Review: De Bellis Multitudinus (DBM)

Today, I played DBM (De Bellis Multitudinus) for the first time. DBM can be described as a scaled up version of DBA, a game that I am very fond of, but this description would be unfair to both DBA and DBM. I had a good time, and I’d definitely play DBM again, but I wouldn’t consider it an upgrade of or replacement for DBA and/or Big Battle DBA (BBDBA).

The rules

In many ways, comparing DBM to DBA is a bit like comparing long bike rides with shorter trips. You can have just as much fun, but it takes longer and requires a longer term mind frame. If you want to avoid suffering the whole time, it also may require a bit more training. And on a bad day, you’ll wish you opted for the shorter trip.

The beauty of DBA is its small scale and simplicity, matched with deep tactical complexity. Armies always consist of 12 elements, so they’re fast and easy to paint, and the limited army lists provide a good sense of closure when you’re finished. Games require only an hour to play, so even if you lose you won’t suffer for very long.

DBM is larger than DBA in several dimensions, with positive and negative consequences.

DBM adds support for larger armies and uneven forces on each side, using points-based army lists. This allows for playing larger battles and designing historic scenarios within the scope of the rules. However, it also increases the importance of the army selection meta-game, requires a lot more painted miniatures, and loses the “I’m finished!” satisfaction smaller DBA armies provide. Points based systems are always susceptible to minmaxing and twinking, even when the theoretical basis for the system is to match historical reality.

DBM also provides a greater level of detail with additional rules for things like weather, troop quality, and commander quality. The most visible aspect to me was the troop quality modifiers. These provide a finer grained difference between historical troop types that are considered identical in DBA (but weren’t in real life). I’m not experienced enough to decide whether this is a case of confusing “detail” with “realism” or not. However, for the DBA player interested in DBM, the main result is that there are many more close combat modifiers, and generally a lot more things to consider when resolving combat (or deciding whether to enter combat in the first place).

Due to the increased number of elements in each army the ground scale is different, but the movement rates have also changed to compensate. The command and control system is still PIP based, but also more complicated due to the larger armies.

The cumulative effect of all these differences is that you feel like you’re playing DBA on steroids, but some of the differences bite you when you least expect them, or force you to change your tactics to avoid being bitten. I could see myself losing brain cells if I were forced to constantly switch between these “similar but different” rulesets.

The game

This particular engagement was a 500 point game between “our” Pyrrhic army with Seleucid ally, who chased down “their” fleeing Carthaginians. There were about 75-80 elements on each side, split into 4 commands with 3 players on each side. Our individual commands had 4, 19, 19, and 36 elements in them (I think). Each command still only rolls d6 for PIPs, so PIPs for movement are more scarce than in DBA. The movement rules are more flexible for group moves in some ways, since there’s an expectation that you’ll be moving larger blocks of elements around.

This game was part of a large campaign played by a bunch of the guys in this gaming group. Our goal was to kill as many of Larry’s Carthaginians as possible before he got back. The other side’s goal was pretty much the same, since Larry wasn’t around.

I held our extreme left flank with a huge block of pike and spear (twice as large as a DBA army by itself), supported by bad-going support troops (another DBA army worth of Auxilia and Psiloi). (Huh… I just realized I had the Big command… I thought I chose the “easy, uncomplicated” command, not the huge one.) My goal was for the guys with the long pointy sticks to walk forward and crush anything in their path, while the guys with the short pointy sticks stood on the hill and prevented the enemy’s cavalry from turning our flank.

In the end, it worked! Not only did I fail to screw up tactically and lose, I actually rolled well enough in combat to kill superior troops with my light troops, including the enemy’s Commander in Chief, which ended the battle.

Having the Big command helped a lot, because Jim almost always assigned me the high PIP die, so I rarely lacked the PIPs to do what I required.

I think I was also aided by suboptimal enemy deployment, but part of this was likely due to a lack of choice by the time they deployed that flank. They had poor matchups against my pike and spear, but I think a bigger mistake was splitting their command in half. They sent most of their bad going troops halfway downfield to play in the mud (steep hills, really). This provided them with a PIP suck in the middle of the board, far away from their general, and reduced their options on my flank.

The game theoretically started at 1:30pm, but much time was spent finding boxes of figures, talking, and so on. We had everything packed up again by 7pm: not a short game.

Overall Impressions

Playing as a small part of a larger battle, and seeing the battle unfold on the field gave me a much better feel for the “grand tactical” situation than I often get from DBA. Now that I’ve seen this in a larger scale, maybe I’ll be able to translate that vision to smaller DBA battles.

As for my part in the battle itself, it felt fairly similar to playing an isolated and slow game of DBA on my flank. The amount of tactical decision making I had was not equivalent to what I’d see in 5 sequential games of DBA, by any means.

I’d definitely play DBM again… but at someone else’s house. I don’t even have a room large enough for the 8’x5′ table required, and don’t have nearly enough miniatures to field even one side of a 500 point battle. As with many of the larger games I play at conventions, I don’t like it enough to want to do it myself, but I do like it enough to “push lead” once in a while in someone else’s game.

Instead, to satisfy my personal “bigger game” fix, I’ll attempt to scale up some of my DBA armies into Impetus armies and/or BBDBA armies.


Ringmaster is an Italian circus game. Actually, it isn’t: it’s a freely available, print-and-play, vaguely Lord of the Rings themed strategic wargame. It is Italian, though; or more accurately, originally written in Italian and then translated into English.

I was in the mood for a multiplayer wargame this past weekend, but don’t have any suitable titles on hand, so I looked for a Print and Play option. I found Ringmaster on the Print and Play blog, and printed it up.

I printed the board on photo paper (4 sheets; Marla bought a ream at Costco so I don’t mind using a few sheets) and mounted it on foam core. It isn’t perfect, but it came out really nice. The art and finish quality are a lot better than many low-budget store bought games. The cards are worse: they’re printed on plain cardstock and stuck into card sleeves so they can be shuffled more easily. Coincidentally (probably not) the 6 army colors used in the game match the 6 armiy colors in my old thrift store era Risk game, so that worked out well for the army pieces.

The game is completely card based, and uses no dice. During play, it looks a lot like Risk, but it’s more fun and not nearly as painful.

On each turn, first you can cast magical spells or use artifacts (cards). Then move armies from one or two adjacent territories to as many other territories you want. Any territory with more than one player’s armies has a fight. Finally, you get troop reinforcements and new cards based on the number of territories you hold, and it’s someone else’s turn. The first player to get 10 victory points (gained by taking other players’ territories, but not from holding your own) wins.

Combat is card based. The non-magic cards all either add combat value to the number of troops you brought to the fight, or modify combat values in some less direct way (removing defensive bonuses or nullifying the enemy’s cards). Whoever has the biggest number wins, and the loser loses troops equal to the difference.

The rules are easy and straightforward, but they do have a few questionable points. Unfortunately the author only speaks/writes in Italian, there are a few problems in the translation, and no FAQ is available. (We were entertained by “Take a card from an opponent casually,” where “casually” was clearly meant to be “randomly.”)

Theoretically the game should take about 2 hours to play, but it was our first time so it took us 3 hours. Somehow we often take a long time with wargames. We must think too hard or talk too much.

Ringmaster is quite a good light strategic level wargame. It has only a low to moderate feeling of randomness, due to the card-based combat. You have your cards before you decide to attack, which helps immensely, as I predicted in a previous blog post about randomness. There felt like a bit of a “runaway leader” effect, but it was mostly manageable by ganging up on the leader (although Frank won in the end anyway: no dice!) The end game is very much unlike Risk, luckily. Since you only need 10VP to win and not “everything on the board,” the game ends before it gets boring.

We played the “basic” version of the rules instead of the “advanced” version, and the Middle Earth theme is very light. You’re playing on a strategic map of Middle Earth, but there is almost no other thematic flavor to the cards or rules. Apparently the Advanced rules help that somewhat, by at least allying the forces of Good and Evil on separate teams, among other things.

This game totally hit the spot on Saturday, and I look forward to playing it again. It was a great deal more fun than dying at the hands of the orcs and dragon on the first turn of Wizard’s Quest.

Basic Impetus

At Legions today, we played Basic Impetus. This is a freely downloadable introductory version of the Impetus ancients miniatures wargaming rules. Rick and Jim played Polybian Romans, and Larry and I played Carthaginians. No one had really played the rules before, but at least Larry read them before we started.

The model basing uses the equivalent of 4 DBx sized bases for each unit. This is similar to Ancient and Medieval Warfare (AMW, which I also haven’t played), except you never need to remove bases so they could be permanently based on larger bases.

I couldn’t really field any proper armies without painting a bunch more stands, but I could fake it so we can play enough to decide whether to paint enough bases for two full armies. The common basing with AMW, also based on multiple DBx bases, would make this a useful way to encourage painting more elements. Incidentally, Command and Colors: Ancients also uses 4 blocks per unit, so with enough elements painted up I could play C&C:A with miniatures as well.

The Impetus rules are partway between highly detailed reductionist rules like Warhammer Ancients, and the extremely abstract DBA. Activation is IGO-UGO and every unit can be activated on every turn. Units have a few stats: Type, Move, VBU (both hit points and combat effectiveness), Impetus (combat bonus in the first round of combat), and VD (victory points for killing the unit, basically).

If the unit has a ranged weapon, it’s listed; otherwise all other weapons and armor are abstracted into the VBU number. Unlike DBA, javelins and slings are considered ranged weapons and not “close combat.” Some unit types such as skirmishers and light cavalry have special rules to fit their historical use, but for the most part everything acts fairly uniformly based on its stat line.

Movement is “normal” with one exception: when you meet enemies you must not line up exactly with the enemy units. Instead, you always overlap the lines partially on each side. This seems odd, but it ends up working well in practice: most combats end up with single overlaps, but no fights give you double overlaps.

When shooting or fighting, you roll a number of d6 equal to your VBU plus appropriate modifiers; each 6 or two 5’s are a hit. Those hits aren’t immediately applied to the enemy unit, but if a unit receives any hits, it must make a cohesion roll modified by the hits received. Failing the cohesion roll causes “real” damage by reducing your VBU for the rest of the game (or until you run out and rout).

The two-step combat system is probably the most fiddly part of the rules, but in practice it works well enough and isn’t too complicated. I think the whole “effectiveness equals hit points left” thing is based on the fact that historically, casualty rates in melee combat were very low, and almost all casualties were caused when one side was running away. The most important thing is to not run away in the first place.

In the game itself, I controlled the right flank with 2 units of Light Cavalry, 1 unit of Cavalry, 1 unit of Warband (strong light foot) and 1 unit of skirmishers. At first I did well: I was rolling lots of 5’s and 6’s, and pushed back the Roman flank. But later, the Romans started hitting me back. I kept on rolling 5’s and 6’s for cohesion tests, but I’m supposed to roll low on those, so I took heavy casualties. Eventually all five of my units were killed, and when one of Larry’s spearmen joined me, the game was over.

Overall, I enjoyed the rules and I expect Frank and Andy might like them a better than DBA. They aren’t as “weird” as DBA: you get to move all your units, you throw big fists full of dice, and you don’t need to remember a pantsload of seemingly random combat result tables. I’m hoping Daniel would still enjoy the more chess-like DBA, but I’m also hoping he ever has a chance to play it again…

The general character of the game itself was what I’d expect while learning a new rule set. There was a lot of “lively discussion,” rulebook consultation, and getting things wrong. The battlefield looks more impressive than a DBA game because the units are larger, even though there are fewer of them.

I’d like to give these rules a try, but first I’ll need to work up some armies and build some sabots (large bases to hold the individual stands) to make things easier to move around.

Game report: Uncharted Seas

Games Workshop’s Man O’ War has been out of print for a long time. After failing to find any reasonably inexpensive copies, I started looking for alternatives, and came across The Uncharted Seas.

Uncharted Seas is a fantasy naval miniatures wargame released a year or so ago by Spartan Games in the UK. The ships are nominally 1/600 scale, but since they’re fantasy themed and there are no humans to compare them to, it’s hard to tell. The largest ship in the image above, the Dragon Lords Battleship, is over 6″ long, and the smallest ships, frigates, are just under 1.5″ long. The sails are metal and the hulls are separately cast resin.

Frank and I liked the look of this game, so we bought a starter set each and the rules. Frank chose Iron Dwarves, and I chose Dragon Lords. The dwarven boats are almost identical copies of some of the better looking Civil War ironclads. The dragon lords ships have sails patterned after dragon wings.

Each starter set comes with one battleship, a squadron of three cruisers, and two squadrons of three Frigates. The game is new and Spartan Games is fairly small, so they have a few additional ships available for each fleet, but certainly not an overwhelming volume of “stuff you need to buy.”

The models are quite pretty, and are high quality castings. The resin parts are cast very cleanly and needed minimal cleanup, but the bottoms needed a pass over sandpaper to flatten them out. The only flaw I had with the resin was evidence of its brittleness: the railing was cracked off in a few places, and I had to repair this with putty. The metal sails needed a bit more cleanup on their edges, and didn’t fit perfectly to the shape of the hulls. I chose to solve the problem with epoxy, but drilling the hulls and sails and using pins might have produced better results.

My initial color choice, shown in the oddball Frigate squadron above, was disappointing. The switch to a brown hull and dark yellow spines on the sails improved things immensely. Painting the ships was quite fast using standard inking and drybrushing techniques, but not as fun as I had hoped. The textured surface of the Dragon Lord takes drybrushing very well, and the boards in the hull show ink perfectly. The only real fiddly bits on the Dragon Lords ships are all of the tiny ballistae on the decks of the ship, which are smaller than crossbows for 15mm figures. Everyone else gets cannons, which would be much more fun to paint.

The rulebook has quite high production quality. It’s printed in full color and is very glossy. There are many inspiring photographs of painted fleets, as well as digital images showing other paint scheme ideas.

Unfortunately the text itself isn’t very good: this is YAUBR (Yet Another Unintelligible British Ruleset). Some rulebooks put 10 pages of rules in a 100 page book and fill the rest with fluff and exposition, making the rules hard to find when you need them. Others put 10 pages of rules on 1 page using tiny font sizes, arcanely terse writing styles, and a heavy dose of omission; an index is impossible without the use of line numbers instead of page numbers.

The Uncharted Seas rules don’t fall completely into either of these categories, but have some problems nonetheless. The rulebook constantly comments on the rules, explaining how simple they are and that they were chosen to make the game fast and exciting. Much of this would be better if it were left out, or put into a “designer’s notes” section. Unfortunately we came across questions which seemed to be unanswered in the rules, so we basically just made stuff up or decided how to handle things on the fly until we could consult a FAQ… except, there isn’t a rule FAQ, only a forum.

Another downside to the rulebook is, the rules have changed since the first printing. Updates are freely available on the Spartan Games website, but this is inconvenient. The new rules make sense where the old ones didn’t, at least. I’m not sure how much has been fixed in the second revision of the rulebook, but I’m going to wait for the next revision before I buy another copy.

The rule book comes with templates and counters you can copy and cut out, and third parties have already produced laser cut plywood/acrylic alternatives. At first I thought it might have been nice to have some thicker cardboard templates in the rules, but at this point I think I prefer the thin cardstock: the templates often get in the way of other ships, and you can slip the cardstock under another ship or bend it out of the way fairly easily.

Although the rulebook is not perfect, the rules themselves are quite good, and not difficult to learn or play. The basic feel of the game is very similar to Battlefleet Gothic (BFG), but it’s simpler and faster to play. Luckily, not much is lost in the process.

There are a few basic tactical problems you face in “broadsides” naval games like this:

  • Maneuvering a ship while taking into account the effects of wind
  • Lining yourself up for good shots, even though you move forward and shoot primarily to the side

We didn’t encounter the first problem, because both Dragon Lords and Iron Dragons are immune to the wind (human, elf, and orc ships are not). The “broadsides” problem was present in Battlefleet Gothic and showed itself here as well. The ships themselves felt faster than I remember ships being in BFG; the 4’x4′ board felt crowded with 5 islands and the two starter fleets, and the edge of the board came a lot more quickly than I expected.

The basic combat mechanic is well known to anyone who has played a Games Workshop game: roll more d6’s than you can hold in 2 hands, and hope you get a lot of 6’s. However, as anyone familiar with statistics knows: despite superstition, rolling more dice produces a much more even distribution of results than rolling only a few. Rolling lots of dice doesn’t necessarily make the game feel more random, and this combat system works quite well for its suited purpose.

In terms of ship effectiveness, it’s clear that the battleships kick butt and frigates are mostly useless. You can effectively take on a ship one class larger with several of your boats, but it would be very difficult to put much of a dent in a battleship with your frigates.

Overall, we both liked the game enough to be interested in buying more ships. I’ll likely get a Dragon Carrier, which launches dragons instead of airplanes, and a squadron of Heavy Cruisers. They also have a Flagship for each fleet, a slightly larger battleship, but the rules for those aren’t finished yet and the rough draft looked unimpressive. I may just get another battleship for variety though.

Midas Touch

6 months or so ago, Daniel sent me a link to an announcement that Dogfish Head brewery was going to be reproducing some ancient beer (or other fermented beverage) recipes, and I was very interested to try them when they were finally available. Then, a week or so ago Dad sent me a note about Midas Touch, an all-year-round brew that fits the category of “ancient beer.”

I finally managed to remember to pick one up at D’s, and tonight we tried it. I like it, it’s my kind of beer.

The beer is a crystal clear rich gold color (hence the Midas Touch) with a light head that doesn’t stick around. There was no yeast in my bottle. It has a bit of the malty bitterness of a barley wine or most American made Belgian style trippels. It’s malty, slightly sweet, and bitter but with no hoppiness. I’m reminded of some kind of wine, but I don’t pay enough attention to my wine to be able to place it. The flavor is very interesting, without slapping you in the face with “different.” I’d definitely get this again.

I also picked up a bottle of Palo Santo Marron, which seems slightly interesting, and a big bottle of Chateau Jiahu that I am very interested in trying. Now that I’m looking at the Dogfish Head site more carefully, it looks like I’ll have to try to find Theobroma and Sah’tea as well.

Unfortunately it looks like I’ll have to go to Delaware or Maryland to taste any of their distilled spirits. Maybe they could teach me to enjoy rum.

Game Review: Dominion

Dominion is a card game sold in a board game box. It’s a Eurogame with many features of a typical collectible card game, without the “collectible” part. Our gaming group really enjoys this game, but I wouldn’t recommend it for those who dislike games which could be described as “mutiplayer solitaire.”

The basic idea of Dominion is to use the resources in your deck of cards, which somewhat abstractly represents your dominion, to increase the size of your deck. In the end, the player with the best deck wins.

There are three basic kinds of cards: treasure (money), victory points, and actions. Treasure is used to buy more cards, but is not worth anything at the end of the game. You win by having the most victory points, but VP cards are useless and use up precious card draws while you’re playing. Action cards increase the effectiveness of your deck by giving you more things to do on your turn, but are also worthless when the game is over.

The basic gameplay is simple: play at most one action card; buy at most one card; discard all of your cards; then, draw up to a full hand of 5 cards. The rest of the rules are on the action cards, which let you do things like play more actions, draw more cards, buy more cards, and so on. Cards don’t stay “in play” on a tableau, they’re constantly cycled from your draw deck, through your hand, into your discard pile (which is reshuffled as needed: often).

Dominion does a fairly good job of capturing the deckbuilding aspect which is implicitly present in other collectible card games, but it’s done during gameplay instead of between games. Most of the strategy is in deciding which cards to buy for your deck. You need to find a combination of action cards which work together while protecting you from other players’ attacks, while maintaining a good balance of action and treasure cards and ensuring you have enough victory points to win the game.

The game comes with 25 different action cards, but only 10 are chosen to be available during each game. This greatly increases the replayability of the game. Acitons which seem useless in some games may be very important in others when different cards are in play.

As someone who enjoys playing CCGs, I find that Dominion provides many of the same small, enjoyable moments that CCGs do. There is the enjoyment of building a good deck, and the satisfaction of actually drawing the cards you need to pull off a “killer combo.” You also cycle through your deck very quickly and discard your whole hand every turn, so it’s easier to just do the best you can with each hand instead of having to decide which cards to use and which to save for later.

As I’ve said, player interaction is very limited in Dominion. There are a handful of “Attack” action cards which typically have a minor negative effect against all other players unless they have a “Response” card to prevent the attack. This method of interaction makes it impossible to take down a runaway leader, but it’s also impossible for a third place player to play “kingmaker” and decide the match between the first two places.

The overall feel of the game is a “race to the finish” with no one around to spoil your plans: you just need to come up with the best plan to get there first.

Although the gameplay is very different, Dominion shares many traits with another card game we also like a lot: Race for the Galaxy.

  • Quick play time (usually under an hour for 2-4 players)
  • The basic gameplay is simple
  • Most of the rules are on the cards
  • Indirect and limited player interaction (“multiplayer solitaire”)
  • Not much downtime between turns
  • Fun to play even when you lose
  • Enough randomness, but not too much

I highly recommend Dominion to players who enjoy CCGs or used to enjoy them before they went broke or finally kicked the habit. But even those who have no experience with CCGs will find something interesting here. Since there is so little player interaction, the game plays just as well with 2, 3, or 4 players, which makes it good for couples as well as game night.

I’ve played probably 20 times over the last few weeks, and plan to play even more. I’m likely to pick up the Dominion: Intrigue expansion soon, for more action card options and the ability to play with more than 4 players at once.

Update: Starcraft

We’ve played Starcraft: The Board Game a few more times, so I thought I’d update my opinions of the game. Those of us who have played the Starcraft videogame enjoy the gameplay and mechanics well enough, but our overall feeling tends to be of disappointment once we’re finished.

Reading the forum discussions, there seem to be two main opinions about the game:

  1. “It just Ends all of a sudden…”
  2. “You’re doing it wrong.”

Well, we must be doing it wrong, because just when things start to get going, the game “just ends.”

Those of us who enjoy it will probably play again, because it’s still fun enough before it ends. Maybe we’ll even start to “get it” and stop being surprised by the ending. Or, maybe we’ll tweak the victory conditions to make it longer. However, the attic is Really Hot this time of year, so we may wait until it cools off for a while first.

The other problem we have with Starcraft is that it suffers a bit from Event Card Syndrome, aka “The Golden Snitch.” The game progresses, and everyone is working towards their goal, when all of a sudden, Poof! An external force (an event card, or the golden snitch) comes along, and hands victory to one of the players arbitrarily, making the effort put into the rest of the game somewhat pointless.

We’ve managed to get the playing time down to a reasonable length, but since it’s not really satisfying when the game ends, that may not be exactly what we’re looking for.

Starcraft is a typical “Ameritrash” game: it’s deeply tied to its theme or source material, and ends up being somewhat fiddly because of that. If you’re familiar with the theme, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s probably best to play with people who care about Starcraft the video game, or at least who have played it before.

Games in Space: Starcraft, Race for the Galaxy

Tonight’s game night started early because Marla and the kids were out of the house, so the three of us played two space games. Starcraft is a prime example of a good but typical Ameritrash title, and Race for the Galaxy is an excellent Eurogame.

Starcraft is a board game based on the excellent late 90’s video game. Last time we started this one (our first play), we set it up expecting it to take forever, and it did. Tonight we started over, and managed to finish in under 4 hours. We tend to think too much in our games, or maybe too little. The game lasted 4 turns, which was fairly short, but it would most likely have lasted only one more turn with the same winner (me) if we hadn’t drawn the “end of game” cards so quickly.

Starcraft has lots of satisfying shiny parts: two sets each of plastic Space Marines, Zergs (bugs) and Protoss (space elves? Humanoid aliens with advanced tech.) The general setup takes a long time, especially the first time around, and the bits are quite overwhelming. You need a huge table: we could only fit 4 of us on my 4’x6′ table in the attic.

The gameplay options tend to follow what was available in the video game: collect resources with your workers and use it to build workers, transports, combat units, and improvements for your buildings so you can build better troops. The mechanics change when translated to a board game, but the overall feel is what you’d expect, and it’s satisfying for those who have played the video game.

The board is tightly packed, with only two planets per player, and the combat odds tend to stack in favor of the attacker. This is very unlike most combat games, but fits the model of combat tactics proposed in the Ender’s Game trilogy (or so). The overall effect is to reward combat and prevent a stalemate due to “turtling.” Combat is resolved using selected cards from a hand of combat cards, so it’s generally not susceptible to giant failure due to bad die rolls.

The main complaint I might continue to have with future plays is the dreaded “Event Card Effect.” After a long game with lots of fun decisions, someone draws a random event card and the game ends with an upset victory. This is no fun for the one who should’ve won but didn’t, or for the one who won unexpectedly via one random card draw. You might as well just play War or Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock.

There have been many reasonable games ruined by a deck of overpowered event cards. Hmm, come to think of it, there’s another space game that fits this description: Smugglers of the Galaxy.

Overall, Starcraft is a relatively long game, but it’s not so complicated that it’s unapproachable. If you’re familiar with the video game, it will match your expectations faithfully enough to be satisfying. The effort put into playing the game is rewarded adequately, unlike many long, slow wargames which simply aren’t worth the work of learning the rules.

After Starcraft, we had so much time left over that we had time for two games of Race for the Galaxy. This is a really excellent card game which we’ve played many times, and enjoy every time (even when we’re losing).

Race for the Galaxy is a rethemed version of San Juan, which is a card game remake of Puerto Rico. In all of these games the basic mechanic is the same, and gameplay is very straightforward. Each round, players simultaneously and secretly choose one role or action. All of the players perform each selected action in a certain order, and the players who chose each action get a bonus for choosing that action. Then the next round begins.

In Race for the Galaxy the actions are Explore (draw cards), Develop (play development cards), Settle (play planet cards), Consume (sell goods from your planets), and Produce (produce goods on some planets). The development cards and planets give you bonuses or additional action possibilities in each action phase. The key to winning is finding a strategy which lets you combine the best effects of the cards you happen to draw.

This is an excellent game, and matches many of our preferences. It has very straightforward rules and gameplay, and only takes about 30 minutes to finish a game. It requires plenty of choice by all players, but it’s not prone to overthinking. There is no player downtime: almost all actions are performed simultaneously. There is very little direct player interaction: you can’t act offensively against another player or directly foil their plans, but successfully anticipating other players’ action choices can make or break your game. There are many different strategies which can lead to victory, which provides a different game each time you play due to different card draws.

The major downside is the game’s rulebook. It is very daunting and wordy, and not very easy to follow. It caused me to put down the game instead of playing it many times, before we finally found the time to sit down and read. For first time players, there are sample starting hands which can make the game a lot easier, since the first thing you do in the game is choose which 4 out of 6 cards you want to keep: an impossible task if you don’t know what the heck you’re looking at. Definitely keep the card and turn summaries handy, they’re very useful until you familiarize yourself with the rules.

I highly recommend Race for the Galaxy for almost anyone who enjoys euro games. It plays well (but differently) with only 2 players, and can handle up to 4 (or 5?).


I saw a bottle of absinthe at the PA state liquor store, and thought… That can’t be real absinthe; absinthe isn’t legal. I did just enough research to discover I was wrong: in 2007, the US laws which prohibited sale and/or distribution of Absinthe were relaxed. When we were in Ohio, I found a much prettier bottle of Absinthe than they had in the PA store, so I thought “I’m on vacation, why not?” and bought it. (See? Marketing works.)

You all know about Absinthe. It’s green. This “green fairy” causes hallucinations, general depravity, and drives men crazy. If you drink it you’ll start painting like Van Gogh or Picasso, and writing like Poe or Hemingway. The oil of wormwood is poisonous and will liquify your kidney in short order. It’s evil, and they made it illegal for good reason.

It turns out that in reality, most Absinthe is green, but not all of it is. Everything else is pretty much bad PR. Absinthe is no more toxic than any other alcohol in the 100-140 proof range. The levels of wormwood are regulated, and low enough not to be poisonous. The drink is not hallucinogenic, whether you like it or not. Drinking absinthe doesn’t make you crazy, but I expect most people who taste it would say that only a crazy person would drink it.

But what does it taste like?

I wasn’t familiar with the traditional technique for preparing absinthe, so I followed the alternate instructions on the bottle: “serve it on ice.” My first reaction to Mata Hari Absinthe Bohemian was that it tasted similar to Jäegermeister or Zwack, but it was far more alcoholic and not at all sweet. It had a very strong anise smell, and an herbal taste.

Then I read the bottle, which described it as being comparatively light in the Anise department. After sitting in my glass for a while, I noticed the drink changed from a bright transparent green color, to a cloudy greenish-white. That’s odd. Eventually, I started reading about Absinthe in general, and learned some very interesting things.

Absinthe is a spirit, not a liquor: it has no sugar added after it is distilled. It’s one of the only spirits which is typically watered down before drinking. The traditional method of preparation is to hold a sugar cube with a slotted spoon over your portion of absinthe, and drip cold water over it until the sugar dissolves into the drink. The addition of cold water causes herbal oils to precipitate out of the absinthe, turning it cloudy (as I had observed). This cloudiness is called “the louche” and the addition of water is called “louching.”

Drinking absinthe became associated with artists, bohemians, and other ne’er-do-wells, and eventually got a bad reputation. Of course, those who drank it were fine being associated with this reputation, which only made it worse. In the early 20th century, absinthe was made illegal to make, to own, or to sell, depending on what country you were in at the time.

I’m glad that in the end, “we” came to our senses and viewed absinthe objectively instead of through the cultural filters of the time period when it was made illegal, and finally recognized the relative harmlessness of this particular flavor of alcohol. One can only hope that this good sense and good policy is eventually extended to other equally vilified, but less toxic substances which are currently illegal in this and other countries.

I enjoy experiencing interesting beverages, and I’m glad to have tasted absinthe. However, it’s expensive enough that I’m unlikely to buy it regularly.

Oh yeah, also it isn’t hallucinogenic 🙂

Review: The Brickskeller, Washington DC

I’m generally an easy going sort of diner, and never really understood the motivations of complaining restaurant reviewers who don’t have anything positive to say about the places they ate, but would rather nit-pick at the tiniest flaws they can find. Half of me wants to say “…Until Now,” but the other half is holding on to the notion that this post isn’t going to be a typical annoying restaurant review.

The Brickskeller (“Brick Cellar”) is an old beer bar in Washington DC. They’re proud of having been in business since October 7, 1957: long before there were any major national beer festivals, before home brewing was made legal, and before Michael Jackson (no, not that one) had his first sip of beer.

Well, I wasn’t born until 1971, and didn’t make it to the Brickskeller until 37 years later. While I appreciate everything The Brickskeller may have done to promote the cause of good beer in America over the years, they’re no longer the only game in town(s). Unfortunately, being the first is not the same as being the best, and I don’t think the Brickskeller is the best anymore. That said, they do have a great selection of beer, and it’s definitely worth going if you want to try something you’ve never had before.

The Brickskeller has decades more character than the beer bars I’m used to going to in Pittsburgh, in both the good and the bad sense. The overall feeling was, as you might expect, of a brick cellar. It seemed to have several smaller separate rooms. Apparently there is also an upstairs, where the taps are: it wasn’t open until 7:30pm, so we were limited to their large selection of bottles.

They have a large collection of beer cans on display, from the days when even good beer came in cans. Some of them looked like old oil cans: metal quarts with a screw-off cap. There was a nice model sailing ship behind glass next to our table.

Unfortunately the chairs and tippy tables also looked like they were circa 1957, but hadn’t been reupholstered frequently enough. A speaker from some remote juke box over our table was too loud for conversation, but only played music sporadically. The menus were flimsy photocopied paper, but far messier and more worn out than their disposable nature should suggest. There were many pages dedicated to their list of beer in bottles, but the list was not updated recently. Several more pages were dedicated to the history of the bar and their importance in the American beer scene. My overall impression was of a place heavy on character but light on charm.

Their beer list was impressive, numbering around a thousand different bottles. I limited my time to the Belgian selections, because they had several choices I haven’t found in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, it took me four tries before I found a beer on the list they actually had: Caracole’s Saxo. I enjoyed it, I’d get it again. Marla wasn’t driving either, so she had a Kasteel Rouge. For my second beer, I gave him a first and second choice of two more Belgians I hadn’t had before, and ended up with my second choice: Floreffe Triple. This one was also good, with a curiously different sweetness. The beer was slightly but not exceedingly more expensive than bottles in my normal haunts in Pittsburgh, which wasn’t entirely unexpected.

The menu was mostly very basic bar food. It wasn’t very expensive, but our meals also weren’t spectacular. The pizza was quite bad, actually. My sandwich and the fries were fine, and the cheese board and bread were very good.

Part of my problem might be my high expectations. Pittsburgh is a only small city: bigger cities like DC and Chicago must have better places than we do, right? I expected the Brickskeller to be better than Sharp Edge’s selection of taps, food and decor, and better than D’s selection of bottles. Unfortunately I was wrong. The beer selection was comparable to D’s, but you weren’t allowed to go pick up your own bottle. The food was worse than D’s, the decor was worse than Sharp Edge, and I never even got to see a tap list.

I’m sure I sound nit-picky and unhappy with my experience, but I’m glad I went, and I’d consider going back again (for the beer, but not for the food). I think I would’ve liked it better with more beer and fewer kids. But the biggest reason I enjoyed it was to remind me of what I have back home. I’m glad I enjoy my regular haunts better than a place I can’t go very often, and I’m glad I no longer have to wonder whether that’s the case or not.