Sunday, February 19, 2012

Simple, pimple

Next on the table was my choice, and, after playing complex treatments of various battles and campaigns, I wanted to try the new Martin Wallace war game, Test of Fire. This is a simple treatment of the first battle of the American Civil War, Bull Run (for you Yankee northerners) or Manasses (for you Rebel southerners). 

And ToF is certainly a simple game. With just 5 pages of rules it’s easy to pick up. The player rolls dice at the start of the turn (4 for the Confederate player, 5 for the Union), and that dictates the actions that can be performed that turn.

1 – Draw a card
2,3 - Activate an area with artillery for fire
4,5 - Activate an area for movement
6 - Activate an area containing a leader for either artillery fire or movement, as above

Artillery fire is pretty simple. Choose the area with an artillery unit; choose the target area; roll 2 dice, with a 5 or 6 scoring a hit; roll each hit to determine effect, a 6 being a loss, anything else means 1 unit in the target area has to retreat.

Movement is equally simple. Any units in the activated area may move to any adjacent areas. However, there are some border limits, with the normal limit being 2 units. Rivers and some rough terrain borders allow only 1 unit to move across per movement action; Roads allow 3 units to cross. These are all marked on the map.

Combat happens when there are units from both sides in an area, and may be performed at the end of any action. Note the 'may' in that sentence, it's where one of the game choices come in. If you have 2 movement actions available, you could perform one move then perform combat, and if the area is clear, activate that area for movement again. Or you could choose to use each action to move units into the enemy held area, and then perform the combat. After all actions are done,any area containing units from both sides must have combat.

Combat resolution, as you might expect, features yet more dice. First the defender, then the attacker rolls 2 dice for each unit, up to a maximum of 6 dice. As with artillery fire, each 5 or 6 scores a hit, except now a loss is scored on a 4-6, and a retreat on 1-3. The attacker applies his losses and retreats before rolling his combat. If there are units left from both sides after combat, then the attacker has to retreat back to his originating area(s).

So, as you might expect, getting lots of move actions are vital to force the river crossings and take the hills, where the border limits are reduced. Otherwise you're going to have only a single attacking unit against all those likely defenders.

Finally, the cards. As usual in these sorts of games, they just perform wacky stuff or otherwise add benefits. They may allow extra dice to be rolled in artillery fire or combat; cancel a retreat; perform extra moves; cancel an opponent's action die; or allow a roll for victory and end the game (rolling less than the number of units your opponent has lost).

With a projected game time of 45 minutes, our plan was to play this twice, playing each side. However, I missed one critical rule (that the 'standard' area border limit was 2 units, not 3 units), so we restarted after being 30 minutes into the evening. Second time around, my union forces found the 'Ford' card quickly, which allows the border limit on one river crossing to be increased by 1, and was able to force the Rebels off Sudley Hill to take the first victory area. From there it was a grind along the river to take the second victory area before the game ended, which is when one player runs out his card deck, with a simple majority of the three victory areas required for a win. This full game took around an hour, as we futzed a little with the rules, and we chose not to turn it around, having played enough.

OK, this isn't a game that any even semi-serious gamer is going to base a play date on. It's simple to the point of being simplistic. It makes no real effort to model command and control, and the combat system is laughable to any grognard. However, if you have 45 minutes to kill, or are playing with kids or non-wargamers, I can see this hitting the table. It's easy to pick up, and the action dice dictate your options in any single turn, so you're never overwhelmed by potential options and decisions.

Yet, even at 45 minutes I think it outstays its welcome by around 10-15 minutes. Other than a few choices on the card plays, everything is dictated by the dice, with very few real decisions to make. And that's a lot of dice you're going to roll. So many, in fact, that I'm not sure that any decisions you make have any real bearing on the outcome of the game.

If I were going to a gaming retreat, I think I'd throw it in the bag. For those occasions when you don't have time, space, or the mental capacity, to play anything deeper. It just might come out then.

FAB: Siciliy

Eric's choice again, and he decided that next on the table would be the recent release from GMT, FAB: Siciliy, the second in the Fast Action Battles series, the first being FAB: Bulge, which I'm rather fond of after a couple of excellent games.

The first thing to note is that the rules have changed very little from the first game in the series. Although I hadn't played FAB:B for a year or so, the mechanisms came back quickly, and we didn't have to do much rule referring pretty quickly.

Additions to the FAB: Bulge rules are fairly minimal. Some rules for landings, and for the wobbly Italian morale, but that’s about it. Air units have been moved from distinct units to become assets, so they’re handled as part of the standard rules. Overall, pretty easy to play, and the rules are well presented, and thorough. Once you’ve been through the move/combat processes it sticks in the brain quite easily.

We spent an evening getting back into the FAB ruleset, playing the tournament scenario, then played the full campaign game over another couple of shortish evenings. Perhaps 5 hours for the full game, with a little rules confirmation and kibitzing. That first game played pretty quickly, although I was a trifle concerned that it was rather easy for the Allies to win. 

The Axis player has 8VPs at the start of the game: 5 from areas that score for both players (Termini Imerese, Caltanissetta, Catania, Val di Catania, and Niscemi); and 3 that only score for the Axis player (Syracuse, Palermo, Marsala). The Allied player has 0VPs at start. 1VP is also awarded for killing any large block, one that starts the game with 3 or more steps. The current victory level is determined by subtracting the higher score from the lower, so the Axis player starts with a net 8VP lead. So, for example, if the Allied player captures Niscemi, the score is 7VPs to 1VP, for a net Axis lead of 6VPs.

In the tournament scenario, the Allied player wins if the net score is 3VPs to the Axis player, or less, after 5 turns. Capturing Syracuse is 1VP, and Niscemi and Val di Catania are 2VPs each (1 lost by the Axis player and 1 gained by the Allied player). So, capturing those 3 areas give an Allied victory. Given that the British land in Syracuse, Niscemi is adjacent to Gela, an Allied landing area, and Val di Catania is only 2 areas from Syracuse, it doesn't appear too hard.

And indeed it wasn't. By the end of the 3rd turn (I think it was) my Allies had already done enough for the victory. The last couple of turns were just playing it out. The Allies have the stronger force, better assets, and a higher replacement rate. The Axis have a couple of good German blocks, but mostly just weak Italian garrison blocks. I don't recall any outrageous fortune on either side.

For the full campaign game we switched sides, but the outcome was pretty much the same. Requiring to get a net score in their favor to win, the Allies took Syracuse and Niscemi quickly. However, they had trouble getting into Val di Catania as I rolled like a demon with the strong forces there, rolling above average to score 5 or 6 hits in his first couple of attempts, and Eric chose to call off the attack rather than take the large losses.

By the time it fell during turn 6, Eric had also captured Caltanissetta and killed an Italian large block. That made the scores 4VPs against 4VPs, for a net 0VP, meaning Eric had 3 turns to score a single VP for the win.

There then followed 3 turns of ‘find the weak block’, which Eric totally failed at, as I successfully played a shell game. He also attacked into Catania, but, once again, I rolled well in my defenses and repulsed him each time. In the final turn it came down to Eric needing to roll 5 hits in 8 dice on a 50/50 chance in his at ton Catania. For pretty much the first time in the game he got the roll, captured Catania, as well as removing a large block, swinging the score by 3 VPs for a Decisive Victory.

I have several issues with the game.

Despite rolling like a demon for most of the game, the Axis still lost. If I’d been rolling averagely, the Allies would have captured Val di Catania, and been attacking Catania, a turn or two earlier, and won that much sooner. Eric rolled on or below average for most of the game. If he’d been on average, he would likely have killed more blocks and won that way. Yes, it was very close in the end, and Eric pretty much won with a Hail Mary, but if he'd been able to guess where my weak blocks were, and roll average on his attacks, he would have found the required VP there. The balance of luck was with the Axis, and they still lost. After just I single play I can’t say the game is unbalanced, but I’m sure not able to see how the Axis can win. They have to protect the VP areas, but doing that loses blocks, so they lose either way.

The second issue is that the game is very small. The British zone from Catania north is 1 area wide, and only 2 areas wide below that, so they have no real maneuver options. The US forces have more room to maneuver, but won’t get too far given the length of the game. Generally, the US has a choice of one or two areas to attack in, sometimes not even that. The only real choices are in the shuffling of the blocks, and how to assign assets, not in any choice of strategy.

Another issue is the VPs for large blocks losses. At the end of the game, I’ve seen it devolve into a search for the weak units for that final VP, quite common in our FAB:B games. Just feels a little off.

And that brings me to the biggest challenge I have with the game; it doesn’t cover the whole Sicily campaign, stopping about half way to the actual German withdrawal. That leaves an odd taste to the game; just as you think it’s getting interesting, it’s over. The US forces never get a real chance to drive to Palermo and capture the island; the Axis never really have to play a fighting withdrawal. The campaign just feels half done.

Overall, the FAB system works, and it’s a cool system, I like it. But Sicily just doesn’t work as well as Bulge, Not enough options, too small an area, not enough play, and it’s over before it gets interesting. I think I’d play it again, as with familiarity of the rules you can fit it into an evening, so it’s a good length, but I’d far prefer to play FAB: Bulge.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

It doesn't quite float off the table

For our latest session, Mike had wanted to give Martin Wallace's latest game, Test of Fire: Bull Run 1861, a go. This is an American Civil War game covering the first battle of the war: First Battle of Bull Run. (Or, First Manassas, depending on your perspective. The Union tended to name battles after rivers/creeks, the Confederates named them after the nearest town.)

This is not a big game. It fits the typical Wallace mold being somewhat abstract and rules-light. The board is only 14x20 or so, and it's area movement. In fact, movement is reminiscent of a block game: area-to-area, with a limit on the number of units that can cross any particular border during a move. These border limits change depending on terrain.

Each force is represented by a number of identical 2-step infantry units, a couple artillery units, and a leader. (The confederates have a 2nd leader as an optional rule that we didn't try.)

The Southern force is parked south of the Bull Run, and the North is trying to take two of three VP hexes on the other side. There are also auto-victory conditions if either side occupies the other's camp.

The turn sequence is pretty simple:

  1. Roll a number of six-sided dice (3 for the Rebels, 4 for the Union), to determine what actions are available to you that turn.

  2. Perform those actions

The actions are Draw a Card, Fire Artillery, Move, and General (Activate your leader, or draw a card – sort of a wild card draw) The first and last of those happen one time in six, the middle actions happen two times in six.

Units move one area per order, and can be ordered as many times as you have Move orders that turn. The cards do things like give you extra dice, provide additional move orders, allow you to ignore retreats, etc. Nothing game breaking, but little performance tweaks.

If you move into an area containing enemy units, there's combat after all orders are completed. Defenders fire first, two dice per unit, generally hitting on 5s or 6s. After you generate hits, you re-roll those dice, with a 50/50 shot of each hit being a retreat or step loss. The surviving attackers then do the exact same thing. There are minor terrain modifiers, but nothing that really breaks that mold. The only extra rule is there is a cap of 6 dice rolled for any one combat. You can't raise this max for any reason, including card play.

The game does a pretty good job of simulating how ACW warfare generally went: repeated assaults of a defensive position until either the attackers wear out or the defenders break. It's very rules light – I knew very little about the game, and Mike was able to teach it in 10 minutes. It plays in around 45-60 minutes.

Sounds pretty good, right? Here's the problem. You roll a LOT of dice. Buckets and buckets of them. Our original plan, as the game is so short, was to play the game once, switch sides, and play again. I just couldn't face another ¾ hour of rolling dice. So we bailed after one playing.

That said, this game fills a rather particular niche – it's a good 45-minute filler game for two people. I wouldn't seek it out as a featured game for an evening, by any means, but if I was at an all-day event and had just shy of an hour to kill before something meatier, I'd certainly play it. And it's, what, a $30 list price? That's not too shabby.

Another niche it fills is to lure in young players. Once my kids have a slightly better grasp of tactics (a handful more plays of Memoir '44 should help) then I could certainly see playing this game with them. The order system limits the “oh my god I have so many choices” problem that can give wargames a high barrier to entry, the rules are simple, and kids love rolling dice.

So, not a big winner of a game, but good amusement nonetheless.

Next up is C&C Napoleonics again. We're taking the Spanish expansion for a test run. Plus, I think this entry in the C&C system needs a closer look.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sicily calls us again

Mike and I returned to the table these last few weeks with GMT's latest release, Fast Action Battles: Sicily.

I'd played the first FAB game, The Bulge, a couple times soon after it was released, and felt it to be a very solid, if not quite spectacular, game. It certainly brought some new life to the block game genre with fresh concepts like asset chits and a move away from the buckets of dice, A/B/C combat resolution you get in most block games.

I do remember a ton of hype surrounding FAB:Bulge right after it came out, which eventually settled in, and the game's rating on BGG stabilized (it's now the #84 ranked wargame). While not the greatest thing since sliced bread (That is DAK2), it's a quite accessible and quick Bulge game, and I've certainly been looking forward to Sicily coming to market.

As long-time readers on here are aware, Mike and I played the OCS: Sicily game to completion a couple years ago. I hadn't played any other game that tackles Operation Husky, so I was definitely eager to see how a higher-level, and simpler, game would handle the largest amphibious invasion of WWII.

And so, the game hit the table last month. We took one session playing the tournament scenario to get the feel for how things went, then switched sides and played the campaign games over a couple evenings.

So how does the game play?

At the beginning of each turn, both sides draw a number of asset chits from a cup. The Allied quantity never changes throughout play, but the Axis steadily draws fewer and fewer assets. These assets cover pretty much everything that isn't a full combat unit: air and naval support, engineering, artillery, detachments, replacements, “special” actions that could be a number of activities, etc. These assets are either used or eliminated, depending on what happens to them during the turn. If used, they're put back into the cup at the end of the turn, possibly to be drawn again. If eliminated, they're probably done for the game.

Many times, the detachments we drew filled the role of ablative armor as losing full units costs you a VP and losing assets doesn't. (Directly, at least. Diminishing support over time has its own drawbacks, of course.) Engineers are handy for blowing bridges, and there's a couple places on the map where that's almost a required tactic. (It's not as prevalent as in the Bulge, but close.)

After assets are drawn, the phasing player has an admin phase to do various actions that don't involve moving or combat. Then the non-phasing player has a go. Finally, movement, reserve movement, combat, breakouts, and supply. After all that, you draw chits again (though about half the number) and the Axis player has his turn, reversing the roles of phasing and non-phasing player. After that's done, you do a VP check and continue on to the next turn if needed.

How were our sessions?

When we played the tournament scenario, Mike took the Allies, and had a relatively easy go of things, though he only won by one VP. (VP ranges in this game seem to run +/- 8). The campaign game is the first five turns of the nine-turn full campaign, and covers the initial breakout after the landings.

Turns out we'd played a particular rule wrong (though I can't for the life of me remember what it was) which made things a little easier on the Allies. Given the tourney scenario took us less than 3 hours to play, we figured the campaign would be easily played over a couple evening sessions, and we were right. So, the next week we swapped sides (by random choice) and played the campaign.

The starting situation has the Axis with 8 VP. VPs are scored through control of certain areas, and elimination of large units (anything with three or more steps.) Some areas score points for either side controlling them, some only score for one side or the other. So taking some areas provides a two-point swing, others only one. That part of things is a tad confusing, but if you use the control markers properly, they should be pretty easy to count up. The Allied goal is to drop the VP counter below zero, and back up onto the Allied side – the more VPs you have, the more significant your victory.

During our campaign, I probably wasn't quite as aggressive as I could have been as the Allies, but I was still making decent progress. Around turn 6 (of 9) I had the VP counter down to 1, and things were looking pretty good. However, I stalled out big time up until the last turn, and going into turn 9, we were sitting at a flat 0 score. I had two or three opportunities to pick up a point, and the first two failed miserably. The final assault up the east coast was going to decide the game. I had eight dice that would hit on a 50/50 chance, and I needed five hits to force a victory. Anything less would be a draw. I ended up with a good final roll providing six hits, which actually gained me another 3 VP through unit death and taking a critical area. So, while I scored a major victory, it was literally that close to a draw.


The game plays remarkably similar to FAB: Bulge. There were very few core rule changes, but the game-specific changes make the game. Rules are in place to enforce the animosity between the US and British/Canadian forces that existed in the actual operation. There are areas of the map that are forbidden to one side or the other, and other areas that have to be explicitly opened up before units can move in there. This does a much better job of simulating the operational restrictions the two forces were under than approached by anything in the OCS title. The difficulty of taking difficult terrain (particularly behind blown bridges) was quite clear. Overall, I felt it gave an excellent feel to how this campaign actually panned out.

After you've given the introductory and tournament scenarios a go, expect the campaign game to take you four to six hours. Probably closer to four after more plays.

Mike commented when we were done that he couldn't see what he could have done differently as the Axis defender. When I pointed out that we nearly had a draw, he realized he wouldn't need to do much more. More play will naturally start fleshing out any balance issues that might result. And given it's only a 4-5 hour game, it will probably see more play than most. It is a tad disappointing that the campaign game does not last the full historical length of Operation Husky – you never get to the point where the Axis started withdrawing units into Italy. It would be cool if GMT released an expansion that let you play it all the way through, but the game still stands well as is.