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.


Mike said...

> Leader blocks

If you regard the leader blocks to represent the core of the army, the best trained brigades (e.g. Napoleon's Old Guard, anything like that), then it does make sense to give them the strongest 'hit' numbers. Your catch about assigning Leader-rolled losses changes the battles a fair bit.

Extra attacks against a retreating block makes sense at a lower scale, but I'd say that at this scale it's too much. An army is probably retreating because it's suffered more damage, and that that damage has come from retreating, but at a scale lower than is modeled in the game. As it is, the loser (and often that's just because one player rolled well/badly) just gets hammered more in the retreat.

Glad you liked it, as I think it's a good game. But those rules....

Eric said...

As it is, the loser (and often that's just because one player rolled well/badly) just gets hammered more in the retreat.

The thing to remember here (and we weren't playing it this way) is that the troops opposite the retreaters fight normally, and those hits are applied normally. NOT all hits going to the retreaters. So, if the infantry was beat up down to 1 step, chances are other stronger units are around to absorb the hits.

Of course, it's still an accelerating downward spiral if that first turn is skewed.