Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Am A Cruel, Cruel Man

Usually, when I write down my impressions of how I like (or dislike) a game, it's with the idea in the back of my head that others may be able to use that information in their own buying decisions. That includes those who know that if I like a game, that they'll hate it!

Today, I write about a game that was difficult to get in the US in the first place, is now out of print (and, I believe, out of stock pretty much everywhere), and may or may not be reprinted by the publisher. I'm speaking of the Falklands War solitaire game Where There Is Discord, published by the UK's Fifth Column Games.

In other words, I'm going to tell everyone just how much I like this game so that you can wish you had a copy too. Sorry about that. As I type, the publisher is on the cusp of deciding whether or not to reprint, so here's hoping.

The game is a fairly abstracted simulation on the Falklands War (at least, that's what it was called in the US at the time) between the UK and Argentina. The Falklands are a small group of islands off the coast of Argentina that have been a British possession for some period of time. The junta running Argentina at the time decided that they'd had enough European colonialism/imperialism and took it back. The British (under the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher) decided they wanted it back. And took it. The last Waters-based Pink Floyd album, The Final Cut, even had a song about it called "Take Your Filthy Hands Off Of My Desert".

Brezhnev took Afghanistan, Reagan took Beirut,
Galtieri took the Union Jack,
And Maggie, over lunch one day, took a cruiser with all hands,
Apparently to make him give it back

The conflict's most notable moment was the use of a French-made Exocet anti-ship missile, which sank the above-mentioned Royal Navy cruiser, fired by an Argentine pilot. This was arguably the first example of a capital ship sunk with a single ASM in the modern era (someone will point out that I'm wrong, I'm sure), and as you can imagine it created a *lot* of concern at Whitehall. Fortunately for the British, the Argentines could only afford two of these, and wisely held the second one back (although they did do some shopping for financing and more missiles once they saw just how useful the things were). A threat is very useful right up until you've shot your bolt, after all, as anyone whose played Paths of Glory knows the MEF is.

I've gotten through several turns of the game, and will give some initial impressions below. Like the other fantastic solitaire game I picked up recently, D-Day at Omaha Beach, I like this game quite a bit because it moves quickly and you don't feel like you're spending most of your time admining the AI. It's also a very pretty game, really more Euro in its sensibilities than wargame, but with a 40+ page rulebook it would be considered *very* high end in that category, but is really a very elegant game in many respects as wargames go.

I should note here that you don't get to play the Argentines, you play the British. However, I should also note that profits for the game are going to charities for veterans of both sides of the conflict, which is a very nice touch.

First off, an assessment of the components. There are not a lot of counters in the game by wargamer standards, and they are largish (3/4" or up, not exactly sure) that mostly represent the British forces, especially the individual ships involved, including troop transports (the QE2 is even involved). The Argentine forces are represented by three different task force units, a couple of subs, and the various aircraft. There are also a ton of markers, easily identified by a brown border. The artwork is very nice (Mark Mahaffey's work), and clear for the most part. Counters are very easy to punch out and will require little if any trimming - there's a tiny bit of flash along the sides, so small that I'm unlikely to trim it.

The map is very good sized, and beautiful to look at. To be honest, a map really isn't necessary in this game, as everything is fairly abstracted. The landings by the Brits at San Carlos are abstracted, as is naval and air movement outside of the task force itself. There is a large amount of unused space on the map, and I would have liked to have seen the weather table included, as well as a few reminders of what a given indicator is for. Also, because some markers are set off literally in the middle of nowhere (like the Group Search Enhanced/Degraded markers), you can forget where they are in your first couple of turns. Considering this is a very heavy stock mat (something like 30 mils, I'm guessing), if they could have gotten it down to a single map it probably would have saved a lot of money for shipping and parts and fit on the table nicely. I'm being fussy, though, and it's really very attractive when set up on your table.

The rules are a bit of a mess, but complete. The preface material recommends you set up and play the game as you read the rules, referring to the sequence of play (SoP) as you go. While the SoP does have rules references for the various phases and subphases (and there are a lot of them), the rules are ordered in some other way. So, you end up looking up one section near the end for weather, then turn around and reference a section in the front for Event Cards. For naval combat, it comes after determining if you scramble raids against the Brit TF, which has it's rules at the front of the book. You get the idea. Also, the use of terminology is not defined anywhere, so when the word "vessel" is used, you aren't really sure if that means just surface ships, or if it includes subs. Fortunately, the rules are written in a case format (, for example) that gets you where you need to be most of the time. Unfortunately, the main headings for those cases are *only* on the side of the page where the section starts, and the full case number is not always used, especially when there is a sequence to be followed, and there is almost always a sequence to be followed.

Let me be very clear on this point - this is a game that you will learn much more quickly if you play the game as you read the rules. Forget learning the game just by reading, as I often do - there are very few illustrations (but lots of examples) in the book and one section concerning the landings won't even come up in many of your games. That section is right in the middle of the rules! However, you need to be aware that many of the special conditions that apply due to, say, weather, won't be mentioned in the rules section dealing with where it's applicable, but in another section a little later on. For example, Degraded Search Conditions isn't mentioned at all in the section on searching with a task force, but in a separate section. You'll run into these as you go in your first game, and I recommend that you take those sorts of SNAFUs as part of the learning process. It's also important to note that many (not all) of the counters/markers will have information on their backs that can be useful, although it's presented in such a way that you have no idea what the numbers mean initially and will need to refer to the rules or other play aids to figure out their relevance.

On the plus side, it's not Fields of Fire with entire rules sections left mostly to your imagination. The rules are all there (aside from exactly which attacks generate Failed Attack rolls), but they can be a bit of a challenge to wade through.

Once you've played several turns, check out the sample turn in the rulebook.

The flow of the game is involved, but the mechanisms are generally pretty straightforward. To search, you roll a given polyhedral die, and if you roll a one you succeed in locating the enemy. To fire, you do the same thing. There are other elements that come into play, but when it comes down to it, that's the core of the game.

The SoP, on the other hand, is involved as you'd expect with modern warfare. First, you do some establishing of the environment - weather roll, event card draw, and then you decide if you want to advance the "SitRep," which is in essence moving your task force closer to the islands. As you do so, you start to see more and more Argentine air forces come into range, including the Super Etenards with their Exocets. You then assign your forces to various positions in the task force, put your Sea Harriers on CAP, and assign your subs to one of the three naval boxes (Coastal, Search, and Exclusion, or where the British Task Force really doesn't want the Argentines to be). This is not the only decision points you'll have during the turn, but it is a big part of determining your success.

Next, you roll dice to see where the Argentine naval forces go. You roll three dice for each, and they are placed on the board based on how many of those dice are 1's. Subs roll d4s, surface groups roll d6s. More ones means they end up closer to your TF, but that's a difficult proposition even with 3d4.

Once the Argentine Navy has sailed, you then fight, which follows a pretty basic search/combat process with modifications based on who is looking for what. Under certain conditions, just running into a British sub is enough to send everyone in that naval zone scurrying for cover in port, which is a very accurate assessment of how naval power has been used throughout the 20th Century - these ships are huge investments, and no one wants to watch a bunch of them sinking to the bottom of the sea in a losing effort, much less a winning one. In fact, losing one of your two carriers is more or less a Game over situation, so you want to be sure that they are covered constantly.

Next, if there are Argentines still afloat, they go looking for your task force, and if they find it you need to figure out if the Brits were paying attention or not. Next, the Argentines determine whether or not they will raid the TF with either aircraft or their naval forces. This is where the SitRep card comes in, as the odds of a confrontation improved dramatically as you work through these cards, but is also affected by the weather as well. For example, say you just had a tough turn with a couple of flights of aircraft coming at your taskforce. You fought them off, but at the same time your Sea Harriers are all exhausted and you really don't want another attack coming your way. But look! The weather for next turn stinks! So it's probably OK to draw a new SitRep card and move closer to the islands, although you also probably want to throwing your Harriers up for CAP as there's a chance you'll lose them when they land in the bad weather.

There's more shooty shooty, and then you reset the game situation by landing and refitting Harriers and removing markers from the board. That's the turn.

After 28 turns in the merry month of May, you see how many zones you've become established in on the islands, and if you get to five or more of the ten you win. There's more involving that process, but I haven't seen it yet and it too appears to be pretty abstracted.

In my experience, the game moves along pretty quickly once you know what sections to look to in the rules for each phase. I got through about a week of gametime in roughly two hours, which translates to about an hour per week once things get going. However, I suspect that there will be much more contact between the two sides in later weeks, so let's say about six hours for the whole shebang.

This game has a much different feel for me than D-Day at Omaha Beach, which feels like a wargame, with traditional units and hexes. WTID feels much more like RAF or B-29 in terms of abstraction, although there are clearly more decision points in WTID than there are in B-29 (and B-29, to it's credit, is much more of a simulation than a game). If anything WTID has about the same level of AI management as RAF: Lion does, where you make some early decisions in the turn and then a few more as the game goes on, but most of the turn is spent seeing how good your decisions are. Early on, there don't seem to be that many decisions (put at least one ship in every surrounding zone of the TF, put your CAP in the high-probabilty areas, interdict Argentinian supply when you can, scramble more fighters when necessary).

That said, most of the AI management is dice rolling to see how search and combat go, and it moves along quickly once you have the system down. Early in the game, you'll get through about half of the SoP, but that will get longer as the game progresses.

So far, I'm enjoying it quite a bit. Having gorgeous components is nice, although avoiding the exploding Skittles look of Omaha Beach doesn't make the game better, just nicer to look at. Watching the situation unfold is always the draw of solitaire wargaming, and in this case you may have some tough decisions as the game unfolds but early it's more a matter of deciding whether or not to put up CAP in bad weather and where the subs patrol.

Ah, I forgot the really interesting part of the game, the one that makes every game different. You have to deal with international and domestic opinion as you go. Most of the time, these are modified by various events that come up once a turn. As your International Opinion drops, you lose various capabilities, such as Nimrod search capability, use of AIM-9 missiles, help from the Soviets and Chileans, etc. Also, you are required to roll a d10 from time to time and compare to the average Opinion level, and when it goes bad you might lose use of a couple of ships, or even be forced to stay in place for a turn rather than advance the SitRep. Often, you'll be faced with a choice of doing something now at a price, skipping it entirely, or possibly paying a higher price later. I get the impression that the really tough choices you make are in this part of the game, and they will also keep replay very high as there are a lot of events. If I have a big complaint about components, it's that the cards have very little info on them, but require you to look up the event in an extra book. Admittedly, there's a lot of text associated with some of these events, but good use of iconography would have at the very least allowed players to remember what the events do and when they are in effect. Again, a small nit, but the sort of thing I'd expect from a new publisher.

All in all, highly recommended if you are interested in the subject matter, modern naval warfare at a very high level of abstraction, or are a big fan of RAF and that style of solitaire play. Of course, that means (as I type) eBay collector prices, but if there is a reprint this is one worth picking up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review, wish I had the game.

FYI, that Floyd song wasn't referring to a British warship, but the General Belgrano.