Friday, August 31, 2012

Orkid's Song, Chapter 1

Part 1. Michael, Thursday, June 4th. 3:21pm

When people think ‘government agent’ I’m pretty sure my photo isn’t the one that comes to mind. I am, at best, unprepossessing. Basic stats are five foot six, brown hair, green eyes, and an off-the-rack suit that manages to look formal without style. If my appearance doesn’t get me confused with James Bond, my current assignment would definitely destroy the public’s preconceptions.

Auto accidents are noisy and annoying. Road kill is messy and filled with potential paperwork. Not profound I know, but that’s what was going through my head as the plastic sheeting was removed from the victim’s remains, or I should say alleged victim. That’s the danger of being a government employee, you start viewing every investigation in terms of how much effort it will take to close the file.

The assistant coroner started to say something in a tone that promised dire consequences. Distractedly I raised one rubber gloved hand and cut her short while looking down at the cause of my current headache.

Yoshiro Takamura had once been a powerful man. Now he was flat and dead, very much the worse for wear. Being hit by a city bus had definitively ended his life. The state of his corpus wasn’t what I was here for though. One dead foreign dignitary, no matter how powerful, was not something my office gets involved with. One dead man with a tattoo matching that of other recently dead dignitaries, all of whom have connections to a mysterious secret society, that my office takes note of.

I lifted the man’s arm carefully and looked at the inside of his bicep. The expected tattoo was there, the ink mixing with postmortem bruising to the point where the discoloration could be easily overlooked by an inatentive examiner.

“A bird, in flight through clouds, possibly a swan, marked in ink inside the left armpit. Victim is otherwise unmarked with the exception of the trauma from the collision.”

I spoke the words clearly so the recorder in my breast pocket would catch my observations.

“Sir, the autopsy is not finished. You are contaminating the process.”

Sara, as her name tag proclaimed, glared at me accusingly.

“Sara, what is, in your professional opinion, the purpose of an autopsy?”

“Well, obviously to establish cause of death as well as other peripheral details, relative to an investigation concerning the deceased.”

Her tone was what my mother might have charitably called Acerbic.

“Have you done a tox screen, taken pictures of the body, all that sort of thing?”

“Of Course. But I...”

“And in your professional opinion is there any question as to how this man died beyond the testimony of fifteen witnesses and three security cameras?”

“Well know, but that’s not...”

“Then Sara, let me offer you a piece of advice from one government employee to another.”

My voice remained calm and pleasant.

“When a federal agent shows up in your operating theater, asks to see a body, and starts taking notes, it’s in your best interest to give him what he wants. His presence means that there’s something about that body that a federal agency considers important. That means the agency wants you to do everything you can to get as much information about the situation as possible. If an agent, like say me for example, takes obvious steps to avoid contamination of the material, like say by putting gloves on, then that agent is trying to be considerate of your process. You’re better off giving them what they want. They’ll leave faster that way.”

I waved one considerately gloved hand at her for emphasis. I had what I wanted; there wasn’t any need to tick this lady off any further. I had more meaningful work to do than hassling a low level government drone anyway.

“Have a nice day Sara.”

“But sir, I don’t even have your name on the log...”

“Think of me as a ghost on a tax payer salary. I was never here, there’s no evidence I was ever here. I’m...The dread pirate Roberts.”

“The dread pirate who?”

As I through my gloves in a receptacle and exited the room I could hear her teeth grinding.

Puncturing peoples’ egos never loses its appeal; you just get better at it after the hundredth time or so. She deserved it anyway. I mean who doesn’t know The Princess Bride?

I left the morgue and retrieved my ride from visitor parking. The big SUV was one of the perks of working for homeland security. I investigate fringe groups who claim paranormal facility. Basically, my job is to keep tabs on potentially violent extremist groups who feel that they can do magic and bend spoons with their brains. Officially, my division does not confirm or deny the existence of the supernatural. We do however acknowledge that there are people who, as a result of their delusions, have the potential to do harm to their fellow man. It’s not as far fetched as you might think. A basic knowledge of chemistry combined with some showmanship can allow a person to do—magic—. People who think they’ve slipped the bounds of the physical world have very few qualms about slipping the bounds of the legal world; the more so when spurred to action by said theatrically minded chemist.

The morg had been my last stop before returning to the office to file the day’s findings. I was in a good mood. I’d taken the scenic route back to work, I had a confirmed clue, and I had put an officious functionary in her place. That is a good day’s work in my book.

HQ is a weathered antebellum home surrounded by shady trees and historic buildings. DHS rents it from the parks service, in a sort of incestuous tax sharing agreement. After parking my ride I crossed the whitewashed boards of the porch and went straight to my second floor office. My boss was waiting for me, perched like a malevolent garden gnome on the edge of my desk.

Nicholas Ragged is a dapper man, his suit cut perfectly, his tie knotted just-so with a Windsor knot, his shoes buffed till the distressed leather seems to glow. He’s also an honest-to-god midget.

“Michael, it’s about time. Sit down; stop looming over me before I report you to HR for creating a hostile work environment.”

His grin was honest enough to show that he appreciated the joke. His eyes weren’t laughing enough to let me get away with following his lead. Over the years I’ve seen him use his diminutive stature to put people off guard or at ease as it suits him, all the while bending them to his will. He plays office politics like Machiavelli with a charisma overdose, and he does right by his people. That’s about the highest praise I am capable of giving to a man who drives his employees as hard as Old Nick. I rounded the desk and sat in my office lounger.

“Agent, report.”

I hate those words. They mean school is in session, and its quiz time. I hate quizzes. You wouldn’t think a guy who barely tops four feet could intimidate a man a foot and a half his senior, but Nicky always reminds me of a little Italian lady I had as an English teacher. She just knew, without doubt, that she was the biggest, most dominant person in that room, and we all just believed along with her. Nicky is like that. He uses it like a weapon. I sat down and looked up at my boss from across the surface of my desk, the incongruity of his legs dangling over the edge seeming less amusing than it might have under other circumstances.

“I checked out the body at the morgue. Takamura matches with all the others, same pen-and-ink style tattoo, same lack of evidence of fowl play. I’ve looked over his personal effects, questioned witnesses, and I’m about to check the security tapes from the two corner stores and the ATM. Either someone is planting the ritual items, or we’re dealing with a professional hitter whose using techniques far beyond anything I’ve ever seen. The links between the deceased are solid as a rock, but, beyond the fact that they all have personal tattoos in the same style, they all were carrying possible ritual paraphernalia which doesn’t track back to any mainstream religion, and they were all of Japanese descent, all I’ve got is circumstantial. These people, they were all rich, powerful, well educated and in good standing. They seem to have had no contact with each other. Maybe there’s a link from their backgrounds I’m not aware of, the Japanese authorities have been reticent about disclosing personal details about their VIPs, but, there’s nothing solid that links them all.”

I remained at attention while my boss let what I had told him sink in.

“Sanchez is analyzing the ritual items for traceable materials and chemical evidence. The state department is, unhappy with our progress, but I’ve got them on hold for the moment. Someone is trying to discredit select Japanese businessmen for reasons unknown, we have a cereal killer on hand who has a taste for members of a cabal, or we’ve got some kind of gang warfare going on bushido style. I’m assigning Sanchez to you for the duration of this investigation.”

I groaned inwardly. Sanchez is one of the department’s best scientific investigators. He has multiple degrees in engineering, chemistry, biology, and physics. He also really gets on my nerves. I’m convinced that a person’s amount of coolness is inversely proportional to the amount of academic data stored in one’s gray matter. I could use him, but I was going to have to buy a muzzle for the guy and a bottle of scotch for me.

“Sir, may I ask a procedural question?”

Nicky didn’t blink, didn’t twitch, and didn’t move a muscle, even though he had to know what was coming.

“Go ahead.”

“What is our interest in this matter? U.S. citizens are not, that we can tell, being targeted, if there is any violence occurring in the first place. I grant you there needs to be an investigation, if for no other reason than the Japanese government would demand that something be done, but that’s not the point. I have three other investigations requiring my attention, among them the Hackman compound group out in Montana. This is stretching my resources thin for a case where the chances of murder are slim, our national interest seems limited, and—frankly—even if there is a terrorist cell in place here, they’re the ones going down. I need some guidance so I can best prioritize my resources.”

My boss gave me an approving nod, as if I had passed some test.

“This investigation, it gets your entire focus. There are, facts that I am conversant with that lend this case a much higher priority than any individual federal agency would consider appropriate. You do the work. You follow the clues. You don’t ask me questions about things I can’t talk to you about because neither of us has a documented reason to know about them. This isn’t a C-Y-A operation. Find me the evidence, I’ll get you the resources you need and keep the wolves off your back. That’s the deal.”

He said this all in a cold, matter-of-fact voice, never changing expression. It was creepy. My boss had just told me that he knew things he wasn’t supposed to, things that if exposed would put both our heads on the chopping block. We operate with limited invulnerability. Being an arm of the government established to deal with issues like 9 11 and being conceived with broad based authority to circumvent normal agency politics, our actions are usually under the radar. Being in a part of that agency that isn’t really taken seriously, jokes about investigating David Copperfield are the least of the abuse I take from my coworkers, well let’s say I generally am insolated from the front line stuff that normal agency pukes have to deal with. If you’re CIA, FBI, NSA or any of the alphabet soup agents, one of the tuff parts of your job is that the media, congress, and the public have a nasty habit of second guessing you after the fact. Sure you’re protecting them all, but good intentions, road to hell...etc. In an obscure branch of a well known but low profile agency, I just don’t have to face that sort of thing very often.

“Understood Sir. I’ll proceed accordingly.”

“Good. Get some sleep tonight Michael. This is going to hit the fan, and when it does I need you at full capacity. Anything less than 110% is unacceptable. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes-Sir. Like crystal.”

“See that you don’t disappoint me Michael. You’re a good agent. I have plans for you, plans I can’t put in play if you’re in the hot-box before a congressional oversight committee.”

He jumped down from my desk top and left without any further motivational comments.

“And here I thought he died in a bunker at the end of the war.”

I muttered the comment after I was sure the little guy was gone, and even then I made sure to keep my voice down. Sadly, my bravery only extends to the challenging of minor functionaries. Nicky is the real deal, and I am not so tired of this life that I want to tell him how much I love his people skills to his face. I don’t like being the departmental mushroom. In this case though, it was probably for my own good. Tomorrow was Friday and that always cheered me up. Even if I was likely to spend the day watching security tapes and reading through witness statements, happy hour was less than 24 hours away. That’s always a reason to be of good cheer in my book.

I closed up shop and drove home listening to some Mavis Staples and Bob Dillon. I was going to have that scotch and follow orders straight into a good night’s rest. The way Nick was talking, it might be the last full night’s sleep I got for a while.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review of Dominion Intrigue


Like my review of the dominion core set, this review seems to have gained traction on Amazon. It’s reprinted here.

Dominion Intrigue is both a stand-alone game and an expansion for the original "Dominion" game published in 2008. Fans of the dominion core game will be right at home with this new set as the cards follow the established format. The only "new" rules are clarifications of common sense practices players would naturally intuit. The game is also a stand-alone set with all the required treasure and victory cards.

Game play is straight forward. Players start with identical 10 card decks. They add to their deck by buying and stealing cards from the central pool and from other players. Game play is a balance of building the necessary resources to purchase victory points, defending against the strategies of other players, and balancing the need to accumulate the highest victory point total with the fact that cards you buy in “intrigue” often end up in another player’s deck

What you get:

1. 250+ cards including 25 entirely new kingdom cards and a full compliment of coins, curses, victory points, and randomizer cards.

2. Card organizer.

3. Rule book.

The Intrigue box can accommodate between 2-4 players, though that number can be increased with the combination of other sets. There is no moderator and every player starts the game with the exact same cards and access to the exact same resources.

For those familiar with the Dominion core game, at first glance "Dominion Intrigue" looks fairly straightforward. This is however not the case. The intrigue set is more interactive than the core set, constantly requiring the players to make value based decisions. The feel of these cards is very group oriented. For example, the card Masquerade requires each player to select a card from their hand and pass it to the player to their left, with the active player being able to trash one card from their hand. Also, cards like Barron and Duke provide defined strategies from the very beginning of games for players who want to specialize. Other cards like great hall, Noble, and Harem act as victory point cards as well as coins or action cards. If this sounds complicated, it's not, but turns can take longer as many of the action cards require all the players to perform actions and make choices while others require the active player to follow a series of instructions. This set also requires the players to be much more aware of how many cards they have in their discard pile, deck, hand, in the kingdom card piles, and what other players are potentially holding than the original game. Play through the recommended scenarios a few times before randomizing; trust me its better that way.

For new players, this game is entirely accessible and a great deal of fun. It is however more complex than the original core set and as a result it takes longer to get the rules down and start slinging the cardboard. If you've played collectable card games like magic the gathering, you'll love this game. If you've never played a card game in your life, this is still a fantastic game worth picking up. I won't say that a new player has to start with the previous "dominion" set before playing "Dominion Intrigue." What I will say is that Intrigue is far easier to strategize and grasp after having played the original core set.

Personal impressions:

I don't think it's fair to compare Intrigue with the original set. The game experience with “Intrigue" is entirely different than that of the main set, keeping the established mechanics but using decision making and group dynamics to force a much more unified and group dependent competition. I've played tons of games with the previous set and although there are cards like militia and witch which certainly affect the other players in the group, my interest in what other players were doing was limited to what they were likely to be doing to me and who had started the end run for the provinces. Dominion Intrigue requires players to be--very--aware of what other players are doing and very aware of how their strategies are advancing at all times.

Another aspect of the game that is different is the feel of some of the cards when played. Previously, "attack cards" like witch, Militia, and burocrat were commonly played, to the detriment of all. Cards like the Thief and spy require the active player to make a decision regarding all the other players, again to their detriment. One of the most frustrating and defining qualities of Dominion Intrigue is that it forces the players to decide how they will take it on the chin, in essence to choose the method of their punishment. The feel of play is more personal than the play with the core set--because--cards like torturer and masquerade don't just hit everyone equally as the witch and militia do, they make the other players complicit in their own downfall. Add to this the fact that many cards alter or confiscate cards from decks, and the net affect is a set that often feels like you don’t have much control over what happens to you, or worse, you do and there aren’t always any good choices.

I like this game. It has great potential when the kingdom cards are combined with those of the previous set. As a stand alone game though it doesn't have the raw crack--like addictiveness that the previous set possesses. It's different--not worse--and the things that make it different make it less fun for my friends and I.

Review of Dominion


I originally wrote this review for Amazon. It seems to have picked up some traction, so I’m republishing it here.

Dominion is a deceptively simple game which encompasses endless variation. The basic game contains the following major components:

1. 25 groups of action cards, victory cards, and money cards, in total over 250 cards.

2. Card storage and organizer box designed specifically for organizing the game components.

3. The Rules.

Game Play:

A game starts with each player holding an identical 10 card deck. As the game begins a group of 10 special action cards are selected from the 25 categories in the box. The rules outline specific selections for scenario play or you can design your own lay out. There is no banker or moderator; all players start entirely equal with access to the exact same cards.

During each player's turn they may take actions and purchase new cards from the communal decks. Each player has to balance the need to buy new cards and money with the purchase of victory points (which remain in the player's deck but don't help them until points are totaled.) The decision of when to stop building one’s deck and start buying victory points is one of the most critical choices the player will make. Too early, and you’ll find yourself bogged down with a deck full of moderate victory cards while other players’ resources have increased to the point where they blow by you. If you wait too long, all of the good cards will have been bought out and you won’t have anything to spend your resources on.

I have to be honest, when I first heard about Dominion I didn't understand why my wife and several of our friends were so worked up over the thing. It sounded terribly dry, particularly to a person like myself who has played collectable card games like magic the gathering for many years. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Dominion has something for everyone, from the collectable card game nut, to the poker player, to the family looking for an alternative to trivial pursuit. Since everyone starts out with access to the same selection of cards and the same resources for advancement, everyone has an equal chance of victory. Because there are 10 different categories of action cards with each category having at least 10 cards in its pile, there is plenty of room for strategy as the game progresses and certain resources are bought up to the point of extinction.

The game is set up in such a way so that you can play cut throat games with lots of player-vs.-player actions or less interactive games where the victory is determined by who fields the most effective resource acquisition strategy. Those familiar with CCG drafting will feel right at home in this environment, while those with no card based gaming experience won't be at a disadvantage.

My only criticism of dominion (as has been said on several other forums) is that while the game is entirely self contained, I can easily see the cards (which are essential in exactly the numbers provided) wearing out or being lost. Because there are so many of them I recommend using card sleeves (available at most hobby stores from companies like rook and ultra pro.)

I started out one night thoroughly expecting to dislike this game and found myself 3 hours later wondering where the evening had gone. Dominion is completely addictive and doesn't loose its fun factor after the player has played multiple scenarios in one sitting.

Simply put, this is the best interactive casual game I've played in 32 years.


It’s four years later and I still endorse this game without reservation. The basic set is still just as fun as when I played for the first time, while the addition of other optional sets have magnified the enjoyment.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Why a pump shotgun may not be your best choice

The first firearm I ever bought was a shotgun. I wanted something reliable, customizable, durable, which could serve for hunting and self defense if the need arose. I turned to friends, manufacturers, experts, and internet forums for advice. The overwhelming majority of people said to get a pump shotgun and not look back. In fact, they said that I would regret getting anything else. I’m writing this so that somewhere out there in the vast ocean of pump pushers, there will be at least one voice of caution. Pump shotguns are great, but consider a few things before making that purchase.

Pumps are mechanically reliable. Their manually cycled actions are robust and less prone to feeding problems than comparable semiautomatics. But, mechanical reliability isn’t the same as practical reliability. In a high stress—loss of fine motor control situation, a moderately to poorly trained individual has a high probability of short-stroking a pump shotgun. I’ve managed it in non-stressful circumstances and I’m far from inexperienced. In fairness, the experts and shootists who tout the reliability of the pump mechanism are being entirely truthful. If you have years of experience working a pump action combined with professional training, a pump is as close to bomb-proof as you’re going to get without switching to a break open design. If however, you’re a new shooter with hours instead of years of trigger time, that reliability decreases substantially. New shooters haven’t developed the skills to load a shotgun on the fly, instinctively cycle the action, and clear FTEs and FTFs. So, while the machine remains reliable, the relative skill of the user may not.

Then there’s the question of the action itself. I think U.S. gun makers assume that the average shooter is a grayback guerilla. If you have long arms, a pump gun is considerably easier to work than if you have average arms like mine. Because of this, before buying a shotgun it is important that you shoulder the piece and work the slide. After a few cycles, check the reach to forend distance to make sure it’s comfortable. That is to say, that you can work the action without overextending your shoulder. Most manufacturers make youth models and aftermarket stocks for those with less herculean arms. If you can’t comfortably work the action, a shorter break action or semiautomatic may suit your needs better, especially since the length of pull for such guns is the only limiting factor.

Finally, let’s talk about weight; specifically the amount of lifting the support arm has to do to stabilize the front end of the shotgun, keep it welded to the shooter’s shoulder, and cycle the slide. The longer the barrel and the more rounds the magazine holds the more weight that is being propped up by the weak hand. The longer the length of pull, the farther from the shoulder that hand has to be to support that weight and work the slide. The resulting effort of holding up a full sized high—cap pump with extended barrel may be both uncomfortable and impractical for a shooter who wants to get consistent range time in with their new acquisition.

I am by no means attempting to disparage the venerable pump scattergun, quite the contrary. I believe that pump shotguns fill an important place in today’s market. With barrel replacements, they can be used effectively for hunting, self defense, clays, and many other applications. All that being said, the flexibility and relatively low cost of pump guns has caused the market to tout them as the solution to every problem. A well cared for semiautomatic is as reliable as a pump for practical purposes. If speed and magazine capacity aren’t an issue, a break open shotgun (in single, side-by-side, or over-under) is an even more reliable alternative to the pump mechanism. These comments don’t even take into account the lever and bolt action alternatives.

In summary, those who unreservedly recommend the pump shotgun to new shooters undoubtedly do so with the best of intentions. But, the practical reality of getting full value from that selection may prove more challenging than one might think.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review of the scottevest revolution plus jacket

Last year I found that I needed a real winter jacket. Maryland doesn’t have much bad weather (it’s rarely down to 0 and we don’t get that much snow.) Still, I found that most of my offerings were either not warm enough, not waterproof enough, or not really appropriate for the workplace. I’ve gotten by the last ten years on an old London fog trench coat and a gortex jacket with removable liner. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I needed something. My work schedule had changed and I was out in the weather more than in the past.

So I started looking around. What I wanted was a durable winter leather coat. I expected to pay some for it (I’m a big guy and cow hide aint cheap.) But the prices for what I was looking for were either beyond our reach or low enough that I wasn’t sure of the quality. I found my answer at a company called scottevest. They specialize in multiple pocket clothing that can be wired for earphones and other electronic devices.

I have a scottevest windbreaker and a wired fleece. They are of between middling to high quality. The fleece is very nice. I would buy more of them if they weren’t so expensive to begin with. The windbreaker has started to fray a bit but is still serviceable. It has tons of pockets which makes it one of my favorite warm weather jackets.

Enter the search for the almighty coat. I didn’t really want to get a scottevest coat; my second choice would have been an army surplus store or maybe old navy. Still, once I started looking through their products they grew on me. I had K look through the catalog and do a style check. We settled on the revolution+

“SeV Revolution Plus

Ideal for the winter traveler, the Revolution Plus is the warmest SeV ever. Whether it's traveling on a cold January day from Paris to London, or braving wind and snow in Sweden, our customers love the protection, adaptability and innovative pocket system this jacket offers. The breathable shell, sealed seams and quilted lining keep you warm and dry, and adjustment to temperature fluctuations is simple: just remove the hood and sleeves and pop them in a pocket!

Airline baggage fees don't apply to SCOTTEVEST clothing, so you can load up the 26 pockets with gloves, digital cameras, travel documents, cell phones, GPS units, flashlights, glasses, whatever you may need, and easily replace a carry-on. Revolution Plus utilizes our Weight Management System with NoBulge™ pocket design to conceal your goods. The iPadPocket™ to accommodate an iPad® (in sizes M and up) and clear touch interior pockets (so you can see and control your iPod®/iTouch®/iPhone® right through the cloth) are additional reasons to love the Revolution Plus Jacket!

Who says the best thing on a cold day is a hot bowl of soup?

Available in Black, made of a water-resistant material with sealed seams.”

With that description who wouldn’t be interested? I viewed several reviews which seemed to bare out the manufacturer’s high opinion of the product. I ordered my own just before Christmas and have been wearing it ever since.


The revolution+ is a medium weight jacket built for the technology savvy traveler who wants insulation, water resistance, flexibility, and a metric ton of storage options. It features a light but very warm quilted lining, a water resistant outer material, 26 distinct pockets, zippered pocket opening with magnetic closure backups, removable hood and sleeves (effectively converting the jacket into a heavy vest at will), and features to enhance your portable media experience, and pockets, pockets, pockets. The jackets come in sizes up to a 3x which I can testify is a genuine 3x and not a 2x pretender. At $200 it isn’t inexpensive but it is at the upper end of reasonable for all the features the product has to offer.


The jacket is marketed as being “warm.” It delivers in spades on this promise. The water resistant outer material hasn’t leaked once and even in sub freezing temperatures I’ve been perfectly comfortable. The hood folds up into the collar where a quilted shield creates a nice padded support for your neck.

When they say this jacket has lots of pockets they aren’t kidding. The internal Ipad pocket on the left hand side is wonderful for documents and such. Since the full internals of the front of the jacket can be accessed with the hand warmer pockets, I can fit my cane plus any number of other objects in side. There’s actually more space than one really needs in terms of sheer cubic storage. I can see where this bad boy can carry an entire sweet of traveling gear and still keep you warm.

The Meh:

When I say the jacket has 26 pockets, the picture I get in my head is a layered storage vest with all sorts of custom compartments. The reality is a bit less impressive. First, many of the “pockets” are actually sub-compartments nested within other pockets for the purpose of storing change and memory cards and the like. While one can technically call them “pockets” It’s more accurate to say that there are really ten major pockets with 16 assorted smaller divisions and containment options. That’s still a lot of storage on tap, but it isn’t the portable hole that the product description implies.

Second, the manufacturer markets the jacket as a sort of wired urban survival construct, able to simultaneously store and operate a variety of portable devices. All of the advertized features work as described. But (and this is a major but), they don’t operate comfortably or seamlessly. Sure, the clear plastic inner pockets can be used to hold and operate an Iphone. Of course, if you have to actually look at the screen the angle required to pull off this feet of contortion isn’t what I’d call pleasant. While the wired functionality of the jacket is nice, it’s an all or nothing deal. Once the earphones are in the jacket, you can’t remove them quickly (you can but not with the delicate cords and connections intact.) If you’re using multiple portable media devices or you want to use the device outside the coat, you’ll need another set of ear buds or time to remove the coat’s set.

Finally there are the magnetic closures for the pockets and the front of the coat over the zipper. I loves me some magnets, but this coat takes things to ridiculous levels. To be clear, the magnetic closures work just fine. That said, they’re backups and not primary closures. The magnets on the front of the jacket can’t hold it closed without the zipper engaged. The pocket magnets are nice but do slip from time to time. I found the designers’ obsession with magnets gratifying but essentially a nonstarter where the usefulness of the jacket is concerned.

The Bad:

The description of the jacket says that the shell material is breathable. This has not been born out in my experience. I have worn the jacket on several occasions in cool weather. Although I was not warm, there was so little circulation and my arms were perspiring so heavily that I had to take the jacket off. I’ve had the same problem with the scottevest windbreaker, all be it less often as the windbreaker is a much lighter garment. The jacket is advertised as a versatile coat for mid to cold temperatures, but I’d say it’s really a cool to cold garment unless you want to take the sleeves off and wear it like a vest. This took 50% of its usefulness away, so I’m more than a little annoyed with the description.

There’s a certain feel to high quality fabric. The weather resistant synthetic materials that are out there have a weight and thread count that give them a special heft which is nearly impossible to mistake. This jacket does not use such materials. I didn’t expect a search and rescue garment. I did however expect a certain minimum quality standard based on the price, company reputation, and description. The jacket is supposed to be a world traveler’s best friend in bad weather. Part of that functionality is a resistance to scrapes and ruff use. The material is slick and thin, feeling more like cheap nylon than an expensive gortex super jacket. As I said, I don’t expect SAR quality gear, but for $200, I expect something of reasonably high quality, and this jacket doesn’t deliver in my opinion.

To add to this feeling, the compartmentalized nature of the jacket allows one to inspect the pocket layout and fastenings from within the liner. For a product that is supposed to carry a batman utility belt’s worth of gear, I found the limited support and inexpensive quality of the fabric used underwhelming. In fairness, nothing has exactly failed, but there have been small signs of stress and the materials and design really aren’t up to the standards I would expect. The key fob, lining, and water bottle holder are all of cheap manufacture. I get the impression that the jacket will survive until I try and put it through something major, at which point its disintegration will be rapid. C got a messenger bag as a parting gift for some seminar she attended at one point. It was perfect (fit wonderfully, held everything I needed it to, and man was it comfortable.) After two months of hard use, starting with gencon, it completely fell apart (as in unraveled most of the major stitching outright.) That’s the feel I get with the materials and design for this product.

Finally, the design of the storage space and access there—to is subpar. Although there’s a metric ton of storage slots on the jacket, the two main storage options are the front hand warmer pockets. That’s where the key fob and water bottle holder are located. Though the storage area is large, it’s difficult to get items out of the pockets due to the small vertical design of the zipper access points. You end up having to maneuver objects like doing a three point turn. So while you can use the space to hold uncommonly large objects, getting them in and out of the main pocket areas is ocward at best. If you use the internal Iphone pockets for a cell phone, the half—zipper and Velcro mean that you spend an extra second or so fumbling with the catches to bring the phone out and answer the call. I think the worst part of the pocket design is the claim that they are “no bulge.” I’m not entirely sure what this is meant to represent, but the pockets are absolutely not “no bulge.” I suppose if the only thing you are transporting is a few sheets of paper there’s no problem. But if you have anything bigger than a match box, there’s going to be a bulge. The net result is a jacket that does have many storage options to choose from, but that over promises and under delivers on the practicality of said storage.


This is a decent product. It presents allot of utility to a traveler in winter conditions. Despite my somewhat negative impression of the jacket, it isn’t a bad garment. On the other hand, the company’s reputation for innovation and quality combined with the description lead me to some significantly high expectations. The jacket, while meeting my basic requirements, falls short of my expectations in almost every category. The result is that I am happy with my purchase, but for $200, I won’t be buying a replacement in the future.

I get the sense from the company newsletter and publications that scottevest feels (with some degree of justification) that they have a stylish and practical line of products that fills a unique market nitch. Unfortunately, when a product costs $200, style and function aren’t enough. I expect that investment to perform at a certain level. Sadly, this product doesn’t measure up.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Reviewing Sixth Edition Warhammer 40,000

Full disclosure:

I played GW games for ten years. During that time 40k was my largest gaming investment. I put down the Games-Workshop stick in 2011 after the company drove out all the local venues and closed out their regional presence. The game became too expensive to justify given the limited chances I had to play. So the following isn’t coming from someone who especially loves GW products. I fully admit my bias.


I think everyone goes into a revised rules set with the hope that the designers will fix all the problems with the previous edition while implementing their personal bucket list. I was happy with fifth edition. It wasn’t kind to my favorite armies, but game play was relatively straightforward. So when R and I started reading through the new rules I had a very small wish list. It went something like this:

1. Balance shooting and close combat to where shooting is viable without taking mechanized guard.

2. Reduce the availability of cover saves.

I simply wanted a clean system that would let me play with toy soldiers in the grim dark future. Out of all probability, my LGS has started running 40k again. Depending on how the rules played out, I was willing to start a modest army. So, I didn’t have high hopes, but I entered the process with an open mind.

That said, sixth edition delivers in some departments and fails in others. Long-time players will recognize the basic turn sequence, model statistics, and the attack-wound-save mechanics that have been GW’s hallmark since the 90s. Well rounded players will also recognize the not-so-subtle insinuation of warhammer fantasy elements into the bargain. The game has moved from a core of flawed but dependable rules to a less dependable framework to play narrative games. Many of the changes and errata are specifically aimed at fostering a beer and pretzels style of story gaming. In that respect, I think the designers accomplished their objective. Whether that was the best way to go is another question entirely.

Core Mechanics:

I competed for years in every 40k tournament I could find. I also built themed armies and played in fluffy campaigns. I firmly believe you can have a tight rule set that leverages random dice roles without destroying the fun-factor of the adventure. From that point of view I don’t think the following changes helped the game, though that’s more a result of the combined effect than the byproduct of any single alteration.

1. Charge distances are now randomized at 2d6 inches. The potential to assault anywhere from 2 to 12 inches may increase suspense, but it takes away from the skill of running assault based armies IMHO. Part of playing well in any game is understanding what you and your opponent are capable of and acting accordingly. This rule makes that process more difficult without proportionally increasing the available range of tactics. It places more emphasis on luck than skill; and in a game which already depends heavily on good luck I don’t count that as a good thing.

2. All distances may be premeasured at all times. This is nothing but win, and not just because we ended up house ruling it for most of my games. I can’t tell you how many times I sat across from someone who was 14 inches away before they started movement and ended up in assault range because somehow the guys in front moved that little bit extra. Likewise, it’s nice to be able to check range before designating shooting targets. Ultimately it takes some of the guessing out of the game, which I like.

3. Vehicles now have hull points. Glancing hits remove one hull point. Penetrating hits take off a point and generate a roll on the usual table. I see this as a decent compromise between bringing mechanized forces in line and still leaving vehicles some durability. The mechanic itself is fine; however, the additional level of book keeping this creates is going to make certain forces really annoying.

4. Fliers are officially in the game now. This is one of those changes that makes my little forge world loving heart go pitter patter while simultaneously cringing. I love big, heavily armed, dynamic models. It’s in my blood. Unfortunately, the very things that draw me to the more complex models are what makes them a less than desirable choice. Fliers were already in the game as high performance skimmer analogs like the storm raven and Valkerie. They had huge footprints, almost never fit well on the table, and when taken in quantity tended to stretch the credibility index. Adding actual fliers into the game with multiple operational modes does not meaningfully increase fun. It does increase complexity though. One of the advantages apocalypse had over general issue 40k was that you could sit down for 4+hours and play with your ridiculous aircraft and titans. There were lots of rules and the game tended to drag, but that was fine every once in a while. Big models to clutter up the board with complex rules and questionable utility? No thanks. I love my big daka more than most, but I like it in larger games where the scale of the model fits the conflict.

5. Psychic powers have gone over to the fantasy dark side. Under the new psychic system a player with a sorcerer picks a group of like powers from the 4 core lores. At the beginning of each game they roll to determine which random power their psycher wields. They can opt to take the signature power of that group and forgo rolling. Any enemy unit targeted by a psychic power gets a 1d6 chance to nullify the power’s affects (6 for most units, less for psychically protected models.) You’ll get this theme a lot in this review; this change adds needless complexity and uncertainty to a game that had plenty to begin with. I’m all for a larger selection of psychic powers. What I am not for is the unpredictability that random rolls create. Add to that the fact that everyone now has a 1 in 6 chance of nullifying the randomly rolled power and psychers look more flexible but much less dependable. Sure, you can pick powers that target friendly units instead of the enemy. You can also just take the default power in any given list for consistency. But these options mean that you are trading off options and tactical flexibility so that you can make an already expensive model perform the same job in every game. Sorcerers were a dicey investment in the previous edition due to the prevalence of psychic hoods and perils of the warp. But, the ability to tailor your psychic powers to your army’s needs somewhat mitigated those drawbacks. Judicious unit selection and forethought when looking at powers like lash of submission and the summoning could pay dividends to a skillful commander. I just don’t see that as being the case any more.

6. Each army can buy a single set of fortifications as part of its list. I like big fortifications almost as much as I love giant rampaging vehicles. That said, this enhancement makes no sense to me. If you want a story driven game, why does every battle field have the option of presenting an imperial bastion let alone a 220 point imperial “fortress? I get it; the company has to sell models. I also understand that fortifications are really really awesome. I also understand that you can take the stats of an imperial fortification and convert it over for elder or tau and the like. All that said, WTF GW? Battles in the forty first millennium were cluttered before this enhancement. Say it with me folks, this adds needless complexity. I want choices in my miniature war games. But, there’s a question of scale and suspension of belief at play here. If I wanted fortifications before, I worked with my friends to build a table with fortifications. I didn’t set up the terrain and then add my imperial landing pad to counter the other guy’s siege lines. I don’t see how this benefits the game.

7. Certain kinds of terrain have fantasy-esk randomly generated features. On the face of it, I don’t have an issue with this option. Unexpected danger and benefit is what puts the “alien” into fighting on alien worlds. But taken in combination with other “random” play elements this is just another vote on the side of more rules=less fun. The farther I got into the terrain section the more complicated the whole undertaking got. Buildings now are essentially immobile vehicles with armor and hull points, but when they are destroyed they become ruins, which sort of act like buildings, but not really. Bugger.

8. Casualties are now taken from those closest to the enemy in both shooting and assault. This is one of those rules that makes complete sense in theory but tends to cause problems in practice. Sure, logically the guys closest to the fighting are the ones who will be taken out first. The larger issue here is that deciding who is closest is not only more complicated than it sounds in the skirmish deployment of 40k, but also places a fiddly amount of focus on model placement shenanigans. There will be a level of skill associated with proper model placement for maximum benefit, but in order to capitalize on that skill, one will have to focus over much on what models are “closest” at any given time. Tactical nuance at the cost of further complexity is not a trade I value, though your mileage may very.

9. Moving models can now either shoot rapid fire weapons once at maximum range or twice at half range. This is one of several changes I love. Tau fire warriors got a huge leg up with this rule, as did every race that has troops better armed than a guardsman. It takes some of the starch out of orc and gray knight shooting by comparison, but the tactical and strategic benefits this provides are well worth the losses. That rule alone makes me look at Tau as a viable infantry force.

10. Allies are in the game for everyone. You can now take a detachment of units from a second codex to supplement your forces. You’re still limited to a single force organization chart, and there are some compulsory requirements to be filled, but you can have some very unlikely pairings. Depending on how fictionally compatible your ally is to your main codex, there are also restrictions placed on their ability to claim objectives and benefit from “friendly” powers and spells. I really wanted to take commander farsight and build an army of tau tainted by Khornate demons through the dawn blade or a tau battle suit army tainted by the obliterator cult. In that sense, I really like this new option. That said, I’m not sure I really want to face an elder army backed up by a unit of orc lootas on a landing pad lead by a certain independent character that gives them feel no pain. The degree to which one likes or dislikes this change will depend on how munchkiny and un-fluffy one’s opponents decide to make the experience. For my part, I like the idea, but it remains to see if the execution bares that out.

Note: Some readers will notice that I have simplified these changes and not mentioned a host of others, such as the addition of close combat character challenges. My intent is to simply provide a bird’s eye view, and not a tutorial of the new edition. These are the big ten changes, but there are many others, some barely noticeable, some with profound but less critical impact on game play.


This rule set provides an excellent platform for telling stories in the forty first millennium. The mechanics and unit types are such that a variety of models can be used, making previous apocalypse selections available for common play. Indeed, forge world has marked many of its list 40k or apocalypse. If this is to be believed, anything marked 40k is now legal for general use. White dwarf updates and forge world irata now make some of my favorite elder models like the hornet and the jump pack fire prism gunner dudes legal. I love more choices and I’m glad that forge world and the main line are being tentatively merged.

As you may have guessed from my mechanical break down, those choices came at the cost of precision, simplicity, and consistency. Many of the rules (such as the casualty removal section) are comprehensive enough. But that totality is achieved through a convoluted and needlessly fiddly block of text. I could tell that the writers really tried to cover all their bases. The explanations actually answered all my questions and hypothetical exceptions. The writing is internally consistent (which believe me is an achievement.) Taken individually, the different sections are very well put together. However, in total they represent a much more bulky and fiddly body of rules for a system that wasn’t exactly a svelte edition before this.

Many more charts and random rolls are required to play the game now. So, in addition to the dense rules mechanics, games often rely on references to charts and randomization which further pushes the data bloat of this 400 page book.

The book itself is also worth commenting on. There isn’t a pocket rules version of this edition right now. So, unless you’ve got a smart phone you feel like scrolling through all the time, you have to tote a massive tome with you to every game or memorize the intimidating collection of charts and tables. I have a great memory, especially where game material is concerned. This book stretches my limits.

I get the feeling that the writers wanted to put the last nail in the coffin of tournaments. You can still run competitive games with this system. But the rules are initially unwieldy and not what I would call friendly to a time limited venue. I wasn’t kidding when I said warhammer fantasy has crept into the mechanics. The increased random rolls coupled with the fiddly and often obsessively detailed unit rules makes this feel more like fantasy skirmish in the far future than 40k the gritty reboot. Tournaments are in part a way to measure relative skill levels within a sample group. There is so much random rolling here that I feel that the associated impact of that skill has been lessened in favor of the battle narrative. As I said, you can still fight competitive games with this system, but a major part of that skill is playing the probabilities of a charge hitting home or not, as opposed to determent whether a unit’s move is likely to place them in line for a chain of assault moves in the first place. It’s a subtle but important difference and represents why I’m not as taken with this edition as previous offerings.


If you were hoping, like me, for a cleaner simpler rule set out of sixth edition 40k, than I fear your doomed to disappointment. Part of how I rank miniature gaming systems is by how easily and seamlessly the game runs. Sixth edition games do not look like they will run smoothly unless you spend a lot of time memorizing an extensive body of material. This edition looks to be better for the league campaign style of contest but not so much for those of us who don’t need the rules to do the work of telling the story for us. Combined with the ever rising cost of GW products I am intellectually curious but not tempted enough to commit any cash to the project.