Sakura S Zero

Sakura Zero S chassis with HPI Honda NSX GT body

In anticipation of On-Road racing at PT Raceway, I decided to get a second on road car so I could race in two classes instead of just one.  I chose the Sakura Zero S chassis from 3Racing because it looks very good for its price, it’s a kit, there are many replacement and hop-up parts available, and it gets good reviews.

The Sakura Zero S is an entry level version of the Sakura Zero chassis. The main differences are that the S version has plastic parts instead of aluminum; fiberglass instead of carbon fiber; gear diffs instead of ball diffs; and it costs about 1/3 as much.  It’s a 4 wheel drive touring car chassis with a twin horizontal plate design.

This was a very fun kit to put together.  Its plate chassis is very different than the other kits I’ve built recently: the Tamiya M05 and HPI Savage XS.  Unfortunately, the Sakura also suffered from Crappy Screw Syndrome, just like… well, apparently this is just like every RC kit everywhere.  This time, instead of starting out driving the 3mm screws straight in with a 2mm driver, I threaded every hold with a screw that had a larger 2.5mm head.  This destroyed my hands, but I stripped fewer screw heads (unfortunately more than zero). As much as I didn’t like the phillips head screws in the Tamiya kit… at least the heads didn’t strip easily.

Sakura Zero S chassis with HPI Honda NSX GT body

The chassis has very adjustable suspension geometry, but the stock dampers don’t allow unlimited adjustment of ride height. I doubt this will be a problem in the short term. It doesn’t look as durable as the M05, but it’s also not a giant block of plastic.  I think at the speeds I’ll be running at the track, it won’t matter.

Other than the screw heads, there are a few problems with the kit.  The first and most universally well known problem with the Zero S chassis is that the stock motor mount is inconvenient, because you can only access one of the motor screws by sticking your tool through a hole in your spur gear.  This is inconvenient with some pinion sizes, and impossible with smaller spurs.  There’s a vertical motor mount part available, but this requires you to also use a new top plate and flip your differentials to swap the side each belt runs on… and that causes your belt to run into your battery on the other side. This kit is not ideal if you’re planning on changing pinions often… but it’s still a lot better than changing pinions on the HPI Savage XS.

The other minor problem I have is that the turnbuckles seem to have undersized flats, making them difficult to turn without slipping.

For a body, I was in a hurry and couldn’t find anything I fell in love with, for sale at the same place as the chassis.  So, I settled for “acceptable and inexpensive” instead. This is an HPI Racing Honda NSX GT.  It retains a bit of the car’s distinct look, especially the air scoop on the rear roof.  Hopefully I won’t have any problem with traction roll, because I don’t think the scoop will last long if the car is upside down.

The body fits the chassis perfectly.  Figuring out where to drill the body mounting holes is a pain, though. You can’t drop the body onto the car and mark them until the posts are cut to approximately the right height, but you can’t cut the posts until the body is on the car to see where it sits.  I ended up measuring the body posts in relation to the center of the wheels, and transferring their locations onto the body using the center of the wheel cutouts as a reference point.  It worked, but it felt like there should be an easier way.

Since I’m going to race this instead of admire it on a shelf, I used the external headlight stickers instead of the internal light cans.  I think it’d look a lot better with the light cans… until I hit a wall and crack the body, in which case I’d rather have more room to repair it inside instead.

For electronics, I used what I had on hand: a 27T brushed motor and ESC I replaced in the RC10, and a Hobbyking Orange Rx Spektrum receiver.  I’ll start out with this slower setup, and once I like how I’m handling it (or once I burn out the motor) I’ll probably upgrade to 17.5T brushless. So far I don’t see hugely different times at the track between the three other cars I drive there (Tamiya M05 with stock 27T brushed; XXX-SCB with 17.5T brushless; RC10 with 17.5T brushless), so I expect the current limitation is my own driving skill more than the technology.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the first on-road race day on December 1, and I won’t be able to make it on the 15th either. Maybe they’ll run on-road on the 22nd, but if not I can make it on the 29th.

Games with Ezra, Part 1

Ezra, about to start a game of Hordes of the Things.

My son Ezra is now 5 years old, and he has enjoyed playing games of all sorts for as long as he’s been able to play.  Here are some of the games we have enjoyed playing together so far.

He has a great capacity for learning game mechanics, and a long enough attention span to finish a game that he’s truly interested in.  Most of the time he’s able to handle loss well enough to want to play again. The biggest challenge I’ve had in finding good games to play has been that he’s only just starting to learn to read.

For now I’m limiting this list to games that adults can play with kids, and those that are surprisingly appropriate for children (or at least for Ezra) instead of the ones everyone knows work well with kids.  This isn’t a game review, and I won’t be teaching how to play the games; but I will mention any changes we made to make the games more playable.


One of the first “real” games we played together was Cartagena.  When we first started playing, I removed the “move backwards to draw cards” mechanic and turned it into a “play one, draw one” game.  This helped him learn the mechanics and the strategy of skipping over full spots to move forward more quickly.  In the last year or so, we’ve started playing with the full rules instead, but we don’t play as often as we did.


Carcassonne is fairly commonly known to be good with kids, except for the farmer scoring mechanic.  The Hunters and Gatherers version can work a bit better, because scoring hunters is a bit easier, but I find it to be a bit more bland, and young kids still have a hard time thinking ahead far enough to know whether to place a hunter or not.

Castle Panic

And our third entry in “Games that start with CA” is by far Ezra’s favorite and most played game.  At its height we were playing for hours on end, and I’d get sick of it before he did, but at this point he rarely maintains interest long enough to finish a session anymore.
Castle Panic is especially good with young kids, because it is a cooperative game.  You play with open hands, make plans together, and accomplish goals with each others’ help. We both prefer playing this one with the Wizard’s Tower expansion.  Although there are cards with words, they all have unique pictures, and when we were playing this game regularly, Ezra could recognize and summarize every card in the base set even though he wasn’t really reading any of them.  The most challenging aspect of this game, for grown-ups and kids alike, is to make plans for your whole turn before you start trading in your cards.


Marla found a copy of HeroQuest at a yard sale for around $3, and it was a great investment.  I’ve finished more dungeons with Ezra than I have with adults. We played this one semi-cooperatively: I played the dungeon master and controlled the two spellcasting characters under Ezra’s guidance as the party leader.  He controlled the barbarian and dwarf: Kick in the door, and kill whatever’s on the other side of it!  When there were decisions to be made involving traps and searching, I had Ezra make the decisions since he wasn’t looking at the map.


I’m not sure what it is about Heroica that encourages just about everyone who plays it to make up new rules and change the ones that are already there.  This is an incredibly simple dungeon crawl with no reading required, and it also has Lego, so how could any kid refuse? It’s theoretically competitive, but realistically players are usually leap-frogging each other through the dungeon.


I found Lionheart at a yard sale before I had any kids, and for years I attempted to trade it away.  I’m glad I didn’t, because it has been a lot of fun with Ezra.  This is a board-based miniature wargame for 2 players.  The mechanics are easy to pick up, and the combat doesn’t even require math skills.  I expect it’d be hard to find these days, but it’s a lot more worth playing than I expected it would be.

Dune Express

This is a fun little print-and-play area control game.  It has no language components used during gameplay, and there isn’t much for players to remember.  We play the basic rules, but haven’t had to make any changes to play well together.

Zombie Dice

Zombie Dice is a quick “push your luck” game with simple rules.  Ezra’s good at managing his risk in this game, and he’s just as likely to win as any adult.


For Zombies, we skip the event cards, and there are no other language dependent components used during play.  This makes the game a bit less fun and flavorful, and it can take longer without the help of additional weapons, so I also reduce the number of board sections we need to get through before reaching the helicopter.


I’m only listing Dungeon here because it was a major disappointment, and did not meet our expectations.  It’s too simplistic for Ezra, he gets bored too quickly. There aren’t enough decisions to make, and there is very little character development.  For a simple, fast dungeon crawl, we prefer Heroica.

En Garde

This one is listed for ages 14+, but that’s ridiculous.  The truth is, almost every game with plastic or metal parts produced today must list an age of 13+ or 14+ because they cannot afford to have their pieces tested for toxicity.  We play the simple or slightly advanced versions of the rules, with no other changes.


I don’t love Uno, but there were some times when Ezra couldn’t get enough of it; and he consistently beat both his parents and his sister.  He also likes Harry Potter Uno, or Crazy Eights if there aren’t any Uno cards around.


I’ve played this with both kids a few times, but it isn’t that good with only 2 players.

The Sorceror’s Cave

This is one of the first dungeon crawl games I played with Ezra.  It’s extremely dependent on good luck to succeed, which totally drove away Martine.  Ezra fared better and enjoyed playing it, but we quickly moved on to other games with a similar theme.

Wings of War

Ezra loves starting games of Wings of War, but rarely finishes them.  He likes playing with the plane miniatures, and isn’t very good at flying predictably. But early on, he shot me down the first time our planes were within shooting range, so maybe that’s why he keeps coming back…

Hordes of the Things

I’ve started introducing Ezra to a few different miniature games, but at this point I have to wait until he asks to play so I don’t drive him away with my enthusiasm.  He has finished several games of Hordes of the Things, using all of the rules (all of the rules that happen to come up) but with a limited set of elements. The easy way I’ve found to introduce young kids to the game is to limit element selection to only about 3-4 types of elements, either all foot or all mounted.  Kids can remember 3-4 different combat factors, but it requires a chart if you need to remember different factors vs. foot and vs. mounted.  We played HOTT using Mechwarrior prepainted figures, limiting element selection to Behemoth, Knight, Rider, and Hero.
I’ll write more as we discover more games worth playing, but I expect we will soon start opening many more boxes once Ezra starts reading.

A New Bike: Raphael All-Rounder

A few months ago I found a great deal on a new, hand made bike frame on the iBob mailing list.  And finally, I’ve assembled it into a great bike.

Raphael Cycles custom frame set

This is a Raphael Cycles custom steel frame and fork.  It was built to order… someone else’s order, not mine.  But it was beautiful, the specs seemed to fit my needs, and it was far cheaper and faster than ordering my own custom frame, so I jumped on the opportunity to buy it used (but never built up).

I built it with a mix of new parts and donations from an older bike, my blue 1983 Trek 520.  Here’s a brief summary of the build, off the top of my head:

  • Sun CR18 rims with Shimano hubs: generator on the front, 8 speeds on the rear
  • 32mm Panaracer Pasela tires with plenty of clearance under the rims
  • New Velo-Orange Grand Cru crankset and fenders
  • Old Shimano Deore XT rear derailer
  • Older Suntour AR front derailer
  • Shimano Deore bar end shifters
  • Nitto stem and front rack
  • Sakae Randnner [sic] bars
  • Dia-Compe brake levers
  • Tektro CR720 brakes
The build went fairly smoothly, and after setting it up in the basement I’m happy to say I haven’t had to fine tune anything after my shakedown ride.  I haven’t ridden it far yet, but I plan to put a lot of miles in commuting, and hope to be inspired to take more non-commuting long rides as well.
The frame set itself is beautiful.  However, I do have a few minor nit picks with it.  To be clear, this is a better bike that is much better suited for the purposes I intend to use it for, than the bike I’m replacing.  None of these concerns are very important to me at this point, and I haven’t talked to the builder about any of them.  I don’t have any right to complain, because I didn’t order the bike nor was I involved with its specifications.
To paraphrase, I’ll quota a song by the Eagles: “I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do.”
The pump peg behind the seat tube is in a very convenient location.  Luckily I never use frame pumps, however, because I don’t think a pump could fit between the fender and seat tube.  I haven’t made the rear fender line perfectly parallel to the wheel, so I could probably squeak out a few more millimeters of room there, but I don’t think it would be enough to fit a pump.
There is noticeable fender-toe overlap.  I have not previously noticed this on other bikes I’ve ridden, even with the same size tires and fenders, on the Trek 520 that wasn’t built for this kind of setup (but has a similar geometry).
There was no rear brake cable hanger.  I used a Surly hanger, but unfortunately the seat clamp slot was quite narrow.  It required me to file down the brake cable hanger, in order to be able to tighten the seat clamp enough to keep the seat tight.  I could’ve filed down the seat clamp slot instead, but I didn’t want to break my new paint.
I’m not a fan of the overall shape of the bike when it’s set up with my preferred cockpit dimensions; though, it looks fine without any parts on it.  It was apparently specified as a 59mm frame, but the head tube makes it look smaller than my 57mm frames.  Part of this is because the fork is longer than on my other bikes, and part of it is because the head tube has an extended top, so it looks far shorter.  The stem is very high, so I could fit my front decaleur to the bag without cutting it down and refitting it from its previous use (aka “I’m lazy”).
On the other hand, there are a lot of minor details that I absolutely love on this bike.  All of the fender mounting points have threaded inserts facing the correct direction, so I don’t have a bunch of brackets and clamps all over the place to hold the fenders on.  I like the contrasting paint on the head tube (though the color is a lot closer to teal than the royal blue it looks like here).
This is my first time using the Velo-Orange 50.4 BCD cranks, and I must say: if these are easier to set up than the TA Cyclotouriste cranks they’re modeled after, then I’m not interested playing with the TA cranks.  You need a very narrow front derailer in order to be able to upshift successfully without pegging the derailer cage with your crank.  This old Suntour derailer is the only one I had on hand that would do the job at all, but I may look for a better alternative.
I’m very happy with the way this bike turned out!  I’m still not ready to get rid of the Trek that it replaced, but I have an even older Fuji frame and fork, if anyone’s interested…

Here are links to Raphael Cycles blog posts documenting the construction of this frame and fork.  It’s very interesting to see the process that went into building this bike.

Update: A few observations after riding this for a week or so:

  • This is the most comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden. 
  • The toe clip overlap is not a problem in practice; it only shows up at very slow speed.  
  • The builder states that this is an early frame and not representative of his current work.

HPI Savage Flux XS SS Initial Review

After building the Honda S800, I was itching for a kit that took a bit longer to build.  I also wanted to give the kids more opportunity to participate in the build and in driving the resulting car.  Ezra wanted a Monster Truck, so I searched for one available in kit form and found the HPI Savage Flux XS SS.

The HPI Savage is their 1/8 scale nitro powered monster truck.  “Flux” makes it electric.  “XS” makes it extra small, with the body being approximately 1/12th scale. “SS” is the Super Sport kit edition.

I finished building the truck, with intermittent help from the kids; but according to Ezra’s definition it isn’t a Monster Truck yet.  A monster truck has to be a truck, but it also has to have monsters on it.  We hoped to find some good stickers for this during the halloween season, but haven’t succeeded yet.

I haven’t driven the car very much yet, so this initial review will be primarily about the kit build itself.  It was definitely a more involved, slower build than the Tamiya M-05 chassis.  Some of this was the fact that it’s 4wd, some is because of the design, and some of it is because of frustration during the build. There are some parts of this kit’s design I really like, but other aspects are pretty bad.

The basic design is quite solid.  The first section of the build is putting together the front diff and suspension arms. The second part is the rear diff and suspension arms.  The front and rear half of the truck are nearly identical: the diffs and bulkheads are the same, and all 4 A-arms are interchangeable.  The main differences are the front and rear hubs (also identical side to side) and the bumpers. Overall this symmetric design makes it more convenient to deal with spare parts.

The front and rear are joined with a two part plastic center chassis that is reminiscent of the twin plate design used on the larger Savage.  The diff and motor are stuffed into it in a single piece, and the servo is buried in there somewhere as well.

One complaint I’ve heard about this truck is the difficulty of maintenance on various parts.  I think there is some truth to this: it’s a very tight truck, some parts are hard to get to, and most of the stock screws absolutely suck (more about that later).  But it’s not as bad as many would have you believe.  This is a lot more evident if you build the kit and see how things go together (and come apart).  You can remove the front and rear diffs for servicing with only a handful of screws.  The center diff and motor do make it a pain in the butt to change pinions often. They can be removed pretty easily; the problem is wedging them back into place with the front and rear dogbones where they need to be.

The absolute worst thing about this kit is the hardware.  Most of the screws are metric M3 with 2mm hex drive heads. The 2mm hex drive is simply too small for the screw material they chose.  The sockets can’t handle the torque required to drive the screws very far into fresh plastic.  I tried several different 2mm hex wrenches, and they all had the same problem: some of the sockets are oversize, and the screw material is soft, so the head ends up stripped.

I ended up stripping at least half a dozen screws during assembly, and had to extract several destroyed screws and replace them.  Luckily, the non-HPI replacement screws I bought work much better.  Several more screws are still stripped, but I managed to drive them all the way in, and hopefully I’ll never have to remove them.  The problem most kits have is accidentally stripping out the plastic.  These screws cause too many problems in the other direction.

For this body, the kids decided they wanted a light blue color, with a white roof and black trim.  They planned to add skull and crossbone and lightning stickers on it, but we haven’t found any reasonable options for either of these yet.

“But, that car isn’t blue,” you say.  An astute observation!  The only light blue Lexan paint I found was very old, and the can got me about 2 seconds of spray time before running out of pressure.  So now, the car has a light dusting of metallic silver-blue, and I filled out behind it with red.  It’s not totally horrible looking, but it was definitely not what we were aiming for.

This is the first time I’ve used Fasmask liquid masking for the interior of the body. The windows came with precut masks, but I masked the roof, bed, and lower edge of the truck.  The Fasmask worked pretty well, but I need to make a few changes next time.  Here are my newbie tips for using Fasmask:

  • Follow the directions when they say that multiple thick coats will make it easier to remove the masking material.
  • Don’t bother trying to paint the exact edges of the area you’re masking.  If you can do that, you should just paint the lexan paint on by hand instead.  Go over your lines far enough to ensure a thick layer where your design ends, and then cut the design into the mask.  This gives a much cleaner edge.
  • Don’t start masking if you’re in a hurry. It takes a long time for each coat to dry, and you need several of them. 
Looking on the Internet, I figured out how people test their maximum speed, for what it’s worth: strap on a portable GPS, and press Go.  I geared this truck down a bit, with the larger spur gear the truck comes with, and it’s being powered by a Duratrax Element (by Castle) 3900kv sensorless brushless setup.  With 6c NiMH batteries, I got up to 27mph in the alley behind the house.
This is no speed demon in its current form, but it’s still way faster than I should be letting the kids play with at this point, so I have no problem with that. 
Now we just need to go find some place to bash it before it starts snowing. 

Tamiya Honda S800

Before I got back into driving RC cars, I had spent a lot of time playing Forza 3 and Forza 4, on-road circuit racing games on the Xbox 360.  Although I had only ever driven off-road RC cars previously, my experience with Forza made me interested in on-road RC cars as well.  I’m interested almost exclusively in smaller vintage cars (old cars that aren’t muscle cars).  I also had fond memories of kit building, and my purchase of the ready-to-run Losi buggy made me wish I had purchased a kit instead.

So, put it all together and I ended up with an obvious conclusion: just before vacation last month, I ordered a Tamiya 1/10 scale RC Honda S800 kit, which uses Tamiya’s M-05 FWD on-road chassis (unlike the original’s RWD drivetrain).

The kit went together quickly; almost too quickly to be satisfying.  I had the mechanics and electronics done in a few evenings, and didn’t run into any problems with the build.  I wanted to keep things simple and inexpensive the first time around, so the only hop-up part I used during the initial build was a bearing kit. I remember how much of a pain in the butt it is to add bearings after the car is complete.

The decal sheet that comes with the car allows you to reconstruct the S800’s most famous racing livery: #25, currently on display at the Honda Collection Hall at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit.  I painted it using Tamiya Yellow polycarbonate paint, with a coat of Pactra white behind it.  The white really helped the yellow shine through, and the result is almost too bright compared to the historical car it’s patterned after.

There are a lot of decals (really just stickers), and they took a long time to apply.  Each one needed to be cut out individually before being applied appropriately.  It ended up being tedious, but not as difficult as I feared to get the decals in the right place without any bubbles.  The end result was definitely worth the work!  This is a really beautiful car.

Comparing the car to pictures of the original, the only places where the decals are at all different is where the original car has holes in the body, but the model has decals.  Specifically, in the rear lower corners there are round decals with an odd shape that doesn’t make much sense, which correspond to holes in the body on the original car.  It’s almost as if the decal designer looked at one picture of the car and made a decal of what could be seen through the hole from his vantage point.

The only complaint I have about the decals is with the ones that are supposed to go over curved surfaces, such as the chromed fender lines and the trunk hinges.  These don’t stick well enough to stay on the car (as seen in the image above, if you know what to look for).  Since they’re simple single-colored decals, I will probably take them off and paint the lines instead.

I had one problem with the car after it was assembled with the body in place.  The rear end of the front fender was very close to the front wheel, and it would catch on the wheel during turns.  This suboptimal body position can be seen in these images. I fixed this by raising the rear body clips so the body was higher in the rear, and angled away from the front tire, and I haven’t had any problems since. It looks a bit better than the “low rider”look the rear has with the stock body position.

The Honda S800 is a really interesting car. It looks to me like it’s basically a clone of a contemporary MG roadster, similar to Honda’s N600 clone of the Mini.

Today I had my first chance to really drive the car instead of just puttering around in the alley.  It’s so nice looking that I’ve been afraid to scratch it up. But I built an RC model and not a plastic display kit for a reason, so to heck with it.  The kids wanted to ride bikes and scooters in the flat walkway in front of the church across the street, so I brought my car as well.

Not surprisingly, this car handles extremely differently than the buggies I’m used to driving off-road.  On the flat, with no obstacles to run into (and using the stock motor and a 6 cell NiMH pack) I was 100% unable to roll the car over in a corner.  It pushed into corners at speed, which is expected for a front wheel drive, but the rear end cut loose long before the car felt likely to roll.  This FWD chassis is extremely stable, with a very low center of gravity.

The stock M-05 chassis comes with friction dampers instead of oil-filled shocks.  I didn’t want to replace these until I experienced driving without them, but it was quickly obvious why oil dampers are necessary.  The body bounced around a lot when cornering, in a very unnatural and unpredictable way.  

After a bit of driving around aimlessly, I set up cones and Ezra rode his bike while I raced him with the RC car.  Flat-out, he was no match for the stock motor, but around the corners his massive size made him very hard to pass safely.  On 3 occasions, I ended up in front of him and he ran over the car.  Oops!  It survived with only scratches (on the inside of the body), so no harm done. I also hit his rear tire a couple of times, which instantly flipped the car due to the tire’s upforce.

At this point, I’ve gotten over my fear of scratching the car; but I’ll probably touch up the paint and apply electrical tape where it’s most likely to hit the chassis. I’m also a lot more interested in driving it than I was before.  I’ve ordered some 3Racing dampers, which are far cheaper than the Tamiya hop-up part.  Other than that, I plan to leave it stock until something breaks or wears out, just as I’m doing with my other cars.

Ink Wash Comparison

Devlan Mud is Dead! Long Live Devlan Mud!

Games Workshop’s Devlan Mud wash has been a commonly used weapon in my painting arsenal since I got back into painting miniatures 3 years ago.  It works well straight out of the bottle, and produces reasonable results in areas where I’m not that interested in painting in highlights and shadows, but when I also don’t want to dip the whole figure.

Unfortuantely, Devlan Mud is no longer available, since Games Workshop recently completely revamped their paint line.  When I was at Legions for Stoogecon, I picked up 3 possible replacements to try out:

  • Games Workshop’s Agrax Earthshade wash, which seems to be their replacement for Devlan Mud
  • Army Painter Dark Tone Ink (not the Quickshade dip)
  • Reaper Master Series Paints Brown Wash

I meant to get Army Painter’s Strong Tone Ink for a better direct comparison with the Quickshade.  Oops! That will have to wait for now.

I was painting a DBA Early Egyptian army, so on one stick of archers, I painted all of the figures identically but applied different washes to each.  On another stick, I used Army Painter Strong Tone Quickshade.  These figures are almost entirely flesh and white.  I liked this for comparison purposes because white is notoriously difficult to shade well, and it doesn’t disguise the color of the ink wash at all.

I also used these inks and washes that I had on hand for more comparison:

  • Didi’s Magic Ink, Brown
  • Games Workshop Gryphone Sepia wash
  • Games Workshop Ogryn Flesh wash
  • An old Reaper flesh ink with water added

Here is a comparison shot detailing the results.

Ink Wasy Comparison: Essex Early Egyptians. Army Painter Strong Quickshade on top, washes below.

And here are the results, left to right.

First, a comparison between Devlan Mud and Agrax Earthshade.  I think Devlan Mud is a bit less red/orange than Agrax Earthshade, but they’re both very neutral.  My Devlan Mud was old, and probably doesn’t work as well as it did when it was new, but the Agrax is doing a better job of staying in the cracks and not coloring the high spots and flat surfaces as much.  As seen on the red feathers, the overall tone of the Agrax-shaded figure is lighter than the Devlan-shaded figure.

Agrax Earthshade is also a much better direct replacement for the Army Painter Strong Tone Quickshade dip.  Overall, if it were my only choice, I’d be happy to replace Devlan Mud with Agrax.

Unfortunately, some of Devlan Mud’s flaws are still apparent in Agrax Earthshade.  It still smells like a combination of distilled bong water and moldy coffee grounds.  It’s still really expensive and comes in tiny bottles that let the liquid evaporate too much.  I’ve also found that all of the GW washes behave badly if they either dry out, or if you add water or just about anything else to them to thin them out.  This shortens their effective shelf life even further.

The new bottles prevent your local store’s in-house painters from using the wash and then putting it back on the shelf, but I didn’t find the new “keep your lid open” feature any better than their previous attempt several bottle designs ago.

Army Painter’s Dark Tone Ink seems to work as well as their Quickshade does, but I bought the wrong color so I can’t effectively compare colors with the Agrax.

The Reaper Brown Wash seems closer to the old Reaper inks than to GW’s washes.  It looks more opaque in the bottle, and doesn’t stay in the cracks as well as the other modern Wash products do.

I’ve been using Didi’s Magic Ink for almost as long as the GW washes. It has two major benefits over the GW products: it comes in much larger, less expensive dropper bottles, and it smells nice.  Brown is a very good direct replacement for GW’s Gryphone Sepia, but it’s too light to replace Devlan/Agrax.  Didi’s ink is much thinner than the GW washes, more of the consistency of water.  It stays in the cracks well, but it is hard to get it to darken things as much as you might like to.

Games Workshop’s Gryphone Sepia and Ogryn Flesh wash are also no longer available in GW’s new paint line.  They work just like Devlan Mud and Agrax Earthshade, but they’re different colors.  I would be interested in testing their new replacement versions, but I haven’t had a chance to do this yet, and I might not since I don’t run out of these colors as quickly.

The old Reaper Flesh Ink is not a modern wash.  My bottle is probably about 10 years old, and may not be available anymore, I’m not sure.  It requires thinning with water and your favorite additives to flow properly and fill in the cracks.  Here, I applied it using only water to thin it out, and it worked fairly well.  However, at this point I wouldn’t bother using this product unless I was doing something like airbrushing.

Overall, Agrax Earthshade is the clear winner of this exercise, with one caveat.  If Army Painter Strong Tone Ink works as well as the Dark Tone, I would probably prefer it due to its superior dropper bottle and price point.

I hope this helps someone else in the market for a replacement for their precious supply of Devlan Mud.  In the future, I’ll try to do some more comparisons including Army Painter Strong Tone, as well as various black/almost-black washes.

Review: A Game of Thrones: The Card Game

In anticipation of four players for game night tonight, I set up Civilization ahead of time… guaranteeing that only three players would show up (thanks, Murphy).

Instead of Civ, which we prefer with four players, the three of us played A Game of Thrones: The Card Game for the first time.  Here’s a short review of how I liked the game, without getting too far into how to play it.

A Game of Thrones is a “Living Card Game” that was once a collectible card game.  That basically means that it’s still best to buy a lot of cards and build custom decks, but the additional cards are available in fixed packs instead of a random selection.

Also fairly obvious: it’s themed after George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, though it was created long before the television show and uses original art instead of screen shots.

We played with three out of the four starter decks from the core set, without any modifications.  Two of us have extensive experience with CCGs prior to playing, and the third has moderate experience.  Because none of us had seen any of the cards before, it took us over 3 hours to figure out the rules and play a 3-player game, which is a lot longer than the recommended time frame.  We acknowledge that we’re typically a slow group compared to published time limits.  I’m confident that subsequent plays would be much faster, probably within the 1-2 hour time frame they suggest.

My one line summary is: I really like this game!  I’m really afraid of buying more cards.

The cards and rules do a great job of implementing the feel of the politics of Westeros.  House Lannister has and uses money, House Stark has a bunch of kids with dire wolves, and House Targaryen has dragons and not much else to speak of.  There seemed to be a few bugs with individual characters: Eddard Stark’s ability clearly should not be to constantly avoid death. And maybe I haven’t read enough of the books yet, but some of these houses didn’t come into direct conflict as much as they did in the game.  But the overall feel of the complicated political interactions between the noble houses of Westeros is implemented very well by these rules.

The multiplayer conflicts and variable player order combine to require very difficult decisions between spending resources to initiate challenges versus saving them to defend yourself; and between choosing titles first versus having the last opportunity to attack.  The game definitely encourages success through good strategy, and I never felt randomness played an overwhelming role in the outcomes.

My biggest concern with the rules is analysis paralysis.  It’s easy to overthink things (“So clearly, I cannot choose the wine in front of you”).  There is also a lot of direct conflict that is veiled in a theme of indirect conflict, so it’s important to put on your “thematic game” and “wargame” hats before starting.

I’m a long time fan of the Middle Earth: The Wizards CCG.  It has a long play time with a lot of high quality thematic content, and it comes directly from the books instead of relying on cinematic interpretations.  My overall feeling of A Game Of Thrones: The Card Game is very similar.  It doesn’t follow the plot of the books exactly; but it does retain the setting and characters in a lot of detail, and it encourages exploration of the world and themes created by the original literary source.

If I compare this experience to the general case of “CCG with vanilla starter decks,” only Middle Earth: The Wizards comes close to providing a comparably high quality experience.  If I compare it to other CCGs that handle more than 2 players gracefully… the only other game that comes to mind is Shadowrun, and even if you could find an opponent, where would you get the cards?

To be fair, we have no experience with the additional cards available for the game, or with deck building, so this review is necessarily limited. There will certainly not be any problem with a lack of depth in the card selection, but it’s not clear whether the huge number of cards that have been released so far are well balanced or not.  It’s hard to find time to build decks anymore with 2 kids around, but I’m sure we’ll get sufficient value from the core set’s $40 price tag.

If I had to come up with a complaint about this game, it would be the packaging.  The core set has the worst box insert I’ve ever seen.  The only way to justify the huge square box at all is to suggest that you can store all of the expansions in it along with the core game, but it begs to be stored as you’d store any CCG: in long card boxes.  Unfortunately, in their attempt to make this into a board game instead of a CCG, Fantasy Flight added pawns and a board that don’t store well along with cards.  The Title Reference Cards are more than adequate to convey all necessary information; I’m sure the board and pawns are only there to make board game players more comfortable.

I would definitely recommend this game for anyone looking for a CCG (or LCG) with a lot of player interaction that supports more than 2 players.  If you also know and love the works of G.R.R. Martin, you can’t go wrong here.

Terraclips: Almost Awesome

Just like everyone else interested in the Wyrd Miniatures/Worldworks Terraclips terrain building sets probably has, I read and heard lots of good reviews about the kits… and then I bought them: one each of the Streets, Sewers, and Buildings kits, and three boxes of clips.  This is definitely a high quality, well designed product.  However, instead of repeating all the glowing praise I read before I bought them, I’ll list all my picky problems.  Hopefully this will help someone to decide whether this is the right toy for them.

My overall summary is: I think these would work great for D&D 4E dungeon crawls, but I don’t think they’ll be very good forMalifaux.

Here’s a 3 foot square of Malifaux terrain built using parts of all three kits.  The build took Frank and I 2 hours to complete.  We started with a half-assembled build, and spent some time disassembling it but saved some time reusing a few of the buildings and roofs I built earlier.

And here’s the first problem: Terraclips are slow to assemble.  I rarely spend this much time setting up terrain, and that’s when I am planning a historical scenario.  I’d rather spend my time crafting individual terrain pieces that can be reused quickly, or playing a game.

Because of the long setup time, you need either a lot of free time, or a place where the completed terrain can sit until you use it.  Unlike large purpose-built terrain boards and smaller area/element terrain pieces, Terraclips can’t easily be stored assembled.

Many reviews I’ve seen gawk at the huge amount of stuff you get in each box.  It’s true: you get a lot of stuff.  However, having a lot of stuff doesn’t necessarily mean building a large area of terrain. The kits come with the parts needed to do anything, but not to do everything at the same time.  For example, there are enough roof pieces to handle any L-shaped or T-shaped building, but you can build more square one-story buildings than you can add roofs to.  If you build taller buildings, they take up less area on the map, so you require more streets and sewers to take up the slack.

We found that we had a huge number of balcony and railing parts left unused (unpunched, even), but we ran out of roofs and walls without doors.  Another challenge is using the right ratio of 6″ and 3″ pieces, to ensure that you don’t run out of one before the other.

These parts are also quite fiddly to assemble.  Experience would definitely help building things faster and more cleanly, but I don’t expect I’d ever be fast enough to roll up a Malifaux scenario and then build terrain for it as the rules recommend. 

The clips all have a bump on one side but not the other (look in the clip’s slot, which tends to put a slight angle in the connection, especially when using I clips.  The T and L clips don’t join up the cards in the same orientation at the corner, depending on which direction the clip is used, which can leave you with some less than square buildings if you don’t align all the clips the same way. All these little errors add up over the course of a large build.  The few instructions available implore you to make sure everything is lined up properly and fully assembled, but it’s still fiddly.

The remaining issues I have with Terraclips are related to how they will work with Malifaux.

Malifaux didn’t have any comprehensive rules for working with buildings, the last I checked.  All terrain pieces were “area” or “element/item” and had an overall effect; they didn’t contain discrete walls, doors, windows, and so on.  In previous games using our scratch built buildings and Mordheim buildings, we adopted the Mordheim rules: any obstruction gives you cover, and line of site is WYSIWYG.

WYSIWYG line of site works great… as long as you are able to use terrain to disrupt and limit that line of site without being able to completely hide.  In this regard, the terraclips don’t perform well.  None of the wall sections have open windows, they only have doorways and arches.  These highly enclosed buildings have the effect of breaking the board into small, isolated, easily protected sections. We have yet to see how this plays out in practice.

We also found it difficult to add enough buildings to a flat city street grid, to block the line of site across the board adequately. We were limited by roofs.  We might have been able to build a few more buildings taller, but we couldn’t really add more of them.  Actually, this is great for my Perdita crew, so I’ll just stop complaining now.

For what they are, the Terraclips do a very good job.  These will be great for doing D&D dungeon crawls and encounters inside buildings, and I could even see building a dungeon crawl on the fly if it’s straightforward enough.  They even have 1″ squares subtly printed on all surfaces.  But I don’t have high hopes for building a wide variety of different terrain boards for a series of Malifaux games.

In the future I’ll be sticking to building more individual terrain elements to place on my Terrainguy mat, but I’ll save these kits to build dungeon crawls, assuming I can ever fit them back in their boxes.

Terrainguy Brown-Green Mats

In response to a recent question from a Fanaticus forum reader, here’s my take on the Terrainguy brown-green gaming mats.  I’ve included photographs from a few recent blog posts that show m brown-green mats in action. 

Close-up of Terrainguy brown-green mat.
For comparison, the bases are flocked with
Woodland Scenics Fine Turf and sand.

A view of a 4’x6′ green-brown mat.

These mats are available in a variety of colors and sizes.  I have a 4’x6′ mat and a 30″ DBA mat in brown-green, and I’m very happy with both of them.

This is the best looking flocked gaming mat I’ve seen so far, but I know of a few I haven’t seen in person.  The flocking material is not static grass, it’s more like the Woodland Scenics “fine turf,” made of very fine ground foam. The mat itself is made of canvas with a rubberized material on the surface that holds the flock in place.  Mine aren’t old enough or well-travelled enough to know how well the flock holds up to heavy use, but I haven’t had any problems so far.

For storage and travel, I roll the mat.  I would not recommend folding it, I would expect it to get permanent creases.  They’re flexible and roll easily.  They hold a slight curl when you unroll them, but they’re easy to flatten out.

Overall I’m happy with these for the price I paid, and I’d definitely buy another one if I need any more mats.  The larger mats often go on sale, but the DBA mats seem to always be full price.  The DBA mats are in a different section of the web site, making them harder to find in the color you want, but all of the colors are available for DBA sized mats as well as the larger mats.