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.