Saturday, October 18, 2008

Gaming With Chuck

Chuck came over today, and we got two games in - Red Dragon Rising, a potential-history game positing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan published in Strategy and Tactics, and Storm Over Stalingrad, a Japanese-authored area/impulse game originally from a wargame magazine I'm not familiar with and now republished by Multiman under their IGS flag. 

RDR is a pretty cool little game, and if you can grab that issue of S&T you should. It's a fairly simple game, although hampered by poor rules organization (exactly *how* combat works is spread throughout the rules, with the actual "roll less than or equal to the combat number" rule in the preliminary section on units rather than in combat. There are also several long sections on what the various random events do, as well as what the various "operations" or ops, you can do are, and while I think they were trying to be fairly inclusive there was simply something lost in the editing. We had to look up several clarifications online during the game which could have been handled quite easily with a glossary. We spent ten minutes trying to figure out where the rule that says if you move Russians that there's a 1-6 chance that the Chinese lose immediately, and that was with two of us looking in two different rulesets! 

I'm really not sure what else I should expect from a magazine game, of course, but consider it fair warning. 

I'll also stipulate that this is not a Deans game. By that I mean there are many things that happen as a result of pure luck, including that the entire game ends in a loss by both players. You can literally get this result before anyone touches a piece on the board (but after setup), although it is a 1-300 chance. In our game, I consistently got the right random events to come up while Chuck's came up once or twice. The one good roll Chuck did get was to win the Korean War, which required him to roll a six. This was pretty much after there was any chance of the Chinese actually making it onto Taiwan, and even when he finally brought the airmobile troops in they were wiped out with minimal damage to the US/Taiwanese forces. It wasn't a pretty picture.

Even so, it's a pretty fun little game, if you don't mind too much chaos, and we got 'er done in less than two hours. I definitely recommend spending a little time on ConSimWorld and/or the 'Geek looking for rules questions, though. Still, there are damned few games on this topic (the Fleet series from Victory Games was published back in the 80's and so it uses 25 year old technology - no stealth, for example), and it was certainly entertaining. For me. ;-)

Actually, Chuck enjoyed it as well, and I expect we'll give it another go in the not too distant future. As an added bonus, I would expect us to play to completion in about 90 minutes assuming no extra rules confusion. 

After lunch, we trotted out Storm Over Stalingrad. I got this on the table for a quick single-turn runthrough, which I enjoyed some but wanted to see how it felt against an actual opponent. Most of the area/impulse games are excellent solitaire, as the timer element (the first combat roll of one side or the other determines if the turn ends) adds considerable tension. For those of you familiar with these games, don't expect considerations like resupply (or even supply, for that matter), disruption, or mandatory assaults. There aren't any. In exchange, you can fire from adjacent spaces, the cards take over functions like artillery and airpower, and terrain (surprisingly) plays a fairly small role once both sides are in a firefight. What is there is waiting for your opponent to do something with a stack of units so that you can go after them more easily.

For example, let's say I have a German stack in an area next to a Russian stack, and both sides are in +3 terrain, the most favorable to the defender on the map. If I move or fire with my stack, they first become "spent" which means that a) they can't do anything else that turn, b) they have a slightly lower defense value, and c) they don't get the benefit of the terrain if they fired on an adjacent hex. If I fired on the Russians and missed, now the Russians will get an improved shot at them. Since higher rolls inflict higher more damage, losing four points of defense is pretty bad. For example, if the Russians have 8 attack points to work with, and my best unit is an 11 on defense in a +3 area, that means the Russians have to roll a six just to break even (and in this game, you aren't penalized for blowing a roll, at least other than as I'll demonstrate). That means no result unless you roll a 7 or higher on two dice, about a 56% chance. 

Now assume that the Germans fired and missed the Russians. Now their best defender is at 10 instead of 11, and they lose the terrain bonus because they fired on an adjacent space. Now the Russians need a measly 2 result to break even, almost guaranteeing that they'll get some result. And since a 7 in this case would mean that the Germans would have to spend 5 points reducing, retreating, or eliminating units, that could be bad. In the previous example, they'd have to reduce one unit one step and leave the rest there, now they'd have to reduce at least two, along with retreat and loss. It's a big difference.

Making things harder on the Germans is that most of their units have fairly low movement values (usually two). It costs one point to move to an adjacent area, +1 if you are leaving an area you don't control or that has an enemy unit in it, and another +1 if you are moving to a similar area. As the game progresses, that means many German units can't move forward into a defended space if there's even one unit in their space. And because of the combat rules, it can be difficult to get rid of that unit sitting there. If the Russian keeps feeding units one at a time into the German areas, they just can't advance. In the "classic" Stalingrad area/impulse game, Turning Point: Stalingrad, that breakdown in mobility comes at the cost of rubble. In SoS, it comes from enemy units. I suspect the actual problem came from navigating rubble while people were trying to kill you, so picking one reason in a design for effect effort certainly makes sense. 

We played for about four hours, including setup and perhaps the fastest rules explanation of a wargame I've ever done. Combat Commander takes 30 minutes, this took ten tops (to someone who's familiar with the basic idea, of course). For a newb to area/impulse, I'd say 20 minutes, 30 for a complete noob. Without question, this is the best introduction to area movement-based wargames I've seen. Perhaps the only real flaw in the game is that the board is, due to the nature of the conflict, long and thin and thus doesn't fit in a standard poster frame. Also, the cards make it more difficult to enjoy the tension of what your opponent does or doesn't have in their hand, and Chuck nailed me with at least two really nasty surprises (although to be fair, those Russian Ammo Shortages played on his big 12 point killer stacks in mid-game weren't much fun for him either).  

Multiman has been hitting the ball out of the park recently with this series of Japanese-authored games recently - I'm a huge fan of A Victory Lost, and really like Warriors of God as well - and it's a shame that their pre-order system saw a game on feudal Japan get axed after there weren't enough orders, and a followup game to AVL has had glacial growth and may not survive much longer. That's a real shame, because the Japanese are clearly bringing some very good ideas to wargaming. In fact, games like Warriors of God are hugely popular in Japan, at least compared to the wargaming and/or strategy gaming hobby in the States. They have tons of games like these just waiting to be republished over here, and I think that's a very good thing. 

If you've wanted to dabble in wargaming and think you're ready to take on pushing chits of cardboard around a paper map rather than wood blocks or plastics around a mounted board, this could be your game. Don't expect a lot of historical background in the box other than the game itself, however - there aren't even any designer or developer notes included, although there are hundreds of volumes published on the topic, even in English. What is in the box is one of the best introductory wargames I've seen, one that has enough interest to keep the attention of grognards as well. Be warned, however, the jump from this title to, say, Breakout: Normandy is a large one, and you'd be well served to have a wargamer friend teach you one of the more complex titles in the genre.

Thanks for coming over, Chuck. It was a great day and two very good titles. The day was only made better when we discovered a box from GMT Games on the doorstep as Chuck was leaving, containing not only Pursuit of Glory and the newest Barbarossa title, Kiev to Rostov, but also a replacement SPQR scenario book (the recent reprint had a few scenarios using hex coordinates from the original maps). Kudos to GMT for not only replacing the book, but for figuring out a way to do it that would save them money. 

1 comment:

Mike said...

SoS is a very entertaining game, making for a very solid evening's gaming. MMP are sure producing some excellent games recently.

Chuck's mentioned Dragon to me, as well, but the subject matter just isn't doing it for me. However, I would like to take a gander at it, and you never know.