Sunday, June 1, 2008

Bridge Busting

(This has turned out to be a very difficult post to write for a number of reasons - hence the delay. I think I'm getting my point across now, but we'll see.)

Mike and I met Monday night to try out the highly anticipated Devil's Cauldron game recently released by Multiman Publishing.

The Devil's Cauldron covers the northern half of Operation Market Garden – the Allies attempt at an airborne-based conquest of Arnhem and Nijmegen. This is, I believe, Mike's favorite battle of WWII. TDC features a new rules system “Grand Tactical System” primarily designed by Adam Starkweather. TDC is the first game to be released with this rules system, though others have been placed in MMP's preorder system for likely future release.

The game itself is very big. 12 countersheets, four full-size maps (three are backprinted with scenario-specific maps) and three letter-sized map extensions. There's the series rulebook, game-specific rulebook, rules summary booklet, and an extensive historical booklet.

In preparation for our play, I'd been reading through the rules, trying to get things into my head. I never really had time to push any counters around, so I hadn't actually worked through the game mechanics to get practical experience. Turns out, Mike hadn't either. He commented as we were getting set up that he might have been the least prepared for this as anything we'd tried to that point. Fortunately, I'd printed out some flowcharts available for download on the TDC support website. I'd heard they were handy, so I figured it couldn't hurt.

With all this taken into account, we decided to play Introductory Scenario #1 as a joint endeavor to learn the mechanics. A good thing, too. If we had been concentrating on competition vs. learning, a lot of things would have been missed. After massive rulebook page shuffling (more on this later) we got through a somewhat contrived turn of the first introductory scenario in something over an hour. Probably closer to two.

We both felt we were as prepared as we were going to get for the 2nd Intro scenario, so we gave that a go. I took the Axis, and Mike took the Allies. In this scenario (“Little Omaha”) the Allies are trying to capture the road and railway bridges in Nijmegen within two turns (four hours), while the Axis are trying to hold them off. In our run through this scenario, Mike's 82nd Airborne 504th PIR pretty much walked through their left flank and overwhelmed the small defending force in the fort north of the bridges. Group Hot's job, however, was to take the city-sides of the two bridges while the 504th PIR took the north side. Group Hot didn't do so well. Some of Mike's legendary die rolling came into play (I believe he failed a 70% rally chance for one particular unit on 6 of 7 die rolls) and I had an apparently highly-motivated SS unit defending the south entrance to the road bridge at Hunnerpark. (The city hexes of Nijmegen can be seen here - the two bridges to defend are in 38.63 and 41.64.) After the first, turn, Mike didn't see any possible way he could take both bridges and win. The number of activations you get are deceiving, however, and Mike made much more progress than he expected. By the end of the scenario, he had taken the fort at 37.60 north of town, and the railway bridge. He had also taken the northern entrance to the road bridge, but that SS unit still held the southern entrance. Per the victory conditions, this was a draw.

I think we were feeling a lot better about the system by the end of the 2nd scenario. We finished both scenarios including setup and some counter punching and LOTS of rulebook shuffling in about 5 hours.

Thoughts About the Game System

This is the first released game using the new Grand Tactical Series ruleset. This system functions much differently than other games I've played for a variety of reasons.

Scale

The ground scale of this game is 500 meters per hex. Other tactical games I play have scales of 200m/hex (Panzer Grenadier) or 30m/hex (Combat Commander). OCS, on the other hand is either 2.5 (Sicily) or 5 (all others) miles/hex. The scale provides a grander scope than the PG or CC, but provides more intimate and tactical detail than OCS. (Which is expected as it's “grand tactical” and not operational.) Counters usually represent companies of infantry, tanks, or engineers. Again, at a higher level than PG's platoons and CC's squads.

The time scale is 2 hours/turn – 7 turns per day with an additional, restricted, night turn. Again, much higher than the 15 minutes/turn of PG and the nebulous, but short, time markers of CC.

The higher level lets large battles (such as Operation Market Garden) be played out, but without completely overwhelming you. The campaign map for Devil's Cauldron is approximately 100 hexes by 60 hexes (50 km by 30 km). I think the ground scale is well chosen. It will be interesting to see what other battles are covered in the future. I wouldn't want to attempt more than a four-map game at this level. It will be interesting to see how the full Market Garden campaign plays out after When Eagles Dare is released and how many people actually attempt to play the full thing.

Turn Sequence

This is a chit-pull system. A differentiating feature to this game system is that not all the chits you pull are the same. In the campaign game, every turn will see chits in the cup for each division that's in play, a “Direct Command” chit for each side, and some number of formation chits representing individual formations in play.

At the beginning of a turn, each division spends dispatch points to buy its formation chits to put in the cup. You can pay 1 dispatch point to put a formation's chit in the cup next turn, or 2 points to put it in this turn. A division will acquire no more than three dispatch points per turn, though, (and could even lose one) so you're not going to want to burn these too quickly.

What you can do depends on which chit is pulled. Every division has command points, and these are spent on unit actions. How you spend them depends on the chit that's pulled.

Formation Chits: these are the most flexible (but remember you spent at least one dispatch point putting it in here.) This activates all units in that formation (and the counters are color coded by division and formation) and allows them complete freedom of actions for no cost in command points. A unit can perform a 2nd action immediately after its first for 1 command point, but the action cannot be the same one it just performed. (So it can't move twice in one activation, for example.)

Divisional Chits: these activate ALL units in a division (all formations) and allows restricted actions for no command point cost. This free action cannot involve combat or moving into an enemy units fire zone (basically any hex an enemy unit could fire into). For 1 command point, the unit can immediately take a second, unrestricted action. This does lead to units passing their first action, then spending a command point to fire on an enemy unit. Something they can't do for free under a divisional action. This is also when you roll for the division to see how many additional command and dispatch points it acquires.

Direct Command chits. Finally, each army has a single Direct Command chit that allows you to activate ANY in-command unit for a cost of one command point from that unit's division. They cannot perform second actions under this type of activation.

As you can tell, if you put a formation's activation chit into the cup, units in that formation could be activated up to three times in a turn, and perform up to five actions. This allows units to do more than you'd initially expect in a turn, and the chit-purchase system allows you to focus energy in places you require it. In the end, this creates a pacing mechanism that keeps you from using all your units all the time.

Production

This is a rather good looking game. The maps are among the best looking I've ever seen. As you can see in the upper right corner of the map image I linked to earlier, all non-city hexes are outlined in stars, not full hexes. This puts the hex into the background and pulls the terrain forward. The terrain type for a given hex is indicated by the color of the dot in the middle of the hex. Now, we only played on a VERY small portion of the map, but I was concerned these two human factors would make the map difficult to play on. In the end, it seemed to not matter. There was a fair amount of picking up counters to check terrain types, but nothing too bad. The “disappearing” hexes worked. Hopefully we see this style on more maps in the future.

The counters, however, leave me a bit cold. I don't have a problem with the watermarks as opposed to some, but I'm NOT a fan of each army using native symbology for the different units. German infantry units are indicated by a different symbol than British. And (from what I've seen in counters for the upcoming games) they're keeping up the differentiation with the French and other armies. I don't like this. It looks fantastic, but unless you're really familiar with the German symbology, it hurts you in figuring out what a piece actually is. There's a lot of information on the counters (up to 7 different ratings), but in the end we really didn't have a problem remembering which number was which.

Rules

The rulebook, however, is where this game goes off the rails. There are three – a series rulebook, a series summary rulebook, and a game-specific book. Given the split with the two series rulebooks, I expected something like Games Workshop's Warmaster rulebook – the verbose, illustrated, example-ridden rulebook in the front, and then a concise, detailed, complete summary. With TDC, you get feeble attempts at both, and actually receive neither.

The summary is just that. A summary. It is not complete, and is only useful for an introduction into the rules. It is not usable alone, even as a reference tool after you know the rules. Much information simply doesn't exist in there. The most useful thing it provides is the sequence of play on the back.

The game-specific rulebook is pretty good. The inside cover provides a required summary of all the different symbolgy found on the counters. Next is a description of terrain effects with lots of illustrated examples of tricky bits like raised roads, ferries, and viaducts. Also covered are paradrops, the Club Route, and army specific rules. Last come the scenarios, with requisite detail. I have no real quibbles with the game-specific book.

The series rulebook, however, is a mess. It's written in a conversational style with lots of repetition when rules need to be brought up in multiple places. Well, that's what they claim. The organization, however, is atrocious. As an example, multiple times throughout the rulebook they say you can attempt to avoid becoming suppressed by taking a cohesion hit. Great. Except, they haven't told you what the effects of taking a cohesion hit are to that point. No prob, go look in the table of contents. (there's no index.) Nope. Nothing there. Okay, maybe the Rally section? Nope. That just tells me that I can try to remove them, but not if it's in an enemy fire zone during the day. The cohesion hits rules actually in the combat results section that's a 3rd level header not shown in the table of contents. And, there's a number of times when suppression or cohesion hits can occur that are NOT in combat. So why put those rules there?

Most rulebooks of any significant length have a “definition of terms” section towards the front that introduce you to the terms as they're used in the game and point you to the rules where they're defined. Not this rulebook, no sirree. The glossary is in the back. And over the 52 entries in the glossary, want to know how many refer back into the rules? Zero. In fact, there are rules embedded in the glossary. For example, the Assault Rating entry in the glossary tells you that the color of the box on the counter containing this rating determines the line on the CRT used to find the result of an assault. Is this information anywhere else in the rulebook? Nope. Not even in the description of a counter, where it should be. All it says there is that the color around the box defines the weapons class. Nothing about the game implications of that until you get to the glossary. And, of course, none of that information is reflected in the ToC.

There's also gratuitous use of whitespace around anything that involves bullet points or numbered lists. Combine that with the extensive examples, and you end up with the Assault rules (the most complicated part of the game) spread over six pages. On top of that, when using the rules as written, assaults are nearly impossible to comprehend without use of the flowchart provided on the Devil's Cauldron support site. And even THAT is incomplete as it continues the trend of not referring you back into the rules, leaving you to leaf through 6 pages of rules to figure out what you actually do in any one of the 30 different cells in the assault flowchart. (No, I'm not exaggerating. That's an exact count.)

Maybe I'm a bit sensitive as I'm a technical writer by trade and have a relatively high standard in what I consider to be a good rulebook. But, then again, maybe not. I'd estimate that around half the time we were playing our two scenarios at least one of us was rifling through the rulebook trying to figure something out. Given the fantastic rulebooks that come with games such as the OCS series, Here I Stand, and Combat Commander, a rulebook written this poorly comes off as a major disappointment. In addition, MMP has not yet published the series rules online so we don't even have access to a searchable copy. Given the useless TOC, lack of index, and minimal cross-references, finding thing in the rulebook is neigh-on impossible if you don't already know where to look.

Now, by the time we were reaching the end of the 2nd scenario, we were getting things pretty well sorted out. The game isn't really THAT complicated (outside of assaults) but deciphering how the game is supposed to be played from the rulebook is not straightforward. The game seems to shine when played in bigger scenarios that provide for many chits in the activation cup. (The 2nd introductory scenario was quite enjoyable, and we had 11 chits in play.) I'm very curious to see how difficult it will be to learn how to perform airdrops, etc. directly from the rulebook.

The Devil's Cauldron is not a cheap game. (It retails somewhere in the $160 range.) It's big. It does provide some new approaches to limiting what units are capable of at any given time, and seems to provide some game-specific rules that model various aspects of the Market Garden campaign pretty well. It seems to be a very good game and I believe rewards the time spent learning how to play it. It is sad, however, that the time spent learning it is lengthened so much by the abysmal rulebook.

I can't really give a good review of the game until I play larger scenarios. (The designer has said his favorite scenario is the 2nd Advanced scenario "A Near Run Thing" or something like that.) If I was splitting out my review score like some of the podcasts do, it would go something like this:

Production: 4 stars. It's a well produced game, not stunning. For whatever reason, I was expecting it to be in a Case Blue sized box, but it's in a large flat box - fortunately, they use the space to avoid an extra fold in the maps - something Avalanche couldn't figure out with Alamein.
Artwork: 4 stars (one of best looking games out there, but the counter imagery knocks it down to 4 stars)
Gameplay: 4 stars (possibly going higher in bigger scenarios)
Rulebook: 2 stars (and I'm being generous)
Fun Factor: 3 stars (and this will likely be higher with bigger scenarios)

Overall: If you average that out, it's 3.4 stars. I think this might go up to just under 4 when it hits its sweetspot on scenario size, but it cannot go higher without a complete rewrite of the series rulebook. It's nearly worthless as is.

5 comments:

Dug said...

Two comments on this report -

1) I find it interesting that someone who paints historical miniatures would dislike historical unit designations. I'm saying this more or less tongue in cheek, but you get the irony. I grew up on the NATO symbols just like everyone else, and I find the current trend toward "new" symbologies distracting, but historical wargames are about history and putting NATO symbols on WWII era units is much like putting a PzIV silhouette on a unit that was made up of Shermans. It's effective, but wrong.

2) You can blame the whole "glossary in the back" thing on the Area Movement games like Breakout: Normandy that came out near the end of the 90's. One of the dumbest ideas ever. I spent 20 minutes looking through that rulebook for a definition of the dice. MMP picked up the idea when they did Monty's Gamble, which used the format of BK:N more or less wholesale, and it apparently found an adherent in this game as well. I don't mind if you have a specific rule in the glossary, as you have to define things somewhere and where better than a glossary, but to put it in the back where no one looks is a nod to aesthetics at the expense of usability.

Perhaps more annoying for me is the conversational style that Starkweather uses in his rules. Lots of little asides that are appropriate over a gaming table and useless in rules that are intended to convey airtight rules. Berg and Mark Walker are guilty of the same mistakes, thinking that clever writing makes the game better. Put that stuff in a Player Note, leave it out of the damned rule.

I've got this on order, and may not even bother with the rules but look to one of you two to teach me. I'd ask you, Eric, but you'll be at the "real" WBC in August...

;-)

Eric said...

Obviously, I needed further rewrite of this post :)

I do appreciate the irony of a miniatures painter griping about army-specific unit designations, but I'll say two things in my defense:

1: 95% of my painting over the years has been SYW and earlier.

2: Part of what makes it a non-issue in miniatures is that you have the miniature right there depicting what the unit is. From 3 feet away, a counter is a counter is a counter. With miniatures, from three feet away, I can tell that it's infantry, artillery (and with a good idea of how big the gun is), or tank. I don't care what markings are on it. With a counter, that's all you've got.

And, about the "glossary in the back" issue. I must say, upon further reflection, it's not the glossary in the back that's the issue. It's the fact that there's rules embedded in the glossary, and no cross-references whatsoever between them. The problem just becomes worse when the glossary's in the back.

I'm seriously considering rewriting the "summary" rulebook to actually be useful, and not a waste of paper. It will actually be decent practice for a direction we're going here at work.

Jon said...

Well, I wrote the TDC rules and and of course am disappointed if someone doesn't like them. But I've learned that it's very, very hard to please everyone.

I do have a few responses to your comments below, but I'm mainly writing to correct a misimpression one of the posters seems to have. The only reason the glossary is in the back is because I put it there. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything MMP does or did in its other games, and everything to do with the fact that I hate rulebooks that put defined terms or glossaries up front. A matter of personal preference where we differ. I can see why the poster would think there was some relationship among various MMP rulebooks, but in fact there isn't.

On some of the other stuff, I agree that the rules should have been indexed (in fact I asked for that), but it was out of my hands. I do think the ToC is far more useful that you do, however. Your difficultly finding the cohesion hit rule leaves me a bit baffled. Combat results are listed in the ToC under section 19 ("19.2 What the combat results mean"), and cohesion hits are easily found from there. Sorry you had trouble with that.

I do agree that weapons classes should have been better explained, particularly on the counter example. On the other hand, the charts seem to do a good job with this and other than your complaint, I haven't seen any other gamers who had these problems.

You may want to avoid my other rulebooks: Red Star Rising, Warriors of God, and soon to be published Angola.

Eric said...

Jon,

Thank you very much for responding!

It's nice to know our blog is occasionally read by people beyond our own gaming group.

I am fully aware that it is impossible to create an instructional manual that works for everyone - I do this for a living, though in the software industry not for game rules. At least with game rules, you know people are reading what you write!

Let me give you a little more background on how I came to the opinion I did. (I'm unfortunately doing this without the rules handy - they're at home, I'm at work.)

When I was attempting to teach myself this game while reading through the rules, I decided to read the summary rules first. That was a nice quick intro to the game, but didn't actually detail anything. I think referring to that as a "rulebook" is actually a mistake. It's an introduction and works well as that.

Realizing I now had a context, but no details, I dove into the actual rules. The specific example that keeps coming to mind as the catalyst to my frustration is Cohesion Hits. IIRC, they are first mentioned as something you can take during movement to allow more flexibility in going into or coming out of column. No indication of the repercussions is mentioned, nor is there a reference to anywhere else. I looked in the TOC to find Cohesion Hits, and they are not listed. They then come up occasionally between that point and when they are actually detailed in the combat results. And never with any indication of either the game effect of a cohesion hit nor where that game effect is described.

However - and here's part of my beef with the documentation organization - Cohesion Hits are not simply combat results. They can be taken in lieu of suppression in many cases, and putting them under combat results addresses only a portion of the situations.

If you had simply included cross references in the manual, nearly all my beefs would be satisfied. A simple "(19.3.3)" placed after the first reference to Cohesion Hits on a page is all that's required.

Finally, please do not put rules in the glossary. Glossaries are definitions of terms, not rules.

You and I both know that wargame rulebooks are complex things, and parts build on other parts. Not linking the parts together makes it FAR more difficult to learn the game on your own than necessary. Further, given that there is no index and the TOC only contains entries two levels deep while many of the critical rules are three levels deep means they're impossible to find without either knowing where they are or flipping through the book in hopes you catch them.

All this said - we didn't have a single question that wasn't eventually answered in the rulebook. It DOES seem complete - just very difficult to use for someone learning from the rulebook. If I was being taught this game by someone who already knows it (and many of the people giving this game fantastic reviews on BoardGameGeek seem to fall into this category) then you and I wouldn't be having this conversation.

I'm hoping MMP decides to update the basic series rules for the upcoming When Eagles Dare. And I sincerely hope they decide to reduce the amount of whitespace, add in cross-references and an index, and make it available electronically so we can search.

If you get a chance, try to track down a copy of Games Workshops Warmaster rulebook. Take a look at the summary rules in the back - if I get time, THAT's what I'm going to try to create from the combination of existing rulebooks and support material on the website.

Again, Jon, thank you VERY much for commenting. I do hope you understand the direction I'm coming from and don't feel like a sheep walking among the wolves :)

TDC seems to be a very good game - it just takes longer to learn than it should from the materials at hand.

Jon said...

No worries, Eric. I normally don't get into these discussions, but I wanted to correct the impression that there was some guiding force behind various MMP rulebooks. Once I started writing, I naturally started respondng to other points.

I don't do the lay out the rulebooks, but I can almost guarentee that the WED book will look the same--sorry.

As for cross refs, I agree that they are essential and I tried to add as many as possible to the TDC rules. Looks like I just dropped the ball on cohesion hits. Unfortunate, but not surprising with such a massive project. Anyway, I hope you and your buddies enjoy the game and the rules don't get in your way too much.