Doctor Who Project: The Ark in Space

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It might be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species.

After his debut story, tacked as it was onto the end of the Season Eleven recording cycle, Tom Baker’s run as the Fourth Doctor starts in earnest with new script editor Robert Holmes’ “The Ark in Space” (Story Production Code 4C). Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe seemingly have carte blanche to send the Doctor, finally freed from his Earthly exile, off in new directions, and with the first story of the Season Twelve production bloc, they take us…right back to the Second Doctor and a “base under siege” story that Troughton could have played (and often did) in his sleep.

Oh, hello.

To be fair, there’s quite a bit new and flashy on offer here, but it becomes clear that, narratively speaking, Holmes and Hinchcliffe are hanging fresh tinsel on an old tree. In short order, the Doctor and companions accidentally arrive in an isolated locale (here, an apparently abandoned space station in Earth orbit sometime in the future), discover some trouble or other, get blamed for said trouble, then help fend off the real threat. If the formula feels fresh in “The Ark in Space,” it’s only because the Third Doctor had but a single story early on (“Inferno“) that even came close to this model over five seasons, and that one at least involved alternate dimensions.

It’s unlikely any but the most dedicated fans of Doctor Who noticed the pattern at the time, though, because the plot here remains resolutely beside the point. While Terrance Dicks threw Baker a debutante ball in “Robot,” a controlled, almost formal introduction in a comfortable setting, Holmes provides Baker with, well, a full-blown fiesta: far from demure, the Fourth Doctor bursts on the scene in all his alien glory in “The Ark in Space,” upending any lingering sense that there might be even the slightest connection between this Doctor and his forebears.

Almost as significantly, “The Ark in Space” suggests a return to small-cast (and lower budget) stories set in far-off, fantastical locales of which we actually see very little—eight sets total feature in this story, none on location and most dressed in what can only be called futuristic off-white—with a commensurate reliance on prop makers to visually convey the strangeness of the setting and on the writer to imbue the few characters with enough texture, or at least technobabble, to make the world seem fuller than it really is. Robert Holmes does well enough to hold up his end of the bargain, deftly sketching a chilling projection of a technocratic human future through well-chosen details; the prop department, on the other hand, just spray paints some bubble wrap with green paint and calls it a day.

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Winter Offensive 2019 After Action Report

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Whatever fickle spirits guide the weather must have it out for Advanced Squad Leader, because it scarcely fails to threaten snow and rain whenever Winter Offensive, the East Coast’s premier ASL tournament, sets up shop in Bowie, Maryland, and this year proved no different. Perhaps the decision to hold this gaming gathering in January has something to do with the invariability of inclement weather, but no matter, for a brave (and record) crowd of 190 people attended this year’s Winter Offensive.

Hosts Multi-Man Publishing unveiled Red Factories, the long-awaited companion campaign module to Red Barricades, at the tourney, and the very large boxes were much in evidence all weekend long. The smaller scenarios from the module likewise saw a fair amount of play; even with the extra tables MMP brought to the enlarged convention space this year, there would have been scarcely enough room to set up the larger scenarios, for the combined Red Barricades/Red Factories maps take up a substantial amount of table real estate.

Winter Offensive 2019 in full swing

The tournament, the 28th running, also played host to a celebration of MMP’s twenty year anniversary as custodians of the Advanced Squad Leader series, complete with a cake replicating an ASL board. It’s remarkable to think that they have shepherded ASL for longer than Avalon Hill did at this point, and I for one consider the game series to be in exceptional hands. While core modules may occasionally go out of print, MMP faces a delicate balancing act between keeping the large and expensive core modules in print to satisfy new players while still producing new products for the players who already own two copies of everything. By and large, I think two decades of success shows they strike the balance appropriately.

My own WO 2019 experience included far more ASL than I normally play at these events, with two ASL scenarios and one Starter Kit session with a player relatively new to the game. Plus copious amounts of Euro gaming to boot. And maybe a little beer.
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Doctor Who Project: Robot

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There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.

Our initial outing with the Fourth Doctor shows Tom Baker clearly setting out his stall—mirthful, slapdash, haphazard, alien, and just a bit brutal. It’s a good thing he strives to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Jon Pertwee, as “Robot” (Story Production Code 4A), by longtime Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks, covers much the same ground as several Third Doctor stories. Take one part “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” one part “The Green Death,” one part “Inferno,” file off the serial numbers, and you have Dicks’ tale of a group of fascist technocrats hiding in a bunker, bent on ruling the planet with the help of technology even they can’t control.

A rude awakening

It all feels too familiar, picking up right where “Planet of the Spiders” leaves off, with the newly regenerated Doctor in the Third Doctor’s clothes on the floor of his laboratory, alongside the comforting presence of Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), a newly promoted Warrant Office Benton (John Levene), and the rest of UNIT. The Brigadier has the Doctor sent for observation in the UNIT infirmary, under the care of new arrival Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), whilst he and Sarah Jane casually discuss the recent theft of classified weapon plans and, as a completely unconnected favor to Sarah, arrange for her to be granted access to the top secret Think Tank so she can write an article. It’s there that she encounters—at the traditional first episode cliffhanger, of course—our titular menace, the Robot.

The robot from Robot, the robot K-1

It’s clumsy plotting, but four episodes leaves little time for nuance, particularly when there’s a new Doctor to introduce. Indeed, “Robot” moves with so much pace that the obligatory threat to the planet (nuclear holocaust, this time) is resolved a scant five minutes into the final installment, leaving most of an episode for UNIT to demonstrate once more its utter incompetence as a fighting force (so, again, not much different from any of the Third Doctor’s stories).

Tacked on to the end of the Season Eleven recording block, with Barry Letts still at the production helm and the Doctor dealing with yet another Earth-bound menace, there’s little reason “Robot” should have a different feel. But by the end of of the story, one can see that changes are coming. It’s hard to suggest that any prior seasons would have dressed up the Doctor as a harlequin while referencing both James Bond and King Kong…

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Table for One: Alert Force (Close Simulations) Review

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Most wargames slot the player into a particular job, a particular role: supreme commander, divisional general, platoon leader, even quartermaster. Alert Force, a 1983 “microgame” offering from Wayne Close and his publishing company, Close Simulations, provides gamers the quite unique opportunity to play as a member of the United States Air Force’s Security Police, the alert force guarding the flight line and the nuclear-armed alert bombers parked in readiness thereupon. Opposing the Security Police on this fictionalized depiction of a Strategic Air Command base, the other player takes the role of undifferentiated Terrorists, seeking to destroy the bombers, hamper operations, and even purloin a nuclear device if possible.

On the surface, Alert Force comes in as a simple man-to-man tactical combat game, with a tiny footprint, a thin sheaf of rules, and a quick play time, but some nuances in both scenario design and rules chrome make for a deeper presentation than the meager box might suggest. While not a groundbreaking game in any particular way, Alert Force nevertheless repays its brief time on the table with streamlined gameplay and an interesting, if obscure, premise. Indeed, you might just have to own a game company in order to get a game on this topic published.

Overview

Alert Force
Close Simulations, 1983
Designed by Wayne Close

Alert Force Cover Detail

Alert Force comes in a small cardboard tuck box, measuring slightly more than 4″ x 7″, fitting it squarely in the Microgame size range that was quite popular in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Two sheets of half-inch die cut counters are included, totaling 112 counters. A matte-printed tri-fold map (12″ x 14″), plastic storage bag, and thin saddle-stapled rulebook round out the package.

The counters represent armed individuals not with figures but with icons of the weapon type they carry: machine pistol, assault rifle, or machine gun; additional weapons, such as satchel charges and light anti-tank weapons, have their own counters, as do vehicles and the unarmed aircraft crews. Numbers on the counters indicate defense value and movement points; attack strengths are a function of the weapon type and range, and are listed on a side table.

The artwork is serviceable, clearly conveying needed information though without much in the way of flourish. Informational counters likewise show either unadorned words (damaged, incapacitated) or drawings of effects (craters, flames). Only a few colors are used (two shades of red and green), but again, while not fancy, they get the job done. The game comes entirely from the hand of Wayne Close, who, in addition to design, is credited with cover art, rulebook art, and map and counter graphics.

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Doctor Who Project: Jon Pertwee Retrospective

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In more ways than one, Jon Pertwee brought a touch of color to Doctor Who.

Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor

Beyond the obvious switch to color broadcasting (or, perhaps more properly for the source material, colour broadcasting) in his inaugural season, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor stands as a bright figure, sartorially resplendent in velour overcoats and equally as boisterous in manner, whether under the spotlights of Television Centre or floodlit on location in some quarry. He commands attention, always seeking (and usually claiming) the camera’s eye, earning him a well-deserved reputation as a bit of a ham.

Indeed, once we saw Pertwee wrestle with a tentacle in his very first story, we knew that more had changed than just the black and white filming. This willingness to indulge in the over-the-top, from the wardrobe to the acting to the plots themselves, announces a signal shift in the series, with a more “modern” sensibility.

The first of many gurns

Yet, unlike the rather jarring tonal change from William Hartnell’s bristly First Doctor to Patrick Troughton’s impish Second Doctor, the Third Doctor amalgamates the two prior incarnations seamlessly—he is at once given to brooding and moralizing while still quick with a Venusian karate chop and a cutting bon mot, often simultaneously. He is an old soul in a new-ish body.

As a result, long-time viewers see that the Third Doctor comes directly from this lineage; the character makes sense as a scion, so to speak, of this illustrious Gallifreyan family, even as all else seems to change around him on Doctor Who. So where the shift from Hartnell to Troughton required transitional figures (Polly and Ben) to shepherd the audience into the strange, new regeneration, the Third Doctor arrives alone.

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Table for One: Murmansk 1941 (Decision Games/S&T) After-Action Report

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Murmansk 1941 (Decision Games/Strategy & Tactics 194, 1999)
Scenario One: The First Attack, July, 1941 After-Action Report

Overview

The first of three scenarios in Decision Games’ Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941, titled The First Attack, July, 1941, covers the initial German movement by the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions from their positions near Petsamo (modern-day Pechenga) towards Soviet defensive positions held by border guard units and the 14th and 52nd Rifle Divisions along the Titovka River. The scenario lasts for twenty-four turns of indeterminate length, but each turn is probably less than a day, most likely twelve hours.

Murmansk 1941, German approach to the Titovka River

Victory in the scenario depends on occupation of two key locations—Titovka and Ura Guba, each worth 10 VP each to the side to last control it—with the Soviets earning an additional 10 VP if the Germans do not manage to cross the Litsa River. The Soviets earn a further 3 VP for each German step reduced, with the Germans earning a single VP for Soviet step reductions and 2 VP for eliminating a Soviet HQ unit.

Two optional rules were used for this playthrough: Formation Effectiveness, which shows the ebb and flow of divisional effectiveness as it engages in combat (usually through die roll modifiers to combat); and Auto-Victory, granting all combats at an odds ratio of 7:1 or better with an automatic elimination of the defender’s units with no losses to the attacker. Both optional rules favor the Germans, and they were used for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Initial Thoughts

Right off the bat, the Soviets hold a 20 VP advantage by controlling the two victory locations. To make matters worse for the German player, even a twenty-four turn scenario provides hardly near enough time to reach the furthest objective, Ura Guba, which sits a full fifty-one hexes from the German start lines. Certainly it’s feasible in theory; at a top speed of twelve hexes per turn, a German bicycle battalion could get there in five turns flat. But there’s the little matter of two Soviet divisions lined up along the length of the road to contend with…

With stacking limited to two units per hex in most cases, the single road threatens to jam up far too quickly for both German divisions, so my thought was to start one German division further south to draw Soviet forces towards them, hopefully thinning out the road defenses a bit. By threatening a Litsa crossing (worth 10 VP denied to the Soviets), they might allow the other division to attack a thinner defense.

Compounding German difficulties, the Combat Results Table threatens to harm the attacker almost as much as the defender, with the attacker susceptible to mandatory step losses on the higher odds columns. Throw in the doubling of losses when as few as six full strength units (attack and defense) participate in a combat and, in conjunction with the far greater VP the Soviets gain for German step losses, it’s a hard row to hoe indeed.

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