Monday, June 22, 2009

New Combat Commander, same old story

Eric arrived for our latest session and we headed out to the garage to get started on the Sicily game, which we set up after our España 1936 game in our previous session. We both looked at each other, and both expressed an interest in playing something else. It had been a long week for both of us, and I was coming off a cold, and we both felt mentally unprepared for OCS. So we headed back in for something lighter. After throwing around a few options, Eric wanted to try the Pathfinder campaign from C3i #22, so we set up the first scenario, which features the American airdrop on St. Mere Eglise. I'd been playing the Axis in pretty much every game we'd played recently, so asked to play the Americans, and Eric accepted.

The Germans have just a few units on the board, and the Americans land by random draw to simulate the airdrop. About half of my guys ended up along the 'B' hex-column, 2 units adjacent to his guys (and automatically broken), and one on the opposite of the map in each corner. The biggest issue was that 2 of my 3 leaders were at opposite corners of the map, and not near anyone. In the end they played no part in the action at all. The two broken guys were taken out pretty quickly by Eric's fire, although not before I'd drawn a hero event and so just gave him even more points..

My biggest problem was finding cards that allowed me to move, and I seemed to spend half my time discarding cards. I was making reasonable progress, having captured two of the three objectives, when it came down to the usual critical bit of action. At this point we'd pretty much traded casualties, he having removed all the units that landed close as I couldn't find move cards to get them away nor recover cards, and me from assaulting his units in melee. I advanced into his hex holding 2 ambush cars, and generated a +4 attack. He drew a 9, and I calculated the options. He was at +5, so all I needed was a 6 for the clear win, as that would put him over his surrender level. A 5 would have us both killed, but I would be short of my surrender level by 1, so would still win. Hmmm, I need a 5. I decided to use the initiative whereupon he drew an 8. OK, I still need only a 4. And drew a 3.

At this point I have little option but to try another advance and melee as I have little chance of taking him out with a fire (I have no MGs, and only a small mortar). However, once again it takes me forever to find movement cards and he gets the required ambush cards to kill my remaining unit for the surrender win.

Once again I manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with a freaky card draw. Just like a lot of my CC games. This has got so monotonous that I have now placed CC onto my 'Will not play' list and I'm planning to sell my CC games.

This game did bring up one weakness in the CC system, however, one that I'd never really thought about before. The card decks are tuned for a set of tactics, and if you don't have the force that matches those tactics, then you're going to have problems. Take the American deck. In most of the scenarios the Americans (at least all the regular scenarios that I've played) are dripping with support weapons, and the deck provides tactics that match. Lots of fire, break (or kill) the enemy, then maneuver. Take away the support weapons and you're left with a hand that's heavy on fire cards that you can't really use. (A 6 fire attack against a regular 7 morale unit, in terrain, isn't going to see a lot of success. Add in a leader on defense and it gets even harder. And any number of Sustained Fire cards won't help you when you've no MGs.)

I'm not sure how this impacts other nations/scenarios, and it may be a feature of the Americans only (I think the Germans, at least, are rather more balanced on the card distribution), or even just this scenario. The American player here needs to maneuver, to get troops together to build fire teams to provide some mediocre attack fires. But the tactics forced on him by the card distribution prevents that.

One of my other gaming colleagues is only so-so on CC because he feels that it comes down to ambush and advance cards, and this game highlighted that. With no real way to generate high firepower attacks the only real way to remove the defenders and gain the VP objectives is through melee. Then the game comes down to who can draw the advance and ambush cards. And get the better draws in the melee itself. I was lucky in that I drew advance and ambush cards together twice, but I couldn't draw the movement cards to make use of the advance before Eric had time to discard through his deck and also get ambush cards. As far as I can recall, this is the first CC game I've played where the game ended with the surrender criteria being met, rather than the sudden death.

Over the years I've pretty much had a hate-hate relationship with CC in all its forms, and this game was the final nail in the coffin. Too many games have been little or no fun, with random blow-outs to one side or the other. And I've been on both sides, but mostly the receiving side. I may keep CC:Pacific (I think it's the best of the bunch) but the rest are going on the block. The tactical limitations of the pre-determined deck introduce a restriction that I'm not prepared to deal with. Well, that and the game just hates me.

We fully plan on getting back to Sicily for the next session.


So, the big plan kicks in. OCS Sicily is back on the table.

Mike and I spent some time after our Espana 1936 game getting Sicily redeployed down in Mike's Garage.

A while back, I saw a reference to an old issue of Operations Magazine that had an article on a simple method for taking down and re-establishing an OCS game. I'll put a post up sometime soon (very soon after this one, schedule willing) that details the method. I can't dig it out at the moment as my access to old Operations Magazines has died with the recent demise of Magweb. Have to consult the archives.

We've used this technique twice now to tear down Sicily for later completion. And it's worked nicely. Took us about 30-45 minutes to get the game back ready for play.

So, last week, Mike and I met to get started again. One catch, though. Neither of us were really mentally ready to play it. I'd been swamped at work, and I believe Mike had as well.

So, what could substitute quickly for an evening's play with no prep time? Combat Commander, of course!

I had been a bit curious about the Normandy Campaign published in the latest C3i magazine. (#22, I believe) it's set up as a sequence of battles where the first is fixed, then you have a small number of choices for each of the next two rounds. So, that meant we were playing scenario #33 from the Paratroopers Battlepack, set on map #2, the bocage around St. Mere Eglise on D-Day. The Americans have landed dispersed and are trying to take the town from a German contingent holding it but not expecting the Americans. Mike took the Yanks as he hadn't played them recently, and off we went.

This is one of those games with random deployment for one side. So, Mike's troops and leaders were all over the map. German reinforcements were due on the 2nd time trigger, and on the 3rd, the American command has organized enough to get an extra order per turn.

For the most part, the the game was tight throughout. VPs toggled back and forth a bit, and I managed to pull an extra HMG crew and leader from the support forces. Time wasn't going nearly quickly enough for my taste, however. Mike had managed to assemble two primary fire teams while two or three other squads remained in cover out of the action.

The weaker of the two teams managed to take out my HMG – a useful item, but with somewhat limited effectiveness in the reduced sight lines around the bocage. This gave Mike one of the three objectives. I had just a lone unit in a second, neighboring objective.

We finally reached a tipping point – Mike had split his primary fire team under cover of smoke to prepare for an assault on the third objective. Success on his part would put me one unit away from surrender and move the VP count to around zero. All this with around three time triggers before we even started rolling for sudden death. Then, I hit a time trigger and removed one of the key smoke markers. I pretty much had to take initiative here and assaulted the smaller piece of the split fire group, eliminating it. If I had not, I would have been assaulted with unstoppable force. However, in the process I had to abandon the objective. I had expected Mike to move into the objective, taking the 8 VP swing, and make me try to take it back from a stronger force while he brought up a unit four or five hexes away in reserve.

Nope. Mike assaulted my unit+leader instead. He had the initiative card and a 4 point firepower advantage. No ambushes, so it was straight up. I rolled a 9, and Mike figured it was worth spending the initiative to make me re-roll. (This after some discussion on which had higher odds: me rolling higher, or his troops dying.) He decided to spend the initiative card and force me to reroll. I proceeded to roll an 8.

If Mike rolls a 5 or higher, he's pretty much got the game in the bag, though I'd spend initiative to make him try again, of course.

If Mike rolls a 4, we all die, I'm one unit from surrender (while he's 2, I believe) and I have almost nothing left on the board while he's got two unencumbered squads available to claim open objectives. I wouldn't spend initiative to re-roll this, as at least I've got a shot at a surrender victory if I can gang up on somebody.

So, 8% of the time I win outright. 8% of the time it's a draw (though really a win for Mike given the circumstances). On the other 83%, I force a re-roll with the same odds. That works out to around a 16% chance or so of my winning the combat outright. A little less than rolling a natural 6 on one die.

Mike flips the card.

He rolled a three.

Yep. In the one critical point where the game is essentially decided either way he had about an 85% chance of success (about 75% of that outright success) and the dice failed him. DSDF rears its ugly head. Again.

At that point, Mike pretty much failed his personal morale check. He still had a great shot at victory as I had two broken units very close to a unit of his, but I was able to rally them before he could take advantage. From that point on, Mike mostly threw things at my units hoping they'd stick with the unsurprising result of a German win by American surrender.

Of course, I saw it as a very tense hard-fought battle that came right down to one critical point where the result wasn't what was expected and involved a very interesting decision point. Somehow, I don't think Mike's report is going to portray it quite that way.

The interesting thing about it is the number I rolled: a 9. Given the 4-point spread in our firepower, this exactly straddled the bell curve, providing the illusion of a toss-up decision.

In retrospect, I don't believe that's the case. I'm not sure I would have spent the initiative when he did. My 9 was going to be the same or better around 27% of the time on a re-roll. If he keeps the initiative, he'd have failed the assault 16% of the time, with another 11% being a “winning draw.” The exact same odds.

I'm going to have to drum up a simulator to figure out what's the best choice here. I've already got the state machine defined, just need to code it up. In my free time.

My gut says, though, that I'd rather have the initiative to re-roll my rolls. I have no idea if that's statistically correct, though. Either way, I was surprised when Mike first assaulted my units, and more surprised when he made me reroll a 9.

Yet another Combat Commander scenario that comes down to one or two critical points. Which, of course, leads to two minds on the thing – either the games are tense and exciting and come down to one or two critical junctures that may go either way, deciding the game; or you may as well just roll a die and declare a winner and save yourself the time.

I'm firmly in the first camp, in case you haven't figured that out on here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fighting Blind

Wow. Where did THOSE last few weeks go? I'm liking my new job, but I'll tell you, it's really eating into my blogging. Nothing quite like a large writing project right out of the gate to suck the time away.

So, by now you've likely read Mike's account of our Espana 1936 game. Good. True to tradition around these parts, I haven't yet.

Espana 1936 was a game I'd been eying for a while. Seemed to be a good implementation of a “waro” or those Euro/Wargame hybrids that have been popping out all over lately, and the buzz had been generally good. So, it was on my “watch for a deal” list. Sure enough, a copy went for sale for a pretty good price in the Marketplace folder on ConsimWorld, and I jumped on it. Looks like the previous owner had printed out a copy of the rules and that was it – cards were still in shrink, counters unpunched. Score. It was just a matter of time before it hit the table.

For the record, Espana 1936 is a light wargame, bordering on Eurogame, covering the Spanish Civil War. It was originally produced in Spain, along with a naval expansion. When it was translated, the Naval expansion was included in the box as “advanced rules.” The game is “card-assisted” in that you get either 3 or 6 cards in a turn, but they only augment the game, not drive it as in a CDG.

I took this period of transition post WBC-W to get the game on the table. As tends to be our habit when pulling a new game out, Mike had researched the buzz and the strategies a bit, while I pretty much went in cold. I knew what the rules were saying, but wanted to figure it out for myself. Mike had hinted that the Republicans were harder to play than the Nationalists, so since I sprung the game on him I took the Republicans.

There's a good image of the map here . The Republican power base is in the eastern half of the peninsula, while the Nationalists pretty much own the west.

The game is played over 10 turns. Each turn represents something on the order of five months. (Each set of five turns covers 2 years.) You'll see on that map many yellow city spaces. Those are VP spots, and there are 12 of them. First to solely possess 8 of them during the VP check phase (which is not at the end of turn, interestingly) wins. Alternatively, you can win by reducing your opponent to not having a set of contiguously occupied cities greater than 7. (This simulates effectively fragmenting their power base enough to eliminate their ability to continue.) There are a couple other victory states, but I think those two are going to be the big ones.

There are units with strength points from 1 to 5 which you can effectively think of as steps. A 5 flips to a 3, the 3 is removed and replaced by a 2 which flips to a 1 which is then removed. Each side has a number of different factions on their side that sometimes behave differently, so you need to take note of who's fighting for you. This isn't so easy to do as a new player, something I'll get to later.

Each side has a number of leaders and aircraft. These are removed from the map each turn and placed in areas of combat focus the following turn. Leaders allow you to initiate combat, while aircraft provide bonus dice (providing they survive an air combat if your opponent also places air in that space.) There's also tanks that augment combats but can't act on their own. (We are talking about pre-WWII here, so no surprise.)

Cards can be used to augment combats, either as a bonus for your troop, or a penalty for your opponent. Also, you can use up to three of them in a turn as events. These events bring in reinforcements, remove opponents leaders from the map, etc. It is useful to know which of your units and/or leaders might be removed from the game, so it does help a bit to know the deck.

A turn is split into many phases, and in pretty much every phase, the Nationalists go first with most phases then alternating actions. Early on, we thought this would prove a disadvantage to the Nationalists, but the way movement works, it actually allows them significant initiative.

Here's what I mean – a unit can move as far as it wants as long as does not enter an enemy-controlled space. It must stop at that point. (“Control” means solely occupied by one side, or if unoccupied, it's controlled by the side to last occupy the space.) The exception to this is if you are leaving a contested space – one occupied by both sides. In that situation, you can only move one space and only into a friendly or contested space. Oh, and you can't remove your last unit in a contested space. It must stay. The combination of these three rules allows the Nationalists to restrict Republican movement a fair amount as they can frequently move a small unit into a space occupied by a large Republican unit and if it's alone, it must either halt, or you have to move another unit in there to allow it to move the single space it's allowed.

It's harder for the Republicans to return the favor because there's combat after that so putting a small unit in against a large one is more akin to providing cannon fodder than a screening force. Yes, the small Nationalist unit is likely to die in its combat, but it's done the job by either slowing down or stopping the large unit's movement, or dictating where the mismatched combat takes place.

Combat is relatively simple – units fight in sequence and roll a number of dice equal to the strength of the fighting unit (possibly augmented by supporting leaders/aircraft/tanks/cards) and a 5 or better scores a hit. Some units are better/worse and have a +1/-1 DRM. One interesting rule tweak here – a unit can defend multiple times in a combat, but the attacker can only use each unit once. So, if you have one big 5 unit attacking my two 1s, you'll only be able to remove one of them in a turn. This rewards quantity as well as quality.

There's supply rules, but unless you're completely surrounded, you'll be in supply. Hard to do.

The Upkeep phase comes right after combat, and it's here that victory is checked. If the game continues, then you play events, and acquire replacements.

Mike won our game around turn 7 when he reduced me to a contiguous area of 7 spaces. I had been focusing on the VP space count (where he was a 7 IIRC) and hadn't been thinking about that mode of victory, but in the post-mortem we decided that had I moved to block that particular attack, he had a strong one to take an 8th VP space instead. So I likely would have lost either way.

So, where are my thoughts after one play?

I want to tackle human factors first. The counter design, while attractive, hinders play. With one exception, all the differing factions can only be told apart by the illustration, and these are very similar when looking at a counter across the map. They are usually only differentiated by their headgear. Hard to pick out when you're getting used to the game. It would have been nice if they were thicker, too. They actually reminded me of the coins from the first printing of Cave Troll. Not a problem here, just surprised me a bit.

The map is serviceable. I don't recall any issues (good or bad) involving the map. Same with the cards.

There seems to have been a fair amount of criticism regarding the rulebook, but I didn't find it particularly bad. There were a couple obvious omissions that were handled by the FAQ (such has the sequence for playing cards in the Event Phase) but I don't recall any issues that came up where we didn't have an answer.

That said, we didn't play with the naval rules, nor did I read them. There may be dragons there for all I know.

The game play is simple, but there are nuances that hint at deep play. Given the fixed setup, I could certainly see standard opening sequences or approaches developing over time. The theme seemed sort of thin. Not quite pasted on, but I didn't gain any real understanding of the Spanish Civil War from playing it. And I knew next to nothing about it going in, so it wouldn't have taken much to teach me anything.

The game does seem to be slanted towards the Nationalists early in the experience curve. One big issue is that the Republicans are rather severely outnumbered in the Generals department. This limits combat flexibility. The game starts with four Nationalist generals to three Republican – Mike drew events that added a general to his side while I lost one. My reinforcement general was a card I never saw. (There are five cards in the first deck you won't see in any particular game.) So, I was down on generals five to two for a good chunk of the game. I haven't analyzed the deck to see what the odds are of this evening out, but I'm betting they're not good.

Also, the ability of the Nationalists to more effectively pin the Republicans makes mobility a more subtle skill on the Republican side. My thoughts (and they've apparently been backed up by others experiences) is that inexperienced players are going to see this game tilted in a fashion much like Twilight Struggle – one side (in TS' case, the US) is much more difficult to play until you know the game better. Then the balance evens out though things could still go wonky in one sides favor early on.

As a ballpark, I'd give this a 3 out of 5. If you're looking for a 2.5-3 hour “waro” that might take some time to balance out I'd give it a look. It has some interesting challenges, and the movement rules do make you look at point-to-point maps in a different light. I could see my rating increase slightly with more play, but it might just as well decrease if the perceived balance issue doesn't resolve itself.

I'm also curious about those naval rules....

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Some Spanish game

With the exception of Guadalajara (the SCS title, and that's the only reason I own it), I own no games on the Spanish Civil War, and there's a reason for that: I have exactly zero interest in that period. I know some of the vague history of it, but, to paraphrase, quite frankly, I don't give a damn. So, when Eric wanted to try España 1936, a game on the Spanish Civil War, as an interlude between TME and completing OCS Sicily, I wasn't enthused but was willing to give it a go. I could have put out a veto, but I could tell he was quite keen to try it.

A point-to-point, card assisted, Euro-style wargame, it looked fairly simple from a brief reading of the rules. There is also an advanced naval expansion, but we were going to play the base game. I was, however, somewhat concerned to find that of the 11 pages of forum threads on BGG, 6 were related to rules questions, and the FAQ appeared to be longer than the original rules. Turns out that most of this is due to the naval rules, which have enough holes to sink a battleship. (Ha ha, geddit? Naval, holes, battleship? Oh, never mind.)

The structure is pretty simple. The Nationalist player moves ground units and allocates air units to areas, then the Republican player does the same. This sequence is important, because units in a contested area can only move to an adjacent area, and that area has to be friendly controlled, so the Nationalist player can force the action somewhat. After that both players allocate leader units to areas, alternating placements, with the Nationalist player going first. Now combat is fought, area by area, again alternating with the Nationalist player choosing the first area. (I don't think this is a big deal, as areas don't impact other areas. There could be some supply impact, but as you can trace through a contested area even that's not a big deal.) After that comes the events phase where the players alternate playing cards for events, and finally area control is determined, and, on alternate turns, replacements are added to the map.

The cards are used in two ways. First, is for events, which are mostly for adding more ground, support, or air units to your army. A couple of cards for each player add a leader or remove an opposing leader, or add extra replacements.

The second way they can be used in the combat phase. Here they can be used as a bonus for yourself, or as a penalty for your opponent, either by adding/subtracting dice or applying positive/negative modifiers. Of course, the best event cards have the best combat modifiers, just to make the decisions that more

Talking of combat, it's pretty simple. The active player selects one of his generals to activate. This general can either go inactive, or start a combat, in which case the units in the area are moved to the battle display. Each combat round the attacking player selects one attacking and one defending ground unit, and then players may assign support units, attacking player selecting first, and the activated general has to be declared as a support unit in the first round of combat.

Each ground unit allows you to roll a number of dice in a combat round depending on its step strength (1, 2, 3 or 5), air units adding more dice, and armor and leader units (support units) also add die modifiers. Some ground units have modifiers built in (militia have a -1 and elite units +1). Combat is simultaneous, hits are scored on a 5 or 6, only affect the ground units committed to that round of combat, and each hit is a step loss. If the there are multiple ground units defending, then multiple rounds of combat will be required to clear the area.

Units (either ground or support) may only be used once, so you must have multiple ground units in an area to have multiple rounds of combat in an area. There is some cat and mouse on when to apply support units where there could be multiple rounds of combat.

All fairly simple, but with a fair amount of flexibility. For some reason it took me a while to get my head around that you could have multiple combat rounds without a leader for each round. (In fact you may only assign one leader per area.)

Winning the game is done in one of 3 ways. A sudden death win ends the game, either by one side controlling more than 7 Objective Cities (the ones with a yellow background) or by forcing the other side down to an area of fewer than 8 contiguous controlled or contest areas. If none of this has happened by the end of the 10th turn, then the Republican player wins if he has 3 or more Objective Cities. (Or is that 4? Whatever, you get the point.)

Enough on the mechanisms, how did our game pan out? Eric took the Republicans, and I opened by contesting Oviedo and Bilbao, and moving around the southern coast, aiming to get to Murcia. The former didn't go too well, but the latter succeeded. Eric pushed at Toledo, and managed to get a result. However, in the event card phase I removed one of his leaders, being fortunate to draw that in the first deal. This would leaver Eric with only two leaders to my five for most of the game, as I transferred two leaders from Africa, and played a card in turn 2 to add a leader to my pool. Here's the situation at the end of turn 1 (except that we missed the movement from Africa until after the pic was taken):

Turn 2 saw me sweep around the coast, contesting Murcia, as planned, and continuing to press Oviedo. My attack at Murcia didn't go too well, but Eric managed to grab Bilbao, so swapping cities for the same result in cities controlled/contested. End of turn 2:

Turn 3 saw my recently arrived Italians sweep up to Toledo, but despite lots of dice and modifiers I was unable to take the city. However, I was able to clear Murcia and Salamanca for a swing of 2 cities in my favor, although I did lose Zaragoza. This also allowed me to use 5 replacement points, adding several new units. I was starting to see my plan forming. End of turn 3:

Turn 4 saw Eric come storming back to Murcia, driving me out in one turn, while I switched focus to the north coast, finally clearing Oviedo, and capturing Bilbao. End of turn 4:

Turn 5, and I continued my push along the north coast, contesting Zaragoza, as well as diving back in Murcia. I managed to win back Toledo to give me 7 cities, and by playing an event card for replacements, I added 10 steps to my forces.

Turn 6, and I completed my plan, capturing Huerca and Guadalajara. This divided him into two distinct groups of areas, and with neither being greater than 7 contiguous areas I'd achieved the win. It came down to almost the final roll in Huerca, but if I didn't get it in turn 6, I was sure to do so in turn 7, as I had cards that gave me extra armies, and with the first move I would have been able to grab control on the extra areas required and pin him down so he couldn't take them back. We didn't bother doing the final few combats, as they were moot at that point.

From the first few turns played I realized that it was quite hard to capture 8 cities, as the other player just needs to get a unit in there to contest it. So I was planning on splitting his areas down the middle, whilst still contesting cities and appearing to be attempting to control them. In the end, his attempts to capture back Murcia was just what I wanted to see, as it really was unimportant, occupying the majority of his forces and generals. In the end game I sacrificed a couple of units just to make his areas contested, so he couldn't move out, so ensuring that I would retain control of the vital areas, especially Albacete which I see as a very critical area.

I had been browsing the BGG entry before Eric arrived, and there was a fair bit of discussion there about how hard it was to play the Republicans, with several players indicating Nationalist winds around turn 5/6. And so it was in our game. It looks like the Republicans are really up against it. Even the designer was saying that the Republican player has to play well, and it will take several games to learn how to do it best. The problem is a familiar one (and is similar to Twilight Struggle) - will the game get enough outings to allow for that experience? Ultimately, my answer has to be 'No'.

Whilst it's not a bad game, it suffers from being at too high a level. Almost everything is abstracted out, and, in the end, it felt almost like a pasted on theme of a typical Euro, and didn't feel especially like Spain in 1936. Change some of the icons and it could have been War of the Ring. This is a common issue with Euro-style games. (However, I suppose you could say that of a lot of games.) Sure, there was some challenge in the initial few turns, trying to figure it out, but after about turn 2-3 I felt I was getting further and further ahead, and Eric was in a downward spiral. I think the initial card deal was strongly in my favor, and with 5 leaders to 2 I was always able to force the action where I wanted. (Perhaps it's unfair to judge the game on our skewed experience.)

That said, those first few turns were pretty entertaining, although with the luck of the dice and the draw of the cards, I'm not entirely sure that what the player does has a huge bearing on the game. Contesting areas is pretty easy, so getting 8 Objective Cities is a challenge. Being able to plan where to attack, knowing the cards/events in hand you can do a certain amount of planning.

Overall, not one I'll be adding to my game shelf, and I'm not sure it will even see more play. Yes, it's a decent length for an evening game (we finished in 3 hours, easy), but unless you're playing regularly and figure out how to play the Republicans, you know you're in for a tick in the 'L' column. I think it needs some sort of bidding mechanism to balance it out, or playing two games back to back, to make it worthwhile. If Eric were to propose this again in 6 months time, I'd probably ask for something else (Storm Over Stalingrad and Iwo Jima: Rage Against the Marines are likely candidates), unless we had the time to play two games, in which case we'd probably be playing something else in the first place.

Talk about damning with faint praise.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Um, sir? Shouldn't we be moving east?

Over the last three sessions, Mike and I have been playing The Mighty Endeavor, the SCS game that covers WWII in Western Europe from the D-Day landings through the Bulge into the early '45 when the Allies crossed into Germany.

The Mighty Endeavor is scaled much higher than many SCS games. Each hex is approximately 15 miles across, and turns are two weeks long. Compare this to the opposite end of the scale, Bastogne, where hexes are 400m across and turns are 1 day. Yet the system scales wonderfully both directions: a testament to its design. The map covers most of France (leaving out the far western tip), BeNeLux, and the western 75-100 miles of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. (Though the latter two are excluded from play.)

We'd originally planned this as a warmup game to test strategies for play at WBC-West. When I lost a day due to the job change, this game fell off the schedule. I got the Allies in this one so I'd be attacking here vs. defending in Case Blue.

I've played TME once before, over email with Cyberboard, so this was my first ftf play. I was also the Allies in the prior game, so I haven't experienced this game on the defensive yet. I'll have to do that next time.

I'll post a few pictures of the final position, but let's just say that if Operations Overlord, Cobra, Goodwood and Atlantic had gone this poorly in the actual war, WWII may have lasted another five years. We called the game early in turn 19 (That's late January, 1945 and I had yet to liberate Paris. Historically, it fell on August 23rd – turn 8. I was a bit behind schedule.)

Final position in the south:

And in the north:

You may notice the bottom left of the first and top right of the second picture are the same German units. Mike now had the advantage of interior lines pretty much eliminating any chance at flanking attacks.

It's rather hard to give a blow-by-blow account of a game that took place in pieces over the last month and a half or so, but I will certainly bring up some things I did wrong, and hopefully help you avoid these pitfalls when playing the Allies.

First – Know your troops and choose landing sites accordingly.

You'll notice from the pictures showing the ending positions that I ended up with the US in the northern half of the advance, and the CW in the southern half. This is a tactical mistake for the following reasons:
  • The US forces have over twice as many armored divisions as the Commonwealth. (13 to 6.)
  • The US has the only exploit-capable HQ.
Now, the Allied forces need to move fast – the VP spaces are 25-30 hexes away, and you've only got 25 turns to get there. (Interestingly, this is about the pace first expected by Allied HQ – a mile a day.) This means you should put your most mobile forces where the most space is – to the south as they did historically.

I got into this situation by landing the US in what was historically the Commonwealth beaches (Sword/Juno/Gold – the easternmost three). As the line rotated counterclockwise across the bocage, this kept the US forces near the coast – eliminating nearly all their mobility advantage.

Second – Understand Supply

I was rather timid in this game as I was constantly concerned with being put out of supply. This was pretty much a holdover from all the OCS we'd been playing lately. I failed to grasp that supply is much less of an issue to the Allies as the Germans. (Allied units cannot die due solely to being out of supply while German units can.) I failed to use the Surrender rule to my advantage at all. (Essentially, if a German unit has Allied units on opposite sides, it will be out of supply regardless of where its friends are.) Also, running units behind the lines lets you use them to restrict Axis retreat paths before they can be marked out of supply. A key need when a bulk of the Axis strategy is trading space for time.

Third – Use your air drops.

This is an alternate method for getting troops in behind the Germans to cut off their retreats. Watch which troops you ferry in and make sure you drop behind the Germans when you can. You will take losses, but you might create entire pockets that either can't retreat from adverse combat results or must be withdrawn in a large hurry to get them back into supply.

Fourth – Keep your Ace in the Hole in the hole.

I made a very large strategic blunder that was caused by the above tactical blunders. Restricting my mobility and not being aggressive led to my being short of ports. And being short of ports in this game means you have limited attack capabilities. It's a downward spiral you have to avoid early on. In reaction to this, I wasn't very smart in using my six beach landings. I used the first three in typical fashion – two on the Normandy beaches and one near St. Tropez on the Mediterranean. I basically wasted one near Bordeaux, as I didn't keep forces in the area to hold it, nor Bordeaux itself.

This led to me, out of desperation for ports, to use my sixth beach port back on the original Normandy site. While this helped me out in the short term, it allowed Mike to abandon his rear defense without fear of my landing behind him. This let him throw more forces into the front line slowing me down even further. The result was an almost WWI-esque front line where I couldn't get around the edges with any sort of force.

If you're having difficulties, save that last landing – it keeps the Axis guessing and may help keep a sector weak allowing a breakthrough.

The Mighty Endeavor is a very good game. If you like the SCS style of game, you'll likely enjoy it. According to the BGG ratings, it currently ranks 4th in the SCS series behind Bastogne, Fallschirmjaeger, and Afrika II. If you're looking for a game covering the drive to the Rhine, it's going to be near the top of the list. After playing this, I'm wanting to give it another go (and avoid the traps I fell into!), and possibly look at Liberty Roads – the new effort from Hexasim that covers nearly the same ground. With the D-Day anniversary coming up, it just seems appropriate.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Mighty Endeavor too Far

After our OCS Case Blue game, we were going to get in a quick practice for our planned WBC-W The Mighty Endeavor game. This is another of The Gamers' (now MMP) SCS games, a series I'm liking more and more each time I play. So much so, in fact, that I've picked up all the SCS games recently, except for Drive On Paris, which is comparatively rare and mucho expensive.

However, this WBC-W has been cursed, and Eric was another casualty, changing jobs around it such that our TME game was cancelled. Rather than lose it altogether, we decided to extend our practice into a full game. Of course, this meant that our several sessions required to play it would take place over an extended time, as we would have to skip the week of the event and the weeks either side (Eric needs to acquire brownie points). So it was that we played two evening sessions,then picked it back up this last week, four weeks later.

TME covers the entire western European theater, from the north to the south of France, and from the west of France all the way into the western part of Germany. This means that the scale is several times larger (or is that smaller?) than other SCS games, with units being divisions and hexes representing 15 miles. It says something for the system that it can handle the various scales with ease.

The thing that I immediately liked about TME is that the Allied player has the flexibility to choose his own landing zones. The various potential beaches are rated for how good they are for landings, in terms of initial landing and follow-up strengths, and the Allied player has 6 invasion beach tokens. Each beach that's invaded takes a token, that counts for landing units for a fixed number of turns. Once all 6 tokens have been used, no more landings are allowed. So the Allied player has several competing requirements. Landing in strength is important, but so is having access to ports (for future supply and landing of units), and not being too far away from Germany is also important. All very intriguing.

Of course, the Axis player has no idea where the landings are going to come, so has to balance the response to the current landings with maintaining flexibility to cover future landings. So the Axis player doesn't really make much in the way of plans, having to respond to what the Allied player does. All very, very intriguing.

In our game I played the Axis, as Eric wanted to do the attacking since I was doing the attacking in our WBC-W OCS game, which was good with me. The main landings came in Normandy, with Eric using 3 of his 6 beachhead markers. I defended the bocage as best I could, but wasn't doing any attacks as those were some freaky big stacks he was pushing around.

Around turn 6 or so Eric had pushed out of the bocage. I was really concerned with his paratroopers landing in behind me and preventing retreats, so I was trying to defend in some depth, which is never a bad idea, anyway. He's also landed in the south with 2 more of his precious beachhead markers, and in south-west France with the last one. This allowed me the freedom to release all my forces guarding potential landing sites, focusing on the main one in Normandy.

At the end of the first session, I committed my main panzer divisions, which I'd been holding in reserve on an attack on his line. this was rather ill-advised, but in truth I was becoming a little bored as we were about a quarter way through the game and I hadn't made a single attack yet. However, things went really badly (I believe I rolled '3' on two dice), and I ended up with all my armor in a very precarious situation.

Over the intervening week between the two sessions I could see all the possible permutations on how Eric could surround and totally wipe out pretty much the entire panzer component of the Axis forces. However, at the start of the second session Eric either didn't see the options or chose not to be too aggressive, and I was able to extricate them in good shape.

In the north I commenced a steady fall back to the very defensible Seine and Paris, building strong defenses. I was nipping at the edges, and managed to take out a couple of armored divisions that he'd pushed forward too far, unsupported. Eric had captured Cherbourg, but was hurting for a second port to replace his soon to disappear last beachhead. Fortunately (well, for him, anyway!) he captured Le Havre, but I mustered my panzers and attacked along the coast, removing two or his armored divisions in the overrun. However, it was at this point that Eric spotted that we'd been playing the overruns wrongly up to this point, allowing units to overrun multiple times, rather than ending their turn at the conclusion of the overrun, succeed or fail. (Too much playing OCS.) This left my panzers hung out to dry, unable to take advantage of the successful overrun to recapture Le Havre, nor move back to the safety of their own lines.

Meanwhile, in the south, Eric was making slow progress up the valleys, as the lack of mobility through the rough terrain allowed my few units to hold him up. The dice weren't helping him in any way, though, as he continually rolled poorly.

Over in the south west, Eric managed to capture Bordeaux, and the vital port, but he then vacated it, allowing me to sneak in the back door and recapture it. I tried to get smart and used that unit to move north, and Eric promptly re-recaptured it. When he thought it was safe he moved out again, but I was still in range and snuck back in again! Wild. Eventually Eric abandoned that area of the board, moving his units north, but I'd learned my lesson and wasn't taking that bait, leaving my unit to protect it.

And that was the end of the second session, taking us up to the end of turn 13. At this point I'm feeling pretty confident, as I feel I've got a very strong and defensible line in the north that's going to be real hard for him to crack. My weak spots are the south and the southern end of my line. Some quick success in the south could see my defenses unravel pretty quickly, and if he moves the focus to swing around the south of my Seine/Paris line rather than try to bludgeon his way through it could get ugly quickly. However, with very few active ports he doesn't have a lot of flexibility, so I should be able to pick up on any change of focus quickly enough to respond before it becomes a serious threat. Except for those panzers.

Here's some pics of the situation at the end of turn 13:

And so to our third session. This was the session in which pretty much nothing went Eric's way. His air support table rolls sucked. His combat rolls sucked. Except, oddly enough, in the south, where he reversed the rolls from the previous session, and had all his best dice rolls there, starting to seriously push me back.

In the north, his first move was to secure Le Havre, rather than attempt to remove my panzer threat. We traded a couple of hexes back and forth, as my panzers stacked up to get a decent odds column and I rolled averagely, which is all that's needed for the German player in my position. Eric made no more than one hex per turn progress, which meant that he was going to struggle to score any points, let alone the 25 he needed for a draw. With only 8 turns left he'd had enough and we wrapped it up. Here's the final position:

This is one of those games where I don't really feel I did much for the win. The only real decisions are when to stay and when to bug out to the next defense line. Mostly I feel I got these decisions right, although the stack of dead Axis units might say otherwise, but they were pretty much all weak units. Perhaps the telling statistic is that at the end of turn 17 I had 1 panzer and 1 mechanized unit in my dead pile, all the rest being on the map, and mostly at full strength. Where I did trip up, I feel, was in not pressing enough in the first few turns. Looking at those big stacks of Allied units, especially in bocage, I didn't attempt any attacks, but the combat table is very favorable to the Axis player. I'm not sure that trading steps is a good move for the Axis player, however, but trying to push the Allied stacks off their beach-heads seems like a good move.

I do think that I was helped tremendously by a couple of things that Eric did. First, in the first couple of turns I learned the power of an Allied air drop behind my lines. Cutting off retreats helps with step losses on retreats, but, even more importantly, the brutal supply rules for the Axis (EZoCs are not negated by friendly units) makes getting surrounded a bad thing, as units attrition away after the second turn of being OoS. So, I was very relieved to find that all his airborne divisions were in the dead pile, and he wasn't using his replacements to rebuild them.

Second, he burned his 6 beachhead markers very quickly, and using up that last one allowed me to release all the units protecting possible follow-on invasions to build a solid line. Keeping at least one beachhead marker available for another invasion is, I believe, critical for keeping the Axis player off balance.

I just thought of a third thing. The Allies need to keep the pressure on the Axis player, so he's having to defend on all fronts. Whilst Eric suffered for a large period of time with few ports with which to activate HQs for attack, I think the Allied player needs to be attacking in a lot more places than the one or two select attacks (at high odds) that Eric made. In my view (and, not having played as the Allies, I could be way off base here) I think that the Allies should be making 3 2:1 attacks rather than 1 6:1 attack. Sure, there's the chance of some bad rolls, but the Allied player needs to give himself the chance of getting that good result that causes a breakthrough, rather than allowing the game to stagnate into WWI type trench warfare. (I think that was the issue with the Afrika II SCS game I played recently - we were both too timid on attacks, and it really did feel more like WWI than the cut and thrust of the desert.)

Overall, this wasn't my favorite SCS game of the ones I've played. The Axis player doesn't have a lot to do other than run away from defense point to defense point, but, once again, that may have been a factor of the way our game developed. Either way up, that isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it, and for a large part of the early game I was metaphorically chewing my finger nails at the situation. As the game wore on I was feeling more confident, but I always felt that I was just a couple of bad (or good, from Eric's perspective) dice rolls away from a disaster. I'd certainly like to give this one another go, and it's on my list for a future session. This time I get to be the Allies, to see if I can do any better.