Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Napoleon's Last Battles: Whole is not the sum of the parts

Napoleon's Last Battles is one of the true classics of the SPI era, going through numerous printings and being resurrected in a Decision Games version that's still in print. It's also a popular game set offered by the online game-playing service, which maintains statistics on the games, including totaled results for each scenario.
NLB is an unusual quadrigame because it includes four battles that were all part of the same campaign, as well as a campaign game. But the campaign game is not simply a linked-together version of the four component battles but a much-expanded standalone game that includes some significant differences. Foremost among those differences in a whole command-control subsystem based on leader counters, which play no role at all in the individual battles.
Because of this playing the campaign game feels much differently than playing the battle games, despite the fact that they use the same map and many of the same counters.
The individual battle games are fairly straightforward Napoleon at War-style quad games, the major difference from most of the other NAW series being that NLB is on the brigade level instead of divisions and therefor allows stacking.
While entertaining, Hexwar stats indicate that most of the individual battles are not especially well-balanced. Worse, the imbalance often runs against the historical winner.
The most popular scenario on Hexwar is La Belle Alliance, which depicts Waterloo. It's a tough challenge for the French, with just 590 wins as of Jan. 30, 2008, compared to 1,023 Anglo-Allied victories. Waterloo is a challenging battle for the French in most game depictions, but the special terrain status of Hougomont and La Haye Sainte create very formidable forts that break up the French attacks thoroughly to an extent rarely shown in other Waterloo titles. Adding a fatal blow to French hopes are the special rules dealing with the Guard, that inflict a severe morale penalty if they suffer an adverse combat result. This wouldn't be so bad except that an "Exchange" is deemed an adverse result for this rule. This means that there is no safe odds for a Guard attack. Even at maximum 6-1 odds there's a 1/3 chance for an exchange and a big morale hit. Indeed, the best odds for a Guards attack is exactly 4-1, but even then there is a 1/6 chance of an adverse result. This means that the French really can't use the Guard as part of their battle plan and must save them for use only if they are about to lose anyway.
This Guard problem is also largely to blame for the unhistorical and lopsided results seen in the Ligny scenario, which has resulted in a Prussian victory 676 times compared to just 365 French victories. In the actual case, the Prussians were defeated. In the game, however, the French can't really use their Guard troops for fear of a sudden loss.
The best balanced of the individual battles is Quatre Bras, which has 683 French wins and 548 Anglo-Allied. This is a low density and fast-playing scenario which can go either way and often can turn on a single die roll.
The least popular of the four games is Wavre. It also ends up being biased against the historical victor, with just 244 Prussian victories on Hexwar compared to 369 French.
None of the games ends up with many draws, only Quatre Bras has more than 1 and it has just 6, so the games are, at least, admirably decisive.
The character of the game changes immensely with the campaign game, including it's component parts. The Quatre Bras portion of the fight becomes considerably hard for the French as Ney is badly outgeneraled by Wellington, while action on the Ligny front is more promising for the French because the Guard rule has milder effects in the campaign rules and only applies to part of the Guard. This allows the Guard corps to play a much bigger role against Blucher.
The overall course of the campaign does not have to follow the historical sequence, although it will surprising often. There's still usually a showdown near La Belle Alliance near the end of the game unless the Allies have had greater-than-historical success at Ligny and/or Quatre Bras. There's much less chance of a Wavre-equivalent in the games I've seen. Most French players prefer to maximize their strength for the main effort rather than send a sizable force chasing the Prussians. A smaller pursuing force is usually enough to harry the Prussians and complicate their attempts to reorganize.
This is a much longer game to play, lasting as much as 36 turns, so it's not surprising that there's not as many completed playings yet, but it is popular. It's also a fairly even fight, with 339 French wins and 403 Prussian-Anglo-Allied victories, which seems well in line with the historical possibilities.
The campaign game is very engrossing and is highly recommended. The other battles are entertaining, but players should be aware of the scenario imbalances and plan accordingly.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Featured game: Westwall quad Arnhem

The online game playing service provides a very user-friendly way to play some classic SPI/Decicion Games titles. Every game can be played just as the printed rules specified, which many players prefer.
But quite a few of the games also offer a "Fog of War" option, which causes units located a certain distance away from any enemy units to be invisible to the enemy player.
In many games this has a minor effect. There's not too much scope for hidden movement to effect things in Cemetery Hill, for example.
But sometimes the FOW option can really change the entire nature of the game. One game where this is true is Arnhem, and I believe the Fog of War option is largely responsible for the noticeable German bias for the game. According the's statistics as of Jan. 27, the Germans have been victorious 3,703 times compared to 2,788 Allied wins.
Now, the Market Garden situation is inherently challenging for the Allies. They did fail in the historical battle and most games on the topic reflect the challenges the Allies faced. But of all the games on the topic, the basic quad game version of Arnhem seems fairly friendly to their cause. The German forces are very badly outnumbered and the map is depicted in such a way that the Allies' critical supply road has a wide buffer zone around it. In comparison, Target Arnhem puts the road within striking distance of flank attackers throughout most of its length.
The total German force totals 61 attack factors of 7-move infantry, 27 attack factors of 10-move armor/mech units, 6 attack factors of 12-move recon and 13 bombardment factors of artillery for a total of 107 factors. The Allied army comprises 68 factors of airborne infantry, 12 factors of airborne artillery, 26 factors of regular infantry, 16 attack factors of armor, 3 factors of engineers and 24 bombardment factors of artillery, for a total of 149 factors. On some turns the Allies also get up to 7 factors of air support.
While both armies suffer somewhat from piecemeal arrival and geographic dispersal, the Germans have it worse because the river lines and presence of Allied forces will prevent them from massing their troops, while the Allies benefit from interior lines. It;s fairly easy for the Allies to mass against the Germans, given prudent play.
The Fog of War option changes this all this. Now it's the Germans who can mass. Unable to be sure where the Germans might be coming from the Allies must spread out to guard the supply road, whereas the Germans can mass their troops to try to cut the road. There's a very big payoff in victory points for cutting the road and doing it a couple of times will probably be enough to win the game for the Germans unless the Allies manage to break through all the way to Arnhem in strength. statistics don't break down the Arnhem results between classic and FOW-style play, but based on my experience I think the vast majority of games are played with FOW.
It's an interesting way to play and highly recommended. Despite the imbalance, playing with Fog of War does seem much more authentic for this particular scenario.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Featured game: Blue & Gray Second Bull Run

Most of Decision Games' Blue & Gray series games are reprints of SPI classics, but there are two original scenarios in the box, dealing with the First and Second Battles of Bull Run.
Of the two, Second Bull Run is the meatier games. The First Bull Run scenario, while entertaining, is rather small and a bit dicey.
Second Bull Run is a full-fledged full-bodied scenario that's one of the most wide open of the series.
Statistics from, the online wargame-playing service, which offers Second Bull Run as one of its games, show a bias against the Confederates, but not an overwhelming one. As of Jan. 25, 2008 the site reported 854 US wins and 626 CS wins. The Confederate side is more challenging to play, and I'll explain why later. But clearly the result is not foreordained and the game is a competitive contest for both sides.
The two sides are fairly even in strength. The Confederate army comprises 118 combat factors of infantry, 5 factors of cavalry, 1 factor of horse artillery and 21 factors of artillery for a total of 155. Their Union opponents comprise 152 factors of infantry, 6 factors of cavalry and 15 factors of artillery -- a total of 173.
But wait, 21 factors of those Federal troops are conditional reinforcements that enter on a die roll late in the game and may not appear at all. Even if they do appear, it's generally too late to change the outcome and more often than not they'll never see action. This cuts the ratio down to 155-152.
Both sides get a large pulse of reinforcements. Aside from a couple of units that appear earlier or later (6 factors worth) the Union Army sees 67 factors come in on turn 3, while the Rebel army has 76 factors the next turn. The end result is that both pulses arrive at the front at the same time.
What they find when they get there can vary tremendously and provides much of the game's charm. The first four turn set the stage for what follows and those first four turns require some adept maneuvering by both sides. The game's initial stages are not unlike a judo match, as both armies strive to "throw" the other off its game plan. If one succeeds, then it has probably ensured eventual victory.
The Federal army has a slight edge in strength at the start, with 77 factors while the Confederate army has 71 factors. The Confederates also start with a terrain advantage because they hold a double-strength line along the railroad cut.
The Federal army does start with one important advantage, though, the initiative. That army moves first and it's vital that they use that to control the pace of the battle. Typically the two armies struggle for control of the key ground at the western end of their initial lines. This small area, about 6 by 6 hexes, bounded on the east by Groveton, the West by the map edge, the north by the edge of south mountain and the south by another small hill.
The importance of controlling this patch of ground derives from the fate of the Turn 4 CSA reinforcements. If the Union can control this ground (and takes the ordinary precaution of covering the potential map edge entry hexes south of that) then the Confederate reinforcements are confined to coming in in the northwest corner of the battlefield and will most likely be bottled up. The Confederates do not have enough of an edge in numbers or quality that they can bull their way through a compact Union line.
On the other hand, if the Rebels control that ground then their Turn 4 reinforcements have the breathing room they need to sweep down on the flank of the Groveton-Sudley Ford line and potentially outmaneuver the arriving Federal troops as well.
Bottling the Confederates up is more damaging to their cause than breaking out is beneficial to them, which explains the Union edge in game results. Even if the Union army ends up losing the Groveton flank fight they have a chance to recover later. There's no recovering from being stuck in a corner.
It's an interesting game situation, Both sides are closely matched and each must attack and defend, all of which usually lead to an entertaining contest and Second Bull Run is one of the better games in the Blue & Gray series.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blue and Gray -- Shiloh

Shiloh is a popular battle to wargame, so it's no surprise it's included in the Blue & Gray quad by SPI and the second edition from Decision Games.
It was a tough battle for both sides, but particularly for the Confederates. They sacrificed a lot of strategic position in order to mass a large army to attack Grant, achieved complete surprise and yet, in the end, fell short.
The situation is a challenging one for the CSA. The Rebel player has to make the most of his initial advantage. This requires an efficient and energetic offensive and a little bit of luck as well.
The Rebel army starts massed on the field, with 109 factors of infantry, 18 factors of artillery and 5 factors of cavalry. It faces a Federal Army of 97 infantry factors, 21 artillery and 3 cavalry, so the CSA has only a marginal edge in strength.
But the Federal force is under severe movement restrictions for the first two turns, barely able to move and only in restricted directions, so the Confederates have an opportunity to mass and maneuver for maximum advantage.
Time is of the essence, however. Buell's Army of the Ohio brings another 44 infantry and 4 artillery factors into the battle across the river starting on turn 4. Wallace's 3rd Division appears behind Grant's lines with 15 infantry, 2 artillery and 1 cavalry factor around the same time. And the Navy contributes 3 factors of indestructible artillery fire from its two gunboats from the river.
That this imbalance in forces is tough to overcome is borne out in statistics from online game-playing service, which offers Shiloh as one of its games. It has the game in both a "classic" version (without the attacker effectiveness rule) and standard (with the rule). Either way it's a tough game for the Rebels. Under the classic rules Grant's Federal army has won 296 times compared to 136 CSA wins and a single draw as of Jan. 22, 2008. The standard game doesn't change things. Under those rules the Union has won 897 games, the Confederates 463 and there have been four draws.
I think the game is a little closer than the statistics indicate because those figures necessarily include a lot of games by inexperienced players and the CSA side is much harder to play at first. With experience the CSA players understand what they must to to stay competitive and games become closer, although it's still harder for them. There's little margin for error or bad luck for the CSA.
The game basically goes through two or three phases.
The first phase comprises turns 1 and 2. During these turns the Union player must move any unit that's not in a Confederate zone of control one hex north or northeast. This makes it hard for them to form an effective line and gives the Rebels a good opportunity to set up favorable attacks. There are many ways to skin the cat, but in general the Confederate player must do significant damage to the Union army and set up for Phase 2 during these two turns. Letting the Union player slip away at this point is an unrecoverable error.
Phase 2 usually comprises the balance of the turns before nightfall, although it sometimes can last until the first turn or two of the next day. During this period the Confederate player must turn all his efforts to driving for Pittsburgh Landing. Winning the game requires capturing that point, not just for meeting the victory conditions, but also for blocking the Army of the Ohio from crossing the river. It's really and all-or-nothing situation. While it's theoretically possible for the CSA to win a marginal victory without holding the Landing by having a 2-1 advantage in losses inflicted, in practice this is not achievable if the Army of the Ohio is allowed to get across the river.
The game may be essentially over with Phase 2 if the CSA succeeds in capturing the Landing. Reaching that point necessarily means most of Grant's army has been destroyed and if Buell's troops can't cross it's usually possible for the Confederates to mop up the remnants.
The most difficult decision for the Confederates is when and whether to transition to Phase 3. This is the point at which the CSA realizes it's not going to take the Landing hex. This almost certainly means the Confederates will have to accept some level of defeat, but a properly timed and conducted transition to Phase 3 can keep the Union victory level down, which may matter if you're playing a two-game match.
Pushing too hard and falling short anyway will mean that the Union troops are well poised to make a devastating counteroffensive that can come close to wiping out the Rebel army. Letting up too early, of course, means that Confederates won't win at all. This decision is a delicate one and experience is the best guide, but as a general rule the Confederate player should know by the time Turn 6 starts whether the landing can fall or not. If not, it's time to cut losses and prepare for Phase 3. Nightfall can be used to pull back and set up for a delaying action over the final six turns that will make it hard for the Federals to inflict enough losses to get more than a marginal victory.

Blue and Gray: First Bull Run

One of the smallest games in the Blue & Gray series, First Bull Run appears in the Decision Games edition. It shares the same map as the Second Bull Run game in the same box, although it doesn't bear much resemblance to the later fight.
The game follows all the usual rules for B&G.
There are just a couple of special rules. The most important being that the Confederate units can't move during the first two turns unless Union units cross Bull Run. There's a similar rule preventing Runyon's Division, a 10-factor Federal unit, from moving unless released by the Confederates crossing Bull Run.
Both armies are very small.
The Federal force comprises 11 infantry brigades with a total of 74 combat factors. There's also a 10-factor "division" garrisoning Centerville but it only enters play if the CSA crosses Bull Run. Considering the Rebels have no reason to cross said waterway that unit almost never plays a role in the game.
The Confederate forces are considerably more diverse. There are a dozen infantry brigades ranging in strength from 2 to 8, a pair of one-factor cavalry units and a pair of artillery units with combat strengths of 1 and 2. The total CSA force adds up to 77 factors, so the two sides are very evenly matched.
Victory comes from routing the enemy army. At the end of every game turn each player rolls a die. If the die roll is 17 or higher then his army routs. There's a +1 die roll modifier for every ineffective unit and a +2 for each eliminated unit.
If neither side routs by the end of turn 8 then geographical objectives come into play. There are two, Groveton and New Market. Control of both is needed to win.
There are two ways for the battle to end in a draw. If neither army routs and each controls one objective, it's a draw. If both armies rout in the same turn, it is also a draw.
The general edge in the game goes to the Union side, according to results on the wargaming site, which show 770 U.S. wins, 439 C.S. wins and 308 draws as of Jan. 22, 2008.
While the Federal side doesn't have a strength advantage, it does have the initiative from the start of the game and a more compact striking force. Typically the initial Federal attack will destroy the 2-factor infantry and artillery units guarding Stone Bridge, putting them up +4 in the contest to force a rout.
Still, the Union player as to be careful because one set of bad rolls can easily render a large part of his army ineffective. Besides adding to the rout probability, this will often gut any further offensive potential for the Federals.
The Confederates have some trouble forcing a win, however, unless they can entice the Federals into pushing their offensive too far. It's fairly easy for the Federal player to settle for a draw if they end up with a large number of ineffective units. Groveton is not too hard to defend in the limited time available for a CSA counteroffensive and there's a real possibility such a counterattack could end up handing the Union player a victory after all through adverse combat results against the Rebels.
Still, it's a quick-playing contest so the scenario can be played several times in a single session.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Battle of Nations

The Battle of Nations (SPI, 1975) is an old-fashioned straightforward hex-and-counter wargame using the Napoleon at War game system. It was well-received at the time, receiving a 6.9 overall rating from Strategy & Tactics readers making it the 15th-ranked Pre-World War II game in January 1977.
It's gotten a second lease on life as one of the more popular titles offered by the online game-playing service
The situation is dramatic enough. Napoleon was brought to bay by the combined armies of the anti-French coalition at the city of Leipzig in October 1813. This resulted in the largest battle of the Napoleonic wars, with more than 500,000 troops on the field.
The system is standard SPI-style with combat-movement factors on the units, a Combat Results Table and locking zones of control (a unit must stop and a cannot leave a hex next to an enemy unit except through a combat result.)
Uniquely among the NAW-system games there are no separate artillery units, which changes tactics significantly.
The battlefield is strewn with a large number of towns that double defense as well as some hills and streams. The most important feature of the battlefield are several rivers running through the middle of it that can only be crossed at some bridges. This has the effect of dividing the battle into several smaller battles. The French have the central position and can use their interior lines to switch between fronts. The French have an initial advantage in numbers but get few reinforcements while more than half the Allied army arrives during the game.
The game is somewhat unusual for one that depicts a historical battle in that the most popular scenario really amounts to a big "what-if." The Grand Campaign game covers the entire four-day battle from 16-19 Oct. 1813, but historically there was no serious fighting on the second day. This will not happen in The Battle of Nations. As a matter of fact, the campaign game will often be decided on the second day.
While historically Napoleon did not attack on Oct. 17 he probably should have, because time was against him as the Allied army became stronger as time passed.
Victory in the game is based on losses. Losing a set number of combat factors results in an army's demoralization. In this game demoralization explicitly equals defeat, although the reality is that it's very hard to win any NAW game once demoralized.
BON is a little out of the ordinary because the Allied demoralization level increases as more troops arrive. The French have an opportunity for a quick win, but as more Allied troops arrive that chance slips away and eventually its the French who have the lower demoralization level
The Grand Campaign is, by far, the most popular way to play on Hexwar, and it's a fairly balanced contest. Hexwar statistics as of Jan. 20, 2007 show 3,172 French victories, 2,717 Allies wins and 77 draws.
The First and Third Day scenarios are decidedly less popular, albeit for different reasons.
The problem for the First Day scenario is that it's very drawish. It's hard for either army to inflict enough losses to achieve victory in the five turns. Hexwar stats show 76 French wins, 79 Allies wins and 110 draws. It's a more even fight than the full campaign and takes much less time, but most players prefer their games to end with a clear winner.
The Third Day scenario, which covers the actual day of major fighting, is grossly imbalanced. Hexar stats show just 18 French wins and 200 Allied victories! There are just 14 draws, which ought to be considered moral victories in this scenario.
The main action in the game happens on two fronts, with some minor action in two secondary areas.
The first secondary front is the region southwest of the Elster River, which starts with a couple of Austrian units astride the French line of communications. The French usually dispatch a handful of units to chase the Austrians away. Once the Austrian units are eliminated or retreat its fairly easy for the French to seal it off because there are just a few bridges providing access.
Just east of this zone is the area between the Ester and Pleisse rivers. While sometimes important fighting develops in this area, it's also easily sealed off and often turns into a strategic cul de sac.
The most important fronts are in the North, where the French are faced with delaying the Russo-Prussian Army of Silesia (later reinforced by the Army of the North), and the southeast, where Napoleon typically attacks the Army of Bohemia seeking the quick win. Time is of the essence, however, because help is on the way from the Reserve Army and Bennigsen's Russian/Polish Army.
This combination of attacking and defending roles for both players creates an interesting and entertaining wargame situation.
Admittedly the game's realism suffers a bit because there's no reason for the second-day lull in game terms. This was a common problem with many SPI games, where factors such as fatigue, command confusion and logistics that created historical delays don't play a roll. Other games with this problem include Borodino and Cemetery Hill.
On the other hand from a game player's point of view the situation is interesting and challenging, and in my view this outweighs the unrealistic pacing.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Nuclear War card-by-card full post

Nuclear War Card-by-card

Created in the middle of the Cold War in the same tradition of black humor that inspired Dr’ Strangelove, the card game Nuclear War is also a classic. It’s been in print continuously for more than 40 years, outlasting the Cold War itself. It’s inspired three full-scale expansions, each in turn mocking the fears of its own era while keeping in tune with the spirit of the original.
This essay will look at each card in the game, explaining its game effect and with tips for play. Like all card games Nuclear War and its kin have a heavy luck element and there’s no guarantee that better card play will lead to victory. Indeed, victory is an elusive concept in a game that involves incinerating millions of “people” and it’s not uncommon for everyone to lose, either in a chain reaction of final retaliations or from the infamous triple-yield 100-megaton nuclear stockpile explosion. This is not a game for players too hung up on winning.
Still, amid all the chaos it is possible to play the cards to advantage and increase the chances that your nation will be the last one standing, lording it over a glowing world.

Nuclear War includes five basic types of cards: Propaganda, Warheads, Carriers, Anti-missiles and Secrets/Top Secrets. Propaganda cards are used to steal population from other players, but don’t work once war starts. War begins when a warhead targets an enemy country. Warheads have to be carried to the target in some kind of carrier, either a missile or a bomber. There are a handful of anti-missile cards that can be used to shoot down a carrier, but usually it gets through. Secrets and Top Secrets are a kind of random event card with various effects.

Propaganda is as old as war and politics. If war is politics by another means, propaganda is the tool used to influence the public’s perception that lies at the heart of politics. In the English language propaganda has acquired negative connotations of falsehood and deception, but the most effective propaganda is the truth. Governments that dip into the pool of deception usually end up with a terminal credibility problem that robs their lies of impact and leaves the truth unavailable to them.
In the game propaganda cards are used to steal population from other players during periods of peace. Propaganda cards are not easy to use effectively. While a player who starts off playing propaganda cards may be, as the rules say, “a cold-war antagonist who hopes to secure victory through propaganda,” that hope is forlorn indeed. Sooner or later – and usually it is sooner – the bombs will start going off and the propaganda cards rendered useless until peace breaks out again. More typically the propaganda cards end up being used as placeholder discards while the war rages. Late in the game there can be opportunities to use propaganda cards to eliminate players weakened in the fighting. The advantage of doing this with a propaganda card is that the eliminated player does not get to use final retaliation.

Title: Propaganda
Text: 5 MILLION Enemy Defect To Your Side
Number in Deck: 12
Game effect: Five million people from an enemy you select are transferred to you.
Political effect: Annoying to the target
Limits: Can only be played until war starts
Player tips: While the second most common single card in the deck, it’s also the least useful. Five million new citizens are unlikely to have a decisive effect on the game, but it’s annoying to the target. If you’re the very first player you may not have any choice but to pick on someone, but generally it’s better to use your 5 million Propaganda cards to recover population stolen from you rather than annoy your neighbors. Once war starts these are useful as placeholders in your card ladder. For example, if you’re stuck with an imbalanced hand with lots of warheads and few carrier systems you may want to play propaganda cards rather than waste warheads in “nuclear tests.”
Historical note: Propaganda played a critical war in the actual Cold War. Radio Free Europe was founded in 1950 and its first broadcast occurred on July 4, 1950. Originally funded by the CIA, Radio Free Europe and its successors were a key part of the political war of ideas waged during the Cold War, providing an alternative to the state-run media of the Communists states.

Title: Propaganda
Text: 10 MILLION Enemy Denounce Their Form Of Government For Yours
Number in Deck: 6
Game effect: Ten million people from an enemy you select are transferred to you.
Political effect: Aggravating to the target
Limits: Can only be played until war starts
Player tips: Losing 10 million people will sting, particularly in games with a larger number of players such as 5 or 6. The larger number of players will provide for more opportunities for propaganda card play before war has a chance to start and the smaller number of population cards can leave some players vulnerable during the opening stage of the game. If all the other players concentrate their efforts it is possible to knock someone out early with propaganda cards in a six-player game, so if it’s your turn, don’t forget to bring the chips and soda. Once war starts these can be worth holding onto for the next peaceful interlude, but not at the expense of effective weapon combos. 10 million might just be enough to knock out someone who’s been pummeled a bit.

Title: Propaganda
Text: 25 MILLION Of The Enemy’s Population Declare Allegiance to Your Country
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: Twenty-five million people from an enemy you select are transferred to you.
Political effect: Damaging to the target
Limits: Can only be played until war starts
Player tips: This is a dangerous card. If played during the initial rounds it can be somewhat of a two-edged sword. Either the target or the card player will probably find themselves receiving unwelcome attention in the form of missiles as soon as war starts, depending on the dynamic of the group. Either the other players will be tempted to pile onto the target because he’s been severely weakened, or maybe they will gang up on the recipient on the theory that he’s probably the leader. Despite the risk, it’s probably not a good idea to refrain from playing the card. Like most card games, keeping a good flow of cards through your hand is important and tying up a spot with a card you may never get to play isn’t a good idea. If you should happen to have this card in your hand during the late game if peace breaks out, however, it can be a devastating play. Losing 25 million can easily knock someone out of the game in the late going – with no chance for a final retaliation. All-in-all one of the most powerful cards in the game.

Warheads are the business end of the game. Sooner or later, even if you started off as a cold war strategist, someone will reveal themselves to be “A warmonger who chooses to begin a nuclear holocaust” or “A clod who triggers war accidentally through careless strategy.” Either way, warheads will begin attacking players and population cards will be dropping into the graveyard in great numbers. Winning will require effective delivery of warheads and not a little bit of luck as well.
The first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 has an approximate yield of about 15 kilotons, or the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT, but before long devices that size were considered mere “tactical” weapons and the real city busters measured their yields in the “megatons,” or one million metric tons of TNT.
. In the game, warhead cards are “carried” by various delivery systems, typically missiles. A carrier card is turned face up and revealed in one turn. If a warhead card capable of being carried by that carrier is the next card revealed, this constitutes an attack. An enemy player is named the target and the spinner is spun (or dice rolled) to determine the actual damage. Once the appropriate cards are revealed, an attack must be made. A warhead without a carrier is informally called a “nuclear test” and has no game effect and is discarded.

Title: 10 Megatons
Text: Destroys 2 million
Number in Deck: 19
Game effect: Two million people from an enemy you select are removed from play. Based on the spinner or dice roll this can be reduced to zero or increased to as much as 12 million
Political effect: Annoying to aggravating to the target depending on the final result
Limits: Few, can be carried by any delivery system
Preferred carrier: Polaris missile
Player tips: The most common single card in the deck. About 22% of the time bad luck can mean it has no effect (fallout shelters, dud, explode on launch), it can also end up being pretty damaging if the gamma rays show up, about 12% of the time, causing 12 million in losses. Generally won’t be carried by Titan or Saturn missiles unless there’s no choice. It’s often expended in “tests” in favor of waiting for bigger bombs.
Historical note: While 10 megatons is the smallest warhead in Nuclear War, in actuality it was one of the larger yields actually deployed. Only the larger U.S. ICBMs such as the Titan carried 9-10 MT warheads.

Title: 20 Megatons
Text: Destroys 5 million
Number in Deck: 10
Game effect: Five million people from an enemy you select are removed from play. Based on the spinner or dice roll this can be reduced to zero or increased to as much as 15 million
Political effect: Unless it duds, aggravating or damaging to the target depending on the final result
Limits: Can be carried by any delivery system except the Polaris missile
Preferred carrier: Atlas missile
Player tips: While there are more 10 MT warheads in the deck, some of those will be discarded in tests, whereas this will rarely happen with the 20MT card, so both are just about as likely to be actually used against enemy players. There’s really no shortage of potential carriers, with 9 Atlas missiles, 6 B70 bombers and occasionally a Saturn missile all being reasonable choices.
Historical note: Only the B41 nuclear bomb used in the 1960s had a yield in the 20+ Megaton range, among U.S. weapons.

Title: 50 Megatons
Text: Destroys 10 million
Number in Deck: 4
Game effect: Ten million people from an enemy you select are removed from play. Based on the spinner or dice roll this can be reduced to zero or increased to as much as 30 million
Political effect: Unless it duds, damaging to decisive to the target depending on the final result
Limits: Can only be carried by the B-70 Bomber or Saturn
Preferred carrier: B-70
Player tips: The 50MT warhead does the heavy lifting in Nuclear War. There’s a good chance it will do a decisive amount of damage to the targeted player. It’s scary enough to be revealed as part of your deterrent force, so long as you have a B-70 or Saturn to carry it. It should be saved for the right moment. Don’t make it your first shot, but your last.
Historical note: The largest nuclear weapon blast ever was a 50-megaton (some sources say 57-megaton) test conducted by the Russians in 1961 using a weapon called the “Tsar Bomba.” Too large and heavy to be a practical weapon, the device had damaging effects over hundreds of kilometers. The Soviets had to specially modify a Tu-95 bomber to carry the weapon, including cutting away part of the fuselage in order for it to fit. The Tsar Bomba could take out an entire urban region, which meant it was overkill for all but a couple of places (Greater New York, Ruhr)

Title: 100 Megatons
Text: Destroys 25 million
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: Twenty-five million people from an enemy you select are removed from play. Based on the spinner or dice roll this can be reduced to zero or increased to as much as 50 million. There is a small chance (about 5 percent) that the bomb will “Explode a Nuclear Stockpile.” If it does, “A super chain reaction starts which destroys all countries, the earth itself and the entire solar system. Everybody lost.”
Political effect: Unless it duds, decisive to the target. Potentially a game-ender
Limits: Can only be carried by the Saturn missile
Preferred carrier: Saturn
Player tips: This weapon is almost too powerful to be used, so in some ways it’s less useful than the 50MT. If you have any chance of winning the game, you don’t want to throw it away by using the 100MT and possiubly setting off the nuclear stockpile, so it’s best placed in the deterrent force and saved for final retaliation.
Historical note: The Tsar Bomba was designed as a 100MT weapon, but the yield was reduced by about half for the test by substituting lead for much of the warhead material in order to avoid excessive fallout.

Warheads need a “carrier” to reach the target. Most are named after Cold War U.S. missiles, but there is also a manned bomber available. The first atomic bombs were dropped from B-29 bombers in World War II, and for most of the 1950s manned bombers were the primary delivery method for the strategic forces of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Ballistic missile technology also got its first combat use in World War II, however, and both countries worked hard to solve the technical problems of combining nuclear weapons with ballistic missiles and as the 50s came to an end nuclear tipped missiles joined their arsenals.
Manned bombers were more flexible to use than missiles and had the advantage of being able to be recalled. Using alert tactics that kept a certain percentage airborne at all times, backed up by other bombers on scramble alert, they were a reasonably robust retaliatory force. They were much less suitable for a first-strike, however, because the enemy would have considerable warning they were coming. In addition they were vulnerable to defensive measures such as jet interceptors and antiaircraft fire.
On the other hand, there was no defense against 1960s-era ballistic missiles, which could be used, at least theoretically, to launch a surprise attack. Because most were liquid-fueled missiles that had to be fueled just before firing and were not in hardened shelters they were must less useful for retaliation. These technical and tactical limitations played a big role in creating tension and fear between the two sides. An alleged “missile gap” between the USA and the USSR played a big role in the 1960 presidential campaign and the Cuban Missile Crisis was caused in part by Soviet and American attempts to mitigate the technical limitations of their missile forces by basing a portion of them closer to their targets.
In the game the “carrier” card is revealed first. If it’s followed immediately by a suitable warhead card then an attack is made. If it’s any other card, then it’s just a harmless “test launch” and the carrier is discarded. The central hand-management problem in the game is trying to achieve a useful balance of warheads and carriers.

Title: Polaris
Text: Carries 10 Megatons
Number in Deck: 9
Game effect: Delivers a 10 megaton warhead to a targeted player
Political effect: May announce the start of nuclear war, but necessarily signals a weak attack is on the way.
Limits: Can only carry one 10 megaton warhead
Preferred warhead: 10 Megaton
Player tips: Straightforwardly matched up with 10MT warheads. If your hand is imbalanced with carriers, this would be the first choice for “test launches.” After all, a Saturn can carry a 10MT, however inefficiently, if necessary.
Historical note: The Polaris was a solid-fueled, submarine launched ballistic missile. First fielded in 1960, its historical use was to attack “soft” military targets such as airfields and surface-to-air missile sites. Its warhead yield was only about 600KT – nothing close to 10MT – so it wasn’t primarily a city-busting weapon and it didn’t have the accuracy needed to take out hardened targets such as command bunkers or missile silos. There’s no reference to in Nuclear War to its submarine origin except for the red sea visible in the background on the card.

Title: Atlas
Text: Carries One Warhead Up To 20 Megatons
Number in Deck: 9
Game effect: Delivers a 10 megaton or 20 megaton warhead to a targeted player
Political effect: The workhorse missile for the workhorse warhead in the game.
Limits: Can only carry one warhead
Preferred warhead: 20 Megaton
Player tips: Usually saved for use with 20MT warheads, although may sometimes be armed with the 10MT if there is no other choice.
Historical note: The liquid-fueled Atlas was the first successful U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The Atlas was first operational in 1959 and served through 1964, meaning it was contemporary to the first edition of the Nuclear War card game. The actual Atlas ICBM’s carried a 4MT warhead, not a 20MT. The Atlas was also used as the basis for an entire series of space rockets, including the manned Mercury and Gemini programs as well as for launching satellites. Its last launch was in 2004.

Title: B-70 Bomber
Text: Carries Any Combination Of Warheads Up To 50 Megatons
Number in Deck: 6
Game effect: Delivers 10 megaton, 20 megaton or 50 megaton warheads to targeted players until it reaches its capacity of 50MT, runs out of fuel or is shot down
Political effect: Very threatening.
Limits: Can’t carry the 100MT
Preferred warhead: 50 Megaton
Player tips: This is the most flexible weapon system in the game. It can launch up to 5 attacks (using five 10MT warheads) although the 50MT is preferred because it minimizes the chances of running out of fuel before all the warheads are expended. It is suitable for use in the deterrent force, especially if you can show a 50MT warhead as well. Very useful for final retaliation because it can carry multiple warheads and even take revenge on more than one enemy.
Historical note: B-70 bomber was designed as a high-altitude supersonic penetration bomber that could literally run past defending jet interceptors before they would have a chance to get into position to fire. The development of effective high altitude SAMs invalidated the tactic, however, and the bomber was eventually cancelled. The existing subsonic B-52 bomber was better able to use the new tactic of low-level penetration flight profiles. Two prototype B-70s were built and dramatically unveiled in May of 1964, however, which no doubt caught the attention of Nuclear War designer Douglas Malewicki. Tragically one of the two B-70s crashed in 1966 following a mid-air collision.

Title: Saturn
Text: Carries One Warhead Up To 100 Megatons
Number in Deck: 3
Game effect: Delivers a 10, 20, 50 or 100 megaton warhead to a targeted player
Political effect: Mobilizing.
Limits: Can only carry one warhead
Preferred warhead: 50 Megaton
Player tips: Usually carries a 50 megaton warhead. There’s only one 100MT warhead in the deck, and it’s risky to use outside of final retaliation. If you have a Saturn and a 100MT warhead they should be in your deterrent force.
Historical note: The Saturn rocket was not an ICBM, but merely the largest U.S. rocket of the 1960s, first flown in 1961. Most famously Saturn rockets were used to launch Apollo manned space missions, including the moon shots.

Effective anti-missiles were wholly theoretical in the 1960s when the Nuclear War card game was designed. In the game they provide a limited ability to thwart attacks. Highly restricted in capability and very limited in number they do not threaten the dominance of the offensive in the game.

Title: Anti-Missile “P”
Text: Intercept Capability: Polaris
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: Cancels the attack of one Polaris missile
Political effect: Annoying.
Limits: Can only stop the Polaris
Preferred target: Polaris
Player tips: Use at the first opportunity. It’s not threatening enough to use as a deterrent or useful enough to take up a slot in your hand for use later.
Historical note: There were no anti-ballistic missiles fielded in the 1960s. The illustration appears to show a Nike missile, which was used to shoot down bombers.

Title: Anti-Missile “A”
Text: Intercept Capability: Atlas, Polaris
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: Cancels the attack of one Polaris or Atlas missile
Political effect: Annoying.
Limits: Can only stop the Atlas or Polaris
Preferred target: Atlas
Player tips: Use at the first opportunity against an Atlas. It’s not threatening enough to use as a deterrent. It is wasteful to use it against a Polaris unless you’re down to a few million population.

Title: Anti-Missile “B”
Text: Intercept Capability: B-70 Bomber, Atlas, Polaris
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: Cancels the attack of one B-70 bomber, Atlas missile or Polaris missile
Political effect: Aggravating.
Limits: Only one in the deck
Preferred target: B-70
Player tips: Save for use against a B-70. May be suitable for the deterrent force, especially if some has revealed a B-70 in flight.
Historical note: While there were no anti-ballistic missiles in the 1960s, there were effective SAMs. The existence of these led to the cancellation of the B-70 bomber, so in effect that card was countered.

Title: Anti-Missile “S”
Text: Intercept Capability: Saturn, B-70 Bomber, Atlas, Polaris
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: Cancels the attack of one Saturn missile, B-70 bomber, Atlas missile or Polaris missile
Political effect: Damaging.
Limits: Only one in the deck
Preferred target: Saturn
Player tips: There’s only one proper place for this card, sitting in your deterrent force.

Secrets/Top Secrets
If warheads and propaganda make up the heart of the Nuclear War card game, Secrets and Top Secrets reveal its soul. When a card sends two million of your “highly moral little old ladies” to another player or 25 million of a player’s people mysteriously vaporize, you are put on clear notice this is not a game meant to be taken too seriously. Without the Secrets and Top Secrets the Nuclear War card game would be a rather grim little affair. These flaky cards provide the black humor that puts the game in context. While making up just a fraction of the deck, these 15 cards make the game what it is and are primarily responsible for it enduring popularity.
Unlike other cards, players have no control over when a Secret or Top Secret is played and little control over what it does. They are basically a form of random event card. The Top Secret Cards tend to have more important game effects, otherwise the two types of cards are the same.

Title: Secret
Text: POPULATION EXPOLOSION! Your country’s population increases by 5 MILLION
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: Add five million people
Political effect: Neutral
Limits: Not subject to player influence
Preferred target: Drawing player
Player tips: Enjoy. It’s as pure a bonus as possible in the game. It doesn’t add so many people that you become a tempting target for the jealous. No downside at all, really.

Title: Secret
Text: 2 MILLION of your highly moral little old ladies rebel against your country’s military policies and disgustedly drive off in their electric cars to the enemy’s country
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: Give 2 million people to an enemy of your choice
Political effect: Everyone’s favorite card to see
Limits: You have to pick someone, even if you don’t want to
Preferred target: Enemy player you may cut a deal with
Player tips: Somebody has to get your 2 million, but it provides a chance for some low-risk table diplomacy. Two million population is unlikely to make or break anyone, so this card’s impact is more likely to be in its mood-setting potential than any direct effect.

Title: Secret
Text: (Three different cards)
2 MILLION of the enemy’s Beatnik Pacifists protest nuclear war and defect to your company
STOCK MARKET SUPER BOOM! 2 MILLION of the enemy’s population immigrate to your country in hopes of reaping the benefits of your system.
PEACE CORPS REDUCES COLD WAR TENSIONS! 2 MILLION of the enemy’s people leave their homeland to join your form of superior government. NOTE: Does not apply once Nuclear War has been started.
Number in Deck: 3
Game effect: Take 2 million people from an enemy of your choice
Political effect: Annoying
Limits: You have to pick someone, even if you don’t want to. One card isn’t usable during nuclear war.
Preferred target: Someone you can afford to annoy
Player tips: Another chance for table diplomacy. 2 million isn’t really a big deal, but it provides an excuse for some wheeling and dealing that may pay dividends.
Historical Notes: The Peace Corps was founded in 1961 and by 1966 about 15,000 volunteers were serving in 44 countries. In 1964-65 the Dow Jones Index was booming, it would get close to 1,000 before retreating. The Dow wouldn’t actually break 1000 until 1972. By 1964 the term “Beatnik” was already being superceded in the popular culture by the term “Hippie” but apparently the game designer didn’t get the memo.

Title: Secret
YOUR COLD WAR PRESTIGE SOARS DUE TO BEING FIRST ON THE MOON! 5 MILLION of enemy defect to seek aerospace jobs in your country
YOUR ENEMY RAISES TAXES 100% THIS YEAR. 5 MILLION of his people move to your country
Number in Deck: 2
Game effect: Take 5 million people from an enemy of your choice
Political effect: Aggravating
Limits: You have to pick someone, even if you don’t want to.
Preferred target: Someone you can afford to aggravate. 5 million can be a significant number, especially in the later stages of the game.
Player tips: Another chance for table diplomacy, but if there’s a war going on a useful additional hit on your primary target.
Historical Notes: The Race to the Moon was in the forefront of the popular imagination in the mid-1960s. At his State of the Union address on May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy set a goal of reaching the Moon with a manned mission before the decade was out, a goal achieved on July 20, 1969. In 1964 the top tier U.S. income tax rate was cut from 91% to 70%

Title: Secret
Text: (Two different cards)
You have tricked the enemy into an ineffective but time-consuming Summit Talk. His wasted efforts result in the loss of 1 TURN
ENEMY AMBASSADOR GETS DRUNK AT UN PARTY! His country LOSES 1 TURN to restore diplomatic relations. NOTE: Does not apply once Nuclear War has started.
Number in Deck: 2
Game effect: The enemy of your choice loses a turn
Political effect: Damaging
Limits: You have to pick someone, even if you don’t want to. One of the cards doesn’t apply during a nuclear war.
Preferred target: Your most dangerous opponent. Losing a turn can be devastating, especially when the missiles are flying.
Player tips: This can be very damaging, so pick your target carefully. It can provide a crucial edge in an ongoing exchange. The UN party card is much less useful, both because periods of peace can be short so there are fewer chances for using the card and the fact that losing a turn during peacetime is less important.
Historical Notes: Summit talks were a popular diplomatic gambit during the Cold War, particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but were widely viewed as useless. Also descending into uselessness in the 1960s was the United Nations. With its veto power on the Security Council the Soviet Union could ensure that nothing substantive could be done by the UN. The Korean War was an anomaly because it happened to break out during one of the Soviet Union’s periodic boycotts. A more activist UN would have to wait for the end of the Cold War.

Title: Secret
Text: TEST BAN! Your President declares a Test Ban on nuclear weapons (AND FORFEITS ONE TURN).
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: You lose a turn
Political effect: Damaging
Limits: Not subject to player influence
Preferred target: Drawing player. In the basic Nuclear War card game there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Player tips: This is an awful card to draw and there is nothing to be done about it except suck it up and hope that in the next game one of your opponents draws it.
Historical Notes: On Oct. 10, 1963 the United States, Britain and Soviet Union signed a limited test ban treaty banning nuclear test explosions.

Title: Top Secret
Text: (two different cards)
A violent tornado results in a loss of 10 MILLION to your own population!
10 MILLION of your people leave your country (and the game) for a neutral country
Number in Deck: 2
Game effect: You lose 10 million population
Political effect: Damaging
Limits: Not subject to player influence
Preferred target: Drawing player.
Player tips: This is too much to shrug off, so there’s no denying it will hurt.
Historical Notes: On April 11-12, 1965, the Palm Sunday Outbreak spawned at least 48 tornadoes in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio, killing 271 people and doing over $200 million in damage. It was the worst tornado outbreak in U.S. history up until that time.

Title: Top Secret
Text: A disastrous earthquake destroys 10 MILLION of the enemy population!
Number in Deck: 1
Game effect: A player you select loses 10 million population
Political effect: Damaging
Limits: You have to pick someone, even if you don’t want to.
Preferred target: Primary target for the moment.
Player tips: A damaging blow that doesn’t require expending any warheads
Historical Notes: On May 22 the strongest earthquake ever recorded hit Chile, killing up to 6,000 people. It measured 9.5 on the Richter scale! 61 people in Hawaii were killed by a tsunami that was generated by the earthquake.

Title: Top Secret
Text: (Two different cards)
“Super Germ,” the result of a blunder in your enemy’s germ warfare experiments, destroys 25 MILLION of his own people.
25 MILLION of the enemy’s population mysteriously vaporized!
Number in Deck: 2
Game effect: A player you select loses 25 million population
Political effect: Decisive
Limits: You have to pick someone, even if you don’t want to.
Preferred target: Your most dangerous opponent.
Player tips: A devastating blow that doesn’t require expending any warheads. Can easily be a game winner.
Historical Notes: During the 1950s the United States conducted research into the use of tularemia or “rabbit fever” as a possible biological weapon. Presumably the Soviets and other powers also conducted similar research. The “Super Germ” is the iconic symbol of the Nuclear War card game and usually appers in advertisements and promotional items related to the game. The “vaporization” card is perhaps the oddest card in the game. It’s possible it refers to the Rapture, a belief among some Christians that believers will be transported away before the tribulations of the end times. While the belief gained much more popularity in the 1970s there were a couple of books published in the late 1950s promoting the belief.

Featured game: Nuclear War

I have posted an essay on the Nuclear War card game on Boardgame Geek at

Bobby Fischer

I followed the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match closely, although I was far too weak a chess player to fully appreciate what was going on.
Still, it was nice to see a board game capture the attention of the public. The match catapulted chess into the American consciousness and things have never been quite the same for the game. Even people who've never played have an appreciation and respect for the game.
My children's elementary school had a chess club, like many across America. Here in New London there's ChessFest every year. Each is a small legacy of Fischer.
It's a shame that Fischer, himself, was such a troubled and self-centered person that he doesn't seem cared much about the impact he had on others. And there's no denying that he became a distinctly unpleasant person with obnoxious political views.
Fortunately for him, though, the memory of his antics will fade with time. But the brilliance of his game play will endure among students of the game for centuries to come. He won't be the first brilliant chess mind to be revealed as a flawed human being, but like his predecessors that won't matter much.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

SPI's Austerlitz -- terrain issues

By 1973 Jim Dunnigan's wargame-producing system was cranking up into full gear. One technique that made this possible was creating game systems that could be ported to cover many different battles. One of these was the Napoleon at War system which started with Napoleon at Waterloo, but was soon expanded to cover many other Napoleonic-era battles and, with suitable modifications, formed the basis for the "quads" on many other eras from pike and shot through modern warfare (and even naval warfare in Sixth Fleet!).
The main advantage of this approach from a gamer's point of view was providing a large number of new game situations without requiring the player to learn a whole new set of rules. The underlying validity of this approach has been proven time and again and still powers game systems such as Borg's Commands and Colors, Advanced Squad Leader, Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, Great War at Sea, PanzerGrenadier and many others.
The disadvantage of this approach is that it can result in a game system that ends up ignoring the factors that made each battle unique or affected it in an unusual way. One might easily end up with a wargame on a battle that fails to bear much resemblance to the historical event. As much as SPI emphasized history in it designs, this flaw existed in many of their games.
Among them is the NAW-system game Austerlitz: Battle of Three Emperors.
The state of the art in game design in the 1970s advanced at a rapid clip, but unevenly. There were early strides with improved orders of battle and a lot of the really big mistakes that rendered early Avalon Hill efforts like Stalingrad and Afrika Korps fanciful were corrected with better research. Austerlitz includes a complete and reasonably accurate OB that makes some interesting distinctions in strength and movement capabilities between different units and between the two armies as a whole. Overall, the French have a significant edge in speed, generally moving 1 movement point faster than the equivalent Austro-Russian units. Fair enough.
Terrain analysis in 1970s era games, on the other hand, still tended to be simplistic and often missed the point. In Austerlitz the waterways are depicted appropriately, but the towns tend to be too small, which starts to distort the effect the battlefield had on the course of the fighting. The game also doesn't make any functional distinction between cavalry and infantry other than movement allowances, so cavalry units can benefit from fighting in towns, which is quite unhistorical. Artillery units can also benefit from occupying town sites, which is also contrary to historical practice and experience.
The game most misses the mark, however, in its treatment of elevation. One can't read an account of Austerlitz without soon hearing about the Pratzen Heights, which was the dominant terrain feature affecting the fighting. The mile-wide plateau is reduced to a single-hex knoll, which ends up being a position of minor local importance instead of the battlefield's key terrain.
Apparently the designer, John Young, was misled by the gently rolling terrain of the battlefield into thinking the elevations were not important because there were no high, steeply-sided hills. (Actually, there was one, the Santon, on the French left, but it doesn't appear in the game at all).
But a height advantage in military terms is extremely relative, not absolute. In otherwise flat terrain a very slight elevation advantage can take enormous importance, while in hilly ground a steep hill may be unimportant if it's overlooked by higher ground nearby.
On the Austerlitz battlefield the Pratzen Plateau was important, not because it was difficult ground, but because it was high enough to hide troop movements, provide a defensive advantage and when occupied by the French, completely dominate the Allied position.
Coping with this kind of effect was beyond the scope of a 1970s-era wargame, but it means that Austerlitz, the game, ends up bearing little resemblance to the actual battle.
Other aspects of the game working against its historical authenticity are the victory conditions, which seem to be designed to induce the Allied player into making an attempt to strike the French right as per the actual historical plan. This course of action stands little chance of success, however, and most allied players turn their attention to winning the slugfest in the center of the battlefield. Whichever army becomes demoralized first (by losing 70 combat factors worth of units) will almost certainly go on to lose the game, given the severe penalties of demoralization. (Demoralized units lose their zones of control and have their combat strengths cut in half.)
Another terrain oddity on the map is the "Abbey" near Sokolnitz Castle. The game makes this a very strong position, quadrupling the combat strength of any unit occupying it, but I don't see a reference to such a location in accounts of the battle. It doesn't appear in the game Napoleon's Triumph, which has a very detailed and sophisticated terrain analysis nor is there any reference to it in Osprey's campaign book Austerlitz 1805, which includes several detailed battlefield maps.
Austerlitz is an interesting and challenging game. As a matter of fact, it's one of the best-balanced wargames ever. According to's statistics as of Jan. 16, 2008, the French side as won 793 times, and the Allies 783 times, a ratio of 50.3/49.7. It's just not very much like Austerlitz.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Featured game: Starforce Alpha Centauri

One game I've always liked and admired but never had much success in getting friends to play is Redmond Simonsen's 1974 game Starforce Alpha Centauri.
I'm not entirely sure why this is. It was one of SPI's best-selling games and even earned a little bit of popular culture fame when the rock band Human League took it's name from one of the factions in the game.
Perhaps it's because it's a very intellectual game, in both premise and execution. While Star Wars and Star Trek captured the public's imagination with their "Space Opera" approach, they rest on very shaky foundation in physics.
Simonsen, on the other hand, created an extremely clever and unique game that treated the question of interstellar war and travel in a way that treated Einstein with respect while still allowing for it to occur.
To do this he had to invent a lot of science, but this is defensible in a game set five centuries in the future. Clearly a wargame designer in 1474, had any existed, could never have imagined what the world of 1974 would look like. let alone what war would have been like. Indeed, no one in 1474 had any notion that the future could or would be different from the present in any notable way. The very notion of science fiction would even occur until the nineteenth century. Given the accelerating pace of scientific progress over the past couple hundred years it's even reasonable to think that the world of the 25th Century will be much more different from today than today is from the fifteenth century.
Dealing with faster-than-light travel is the first chore of a sci fi writer hoping to craft a story dealing with interstellar travel. Ignoring the problem is not an option. The general limits imposed by Einstein are widely known, at least among the audience that might be expected to read science fiction literature or go to the movies.
There have been a lot of approaches and this web site does a good job of running down the list:
A section of the Web site deals with Starforce Alpha Centauri, which turns out out have one of the best-thought out and plausible solutions to the FTL problem. Simonsen's solution creates an internally self-consistent world where wars make political sense and at the same time imagines a really futuristic style of warfare that does not involve anachronistic space "fleets" with "star battleships" , spaceship analogs of aircraft carriers or other unlikely developments. One imagines that if Aristotle could have imagined space battles he would have had them occur between "star triremes" that would have rammed each other.
In Starforce interstellar travel is achieved by special design spaceships that can "shift" in an instant from one point in space to another through the physic efforts of psionic-capable women assisted by sentient machines called Gnostechs. There are many limits on the process in distance, time and location. The telekinetics must be familiar with the space they are shifting from and to. Shifting past certain distances involves risk that include ending up someplace other than where you were headed. Combat involves groups of teleships attempting to involuntarily shifting their opponents.
The science fiction back story also creates a political and economic rationale for the wars because the number of telekinetics turns out to be a function of population size. About 1 out of every 1 million women is a potential telekinetic, a figure that cannot be increased. Politicalpower flows from the number of people under control, creating the basis for conflict. Human nature takes care of the rest. Actually, not just human nature, as the game includes some non-human races as well. The nature of teleships, however, doesn't vary and all the spacefaring races end up with very similar designs.
The game explicitly states that the telekinetics never try to kill their opponents and so the wars are relatively bloodless, with fatalities mostly happening by accident.
It's a stunningly original story line.
Despite the fact the game seems to have fallen off the radar among gamers, I think it's still worthy of notice and hope I'll get to play it someday.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Boardgaming in an electronic age

It's been reported that reading for pleasure is in steep decline, with some even wondering if it's terminal . Newspaper circulation is in free fall. While more books than ever are being published, fewer are being read. Magazines of all stripes are under stress, but general interest magazines are under the most of all.
The primary culprit seems to be television. The advent of the Internet provided some hope that the written word would stage a comeback, but the runaway success of sites such as YouTube and MySpace suggest that even the Internet will become more TV-like. Can reading survive? No one suggests that we're facing a Fahrenheit 411 world where books will be banned and the wall-TV will be the only media, but many suspect that it will become an "elite" activity.
Boardgames are like books in many ways, but perhaps the most important is that boardgames, like books, interact with the reader's mind in a way that seems qualitatively different than television and video games. Although video games do have interactive aspects to them, they seem to be interactive in a physical sense, much like a sporting game like football or tennis, rather than an intellectual interaction.
Playing BattleLore and having your knights battle the giant spider engages the imagination is a completely different way than having the same scene play out in World of Warcraft.
In many ways we're in a golden age of boardgaming. On BoardgameGeek there are several thousand games listed in the database. Sid Sackson's Gamut of Games in 1969 listed 217 games in what was a comprehensive list by the world's foremost expert on boardgames at the time. The physical quality of the games have never been better and game designers have advanced the state of the art to give us some very creative products indeed.
But even mediocre computer and video games sell many times more copies than even the most popular manual boardgames. I suspect a survey of any random city bus would net a few video gamers, whereas most boardgamers have to work pretty hard to develop a stable of regular playing partners.
Like books, manual boardgames seem unlikely to disappear, but current trends suggest that it's turning into an "elite" activity. preferred by the better educated and more upscale.
There's little sense in shedding tears over massive social changes. There are implications for fans of such games, however. To the extent that gaming becomes an elite activity there will be a premium placed on quality and aficionados will have to work hard to develop connections so they can find like-minded individuals. This is the kind of thing that makes sites like BoardgameGeek and WebGrognards invaluable.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Featured game: War of 1812, differences between editions

War of 1812, differences between the Gamma Two edition and current Columbia game.

The Map
The Gamma Two edition is mounted and has very dull artwork. The new map is on cardstock with completely new artwork. Besides being more attractive the new map shows the naval bases for each side, which you had to remember in the Gamma Two Game. The Victory Point values of Detroit and Sackett's Harbor have been changed, with Detroit going from a "2" to a "3" and Sackett's Harbor from "3" to "2"
Effect on play: Small. Having the naval bases marked is an improvement. Detroit was already a major target for the British, but they can now winter a larger army there.

The Units
The Gamma Two edition has stylized ship silhouettes printed on 12 brown blocks. The Columbia edition has more realistic ship silhouettes on stickers to affix to seven blocks for each side.
Effect on play: Moderate. Instead of being drawn from one pool each nationality now has its own pool of ships, so there's less chance for one side to create an artificial shortage of ships.

The Gamma Two edition has the unit information printed on clear plastic stickers to affix to the blocks. CV is represented by 2-4 squares along each side. In the Columbia version the unit information is printed on stickers to affix to the blocks. Unit types are now shown with crossed rifles, sabers or tomahawks. CV is depicted with arabic numerals along the side.
Effect on play: Minimal, although the newer presentation is somewhat more attractive.

The land order of battle in both versions is similar with two exceptions. On the British side, the formerly green Indian unit is now red like the rest of the army, allowing more fog of war. And both sides now a 2 CV dragoon unit.
Effect on play: Small. The British can now hide the location of the indians and the dragoons add a speedier, if weak unit to each army.

The Rules
The Gamma Two edition rules run a little over two pages while the Columbia edition's rewritten, indexed and numbered rules run about four pages, excluding the cover and historical notes.
Effect on Play: Large, the new rules are easier to read and understand while not being any more complex. In the Gamma Two edition all land movement was from town to town.

The Columbia version adds a force marching ability which gives a unit a 50 percent chance to move a second area. Failure costs the unit a step. British units get +1 to the die roll, Indians get a +2, increasing their chances of success.
Effect on Play: Large. Armies are much more flexible.

Victory Conditions
In the Gamma Two game control of a lake is worth 1 VP, in the new game this is increased to 2VPs per lake.
Effect on play: Large. Control of the lakes is much more important.

Sequence of Play
In the Gamma Two game the players alternate movement turns. In the Columbia edition players dice for initiative each turn, with the winner choosing who goes first. There is also an optional rules for simultaneous movement with written orders.
Effect on Play: Large, there is less predictability. Combined with the greater mobility of the units there is much more scope for surprise by having force marches on double moves.

In the Gamma Two edition if a reinforcement city was occupied the reinforcements could not be brought on until the city was vacated. In the Columbia game the reinforcements can now fight their way onto the map later during a campaign move if the city is occupied during the reinforcement phase.
Effect on Play: Large. The U.S. can no longer block the large mass of late-game British reinforcements with a small army in Quebec.

While the Gamma Two edition was a fine little game, the new edition improves the game considerably. Game play and strategy remains much the same, although there is somewhat more scope for strategems due to the increase in movement options.