Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A few is more than two

On the table this week, at Eric's request, was A Few Acres of Snow (BGG entry), a newish title from Treefrog Games, by Martin Wallace.

Now, there are a couple of things here that you probably need to be aware of before we go much further. First, I am a Wallace fan boi. Rampant, in fact. His game designs just hit my spot. Age of Steam, Steam, Brass, Age of Industry, Automobile, Gettysburg, Last Train to Wensleydale, Perikles, Prices of the Renaissance, Byzantium, Liberté, Rise Of Empires; some of my favorite games of all time. And yet, his more recent designs have me troubled. A Test of Fire looks lighter than light. I didn't even bother ordering Discworld: Ankh-Morpork after reading the synopsis. Could it be that he's falling out of favor with me? (Collective intake of breath from all those who know me.)

The other thing to be aware of is that I am not fond of deck building games. Well, it's not really just deck building games, but a lot of these more recent card games just leave me cold. Dominion, Race For The Galaxy, 7 Wonders. I can barely tolerate Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer and Thunderstone. I just find them totally tactical, and very prone to luck of the draw, with not really much you can do about it. (I find RftG to be especially prone to draw luck, and find that my card draws are totally opposite to whichever strategy I'm trying to follow at the time, regardless of how I try to roll with the draws.)

So, given a potential waning of interest in Wallace games, and a dislike of the central mechanism, just how did A Few Acres of Snow sit with me?

The physical presentation of the game is good. Mounted board, with good graphics, showing a point-to-point rendering of the game area. There are wooden cubes and discs in the player colors, representing villages and towns, and a neutral color to represent fortifications. There are the standard Warfrog/Treefrog plastic chips for money. The Limited Edition, available to subscribers, replaces the cubes and discs with houses in two sizes, and the plastic money chips with wooden tokens. The cards are of decent quality, and consist of two types: Location cards, representing a named location on the map, its connections, and the method of transport connecting them; and Empire cards, which have various types of benefits, e.g. Traders, Military, Leaders, etc. Both types of cards may have symbols at the bottom that are used in the player actions, e.g. boat, ship, wagon, settler, fur, gold, military. Some Empire cards are only used for their symbol. There are also a few neutral Empire cards (Settlers, Fortification, and Native Americans) that may be bought by either player.

There are many special Empire cards that I'm not going to go into, or we'll be here all day. Players have their own deck of cards, and don't have the same collection of Empire cards in their decks, so the sides have a different feel to them, e.g. the French player doesn't have a Settler card in his Empire deck, so one tactic for the British player is to buy up the neutral settler cards. The Location cards are the same for both players, and are added to the deck as the locations are captured on the board.

There were also lots of mentions of symbols there, and Location cards for the larger locations, e.g. Quebec, Montreal, have lots of symbols on them, but can only be used once before they hit the discard pile. Out of the way locations may have only a single symbol. So choosing how to use your more flexible cards drives a lot of the game.

Generally, you have four types of actions that you perform, and you have two actions per turn. The first type is to improve your empire, by capturing a new location, or improving an existing location. The former is done by playing a Location card, and card that matches the transportation type that connects it and the target location, which may be either a Location card or an Empire card. Some locations also have a settler symbol on the map, so also need a settler symbol card to be played. This allows you to put your village in the location, and add the Location card to your discard pile. Improving a location requires the Location card and either a settler symbol card, to upgrade the village to a town, or a fortification Empire card and 3 gold to add a fortification.

The second type of action is to get more gold. Either play a single Location card for the gold symbol on it to gain that amount, or play combinations of Empire cards that allow gold collection. The French player may also play the Louisberg location for piracy, which steal 2 gold from the British player.

The third type of action is to manage your deck/hand. You may select a card from your available stock of Empire cards, often with a cost in gold; discard from hand; place a card in reserve; take the cards from reserve back into hand (which is a free action); or use special Empire card actions to remove cards from your deck or (for the French player) take a card from your discard pile.

The final type of action is to screw with your opponent. Raids are performed by playing an empire card that allows raids, and you may raid an enemy location adjacent to a location you control. (You can play multiple raid cards to raid further.) Your opponent may play a card that allows a raid to be blocked, but if not you capture the enemy token, and any town is downgraded to a village. You can also ambush, which if not blocked removes an Empire card with the ambush symbol, generally military, from your opponent's hand, and it goes back to the available Empire cards and has to be repurchased. Then there are sieges.

A siege is started by playing a Location card that connects to the target location that you want to siege, the a card with the transportation symbol required, and a card with a military symbol. Each location has an intrinsic strength of 1, and fortifications add two to that. Regular infantry Empire cards have 2 military symbols, others have 1. So if a siege is started by playing, say, a 2-symbol card, the marker is put in the 1 space for the attacker on the siege track. The 0 spot and the 1 spot for the defender are colored grey, meaning the siege is unresolved, otherwise they're in the player colors. If the marker is ever in your color area at the start of your turn, then you've won the siege. If it's in the other player's color, then you need to play card(s) with military symbols to move it at least into the grey area before the end of your turn, otherwise the other player will win at the start of his turn. As an action you may play a single card onto the siege, moving the marker on the track for the number of military symbols on the card. The winner of the siege retains the loser's token, and may place their own village token, while the loser also has to remove one of the cards in the siege back to the available cards deck. Each player may have a single active siege at any one time. Fairly abstract, but pretty simple and effective, as you get a chance to react to the attack or defense, before the other player's turn, but you need to draw the right cards. This is where the Reserve comes in, as you can stack your military cards there, ready for attack or defense.

Now, that probably all sounds very confusing, but the rules are very clear (and a lot more verbose than my brief description). There are play aids for each player which covers the basics of each action, as well as the Empire cards available.

All well and good, but how is it to play? Our game had me as the French (randomly picked), and I focused on settling initially, and then fortifying and developing my gains. Eric tried a couple of sieges, but I managed to defend successfully, in the first by having my military in my Reserve before he started, and in the second by having a lucky draw of both my military cards immediately after he started the siege. I was able to raid extensively, sometimes keeping 2 Native American cards in hand to draw out his blocking card, which let me grab a few of his village and town tokens for VPs. Eric had a couple of successful raids, but mostly I kept a blocking card in hand.

The game end is when one player runs out of either village or town tokens, which Eric did first. However, the tokens I'd captured were enough to give me the margin, and I won by 8 points.

I'd actually played this once before, getting stomped as the British player, as my initial thoughts on reading the rules were reinforced by my game experience - deck building, yuck. However, when Eric asked to try it, and I started to read the rules again, I started to see some of the possibilities that I hadn't seen or understood previously. Lots of choice angst as you can't do everything with the cards that you want (or need) to do. I think having that first game gave me a huge advantage over Eric, as translating the rules into game board action takes some understanding and there's no better way than getting the experience while playing.

As the French player, gold is always a limitation, and there never seems to be enough to do what needs to be done. With the British player being stronger in military, keeping a reserve of Regulars Empire cards (which have 2 military symbols), and the cash to use them, seems important. The French player will be raiding a lot, trying to grab the villages and towns that mean VPs, and hasten the end of the game.

So, did this play change my attitude to the game? Yes, it did. Whilst I'm still not overly fond of the deck building mechanism, I now at least understand it a lot more than in my first game, and I can see some of the strategies and options. Whilst I don't think it will ever be my favorite Wallace game, I can see me playing this occasionally, and I can understand why a lot of people are really grooving on it.

Hey, it's a Wallace, did you really expect me to come up with anything different? My Wallace fan boi badge is intact.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dissing Quebec

Last week, Mike and I got Martin Wallace's newish (and controversial – I'll get to that) euro-wargame A Few Acres of Snow (AFAOS) onto the table. I bought it mostly due to it being a Wallace game (I tend to love his designs) and the fact it won three Golden Geek awards this year: Best 2-player game, Best Wargame, and Best Innovative Game.

That's a rather high bar. Does the game measure up?

First, for those (like me) who really didn't know what the game was about, here's the scoop:

AFAOS is, at its heart, a deck building game, a-la Dominion. It manages to merge that mechanic into a game where you are trying to conquer eastern Canada (or the Eastern Seaboard) during the French and Indian War. Once you start playing, it's the typical Wallace “war-o” where it's really a eurogame in wargaming clothes. Sort of like Wallenstein. There are even elements of Elfenland built in.

To build your deck, you can either conquer cities, thus acquiring the appropriate card, or claim cards. (Some of which may have a cost paid in coins. As opposed to Dominion, your cards generate cash, but don't act as cash.) There's a rather large number of possible actions you can perform on your turn, but you only get to do two of them. (Unless you've got one of the few “free action” cards in your hand.) Discarding is one of those actions, by the way. So every card that comes into your hand has to be involved in an action, somehow.

To conquer an uncontrolled city, you play the card matching an adjacent city, and a card with a transportation symbol matching the way you'd get from point A to point B. (That's the Elfenland link.) If there is a colonist symbol on the city, you also have to play a Settler symbol from a third card. Besieging opponent-owned locations, and upgrading currently owned locations are done in similar fashions, just with a slightly different mix of cards.

Other actions include creating fortifications, adding to a siege (the only way take a city from your opponent), raiding, ambushing, discarding, and spending cards for cash. (There may be one or two more actions, but that's the bulk of your game.)

On your turn, you first check if you've won any existing sieges, perform two actions, then draw your hand back up to five. Over to your opponent. Game ends when New York, Boston, or Quebec changes hands, or one player plays all their village or city counters. In case the latter happens, you count up your score – points are scored for appropriately marked locations on the map, with their value doubled if they've been upgraded to a city.

Mike and I got one session of this game in, and frankly, we were fishing around a lot. (Picture the first time you played Dominion, then add a map to that...) We fumbled as we went, and Mike eked out a small 64-56 victory as the French.

My thoughts?

As with most Wallace “war-o” designs, it's very abstract. At times it reminded me of Racier's First World War design that Phalanx published, though it's FAR better than that. (This is due to the multiple routes across the map - they're nearly as separated as the fronts in FWW.) There's a good amount of meat on the bones, and repeated plays should uncover openings and approaches that will be eventually countered and improved upon. There's a definite asymmetry to the game. The French cannot produce Wagons, for example, which are required to move towards the coast from Fort Duquesne. So their progress is blocked along those lines. Also, the French have very few Settler symbols, limiting their ability to take those locations compared to the British approach.

And, speaking of openings and approaches, here comes the controversy.

Note that I rarely participate in, or read, online boardgaming discussion boards. I used to frequent the BGG and Consimworld forums, but I no longer do. I just found the signal-to-noise ratio WAY too low. I still use BGG as a reference, but I don't go surfing the messages. As a result, I had no idea there's a community out there that considers this game “broken” because of a certain corner-case strategy the British can use that is claimed to be unstoppable. I looked it up after the fact. (Mike had mentioned the owner of Rainy Day Games had told him about it, but didn't say what the strategy actually was. So I got curious.) I prefer to evaluate games based on my own experience, and not a whole lot else.

Basically, the British player maintains an extremely small deck, then takes Halifax, Louisbourg, and Quebec as quickly as possible. Done right, they say, the French can't stop it. Apparently this “broken” strategy has been dubbed the “Halifax Hammer.”

I haven't tried to play out this approach. I see how it might work, but I don't know enough about the game to know if it will work consistently, and if it fails, what sort of position the British will be in to survive a French counter-attack. Even Wallace has yet to be convinced as best I can tell.

That said, if it does turn out to be true, I think there's probably a couple rules or map tweaks that could be put into play that stop it from being a game-breaker. The design is solid enough that one route through it shouldn't destroy the whole thing.

In the end, this is a solid game if you ignore the mutant “broken” strategy. I just don't think it was deserving of three Golden Geek awards. Maybe Best 2-player. Certainly not Best Wargame. (That should have been either No Retreat! or Fighting Formations. I haven't played Labyrinth yet, so I can't comment on that, though I suspect it might be better than AFAOS in both categories.) Most Innovative? Um... the core is taken straight from Dominion (and Wallace's designer notes state exactly that) and much of the rest is a blend of First World War and Elfenland with a few other things tossed in. Good, yes. Innovative? I wouldn't think so. But then, I've only played three of the ten games that were nominated.

Will I play this again? Certainly. There's a lot of depth here. Am I glad I own it? Also certainly. I have the feeling this is one Jack's going to want to pull out in a few years. (He's not even five and a half, and he's already asking to play “army games” with me. We've started with Memoir '44, and will work our way up from there.) Would I recommend someone else buy it? Probably. If you like Wallace's designs, definitely. If you're ambivalent about his games, wait and see how the Halifax Hammer situation gets resolved and make your decision. If you use cheat codes in video games, don't buy this. You'll get obsessed with the “broken” strategy, and you'll miss the game you actually purchased.

Oh, wondering about the title of my post? It's a reference to where Wallace got the name of the game. When Voltaire (yes, THAT Voltaire) was told Quebec had fallen to the British, he said it didn't matter. It was just a few acres of snow. Voltaire is just so quotable... I've got a perennially unfinished set of rules for wargaming the Great Northern War that I call “The Sword Does Not Jest.” Another Voltaire quote.

Our next installment will look at Academy's recent release, Strike of the Eagle.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Resist, you must!

Last week, Mike and I got the new Combat Commander: Resistance! onto the table.

For those who don't know, this expansion presents Partisans as their own force. There's a new deck of cards and a counter set (in yellow), along with a dozen scenarios and six new maps. Some of the scenarios are remakes of existing scenarios that included Partisan forces in earlier releases.

The new Partisan force is very different from any other published so far. First, the deck is only half-sized. Thirty-six cards. This has two interesting implications:

  1. The deck will run out faster, appearing to cause more frequent time triggers. However, this is balanced by removing the Time events from the deck. In two playings of this expansion, I haven't noticed time moving any faster than in a typical game. In fact, the time triggers seem to come in a more regular fashion since only one side has Time triggers.
  2. A quarter of the board isn't covered by random hex draws. I haven't actually tabulated which hexes aren't represented, but this deck will only reference half the hexes normally covered by an allied force deck. I'm sure Chad Jensen (designer) has balanced this effect against broken weapon recovery/destruction and objective placement: It's the kind of thing he's good at. But, I'll eventually compare the deck to the US deck and see what's missing.

On point two, for those that don't know: A Combat Commander map has 150 hexes, and 144 are covered by random hex draws (72 from the Axis, 72 from the Allies – I believe the missing hexes are the four corners plus the top and bottom of the middle column). This is the primary reason why you can't fight two Allied forces against each other, btw. Random hex draws would be completely skewed.

After you get over the tiny Force deck, you are introduced to the Partisan units themselves. And they're very different than what you're used to. All other forces have squads of four figures, teams of two, and leaders. The Partisans have Gangs (6 figures), Bands (5), Troops (4), Sections (3), and Crews (2). Each of these units have a firepower (FP) equal to the number of figures, and a movement rate equal to 7 – FP. So, you trade mobility for strength. There are “Muster” orders in the Partisan deck that allow you to increase the size of a unit to the next level up.

The first major rule change to absorb has to do with the leaders. An unbroken Partisan leader has an eye outline around their leadership rating. This means they can activate any Partisan unit within their line of sight. This is a fundamental change that we frankly forgot about a couple times during our session. It completely changes how you organize your force.

The other major rule change for the Partisans is what happens when a broken unit is broken again. In the normal game, the unit dies, and the Axis player scores 2 (1 for a team) VP. Not here. The Partisans draw from a 19-card Force Pool deck. Each of these cards has a top and bottom unit illustrated. If the bottom unit on the card has fewer figures on it than the unit about to die, the dying unit is replaced by the next smaller unit in the exact same state. This simulates desertions while under fire.

Finally, there's Sighting markers, similar to those in CC: Pacific. They function a tad differently here. There's an Infiltration order in the Partisan deck that forces you to give up 0 to 3 VP (depending on the card) in order to mess with hidden units. You have two options when using an Infiltration order: Add a unit to the time track, or put a new sighting marker on the map. To add a unit to the time track, you flip a card from the Force Pool deck, then choose between the two options on the card. You then put your choice anywhere on the time track you'd like. When the Time marker reaches that space, you put the unit in the same hex as a sighting marker, and remove the sighting marker from the game. To place a sighting marker, draw a random hex and place it there.

Between the Muster orders, Infiltration, and the ability for units to sometimes shrink instead of die, you have to get used to your contingent changing a lot during play.

I chose to play the Thunderstorm scenario (#72, on map 50 – one of the new ones in the expansion). This is a meeting engagement: both sides are in Recon posture, and are merely trying to capture objective hexes. (Each are worth 3 points, each side controls the one in their deployment zone only.) Starting score is zero, so it's definitely a race to grab space. As I chose the scenario, I gave Mike the choice of side, and he chose the Partisans (to my surprise, frankly).

Our game had a definite flow. It took Mike a long time to get a Move order, so he was a bit hampered at first, but I didn't have the best results either, so while I was able to claim two of the three open objectives, I wasn't able to hold the middle one for long. The VP counter moved briefly to my side, then Mike had a run and got the score to around 11 in his favor. It was still around 4 or so on his side when we hit Sudden Death. We did the typical initiative card bouncing trying to get the game to end (or not) in our favor, but Mike had the advantage of 7s working in his favor. I got lucky here, though, and the game continued for two more time triggers. By the time the game ended, the score was 1 for me. Yes, One. The narrowest finish I've seen in a CC game yet.

There were two primary features to our session. One was an incredible number of snipers. There should be more snipers than normal when playing the Partisans (they have 5 Sniper triggers in a half-sized deck, while the Germans have 7 and the Russians have 8) but we saw a LOT of snipers. This certainly slowed both of us down at times, and weakened key units at inopportune times.

The other was a beautiful bit of narrative. I got an event that allowed me to draw reinforcements from the German roster. From the options I had (and in 1943, there's a lot of German options) I chose an Infantry Gun and crew. The random hex they appeared in was down in the corner near my side of the board. The gun jammed the first time I tried to fire it, and was eliminated on the next random hex draw. I could just picture it: “Hey guys! We found this old artillery piece in a barn over here! Let's surprise these jerks with it!” They don't fully inspect it due to the heat of battle, and the thing explodes (or misfires, or whatever) the first time they try to fire it, and they abandon it due to lack of time/ammo/resources. Just a perfect sequence of events.

Oh, and we had one Partisan unit that failed every Recovery attempt, and fell back on every Rout roll. I think that unit routed six hexes off the map by the end.

Things I learned playing against (and in a later play against Doug, with) the Partisans: Have a loose plan, but don't put all your eggs in that basket. Circumstances WILL change, and if you don't have a fall-back plan, you're hosed. Partisan units will survive longer than normal, but may have a hard time recovering after they break. What you have is a real big house of cards. It could work really well, but could fall apart in an instant. When playing against the Partisans, watch those sighting markers – the enemy could appear literally anywhere, and quickly. Finally, don't let the randomness get to you – it's random within a set of bounds, and could settle down at any time. Follow your plan, but snatch opportunities as they arrive.

Overall, this is a welcome expansion to the CC system. It radically changes how you think about playing the game, without breaking the structure of the rules. Just realize it could be an even more chaotic experience than the base game gives you.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Resisting Combat Commander

After a long period of time when we were playing long games that weren't really conducive to blogging, we've decided to get back to shorter stuff and resuscitating the blog. There's been a lot of OCS played this year, in fact we've played pretty much nothing else for most of this year, most recently play testing a new, smaller OCS game on Operation Exporter. That's been an interesting experience, one I'm prepared to take on again, and I hope that our input was useful.

With a plethora of choices available, Eric wanted to try the latest release in the long (and getting longer) list of titles in the Combat Commander franchise, CC: Resistance (BGG entry), from GMT. Previous readers of this blog will already know that this is a game that I have a love/hate relationship with. I kinda love it, I think it comes closest of all the tactical games I've played in portraying the chaos of combat, but it just hates me back. Outrageous things happen in a lot of the games, and I'm (mostly) on the receiving end. In fact Chuck has now referred to it as 'Mike's ugly girlfriend' game (in homage to 'Chuck's ugly girlfriend', a reference to Twilight Struggle), and he refuses to play it with me any more, on the grounds that just too much outrageous wackiness happens, and it's no fun to play. And yet I keep coming back to it.

So, what's new in this incarnation?

  • Partians have their own deck, which has only 36 cards, rather than 72, so time triggers happen quickly
  • When discarding, the Partisan player has to discard his entire hand
  • Partisan leaders don't have a leadership range, but can command all units within LoS
  • Partisan units can grow a step in size with Muster orders - from a 2-man Crew to a 6-man Gang; however, the Fire strength + Movement Points always total 7, so as it gets larger, with more Fire strength, it gets less mobile
  • Reinforcements appear by use of the Infiltrate order, which costs 0-3 VPs to play, and are placed on the Time Track rather than directly on the map; so the partisan player doesn't know when they will appear
  • Reinforcements are decided by a draw from the Force Deck, which gives two options on the reinforcements; so the partisan player doesn't know what will appear
  • Reinforcements appear at a Sighting marker, and each time a Random Hex draw is made, a Sighting marker must be moved to, or adjacent to, the random hex; so the partisan player doesn't know where they will appear
  • When a Partisan unit is eliminated by a second break, a card is drawn from the Force Deck; if the unit symbol at the bottom of the card is a smaller force than unit on the map, the unit on the map is replaced, still broken, by the smaller unit, and no VP is lost; if not, it is removed to the VP track, for the loss of 1VP, regardless of the unit
As might be expected from GMT, production is good. Maps, counters, rule book, all look very professionally done, and up to the expected standard. The one omission, that I found to be annoying, is that there is no summary card included for the new Partisan deck, so you have to memorize the distribution of the cards - Orders, Actions.

What must also be mentioned is that CC:R continues the CC tradition of having the tightest set of rules of any game I have played. I have yet to encounter any game situation or question that isn't clearly covered in the ruleset. Given some of the rules abominations we've had the privilege to encounter (yes, Prussia's Defiant Stand, I'm looking at you), this is little short of remarkable.

In our game Eric had chosen scenario #72, and I was randomly assigned the Resistance. I'd only had the chance to briefly flick over the rules, and that bit me in the first card draw, as I discarded my hand of 2 Recover cards, a Command Confusion, and an Infiltrate-0. I drew an Infiltrate-2 card, then decided to check on the rule retail, to find that the card I'd just discarded would have given me reinforcements for a 0VP cost. Oops.

There were a lot of pot shots in the early game, to no effect, and it took half way through my deck before I found a Move order, having previously found a single Advance order, so I was very slow to get moving towards the VP objectives. In the meantime, Eric had been moving forward, and had occupied 2 of the 3 objectives. With his lead units.

I eventually managed to grind him down, timed a couple of reinforcements (playing an Infiltrate order with only a few cards left in my draw pile, so I knew when/where they would appear), and at the high point I had control of all 5 objectives on the map, due to Infiltrating into his back field, with 11VPs in my favor. Then, as might be expected, it all went south.

I missed the draw for ending the game in turn 7 (requiring a 6 or less, I didn't think it was worth the Initiative card), and then we traded rolls at the end of turn 8 as the Initiative card went back and forth several times before Eric drew two cards higher than 7 in a row. Drat. From there he used his big group to take back one objective, killed a few units in Melee, and then managed to rout a unit off the map. (It had missed 4-5 Recover attempts, needing 6-7, and drew 9, 9, and 11 in his Rout attempts. Pfft.

With hands full of Command confusion, Artillery Denied, and Infiltrate cards, I couldn't find a way to get the single VP required, and the game ended at the end of turn 9 on the first draw.

Other points of note: I managed to get 3 '10' strength Fire attacks in the game, and rolled 4, 4, and 5; I used both Molotovs, 12 strength attacks, and they both failed; Eric got a reinforcement, choosing the IG, which then fired at range 4, drawing snake-eys to miss, jam, and then was removed on a subsequent Random Hex roll.

That's probably the closest CC game I've had, I think. Whilst it's easy to view the failure to Recover that unit, and the Rout draws, as the game loser, failing to recognize that the Partisan units don't want to go toe-to-toe with the German units was the real game-losing mistake. I should have been pulling back away from him, in order to not give him the Melee attempt. Ho hum, lesson learned.

We missed the rule that the Partisans only spend 1 MP per hex, which would have helped me a fair bit, and that eliminated Partisan units are removed from the game, not that it had any impact. And I didn't grok the Partisan Leader LoS command rule for some reason. It's pretty clear in the rulebook, I just couldn't get it into my thick head. So I wasn't making the best possible use of my Move/Advance cards.

Overall, an excellent expansion. With the Force Deck and Infiltrate mechanism, the Partisan player doesn't know what he's going to have to play with, and that seems realistic.

So, if you like CC, you'll totally groove on this latest addition to the family.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Sides, Take Two

I'm going to dispense with the cliches and “tap tap is this thing on?” crap.

The blog died, the blog is coming back.

Mike and I haven't been idle, by any means, but we haven't been doing things that are very blog-friendly. That, and I was going through a soul-sucking period at work where I writing enough that I wanted to do anything BUT write blog posts in my spare time. I really had the feeling that period was going to kill every desire I had to ever write again, but that thankfully turned out to not be the case. Playing games and writing about those sessions is something I want to be doing again.

So, you might ask, what HAVE Mike and I been doing over all this time?

Pretty much all of 2010 was devoted to an ongoing OCS Korea campaign. We got through all of 1950 before calling it a wrap. We will finish it some day, but it's going to be rough slogging the rest of the way. I was playing the US, while Mike took the Chinese – by the end of 1950, we devolved into a sort of WWI-style slogging match where I'm slowly wearing him down. I have to be cautious, but there are very limited opportunities for him to attack.

We took pictures as we went along, and someday maybe we'll write the thing up, but don't count on it. Maybe just a photo-log.

The second half of 2011 has been devoted to playtesting another OCS game that should be submitted for preordering very shortly. I don't want to go into details, as I'm not sure how public the information is, but it's a small (by OCS standards, it's a miniature) game on Operation Exporter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Exporter).

Those of you wanting to get into OCS, but have been turned off by the size of the typical OCS game, pick this one up. You won't be disappointed. Once it's available for preorder, Mike and I will tell you all about it.

There have been other things we've done – Mike may be able to supply some details as he keeps better records of what he plays when – but there have been a few shorter games that have hit the table in the mean time. I know C&C Napoleonics and Stalin's War were among them. We had our annual WBC-West gaming retreat in mid-May, so the bulk of early 2011 was centered around that.

We'll be getting things back under way with a playing of Combat Commander: Resistance. FAB: Sicily will be hitting the table right after we receive it (GMT claims it's shipping mid-late December), and there's plenty more where that came from.

For those of you new to what we do here, let me refresh you on the idea:

Mike and I play games. We then independently write about what happened. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't. Mike prefers his games with a minimum amount of luck (With good reason – we've named the effect the Deansian Statistical Distortion Factor (DSDF)), while I'm fine with a fair amount of chaos. We're both wargamers at heart, and that'll be the large majority of the games we play, but you really could see anything covered here.

I've learned over time that I'm really not good at writing reviews. What I do write are reactions. Other people around the net are much better at reviewing games, so if you want that, head over to BGG or some other site to get your review fix in. What you'll get from me, at least, is how I reacted to that particular playing of a game. Sometimes I'll get into why I did what I did as well, but that depends on how many beers I had that night.

Unless life presses too hard, we'll be playing every week, and posting just about as frequently as well. Sit back, and enjoy the posts. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The sound of giants clashing

Our latest game has been GMT's Clash of Giants II (BGG entry), the Galicia scenario in particular. On reading through the rules for this one I was concerned that it was simple. Bordering on simplistic. 2 unit stacking; ZoC stop movement; regular terrain effects; combat has retreats and step losses; supply lines. Nothing that the average gamer hasn't seen before. Meh.

The only thing that is at all different is combat resolution. Odds are calculated as normal, but that's where normality stops. Instead of a Combat Results Table, the odds give modifiers. Each unit has a performance rating, and has to roll that or less to not suffer a step loss and, for the defender, a retreat. This roll is modified from the combat odds, a 2-1 giving the attacker a +1 and the defender a -1, 3-1 makes it +2/-2, etc. The modified die roll is compared to the unit's rating, and if it's lower then the unit suffers no effects from the combat. If it's higher, the unit suffers a step loss, and the difference between is how far the unit (if defending) has to retreat.

So, as the ratio goes up, it's more likely that the defender will suffer losses, and vice versa for the attacker. There is also a limit on the number of attacking units that need to roll at the larger odds. However, the effect is that one side could roll badly and lose steps from all units in the combat, and the other side nothing. A regular CRT would probably limit those losses. Still, interesting.

The only other tweak is that where there are multiple hexes of attackers, then all enemy stacks adjacent have to be attacked. A single attacking stack can ignore other adjacent enemy stacks.

Like I said, simple, bordering on simplistic. So what makes the game? There are 3 components that make this worth playing.

The first is that it uses chits to determine the order that the armies play in. This introduces an element of uncertainty on how your plans are going to pan out. I'm generally a fan of chit pull games, so this is a good thing. Also, as the chit is drawn you roll to see how many movement points the army gets, from 2-6.

Next is when you do combat. You get one combat phase per turn, but you can take it after any of your chit draws. Do you do combat now, or wait for the other army to get into position? If the opposing army moves, it could move away from contact and you'll have no combat to perform.

The third aspect is that each player has two offensives, which gives a 1-column combat ratio improvement for each combat. These happen at various times for the players, and each can be taken in one of a range of turns, generally earlier in the game for the Austria-Hungary player, and later for the Russian.

And those 3 factors make the game. The order of the chit draws provides for a lot of angst on how to move and when to perform combat. Throw in the offensives and it gets even more factors to think about.

In our play the first evening saw Eric withdraw quickly on his northern front, but my opposing army kept rolling low for MPs, and couldn't keep contact. I pressed hard in the middle, and Eric did the same in the south.

The second evening saw the decisive action as the combat rolls went my way in pretty much every combat in turns 6 and 7. My concerns about the combat results came home to roost, and they bit Eric hard. I pretty much had no losses, while he lost steps from pretty much every unit fighting.

By the end I'd maxed out my allowed VPs and Eric had barely made any headway on getting to his main VP areas, for a major A-H win.

Ultimately this is like most games that use lots of dice. If the distribution stays reasonable then it's an interesting game. But those dice can have a very wide bell curve, and if it heads to an extreme then it's not much fun for the player on the receiving end, and there is little you can do to prevent it. Even if you stack up the combat odds, your opponent could roll snakes and you roll boxcars, unlike a normal CRT where you can often guarantee that you don't lose.

Now this would be an issue in a longer game, but CoGII doesn't outstay its welcome. We played over two evenings, probably for about 5.5 hours. Part of that time was looking up a couple of rules, and part kibitzing, so I'd reckon that 4 hours might be achievable with experienced players. So, overall, I enjoyed CoGII, and I'd be happy to play it again. It's a good length, and there are enough interesting decisions to make. But watch out for those dice.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Giants clashed

As previously hinted, Mike and I recently got GMT's Clash of Giants II onto the table. This is their (now OOP) game on the battles of Galicia and First Ypres from World War One.

The game was designed by Ted Raicer, one of the top (if not THE top) WWI game designers out there.

For the most part, this is a standard hex-and-counter game, and on the simple side. There are some interesting quirks about movement and combat that I'll get to in a bit.

COG II is a follow on to the original Clash of Giants which included the battles of Tannenberg and Marne 1914. The game system provides a basic set of common rules, then specific rules for each battle. While this can be seen as the same model many games provide (rules and scenario-specific tweaks) in this case, the balance is almost 50/50 between basic rules and scenario-specific rules. The sequence of play and supply rules, in particular, are different in every battle. It's an easy comparison to The Gamer's SCS line for this design structure.

And, coincidentally, the CoG games are about the same level of complexity as SCS. Maybe a bit simpler.

We played the Galicia scenario. This was an early clash between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies near the Russian border. The historical clash saw the northern Russian flank pushed back before recovering, and the southern flank steadily push back the A-H forces until they broke. The battle significantly, and permanently, damaged Austria-Hungary's military capabilities. They were only a minor force for the rest of their existance.

The sequence of play in a turn consists of:
  1. Mutual supply determination phase
  2. Mutual reinforcements/replacements
  3. Operational phases (these are random chit draws)
  4. Mutual recovery phase
  5. End phase/victory check

Each force is split into four armies, and each army has a chit that goes into a cup. As the doctrine of the time dictated commands by location on the map, not by units, when a chit is drawn, you activate the forces currently within borders drawn on the map, not the units that started in that army.

Mike was worried before we started playing that the game was so simple as to almost be simplistic. I shared the same concern before we started playing, but not quite to the same level as Mike. As it turns out, the game plays much deeper than it reads, because of these rules:

  1. Movement rates are random
  2. You get to declare one combat phase per turn
  3. The wild swings possible in combat resolution

Let's look at these in order.

Random Movement Rates

When you activate an army, the first thing you do is roll on a table to see how far (in MPs) it gets to move. The number range between 2 and 6, with most results being 2, 3, or 4. The tables you roll on change during the game as well, making some forces faster later in the game, while a couple slow down. This means you might not get to pull off the attack you planned. In our game, Mike's most northerly force (his 1st army, I believe) consistently rolled low movement. As this was the command at the far end of the wheel he was trying to execute, it meant the 1st army was out of action for most of the contest. It simply couldn't move far enough to come into contact with my retreating forces.

Alternatively, it might mean you can pull off a maneuver your opponent wasn't expecting, as you suddenly get to move a lot further than you thought.

In any event, it does make tactical maneuvering and planning a bit tougher as you simply don't know how quickly you can pull of a particular move. Once you're in the thick of it, it doesn't matter as much, but that only turned out to be in our center – the wings needed lots of movement.

One Combat Phase

This rule didn't have an impact all the time, at times the choice was obvious, but a couple times during the game we really had to think about it. While you've got four armies to activate, you can only declare one combat phase per turn. You get to choose which activation includes the combat phase. Between this and the random activation order, there were times you wanted to come to grips with your enemy, but he was able to run away first. Particularly if you wanted to get two commands into position before attacking. You might intend to declare combat after commands A and B have moved, but if your opposition A is supposed to fight runs away after A moves, your combat isn't as effective.

There is room for a lot of finesse and lessons learned through experience from this rule alone.

Combat Resolution

CoG has a combat resolution mechanism I haven't seen before. There aren't really combat strengths, per se. You count up the number of steps fighting on each side, turn that into a ratio, then adjust for terrain. This produces a DRM for both the attacker and defender. (The DRMs mirror themselves. -1/+1, for example.)

You then roll a die for each unit, modified by the DRM. If you roll equal or under the units quality rating (usually 3, but sometimes 2 or 4), it emerges unscathed. If you roll higher, the unit loses a step. A 1 always succeeds, a 6 always fails. It's entirely possible for a single, one-step unit to be grossly outnumbered and survive while it inflicts loads of casualties on the attacker. This is mitigated a bit by more attacker-friendly ratios limiting the number of units that have to check for casualties. (e.g. a 4:1 fight limits the attacker to 2 possible losses.) But a lucky unit can be very stubborn. And as you only get one step worth of replacements per turn, step losses add up over time.

It felt like this combat resolution mechanism led to a much wider range of results than you'd typically get from a d6, ratio-based system. It was certainly unpredictable.


Our battle ended in an Austria-Hungary victory, as I couldn't get my Russians to exploit a gap I created in the center, and some bad combat results wore down any attacking oomph I had left. I felt that the game, while definitely among the least complex wargames we've played, does not feel simplistic. There are tough decisions to be made, and it satisfied on both the tactical and strategic level. Given the random chit draw and random movement, the game seems well suited to solitaire play. (And, in fact, the box says 1-2 players.) Expect a 5-6 hour play time per scenario. If you're looking for something on the easier side that covers WWI, I'd definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fury at the fury

In the past few sessions Eric and I have been playing Fury in the East (BGG entry), a one-map WWII East Front game from MMP that covers the first 9 months of the Barbarossa Campaign. This game was part of Operations Magazine Special Edition #3, their yearly special that features a complete game, sometimes more than just one, as well as lots of updates, corrections, and variants for existing games.

FitE is a reprinting of the Japanese game G-Barbarossa (BGG entry), with updated graphics. It's a fairly strait-forward, corps level, move-fight-panzer move, locking ZoCs, odds combat, column shifts for terrain/supply type of game. However, there are a few wrinkles:

  • Only German panzer units move in the second movement phase
  • German panzers may move out of a ZoC
  • Units performing Rail or Strategic movement may move out of a ZoC, as long as at least one unit is left behind
  • For Axis combat is optional; for Soviets it is mandatory; all enemy units exerting a ZoC must be attacked; all units in an enemy ZoC must perform an attack
  • Soviet Leaders have hidden strengths, and must be revealed to provide leadership to Soviet units; some leaders have no capability, and are removed immediately to the pool; Leaders destroyed in combat are out of the game
  • Soviet combat units have to be in range of a Leader, otherwise movement rates halved, negative column shift applies; panzers may ignore infantry ZoCs with no Leader
  • Terrain effects only apply to the Soviets, in terms of plus/minus column shifts
  • Axis units not only have to trace supply to a supply source, but also have to trace to one of three supply heads
  • There are different CRTs for each side; the Soviets taking losses; the Axis having retreats, with option to take a step loss instead
  • Weather is a single condition affecting the whole map; also controls how many Luftwaffe units are available
  • Axis player gains VPs for controlling Soviet cities; capturing Moscow is an automatic Axis victory
  • Axis player has Hitler mandated objectives in turns 2-7; not achieving these are -5VPs per objective

The major problem is the rules just totally SUCK. Without doubt, this is the worst set of rules I think I've seen for any game I've played. (I believe that the S&T game Frigate had worse rules, but I never played that one.) Terminology issues, major omissions all over the place. Now this is a magazine game, and perhaps there should be some allowance made, but the game is effectively unplayable with the rules that came with it. Did no-one even attempt to blind playtest this from the proposed rules? Even worse is that as a reprint from a previous game there are so many glaring omissions. Did no-one make a comparison to the original game rules?

On the plus side, the developer, Adam Starkweather, has been very active in supporting the game over on ConSimWorld, responding to questions very quickly. However, he does have a habit of shooting from the hip and making pronouncements without going back and looking carefully at the rules. Several times he's made rulings, and then had to reverse them in later posts. That gives no confidence in any of his responses. He's also said 'If not mentioned in the rules, that’s fine.' Trouble is, the rules miss out so many critical items that you can't take that attitude.

And all this is a damn shame, because FitE is a very decent game, and does a very good job of modeling, at a high level, the differences in the forces, and the nature of the Barbarossa offensive. The game flows easily, with options for both sides and plenty to think about. The initial Axis successes slowly grind to a halt in the face of mounting Soviet forces, and the switch in the player turn order nicely reflects the change in balance caused by the winter. I've been playing it quite a bit recently (solo, as well as with Eric) and I've had a blast doing so.

So, track down this gem, get all the errata and rulings from the ConSim World forum, which has been nicely collated into a single document here, get the beer and pretzels out and have a blast.

Next up is Galicia from GMT's Clash of Giants II (BGG entry). Due to a gaming weekend and scheduling issues, we've had to have a couple weeks off, but are due to get back to it next week.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Disappointment in the East

Mike and I gave Fury in the East another go. After the first aborted affair, we got our questions (mostly) answered, and gave the game a second shot. We fully expected our play to last at least a couple nights as reported play times had been in the 1 hour per turn range. 10 turns means likely three nights unless Moscow falls earlier.

The first night saw Mike with slightly less progress as our first game, but with slightly more kills. We got through three turns that first night (as opposed to two the first time we played) and things were feeling smoother. We still had a few niggling issues, but nothing major.

During the middle of turn five, we suddenly realized we'd completely forgotten about the Russian militia. (Did I mention they're completely missing from the rulebook?) It was impossible to backtrack at that point, and so we bagged it. It's likely Mike would have won, but it's impossible to say at that point, as the bad weather was just arriving.

Thoughts on gameplay, from the Russian perspective:

You have one job in the first three turns or so. Run. Make sure you know when you can leave negated EZOCs, and get out of dodge. Leave sacrificial lambs as speed bumps to slow the Germans down, and get as much out of there as you can. Particularly the leaders. It violates every instinct you have to do this, as you have this feeling you need to keep units around in force as much as you can to slow the Germans down, but you can't. You need those units much, much further East.

And herein lies the problem. You're very much at the whim of the random Leader draw during setup. In our second play, I didn't draw a single *-rated leader on the map. This meant every leader Mike was able to kill on the first turn (and it's a lot, there's no way around this) hurt. If you're lucky and get two or three *-rated leaders in that initial setup, you'll fare much better later on. The only way you can try to mitigate this is to plan your deployment with two things in mind: a ZOC net with weak troops to slow the German advance, and everything else placed with retreat in mind.

I haven't played enough to really give good advice on how to do this. Here, of course, lies the problem.

I likely won't play this game again until they can revise the rules. They're basically unusable as printed. Major rules are left out (+3 movement cost for overruns and any mention of Militia units come first to mind) and they're horribly organized.

And, really, it's a shame. This is a good little game destroyed by horribly written rules. I lower my quality expectations a tad when looking at magazine games, but this falls well below even these lowered standards. Hopefully, MMP sees fit to published revised rules. Errata won't do it – they need a new edition. There are enough niggling things slightly incorrect that it makes you question everything else you read, no matter how clearly written. It's just too frustrating.

After Mike and I stopped playing, we had a little discussion about the state of rules writing these days. Sadly, I feel it's declining. I can think of only three designers where I can count on a solid set of rules with a minimum of fuss: Dean Essig, Ed Beach, and Chad Jensen. Other designers may have occasional good or great sets of rules, but aren't consistent enough to hang with those three. Wargames these days have almost fallen to the level of software: never use the very first version of anything; wait for the update. And, the inevitable result of that is that publishers seem to be counting on that update to fix problems they've missed the first time around. It's a nasty spiral. But at least, most companies are savvy enough to understand that keeping those rules updated and electronically available is a good thing, and makes customers (eventually) happy.

Which is what I hope MMP does here, because I think you guys would enjoy this game after they fix the rules.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Familiar Ground

The last two weeks, Mike and I have been playing Fury in the East game included in the most recent Operations Special Issue published by Multi-Man in the summer of 2010.

This is a remake of a game originally published in Japan as “G-Barbarossa” and is originally designed by Ginichiro Suzuki. It covers the initial phases of the invasion. The game is ten turns, and all but the first two cover four weeks. The first two turns cover two weeks each.

In many ways, this is a standard Barbarossa game. It probably most resembles Red Star Rising of all the eastern front games I've played. While it doesn't use a variant of the Victory in the West system as in RSR, it does incorporate randomness into the Russian combat units and leaders. It's at a bit higher scale, though; more like Defiant Russia in scope.

Two weeks ago, Mike and I got two turns into the game in an evening, and compiled a large list of rules questions. While two-thirds of them had been answered on CSW, we still had a number of other issues to resolve.

After posting questions and getting very quick answers (one of which conflicted with a prior response on CSW), we proceeded to restart the game, with myself taking the Russians again versus Mike's Axis forces. We got three turns in this time, and didn't really run into any new questions.

While I'll post more information about the game next week, I do want to get a few things posted first.

Keep in mind, this is a magazine game. As such, I do have a bit of a lower bar for quality, proofreading, etc. While the production quality is good (all components are good quality, and I know of zero counter or map errata) the rules need restructuring and at least one more edit pass.

There are some frightening omissions. First, overruns cost an extra 3 MP beyond the movement cost of the defending hex. This isn't in the rulebook – it's in the minimal posted errata. Given most German units have 8MP, this is a massive mistake. The Soviets are required to make mandatory attacks against adjacent German units during their combat phase. However, the rules state that all German units in Russian zones of control must be attacked. A clarification on CSW has modified that saying all Russian units in German zones of control must attack as well. This is very significant if you're trying to preserve units or leaders. (And as Russian units cannot move if in an enemy zone of control, preservation is important.)

I'll leave final thoughts on the game until my next post, but I'll leave you today with this: If you attempt to play this game, do your CSW forum research first, and play through the first two turns. Ask questions, then start over. You cannot get this game right the first time from the rules as written.

On a different note, it might be worth the effort. More to come.