Saturday, August 25, 2007

WBC West Report, Day 5

Day 4 was not the best day so far, but Day 5 was to prove considerably more interesting. Similar to Day 3, we played two copies of the same game side by side, in this case A Victory Lost. I was very disappointed with the IGA's decision to give the Historical Game Award to this game, although I have publicly stated that my issue was that Combat Commander was such a great game that I couldn't imagine that any other game could (or should) beat it out. Now that I've had a game of AVL under my belt, I will admit that AVL should have won - in any other year but this one. It is a great game, one that will see a *lot* of play solitaire, but I stand by my assertion that CC:E is more deserving.

There have been many games based on the Russian winter offensive cut short by General Manstein's brilliant riposte, the so-called "backhand blow" that stopped the advance dead in it's tracks. As it was, it only delayed the inevitable, and in fact probably allowed the Western Allies to get into much of Germany before the Russians. Interestingly, GMT published a game some years ago entitled "Lost Victory," so AVL gets no points for original titles, but fortunately that's a nit at worst. GMT also published Manstein's Backhand Blow, a game in the otherwise unpopulated Schwerpunkt series that uses some interesting mechanisms that I can't recall.

At it's heart, AVL is an old-school hex-and-counter wargame with very familiar systems. Combat is resolved with a single die-roll, and avoiding attacker damage is guaranteed on 3-1 odds. While not quite as old-school, the chit pull system has been used in many games over the past 10 years at the very least, and is not really terribly innovative. Where the design shines is in the limitations placed on the chit pull system. The Soviet Union begins the game with several HQ units, three of which enter the game as it progresses, but the Russian may only select five of them for pulls. As such, early in the game the German player won't be sure which Soviet HQs will activate. Of those five, the Russian only can put three in the cup, although they do get a STAVKA chit that allows them to activate the entire board. Also, HQs may activate *any* unit, making the color coding useful only for setup and historical interest.

The Germans, on the other hand, have some interesting things happening. They have every HQ potentially available every turn, but are limited to a varying number of chits to put in the cup each game. Early on, they only get three, so their ability to respond to the oncoming Russians is very limited and it is likely that they will be pushed back to the Don/Donets river system in the first half of the game. However, the number increases as time goes on (up to six chits), plus they get two Manstein chits on turns 3 and 5. While these chits count toward their limit, they allow the German to activate any one HQ. As such, it is possible for one HQ to activate units for movement/combat three times in a single turn. As the Germans can also choose to redraw a Manstein counter (they must take the redrawn chit), they get a tremendous amount of flexibility in their operations. It is this system that demonstrates the differences between the two command structures in an incredibly simple and effective manner, and what separates this game from most of the rest of the pack.

A few other notes on the game: The map is very nice, although a bit oversized for the standard 34"x22" poster frame, so a plexiglass sheet has to be used if you want a flat map (we used the map sans prophylactic, and it worked just fine). One very strange item is that all of the mech counters on both sides have two different counters, the only difference being that one set uses images of vehicles, while the other uses a NATO-like system that represents tanks as parallelograms and mech infantry as a geometric halftrack. It is very hard to parse the map with these symbols (the tanks in particular), so we used the image counters. Kind of a strange design decision under any circumstances, even if one is trying to advocate a more modern-looking symbology. In essence, a waste of counters. The rules are very clean in general, and filled with quite a few good examples. If anything, I would have liked to have had a listing of the effect of major rivers on the various systems - an excellent example is how command range is limited by unbridged major rivers, but not zones of control. A cheat sheet on the back of the largely non-useful play sequence card (which is blank) would have been helpful. And, of course, the box is flimsy. Do *not* put other games on top of this box, especially heavy games like C&C: Ancients. These are all minor nits, of course.

Chuck and Mike had played this game a couple of times in the past, so Tex and I played each other. As an example of how easy the game is to learn, it took me 15 minutes to run through the rules without prep, and we had few questions other than to establish how the major rivers worked. And we referenced that a *lot*. I did blow one rule early on, activating one Soviet HQ for movement *and* combat, when it should have been just combat, but otherwise we played a pretty clean game. What did kind of sour the game start was that Tex drew three of his chits at the start of the game, making it much harder for me to make headway early. I did get some good chit sequencing later, but the effectiveness of Manstein was demonstrated around turn 4 when he activate about half of his tank units in the Don River Bend area three times in a row, demolishing my units that had crossed the Don, including units that had come on the board from the Caucasus into the area one impulse before. That was pretty much the end of the game for me, and it does put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm. However, unlike Gettysburg, this can be mitigated by maintaining a certain amount of depth in one's backfield, but it does make it difficult to advance successfully unless you get the sequence just right. The game can definitely swing on how the chits come out, so I suspect that while this one will come out for ftf play on occasion, it will be the solitaire experience that I will enjoy the most.

After a delicious fried chicken dinner provided by Mimi, Chuck and his wife headed out for dinner on their own and the rest of us pulled out Manifest Destiny, a very nice and clean game based on Age of Renaissance. The game was clearly pushed out the door by GMT to satisfy some sort of publishing agreement, as the graphics and components are not that far off from the playtest version I saw at the real WBC some years ago. Still, most of the accounting has been removed from the game (the third epoch of AoR requires pencil and paper, which is banned from tournament play to avoid players recording how much money each other player has), and in almost every case the game has ended up very clean if not as polished as one would hope. The components also have problems - the cubes you use for expansion require you to differentiate "established" provinces from "expansion" provinces, and the game comes with little square stickers for you to put on the cubes. I do not possess this level of coordination, especially on teeny tiny cubes, so we just put black dots on one side of each cube. This is hard to see on some of the darker colors. Given that this game was so well playtested, it's kind of annoying that the components and artwork were so obviously thrown together, but in the end the game is a winner, at least in my book.

The game works pretty well with three players, and things went pretty smoothly. We did have a lot of rules questions that could have easily been handled with a cleaner ruleset, and some things aren't really covered in the FAQ, but in general we figured out what we needed to. Note to developers - nomenclature in a game like this is *critical*. Define everything, then use those definitions and use them consistently. Also, throwing in every exception for every case (which comes up a lot because every advance and breakthrough means you augment or break a rule) makes for a tedious read. I wanted to clean up these rules when the game first came out, and I bogged down in trying to cleanly describe the start of the game. Interestingly, the system I intended to use ended up being used by Chad Jensen in Combat Commander, although I am under no illusion that he got the idea from me.

Despite getting my Profit up over 50 and keeping it there the entire game (I got to 100 at one point), I was behind the curve on the Breakthrough track (the "roll the dice and see what happens!" part of the game, and perhaps the biggest flaw in the design - it is possible to win or lose based on how you roll one set of dice), and in the end Tex won with 31 points at the same time that the deck ran out, with me right behind at 30. I'd thoughtfully notified him of the presence of one 1VP breakthrough (Storytelling) that had not been claimed, which he then grabbed on the next to last turn, so I have only myself to blame.

I really like the game, but I think I need to clean up the meat of the rules for quick reference rather than wade through the ridiculous published rules and FAQ in order to enjoy it more. There are a few ambiguities as well, but this is one of my favorite games of this type and it *will* see play in the future.

By now it was very late, and it was time for bed. All in all, even though Tex edged me twice in one day, it was a very enjoyable day and I got to play one new game I enjoyed and another old favorite. One more full day, hard to believe the time goes by so quickly...

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