Monday, February 19, 2007

Birthday Gaming

I stopped "celebrating" my birthday when I turned 40. That was a truly "wonderful" year for me - my country invaded Iraq on false pretenses, I lost my singing voice weeks before I was to tour with a choir in Cuba (and didn't get it back for several months), my marriage went through a particularly rough patch, and to top it off I hit 40, all within the span of about a month. As such, I've never really been big on celebrating my birthday - we don't go out for dinner, no parties, I even prefer that I don't get cards or calls (except from the dogs and my mother).

However, I am not above leveraging the situation to get in a pass for a day of gaming! And so it was that Chuck took up the call and came over to play a few wargames.

First up was The Great War At Sea. Or, as I have decided to call it, The Somewhat Boring And Extremely Confusing War At Sea.I'll call it GWaS for short. In retrospect, I selected a scenario that was in some respects a poor choice, the Baltic Diversion scenario from Jutland/Northern Waters (Op13). I'd played a battle scenario with Jesse a little while ago, which we were surprised that we liked as much as we did given the rather limited strategic and tactical choices one had. We found that the game went fairly smoothly, although the Referred Pain rule seemed to give a huge edge to ships that had primary but no secondary guns. In Baltic Diversion, none of the ships had similar configurations, so we thought things would go better. Hmm..

The whole point of this scenario is for the Germans to invade the Russian coastline. Seeing as the German invasion fleet starts one space away from said coastline, but the Russian fleet (or at least the useful part of it) is a very long way away, it seemed prudent to go for what was close by rather than make a run for a more distant space. Oh, sure, I suppose I could have done some trickery to try to have my ships divert or divide his fleet, but that would have been complicated. Given how difficult it was for me to separate the idea of "plan your moves in advance" I wasn't sure that I'd be doing myself a favor. However, I did divert half of my pre-dreadnought battleships to shore bombardment duty, working their way up the coast, which guaranteed me at least as many VP as sinking a decent B-class boat, while the other half and a set of torpedo boats (mostly useful for suicide attacks on capital ships, should they appear) were guarding the transports.

We got as far as deciding that having my torpedo boats (which didn't have tertiary guns, and so were useless after firing off their single shots of torpedos) were less than wisely used against Chuck's Russian destroyers (which did have tertiary guns, and because of the rules had an excellent chance to just keep shooting at the TBs until they killed them once in range). Oh, and a suicidal attack by the destroyers on my transport fleet - although they did knock one of my battleships out of action, if not sunk. At that point, we went to lunch and were less than enthusiastic to continue play.

GWaS is one of many games that I dearly want to like. The era and milieu is not often simulated, and when it is the effect is almost miniatures-like. The rules are the usual Avalanche mess - the design is for effect, not for simulation, which means that things you do in the game and the results they get may not seem to make sense - and there are several unclear or missing sections. For example, it took us about 15 minutes to figure out whether or not ships that were interrupted in mid-move for contact and combat could continue that move that turn, or whether they continued on the next turn. The rule was in a section on "early contact" which in reflection makes some sense, but in practice should be at the very least referenced in the section on ending combat.

To make things more interesting, we discovered that ships with no guns (my TBs, for example) could only be hit on tertiary gun or hull hits, and in fact Chuck had a terrible time landing more than a few blows. In contrast, ships with only tertiary guns that had been destroyed got hull hits on *any* gun hit (per the FAQ on the Avalanche web site). That decreases their survivability by a factor of 2x or so. While I guess you could say that boats with tertiary guns are much larger than boats without them, and thus easier to hit, that seems to be a pretty big disparity. Of course, the TBs are useless once they've fired off their torps (you get one shot, regardless of how many factors you have, then it's back to port to reload for a couple of days - game time), and the destroyers will easily crush the torp boats in anything resembling an even fight, but they are easy pickings for anything with even secondary guns.

Also, the record keeping is a nightmare - you have to be very careful in marking your hit record sheets so you remember which ships had which hull/gunnery/torp factors at the beginning of combat, as it's all simultaneous. And I'd gone to the trouble of making up my own sheets to avoid having to have sixteen sheets of paper to shuffle through for the relatively small fleet.

To sum up, this is a game *screaming* for a VASSAL module. Almost every one of these issues could be dealt with in software (except for the design for effect wackiness). As such, I've decided to stick with Battle scenarios only, or perhaps a good commerce raider operational scenario, until I get the chance to play this with someone who really knows the game. I'm also fairly interested in trying out Jim Dauphnais's house rules, found in the GWaS:Mediterranean folder on the 'Geek. That discussion is also an excellent thought exercise in the difficulty in trying to reconcile a design-for-effect game with what seems to be a tactical solution. Sometimes this gets done right (Silent War is a great example), but I'm not sure GWaS does the trick. To be fair, Chuck has some of the Plan modules (various unexecuted plans based on hypothetical situations, such as the British attacking Virginia in the '20's), and he says there are some great scenarios there. I think I'll let him buy those and try them out before I invest more in this "system".

After lunch, I really wanted to get in some Combat Commander, so we tried out Scenario 10, which features six elite German units trying to get across an urban landscape in Russia. I'd set up with my units preparing to block all possible routes, but with the idea that I had enough mobility to get from point A to point B in the backfield if necessary. Things went well enough until I used a Fire card to try to use up some actions in my hand, but then couldn't draw another Fire card for three turns. Chuck had enough mobility to skate half of his units right through my lines and off my end of the board, a 15 point swing given the open preset victory condition that exiting units were double-points. That put us at around 5 points, and even my defensive posture didn't help. However, I was finally in a position to start taking out his units when he managed to get a radio and put smoke all around my .50cal MG. By the time it got cleared out, we hit the sudden death marker at turn 6 and I rolled low without having the initiative card.

Chuck had never used the card, but to be fair he never really was in a situation where he needed it. He lost no units, and the only weapon that was destroyed (a flamethrower) he "found" in the hex a few rounds later. Sheesh. Me, my hero tried to throw a satchel charge into a major German position on three or four different occasions, failing to make the range throw each time, a statistical improbability right up there with Mike's dice rolling. :-) I also had trouble finding Recovery cards later in the game, although to be fair only one Guards SMG unit was lost in this way. At game end, Chuck managed an extra four points for Objectives, although even had I kept the one I started with (#5), there was no way I was going to take the tower space at #4, so that would have been a wash and he still would have won with 4 VP.

Nevertheless, always an interesting game, and this one went very quickly (less than two hours). I was surprised by how many little rules I'd remembered (no opfire with ordnance, leaders can use weapons, smoke hinders along hex spines, etc). So, in that sense at the very least, I did give Chuck a bit of a schooling. Sorta.

By now it was only 3:30pm, and with nothing really planned I went into the vault and came back with We the People, the original Card-Driven Wargame. As the original design, it leaves a lot to be desired - I drew three British events the first turn as the Americans, and only three Op cards worth four points total - but on the other hand it plays quite quickly and has a lot of decision points that make the game very enjoyable. We did require a certain amount of rules review, but even so our game took less than 90 minutes.

Chuck began (and, frankly, ended) in the deep South, with a plan to roll up the colonies starting with Georgia and moving north. On my first turn, I mostly tried to place a couple of PC markers to hook up my areas of influence, but it was a paltry effort given my hand. On turn two, things went better - I got the Declaration of Independence card that allows me to place an additional PC marker in every colony, resulting in 12 more markers on the board, and a near lock-up on the NE seaboard. To make things tougher on the Brits, Washington attacked Howe in Boston, forcing him to retreat to Quebec to avoid winter attrition.

In the next turn, Washington took Boston and New England would never be threatened again by British troops. Meanwhile, the British attacked a strong army led by Benedict Arnold (who thought better of treachery in our game than in real life), and was repulsed soundly. To make matters worse, the Brits lost three CUs and lost their Regular Troops bonus in combat. Shortly thereafter, Cornwallis reinforced the British in the south, pushing Arnold out of the area, but with his troops largely intact.

On turn four, Chuck was forced to allow the French to intervene, and they helped root the British out of Virginia, shutting down every port north of the winter attrition line. We then engaged in a "Race to Long Island Sound" in the New York Colony, with Chuck managing to take the colony by one marker, but an advance by Green to the area and a lack of British staunchness (no 3 ops cards or campaigns) turned the area back over to me. At this point, we were in 1779, and I'd drawn a North's Government Falls card for that year, so if Chuck didn't have a NGF card in a later year (he was going second, as I'd needed to take a couple of PC spaces), and if we could trade PC counts in NY, I'd have the game won. In fact, that's exactly what happened - he was forced to fight in the south, which did nothing but lock up the Carolinas, states he already controlled, and I won at the end of the turn with exactly 9 colonies firmly on my side.

This is definitely a game that needs to come out more often for me. There are problems - a bad Strategy hand can kill you at the wrong time, there are no Reserve cards in the Battle Deck to give players more options, and a good reference card is sorely needed to cover things like where you can move to ports, where you get reinforcements, interceptions and withdrawals, and retreat rules, as well as victory conditions. However, considering we went from 0 to 60 and finished the game within two hours means that you can always just turn the board around and play the opposite side again if you end too early. Compare with Twilight Struggle, where you can play for four hours, *then* get the Hand Of Death. Hard to enjoy that sort of game!

Thanks again to Chuck for making my birthday pleasant, especially as I am forced to miss Chris's Beach Weekend retreat next week because of a choir concert I'm involved with.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Face it Doug, your Hero was just a wussy in disguise. Besides, he couldn't find us with all that wonderful smoke my mortar placed. It was another sub-par CC game as I felt like I "won" due to flukey card draws. Also, once we re-remembered that my flamethrower cancelled all cover you were literally and figuratively toast. How lucky was I? Let's see, getting the Veteran marker early on the Pioneer with the Flamethrower, getting the radio right before I drew two Artillery Request cards, having the Smoke land in the perfect square, drawing a "10" Smoke on the square with your HMG, finding the Flamthrower after it broke, etc. etc. I think my 6 year nephew could have won this game.

You did play WtP quite well though, particularly in getting your PC markers in critical choke points. Also, being bold by splitting up Greene and Washington in the North was also an excellent move. I completely agree that this game needs to hit the table more frequently.