Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The CVG Podcast and Rhythm & Blues Revue - Episode #008: I Put A Spell On You!

Episode Eight of The Chippewa Valley Geek Podcast and Rhythm & Blues Revue is complete and can be found here or on iTunes and Stitcher.

We're talking magic this month and it's a sorcerous smorgasbord!

0:00:00 Intros
0:01:12 The Up Front: On the "Magic" of Childhood
0:07:06 The Interview:  Our very own "Monster" Mike Holcomb sits in the hotseat, debunks the Player's Handbook, and takes on the Geek-del Test!
0:34:33 Payin' some bills

0:38:14 The Roundtable:  Dastardly Donny and a special surprise guest share their gifts, equivocate on invocation, and make like Terry and Howie with some picks!
1:40:53 The Community Calendar

1:45:50 Some GaryCon coverage:
    1:46:36 - Paul Stormberg and The Moathouse
    1:59:08 - David Lankton & Scott Diehl of CMX Games and Copper Country
2:07:07 The Monthly Marathon: Gotham?  I barely met 'im!
2:07:52 Outro & Credits
2:09:34 Bonus Track:    Me and Her Pony Blues!

Some Show Notes and Links!

The Geek's main Amazon link!

Burger Wars:  It can get pretty bad.

Ender's Game

Starship Troopers

Expect only the finest in adventure bedding from Dewsilver Morningblossom of the Clan Stonecrow, Last of the Dwarven Battlequilters!

Listen to Ed Greenwood on the Open Design podcast!  It'll change your gaming life...

Sweet fancy Moses, has no one else read The Black Company?

Pact Magic, Unbound!

The Dresden Files


Find Mark Rosewater and The Daily Magic: The Gathering Podcast!

Saga! by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Righteousness and Humidity! by Martin Simpson

East of West! by Johnathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Check out the slideshow of match-ups presented to the Roundtable Magic Smackdown here!
"Dude shoots lightning, man!"

Check out pics of GaryCon here!

Paul Stormberg is a prince among men...

T1- The Village of Hommlet
T1-4 - The Temple of Elemental Evil

CMX Games and Copper Country!


Hans Cummings is here

Remember you can get your own copies of the bonus tracks out at Bandcamp!

The backing sound effects used in this episode included:

-  "PIpe and Drum.wav", obtained via via a Creative Commons Attribution license.  The original file can be found here.
-  "Magic Wand Glitter.wav", obtained via via a Creative Commons Attribution license.  The original file can be found here.
-  "sleigh bells.wav", obtained via via a Creative Commons Attribution license.  The original file can be found here.
-  "Charlie Brown Style Teacher.wav", obtained via via a Creative Commons 0 license.  The original file can be found here.
-  "Door Open and Close.wav", obtained via via a Creative Commons Attribution license.  The original file can be found here.

Monday, April 28, 2014

C2E2 2014 Con Report

Beats the Wal-Mart greeter by a country mile...
This last weekend, my daughter and I headed south to C2E2, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. This was our second time attending, and appetites were whetted , having some idea what to expect. Of course, the big change this year was that, having geeked on all the costumes last year, my daughter – a born cosplayer if ever there was one – insisted on having a costume of her own this time around. So after several months of brainstorming and kicking ideas back and forth, we agreed on a joint concept, wherein she would be Batgirl and I was gonna do my best Gary Oldman Commissioner Gordon. (“Harvey, get EVERYBODY!”) Subtle geek humor in play there, and I was sure it was a look we could both pull off with sufficient planning.

So to start things off, some damn fool high school kid pulled the hotel fire alarm. At 8:03am. While I was in the shower. Technically, of course, I should note that actually happened Sunday, the day after attending the Con, but I feel it’s indicative of many of the challenges we faced during the weekend, and if I leave it in its proper place, after the story, then it won’t be in the story at all, will it?
Batgirl getting her gameface on...
We were in a hotel out by the airport, so we eventually got going at a semi-reasonable hour, after breakfast, hair-coloring and copstache shaving. I gave R a reasonable estimate of 30 minutes to get to the McCormick Center downtown, and then jinxed it by saying “as long as there isn't any traffic”. Which is just an idiotic thing to say in Chicago. Cue the five-car fender bender on I-290. Because people drive like Brood or something. Thankfully the Sam & Dave Pandora station kept us in the regional spirit, even if we were starting off behind the 8-ball timewise.
On arrival the first thing we did (after walking the concourse, and having a minor scare wherein I dropped/lost our admission badge, only to be rescued by an eagle-eyed angelic con staffer handing out lanyards), was to make a beeline for the photo ops booth. The good news was that tickets to meet and get a picture with STAN LEE later in the day were very much available (I had half a hunch they’d be sold out on Friday). The bad news was that the line to get tickets was something reminiscent of Space Mountain. Suspecting however that this would likely be the one takeaway experience we could have that could last 10-20 years in our memories after the con, I figured, let’s bite the bullet and get the line out of the way right now.
It was sort of like ripping a band-aid off quickly to get it over with, except for how it was the exact opposite of that in every way. I am a bit fuzzy on details of when we got there, based on the issues with traffic, the badge thing, and the time we spent getting to the main hall at all, but I would say we easily spent 30-60 minutes in that line. Worth it after the fact perhaps, but at the time my daughter was NOT happy. We passed the time reading books we brought to get signed, looking at what costumes we could see form inside the rope line, and playing “What am I?” (“I'm blue and I can go places really fast...”). She said she didn’t really understand the big deal about this guy (Stan), so I also took some time to explain all the things he created, that this could easily be the most important person in pop culture that she or I would ever get to meet at a con, and also that he is getting on a bit in years and that if we passed up this opportunity to see him, he might not be here for us to have another next time around (having had actual such situations in my past with Douglas Adams and Warren Zevon to offer as proof).
"You only brought how much spending money?"
From the last angle of the line, we could see some of the other autographing tables nearby, and the guests there appeared to be largely from Warehouse 13 and Defiance, neither of which are shows I have yet seen. The one we would have wanted to meet (and who I only discovered was at the con some 24 hours before) was Tony Curran – though I knew him instead from his work on The 13th Warrior and we jointly loved his turn as Vincent Van Gogh on Doctor Who. The last thing I packed the previous day were those DVDs and an 8x10 of Vincent’s painting of the TARDIS exploding, thinking I could make a funny and casual request for him to sign whatever he felt comfortable with. R and I played another game as we went through the last stretch of Stan’s line of seeing if she could figure out who the guest under the green sign was YET. After getting our photo tickets though, we strolled over and saw that Curran’s autographs were to be some $40. I don't begrudge that the trip costs money and everybody’s gotta eat, but it was still early in the day, and I couldn’t justify investing that much cash that early on something I still just considered a happy accident to stumble onto. And I would have felt like even more of idiot if we had gone up without asking him to sign something, so we instead looked on for a minute from a non-intrusive distance and went on our way. Which was sad, as I had hoped to tell the man he has the best hair in show business. But alack, alack, alack.

Of course, it is a fact of life that in a situation like this, one is GUARANTEED to forget something, and in our rush to get out of the hotel in a timely fashion, the one major thing I forgot was the food. I had spent the week prior assembling an assemblage of granola bars, dried fruit, beef sticks and jello cups and the like which I could bring in my bag to refuel at regular intervals and save on cashflow. I of course missed this particularly in Stan’s line, when I felt I could have cut down on some of the drama by rewarding R's patience with dried mango chunks like a modern day Scooby Snack. It was not to be though, and as she was making increasingly grumbly noisings regarding the lunch situation, we meandered slowly through Artist’s Alley towards some concessions, wherein we partook of some vastly overpriced hot dog and soft pretzel action. The dessert was fantastic though, and involved both a kreme-filled churro and a chocolate-covered cannoli as big as my daughter’s head. (“The old man likes his cannoli…”)
Writer Scott Snyder (American Vampire, Batman, The Wake, Detective Comics, etc.) was, after Stan, my biggest goal to meet and get some signatures from at the Con. Every opportunity we had to happen by his table though, we found he was either away taking a break, or had a pretty significant line to meet him. After starting the day with the Stan line, I didn’t want to subject my daughter to that, so we passed, hoping in time the line would go down. It never really did. Oh well. Maybe next year. At least this will give me time to finish reading Voodoo Heart, so I could ask him to sign that with a clear conscience and not have him ask me which was my favorite story, or some such thing.

A "Puff" of impromptu Perez..
This was a common theme though as we wandered Artist’s Alley of finding the creators I/we wanted to see were often AFK or had more folks around than we wanted to wade through at that particular moment. Similarly, despite a couple of tries, we never got close to Katie Cook’s table or to Franco and Baltazar, who made R some awesome sketches last year. It took several passes but eventually we were able to achieve some of the goals we had set out beforehand though. I had Ramon K. Perez sign my copy of A Tale of Sand, and he took literally two minutes (as we looked on in awe) to bust out a sketch for me that was better than anything I have ever drawn in my entire life. We met Ryan Browne, and, based on the iFanboy Book of the Month review, I scored a copy of God Hates Astronauts. I met Seeley/Norton/Frison, the three creators of Revival, and got their proverbial Hancocks on my #1. We finally got to Skottie Young’s table and between his art and R’s costume, there was some pretty mutual adoration going on. (She went to great pains to explain to everyone there that our costumes were extra funny because her real daddy was dressed as Commissioner Gordon, who was actually Batgirl’s daddy. WHAT ARE THE ODDS?) 
Wandering around in circles much of the day, while time consuming, was made fun largely because of the costumes all around. It’s easily my daughter’s favorite part of the Con, and seeing what people come up with is a big kick. There was a BIG focus on Frozen this year, with numerous Elsas and Annas in the hizzy. It took me a while to get back into my Con form of not being too shy to ask folks for their photos. Two people I am TOTALLY kicking myself for not being fast or brave enough to get pictures of during our time were a pretty badass Dr. Zoidberg I saw for all of two seconds, and a girl who was dressed as a snitch with “I open at the close” written across the back of her shirt. Extensive coverage of what costumes I could get is available in the photo stream HERE.

Spidermen and Deadpoolen
Part of what I like about going to a Con like this with my daughter is giving her a chance to spend her own money. We make a point the night before of emptying her piggy bank (cupcake bank, technically) and counting out what she’s saved to bring with us. I figure it’s a multiple-level financial lesson in the importance of savings (not spending her allowance every week on stupid impulse buys like the claw machine in the Perkins lobby means you can afford nicer things later), budgeting (not buying the first thing you see at the Con and being broke the rest of the day), and financial agency (the question becomes, “Do I have enough money for this?”, not “Daddy, will you buy me this?”) Luckily, only once did we have a utility belt malfunction mid-day which resulted in the dropping of some $20 in quarters in the middle of a crowded con hallway. But everyone was super nice about helping her pick up her hard-won allowance, and we moved on quickly with minimal incident.
I can’t say enough how proud I was of the smart money choices she made (once she decided not to spend everything right away on a Hello Kitty plush anyway). She got a beautiful Elsa & Anna art nouveau print by , another sketch print by Agnes Garbowska of Spike the Dragon (while getting a couple of her issues of MLP signed as well) and even managed to come home with some cash unspent, which I know was VERY hard since the last booth we were in was the Dr. Who souvenir stand. I could tell she was slightly crushed when, knowing she had only $10 left, the shopkeeper responded to her question by saying the sonic screwdriver pens were $30. It was a little heart-breaking to see. But I knew if I stepped in and bought it anyway, it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. (Though it will surely go on a birthday/Xmas mental shortlist now.) She was also fascinated with the jewelers’ booths though, which I admit I don’t even notice myself, but once we started stopping at them for her to fawn over the dragon rings and steampunk stopwatches, it seemed there was such a booth every 5 feet. 
Batgirls and Brownies
After another break for use of the facilities and some criminally overpriced but incredibly hit-the spot-uous cafe fare including a tuna sandwich and/or fruit cup (we split the brownie), we headed back to the photo ops area to get our picture finally taken with Stan. This meant another line of course, but once it started moving, it went VERY quickly, and I had just gotten “ABCDEFGeek” by Otis Frampton, which kept R very entertained as we snaked around to our moment of semi-glory. ‘Twas brief my lord... and we literally only had moments with the man. Nowhere near enough time for me to fall to my knees and beg him for a third season of Who Wants To Be A Superhero? But we smiled, we got our picture taken, I thanked him for everything he’s done and we moved on. On the way out of the curtained area as I was coming down off the rush, R commented that he seemed nice, but she thinks he thought she was a boy, since he mentioned she was dressed as a cute little “Batman”. Then after a moment she added she now also understood what I meant about him maybe not being around next year… Sadness to think on.
Artist Tony Fleecs was a prince among men. He was selling VERY reasonably priced prints and original art at his table, and I was bound and determined to get something. Unfortunately there were so many badass options, I had trouble making up my mind about it, which was made all the more challenging with a 5.9167 year old alongside who picked those moments of indecision to announce certain needs or demands. Twice through the day (lunch, bathroom), Fleecs had to deal with me giving him the “Look I really want to, but I am going need to come right back” line, which he admitted on my third trip to his booth was usually utter BS from most people, but my stick-to-it-iveness impressed him. Of course, having had a lot of the day to think about the selection between visits one and three helped me narrow down my choices to four front runners that called me with a siren song. Or five, tops.

On one of those trips back to him, we passed Gail Simone’s table, and it happened to be a magical moment where she was both in attendance and the line was not long at all (<5 minutes). So we jumped in and asked her to sign my Batgirl #1 and a Gen13 #1, using my daughter’s costume to sweeten the deal all the more. They gushed, she preened. All went according to my nefarious plan. I should have brought a few more issues for Gail to sign, as I think I definitely could have gotten away with it… But for some reason (I’m not sure why) I have it in my head that I shouldn’t be bringing more than two items to any creators table for a signature lest I become a nuisance. I know people do walk up with whole stacks of items, which makes me wonder if they are hardcore collectors or hardcore ebayers or just hardcore assholes. Fellow comic-con goers, do you have a rule of thumb you use in situations like this? Is two a common benchmark or my own arbitrary happy medium with no bearing on reality whatsoever?
At some point during the afternoon, the yellow duct tape GCPD on the back of my tac vest began fraying off, so I am led to understand the Commish was transferred to the Gotham City Fire Department. Ah well.
Anyway, from Gail Simone, we made a beeline straight to Adam Hughes’ table. There I finally had the awkward experience of accidentally handing an artist a comic to sign that he didn't draw anything for (#1 of Wood’s Star Wars for Dark Horse). Ouch.
In my defense, I think it is reasonably understandable to get Adam Hughes and Alex Ross mixed up, in spite of honestly and literally having had nightmares in the past about that very scenario. Their names are vaguely similar in syllables and with the A. They both do incredibly gorgeous, semi-photo-realistic covers for books with other artists on interiors. And considering a) the general portion of my brain given over to not getting Adam Hughes mixed up with Adam Warren, and b) the fact that I am only ever 30% conscious/coherent at any given moment anyway… Well let’s just say it felt like I was totally destined for disaster there. But a combination of that so very awkward moment, and the fact that his prints for sale, while stunning, were priced well out of my budget meant that I left at least with a signed Batgirl, but also feeling very much like a piece of gum stuck to Mr. Hughes’ shoe. Oy.
We went and picked up a print of our picture with Stan then, and I laughed for a good two minutes on seeing it. I needed that. You couldn’t plan it better as a candidate for if you tried. And if such a thing existed.
Gotham Badasses (mostly)
Most of our goals met, we meandered towards the exits, catching more costume action along the way. R had by this time graduated from asking to have her pic taken with people to demanding I give her the camera to take them herself. Of course with her costume, what we found through the day, which was different from last year, was that many times, if I asked to take someone's photo, they demanded she get in it too. This was especially true if there was a DC theme going on. But she had an eagle eye for anything Doctor Who and/or Adventure Time. Her record of knowing what more of the costumes were than I did remains unblemished.
In the end, we arrived back at the hotel with a couple of sandwiches (meatball and chicken parm), ate and collapsed unconscious, happy and beat, in short order. Looking back, I felt like we were def rush and playing catch-up all day. I didn't get to hunt any back-issue bargains during the con at all, and we missed an awful lot of the vendors and a not small amount of the creators. But considering the amount we did get done in that time, we both agreed we were happy and satisfied with our trip and can't wait to try it again down the road.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Battlegame Book Series #2 of 20: World War II (Vol. 4) – Winter War

Battlegame Book #4 - World War II
Narration from a Scottish redhead...
When I was a little boy I had one of the five volumes in the Usborne Battlegame Book series by Andrew McNeil. It was called Fighting Ships (#5) and it was published in the UK in 1975.  It was chock full of pictures and helpful information on the inside, and contained four complete wargames (with pieces, rules and gameboards inside the book) that could help your imagination travel anywhere in time and space. This year, I decided to (re)collect and (re)play the entire series. And we've been playing ever since...


So in honor of the polar vortex, we decided a few weeks ago to make our second foray into the Battlegame series an entry from Volume 4 - World War II, entitled 
Winter War.

The scenario is set on the Eastern Front in 1943.  A German unit holds a town at a railroad junction.  The Soviet player is the attacker and has 12 turns to move in and occupy the village.

Of course things are never that simple.  The town has a fortified defense line with only one gap through which the Soviets can pass.  That means maneuvering behind the town to approach from the far side. (We took the liberty this time of swapping in some Axis & Allies minis instead of the game-provided pieces, but had to add some extra color complexity as there was a lot of unit variety in the order of battle - distinguishing Soviet regular infantry from ski infantry for example, or German armored units from assault guns.)

Starting positions
Partisans Found!

In addition, there are a couple of additional rules that give the scenario its added flavor. The first is a simple enough random temperature roll at the beginning of every turn. Every number on the d6 is equivalent to 5 degrees below zero. If the temperature hits 25 or 30 below, the German armor units are frozen in place, able to fire but unable to move.

The second special rule has to do with the German setup. While all of the Soviet units start the game placed on one side of the board, the German selects roughly half his units to place in the town, holding the rest off the board as reinforcements.

Meanwhile, there are five hexes surrounding the town showing explosions, on which the Soviet player places one of five random chits. Four are blank, whereas one represents partisans cutting lines of communication. The German player cannot bring his reinforcements onto the board, until after the partisans are revealed – requiring some units to expose themselves outside of the town fortifications during the Soviet approach. This is a fascinating mechanic in theory and definitely sets up a “race against time” for both player, far more than the actual 12 turn deadline.

Unit substitutions
Unfortunately, in practice it all went a bit wonky. First off, a quick read of the board will tell the German player than 4 of the 5 partisan hexes can be reached on the first turn with some vaguely simple forethought, implying an 80% chance of the reinforcements getting on the board before the race against time becomes truly relevant.

The flip side of this is that the Soviet movement rate, despite the proportion of the force being infantry of one shape or other is fast enough to reach the town roughly somewhere around turn 1.375. More or less.


So for a game designed with a 12-turn counter, an awful lot goes down on Turn One. Partisans were revealed, Commies skiied across the world. Wacky hijinks ensued.

While attacking units could combine their strengths to devastating effect, the superiority of both armor and the fortification wall became readily apparent early. The temperature clause was tripped on the second turn, just as the reinforcements were trying to enter, clogging the roads and stalling their effect on the fight.

Donny's numerical advantage made him a clear favorite by this stage, and the defensive bonus provided by the town's fortifications were the only reason my units were able to throw up any sort of defensive front whatsoever. Once my extra units finally arrived, they were easily picked off in the open field, and I re-jiggered my strategy to concentrate fire on eliminating his armored units. Shortly, the approaches were littered with burning T-34s.
"Son... Did you lose my aerial photographs?"
And then, just like that the game was over. My few remaining units were huddled in the town, awaiting the coming Red onslaught, when Donny made a quick Knowledge (Mathematics) skill check and determined that, despite still outnumbering me more than 2-1, based on the units he still had remaining on the board, there was no way he could bring sufficient firepower to bear on any of my line units to dislodge them and enter the town. Of course, he could just back up out of range, but for me to break formation would be suicidal, as it would both reduce the defensive value of my units, and expose a clear path to the town hex wherein victory lay.  Like befuddled chess players realizing they had just stumbled on an accidental stalemate, we just stared at the bored in disbelief for a bit, running through potential scenarios to resolve the deadlock, all in vain.

Ending Positions

Here is how Winter War ranked in the end:

                                    Donny         Brian
Quick to lean           3                  5
Like Siege!, the basics were easy to pick up.  I thought maybe there were too many varieties of units in play. (Normally that's something I like, but given the compact nature of the game, in this case it added an unwelcome sense of complication to the proceedings.)
Cool factor               4                  4
Winter War strove for flavor on a number of levels and achieved it.  The partisan hunting portion of the game was a nice aspect (which discourages the German player "turtling up" right away) and the cold rules definitely conveyed the historical potential for weather to complicate operations.  Plus it was just nice to be able to use tanks again.
Replayability            1                 2
Donny felt the ending accidental stalemate was a major disappointment, and one which could be all to easy to force, which soured his enthusiasm for trying the scenario again.  Personally, I felt the game was like the opposite of Siege!: units moved far too rapidly given the smallish size of the map for the game to devolve into anything really besides a scrum (a siege?) around the town outskirts by turn 4 or so.
Balance                    4                 2
The general consensus was that, at any given point in time, the game set up was pretty unbalanced.  The catch though, is that the side it's unbalanced towards swings widely back and forth, depending on the stage of the game.  We both felt the artillery units were greatly underpowered in firepower and, if valued differently, could have had a very positive efect on gameplay.

OVERALL AVERAGE                  3.125

Some relevant pages from Volume 4 - World War II

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Monster Mike's Geek Reads: The Martian by Andy Weir

I'm pretty much fucked.
That's my considered opinion.

Thus begins the tale of Mark Watney.  Mark is the sixth crew member of Ares 3, the third manned NASA expedition to Mars.  Six days after their arrival, things go wrong in a big way, and the planned 30-day surface mission is aborted.  During the chaos of a violent sandstorm, the rest of the crew, believing Mark to be dead, evacuate the red planet.  This riveting tale of survival, science, and courage begins with our hero regaining consciousness to discover that he is cut off from communications and all alone in a way that no human has ever been before.

In many ways, this novel echoes Robinson Crusoe as the tale of one man using his wits and resourcefulness to improve his circumstances from a shipwrecked loner to successful survivor.  If this were a movie instead of a novel, and I suspect it soon will be, it would be a cross between Apollo 13 and Castaway.  The author alternates between a first-person narrative of Mark's actions and his journal entries which are used to reveal his innermost thoughts.  Though this can be a clumsy device in any other work, it works well in this book since the main character has no one else to share his thoughts with.  An inventory of the resources available to him reveals about a year's worth of food, a functional shelter, and two working surface vehicles.  After dealing with issues that are immediately life-threatening, our lone astronaut begins to solve the problems of longer-term survival, communication, and ultimately escape from the planet.  Much of the great pleasure in reading this book comes from appreciation of Mark's ingenuity, courage, and persistence in solving these increasingly challenging problems.  With science!!

Although this is a work of science fiction, the science is extremely well-grounded in technology that is available today.  The author did his research, and even the most discriminating reader will be hard pressed to find any science bloopers in this work.  There is no magic disguised as science in this book - no time travel, anti-matter laser weapons, or convenient dimensional portals.  This is hard sci-fi at its hardest.  It would be great fodder for a one-on-one Traveller game.

I have two cautions about this book.  First, it is absolutely riveting.  Don't pick it up unless you have six to eight hours with nothing else to do.  Like eat.  Or sleep.  Or go to work.  Because you won't be able to put it down.  And second, it originally debuted as a self-published work by a fledgling author, and the youthful enthusiasm of a first-timer shines through in places where a more seasoned writer might be inclined to show more stylish restraint.  But don't let that be a deterrent.  This is a well-crafted story and a great read.

  (out of 5)