Monday, May 24, 2010

WBC West - Day 5 and 6 - Battle For Normandy

By Day 5, I had abandoned any pretense of trying to keep the blog up to date. Too many games, too little downtime, too much work to get a photo or even formatted text into Blogger via the iPad. I have some hope that the Blogger folks will fix this in the near future, but for now blogging will be a desktop-specific activity for me.

The Battle for Normandy was going to not only be the first multiplayer monster wargame I'd played (with multiple players), but also the fifth "new" game for me during the week. I have to say that I was extremely happy that I'd boned up on every other game I'd played to that point. There were still frequent rules look-ups, but nothing that was killing me.

Until BfN. Where we discover the problem of having the designer be his own developer.

I have nothing but praise for Danny Holte in general. He answered two questions I posed on BGG within minutes at 9pm PDT on a Thursday evening, one of which had a major effect on our game. His support has been tireless, and I think a good thing as I like this game.

I will also state early in this post that I like this game, and while I am not yet familiar enough with it to recommend it, I liked the combination of forcing divisional integrity, lines of communication, the use of combat supply (our allies burned through about 3/4ths of their supply in four days game time, not boding well for them long term) and the relative accessibility of the core system. That said, there is an amazing amount of chrome to handle the necessities of the operation and it seems to be very difficult for the Germans to blow or repair bridges - you have a handful of engineers and they need to be in very specific locations at a very specific time. Compared with my other favorite Normandy game, Breakout: Normandy, where you get to try to blow virtually every bridge on the map in the first turn if you are granted the impulses, I blew exactly three. I can't even find where you'd blow a bridge that would make attacking Bayeaux early (as is commonly done in the first German impulse in BK:N) by the Brits much harder. Perhaps BK:N is the one with the historical inaccuracies, but this is quite a difference. Perhaps it should have been abstracted more in BfN, I can't say.

However, I want to leave you with the right impression of my opinion of the game - I like it, and I like it enough that I'll be playing the Gold-Juno-Sword scenario to completion in the very near future (solitaire) to see if the problems we ran into were simply the result of not fully understanding the system and how things worked together, or whether it was the result of systemic issues. I'd like to believe it was the former.

For longtime readers of my ramblings, it will come as no surprise that I have a problem with poorly organized rules. And BfN has a rulebook that makes me cringe. I think pretty much everything is in there, but when four experienced wargamers were unable to find exactly what timeframe you were limited to three attached units to a division are, there's a problem. When the rules for attachments are in six different parts of the rulebook, there's a problem. When you're perusing the rules using an iPad and even search capability and 30 (count 'em, 30) bookmarks that you've added in aren't helping, there's a problem.

A game with this much complexity (and, invasion turn rules aside, it's not all that complex from a rules standpoint) requires rules that allow you to quickly find the information you need. Eight years ago or so I recommend to Mark Simonitch that the rules for 2nd ed Successors would benefit mightily from a reorg, as they filled 30+ pages and had the same problems as the current rules for BfN. The idea, which Chad Jensen used in the gold standard of wargame rules, Combat Commander, was to state rules once, have a single point in the rules where you knew to go to find the basic rule and any cross references, and have clear and well-defined (and well-used) language. A hypothetical example:

10.0 Supply

10.1 Combat Supply

10.2 Attachments

4.3 Zones of Control Effects

22.1 June 6 Night and AM turns
24.0 Static Artillery

This is not exhaustive by any measure, but the idea is to give the rules that are specific only to supply in this section, then give crossreferences and exceptions to other sections *without repeating the rules*. If the idea is to find material quickly, then this is what wargame rules require. Repeating the same rule multiple times in different sections leads to incomplete discussions in each section, changes that get made in some sections but not others, and vastly increased rule look-up time.

It's also a really bad idea to have a designer also be the developer (or, in the case of Fields of Fire, have an incompetent or uninvolved developer) as the designer is too close to the rules. Unless you have blind rulestesting (can someone completely uninvolved with the game figure it out from the ruleset and find rules easily), this won't happen. I have no idea what the situation was in the case of BfN, but I get the sense that at best Danny added things in as he went along. The result was a lot like my Dad's soup - it was great the first day, and as he added things in over the next several days it got progressively less edible.

That said, we really only had the one question that we couldn't answer from the rules about attachments to division - how long did those three corps/other division attachments last? Given that the designer was constantly saying that they were "on the fly" in the various CSW and BGG forums, which was really no help at all as otherwise why would there be a limit for attachments, we had three people in my group saying it was at the time you "checked" supply, which made no sense at all. Checking and assigning are two very different things. In truth, they were in the rules as well. You made assignments in a given phase (such as Allied Combat) that lasted solely for that phase.

The other point of confusion was regarding static artillery - if it was in combat supply but isolated, could you fire a unit not on a coast hex (or bluff overlooking beach) at a ship without a spotter, and did that then mean that you needed to not be isolated so you could be in contact with said spotter, and did that count against your attachment limit?

You get the idea.

That said, I loved the game. I was playing the German side that opposed the US beaches, which meant that I was mostly involved in the Cotentin Peninsula and the western flank of the Omaha Beach front (the US forces there went east to invest in Bayeaux rather than west to hook up with the Utah Beach forces, which never came close to happening in four game days, or was even really threatened). My US opponent felt the same way.

On the other hand, the two guys playing the CW and eastern German forces ended up with an incredible amount of counter density (the Brits/Canucks wiped the beaches clean by the second landing segment, and the 6th AB landed almost completely intact, as well as taking Pegasus on the landing), as well as having issues thematically with the Mandatory Assault rules.

In a nutshell, the MA rules say that if you are in certain types of terrain (clear, swamp, farmland) you are required to attack in  some way every adjacent unit with someone, which is also the case if you use a unit to attack another unit. Good enough, you can use arty to cover the extra units and it forces you to use the terrain historically, and you aren't required to attack across streams and rivers. The problem was that a) on the east side of the board there is really nothing *but* farmland, and b) if a unit was in such a position that it wouldn't be able to retreat without entering an unnegated ZoC it didn't have to attack. That meant that a hedgehog defense was fairly effective for the Germans. Mike felt rather strongly that this meant it was a complete waste of time to encircle units, as then you had to root them out. Better to put them in a bad situation where they could retreat, as then they'd have to attack on their turn. His point was that this was not only counter-intuitive, it made for a fairly gamey situation.

I was not involved on that side of the board, so I am really unable to judge. I can see a couple of reasons for the design choice, mostly having to do with bocage and "point of interest" terrain - it would have been easy (and was done) by the Germans to hole up and use a hedgehog defense that required the Allies to have to come in and root them out. Mike felt that this might be true for a few days, but that over the scope of the game it was possible for a group to hold out for several weeks or even months. I think that's an unlikely situation, but Mike has a point. Perhaps this was design for effect, although at the battalion level I have to wonder if that works quite as well.

Or maybe I have the rule wrong. There are a lot of tiny exceptions in these rules that make your first game difficult, but I think that's true of most highly-detailed games (OCS, EFS, GTS). I'll also note that the first edition of OCS, a game that Mike and Eric love (and that I would like to get to know better) was a freakin' mess, but now is as smooth a system at that scope and scale as exists. If you don't mind spending quite a bit of time figuring out how much supply you need to do what you want to do, which is my main obstacle to investing my time in the game (I've already invested the money). Compared with that system, BfN's supply rules are pretty accessible.

If anything, the biggest problem I will have is tracking REM steps (every time you lose a step, you bump a marker on a track) and Combat Supply Points (every time you use arty/air/naval and/or initiate combat from multiple hexes). I could see me missing this on a regular basis, I gave up on the VG title Carrier as I could never remember to advance the phase marker and keep track of the incredibly involved sequence of play. Maybe the iPad would help...

As with most complex games, I considered the first playing of BfN to be a learning game, and seeing as we didn't even try to figure out the supply rules until the June 7 PM turn (which would have a big effect on consolidating the various Cotentin Peninsula German forces, which are spread out all over the place), it wasn't particularly important who won, although that would have been the Allies on June 9 with exactly 5 VP, taking one hex of Bayeaux on their last turn, and the Germans unable to take it back.

I'd also really like to see the campaign game VP spaces displayed on the map, as I had absolutely no idea of what the objectives were other than that I was tasked with keeping the Utah Beach and airborne forces bottled up (mission accomplished) and the same with the Omaha Beach forces (although that's a little harder to do, but they still were less than seven or so hexes off of the beach by the 9th). Chuck was faced with a very effective British invasion, and he was able to hold Caen and form a line only because I think we got some reinforcements a bit early. We used the three-map campaign game, and exactly when the units that start on the submap come on is a little fuzzy. In fact, the placement of the units is not included with the scenario information (it's an online add-on), and I had to find the ConSimWorld entry that listed them in order to place them. Otherwise, I liked that version quite a bit, although the Allies kept forgetting it was there to bomb a couple of bridges and slow the incoming troops down, which would have helped them a *lot*.

I also have to say that while I appreciate that Danny designed what is essentially a parallel game to cover the invasion, I find it to be mostly devoid of meaningful decisions other than in what sequence to land non-infantry units on the beaches, and the vast majority of those will be on the third wave. I'd be much happier simply starting from the June 6 PM turn and playing the game with the base rules - too much of the invasion game is essentially a random setup generation system rather than a study in how to invade. Given the amount of set up work for the Allies (several dozen companies all sitting in off-board holding boxes because otherwise the counter density is absurd), and the time required to execute it (about two to three hours), it's really not worth the time in my estimation. I'll note that I voiced this opinion before WBC West and was told that without the invasion it wasn't worth it to one player. Not sure if he's changed his mind since then, but then again his part went pretty well. ;-) I don't mind those kinds of games if they don't take a lot of time or if I don't mind a particularly skewed result (especially solitaire), but otherwise I'd skip it in the future.

I'll write more on the game once I've gotten through the G-J-S scenario.

I'll also note that the three-map campaign and G-J-S are both scenarios that aren't in the box. You can find them at BGG and CSW, although you'll need to dig through the game-specific thread on CSW to find setup info for the 3-map D and E units, and I can't help you with their movement rules on the June 6 PM turn.

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