Monday, November 17, 2008

In Remembrance

Last Tuesday was the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. It seemed appropriate, then, to play a WWI game last week. The only relevant game short enough to be played in an evening that I could think of was They Shall Not Pass, the Avalanche small-box game on the battle of Verdun. Mike had a better idea, though: a multiple-evening session of Rock of the Marne, the new SCS game from The Gamers/MMP.

This fit better in my mind, as the game covers 2nd Marne - the final German offensive of WWI. After this battle was over, the Germans collapsed quickly, ending the war just three months later. An appropriate battle to play out given the date. Plus, I'd just gotten my copy as well and was eager to get some SCS gaming in.

We knew this would take at least two evenings to play, and Mike has the ability to leave it set up, so the next few posts will be a continuing look at our game.

We've frequently blogged about OCS on here before, and it's probably my and Mike's favorite series. But OCS is pretty hefty. Sometimes you want a good chicken salad instead of a five-course steak dinner.

SCS is that good chicken salad. It really does distill wargaming down to its essence. All games in the series (among which Rock of the Marne is the 12th) come with separate series and game-specific rules. SCS can be described as an IGo-UGo, ratio-based CRT, move-fight-exploit-supply game. Each game in the series tweaks these basic tools as the designer feels appropriate. Three of the games so far are set in WWI (RotM, Operation Michael, and Drive on Paris), one covers the Yom Kippur War of 1973, one is set in the Spanish Civil War, and the rest cover various parts of WWII.

Given that the basic rules are SO simple (seven pages including illustrations) it only takes a short amount of time to jump into a new game in the series. Rock of the Marne, for example, only has four pages of game-specific rules. These are usually broken up into four sections: overall, Axis/CP, Allies/AP, and optional rules. Following this are the scenarios.

Each game seems to have a small number of specific rules that give that game its flavor. The primary special rule for this one is breakdown units. Both sides have the ability to break down and recombine divisions into smaller, more flexible, and more resilient units. For example, a 8-8-6 (Att-Def-Move) German division turns into two 3-3-6 and one 2-2-6 stormtrooper units. These can then be moved independently and recombined into some other unit from the dead pool later on. (The only restriction is that you can't increase either your total attack or defense strength during the process.) This all sounds wonderfully flexible in being able to move troops around, but another game-specific rule reduces this flexibility a fair amount – many divisions are permanently attached to their corps, and can only draw supply from their Corps HQ. This means that when one of these divisions is rebuilt, they better be somewhere close to their HQ or they won't be good for much.

The other big key to the breakdown units is that a division is (nearly?) always a two-step unit. Each breakdown unit is also two steps. So, a two-step division could break down into anywhere between three and six steps. Much more useful given the CRT is very bloody (as you would expect in a trench-warfare situation.)

Of course, you're limited by the counter set in how many of these breakdown units can be in place at any one time, and given the starting deployment, you've got gaps all over the place you're trying to fill – I could use twice as many breakdowns as are supplied and still be wanting more. So, one of the skills to be developed in playing this game well is knowing where and when to breakdown your divisions.

As we all know so well, knowing how to play a game is NOT the same thing as knowing how to play it well. So, Mike and I sat down to learn about Rock of the Marne.

We started setting up pieces just after 7pm, and only got three turns in that night. I blame that on my inability to really get a handle on the situation as the Germans early on. I know I took a long time in my turns last week, as there's a lot to do for the Germans in very little time. And you really need to understand the entire situation before beginning your push.

The campaign game lasts 15 turns. On turn 7, massive Allied reinforcements come in on the German right flank. Nearly all the VP spaces the Germans are trying to take are at the far side of the map. So you have to cover a lot of ground quickly, then hold on for the counter assault.

Sound like the Bulge? 2nd Marne really is WWI's Battle of the Bulge. It was the last German offensive of the war and it played out in a massive assault creating a salient that was then beaten back mostly by an Allied counter-offensive from the flank. In this case, though, the war ended much more quickly, and the Germans never retreated back onto their own soil. The Armistace was signed while the Germans were still in French territory.

So, how have Mike and I done? I'll post three shots of my position after the third turn. I've just broken through east of Reims, and I've been pushing hard in the center. I've crossed the Marne in several places at this point. I don't know if I'm ahead of or behind schedule (I'm leaning toward the latter) but I just know that both of us are feeling like we're losing at this point – the sign of a great situation.

One quick note about the rules - every time we had a question about something, it was explicitly answered in the rules. So, they may be short, but they're definitely well written. As you would expect from a game from The Gamers.

First, my left (east) flank.

Now, the center.

Finally, the (for now) quiet right. The area to the bottom-right of this picture is where the Allied reinforcements will be arriving on turn 7.

We'll be picking this up again Wednesday night, and at least one more session after that. Mike thinks we'll need four, I'm betting on three. I know I've got a better handle on things now, so I'll be back to my usual quick-playing self.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Conflict of gamers

After our Vassal fun last week, it was back to regular gaming, and I won the toss for selection. It wasn't too hard to pick Conflict of Heroes, a game I bought several weeks previously, but hadn't really looked at since. I wasn't even aware of this one until our gaming friend Patrick mentioned it and I started some research, starting with the BGG entry. Pretty quickly I was sold on the game and it was one of the first games I purchased with my store credit from the recent Rainy Day Games auction, in fact I even placed a pre-order for it before the auction had even taken place.

I've been looking for a good squad level game for some time. ASL wasn't it, too detailed, too many rules to remember, and although it has a big following, it just wasn't doing it for me (although it was great to just read through the gorgeous rule book, and drool over the fascinating range of weapons and hardware). Combat Commander wasn't it, too wacky. Although I will play it, too often it's not very satisfying. (I still can't make up my mind whether I want to get the new Pacific version, but, for the moment, I haven't cancelled my P500 pre-order.)

So, over the past few weeks I've been following all the posts on BGG, and, boy, have there been a lot of them! And then some more! (46 pages in fact.) This game is generating a LOT of interest, and it's all positive, with everyone raving about how good it is. Can they all be wrong, or have they just been drinking the Kool-Aid? Time to find out.

Prior to our game, I decided not to do more than just read the rules, in order to keep a level playing field. That way neither one of us had any more experience than the other, although it was hard not to get it onto the table. The rules appear ridiculously simple, and the first major thing of note is that there are no leaders in the game, which comes as something as a shock to those brought up on ASL and CC. Instead, there are Command Action Points (CAPs), which represent the abstraction of command, that can be used to allow units to perform actions, or modify dice rolls. Each player has a CAP allowance, which is received each turn, unused points at the end of the turn being lost.

Players take turns being the active player, being allowed to take multiple actions per activation, and only when the player is done taking actions is their activation over. However, after each action in that activation the non-active player gets a chance to react by taking an action. During an activation only one unit, or group of units, may be activated, where it gets 7 Action Points, with each movement, fire, or rally, etc. being an action, and taking a number of APs to perform. Other possible actions are Opportunity Action, Command Action, and Play an Action card, and the reacting player may choose any of these three actions as a reaction to the active player's action. (The non-player may not choose a unit/group activation as a reaction.) The
Opportunity Action allows a player to use a unit/group to perform and action is response to a previous action. A Command Action allows the player to use CAPs to perform actions with units/groups. This is useful, because after activation or an Opportunity Action, a unit/group is flipped over to show they have been used. Note that CAP can be used on ANY unit, even one that has been flipped! The final action is a Card Action. Each player has a number of cards which allow a variety of actions to be performed, e.g. firing for no AP cost, adding to firepower, etc.

And that takes us, rather conveniently, to combat. Units are divided into 'hard' targets (e.g. armor) and 'soft' (e.g. infantry), marked by the color of their defense strength, blue or red, respectively, as well as frontal and flank defense values. Some units, e.g. armor, also have both types of attack strength (red & blue), and if using the 'wrong' type of attack strength for the intended target the strength is halved. Take the attack strength, apply any modifiers, add 2d6, and compare to the target's defense strength. Equal or greater scores a hit, 4 or more greater scores 2 hits, and 2 hits kills. When a unit is hit, the player draws a damage marker from the bag (for the correct target type) which identifies the impact of the hit, which ranges from pinning (no movement) to varies modifiers to action costs, defense and attack strength, and outright kills. This marker is kept secret and placed under the unit until it rallies and removes it. A hit scored on a unit with a damage marker removes that unit from the game, and each removed unit reduces the CAPs by one point.

As an example, to start their activation, player A could play a card, and in response player B may choose to do nothing. Player A may then choose to activate a unit, placing the AP marker in the 7APs space, moving it one hex for a cost of 1AP. In response to this player B may use CAP to allow a unit to fire on the moving unit as a Command Action, which means the firing unit isn't flipped to its used side. Player A could choose an Opportunity Action, firing with a different unit to the one currently active, which would flip the unit, but save CAP until later. And so it goes on, back and fore, until the active player decides he doesn't want to do anything more that activation. Pretty simple and straight-forward.

So on Wednesday Eric and I sat down, briefly recapped the rules required (it uses a programmed instruction style), and set up scenarios 1. (We used the set-up in the play book, although I note now that there is a correction.) I was the Russians, Eric the Germans, and has the Germans trying to kill units and take control of the victory location. Eric started by advancing strongly, and managed to capture the VP location at one point, but I forced him out and scored lots of casualties for a convincing win.

That took around 45 minutes, so onto scenario 2, which once again saw my defending Russians being attacked by Eric's Germans. This scenario introduces hidden units and group activation (costs 1 CAP to activate a group of units). There are two VP locations, one in the village that the Russians get more VPs for the longer they can hold onto it, the Germans more for capturing it quickly. I placed a couple of units forward, hoping to catch Eric quickly, and it almost worked as Eric activated a group and dashed forward up the road. I allowed them to move past the hidden unit, and then fired on their flank from an adjacent hex (+3 fire modifier). Requiring only a 5 on 2 dice I whiffed one of them, then when he turned to face me (a movement action, spending APs, so allowing me a response) I whiffed on both units requiring a 6. He fired, scoring a hit with one unit, but as I'd used two cards to allow fire for no AP/CAP cost, I used an Opportunity Action to fire again, finally scoring a kill, but Eric got his revenge and also took out my unit. That could have gone so much better for me!

Eric started a drive up my right flank, and I (stupidly) let him, rather than fire on him, eventually revealing my other forward unit when he advanced into my hex. In my reaction I fired in Close Combat (which is just fire, but with different modifiers), scoring a hit, and Eric decided to run away rather than risk losing an LMG unit (they're -2 in CC). The next turn he played a card that flipped one of my units to its used side, and chose the unit protecting the VP location. He then used his activations to gang up on it, as I didn't have any LoS to stop him, managing to capture it in turn 3 for mucho VPs. I did manage to capture it back again in turn 4, but Eric kicked me out again in turn 5, and those VPs were enough for him to take the win.

I think I can honestly say that this is one of the two most exciting and interesting games of the year for me. (The other is Napoleon's Triumph, btw.) The price is high ($75), but the production values are excellent. Great mapboards, luscious large counters, colorful rule book, play book and play aids. (The rule book was mis-collated, but free replacements are offered, and the customer service response (from Uwe, himself) to my request for a replacement was almost instantaneous.)

The game play is some of the most elegant I've seen, and it just flows together. The idea of CAPs work wonderfully, and gives some hard decisions to make, and each CAP spent has to be justified. I found myself spending CAP too quickly, allowing Eric freedom from response at the end of the turn, as well as playing a very poor tactical game in the second scenario, leaving my units without mutual support. The interactive flow of the game makes for some tense decisions and flexibility. This has obviously been some time in the production and must have seen serious play-testing as everything just fits together so well and so cleanly.

There's a time for a long, detailed, intricate game, and there's a time for something lighter, and this fits the bill for the latter category very well. Both scenarios took us no more than a couple of hours, which is a very decent length. Looking forward in the scenarios/rules there is armor, off-board artillery and larger multi-formation scenarios, so there is a lot of depth to go yet. I can hardly wait, as I think I've found that squad level game I was looking for. This is going to see a lot of table time in the future, and I plan to pick up the new installments as they're released. My CC:Pacific pre-order is in the greatest danger it's ever been, and is now hanging on by a thread.

First Look: Conflict of Heroes

Mike and I sat down Wednesday for his choice. A long-anticipated game: Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear. I'd seen this demoed at WBC, and was impressed from the limited information I had, while the hype/buzz machine has been working overtime for this title. This is a bit of a red flag for me lately, as I've been underwhelmed by the last two over-hyped games I've played. (Devil's Cauldron and Warriors of God.)

CoH is currently ranked #1 on BGG's wargame rankings, supplanting Devil's Cauldron, Deluxe SPQR, and Case Blue. That's significant in itself. It's also got more rankings than the other three combined. So, it's got popularity going for it as well. (In fact, the only other game in the Wargames top 20 with more rankings is Twilight Struggle.)

It was definitely time to get this on the table. First thing you notice is the production value – it looks like a Eurogame, not a wargame. Large thick tiles (they're tiles, not counters.) hard, mounted maps. Decent, functional artwork. The cards are definitely flimsy (and are bridge-sized, not poker-sized, so they're smaller than your average card sleeve), but that's about the only knock on the production.

The rules are written in the “Programmed Instruction” approach used way back in games like Squad Leader and Up Front. (IIRC, Tide of Iron does as well.) So, each scenario you work through includes more rules. This is great for learning games, but in these days of firehose-style game releases, it makes it difficult to actually work through all the scenarios to fully learn the game. Many other games are fighting for table time. So, whatever you've got as your foundation better be good or there's no point coming back for more.

Given that CoH is relatively short, we worked through the first two scenarios. The first is very basic – five units/side, no special rules. It gives you the feel for the flow of the game, and that's really about it. And “flow” is the right word. This game is highly interactive.

The basic structure is this: Each side gets a number of CAPs (force-wide activation points that reset each turn) and each unit (or group of units) gets seven action points (AP) to spend when activated. When it's your turn you can pass or do any combination of: play cards, activate a unit, opportunity fire, or take a Command Action (spend CAP). You can do as much of that as you like on your turn as long as you don't activate more than one unit (or group of units.) After you're done, your opponent goes, having the same choices. Turn ends when both sides pass consecutively. I believe all the scenarios are five turns. (I haven't verified this, however.)

At the end of a turn, you may score VPs depending on your situation and the turn number, and possibly draw a card. Also, your CAPs are reset to the scenario starting value less any destroyed units. (This reflects deteriorating command as forces are worn down.) Generally, VPs are also scored when opposing units are killed.

When a unit is activated, it spends AP as it goes. Each unit has a cost to fire, and a cost to move. Generally, it's 1 AP to move one hex (this may be modified by terrain) and 3 or 4 AP to fire. You can go over your 7 alloted AP, but you must spend CAP to do so on a 1:1 basis. As this is a resource limited for the turn, you only want to do this when you really need it.

Combat is relatively simple: Each unit has a firepower rating. Add 2d6 to this, and subtract the target's defense rating modified for terrain and/or flank. Tie or beat the defense rating to score a hit – beat the defense rating by four, and the target is destroyed. When a unit that's taken a hit takes another it's destroyed, otherwise it draws a chit from a cup and secretly applies the results. These chits have things like suppression, berserks, or outright kills. It effectively randomizes the target's reaction to getting hit.

Group activations (which I've alluded to) are introduced in the 2nd scenario and allow units in adjacent hexes to be activated simultaneously. This costs 1 CAP to pull off, and the group has 7 AP to spend in total, not 7 AP per unit. However, as long as the units stay adjacent, they can all move or fire for the same cost as acting individually. So, if you're wanting a reserve force, for example, to move forward into the fray, this is an activation-effective way to do so.

Once a unit or group has completed its activation, it's flipped over to its “used” side (marked by a red line through the middle of the tile) and can't be activated again this turn. It can, however, act again with the expenditure of CAP as a Command Action.

The cards add some tweaks to the basic structure. Things like units performing an action for free, getting d6 more AP to spend, etc. Nothing seemed too out of whack, and each scenario defines the exact cards available in the deck.

That essentially covers what you'll see in the first two scenarios. I haven't read any further in the rules to this point to see what else is down the pipe.

I'm really not going to give a session report for this as that wasn't what I was concentrating on when we were playing. I know Mike won the first rather handily, and I squeaked out a win in the second. The latter due to the fact I had a better tactical position going into the final turn. (I played the Germans both times if you want to compare results.)

So, what did I think? My opinions here are very preliminary as the first two scenarios only give you a taste of the full-meal-deal. I'll make the somewhat obvious comparison first: this is a simpler, less “wacky” Combat Commander. The give and take is there, the amount you do when it's your turn is about the same, and the scale's about the same. Primary differences come in that CoH has unit facing, armored units (which I've not played with yet, and am very curious how they pan out), and a turn-based structure vs. CC's time track. There's also the whole control issue. CoH lets you, for the most part, do what you want when you want. While this may not be as realistic, it does remove the sometimes frustrating “fishing for a fire card” aspect of CC, and may make for a more consistently enjoyable game. I'm very curious how this game plays with armor and larger scenarios, and am looking forward to moving through the remaining scenarios in the not-too-distant future.

Another (and probably only other) valid comparison is Panzer Grenadier. PG is a higher scale (each unit is a platoon vs. the squads in CoH) and the PG combat system is morale-based and naturally less bloody as a result. But the back-and-forth fluid nature of play works in that system as well.

It's been hard lately to get games played enough for in-depth analysis. Just too many games fighting for table time. However, after an evening's play, many times you can figure out if you want to study further. Certain games fell short – Duel in the Dark, Warriors of God, and a couple others. Some I'm not sure about – Tide of Iron and Devil's Cauldron. Some just demand more time. Conflict of Heroes joins games such as Storm over Stalingrad and Napoleon's Triumph as games that strike an immediate chord and should remain part of my “heavy rotation” list for a long time to come. I'd been waiting to buy this until I'd played (over-hyped games go on that "play first" list now) but it's jumped onto my "must have list."

Conflict of Heroes falls into that quickly expanding genre of “light wargames.” It's not a complex skirmish game, but it does show a surprising amount of depth. It's not as “wacky” as Combat Commander. It's not as physically fiddly as Tide of Iron. It's more satisfying than Memoir '44. If you're looking for a game like this, give Conflict of Heroes a shot. You won't be disappointed.