Thursday, January 04, 2007

Combat Commander Squared - Pt 2

In my last entry, I recounted my bout with Connor playing Scenario 1 of Combat Commander: Europe as a learning game. The game had great story, and interesting things happening throughout the game. Today, Jesse and I played Scenario 3, an assault through a semi-forested area to take a primary objective at one end of a long board during the initial German invasion of Russia. A green Soviet force, aided by relatively light MG and leader support and a whole lot of barbed wire, has to hold off a German rifle force with excellent MG and leader support, but relatively few troops. There are only open objectives, set such that while it is possible for the Germans to win without taking objective 5, it would require the Russians surrendering or the Germans taking every other objective and perhaps getting units off the Russian end of the board. In fact, that's exactly what the game came down to.

I set up my forces with the intent of slowing down the German onslaught. Like most "cross the board" scenarios, time is on the defender's side. As such, I set up one unit on the edge of the clearing in the forest on the right side of the board, one in the building/objective near the German entry point on the left side, three units near the road leading out of the forest halfway down the right edge (which corresponds with two more objectives), On the opposite side of the board, I put the light machine gun, two more squads, and the weaker leader. At objective 5, I put the medium machine gun, the weapons team, another militia squad, and the stronger leader, with one more backup squad in the adjacent forest. The last squad was placed between the two machine gun-equipped groups with the idea that it could reinforce either group.

Jesse decided to consolidate his force on the right side of the board, with a plan on moving through the forest. At this point I placed the wire in an arc from the lone forest hex in the center of the board, then to the larger forest on the right and along the edge of the forest. The idea was to make it difficult for the Germans to take advantage of the forest edge's cover.

The game began with the Germans moving in and around the large clearing in the NE corner of the board (from the Russian perspective). The lone militia in the immediate area spent time (and this scenario is all about spending time) trying to slow the Germans down). After what seemed like an awful lot of events, snipers, etc, including a spurious Russian unit appearing in the same hex as a German (and getting it's butt kicked - melee in CC:E is analagous to trying to flank attack with AH units in Paths of Glory, at least for me). I did manage to rout one German unit off of the board, certainly a moral victory at the least, although getting enough Germans killed in an Eastern Front scenario is what project managers call an "outlying event".

After the Germans killed my lone unit and got past the clearing, it was time for the next wave to cause problems for them. At the same time, the one militia over in the building in the NW corner decided that his best contribution would be to try to raid the German supply lines rather than die in combat. 2 points for me! By now we *still* hadn't gotten through either deck yet, and no Time! triggers, which was starting to worry me. However, I did manage to get a hero, which ran around causing problems for a while, although nothing really useful. Heros in this game are great fun, as they don't cost you points if you lose them so you can pretty much do anything you want, even if there's almost no chance of success.

By now, Jesse was converging on the two objective points where the road passes through the forest, but I was also helping him to discover new wire placements in that area. While it's not so much fun to not have artillery and keep drawing arty cards, at least they tend to have interesting defender actions, most of which I got to try out over the course of the game. After a brief fight in this area, the Russians were down to one unit in the SE forest behind the wire line. This unit ended up fighting a German counterpart for most of the rest of the game, which only worked because the German was tied down in more Surprise Barbed Wire. Gotta love that stuff. In the end, the militia closed for melee, only to run into an ambush and then become the victim of a sniper on the die roll. I don't know why I try.

Meanwhile, the big force of Germans (which now included a hero, mine was dead by now), were working their way down the road and line of brush toward the main Russian objective. Again, they found more wire than they were expecting, but a rather unfortuitous eliminated Russian MG (they both were eliminated about 2/3rds of the way into the game, mostly thanks to events) and the best German leader prevented me from doing more than tying them down three hexes from the objective. They never made it any further, although a squad with a light MG did get one hex closer. It was nearly impossible for the units to get closer, as the Russians in the objective hex had a building for cover and brush for hindrance, effectively reducing the German firepower by six every time they shot. The Germans did scare off the weapons team, which sadly no longer had a weapon to fire.

On the west side of the board, the big heavy MG had moved out to a position where they could take on the handful of units in the building guarding the western approaches to the main command post (objective 5). As they moved into the lone forest hex in the area, they were surprised not only to find wire, but also a minefield. Boom! Sadly, while I was able to cause these units much pain, any broken morale was quickly regained, although the main hex they were trying to get to turned into a pillbox, forcing the units into an assault.

Right about this time, the time marker *finally* hit the Sudden Death space, and while there was a brief flurry of initiative card exchanges, in the end the game continued on. While it was becoming clear that I was likely to hang onto the critical objective, it was also clear that I was only two Russian units away from surrendering. Unfortunately, Jesse and I figured this out at about the same time. He managed to bring a unit into my pillbox, now only held by a single leader (a supporting squad was poised, *poised* I say, to advance into the hex and make it a much tougher nut to crack). Unfortunately, the leader was better as stabbing the wall than any German soldiers, and as I'd already lost a unit earlier to fire in the turn, Jesse won on surrender. My VP total at this point was about 7 points, so had we managed to end the game on Sudden Death, it would have been mine. All mine! Sigh.

Total game time took about 3.5 hours, as Jesse had not punched his game yet and we spent a good hour trimming counters and putting cards in sleeves. Every time we needed a new counter, I'd punch it out of the frame, clip it, and put it into play. You'd be amazed how many counters kept showing up - pillboxes, minefields, wire, heroes, extra units, teams, objectives, smoke, blazes (one threatened the objective building in the NW corner of the board, but the unit was long gone).

As in the previous day's game, this one had it all - wacky events changing the general situation; Russian units with really crappy range, movement, and morale; even Germans go BOOM. Again, the game had fantastic story, and the game came down to the wire - literally.

Here, I'll groan for you... GROAAAAAAAN!!!!!

Jesse and I are pretty close to deciding that this game is a 10. There is no other game quite like it, and the development has been so good that we have trouble finding any situations that the rules don't cover. Admittedly, if you want complete control over your game situation other than the occasional dice roll, this is not your game. If you always want to be able to employ opportunity fire without having to hope you have a card, again not your game. Me, I'm all about fun, I'm all about experience, I'm all about clear rules, I'm all about elegant design, I'm all about expandability, story, being surprised, and finishing the game in an evening. After five games in less than two weeks, I can pretty much guarantee this one a 9.5 at the least, but only because I'd like to give it another five plays before I dub it perfect for me.

Thanks, Jesse - what a shame that we'll never play anything else again...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Combat Commander Squared - Pt 1

Two games of CC:E in two days? Fabulous! I love being retired!

Wednesday my non-wargamer friend Connor came over and I taught him CC:E. Connor's wargaming experience began with Blitzkrieg and Submarine back in the (AH) day, and as an adult it's been limited to a few card-driven games like Hannibal and Wilderness War that I've taught him. Last time he was over we gave World of Warcraft a try, but I have to admit that I really like this game much better as a cooperative game, best solitaire. So it was that I thought it would be perfect to see how well he did learning something outside of his experience.

Lunch at the local organic restaurant is quite good, but also pretty long (expect an hour to get and eat a club sandwich, for example), so I went over the basics there, although without the elements in front of us it was tough for Connor to imagine what was going on. Things moved a bit quicker once we started playing. As usual, we played Scenario One, Fat Lipski, which uses only a handful of terrain types, a very small counter density, and no ordnance or artillery. Connor was the Germans, me the Ruskies. We played the first several turns with open hands, picking them up when we got to a point where both of us drew completely new hands.

The game began with Connor quickly taking the two buildings at objectives 1 and 5, which seemed prudent if not terribly valuable given that our open objective was 4, sitting alone on the other side of the forest. The Russians have a bit of an advantage to take this space, so I was happy to see it come up. The Russians have no choices as to where to place their squads as there are only eight possible hexes for eight rifle squads, so it's really a matter of where the MGs and leaders go. I put a Medium MG, my 1 leader, and three squads on that side, and had little trouble getting to the objective, although one of my squads temporarily broke.

On the other side of the board, I got my units into position at the edge of the forest, but took a little time to get them shifted over for maximum firepower, with my 2 leader stacked with the squad with the other medium MG. Two squads started working their way through the forest to take on objective 3, which was my secret objective. I also had one of the three squads at objective 4 head through the forest as well, and that unit managed to even cross the road unscathed when I got an event that let me discard the lone Fire card from Connor's hand, then I dug in adjacent to the hex. I even managed to break the German squad at 3 before Connor brought up the lone squad and 1 leader that had been facing the units at objective 4. At this point I could now start moving those units off of the board, or at least threaten to, for even more points. As it was, I got one squad off for 2 points.

As the reinforcing units came up, my infiltrating squad moved into objective three, playing an ambush on the already broken squad for the quick kill. However, Connor had a light wounds card that reduced it to a broken team, only one point lower on the scale. Still, I had a four point advantage, and even though I'd given up the initiative card to prevent a catastrophic medium MG jam on the other side of the woods, I felt pretty confident that I could take him. Until he rolled exactly four more than me and we both were eliminated. He held the space, and I had to start bringing up more units to take it. It might have been smarter just to exit the board for a sure two points rather than try to hold that space for what looked like at least a little more time.

By now I'd lost my light MG, but had at least the chance to take a couple of units off of the board. I had a three point lead, so I knew that the game would depend upon what Connor's secret objective was. I got to find out exactly what when I got an event that let me peek, only to find out that it was 5VP for objective 5, a very tough nut to crack without doing some serious damage to the 2 leader in the hex. I was gearing up for an assault with time running out when it did - Connor had to go home! We decided to call it at that point, and he won with 5 VP, although that would have been in some doubt had I gotten a few more turns and a chance at taking one of the two spaces.

I've now lost three of four games of this title, and I'm loving it! Tomorrow I will get in a play with Jesse, probably Scenario 2 in Bocage country, and I'm really looking forward to it. Count me at one play for 2007 for this title, with number two coming up.

CenTues Session, 1/2/07

The first gaming session of the New Year, and I was there. Gives me chills just thinking about it!

Present were Matt (our host), Alex, Liz, Dave, and myself. On the table: Beowulf and Puerto Rico.

I'm a big fan of Beowulf, even though I've never won a game. In a conversation with a friend recently, I noted that I was less and less interesting in buying new Euro games and more and more interested in "experiential" games like Arkham Horror where the theme is strong and the game sacrifices some measure of competitive play in exchange for story. Beowulf, despite having a very strong pedigree in it's designer (Knizia), fits this to a tee. Much of your success will hinge on how well one does on their Risk pulls, and when those successes happen. In my case, I had to make a Risk pull in the final auction and failed, losing me at least five points for being woundless.

Now, before you accuse me of being a big fat whiner (and I am), I'll tell you that I'd rather play this game and come in last than win in a more mediocre title. The "let's play chicken" aspect of the Risk draws makes this game great fun, and you always have interesting choices to make, even when it comes to such mundane decisions as whether to remove two scratches, take two gold, or any of the other things you do on the "Selection" action space.

True, there is little going on here that really follows the Beowulf story. So, I guess the game really succeeds for me in the variety of actions that happen over time, the great artwork, the ability to see what's coming and plan your resources accordingly. Combined with the chance to draw extra cards through the Risk mechanism, and the game becomes surprisingly strategic and every choice seems important, although as I say I suspect this is not necessarily the case. This was my first five player game, and while I think it works well with any number, this is perhaps the optimum number of players as every auction is fought over to some degree. Great stuff.

BTW, Dave won handily, although it could have gone either way with a six point swing based on the last auction.

At this point, Alex and Liz headed home as she's been fighting off a cold, so the three of us pulled out Puerto Rico, the classic that lost a lot of lustre for me when someone at WBC I played with made everyone's moves out loud and creamed us with the corn strategy. Get it? Creamed corn? Haha! Since then, I've really enjoyed the lighter San Juan game, which plays very quickly and elegantly.

After remembering how to play the damned thing, we got started. I made a crucial decision fairly early when I decided to get a second indigo plantation, then ended up with a sugar plantation a little later, and one indigo plant and one sugar plant. At this point, I decided that it was time for a factory strategy, but by then Dave was cruising ahead for an easy victory with his Harbor/Wharf combo. To be honest, this is exactly why we stopped playing the game in the first place - this is a very strong strategy that it is nearly impossible to counter, and it's really a question of who gets what when.

As such, I don't know that I'll pull this one out again without the benefit of the expansion set that replaces some buildings with new ones. I did like playing with three players, we moved along quite briskly, finishing within 80 minutes including a rules refresher. This is a good game, and it does outshine other development games like Caylus, but as it is the game is "solved" and needs a different balance of buildings to make it fresh again. Fortunately, we have that option.

Thanks to Matt for hosting us to the ungodly hour of 10:30pm (did I mention that we're all getting *so* old?), and I look forward to seeing everyone again next week at Mike's. In the meantime, I'm living up to my resolutions by getting in games of Combat Commander on both Wednesday *and* Thursday!

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

Here are my New Year's resolutions for gaming this coming year:

1) Try out the new wave of roleplaying. Matt Gagan is helping out with this, and I'll even be trying out one such system in a couple of weeks. At some point in the future I want to put together a "couples-based" ongoing campaign, no specific system or milieu as of yet, but I'm not expecting to start this in the coming year.

2) More wargaming. This is a no-brainer, now that I've got another partner in town, one who is thrilled to get in a game (even a short one) every couple of weeks. This actually leads me into my next resolution, which is...

3) Play some of the wargaming systems I've owned for years but never played, at least in depth. This includes Great Battles of History (Simple or otherwise), Panzer Grenadier, even some ASL via the starter kits. I'd also like to get some of the games I bought in 2006 and earlier on the table: Clash of Giants (I and II), Grand Illusion, Fire in the Sky, Triumph of Chaos. This will be more of a challenge as Combat Commander looks to take up quite a bit of my wargaming hours.

4) Start a new blog for gaming, but also as a source for gaming information and links. While the 'Geek does a great job for euros, there really isn't a good review site for wargames, and I may try to host something that will include a place for select people to put their reviews out there. However, the primary goal is to have a better host than Blogger, but it won't happen until Apple releases the new iLife apps, including iWeb, so nothing new for at least a month.

5) More 2-player non-wargaming. I did a lot of 2-player gaming for a while, but it dried up for reasons I really can't put my finger on. Good candidates would be Age of Steam, British Rails, good 2-player 18xx variants. Maybe even something that doesn't involve choo-choos! There are a couple of folks in the group who live nearby, and one of my wargaming partners has Thursdays off.

6) Take a more evangelical attitude toward gaming. There are a couple of ways I can do this, but the most effective may be running regular demo sessions at a friend's game and hobby store in the area. We're already talking about how to do this, and I may have to choose between this and playing RPGs as they will tend to happen on Saturdays.

7) While this is really not something that has any chance of having in 2007, I think it is almost a fait accompli that I will gain a dedicated gaming space when we buy a new house in the next 18 months. I would dearly love to have a space where I can have all of my games on display, as well as games set up for entire weeks without worrying if my wife would like to have access to the dining room table. This is a major requirement of any new place we move to, along with a yard for the dogs and not out in the 'burbs, which means it will be really expensive. Oh well.

Almost all of these things involve a greater commitment of time than I've given in the past, at least outside the regular sessions of Rip City Gamers. While I'm not planning to give a lot of that up, I may be putting a lot more effort into gaming on what have been my "off" days (days I'm at home but my wife is working).

Thanks to everyone who made my gaming experiences in 2006 so great - I'm looking forward to carrying it forward into 2007.