Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Barbarossa in a Wide Angle Lens

It was my turn to choose the game this session, and I was very interested in getting Defiant Russia on the table. This is part of Avalanche Press' series of small-box games (their “Quick Play Games” series), and is also part of what they call “The Essential Avalanche,” a handful of games that define the types of games the company produces.

AP doesn't have the greatest reputation in hard-core wargaming circles. Their rep is that they produce underdeveloped, undertested, unattractive games that frequently have major errata and gameplay issues. Some of their recent issues seem to be reversing that trend. Many of the small-box games are getting good responses, and their Panzer Grenadier series (which I like quite a bit) keeps expanding. I'll give them credit for trying different ideas for map art, but sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. (Compare these three maps.)

Anyway, on to the game. Defiant Russia is a high-level treatment of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia in June of 1941. It is designed to be playable in an evening. (Box says 90-120 minutes.) There are seven turns of one month each, 140 counters represent various armies and corps, and each hex is 45 miles. The map is “half size” 17x22 inches, and there are VERY few tables to consult. In fact, the only tables are for terrain effects and random weather determination. The size of the game is reminiscent of the old SPI 120 series games that some of you older than me might remember.

Each unit has a combat strength which determines the number of dice the unit rolls in combat. Roll a six, get a hit. The first hit suffered in a combat must be taken as a step loss by one of the defenders (nearly all units have two steps) but any further losses can be taken as step losses OR retreats unless the number of hits suffered is larger than the total steps available. Then the stack is toast. Terrain and Leaders add or subtract dice, and there are air power points available in varying quantities that can add up to three dice into a specific combat. Yes, this is a “buckets of dice” game. Right up Mike's alley.

Play sequence is standard IGO-UGO, and the sequence is Weather Determination, Organization, Movement, Combat, Exploitation Movement, Exploitation Combat. Then the Soviets repeat all but the first step. After the first couple turns, we were rarely referring to the rulebook except for situations we hadn't yet encountered. That's a good sign. We missed a couple things (I'm specifically thinking of Russian stacking restrictions and Partizans) but that's natural for a first play.

There are 11 VPs available. 2 for controlling Moscow, 1 each for seven other cities, 1 for causing most casualties, and 1 for Stalin surviving or not. It's impossible for there to be a tie.

In the interest of time, we used the historical setup published on Avalanche's website. This eliminated the “how do I best setup Army Group Center?” questions for a game we've never played. (The standard setup allows you to set up each army group or military district however you'd like within certain boundaries.)

So... how did we fare? I took the Russians, which is a bit of a challenge for me as my typical play style is more suited to attack. (Except in chess. Go figure.) Mike attacked hard in the first turn (the Germans really need to push early before the weather worsens) and, as usual, his dice failed him. We had rather equal hits scored, but he probably rolled twice as many dice. The second turn was a little better from his perspective, but now my replacements and reinforcements were to start arriving. Good thing, too, as my northern flank had nearly disappeared.

Turn three brought light mud, making exploitation nearly impossible. That slowed him down a bit. I was able to set up a defensive line in the south on the eastern bank of the Dnieper river. I was going to try to do the same thing on the Dvina in the north, but Mike was able to cross it during turn 3 before I could get reinforcements there.

At this point, Mike was thinking he didn't have a chance. I had loads of new units coming, and he didn't think he was going to have the time to make much headway. Turn 4 being mud didn't help. That cut movement rates in half.

From my perspective, though, I was severely beat down. I had nearly no defense in the north, and my southern flank was intact but thin. Reinforcements were steadily arriving, but it takes time to get them into place, and the weather wasn't helping me either. Mike had taken three VP cities by this point, and was definitely going to win the casualty VP. That meant I could only lose one more city, as a counter attack was unlikely.

Turn 5 (October) brought clear weather, much to my dismay. Mike charged hard. He was fortunate to take Leningrad with his Finns, and he actually even took Moscow. Kharkov was the last VP city he was likely to reach, and it was behind my thin defensive wall in the south. My wall broke during exploitation in turn 5, and Kharkov was looking doomed.

I managed to retake Moscow on my half of turn 5, but Leningrad wasn't coming back. I threw what I could in front of the remaining units charging hard on Moscow and the ones reaching Kharkov. My biggest hope was mud in turn 6. Snow was definite in turn 7, so I needed him slowed now. At this point, I was leading 6-5, but barely hanging on by a thread.

So, what weather do we get in November? Clear. Ugh. Mike took Kharkov with MANY supports, and cut off the rail net isolating Moscow from the south. After looking at the situation in my half of turn 6, there was no realistic way I was going to recover any more VP spaces. It was getting late, as well, so we called the game at this point with a 6-5 German victory. It might have gotten worse if Mike had decided to try to take Moscow instead of isolating it and sealing his position.

I was pleasantly surprised by the game. It isn't more than it pretends to be, but it's very playable. I expect that with experience the play time will settle in around two hours. (we took a little over three, but we both struggled with the number of options available early on.) Effectively playing the Russians requires a good sense of timing. You need to know when to pull back and conserve your troops vs. foolish counter attacks early on. I know I hung on a turn too long in the north and paid for it. The fact that Mike has already emailed me wanting to give it another go after swapping sides says a lot.

It's not a definitive treatment of anything, and the scale intentionally leaves out loads of detail, but for a decent overview of Barbarossa in a $20 package, Defiant Russia is worth a look. I know I'll be looking a little closer at the other games in this series, specifically Red Vengeance. It's the same system, but set in 1944 so the roles are reversed and Russia is attacking trying to drive the Germans out of Russia.

Never start a land war in Asia

This evening's fare (Eric's choice) was the Avalanche Press game, Defiant Russia: 1941. Designed to be played in an evening (the box says two hours) it has 4 maps and 1200 counters, down to the division level. OK, I made that part up. It's really got one half map and 140 counters. Rules are 16 pages, and are pretty clearly written. Each unit has strength and movement factors, although the strength represents the number of dice rolled in combat, generally needing a '6' to cause a step loss or retreat. The first hit must be taken as a step loss, but subsequent hits may be taken as retreats.

I'd heard/read a lot of bad things about AP games, so my expectations were not high for this one. Given the size of the map (16-20 hexes north to south) and the mechanism, I was concerned that there wouldn't be a lot of options for maneuver, and that it would just come down to whoever rolled the best bucket o' dice.

I ended up with the Germans, and proceeded with the standard attacks to the north and south of the Pripet Marshes. The attacks to the north fared better than south. In the north the Finns imploded as Eric rolled 3 '6's in about 8 dice, and the attacks in the far south didn't achieve much. (I rolled 1 hit in about 24 dice in those attacks.) I did a fair job of mauling the Russian units,, causing 20 hits (mostly step losses) in total. However, whilst rolling around half to two thirds of my dice, Eric also managed to score 20 hits. Uh ohh, this is not looking good already.

The second turn saw me face a reconstituted Russian line, defending pretty much in place. The rules allow armor units to move through ZOCs, and infantry as well, but only if both hexes are friendly occupied. In either case ZOC to ZOC movement costs an extra MP, and the unit needs to stop when entering a non-friendly occupied ZOC hex. I was able to leap-frog units through the available gaps, surrounding a large portion of the northern Russian army. I was able to roll well enough to reduce the pockets, but not eliminate them, leaving perfectly placed units to stop my exploitation. Dang! Still, the exploitation combat saw the north almost devoid of Russian units, although south of Pripet still saw me facing some decent Russian forces. The far south had also got moving, the Romanians managing to force the very south to swing around.

The third turn sees the weather come into play (we played with the variable weather option), and anything except a '6' would see clear weather continue. I rolled a '6' - light mud. Sigh. Very limited exploitation. Still I kept pushing in the north, again clearing the area of Russian units, and the road to Moscow was open. South of the marshes I took a risk in pushing armor through, and it paid off as they didn't get killed and a few more Ruskis died for a lack of retreat. The far south saw the Russians cleared out, and there was no activity in the north.

During his turn Eric bugged out, setting up a strong line at the Dnepr river. He'd set up what he could to the north of the marshes, but it was pretty weak, and he had to denude the Leningrad sector to do even that. Then came the weather roll. Another '6'. Mud - movement halved. Double sigh. I looked where I was and the distance to the VP cities, and I was almost ready to call the game. (There are 10 VP city points, Moscow being worth 2, mostly in the middle to east of the map. The player causing the most unit losses also gets a VP.) I kept going, and watched as my units plodded towards his Dnepr line, with an eye on the reinforcements that would also bolster it in the upcoming Russian turn.

Then came the 5th turn, and a glorious thing happened. The weather turned clear, as the die came up a '2'. I took the opportunity and dashed forward, right to the gates of Moscow, hammering on the Dnepr line, and even pushing the Finns to attack Leningrad. And it all worked. The gates of Moscow swung open as I rolled 3 '6's in 9 dice in my exploitation attack. The Dnepr line sprung a leak as I dashed across, and Leningrad fell to the Finns. Well, blast my panzers with a panzerschrek. What a turn-around!

It wasn't all roses and light, however, as Eric also managed to roll 3 '6's in 9 dice to throw me back out of Moscow, and also went on a '6' frenzy, seeming to roll 15 of them in 10 dice, killing 4 armored units. Still, with 2 turns left, there was still a possibility, all I needed was more clear weather. And I got the 50-50 roll, allowing the might of the German army to swing south, surround the entire Russian line in the south and totally eliminate them. Elsewhere, a holding force was placed in front of Moscow, and a couple of strategically placed units split the north from the south to prevent strategic redeployment.

Eric reviewed the position and declared that we might as well call it at that point. With only 2 moves left, almost nothing in the way of forces to counter-attack with, and no way to get them to the places needed, there was just no way he could recover the VP cities. We had 5 city VPs each, but the Russians had a veritable plethora of dead units, giving a 6-5 victory to the Germans.

OK, so I had a slow start, and the weather went against me early on, yet I still pulled out the win. How did that come about, and is the game biased towards the Germans? I think there were three factors to the German success here.

First, and most critical in my view, is that Eric defended too far forward at the start. The Russians have to conserve units, not allowing the Germans to infiltrate and cut off units, especially whole groups of them. It's really hard to set a defensive line when you don't have any units to set with. Of course, this issue tends to spiral downwards pretty quickly, and it could have been even worse if the weather hadn't been grotty in the 3rd & 4th turns.

Second, I think I came to grasp with the movement rules pretty quickly and managed to use them effectively. The German player has to be able to cut off the Russians, blocking lines of supply and retreat effectively, and understanding and arranging the moves to allow the infantry to participate is vital. By themselves the armor can do the job, but not for long as they are very fragile, and need the infantry to soak up those hits.

Third, the weather. Whilst I greeted the turn 3 and 4 rolls like a rather bad smelling panhandler, the later rolls worked in my favor and balanced out. In fact the weather worked out wonderfully, as the bad weather came when we were still toe to toe, and I couldn't have really used clear weather much more effectively than I did mud. (OK, I would have had some exploitation attacks, but I don't think it would have changed much.) Later on, when the board was cleared of Russian units, I was able to do the big sweeping changes with the panzers, switching focus from here to there, eliminating large pockets of Russians.

So, overall, my initial concerns were unfounded. Whilst there is the whole bucket of dice aspect (and we did roll them by the bucket) there is a nice little game in here. The mechanisms work well, there is a decent amount of flavor and chrome, the rules are mostly watertight (we only had one issue that wasn't mentioned in the rules), and it's playable in an evening. Yes, decent game, one that I'll be adding to my buy list.

Our next fully scheduled session won't be until later in November, when the new CC: Mediterranean will be available. Scrummy. I'm hoping to fit in another go with Defiant Russia, this time switching sides, but we'll have to see how that works out.

Monday, October 22, 2007

High finance in the Scottish lowlands

My turn to choose again, and I chose an 18xx game, my third playing of any game in the series. The first was last Christmas (1850?), and the second was a week or two back (18AL), and I wanted to try some more while it was still fresh in my mind. Eric has played quite a bit of 18xx, so I was hoping to give him a reasonable game, and not totally embarrass myself.

This one featured a totally different stock chart to the previous two efforts, and it took me a little while to get comfortable with it. (Here, a stock doesn't go down when sold.) I started fairly decently, but lost ground in the middle game when I spent so much time trying to figure out how and where to get the cash for buying the next train that I hadn't even spotted that Eric had bought it in his turn! I then spent too much time shuffling trains back and fore, wasting a fair bit of operating income for not much end result. I also spent time and operating income trying to block Eric's lines from running with the stations, in the mistaken belief that if the income was less than half the share price it went down a step. (Silly sausage, they only go down if they don't pay out - knowing the rules helps!) Learning the significance of the difference between a certificate for a single share and a certificate for multiple shares was also vitally important.

That last point was the crucial one, as I think that's where Eric made the difference. I was about the same in cash, but he was well ahead in the stock, and was a total of 10% ahead of me. Not too bad I guess, but I certainly played poorly.

18xx continues, for me, to be a game that I have mixed feelings about. An interesting game, for sure, but I'd have to play it consistently (at least once a month, probably more) in order to play semi-decently. So that puts it right in a difficult position (one also occupied by ASL) where I'd have to devote a large portion of my gaming time to do it justice. (Or at least justice where I'm happy that my involvement challenged the other players, and I wasn't just there making up numbers.) Given the large number of games available to be played, does it deserve the focus? Overall, I think the answer is 'Yes', I would like, and be prepared, to devote more time to it to get better at it, as well as investigate many of the different flavors available.

Let's hope that our October 18xx session is only the first of many such regular events.

Eric's choice next time. He's mentioned some wargame that I've never heard of before, so I hope I get a peek at the rules before we play!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Building Rails in Mike's Homeland

Mike wanted to play an 18xx game for his choice this time, but left it to me to pick the game as I know the available choices better than he does.

So, we sat down for a game of 1825 Unit 3. This one is on the simpler end of the scale. It's designed (and hand assembled) by Francis Tresham himself, and is geared towards company operation vs. stock manipulation. The game is in the 1829 tree, which basically means a linear stock market instead of the 2-dimensional market in the 1830 tree. Games in the 1829 tree tend to be a bit friendlier and a bit shorter.

1825 Unit 3 is specifically a 2-player game based in the north of England and Scotland. (Which, even though it's where Mike's from, is not the reason why I chose the game.) There are three privates, three major and three minor companies. All the majors are based in Glasgow. Two of the minors are based in the far north, and one on the south edge of the map.

The game starts out with the two cheaper privates randomly dealt. Not seeing who the 1st player is supposed to be at that point, we randomly chose, and I went first. The 1825 games release company stock in stages based on their par value. Unit 3 provides two companies available at the start – once one of them is fully sold, the 3rd company becomes available. First, however, the expensive private must be bought before the two first majors (The Caledonian and North British) become available. I decided to take the leap and buy the last private. In that same stock round, Mike pulled the same trick he pulled when we played 18AL a couple weeks prior – he started an extra company. In this case, the NBR. Now, I've found in a couple prior plays that the NBR has issues developing its rail line as building north is expensive, and as a result didn't want to start it. (And I warned Mike of this before we played.) Still, that tactic really threw me off.

(At this point – not finding the rule in the poorly organized 1825 rulebook – we played a rule wrong. You can't sell stock in the first stock round. Now, in the end, it probably wouldn't have mattered, but it did change the character of the first couple operating rounds. The starting cash doesn't allow for both starting majors to be floated, one sold out, AND buy just the director's share of the third major in the first operating round.)

I kept buying the Caledonian in order to sell it out to make the Glasgow and Southwestern come available. At that point I sold most of my Caledonian and opened the GSWR. And, that's how the game was structured for a while – Mike ran the CRC and the NBR, and I ran the GSWR.

After a few turns and some judicious investing I was in position to open the Maryport and Carlisle minor at a high enough value to pay for its inherent train. The eventual plan was to buy shares of the M&C to get cash into the system so I could have it buy a second train which would then be bought by the GSWR (which could actually use it.) After that happened, I could sell off some of the shares and open one of the other minors (The Great North of Scotland) to actually generate cash.

And, that's pretty much how it worked out. The M&C bought the only 4 train, and the GSWR then bought it for cheap. I opened the GNSR at a rather high par value a turn later by selling some M&C, and I was off and running.

By the end of the game, one thing became clear – the high share count per certificate for the minors can almost makes them more valuable than the majors. (The certificate limit is 17 – I ended up with two director's certificates in minors which are 4 shares each compared to 2 for the majors. That alone gave me a 4-share advantage over Mike for the same number of certs.) There's only 9 permanent trains in the game for the six railroads, so it's possible a couple of the minors can also run for similar payouts as well.

When the final tally was complete, I had beaten Mike by about 10% (scores were around 7900 to 7200 – he's got the final scoresheet.) Nearly all that difference was in stock value. Our final cash on hand was very close.

This wasn't an effect I remember seeing in my two prior plays of 1825 Unit 3, but the minors really make a difference here. I was able to use them as a means to get trains to my major without having it withhold dividends. (I might have had the GSWR withhold once – can't recall.) As the minors are incrementally funded (meaning they get more cash as you buy their shares from the IPO) you can get cash into the company that way. Then they buy a train at cost, and your major buys the train from them – at a steep discount. That works for the minors that can only run one train. In the case of 1825 Unit 3, that's the M&C and the GNSR. The HR can run two trains as it has two tracks running out of its base. I'm not sure I'd use it in the fashion I used the M&C. The GNSR can get to Glasgow, so it's worth investing in – it was paying out nearly as much as the majors, and as I started it as a high value, it appreciated quite a bit.

Mike, on the other hand, had to withhold a handful of times to get the trains situated the way he wanted – this cost him in the stock market, and would have made the final result much tighter. All that comes with experience, even with a game as (relatively) simple as 1825. That's the thing I love most about the 18xx games – each one provides a radically different experience within the same core rules engine, and the techniques needed to play well are different in each game (there is some amount of carryover, but not always that much.)

One oddity about our game – nobody built to Edinburgh or Newcastle. I was headed to Edinburgh at the end of the game with the GNSR, but realized I didn't have time to get there – so I detoured into Glasgow. The building cost in the mountains is significant, and effectively blocked the eastern edge of the map from play. Compare that to this picture of an endgame. In our game, no tiles were built east of column 11 (the brown “crows foot” city tile with a 40 on it in the 2nd-from-the-bottom row of that image) excepting the tile out of the GNSR's base at the top of the map.

Good fun, and well played. I like playing these games with Mike as he always does something, at some point, that surprises me and causes me to shift tack. And half the time it works.


Our next game is my choice. Right now, I'm leaning towards Defiant Russia, but I need to get a copy of the rulebook to Mike. We'll see if that happens. If not, it'll have to be something we both own, and I'll need to decide that soon.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tribute to Mago

(Jeez - where have the last two weeks gone... I've been sick a bit over that time, but no excuse for being this late.)

Mike and I gave the new Command & Colors: Ancients scenarios as published in C3i #19 a try. They cover Carthaginian General Mago's battles in Europe against the Romans towards the end of the Second Punic War. They specifically cover Orongis, Celtiberia, and Po River - the final three battles before the Romans took the war back to Africa, culminating at Zama.

Mike had Orongis, the first of the three battles, set up when I arrived. We randomly chose sides, and I ended up with Carthage. (BTW, I don't believe this battle has been depicted in any other wargame – hex-n-counter, miniatures, or otherwise – ever. Please point me to a counter example if you can – I'm curious.)

This is a bit of a tough battle for the Carthaginians. You're outnumbered (15-12) and not optimally deployed. The Romans are drawn up in battle lines and ready to go. I started out by taking potshots with my bowmen (the Romans deploy in range) and trying to get my Elephants up into play. I was fortunate in that I was able to take out three or four blocks (but I don't believe an entire unit) by the time the Elephants were eliminated. So they did their job. My Gallic warriors caused a bit of carnage as well, but it turned out to not be enough. Carthage lost this battle 6-3, IIRC.

(Interestingly, it turned out rather historically. Carthage lost, but nearly all the casualties were the Gallic mercenaries – which Mago then conveniently didn't have to pay, and his core army lived to fight another day. Which they do below.)

We swapped sides for the 2nd battle, Celtiberia, and I took the Romans. This battle involves the Romans catching Carthage slightly unaware – almost half their forces are still in camp and the remainder are somewhat scattered. The Romans, however, are arrayed in full battle lines and are ready to go. I was fortunate enough to be dealt a Line Command card at the start so I immediately pressed home and tried to force an outcome before Mike could respond. It turns out that Mike was dealt two Line Commands, so he was able to get his forces arrayed quicker than I'd hoped. Fortunately, I also had a Counter Attack card and used it to copy his Line Command order and kept pressing home.

Mike was never able to bring many of his encamped units into the fray, and one particularly bloody exchange lead to my wiping out two of his units on a single order. I believe the final score in this one was 5-3 for the Romans. Again, this was relatively close to the historical result. Carthage lost badly enough that their counterpunch was delayed a full year.

The third battle was Po River. This is a large battle - 18 units on one side and 17 on the other. I had Carthage again. I was dealt a fair number of Cavalry cards, so I decided to push the issue that way – all the cavalry is on the Carthage right, so off I went. This time, the Elephants went poof without much effect, and all the cavalry eventually disappeared. Fortunately, Mike didn't have much to respond on that flank. The end battle came down to the clash in the center, and I frankly got rather lucky. I eliminated a couple units on a single roll of the dice with my heavy infantry and that tipped the scales in my favor. The end was VERY close, however, as the final score was 7-6. Not historical, however, as this was the battle where Mago received his fatal wound (he actually died sailing back to Africa) and lead to Rome finishing off Carthage at Zama.

Tactical tip: Heavy infantry with adjacent/attached leaders are DEADLY. 5 dice each with a 50/50 shot at a hit. 2.5 hits on average comes close to wiping out units. Particularly those softened up a bit with archers.

Good fun – two of the three battles came close to historical results, and we got all three battles completed in ~2.5 hours. I haven't had a bad experience with this game yet. I always enjoy the challenges it presents.


Mike and I are meeting on Monday for some 2-player 18xx gaming as his choice. Not sure which game yet – we'll have to finalize that over the weekend. (I'm guessing 1889 or 1825, but we'll have to see.)