Saturday, September 27, 2008

Finally made it to Stalingrad

Okay, I have to admit something and probably give up what little “cred” as a gamer I've garnered.

I've never played a Stalingrad game before.

(And no, the first scenario of Squad Leader doesn't count.)

The East Front never really had the draw for me that the Bulge or North Africa produced. Maybe it's because I don't have a horse in that race. And, it's a rather familiar theme: somebody invades Russia, bogs down in the never-ending terrain and horrible weather, invasion eventually fails. It didn't work for Sweden, and it didn't work for Napoleon. Why should it work for Germany?

However, over time I've learned to appreciate the individual parts of the East Front from a gamers' perspective. Kursk. The Drive for Oil. The Backhand Blow. And, of course, Stalingrad.

So, I was looking forward to this week's gaming when Mike and I got together Multiman's new release Storm over Stalingrad. This is a boxed edition of the game that appeared in Game Journal Magazine #19, and is part of MMP's well-regarded International Game Series (which sometimes-gaming-partner Doug refers to as the "Japanese Game Series" as every game in the series so far has been Japanese in origin.)

SoS is what's called an Area-Impulse game. Players go back and forth activating areas and causing troops to be “spent.” Once all troops are spent (or both players pass in succession) the turn's over. The map is split into largish areas that can contain a large number of troops. (In this case, 10 per side per area.)

Prior games using this basic system are some old Avalon Hill classics. Storm over Arnhem, Breakout: Normandy, Thunder at Cassino, and Turning Point: Stalingrad. Newer games using the same basic system are Monty's Gamble: Market Garden, and the Iwo Jima game we played last week.

Similar to Iwo Jima, SoS is a MUCH simpler game than the others listed above. In fact, it really does distill the area-movement idea down to its bare essence. The result is a decently written 8-page rulebook (but we still managed to miss things.)

Now, I've only played Storm over Arnhem once a LONG time ago, and toyed around with B:N. So, before last week's Iwo Jima game, my area-impulse experience was practically non-existant.

The game has some interesting twists. First, you bid for sides. What you're bidding on is the number of 3-value spaces the Russians need to control at the end of the game to win. They start with 7, but there's no way to hold them all. The rulebook recommends bids of 2 or 3. Mike and I both bid 2, making selection a random process, but with the Russians only needing to control 2 of the 7 spaces to win. (The 7 spaces in question all lie along the riverbank.) I ended up drawing the Russians.

The other twist this game has over other area-impulse games is two decks of cards - one for each side. These cards provide things like artillery, air support, defensive fire, and other tweaks to normal play. The Germans get six cards out of their 27-card deck every turn while the Soviets start getting 3, and it slowly increases to 6 throughout the game.

Combat is relatively straightforward. You total up the firepower of all the attacking units and add that to the sum of two dice. You then look at the highest defense value among the defending units and add that (usually) to the terrain value of the area the defender occupies. Subtract the defense total from the attacking total and if the result is positive, the defender has to assign loss points. 1 point either flips a unit to “spent” or retreats a spent unit. 2 points eliminates a spent unit or flips and retreats a fresh unit. 3 points eliminates a fresh unit. Spent units can't act, but can defend normally at slightly reduced efficiency. Typical units have stats like 2-9-2 or 1-9-3 (attack-defense-movement). Armor defense is as high as 11.

I believe the map is oriented with the Russian left to the south. I'll refer to the map in those terms and correct later if I'm proven wrong.

We had played one turn and drawn cards for the second when I got a card that read oddly. Turns out the card's fine but I'd missed a rule – units with firepower 0 aren't able to fire. Whoops. I'd done a lot of that. We reset and started again.

On this go-round Mike initially pushed hard along the riverbank to my left. He had taken two of the VP areas quickly, but those were two I didn't expect to hold.

There's a subtle rule interaction in the game that really dictates the pace of play in certain situations. Units can fire into their own or any adjacent area. However, if they fire into an adjacent area, they gain a “Fired” marker. Units in areas with a Fired marker do not get to count the terrain value in their defense. This leads to an interesting game of “who blinks first” where you save units wanting to fire into adjacent areas as long as possible in order to avoid getting that Fired marker and sacrificing the extra defense. Typically as soon as one of these groups fired, it set off a daisy-chain of activations where each successive group gave up its terrain defense in order to go on the offensive.

Mike's offensive in the south stalled when the SS units were removed from the fighting at the end of turn 3 as per the reinforcement schedule. This was 2/3 of his strength in that area.

The basic thrust of our game was Mike pushing on each flank while I kept feeding units in for defense. He also kept enough units in the center to keep me from completely abandoning the center to defend the flanks. It turned into a slow grind with a few head-fakes thrown in as Mike had enough movement to sometimes change directions of attack. Our final tally showed me losing 2 VP areas on the left and 1 on the right, leaving me controlling 4. Significantly above the 2 I needed for victory.

In reading through the rules again the next day, we discovered two rules we missed, both significantly helping the defender.

First, units fired on from within their own area do not count the terrain value in their defense. I KNOW I would have lost at least one more area in the south playing with this rule. The other rule we missed involved units retreating into areas already at their maximum number of friendly units. As units can't even move through these areas, we played that units forced to retreat into those areas are eliminated. This isn't the case – they retreat through to the other side, and continue to do so until there's a legal area for them to retreat into that isn't already full. This cost Mike at least two or three units late in the game.

So, both rules we botched went seriously in the defender's favor making it a little too easy from the Russian perspective. We'll need to play this one again to give it a fair shake.

Despite getting a couple critical things wrong, I enjoyed this game. It pulls the essence of area-impulse together in a way that still works as a game. If you've been curious about some of the older titles I mentioned above and aren't sure if you'd like the system, try this one first. If you don't like the way this game flows, odds are you won't like the others either.

I certainly want to play it again to get a handle on the balance and replayability. The bid mechanism for sides varying the victory conditions should put reigns on the balance, and the cards and flexibility in German reinforcement placements should help make each game flow differently. Remains to be seen. I do know it's a good addition to the ever-growing stable of wargames that can be played in an evening. Even counting our botched attempt and reset, we were done in ~4 hours for a first playing. This game easily fits within 3 hours. Stalingrad in an evening. Who woulda thunk it?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Storm in a teacup

Back to my choice, and with the arrival of Storm Over Stalingrad (BGG entry) from MMP in the prior week or two and having just played another area movement game, (Iwo Jima), in the previous session, it seemed an appropriate choice. So, where does it differ from IJ and other area movement games?

SOS is a lot closer to the benchmark for area movement games (Avalon Hill's Storm Over Arnhem, Breakout: Normandy, Thunder at Cassino, and Turning Point: Stalingrad) than IJ was. Turns are taken as alternating impulses, allowing the activation of a number of units in a single area who then all perform the same action, whether firing at a single target, or moving to another area. As units are activated they are flipped over to their reverse side, which features a lower strength. Fire attacks are either within the same area or to an adjacent area, and only feature the attacking player rolling dice, to which the fire strength is added, and compared to the strongest defense rating of the target units, modified for terrain. Any positive difference is damage to the defenders, which is taken in terms of flipping units, retreats and losses. Unlike the AH games, the game turn continues until both players pass or have no more units left to activate.

The major difference to the AH games, however, is that each player has a 27 card deck which allows various capabilities. These may represent artillery or air barrage capability (rather than having counters on the map), defense modifier increase/negation, card negation, and other effects that change the standard rules/flow, and allow for extended replayability. The decks are also asymmetrical, giving a little flavor of the two different armies.

I had the game all set up as we made an early start to the evening, expecting the game to run 4+ hours on our first play. We both bid 2 points for the Soviets, and in the toss I got the Germans. My initial plan was to focus on the right, with the SS troops, trying to make maximum use of them before they are withdrawn at the end of turn 3, driving along the river.

With this in mind I dumped my '10' strength Heavy Artillery card into Rail Road Station 2, following up with fire from Sadovaya Station, both scoring excellent rolls for damage. This was followed up with moving the SS into RR Station 2, and Dive Bombers into Grain Elevator. Around this time I realized that the plan wasn't going to work, and that I would have to press all along the line if I hoped to reduce Eric down to a single VP area for the win, so started on other areas, with some degree of success, although our die rolling swapped as my early success changed to failures and vice versa for Eric. I had hoped to take notes of each impulse, but the game moves forward too quickly, so gave that up as I didn't want to hold things up.

We hadn't gone far into turn 2 (if at all) when Eric spotted that '0' strength units can't fire, which he had been doing all turn, forcing retreats. That had a pretty major effect on the game so far, so we agreed to reset and start again.

This time I started with a good hand of artillery cards, and made good use of them, battering my way through RR Station 2, and advancing the SS into Grain elevator. I made some progress through Central Gully and into Red October Factory Workers' Settlement, even managing to clear it out and opening a path to the river, but Eric was able to reinforce it and close the door. On the left side I advanced into Dzerzhinsky Tractor Factory, and with a box cars roll even took out the defenders.

Some time during turn 4:

By turn 4 I was in Barrikady Gun Factory and Rail Road Station 1, but then stalled from there, as I couldn't get the die rolls to match up with the big attacks (rolling low on the strong attacks, high on the weak attacks), resulting in minor results each time. With this, Eric didn't really need to do much other than replace the odd unit that did retreat. In the end, Eric controlled 4 VP areas for an easy win.

End position:

Whilst the dice gave me a good start but were weak at the end, I don't think I played this one particularly well. I spent too much time firing from adjacent areas, and not enough moving forward to contest areas. Any time I did clear an area, which would have allowed good forward movement, Eric was able to plug the gap in his turn. What I would have given for one of those Motherland cards the Soviet player has! (It allows the Soviet player to pre-empt the German turn and take a second impulse.) I also didn't take enough care to protect my strong units from attacks, losing several armored/mech units. It's important to have enough cannon fodder to soak up those hits. Ah well, next time, next time.... :)

All in all, the game is a very streamlined version of the AH area movement standard. Obvious comparisons will be made to the AH game on this subject, Turning Point: Stalingrad. I haven't played TPS, although I have scanned through the rule book, but suffice to say that the AH offering is a far more complex, detailed and involved game. Then again, you could say that SOS is a simplistic, 'dumbed down' version of the former, it depends on your perspective and preferences.

I liked SOS and I'd certainly like to get it onto the table again. Our evening was just over 4 hours, including a brief initial discussion of the game, the abortive first effort, resetting up, and a chat afterwards. So the 3 hour length on the box seems about right, which makes it a great evening game.

We still managed to miss a crucial rule -that defenders don't get terrain benefit when fire originates in the same area. This didn't impact any of Eric's fires, as only the player controlling area ever gets terrain benefit and he never moved/attacked into a German controlled area. It would have impacted a lot of my fires, however, especially those in the '+3' terrain areas, although I'm unsure to what degree. We also played the retreat/stacking rules slightly wrong, which meant a few of my units got deaded for not having a retreat path when they could have retreated through a fully stacked area to another adjacent area. However, these were our errors, as both rules are very clearly explained in the correct locations, so maybe we just can't read.

Anyway, that certainly didn't impact my enjoyment of the game. Engrossing and thoroughly entertaining, it's another winner from MMP. They've been on a tear recently, producing some excellent games, and their P500 list contains just as many games that I can hardly wait to get my hands on. And there's several that are supposed to go on P500 soon that I'll also immediately pre-order. In fact the whole wargaming industry is coming up with a whole bunch of great games recently, and my shelves are groaning with the weight of so many games that I'm itching to play. I just need more hours in the day to spend time with friends to play them all.

Eric's choice again next time. I wonder what he'll come up with? I know that my next choice will be Conflict of Heroes, another new one, and one that's getting a great deal of positive buzz across on BGG.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Raging Marines

Monday night Mike and I finally got back to our regular weeknight gaming, and it was my choice.

At WBC, I picked up a copy of Multiman's first Operations Special Issue. It comes with a boatload of stuff, and one of the two featured inclusions is Iwo Jima: Rage Against the Marines.

This is a small, area movement game with a few interesting features. It covers the US invasion of the island of Iwo Jima. The home Joe Rosenthal's famous and controversial photograph of six Marines raising an American Flag on the island. What most people don't know is that happened on day 3, while the battle for the island continued for nearly another month. I believe this is still the most reproduced photograph in history.

Anyway, part of the reason the battle for the island took so long was the fact the Japanese were hiding in caves, and the US forces had a heck of a time finding them and then rooting them out. Any game covering this conflict MUST recreate these issues or it just doesn't work as a game. IJ:RatM does this rather well.

The obvious feature of the game is that it has two maps. There's the primary map of the island, then a smaller version of the map that's hidden behind a screen. You can sort of see this in use in this image. The Japanese deploy their units on the hidden map, revealing them throughout the game for a variety of reasons. Once revealed, some units can re-hide themselves, and hidden movement is also possible. This does a great job of recreating the "where the heck are they?" feeling the US troops had.

The American goal for the game is to take the four airfield areas in the middle of the island. They get 2VP at the end of every turn they hold the four airfield areas, with a bonus of 2VP if they hold both areas of the large airfield. The Americans also get a random number of VPs for raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi. This reflects the reason for the invasion – obtaining a forward airbase for bombing Japan. The flag raising is a bit of PR boost reflected in the VP bonus.

The Japanese goals are a bit more basic. Survive, keep the island, and eliminate as many invading Marines as possible. So, they get 1VP for every American step lost, 1VP for every unit that survives the game, 5VP if the HQ unit survives, and 3VP for every one of the 21 spaces on the board that is still controlled by Japan at the end of the nine-turn game. There's also a 10VP boost if the US 3rd Division enter play anywhere but at a beachhead, but that's not something that was in play in our game.

If either side hits 40 VPs during the game, it's an immediate victory. Otherwise, most VPs wins.

The turn sequence is a pretty basic Igo-Ugo system:
  1. Weather – can reduce aircraft available for bombardment.
  2. US Reset – restores units for use.
  3. US Recovery – US can replenish one step in a beachhead area.
  4. US Bombardment – air, naval, and unit bombardment of area islands.
  5. US Movement – this includes Japanese defensive fire. Japanese units co-located with US units at the end of this phase are revealed.
  6. US Assault – close combat.
  7. Control Determination – if areas are now solely occupied by a single side, they're controlled.
  8. Construction – Place Beachhead and “Safe To Land” markers, and flag raising.
  9. Japanese Reset – all Japanese phases are as for US.
  10. Japanese Bombardment
  11. Japanese Movement
  12. Japanese Assault
  13. Control Determination
  14. End Phase – check for game end.
There's only 20-some counters for each side, so the turns go relatively quickly. We took just over 90 minutes for our play, but I could easily see this being a 1 hour game with any experience at all.

The Japanese set up their units on the hidden map, and also 21 cave counters. These can be distributed in any fashion, with no more than 2 in any area. They make it much harder to dislodge Japanese units. The US must then move their units onto the map in landings.

The basic flow of the game goes as you'd expect. The US bombards critical areas, moves in and tries to take them over. The Japanese try to harass and delay as much as possible.

Combat is pretty simple – you total up the strength of all the bombarding or assaulting units, and roll that many dice. 5s and 6s hit. Every cave marker in the area reduces the number of hits, as does the defense value of the area if it's controlled by the other side. This may mean anywhere between zero and five hits are ignored right off the bat. If you managed to do more damage than what's ignored, hits are assigned to units and a cave marker is removed. This has the effect of making repeated attempts on the same area slightly easier.

I took the Japanese in our game, and my strategy was to not contest the landings but fight like the dickens for every other inch of ground. I don't think Mike took an airfield area until turn 4 while I was repeatedly causing step losses. I believe I was well over 20VPs before Mike scored any. However, once he got his armor into the airfields, I had a real hard time slowing them down. His bombardments were having the expected long-term effect and my position started to really crumble fast. Of course, Mike didn't know this as he couldn't see most of my units. However, I suddenly realized that, while I had a large VP lead, he was going to take all four airfield areas quickly, and the 10VP/turn was going to kick in soon enough for him to top 40 before the end of the game. I had to try to recover at least one half of the large airfield to have a chance. If I could hold him out of there, I'd win due to the VPs I'd score at the end for surviving units and controlled areas. Wasn't to be, however, and Mike ended up topping 40 on turn 8, I believe, while I was right around 30. I certainly was hurt in the last half of our game by the rule restricting Japanese movement – you have to roll a d3 at the beginning of the Japanese movement phase to see how many units you can move. I think I rolled a 1 the last three turns. That didn't allow me to counter attack.

Now, there were a lot of things I didn't do well from the Japanese side – I didn't take advantage of the special attack types they're allowed. I forgot that armor couldn't go into the hills, and had put AT units in there. Not exactly useful. So, I definitely could have put up a stauncher defense than I did. With a handful of plays under our belts, this should easily turn into a tense struggle – particularly if the Japanese player takes different approaches.

In our discussion afterwards, Mike commented that he felt he was at a disadvantage as he didn't know the Japanese counter mix to know how many units I actually had left. This triggered a thought or three in my head on how I feel about the game.

First, it's very light, so don't think “simulation” when you're playing. However, it does seem to give a good feel. You have to soften up areas with bombardment before taking them, and the hidden map gives the Japanese side a load of options on attacking the US where they're not expecting it. From the US side (which I haven't played yet, but want to) you have to tread lightly as you simply don't know where the enemy is. Walking into a hornets nest is VERY likely, and the VP conditions make it possible for the Japanese to win a game covering what was essentially a hopeless situation for them. The US was going to take Iwo Jima – it was just a matter of cost.

We found a couple niggling issues – one Japanese counter had too many steps indicated on it's reduced side, and I think there was a rules-writing issue or something, but nothing major. It's a pretty clean game. (Though it could really use a small chart detailing all the conditions under which Japanese units are revealed on the large map.) Mike mentioned that he could see this being a good WBC-West game. I agree – the ~1 hour length and the fact that it's quite different from most other games (how many games really pull off hidden movement well?) makes it a great filler when you're waiting for another game to finish.

There's one thing I'd change, however, to give the game a lot more staying power. Randomization of the Japanese forces. Now, I know they were working under a strict counter limit given the format, but I would have done one of two things to help: either provide a handful of extra Japanese units and randomly remove some from each game, or randomize the Japanese unit strength. Either way, the US player can't say “ah, that's the last of the strong units, I can fan out now.” There's no way they would have known that in the actual battle.

Despite this, I'm glad I own a copy – it's one I'll be looking to get on the table periodically as a nice closer or filler.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Iwo at the Jima

Eric and I were finally able to get back to some gaming after our August hiatus, and his choice was Iwo Jima - Rage Against the Marines. This is the game that came with the MMP Operations Magazine Special Edition #1 that was released at WBC, and is an off-shoot of the old Avalon Hill area movement games (like Storm Over Arnhem and Breakout: Normandy). It simplifies the rules considerably and provides for hidden Japanese deployment and movement, even providing a mini-map to play on and a screen to hide it behind (which was a really neat touch).

Each unit is rated for strength and movement, with strength being the number of dice rolled in combat. The Marines also have naval and aircraft barrage units, and both sides have artillery. Turn sequence is reset/recovery, barrage, move, assault, in a traditional IGO/HUGO phasing. Defenders may fire on enemy units moving into their area, and the active player may execute assaults in contested areas. After each unit fires/assaults it is rotated and can't fire again until after the reset segment in the player's next turn.

Combat and barrage are simple as you total the strength and then roll that number of dice, hits being scored on each 5 or 6 rolled. From the total number of hits is subtracted the area defense value (only for the side controlling the area, however) and the Japanese player subtracts one for each remaining cave in the area. The remaining value, if greater than 0 is the damage number, which has to be applied to units evenly, and any non-zero damage result causes the removal of a single cave marker, if present in the area. In assaults the defenders can retreat, which eats up the first hit on a unit. Hits are assessed by lining up the units in the order they will take damage, the attacking player choosing order of visible units, and the Japanese player for hidden. The rules for retreats took a little thinking about, but otherwise the rules were very clear and strait-forward.

We drew randomly, and I ended up with the Marines, starting with a strong barrage on the two beach-head areas, although there turned out to be nothing in those areas. I drove inland to the two airfields, suffering a fair few casualties along the way, as the defender has the option to fire on units entering the area. I reinforced in subsequent turns, attempting to take both airfields, but my barrages performed weakly, as did my assaults, especially Chidori Airfield where in 4 rolls I couldn't generate 4 hits on 10 dice. (Average is 3.33, so 4 hits is only 40%, marginally over the average, but in all 4 attempts managed only 3 or fewer hits. With an area defense of 2 and a single cave this meant no damage was caused.)

By the start of turn 7, with 3 to go, I've barely cleared both air fields in front of the beaches, only to lose Motoyama Airfield to a counter-attack on turn 5, so only control 5 areas. Eric's sitting at 32 points (the Japanese player score 1 point for each step the US player loses), and at the end of the game the Japs score 3 points per area controlled (he currently controlled 17), 1 per unit still around (there are 8 units on the map, who knows how many hidden), and 5 if the HQ hasn't been eliminated. I've got 18 points (the US player scores 2 per airfield area per turn, with an extra 2 for controlling Funami Dai and Motoyama Airfield), a whole bunch of weakened units and only 3 turns to go.

With 40 points being required for an automatic win, I can see the writing on the wall. And then a funny thing happened. I won.

Turn 7 saw a big barrage take out the remaining Northern Airfield cave and a few steps of defenders (although it only scored 8 hits on 24 dice, perfect average, where the previous turn's identical barrage only managed 3 hits for no damage), and the same on Mount Suribachi. The assaults succeeded in removing the attackers, as I rolled well enough to remove the defenders in both areas. For Mount S. the US player gains VPs equal to a die roll, and I rolled a 2.

That was 12 points, for a total of 30, and all I had to do was hold on in turn 8 for the 10 points. I spread out, Eric rolled poorly for movement (the Japanese player rolls each turn for how many units may move that turn, d6/2, round up), and the game was over.

Here's the position at the end, but before we scored the points.

I was slightly surprised at how quickly it turned around, but it really looked like the game was gone. I'll certainly know next time that the Marines can turn the game around in very short order. But that's a concern, as If I'd rolled average dice in my earlier barrages and assaults it would have been over for the Japanese earlier in the game. I'm not sure if we were doing something wrong but it looks quite easy for the Marines, as with all that barrage strength they just pound the defenders into non-existence.

However, I know that we played a couple things wrong. We missed that the US player loses one of his air barrage units at the end of the first turn, a loss of 4 barrage factors per turn. Plus, each time there is a successful barrage of a beachhead area the beachhead marker is removed, which prevents recovery and bringing in more units at that beach, and Eric was scoring a successful barrage on my beachhead each turn. I'm not sure exactly what impact this would have had on our game, but it certainly would have helped Eric. I would have changed some of my focus to removing his artillery unit that was barraging my beachhead, for although it was causing losses they weren't major and I kept focus on the VP areas. Then again, it may have just changed my barrage focus for a single turn if the dice went averagely.

One thing that did help me a lot, I think, is that Eric didn't defend the beaches at all. This allowed me to land and drive inland on the first turn, although I did take quite a few losses from defensive fire for doing so. Then again, as I hadn't barraged inland I didn't have any effective assaults, so perhaps I should have waited until the next turn to drive inland, when the assaults would have been worth the losses. Then again again, I rolled really well on my initial barrage, scoring 9 hits on 20 dice in one area, which would have really hurt the defenders if he had defended the beaches, (I'm pretty sure that was my highest (%age-wise) roll of the game, and it was wasted on an empty space!) but I don't think it would have eliminated them.

Overall, not a bad little game. Fairly tense and with a good amount of variability (the Japanese player has total freedom of set up), I'd like to try it again to see if the things we missed make a huge impact. The rules are simple and quickly internalized. We took around 2 hours for our game, but we had a fair while with the rules looking up a few things, so I'd expect that to come down to somewhere just over the hour mark with practice. This makes it an excellent filler wargame, a pretty rare beast in the wargaming world.

The burning question is whether it's good enough to spend $40 (plus shipping) on? Hmm, toughie. Yeah, there's a fair amount of magazine for that price, as well as another half counter sheet for other games. Trouble is, not many of the articles looked stunningly interesting to me, and I don't have most of the games that the extra counters are for. If I did get a copy, I'd probably sell the HASL bits, and perhaps more of the counters, so that would balance some of the cost. I'm still not sure that the game is worth the remaining price, but assuming that MMP do reprint Fallschirmjäger and that I buy a copy, then the extra counters included the magazine are worth are worth a fair bit, plus there are a few replacements for The Devil's Cauldron, so I guess it's worth the few remaining dollars. I'll probably order a copy.

My choice again next time, and I'm going for another new MMP area movement release, Storm Over Stalingrad (BGG entry). Eric and I are also planning on moving to a more frequent and regular schedule, which should see this updated more frequently.