Monday, January 26, 2009

First Look at Prussia's Defiant Stand

(I've been fighting a massive head cold while writing this, so apologies in advance for any inaccuracies. I blame them entirely on the pharmaceutical industry.)

Mike wanted to get Prussia's Defiant Stand on the table last week. This is Worthington Games' block game on the Seven Years War released in 2006 (I believe). If you've played other block games, you'll recognize elements of many other games such as their own Forged in Fire, and Columbia's Crusader Rex and Hammer of the Scots.

The general structure of these games are you are dealt a hand of cards and each simultaneously choose a card for each round on a given turn. Various rules are used to determine who goes first each time, etc. Supply is checked at various intervals to ensure you don't get units isolated, and VPs are scored as you take various major cities on the map.

Many game-specific rules are used to simulate the events of the SYW. This conflict saw a newly preeminent Prussia fighting off Austria, Russia, Sweden, and France. England assisted financially (and in other theatres with troops and ships) but Prussia's Defiant Stand concentrates on the area in what is today Slovakia, The Czech Republic, eastern Germany, western Poland, and Austria.

Maria Theresa had just ascended to the Austrian throne, and Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, decided to force matters and invaded. This eventually brought Austria allies, and Britain joined in on Prussia's side to balance matters. The conflict quickly spread around the world. In the Americas, it's known as the French and Indian War. Major conflicts also occurred in India (the Third Carnatic War) and elsewhere. It was, truly, the first World War though it lost that title to the monumental conflict 95 years ago.

In the actual war, Russia and France joined in after the first winter of 1758. This is handled in the game by not activating Russian or French units until the 3rd card play of the 2nd turn. (There are 5 card playing rounds in every turn but the first) Also, Catherine The Great (Empress of Russia) died during the war – her heir, Peter III, was a HUGE fan of Frederick, and immediately pulled Russia out of the war – this essentially saved Prussia as a sovereign nation. In the game, this is handled by rolling dice at the beginning of the last three turns to see if Catherine dies. If she does, the Russian and Swedish units are immediately removed from the map. This starts as an 8-or-higher roll, but an extra +1 is added every subsequent turn.

Forewarning: the Deansian Statistical Distortion Field (an effect documented in detail in the past and elsewhere) was in full effect during this game.

Prussia's Defiant Stand is a good physical production. Attractive usable map; clear, well-made cards, and easy-to-read stickers on the blocks. The rulebook is physically attractive, but we'll get to the contents later.

There are three game mechanics that I feel differentiate PDS from other block games: Supply being checked after every round, Friction of War and related turn-sequence subtleties, and the combat sequence. Let's look at these items in detail.

The supply situation is checked after every card play (i.e. five times per turn) rather than at the end of every year. Each player simultaneously checks that every unit can trace through to a supply source. If you're in enemy territory, every city on the trace route must contain a friendly unit. Besieged fortresses can supply garrisons within, but at the cost of a step (this is a rule I think we missed the one time it likely came up.) In addition to the supply check, during this phase players can coalesce identical units in the same city. You just add the steps of one onto the other, and place the eliminated unit back into your force pool to be reused as a reinforcement later on. Finally, existing sieges are resolved in this phase. Roll a die, and add the number of steps under four left on the fortress. If the result is 7 or more, it surrenders, otherwise, it's reduced a step (but goes no lower than 1.) This means you've got a 50/50 shot at claiming a 1-step fortress. Something Mike managed to fail at in something like 8 of 9 attempts.

The turn sequence is a bit interesting. After you've revealed your chosen cards, the player of the lower-valued card chooses who goes first. Units/leaders are activated (without needing to state for what purpose) then the Friction of War table is referenced. This may keep leaders from moving, allow one side or the other to inspect blocks, etc. After this, then each player performs actions with their activated units. It does make for some interesting decisions if you're the one getting to choose who goes first. Knowing where things are going to be activated is valuable, but sometimes you want to get the jump on the other guy. A good feature here. My one complaint is that the Friction of War table blends in to the map so well, we frequently forgot to roll on it. And, as there's no aid card with the sequence of play on it, there was no effective visible reminder. It's an issue in learning the game, but over time wouldn't be a problem.

Finally, let's look at combat. There's a few tweaks in here from the typical block game. When opposing forces end movement in the same city, combat happens. The first side into the city is the defender, the other is the attacker. Combat is similar to other block games – one die per strength point of the unit, and it needs its combat value or higher on a d6 to hit. In many other block games, different blocks are rated A, B, or C to indicate when they fight in a round of combat – in PDS it's decided on the class of troop – leaders, infantry, and cavalry in that order. First you deploy – infantry and leaders are fighting, cavalry are formed up and not necessarily committed yet. Reserve forces are placed in reserve. Then you move to the first round of combat:

  1. Defending Leaders fight

  2. Attacking Leaders fight

  3. Defending infantry fight

  4. Attacking infantry fight

  5. Attacking cavalry may move from form-up to charge

  6. Defending cavalry may move from form-up to charge

  7. Cavalry fight simultaneously. If one side has more cavalry than the other, the excess inflict their hits against opposing leaders/infantry.

Now, in looking back at the rules, I realized we played a rule wrong, and this is due to a failing in the rulebook. The rules say hits are applied to opposing “engaged” units, but “engaged” is never defined in the rules. You have to dig into the combat example in the updated rules to see that infantry are engaged in round one before they actually fight, and the initial leader hits can be applied to them. We didn't play this and applied all leader hits in the first round to the opposing leader. As leaders are out of the game when eliminated, this really affected the result. Particularly since Frederick (who inflicts hits on a 3 or higher) hit on 9 of his first 10 shots. I think he personally took out two leaders. As those hits should have been spread around, Mike would have had more leaders later in the game leading to more operational flexibility.

After round one, any cavalry that charged are moved to melee, reserves are deployed, and combat now becomes simultaneous. You continue fighting until one side retreats or is eliminated.

At any point during the combat, a side may choose to retreat the class of units due to fight. If they do so, the opposing class gets to fight unopposed. It's completely unclear from the rules if these hits are to be applied to all engaged units (including the units about to retreat) or only the retreating units. We played the latter, but the 2nd edition of the rules hint at the former. In either case, it's completely unclear.

Finally once one side completely retreats from the battle, if the other has a surplus of cavalry, one hit per extra opposing cavalry unit is inflicted in the pursuit.

So, what Seven Years War specific effects are added into the combat? There are three that I see. First is the lack of defender advantage after the first round. No problem with this one. Second is pursuit after combat ends – again, looks good. A superiority of cavalry in this era was important, and the 1-hit-per unit sounds about right. What I'm not sure about is the leaders-fighting-first bit. This was not the era of leaders (at the level represented by the block) fighting from the front. I can see that they're trying to model the effect of better commanders, but it seems a bit contrived. They say right in the rules that Leaders represent the generals, their staffs, artillery, and supply trains. Yet they're frequently the best fighting blocks you have. This doesn't sit well with me but I haven't come up with something better yet.

Finally, let's look at the rulebook. I want to say right off that this is not a complex game. How they could then manage to mangle the rulebook in so many ways is beyond me. Key terms (such as “engaged”) are not formally defined yet frequently used. There are two versions of the rules on Worthington's website – one is the original rules as included with the game, nicely formatted, and the other is a horrendously formatted .DOC file with updated rules. The updated rules are MUCH tighter than the original, but are physically difficult to read and still contain holes. One example comes to mind – at the beginning of the 1761 turn, you start rolling for the Tsarina's health. If she does not die in 1761 – and I quote - “Each subsequent year a +1 is added to the dice roll.” Is this cumulative? It doesn't say. In addition, there is a card that lets you add or subtract 2 from this roll. The card says “Play during the Tsarina's Health Phase.” As the health phase consists of a die roll, how do you play a card during a die roll? It's either before you know the result or after. And this isn't addressed anywhere that I've found.

I guess I do spend a lot of time complaining about rulebooks, but when you're doing what we've been doing (playing a game that's new to us nearly every week) you spend a lot of time in them. And it's not always fun time. After playing I asked Mike whether this rulebook was worse than Devil's Cauldron's rulebook and we decided it was – at least the TDC rulebook seems to have all the information in there, it's just finding it that's difficult. This one is simply incomplete, and the updated version helps in one way but takes three steps back with atrocious formatting.

In the end, though, this game has promise. Maybe it's just because I'm a sucker for the SYW overall, but I think this is a nice representation of the conflict in a block-game style. One problem strategic SYW games have is how to model Russia's exit. I haven't yet examined how Clash of Monarchs does it, but Friedrich's deck of fate is one way, and the Tsarina's Health die roll is another. It can be frustrating to have your plans wrecked by a single die roll, but you have to know going in that it's a possibility and plan accordingly. (It's been said that Friedrich should be viewed from the Allied perspective as having the game endpoint be before you start in the deck of fate and any time you gain through the deck is bonus time.) I certainly want to play this again sometime, and am will be adding it to my want list.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Freddy dies, Prussia wins

You know, sometimes I wonder why I bother to play these games, as the game experience is just atrocious, and this was another of those experiences. On the table was Prussia’s Defiant Stand (BGG entry), from Worthington Games, which I’d recently traded for. This is a combined block/CDG, very much in the line of some of the Columbia games. Decent game, good tension, nice presentation, but terrible rules.

Let’s start with the presentation. Nice looking box, well constructed. The map is mounted and is excellent. The blocks are, well, blocks. Mostly decent, without too many with obvious blemishes (which would allow identification of units/strengths), but many were significantly smaller than the others. Not a huge issue in and of itself, but those were smaller than the labels, which meant some trimming was required. Speaking of labels, functional, clean, but several had sticking issues, and are already coming away from the blocks. My biggest gripe is with the cards. While they’re printed on decent stock, they’re of a non-standard size, which make them a real pain in the butt for those who like to protect the cards with sleeves. Why not pick a card in a standard size?

Finally, we come to the rules. Whilst they have some nice graphics, they proved to be full of holes and unclear in places, especially around combat. Fortunately there is an updated set out on the web-site, and I would suggest that you not attempt to play the game without them. Whilst we’ve been critical of rules in other games, it’s even more heinous in this case as the game is pretty simple and straightforward, although it’s sometimes hard to tell from the rules. I’d hate to see Worthington try anything as complex as The Devil’s Cauldron.

Mechanisms are really very simple. The game is divided into years, with each year having 5 regular rounds and a wintering round. In each of the regular rounds players may choose a card from their hand of 7 for the year, which acts as their command card, allowing a certain number of operations/actions. These can be used to activate leaders (and their attached army units/blocks), individual units, recruit new units, or strengthen fortresses. Activated leaders can either move or marshal forces from nearby areas, acting like a magnet, attracting units to them. Cards also have events, and movement/battle effects on them, so often you have the choice to make on whether to use cards for operations or effects, possibly leaving yourself with having no command card to play in a round.

Wintering comes at the end of each year, and means that units have a strict stacking limit. (Effectively, it’s not really stacking.) A city by itself can support one block, a fortress 4 blocks, and a leader up to twice their current steps, with each location having the highest of the three, i.e. they are not additive. Any blocks in excess of this limit are removed, e.g. a city with a fortress and 5 blocks would have one block removed, as the limit is four blocks (for the fortress). Any cards remaining in hand at the end of the turn are discard, the deck is shuffled, and the next year starts.

So you move your armies from city to city, in a game of cat and mouse, until eventually opposing armies end up in the same city location, and a battle is fought. Units are split up into their different types, leaders, infantry, and cavalry, and placed on the battle board in their respective areas. Battle is fought in a series of rounds, with the defenders firing first in the first round. Leader units fire at opposing leader units, infantry at infantry, with the ‘to hit’ number on the block. (Mostly 5 for infantry, leaders range from 3 to 5.) If there are no units of the same type then they can fire at the other type, e.g. leaders at infantry. In subsequent rounds combat within a type is simultaneous, and losses are taken from the highest strength engaged opponent, regardless of type.

Cavalry is handled differently. They start the battle in a ‘Form up’ box, and may be committed against opposing cavalry, or against opposing infantry (for a +1 DR modifier) if you have more cavalry units in the battle than your opponent. In the subsequent round cavalry move forward to melee against their selected target, at the end of which they can choose to continue the melee or to move back to ‘Form up’ mode and start the process again.

When it comes to their turn to fire, each type may choose to retreat, leaving the battle, however, the opponent gets a final chance to fire. I felt this was a little too strong, for the level of the game, especially as there is also a cavalry pursuit rule. (If the victorious army has more cavalry units, they get to roll the difference, with '6's scoring further hits.) You’re going to take the same hits whether you fight or retreat, so you might as well stay and fight, and too often it meant the total obliteration of an army.

This may sound a little complex, but it’s really pretty simple in practice, and you get into the swing pretty quickly.

Fortresses and sieges are handled differently. Each fortress has a strength, and at the end of each round you perform bombardments, rolling 1d6, with a +1 modifier for each strength point below 4, requiring 7+ to capture the fortress, i.e. a 1 step fortress has a 50/50 chance of being captured. If the fortress is not captured then the besieging force loses a step. There is also the option to assault, but with an automatic step loss for each step of fortress strength, neither of us tried it.

Victory is measured in terms of VPs, which you gain by capturing your opponent’s cities, only some of which have fortresses, which need to be captured in order to claim the city. Gain lots of VPs and you may score an automatic victory, 10 required for the Allied player, 9 for Prussia. If no-one has scored an automatic victory by the end of 1763, the higher VPs wins.

There are a few additional rules to handle the bigger political scene. Prussia gets a VP in each of 1760 and 1762, if still in the war. If they are losing in terms of VPs at the start of the 1760 turn they receive 2 cards fewer per turn from then on, which reflects the loss of British support. For the Allied player, starting in 1761, a roll is made for the death of the Tsarina - a roll of 8+ on 2d6 means the Tsarina dies and Russia and Sweden are out of the game, although there are 2 cards in the deck that modify this roll by +2.

Pretty simple, huh? Some nice mechanisms, good chrome, all within a game that plays in around 4 hours. So I was looking forward to playing. Eric played Prussia, and opened by besieging Dresden with Frederick, following history. I marshaled some units and sent an army to attack him, attempting to raise the siege. And this is where my game started to go downhill. In the initial Leader Frederick rolled 4 hits on 4 dice (requiring 3+ to hit), killing my leader outright, and it got worse. I lost my entire army, losing 21 steps for against a loss of 12 for Eric.

In the next turn The French moved forward, Frederick tried to block and in the ensuing battle Frederick again rolled 4 hits from 4 dice, the French were annihilated, losing 26 steps against 13. However, this reduced Frederick’s force enough that I was able to follow up with an Austrian army under Loudoun and remove Frederick from the game. Another major battle lost in the same fashion meant that I had now lost 6 leaders to Eric’s two, and was barely able to command forces.

By 1760 the Russians had moved forward, and I was actually ahead in VPs, from using the Cossacks to threaten here and there, drawing forces away from his sieges allowing me to relieve them and sneak a point or two here and there. This meant that Eric’s hand was reduced to 5 cards. In the meantime I’d pushed him back from his incursion into Austria, besieging several fortresses, as well has having the Swedes push south. However, I proceeded to miss 9 out of 10 50/50 siege rolls in the turn, losing 9 steps in the process, and ending the year overstacked, so had to lose another 3 blocks.

At the start of 1761, I, of course, rolled 8 to remove Russia/Sweden from the game, the one time I needed the Tsarina card in hand was the one turn I didn’t get it dealt to me. With only 1 Austrian leader left on the board and little in the way of units left I resigned, as Eric would quite likely have scored an automatic win in that or the next turn.

Another decent game, made almost a farce by the dice. Whilst Eric had a little to do to score the win, mostly he just had to sit there and watch my forces implode. Even when I had a numerical superiority, I couldn’t get any results that mattered. Whilst Frederick is a tough nut to crack, scoring hits on 3+, in the first battle he scored on 9 out of 10 rolls, and twice rolled 4 hits from 4 dice to remove the opposing leader in one go at the start of the battle. Sigh. Still, the game itself is good, and I'm not going to hold this farce against it. Definitely goes on the 'Thumbs up' pile.

Oh well, never mind. I’ll be back next week for whatever Eric chooses

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Down by the River

Last week, Mike and I got together for my choice: the new entry in the Combat Commander line of games, CC: Pacific.

Now, my copy hadn't arrived yet, and when we were looking at what scenario to play, I suggested we play Scenario C. (CC:P letters the scenarios instead of numbering to avoid confusion with the other games in the series.) Scenario C had been mentioned by the developer as possibly being the best scenario design in the entire product line, but I was shooting blind in choosing it. So we gave it a go.

I'm not going to get into the actual rules of Combat Commander all that much, as I've covered them before and CC:Pacific mostly just includes changes needed to reflect the marked differences in ground combat found in the Pacific Theatre of Operations vs. Europe.

Some of the differences are that the Japanese have a Banzai posture available to them (some scenarios, such as the one we played, start in that posture while others may have it foisted on them from an event) that only allows 3 cards in your hand, but gives you the option to give Charge orders that activate every unit you have that hasn't been activated yet to move. Very human wave-ish, but the allies get to automatically activate everyone for opportunity fire. So it's a human wave everyone can shoot at. Other major rule changes involve Sighting markers that move whenever random hexes are determined – this allows Japanese units to come onto the map when revealed in those spots – gives a real feel of “where are they coming from?”

There's a lot more that's changed. Thankfully, the rules include a page that runs down nearly all the changes. Rereading the rules reminded me just how well they're written.

The scenario we chose involved the US forces attempting to fend off a wave of Japanese infantry crossing a river on Guadalcanal. The map for the scenario can be found here. All the beaches hexes above the river (as shown in that image) contain wire. So, the Japanese must spend all their MP on a turn to get into the river, and all their MP on a turn to get out of the wire. So they get slowed to an effective standstill twice. The dark green bits on the map are swamp (which blocks LOS) and the larger, lighter green bits are jungle (which also blocks LOS). I constantly thought the swamp was jungle while we were playing. Just need to get used to the new terrain. The rest of the green bits are palm trees which only cause a minor hindrance to any shots going through them.

The US are outnumbered about 2:1 to start, but have two Mgs and a howitzer available to them. As soon as the Japanese enter the river, reinforcements come on after the next time trigger, then after the Japanese get into the Palms they get reinforcements. The focus of the game is on the three objectives on the edge of the jungle facing the river.

I played the US in this one, and posted the howitzer on the middle objective, one MG just to its right, and the other on the objective closest to the beach. I tried to maximize sight lines, and was just hoping to hold out long enough. I goofed early on attempting to get radio reinforcements and managed to get a denial – this kept me from getting the radio that would come on as a reinforcement later. (Once you get an artillery denied marker, you're stuck with it.)

Mike started moving, and the swamp was blocking most shots I had for a while. Once he started moving close enough, I started opening up. I scored a few hits on units closest to the beach but wasn't having a whole lot of success. What was happening though was that my howitzer was failing its targeting rolls so badly it was hitting Time Triggers. (These are usually found on double 1s and double 6s – I kept hitting the double 1s) This was really helping me out because Mike managed to pull off a handful of Charge orders and I was really feeling pressured.

About halfway through the game, I lost the howitzer. This left the majority of my defense to the MG in the center of the map. Mike's units got fully across the river and were starting to enter the palm trees by the time we got down to the final time trigger before sudden death rolls would occur. He had units all across the line, but had focused on taking the objective furthest forward. (This was also the one I had defended the least.) He did take that, and was starting to move down to the next objective when we hit the next time trigger. Mike had initiative, but the odds were against him and the game ended at that point.

The US side starts that scenario with 23 VPs, and we ended up with me winning with 19. I'd lost five units (IIRC) and still needed three more losses before I would have lost to surrender. However, those 19 points are very tenuous, as had one other melee gone Mike's way, it would have been a 14 point swing. Much closer than the final score indicated.

I'll second John Foley's (the developer) opinion that Scenario C might be the best scenario design in the CC series. I've probably played CC a dozen or so times now, and this definitely seemed to be the best and most balanced design. Had the time triggers not come up so fast in the mid-game, I likely lose that one.

Mike felt it didn't really highlight the changes in the CC:P game, and other than the Banzai/Charge rules, he's probably right. I certainly felt pressured by the Charges, though, and was very concerned one more was coming up late. It would have made things extremely dicey on my end. I'd really love to give a scenario with sighting markers a go sometime soon. There's a whole set of rules involving caves, tunnels etc. that look like they'd be very nasty to go up against.

If you love CC, you're going to love Pacific. If you like it a bit, it might not provide enough new stuff to make you pull the trigger unless you're a bigger fan of the PTO vs. Europe. It is a standalone game, however, so you don't need any prior entries to play. If you don't like CC, well, it hasn't changed THAT much, so you probably won't like this one either.

In any case, it reaffirms to me that it's a series that belongs right a the top of what I enjoy. I'll always be eager to put that one on the table.

Friday, January 16, 2009

CC hits the beach

Eric's choice this time, so we moved from the fields of England to the Pacific islands, and rolled forward 300 years, as we got the newly released Combat Commander: Pacific (BGG entry)from GMT onto the table. This sees some changes to the base CC rules, as well as some special rules for the Pacific. The major changes are:

  • Stacking. Previously there was a hard limit of 7 figures in a single hex, but this is changed so that a player may have more figures in a hex. However, any hex with more than 7 figures stacked in it has a -1 cover modifier for each figure beyond 7. Seemingly drawn straight from Fields of Fire, I like this rule.
  • Artillery. The artillery Request/Denied order have been replaced with more generic Asset Request/Denied orders. Requests allow you to obtain artillery or aircraft missions, fire for effect, or repair broken weapons. Denied orders allow you to screw with the other player, breaking his weapons or radios. Again, a neat change that fits, and seems to be well thought out.
  • Exiting. Units that exit the map no longer score points based on their casualty value, but on the value of the location where they exit. In fact they can only exit off these locations, rather than anywhere on the map edge.
  • Scout. Kinda like a hero, except that he is used to direct mortar fire when activated.
  • Melee. Now fought at the start of the Allied player's turn, rather than immediately. Allows the Japanese player an extra draw. Also introduces the Bayonets action, which adds two to the melee strength.
  • Elimination. In a Fire, if the attack strength is more than twice the defense strength, then the defender is eliminated. This makes fire groups even more useful, and building mega fire groups of death (tm) real useful. Especially when the defender is overstacked.
  • Reconnoiter. A new order, it allows the player to look at the top card in his fate deck, and then either leave it there, put it in the discard pile, or into his hand.
  • Recover. Replaced by the Revive order, this gives you a number of points (1-5), shown at the top of the card. Each point may be used to remove a suppressed marker or rally one unit, which is now automatic. The Rout order has also been removed.
  • Road. Roads now are 1/2MP, but only if there is no enemy LoS to the hex. The -1 cover is also dropped.

There are a number of smaller changes, impacting when weapons may be transferred, changes in the Actions and Events (some of which are just modifications of previous items), and such. Overall, I like the changes to the game. Mostly evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the stacking change is the biggest impact item, I think.

With this being a Pacific theater game, there are, not surprisingly, a number of rules to handle the Japanese. Major ones include:

  • Infiltration. An order, it allows the Japanese player to remove units from the map to be brought on later at Sighting marker locations. These are set up at start, and then moved each time a random hex is revealed (e.g. for a Sniper).
  • Banzai. A new posture, this allows the use of the Charge order, where all units that have not been activated can be activated for movement. Before that, all now activated units lose any suppressed marker, and rally. Downside is that all remaining unactivated defenders are activated for fire.
  • Caves. New type of fortification, with limited LoS rules

These add some interesting flavor to the game for the Japanese player. (And his opponent, I guess!) However, we chose scenario 3, which Eric had read was one of the best CC scenarios, ever, and has the Japanese attacking at Guadalcanal, early in the war, and didn't feature Infiltration or Caves, but they are in a Banzai posture, so Charge orders were available. In a random draw, I got to play the Japanese. This scenario has the Japanese attacking over a river, attempting to take the VP hexes.

Eric set up an MMG in the middle, protecting VP hex #5 (worth 5VPs), along with a squad and weapons team. His howitzer was set up in VP hex #4 (worth 4VPs), along with a team, leader and squad. His HMG, weapon team, and a squad was in VP hex #1 (1VP), which had a good LoS to the beach hexes. His remaining squad was set up on his right, in the jungle, by itself.

I grouped my 'A' squads to the left, and in the middle, along with one of the good leaders each. The 'B' and SNLF squads were spread out in between and to the right, with the weaker leaders. My plan was to use the strength on the left against his lone unit, and mainly threaten in the middle, to see how it went. I started out slowly, taking my first three hands (of only 3 cards) and discarding them, looking for some way to move. In the meantime his howitzer is taking pot shots, to no effect.

Eventually I got moving, as I found Charge, Move, and Advance cards, all in short order. I managed to get up to the river, and across, but by this time we've had 4 'Time' events already, we're half way through the game, and I haven't even got to contact yet. On the good side, Eric tries for some artillery, but gets denied, and his MMG in the middle breaks.

Another Advance (the Japanese have 10 in the deck) and Charge gets me onto the far side of the river, and yet another Charge lets me advance onto the wire. Oh, I forgot to mention the wire. It's all over the American side. It's here that things start to go pear shaped, as his HMG, squads and leaders start to take a toll at the closer range. Still, my left flank is in good shape, and starts kicking the stuffing out of the American units, although his reinforcing garrison squads keep breaking down into teams, which makes them harder to kill. (Elite teams have higher morale than the garrison squads.) In the middle I finally get to contact, but my advance to melee in #5 goes Eric's way, when the even attack draws weak. All I needed was an even draw!

However, Time is down to the penultimate turn, I've already used the Initiative twice to reject a Time trigger, and it's getting close. I managed to assault #4, set up for an assault on #5, and even draw the required Advance card. However, it's not to be as Eric draws a Time trigger in his Fire, and with the Initiative card in his possession I can't get the double draw of '8'+ to keep the game going. Even though the score was 19VPs in his favor, it was a lot closer than that as I would have swung back 12 of those points in the next turn, just from the cards in hand.

This was one of the more enjoyable CC games I've played, as nothing too outrageously wacky went on. One or two small things, like Eric breaking his MMG in the middle early on; my 7-8 sniper attempts all drawing '7'+ (except for 1 '5'), when I needed low numbers (the numbering only goes up to '10'); Eric's gun managing to miss almost everything it aimed at, including a Fire at range 3, but at least the snake-eyes draw was also a Time trigger. Fairly minor. The critical factor was all the Time triggers early in the game, taking away half the game before I'd got sploshing through the river onto the far bank. It was a disappointment not to get to try some of the other Pacific rules, but that just means we'll have to get it back onto the table again. Bummer.

The changes to the system all made sense and worked well. I especially like the change to the stacking. However, the biggest disappointment in CC:P was the handling of the Banzai/Charge. My perception of a Banzai charge is a whole bunch of guys screaming and charging until they get to grips with the enemy and a big fight develops, with fists and rifle butts swinging. OK, maybe a Hollywood type perception, but that's what I understand it to be. And that's not what the game delivers.

The nature of the card plays means that the Charge order has you move your guys for one turn. And then they stop, piddle around, maybe Fire a little, whatever. At some later stage they may take it up again, or they may not. And that just doesn't seem right. There needs to be some sort of mechanism to allow them to carry the charge on, to keep going until they meet the enemy. Maybe it's my perceptions on the whole Banzai Charge that needs adjusting, I'm not sure, but at the moment it feels more like a 'Line Advance' card from C&C:A than a Banzai Charge.

Which is a shame, because the rest of the game is tight. The Japanese deck feels good. The new Events, Actions and mechanisms make for a better game than CC:E and CC:M, and I'm hoping that a lot of these changes make it into the v2.0 rules for the older games, and they have redone card decks, although that's unlikely.

I'm looking forward to playing more of the scenarios, especially any with Infiltration, but that whole Banzai thing is going to bug me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Less than satisfied King Charles

After all the shenanigans of the holiday period it was time to get back to some serious gaming fun, and our collective choice for first game of the year was Unhappy King Charles (BGG entry), the new release from GMT. Regular readers will maybe be aware that I spent 20 years in the Sealed Knot, the largest English civil War re-enactment society in the UK, so I have a great affinity for all things ECW. When I saw UKC on the GMT P500 list I was straight there with credit card in hand. That was some time ago, as there was a long time between UKC making its number and actually seeing release, finally hitting the mat in December last year. This was good timing, as I'm currently planning to hit CDGs hard this year. I've played Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage and Barbarossa to Berlin, and although I've enjoyed them, I am seriously bad at them.

On reading the rules it seemed that this CDG was simpler than others I'd looked at, in that, unlike most CDGs, each card is only used for one purpose. Each card in UKC is either an operation (of 1, 2 or 3 points) or an event. As an operation it's pretty much the same as all other CDGs, the value of the card has to be equal to or higher than the general's rating for him (and his army) to be activated, or it can be used to place control markers on the board. However, the events are where all the flavor is, and there are lots of those, divided into Royalist and Parliament events, divided into Early, Mid, and Late war decks. There are also 3 Mandatory cards that are added at specific times, and each player has 2 cards (worth 1 and 2 Ops) added to their hand each turn.

Battles occur when two armies end in the same space (it's a point-to-point movement system), either through movement or interception. The defending army may attempt to evade, may disperse prior to combat, or fight, where the value of all brigades, the general's rating, any tactic card, and a single d6 are combined. Scores are compared, and the loser retreats and loses a number of brigades, and the winner may gain a card if the win was considered Major or Decisive. Pretty simple. Some areas are considered fortresses, which have to be captured by siege. Victory is measured, for the Parliament player, by forcing Charles to surrender at battle. If that doesn't happen then control of areas determines victory.

In our game I drew the Parliament, and drew the Mandatory card 'Raise the Standard'. I decided to hold onto this until my last play of the round, as we both jockeyed for position, placing control markers. In the second round we started in earnest, and had an indecisive battle in the north, both losing our veteran brigade. I'd been focussing in the south, and when Eric besieged Plymouth with Hopton I reinforced Bedford and then used an event to transfer another brigade from Essex, and attacked. In the battle I also played a tactics card, and achieved a major victory, the first (and, I believe, only) one of the game. I followed up with another attack, which forced Eric to disband Hopton's army, rather than face surrender, and I converted pretty much the whole of the South to Parliament. After this Waller started moving north, besieging Reading successfully. In the north things weren't going so well, but my aim was to steadily move my line north, so I wasn't too concerned as the battles were never decisive, so I only lost a brigade here and there.

Eric reinforced Oxford, and moved Rupert to support. However, the Mid-War cards saw me draw the first of the 'Alt-History' cards introduced to the deck, and Lord Wilmot's Plot converted Oxford to the Parliament cause, dispersing the Royalist army. This also allowed Essex to gather forces from Bedford and attack Rupert, and another Combat card for that battle I was able to gain the upper hand, as I chased Rupert back towards the Welsh border with him evading battle. Eventually he missed one, and he was also forced to disperse, leaving the southern Midlands under Parliamentary control.

By this time the second of the Mandatory cards had been played, and the Scots had started moving south, and had besieged Newcastle. However, this was a slow process as I used my big 3 Ops cards to get rid of Rupert, but got there eventually. They sat there as a threat, but no more, as I didn't draw any more big cards. Eric pushed in the North, but just couldn't gain a solid win, and the desertion rules saw his forces largely damaged as I was able to lose brigades from several armies, but his were more focussed.

In the early part of the Late War he pressed forward from Wales with Maurice, but the New Model Army appeared and Lord General Fairfax chased him back, and pressed into Wales, capturing Cardiff, and a part of Wales. This allowed the conversion of several other spaces in the Midlands, and it became controlled by Parliament.

And this was where we had to stop, 4 turns from the end. Parliament was marginally in control of the Midlands at the end of the turn, with the East and South being solidly for Parliament, but the start of the turn and removal of control markers for being isolated meant the Midlands were likely to also become solidly Parliamentarian. With the Royalists getting squeezed from the south and north I was confident of a win, even if I didn't force Charles to surrender.

We botched up a couple of rules, mostly that you can only recruit a single brigade in a region. I forget what the other one was. In any case, that's our fault, as the rules were quite clearly explained.

We played for around 4 hours, getting through 7 of the 11 turns, but that included a lot of rule confirming and discussions in the early part, as we got to grips with how it works. With more playings under the belt I think this should be doable in a 4 hour session, so a good length. With the variations in the way cards come out of the deck, and the 'Alt History' cards, only 4 of 12 are used each game, there appears to be a lot of re-playability. The game is certainly good to look at, with map and counters well done. I especially liked the pictures of the painted miniatures on the brigade counters, although they could have been larger, and would have looked great on 3/4" counters. The cards are also nice, but felt a little thin, although card sleeves make that a moot point. The rules were very straight forward in play and we didn't find any areas that weren't covered well or cases that were hard to find.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one, and it gave a good feel for the sweep of the ECW. However, that doesn't mean that I didn't find it hard to play, but that's just me and CDGs, and part of the reason I want to play more CDGs this year. Then again, that's part of the attraction of this style of game - so many things you want to do, and limited resources to do them with. Especially when you've got to figure out the list of things you need to do in the first place. Let's hope it gets back to the table soon.

Charles Should be Happier than He Is

Mike and I got the 2009 season of Two Side rolling with a look at GMT's new release Unhappy King Charles. This is one I'd been looking forward to for a while, and was pretty happy when it finally got released.

UKC was designed by Charles Vasey. This is Mr. Vasey's 2nd game on the English Civil War between the Royalists and Parliamentarians for control of England between 1641 and 1645. His first is the longer, and more detailed, King's War that was published a few years ago by Clash of Arms. I've got a copy of that one and would really like to get it on the table at some point.

Anyway, back to the game at hand. UKC is a card-driven wargame (CDG) that covers the entire English Civil War. As opposed to some of the more recent CDG releases, UKC is much further towards the simpler/shorter end of the scale. It's got a few features in it, however, that model the dynamics of 17th century warfare in ways I haven't seen in a CDG before.

The components are pretty standard GMT fare. Paper map (beautifully illustrated by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood) counters (mostly one sided) with a bit of a unique twist: instead of the Roger MacGowan artwork we've come to expect on GMT counters, these feature small photograph of painted miniatures illustrating the various brigades that took part in the war. I think these illustrations could have been a bit larger without crowding the counters at all. It's a nice idea – hopefully someone else picks up on it. The cards seemed a bit thin, but in sleeves it doesn't really matter. They're also attractively designed with some pretty good visual clues.

The way the cards are used harkens back to the original CDG, We the People. Cards are either events or operations, not both. If you're dealt an opponent's event, you can discard the card to act as a limited sort of 1-operation card. Operations are mostly used to activate generals with that strategy rating or lower, but can also be used for expanding political control either directly or through raids by Local Notables (a unique aspect to this game I'll get to in a bit.)

The turn sequence is your standard CDG fare – administrative stuff, action rounds, then cleanup/victory check. A few things within that distinguish this game from others, however. First, during the administrative stuff, units are recruited from a pool of available units. As C17 warfare was usually short-term and regional in nature, each region has a pool of units from which you can recruit, and you can only recruit one unit per region per turn. Placement of these units is handled slightly differently for each side, reflecting the differing nature in how the two sides were supported.

An interesting point to note here is you place your new recruits before you draw your hand for the turn.

This is also the point at which political control markers are checked for isolation. If they can't trace (avoiding enemy spaces) to a friendly army, supply fortress, or local notable, they're removed. Parliament removes first, and this might open up trace for the Royalists. This didn't happen in our game but is definitely possible. A strategy point to make here is that the ECW had no front lines. There were pockets of support for both sides all over the country. This means you will have what would be an isolated pocket in games set later on, but here if they surround a friendly trace point they carry on. This means there aren't very many “safe” areas on the map – nearly any spot you control is reachable by the enemy from somewhere.

After all that, it's time to draw your hand and start the action round. This runs typical to most CDGs with one minor difference – you can begin to pass if you have no mandatory or core cards in your hand, and you've played at least six cards (and cards played during combat count towards this amount.) Each side has two core cards, and is dealt four more cards each turn. Certain events allow you to draw cards, and you get to draw cards for major or decisive combat victories. At the end of the action rounds, any cards you may have left over are placed aside as “Ace in the Hole” cards which are not considered part of your hand, but may be played during any future action rounds. This allows you to sock away strength for a critical turn should you manage to acquire extra cards.

One other note about the deck – the game uses a single deck that's added to as the game progresses. I don't believe it's possible to end up reshuffling, so once a card is used, it's gone. The three mandatory events are placed at or near the top of the deck whenever the Early, Mid, or Late War decks are added, indicating the major milestones in the war: The Raising of the Standard starting hostilities, the appearance of the Covanenters from Scotland, and the creation of the New Model Army.

Combat is simple – it's a contested d6 die roll where the starting value is the combined combat value of the armies involved plus the battle rating of the commanding general. Combat cards can modify this initial amount. After adding your d6, if the totals are within one, the fight's a draw and each side must lose a veteran unit. If one side wins by 2-4, it's a minor victory, the losing side must lose a militia. A win by 5 or more is a major (decisive if a combat card converts it) victory and in addition to the losing side losing two militia, the winner draws one (or two) cards.

You'd think this would lead to the creation of large armies to go hunting, but large armies can only be led by a small number of generals, are harder to move (require 3-op cards), and suffer more attrition. So, if you're going to do that, do it when you know you've got a number of 3-op cards and don't expect the army to survive into next season.

After action rounds are over, the biggest thing that happens is attrition. This is a critical feature of the game. Between 1 and 3 units (starts with one slowly increasing to three as the game progresses) are removed from the board according to a certain priority. These tend to remove units from regional generals operating outside their region first, then large armies, then armies adjacent to enemy armies. If you're not familiar with these effects, you might be in for some nasty surprises. (Case in point: about halfway through the game Prince Rupert, while campaigning in the Midlands, saw his army go from four brigades to one in a single turn of attrition.)

It's probably important here to mention a key feature of the game: the only way units are permanently eliminated is via combat. (There may be an odd event here and there, but that's the exception.) Units removed during attrition or when dispersed (as an army can do when attacked by a superior force) are eligible to be recruited again in later turns. Mike and I fell into what's probably a common trap for people playing UKC the first time – fighting too much. In fact 2/3 of the way through the game, I was out of units to recruit in the North. You really can't afford to be constantly fighting in this game. Your armies are a means to an end, and what matters is getting political control markers placed and controlling regions.

An automatic victory occurs if one side drops below a required number of controlled spaces. (This starts at 14 and increases by one every turn.) It also happens if King Charles is ever forced to surrender. If the game goes the distance, the Protestants get two points for each of the five regions they control, and one point for each of the nine industrial spaces on the map. If they have 12 or more points, they win. No draw is possible.

Mike and I managed to get through seven of the 11 turns in the game in four hours. As much of the early game was spent verifying rules, etc, I can easily see this being a 3-4 hour game, if it goes the distance. I've got a fair bit more CDG experience than Mike so I was able to get into the flow a little quicker, but as neither of us had played a game quite like this one before, we weren't quite sure what we should be doing. Things started to click as time progressed, and we got through 7 turns. (The last turn we played was when the New Model Army appeared.) Mike made the final play, flipping a control marker in the Midlands. This gave him control of the Midlands, and added to the South and East plus 7 of the nine industrial spaces gave him 13 points, enough for a close win. However, it would have been very interesting to see what would have transpired in those final four turns. We were both critically short on units (I was down to seven total on the map, Mike had seven or eight plus the hard-to-control Scots. He had the New Model Army on the board, however, and it's a tough fighting force.

Our game saw a lot of fighting in the North. Charles never moved far from York, leaving the campaigning to Rupert. The Royalists (me) were ejected from the South relatively early on, making it very difficult for me to liberate those recruiting areas.

One thing I started to realize as we were nearing the end of the evening is that you almost have to look at this game backwards compared to other CDGs. In other games, you're dealing with the armies in order to achieve things on the map. In UKC, you're looking at the map and figuring out how and when to use your armies.

I really enjoyed my initial experience with UKC. While there are a number of exceptions in the rules, they really are rather simple as CDGs go. It's getting used to the fluid situation that's presented that will take time and experience. The initial buzz on this game has been very strong, and it doesn't disappoint. I'm looking forward to getting a lot of experience with this game, and it could quickly become my favorite two-player CDG.