Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hougoumont, a comprehensive review

Hougoumont is an innovative hex-and-counter wargame depicting the famous fight for the Chateau of Hougoumont at the Battle of Waterloo. The game was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 11 in 1991.
A very tactical game, each turn represents just 10 minutes of real time and each hex is 25 yards across. Each stacking point represents 25 soldiers. Unit counters represent companies and half-companies from the French and Anglo-Allied armies. The 12 turns cover the fighting from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., which ended up taking an entire French Division out of the main battle. Wellington’s retention of the chateau, a natural fortress, had an impact on how the rest of the battle turned out and the duke, himself, called it the key to the battle.
The 15-page rule book describes a game of moderate complexity by wargame standards. The Mark Simonitch map is attractive and functional, and solves the problem of translating a “square” battlefield into wargame hexagons with careful placement of terrain and a “map translation” box that helps players visualize the battlefield correctly.
The map shows the Chateau compound itself and the surrounding gardens, orchard and woods.
The 200 counters are illustrated with color icons of the soldiers in their national uniforms, with an identifying formation ID number, morale rating and a stacking value. All the French units and some Allied units have a stacking value of “4,” while the British units and some German troops on their side have a stacking value of “2.“
The reverse side of each unit has half the stacking value, so in effect each “step” of French troops represents twice as many men as each step of British.
Morale values run from “3” (for some Nassauers on the British side) to “6” (British Guards).
Both sides have a number of leaders, who have no values listed on the counter, but who provide movement and morale benefits.
No movement factor is listed because all units have a movement allowance of 16.
The two sides are differentiated by the background colors, light blue for the French and light red for the British and their allies.
Each player turn starts with a reinforcement phase followed by a howitzer targeting phase by the enemy. 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. Finally, the howitzers that targeted hexes resolve their impacts, which generally involves some scattering of the fire. (Fusing was a very inexact science for nineteenth century gunners).
Leaders, howitzers and setting fires are all listed as "optional" rules, but anyone interested enough in the topic to play this game will certainly want to use all of them.
Firing is conducted unit by unit, with larger units such as full-strength French companies getting a +1 bonus to the die roll and small units, such as a half-strength British half-company, getting a -1. The die roll is compared to the number of steps in the target hex. Often this will mean an automatic hit for many British units firing on French stacks, which may have as many as 12 stacking points in a hex. The net effect is that British fire tends to be four times as effective, because every hit on a French stack eliminates two stacking points (50 men) while return fire generally eliminates just one stacking point of British (25 men.) Combined with the fact that the French will necessarily have to crowd their troops together (often in the open) while the British are spread out (often behind walls) and the casualty count will run heavily against the French. Fortunately for the French, they do have a lot of troops available (18 battalions) and numbers do count in melees. The eight battalions of British will need all the help the stout walls and buildings of Hougoumont can provide.
Both sides start with just part of their forces available and, as casualties mount, more troops are released to take part in the fight. A clue to the relative bloodiness for the two sides is provided by those tripping points -- every 30 steps for the French (1,500 men) compared to every 8 steps for the British (200 men).
The game itself is a tense back-and-forth affair swirling over the walls, through the orchards and into the buildings. The game is won on victory points, with the Chateau building worth 2 and the garden and orchard worth one each. Each reinforcement formation taken subtracts one VP.
Well-received by Command subscribers, variations on the system were used for two more black-powder era assaults on fortified locations in “Bunker Hill: A Dear Bought Victory” and “Dark Victory” (The Alamo) in later issues of Command.
The game is playable in one long evening and only takes about 10 minutes to set up. There is just one scenario, but later issues of Command included variants adding a battalion of the French Guard and a battalion of French sappers that were available but never used.
(Yes) For Wargamers: The only game on this topic, it’s a challenging play and instructive as well.
(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibles, aside from being the only game on this particular part of the battle of Waterloo.
(No) For Euro gamers: Game play is intricate and detailed, even by war game standards, with a lot of movement factor counting and other math.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Successors review

Successors is the second major variant for Command Magazine's issue 10 Alexandros game. Like Xenophon, Successors appeared in Command No. 14.I've discussed the game mechanics and materials in previous reviews on Alexandros and Xenophon, so this time I'll just make some comments of the differences between this game and the others.

First, while there is a two-player game, most players won't bother hauling this out unless they have three or four players. In the three-player game players represent the main Successor factions founded by Antigonis, Ptolomy and Seleucus. If present a fourth player controls various barbarians and other small states and acts as a "spoiler."

This is a very long game, going on for as many as 96 turns. The historical result was a draw as none of the successors was able to reunite Alexander's conquest and instead each settled for carving out a new kingdom. Players are forewarned that the game appears very historical!
On the other hand, the original Alexandros game is a bit boring for the Persians because the Macedonians are so powerful. And Xenophon is short.

In Successors all the various unit types, including the incomparable 8-8 Macedonian pike phalanxes, are available to all the players and therefore Successors is the best-balanced big game in the system.

Set up takes 20-30 minutes, including picking through the Alexandros counters. The game itself will probably take more than one sitting.


Yes for Wargamers: Most even scenario in the system.

No for collectors: Nothing special.

No for Eurogamers: Too intricate and slow-moving for the taste of more casual players.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Xenophon comprehensive review

Xenophon is a major variant for the Command Magazine game Alexandros, depicting the epic events of a generation earlier that inspired Alexander's visions of conquest. It uses the same map and many of the same counters as Alexandros, which was an area movement-and-counter wargame from Command No. 10 depicting the Alexander the Great's campaign of conquest against the Persian Empire from 334 BC to 323 BC. The Xenophon variant, which was in issue No. 14 of Command Magazine, covers a two or three year campaign in quarterly turns.

Units are Greek and Persian units of infantry and cavalry with several thousand troops each. Each unit is rated for attack and defense strengths.The 3-page variant builds on changes from Alexandros' 12-page rule book. The game is still of low to moderate complexity by wargames standards.

It uses the same Mark Simonitch map, depicting the entire Middle East from Greece to India. But several areas are not used, including Egypt (in revolt against Persia at the time) India (not involved), Greece, Macedon and several other border regions. Provinces are rated as either rich, fertile, mountain or wilderness with varying ability to support an army.

Xenophon gives players a chance to try a much shorter version of the Alexandros game system. Interestingly, Xenophon, himself, may not always appear in the game. The players start off representing rival Persian claimants to the throne -- Cyrus and his brother Artaxerxes. Cyrus employed about 10,000 Greek mercenaries, resented in the game by powerful 7-8 Spartan hoplite phalanxes. If Cyrus succeeds in defeating Artaxerxes Xenophon will never appear. But if he loses, then the remaining Persians on his side switch allegiance to Artaxerxes and the former Cyrus player now tries to get the Greeks home, under the command of leaders Clearchus and Menon. If either of those leaders die, then Xenophon appears.

The game lasts eight turns, with an option to extend for four more, although it will often play quicker than that. It's in Cyrus' interest to force an early decision because Artaxerxes gets more reinforcements over the long term.

The units use the full-color iconic representations first seen in Kadesh. The Cyrus uses the light blue background Persians, and the black background Spartans. Artaxerxes uses the beige- and saffron-colored Persian and Indian units.The game turn starts with a mutual supply phase. The Macedonians move, followed by the Persians. A mutual combat phase follows, with so-called minor combats resolved before big battles. After field battles sieges are conducted.

Tactical battles are resolved on a separate display, where units are lined up against each other. Like the parent game, in Xenophon the quality units, this time the Spartan and Greek phalanxes, are nearly impossible for the Persian levies to defeat, so the game will revolve around how those elite units are used.

The game adds some simple terrain rules to the battle system, which can be backfitted to Alexandros if desired. Essentially the rules add rivers, mountains or hills to one or both flanks that restrict or block movement.

Victory is very straightforward. If Cyrus kills Artaxerxes he wins. If he dies, that player loses UNLESS, he can succeed in getting at least half of the surviving Greeks home.This variant is easily playable in one sitting and only takes about a quarter hour to set up, even with the necessity to pick through the Alexandros units. There is just one scenario.


(Yes) For Wargamers: A quick introduction to the Alexandros system.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

(No) For Euro gamers: As a hex-and-counter wargames the game play is intricate and detailed.

Heroscape as a wargame

Back in the early 60s Milton Bradley published a line of American Heritage games that were the gateway for a lot of young Boomers to the idea of wargames. Some were light wargames like Dogfight, some were merely war-themed games like Hit the Beach!, but they primed the interest of young people like me so that we were ready for the more serious Avalon Hill wargames when we discovered them.

These kind of gateway games are important if there's going to be a future for board wargaming. People aren't going to start with ASL -- or even Target Arnhem.

So Hasbro's commitment to the Heroscape system is a positive development. Not only is it a neat game, but it's a great gateway for board wargaming. Only a fraction of the kids that might try it will graduate to more serious fare, but that's always been true.

Make no mistake, Heroscape is definitely a skirmish level wargame, and a rather clever one at that. While dressed up with plenty of sci fi and fantasy elements, it doesn't ignore more prosaic combatants. Sure, there are ogres, vampires, orc and elves, but there are also eighteenth century musketeers, World War II paratroopers, crusader knights, samurai and ashigaru warriors, vikings, Romans and Thebans.

There's just enough there to pique the interest of some young minds for something more.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I think it's the Elves' fault

There's probably not a richer, more fully realized fictional world from a single pen than Tolkien's Middle Earth. It's a world with a history so detailed that a game like War of the Ring can properly be considered a historical wargame, even though the "history" in this case never really happened.

But considered from the richness of the source material, it may well be that a wargame designer has much more to go on with War of the Ring than, let's say, the Battle of Kadesh.

The challenge for designing a game like War of the Ring is that, like a history-based game, it has to have fidelity to its source material in a way that a fiction-based game usually doesn't. Fans know the "facts" about Elves, Orcs, Ents and Hobbits as well as they know the facts of Sherman tanks, Spitfire fighters and 44-gun frigates.

Tolkien created a very rich world, indeed, one with three "ages" each lasting several millennium. But one odd thing about that world was its technological stasis. While things changed, wars were fought, empires rose and fell, the base level technology appears to have changed very little over all three ages. Only at the close of the Third Age are their hints of technological progress. This, of course, is in stark contrast to our world. In the equivalent time covered by the Third Age of Middle Earth the civilizations of our earth went from stone tools to spaceships and the weapons of war from bronze spears to supersonic aircraft.

How could this be so?

The easy answer is that it's because the author made it so.

But that's an unsatisfying answer, because Tolkien's works are so skillful at making us believe in them that there must be some internal logic that explains how the world could be so unchanging.

As the Third Age of Middle Earth ends and the Fourth Age begins, it's made clear that the Fourth Age is the Age of Man. Humankind had, however, been on the scene for quite a while, slowly increasing in numbers and influence over the various ages of Middle Earth. The men of Middle Earth are recognizable human beings, with all the flaws and virtues of the race. Yet despite having the same human nature as the people of our earth, the men of Middle Earth seem strangely incurious about how the world works and how to do things better.

While human nature is the same, the nature of the world these humans inhabit is significantly different than ours. On our earth, by the time human beings started creating civilizations, they had already outcompeted the other tool-using hominids they might have shared the world with. Men, and men alone, colonized the earth.

The men of Middle Earth, in contrast, arrived in a world that already had ancient races and civilizations. How much the ensuing human settlements were the products of human creation and how much was borrowed from the already resident races in Middle Earth isn't really clear. But men were not alone and they shared this world with many sentient and semi-sentient races.

Many of these races were few in numbers or none too smart or lacked thumbs and had relatively little influence over the wider world. Creatures such as dragons, eagles, trolls, giant spiders and wargs didn't build civilizations. Often individually powerful, they were not able to challenge the civilized races for territory and usually lived in remote and inaccessible places.

The men of Middle Earth had to contend with three other major sentient, civilized races that had cultures, languages, tools, weapons and organization.

The Dwarves were a very ancient race, perhaps the oldest in Middle Earth, but their influence over the world was limited by their nature. They were standoffish and tended to mine their own affairs. They preferred to live in the hills and mountains of Middle Earth and spent a lot of time underground. Their relations with men seemed generally proper and there was little cause for conflict between the two. The men preferred the fertile plains and lowlands over the hills anyway. In our own earth's history there are many cases of lowland folk and highland folk who live in close proximity for generations yet retain separate cultures. Examples range all over the world from Scotland to Taiwan. In our world, there's often been the problem of the highland folk becoming raiders at the expense of the lowlanders, although usually the lowlanders have numbers on their side and can avoid conquest.

In Middle Earth the Dwarves seem much more interested in digging than raiding, but the same cannot be said for the second "civilized" race, the Orcs, or Goblins. These creatures, while able to assume the trappings of civilization and make tools and weapons, don't seem to have the creativity needed to innovate. They make corrupted copies of what other races make, and what they can't make they steal. This puts them in conflict with men, of course, but also with the Dwarves, because the Orcs also prefer the highlands and the dark, secret places under them to the plains and open air of the lowlands. Indeed, Goblins and Dwarves are constantly at war. yet despite warring for thousands of years, neither ace was able to exterminate the other. The Dwarves seem to have the edge in prowess and organization, but the Orcs always seemed to have an edge in numbers.

Neither dwarf nor Orc adequately explains the static nature of human civilization in Middle Earth, however, Indeed, the constant warring against Orcs ought to have stimulated improved weaponry. Eventually, on our Earth, the more advanced lowland-based civilizations used technology and organization to prevail over the highland peoples, although here and there the hills can still be wild places (Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, for example).

No, the blame, or credit, for the unchanging nature of Middle Earth must rest with the Elves.

They dominated Middle Earth from their arrival until their departure. The Orcs were corrupted versions of the Elves and hated and feared them. The Dwarves were sullen rivals of the Elves, but seemed to have little insight into them. And men loved the Elves, respected the Elves and envied them.

While the Elves had access to some magic and secret knowledge, in many ways they were like the men and the men were enough like the Elves that the two races could intermarry.

But the singular feature of the Elves was their agelessness. It appears they had a lifespan that was so long that they were immortal, for all practical purposes. They aged imperceptibly. They rarely became ill, and if they did seemed adept at healing.

They were not, however, really immortal, for they could die from trauma. They could and did die in battle. I would assume that every so often they died in accidents, although perhaps not so often as people do. They didn't have motor vehicles and industry to claim lives. But their must have been some attrition and Tolkien implies that the numbers of elves dwindled over time. While they could have children, they had little drive to do so. This makes sense for such a long-lived race. It would be easy for them to suffer from overpopulation if they bred like people.

But as effectively immortal beings, they naturally had a different outlook on time than humans. People know life is short, and in an agrarian society such as Middle Earth it tends to be shorter. Knowing that their time is short gives people the drive to do things and makes them impatient and always searching for quicker and easier ways.

For the Elves, in contrast, knowing they had plenty of time, there was less urgency to innovate and do things more efficiently. Were Mithril mail and Elvish blades magic? Probably, but much of their quality may have come from patient metalsmithing. How good a sword can a swordsmith make if he has an unlimited amount of time to make one?

And for the Elves, having plenty of time probably meant that once they found an acceptable way to do things they didn't have much incentive to find a better way to do it. If they did something twice as fast it just meant they'd have twice as much time to fill. While the burden of time didn't hang too heavy on them, they clearly were not a driven race.

For men, who admired the Elves and followed in their footsteps it would have been hard to conceive of doing thing differently than the Elves. Imagine standing before an Elf who has already lived 5,000 years and trying to tell him you've figured out a better way to do it in your measly 40 years alive. Elven mastery of magic made this problem even worse, putting would-be inventors in a very difficult spot. There's little indication that men could do magic. The wizards Gandalf and Saruman were beings that had taken human form but were not men.

No, doing things as they had always been done suited the Elves. The Dwarves were also satisfied with their status quo and Orcs apparently couldn't think of new ways of doing anything. The one race that might have created new technologies was overawed, intimidated and, perhaps, even encouraged by the Elves to not strive to exceed their lead.

Ah, but what about the Hobbits? They may be the proof of the rule. While long-lived compared to men, they were quite mortal compared to Elves. They seem to have had very little contact with Elves, although they had heard tales. Off in their little corner of Middle Earth they did seem to be a fairly industrious lot. Compared to the races they were latecomers, yet they seemed to have developed a cozy little civilization. They had mills and seem. actually, rather more culturally advanced than the Middle Earth norm. While everyone else was stuck in the year 1500 the hobbits seemed to be creeping into the 1750s.

But they were few, they were little and they were ignored.

Men listened to the Elves, and the way the Elves did things were good enough and had always been good enough. Only when the Elves left and Men were forced to stand on their own did they discover their creative energies. Tolkien implies that the other races and various other creatures in Middle Earth were doomed to extermination or driven into hiding at that point.

The Age of Men had begun and things would never be the same again.

Wings of War and the globalization of wargaming

One of the great joys of wargaming is learning neat new stuff. It's an added bonus over the general fun of any game, where you can exercise your intellect and competitive spirit. It's something that's relatively uncommon outside of wargames, with the exception of trivia-style games. Even pretty-heavily themed non-wargames rarely provide anything deeper than generally available knowledge about their topic.

Ah, but wargames are different. Even fairly simple wargames usually have terrain, order of battle and other information at a deeper level than found in most popular histories and some of them are original works of scholarship in their own right.

For the first few decades of popular wargaming the hobby had a very Anglo-centric focus. While there were some wargame publishers and designers outside the English-speaking world the vast majority were from American, British, Canadian and Australian sources. Unavoidably this introduced some biases as far as subject matter went. Generally I think the level of history discourse in English is pretty high and most authors and game designers make an attempt to be as objective as possible, but it's still refreshing to see other points of view. Even within the English-speaking history community there can be different viewpoints on subjects. All one has to do is bring up Field Marshal Montgomery or the War of 1812 to see that there's always at least two sides to every story.

The last dozen or so years have seen an explosion in wargame interest all over the world. While the core of the hobby is still American and British, some of the most exciting gaming has some from other countries such as Germany, Japan, France and Italy. One manifestation of this trend has been add copy on game boxes in many maguages. Hasbro's Axis & Allies Miniatures, for example, includes descriptive copy in English, French, Italian and Spanish.

The Wings of War series of games is Italian in origin, and is probably the most popular aerial wargame right now. So it probably shouldn't be a surprise that the game includes more Italian planes than French or American and nearly as many as the British.

Still, I'll admit is is somewhat as a surprise. Brought up on British and American histories of the air war (supplemented by a few German accounts) , I always had the impression that the air war over the Western front was where all the action is. Other fronts, if mentioned at all, were given a cursory treatment.

A moment's consideration shows that this must have meant a lot of action was simply omitted, not that it didn't happen. The war raged over thousands of miles of front in Russia, Italy and the Middle East, not just the few hundred miles of France and Belgium. There must have been a lot of use for airpower over those vast distances. Even the ground campaigns on those other fronts usually don't get a lot of copy, but the air war even less. So seeing the Italian, Russian and Austrian planes in Wings of War helps illuminate an aspect of the Great War that I didn't know much about.

There's even less attention in English historical writing about the post-World War I fighting. American histories, especially, seem to end abruptly with the armistice and don't say much about what happened afterwards. Europeans know that the fighting didn't end everywhere at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. Indeed, it went on for years as the empires of Russia, Austria and the Ottomans disintegrated, rarely peacefully. Wings of War provides a glimspe of this fighting, too, with various expansions depicting Red Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish and Czech aircraft.

And the World War II version includes Vichy French and Italian co-belligerent forces as well as the usual British, German, French, Japanese and American planes.

This is neat stuff.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Alexandros comprehensive review

Alexandros is an area movement-and-counter wargame depicting the Alexander the Great's campaign of conquest against the Persian Empire from 334 BC to 323 BC. The game, which was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 10, covers the whole ten-year campaign in quarterly turns.

Units are Macedonian Phalanx' of about 6,000 men and comparably-sized units of infantry and cavalry from all over the region. Each unit is rated for attack and defense strengths.

The 12-page rule book describes a game of low to moderate complexity by wargames standards. The colorful Mark Simonitch map is attractive and functional, depicting the entire Middle East from Greece to India divided into large provinces. Those provinces are rated as either rich, fertile, mountain or wilderness with varying ability to support an army.

In truth, the game is fairly straightforward as Alexander and his Macedonians totally overmatch their Persian opponents. The Macedonian army with Alexander alone has a dozen units that match or exceed the best native Persian unit (the Royal Guard) in combat strength. Like some rock tour, Alexander and his boys pretty much hit all the sites, steamrollering any Persian force that happens to get in the way.

The only viable Persian strategy is to engage Alexander in combat and hope for a lucky roll (snake eyes) to kill him.

The typical XTR response when faced with a strategically sterile wargame situation is to add in a lot of colorful chrome and Alexandros has it all, from The Gordian Knot and Roxanne to the Indian Prince Porus and his elephants. The game includes a fairly involved tactical schematic battle system for resolving battles. This would be more of a problem if battles were common but the historical campaign only had four major pitched battles and the game probably will have a similar number.

Alexander is such a singular historical personage that any wargame would have some trouble dealing with his campaigns. The game designer is faced with the problem of replicating his success while not having Alexander on hand to do it. If the game player (who necessarily is not "Anyone" all-that-Great) were left to his own devices and talents he'd be very unlikely to get anywhere near Babylon, let alone trapsing through Afghanistan and India!

And his opponent is not likely to be as bad a "Great King" as the hapless and cowardly Darius. So the Macedonians and Alexander are given very high factors and lot of special abilities and the game plays out more or less historically.

The same map and rules and many of the counters were used in two major variants published in Command Magazine ("Xenophon" and "Successors," reviewed elsewhere) which make more interesting games, as they are not saddled with dealing with Alexander. Xenophon and many of the Successor generals were talented leaders, but more within reach for the typical wargamer.

The units use the full-color iconic representations first seen in Kadesh. The Macedonians are on light blue backgrounds while the Persians are beige. Some revolting Spartans are on black backgrounds, Greek mercenaries are "bronze." The Indians are described as "saffron." Some barbarians that may show up via random event are "gold" and similar raiding Arabs are "sand." It will take a keen color sense to pick out the difference between beige, saffron, gold and sand, but the icons are different enough there should be no problems for the game players.

The game turn starts with a mutual supply phase. The Macedonians move, followed by the Persians. A mutual combat phase follows, with so-called minor combats resolved before big battles. After field battles sieges are conducted. Tactical battles are resolved on a separate display, where units are lined up against each other. Each battle is a duel between to units. The only advantage of numbers is the ability to take losses and keep fighting, but there is no way for a bunch of weak units to gang up on a strong one. This feature of the combat system enhances the power of strong units tremendously. A typical 3-2 Persian infantry unit fighting an 8-8 Macedonian phalanx attacks at 1-3 result,with the best result being an "engaged" result with no immediate effects and a mandatory refight in the next round.The most likely result is an "AL" attacker loss which will send the hapless one-step Persian to the dead pile. Meanwhile, the 8-8 phalanx has a solid 4-1 against the Persian duing its attack. The best the Persian can hope for is still an "engaged," but the most likely result is a "DL" which also kills the one-step Persian. The Persian player will be forgiven if it feels like he's playing at the short end of a "heads I win, tails you lose" proposition. While there are a few better Persian units, none can manage as much as a 1-1 against a phalanx unless assisted by a leader, and only the very best, leader-assisted, can manage a 1-2 against Alexander if he's stacked with a phalanx or the Companions (and he should never be stacked with anyone else), which is the minimum odds needed to have a chance for a "DL" result and a chance to kill Alexander.

The Persians win if Alexander is killed or captured (fat chance) or if they manage to keep the Macedonian victory point count below 16. Alexander gets 1 VP per controlled objective (there are 11 possible) and controlled province (there are 26 of those). More than 20 brings some level of Macedonian victory. The historical result was 25, which most players should manage.

The game is playable in one sitting and only takes about a quarter hour to set up. There is just one scenario, but there are also two major variants "Xenophon" and "Successors" that were published in a subsequent issue.


(Yes) For Wargamers: An unusual ancient battle with some interesting choices, but play balance is, to put it mildly,questionable. The best solution is to play a match with the player with the higher VP total winning.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

(No) For Euro gamers: As a hex-and-counter wargames the game play is intricate and detailed and play balance a secondary consideration.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lord of the Rings: Tradeable Miniatures Game scenario -- Fangorn Forest

Fangorn Forest

A LOTR:TMG scenario based on the Fellowship of the Ring movie/book

Order of Battle:

Evil: Match the build of the Good side under standard army construction rules. The Bad force must include a version of Ugluk and a version of Grishnakh. If needed for leadership, the Bad force can optionally include versions of Snaga, Orc Lackey and/or Orc Overseer as needed and available. At least half but no more than two-thirds of the figures must be Uruk-Hai (not Mordor) and the remainder must be Orcs.

Good: As many Riders of Rohan as the player as available, fielded within standard army construction rules. The Good force must include a version of Eomer. The good force must also include any version of Merry and Pippin. The hobbits can be used to satisfy leadership requirements under the standard army construction rules. All the non-hobbit figures must be mounted except for a couple of foot Rohan figures to even off point totals. The value of the foot Rohan figures cannot exceed the point value of the cheapest mounted figure in the force. Once the good army total has been determined, give that information to the Evil force commander

Map:. Any one map that does not include buildings. Treat water hexsides as land.

Set Up

The Evil Army:. The Evil player sets up all figures in the center of the map. One hobbit must be in the very center hex, the other is adjacent. All other Evil force figures must be set up adjacent to at least two others so that the whole force forms one compact mass
The Good army: The hobbits set up in the center of the map. They start the scenario captured. All other figures can enter the map from any side on any turn.

Special Rules

1. Any Good figure can leave the map by paying 1 movement point from a map edge hex. Figures may reenter the map on any subsequent turn.

2. Merry and Pippin are prisoners, but under the control of the Good player for movement. They are unarmed and cannot fight, but they also cannot be killed. So long as an evil figure is adjacent to them they are considered bound and can only move one hex per turn and cannot enter an occupied hex. If a hobbit starts a friendly movement phase without an Evil figure adjacent the hobbit is considered freed and can move normally, but cannot attack. If an Evil figure is adjacent at the start of a movement phase the hobbit is considered recaptured and bound again. Hobbits can escape and be recaptured any number of times.


The Evil Army wins if the Good army is routed

The Good Army wins if the Evil army is routed or both hobbits exit the map from any map edge.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Navia Dratp, a twisted and sad saga of marketing madness

Metamorphosis is a fascinating chess-like abstract strategy game.

Players earn points by moving pawns forward, capturing opposing pieces and through some other piece-specific means. They can spend those points to metamorphose non-pawn pieces to more powerful versions or, in some cases, give the metamorphosed piece some new power.

The game has multiple ways to win: Capturing the opposing King, accumulating 60 points so the King can be metamorphosed into an Emperor or passing the king all the way across the board.

Described such, this probably sounds like a fairly easy-to-learn game that has the potential for some interesting and intricate game play. It could easily be themed, too, with wizards and dragons, insects, dream creatures, sci fi or even something whimsical.

Unfortunately BanDai, in the grip of some corporate madness, obscured this clever little strategy game under an overbearing weight of obscure and unpronounceable terms, bizarre figure art and collectible figures .

For those who wade through all that, there the reward of an intriguing game. And indeed, the game has recorded several hundred plays on BGG, which is a respectable number, exceeding all but a handful of wargames for example.

The game is Navia Dratp, and its name provides the first evidence of what was wrong with the marketing approach. If you're going to make up a name, why not make up one that people will know how to pronounce? Instead they include a silent "T' (it's Nah-Vee-ah Drahp) for know discernible reason.

Instead of calling the game's currency something obvious and easily understood such as points, or gold or jewels or whatever, they are called "Gyullas."

The game pieces bear names like Kapinah, Kapinahs (!?) Tanhoiser and Sungyullas.

And so on.

While marketing the game as a "collectible" game the maker left most of the pieces a very dark unpainted grey. In the initial offering only a small portion of the pieces were fully painted premium pieces. The second wave included one painted piece per booster, which was an improvement, albeit and inadequate one.

The sculpts are interesting in their own way, but too idiosyncratic to really draw the players in. There's an "anime" feel to the lot, but the most anime style pieces are the Navia (king) pieces,m which are rendered bizarrely as cute girls and some of their guard pieces. Most of the other pieces are more like something out of a horror movie. All that might have made some sense, except the background story for the Navia Dratp universe is very sketchy without enough information provided to really make sense of things.

Few games so professionally produced by a major company have been mismarketed so badly. Would the game have failed anyway? Perhaps. DreamBlade, which had a much more coherent marketing effort for a game that was also very interesting and well produced still didn't manage to do well enough to achieve breakthrough. (Although by boardgame standards it did rather well.)

But whatever chance Navia Dratp may have had was overwhelmed by the way it was presented.

Despite it all, however, there's an interesting game that's well worth playing. The multiple victory conditions, in particular, is a nice Eastern style touch that provides opportunities for misdirection and strategy. The interaction between pieces can lead to some unexpected combos that can tax the mind quite enjoyably. They also provide a universe of possibilities that would be unsolvable for a computer intelligence.

Ironically, the game's official demise may be good from a player's point of view. The base set and one expansion that were produced provide more than enough different pieces while stabilizing the game. Each player only needs seven pieces, so the five dozen or so available are sufficient. None of the pieces are overpowered, and indeed, most of the pieces are strictly limited in movement abilities, so there's little chance that a player will win because of the army he drafted instead of the cleverness of his play.

Navia Dratp ought to live on for quite a while as a small niche product that appeals to certain tastes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Inchon: McArthur's Gambit review

Inchon: MacArthur's Gambit is a hex-and-counter wargame depicting the bold invasion behind North Korean lines that changed the course of the Korean War. Widely considered one of the most brilliant strokes in General Douglas MacArthur's long and brilliant career, the game covers the initial days of fighting from the landing at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950 to the recapture of the South Korean capital of Seoul.

It was the issue game in issue No. 9 of Command Magazine in 1991. The one scenario covers the 16-day battle with each turn representing a single day and each hex is one mile. The Mark Simonitch map depicts the city of Seoul, its port of Inchon and the sea and land approaches. Units are generally battalions with some company-sized units. The 12-page rulebook describes a game of moderate complexity by wargame standards with fairly standard mechanics for such games including zones of control, combat and movement factors, and movement and combat phases. Units are rated for "proficiency" with the more proficient unit having a combat edge. The 180 counters, including information markers, are functional and use standard NATO-style unit symbols.

North Korean units are red with yellow printing. The United Nations units use the standard XTR-color scheme: U.S. Army units are olive green, U.S.M.C. units are dark green, naval units are white on blue and the Republic of Korean troops are red on yellow.

The game revolves accumulating victory points for capturing terrain, with the lion's share coming from capturing Seoul as soon as possible.

The United Nations starts the game coming ashore at Inchon with the 1st Marine Division, 7th US Army Infantry Division and supporting units. While there are North Korean People's Army units defending the port and the rail line to Seoul, they will usually be quickly overwhelmed by the naval-gunfire-supported invaders. Any NKPA stand within 15 hexes of the sea is ill-advised and the real contest will take place along the Han River as the Americans try to force a crossing into Seoul against the 18th NK Infantry Division and its supports while fending off arriving NKPA reinforcements, including the potentially powerful 105th Tank Division.

Both sides get to attack and defend, and there is some minor variability in approach possible in what is essentially a stereotyped game situation caused by the strategic situation.

There are optional and variant rules that explore some possible changes, including a "nightmare" scenario for the UN with a prepared North Korean defense instead of the historical surprise.The game takes about 15 minutes to set up and can be played in one sitting, the designer notes estimate a five-hour playing time. The game succeeds in simulating the actual battle. There is no published errata.]


(Yes) For Wargamers: A well-done wargame.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

(No) For Euro gamers: A hex-and-counter wargames with intricate and detailed rules.

In all my collection I only have one game with "meeples" ...

... and I haven't even played it yet.
I've got Carcassonne the City. It looks interesting and I love the presentation, being a sucker for wooden stuff, but it's unplayed as yet.
I haven't succeeded in hooking up with any regular euro players locally. There is a meetup in New Haven pretty often, but that's far enough away that my attendance has been spotty. Many of their meetings are on weekday nights, too, which is bad for me.
So I have just one meeple-equipped boardgame, despite the fact they're pretty much the signature component for euros (much like 1/2-inch square counters are for wargames).
But until I get to play more euros, I can't see buying many more. I have a few of the "classic" titles such as Lost Cities and Tigris & Euphrates, but there are plenty I've passed on. Most of my friends are wargamers and the euros are a little too abstract for family play so far.
Maybe I'll get to break the game in at WBC.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Changes in the new version of War of 1812

The War of 1812 is a venerable senior citizen in the wargame world, having been more or less continuously in print since 1973. Unlike it's slightly older sister game, Quebec 1759, the War of 1812 has seen some significant rules changes over the years, although nothing so drastic as to change the character of the game.

That character is a game that's an excellent introductory level wargame with quite a bit of scope for bluff and strategy, although kept tense by a fairly high luck factor. Unlike most Columbia block games, which mitigate the luck factor through a high volume of rolls that tend to make things even out, War of 1812 is subject to wild swings of fortune. It's not uncommon for a critical battle that may determine the status of a large swath of territory to be battled out between a single pair of blocks. When you're just rolling a few dice there's less chances for luck to even out. While the odds still favor a strength 4 block against a strength 2 block, all it takes is one "snake eyes" to suddenly change it into a free-for-all.

The biggest change in the newest (2008) edition of the game is in the naval rules, which scrap the unique system that's been used in the game virtually unchanged for three-and-a-half decades in favor of a new system that's consistent with the combat system used in all the other Columbia games. Now fleets are built a step at a time and each step fires at "F1" (which means it hits on a roll of a 1) in a simultaneous exchange of broadsides. Gone are the two-step building process, distinction between "operational" and "nonoperational" ships and deciding the battle with one grand roll of the dice.

A smaller, although still significant change in the naval rules, provides fleets an option to escape capture if an enemy army attacks its port. Under the old rule the fleet's fate depended entirely on the outcome of the battle, but now the ships can attempt to sortie while the ground forces cover them. Of course, a proper tactic is to make sure a powerful fleet is already on the lake waiting for the escapees, but they at least have a hope of doing some damage.

Changes in the land game are more incremental. The dragoons introduced in the last major revision have now been expanded in number and now fight at F2 all the time, making them more powerful. Their strength of 2 keeps them from being too dominant.

A new branch is introduced, with each side having a couple of artillery units in their draw pool. These also fight at F2 and have a CV of up to 3, so they provide a bit of punch these small armies. Rolling hits on a 1 or a 2 is a big edge when there are so few dice being rolled.

Each of the army blocks has an individual name, now, which is also a change and should make PBeM easier. The game also distinguishes between militia and regular troops. This has no game effect for the Anglo-Canadians but a significant impact on American operations, in a Good New/Bad News way.

The Good News is that now the American player knows ahead of time which of his pieces are militiamen who may balk at crossing the border into Canada. The Bad News is that now there's a 50% chance the militia will hew closely to their military obligation to serve only in the US. Under the old rules there was a 1/6 chance for any US unit to refuse to cross.

It doesn't appear that these changes will change game strategy much and they have the virtue of being a bit more realistic at a very low cost in complexity. Indeed, I think the new naval rules are simpler than the old ones, so the net change may very will be nil.

ASL SK #1 -- Evidence wargamers don't care about mounted boards

On BoardGame Geek it's not uncommon to have some euro-background gamer express disappointment over the component quality of their first wargame compared to what they are used to.

When parsed, it usually comes down to the board, which is generally not mounted on stiff cardboard, but is paper or thick cardstock. The otter area of complaint is with rules, and often those complaints have some validity. Writing good rules is undoubtedly the biggest challenge for wargame publishers.

But long before they get to find the inadequacies of the rules, many of these new wargamers have a bad impression because the map is, to their eyes, flimsy and cheap.

Yet there's little evidence that veteran wargamers care much about whether the map is mounted or not and there's nothing to suggest a lot of agitation among consumers for mounted boards. Indeed. mounted boards have never been all that common for wargames.

Sure, Avalon Hill almost always used mounted mapboards, but that company was a special case. They published many family and adult games where having a mounted board was required, from a marketing standpoint and the company was owned by a printer, reducing the costs considerations that affected other publishers.

Throughout the history of wargames, mounted boards have been associated with attempts to branch out to the wider gaming public, which has been conditioned to expect boardgames to have mounted playing surfaces ever since they got Candyland or Monopoly. SPI's "designer" series wargames, TSR's Onslaught and Red Storm Rising, Steve Jackson Games' Deluxe Ogre, etc. are all examples from years gone by.

But hardcore, mainstream hex-and-counter wargames have generally had paper maps or, for more deluxe versions, thick cardstock. Partly this is because paper maps are the only practical option for wargames published in a magazine format such as Strategy & Tactics magazine. But even for their boxed games, publishers such as SPI, GDW, Columbia, and otters have used paper or cardstock maps.

Paper and cardstock maps are much less costly, for one thing, and given that wargames are already fairly expensive, players have been willing to save that expense. Paper and cardstock maps have some practical advantages as well. They're usually one large piece which avoids problems with the folds and gaps often seen in mounted boards and, when covered by Plexiglas, form a very flat, solid, spill-resistant and convenient playing surface.

Paper maps do have some drawbacks, of course. The most serious is durability. As they age they tend to rip and develop holes, especially along the folds, and for this reason more deluxe wargames tend to use a thick cardstock instead of paper. This medium ha all the advantages of paper maps while being more durable.

The pattern has been well-established and shows little propensity to change. The wargames that have mounted maps today tend to be the ones that appeal to a wider, non-wargame audience as well, such as Memoir' 44, War of the Ring and Napoleon's Triumph. Wargamers seem perfectly satisfied with heavy cardstock games, as the success of GMT, L2 Design and Columbia show.

The latest evidence for this is the ASL community and MMP, which is in the process of converting the ASL world from mounted maps to heavy cardstock maps, something few euro-oriented gamers would consider an improvement.

That ASL had mounted boards at all is largely because it was an Avalon Hill game and all AH games had mounted maps back then. In truth, however, the mounted boards always created some problems for ASL players because they didn't abut with the precision the game really needed. ASL traces line of sight using a "naturalistic" rule that depends on the actual contours of terrain features such as building and woods. (As opposed to the other common wargame convention of considering blocking terrain to fill en entire hex and therefore only worrying about hexsides.

The small gaps and irregular lineup caused by the board mounting process meant, in ASL, that any LOS that crossed the boundary between two boards was necessarily a little "off" from what it would have been if the boards were really adjacent.

ASL started using paper maps with the historical modules, which were based on actual terrain and usually came on one or two standard-sized game maps. This was well-received by players, so there was no obvious resistance to non-mounted maps by players. The biggest obstacle to changing over was the the fact that there was the legacy of some 40+ previously published AH mapboards. All new players necessarily started with those.

The ASL Start kits, however, have provided an alternative entry point for new players and MMP has apparently take that opportunity to switch the ASL community over to heavy cardstock maps to replace the existing stock. Reprints will have the cardstock maps instead of mounted maps. It's less of a bother than it might seem to mix them because a player can simply place a cardstock map on top of an unused mounted mapboard and use the Plexiglas to hold it all down.

There are few wargame communities more "hard core" than ASLers, and I think the evidence is clear, real wargamers don't need mounted maps.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Piecepack at Waterloo

Piecepack at Waterloo

An historical battle game using the Piecepack game system.

Pieces needed:

One piecepack set
Four small coins

Set up

Using the lined side of the tiles, set up a rectangular grid of 4 by 5 tiles creating a battle map of 8 x 10 squares. The Allied player will sit at one wide end, the French player at the other. Consider the map’s as being labeled from A to H starting at the Allied player’s side. Consider the rows as being labeled from 1 to 10, starting from the Allied player’s right. So the rightmost square on the Allied side of the map is A-1 and the rightmost square on the French side is H-10.

Place a coin, heads side up in Square A-3, this represents the village of Mont St. Jean and is a French objective. Place a second coin, heads side up, in square G-7. This represents the village of Plancenoit, and is the Allied objective.

Place a coin, tails side up, in square E-4. This represents the fortified chateau of Hougoumont and is also a French objective. Place the fourth coin, tails side up, in square G-3. This represents the walled farm of La Haye Saint, also a French objective.

Set aside the following pieces as the order of battle

Allied armies (12 pieces)

Red Pawn: Wellington
Red Star 5: British 1st & 3rd divisions (Cooke and Alten)
Red Star 4: British 5th & 6th divisions (Picton)
Red Star 3: Britsh 2nd & 4th divisions (Clinton)
Red Star 2: Dutch-Belgians and other allies
Red Star blank: Cavalry Reserve (Uxbridge)
Red Star symbol: Hougoumont garrison
Black pawn: Blucher
Black Moon 5: IV Prussian Corps (Bulow)
Black Moon 4: II Prussian Corps: (Pirch)
Black Moon 2: I Prussian Corps (-) (Steinmetz)
Black Moon blank: Prussian cavalry

French Army (11 pieces)
Green Pawn: Napoleon
Blue Pawn: Ney
Green crown 5: Old Guard
Green crown 4: Young Guard
Green crown 2: Guard cavalry
Green crown symbol: Guard artillery
Blue fleur 5: I Corps (D’Erlon)
Blue fleur 4: VI Corps (Lobau)
Blue fleur 3: II Corps (-) (Reille)
Blue fleur 2: II Corps
Blue fleur blank: III & IV Cavalry corps

How to win:

The French with by capturing all three objectives.

The Allies with by capturing their objective, eliminating Napoleon or if the French fail to capture all their objectives in 10 turns.

Starting setup:

Allies deploy first.
Set aside the five black pieces, they arrive later as reinforcements.

Place the Red star symbol in Hougoumont. Place the other six red pieces on or next to Hougoumont and La Haye Saint within stacking limits.

French deploy second, within two squares of Plancenoit, but NOT next to any Allied piece.

Sequence of Play:

French move
French combat
Allied move
Allied combat
Allied reinforcement
Advance turn marker

Place an unused marker in square G-1 and advance along the G row. The game ends when the marker moves off the map.


Leaders (pawns) and cavalry units (French green crown 2, all others blank pieces) can move two squares per turn. All other pieces move 1 square. Pieces can move through friendly pieces but must stop when moving next to enemy pieces. Pieces (except leader pawns) that begin a turn next to an enemy piece cannot move. Leader pawns can move their full allowance even when starting next to an enemy piece and need not stop when moving next to one. They cannot move through an enemy piece’s square.

Hidden information

Pieces are kept symbol side up (number side down) at all times except during combat. Players can examine their own pieces at any time, but can only examine enemy pieces during combat.


Normal stacking is one piece per square. Leader pawns can stack with any non-leader piece, but there can be just one leader per square. Symbol pieces (Hougoumont garrison and French Guard artillery) don’t count for stacking. Therefore the maximum number of pieces in a square is three: One regular piece, one symbol piece and one leader pawn.


The player who just moved should designate all attacks by pointing the line on each piece at the target enemy piece. Every piece that starts a combat phase next to an enemy piece must take part in a combat against one of those pieces. More than one piece may attack a single defending piece.

After all attacks have been designated, the attacker may resolve the attacks in any order. To resolve an attack turn over the defending piece and all attacking pieces and add up the respective numerical values. Symbol and blanks are considered “0” at this point.

Roll one combat die plus additional dice as listed below and add those values to the total for the respective side in the combat. Any blanks rolled are considered “0” while each symbol roll allows one numerical result (either a piece value or another die roll at the player’s option) to count double. No numerical result can be more than doubled and excess doubles are lost.

In addition to the base combat roll, a side can roll an additional die for each of the following that applies:

One per eligible leader (Napoleon, Blucher or Ney) taking part in the combat.
One per symbol piece taking part in the combat


One per eligible leader (Napoleon or Wellington) taking part in the combat
One per symbol piece taking part in the combat
One per friendly piece not being attacked by any enemy piece that is next to an attacking piece involved in the combat.
One if the defending piece is in Hougoumont or La Haye Saint.

For example:

Napoleon, the Old Guard and Guard artillery in one square and Ney and the cavalry in a second square are attacking Hougoumnt, which has the garrison, the Dutch-Belgians and Wellington. Next to Ney but not being attacked, is the British Cavalry.
The French combat value is “5” (Old Guard) plus the value of three dice (Napoleon, Ney & Guard artillery).
The Allied combat value is “2” (DB) plus the value of four dice (Wellington, Hougoumont garrison, Hougoumont chateau and the unattacked British cavalry next to Ney)

Combat results:

Total the respective numbers, making note of the highest single undoubled numerical result. The higher number wins. Each piece on the losing side is retreated two squares in any direction by the victor, but cannot retreat next to an enemy piece (except for a lone leader). If there is no possible retreat path that does not pass next to an enemy piece other than a lone leader then the retreating piece is eliminated. If the winning side is the attacker then one attacking piece can enter the defending piece’s square. The winning side is entitled to eliminate one enemy piece on the losing side whose numerical value is equal to or less than the highest number rolled among the winning dice. If the results are exactly tied, after all modifiers, then the battle is a stalemate and there is no result.

Combat example continued.

Napoleon and his crew roll a “4,” a “2” and a symbol on their three dice. The French use the symbol to double the French Guard’s “5” so the French total is “16” (French Guard, Guard doubled, the 4 and the 2).
Wellington’s defenders roll symbol, symbol, symbol and 5. They use one symbol to double the 5 and the other to double the 2. The third symbol is wasted) The Allied total is a “14” so they lose. If they had won they could have eliminated either the French Guard or the cavalry because they 5 is equal to or higher than both French pieces. But they lost, so instead the French can eliminate the DB @ and force Wellington and the Hougoumont garrison to retreat two squares.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Heroclix Alpha restores bystanders to bystanding

HeroClix Alpha strips the Heroclix system down to its essentials, for an overall mixed result. It gets rid of the concept of "pushing" actions, which simplifies things for teaching purposes. although at some cost in tactical subtlety.

One welcome change I'd like to see ported over to the mainstream rules are the revised victory conditions. In regular tournament HeroClix battles are won by points scored, with each KO'd figure worth its build points. In HeroClix Alpha victory is achieved by the first player to KO five opposing characters.

One of the things this does is restore bystander tokens to their secondary status. I've noticed that many tournament players include a few bystander tokens and use them aggressively to tie up enemy figures, block lines of fire and otherwise take suicidal risks. While valid game tactics, it really seems out of sorts with the theme. I mean, sticking Martha Kent in front of Superman is just wrong. But hey, if Franklin Richards gets blasted by Kobra, so what? He's only worth a few points.

Under the Alpha rules, in contrast, bystander tokens are a source of weakness. A KO is a KO, and it's obviously a lot easier to pick off a one-step Joe Chill than a 10-step Batman. Bystander tokens, if used at all, will probably be kept in safe spots, which seems a much more appropriate place for Mary Jane Watson.

Axis & Allies: D-Day, a different point of view

Axis & Allies: D-Day is, in many ways, a throwback to an earlier age in wargaming, when simulation definitely took a back seat to rip-roaring game action. Pieces fly off the board with such abandon that it's not unusual to see an endgame devoid of front liens as the surviving clumps of combatants maneuver like Napoleonic hosts around the objectives.

The entire A&A genre by designer Larry Harris represents, in many ways, a different way at looking at wargames from the mainstream hobby, although one that's becoming rather more common now.

Traditionally wargames have generally taken an organizationally-based view of warfighting, concentrating, except at the most tactical levels, on the organizations fighting the battle, rather than their weapons. Units are squads, platoons, companies, battalions, etc., all the way up to Army groups. This viewpoint goes right back to the origin of the hobby with Charles Roberts' Tactics, and the vast majority of wargames treat their pieces as military organizations.

The main exceptions to this have been low-level tactical games and games set in the ancient era, which more often break forces down on a functional or weapons-based basis. A piece will represent a certain number of tanks or spearmen, rather than an organization such as a company or cohort.

This isn't, of course, the only way to look at things, and it's certainly possible to consider battles as being fought by numbers of men and machines without over-emphasizing their organizational basis. Is it more illuminating to consider an attack as being by a tank company or by 17 tanks?

Harris' designs have taken the functional, weapon-based approach all the way to the grand strategic level, with the base Axis & Allies game. The Axis and Allies wage war with tanks, fighters and U-boats, not armies, air forces and fleets.

The latest iterations of the A&A line have moved down the organizational scale, but still reflect a functional approach to fighting. It's instructive to compare A&A: Battle of the Bulges with FAB; The Bulge, for example. Both games are at a similar scale, but one emphasizes the weaponry much more than the other.

In this light, it's appropriate to consider the Axis & Allies title an appropriate umbrella for the Hasbro line of military and naval miniatures, even though they're not designed by Harris and don't use his typical techniques.

Likewise, it's interesting to note that the functional approach has also found a new popularity among many of the newest designs. Borg's Commands & Colors system takes a very functional look at warfare in everything from ancients to World War II. Even Bowen Simmons' Bonaparte at Marengo and Napoleon's Triumph are largely functional in approach, although the latter title adds a little organizational touch with its corps commanders. But a corps in NT is defined by the number of infantry, cavalry and artillery blocks it has, not by its regiments, brigades or divisions.

Both organizational and functional approaches have validity. It's a matter of emphasis.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lightning: D-Day review

Lightning: D-Day was the second of the initial offerings in the Lightning series of wargame-like card games published by Decision Games.

Like Lightning: Midway, the play is too abstract to be considered any kind of simulation, but much too imbued with military arcana to be considered a simple military-themed card game.

Like its sister game it shares the problem of rules that are too succinct for the task. I didn't find it too difficult to figure out how to play, but many did and the game's official Q&A is longer than the main game rules. As with Lightning:Midway this is mostly because too much is assumed and not because there are any particular flaws in the game rules. Everything is a clarification, rather than a change.

Despite what the rules say, there are actually five, not four, different kinds of cards. Unlike Lightning:Midway, which has no explicit time limit, Lightning: D-Day is a 5-turn game. The turns are tracked using five "Turn Marker" cards which have varying special effects (such as "Wading Ashore! All Allied Attacks get -1" for Turn #1). Each card also informs the players how many cards to draw to prepare for the following turn.

There are a pair of "Country" cards which summarize the sequence of play and say who goes first (The Germans).

There are five Beach cards which are simple zone markers for (from East to West) Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah beaches.

These dozen cards are set aside at set up and don't form part of the players' hands, which comprise the remaining 98 cards (49 each). The fighting portion of the decks are made up of Force Cards which represent major formations such as the 1st Infantry Division. These are identified by beach and are divided up by beach, shuffled and placed face-down at each beach as "inactive" units. During play these are turned face-up in order to fight. Each has a combat strength and most have some special powers or conditions as well.

The leftover cards are all "action" cards which modify the game in various ways.

A turn consists of fighting a battle at each beach in turn, comparing the respective combat strengths as modified by various action cards. As the allocation of force cards is fairly scripted the players' main tools for influencing the battle comes down to the three dozen or so Action cards that can be played, for the most part, on any beach. Winning battles generally results in discarding force cards and Allied victory is measured by how many beaches have been completely cleared of German force cards (active or inactive). In order to win the Allies must clear at least four beaches, which is considered the historical outcome. I presume that, in game terms, Omaha beach was not cleared. Clearing three beaches is a draw, while the Germans win if the Allies clear two or less.

Playing the entire invasion takes about 30 minutes, making this another good filler game for wargamers once they have worked through the rules issues.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Lightning: Midway review

Lightning: Midway is published by a wargame company and is about one of history's most famous, dramatic and consequential battles -- but it's not a wargame.

But Lightning: Midway is a game so permeated with the flavor of its topic that is not a simple military-themed card game like Battle Line or Naval War.

The basic structure of the game is exceedingly simple. Each player has four objective cards the opponent may target, four Japanese aircraft carriers on the one hand, and on the other, three American aircraft carriers and an island base that's indistinguishable from an aircraft carrier in game terms. These objectives are attacked and defended by various "force" cards as modified by different "action" cards. On a player's turn he/she can either attack an objective put up to three force cards into play or draw cards up to a hand size of nine cards.

That's pretty much it. It's a very spare game design and the rules included with the game reflect that, being included on two sides of a single 8 1/2-inch sheet of paper, with plenty of white space and illustrations. While I didn't have any trouble understanding how to play the game, the very minimalist presentation did cause some problems for players used to more elaborate explanations and less experienced players. The company Website includes FAQ that are easily longer than the base rules, although to be fair, this isn't really a reflection of any real problems with the rules. The game is perfectly playable out of the box. Nearly everything in the FAQ merely makes explicit many provisions that are implicit in the rules.

Of the 110 cards included, two are "country cards" that review the sequence of play, describe the starting force cards and tell players who goers first (The U.S. player). Eighty more are the objectives, leaving 100 cards to actually play with -- 50 for each side.

The cards fall into five types:

The first are "force" cards, which in Lightning: Midway all represent groups of aircraft such as B-17 bombers, Zero fighters, Dauntless Dive Bombers and the like. Each is rated for its strength in attack and defense. Some have bonuses based on certain conditions (such as defending a carrier) and some are "dependent" on a specific objective and are removed from play if that objective is take out of play.

Supporting the force cards are three types of "action" cards: leaders, events and tactics. Each of these provides various modifications in combat. The key aspect of playing these cards is that there can be just one of each in any combat. Note, not one per side, but one total. So playing these cards is very much a zero-sum move that causes a big swing. Not only do you get whatever benefit your leader may provide, you also deny your opponent the benefit he might have gained from his leader. The same goes for tactics and events.

This provides some interesting game play while also providing a way to introduce many colorful personalities and real-life events to the game with few rules.

Filling out the card roster are a few "special action" cards that are played outside of combat resolution to affect the game in some way. I think the use of the term "special action" is one of the truly confusing aspects of the rule because they are not "action" cards as otherwise defined. I would have just called them "special" cards and left it at that.

The game plays very fast, the box says 30 minutes and that seems about right. It's an excellent two-player "filler" game for wargamers. For non-wargamers the unfamiliar terms and too-sparingly worded rules may make the game seem a bit more difficult than it really is.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Gettysburg: Badges of Courage and "Lost Triumph"

Back in April I looked at how someone could use a wargame (Gettysburg '88) to evaluate an author's theory (Tom Carhart in "Lost Triumph") that Lee had a secret plan to coordinate Pickett's Charge with a attack on the rear of the Federal Army by Stuart's cavalry. Carhart's theory is that Lee's brilliant plan was undone by the Boy General Custer and his unexpectedly effective resistance during the cavalry battle on Low Dutch Road on July 3rd, 1863.

I concluded back then that the wargame didn't suggest that the scheme was workable, but noted that few Gettysburg wargames allow players to really look at that end of the field.

A newer game that indirectly allows a look at the prospects for Lee's alleged plan is Columbia Games' Gettysburg: Badges of Courage. While not including the Low Dutch Road area, an optional rule allows for an off-map cavalry battle that could, conceivably, allow some of Stuart's troopers to arrive at 4 p.m., around the time of Pickett's attack.

Chances are so low that this will happen, though, that player's interested in the notion will have to tweak the Day 3 scenario somewhat.

Instead of playing the Cavalry battle exactly as written, player's can goose Stuart's chances by implementing the following measures: Assume Huey doesn't arrive and assume Custer stays with Kilpatrick's Division instead of joining Gregg. Add Jenkins to the off-board CSA cavalry force. Playing this out, though, will still reveal that Stuart's surviving force, if it can defeat Gregg, will often be too weak to attack the Union rear.

So as an alternative, there's the "Lost Triumph" variant, or Carhart's Fantasy scenario. Assume that Huey doesn't arrive and Custer is assigned to Gregg, but assume that the Union player rolls really, really bad and Custer, Gregg and McIntosh's brigades, Robertson's guns and the Gregg divisional leader are all eliminated while the Rebels just lose Jenkins in the fighting. Have Stuart, Beckham, Hampton, F.Lee and Chambliss arrive on the Baltimore Pike at full strength. In addition, on the 4 p.m. turn no Federal units within 2 hexes Powers Hill can move.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bang! and the mythology of the Old West

The "Old West" of American history is one of the more remarkable episodes of cultural myth-making in human history. The height of the era is generally considered to last from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the 20th Century, although the entire story of Manifest Destiny and the settlement of North America naturally took longer.

The Old West plays a big role in the self-image of Americans and its image abroad and holds a continued fascination here and overseas. Despite only lasting a few decades in real life, the Old West has proven to be an inexhaustible source for storytelling for more than a century.

One of the most unusual characteristics of the Old West's mythology is that the myth-making was contemporaneous with the historical events. Even as settlers poured west dime novels chronicled their adventures in fictionalized form and actual people often featured in the stories. William "Buffalo Bill" Cody actually organized a hugely popular travelling show in the late 1800s that included famous folks from the Old West such as Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. His Wild West show even performed in Europe "before the crowned heads." Perhaps Cody's show explains the continuing European interest in the period.

It's ironic that so much of the myth-making is centered around the lawlessness of the frontier. Indeed, many of the most notorious characters were simple criminals, members of nothing more romantic than a gang. Murder and robbery figure prominently and violence was common. When there wasn't civil violence to contend with there were constant flareups between Indians and settlers as they native population was inexorably pushed back.

The whole era is obviously a fertile one for conflict games, and there have been some notable ones over the years. While there aren't an overwhelming number of game titles with Old West themes, many of those that have appeared are quite popular.

Although based on actual historical events, it seems that games about the Old West can't escape the influence of the mythology. Although published by a wargame company, for example, Gunslinger admittedly includes a lot of Hollywood and dime novel style aspects. Yet Gunslinger's wargame roots keep it pretty close to the real thing. The recent Cowboys seems to aim to be a Gunslinger Lite, and very much in the tradition of man-to-man skirmish wargames.

At the other extreme, the Munchkin-series card game The Good, The Bad and the Munchkin just tacks Old West terms onto the tried and true RPG-based "Dungeon Crawl" game. It's mildly amusing but still a pretty big stretch.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the American Old West is global culture is the prominent role played by Italian filmmakers in its interpretation with the famous "spaghetti Westerns."

So it shouldn't be any surprise that an Italian game designer created a card game based on the Old West that capitalized on that tradition to create something that's turned out to be a big winner.

Bang! doesn't show much resemblance to the actual Old West, but it does capture a lot of the flavor of the Old West as seen through the lens of Spaghetti Western directors and it ends up being a loving depiction of that genre.