Monday, May 26, 2014

Some recent gaming

I've had a recent binge of Napoleon at Waterloo on Hexwar with my usual 60-40 split.

For face-to-face gaming I finally got he chance to get Fast Action Battle: Bulge on the table. I played it once when it first came out, but only recently found a gaming partner with similar tastes to really get into it. We played the NUTS introductory scenario three time sand just recently played the Cold Shoulder P500 bonus scenario once.

Here's a shot from the game ending situation (a draw).

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Marred by some poor spelling, but I suspect the creator may not be a native English speaker. Anyway, that is easily fixed.

Trenton Session report for Hold the Line

Wargamers want fair contests. There's little sense of triumph in willing a foregone conclusion and it's disheartening to feel that no matter how well you play, you may lose.

Yet it's undeniable that a "fair' fight implies a failure of generalship and there's no correlation betwene the fairness of a battle and its significance.

The Battle of Trenton in the Americana Revolution is undoubtedly one of the most significant battles of the whole war. Washington's bold stroke may very well have saved the Patriot cause. And it's widely held that Washington wasn't especially skilled as a tactical commander. He lost more battles than he won. But he won big at Trenton with his ragged rebels despite facing professional troops because he made sure it wasn't a fair fight.
Set Up

This creates some problems for wargame designers, though. Trenton was too significant a fight to not be depicted. But it's hard to make it a fair fight, as a recent session of Hold the Line with my friend Mark Kolenski demonstarted.

Hold the Line is a fun, but very simple game system. In my opinion it manages to succeed quite well as a simulation despite its abstract nature, but there is no arguing that it is a detailed or exhaustive simulation. It tends towards the "game" end of the game vs. simulation continuum.

One might think that simplicity might make a balanced fight more likely. The HOTL Trenton scenario has very little in the way of spacial rules. The situation is rather baldly depicted by the set up. The Americans are in two concentrated bodies, with one group on the flank of the British (actually Hessains) who are widely scattered amidst some buildings.

Mark and I played a match with both games going very similarly. An early volley wiped out the one Hessian artillery piece and then the Americans pressed forward. Mark favored the larger body that started on the ridge led by Washington. I tended to favor actions with the slightly smaller flanking force led by Greene.

But in the end it didn't matter. Both times the Americans won with a VP score of 6-1. It's probable that the historical Hessians didn't even manage 1 VP, but the game outcome was so one-sided that one can doubt that there is much the Hessian player can do except hope for extraordinary dice.

It might be possible to adjust the game victory points so that the British can win with, say, 3 VP, but this doesn't seem very true to the history and runs the danger of making the game just too driven by chance. The Hessian would probably play aggressively hoping to score on lucky shots.

I'm glad Trenton is in the box, but I'm not sure I'll ever play it again.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sparse posts

Sorry for the hiatus in posts and it's likely to continue a bit longer as I have been very busy with a big project.

More will follow, but as a teaser it involves World War I, Larry Bond and Graf Spee

Monday, December 2, 2013

Designer Edition OGRE user review

Up until now most of the reviews posted online have concentrated on the massive physical size of the Designer Edition OGRE package. There's no doubt it is enormous. Words really can't do it justice. Even the videos don't. Until you actually have it in hand, you really quite tell how huge it is.

Yes, the $2.95 OGRE sure grew up. (Well, except for the $2.95 Pocket OGRE!), but is there enough game in there to justify the hype?

First, I think it's fair to note that, while billed as the 6th Edition of OGRE, the Designer Edition is a lot more than OGRE. In fact, not even counting all the special counter sheets that were created for the Kickstarter, the basic Designer's Edition includes every single other OGRE product that's been published except for GURPS Ogre. There are PDF Downloads of The OGRE Book, OGRE Scenario Book 1 and OGRE Miniatures. It includes all the units, scenarios and maps from G.E.V. and Shockwave. Many of these items have been out of print for years and hard to get.

So DE OGRE is really DE Ogre/G.E.V./Shockwave/OGRE Miniatures PLUS.

How does it play? Well, OGRE is, at heart, a very basic 1970s style hex-and-counter wargame. It has a IGO-HUGO turn sequence, a CRT, Hexes, a Terrain Effects Chart and all the other accoutrements of your typical 1970s wargame. Steven Jackson made no concessions to advances in the state of the art of wargame design over the last 30 or so years. There are so interactive player phases. No card-driven mechanics. All the dice are D6.

While a monster in size, this is not a "Monster Game" that will take hours to play. Even the more involved scenarios are well within the typical hour or two expected for modern tastes. One of the reasons why Ogre has aged relatively well is that the design anticipated many of the trends we see in today's games. It's highly customizable, plays quickly and has streamlined mechanics.

While the basic OGRE scenario sees one of the massive cyber-tanks facing an array of conventional forces, the other scenarios included in DE provide a nice mix of battles and objectives, many not even including Ogres.

The 1970s saw tactical combat games fall into two general presentation styles that have endured through the subsequent years.

On the one hand are tactical games that feature set scenarios with mostly predetermined forces, often with specific set up locations. Panzerblitz was this type of game, as was Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader. Recent examples of this type include Borg's Commands & Colors games, Tide of Iron and the various Lock N Load series games.  Games in this presentation style tend to feature very large numbers of scenarios -- sometimes hundreds. They are often allegedly "historical" (although most of the time there's quite a bit of fudging to improve play balance and interest) and calim a certain amount of realism because real commanders seldom have the freedom to select the units comprising their task force. True. On the other hand, real commanders seldom have exact knowledge of what the enemy force is, either.

The second presentation style is the "Design Your Own" (DYO) approach, where the player selects his forces according to some point-based system or other formula. To the best of my knowledge the first time this was used was as a variant for Panzerblitz by Tom Oleson in THE GENERAL Vol. 8. No. 1 called "Situation 13."  Squad Leader and Up Front included it as variants and number of other games followed over the years. It's the main way that Collectible Miniatures games are played, for example. OGRE is part of this presentation style. Typically this style has just a few basic scenarios and most of the replayability is expected to come from the interaction of player force-mix choices. The benefit of this style is that it mirrors the uncertainty that a tactical level commander has over what his opponent's forces will be made up of. A drawback is that the games often have meta-game problems and unless very carefully designed, there may turn out to be otpimal lines of play that cause some units or tactics to be favored or disfavored unduly. Often realistic constraints and tactical realities are weakly reflected and everybody end sup fielding Tiger tanks or flying squadrons made up of all aces.

In OGRE this isn't a huge problem because the pieces are well-balanced against each other and the future-history setting excuses a lot. This is another are whee the game's inherent simplicity serves it well. There are really only a handful of relevant  characteristics invloved for every unit and so it's pretty easy to keep them in equilibrium. The game has been out and play-tested for more than 36 years and the bugs have generally been worked out. A couple of significant changes were made after the very first edition, but for the most part  the design has been very stable since 1978.

So, while the game isn't the latest "thing" as far as cutting edge design goes, players can be assured that they have a fair chance to win, luck won't play too big a role and the scenarios will generally turn on the soundness of their tactics and not on how well they have mastered an arcane rule book. As much as I enjoy the standard OGRE scenarios, I epect thta I'll be spending a lot more time exploring the aspects of the game I had missed out on before now such as Cruise Missiles and the terrain configurations. At EllisCon recently, after a Mark III scenario, we went straight into a couple of Breakthrough and Train scenarios and had a blast. With luck I'll get in a few more games before the end of the year.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It's Big, It's Bruising, It's OGRE!

So the Boxes arrived!
Dominion box for scale

The long-awaited Kickstarter Edition of OGRE:

It's enormous!

Inside were 40 sheets of counters!
It took me 2 days to punch everything out
And there were maps galore.
GEV and Shockwave shown
And all of it fit into a bag ready for deployment!
Maybe this weekend at EllisCon
Not to be forgotten, there was also a copy of Pocket OGRE, in honor of the game that started it all, back in 1977.
Just $2.95! Just like in 1977.
The contents of the Pocket Ogre were minimalist in style, making quite the contrast with the maximalist apporach of Designer's Edition.
The Pocket edition won't be available for general sale until 2014.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Test of Fire Review

I rather like Test of Fire better than most, it seems. I rated it a “9” on BoardGame Geek while the game’s average rating doesn’t break a “seven.”

This is a fairly wide difference of opinion, which prompted some consideration of how it came about that a game that I think is a clever, elegant and enjoyable little wargame doesn’t garner more than mediocre ratings overall.

I think it’s one of those cases where one man’s feature is another man’s bug. The same elements that I think make the game of a success as a reasonably authentic introductory level wargame detract from its appeal to the more hardcore wargamer who is likely to be motivated to acquire a game about the American Civil War Battle of First Bull Run .
“Elegant” is one of those hard-to-define terms that’s become popular among gamers and prompted a lot of threads to debate what, exactly, it means. I’m not going to define an exact meaning here, but I what the term generally seems to encompass in my view are games that have a large payoff in fun, simulation or some other aspect from a small investment in rules or work. It’s a common feature of the best-regarded euro-style games and may even be their most salient characteristic.

In contrast, wargames are often criticized for being “fiddly,” another term widely sued despite some contention over what, exactly, it means. Again, I’m not going to try to define it here, but generally I think it refers to game functions or mechanics that involve a lot of rules or work for relatively small payoffs. These are often justified in the wargame community on historical or realism grounds. Wargamers often value the details, non-wargamers often scratch their heads over it.

Test of Fire definitely eschews detail. It has just eight to ten pages of actual rules – and they’re not large pages and it’s not small type. There are just three kinds of playing pieces and, a handful of terrain effects. And yet it manages to capture the essential elements of the historical action rather well while providing interesting strategies and considerable replay value .

What it doesn’t have are detailed orders of battle or explicit depictions of period tactics. The players are placed firmly in the role of army commanders McDowell and Beauregard/Johnston . You dpon’t sweat the small stuff. You’re making big strategic decisions and the dice and cards do the rest.

The essential game mechanic is that on a player’s turn three (CSA) or four (USA) dice are rolled and the player’s allowable actions are controlled by the dice. For every “1” rolled a player can draw a card, which have various game effects and are discussed below. For every “2” or “3” rolled a player can “fire” one of his two artillery units against an adjacent enemy occupied area. This isn’t a high probability event. Typically a roll of a “5” or “6” is needed to a “hit.” If there’s a hit then a subsequent die roll is made, with a “6” damaging an infantry target and a 1-5 forcing it to retreat. For every “4” or “5”rolled the player is entitled to move a group of 1-3 pieces (infantry, artillery or leaders) from one area to an adjacent area. The number of pieces allowed to cross an area boundary is usually “2,” with difficult terrain such as woods or stream reducing it to 1 or 0 while areas traversed by roads can have three units. For every “6” rolled the player can exercise a choice among the other three options.

Combat is function of movement and this brings up one of the elegant aspects of the design. While a player’s choices are constrained by the dice, the order of execution is up to him and this can create all sorts of interesting game choices.

Combat is relatively bloodless, at least at first. When infantry units enter an enemy-occupied area a combat is fought, either immediately or at the end of the turn, at the moving player’s option. Each defending infantry unit rolls two dice, with every 5-6 being a “hit” and 1-4 being misses. For every hit a subsequent die roll is made, with 1-3 meaning an enemy unit retreats, a 4-6 causing damage. After the defender fires, any surviving attacking units get to roll, also at 2 dice per unit, with the same results. In both cases the maximum number of dice allowed is six.

Damage is depicted by flipping an infantry unit counter to the other side. This doesn’t reduce it’s combat ability, but a second damage result eliminates it. As there is no way to flip a unit back in the game the general trend is for both sides to weaken and become more fragile as the battle progresses.

Each side has its own deck of cards which are slightly different in composition. Cards can be played at any appropriate time as needed. Cards common to both sides are Move cards, which basically act as additional die rolls; Hold and Retreat cards which modify combat results; Artillery, Firepower and Friendly Fire Cards which modify the number of dice rolled in the various kinds of fighting; Lost Order which cancels an enemy die roll and Rout, which is one of the ways to end the game. When a Rout card is played the player gets to roll two dice and if the result is equal to or less than the number of enemy infantry units eliminated then the player wins immediately. Most games will probably end through the play of a Rout card, which is appropriate as that was the historical outcome.

Each side also has some unique cards. The Confederates have a couple of Cavalry Cards which essentially allow a free combat against a federal –occupied area on the Rebel side of Bull Run. This is evocative of the event depicted on the game box cover, when Stuart’s cavalry charged a unit of Zoauves.

The Federals, meanwhile get a Ford card, which represents the discovery of a new ford across the river, another key event of the actual battle. For play-balance purposes an optional rule allows the Federal Player to ensure the Ford is in the top half of the deck, but one could certainly make an argument for playing it straight/. By definition this was an unknowable event and maybe player McDowell shouldn’t be able to make a battle plan relying on information the historical McDowell could never have known.

There are, of course, some minor exceptions and variations for all of this – it is a wargame after all – but this brief outline captures the major points. Both sides are given an incentive to attack – they win if they occupy the enemy base. This incentive is needed to replicate the historical situation which saw both armies making plans to attack. The Federal side is given an additional way to win by occupying any two of three areas marked with stars on the south side of Bull Run. This signals that the burden of attack in on McDowell.

Leaders and artillery have some special characteristics as well, but the infantry is the star of the show and makes up the bulk of both armies. Infantry counters do not represent specific units and seem to represent about 1,000 soldiers, more or less.

It’s probable that I’ve just used more words to describe the game than appear in the rules of play. It’s really that simple. Yet it still plays out as a Bull Run game. The theme is not some paste-on. It’s the driving force behind every element of the game design. In this way, despite the very euro-style presentation, Test of Fire is clearly a wargame. While many wargame designers follow the James Dunnigan paradigm of designing a game system to depict a certain level or warfare and then modifying that system as needed to depict a specific battle, Martin Wallace’s designs always seem to be unique treatments. Even when they bear some superficial resemblances such as his Gettysburg and Waterloo games, they’re really more different than alike. Test of Fire is a stand-alone design that doesn’t seem like it could spawn a system of games at all. It’s very specific to the peculiar conditions of First Bull Run where two very green armies fought over a specific battlefield.

And you can play it in an hour or less.

It’s not the last word in simulations, but it does succeed in capturing important elements of the battle in an easy-to-play format and some elements, such as the Ford and Rout cards, arguably make it more authentic than some more detailed traditional hex-and-counter treatments of the battle.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Wilfred Owen

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Our Katarina wasn't quite so cute, but we had a good time as Katarina the Outlaw (Nate), The Scarlet Shadow (Kenn) and Brother Marcus (Seth) battled the Dreamweaver to save the town of Shadowbrook.

We played the game cooperatively, which made the villain tougher, but our heroes were up for the challenge.

The death toll was actually pretty low, all things considered. There were no cries of "murder" in the countryside. Three of the town elders were killed by the Dreamweaver -- Lord and Lady Handbrook, as well as Magistrate Kroft. Sophie the Midwife was turned to Sophie the Vixen and fought in the showdown alongside the Dreamweaver. Reverend Harding and Doctor Manning joined our three heroes and a body of militia for the final showdown, which the heroes were able to win while only losing the good pastor. Not bad.

The key to the heroes success was that they drew a large number of useful event cards that came in handy during the final showdown while the Dreamweaver's minions never arrive din large numbers and most of the ones that did arrive were dispatched easily. The only hero who spent some time KO's was the Scarlet Shadow.

Every hero was able to contribute a lot to the eventual victory through good cooperation and a little bit of luck. The Dreamweaver villain is from The Coast expansion. Her minions were not too dangerous and her own Dream Attacks were rarely able to be enough of a setback.

Katarina is from the base A Touch of Evil game, Brother Marcus is from the Something Wicked expansion and The Scarlet Shadow comes from Hero Pack One.

I liked Brother Marcus, it was a little annoying not to be able to use a gun, but it had little effect on combat because he can use his high "spirit" to fight instead.

There was a positive response, so another game will probably be scheduled before long.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Napoleon 4th Edition order of battle compared to 2nd Edition

I plan to take a closer look at the differences in the orders of battle between all the editions, but first let's look at the changes between the Avalon Hill edition and the new 4th Edition.

While there aren't as many blocks as the 3rd Edition, which had over 80, there are more blocks in the new edition of the game. (They're also bigger blocks -- the larger size used in most Columbia Games these days.) There's more wood.

In the old AH version of the game the French army was comprised of seven infantry blocks (three @ 3CV and four @ 4CV), six cavalry blocks (three each 2Cv and 3CV) three artillery (one 2CV and two 3Cv) and a pair of 2 CV horse artillery for total of 18 blocks.

Now there is one Napoleon leader block (1CV), one Guard Infantry (4 CV), Two Guard Artillery (3CV ea), one Guard Cavalry (3CV). eight regular infantry (two 4CV, 5 3CV and one 2CV) four regular cavalry (two 3CV and two 2CV) five artillery (three 3CV and two 2CV) and the pair of 2 CV horse artillery). The combat power of these blocks is different from the original game because of changes in firepower, but I'll look at that in a future post. In raw numbers there are now 24 French blocks -- a increase of one third but only 66 CV compared to the old game's 53 CV, a lesser increase.

The Prussians grow from 16 blocks with 40 CV to 18 blocks with 58 CV, so the number of blocks just edges up but there is a huge jump in the number of CV. The Anglo-Allied force goes from 14 blocks/39 CV to 16 blocks/49 CV, not quite as big an increase as the Prussians but still notable.

So the total CV ratio changes from 53 French CV vs. P-A-A 79 (1.49 to 1) to 66 French CV vs. P-A-A 107 or a 1.62 to 1 ratio. At first glance it appears the French job has gotten a bit harder.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Unboxing thoughts on Napoleon 4th Edition

The long-anticipated 4th Edition of Napoleon arrived at my door just before the weekend. More elaborate judgement will have to await a chance to actually play the game, but my initial impressions were positive.

The physical presentation is good, if not outstanding. The box is the standard Columbia Games slipcase format, although with all-new art for the box cover. Gone is the silvery rendition of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David used in the 2nd and 3rd editions. Now we have a 2004 painting by Howard David Johnson of "Napoleon at Waterloo." Clearly more thematic.

There's also all-new art for the mapboard, which is mounted, although it feels slightly thinner and lighter than what i have seen in some recent games such as Shenandoah and Crusader Rex. Not just bigger in physical dimensions, the new mapboard expands the campaign field by a town in some directions, so that critical locations such a Liege and Ghent are no longer on the board edge.

The game clearly descends more from the 2nd Edition than the 3rd edition in scope, but does import many of the better details from the 3rd edition. Overall there are many small and large changes from the earlier editions and it will take some playings to assess the impact of all of them. Some changes are just refinements, such as the elimination of the useless final Allied night turn on June 22. Some things are more significant changes. For example the "square" and "terrain" rules that had originally been mentioned as optional rules during the Kickstarter campaign are now fully integrated into the base game mechanics.

Instead of being die-cut counters, which I believe the Kickstarter had originally said, the Square and Terrain markers are now stickers going on green blocks. I think most players will prefer this presentation. The blocks are the larger size that we've tended to see in most recent Columbia Games, with Blue for the French, Red for the Anglo-Allied and Black for the Prussians, as well as the green ones mentioned before. The 'foil" style stickers look pretty nice, although I don't think it matters all that much. The iconography is clear and functional and will be familiar to anyone who has seen Columbia's recent games. There have been a lot of changes to combat values, however, and I'm not sure how it will affect game-play. My initial impression is that the French have been weakened, somewhat, compared to the P-A-A, but I'll have to take a more detailed look to be sure. The game also includes colored dice for each side (four each red, blue and black), two rulebooks, two battle boards and one set up chart for each side showing the historical deployment. There is one sticker set, which is one area I wish Columbia would follow the lead of other block game manufacturers and include a set of spares. Unlike Shenandoah, the stickers in Napoleon are pretty easy to remove and apply, so few players will need a spare. Still, it would be nice. Mistakes do happen.

As far as the game system goes, there is a lot that will be familiar to both players of the classic Avalon Hill version of the game and the newer Third Edition.

Perhaps the most significant change over Earle editions is the revised victory conditions, which reduce the opportunities for the Allies to play "rope-a-dope" at the end of the game. While the French still have to defeat both enemy armies before the end of the game, they also can win by holding two of the three supply cities. One obvious consequence of this is that the Allies can't simply stick the Prussian up by Liege and leave the Anglo-Allied army to fend for itself. In earlier editions of the game the french could wipe out the Anglo-Allies and then have to rush across the board in a race against time to defeat the Prussians. Judicious expenditure of delaying cavalry units could often leave the French a unit or two short of defeating Prussia when the clock ran out. Besides being a 'gamey' and unhistorical strategy, it wasn't much fun to play.

Skirmishes have also been changed in what seems likely to be an important way. Now all skirmishes (battles that involve fewer than three units on either side) last just one round, after which the side with fewer blocks has to retreat (attacker retreats if tied). Cavalry type units are advantaged over infantry and foot artillery in skirmishes as well and the larger side doesn't have to reveal any more than four units. There are other changes, but until I get to play a game or two I am not sure of their impact so I think I'll wait a bit before commenting further.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

First opposed play of Guns of Gettysburg

I got to try out The Guns of Gettysburg in my first opposed play through (in contrast to solitaire playings). I'm pretty sure we made a number of mistakes so I'm not really going to get into details of how it went. I'm more certain we played the reinforcement rules more or less correctly and I thin they definitely create an interesting dynamic. Chances are against replicating the historical arrival schedule but chances are very good at replicating the dynamics of a meeting engagement! I'll note that the Confederates, under my control, were able to win by following a strategy of relentless attacking over the first day and into the next morning, but the number of artillery tokens was getting dangerously low and I can see where this might not work as well against a more experienced Union player. I'm looking forward to trying it again, hopefully against someone who has also studied the rules a bit.

Monday, July 1, 2013

50 years of Gettysburg games -- From Charles Roberts to Bowen Simmons

I haven't had the chance to play Bowen Simmons' new The Guns of Gettysburg against anyone yet, but I did go through a solitaire play through last night.

Like Simmons earlier games, Bonaparte at Marengo and Napleon's Triumph, The Guns of Gettysburg doesn't owe much to the traditional hex-and-counter style of wargame that can trace its lineage back to Charles Roberts original Gettysburg from 1964 (Although that game actually used squares, not hexagons,  it was a grid). It's probably easier for nonwargamers to learn Simmons games because thee is less to unlearn

Still, laying the two games out side by side provides an interesting contrast. The older game was a seminal work in the development of the historical board wargaming hobby. Roberts first design -- Tactics -- was a purely fictional clash between identical armies, which had been the approach of all earlier wargames as well.

50 years of Gettysburg wargames
Roberts' breakthrough was the inspiration of modeling a historical battle. The appeal of fictional military exercises proved limited -- mostly to professional military men seeking training. The appeal of "You In Command" however, proved much more commercially viable and the board wargaming hobby was born.

Roberts' Gettysburg therefore holds an esteemed place in the annals of wargaming -- but, in truth, the game itself has not aged particularly well. While Roberts was blazing a new trail, being a pioneer has many drawbacks. You're mot likely to hack the best path through the woods on your first pass, after all. It's not a very sophisticated design and the terrain analysis, especially, is pretty simplistic. There's not benefit to the roads, for example. Still, it was a start. The Guns of Gettysburg, in contrast, is nothing if not a sophisticated look at the battle, with the map and the terrain analysis a key part of the game design. It's also a very nice looking game.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

And now for something completely different .. Wallace's Gettysburg

Martin Wallace's Gettysburg is a special limited edition (1,500 copies) euro-style wargame about America's most famous Civil War battle.

Wallace explicitly denies any simulation intent, but I think he may be too modest, as it's at least as reasonable facsimile of the battle as many games with pretensions of simulation authenticity.

What Wallace's Gettysburg doesn't have is a strict adherence to scale in either units, geography or time. Units are not measured in or called "brigades" for example, although the pieces typically seem to represent 1-2 brigades of infantry for example. Likewise the turns are not measured in "hours," although each cycle of player acts seems to depict something akin to a half hour's worth of action.

In perhaps the most controversial aspect of the game's presentation, the military units are represented with "meeple" style wooden figures vaguely shaped like marching infantrymen, kneeling cavalry troops and cannons. The CSA side is the traditional gray, except for elite infantry which is in black. The Union side is a little more varied, with blue for the regular infantry and artillery, a darker blue for cavalry, one bright red unit for the elite "Iron Brigade" and orange for the lesser quality troops of XIth Corps.

In a very "euro" style touch, casualties are marked with color coded tiny wooden cubes that match the color of the wounded infantry or cavalry unit and there are additional wooden pieces in a variety of shapes for other game functions.

Among those are some larger blocks numbered 2 through 5 in sets of eight in blue and in gray and corresponding gray and blue discs that are used to mark orders (along with some black discs for Union forced passes), These represent the heart of the game system, depicting the command and control problems of a civil war army in a paperless way.

The basic outline of a player's turn is as follows: Placing an available block (numbered 2, 3, 4 or 5) and then placing an order disc with a block, not exceeding the number on that block. (And not necessarily the block just placed.) That disc entitles the player to activate units in the same area as the block, or sometimes adjacent areas and do things with them. After the activity is done, the player can pick up a previously placed block -- and any discs that it has and return them to his stock.

The most common activity is to move one or two units into an adjacent area (up to four of there's a road). If the area is enemy occupied the move is an "assault" which is comprised of a number of steps involving fire and morale checks by both sides. Losses are marked with the various color-coded blocks and if a unit accumulates a sufficient number of those blocks (usually six) it is removed from the board.

There are other activities such as firing artillery at long range, removing disruption markers and other activities.

A period ends when the Union player has exhausted all his discs in a time period. Various housekeeping activities ensure and the stock of order discs is replenished for the next period. Note that discs remain on the board until their associated block is picked up, so there's an important resource-management aspect tot he game system, in another common euro-game touch.

Reinforcements arrive by a set, historical schedule. The burden of attack is on the Confederate side, but they also have more discs. Victory is assessed at the end of each day, with the CSA winning if he controls two "starred" areas marked on the board that roughly correspond to the historical Union "Fishhook" position. The CSA can also win a sort of "sudden death" victory by occupying the Little Round Top area at the end of any period.

Overall the game manages to reflect the overall course of the battle reasonably well -- it feels like Gettysburg. The pressure is clearly on the CSA to push hard in order to win, but the federals, carefully played, can manage to hold on.

The game mechanics are a refreshing change of pace for wargamers, who won't find a lot of overlap with the traditional hex-and-counter model. It may appeal to non-wargamer euro players who like relatively intricate games. Compared to most wargames it's not very intricate, but it's on the high side for the euros I have seen.

It's definitely playable in a single evening -- possibly even match play suitable for a longish evening -- and until The Guns of Gettysburg came out I'd have considered this my primary Gettysburg game for playing on the battle's anniversary. I think I'll still try to get in a game of it on July 1st - 3rd. There's only one "scenario" -- the entire battle -- and the area depicted is limited to the actual battlefield so it's not much use for exploring what-ifs. But it is a suitable commemoration of the battle and it appears to be scrupulously fair to both players with neither side having an obvious edge. Neither side can afford to be lackadaisical in their play, however, and it should be a tense contest throughout.

Overall I recommend this game as a very nice, entertaining Gettysburg wargame that is more game than simulation but still shouldn't offend the sensibility of the historically inclined.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A good thing it's called Cemetery Hill, because it sure ain't Gettysburg

Starting setup for the Decision Games edition
The Blue & Gray system was a passably authentic depiction of civil war battles at the introductory level that was very popular in the 1970s under SPI and was updated with some changes by Decision Games a couple of decades later.

Originally published as folios and quad games, the system operated under some severe constraints as far as components went, but it really wasn't half bad most of the time and most of the time a judicious use of special rules and set ups would provide something remotely close to the actual event.

The conventional wisdom is that Cemetery Hill represented the weakest entry in the series and in this case the conventional wisdom is correct. Many were surprised when Decision games redid the Blue & Gray quad that the battle they dropped in order to make room for the Bull Run battles  was Antietam instead of Cemetery Hill.

At the root of Cemetery Hill's problems was the ill-advised decision to depict the order of battle at the division scale (or half-division in the case of the Rebels) instead of the brigade level used for every other Blue & Gray game. While this was perhaps an understandable, if incorrect, decision when SPI published it as a folio, kit was a very poor decision when Decision Games re-issued the game in a boxed edition where the same constraints did not apply. Gettysburg was a large battle -- the largest ever fought in North America, actually, and a B&G treatment of it at the brigade level might have been interesting.

Instead we have a clunky division level game with huge combat factors.

Compounding the problem is a peculiar treatment of terrain. Urban combat was very rare in the Civil War, and the few times it did occur, such as at Gettysburg, provided no evidence that defending a town represented much of an advantage. But Cemetery Hill makes the Town of Gettysb urg into an inportant fortress-like defensive position that will always figure in the Union player's plans.

Likewise the game provides triple defense for defenders of Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill and the Round tops -- an astounding upgrade of some pretty unspectacular elevations a few dozen meters above the surrounding countryside.

Finally, the game starts at a strange time for a Gettysburg game -- around 2 p.m. on July 1st just as Ewell;s corps was about to rout the hapless XI Corps. One suspects that this was done to finesse that the game couldn't really cope with the swirling action of the morning and early afternoon of July 1st as designed.

So what we're left with is a game that fails to develop in an authentically plausible way to depict the Battle of Gettysburg with very little chance of the historic "fishhook" developing or events resembling Longstreet's offensives.

This might have been acceptable if the result was at least an interesting game, but here, too, Cemetery Hill falls short. The online game site provides Win-Loss stats for Cemetery Hill along with other games it offers and those statistics reveal that the game is severely imbalanced in favor of the Union side, with the Blue beating the Gray almost 2-1. Interestingly it doesn't matter whether the game is played with the classic SPI-era rules or the modified Decision Games version (with the "attacker ineffectiveness" rules),

As of late June, 2013, the Union players won 2,002 of the 3,080 games played under the new rules, for a winning percentage of 65%. This is essentially the same as the classic rules, where Union players won 977 of 1,559 games played, or 63%.

The outcome of the game depends enormously on how well the first couple of CSA attacks go against the federal XI Corps. If they go well, then the South can have a shot at victory, but if they go badly, one might as well just start over, with suggests that the better design choice would have been to start the game even later and just give Lee credit for beating Howard.

With a number of new games out depicting the Battle of Gettysburg as its 150th anniversary approaches there's little reason to revisit Cemetery Hill as part of your commemorations. It's very appropriate that it was called Cemetery Hill, because it isn't much of a Battle of Gettysburg game. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Is it a gamble because there are dice? Lee's Greatest Gamble

Set up for Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble
The approach of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the appearance of some games explicitly tied to that commemoration such as The Guns of Gettysburg and Gettysburg 150 prompted me to re-look at some of my old collection before I tackled the new stuff.

Interestingly, Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble pioneered one of the notable mechanics of The Guns of Gettysburg, army postures.

Based on the army's "posture," the ability of units to move and fight are affected to some degree or other. The motivation behind this regimen is to account for the peculiar fact that -- although the battle occurred over three days that July -- nearly all the fighting was concentrated within a few violent hours on each day. Indeed, it's a very notable aspect of the battle, especially on its second and third days. It took most of July 2nd for Longstreet to organize his flank attack and the arrival of nightfall did as much to end its chances of success as the arrival of Union reserves.

Lee's Greatest Gamble was one of the first games that made a serious effort to graphic with that problem and most serious wargames about the battle since then have tried to find some way to model the large periods of inactivity that marked the fight.

In The Guns of Gettysburg the armies choose between Attack, Hold and Withdrawal general orders, which generally have the effects you'd expect from their names. In Lee's Greatest Gamble there are four postures, Attack, Restricted, Passive and Panic which are, perhaps, a little less intuitively named but similarly affect what the player can do. The main difference between the two approaches is that The Guns of Gettysburg game places the army status under player control and gives a player incentives for choosing each while LGG makes it subject to the vagaries of the die. This die-based approach has the advantage of making one of the results "Panic" which provides a possibility of the opposing player taking temporary control of part of the army. This rather neatly accounts for some of the bad battlefield decisions of the actual fight such as Barlow's advance to Barlow's Knoll and Sickle's advance of III Corps.

A drawback of the die-based approach, besides the obvious reduction in player control, is that a bad series of die rolls can prevent the two armies from fighting at all. Errata mitigated it to some extent, but it's still a possibility even after the errata. This is a significant drawback to game with the time investment of LGG and enough to keep me from being willing to make that investment.

I'm not sure whether Bowen Simmons, designer of The Guns of Gettysburg, is familiar with LGG or whether he derived any inspiration from the earlier game, but I think his implementation is superior in concept. As a general rule, I dislike "idiot rules" that force players to do or not do things instead of providing them incentives. It's both more realistic and more satisfying from a player's point of view to give him a reason to delay making an attack than simply banning him from the act. In the actual event there were reasons why thing occurred as they did and while it may not be possible to recapture all those reasons, it's superior to have a reason for things to happen or not happen.

Still, LGG broke some fascinating new ground and it was interesting to look at it again as I pondered whether any old titles needed to be re-evaluated as the 150th anniversary neared.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Has it just been 25 years?! Gettysburg 125th Anniversary Edition reviewed

The 125th anniversary of something isn't usually a big deal, but Avalon Hill decided it was enough of a hook to latch onto for the 1988 update of the venerable Gettysburg title. The resulting Gettysburg 125th Anniversary Edition didn't bear much resemblance to its predecessor -- a good thing as it turns out.

While remaining an introductory level wargame, the 1988 version of Gettysburg introduced a new basic game engine that eventually became known as the "Smithsonian" series, which was applied to a diverse group of titles, most updates of of classic AH titles such as Midway, D-Day and Battle of the Bulge.

The essential element of the "Smithsonian" series was a combat system that eschewed the old CRT for a competitive D10 die roll modified by units strengths and other factors. Based on how much the winner won by, the loser suffered certain results.

While this worked pretty well in Gettysburg 1988, I didn't care for it as much in the other Smithsonian games, although I ended up buying and playing all of theme before I finally decided I didn't like it.

The only survivor of the bunch in my collection is Gettysburg 1988. The system seems to work reasonably well in this case.

Probably the biggest limitation of the system is that it's prone to more extreme results when there are smaller numbers of units involved. A 1-7 fighting another 1-7 can more easily double the result of its foe than a 10 factor stack fighting a 10-factor stack.

At start positions
Like the original Gettysburg, Gettysburg 1988 depicts the order of battle for both sides at the divisional level for infantry, with cavalry brigades and artillery battalions.  Unlike the older game, all the artillery battalions appear, so the Union has the proper edge in artillery strength. There's more differentiation between the infantry\ divisions than the 1964 game had, which helps the CSA a bit. The CSA player is, however, still vulnerable to bad luck because he has only nine infantry units. Eveyr loss will be keenly felt.

The victory conditions award significant points for holding specific points of geography, so the federal player will have to fight forward. A common problem with Gettysburg games is trying to properly capture the pace of the battle, and like most earlier efforts this version of Gettysburg doesn't grapple with that problem. While the actual battle saw extensive lulls in the action on July 2 and July 3, in Gettysburg 1988 that's not likely to happen and the game will therefore tend to be relatively more bloody than the real thing.

Mitigatuing that a bit is the game's option for starting on July 2 and on July 3, so that even though a full July 1st start game probably won;t see anything like Longstreet's two charges, players can still expereince them with the later start times.

Like many Gettysburg games, the 1988 edition brings the cavalry onto the main battlefield even though they really fought off map. An issue of The General included a map extension that lets players include the eastern cavalry field for those who have it.

Overall the game is a decent little introductory game, but comes off second best to some of the most recent forays that cover the battle with similar playing time but more interesting player decisions. As far as simulation value goes, it's fairly mediocre because of the lack of attention to command control and pacing alluded to.