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Hex-based Wargame on a PSP?

There are few wargames for the PSP. I’ve owned my PSP-2000 slim model since late 2007 and I’ve always kept my eyes open for strategic wargame titles. I like to play boardgames and being able to play one on the PSP while commuting to work or home is a great pleasure. That doesn’t mean I don’t play other PSP titles. I’ve enjoyed a variety of action, puzzle and shooter titles over the years (which I’ll post about in the future). I just always keep an eye out for my core interest, strategy wargames.

The first title to offer something in this vein was Field Commander, a near-future turn based strategy game with a variety of 3D land, air and sea units in a regular square grid board with a variety of terrain and line of sight rules. But it was scenario based, so it played more like Command & Conquer than anything else. The next one to catch my eye was Tom Clancy’s End War. This one was also scenario based but it used a hex grid, I spent lots of enjoyable hours on it. Again this one focused on depicting 21st Century warfare. Finally, I downloaded Military History: Commander – Europe at War. A turned based WWII Grand Strategic wargame! Awesome! This game from the developers at Slitherine Ltd already had a successful PC version and recently made a transition to the PSP.

The documentation is thin, you can download an MS word document with some basic game play information. There’s an in-game tutorial that points out some game functions and general strategy for your side of the war. I say some, because there are some interesting information screens you can access that the game doesn’t point out. It also has some commands wrong (like using railroads, it’s not the L button it’s the R button after selecting a unit).

Overall though, the game is not hard to pick up and the learning curve is gentle. Most of what you need to know you will learn as you play. It won’t hurt you to do some trial and error until you grasp the games fundamentals. The interface is fairly straightforward and clean. Unlike most strategy wargames, this one doesn’t try to split your turn into phases. Instead during your turn you can choose to move, attack, ship by sea, produce, research, declare war, use railroads, etc. in pretty much any order you like. Of course without some structure you might overlook some of your units or get lost and forget to perform some house-keeping functions. I suggest making a personal checklist to keep things straight so you maximize each turn. There is some help in the form of flashing units that haven’t moved or attack, you can zoom out to a higher level to quickly check out which units are still available and the minimap is useful for checking out your general progress.

I’ve read some reviews about a “tough AI” but that must be the PC version, the PSP A.I. needs all the help it can get. I’ve played with no advantages to either side and as Germany managed to conquer the Soviet Union by September 1942, proceeded to invade and conquer England in 1943-44 and was getting ready to invade Canada and the USA in 1945 before time ran out (should have chosen the option to not in the end the game in 45). Playing as the allies, the A.I. respectably conquered Poland, Denmark, Holland and Belgium, but got completely bogged down in France. I simply produced plenty of garrison units turn after turn building a big buffer between my enemy and Paris, I shifted damaged troops out of the line with fresh ones. By the time France was finally worn out and m defense collapsed it was mid 1942, the USSR had declared war, liberated Poland and the US was bringing fresh reinforcements and air units into France (so yeah, France never fell). Still I had a lot of fun. I’m playing with Oil consumption rules and fog of war to see how this affects the game. Likely I will soon start giving the A.I advantages. It’s main problem seems to be that it tries to attack everywhere in a front… that’s not a good idea in this game. you really need to focus on the weak link, concentrate your armor and aircraft and blow a gap in the enemy line, surround them. There are good supply rules in this game; use them! In terms of grand strategy, it seems content to ignore Africa unless you make a move first. And did I mention Italy is ridiculously hard to conquer in this game? But that’s OK, in the real war, The Italian Campaign was an arduous slog up the boot.

The research component of this game gives it a lot of re-playability.You can purchase labs in five different areas of reasearch: infantry, armor, air, naval and industry. There are variety of levels that they can increase, the maximum number of labs is a function of your economy, and within each area you can choose to focus in a specific field (infantry have artillery, fixed defenses and anti-tank guns for example). The long term goals of research improve your combat units in a variety of ways by increasing ground attack or ground defense, air, naval, strategic, movement, etc. By the time you reach level 3 and level 5 or 6 is some categories those units have much stronger capabilities that they are very different units.

The Combat model is fairly intricate. There’s enough nuance and depth that it’s not simply which unit has better strength. Supply is a major factor, terrain is a heavy factor and the general effectiveness levels of a combat unit and the rate at which they lose and gain it are the fulcrums on which combat hinges: no matter how high your units are rated if their effectiveness level is low enough they will die! Combat consists of a shock phase and a fir phase. Shock is where units generally lose effectiveness and Fire is when they actually lose strength points. What’s interesting is that terrain factors and entrenchments modify the attacker’s strength always, never the defender. That is defensive advantages are expressed as attacker penalties in %. To actually reduce the defenders ability and strength is to reduce their effectiveness which is done during the Shock phase. That’s why Artillery, Blitzkrieg and close air support increase shock values for infantry, tank and tactical bombers. It’s key to eroding the defense. Not to mention that each attack reduces entrenchment levels.

This is a very good, very enjoyable wargame title. the A.I. is not very good but you can adjust the advantages to make it a better challenge for you. I highly recommend this game.

Happy New Year!

May 2011 bring you what 2010 did not. Concerning new year’s resolutions: I did not make any; self improvement exists on a continuum not on a specific date. Don’t make a Wishlist! Make a plan and stick to it. You’ll have a better year and be a better person!

How do you make Astronomy fun? By making videos like these. The Robot Astronomy Talk Show, is a hilarious cast of dimwitted robots trying the most outlandish ways to conquer humanity, and things always go terribly wrong! There have been quite a number of episodes, be sure to watch them all. There are other fun shows on the site as well. Let’s face it. When you learn stuff, it sticks the most when it’s entertaining and engaging. Astronomy in general is a fantastic field of study, but it requires a lot of discipline and patience, the payoffs usually comes around after years of effort. Even the simple act of observing through a telescope can take a while to learn and appreciate (if you don’t know what you’re doing it can take forever to focus on something, even the MOON!). It’s great to see stuff on the web like the RATS to remind of us of that astronomy can be fun and cool.

Battlestar Galactica. The remake, not the original one. If there was one twist Ronald Moore’s gang did with their new version was add humanoid cylons from the get go. An ingenious plot device that introduced (for much of the first season anyway) a lot of paranoia. Fantasy Flight Games came up with a boardgame that reflects much of this situation during the first season of the show.

You’re working together in a rag tag space fleet trying to escape a horde of machines bent on your extinction. To make matters worse there could be humanoid cylon agents and you can’t tell the difference. Heck, you might be one yourself and you don’t know it yet.

That’s the crux of the boardgame and it delivers! A four to five hour game, it captures the show’s theme quite well. You play a character from the TV show and must ensure humanity’s survival… Or its destruction. The fun part is you don’t know who is on your side and halfway through the game you may be forced to switch.

There is a game board depicting the battlestar Galactica and six sectors of space surrounding it. Also shown is the President’s ship: Colonial One. There are spaces as well for game resources and other information tracks. There are small stands with the characters you play in the game to designate their locations and the space units as well: Civilian ships, Vipers, Raptors, Cylon Raiders and their Basestars (mother ships.)

The human fleet must reach Kobol through a series of FTL jumps. Each such jump consists of a number of game turns the players spend moving and activating spaces on the board or their own cards. At the end of each turn the fleet may or may not have advanced their calculations to prepare for a new FTL jump. If they reach the end of the jump track they get to execute such a jump. How far they move depends on the destination card they draw and play. A jump will usually average 2 distance points. Though some jumps will have 1 or 3. To reach Kobol the humans must accumulate 8 points. Over the course of the game there will be four to six jumps. The last one being the one that jumps away from Kobol and wins the game for the humans.

But while the humans desperately try to escape they face many obstacles. To begin with they have limited resources for this trip. A series of dials mark them as points. Fuel, Food, Morale and Population. If any one of these reaches zero the humans lose. Each turn the humans face a crisis of some kind that will require them to play skill cards in their hands to meet the challenge. If they fail to do so some resource will usually take a hit. Other times it will be an event. Among the humans there are players designated as special leaders: the Admiral and the President. An event will usually force one of these characters to choose an outcome they will have to deem as the lesser of two evils (lose 1 food or 1 morale? Decisions!) The crisis can also be a cylon attack, putting those pretty space ship pieces on the board around Galactica. That’s another obstacle: cylon forces can destroy civilian ships reducing resources (most notably population). They can also destroy Galactica or board and capture her with Centurion troops. Those are also game ending situations.

All players will pick a specific character from the show to play. This character has a skill set of five cards the person draws on his turn. The character also has special abilities and weaknesses. It is important the crew pick a balanced set of characters. There are five different skill card types shown by color. Yellow (Politics), Green (Leadership), Purple (Tactics), Red (Piloting) and Blue (Engineering). No one character draws every color, many emphasize two or three. Since the challenges may require playing cards from any of five colors, it’s important for the human team as a whole to have a little of everything. The cards are not only worth points. All of them can be used as an action or an effect on the game. So there’s a balance to be made in spending cards as points to pass challenges (skill checks) and using them for game functions.

There is a lot of player interaction in this game. The humans must work together to face the cylon threat. But some of the so-called humans are enemy agents. Secrecy rules prevent players from freely sharing knowledge about their hand of cards. They also prevent them for giving information on what they learn (scouting crisis cards, destinations). And when playing cards during a crisis all players put cards face down. This means you have to decide to trust what other players tell you they have played or know.

Players have loyalty cards dictating which side they play for. Only certain events and abilities allow another player to see loyalty cards. Since you can’t verify what players claim it quickly comes breaks down into he said, she said.

The game has many details and can seem daunting to pick up at first glance. But after a few turns, everything starts becoming second nature. And then the guessing game begins… Can you discover who the cylon is before they backstab the fleet?

A short while ago Canada celebrated Remembrance Day (a.k.a Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day). Lots of Canadian families (and American ones) paused to celebrate and remember those who fought for their country in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m from Venezuela. My family has no particular military history in the tree. The closest I can get to are one great uncle who served as a dentist in the military rising to the rank of Colonel and another great uncle (passed away a couple of years a go) who was a professional and had risen to the rank of a two star general. These men served in the Venezuelan military.

There’s a certain disparity on how the military is viewed in Latin America and the northern hemisphere. There is a tradition of military service in the north as respectable, honorable, an obligation even in certain quarters. Where I come from… not so much. As a matter of fact, the military has been often used as a tool of control and repression rather than protection and service far too often. This had led many intellectuals and knowledgeable people to be decidedly anti-military or even call for the abolition of the military all-together.

For me, it’s more of an issue that our military heritage in the south is rooted in the strong men of the 19th century who fought over power rather than serve the country. Yet, I would not call for an abolition of the Venezuelan military, especially with so many para-military groups and insurgents operating freely and threatening the frontiers. Rather it needs to be molded to fit the needs of the country rather than the egos and pride of the so called professionals. I find it nonsensical that there are far far more generals than there are brigades and divisions. Too many commands are desk jobs or bureaucratic in nature. The Venezuelan armed forces really need to be molded like the Colombian army. Rather than buying jets, frigates and tanks to show off in a parade and nothing more, time and money should really be spent on training and equipment for counter-insurgency and jungle warfare.

Now I go back to my great uncle who passed away. Unlike the strong men of yore or the egos of today, this man was an intellectual. His library was second to none on all sorts of historical topics. A professional officer who sought to serve his country rather than exploit it. He became a teacher after retiring to continue to mold and shape young minds in the military academy to follow his example of how a proper military officer should behave and defend his country.

General de Division Carlos Celis (ret). you will be missed. You may not have fought wars and you certainly served with distinction throughout your career. I will use Remembrance Day to honor you.

The Roman Empire of South Africa

The Roman Empire of South Africa

I’ve been a big fan of the Civilization series since the very first game came out. I distinctly remember being introduced to it by a high school friend. He was playing the Romans against two other computer civilizations. I. Was. Hooked. I played it for hours and hours and hours. The first incarnation of Sid Meier’s classic could also be played to conclusion in one long day… or sooner if you went all Genghis Khan on your opponents. I’ve been playing the latest version since it came out. There’s been quite a furor in the civfanatics forum and other fan sites on how Civilization V has been “dumbed down”. These people expected to play Civilization 4.5 and were disappointed. The game has shifted focus and has been streamlined. It is simpler than the Civilization IV, but whether that constitutes the game being “dumb” is up to the individual gamer.

Personally I like this incarnation (how can I not, it has HEXES!!! YES!) and I’m quite taken with trying to get most of the achievements. Lately I’ve been playing the Romans in a huge Earth map and about halfway through the game it occurred to me to try to secure a cultural victory and I invested heavily into that despite having a largish empire of several cities. The game deposited me on what is now South Africa. I was relatively isolated. The Arabians spawned on what should be the Ivory Coast, that’s not a very a good start location, but if you focus on a small empire the Niger river is a big boost. My current problem are the Babylonians. The began in Egypt’s starting location but have really carved themselves an empire throughout the Nile, most of North Africa (Arabians caved in) the middle east and most of India, so far we’ve been fighting along the western coast of Africa around what should be Cameroon. The deep jungles and mountains in the center of Africa have provided a cover of sorts and a geographical barrier to a more broad invasion by Babylon, so they’ve been channeled west.

I haven’t dedicated myself to really hurting Babylon because they are so huge and I’d rather focus on the cultural victory. We’ll see if fighting this war one handed will cost me, but so far I’ve held my own…

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