Friday, February 29, 2008

Eric's OCS Review

I mentioned a few days ago that I'd be putting my more detailed thoughts about The Gamers' OCS into a separate post due to length. I've started writing this post about three times now, and I think I've finally figured out the approach I want to take. My apologies for taking a bit longer with this than I've planned – I'm fighting a nasty cold at the moment.

OCS examines large operations, mostly from WWII. Games published to this point have covered various parts of the East Front (Guderian's Blitzkrieg II, Case Blue, Hube's Pocket, Enemy at the Gates), Africa (DAK2, Tunisia), Sicily, Southeast Asia (Burma), and the Korean War.

First, let's look at the structure of the typical OCS game.

All OCS games come with a game-specific rulebook that includes the scenarios as well as game-specific rules. The scenarios usually include one or more massive, full-campaign scenarios. For example, DAK2's full campaign is some 240 or so turns. Obviously, not something you'll be completing in a single weekend, let alone an evening. However, there's a number of smaller scenarios that give you a chance to play the game in ways that handle nearly any time frame. For example, the Race for Tunis scenario we played is 14 turns, but the full campaign game is up to 58 turns starting from the same deployment.

When you first look at an OCS game in any sort of detail, the following features will stick out:

  • Comprehensive rule book
  • Relatively standard turn sequence
  • Detailed counters
  • Unit Modes
  • Supply

Let's take a look at each area in turn.


The rules are up to iteration 4.0 as now shipping with Case Blue (and available gratis on The Gamers Archive website.). Given that the system is over fifteen years old and has been through constant modification and use, they show their maturity. The rules are very cleanly written and are not overly dense. There's also bits of Dean Essig's (the designer) wit. For example, if you manage to get a combat where both sides have zero strength you “call it 1:1 and just shake your head.”

However, even though the rules have been revised a number of times, the older games require very little change, if any, to use the new rules. In fact, there are only two changes to Tunisia (which shipped with version 2.0i of the rules) required to use version 4.0. One is to add a Flak value to the ports at Bizerte and Tunis. The other is to ignore the game-specific rule on rail control. Everything else still works which indicates that the fundamentals of the system are very sound – it's just the details and implementation that have changed over time.

A very nice feature of the rulebook is a well-designed index. It came in handy many times during our recent game.

Game Flow

The turn sequence is very straightforward and is structured as follows:
  1. Weather and Initiative determination.
  2. Air unit return and refit.
  3. Reinforcements
  4. Movement (includes breakout, movement, and barrage segments)
  5. Supply
  6. Reaction (includes movement and barrage segments)
  7. Combat (includes barrage and combat segments)
  8. Exploitation (includes movement, barrage, and combat segments)
  9. Clean Up
Each player goes through steps 2-9 in this sequence, and the turn is complete. Some games may alter this sequence a tad, but never drastically.

It's just a slightly modified Igo-Ugo system. (The exception being the reaction phase allowing limited activity on your opponent's turn.) Nothing groundbreaking here, but as exists throughout OCS, it's the interplay of the various parts that make the game stand out.

The biggest thing to note here is the possibility for a double turn. If you went 2nd in one turn, there's a 50/50 chance you'll have the choice to go again before your opponent can respond. Timed well, this can be devastating. Of course, if you DO get the double turn, your opponent may find himself in the same spot on the next turn. So, it's a situation you must plan for.

Detailed Counters

The counters in the game are very detailed. Some have as many as 11 pieces of information on them. Here is a typical combat unit counter.

This is the Royal Scots Greys Battalion from the 7th Armored division as fought at El Alamein. This counter is in combat mode. (The flipside of this counter is the move mode version and the bottom three numbers are 3-4-18.) Standard NATO symbology is used indicating this is a tank battalion. The yellow background in the symbol indicates the Armor category of unit. (Red = mech, clear = other.) The yellow bar indicates it's part of a multi-unit formation, in this case the 7th Armored division. The numbers across the bottom are combat strength, action rating, and movement rate. The red-on-yellow indicates a tracked unit. (white = leg, black = truck.) Full details on this are in the rules, but as you can see there's a lot of information here. Divisional units may have size ratings, artillery has range, etc.


Units are always in one of a number of different “modes.” (Combat, move, reserve, strat, disorganized, exploitation.) All but the last two are voluntary and can be changed before a unit moves during the movement phase. Disorganized mode is cleaned up during your cleanup phase, but if you get put in DG mode during your opponent's combat phase, and he gets a double turn, well, you'll be thankful if you get a chance to clean up the DG later on – odds are those units won't be around by then.


Supply and logistics are pervasive, of course. This is probably the signature feature of OCS. You must move supply counters around the board, and you can only do this by air, rail, or transport points (generally trucks.) In addition to the typical “trace supply” you see in most wargames where units must trace a path to some supply source to be “in supply” that's only part of the picture in OCS. Here, you must also spend supply for fuel to move truck/tracked units, refit air bases, artillery barrages, or for combat. (On either offense or defense.) Needless to say, you have to plan in advance where you're going to be attacking, and the supply situation dictates when as much as anything else.

The side effect of dealing with this admittedly fiddly feature of OCS is that it indirectly enforces a pacing to an offensive that comes close to matching what happened historically. You can't just run a huge offensive across an entire front unless you have LOADS of supply to pay for it.

OCS is not designed for beginning wargamers. I think the 40+ page base rulebook, highly detailed counters and sheer size of the games would scare off new players, in any case. That said, once you're ready for a game like this, there's really nothing like it.

Pulling it Together

Mike and I spent a fair amount of effort into learning OCS. It is, after all, a 40-some page base rulebook (combined with 5 or 6 pages of game-specific rules) and we wanted the game to go relatively smoothly. The rules are detailed, but each individual section makes sense. After finishing a section, you're not going “huh?” and rereading things because you're confused. You end up rereading because you want to capture everything you can. As a result of this preparation, we had a VERY good initial experience.

The design of the game is such that you typically only deal with one piece of the rules at a time. For example, in your movement phase, you want to get supply into place to fuel your units. How do I do that? Trucks, air, rail or shipping. Which do I currently have available? All but rail? Cool. How do I ship supply? And here you're only dealing with shipping. Each individual task is simple enough that it becomes second nature after you do it a couple times.

For example, in our game all my supply reinforcements come either into Algiers or on trucks tied to divisions coming into play. How do I get the supply from Algiers up to the front? Ship it or airlift. Shipping is relatively simple: I've got a max capacity overall, and each port has a maximum it can handle. Portion accordingly.

Of course, I might need to use some of that shipping capacity to bring in new units as well... Decisions decisions...

Another example: I want to attack a stack of units and hopefully both damage AND push them back. How did the real-life commanders do it? Soften them up with either air or artillery barrages (or both) then charge in with the troops. Hopefully you've also got tanks in reserve to exploit the gap you opened.

How does it happen in OCS? Exactly the same. Air barrages happen at the end of the movement phase. Call in air support and see what happens. There are actual plane counters that must be within range of the front, and you better bring a fighter escort just in case you're in an enemy patrol zone. If that doesn't work out, fire the ground artillery. Artillery barrages happen before combat is resolved, and hopefully you can disorganize your opponent by now. If you've got good strong troops and you've weakened your opponent, fortune might provide you and exploitation result from the combat allowing your units to plow through the gap. Even if not, units placed in reserve can be released to take advantage of the opening you've hopefully opened.

Exactly how you read about it in the books, eh? That's how it feels on the table. You can plan and execute operations just like the historical model. Of course, having all these moving parts at your disposal means it's pretty easy to mess up these operations as well :)

All the maxims you hear about warfare apply. “Keep reserves.” “Maintain a rearguard.” “Garrison supply dumps, ports, and other important sites.” “Don't outrun your supply lines.” All these tenets have to be adhered to, and it's because of the subtle indirect effects of the rules.

For example, you'll never find a rule mandating a rearguard. However, enemy zones of control have limited effect on movement. (You must be in combat mode, and units using leg- or track-based movement can ignore your ZOC in any case) means it's hard to avoid leaving gaps in your line. Keeping a rearguard can make the enemy pay for sneaking through these holes. Reserves can be released in the exploitation phase to take advantage of holes created during combat, or released during the reaction phase on the opponents turn to shore up positions under attack.

The effect of (admittedly a lot of) straightforward rules is that you find yourself, after a few turns, playing the situation, not playing the game. You're thinking about what you're trying to accomplish and where you can pull the resources from to get it done. The fact that we were doing this five or six turns into our first full-scale playing still blows my mind. I did NOT expect things to go so smoothly.

After having gone through the rules after we played, we've found 6 that we missed. Six. And these weren't always full rules – in a couple cases it was a single sentence within a rule. Now, a good portion of this is due to good preparation but I believe it says great things about the maturity and intuitiveness (if that's a word) of the rules. The net result was the most engaging and engrossing wargaming experience I may have ever had. It was a lot of effort to get to this point, but it was worth every minute. I can't wait until the next time we get it on the table.

OCS is not a system everyone will like. There can be a fair amount of downtime between turns when there's a lot of counters on the map. Not everyone will like dealing with the fiddly nature of the supply counters, or just tracking supply at such a detailed level in the first place. And some of those counter stacks can get pretty tall. However, as far as "monster" wargames go, OCS is right at the front of the pack of big games that make sense and are playable. If you go through the rules and they seem inviting to you at all, give OCS a shot. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tunis race

One of the things that Eric and I have talked about for some time has been doing a larger game, with one of the Operational Combat Series (OCS) games being top of the list. These are detailed treatments of various battles or segments of WWII, mostly at the battalion/regiment level, and including a heavy emphasis on logistics. Several of the games are of the monster category, e.g. the struggles in Russia, or in the desert, featuring multiple maps, more counters than you can shake a stick at, and requiring a dedication that the average adult wargamer is unlikely to be able to commit to, short of a serious lottery win. The smaller ones, and various scenarios from the big ones too, however, are eminently playable.

With my new-found (re-)interest in wargames, I've been looking for the games that really hit the twin spots of an interesting subject, and are also good games, especially looking for game series that allow me to learn one set of rules and use them in multiple games. So far the Columbia Front series, GMT's Glory series, Avalanche's Defiant Russia/Strange Defeat, and FAB (OK, only one play so far, but I was seriously impressed with it) have really hit the spot for me. But I've still had an interest for something more, and from reading the rules for OCS I was fascinated with the series/system. The rules just seemed to cover everything in a very simple way, it just clicks into place.

After pushing the various games, scenarios and options back and fore, we settled on the Race For Tunis scenario from Tunisia. I'm not normally a desert fan, but this looked more intriguing, but, perhaps more importantly, it's fairly readily available on eBay and so was a cheap entry into the system, and not too much loss if I didn't like it. (Although, to be quite honest, I almost included OCS in my top ten wargames, just from reading the rules, I was that taken with them.) So, the day finally came, and Eric and I sat down, with the random draw giving me the Axis forces.

(Pics of the game are available here.)

My initial reaction on looking over the available forces in the scenario were 'Gulp, that's not much to work with.' A few puny Italian and German March battalions, and a couple of decent armor units. I decided that the first line of defense would be in passes of the low hills running north/south along the Djebel Abiod (D.A.) - Bedja road (34.27-36.22 on the map), particularly 34.27, 36.25, and 36.22-23. Mountains guarded either side of each pass, except for the very southern position, which had rough and a river. Good enough.

Eric won the initiative in the first turn (Nov 15th, 1942), and moved aggressively forward, pressing up to my line in the north and south. However, I immediately returned the favor, attacking at Bedja, and was rewarded with killing the unit there, and, even more importantly, capturing his supplies that he'd moved forward. I had been lucky enough in the attack to gain an exploitation, and used that to attack his other force there. However, they were stronger than I'd expected (or, perhaps, hoped) and I was lucky to not get off too badly. A good start.

Winning the initiative in the next turn (Nov 19th) allowed me to go first and strengthen my defenses, before he was in good position to attack, as well as retake the hills I'd had to evacuate in the previous turn's failed attack. The weather had closed in, and without being able to use his superior air strength I managed to survive his attacks.

The 22nd again saw the Axis win the initiative, and the weather clear up. I continue to build up, and use an artillery barrage to disorganize (DG from now on) his main force at Bedja. This just focused Allied attention on D.A. and my forces were subjected to a massive air strike causing a DG, and the follow-up attack causes my first loss. Fortunately, the Allies had an option on a loss, and chose to retreat, which meant I could ignore my option.

However, the 26th saw the Allies win the initiative, and with good weather they pressed home their advantage, killing my armor unit at D.A. and forcing a big retreat. However, the Allies don't strike at Bedja, perhaps due to supply issues. Either way up, I'm not liking my position and fighting on two fronts at the same time would be one front too much. The Axis turn is one of trying to rebuild a new defensive line. I'd landed two armor units from 10Pz in the previous turn, and they were rushed to the front line, much as I wanted to keep them as a reserve. However, I also was able to land another two armor units in Bizerte this turn, so at least I had something to fall back on.

The 29th saw more good weather, and although I won the initiative, I let the Allies go first, more from a fear of them gaining another double turn than anything else. The Allies change their focus, forcing the pass in the middle (36.25) and kicking me off the hills at Bedja. However, in doing so he's left his northern flank weak and hanging out to dry and I seize the opportunity. I fuel up 10PZ and force my way up the coast road.

1st Dec, and it gets better for the Axis, as they win the initiative and choose to go first. (No brainer, really.) I continue to force my way up the coast road with the armor, capturing Tabarka and some trucks, killing some replacements and an HQ, and forcing him to consume a lot of supply that would have been used to attack me. I also started squeezing through the mountains gaps between his forces, threatening to cut them off from supply. The question now is what retribution he's going to bring down on me. In the end, not much. His air barrages miss, and he surely is suffering from a lack of supply as the expected counter-attacks fail to materialize. In fact he withdraws from the hills in front of Bedja.

5th Dec see the first (and only) mud turn. I'm more than happy to see it, as it allows me to reinforce Tabarka, and move in more supply to replace my heavy expenditures of the previous couple of turns.

The 8th sees the return of good weather and Allied initiative. And Allied attacks, as the expected counter attacks materialize both north and south. His artillery barrage in the north is too successful, as it kills my armor unit, preventing him from doing a combat and any potential exploitation. In the south 1st Arm.'s attack is flanked as they are taken by surprise. (Eric rolls defensive surprise, for a large negative shift.) I'm left with a big decision to make. The bees are really beginning to buzz around Tabarka, and given that I can only bring in 1SP of supply or reinforcements per turn, I'm not confident of holding on. Given that his attack has cut off the land supply route I decide to cut my losses and withdraw, rescuing 10Pz Mech that I'd shipped into Tabarka in the previous turn, leaving a speed bump Italian unit. I think that I achieved my goals with the move. I caught him by surprise, forcing him to move more onto the defensive and to recapture Tabarka, eating up time and supply that could have been better used in the drive to capture VP locations. It cost me a couple of armor units, but I think it was a good trade from my perspective. In the south I continue to press, squeezing into those gaps, and threatening. I also made a sweep around the southern end of the line via Le Kef, attacking his armor replacement units. However, I'd forgotten to move up my supplies, and the attack was somewhat blunted by being out of supply, but it was another threat to his rear areas. (It's the unit with the blue OoS marker, just above the British HQ unit.)

(Note, if you're looking at the pics that go along with this, there is one unit that hasn't yet moved at the end of GT8 - the reserve unit in 39.26, which moves up to 36.25. This is a critical move for the next turn.)

12th Dec, and initiative returns to the Axis who make good use of the double turn to attack the exposed Allied artillery around Bedja. With high action rating modifiers, the artillery are taken by surprise, forcing a large gap in the Allied lines in the south, as the remaining Allied forces have transferred their attention north. The remains of 1st Arm are barraged by artillery and disorganized, which renders them mostly impotent in their turn.

With the 15th still giving good weather and Axis initiative (and it was getting quite late) we decided to call it a day there. With only 5 more turns, having captured none of their VP objectives, requiring 3 for a win, and being nowhere near capturing even 1, the Allies were not in a good position, with the Axis only needed to protect their position to secure the win. They've still got ample reserves in Sicily, and have the shipping/air transport to deploy and supply them. Alternatively, and more in keeping with a longer game, they can continue their push in the south, cutting off 1st Arm and beginning to threaten the Allied rear areas.

So, after all that, my thoughts? Simply 'Wow!'. Or, rather, 'WOW!' What a game, the time just flew past. We took our time over the first couple of turns, learning the mechanisms, with me especially talking through moves to ensure that I was getting the rules correct. This worked great for me, as by the end I wasn't needing to focus on how to do things, but could focus on what I wanted to do. I found the rules pretty simple in practice, yet yielding a game with a very different tempo to most games. Rather than the grind, grind, grind of most games, there was a build, prepare, attack, recover, that required planning and forethought. My attack along the coast caught Eric totally off-guard and in poor position to respond immediately. Both these elements strike me as a far more realistic representation of the ebb and flow of operational combat than any other game I've played. Combine that with the limited intelligence from not knowing what each stack contains and I think this is as good a consim gaming gets.

For the longest time I could never understand the ASL gamers who played nothing else. However, having played OCS, I now feel I understand better where they're coming from, as I could be the same way with OCS.

Monday, February 25, 2008

How Can I Race You to Tunis When You're Already There?

Let me just say that my comments on the last Two Sides gaming session (a special extended edition) will take two posts to complete. There's just too much to say in one post. This post will cover the introduction and session report. Detailed thoughts will come in the following post.

Mike and I sat down on Saturday to finally get OCS on the table.

Our initial choice was the Race for Tunis scenario from Tunisia. Reasoning: it's a single-map scenario (and, in effect, it was more like the middle 1/3 of the map) and starts with low counter density and a relatively steady stream of replacements. Also, we both own the game so we could examine the situation beforehand. We'd also get a chance to get into the rhythm of the system before we were confronted with huge stacks of counters. And we'd need that rolling intro because this is a big system.

I've blogged before about learning OCS, and I've played it once before in a brief session about two years ago. That was a very small scenario from DAK2.

So, what is OCS?

The acronym stands for Operational Combat Series, and is published by The Gamers/MMP. The series is well over a dozen years old (Tunisia was the third game in the series, and it was published in 1995) and the series rules are up to version 4.0. The differentiating feature of OCS versus most other operational WWII games is that you physically move supply counters around the map, and spend it for fuel, combat, etc.

The effect of this is to create the pauses in action that happened in real life but never seem to occur on the wargaming table. Armies simply can't continuously fight unless they've got the ammo and fuel to do so. OCS games create these pauses forcing you to develop an actual supply line and the infrastructure required to move those supplies to where they're needed. After a major offensive loads of supply is used up, and it will likely take a while to store up the supply necessary to do it again. So, in larger games, you can end up with literally months of the troops staring at each other across the front while the quartermasters build up the supply dumps.

Most games in the series are scaled at 5 miles to the hex, and counters range from battalions up through large divisions. (And, while I said WWII, there's a published game in the series on the Korean War, and there's been some talk about going back to the Spanish Civil War and possibly WWI.) Turns cover half a week each. Turn structure is generally Igo-Ugo, but there's a reaction phase right before combat where the non-active player can release reserves and/or use aircraft to disrupt what the active player is trying to accomplish.

Tunisia, in particular, covers the battles that ejected the Axis forces from North Africa in late 1942 through May of 1943. The map depicts the Algerian and Tunisian coast from Phillipeville (I believe now called Skikda) east around the coast past Tunis to Gabes and the Mareth line around 140 miles or so west of Tripoli. (The middle of this google map is the area covered. The bottom right of the map is the largish island just east of Gabes.)

Racing to Tunis

We started off by choosing sides – Mike ended up with the Axis, and I took the Allies. The point of this scenario is for the Allies to advance east and take a majority of five cities. (Bizerte, Mateur, Tunis, Medjez el Bab, and Djedeida. Mike will be posting pictures, I believe. If not, I'll modify this post with an image showing the situation.) The allies start in mid-November and have until the end of December to accomplish this. (14 turns, IIRC.)

The forces are rather dispersed at game start, and the terrain is very limiting. There is a range of mountains just off the coast, and two east-west primary roads south of that. There's also a coast road that isn't quite as good. These three roads lead into passes that must be crossed to reach the Allied objectives. Mike's first decision in this scenario was where to defend, and mine was to get my forces and supply toward the front while watching where he puts his forces. I have multiple avenues of attack; I just have to choose where to focus. All supply must be shipped or airlifted to the map, limiting me to around 4 to 4.5 supply points (SP) per turn. (To give an idea of supply costs: Generally, a motorized or mechanized unit takes ¼ SP to move - foot units walk for free - and all units spend ¼ SP per combat. Artillery barrages usually cost between ½ and 1 SP as well.)

We were both taking this as a learning game (and in fact had agreed to play two turns then decide if we wanted to restart should we have critically botched something) so there wasn't the urge to optimize moves there may have been otherwise. That said, we certainly were doing what we could to come out victorious.

The first couple turns saw us getting used to the game flow and figuring out the best ways to move our guys around the map. I determined I wanted to have most of my reinforcements arrive on map, saving my shipping/airlift capacity to deliver supplies to the ports. One side effect of this decision was some troops simply took longer to get to the front than I would have preferred. The other side effect was that I ended up with a northern focus to my supplies and a southern focus to my reinforcements. This meant I had to take and keep the two north-south roads over the mountains in order to supply the troops south of the mountains.

Coincidentally, Mike had determined that the passes just east of the easternmost of those two roads (from Djebel Abiod to Bedja – I'll call it the DAB road) would be his initial defensive line.

By the end of turn 4 (two weeks after the start of the scenario) I'd managed to get things mostly in place for an offensive. About this time I realized the timing of the scenario. November is primarily when the Allies get all their reinforcements. December sees the Axis bringing in significantly more forces AND in increase in their shipping capabilities. December also brings bad weather – each turn has a slightly better than ½ chance of Mud. This means no flying, and essentially a lost turn. Shipping happens, reinforcements arrive, but nobody can really move much. (nor can they spend supplies.) I felt like I was under the gun to push the action.

I get the initiative on this turn and push Mike back in the north. I go first again in the next turn and push Mike back in the south. I've also got a mechanized force stationed at a crossroads further south (Le Kef) that is threatening to run around Mike's southeast flank towards Tunis. This pulls my attention towards the south, and I don't really see what Mike's bringing in as reinforcements from Bizerte in the north. It turns out to be the 10th Panzer Division. And, of course, I managed to leave a weak spot at the north end of my line. On Mike's half of turn 5, he breaks through there with a much stronger force than I believed he had and suddenly he's threatening to take Tabarka; my easternmost port and trace supply source for the northern portion of my forces.

The 6th turn (December 1) was a textbook example of one of the things that makes the OCS system shine in practice: The Double Turn. Mike won the initiative and went first. This meant he had two consecutive turns against me while I can't clean up disorganized troops (or do any other regrouping) until the end of my coming turn. As a result, I lost Tabarka (along with some transport points), and had to really scramble to reset my supply lines along the DAB road on my half of the turn. The next turn saw our only mud turn of the night – so nothing really happened other than he decided he wasn't going to try to hold Tabarka, but was able to ship a speed bump over there to slow me down when retaking it.

When the weather improved, I was really feeling the time crunch as I hadn't advanced past the DAB road, and wasn't close to any of the five objectives. I retook Tabarka here, but Mike's counter attack in the south was fierce, and my prospects were really looking bleak.

For the final turn we played, Mike got another double turn and really sealed the deal by taking most of the DAB road thus shutting down any coordination between my advanced forces. That, realistically, meant I had no chance to win. Particularly with (given average weather) only two or three more turns of activity to get there. I'd need to screen off Tabarka from his forces and restructure my advance to the south. Not and easy thing to do with plenty of time and supplies, let alone restrictions on each.

At this point, we called it. We had played up through the December 12 turn (9 turns in all, one of them mud) in under 8 hours of playing time, including setup. The first two turns took us close to three hours on their own as we were floundering around figuring out how things worked. Then it started to click and we spent most of our thinking time on how to do what we wanted, not how to play the game. We seemed to have averaged about 45 minutes per turn once we got into the flow. Experience with the system and the game will probably bring that down a bit, at least for Tunisia. Other games in the series have some serious counter density (like Case Blue, for example) so I can imagine quite long turns in those games when the offensives kick in. The rules actually provide for “build-up” turns where nobody's attacking anyone so you can do things simultaneously until someone decides turn order is important again.

As I said, I'm going to post more detailed feelings about OCS in general within a couple days, but suffice it to say this may have been the most rewarding single day of hex-n-counter wargaming I've ever experienced. Time completely flew by as we were totally engrossed in what was happening. I would have been court-martialed, ridiculed, and fired as the Allied commander, but the nice thing about doing this as a game instead of real life is I get to try again some time and nobody gets hurt.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Strange Defeat update

If Mike's and my recent posts on Strange Defeat (and Mike listing the series in his top-ten wargames) got you thinking you might want to buy a copy, you might want to act quickly.

Apparently, Avalanche has had problems selling Strange Defeat through stores with its current cover (a cover which the Avalanche sales lady also hates with a passion). They've also got a ton of new products coming soon into their warehouse.

So, they're selling off their remaining stock for cheap. $8 to be exact. (This is 60% off.) After some not-specified period of time, the remaining copies will be destroyed. They say it'll eventually be reprinted, but given the production problems they've had I don't expect that to be any time soon.

I just hope that, if they do, they redo the map from scratch.

So, if you want a copy, head on over to and snag one.

Just a public service announcement.

Tomorrow is OCS day. Finally. It might take a number of posts to capture everything that happens tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Not so strange defeat (or was it?)

As much as the disappointment of GMT's Fast Action Battles: The Bulge (BGG entry) not arriving in time for our planned was, it was reduced considerably by the opportunity to get Avalanche Press' Strange Defeat (BGG entry) on the table. I'd really enjoyed our playing of the first in the series, Defiant Russia (BGG entry, Eric's take, Mike's), less so the second , Red Vengeance (BGG entry, Eric's take, Mike's), and so was very happy to add this to a recent order, especially when it had been reduced to $10.

Strange Defeat moves the action to the French/German border in 1940, including Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It also includes a lot of map to the west of Paris, that never sees any action. Add in the huge area for the game logo, turn chart, terrain identification chart (but no effects chart), and only half the map sheet is actually used. I can't understand why they didn't junk the waste and have a half-size (17"x22") map same as DR & RV, especially since it has to have an extra fold to fit in the small box, which means that it doesn't spread out too flat.

And the problems on the map don't stop there. The graphics chosen are all very pretty, but are totally useless for the intended purpose. The fading of the background map color from pale cream to light green on the diagonal, the matching hex grid from dark to light, and rough terrain represented by hard to read cross-hatching, are aesthetically pleasing but functionally weak. Added to that, with the map in front of you and the logo right way up, north is at the bottom, south at the top, which is compounded by the play progressing from left to right rather than the more usual top to bottom.

And I'm still not finished with the map. As if all that wasn't enough, the printers then managed to reverse the hex grid (north to south), such that the set-up printed in the rule book is now totally bogus.

OK, so the map is a total disaster. The rest of the components are good. The counters are in the same style as the previous games, clean, functional, smart, and although the German grey and French blue are fairly similar there was no confusion during the game. The box features an original picture of a German Army motorcyclist riding past a dead French AFV, which several people have complained about, but of which I'm rather fond as it's not one of the stock pictures that we've all seen many times before, but one that is new and different. (At least I'd never seen it before.)

So, enough of the materials, what about the game? The structure is the same as the two previous games: reinforce, move, fight, exploit, exploitation fight, tweaked to include fortifications. I really like the system, it's simple and very playable. In this game the German player has to figure out how best to set up, as there are three groups of units, and they have freedom of set-up in their corresponding areas, compared to the fixed Allied set-up. I was very conscious of the time I was taking to get units in place ready to start, and in the end pretty much dumped units down randomly rather than take more time to think carefully and calculate every last starting position. It didn't bite me too much, but it did hinder in a couple of situations.

However, that wasn't the biggest problem. Like our two previous games, the game was pretty much a bogey from the first turn, as, once again, the attacker whiffed big time in the initial attacks. First the attacks into the Netherlands scored but a single hit in 18 dice, then the attacks in Belgium suffered a similar fate, where a single Belgian division (with one step) brushed off around 4 German corps and supporting assets. To compound this, I managed to forget to use the five air strikes to support the attacks. (I can just imagine the conversation: [ring, ring] "Hallo, Air Marshall Goering here." "Herman, it's Adolf. How's it hangin', bro?" "Adolf! What's happ'nin'?" "Listen, Herman, what happened today? We were invading France, and you didn't show for the party?" "What!?! I thought it was tomorrow! Sorry, my bad.")

In his turn, it pretty much went the same. His puny Belgian division, once again, didn't take a single hit (which made around 24 dice without a '6'), and Amsterdam the same. By the end of the first turn I've lost about 5 corps to 1, haven't taken the Netherlands and made virtually no progress into Belgium, and the score is almost 20 points against. The second turn is better, but still poor. I think the game is a write off, especially when more armored units get removed, and I'm almost ready to call it.

However, attrition is slowly wearing him down, and I'm starting to make progress. By the fifth turn most of the British units are gone, and a large part of the French army are surrounded and dwindling. It was starting to look a bit rosier, until the last French unit to the north of Paris rolls its two dice as a parting shot before dying, and scores box-cars to kill another German Panzer corps. Then right at the end Eric does it again. Those two rolls represented 7 VPs, half of the final margin of the Allied victory.

A Strange Defeat indeed! The start was disastrous, the middle wasn't too bad, and the less said about the end the better. But the final result could have been very close. Which gets me wondering about the victory conditions. We played the modified conditions, which were supposed to be more favorable to the Allies than the original ones in the box. Yet, despite my crummy rolls right at the start, not using the Luftwaffe (in turn two, as well!), and forgetting to place my sole armor replacement, and Eric's high '6' rolling capability (I joked at one point that his chance of rolling a '6' were about 50/50), it took two box-cars to really secure the win. With average dice on both sides, perhaps the victory conditions still favor the Germans a bit. However, looking at the VP tables again, I see that we missed several things, including the 3VP for the Allies for controlling Paris from IV May onwards (so they should have scored another 9 points), and the points for German units being out of supply (not many VPs, but a few more). Perhaps it's more balanced than I thought.

Of course, we have little chance of playing a game that sees average dice. That's three games and each has seen the attacker implode in the initial turns. However, that's not to say that I didn't enjoy the game. As frustrating as it was to see the dice fall as they did, the game is neat and I'd happily put it back on the table at any time. Like DR, and unlike RV, there's still a lot of movement options and game to be played. (I found RV to be equally frustrating, as the dice took away any enjoyment I may have gained from the win, as I knew it wasn't down to anything I did.)

Next up is a mega-session. Eric and I have been talking about an OCS game for some time, and it's a series I've been getting more and more enthusiastic about the more I read of it. The rules are good, make sense, although there's a lot to digest, and the concepts and focus on supply and logistics is intriguing. So, the next game will be Tunisia. Bring it on!

Strange Victory

Mike's original plan for our latest gaming session was to get Fast Action Battles: The Bulge on the table; but while my copy arrived the day of our game, Mike's hadn't. So, we fell back to his backup plan – Strange Defeat from Avalanche Press.

Strange Defeat is the third game in the Defiant Russia/Red Vengeance series of small box games that are completely playable in an evening. If you've read our blog over the last few months, you'll know we've had mixed results with this series in the past, but since the games are cheap and play pretty quickly they're worth giving a shot.

I'd given Strange Defeat a solo playing a long time ago (June '06) and my impression was that it was decent, not great. Face-to-face playing can always change these impressions, of course.

First, I'll address the concerns with Strange Defeat that confront you when you open the box.

The map, while somewhat attractive from an artistic point of view, might be one of the worst human-factors map designs in wargaming history. Here's the primary list of issues.

  1. The orientation of the map vs. the legend is reversed from what you'd expect. North is at the bottom. Also, since the game primarily progresses east to west, even that orientation is wrong from a playability aspect.

  2. The hexgrid is colored in a black-to-white gradient going from the southeast corner to the northwest. The base map color is in a dark to light gradient going the opposite direction. A nice idea, but it has the side effect of causing a band of the map where the hexgrid completely blends into the background terrain. This also happens to be in an area of primary focus for the game: Belgium. You can sort of see this effect in this image. Look in the area of land between the yellow (Belgian) and beige (British) counters right above the word Belgium. The fact that the hexgrid disappears there isn't a trick of the image. It's nearly invisible in real life. That band travels west-southwest across the map, but it's the worst right there. Right in the path of the Wehrmacht.

  3. Rough terrain is practically invisible on the map. It's a crosshatch pattern that's slightly darker than the base map color. I emphasize the “slightly” there. I think it's only readily visible under a klieg light. Given that rough terrain either doubles or triples the movement cost of a hex, it's kind of important to know where it is.

  4. City icons are tiny, abstract, and easily obscured by the counters.

There's more, but you get the idea. Nice looking map, but I can't imagine anyone playtested the game on it. The counters, however, are very nice even though the German and French colors are a bit too close to each other for my taste even though it never caused a gameplay issue for us.

Second, there's some major informational issues within the rules. The setup codes as printed in the rulebook are completely wrong. You'll end up with French units in Germany, for example. These were quickly corrected on the Avalanche website, but still – if you're going by information in the box, you'll be utterly confused. (editor's note: Mike received a printed card containing the corrected setup codes in his copy – I had preordered the game and thus received no such errata sheet.) Also, there's no terrain effects chart in the box. There's a legend on the map, but no summary of the effects on movement or combat as we're so accustomed to seeing.

There's also apparently accuracy issues along the north coast of the map, but it's not really anything that affects gameplay.

Enough of that – suffice it to say that if you buy a copy, head to Avalanche's website for updated information to make your copy usable. As originally published, the game is one of the worst wargame productions ever. If you can get past the map, though, and download the corrections, you're in for a bit of a treat.

In this incarnation of the system, “political” points are scored for things that happen during the game vs. merely controlling a small number of specific cities. Point scoring events include unit and territorial losses, German conquest of French fortifications, minor country surrenders, etc. The VP chart in the rulebook has been deemed a bit harsh on the allies, so they published a variant VP chart on their website. We decided to use this variant chart for our playing. The score track starts at zero and goes positive for allied events and negative for German.

I randomly chose the allies, so I got to defend. Setup took us a while – the setup compartmentalizes groups of units into various locations, but you're free to deploy however you wish within those boundaries – so the Germans in particular have a lot to think about at first. An historical setup such as they published for Defiant Russia would be a welcome addition for newcomers.

Game play is nearly identical to the other games in the system. Admin phase, movement, combat, exploit, repeat for the other side. Combat is one die per strength point, hit on sixes. Combat is required (for both sides) against adjacent enemy unless you're in a fortification.

Since the historical battle had the allies caught completely unawares, the rules give some pretty severe restrictions on first-turn movement for the allies. After that, however, they're free to move as desired. This gives the Germans mostly free reign for the first two turns. Each turn in the game is a week, and there are seven turns. The Germans must push hard to win.

Unfortunately for Mike, his dice on the first two turns as the Germans resembled mine when we played Red Vengeance. I recall two combats in particular where he rolled 14 and 18 dice and scored zero hits each time. His advance across Holland and Belgium was heavily delayed and at much cost. Mike's forgetting to use his considerable air superiority didn't help. After two turns or so, the score was around 18 or so in my favor. Given that Mike had to get to -10 for a minor victory, things weren't looking good for him. (Belgian and Dutch unit losses give the Germans no points, but German units are 3 or 4 points each for the allies – I pulled out to a big lead mostly on the results of his offensive in the low countries.)

Eventually, Mike wore down the northern defensive line while the Maginot line in the east remained static. The score wasn't dropping very far, though, and my game turned into a delaying action. I sacrificed Paris (it's only worth 3 points to Mike) in order to not lose more units in its defense. By the last two turns, Mike started playing a bit more desperately in order to kill off enough of my units to make a difference. I got lucky with my defense dice and killed off enough of his units to keep the score in positive territory. After the last turn, the final score was 4, a major victory for the allies. (However, without nearly 50% hits on that last turn, there's probably four German units I don't kill off and that puts the score down near the -10 level Mike needed for a minor victory.) An historical analogue would have been that the Germans conquer France, but at a heavy cost that leaves them vulnerable to a counter attack that might have ended WWII far sooner than actually happened. The French army would have been able to regroup in the Riviera, and provide a base for reconquest.

(If you're interested, total play time including setup was around three hours.)

All three games in the series we've played so far suffer from one major problem – if the initial two turns are below average for the attacker, they seem to have very little chance of winning the game. The defender can simply perform a fighting withdrawal and the attacker can't make up enough ground in the limited time available. Probably not historical behavior. However, both Strange Defeat and Defiant Russia give the attacker opportunities to maneuver around and change the attack vector if necessary. Red Vengence gives no such option and that causes it to fail as a game. As Strange Defeat has severe human factor usability concerns, I'd rank the games in this order:

  1. Defiant Russia

  2. Strange Defeat

    (large gap)

  3. Red Vengeance

Provided the initial setup doesn't foretell a Red Vengeance situation, we'll have to pull They Shall Not Pass out at some point to see where it fits in this spectrum. I'm hoping near the top, but it remains to be seen.

In the meantime, however, we've got a big treat coming up for our next session. We'll finally be getting OCS on the table. (In fact, I think we kind of overlooked Strange Defeat a bit as we're both chomping at the bit for this.) We're taking a Saturday afternoon and evening to play the Race for Tunis scenario of Tunisia. I fully expect Mike to take loads of pictures and us to get all sorts of rules wrong. I also don't expect to even get halfway through the 14 turn scenario, and we may even pick it up and restart. Given the versatility of the system, though, we're both really looking forward to investing the time to learn it.

Friday, February 8, 2008

ToI pics

I finally got around to posting the pics from our game.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

That's a really big box.

After some work and weather delays, Mike and I finally got together late last week to try out Tide of Iron. I ended up with two copies of this for Christmas (due to a miscommunication between my wife and mother-in-law) and apparently almost got a third. It was finally time to try it out.

For those who may not have seen, Tide of Iron is a tactical WWII combat system from Fantasy Flight that features modular mapboards and customizable units. It's got tons of high-quality bits and certainly looks good while in play.

We played the first scenario (“At the Breaking Point”) - a natural place to start. After setup and walking through the rules we dove in. This scenario involves the Germans trying to break thorough the American line in 1944. It's a bit of a counter attack situation as the Germans were strategically on the defensive by this point in the war.

The Americans (me) deploy in the southeast corner of the map mostly behind wire while the Germans are in the opposite corner. Their job is to occupy at least three of the hexes behind the wire before 8 turns are over. The Americans win if they prevent the Germans from winning.

The turn flow is somewhere between alternating unit activation and Igo-Ugo. Each side gets a number of actions (as specified by the scenario) and the sides alternate taking these actions until all units have been activated. (“fatigued” in game terms.) Actions involve activating units or strategy cards. (Each side has access to a couple different decks. This scenario gives the Americans ground support and reinforcements while the Germans have morale and . The game comes with eight or ten different decks.)

After all units have activated, there are two additional phases, one for accumulating (and spending) command points awarded for controlling specific spots on the map, and one for various administrative tasks.

The game continues on for the number of turns outlined in the scenario.

I'm deployed defending what amounts to the corner of a box covering the eastern half of the southern edge of the board. Mike attacks down the western side of the board, then comes across to go after the corner. As we get used to how the game functions, the attacks become better planned and casualties mount. I'm fortunate to have access to reinforcements, and I keep bringing on at least one unit each turn. They're needed as Mike breaches my defensive line on turn 4, but I've got enough reserves to push him back. After five turns, we call it when it's apparent he's not going to be able to fulfill the victory conditions. We'd been playing for over 2.5 hours at that point. I imagine with many fewer rules referrals, play time for this scenario would pull down to 2 hours to completion.

As with any first playing of a game with any depth whatsoever, there are definitely things we both could have done better. However, the consensus is that this scenario is difficult for the Germans to win.


It's really hard to get a true feel for this game after one playing, particularly in an attack/defense situation. I definitely want to play it more with more fluid situations to get a handle for how it deals with variety. However, some thoughts came to the fore by the time we were done.

First, this is a very good game. I don't think it's a “great” game, but it is indeed very good and deserving of the acclaim it's received. The components are well made. The mapboards in particular are incredibly sturdy. (Mike joked he'd seen hotel room walls that were thinner.) Just so you know – when you pick up the box, most of the weight is coming from the mapboards. I had some issues with the fit of the figures in the bases – part of it looked to be casting problems leaving flash on the pegs that are supposed to plug into the bases.

I would definitely play this game if asked. The problem with Tide of Iron is that it's a very good entry in a space that already contains excellent games.

Personally, I think it blows Memoir '44 out of the water. I've always considered M'44 the weakest of the recent games in that series (Battle Cry is probably last on that list) and this is clearly a better game. Now, M'44 plays in half the time, but it really doesn't compare. In fact, I'm considering trading off my M'44 collection at this point. I now have no reason to get it onto the table. If I want that style of game, C&C: Ancients and BattleLore are both better.

Now, if the question is “I've got three hours and I want to play a tactical WWII game, what do I play?” I'm still not sure Tide of Iron is the answer. It's definitely NOT as good a game as Combat Commander, but CC adds a lot of chaos into play, and that might not always be desired. ToI also pales (in my eyes) to the Panzer Grenadier series. Smaller PG scenarios are playable in 3 hours or less, there's a MUCH wider variety of troops available, and gameplay is no more complex. There's also the option for monster scenarios if that's what you're looking for so versatility is a selling point here. Tide of Iron does have the parakeet factor going for it, though, as it looks very good in play. If I was teaching a eurogamer wargames, this would be a good place to start.

So, I'm torn. Tide of Iron is very good, and I'm glad I own a copy. It's the only big-box Fantasy Flight game I've had any interest in whatsoever, and it represents itself well. My problem is just how often it's going to hit the table. I see other games in the same space being better or giving a better experience. If I wasn't a wargamer first, this would be a great introduction to tactical WWII games. Much better than Memoir '44, and if I'm ever asked will recommend ToI first. But, I am a wargamer and while ToI is good, other games in this space are better. (and I'm not even going down the Advanced Squad Leader or ATS roads... not that either of those are typically 3 hours with the exception of the ASL starter kits.)

I guess I'm just going to have to play more games to figure it out. Bummer. I hate it when that happens.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Any old iron

OK, not quite the regular bi-weekly event, as real life and the weather intervene, but we finally got together again, with Tide of Iron on the table. I've been interested in this for a while, due to all the hype, errr, lead publicity, produced by Fantasy Flight Games, but I was put off a good bit by my good friend Doug's moderately negative review of it. However, never being one to let a negative review stop me from finding out for myself (I'm incredibly obtuse that way, preferring to find out for myself what others' experiences have already told me), when I heard that Eric had received not one, but two, copies as Christmas gifts I was keen to give it a try, and was happy when he chose it in his turn. So, how was it?

We played the first scenario, which saw my Germans attacking his Americans in their defensive set up. The onus is on the Germans to take the initiative and they have the time pressure to win the game. They also have the weaker force, as with several machine guns and mortars, as well as drawing from the reinforcement deck to provide a steady stream of new units to replace losses, the Americans are a strong nut to crack. Sure enough, in our game I'd press and gained a good position only to see a steady tide of US reinforcements grind me down and push me back. By the end of the 5th (of 8) turns I was down to so few units that there was no way I could gain and hold 3 VP hexes, so we called the game as it was also almost 10pm.

It's really hard to judge a game like this after just a single play, especially when the scenario played seemed so unbalanced. (Other sources seem to confirm this judgement.) However, I can tender my initial thoughts with the above caveats in mind.

Overall, it was a decent game. The rules were fairly straightforward, being mostly logical and sensible. It moved along in a progressive manner, and I felt I had a lot of tough choices to make in terms of strategy and tactics. All well and good.

On the negative side, the whole building squads thing was tedious, and didn't really feel like squads. I didn't like the way firepower was handled for range, where you were better off not adding in the infantry firepower in the same squad as a machine gun. Since when is less bullets in the air better than more? I can just see the officer telling everyone, 'Hey, you rifle guys, don't fire, you're putting off the machine guns!' Not.

Speaking of machine guns, they're really powerful when in Op Fire mode, swinging this way and that, able to fire in all directions. I tried spreading out my attacking forces but with these 360 degree-firing guns you couldn't attack from multiple directions and overwhelm them. Fortunately, I managed to take out Eric's double machine gun unit in the second turn with my single tank, which did make my life significantly easier.

The whole figure thing is a bit bogus, as well. By basing it on figures they're trying to tap into the Axis & Allies type player, and making it more of a toy than a 'real' game. Then again, that could just be the gaming snob in me talking. Plus, that is one big-ass box it comes in, especially when it appears to be about 50% airspace. More typical Fantasy Flight over production.

In the end, I feel ToI falls between two stools. It lacks the simplicity of M44, where you can set up, play and put away the game in an hour. ToI takes several hours, which puts it into CC territory (and beyond). If I wanted to have some WWII action and only had a short time available, I'd choose M44. If I had a few hours, it would be CC. So, I don't see quite where ToI would fit in. If I was coming from Axis & Allies, then I can see where it would be an upgrade path (so to speak). But I'm not, so it isn't.

Next time is my choice again. If it arrives in time, GMT's new FAB: Bulge will be on the table. If not, then I am not currently sure what I will select. Let's just call it a surprise.