Friday, 8 October 2010

Financial spread betting: not as confusing as you thought

The financial spread betting market may at first seem dauntingly complex, but it has a number of advantages for investors who want to access financial markets in a cost effective way. Don’t be put off by the jargon you read about in the newspapers: financial spread betting is easier than it sounds.

Before opening a spread betting account, it is important you understand both the risks and the rewards. First and foremost, in the UK spread betting is tax free, with no capital gains tax or stamp duty to worry about.

Not only that, spread betting lets you take advantage of falling prices as well as rising prices. Traditionally, share traders would ‘go to cash’ and stay out of the stock market when it was falling. They had no other option. More likely than not, they would lose money if they stayed invested. Spread betting allows you to take a ‘short’ position, meaning you would make money if the price goes down.

For example, the problems being experienced by BP are bad news for investors who hold BP stock, but when the Deepwater Horizon rig blew, a canny trader with a spread betting account might have decided to go short on BP by opening a sell trade, and profiting from the fall in BP’s share price.

There are other advantages to financial spread betting: because you are not buying a ‘physical’ asset you don’t have to worry about custody fees. Back in the day, when someone bought a share, they would also have received a share certificate, their title of ownership of that share. Today, banks and brokers still have to hold those shares for investing clients, but they charge investors a small fee for the service. Luckily for clients of spread betting companies, because they are not trading physical shares, there is no cost of custody. You are trading an instrument that follows the price of an asset in the market, but you don’t have to pay a bank to look after it for you.

While we are on the subject of costs, most spread betting companies do not charge commissions for trades. If you buy or sell physical shares with a stock broker, you will find you have to pay transaction fees on every trade you make. This is not a problem for someone who trades once or twice a year, but if you are planning to trade several times a month, the fees quickly rack up.

But there’s more. Spread betting companies now offer investors access to a wide range of financial markets, not just shares. Right now, it is the most cost effective way to deal in foreign exchange or commodities markets, or take advantage of price changes in international money markets. Foreign exchange or FX is arguably the largest financial market on the planet. It has no exchange that opens or closes, so as a trader you are using the prices that banks and other FX traders are using to buy and sell currencies around the clock. One of the best things about the foreign exchange market, however, is that there is always going to be a currency going up and another going down, regardless of what is happening in other financial markets like equities. Some traders in the spread betting market just focus on trading currencies, and if this is something that interests you, then spread betting is a great way to access these markets as a private individual.

Similarly, commodities markets let you trade prices in gold and oil, two of the most commonly followed commodities, as well as precious metals like silver and platinum, base metals like copper, energy markets, and agricultural products like wheat and frozen orange juice.

By opening a spread betting account you can follow all these markets on one screen using just a single spread betting company to get all your prices and news. You don’t have the hassle of switching between accounts when you want to move from your share trades to your foreign currency trades. In addition, by opening a spread betting account, you are trading all these markets in sterling. You are not worrying about any currency risk you might be taking on by buying a share listed on a foreign market.

Spread betting also lets you trade on margin. This means the spread betting company lends you the value of a proportion of your trade. You only need commit the margin rate – usually between 2% and 10% depending on the market you want to trade. Your money can go further while you still take the full amount of gains or losses from the trade.

Many spread betting companies also offer contracts for difference or CFDs. These are very similar to spread bets in the way they work, but there are some differences to bear in mind if you are UK resident. CFDs are used as an alternative to spread betting if you are living outside the UK or Ireland, but some traders like to use them in the UK because of the way they are treated for tax.

CFDs and spread bets work slightly differently: with spread bets you decide the amount of money you want to stake on each point the market moves. For example, you might want to bet £1 on each point the FTSE 100 moves. With CFDs, while you can still trade on margin, you buy and sell a CFD like a share, benefiting from the change in price. Just be aware that, while you only need put up the margin, and you are pocketing the gains from the full value of the trade, you are also responsible for the full loss.

The other major difference is tax. In the UK, CFDs are subject to capital gains tax. This means you can usually off-set losses sustained in your CFD trading in your overall tax calculation. CFDs are exempt from stamp duty, but you will usually be charged some form of commission by your CFD broker.

If you are interested in more frequent trading, or exploring new markets like commodities and currencies, or taking advantage of falling prices (trading off bad news for example), then spread betting and CFDs could be for you. Just remember that it is easy to lose more than your initial margin deposit if the market you are trading does not behave in the way you expect!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Step into my yakuza fighting pit, young samurai

Okay, so not much gaming going on next weekend as it is my 40th birthday (!), so I’m taking the opportunity to catch up on my domestic Rokugan d20 campaign with my son Sebastian. As readers may recall, our 1st level PCs were in a city owned by the Lion, but right on the borders of Unicorn territory, and had successfully cleared some goblins out of a temple.

The city is not in good shape, to say the least. The fact that goblins can get into and nearly set fire to a temple within its precincts is not good news. Our party returned to the mansion of the city governor, a rich Lion samurai, to heal up, drink soup, and discuss the security situation within the walls. On the way we came across a ‘fighting pit’, a sort of informal arena organised by one of the yakuza street gangs which seem to be battling for de facto control of the city. The gang was inviting all comers to fight its champions in the pit, offering koku rewards to victors. It seemed two town bushi has tried to intervene already and been killed.

The Lion samurai in the party felt it was his duty to enter the pit and face one of the champions in single combat. Despite his poor performance against the goblins, he won this fight easily. He then turned to the crowd and ordered it – and the yakuza heavies – to disperse immediately or face criminal charges. This led to our being attacked by about 10 yakuza in a pitched battle, somewhat close run, but in which the PCs emerged victorious, thanks to the liberal use of the two summoned oni.

With the yakuza wiped out, two of the audience took issue with the party, and also attacked us, but were speedily dispatched. That seemed to resolve the situation; the grumbling crowd went on its way and we returned to the Lion HQ for hot miso soup and a heart-to-heart with the governor.

Although the governor was – politely – filled in about the various evils of his realm, including the bribe taking by Lion troops at checkpoints, harassment of the bon, et cetera, he seemed little inclined to do much about it. One wonders whether the city is just a comfortable sinecure? He gave the party carte blanche to go resolve problems as they saw fit. We went to bed – and levelled up to 2nd while asleep – which was nice!

The next day we approached the watch tower where three of the corrupt Lion samurai who had been harassing the priests lived. We entered the tower and confronted them on its summit. Our NPC shugenja, a Phoenix, came into his own, using some magic rocks which he hurled at one of the samurai, killing him outright. Their leader, however, was a tougher prospect, downing both the samurai and the shaman in short order. The nezumi fighter kept him busy for a while, giving the shugenja time to heal the two fallen characters and bring them back into the fight. Another magic rock knocked a second samurai off the tower, ending his participation in the fight.

We eventually defeated the last samurai, although by my count he had at least 30hps, possibly more, making him 4th if not 5th level. Quite a tough NPC for a 2nd level party! We ended the game there, as the GM is still suffering from a flu-like illness, and his strength was ebbing.

The question is what to do now? The yakuza seem a powerful force in the city, but they really should not be. However, as ever with Rokugan, the majority of the party are not Lion, and therefore have no real interest in seeing the security situation restored. Add to that the fact that the city’s ruler is not particularly bothered either, and one wonders whether sticking around is the wise thing to do? The presence of lurking evil in the Unicorn lands and the presence of an interesting ruined castle across the river both beckon us out of the city.

I’m liking this campaign because, like Pathfinder, it has a real sandbox feel to it. The GM is pretty flexible, thinks on his feet, and seems largely happy for the party to pursue its own objectives, while casting interesting possibilities in front of it. We now have a fairly detailed map of the city to review, including its docks, which helps to fill in a few gaps geographically.

I spent quite some time focusing on levelling the shaman up. Although shaman is not really a true Rokugani class, he seems to fit quite well with the Unicorn clan ethos. I’ve now equipped him with Produce Flame to add to his Burning Hands (he is a Fire domain shaman). A maximise spell feat also means he can do 8hps automatic damage if he hits with this.

Another confusing thing about Rokugan – a bow is called a yumi, while a bo is a stick. It can get quite confusing in the midst of a battle to figure out who is doing what to whom!

More Rokugan to follow later in the month, with any luck, once the GM has recovered. Somewhere I have some nice oriental paper miniatures which will go well with this game – I just need to dig them out.

Pathfinder: "Quick, quick, it's a quickling!"

So, Friday night and it's Pathfinder night again. This time with Rick down from Manchester and playing in person, in the flesh and blood, rather than via Skype. The evening routine seems to be the domain management phase first, followed by action of the more traditional sense.

Over the previous week we have been debating some kind of legal code for our new realm, and I have been pushing for the introduction of a formal militia at every large human settlement in the domain, along with the compulsory registration of every spellcaster who wants to cast 0 or 1st level spells. The latter legislation opened up a lengthy debate around whether we used use some form of detect evil magic to determine which applicants were applying with the right intent, rather than provide blanket registration that could sanction the activities of a handful of malcontents. I don’t think our council has reached the point where the idea of licensing magic use (and banning outright the use of high level magic by those not allied to the player characters) has been approved. Our elven druid, Cassie, did not seem enthusiastic, nor our resident wizard Grameer.

Still, development of the realm continues apace, and it seems to be booming economically. It was proposed that each PC take over the development of one major settlement in the realm, with Grameer opting to develop a centre of learning around an academy on the site of the trading post where we started our adventures. Cassie – despite Rick’s ongoing suspicion of the whole domain building part of the Kingmaker campaign – has been vested with the religious centre, while our rogue Olban is working on what sounds like the crime capital of the kingdom, complete with its own black market. My own PC Artemisia is looking at some kind of mobile military camp, similar in fact to the ordo system of the Huns and later the Mongols, with a large, predominantly mounted army moving on a seasonal basis to different sites in the kingdom where grazing is best.

We also intercepted an agent provocateur preaching against the ruling council in the streets of its very own capital. Although I suggested removing him covertly and replacing him with our changeling rogue, the majority opinion was to tackle him head on with a zone of truth, forcing him to admit that he had been sent by a foreign power to stir up trouble. It turns out there is a realm to our west that favours an aggressive move into our territory (the kingdom still does not have a name incidentally), and they were using him to scout us out. After he had been discredited successfully in the eyes of the populace, he was stripped of all his money, equipment and magic items and sent on his way (as the DM has forced Good alignment on us we could not simply hang him!)

We then decided to scout to the south west, again avoiding the big lake and its tempting island due to fears of a hydra dwelling beneath its waters. We ran into a pair of owl bears in the middle of the night, but dispatched both in fairly short order. Olban ended up fighting toe-to-toe with one owl bear which almost took him down, but the changeling rogue is getting tougher now and took over 30 hps of damage without falling unconscious!

We finally ended up at some elven ruins which our gnomish intelligence told us lay in the far south west of our domain. Grameer found his staff growing warm as we approached, and suspects I think that some kind of upgrade for this item could lie within its ruins. The ruins consisted of four towers linked by a curtain wall and a large central tower. Once in the courtyard, we were ambushed by a quickling, which certainly gave us the runaround – and a detailed analysis of the Spring Attack feat – before it finally vanished again after taking damage. We’re not sure where it has gone, and hope it does not try for another crack at the party when it is more depleted. Once again the use of haste meant when the quickling did get within range it was subject to multiple attacks – which was nice!

We explored the outlying towers one by one, encountering an assassin vine which seized Wu Ya, our tengu monk, but did not manage to hang onto him for long before we killed it. However, while our attention was focused on the vine some other fae beastie that looks more like a ghoul than anything else jumped us. We took him down too.

A so-so session for my character Artemisia. She did not get much opportunity to use her war horse, and seemed to get attacked almost immediately each time. Our DM seems to zero in on her when the opportunity arises (she has AC19, AC 20 if Grameer manages to cast protection from evil in time, and 67 hps when not raging). Luckily she can’t be caught flat footed or flanked or sneak attacked anymore due to choice of feats and rage powers, plus she has a +1 to her Reflex save against traps: all details I would ask anyone who plays here next week to bear in mind, as I won’t make it to the next session. When hasted she has two attacks as a full attack action, which if they connect, are doing 2d6 +17 hps

However, other PCs like Wu Ya and now Olban are far more deadly than they were: around 2nd to 3rd level Artemisia was doing most of the serious fighting, but in the last two sessions she has fallen behind in the damage stakes. Her role now seems to draw in the attacks of the enemy, leaving Wu Ya and Olban free to do the serious damage. It is working well, so no need to change it, methinks.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Twilight Imperium: an epic classic, but with some flaws

Twilight Imperium, by Fantasy Flight Games, has the reputation of being something of an epic. I have now played it three times and feel qualified to offer some comments. I’ve never won it, mind you.

I love Frank Herbert’s book Dune, and TI (or TI3, as this is the third edition of this game) has the feel of Dune. It is an epic, galaxy-spanning power-politics boardgame, and there are a lot of things to like about it.

Number one is that no game is ever the same. Not only are there eight alien races for players to choose from, but at the start of the game, players build the board by laying hex tiles in a series of concentric circles around the capital planet, Mecatol Rex, leaving their home systems until last. Ironically, this is one of my favourite parts of the game, as you debate which of your ‘hand’ of five tiles to place next. You ideally want to place neutral planetary systems within convenient striking distance of your home world(s), while using other tiles like asteroid fields and empty space to make it harder for anyone to attack you.

There is a LOT to this game. To win, you need 10 victory points, and you acquire these by achieving objectives that, again, will differ from game to game. You also have a secret objective. Most objectives will score you one or two VPs. Some of these objectives can be extremely hard – for example, occupying another player’s homeworld seems a very tough one to achieve. In three games I’ve not seen it done. Many objectives centre around Mecatol Rex, the imperial capital, which often throws players into contact with each other.

While you have at your fingertips a sophisticated array of military units, like cruisers, destroyers, ground units, planetary defence systems, and so forth, players do not seem to come into direct conflict with each other much, even with the emphasis on controlling Mecatol Rex in some objective cards. There are action cards you can play to make other players’ lives harder – one of my favourites is Plague, which can ravage another player’s planet and wipe out 1d6 ground units – but actual fleet-to-fleet conflict or planetary invasions against other players (as opposed to simply turning up and occupying a neutral planet) does not seem to happen that often. This is odd, given the amount of juicy hardware your alien race controls.

Play proceeds by taking strategic actions, of which there are eight in the game represented by large card tiles. These let you do a number of things, for instance helping you go to war, build new units, calling the galactic senate to session, or trading with other players.

Trade works by exchanging one of your two trade contracts with another player. After that you pick up resources every time a player goes for the trade strategic action. In all the games I’ve played, the contracts get sorted out early on, and then players generally seem happy to sit on them and cash in. I once managed to successfully browbeat another player by threatening to terminate their trade agreement with me if they did not vote with me in the senate, but generally trade does not seem to have been much of an issue.

In some ways, Twilight Imperium reminds me of Supremacy, in that you need to think hard about what you want to do each turn, and try to work out what the opposition is likely to do. One problem we encountered was with the Imperium action, which automatically grants you 2 VPs if you take it. We ended up with everyone effectively taking it in turns to go for it (using the Initiative action beforehand which then lets you choose first which action you want next time around). One suggested fix for this is reducing it to 1 VP.

TI3 has the reputation of being a long game, nay, an epic exercise to play. Yes and no. I’ve now seen it played in about four hours, although one four player game took about six to complete. We found that by introducing a strictly policed two minutes for each player to take their turn, the game motored along. This encourages you to think ahead to what you’re going to do next, allowing you to leap into action when it is your turn. If you leave players all the time in the world to decide what they want to do, because of the many options at their fingertips, and the way this game functions at a number of different levels, you can expect it to take a long time. But we had five players finish two games of TI3 in eight hours, with breaks for pizza, so it shows it can be done.

Finally, according to many pundits out there in cyberspace, there are many changes to TI3 in the Shattered Empires supplement which FFG have published for this. Tragically, it is now out of print.