Tuesday, February 12, 2008

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.

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