Monday, July 31, 2006

WBC West Part 3

Saturday morning broke like a car crash for me. I'd had about six times too much wine playing ForeWord (note corrected spelling, Dave), and I was in no shape to spend five hours getting my white Japanese ass kicked by Chuck in Empire of the Sun, so we chose instead to give Shifting Sands another try, this time with me in the role of the Brits and Chuck playing the Italians and Germans.

The game started out pretty much like the last one, with the Brits taking Tobruk, the Italians taking Khartoum, and not a lot of movement in Libya. I was very aggressive in getting the Italians out of East Africa with the South Africans, despite Chuck bringing in the second Italian division, the AFR. Playing The Ethiopian Campaign early was a very good idea, as I'm learning that this game is all about efficient use of OPS.

I also was premptive in putting an Indian division in Iraq in anticipation of the Revolt, which I smashed in a single attack when Chuck stacked three BGs in Baghdad. I also sent up a British armored division to Jerusalem in anticipation of playing Exporter (which allows attacks into Vichy Syria), and was able to take out the French before the German mountain division could arrive.

To make things worse for Chuck, I drew the Barbarossa card early - which forced me to hold it and a Malta Convoy for a turn, which made his life difficult by taking away RPs. I've come to the conclusion that the fight over Malta is critical in this game, and while you won't necessarily win by taking it, you are very unlike to win if you don't, especially as the Brits. With so few but strong units, it is nearly impossible to kick the Germans out of Libya if they can keep replacing their units (there are so many Italians that it really doesn't matter much). As such, playing the right cards at the right time is critical, which is why I think the increasing hand sizes are so important. Even more important is the ability to get the Malta Convoys out, which stops at the beginning of 1942 with the Siege of Malta, as they limit the Axis to six cards and limit their ability to manage the deck.

By the end of 1941, I had driven the Axis out of the Near East and East Africa, and the next step was to take back Tobruk and start moving west, and I finally had the units to do it. For a long time, I sat with three divisions guarding the Egyptian frontier, and I suspect that the Axis needs to make a big push during that time. Giving the Allies distractions in the sideshows is important, but it is equally important to give them another distraction in Egypt. Neither of us did this in our games, and while I managed to win our first game without this push, I think it's critical against an experienced Allied player.

Here's why: there is nothing forcing the Allies to play the Torch invasion, and the only thing making the German panzers run out of El Agheila (which is a very tough nut to crack) is the risk of losing even more VP spaces in Tunisia. In fact, I didn't play Torch, putting Tobruk under siege and trying instead to take Tripoli for an auto win. I managed to finally kick the Axis out of El Agheila (I finally took Tobruk in the last turn with Supercharge), but only after taking lots of losses and only on my final card play of the game. Of course, I'd forgotten that I could stack four units in a space thanks to Monty, which may have moved things along a bit better for me, but it was still a tight game. For even more tension, Chuck had the Italian Fleet card in his final hand, and considered playing it for the VP he'd need to win. Of course, I'd drawn the Med Fleet, so I was kind of hoping he'd play it and save the risk of yet another botched roll (I don't think I rolled more than 25% of my combat rolls over 3 the whole game, although Chuck did roll a 6/1 combo in my favor at a critical point).

Things I learned:

VP are critical. Never lose one due to Event Card play if you can avoid it.

Fight for Malta. This is not China in EotS or North Africa in BtB. It is a critical fight, and the RP/hand limit rules make it so.

Force the issue in Egypt as the Germans. You'll be on the border anyway, and your supply doesn't get any worse. However, you better have RPs, as you'll lose the attrition war if you don't. When the Spitfires show up, if you aren't on the verge of taking Malta, that's when you start the long slow retreat. You *want* the Allies to play Torch in order to win, as Tunisia will eat up OPS, and they have no reason to do so if you're backed up in El Agheila at the start of 1943.

Understand the ramifications of card plays, particularly the Malta series. I missed a chance to play a Malta convoy right before the siege of Malta, and Chuck missed the chance to play RPs before Barbarossa. In 1941 and 1942, it pays to play a RP card if you can as the Axis before the Allies can take away the opportunity with their card play.

Don't be afraid to play high value cards for events. There are a ton of cards in this game, and I never have felt like I needed to finess a card like in the early game of PoG (play the Blockade for RPs in the first hand, or hope you see it again before Limited War?) In Sands, it is a non-issue. In fact, I was playing events to get them out of my hand in the late game, as I wanted to be sure to get certain cards after the 1943 shuffle.

I wasn't sure how I liked the game after the first play, but I'm sold on it now. While there are some fiddly rules and conditions that come and go in the game, as far as strategy goes things seem to be very straightforward and thus less confusing for people who haven't played CDGs before. Rules complexity is one thing, a complex operational/strategic situation is another and often more difficult for the novice.

Chuck and Jodi went out for dinner just as we were getting to 1943, so we actually finished the game early on Sunday. In the meantime, Dave and I did our traditional rib dinner, then came back to play Settlers Card Game with the Barbarian expansion. All I can say about this game is that I think I've learned not to play Dave in this game, as I never win. I had the worst deck to draw from in the beginning, and it never ever got any better for me, even with building cities early. Dave drew every decent action card in the game, and hardly a turn went by when he wasn't stealing resources or cards or screwing me over in some way, shape, or form. The "fun factor" is quartered when I'm playing an expansion I'm unfamiliar with and have no idea how the various combos work. This was my second least favorite game of the week.

The final game of the night was three hands of Circus Flohcati, in this case my first time out with the Rio Grande edition. And what a surprise to learn that two of the action cards have different rules than in my translated German edition. Dave hates this game, by the way, but I love it and Jodi will play it, so off we went. In the end, the score was something like 165-164-163-161. I lost.

Chuck and I finished up Sands the next morning, then we pulled out his Labors of Herakles design next. Labors is based off of Titan, using a slightly modified board. By the mid-game, I was hating life, mostly because I felt that I was constantly being put in situations where I had no decisions to make. We made a couple of small suggestions for changes to give more choices (using movement cards instead of rolling dice, for example), but I think that there's a pretty cool little game in there and I hope Chuck keeps at it.

By now we were starting to get things put away and getting ready to leave, so we played Scepter of Zavandore (or something, the fonts used in the game were problematic), which Dave compares to St. Petersburg, a game he claims to not like because it's so dry. I'm not even going to try to describe this game other than to say that there are mechanisms that force players to constantly be starved for the resources you need to get lots of VP, and each player has a slightly different starting position. There are some "civ" advances (spells in this game) that are completely useless as far as I can see, and others that are critical. As such, my overall feeling was that every turn you knew you had to spend a certain amount of money for stuff, and the better you sequenced what you bought the better you did. That, and that Rubies are far too powerful in this game - not going after them will guarantee you lose the game. Dave, of course, won handily while I snuck by Chuck by one point for second.

And that, as we say, was that.

It was nice to be playing lighter fare in the evenings, and I'd like to continue that practice in future WBC Wests. In fact, we even considered running a multi-evening RPG next year, although that's very much up in the air. Regardless, I felt much less fatigued over the course of the week than last year after so many full days of wargaming.

Another thing I learned was that in some cases it is definitely better to have a strong sense of how the game works before playing. Empire of the Sun was very difficult to play because we were constantly looking up rules, but that's Mark Herman for you. Gettysburg was very frustrating, largely because the rules assume you know how to play already and this partcular block game is very different from other Columbia titles. However, most of our games were things we'd played before (and I'd taken a stab at a Shifting Sands "delta" document ahead of time, so it was easy to teach). Knowing the games well helps eliminate fatigue, and next year I'll definitely attempt playing games ahead of time, even if solitaire, just to gave the system in my head better. Rules are such an issue for so many wargame companies these days (Columbia, Avalanche, Decision, Gamers, just about everyone but GMT and Multi-man) and fatigue such an issue that homework from at least one of the players is really important.

It was also nice to have the same set of players over the entire week. I think it would be cool to have four next year, as you can choose an opponent for the day and not worry about sequencing to mix up who you play against as we do at the Euro retreats. I almost prefer WBC West to the RCG retreats in that sense, although having eight or more guys playing a wide variety of games over a long weekend is really rewarding in other ways.

Big thanks to Chuck for driving, I know I was about as wiped out as I could be by the time we got to my house, and he still had to drop off Dave and get home, at least a hour in the surprisingly heavy late Sunday night traffic. Once again, I blink my eyes on Tuesday night and it's a week later and I'm back to the grind.

May the Crunk be with you!

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