Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crossroads. It's all about the Crossroads.

A while back, Mike and I played Bastogne, the most recent entry in The Gamers/MMP's SCS series. This game covers the US 101st Airborne's defense of the town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

As you might guess from the scope, this game is at a much lower scale than, say, The Mighty Endeavor. Turns are one day, hexes are about 400 meters, and units are typically companies.

This game also features game-specific rules that are nearly as long as the series rules themselves. And here is where the game makes its statement.

If there was ever a game that demanded a “play this once to understand how it works, then play it for real” mantra, it's this one. The package as a whole plays very differently from any other SCS game (though I haven't examined all of them yet for a full comparison – I'm looking at you Fallschirmjager.) and has a number of rules mechanisms that stand out.

Before I get into that, though, I want to take a look at the package as a whole.

As compared to Rock of the Marne (which shipped with some rather critical errata that fundamentally changes the game) the Bastogne rules are extremely tight. There's only been one errata published so far, and that involves an example figure that is a little misleading (though not actually incorrect.) Mike and I have found no issues at all in the rules. VERY tight. Also, this is the first SCS game with a color rulebook. It adds a nice touch to the package, and makes the rules example illustrations all the more useful. (I count five illustrations in the rules.) The map and counters are what you would expect from The Gamers – no stylistic changes here.

So, about those rules.

There are four primary additions to the standard SCS rules that define this game. I'll tackle them in increasing order of importance.
  1. Artillery and Disorganization
  2. Assymetrical turn sequence
  3. Artillery ammunition
  4. Road march
First, artillery and disorganization. Artillery is somewhat simplified in the game – roll 1d6 at or under the artillery units strength to hit (and causing disorganization) and if you hit, roll a 2nd d6 to cause a step loss. Usually, this is on a 6 only, but 88s kill on a 5-6 and “yellow” artillery kill on a 4-6. More on the “yellow” artillery in part #3.

If you're disorganized, you don't have a zone of control, can't use road march, and attack/defend/move at half normal rates. This is pretty devastating to the attacking Germans, in particular, as they need every thing they've got to break through or around the defending Americans.

The turn sequence is modified primarily to simulate the way artillery was handled in this situation. The Americans used their ground artillery to stop attacking Germans, and the Germans used their artillery to support their attacks. As a result, all ground artillery fires in the German turn after movement – Americans first. Also, each side gets a road march phase before their normal movement, and the Americans can use air barrage on their turn between their two movement phases. In some ways, the turn can be thought of as one big sequence:
  1. US Reinforcements
  2. US Road March
  3. US Air Barrage
  4. US Movement
  5. US-initiated Combat
  6. US Exploitation
  7. German Reinforcements
  8. German Road March
  9. German Movement
  10. DG Removal
  11. US Barrage (land & any remaining air)
  12. German Barrage
  13. German-initiated Combat
  14. German Exploitation
There's an interesting note here – the DG markers placed by artillery hang around through both sides' movement phases, and the air barrage effectively comes after all that – it allows the air barrages to target German units that provide the largest threat in the subsequent movement phase.

I've mentioned “yellow” artillery previously. These are larger guns with more limited ammunition. As a result, their use is tracked throughout the game. The US starts the campaign with 20 artillery points and the Germans have 18. Each time you fire an artillery unit that has a yellow background to its unit symbol, you spend an artillery point. The US also gets some ammo replenishment later in the campaign (up to three per turn, averaging a little over 1 per turn.) Their use needs to be rationed, but they typically have long ranges (8-14 hexes compared to 3-5 for standard artillery), allowing them to be placed in more strategic positions well off the front lines.

I saved the rule with the largest impact for last – Road March. During the road march phases, any unit currently on a road or railroad and not adjacent to enemy gets three Road March points to spend. A unit can go as far as they want for a march point, but must stop whenever they:
  • want to change road types
  • encounter friends (they may skip over the top of one, but must stop behind two or more)
  • would move adjacent to enemy
Using these rules, it is entirely possible for a unit to cross the entire map in a single turn. Also, armored units have movement ratings between 12 and 16. Given that the primary roads cost a half MP per hex, and most armored units can also move in exploit, it's clear units can cover a LOT of ground in a single turn if they're given the room to maneuver.

The Germans come on from the east, and they're trying to get into the town – surrounding the Americans is the best way to find a breakthrough point. This puts a premium on the crossroads – fitting, as this was the reason why Bastogne was so hotly contested in the first place. The Germans will eventually surround the Americans (their final large set of reinforcements come from the south) but the key is how much damage have the Americans done to them by then.

The general flow of the game is that early on, the Germans are trying to work around and through the Americans. They need to be aggressive, but they can't work some formations very hard, as they'll be recalled to other theatres on later turns – VPs are scored depending on the number of steps removed from the map for four of these formations. In the mid-game, the Americans are trying to establish a solid perimeter while the Germans are fishing for a breakthrough point to get into Bastogne. The late game likely involves the Germans trying to exploit whatever gap they were able to create.

The Americans have the advantage of interior lines nearly the entire game, but are somewhat outnumbered until Task Force Abrams arrives as a relief spearhead. This group arrives on a 5 or higher on turn 8 (of 10) 4 or higher on turn 9, and 2 or higher on turn 10.

The Germans score VPs in three ways: removal of formations early in the game (up to 8 VPs for that), occupying any hex of Bastogne (2 VPs each turn there's a German unit in any hex of Bastogne at the end of the American portion of the turn), and opening up routes across the map at the end of the game. (4, 5, or 8 VPs depending on the route) The Germans win with 12 or more VPs, Americans with 11 or less.

Our game flowed somewhat like this:

Mike (playing the Americans) bottles me (playing the Germans) up early on, and there's a front nearly the entire north-south section of the map. He slowly gives up ground as I wear him down, pulling back units to handle my reinforcements coming from the south. He inadvertently opens up a route along the southern edge of the map (note: this route is not obvious, but if the Americans allow it to be opened, the Germans can prematurely traverse the map) and I start to flow units around his southern flank. I slowly push back and around while he gives ground. Occasionally, I push individual units through the lines to threaten Bastogne in order to draw reserves off and hopefully weaken a section of his defenses. On turn 8, I finally break through and get enough units into Bastogne itself that he can't dislodge them. The decision point comes down to whether I can disorganize or dislodge four units he has sitting on the central (8 VP) route in the final turn. I have a good run with my artillery, DGing every unit, and that's the game – 4 VP from formation removal, 4 VP from occupying Bastogne, and 8 for the central route, totalling 16 for a Minor German victory. (two more VP needed for a major win.)

My thoughts:

I'd played a handful of turns of Bastogne a few months ago at our WBC-West retreat. I was very pleased with it at the time, and this playing didn't disappoint. It might be the best of the SCS series to date (or in the top 3 at the very least), but plays very differently than the rest of the system. The Road March rules take some time to get your head around – at first you feel like there's too much mobility, but then you realize, it's really up to you – protect the critical crossroads or pin opposing armor, and you'll hamper the opponent's movement – fight hard for them and take them, and you open up the map. Both sides need to play finesse with some units and push others hard. Both sides need to ration their good artillery, and there can be some difficult decisions around the best targets, particularly in the middle-to-late portions of the game. Tactical reserves are critical to exploit openings. There's no supply rules, so infiltration is both expected and critical to your success.

Net/Net: it's a rather different experience from any other hex-and-counter game I've played in recent memory, but it's does a great job of portraying the difficulties of the situation: The Americans had no idea where the Germans were coming from, but here able to shuffle units around long enough to hold the Germans back until help arrived. I give it two thumbs up – just play it once to get used to the Road March rules before you play it “for real.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Not your father's Bastogne

In our ongoing wait for table space to get started with our OCS Korea (BGG entry) game, I proposed The Gamers' SCS game Bastogne (BGG entry). Eric and Chuck had played through the first few turns and had raved about it, so I was intrigued and we had the opportunity. Win-win baby!

Although nominally part of the SCS range of games, Bastogne changes quite a few of the major rules. The main move-fight-exploit turn sequence is still there, but there are quite a few additions and changes to the various systems.

  • Road movement phase: An additional movement phase, just prior to the regular movement phase; any unit that starts on a road (of any description, including railroad) and isn't in a ZoC has 3MPs; each MP can take the unit as far as it wants until it either changes to a different type of road, or encounters another friendly unit; moving units are not allowed to enter a ZoC
  • Artillery: Artillery units may fire ranged barrages; there are two types of artillery, yellow, which requires the expenditure of (limited) ammo, and white, which fires for free; artillery has a hit number, most 4 in the case of yellow, and 2 for white, and rolling this number or below is a hit and causes the target to become Disorganized (DG); after achieving a hit, it's possible for the barrage to cause a step loss in addition, 4-6 for a yellow unit, 6 for a white, and 5-6 for an '88'; all artillery barrages have to be spotted, which means the target has to be adjacent to a friendly unit
  • Air: The Allied player can get Air Support, starting on turn 6, the number of air strikes being a d6; they don't need a spotter or ammo, but otherwise act like yellow artillery
  • Barrage phases: There are two barrage phases, one in each player turn; however, only Allied air units may fire in the Allied barrage phase, and all may barrage in the German player turn

The turn sequence is:

Allied Player Turn:

  • Reinforcements
  • Road March
  • US Barrage (air only)
  • Movement
  • Combat
  • Exploit

German Player Turn:

  • Reinforcements/Removals
  • Road March
  • Movement
  • DG Removal
  • US Barrage (all units)
  • German Barrage
  • Combat
  • Exploit

The Road March is the one that's hardest to get used to. Units can zip from place to place really quickly, and a clever German player can keep some of his armor units on the roads in reserve and relocate them to the other side of the map in a twinkle. This makes holding the intersections and road choke points of vital importance. Miss a road and suddenly the enemy is in your back field, as the other player has 3 movement phases in a row with no chance to react. And some of these armored units have 14 of 16 MPs to spend per phase. That's a lot of freaky movement potential, with nothing the other player can do about it. He can only watch as all these units drive on by, and then take another exploit movement to drive some more. I find this a little much to stomach, and I think there should have been some sort of reaction/reserve phase to allow some way to mitigate it. Either that or reduce the movement allowances.

Also note that there's no supply phase, which is because there are no supply rules in the game. You can stick a unit miles behind enemy lines with no worries about trying to maintain a line of communication or getting more food and ammo to them. OK, the scale is 1 turn per day, but I still think that leads to sticking a single unit behind lines just to disrupt movement, which I find to be rather gamey and not the way units would be handled.

Victory is determined by the number of VPs that the German player collects, which is in three different ways. First, he gains point for how much strength each of the four main formations have when they are removed. At or near their initial strength gains 2VPs, around 25% step losses earns 1VP, and around 50% step losses gains 0VPs for that formation. So the German player can't just use them in a reckless manner. Of course, these are the main armored force that the German player gets, so he can't afford to keep them sitting around doing nothing.

Second, is the opening of the routes, to the north, south, and straight through, Bastogne, earning 5, 4, and 8VPs, respectively. If the Allied player retains any combat units (not artillery, and not units from the reinforcing 3rd army late in the game) in good order on the route, then that route is closed and the German player gains no VPS for it. These are only determined at the very end of the game, after the German turn.

Finally, the German player also gains 2VPs if he has any steps in any hex of Bastogne (there are 6 of them) at the end of the US player's turn. There is no requirement to maintain a line of communication or anything, so a suicide run can be useful.

The German player requires 12 or more points to score a minor win.

In our game I played the US, and Eric took the Germans. The early game proved to be very slow, as I did a good job, I believe, of holding the vital roads, and slowly collapsing back towards Bastogne. During this time it was with no help from my artillery, as I hit on no more than 1 in 2 shots with my yellow artillery, with only 2-3 step losses. In the mean time my armor units were dashing back and fore, nipping any incursions that Eric might have made, including the odd single unit that broke through the lines.

Up until the final session, turns 8 through 10, I felt I was in good shape. Eric had scored only 4 VPs from his removed formations, and it was looking increasingly like he wouldn't be able to open any of the routes.

And then the DSDF kicked in, but you fully expected that. On turn 8, I believe it was, Eric went on an artillery frenzy, hitting around 7 out of 8 50% rolls, 3 out of 4 33% rolls and 2 out of 2 66% rolls. I almost ran out of 'DG' markers. In the same turn I missed both my critical 66% barrages. The former was followed up by lots of successful low-odds combats (one roll below 7 in 10 attempts), which decimated my available forces, and the latter allowed the combat to open an exploit path for him to stick a unit in Bastogne.

Turn 9 saw both my air strikes miss their 50% hit rolls in Bastogne, although I was able to clear the single step unit out in a combat, but only at the cost of another step loss to me. I put a unit with two steps into Bastogne to protect it. But Eric ran a unit up and scored 4 out of 4 50% rolls to score two hits and two step losses, and kill it in one go with a pair of yellow artillery units. He runs more units into Bastogne, which I can't clear out, to score 2VPs, and then DGs all my units on the road (and there weren't many of them left) to claim route B for 8VPs and the win.

Wow, talk about a reversal. Eric scored the perfect storm of die rolls as I missed all mine and he scored all his, although turn 8 was probably the real killer, as I just plain ran out of units to cover all the roads. My reinforcements only made it on the final turn as I couldn't roll the 33% nor 50% on turns 8 and 9 respectively, although I'm not sure they would have made a huge difference.

Overall, a fairly interesting game, and one I'd be more than willing to try it again, as it's a good puzzle. A totally different feel than all the other SCS games I've played. The US player has to be careful parsing the map, and can't afford to miss a road. However, something needs to be done about that movement phasing/MA and lack of supply. As it is, the ability to just buzz about in three movement phases with no way of responding doesn't feel right, and it allows the German player far too much ability to indulge in suicide missions in the hope that the dice go kindly and he can score some points or disrupt the US movement.

Due to the upcoming holiday period Eric and I have agreed to postpone the OCS Korea until the new year, when we can get a clear swing at it. I've had to cancel the past couple of weeks due to various things, and on the calendar will be another go at Worthington Games' Prussia's Defiant Stand (BGG entry, Eric's take, my take), a first attempt at the new GMT The Caucasus Campaign (BGG entry), which leaves a single evening before the holiday.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Richard III

With possibly a single night to fill in, Eric wanted to try the latest release from Columbia Games, Richard III (BGG entry). This is another in their very successful and mostly excellent block games. Specifically, it follows very closely in the heels of Hammer of the Scots (BGG entry) and Crusader Rex (BGG entry), with only a few changes from HotS. However, a couple of those changes are fairly significant, especially the change to the combat hit resolution.

In HotS, each hit scored by an attacker was removed from the currently strongest defending block, evaluated hit by hit, i.e. 2 defending blocks, each with 3 strength points, receiving 2 attack hits, would lose a single strength point each. This also allowed you to roll for all units of a single class (A, B, etc.) and hit capability together, with the hits removed as a single group. In R3, however, all hits from a single attacking block are removed from the single defending block with the highest strength. This means that you have to roll each attacking unit individually, removing hits after each roll, so combat is a little slower in R3. It can also be rather devastating, as a good roll can see a unit removed from the map.

The second part is the way that blocks can be switched from one side to the other by treason. Some of the nobles are rated with a '1', '2', or '3', which is the number of dice that have to be rolled in a treason conversion attempt, with all dice having to come up even in order to be successful. So a '1' rated block has a 50% chance, a '2', 25%, and a '3', 12.5%. The downside is that this is done as part of combat, and is another option in the fight/flee action choice, and only the king, the pretender, or one other Yorkist noble are allowed to attempt treason rolls, so it's not a huge part of the game.

The cards are used in generally the same way as HotS, with each player being dealt 7 cards in each of the three turns (campaigns), playing one card per turn. The cards are either actions or events (some also with actions). Each action point may be used to activate an area for movement, or used as to place a reinforcement block, which are placed in their home areas.

The game starts in 1460 with the Lancastrians in control of England, and nary a Yorkist to be seen. They land from France and/or Ireland, and their first aim is to get a foothold in England, allowing the placement of reinforcing blocks. From there they have to expand and push for the control centers, and London is a good target. The aim is to become king by having a majority of nobles on the board, with London and the two Archbishoprics counting one point each. Whoever is king at the end of the third year wins. It's good to be the king.

Victory can also be claimed by killing off all 5 of your opponents blocks representing their princes. Only 3 start on the board, and as they are killed off, the others are brought on to replace them. Of course, if you manage to get all your princes killed then you were probably going to lose anyway.

In our game I played York, and had a tough time in the southern landings from France. My foothold was more a toehold, and it wasn't looking good at the end of the first year. In the second year I landed a strong force in the north with some of my best blocks, which Eric promptly attacked, coming off by far the worst, as I had the superior force (in steps, and capability), attacking before him. We also had a fairly epic struggle over London, and by the time the dust had settled at the end of the campaign, England had a new king, of the Yorkist variety.

The third year saw more battles around London and the south, as Eric had a good swing at it, but the battles went my way. Up north my position almost crumbled after a spectacularly bad move on my part, but poor rolling on Eric's part saved the day for me, and I was able to keep the crown for the win.

Overall, quite a superb game, one of the best that Columbia have done. Good length (we played in approx. 2.5 hours), good gameplay, interesting decisions. Definitely one that will hit the table again and again. Whilst there has been some talk on BGG regarding the use of reserves in battles, and how that's not really historical for the era, I'm comfortable with the way it works out and it provides a great story (and I'm not normally one for a great story). As a game it provides all the angst of all the other block games, and it's just damn good fun to play.

Go buy this game, you'll have a blast!

In the meantime, as the Hube's Pocket continues, next on the table is MMP/The Gamers' Bastogne, another from the SCS collection, one that Eric and Chuck raved about when they played it out at the Sunriver WBC-W event.

Monday, October 26, 2009

But what about the Princes?

(edit: major gaffe on my part, swapping Yorkist for Lancastrian - misread the initial setup while writing the blog and just went with that rather than thinking. The below text is now correct.)

Due to some of the physical constraints Mike mentioned in his last post, we were in need of a one, maybe two-week stop gap until we could get OCS Korea onto the table. Fortunately for me, Mike had recently received a perfect candidate for this exact purpose: Richard III, Columbia's most recent block game covering the Wars of the Roses. This is designed by Jerry Taylor, the designer of other gems such as Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex. I'd been looking forward to this one for a while, but hadn't gotten around to actually ordering it yet.

For those not familiar, a typical “block” game implements a “fog of war” mechanism through the unit strength only being visible to the owning player. Stickers are applied to one side of flat square blocks that are stood on end during play. Think Stratego. Richard III is no exception. For those more familiar, you'll recognize the game's heritage right away. The core game engine is very similar to Hammer of the Scots.

The gist of the game is that the Lancastrians are in power, and the Yorkists are attempting to gain control. Most blocks represent Nobles and their retinues, but there are also militia, bombards, and mercenaries.

A signature feature of this conflict was the wavering loyalties of many of the nobles. This is most famously exemplified by Lord Stanley changing sides on the field at the Battle of Bosworth. As you would expect, Nobles can switch loyalties here as well.

A brief rundown of the game goes as follows:

There is a deck of 25 cards. 19 of the cards provide action points, and six are events. You're dealt a hand of seven cards at the beginning of a seven-turn campaign. Each turn, you'll secretly choose one of the remaining cards in your hand and both players simultaneously reveal them. Higher numbered action card goes first, though events win out. If there's a tie, the current Pretender goes first.

During your turn, you can spend your action points to activate spaces to move or recruit units from your pool. If both sides have units in an area after both players activate, there's combat. At the end of each turn, there's a supply check. You do this seven times, then there's a Political Turn between campaigns. This is where levies and mercenaries disband, you check if the Pretender has usurped the thrown, and Nobles return home. Whomever is the King at the end of the final Political Turn after the third campaign is the victor. It's possible to score an automatic victory if you can manage to kill all your opponent's heirs as well.

For those that have played Hammer of the Scots or Crusader Rex, here's where I see the important differences:

  • Nobles can only change sides via a Treachery attempt during combat. This uses up the unit's attack for that round as well.

  • In combat, all of the hits from a single unit must be applied against the opposing strongest unit – you don't apply them hit-by-hit. This really changes the dynamics of multi-unit combat.

  • There isn't a “muster” option when spending action points. (you can't nominate an area for units to move to. Only from.

  • If both sides play an event simultaneously, it doesn't end the turn.

  • When the Nobles winter back home, it's more forgiving than in Hammer. Most Nobles have multiple “home” areas from which to choose.

  • When you recruit a unit, you choose it from your pool. It's not random.

There's a few other things that differ, but those are the highlights.

The starting situation is very asymmetrical. The Lancastrians start on the throne and in control of nearly the entire map. The Yorkists have to move their way onto the map and gain a foothold. They also have, as a general rule, stronger units than the Lancastrians. So, the Lancastrians are basically holding on trying to keep the Yorkists from getting themselves established.

I haven't gone through and analyzed the map comparing home areas for terrain advantages or anything like that. There's likely some other advantages to two sides have that we didn't notice in one playing.

But I did come up with this much to say: This might be Jerry Taylor's best game.

Given the popularity and success of Hammer of the Scots, that's saying something. Time will tell on balance (Crusader Rex certainly went through some tweaks getting the balance right) but Richard III seems cleaner and more forgiving than Hammer while keeping all the decision angst. Crusader will remain a good game, but a distant third to the other two.

If you're into this sort of game, this comes recommended. If you're not sure, but have been curious, this is a great entry point. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm predisposed to liking games on the War of the Roses (I've painted many a longbowman figure in my day) so I might be overlooking a wart or two. And we have only played the game once. This is going right to the top of my Christmas/Birthday list, though and I'll be buying it if I haven't received it as a gift by then.

But we still don't know for sure about the Princes.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Action at the Dirschau

Mike and I spent a few nights playing the Dirschau scenario from Gustav Adolf the Great: With God and Victorious Arms, GMT's most recent entry in the Musket and Pike Battle System (MPBS).

We'd played this together a while back. First to play Marston Moor from This Accursed Civil War (the battle the contains the unit Mike's old re-enactment group was modeled after) and after that we played a scenario from Under the Lily Banners, but I honestly can't remember which one. After that particular outing, Mike pretty much had sworn off wargames for a while. Not that he didn't like the game, but it just didn't hold his interest. And, given the time involved was something he didn't want to do.

Lots of things have changed since then. Obviously.

So, Mike wanted to give the series another try. As I have enjoyed the game in the past, I was certainly up for playing again. The idea was to start with the first scenario in the box and play through them all.

It took us a while to get back into the swing. We hadn't played a detailed, pre-WWII, tactical game in quite a while. I took the Poles, and Mike had the Swedes. Historically, this is a delaying action by the Poles trying to slow the Swedish crossing of two rivers towards the Polish camp northwest of a dry hill. The interesting thing about this is the Swedes have two wings starting behind fortifications. This leads you to believe the Poles are on the offensive, and the first night's play followed that impression.

It took us parts of three nights to play the game (probably a total of about eight hours or so). The flow of the battle can definitely be tied to each night's playing. There were certainly rules missed.

On the first night, I attacked with the Poles as I had a pretty strong cavalry advantage early. Mike was keeping his two wings behind the entrenchments, so it was my left wing against his right. That night's battles certainly went my way. On my right (the bottom of the map as pictured in the link above), I advanced through the dunes in column to pressure and screen the wing head of them.

On the second night, Mike stormed over the entrenchments trying to catch my center before it could join the battle (it comes up from the corner of the map over the rivers). Things didn't really go my way that night, but I was starting to form a line in the middle and had managed to get my center to connect the left and right.

On the third night, it fell apart. While I was probably too aggressive given the victory conditions and the tactical situation, what's the fun in hanging back, right? After all, what's the worst that could happen? Well, I found out. I ended up with a number of combats in the center (and on the center-side of my right wing) that were all pretty much around even odds. Rolling average dice would effectively give me what I was looking for: attrition on both sides and his advance checked. So, what do I roll? 0, 0, 1, 0. Now for those who don't know, the game uses a d10 where 0 = 0. And 0 or less on the CRT = attacker eliminated. Oh, and these combats generally included two of my units attacking at a time.

So, at this point, my center basically disappeared. And, while we didn't count up the final point total, it was pretty clear Mike had prevailed.

What are my thoughts on the system after returning to it for the first time in a few years?

Essentially, Very Good with caveats.

Units function along three primary axes. Their current orders, morale state, and formation state. Formation degrades through fighting or traversing certain terrain types, but can be restored with Reform actions. Morale degrades as a result of negative combat results and can be restored with Rally actions. There's three values to both of those states: Normal, Shaken, and Broken. So a unit could be Formation Shaken and Morale Normal, for example.

Finally, there's orders. Each wing can have one of four orders: Charge, Make Ready, Receive Charge, and Rally. Certain troop actions may be denied to units under certain orders. Units under Charge orders can't Rally, for example, and units NOT under charge orders may not move adjacent to enemy.

The catch, however, is that it takes a die roll to change orders for a wing. And some transitions are a LOT harder than others. There's no guarantee you'll be able to get your wing to charge when you need it to. Or stop charging after it's blown through the enemy's first line and has reserves staring it in the face.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: This is not a game for control freaks.

In addition to the above, wings are activated in sequence depending on their orders (roughly in the sequence I listed them above) and may get a 2nd or 3rd activation if you can pass your continuation rolls. (and the less aggressive your orders, the harder it is to pass continuation) So, you might be able to get your reserve wing into action in time. Or not. They might stop charging after they blow away the advance guard. Or not.

This, of course, reflects the state of warfare in the 17th century. You gave your orders, watched things develop, and tried to change them if necessary. Controlling individual units after they engaged the enemy was difficult at best. (It's VERY possible for cavalry units to pursue defeated enemy off the map and be out of the game.) It's probably the best game out there for giving you the feel of how 17th century battles flowed, but there is some sense of “taking what you're given” here as opposed to controlling the action. Some people will find this entertaining, some won't.

If you can deal with the lack of control, I recommend the series. If you can't handle the idea of being unable to fully control your units' behavior, you should probably stay away. As always, interest in the subject matter may trump - I love this particular period so I'm predisposed toward the game. But I certainly understand if it's not your cup of tea.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


The original plan had called for us to tackle MMP/The Gamers' OCS Korea (BGG entry). However, after a couple of detours here I realized that I no longer had the available table space, having used it to play OCS Hube's Pocket with my other regular ConSim gaming opponent, Chuck. Sheesh, what a maroon.

Reckoning on that taking until the end of the year (at pretty much one evening per week, one turn per evening), we needed something else to tackle before Korea was a possibility. I suggested something from the GMT Musket & Pike series, and Eric picked Gustav Adolf: With God and Victorious Arms (BGG entry). I even went so far as to suggest that we do the whole box, all the scenarios. An ambitious undertaking, indeed.

Eric and I had played a few of the M&P scenarios before, mostly from This Accursed Civil War (BGG entry), and one from Under the Lily Banners (BGG entry). At the time I wasn't too enthused about ULB, but really enjoyed TACW, mostly because of my long involvement with the Sealed Knot, an English Civil War re-enactment group. This was also around the time that I was losing interest in ConSims in general, so any lack of interest in M&P could have just been general rather than that series in particular.

Anyway, off we started with the first scenario in the box, Dirschau, with me being Gustav, and Eric the Poles. This features the Swedes on the defense initially, but with the right wing in charge mode. The Poles only have one of their wings (their left) across the river, and are under pressure until their center arrives and crosses over. Meanwhile their right wing is advancing slowly through the dunes, hoping to make contact before the end of the game.

The first session (this was played over three evening sessions) saw my right wing (mixed infantry and cavalry) charge and be intercepted to great success by Eric's left wing (cavalry). A series of weak rolls on my part and decent rolling on Eric's part saw him up on the VPs at that point, as most of my cavalry had been killed or routed off the board. The only saving grace was that my infantry had managed to catch up and were able to hold the line, as their strong musketry would be pretty lethal on the comparatively weaker cavalry facing them.

Up to that point I had left my other two wings waiting behind the fortifications (although they were barely justified in being called that, only offering a +1 modifier to close combat), mostly from being unsure on how best to approach this, so taking a 'wait and see' attitude. In retrospect I think this was a mistake, and I should have advanced my center wing (under Gustav himself) sooner. We ended the session with Eric in the lead in terms of VPs (for killed units), his center wing (mixed infantry/cavalry) starting to cross the river and enter the fray. At this point Eric really just needed to move over to the defensive, and I would have to come get him in the hope of bringing the score back into balance.

The second session saw me advance Gustav's wing, as there seemed little point in just standing around for the loss. Our two centers met in the, umm, center, and although I think I got the better of the initial charges, I was mostly in poor formation and coming up against his infantry. Over on my right, our two wings mostly just glowered at each other, being too weak and broken to do much more, and I wanted my infantry to protect Gustav's flank.

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the map, Eric's right flank kept plodding, plodding, plodding. With lots of dunes that meant limited movement he was making slow progress. My wing just stood there, waiting.

By the end of the second session, I think we were about in parity in terms of VPs, as the dice had mostly gone my way over the course of the evening. However, things weren't looking too good for me. My center was mostly cavalry in shaken formation, although my light infantry was catching up. Eric's center was all heavy infantry, and was threatening. If I let Eric's center come to contact it could get ugly pretty quickly.

And so to the third session, for the last two turns. As expected, Eric pushed in the center, and I was able to mostly retire my cavalry. However, he was able to force a few close combats, and that's where, indeed, it did get ugly, but not in the manner expected.

You've heard us talk in the past of the DSDF, the so-called Deansian Statistical Distortion Field, as named by another gaming friend. This is where you get a series of random events that are so far off the end of the bell curve it makes a total mockery of any serious attempt to play anything resembling a balanced game. Normally it happens to me, but on the odd occasion I'm able to inflict it on my opponent. And so it was here. Regular readers will be totally unsurprised to hear that in three close combats Eric rolled consecutive '0's for two attacker eliminated results and an attacker morale broken. Fully four infantry units hit the dead pile, plus a leader, and 2 more routed for mucho VPs. And that put paid to any threat in the middle, as his whole wing literally disappeared.

As a footnote, right at the very end Eric's right wing finally made contact with my left, to no great effect. Fighting over the dunes and the entrenchments was too much to ask of the weak cavalry, and they mostly fared poorly, adding insult to injury. We didn't total it all up, but it was very clearly a decisive win for Gustav.

It was a very unsatisfying end to what was, up until that point, a very close game, and was very much in the balance. Man, I really hate the DSDF.

Okay, so what about M&P in general? Let's start by saying that I think this is the most accurate simulation of the maneuvers and tactics of the period available today. The pacing and challenges in getting your units to do what you want just feels right. Your nice clean line quickly starts to degenerate as you move forward, and units lose formation crossing terrain, and then totally disintegrates as you come to contact. Designer Ben Hull should be rightly proud of his achievement.

There are only two areas that I have a quibble with. First, I think there should be some sort of morale check required when a unit adjacent suffers a 'Morale Broken' result. Whilst brigades were independent, having your flank unit break and run has got to have some effect. Second, I think cavalry interception is a little too powerful, allowing them to charge, gaining the bonus for momentum, where the other side does not. (Then again, I'm wondering if we played that wrong, as I think both sides could claim momentum?)

(Now, in reviewing the rules again, I see that we did miss one thing - Formation Shaken units have half movement.)

Of course, as there is so much to take account of, due to the low level nature of the game, there are a lot of moving parts, and status counters, to go with it. It's not uncommon to find units with two or three status markers on top, reflecting formation, morale, pistol shots, interception, salvo, and the like. (Some markers are doubled up, but then it becomes an exercise of finding the right combo in the box.) And, of course, all the rules to go with this. Whilst the rule set has stabilized, and are fairly clean, there's a lot of detail to remember, and the first session went quite slowly due to a lot of rule checking and figuring out. However, by the second (and especially the third) session we were mostly into the swing of it, and we were focusing on game play rather than rules checking.

As may be expected of the period and the level, control is limited, which means there are die rolls for everything, and consequently leaves a lot of room for random wackiness. Die rolls for changing orders, interception, firing, combat, continuation, all lends to what feels to be a very random outcome. At one point I commented that I felt I had more control when playing Combat Commander, the big difference being that CC takes but a couple of hours, where our M&P was three whole sessions. And that's where I think that M&P fails for me. If it lasted for an evening, then the amount of potential wackiness would be acceptable, but three sessions is pushing it into less acceptable territory.

In reflection on our game, I'm beginning to think that we were too keen to get involved in close combat. I was initially thinking that the close combat results were too wide, where all possible results from attacker eliminated to defender eliminated are available within the die roll range with no modifiers. Perhaps those AE and DE results should only achieved when there are modifiers available. However, on further contemplation I think that the aim is to encourage you not to go into close combat without some factors in your favor (and there certainly are lots of options, from strength, to arms, formation and morale) and that if you choose close combat with no modifiers you really are casting the dice of fate. Certainly, if Eric had chosen to concentrate on musketry rather than pressing the close combat he wouldn't have lost all those infantry units.

And this, really, is part of the issue with where we are in gaming today. There are so many good games out there that we can't/don't spend the time on any one game to fully explore the best way to play it. Our original intent was to play all the scenarios in the GA box, but after 3 sessions (and partly the way it turned out), we abandoned that idea. However, after thinking about it more while writing this, I'm interested in trying M&P again, altering my tactics to see if that works better. Man, too many games, too little time.

So, given that we weren't doing more M&P at that point (this game was completed a couple of weeks ago - yes, we're a little behind on posts), and that my Hube's Pocket looked like it might be over at the next session (but that's another story entirely, one that I'm still figuring out what/where/how/whether to post) we needed a game to fill one evening and Eric proposed the new Columbia Games release Richard III: Wars of the Roses (BGG entry). Good choice, one that I was very interested in playing. Look for it next time.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Releasing the Pause Button

Yeah, it's been a bit quiet around here the last few weeks.

Mike and I are currently 2/3 through the Dirschau scenario of Gustav Adolf the Great: With God and Victorious Arms, the most-recently-published entry in the Musket & Pike Battle System designed by Ben Hull.

Things have been derailed a bit as I've had to cancel the last couple weeks – once due to illness, once due to having to work late.

We should be finishing up the game tonight, though, so I'll have thoughts in this space next week.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Conflict returns to the table

After our Red Star Rising (BGG entry, Eric's review, take, my take) wrap up, we had a single session before Eric was off entertaining his mom, so a perfect night for something short, and I proposed a return to Conflict of Heroes (BGG entry, Eric's take, my take) as we'd both enjoyed it when we first tried it, and I was curious to see how the game progressed. This time the aim was to get through scenarios 3 and 4, which sees the whole rule book introduced, as well as vehicles.

In scenario 3 Eric ended up with the Germans, on the attack, to my Russians. I set up an MMG and the mortar on the leading ridge, and the other MMG on the east-most hill. My squads went into protecting the approaches, one to the west (in the heavy woods), one on the choke-point at the road, and the other in the light woods at the end of the wall, just below the hill. All my units were hidden.

Eric came up the road, and around the east side of the hill on the edge of the two boards with most of his squads, with a squad and a mortar to the west, on Hill 342. He made short work of my mortar, and I didn't get much from my artillery, just hitting a single unit all game. However, my lead MMG did some fair damage before succumbing. Eric managed to get two units onto board 4, and getting close to the headquarters. However, I managed to use my squads to fire on and then melee his squads to remove the threat. Eric was left with a couple of pot-shots at my HQ with a mortar with only an outside chance of success, but to no avail, leaving the Soviets with the win.

Onto scenario 4, which sees the introduction of fixed defenses and tanks, and, once more, Eric drew the attacking Germans. I set up my AT gun in the Hasty Defense in the heavy woods to the north of Hill 53, protecting the road, and with a decent field of fire. The MMG went in the bunker, a squad on each of the control hexes, and the spare in the light woods near his entry, hoping to grab back the control/VP hexes when they got captured. One T26 set up on Hill 53, the other on the other hill.

Eric came in strong, and rolled well to quickly remove both squads and one of the T-26s with a Vehicle Destroyed chit draw. One of his tanks ran around to my right and captured the control point, removing the squad there, and then took out the other T-26. At this point I was 5-1 down in units and it was looking bleak. However, the AT gun managed to remove a couple of tanks and disable another. It was this last one that was critical as it was the main unit for taking on the bunker. And so it was that Eric was unable to dent the bunker, and I was able to hold on for a win.

Over both games I was very careful of my CAP expenditure, trying to hold onto CAP for when I really needed it, and also passing a lot, trying to force Eric to use up his units and CAP. As defender, this is often easier than as attacker, especially where if he tries the same passing tactic it leads to the end of the turn, and the game has a limited turn length. This did back-fire on me once, as I ended the turn with 5 CAPs still on the track. What a maroon!

Both games fit into our 3-hour slot and played very quickly once we got back into the swing, which didn't take too long at all. The vehicle extensions work well, and it has a decent feel. There's a decent amount of tension, and there should be good variation and replayability. I'm looking forward to going deeper into the scenario list, especially the bigger ones. And the new versions that are coming out.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Return of the Heroes

(No, not the fantasy-exploration game...)

Short post this week, as this is primarily a refinement of thoughts posted earlier.

A couple weeks ago, Mike and I got Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear back to the table. Neither of us had played past the first two scenarios, so we were looking at some of the advanced features for the first time.

The rules and scenarios in Conflict of Heroes are set up for programmed learning. Each of the first five or so scenarios introduces new rules or new unit types. The first two, being the only ones we'd played, introduce the basics plus group actions. That's all well and good, but a bit bland.

The third scenario introduced artillery, indirect fire, hidden units, and hills. (Not unlike ASL Starter Kit #2: Guns!). Our play of this scenario came down to the wire, and I made a tactical error in how I spent my APs in attempting to take the bunker objective on the last turn.

The fourth scenario introduced tanks (again, not unlike ASL Starter Kit #3: Tanks!) and, again, came down to the wire.

When looking at the more involved rules, no real anomalies stood out. All the new rules made sense in the game's framework, and we didn't really have any major questions. Nor was it difficult to get back into the swing of things after months away from the game.

The programmed instruction approach worked well here. Having a couple plays under my belt, I was ready for the increased options presented by the more advanced rules. I think there's only a couple things left for scenario 5, then it's just various takes on the full rules from here.

These two plays solidified my thoughts on the CoH system. It is a very good, light, tactical wargame. It's competing with Memoir '44 and Tide of Iron in this space, and while it doesn't have the plastic figures included in the other two, it's still a quite attractive game while in play. I probably rank it tied with Memoir among those three as it seems to be a slightly deeper game but doesn't have the wealth of options and scenarios available to it yet as Memoir does. Tide would probably be my last choice of the three, in large part because of the physically fiddly nature of the bases. (Using based figures while making figure removal a feature of the rules is a design flaw in my eyes.)

The thing about CoH is that it's only going to be as good as its scenarios. So far, every scenario has been five turns long. I think this is going to be a problem over time, as while you can make amazing variety in tactical situations, the “gotta do X within five turns” nature will get old. It keeps play time down, but it does so in what can be perceived as an artificial manner. The Command and Colors system, to which Memoir belongs, keeps play time down in a more natural fashion. In fact, I can't think of any other scenario-based game that keeps every scenario to the same number of turns. Hopefully the Kursk edition that just came out (or some future edition) will address this.

Regardless of the scenario length question, for me CoH is a gateway game. It's not a destination but part of the journey. The game is fun to play, but that's about all. I see this as a stepping stone to either Panzer Grenadier (if wanting to stay on the simpler side), Combat Commander, or ASL(SK). For whatever reason, I don't see Memoir or Tide of Iron in that same light – could it be that Conflict of Heroes uses counters, while the others don't and therefore I see progressions and advancement being more natural? Not sure. I just know that while I'll be getting each entry in the series as they appear, I see it primarily being used as an introductory game – not the end in itself.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Postcards from Smolensk

By now, you've probably seen my brief review of Red Star Rising, and Mike's summary of our 4-session game. Here's my view of the game as it progressed and some after-action thoughts.

Early Turns

Push back everywhere as far as I can. Run ahead with the armor and lock future targets in place. Use the fact that most Russian units can't exit a ZOC on their move.

By the end of turn 3, Army Group North is heading off to Leningrad, Army Group Center had reached the railroad that runs south out of Leningrad, and Army Group South had reached Kiev.

I feel like I'm doing okay at this point.

By turn 5, I've crossed the Luga in the north, crossed the Dnepr in the center, and have invested Kiev in the South. Odessa has fallen without a fight.

Things are still looking pretty good.

By turn 7, the advance on Leningrad has stalled, Soviet reinforcements have begun arriving in the center, and Kiev has been taken. The door to the Crimea is about to be blown open.

Concern is rising, but progress is still being made.

Winter is coming.

Turns 8-11 are winter. It is about here that I really understood what was going on. I was probably too aggressive in the winter turns. All combats in the winter add +3 to your die roll. The CRT looks like this:

Everything from a 7 on includes required step losses. I suffered a lot of attrition in the winter turns.

If you look at the far left edge of the pictures Mike took of turns 8 through 10, you'll see small changes in the area just north of Leningrad. This is where the Finns were trying to break through from the north. If you look on the CRT above, you'll see a couple places where, at 3:2 or 2:1 odds in the woods and roll an 8, the attacker loses a step loss with no harm coming to the defender.

The Finns managed to do this three turns in a row (turns 8-10). After that, there really wasn't anything left up there to use, so I abandoned Finland.

I took Sebastopol on turn 11, and began moving units across the Crimea. The goal was to attack Rostov from the south.

What happened after the thaw in '41 was a stabilization of the center, the repulse of the north, and the destruction of the south.

By the time we reached the fall mud, it was clear that the Soviets were in the ascendency and I'd reached my high-water mark. Rather than spend weeks confirming that fact, we decided to call it after turn 20. Massive Soviet victory.

As a reference, here's some key cities, the equivalent turn number when they fell in real life, and when they fell in our game.


Around turn 7, I started falling behind, never to catch up.

So what happened?

I obviously wasn't aggressive enough in the first three or four turns. Remember my OCS tip about how if you're comfortable with your supply situation, you're not being aggressive enough? Bingo. Fell into that trap.

Notice how I don't have a single armor unit out of supply in the early turns? This is definitely a result of not fully understanding how the supply rules work. In the summer months, attrition from being out of supply is a rare thing – only a 1 out of 6 chance of losing a step. I should have been running my units behind Mike's to force more kills instead of just pushing him back two and three hexes at a time.

Because, if you don't kill off those units, they eventually come back. And when they did start returning, I simply didn't have enough left to hold them off. If I had been able to kill more units off early, I would have been in far better shape in the summer of '41. I need to push the armor further and let supply catch up to them instead of stopping at the edge of my supply range and waiting for the depots.

The buzz on this game in the hands of experienced players, the Soviets have almost no chance of winning. Given how much fun we had playing, I'd be more than happy to get to that point – it would be an enjoyable journey.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Red Star Risen

Eric and I were all set to put OCS Korea (BGG entry)on the long-term gaming table, when I started reading the rules for MMP's Red Star Rising (RSR) (BGG entry) on a whim. I'd traded for this one some time back, but never really looked at it much, apart from a quick 'oh, that looks nice' check on the components. The more I read, however, the more I liked the look of this one, and I proposed that we should consider a diversion from the plan. Eric read through the rules and agreed that it looked intriguing, so it became our next target.

RSR covers the whole of the eastern front campaign, from the start of Barbarossa through April 1944, when the Soviets had pushed the Axis back to their start lines and more. A very strait-forward game from a rules point of view, but it takes a few standard mechanisms and adds some very interesting twists.

The first is the turn order sequence, where it goes the same route as the GMT EFS games with an asymmetrical sequence, as follows:

Supply determination (both sides)
Axis reinforcements
Axis move (including overruns)
Axis combat
Soviet combat
Soviet reinforcements
Soviet move (including overruns)
Axis tank movement
Clean up

The first thing to note is that the Soviets fight then move, so the challenge is that the Axis may not be where you want him to be by the time combat comes around. This also has the interesting side effect that when you can pin him down to combat, if the Axis player loses steps, then you can follow up with overruns. Finally, note that Axis tank movement after the the Soviet turn. This gives the Axis player two chances to move his armor units (and overrun) and then a combat before the Soviet player has a chance to react. Potentially very devastating.

The next thing is that RSR starts with the basic Victory in the West chit pull mechanism for the strength of Soviet units, which come in three types, but then introduces a couple of twists. The first is that any Soviet unit that has a strength chit and is not adjacent to an Axis unit in the clean up phase has that chit removed. Interesting, as this models a couple of different things. Firstly, if the unit has already taken a step loss, then it is a simple way to model the continuous feed of replacements to units. Second, it represents additional training provided to units removed from the front-line. Secondly, the initial pool of chits get removed from the game as they are removed from units (for whatever reason), and new chits are added to the cup for each of the three pools during the game, so the average strength builds during the game. Both are neat, elegant, and totally simple, way to reflect the growing strength of the Soviet army over time.

However, before that all sounds too easy for the Soviet player to manage, there's a slight wrinkle. It costs +3 MPs to move out of a ZoC, and guess what the MA of Soviets armies are? Yep, 3MPs. Again, a simple mechanism that models the lack of tactical (although it feels odd to use that word in a game of this scale) flexibility that the Soviets showed in the early part of the conflict. Once those Soviet armies are committed to the front line, they ain't going nowhere until they're dead, pushed back, or the Axis player chooses to release them from ZoC. (German corps have a 4 MA.)

Weather is fixed by game turn, and impacts the whole map equally. The turns are of varying length to better reflect the tempo of combat in the prevailing weather. There is a +3 combat modifier in the first winter, and +1 in subsequent years, for both sides. Which brings us nicely to combat. A pretty standard combat table, odds-ratio, A or D results in terms of step losses or retreats, with three levels of terrain effects, and strength modifiers for rivers. Where it differs is above the normal '6' result, only reached by modifiers. Here, there are automatic step losses, mostly of the 1/1 variety, but with the odd attacker only loss, and heavier defender losses further up the odds. As well as the previously mentioned weather modifiers, an overrun has a +1, and Soviet leaders have a +3/+4. The Axis player does have air units, which gives him a 1-column on attack or defense.

Added to the above, both sides have the ability to breakdown into smaller units to cover more ground, or combine for a more potent force. Stacking is also asymmetric, allowing the Soviet only a single army per hex, regardless of its type or strength, but the Axis can stack several units together, and when there are two panzer corps together then they can create an almost unstoppable force.

Another asymmetric area is in supply. Soviet units are supplied if they can trace a 6MP (rail being half, marsh 2) line to to an HQ, which is itself in supply if it's on a rail line connected to a major supply source. Axis units, on the other hand, have to trace 4MPs (same) to a supply depot, which has to be connected by a chain of depots back to a supply source on the west edge of the board. Units that are beyond double these ranges also have to roll for isolation, with the risk of losing steps, which increases with the severity of the weather, more so for the Axis.

The only weak part, I thought, was in the section on industry and the strategic part of the game. The Soviet player has various types of industrial infrastructure dotted about the map, and which the Axis player can capture. Failing to do so allows more Soviet leaders to come into play, but the whole thing just seemed a trifle unfinished and a little tacked onto the rest of the game.

Overall, from just a read of the rules I was very keen to get this played, and when I suggested Eric look at it, he liked what he saw too, and it became our next undertaking.

(As with Sicily, here's a page of pics taken at the end of each turn, so you can follow along.)

With Eric once more on the attack as the Axis, he made short work of my Soviet starting position, pushing forward with his panzers. He made good progress in the north, where all the Soviets start out of supply, but less so in the south. By around turn 7 he was keeping up with where the Axis had got to in 1941.

From there on, however, things started to go a little awry. In the winter I held him and even pushed back in a few places. I had decided that the Leningrad front was an area where I wanted to focus, as if I could gain control of that front I would be able to sweep around into his supply lines. Eric had pushed forward all the way to the gates of Leningrad before winter set in, but with the +3 modifier I was able to push him back, and with the reinforcements I'd been feeding in there I was starting to work my way around his flank.

My weak area was in the south, where I was a little thin on the ground, and when the good weather came Eric tried to break out. Note the situation at the end of turn 11! Fortunately for me he'd outrun his support and I was able to dump a whole load of new armies into the area, which stabilized. I also saw this as an area with a lot of potential, as it was mostly held by weak Romanian units, so I reinforced there heavily, including my first tank army.

In the middle it was a major holding action, aiming to slowly give ground. By this time the chits in the cup meant that the Axis didn't have the big overruns and combats any more, and was limited to 2-1 and 3-1 attacks. It was also around this time that Eric started rolling like total crap, with 1s coming out every other roll, forcing him back. He also had his panzer corps attacking in a wide frontage in the woods to the south-west of Moscow with no other support, so they'd focus and gain a hex here, but would allow me to advance at the other end there, where he'd pushed me back last turn. This went on for several turns as we went back and fore over the same ground. In the meantime, I'm reinforcing the flanks, and swapping my crummy armies for stronger shock armies and, around turn 20, guards armies.

Going into the second evening session (turns 15-18 - we started with a full day, that covered the first 10 turns) I was starting to feel that I was gaining control. Some large gaps were starting to develop in various places, especially the south. Although a fortuitous overrun result in his panzer movement phase had opened up the way to Kharkov, with only 2 panzer corps and no support it was more a noose than anything. Sure enough, although he held the city for a turn, he ended up losing a couple of panzer steps for no real gain.

I'd added a second tank army to the south, and started driving through the gap that had developed, all the way to the major river, and had cut off his entire southern flank. In a couple of turns I'd removed all Axis units in that area, and had started to cut off supply to the south of his main line. In the north I was clear of his line, had them essentially pocketed and was starting to drive south, ready to cut off supply from the northern part of his main line.

And it was at this point that Eric conceded a major Soviet victory, as there was no way he was going to be able to stop me from pretty much rolling up his line from both directions at my leisure. I'd been studying the position whilst waiting for Eric to arrive that evening, and I'd said that I felt that the game would be over that evening, and so it was.

Eric seemed to be doing well to start with, so what happened? Although he was pushing forward, given that I wasn't putting up much of a fight, but keeping my armies more in reserves, perhaps he wasn't pushing hard enough. In the winter period I was able to push back a little, but this could have gone so much worse for the Axis as pretty much all the die rolls were low, meaning that the combats weren't forcing step losses. It's here that the depth of the Soviet army begins to tell as each step loss drains the life blood from the Axis army, but the Soviets have an almost unending supply of troops to feed into the mix.

Where I think Eric's game collapsed was in the use of his precious panzer corps in the fruitless fight around the woods to the south-west of Moscow in the summer of '42. Although he was winning lots of combats, being unable to cover the whole front with his 6 panzer units meant that I'd just walk straight back into the ground he'd kicked me out of, so he was making no progress. I was delighted to see the panzers fighting over the woods, where what I feared was that he'd bring up the infantry from the south to hold the woods, and move the panzers south to let them loose in the open country. As it was I faced lots of infantry attacks in the clear, being pushed back a hex or two, and even gaining ground as his die rolls sucked mightily. With the panzers coming in from the north and south, I could have been pocketed, with no retreat routes, rather than facing being pushed back across an even front, with clear and safe retreat paths. Whilst the Soviets get a steady flow of reinforcements, it's hard to redeploy armies, and I could have been in trouble.

The other thing that surprised me was that there was little in the way of reserves in the Axis side, pretty much every unit was on the front line. One of the big lessons in OCS is that of maintaining reserves, and I tried to make sure I had a second line where possible. Certainly that became a lot easier for me as the game went on and the reinforcements started to flow. So, when the breakthrough did come in the south, there was nothing there to stop it from being a game winning situation.

One thing we both commented on, was how freakin' far it is to Stalingrad from the Axis starting position. It's still a wonder that the Axis forces managed to penetrate so far into Russia. And that the Soviets managed to push them all the way back again.

The verdict? Absolutely superb game, one of my favorites of all the games we've played together. A monster in scope, the entire east front on one (large) map, the rules are elegant and simple to handle, yet give a great feel. The game simply flows, with little apparent downtime, the various asymmetric mechanisms fitting together just beautifully. The components also must be mentioned. Clear map and counters, comprehensive, and readable, rules. My only gripe is that the northern map uses a marginally different hex size to the main map, and it's impossible to get the alignment straight at both sides. As it turned out, the northern section might as well not have been there, as after a brief attempt on turn 1, Eric gave up on anything happening there.

Go out and get this game, find some table space, and go play it. You'll have a blast.

Eric's going to be out for a session, so with only the one evening before the mini-break to play something, I suggested that we do something short, like going back to Academy Games' Conflict of Heroes (BGG entry), as I'd like to get through all the scenarios in the game this year. After that, we're going to do some Musket & Pike, as we tackle GMT's Gustav Adolf: With God and Victorious Arms (BGG entry) - the whole box, all scenarios. From there it will be OCS Korea, assuming the table is clear. Unless we get diverted again.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rising Star

Over the last few weeks, Mike and I have been playing Red Star Rising, the entry in Multi-man's IGS line that covers the entirety of WWII in Russia from the initial Barbarossa invasion through the spring of 1944, the point at which the Russians have pushed back into Romania, and are threatening Germany itself.

The game is based on the old SPI Victory in the West system that has random unit strengths, but with a number of changes. The game was previously published in 2004 by designer Masahiro Yamazaki in Six Angles Magazine #9 as “War for the Motherland.” This, in turn, was a complete rework of a version originally published by Rampart Games.

Multi-man gave it a magnificent graphics workover with a map by Mark Mahaffey, one of my favorite artists. (The final version can be seen on Mark's site.) My understanding is there's some rules updates as well. The rules are written by the same team as Devil's Cauldron and Warriors of God (Jon Gautier; writer, Adam Starkweather; developer). I've been extremely critical of their particular style of rules writing in the past, but I must credit them here – from their body of work of which I'm familiar, this is by far their best effort. We had very few rules questions during play.

As I mentioned, the game covers pretty much the entire eastern front. The map (when playing the full campaign game as Mike and I did) reaches from the Arctic circle down to the Caucasus Mountains, and from just inside the Prussian/Polish/Hungarian borders all the way to the Caspian Sea. This at about 35 km/hex. There are six scenarios covering varying amounts of time from the three-turn Introductory Scenario up through the full-meal-deal at 40 turns.

Two structural design choices make themselves known right up front. First, time is relative. One of the bigger problems in modeling large-scale games on the eastern front is how to handle the varying level of activity. OCS handles it through supply availability. Barbarossa (as published in World at War magazine) handles it through changing movement rates every turn. Red Star Rising handles it through changing the time frame covered by a turn. Turn lengths range from 10 days in the height of summer to two months during the mud in spring and fall.

The other interesting choice is an asymmetrical turn sequence. Turns flow as follows:

  1. Supply

  2. Axis Reinforcements

  3. Axis Movement

  4. Axis Combat

  5. Soviet Combat

  6. Soviet Reinforcements

  7. Soviet Movement

  8. Axis Tank Movement

  9. Admin

So, the Germans get to move then fight, the Soviets must fight, then move. This tweak alone allows the Germans much more control over where and when fights happen. And that's before you even get to the Axis Tank Movement phase where the German tanks get to move (and potentially overrun) again.

The game is filled with little design gems like this. One of my favorite – it costs three extra movement points to move out of a ZOC. Russian units typically only have three movement points. No problem, you can always move one hex, right? Yup. Unless you start in a ZOC. This effectively pins any Russian units in place when they're adjacent to the enemy. Until you get to winter when it's only 2MP to move out of a ZOC. (Oh, and only Axis tank and Russian Guard Cavalry can ever move from ZOC directly to another ZOC.) These all work together to emphasize the inability of Russian units to detach from an engagement once stuck in.

Another interesting design is the CRT. Most results are given as A# or D# where the number must be satisfied by retreats or step losses in any combination of the owner's choice. Unless you get into the bottom portion of the chart (rows on the chart are numbered 1 to 10+ and you roll a D6 for combat, and the bottom portion is from 7 higher). If you manage to get down there, you see results like #/# where the numbers are required step losses for each side. How do you get down there? Overruns give a +1 DRM, Winter '41 gives a +3 (the other two winters giving +1) and Soviet Leaders give positive modifiers (usually +2 through +4) to Soviet attacks in their (typically) 3-4 hex range. So, you want to roll high, but not TOO high as the Axis, and once the Soviet replacement system gears up in '42, you want big numbers all the time. Oh, and the CRT isn't strictly linear in the bottom portion. You'll see things like 7 giving a 1/1, 8 giving a 1/-, and 9 giving a 1/1. (Yes, that means an 8 gives the attacker, but not the defender, a step loss.)

Finally, that random unit strength I mentioned earlier. The Russian Army-sized units (and Guard and Russian Armor) draw a chit when they don't have one and are either engaged in combat or adjacent to an Axis unit during the Admin phase. Over the course of the game, the Soviets get these chits as reinforcements, and they get stronger over time. Also, during the admin phase, if a Russian Army unit has a strength chit but is not adjacent to an Axis unit, it puts its chit back into the draw cup. As step losses are taken by flipping this chit, this means a Russian Army unit that takes a step loss but manages to disengage can regain that step loss merely by staying disengaged throughout the turn. This does a good job of simulating the Russian ability to replace losses during the course of the campaign with better and better quality troops. The Axis units, however, are excluded from this chit-draw mechanism.

The deeper you go into the rules, the more you realize the two sides have almost entirely different rules. Supply is handled differently, reinforcements arrive differently, etc. And it just works. The two sides DO play completely differently, but very much along the lines I'd expect. The German army is mobile, strong, but neither large nor resilient. The Soviet army is large, ponderous, and relentless. And gives quantity a quality all its own.

Mike and I mostly got the idea to play this from a thread on ConsimWorld asking “What's your best bang-for-the-buck game you own from Multi-Man publishing?” So many people responded with Red Star Rising as at least part of their answer we just had to give it a go. The effort was worth it. This game is simply (in the vernacular of Dave Eggleston) Top Shelf. There was probably only one rule that made us go “huh?” and that involved removal of Soviet Factories (there didn't seem to be a downside to doing it for the Soviets). Hardly anything major.

I'll give a full session report in my next post, but consider this my mini review after around 20 hours of play.

Top Notch.

Give it a go. If you're at all interested in WWII in Russia, this is probably the most playable full-campaign entry out there.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tearing Down Games (And putting them back together!)

A while back, I mentioned there was a system Mike and I used to tear down and set up OCS games in progress. As we're currently hip deep in a Red Star Rising game, now's a good time to explain the system. Having it at your disposal may help you tackle longer games, as you won't have as much need to keep the game set up over time.

I found it in an old issue of Operations. I think it was the Gaming Techniques article in Operations #30, but I honestly can't recall.

This technique will work for any game that consists of 1/2” counters (only) and a map that has easily referenced hexes (or areas, or spaces, or whatever.)

The key to the system is a specific kind of ice cube tray that makes 1/2” ice cubes. These are referred to as “mini ice cube trays” or Pro Cocktail Mini Ice Cube Trays, or something like that. You'll also need some sort of recording device such as a notebook or piece of paper or Notepad or Excel on your computer.

Each tray has 90 spaces in it. You can see examples of what I'm talking about here. I've got four of these trays. The last time Mike and I tore down Sicily, it took 2 1/3 trays to hold everything. They're usually sold in packs of two for $5-7 or so.

To tear down the game, you do the following:

Take a stack of counters at a particular hex. (note the hex location) and put the stack into the top-left space of the ice cube tray. Orient the stack such that the bottom points away from you, and counters sit so you can read them. (This will have the edges of the counters pointing up as if you're laying the stack on its side.) Keep doing this until you finish the first row of six spots in the tray. You should also now have a row of six hex references noted down.

Go to the next hex on the map, and the next row in the tray. You should now be moving typewriter-like along your notation as well as the ice cube tray. If you fill up the first tray, go on to another sheet of paper (or whatever notation method you care about) and continue on into another tray. Labeling the trays wouldn't hurt.

You'll develop your own take on this system relatively quickly. I use the “readability” orientation of the counters to know which side of the tray is the “front” and can then match up the top-left of the tray to the beginning of my notes rather easily. It also helps keep track of which is the top of the stack.

There's a few tips/tricks I've discovered after having done this a couple times.

  1. Photograph the board before tearing down. You won't be able to verify anything but the top counter in a stack, but it will help you confirm “odd” placements when you're setting the game back up. Even the most meticulous record-keeping can be off by a hex here and there.

  2. Don't overfill the spaces in the tray. I think they can hold about seven or eight normal counters. If you need to, move on to a second space for tall stacks. You'll have a devil of a time getting them back out again.

  3. Having separate trays for each side can split the work and make teardown go even faster. It can even keep the fog of war in place if you care about that.

  4. Occasionally, there will be a counter that slips down and lodges itself into the tray. Save it for when you get the rest of the counters out of the tray and then work on it with nothing else in the tray to disturb. It's possible to damage counters that get stuck this way, so take care. Consider having some blank ½ counters around to put behind counters going into a slot on their own.

  5. Use tweezers. Don't even consider doing this without them.

  6. The system works better on games that have a fair amount of stacking, as it's easier to have four or six counters in a slot than one.

  7. I work across the short end of the tray, as it's easier to have fifteen rows of six columns than the reverse.

It took me about 30 minutes to tear down Sicily the last time and there were counters in something around 200 hexes. Setting the board back up took slightly less time as Mike took one tray and I took another. Once you get into the swing, it goes rather quickly.

I haven't looked around for solutions that will handle games with 5/8” or larger counters. It would be quite handy for games like Panzer Grenadier or similar that have larger counters.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Some place in Spain

OK, the original plan called for Eric and I to hit OCS Korea after we finished Sicily, but we're going to get diverted to Red Star Rising (BGG entry) instead, because it looks rather intriguing. Before that, however, I wanted a short game to hit the table, something that wouldn't tax our brains too much, something that was familiar, and, preferably, another in the (extensive) list of unplayed games. An SCS game was the ideal choice, as we'd played The Mighty Endeavor just recently, so I suggested Guadalajara (BGG entry), the game on the Italian involvement in the Spanish Civil War. I picked this one partly because of our recent play of EspaƱa 1936 (Eric's take, mine), and partly because Guadalajara looked colorful and interesting.

This entry in the SCS line covers the exploits of the Italian divisions in Spain, and their initial push for Madrid, when the Nationalists thought that a big push and taking Madrid would end the civil war quickly in their favor. It was not to be, however, as first the weather then the Republicans thwarted the over-confident Italians. The game changes quite a lot of the basic SCS rules, and adds a lot of special rules on top, some of them quite fiddly. All this would be acceptable, except that this is quite probably the worst set of rules in any of the SCS games. Even with the extensive errata there are numerous holes and poorly worded sections that remain unclear on the intention. I'm really surprised that they managed to get out the door in their final form.

The Republicans start on the main part of the board, with the Nationalists and Italians coming in from the east. The main feature here is that the Nationalists have to remain north of the river dividing the map, the Italians south. The Italians aim to get units off the west side of the map, driving on towards Madrid, or, failing that, victory comes down to the number of VPs gained for capturing villagess. Complicating the Italian effort is one of those special rules mentioned above: they're not allowed to move west of hex-row 16xx until they capture Brihuega, which makes it kinda imperative that the Italians head in that direction. To do this they have 3 militia divisions and some regulars. The militia have to be handled carefully, as if they take too many step losses they could fail morale and withdraw from battle.

Facing them is a growing army units supporting the Republicans cause, including Communists and Anarchists, so it becomes a race against time, and the Nationalist player needs to press hard.

As I'd played the Nationalists in our previous game on the Spanish civil War, I offered to take the Republicans this time, which left Eric on the attack. He opened with a fairly devastating attack, rolling lots of high dice with his Italians. However, his Nationalist allies fared the worst, as all his bad die rolls were concentrated with them. However, we did miss one critical rule, and that was that all of the Italian/Nationalist units get a free exploitation move on the first turn. This would have allowed Eric to push forward and move the battle line several hexes to the west, and likely had a huge impact on the game.

As he appeared to be concentrating his forces on Brihuega, my battle plan was to try to force his northern Italian flank, threatening his supply lines for his main thrust. I got set up with some strong units, artillery, and air support as well, and then rolled snake eyes in my first combat of the game. I tried a couple more times, but each time rolled poorly on the combat and lost more steps than I caused Eric to lose, which is pretty bad given how the CRT is slanted towards the attacker. I even committed my best unit in the whole game, but it died in two straight combats as first I rolled poorly in my attack and then Eric rolled well in his attack. All this was enough to reduce my flanking attack to a feeble holding action.

In the meantime, Eric was grinding onwards to Brihuega, but my reinforcements were arriving in strength, and I managed to stack them up high enough that they could absorb the losses. In the end Eric just couldn't clear them out fast enough, and the end of the game came before he could get to Brihuega.

In the north, the Nationalists were making the best they could of their bad start, but also didn't make much progress. They got as far as Miralrio in the last turn or two, but didn't manage to capture the big 5VP village of Cogolludo in the north. Elsewhere there was a minor skirmish over Abanades in the far southwest corner of the map, as my attack to recapture it whiffed again on 3-1, then saw Eric twice succeed at 1-1 to remove one of my two units there. In a final turn Hail Mary I managed to get a result on 1-1 to force him out and recaptured the 2VPs, which was enough to force the result into the Major Victory for the Republicans.

We managed to screw up several rules in the game, beyond the afore-mentioned exploit in the first turn. Armor effects are DRMs, not column shifts. Trucks tripped us up a couple of times. Partly this was due to my having only read the main game rule book, not the errata, up until 30 minutes before the game, so trying to keep track of the changes was a pain. Plus, I think there was a little bit of SCS complacency - we knew how to play, so just barely skimmed over the rules. It changed a lot more than other SCS games I've played.

OK, given all that, it wasn't too bad of a game, but I didn't really feel that the outcome was in doubt for most of the game. Even given my disastrous attacking through the game I still walked away with a major victory, so, what happened? Certainly that first turn was critical. Whilst the Italians rolled a couple of 11s, the Nationalists rolled a few 3s, which more than balanced it out, as the 11s were overkill. The attack in the north never really put much pressure on me, and I was able to divert most of my reinforcements against the Italians. Plus, missing the first turn exploit meant that the main battle was fought 5-10 hexes further east than it should have, allowing me to build up in front of Brihuega.

Given all the other options, and SCS titles, I think this one's unlikely to hit the table again. Sure, it would be interesting to see if getting the rules right would make it any easier for the Italians, but there are so many other options out there that are calling loudly to me. I'm not even sure why I picked this one, really. Perhaps it was just all those nice colors. Ooooo, shiny.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Stalled on the Road to Madrid

After Mike and I completed Sicily, we were looking for something smaller before our next big venture. Mike had a few ideas, and we eventually settled on Guadalajara, the recent SCS game from MMP/Gamers that covers one of the major battles of the Spanish Civil War.

As Mike and I both mentioned a few weeks ago, neither of us know very much about this conflict, and after playing Espana 1936, I'm still not convinced I know anything. So, it was time to take the scale down a notch and play a specific battle.

This battle involves a combined Italian/Nationalist army attempting to break through the area around Brihuega on the road to Madrid.

This battle is one of those situations where the attacking side needs to make progress before the defenders are able to reinforce and effectively fight back. I took the Italian/Nationalist Side and off we went.

The actual session report here is going to be shockingly brief. It took us two nights to play, probably 5.5 or 6 hours total, including setup. The gist of our game was this: I pushed towards the edge of the map, Mike slowed me down, reinforced, then stalled my advance.

One final battle on the last turn put him in the Major Victory category. (It was a Major victory if he won the battle, Minor if he lost.)

The session isn't really where the story is, though. Instead it's in the rules.

First warning: do NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to play this game without a thorough study of the errata and frequently asked questions, both available at The Gamers Archive. In fact, I'd recommend marking up a printout of the electronic rules you'll find at that site with the errata. It's that extensive, and that important.

These are, by far, the worst rules ever published by The Gamers. In my experience, at least. Now, many of you probably know that SCS – at its core – is a VERY simple system. Move, fight, exploit, switch sides, repeat. The Guadalajara rules as written manage to convert this into a convoluted mess. There's loads of exceptions in the first turn, the Truck rules are simply strange (even more so once you incorporate the errata), and you're never sure you've caught everything. It might take three playings to really get the rules down, and this is an SCS game.

If there was EVER a game that exemplifies the argument against separate series and game rules, this is it.

Now, that said, if they can update the electronic rules to incorporate the errata and clarify things to handle the FAQ issues, there's a good little game here. It just takes some work to find it.

There are some interesting tweaks. The biggest is the separation line. The Italians must stay south of the River Badiel (and a line extending it east) while the Nationalists must stay to the north. You can't even fire artillery across the river. (It's unclear if ZOCs extend across the separation line, however.)

Another odd tweak is the restriction on the Italians moving too far west before they take Brihuega. The Italians are forbidden from moving west of the 16.xx column (about four hexes west of Brihuega) before taking the city. The justification for this is that it's a major communication/logistics hub and the Italians were not interested in moving further west before taking the city. This rule has the intended effect, but there's some odd side effects.

The primary Italian goal involves exiting a number of units along the main highway that runs north of Brihuega towards Madrid (point B on the above image). Until Brihuega falls, there may as well be a large gulf across the road – you just can't go any further than the 16.xx column (illustrated on the above image). So, it's possible to see a number of units just sit there on the road waiting for the city to fall. It didn't happen in our game, but it's been talked about in online forums as an odd side effect. This forces the Italians to focus on something other than their victory conditions in order to fulfill their victory conditions. Odd, but I can see what the designer was trying to impart.

The supply rules didn't seem especially onerous, and the Italian Volunteer Morale rules never came close to being in play for us. Probably because, as typical for me, I was insufficiently aggressive as the attacker even with an Attacker-friendly CRT. (at 1:2 odds, a 7 or higher has no negative effect on the attacker.)

There are tank rules reminiscent of the WWI games in the series, which is understandable as tanks didn't really progress until after WWII got into full swing. As in Espana 1936, tanks augment a combat instead of being full-fledged participants, and the tanks fight each other if both sides are represented.

Net result? I heartily do NOT recommend Guadalajara as a first SCS game. However, if you do your homework and make sure you've got the rules down, it seems to be a decent game. It's not in the top five SCS games, but it's notable for covering an under-represented conflict. And, it's in print for an eminently reasonable $32 retail.

I know I'd like to give it another go after some study. It's easy to go into an SCS game thinking “I don't need to learn much to play” and I think that's what Mike and I both did. Do yourself a favor - prepare yourself before playing.