Monday, May 23, 2011

WBC West 2011 - Day 4

It was just too hard to use the computer in the loft to blog while at the retreat, as someone was usually up there watching TV or trying to relax, so I gave up after a couple of days and decided to just do the blogging after the fact. The iPad using a wireless keyboard worked to a point, but there's still nothing like using a desktop system for comfort.

Day 4, Wednesday, saw Alex and I scheduled to play Federation Commander, and something else if that game finished early (which it did). I got in a very short game in the evening as well before I drove up to Redmond to pick up Chris, who was coming in from Minneapolis from a work-related trip.

Fed Com is the streamlined version of Star Fleet Battles, a game I owned once upon a time in both the original ziplock version as well as the deluxe boxed version, back when Task Force Games published them. Back then, it was just the Federation, Klingons, Romulans, and maybe the Orion Pirates, but I remember the Kzinti, the Tholians, and the Andromedans coming out over time. By then, I had gone to college where gaming meant "AD&D" and I ended up selling all of my SFB stuff (which wasn't a lot) after I got out of school.

FC feels a lot more like the original game, with the biggest difference being that the 32 impulses are now organized as 8 impulses, each with four sub-pulses followed by some shooty-shooty. Trying to keep track of all of this while driving three Klingon battlecruisers, each of which is shooting off three drones per turn, and when each can turn or "slip" to another hex is a little overwhelming, I have to say. FC tries to make things easier to do with larger numbers of ships by having a "Fleet" scale with half the number of damage boxes on each ship card, but that does nothing to mitigate having one turn take about an hour and trying to remember which ship is at what speed, etc. This is a game meant for a computer to help you out, no lie. In fact, it would be great fun, as your drones would move by themselves and you'd be notified when it was time to move your ships. As it is, it's more than I can handle.

We played the first scenario in the Klingon Attacks expansion (I have the Klingon Border set, KA, and the suggested booster packs, which I later learned gave you ships that you don't already have rather than ships that you will need for the scenarios in the book). I ended up needing to print out one of my ship sheets, which required me to have a pencil as well as a dry-erase marker, which was incredibly annoying. I'd also purchased the PDF version of the combined rules, which have the advantage of having free updates, and it seems they update the rules pretty regularly. I was able to get around them using my iPad pretty well with some bookmarks, but it is annoying to "page" through the rules and have the chapters separated by pages of background info, maps, etc. Put all that stuff in an appendix! The same goes for the bad line art, which is just amateurish. The publisher must have gotten a really good deal back in the day when Star Trek was just an old TV show in syndication, and there must not have been much of a time limit on the franchising deal, because the game lives in a universe that borrows from the original series (and a bit from the animated series) but clearly takes the mythos in much different directions than the television shows went in.

The scenario we played pits three Klingons against a Federation Heavy Cruiser (think Enterprise) that has to hold them off for seven turns while staying within 25 hexes of a specific planet. I won't go into tremendous detail other than to say that I got a *ton* of hits on a couple of shields in turn 2 on the USS Hood (Alex's ship) and never looked back. The drones were a complete waste of time, all they did was require us to remember more about them than was worthwhile (like putting counters under them to denote that they had slipped or turned in the last turn, and thus couldn't slip but could turn). The Hood blew up after four turns and a long run around the perimeter of the area it was required to stay within. I can't imagine Alex had much fun, and we probably should have restarted after it became clear that his plan to stay in one place for the first turn turned out to be a bad idea - he should have run off at a 120 degree angle, and kept doing that for the entire game to keep me at as great a distance as possible.

I just couldn't bring myself to do all of that sub-impulse counting any more, so I talked Alex into playing White Star Rising, which Mark Walker asked me to learn to play to compare with Fighting Formations. I'm not going to go into great detail about how the game plays other than to say that it's very similar to his World at War series (set in a fictitious Cold War conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact), that it is a very streamlined game at a low level of complexity, that the superscript numbers on the counters (and there are a lot of numbers on the counters, up to 12 per!), and that we had a good time once we'd figured out some of the less clear rules.

WSR is set in 1944 France, pitting the Allies against the Germans. Units are generic rather than historic, although they invoke historical units and the OoB is, as far as I know, historical. Scenarios are also based on historic firefights, much as is done with ASL, Panzer Grenadier, and Combat Commander, but the maps are intended to evoke the terrain rather than present the historical terrain. In a move that has been criticized elsewhere, the towns on the map have fictitious names, which allows them to be identified but otherwise is a little jarring when the historical background uses one name and the map uses another for the same town.

The game is based on chit pulls which activate units of a given organization, which I think is at the division level but I'm really not sure. There are two end turn chits that go in the cup as well, and when the second one comes out, the turn is over, so it's possible that no one activates on a turn. However, there is also a fairly clever mechanism that lets you keep an end turn chit if you have unactivated units, and you put it back in the cup once those chits have been pulled. In other words, your divisions will activate once or twice every two turns. This adds a good amount of tension to the game, in my opinion, although it can be frustrating to constantly have your divisions be the ones that get activated once rather than twice.

We played the first basic scenario in the book, which had Alex trying to get a panzer division across a bridge (with supporting elements popping up in one of three spots, two of which were on the flanks of the US forces) against a paratrooper division hiding in the woods and a tank division holding the mission objective, which was a three-hex town at the other end of the map. I learned very quickly that my infantry units, essentially the entire paratrooper division, was pretty much useless, but they made good speed bumps. Alex was at the middle of the board and had taken out most of my own armor by that time, leaving me with a Stuart tank company and a bunch of infantry that needed to get stuck in with the armor if they wanted any chance at all.

And a good chance they had, too. By the 7th turn (there were 8 in this scenario), Alex was right on top of the town, and I was holding two hexes with weak units. Fortunately, both end turn chits came up right away, which meant we'd each get one shot at holding it. Both of my chits came up, which meant that the unit hiding behind the town couldn't just jump in and melee for it, and I was unable to get much done other than have most of my units die trying to get into close combat with his tanks. However, Alex's dice did not cooperate, and in the end he was unable to take one of the two hexes, with the game coming down to the final die roll.

I'll be honest - about two turns in I thought this game was a fail, at least this scenario. By the end of the game, however, I was finding all sorts of good tension and things to like about it. Like I said earlier, I'll go into more detail later, but there's no question that this game does a lot of things that I like, and at a scale that only Panzer Grenadier and PanzerBlitz really take on at this complexity level (Devil's Cauldron is a whole other kettle of fish). That said, the rules were a headache for me, written in Mark's casual style rather than in a technical style that I find much more usable for rulesets. As a result, I tend to struggle to learn LnL games when I should be able to read a few pages and jump right in. Compared with my experience with Fighting Formations the day before, the result was fairly clunky when it should have been much more accessible.

This isn't to say that I didn't have fun, just that the day ended up giving me my biggest disappointment (FC) and my biggest surprise (WSR) of the week. FC because the movement system was so clunky, WSR because on the surface the game feels like a war-themed game rather than a wargame, per se. Sort of like Axis and Allies.

I took the evening off as I needed to leave around 9 to go pick up Chris, but Chuck and I spent about 45 minutes trying to work our way through Spearpoint 1943, a card game that I picked up because I have this bad habit of picking up war-themed card games that constantly disappoint me. This one has some interesting elements, including pairing crews with guns and tanks and two levels of lines (plus aircraft that are powerful but short lived). I really didn't get enough of the game in to get any sense of whether it's worth keeping or not, but I know that Chuck and Ken played later that evening after I'd left.

And with that, I made it to half time. Three and a half days down, three and a half to go.

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