Friday, June 27, 2008
Saturday, June 14, 2008
If you have no idea what I just said, you don't need to worry about it :)
I'm curious if any of our readers care - if so, please either comment this post, or fire off an email to me.
Friday, June 13, 2008
The most fascinating things about BaM are that the map is totally unlike any regular wargame map in terms of regulating movement, and it doesn't have any sort of randomized combat resolution system, instead using a hidden strength (kinda like a block game) system, each unit being represented by a stick with 1-3 symbols to represent its current strength and unit type. As a unit loses steps you just replace it with another stick of the same type and reduced strength.
Starting with the map, it initially looks quite confusing, but it makes sense very quickly. It's mostly like an area movement map, an area is called a locale, with locales varying in size and the number of adjacent locales. Units occupying the center of the locale are described as being in reserve in the locale. However, units not only occupy the center of the locale, but can also occupy the edges, called approaches, of the locales. This can only be done when the adjacent locale, i.e. the one bordering that approach, is enemy occupied, and if that adjacent locale is vacated by enemy units then any units that were on the approach (the adjacent approach) are moved back to reserve. Now, reading this in the rule book, it is so different to anything I've come across before that it was kinda hard to grasp. However, in play it quickly became second nature, and makes a great deal of sense.
When moving against an enemy occupied locale, there are four possible combinations: both friendly and enemy units are in reserve in their respective locales; friendly units are on the approach and enemy units are in reserve or on other approach(es), i.e. any approach except the adjacent approach; friendly units are in reserve and enemy units are on the adjacent approach; both friendly and enemy units are on the same approach (called the adjacent approach).
In the first case the enemy units in reserve have the choice of moving up to the blocking approach, leaving a sort of in-your-face type stand-off with both sides occupying the approaches, or retreating from the locale. In the second case, they have no such option, and all units (including those on other approaches, i.e. blocking other adjacent locales) must retreat. When retreating, if there are infantry units present then one infantry step is lost from the retreating units. This is known as maneuver combat, and it should be clear that maintaining a force in reserve to cover exposed approaches is critical. Choosing when to block approaches and in what strength is an important decision.
In the third case the friendly units are not permitted to move against the adjacent locale, but can move up to the blocking (adjacent) approach. The final case is where the actual fights occur, and is called an assault.
On initiating an assault the attacking player reveals one of his units, the leading unit, showing the strength and type, then the defender does the same. Terrain effects on the defender’s approach are now included, which may reduce the attacker’s strength by one point. (Infantry is always reduced, sometimes cavalry and artillery, and cavalry may be prevented from assaulting at all via that approach.) The side with the higher strength is the winner, defender winning ties. Both sides lose a single step, then the losing side loses steps equal to the difference between the two strengths. If the defenders won, then they continue to occupy the approach and the attackers are moved into reserve in their locale. If the attackers won, then the defenders (including units on other approaches) must retreat (remembering the infantry retreat loss mentioned above) and all the attackers units that were on the approach, not just the lead unit, occupy the vacated locale.
Each turn you get 3 command points, with each movement (one or more units all performing the same move) or attack (whether maneuver or assault) taking a command point. The only exceptions are primary road movement and artillery bombardments, which don’t require command points. There are also a couple of wrinkles for artillery on defense and cavalry pursuit, but they never came up in our games.
Yep, you read that right. Games. Plural. Because BaM plays quite quickly, around 90 minutes, although our first one took almost 2 hours as we came to grips with the rules.
Our first game was initially planned as a learning game, aiming to do a few turns then start over, with me randomly getting the French, but we just kept it going all the way through. We both made a lot of mistakes, screwed up a few rules, but by the end we were beginning to figure out how to do stuff. Eric’s Austrians didn’t get very far, stalling out not far from their entry point. We spent a lot of time dancing on the French left flank, to no great benefit for the Austrians, by which time the French were able to activate all their units and even bring up reinforcements, which left the Austrians unable to crack the French line, and us figuring out who won.
Victory is by demoralizing your opponent’s army or by the Austrians gaining geographical objectives, without being demoralized beforehand. Each step lost reduces your morale one point on the track, with the French starting at 17 points, the Austrians at 16, and being reduced to 0 is demoralization. The Austrians can also win by occupying 2 of the 8 objective locales at the far end of the board. However, these are grouped in three different colors, and the Austrian player has to occupy different colored locales to win. The French player wins if the Austrian player doesn’t achieve the geographical objectives, and neither player has reached their demoralization level.
So, technically, I won this first game, although I don’t really count it, as we were both learning and the onus is definitely on the Austrian player to press the action, so they have the harder game. In fact, from this playing it looked like it was a tough nut to crack for the Austrians, but I had a few ideas of how to play them, as we turned it around and had another go.
Our second game was totally different to the first. I immediately pressured the French center and right flanks, attacking with 2-step units to wear him down, and then driving through with my big 3-step units to force the win in the center, and using my artillery to reduce him prior to assaulting on his right. This opened up the flank and allowed me to start pressuring his line from multiple locales, sucking French units to defend approaches, then moving into the locale from an undefended direction, with no units left in reserve to block the approach. This caused a lot of retreats, and consequent infantry losses, pushing the French morale to the brink of demoralization.
Meanwhile my right flank was performing a holding action, using 2-step infantry to block the approaches in the locales, and they saw no action until the very end of the game, when Eric performed an assault, coming off the worst, but the game was already slipping away from him by that point.
I was able to drive through his right flank all the way down the board, always threatening to surround his center. I already had one objective locale and was pushing for another, but in the end was able to force another retreat and infantry loss to push the French to their demoralization level for an Austrian win, with a few turns to spare. I know I could have played better, as I think I got my artillery into position to fire only once in the whole game.
Here's the pics of the final position:
I know a couple of my other gaming buddies were underwhelmed by BaM, but I really liked it, and that second game was very tense and exciting. (When I asked about it, it sounds like they played once and didn't figure out how to use the mechanisms, with their game going very like our first game, so I can understand how they weren't too impressed.) Visually, I think it’s one of the best wargames I’ve seen. The designer, Bowen Simmons, states in his designer’s notes that he wanted to create a game that looked like the old battle maps, where the forces were depicted as a number of blue and red ‘sticks’, what he came to refer to as ‘The Look’. I think he’s achieved that and then some.
However, even better, in my view, is that in doing so he’s also not made any compromises in the game play, which I think is a tremendous achievement. The concept of locales and approaches presents a refreshing and very innovative take on the problems of regulating movement and combat, and makes for a very tense game of maneuver within a very simple mechanism. Understanding the interactions of the geographical mechanism, the impacts of being on the approaches or not, not getting isolated, flanking attacks (and even the threats of flanking attacks), along with the simple, yet very realistic feeling, combat system, all give plenty to think about that had my head hurting by the end of the second game.
Initially I had a hard time reading the map, as The Look has the approaches faded into the background, and without regular sized locales trying to figure out which locales the roads go through was a little bit of a challenge. However, I got used to it, and it wasn’t a huge deal. To be quite honest I’m more than happy to deal with it because the overall look of the game is very worth any of the minor presentation issues, and is one of the most handsome games to view while in play. It really gives the feel of being a general, commanding units on a battlefield, that pushing cardboard around a mapsheet just doesn't match.
A bigger problem is that I don’t own this game and I would really like to have it available. This is an even bigger problem because it is now out of print, and Simmons Games have indicated that they are going to focus their efforts on getting their new games into print, not reprinting old games. Bugger. Fortunately, I already have their Napoleon’s Triumph (Austerlitz) on my shelf, and I’ll certainly pick up The Guns of Gettysburg when it gets released. But for BaM I’m left with eBay, although I just may force myself to not get it and rely on my gaming partners to provide the copy when we wish to play, while I focus on games that they don't have. Man, that’s going to be hard.
My choice next time, and I had been thinking about going back to Devil’s Cauldron to try an intermediate scenario. However, I’m concerned that it may be too big to fit into an evening’s play time, so I may be forced to reconsider. We'll see.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Mike and I met up this week to get a very distinctive game on the table: Bonaparte at Marengo. (BaM)
BaM was, when it came out, a unique game. Remember all those old battle maps you've seen in (pre 1980) books with greyscale line-drawn maps with red and blue lines all over showing the distribution of the troops? That's exactly what BaM looks like during play. In fact, it was designed to look that way first, then a simple set of rules were developed to make games work with what is called “the look.” Bowen Simmons (the designer and publisher) is very open about his designs, and in fact maintains design logs for his games. (Napoleon's Triumph is out now, and Guns of Gettysburg is coming.)
Another unusual feature of BaM (for wargames at least) is the utter and complete lack of dice or other randomizers. The only random aspect to the game is the initial French deployment. The game uses hidden information (think “block game”) for a level of uncertainty.
The BaM map is essentially a specialized area movement map. The areas are referred to as “locales” and each locale is separated from its neighbors by an “approach” to each adjacent locale. The approaches are where the terrain effects are brought into play as well. Troops can either be in “reserve” within a locale or “blocking” an approach to an enemy-occupied locale. On your turn, you get three command points with which to perform assaults (units blocking an approach attacking the units blocking the other side of the approach) perform maneuver attacks (attempting to move into an enemy-occupied locale in order to force a retreat or blocked approach) or move from one locale to another. Units in reserve can use road movement if roads move through their locale, and road movement over the primary roads does not count against your command points.
Road movement is the big tricky part in the game. A unit can move up to three locales while using road movement, but any particular approach can only handle three units crossing via road, they have to be sequenced properly, and must be moved individually. The way I picture it is to see the units being in column on the road, and three can make it across an approach in the hour a turn lasts, but none can cross an approach “simultaneous” to another – only one unit can make their first movement across a specific approach, one can make their second, one can make their third. So, if you're coming on from off map (as the Austrians must do with their entire force) one can go three locales, one must pause a move, then move two locales, and one must pause for two move, then move one locale.
Combat is a simple strength comparison. Leading units are chosen, terrain modifiers applied, and a comparison made. Higher total wins. Winner loses one step, loser loses one plus the difference and must retreat. (Losing attackers simply withdraw to reserve within their locale.)
There's only the main game, no scenarios, and victory is accomplished by causing the other army to break via attrition or by the Austrians claiming VP areas at the far end of the map by the end of the game. It plays in well under two hours. I'd played once before a couple years ago, but I think we completely botched the road movement rules in that game. In any case, it was long enough ago that anything I may have learned was completely forgotten since then.
We played a learning game where I had the Austrians, and then flipped sides for a 2nd game.
The learning game was valuable – it takes practice to learn how to manipulate units in reserve vs. blocking approaches and how to force retreat losses through maneuver attacks. Playing the game feels in many ways like playing chess. As both of us were struggling with technique, it's no surprise Mike won rather handily on defense with the French. It's far easier to defend when you don't know how a game really works. We swapped sides and tried again.
My deployment had most of my strength on my left flank – this was a problem as I had very little strength defending the primary road leading down the right edge of the map to half the VP spaces. I attempted to squeeze Mike's operating room by aggressively moving in on the far left. I'm not sure this is a good move, as it had the effect of funneling his attack down the center and to my right where I couldn't stop his breakthrough. It then became a race where I tried to get units over to slow his advance down long enough for my reinforcements to come on. And I had to do this without losing due to attrition.
With more experience, I may have been able to pull it off. As it was, I lost on attrition with either two or three turns left. I don't think I could have stopped Mike from getting VP spaces, either, but he was actually concentrating on the attrition victory. A big blunder of mine toward the end didn't help my cause either. (Maxim: if you're losing the attrition game, don't reopen a static front.) The final position in the south can be seen here.
Playing BaM is a rather unique gaming experience. It's sort of like chess, sort of like a block game, and has a very retro feel enhanced by the map. I'm sure Mike loved it as it has no dice to confound him. I think he was eager to try BaM as he owns Napoleon's Triumph (as do I), and was looking for BaM as a good introduction to the larger game. My brief research shows it may prove beneficial, but NT is different enough that the lessons learned in BaM may not all apply. Not a worry, though, as this game stands strong on its own. And it easily plays in 90 minutes.
I'd like to give this game a lot more time as I think the effort will be richly rewarded. Towards this end, I've joined the Bonaparte at Marengo ladder with the expectation I'll get my butt kicked for a while while I learn the game. The next round's matchups come out over the weekend, so I got in just in time.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.