Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Hope this post finds you in good spirits (literally if you'd like) and that the holiday season is going well for you.

Weather, family, and the holidays ended our Two Sides gaming a little earlier than expected this year, but we'll be cranking things back up next week with a look at Unhappy King Charles, the latest CDG from GMT Games covering the English Civil War. Designer Charles Vasey is a bit of an expert on the conflict, and it will likely lead to Mike and I taking a look at his earlier (and more detailed) effort The King's War.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Results at the Marne

Mike and I finished up our Rock of the Marne game last week with the final three turns. As expected, this only took us a couple hours as we maneuvered for the final VPs we thought we could reach. I'll post the final positions and let you know I ended up winning 12-11.








I took Chalons-sur-Marne for 6VP, and two roads leading off the southern edge of the map for 3 more VP each.

Mike took Chateau-Thierry (3), Fere-en-Tarden (2), Soissons (2), an Aisne bridgehead (2), and Bois Meuniere (2).

There were some significant runs of bad dice in this game. It's a definite poster child for “all dice rolls are not created equal.” Yes, the total may have ended up average (Mike was logging this, but I don't actually know what the totals were) but there are some VERY high leverage rolls. Probably the most important are the HQ replenishment rolls. If you do poorly on those, you're not going to get very far in this game. Both sides have the onus of attack placed on them for significant stretches of the game, and not having any attack supply hamstrings your efforts.

Now, my thoughts on the game.

Our biggest concern had been with the “monkey-drill” associated with the breakdown regiments. This has since been fixed with errata, but not in the way I expected. Operation Michael has a breakdown phase before movement, and a reassembly phase after exploitation. The fix to Rock of the Marne makes you do all your breakdown/reassembly before any divisions are moved, and only breakdown regiments that have not moved yet can reassemble. This significantly changes the game from the rules as printed.

I was originally concerned about the VP hex placement, then I realized that having nearly all the German VPs at the south edge of the board forces the German player into a decision around turn 7: they can either turn it into a race for VPs and a high-scoring game, or pull back, play defense, and try to win ugly. I decided on the former, and it worked out for me. (Though, had one or two die rolls gone the other way, Mike wins.)

I have a number of other concerns, but I realized they all come down to the structure of the CRT.

First, trenches seem to have very little effect. Technically, they shift you left 2 columns when your attacking a unit in a trench and halve the distance of any retreats. But, given the minor differences in the columns of the CRT, it doesn't make much practical difference. (For example, the 4:1 column rolling a 7 is A2D3 – attacker takes two step losses, defender takes three. The 2:1 column gives the same die roll an A3D2 result. A lone division is going to be dead no matter what.) After seeing what was happening to units in the trenches, we pretty much abandoned them. Mike pulled south in the eastern sector, and I pulled east out of the trenches in the way of the counter-attack.

I also think the CRT is too bloody. If I was playing the Germans again in the initial turn, I'd try something like this:

1.Break down every division in the easternmost trench line.
2.As there's no “minimum attack strength” rule, attack with solo regiments against every solo unit in the French trenches from Reims east. (out of 36 possible die roll results, 6 will lose to regiment to no effect, 27 will reduce the enemy at the cost of the regiment, and 3 will eliminate the division and reduce the regiment.) There's 12 solo divisions and 6 solo regiments in that general area at the start. You will certainly open up gaps.

Given the lack of a minimum strength for attack, later in the game it makes a lot of sense to send solo reduced regiments up against any assembled division you can find on its own. You're going to lose the regiment, but the enemy will lose 0.92 steps on average. But, since 1 divisional step = 3 regimental steps, you actually come out ahead. And, if it's a reduced division, you'll eliminate it 30 out of 36 times.

I'm curious to run a simulation of this, but let's say you're lone reduced division is being chased down by 3 other divisions. You break down your division into three reduced regiments, and send each after a separate division. You will lose your one reduced division, but you'll take out somewhere around three divisional steps in the process. Occasionally, you'll take out full-strength divisions, but it's likely at least one of those chasers was reduced. And he's probably gone now on top of any other losses you can inflict. (Given average dice, which certainly were not in evidence during this game.)

My impression of WWI combat was that the defender had a severe advantage, and it required a 3:1 superiority to have any real chance at success. The results the CRT give seem to be the opposite, and reward well-timed “suicide” attacks. Given the German superiority in numbers (something like 54 divisions to 37 at the start with 30 regiments available in the pool to the French 18) it's just a matter of grinding down the French, given enough attack supply.

Ah, yes. The other big concern. I appreciate what the difficulty in replenishing HQs is supposed to represent. The attack could only be maintained for so long. But, the random nature of replenishment means you are at the mercy of die rolls late in the game. (Mike, in particular, had his counter attack across the north edge of the map stall out because he couldn't get HQs replenished.) It also has the effect of shaping the German attack. They will push further wherever attack supply appears.

Late in our game, I was having little luck getting HQs to replenish. (In the 2nd half of the game, you must roll a 9 or higher to be successful. However, Mike had taken out six HQ units over the span of two turns. As those come back replenished into any controlled town and/or with a unit permanently assigned to them, you can pretty much choose where to place them. As this isn't something you want your enemy doing, you're actually DIScouraged from taking out enemy HQs as two turns later, they'll come back where they're most needed. Again, this seems counter intuitive.

It also had the side effect of my sort of exploiting the supply rules. Each bridge across the Marne can only support one HQ, and unsupplied HQs cannot replenish. They can, however, fuel an attack one last time if they're replenished when they go out of supply. As there's no restriction on replacing the Hqs south of the Marne, I just kept funneling them down there, and I probably had eight or nine Hqs placed south of the Marne with only three usable bridges.

Looking back at all these concerns, I'd probably do two things now that the breakdown rule has been fixed. I'd institute a minimum attack strength. (something like you couldn't initiate an attack that would start off the left end of the CRT.) Alternatively, make units defending in their own trenches ignore the first step loss against them. Also, I'd consider making German HQs placed back in play south of the Marne roll to replenish unless a bridge exists to support them. Of course, lots of testing on these changes would be needed, and for all I know they may have been proposed at some point but discarded.

All this being said, Mike and I did enjoy the game. There were tough decisions to make, even with playing the incorrect breakdown rules. The game came down to the very end as the 12-11 score indicates. And now that they've fixed the breakdowns, I'm looking to try this again to see if my CRT concerns are still valid. I think it's a good game, but I'm not sure how historical it really is. Our total play time was around 12.5-13 hours, but I think it's a 10-hour campaign game when all's said and done.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

DSDF hits the Marne

Eric proposed that we play a WW1 game to commemorate the ending of the war, and I suggested that we combine it with a longer, multi-session game report, as our sessions to this point have either been games that fit into a single evening session or our mega-long-term OCS Sicily game. I proposed that we try the new MMP release, Rock of the Marne (BGG entry), and Eric deemed it a good idea. So, for the past few evenings (4 to be precise) we've been slogging through RotM.

RotM is the latest in the SCS series, which has a simpler rule-set than some wargames, with the emphasis on playability, but not to the total detriment of the specific situation and chrome. It has certain similarities to other WW1 games in the series, especially in the limited breakdown counters available to spread the divisions out a little more. These breakdowns give a couple of extra MPs (for the Allied player) or reduced costs for moving into ZoCs, no overrun costs, and gaining exploitation movement (for the German player).

However, unlike Operation Michael in the same series, RotM doesn't provide a specific phase in the game in which to breakdown and recombine, but each division can breakdown immediately prior to moving in the movement phase, and then recombine at the end of its move. This means that as long as you have a few breakdown units available, there is a limited number of breakdown units for each player, you can use and reuse them as each division moves. Pretty big for the German player, and just feels a bit 'gamey'.

These two combine to give a totally ahistorical representation of the campaign. As seen from Eric's earlier post, his Germans attacked pretty much all along the line and just poured through, and I spent most of the early game just falling back. After the first turn the trenches were pretty much useless, as Eric just drove through and I had to fall back or face encirclement.

However, a large part of the game, including the end result, suffered greatly from the DSDF, a term coined by another of our gaming buddies, Doug, and which long-term readers will be familiar with by now. (For new readers, that's the Deansian Statistical Distortion Field. Basically any game that I play, that features dice (or any luck determining feature, it's not really only attributable to dice), will feature wacky outcomes way to the end of the bell curve. Whilst this normally works against me, in the (very) occasional game it works in my favor. Ask Chris about our FAB: Bulge game. Incidentally, I played FAB: Bulge with Eric recently. I got about as far in 7 turns as Chris did in 4.)

This game had it in spades. Early on, I used my Allied aircraft on CAP to intercept the German planes, a successful interception allowing the Allied player to not only negate the German 2 column right-shift on the CRT, but to replace it with a 2 column left-shift. A fairly major change in any single combat. The basic chance for a successful interception is to roll 7 or more on 2 d6, i.e. ~60%. In the first several turns I made 6 interception attempts, and missed every single one of them, which is somewhere off the 1% end of the bell curve. Making even 3 of those would have gone a long way to helping prevent the rather one-sided nature of the early game. (In contrast, Eric made 2 interception attempts, and scored them both, one even high enough to cause a step loss. In my 7 total attempts I rolled low enough to lose 2 steps from my own aircraft.)

Then again, Eric was rolling like a demon in the early part. 10s and 11s were appearing regularly, especially, it seemed, on the low odds attacks, which meant whole stacks of units disappeared, leaving gaping holes everywhere. Naturally these were rapidly exploited by his StossPanzerTruppen. His HQ recovery rolls saw him get most of them back in the early turns (and 90% in turn 5, all but 1 roll being higher than 5, another low probability outcome), although he suffered later on when the recovery number went up to 8 (i.e. he had to roll 9 or higher to recover the HQ).

Despite all this, at the start of the Allied turn 14, the points were 13-12 in my favor, when I made an attack on another 2VP hex, but rolled '2'. This not only eliminated most of my units, it also retreated the remaining unit from another VP hex, which Eric promptly moved into, and was enough to win the game. This was the only result that could have done it, as Eric didn't have any HQs that could provide supply for an attack. I tried to take any VP hex in my turn, but a combination of failed HQ recovery rolls and being unable to roll a '10' or higher in any of the 4 combats for VP spaces gave Eric the game.

(The game in pictures is here.)

In the post-game discussion we noticed that there was one HQ I could have used for another attack on a VP space in that final turn, as the attacking divisions were not tied to any particular corps HQ, and, just for kicks, I rolled. An '11'. That would have been enough to win the game, 11-9. Sigh.

I could go further into the details (like turns where my several combats rolls averaged 4.5, and Eric's averaged 8.5), but you get the general picture. Which is all to say that it's real hard to get a good feel for a game where it's as whacked up as this one. However, some things were readily apparent.

Firstly, the whole breakdown think needed rethinking. Being able to ripple the same breakdown units through each divisional movement just seems wrong. In fact there has recently been a rules change to address this, but rather than just take the same approach as Operation Michael (separate breakdown/recombine phases) they've introduced an even more complex version of the existing rule. Sheesh.

Second, is those very breakdown troops are way too strong for the Germans. Giving them reduced ZoC movement costs, no overrun costs and exploit movement makes them crazy strong. Yes there are limited numbers of counters, but they're pretty much unstoppable. The only thing that stopped Eric from taking Paris was that Paris wasn't on the map to take.

Next, the CRT is a bit too aggressive on the defender results at the upper level, with whole divisions just disappearing in one combat. This means that holes can be blown in defenses, and the German breakdowns units (aka StossTruppen) just pour through, which gives it more of a feel of WW2 'Blitzkrieg' armor operations than WW1. (In fact, at times, it felt more like WW2 desert warfare than the recent game of Afrika II I played with Chuck, which felt more like WW1 trench warfare.)

Certainly the breakdown rule change will make for a considerably different game, but is there enough there to make us want to try it again? Hmm, not so sure, but with so many other games out there to be played, it's going to have a hard fight to make it onto the table. The jury remains out.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Back and Forth Across the Marne

Over the last two weeks, Mike and I have continued our Rock of the Marne campaign. We're through 12 turns at this point – just three more to go. To date, we've been playing for around 10 hours with another half hour for setup. Now, there's definitely been some extra time spent on getting your head back into the game than had we been doing this all in one sitting, but it's still probably a 10 hour game when all's said and done.

My last post covered us through turn 3. That is mid-day on July 16. (Each turn is 1/2 day.) On July 18 (GT 7) the Allies began a large counter-attack that eventually ended up pushing the German force back to their starting points, and destroyed much of what was left of the forces in that area.

Our game has deviated from history a fair amount, and the last three turns are going to prove which directions things fall.



This image shows how the historical counter-attack happened. The solid red line is the front on the morning of July 18 (turn 7). I've drawn three sets of lines on this graphic.

The black box is the approximate map area the game covers.

The blue line is through the first three turns. You'll see it pretty much matches up with where things should have been after six turns.

The green line is through twelve turns. I've effectively created two salients that have seriously exposed flanks. This should roughly correlate to the red dotted line on the map. You can see I've continued to push in the southwest and southeast, but am getting pushed back much harder in the west than actually happened.

To what can this be attributed? Well, a number of factors. First off, the majority of German VP hexes are at the southern edge of the map. 15 of 26 points, IIRC. Historically, the Germans never came close to any of them. As I've maintained the offensive across the Marne, that meant I didn't have the resources to also put up a strong defense in the western trenches – therefore I abandoned them and attempted to set up a defense further east. Mike has spent a good portion of the last four turns chasing me across the northwest sector of the map. Our final session will pick up with him catching me as I can't afford to give up any more VP spaces running away.

In the southeast, I've taken Chalons and now have to hold it against a British relief force.

The other concern I've got is holding western bridges across the Marne river. As each bridge can only support one HQ, it's imperative to me to hold them. At the offensive's peak, I held seven bridges. I'm now down to three (though I may be getting one back this turn.) That's not enough to maintain all the HQs that have moved south, so I either need to pull someone back or take more space.

The latter is becoming more difficult as to attack, you need attack supply. To get attack supply, you must have replenished HQs. To replenish an HQ, it must be in supply, and you have to roll higher than your supply number each turn. For the last 1/3-1/2 of the game, that number is an 8 for the Germans. That means I have to roll a 9 or higher on two dice to get attacks supplied by that HQ. Not easy, and in fact on one turn (either turn 10 or 11) I whiffed on ever single roll.

Here's the current board position from the Allied perspective after 12 turns.

West

Center

East


I'll wait until next week to post my full thoughts on the game.

Monday, November 17, 2008

In Remembrance

Last Tuesday was the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. It seemed appropriate, then, to play a WWI game last week. The only relevant game short enough to be played in an evening that I could think of was They Shall Not Pass, the Avalanche small-box game on the battle of Verdun. Mike had a better idea, though: a multiple-evening session of Rock of the Marne, the new SCS game from The Gamers/MMP.

This fit better in my mind, as the game covers 2nd Marne - the final German offensive of WWI. After this battle was over, the Germans collapsed quickly, ending the war just three months later. An appropriate battle to play out given the date. Plus, I'd just gotten my copy as well and was eager to get some SCS gaming in.

We knew this would take at least two evenings to play, and Mike has the ability to leave it set up, so the next few posts will be a continuing look at our game.

We've frequently blogged about OCS on here before, and it's probably my and Mike's favorite series. But OCS is pretty hefty. Sometimes you want a good chicken salad instead of a five-course steak dinner.

SCS is that good chicken salad. It really does distill wargaming down to its essence. All games in the series (among which Rock of the Marne is the 12th) come with separate series and game-specific rules. SCS can be described as an IGo-UGo, ratio-based CRT, move-fight-exploit-supply game. Each game in the series tweaks these basic tools as the designer feels appropriate. Three of the games so far are set in WWI (RotM, Operation Michael, and Drive on Paris), one covers the Yom Kippur War of 1973, one is set in the Spanish Civil War, and the rest cover various parts of WWII.

Given that the basic rules are SO simple (seven pages including illustrations) it only takes a short amount of time to jump into a new game in the series. Rock of the Marne, for example, only has four pages of game-specific rules. These are usually broken up into four sections: overall, Axis/CP, Allies/AP, and optional rules. Following this are the scenarios.

Each game seems to have a small number of specific rules that give that game its flavor. The primary special rule for this one is breakdown units. Both sides have the ability to break down and recombine divisions into smaller, more flexible, and more resilient units. For example, a 8-8-6 (Att-Def-Move) German division turns into two 3-3-6 and one 2-2-6 stormtrooper units. These can then be moved independently and recombined into some other unit from the dead pool later on. (The only restriction is that you can't increase either your total attack or defense strength during the process.) This all sounds wonderfully flexible in being able to move troops around, but another game-specific rule reduces this flexibility a fair amount – many divisions are permanently attached to their corps, and can only draw supply from their Corps HQ. This means that when one of these divisions is rebuilt, they better be somewhere close to their HQ or they won't be good for much.

The other big key to the breakdown units is that a division is (nearly?) always a two-step unit. Each breakdown unit is also two steps. So, a two-step division could break down into anywhere between three and six steps. Much more useful given the CRT is very bloody (as you would expect in a trench-warfare situation.)

Of course, you're limited by the counter set in how many of these breakdown units can be in place at any one time, and given the starting deployment, you've got gaps all over the place you're trying to fill – I could use twice as many breakdowns as are supplied and still be wanting more. So, one of the skills to be developed in playing this game well is knowing where and when to breakdown your divisions.

As we all know so well, knowing how to play a game is NOT the same thing as knowing how to play it well. So, Mike and I sat down to learn about Rock of the Marne.

We started setting up pieces just after 7pm, and only got three turns in that night. I blame that on my inability to really get a handle on the situation as the Germans early on. I know I took a long time in my turns last week, as there's a lot to do for the Germans in very little time. And you really need to understand the entire situation before beginning your push.

The campaign game lasts 15 turns. On turn 7, massive Allied reinforcements come in on the German right flank. Nearly all the VP spaces the Germans are trying to take are at the far side of the map. So you have to cover a lot of ground quickly, then hold on for the counter assault.

Sound like the Bulge? 2nd Marne really is WWI's Battle of the Bulge. It was the last German offensive of the war and it played out in a massive assault creating a salient that was then beaten back mostly by an Allied counter-offensive from the flank. In this case, though, the war ended much more quickly, and the Germans never retreated back onto their own soil. The Armistace was signed while the Germans were still in French territory.

So, how have Mike and I done? I'll post three shots of my position after the third turn. I've just broken through east of Reims, and I've been pushing hard in the center. I've crossed the Marne in several places at this point. I don't know if I'm ahead of or behind schedule (I'm leaning toward the latter) but I just know that both of us are feeling like we're losing at this point – the sign of a great situation.

One quick note about the rules - every time we had a question about something, it was explicitly answered in the rules. So, they may be short, but they're definitely well written. As you would expect from a game from The Gamers.

First, my left (east) flank.



Now, the center.



Finally, the (for now) quiet right. The area to the bottom-right of this picture is where the Allied reinforcements will be arriving on turn 7.



We'll be picking this up again Wednesday night, and at least one more session after that. Mike thinks we'll need four, I'm betting on three. I know I've got a better handle on things now, so I'll be back to my usual quick-playing self.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Conflict of gamers

After our Vassal fun last week, it was back to regular gaming, and I won the toss for selection. It wasn't too hard to pick Conflict of Heroes, a game I bought several weeks previously, but hadn't really looked at since. I wasn't even aware of this one until our gaming friend Patrick mentioned it and I started some research, starting with the BGG entry. Pretty quickly I was sold on the game and it was one of the first games I purchased with my store credit from the recent Rainy Day Games auction, in fact I even placed a pre-order for it before the auction had even taken place.

I've been looking for a good squad level game for some time. ASL wasn't it, too detailed, too many rules to remember, and although it has a big following, it just wasn't doing it for me (although it was great to just read through the gorgeous rule book, and drool over the fascinating range of weapons and hardware). Combat Commander wasn't it, too wacky. Although I will play it, too often it's not very satisfying. (I still can't make up my mind whether I want to get the new Pacific version, but, for the moment, I haven't cancelled my P500 pre-order.)

So, over the past few weeks I've been following all the posts on BGG, and, boy, have there been a lot of them! And then some more! (46 pages in fact.) This game is generating a LOT of interest, and it's all positive, with everyone raving about how good it is. Can they all be wrong, or have they just been drinking the Kool-Aid? Time to find out.

Prior to our game, I decided not to do more than just read the rules, in order to keep a level playing field. That way neither one of us had any more experience than the other, although it was hard not to get it onto the table. The rules appear ridiculously simple, and the first major thing of note is that there are no leaders in the game, which comes as something as a shock to those brought up on ASL and CC. Instead, there are Command Action Points (CAPs), which represent the abstraction of command, that can be used to allow units to perform actions, or modify dice rolls. Each player has a CAP allowance, which is received each turn, unused points at the end of the turn being lost.

Players take turns being the active player, being allowed to take multiple actions per activation, and only when the player is done taking actions is their activation over. However, after each action in that activation the non-active player gets a chance to react by taking an action. During an activation only one unit, or group of units, may be activated, where it gets 7 Action Points, with each movement, fire, or rally, etc. being an action, and taking a number of APs to perform. Other possible actions are Opportunity Action, Command Action, and Play an Action card, and the reacting player may choose any of these three actions as a reaction to the active player's action. (The non-player may not choose a unit/group activation as a reaction.) The
Opportunity Action allows a player to use a unit/group to perform and action is response to a previous action. A Command Action allows the player to use CAPs to perform actions with units/groups. This is useful, because after activation or an Opportunity Action, a unit/group is flipped over to show they have been used. Note that CAP can be used on ANY unit, even one that has been flipped! The final action is a Card Action. Each player has a number of cards which allow a variety of actions to be performed, e.g. firing for no AP cost, adding to firepower, etc.

And that takes us, rather conveniently, to combat. Units are divided into 'hard' targets (e.g. armor) and 'soft' (e.g. infantry), marked by the color of their defense strength, blue or red, respectively, as well as frontal and flank defense values. Some units, e.g. armor, also have both types of attack strength (red & blue), and if using the 'wrong' type of attack strength for the intended target the strength is halved. Take the attack strength, apply any modifiers, add 2d6, and compare to the target's defense strength. Equal or greater scores a hit, 4 or more greater scores 2 hits, and 2 hits kills. When a unit is hit, the player draws a damage marker from the bag (for the correct target type) which identifies the impact of the hit, which ranges from pinning (no movement) to varies modifiers to action costs, defense and attack strength, and outright kills. This marker is kept secret and placed under the unit until it rallies and removes it. A hit scored on a unit with a damage marker removes that unit from the game, and each removed unit reduces the CAPs by one point.

As an example, to start their activation, player A could play a card, and in response player B may choose to do nothing. Player A may then choose to activate a unit, placing the AP marker in the 7APs space, moving it one hex for a cost of 1AP. In response to this player B may use CAP to allow a unit to fire on the moving unit as a Command Action, which means the firing unit isn't flipped to its used side. Player A could choose an Opportunity Action, firing with a different unit to the one currently active, which would flip the unit, but save CAP until later. And so it goes on, back and fore, until the active player decides he doesn't want to do anything more that activation. Pretty simple and straight-forward.

So on Wednesday Eric and I sat down, briefly recapped the rules required (it uses a programmed instruction style), and set up scenarios 1. (We used the set-up in the play book, although I note now that there is a correction.) I was the Russians, Eric the Germans, and has the Germans trying to kill units and take control of the victory location. Eric started by advancing strongly, and managed to capture the VP location at one point, but I forced him out and scored lots of casualties for a convincing win.

That took around 45 minutes, so onto scenario 2, which once again saw my defending Russians being attacked by Eric's Germans. This scenario introduces hidden units and group activation (costs 1 CAP to activate a group of units). There are two VP locations, one in the village that the Russians get more VPs for the longer they can hold onto it, the Germans more for capturing it quickly. I placed a couple of units forward, hoping to catch Eric quickly, and it almost worked as Eric activated a group and dashed forward up the road. I allowed them to move past the hidden unit, and then fired on their flank from an adjacent hex (+3 fire modifier). Requiring only a 5 on 2 dice I whiffed one of them, then when he turned to face me (a movement action, spending APs, so allowing me a response) I whiffed on both units requiring a 6. He fired, scoring a hit with one unit, but as I'd used two cards to allow fire for no AP/CAP cost, I used an Opportunity Action to fire again, finally scoring a kill, but Eric got his revenge and also took out my unit. That could have gone so much better for me!

Eric started a drive up my right flank, and I (stupidly) let him, rather than fire on him, eventually revealing my other forward unit when he advanced into my hex. In my reaction I fired in Close Combat (which is just fire, but with different modifiers), scoring a hit, and Eric decided to run away rather than risk losing an LMG unit (they're -2 in CC). The next turn he played a card that flipped one of my units to its used side, and chose the unit protecting the VP location. He then used his activations to gang up on it, as I didn't have any LoS to stop him, managing to capture it in turn 3 for mucho VPs. I did manage to capture it back again in turn 4, but Eric kicked me out again in turn 5, and those VPs were enough for him to take the win.

I think I can honestly say that this is one of the two most exciting and interesting games of the year for me. (The other is Napoleon's Triumph, btw.) The price is high ($75), but the production values are excellent. Great mapboards, luscious large counters, colorful rule book, play book and play aids. (The rule book was mis-collated, but free replacements are offered, and the customer service response (from Uwe, himself) to my request for a replacement was almost instantaneous.)

The game play is some of the most elegant I've seen, and it just flows together. The idea of CAPs work wonderfully, and gives some hard decisions to make, and each CAP spent has to be justified. I found myself spending CAP too quickly, allowing Eric freedom from response at the end of the turn, as well as playing a very poor tactical game in the second scenario, leaving my units without mutual support. The interactive flow of the game makes for some tense decisions and flexibility. This has obviously been some time in the production and must have seen serious play-testing as everything just fits together so well and so cleanly.

There's a time for a long, detailed, intricate game, and there's a time for something lighter, and this fits the bill for the latter category very well. Both scenarios took us no more than a couple of hours, which is a very decent length. Looking forward in the scenarios/rules there is armor, off-board artillery and larger multi-formation scenarios, so there is a lot of depth to go yet. I can hardly wait, as I think I've found that squad level game I was looking for. This is going to see a lot of table time in the future, and I plan to pick up the new installments as they're released. My CC:Pacific pre-order is in the greatest danger it's ever been, and is now hanging on by a thread.

First Look: Conflict of Heroes

Mike and I sat down Wednesday for his choice. A long-anticipated game: Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear. I'd seen this demoed at WBC, and was impressed from the limited information I had, while the hype/buzz machine has been working overtime for this title. This is a bit of a red flag for me lately, as I've been underwhelmed by the last two over-hyped games I've played. (Devil's Cauldron and Warriors of God.)

CoH is currently ranked #1 on BGG's wargame rankings, supplanting Devil's Cauldron, Deluxe SPQR, and Case Blue. That's significant in itself. It's also got more rankings than the other three combined. So, it's got popularity going for it as well. (In fact, the only other game in the Wargames top 20 with more rankings is Twilight Struggle.)

It was definitely time to get this on the table. First thing you notice is the production value – it looks like a Eurogame, not a wargame. Large thick tiles (they're tiles, not counters.) hard, mounted maps. Decent, functional artwork. The cards are definitely flimsy (and are bridge-sized, not poker-sized, so they're smaller than your average card sleeve), but that's about the only knock on the production.

The rules are written in the “Programmed Instruction” approach used way back in games like Squad Leader and Up Front. (IIRC, Tide of Iron does as well.) So, each scenario you work through includes more rules. This is great for learning games, but in these days of firehose-style game releases, it makes it difficult to actually work through all the scenarios to fully learn the game. Many other games are fighting for table time. So, whatever you've got as your foundation better be good or there's no point coming back for more.

Given that CoH is relatively short, we worked through the first two scenarios. The first is very basic – five units/side, no special rules. It gives you the feel for the flow of the game, and that's really about it. And “flow” is the right word. This game is highly interactive.

The basic structure is this: Each side gets a number of CAPs (force-wide activation points that reset each turn) and each unit (or group of units) gets seven action points (AP) to spend when activated. When it's your turn you can pass or do any combination of: play cards, activate a unit, opportunity fire, or take a Command Action (spend CAP). You can do as much of that as you like on your turn as long as you don't activate more than one unit (or group of units.) After you're done, your opponent goes, having the same choices. Turn ends when both sides pass consecutively. I believe all the scenarios are five turns. (I haven't verified this, however.)

At the end of a turn, you may score VPs depending on your situation and the turn number, and possibly draw a card. Also, your CAPs are reset to the scenario starting value less any destroyed units. (This reflects deteriorating command as forces are worn down.) Generally, VPs are also scored when opposing units are killed.

When a unit is activated, it spends AP as it goes. Each unit has a cost to fire, and a cost to move. Generally, it's 1 AP to move one hex (this may be modified by terrain) and 3 or 4 AP to fire. You can go over your 7 alloted AP, but you must spend CAP to do so on a 1:1 basis. As this is a resource limited for the turn, you only want to do this when you really need it.

Combat is relatively simple: Each unit has a firepower rating. Add 2d6 to this, and subtract the target's defense rating modified for terrain and/or flank. Tie or beat the defense rating to score a hit – beat the defense rating by four, and the target is destroyed. When a unit that's taken a hit takes another it's destroyed, otherwise it draws a chit from a cup and secretly applies the results. These chits have things like suppression, berserks, or outright kills. It effectively randomizes the target's reaction to getting hit.

Group activations (which I've alluded to) are introduced in the 2nd scenario and allow units in adjacent hexes to be activated simultaneously. This costs 1 CAP to pull off, and the group has 7 AP to spend in total, not 7 AP per unit. However, as long as the units stay adjacent, they can all move or fire for the same cost as acting individually. So, if you're wanting a reserve force, for example, to move forward into the fray, this is an activation-effective way to do so.

Once a unit or group has completed its activation, it's flipped over to its “used” side (marked by a red line through the middle of the tile) and can't be activated again this turn. It can, however, act again with the expenditure of CAP as a Command Action.

The cards add some tweaks to the basic structure. Things like units performing an action for free, getting d6 more AP to spend, etc. Nothing seemed too out of whack, and each scenario defines the exact cards available in the deck.

That essentially covers what you'll see in the first two scenarios. I haven't read any further in the rules to this point to see what else is down the pipe.

I'm really not going to give a session report for this as that wasn't what I was concentrating on when we were playing. I know Mike won the first rather handily, and I squeaked out a win in the second. The latter due to the fact I had a better tactical position going into the final turn. (I played the Germans both times if you want to compare results.)

So, what did I think? My opinions here are very preliminary as the first two scenarios only give you a taste of the full-meal-deal. I'll make the somewhat obvious comparison first: this is a simpler, less “wacky” Combat Commander. The give and take is there, the amount you do when it's your turn is about the same, and the scale's about the same. Primary differences come in that CoH has unit facing, armored units (which I've not played with yet, and am very curious how they pan out), and a turn-based structure vs. CC's time track. There's also the whole control issue. CoH lets you, for the most part, do what you want when you want. While this may not be as realistic, it does remove the sometimes frustrating “fishing for a fire card” aspect of CC, and may make for a more consistently enjoyable game. I'm very curious how this game plays with armor and larger scenarios, and am looking forward to moving through the remaining scenarios in the not-too-distant future.

Another (and probably only other) valid comparison is Panzer Grenadier. PG is a higher scale (each unit is a platoon vs. the squads in CoH) and the PG combat system is morale-based and naturally less bloody as a result. But the back-and-forth fluid nature of play works in that system as well.

It's been hard lately to get games played enough for in-depth analysis. Just too many games fighting for table time. However, after an evening's play, many times you can figure out if you want to study further. Certain games fell short – Duel in the Dark, Warriors of God, and a couple others. Some I'm not sure about – Tide of Iron and Devil's Cauldron. Some just demand more time. Conflict of Heroes joins games such as Storm over Stalingrad and Napoleon's Triumph as games that strike an immediate chord and should remain part of my “heavy rotation” list for a long time to come. I'd been waiting to buy this until I'd played (over-hyped games go on that "play first" list now) but it's jumped onto my "must have list."

Conflict of Heroes falls into that quickly expanding genre of “light wargames.” It's not a complex skirmish game, but it does show a surprising amount of depth. It's not as “wacky” as Combat Commander. It's not as physically fiddly as Tide of Iron. It's more satisfying than Memoir '44. If you're looking for a game like this, give Conflict of Heroes a shot. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Virtually back to Iwo Jima

This past week Mike and I finally got back together for some gaming. My family schedule had rearranged a bit, so there were some delays after my business trip earlier this month.

We had also had a bit of a miscommunication on what we were doing Wednesday night. I thought we were playing Iwo Jima again (this time with the correct rules as opposed to how we botched it last time), and Mike thought we were doing a Vassal walkthrough. Given that the Iwo Jima Vassal module had been released earlier that day, we decided to combine the two. I'll talk about Vassal first, then Iwo Jima.

For those that don't know, Vassal is an aid for playing games online. Exactly what games you can play completely depends on people writing modules to support them. These generally can only be distributed with permission of the publisher as there's a need for copyrighted material to be included. Some companies, however, are extremely friendly to this sort of support, and may modules include the actual game art (in digital form, obviously) within the module. This comes as close as is possible to replicating the on-the-table experience on your monitor.

The level of detail included within a module is pretty much up to the module designer. Some (such as Afrika II) are very basic while others (Devils Cauldron, for example) provide so many aids and utilities, they actually improve the gaming experience. TDC's module, for example, allows you to do things such as display a leader's command range on the map, and highlight all units that are a member of the currently activated formation. Things you have to track manually when playing the physical game.

Vassal is one of a handful of gaming aids. Others include Cyberboard, Aide-de-Camp, ZunTzu, Wargameroom.com, and more that aren't coming to mind right now. To the best of my knowledge, Vassal is unique in that it combines two major features – it's written in Java so it works on any platform that supports Java, and it supports both live and play-by-email (PBeM) modes. The latest version (currently in beta – and the version we used last week) also imports Aide-de-camp modules. Vassal is available at Vassalengine.org. If you want the latest beta, click the forums link, then I believe the top forum area contains the link to the latest. Many modules are accessible from that website as well.

Mike had tried Vassal a while ago, but didn't enjoy the experience. At the time, the tools were relatively crude, and the smaller screen resolution gave him the feeling of looking at the game through a porthole. Not the best experience by any means.

Given the number of great longer games fighting for time and table space, PBeM is one of the ways to get these games played. Mike figured it was time to try it again, and wanted to walk through the system together so questions are more easily answered. I've been involved in email games quite a bit (including a handful of tournaments) so I was a natural to help him learn the system. The one thing I'd never done with Vassal, though, was play live – everything I'd done had been PBeM. So, it would be a learning experience for me as well.

The Iwo Jima Vassal module has a couple nice touches added to it. Concealed units appear about 50% translucent on the Japanese player's screen, and are (naturally) invisible to the American player. Moving a concealed unit using hidden movement also does not create a visible log entry. Finally, there's commands that reset all “fired” markers and return all American naval and air units to the support box. Nice time savers that we didn't actually notice until about halfway through. Also, each unit has a “lose one step” command that will move the unit to the eliminated box when it loses its last step.
In the actual game play, I decided to try a Japanese strategy I'd read on CSW and attempted to implement in our initial game. (And it would have worked better last time had we read up on the errata/clarifications.) Basically, don't directly contest the beaches – instead shell those areas mercilessly with all the artillery you can bring to bear. Ditto with the airfields. Fight for those, but shell them as well. As a result, I placed nothing on the beaches, but surrounded the beaches and airfields with artillery.

Mike started off with a very successful shelling of the landing beaches, and followed up with his invasion – I shelled and managed to keep beachhead markers off the map for most of the first three turns. After Mike's initial good results, his barrages started to tail off. In fact, he wasn't able to clear Mt. Siribachi until turn 7, the point at which we quit. The score at that point was something like 32-5 for the Japanese (40 is an auto-victory) and the Americans had no chance to come back.

There's errata on the game that says regardless of the terrain value of an area, getting a single artillery hit on an area is enough to remove Safe to Land and Beachhead markers from the board. Unless the US is able to clear the artillery from the adjacent areas, this is a rather easy target for the Japanese to reach. There are probably a number of ways for the Americans to combat this, but it seems to be a very tough go. Of course, the real thing was as well.

I want to give this game a few more chances – looking at the relative ease in which Safe to Land markers can be removed (and this is the primary way in which the US gets VPs) it looks to be slanted in the Japanese favor. It may simply come down to how effective the US artillery is in the first three turns. If the Japanese can simply have their artillery survive long enough, it becomes too hard for the US player to score enough points to catch up.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Over the web

One of the things that Eric and I have talked about for some time is playing games over Vassal. However, the limiting factor to this undertaking is that I've never used Vassal. I played around with it a little, but could never quite figure out what to do with it. So, our efforts this week were directed towards Eric teaching me Vassal, which, in the end, didn't take much time at all, as once you have someone to show you what to do, it really isn't that hard to figure out at all. We futzed around with Afrika II a little, as he showed me how to get modules, load them up, and get going with the various options. all pretty simple really.

With lots of time left in the evening, we decided to have another go at Iwo Jima. Over Vassal. This was a brand new module, only released that day, so it was great timing. It took a little bit to figure out what all the options did, so we got connected and familiarized and took off again, once more with Eric as the Japanese.

We started off with cloudy weather, so one US air unit is marked as Fired. Once again I pounded the beaches with my air and naval strength to great effect, but, once again there was nothing there. I moved ashore and tried to press inland a little, but received a bloody nose for my efforts. In the Japanese turn Eric barraged both beaches to remove beachhead markers.

Turn 2 sees more cloudy weather, as the Marines endeavor to stabilize their position. The barrages hit Mt. Suribachi and Tachiwa Point, attempting to remove his artillery that can hit the beaches, with moderate success. I attempt to move onto Tamana Hill, but again the reaction fire is very accurate. In Eric's turn his artillery have found the range onto Double Root beach as he score 5 hits in 5 dice, causing lots of casualties. However, his barrage onto Old Man beach whiffs, leaving the beachhead marker.

Turn 3, and more cloudy weather. A big air strike on Mt. Suribachi scores well and removes the artillery unit there, as well as hits on the other 2 units. The other strike on Motoyama Airfield also does well, but the caves take the brunt. I flood the beach with reinforcements, taking advantage of the beachhead marker. I try to move into Funami Dai, but the reaction fire is pretty devastating and I lose an armor unit. I also move into Motoyama Airfield, and don't suffer too greatly from the reaction fire. In the assaults, I score 1 net hit on Funami Dai, which forces one unit to retreat to Chidori Airfield, don't cause any damage on Motoyama Airfield. Other than successfully barraging both beaches for more losses, Eric doesn't do anything.

Turn 4, and some clear skies! The barrage on Motoyama Airfield causes 1 net hit, but the one on Funami Dai doesn't even cause enough damage to remove a cave (2 hits on 14 dice). The assault on Funami Dai goes well, and I take control. Eric successfully barrages all the beachheads and Funami Dai, the rotter, and then follows up by occupying Double Root Beach, the double rotter.

Turn 5, and back to cloudy weather. I barrage his units on Double Root Beach and Western Village into the eliminated box, while on the mega barrage on Ohsaka Hill I score 8 hits on 20 dice, removing another pesky artillery unit. I manage to get a unit onto Mt. Suribachi as his reaction fire misses, and also move onto Western Village to assault the mortar there, but miss totally. Eric's attacks on Mt. Suribachi kicks me out, but the one on Motoyama Airfield fails, and I score my first points of the game.

Turn 6, more cloudy weather. The mega barrage on Mt. Suribachi score 4 hits on 18 dice, so not much there. I save my big roll for Northern Airfield, scoring 4 hits on 6 dice, which are eaten up by the caves. I try to move into Tachiwa Point, but again the reaction fire is strong, and I retire out again. My assault on Western Coast scores 2 hits, and forces the mortar unit back another space. The Japanese barrages on Motoyama Airfield and Funami Dai again score hits, so no VPs for me. Eric has 31 at this point.

Turn 7, yet more cloudy weather, that's 6 out of 7 turns, when it's a 50/50 roll for clear weather. I hit Mt. Suribachi again with 20 points, and finally clear out his units. The barrage in Chindori Airfield misses, but I finally remove the mortar unit in Warbler Village. I'm now using '0' strength units to claim areas, because that's about all I have left. I also move units into Tachiwa Point and Chidori Airfield, and don't suffer too badly in the reaction fire, but my assaults don't do much. Eric barrages Motoyama Airfield. I roll 3 VPs for Mt. Suribachi, so I've now got 5 to Eric's 32.

At this point we have to stop, as Eric's battery is about to run out, but the game is effectively over anyway. Even scoring 10 points a turn I can't hit 40 by game end, and Eric is going to score big time for areas controlled at game end, for a convincing win.

Having such crappy weather certainly didn't help any, with 6 out of 7 rolls being cloudy (2-3, lose use of 1 air unit). I had 4 good barrage rolls, scoring 8 hits from 20 or so dice, but 3 of those were against areas with no units in them. Eric rolled decently, especially in the early part of the game, causing a lot of unit step losses, and that 5 hits from 5 dice on the second turn was especially brutal, taking out 5 steps. By the end of the game I had very few units left, and most of them were '0' strength.

And, incidentally, I did a quick analysis of the die rolls, and Eric made 107 die rolls, scoring hits on 42, a 39.3% rate, slightly higher than the expected value. I rolled 283, scoring hits on 98, for 34.6%, or just over average. Excluding my two initial barrages against the empty beaches, my figures are 82 from 239, or 32.9%, just below average.

Iwo Jima is a fun little game, a decent filler for an hour or two, and it's certainly a lot harder for the US player when you play by the correct rules, but that may just be due to playing wrong, as I'm tending to agree with the proposal that the US player needs to spend at least a turn or two just blasting things before attempting to land and do anything, otherwise the Japanese artillery just makes mincemeat of his forces. And with no beachheads that means no replacements, just to make it harder. No, a couple turns reducing likely artillery locations and Japanese marine units seems like the best plan. I'm sure it will see more play time to test that theory.

The Vassal session went well, although there were some issues with the module. However, these were limited to the controls for the US markers (beachheads, Safe to Land), which you were supposed to be able to activate by toggling the respective location, but they didn't work. No matter, you could just drag the markers from the control palette, so it wasn't a big issue. I'm not too fond of the log output, as looking back over it some of it is a bit cryptic, and it doesn't make mention of the placement or removal of markers.

Several years ago I played a game by one of the other game tools (Cyberboard I think, but it may have been ADC), and I wasn't too impressed by it. However, that was in the days of 1024*768, and I just couldn't get used to seeing so little of the map at any one time. On my MacBook Pro (1440*900) it was quite usable, although IJ doesn't have a large map, and when I stick it on the old 23" Cinema Display (1940*1200) it should be very usable. I'm planning on playing some more by Vassal, and have a couple of contacts already, even outside my regular band of gaming buddies.

Friday, October 3, 2008

But it looks great on the table...

There are those that will fondly look back on the days of Avalon Hill as the “golden age of wargaming.” To me, it's “golden” only if you consider golden anniversaries as celebrating something that happened a long time ago.

The real “golden age” of wargaming is now. The games being produced today have better production (okay, so they're not mounted maps...), better design, and a much wider experience in gameplay. No individual game is printed in the numbers Avalon Hill used to crank out in the day, but it wouldn't surprise me if the total number of games being produced isn't somewhere within at least hailing distance of what was being printed 30 years ago.

Preorder systems instituted by most companies insure that, for the most part, only the games people want are the ones that are printed. This has had an interesting side effect. The quality bar is much higher than it was long ago. “Substandard” games frequently either don't make the cut and are never produced, or they languish back in the queue as more popular games keep bumping them back. Many companies publish their rules in advance so prospective buyers have a good idea of how games will function and whether it's a game for them.

This has had the effect of making “wasted”gaming time a rarity. People are nearly always playing games they like as they knew in advance what the experience would probably be and shied away from games not up their alley.

This week's post is about the exception that proves the rule.

A few months ago, I got Warriors of God from MMP. This is (again) part of their IGS line of games that have been so successful. Titles such as A Victory Lost, Storm over Stalingrad, and Fire in the Sky have received numerous accolades and awards. I was particularly looking forward to this title as I don't believe there has ever been a game that attempts to cover the entire Hundred Years War.

It's a gorgeous production, and might be Mark Mahaffey's best map to date. The tiles (no, I'm not calling them counters – they're big and thick, so they're tiles) are beautiful and look good on the map. The rules are also very attractive, though I have issues with the font choice and layout in the combat examples.

There are two scenarios in the game – The Hundred Years War (1337-1453), and The Lion in Winter which covers the 1135-1258 time frame. In the first you get Jeanne d'Arc, in the 2nd you get Robin Hood.

WoG is another area-impulse game. The catch with this one is that, due to the incredible length of time the game covers (12 turns over 100 years), your leaders will die during the game while others come of age to replace them. Also, the number of impulses in a turn is random – you roll a contested d6 for initiative, and the winner gets the loser's die roll (+ 2 more) in actions. The loser gets one less. Leaders are rated for rank, bravery, and command. You get points for controlling areas, and killing or capturing leaders. Hitting 20 points give you an auto-victory, and it's a zero-sum thing. (There's just one VP scale, not two.)

I think that's enough background. Let's look at the turn sequence. I'm going to go into this in a rather large amount of detail because it is within the turn sequence that my issues with the game mostly lie.

Each turn has 11 phases. They are:
  1. Determine initiative
  2. Action impulses
  3. Resolve battles
  4. Determine area control
  5. Raise troops
  6. Deploy unassigned troops
  7. Exchange captured leaders
  8. Determine leader survival
  9. Place incoming leaders
  10. Dispose of leaderless troops
  11. Adjust score
Initiative I've covered. There are modifiers for having your king in your home area, or not having a king. (Only a 3-rank leader may be king.)

Now, here's where things start to get odd.

Then you do your impulses. On an impulse, you move a number of leaders from one area to any adjacent area. Only one may cross obstructed boundaries, two over clear, and three over rivers. (Yes, you can move more troops over a river than across clear ground.) One may cross a naval boundary, except the British may move two this way in the HYW scenario. The exception to this is what they call the “flypaper” rule. It's basically pinned leaders in the same area as enemy, with the addition that a control marker counts as a leader for this purpose only. Number of troops controlled by the leaders in these contested areas is irrelevant for this rule. If you move into an area containing enemy troops, you become the aggressor unless there's already an aggressor in that area.

After impulses are over, you fight battles in areas containing both sides' troops. If one side controls the area, he may offer siege. (In other words, hide in his castle.) In this era, sieges weren't reduced to science, and in many cases it's actually harder to successfully siege than it is to win a battle.

In a normal battle, the highest ranking leader on both sides is commander, and you generally roll his command rating (or number of troops in the ares whichever is less) in dice, needing 6s to hit. The number of dice can be increased if you have longbowmen around, and the to-hit roll can be reduced if you have better bravery than your opposing ranking leader. Each hit reduces the other side by a like number of strength points. (Except knights can absorb two hits.) You keep going until one side either retreats or is completely eliminated. The exception here is that if the aggressor scores zero hits on three consecutive rounds of combat the defender may eject them from the area. When you're rolling, say, four dice needing 6s, that's not uncommon.

After all the battles are complete, there are no areas left containing troops from both sides. Now you determine area control. If the area is controlled by your opponent, you reduce it to uncontrolled. If it's uncontrolled and not the home area of a leader inside, you must roll his rank or less to control it. As most leaders have a rank of 1 or 2, this is not easy. If it is the leader's home area, you get it automatically unless there's mercenaries around.

After that's resolved, you raise troops in areas you control. You get troops equal to the area rating (1 to 3). They're simply placed in the area. After this, you deploy them. Unassigned troops can move across adjacent areas you control to any leader that still has the capacity to control them. (Leaders can control three times their rank in troop strength – though few can bring that strength to bear in a battle.)

After all troops are raised and deployed, any captured leaders have equal ranks exchanged and the remainder score VPs for the capturer. (or, you can ransom them should you have controlled spaces to spare.)

Following this you roll for leader death. Leaders have a number on their counter indicating the turn in which they arrive. Subtract this from the current turn number and roll higher to have the leader survive. (This is actually displayed on a large, unnecessary, chart in the middle of the map.)

After some of your leaders die, and they will, you get to place new leaders. You get two per turn, and there will be at least two neutral leaders available for entry as well. (It's also possible that routed neutral leaders will come back for your opposition in this step.) If you place the leader in his home area, he gets his rank in troops. If not, he may claim any unassigned troops in the area he's placed.

You now dispose of leaderless troops. Finally, score victory points.

In my opinion, Warriors of God (as currently written) is fundamentally broken as a strategic game. As it currently stands, it's little better than Chutes & Ladders. Before I go into why, let's look at the distribution of ranks for the leaders (in the HYW scenario only:
  • French: 10 1s, 8 2s, 6 3s.
  • English: 14 1s, 4 2s, 6 3s.
  • Neutral: 24 1s, 24 2s.
First these are the rules involved in the problem:
  1. You may not transfer troops between leaders. Ever.
  2. Controlling areas is random and difficult. (At best, you have a 50% chance of controlling an non-home area.)
  3. Troops may only deploy through areas you control.
When you determine control, in nearly all cases you must roll the leaders rank or less. That means, averaging out all leaders, that you'll successfully control an area about 26% of the time. So, if you fan out four leaders trying to control space in completely uncontrolled areas, you'll get one of them on average. So, it's hard to create chains of controlled territory, making troop deployment difficult at best.

Let's couple that with leader death. Leaders have a 1-in-6 shot of dying the turn after they arrive, and only 28% will survive beyond their third turn. (This isn't even looking at those killed in combat. This is simply attrition.) It's entirely possible for a bad run of luck to wipe out 2/3 or more of the leaders you have in play. Since troops have already deployed, you're likely to have a large number of unassigned troops hanging around. When you place your new leaders (likely only three) you have to decide whether to reclaim existing troops, or place them in their homes to get new ones.

The chaos that's caused by this sequence of events is something you cannot plan for. The resulting board situation you may end up could be nothing like you had at the end of the impulses. It is exactly like Chutes & Ladders with some illusion of choice. You try to put yourself into a “good” position, but if have a run of bad luck, it doesn't matter. You could fail to control any of the four connected areas you were going for, and lose four of the six leaders you have in play. You then try to scramble with your new leaders and save what you can of the situation.

This isn't a strategy game. It's a luck fest. The combination of deploying raised troops through controlled spaces before leader death rules kick in means you cannot plan from turn to turn. This sequence of luck has a larger effect on the game than your action impulses, making your choices simply illusion.

I've seen it suggested that if the luck runs against you, the game's over quickly enough that you can play again and it likely won't happen. Chutes & Ladders works about the same. And my four year old gets bored by that one.

My response is, why would you want to? There's 12 turns in the game. It's highly likely that your position will be destroyed at least twice during the game, and with the difficulty of controlling space and getting troops to new leaders, recovery is nearly impossible. It's no consolation to know that it will happen to your opponent, too. It actually makes the game LESS fun.

You might be able to fix the game. I'd start by trying two things: make it so troops can deploy through controlled spaces AND uncontrolled spaces you occupy. And I'd have troops deploy twice – once before leader death, then any orphaned troops can deploy again after. But I'm not spending the time figuring out if that will work. I've got far better ways to spend my time than fix someone else's design.

This game is getting great response on BGG, and is currently ranked as the #32 wargame, but I'm simply incredulous by this response. It's an utter luck fest that takes about 2 hours longer than it should. There's no way you can make any sort of long-term plan as you WILL be shut down by the system and will be lucky to recover. Age of Imperialism got destroyed by people when it came out for similar problems – why should Warriors of God get a good response? It's baffling.

I was predisposed to liking this game. It's a theme I enjoy, it's playable in an evening, it's gorgeous, and it's coming from a line of games that have been excellent to this point. But, simply put, Warriors of God is a horrible strategy game.

And, I'm not even going into the way the rulebook was written. Jon, I give you credit for warning me – if I didn't like the rulebook for Devil's Cauldron, I probably should avoid Warriors of God. At least TDC is a mostly good wargame. Warriors of God, however is decidedly not. Had MMP followed the GMT example and published the rules before release, I would have saved my money and angst. I've actually already sold my copy, so I've at least recovered part of that.

But I want those 2.5 hours back.

Broken warriors

Back to Eric's choice, and sticking with the area movement theme of the past couple sessions he chose Warriors of God, a recent game from MMP on the Hundred Years War between France and England, and another in their (increasingly mis-named) International Gaming Series.

The game is up to the usual MMP production standards, which means good. Colorful components, nice big counters/tiles, good map. We did have a problem with figuring out where one unit went (Navarre) as the banner symbol on the counter doesn't match that on the map, unlike all the other counters, but that was it. The rules are fairly strait-forward, the only area of confusion was in the description of sieges, and it was mostly in the terminology used. I'd lose the quips, jokes, and smart-alec comments from the rules, however.

Play-wise, players first roll for initiative, with the winner taking the first and last impulse, the number of impulses being the loser's roll +2. (Each player is +1 on their roll if their king is in their home country.) Players then take impulses in turn, each impulse allowing the movement of one or more leaders (with their attached troops) to an adjacent area, one over an obstructed border, two over a clear, or three over a river.

At the end of movement battles are fought in contested areas. Each player chooses their leader to fight the battle, and gets a number of dice up to the lesser of the leader's command rating or the number of troop points, plus the same again for longbow troops. This gives the English an advantage, as the French don't have longbow men. This means that for the same 3-strength leaders, an English army with 3 longbow men will roll 6 dice to 3 for the French. The defender has the option of fighting the battle as a siege if they control the area. Any 6 rolled is a hit (with the difference between the two leaders' bravery rating added as a modifier), which removes a troop point or a leader. The non-aggressor has first option to retreat after each round (any retreating army being subject to a free attack at +1), otherwise the battle continues to the next round.

After this you determine the control of areas. Leaders in their home area automatically succeed (if they don't have any mercenaries), otherwise they have to roll their rank or less (1-3). Controlled areas raise new troops, depending on their area value (1-3), and these troops may be deployed through controlled areas. Special troops, knights (absorb 2 battle hits), longbow men, and gunners (used in sieges), may be swapped for regular troops, 1 for 1.

Then the fun begins, as each player rolls for each leader on the board to determine if they die and get removed. The turn of entry it requires a 1, next turn 1-2, next turn 1-3, etc. New leaders may be placed on the board, either in their home or a controlled area, and may take over troops left by dead leaders, and any troops without leaders are removed.

Our playing was another of those unsatisfying games. You know, the one where absolutely nothing goes right for one player, and everything goes right for the other. The game was over as an automatic win by the end of turn 7. The unusual thing was that it was Eric on the receiving end this time. He didn't roll a single area control hit, and his combat dice sucked, as well as his leaders dieing off at ridiculous rates. I rolled '1' after '1' for my area control, buckets of '6's in my combat, and most of my leaders were being carted around in wheelchairs by the time they snuffed it, they were so old.

What's even more odd is that things started out normally enough. Well, normally enough when I'm playing, as Eric had ~5VP lead by the end of turn 3. Whilst this was, in large part, due to his better play, the previous turn did see all but 1 or 2 of my leaders die after I went on a '1' rolling spree (rolling 4 of them in 6 rolls), and Eric had won initiative in the first 5 game turns, despite me having a +1 modifier in three of those turns, so he'd had 5 extra impulses to play with.

At that point the game turned around, and within 4 turns I had the 30VPs for an AV, which happens pretty quickly when you control 12 VPs/turn, and have several killed/captured leaders which each score 1VP. In the one turn Eric lost all 3 leaders that he'd built a decent enclave in southern France with, allowing me to walk in take control quickly. He similarly lost control of another 3VP area in the north, and each battle went my way, losing him more leaders to death or capture. Of course, each of these controlled areas allowed me to raise more troops, and my leader rolls meant I could claim control of more areas. I spiraled up, Eric spiraled down, game over.

I had been warned beforehand that this was a game I wouldn't like. The random wackiness of the leader death is just the sort of mechanism that I dislike. Whilst I wouldn't quite say it's the worst game I've played, I certainly wouldn't be too interested in playing it again. It's very tactical, you have to work with what you've got, as you don't know what's going to be available to work with next turn. This makes it hard to build any sort of strategy, as that requires that you have a plan and it's hard to plan around wacky leader death rolls. Some would say that's part of the excitement of the game, and that it's the same for both players, but the same could be said of LCR.

I don't consider WoG to be a strategy game, as the only real strategy you can have is to roll better dice than your opponent. This is by far the weakest MMP/IGS game I've played. I would put it in the same bucket as GMT's Wellington, not to be taken at all seriously, and just treated as a wacky dice-fest. I didn't hate it, but I can't see me playing it again as there are just so many better games I'd rather play. And I certainly wouldn't consider buying it.

The only thing going for it was that it played relatively quickly. We were finished by 2130, having started setting up around 1900 and taking a quick jaunt through the rules to confirm understanding. I noticed on BGG that one person said that it took them 5-6 hours to play, so I'm at a loss to understand how they could take so long. Having said that, I'd still rather play Iwo Jima - RAtM twice in the same time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Finally made it to Stalingrad

Okay, I have to admit something and probably give up what little “cred” as a gamer I've garnered.

I've never played a Stalingrad game before.

(And no, the first scenario of Squad Leader doesn't count.)

The East Front never really had the draw for me that the Bulge or North Africa produced. Maybe it's because I don't have a horse in that race. And, it's a rather familiar theme: somebody invades Russia, bogs down in the never-ending terrain and horrible weather, invasion eventually fails. It didn't work for Sweden, and it didn't work for Napoleon. Why should it work for Germany?

However, over time I've learned to appreciate the individual parts of the East Front from a gamers' perspective. Kursk. The Drive for Oil. The Backhand Blow. And, of course, Stalingrad.

So, I was looking forward to this week's gaming when Mike and I got together Multiman's new release Storm over Stalingrad. This is a boxed edition of the game that appeared in Game Journal Magazine #19, and is part of MMP's well-regarded International Game Series (which sometimes-gaming-partner Doug refers to as the "Japanese Game Series" as every game in the series so far has been Japanese in origin.)

SoS is what's called an Area-Impulse game. Players go back and forth activating areas and causing troops to be “spent.” Once all troops are spent (or both players pass in succession) the turn's over. The map is split into largish areas that can contain a large number of troops. (In this case, 10 per side per area.)

Prior games using this basic system are some old Avalon Hill classics. Storm over Arnhem, Breakout: Normandy, Thunder at Cassino, and Turning Point: Stalingrad. Newer games using the same basic system are Monty's Gamble: Market Garden, and the Iwo Jima game we played last week.

Similar to Iwo Jima, SoS is a MUCH simpler game than the others listed above. In fact, it really does distill the area-movement idea down to its bare essence. The result is a decently written 8-page rulebook (but we still managed to miss things.)

Now, I've only played Storm over Arnhem once a LONG time ago, and toyed around with B:N. So, before last week's Iwo Jima game, my area-impulse experience was practically non-existant.

The game has some interesting twists. First, you bid for sides. What you're bidding on is the number of 3-value spaces the Russians need to control at the end of the game to win. They start with 7, but there's no way to hold them all. The rulebook recommends bids of 2 or 3. Mike and I both bid 2, making selection a random process, but with the Russians only needing to control 2 of the 7 spaces to win. (The 7 spaces in question all lie along the riverbank.) I ended up drawing the Russians.

The other twist this game has over other area-impulse games is two decks of cards - one for each side. These cards provide things like artillery, air support, defensive fire, and other tweaks to normal play. The Germans get six cards out of their 27-card deck every turn while the Soviets start getting 3, and it slowly increases to 6 throughout the game.

Combat is relatively straightforward. You total up the firepower of all the attacking units and add that to the sum of two dice. You then look at the highest defense value among the defending units and add that (usually) to the terrain value of the area the defender occupies. Subtract the defense total from the attacking total and if the result is positive, the defender has to assign loss points. 1 point either flips a unit to “spent” or retreats a spent unit. 2 points eliminates a spent unit or flips and retreats a fresh unit. 3 points eliminates a fresh unit. Spent units can't act, but can defend normally at slightly reduced efficiency. Typical units have stats like 2-9-2 or 1-9-3 (attack-defense-movement). Armor defense is as high as 11.

I believe the map is oriented with the Russian left to the south. I'll refer to the map in those terms and correct later if I'm proven wrong.

We had played one turn and drawn cards for the second when I got a card that read oddly. Turns out the card's fine but I'd missed a rule – units with firepower 0 aren't able to fire. Whoops. I'd done a lot of that. We reset and started again.

On this go-round Mike initially pushed hard along the riverbank to my left. He had taken two of the VP areas quickly, but those were two I didn't expect to hold.

There's a subtle rule interaction in the game that really dictates the pace of play in certain situations. Units can fire into their own or any adjacent area. However, if they fire into an adjacent area, they gain a “Fired” marker. Units in areas with a Fired marker do not get to count the terrain value in their defense. This leads to an interesting game of “who blinks first” where you save units wanting to fire into adjacent areas as long as possible in order to avoid getting that Fired marker and sacrificing the extra defense. Typically as soon as one of these groups fired, it set off a daisy-chain of activations where each successive group gave up its terrain defense in order to go on the offensive.

Mike's offensive in the south stalled when the SS units were removed from the fighting at the end of turn 3 as per the reinforcement schedule. This was 2/3 of his strength in that area.

The basic thrust of our game was Mike pushing on each flank while I kept feeding units in for defense. He also kept enough units in the center to keep me from completely abandoning the center to defend the flanks. It turned into a slow grind with a few head-fakes thrown in as Mike had enough movement to sometimes change directions of attack. Our final tally showed me losing 2 VP areas on the left and 1 on the right, leaving me controlling 4. Significantly above the 2 I needed for victory.

In reading through the rules again the next day, we discovered two rules we missed, both significantly helping the defender.

First, units fired on from within their own area do not count the terrain value in their defense. I KNOW I would have lost at least one more area in the south playing with this rule. The other rule we missed involved units retreating into areas already at their maximum number of friendly units. As units can't even move through these areas, we played that units forced to retreat into those areas are eliminated. This isn't the case – they retreat through to the other side, and continue to do so until there's a legal area for them to retreat into that isn't already full. This cost Mike at least two or three units late in the game.

So, both rules we botched went seriously in the defender's favor making it a little too easy from the Russian perspective. We'll need to play this one again to give it a fair shake.

Despite getting a couple critical things wrong, I enjoyed this game. It pulls the essence of area-impulse together in a way that still works as a game. If you've been curious about some of the older titles I mentioned above and aren't sure if you'd like the system, try this one first. If you don't like the way this game flows, odds are you won't like the others either.

I certainly want to play it again to get a handle on the balance and replayability. The bid mechanism for sides varying the victory conditions should put reigns on the balance, and the cards and flexibility in German reinforcement placements should help make each game flow differently. Remains to be seen. I do know it's a good addition to the ever-growing stable of wargames that can be played in an evening. Even counting our botched attempt and reset, we were done in ~4 hours for a first playing. This game easily fits within 3 hours. Stalingrad in an evening. Who woulda thunk it?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Storm in a teacup

Back to my choice, and with the arrival of Storm Over Stalingrad (BGG entry) from MMP in the prior week or two and having just played another area movement game, (Iwo Jima), in the previous session, it seemed an appropriate choice. So, where does it differ from IJ and other area movement games?

SOS is a lot closer to the benchmark for area movement games (Avalon Hill's Storm Over Arnhem, Breakout: Normandy, Thunder at Cassino, and Turning Point: Stalingrad) than IJ was. Turns are taken as alternating impulses, allowing the activation of a number of units in a single area who then all perform the same action, whether firing at a single target, or moving to another area. As units are activated they are flipped over to their reverse side, which features a lower strength. Fire attacks are either within the same area or to an adjacent area, and only feature the attacking player rolling dice, to which the fire strength is added, and compared to the strongest defense rating of the target units, modified for terrain. Any positive difference is damage to the defenders, which is taken in terms of flipping units, retreats and losses. Unlike the AH games, the game turn continues until both players pass or have no more units left to activate.

The major difference to the AH games, however, is that each player has a 27 card deck which allows various capabilities. These may represent artillery or air barrage capability (rather than having counters on the map), defense modifier increase/negation, card negation, and other effects that change the standard rules/flow, and allow for extended replayability. The decks are also asymmetrical, giving a little flavor of the two different armies.

I had the game all set up as we made an early start to the evening, expecting the game to run 4+ hours on our first play. We both bid 2 points for the Soviets, and in the toss I got the Germans. My initial plan was to focus on the right, with the SS troops, trying to make maximum use of them before they are withdrawn at the end of turn 3, driving along the river.

With this in mind I dumped my '10' strength Heavy Artillery card into Rail Road Station 2, following up with fire from Sadovaya Station, both scoring excellent rolls for damage. This was followed up with moving the SS into RR Station 2, and Dive Bombers into Grain Elevator. Around this time I realized that the plan wasn't going to work, and that I would have to press all along the line if I hoped to reduce Eric down to a single VP area for the win, so started on other areas, with some degree of success, although our die rolling swapped as my early success changed to failures and vice versa for Eric. I had hoped to take notes of each impulse, but the game moves forward too quickly, so gave that up as I didn't want to hold things up.

We hadn't gone far into turn 2 (if at all) when Eric spotted that '0' strength units can't fire, which he had been doing all turn, forcing retreats. That had a pretty major effect on the game so far, so we agreed to reset and start again.

This time I started with a good hand of artillery cards, and made good use of them, battering my way through RR Station 2, and advancing the SS into Grain elevator. I made some progress through Central Gully and into Red October Factory Workers' Settlement, even managing to clear it out and opening a path to the river, but Eric was able to reinforce it and close the door. On the left side I advanced into Dzerzhinsky Tractor Factory, and with a box cars roll even took out the defenders.

Some time during turn 4:


By turn 4 I was in Barrikady Gun Factory and Rail Road Station 1, but then stalled from there, as I couldn't get the die rolls to match up with the big attacks (rolling low on the strong attacks, high on the weak attacks), resulting in minor results each time. With this, Eric didn't really need to do much other than replace the odd unit that did retreat. In the end, Eric controlled 4 VP areas for an easy win.

End position:


Whilst the dice gave me a good start but were weak at the end, I don't think I played this one particularly well. I spent too much time firing from adjacent areas, and not enough moving forward to contest areas. Any time I did clear an area, which would have allowed good forward movement, Eric was able to plug the gap in his turn. What I would have given for one of those Motherland cards the Soviet player has! (It allows the Soviet player to pre-empt the German turn and take a second impulse.) I also didn't take enough care to protect my strong units from attacks, losing several armored/mech units. It's important to have enough cannon fodder to soak up those hits. Ah well, next time, next time.... :)

All in all, the game is a very streamlined version of the AH area movement standard. Obvious comparisons will be made to the AH game on this subject, Turning Point: Stalingrad. I haven't played TPS, although I have scanned through the rule book, but suffice to say that the AH offering is a far more complex, detailed and involved game. Then again, you could say that SOS is a simplistic, 'dumbed down' version of the former, it depends on your perspective and preferences.

I liked SOS and I'd certainly like to get it onto the table again. Our evening was just over 4 hours, including a brief initial discussion of the game, the abortive first effort, resetting up, and a chat afterwards. So the 3 hour length on the box seems about right, which makes it a great evening game.

We still managed to miss a crucial rule -that defenders don't get terrain benefit when fire originates in the same area. This didn't impact any of Eric's fires, as only the player controlling area ever gets terrain benefit and he never moved/attacked into a German controlled area. It would have impacted a lot of my fires, however, especially those in the '+3' terrain areas, although I'm unsure to what degree. We also played the retreat/stacking rules slightly wrong, which meant a few of my units got deaded for not having a retreat path when they could have retreated through a fully stacked area to another adjacent area. However, these were our errors, as both rules are very clearly explained in the correct locations, so maybe we just can't read.

Anyway, that certainly didn't impact my enjoyment of the game. Engrossing and thoroughly entertaining, it's another winner from MMP. They've been on a tear recently, producing some excellent games, and their P500 list contains just as many games that I can hardly wait to get my hands on. And there's several that are supposed to go on P500 soon that I'll also immediately pre-order. In fact the whole wargaming industry is coming up with a whole bunch of great games recently, and my shelves are groaning with the weight of so many games that I'm itching to play. I just need more hours in the day to spend time with friends to play them all.

Eric's choice again next time. I wonder what he'll come up with? I know that my next choice will be Conflict of Heroes, another new one, and one that's getting a great deal of positive buzz across on BGG.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Raging Marines

Monday night Mike and I finally got back to our regular weeknight gaming, and it was my choice.

At WBC, I picked up a copy of Multiman's first Operations Special Issue. It comes with a boatload of stuff, and one of the two featured inclusions is Iwo Jima: Rage Against the Marines.

This is a small, area movement game with a few interesting features. It covers the US invasion of the island of Iwo Jima. The home Joe Rosenthal's famous and controversial photograph of six Marines raising an American Flag on the island. What most people don't know is that happened on day 3, while the battle for the island continued for nearly another month. I believe this is still the most reproduced photograph in history.

Anyway, part of the reason the battle for the island took so long was the fact the Japanese were hiding in caves, and the US forces had a heck of a time finding them and then rooting them out. Any game covering this conflict MUST recreate these issues or it just doesn't work as a game. IJ:RatM does this rather well.

The obvious feature of the game is that it has two maps. There's the primary map of the island, then a smaller version of the map that's hidden behind a screen. You can sort of see this in use in this image. The Japanese deploy their units on the hidden map, revealing them throughout the game for a variety of reasons. Once revealed, some units can re-hide themselves, and hidden movement is also possible. This does a great job of recreating the "where the heck are they?" feeling the US troops had.

The American goal for the game is to take the four airfield areas in the middle of the island. They get 2VP at the end of every turn they hold the four airfield areas, with a bonus of 2VP if they hold both areas of the large airfield. The Americans also get a random number of VPs for raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi. This reflects the reason for the invasion – obtaining a forward airbase for bombing Japan. The flag raising is a bit of PR boost reflected in the VP bonus.

The Japanese goals are a bit more basic. Survive, keep the island, and eliminate as many invading Marines as possible. So, they get 1VP for every American step lost, 1VP for every unit that survives the game, 5VP if the HQ unit survives, and 3VP for every one of the 21 spaces on the board that is still controlled by Japan at the end of the nine-turn game. There's also a 10VP boost if the US 3rd Division enter play anywhere but at a beachhead, but that's not something that was in play in our game.

If either side hits 40 VPs during the game, it's an immediate victory. Otherwise, most VPs wins.

The turn sequence is a pretty basic Igo-Ugo system:
  1. Weather – can reduce aircraft available for bombardment.
  2. US Reset – restores units for use.
  3. US Recovery – US can replenish one step in a beachhead area.
  4. US Bombardment – air, naval, and unit bombardment of area islands.
  5. US Movement – this includes Japanese defensive fire. Japanese units co-located with US units at the end of this phase are revealed.
  6. US Assault – close combat.
  7. Control Determination – if areas are now solely occupied by a single side, they're controlled.
  8. Construction – Place Beachhead and “Safe To Land” markers, and flag raising.
  9. Japanese Reset – all Japanese phases are as for US.
  10. Japanese Bombardment
  11. Japanese Movement
  12. Japanese Assault
  13. Control Determination
  14. End Phase – check for game end.
There's only 20-some counters for each side, so the turns go relatively quickly. We took just over 90 minutes for our play, but I could easily see this being a 1 hour game with any experience at all.

The Japanese set up their units on the hidden map, and also 21 cave counters. These can be distributed in any fashion, with no more than 2 in any area. They make it much harder to dislodge Japanese units. The US must then move their units onto the map in landings.

The basic flow of the game goes as you'd expect. The US bombards critical areas, moves in and tries to take them over. The Japanese try to harass and delay as much as possible.

Combat is pretty simple – you total up the strength of all the bombarding or assaulting units, and roll that many dice. 5s and 6s hit. Every cave marker in the area reduces the number of hits, as does the defense value of the area if it's controlled by the other side. This may mean anywhere between zero and five hits are ignored right off the bat. If you managed to do more damage than what's ignored, hits are assigned to units and a cave marker is removed. This has the effect of making repeated attempts on the same area slightly easier.

I took the Japanese in our game, and my strategy was to not contest the landings but fight like the dickens for every other inch of ground. I don't think Mike took an airfield area until turn 4 while I was repeatedly causing step losses. I believe I was well over 20VPs before Mike scored any. However, once he got his armor into the airfields, I had a real hard time slowing them down. His bombardments were having the expected long-term effect and my position started to really crumble fast. Of course, Mike didn't know this as he couldn't see most of my units. However, I suddenly realized that, while I had a large VP lead, he was going to take all four airfield areas quickly, and the 10VP/turn was going to kick in soon enough for him to top 40 before the end of the game. I had to try to recover at least one half of the large airfield to have a chance. If I could hold him out of there, I'd win due to the VPs I'd score at the end for surviving units and controlled areas. Wasn't to be, however, and Mike ended up topping 40 on turn 8, I believe, while I was right around 30. I certainly was hurt in the last half of our game by the rule restricting Japanese movement – you have to roll a d3 at the beginning of the Japanese movement phase to see how many units you can move. I think I rolled a 1 the last three turns. That didn't allow me to counter attack.

Now, there were a lot of things I didn't do well from the Japanese side – I didn't take advantage of the special attack types they're allowed. I forgot that armor couldn't go into the hills, and had put AT units in there. Not exactly useful. So, I definitely could have put up a stauncher defense than I did. With a handful of plays under our belts, this should easily turn into a tense struggle – particularly if the Japanese player takes different approaches.

In our discussion afterwards, Mike commented that he felt he was at a disadvantage as he didn't know the Japanese counter mix to know how many units I actually had left. This triggered a thought or three in my head on how I feel about the game.

First, it's very light, so don't think “simulation” when you're playing. However, it does seem to give a good feel. You have to soften up areas with bombardment before taking them, and the hidden map gives the Japanese side a load of options on attacking the US where they're not expecting it. From the US side (which I haven't played yet, but want to) you have to tread lightly as you simply don't know where the enemy is. Walking into a hornets nest is VERY likely, and the VP conditions make it possible for the Japanese to win a game covering what was essentially a hopeless situation for them. The US was going to take Iwo Jima – it was just a matter of cost.

We found a couple niggling issues – one Japanese counter had too many steps indicated on it's reduced side, and I think there was a rules-writing issue or something, but nothing major. It's a pretty clean game. (Though it could really use a small chart detailing all the conditions under which Japanese units are revealed on the large map.) Mike mentioned that he could see this being a good WBC-West game. I agree – the ~1 hour length and the fact that it's quite different from most other games (how many games really pull off hidden movement well?) makes it a great filler when you're waiting for another game to finish.

There's one thing I'd change, however, to give the game a lot more staying power. Randomization of the Japanese forces. Now, I know they were working under a strict counter limit given the format, but I would have done one of two things to help: either provide a handful of extra Japanese units and randomly remove some from each game, or randomize the Japanese unit strength. Either way, the US player can't say “ah, that's the last of the strong units, I can fan out now.” There's no way they would have known that in the actual battle.

Despite this, I'm glad I own a copy – it's one I'll be looking to get on the table periodically as a nice closer or filler.