Sunday, May 20, 2012

Task Forces, Baseball

Hi, there – Thanks for stopping by!

Not much new to report that I haven’t mentioned before. I’m working on a novel, doing some design work for Paizo (the Thornkeep book for Goblinworks’ Pathfinder Online kickstarter), and tinkering around with a little consulting and light design work for some other folks. Oh, and my new ebook Prince of Ravens is getting closer to release: It should be out in early July. All of you Forgotten Realms fans who have been wanting another dose of Jack Ravenwild, this is your chance! Sorry about making you wait ten years between books.

Gaming: I’ve been noodling over bit of kit-bashing in the last few weeks. I mentioned a few blogs back that I’m a fan of the old Avalon Hill title Victory in the Pacific. It’s one of my old favorites, but the game does have a couple of things I don’t like. Most importantly, bringing a smaller force to a battle is just a savage beating, because every unit in the zone gets to attack. Secondly, there’s no rule to limit “ganging up” attacks. At the risk of complicating a simple game, here’s the mod I’ve been thinking about:

1.      Ships in a zone are grouped into Task Forces. A Task Force can have up to 10 ships. You can’t have more than 4 battleships in a TF. You can’t have more than 4 carriers in a TF.

2.      Before each combat round, number your Task Forces. If you have 2 TFs in the zone, one of them is TF 1, and the other is TF 2. You decide which is which.

3.      Each combat round begins with a Search Phase. You get to roll 1 search die for each TF you have in the zone, and 1 search die for each land-based air squadron. Add 1 search die for each previous round of searching you’ve performed.

4.      A search die “spots” the enemy Task Force equal to its roll. For example, if you roll three search dice and get 2, 3, 6, you spot enemy Task Forces 2, 3, and 6. If there isn’t an enemy TF to find in that slot, that search die whiffs.

5.      You always spot all of your enemy’s land-based air squadrons.

6.      TFs that aren’t spotted are Hidden. You can’t attack hidden TFs.

OK, so that organization and search process splits your giant armadas into smaller components. You might find some, all, or none of your enemy’s fleet. He might do the same to you. It’s bad news when you find none of your enemy fleet and he finds all of yours, but that’s war. Now here are the basic combat rules for task forces:

1.      Surprise Phase: Hidden TFs can *either* make air strikes against land-based air squadrons and spotted enemy TFs, *or* wait to attack spotted enemy TFs in Surface Combat. Damage you inflict now takes effect before other air strikes.

2.      Air Strike Phase: Spotted TFs and land-based air can attack any spotted enemy TFs or enemy land-based air squadrons with air strikes. Attacks in this phase are simultaneous (two carriers can sink each other). Damage you inflict now takes effect before surface combat.

3.      Surface Combat Phase: Hidden TFs *may* engage any spotted enemy TF in surface combat. Spotted TFs *must* engage spotted enemy TFs of matching number. In other words, if my TF 2 and your TF 2 are both spotted in the Search phase, they fight each other in fleet combat. Attacks in this phase are simultaneous (two battleships can sink each other).

In surface combat, you can’t assign two ships to attack one ship unless you’re attacking all other eligible ships. You can’t attack a carrier or amphib unless you can assign two attackers each to all other units in the TF you’re attacking. (However, carriers that use their gunnery factors lose this special consideration and are treated just like other ships.)
Each cycle of search-surprise-air-surface is one combat round. You can’t withdraw until at least one surprise attack, airstrike, or surface combat has occurred. Hidden groups that withdraw can’t be pursued.

This system is a simplification of the TF and search rules from Avalon Hill’s Rising Sun/GMT’s A World at War. I like it because it’s good simulation, it’s simple, and it’s a ton of fun in AWAW, but the idea seems like it could easily make combat in Victory in the Pacific a lot more interesting. With good search dice, a smaller force can sting a bigger force and slip away. In War at Sea or Victory in the Pacific, the “right” way to play is to keep your ships in gigantic stacks; this system says that you don’t often get to use all of your gigantic stack at the same time (certainly backed up by history).

I think there are a couple of other games that would benefit from similar house rules. For example, GDW’s old Imperium game or Federation and Empire likewise involve gigantic stacks of ships and punish you for not keeping your fleet in a gigantic stack. It would be pretty easy to mod out this system for either of those games.

Politics/Current Events: We’ve hit the interleague play portion of baseball’s 2012 schedule. While I enjoyed the novelty of interleague play when it first began in 1997, I find that I am not much of a fan of it these days. The simple reason is that the wild card ticket to the playoffs combines pretty poorly with the interleague schedule. Since you don’t play *every* other team in the other league, just a selection of “regional rivalries,” it’s possible for one team in League A to have an interleague schedule against distinctly stronger opponents than another team that might be competing for the same wild card slot. For example, the Phillies draw a bunch of strong AL East teams for their interleague schedule, while the Cardinals draw a bunch of weak AL Central teams. But when it comes time to figure out who’s going to be the wild card, well, a win’s a win. The Phils have a disadvantage on strength of schedule.
Now, if there wasn’t a wild card, no big deal—you get to the playoffs by winning your division, and you could set it up so that all the teams in a division had the same interleague schedule.

You can certainly argue that the wild card is bunged up already because some divisions are stronger than others, and teams play an unbalanced schedule where they get three times as many games against rivals in their own division as they do against teams outside the division. But a wild card based on a system where all contenders play the same teams would be an incremental improvement over the current situation.
Unfortunately, interleague play is about to get worse. Next year, the Houston Astros are moving from the NL to the AL. Well, that’s good for Dallas and Houston; that should be a fun rivalry between the Rangers and Astros. But two 15-team leagues means that interleague play’s going to have to happen all through the season, with all its inequities. It’s not going away anytime soon.

I really find myself longing for the days of two divisions in each league, with a one-round league championship, followed by the World Series. That was the format from 1969 through 1993, and there were some legendary playoffs through that time. Maybe I’m less sympathetic to giving the weaker teams a bit more hope because my Phillies have been at the top of the heap for four or five years now, or maybe I’m just remembering the Olden Days with a warm glow of nostalgia. But it seems like the postseason was just better back then, doesn’t it?

The Finer Things: Cold Stone Creamery. I dig the Coffee Lover’s Crunch and Peanut Butter Cup Perfection mixes. I only go in to a Cold Stone maybe two or three times a year, and it seems unfair that I have to pick one or the other.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thornkeep, War at Sea short list, South China Sea

Hi, folks! Welcome back!

I guess the interesting news of the day about me is that I’m working with Paizo/Goblinworks to design Thornkeep, a sourcebook that will be available as an exclusive reward for pitching in on the Pathfinder Online Kickstarter. I’m delighted to have the chance to work with the great folks at Paizo, and I’m pretty proud of the design work I’ve done so far on Thornkeep. It’s a great little setting for a small campaign, with a hundred different adventure hooks and storylines for an enterprising DM to pick up and play with. The Goblinworks gang has some great ideas about Pathfinder Online, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

Gaming: This week, I thought I’d take a look at a handful of interesting ships and planes that haven’t yet made it into an Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures set. I couldn’t tell you if they will be included in a set 7, or when a set 7 might come out; they’re just some units I think might be good in the game. In no particular order, here they are: USS Texas, HMS Valiant, the BV-138, and the Krakowiak.

USS Texas is one of the “missing” US battleship classes, and more importantly, she’s a monument you can go visit today if you want. In fact, the impressive battleship guns pictured at the top of my blog page belong to USS Texas. While she didn’t take part in any naval battles, she participated in amphibious assaults and provided shore bombardment on several occasions: Point du Hoc on D-Day, Battery Hamburg at Cherbourg (a heavy shore battery of 9.4” guns), Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Her battery of ten 14-inch guns would be pretty close to the main battery of the British King George V. Battery Silencer and Shore Bombardment would be pretty reasonable special abilities.

HMS Valiant is a sister ship of Warspite. The WW1-era Queen Elizabeths were all refitted in different ways in the 1930s, but Valiant’s profile came close enough to Warspite’s that you could use the same miniature to represent either ship. Valiant helped to inflict the single worst defeat the Regia Marina suffered at sea during the war: The sinking of three heavy cruisers at the Battle of Cape Matapan. Valiant could easily merit the Night Fighter special ability for her part in the battle. The British fleet could probably use a few more Night Fighters, since that was one of their key advantages over the Italians. They were probably the second-best in the world at night fighting after the Japanese, at least before the US Navy developed effective radars and radar doctrines in 1943.

The BV-138 is a long-overdue German flying boat. The Germans actually built more of the Bluhm and Voss patrol bombers than the more famous Kondors. As far as flying boats go, the BV-138 would probably be close to the PBY Catalina in size and armament, although apparently they never carried torpedoes. Like other flying boats, the BV 138 would gain Loiter, something the Germans don’t have yet. And it might also get some form of Defensive Armament, since it was reasonably well armed (although not a “porcupine” like the Sunderland or Emily). ASW Pinpointer might be a good fit, too.

Finally, Krakowiak is a British Hunt-class destroyer escort (Type 2) that was operated by the free Polish navy during the war. The Hunt class destroyers are one of the larger and more important ship classes not represented in the six existing War at Sea sets: The British built 86 of these guys, and a group of Hunts participated in some hard fighting in the English Channel against German torpedo boats right up to D-Day. The Hunt type 2 carried six 4-inch guns and could make 27 knots, so they were pretty capable for escort destroyers. Krakowiak amassed a sterling war record, steaming over 140,000 miles and escorting hundreds of convoys as well as participating in some of the fierce fighting in the Channel.

Politics/Current Events: A post or two back I took a look at the Falklands dispute and the worrisome tone of bellicosity creeping into the news from the South Atlantic. Well, there’s another trouble spot people ought to be paying some attention to: The South China Sea. This is the arm of the Pacific Ocean that lies between Vietnam, Borneo, the Philippines, and the southern coast of China. The South China Sea is trouble because there are a number of tiny islets and reefs more or less in the middle that are currently claimed by no less than six different countries: The People’s Republic of China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. These islands are spectacularly useless piles of sand, scrub, and coral, and no one would really care much about them except for the fact that all the nearby nations count on fishing in the South China Sea, and there may be extensive reserves of oil and natural gas in the area.

The dispute is really pretty fascinating, because it’s a mess. Vietnam says it owned the islands during its imperial days a few centuries back. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei more or less base their claims on proximity—if you use the 200-mile limit in the Law of the Sea Treaty that most countries have signed, most of the islands would belong to those three countries. But the People’s Republic of China actually claims the entire damned sea, right up to the 12-mile limit of all adjoining countries. This is like saying you own every square inch of the cul-de-sac, and all your neighbors’ driveways right up to within a foot of their garage doors. Taiwan, not to be outdone, makes the exact same claim, because they view themselves as the historic heirs of the old Chinese republic’s claims. Accordingly, each of the involved countries currently has handfuls of soldiers standing on just about anything that isn’t covered at high tide (and a few things that are) occupying as much of the disputed areas as possible.

Right now, China and the Philippines are engaged in a standoff about a speck of rock called Scarborough Reef, which is 120 miles or so from Luzon and almost 500 miles from Hainan (China).  Mostly this is about fishing rights, but China hasn’t been shy about pointing out that their navy outnumbers the Philippine navy about 100 to 1, and that maybe they should “defend their sovereignty” with military action if the Filipinos can’t see things China’s way.

So why does this matter to the United States? The short answer is that we have a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. There are rumblings of some weaseling about whether we would consider ourselves obligated to protect disputed territory, and it seems unlikely that we’d risk a shooting war with China to protect Philippine claims over tiny rocks a hundred miles from their shores. But it seems to me that we also ought to be thinking about the message we send if we *don’t* stick up for people who sign treaties with us. Maybe other countries in the area would strengthen their own ties and try to look out for each other… or maybe they’d give up and try to make the best deals they can with Beijing. The world’s a dangerous enough place already without China being rewarded for intimidation and brinksmanship.

The Finer Things: Wow, Avengers was a fun movie. If you’re any kind of comics geek, you have to see this. Now, DC, can you elevate your game a bit? Your Batman movies are pretty good, but I’d like to see a Justice League movie at some point, and your recent Superman and Green Lantern movies don’t inspire a lot of confidence.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A&A Pilot Skill, Cosmic Rays, Chicken Wings

Greetings! Welcome back for another edition of Atomic Dragon Battleship. Here’s your happy thought for the day: Only six more months of presidential campaigning and we’ll be all done for 2012! Anyway, on to this week’s look at gaming, current events, and whatever tickles my fancy.

Gaming: Here’s a rule for Axis & Allies Air Force Miniatures we explored but dropped in development: If your pilot quality is worse than the target you’re shooting at, you take a –1 penalty on each attack die. For example, let’s say that an average P-40 pilot is shooting at a Zeke veteran’s 4 o’clock. Normally the hit number is 5, but because the Zeke has a better pilot, that would bump up to 6. If the P-40 was diving on the Zeke and shooting, that would go back to a 5. If the Zeke was evading, back up to a 6. And so on.

I sort of liked the original draft of the rule, because I figured one of the Japanese “traits” in the game would be very high pilot skill in many of the aircraft available in 1941 or 1942, especially naval aircraft; the Japanese Navy began the war with extremely well-trained pilots. Aircraft with later availabilities might be better airframes than the early war Zeroes, but the pilot quality would downgrade steadily, so you just might not find any veteran or ace pilots in 1944 or 1945—or at least, a lot fewer than the Japanese had early in the war. Allied planes and pilots in 1941 and 1942 would usually be outclassed in pilot skill, so the impact of this rule is that the Zeroes would be that much harder to hit.

However, one of the tough things about global rules is that they work for everybody, and I was a lot less sure that the pilot quality ratings would have the same salutary effects when the European powers went up against each other. Clearly, the Russians had a serious pilot quality disadvantage against the Luftwaffe for most of the war, but the British and American pilots were generally about as good as the Germans. I was also becoming very worried about the trickiness of computing your to-hit number, and developer Mons Johnson wasn’t very enthusiastic about how often this rule would push you into “rolling for sixes” on your attacks. So we ditched the defensive benefit of pilot quality, deciding that we could create special abilities to do that work if we saw a plane we really wanted to give it to.

Now, some AAAFM players have also been wondering if the Zeroes are too fragile. I think the Zeroes have the durability ratings history warrants, but I agree that it’s a little unfortunate that a single ‘6’ cripples the plane—Zeroes are just a little more vulnerable to low-odds deflection shots than they probably should be. However, the “dropped rule” might help this situation a bit. So, if you don’t mind a little more complexity in your game, try this:

-        First, add the defensive advantage for a superior pilot: –1 penalty on your attack dice if you’re shooting at a pilot of higher quality.

-        Second, a new suggestion: If you need a 7 or higher to score a hit, a 6 counts as 1 hit, not 2. We considered this rule too early on, but backed away from it to avoid complexity. Anyway, it works well in conjunction with the rule described above.

Combined with the great evasion abilities for the Zeke and Zero, and you’ll find that your average and poor Allied pilots in early war planes will have a much harder time getting that first hit that cripples Zero or Zeke. Be warned: I haven’t playtested this much, so test with care!

Politics/Current Events: There’s a major new insight in the climate change debate that’s caught my interest. A Danish astrophysicist named Henrik Svensmark published a paper through the Royal Astronomical Society examining the effect of cosmic rays on Earth’s long-term climate. Basically, cosmic rays influence cloud formation, which influences climate.

And here’s an (opinion) piece discussing the ramifications:

The work is controversial because it’s evidence that solar activity cycles, which influence the rate of cosmic rays reaching the Earth, may play a much more significant role in Earth’s climate than the various climate models and the proponents of AGW (anthropogenic global warming) theory currently allow. That’s pretty significant already, but the really interesting new angle in Svensmark’s work is that he shows that there is a strong link between the overall level of cosmic rays and climate across hundreds of millions of years, and those varying levels seem to be based on whether there is a high or low incidence of nearby supernovae. In other words, when the Solar System passes through a part of the galaxy where supernovas are somewhat more frequent, cosmic ray levels are high, cloud formation is high, and Earth’s climate is cool. When the Solar System passes through a region where supernovas are few and far between, cosmic rays are weaker, cloud formation is low, and Earth’s climate is warmer.

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the last couple of weeks engaged in a Facebook debate about conservatives and science. The argument came down to the question of whether it was reasonable to entertain skepticism about the climate change consensus, or not? When we finally drilled down to it, I realized that my opponents viewed their authorities as unimpeachable: The only people qualified to comment on climate science were climate scientists. I maintained that it was possible that important insights about the climate change debate might come from other disciplines, too. I don’t know if Svensmark’s research “wins” the debate—in fact, I’m sure there is a lot of debate still to happen—but I think it does show that the science isn’t necessarily settled.

The Finer Things: Buffalo wings. A couple of weeks back I had the opportunity to compare Hooters and Buffalo Wild Wings within just a few days of each other. I’ve regarded Hooters as the gold standard in chicken wings for many years now, but I have to say, Buffalo Wild Wings just thumped ‘em. Now, it’s true that Hooters wings are still pretty good, and there are other reasons to take in a meal at Hooters. But as far as pure buffalo wings go, well, Buffalo Wild Wings is a little bit better.