Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tuesday Gaming

This has been and will continue to be a very busy gaming week for me. I had gaming experiences on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and another one coming on Saturday. 

Tuesday was our group's regular game night, and this time it was Mike's turn to host. Present were Greg, Dave, Mike, and myself, and on the table were Airships, Rheinlander, and Sieben Siegal.

Airships is a Queen release that Mike had asked Greg to bring by. It's a game with a very strong luck element that may be mitigated by planning and decision points. You are the CEO of an airship line, trying to get better airships, better pilots, better engines, etc. There are seven different types of cards that become available over the course of the game, six of which you are only allowed one active card up at a time. You start with the ability to roll two white dice per turn, which give 1-3 points per roll each. You pick a card you are trying for, roll your dice, then pick the dice you want to use to take the card, which has a target point value on it. If you get the card, you put in in that "suit's" slot on your play mat and get the benefit that it provides. If not, you have the option to use one "bonus" chit to up your score by one. If you don't get anything, you get a bonus chit as consolation. Regardless, you may then spend three bonus chits to take a shot at another card, regardless of whether you were successful or not. 

As an example: You have 2 white dice to roll, and you choose to go after a card that you have to roll 2 or more on one white die to take it, and if you have it on your play mat it will give you an extra white die to roll. You roll both dice, rolling a 3 and a 1. You "discard" the 1, as you can only count the points on one die, and since 3 is higher than the target value of two, you get the card and will have three dice to roll next turn.

If you rolled two 1's in the above example, you could (if you had one in your pool) choose to burn one of your bonus tokens in order to bump your total up to the 2 target value. Had the target value instead been 3, you would be out of luck if you rolled two 1's as you can only bump up your dice values by one at the most, although you would get a bonus chit as consolation.

Over the course of the game you add red and then black dice, and the bonuses that cards give you range from adding one to the value of a specific colored die, give you an extra die that always rolls a certain value, give you more bonus chits, give you extra colored dice, give you victory points. If you take an airship, you also get the "blimp" figure, which gives you an automatic +1 to your dice total, right up until someone else takes it from you. The best way to use the blimp is to save up three bonus chits, take a cheap airship, then use the tokens to take an extra shot at a card with the +1. While the chits would give you three shots at +1's, getting those extra cards, especially ones with VP, is important and thus worth spending the chits in that fashion.

The seventh suit is airships, and you can collect as many of these as you want. All they do is give you VP, but they also act as a timing mechanism in a manner that I choose not to elaborate on at this time. There is also the Hindenburg, which you can attempt to get points for after one of the four stacks of airships becomes empty. In our game, we never got to that point, and I think that perhaps we were not aggressive enough in going after airships in general, and despite feeling like the exact card I wanted had been snatched by the person ahead of me. However, I won on a tiebreaker by leaving exactly one airship in each pile on the board (I think there are only three). Go figure. 

While there are, at any point in time, 10 or more cards on the board to choose from, often you have to spend a little time thinking about what it is you need to do to get better cards and airships in a general sense, as the chances of a card  you particularly want sticking around for an entire round is fairly unlikely. As such, it's mostly a tactical exercise with a fair amount of luck with the dice (I got very lucky on my final rolls, despite having no bonus chits to help me out). I'd happily play again, but I'm unlikely to add it to my collection. 

Next up was Rheinlander, which came out several years ago as a Europe-only release from Parker Bros. I remember this game because it had relatively lukewarm buzz at the time, and Dave wanted me to get it so that he could see if it was any good. ;-) Despite having absolutely no idea of how the game worked for the first several turns, I came in dead last. That said, there's some potential here, although the Acquire-like knight placement rules (there is more flexibility than in Acquire, which turns almost entirely on your ability to generate money by setting up to have your chains taken over, and thus either depends on you getting the right tiles or someone else playing the right tiles), and the weird slug-antennae on the plastic horses put me off a bit. However, I think this is a game I'd consider getting if the price was right. 

Sorry there's no full explanation of the rules, but a) I'm not sure I have them down right (Mike did the 'splainin', which is not to say he didn't do a good job but that I was tired and wasn't listening as well as usual), and b) I'm all 'splained out.

Last up was Sieben Siegel, also known as Zing! for those of the Simply Fun bent. We were looking to go into a particularly tight fourth round when we discovered that there'd been a misdeal and I'd gotten one of Greg's cards, and as such Greg didn't lose 6 points and instead went on to win handily. I'm fairly certain I beat Dave out by one point for third. You take the wins where you can get them. Particularly interesting were the relatively high scores, which were pushing the mid-teens after four hands for three of us, which means lots of wacky card distribution. Still my favorite trick-taking game, if for no other reason than you can play with any number between three and five and it feels different with each number (and you must choose your trick tokens accordingly). 

Next session is at my place, as Chris will be out of town (he picks up the slot on the 17th, then back to the previously established calendar). 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Combat Commander: Stalingrad Campaign Pt 1

Matt R came over on Monday night for our regular 3rd Monday light wargaming. I'd had to push our regular session out a week, but we had fun just the same. At least, I did. 

We'd both been wanting to try out the campaign game rules for the new Stalingrad Battle Pack, which allows players to generate new scenarios based on past performance. This is a great idea, and something that people were asking for almost immediately after Combat Commander was first published in late 2006. While it's over two years later and there's only one campaign published, at least there's something. And frankly, this is an excellent first attempt. 

First off, the Stalingrad BP comes with a bunch of new rules, some of which can be retrofitted to any CC scenario, specifically the new stacking, melee, and rubble rules. Pacific uses all three, as do the variant rules in the latest C3i magazine (#21), and I think they improve the game considerably. I also really like the new Urban Sniper rule that gives you something when your sniper rolls don't give you anything. In a nutshell, I now have a prayer at winning melee, as you can stack over 7 points in a hex without being forced to lose steps (there's a penalty to cover), and you can pile up the units in Melee, and even bring more units into the fight as it doesn't actually start until the beginning of the Axis player turn (in CC:E/M/Stal, in CC:P it's the start of the Allied turn - this reflects the willingness of the Japanese and the Russians to engage in close combat more often). 

The campaign game works a bit like a set of semi-randomly generated scenarios, and in fact use the rules as listed in the CC:Med box, as well as maps from that set. Rather than just roll up units, however, you have a pool of "platoons," one of which is always available and the others can be used up as you wish. There's also a chance that you'll add another platoon to your pool after each scenario, as well as having the units that survived the previous encounter coming back as reinforcements over time to the next battle. Each platoon affects your initiative level, the number of orders each side will get, starting VP, and who will be the attacker/defender in each scenario. It's a very clever system, and one that should make for some fun gaming over the coming months. 

You win in one of two ways: First, if you win a battle as the attacker at your opponents "backfield" (the game uses the term Campaign Position, but there are also Campaign Platoons and Command Platoons, so it's a terrible choice as they use the acronym CP throughout the rules for Campaign Position). The other way to win is if, once you've played five or more scenarios, if a Sudden Death Roll ends the campaign in much the same way as it ends a scenario. In that case, whoever won the most recent game wins. Take that as you will.

The benefits of winning a scenario are threefold: First, you may advance one or more Campaign Positions, of which there are five, depending upon the posture (attacker/defender/recon) of the winning player. Second, you can either bump up the quality of your Command Platoon one level, or drop the quality of your opponents. Not a huge deal as it only really affects what teams you get for disintegrating squads as well as between three and five units in one platoon, but there's a difference. Finally, you get to roll twice on the reinforcement table and get to pick which one you want. That *is* a big deal, as there are 13 out of 36 possible rolls that will automatically get you no reinforcements at all, and any existing Campaign Platoons don't count either, so getting anything at this step is a plus. 

Matt and I each chose the same campaign platoon to add to our forces, the one with the better infantry. I picked mine (I was the Soviets) because of the Molotov Cocktail launcher, which saw one use and then never got fired again (it has the potential to go BOOM in a big way, either in the target space or in the launch space). Neither of us ended up rolling on the Support table as we were even on VP at that point. I got the initiative, we each got three orders, and the Sudden Death was set at 6. All of this is determined by your choices of platoons at the start, incidentally.

I set up my elite rifle platoon in the center of the board, with one team and a medium MG set up to my left to prevent any funny business on that side of the board on Objective 2. As it turned out, there was no funny business to be had over there anyway. Objective 5 was in that area, and I knew from my secret objective that it was going to be worth at least 5 points (1 was public, 4 was secret). The other platoon, the command platoon of Rifle squads, went near the objective on the right side of the board to protect that flank.

The board has a lot of gullies, which we forgot to notice Matt had set a main unit in which meant he couldn't use it for fire (you can only fire at adjacent hexes from a gully, and vice versa), although he did get a bunch of shots off early. For most of the game he advanced on my position on that side of the board, but to little effect.

The meat of the game occurred in the center, however, where I got lucky early and killed off Matt's leader. Because of the new stacking rules (you can have as many men in a hex as you want, but there's a cover penalty), I was able to Advance two squads in repeatedly into the hexes in the forest around Objective 5, and near the end of the game (Time 5, one away from SD), I was on the verge of taking this important hex. As we were still at 0VP after some back and forth, this was a very important space for me. Matt managed to drive off adjacent units a couple of times, and break them, and at one point I drew a Time! trigger that I decided to force a reroll of with the Initiative as I was fairly certain that I'd lose the game - those extra five points would put Matt into the win if he controlled 5, not knowing what else he had for his secret objective. 

Now Matt had the Initiative, but I was finally ready for my final push, and was pretty sure I'd win the Melee combat were I just able to get it going. Sure enough, I finally had the units in place (I already had the Advance card), plus an Ambush card. However, I foolishly decided to use a Fire action during the same turn to try to use up two more cards, as the Melee wasn't going to happen until I'd refreshed my hand, and I was hoping for another Ambush. Sure enough, Matt drew a Time! trigger, and he had the Initiative. He failed the roll, however, and used the Initiative to reroll, and failed again. I won the Melee, cleared out the center of the board, and could now exit units more or less at will and the game was over.

It turned out that Matt would have indeed won had he been able to succeed at the SD roll. His secret objective was 3VP for every objective. We were at 0VP, and he would have gotten 6VP for his two objectives, plus another five for Obj 5, for a total of 11, while I would have had 9. In the end, I won by more than 20vp, but only because I was able to bring so many units off of the board, and I was able to take the last objective as well on my way off of the board (Matt was down to just two or three units on the board. 

As such, I was able to turn a defeat into a victory despite being stupid enough to force a firefight that would potentially trigger Time! What wasn't so great for Matt was that I had ten units still on the board, and half of those are coming back next scenario as reinforcements, although they trickle into the game up to seven stacking points per Time advancement. I also improved my quality to Elite, and picked up another campaign platoon (the weakest, but I'll take it). We move to GE1 for the campaign position, which is the flat part of the mountain below the peak but above the ravines that we'd just played on. Since we were both Recon, I could only advance one position. 

I was very pleased with the Urban Sniper rule, as well as the new stacking and melee rules, and I'll press to use these in future scenarios as variants even if they aren't part of the core rules.

We finished up with me teaching Matt to play Hill 218, a very cute, fast, and interesting card game with a war theme. As usually happens with this game, the experienced player won, although Matt was pressing me pretty closely at times. Note to newbs - save an Air Strike and a Special Forces unit to make that diagonal dash into the enemy base. I won twice with that combo, and the SF unit was at the bottom of my deck the first game (where I'd put it for the discard). Highly recommended, and the only luck in the game is how you draw the cards.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fields of Fire - Taught

A few entries ago I discussed teaching Fields of Fire to a few friends. Today, I did a tremendous amount of 'splainin' to Mike, Jesse, and our host Chris. Judging by how people reacted to the game and how they did in terms of starting to understand the system, I'm going to call it a success.

Here's what I outlined as my process the other day, with comments on how it went:

1) Generate mission logs - I did in fact do this ahead of time, using a basic assignment of assets to various platoons. This was a good idea and I'd do it again because it saved so much explaining and got people into the game quicker.

2) Lay out the maps and discuss how they work - Another natural progression that worked pretty well. Of course, we had to go back over things as the game progressed, but it was necessary to move to the next step.

3) Discuss the mission and how it would progress - Also important so that people felt they had a sense of what they were trying to do. This worked out particularly well with Chris' board (we had two set up), where he had a very clear line of advance due to cover and favorable terrain toward his attack point and objectives, which immediately ran into a minefield/sniper combo and he had to work around it. Understanding the goals in advance helped considerably here.

4) Set up the units and examine the "good ground" - Really part of 3 above. I set up units with the idea that 1st platoon would be the "main" thrust, 2 the support, and 3 cleaning up any areas that were outside the main thrust area. I can't express how important this is to teaching the game, as gamers like to have clear goals and know how to achieve them. FoF has an incredibly "real" feel, and the more real you can make things the better. Unfortunately, this is nearly impossible to explain in a rulebook.

5) Play the game, focusing on the sequence of play - What I learned here was that not only is the SoP critical, but especially the third phase, the Command phase where you pretty much have every decision point in the game. I did discuss Chain of Command before we played, but glossed over a lot of elements of play such as fire types, range, LATs. People had looked at the game before, but these are things that get in the way of front-loaded explanations, and are better left for in-game 'splainin'. 

6) Continuation - Part of what made the clinic so successful was that there were *two* games going on at once. Chris' mines/sniper was a nice thing to run into, but nearly useless in terms of understanding how Enemy Actions work, so having Jesse's board run into multiple contacts was *very* useful for not only seeing those actions, but also how PDF/VoF is generated. 

In fact, we made it through exactly two turns. I never got around to vehicles, casualty transport in anything other than a conceptual sense, or post-mission clean up, but frankly those were beyond my goals for the day, which was to get people to a point where not only were they comfortable with the core mechanisms, but also enthusiastic about the game itself. 

We got to cover grenade attacks, snipers, arty, mines, ammo, experience level, breakdown of squads, spotting, concentrated fire, keeping track of various game elements, all the things I wanted to see covered. Part of that was luck of the draw in terms of potential contacts, and in the future I might "roll" the contacts for people just so they get to see how things work. 

Total time was about three hours to get through two full turns. Everyone (even Mike!) liked the game quite a bit, seeing how novel and exciting the system can be. I also discussed some of the other types of missions, including LZ drops in 'Nam where you don't even know what the board will look like until you get there. 

As such, I consider this clinic to be extremely successful, and a model that I'll use in the future if I ever get the chance to teach this game again. As I said before, people had a fairly good idea of the concept going in, it was just a matter of putting the pieces together for them. Once the VASSAL module finally comes out (and it's hard to complain about a volunteer effort like this taking so long) I feel like I have a much better sense of how to put things together, and I'll almost certainly follow this path when I put that video-based training together. 

As everyone in my group knows, I'm happy to answer questions at any time, but I'm also happy to answer questions about this game if any of my readers would like help. I'm also happy to do another clinic like this one in the future locally if there's a need. 

Thanks to Mike, Jesse, and Chris for being guinea pigs on this one, I hope that it was as successful for them as it was for me.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Regular readers of this blog know that I'm not a Christian, and that my world view can best be described as devout agnostic. Every once in a while I run into a situation that strikes me as a little too convenient to have been just random chance, and this is one of those situations. It's why I've never made the leap of faith to being a full-blown atheist, although I do admit to standing firmly on the precipice.

A little background information first:

When I was in high school, I played in a rock band. We were terrible, there's no question of that, although we did do quite a few gigs around town for proms, parties, etc, but rarely club gigs (that was when I was in college). This story involves two of the people in this band, Lori and Greg. 

Lori was our female vocalist, and I suspect rather strongly the reason we got any bookings at all. She has continued to be a professional musician as far as I can tell for her entire life. I've have very little contact with her outside of two class reunions, both of which we performed at, either with the original band or sitting in with the band playing at the reunion. Greg was our guitarist, and while he's a great guy and a good friend to this day, and we've kept in touch on and off over the years. 

When I was in college, Greg had gone off to join the Air Force, but the band continued with a different guitarist and bassist for a couple of years. During this time, we purchased a small PA system, nothing special, that Lori, myself, and the bass player owned collectively. The bass player and Lori did not get along well at all, and eventually the band broke up after my sophomore year, although the bass player and I formed up another band that played out for another year or so before it too fell apart. That's the nature of bands, I guess.

What is important is that when Lori left, she was never cashed out for her investment in the PA, which was $170. I ended up with the PA "head" (the part with the amp and mixer), and the bassist ended up with the speaker cabinets. When we split up the equipment, I paid the bassist in such a fashion that I was technically not responsible for paying Lori back for it - in other words, I paid him Lori's part of the PA head, or $85. The bassist didn't really care if he owed Lori money, and in fact insisted on this arrangement. I went along with it, but it's bugged me that, at least ethically, Lori never got reimbursed for this equipment. The PA head is long gone (I sold it in 1987), but the "burden" of knowing that someone got screwed out of their piece of the pie has stuck with me to the present day.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I sold one of my old Macs to Greg, who wanted to screw around with Garageband (apparently he never leaves the room with the computer now). I gave him a very good deal, as I always do with friends who buy my old gear, and when I went to deliver the computer to him, he told me that he'd recently become born again and that as part of his examining his life he needed to come clean with me about something he'd done back when we were in high school. At one point we'd rehearsed in my parent's basement for a few weeks during the summer where my father kept his wood shop. For reasons that escape Greg at this time, he'd stolen a hand plane from my Dad, and since he's moved very little over the past 20 years, it's stayed with him. 

Every time Greg saw this plane in his garage, he'd feel badly about having taken it. Wanting to be "right with the Lord" he decided to get it cleaned up and give it back to me, being unable to give it to my father as he's been dead for nearly 15 years. So it was that when I brought his new computer to him, he explained what he'd done and presented me with the plane. 

I'll be very clear here - this is the reason that Greg and I have been friends for so long. He's that kind of people, the kind who value their friends enough to not only want to (eventually) resolve these sorts of burdens, but to carry them in the first place. He felt terrible about having done this, and too embarrassed to put it right, at least until he felt that he had an obligation to put it right. He was terrified that I'd be disappointed in him, although I thought it was cute more than anything else. For one thing, my father had about a bazillion hand tools and to my knowledge never noticed that this one plane was missing. In fact, when my mother asked me to catalog and box up the various tools he'd had in their attic after his death, it took 35 boxes to hold them all. The hand saws alone took up five boxes, the planes another three. In a sense, Greg's youthful indiscretion had actually *saved* me time and effort, although in a small way.

Of course I immediately forgave Greg for having stolen something, even if it was from my father rather than from me, and since he'd gotten it all cleaned up I gave it back to him and told him to use it as a way to tell others (particularly teens) about how your deeds follow you through your entire life, even the simple stupid ones, and that the best way to deal with them is to 'fess up and try to make things right. Greg was very surprised by this reaction, but it sure felt like the obvious choice to me. I told him that I had a couple of these burdens in my life as well, including the debt I at least morally owed to Lori for this PA. 

And here's where life comes and hits me upside the head. A friend of mine who belongs to the University Club took Mel and I out for dinner last weekend. This is the kind of place that I am generally uncomfortable in - while I consider myself to be well-educated, I'm not a big fan of pretension or ostentation. Of course, that's all in the eye of the beholder, but in my case I draw the line at exclusivity. I had joked to Mel that she would know people from the club (she did, a couple of agents from a real estate agency Mel had done office management work for), while I would know people from the band. 

Early in the evening, Mel asked if the female vocalist in the band was Lori. I looked over at her, and was pretty sure it was not in fact Lori, but I must need a new prescription for my glasses because it was indeed her. Unfortunately, I didn't notice until late in the evening, and while we did exchange a hug in the middle of the set, I didn't get a chance to speak with her when the band took their next break because our hosts needed to leave before then. 

It was a day later that it occurred to me that perhaps this was my chance to put down my own burden, small as it was. While I wasn't able to get specific information about the band, I was able to find an address for Lori online and am sending her a letter this very day asking her to contact me so that I can take care of some old business. 

In the name of full disclosure, there was a time when I was in college and Lori and I were still in a band together when I had hoped to date her, and she ended up with the guy who she eventually got married to. That's an entirely different story, of course, but it should be noted that I was very attracted to her at one time. We had a very good stage relationship, and I've always enjoyed working with her. I also recognize that we would have been a terrible couple for many reasons and got over the rejection within a short amount of time. 

The point of all of this is the synchronicity of these events coming together within a very short period of time. While I'm still of the opinion that if there's a Christian God (or any other kind, for that matter) that wants me to believe in Him/Her/It, that there are better and more straightforward ways than throwing the occasional wild coincidence into my life. Certainly not with a Bible that's been translated and retranslated with political ends in mind for the last 4000 years. However, it does make me wonder if there isn't some sort of active intelligence behind the scenes that gives the occasional nudge in the right direction and in my best interest. It's clear that my "owing" Lori money all these years, no matter how little and no matter how tentatively, has stuck with me enough to know that it's time for me to take care of the situation, no matter if it's me that owes her the money or someone else. 

What also surprises me is that it took faith for Greg to come around to putting down his own burden, although of course by extension that means that his faith is helping me to put my own down as well. All I know is that this is the part of organized religion that I like - the nudge to do the right thing in a given circumstance, no matter how long ago the wrong was committed. 

If you read this and think of old burdens that you'd like to put down, and do so, then Greg's faith will be even more justified, and there's something about that that I find tremendously encouraging, even if I myself don't share that faith. Today, I'm walking a little lighter. Call it an "Earl" moment, and thank goodness I don't have a list like that popular television character does, but I know that I'm glad to have finally put it to rest. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Teaching Fields of Fire

I've been asked to teach a few people in my game group how to play the recent solitaire wargame Fields of Fire. The game came out grossly underdeveloped, as regular readers of this blog will know, and GMT has said they are going to rewrite the rules, perhaps completely, so that those of us who aren't familiar with military documentation and the various light machinegun types used in the various conflicts will be able to follow it. In the meantime, it's going to fall to those of us who love the game despite it's flaws to put the word out and teach people how to play the game "by hand". 

One of the things I considered doing, aside from posting some overview materials on the game to this blog, is a video tutorial that will show the game via video captures of a VASSAL game. If only there was such a beast. Obviously, how you teach in a non-interactive environment is different from how you teach when people are asking questions, and to be very honest it's a much more pleasant experience if you are working with actual "students" instead of hoping that what you said makes sense. You also need to tailor the training strategy differently for an interactive situation, and there are a lot of choices to be made. While I'm not set on how I'll deliver this clinic, these are the sorts of decisions I'm making right up until this coming Sunday.

First of all, I think about the game itself and what sort of approach lends itself to the sequence of play. For example, with Android (which has a level of complexity commensurate with many low-complexity wargames), I could not jump in and start playing - there were too many different interconnecting systems, any of which could be used from the very first turn. In that situation, I used a high-concept approach at first, giving very simple overviews of the major systems and gradually introducing the mechanisms that supported those systems. This sort of approach requires much more thought - how much information goes into the hi-concept description, and how much gets added in with each sweep through the levels of the design? The approach I used at EGG was very successful, at least in terms of getting people up to speed, but it's a game that you simply won't get until you've played it a couple of times, so my approach could still use a little fine tuning. 

For games that are more process driven, like many wargames, diving right in and teaching as you go is a more successful approach. With some games, the way the game develops can inform the teacher as to how to proceed. For example, with 7 Ages (a game I have yet to play in any satisfying amount, but that appeals to me) you can simply begin by dealing out the 1st age empires, then telling each player to put out specific order chits in the first turn, namely expand and new empire. In the next turn, they can develop with one, expand with the second, and generate a third. Each turn, therefore, allows you to demonstrate one aspect of the game in isolation. 

Fields of Fire, however, doesn't really require this. For one thing, the actual sequence of play only really has one section where players have decision points, and that's the command phase. In every other section, things tend to happen *to* you and you see the results of your planning. In some ways, it's a lot like planning a Luftwaffe raid in Burning Blue - you don't have a lot of things you can adjust as you go, but you get to see how things work out. As such, the rest of the game is simply teaching people how to administer the AI, which is procedural rather than elective. 

However, that one phase has a lot in it. While it's easy to explain the command structure, and the impulses within the phase are clear once you understand how they work, you still need to teach a plethora of other concepts - volume of fire and primary direction of fire, communications nets, enemy actions, limited action teams, etc. There's a lot here to keep track of, and just telling them how to proceed early will only get you so far. 

Making things more complex is the vagueness of the preparation for a mission. I actually think this will consume a good part of the clinic after going through the process for myself today, and I'm torn as to whether I should approach this as a fait accompli with pre-set organization with them learning the value of the set up through play, or walking them through the process. This is an element that's still up in the air for me, although as I type I'm beginning to lean towards the fait accompli approach. 

There's a lot to set up - you need to assign your units to your platoons/staff, figure out who gets phone lines and who doesn't, determine what the pyrotechnic signals will do (and believe me, this entire part of the rule set was, to be brutally honest, fumbled in a way that usually results in me putting the components right back in the box and selling the game), figuring out what the battle plan is, setting the objectives and other mission parameters, it's all a huge amount of conceptual information that is very difficult to grasp until you've actually played through a mission. I think that I'm making up my mind quickly on this point. Except, of course, that how you plan to do all of that will be based in large part on what the terrain looks like, and I think I'm better off winging that part. Hmm.

The other tricky part of the command phase is that you issue orders, and there are a lot of orders to choose from. While you only do it in a small part of the sequence of play, it's a huge amount of choices. I think that it might help for me to produce a cheat sheet of Actions that you might consider in a variety of situations. For example, if you have units that are under fire by unspotted units, you might decide that finding cover would be a good choice, as would spotting the firing units so you can shoot back at them. Instead of organizing actions according to broad groups such as Combat, Movement, Rally, and Command, perhaps it's best to organize them by what sort of things you need to consider in each section. In the above example, while the friendlies are definitely in combat, the things you want them to consider are in the Movement and Combat charts. 

Perhaps the hardest thing for new players to understand is the entire volume of fire/primary direction of fire concept (VoF/PDF). Unlike most games, you aren't firing at units, you are firing in their general direction. As such, the issue is not so much that A fires at B, but that A is firing toward B, which generates a volume of fire in B's location, which may or may not cause problems for B. In fact, if B suddenly isn't in the picture anymore (because they ran out of ammo, or fell back), A keeps right on firing until someone tells them to stop. This is not a concept wargamers are terribly familiar with. This is a game where you are playing the role of company commander, and everyone else is following what orders you give, with a small dash of initiative if you can't tell them to do something. 

Given all of the above, here's a general outline of how I intend to approach teaching this game:

1) Generate the mission logs ahead of time. This is an easy and time-saving step, and shouldn't have to be messed with too much based on the board layouts. I will use some generic organization (one HMG/LMG, one bazooka, and one mortar team per platoon, for instance, rifle grenades all given one to a platoon).

2) Lay out the maps. Here we can discuss the basic elements of the map: LOS, terrain, the various mission parameters, what spots are going to be particularly valuable and why.

3) Discuss in general terms what it is that the mission is trying to accomplish, avoiding game terminology for the most part, but using consistent language where I can. 

4) Set up the units in the staging area based on the mission parameters. Identify where FOs and the HMG will do the most good, and the general sense of how the mission will proceed.

5) Start running the sequence of play. The first turn will feature some number of advance squads moving forward, which will allow us to resolve contact and get us into how VoF/PDF is determined. We'll also see how the command system works in a very basic sense. 

6) Continue into the second turn, where we'll discover not only how to react to enemy units, but how they react to the player. It goes without saying that the use of the action deck will be helpful. Early actions will include movement, seeking cover, infiltration, spotting units, concentrating fire, and exhortation. A big part of this will be reading the action tables in the manual to see exactly what information they give on how to proceed. For example, seeking cover uses a different number of card draws than, say, spotting. 

The games will proceed from here at this point. I expect that Grenade attacks, opening fire on spotted units, calling in arty or offboard mortars, all of these will start to come into play as the game advances. Same goes for Higher HQ Events, using the Jeep, retrieving casualties, etc. 

I'm figuring that we'll be at this for about four hours, and that we'll get about four or five turns into the mission at best. When we get down to about 30 minutes left, I will call the mission complete, and will demonstrate how to refit the company based on experience and replacement points. 

I will not be able to cover vehicles in any great detail, other than using the Jeep. For one thing, I've never really used anything else, I've not played in any era other than 1944 so no helicopters or landing zones. I've also not dealt with combat patrols or defensive missions, many of which have generated a lot of questions on CSW and the 'Geek. 

Again, the goal is to get people to a point where they can get past the mess that is the rulebook and get into the game. Once they've done that, there are a lot of sources of information online that will help, but without the foundation it's a very tough game to understand in any depth. 

I'll post after the clinic and talk about how effective this teaching strategy was. As always, you have to tailor your lesson for your audience, and fortunately these people know me pretty well. One was actually in the armed services, although it was Air Force so how much ground combat do you see there? Plus, he was an officer, and we all know what *great* pupils they are. 


Kickin' It - Old School

Like many gamers my age, I went through a period in the late 80's into the early 90's where things got a little dicey. RPGs were pretty much everything back then, CCGs hadn't reared their addictive little heads, wargames were slowly dying as AH was losing market share and GMT Games hadn't really gotten a following yet. My game library consisted pretty much of war and strategy games I'd bought when I was in high school and the early part of college. 

And then I discovered Talisman. 

Today, Talisman is an anachronism, a roll and move game where luck is pretty much everything, the game can take 20 minutes or it can take four hours, and after a while everything starts to feel very much the same. At the time, though, it was a game my wife would occasionally play with me as would one or two of my friends. There were a ton of expansions and characters for the game (I think my set, which included everything but Timescape, which was a shameless tie-in to other GW Games titles, had something like 40 or 50 characters you could play), and even if you were far behind there were a few low-odds backdoor ways you could take a shot at making it to the top of the Crown of Command and pull off a win.

That was second edition, generally considered to be the best of the lot. The components were not the best, being cardboard fold-ups for the characters, character sheets that had separation flashing along the sides, but at the time it was about all there was out there, and I bought into it. The third edition, which featured a 3D board but only a handful of characters, never took off and I'm pretty sure that Games Workshop took a beating financially with it. It went out of print in the mid-90's or so, and I was never tempted to get it as the box was huge (and the play less interesting than second ed).

A fourth edition came out from a small company (whose name escapes me, Black Isle or Black mumble), and it had it's pluses and minuses, but when Fantasy Flight bought the rights to print a revised fourth ed, I figured this was the time. I'd given my copy to my nephew Alex when we moved to Colorado for grad school and I wouldn't have either time or space for it. I know he got a huge amount of use out of it with his middle-school friends, and I've never regretted the gifting. However, I was interested to see the new treatment of the game, with plastic figs for the characters and plastic cones for the stats, plastic gold pieces, and the Fate tokens that can be used to reroll when necessary. There is even a "Reaper" expansion that adds some characters, cards, and the Reaper, who pretty much wacks up the game by giving players a character they can use to attack other characters, although sometimes he can come back to haunt you, snicker. 

I hosted game night Tuesday, and the allergic reaction to Charbonneau continues - I really have no clue why people insist I continue to host when no one attends. But host I do, and Alex and I were the only people here, so we pulled out Talisman to kick it old school. 

Two hours later, despite a noble attempt by me to sneak through into the Crown of Command that ran into a bunch of very pesky pit fiends (they were literally the last space before I had an excellent shot at winning), Alex took me down. During the entire game, I defeated exactly *one*, count 'em, *one* enemy on a card. I was turned into a toad, I kept forgetting to draw my spell card at the start of my turn, I used up my fate early (it lets you reroll, very helpful) and had a lot of trouble getting any back, and in general was ignored by every mystic, monk, and enchantress on the board. If I hadn't gone through a Magic Portal to get to the inner board, I'd never have had a chance. 

Alex, on the other hand, killed pretty much everything he ran into, was generating all sorts of strength and craft, had about 10,000 gold pieces, followers that let him do anything he wanted to, and I don't think he lost more than one life the entire game. Once I died in The Pit, he decided that it was time for him to head for the Crown, and he made it with no problems at all. I was dead four turns later. And about time, too.

Game play is pretty much exactly like it was back in the day, which means that you roll a die to move and then can go in either direction. The board is, as far as I can tell, close enough to identical as to be not worth investigating. There are about 16 or so characters in my expanded set, which is plenty for my 46 year old brain (50 seemed much cooler when I was not yet 30). The components are fine, and the plastic markers for your stats are nice to play with. The game is incredibly random, enough so that I won't every foist this on the regular gamers in my group unless there is a lot of alcohol around, although I can definitely see a place for it with kids of six and up (you can always help them with text, and give them a character that won't take spells for a long time, if ever). 

With my Sage character, I admit that I was starting to take missed die rolls a little personally by the one hour mark, but after a good run at the Crown, I was getting more into the spirit of things. And that's the thing about a game like Talisman - no one claims that this is a game that you'll win because you're a superior player. This is a game that you play because wacky stuff happens *constantly* and the fun is in seeing people getting surprised over and over. Like Cosmic Encounter, another classic that I purchased the latest FFG edition of (and was very pleased with it, despite me owning *two* other editions), it's more about the craziness and the company, not the game itself. Go into it with an attitude that it's nothing more than a ride, and then enjoy said ride, and it's great family fun (although there is ample opportunity for screwage, if said family has competitive members). 

The other game we played was Roll Through The Ages, a dice-based civ-building game that has some good elements but is otherwise pretty wacky. I discourage you from playing with people who have trouble figuring out where to go with what you've rolled quickly, as the game *dies* if there's downtime. Say what you will about Talisman, in a two-player game there is almost no downtime and it plays very quickly. This was Alex's first game of RTtA, and while he took a little while to understand the implications of the sequence of play, he had a good time. I won by ten points at the end, mostly because I had three turns where I rolled five or six goods, and of course that put me in position to get the Empire development, which was worth something like 14 points at the end including the city bonus. 

Yeah, it's a dice fest (literally), and the components are horribly overproduced (did we *really* need wooden boards to keep track of goods?), but I can see a role (ha!) for this game over time. Although I really want to get Through the Ages on the table more often. 

As a bonus for me, I gave Alex my copy of 2nd ed Wizard Kings, the game that doesn't tell you it's collectible until it's too late. Maybe he can burn it for heat while it's still winter. 

Thanks to Alex for coming over and preventing me from having the loneliest game night hours before my birthday ever. But I'm not bitter. No, not me. I'm just *old*.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Warriors, Come Out To Play-ee-yay!

Anyone get the reference? Anyone? Come on, this one is easy. And it even has a connection to Joe Walsh, of all people. 

Mike and I had agreed to play Warriors of God today, as he had President's Day off. At the last minute, he needed me to come over to his place, which I did, but decided at the last minute that I should bring my copy just in case he didn't have it. Turned out that was a good idea, as he didn't own the game. 

Mike and Eric had played before as one of their Two Sides of the Coin sessions, and Eric *hated* it. Mike was so-so, feeling like the game was pretty wacky, which is how gamers say "hopelessly random". And to be fair, the game has an enormous amount of chaos. Given that it's set during the Hundred Years War, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've posted in a previous entry about how I felt about the chaotic element, saying that this was a game about managing said chaos - there are some things you know will happen, and some things that you fear will happen, and the key is to work off of the former and hope for the best but expect the worst from the latter. 

In our game, the worst happened to Mike in the first turn or two, when I built up a 17 point lead over the first five or six turns. He lost multiple leaders, I managed to snag all but two of the III areas on the map (a key to winning), and he was never able to force me out of anything but the one area on the Channel whose name I can't recall. I also tended to win battles pretty handily early on, and several of his nobles spent time in the Tower of London (I was, clearly, the English). 

By the end of the game, he was finally starting to press in terms of points, but I think that the key element that he wasn't able to pull off in those areas was that they are all but impregnable, even to armies with cannon, if the defending armies can elect siege. The trick is to get rid of the control marker in the area during activations, thus making it impossible for the defenders to hide in the castles. That, and not bringing in your battle commander that has a 1-1 rating (which means you're stuck trying to roll a 6 on one die every battle round. Can't win that way). 

Mistakes were made on both sides, and I had astonishing luck rolling two 1's in a row to defeat Jean d'Arc with Plantagenet at game end, but I was still 12 points ahead at that point and it wouldn't have helped. As I've said before, the be all and end all of this game is area control, and if the English don't get rooted out of Burgundy and Aquitaine, they're probably going to win. Better to make those a priority and send enough armies to knock them out. Of course, having your leaders die as they get close doesn't help, but I suspect that a little more focus on those areas and that strategy would have made for a very close game.

I have to say that I like this game more than ever. We got through the whole thing in about four hours, with several rules look-ups as we were both a little rusty on some elements, and I think that if you understand what you need to do and how to do it that the chaos factor adds to the replay value rather than to the frustration level. By turn 10 (of 12) we had lost exactly the same number of leaders, and I controlled only five or six areas the last third of the game. They were all big point areas, though, and had Mike managed to take even one of them that would have been a 16 point swing over four turns. That was well over the difference in the score. Just because there's chaos doesn't mean that you can't find ways to win. I think this one is worth learning to love.

We also played the Sword Beach map from PK's D-Day, reviewed recently. I lied about one factor, that I didn't figure out until after Mike and I had played (and he'd beat me by one point when he got four units off of the map): There is a movement activation as well as the full fire and fire and movement activations. The fire/move action, as you'd expect, limits you to half of your movement, which I screwed up in our game. I find this series fascinating, with interesting decisions and very tight using the rest and refit optional rule. Next time I'd use all but Leadership, which seems to me to just add too much extra chaos to the game. I'll also note that I got exactly three artillery the entire game - Mike won that roll every turn but one. Highly recommended, and I'll be picking up the rest of this series. Victory Point Games are looking to be frequent purchases by me, I really like their stuff.

As a final note, I've become a playtester for the Hell Over Korea expansion for B-29 Superfortress. It's a very different game, with the fighter presence actually a threat rather than just an annoyance - I ran into twelve different fighters in my initial run as opposed to three in the original game's first mission. One fighter even managed to kill one crewman and send another one home from the war, on a single successful attack. That's what happens when you put an aircraft that was the most advanced bomber on the planet six years before up against jet fighters. Fortunately, no random events yet. That will be a bad day. 

Thanks to Mike for hosting, and for lunch. And for his copy of Moseby's Raiders, which he was going to put up on eBay. What a guy!

Project SPQR - Pt 2b, Heraclea

The results are in, and they say that I *suck* as the Romans. Two times now I've gotten my hat handed to me, and while the dice sure seemed to go to Pyrrhus, I can't imagine that's all it is. 

After last time, the Romans were getting ready to force the river, Pyrrhus had reformed his heavy cav and was in position to threaten the Roman right flank, and the Tarentine main battle line had formed up in full to defend the river once it was crossed. 

With the Romans at the river and the Velites fleeing, the Roman left flank cav, still made up of Roman cavalry (useless against heavy cav) went up and hit the Tarentine light cav, and what a difference that was. While they didn't lose more than one unit, they got beat up pretty badly while the RC mostly took damage thanks to reactive missile fire. However, that was the end of the cavalry battle on that side. 

On the right flank, the Tarentine HC crashed into the legion flank and forcing that entire side of the battlefield to wheel to meet the cavalry. Unfortunately, since this was strictly the Alae cohorts, they didn't get the benefit of the Principe reduced side and also had poor troop quality. Let me tell you, the entire point to this game is to get a good matchup on the weapon system matrix and have better troop quality. That's where all the positive DRMs come into play. Not helping was Pyrrhus' elite status, which gave a +1 drm to all of the units within two hexes on his side. 

However, this was all moot as the Hastati plowed forward into the remains of the Tarentine skirmisher line, which they pushed back to some extent, but many of the units were able to retreat. The exception was where the Velites still generated a ZOC into the skirmisher hex, and those couldn't run. At only two rout points per, though, it was a bit of a disappointing result. Worse, a few mandatory advances screwed up the Hastati line, so the right flank was out of command (that means that they can't run away, which it the whole point - hit the enemy, then run when you get messed up and let the Principes take over). 

By now, the Romans were out of turn seizures, so they were at the mercy of Megacles and Pyrrhus taking double turns for at least three or four more rounds. Which they did. Because of the command structure, the heavy infantry out on the end of the Tarentine right flank couldn't activate with the phalanx under Megacles and the Tarentine medium infantry under Leonatus (of Successors fame). Being able to move all of these up in two phases was critical.

First, the heavy infantry on the flank ran up and whupped the allied cohorts on that side but bad. The Medium infantry did less well, forcing the better trained Roman legions back, but also losing their line's cohesion, and putting most of the force out of command. The phalanx had the same problem, resulting in only two of the eight being in command after the first rush, although they'd already savaged the Roman right at that point. 

The bright spot for the Romans was their center, of course. They were in enough command to get most of the Hastati out and the Principes in, where they did a lot of damage to the center of the Tarentine line. And that is actually what the legions are supposed to do - force a breakthrough in the center, and then take the phalanxes in the rear where the weapons matrix results in big drms, up to +4! And they did a great job, reducing the central phalanx and messing up the medium infantry quite well. And if they hadn't lost so many units on their flanks doing so (when you activate a group, you have to fight if you can with units that are out of command unless someone else takes them for you), they might just have won the day. Losing so many points early (the Velites and RC are both worth around 5 points each, and a lot were lost), and then losing so much of the Hastati really killed them. The cohorts, of which there were about twice as many as normal because the six legions were all half strength, four only consisting of alae, took the brunt of the fighting by a long shot. 

The game was a lot of work, but I do feel like I'm starting to get a grip on how to use the Roman legions. The other thing I *finally* woke up enough to figure out was to put the cohesion hits *under* the counters instead of on top of them. I really have no excuse with this, it just didn't occur to me. Putting them underneath made it so much easier to parse the board that I'll keep doing that from now on. 

Two down, twelve to go. This was a big battle, but the next one, Ausculum, is *bigger*. In fact, it takes two maps and won't fit in a poster frame, so I'm going to need to either run it as one long session when I can leave the game set up for a few days (which isn't happening in the next week or so), or else try to do it online using VASSAL. Doing that is so much less satisfying for me, for reasons that must have to do with using my fingers and tactile sensation, that I'm loathe to do it. However, this would be the one to use. Or Cannae. Or Zama. I do know that most of the battles are actually around this size. 

Maybe I'll try to set up Raphia, the scenario from War Elephant that was excluded from the reprint, that uses two maps and every elephant counter they can find. Something like 40. Really. It's a lot of elephants. 

The next game will determine if I decide to finish up the resolution or not. I was thinking that it was an awful lot of work just to satisfy a whim of a resolution about halfway into this scenario, but seeing the Romans come *so* close to breaking the Tarentine line and figuring out that the game was easier to play with the cohesion hits under the counters, I think that this next one will either see me tire of the system (at least in terms of playing every scenario - I may try this with the "real" rules), or else I'll finally have everything so internalized that I won't have to spend time every five minutes looking up yet another rule. 

Anyway, expect another report, this one hopefully in one piece, in about two or three weeks. 

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Project SPQR - Pt 2a, Heraclea

After a few days of finding SPQR markers hidden in various parts of the game room (see previous post), I think I finally got them all. Sure, I did. Anyway, I got B-29 set up on the side table as I'm doing playtesting for the Hell Over Korea expansion due out later this year, and finally put Heraclea back on the main table. 

Man, having that many more units makes for a much longer game. I can't imagine how long this would take with the regular rules. Too long, I think, even though I'd prefer the ability to remove cohesion hits and rally routed units (you can't do either in Simple GBoH). 

I decided to start with the Roman right flank cavalry in it's historical position on the far side of the river from the rest of the Romans, and started the game with their surprise attack on the Tarentine left. I chose to have two of the units go after the two archer skirmishers within range, and the remaining five disrupt Pyrrhus' heavy cav. They managed to flank two of the units, which both flubbed their reaction facing rolls (and with TQs of 7!), and both took heavy damage, although not enough to rout them. Pyrrhus responded by encircling them, and I suppose the Romans should have protected their cavalry's flanks instead of going after the two skirmisher units, which was mostly a bust anyway. The result was a complete rout of the Roman cavalry on that flank, but I did manage to get Pyrrhus and three HC units to pursue off of the board, which could be very useful as he's the OC for the Tarentines.

Next, I brought up the Velites to throw javelins at the Tarentine skirmisher line, which didn't go as well as I'd have liked. While they did some damage, they also took some damage, although I screwed up the Hit And Run Tactics rule a bit, which assumes that they run forward one hex (which was into the river, which affected their throws), and then back. In the end, they lost a couple of units with only one Tarentine loss, although their skirmisher line is largely useless as a fighting force at this point. 

The Tarentines used a few activations to get their phalanxes, medium infantry, and heavy infantry into a longer line that matched the Roman line, and formed up poised to charge once the Romans crossed the river. The Romans responded by bringing up the Hastati and Principes behind the Velites, with the idea that they'd get across the river, then take the Tarentine charge by shifting their stacked legions into the empty spaces. Unfortunately, Pyrrhus had by now managed to bring his HC units back onto the board and they have formed up to challenge the flank. The force is down to five units, as two were too badly damaged to risk, but it will still take a few Roman units to deny that flank, and I have no idea how they'll prevent them from just rolling up the line once everyone is stuck in. 

At the end of my play session, the Velites had forced the river with little success, and have begun to pull back. Unfortunately, most of the units were out of command and couldn't retreat easily, so I expect to lose a few more. At this point, I've lost seven Roman Cavalry and three Velites for a total of 50 rout points to the Tarentines losing a whopping 2 for their lone archer. This isn't as bad as it might seem, as the Romans can take 185 rout points to the Tarentines taking 120, but the margin of error is much tighter than I'd have liked for it to be.

On the bright side, the Roman Hastati and Principe lines are both exactly where they should be, and the Velites created just enough confusion with the skirmisher line that the Hastati can get across and prepare for the Tarentine charge. The scary part is that the flank with the Tarentine Phalanx units is the same side as Pyrrhus' heavy cav, so I may keep that side of the army on it's side of the river and engage the less dense units first. The risk is that the elephants are behind that flank and there are special "Scary Elephants!" rules for this scenario (it's where the Romans first saw the beasts in combat, much less at any time). 

I should have the second part of this report up and the scenario finished in a few days.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

B-29 Superfortress Review

Here's Part 4 of my "try new companies" out resolution. This time, we're looking at Khyber Pass Games' only "boxed" professionally produced title, B-29 Superfortress. The game is a direct descendent of the old-school Avalon Hill solitiare game, B-17: Queen of the Skies. B-17 is an interesting simulation, but with very few decision points to be made. The meat of the game is to get as realistic an experience as possible with a board game over many missions bombing Japan (and occasionally Iwo Jima in the early missions). Like it's predecessor, the "fun" is in seeing what happens over the course of the campaign, not only to your aircraft but to your crew, whom you are encouraged to name. As the campaign goes on, your crew improves in their skills on various die rolls, and my experience is that once you have a good feel for the system that you can fly about one mission an hour barring frequent and constant annoyances like flak bursting around you or enemy fighters attacking you, which can add some time to the game. 

The B-29 was a much different plane than the B-17, almost from a different era. It had to be in order to reach the Japanese home islands from their base in the Marianas Islands, specifically Tinian. As such, instead of five or six cardstock sheets of tables to roll on for various game functions, there is an entire booklet, and believe me it's full. Full of tables, full of notes, and full of errata. Because the game can pretty much be played solely from the rules and tables (there are various play surfaces, but to be honest you could keep track of everything on paper just as easily as sorting the counters), KPG doesn't make the rules or tables available online as "living" rules, such as GMT does, and so you have to either mark up your rules and charts or constantly refer to them. I find this mildly annoying, and wish that KPG would make an updated rules/charts PDF file available to people who have purchased the game with proof of purchase. I chose to mark up my booklets to some extent, which doesn't bother me, but I know some for whom this would be a deal breaker, especially considering that the game is fairly expensive. 

The components are pretty nice, fairly lightweight counters ranging from 9/16ths through better than an inch (for the fighter tokens, of which there are a ton - this could have been cut by 2/3rds if they'd added some Ace/Avg/Grn tokens to place on the fighters, of which you usually get one or two in a given combat). The diecutting process also was done so that there is a bit of flash along the sides of the counters, which wasn't bad enough for me to feel like I needed to trim. The map is horrendously oversized for what is needed in this game about four times too big. If space is an issue, you'll wish they'd kept the scale down, although my suspicion is that they wanted to make it "bigger" than the B-17 sheets. Unlike B-17, there is no map of the region you fly through, mostly because at the B-17 scale you'd have bands and bands of open ocean followed by a very small area of the concentrated Japanese Islands. So we get a color coded track instead. To be fair, that doesn't bother me too much.

There are also a few sheets included that you can copy for the mission log, the campaign log, and another sheet that is used to mark damage to urban areas over time. All of these are on heavy card, which is silly because you'll never use them but instead copy them (or download the pages from KPG's website). Better to have included these in the rulebooks, or given you a few lightweight copies to use until you get your printer fired up. 

I'll also note that this is a $50 game that comes without dice, and you'll need two d6's. I understand that small publishers have to deal with a lot of issues when putting out pro-level packages, and that $1 spent on components can end up costing the consumer $5 or even $10 by the time they go through distribution and shipping, but in this case the game was purchased directly from the publisher and I just don't see why some of these issues couldn't have been seen ahead of time, especially if they've been exposed to other wargame publisher choices. 

Enough whining about the components and four pages of errata (blessedly, in fairly large type). How does the game play?

First of all, the B-29 was a bigger plane with a lot of forward-looking systems such as fire control computers, pressurized crew areas, an eleven man crew, and some very heavy artillery to protect itself. It was also just barely able to do the job - if everything goes right, and you're taking off from the Marianas, you'll have enough extra fuel for five or six extra turns on the way back, or three if you run into trouble on the way out. If you aren't carrying extra fuel tanks, it will be very tight indeed. There's also a Random Event table that I foolishly thought you rolled on every turn - they say the plane was buggy, but on my first mission I had two engines go out and the bomb release mechanism go south before I even formed up with the other bombers. Fortunately, I later figured out that you roll 2d6 to see if you roll a '12' *before* rolling on the table, so actually no damage had occurred at all. 

One of the interesting parts of the game is that you form up with the other bombers three zones into your mission (as soon as you can get to high altitude), and how well that goes can have a big effect on how everything else goes, especially if you are trying to fight off those enemy planes. Of course, night missions don't include any forming up, as they just flew in a big stream (and there are considerably more rules if you are doing something at night, such as searchlights, modified fighter combat). For most turns, you'd check the weather (which sometimes can slow you down on the way in because of the jet stream - something no one knew about until they tried flying at high altitude to bomb Japan), which (like most things in the game) has the potential to go horribly horribly wrong, and see if you get the dreaded Random Event, so those turns generally go quickly. For the first few missions, you'll also need to check to see if any of the Japanese planes at Iwo are going to come after you, at least until the Americans take the island. Once that happens, you can even start from Iwo, which really takes the fuel pressure off. 

One thing that you *do* do is have to make sure you're on course to the form up point. That's a good thing, because it shows just what a bunch of hocus pocus flight over the vast Pacific was. If you are "lucky" enough to be the lead plane in the middle layer of the formation, or it's a night mission, you get to check in every zone. The navigation is interesting enough, but it involves five different dice rolls just to get the modifier to roll to see if you're on course or not. Out of the two missions I've flown, I got off course a bit once before I met up with my homies at the form up point, but I was also assigned to be the lead plane. Since it was my first game, I changed that so that I was no longer in the lead as I wanted to get a feel for the system, not crap out my rolling wrist. You literally roll for piloting, dead reckoning, radio navigation, celestial navigation (by the stars), and by observation. There's a nice track to keep everything straight, but man oh man will that make this game less interesting for me. At least the first ten missions are automatically Day missions (right up until we take Iwo). 

There is little chance of air combat until you get near Iwo and again once you get near and then over the Japanese Islands. Like B-17, there is a "gazetteer" that gives you a modifier for potential air contact, whether you're over water or land (and what land mass), and whether the area has heavy AA or not. These turns are much like the over-water turns, except you also check for fighter interception, which is far from a sure thing, and of course the bombing run once you get over target. Fortunately, no flak attacks until you're over target for some reason, although they do get two shots at you as you start the run and as you're leaving the scene. 

Both combat and bombing also contain several tables for a variety of elements. Interestingly, your only real decision points are whether or not to attempt to be evasive (and early on you don't get that choice if you're in formation or it's daytime), who can fire guns (and they all have a ton of ammo unless something's gone horribly horribly wrong). Everything else in this game pretty much happens to you, other than deciding whether to abort, dive to low altitude (and out of formation) if your cabin pressure drops (frostbite - it's not pretty), and whether to turn off the cabin pressure if you think something is going to attack you. 

My first mission went very smoothly, a little too smoothly. No fighter interceptions (a bit disappointing as I wanted to see how combat worked), no flak hits over target, back to base with no excitement whatsoever. I also completely missed my target, which in this case was considered a "draw". My second mission (and the last one I've completed) also went smoothly right up until I flew near Iwo on the way out and ran into a Zero that actually dropped bombs into the formation and nipped my rudder! A George flew by without causing any damage as I approached the Islands, but the scary part was getting five flak hits on my plane. Anyone who has played B-17 knows that all it takes is one bad roll during damage and things go horribly horribly wrong. I got very lucky - the only real damage caused was to knock out my alarm bell, which would only be a problem if something worse happened.

The bomb run itself went well - I hit the target (which is not easy to do early in the game with inexperienced crew, and nearly impossible if something has broken) and managed to do damage with 30% of my bombs (only used if you want to get an average over the campaign or if playing multi-aircraft missions, as is often done online). As long as you are on target and get home safely, you're good to go. On the outgoing leg, I got attacked by two more George's, one of which I shot down before it got close enough to do damage, and the other failed to cause damage to my aircraft. Going back over Iwo it was nighttime, so no danger there. My nighttime landing went smoothly, and the mission was a success! Even better, my crew were all uninjured and had two missions under their belts. Seven or fewer missions generally means they're green, 14 or more means they're veterans. You need thirty five missions (not counting ones where you abort early) in order to be sent home, for those of you playing the Catch-22 variant of the game (joke - there is no such variant). 

There is, however, a Korean War variant coming out sometime this year. That may or may not be interesting to me. You see, this is the sort of game that I find interesting right up until I lose my entire crew and aircraft in a single mission. While there are painfully few decision points, the entire point of the game is to get a (much safer) simulation of flying these kinds of combat missions. When my mother married a retired Army Air Corps bombadier who flew missions over the Aleutians in a B-17 in WW2 (and was later "volunteered" to go back into the infantry to invade Okinawa), that game became marginally more interesting to me because I was thinking of the men in these aircraft. Getting the chance to go onboard a functioning B-17 with Colin was also very interesting, although I didn't want to pony up the $400 it would have cost to actually go up in the air in the thing. I'm not stupid. However, slogging through 20 missions only to lose all of your carefully and slowly gained experience and skill because you rolled boxcars at the wrong time is an exercise in frustration for me.

My point is that this is the sort of game you play not to see how successful you are, as you have very little say in your success, but rather to relive a bit of history in some small way. Most solitaire wargames fall into this category, but the bomber command games especially so as they were trained to do very specific things in very specific situations and to give more leeway than that would not be true to the conflict. Me, I start to feel connected to my virtual crew and get upset when someone dies. I have the same problem with Ambush!, with B-17, with Patton's Best, any of the games with a small roleplaying element. 

The cool thing about this game (and about B-17) is the presence of online players who form virtual wings, then fly the same mission "together" (usually within some period of time, such as a week), and use their combined data to give a broader sense of the men and aircraft that fought this part of the war. Now that I've gotten through a couple of missions, I may look to join one of these groups if the play frequency isn't too harsh (once a week would be just right, especially as it's only one hour or so for me to fly a mission), and that may be even more rewarding. 

Colin didn't like talking about combat itself, as is true of many of the vets from WW2. He did, however, enjoy talking about the camaraderie of the flight crew, about how they bombed a whale (they thought it was a sub right up until they hit it), about the dog he had in the Philippines, that sort of thing. Hearing him talk about what it was like to be in the air in a B-17 is a memory I sorely wish I'd recorded - Colin died in early 2009 from complications from Alzheimer's disease, and by the time I thought to formally interview him it was too late. 

Colin, I know you didn't fly any combat missions in a B-29, but you are my starting pilot for what missions I do get through. I also know that while you hated the fighting part of the war, you loved being in the Army at that time, and had many wonderful memories of people and places. I hope that wherever you are, that you get to relive those fond memories, and that you know that I and many others honor you and your fellow servicemen and women's sacrifice and effort in what increasingly seems to have been the last "good" war. 

If reliving history appeals to you, and you don't mind the game playing you more than you playing the game, this one is worth a try, especially with B-17 long out of print. The errata is annoying, and there are a few things that simply aren't discussed (such as the sequence of play - it's more or less the order of rules as presented), but it's an easy game to learn and there is a *ton* of designer and historical information contained within the rules and charts booklets. As such, this is a game for the historian more than the gamer, but well worth the time to get to know if you don't mind a ride. 

Paul Koenig's D-Day: The British Beaches: Sword

For part three of our tour of a handful of Victory Point Games titles (the first was actually my play of Waterloo 20 from EGG, the second was Israeli Independence), we turn to the Historical series and it's sub-series, Paul Koenig's D-Day. There are three packages in the series with five total "games", each sharing the same general ruleset with a very small number of special rules, different maps and units for each invasion beach, and grouped according to the nationality doing the invading (it was all pretty much the same nationality doing the defending). 

Like the Napoleonic 20 series, PKDD maintains a design limit of 40 counters total for the entire game, including some markers (although there are other markers used for replacements, damage, and a few other things that don't count, apparently because they are round instead of square). For this game (meaning the Sword Beach map and counters) there are 12 British units, one game turn marker, seven activation chits, 12 German units, five artillery markers, and three Allied support markers making up the 40 counters. 

Units are very simple, with NATO symbology (armor, infantry, paratroop, glider, and heavy weapons, of which only the last has a game function), containing a single combat value and movement points, which range from 6 to 12 depending on type. The back of each unit shows it's starting location or turn of entry. Units are grouped by their higher echelon, shown as color coding in their symbol. I personally am not color-challenged, but do think that it would be easy for publishers to take this into account when devising their human factors. It is possible that the units do have some other way to distinguish the parent organization than background color that I simply missed because the color was able to do the job for me, but if they didn't they should have. 

The maps are small, on the order of a sheet of paper, but are very functional and with oversized hexes, for a map that's roughly 10 hexes wide by 14 hexes deep. It's not a huge play area, but it's effective given the small number of units. The landing beaches are in the NW corner of the map, with the major city that you are to capture nearby, with the Pegasus Bridge causeway to the south. The map also contains all of the tables you'll need, none of which affect combat per se. There are several terrain types - city, town, clear, beach, bocage, swamp, and road, with river hexsides. Terrain affects both combat and movement in most cases. 

The round damage markers are a clever idea, although there is still that color-challenged element. When a unit takes damage, it places one of the larger round damage markers on it's one-hit side under the unit, so that you can clearly see the light yellow color as a halo effect. If the unit takes a second hit, you flip the damage marker to it's orange two-hit side. The third hit removes the unit and the marker. It's very effective, although again not so much if you can't distinguish the colors, and in poor lighting that could be a problem even if you see color just fine. Again, I did not have a problem easily seeing a difference. 

The game is made up of a series of turns, eleven in all, two of which are night turns that allow both sides to recoup their losses and for the Germans to redeploy to a certain extent. The sequence of play is activation based, which makes for good extra tension as you never know who will go first, although in some cases (as with all such games) it can determine the winner in a close match. 

Day turns (three to a single day before you get to the night turn) consists of three phases, the first of which is only important for the first three turns, at least in Sword. First, you land at the beaches according to the beach-specific schedule. For Sword, there are three landing points, and for each landing point you have three British units, one showing up each turn during the day. For each unit landing that turn, you roll on the Landing table for that turn number, which represents the pillboxes and other beach defenses the invaders have to wade through. The first turn is the roughest, as you'll average one hit per unit, although it gets better as the day goes on and the defenses are eliminated on a schedule. On the first turn, you also roll not only for the landing 1st Airborne units, but also for any German units they land next to. Since these spaces are pre-determined (there's no randomization for where they land), that means five extra rolls on this table. Of course, after all of the units have landed at the end of the first day, you don't need to continue with this phase starting with the night turn 4. 

The second segment of the day turns is to determine support. First up is to see who has arty support, done by rolling one die per player and giving the difference between the dice to the higher rolling player, so a German 3 and a British 5 would give 2 arty markers to the Brits. Next, the Allied player rolls for air/naval support, which is simply 1-3 markers based on a table with even chances of each result. There is also an optional rule that you can use to try to gain a Leadership chit that gives you a one-time bennie, but I found myself unable to remember to use the arty/support as it was and left this optional rule out for my first game. 

Now for the meat of the game, the activation phase. All of the activation chits are placed in a cup and drawn one at a time, with the player owning those units activating them once their chit is pulled. You have four choices for activating units (five with the replacements optional rule, which I didn't use but would recommend): you can fire at full value, you can move, you can mobile assault with half your movement and firepower, or you can pass. If you fire at full value, you can't move the unit, although the Germans have the option of retreating before the Brits fire, in which case the firing unit may then convert to mobile assault. Heavy Weapons units may fire at range (two hexes) for half their attack value. If you mobile assault, you can move and then fire, or vice versa, but can't move/fire/move. When you fire in this mode, you only get half of your attack value, but since fractions round up in this game, it's not as bad for many units as you might think. You may also move into a unit's space to assault them at additional cost during both move and mobile assault activations, and for mech units with large movement factors there's an optional rule that will allow you to continue movement if you're successful. You can also simply pass with the unit. It is worth noting that you *can* group units to fight together, but only if they have exactly the same type of activation, so you can't move a unit up to help with a Fire activation, as the moving unit would be performing a Mobile Assault activation. Indirect fire is a Fire activation, so you *can* include it if you want.

I should also mention at this point that the game has no Zones of Control (ZOCs). That's right, none. This isn't surprising, as few tactical games do (mostly because opportunity or reaction fire fulfills the same effect). However, the reaction part is not present in the game. This means that often you'll need to consider movement carefully, as you don't know most of the time what formation will be activated next. I consider it to be a plus in this game, but you may be fussier than me. Right!

Combat is fairly straightforward, but requires careful thought. This is a game that clearly demonstrates that you can have a robust and interesting combat system without a lot of rules but that will still force you to consider the entire turn. First, you compute the attack value, taking defensive terrain and the mode the attacker is in into account. For example, a 4 AV unit Firing into a town space would  have an attack value of 3, and the same unit assigned a Mobile Assault activation would attack at 1 (4 halved minus 1). Two hits on a unit will also reduce it's combat value by 1 as well.

Next, the attacker decides whether or not to assign support, with limits of one arty and two Allied support tokens per attack. The defender can respond with the same numbers. Each support token assigned raises or lowers the attack value accordingly. In our Fire example, adding one arty to the attack and two support to the defense would result in the attack value lowering to 2. 

Finally, the attacker rolls 1d6. If the number is below the attack value, the defender takes a hit, and may choose to retreat one space if they wish with no additional effect. If the number is above the attack value, there is no effect. If the number hits the attack value dead on, *both* units take a hit. That means that if you are attacking with a unit that can't do better than a 1 attack value and that has two hits, it will only inflict a hit if it dies in the process. There is no advance after combat. There is an optional rule that I recommend that prevents damage to a unit inflicting indirect fire on a target unless the target is capable of indirect fire back. 

Assaulting a unit in it's hex is slightly different - in this case, terrain plays no part, but the defender may fire at the attacker using the exact same process above. If they inflict a hit, even via an exchange, the attacker retreats back to the hex they entered the assault hex from and the assault is over. Otherwise, the attacker may then attack using the same process, this time with the defender forced to retreat if they take a hit. The example of play included with the game mentions that if both units take a hit in an assault that both must retreat, but the rules don't state that in any form, and I always take the rules over the examples. If neither unit is able to inflict a hit, then both units have the option to retreat (although you'd expect the defender to be the one to do so as there's no incremental damage inflicted in the process, and the attacker came into the hex so you'd imagine they'd be there for the duration). 

On night turns, both sides roll for replacement points, with 1-5 giving that many points, but 6 resulting in no RPs at all, which can be devastating for the Allies for reasons to be seen later. Each point removes one level of damage, so a unit with two hits can be returned to undamaged by spending two points. Then the Germans can then redeploy up to half of their MP for units that weren't replaced. 

Victory is determined after the 11th turn (9th day turn, or three full days) by a point schedule that is largely determined by which beach you are playing on. In Sword, you get 2 points for controlling hexes bordered in red (the city and the three Pegasus Bridge complex hexes, which count as one hex for VP), one point for each town. The Germans get points for killing Allied units (one per unit), so it's important that the Allies manage their losses, and a good reason to use the replacements activation optional rule (not to be confused with the night replacement, which isn't optional). The Allies get points for exiting undamaged units off of one of the three marked roads on the map as well, but this is a pretty bloody game and it's difficult to get undamaged units *onto* the board for the Allies. High score wins. 

In my game, things went really well for the Allies for the first couple of turns. They wiped out the Germans on the beach, although they also lost their Airborne unit at the bridges early when the 21st Panzer units assaulted them successfully after the drop had gone poorly. By the end of the first day, they had control of the NW corner of the map and were pressing into the 2VP city. They'd also managed to take the bridges. However, they rolled a 6 during their replacement phase the first night, so no replacements, while the Germans rolled a 5 and were largely able to get back to fighting trim. 

Fighting continued around the three towns on the east side of the board, with the Germans holding one, losing one, and fighting for the other with one of the PG units from 21st Panzer making life difficult along the eastern beach town. In the end, I discovered why it's important to hold onto the spaces you control rather than just giving them up when two units headed for the German controlled town to the east from the bridges, only to have a German unit zip into the area and deny those points to the Allies at the end. The final score was 8 to 5 for the Germans, but it would have been very close had the Allies not given up the 2 points for the bridges to take one point from the Germans for the town. The Allies had lost seven units by the end of the game, which was where most of the German points came from, and no Allied units had been exited for VP heading to Caen. 

Play time for the title is about an hour, maybe a bit longer while you're getting used to the system. Each activation chit only activates three or four units, so play is brisk and combat is quick if agonizing to decide where you want to use your support. I'm looking forward to punching and playing the Gold Beach map and units soon, which don't have the airborne units or the exit rules - it's all about taking VP spaces in that game. I'll also be picking up the other two packages in the series, and I think a "campaign" game played across all five beaches at once would be very interesting as a team game. 

At $15-$16 a pop from VPG's website, these are a steal, and very portable. The map is even small enough that you could play on an airline tray table if you weren't too worried about the pieces falling off and you not being able to get to them on the floor!

Definitely worth a look. A very different scale and mechanisms than most D-Day games, and one that allows individual looks at each beach. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Israeli Independence Review

As part of my attempt to try games from new companies, I picked up four Victory Point Games titles, as well as three Khyber Pass Games titles. This is the first review of the lot, specifically on the solitaire Israeli Independence game from VPG. 

Israeli Independence puts you in the role of overall commander of the Jewish forces trying to carve out a nation in the aftermath of WW2 and the Holocaust. For good or for bad, they did so largely on the backs of the Palestinians, who had lived in the region for centuries and were in the process of obtaining independence of their own from the British, who controlled the mandate in the region following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WW1 ended. I will not go into the political elements of whether this is a "good" game in that sense any further than to say that I would like to see a full treatment on the conflict that attempted to give both sides an equitable say in how things went. Certainly everyone in Western culture has been paying for the instability in the Middle East since the discovery of large oil deposits there, and yet we as Americans really don't have the vaguest idea of how Israel came to be (or, really, why) unless we have a horse in the race. I certainly don't. 

That said, even were this a two-player game, you aren't going to get a lot of insight into the conflict from playing this game, at least not unless you read the flavor text on the cards. To be honest, I don't think of II as so much of a wargame as a history lesson. The game could just as easily be played using a 5x5 grid of squares with some stones and a little artwork to differentiate some spaces. Because the entire game consists of the five Arab armies (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt) trying to invade Palestine/Israel and take West Jerusalem, and they do that simply by moving along five separate tracks, one for each army. If any of the armies make it to Jerusalem, it will be "next year in Brooklyn". Of course, given that you play the Israelis, that would mean you lose. 

Play is astonishingly simple. The game comes with a deck of 24 cards, of which two are reserved for the "advanced" game. You shuffle the 22 cards, put the five armies in their starting locations, and off you go. In a given turn, you turn over a card, which has a title corresponding to a period or event that happened during the war. I recommend if you play that you take the time to read the flavor text describing the period or event, as it's really all the history you'll get. The next section tells you which Arab armies advance (or retreat, in a couple of cases), sometimes based on the shape of the space they currently occupy (round or square). Once you've done this, you can take a set number of Offensives against the armies, in which you roll a d6. If the number you roll is higher than the number on the army, it retreats one space, otherwise it stays in place. There are frequently DRMs against or for this number specific to the card, so occasionally you'll get bonuses against a specific army (or nerfs against all of your offensives). 

Repeat until either an Arab army reaches Jerusalem, or else you work through all of the cards. If you do the latter, you win. And that's it. 

There are also three "Israeli Offensive" counters that go with an optional rule. You can use these each once per game to take an extra offensive (without any of the drms or other unique elements of the card-based offensives). It's a good idea to wait until the Arab army is right at your door to do this, of course. 

Lebanon and Iraq also have situations where they are removed from the game if they are in their initial position after the Offensives. Obviously, you want to try to achieve this if you can. 

There is also an expansion set that adds more cards, gives a couple of extra rules, and lists the cards if you want to play a "historical" game with the events in chronological order. I have not played with the extra cards yet, but did play in historical order (with the basic 22 card deck) for my first game. There are also rules for building a deck based on the degree of difficulty you want, as the card numbers are in three colors based on the smackage they lay down. 

While I wouldn't call this a wargame in most circles, it is a pretty engaging and quick little game. Obviously, your decisions come down solely to when to use your "extra" offensives (I highly recommend that rule) as well as how to divvy up the offensives on the card. There's nothing like rolling against Egypt, who is knocking on the door, three times and coming up empty every time, especially if Syria is right on the other side of the city. As such, there's really no "perfect strategy" other than knowing that Syria and Egypt are the aggressive states attacking, and most of the game will come down to how lucky you get based on the degree of difficulty.

That said, it's pretty fun for a 10-15 minute game. If you take the counters (eight total!), a die, and the cards with you on a plane, you can most certainly play on your tray table if you have a piece of paper to track the Arab advances on (and know which spaces are circular). 

On the other hand, if your politics in the situation leans toward the Arabs, or if you're expecting a game rather than a diversion, it's probably not a good purchase for you. The price is right - I think the whole thing, expansion and all, was less than $15. The art is very nice, and the rules are very clear (how could they not be?), and there's even a little dissertation in the package on designing and playing wargames, as this is part of VPGs Battlesson series, intended for novices to the hobby. 

Me, I'm glad I got it. If nothing else, there will come a day when I play it on an airplane sitting next to an Arab and I'll have an extremely interesting conversation as a result.