Monday, October 26, 2009

But what about the Princes?

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

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

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

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

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

A brief rundown of the game goes as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

Action at the Dirschau

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

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

Lots of things have changed since then. Obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essentially, Very Good with caveats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 18, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

Releasing the Pause Button

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

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

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

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