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.

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