Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One-Page Bulge analysis

Players sitting down for a game of One-Page Bulge know what to expect in a Battle of the Bulge game. The Germans will be starting off with overwhelming force, but face a very tight time schedule and difficult terrain.
Compared to many Bulge games, OPB is pretty friendly to the Germans in its allocation of combat strength. Not counting the Allied air points, which are highly variable, the Americans never actually catch up to the Germans in strength points, even after taking into account all the reinforcements.

The Germans start on turn 1 with 202 strength points on map plus 31 more in turn 1 reinforcements for a total of 233. The Americans have just 108.

By fifth turn the Germans get another 94 SPs, while the Americans only get 80 more. Given probable combat losses it's quite possible for the Germans to have a bigger strength differential on Dec. 20 than at the start.
The last five turns see the ratio change in the American favor, as the Germans get just one more pulse of 27 SPs on turn 8, while the U.S. player sees another 132 points become available during turns 6-10.While the Germans have a strength advantage, the Americans have a significant mobility edge. All the U.S. units are faster than all the German units. In addition, the U.S. units have better access to the road net, while the Germans will often be forced into cross-country moves. Zones of control are not locking in this game, so American units can easily and quickly disengage. About the only factor keeping the Americans from freely trading space for time are the presence of 11 supply dumps behind their lines which are worth victory points for the Germans. Fortunately for the Americans, they have the ability to evacuate and/or destroy those dumps, so they can prevent the Germans from scoping those points, or reduce the amount gained.

As always in Bulge games, the German player has to push ahead ruthlessly in order to have any chance of victory. Compared to most Battle of the Bulge games the Germans seem to have a somewhat better chance of getting something across the Meuse River. This is reflected in the victory conditions, which require them to get 50 strength points over the river for a marginal victory -- the equivalent of two Panzer divisions.

The usual solution is to make the big push is the Fifth Panzer Army sector, basically along the axis of Clerf-Bastogne-Marche-Namur. This was the sector that saw the largest territorial gains in the historical battle. Most German players will ensure they capture Bastogne, rather than bypass it, so supply will be available. The drawback to this approach is that it's the longest way, with an exposed southern flank. It misses all but one small supply dump which is easily evacuated or burned. It relies on getting troops across the Meuse.

An alternative approach is to make the main effort in the Sixth SS Panzer Army sector, which was the historical plan. This requires taking on the strong part of the U.S. line from the get-go and is much more of a do-or-die plan. The drawback is that the terrain is very unfavorable and the American line pretty strong.
On the other hand, there are 42 VPs of supply dumps in the area. Getting one supplied Panzer Division into Liege can be enough to tip into the win column. If the Allied player attempts to burn the dumps and they get captured anyway, they're worth even more points to the Germans, making it worthwhile to even threaten captures. In order for this plan to work, however, the German player has to keep up the pressure elsewhere along the front in order to disguise his aim.

Draws are very possible in One-Page Bulge. In order to win, not just prevent a German victory, the U.S. player has to keep the German total to 19 or less victory points, which means that they cannot afford to let any major supply dump fall into German hands, especially the 1st Army POL dump near Malmedy. The worst case is to start burning the dump and then have it captured anyway, giving the Germans 15 Vps. If the Germans also capture the adjacent ASP then they are almost guaranteed the draw.

It's a very close game, with no "perfect plans" available, but the Germans do have options in OPB they rarely have in Bulge games to try a somewhat different approach than typical.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bali in Iraq

I've never hit the lottery, but my deployment to Iraq in 2003 may be close to the wartime equivalent.
I spent 35 days in northern Iraq attached to the Joint Task Force North headquarters, which was the highest command level in that area.
While the threat of injury from enemy action was minimal, I did have a little concern over the number of folks walking around with loaded weapons! As it turns out, nothing untoward happened while I was there.
It's been said that war is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. As I said, I missed out on any of the terrifying parts, but I did get my full share of the boring parts.
I was on the overnight shift in the main tactical operations center, so my 12-hour duty shifts were interesting, but the 12-hour off time was hard to fill. After eating and sleeping during the part of the day that wasn't too hot to sleep, there wasn't an awful lot to do and a lot of time to not do it in.
I had brought some playing cards, including a copy of the card game Bali. While I spent quite a bit of time playing solitaire games using may "Most Wanted Iraqi" 52-card deck, it was nice to take a break and do something along a different line.
The solitaire game of Bali revolves around using its 54-card deck to build words in columns. Some simple rules explain when cards can be moved around and how. Similar to Scrabble, some letters are worth more than others. For example, a "J" is worth 4, while a "D" is worth 1 point. The value of the letters is added up and then multiplied by the number of letters for a final score.
My goal became to beat my previous record, which meant a lot of pretty good games didn't make the cut. I got as high as 362 before I left. I haven't had a long stretch of boring time lately to devote to revisiting my Iraq record since then, but someday I'd like to see how high I can get.
I had the small Avalon Hill edition which was easy to travel with.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Fad or Classic? Is nearly 3 decades enough to know?

Before the era of the Masses Media of the Internet, YouTube and Boardgame Geek there was an era of Mass Media such as mass-circulation magazines, daily newspapers and three TV networks.
Every so often in that earlier, simpler time, a board game might bubble up into the general consciousness and get attention in the form of articles, television segments and book sales and become a fad. Games such as Mastermind and Backgammon would be hot for a while.
In the early 1980s a couple of rather similar games first published in 1979 popped into prominence. Each was a variation on an ancient classic, the invention of smart young guys and picked up by major game publishers. Each had regular and travel editions that were widely available in non-game outlets and even had a thin strategy book or two published.
Nearly thirty years later, though, their paths have diverged somewhat. While neither is wildly popular any more, Pente seems to have held up considerably better than its contemporary Kensington.
Kensington is essentially a more elaborate version of the very ancient game Nine Men's Morris, which is at least 4,000 or more years old. It's played on a considerably larger and more intricately shaped board than the older game and eliminates the older game's capturing rules, repositioning pieces instead. The winner is the first player to occupy all six points of one hexagon.
Pente is a slight variation of an almost equally ancient game, ninuki-renju, played on the same board as Go, another game that dates back many centuries. In this case the designer added a capture rule to the five-in-a-row configuration game.
Even though Kensington was a German "Game of the Year" nominee in 1982 and seems like it should have fared at least as well as Pente as a simple and quick-playing abstract strategy game, in fact it's lustre has faded considerably since.
Even though 404 members of BoardGame Geek list owning a copy of Kensington (as of Feb. 23, 2008), between them they only report a total of 54 plays, an average of .133 plays per copy. In comparison, 1,210 BGG members have a copy of Pente and they've reportedly played them 1,638 times, an average of 1.35 times each.
My own take on the two games is that Pente is more attractive-looking in play, is more tense almost from the start and feels like a more elegant design. Kensington shares with it's older ancestor a two-phase style of game play with an initial placement phase and then, one all pieces arrive, a phase of moving units. Both phases are rather slow-moving and, frankly, often boring. While they can be very strategic can reward long-term planning, they can be pretty frustrating between evenly matched opponents. Removing Morris's capture rule does not seem like an improvement for Kensington, making the struggle even more drawn-out.
Pente games, in contrast, have a built-in time limit and the best end games see both players teetering on the edge of disaster. But the game will soon end when it reaches that point.
So I do think that the verdict is in on both games, Kensington, it turns out, was indeed just a fad. Pente, while not a blockbuster, will remain a niche classic for years to come.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Is The Longest Day Play-AARP-able?

I recently hauled out my copy of The Longest Day, as I do from time-to-time. As a classic "monster game" from the 1970s/80s there's a pretty high entry bar for getting a game in due to the time and number of players involved.
But perusing it I realized that the entry bar may be even higher now, because I could no longer make out some of the tiny print bearing historical information on the counters with my bifocal-aided eyes. My first thought was "gee, if I get to play this again I'm going to need to have a magnifying glass on hand."
But reflecting on it further, I realized that a number of aspects of the game may soon render it ever realistically playable again for me.
It was, after all, designed by a young (at the time) man to be played by a group of other young men with a considerable amount of time on their hands, as well as the dexterity to handle masses of closely stacked cardboard counters, limber enough to reach across a large table and with sharp enough vision to read tiny print and symbols. Much of the fine print is purely historical information, but some of it does have game effect.
I wonder how much of this aging of the grognards may be affecting the presentation and design choices of recent games. Many newer hex-and-counter wargames have moved to bigger counters for example, Figure-based and block games also are generally easier to handle than stacks of half-inch counters.
Long ago I had clipped the counters of my copy of The Longest Day, something I rarely do, because even back then there were too many finger fumbles. While always a risk in a hex-and-counter wargame, a finger fumble that would be a minor annoyance in a regular sized game can turn into a disaster in a monster game where it's just not possible to remember where everything was.
So now I have to consider whether or not I'll ever get a chance to play out that Normandy invasion one more time. And if not, what does this imply for other, similar games in my collection?
Or yours, perhaps?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Featured Game: Ironclads

In a wargame hobby where no one thinks twice about doing the 33rd game on the Battle of the Bulge or the 50th Eastern Front wargame it's unusual when a reasonably popular topic seems to have a seminal game that doesn't see a redo. One of those topics, however, seems to be American Civil War tactical naval combat, which hasn't seen a serious simulation since Yaquinto's Ironclads, nearly 30 years ago.
Ironclads is a classic 1980s style full-bore board wargame in all its chart-heavy and procedure-dense glory. It depicts Civil War naval combat in excruciating detail, lovingly tracking every single shell from loading through exact hit location. There's drama aplenty with explosions, busted steam lines, toppled stacks and just about every other possible calamity accounted for.
By today's standards the game is rather slow moving, heavy on die rolls and charts and relies a lot on written orders. For the most part it works because Civil War Naval battles tended to involve just a few ships, bearing just a few guns each, and moving rather slowly.
The basic turn structure is the familiar one used in many tactical naval wargames. Players write a coded plot for how they will execute their available movement points. For example, a player with a ship that has five movement points could write down 2 L 1 R, which would order the ship to move two hexes forward, turn left, move 1 hex and then turn right. Firing is done after movement, based on a two D6 roll on a specific chart for each gun type with various modifiers for crew quality, battlefield conditions, target size and the like. If a hit is scored, additional rolls are made to determine exactly where the shot lands. The power of the shell is compared to the strength of the armor involved in that section and another roll determines how much damage is done to the armor. The general pattern is that repeated hits on the same section of the ship will gradually weaken it until penetrating hits become common, resulting is escalating damage.
There are rules covering just about every imaginable facet of Ironclad-era fighting, from boarding actions (rare) to floating mines (called "torpedoes" back then), forts, river obstructions, currents, shoals and more.

A year after Ironclads was first published Yaquinto came out with an expansion that added more ships and scenarios, including a more fleet actions and several battles from outside the Civil War. This was not entirely successful because the new battles tended to involve larger fleets with bigger, faster ships that were much more heavily armed, which stretched the limits of the game system.

Seven years later, 3W came out with Shot & Shell, which was billed as "completely compatible" with Ironclads, although also playable as a standalone game. Although no one from the original design team is listed in the game credits and it's unclear what permissions were granted, Shot & Shell is really a third expansion for Ironclads. There's no overlap in the scenarios and a conversion chart is provided for adapting the scenarios in the basic game and its expansion.
Shot & Shell cleans up the rules in many respects and adds a couple of important new rules concepts to deal with some of the problems in the original game.
One of those is an entirely new and detailed system for ground combat, which is much more detailed and realistic than the very sketchy rules in the original Ironclads. Several of the Shot & Shell scenarios involve. considerably more Army fighting than naval.
The second is a new way of handing situations where there are large numbers of guns being fired, as is common in the fleet actions. It essentially organizes the guns into groups and averages their effects on the targets. This streamlines a lot of the firing, while still allowing for cases of individual fire when needed.
Shot & Shell is a necessary adjunct to the base game.

There was also a reprint of the original Ironclads and the expansion set which changed the graphics (in a way that wasn't very popular) but otherwise made no significant rules changes, from what I've heard. Other than that, this topic hasn't really seen anything like Ironclads, a remarkable state of affairs.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Can Dune be rethemed and still be Dune?

There's some excitement in Geekdom over word that Fantasy Flight Games is going to publish a new edition of Dune, widely considered one of the true classic of gaming. FFG is known for its excellent quality product, so rejoicing was widespread.
Ah, but wait! It turns out that FFG didn't get the licensing right from the Herbert estate, so their Dune will have to be rethemed, reportedly into FFG's Twilight Imperium universe. If so, will this still be Dune?
I don't see how it can be anything other than a brand new game that resembles Dune in its playing style.
Rethemed Euros are fairly common, because theme is definitely secondary to the game design for them. But even there, a rethemed edition will generally be considered a new game.
But with wargames theme is central, Indeed, the design achievemnt in Dune is how well the game captures the thematic elements of the Dune novel, which is no mean achievement considering the complexity of that book. From the Bene Gessert prediction, to the Atreides foresight to the spice blows the game's key elements make sense only in the Dune context. Will a Twilight Imperium edition merely copy those mecahnics and paste on some new justification? Or will the game strive to capture the spirit of the T.I. universe and come up with entirely different rules that reflect that setting? The first choice seem likely to leave fans of both dissatisfied, while the second choice will remove the game even more from being a new "Dune."
Many classic games have second and even third lives with different publishers. Games such as Diplomacy, Acquire, A House Divided, Napoleon, War at Sea and Russian Campaign have been reprinted successfully.
But some games can never be replicated, especially wargames that rely on licensing because they are set in a proprietery setting. Dune is one of those. The Avalon Hill edition will never be seen again. If you want one, ebay is your option.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

First impressions of Napoleon's Triumph

Well, Marty and I got the chance to play Napoleon's Triumph for the first time.
It was a very good and enjoyable. It took rather longer than billed (about four hours) to play because we were both new and we had to pick our way through the novel procedures, but it was enjyable trhoughout.
While different ind etails from Bonaparte at Marengo, it's much the same in how its a real thinking game.
I played the Austrians, while Marty was the French.
My strategy was to make a big push on the left that looked dangerous in order to prompt Marty into committing his reinforcements early, but then fall back beforer I became decisively engaged. While probably very risky against experienced players, I hoped the fact that Marty was also a newbie would mean he'd have a hard time following me too aggressively.
On the right flank I gave Bagratian a strong corps and put all the Guard and some other strong units with Constantine. I planned to make a decisive counterattack against the French flank once he was well committed.
In general the strategy generally worked as hoped, although I did lose in the end because of some tcatical errors.
Marty actaully got first blood when he launched a successful spoiling attack on one of my corps as it approached his main line. There was some see-saw fighting in the center and left. Overall the Austrian losses were a bit higher than the French. I was, however, able to pull back most of my units without getting too many caught and even start redeploying units from the left to the center.
My right flank attack wasn't quite as decisive as I had hoped, Even though I won my big Guard attack, I didn't do the damage I had hoped to inflict and I ended up being too close to demoraliziation at the end. The French were able to get a couple of free hits with guns and then get their last morale point with an attack on an area that couldn't be stopped due to an error on my part.
It was a very good session and both of us are eager to try again.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Featured game: System 7 Napoleonics

System 7 Napoleonics is essentially a variant for GDW's Fire & Steel miniatures rules with some modifications to account for the use of die-cut counters instead of miniature toy soldiers.
It provides interesting gist for debates over what constitutes a "miniatures" wargame. While not using miniature figures, it's clearly within the genre of historical miniatures wargames. Distances are measured using rulers and units do not occupy distinct cells such as hexagons, squares or areas as seen in board wargames.
One inch represents 40 yards on the ground, each strength point represents 20 men and a turn represents about an hour of fighting.
Each cardboard counter represents a company of infantry, a squadron of horse or a two-gun artillery section and takes up the appropriate frontage depending on the strength of the unit. The color scheme on the counters is based on the color of the uniform and facings for that unit, providing a good period "feel."
The game system is vintage chart-heavy mid-1970s GDW, with written orders and a very heavy emphasis on morale. In fact, while a unit's combat power varies based on its strength and weaponry, its most important characteristic is morale level. An elite unit has much more staying power than a line unit and troops from the French, Russian or British guards are very tough.
Special rules cover various aspects of Napoleonic warfare such as lancers, weather, spiking guns, prisoners, generals and formations.
GDW published 15 sets of counters before discontinuing the line. Each set contains about a corps-worth of troops based on nationality with a mix of infantry, cavalry and artillery.
By later standards gameplay is a little on the slow side, largely because of the written orders and chart-based combat system with multiple phases. While experienced players can handle more, the game works best if each player controls about a division-sized force.
If sufficient attention is devoted to terrain, the game can be attractive. The counters do allow a more realistic depiction of actual unit depths, which are greatly exagerated by using miniatures. Cavalry units, in particular, are always far deeper on the game table than they should be when using miniatures. Using System 7 one can see that even a column of horse was actually wider than it is deep, with similar insights for other formations.
While nearly forgotten today, System 7 was an interesting experiment in wargaming and still of interest for collectors.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Featured game: Sticks and Stones, 30th anniversary

There are dozens or scores of wargames on some topics: Battle of the Bulge, Gettysburg, The Eastern Front. But despite the passage of 30 years since Sticks & Stones, Microgame No. 11, was published, it's apparently the only wargame to explicitly depict warfare in Neolithic times.
While the popular imagination sometimes imagines that humans once lived in more peaceful times before civilization, archeological evidence suggests that humans have died violently at the hands of their own species for a very long time. A graveyard in Egypt dating back some 12,000 years contains the remains of dozens who died from multiple wounds by stone-tipped weapons.
Whether humans are naturally violent may be unanswerable, but once humans developed weapons -- such as bows -- that enabled them to kill other men with relative safety, they got to it. There's ample evidence for fortified settlements dating back thousands of years and by the time the first battles were recorded in history after the development of writing it was clear that the military arts were already far advanced.
Sticks & Stones depicts the very early age of organized fighting using the typical techniques of a 1970s-era wargame. Units, which appear to represent small groups of warriors (a dozen or so) maneuver on a hex-gridded battlefield. Their military abilities are quantified with attack, defense and movement factors and battles are resolved via a D6 roll on an odds-based Combat Results Table. Units move and then fight in alternating player-turns. Aside from the uncommon, but not unique, rule allowing in-hex melee combat, it's a fairly standard wargame.
Various special rules give the game period flavor. There are dependents (women), goats and goods to be fought over. Newly domesticated dogs to help the warriors. And a straightforward scenario-development system that allows playrs to customize their tribal armies with reasonable historical accuracy.
Warriors come in two basic defense-styles, armored with a defense value of 3 and unarmored with a value of 2. Armor, at this early date, should be understood to be merely thicker clothes, extra animal skins or perhaps leather.
Weapons come in four varieties. There are "hands" with an attack value of 2. As it's against human nature to engage in deadly combat with just bare hands, I'd interpret "hands" to mean being armed with sticks, primitive clubs and rocks, not just fists. Men armed with stone axes have an attack value of 3. Spearmen have an attack value of 4, plus the abaility to attack from a distance of one hex away up to three times per game. The deadliest weapon is the bow, which can attack up to 3 hexes away with a value of 6 up to six times per game. The rules inform us that "bows" can also represent blowguns or throwing spears as well as bows and arrows.
Warriors can come in any mix of weapon and armor style, within the countermix and available "weapons points" running from 0 for an unarmored and weaponless man to 7 for an armored archer.
The game includes five scenarios which do a good job of covering the gamut of likely stone age fighting. There's a small raid on an unprotected village, a territorial ritual battle (which ends when someone is actually killed), a mastadon hunt (solitaire), a bigger raid on a protected village and a full-scale war between two neighboring villages.
In the last scenario there is a slight problem because the countermix doesn't include the two fortified villages required. One could either make another fortified village or alternately let one side use a protected village and give them 6 extra weapon points to make up the difference.
There are some optional rules including setting fires, running warriors, extended range for missile weapons and poisone weapons.
Considering the game has just a couple dozen small pages the game manages to cover a lot of ground and present what seems like a good simulation of prehistoric fighting within the limits of our knowledge.
The presentation is good considering the limits of the microgame format and 1970s printing. The map is functional, if undecorative. The counters have to be cut out and feature a rather idealized and buff view of cave men, but they work. The only color in the rules is the cover, but the body of the rules are clearly written and very well-illustrated for the era and format.
All-in-all it's a good and still unique wargame and well-worth picking up out of historical interest as well as an interesting game challenge.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Featured game: Ogre

It may be hard to drum up sympathy for a souless behemoth of destruction, but consider the fate of MicroGame No. 1. Like a mega-movie star's long-forgotten first spouse, it seems an afterthought in the train of more glamorous hotties that followed. But long before there was GURPS, Illuminati, Car Wars or Munchkin -- there was Ogre.
It's fair to say there'd never be a Steve Jackson Games if it hadn't been for Ogre, the first of the Microgames published by Metagaming back in 1977. Still a highly regarded classic wargame, Ogre launched Metagaming's successful several-year run and when that publisher ceased putting out titles, Jackson used Ogre to be the initial flagship offering for his own game company.
Yet there hasn't been a new boardgame edition of Ogre since the 1987 Ogre Deluxe edition. I guess that being essentially a one-man show means that Jackson's corporate attention span tends to move from one main project to another. Between the million GURPs books, dozens of Car Wars supplements, Illuminati expansions and the never-ending Munchkin mass there hasn't been time for Ogre.
Still, there still seem to be plenty of copies of Ogre around, and many of the real hard-core fans have gotten the Deluxe Ogre miniatures rules. (Why there's both an Ogre Deluxe and a Deluxe Ogre only the Illuminati can answer. Fnord.)
The game, as befits a classic, is disarmingly simple in concept and straightforward in execution. The basic conceit is that futuristic warfare will be dominated by giant sentient cyborg tanks called Ogres. These monstrous unmanned robotic fighting machines are so powerful that only a much larger number of more conventional forces can take them on.
The game in many ways is a typical 1970s-ear wargame. It has hexes. It has alternating movement and combat phases. Combat is resolved via a D6 roll on a CRT.
The Ogre is comprised of various weapons systems (main and secondary guns, missiles and anti-personal guns) and "tread units." Speed is lost as tread units are destroyed, while the various guns are lost through direct attack. Missiles can also be lost if successfully attacked, but are also expended if used. Ogres come in two sizes, a nasty Mark III and the very nasty Mark V.
In the basic game the non-Ogre played selects conventional forces from a menu comprised of powersuited infantry and various heavy weapon/vehicle units.
The basic armored unit available is a heavy tank, somewhat similar to a modern main battle tank although more powerful. Heavy tanks have enough firepower (4) to have a decent chance of destroying any Ogre weapon and some chance -- with a defense of 3 -- of surviving the return fire. They have the speed to keep up with a healthy Ogre (3), but not enough range (2) to stay a safe distance away.
Missile tanks trade off firepower (3), defense (2) and speed (2) for some extra range (4). They have their fans, but I've never found the extra range enough to make up for the rest.
Probably the most popular vehicle is the G.E.V. (ground effect vehicle or hovercraft). While not especially powerful (attack 2, defense 2, range 2) the G.E.V. is speedy, able to move 4 hexes, fire and then move another 3. This makes it a fun tool to use because it can dance around the Ogre, darting in and out to strike and retire. Getting the most out a G.E.V. takes skill and players like the challenge.
The most powerful unit is the Howitzer. It has an attack of 6 and a range of 8 and counts as two units for force-selection purposes. On the other hand the Howitzer only has a defense of 1 and can't move, making it a sitting duck for the Ogre if it gets close enough.
The poor bloody infantry has a tough life in Ogre. It's reasonably mobile, moving 2 hexes and being the only units, aside from Ogres, that can cross the one type of difficult terrain hexside (rubble) in the game. The firepower and defense of the infantry depends upon how many squads (each representing about six soldiers, the rules tell us) are in the hex. Up to three squads can be in a hex, so the firepower and defense ranges from 1-3. Unfortunately the infantry only has a range of 1, so they have to get up close and personal with the Ogre. A lot of infantry generally dies.
The objective is called a Command Post in the game, although it doesn't exercise any command and control game function. It's defenseless and immobile, so it could easily represent any kind of soft strategic objective. Still, Ogres are obviously rare and expensive war machines, probably comparable to battleships or aircraft carriers in 21st century terms, so they wouldn't be risked on routine operations or minor objectives. When an Ogre appears it's a major battle by definition.
The Ogre itself is very dangerous. The lesser, Mark III version has a main gun with an attack of 4, a range 3 and a defense of 4 and four secondary guns with vales of 3, 2 and 3, respectively. (Note very important errata. In the Ogre Deluxe boardgame both the mapboard display and the rules booklet list incorrect -- and different from each other -- values for the Ogre's guns. The correct values are listed in May 21, 1993 errata.)
The Mark III carries two missiles that have a range of 5, attack of 6 and defense of 3. It also has 8 antipersonnel guns that have a range and defense of 1 and an attack value of 1 against infantry and CPs only.
Finally the Mark III has a total of 45 tread units to support its starting movement factor of 3. For every 15 it loses it's speed is reduced by 1.
In the basic scenario a force of 20 infantry and 12 armor units make an even match for the Mark III Ogre.
The Mark V Ogre sports two main guns, six secondaries, six missiles, 12 antipersonnel guns and 60 tread units, so it has relatively more firepower than a Mark III but is somewhat less robust in the treads department in proportion.
The conventional force fields 30 infantry and 20 armor against a Mark V in the basic setup.
This involves the Ogre entering the map, endeavoring to destroy the CP and then escape. The rules include obvious variations such as a defending Ogre, two attacking Ogres, etc. There's also a Scenario Book 1 (no book 2 as yet) with seven more scenarios.
The classic scenario is, however, a single Ogre against the world, and that's the game's signature. There are many approaches to both the attack and defense and Ogre is one of those rare wargames that's actually developed a body of theory. There are named defenses such as the "Three howitzer" defense, for example.
The game is simple enough that it can be used an an introduction to wargaming. Often a new player can be given the Ogre, which seem less overwhelming to handle because it's a single unit, while the more experienced player can take the conventional forces, perhaps spotting the Ogre a unit or two.
While Steve Jackson hasn't paid much attention to Ogre in years, it would seem like a perfect candidate for a new edition, taking advantage of plastic bits from Chinese factories to create a super duper Deleuxe Ogre. That would be a fitting tribute to the game that got him started 30-odd years ago.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

FAB: Bulge first impressions

I got a chance to play a couple of turns of the new FAB: Battle of the Bulge game against Terry Moore Saturday night and I have to say I was very impressed. Despite the fact I'd never seen the game before and necessarily got a bare-boned intro from Terry, we were able to get right into it.
Although considerbaly more involved than the usual block game, things flowed very well. All the rules made sense. Things flowed very intuitvely. The charts and rules were well-layed out and the entire experience was quite painless.
We didn't play long enough to venture any guesses about play balance or grand strategy, but I have to say that I liked how the pieces were falling together. The assets rules allowed a lot of special support elements to be depicted without a lot of baggage. One problem of incoroprating support elements like engineers and artillery as units is that they'll often be misused in the line. Instead FAB:Bulge treats them as "assets" that show up to be used in their role and then go back into a pool for use next turn. This is actually rather more realistic than treating them as units.
An interesting twist is troop quality. In some cases unit's troop quality changes based on losses, so an elite unit may drop to veteran status if it's depth of leadership is shallow.
I'm looking forward to getting my own copy soon so I can look at it in more depth, but my initial impression is very positive.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Squad Leaders' weighted DYO system

A lot of tactical wargames use some kind of point system to let players craft their own forces in design-your-own scenarios, inspired by the PanzerBlitz DYO system that appeared in the Avalon Hill General (and later reprinted in the Wargamer' Guide to PanzerBlitz). That system, and most subsequent ones, attempted to measure the relative game effect of different units and assign appropriate values.
While helping to set up fair games, this kind of system can lead to very unhistorical battles. There are many real-life factors involving costs, logistics, politics, etc. that affect what weapons and troops are available for a certain battle and most of those factors are not represented in the typical tactical wargame.
Among Squad Leader's many groundbreaking features was a design-your-own system that tried to account for factors other than strict game utility in assigning point values.
The game's "Point Value Chart" assigned values to every unit and fortification included in the base game. These values seem to have been "normed" around the Germans, in that German unit values seem to primarily reflect game usefulness. Supporting this is that German units are used as the base for a scenario generation chart that's also part of the DYO system.
For example, 100 points buys the Germans four 4-6-7 infantry squads, while the same 100 points buys five 4-4-7 infantry squads for the Russians. For the Americans 100 points only buys two 6-6-6 infantry squads at 35 each, but the 30 leftover points can buy a couple of medium machineguns. This example highlights the intent of the system, which is to encourage historically appropriate builds. The Russians are encouraged by the point system to invest in numbers, while the Americans are likely to rely on extra firepower.
Sometimes it seems like this weighting goes too far. A Russian radio and its assocated artillery fire support costs 300 points, as much as 15 squads, but it's so hard to use that no one will ever pick it. Even the German radio/artillery, at 200 points (eight squad-equivilents), is probably over-priced for most players, given the difficulty of using it (multiple die rolls and chit pulls that conspire to keep it from arriving when and where desired). Only a U.S. player, who pays just 150 points (just a little over four squads' worth) for his more effective guns, will often buy it.
While artilery support is discretionary, leaders are not, and here the Russians operate at a severe handicap. Their leaders always cost a lot more, although the difference is most pronounced at the lower levels. This often means that the Russians will have just a handful of leaders, but they may be very good ones. American leaders are also more expensive than their German counterparts, but not so much compared to how much their squads cost, so they will actually end up with a pretty high leader-to-led ratio.
On the other hand, American troops will usually be well-equipped compared to Germans because nearly all U.S. weapons are cheaper than similar German stuff. This includes vehicles, even tanks, which are typically 5-10 points cheaper.
For the Russians the picture is more varied. Some Russian weapons, such as the T-34 tank, light machine gun, 57 mm antitank gun and 82 mm mortar cost the same or less than similar German weapons. But others, such as the M-3 halftrack, heavy machinegun and the simple truck cost a lot more. And some weapons don't even exist. The Russians have no light antitank weapon or flamethrowers or even satchel charges.
While the DYO point system succeeded in its aim of forcing more historical force selection, it really was detrimental to balanced games, which is the reason why players are attracted to DYO in the first place. The system broken down under the complexities introduced in the Squad Leader expansion Cross of Iron and when Advanced Squad Leader came out ASL used a completely different system.
By then, moreover, it was clear that the preferrred method of play for SL/ASL enthusiasts was using historically inspired pre-designed scenarios. Tournament play, for example, where one might expect to see DYO used, instead almost always uses designer scenarios, often custom-made for that tournament.
That the experiment was not a success is attested by its lack of imitators. Subsequent point-based DYO systems in games concentrate on game effect, without usually worrying too much about unhistorical selections. Even in those case where limits are placed, such as the limits on paratroops and partisans in Axis & Allies: Miniatures, the reason is to prevent abuses, not improve historical accuracy.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Win, Place & Show -- "Horserunners"

Win, Place & Show is a classic example of a "grown-up" game from the 1960s. A bit clunky to play and strangely indirect in emphasis. The game's action is really about the betting and it's the primary path to victory, but players spend most of their time rolling the dice and moving plastic horses around the race track in a tactically simple horse-race.
A characteristic of more modern euro game designs is a ruthless concentration on the key elements of the game and paring down of extraneous elements that might contribute to the theme but aren't essential to the play of the game.
But WP&S is from an earlier era, when the value of this approach hadn't been discovered. The experience of most gamers game from playing games like Monopoly or Clue, which also have a lot of extra stuff cluttering up the essential elements of the game.
I did get to enjoy some adult sessions of WP&S, but my fondest memories of the game and the reason why I still have it, come from discovering that it made a great game to play with my kids during that middle period when they're ready for something more challenging than Sorry!, but aren't quite ready for adult level games. My daughter and son would often ask to play the game, which my daughter dubbed "Horserunners."
The key to this transformation was discarding the betting aspect of the game, which isn't appropriate for kids anyway, and concentrating on the racing.
A problem when playing with kids is that it's desirable that they win most of the time, otherwise they get discouraged and lose interest. But it's also a problem if the parent makes it too easy or obviously doesn't play as well as they could. Kids aren't stupid and they'll catch on soon enough that Dad or Mom "let" them win and that ruins the fun, too. Once you've moved beyond games of pure luck like Chutes & Ladders or dominant luck like "Sorry!," achieving a good balance between winning and providing a challlenge is tough.
But Win, Place & Show provides a way around this because all horses aren't created equal. While the right rolls and good play can give any horse a chance to win, odds are that the favorites will win most of the time. The game provides odds for each horse (although they're not entirely accurate in adult play, they're close enough for this purpose). The solution is simply to give the younger players the better horses. This provides a ready-made balancing mechanism that's still not obvious to the kids. The game appears "fair" to them, even though the parent has handicapped the race.
We usually had three playing, so my son (youngest) would get the best horse and the fourth-best horse. My daughter would get the second-best and fifth horse and I would take the third horse and the worst.
This arrangement provided enough of a challenge to help maintain my own interest while ensuring that over a series of races the kids won more often than not.
It also helped teach them about tactical decision-making and overall game strategy with real consequences for poor choices. It was possible to lose to Dad, which made winning that much more fun.
This worked out very well and both my kids grew up to enjoy challenging games. I'm now working the same project with a new batch, although there's less need to enlist Win, Place & Show these days because there are quite a few newer games that do also good job for mixed adult and kid play such as Family Fluxx and HerosScape.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Featured game: Pass the Pigs - a trifle to pass the time

Pass the Pigs has been around for more than 30 years already! I remember when it first came out as Pigmania. It's been quite a run for such a trifle of a game.
I attribute it's longevity to a couple of factors. First off, it's kind of fun in a silly way. I mean, you throw pigs!
Secondly, the profit margin on the game must be obscene. It's had various packaging presentations over the years, but generally it comes in at about $10 or so retail. Aside from the packaging, there really isn't much to the game. There's a couple of pencils, a small score pad and a single-page instruction sheet. Oh yeah, and a couple of soft plastic pigs. How much could that cost? A buck?
I'm sure the game's been a steady money-maker for years.
The game play is fairly simple. Pass the Pigs is a classic "push your luck" game. Players toss the pigs as dice and score points depending upon how the pigs land. If both pigs land on their sides the tossing player earns a point for a "Sider." If one or both of the pigs land on their feet, backs, snouts or jowls the tossing player scores 5-60 points depending on the exact configuration, which are given names such as Trotter, Razorback, Snouter, Leaning Jowler, doubles of those or a Mixed Combo. The player can stop and bank the points earned to thast point or toss again. But if the pigs land on their sides but opposite from each other that is termed a "Pig Out" and the player scores no points and loses all the points scored so far in that round.
Unlike Cosmic Wimpout, which is a similar game, there are no forced rolls, so the tossing player can always stop and bank his score, so the game is very much a pure "push your luck game." There's no real strategy involved. One simply stops when one loses his or her nerve. The first player to reach 100 points win.
About the only complication is a roll that results in both pigs touching each other. This is an "Oinker" and results in the player losing all his points earned so far, not just the ones earned in the current round. Careful wrist action when tossing the pigs should minimize the chance of this happening. The rulebook also depicts a "Piggyback," which occurs when one pig lands standing ontop of anotehr standing pig, but I'd say the chances of this actually happening are about zero. If it did happen, you'd be out of the game, though.
Unlike normal dice games, which use six-sided dice or other polyhedral shapes, the irregularly shaped pigs in Pass the Pigs are impossible to analyse in terms of probability short of using, perhaps, a massive supercomputer. Even then, it might not be possible, because the pigs are made with a soft, rubbery plastic which has a little "give" and bounciness. There's no telling how that characteristic affects the odds.
Still, a little experience shows that the pigs are most likely to land on their sides, so 'Pig Outs" are pretty common and it's usually a good idea to stop and bank points anytime you've managed to score 20 or more points in a round because chances are you'll roll a Pig Out before you roll another high-scoring configuration.
Unlike some other push-your-luck type games there's not a lot of scope for a big turn that can bring you to victory if you're far behind. Accumulating points steadily in batches of 20 or so will generally pay off more often than trying to gamble for the big win.
There's an optional way to play called a "Hog Call" that involves guessing how the pigs will land. Correct guesses pay off double points while incorrect guesses cost double, so this option just adds even more luck to a game that's already all luck and I can't see how it's an improvement.
The lack of any real strategy or player influence means this isn't really much of a game for gamers. It's simply a way to pass the time.
It does have the virtues of playing quickly, costing little and not taking up much room, so it's a good filler game or travel game for long trips with kids.

Monday, February 4, 2008

New version of Diplomacy and Acquire planned

It appears that Hasbro will be coming out with new editions of both these classic games this year. This is a good thing, of course, because it's nice to see good games stay available for new players to discover.
And both mew editions seem to be geared to appeal to new players, which has prompted a little grumbling among hobbyists. The new edition of Diplomacy will apparently have cardboard counters instead of the metal tokens of the previous edition. The new edition of Acquire will only be $30, so it seems likely to be a step down from the snazzy 1999 edition. It also returns to the classic "hotel" theme of the earlier editions.
At first blush I reacted a little negatively to the news, because who likes a drop in quality? But quality comes at a price and both of the first Hasbro editions were "deluxe" versions of the respective game. They were nice, but perhaps a little too nice and expensive to draw in new blood.
It looks like the new editions will be cheap enough to appeal to the more casual sort of customer who might buy Monopoly, Scrabble or Clue, rather than "gamers."
I already have two copies each of Acquire and Diplomacy. I have a 3M Acquire and the nice Hasbro version.
I have a wooden-block Avalon Hill copy of Diplomacy as well as the Hasbro metal-token edition. I'm not the target demographic for these editions.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Featured Game: Diplomacy

Diplomacy may be the rare game that's better played by mail or email than in-person, although it truly is a classic game no matter which way it's played.
Still, the nature of Diplomacy creates some problems for face-to-face play that are avoided when played remotely, while remote play also brings advantages over playing on the table top.

First among those is that it's far easier to organize a game via remote media than face-to-face play. A satisfying game of Diplomacy really requires that all seven powers be played by competitors with reasonably comparable skill and knowledge. It's hard to get seven players together for face-to-face play, let alone seven strong players. Outside of conventions or perhaps game clubs in major metro areas, the only place I've seen it happen fairly often is on college campuses, which provide a sufficiently large pool of intelligent, educated folks with a fair amount of time on their hands. In face-to-face play it's generally easy to spot any players who are newbies and take advantage of them. Remote play, whether by snail mail (rare these days) or email allows a game organizer to quickly match seven interested players and the normally anonymous nature of player identity can mask the presence of weaker or newer players long enough that they have a chance to learn without necessarily being picked on.

A second advantage of remote play over face-to-face play is time. Diplomacy can be a long game, even with just 15 minutes allocated for negotiating sessions. Adjudicating moves can take a considerable amount of time in complicated situations. Face-to-face play hinders negotiations because it's hard to hide who is talking to who. Remote play generally means a lot more time is available for negotiations and it's possible for an energetic player to keep up a steady stream of correspondence with everybody. Overall game length is less of a problem because it can be spread in very small packets of time over weeks or months instead of taking up a whole day.

A third advantage of remote play is that it solves the player-elimination problem. Not by preventing players from being eliminated, of course, but by mitigating its effect. In a face-to-face game it's not uncommon for one or more players to get knocked out of the game early. When this happens there's now the problem of what they're to do while the game continues without them. If two players happen to get eliminated about the same time they might play something else, but if not then someone will probably be going home early. With remote play this isn't a problem because eliminated players can merely join another game, if they'd like, and get right back into things, perhaps a little wiser.

A fourth advantage of remote play is a better quality of play. With more time to think, there's less of a chance for mistakes in order writing or bad play. Most remote play has some sort of adjudication protocol or software that will ensure that complicated adjudications are done in accordance with the rules. Even play-by-mail unusually uses a gamemaster who can figure it all out. A site like Bounced will even flag illegal orders before they're sent. In contrast, face-to-face play is often marred by poorly written orders and mistakes.

About the only way in which face-to-face Diplomacy is better is the opportunity it provides for social banter and personal interaction. Games that allow press or other forms of public communication between players can mitigate this a bit, but I think it's fair to say that it's still hard to beat face-to-face play for the personal touch. With two-player wargames this can be a decisive advantage, but I think for Diplomacy the previously mentioned factors shift the advantage to the side of remote-style play.

Featured Game: Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers

Can one design a "historical" wargame based on something in the fictional future?
Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers proves you can. On one level this is a classic, hex-and-counter wargame with the dense rules, intricate procedures and involved gameplay typical of such efforts, especially those form the mid-1970s. On the other hand the game is a very faithful reproduction of the battlefield action from the novel, including all the key skirmishes.
For the Terran forces most units are individual troopers in three varieties. Most are standard battlesuit-equipped "marines." Each had the firepower of a 21st-century battle tank, with additional firepower in the form of nuclear or high-explosive rocket launchers and chemical weapons. Seven of these comprise a squad, joined by a "scout" with weaker armor but more speed and a leader, with more speed but less firepower. The squad leaders do double duty as sectionleaders and their assistants or platoon leader/platoon sergeant. While adding flavor, the organzational structure doesn't have any real game effect. All the troopers are highly trained and enjoy data-linked communications so there are no command and control limitations.
The Terrans are supported by non-armored engineer platoons and psychic-enabled "special talents."
Opposing the Terrans at first, but later allied with them are the "Skinnies," a humanoid alien race with a roughly late 20th-century technology. Their army consists mostly of non-battlesuited infantry squads backed by some tank-like beam and missile-launching vehicles.
The most intractable foes for the Terrans are the Arachnids, an insectlike alien race that resemble spiders but have an antlike hive-based social structure. They also have a ranged heavy beam weapon but most of their troops are masses of warrior and worker "bugs." The Arachnids live underground in tunnel complexes and the main tension of the game is created by the Terrans, who are operating on the surface in full view of the Arachnids, trying to discern the extent of the underground Arachnid hives (which are tracked on a paper "alien control pad."
For the most part the scenarios involve Terran forces landing on the map, destroying Arachnid tunnels and then being retrieved by landing craft.
Mechanically the game is fairly standard mid-70s wargame stuff. Units have attack factors, defense factors and movement factors. Combat is resolved on an odd-sbased basis via a combat results table, although there is a twist in that the two sides use different CRTs. Likewise the turn sequence is the usual wargame "HUGO-IGO" except that the Terrans get an extra "jump" movement phase after the combat phase.
Despite being more than 30 years old, the game holds up remarkably well and still provides and interesting game experience while staying very faithful to its source material.