Monday, December 10, 2007

Rules Vengeance

This is going to be a relatively short post compared to a lot of the ones I write. I've got a lot going on – hey, it's the holidays and I've got two kids – and there actually isn't a whole lot to say this week.

Back on Monday, Mike and I sat down to the Avalanche Press Red Vengeance title. This is a follow-on to Defiant Russia using essentially the same rules, only with the situation reversed – Russia is on the offensive driving the Germans back into Russia.

As you may recall, Defiant Russia left us with a very favorable impression. Nice little system, and it played very cleanly. It's a basic Igo-Ugo sequence with a buckets'o'dice combat system. (One die per combat strength, 6s hit.)

Red Vengeance does essentially the same thing with one very important difference. The fun was left out of the box. This game left us totally flat and unfulfilled.

First, how did our particular session progress?

We took the setup options as presented in the rules and (minus a couple errors where later-turn reinforcements were accidentally set up at the game start) gave it a run. The Russians are trying to capture cities at the far end of the board. You have to break through the defensive line and make a run for it while keeping your units supplied.

Our game featured some wild swings in die rolls. I had more than a couple occasions where 13-17 dice or so produced zero hits, and even one sequence where successive single die rolls produced hits.

The main result was that I had almost no push for the first three turns. In many sectors, I was at or behind my starting point when the weather started to turn. It became very clear that I was never going to make Warsaw, let alone Berlin. At no point was I able to both punch a hole and exploit it at the same time. Now, some of this may come as from poor setup locations for my armor, but a lot of it is in the setup rules themselves.

When the snow came, I thought I might have an advantage, but due to the restrictions on exploitation, no opportunities arose.

In the end, Mike won this game handily. I never did reach Warsaw, and we called it after 8 of 11 turns.

Mike and I talked about how we'd rate the games after the fact, and I'd probably rate Defiant Russia a 7 or 7.5, and Red Vengeance a 2.5 or 3.

How can two very similar games play and feel so differently yet use nearly the same system?

Two primary reasons come to my mind: counter density and setup restrictions.

In Defiant Russia, you have some real maneuverability in how and where you attack the Russian front line. And the Russians have to make choices in where they defend hardest.

In Red Vengeance, you get very few choices. Setup is along the marked hexes you can see at the top of the map image on BGG. There can be no empty setup hexes after deployment is finished, and you cannot set up anywhere else, including behind this line. (Except for a very small number of other nations' troops which deploy in their respective nations.)

This means there is no effective way to set up a reserve or exploitation force. Everyone is on the front line, and you're packed pretty much two deep everywhere. And given that the setup order is German infantry, Russian Infantry, Russian Armor, German Armor, you can't even effectively plan for attacking a weak spot – that advantage is instead given to the defender.

There is simply little to no choice in how the Russian player approaches this game for at least the first two-three turns. It's a pure dice fest. Yes, you get to choose where you do your exploitation combats, but those are almost non-choices. There's very obvious answers.

The only possible way to create choice (and I haven't tried this) would be to do a massive shuffling of units on the first movement turn of the game. However, as opposed to Defiant Russia, zone-of-control rules are in effect for the first turn, and every unit you have is deployed in a ZOC to start the game. This makes reshuffling difficult, and not something you should even have to do immediately after deployment anyway...

There might be a way to make this game fun. But as I saw it from the Russian player perspective, it is almost devoid of choice. I'd pick Defiant Russia over Red Vengeance every single time unless the initial setup rules were completely redone. It might succeed as a decent simulation of the Russian Drive to Berlin in 1944-45 at that scale, but it certainly seems to fail as an entertaining game. Also, if you do try this title, make sure each player has at least 15 dice, preferably 20. We played for over three hours and still had three turns left. The box says 1-2 hours playtime. While 60 minutes is entirely ludicrous, 2 hours could be done if you played quickly and both players rolled all their dice simultaneously. The first turn alone probably featured 50 combats when every unit starts at full strength. That's on the order of 600 dice being rolled in a single turn.

Now, I've been looking forward to getting They Shall Not Pass on the table. That is the third game in this series based on the WWI battle of Verdun. Given how poorly a high-counter-density game has fared in this series, and given the style of fighting in WWI, I'm now thinking twice about it. TSNP gets good reviews, so I'll at least solo the first turn or two to see if it suffers the same problem, but I'm far more apprehensive about it than before.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Back to the land war

You know how one of the greatest mistakes is never to start a land war in Asia? Well, this week Eric and I played a game on the end results of making just that mistake. At Eric's request we played Red Vengeance, the sister game to Defiant Russia, which we played a few weeks back (Eric's take, my take). We'd both really liked DR, so I was happy to try RV, and it was only fair to allow Eric to take the Soviets, and the opportunity to go on the attack.

Both games are pretty similar rules wise, although RV tidies up a few things. It does away with the railroads, allowing Strategic Movement anywhere at 3 times movement allowance. It still has a few holes, e.g. the rule book didn't cover what happens to Yugoslavian reinforcements when their set up hexes are occupied. Overall, not too bad.

The first turn is the longest in the game, as the Soviet player starts with massive attacks everywhere, and we roll buckets of dice. In this way our game was the same as DR, except with the roles reversed, as I rolled loads of 6s, way over average, and Eric nowhere near his average. However, unlike DR, where the counter density is way less and the few 6s I did roll was enough to leave gaps, RV has enough units to allow the defender to keep a solid defensive line all the way from the north to the south. This continued over several turns, and although he gained localized successes he was never able to effectively exploit them and I was able to retire to the next defensive position successfully.

And so it continued. The dice eventually sorted themselves out, and we were rolling pretty much on average, but by this time the Soviet units had been pretty much bled dry. In fact the Soviets had way more points in the dead pile than the Germans, and hadn't got anywhere near the VP cities. Eric called it a day at the end of turn 9, with two turns left. By this time he hadn't even been able to capture any of the oil fields, and therefore wasn't getting any armor replacements, which meant the Germans were getting more replacements than the Soviets! As it stood it was a 6-0 position in favor of the Germans, and unlikely to change much, if at all.

So, what's the deal? Why was DR so good and RV such a bust? The game system is fine. Clean, simple, I really like it. There were two problems with our game, one inherent and the other our particular playing.

To take the last point first, it all comes down to one word: dice. Or, rather, two words: wacky dice. The first couple of turns saw me roll so many 6s to Eric's few that it was getting embarrassing, not to mention a rather boring game. (I find this rather similar to the issues in Wellington. With so many dice being rolled the likelihood is that they will balance out. However, it also means that the wacky results out at the end of the bell curve are _really_ wacky.)

Secondly (or should that be firstly?), the other problem is that RV has a higher counter density than DR. With so many units on the board there are less opportunities for inventive play. In DR there were gaps to exploit, although I had to work at exploiting them and Eric had to be inventive in his defense. In RV there are so many units that the Soviet player pretty much just keeps driving forward, grinding the German down, the only real options are where to stack units, and hope the dice don't get wacky. (See point one above.)

Another (lesser) issue I have is game length. The box says 60-90 minutes. Yeah, right! We weren't playing slowly, but we called the game after almost 4 hours, with 2 turns left to go. OK, if we had a bucket of dice we could have saved a little time over doing die rolls in groups of 4, but not that much. The estimate was out by a factor of 3-4.

In my view there's nothing really wrong with the game per se. The historical situation was that the Soviets had superiority, and all they needed to do was keep grinding the Germans down, exploiting any weaknesses that potentially developed. In other words it's the game situation that's the problem. There is a reason why there are only a few games on that period of the war - it's not a very entertaining situation to game. The German is so weak that attacks are very few and far between, and the player spends most of the time looking for the next defensive position. Now, that can be an interesting challenge, but having a better balance of defensive and offensive positions make for a more interesting game. Add in the wacky die results and you end up with a less than satisfying gaming experience. Normally after a 6-0 result I'd be all "Dude, you got so p*wned!", but this game just left me flat. I'd just like to know what Eric did to piss off the dice gods so bad.

Overall, I think that at the scale and scope, and wacky die rolls aside, it's a fairly decent simulation of the historical situation. Does that make it a good game? No, sir! With knobs on.

My pick for the next session. With the holidays coming up I've no idea when the next official TSttC session will be (we may get together on another project), but it's my choice again. Hmmm, that's a toughie. I think I'll go for Duel in the Dark, the new Z-Man game on the RAF bombing of Germany.