Sunday, April 26, 2009

WBC West 2009 Prep - Part 4: Status Report

For some strange reason, this never posted the first time I entered it. Here we go again:

Here we are, two weeks from launch, and things are, well, things. 

Last time I laid down a list of games, here's where I am on them:

Kutuzov - I'm relying on others to have the details down, so I'm focusing on the sections of the game's documentation that are intended for Welly/Nappy Wars players as well as the play through section. I'll also run over the Attrition and the Morale sections, as these are big changes from the other games. Low priority, since others have experience, but it's also a small time hit. 

Flying Colors - Hopefully I'll get a play session in with Jesse on Wednesday, as we couldn't establish a weekend time with enough lead time for me to drop spousal aggro. If not, I'll just solo one of the scenarios with shore batteries or ships at anchor. Just enough to get the basics down.

War Galley - Starting the rules tomorrow. Not a lot of rules, but definitely more ramming. I'll need to get through a small scenario, and there's one recommended in the book. If I make this a priority I'll have it banged out before Saturday. 

Monty's Gamble - This will require at most a quick going over of the rules, which are now at v1.2. I will probably put this off until next week. 

Waterloo - The Wallace version, which we're hoping is in soon. Mike has given me the rules, and there's a lot to like. Again, I'll probably get this in next week.

Here I Stand - There's a great C3i article I stumbled across that I'll probably use as a refresher. However, having played twice in 2008 I feel pretty good about this one, especially as I'll be the Protestants and England, and know not to ally with the Habsburgs early. 

Case Blue - This is the reason so many things are pushed back to next week. Mike, Chuck, and myself are playing a practice game (with Mike coaching), probably the Chir River scenario from the old Enemy At The Gates package (the pieces and maps are all in the game, but the EatG scenarios were left out at times in CB). While I think I'm going to be pretty comfortable, at the same time I should have gone through the rules at least once. 

Sword of Rome - Not a game I'll be playing, but my nephew Alex will be and he has zero experience with CDGs. This is not a bad one as these go, but he'll need to have seen how the thing works in order to compete. I'm recommending he take the Gauls if he can possibly swing it. We're going to run a practice game for him on Monday the 3rd, and I may invite Matt R to come by as well (assuming that he can come at all) as he hasn't played either (Dave and George have both played). Not too much for me to prep for, but it will take up my table for a day.

Texas Glory - Latest Columbia block game, suppose to play pretty quickly and I think that's right. Playing the 1836 game takes 12 turns and a fairly limited number of actions. I've actually got this one finished, having played a few turns today while reading the rules.

The only other thing left are the evening games, and of those I expect only Age of Conan to be something that will require a certain amount of effort on my part. It's very difficult to solo, as there are a lot of things for each player to do, lots of cards, etc. Still, it looks very interesting so it will probably see table time early in the week, and there's nowhere near as much complexity as anything else that's going on the table.

Here's a summary of my study over the next two weeks:

This week:
OCS refresh, practice game on Saturday.
Flying Colors practice session on Wednesday early. 
War Galley rules read, solo session

Next week:
Here I Stand quick refresh
Waterloo rules read
Kutuzov playthrough and "new rules" sections read, as well as Attrition and Morale sections of rules. 
Sword of Rome rules refreshed, practice game with Alex on Monday
Monty's Gamble refresh

This week is actually the busiest, as I need to get through two sets of rules by Saturday. I should have the WG rules done and a practice game in by Friday, although that's still a pretty tight week for getting something like 60 pages of rules absorbed to the degree I'd like. WG may well end up having the solo runthrough pushed back to Sunday of next week, perhaps even later. 

On the plus side, I think I'm in excellent position for having everything taken care of by the time we leave on Sunday. It's always much nicer to have the games in my head to some extent when you play for seven days straight...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Halls of Montezuma - Pulling the Plug

I've spent quite a bit of time trying to get Halls of Montezuma into my head. While the ruleset isn't nearly as bad as many people have been making it out to be (other than the zone combat section and some other strange choices), there are a couple of other problems that have dampened my enthusiasm to the point where it's going onto the shelf until they've ironed the problems out. Considering that this is the design team that brought us Thirty Years War, the game that took the shine off of CDGs, I can't say I'm terribly surprised. 

The major problem (aside from the ability of anyone associated with the game to answer simple questions about how zone combat works, despite direct contact with the developer) is very simple. The US can declare war early in the game for no penalty if they simply take the elective extra forces for the +5 PW hit, as by then PW is maxed out and there is, in effect, no penalty for declaring war immediately. Declaring war is a big deal, as it allows the US forces to take replacements, generate more reinforcements every turn, and it adds a ton of extra units to the US regroup pool. Plus all of those good US War deck events, and the US gets to determine who goes first every turn. More on why that's bad below. 

How this could have gotten past the playtesters is beyond me. I suspect that some basic game mechanism got changed just before publication. Clearly, none of these people have ever worked in software or they'd know just how stupid an idea that is. 

There are a couple of other problems, mostly that you can control PW through raiding, but there are only a handful of raid markers (a design limit). If you go first and play a 4 card, you are statistically due about three of the five raid markers, meaning a PW at the very least every turn. Plus that whole zone combat thing that involves interception by the active side which really isn't an interception as it's defined as being something that the non-active player does. 

Add in a CSW header for the game that hasn't been modified to note that the game is released, errata that looks like it was cut and pasted from various forums without thought to organization, and a developer more interested in Easter eggs and too busy grading papers to have the time to respond to my questions, and I think I'll just put this one back on the shelf. 

Hopefully this will be the last of the GMT disasters for a while. I really hope that with a cut-back production schedule that they'll start doing a little more QA of the games they put out. Because this one should never have gone out in this state. I'll admit that Paths of Glory did have that little problem with the MEF able to take Constantinople quickly with the right die rolls in it's early days, but that was fixed quickly by a veteran designer who answered questions. I think I'll just wait for the dust to settle, although to be honest the chances that I'll ever come back to this are pretty slim given how many other games there are to play. What a shame, this had so much promise. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Project SPQR - Pt 3: Ausculum

After having pulled the counters for this 1+ mapper (that wouldn't fit in a poster frame, sadly), and finding the various markers that my family's darling moppets hid around my game room last time we had a family gathering here, I finally decided to pull this out and get it done. Surprisingly difficult, as I had a lot of gaming going on here during that time and needed at least four or five days to get through what is one of the larger battles in the set. 

I felt I had a better grasp of how to use the Velites with the Romans, most of whom managed to get in, cause a lot of damage to the Epirote skirmisher line, and get out again with only one or two losses. I can't say the same for the Epirote skirmishers, who got steamrolled by the Hastatii line with little disruption, although the Hastatii then took a lot of damage from the phalanx and heavy infantry, and some of them managed to escape before routing. 

The Principes line smashed handily into the Epirote center, composed of Tarentine medium infantry, which buckled rather badly. Worse for the Epirotes, they lost the leader who commanded the phalanx on their left, effectively castrating that part of the line from advancing at a point when the Roman portion of the line had taken heavy damage. At the same time, the Romans were punching through the center and Pyhrrus had to bring up the reserve heavy infantry to try to plug the hole. Cavalry on both sides were not a big factor, although both met and each side had varying degrees of success. 

At this point, the shine came off of the game for me. Early on, I'd been thinking how much I liked the system, especially now that I'd figured out to put the damage markers under the units rather than on top. The things that acted as gumption traps for me:
  • Shortage of counters for both shock combat and damage. I ran out of 1/2 counters pretty quickly, a testament to how effective getting the Velites and Hastatii out of harms way had worked. I was using the Shock markers with arrows on them to denote that the unit had moved into combat and got the various bonuses associated with it. In both cases, I had to raid my 2nd ed SPQR game for more counters, which I was hoping to avoid.
  • Difficulty in differentiating the alae cohorts from the Roman units. The biggest problem here is that the alae in the Hastatii line and the Principes line are virtually indistinguishable from each other aside from the ID letter, which is *tiny*. As such, trying to determine which units would be activated for shock, formation integrity, etc, became a chore, taking 15 minutes just to figure out which units could attack and which couldn't (you can activate both lines at the same time, but only one is considered In Command). Not too bad once the Hastatii had pulled back, but there were still quite a few that I had to mark to determine if the Principes line was still intact. 
  • Too many special rules for the campaign, split between two rulebooks (Simple and Original). Combined with Berg's *long* discussions of the various reasoning behind the rules, and I started to lose interest. I don't think I used any other than the terrain rules for the river between the two forces. One, the Devotio rule where one of the two Roman Consuls commits the Latin equivalent of hari kiri in order to get a benefit, doesn't actually seem to *do* anything other than get him out of the way to let the more effective Consul take charge, as most of the bonuses affect *that* activation, but that's all you're supposed to *do* in the activation, so you'd never see the bonuses. 
As such, I played up to the point where the Romans had clearly broken through the center and Pyhrrus was about to advance to plug the hole. I looked at the game, lost every ounce of gumption I had, and packed it up. 

This doesn't hold a lot of promise for the rest of the Project, at least in the sense of playing the rest of the scenarios out using the Simple GBoH rules, and I'm not even going to consider playing using the regular rules. Another part of the problem is that I just don't enjoy solitaire play enough with this system to work through the standard rules, at least with this system. I'd much rather play HL2 on VASSAL or Fields of Fire, so as of now I'm abandoning this particular gaming goal for 2009. It may morph into me trying the system with a different game (one with fewer scenarios, such as Devil's Horsemen or Chandragupta), but I don't know that it will be that much different. There are a lot of other games I have opponents for that I'm interested in. 

Kind of a disappointment, really. The system has a certain appeal to me, but the truth is that much of the Simple system is based on getting units into combat then seeing how things work out, with a certain amount of leaders running around to allow some units to get out of trouble. It does show how best to use the Roman manipular legion (apply each wave to the combat, get them out when things get dicey, then on to the next wave), but at a certain point things will just kind of move along on their own and you watch units live or die on the whim of the (linear) die roll. However, it was rewarding to see the goal of the system (hope that you punch through the line before your legionnaires die in sufficient number to rout). 

I'm also enjoying listening to First Man In Rome, the first in Colleen McCullough's excellent historical fiction series on the Late Republic and it's conversion to the Empire, with a focus on the Marian reforms and the shift from Consular armies operated by elected generals (good to keep the military from running things, at least up until around 30BCE, bad for actually winning battles). I may come back to this at some point in the future, but it certainly won't be a focus until after WBC West is over and I'm not so concentrated on getting up to speed on games that seem to change weekly. 

WBC West 2009 Prep - Part 3: Contact With The Enemy

We're less than three weeks out from starting our annual "WBC West" nano-con, and already we're learning (again) that life happens. For professional reasons, Eric had to delay his arrival by about two and a half days, so pretty much everything from Tuesday through Thursday had to be replanned. That wasn't such a big deal for the guys playing two-player games, but it did affect those playing three-player games. Aside from Eric, that pretty much meant me. Here's the breakdown of how things changed and how they've affected my planning and prep:


Originally this day was to start with Dave and I playing Flying Colors, Eric arriving around noon, and then a game of Friedrich. Now it's Dave and Doug day, with us starting with War Galley in the morning, then moving on to Flying Colors in the afternoon, very similar to what Dave and Chuck played last year. Chuck recommended WG first, as he felt that his head was hurting in the afternoon with so many ships to deal with. 

What this does to my planning is to add a new ruleset to my schedule, albeit one that has a lot of similarities to Flying Colors. I haven't looked at the rules in years, but I recall that they're not terribly thick, perhaps a notch above FC (which are what I'd at this point in my wargaming career call "light") in terms of complexity. We may shoot for this game having few ships and the FC match having more, although there really aren't that many good engagements in FC at the counter density I'm looking for (about 10-15 ships per side) that don't have two levels of audacity differentials or anchored ships. Jesse and I are planning on a play in the near future to get FC under my belt, but WG will require more work.


Originally, this was to be Napoleonic Wars with Dave and Chuck, but now it's Mike and my day, which was Thursday. We've agreed on Market-Garden: Monty's Gamble and either Texas Glory or the new Wallace wargame, Waterloo. Wow, that's a lot of w's. On the one side, if I play TG it will be the only block game I'll play all week, and MG:MG is always intriguing. On the other hand, Waterloo (due out in the next week or two) looks very intriguing. For one thing, you get a set number of actions you take during your turn, but you don't know if it's 2 or 5 or some number in-between. However, your opponent knows, and is just waiting to tell you when you've used your last action, right between the two actions that *had* to be done together. Maybe TG will end up as an evening game, or maybe played on Sunday...

The effect on my prep is minimal, as Mike and I were going to play something on one of these days anyway. We decided that Musket and Pike was a ruleset too far. MG:MG is something we've both played on more than one occasion, TG has a very streamlined ruleset with a lot in common with other Columbia Games titles, and Waterloo is also low complexity. I will need to do a quick review of MG:MG, though.


Originally, this was Here I Stand. There's some chance that Eric will arrive on Wednesday evening, in which case we'll go ahead and keep this in the rotation. If he doesn't come, Chuck and I will get our wargaming day. We've gone around and around on what to play, but I think we've finally decided on Iwo Jima: Rage of the Marines and Red Dragon Rising. For a variety of reasons, I'm giving Chuck the choice on these games, and we'd picked IJ as an area impulse game at a time when I didn't have one on the slate (we'd also considered Monty's Gamble as well to make Mike jealous, but he got the last laugh on that one). RDR is a magazine game from S&T that got some very good buzz, and Chuck and I tried it out a few months ago. My attitude was that it was a nice simple area-based wargame with air/sea/land components with a neat system, although it didn't grab me as much as I think it grabbed Chuck. I'm happy to try it again and we'll see if the random events don't help Chuck out more than they did last time. 

The effect on my prep isn't too bad. I've not even read the rules for IJ before, and there are a lot of different mechanisms than in other area impulse games (hidden movement for the Japanese, who are largely holed up in caves), but the basic system will be familiar. RDR will require a quick read-through of the rules at most. Of course, IJ will go near the end of my prep cycle, as I will want to know Eric's plans before committing to the learning process, which will include a solitaire run-through if I can swing it. 

 The final problem I have is getting Alex up to speed on a few things. My nephew, he's coming in on Thursday night and so will be participating in the gaming on Friday and Saturday with George, Matt R, and Dave. George was originally calling for Pax Romana as a three-player game, but with four there's now more of a push for Sword of Rome. The ruleset is clearly much more straightforward, but Alex has never played a CDG and every side requires a different subset of special rules and play style. We're going to try to find a time to get together to play and get the concepts lined up for him. I have no idea what else they plan to play. This is not to say Alex isn't a smart guy (he is, and he wins as much as anyone in our group), but he's had limited exposure to wargames and CDGs in particular, so there's a bit of a learning curve for him here. I'm also hoping that he has more interest in ancient battles than he does in WW2 (I think his primary choice would be either sci-fi or fantasy, so not a lot of good choices in my library there). 

So, at this point I have the following to bone up on, in rough order of when I plan to work on things, based on how well I'll need to understand the system:

Prepped (Once-Over At Most):
Unhappy King Charles
Combat Commander
Command and Colors: Ancients
Monty's Gamble: Market Garden
Red Dragon Rising

In Process:
Flying Colors
Halls of Montezuma

Needs Work:
Age of Conan
EVE Conquests
War Galley
OCS/Case Blue
Texas Glory

Wow, that's a lot of work. I better stop typing and start reading/soloing!

Alhambra Expansion 5

I've got many of the Alhambra expansions (three, to be exact, and I'm not sure which I'm missing), but I wasn't even aware that there *was* a fifth expansion until last night. What can I say, I'm slowly phasing out of Euros now that my collection takes up an entire 16'x11' room. 

There are four mini-expansions in the set, but we played them all. And to be honest, I don't think that was a bad thing at all. Dave, who brought the game and suggested it, claims to want to run a game with all 20 mini-expansions in play at once, although I personally think he should be careful what he wishes for. Four was plenty.

The first expansion is the Caravan. This is a series of cards you can buy to generate extra currency every turn, costing 8/4/2 of a single coinage for having 4/5/6 different building types in your garden. The cards have a single type of coinage (orange, blue, yellow, green) running as a track up the card, with "branches" to the other three types to the sides. Each level you move a marker up the card (one total bump per turn per player regardless how many you've bought) and it either increases the base coinage value by one to a max of 5, or else you can take one of the branches to the side. You can also choose not to advance any at all, trying for exact amounts to allow extra actions. 

The second expansion is The Art of the Moors. Perhaps my favorite micro-expansion, this one rewards you for collecting multiple tiles in a given value rather than color. When you get two or more tiles that have value 6 or higher, you get a hexagonal tile that you place along a framing "wall" piece (that look like small versions of the frames for Settlers). Each "dial" (as I'll call them) has a range of values and qualifying garden tiles associated with each vertex of the hexagon. For example, the 6 dial has values 0-1-2-3-4-5 (I think, I never got this dial), and a requirement of 2 tiles for the first three, then 3, then 4. Different tiles have different values, most with big jumps at the top range. 

When you get two garden tiles in the appropriate configuration in your play area (including the reserve!), you place the dial against a wall with the 0 value against the wall. You then take a small black cube and put it on the highest number you can turn the dial to based on how many garden tiles you have of that value, usually one or two spaces higher on the dial. As you add tiles of that value, you move up the cube and can turn it to 11 if you get enough. That's one better than 10, btw. As an action, you may rotate every dial you have that can be increased, and the points shown are added to your score in each round. 

The third expansion is The Power of the Sultan. This is a set of special cards and a die, with the cards added into the deck in a gradual fashion, as with the scoring cards. When one of these cards comes up, the die is rolled to determine which of the six building types the card affects. You can buy these cards for seven of the stated currency, and it gives you the chance to steal a garden tile of the rolled color immediately after it has been placed on the purchase mat, starting with the player to the left of the person whose turn just ended (when you place the tiles). If you buy a card and don't like the color of tile it lets you steal, you can reroll and choose either the color rolled, or the one on the other side of the die (on a regular die, this would be combos of 1/6, 2/5, 3/4, for example). 

The fourth expansion is The New Valuecards (wow, that's thematic). This one is simple - it simply mixes up the valuations of the different colors of tiles over the course of the game, so blue is no longer necessarily the cheapest. Our game was such that brown, purple, and white were the most valuable, while green was the least. My least favorite of the expansions, but that's not to say it doesn't change the game up a bit. 

So why were these expansions such a good idea? It mostly has to do with the basic flaw of Alhambra - in the base game, you have limited choices. If you can't buy a card, you are more or less stuck taking money cards, and if none of those appeal to you, then you can always redecorate by shifting tiles to and from your reserve. However, that's about it, and there's a certain amount of cycles in the game where you really have no good choices of what to do, completely based on luck of the draw, both in cards and tiles. 

With the first three expansions, the options open up. First of all, you have two new things to spend money on, the Caravan cards and the Sultan cards. Know you want to be able to steal a tile when it shows up? Spend seven on a Sultan card. Once the game has gotten underway and you have five or six different types of buildings, then the Caravan cards are particularly useful as you can augment your income over time without having to draw cards. 

The caravan cards also encourage you to diversify early to make them cheaper and more attractive, which means that you have more "good" choices from the tile draft. The Art dials (also called Culture in the translation) do the same, encouraging you to pick numbers that match a set as well as colors. Frankly, knowing that I needed to bump those up from time to time drove me to choose that function rather than drawing cards as I wasn't sure a scoring round was coming up or not. They were a big part of my points, scoring (by themselves) 23 points in the second and third scoring rounds, and Dave pulled off 29 points at the end (enough to give him the win over me, as I was never able to draw more tiles of those numbers). 

The end result is two more things you can buy, one more thing you can do as an action, and increased diversification of tile choices during the game. Not to mention increased tension. While I'm unlikely to pull this out for non-gamer friends with this expansion (as Greg said about playing with his wife), but it turns Alhambra into a gamer's game with a rich decision set. You are still, at the core, at the mercy of the tile and card draws, but because more tiles are desirable and you have potentially three things you can spend money on, that luck is mitigated to a certain extent. 

We played with three people, and that seemed to be a very good number. I think four would be worthwhile as well, but it's still Alhambra, and six people would be painful to watch. However, those Sultan cards would be snapped up immediately, as the ability to snag tiles fresh from the bag would be worth it's weight in real estate. 

If you are a Gamer (tm), like Alhambra but wish it had more tactical options, and your play group often finds you in groups of three or four, this is a big winner. Something I'll be adding to my collection very soon, and Alhambra will see a lot more play time on my table. Thanks to Dave for introducing me to the expansion!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mamyev Kurgan, Pt 2 - The Nazis Strike Back

Matt R and I have the longest running CC:Stalingrad game ever. Two months and we're finished with the second battle! What can I say, we have busy lives. I'll assume that you've read the earlier post and/or are familiar with the game and campaign setting for Stalingrad. 

In our first battle in the gully, my two Guards Rifle platoons beat Matt's Germans and advanced to CP1 on the German side, the flat area right above the gully. I had four campaign platoons available, another four units reinforcing (mostly Guard Rifle), plus another three weapons (most importantly, the ampulomet, or Molotov cocktail thrower). I also chose to bump my sides level up to Elite rather than drop Matt's down. The improved level means I get a better quality of soldier in my command platoon, and any replacement teams will be Elite (as in the base game). 

Because of the way the campaign game works, you get to choose a certain number of units for each round, but any campaign platoons are then out for the next game unless you get them again as reinforcements. For this game, I had four potential platoons available aside from the command platoon, but two were SMGs and one was an Assault platoon (better suited for lots of fortifications or a city fight). This was going to be a pretty wide open map, with no features other than eight rubble (you get four more placed randomly every battle, so our next will have 12!) and the objectives spread out along a road running from corner to corner (the road is ignored, too many craters). That meant I had my command platoon of Guards Rifles, my reinforcements which were primarily Guards Rifles, and one campaign platoon of Rifles. Wow, what a difference two hexes of range makes on those Rifle units.

Matt had his Line command squad, a couple of good units coming back (including an HMG), and a Line platoon with another HMG. When all was said and done, I had used one more VP than he had, so we both ended up rolling for support. I ended up with one point more than he did, so I was the attacker and got the second best radio the Russians can get (11 FP). Matt took a Bunker/Trench combo, while I took three foxholes to start in. We had points for the objective closest to my side of the board (2 pts), plus three for the one in the middle. My secret objective was for the objective closest to Matt, but it was only for one point. Still, that one point drove me crazy throughout the game. The map ended up being set up as a "long" map, which was not so good for me as I had numbers where he had quality. Even the Guards have no boxed values, and with only two LMGs I was going to get virtually no use of mods in this game. 

Matt had largely set up a little ways back, but he was doing a pretty good job of breaking my guys while I tried to get some smoke laid down by my artillery. After two or three bursts landing in out of the way places, I finally got things going. More exciting for me, I used the ampulomet against his bunker. It's ordnance, so you have to make a targeting roll. If you roll doubles and make it, you destroy any fortifications and start a blaze *after* they take the fire (without the bunker). However, if you roll doubles and *don't* make the targeting roll, it blows up in your own hex. Not a good weapon to use with a lot of your units standing by. 

I rolled doubles and hit, knocking his bunker out of the game right away. Our games go like that. Somewhat hilariously, that blaze ended up taking over eight hexes on the board, as the Breezes seemed to come up pretty regularly (and at the worst times for me, of course). 

His main battery of units was guarding the NE corner of the board, with a smaller pair of units in the NW corner to rake the battlefield with one of the HMGs. He also held the rubble near the W side of the board with a small force in the trench. I made runs for both the NE and W nests, but only had success in the W through fortunate draw of Ambush cards. Actually, not *so* fortunate, as I would hold onto the Advance/double Ambush cards for about fifteen turns trying to lay enough smoke to get my units up close. I also drew a *lot* of Sniper! time triggers, few of which did any damage, so I often had the Urban Sniper mod (although I forgot about it regularly). 

In the NE, I advanced some units, but they kept getting shot up despite the smoke. Fortunately (I guess), the blaze in the ex-bunker had spread to the east side of the board, forming a wall of flame four hexes long (close to half the width of the board, sort of like a wall partition from hell, with each of us on one side. Unfortunately, the 1 point objective was over there as well. I had taken the 3 pointer, so things were fairly close. I was within striking distance of pulling the total my way on a few occasions, but that damned one point behind the wall was going to be very hard to take, so I decided to go for taking out the remaining units in the NW corner and then trying to exit some units off of the board. 

I managed to get up close with a Rifle unit, and had not only two more Ambush cards (Matt never got a single one played on me the entire game), but the +4 Urban Sniper mod. Not surprisingly, I won that battle as well. The Command 2 leader in the hex, though, came back as "Walking Wounded" and I wasn't close enough to kill him, which would have been nice. Matt also got a Hidden Unit event, which allowed him to take a squad off of my side of the board. After the next time trigger, he brought it on right in front of a broken (and suppressed) Guard unit that was two spaces from his edge of the board. He wasn't able to kill it, but I got yet another Advance/double Ambush combo and waltzed into the space, killing him in the process. I had another Advance a couple of draws later, and that unit got off the board intact. 

We were now down to just a few points difference, and the Time marker had worked it's way up to 8 (the first two Sudden Death checks failed or got Initiatived and failed), so I knew I didn't have much time. I started going for firing for effect around his large clump of units behind the wall (now in the North part of the board), and got a big hit right in the middle of them, breaking nearly all. However, he'd killed the leader who could see into that part of the board, and the one I had left was badly placed as the blaze was burning between him and the Germans, so I couldn't quite finish the job. 

As it turned out, it was mostly a moot point. Matt tried to Recover his units, and halfway in caused a time trigger and ended the game. He finished with 4 VP and the initiative card after getting the extra points (his secret objective, the one close to me, had been revealed earlier). A very close game with the VP marker hovering around 0-4 on his side of the track, and had I been able to get in one more barrage I think I would have taken him out. An excellent game with great narrative elements, as usual. 

Because Matt had only gotten about half of his units rallied when the Time trigger struck, the rest weren't available for reinforcements (meaning that HMG that he had left), although he did get to keep his medium mortar. He'll also get to roll twice on the deployment table as opposed to my once, and decide if he wants to join me at Elite level, or bump me back down to Line. We'll also be on the map we were on first, but with a *lot* more rubble. On the plus side, I'll get four reinforcements to his two, fortunately more Guards. On the down side, I'm left with three campaign platoons better suited for assault than a gully fight, but I guess the LOS on that map are such that long range isn't as critical as it was on the CP1 map for the Germans. 

Having gone through the full scenario generation, I'll say that it's nothing short of brilliant. There's a chance for both sides to try to game that system to a small degree, both in figuring out how much force you want to bring (and probably won't have for next time), but also in the support rolls once everyone has chosen their platoons. It's a very clever system and I have to say that I like it a lot and would consider using the random scenario generator on a regular basis, especially for the Med armies (those scenarios don't seem to be as well crafted as the battle packs, Europe, or Pacific, at least the few I've played). 

We're going to play an ongoing campaign at WBC West in a few weeks in the evenings, should be a very enjoyable experience seeing how each team does. 

The one drawback to the evening - it took us from about 6:45 to 11:30pm to finish the game, which is really about an hour longer than I'm allowed to have company over. Part of that was having to go over the scenario generation portion (although I separated out units and did what I could to prep ahead of time), but that seems like a very long game when each side had three orders and the sudden death marker started at 6 (it ended at 8). To be fair, there were definitely situations where min/maxing was called for, but next time I'll put the game in a poster frame and hope I don't need my copy in between sessions. 

Again, this Battle Pack (and this game) come highly recommended from me. More or less everything about this game is effortless in terms of remembering how things work, the ease of looking up rules, and the almost complete lack of downtime. Plus, I taught a clinic on how to use smoke to advance troops across the board (even though my blazes seemed to cause me more problems than Matt, at least after that first one). 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Halls of Montezuma - First Impressions

As part of my continuing efforts to prep for WBC West, I'm trying to learn a few of the newer short games that have come out recently in case they see play. So far, that's included Unhappy King Charles, Spartacus, and today The Halls of Montezuma (HoM). I also plan to give Texas Glory a whirl, which is a nice thematic tie-in with HoM, as well as the new SCS title Bastogne. Because my main goal is to not only get the rules in my head, but also to figure out where the rules holes are, I am not playing the game a) optimally or b) to completion. However, I do feel that with so many wargames under my belt I can get a good initial sense of a design from even just a few turns of play. Obviously, since there's a Crisis deck and a War deck, if I don't get to the War deck I can't get a good sense of what happens in that part of the game, but there are enough other elements that I feel I can at least give a general sense of whether or not this is a game for you.

First of all, HoM is simulating the whole of the Mexican-American War, fought from 1846 to 1848. It was arguably one of the land grabs that the US made in the 19th Century (see also the Spanish-American War as well as the annexation of Hawaii), which makes a lot of sense as we were already grabbing up a lot of territory under the rubric of Manifest Destiny anyway. The game is played at what feels like an operational level, similar to the scale of Wilderness War. The game is a CDG of the Hannibal stripe rather than Paths of Glory, which is to say that it's focused around leaders and the troops they command with fairly loose lines, as opposed to games where you can activate a certain number of stacks and your lines are important, sometimes critical. 

There are a dizzying array of unit types on both sides, all of which have some sort of game effect. Mexican artillery was obsolete and their powder manufacture was not the best, so there's an effect in battles there. Having combined arms (arty/cav/infantry) is helpful (a little) in combat. Certain units (specifically the regular troops) can be "committed" in battle to increase firepower. Guerillas (Mexican only) are particularly useful, but require a loss of operational flexibility to get them in place and then to use them. 

The map is very pretty, but the washed out sepia tones make it a little difficult to see clearly (especially map text) in poor lighting conditions. In particular, I have to really pay attention to distinguish rough transit passages in certain sections of the map. There are a lot of transit spaces, used in particular in Successors, especially in the Western part of the board, and they have a big effect on movement in that you risk taking attrition whenever you use them (and you will have to use them). In general the map is used well, although I would have preferred to see some of the holding boxes on the Turn Track (a separate sheet of paper) placed on the map instead, simply because it makes the game easier for me to store in a poster frame between sessions if I need the table. 

The player aid sheets (two identical sheets, 11"x17" folded) contain what you need for battle, and tracking Mexican Political Will (similar to the mechanism in For the People and Empire of the Sun), but most of the rest of the information is used sparingly. I would have liked to have seen a player aid with information on supply sources, replacement costs, and even a list of the various actions you can take (as these are much more extensive than in most CDGs). 

There has been a lot of complaining about the rules, which I think is in part because of a few poor choices in terms of organization, terminology (there are Mandatory Events associated with the turn, and Mandatory Event cards, for example), and also some strange choices in the index (Reinforcements, found in an early catch-all chapter, are located in the index under "Placement of Reinforcements"). All in all, however, a large portion of what you need can be found in the rules with a literal interpretation, which is what I prefer in a wargame ruleset anyway. There is also a "comprehensive example" in the rules which cover about a quarter of what can be done - it's mostly to demonstrate the rather involved battle process and demonstrate the Supply Check and Movement Attrition mechanisms. 

HoM borrows a lot of systems from various other CDGs:
  • Wilderness War - Raiding (both sides) and building fortifications
  • Empire of the Sun - The "efficiency" roll in battles
  • For the People - Political Will as a measure of success, naval system
  • Successors - Transit spaces
  • The Napoleonic Wars - Response cards (and their graphic design), as well as Must Play cards. 
  • Here I Stand - Mandatory game events (although without the "may be played earlier" card element - these are simply on the turn record track).
There are also a few new systems that I don't recall seeing in a CDG before, or that have been brought from other games that aren't CDGs:
  • Supply checks - While you want to be in supply to avoid movement attrition and combat penalties, you aren't dinged at a specific time in the turn, but instead when certain marked Event Cards are played. 
  • Attrition - You can take attrition from several sources when you move, and they're all cumulative. One is that you roll a d10 every time you move along transit points, and if you roll less than the number of TPs you moved along, you lose a step. Combined with tight supply lines, you can find your very large force simply melting away the further it gets into enemy territory (a bigger problem for the US than the Mexicans). 
  • Multiple Decks - There are other games with multiple decks based on side or period, but this is the first game where trying to get to that second phase is a major goal of one side and something the other side is trying to prevent. In this case, it's a declaration of War by the US. 
  • Variable Movement Points - Every time you activate a force or army you draw an Action Card to see how far you can move based on the initiative of the unit you're moving. The card you draw may also cause attrition. 
  • Zones - These are larger areas, often seen in Area Impulse games such as Breakout: Normandy or Monty's Gamble. Here, they create areas where it's very difficult for one side to bring the other to battle, essentially forcing the active player to intercept the target forces. 
  • Random Events - The Action Deck is also used at the start of every turn to create a set of random events, which include placing raid markers, drawing reinforcements, getting an extra card in your hand, etc. 
  • Replacements - Can be brought in by Event Card play once per turn, and only for a single force. US units can't be replaced until War breaks out, one of the primary reasons to attain that status.
  • Regroup Pools - Units and leaders are brought in more or less completely randomly, based on what units you have in each players Regroup Pool. For the Mexicans, it can just about anything, but the US pool is very limited until War breaks out.
  • Formation of Armies - These cost a card play to build, and they give a favorable DRM in battle and guarantee at least one MP when activated. On the down side, they get one less MP from the Action Card and can't be supplied by port.
  • Revolts - The Mexicans must constantly worry about their various states falling into and spreading revolts, forcing them to run around the board putting out fires. 
The battle system is perhaps the most novel part of the game, and while on the one hand it seems to be kind of a lot of work, on the other I think it forces players to act as their historical counterparts did by encouraging certain mixes of forces, not to mention the opportunity to improve your odds by sacrificing steps. There are various modifiers applied to your firepower as well, including one that dings you for moving before fighting based on MP remaining. Once you've computed your Firepower, you roll on an "Efficiency" table with more drms, which give you a combat result when cross-referenced with the firepower. The result is equivalent to a compressed CRT, with some elements shifting columns and some shifting rows. Each side will generate a numeric combat result which results in step losses to the other side. In big battles, this can be exacerbated if the differential between results is large. There are markers to keep track of your unit firepower, your total firepower (as well as states in revolt and states under US control), but strangely nowhere to track the information - the Political Will track works to a point but the spaces are smaller than the counters and it gets crowded quickly. This is a case of style trumping function. 

Play will typically consist of a few different axes of contention. First is the Disputed Zone, the original Cassus Belli of the conflict, and it has a few special rules governing it. Second is the Texas/Mexico border, which will see incursions by both sides, especially if Santa Ana is elected Presidente early in the game and can bring his eight units up before the US can declare war to threaten Texas. Third is the ports along the coast, especially where the PW cities are on the Gulf side. Fourth is the Californias (Alta and Baja), zones that provide supply but also have victory implications. Finally, there's the raid/guerilla/revolt system, forcing both players to react to activities behind the lines. 

There are a large number of chaotic elements in the game, which may account for part of the reason it hasn't been gamed on this scale often (if at all). The random events, the uncertain number of movement points, surprisingly large swings of results in battle, the fact that you have to "find" enemy forces in some of the critical areas of the board, and the random aspect of raiding (although this affects both sides, unlike Wilderness War), all combine to give what some wargamers would consider to be a less than satisfying experience. Personally, this doesn't bother me as much, and I have high hopes for the game.

The critical factor will probably come down to how wide battle results can be, and how often battle is joined. One of the concerns I have about Unhappy King Charles is that there are relatively few battles, and thus the results can easily become statistically skewed with fewer rolls. If HoM ends up with relatively fewer battles, that could be a problem, but I'm just not sure yet. It seems like you have a better chance of setting yourself up for success by assembling your forces and armies with a good mix of units, but in two turns of play I saw exactly three small battles in zones where there were small losses on both sides. The fact that you draw random units for both replacements and reinforcements will also be an issue for some players, although I believe it's appropriate for the conflict. 

Compared to the last effort by these designers, The Thirty Years War (which had no ability to intercept, a huge number of special rules based on which of the 15 different factions a unit belonged to, and a subsystem that wasn't worth spending time on), this is a cleaner design with some clever ideas, if you can stomach the chaos level. The rules have some big issues, but they're manageable with some designer support (which has been a tich spotty on BGG this past week), and they're nowhere near as bad as the rules for Fields of Fire were. However, they will drive off euro and strategy gamers looking to dip their toes into wargaming. There is a Quick Start sheet, and it's of marginal use when you're getting used to the various actions, but the designer's mantra that new players should just work from it and reference the rules as needed is specious and inaccurate - I spent a good hour trying to figure out how battle was different in Zones, and found it under Reaction Movement In Zones which makes perfect sense once you've found the rule but no sense at all up to that time. 

Which points out two elements of wargaming - the difficulty of writing clear rules, and the increasing dependence of developers to rely on the writing skills of the designer. Ideally, the publisher should be checking all of these elements before the game goes out, but the truth is that rules changes are happening right up to the printing of components, and often the publisher is relying on the developer to have taken care of problems without review. Given that we're involved in a niche hobby, I expect that we'll have to rely on good developers who understand the importance of having rules blind-reviewed and edited and who have the authority to whip the rules into a logical flow and enforce consistent and comprehensive terminology. I fully expect things to get missed from time to time, but the current trend is to shove something out the door because of printing schedules and the games suffer as a result. Fields of Fire was a poster child for this problem, which was a shame because it's a great game like no other. The publisher, in this case, did a great job of trying to clean up the mess when many others would just say, "Bummer, dude," but wouldn't it be nice if there was no mess in the first place? 

Maybe I should start speaking with developers about exactly what their jobs consist of, how it varies from company to company, and how the art can be standardized and/or improved. Worth thinking about.

In a nutshell, HoM is a very promising game, provided you can handle chaos on the level of Warriors of God or Combat Commander and not run screaming from the room. Game time makes this playable in an evening (three hours or so, comparable to Hannibal), it's on a rarely gamed subject that should appeal to ACW fans, counter density is relatively low, and all in all the components are nicely done. There are even notes on what all of the events refer to, although some are of the "Gee, Tex, that's some pretty good ground for fightin' on!" variety (i.e.; less than useless). I give it a conditional recommendation for any CDG fans interested in the period, even if they don't like chaos - after all, that was a hallmark of the conflict. 

WBC West 2009 Prep, Part 2 - The Odd Couple

One of the nice things about WBC West (again, I will note that this is not associated in any way with the "official" WBC, it's our inside joke) is that you get to play a wargame against pretty much everyone who attends the entire event, which is nice because as an invite only event we have the ability to avoid people who have, shall we say, less optimal play styles or personal hygiene issues. 

What we can't control is how many people show up. This year, it was looking like we'd have an odd number of people pretty much continually through the week. A late addition and a delayed arrival now mean that we will have an even number of folks throughout, which is nice, but we had ways of dealing with that problem. Here's how we planned to deal with an odd number of players...

1) Games for three. This is a pretty short list, as wargames go. The majority of possible games seem to lie in the card-driven game system, which is nice on the one hand as most of us really like this style of game. However, it does lead to a certain amount of samey-samey when you do it for an entire week, and we like variety. In particular, we'd planned to play Napoleonic Wars and Here I Stand with three, although Napoleonic Wars is now officially off of my play list and Here I Stand is uncertain. Friedrich is another casualty.

Wellington is another CDG that works well with three. You can play Sword of Rome and Successors with three, but my experience is that you really need four to get the full effect of these games. Kutuzov is also playable with three, but it doesn't have the natural division that Wellington has (with the Brits and Spaniards). 

2) Monster Games. Any game that benefits from team play, which usually means very large (or "monster" games) can often work just as well with three players, one taking a single side. If the game is very large, you can even take a page from Kutuzov and have the players essentially play against themselves. For example, let's say that you're playing a game that involves the German invasion of Russia in 1941. The Germans divided their forces into three Army Groups; North, Center, and South. The Russians were similarly divided in terms of their forces, into military groups (although the rapid advance of the Germans forced the Russians to reorganize more or less constantly). If each player takes a German Army Group, and also takes a non-corresponding Russian Front, you can play the game as if you had six players, with the attendant rivalries and lack of cooperation. 

We had not planned to use this option this year, but it would make for a very interesting monster game. You could do the same thing with Highway To The Reich, where someone took the 1st Airborne/US paratroopers/XXX Corps on one side, and the North/Central/South German forces on the other. 

Obviously, this sort of thing requires players who are either more interested in seeing how history plays out than anything else, and people need to play each side as effectively as they possibly can. I suppose there's a good way to make this competitive without having your opponents try to screw you out of a win through collaboration.

3) Hotseating. Imagine a game of Paths of Glory where you play the Allies on Turn 1, sit out on Turn 2, then play the Central Powers on Turn 3. Lather, rinse, repeat. Like the monster game, there's a certain requirement to play honestly, but you could easily create victory conditions where whoever managed to take the most VP spaces during their turns won. On the downside, I could see how if you were in a position where that was unlikely you'd also be unlikely to try to make any progress, and in fact might just set your opponents up for failure by *giving* ground. Hopefully the fact that you're playing both sides would help balance that out.

Not only does this allow three players to play a two-player game, but it would be awesome for becoming familiar with a game, particularly useful for CDGs and the various combos. Downside is that you'd have some knowledge of what cards had been held over in a CDG. I have yet to try this system, but I could see it being very useful for teaching games. 

4) Natural Divisions. Some military situations lend themselves well to a division of forces, especially in Western Europe during WW2 because of the combined operations of US and Commonwealth forces. Tunisia and Sicily (OCS), anything involving Market Garden or the full D-Day invasion, Cobra, Italy, the list is extensive. The same goes for ETO strategic level games, which often have a natural division of the Soviets and Western Allies and thus rules for playing with three players. However, a game like Breakout: Normandy is perfect for this, as the Allies have to bicker about who gets the impulses!

This will also work for games that group forces in some way. Flying Colors, a naval game, uses squadrons and commands that would work quite well with multiple players taking different groups of units. The Burning Blue could see multiple players taking over the various RAF commands against a single Luftwaffe player. 

As it stands, the shifting realities of nano-con attendance, which once had roughly two days worth of gaming out of seven with an even number, now give us even numbers at worst for all but one day. I'd be a fool, however, to think that this won't be a constant "threat" in the future. I'm happy to realize that we have more options than the handful of games that are actually designed to be played by three - it's just a matter of thinking, sometimes literally, outside the box. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cuba Libre

Some of you know that I've actually visited Cuba, and my wife has been on three different occasions, and may go there again in November. Every time it's been a legal trip under US law, just in case anyone is wondering. 

Just so you know, we haven't drunk the Kool-Aid. Cuba is not a free country; people are not free to criticize their own government, and information and travel out of the country is strictly controlled. At the same time, education is free to all citizens, and Cuba is the most literate country in Latin America. They have incredible support for the arts, much better than we have in the US (as far as public support goes), and a beautiful country that pretty much everyone on the planet is free to visit except for US citizens. 

And therein lies the problem. When Castro drove out the incredibly corrupt Batista government in 1959, he declared a socialist state. Eisenhower went on a golfing trip to avoid having to meet with anyone who even smacked of socialism, and so when Castro visited the US shortly thereafter he met with (of all people) Nixon. Needless to say, we offered no support for the fledgling government, and so being a pragmatist he turned to the Soviet Union. When that country collapsed in 1990, Cuba went through a "bad" period of time, and we didn't help then either. Today, they have a thriving tourism industry, but things are difficult for the average Cuban on many levels, although not as bad as 20 years ago. 

Why has the US been such a hard ass on Cuban relations? The answer goes back hundreds of years, when we had designs on making Cuba a US territory because of it's strong sugar and tobacco industries. We even trumped up a cassus belli for the Spanish-American War in the late 19th Century mostly so that we could incorporate Cuba, but the one concession the Spanish managed to get was that Cuba be an independent state (as opposed to Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the other territories we stole from the Spanish). For the first half of the 20th Century, Cuba was a defacto US territory, although one that we didn't need to worry about little things like democracy, civil rights, or any of the regulation that was becoming de rigeur in the US. 

When Castro's revolution was successful, he nationalized all of the US and Cuban holdings, in particular the sugar and tobacco plantations. And there is the reason that the US is still pissed off about 1959. It wasn't communism, it was that Castro kicked us out and gave the country back to the Cubans. It has taken 50 years for the interested parties to have largely died off, and it is now that we start to see normalized relations with the country.

Having been to Cuba, I will say that it is indeed a totalitarian state, although one that does some things right. Universal health care and education are some of the laudable things the Cuban government does for it's people. On the down side, there are a lot of very smart people who are forced to take jobs doing things that would seem crazy in the US. I met a cab driver there who had been a social studies teacher, but made so much more money in tips that he changed jobs! 

Now that Obama has lifted restrictions on Cuban ex-pats visiting and sending home money, we will start to see major changes in a year or so. I predict that there will no longer be restrictions on any US citizen traveling to Cuba by the end of 2010, perhaps sooner. The painful thing is that over the last 50 years, the people who have traveled to Cuba have had good intentions. Cuba AyUUda, the organization associated with the Unitarian Church that my wife is involved in, goes not only to help Cubans, but to let Cubans and Cuba change those who visit, and it's been effective for both sides. 

Once the restrictions are lifted, however, the quality of American in Cuba will change. As one of the people we met there said, "Now, Americans come who love Cuba. Soon, Americans will come who want us to serve them drinks and who won't care about the Cuban people." I think he's got it just about right. I think that as our relations with Cuba normalize, we'll start to see Cubans lose the good things about their revolution and it will become just another Latin American country with corrupt politicians, ugly American tourists, and where the dollar reigns supreme. That will be a shame, because while the youth of Cuba certainly are looking for any way they can to improve their lives, it will be through quick and easy money rather than hard work. 

For those who say that we shouldn't have relations with any dictatorship, I suggest you pull your head out of your ass. We have many many relations with countries that have similar or worse governments than Cuba. Cuba also hasn't been a military threat for decades, and in fact I saw military *officers* hitchhiking on the side of the roads, repeatedly. This is a country that offers no threat at all to the US, unlike North Korea. 

By opening up US travel to Cuba, we destigmatize this wonderful and beautiful country, introduce a flood of desire for greater freedoms, and right at least 20 years of boneheaded political policy engineered more to keep the Cuban ex-pats in Florida voting Republican than to "stop Communism". The Bush administration actually tightened restrictions on travel, despite there being not the slightest reason to do so, and I'm glad to see that we are finally getting to a point where we stop acting like a bunch of spoiled children who got kicked out of a sandbox that wasn't theirs to begin with. 

Cuba Libre! 

Hornet Leader 2

Of all the solitaire games I own, perhaps none has seen as much play as Hornet Leader. Originally designed by Dan Verssen and published by GMT Games nearly 20 years ago, it was the game I'd take with me on business trips to keep me occupied in the evenings in my hotel room (back before I had a laptop to bring with me). There were several variants published in C3i over the years, but with more and more games requiring table time it just wasn't seeing much play anymore. 

A few years ago, when I first started to get interested in VASSAL, I noticed that Dan was selling VASSAL and PDF versions of some new games in the Leader series. Since I'd been disappointed that only two titles had been published (the other was Thunderbolt/Apache Leader, which had a much different feel than Hornet), although GMT had tried to drum up support for other topics, I figured I'd try out Hornet Leader 2 in VASSAL form. I'm not a big fan of building my own counters, so having it in computer form would not only get me a copy of the game but allow me to essentially play HL on the computer rather than having to set the game up (and leave it up) for long periods of time to finish complete campaigns. 

Unfortunately, there wasn't much information that came with the game about VASSAL, and I admit that I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to do very simple things (like pick a single unit out of a stack). HL2 has just enough differences from HL that things were confusing for me anyway, and the game got shelved for a while.

Fast forward to the last month. Having gotten quite a bit of VASSAL experience over the past few years, I had noticed that there was a module for T/AL that had just come out and it got me thinking about HL2. Unfortunately, we were two versions on in VASSAL and I was having trouble getting my copy to work correctly. Dan Verssen, however, generously sent me a new key and I was able to get the game up and running without any problem.

The good news is that this is a great little game in VASSAL form, and while I really can't say why I had so much trouble before, now I'm finding that I can play the game rather effortlessly. Better, since it's on the computer, I can play over time. I usually start out my day (once I've showered, eaten, etc) by playing out a mission, and I've already gotten through one skirmish in Iraq and another conflict over Libya. While I won't say that I've done well (I was adequate in Iraq, and with one mission to go in Libya, I'm hopeful I can get to Good), it's been a lot of fun, and I'm finding I worry about my pilots going over target, just like in the regular game.

HL2 works off of a couple of basic ideas. The first is that you have a squadron of pilots, rated for their speed (where they make attacks in the sequence of play), effectiveness in both air and ground combat, their experience level, and their ability to manage stress in the cockpit. Unlike HL, the pilot and the aircraft are inseparable, and much of the board game's focus on the state of the aircraft is streamlined out in this game. Like HL, you still load out the aircraft with ordnance, although the formula for doing so is slightly different in many respects, not the least of which is that you don't worry about where various weapons go on the physical aircraft. 

For example, in HL you automatically get to put two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles on the mount points on your wings, and they cost no weight points. Every plane gets them, as there is nothing else you can mount there and the weight is negligible. In HL2, all mount points are the same, and every Sidewinder costs 1 weight point. Most ground attack weapons, from Maverick guided missiles to iron bombs, cost 2 weight points. Pods come in two flavors, one that works if you're attacked from the area you're in, and another that works for the entire map. Of course, the better one is two weight points. Like the original game, you have limits on how many weapons you have available in a given day. 

New to HL is the use of Special Operations points. Some more effective weapons are available, but they require the use of SOPs, of which you get a set amount in each campaign. It's up to you to determine when and how to use these points, and in general it's not a bad idea to save them until you know you'll need them. For example, in Libya, which takes place in 1986, the anti-radar HARM 88 missiles, which are very effective, require SOPs to use, but they're standard issue in later campaigns. 

The campaigns themselves are not as numerous in the original game, with only three to choose from, but they span twenty years of operations and give an excellent feel for how things have changed over time. There are also currently three expansion modules that add more campaigns, not to mention aircraft that you can fly, and a fully tricked out module will give you a lot of options if you're easily bored. 

Campaigns can be fought in one of three modes: Skirmish, which usually lasts for a couple of missions; Conflict, which is more like a handful of missions; and War, which will last for more like several missions. Unlike HL, the campaigns don't seem to be graded in terms of difficulty. While you may not face a particular enemy aircraft or SAM site in a given theater of operations, there is usually some sort of special rule that makes things a little harder. For example, in Libya you have to fly two missions a day until you get your Infra rating up, and you can't use the same pilots for the second mission as you did in the first. 

A new factor to the campaign is that you don't just score victory points for a given target, you also improve your game position if you destroy them. There are four factors in play: Recon, which allows you to draw multiple target cards and choose one; Intel, which lowers the number of SAM/AA sites in the target area; Radar, which lowers the number of bandits (enemy fighters) in the target area; and Infra, which lowers the number of hits you need to destroy a given target. Early in the campaign, you may wish to focus on targets that destroy enemy infrastructure so that later on you don't need as many hits to destroy targets. It's a very nice evolution of the design.

The target cards are very similar to HL. Each has a number of hits required to destroy it, as well as the improvements to your strategic situation if you're successful. Some have extra special rules, such as airfields that add bandits. The ability to choose between targets gives an additional decision point to the game that both allows you to manage adversity a little better (at the cost of the possibility of less gain), as well as give you more variety. Nothing like drawing the same targets as the last game you played, which this helps alleviate. 

Once you've chosen your target, you then draw "sites" according to the target card. As in HL, you place them according to the target card, with different numbers for the approach areas and for the target area. Unlike HL, the sites aren't as generic - originally they were differentiated between SAMs and AA, and by how heavy or light they were. Now, each site has it's own information on them, similar to how it's done with weapons, and you never know which sites will be AA and which SAMs. There is also an altitude and range for each site, so often many sites will simply get flown over as they don't have the range to high high flying aircraft, or SAMs that can't lock onto low-flying aircraft. To be honest, this was one of the parts of the game that really threw me when I first saw it, but once you realize how much simpler combat is than in HL, you'll come to love it. 

Now you choose your pilots, load their aircraft (and each target gives a specific number of aircraft as well as how many of the eight load points you lose due to distance - Hornets are amazing aircraft, but one of their early design flaws was a lack of range unless they flew with relatively little ordnance), check your target-bound event, place the hornets in the pre-approach areas, then check to see if the sites are everything you thought they'd be. Unlike the original game, which just adjusted the SAMs, now any defensive element of the target may change, sites and bandits. In some cases, you get additional bandits every turn!

Combat is generally very simple. You play for four rounds, first firing weapons on both sides, then moving your aircraft. Every pilot is rated as either Fast or Slow, similar to the Aggression rating of the original game. All fast pilots can fire at one target, then the enemy sites and bandits fire, then the slow pilots fire. 

Combat is simple for Hornets, you pick a target, choose what ordnance you want to expend on it, then roll dice to see if you hit. Weapons can fire either from a given altitude, and all have a range from being limited to the specific area up to two areas away. You roll one die, modify it by the target's drm (in a circle at the bottom of the counter if a site or bandit), also by the pilot's skill at that type of combat, and in the case of air-to-air combat, by how weighted down they are with air-to-ground weaponry. There can be up to three damage numbers on the weapon. If you are at or higher than the first number, you score one hit on the target or destroy the bandit or site. If you are at or higher than the second number, that's one additional hit on the target, and the same goes for the third number. 

Sites or bandits attacking Hornets work a little differently. First, there are no mods other than if the Hornet has a pod for the appropriate range, and if so you subtract one from the die roll. Second, the targets are selected semi-randomly based on proximity and dice rolls. Third, the Hornets have two defensive options to improve their chances - they can go Evasive by taking one Stress point (more on this later), which allows them to roll two dice and pick the one they prefer. Alternatively, *any* Hornet within range can expend ordnance in exactly the same way as they'd attack the firing site or bandit, but in this case a hit means that the attack is suppressed rather than destroying the firing unit. If the resulting die roll equals or exceeds the first number on the firing unit, the target pilot takes one stress. If it matches or exceeds the second number, the Hornet is damaged, the pilot takes two stress, and all ordnance is lost from that aircraft. If the third number is equalled or exceeded, the Hornet is destroyed and you'll need to roll on the Search and Rescue table at the end of the mission to see if the pilot was recovered. 

You play for four rounds of this, then it's back to a home-bound event, landing, managing stress, giving victory points if the target was destroyed, and going on to the next mission. Stress points are a very nice way to manage the wear and tear on pilots, an improvement over the original game. In that, you had a die roll to determine if the pilot was shaken or unfit. Now, you accumulate stress points over the course of the game, and they determine how each pilot fares. For example, a rookie pilot will become shaken after only one stress point, and unfit after the second, while a veteran might be able to withstand several stress points before he becomes shaken. Each target adds stress in addition to any taken for damage, enemy fire, or evasive action. Once those numbers have been added, each pilot takes off stress according to his "cool" factor, which ranges from 1 to 2 in the pilots in the base set. Pilots which didn't fly take off stress equal to their cool, plus another two stress. 

Finally, each pilot who went over target gets an XP, and if the target was destroyed and no hornets were shot down, they each get another. Once a pilot gets XP equal to the level printed on his card, you flip the card over and they get better. Less experienced pilots will require fewer points to gain a level, and that's the best they can do. To be fair, even with the full blown War scenarios it's tough to improve your pilots to even one level of improvement, but it is possible. The problem is that unless things go very smoothly, your pilots will accumulate enough stress as rookies to make them unfit very quickly, so they're very unlikely to fly anything more than every other mission. More experienced pilots will do better, but in general you'll find that having roughly half of your air wing up at any time, alternating back and forth, will give you the most success in general.

Shaken pilots can still fly, but their speed and targeting skills are lower than if they're OK. Unfit pilots are not allowed to fly at all. It's a good idea to let all of your shaken and unfit pilots stay on the ground if at all possible, and this is another reason why being able to choose targets is such a nice addition, since each target has a number of planes that are assigned to the mission (unlike HL, you can't bump up or down the number of planes) and sometimes you want to send out fewer aircraft to a less critical target just to let your personnel rest up. 

In a nutshell, the game is very similar to the original, but with a number of tweaks that improve the game while staying true to the system. I have to admit that I miss the loadout placement limitations in the original (pods in the center, Sidewinders on the wings, etc), but that's my only complaint. 

You can pick the game up online at for $15, and the expansion modules are mostly $15 each as well, with the most recent at $20. I recommend you buy them in "order", starting with HL2, then Carrier Air Group, then Cold War, then Marine Air. Each unlocks more aircraft types/pilots, campaigns, and in some cases weapons. You can also order a PDF version if you prefer to play with physical components, but you'll need to build the game yourself. For me, the VASSAL option is a great one, and I prefer it. 

Dan has several other games for sale on the site, including Corsair Leader, which takes the system into WW2 carrier operations. There are also a couple of Down In Flames settings (one has dragons!), and a few other games I haven't tried yet. I'll probably pick up Corsair Leader next, then start picking up the HL2 expansions. It's a really clever system, long out of print in their original runs (the GMT website doesn't even list them!), but if you're looking for light solitaire games these are excellent choices. 

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rails Over Europe vs Railroad Tycoon

I had the chance to play Railroad Tycoon twice over the last few weeks, once with the original map and again with the Europe map (published version). I did well in both games, coming in second behind a very strong performance by Chris (aided by a late game card that doubled his already large lead), and winning a come-from-behind squeaker last Friday. The US game was played with six players, and the Europe was with four. Here's a quick comparison of the experiences...
  1. Europe features a lot more cities that are close together, but nothing like the northeast corner of the US which is just nuts. Think of it as a more even distribution. 
  2. Europe has very clearly marked mountains, which at first glance don't seem to dominate the board, but in fact they do. Mountains play a big role on the US map, but they're in only one centralized area (the Appalachians), and there are a lot of ridges to deal with. In Europe, few ridges. 
  3. Rivers and coastline are a much bigger obstacle in Europe, where if there's *any* water feature in a hex it costs extra. There is also no "following" rivers in Europe as in the US to save money. 
  4. Europe has pre-determined routes that you get points/income for regardless of cards being available. As I remember, this was one of the cards that Chris got points for late in the game on the US map. Since they're all available in Europe from the game start, there's less chance of that happening, and it's probably worthwhile to just make those cards available at the start. 
  5. Because of the more difficult terrain, you'll need to take out a lot more shares to accomplish things. On the US map, I like to keep my share distribution down as much as possible, and generally can get away with only taking one or two shares. Since I almost always draw the "get points for taking the fewest shares" Tycoon card, it's also often a requirement. By comparison, I was more or less forced to take eight shares in the Europe game, as my rail routes through Italy and Spain averaged $10,000 per three-track route. 
  6. The maximum income level in Europe is $22, compared with $25 in the US. I think that the income amounts ramp up quicker in Europe as well, although I'm not sure.
  7. There is no Western Link space or mechanism in Europe. 
I really liked the Europe map, partly because I thought that the "bad" chaos elements had been removed to some degree. I still think that the Tycoon cards can cause problems, as some will net you as many as eight points while others will only give you six. Even if one is easier than the other, it's a little stupid to hobble a player in this way. However, I got the sense that the Tycoon cards were a little less stupid.

I also liked the more even distribution of cities. There are only two red cities (Berlin and Paris, which are fairly close to each other). Competition for routes wasn't limited to one part of the board as in the US, and the pre-determined bonus routes made it easier to have a strategic plan that would pay off. Perhaps part of the goodness was fewer players, although since our host was not what I would call a "brisk" player downtime was roughly equivalent to a six-player US game. 

The Europe game was particularly interesting for me. I started out kind of slow, building routes from Rome through Milan, then over to Marseilles and down to Naples. Midgame I built up to Paris, then on to Amsterdam (when I noticed that there was a four point bonus for Marseilles/Amsterdam, right about the time the guy to my right had the same route almost completed). I'd drawn the card that got me two points for each Spanish city I'd built out of (remember that Lisbon is not in Spain), but since someone else was building there early I decided to just build those routes later when I had money laying around, and did so successfully. Somehow, I never found myself without cubes to transport, which is not always the case in the US map when I've played, as there seemed to be a lot of cubes on the board to start. 

Aaron had a big lead going into the final rounds, and we all figured he would win easily. However, because I built a route into one of the Spanish cities from Bordeaux right at the end of the game, I was able to score 3 points moving a cube from there to Rome when I would normally have taken a cube from Brest to Marseilles. The extra point proved critical, as Aaron had 14 shares issued to my eight, and I caught up a bit with my Tycoon card as well (his only scored six points). We ended up tied, but I had about $30,000 stored because I was operating more efficiently and I won the tiebreaker. Cooley's Law strikes again.

Interestingly, the people I played with didn't like Age of Steam because it was too unforgiving and you could always just take out more shares if you got into trouble. Funny, I thought that was a selling point of AoS! 

The good news is that I found the Europe map to be much more fun than the US map, partly because of the rules tweaks, some of which can easily be transferred to the US map, but also because of the even distribution of towns. I also enjoyed playing with four, as there was a good amount of competition for space, but not too bad. Considering my cube-tradin' route really only ran from Naples to Milan to Marseilles to Amsterdam (and later to Brest), and I was behind a good part of the game, at the same time I did a great job of having a network of cities that I could get just about any cube to any destination city with only a 4 train. 

I hear this expansion is out of print, and I'm very glad that I got a copy. Railroad Tycoon in it's original form is one of those games that doesn't come out much, partly because of the oversized map, but also because it's an inferior game in many respects to almost every other railroad game I own (I prefer Union Pacific with six). Europe makes this playable at about the right level of interaction with four and fixes many of the design flaws present in the original. If you can score a used copy, or have let the Europe expansion sit unplayed in your collection for reasons similar to mine, I strongly recommend you pull it out and give it a whirl. I was sure pleasantly surprised.

Warming Up

This year we decided to try moving our groups wargaming nano-con to May from August. Central Oregon is generally pretty nice during late August, and often not too hot, but our vacation home their is not built to take air conditioning (nor is the floor plan really designed for it), and if you *do* end up with a hot day, the last thing you want is sweat dripping on the counters. As such, the normal May "eurogaming" retreat has been moved to September, and we're playing wargames in May. 

The week has slowly grown in popularity with our group, and this year we expect seven people to be present at the peak, with three or four who are unable to attend. At some point we'll need to consider renting an extra place, or make sure Ken can make it as his family owns a place out there as well. For most of the week, though, it will just be four or five of us.

I've discussed some of the aspects of this retreat in the past, and will almost certainly cover the same ground again here, but it's worth mentioning for those interested in doing their own nano-con, especially one based on wargaming. In this installment, I'll discuss what we intend to play. 

Unlike most of our "lighter" retreats, the nature of wargaming requires more familiarity with a given game to enjoy it. That's not to say that we don't play games for the first time at "WBC West" (as we call it), but we've learned that having at least soloed the game and a passing familiarity with the rules helps immensely in terms of minimizing brain burnout. As such, we not only start planning what we'll play, but even start planning how we're going to ramp up for the big event, usually as early as two months out. 

The problem I have is that if I don't play the game immediately after learning the rules, I'm going to be about as lost as if I hadn't read them at all. That means I have to be very careful in how I phase in learning games over the weeks leading up to the event. Making things a little more interesting this year is that with the exception of the first 48 hours, we'll have an odd number of people present. As you'd imagine, this presents a challenge or three (ha). 

Another factor to avoid brain burnout is to play "lighter" games in the evening. In the past, that's meant multiplayer strategy games such as Manifest Destiny or Arkham Horror, but this year with a few of us having demonstrated that that sort of thing isn't our cup of tea, we're going to try having people play a mix of MPS games as well as lighter 2-player wargames such as Combat Commander or C&C: Ancients, among others. 

With all of the above in mind, here's a list of what I expect to play and how I'm ramping up in preparation. These are just the day games, I'll cover the evening games as a group further on.

Monday - Kutuzov

Eric doesn't arrive until Tuesday noon, and because the "travel" day is also Mother's Day, we're leaving later than usual (we're usually on the road by noon in order to get in an evening game). Chuck and Dave have played this adaptation of Wellington (which is itself loosely related to The Napoleonic Wars), so things shouldn't be too difficult. Except that there are extensive rules for attrition, morale, and the victory conditions literally take two full pages to describe. We expect to take the entire day to play this, and I'm looking forward to it simply because I'd like to get in a multiplayer session to see if it's worth bringing out more often. 

Prep: This game will require me to run at least one or two turns in a solo session, probably best if I'm playing four hands. The rules are pretty thick for what is really a pretty straightforward CDG of the Welly stripe, so I may hope to get in a real ftf session, but it's unlikely. Since it's multiplayer and others are familiar with it, it's near the low end of my priority scale.

Expected High Point: Mike rolling a bucket full of 1's and 2's in the critical battle. He does that. 

Tuesday - Flying Colors

One of my goals for 2009 was to play a tactical naval game. Earlier in the year, Eric and I played the Wake Island Relief scenario from Second World War at Sea - Midway and enjoyed it, but I'm looking for something with actual naval movement rather than the heavily abstracted system Avalanche uses. I scored a used copy of this game recently, and it looks like fun. Dave and Chuck played last year, this time Dave will be my opponent. If I like this, I may try to figure out War Galley, which I'm told is like football, whereas FC is like basketball. 

Prep: This one has relatively brief rules and I'm told it's pretty intuitive. There are several one-on-one ship scenarios that I'm sure I could get through pretty quickly, but I'm not sure how much hidden information is critical to the game (such as plotting movement, a la SWWaS). This may be a game I talk Jesse into playing over the coming weeks.

Expected High Point: Me boarding my own ships.

Tuesday - Friedrich

While this is a fairly light title, it can arguably be called a wargame simply because it does require you to move historical units around a board. The combat system is also extremely novel, essentially using a deck of cards where you can only use a single suit to fight a battle based on the region of the board you're in. Eric, Dave, Mike, and I played this a few years ago, but Dave's French were kicked out within 40 minutes because of random events, Mike's Russians went not long afterwards, and I managed to hold out against Eric's Austrians to duplicate Frederick the Great's exploits. I thought it was fun. I think this is Dave, Eric, and myself, but I'm still a little fuzzy on this.

Prep: None. I don't own the game and it's not terribly complicated, plus Eric knows it well.

Expected High Point: Three turns and out for the French and Russians, which will probably be me.

Wednesday - The Napoleonic Wars

This is Chuck, Dave, and myself. Not sure who will play what role. I played this last year with Ken and Chris, neither of whom will be joining us this year (next year you guys get to pick the date). I was the French, although I'm not excited about being the English if Chuck is the French ever since he pulled the Wind Gauge card on me and invaded England successfully several years ago. Me, I say we give the French to Dave and let him eat cake. I'll also note that last time we only played a couple of years, even though the Peace die roll had been engineered after turn two to let me win (I rolled a 1, the only result that kept the game going). 

Prep: Light, mostly re-scanning the rules. I taught this to Chris and Ken last year, and the second edition is very streamlined vis a vis diplomacy. Since it's a close relative of Kutuzov, and I've played a few times, not a heavy load. Also low priority.

Expected High Point: Hopefully I will take the Austrians and Russians and repeat Ken's repeated miracle battle results against the French (took me two full turns, and I do mean full, to knock the Austrians out). 

Thursday - Here I Stand

This will be Chuck, Eric, and me. Again, a game we played last year, although I'm pretty sure we didn't get to the end of the full game because it was a learning game for Dave. This time I plan to be the Protestants/English, and I think Chuck will be the Turks/French. We are planning for the full game - the last time the three of us played (at Sunriver), we played the tournament game and Eric spanked us as the Protestants.

Prep: Even though I've played a few times (and Eric, who knows this game well, will be in), each power has it's own thing going and requires a refresh. Also, no "Living Rules" that incorporate errata, so that will be a bit of a chore as well.

Expected High Point: Playing the correct rules regarding Protestant conversion (Chuck had a pretty free ride with this last year because we screwed up a rule pretty badly. That and he rolled crazy and I rolled crap as the Papacy). 

Friday/Saturday - OCS Case Blue

Another one of my 2009 gaming goals was to play a multiplayer monster game, and Eric and Mike really want it to be OCS. Mike and I played Tunisia last year, and I started to enjoy it a lot right about halfway through. Despite some wackiness in the mountains around Tunis, I enjoyed the system and am looking forward to a more mobile game, although the scenario we are going to play has extremely limited supply on both sides as it takes place in the Caucasus. The challenge for us is going to be the map - it's 44" wide and 72" long. Long we can do, wide is going to be a challenge as the Big Table is 42" wide. On the plus side, all we really need is a very large sheet of plywood, and maybe I can get someone to deliver from a local hardware store. Mike and I will be the Russians, while Chuck and Eric will take the Germans. I'm not completely convinced that my head will be able to handle the supply situation (which is the meat of the game), but here's hoping. 

Prep: Chuck hasn't played in a while, if ever, and I really need a refresher. At some point, he and I (with some help from Mike) will sit down and play a few turns to get the system into our heads. On the plus side, the teams are set up so that the newbs are with old hands, so things should go smoothly even if we *don't* prep. I do plan to read the rules, but they're going to be the last thing I read because this is not an easy system to solo to learn - too many rules and too many ways to screw things up. 

Expected High Point: Someone leaning on the plywood *just* right early on Saturday morning and the entire region thrown into chaos.

Sunday - Nada

I'm always so busy getting the house packed up that I probably won't be gaming on Sunday. However, I do know that Chuck and Eric are considering the most recent SCS title (Bastogne), and maybe I'll get into a side-by-side game of this with someone else.

Evening Games

While these are less structured in terms of scheduling, I know we're going to take a stab at a rolling session of Combat Commander: Stalingrad with everyone getting involved (at some point) of playing the campaign game. This will likely start on Sunday night. I'm also hoping to get in sessions of Halls of Montezuma, Texas Glory, and Unhappy King Charles on future evenings. I have yet to play HoM or TG, although neither is terribly difficult. However, these will both require a certain amount of prep in the form of solo sessions ahead of time. 

As for multiplayer, the favorites look like Age of Conan, Battlestar Galactica, Through the Ages, Manifest Destiny, and Arkham Horror. I've played all but AoC, which I've soloed a couple of turns but it's a difficult game to do that with as there's a bidding mechanism. I'm hoping that a session with Jesse in the next month will solidify the rules, as I'll be the 'splainer.

Astute readers will note that I've named nine games, and I only have seven nights. I figure at least a few of these will go quickly and I'll be able to get in a couple of games.

Prep: AoC will require a two-player session. HoM and TG will need solo sessions, but I'm pretty comfortable with UKC. The multiplayer stuff will be a breeze.

Expected High Point: Me winning Manifest Destiny again. It's like it's my... fate. Or something. 

Only four more weeks. That seems like a lot except for all the prep...

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Spartacus - First Look

Chuck came over today and we tried out the new Spartacus game from Compass. We played for about five hours, with no sense of urgency, and got through seven turns (Sparty didn't quite get out). Here's my take on this new CDG. Note: I know the designer, as we co-GMed a Successors tournament some years ago at WBC (the real one). 

The game is a strategic level CDG on the Sertorian War, taking place between 80 and 72 BCE. They chose to use the less-academic BC (BCE is exactly the same, but refers to "Before Common Era" rather than "Before Christ" which is incorrect anyway as Jesus was born a few years before 0BC according to the most current research. I prefer BCE as it eliminates any religious prejudice). For fans of "The First Man In Rome" and it's follow-on books, it takes place at the end of Sulla's reign as dictator of the Roman Republic, and starts with Sertorius's rebellion in Spain. Later in the game, Mithridates VI of Pontus brings the war to Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and of course the last part of the game features the slave revolt by Spartacus, who was taking advantage of all the confusion in the provinces. 

The game lasts for ten turns total, although you can choose a later starting point if you want to focus on different parts of the conflict (or want a shorter game). Total play time for the whole shebang is about eight hours, with later turns potentially taking more time. The early part of the war will largely take place in Spain, although there is opportunity for some fighting in Etruria (or even, should the Sertorian player get the right cards, an attack on Rome itself). 

The game borrows heavily from other CDGs, primarily Hannibal, Successors, Sword of Rome, and Wilderness War, but if I had to pick one it would be Hannibal. The usual CDG choice of using a card for either the event or the Command Points is intact, as is a single deck with cards that are usable by one or both sides for the event. There are quite a few Surprise cards (a term taken from Successors, but that fits more closely with Hannibal's use) that can affect not only combat but movement and losses after combat. The combat system is similar to Sword of Rome, with each side rolling three d6, applying drms, and the winner being the higher total, ties going to the defender. Losses are independent, and are based on the values of the individual dice, so you can lose a battle but do a lot of damage in some cases. There is also a lot of opportunity for post-battle losses through rout if you had a weak leader. 

Like Hannibal, the Republican leadership is based on the Consular system, where the Roman Senate would elect two men to co-lead the army. These leaders tend to be pretty poor, but that was to protect the Romans more than to have an effective fighting force. You can keep Consuls on after their one-turn term, making them Proconsuls (slightly lower in rank), but it costs you in stability points (detailed below). Even keeping Proconsuls from turn to turn has a cost, and it's one of the biggest headaches the Republican player has. On the plus side, they also get four Legates, roughly equivalent to Minor Leaders in Successors, plus two more "special" Legates that come with play of a specific event. 

All leaders, regardless of side, have three values: Tactical, Initiative, and Rank. Tactical is used solely in battle as a drm and to determine if your losing force routs. Initiative is used to activate leaders in a similar fashion to Hannibal (you must play a card with that value or higher CP to activate), and it is also used for intercepting and avoiding battles. Rank is similar to Wilderness War in that it dictates which leader outranks which other leaders (consuls are excepted, they are always top dog), as well as how many units you can command with that leader. Like WW, you may include subordinate leaders in your force that add to your command limit. Tac runs from 0-4, Initiative from 2-4, and Rank from 4-8. 

The map is similar to Hannibal in that you have tribal spaces that must be subjugated, major cities that must be sieged, and minor cities that are pretty much there for the taking, all in a point-to-point layout. There are four major areas on two "submaps": Europe contains Italy, Gaul, and Spain, while the Asia Minor map is an inset and it's own area as well. Travel is done over connections, which are almost all clear or mountain pass (there are two straits as well, one of which requires a special card to use). Republicans can use naval movement between blue ports on a given submap, while Sertorians must have a specific Surprise card to use naval movement with armies, but only with 4 CP cards. Both sides can move individual units and leaders via sea movement using any card, but Republicans can use brown ports to move between maps, something the Sertorians can't do at all. 

Asia Minor doesn't even come into play until halfway into the game (turn 6, unless you're feeling lucky), and Sparty doesn't show until turn 8. If you *are* feeling lucky, you can take a chance and roll 1d6 to see if you match the range for the given turn - if you do, that faction comes in early. If not, they *never* enter. Asia Minor is particularly important because it's entry affects the victory conditions in a big way. Also, many events can't be played until Asian entry. As you approach the historical entry point, the odds improve, but do you really want to be the guy who wanted to bring in a faction early on a lark and lost because you blew the roll and they didn't enter? I didn't think so. 

CP expenditures are a little different from Hannibal. You can still activate an army (units + leader) if the CP value is at or above the leader's initiative, but you can also activate individual units based on a CP cost per unit. As such, you could activate four Spanish light units with a 4 card, or two Republican legions. Sieges and subjugations are part of the movement element, so in many situations you can move to a major city, then spend 2MP to roll on the siege table. If you start there and your slowest unit in your army has 4 MP, you could roll twice on it, or roll once and then move 2MP afterwards. There are some exceptions based on unit type, but it makes for a cleaner system.

PC markers can be placed on the map in any location using CPs, no "adjacent" requirements here. Of course, they still have to trace to a supply source at the end of the turn. There are many tribal spaces on the map, especially in Spain, and all of them act as supply sources once you take them. Interestingly, tribal spaces can be picked up easily when neutral, but require subjugation once allied with one side or the other. Major cities *always* require sieging regardless of whether they are enemy or neutral. 

There is also the opportunity for the Sertorian player to use Light units to "raid" his opponents PC markers - if a individually activated light unit moves into a space with a Republican PC marker and no enemy forces, you can spend an extra MP to remove it (not convert it), similar to Nappy Wars. You can't do this with Sertorian armies, however. The Republicans have a similar mechanism, "pacification", that requires the unit to start in a friendly province, then they can spend MP to convert (not remove) enemy PC markers in adjacent spaces as if they were moving to that space. Pacification is subject to interception, similar to Nappy Wars. This makes for a very fluid map, although the Sertorian has a little bit of an edge as their light units have an MP of 6 compared to 4 for all Republican units, and so they can take out PC markers given that a 4 card can activate four light units. Both the Spanish and Servile units include Lights, so late in the game they can drive the Republican crazy, although pacification makes it difficult for the Sertorian player to hold things long term. Note that you can't raid or pacify anything other than minor city spaces, so grabbing those early is a good thing. 

Unlike most CDGs of the Hannibal ilk, you can't use CPs to recruit units, although you *can* use CPs to upgrade Spanish Light units to Heavies (important in combat as there's a negative drm if all you have are lights). Most increases in units come from either the start-of-turn reinforcements or events.

Finally, there are Resource cards that each side has that allow the game to move along like it should. For example, the Sertorians have a card that brings in the Pontines, another that brings in Sparty. Using these doesn't count toward your regular hand, so it's like getting an extra card play (although a few force you to discard cards, and you must have a card in hand to play a resource card). This is a smart new element, and while a little similar to the Mandatory cards in Here I Stand, it's done in a more elegant way in Spartacus and I like it a lot. We'll see more of this in the future, I suspect. I should mention that resource cards can't be played for CPs, as they don't have any - where other cards have numbers, these have "R"s. 

Also new to CDGs is the inclusion of a "Crisis" track that the Republican needs to manage. There are many events and points in the game where the Republican has to lose stability (moving toward anarchy) as the result of having too many legions, retaining consuls or proconsuls, raising legions, losing large battles, etc. At the same time, they gain points for taking out the major leaders of the opposition, for controlling areas, etc. The design intent is that by the end of the game, the Republican player is not only fighting off multiple threats, but also trying to do it on a shoestring budget. Even if they do manage to avoid anarchy, they still have to control the vast majority of the board at the end of the game to win, modified if Asia doesn't enter the game. They also lose points if the Servile units make it to the Alps and freedom, which means that there's a lot of northward bound traffic near the end of the game. It's a good system, accurately reflects the political realities of the Late Republic, and is pretty easy to remember by the end of the first couple of turns. 

The rules are not too bad, fairly short (as most Compass games are), but there are frequent sections with confusing or vague rules, and we found twelve different rules or cards that weren't clear. A major question came up about the Pontic units that come in for the Sertorians in Asia Minor as to whether the spaces in Pontus become Sertorian or not. Which means that the Pontine army has to besiege it's own capital city even though it was neutral right up to their entry, which seems a little odd. 

The Asia Minor map also adds a new twist to the system - multiple hands per player. Once it enters, you decide before you are dealt cards how many will be used for Asia, and how many for Europe. You can always use events for either map after entry, but you can only use CPs for activations on the map in question. The Pontines come in with a *lot* of units, but very poor leaders, difficulty moving them individually, and limited chances to get things done. While it's not as involved as the Near East map in Paths of Glory, it's still a little tricky to get all of the special rules down in your first game, but having to determine how many cards you'll devote to each theater ahead of time does add tension.

In our game, I started out doing OK in Spain, as that's where all of my units are, taking two more provinces to allow me to generate decent reinforcements. Things went pear-shaped for Chuck early on when he drew Lepidus as one of his consuls on turn two, which triggers the Sertorian getting eight legions in Etruria and Gaul, which kept him busy for a couple of turns. Later on, once he'd beaten them down after a few turns, I played one of my resource cards to "convert" him to a different general and get his ailing legions out of Italy to a holding box. Those units landed in Gaul toward the end of our game (turn 7) to cause more trouble for Chuck at a time when he really was feeling the pinch, and knowing when to convert Lepidus to Perperna is important (hint: when Lepidus is surrounded and in danger of losing his entire force if he loses a battle). 

I did well in Spain, and while we went back and forth over Nearer Spain (the southern coast from what is now the border with France, down to what is now Cartagena), I had pretty much locked up the other four areas and he was going to have a tough time taking them all back with all of those tribal spaces. I also came on strong with the Pontines in turn 6, taking away Cilicia, Cappadocia, and threatening Bithynia with very little threat from the Republicans. I think Chuck realized at this point that trying to get 17 provinces (he held 13) with so many distractions was going to be an issue. He did have the card that would get rid of Mithradates, but since we'd already decided to pack it in by then he didn't play it for that purpose. 

Like any CDG, a big part of enjoying the game is understanding the interactions between cards, and for this particular game I think there is a very short learning curve. While you need to understand that there are cards that will remove PCs (or convert them) from certain areas, the only complex interaction is the ones surrounding Lepidus/Perperna, and there are only really three cards involved, one of which is a Sertorian resource card. 

The game can be adjusted for difficulty for the Republican player by giving them a longer Crisis track, but in our game Chuck rarely had trouble with staying near the top and Stability. There weren't many cards I had that could change things up, so mostly I got points through him losing battles and through retaining his proconsuls. However, he had so many more provinces than me that he would generally make up any difference at the end of every turn. Perhaps I played something wrong there, but I doubt it. However, we also hadn't tracked the Crisis too closely after Asian entry, so perhaps losing those two provinces would have started the slide. I couldn't see it being too big of a deal unless the Serviles were able to flee north in droves, however. I like the mechanism, but I'm not sure if it works like I'd expect it to - my understanding is that after the first couple of turns, things start getting hairy on the track for the Romans. Not in our game. 

So how did I like it? It's another good choice if the complexity of Hannibal is what you're shooting for, although it's a much longer game (no idea how well the scenarios work at this point, but you could play the three-turn Sparty scenario in an evening easily). 

Combat was extremely bloody, and small actions had a very good chance of ending up with all units destroyed. You have to be very careful when choosing your battles in this game, as the distances involved can make it hard for you to get a decent force back in play if you lose too many units. There are battle cards, similar to the Hannibal system, that you can use as an optional rule, but I haven't looked at them and really don't know if they change the outcome (I would hope not, as that would mean you threw in an optional rule that had a major effect on a very elemental subsystem, but wasn't intended to mess with the results that much). 

I do like the wide range of options for using CPs, from raids to individual activations. Incorporating the raids, pacification, subjugation, and sieges into the movement system cleans up a lot of rules to great effect, and the game feels like it's wide open for options and both sides have many choices to make. 

What I don't like is that there are a few card combos that can end the game really quickly for the Republicans if the Sertorian gets cards that allow naval movement as well as the "get a major city for free!" card that can be used against Rome. Admittedly it's a long shot, but the Republican is forced to consider this possibility early, especially once Lepidus shows up and he's under the gun. There are a few other combos that were useful, but that's true of most CDGs and as long as they don't have a disproportionate effect on the game, I'm cool with that. 

There are some component issues, which surprises me as Neil Randall does a lot of development work and these are simple things. The siege markers are effectively single-sided (same value on both sides), the Province control markers are the same color and pattern as the PC markers, and about half have identical sides (why any of these should have had the same side escapes me). There are also far too many of them, and given the very large number of blanks on the countersheet I have to wonder if they couldn't have cut costs a little more, or at least come up with a few other useful markers. The PC markers are a good size, but tend to cover the spaces on the map so that you can't tell which are tribal and which are cities. The player aid card has just enough information to be dangerous, and only covers the sequence of play (should go on the map!) and the crisis track list. There are several tables in the rules which aren't on the map (which I think was a Compass thing), and a play aid is more or less critical. I've come up with a play aid for people who know Hannibal, as well as an Asia Minor Hand Holding Box sheet that covers the special rules for that area before and after entry (you flip it when the Pontines enter, then use the printed box to put your cards for that theater in). 

The other odd part is that there are holding boxes for a handful of generals per side (much more useful for the Republicans, as they are marked Consul/Proconsul), but their use is never mentioned in the rules, nor is their existence! I know this is a holdover from Hannibal, which specifically requires their use to determine seniority, so I guess they were left in to effectively list the special abilities of the handful of generals that have them. 

As for whether or not I think this game will see a lot of play, that remains to be seen. I love Sword of Rome, but it's long play time (comparable to Sparty) and need for exactly four players (I know, there's a three-player option, but I find it lacking) means it hasn't come out in years. The same goes for Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, and other games that last for eight hours. The game is playable via VASSAL or other cyber-tool, but I think that the interactivity lends itself better to real-time play than play-and-post (like most CDGs). Perhaps that's the way to get it on the table more often, and I guess that applies to games like the recent Pursuit of Glory as well. A great game, but it requires a lot of time and a lot of interactivity. Playing these games play-and-post was great for a while, but I think I much prefer real-time when you have to wait a day to see if someone wants to intercept or play a surprise card. 

That said, this game seems to be a good effort, although only time will tell if it's well-balanced. Certainly, the timing of when Lepidus appears (and he is guaranteed to appear as there are *exactly* as many Consuls in the pool as will show up in the full game) will have an effect, as will some of the particularly nasty events, and in a long game like this I'm concerned that there may be a percentage of plays that end up ending quickly and less than satisfactorily. 

The other big hurdle this game faces is that it's from a relatively small publisher. Compass has done some great work (Bitter End, Red Storm, and Silent War are all in my library), but they don't have a lot of visibility compared to GMT, MMP, Decision, Avalanche, or Clash of Arms. On the 'Geek, I'm responsible for all of the files and about half of the topics, but then I like to nail down rules pretty tightly and create different forum topics for each rule to make it easier for others to locate. Compass *does* make games that are very pretty, though, and once they start figuring out some of the human factors issues I think they'll do very well. I know they have a lot of new games in the pipe for this year, so we'll see how that turns out.

All in all, a very tentative thumbs up for this game. I think it's as accessible as Hannibal in many respects, and the game unfolds in a way that Hannibal doesn't with more and more territory under threat and more and more forces on the board. Understanding how to use those forces, for both sides, will take a little more time and effort (and repeated play), but that's the same for the vast majority of wargames. Right now, though, it's a crowded market and I'm not sure how often it will hit the table for me. If you like Hannibal or Wilderness War, this may be an excellent choice for you. If it is, and you get the game, drop me a line and we'll set up a VASSAL session sometime.