WashingCon 2017 After Action Report

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The third time, as they often say, is the charm. WashingCon, Washington, DC’s premier gaming convention, has come and gone again, an agreeable and essential ritual on the local gaming calendar. The convention, started in 2015, no longer takes place in a small church hall playing host to a hundred or so people. And yet, even as it has reached its third year, with nearly a thousand attendees and the space to hold them all comfortably, it retains that personal touch, thanks in no small part to the organizers and volunteers, including the owner and staff of the District’s finest local game store, Labyrinth Games. It is, bar none, the friendliest and most welcoming game convention I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.

For this, my third WashingCon, I attended with good gaming buddies Doug Bush and Joe Jackson, as well as Joe’s son. We started with a pair of matches of Quartermaster General 1914, a light Euro/wargame mash-up on World War One in Europe from PSC Games. It’s mostly a card management game with a well-integrated theme, using an ever-dwindling supply of cards to both drive the action and as a resource to pay for those actions.

Quartermaster General 1914 at WashingCon 2017

As an engine for understanding history, the game doesn’t quite deliver—one match wound up with an Austro-Hungarian fantasy outcome, the other with the Ottomans rampant across much of the Mediterranean—but accurate historical simulation isn’t promised on the tin. As a quick playing game that came down to the wire in both of our matches, Quartermaster General 1914 provides an agreeable experience that’s easy to learn and with more nuance than the iffy plastic bits portend.

Next up, Doug unveiled one of the prides of his game collection, the third edition of High Frontier, Phil Eklund’s (in)famous game of space exploration. Lavishly produced, this edition stopped many passers-by in their tracks. Those who knew the game tended towards amazement at actually seeing it get played; those unfamiliar with its Hohmann Pivots, Lagrange Points, and solar winds tended towards amazement that anyone could decipher the board.

High Frontier Third Edition at WashingCon 2017

And, in truth, it takes a lot of staring before one can really begin to read the map’s secrets. Though there’s definitely a game here, I tend to see High Frontier as closer to an experience, since just figuring out how to get a rocket off of Earth, let alone giving it enough fuel to traverse the gravity wells of other planets, becomes a triumph in and of itself, regardless of what everyone else at the table is doing. I managed to colonize Mercury and set up a factory on the Moon by the end, but I think Joe’s son took to it the most. By the end of the session, he was flinging a well-constructed space probe around Saturn’s rings and moons with rather some skill. And thanks to WashingCon’s absurdly generous game giveaway this weekend, he even took home a copy for himself.

The evening rounded out in a very odd playthrough of Battlestar Galactica with two of Doug’s acquaintances in attendance. The Cylon raiders left the humans alone for several jumps, leading to the inevitable in-fighting amongst the humans (and non-revealed Cylons). By the time all three Cylons were revealed (thanks to the sympathizer rules for six player games), the humans began to lose hope, but they (we, I should say, since I was no toaster!) came within one jump of winning. I find Battlestar Galactica to be a game that I really enjoy playing, but only every so often. Once or twice a year, with the right group, feels just about sufficient, and this group was great, with precisely the right level of recrimination at the end.

Day two of WashingCon was a short one for us, but Doug and I revisited World War One with the recently released Illusions of Glory from GMT Games. As the name suggests, Illusions of Glory is a card-driven, point-to-point treatment in the vein of the venerable Paths of Glory. This game covers the fighting in the East, with the Russians, Serbs, and Montenegrins fighting the Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and Ottomans.

Illusions of Glory at WashingCon 2017

It’s pretty standard card-driven gaming fare, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting, and there are nice rules wrinkles to add a bit of piquancy. We only played about five turns of the full campaign (so into Spring of 1915), but it was enough for the Germans to take Warsaw, and my plucky Montenegrins held out in their redoubt at Cetinje. This one will definitely hit the table again for the entire campaign game.

My thanks to Doug, Joe, and his son for a really solid weekend of gaming. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t extend my appreciation to the entire staff of WashingCon for their efforts. This fine city of ours had long needed a gaming convention, and when WashingCon came on the scene, they provided more than a place for us to play games for a day or two. They created a community.

Now if only they could open the main gaming room earlier in the day on Sunday for those of us who overnight at the convention site, it would be perfect…

The G-Man Revisited: Mangialardo & Sons

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Back in early 2011, I reviewed the iconic G-Man sub from revered Washington, DC, sandwich shop Mangialardo & Sons on Capitol Hill. My experience wasn’t the greatest, but I have a respect for sandwich places that have managed to survive for decades with essentially the same menu the whole time, so I vowed to go back.

It took me a few years, but I’ve recently been twice more, getting the G-Man each time. This time around, I was in gustatory revels. Where the initial sandwich in 2011 was indifferently constructed, these recent subs were crafted with care, down to the tight wrapping in butcher’s paper, a dying art form in its own right.

The G-Man from Mangialardo & Sons

At $6.50, this sub was loaded with salami, ham, mortadella, and mozzarella, all of high quality. The roll was decent, though not spectacular, and the toppings were fine and applied judiciously. I’m almost pleased that it’s a thirty-five minute round trip walk to the store from my place, as I could see making this place a habit.

My boon companion speaks highly of both the tuna salad and the meatball subs, so they’re not just a cold cut establishment. The menu isn’t extensive, but they focus on what they do best—putting meat in a roll.

Besides, you have to love a sub shop whose scanned paper take out menu (.pdf) appears to have grease stains on it.

Grandmother Goes to Washington: DC's Pizza Parts & Service

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The team behind Taylor Gourmet recently unveiled their new entry in the Washington, DC, pizza wars, the awkwardly titled Pizza Parts & Service, named in honor of the location’s prior use as a garage. Makes you glad they didn’t take over a fishmongers. The location more recently housed the lamented Taylor Steak & Ice, purveyors of a most satisfactory rendition of the Philly Cheesesteak. After sampling one of PP&S’s pies, I kind of wish they’s stuck with the steaks.

Grandmother style pizza from Pizza Parts and Service

I ordered delivery for one of the suggested combinations, the #2—pepperoni, sautéed onions and peppers, pepperonici, mozzarella, and pecorino romano—”nonna” style. These grandmother style pies are generously topped, and the quality of ingredients, a Taylor hallmark, can’t be beat. As befits a grandmother pie, the cheese browned properly at the edges, making the corner slices the ones to grab. At $24 delivered (before tip), it’s about on par with other high-end pizza joints, but if you try to configure your own pie, you’ll quickly run up a serious bill. Circular pizzas are also available, but the “nonna” is the real gimmick here, a style mostly unavailable locally.

The pie was good, but it didn’t quite make it to great. Never let it be said that I oppose grease on a pizza, as I still fondly recall the sheening pools that formed on the pies at one of DC’s finest pizza dives, Vesuvius, but the “nonna” had just a bit too much relative to the crust’s ability to carry it. I realize that this kind of pie uses a fair bit of oil in the dough, but I was hoping for something closer to the tomato pies one finds in Philadelphia, which share a similar crumb but don’t have that much grease. Perhaps I’m just not a fan of the grandmother style.

In any event, the Taylor team has served up a fine addition to the DC pizza landscape in Pizza Parts & Service, but with other mid- to high-end options out there that are less expensive for the build-your-own camp (albeit without quite the quality of toppings), I’ll stick with my usual pizza delivery service while impatiently awaiting the promised arrival of cheesesteaks on the Taylor Gourmet menu.

A Silver Thread: Washington Metro's New Map

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This past Thursday, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority unveiled the new Metrorail map, featuring the first phase of the soon-to-open Silver Line. The map, thankfully, looks very much like the original, only with the Silver Line threaded in between the Orange and Blue Lines, providing a nice contrast and emphasizing that the Silver Line runs on the main East/West core route for much of its run.

Detail of Final Silver Line Map from http://planitmetro.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Final-Map-without-addresses-07-13-600x671.png

While Metro’s map may not be quite as iconic as the London Underground’s map, the relatively clean look of it is unmistakable at a glance. Even video games set in Washington use riffs on the snaking colored lines to conjure up the map without having to get permission to use the real thing, as in Fallout 3.

Fallout 3 Metro Map

Metro brought the original designer, Lance Wyman, back to revise the map, and according to Metro’s blog, PlanItMetro, he and his design team made the following adjustments:

  • Made street abbreviations consistent
  • Improved the geographic accuracy of the stations where possible
  • New icon for stations that are serviced by three rail lines: the traditional station dot with white extenders
  • Made the rail lines 24% thinner to ensure room for the Silver Line
  • Added the Anacostia National Park
  • Added the Metro Transit Police phone number
  • Added a note that the map is not to scale
  • Lightened the Beltway and jurisdiction borders to improve readability

I’m quite pleased with the final result. There’s a high density of information on the map, but it’s not cluttered at all. One perhaps wishes that the station names didn’t overlap the iconography of the monuments, but that’s a small quibble. I look forward to seeing the full-size versions of the new maps on trains and in stations soon.

(Image via PlanItMetro.)

Philly on the Potomac: Cheesesteak from Taylor Charles Steak & Ice

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Far and wide in this country, you find sandwich shops and corner takeouts and bland chain restaurants offering “Philadelphia Cheesesteaks” on their menus. But they’re not real cheesesteaks. Slathering cheese on chopped meat does not magically yield a cheesesteak any more than stuffing cold cuts into a hard roll causes a hoagie to appear. Without proper ingredients, preparation, and construction, you just have a sandwich.

And while I’m capable of enjoying a sub (though always wishing it were a hoagie), I’m incapable of enjoying the faux cheesesteaks that have been foisted upon an unsuspecting populace by shops outside the greater Philadelphia area.

So when the founders of DC’s Taylor Gourmet, purveyors of fine, and authentic, Philadelphia sandwiches, opened their cheesesteakerie, Taylor Charles Steak & Ice at the end of 2012, I was hopeful yet wary. Their hoagies, roast porks, and chicken cutlets could well pass muster on any Philadelphia street corner, but for all their apparent simplicity, cheesesteaks require some significant griddle work. No matter how good your ingredients and intentions, you can’t fake it.

It’s not just chopping the meat while cooking it; there’s a flow to getting the meat to the proper consistency while folding in the cheese and grilled onions and scooping it all into the soft roll. Nailing the cheesesteak requires training and lots of it, and if you’re not moving enough volume over your griddle, you’ll never be able to replicate the “just-in-time” cheesesteak that the premier joints up in Philly turn out in consistently amazing quantity and quality.

My uncertainty kept me from making the trek up to H Street. Plus, they offer a “fixings bar” with mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, and mayo. Just, no. Such condiments never go on a cheesesteak. But once they offered delivery, I knew I had to give them a chance. And they nailed it.

Ribeye wit' Provolone Cheesesteak from Taylor Charles Steak and Ice

Precision is paramount to the Philadelphia sandwich aficionado. As I experienced with my first hoagie from the Taylor team, the proportions and construction of this ribeye wit’ provolone were spot on. Not too many onions, not too much cheese—the steak remains paramount. The cheese was delivered into the roll, coating the soft bread and melding all the flavors, rather than sitting uselessly on top. The good-quality ribeye was chopped finely but not so fine that it lacked texture. The addition of some long hots for a buck helped add a bit of heat and an additional textural counterpoint. (And yes, adding hot peppers to a cheesesteak is quite properly Philly; all the cheesesteak joints up there have them available.)

The roll held up quite agreeably, with a nice, chewy give, and kept all the ingredients together from first bite to last. Not quite an Amoroso, the Philadelphia cheesesteak standard, but a very close approximation.

This home-grown roll works far better than the hard rolls they bake for Taylor Gourmet. My last several sandwiches there were made slightly less enjoyable by those rolls, which impart their own taste, somewhat sweet, into the mix. Hoagie rolls need to be sturdy, blank canvases, and while I would happily eat a Sarcone’s roll alone, significant taste is not their role (only slight pun intended). Taylor’s switch from Sarcone’s rolls to their own recipe makes sense—it’s an understandably unsustainable business model, given the volume and the potential for logistical disaster—but I still long for a more neutral hard roll from them. The soft roll for their cheesesteaks makes up for it, though.

I have it on good authority that the homemade “white whiz” also earns high marks. My culinary counterpart had the ribeye wit’ white whiz and was duly impressed. I’m strictly a provolone guy, so I’ll have to take her word for it.

Simply put, the folks at Taylor Charles Steak & Ice have put together the best cheesesteak this side of the Schuylkill. Good value, great ingredients, careful preparation. All I need now is a gruff voice on the other end of the phone when I place a delivery order and it’s like I’m in Philly . . .

My First Friday Night Magic

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I’m a wargamer from way back, a good twenty-five years at this point. Never dabbled much in minis, play a ton of Euros, and own a nice collection of role playing game materials. I consider myself broad-minded in my gaming interests. But collectible card games? No, thank you.

The perceived wisdom amongst the chit-and-paper-map crowd is that CCGs are money sinks with constantly changing rules and a mostly adolescent (or adolescent-acting) audience. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who got sucked into a CCG and abandoned the true faith, ranting instead about mana screws and the superiority of a red/black control deck.

Still, the grandfather of all CCGs, Magic: The Gathering, has been around for almost twenty years now, and my experiences with some of the computerized versions (notably Duels of the Planeswalkers on the 360) revealed a significant depth of play. The customizable (read: collectible) nature of the card decks, the millions of potential randomized interactions with another customized deck, and the elegant basic rules intrigued me. Luck plays a role, but it’s mitigated by strategy. There’s some good gaming to be had here.

Oh, yeah. A Mythic Rare!

So, having some free time on a recent Friday, I took the plunge and visited my new Fine Local Game Store on Capitol Hill here in Washington, DC, Labyrinth, and participated in their Sealed Deck Friday Night Magic tournament. The Sealed Deck aspect was key—you buy the booster packs you play with on the spot, a twenty dollar outlay, and use those and those alone the whole night. No need to spend hundreds on a competitive deck with the new flavor of the week card. The event, a “sanctioned” tournament in Wizards of the Coasts’ international tournament structure, was well run, and while there were quite a few seriously competitive players showing off their binders with thousands of cards, everyone seemed pleased to interact with the more casual attendees. I got in four hours of play, met some decent people, and thoroughly enjoyed myself for a minimal expenditure. And now I’ve got some cards to build a deck with if I want to keep playing.

I can easily see how the game becomes addictive. There’s a thrill in opening a sealed booster pack and hoping for a rare card, and every new card adds to the potentials for your deck. Even the constantly changing cards (many of which become ineligible for tournament-level play after a year or so) make sense from a play standpoint—the speed with which you can play matches (fifteen minutes each) can make the extant cards seem stale after months of gaming with them. Most of the people I met didn’t play other games, so keeping their gaming experience fresh is both profitable for Wizards and enjoyable for the consumer.

So, while I may not be a convert to the Church of Magic, I think I’ll attend Friday Night Magic at Labyrinth when I can if they’re running Sealed formats. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to inventory my cards and see about buying some sleeves . . .