazon didn't think so.  Both 2-star raters felt that none of the authors had little, or no knowledge of The Bible and Biblical History.

I wouldn't know. 

As a Catholic, I must admit I have a typical Catholic's near-ignorance of what's in the Good Book.  (Hey, we get everything we need to know when we attend mass, right?).  So I'll have to accept the 2-star ratings "as gospel" for now.

What I did notice is the narrative throughout the book avoided any hot button issues and topics to the point of being politically correct.  For example, the region in question was commonly referred to as "Palestine," as opposed to Israel/Judea (or "Iudea" as the Romans spelled it).  While on the battle maps, Israelite forces were depicted in red (normally used for opposition, "opfor," or "bad guys"), despite Israel's national colors being dark-sky blue and white.

I suspect the publisher wanted to avoid offending readers, which despite my comments about political correctness, was largely achieved.  None of the chapters attempted to refute The Bible, but instead tried to reconcile Scripture with history.

Maybe that's why none of the authors chose to write about Battle of Jericho and how the "walls came tumblin' down."  The Crossing of the Red Sea also isn't mentioned either, despite the book cover sporting a dramatic, "Cecil B. DeMille" style painting of the Pharaoh's Chariot Corps about to get a divine dunking.

Whether the authors know anything about The Bible, or not, there was one recurring moral that was often touched upon:  Thou shall have no other gods before me.
Yup.  In many cases the Israelites found themselves on the outs with God, because they blew past the other nine commandments and violated Commandment Numero Uno.  The god Baal, in his various guises, was often the recurring villain who led the chosen people astray.  But then God would dispatch a hero, even a heroine, who would convince the people to turn from their wicked ways and save the Israelite people from their enemies.
Overall, I give this book 3-stars.  It doesn't appear as scholarly as Professor Herzog & Gichon's work of the same title (which I haven't read yet).  However, Battles of the Bible from Ai to Masada, provides a good introduction on the topic, along with useful graphics for wargamers.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Some Assembly Required

Folks often say that it takes a long time to completely move and settle into a new place.  My home consolidation with Janet has proven to be no exception.  Even though the Big Moving Day was almost two months ago, my studio is still in a partial state of disarray.
The primary reason for the delay in re-establishing the studio is because my large, L-shaped desk didn't quite survive the trip... was the only item to suffer major damage during the move.  The good news is, only have the desk is broken.  The sturdier half is still intact and we may use it for a workbench.  It's already being put to use as a storage shelf in the garage...

While I really liked the desk, a gift from my ex-wife, I had serious doubts about maneuvering it up the stairs, through the narrow hallway and into its new home. 
So the only option was to embark on a quest for a new desk.
On Labor Day Monday, our labors were rewarded.  We found a nice, corner desk at Office Depot.  The store didn't have any in stock, so we had to get one delivered. 
My new desk arrived a few days ago... all we have to do is put it together.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pioneer Wargamer Passes Away

A couple of days ago, the wargaming community heard the quiet news that Donald Featherstone passed away.

The actual details have been hard to come by.  So far, I only received the news via blogposts by Mister Nizz, van Kradenburg and the crew from Meeples and Miniatures

I've known of Donald Featherstone and his work for about as long as I've been a wargamer. Although the only times I encountered his books were in various libraries.  I never seemed to find any in the game stores.  (This was back in the pre-online shopping/E-bay days). 

So I only have two of his works:

Wargaming: Ancient and Medieval Periods, and

Campaigning with the Duke of Wellington & Featherstone...

I met the man once, back in 1997.  Some gamers I was briefly acquainted with, while stationed at Fort Bragg, NC, knew Mr. Featherstone.  He'd arrived to join them on a road trip to the Siege of Augusta wargame convention.  During a private gaming session on the night before they left, he chatted with me about his superimposed image on the cover of Campaigning with the Duke.  He said the advice he was giving Wellington was on where to buy the best fish & chips.

So even though my encounter with Mr. Featherstone lasted only several moments, he did sign my copy of Wargaming Ancient and Medieval Periods.  So his passing feels a tad personal to me.

Rest in Peace Mr. Featherstone and thank you for all you've done for our hobby.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dragonflight 2013--The Convention and the Movie

(Image:  Dragon Flight's Convention Guide)
A few weeks ago, my friend Joe and I took a roadtrip up to Bellevue, WA to attend at the Saturday portion of this year's Dragonflight (#34).  The convention was sponsored by...

Because of our busy work schedules Joe and I missed the on-line gaming reservations, so we were hoping if we arrived early enough we'd get a chance to sign up for Here I Stand

We were on the road early enough to get through a construction detour in Renton, arrive before the front desk opened and grab a quick breakfast.  But alas, despite our best laid plans and efforts, the two remaining spots not absorbed by on-line registrants were already taken by the time we got to the sign-up sheets .  Or as Maxwell Smart always said:  Missed it by that much.
So we sought solace in other games.  We ended up playing Last Night on Earth, hosted by Chris Ewick, owner of The Game Matrix.
Afterwards, we got a chance to playtest GMT's upcoming game:  Triumph and Tragedy, hosted by Cory.
 The outcomes of both games will be the subject of future posts.  In the meantime, I just finished uploading Stern Rake Studio's 30th YouTube movie:  Dragonflight 2013, so you can get a gist of the convention's activities.