Thursday, December 29, 2011

What We're Watching Now: Babylon 5

Last week, we began watching season one of Babylon 5 on DVD (the remastered version). Though I watched the series when it first aired, this is Jeremy's first time watching it. I've been chatting up the series with him the past 15 years (Jeremy will be 21 in March!), but he's never really been interested until now. He's always been a Star Wars fan, and recently a Star Trek fan (we had been watching Deep Space 9 until last week, stopping in the middle of season four. I kept telling him how DS9 was a poor ripoff of B5.)

I haven't seen these Babylon 5 episodes since they first aired and then rerun during the same season, waiting for the next season to begin. Plus, there were episodes in season one that I have missed, until now. Tonight, we just finished watching the episode "And The Sky Full of Stars," which I missed back in 1994. Wow. It's amazing how each episode has little clues (sometimes major clues) about the storyline/plot! Great foreshadowing as well. I try my best not to divulge anything to Jeremy while watching, but it sure is hard. I keep making little comments and sounds when something important is said or happens.

He's enjoying the series, though he's not as impressed with the Mimbari ships as I am. Oh well. Plus, the cheapness of the medlab's set bugs him, like it has always bugged me. As he puts it, the lab looks "so random," like a lot of the show's sets. But he's quick to mention that story is key, not glamorous sets, especially when the show's budget was a lot less than Star Trek. The lack of Star Trek Tech Babble is also nice.

Gaming: Late to the Show
Ironically, he's now interested in B5 but all the B5 miniatures and games are hard to come by. I still have my 2nd Edition of Babylon 5 Wars box set (never played) and the Babylon 5 revised boxed version of A Call to Arms ship game (played once). Sadly, no miniatures to go with them. I really wanted to get the Fleet Action ships back in the day. I was disappointed to hear that Mongoose went with the larger ships, and that their quality was spotty as I remember it. At least, ACTA has the paper counters. Looks like ebay will have to be my friend for B5 gaming.

A Spot of Luck!
Jeremy bought Season 1 on Amazon with his own money, paying $14 for it new. On Monday, he and I went out doing some shopping on the other side of the county, with the plan to hit Cool Stuff on the way home to pick up some new games, which we did. (More on that in another post.) On the way back, we decided, after much hemming and hawing, to stop by a Goodwill thrift store, one which we hadn't been to in a long time because we usually find nothing there. Well, just as we were leaving the store empty handed again, I saw a small rack of DVDs we had missed. There sat Season 2 through 5 of Babylon 5! No Season 1, but we owned that anyway. And the price? $9 each, in nearly new shape! So I plunked down my money. (Funny how I wind up buying all the other season sets???) We now have the entire series on DVD for only $50.

Taking a Slow Boat to Babylon 5
We tend to watch one episode an evening at around 10pm if there is no hot football or basketball game on. (Jeremy is a basketball freak,while I don't get the game.) I'd like to watch more episodes an evening, but he likes one a night. Hey, as long as he in enjoying quality sci-fi, who am I to complain?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fun Audio Dramas

A recent thread on The Miniatures Page got me thinking about one of my favorite pastimes since I've been a young kid: listening to audio dramas. I grew up listening to vintage radio dramas and comedies from the golden age of radio. Then to mysteries broadcast every night on our local AM radio station. Later, I would listen to Hitchhiker's Guide, Ruby: Galactic Gumshoe, and other neat shows on public radio every Sunday evening in the early 1980s.

I thought I would mention a few recent audio dramas I h've enjoyed. Jeremy has gotten most these for me as presents over the years, or I've recorded them live. When possible, I've included links to Amazon in the section titles. Often, you can pick them up used for a few dollars or download them as MP3 files. I hope you enjoy.

Superman Lives
This was a 2.5 hour BBC 5 production from 2005, originally called "Doomsday and Beyond" when it aired. Here is a brief synopses of the story: "Epic action, thrilling suspense, and a rollercoaster ride of mounting excitement are all featured in this incredible audio experience, chronicling not only Superman's duel-to-the-death with the monster called Doomsday and how he ultimately returned, but also the story of his love affair with Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane and the true fate of his arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. The fastest-selling comic book story of all time comes to life like nothing you've ever heard before!" Yep, the classic 90s story in audio. I love it!

DC Universe: Trail of Time
The CD's in this series of "Graphic Audio" releases are an interesting combination of traditional audio books with a narrator reading the text combined with actual audio drama, complete with sound effects. There are many titles in the series. This happens to be the only one I have at the moment. It is wild, featuring many of my favorite characters.

Synopses from Amazon: "Clark Kent is living in a dark world where he has no powers, no memory of ever being anything other than human. His world is controlled by mystical forces no one can challenge, with the triumvirate of Vandal Savage, Mordru, and Felix Faust calling the shots. The Demon and Phantom Stranger approach Clark and tell him that he is really Superman, that alterations made more than a hundred years ago to the time stream are causing space-time fluctuations that will result in this particular reality becoming the sole reality, unless something is done. Since Superman is powerless in this reality, and since the alterations were made in the past, the three heroes have to travel into the past, specifically into the American Southwest of the 1870s, where Jonah Hex, Bat Lash and other DC Western heroes help them set things right again" Cool stuff!

Judge Dredd, Blakes 7, Dr. Who, and More
Check out Big Finish Productions for many audio dramas of great comics and sci-fi BBC shows. You can buy CDs or download MP3s. I own the Dredd collection and love them. Once again, these were BBC productions.

Just a note. BBC Radio 4 Extra has Blake's 7, Doctor Who, and others you can listen to online. You might want to check it out. You can record these programs right off the Internet while listening to them using a free program, such as my favorite Audacity, and save them as MP3 files. I've done this many times over the years.

Any Other Suggestions?
Well, there you go. Some ideas to get you going. If anyone has any suggestions for some good fantasy, sci-fi, or historical audio dramas that you think I or others might like, pop down and mention them in the comments.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Siege of Kanlakab Valley: Playing "The Sword and the Flame" With 10-Man Units

The Battle of Kanlakab Valley had begun when an expeditionary force of primarily Gurkhas had been ambushed while marching in column through the steep hills of the Kanlakab Valley deep in Afghanistan on the very edge of the Her Majesty's Empire. It had been a bloody affair, the Gurkhas retreating from the direction they had come. A small company of men from the 1st Gurkhas Rifles volunteered to stay behind as a rear guard action so their comrades could escape. Colonel William George vowed to return as soon as possible to rescue the brave men.

That had been days ago. Though the stone walls atop a low hill toward the bottom of the valley provided some protection for the men, they knew that it would do little to protect them once the waves of natives began swarming toward them, leaping over the walls and fighting hand-to-hand. Though they had been keeping the natives at bay for sometime, the men knew that time was not on their side.

"They are massing their forces," said Sgt. Ganju Pun spying dozens of natives climbing about the hills to the east. "The tribes are coming together once again. I fear an attack is about to happen."

"We shall be ready for them," responded his superior, Lt. Donald James.

James knew that was a lie, and so did his sergeant. Their food and water supplies were nearly exhausted. The sun had been beating down on them so fiercely for days that the skin on their very lips had begun peeling off in large chunks. There wasn't as much as a leaf to provide shade on top of that barren hill. A godforsaken area of the world if there ever was one.

Hours passed while more and more natives began massing in the eastern hills. Feeling emboldened by their earlier victory during the ambush, the Pathan tribesmen did little to hide their presence. An attack was mounting surely.

Hours passed.

Back on top of the fortified hill, a rifleman suddenly shouted, "Look! There! See? A dust cloud. Off in the distance."

Sgt. Pun ran to the wall and peered down the valley to the west, following the man's shaking finger. "Hmmmm. It is a dust cloud. But is it friend or foe?"

"We can assume nothing," said Lt. James, who appeared behind Sgt. Pun. "Sergeant, prepare your men for an attack. Deploy some on the east wall and some on the west wall, until we know who is making that cloud."

"Yes, sir!" snapped Pun, as he ran off to organize his men, possibly for the last time.

And so began the Siege of Kanlakab Valley.

The Game
A few weeks ago, we played a game of colonials using the The Sword and The Flame rules by Larry Brom. This set of rules has been around for decades, becoming one of the classics of miniature gaming. Though Abel had played many times many years ago, this was my first actual game using the rules. I found them easy to learn and quite thematic overall, though sometimes they can be a bit too cinematic, as if Larry Brom had watched Zulu a few too many times!

Using Smaller 10-Man Units
To better utilize the figures we had while keeping the game fast and bloody, we decided to try using smaller units than the standard 20 men. We based our units on the combatant rules found on page 40 of the rulebook under "The Sword in Africa" section.

We made the Gurkha infantry units 10 men armed with Egyptian rifles. For some flavor in each infantry unit, we made one of the figures a sergeant, who was also armed with an Egyptian rifle even if holding a pistol. For extra flavor in the defending infantry unit, we also made one of the 10 figures a lieutenant armed with an Egyptian rifle. We assumed the defending unit had been larger days earlier but by the time the game had begun had lost many men to the elements and wounds from the previous battle. The officer had survived. If the defending force and rescuing force each had two infantry units, we would have given each an NCO or officer as an extra man as suggested on page 40.

We made the Gurkha lancer unit six men, designating one of them as a sergeant for some flavor. Again, if we had more lancer units we would have given them an additional officer or NCO figure instead.

The mistake we made was giving the mountain gun a full crew of four gunners, which made the single gun quite powerful against the smaller units. We rationalized the guns strength as being crewed by zealous gunners, set on revenging their loses days earlier. Next time, we'll play with two gunners per cannon.

We made the Pathan infantry units 10 men either all armed with spears or all armed with jezails. The rules on page 40 suggest mixing the native's weapons, but we found it fine the way we did it. The jezails were horrible weapons as it was, so arming the entire unit with them seemed to balance it out more. Plus, it made the units easier for our first game. The Pathan cavalry were handled the same as the Gurkha cavalry units, though armed only with spears.

Revised Straggler Rule for 10-Man Units
Using smaller units than in a normal game forced us to modify slightly the straggler rule when a unit charges. Whenever a unit must roll for stragglers, we rolled a single D6. On a result of 1-2 one figure straggled, 3-4 two figures straggled, 5 three figures straggled, and 6 no one straggled. It worked quite well.

Orders of Battle
British Defending Force:
1x Gurkha Infantry (Egyptian Rifles)

British Rescue Force:
1x Gurkha Infantry (Egyptian Rifles)
1x 10th Bengal Lancers
1x Mountain Gun
1x Mounted Commander

Pathan Attacking Force:
2x Pathan Jezails
1x Pathan Native Spears

Pathan Reserve Force:
2x Pathan Cavalry Jezails
3x Pathan Native Spears

Since I was new to colonial gaming, Abel laid out the scenery on the table and then placed the units. I haven't been doing much gaming the past year-and-a-half, so I hadn't been working on scenery at all. We used what I had on hand, placing my few foam hills under a piece of mottled-tan cloth I had purchased years ago at Walmart. The scenery was very basic but worked well enough that day.

Abel placed the besieged defending Gurkha unit toward the "eastern" end of the table on top of a low hill. We used my Old Glory stone walls to provide their fortification. He then placed a couple more hills a bit farther east, placing three of his Pathan units on the table (two armed with jezails close to the Gurkhas and the remaining two spearmen farther away behind the hills, out of harms way.

I then placed my Gurkha rescue force on the western end of the table in a small valley we had created. My objective was to approach toward the defending infantry unit as quickly as possible and then escort them to safety the same way I had entered. It sounded like a simple plan, though as one can expect thanks to the rules it turned out to be more challenging and dramatic than I had imagined.

The table is set. We're getting ready to begin play!

Photos of the Deployed Pathan Forces
Below are some photos of the 25mm Pathan figures we used.

Photos of the Deployed Gurkhas
Below are some photos of the 25mm Gurkha figures we used.


Turn 1: The Game Begins
The first turn of the game started out with little drama. It was the first to move, so I activated my cavalry unit, moving them toward the defending unit. Throughout the game, the random dice rolling for movement added some nice tension and friction. I came to enjoy this aspect of it, allowing us to use our imagination when explain why a unit would roll so badly when moving. As additional activation cards were flipped, I was able to move the remainder of the rescue force closer and shift the defending unit so all the figures faced the eastern wall and the massing Pathans. Abel basically moved his jezail units into range, while making sure his spearmen remained behind the hills. Having learned the movement rules, we went onto the next phase, ranged fire.

The spearemen unit of natives sneak up behind the hill, out of sight from the rifles.
Firing Begins
This is when the fun began. Since we deployed units close enough to each other to get stuck in right away, we got right into learning the firing rules. Abel got the first draw of the card and opened up with the Pathan jezail unit closest to the defending Gurkhas. He rolled 10 dice, one for each native firing. Using jezails against a defender behind a wall, he needed to roll a 1 to score a hit on a die. Since the game uses d20s, that gave him a 5% chance of hitting on each die. Sure enough, one of the dice rolled a 1--a single hit. A darned lucky shot, if I must say so!

He then drew a card to see the results of the hit. I figured he would wound one of my men and that would be it. No, not this time. Instead, he drew an ace of hearts, killing the units leader. Ergh! Down when Lt. James, clutching his chest. To die on top of a godforsaken hill in the middle of a godforsaken country was not a fitting death for a brave Englishman such as Lt. James! Surely, back in England his betrothed darling, Elizabeth, would mourn his passing for years to come. Curse you, you stinking Pathans and your lucky card draws!

That combat complete, we drew another card to see who fired next. Sure enough, Abel got the initiative again. This time opened up with his other jezail unit, once again rolling a single hit. Darn his luck! Drawing a card to see the results of the hit, he drew a heart face card. This meant a "key figure" that is not a leader is killed. We decided that this would be Sgt. Pun, who collapsed beside the recently fallen Lt. James. Double curse you, you filthy Pathans and your lucky card drawing!

The Pathans open fire on the defending Gurkhas.

Gurkhas Fire For Revenge
Next, I finally got to fire my Gurkhas. With vengeance in my eyes, I rolled my eight dice. In the end, three Pathans lay wounded and one lay dead. Though it didn't truly avenge the deaths of my brave and beloved soldiers in the Queen's service, it was a start.

My Thoughts on Movement and Firing
So there you have the first turn. The initiative and movement mechanics made for some interesting friction, wondering if units could reach their destinations in time. The ranged fire and wounding mechanics also were fast, fun, and dramatic. Who would have thought I would have lost two of my best men in the opening volleys? The only downside for me was rolling handfuls of d20s, which was a bit awkward because the dice were so large. A minor quibble if there ever was one!

The Game Progresses
As the game progressed, the Pathans continued with their lucky die rolling and card flipping, killing a third Gurkha and wounding another. I was getting ready to erase all the 1's from my d20s but thought better of it.

Eventually, I moved my rescue unit up to the defending unit. The lancers waited at the base of the hill for an opportunity to charge a native unit. Cavalry seems rather weak in the game, so Abel suggested I not engage the cavalry too quickly lest I lose them. The infantry unit moved up to get the besieged infantry unit out of harm's way. The mountain gun unlimbered and began blasting apart the natives from a distance.

Colonel William George has returned to save the day!
Then Abel charged the wall with a spearmen unit, a suicide charge. At the same time, my lancer unit charged at the flank of the spearmen. This was going to be an interesting melee! The Gurkha infantry repelled the spearmen before the lancers were able to make contact.

Col. George, looking on from behind his approaching forces, called out that help had arrived just as the spearmen and the lancers get stuck from charging.
Rule Change: Attacking and Defending Across Walls
One of the major rules we modified for our game were the rules on page 29 dealing with walls in close combat. The rules do not allow combatants to fight across walls at all, forcing the attacking unit to charge to the wall on one turn and then firing, on the next turn climbing onto the wall in the next turn and fighting at a rather large penalty, and then on the third turn crossing the wall to fight normally. This smacked us of Larry Brom having watched Zulu a few too many times. We just couldn't see this as making much sense when the Gurkha infantry were behind a low, thin stone wall that anyone could easily reach or leap across with little effort. No one in their right mind would try to balance themselves on it and fight! (It reminds me of wooden fences in ACW games giving the defending unit a big bonus, as if the little wooden sticks could actually stop a rifle bullet or obscure the target.)

In our game, we made the charging unit stop at the wall and fight normally, giving the defending unit a +1 bonus. The attacking unit could then cross the wall on the next turn, assuming they had not fled. Considering the scenario, it worked just fine for our purposes.

The Game Is Nearing The End
Toward the end of the game, the Pathan cavalry finally entered the fray and charged headlong into the lancers, who quickly met them with a counter charge. But not until the mountain gun opened fire on one of them, blowing them apart quite well. Once again, Abel rolled and flipped cards amazingly well, killing a lancer with the only hit. Still, the lancers tore up the two spearmen cavalry units, which retreated off the table. Then a unit of fanatical spearmen charged the lancers. And the craziest thing happened. Seeing the spearmen charging in their direction, the lancers panicked and fell back (I blew my dice roll when units are contacting during a charge). What in the world?!

The red and green chiits keep track of the units and are keyed into their roster sheets.
This was not good! During all the charging, the two units of Gurkha riflemen were trying to make it off the board to safety, moving behind the cavalry unit and the mountain gun, which was getting ready to hightail it out of there as well. Though Col. George was doing his best to inspire his men to greatness, the exhausted and wounded infantrymen moved horribly slow every turn. (I kept rolling badly for the units' movement dice. It was quite frustrating because it looked like a sure victory was rapidly slipping from my fingers! If the lancers had fallen back just a bit more, the day would have been completely lost, with the spearmen charging into the flanks of my Gurkha infantry. Wow, I love this game!)

Fortunately, the lancers regained their composure, turned around, and quickly charged the spearmen. The photos in this section show this final great confrontation. The Gurkhas would prevail with a decisive victory, while the Pathans, as fanatical as some of them were, would flee from the battlefield. Granted, the natives still controlled the valley. But Col. George would return once again in the near future, this time with a much larger force.

The wooden red cubes are from the Age of Mythology boardgame. I use them to mark wounded characters. I use other colored blocks from the game to mark other conditions.

Though Allah had been with them earlier in the game, the natives were to experience why the Gurkhas were a feared fighting force, no matter how small their numbers.

Final Thoughts
I hope you enjoyed this after action report about how we played with smaller units and the rule changes we made. We both thoroughly enjoyed the game and the rules, which are easy to pick up and quite cinematic. Better yet, we also got to play an entire game to its conclusion, a rarity in League games!

Obligatory (Badly) Posed Photo
Ok, I just had to include this photo. My wife wanted to snap a photo of us playing the game. I think she told us to look like we were "doing something."  So we did "something." It cracks me up every time I look at it!

Looming over Abel, I show him the rule stating that I always win. "Oh, that rule!" he replied.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Road to Victory: The Thrilling Conclusion

Forgive me, but I thought I had already posted the conclusion to the Road to Victory series! Since it has been such a long time since our last installment of this D-Day reenactment battle, below is a little refresher of where we last left the action at the beginning of the engagement.

Two young French partizans have just wandered into the SS road block during the Normandy invasion. Luckily, their papers are in order and are allowed to pass.
Watching the German road block from a nearby copse of trees on the enemy's left flank, lead elements of the American recon force watch the partizans quickly leave the area, while the enemy troops continue to deploy. The outnumbered GI's will have to hold tight until the rest of their force along with an M-8 Greyhound can catch up.

Will the evil Germans repel the advancing US forces, pushing them back into the sea, or will the brave GI's show the Krauts what for? Let's find out!

"Jeder macht schnell! Enemy auf die rechte Flanke!" -- Everyone hurry! Enemy on the right flank! -- Suddenly, the Americans open fire not from the left flank but from the right flank! The German checkpoint forces, including a lone Fallschirmjäger in the foreground, quickly return fire.

The Americans on the right take heavy fire and severe casualties but refuse to give up the fight!

It's a crossfire! The American recon forces along with their Greyhound suddenly advance out of the trees on the German's left flank,opening fire on the confused enemy, who now is being attacked from both sides!

While the Greyhound on the left flank provides covering fire, a brave medic tries to save the wounded infantrymen from the burning jeep on the right flank.

"Nicht schießen! Wir geben auf!" -- Don't shoot! We give up! -- Though both sides fight hard and inflict many casualties, the Americans win the day.

Taken by one of the young partizans and then placed in the bottom of a shoebox in the back of a closet, this photo remains a testament to the brave Allied soldiers, ordinary men, who liberated Europe 65+ years ago on the Road to Victory, giving us the freedom we enjoy today. 

(The photo above in its original color.)