Almost the entire year had gone by and I hadn't been to a single wargame convention in 2014. GMT weekend in the spring didn't work out when I had to cancel at the last minute because of a work conflict. I didn't go to Consimworld in early June because it was at the same time as our trip to Peru. That was an easy tradeoff to make. GMT weekend in the fall was the same weekend as Sandy's trip to Virginia Beach. I opted to go with her and we had a fun weekend on the coast. But finally I was going to be able to make it to BottosCon in November.
BottosCon is a wargame convention in Vancouver, British Columbia organized by...wait for it...Rob Bottos. I attended in 2013 and had a good time. The driving time from Boise is about the same as to Hanford, California for GMT weekend - ten hours. The only concern is the weather. Driving over the Cascades in winter conditions can be tough. And they get plenty of wintry weather in the Cascades in November. Still, since I hadn't been to a wargame convention yet this year I was determined to go.
This year the convention had a new website on Google Groups and it was really nice. There were active conversations on the forum that allowed players to find opponents and to make proposals for games that they wanted to play. There was also a spreadsheet of gaming events, either multiplayer games or playtests of new games, that players could sign up for. It was easy to make contact and arrange games with some of the people that I knew from last year's BottosCon or from previous GMT weekends, as well as new players that I hadn't met but who were looking for games. A full month before the convention I was booked day and night for the whole three days and wished that I had time for more. There were still more people that I wanted to connect with and playtests that I wanted to join. Hey Rob! How about making BottosCon four days long next year? For that matter, why don't you make it a whole week?
On the day of departure I was up super early and hit the road at about 5 am. Unlike last year when the weather was marginal for the trip to Vancouver, it was fine this year. I had no problems crossing either the Blues or the Cascades and made good time. Even the border crossing into Canada was fast. When I got there, no one was in line. I just drove right up to the immigration checkpoint. Of course, I wasn't looking forward to the conversation.
The lady asked the standard question "Why are you traveling to Canada?"
"To attend a wargame convention." Last year this was where I got funny looks. The agent had looked at my passport to double check my age, then at me. The cognitive dissonance was clear on her face as she tried to reconcile my age with my answer. This year the conversation took a different turn.
"Are you carrying any firearms?"
"Any weapons of any kind?"
"Do you own any firearms?."
"Come on. You're from Idaho. Everyone in Idaho owns guns."
She did have a point. Now I was kind of stuck for a good answer.
"Not me. In the election last week I even voted Democratic. I think that I was the only person in the state that did." That seemed to be good enough for her and she let me through.
From the border it didn't take long to reach the hotel. This year I knew where I was going and it was early and traffic was light. It was only 3pm when I checked in at the main desk. Once I was settled in I walked over to Guildford Mall. Dinner in the food court tasted pretty good since I hadn't eaten all day. I even did some shopping. I found two Christmas presents for Sandy. I picked up some gloves for myself since winter was just around the corner. At stores in Canada you can find an extensive selection of anything that you need for winter. Then it was back to my room to read rules for my game the next day.
My first game on Friday afternoon was Next War in Lebanon, a game about a hypothetical, third invasion of Lebanon by Israel in the present day. The game was published in the magazine Modern War. Usually there aren't many magazine games played at a conventinon but I've been interested in modern day conflicts in the Middle East, especially low-intensity conflicts, since my sons have done deployments in the Middle East. My friend Ralph Shelton from Seattle was going to be at BottosCon and since he subscribes to Modern War, he was up for giving it a try.
Another reason that I was interested in trying the game was that it was designed by Brian Train, one of the designers of A Distant Plain. It's a COIN series game on the modern conflict in Afghanistan that I have played quite a bit and really like. Since Brian lives in Victoria, BC he usally attends BottosCon.
When I looked up Next War in Lebanon on the web I learned that there was some controversy around the game. Apparently the publisher, Decision Games, made a lot of unilateral changes to the design before it was published without getting back to the designer about it. When Brian saw that I had listed the game on the events sheet for the convention he contacted me to suggest that I use his original rule set for the game. I had already read about it on his blog. In fact I had downloaded the rules, made an alternate set of counters using his order of battle and printed the original map. So Ralph and I played the game as Brian had designed it rather than as it was finally published.
We ended up having a see-saw game. When we started, both Ralph and I figured that the IDF should win easily. That's how it went for a while. Then I figured out an approach that made it swing the other way and I got the win. Brian did stop by to look in on our game and we even made it to his blog. After I got back to Boise I posted a rules question on boardgamegeek and found out from Brian that we had made a major rules error (not an uncommon occurrence the first time that you play a new game). It turned out that some of the tactics I used against the Israelis weren't quite kosher (ha! ha!). I'm looking forward to trying the game some more to really get a good assessment of it. So far I haven't had any luck getting an opponent here in Boise because everyone has been busy with the holidays.
After a mad dash to McDonald's for lunch/dinner, I had a game of Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, a classic that I have played many times. My opponent was Andrei Filip. It was Andrei's first time at BottosCon so I hadn't met him before. I played the Romans and thought I would have an easy win when Andrei made an early error due to some rules confusion about crossing the straits of Messina. Hannibal ended up out of position and never did cross the Alps. But Andrei fought tenaciously and I had trouble making any headway in Spain. It was a close finish. I even used the dreaded "Messenger Intercepted" card to get a double card play at the very end of the game. But it wasn't quite enough. I couldn't manage to get the last province that I needed and the game ended with control even at nine each - a Carthaginian victory. As always with Hannibal, we had a fun and exciting game. At the end of the first very long day I had one win and one loss.
Even though our game of Hannibal finished at almost midnight, when I got back to my room I had to spend time studying rules. Next morning first thing was a game of Fire in the Lake, a COIN game on Vietnam. It was organized by Dan Cary, who I knew from GMT weekends. He and I had played several COIN games (A Distant Plain and Andean Abyss) before. This was my first FitL game so it was a learning experience for me. I had the ARVN and with the US did quite well against the Communists. Unfortunately my US partner did better than I and got the win. I was solidly in second place, what we wargamers call "First Loser". But I enjoyed the game and am looking forward to playing it more. This one should be easier to find opponents in Boise who are willing to play so I hope to get more games in soon. I have already started a PBEM game on Vassal too.
For afternoon/evening I was scheduled to play Dave Lifford in a playtest of Wellington's War but he was tied up in a playtest of a game-that-will-probably-be-called Pendragon. It's a new COIN-system game of warfare among the British tribes after the Romans, which was being run by Ralph, who is the developer of the game. When it was clear that they wouldn't finish that evening I played a game of Twilight Struggle with Dan. He was thouroughly trouncing me. On the last turn, he was at eighteen VP's when he slipped and played "Missile Envy". The card he pulled out of my hand was "Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007". It decreased the Defcon and since it was already at two, it caused Thermonuclear War and lost the game for him. After having been outplayed all through the game, I almost felt badly to get a miracle win at the very end. Not badly enough to not take it though.
Although it was late when I got to my room, I had to study rules again for the next day. I was scheduled for a playtest of Wellington's War, a game on the peninsular campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. This is a game that I was really interested to try. Wellington from GMT is a card-driven game on the peninsular campaign and is a favorite that I have played many times. But it only covers the later part of the campaign from 1812 onward. WW starts at the beginning in 1808. I had seen an early version of the game at Consimworld back in 2011 and was excited about it. A hex-map block game promised to play very differently than a point-to-point CDG like Wellington. So I was anxious to try it and see how close it was to being finished. Dave Lifford played the French while I took the Coalition. We played all afternoon, right to the end of the convention at 6 pm, but only got about half way through the full campaign. Most of the time was due to us fumbling with the rules (I'm always slow learning a new game) and it was helpful having the publisher, Jeff Tibbets, there to answer questions. I didn't do very well as the Coalition but still it was a lot of fun. We did manage to come up with one unique situation, when an event placed the Lines of Torres Vedras even though the French occupied Lisbon! Still I really enjoyed the game. It was a lot of fun and seemed really close to being ready to publish. Jeff was very gracious and gave me a copy of the game for participating in the playtest, although I ended up buying two other games from him.
That was the 2014 BottosCon. I played from when the doors opened at noon on Friday until about ten minutes before they closed on Sunday. I was barely able to grab something to eat in between games. This was probably the most fun of any wargame convention that I have attended. I got to play against some guys I knew from other conventions that I had attended, and made some new friends as well. Getting to see new games under development, talk to designers and developers and participate in playtesting was fun too. And what's a wargame convention if you don't pick up some new wargames from the publishers there and at the swap meet. I got a good deal on a perfect, unpunched copy of Field Commander: Napoleon as well as getting several of Brian Train's DTP games on low intensity conflict. I am particularly interested in trying out Shining Path, which is about the fight against the Communist insurgency in Peru since the 1980's. During our trip to Peru earlier this year, I heard a lot of stories about the conflict from people who lived there.
I had the whole day on Monday to travel home. Unusual at this time of year, the forecast for the entire Pacific Northwest was for high pressure, clear skies and sunshine. To take advantage of the conditions, I thought that if I could get up and leave super early on Monday, I could drive the North Cascades Highway on the way back. That's not the fastest route home and would probably add about four hours to the trip, but it would give me some great views of the mountains in North Cascades National Park. At least, that's what I thought on Sunday night. At four in the morning on Monday, which is when I needed to get up, it didn't seem like such a good idea. I rolled over and went back to sleep. After three days of hard wargaming and three short nights studying rules, I didn't manage the alpine start that I needed. I guess I'm getting old.
Going home I had to face another border crossing and this time I had to wait in line for a whole hour. I was expecting more embarrassing questions. Sure enough, it started out just the way that I expected.
"What did you do in Canada?"
"I was at a wargame convention."
At this point the immigration guy looked into the car. In the backseat was a box with all my games. Twilight Struggle happened to be the one in front that he could see when he looked in.
"Did you play Twilight Struggle?"
"How did you do?"
"I was lucky and won as the Soviets."
"Cool! I love that game! Hey, if you have time, check out the game store in Lyndon. It's really good."
With that he waved me through. Ok, that was unexpected. A border agent who was a wargamer. Maybe I should have asked him for his email address and we could have played Twilight Struggle PBEM.
After that it was an easy drive home. I had a beautiful view of Mt. Baker from the interstate south of Bellingham that made me wish I had been able to get that early start. Still, it had been an awesome trip.