Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tide of Iron: First Glance

It's been a great year for anyone wanting to enjoy tactical level WWII-era wargaming. Combat Commander came out at the end of last year, the ASL Starter Kit line added tanks, and a little company called Fantasy Flight had a game coming out that had pretty much all the buzz of the iPhone, at least among gamers. It would have the ability to create specialized squads, have a large array of double-sided semi-geomorphic maps (and hex overlays), and would be easy to learn and play. What we got, instead, was Tide of Iron.

I will be clear at this point that I am giving my initial impressions of the game after playing one and one-half scenarios rather than a full out review. In order to give a game a full review, I have to play it repeatedly to the point where I rarely look up rules and I feel I have a good grasp of both the system and its idiosyncracies. That is unlikely to happen with ToI.

First up, the components. The basic unit of the game is the squad, which consists of up to four figures that snap into a little plastic base. Or are supposed to, at any rate - the shortcomings of the plastics in this game are extremely well documented and I will not whinge about them here when there is so much else to complain about. There are two basic infantry types, the single man figure and the weapons team figures. Single men come in basic, elite, and officer types, and the figures are a bit difficult to discern on the board without a certain amount of examination. The weapons teams are machine guns and mortars, and are even tougher to tell apart. However, we aren't talking the reprint of Die Macher here, and a good general will know where his men are. However, it's a little harder to keep track of the the other guy's men.

The game also includes trucks, halftracks, and tanks for both sides (Shermans, PzIVs, and Tigers). These minis are all very nice and while the gun barrels tend to need some Viagra, they're all fine. The tanks are a bit large, and fitting two of them and a squad base in a hex along with the various markers could be a problem. I'm happy to see halftracks included, unlike A&A: Bulge, as the trucks are basically sitting ducks (or more likely, ducks who stay the hell away from Op Fire units).

The maps are printed on what appears to be very heavy posterboard, and are about 1/8" thick. While this may seem luxurious, I found it problematic. The original boards, printed earlier in the year, had warpage problems, and I have my suspicions about these as well. Most of the boards have minor warping already, mostly noticeable when placed on the B side. What is more problematic is that you have to line the boards up exactly because of line of sight issues, and the boards tend to slide around quite a bit during play. This may be helped by playing on a fabric surface rather than a wooden table, but then you'd have trouble getting them lined up exactly. Normally, this isn't a big deal, but when most of the maps use 9 or more of the boards, it can be a bit of a pain. The illustrations are just fine, and the game figures blocking terrain takes up the entire hex rather than the actual printed feature, so it's manageable. Overlays tend to be a bit more problematic, although a little removable adhesive would probably help here. You will definitely want some dental floss, string, or a long rubber band, as the boards tend to be at least a couple of feet across.

As with most FFG productions, there are a billion little status markers. Markers to tell you who has moved, who can shoot when someone else is moving, who is pinned/disrupted, which vehicles have taken damage, smoke, mines, wire, pillboxes, entrenchments - It's a lot of stuff to put on the board, and to be frank the board is a little too small to handle the kind of congestions that the game can generate. It is physically impossible to fit three squads, each with two markers, in a hex, and a line of such units would be nearly impossible to keep track of easily. I never played with that sort of unit density, as I was "urged" to keep my units spread out a bit thanks to my opponent's mortars, but then we rarely had more than 15 or so units at a time in the early scenarios. You will want Plano boxes to store the game pieces in, as you'll get very tired of sorting and/or opening lots of little baggies. I was able to fit two boxes of medium height into the box easily once I removed the cardboard insert used for shipping.

The rules are very pretty, and for a wargamer, sort of a good news/bad news item. The good news is that while the language is not as precise as many wargamers will like (for example, a strict reading of the range rules would imply that all fire is done at long range, medium range, and short range simultaneously), pretty much everything is there. Lots of rules holes, which isn't a huge surprise for wargamers who expect their rules to be a first pass out of the box, but the real problem is that it can be difficult to figure out where the specific information is in the book. The writers clearly took a page from Combat Commander in that they put all of the basic rules up front, then covered specifics for each unit and terrain type in the back, but without the excellent clarity of that other title.

The worst part of the printed materials is that they leave out specific information on the player aid sheets. For example, the Engineer specialization is listed as being able to use an action to create an entrenchment on the back of the scenario booklet, but doesn't mention that it also can ignore wire (which itself is not mentioned with the other terrain), nor that such units can remove wire at a cost of 2 MP. For the beginning player, this means that you are learning little exceptions like this well into play rather than *before* you hit the wire. Player aids are always a bit of a bugaboo for games like this, but to leave out elements that are in the very first scenario strikes me as really really dumb.

Setup is a bit of a pain. You are given a list of how many bases each side gets, with "divisions" of each side if you want to play with 3 or 4 players (one of the few really useful elements this game brings to the table), then a list of the various figures you can put in the bases. As such, a scenario takes a good 30 minutes to prep for, even with a well organized Plano box, and about twice as much time as a similar Combat Commander scenario, and about half of that time is plugging the figures into the bases. You also get a list of the specializations for your units. Again, the player aids don't mention that heavy weapons teams can't go in specialized squads, an error we made in our first game that only a close re-read of the rules revealed.

Once you've finally gotten the game set up and know what it is you have to do, you've only started to invest your time. The first scenario, with only about 11-12 units per side, required five hours to play eight "rounds". Did I mention that FFG managed to take the whole "a turn consists of phases, and some of these phases consist of rounds" idea that wargames have used for decades and turn it on its head? Each "turn" is called a "round", and each "round" is called a "turn", so you find yourself taking a lot of action "turns" every "round". I found myself constantly having to reset my thinking as I read the rules to make sure I had this backassward concept down, and I can't imagine anyone who has played more than a handful of wargames would have the same problem. But clearly, this game is *not* intended for wargamers.

So already we're in trouble. A good scenario-based game like ToI should take from 2-4 hours, max. A full game of Shifting Sands should take 5 hours. Breakout: Normandy should take five hours. Given the long set-up/tear-down time, this puts it closer to 6 hours for ToI, and we've officially moved into Major Wargaming Time. To be honest, this is the straw that breaks the camel's back for me, and why I won't spend more time with the system. If I can get in two CC:E games in the time it takes me to play one ToI scenario, forget it.

But there are other reasons to drop this like a hot potato. Smoke, the basic element of an infantry assault, is nearly impossible to lay, and disappears every turn. You lay it in the hex you are *in* instead of adjacent hexes, unlike any other tactical level infantry game I've ever seen. As such, your engineer units are pretty much destroyed in the first few game turns (sorry, "rounds"), and even if you try to beef them back up with Medics, the Medics are likely to get chewed up as well. And if you don't have initiative and your opponent suppresses the team early, they're history. Even building entrenchments is almost guaranteed to kill the engineers if a machine gun (that can Op Fire on any unit in it's LOS) is range. For the advancing player, the game is more like WWI than WWII. With smoke getting removed from the board at the end of every turn, it's just not pretty.

The game does have a few good points. For one thing, you can differentiate between suppressing fire (to slow units down) and normal fire (to eliminate units). However, given that three successful suppression attacks will rout a unit (i.e.; eliminate it), there isn't much reason not to do suppressing fire. Except that leaders and elites make it harder to suppress, while medics make it harder to kill... It's very confusing during the first play, and I looked up which type of fire each unit type helped against about 60 times. Only when I figured out that the figures help against suppression and the specializations helped against normal fire was I able to ignore the player aid. Still, this is something that is a bit more abstract in CC:E, but something I didn't really like as much in ToI.

The other interesting part of ToI is the use of a variety of card decks. Your side can take objective hexes that give command points that can be used to purchase these cards, of which you gain one or two in your "HQ" portion of the board. Some can be used at the end of the turn, some are used during your action rounds. See, there I go again - it should be end of round, action turns. Blech. The cards also include extra capabilities for each side that are "always on", which is also nice but you really don't need a card to explain it if you have it in the scenario special rules. The rules do not make it clear that you won't get to use any command points in the first turn, because you don't have any, despite the rules making a rather pointed attempt to say that you can take control of the space if you set up in it. Which does nothing if you don't get the CP until the command phase after you've checked to see who controls the space. I spent a good 30 minutes verifying this particular foobar of a rule. Frankly, the cards are the only thing that makes the game even vaguely interesting.

So I'm clearly not in the demographic they're shooting for with this game. Who is?

o Axis and Allies players who want something scenario-based.

o People who *really* don't like cardboard counters.

o Light wargamers who felt that CC:E was just too wacky.

For me, the game length kills it straight out. I love CC:E, love the Ambush!-like storytelling that happens as the game progresses, love the clear, concise and well-laid-out rules, love that there are already 15 scenarios out for it with a bunch more coming soon. Especially, that it plays in three hours tops. And the tension is fantastic.

ToI, on the other hand, has poorly organized rules, fewer scenarios, no Russians (yet), no good story, gets bogged down by a single well-placed and in-cover machinegun nest with no hope of assaulting it without effective smoke, and takes about 5-6 hours for the *short* scenarios.

I'm sure the Memoir '44 crowd already loves this game, although I will say that Tide of Iron is a significantly better game than Memoir where a bad hand could kill you (CC:E allows you to cycle cards at a decent rate, while M'44 only allowed you to get rid of one card per turn). Compared to that awful experiment, ToI is a "good" game. Unlike CC:E, you can always activate units to do what you want, assuming it isn't to move across an LOS of a machine gun nest, which struck me as about 3/4ths of the game.

I plan to hang onto my copy for now, just because I may be so bored with World of Warcraft one day that I set up another scenario and solitaire it (the game is quite playable solitaire, again unlike CC:E), but it's gonna need to be a pretty slow day. Then again, if you know me and want a Plano-ed copy for $60, let me know and I'll even deliver it to your door. Then you can find a place to store this loser.

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