Monday, May 7, 2018

"Queen to Queen's Level Two, Mr. Spock."

As a young geek in the '70s and '80s, I desired a handful of impossible things: a robot, a Star Trek communicator, a laser, a computer, my own Millennium Falcon, and a flying car. Today I now possess, in some form, all but one of these treasures: I have a Roomba robot, an iPhone, several lasers (pointers, leveler, etc.), multiple computers, a Millennium Falcon drone (okay, somethings you have to settle on, but still way cool), but alas, not yet the flying car. One object, however, was also a desire of my youth, and was in fact available back then: A three-dimensional chess set from Star Trek!1
The object of my geek desire.

Alas for my young self, though available, the three dimensional chess set was a replica model built by the Franklin Mint (of overpriced collectible plate fame), with gilded pieces and components, and whopping out at way over $200 (back when $100 was closer to $300 in today's dollars). That was too much moolah for a young teen, paper route or no paper route. Plus, I had other things to pay for that seemed of more value (like D&D books, Atari video cartridges, and pizza). So I passed on the gilded glory of that replica set, and played old-fashioned two dimensional chess, like Khan stuck on Ceti Alpha V (or is that VI?).

Warp forward several decades (and several Treks), and I find myself now with a little more ready cash. I also knew that the Franklin Mint was still selling replica sets, so I figured surely the price had dropped (if not for new, at least for used) and maybe I could get one of these beauties, just like Kirk and Spock used to play.

"Computer: Locate a Star Trek three-dimensional chess set," I cried. When the computer ignored me, and the Roomba simply continued to vacuum the floor, I broke down and typed the request into Google.2

When I saw the prices revealed by Google, however, I learned that the value of these things had increased like the warp speed numbers from TOS to TNG. $300 a pop, new or used?!? Who were selling these things, Harry Mudd? I was also astute enough to notice that the sets in question were not actually true replicas of the set from the series, but overly gussied-up "inspired by" designs. Some, still exorbitantly priced, were actually based on a design in The Next Generation series (appreciated, but hardly a nostalgia source). A perusal of reviews indicated that the sets were small, and actually not very well constructed ("flimsy" was one of the reviewer's words).
Yep, sounds like quality Mudd merchandise after all.

On the other hand, I mused, how hard could it be to just build my own? All I needed were some clear flat surfaces and a support structure of some sort.

I began to design. My goal was to create something easy for me to cut (as I told a friend, "I'm no fabricator”), and fashioned out of as many found objects as possible— a "penny project," or at least as close to $20 or less as I could manage.

A lot of math, some failed designs (and a realization that I hadn't needed to do all that math) and a few minor injuries3 later... And voila:
It lives! It lives! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!


A pine shelf board, left over from an old home project (free!)
Three 5"x5" clear acrylic lids from old square craft containers (had 'em, so free!)
Four 2.5"x2.5" clear plexiglass-style plastic squares from a DYI/hardware store ($3.49)
Four 2.5" hex bolts with hex nuts ($1.20)
Four magnetic "push pins" ($5.99 for 10)
Four small "rare earth" disc magnets (had 'em, so free!)
Transparent inkjet label "paper" ($6.00 for pack of 8 sheets; used 2)
A set of small plastic chess pieces from a dollar store ($1. Duh.)
Mounting putty ($1.89 for 2 oz.; used 1 oz.)
Carpenter's glue (had)
"Super" glue (had)
Paint (had)


Computer (for design and printing)
Power sander (also did a little hand sanding)

Total cash cost to me: $19.59

Eat your heart out, Franklin Mint/Harry Mudd!

What I used the materials for:

Wood: Support and base (cut with a jigsaw)
Acrylic container lids: Three "main boards" attached to support.
Clear plastic squares: Four small, movable "warp boards.”4
Hex bolts and nuts: Posts for warp boards.
Disc magnets: Attach to bottom of warp board posts.
Push pin magnets: Used to hold warp boards to main boards.
Transparent label paper: Chessboard pattern printed on, then applied to clear boards.
Mounting putty: Add weight to chess pieces, provide light tack effect to hold pieces in place.

To answer questions:

The "Cantilever E" design is entirely mine. It allows for a simple build, with no need to drill the plastic, and leaves the playing area uniquely open. Nothing interferes with the line of movement of the pieces or the placement of the moveable "warp boards."

I designed my chess board pattern on my computer (with vertical "sighting marks" for the overlapping ranks), and simply printed it on the labels with my inkjet printer. Easier, cleaner, and much better looking than any hand painting attempt I could have made!

The mounting putty is highly recommended. It has just enough tack to hold the chess pieces to the plastic boards. When someone inevitably bumps the table, I don't get an avalanche of pawns!

The hex bolts are superglued to the chess pattern labels stuck to the underside of the warp boards. I glued the bolt heads to the labels and not the plastic because "super" glue will cloud acrylic, but not the label plastic.

The hex nuts are an attempt to level out the small magnets attached to the bottom of the hex bolts. It turns out that bolt bottoms are not square, but slightly slanted. The nuts help; it's not perfect, but it's close enough.

The magnets are not glued to anything; they're magnets! They are strong enough to grip each other through the hard acrylic, and even hold a full warp board upside down. (If you try this, don't bother with ceramic magnets or magnetic tape: they're much too weak. Use "rare earth" aka "neodymium" magnets. I was lucky to have some on hand.)

The push pins contain rare earth magnets in the base. The plastic heads are easy to grip and remove with one hand, making the warp boards quite simple to move and reattach. The magnets also mean there won't ever be a problem with any plastic prongs or post holes wearing out with use (a potential flaw of the commercial sets). Two minor drawbacks are that the magnets allow the posts to turn if nudged, and a severe jarring motion or bump of the set might cause the posts to fall off altogether. But any turning is easily correctable, and it takes a pretty egregious jolt to knock the posts off; a little care during play should prevent this.

The Rules:

As it turns out, there are truly no "official" rules for Star Trek-style three dimensional chess. The original set was simply a futuristic prop created by art director Walter Jeffries. The actors merely placed and moved the pieces as stage action, with little specific direction, trusting the unusual design to hide the fact they weren't actually following any set of rules.5

Rules can be found all over the web. The most famous are Andrew Bartmeiss's "Federation Standard" rules, which he sells commercially, and on which the Franklin Mint rules are reportedly based. Second are Jen Meder's "Tournament Rules for Three Dimensional Chess." The two systems are quite different; Meder's is simpler, but assumes that pieces block movement through squares directly above or below— one can move a piece to the square, but not past it. It also allows for "virtual squares" that are assumed to occupy the empty gaps between the warp boards. Bartmeiss follows a much stricter movement rule; as I haven't purchased his rules, I can only go from reports and second-hand rewrites, which indicate that his three dimensional movement is highly restricted from level to level. Other rules variants exist as well.

So, given the above, I simply created my own!

I decided that I wanted a free-form, fully three-dimensional game, with a strong intuitive feel, while still very much being chess. So my rules both restrict the pieces to following the physically existing paths on the board, but also allow pieces to move over and under each other (and across levels) quite freely— it’s supposed to be an abstracted, three dimensional space combat game played by Starfleet officers, after all!

I call my rules StarChess, and here they are (PDF file): StarChess Rules by Howard Shirley More Complete StarChess Rules (but without diagrams)
My initial placement rules are based on the layout suggested by Joseph Franz in his classic Star Trek: Starfleet Technical Manual. I think this layout reflects the nature of chess, as it allows the Knights to jump the pawn line, just as in classic chess, and it also allows for a reasonable implementation of the castling move. Other starting positions must necessarily restrict one or the other, if not both.


Thanks are due to Lon Maxwell for helpful advice as well as his offer to help build a larger version (which we will do). Also thanks to to Jen Meder and Andrew Bartmeiss for rules inspiration, to Joseph Franz for revealing that yes, this could be a DIY project, and of course to Walter M. Jeffries, Gene Roddenberry, and the cast and crew of Star Trek for creating a fascinating future.

Live long, and prosper!

Oh, and "Checkmate, Mr. Spock."

Parzival out.


1.)  Back before there was any such designation as "The Original Series," because no one had even thought of anything more.

2.) I suppose I could have asked Siri, but she would have just started giving me directions that for some reason YOU CAN'T TURN OFF UNTIL THE FRICKIN' PHONE BATTERY DIES. And the directions would have been to "Starred Wreck 3 Diamond All Chestnut Street."
So basically, we're still working on the Enterprise computer. Unless this is an episode where it's been hacked.

3.) I originally attempted to cut my own plastic using a box cutter blade to score the plastic and then a sharp downward push to snap the plastic. Hey, it's what Bob Vila recommended. What I got was shattered plastic, a punctured hand, and a directive from She Who Must Be Obeyed that I am forbidden to ever cut plastic again. So I had the store do it for me.

4.) Others refer to these as "attack boards," though as far as I can tell they attack nothing and aren't specifically used for attack, except incidentally. They do, however, change the shape of the game board drastically, and add more levels. Plus, they can carry a piece to new positions beyond the piece's capability to reach. Since these movable mini-levels, in effect, warp the game space, I call them "warp boards." I think that's thoroughly logical and decidedly clever. And of course, you agree.

5.) If you watch the show carefully, you will quickly see that the movements and placements of pieces in the "game" bear little resemblance to chess of any kind, and often make no logical sense. Leonard Nimoy's Spock is ironically the worst at simulating chess game play; he simply picks and places pieces without regard to their long established movement patterns, and declares "check" when nothing is threatening the opposing king by any reasonable stretch. Shatner, on the other hand, does attempt to move the pieces in a chess-like manner, and even creates a plausible "checkmate" position in his scenes.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Space: The Frantic Frontier

Captain's Log, Stardate 18019.8
"The USS Enterprise has just received word from Star Fleet Command of a... dangerous alliance... between the Klingon Empire, the Romulan Star Empire, and the Tholian Republic;  an alliance that appears to be centered on our destruction. I am certain that my able crew and I can fend off... any... combined attack. We'd better, because they've just... begun."

Cue theme music in your head.

Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five year mission— to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before...And apparently to survive an unending assault of anything the galaxy can throw at her.

Logo: STAR TREK Panic

Starring Chase as Captain James T. Kirk 
And David as Commander Montgomery Scott 
Also starring Michael as Dr. James "Bones" McCoy 
With Yours Truly as Lieutenant Uhura (

End theme music.

The Frantic Frontier

You have to love a blog post with a good theme; so too for a game. My gaming group recently gathered to try a recent board game acquisition of mine: STAR TREK Panic By USAopoly & Fireside Games.

Based on the board game Castle Panic, Star Trek Panic is a cooperative "tower defense" game, with the tower in question being the beloved USS Enterprise, NCC1701, "no bloody A, B, C, D, or E." (This is strictly an Original Series game.) The players take on the roles of the bridge crew of the Enterprise, working together to complete their five year mission and survive the continual onslaught of the enemies of the Federation.
The crew is ready...or are we?

Play summary:

The Enterprise dominates the board as a very nicely done 3D cardboard model. The board is a starfield covered by three concentric circles divided into 6 equal sectors like slices of a pie. The model of the Enterprise is placed in the center of the circles, and remains there throughout the game. The circles represent ranges from the Enterprise (short,  medium, long) which determine whether or not her weapons can hit approaching targets. The game begins with three "threat tokens" representing enemy vessels (Klingon, Romulan or Tholian), which gradually approach the Enterprise, firing weapons to  remove her shields and destroy the ship's hull. The shields are represented by blue translucent plastic walls stuck around the model, one wall per sector. Hits to a shield either damage it (an electric explosion marker is placed on the shield), or, if the shield is already damaged, remove it. If the shield is gone in a sector, damage is done instead to the ship's hull in that sector. (More on this below).

Though the game is divided into player turns, the game is entirely cooperative: the players are working together as a team, and can freely discuss tactics, card usage, trades, etc. that will help them all achieve victory. So one player's turn still involves all the other players, and the game is won or lost by everybody, not any one person.

It's Captain Kirk! Or maybe it's the Mirror Universe version of him, because we all know beards are EVIL!

Red Alert! Battle Stations! Red Alert!

The game is divided into one turn per player. Each player will take actions to protect the Enterprise and advance the mission (see below), working and discussing what to do with the other members of the crew.

The players each have a hand of cards drawn from a shared Enterprise Deck. These cards represent what each player may do on his or her turn, and a player may use some or all of his cards on a single turn (if possible; depends on the card), or save these for later turns, or potentially trade one card with another player. The cards include phaser and torpedo attacks, but these attacks are typically restricted to specific ranges and/or sectors, meaning that the player may only shoot at targets within the card's depicted range and sector. Other cards grant special abilities or effects, ranging from drawing more cards, searching through the discard pile for specific cards to reuse, removing a specific threat, or other helpful actions, including repairing or rebuilding either shields or the hull.

"All hands! Brace for impact!"

Once a player has played all the cards he can or will play, the threats (enemies) remaining on the board advance towards the Enterprise and shoot her, automatically damaging her shield or hull in each threat's specific sector. Worse, if the shield and hull in a given sector are both destroyed, any hit removes a card from the undrawn Enterprise Deck, meaning that card will not be available to the crew for the rest of the game! When all the enemies have moved an attacked, the player draws two new threat tokens and rolls a die to see which sector each token is placed in (all tokens begin at long range). The result is that there are constantly new enemies arriving to attack the Enterprise, with very rare moments of any respite.

A Great Crew Knows Its Duty

Fortunately, the players do have other options to help them out. First, each player has selected a member of the crew to represent during the game. I drew the lovely and capable Lt. Uhura, who as Communications Officer has the special ability of drawing extra cards at the start of her turn. Scotty (played in our game by David) as Chief Engineer can repair damaged shields or hull sections— you do NOT want to go to space without Scotty! There are seven characters to choose from, all quite powerful in their advantages: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov. Since the game has a 6 player maximum, this allows for different interesting mixes of crew, especially for games with fewer players.
You know it's Scotty because he's wearing plaid

"Steady As She Goes, Mr. Sulu."

In addition to special abilities, each player may "maneuver"  the Enterprise on his or her turn. This is an exceptionally clever mechanic, involving simply rotating the Enterprise model one sector, either clockwise or counter clockwise. As a result, an exposed hull space might be rotated away from an approaching attacker, interposing a protective shield instead. Or the ship might be rotated so that a player's phaser card now covers a threat's location, allowing that enemy to be damaged or destroyed. The Enterprise may also "move forward," which simply means that all objects in the two sectors facing the ship are advanced one space towards the ship (all other objects remain where they are).
I'm a doctor, not a starship pilot!

"Incoming Subspace Transmission from Starfleet Command, Captain."

Lastly, the game has a built in variable "game clock" in the form of Mission Cards. A Mission Card is a list of actions and/or cards that the crew must complete or play within a specified number of player turns. Each Mission may have specific restrictions on the players that make the mission more challenging, and almost always call for certain cards to be "committed" to the mission— a "committed" card cannot be played for its normal effect, but only serves to fulfill the requirements of the mission. Cards are categorized as Command, Science, Engineering, Medical, and Security cards (some cards have no designation). These categories are used to determine which cards a Mission may require, resulting in a trade-off of tactical thinking: Do you use that Dilithium card to repair a shield, or commit it to the current mission? "What's your answer, Mr. Chekov?" 
If a mission is completed, the crew immediately gain rewards (such as much-needed ship repairs). If a mission is failed or not completed in the time allowed, no reward is earned and a new Mission Card is drawn. Once five missions are completed successfully, the crew simply has to eliminate the remaining threats in the Threat Bag and the game is over.
The role I was born to play! "Hailing frequencies open, Captain."

Our Play:

We opted for random drawing of the character cards, with the results already mentioned. We placed the starting threats on the board, and jumped right in. I've played the game solo a few times (this works well, though tracking multiple crew can be confusing), so I had some grasp of the mechanics. Though a few of us only had a general familiarity with the classic series, we were soon mimicking accents, throwing out show quotes, and attempting Vulcan salutes throughout. We quickly discovered that the game is aptly named. Those Klingons, Romulans and Tholians Just. Keep. Coming. After a few turns, and especially during crippling Missions like "Charlie X" and "The Deadly Years," even a Vulcan could be forgiven for freaking out over all the damage being done to the poor Enterprise. "Panic" indeed. But we rose to the occasion, trading cards and plotting maneuvers and attacks like the best graduates of Starfleet Academy. We blew a few missions (the nearly impossible "Charlie X" being one of them), but persevered. When we gained our hard fought victory, Scotty may have been a bit teary-eyed over the state of his beloved beauty, but it wasn't anything a wee stay in space dock wouldn't set right. And we all agreed the game was a blast to play.
Star Trek gang sign!


This game oozes theme like a Denobian Slime Devil. The Enterprise model is terrific, and the Panic mechanic is perfectly suited to the concept of a starship crew working together to defend a ship under attack. Although I've never played the original Castle Panic, from what I know of it I think the Star Trek theme may be more suited to the system than the original concept. The Mission Cards are a creative addition as well, and the ones we drew captured the feel of the episodes on which each is based. The question of whether to assign cards to the mission or use them against the threats really upped the ante, creating strategic and tactical decisions that were both challenging and fun. The rules are well written and quite clear, though at times we did have difficulty finding the right section to answer questions that came up in play. But for the most part, we only ever had to refer to the handy reference cards included in the Character Deck, or to the threat guides which are printed on the board itself. Familiarity with the game would probably remove any need to look up rules at all.

For theme, playability, presentation and fun, I'm giving STAR TREK Panic five Vulcan salutes:
\V/_ \V/_ \V/_ \V/_ \V/_

Play long, and prosper!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Across a Blasted Plain

It's the end of another year, and things have been a little wild. So as far as game blogging goes, I haven't been able to give much time to it. I had intentions of doing so; oh, such great intentions! But, alas, intention and action are two very different things.

But no more! Today intention and action combine! Hooray! Huzzah! Whoopie! And other exclamations of Joy and Enthusiasm!

Joy and Enthusiasm. Plus, I'm a wizard.

And on to today's blog, already titled (as you saw above)...

Across a Blasted Plain

It is the not-too-distant future. The world has changed, both physically and politically, and not for the better. War rages across the continents, headed by the two last vestiges of the once great nation states: The North American Combine and the Paneuropean Union. Who is good and who is bad is difficult to define. Suffice it to say that the sides are at war, and it is hell. And the devil that rules this hell bears neither horns nor pitchfork, though fire is certainly its plaything. For this ruler is more than devil; it is an OGRE!

Okay, there's my nicely evocative intro for my latest nostalgic obsession: the classic micro-game, Ogre. For those who weren't gaming all there was to game in 1980-ish, Ogre is a game of futuristic armored combat set in the (uncomfortably close) year 2085 (sorry, kiddos, not my future in all probability, but a year you might indeed see). In the original game (sold for $2.95 in a plastic baggie), one player commands a force of heavily armored tanks, missile tanks, howitzers, armored ground-effect-vehicles,  and powered-armor equipped infantry. The other player gets one tank—an Ogre. It is a decidedly unfair game... for the player who doesn't have the Ogre. For the Ogre is an enormous robot tank bristling with weapons of all kinds (including tactical nuclear missiles) and armor so thick the other force has little hope of penetrating it. Once the Ogre starts moving towards its objective, it is almost impossible to stop. But trying to figure out what forces are best to use and how to best use them is the fun (and challenge) of the game! (For the Ogre player, the fun comes in crushing the puny forces sent to stop it. You can almost hear the evil, mechanical MUA-HA-HA-HA in your head as your Ogre roll onwards towards your targets...)
The original cover. I'd tell that guy to run, but it's too late at this point.

Decades back Steve Jackson Games released metal miniatures for the game, including a large glossy paper hex map for the game. It was a great product, but a paper mat (however gorgeous) just doesn't quite work with realistically scaled three-dimensional miniatures. I bought these miniatures years ago, and painted them up, but they've been sitting in their boxes for quite awhile now, largely because actually buying enough metal miniatures to replicate the possible forces in Ogre (and its sister game, G.E.V.) was prohibitively expensive. (I lucked out and got my sets at half-price, before they became a hot nostalgia commodity. Don't believe me? Look on eBay!) At the time I, and many others, cried out for Steve Jackson Games to sell these figures in plastic, assuming that would be cheaper. (It probably actually wasn't back then, but we assumed it was anyway.)
The metal miniatures set box cover. I also have the GEV set. Envy me.

Well, Steve Jackson Games has finally done just that. Last year and this year I hopped onto a Kickstarter for plastic miniatures for Ogre— miniatures in the same scale and style (in fact, identical) to the metal figures I already had.

My first set arrived last month (I'll blog about them later). And with them they brought the full-on Ogre bug... that I wanted something bigger and more impressive than the original paper battle mat.

So I started looking around at makers of battle mats. Though these mats are often gorgeous, they are also expensive; too expensive for me. I then toyed with the idea of making my own, but honestly, as a DYI-er, I'm more of a dreamer than a fabricator. The thought of spray painting cloth to produce the look of an atomically-blasted desert plain was simply too daunting. Maybe if I could just find a piece of cloth that already had the look I wanted?  Cue Google search!

Now, tracking down a vaguely described visual appearance for cloth just really isn't what Google is good at (sorry, Google). It seems that cloth makers don't describe their wares as "nuclear-devastation brown," or "radioactive apocalyptic desert." Maybe the ladies and gentlemen who are sewing blankets and pillow shams just aren't attracted to such descriptions. Strange, but likely true.

Therefore, I had to resort to actually looking at fabric stores! Walking down aisles! Muttering "blasted plain, blasted plain, blasted plain..." over and over to myself while nice ladies with shopping carts of flowered prints swiftly scooted to other regions. Then, at our local Joann store (ask your sewing and home hobby friends), I stumbled upon a mottled green fleece labeled "Tie-dye Green." Well, I didn't want green, but it didn't look like what I associated with tie-dying at all; it looked like an abstractly mottled surface in multiple shades of no discernible repeating pattern. Had it been brown (or a suitably radioactive muted orange— no, Google can't help with that, either), it would have been perfect. But alas, the aisle bore no browns or oranges or even yellows. But now I knew how fabric makers title their "nuclear apocalypse disaster" colors to attract hobby sewers. They call it "Tie-dye!"
"He can be taught!"

Armed with knowledge, I scurried back to my command center and called up Google again. I typed in "tie dye brown fleece" and hey, presto! up popped "Blizzard Tie-Dye Khaki Fleece..." at Joann! (I should have muttered my way down at least one more aisle...) And this week it was on sale at half price. Cue me saying, "Hey, Honey, how would you like to go to that clearance shoe store you like?" To which she replied, "That happens to be near the Joann store with the desert fabric you were looking for? Get in the car."
I am known very well.

So, one car trip, two pairs of shoes, and about $7 and change later, I have the below:


The Ogre approaches. Give up.
(PS to Ogre-geeks. Yes, those are Combine vehicles, and the Ogre is technically a Combine unit. Guess making killer AI tanks that can think for themselves is a bad idea, huh? Oddly, this is how SJG packed the original metal boxed set. Yes, I painted those.)

And as you can see, it's already Ogre approved.

--- Howard Shirley, aka Parzival

Friday, July 22, 2016

The War of the Reluctant Caesars

Well, I've been away from this for awhile for a host of reasons, but I'm finally back to catch up with a least a few fun gaming stories. So without further ado, I give you (stirring drumroll)...

The Tale of the Reluctant Caesars

Last weekend saw the gathering of my semi-irregular-hey-are-we-gonna-do-this-or-not gaming group. Which turned out to be the theme of the evening.

Only four of us could get together, so I set out what I thought would be some workable games for a mid-range number of players. The choices included my newly acquired copy of Dungeons & Dragons: The Conquest of Nerath (essentially the Axis & Allies system in a fantasy setting), Risk: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition, Risk: Godstorm, and Conquest of the Empire. The first two games on this list are ideally intended for four players, whereas the last is designed for up to six (a detail which I believe was more significant than we anticipated).

The players for the evening consisted of my friend Michael, his teen-age son Chase, and Lon, a friend from work and new addition to the group. As one probably guesses, given the title of this post, Conquest of the Empire (hereafter CotE) won out as the preferred choice.

"It's YUGE!"

If you're not familiar with CotE, it's a reprint by Eagle Games of one of Milton Bradley's classic GameMaster series. The Eagle Games version (now sadly OOP) is quite simply a stunning production. The map features the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (completely surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and including Britannia). As one would hope, it is gorgeous. It is also HUGE. The board is 3'x3.5'; we had to place some old oversized "dining room table protectors" inherited from my wife's grandmother on top of my 3'x4' kitchen table to give us extra edge space on which to set our pieces. (I brought over a small side table to hold mine.) The pieces are brightly colored plastic figures of Roman legionnaires, Roman generals, Caesars, Auxiliary cavalry, Roman galleys, and catapults (with working swing arms!). There are also cities, city walls ("fortifications"), and Roman roads, plus assorted faction markers and over-sized heavy plastic "Roman" coins in two denominations, one "gold" and one "silver." The custom dice are a bit oversized, and depict the various forces that can participate in a battle (match the image rolled to a unit which is attacking, and that unit kills an opposing piece). The game also includes markers and cards for an entirely different game using the same pieces (and called "CotE II"). Since the rules for these, however, have proven to be about as intelligible to us as a Latin manuscript, we strictly play the "classic" version, which is only slightly modified from the original. The goal of the game is to capture every opposing Caesar; each player has just one. This is done by capturing provinces, collecting tribute, building armies, navies, cities and roads, and engaging in singularly devastating combat.

Except for Lon, the newbie, this was to be our group's fourth time playing CotE (if you count the time a player was eliminated on the very first turn; on that time, we proclaimed a "do-over," and his Caesar was resurrected). So we're somewhat familiar with the game, but hardly experts, and barely qualify as veterans. Lon chose the red army, Chase, blue, Michael, purple, and myself, black.

Gentlemen, Start Your Legions

Each Caesar begins the game in control of a specific starting province, dictated by the rules and the number of players in the game. Unlike Axis&Allies or Risk, each force holds one and only one province at the start of the game; the rest are solely acquired through movement and conquest. Provinces are worth either 10 "talents" (1 gold coin) or 5 "talents" (1 silver coin) during a player's "collect tribute phase." A city on a province (only one per province) adds 5 more talents. After all movement and combat by a player, these talents are collected and used to purchase forces, which are then placed on the starting province only, ending the player's turn.

Movement is simple; depending on the piece, on a turn it moves either 1 or 2 provinces (or sea spaces, for galleys). However, all pieces can only move if a general or Caesar accompanies them. So if you don't have one of these with your forces, they're staying put until one of these leader units joins them. Galleys can move by themselves, but a leader is required to accompany any land forces the galley transports across the sea. So, no leader, no legion— at least, not a mobile one.

Combat is equally simple. When forces enter an enemy's province, and that province has troops, then a battle must occur. (Unoccupied provinces are captured without a fight; Roman citizens appear to have fickle allegiances.) Both the attacker and the defender divide their troops into a "battle line" and a "reserve." Battle line troops can fight and be killed; reserves cannot (though reserve catapults can attack— "Unleash Hell!" Which I think is why we have leash laws). Leaders can increase the number of troops on the battle line, which adds more combat dice. There are a few other niceties, but that serves as an explanation. Once all non-leader forces have been eliminated, or either player opts to retreat, the battle is over (though cavalry gets an extra attack against retreating forces). The survivor conquers the territory. Any unsupported leaders are captured. Generals may be ransomed and returned to their forces (the players agree on any terms, including alliances, permission to use roads/straits, or just plain gold), or executed, their remains ignobly interred in the cardboard game box. A captured Caesar eliminates the player controlling it from the game, with the victor claiming his forces, lands and tribute.

Build Armies! Build Cities! Build Roads! Build Walls! Fight Inflation! (Wait, What?)

The real strategy of the game, however, lies in tribute and purchasing. Different units have different costs, some quite significant compared to the amount of tribute received. Cities, fortifications, and roads may also be built, giving advantages in tribute, combat, and movement (respectively), and roads can only be built between cities (and adjacent cities at that). Roads allow land forces to treat movement along them as 1 movement cost, regardless of the length of the road, allowing the controlling player to move his forces rapidly from one end of the map to the other— that is, if the roads are built. And as in real life and the real Roman Empire, all this is complicated by inflation! Once any player exceeds 100 talents in tribute at the end of his turn, prices of all units and terrain features double for everyone. At 200 talents, prices triple. You may have more gold, but it's worth a lot less! This, too is significant.

On the Night In Question, or Who Wants To Be A Tough Guy Anyway?

Back to the start of our game. With four players, we each had the following starting locations: Chase held Macedonia (midway across the north half of the map, more or less), Michael held Mesopotamia (extreme eastern edge), Lon claimed Hispania (oh, you know where that is), and yours truly was granted the glorious province of Numidia (Ancient Carthage, modern Libya-ish; either way, I got a desert. Woohoo). From there, we each in turn spread our meager armies (5 legionnaires, 4 generals, 1 Caesar) as far as we could, and stopped. Literally, we just stopped. Each of us quickly made agreements to not attack across our extreme edge borders, and just began collecting tribute. There were minor "province swapping" moments with provinces left undefended, and a skirmish here or there, but for the most part nobody was willing to commit forces into all out attacks on anybody else.

For three hours.

I kid you not.

Oh, yes, some galleys got sunk. I even sent out two galleys to successfully sink a naval invasion force sent out by Chase ("It was against him!" he protested to me, pointing at Lon. "Well, you didn't tell my navy that," I replied. Hey, nobody sails through my sea without the proper paperwork and environmental impact forms, or at least a few talents slipping under the table. Preferably the latter.)
We did make a lot of jokes, including a few obligatory Python retreads and references to Dr. Who and Black Adder ("That's your cunning plan?"), but as for actually conquering the Roman Empire? Not these Caesars. "Yeah, that last guy? He got poisoned. The guy before that? Stabbed by his own bodyguard. Caesar, shmeaser, I think I'll take a pass and build a nice villa overlooking the beach."

The game wound up being called on account of "dang it's late and three of us have work tomorrow." We ruled that Chase would have wound up being the target of everyone for triggering the first round of inflation (these Caesars were not only reluctant, they were cheap), but it really wasn't possible to declare a victor.

How to Make War

In retrospect, it may be that CotE really isn't suited for a small group of players. As spread out as we were, and with the limited starting forces, it took two full times around the board for anyone to actually encounter anyone else, and at that point the incentive to fight each other was limited, due both to weak forces strung out over too many provinces and to fears of triggering inflation if another province got picked up. If we'd had a fifth Caesar, however, I think we'd have wound up with forces quickly pressing against each other, with tributes remaining low enough to encourage battles over provinces without the fear of the inflation jump.

Despite that, I think we all did enjoy building up our forces based on our personal strategies. Lon favored land units and connecting roads. I went for the largest navy (having little land mass in which to spread without potentially devastating combat). Michael and Chase attempted a mix. So a good time was had, even if the lands of Ancient Rome were a lot less bloody than we had expected.

Stay tuned for our next adventure in gaming...whenever that actually happens!

Howard Shirley, aka Parzival

PS: No pics, 'cause I didn't have my camera ready. Maybe I'll add some shots of CotE later.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Battle and the Gift

The Battle of Flatbrown Bridge

The Outskirts of Flatbrown, Connecticut
The town of Flatbrown, Connecticut had little going for it, aside from the bridge, which was flat, and brown, and, well, a bridge. There was also a stone wall which someone had half-built, and stopped, because there wasn’t much at Flatbrown to either wall in or wall out, so why bother, really? But half-built stone walls aren’t much to name a town for, and the bridge and the town came before the wall, so nobody was all that fussed to change the name anyway. But they were fussed about the British. And the town fathers, mothers, and even the odd aunt and uncle all agreed that fighting the British for the liberty of Flatbrown was worth the effort. So they raised a militia and stockpiled some powder, and even gathered up some old cannon from the French and Indian War. The powder and the cannon were enough to gain the interest (all be it temporary) of the Continental Army, who sent a small force to claim both. But what brought the interest of the Patriots also brought the interest of the British, and a detachment of British Regulars and Hessian jaegers set off to foil the Patriot plans. And where these two enemies met, was Flatbrown Bridge...

The Battle of Flatbrown Bridge is an imaginary battle of the American War of Independence, fought using my own simple rules, called Redcoats & Minutemen. As it happens, I had some cheap plastic 1/32 plastic soldiers from a visit a few years ago to Valley Forge. I had intended to make a simple game with them, and finally got around to it this past November (I got the bug again while researching a novel set during the war).

About the Rules

Redcoats & Minutemen is not intended to be a realistic simulation of 18th century warfare, or the American Revolution, though I have striven to give it the appropriate “flavor” for the period. It’s meant to be a quick and easy game, playable with little effort or expense, and easily accessible to younger gamers-in-training (“the wee bairns”) while holding enough challenge for older enthusiasts. Redcoats & Minutemen can be set up in just a few minutes, and played in thirty minutes to an hour. This action report is meant to give you a feel for how the game plays.

About the Battlefield

The Battlefield, Patriot View.
British Center: Three British Regular Regiments ("Redcoats") and a General
British Left (right of picture): Two Hessian Mercenary Regiments ("Hessians")
Patriot Left: Cavalry
Patriot Center: Militia (behind wall), General (in white), Mortar and crew in rear
Patriot Right: Field Gun and crew.
The battlefield is divided into 10 distinct rectangular sections. This was originally derived from an old set of foldable green-felt table protectors, two divided in thirds and one in half (further divided in the photos by wrapping a rubber band around the middle of each half, thus creating four sections). I thought this design would be a unique challenge, but it also creates a very simple battlefield to reproduce; 10 rectangles or squares arranged in an offset pattern 3/4/3. Redcoats & Minutemen is played entirely on this battlefield, and all movement and ranges are derived from this grid; you don’t need rulers to play. Terrain areas and objects are placed in the section, but a piece of terrain does not occupy the entire section but only the area covered by the terrain piece. Terrain also can’t cross section lines, except for a river. In the Battle of Flatbrown Bridge, the terrain consists of a wood on the middle left (Patriot view), the river crossing the middle, Flatbrown Bridge (living up to its name) on the middle right, and a stone fence partway across the Patriot center. Regiments can occupy as much of a section as they can fill, and can move freely around within a section, impeded only by terrain and the enemy. Enough of the details: On with the battle!

The Battle Rounds* Commence (*a turn involving both players)

The British Advance

British Redcoats fire on militia (behind fence. Yes, they really
are Hessian figures, but I don't have militia figures yet.)
In Battle Round one, the British won the Advantage (a die roll off) and rolled for Orders. Two dice were rolled for the two Hessian regiments, producing 1, 1 (Hessians, as mercenaries, can only receive orders based on their own dice, not the army as a whole). Three dice were rolled for the three Redcoat regiments, producing 5, 2, 1. The General rolled a 6, giving him 3 points to boost his Orders. He expended these points to make one of the Hessian dice a 4 (Infantry can receive orders on every 4 or better rolled). With this admittedly paltry set of options, the general ordered one Hessian regiment to advance across the Flatbrown Bridge and attack the Patriot’s Field Gun regiment. A regiment of Redcoats also advanced to the river’s edge, to fire upon the Patriot militia crouched behind the stone wall.
The Hessians fired, rolling 3 dice (4 - 1 for the range). Results: 4, 4, 1— all misses!
The Redcoats fired, rolling 2 dice (4 -1 for range, -1 for the protection of the fence): 5, 5— both hits!

The Patriots Respond

The Patriot General sends the Cavalry across the river.
This will be a Big Deal later. (Dun, dun, dun!)
The Patriot militia checked for a retreat (in heavy danger of a rout), rolling one die: 4. That was three more than the one figure remaining, which normally would force a retreat, but the fence boosted the militia’s morale as if it had one more figure, so the militia stood!  Ho, for the bravery of our stalwart citizens! (Three more than the number of figs remaining is a retreat; four more is a rout. Protective terrain boosts the morale.)

The Patriot general rolled his orders: Two dice for the cavalry regiment, one for the Field Gun, one for the Mortar, and one for the militia, producing 6, 6, 5, 5, 1. The General’s Order Dice was a 2, so he only gained 1 point to boost, which wouldn’t have any effect (he needs a minimum of 5 on an order die to issue orders to his specialized troops).

Unlike the British, the Patriot could spread his orders around as he liked, and he had enough to send orders to all his troops.
He sent the cavalry to ford the river, shielded by the woods. They had no enemy in range, so could not attack (cavalry can only engage in melee attacks against enemy in the same section).
The Field Gun, however, had a wide open line of sight to the Hessians on the bridge. “Get thee from our bridge, vile servants of the Devil!” quoth the artillery Captain (a fine preacher, if given to brimstone sermons). BOOM responded the gun: 6 dice, -1 for range: 6, 6, 6, 3, 1: The Hessians suffered horrible losses, with three/fourths of the regiment as casualties. Would they rout? The roll was a 1! Miraculously, the foul mercenaries stand!

The Militia, having only one die available, could not effectively return fire without abandoning the fence. This seemed unwise, so they held position and prepared for a certain assault.

But it was time for the mortar to speak, and most loudly it roared. Soaring over the heads of friend and foe, the shells exploded among the enemy like demons shrieking: 6, 6, 6, 5, 5, 1. An entire British regiment was wiped out!

The First Battle Round was over, and the Patriots had come out the best of it.

The Second Battle Round

The Second Battle Round began with both sides rolling a 5 on their respective dice. The tie meant the Advantage remained with the British general.

The British Assault

The British make an assault. They melee with the Cavalry.
They shoot the Militia. They shoot the Field Gun.
They achieve little.
The British Order roll was now down to two Redcoats dice (one regiment was lost) and two Hessian dice: The Redcoats had a 6 and a 3 available, the Hessians a 5 and a 1. The General rolled a boost die for a 2, giving him only 1 point to boost. He obviously boosted the Redcoat 3 to a 4. He could move two Redcoat regiments (or one twice) and move one Hessian regiment.
The British general ordered one Redcoat regiment forward to intercept and attack the cavalry— with bayonets! The Redcoats rolled 4 dice, for a 6, 3, 3, 4; only one hit!
As this was a melee, the cavalry fought back, rolling two dice (rather than its usual three): 5, 3. Each side gained a hit on the other, and each side lost a figure. (An attack on an enemy in the same section is a “melee.” It allows a regiment to hit with all its troops, but also gives the enemy the ability to fight back out-of-turn, though at weaker strength).
The cavalry rolled a retreat die: 3. This is only one higher than its remaining strength (2 out of 3 total), so it stands.
The British regulars, also having been hit, rolled a retreat die: 2. Not going anywhere.

The second British regiment fired on the militia again: 2 dice (penalized for range and the fence): 6, 4. The militia was hit, and having only one figure remaining, was eliminated. Weep, o ye wives and mothers!

The Hessian regiment moved forward to contact their weakened brethren, initiating a volley fire. However, the dice were not good, resulting in only two 5s from the rear regiment; volley fire requires a 6, so they missed.

The Patriot’s Brilliant Maneuver

Who let those horsemen in here?!?
The Patriots responded with another phenomenal Order roll: 6, 6, 6, 2, with the General also rolling a 6 for 3 boost points. The boost points weren’t needed, as the Patriots were down to three regiments, but Providence clearly favored the American cause this day!

The Patriot commander realized the British general had made a crucial blunder— he had left himself unprotected, alone in his section of the battlefield (okay, he had a staff tent, a nominal ceremonial guard, and the Loyalist mistress he acquired in Boston, but tactically he was alone).

The cavalry disengaged from the enemy and swooped down on the unsuspecting general! Alerted to the danger, he called upon the Deity to aid his escape. But the Deity smiled not upon the servant of tyranny, and the general rolled a 1 rather than the necessary 6. Caught with his pants down, the embarrassed commander could do naught but hand over his sword. The Battle of Flatbrown Bridge was over, and with cunning, skill, and the blessing of Providence, the Americans had won!
The Patriots are Victorious! Hoorah for Liberty and the Continental Congress!


This battle was very brief, in part due to the carelessness of the British commander (I take full responsibility; I honestly hadn’t considered the threat the cavalry posed by being so far forward). But this battle also featured seriously understrength forces; the actual rules call for sides of 8 regiments, rather than the 5 and 4 I gave my respective armies.
Nevertheless, this battle did demonstrate some of the key elements of the game, from the Order Dice to the varied strengths and weaknesses of the different forces, and hopefully gives you a feel for what the game can do.


And the rules are free. Just send me a request via e-mail to Parzival AT aol D0T come (no spaces, and replace AT and D0T with the appropriate symbols). Tell me how you found out about the game, and I'll send you a PDF of the rules. After that, all you have to do is gather up some plastic Patriots and Redcoats, a few dice, and have fun!

And have a Merry Christmas from Parzival!

--- Howard Shirley, aka Parzival

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Space Rocks!

Yep. Been silent here lately. But it's been the deep, dark silence of space!

(Okay, not really. But it makes a good segue.)

Because my biggest current gaming obsession continues to be Star Wars: X-Wing from Fantasy Flight Games.

If you've bought the Core Rules boxed set (and if you haven't, good heavens, what galaxy have you been in?), then you know the game comes with six beautifully illustrated asteroid tokens which you punch out and scatter about your gaming space to create obstacles for your dogfights. (Nasty, annoying, frustrating obstacles, that is.)

BUT as lovely as these tokens are, something is lacking in the visual experience. Your spacefighters are sculpted and painted miniatures of high quality, mounted on posts to soar above your tabletop... and the asteroids they are crashing into are flat bits or cardboard laying flat on the surface. 2D versus 3D, and the third dimension demands to be served.


Never fear, fellow space travellers, the Force is with you. Creating a terrific alternative is cheap and easy.
Now, that's a space rock!

All you need are:

The tokens from the game.

One golf tee per token (a mix of long, medium and short will be best).

One "lava rock" per token.

A small drill and masonry bit.

Glue. (Elmer's or white craft glue is fine for this.)

Flat black primer spray paint.

Dark gray, light gray, and flat black acrylic craft paint (sold at stores like Michael's, JoAnn's, Hobby Lobby, or whatever they call craft and art stores in your arm of the galaxy.)

Some cheap small paint brushes you care nothing about.

Water (distilled water is best, but tap water should be fine if you don't have too high a mineral content on your planet).

"Lava rock" are those red bits of volcanic rock sold at do-it-yourself home improvement stores as garden decor and "grilling rocks" for gas grills. This stuff is dirt cheap, but is often sold in big bags weighing several pounds (or a few kilograms, if your droids only interpret metric units). You can either buddy up with a lot of friends, give the excess to your favorite grill cook, or surprise your sweetie with a decorative flower bed. "Honest, honey, I just wanted to do it for you."  (Alternatively, you can just ask your local supplier if they'll let you have a handful of rocks. Mine gave me around a dozen at no charge.)

STEP 1: Drill holes about the diameter of the golf tee shafts in the center of your rocks. Try not to drill all the way through. NOTE: This makes a good bit of fine, red dust, so be prepared.
TIP: Only use a masonry drill bit. The rock will destroy drill bits meant for wood. Masonry bits are cheap, and who knows— maybe you'll need to use 'em for something else.

STEP 2: Glue the golf tees into the holes in the rocks. (Just spread the glue on the tee and jam that puppy in there as tightly as you can.) Let dry.

STEP 3: Glue the "heads" of the golf tees onto the center of the asteroid tokens. Yes, this will be permanent. Suck it up, soldier! TIP: Orient the rocks to try to match the general orientation of the tokens' shapes, and be certain to center things as well as you can so the token acts as a steady base.

STEP 4: Spray the entire assembly with flat black primer paint. The rock will absorb the paint, so you may need to make several coats. Yes, you will be completely covering the illustrated image on the token with paint (Remember what I said about sucking it up?). If you can't deal with that, spray the rocks and tees assembly before gluing on the tokens. It'll look weird, but you can do it that way.
Let the paint dry.

STEP 5: Dip a paint brush in the dark gray craft paint, then wipe it off until only a small amount remains on the brush; the less you leave, the lighter and more realistic the results. Rub the brush vigorously across the lava rock. This will leave gray paint on the raised surfaces, but not in the recessed areas. This is called "dry brushing." You can be a bit more generous with the dark gray paint, as you're going to create highlights with the lighter paint next. Continue to paint until you think you have a good contrast between the high bits of the rock and the darker black elsewhere.

STEP 6: Dry brush with the light gray paint, this time with a little less vigor. The point is to add a highlight effect to the most raised parts of the rock. Note that all this dry brushing will mangle your paint brush. That's why you use a cheap one.
Let the paint dry.

STEP 7: Mix a little black craft paint with water. You want a very watery paint that is still black. Using another brush, slap this paint into any deep recesses in the rocks; it's okay if a little gets on the highlighted areas; it will mostly run off. Again, the rock my absorb this, so you may have to make more than one coat. This step is called a wash, and the point is to create a deep shadow effect in the holes in the lava rock.
Let dry.

Stand up on the bases, and you're done! (You can spray everything with a protective clear matte sealant if you wish, but it's not necessary.)
Rocks in Spaaaaaaccccceeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!

This method produces gray asteroids. You can use browns and tans if you want other colors. Experiment with a lava rock before you go whole hog, to make certain you like the effect.


The treacherous asteroids of the Great Blue Nebula of Willstabul!
Note nifty new ships: The E-wing, the Z-95 Headhunters,
the TIE Defender and the TIE Phantom.
Also, one old TIE fighter that got dragged in as blaster fodder...
In the game, the same rules still apply. The area covered by the asteroid is the area of its base, not the lava rock (just as the space occupied by a spacecraft in the game is defined by its base, not the miniature). This rule makes things considerably simpler, as the maneuver templates have as much to do with determining a collision as the fighter bases do.

You don't have to be a great painter to do this, and the whole thing can be accomplished in a single afternoon.
If you want more asteroids, either get another Core Set for bases (and more ships), or trace the bases on a piece of stiff plastic or masonite and cut out with a jigsaw.

Hope you enjoy this little tutorial. Stick around for more, because next I'm gonna be dealing with monsters... the King of All Monsters, in fact!