Saturday, May 31, 2008

Critical hits

Probably one of the starkest differences between wargames and any other kind of game I know of is the concept of the "critical hit."

For example, in the Down in Flames series of card games on aerial combat, an otherwise fairly "euro"-friendly light wargame, there's one Action Card that has an "Attack" result reading "Fuel Tank Hit, Aircraft Destroyed."

This, needless to say, an extreme result that can easily turn a game completely around, and it has little to do with a player's skill. Naturally, this sort of thing is an anathema to most game players interested in a contest of skill, even those otherwise comfortable with a certain mount of luck in their games.

Yet it's a pretty common feature of wargames, especially very tactical games, although it's not unheard of even in wargames dealing with higher-level operations.

Wargamers, as a rule, seem resigned to seeing an occasional game end with a spectacular bang, even though it might negate their winning strategy. While it might be rationalized as adding a little bit of excitement to a game, that really can't be the answer for why it's tolerated. After all, euro games like having excitement as well.

No, the answer simply is that real battles often turn on such fluke events. Every so often the HMS Hood has to blow up! Otherwise there's no chance for a historical result for the Battle of Denmark Straits.

Still, the existence of critical hits is a notable, if little-noted, difference between wargames and other games of skill.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eagles: Waterloo Review

Eagles: Waterloo was the last in Columbia Games' short-lived foray into collectible card games.

Like Dixie, it plays rather more like a boardgame than a card game, with most of the cards being used as unit and leader counters or terrain markers. Only the few "special" cards are played, card-like, to influence the action.

This isn't surprising, as the game system is an elaboration of the tactical battle subsystem used in Columbia campaign games like Bobby Lee and Napoleon.

Compared to the Dixie series, Eagles: Waterloo is more intricate, as befits the style of Napoleonic warfare, which involved richer interactions than the Civil War battlefield. Combined arms effects and differentiation between units is more important in Eagles. The Civil War battlefield was an infantry fight, with artillery and cavalry playing subordinate roles. Most of the infantry was armed and trained the same as well, so Dixie could treat all of them as similar, with the only differences being size and (at Gettysburg) morale.

In Eagles there are significant differences between types of cavalry and infantry, with the effects of lancers, Guards and other elites, British firepower and horse artillery being among the factors considered.

Units have a "Combat Values" based on their size, which controls how many dice they roll in combat. A CV 4 unit rolls 4 dice, for example. The effect of those dice depends on its "F" (firepower) value or "S" (shock) value. Eagles rules have never been revised, so they missed out on the recent rationalization of Columbia rules which universally switched from high being good to low being good, so an F3 still means 4-6 succeeds instead of the more intuitive 1-3 of newer games. Firepower is used for most fighting, while shock is reserved for certain special cases such as cavalry charges or infantry column assaults.

Rules factor in the effects of formations such as columns and squares and the more open nature of Waterloo compared to the American battlefields. In Eagles terrain cards can only hold one or two units and don't count for stacking, which creates a very different environment from the section-wide effect of Dixie terrain.

The battles in Eagles tend to be short, brutal affairs because of a major change in victory conditions. In Eagles a side wins the instant it controls one enemy sector, instead of the two required in Dixie. This also allows Eagles to dispense with the flanking rules of Dixie because the game ends as soon as the flanking condition is achieved.

Units also tend to be a little more fragile than Dixie units because there are a lot more low morale units, especially among the Prussians and Dutch-Belgians. Some of these are large CV4 or CV5 units that have morale levels of C or D, meaning they fail morale on a 2 or a 1, respectively. The "rally" special card has also been weakened. Instead of an automatic success, playing the rally card just gives you another chance to pass morale, not much of a benefit for a D unit. (It's best saved to mitigate a bad roll by one of your elite units.)

Eagles: Waterloo includes all four battles of the Waterloo campaign as well as a campaign version, so it actually covers about as much gaming ground as the Dixie series.

It plays enough like Dixie to be easy to learn while being different enough that you don't feel like you're just playing Dixie with prettier uniforms.

The collectible aspect of the game is very secondary, merely consisting of different colored borders to reflect rarity: Gold is rare, silver uncommon and bronze is common. This has absolutely no effect on play and, frankly, little effect on collectibility. I was quite satisfied collecting a complete set of uniforms/units without worrying about the color of the borders.

If, however, you do want all the borders to match, complete sets are still available from Columbia.

Eagles: Waterloo is a good light wargame providing the flavor of Napoleonic battles with an attractive presentation of uniform and OB details usually seen only in miniatures games. It plays brutally fast.

I think the game plays best without using the point system, as the point values don't match the game-effect value very well on many cards. Segregating the cards by the historical battle and then drawing randomly from that group provides a good mix of cards that's usually balanced enough. And if not, you can play again shortly.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

An amazing find, a 115-year-old baseball game found

It awalys amazes me when stuff like this is found. There are unopended closets all over the world with amazing treasures, it appears;

In this case a mint copy of a game from 115 years ago.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


There were at least two dozen different collectible cards games mention in the 1995 Origins convention booklet, which was really the year that the floodgates opened for the genre of games. In 1993 Magic: The Gathering was unique, but it didn't take long for others to see the idea's potential.

But besides having many imitators, M:TG never really found a rival, as it's still by far the Top Dog among collectible games. Of the two dozen of the Class of 1995 almost all have disappeared, save for occasional sales on eBay. It's true that one can still get original Dixie cards from Columbia Games, but considering that all these appear to come from the original 1995 stock, one can hardly say it's a living game with active players and recent expansions. Magic: The Gathering's Richard Garfield also had Jyhad, now called Vampire: The Eternal Struggle out in 1995.

No, the sole survivor from the erstwhile Magic competitors is Redemption, a Bible-based collectible card game that borrows little from Magic: The Gathering but the collectible concept itself. Yet it still ha expansions and active players, albeit mostly invisible to the larger gaming community. This is because it's popularity is mostly confined to a sort of parallel culture in America that the wider secular culture doesn't see.

That more religious subculture largely attends its own schools (when not home schooled) has its own pop music groups, own literature and magazines, television programs and movies. Finding many questionable elements in popular media and entertainment, but wanting to experience the positive elements, this largely-Protestant evangelical (but with sympathizers among other religious traditions as well) has learned how to develop its own entertainments that avoid the gratuitous objectionable elements while keeping the better parts from their perspective.

Part of this is their own games. Some popular family games such as Monopoly and Scrabble or abstract games like Chess or Dominoes pose few problems from their perspective. Some other games have been adapted to present a more explicitly Biblical flavor, perhaps the most famous of these is the Settlers of Canaan.

Many people from this belief system are, however, very hostile to anything that smacks of the occult or magic and witchcraft. Protestations that it's "just a game" don't find a receptive ear. Like Dungeons & Dragons before it, the explicitly magical elements evoked in Magic: The Gathering, while directly responsible for its popularity in the mainstream culture, brought condemnation and concern from many more religiously inclined people.

Wanting to provide a similar game experience to Magic: The Gathering, without all the magic stuff, Redemption designer Rob Anderson turned to the Bible for his theme, and discovered that there was a remarkably rich source that also included heroes, demons and yes, even dragons.

Redemption is a somewhat simpler game than Magic_The Gathering, although not a simplistic one. The basic idea is that each player competes to save the most "Lost Souls," which are special cards. Every 50-card deck must have at least 7 Lost Souls in it. When one appears it's placed in front of the player in an area called the "Land of Bondage." From there an opposing player can mount a rescue attempt during his turn by sending a hero card from his hand or already revealed in play. The defending player can attempt to thwart the rescue attempt by opposing it with one of his Evil Characters. Each player can add enhancements, with both sides comparing their respective attack and defense strengths. The higher number defeats the lower and sends the loser to the discard pile along with all the enhancements played by both sides. If the Hero wins, then the Lost Soul is rescued. The first to rescue five Lost Souls Win.

Heroes and Evil Characters each belong to one of six color-coded "Brigades" and can only be enhanced by cards that match the same color. As always in CCGs, of course, there are various cards that override the basic rules.

Unlike many games this scales well from two up to about five without any changes in the rules.

An example of a rescue attempt might play out as follows.

Player 1 sends the Biblical figure Ruth (from the White Brigade) on a rescue mission to save a Lost Soul in Player 2's Land of Bondage. Ruth is one of the weaker heroes, rated a 4/4 which means she attacks with a strength of 4 and defends with the same strength.

Player 2 responds by blocking the move with the Evil Character Pharaoh from the Yellow Brigade. Like many EC's he's stronger than some heroes with a rating of 6/6, so he's winning.

Player 1 would like to use the 3/3 "Strength" enhancement card, but it only works on Blue Brigade Heroes, so instead Player 1 plays The Purity of Enoch (2/2) and the Devotion of Ruth (1/1). The Devotion of Ruth is not only a white card, but the name of the card matches the Hero, so it's doubled to a 2/2. It's special ability of allowing the Hero to Ignore Gray Brigade Evil Characters doesn't apply in this case because the Pharaoh is Yellow.

At this point Ruth is winning at 8/8 vs. Pharaoh's 6/6 so Player 2 plays Grief (2/2) and the Stone of Thebez (2/2) to take the lead with 10/10.

Being behind again, Player 1 now plays the multi-color Pillar of a Cloud (2/2) which can be played on a hero from any brigade, bringing Ruth up to a 10/10. Player 2 has no more suitable cards to play in response, so the battle is resolved. Normally a tie would Result in both Pharaoh and Ruth being killed and discarded, although Ruth would still succeed in rescuing the Lost Soul as the rules state that "Any Hero is willing to lay down his or her life to rescue a Lost Soul." Fortunately for Ruth, however, the Pillar of a Cloud card also provides the benefit of a "first strike" ability for Ruth, so Pharaoh is defeated and discarded along with all his enhancements. Player 1 discards his enhancements but returns Ruth to his side of the table for possible use later and puts the rescued Lost Soul in the "Land of Redemption."

Besides the regular heroes and evil characters and their enhancements, there are some super powerful cards (Grim Reapers and Lambs) that a player can have just one example of in his deck.

Later expansion add more kinds of cards and powers, but the basic scheme of play remains the same.

The quality of the cards is very high, with first-class and appropriate art. Every card also contains a Biblical reference. For example, the powerful 10/10 Brown Brigade Evil Character the Beast From The Earth contains the quote from Revelation 13:11 "And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon."

All in all, Redemption succeeds admirably in its goal. It provides a good game experience while remaining true to the sensitivities of its target audience. Yet it's not heavy handed at all in its approach, and players who don't share the same concerns about occult images in their games can find Redemption a worthwhile addition to their collection. Being Bible-literate is of value even in secular society, and Redemption provides some surprising material for interesting discussion during and after the game. When your Faithful Servant (Matthew 25:21) faces the Stone Throwers (John 8:7) there's a teachable moment at hand.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Echelons of Fire

By 1995 everyone seemed to jumping on the Collectible Card Game craze started by Magic: The Gathering two years earlier. The 1995 Origins convention book lists more than a dozen new designs, for example.

What wasn't yet clear was how Darwinian the competitive market environment would proove to be for collectible/trading style games. Because of the time and energy needed for the metagame of collecting and deck building, and perhaps more importantly, the wallet-emptying nature of that metagame, there really wasn't room for more than a handful of active collectible/tradeable games at one time. While there have been many CCG launches in the 15 years since Magic; The Gathering debuted, very few have survived. Many of the ones that fell by the wayside were good games, too. Unlike more traditional boardgames where moderate degrees of success were possible, for CCGs it was an either/or situation.

In the case of the modern-era military Echelons of Fire, and it's sister game World War II era Echelons of Fury, you have a game that's not bad, but certainly not great, and definitely unable to compete against M:TG.

Many of the Class of 1995 CCGs explored new ways to implement the CCG concept, but Echleons hewed fairly closely to the M:TG model. Indeed, in gameplay it's remarkably similar to M:TG. Instead of "mana" in five colors there are two types of supply (fuel and ammo) and combat is a deterministic comparing of numbers between attacking and "blocking" defenders, with unblksed attacks doing damage directly to the player. Just as in Magic, the player can take 20 points of damage.

There are some differences in detail between the two games, but these differences tend to the disadvantage of Echelons of Fire. In Magic: THe Gathering, the resource-providing land cards can be reused from turn to turn, but the supply cards in Echelons are tied down "maintaining" the combatant cards. This tends to hinder the dynamic nature of the game compared to M:TG. Likewise, the need to have maneuver cards in order to attack, and especially the fact that those maneuver cards can be lost in an unsuccessful attack, also tends to make the game more static than M:TG.

The biggest problem with the game, however, was the ill-considered card mix. While imitating the common-uncommon-rare pattern used in M:TG the game, the execution is flawed. For one thing, the common cards are way too common and repetitive, while having marginal usefulness in game terms. In M:TG even when cards are otherwise identical common cards, the artwork varied, adding to the collectibility. In Echelons they are all the same, and before long the player will far more fire teams and machineguns than he will ever need. This could have been mitigated by varying the illustrations perhaps, or adding unit IDs or something along those lines.

It's not all bad, though. The game does provide a quick-playing game system that captures some of the flavor of modern combat. Designing an effective deck is challenging and there's no one obvious strategy to follow.

The game avoids the overpowering "combo" problems common to Magic: The Gathering and many other CCGs. Constrained by the laws of physics and logistics, the most powerful weapons are also the most demanding on ammo and fuel, keeping their game impact within bounds. An M-1 Abrams can blast its way throug anything, but it takes three ammo and three fuel to field and by the time you get those cards in play you might be dead from repeated attacks from infantry squads.

The standard game has a 40-card deck with a 20 point headquarters target, but using such a small deck may not make the most of the different weapons systems available and I recommend generally usinga 60-card deck and a 30-point headquarters. This allows players to create more robust decks that give some scope for using the more powerful and interesting weapons such as the M-1, attack helicopters and aircraft. With larger decks it's best to limit the number of specialist elite infantry cards such as Airborne or Engineers to no more than 3 or 4.

The game is easy to get on the secondary market inexpensively.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Rebels and Redcoats Vol. III review

There's absolutely nothing new in Rebels & Redcoats, Vol. III, from Decision Games. It's a straightforward, old fashioned hex-and-counter wargame depicting battles from the American Revolution.

From a reviewer's standpoint, this might be considered a bad thing. Reviewers like innovation. Reviewers want to see something new, especially if they've seen a lot of games.

But from a players standpoint, there's a lot to be said for the familiarity of tried and true design techniques, especially if they work.

Rebels & Redcoats Vol. III contains 19 battles from the American Revolution. As a matter of fact, it includes just about every significant open field battle of the entire war. All that's left out are the sieges and a handful of fights that might be hard to treat as full-fledged battles anyway like Lexington and Concord, Oriskany and the Paoli "Massacre."

The first two volumes of R&R were published in 1995, depicting four and eight battles, respectively. Vol. III followed about 10 years later with its seven battles, but now all 19 battles are included in the one Vol. III box. There are no significant differences between the three volumes. Indeed, the errata is minimal for a hex-and-counter wargame. The most obvious change between the volumes is the map graphics, which vary in style between Vol. I-II and Vol. III.

Systemically, the game is very standard black powder era stuff. Units are rated for movement, combat and morale values. Leaders have a command rating which modifies morale and a command span which puts units "in command" for movement and combat. Artillery units can bombard over a distance of 2-5 hexes, depending upon the size of the cannons. Units have zones of control that force enemy units to stop and fight. Units that are not adjacent to the enemy at any point can "force march" and extra distance at a chance of being "disrupted," a status they can also achieve from combat result.

The turn sequence is IGO-HUGO. Up to eight strength points of units can stack in a hex, and terrain effects are standard. Light infantry rated units get some movement advantages, and there are some special rules for dragoons, but they appear in such limited numbers that they're really not much of a factor in most battles.

The nub of the entire game system is the morale rating. Both sides are armed similarly and units are usually all about the same size. Regiments in both armies usually operated understrength and were usually about 300 or so strong. In game terms this means a typical combat factor of "4" per regiment.

The big difference between the armies was in morale and training, represented by a morale rating. Many game activities require morale checks and here the Redcoats have a significant advantage. Americans are often rated "5" which means they have a 50% chance of failure on the 10-sided die roll before modifications. British/Hessian units are typically a "7" or "8." Over the course of the game that 20 or 30% advantage in morale checks and rally rolls adds up to a significant edge.

Most of the battles don't require a lot of special rules and for those fights that might be a bit scripted ot less interesting because of historical factors (Trenton, Bunker Hill, White Plains for example) there are what-ifs provided for a more entertaining battle.

R&R is a good, old-fashioned SPI-style wargame that any grognard can sit down and start playing.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Across Suez -- Strategy, well not really

Like many low-unit density wargames with a significant luck element it's hard to have a real strategy in Across Suez, Decision Games' reprint of a classic SPI wargame about the fighting around the so-called "Chinese Farm" during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Neither side has a lot of units, just 14 for the Egyptians at the start of the game and just a dozen Israelis. The Egyptians get just eight more pieces during the game while the Israelis get another 10 plus a bridge.

But for the element of luck the game would definitely favor the Israelis heavily. Besides having more pieces they also have, unsurprisingly, a significant edge in combat power and mobility. The 22 total Egyptian battalions have 60 combat factors while the Israeli force has 78 in its 22 combat battalions (plus 1 for the bridge). They do have some fairly demanding victory conditions, having to get the bridge emplaced, send six battalions across the canal and maintain a clear road back to the map edge.

But given good luck, these goals aren't hard to achieve and it's not uncommon to see the Israelis dominate the Egyptians so thoroughly that they get wiped out.

The problem for the Israelis is that the dice aren't always kind, and a spate of bad rolls, especially in the first three turns, can fatally compromise their chances. These bad rolls tend to come from two sources: Successful Egyptian bombardments and exchange results during Israeli attacks. There's a 1/6 chance of an Egyptian bombardment killing an Israeli unit. With typical luck the Israelis should lose one piece in a game and often won't lose any in the critical first three turns. Likewise every high-odds Israeli attack has a 1/6 chance of an exchange. When possible it's good to knock off Egyptian units with surrounded attacks that can't be retreated from, of course, but the Egyptian player won't cooperate and in order to guarantee a retreat result the attack has to be at least +4 which brings a chance for an exchange.

Cautious Israeli play probably won't do enough damage to the Egyptians to win. If there's still a substantial number of Egyptians on the map in the last couple of turns the Israelis probably won't be able to get six units across the canal and keep the LOC clear.

Because entire positions can depend on the survival of one unit and an unlucky series of die rolls can cause so much damage, it's very hard to come up with a consistent strategy for either side. Instead of a plan, the player may have policies, tactics and preferences, but everything must be conditional and subject to immediate change. The game rewards opportunistic play rather than long-term strategy.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bunker Hill review

If XTR were into naming it's game systems they could have called the one initaited by Hougoumont the "desperate defense" series. Featuring stubborn defenses of fortified locales in the black powder era, Bunker Hill: A Dear Bought Victory was the second game to appear in Command Magazine using the innovative hex-and-counter wargame mechanics of Hougoumont.

The game was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 32 in 1995. A very tactical game, each turn represents just 10 minutes of real time and each hex is 35 yards across. Each stacking point represents 25 soldiers. Unit counters represent companies and half-companies from the Colonial militia and British armies. The 22 turns cover the fighting from 2 to 5:30 p.m.

While the British finally drove the militiamen from their position, it was at a horrfic cost. The militaimen, by standing up to the regulars, showed that the American Revolution was going to see some serious fighting, while making the British, especially their comander, Gen. William Howe, wary of attacking entrenched Americans for the rest of the war.

The 16-page rule book describes a game of moderate complexity by wargame standards. The Beth Queman map is functional, although not especially attractive, with strong colors that tend to overshadow the more subtle unit counters. The map shows most of the Charlestown peninsula where the battle took place. Besides the hill slopes, other key terrain depicted is the densely-settled Charlestown, the Colonial fortifications, the road network and the many stone walls criss-crossing the area.

The 178 5/8-inch counters are illustrated with color icons of the soldiers and militiamen, with an identifying formation ID number, fire modifier, morale rating and a stacking value. The Americans have stacking values ranging from 1 to 3 while the British have a stacking value of “2.“ The reverse side of each unit has half the stacking value. Morale values run from “1” (for step reduced militiamen) to “6” (British Grenadiers and Light Infantry). Both sides have a number of leaders who provide movement and morale benefits. Most units have a movement allowance of 12, although many British units have a speed of 8 until they drop their packs later in the day. The two sides are differentiated by the background colors, blue for Massachusetts troops, gray for New Hampshire troops and green for Connecticut troops on the Colonial side and light red for the British.

Each player turn starts with a reinforcement phase. The player then moves and fires his units (firing is a function of movement and costs 8 movement points). During the movement/fire phase the enemy player can interrupt to conduct a reaction move/fire with his own units within range. (In typical XTR fashion this tactic is given the colorful moniker “Boom and Zoom.) Mastering the “Boom and Zoom” move is a key part of playing the game well. After all movement the phasing player conducts melee. Unlike Hougoumont, not every unit can take advantage of the Boom and Zoom technique, as they have to be under command control to use it. Also limiting American use of the technique is an ammunition limitation rule. Every time the Americans fire there is a good chance they will run out of ammunition and be removed from the map. All they have to do is roll greater than the current morale. As the best American morale is a "3" one can see that most of them are one-shot wonders.

Firing is conducted unit by unit, with the die roll modified according to the number on the counter. The die roll is compared to the number of steps in the target hex. Often this will mean an automatic hit on the large stacks the British player will be using to maximize his melee power. Most hexes have a stacking limit of 12.

The casualty count will run heavily against the British until they can close into melee.

Both sides start with just part of their forces available. Throughout the battle more Americans will brave the British naval interdiction fire across the narrow neck and join the fight, although few, if any, will make it to the front line.

If the initial Britsh assaults fail they can call a special "Reorganization turn" which bring reinforcements and returns eliminated units, but at the cost of a victory point.

The game itself is a tense contest as the British try to fight their way into the Ameircan position at some kind of acceptable cost.

The game is won on victory points. The British get two each for capturing the redoubt on Breed's Hill, capturing the Neck and exiting more steps off the West edge than the Americans. Getting all six would represent a sweeping victory, while the historical result was just two (for the redoubt). The Americans get one victory point for each Reorganization turn the British use, one Victory Point if they still hold the redoubt and one for every 25 steps of British eliminated. The historical result was a "three" for the casualties and the two reorganization turns.

A variation on the game system also later appeared in “Dark Victory” (The Alamo) in a later issue of Command.

The game is playable in one long evening and only takes about 10 minutes to set up.

There are five scenarios.

The first is an unbalanced teaching scenario of the worst part of the British assault. The designer notes: "This scenario is intentionally unbalanced since younger players like to win and will return to play again only if they do win."

The second scenario is the historical scenario.

The third scenario looks at an earlier landing proposed by Gen. Clinton, one of Howe's subordinates. Because of the tides, this earlier landing would have had to be in Charlestown.

The fourth scenario looks at a proposed landing behind the American line suggested by Gen. Clinton. This places a smaller force of British between the Americans on the hill and their base off map. It's the only scenario where the Americans will attack.

The fifth scenario modifies Clinton's proposed attack with a supporting attack by Howe, so it is a combination of the historical scenario and Clinton's idea.


(Yes) For Wargamers: It manages to make a bloody frontal assault into an interesting game.

(No) For Collectors.

(No) For Euro gamers: Game play is intricate and detailed, even by wargame standards, with a lot of movement factor counting and other math.

A battle that almost was -- Dorchester 1776

First published in Command Magazine No. 32, Jan.-Feb. 1995. The wargame and main artile in the issue was Bunker Hill by William M. Marsh, but I had a small sidebar on the battle that wasn't -- the assault on Dorchester Heights.

Another Bunker Hill Affair — or Worse
By Seth Owen

But for a stormy night, Gen. George Washington might have earned a ranking among the greatest military geniuses of history. A gale on the night of 5 March 1776 may have robbed him of everlasting fame as the brilliant tactician and strategist who won his country’s independence in a single dramatic night. Instead, the Virginian is known for his stoic endurance earned through long years of frustrating campaigns and hard winters.

Washington took command of the army of minutemen besieging Boston in July 1775. He spent the balance of that year bringing some semblance of discipline to the rebel army, and on 1 January 1776 he reorganized and reenlisted the entire force.

Even as he cajoled soldiers, cashiered officers and begged Congress for money, Washington chafed for a chance to strike. In September 1775, he considered an assault on Boston before the army’s enlistments expired, and in January he unsuccessfully urged a council of war to support an attack because of “the indispensable necessity of making a bold attempt to conquer the Ministerial Troops before they can be reinforced in the spring.” The council demurred, because of the obvious weakness of the army, still lacking in troops, powder and artillery.

Washington addressed the latter two deficiencies by detaching his chief of artillery, former Boston bookseller Henry Knox, to bring to Boston the artillery and powder captured at Fort Ticonderoga the previous May. As Knox labored to haul the artillery across the snowy Berkshires, Washington formulated his plan for turning the guns to his decisive advantage.

The Battle of Bunker Hill had shown by example and implication the way to break the siege and drive the British from the town. The Patriot use of a surprise earthwork thrown up overnight on a commanding point provided the example. The Patriots had in fact occupied the heights above Charlestown to preempt a planned British move against the real key to the town and the harbor — the peninsula of Dorchester Neck and its heights.

The Patriots moved first, to seize and fortify Bunker and Breed’s Hill and thus forestall the British move. Their plan succeeded beyond expectations. The British abandoned their plan to fortify Dorchester Neck and instead moved against Bunker/Breed’s Hill. After their Pyrrhic victory, the British contented themselves with fortifying what they had captured and left Dorchester Neck ungarrisoned throughout the fall and winter.

Dorchester Neck in 1776 was a rectangular peninsula, about two miles long and three—quarters of a mile wide, with the long axis running east—west. Like Charlestown, the Neck was nearly an island, connected
to the mainland by a narrow isthmus at its southwest corner. Unlike the isthmus at Charlestown, however, wide mud flats surround Dorchester’s neck. Low tide exposed the flats and the water was far too shallow for the British warships to approach even at the deepest high tide.

In the center of the peninsula was a large, double peaked hill, called the Heights, which shared Bunker Hill’s unusual topography. When the Boston area was scooped from the earth during the last Ice Age a type of feature left by the retreating glaciers was the distinctive hill called a “drumlin.” Shaped like upside-down cereal bowls, the hills have steep sides, making them difficult for attacking infantry. But they are capped with gently rounded peaks suitable for artillery emplacements and redoubts. Boston’s Beacon Hill is a drumlin, as are Bunker and Breed’s Hills in Charlestown. Others surround the town in Cambridge, Roxbury and Dorchester Neck.

Washington’s plan for the move on Dorchester Neck was essentially an improved copy of the original patriot plan for Bunker Hill. Like the Bunker Hill plan, the occupation of Dorchester Neck relied on the surprise erection of a redoubt in a single night. The ground on the neck was stiffly frozen, however, making it unlikely digging alone could do the job. At the suggestion of Col. Rufus Putnam, fascines and gabions were made. Fascines are bundles of sticks wrapped together to form parapets; gabions are wickerwork baskets that are filled with earth to build ramparts quickly. More than 300 wagons were to transport the prefabricated materials to the Neck. To cover the sound of the work, Knox would bombard the town, hoping to provoke counterbattery fire that would mask the sounds of the workers.

At Bunker Hill, Col. William Prescott’s men had fought their battle fatigued, hungry and short of powder, after having built their fort and then manning it without relief. Washington’s plan avoided these flaws. At Dorchester Heights the troops building the redoubt would be relieved by fresh units in the morning. The Bunker Hill line had no support; Washington’s plan had additional troops standing by to reinforce the Heights if needed.

Instead of the half-dozen indifferently manned light field pieces of Bunker Hill, the Heights would bristle with cannon. Unlike the earlier battle, the troops on the heights would also have ample powder.

Washington was not content to merely drive the British from Boston, or provoke them into repeating their folly at Bunker Hill. He aimed at striking a knockout blow that would liberate the town while destroying the British army.

Unless the British drove the Americans from the heights they would have to quit the harbor. Washington expected Howe would not abandon the town without making an attempt to dislodge the Americans. To turn that expected reaction to advantage, Washington also prepared a stunning surprise assault across the Back Bay to seize the town while the British main body fought on the heights.

Some 3,600 troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam stood ready to cross the Back Bay in 45 secretly built 80—man bateaux. Two more boats were outfitted as floating batteries to provide fire support. The force, comprising brigades under John Sullivan and Nathaniel Greene, was to row across the Back Bay while the British were tied up in their assaults and hit the beach on Boston Common. Sullivan’s men would wheel left and capture Beacon Hill and the town, while Greene turned right and took the British fort
guarding Boston Neck from the rear, letting the Roxbury-based troops into the town.

Washington set his plan in motion on the evening of 4 March 1776. If there were a battle, it would take place on 5 March, the anniversary of the Boston Massacre. It seemed an auspicious date.

Washington’s plan unfolded flawlessly. In the darkness 2,000 colonials under the command of Maj. Gen. John Thomas silently moved on to the Neck with their wagonloads of gabions and fascines. About 800 men acted as a covering force, while 1,200 more set to work on the twin forts. Early the next morning a 3,000-man relief force took over as garrison.

Knox’s bombardment provoked the hoped-for British response and the nightlong cannonade masked the sounds of work on the heights. One British sentry in fact reported hearing construction noise from the Neck, but his report went no further than Brig. Gen. Francis Smith, who had received a similar report on the night Prescott fortified Breeds Hill. Incredibly, Smith again ignored the report, failing to either act on it himself or pass it up to Howe.

The morning revealed a new rebel fort overlooking the harbor, to the astonishment of the British army. If anything, the surprise this time was more complete because this fort was such an obviously strong position. The forts, according to one British officer, had been raised with “an expedition equal to that of the genii belonging to Aladdin’s wonderful lamp.”

Howe estimated the work must have taken “12,000 or 14,000 men that night.” Howe also realized the fort made the harbor untenable and resolved to strike quickly to take it before it became too strong. At first the British tried to reduce the redoubt with artillery fire, but found they couldn’t elevate their cannon enough to reach the heights, while the heights gave the rebel gunners extra range in turn. An infantry assault would he needed.

That afternoon boats ferried a strike force of five regiments to Castle William, located about a mile off Dorchester Point. Hoping to avoid another Bunker Hill debacle, Howe planned a night bayonet assault. Later in the evening, apparently concerned the assault force was not strong enough, Howe sent over two more regiments along with the battalions of light infantry and grenadiers as reinforcements Howe also planned a simultaneous assault with 1,200 troops against the American lines at Roxbury.

Howe was playing right into Washington’s hands with this move, and there is no indication the British general had the slightest inkling of Putnam’s planned assault. Aside from the British garrison in Charles-town and the forces based at Boston neck, there were only about 600 men under Brig. Gen. Robert Pigot to protect the city.

Washington and his troops were confident they could hold their positions on the Heights. The redoubt was much stronger than Prescott’s little fort had been. Abattis encircled the position and it was proof against musketry. Cannon covered all the approaches; there was plenty of powder and reinforcements were nearby. The garrison of the redoubt was nearly as numerous as the British assault force and included five large companies of riflemen. Washington himself was on the heights, ready to direct its defenses.

Meanwhile, foreboding about the coming assault filled the British troops. Most expected a much bloodier repeat of Bunker Hill. A Boston resident who saw them embark for Castle Island wrote that “they looked in general pale and dejected, and said to one another that it would be another Bunkers (sic) Hill affair or worse.”

Howe apparently also had second thoughts about the assault, but he couldn’t find a face-saving way to call it off. Several British officers, certain the attack was doomed, lobbied to have it cancelled. In fact, it’s hard to see how the attack could have succeeded. Storming works requires fortitude and elan, scarce qualities that afternoon in the British ranks.

But Howe’s luck changed that evening as a violent “hurrycane” blew in. Locals called it the worst storm within memory, and it made any landing impossible that night.

Work to strengthen the redoubt continued all night despite the storm, and morning revealed any opportunity to take the works by assault had truly passed, if it ever existed at all. Also, sometime during the night, an informant finally got word to Howe of Washington’s planned surprise landing on Boston Common. That news proved too much for Howe, who finally decided to abandon Boston.

British troops and their Tory allies spent the next few days evacuating to the ships of the fleet and on 17 March, St. Patrick’s Day, 1776, Washington’s troops marched in to take possession.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

INWO can be spooky

Illuminati: New World Order can be a spooky game, even if you're not a conspiracy theorist.

The game, for those who don't know it, is a collectible card game riff of an earlier Steve Jackson noncollectible card game design that postulates that there really are shadowing conspirators pulling the strings behind the scenes in a bid to control the world. Players represent one of those secret societies, such as the Bavarian Illuminati, the Gnomes of Zurich or UFOs, using plots such as Currency Speculation or Media Connections to control groups such as Feminists, Offshore Banks or the Recording Industry in pursuit of goals such as Power for Its Own Sake or Kill For Peace. Players attempt to build networks while disrupting the networks and plans of their opponents.

It's all very dark and fun, and a spot on satire of the world scene circa 1995, when the game was designed.

Looking at it some 10 years on, though, given some of the events that have occurred, the game can be kind of spooky to look at.

The single spookiest card has to be the "Terrorist Nuke" card, with its image of the Twin Towers being attacked in a way that eerily resembles the actual terror attacks of 9/11. It wasn't a nuke, of course, but the card illustration bears an uncanny resemblance to the location and scale of the first airplane impact.
The controversies over the government's warrant-less wiretaps programs might make one consider the implications of the N.S.A. and Phone Company groups.
Saddam Hussein really did have the power to distract a government from its goals, as it turns out.

Quite a few of the personalities from the 1995 game are no longer with us (Princess Di, Ronald Reagan and Imelda Marcos) while many of the others have faded from view (Ross Perot, Dan Quayle and George H.W. Bush). A few others refuse to fade away completely, although their time seems past (Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Fidel Castro).

At least one seems relevant still, such as Al Gore (he got the Nobel Peace Prize plot card played on him, no?)

While individuals come and go, some of the organizations that dominated the news 10 years ago seem just as potent now, such as OPEC, International Cocaine Smugglers and the Supreme Court while others have faded from view such as the Moonies, Moral Minority (sic) and the KKK. A few have even started bouncing back into view such as the Libertarians, Gay Activists and Anti-War Activists.
I've heard it said that the basic Illuminati game is a better game, perhaps because it's easier to balance a particular set of cards than the more open-ended environment of a Collectible Card Game with constructed decks. One way around this is to play out of one common deck. There are rules for playing that way available from Steve Jackson Games.
I think effective satire is hard, especially in a game format, yet INWO manages to achieve that goal. It's a little dated now and a new set of cars might freshen it up a bit. After all, we have a whole new set of personalities in the news and crazy events since the new century started.

Bankrupt Gen Con

I haven't ever made a Gen Con, alone among the major cons over the years. Primarily it has been an RPG-oriented event and that's just a minor interest of mine.

Still, it's a major con, so word it has filed for bankruptcy is of interest. Some info is here: but the bottom line is that the con has a couple million dollars in debts, which seems like a pretty big amount to me. I had no idea that convention budgets could add up to such huge numbers these days. Fascinating.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dixie: Shiloh review

Shiloh is the second set in the three-part series of Dixie collectible card games from Columbia Games.

One of the horde of titles that followed in the immediate wake of the phenomenal Magic: The Gathering in the mid-90s, Columbia actually seems to have been somewhat unclear on the concept of CCGs, because Dixie doesn't share some key aspects usually seen in such games.

For one thing, there's no use of rarity. While the decks were packaged randomly, every card had an equal likelihood of showing up. There were no "uncommon," "rare" or "ultra-rares" to frustrate players. On the other hand, the Shiloh set was quite large with 400 different cards for collectible purposes, as every general and regiment at the battle was represented with a card, as well as various battlefield features and events. From a playing standpoint, however, it wasn't necessary to have a really big set because there actually aren't that many functionallyy different cards, unlike Magic and similar games, where every card has a somewhat different game function.

Except for the "Special" cards, which do have unique effects, the majority of cards fall into distinct categories that are more or less the same. There are generals, who come in five different values (2/2; 1/2; 2/1;1/1;0/1), Infantry with combat values of 1 to 4, cavalry with combat values of 1 to 4 and artillery with values of 0 to 3, or terrain cards of three different types: creeks, fields and woods).

Because of this a playable deck wasn't too hard to acquire. A few decks were sufficient. Indeed, buying a lot of decks didn't make a lot of sense unless one was trying to complete the set because a game of Shiloh only uses 70 cards out of the 400 possible, or just 17.5 percent. This is the lowest ratio of any of the Dixie series. Bull Run uses 60 out of 200 and Gettysburg uses 54 out of 250, by comparison. Completist players can buy a complete set of cards from Columbia Games and forgo all the trouble and annoyance of the CCG route.

The game itself departs from the usual set up as well. While the battlefield is still apportioned between the two player's reserves and six "positions" in the left, center and right, in Shiloh the CSA player starts with all of his cards in the reserve and the Union player starts in possession of all six positions, which are called Left Front, Center Front and Right Front for the three positions accessible from the Confederate Reserve and Left Back, Center Back and Right Back for the three positions closest to the U.S. reserve.

Shiloh has just one scenario, the two-day battle. The Confederates draw 30 cards for their battle deck and draw 18 of those to form the initial army in the reserve. The remaining dozen cards are set aside to be drawn as reinforcements.

The Union player draws a 40-card battle deck and likewise draws 18 of those to form his initial deployment. At least one card must be placed in every position, but aside from that the U.S. deployment is free. The remaining 22 cards form the U.S. reinforcement deck.

The Confederates win by being in sole possession of the Center Back position by the end of the First Day. Time is kept via the CSA draw pile. Every turn the CSA draws two cards, when the draw pile is exhausted the day ends. (Therefore the U.S. loses his last turn and will have drawn just 10 cards) Both armies must then disengage any attacking engaged forces. The U.S. player then gets half of his remaining reinforcements (6 of 12 cards) as "overnight" arrivals and the second day begins with the U.S. player going first. The U.S. player wins by then capturing the Center Front position.

Left unsaid is whether there is a time limit , but I think it works best if the Union has to capture that position before his draw pile runs out. If using this house rule than the federals should draw 1 card per reinforcement phase. This gives the U.S. player the same 6 turns the C.S. player had to capture the winning ground.

It's an entertaining and quick game and can be played in less than an hour.

This review is based on the combined Dixie rules from the Columbia Games Web site, which contain some important changes from the rules included with the cards.

One change is how hits are defined, with Dixie switching over to the recent Columbia convention of low numbers being hits instead of the previous high numbers being better. So now, for example, an F3-firing unit hist on a 1, 2 or 3 instead of the previous 4, 5 or 6. This is more intuitive.

Hits on generals are handles differently as well. In the first edition generals could not get a hit until every other unit had a hit, but then they were instantly eliminated by the next hit in the position. This resulted in very high casualties for generals. Now generals are potentially hit by any roll of a "6" by a firing unit. It takes a second roll of a "6" to confirm the hit and actually kill the general. This makes generals much more survivable while also allowing for the possibility the general will be hit first. This can remove the general's morale benefit at a most inopportune time. Special cards that can take hist such as the Color Guard or Johnny Shiloh are handled the same as generals.

Related to these changes, the die roll for a friendly fire hit during artillery supporting fire has changed from the previous "1" to a "5" (The 6 being already spoken for with hits on generals).

There has also been a change in the definition of "enfilade fire" that will affect play of Shiloh. Under the prior rules enfilading fire in the "Front" three positions would have been F1 for Rebels and F2 for federals. Now it's is F1 for Rebels in all positions and F2 for federals in all positions.

One other change is the elimination of the "General Rank" rule which previously allowed a player to "stack" two leaders in a position so long as one of the generals outranked the other (i.e. two brigade commanders couldn't stack but a corps commander could stack with a brigade leader). Under the combined rules there's no provision for stacking leaders and only one is allowed per position.

The entire Dixie series is an entertaining and quick-playing battle game that provides some of the flavor of the historical event (colorful uniforms, famous locations, notable events) without being a simulation in nay sense of the term.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Landships! and the coming popularity of World War I

I hauled out my copy of Landships! today to peruse the designer's notes and see if I thought the game would be worth trying to play PBeM. I didn't come to a hard conclusion on that latter point, but I did come away with renewed appreciation of the historical research in the game. There was a lot of exotic armor in those early days.

With the approach of the Great War's centennial I wonder if there will be a new burst of interest in the topic. Wargaming got a jump start in the 1960s due to the centennial of the Civil War (Gettysburg was specifically crafted to tap into that). So there's certainly precedent for a spike in interest. We're currently in the middle of the bicentennial of the Napoleonic Wars and there does seem to be plenty of interest in the topic among wargamers, although it's hard to say there's more than the usual because the Napoleonic era has always been popular.

The 800-pound gorilla in the wargame room has always been World War II. Tactics II was designed just a few years after the war ended and the Second World War has always been the single most popular period among wargamers.

The First World War, for those of us who were young wargamers in the 60s and 70s, had a reputation for being rather boring, stagnant and grim, compared to the drama of Blitzkrieg-fueled World War II. That's not to say that it was completely ignored, but even those wargames that did depict World War I combat either reinforced that feeling or danced around it by sea and/or air.

Dunnigan's 1914 was an impressive game, but it did nothing to make World War I seem "sexy." His other World War I design from that period, Jutland, was about naval warfare. Battleships are sexy, and Jutland has plenty of those. The other notable early Avalon Hill on World War I, Richthofen's War, was about aerial combat, another "sexy" topic. Later games about naval and air combat such as Avalanche Press' Great War at Sea series and Ace of Aces also did well, but that seems to be more about their medium than their era.

It wasn't until Ted Raicer came along with his various titles that World War I started to get more respect, and with Paths of Glory now has a bona fide hit.

Wings of War, of course, is also another current hit game set in World War I, but again that's an air wargame.

Will there be a Memoir'44 or Tide of Iron style game about the Great War? Will Columbia or GMT publish a block game on the topic? How about Hasbro? Is there enough interest in the Great War for an Axis & Allies style game (Central Powers & Entente?).

Time will tell, but I think there may well be. As time passes opinion only becomes more firm that World War I was probably the most important political event of the 20th Century. World War II and the Cold War would not have happened but for the way WW I played out. If the war had ended in 1914 or 1916 or even with a German victory in 1918 we would be living in a very different world. It's only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that we started to really move into a post-Great War world. The very last of the World War I veterans are leaving us now and shortly it will move out of human memory and into history. The increased media attention the centennial will prompt will bring World War I to the fore in the immediate future.

Battle for Germany: Russian strategy in Red Star/White Star

The Red Star/ White Star: Patton's fantasy scenario in Battle for Germany is quick compared to the base scenario, easily playable in an hour. There are only 5 and a half or six turns and no Germans, so there are less than half as many units and phases compared to the standard situation.

It's a very challenging situation for the Russians, however, and the Allies should win more often than not.
While both sides appear evenly matched at first glance, a closer look shows that the Westerners have some important advantages.

Numerically there are 28 Communist unit and only 22 Allied units, so it appears that the Communists have the edge. But three of those Communist units are the Yugoslavs, who can't leave Yugoslavia, so engaging those units is optional for the West. One Soviet Front is stuck being the garrison for Warsaw, so the Westerners don't need to worry about that unit either. Finally, the Communists get no replacements, so every loss is permanent, while the Westerners will get 5 or 6 over the course over the game. The last one of those can be discounted because it won't make it to the front in time to make a difference, but that still leaves 4 or 5 additional units for the West, so the total effective count is 26 or 27 Allies units fighting 24 Communist pieces.

In combat factors there's a bigger Communist advantage, with a total of 156 attack factors and 223 defense factors (not counting Warsaw and the Yugoslavs) facing 112 attacks factors and 148 defense factors of Allied units at start. Replacment factors will depend on Allied losses, but the Allies will prefer to replace 6-6-7 and 7-4-8 corps so assuming a 50-50 split there may be another 39 AF and 30 DF more or less on the Allied side over the game.

The attacker-friendly nature of the combat results table makes this strength differential must less important than usual. This is not the usual 3-1 d-elim style CRT. The first "AE" (attacker eliminated) result doesn't appear until the 1-3 odds table, which will be rarely used because attacking is never required. (One might try it in an emergency --last turn against Berlin -- because there's also a 1/6 chance of "DR" (defender retreat one hex)!
There's a 1/3 chance of a DR at 1-2 and no chance of any really bad result for the attackers, just 'AR" (attacker retreats one hex). Even this isn't as bad as it often is in other wargames because the attacker conducts all retreats. These 1-2 attacks play a big role in the standard scenario, being the main way the Allies fight their way through the fortified zones of the West Wall and Italy, but it's unlikely any fortified hexes will be fought over in RS/WS.

At 1-1 odds the attacker will win 5 out of 6 times, making any kind of surrounded situation extremely dangerous for defenders. At 1-1 there's a 1/6 chance of an "EX" (Exchange) which elimiates all defenders and an equal number of attacking factors.

From 2-1 odds all the way to 6-1 odds the only difference is the ratio between DR resulst and DE (defender elimnated) results, ranging from 0 chance of a DE at 2-1 to 4/6 chance at 6-1. In every case the chances for an EX is the same -- one third. At a 7-1 odds or more there's one EX and 5 DE results.

The bottom line is that attacking is heavily favored by the CRT, with the main risk to attacking forces coming from the plentiful EX results. There's little chance of holding a specific hex against any kind of attack. This means that the Soviets can't count on their beefy 8-20-3 fronts to hold the line.

This dynamic means that the most important attribute of a unit is its movement factor, and here the Allies have a decisive edge. The slowest Allied corps -- a "6"-- is as fast as the speediest Soviet tank army, also a "6."
The victory conditions are also friendly to the Allies. Holding Berlin is necessary, but not sufficient, for a Communist victory. Even if they can't take Berlin the Allies can eke out a victory by holding every city on the west side of the German theater boundary plus two victory points worth of cities to the East. Likely target pairs include Stettin and Rostok north of Berlin, Lepizig and Dresden to Berlin's south or even Graz and Trieste in the far south (although this last means taking on the Yugoslavs). Taking either Prague or Vienna also serves just as well, as they are 2 VPs each.

The best bet for the Communists is to try for a decisive battle around Berlin. The Yugoslavs can be left to fend for themselves. Whatever forces the Allies commit against Tito are that many less to face the Soviets elsewhere.

The rough terrain in the central portion of the map reduces the Allied mobility advantage somewhat and all the doubling terrain helps the Soviets. They should take and hold Prague and Vienna (and Graz if possible) with the three fronts, three guards armies, two tank armies and the Bulgarains that start in the vicinity, springing the tank armies for operations up north if at all possible.

The Soviet forces up north start with three tank armies and six gaurds armies against nine Allied corps, so it's a very even fight. The Soviet front in Berlin must remain there, but there are two Polish units, two Soviet fronts and one more army that can reinforce this zone, so the Russians may be able to win an early edge.

IF the Soviets move first (50% chance) they should take advantage of an early vulnerability in the far north by setting up a 1-1 against the Britsh 8th Corps in hex 2810 and a 1-1 or 2-1 against the two Allied corps in 2911. 5/6 of the time the 1-1 will result in a tank army advancing into 2810 surrounding the Allies in 2911.

Depending on how lucky the Communist player feels he can go for a 1-1 which may fail 1/6 of the time or he can guarantee destroying the two allied units at the risk of an additional EX result. Leipzig should be hit with a 3-1 by three guards armies as well. While there's a chance for disaster with exchanges all around (and EX is almost always bad for the Soviets) there's a better chance that two to four Allied corps will will be elimiated at the cost of one or two Soviet units. This can create a very favorable situation for the Russians.

If the Allied move first, the Communists will have to react to their approach, although it should still be possible to take Prague, Trieste and Liepzig. The diffuclty will be holding all of them. The most important thing is still to fight for some breathing room around Berlin. All the Allies have to do is get a 1-1 surround on Berlin at any point and they will put them game away. The Soviets can't grab enough cities elsewhere to make up for losing Berlin.

If the Soviets move first I think they have a reasonable shot at winning, much less if the Allies move first. For a more competitive game I suggest always giving the Soviets the first move, instead of trusting to a die roll.

Hamburger Hill

Hamburger Hill is a small hex-and-counter wargame depicting the bitter 1969 battle of the same name during the Vietnam War. It was one of two games in the Vietnam-themed issue No. 5 of Command Magazine of 1990 (The other being Operation Solace).

The one scenario covers the 11-day battle. Each turn represents a single day with an indefinite number of player turn couplets during each turn. Each hex is about 240 yards of jungle hillside. The map is rather bland and its various shades of green would serve equally well as Russian steppe because there is no graphic hint of trees.

Units are companies for the United States Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and platoons for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The 8-page rulebook describes a game of low complexity by wargame standards. The 85 counters, including information markers, are functional if not especially attractive. Combat units include an silhouette icon of a soldier from the depicted army or a flag, a combat factor and a movement factor. U.S. and ARVN units also include a company letter and parent unit designation. The U.S. Army units are olive green with the icon and factors printed in various colors depending on the parent battalion. The units from the one ARVN battalion are red on yellow. The NVA units are yellow on red. ARVN and NVA units are two step while the U.S. companies have four steps, using a second counter for the reduced company.Player turns are interactive, with a movement phase that can be interupted by defensive fires followed by a combat phase. The US player also has an artillery and air preparatory fire phase at the beginning of his turn.

Couplets continue until the US player decides he has had enough for the day. A special "night turn" follows, with US units either staying in the field overnight or returning to their Landing Zone. The NVA can then launch a night attack combat with his surviving units.

The game revolves accumulating victory points for causing enemy casualties. The US can earn extra points for capturing the two map's hilltops and can accelerate the arrival of reinforcements at a VP cost. The battle ends when the US has wiped out the NVA or the NVA decides to withdraw at the end of a day.The game is a cat-and-mouse affair. The NVA player can substitute dummy units for real platoons for victory points. If played cagily the NVA player can keep the US player in the dark on his real strength.

The US player starts the game with a single battalion, meaning he'll probably be outnumbered. If he's not careful he can have his lunch handed to him by an aggressive Communist player. The arrival of the second battalion gives the US enough strength for serious offensive action. In most cases the third US battalion and the ARVN arrive too late to affect the game's outcome.

The US player has to pick his way through on-map bunkers and among dummies to destroy NVA platoons while taking fire. The NVA has to play an Eastern-art-of-war defense, retreating from strength and attacking weakness. Among the interesting touches, if frustrating for the US, is that the US has no way to permanently destroy bunkers. So the US no sooner clears a line of bunkers than finds it reoccupied behind him.Combat is firepower-based, with the attacking player adding up the firing combat factors, rolling a die and looking up the result on a Combat Result Table. No more than one casualty step can be inflicted in one shot. There are modifiers for elevation advantage, bunkers, morale and being encircled.

The game takes about five minutes to set up and can easily be played twice in one sitting due to the low counter density. For most of the game the US will have just 5 or 10 units in play and the NVA never more than 20.

The game does a nice job of simulating the actual battle. There is no published errata, which is a refreshing thing to be able to say about any wargame.


(Yes) For Wargamers: A unique topic covered in a playable way.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

(No) For Euro gamers: Although definitely on the simpler end of the scale, it is still a hex-and-counter wargame with intricate and detailed rules compared to most Euro games.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lion of Ethiopia

Lion of Ethiopia is a classic-style hex-and-counter wargame depicting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-36 that demonstrated the impotence of the League of Nations. The game was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 4 in 1990.

The campaign scenario runs from October 1935 to May 1936 in turns representing about 10 days. Each hex is 12 miles across, allowing the entire country of Ethiopia and substantial parts of neighboring territories to be shown. Units are divisions and regiments for the Italians and similar-sized groups of tribal warriors for the Ethiopians. The Italians have two army headquarters and several corps headquarters. The Ethiopians have army leaders for the larger, multi-counter tribal armies.

The 12-page rule book describes a game of low complexity by wargames standards. The map is attractive and functional, the first of many by Mark Simonitch over the next few years for Command. It's dominated by the large mountainous plateau that comprises heartland of Ethiopia. The 200 counters are generally in the traditional combat factor-movement factor layout. All the counters are cleanly laid out and easy to read with set-up instructions printed on the back. Ethiopian units are white with black print, except for a color-coded icon in the center. The icons depict either a leader in tribal garb or a round shield for the tribal levies. A handful of European-style guard units use NATO-style unit symbols. Emperor Haile Selassie also has a counter with his Lion of Ethiopia flag. The Italian counters are also a colorful lot, with light blue air units, khaki colonials, gray metropolitan troops and black fascist blackshirts.

The game turn uses a straightforward IGO-HUGO movement phase and combat phase. The Italians also have an airstrike phase. Ground combat is odds-based with eliminations, retreats "contact" and "engaged" results. "Contact" is essentially a "no effect" result. Rarely seen in wargames since the 1960s, the "engaged" locks the defenders and attackers in a continuing combat that is resolved the following turn. Ground units exert zones of control into adjacent hexes that force enemy units to stop their movement for the turn.

The effectiveness of Italian bomber strikes depend on the number of bomber units, the target terrain and some other factors, including poison gas.

The game revolves around the conquest of Ethiopia by capturing the capital and three out of four major regional cities. The Ethiopians can win by avoiding conquest or by capturing either of the two Italian bases or destroying both Italian army-level headquarters.

The game is really two games in one, and makes a reasonable three-player game. A large, powerful, albeit brittle, Italian army invades from Eritrea in the North while a smaller, but much more mobile, second army drive across the Somali desert from Mogadishu. The Ethiopian player delays and looks for opportunities to counterattack with his expendable tribal levies. He has a one-time bonus the first time he commits his European-style guard troops to combat, so the timing of this counterstroke is important. Because the combat system is whole unit elimination the Italian player is vulnerable to sudden disaster if he allows his units to be caught at a disadvantage or if he attacks carelessly. Meanwhile the Africans have to suffer from air strikes that they have no counter to.

The game is easily playable in one sitting and only takes about a quarter hour to set up. There is just one scenario.

The entire effect of the system and length is a game that is very reminiscent of classic Avalon Hill titles of the 1960s like Afrika Korps, Battle of the Bulge and Stalingrad.

For players desiring a little more intricacy there were "Tournament Rules" and counters in Command No. 7.

For players who just HAVE to have panzers, there was one of Ty Bomba's Victorious Axis "Alternative History" supplements in Command No. 6. Called "Tiger of Ethiopia" the supplement includes counters and rules for a 1948 Japanese invasion of Ethiopia against Italian and German defenders.


(Yes) For Wargamers: An unusual topic covered by a playable yet strategically interesting game.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

(No) For Euro gamers: Like most traditional hex-and-counter wargames the game play is somewhat intricate and detailed, although less than most.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Samurai Sunset review

Samurai Sunset is an intricate hex-and-counter wargame depicting the proposed invasion of the Japanese home islands in late 1945 and early 1946. The game assumes that for technical reasons the Manhattan Project failed to produce an atom bomb and the United States and its allies were forced to invade Japan in order to end the war. The game was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 3 in 1990.

The campaign scenario runs for a year from November 1, 1945 in approximately weekly turns and 25-mile hexes. Units are divisions and regiments/brigades for both sides. The 19-page rule-book by prolific designer Joseph Miranda lays out a comprehensive examination of the campaign in clearly written prose. The map is unattractive and has many terrain ambiguities in the placement of roads, rough terrain an even some cities. Command editor Ty Bomba was displeased enough with the artist's work to announce in a subsequent issue that she had been "fired."

The 200 counters are generally traditional combat factor-movement factor affairs in the case of land units, with air units and naval units having similar layouts. All the counters are cleanly laid out and easy to read. Most Japanese units are white on red, except for the special Kamikaze-type units, which red on white. U.S. Army and Army Air Corps units are black on olive green, U.S. Marine divisions are white on dark green. U.S. Navy naval task forces and air units are white on blue. British Commonwealth land forces are black on light brown and their naval task force and its associated air unit are light brown on blue. Divisions are two step and regiment/brigades one step. The game turn is interactive with a movement phase, an air reaction phase by the opposing player and finally the combat phase. Ground combat is odds-based while naval and air combat uses differential combat results tables. Ground units exert zones of control into adjacent hexes that force enemy units to stop heir movement for the turn.

Like many Miranda designs Samurai Sunset includes extensive rules for various unconventional forces, in this case, the various Japanese suicide tactic units. Besides the familiar Kamikaze air units there are rules for suicide attack boats and land units of fanatical "samurai" suicide soldiers.

The game is an exercise in joint warfare, with the air and naval forces playing nearly as big a role in the game as the land units.

The game revolves around the capture of Japanse population centers while avoiding excessive American casualties. The American objective is to acquire victory points through the capture of cities and the Emperor driving the VP track towards a total of 100 for an automatic victory. Conversely, the Japanese attempt to cause American casualties and other game events that drive the VP track down. If it ever reaches zero the Japanese win a decisive victory. Naturally most games end with the track some in-between for lesser levels of victory.

Playing the entire campaign may take more than one sitting for players unfamiliar with the game. There are two shorter scenarios depicting just the Operation Olympic invasion of Kyushu and the Operation Coronet invasion near Tokyo.

One of the attractions of the alternative history games is the ability to test ones generalship in a situation without historical precedent. While the general outlines of a historical campaign are well-known and the player is forced to play variations on the theme, in an alternative history game the player has the chance to try an original strategy with no historical yardstick creating preconceived notion about the outcome. This appeals to just a limited number of wargamers, judging from the relative lack of popularity of alternative history and what-if battle games, but it can be an interesting experience that is arguably more realistic than playing a historical campaign.

While players know how D-Day turned out, for example, Eisenhower was left to hope for the best after making his famous "Let's Go" order.

All the scenarios are free set up, so the game can be set up in half an hour or less.

Recommendations(Yes) For Wargamers: An interesting and rarely-simulated strategic situation depicted in a solid game marred only by a substandard map that will require some house rules.

(Conditional No) For Collectors: The game is probably only of interest for theme collectors of the Pacific War or Japanese-related games.

(No) For Euro gamers: Like most hard-core hex-and-counter wargames the game play is intricate and detailed. The map flaws merely exacerbate the workload for players inherent in this kind of game.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Magic: The Gathering, after 15 years I guess it's not just a fad

Magic: The Gathering burst on the gaming scene in 1993, which is, unbelievably, 15 years ago! Where does the time go?

There's no denying that it's one of the most important games ever, creating a whole new type of gaming experience: Collectible (or tradeable) games to fans, "crack" to detractors.

Myself, I have mixed feelings about MTG.

On the one hand, I think it's a good solid game. I enjoy playing now and then and I think the underlying game concepts work very well. It's spawned many, many imitators, but many of those fall short as games. MTG seems to have managed to hit a sweet spot right out the gate.

On the other hand, a big part of the MTG (and other collectible games) experience is the whole deck-building and card-acquiring metagame. That part I really have to say I've had trouble getting into. The problem, is that getting into that part of the game requires a commitment I'm not willing to make.

But I've made a lot more of a commitment to the game than I realized or intended.

Before making this post, I checked by MTG collection and found out I have about 46 stacked inches of cards. At about 80 cards per inch this comes out to approximately 3,680 cards. At a retail price of about 15 cents per card (it's more now, but a lot of my cards were bought a while ago) this comes out to roughly $550 I've spent on Magic cards over the last decade or so (my oldest cards are Revised).

Now, by Magic standards this is a pittance. But by boardgame standards it's not small change, and I have to say that I don't think there's any game I've spent that much on that I feel I have less of a handle on. Despite having spent several hundred dollars on the game, I'm still be a complete novice in any kind of competitive environment with constructed decks. It's a little frustrating actually, because the only kind of competitive gaming I could use all my cards in is the very type I'd have the least chance in. If I did want to play in a tournament my best bet would be a sealed deck, but in that case I don't even need all my existing cards.

I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't just cash out the collection.

Sam Grant brief review

Sam Grant is a sequel/companion game to Bobby Lee, Columbia Games' strategic-level block wargame about the Eastern Theater in the American Civil War, which moves the action out west where Union general Ulysses S. Grant made his reputation. The major difference between the two games is the hex scale, although this ends up having no real effect on play.

Initially there were some minor differences between the two games, but the latest rules from Columbia Games are a consolidated set covering both games.

In both games, units are depicted with wooden blocks with stickers on one side showing the unit type and strength. For those unfamiliar with the block games, the blocks are usually on end, Stratego-style. This provides fog of war while also providing a simple method of showing losses by rotating the block as it takes losses.

Columbia evidently went through a graphics upgrade between the 1993 Bobby Lee and the 1997 Sam Grant because the newer game's stickers are considerably better looking. The older game has very stark NATO-style unit symbols in colored lines (blue = inf, red = arty, yellow = cav) with varying numbers of "pips" on each edge for strength. This is little different from Quebec 1759 back in 1972! In Sam Grant we see the first inklings of a Columbia's more attractive later graphics, although they're still on the plain side. They are much more legible, however, with the pips replaced with numbers and the lines replaced with colored unit symbol squares (same blue/red/yellow).

The most important units in the game are headquarters. Similar to the system used in the Front series of games, there are army-level field headquarters that control regular movement and combat and a supreme headquarters that can move units via strategic means such as railroads and rivers or be used to move individual units outside command range of a field army HQ. Unlike the Front games, HQs in Sam Grant always have the same command range -- 1 hex for US, 2 for CS.

Battles are resolved in-hex in multiple rounds on a separate battle board divided into left, center, right and reserve sections. It's basically the standard Columbia battleboard system with some minor changes to account for Civil War era tactics such as no infantry squares and the presence of heavy artillery.

Every turn is a month, and as in usual Columbia practice there are seasonal scenarios, in this case one per year. Unlike the war in the East, where players will march back and forth over the same ground for four years, the Union has the potential to make steady progress. There are just three start points (1862, 1863 and 1864) and the game won't go on into 1865 as the historical action after that moved off map.

The common opinion is that 1862 scenario is somewhat of a problem because it's harder for the Union to break the river line under game conditions than history, which tends to throw the pace of the campaign off. Players therefore may want to start with the 1863 campaign which starts with that river line already breached.
Sam Grant can be combined with Bobby Lee for a grand campaign game suitable for four players. Units can be transferred between theaters, which opens up some interesting strategic possibilities. Historically both sides transferred significant forces between the theaters, especially in 1863.

Sam Grant is a little more involved than typical Columbia fare such as Hammer of the Scots or Crusader Rex and playing a multi-year campaign game will take more than an evening. On the other hand, it's not as big a project as a Front series game like EastFront.

It's a good choice for fans of block games, although the pacing might be a little slow for current tastes.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Shipbase III still useful

Fifteen years is an eternity in the world of software, so it might seem strange to write a review of a DOS-based computer program that first came out in 1993, but the game-assist program Shipbase III is still a great way to play detailed naval miniatures with a minimum of fuss.

The game is a text-based computer program with minimal graphics, but that's OK because the graphics are provided by your miniature warships in any case.

The game comes with a rule book explaining the manual procedures needed to move the ships and determine what data to enter into the computer to determine firing and damage. There's a second book listing hundreds of warships in game terms and counters for six battles so you can get right into the game without acquiring miniature warships. The six scenarios present a good mix of eras, sizes and ship types to provide a feel for the game's potentials. (The battles are Santiago 1898; Tsushima 1905; Jutland 1916; Denmark Straits 1941; Coral Sea 1942 and Komandorski Islands 1943.)

The turn sequence follows an intuitive order of movement, air ops, gunnery, torpedoes and end-of-turn status. Scales are completely adjustable by the player, making the game easy to use for any sized ships and floor space. I've used 1:4800, 1:2400 and 1:1800 ships but any size is possible.

The computer system can take into account most of the usual factors affecting naval combat such as smoke, relative angles, salvo chasing and the like. With one person handling the computer the rest of the players can simply concentrate on playing and command issues. Rather large battles can easily be fought in a short period of time, especially compared to rules of similar detail.

The game includes rules for playing at the strategic and operational level, but this will require considerable prep by a game master. While the game accounts for the shape of the Earth, it doesn't account for shores, so the game master will have to ensure players don't take shortcuts across landforms.

The game is best for resolving tactical level fights, however, and I've routinely run battles involving a couple dozen ships during a single four-hour convention time slot to a conclusion, including set up, rules explanations and tear down.

Although elderly for a computer program, it can be run by Windows machines off the DOS prompt and is very stable. I've never had it crash during a game. The program comes on a 3.5-inch floppy, so you'll need a floppy drive. The program is not copy-protected (honor system) so you can make a copy on a DVD that will work just fine on newer machines.

The program is very flexible and the scenario designer can modify ships as needed.

Light ships seem to be too vulnerable, however, and the game master may wish to incorporate house rules in order to keep battleships from unrealistically sniping at destroyers at long range. The game program seems to underestimate the difficulty of targeting very small ships at very long ranges.

Overall the game still works remarkably well and is still a unique product. The designer had started some work on a Windows-based successor, but no final product ever emerged.

Despite the passage of time and software generations, Shipbase III is still a winner.

GCACW: Balkoski to Beach

Great Campaigns of the American Civil War is an unusual example of a game system started by one designer that's been almost wholly taken over by a player-fan who has become the de facto lead designer in the series.

Joe Balkoski started the series with Stonewall Jackson's Way in 1992 by publisher Avalon Hill. As conceived of by Balskoski SJW is a full-bore, 1/2-inch counter, small-hexed, chart-heavy, scenario-laden, tweezers-needing wargame untouched by any euro-ized elements.

During the design process it became clear it would be useful to divide the project in two, spawning Here Come the Rebels as an automatic sequel and starting a hoped-for series. HCR appeared in 1993, followed within the year by Roads To Gettysburg (which made some key rule changes that were eventually abandoned and required a new set of counters later.) RTG made the series "official" to the public, with box art christening it "Vol. III" in the "Great Campaigns of the American Civil War."

Two years later in 1995 Vol. IV appeared, the ambitious Stonewall in the Valley which was a very long game coverin all of Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign. Up until this point the project was entirely in Balkoski's hands, but player Ed Beach was already working on Stonewall's Last Battle (Vol. V) about the classic Chancellorsville campaign, which appeared in 1996.

Balkoski and Beach collaborated in the sixth game in the series, On To Richmond, which was another lengthy game showing the entire Peninsular Campaign, published in 1998. It turned out this was the last of the series under the old Avalon Hill, as the company was sold just a few months later.

Hardly a beat was missed, however, as the series was one of the first picked by Curt Schilling's Multi-man Publishing (Of ASL fame) with the 1999 publication of The Skirmisher No. 1, edited by Beach and Balkoski. This featured a set of "Standard Rules" that regularized things over the series and included new counters for RTG to bring it in compliance with the series standards. The magazine doesn't say, but internal evidence in the form of standard artwork and the overall look imply that the Skirmisher was designed using artwork from the old AH art design staff.

In 2001 Grant Takes Command was published by MMP, and this, too, credited Beach as the sole designer, making the transition nearly complete. Beach mentions that Balkoski (who was staking out a career as a writer of popular history) didn't have much time for the project, providing some overall guidance.

The appearance of Skirmisher No. 2, in 2003 from MMP showed that the GCACW was completing the tranistion from one designer's baby to a more fan-supported approach. While Beach was the overall editor, most of the new content, including two full-sized game scenarios (Rebels in the White House and Burnside Takes Command) by teams of new designers. These new scenarios could easily have been stand-alone games as they have their own unique counter sets, but because their action takes place on existing maps and could take advantage of the standard rules and common market sets they could appear in this less-expensive format. They really are, however, functionally new games in the series. Perhaps they could be considered volumes VIIb and pre-V.

It's interesting to see how Beach was able to move into the lead design slot so seamlessly. The essence of the Balkoski design has been retained throughout and it's hard to pick out any obvious changes by Beach, especially because the entire series has turned into a very collaborative affair over the years with many changes incorporated from playtester and player input.

With the exception of the First Bull Run campaign, which will probably appear as another Skirmisher--style module at some point. the entire Eastern Theater is covered by the series, so the next one is supposed to be in the Western Theater, although the sedate publishing schedule of MMP means it's hard to know when that may happen.

It's an automatic buy as far as I'm concerned, though, whenever that may be.