Monday, July 28, 2008

Napoleonicus Interruptus

Last week, Mike and I played Napoleon's Triumph (NT). This is Simmons Games' followup to Bonaparte at Marengo (BaM) and covers the battle of Austerlitz, considered Napoleon's greatest tactical triumph.

I'll say right away that this is a difficult gaming session to report for one primary reason – we had to abort about halfway through as we had completely botched a rule obviating many things we may have learned.

I'll give some early impressions, though. First, don't assume anything you've learned from BaM when playing NT. The games look remarkably similar, but play VERY differently. Someone on BGG likened BaM to chess, and NT to poker. That's not too far off.

The first thing you notice is that the armies are deployed by Corps, not by unit. Throughout the game, the bulk of what you're going to do is by Corps, and units get detached over time. Both armies are able to make more orders to Corps than units, so this degradation does a wonderful job of simulating command and control.

Corps can do any one of the following move, attack, detach (and move) units, or attach a unit on any given turn. Units can move (including an optional detach), or attack.

Combat is completely different in NT. It still uses the same no-luck approach from BaM, but how you arrive at a final result is much more involved. First, the attacker has to declare the approach where combat is taking place. Then, the defender must declare the pool of defending units (there are a number of restrictions on who's eligible for this.) After this, the attacker has the opportunity to call it a Feint and possibly split off a unit from the defending pool. If it's not a feint, then there's another bit of give and take including possible counter attacks before you arrive at a final number.

This sequence is where the poker analogy comes in. It's not always obvious where the main thrust into a locale is coming from, and it may change depending on the choices the defender makes.

Our session included a fair amount of give and take, and usually held to somewhat of a battle line. I did feel the need to bring on reinforcements while playing the French, however, which would have made it rather difficult for me to win had we played to the end. (The victory conditions become much more onerous for the French if they bring on reinforcements.)

The rules have a fair number of special cases, and they can seriously effect play. You have to be careful when playing this for the first time. The rule we botched was that attacks declared during road movement (which incidentally have to be feints) can only be done by cavalry. We exploited this quite a bit declaring a number of road-based attacks to split up defenders before moving in with the big group to take the locale. It shouldn't be quite that easy, as there's not THAT much cavalry in the game.

First impressions were very good, however, despite aborting the game. It's definitely bigger and more involved than BaM, and the play time increases accordingly. The French have some very tough decisions to make regarding their reinforcements.

We're playing the game again this week, and I hope we'll remember (nearly) all the exceptions. Look for a much more involved report in the coming days.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Aborted Triumph

As planned, Eric and I met for my choice of game, Napoleon's Triumph. After my enjoyment of Bonaparte at Marengo in a previous session, I was keen to see how this game worked. Same, but different, is the answer, and still very excellent.

However, we majorly screwed up the rules, allowing all units to advance along roads and create a threat, rather than just cavalry units, which we didn't discover until around 2 thirds the way through. By that point the game was a major bogey, and we bagged it, planning to have a second attempt the following week.

The basics of BaM is still the same in NT, but the combat is more involved, starting from the concept of an attack threat, to which the defender has to respond. This response is either in the form of retreating from the locale or by moving troops from reserve to the approach. At this point the attacker can declare the threat to be a feint, and an attempt to get he enemy forces committed, or can continue with an attack. At this point the defender selects the leading unit (or units, for a wide approach), the attacker selects leading units and the initial result is worked out. This part is the same as BaM. However, the defender now has the opportunity to counter-attack if there are available units, and the battle result is recalculated, again using the same evaluation criteria as before. Losses are removed, retreats applied, and morale levels adjusted. However, in another change, only the side that lost the battle actually loses morale points.

In practice this all works smoothly, but does take a fair bit of getting used to. Remembering all the possible combinations of reserve and approach, threats, feints, the difference between defending units and leading units, and which units may be leading, all take time to internalize. Artillery took a long time to figure out, but I think we got it right by the end.

So, how did our aborted effort go? I was the Austrians, and set up with the plan of holding him on the left, with a mix of artillery and weaker infantry, trying to encourage him to advance in the center/right towards his VP spaces, hopefully opening a seam or exposing a flank, so put a lot of my best units into Liechtenstein's corps behind my left/center line. On both flanks I kept some cavalry and infantry, in order to try to work around his flanks to occupy a VP space or two, or at least threaten to do so.

Eric was very weak in front of my left flank, a corps with 3 units, and a couple of independent units support in the adjacent locale. Most of his strength appeared to be in his corps on my right flank, although I couldn't tell how strong those units were. The weakness on the left flank was just crying out to be taken advantage of, so my initial moves created threats on the independent units, and moved one of my holding corps to administer the coup de grace, for a good start in a French morale loss. On the right my initial flanking threat worked as he moved a whole corps to balance my single unit, leaving a gap in the middle of his line. As it had worked so well in our Manoeuvre games last week, I pushed a corps through the gap.

Eric responded by bringing on both his available corps reinforcements, to shore up his rapidly disintegrating right flank and to meet my incursion. Due to my misreading of the rules (and in a change from BaM) my cavalry heavy advanced corps retired from the gap in his line, losing 3 steps (and, more importantly, 3 morale points), and restoring the battle lines. Not sure I'll try that again...

He retired a little in the center/right, and I pushed forward, hoping to get my artillery more into action. However, now I'd left a gap in the center/left of my line, and Eric was threatening to exploit it. Over on the left flank I'd removed LeGrand's corps, as well as an independent unit he'd detached.

It was whilst I was removing this independent unit on my left flank that we spotted the rule about road moves and attacks, and we agreed that it had seriously impacted the game to the point where it was better to start again.

This is truly up there as one of my favorite games, on a par with OCS. The concept of attack threats and feints works superbly, and gives a great feel. The handling of corps just feels right. Tension like you wouldn't believe, it has more in terms of bluff then BaM, and just feels even more accurate in portraying Napoleonic battles.

I can hardly wait to get it back onto the table on Monday. Let's hope we can actually play without screwing it up, this time.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Wow, okay, life just slammed me last week. (And it's looking to do so again this week.) Hence, a late post.

By now, you've probably read Mike's account of our Manoeuvre game last week. We tried a couple odd matchups (Ottomans vs. Prussians, and Spanish vs. Russians.) And, in both cases, Mike beat me pretty well. The first game ended on time, but I wasn't in any sort of position to threaten him. The 2nd game ended 5-4 in Mike's favor, but I had better opportunities that time.

I've now played this game five times, and I think I've won one. What am I doing wrong? I've thought about this a bit and have some ideas.

Planning ahead

I don't take into account how the results of an attack will look when considering counter-attacks. The part that probably throws me the most is I forget about advancing after combat. I don't take enough care to avoid over-extending, and that's where I get beat back most often. Because of this, I also manage to get myself into positions where I cut off my own retreat paths. Bad news can only follow that.

Underestimating Threats

In our first game, I let Mike get a unit through my lines. The unit itself didn't do a whole lot of damage, but what it did was allow him to far more easily surround my units and I believe two or three units were killed that way. Had I been a tad more conservative, I could easily have kept that unit out from behind my lines, and may very well have won that game.

Using Terrain

I'm getting better at this, but the high ground is vitally important. The +2 for attacking off hills is huge, particularly for artillery (which is frequently weak in this game – it's hard to get a step loss result against a fresh unit with only a 1d10 roll). The drawback is taking the hills can lead you into a defensive mindset as you try to keep the hills.

Tracking Spent Units

I need to mentally keep track of which units have seen at least four of their cards go by – in the 2nd game last week, I was counting on getting a card for a unit to initiate an attack and it turned out none were left in the deck. Had I been tracking that, I'd have known to plan differently.

Using the Forced Move

You must move a unit on every turn. There were times I had myself in a position where I simply didn't want to move. Not good – I ended up weakening my plans a couple times as a result. I need to keep a unit in reserve able to move when I don't want to move anything else.

Knowing your army

I'm still in exploration mode with this game, and I've yet to play the same army twice. Over time, I'll get in more games with each army and I'll begin to understand their strengths and weaknesses better. Each army really is different, and must be played differently.

This game gets deeper and more complex the more you play. It certainly looks like chess, and in many ways begins to play like it. The cards and dice simply modify the decision tree somewhat. I'm going to keep pulling this game out until I get good at it. It's a very large amount of game inside an hour.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

More Maneouvre

Eric’s choice again, and he wanted to play some more Manoeuvre, fine by me, as I haven’t played since we last played it.

We ended up with him taking the Turks, and me the Prussians. My initial hand saw all 3 of the ‘Forced March’ dealt out, unfortunately. One of my favorite cards, as it allows an unexpected play as you dash a unit to a better position for attack, but all together rather cramped my hand otherwise. Most of his infantry was committed to the one side, his cavalry to the other. I ran a weak unit into the town on the edge of the map on my right flank, and his good infantry buzzed around it the whole game, while I pounded on the left with the major part of my force. I managed to break through his lines with my big ‘8’ infantry unit, and then used it twice to surround and kill units.

We went back and fore a bit on my left flank, as I stupidly trapped one of my cavalry units against the map edge, leaving it no retreat path and an easy kill. At the end, I was up 4-3 in kills, and drew my last cards to end the game and take the win in spaces 10-2.

This had taken only an hour, so we started a new game, this time I picked the Spanish and Russians, and Eric picked the Spanish. The map had all the terrain on my left flank, with a wide open plain on the right. We started with an extended period of jockeying for position, until Eric pushed forward on my right, but was pounded by my Cossacks.

Once again I was able to separate Eric’s left and right wings, ganging up on individual units to force their destruction. Eventually I was able to get the final unit surrounded for a 5-4 (or was it 3?) win on unit losses. Highlights (or not) of the game was me managing to roll 2d8+2d6 in one big attack and managing to roll a grand total of 7. Yep, 7. Another time Eric played a defense card on my attack, and I managed to oblige him by rolling a 1 so my attacker took a hit. Still, I had a few good rolls at other points, so it all evened out in the wash.

This is still a very fun game, and the more I play the more I appreciate certain cards. I initially thought that ‘Skirmish’ was a bit weak, but it’s really useful to suck in defense cards and to allow a unit to switch focus quickly, as that 2 space movement is very useful. ‘Forced March’ is still one of my favorites, for the same reason. However, well, there really is no ‘however’. It’s a fun beer and pretzels game, that gets you thinking how best to deal with your opponent, your hand, and the available terrain. I look forward to playing more of it, and I could see it knocking on the door of my top ten wargames.

My choice for next time, again. I’m torn between more Devil’s Cauldron and Napoleon’s Triumph, but it will be the latter.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Infiltrating Drop Zones

Mike's choice this week, and he wanted to give The Devil's Cauldron another try. The concern was whether we could fit one of the intermediate scenarios into an evening. Adam Starkweather (the designer) claims that the Empire Strikes Back scenario is playable by experienced players in two hours, so we gave that one a shot figuring we could get it done in our 3 hour timeslot.

We were on a bit short notice as Mike had just returned from the east coast so we needed to do a little chit punching before we got started. All the incredibly tiny high-contrast text on the counters does make it a tad slow in finding the precise pieces you need, but eventually we got it all together. I was curious how the German cause would play out in this scenario so I requested the Germans.

The Empire Strikes Back scenario covers the German counterattack by Korps Feldt towards Groosbeek and Mook south of Nijmegen on Sep 18, 1944. The game starts with the 0700 turn and continues until either the 1500 or 1700 turn depending on which turn the Allies decide to do their supply drop. This means either a 5 or 6 turn game. Only two divisions are involved: Korps Feldt on the German side, and the 82nd Airborne for the allies. For the Germans to win, they have to have non-suppressed units in the drop zones, have taken possession of a hill on the way to Mook, and have occupied the easternmost hex of Mook at some point. Allies win if the Germans do none of this. In the likely event the results fall in the middle the Germans win if they've eliminated at least three steps of allied units. Not as easy as it sounds.

The game begins with a German divisional activation and all German troops are off-map. They come in at hexes marked around the edge of the board. Two formations headed straight towards the drop zones, and a third has a choice of two entry points near the southeastern corner of the map. I was concerned about Mike moving units between my formations and separating them, so decided to take the more northerly of my two choices. Given my experience, I might not choose this option the next time.

I came on the map in three columns, one per formation. As the allies cannot exit their deployment zone, I was unhindered in my initial advance. Of course, to make any headway whatsoever, coming on in column was a necessity. My northernmost formations were able to come out of column before any real resistance was met, and by the end of the third turn, I had begun to enter the southeastern drop zone. Turn four (1300) got me slightly further in, but I was not able to reach the southern drop zone before the supply drop occurred in the fifth (1500) turn.

Turn 2 North:

Turn 3 North:

Turn 4 North:

Turn 5 North:

In the south, I had much further to go before any resistance was met. By the end of turn 2, I was only two hexes shy of KG Goebel's first objective (the hill northeast of Reithorst). By the end of turn 3, I had taken it. (Turns out, only a rearguard was holding Reithorst and the hill. More serious opposition awaited me in Mook should I have made it that far.)

Southern turn 2:

Southern turn 3:

Southern turn 4:

Southern turn 5:

When we got to the start of the fifth turn, Mike revealed he planned the supply drop for this turn, and this made the fifth turn the end of the scenario. I looked over the victory conditions and realized we were probably in tiebreaker territory. I had achieved (and didn't look like I had a chance to lose) three of my four objectives. This meant the winner came down to how many steps the allies had lost. If I'd taken out three or more steps, I'd win, less and Mike would win. Going into the third turn, I'd taken out two steps, so my goal was to take out one more. Axis losses aren't relevant to the victory conditions, so it was a case of “I'm going down and taking someone with me.”

It was close, though. Normally, the last activation chit in a cup isn't played (it becomes the first chit for the next turn, but the scenario special rules allow a 50% shot of the last chit in the cup being played in both the first and last turns. My divisional activation chit was the last one in the cup, and I got the chance to play it. It was on this activation that I got that third step eliminated thus winning the scenario.

I had no chance of reaching Mook, and I may have gotten into all three drop zones had the game gone another turn, so I feel I did pretty well for a first play. Experience will teach me how to get those units close to Mook. (I've got some ideas, but I'm not saying just in case I get the Germans again vs. Mike in this scenario.) In effect, the scenario was a draw as neither of us did anything very definitive except perhaps my advance in the south.

The activation flow was interesting. I picked up two dispatch points on the first activation of the game. I spent those initial two on formation chits for turn 3, and didn't get to spend any more the remainder of the game. I didn't get any in turn 2, didn't get to roll in turn 3, didn't get any in turn 4, and finally got two more in the final activation of the game. Those, obviously, were useless. Mike, on the other hand, started with a lot more dispatch points, and was able to keep a relatively high total throughout the game. I don't believe he ever felt hampered by an inability to focus extra attention where needed - I certainly did. (having one or two more activations for KG Goebel in the south could have made a big difference in the outcome of the game. Learning to manage your dispatch points is definitely a developed skill.

For references sake, here's the chits that got held over in each turn:
1st: none (don't recall the last chit drawn, but it was played).
2nd: Axis Direct command
3rd: Axis Divisional Activation
4th: Allied Divisional Activation
5th : none (Axis Divisional Activation got played.)

This is the second time (and third scenario) we've gotten on the table. I'm starting to get a better feel for my thoughts on the game, but I don't know that I'll ever fully know how I stand on it until I get the campaign game played to completion. And, to be honest, that isn't going to be happening any time soon. Maybe the advanced scenarios will provide a clearer picture.

My thoughts on the rulebook haven't changed. A three-level-deep table of contents has been put on the support website, but it's still awkward to use as you can't merge it into an electronic copy. (There still isn't one. On that note, as it seems there will only be an electronic copy if living rules become necessary, and as the braintrust and the fanbois behind the game seem to take anything that's not outright errata with a “You haven't played the game enough to know that it's just about perfect as it is. We playtested it with the rule like that, and it's balanced.” attitude, it's hard to tell if there will EVER be an electronic copy of the rulebook.) It's still difficult to actually refer to anything in the rulebook, as now we're typically only needing to look up special cases – the most difficult things to find in a book that has no index, tons of gratuitous whitespace, poor heading delineation, and isn't searchable.

The issue that came to the fore for me in this playing was opportunity fire. Nearly everything in the game is determined by where a unit is moving to. Opportunity fire is based on where a unit is moving from. This creates some strange effects such as units with small arms (oh, say, your average infantry unit) not being able to opportunity fire on a unit that moves adjacent to it. You can only do this if the enemy unit leaves a hex in range. I'm still not convinced about this.

The rationale for the rule apparently comes from the old Panzer Command rules from which the Devil's Cauldron ruleset is derived. Oddly, those rules claim that the rule is the way it is because disengaging is harder than engaging. Yet, you can't OppFire at someone moving INTO your fire zone. The rule reads like opportunity fire is typically only taken at units moving away from you, which is simply wrong. It's a direct contradiction in my book, and this rule detracts from the game. The negative aspects to this rule would be greatly exposed in a classic scenario of long lines attacking an entrenched position. However, I don't know that there's ever been a game with this rule applied to a scenario that has those conditions.

I rated this with 3.4 stars (on average) last time. I gave gameplay four stars and fun factor three. After playing a larger scenario, I'd tweak that a bit, and add a half point to the fun factor, but drop the gameplay by half a point. No rating change after another session. I'm hoping the opportunity fire issue isn't one that becomes worse in bigger scenarios, but as this campaign didn't see a whole lot of miles-long-fronts-staring-at-each-other type action I'm thinking it may not be that big of a deal in the end. It's certainly sticking in my craw now, however.

The 500m/hex scale also creates an odd feel. The units are small enough that you expect it to act rather tactical. It doesn't. (In fact an entire Combat Commander map would fit within a single Devil's Cauldron hex) But you can't think strategically as it doesn't even come close to even the small OCS scale in Sicily which is eight times further across a hex. Also, you don't have a “higher command” level – there's nothing above division, and the divisions effectively act independently. I hate to draw a miniatures analogy here, but this game feels like 20mm figures. You can paint them like 25mm figures and work on the detail, which is just as much work as painting 25s, or you can paint them like 15mm figures and go for the mass effect, but it costs you more money and space. Maybe my relative inexperience with WWII wargaming is showing here, but it seems like a scale in search of a home.

(To be fair, here, Panzer Grenadier – a game I enjoy - takes criticism for this exact same issue. People used to squad-level tactical games have a hard time wrapping their head around platoon-level at 200m/hex. Maybe 500m/hex is a bridge, er, abstraction level too far. Maybe not. Time will tell.)

I'm still torn on this game. I want to like it but I keep finding things that annoy me. I've been watching Mike gleefully punch and clip his copy, but I still haven't even punched mine. I'm going to have to decide before they start printing the sequel, though. I've got a preorder in for it, but if I'm still sitting on the fence by that point I'm not spending the 2.5 tanks of gas the game will cost.


After last week's last minute cancellation, we got Devil's Cauldron back on the table for a second go, picking The Empire Strikes Back scenario. Eric wanted to try attacking, and I was perfectly fine with giving him the opportunity, so he took the Germans and me the Americans.

The scenario is in the early part of the Market-Garden operation, and sees a sizable German attack on the 82nd's drop/landing zones (LZ) to the south west of Nijmegen, which are critical for bringing in additional troops and supplies. The victory conditions require the Germans to have 2 or more undisrupted units in the LZ areas, while also advancing towards Mook, which threatens the potential link up with the British XXX corps, having to occupy one of the town hexes at any point in the game, and continue to occupy one hex to the SW of Mook at game end. If the German manages none of these then the US player wins, any other result going to a tie-breaker, which is dependent on US step losses, 2 or fewer and the US player wins, more being a German win.

Note there’s no reference to German losses anywhere in that previous paragraph. And that’s the problem with this scenario, the German player doesn’t need to make any effort to simulate history, he just aims to kill steps, regardless of his own losses. He still has to ensure that he meets at least one of the conditions, but maintaining a couple of units undisrupted anywhere in the LZ areas is pretty easy. The only Allied response to that is to run away, or at least out of range, but that doesn’t seem right either.

In our game we had the usual wacky stuff. I managed to miss 3 Troop Quality (TQ) checks for ‘7’ rating units (i.e. I needed to roll anything except an 8 or 9) in a row, then later rolled 3 ‘0’ in a row for my air strikes, causing step losses for each, although they really didn’t really affect the outcome at all. Although the first was a bit scary as two of those TQ rolls were when being assaulted, opportunity fire in the first stage and then for standing/running away. Fortunately there were no Germans able to take advantage of my bugging out. Eric managed to roll poorly for his Dispatch Points, and ended up with none at all, which prevented him from buying any formation markers at all, having to use only the divisional activation and direct command chits. (That’s a lesson learned – don’t run down your Dispatch Points too much.)

It all came down to the last chit drawn, in the end, and the 50/50 roll that Eric would get to play it. (Unlike other scenarios, where the final chit to be drawn from the cup isn’t played, there’s a roll to see if it is played.) He did, and fired on my unit already with a step loss and 2 cohesion hits, managing to get another cohesion hit that caused the game winning third step loss.

However, all this ignores the basic initial fact: I didn’t read the victory conditions, and thought that I had to defend the LZ areas. I was a little mislead by the scenario introduction, which made great play of the 82nd defending the LZ areas, and only ejecting the Germans only moments before the air drop took place. So my initial set up and first turn or two was with the aim of doing just that. Then I read the Victory Conditions (VC) and my units that went diving up the road from Mook went smartly about face and dashed back.

By that time my engineer unit that I’d set up at the forward edge had been eliminated in the first fire attacks (with a 20% kill chance), and I had another unit next to him that was now facing dangerous opp fire if it tried to retire. (This was the same unit that was eventually to lose both steps for the loss.) By the end of the game, The Germans had lost 9 steps to my 3, but there is nothing about German losses, so the loss was mine.

OK, two plays under the belt now, any further thoughts? The game is OK. Not great, but it certainly isn’t bad. We played in around 3 hours, still with a lot of pfutzing with the rulebook, partly because we couldn’t remember rules, and partly trying to find stuff without a decent ToC/Index. Mostly the game system works fine, although there are two areas that still rankle.

The first is the rule about opp fire and assaulting. If you have an attacking unit adjacent to your defending unit, and that attacking unit moves from that hex to another adjacent hex then your defending unit gets a chance at opp fire. (It has to pass a TQ to actually fire.) However, if there is another defending unit in that destination hex, i.e. the enemy unit is assaulting, then you do not get a chance at opp fire, your unit just has to stand and watch as their buddies get jumped on. One argument I’ve read for it is to do with range, but if they can opp fire when the target is moving, then they obviously have the range, so that argument doesn’t hold. Another is that they’re afraid to cause friendly fire, and I think that is a better argument, but ultimately I think it’s bogus, as well. Put in a fire modifier, but not having them fire at all is weak.

The second is the combat results table. TDC uses the strength of the attack as the ‘to hit’ number and effect. The higher the attack strength, the higher the chance of getting a result, and the higher the roll, the better the result. Roll too high, and your attack misses. Roll low and you get a weak result, which are in terms of suppression, cohesion, step loss and elimination. It’s a pretty decent way to handle hits and effect in one go, although it’s not new. However, it also has the ‘0 is always a hit’ caveat, which is also a decent concept, and means that even the worst attack has the chance of doing something. However, on a few of the weapons classes, a ‘0’ gives you a step loss result, rather than just the weakest possible result. Now that lucky hit becomes even more critical, as the ‘0’ not only gets you a result on a weak attack, but gets you the second strongest result possible. I’d be tempted to make that a ‘C?’ result instead: a TQ check, failure giving a cohesion hit. To reward a miniscule attack with a step loss is just too strong.

Other than that the game progresses, the system is fairly simple and straightforward, although the rule book makes it seem a lot more complex. A few gamers have complained about the counters, finding them a bit too busy, but I think they’re OK. Not wonderful, just OK. I definitely don’t like the different national symbols for artillery and other tube weapons, but I guess I’ll get used to it. It would be harder if I was going to get the desert-based game in the series, as it introduces Italian and French, and another two sets of symbols to learn.

Speaking of the series, what of the other half of Market-Garden, Where Eagles Dare? I’m still kinda on the fence about it. I currently have it on pre-order, and I guess I’m more likely to get it than not, but I can see me canceling my order. I’m going to have to play a couple more times to get a better feel for the system, and to see if all the scenarios have similarly wacky game-causing victory conditions. At least I’ll read them next time......