Sunday, 26 June 2011

Death Angel: getting to grips with two dimensional Space Hulk

So we got a chance to play Death Angel last Friday, the card game inspired by the Space Hulk boardgame/miniatures game from Games Workshop. I've not played Space Hulk since the early Nineties, but Death Angel looked like it might be quite fun, in that it allows up to six players to work as a team against the Genestealer menace.

On the surface, Death Angel looks complicated, but really it isn't. Each player controls one or more 'squads' of elite Blood Angel space marines. Each squad consists of two marines, distinguished by colour. We started off with three players, and a fourth player arrived later, so we ended up laying on a full unit of 12 marines.

The game involves a 'line' of marines moving through four locations on the space hulk Sin of Damnation. To win, you need to make it out of the fourth location. In reality, you have five, because you begin with your default starting location, the Void Lock.

Moving from one location to the next occurs when you have exhausted that location's reservoir of 'blip' cards, which resolve into Genestealers. Each location brings with it its own challenges for the marines, as well as occasional bonuses (we found an artefact in the Temple of Baal, for example). Each turn, each squad of marines can take one action out of a menu of three. These are Move/Activate, Attack (i.e. shoot at Genestealers or melee them), and Support (provide support counters to marines in the line, which allow them to re-roll dice). The Support action is quite interesting in that it lets you provide support to the points in the line where the Genestealers are most likely to attack.

In addition, the action cards also have squad-specific or marine-specific attributes - including the use of the flamer, the power shield (an invaluable piece of kit which stops a Genestealer swarm in its tracks), and the lightning claws.

I really enjoyed the game, but it seemed almost too easy for us to complete our mission. Either we were lucky, exceptionally skilled, or we mis-interpreted something. I'm keen to give it another go and see how we do. We moved through all five locations - including the void gates where the mission began - losing only three marines, and even one of these turned out only to be wounded, and was restored to us via an event card (he was left for dead, and then caught up with the line later on - dude!) We took two marines KIA, and left the hulk with 10 left alive, which sounds like a fairly decisive victory for me.

We were, however, able to corral most of the Genestealers into attacking two of the marines who had the best hope of fighting them in hand to hand combat, one of whom had the Block ability and plenty of support counters.

Some key questions emerged in the course of play, which we answered on the fly, but which I have sought to find the right answers to:

1. If a Genestealer is spawned by the event card at the end of the round, does it get to move as well (if its movement symbol is on the event card)?

Answer: yes

2. Can marines split their fire between different swarms?

Answer: yes

3. Can marines target Genestealers of specific symbol types?

Answer: yes (nothing in the rules to say you can't)

4. Is there a limit to the number of support counters there can be on a single marine?

Answer: no

5. Is the block special ability eligible for re-rolls?

Answer: yes

The problem with co-op games is that if you win decisively with your first game, is it really hard enough or are you going to win 8/10 times you play? In this case, there's no point really playing it. You want a success rate, even for a seasoned group of players, of around 50%. This is what we tend to get with Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica. Either we're getting something wrong here, or Death Angel is slightly too easy. We did have the full complement of marines, so the threat level may indeed increase with fewer marines, but we were playing with the location cards designed for 3-6 players, so were facing the correct number of Genestealers.

A re-read of the rules may shed some more light on this....

STOP PRESS: upon re-reading the rules, I've found one which might potentially make the game a bit tougher. Namely: you cannot play the same Action card twice in a row. Our strategy relied heavily on one marine being able to use the block ability every turn. Without this, it may well have been a very different game. We shall have to see how it plays next time around with this additional little handicap in place!

It is also worth noting that support tokens cannot be used if you are being attacked from behind, only if you are facing the target. Special marine abilities can be used regardless of facing, but not the support tokens.

Also, each terrain card can only be activated once per game round. In cases like the control panel in the launch control room, only one support marker can be placed on this card every turn.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Fire & Axe: go forth and pillage

Following on from our most excellent game of Pandemic (see previous post), Sebastian's homework project required that we also dust off Fire & Axe, the terrific viking pillaging and trading game from Asmodee.

F&A is an epic game of exploration, raiding and conquest. Players are leaders of viking expeditions, seeking renown as they outfit their ships in the Frozen North and head out to complete sagas across Europe and even further afield (one saga is an expedition to Canada!) I've always had a sentimenal spot for the vikings, being descended in part from the Norwegians who settled up in Orkney. This game has some excellent artwork, loads of little plastic viking men, and a gorgeous full colour board.

The aim of the game is to collect loot from a range of sources, including raiding towns and cities (my son always goes for the big fish here, like Paris and Rome), trading (more lucrative if you're heading down the big Russian rivers), settling permanently (in our game on Sunday vikings settled as far afield as Greenland and Majorca), and achieving sagas.

By winning the most sagas from each kingdom - Norway, Sweden and Denmark - you can earn extra money/victory points at the end. My daughter, for example, really dominated the Swedish stakes, accomplishing the bulk of the missions into Russia and the Baltics, while I dominated the Norwegian sagas in the British Isles, although not without competition in Iceland!

The game is simple enough for kids to understand, but sophisticated enough that you need to think strategically. I got whupped again in this one, and I think it came down to not doing sufficient forward planning. I'm coming to the conclusion that you need to carry out a diverse range of activities rather than focus too much on one area. Having said that, my son seems to have won the game by doing the bulk of the plundering, including the three big cities in the game. I focused too heavily on the British Isles, and while I raided some towns - Lindisfarne and Dublin fell to my vikings - a great deal of my focus was on settling and trading in the West and exploiting the demand for hides.

F&A has a simple trading system that yields cash based on the value of the towns you trade in. At any one time, one specific commodity is in demand. The default at the beginning is hides. You can change demand using Rune cards (action cards you can pick up when setting out from your home port). However, my argument is that this does not change quickly enough. I switched the goods in demand to ivory about two thirds of the way through the game once hides were running low, but my guess is that the change in demand is meant to keep players on the hop - changing when they have already set out on a trading mission.

The Rune cards are simple event cards you can use to make the game a bit spicier. For example, my son forced me to hand over Lincoln to him using the Debt of Honour card, while I decimated one of his North Sea expeditions using the Sea Serpent card (one of the very few fantasy elements in the game - which are optional, I hasten to add). Rune cards are really the only way you can actively have a hack at other players. The focus in on winning booty and fame, not on doing down your competitors, and this is why I think F&A is popular.

I would say F&A follows a familiar pattern, dictated to an extent by the sagas, which are split into three 'eras' of viking expansion, with sagas like Raid Lindisfarne or Settle Bremen appearing early on in the game, while the more ambitious ones like Settle Iceland or Trade with Antioch come later on.

All in all, great fun. There is obviously something to this aggressive raiding strategy that seems to work. I shall have to devote more thought to it next time I play.

Monday, 13 June 2011

How to spot a cheap share

I'm not going to beat about the bush. Here it is, in a nutshell:

1. Price earnings ratio of between 12 to 15

The price of the share relative to the annual net income or profit earned by the firm on a per share basis.

2. PEG of less than 10

The Price/Earnings to Growth ratio, namely dividing the above price earnings ratio by the growth rate to come up with a figure that can take into consideration high growth companies as well. According to Peter Lynch, in his book One Up On Wall Street, you really need a PEG of one or under. ulp!

3. Price to book ratio of less than one. The lower it is, the lower the share price compared to the company's tangible assets.

Divide the current share price by the book value per share. If less than one, the market is valuing the company at less than the sum of its assets.
4. Tobin's q - has to be under one.

Developed by James Tobin, it measures the market value (i.e. the price to exchange) versus the replacement value. It divides the market value by the replacement value of the book equity. Or, in more simplistic terms, the stock market value by the corporate net worth.

5. Price to free cash ratio: again, the lower the better.

Market price divided by free cash ratio. The lower the better.

That's it in a nutshell. Now go forth ye and trade.

Pandemic: helping out with the homework

Sebastian is studying boardgames at school this week - a bit like falling off a log for him - and part of his homework was to choose a couple of boardgames he likes and write essays about them. I don't think his teacher really knows what she's letting herself in for! He nominated Pandemic and Fire & Axe as two of his favourites, prompting us to get them out (as the weather was doing a good impression of a monsoon) and have a play.

Pandemic was first up, and we got the four of us round the board to play. I'm not going to write an in-depth review of the game here, but I wanted to highlight a few aspects of the game that had not jumped out at me previously. It was a very, very close game, and went right down to the wire, with the fourth and final disease being cured in the last turn of the game - literally. It doesn't get much closer than that. Only Battlestar Galactica - which is probably in my top five at the moment - has the scope to regularly trot out a nail biting finish like this.

A few immediate impressions are in order.

1. You don't have to eradicate all four plagues, just find the cure. Eradicating one early in the game - we took out the yellow virus - is a big help, however.

2. Strategic placement of the research labs helps. We started with one in Atlanta, which you get for free in the beginning, but quickly established one in Istanbul to cover Europe and the Middle East, and then added one in Osaka later in the game.

3. If you have the operations guy on your team, he can build a lab as an action without having the requisite city card. This allowed us to build a lab in Paris in the dying round of the game and nail the blue virus. He is a useful person to have around.

4. We seemed to be lucky in that we avoided ANY outbreaks. Given you lose if you get to eight, this was VERY lucky. We came close on a couple of occasions, including in Essen where Sebastian had just removed three blue blocks the previous turn, and the rest of northern Europe was loaded up with triple stacks. That could have been very, very nasty.

5. Once you have the cure, you really need two people chasing the cured disease in a region to really stand a chance of eradicating it. We did this with yellow, including having the Nurse as one of them, and it worked!

6. Also once you have a cure, you can treat all the blocks from that plague in one action. Handy.

7. Keeping your Forecast card until later iin the game is a boon - it lets you rig the top six cards in the virus deck, which is helpful if some of them are viruses you have dealt with already.

I'm pretty sure we were playing it right. It has been a while since I played this, but luckily Sebastian remembered more of the rules than I did. Everyone had a blast playing this, and there was lots of shouting towards the end, which is always a good sign that tension is rising. His Nibs pronounced himself a fan of the co-op game over other types, so will have to bear that in mind for future purchases.

I just hope his teacher is not too shocked with a game about deadly viruses!

Next time: Fire & Axe.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Blood Bath At Orc's Drift:Kachas Pass

I've been wanting to play Blood Bath At Orc's Drift, the old 2nd edition Warhammer campaign pack, ever since it was first published in 1985 for the 2nd edition of that game. Having picked it up on eBay, I have been working towards actually playing it. Recently, I hit on the idea of using the Lord of the Rings skirmish rules from Games Workshop rather than Warhammer, largely because Warhammer is now more focused on bigger battles, with formally organised regimental formations, while LotR has more of the feel of old school Warhammer with more loosely organised units.

The first scenario in the Orc's Drift campaign is Kachas Pass, where the first of three tribes of orcs converging on Orc's Drift encounters a small stockade held by wood elves. In my case, I combined some existing elves with rangers to come up with a mixed force of men and elves. The Vile Rune tribe has 40 orcs against seven elves and eight rangers, plus the orcs have brought along the giant, Guthrum Mane.

The scenario is weighted against the elves already, the idea being that the elves need to inflict maximum casualties on the orcs before they trundle off down the road to Orc's Drift itself. In this case, the elves slew seven attackers, for the loss of 14 elves and rangers, with one fugitive elf taking refuge in the Fendal Forest having failed his morale check (no doubt it will haunt him for the rest of his very lengthy life, unless I bring him back as a disgraced hero keen to redeem himself at Orc's Drift, which might be a nice touch).

We used the Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game rules from Games Workshop, as I felt it had more of the large skirmish feel I was after, even more so than Warhammer 2e. It was a big game, and it took us four hours to play, with one player new to miniatures wargaming, and all of us still relatively new to the rules, but I thought it went well. I especially liked the sub-plot of a captured half orc spy escaping from elf custody and being pursued away from the stockade by none other than the elf leader! He was slain by the elves before the orcs could get to him, although the orcs would have killed him anyway!

I was hoping the orcs would take heavier casualties than they did, and put this down to some very poor dice rolling on the part of my son, the elven commander, plus some interesting tactical decisions he took, like leaving only about five defenders in the stockade, and using his leader to track down the fugitive half orc. In addition, the armoured orcs (uruk hai) are tough customers, and able to withstand plenty of shooting from the enemy. Although the orc banner bearer took an arrow in the throat early in the game, the Vile Rune tribe still has a LOT of armoured nastiness to bring down the turnpike to Orc's Drift.

Having learned from this experiment, I think I will considerably limit the number of armoured orcs for the next battle, Ashak Rise. I'm thinking no more than five uruk hai. This will make life a bit more challenging for the orcs, combined with the fact that they will be facing dwarves, a tougher proposition than elves (an armoured wood elf in Lord of the Rings has a Defence of 4, a dwarf has a Defence of 6!)

It was also good to be umpiring a game, as this allows for a more sophisticated, narrative scenario than the usual line up and bash 'em game that Warhammer itself seems to have degenerated into. Early 1980's Warhammer was more about interesting narrative campaigns, and it showed its roots in role-playing games, particularly AD&D. Heck, it even spun off its own set of role-playing rules! This game had more of that kind of feel, with secret commander briefings and objectives, a third party sub-plot involving a half orc spy, and a degree of uncertainty injected into the affair, that helped to shape the commanders' decision making.

In particular, the knowledge that a night patrol sent out by the elven commander had been ambushed and was not coming back, helped to play a big factor in the decision making of the good guys, who were gulled by the fact that stats for the patrol were on their briefing sheet, including when they were meant to return. Concern increased as the game went on, and the elves started taking losses, looking over their shoulders all the time and wondering where the rest of their ranger allies were!

It DID feel like running an RPG scenario at times, and in terms of the size of the game, and the size of the playing area, it felt just right.

I found some of the rules a little confusing, particularly the barricades and defending a rise rules, but have now consulted a later edition of the rules which have helped to clarify this. I think I've learned quite a bit from the game, and will bring these lessons to the next chapter in the campaign, which I hope will represent a closer contest of arms.