Monday, June 9, 2008

Victory, 10th anniversary review

The modern board wargaming hobby traces its origins to Charles Roberts and his game Tactics, a fictionalized conflict between two states using World War II-era technology. The vast majority of wargames have, however, been based on historical settings and the hobby didn't really start to blossom until history-based wargames such as Gettysburg.

There would seem to be some important advantages for a non-historical wargame. It's easier to make sure it's a balanced contest, it can avoid messy special rules cases caused by odd historical events and it can avoid the problem of hindsight affecting game strategy. All true, but apparently insufficient to make this sort of game anything other than a niche within the niche of wargaming.

Just about every wargame company seems to try its hand at creating something along those lines. Besides Tactics, Avalon Hill also had Tactics II, Blitzkrieg and Kriegspiel. SPI had Strategy I. Other titles I'm aware of include Field Marshal and Battle. While having their fans, the mainstream of the hobby isn't interested. The better of these game can serve as a laboratory for game concepts tried out later. Strategy I did this for SPI and many of the ideas seen in the more recent Columbia Games titles were tried out for the first time in Victory: The Blocks of War.

Victory is basically a somewhat simplified version of the East Front game system. The most notable change is the abandonment of the headquarters activation system. In Victory all units can move every turn. In contrast to the Front series, however, Victory explicitly models all three branches, with air force and naval units alongside the ground troops.

Like all of Columbia's block games, Victory uses the blocks to provide an easy way to reflect reduced strength through combat losses and fog of war by keeping units on edge with their current values hidden from the enemy, Statego-style.

Because it's not a strictly historical design, Victory can finesse the differences in pacing between air units, naval units and ground units. Although turns seem to be, nominally, one month long, air units fly discrete sorties and naval units move little faster than ground units. Integrating the fact that aircraft can traverse in hours and naval units in days the distances that armies may require weeks to cover is one of the stickiest design problems in historical combined arms games. Here the problem is basically ignored in detail, but by fudging this one problem the game system truly allows a simple replication of joint operations. The relative advantages of air, naval and ground forces are retained.

Every side has an identical order of battle -- potentially. Actually, players have considerable freedom in tailoring their forces to their preferences and strategies. Units are built with production points, but unlike many similar games (notably Wizard Kings) almost every unit costs the same - 1 PP per step. This is achieved by cleverly balancing the advantages and disadvantages of each unit's special characteristics and combat values. While an armor unit, for example, is faster than an infantry unit and both have the same combat values, the infantry unit gets a bonus while fighting in cities, so it's not a simple decision which to build.

The only exception to the 1 PP per step are for elite fighters (jets) and elite armor, which gain a 50% increase in firepower for double the cost to build. While expensive, the edge in effectiveness can prove important.

Victory was the first Columbia Games to reverse the long-standing company design convention of high numbers being hits (i.e. "double fire" meant hits on die rolls of 5 or 6) to the more intuitive low numbers being hits (so a combat values of G2 means a unit scores hits in ground combat on die rolls of 1 or 2). All the newer games use this system and as older games get reissued they have mostly converted to the new style).

Besides the basic game, which features the traditional Blue Army vs. Red Army match up, additional armies in other colors were made available (grey, black, orange and green) and an additional set of"Elite" units was made available in all six colors that added new unit types such as jet fighters, torpedo bombers, supplies and resources. A logistics set added counters for airfields and different kinds of factories as well as other rules. There were also additional maps offered. for a total of 16. Giving a little bit of needed color to the game, each map named its features using different languages that reflected the nature of the map, so the large island nation map used Japanese-style names, the fjord map Scandinavian names, etc.

A lack of color is probably the biggest weakness of this sort of game, and is good evidence for how important theme really is for most wargames. While designers may have fun with the names of terrain features (Victory, like Blitzkrieg before it, works in the names of designers and friends) it takes a lot of imagination to really gin up your own colorful background. A few people like doing this sort of thing, and they can have fun creating a whole back story for the Empire of Orange, the People's Revolutionary Red Republic or the Kingdom of Blueland, but most prefer not.

There's also a lot of criticism of the scenarios and the draw-ish nature of the game, although I really don't buy into it. The game system provides a number of scenarios for two or more players that are balanced and challenging. The draw-ish nature of the game stems from its inherent nature. Both sides are evenly matched, by design. It's unlikely that wargamers will so overmatch their regular opponent that decisive victories will be common. Victory's predecessors also faced this criticism. Blitzkrieg was often called "Sitzkrieg" and Field Marshal tended to be much more of a slugfest than the systemically similar Russian Campaign. It really isn't surprising that victory in Victory tends to come narrowly.

Victory influenced several later Columbia Game designs. Pacific Victory, which uses a similar system, is more popular than Victory even though it has some balance issues, perhaps another illustration of the advantage of a historical theme in a wargame. Wizard Kings started off clearly indebted to Victory's game system, although later revisions have gone off in different directions.

Of all the games of this sort, I think Victory is the most successful and worthwhile, but clearly the lack of a historical theme is a big obstacle for it getting wider acceptance. It's generally been Columbia Games practice to keep their games in print and issue new, revised editions as stocks dwindle. For example ,a new edition of War of 1812 is imminent. Victory, on the other hand, seems likely to stay out of print. Copies of the base game are not hard to find, but getting all the various expansions may be difficult. None are really required, however, and players can pick and choose among the various options to customize the game to the level of detail that suits them. I think each expansions added something of value, but there's certainly need to use everything.

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