Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tuesday Gaming, 9/29/09, Actual Content Edition

Whoops, that last one got away from me somehow.

Mike, JD, and Alex came over for our regular Tuesday gaming, and we put Endeavor and two games of Dominion on the table. Guess it's good that I'm too far away for Dave, who hates Dominion. At least we played quickly, two games in an hour!

Endeavor was a hit at the recent Sunriver Retreat, and Mike was keen to give it another try. This time I held off on building stuff for a couple of turns, which I'm not sure helped me much. I went for culture early, which meant population I wasn't using, but then found myself behind on the payment part of the game. By game end, I had more actions than I had population to drive them. It did not help that every time I got enough cities in Europe to go for the 4 and 5 point cards, Alex thwarted me (except for one time, where I managed to get the 4 card for 5 Glory points). I also managed to score my very first Governor card!

However, Alex had a huge number of board points, with something like 21 points in that area alone (I was second with twelve). He ended up a good ten points ahead of both Mike and I, who tied for second with 52 points, with JD just behind us in the high 40s. Funny, as I'd identified JD as the leader with a couple of turns to go.

All of us agreed that this is a very good game with a lot of interesting choices, no luck other than the chit distribution on the board, and who goes first. One of my favorite Euros of 2009, no question. It's a great balance of tactics and strategy, and I highly recommend it.

'Splainin' and play took close to two hours (plus the obligatory "what do you want to play" metagame), so we had an hour to kill and I asked for Dominion as I'd missed out on every game played in my general area since Mike's birthday party in Forest Grove. We started out with the Secrets preset deck from Dominion: Intrigue, which is incredibly harsh - JD won with 11 points. The setup has a lot of cards that force your opponent's cards into the trash, and we must have had 40 cards there by game end. Wacky, and entertaining to a point.

For the second game, we decided that everyone got to pick a card type and replaced it with a random card type from the original game, leaving six decks from Intrigue. We got rid of the Saboteur, Pawn, Swindler, and Ironworks, and added in the Witch, the Moat (which cancelled *one* Witch play by Alex the entire game), the Council Room, and the Smithy. The result was an interesting mix that on two occasions netted me something like 12-15 card hands. Play the Shanty Town to get two extra actions, play a Council Room to get four more cards, play a Tribute to maybe get more actions, then play the Smithy for another three cards (and maybe get two more from Tribute), then a couple more actions. Crazy. I also learned that it is good to have Tribute cards if your opponent to your left has Harems, which Alex kindly drew for me repeatedly. As a result, I had an extremely efficient deck, with only eight action cards, not a single gold, but enough good fortune to score 27 points even with five curse cards (I managed to get rid of one, but had to dump an Estate as the rest were buying a Province). Maybe the most interesting mix of cards I'd every seen. The other two cards were the Trading House and the Steward.

I know that Dominion is one of those games that is made or broken by the combination of cards on the table, but when it's good it's a huge amount of fun and this was a very good combination, and worth trying out. I also like the "Vote The Deck Off The Island" variant Alex introduced us to - I could see playing this repeatedly using this technique to change up the game. Maybe worth considering for a tournament at Gamestorm...

Thanks to all who came out. We had a great time, and I'm looking forward to playing at Mike's next week.

Tuesday Gaming, 9/29/09

CC: Stalingrad Campaign - Battle #5

Matt R came over last night to continue our now-epic Combat Commander: Stalingrad campaign game. We have now completed 5 games since February (we're taking our time), and there's been a lot of back and forth. For this game, I decided that since we were in sudden death mode (where the campaign can end at any time after a game, and whoever won the last game is the person who wins, assuming they don't win the campaign by the usual rules) that I would throw my carefully hoarded assault platoon at the central Gully O' Death, along with a platoon of SMG troops (who did very little and whom I almost certainly could have saved). Matt brought in a single platoon along with this veteran reinforcements from the previous game, so it was the Wall Of Angry Russians against the Handful of German Crack Shots.

Negating the Crack Shot aspect of Matt's plan by managing to roll a smoke-producing radio, I sent the assault platoon up against Obj4 (in the lower left corner of the board from my perspective), and the stock Elite Rifle platoon (with my good leader) against an MG nest about halfway up the right side of the board and in a good staging position to go after Obj5. Interestingly, most of the rubble (and there was a lot) ended up in such a position that Matt had to either contest Obj4 or trust to the rubble to hold me back. One of the markers produced a +5 to movement and cover, having three other rubble markers around it. Needless to say, that was going to be a major speed bump.

I began, as one does, by dumping as much smoke into the area as I could, although we were burning through time triggers surprisingly quickly. I'd laid three big smoke rings on the board, one of which was hindering defensive fire from the Germans in Obj5, and managed to advance my Elite Rifle platoon up into position to assault Matt's forward position on the right side of the board. I did so just after a stiff breeze blew the smoke away, and took it easily. I also managed to rout Matt's veteran Rifle squad off of the board after an Air Support mission flipped it, giving me a very cheap two points and one unit toward surrender. Unfortunately, one of those two units got back on the board via a Walking Wounded event, and his Elan increased his surrender level to 7, so now I was going to have to kill eight units.

Which I did. First, it was a forward unit next to Obj5, then I made a big push on Obj4 with the Assault platoon. One thing about Assault platoons, you don't have much you can do about those flamethrowers so you have to either wipe them out or run like hell. Matt failed to do both despite a few concerted efforts at taking out my flamethrower (I rolled very high on defense in both cases). Once I had his units broken and he was unable to rally, it was just a matter of getting the right cards (a Fire and an Advance) to mow the rest down in the HMG nest at Obj4, and another Fire card the next turn to take out the final German to get the Surrender victory.

Of course, now I've used up that platoon for all practical purposes. Or have I? Since I had more than 25 units on the board, I was able to bring five back next game as reinforcements, so the team I got via event with the medium mortar, the team with the flamethrower, that leader, and the two assault squads are coming back. They won't start the game, but they will be useful so long as I'm attacking. However, I fully expect Matt to come back with two or even three platoons next time. This will be the first game we'll have played all the way in the backfield of either side, this time on the hill's summit, which is mostly open ground and there will be a *lot* of rubble - 24 markers.

Much will depend on the divisional reinforcement draws, which we didn't do yet. Even so, we're getting close to a sudden death ending, so just winning the scenario is worth shooting for. It's possible we'll see a scenario at some point, however, where we each have our Command platoons and nothing else! Hilarious.

I should mention that Matt played a very good game. There weren't really any options for him to avoid losing the units that he did. I only played one Ambush the entire game, but I had overwhelming force in the two Advances (I had three total in the game) that created melee situations. My awesome defense rolls with my flamethrower unit were augmented by me having Recover cards the two times Matt *did* break the unit. About the only other thing he could have done was move his veteran unit from the edge of the board, but even then the loss of that unit was a statistical anomaly. It just goes to show that those things happen in this game.

Also of interest was that we only got through three time triggers, although two were very early in the game. It was unfortunate that Matt drew an objective chit that forced him to defend that area, and it's a tough one because even a strong stack will be limited in what it can shoot at. He also used his wire quite well, but I was able to move through it largely thanks to the smoke. I don't think I ever got rid of a single wire counter due to demolitions.

Very exciting, but I fully expect Matt will take the next round, especially if he has enough rubble to move assault units up and I'm defending.

Man, I love this game. While it was probably a little anti-climactic for Matt, up to that point it had been very interesting and just shows how critical smoke is to an assault, even in "interesting" terrain. I'll be a bit sad once we've finished the campaign, to be honest, but then we'll just move on to CC:Pac (or something completely different, I'm easy!)

Friday, September 25, 2009

D-Day at Omaha Beach - Further Impressions

I finished up my first play through of the full game through 16 turns, ending in a catastrophic defeat. That means one side of the board lost 8 infantry units, which in turn means that they were reduced to one step or less. In my case, I had just figured out that I actually had a shot at hitting the magic 20 points by the last turn if no Germans showed up to contest the easternmost draw (the tiny one on the far right of the board). The 29th took a huge beating on that side of the board, although they did well cleaning things out. By comparison, the 1st was in much better shape in terms of infantry, but their other units had taken a huge beating, and they weren't going to be able to take a draw because so many reinforcement units had taken up positions firing into the draws. I lost on turn 14 when the eighth infantry unit from the 29th was reduced to a single step.

I'm not sure I learned as much as I might have hoped about this system, but there were a few things I picked up during the game...

  • Occasionally you'll run into a defense code that is difficult or impossible to match unless you are very lucky (such as the NA code that requires a naval bombardment, and it's extremely unlikely you'll get such an event during a 16 turn game). If you can build up a large enough force against such a position, you can still knock it out through attrition, if you're willing to take the hits. One steppers are great for this sort of thing if you aren't using them for garrison duty of WNs and reinforcement hexes. And don't forget the value of heroes as wild cards - place them where they will be able to take out these positions, especially if that's where your main push is. 
  • Artillery is useless in the early game unless it's near an HQ. Understand where arty and the HQs enter the game and plan to place them so that you can use it with relative ease. Save the general for the primary push inland, as they can scale bluffs and cliffs. Most late game units come in in a range of entry spaces, so be smart about where everything goes. 
  • If you can flip enemy positions at low risk to your infantry, it's probably worthwhile. If nothing else, you can always bombard those positions with a few well-located tanks and keep their heads down. Don't underestimate the value of disrupted units in terms of both step losses and clearing the beaches. 
  • While getting anything other than infantry onto the beach more or less intact is a huge crapshoot, it's worth spreading them out as much as possible. For example, you can get an AR attack code from antitank units, but few other types. If they're all bunched up in a single spot, they won't be of much use. 
  • Download the very useful two-page player aid that lists the various priorities and US attack requirements from the 'Geek. This aid limited my rules lookups to about one a turn, down from something like six. Very useful.
  • Attack everywhere initially. Fortunately, the system more or less allows you to do this because of placement, but you want to have flipped as many of the WN positions as quickly as possible to allow for bombardment by armored units, as these units typically are worn down to nubs by the 8th turn or so, and they require flipped units in order to bombard. 
  • Make it a priority to get units out of Intense Fire hexes as quickly as possible. Consider advancing into these hexes very carefully, and if you are approaching your catastrophic loss limit you might even consider falling back and keeping your two-step infantry units in Sparse Fire hexes at worst. I lost my game when I pressed a little too hard a turn before and I lost the step in a Steady Fire hex. If the other part of the map is doing better in terms of losses, you can always press there. 
  • Understand the terrain limitations carefully, especially in terms of where non-infantry units can go. Those anti-tank barriers aren't barriers to movement at all if there's a road going through the hex. 
  • Similarly, understand the implications of communications and control for the end game. A victory hex is no such thing if you can't trace an LOC back to the beach over a bluff hexside. You should be coming up with a general plan of how to hit 20 VP by turn 8 at the latest, earlier if you can. While additional German reinforcements can screw this up a bit, you can plan for this and thwart those efforts if you can get friendlies into the spaces they might appear in. 
There are other subtleties I'm sure I'm missing, such as being smart about not grouping (or grouping) units with similar targeting symbols in a given field of fire, and exactly when to realize that catastrophic loss is a real threat (I think it's probably after your sixth unit loss in a given division). 

Next up, I intend to try out the second half scenario to learn the extended game rules before trying a full game. This timeframe changes things considerably, with the codes for German fire changing their behavior, a doubled turn length that means twice as many events and more activations, establishing engineering and HQ bases, quicker movement for vehicles, and radically different terrain and challenges. Should be very interesting...

I continue to be very impressed with this game in terms of the low AI admin load and the interesting choices you are given. I'm starting to get the sense that it's as important to follow doctrine with the various unit types in order to get the most out of them as well. For the just-past-novice wargamer and beyond, this title is still Highly Recommended.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unhappy King Chuck For People Who Are Used To Hunting George Washington

I'm a big fan of card-driven wargames in all of their various guises, but especially the sort that Mark Herman started with We The People and taken to such heights by luminaries such as Mark Simonitch and Ted Raicer among others. These games cast a new light on historical conflicts by incorporating the social and political facets of the times through events, and in general they increase your interest in the period because you find yourself wondering why Lloyd George has his own card in Paths of Glory. The genre has seen a lot of creativity, with the system expanding to hex-based systems as well as an increasing number of permutations and scales. Some work very well, some not so much.

So it was that I was very interested in playing Unhappy King Charles, designed by Charles Vasey and developed by Neil Randall, who seems to have developed every CDG that came out in 2009 so far. Literally. My good friend Mike was also interested, mostly because he's from the UK (assuming Scotland is still part of the UK, I can't keep track) and that period is of considerably interest to him. Me, I know little about it other than Oliver Cromwell ended up infamous and part of the backlash against him resulted in the Puritans coming to North America. Or something like that - like I say, it's not a period I'm terribly familiar with.

Our game was definitely of the "learning" stripe, being won by Mike with a couple of turns to go when I managed to commit ritual seppeku (and yes, I'm certain I've misspelt that word) by taking Charles on a whirlwind tour of Northern England so that he ended up losing his lone brigade during the Desertion Phase. Pro Tip: Pay Attention To Desertion. It Will F*ck You Up. Too bad, because the game was getting interesting and the outcome was in a certain amount of doubt on both sides.

I will instead focus on the game itself, and my impressions of it, or at least as much as I can muster for a single playthrough (plus a solo attempt when it was first published).

The game is the first to really harken back to the original We The People in terms of the deck. Various games have changed the original "ops or event" concept in WtP, which could leave you with nothing to do during your turn but discard your opponent's events, and it is very possible for that game to come down to luck of the draw in some cases.

UKC still leaves the deck with cards that either allow Ops xor Events (never both), but it uses a couple of extra ideas that leave the players some flexibility. First, you can use any card for reinforcements during a turn, although an Ops card gives you two brigades instead of one. Second, you can use your opponent's events (or yours, if you choose) as nominal 1 Ops cards, albeit not allowing for activation of armies. Finally, you are guaranteed to have one 1 and one 2 Ops card in your hand through "core" cards that you receive every turn. There are also a few cards that can be played by either side.

One thing WtP didn't use was a multi-period deck, where the composition changes as the game continues. In this case, UKC has three periods, novelly titles "Early," "Mid," and "Late". Creativity at it's finest, but hey, it's better than the "Apocalypse" era in 30 Years War. Not only does this give a better historical flow to events, but also allows the designer to tailor operational tempo by changing the mix of the various Ops cards. In fact, every card in this game, Core cards aside, is played exactly once, assuming the Parlimentarian player doesn't win a Major Victory and get to draw from the discard pile. Compare with WtP, where you could conceivably draw the same set of cards for both players every turn, although that would require a Deansian statistical outlier result.

UKC also takes the "play a card for reinforcements" concept used in WtP, but makes it both asymmetrical and more flexible. Each side has different rules for card-driven reinforcements, although both sides are limited to a single card play per turn (assuming you don't bring in, say, the Irish). The very nature of reinforcements is also a bit different, with the basic unit of play being the brigade, and these being divided up into regions of the map, militia vs veteran units, and some restrictions on whether these units return to play after leaving the map. Mike assures me it's all very historical, but it's certainly more complex than in WtP. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that this is not in any way a good introductory game to the system as there is a *lot* to consider as you play.

As in WtP, there is a single unit that must be protected at all costs (the titular King Chuck), and knowing the map and it's subtleties is critical to playing the game well. Like WtP, the early game features a lot of PC placement, which becomes harder and harder as the game progresses. It's also difficult to pin down areas as there are these pesky Local Notables, sort of like small town sheriffs, who never move but can flip PCs within a couple of spaces so long as the space is in the same region. It's a mixed blessing when the New Model Army shows up in the Late game because all of the Parlimentarian LNs turn into generals, so they can't flip PCs but they can move, which is often exactly the same thing.

I mentioned Desertion before, and it's a critical system to understand. In a nutshell, you have to lose a certain number of brigades to the general pool every turn, increasing as the game goes on. Consider that you are likely to bring on three or four brigades per turn, but by halfway through the game you are losing three per turn to desertion. As you can imagine, that requires a certain amount of advanced planning. Given that there's a five stage process for who has to lose units, and you can guarantee that your first game will not go as planned. Even though I learned this lesson the Very Hard Way, I am fairly certain that next time I will have to learn it again. And maybe once or twice after that.

Oh, and late in the game units will switch sides if you lose a battle badly enough.

In other words, if you liked that you could more or less button up areas in WtP, UKC will drive you batty. And control of spaces, both in total and in terms of regions, is the main way you win the game besides capturing Chucky.

One way that UKC differs markedly from WtP is in the combat system, which was done through Battle Cards in the earlier game, but now comes down to a 2d6 roll. I know the Battle Card system was only used once more in Hannibal (and optionally in the recent Spartacus) and is largely abandoned partly because of the high cost of cards, but also because it takes a while to do compared to a simple die roll, but for anything before the modern era, say 1900, I actually find it to be a more satisfying system. For one thing, it makes every battle an event, and in games like this the battles are relatively rare. In fact, it's possible to have fewer battles in one game than combats in one turn of Paths of Glory. Making matters worse is that when you have so few battles, it amplifies the chaos factor of the dice. Get six bad results in a row, not unheard of for some of the people I game against, and it's over. On the other hand, it really makes you think about doing the fighty-fighty thing, and often you'll want to lure your opponent into attacking just so you get the statistical advantage of winning defensive battles (although often that's not all that much better because of the way the game handles battle results). The fact that you can just make your army go poof and disperse instead of facing your opponent on the field becomes a much more important decision point, but the fact is that the game can hinge on one crazy die roll, and if that roll comes against Charles it's a bad day for the Royalists.

That said, I didn't find any problems with the battle system in our game, although it will take getting used to so that you understand the implications of the various results (based on the differential of final combat strength, which the dice are part of). Also, given this game takes about six hours to play to completion, throwing in battle cards would add a good hour or two, so I guess it wasn't much of a decision at all. Time will tell if it's an issue or not, although I like this sort of craziness more in 90 minute games instead of six hour ones.

I will note that the "reprint" of WtP (long out of print), Washington's War, uses dice for combat resolution. I think this is a huge mistake, and I have to wonder if part of the reason why that game went back to the drawing board didn't have to do with that design decision. I have no special knowledge, or even really regular old knowledge, but it is a big part of why WtP has a special place in my collection.

All in all, the flow feels quite a bit like WtP, and even Hannibal. The game starts out with both sides spreading influence through PC markers, building up their armies, and trying to outmaneuver each other to take the all-important supply fortresses and isolate PCs. As the game goes on, there's a certain amount of thrust and parry, and some back and forth with LNs and armies taking various areas. By the end of the game, things are wide open and both sides are willing to take greater chances in order to preserve the status quo or snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It's a nice story arc, aided by the three-tiered deck.

However, I do have one more quibble, one that I find to be a bit unnecessary. The game uses an "Alt-History" deck that contributes four cards to the game, two in the Mid and Late eras. These cards tend to be pretty powerful, and it's entirely possible that one side or the other will end up getting all of the events. To my mind, this should have been an optional rule, with an extra four cards in the regular deck to preserve timing. In our game, I saw exactly one of these cards, and it was an event for the other side, while Mike got one that threw a battle his way at a critical time (you can't save combat cards from turn to turn, so when you draw them is also important). In fact, I'd go so far as to say there are several events that are absolutely devastating for the opposing side. While there's a 50% chance that these cards will show up on one side or the other, and timing is everything, it still seems to me that this is a level of wackiness that I may not be able to stomach in a game that requires as much care and foresight to play as this one does. This coming from the guy who loves Warriors of God and it's chaos, and who also recognizes that this was a fairly chaotic era as well. Again, time will tell if I've accurately assessed the effect on balance that these cards will have.

However, I have to say that all in all this is an excellent CDG. While it's harder for me to get excited about the various events (the mere mention of nobility is enough to generate flashbacks of sophomore Social Studies lectures in high school, and the resulting narcolepsy), I have to admit that I'm starting to get a bit of interest in the period, especially as Mike wants to play the excellent Musket and Pike series which focuses on the individual battles of this timeframe, both 30YW and ECW. The chaos of the battle system and the alt-hist deck will flush out over time, although it wouldn't be that hard to modify the latter by adding specific alt-hist cards to each period for a more predictable effect, and I suppose you could always use the battle cards from Hannibal or WtP if you wanted to and kludge up a system for them.

Those quibbles aside, this strikes me as both a novel take on the original CDG as well as a clinic on what we've learned about the game in the meantime, being the first real effort to update that original game's concepts while staying true to their spirit. And, quite frankly, these are excellent rules, with few or no problems with terminology, good organization in general, and both concise and clear language. Plus decent examples. Vasey is to be complimented on this, as I've seen other rulesets that Neil Randall-developed games that aren't nearly as well done. A serious improvement over another Vasey game I own, Chariot Lords, where he was far too clever for his own good in listing the various ways you got points (In The East, hear the lamentations of the women!). Here, he does it right.

I also like the woodcuts used for the play and rulebook covers, which incorporate the titles and credits for the game in a very historical way. Very nicely done, and they show Vasey's sense of humor in a good light (I think of him as the UK version of Richard Berg in his online persona, although not as big a lightning rod).

All in all, a well done effort, and one that Mike and I will play again in the future. Recommended if you can get past the minor quibbles I've outlined above, but then it's highly recommended. And there's nothing else like it in the hobby for this period!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sunriver Casual Gaming Retreat 2009 Wrap-up

Another year, another Sunriver Casual Gaming Retreat. I call it that to distinguish between this retreat, which focuses on Euro and Strat games, and our annual wargaming retreat (which we call WBC West in honor of the muchmuchmuchmuch larger and actual convention held in late summer in PA). It's a mouthful, and I guess I'll need to come up with another name. Gathering of Friends, Nano Edition? RCGCon? I dunno.

I've posted a list of the games I played and short impressions in a Geeklist, which you can find here. The list is now complete, and runs to 25 titles. I figure that I played well over 30 games over something less than four days, most of the time not starting until 9 or 10am, and often finishing before 11pm. I even got in a bike ride for a couple of hours. I'll also go out on a limb and suggest that this was a particularly good retreat in many ways - good games, a good mix of people in general, and almost everyone had a bed to sleep in (and the one person who slept on a couch had the choice to sleep in a bed) thanks to my good friend Ken's generosity (he owns a house at Sunriver as well). We didn't play any games over there, but I think that will change in the future.

So what were the high and low points of the retreat? We'll start with the highs:

  • New (ish) blood. This was the first time I'd invited Lorna, from sort of nearby Eugene, to come out and play. I've known Lorna in a largely peripheral sense from attending her EGG microcon for the past two years, as well as the one day she made it to Chris' beach retreat last December, but I hadn't gotten a good sense of just how much fun she is until this weekend. Lorna, you're welcome any time. Plus she brought that wacky Make You Gunfighters game that was such a hit. Also to Ken, for whom this was a first casual retreat, and it was certainliy nice to see Michael again.
  • Getting out more. OK, getting out. At all. We've made breakfast at Sintra's the first morning and dinner at a local restaurant part of the fun the last few years, but this was the first time I actually went out and did something radically different. In this case, it was allowing Ken to try to kill me on an off-road bike ride. I think this will become a tradition for me as well, weather permitting in the future. I may well have a different bike by then, as the Schwinn I had showed some major issues (such as those rotary shifters mounted right on the handle where you grab them as you bounce along). 
  • Great new games. The winners here were Endeavor, FITS, Make You Gunfighters, and Middle Earth Quest. 
  • Timeframe. We've typically held this retreat twice a year - April/May and Oct/Nov. The former was typically cool weather, the latter occasionally snowy to the point where travel over the Cascade passes was problematic. Now that one of those timeframes is taken up by wargaming, we only have one casual retreat and thus only one time of year. I realize that for some September is not a good time (Chris is in the middle of football season as a coach for one of his sons' teams), but it's an excellent time for me and a great time to be out there - the summer crowds are gone, but the weather was gorgeous. The drives back and forth were also beautiful, but always better with company, and KC was excellent company on the way out. 
  • Sleeping Space. Ken, I cannot tell you how nice it was to not only have people staying at your place. As an unexpected side effect, that also meant less stuff scattered around the great room/bedroom. Of course, it also meant gamers who were in a better mood and wide awake. 
  • Me No 'Splain. I tend to be the 'splainer much of the time in our group, for reasons I don't fully understand but I'm fairly certain it involves me having a pathological need to explain pretty much everything. I did do some 'splainin', but I tried to focus on the important stuff before the game started and let the game fill in the blanks as we went. I also had considerably less 'splainin' to do as  other people were doing the work or else people already knew the games. Surprising how much energy that consumes.
  • Great Old Games. Power Grid remains firmly in my top five games of all time, one that I not only enjoy but can play competitively (if I'd just kept track of that garbage a little more closely...) I liked the additions to RftG in the Gathering Storm expansion, and will need to try this game solitaire. BStarG remains my favorite semi-coop game by a large margin, the most fun you'll ever have being paranoid. 
  • Chicken, jalapeno, garlic, green pepper, and extra cheese pizza. Zowie. Thanks to Alex C for introducing us all to this gastronomic assault on my senses. Hottest jalapenos I've ever eaten, usually I don't sweat these at all.
  • Best "I'm A Deputy" moments ever. This time, in BStarG, with Mike taking the honors for his clever imitation of a human. For the entire game! Kudos to the designers for giving Baltar, the one character with an excellent chance of discovering a Cylon, an extra 50% chance of being a Cylon himself. Brilliant. Mike, I will never trust you again, but that was perhaps the high point of the entire weekend for me and we played it up well. I hope everyone else had as much fun with that as we did. 
Now for the bad:
  • Dud games. Ad Astra. There, that was quick. Alright, I was also not taken with Thebes, Ghost Stories strikes me as nearly impossible to win without considerable luck, Chicago Express is very unforgiving, as is Automobile. The difference was that I had fun playing those games, while Ad Astra was just depressing, although very very pretty. Sort of like dating a very stupid supermodel with an annoying voice. Like I've done that (actually, closer than you'd think). I'm quite surprised that this is the flagship product in a line intended to honor designers, as it's a terrible design at first blush. Perhaps others can disabuse me of this notion, but you'll have to work at it. 
  • Driving home alone over Santiam. I don't know how they do it, but after getting past every RV in the world on the hill going up the pass and about 15 minutes of unimpeded driving bliss, it seems that every time I make this trip there's a constant host of trucks, seniors, and RVs (sometimes two of the three) going 10 miles under the speed limit right around Detroit and from there to Stayton it's a slog. You can't even look at the gorgeous scenery around Detroit Lake because everyone is constantly slamming on their brakes every 20 seconds. If driving over Hood didn't add between 30 and 60 minutes to trip time, I'd go that way on the way home. I guess the trip out was so pleasant just to balance this part out. I put this item in just to make Ad Astra feel better. 
  • Missing Friends. We all missed you and hope you can make it next time. A special shout out to Dave, whose iPod and unique humor were particularly missed, but everyone else was a very close second. 
That's it for the wrap-up. The next event will be Chris' Beach Blowout sometime in or around December, which seems like a very long ways away right now. Even after playing 30 games in less than 90 hours. That's one game every 3 hours around the clock. Yikes. 

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What I Played At Sunriver 2009 - Thursday through Friday

Rather than blog the list of games I played, I'm presenting the list in a Geeklist on the 'Geek, which you can find here. I'll be updating it as the weekend goes on, and will blog the more interesting parts of the weekend (especially impressions of games new to me) when everything is said and done. Feel free to comment on the 'Geek, or here as you choose. Enjoy living vicariously through my gaming! Woot!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Off To Sunriver

In the past, we've held the "casual" Sunriver Gaming Retreat (the one where we play mostly strat and euro-style games as opposed to wargames) twice a year, then a couple of years ago we decided that the weather was just too dodgy in November going over the Cascade passes, and Chris took over doing his December retreat at the Oregon coast. With Lorna's EGG party in Eugene in early February and GameStorm in March, it was my sense that we really only needed one Sunriver retreat (other than our modestly named WBC West wargaming nanocon) per year.

It's been a long time since the last one, nearly 16 months. That's because we decided to shift the WBC session from late August (too hot) to May, and thus had to shift the May Sunriver retreat to September. Bookending the summer seems like a good way to go, and I suspect we'll do the same next year. We had excellent interest this year, although we've had the usual dropout problem. A total of ten of us will be attending this year, and thank goodness for Ken from Corvallis, who is putting up a couple of people at his place about a mile from our house. Beds for everyone! Hooray!

The past several months have been difficult ones for some members of my family, me included, and I'm really looking forward to getting away from all of this for a few days and playing a lot of games. I will be very interested to see how well my brain holds up with teaching and learning new games more than once per day. In prep for this retreat I literally spent four days going over the rules for the new release Endeavor, which is not a complex game by any stretch. It seemed that every time I sat down to try to parse a paragraph, I was required to do something else, and even when I did the rules felt like they were bouncing off of my forehead. I did get through the Omaha Beach rules pretty well, but have been finding myself unable to locate rules and having to ask questions on the 'Geek. This is an unusual situation for me, as I used to get *paid* for looking stuff up in manuals, even ones I wasn't familiar with.

In the past, I've run into brain-burn at Sunriver, and I found that drinking a *ton* of water helped a lot (although I also found that I was peeing every 20 minutes too). Getting sleep helps too, and I'm packing a full bottle of melatonin to help with that this time out. I'm still very concerned that I may run out of gas within a couple of hours rather than enjoying the weekend, but we'll see. We've avoided that problem at WBC West by studying up on the games for literally months ahead of time, but it's nearly impossible to do at the Euro/Strat retreats.

And I have a ton of new games to bring. Space Hulk and Federation Commander to play with Alex on Sunday afternoon and Monday, Ad Astra, Middle Earth Quest, Endeavor, and a few expansions for games like BstarG and RftG. I've put off bringing older games I've yet to play like Metropolys, Notre Dame, and Leonardo daVinci because it's just too much. I'm even leaving one new game behind (Mechanisburg) because I've read the rules are difficult to get through.

An obvious choice is to let other people pick up this load, but I find that teaching games is a skill that not everyone has. In a conversation with my good friend Mike the other night, he said that he and Eric (the other half of the fantastic Two Sides Of The Coin blog) have a great arrangement - Eric comes over and does the 'splainin', and Mike sets up the game ahead of time. I fear I'm getting to that point, and it makes me wonder what other things I won't be able to do like I used to (besides the obvious).

Of course, all of that is unimportant when compared to the wonderful sense of community that these retreats bring. Seven to ten people living in one house for a long weekend, enjoying games and each other's company. Many of these people won't have met each other before, which I think is even cooler. At a time when conservative talk radio is dismissing community as socialism, it's nice to know that those around me don't buy into that at all. And I'm still hopeful that the research showing that dementia can be put off or even avoided through social gaming holds, because I'm clearly going to need something and I'm only 46.

Regardless, off we go. I will be posting session reports regularly as the weekend progresses, so keep your dial tuned to A Boy Named Dug. Game on!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Walking On Omaha - Turn 2 US Action Phase

Holy crap, we made it to the end of turn 2. Almost. Now for the US actions in the East sector.

Since units may make at least one action per turn, I find it useful to rotate them 45 degrees after they take an action so that I know they've done so. I start with removing disruption markers (as these are mandatory), as well as adjusting the units in the middle of scaling cliffs or bluffs (which we'll look at later). We have none of these, so it's on to Preservation Movement, also a free action.

I described it before, but here's a good example in the photo below, which shows units *after* preservation movement (they're the tilted units). On the far left, you see a unit tilted that moved up from the beach to the closest space with a protective hexside, in this case the scalable cliff hexside signified by the solid grey line. Unscalable cliffs, interestingly, which are solid red lines, are *not* protective terrain. The unit in question had no other choice. Remember too that the units can only be infantry - any other unit type (Rangers are infantry) must use an action or be able to take a free action for other reasons. Here's the East sector after preservation movement, which unfortunately puts an awful lot of our men into Intense Fire hexes:

Here's the West sector. You can see the shingle clearly in both of these photos: it's the line between the light beige beach hexes and the medium beige "pavilion" hexes just above them. The shingle was the line where the water rarely rose beyond, forming a steady slope down to the water on one side and a more level but "rougher" sand surface on the other. The shingle formed a natural small ridge that the soldiers could lay behind and gain some cover, and it was the place they headed for right after leaving the landing craft. Once your units reach a hex with a protective hexside, they no longer use preservation movement as a free action, and they can only use it to get *closer* to the *closest* such hex, no lateral movement allowed. Think of it as free movement in the early game to get your units to cover, even the poor cover of the shingle.

That's it for free actions this turn, unfortunately. As the game goes on and you gain leadership and heroes, you'll get more free actions, but for now it's pretty much limited to what we've seen so far. In the East, I decide to get the tanks off of the waterline rather than get the one tank already under intense fire out of the way. I do this partly to prevent too much overstacking of landing units, although this turn it's less of an issue. I also do it to draw fire *from* the infantry units for a very simple reason - every infantry unit that has it's full strength counter removed from the board counts toward Catastrophic Loss. In the early game, if eight infantry units in either sector end up in the loss box, it's Game Over, no redos. At least until you start the game again. As such, tank units are actually relatively expendable, although as you'll see once we get to combat actions they do tend to be useful, and also for barrages in the early game once you've attacked a few WN positions and can do so. Here's the East sector after using two actions to move tanks off of the beach:

Here's the West sector after doing the same (the two tanks are on the left side of the photo). Note that the Cleared markers have no effect on movement, the obstacles are only a problem for landing units, not units that *have* landed earlier in the turn.

That's the end of turn 2, and you should now have a very good idea of how the first few turns of the game work. We don't have units in any position to attack next turn, and nothing will really change other than position, so I will skip over turn 3 and pick up again once we have some combat to work with.

I will also make one last comment as it occurs to me: There is a separate column for DUKA (I'm almost certainly screwing up this acronym) artillery units, one that's a little more deadly, once you get to turn 4 and on. Unfortunately, the units have white symbology and numbers on green backgrounds, but the DUKA lettering is both over the arty symbol as well as black. To my aging eyes, I didn't see this until very late in my first playthrough, so as you play be sure to note this difference carefully. Not that the arty plays a big role early, but it can make a difference when there are more units on the board and more targets to shoot at.

More in a few days (definitely - I haven't made it to turn 3 yet as I type this) when we start to get to new situations. Assuming I survive for that long!

Walking On Omaha - Turn 2 Engineering Phase

Now for the engineering phase. This part is pretty quick and simple, but very important. You'll notice that the row of hexes one hex off of the low tide line (the one with water on one side), the one that has the mid-tide designation running through it, has obstacle markings in it. If you saw Saving Private Ryan, these were the bits that looked like giant jacks, such as children play with. These obstacles presented a dilemma to the Allies - they were a real problem for landing craft when the tide was high, as they'd run up on them and sink. That meant you didn't want to land at high tide, but instead at low tide, but *that* meant that you had about 500 ft of beach to move on with Germans shooting at you and no steel hulled landing craft to hide in for that distance. Once the tide rises to the mid-tide level on turn 7 (which also means you need to get your units up to that line by that time or they drown and are eliminated), you need to have "cleared" as much of the beach as you can so that your units aren't subject to mines as they land. Remember that starburst mine symbol on the landing section of the card earlier in the turn? That's why I mentioned it, and that's why it's important.

Even though clearing these obstacles required engineer units and was a difficult and lengthy process, it's very simple in the game. You simply place two Cleared markers per sector on any obstacle hexes that weren't potential targets of German Fire this turn. That means that either the color wasn't drawn in that sector, the color was drawn but there was only one counter on the position and it was a double square symbol, or the entire position was disrupted and couldn't fire even if you did draw it's color.

For the East sector, that means you can't clear a hex with a purple, green, or brown symbol (brown because that *was* drawn in the other sector, and the only hexes in question in the East sector would have been under fire from the West sector).

As such, there are only two hexes eligible, so we clear them. The counters are shown below.

In the West, the colors we can't use are blue, purple, and brown. We have four choices, and pick the middle two, one of which covers orange, red, and green, and the other red and green. Any units landing after turn 7 onto Cleared spaces will not be subject to mine explosions, and believe me they are not fun. However, as the game moves forward you'll find that the best way to clear the obstacles is to disrupt the German WN positions, which is very difficult to do with the two-hex positions until you root the defenders out. And you'll see how hard *that* is once we get to combat in a couple of turns.

Next, on to the US actions, where we'll see Preservation actions for the first time.

Walking On Omaha - Turn 2 German Fire Phase

On to the Turn 2 German fire phase. We've covered the basics before, so we'll make it a little simpler now.

Here's the East sector and our draw card:

The two fire positions shown are purple and orange, but we're only worried about purple. The position has two counters on it, so it can fire even with the double square on the card. It will also affect armored units under certain circumstances. Again, there are two units, so two targets are determined. There are no Intense targets, but there are units in two Steady hexes, the ones that just landed. In this case, the two targets are the ones to the far right of the picture, which match the target symbol on the card, and the armor symbol means that the tank unit can take a step loss as well. The infantry unit by itself takes no damage because the symbol doesn't match, even though it's a Steady hex for purple. The tank unit directly above it takes no hits because it's in a Sporadic hex and so it's priority was below that of the two units that *did* take hits. Note that had the lone infantry unit matched the symbol, it would have taken a hit first because it was closer to the firing position, and the tank unit in the two-unit hex would have been spared because the infantry unit with it had more steps. Also note that the target designation on the two units that *did* take hits would not have mattered as there were five stacking points in the hex and thus their target symbols would be considered to automatically match that on the card.

Also in the East sector, the Green and Brown positions will fire, although there are no brown positions with units in them, much less US units in a field of fire. That leaves green, and we ignore the letter code as before because it applies to the later portion of the game. There are five units that can be targeted, but since two have already taken hits they are exempt, and so the three units on the right that are on the waterline are possible targets. Or would be were they not in Steady hexes and didn't have the matchin symbol. As such, all make it without damage. Note that the tank unit in the middle took damage landing, not from German Fire in this phase.

Now we check out the West sector, which has it's own card draw, shown at the top. In this case, the relevant colors in this part of the map are blue and purple. I should note that were there multiple blue positions that could fire, all would do so. The result against the Ranger unit is the same regardless of which fire position we use, it's in a Steady hex and matches the symbol so it takes a hit, but only one.

On to the final picture, which concerns only the brown WN position. Again, it has two or more counters in the position (three, in fact), and we ignore the letter. The possible targets are the three along the beach. Note that this position's field of fire extends across the sector boundary line, so while it's fire is determined by the West sector fire card draw, it may end up targeting units in the East sector. In this case, the hexes are all Steady, but only two have the matching triangle target symbol, and one of those is armored and the brown boxes don't have an armored symbol. The result is that the infantry unit loses a step but the two tank units don't.

Note the reduced tank unit to the right of the picture, the one in the orange Intense hex. Had a fire card with an Orange box been drawn, this unit would have been eliminated regardless of target symbol and armor symbol, and it would have been the first to take a hit because of the priority to fire on units in Intense hexes first. However, it got lucky, and perhaps this is the time to get it off that hex.

We aren't at turn 4, so no check for German Arty, and there are no German disrupted units, so that's it for this phase. Next up, the US Engineering phase, which I'm saving for it's own entry since it's the first time we've done it.

Walking On Omaha - Turn 2 Amphib and Event Phases

OK, maybe not a few days. This is an easy entry to post, as we've been through most of this process before.

This time in the Amphibious Operations phase, we use the Turn 2-3 chart, taking into account that some of the units on specific landing zones will use different rows than others. We still have a special row just for tanks, though. This table is slightly kinder and gentler, reflecting that now the commanders have a slightly better idea of what's awaiting them. It's still grim, though. Here is the East sector after checking the table, moving units onshore, and placing the units for the next turn. Note that some units are given entry areas rather than specific landing boxes (for example, EF instead of EF2), which means you place them anywhere in that range. HQs and Generals, which enter later, often have no code at all, and can be placed in any landing box in that sector.

Here's the West sector:

Finally, note that there are not many units coming in next turn. In fact, these are the tank units from turn one that were delayed - there are no specified reinforcements that enter on turn 2. I may have delayed these units less than they should have been, and they may be coming in on turn 3 instead (in which case, ignore them for now and I'll have them in their correct places for the turn 3 recaps).

Again, this is a quick phase, and you should know that drift can still completely screw up where units land. It is possible to delay their entry if you wish, maybe even after they drift although I'm not clear on this particular rule.

Now, we get to do our first Event card! Yay!

In case you can't blow up the photo, there are two events listed on the card: one for turns 2-20, the other for turns 21-31. Obviously, we look at the event for the former case, which reads: "Place a German reinforcement in Zone E (9.3)." Immediately next to the card on the left is a reinforcement space, identified by the heavy colored dashed line around it. In fact, you can see a few, some with an alphanumeric designator such as E1, E3, E5, or F1, some with VP markers, some with triangles pointing to specific spaces. For now, we are only concerned with the alphanumerics, as they help determine which space the unit goes in.

First of all, the reinforcement unit comes from the Tactical Reinforcement box early on. There are several reinforcement boxes for the Germans, both in terms of Depth markers and additional units. Note also that you don't reinforce the WN spaces, although it is possible that Depth markers will be added to them. Reinforcements can only have one unit per hex (and one Depth marker), are placed face down without knowing what is in them, and will only go in the spaces with alphanumeric designators. [Clarification: Depth markers are not placed as a result of a reinforcement event, only units are placed.] There is a priority as to where they go, but it's primarily concerned with spaces adjacent or near US units, and there are no US units this far inland at this point. As such, the priority list ends up with us placing it in the lowest numbered E space on the map without a unit in it, in this case E1. In the photo, I have placed the unit down and to the left so that you can see the E1 space clearly, but it will of course be put right over the E1 marking.

Note also that noe of the other portions of the card are used, only the event pertaining to the appropriate turn number. However, this example does let you see the Landing section of a card for the first time, and the various symbols associated with it. Of some interest is the sunburst on the far right of the Landing section, which refers to Mine Explosions and is of no interest until the tide rises later in the game, but it's worth noting for now because we're here and so is the symbol.

Next up, the Turn 2 German Fire phase and we get to start clearing beach obstacles! Woot!

Walking On Omaha - Turn 1 US Action Phase

On to the US Action phase. Since we only have three units landed on the map, this will be pretty quick, but it's a good time to discuss the basics of this phase. To be fair, you don't have a huge number of decision points until now, things more or less just happen to you, although it happens pretty quickly and intuitively once you've done it a couple of times.

In the early part of the game, meaning up through turn 16 when the turns equal 15 minutes, you get two actions per sector. That doesn't seem like a lot, especially as you have units landing on the beach and getting shot up. However, there are a number of "free" actions that you can take that don't count toward this limit. It is important to note that you you can only use one action, free or not, per unit, and that some of those free actions are in fact mandatory. For example, if you have a unit with a disrupted marker on it, you *must* use a free action to remove the marker, regardless of the condition of the unit otherwise. For our purposes, the important free action to understand now is that of "preservation movement". What this means is that any *infantry* units on the beach that are not adjacent to a protective hexside such as a shingle, bluff, etc, may move one space for free *if* it puts them *closer* to a hex that does have such a hexside.

What is also important is that we have no infantry on the beach at all yet, but I might as well mention it now as it will come up next turn. Plus, you need to understand that the three tank units cannot take a preservation action, so any thing they do will require one of the "normal" actions. Fortunately, with only two units in one sector and one in the other, we are not short of normal actions to use.

At this point, we have really only one option for the tanks. If any of the German WN positions were revealed (they are not), we could Barrage them with the tanks. Interestingly, in the early game, only tanks can barrage, arty cannot. I assume this is because the arty units are still getting set up on the beach in the first three hours or so (although we don't have any onboard yet) and haven't set up the necessary infrastructure to do what they do best. Barrages are useful for temporarily shutting down German units through disruption for the most part, although it requires a card draw and a little luck. For now, best to simply move the units one hex, which is all any US unit can move in an action phase during the first sixteen turns. Here is the positions in the East sector after movement:

Notice that the leftmost unit moved into a space that has two Sporadic fire symbols. However, the other unit has fewer choices - it has to move into a space with two Intensive Fire symbols no matter where it goes. At some point, the unit needs to move off of the beach (for very good reasons - if you have five stacking points or more in a hex, those units are considered to have a "universal" target symbol on them, making Steady fire hexes as deadly as Intensive fire hexes, not a good thing). So, we move it up the beach and hope we don't get nailed next turn.

We do the same in the West sector:

In this case, there is an Intensive fire symbol, but we hope we'll get lucky. At some point in the very near future, we'll want to get as many of these units off of those hexes with Intensive fire symbols as possible. Note that ranged units, such as tanks, don't need to be right next to their targets, although there are some advantages for being closer rather than farther that we'll see as we move through the game.

Thus, we use one action in the West, two in the East, but no more units are available to take actions, so we finish the Phase. The next phase is the "cleanup" phase, but all you do in that phase is take the cards from the phase track at the top of the map to the discard pile, and look to see if we are supposed to shuffle the card deck. Placing the cards along this phase track is a great idea, as it allows you to look back and see what happened in every sector as the turn progressed. Note that there are some boxes that aren't used until you get to the extended game at turn 17, although for our purposes we won't be going that far as we're playing a shorter scenario (and are unlikely to document the entire game anyway).

That's it for turn one, I'll continue with turn two in a few days.

Walking On Omaha - Turn 1 German Fire Phase

Sorry for the delay, life has been coming at me hard for a few months now so these posts will come out as I have time for them. At least I'm getting smarter about how you add photos to Blogger (hint: do it before typing and in reverse order).

On to the German Fire Phase. Last time, if you recall, the three tank units made it ashore, albeit reduced (about as good as it's going to get in the first turn). Now it's time for the Germans to take shots at them.

This is the part of the game where you do most of the German AI, and you'll see that it's really very quick and painless once you learn the priorities. What happens is this: you draw a card for each sector. In that sector, you see what colors are in the fire field of the card, and if there are German positions (both WN and the inland "reinforcement" positions), and they take shots at the US units in their fields of fire.

You can tell that a unit is in a field of fire because every hex on the map has a set of target symbols that match up with a German position. While this can get a bit complex on some parts of the map, in general the symbols make it easy to correlate what goes where. The symbols also show if the field of fire is Intense, Steady, or Sporadic, and you first choose the targets that are in Intense fields. Intense is also important because there is no differentiation for armor or target symbol on the target counter. This will become more obvious as we do more German Fire Phases later in the game, but for now just follow along and bear with me.

We begin in the East sector, with the card shown:

Unfortunately, the picture cuts off right where you can't see the tank in question, but it's just to the left of the screen and in a space that has an orange Sporadic Fire symbol, as well as a purple Sporadic Fire symbol. Note that the card has red, blue, and green colors, as well as the triangle target symbol. Since none of these colors matches the fire symbols in the hex the unit is in, there is no fire on that unit. However, you'll want to remember the card.

This unit (as we progress from left to right across the map) is in a hex with blue Steady Fire and red Steady Fire symbols. Directly above as well as to the right are three German units in two WN positions. The one directly above has one WN unit and no depth marker and is the Blue WN position. The other units are both in a single red WN position, although it takes up two hexes. One of those units has a depth marker in it, the one closest to the beach.

Remember now that the German attack card draw for the east sector had a double red square and a single blue square (with a star). The double green square with the A on it (only used in the extended game) won't fire as there are no units in green fields of fire in this sector. The double square means that the position must have at least one unit/depth marker combination in one hex to be able to fire (I think, it may just be two counters over the entire position). Since the red WN position meets this requirement, it may fire. Since there are three counters total in the position, it may fire on three targets. Since there is only one target possible, it fires on it, the lone tank unit on the beach.

The process works like this: first, see if any targets are in Intense fields of fire, and deal with them first. There are not, so we then move to Steady fields of fire, where there is one target. Indexing the German Fire results table, we see that to inflict a step loss the unit must be non-armored and the target symbol must match up. Since neither of these conditions holds, the tank unit is spared. In order to do damage to the tank unit, the red square on the card would need to have the oval Armored symbol *and* the target symbol would have had to match up. In Intense fields of fire, neither of these conditions applies, so you want to avoid those FoFs if at all possible (although it's not, really, at least until you get off the waterline).

Next, we need to check the blue German position. The position only has one square, so there is no two-counter requirement for the position and it may fire. The star on the card indicates that a leader could be the target (normally they are exempt), but there are no leaders on the board yet so we ignore it for now. Since the only possible target is the same armor unit shot at by the Orange position before, it is only eligible to be fired on because it has not taken any damage (units may only lose one step total during the entire German fire phase). However, the same condition holds for it as for the previous fire - there is no armor symbol on that color on the card, and the target symbols don't match up. Thus, no damage here either.

OK, both tank units have survived the fire phase in the East sector. Now, on to the West sector, which will have it's own card drawn to determine who gets shot at.

Orange, blue, and brown are the colors drawn in this sector. However, there's only one unit, and it's in an orange field of fire, so that's the position that fires. In this picture, you can see the little WN "gun" icon just below the counter, which identifies the color of the position as well as a German cross underneath the counter. In this case, the diamond target symbol matches, but the orange box on the card doesn't have the armor symbol, so the shots bounce off the hull. No other position has a target to fire on, so that's it for this sector.

In turn 4 and on, we would also check for artillery fire, but it's not important at this point. Also, we'd remove any disruption markers from German units at the end of the phase, but there's been no opportunity to even shoot at the Germans, so the phase ends.

We skip over the US Beach Clearing phase because it's the first turn. On to the US action phase in the next entry!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Walking On Omaha - Turn 1 Amphibious Phase

I've finished up my run through the intro scenario of DaOB, and decided to walk through the first few turns of my first time through the full AM scenario (that covers the first four hours, or sixteen turns). I hope that by walking through the game you'll see just how clean and straightforward the system is.

The game begins with semi-randomized WN units (the beach bunkers set into the bluffs and the first line of defense for the Germans), arranged by whether or not the units include arty spotters and whether or not the units have "depth" markers. This set up is the same in every game, as is the eight tank units that are the first ashore. Here's the setup in the east sector (1st Division, the Big Red One). Note the Skittles-like colors on the map - these show the fields of fire of the WN positions, with the solid circles the "intense" fire zones, the BMW propellors the "steady" fire zones, and the open circles the sporadic fire zones. As you can see from the pictures, the units must wade through a more or less solid line of nastiness before they can get to the "shingle", the natural defensive terrain caused by high tide during storms.

Here's the East sector at game start:

And the West sector, which is to the *right* on this North-At-Bottom map:

Note that each sector has four US tanks ready to land. That won't last long.

The Amphibious Operations phase has three subsections: Seeing how well the various units fare in the water, actually landing them, and finally setting up the next wave of units with the current turn marked on them.

First, we draw a card for the East sector, the first photo above. The top portion of the card shows a list of the three "target symbols" present on most US units, HQs and Generals excepted (which we don't need to worry about yet). Each symbol corresponds to a letter, which you then use to cross-index the unit type on the Amphibious Landing chart, making sure to use the right chart for the right turn. The tanks on Turn 1 get the worst of it, rarely landing where they intended or intact, if at all. In the East sector, one tank unit is delayed two turns, another is eliminated, and the remaining two both lose one of their two steps. In the West, we draw another card and apply those results as well, which sees only one reduced tank land, one come in two turns later, and two eliminated. About par for the course, but better than in my first game where every tank was delayed or sunk.

The next phase is simply to move the tanks ashore. Each of the landing boxes is actually an arrow pointing to the upper right beach hex. We're at low tide for the first several turns, so they land right at the water's edge. After all that paddling, getting to the beach is easy! For now. Finally, we place the Turn 1 reinforcements on the board in their assigned landing boxes, shown below. You can see the three tank units that made it on shore this turn. Fortunately, the next Amphib Operations chart is not quite as harsh as the first turns, and starting on turn 4 things get a lot easier, although there will still be lots of surprises.

Here's the East sector at the end of the Amphibious Operations Phase. The eliminated tank is at the bottom of the map, the delayed unit on the turn track. Note that the tank near the left edge of the board drifted quite a bit to the east as it landed, which tends to happen early in the game:

Here's the West sector:

Next we'd normally do the Event Card phase, but we skip it on turn 1.

Next time: German Fire Phase! Ouchie!

Monday, September 07, 2009

D-Day at Omaha Beach - Initial Impressions

I've been a fan of John Butterfield's work for years, having played all of the Ambush!/Battle Cry! solitaire games, and recently picking up RAF, both in it's initial WEG version as well as the new Decision reprint (worthwhile just for the better components even if the new solitaire version for the Germans isn't as interesting). Having a brand new game come out, especially one as unique as D-Day at Omaha Beach (from here on out "Omaha") was very exciting.

Since I pre-order so much stuff directly from the wargaming companies, I wanted to give my good friend Jesse some business and so waited the nearly six weeks it took for Decision to get all of it's pre-orders out, and at the end of last week my prayers were finally answered. My wife was going to be out of town for a week on a cruise to Alaska with my sister, and I thought I'd get a great chance to play the game in. Or would, if it had come with a map. I guess I was lucky, as I hear a lot of games are missing the cards and other parts, and it took nearly a full week for the map to arrive by surface mail, even though I'm right up the coast from Decision. Oh well.

After going through the rules, I finally felt comfortable enough to run through the introductory scenario that covers the first four hours of the invasion on the east side of the beach (the full game is about twice as much area). After five or six turns, I feel I have enough of a grasp to give an out-of-box assessment of how well the game works at what it's trying to do.

I'm sure there must be some good board games on Omaha at this scale, but I can't think of any offhand. Certainly there haven't been any that weren't part of a game that included scenarios on a wide range of subjects, not just Omaha - Panzer Leader, ASL, even Memoir '44. There are tons of games that cover Normandy completely, but the only other one I can think of is Paul Koenig's D-Day: The American Beaches, which has a game solely devoted to Omaha. However, it's nowhere near as close a study as Omaha is.

The game is at what must be the battalion level, with two full divisions represented in the game on the US side. Since the game covers the first 12 hours of the invasion, before the Germans really started pouring troops into the fight (thanks to Allied air cover), it makes a huge amount of sense to make this a solitaire game, as the Germans are basically just shooting at the Allies as they come ashore and try to make their way forward. The various sub-beaches (Easy Fox, Dog Red, etc) are all represented with each section taking up around five hexes of area, and the individual German strongpoints are all represented as well. Even the draws running up the beach are included, as well as the "shingle". If you've seen the early scenes from Saving Private Ryan, this is the game that evokes that kind of action (but without quite so much of the noise).

Interestingly, the game has two "sides" to it that are pretty interesting. The first half of the game takes place in 15 minute turns. During that time, you will get shot at by various German strongpoints, but also have the chance to move some of your units. And by some I mean four. There are "free" actions you can take, but in general until you get some command staff on the beach you're going to be spending a lot of time trying to get units up to the shingle and trying to take out the strongpoints as quickly as possible. It's a bit of a balancing act, made more difficult by the fact that you never know which German positions will be firing on you at any given time.

The second half simulates the eight hours that make up the rest of the day, which featured the US forces trying to reach the high ground, largely through the draws that led up from the beach, and fighting with the reinforcing units that arrive as the day progresses. These turns are 30 minutes long, and the sequence of play changes accordingly to give the correct feel and operational tempo. It's a very clever way to handle the different phases of the first day of the invasion, and kudos to John Butterfield for thinking outside the box. I will not discuss that part of the game, as the introductory scenario doesn't get that far, but you can play the game and only cover that part of the day if you wish.

The components are very nice, lots of 5/8" counters that are easy to read, about half of which are markers. This is not a high counter-density game, although of course the action is largely limited to the beaches early on. There are three player aid sheets that have a lot of information on them that is *not* in the rulebook, so I strongly advise having them handy as you learn the game. There is also a nice color booklet that contains several examples, as well as a card/counter breakdown and the terrain chart. The map is the one part that people have complained about, and with some reason. To start with, the German positions (which they never move from, so no tedious AI management in this game compared to a lot I've seen) are all color coded, from brown to bright red, blue, orange, and purple. That's already going to be a big issue for those who are color challenged, but to make matters worse each position's hex has corresponding "fields of fire" on surrounding hexes that are also color coded. Because there are three "degrees" of fire (depending upon how dangerous each is for the US units), there are three different symbols out there. Some hexes will have several field of fire designators in them to cover several fields of fire. The result is a map that looks like the Skittles Fairy threw up on it.

Don't get me wrong, the concept actually works pretty well in practice, assuming you can see colors (or can guess which FoF symbols go with which defensive position). The effect is jarring the first time you see it, though, so be prepared. Given that the rest of the map is colored naturally as you would expect from an arial view, there's no question about what is an actual terrain feature and what is an artificial feature. I'm not coming up with a better way to represent the information (which is a great way to do it, btw - managing German defensive fire is about as straightforward as it could be in a game of this scale and scope), but it will be controversial to some point.

I found the rules to be a little difficult to get through the first time, as several game mechanisms require the player aids. For example, each US unit has a "target symbol" on it in one of three shapes. If the unit is in a German field of fire that is Steady or Sporadic (as opposed to Intense), then that symbol has to be on the unit for it to be eligible to take damage. However, you'd never know this from reading the rules, it's only mentioned in the German Damage table. There are also several instances of global rules that are mentioned occasionally in specific rules. For instance, if a unit is Disrupted, it *must* use a free action during the US Action phase to remove the Disrupted marker. However, under the Climb Bluff action description, it repeats this rule, but omits it entirely under the Climb Cliff action. The effect can be a bit confusing, and I'd have appreciated a tighter editing job. I'd also like to have seen game terms capitalized (as I'm doing in this review) to distinguish from use of those terms as verbs or nouns.

Don't get me wrong, this is not Fields of Fire with a ruleset that was simply missing entire sections of information (that rulebook is up to something like 10 pages of errata nine months after it's release, with more added constantly). As I've needed to find information, it's all right there as a reference. For learning the game, however, expect that you'll spend a little time piecing things together. I recommend that if you can, learn by playing a cooperative game with a friend, where each of you commands a division separately.

The cards are the narrow "euro" size, which means they don't really fit in standard card sleeves well. The art/graphics are less than inspiring as well, but on the plus side you can see them clearly from across the board (you play the cards on a track as the turn advances), so they are quite functional. Apparently there is only one bit of errata, and it's easy to spot because it involves events, which change in different phases of the game (turn 1-20, for example).

As for game play, you'll get started and realize what the word "elegant design" really means. The game whips along. I really like Fields of Fire, but it can take a very long time to run the AI in a given turn. So far, I'm averaging around 10 minutes for a full turn, of which about half of which I'm making choices. The other half involves the standard recordkeeping chores for any wargame, and about 2 minutes of AI management when it comes to the Germans getting all shooty-shooty on your ass. Even the landing phase is quick, and organized to demonstrate the difficulty of the first waves getting to shore compared to later ones, as well as different types of units.

Perhaps my favorite part of the game has to do with US attacks. Each unit has a specific set of weaponry at it's disposal, from Bangalore torpedoes (made famous by the Private Ryan movie) to tank barrages. Full strength infantry has a complete set of elements, but they lose some as they take losses. The German units, on the other hand, which start out hidden, will have a set of weapons that are needed to take them out. Depending upon whether or not your units match up, the strength ratios of the attackers to the defenders, and whether you're attacking coastal pillboxes or the inland reinforcement points, you'll end up eliminating, disrupting, or actually *helping* the Germans. Add to this the brilliant "in depth" counters that are also hidden and can be added to the defenders as they go, and much of the time you need to go in with a pretty well-stocked set of units. If you can generate a Hero via an event, they act as a wild card for one weapon system, and are really good to have. I have not seen them yet.

For example, I managed to get two infantry units (both reduced one step) and a reduced tank up to the shingle to the edge of a German strongpoint that had a hidden unit as well as a hidden depth marker. I flip the German, and it showed I needed a BG (Bangalore torpedo) as well as a BR (Browning automatic rifle). The unit was on the other side of the shingle, so it's value was doubled from 2 to 4. I had 10 points, which put me at the 2x/Right Weapons row, which I cross referenced with the WN with Unrevealed Depth Marker column. It tells me to reveal the Depth marker, which has an additional 1 point and requires an AR weapon (artillery, fortunately provided by the tank). Since Depth markers are *not* doubled by the shingle hexside terrain, that put the Germans at 5 to my 10, so now I check the same row on the WN w/ Revealed Depth column, which tells me to eliminate the Depth marker and Disrupt the WN unit. This is great, as I've taken out a big part of this strongpoint (there's one more hex with a unit in it to take it out completely). However, the next event that comes up tells me to add a Depth marker to a German unit closest to a US unit, which of course is the one I just took out. Since it took both of my Actions to activate these units for the attack, that means other units such as the tanks on the beach didn't move, and the tide is coming in do I keep attacking, or move the tanks up while I have a little breathing room?

As you can tell, this game gives great story. And I'm five turns in to the short and small intro scenario. I'm gonna love this game!

Once you get to the "extended" game, where you move inland, things change up a bit as I mentioned above. You also add HQs and Generals who add more actions per turn (they essentially give every unit with and around them free actions, and you can establish bases to increase that range). There are various German reinforcements that can be added to the pot as events come up, some of which are "what-if's". There's even a variant to throw additional German armor that went to other beaches (or were successfully interdicted by Allied airpower). There's also artillery, tank barrages, infantry preservation movement, and various optional rules.

In other words, there's a lot in the box. Based on my short playing time, I feel that this game is very playable to completion within five or six hours for the full game, more like three for one of the shorter scenarios (and two for the intro scenario, which I do advise you try out first). Reports on the 'Geek seem to favor the Germans initially, but most players will find out very quickly that pulling units in Intensive Fire hexes is a good way to wipe them out quickly, at least if you don't move them equally quickly off of the space. Most importantly, you'll feel like you're making very interesting choices most of the time. I like RAF quite a bit, but it feels like there are really only two serious decisions made per raid - what squadrons to put on patrol, and which squadrons to respond to a raid with. In Omaha, the decision about which units to activate and what to do with them feels like a very rich decision set in comparison, especially when you expand it across the entire beach.

All in all, I find that this game has tremendous promise and may well become one of my favorite solitaire games. It solves a lot of the problems inherent in solitaire games (re-playability and the AI management issues especially), it has a great story with the same sorts of wacky last-second heroics like you see in Combat Commander and Ambush, and it plays fast even right out of the box. Aside from the color issues on the map, the rules issues I outline above, and I'm sure one or two other things that I haven't run into yet, it's a winner. Even with those issues, it's a winner, because the rules aren't an issue once you've played two turns, and the map is only jarring until you realize how effectively it portrays the situation.

I'm really looking forward to another game using this system. Based on the very positive buzz the game has received, here's hoping they do one using another situation, perhaps Iwo Jima or another assault on a strong defensive position such as Stalingrad. This has the potential to be my favorite solitaire game ever. Wow.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Middle Earth Quest - First Impressions

With the advent of summer, Rip City Gamers also cut it's schedule of regular sessions in half, so I haven't been getting in as many reports as usual, and on occasion while I've had a good night of gaming, I haven't really felt that I had anything terribly interesting to report, as last week at Matt's where I had a very satisfying game of Attila vs Dave and KC and showed how lame I am at Big City the very same night.

However, what I really wanted to talk about this time out (and have had repeated requests from at least one member of the group) was our fledgling attempt to play Middle Earth Quest, the latest and greatest from Fantasy Flight. FFG has disappointed me lately, most recently with the terrible Age of Conan, which used a very similar foundation as War of the Rings, so I was a little nervous about the possibility of yet another exploitation of the JRR Tolkien franchise falling flat. While I'm not sure we were able to play long enough (or with a particularly important rule) for me to be able to make a recommendation, I can say that I was impressed with a lot of the systems in this game.

Because I was not the person teaching (thanks to Ben for his excellent work doing this), and only played a hero instead of Sauron, I won't go into much detail about laying out the game, but will instead focus on those mechanisms or game elements I liked or didn't. There are many reviews and breakdowns of the game on the Geek for those who are looking for that kind of information.

First, the positives, and there are many. I was very impressed with the hero system that allows the player to not only improve their hero over time, but also had some very clever uses of components I'm not sure I'd seen before. Most impressive was the way each hero's deck is used throughout the game: one deck controls movement, combat, and overall health. It means that players must think about how best to use their cards not only this turn but as the game progresses, and it adds a very nice puzzle and planning element to the game that kept me engaged most of the time.

On the downside, it is this very system that could foreseeably create some serious analysis paralysis issues. If you aren't thinking about what you'll do on your turn and what cards you'll use to move vs those you'll use to fight, and whether it's time to rest or heal, you will take considerably more time than you should. There is some degree of tactical planning you'll need to hold in reserve in case Sauron throws you a curve (or, I suppose, the other heroes), but in general the game is a nice balance of strategy and tactics, although it will require players to be on their toes during downtime.

The components are, of course, very attractive, and there are a lot of them. Plastic figures (which do indeed seem to have some breakage issues - the Minion that gets placed in Mt Gundabad in the midgame had his axe break off when we were picking up the game), lots of counters, even more cards. The game has a lot of things going on, and so there are a lot of things to keep track of them. If there's a downside to this, it's that you need a pretty big table - we had to extend the kitchen table rather than play upstairs just to fit the map and have decent table space left over. The map is pretty well used for holding cards and tokens, but there is some empty space left over. Nothing like an Eagle Games title, but still quite a bit, and it could have been used to hold a few of the other card decks (which we did anyway). The artwork is, of course, very nice, and I had no problem parsing the board even though it was all upsidedown to me.

The various systems seem to lock together well, although it takes a little while to understand exactly how they do. Given that both the Sauron and Hero players will have randomized victory conditions, the importance of the various systems will change a bit from game to game. For example, in our game the Heroes wanted to have two or fewer monsters on the map at game end to have a shot, while Sauron wanted the Ringwraiths on the board (one of his Minions, and a particularly large one at that, physically speaking!) and to get six Influence tokens in Eriador (where the Shire is). That meant that driving his Story tokens was still important, but not as much as it might have been under different victory conditions.

The Influence token system lost me for the first couple of turns, as my character started out far from these tokens. As time went on, however, I began to understand that they limit your movement in the sense that Sauron gets to draw Peril cards when your Wisdom attribute is exceeded by the number of Influence tokens in an area. You can still move, you just tend to either take more hits or give Sauron more bennies. It's a clever system, and the players ignore Influence at their (literally) peril.

The quest system is nice because it gives you excuses to do things early in the game to build up your stats and acquire the Favors you need to defeat Sauron's various Plots, the way that player moves his story tokens up the track. You will also get the chance to train from time to time, which increases your personal deck, which in turn gives you longer periods between resting or healing. Throw in the characters (world leaders such as Gandalf, Saruman - still considered "good" at this point in this history, or Aragorn) that resolve quests or just help you improve stats, and you'll have a lot of choices as to where to go and what to do early on. Our game only made it to the end of the II phase (there are III total), and I suspect these elements will be less important as both sides try to achieve their victory conditions and achieve dominance.

Another thing I like quite a bit about the system is that when you draw cards other than from your personal life deck, you generally get to draw a certain number and choose from among them. This means an increased chance of things happening and advancing the literary elements as well as game effects. And there are a *lot* of cards and decks to draw from over the course of the game.

There wasn't much I didn't like, other than the down time potential and the large amount of space required to play the game. In our game, Sauron seemed to have a lot of trouble getting started, and his plots were rarely in play for more than one or two turns, and then only one at a time. We learned after the game that Ben had thought Sauron got two actions, but in fact in a four-player game, he gets three, which means he would have almost certainly gotten more chances to find good plots and spread a little more influence around the board, although many of the things we did as players were thwarting him fairly regularly. I suspect a more aggressive stance with many of his Minions would have helped as well, but again that's mostly just because he was hobbled from the get go rather than poor play.

It strikes me that a big part of why I disliked Age of Conan so much was that so much of the early game felt like you were setting up for the late game, which was just an exercise in bashing the other players, and the whole Conan adventuring element felt very random and uninteresting. MEQ, on the other hand, not being a territorial conflict, made me feel much more involved in the game and the world. Strangely, I felt that the closest simile I could muster for the game is World of Warcraft, where your goals are largely personal and "errand-driven" but at the same time you feel like you're advancing in your understanding of the world and more and more of the over-arcing story is revealed as you go.

If there was anything else I would give as a downside, it's that I strongly suspect this is a game for three players. However, given that this is a very unstable number for most strategy games (one player attacks another player, the third player cleans up the mess), in this case because the two sides are so asymmetrical, three is a good number. Two players will work more or less the same as three, but with one less hero (but the same sequence of play, as the one hero goes twice between Sauron turns).

I did not access the rules much other than to see what differences there were in a two-player game, but Ben felt they were much more accessible and easy to parse and find information in than in most FFG games. They have an extensive index, which can only be a good thing. It is a 40 pager, but at the same time FFG uses a lot of graphics and breakout boxes, and if every card type needed a quarter page to lay out what the information on it meant, that's about a quarter of the printed pages! There are a lot of cards.

In a nutshell, I went from being skeptical to feeling that this was probably a very good investment, especially if you find yourself in situations where you have three players who want a three hour strategy game dripping with theme and some nicely entwined game elements. I expect this will see some more time in the very near future and I'll give a final verdict at that time.