Friday, August 22, 2008

Twilight's Last Gleaming 2 -- review

Twilight's Last Gleaming 2 is the issue game from Strategy & Tactics No. 225, designed by Ty Bomba based on an earlier game by other designers in S&T No. 184 titled, naturally, Twilight's Last Gleaming.

The game scale is 100 meters per hex, each strength point represents about 50 soldiers or an artillery piece and every turn is 15 minutes to an hour.

There are three battles from the War of 1812 depicted, the Battle of the Thames on Oct. 5, 1813, Chippewa from July 5th, 1814 and Lundy's Lane from July 25th, 1814.

TWG2 at first glance appears to be a standard pseudo-Napoleon at War system basic wargame with locking zones of control, mandatory attacking and no stacking. It adds a couple of twists to that standard game system, however, to create a game that plays a bit different from that standard.

Perhaps the most significant departure from standard practice is that retreating units are allowed to retreat into an enemy ZOC if they have no other path available. This means that the usual SPI standard tactic of killing units by preventing them from retreating doesn't apply except in restrictive conditions such as when a unit is completely surrounded.

Another important departure from usual practice is found in the combat results. Exchange-type results (here called "BL" -- both lose) are based on steps lost, instead of combat strengths, which makes it possible to exchange a weak, 1-point unit for half the strength of a 12-point unit (which is flipped to its 6 SP side).

The combination of these two rules rewards very tactical and careful factor-counting play that sets up clever exchanges and forced counter attacks, although none of it resembles actual 19th century tactics very much.

Twilight's Last Gleaming would probably be just another forgettable magazine wargame, rarely played and mostly of interest to subject matter fans, except for the fact that it was chosen to be one of the games offered by the online service.

Unusually for a magazine game, this means there's an extensive record of plays which reveals the flaws and features of the games.

The Hexwar experience reveals that the Thames is a flawed scenario. While the historical result was a crushing military victory for the United States and the game will almost certainly see most of the Anglo-Canadian-Indian force destroyed, the victory conditions require the Americans to completely wipe out the ACI army. With proper play the ACI player can virtually guarantee this result. Only excellent U.S. play, ACI mistakes and very good luck for the Americans will give them a shot. So long as the ACI make sure to send a couple of Indian bands running off into the woods the U.S. can't win. Given that the U.S. side was the historical winner, this is a very odd state of affairs.

While The Thames is broken, the Chippewa scenario is a nicely-balanced little gem of a game. Only five turns long and free-wheeling, it's an exciting contest between quality and quantity. The British force has a few very strong units supported by a handful of weaker ones. The U.S. force is larger, but each individual unit is weaker and because there's no stacking, the American player will have trouble concentrating his fighting power. The bane for the British is the BL result, so a bad die roll or two can quickly gut their combat power. Not only do their strong regiments lose half their strength, but when reduced they lose a special "bayonet charge" bonus that is worth a two-column shift on the CRT.

The third battle has the potential for being the most interesting, but no version has appeared as yet. Lundy's Lane was one of the bloodiest battles fought in North America before the Civil War. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight between two evenly matched armies.

While both sides are similar in strength (69 US vs. 66 ACI) and steps (25 US vs. 28 ACI) they differ considerably in the distribution of those factors.

The American force is fairly consistent, with all but one of the infantry regiments having 4-9 SPs. There's just one 1SP infantry unit, along with a 2 SP dragoon and three artillery sections with 2 SP each.

The Anglo-Canadian-Indian army, in contrast, is an army of extremes. It has a core of five strong regiments with 6 or 8 strength points, but most of the army's infantry is made up of 1 or 2 SP 1-step militia units (an even dozen of them) Rounding out the OB is a 3 SP 1-step infantry unit, a 5 SP 1-step Indian, a couple of 1-step dragoons and two artillery units, one of which is immobile.

The victory conditions are straightforward and brutal: whoever holds the hex with the immobile British battery wins. Losses are irrelevant.

It's unfortunate that the Thames scenario is broken and that Hexwar doesn't yet offer Lundy's Lane, because the game does have potential. Currently that potential is only realized by the Chippewa scenario, which provides an interesting and balanced short game.

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