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!


Mike said...

I was playing through this again, and noticed something big that we missed. All German armored units have +1 on their attack rolls when not attacking over rivers or into fortresses or Paris. That would have a big effect.

Eric said...

Yeah, that would have made a difference, particularly those first couple turns. Then again, there's only, what, five or so German armored units?

Though, with the way you were rolling dice...

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

There are 7 armored units, (7/5/5/3/3/2/2 strengths points), so that's a lot of dice hitting on 5/6. Then again, as you say..... :)