Wednesday, November 30, 2011

AE:TK - Barbarossa Learning Experiences

In our last episode, we went through the Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg learning scenario Case White and discussed some of the trickier elements of the game introduced in that scenario. The second learning scenario in the box concerns the Barbarossa invasion of 1941, and adds many new elements, but not enough to be overwhelming. This essay will discuss the trickier parts of that scenario, both in terms of understanding the rule as well as the application of the rule.

Several new rules are introduced, but we will focus on Option Cards, Supply, Minor Allies and shifting territory,  and the expanded Sequence of Play that the previous scenario ignored.

Perhaps the most important core concept in AE:TK is the Option Cards. Each Faction (Axis, Western Allies, and Soviets) have a deck of these cards, divided into Pre-War, Limited War, and Total War subdecks. Pre-War are used until war breaks out (historically this was the German invasion of Poland), in which case everyone is at Limited War until Germany ends up in two front war. There are a lot of variations, but that's the basic idea.

On every seasonal turn (every second turn, with a three turn gap in the summer) you play a card face down that you will reveal at the *next* seasonal turn, which is called your "pending" card. At the same time, you reveal your previous "pending" card as your active card. These cards vary widely in their effects, from focusing on building up your army, to making diplomatic overtures, to running major (or minor) campaigns. Reinforcement units are often received, replacements are placed, various tables may be consulted. It is important to note that most cards have requirements for certain board conditions or previous option cards to have been played (or not) in order to play them. If a card doesn't meet the requirements, it goes back in your hand, but you don't get the benefit of the card, so this is a good thing to pay close attention to. Also, playing a card will often remove other cards from your deck, so by doing one thing you give up the opportunity to do another.

Option cards also grant Blitz markers for each turn that season, and also effects that can extend to other turns. Anything in a red box only happens during the Seasonal turn, anything outside it can be used every turn that card is the active card. For example, the Germans get replacements with their Operation Barbarossa card, but only in the seasonal turn. In contrast, the Russians will often get "conditional" replacements that come at the end of their turn, but on every turn.

The cards include the time when they were historically played, so you can simply use that sequence rather than try to go off of the reservation, and the authors suggest doing that in your first campaign game or two if you wish. However, the real joy of this game is in fact trying different paths. You'll almost certainly still invade Russia at some point as the Germans, but otherwise all sorts of things could go differently.

In the Barbarossa scenario, each side is given two option cards to play and specific turns to play them. This gives you the experience of seeing how they work without having to deal with more than 50 cards to choose from.

I should also note that the important things about the option cards in this scenario are what Blitz counters you get, what reinforcements go to your Force Pool, and how you place replacements. Replacements go to cities in your Home Country (or to HQs in your home country) and you'd be surprised how few of these there are. Because of the three unit stacking limit, and also because at the start of this scenario the Germans are pretty far forward, that means you'll probably want to get these units down but not combine them until they get to the front. It's also why the errata'd scenario book calls for you to use the West Map so that you can see where the German cities are. However, after the first turn you don't need that map anymore, so you can pick it up and use the game tracks located on the cards used for the one-map scenarios. Note that these German replacements can come in in Czechoslovakia, Austria, the Polish Corridor, and Germany, but not in Poland, Rumania, or Hungary. Or Finland for that matter.

Next up is Supply. If there is a part of this game that I feel like I'm doing wrong, it is supply. Unlike many games, AE:TK treats supply as you go, so if a unit is out of supply at the moment it would need to know whether or not it was in supply, that's when you check. There are no OoS markers as a result, which I appreciate - in fact, TK has relatively few markers that relate to unit status, making counter density very manageable.

Supply has different effects on different units in different situations, and while these are all nicely organized in the Supply rules, I am very happy to say that the developers put in a great summary on the same sheet as the CRT is on for each player. They do not detail what constitutes a supply line, but really it's not terribly difficult - you trace back to a city in your Home Country. Also important is that friendly ground units cancel out EZOCs for purposes of supply, as in many games.

A supply path is traced from the unit back to a supply source, which is either a city in that unit's Home Country, a friendly supply depot, or for the Russians the eastern edge of the board. There are also off-map boxes that represent areas like the Middle East or Central Asia that can be supply sources. It is also possible to use a Supply Convoy (a type of support unit) to trace supply providing there are Open Ports (ports with friendly ground units in them) in the area. A unit can trace two hexes over any non-prohibited terrain to a road or rail hex, and from there back to the supply source via road/rail. Only one contiguous section of road can be involved, and the path can cross one connected strait in lieu of the road section. The line can't pass through cities in conquered or enemy countries unless a friendly unit is there to control it.

For our purposes, being out of supply creates the following affects based on the unit type and where we are in the SoP:

  • Armor units don't get a column shift during Blitz combat,
  • HQ units can't support at range, and don't get a column shift (not mentioned in the Case White essay, but an important part of combat),
  • HQ units can't be a replacement location,
  • Ground units can't create an Air Base or Naval Base,
  • Ground units can't combine,
  • Ground units can't move in the Operational (normal) Movement Phase - this is particularly big, and
  • Ground units can't advance after combat or exploit. 
There are other effects, but they aren't part of this scenario. 

Here's why this is a little weird. Let's say that the Germans bypass a couple of Russian units during their invasion, and these units are placed out of supply. If the Russians wish, those units can sit there for the entire game doing nothing but blocking rail lines. They can't move during OpMovement, but they can move during Reserve Movement, assuming there isn't a unit projecting an EZOC to stop them. They can attack normally, with no dings to any combat factors.

I find this a little crazy, but like most things in AE:TK, there are times when the purpose of the rule becomes more apparent. In the case of supply, the basic idea is that quite often those units can be better used elsewhere, and the player has the chance (after combining but before breaking down units) to simply pick these units up off the board and place them in either their force pool or delay box as appropriate. For an army like the Soviets, this works out well because their basic infantry units are one-steppers on their flip sides, and have no delay stripe so they go straight back to the force pool. That's handy because a *lot* of Soviet option cards given replacements every turn, and some give a *lot* (like 21 steps). Whether it's more important to have these units behind the lines tying up dinky units and interrupting supply or to place them on the map to slow down the Germans is a good question for the Soviet player.

That said, this just feels wrong to me. Bypassing enemy formations is a basic element of blitzkrieg tactics, and while I understand we're at the level of armies (and army groups, for the Soviets), every other game on the east front uses supply rules that knock armies out, and fairly quickly. I suspect there are other reasons why out of supply units are generally returned to the force pool fairly quickly, but in my play it seemed more like I was creating problems in my backfield rather than forcing hordes of Soviets to surrender. 

Of course, a big part of the Barbarossa scenario is to teach you to manage your supply effectively so that you can use those Blitz counters and tank units more effectively, not to mention the limitations of the road/rail net in Russia. Russia is a big place and while there are a lot of rail lines present, at the same time there are some areas, particularly in the far north and south, that will have very limited rail nets. That's a good thing. At one point, I found myself looking at a situation where I could advance a few hexes after combat with a few units, and between trying to set myself up for bringing in replacement steps as well as making sure everyone would be in supply, it was a bit of a trick. The player who can see these situations in advance will have an advantage, obviously. 

Next up is the inclusion of Minor Countries, allies, and shifting ownership of land. First of all, there are three types of land in AE:TK: countries, dependents, and regions. Countries are areas of land with associated units. Austria, at the beginning of the game (assuming you start in 1937) is a country, as it has it's own units. During the game, the Axis can play a Hitler Demands Austria option card that will almost certainly result in Austria being "ceded" to Germany. At this point, Austrian land becomes part of Germany and Vienna is German Home City. Later, if the Axis does the same with the Polish Corridor (the area around Danzig), and war results with Poland and Poland is conquered by the Axis (as happened historically), the Polish Corridor is ceded and becomes German, but the rest of Poland (possibly excepting East Poland if the Russians have an agreement with the Germans) becomes a Conquered Minor Country and has to go through certain conditions and steps to become an Active Minor Country in the future. The Axis will need to garrison Polish cities in order to trace supply through them. Interestingly, if the Soviets take East Poland, it becomes ceded to them, and is treated as though it is Russian Home territory until some other event takes place that changes that status. 

Note that the Polish Corridor noted above is not a country - it is a "region" which means it does *not* have units associated with it. Similarly, there are areas on the map that also don't have units associated with them that are called "dependents". The basic difference is that a dependent has a country that it is directly associated with, while a region is part of a larger dependent or country. There are many references in the rules to countries, and it's important to remember that these references do not apply to regions or dependents unless explicitly stated. 

An important aspect of minor countries that you are allied with is that you can't just go traipsing through them with units from other countries. For example, the Hungarians can't run around in Rumania, that just makes the Rumanians mad. The Germans have a little easier time of it, but they can't leave multi-step units floating around or else they become interned, which means you don't get them back until the start of the next season. The Germans instead need to either leave their units broken down as single-steppers, or else perform an emergency breakdown from the multi-step units at the end of the turn, which of course sends the multi-step unit to the delay box. 

The Barbarossa scenario gives a perfect example of how this works. At the start of the scenario, there are three 1-2-3 infantry units stacked in one hex in Rumania on the border with Bessarabia, a region that was ceded to Russia due to an earlier option card play. At the start of the Axis turn, these three units can be combined into a multi-step infantry unit, and if you intend to attack with them this is an excellent idea. However, if at the end of the turn they are still in Rumania (which does *not* include Bessarabia at this point), they must either be broken down at the end of the German turn or else interned on the pending option card, either of which is going to take a multi-step unit out of your force pool for some time, possibly the rest of the scenario. Best to leave them be if you aren't attacking with this group in the first turn. You can also "occupy" the minor, but that creates a lot more problems that it's worth, essentially turning that country into an ally of your opponents. There are times when this makes sense, but Barbarossa isn't one of them. 

I really like this rule, as it reflects that while Rumania and Germany were allied and had similar world views and enemies, at the same time it also shows that they were separate countries. Think of how happy Canada would be if US troops wandered around willy nilly, fighting moose and polar bears as they went. You can do a lot of things with a minor country, but it doesn't make that country *your* country, as in many other grand strategic games. 

Finally, this scenario adds in most of the rest of the Sequence of Play. Most obvious is the Seasonal Phase, where you play Option cards, but also the placement of convoys (both troop and supply - you'll need these to get Russians to Murmansk and the German 20th Mtn to combine with a Finn ski unit), and exposure to Conditional Events, which warrant a bit more discussion. 

Conditional Events take place at the end of the player turn after everything else is done, including declarations of war. There are two types of conditional events, those that are dictated by the Option card in play (this includes non-seasonal replacements), and those that occur when the right situation exists. All Force Pool cards hold units for these conditions, which include things like Their Finest Hour (which affects the British when things get exciting in and around France) and, most importantly for this scenario, Russian Emergency Mobilization. The conditions for these events and what you do once they occur are listed on the Force Pools in brief and in the rules in detail, but they mostly consist of you following a series of steps with few decisions to make. This is a nice way of creating some of the "out of the book" situations that occurred historically. 

The final thing that comes up in the sequence of play is the Delay Box. Any striped unit that ends up there over the course of the entire turn (which runs Axis-Western-Soviet) has a die rolled to see how many turns, modified by several possible situations, it is until the unit comes back to the Force Pool. For example, in Barbarossa the Germans have four strategic hexes belonging to the other factions (all on the West map per the special rule for the scenario) and thus have a -1 drm. A unit being rolled for in the May-June turn that gets a three result, would be placed two turns ahead on the turn track, in this case July-August, whern it would be placed in the Force Pool when the turn marker moves into that space. That means an Air Force unit placed on turn X would go to the Delay Box during Unit Removal on turn X+1 and could conceivably be available for placement again anytime between turn X+2 to X+7 depending on the roll and the DRMS (which could push it out even further if things are going badly in that department). Many of the markers you'll place in the Strategic Warfare box in this game will affect the Delay roll. 

While these were relatively minor rules changes, I should also note the expanded use of support units. In this scenario, that meant that you now have convoys, which allow for very limited troop movement or supply lines across seas, as well as Russian interceptor units, which can "contest" placement of Air Force units as well as other support units that aren't in this scenario. Contesting simply means that the Germans place an Air Force unit, and the Soviets can use their interceptor (assuming it is in range of an Air Base) to send both it and the Air Force unit to the Delay Box. 

The victory conditions are such that the Germans need to take three Strategic (red-bordered) Soviet cities in five turns, which they did not do historically - they took Minsk and Kiev, but failed at Moscow. While Germans were beginning the operations that would lead to the sieges of Leningrad and Sevastopol, these did not really get underway until after the timeframe of this game, which more or less ends with Operation Typhoon. To win you need three strategic hexes, and they are far and few between.

In playing the Barbarossa scenario, I discovered that bypassing units had it's charms but needed to be done judiciously so as not to put Russians in your backfield where you have to spend precious combat cycles attacking them. At the same time, the Russians have two HQs that need to be eliminated quickly if you want to advance quickly, or else they provide defense factors and column shifts in both the Blitz and the Normal Combat phases. You rarely have enough units to get more than a few combats at 4-1, which you generally want at a minimum. Creating combats in the Blitz segment that allow units to get up close to those HQs will make a big difference as they go through the Delay Box rather than back to the Force Pool, as Sov infantry does. This should be your first priority in the first turn. 

After that, it will be easier to go through the Soviet infantry units, although there are a lot of replacements showing up. It's the Emergency Mobilization units, sent to the Delay box on the first turn as the Germans invade, that will either give you headaches or else pave the way to Moscow. Lots of low results will hurt, lots of high results will keep the units out of the scenario entirely. 

Once you've broken through the line and taken Minsk and Kiev, you'll need to proceed very carefully to take Moscow. For one thing, the last turn of the scenario has Mud weather, and that causes quite a few problems, the least of which is that you won't have any air power and you can't escape EZOCs, even if there's a friendly unit in the hex with you. Forget Blitz combat too. However, you can use the one Blitz marker you get for Operation Typhoon to make Moscow an open city (or Leningrad, wherever you happen to be looking for that third strategic hex) so that the Russians can't just load up six steps and refuse to retreat. 

You will also want to pay careful attention to supply - it's especially important as there is no specific supply phase to remind you to do so. Also note that you can't use single-step road movement in reserve movement in an enemy country, so pretty much everything from Warsaw east. 

While the Finns don't really get much steam up in this game, it's worthwhile to send that German Mtn unit up to Finland to build the 20th Mtn, as mentioned above. Note that the Finn ski unit goes on the force pool display in the appropriate box, it does *not* go to the Force Pool (as it would normally). This is true for any of the special builds on your Force Pool display, which usually involve counters from minor countries. If there's a holding box, the unit goes in it when you make the combination. 

I'll also note that the Russian mech cavalry can be built pretty easily, and you simply need a mech unit (not necessarily a tank) to combine with the one-step cavalry unit. These aren't all that much more useful than infantry, but they can give you a shift in blitz combat and are a little quicker on their feet. Or hooves. 

The Russians get Blitz markers for the first few turns, one per turn, but they are difficult to use because the Russians are mostly just trying to keep a cohesive line and protect that last strategic hex. They are perhaps most useful when the Germans barely take a strategic hex and the Russians can force them out by turning the hex into an Open City with the Blitz counter. Otherwise, the Russians aren't going to be doing an awful lot of attacking, and they have few armor units that can take advantage of Blitz combat. They get no Blitz markers at all the last two turns of the game, although they do get 21 (!) replacement infantry steps. If you wanted a good reason to pull isolated Russians off of the board, do it on the third turn so that you've got a lot of units poised to protect that last strategic hex. 

I also recommend that you play this scenario at least twice. You will learn a lot of what not to do in your first play. Case White was easy enough to do that once you'd finished the scenario you could set it up and try something a little different. Barbarossa will take a little more trial and error, as there are more combats and a lot more choices of how you want to assign support units and Blitz markers, not to mention exercising Combining of steps and garrisoning your backfield. 

Barbarossa is also more or less the same starting point for one of the one-map scenarios, Fire in the East, so regardless of which side you'll be playing you'll want to know what constitutes good doctrine. The Germans need an effective Barbarossa campaign to have a chance against the Soviets, so knowing how that works is critical to both sides. 

Next, I will start a series of session reports on the third training scenario, the Fall of France, in which I'll also discuss the rules that are introduced in that game as they come up. 

AE:TK - Case White Learning Experiences

The first two training scenarios in AE:TK cover the German invasion of Poland in 1939, called Case White by the Germans in their planning, and Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of Soviet Russia and it's recently ceded or conquered lands in 1941. This essay will cover the trickier rules introduced in Case White.

Case White is a very small and very short scenario, taking only a portion of the Axis player turn, with no concern for mechanisms such as option cards or the delay box. In essence, it is there to give you a good sense of the basics of movement and combat, but also the use of air and blitz support markers. Like the other training scenarios, the authors suggest that you read a small amount of rules (in this case, the glossary of definitions, component descriptions, and overall sequence of play at the start of the rules), and the rules on ZOCs and Stacking. You'll spend more time punching, clipping, and setting up the counters.

The rest of the rules you'll need are intended to be read as you go. As the authors state, this does not make for a fast game, but it does allow you to learn both the rule and the application as you go, and I am finding it to be a very effective method, at least for me. AE:TK has a very large rulebook, and while it's organized well it's not an organization that lends itself to learning right out of the box. For example, all of the rules that are centered around the Sequence of Play come first, followed by housekeeping rules that permeate the game (Supply, Stacking, ZOCs, etc), followed by reference sections on markers, different types of events, and special rules for the usual chrome "rule-breakers" like the fall of France. This organization works well, but not for learning the game. Much better to follow the suggested path, I am finding.

If you are using a table you'll need both maps as Poland is *right* in the middle of it. It's too bad they couldn't have reprinted the map on the back of one of the existing maps (same goes for Barbarossa, which also needs the West map for the first turn in order to place replacement units), but that's a small nit - it's not like the scenario is going to take more than an hour, much less if you know the rules. However, this is something that GMT games has done repeatedly with some of their games, notably the Barbarossa series by von Borries, and perhaps Decision could make small printable maps of the necessary areas for both of these games available on their website to facilitate learning with the physical components (which I almost always prefer).

The major things you learn to do in this scenario are to a) understand the mutable nature of the units and how they "evolve" from single step units to multi-step units; b) understand how Blitz markers and air support units affect the game, and c) learn about the basics of movement and combat. I'll cover each of these separately.

Units in AE:TK are treated differently depending upon whether they are single step or multi-step. A brief perusal of the units shows that while two one-step infantry units (with attack-defense-movement factors of 1-2-3) when stacked together have a composite value of 2-4-3 (as movement doesn't combine), a two step infantry unit will have a value of 3-4-2 (or of 4-4-3, depending on the infantry unit). With three one-step units, the comparison is 3-6-3 compared to 5-6-2 or 6-6-3, which is a marked improvement in attack values. Note also that stacking limits units in a hex to six steps and three units, so you could only fit three one-step units in a hex but two 6-6-3 three-steppers (or three 4-4-3 two steppers, both of which come to a total of 12-12-3 for their factors).

That said, single step units have a lot of uses. They can hold conquered cities to allow supply lines through them, in certain types of hexes they can create Air and Naval Bases and Open Ports to allow various operations, and they move at double speed along road and rail connections so this is a preferable form for units far from the front. They are also the way that replacements come onto the board, which I'll go into in greater depth in a later essay.

Once you get the units to the front, however, it's clear that the much higher attack value and ability to get more steps into a single hex has greater value. What mechanism is used to convert these single-step units into multi-steppers, and vice versa when mobility is more important than step density and attack power? The answer is in the Combine/Breakdown segments early in the player turn.

Before understanding how that mechanism works, however, you must understand how each country's potential armed forces are managed. Each player has a Force Pool display that dictates what units are available for use during the game. Units are added to the Force Pool as Option Cards are played, and once in the Force Pool they can be placed on the board depending on how large the unit is in terms of steps. Single step units are placed during Replacements, while multi-step units are placed as the result of Combining smaller units. In many cases, you will flip a single step unit to create a two-step unit, while in others you replace two single-step units (that have nothing on their reverse side) with a two-step unit that has a three step unit on it's back. UK forces are a good example of the former, German forces a good example of the latter.

In the sequence of play, the order goes like this: Replacements are placed (during seasonal turns, every two or three turns in the game) according to the option card selected during the previous seasonal turn. These go, in general, on a city or HQ unit in your Home Country (which I'll discuss in more detail in the Barbarossa discussion). The next step in this process is to Combine units, which is surprisingly straightforward. For example, let's say that you have placed three 1-2-3 German infantry units in Berlin. During the combination step, you look at your Force Pool and see that you have a few units you'd like to build, but right now the main one is a new HQ. Since HQs aren't defined as to how they are built on your Force Pool sheet, you use infantry steps. Curing the Combine step, you take two 1-2-3 infantry units and replace them with the two-step HQ from your Force Pool. The 1-2-3 infantry units do not have a white or black "delay stripe" on them, so they go right back into your Force Pool. Now you have a two step HQ and a one-step infantry unit, and you'd like to bring the HQ to full strength, so you flip the HQ and place the remaining 1-2-3 unit in the Force Pool as it too has no stripe.

This works in the opposite way during the Breakdown step, which comes not long after the Combine step but before any movement. Let's say that we have a three-step infantry unit in Berlin, it's 1942, and we have to get these units a long way into Southern Russia so that we can use it against Stalingrad. Unfortunately, this unit is a 5-6-2, so it's already slow, but it also doesn't get the double movement rate for road/rail it would were it a single-step unit. By far the best option is to break it down to single-step units so that it can move up to six hexes along road/rail rather than two hexes max in it's multi-step form. The first breakdown takes a 1-2-3 unit from the Force Pool and flips the 5-6-2 to it's 3-4-2 two-step side. We still have three steps in the hex, but in a different form. Now we finish the process by taking the 3-4-2 unit and replacing it with two more 1-2-3 units. Note that we couldn't do this if there was a second unit in the hex before we started the breakdown process! The 3-4-2 unit, which has a white delay stripe, is placed in the Delay Box on the map, where it will learn of how long before it returns to the game after all players have taken their turn.

When units lose steps in combat, or indeed at any time you need to break down a unit, you go through the same process. This may seem to be a strange way to manage your armies, but in fact it forces you to plan ahead to some degree. For example, during the Reserve Movement Phase, your main goal, aside from positioning your armies before your opponent moves, is to get your units that aren't in Home Country cities stacked so that you can reform your units at the front. It's a very different system than I've seen in other games, where usually you just get RPs and flip units, but I think it's more realistic given the 30-60 days a turn represents. I'd put it at about two notches below the supply/fuel system in OCS but gives the same type of interruptions to operational tempo, albeit at a much larger scale. When you have units that are getting beat up, you have to pull them out of the line (out of an EZOC) so that one-steppers can come in and combine with them at the start of the next turn.

Combining and breaking down is not a critical element of Case White, but the rule does get introduced (although without replacement units - you start the game with some units that combine early, and of course there is combat) and it is a central feature of the game.

The other core concept that new players may not have seen is that of Support Units. In this case, there are two pieces that get placed: a Blitz Marker and an Air Force Unit. Technically, a Blitz marker is not a support unit, but it is treated much like one in it's core respects.

First on the board is the Air Force unit. The unit must be placed within 3 hexes of an Air Base, which is defined as a city, port, or road/rail hex that contains a friendly unit. For much of the map, that means about half of the hexes could potentially function as air bases, although you need the friendly unit there. Normally the opposing player(s) would have the chance to contest placement of a support unit, but since the Air Force is the only unit of this type in this scenario, we'll leave that for the Barbarossa discussion.

An Air Force unit does some important things, but for our purposes the critical ones are that enemy units can't move or retreat through them, and they give a combat bonus to attacks against units in hexes in or adjacent to the Air Force unit. This is a good point to mention that column shifts are very important in AE:TK, especially at higher odds. The CRT goes from 1:3 up to 1:1, then 3:2, then 2:1 and 3:1, then a column for 4:1 *and* 5:1, 6:1 through 8:1, and finally 9:1+. That means that if you have 3:1 odds and get two column shifts, you are suddenly doing as well as if you had an 8:1 attack. The target odds you want to see are 6:1 to avoid a decent chance of failing in combat, so shifts are important, and judiciously placed Air Force units help.

Perhaps the biggest thing I learned, and it took a little digging, was that support units are not ground units and as such do not project a ZOC. This was, rather obviously in hindsight, in the section on ZOCs, but if you were trying to figure it out by looking in the section on retreats the text won't help. The support unit section, which is rather extensive and admittedly (by the authors) to be the most difficult to learn rules, does say that enemy units can't enter hexes with enemy Air Force support units, but that isn't a ZOC and doesn't work like one. This is an excellent example of why the introduction system works so well and why just reading the whole damned book and then trying it out doesn't. There's too much interaction between the rule and how it's applied to use the latter method.

The other placement is of the Blitz marker. This can be placed *anywhere* on the map, but where it goes is very important for a couple of reasons. The first is that any units within two hexes after Operational Movement may attack in the Blitz Combat Segment that occurs before the Normal Combat Segment. In other words, if your units are within two hexes of this marker, they can attack twice. Since you need to control Posen, Krakow, and Warsaw to win this scenario as the Germans, and since there's a solid line of Polish units in the way to Warsaw, this is an important thing to be able to do. Also, certain types of units present in an attack, such as tanks, will give a column shift during Blitz combat but not during normal combat. One of the key learning elements of the Case white scenario is how to best place these markers/units to your advantage. Note that Air Force units will stay in their hex after placement for a full turn, and then they go to the Delay Box, so very often you will use the unit once and not see it again until a few turns later, at the very least it's gone for a turn. Blitz markers, however, are granted based on the currently selected Option Card, so you get them every turn during that season. Cards like Barbarossa and Case Yellow give up to three Blitz markers to one side or the other. It's entirely possible both sides will get them on their respective turns!

This leaves us with learning about movement and combat. For Movement, I've already mentioned getting your single steppers into place for combining with other single-steppers and reduced multi-step units in anticipation of the next turn, which typically happens during Reserve movement. That phase occurs after combat, but units in EZOCs cannot move, and units can't move into EZOCs. That means you need to be very careful about advancing after combat.

The other critical thing to learn about combat, aside from how important column shifts are, is how units can "exploit" after combat, which is based on the retreat result combined with retreat/attrition results that the losing side can't "pay". Note that EZOCs in this game are "semi-sticky" meaning that you are allowed to move from one EZOC to another, but must immediately stop in that EZOC, which is true of units that start out of EZOCs. Interestingly, friendly units cancel EZOCs for movement, although units must be in supply to move, so moving out of supply stops your movement as well. This encourages you to move one unit 'between" EZOCs so that other units can move through that hex, a very important tactic.

Which leads to one other important element of Blitz counters: Normally, a unit in a city that gets a retreat result can choose instead to convert each hex of retreat to a step loss. If a Blitz marker is in the city hex, however, the unit must retreat. This is very important to knock units out of critical hexes that contain lots of steps.

Otherwise, movement is very straight-forward, and aside from the usual rules for retreats and advances after combat, grognards should find this part of the game to be pretty standard stuff.

I should note that some rules are not addressed at all in Case White, notably Supply. Supply is a little wacky in this game, but I'll cover it in much greater detail when I discuss Barbarossa in my next entry.

You will also find the Case White scenario to be very good at forcing you to learn "doctrine" in AE:TK in a relatively limited setting. The scenario is intended to be a bit of a puzzle, so you may need two or three attempts to succeed. I did on the first try, but my path was far from optimal and I simply got lucky on the last roll. I'll note that you need to "control" the three hexes, which means you need to have German units in them, and given that you must lose tank units first that can lead to situations where a unit that you intended to advance adjacent to Warsaw can't because it has to stay behind to control Krakow or Posen. Since units can't move into EZOCs during Reserve Movement, where your units end up is of critical importance.

Next up, the panzers head east...

Why I'm Learning Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg

I have a love-hate relationship with WW2 European Theater of Operations (ETO) grand strategic wargames. I'm not talking about The Great Patriotic War, which in the US we refer to as the "East Front" as thought the West Front or even the entire Pacific came anywhere close to the enormous manpower commitments of that massive struggle. I'm talking about the whole shooting match in Europe, from Iberia to the Urals, from Narvik and Murmansk down to Libya. From 1939 or earlier to 1945.

I have several games on the subject: Europe Engulfed, Advanced Third Reich, WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin (which admittedly does not cover the early war), EuroFront, Hitler's War, Struggle for Europe (actually three games that link together), World in Flames, and Totaler Krieg. Of these, the only game that has seen serious table time is WW2:BtB, and a bit of EE.

In comparison, most of the games I own that cover other periods (ACW, ARW, WW1, RCW, Napoleonic Wars, Ancients) tend to be at the grand strategic scale. Paths of Glory, For The People, Napoleonic Wars, War and Peace, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, Reds!... Clearly I like the idea of this level of abstraction. I also have a few PTO grand strategic games, such as Asia Engulfed, Empire of the Sun, Victory in the Pacific, and (technically speaking) World in Flames again, although the nature of the conflict (Japanese biting off far more than they had the slightest chance of chewing) makes PTO games less interesting to me.

Why then is the ETO such a hard sell in my case? I believe the reason has to do with the difficult diplomatic situation in Europe in 1939-1941, when every few months saw a new nation drawn into the conflict. 1941 in particular was a little crazy, such as when Yugoslavia's leader sided with the Fascists only to face a coup that ended in an Axis invasion and occupation of the country. Really, how do you go about getting events like that into a game in an interesting yet historically plausible fashion? The same goes for the Russian occupation of the Baltic States, Eastern Poland, the Finnish Border, and Bessarabia - Trying to have rules that deal with areas like Bessarabia are difficult to do as most games treat these as parts of countries. They are also often lumped together into a single event, when historically they were not. The old Third Reich game did this, and treated all four of the Axis Minors as one lump conversion when they were all very different events. Of course, 3R has quarterly turns, so a higher level of abstraction, but still a very unsatisfying feel in my opinion.

To be fair, I do not have a very good idea of how most of the ETO games I have listed above handle diplomatic activities in the early years of WW2. The ones I've investigated, however, seem to start with the idea that the different countries are going to end up on the same sides they did historically with a small amount of variation. There is really very little chance of seeing a country like Yugoslavia do what it did, which was experience a coup d'etat and suddenly change the rules.

I've owned Totaler Krieg, the "sequel" to Krieg!, and liked it's overall approach. While no one is going to call this a "light" game from a rules standpoint, it did take a very interesting approach to the problem. Rather than include lots of rules for diplomacy, it instead takes the novel approach of using rules to set up the environment, then let seasonal option card plays (which set the tone for the next two or three turns in many respects) decide what's going on - rearmament, mobilization, special circumstances (such as the creation of Vichy and the sudden fall of France). The only problem I had with TK is that it was sort of an ongoing work in progress, the components were not great (you tore the cards off of a perforated sheet, the counters were wafer-thin), and in the end it felt a little more like a kit than a game. The insane number of scenarios got a little crazy as well, although I freely admit I like lots of options.

One of the vaporware products that was being worked on by the TK team after it's release was, of course, a PTO companion game that could be played simultaneously. From 1998 or so onward, this game, which even had the title of Dai Senso before I think it had a *map*, has been a legend in the wargaming community, along with the Up Front and PanzerBlitz reimagings. PB finally saw the light of day a couple of years back, but Up Front will probably never be reprinted or reimaged. In 2011, however, both TK and DS finally saw production under the overarching title Axis Empires.

A lot has changed in TK from the "first edition" (which was really a second edition of Krieg), but the basic idea is the same with regards to diplomacy - you play an option card that will give you a roll on a particular table and things may or may not go your way. As the Axis, you can even try to demand that Switzerland be ceded to Germany. The Russians can try to demand the Turkish Straits, as they did in the late 40's at the start of the Cold War. They may get the Baltic States in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but not Bessarabia. Just like in the war, everything is a bit of a crap shoot when it comes to diplomacy. You can still just go right ahead and declare war, although if you do it through the normal sequence of play you are giving your opponent the chance to set things up the way he wants them, while if you do it through the political actions of the Option Cards you do it at the start of your turn.

Here's an excellent example: It is March-April of 1940, and the Germans are, as they did historically, going to take Norway, and to do that they need to first take Denmark. There is a card in the Axis deck, Operation Weseruebung, that allows you to declare war on a country that meets certain criteria (in this case, it has to be next to a country that you have units in, which makes Germany an obvious prerequisite) at the start of the turn and then roll on the Diplomatic Incident table. Denmark-Norway is treated as a single country (as is Belgium-Holland), which might rankle some, but at this level they were no competition for the various branches of the German armed forces. In AE:TK, the entire armed forces of both countries is a single "Res" unit with minimal defensive capabilities, and it doesn't even go onto the map until the Western Allies can place it during their turn.

Historically, of course, both the Danes and the Norwegians stood up to the Germans until they were overrun, and most of the time this sort of thing will happen in AE:TK too. However, the option card also calls for a roll on the Diplomatic Incident table, and in this particular instance I rolled a Coup d'Etat, which makes Denmark-Norway immediately an Axis minor country. Kind of a disappointment, as I was looking forward to seeing the airdrop unit in action, but I will save that for invading France in a couple of turns.

This is *exactly* the sort of thing that I find so appealing about AE:TK. Wargamers tend to be control freaks in a lot of ways - with God-like prescience and power, they can do whatever they want with their units, they know that the Russian Winter is coming, they know that Finland, Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria will join them in attacking Russia in 1941. Yet all of these things were far from certain, and in some cases were completely unanticipated. As long-time readers of this blog know, I play wargames for four major reasons - the company of my opponent, the simulation of a real world situation and how the various systems work together, the springboard the game creates into my interest of the history of the conflict and/or period, and the literary elements that help the game to tell a story.

It is this last element that makes a particular game memorable (assuming the game is well-crafted and my opponent pleasant and competent). An epic session with lots of turns of fortune and a closely contested outcome is much preferable to a dull game that I win. While the level of variability in AE:TK may not always lend itself to a closely contested outcome, it's fairly certain that I'll enjoy moaning about it right up until I give up after every country in the Balkans has gone to the Allied cause. It's certainly something I'll want to relate in this blog, in a session report on the 'Geek, or to friends. That said, the game is also set up so that you can follow the history closely if you wish to, although the outcomes may not all be identical to history.

I'm sure that some of the other grand strategic ETO games I list above can have this sort of variance. For now, TK seems to handle this in a manner that is pretty graceful and quick (and uncertain). It also has a counter density that I am finding to be very manageable for my stubby and less than dexterous (when it comes to handling counters, anyway) fingers.

I was very interested in TK in it's "original" form back in the day, but the component quality and mutable ruleset kept me from really taking the steps to learn the game in depth. I'm very happy to say that the new Axis Empires edition seems to have a very tight ruleset, with excellent clarifications and examples clearly marked and in-line with the rules, and the designers/developers have taken care to include an excellent roadmap for how to learn the game. I am currently on the third scenario, the Fall of France, and as I began to learn the game it occurred to me that recounting my learning experience would make an excellent series of blog entries that I will make on a turn-by-turn basis. I'm playing this particular game in VASSAL, so very easy to get pictures of the game as well.

I will also make an entry of the things that took me a little more time to fully understand. The rules are, as all good wargame rules should be, intended to be taken literally, as is the card text. That entry will precede the actual game report of The Fall of France, and will cover the things I learned in both Case White and Barbarossa. I hope you find them of some value.

Friday, November 18, 2011

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Oh, my. After spending about eight hours over the last two days procuring boxes, tape, bubble wrap, etc to ship out all of the games that were picked up in the JVMF auction, I am *finally* at the point where I've gotten shipping quotes from UPS and USPS. Surprisingly, UPS cost slightly more and took slightly longer for all domestic packages, and was astronomical for international. At one point I just stopped trying to enter the data into the incredibly fussy web page for international destinations.

I'm being very careful to pack every game so that it will stand the best chance of arrival in one piece, which for me means a) the games are all wrapped in bubblewrap, and b) that the box is full so that items won't shift around. Since some boxes are significantly larger than the games by some measure, I was worried that I'd be spending too much on packing peanuts (I'm already at nearly $100 for boxes, bubble, peanuts), and then I got this really great idea.

I have a bunch of expansions for games that I try to consolidate and so have a ton of empty boxes sitting in my closet. I have put those boxes to good use by using them to fill up the shipping packages. The smaller ones (like the small Arkham Horror expansions) are great on the sides, and the larger square ones (like for Dominion expansions) are great on the top. I think the weight is comparable to peanuts, as the boxes are empty, and won't the people getting their games be surprised to find empty game boxes! Ha ha!

I'm also learning that international shipping is a bitch. A cold, heartless, expensive as hell bitch. UPS, assuming I was doing things correctly, was asking around 4x what the USPS was, although for much quicker delivery. Even so, a 7.5 pound box of games measuring 15"x12"x10" will cost over $60 to send to Australia. I know it's a long ways away, and I know fuel is ridiculous, but... Wow. I've asked the four international recipients to go ahead and figure out how they want their packages shipped as I just haven't done this much. I'm also learning that there will be customs forms to fill out with valuations of the games. Whee. And here I was seriously considering moving to Canada in 2004 when Bush was reelected. That would have been a seriously expensive trip.

I figure I've still got about another six hours to go to get all of these games out of the door, including back and forths with the recipients, addressing the packages, but I don't have an accurate scale (I'm standing on the bathroom scale with the box and subtracting my weight, but the scale is only accurate to 0.5 lbs, assuming it's accurate in the first place), so I'll still need to stand in line and I'll probably need to make three trips. Happily, the UPS store also does USPS, and will compare prices so just in case I'm a little off I will have some choices.

Of course, all of this is for a good cause, and of course I'm happy to get the games out of the house, in addition to raising the money, but doing this many games at once is no fun and I will need to take a more proactive approach to purging in the future. This last purge was, by necessity, rather large in scale, and while I was able to get about a quarter of the games out the door without any shipping at all (and thanks to Roger M for being willing to pick them up from me directly), it's a lot of games. A *lot* of games.

So now I just stop buying them, I guess.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Jack Vasel Memorial Fund Auction - How I Did

While I was sadly unable to contribute to the JVMF by buying anything this year, I am happy to report that I was able, through the games I donated for auction, to have raised $1302 US. This does not count the $200 I raised selling games to people at BottosCon, or the money I donated earlier in the year from sales of games to friends (another $300). The total comes out to about $1800 for the year, an amount that I would almost certainly have never reached by dipping into my own pocket.

I'd like to be clear - I am not bragging about this amount. I am trying to set an example for others to follow - the games you don't play anymore can do some real good for those in the community who need help, and they go to people who are just as happy to get them as if you sold them for profit. I'm not saying you put a $300 Barbarossa game up for auction, but you can clear out the stuff you just don't feel like you need to keep in your collection anymore. You don't need to go anywhere near as big as I did this year, every bit helps.

Plus, the hobby has given a lot to me, so I'm happy to give back. That I was able to find such an effective and satisfying way to give back is frosting on the cake. I hope that every person who won a lot from me thinks of Jack and the good his memory is doing.

To everyone who bid or purchased games from me, thank you very much. You've done good things for our community, and gotten a game in the process. Nicely done! I thank you, and everyone at JVMF thanks you.

Also, a final thanks to those who ran the auction. Especially the one poor soul who provided a PBS fund drive-style "pimp my auction lot" commentary on every lot I submitted, all 24 of them. Trying to find something unique and interesting to say about yet another Panzer Grenadier lot went above and beyond!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Combat Commander: Resistance - Futile? I Think Not

Cross posted from BGG, where I am stupid enough to set myself up for the crazy. That said, I like to think I do this sort of thing pretty well, and so I do it. What can I say, I loves me an audience. 


Just got the newest "chapter" in the Combat Commander series today, Resistance. The game, which requires both the Europe and Med boxes (and neither is optional, you'll need both to play every scenario unless you're prepared to roll your own Molotovs), covers resistance efforts across Europe during WW2. CC has covered this ground before, but using the units and decks of national armies and relying on scenario special rules. Interestingly, both of these scenarios (one in Eur, one in Med) are reprised in this set.

I'll cover the nuances in four sections: Units, Cards, Weapons, and Mechanisms. I will not make comparisons with the Pacific game, and really won't make a lot with the Eur/Med games either - this is mostly about what is new about the partisans and how it will affect play.


As you might imagine, partisans aren't nearly as tightly organized as military units are. As such, a squad of four men (in game terms) or a team of two men are the only multi-men counters there are. As such, there are counters that represent a number of men (and I use that term here to be consistent with the earlier games, even though there were clearly female partisans and they are represented on the counters) from leaders all the way up to six men "gangs". There is no differentiation in terms of quality or purpose, as with military nationalities.

As you move from the two man Crew up to the six man Gang, interesting things happen. With a Crew, firepower is fairly weak (although boxed - all unbroken partisans have boxed firepower), it's range is decent at 4, and it's movement better than most military units at 5. With all units except some leaders, unbroken partisans have a circled movement factor that allows them to move to any legal hex for one MP and ignore hexside terrain during movement as long as they don't possess a weapon that lowers their MP. This reflects familiarity with the local terrain.

As we move to Gangs, an interesting thing happens. Firepower, as you would expect, gets better, a boxed 6 (nearly the best in the game for a single unit). Range and movement, however, drop. For the six man gang, that means a range of 2 and movement of circled 1. Yeah, 1. I guess they argue a lot about where exactly they are going and how they are going to get there!

Morale, at least on the unbroken side, is a constant seven for all non-leader units. Apparently there is safety in numbers, as Crews are a 5 on their unbroken side and Gangs are a 7. I should also note that morale on these units is circled, meaning that you have to go through a process that I'll detail later that can result in elimination of the unit or perhaps instead a drop down to a smaller unit. In other words, a "kill" may actually end up resulting in losing just one man!

Leaders are, as usual, a mixed bag. Some start with really great morale, only to have it drop by 3 or more when the leader breaks, some work the opposite way. Leaders have fairly consistent firepower of boxed 1, range in the 2-4 area, and movement of circled 5 or boxed 6. That's right, some will operate quite a bit like military leaders, some will act like other partisans. Which ones you have will make a difference in how you use them.

Instead of a Command value on the unbroken side, leaders have a new value called Leadership. It works just like Command for most purposes, but instead of also defining a range of hexes in which the leader can activate units, instead there is an "eye" symbol that indicates that units within LOS can be activated. If that sounds awesome, remember that partisans typically operated in terrain such as woods, marsh or urban areas where LOS tends to be on the short side, and the circle movement factors lose their benefit compared with their enemy when in the open. Most Leadership values are 1 or 0, so not a lot of improvement to unit values stacked with the leader. The broken side is a regular Command value in a hex graphic.

So what does all of this mean? First of all, the movement benny means that difficult terrain is where the partisans want to be. At the same time, the Leadership LOS activation range means they also want to have some open space in which to communicate more efficiently. As you'll see, that will be important as partisans get smaller hands than the military groups. Difficult terrain also helps the mediocre morale factors on most units, so even more than usual, exploiting your terrain is critical.

The size of the units is also a big factor. Larger groups are going to be more likely to survive fire when broken and can lay down the smacky-smacky, but they can't move to save their lives, although a good leader will help a *lot*. Also, stacking suddenly becomes very interesting. Where military units will tend to organize into kill groups with a team, a squad, and a leader, partisans are much more amorphous. Gangs will be unable to stack with anyone else other than a leader, but when with a leader they are very powerful. There are also interesting ways to bump up the size of a unit, more on that later.

Given all of this, the types of missions you'll give to various units will depend as much on their size as anything else. Crews and Sections (three men) are very effective at moving, while Bands (five men) and Gangs are very effective at firing. Leaders are less valuable for improving kill stacks, but they do make larger groups better at moving. Because you can affect the size of a unit under certain circumstances, I could see one strategy being to use the smaller units to assault, then when in firing position getting Mustered (and no, not the type you put on your hot dog) into larger and more effective (if slower) groups.


If CC is too chaotic for you, Mr. I Am Destroyer Of Worlds, you will hate the partisans. Why? Because when you get a weapon, it's whatever weapon happens to be at hand. They are all in a pool, and when you get a weapon, even at the start of a scenario, you never know what it will be. Might be a Molotov Cocktail, might be a French '75' gun. At least at scenario start you typically know what they'll be before they are placed on the map. And don't forget that the circled MPs aren't circled if you have a weapon that slows you down, so placement is critical.

A little editorializing, if you will permit me the luxury - There is plenty of space for eight Molotovs on the countersheet. Heck, there are seven unused counters and about sixty "extra" counters (vet/supped, wire, trenches, foxholes, etc). Four scenarios require maps from Med, two different scenarios require units from Med. That means six scenarios that require nothing from Med other than the damned Molotovs. Really?

Of course, savvy gamers will consider simply making their own Molotovs, but since you are drawing weapons blind it's what I would term a "suboptimal solution". I suspect that GMT will try to make good by adding these into a future C3i, although then you're requiring people to buy that C3i. I found this to be a surprising stumble in development, at least without having an explanation. Given that Europe is in it's third or fourth printing and Med just had the one, this strikes me as a shortsighted choice as you could have sold the game like Avalanche Press does with Panzer Grenadier - "Six of the scenarios require units or maps from CC:Med".

Otherwise, weapons aren't really any different other than their values, which may change from (say) LMG to LMG, and that includes repair/elim values. Hey, when you aren't picky about where your weapons come from, you can't complain when the quality control isn't there.


The cards are probably the area that most people won't think so much about, but I think they are by far the biggest change to the game for a variety of reasons. There are new Orders, new Actions, and new Events, but the biggest change is two-fold - smaller hands, and a smaller deck.

First off, Partisans get one less card based on posture than the military units. As a defender, that means three whopping cards. You will need that Leadership value in order to activate significant numbers of units in a Defensive posture! I've always thought of terrain in CC as being the most important piece of information driving your choices, certainly at setup and when you are planning your strategy, but now it's even more critical.

Now, Command Confusion cards are that much more problematic. But there's good news! If you want to discard, you can discard your entire hand no matter what your posture is!

Whoops, meant to say "you *must* discard your entire hand." Yep, the whole thing. Those of you who like holding on to those Ambush cards? That's gonna be a whole lot tougher. In a defensive posture, perhaps not quite as big of a deal, but when attacking? You simply can't tailor your hand over time as the military forces can do. This makes perfect sense, but it's a major game changer, and you'll be forced to be even more tactical than before.

It kind of sounds like generating those end-of-deck time triggers will be about the same, seeing as while you have one less card, you'll be discarding everything more often. Except for one little detail - the deck is half the size. And boy, does that throw a spanner into the works. For one thing, every possible die roll outcome is now represented *once*. That means it's a lot easier to track things like Time Triggers, which of the really useful actions are around, and a bunch of other things. Plus those end of deck time triggers are going to be coming out a lot faster, although this deck does *not* contain a "result" Time Trigger card! Smart Partisan players will want to learn to count certain cards in the deck now, even more so than military group players, although you could still do that with the 72 card deck (although I can't, and I grew up playing the granddaddy of all card counting games, Bridge).

The other big effect is that the Partisan player has a more consistent sense of clock management than other players. You get to a Time Trigger faster by discarding or playing lots of cards. Just shooting and hoping a Time Trigger comes up isn't gonna happen.

There are also a couple of new Order cards, Infiltration and Muster. Infiltrate is a lot like in the Pacific rules, but with some changes that I'll discuss later. The biggie is Muster, which allows you to bump the size of one unit (of the size dictated by the Order card) up by one. Having the right Muster card in hand, especially when you get a Troop or Band up to a firing position, can make a lot of difference. This may be the most important Order in the Partisan deck for that reason. There are four Muster cards and four Infiltrates, so these new cards make up nearly a quarter of the deck.

Otherwise, Orders stay pretty much the same except of course there are no Artillery Requests. There's only one Command Confusion Order, which is good (if you're the Partisans!)

New actions include Knife, which acts a lot like Bayonets in Pacific (improves firepower in Melee), and Trap lets you place Wire or Mines even if you aren't in a Defensive posture. Hee hee! I love doing that. New events let you shift units or Sighting markers (more on these later) one hex, which can act as virtual Advance, even if you have no control over when it shows up. There are four of these in the deck too. The truly wacky card, the one that the Partisan will curse or bless alternately, is the Inexperience Event, of which there are seven, basically giving you a 1-in-5 chance of drawing as an event, which forces the Partisan player to discard his entire hand. Yeah. Crazy talk. Control freaks should just walk on by and take the Germans now.


Aside from what I've listed before, there is really only one thing that experienced CC players won't have seen before, and it's kind of a modification of an existing mechanism, but I'll let you hang a bit before talking about it. There are a few things that have been used in Stalingrad or in Pacific, though.

Partisans have no surrender level, just like the Japanese.

All partisans are worth 1VP when eliminated (even the hero!) OK, this is technically new.

Melee now works like it does in Stalingrad and Pacific, with the hex being activated at the start of the Axis turn (giving the advantage to the Partisans, as you would expect).

There is sewer movement, just like in Stalingrad.

There are Sighting markers, just like in Pacific, although these work differently, and are the biggest change in this section.

Sighting markers work like in Pacific, having to be moved when a random hex is determined. Stealth events allow you to move them as well. When Partisans are place, they are removed, just like in Pacific. You can also place them via Infiltrate orders, although there is no A/B/C box system as in Pacific.

The differences will make Sighting markers much more interesting to play. First of all, all Partisan reinforcements come in via sighting markers. That means having a unit show up on a Sighting marker just got a lot more likely, at least assuming there are reinforcement units. You can even spread out a group of reinforcements amongst the Sighting markers. But you better have the markers out, because if you don't have them you lose the reinforcements. Remember that stacking is enforced, so no overstacking. Also, you remove the Sighting marker once you place units on it, so it will go away. Managing this mechanism is going to be an important part of the Partisan playbook.

And, fortunately, manage it you can - at a cost. Those Infiltrate cards I mentioned before? That's how you do it. However, you will probably have to pay a VP price (between 0 and 3, one value per Infiltrate card), but you'll get your choice of two different actions. You can, if you wish, place a new Sighting marker on the board, which the rules strongly suggest is dependent on the counter mix rather than how many sighting markers you get at the start of the scenario. Really good choice if you have a lot of reinforcements coming in and few Sighting markers in play.

Let's say you have a ton of sighting markers already. In this case, you can get more units by playing an Infiltrate card. Yeah, now you can generate your own extra reinforcements without having to hope for an event. It will just cost you some VP (maybe). So if you have sighting markers and no reinforcements, this is an obvious play. If you can afford the VP!

Finally, there is one more wrinkle to this last mechanism of getting extra reinforcements, and it uses a mechanism that I mentioned a long time ago when we were discussing circled Morale values. And it involves an extra deck the Partisan player has, the Force deck.

Cards in the Force deck have two sections. The top section is used to tell you what reinforcements you get when using an Infiltration card for that purpose. If there's a weapon involved, you draw it randomly, then place the unit (and weapon, if one is called for) on a Sighting marker. Kind of like the Support Table but less flexible.

The bottom section is used when a unit with circled Morale (which means it's broken) is killed in combat. Instead of just removing the unit, you draw the top Force card and look at the bottom section. If the unit pictured is smaller than the unit that just got killed, you replace the killed unit in the counter mix and replace it with the unit pictured. If the pictured unit is the same size or larger, the killed unit stays killed and goes on the casualty track. Not that there's a Surrender level, but I'm sure there are events that will bring them back on occasion.

The implications are interesting indeed. This means that now you can burn VP to bring in more units, although you have no say on who happens to be coming back from the latrine area and with what reading material. They might show up anywhere on the map. Units that die may, you know, get better. Right away. In fact, it's very possible that you will gain leaders, much like having Private Ryan or whoever get a battlefield promotion, just in a very random way. There are more ways to move those Sighting markers around now, not just random hex generation.


Consider this. There are exactly five pages of new rules in this expansion. Five. In those five pages, containing fonts of a generous size and white space in such abundance that you normally only see it's like in middle school term papers, is laid out the basis for a "nationality" that plays like no other. And, to be honest, at least one of those pages repeats rules that a lot of you are probably already playing with (melee and sewers)!

Partisans have some interesting challenges. You have a smaller hand and the very real chance that at any time you will lose the whole thing (although there is only a 1-in-12 chance you'll get an event trigger), and certainly you aren't going to ditch that Command Confusion card quite so easily. There is no way to fiddle with your deck to get the right cards to do what you want to do, you're going to have to make due. On the bright side, if you ever wanted to learn to count cards this might be the time to take it up.

And speaking of working with what you have, that will apply to your weapons as well. This makes every scenario more replayable, incidentally, as getting that French '75' will make that major fire lane a whole lot more interesting.

Your leadership is also a very mixed bag, and while you start with one set, opportunity is knocking every time you stand to see a unit eliminated. Suddenly, those lines of sight that aren't pointing at enemies can be critical, and in open maps you can activate a whole lot of units if you've placed them correctly.

However, getting them placed correctly, especially the big boys, is going to be a challenge. Fortunately, the little groups can move *fast* and you have some chance of upgrading them once they get into position. And even then, you may be able to get them into position without your opponent knowing it. Not to mention having Gregor come back from town with a medium machine gun and a pirated copy of the latest Cagney flick on, uhm, Betamax? Not sure that was around then...

In a nutshell, you have some limitations, and you have some freedoms. And you can wear your own clothes and wear your hair any damned way you want. And you can be a woman and *fire automatic weapons*. There's an entire *genre* of movies dedicated to that very idea, although usually the clothes those women "choose" to wear are bikinis. And I don't think breast implants were all that common in the '40s.

I have yet to try this game out, it having come to my door this very day. Actually, on Saturday but I didn't check the mail (won't make that mistake again). Chad just keeps putting these things out and I keep buying them, and I think that's a good thing, but Resistance definitely mixes things up. Not as much as Pacific did, but a goodly amount and a lot of what gets mixed up is under the hood. The point of this essay was to give you some sense of what those things are, and I hope it helps you crush your Facist opponent right out of the box.

Just don't smoke too many of those occupied French cigarettes. Those things'll kill ya.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wargames Up For Grabs In BGG Benefit Auction

I've put about 100 wargames and expansions up as part of the auction to benefit the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund. They're on pages 12 and 13 of the Geeklist, if you are interested. Most of the games are from The Great War At Sea, Great Battles of History, and the Panzer Grenadier series, but there are quite a few others. 

Apparently there was a thread on the 'Geek announcing that I'd done this that almost immediately turned into a discussion of altruism. And bitching that I'd put the games into bundles. If you are wishing I hadn't put the games into bundles, then you should consider being the guy who ships every one of these games. Do you want to spend a week addressing 100 packages? I thought not. Bundles (or "lots") of games sold at auction is a time-tested method, and I make no apologies for my choice. Don't want them all? Gift them, donate them, sell them, whatever. 

I'd also like to address the idea of this being an altruistic act. It's not, not entirely - most actions we take on this scale, bar the occasional impulsive act, contain many reasons. In my case, here is why I've put so many games up for auction:
  • I own too many games. It's a problem. I've filled my entire game room, and while it's not a bonus room over a garage, it's a good sized room. It's also finite. I needed to purge some of my collection, this seemed like a good way to do it. I've already sold off most of the Euros to friends and donated the money, and sold a few more to people who wanted to buy at BottosCon last weekend, which I'll donate before the end of the year. 
  • I am a fortunate man. I retired before I was 40, I live on a golf course, I'm in relatively good health, I have a delightful granddaughter, and I was born with more than a modicum of intelligence. Not necessarily good sense, but intelligence. I really don't need the money from these sales, the games will (hopefully) find a good home, and some people will be helped as a result. Maybe it's just me, but I see this as an obvious choice.  
  • I like the JVMF for a couple of reasons, but primarily because I believe Tom Vasel is a Good Man who does Good Works. He has turned his personal misfortune, the loss of a child (no one should have to suffer this, ever), into a force for good in the boardgaming community. The Fund is still relatively small as these things go, so not so much goes to overhead but to the people who need help. I've also worked with Tom briefly on The Dice Tower as Mr. Whiney some years ago, so there's a connection already in place.
  • I'm not getting rid of games I like. This is not some great sacrifice on my part - most of the games are either games that I just don't get to play or have played and found I was not that fond of (sorry, Avalanche Press, I'm talking to you), or from periods I'm not as interested in, or frankly because some of the games aren't that good. While I admit to being the kind of guy who doesn't like parting with portions of my collection, at the same time I will not shed a tear to see any of them go. I have lots of other games to play. 
I'm no saint, any more than anyone reading this. I'm just a guy trying to solve problems who found a way to solve at least two of them (one of them mine, the rest waiting to happen). To my mind, this is the sort of thing we should *all* be doing - reaching out and supporting our community, whether it's where you live, where you worship, who you work and play with. I hope that everyone reading this will check out the auction, check out the Fund, and help out someone else who is having a Really Bad Day (or, more likely, Days/Weeks/Months) who enjoys games just like you do. Thanks.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veteran's Day

I am fortunate to have never fired a weapon in anger, or to have had someone fire one at me. Long time followers of this blog know that I have no fondness for either the war we foisted on the Iraqi people, nor on the men who worked so hard to start it.

That said, I do recognize that part of the reason that I can complain about the leadership of my country is because of the sacrifice in time, mental health, and lives of those who serve in our military. Sometimes those lives are wasted, sometimes they make an enormous difference. To everyone who has served, to everyone who has family who has served, and especially to all of those in the Service who have given their lives or lost people dear to them, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Dona Nobis Pacem

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Urban Sprawl - Threat or Menace?

Perhaps no game released this year has been as hotly anticipated yet so berated by the general boardgaming community as Urban Sprawl. Quarriors had it's detractors, but it wasn't seen as the "sequel" to Dominant Species, arguably the best game released in 2010. Merchant of Venus has seen a lot of activity, but there's no game on the shelves at this point. As my friend Chris "The Cat" said in the comment of his rating of the game on BoardGameGeek, "What a disappointment."

I have to admit that, after setting the game up and running through a couple of turns in preparation for my game at BottosCon, I had my concerns. The game did seem to be very chaotic, with about half of each contract deck never seeing play and an overtly tactical feel to the game with little or no chance for long-term planning apparent. What I failed to remember was that Dominant Species' rules and components concerned me as well - most of the "game" was placing action pawns, or so it seemed.

However, if I've learned one thing in boardgaming it is that you can't judge a game by it's rules, or even a few rounds of play. There are a few exceptions here and there, but the basic idea is that looking at part of a system does not show you the entire system at work. Given that, I went into my game this past Saturday with some trepidation but trying to keep an open mind.

First, a quick overview of the core mechanism of the game which should demonstrate why this game has people unhappy with the design. You have two types of cards in the game, permits and contracts. Both cost action points (of which each player has six to spend in their turn) and that cost is dependent on how long the card has been face up on the table (more or less). Permits can be held indefinitely, and have the side effect of providing wealth (money) if discarded at the start of your turn. Contracts, on the other hand, can only be held by a player as a "favor," must be paid for in advance, and only one favor can be held by a player at any given time.

Aside from refreshing the displays, it is the application of permits to contracts that create an on-board property that is the main way of generating both wealth and prestige (VP) in this game, and so much of one's turn is spent scanning the available permits, including those in the player's possession, comparing them with the available contracts, and possibly the player's "favor," and coming up with the best combination for the player, based on the permit's zoning restrictions (suit) and number of permit icons (rank) matching the contract.

That calculus is not limited to the actual property that is placed on the board, however. Some contracts also grant "vocations" which pay out wealth or prestige to those who have gained them with this contract or in the past, and there is often some other card event that will affect wealth and prestige of one or more players based on some criteria, such as owning the most red "Civics" properties on the board or the most valuable property of a type.

In a four player game, as I played, it is entirely possible for players to build two contracts in a turn, perhaps three if they've been planning ahead for their "favor" contract. As such, there is a good chance that by the time their turn comes around again that most of the available cards, both permit and contract, have changed from what was available in their last turn. There are also numerous events that take place, driven by both buying contract cards as well as through the event cards, and one's position is constantly changing as a result. To say this game is "tactical" is an understatement, at least from the perspective of the permit/contract mechanism.

At least, that's how the game appears on it's face.

There are two elements that give you much more control over your fate, however. Note that I'm using relative terminology here, no one is saying that this is an 18xx game where there is no luck other than who goes first, but compared with the core mechanism there is definitely some control to be found. The two elements are vocations and political offices, and it is these elements that should drive your overall strategy.

I've mentioned vocations, which you get when you purchase some contracts, and which pay wealth or prestige to those who already possess them. What isn't apparent is that there are several events that reward the person with the most vocations, or that one of the political offices, the Mayor, is based on who has the most vocations. One in particular, Media, is particularly important in breaking ties for the Mayor as well as involved in several events, although there are very few contracts that I saw that have this particular vocation. As such, initial placement of ownership on the board is important because whoever has the most money in hand (meaning the least value of properties on the board) gets the Media vocation and will likely hold onto it for at least a while. This is an excellent example of how the rules don't begin to show the interrelationships of the various game elements.

The other strategic element is the political offices. There are six of these, of which only the Mayor is used during the "Town" portion of the game, basically the first third of the game. As mentioned above, vocations get you the Mayor office. Each office has a Special Mutant Power that they grant the owning player, in the Mayor's case that means they get to place a one-lot park anywhere on the board, which act as buildings but separate from the other zoning aspects of Civics, Commercial, Residential, and Industrial. Each office also has a special end-game scoring, which in the Mayor's case means you get a prestige point for each building adjacent to a park at the end of the game.

The next four political offices are all related to the four different zoning types, and all have a special power and an end game scoring. All are elected based on having the most valuable property of the given zone, and end game points based on the number of those buildings on the map. The special powers grant extra action points during your turn, or allow you point bonuses, etc.

Offices are passed from player to player based on having the most valuable building of a given type, calculated by the sum of any prestige or wealth marker in that building's rows (all directions are called rows, not columns, in the game). As such, there is some desire to go after those blocks that generate the most value if you want to keep an office. However, there is the opportunity, usually due to events, to manipulate property values on the map.

The last "office" is really not that at all, but an appointment, and it's the Contractor which is given to the player with the least prestige. This office allows the player to build over other people's properties and prevents others from building over the Contractor's properties if they have an Urban Renewal card (which is a special type of permit in the Planning deck). In a close game, this role can be pivotal, and I have to admit that I love games that reward running just behind the pack. In a blowout, it won't matter so much.

If it isn't apparent, the way to win this game is to control as many vocations as possible and as many offices as possible. The guy who had played before, Art, achieved this in the midgame, and rode it to victory in the end. Once we'd figured out to go after vocations and offices, the game tightened up considerably but the damage was done.

In other words, this isn't just a game about matching permits to contracts and withstanding events. You need to also go for vocations and offices as well through selection of contracts but also building in the right spots.

I freely admit that this assessment is based off of a single play, but I have seen others online who have said the same thing after repeated plays - if you think this game is solely tactical, you are mistaken. It is *heavily* tactical, but that is different. Knowing full well that this will convince my good friend Eric that he should never play this game, I would compare it to the excellent Warriors of God, which is very chaotic but still gives you enough information to make long-term decisions.

This is not to say that the game is for everyone, far from it. In many respects, where Dominant Species is a social game, Urban Sprawl is more of a puzzle game where you have to balance short term abilities with long term goals. There are cards that are very powerful that will give you an advantage if they come up right before your turn, and the semi-random end-game trigger (a card in the Metropolitan deck) will often screw you for points if it takes just a little too long to show up, as it did in our game for me.

I would not play this game with four unless it was in a difficult situation (at a con, for example, or if I was teaching the game) as there is simply too much downtime between turns, especially early in the game when there isn't as much interaction (not that there's much in the late game either). It's a little like the Knizia classic Samurai but about three times as long and with a more complex set of choices to make. For example, there's a great property that you really want to control (and get a vocation from) but it will take all of your action points for the turn and you won't have any permits to build with, but you can buy it as a favor for later and prevent others from taking it. However, you may have to choose between it and another property that will give you a short term but large wealth benefit that will almost certainly go to someone else. Making these assessments is what makes this game interesting, but it also makes it long and less interactive.

I'm not saying this is a great game that everyone should love. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected, but it's not Dominant Species. I think of it more as a double bordering on a triple rather than a home run, as the designer has tended to do in the past.

If you are on the fence about this game, or got it in preorder and were disappointed enough by the negative buzz online or the ruleset, I would strongly consider you give it a couple of games to sink in (as is necessary for good play with, say, Dominant Species) if you meet some of the following criteria:

  • Like puzzles
  • Like three-player games
  • Can tolerate short-term chaos but still recognize long-term strategy
  • Can tolerate a three-hour play time for the above
  • Understand that "tolerate" isn't a four-letter word, nor is "chaos"
The fourth item is probably the most critical, as a game like Ascension, especially when played on an iPad, is very similar. However, it's played in around 10 minutes, and many gamers recognize that the more chaos in a game, especially in the absence of an interesting narrative (like, say, Arkham Horror or Fortune and Glory) means it needs to be shorter rather than longer. While I disliked the downtime in our game, I was engaged the entire time and found the last few turns to be very exciting, especially whether or not I would be able to keep the Police Chief office or whether Art would steal it back were an election to be held due to the right (or wrong) planning card to be revealed. 

I should also note that the final phase of each player turn can be extremely involved. As such, it's important to make sure that the Active Player marker is passed religiously or else you may well find yourselves without the vaguest idea of who goes next. We had a couple of cleanup phases that lasted for a good five minutes, with up to ten or twelve cards turned face up due to multiple events, and up to seven or eight specific board situations evaluated. With a little repetition, these become pretty fast, as you can get a good sense of what blocks on the board are the most valuable (a common computation) by identifying the intersection of the most valuable rows. We found counting the number of buildings owned for payouts to be pretty quick with everyone helping out. I would suggest that the person next taking their turn not be involved in the computations but rather in deciding what they would be doing as their selection of cards is revealed to help speed things up, so in a three-player game that means the active player and the person just before them doing the calculations. It sounds onerous, but I think of it as being a lot like the domination calculations in Dominant Species, which didn't prevent that game from being a huge hit and critical success. 

If you are a fence-sitter, and unsure as to whether this game is really for you or not, I hope this analysis gives you a better sense of the game and counters some of what I consider to be knee-jerk negative buzz about the game. Note that while I did quote my friend Chris at the top of this post, I haven't spoken to him about how he reached his conclusion about the game and so I make no judgement, although I thought it was a pretty succinct summary of the general reception of the game. I'm more referring to the many who played one game with two or four players and pronounced their own judgement. 

And yeah, I'm kinda doing that too, but I like to think I'm doing it with an open mind and an engineer's eye for systems and design. I don't think that this is anywhere near the best game of the year, but I do think it most definitely has a place on my shelf. I also think that it would make a *killer* iPad app as the social interaction isn't as important (you can do some kibitzing, but nothing like in many other games of this length). 

As I finish up this entry, it also occurs to me that there is another game that is similar in a lot of ways, although with a lot more apparent choices in how action points are spent, and that's Through The Ages. If you like TtA, you should definitely give US a much closer look, as the decision making is very similar and also similarly tactical although action points are used in much different ways. 

Monday, November 07, 2011

BottosCon 2011, Day 3

How quickly the weekend goes when you're having fun! Seems like I just got here, but already it's time to go.

Due to a mixup on my part as to when I was going to start the PQ-17 demo, not to mention trying to figure out what I was going to have for breakfast (ended up with chipboard-based granola bars from the quikiemart across the street from the hotel), and by the time I got downstairs my two victims had already found other games to play. Not a problem for me, I was feeling like I was a bit overwhelmed anyway.

As it turned out, one of my players was going to play Fortress America, and they needed a fourth. FA is an old GameMasters game from Milton Bradley back in the day, along with Axis and Allies as well as Shogun (later Samurai Swords, later Ikusa). Hilariously, they were playing Shogun at another table. I'd played the other two games, but never FA, and was looking forward to it despite having heard it was the weakest of the three. Weakest perhaps, but I had a blast.

The game came out in the 80's, when Reagan was president and it looked like a nuclear war was an actual possibility. The Nicaraguans were Socialist, we were just 10 years out of Vietnam, and the Chinese were starting their "long march" to become the world's next dominant power. Watching children's television where the main character speaks half in Mandarin, and I can tell you that we are seeing the voices of our new overlords. That's history, no one stays on top forever no matter how much they want to.

In FA, America is fighting off invasions on three fronts: the Asian People's Front (or the People's Front of Asia, can't remember which) who are invading the Left Coast from LA north; the Central American Fruit Picker's Union from the south (San Diego to New Orleans), and the Slavic Hordes from Miami to Maine. Hilariously, the Asian side is yellow and the Slavic Hordes are Red. I was the Yellow Peril, Rob was the CAFPU, and Michel was the Reds, while Clayton was the Yanks. Hilariously (my word of the day) he wore a CCCP hockey jersey.

Sounds kind of difficult for the US, but of course this is a game sold in the US so that means they need to have more than a fighting chance. And, of course, they should... Wolverines! Sadly, no Cubans airdropping into Denver in this game, although they tried.

Because there's really no reason to pay the slightest attention to what's happening on the other side of the continent, at least as the Yellow Peril (or the Reds, for that matter), I don't know much about what happened over there other than initially it seemed that things went well in the mid-Atlantic states south, not so well in the north. There are a *lot* of cities in the rust belt, so a lot of reason for the US to make more of an effort guarding it. I do know that Michel had to leave to catch a train and his role was taken over by someone that I'm ashamed to say I didn't really get to meet. However, Rob was able to stick around for the entire game this time!

Maybe it's my deodorant.

I was very successful in my initial foray on the coast, taking the entire thing as well as making good use of my helicopters to strike inland. There are not a lot of forces on the coast, so not a difficult stretch. I took Portland, San Francisco, and LA with very few casualties. Rob had a little more trouble, as did Michel.

As I moved inland, Seattle went back and forth a couple of times, but eventually I took enough ground to have it safe in my backfield, and I was moving on to Salt Lake City. By now Rob was knocking on Denver's door, but was having trouble maintaining control of those pesky Texan cities, and Michel had control of the entire SE, although there had been no link up with Rob. In contrast, Rob and I were guarding each other's flanks, although Rob was leaving a lot of territory ungarrisoned, something I used the slow nature of my infantry to avoid.

FA is an interesting game because the invaders have a set amount of new units to bring in every turn, and eventually they run out. Kind of silly for the Chinese, who have more people than they know what to do with, but hey, it was an alt-history game. The US, on the other hand, draws cards to place units on the map, which can happen in your backfield if you aren't careful. By the time we were approaching the endgame, I had taken everything west of the Rockies and was pressing toward either Denver or Kansas City (maybe St Louis, not really sure), but the real prize was the edge of the Rust Belt in the Upper Midwest, as we Yanks say, and all of those SDI emplacements that Clayton kept using to zap our units. I was trying to outflank him to the north and as such had had to leave a few open areas when Clayton dropped some partisans into the Pacific Northwest and threatened both Seattle and Portland.

Couldn't have that...

Amazingly, both cities held, but it took a lot of extra work on my part and burned a few units to root them all out. The diversion worked and by now I was getting a little thin on the ground. Clayton, however, was out of cards to draw for reinforcements as well, so if I could get my spread out infantry going I had a shot at knocking him out. However, Rob's campaign had been constantly plagued by having his cities retaken regularly, and while we did hit the magic number of 18, we had not been at all able to keep it and never got close again. We finally called it with the CAFPU down to something like six units on the map, and actually being threatened by a lone US mobile unit in Phoenix. I was ready to pick up the pieces, but it was clear that if we continued the game could go for a while and it was getting to be time to go, so we called it for Clayton at that point.

This game was, by far, the surprise of the con for me. I'd never played, and I have to say that I thought I never would. A&A, by far the successful franchise out of the three GameMaster games, has never really captured my fancy, even with all of the various spinoffs (although I think that the D-Day and Bulge games are excellent introductory games for new wargamers). While I knew that FA would be a different game, I was astonished to find a game that I was having a lot of fun playing with almost no formal rules explanation at all. I was even looking forward to the ultimate turn where the various armies all turn on each other to try to see who gets the prize, a la Monsters Ravage Your Local Hooters. Were I to find a copy in decent shape for a reasonable price, I might just buy this thing, it was that entertaining and did reward good play (which Clayton told me I had accomplished).

And that was that. I'd already packed the car and checked out, so all I had to do was remember the six or seven things I had laying around the con area, get in the car, and drive.

And drive. And drive. I arrived home around 8pm, very tired and ready for bed. And it was evening and morning the third day.

I will post my overall impressions of the con very soon, but you can be sure that I had a great time and will almost certainly be back next year.