Sunday, January 25, 2009

Solo Wargames

Fields of Fire has whetted my appetite for solitaire wargames, and I'm working through a few of the ones I have. I may ditch one of my NYRs in favor of getting through at least some of these. Here's what I own, and my take on each:

  • Fields of Fire. Revolutionary system, unlike anything else out there. Demonstrates beyond a doubt that junior officers have the hardest job in the world and they get shot at too.
  • RAF. 80's take on being in charge of the air defense network in 1940 southern Britain during the Blitz. I've only played the first scenario (which lasts maybe seven turns), but it's given me a good sense of the game. Your choices basically boil down to what to put up to patrol, and then how to use those resources. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the real meat comes in deciding how to replace lost resources, as each has a cost in VP. 
  • London's Burning. Early 90's take on the BofB, this time from the POV of a couple of pilots flying around and shooting at aircraft. Unlike RAF, this one includes guessing at altitude the raid is at, coming out of the sun, and other tactical doctrine. The Burning Blue looks to me to be a two-player version of both this and RAF combined.
  • Ambush!/Battle Hymn (and assorted expansions). Great Victory Games title from the late 80's, this one covers tactical combat (each counter represents an individual soldier) on the Western Front c. 1943-45 (Ambush!) or the PTO (Battle Hymn). Very cool idea, especially at the time, but the "make your own adventure" system takes a lot of time to work through and there's little replayability if you've seen the game at all recently. In 2009, this one seems a bit fussy, although there is a VASSAL module that would hopefully make things faster. Open Fire was a tank-based version that was reputedly a bust, and the two-player version (Shell Shock, may have these backwards) was particularly bad. Same guy that did RAF, btw.
  • Carrier. Another Victory Games title from the late 80's, this one about naval combat in the Solomons in 1942, from Guadalcanal through Bougainville. The rules are presented in Programmed Instruction form, which has it's charms (and drawbacks - it's much harder to find rules later on). The biggest problem for me was that this has an extremely detailed sequence of play, and I kept forgetting to move markers when they were supposed to be moved. That and stacks of counters 15 or 20 deep at times. Get this on VASSAL so that it helps you stick to the sequence, and it could be very interesting. Especially interesting is the system for searching and identifying enemy task forces. 
  • Tokyo Express. Actually, I never pulled the trigger to buy this one back in the day, although Dave tells me it's one of his favorites. I should get him interested in Second World War at Sea, as I think it's got a lot of similarities... Also about the Solomons, but specifically about resupplying Guadalcanal through the Slot. I may look for a used copy. 
  • B-17. An incredibly detailed look at bomber command operations in the ETO. You can fly a campaign, tracking your crew and aircraft throughout. Sadly, there are almost zero decisions you make during the game, although I hear that it's a blast at the "real" WBC. Long out of print, there is now a "new" version (B-29, taking place in 1945 PTO bombing Japan) by Khyber Pass Games. 
  • Silent War. Ever want to prosecute the entire submarine war on shipping in the Pacific through WW2? Now you can. This game covers a huge number of possible events, from supporting invasions and surface actions to the fall of the Philippines, to fixing the broken torps the War Department got stuck with when Pearl was bombed. Biggest drawback (while being the coolest mechanism) goes to drawing the target fleets from four different draw cups, which must be reseeded every couple of months (game time). Whatever you do, don't mix them up. The game can go on for quite a long time, so VASSAL is the way to go (and it makes cup seeding relatively painless, although drawing them is a chore). Steel Wolves has been promised for some time, covering the early Battle for the Atlantic, and a followup is planned for the later war in the Atlantic, but SW covers the whole shootin' match. Tip: Sort the 'boats by entry date. Also: This is a design-for-effect game, so don't expect the combat system to reflect actual combat, but a higher level abstraction. Although you *can* track which boats have sunk the most tonnage!
  • Raid on St. Nazaire. 90's Avalon Hill title on the less-well-known attack on the Vichy port where the Germans kept the Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck. The raid was fairly effective, given it's rather modest goals, but it was a huge morale booster for the Brits. The map covers the entire port facility, with spotlights and patrols and even the Campbelltowne that the raiders shot in on. I've tried to pick this one up, but Greenwoodese is a hard language for me to parse without assistance, so this one's never gotten a fair shot.
  • Patton's Best. B-17 with tanks and what appears to be a very novel system. Everything looks like it's sporting an 88mm cannon until you find otherwise, so it's a good idea to find otherwise as quickly as possible. The only game I know of that has a very detailed sequence of play printed on half the map (and getting harder to read all the time). Another 90's AH game that I pull out and try from time to time, but I keep running into either rules that don't make sense or panzerfausts and I lose interest. I'm hoping Matt G will show me how this one is done sometime.
  • Solitaire ASL. Including for completeness, as this is one I am almost certain never to learn. I have the AH edition, and am not sure if MMP ever reprinted it (I don't recall seeing it). I do know that the final "official" module from MMP, Armies of Oblivion, included some errata pages that didn't make much sense (page numbers that didn't fit or didn't exist in my set). I just can't see learning ASL, much less this system. Maybe the Starter Kits will work with it to some extent... Ha. 
  • Field Commander: Rommel. A new series of games from Dan Verssen, each focusing on a different military leader. A very light and enjoyable title that is easy to pick up even if you're not familiar with wargaming per se. Some very novel ideas, such as spending points on "battle plans" with your AI opponent getting a number of equivalent factors that make every battle different. There are also three different campaign games set in three different parts of the war, each with a different unit density, allowing you to learn the system a bit at a time to some extent. An Alexander title is in the works, so hopefully this one will translate time periods well (which I'd expect - combat is very abstracted and most of the tactics and weapons systems of a given period are represented by the battle plan tokens). 
I'm leaving off tons of games that can be played solitaire without too much effort, as well as a few magazine games (Antietam from Command magazine, another one on the Spartans and Persians a la 300 from Against The Odds, a few others), as well as games that have solitaire rules (Blackbeard, either edition). I'm sure someone will point a few out that I've forgotten, even the ones in my collection. The thing is that there's relatively little call for solitaire-specific games, and from a business standpoint it makes much more sense to print games that can be played solitaire but that are intended for ftf  or online play. In fact, of the above titles only Silent War, FC: Rommel, and Fields of Fire have come out in the 21st century, the rest all date back to a time when computers were still relatively novel in most homes, or else the game companies hadn't quite gotten that message just yet. 

For me, having played most of my wargames solitaire between the years of 1981 and 1999, I have a very soft spot in my heart for these titles. Of course, the biggest problem with solitaire games is that you are playing against a system, and the outcome, assuming you have some idea of how to play against it, will depend rather heavily on how the luck-dependent elements come out. Get a spot of bad weather, for example, in any Battle of Britain game, and things will start looking up, at least a bit. That's why the long games are so much more interesting, as they become about the story instead of about whether you are winning or losing. However, it's very easy for these titles to become a series of repeated actions where the only real differentiation is how the luck elements play out. 

Still, there will always be room on my shelf for these games, which seemed at the time to be the deathknell of board wargaming. In truth, we're nearing the end of a Belle Epoque (IMHO) of wargaming, which the sour economy will only accelerate. In a few years, I suspect that many of the companies we love to support that don't have deep pockets (MMP comes to mind) will have closed their doors. Given the aging of the hobby's population, it's hard to say if we'll ever have the incredible creativity and depth of titles that we're seeing now. It's a very good thing I have so many games I've never played, as I'll be able to pull them out in 20 years when the hobby is all but dead and enjoy them. If I can read the damned rules and see the counters, that is.

6 comments:

Mike said...

Oddly enough, I've just recently sold 5 of the solo games on that list (some of them to you!).

> In a few years, I suspect that many of the companies we love to support that don't have deep pockets (MMP comes to mind) will have closed their doors.

As it has the ASL franchise, which, given the speed with which the games hit their Pxxx numbers, often seems to be a license to print money, I think they're one of the safer companies.

> It's a very good thing I have so many games I've never played, as I'll be able to pull them out in 20 years when the hobby is all but dead and enjoy them.

That's what I keep telling myself. Plus any games we don't get around to will be worth big $$$$.

> If I can read the damned rules and see the counters, that is.

I can just see us poring over the maps in our future years, big magnifying glasses to hand.

Luke Sineath said...

Your comments at the end sure are depressing; but I suppose they may be true. At 31, I've always been the youngest wargamer I've ever known.

Sad, because I think this is a great hobby. But don't you think there are maybe more wargamers nowadays? Doesn't it seem to be growing, due to sites like BGG?

Dug said...

>> In a few years, I suspect that many of the companies we love to support that don't have deep pockets (MMP comes to mind) will have closed their doors.

>As it has the ASL franchise, which, given the speed with which the games hit their Pxxx numbers, often seems to be a license to print money, I think they're one of the safer companies.

Actually, it will be because of the deep pockets of the owner, Kurt Schilling. Although he's more or less moved on from ASL to MMORPGs (and even has an occasional presence on the WoW podcast "The Instance"), he has shown no desire to pull the plug on the company that he provided seed money for. I suppose there are other wargame companies with a sugar daddy at hand, but I'm unaware of them. Most are run on spit, love, and preorders.

Dug said...

>Sad, because I think this is a great hobby. But don't you think there are maybe more wargamers nowadays? Doesn't it seem to be growing, due to sites like BGG?

My short answer is that I believe that the internet allowed the hobby to survive about ten years longer than it really should have. Without being able to play and discuss the games with other aficionados, I don't know that the hobby would be as healthy as it's been over the past 10 to 15 years.

However, I think that while there are new players coming on line, it won't be enough to keep a critical mass in the long term. Add in an economy that, while probably good for gaming as a whole, will almost certainly hit the niche hobbies the hardest, and we're in for some short-term pain. Avalanche having trouble finding a good printer that can stay in business, GMT cutting way back on their production schedule (a good thing, I think - I'm for them paying a little more attention to the quality of the entire package that has their name on it), these are signs of the apocalypse.

Plus, if I believe that these games will one day no longer be available, it gives me an excellent excuse to buy as many as I possibly can now.

As in the 90's, the thing that will resuscitate board wargaming will be technology. Make it shiny and interesting, and the parakeets will flock to it. If it makes the games cheaper to produce and distribute, all the better. So there is some hope. I still think it's going to end up a lot like stamp collecting once we get to the point where all our correspondence becomes digital.

EastwoodDC said...

I played my way through many of the Ambush! scenarios back when it came out, and since then I've forgotten so many of the details I could probably play them again like they were new.

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