As part of my annual Wargame Goals I am trying to play a solitaire wargame every month. Some of these are longer term affairs (like RAF) and some are a little shorter (like Field Commander Rommel, January's game). I have a pretty busy schedule for the first three or four months of 2010, so I'm frontloading the schedule with the quicker games. February's game is Mosby's Raiders, an old Victory Games title. The American Civil War is *not* my first choice of era for gaming, and in fact my interests pretty much die out right around the 30 Year's War and don't pick up again until WW1, so it's odd that this would be something I'd buy, or even play.
The subject matter is about Confederate raids led by the aforementioned Mosby into Union lines in Maryland, DC, and Virginia. You take on the role of Mosby, and you run around the map trying kill off Union combat units, blow up rail lines, bridges, and depots, and even have some opportunity to kidnap a couple of Union leaders. All the while, you try not to let Mosby die (which requires two wounds and is easier than you think), try to keep his Notoriety up (which goes up for kidnapping, blowing up stuff, or winning battles), and hit the magic Notoriety number at the end of the game.
For those of you familiar with Victory Games Ambush! titles, there will be some similar concepts, although not nearly at the level of complexity as that other excellent game series. The main similarity is that you use Operations to control Mosby right up until a Union combat force gets activated, and then you go to Rounds, wherein the Union gets to do stuff as well, usually chasing Mosby around. At some point, Mosby disbands his units, or loses a battle, or dies, all of which end the turn. If your Notoriety isn't at the same or higher level as the current game turn, you lose (or if Mosby dies, of course).
As the game goes on, Mosby has a higher and higher notoriety, which means that there's a higher Union Awareness that he's out there raiding, and so it gets harder and harder to slip by Union forces on your way to nuking a bridge. However, at the same time Mosby tends to have larger raider forces and more Action cards that give him random special mutant powers. I get the impression that later on the turns become shorter and shorter as Mosby has less and less ability to penetrate through the Union lines, so I think it's wise to go after those deep targets early and save the closer ones for later in the game. However, there will be times where you are offered up a juicy depot or leader to kidnap close to the Union lines and you'd be a fool not to go for it.
Making the game very replayable are the random events, the number of which appear each turn are equally random. Some are very helpful, some will have you gnashing your teeth, and some will have no effect whatsoever. Also, at various points in the game you run out of status markers and the Union lines "reset", meaning that all of those areas that you know where the Union forces are suddenly are just as unknown as they were early. Also, as your Notoriety rises, more and more units get added to the pool, so a better chance of drawing combat units as opposed to couriers, pickets, supply wagons, and blanks (which means nothing at all).
Those of you who remember my screaming about the vague and difficult to parse rules for Fields of Fire won't be surprised to learn that I had to spend quite a bit of time figuring out some of the base concepts for this game, which are unfortunately scattered throughout the rules. Two paragraphs describing what the various spaces were and how they interacted would have helped immensely, but instead you have to figure out how Large Union Forces spaces differ from spaces inside Union lines, and also how the space status markers play into everything by reading eight or nine different paragraphs spread around the rules, largely unmarked. There is an example, but if you're trying to learn as you go you'll beat your head against a wall repeatedly.
To illustrate my point, let's look at how Mosby probes a space. The rules for probing say that you only probe if there's a unit there, but the game starts with no units on the map, so you'd wonder why you'd ever probe. However, the rule is that if there is an "unrevealed" space inside Union lines it is *assumed* to have a unit in it. Further, if it's a Large Union Forces space, then you don't ever put an revealed status marker on it. Even the use of the revealed status markers was a bit murky.
That said, once the various pieces come together, the game is extremely easy to play with minimal rules look ups, and it plays *fast* too. I got through half of the game (after making a few other errors in earlier tries) in less than two hours, although I have to admit that things went my way in the early turns.
If you do get a copy of the game, I strongly recommend you read this first:
In this game, you will raid as Mosby behind Union lines. All of the round spaces at or behind those lines are considered to be in one of two states: Revealed, or Unrevealed. Unrevealed spaces are considered to have one implicit unit in each, and you will typically Probe into such spaces to see if you want to risk slipping by those forces or instead find a less dangerous place to raid. Once a space is revealed and has a marker in it, the implicit unit that started in that space is now on the board in some form or other, either "Active" and face up, or "inactive" and with it's Union flag side showing.
You will check to see what those units are through performing Activation Checks. Each action that Mosby undertakes during his turn (either during Operations, before the Union Combat Units activate, or during Rounds) will generate Activation Checks in some set of spaces. For example, a Probe will cause an Activation Check in the space being probed, but no others. When you go into Rounds, on the other hand, often as the result of an Activation Check, you will perform an AC on every unrevealed space adjacent to an active unit, as well as for those revealed spaces with inactive Union units. It is possible for an inactive unit to be in an unrevealed space, so this concept is important to understand.
Finally, you need to understand that the hexagonal spaces on the map (and those spaces that are later designated as such) are Large Union Forces spaces. They are like the other spaces behind the lines, but instead of putting a Revealed marker, they are an unlimited source of Union units. Think of them as popping out a new unit every time a check is done and/or successful, depending on the reason for the check. They also prevent certain actions from being used in those spaces, and sometimes will generate large numbers of Union forces through random events. As such, they are never considered Revealed but always Unrevealed.
Those three paragraphs would have saved me literally two hours of banging my head against this game. I hope that if you ever get the chance to play, they will help you avoid my fate.
So how does the game play? Actually, it's pretty fun and fast. Most die rolls are against a given number, such as ACs rolled against the current Union Awareness Level, which goes up and down based on what sort of mischief Mosby gets up to. A kidnapping, for example, raises it by two points, so you go from a 16% chance of activation when the level is at it's minimum of 1 to a 50% chance before you even start rolling for activation checks. And if you were in Operations before, there will be another round of ACs once you've determined who goes first during Rounds!
Combat is also very quick. You figure out who the attacker is, compute a simple odds ratio, decide if Mosby will "skeedaddle" (disperse in the face of combat) or not, figure a quick DRM, and roll the die. There is very little in this game that requires more than 30 seconds to complete taken as individual actions, and it makes the game much more enjoyable.
That said, this is a wargame and there are several things that you have to remember, such as always making a Mosby Casualty Check (where he is wounded on a 1-2) when you roll a 1 in combat, regardless of who wins. As such, when Mosby gets wounded, and he will, you run a huge risk of doing nearly anything for the rest of that turn and into the next. However, since you more or less *have* to keep the pressure on because of the Sudden Death victory conditions, there's a good amount of tension in the game.
There's no question that the game is a bit of a love letter to Mosby by the designer (who apparently had his likeness painted on the cover as one of Mosby's compatriots), and the excellent Commentary section that outlines Mosby's career is occasionally fanboi material in spots. As a Damned Yankee, I find this sort of thing a little annoying, largely because the core reason for the war was whether or not traffiking in human slaves could be exported to new territories or states, and it's hard to really get behind the South as a result. Yes, I'm aware that there were "other" reasons for Secession, but the basic reality remains - without slavery, there would have been no ACW.
That said, I don't know that I'd have quite as much of a problem playing a very specific German leader performing similar activities during WW2. Mosby isn't committing atrocities in this game, although I can't really say whether or not he did so historically. An upcoming game from GMT will focus on the Gross Deutchland Division (also the focus of three TCS games from MMP), and there has been some small controversy about whether or not this particular formation should be glorified or not. Heck, even the title Conflict of Heroes drew flak for using the word "Heroes" in the title when most Americans in this era would consider both Nazis and Communists short of being what we might call a Hero.
In the end, this is a game about a man whose home state has been occupied by what he considers to be foreign invaders, and he is trying to disrupt their activites, what Ronald Reagan would have called a Freedom Fighter. How history judges such people is largely a function of how they carried out their mission and who won, although the ACW has the distinction of being perhaps the single conflict where the losers got to define history, at least wherever they could, and still do so to this day. After all, it's still called the War of Northern Aggression in many parts of the South, even though the war was precipitated because of Secession, and there are still people pissed off that they lost 150 years after the fact.
Oh well. If this is the most controversial solitaire game I play this year, then I guess that will be a good thing.
BTW, I am about halfway into my "official" playthrough for the purposes of meeting my goal for the month. I expect my next solitaire game will be something equally shortish, probably London's Burning or similar, mostly due to a lot of work preparing for and executing GameStorm in late March. I also hope to get my first "dusty" game up, The Legend Begins, although I was dismayed to discover that two of the Italian arty units (there are only three in the game) are missing. I'm almost all of the way through those rules, and should have the long-term wargame tables freed up by late March.