Comparison: GW vs. Army Painter

Unfortunately the focus is slightly off in this image, but it gets the point across.  This is a comparison of the difference between GW’s Devlan Mud wash on the left, and Army Painter’s Strong Tone dip on the right.

Both figures were painted with the same base coat colors in the same areas, and both were sprayed with Army Painter dull varnish after they were dry.

Overall, for these colors I prefer the Army Painter dip.  It darkened the colors a bit less, and stayed in the cracks a bit better.  The black on boots and gun were affected less by the Army Painter dip than the wash.  I also don’t like how it deadened the green helmet.

I really like Devlan Mud, and I will still use it in cases when I don’t want to wash the entire figure.  But Army Painter works really well.  It’s almost depressing how good a job it does, compared to making an effort.

The colors, for reference, are all Vallejo except the black which is a craft paint.  They were selected based on the Flames of War painting guide for Russian infantry:

  • Russian Green helmet (894)
  • Khaki Grey uniform (880)
  • German Camo Beige for the straps and gear (821)

Unfortunately you can hardly tell the difference between the two khakis used for uniform and belts.


Meanwhile is a very interesting graphic novel by Jason Shiga. I highly recommend that anyone interested in graphic novels read it, or at least experience the free interactive online version.

The cheap and easy way to describe Meanwhile is to compare it to the Choose Your Own Adventure books our generation enjoyed as kids.  This comparison is unfair to Meanwhile. Athough the mechanism involved is similar, the results are very different.

Instead of reading panels left to right, top to bottom (or right to left if you prefer Manga), the panels in Meanwhile are connected by directional pipes leading to the next panel in sequence.  Often, these pipes lead you to a choice, and the path you choose changes the part of the story you experience.  Sometimes when you’re tasked with entering a pass code, it starts to feel a lot more like a game than a story.

After experiencing a few of the many paths through the book, it starts to require a concerted effort to find your way onto the remaining pages, or onto paths you’ve seen in passing during other parts of the story.  Some parts of the book are pure Easter Eggs that can’t be reached without “cheating” and flipping through page-by-page, and others are available only by making poor or random choices at key decision points.  Just as in real life, some of the most interesting endings are available only through serendipity.

While Choose Your Own Adventure books tell a different story depending on the choices you make, Meanwhile is a single, coherent story; you just experience it from a different perspective based on your decisions.  I’m sorry I can’t tell you more without giving too much away.  You’ll have to go experience it for yourself!

Completing the story provided about the same length of entertainment as a “normal” graphic novel of a comparable length, but it was satisfying in a very different way.  I wonder how it was created, and if another story could be created that would work as well as this one does.

The physical book is printed in full color, in a hardback binding that protects the thick, glossy paper tabs at the edge of the book.  It is a very pretty object, and it’s designed very well.  It was well worth the purchase price, and I’m glad I have it to share with others.

Review: Army Painter Strong Tone Quickshade

Army Painter makes some interesting hobby supplies designed specifically for painting miniature wargaming armies quickly and effectively.  Quickshade is a tinted varnish intended to shade painted miniatures… quickly (duh).

I’m not usually interested in using the “dip” method for painting (or shading) miniatures. But at Historicon I found a deal in the flea market I couldn’t pass up: a large painted Carthaginian army for less than the price of unpainted figures.  The army is useful for killing Romans (surely a noble pursuit), but I wasn’t interested in painting Carthaginians, so it seemed like a good deal.

Unfortunately the paint job was very “old school.” There was no shading, and although most of the figures were painted with glossy enamels there were some painted in acrylics, and a variety of styles.  There was obviously more than one painter at work here, though all the figures had been based somewhat uniformly. Overall it was totally not my style or preference, so I decided to try out the Army Painter quickshade to see if it would help.

I haven’t used any other “dip” formulas, so I don’t have any similar products or techniques to compare this to.  I don’t intend to get good at dipping, so I wanted to get it right the first time. Army Painter was the obvious choice, since the point of this exercise was “adequacy through laziness.”

The typical use for Quickshade and other “dip” formulas is to dip the painted miniature directly into the can of varnish, remove it, and shake off the excess.  This seemed very wasteful and messy to me, so I decided to use the alternate technique: apply the varnish with a brush and more carefully brush off the excess.

The first annoying thing I noticed about the Quickshade is that it is not a water based product.  It’s oil based and requires mineral spirits to clean your brush, hands, spills, and so on.  It’s definitely not for indoor use!  I wouldn’t be able to use this while painting through long winters even if I wanted to.

Before varnishing the figures, I rebased them, touched up some chipped paint, and repainted some inappropriate colors. I tried to remove any stray dust or flock, but there were still clumps of unnaturally bright green flock glued near their feet.  I decided to see what effect the quickshade would have on the flock on a few stands, before spending even more effort to clean it up.

I used a wide flat brush to apply the varnish.  The process was easy, but a lot messier than I expected.  The varnish has the color and consistency of used motor oil, and has a tendency to drip all over the place and get your hands quite sticky.  I now think dipping and shaking could actually be less messy than brushing it on, but you’d waste a lot that way.

The most important part of appyling the product was to clean up the messy pools before they got too sticky.  This was especially problematic at the bottom of flat areas such as shields.

When the varnish dried, it was as glossy as possible and looked pretty horrible to me.  A topcoat of Army Painter dull spray varnish improved things considerably.

Overall, I was pleased with the results, with a few caveats.

The varnish turned the extra flock brown, at least as dark as the brown MDF bases I used.  This was exactly what I was hoping for, and provided a much better color behind the new basing material, but in general you definitely don’t want to use this over flock or other loose basing material.

The Strong Tone is a dark brown, comparable to GW’s Devlan Mud wash.  The color is similar, but it didn’t darken other colors as much as Devlan Mud does.  It did a very good job of staying in the cracks to provide shadows, while keeping the high spots lighter.

The effectiveness of the Quickshade depends directly on the quality of the miniatures you’re shading.  The figures need to have enough details for the Quickshade to creep into, or they’ll still have large areas of flat color when you’re finished.  The Carthaginians were mostly old Viking Forge figures with limited detail.  Most of the Gallic infantry was painted too thickly, obscuring the little detail present.  Because of this, the Gauls turned out much worse than other figures with better details.

I was happy with the Quickshade’s effect over other colors, especially white.  It shaded stark white into a pleasing off-white without ruining it.  The shading effect is good over a wide range of colors, even typically difficult ones.  It’s certainly not as nice as hand-painted shading and highlighting, but it’s an acceptable solution for a fraction of the effort.

One effect I often notice with washes or dips without additional highlighting is that the color ends up a lot deeper than you’d get if you painted lighter highlights. It’s the same deal here.  Typically I paint things a bit lighter than I want them to be in the end, but in this case I didn’t have that option, so some of the colors are darker than I might otherwise prefer.

After painting approximately 54 stands of 15mm foot, infantry, and elephants (maybe 150 figures or so), well over 3/4 of the pint can of Quickshade remains.  I don’t yet know how it’ll stand up to long term storage, or if it’ll start to evaporate and become too thick to use.  The “dip” method wouldn’t work once you used up enough of the varnish: the figures would start to hit the bottom of the can.

The Carthaginians look much better to me than they used to (pictures should be coming soon), but they’re still definitely my “beater army.”  They won’t be winning any beauty contests, but hopefully I can at least kill some Romans with them.

I won’t be putting the Army Painter Quickshade into regular use, but it will serve well for limited purposes: quick shading of figures Martine paints, and rehab of other armies I find cheap at convention flea markets.

Game Review: Dominion: Alchemy

Everyone I’ve played Dominion with has really enjoyed it, including Marla and even Martine.  With the proper card selection Martine (at age 6) has no problem finishing games with the full rules, and has even been known to beat grownup opponents.

The first two expansions, Intrigue and Seaside, both add a good selection of cards to the game without changing the flavor very much.  I had high hopes for the third expansion, Dominion: Alchemy, when Andy brought it over to try it out.  Unfortunately, I don’t like it very much yet.  My opinion of the cards might improve if I play it more, but this expansion is different than the previous ones and I’m not sure I like that difference.

As anyone who has read my previous review knows, the basic game play in Dominion is to use the resources in your deck of cards to buy more cards for that deck.  As you cycle through your gradually improving deck, you hope to collect enough victory cards to be ahead when the game ends.  Cards can be actions, which do things; treasure, which is used to buy more cards; or victory cards, which do nothing (but are required to win).

There are many different effective strategies, and they vary a lot based on the cards available and how you use them.  Despite these wide differences, it’s still possible to categorize the basic action strategies into two broad categories.  I’ll call them “Action Combo” and “Utility Action” strategies.

With an Action Combo strategy, you buy many action cards, and depend on playing a big tree of actions each turn in order to cull the treasure out of your deck.  Since you have so many action cards, adding a few more victory cards isn’t a big deal, so it’s not always important to concentrate on the highest point value victory cards.  Action Combo decks often take long turns and end up with a large portion of the deck in play each turn, even late in the game.

A Utility Action strategy uses a low proportion of action cards in the end-game deck, and doesn’t rely on the use of a lot of actions each turn in order to win.  Instead, the deck concentrates on acquiring many high value treasure cards, and uses a few action cards to improve the chances of drawing big hands of cash to buy high value victory cards.  In this strategy it is important to concentrate on the highest value victory cards, so you don’t dilute your deck.

It’s possible to win with both of these strategies.  It can be a lot more fun to play with an Action Combo strategy, because you get to do a lot more on each of your turns even when you’re losing.  However, I usually end up playing with a Utility strategy.  I sometimes win the game with only 4 or 5 action cards total, but with many Gold and Silver treasure cards and a stack of Provinces.

(One strategy I enjoy a lot with the basic set is to buy a Smithy and a Silver in the first run through the deck. I often end up buying Gold on the second through the deck and Provinces on the 3rd and 4th runs through.  It’s very fast, but it can stall unless you build up enough treasure and actions to get you through the clumps of Victory cards.)

In the basic set, Intrigue, and Seaside, almost all of the card effects have varying degrees of synergy with each other, but there is only one card I can think of (Seaside’s Treasure Map) which requires another specific card in order to be useful.  Even Treasure Map only requires another copy of the same card in order for you to play it. Other action cards allow you to build interesting combos, but they combine with a many other cards and almost all of the actions are useful by themselves.

The Alchemy card set is different, because of the existence of the Potion card.  Potion is a new kind of treasure. Most of the other Alchemy cards require a potion to purchase them, and many of the actions are more beneficial if you have a Potion in play (that is: if you just used it to buy something). 

Since most of the cards in the Alchemy set require a card combo in order to use them at all, it tends to push you towards using certain strategies.  In order to get any Alchemy cards you need a Potion, but once you have a Potion you need to use it enough to justify its cost (both in treasure and the space it takes in your deck) since it won’t buy you many victory points.  Overall, this expansion guides you into using an Action Combo strategy. 

Yes, there are cards available that let you trade in one card for something else, which would let you turn a Potion into something useful after you’re done with it.  But I don’t find these Remodel cards to be very useful.  Why would I buy a card I don’t want, buy another card that can turn it into something else, hope I draw them both, and then spend an action to change one into another, when I could just buy the card I wanted in the first place?  Again, the result is an Action Combo strategy.

The main problem I have with Alchemy is that it doesn’t provide very many cards that support a Utility Action strategy (with some notable exceptions).  In practice, this isn’t very limiting for me, because typically you use cards from otehr sets along with the Alchemy choices, and I can almost always find a useful Utility strategy using only those.  But then I’m not using the Alchemy cards, which makes them a bit of a waste for me.

Overall, I’d definitely play Dominion with Alchemy cards, but it probably wouldn’t be my first choice.  I do want to play more games to get used to the cards and figure out how I can use them more effectively.  I also think it’s worth it for me to play with a set that forces a combo strategy occasionally, just for a change of pace. But I’m pretty sure I won’t be buying Alchemy at least for a while, especially since Andy already has it.

Game Review: Small World

After hearing the Small World review on the d6 Generation Podcast, I picked up a copy. This is a solid, interesting game.  But since there are better choices to play on game night, I expect I’ll usually end up playing this one with the kids.

I would definitely recommend listening to the d6 Generation review for more details, but I’ll summarize the game play here. Small World is a basic area-control game with a humorous fantasy theme. The world is populated by elves, dwarves, giants, and other fantasy creatures, but there just isn’t enough room for everyone to live side by side in peace. 

The game uses a different map depending on how many people are playing, so the world is the correct size for any number of players from 2 to 5.  Game play is simple: collect your troop tokens, leaving one in each territory you control; and then place them on new territories to take control of them. Each territory requires 2 tokens for the space plus one for each troop or passive fortification on the space.  If another player’s tokens are removed, they lose one and replace the rest as reinforcements at the end of the turn.  This population displacement mechanic makes it clear that this is a civilization-building game, and not a wargame.  At the end of each turn, you gain victory points based on how many territories you control.

There is no randomness during game play. The only randomness is in the mechanic that also generates the game’s replayability: the races and special abilities.  At the start of the game, 5 races are turned up, along with a special ability for each.  Both the race and the special ability affect the number of troops required to capture a territory, the availability of passive defenses, and the number of victory points awarded for each space.  For example, Commando Wizards have the “Commando” special ability, which reduces the number of troops required to take each space by one; and the “Wizard” special ability, which gives an extra victory point for controlling magic spots on the board.

There are quite a few different races and special abilities, and they’re randomly combined.  This produces many different combinations of game effects to choose from each time you play.

The game mechanics are simple, there is no randomness to speak of, and no hidden information is used during game play.  The current VP total is hidden, but best left secret until the end of the game anyway.  There is minimal reading required, mainly to figure out what each race and special ability does, but even if not all players can read, it’s fine to have one person explain things to the others.   And the game only lasts about an hour, plus or minus 20 minutes.

For all of these reasons, this makes an unexpectedly good game for youngsters.  The recommended age range is 8+, but Martine and her friend Levi have played with no problems at age 6+ (first grade).

I expect there’s a bit more strategy to explore in multiple plays with adult opponents and higher player counts, but I think this game will come out more often with the kids except as a short duration filler game with adults.

Canned Monk’s Blood

I picked up an interesting case of beer this weekend: Monk’s Blood, by 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco. This is the first time in years I’ve bought beer in a can, but it would be totally unfair to judge this beer by its packaging.

This is a “Belgian Dark Ale” with a laundry list of interesting ingredients: Belgian candi sugar, cinnamon, vanilla bean, and dried figs.  The flavor definitely fits my profile for an enjoyable beer.  It’s not very hoppy.  It’s sweet and malty enough to hide they 8.3% alcohol content, but it doesn’t bowl you over as much as a barley wine does.  The yeast doesn’t seem to add much character: it has neither the sour nor “musty” profile of many Belgian yeasts. 

None of the special additions overpower the flavor; it still tastes like beer, not cake.  If I tasted the beer without knowing its ingredients I might notice it was slightly spicy, but I doubt I’d be able to identify the vanilla or cinnamon flavors. Everything else is fermented by the time I get to drink it anyway.

I was a bit surprised how similar the brew is to Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch. As implied by its name, Monk’s Blood is much darker and reddish in color. The only odd taste I had in the first can was a bit of metallic bitterness, possibly from the figs?  It wasn’t noticeable after the first few sips in any case.

Unlike most craft brews, this beer comes in cans.  I blame Pabst Blue Ribbon and the impression it’s been making on the hipster crowd in recent years. 

Overall I’m very happy with my purchase and I’d get it again, despite the silly price of beer in Pennsylvania.

Blackbeard Update

Here are some second impressions after playing Blackbeard again last Friday, this time with 4 players.

I still think the game feels quite random, but once you get used to the rules it’s a bit easier to gain a bit of control over that randomness.

The KC rules both helped and hurt.  They did provide a greater chance of failure for the pirates, but they also provided an opportunity for greater wealth if they were killed.  Almost half of Frank’s VP came from killing one KC: 11 combat x 2 notoriety, and he retired to turn that into x2 VP for 44 VP total.  That seems excessive to me.  On the other hand, I think we played even fewer Warships this game, since they’re so weak. 

There was a lot more port attacking going on. No one grabbed anyone else’s booty.  There was very little motivation to go take the Buried Treasure instead of just attacking another port.  The game still felt too short in turns, even though it was about the same length in time as our 3 player game.

Overall, I’d still play it again, to see whether I’d want to play it again or not.

Game review: Blackbeard

Daniel nearly missed a fatal encounter with Blackbeard… or maybe he just knew when to run. Actually, the game wasn’t that bad, but I definitely have mixed feelings about it. I’d like to play it
again, to see whether I think it’s actually worth playing or not.

At its core, this is a straightforward “pick up and deliver” game with a pirate theme, and a “take that” element to provide challenges for the pirates to face. However, as it was produced by a wargame company (GMT), I think it has ended up twice as complicated as it needs to be to provide the same basic gameplay, and feels far more random than it should be.

The game took 3 hours to complete, not including setup time, for 3 players who hadn’t played before (though I read half the rules before we started). That’s within the 2-3 hour timeframe for the game, which is unusual for us, even with games we know.

The basic gameplay is what I expected from a “historical” pirate themed game. You sail your pirate ship(s) around the map to find merchant ships and take their stuff, while fending off attacks by warships. Then, sell the stuff in ports to get money, or attack ports to steal their stuff too.

Each player controls one or more pirates, and the pirates gain “net worth” and “notoriety” through their exploits. Pirates who retire convert their net worth and notoriety into victory points, while pirates
who die or fail to retire before game end only provide VP for their notoriety. When a pirate retires, you can get a new one and continue playing, or just use one of your other pirates already in play.

Some of the seeming complexity of the game comes from the way the rules are written. They’re verbose, repetitive, and hard to read without falling asleep. The play aid is 4 sheet sides, and doesn’t include basic things like the player turn order.

The other things that make the game feel too complex are rules that have little effect on gameplay. Maybe we just didn’t use enough of the “take that” cards (see below for more on that), but we found the effectiveness of warships, storms, and scurvy to be minimal. Playing a warship on another pirate typically felt like giving them free notoriety for killing it, and not like it was a serious obstacle.
Even the worst storm anyone faced didn’t send them back to port for repairs. No one was ever anywhere near running out of crew loyalty, speed, or combat.

And then there was the randomness. Merchant ships are chosen randomly and placed upside down in random locations. You then have a random chance of whether you find a ship or not, with the maximum chance of success at 50% most of the time. When you do find the ship and decide it’s worth looting, it contains a random amount of booty, and a random hostage.  This resulted in a huge disparity in the number of merchant ships looted by various players, and the total amount of loot this resulted in.

The main tactical decision with merchant ships is: Go to India where the loot chart is the fattest. Of course, that depends on the roll of the dice providing India with merchants…

The scarce resource in the game is your total number of actions over the course of the game. Actions come from cards in your turn, and you typically get 1-3 actions per turn based on the card you choose to use for actions. In so many words: when the card deck is almost finished, the game ends.

This mechanic has several effects. First of all, it’s very beneficial to play 3 action cards instead of 1 action cards if possible; but that’s usually not possible unless you have the right pirate. Also, it means that a 4 or 5 player game probably takes just as long as a 3 or 2 player game, because the total number of turns/actions is going to be about the same.

Finally, it means that using cards for their events instead of actions reduces the length of the game, by increasing the rate the deck is consumed. So although on the surface, it seems that by playing more
“take that” cards, you might be able to whittle down other pirates via attrition. In reality, this would only shorten the game so much that the extra damage wouldn’t matter.

I think the combat and storms could matter more in a longer game. But since your holds fill up after looting 2-3 ships anyway, requiring you to go back to port, you end up getting refits regularly anyway. I can see why the instructions include an optional rule to add +2 to all warship combat results.

We haven’t fully explored some aspects of the game yet. For example, I think it may be more worth attacking ports than looting ships. It’s a better use of actions, since it only takes one action to attack and loot a port, but at least 2 (and maybe more) to take a merchant ship. You might not succeed looting a port, but the chances are often greater than the chance of even finding a merchant ship.

Overall, I’m interested in playing again, to see if I’m missing anything, and to see if my greater familiarity with the rules makes it more fun. But my overall impression after one play is that it’s a
huge luck fest, that requires much more effort than I prefer for the amount of fun it gives in return.

Game report: Uncharted Seas, 2…

…In which our heroes remember the importance of reading the rules ahead of time.

Frank and I played Uncharted Seas again on Saturday. We didn’t get to the “setting up and remembering how to play” stage until 10pm or so, and then we had to find the rules for all the new models we’re using.

We were playing almost 1000 points per side. My Dragon Lord fleet consisted of 2 battleships, a squadron of 3 cruisers, a squadron of 3 heavy cruisers, a dragon carrier, and 2 squadrons of 3 frigates each. Frank’s Dwarves had a battleship, a flagship, two squadrons of 3 carriers, a squadron of 2 heavy carriers, and two squadrons of 3 frigates.

The scenario was a simple “line them up and knock them down” setup since we’re still figuring out how to play well. The game ended up lasting about 3 or 4 turns, which is to say, until we stopped at 2am.

When we called time, I had basically lost: I lost all of my cruisers, all but one frigate, and one wing of 3 dragons from the carrier. My carrier was damaged, but my other models weren’t. Frank had damage on many of his models, making them less useful, but only lost a few carriers and a few frigates.

I learned several things not to do, but I’m not sure what I should do instead!

Dragon Lords are fast and have good long range firing, but don’t have good armor or short range guns. Dwarves have heavier armor and much better short range guns. They’re also better at firing forward instead of broadsides.

This presented several difficulties. First of all, my fast frigates were really easy to get too far ahead, where they were stuck out by themselves and got into trouble. Once they were there, they got in the way and acted as a screen, preventing my cruisers from firing through them… until they were crushed. The frigates can only shoot at short range, but once they get that close they’re hosed by the Dwarves.

The other problem Dragon Lords have is difficulty bringing all its guns to bear. To stay at long range, you need to sail around the edges of the table and shoot towards the middle. But if you do that, you’ll only ever get one broadside and possibly minimal front arc shooting. But if you close to get both broadsides into combat, the Dwarves crush you in close shooting.

So maybe I need to use the Frigates as a screen in a more conscious way, or possibly as bait to send the enemy where I’d prefer them to be.

A few problems with the rules are showing their head as well. Maybe it’s just a lack of tactical skill, but I’ve seen this in many miniatures games. When there are both weak and powerful units on the board, the weak ones all tend to get killed off quickly, leaving a duel between a few large units. With large ships being harder to hit by small ones, but killing the small ones much more easily, an equal number of points of small and large ships aren’t really balanced because the small ones can hardly touch the large ones.

The other problem I have with the rules is the specific implementation and maintenance they’re doing with the actual rule book. Spartan Games sells their rule book, but they release rules for new models online instead of selling them. They also make rules corrections and additions available online for free. This is good!

The problem is, these rules additions are spread aross many files and it’s a big pain in the butt to actually use them, especially in combination with the rulebook, which is not available online. The best case scenario would be One Big File of “everything else” you need except the rulebook.

The reality is much worse. To figure out how to handle the Dragon Carrier, I needed to consult 4 different files: the stat card, front; stat card, back; Nogdra Dragon rules; and Flying rules.

Using these separate files makes it easier for Spartan to release a single update, but it makes the rules nearly unusable because you’re not sure which files you need until a question comes up.

I also don’t like the revision control they have on thier rules. They call the files things like “Flying rules- final.” Well, what happens when you change the final rules? Nothing is ever final, but they don’t have any room for new version numbers.

Overall I’m happy and I’d still play the game again, but maybe not 1000 point battles until we’re more familiar with the rules.

Ride report: The 3-speed Sloth

Halfway through my trip to work on Monday, the first longer ride on my new 3-speed with studded tires, I knew what I’d write about it: I can’t tell whether the tires worked really well, or whether the roads weren’t icy.

Then I arrived at the snow and ice covered Eliza Furnace trail, and my opinion changed. The knobby, studded tires definitely make a huge difference compared to my normal almost-slicks. I don’t know how much of it is because of the rubber knobs and how much is the carbide studs, but the tires definitely inspire confidence on poor weather roads.

As for the bike itself, it’s not my new favorite ride, but it definitely serves a good purpose at this time of year. I thought the gearing was too high, until I readjusted my shifter cable and discovered I didn’t have 1st gear previously!

This bike makes a good winter rider for poor quality roads, providing a low enough gear to get up the hills without a dangerously fast gear for the potentially slippy downhills. The fenders kept my feet dry through the slush all week, and the toe clips let me wear my boots instead of cycling shoes.

I only wish I had another generator light on the front! Batteries are a bad deal.