Saturday, January 09, 2016

Triumph and Tragedy - Best Sandbox Evah

2015 was a pretty good year for wargames, with some excellent titles published. Even with two excellent John Butterfield titles, D-Day at Peleliu and Enemy Action: Ardennes seeing publication, the big winner for me has to be Triumph and Tragedy. 

Anyone familiar with "block" wargames will recognize the name Craig Besinque. East Front was a brilliant design that has stood the test of time, and while some might argue that Columbia Games, which has built a business out of publishing block games exclusively, has not been particularly successful in recent years with their games, that hasn't stopped the concept from being successful and moving in new directions.

Some of the charms of block games are,
  • Fog of War,
  • Elegance of design,
  • Relatively small number of units, and
  • Stickers!
Ok, maybe not the last one for everyone. Me, I'm comfortable with my inner seven year old.

T&T is a game based on WW2 European Theater of Operations (ETO) at a very high level scale, as is Craig's EuroFront, an extension of the original EastFront system to the entire theater. Europe Engulfed, another block game, tried to cover the same topic, as has the very recent Victory in Europe. Personally, I believe the ETO to be a very difficult topic to simulate well, largely because of the complex, and some might say, unlikely, set of conditions that led to the conflict. Diplomacy alone following the Fall of France in 1940 is difficult to cover, but trying to also cover a massive war of interdiction on Western shipping, two different air campaigns, and the difficulty of supplying units in the less developed parts of the theater such as North Africa makes for a daunting design challenge. Every one of these situations usually results in a complex subsystem that increases playing time, rules complexity, and a map that takes up the entire table. 

This doesn't even touch the problem of how to make a game that doesn't need serious scripting to work. The obvious way to address more choices is to allow the same layers to game the pre-war period. Games like Totaller Krieg do a good job of  giving the different players alternate paths, although even with TK each faction is going to have a limited number of real choices in a strategic sense because of the sequencing of the event cards. You can choose a path, but it's two or three and once you are on that path your strategy has been set. 

I'll note here that I really like the idea of a counter-factual basis for the ETO, as it allows designers to remove any strictures they might put in place to force historical events. The issue is that often you can end up with a pretty unbalanced game, and putting hours into the pre-war period only to end up with unfun for the next 25 hours is not only unappealing, but a complete non-starter when time is such a factor for most gamers. That doesn't stop people from playing Days of Decision or The Gathering Storm and continuing on into World in Flames or A World At War, but it is an incredibly unlikely scenario in my own life.

And then, there was T&T.

Straight off, no matter what me is going to confuse this game with a historical simulation, any more than Axis & Allies is. The chances of pulling off Barbarossa is, frankly, so unlikely as to be pretty much impossible. Just having Poland end up as a country under Western protection is in serious doubt. If that makes this game a non-starter for you, stop reading now. You'll miss out on a great game, but different strokes for different folks. However, if you like a handful of elegant and effective mechanisms that create a historically themed game with a lot of possible paths to victory, one that plays in an afternoon, that is relatively easy to teach (corner cases will always be part of this hobby), and that rewards long term planning and hoping for the best while expecting the worst, you will find a gem that we rarely see in the hobby.

I dislike reviews that cover mechanisms and rules then give a three sentence conclusion, so I'll stick to the systems and why I like them. I will present these as they appear in the sequence of play. I assume you have a passing familiarity with wargame mechanisms in general and block games specifically.

Economics and Production

One thing that is virtually guaranteed to make me avoid an ETO game is a complex economic system. Different point values for different units may work for some people, and I'm not afraid of math at all, but I find these complex systems to be Drags on what I'm really interested in. A&A is a particularly convoluted system in this regard, out of balance with the rest of the system. In T&T, economics is simple - every thing costs a production point, from the ability to effect diplomacy to tech advances to investments in infrastructure to operational tempo to even the usual suspects: treads, boots, and anchors. Want to add a pip to a block? It's a buck. Want place a new one point unit on the map? A buck. Card draws for anything else? A buck a card. Production takes a few minutes most turns, but the game preserves an excellent sense that you do not have enough hours in the day to do them all. 

And where do these points come from? Here is where the design veers into mold-breaking territory, as you determine Production based on the Population you control, the Industry you've created, and, once hostilities start, the Resources you have access to. Which ever one of these has the lowest value is your Production value. And it's probably under 10 at the start, and doesn't go much above mid-teens the entire game. Quick, elegant, but yet allows each player to determine their own strategy while still retaining a unique flavor for each faction through the starting values. For example, the West has great Population and Resource numbers, but needs to heavily invest in Industry immediately. And, because Industry does not require conquest or diplomacy to increase, the pacifism of the West is adequately presented elegantly and cleanly. 

But having resources in, say, Iraq, do you no good if you can't get them to your factories, so once you're at war you need to keep supply lines open. The Blockade mechanism does an excellent job of giving the Germans good reason to build subs and the West good reasons to build fleets. The ramifications are not immediately apparent, but the way the game simulates this aspect by simply requiring supply routes after the summer campaign season that must be restored by year end if you want to keep access, along with the Med Blockade element is about as elegant as you could hope for, if perhaps the most opaque system in the game. Simple rules, far reaching implications.

This is a good time to mention that the game uses two decks of cards, one to represent both diplomatic effort as well as the infrastructure to move and fight (Action cards) and one to represent technology, spycraft, and investment in infrastructure (Production cards). It is the latter that allows Industry to be built, while Action cards will allow factions to gain the benefits of trade, alliances, and conquests, that provide Population and Resources. 


The Action cards either give you a choice of two minor countries you can apply diplomacy to, or more latitude based on faction, adjacency, or countering previous opponent efforts. The mix of countries does a great job of showing why some countries joined in readily while others were much more likely to sit on the sidelines. Persia is an excellent example, with few cards calling out that country but more that allow the West and the Soviets more opportunities because they are in the general area. Effect without administration. The downside? You are drawing cards, and often the cards aren't interested in helping you in the ways you want. The Soviets took Persia in a recent game, while I as the West was unable to draw a Persia card to save my life. What I was drawing, and spent to try to get the U.S. In on my side early, were Intimidation events that allowed me to place influence on adjacent countries. I never even considered Persia, but of course it's right next to Iraq, which is a Western controlled area in the game, so I may have been better served keeping the Russians out. In fact, they went after India and won the game as a result. Yep, the Axis was at peace the entire game while the West and the Soviets were at war. The Soviets won by a point over the West, btw. 

Throw in the necessity of maintaining supply lines and trade routes once you are at war, and the costs of military actions when violating neutrality or declaring war on your Rivals, and choosing where to put your diplomatic efforts becomes a very satisfying sub game. 


Perhaps no other conflict saw so much change in technology over the course of a war other than WW2. The Great War came close in terms of radical change, but the improvements in aircraft, tanks, tactics, amphibious and airborne operations, and even force organization (not to mention the Bomb, which you can create in this game and even win just by having it) was incredible. An army in 1936 was a very different thing than in 1945. Every power focused on different things, from heavy bomber, mechanization of leg forces and anti sub tactics in the West, to rocket artillery and heavy tanks in the USSR, to fighters and subs in Germany. 

The game models these ideas in two different ways. The first is the ability to create various technologies using Production cards. Get two matching cards and play them (even secretly) and you gain an advantage, often the ability to fire first in combat. Get all four Atomic Weapon techs and have an air unit in range of a Rival capital and you outright win. Production cards, assuming they don't have covert actions, have two tech choices on them, along with some semi-wild cards that make it easier to get some of the rarer techs. Atomic weapons in particular are difficult to get without dedicating part of your oh so precious hand limit to saving up the later progressions and wilds you will need, not to mention the offset for keeping them secret, which counts against that hand size. 

The other way tech focus is modeled is through the block mix. Germany has a lot of subs, for example, while the West has a lot of fleets. Russian tanks have a maximum of 3CV, while Germans can build up to 4. That's not to say you can't build aircraft carriers as the Germans, just that the block mix will limit this in appropriately historical ways. 

Combat Operations

Unlike most wargames, you don't get to activate whoever you want whenever you want. To even move a unit from one space to another you need to use an Action card for its Operations. There are three seasons in every turn, four if you're the Russians although that fourth is limited to the Motherland. By 1939, you need to be carefully considering whether you have the cards to do both diplomacy and operations, and produce accordingly. 

Additionally, each operations card is for a specific season, and allows a different number of units to activate, not to mention when in relation to the other factions. A Z 10 card is fantastic if you want to go last and move a lot of units, but it has to be played in that season or else it will severely limit what you can do. Not only does this force difficult decisions, but also makes Action cards useful throughout the game after diplomacy has more or less fallen by the wayside late and the reverse in the early game. 

The result is a need to plan your turn based on your cards in hand while keeping in mind that after you have played cards for diplomacy, techs, industry and possibly espionage, you have to discard down to your hand limit. By game end, I was struggling to have any cards in hand at all by the end of the turn. With only 2-10 units moving every season, there are hard choices to be made.

Combat is largely similar to most block games, although sequencing is by unit type and different units are more or less effective against others. For example, Fleets are very effective against other fleets, less so against subs and air, and not very effective against land units. Land combat is a single round, naval combat can go for several rounds, subs can escape and continue to block supply routes, ground units are required to maintain other types in contested land areas, and combat is mandatory under certain conditions. If you are familiar with block games, you will grasp the system quickly.

I especially like how naval transport is handled, you just move land units on their own but they are particularly vulnerable, and have limited use when they invade.

And, of course, you will be absolutely sure your opponent is going to go after that area with all of the 1CV units you are bluffing with.

The other thing I really like is that it is difficult to get units from one end of the board to the other. You build everything but fortresses in your home country, so the West has to make a concerted effort to get units to North Africa. Once they are there, you can build them up normally, but no new units. Keeping cadres intact far afield is a critical element of play for the West.


Elegant subsystems, check.

Plays in 6 hours, check.

Wide range of game situations, check (although France will always be with the West, Italy will always be with Germany, and the U.S. Can only become allied with the West).

Tough decisions, check. 

Covers all of the basics for an ETO game without deep chrome, check.

Complex gameplay without complex or confusing rules, check.

So what are the downsides? 
  • Randomness. From the Peace Dividends to the card draws, it is possible to get completely screwed on this game through no fault of your own. I think it's unlikely, and to be fair pretty much every wargame has this possibility. Also, the chaos seems to come largely in the systems where you would expect it. Still, this is not a game for control freaks.
  • Requires three players. It will play with two, although I haven't tried this variant yet. That said, there aren't many good three player games of this ilk that play in this amount of time, so this might be a plus.
  • Not great if you want to replay WW2 from a historical perspective.
  • Very high level of abstraction will turn off simulation enthusiasts.
Downsides aside, and many of those are matters of taste, I will close by noting that I have played this game four times since I purchased it in early September of 2015. That's about a play per month, extremely unusual for an easily bored wargamer like me. At BottosCon in November, I saw about seven games being played over the weekend, and I had to miss the Sunday session. We will play two games at our upcoming wargame group nanocon in late February. Every person I've played the game with, with a single notable (but predictable) exception loves this game. It is deep without requiring constant rules lookups, although there are some subtleties you will need to get used to, such as when you gain control and where. 

Most of all, it's good fun. My last game was exceedingly close, and I very nearly came back for the win after losing most of India to the Soviets by invading every Axis trading partner and minor I could after coming very close two turns in a row. Every time I've considered the game time well spent, and being able to play with two friends is just icing on the cake.

This and Enemy Action are a dead heat for wargame of 2015 for me, and they serve very different purposes. Thank you, Craig, for a brilliant and innovative design. 

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