Sunday, June 29, 2008

Is Hellas a wargame?

A popular past time on BoardGame Geek is questioning the "wargame" credentials of games like Memoir '44, but I think there are some more questionable one out there, like Hellas.

Hellas sure looks like it might be a wargame, but it isn't marketed as one and doesn't seem generally perceived as one.

Things which make it seem like a light wargame:


Two opposing sides

Little soldiers

"Attack" moves

There's an incentive to fight because conquering a city also reduces the opponent's score by one city, for a net swing of 2.

Things which make it NOT seem like a wargame:

It's not listed as a wargame

You don't have to attack the other player. It's possible to win through voyages. As a matter of fact, winning is based on achieving an absolute result (10 cities) so there is no requirement for taking any away from the other player. A 10-9 win is as much a win as a 10-5 win.

There's an incentive NOT to fight because wars are more resource intensive.

I'm generally in favor of an exapnsive and inclusive definiton of wargame, so I'm inclined to consider it one, but I do think it's a marginal case.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

I almost didn't get Hammer of the Scots

Yeah, it's true. I almost didn't buy the game that turned out to be Columbia's single biggest hit.

When I first heard about Hammer of the Scots I was very dubious. Up until that point I had purchased every single Columbia Games title to that point, without disappointment. I was an early enthusiast for block games, ever since I got the Avalon Hill edition of Napoleon about 1978 or so.

But I really had my doubts about Hammer of the Scots because of the theme. Medieval border warfare between the Scots and the English? Yeah, I had seen Braveheart and enjoyed it (even though I knew most of the "history" in it was suspect, except for the parts that were wholly made up). But I had a hard time seeing how that would be a good game.

And thematically it was pretty far off my beaten paths. Of all the eras of war I don't find medieval times all that interesting. Everything else Columbia had done up to that point was much more up my line: World War II, Napoleonic wars, wars in North America.

Finally I decided to go ahead and get it, mostly out of a desire to keep my Columbia set complete. I'd bought everything else up to that point.

As it turns out, of course, Hammer of the Scots turns out to have been a great game, and is probably the most successful Columbia game ever, at least in popularity with players. (I'm not sure about sales).

I usually make the point that theme is of pre-eminent importance for a wargame. For most euros the game comes first and the theme is added to provide color, context and market entry. Wargames usually (not always) start with the theme and are grown around that theme. This often causes design problems because real life isn't tidy and war is among the least tidy of human activities. It's hard to have simple and elegant game designs that also show fidelity to history.

But Hammer of the Scots does show that theme, as important as it is, doesn't need to overwhelm a good solid game design. We don't have enough knowledge of the situation in Scotland at the turn of the Fourteenth Century to create a detailed simulation in any event, so any wargame set in that era will necessarily have to be impressionistic to some extent. Hammer of the Scots succeeds beyond the usual because of its clever game design choices. There are a number of good ones, but I think the one that stands out is the way nobles are treated, especially their ability to switch sides.

Crusader Rex is very similar to Hammer of the Scots and a good game in its own right, but I think it's just a tad less fun and interesting to play, despite being very similar to Hammer of the Scots, because it doesn't have this rule. I'm not implying it should have that rule, the historical situation in the Holy Land during the Crusades was different.

No, it's just that the duplicity of Scottish noble politics creates an opening for the game mechanic and Hammer of the Scots runs with it in a particularly successful way. I'm glad I gave it a chance.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Jambo and Obama

Whether he becomes president or not, Barack Obama has already secured a consequential place in U.S. history, but I won't be the first to suggest that Obama winning the White House may have a ripple effect far outside the usual confines of politics.

While all-American himself, Obama's African connections are immediate, deep and profound and it wouldn't surprise me to see American pop culture interest in Africa to see a big jump.

While Obama's ancestors come from the Luo tribe, the best-known language and cultural setting in East Africa is Swahili and it's already seeped into the popular culture a bit, including among games. The popular Jenga! dexterity game's name comes from the Swahili imperative for "Build!"

Jambo is a word of greeting in Swahili and the setting for this 2-player trading game is set in the pre-colonial days of East Africa, which seems a well-chosen theme to me. The coastal regions of East Africa have always been an area dominated by trade, sitting as it does at the boundary between cultures, geographical regions .

Most of the human characters shown in the game are rather obviously native Africans, but there are also several depicting the cultures they interacted with during this era. There's an Arabian Merchant, a "Portuguese," a "Traveling merchant" who appears to be from the Indian subcontinent and a "Wise man from afar" who is somewhere very far indeed (Japan? China?).

It's a pretty clever marrying of theme and has managed to be popular as a game while also exposing a little-known facet of history to a wider audience. Will there be more after November?

Fluxx vs. Munchkin, where's the love?

It occurred to me recently that Fluxx and Munchkin have quite a few similarities, but one notable difference.

The similarities is that both are silly-themed light card games based on a simple concept that have proved to be quite popular and served as the basis for a seemingly endless series of expansions.

The notable difference between them is that Munchkin has a vocal legion of critics as well as fans, wile few people seem to give Fluxx much thought at all, except to play it.

This strikes me as rather odd, because the similarities between the games are such that most of the standard criticisms of Munchkin seem just as valid for Fluxx, yet Fluxx gets a pass.

None of this is meant, in any way, to suggest that Fluxx deserves more criticism, but rather that Munchkin seems over-criticized.

Both games are highly luck dependent. While there's certainly room to influence your chances in both games, in neither game is skillful or clever play consistently rewarded with victory. Yet Munchkin seems the one to catch the most flak for being a game of luck.

Both games might, at first blush, seem a little pricey for what you get. Fluxx, for example, gives you 84 cards, a small rule sheet and a flimsy box for $12.95. Munchkin series base games run about $24.95 but for that price you get a box, a four-page large rules set, a die and about twice as many cards -- bigger and all with original artwork. Yet it's Munchkin that gets roundly criticized for its price.

The expansions come in for even more criticism on price. But, while a typical Munchkin expansion gives you 112 new cards for $17.95, or about 16 cents per card, a Fluxx expansion gives you just 7 cards for $2, or almost 29 cents per card.

Both games are sometimes criticized for being rather stereotyped and repetitive in play, but this seems to be a bigger sin for Munchkin than Fluxx.

One wonders if the critics of Munchkin are really sniping at the publisher, Steve Jackson Games, rather than the product. Looney Labs, the publisher of Fluxx has been around for much less time and is pretty much a one-trick pony game company, whereas Steve Jackson Games is one of the oldest continuously operating game companies in adventure gaming and has had more time to accumulate more disgruntled barnacles along the way.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Go West, Young Munchkin

The Good, the Bad and the Munchkin proves that no genre is immune to Munchkiness. While the Old West has been popular in literature and visual media it's definitely been a secondary interest among RPGs. And there's really little precedent for the "dungeon crawl" style of gaming in any kind of Old West setting.

Maybe our posse of Munchkins are exploring a "ghost town?" Of course, ghost towns really come after the Old West era and probably suit Munchkin Cthulhu better.

It doesn't really matter of course, as the whole genre thing is just an excuse for more jokes, bad puns and cultural references by opening up fresh material.

The game play is the familiar Munchkin pattern of open a door, fight the monster and collect the treasure/loot the room.

As in the other human-centric games, there are no races in tGtBatM, just four classes: Cowboys, Dudes, Indians and Outlaws. I think it's fairly safe to predict that every Munchkin series game will always have classes because they will never pass up the chance to say that every character "starts as a human with no class."

Compared to other Munchkin series games, there aren't as many ways to hinder your opponents when they get close to victory. There are only a few "monster" enhancers in the deck and a limited number of one-use-only items that can sway the course of the fight, so unless you happen to have a wandering monster card and a monster in your hand at game end it may be hard to stop an opponent. This gives the game a somewhat different feel from most of the other Munchkin series games where the first player to bid for victory often gets smacked down hard which clears the way for the No. 2 player to succeed on his/her bid. Perhaps when the inevitable expansion comes out it will provide more options for messing with the other players.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wizard Kings rebooted

It's interesting to see a game "rebooted" and head off into new directions.

It's a risky move for a game company, because it often tends to alienate people who liked the first version and it's hard to lure back players who didn't like the first version and have them give you a second chance.

Some reboots fall kind of flat, like the AH edition of Cosmic Encounter, which few fans think was an improvement over the Mayfair edition.

So the reintroduction of Wizard Kings, styled 2.0, by Columbia Games is an interesting experiment. Wisely, Columbia kept the component changes relatively small, so anyone who invested in Wizard Kings 1.0 could still use most of their stuff.

And the changes that were made were not wholesale concept re-imaginings, so players didn't need to relearn the game. But the changes were important, nonetheless, and changed the focus of the game significantly. Among the most important changes were stacking limits, the economic/build systems and the elimination of one race (the Ferkin warboars) for another (the human Feudals).

The original edition of Wizard Kings was essentially a two-player wargame, conceptually a magicked-up version of Victory: The Blocks of War. The base game had two armies, Elves and Goblins and players had the option for adding more by purchasing additional armies of Ferkins, Dwarves, Undead, Amazons and/or Barbarians; reinforcing forces of Chaos creatures with their own spells and more maps. The biggest weakness of the base game was that there wasn't really a good scenario and many players complained it seemed kind of boring.

Online scenarios soon popped up and many of those were creative and interesting. And many took advantage of the fact that there were seven different armies to play to create viable multi-player scenarios. Feeding off the resurgence in multiplayer gaming caused by the growth of euros, I think this became the preferred way to play for many people.

The 2.0 version of Wizard Kings is, at heart, a multi-player wargame. All seven races are now in the base set with small armies and there is just one kind of expansion set Heroes & Treasures, which adds two new units for each army and stickers and blocks to give each army one additional special unit such as a chaos creature (stripped of their old spells) a treasure or other item such as portable gold and silver treasures caches.

There's a "collectible" aspect to these expansions in that the exact contents are random and vary between boxes without being known to the purchaser beforehand. This is mitigated by the fact that all units are valued on the same basis in the game system without any strange rarity or overwhelming power.

The focus of the scenarios (in the base game, four 2-player battles) is now on short, sharp actions, instead of the longer, full-scale wars encouraged in 1.0. The reduced stacking and hexside limits have the effect of increasing the power of the stronger pieces because it's harder to swarm them with lots of low value units. Because the battles are smaller, there's also a bigger luck element and more chance for extreme results.

It appears that this reboot has been a success. There seems to be renewed interest in Wizard Kings. The 2.0 version seems a better match for the theme and the game's potential.

Monday, June 23, 2008

When Dragons Fight -- a review

When Dragons Fight has the sad distinction of being the issue game in the final issue of Command Magazine, No. 54, dated November 2000.

Command Magazine had a very good run, more than half a hundred issues over more than 10 years, which made it by far the longest-lived and most successful wargame-in-a-magazine project outside of Strategy & Tactics, which originated to concept.

Command was born out of a failed attempt by former S&T editor Ty Bomba and his associates to buy S&T. Having lined up financial backing but failed to secure the deal, Bomba went ahead anyway with his own vision of what an S&T-like magazine ought to look like. Bomba is a strong personality and such people often provoke strong reactions and Bomba and his feisty magazine were always a bit controversial.

Still, having some serious competition was good for both magazines and, ironically, Bomba is back at S&T these days. Command's demise came as somewhat of a surprise, not least, apparently to Bomba. That last issue contains, for example, the first part of a planned two-part article about Custer's Last Stand.

It wasn't a complete surprise, however, because the magazine had been limping along like a badly holed and listing battleship for the better part of three years. Cash flow problems, the bane of all small businesses, crippled operations around Issue No. 49. In addition, that issue was a disaster as the planned historical wargame wasn't ready and a chess variant presented instead. Subscriber reaction was very negative, and the problem was compounded by the ensuing erratice schedule which never really allowed a recovery.

There's also a very real question whether the wargame hobby can really support two S&T-style magazines, but Command did last long enough to suggest that it could -- at least the 1990s hobby could.

When Dragons Fight was an appropriate game to end the run with. Like the very first issue's game -- Blitzkrieg '41 -- WDF is a Bomba design. As such it features "brutal, manly combat" in high hex-and-counter wargame style. Units are rated for combat strength in attack and defense, have movement allowances and a basic IGO-HUGO turn sequence. Bomba disliked the complications of zones of control rules and they rarely appear in his designs, so WDF has none.

The situation is an interesting one, proposing to see what might happen if the People's Republic of China were to try to seize Taiwan by invasion. Most analysts foresee a more naval-air campaign instead, but if the Chinese decided on a direct approach it might look like this.

The Chinese, in the Command traditional white-on-red color scheme, are a fairly conventional-appearing force based around infantry divisions that have four steps of strength and tank divisions with six steps. The main limitation for the Chinese is that their limited transportation means can only bring in one division per turn (day) except for the initial invasion lift of two.

They do have a full supporting cast of special forces type troops, including two naval infantry brigades, two airborne brigades, eight airmobile regiments and one artillery division. If they can seize an airport they can also quickly bring in five two-step light infantry divisions.

Bomba has a weakness for weapon weirdness, here indulged with a counter representing fire support from a battery of "Super guns" of the type designed by the late Gerad Bull.

The white-on-dark blue Taiwan forces are very different. They have seven weak reserve infantry divisions and two somewhat stronger Marine divisions that are only leg-mobile and therefore nearly static. Their main hope rests with 28 two-step Combined Arms Brigades supported by three airmobile brigades. All these units are speedy, but the Taiwanese generally are weak in staying power.

Finally both sides have access to air support, which varies from 1-3 units per turn, but both sides never have air support on the same turn. This is, perhaps, the single biggest wild card in the game and a run of bad or good fortune with the air support can be critical. The Chinese are guaranteed the full 3-units of air power on the invasion turn and if they manage to capture the fortified Taiwanese air base Chien An No. 3 they get a permanent award of three while the Taiwanese air force is gone for good.

Like most invasion games, the outcome of the initial invasion is critical. With air support, the super gun and use of human waves the Chinese can almost guarantee a landing. If they fail they lose and you simple start over. Keeping the beachhead safe is the first order of business, so it's probably not wise to land in the thickest part of the Taiwanese defenses. Losing the beachhead means defeat. The difficulty for the Taiwanese is that the island is too big for the army to cover every possible landing zone in strength. In addition, the game opens with a Chinese cruise missile barrage that as a 33% chance of inflicting a step loss on each Taiwan unit. This barrage comes after the Chinese setup, so it can't be counted on to clear the way for a landing, but it does mean that about a third of the potential Taiwanese strength is negated.

By the way, this provides a handy balancing mechanic for the game between players of different experience. Adjusting the damage +1 or -1 depending on the relative experience of the Taiwanese will make the game more or less challenging without changing its nature. Considering the actual effectiveness of such a cruise missile strike is unknowable, there's ample justification for making the change as it suits the players anyway.

The overall course of the game will be familiar to anyone who has played Bomba designs, with a step-loss result odds-based CRT, optional move/fight or fight/move sequencing for either player turn (except the first one) and minimal supply rules.

The game can last up to 14 turns as the Chinese seek to capture 16 victory points worth of cities and "large towns." City hexes are worth three VPs each, while towns are worth one. The distribution of settlements around Taiwan mean that the capture of any substantial portion of the island will be enough for Chinese victory.

Play goes fast enough that players should be able to play a match, switching sides, in a long evening. There shouldn't be much time wasted with looking up rules or computing combat results as everything is familiar wargame standard stuff. Units will be heading to the dead pile in satisfying numbers.

How realistic the game might be is hard to gauge, of course. As a hypothetical war too much is unknown and unknowable to get too dogmatic about things and the game does assume two big, but debatable things. First, that the Chinese will try to take the island by brute force. Second, that the U.S. Navy will not intervene for those critical 14 days.

The new S&T game Red Dragon Rising may be have a better take on the likely course of a China war, but it's mostly a naval-air game. For a look at the ground fighting WDF seems like it's at least plausible.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Proteus -- when is a chess variant, not?

Steve Jackson must have a soft spot for chess variants. Although Steve Jackson Games doesn't really have a very extensive line, and what it does have tends to be stuff that beats a game theme to death (Munchkin, OGRE, Illuminati, GURPS etc.), SJG has no less than three different chess variants for sale.

Or does it?

Tile Chess and Knightmare Chess are clearly chess variants. Both use the rules and pieces of chess and just add some new twists.

Proteus, however, while it appears to be a chess variant, could arguably be something quite different. It's a different sort of abstract game that merely borrows the moves of chess pieces.

The usual rule for judging whether a game is in the chess family is the knight move, which is unique to chess. Proteus does have the knight move, so it can be considered a chess-family game. And it does use the same board as chess. And, of course, it uses many of the same pieces of chess and their symbols, although also adding one new piece. In all these ways it looks like a chess variant.

But the game plays a lot differently than chess, not the least because the object of the game has been changed. There is no King in Proteus and therefore no check or checkmate. Victory comes from scoring the most points. One can also win by forcing a situation where the other side can't move, but the main way to win is by attrition.

This difference in objective, as well as the rotation of pieces between identities, makes for a very unchess-like game. I think it's different enough, in fact, that I'd hesitate to call it a chess variant at all. It seems to be an abstract strategy game that borrowed some moves and nomenclature from chess, instead.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hive and the importance of quality components

Nice bits are always desirable in agame, of course, but I think they have an extra dimension of importance for designers of abstract strategy games who want to glean some profit from their inventiveness.

By their nature, abstract strategy games are easy to fabricate on your own, so long as you're interested primarily in functionality. The board, when there is one, is simple and symmetric. The number of pieces is limited and they are usually defined by one or two characteristics, The rules, which would usually be the only copyrightable portion, can generally be boiled down to a single sheet of paper.

This is less of an option for most other kinds of commercial games, which have longer and more involved rules not easily memorized. They often have components such as charts, data-filled pieces and game-relevant artwork that can all be copyrighted, discouraging copies.

As attested by the many create-your-own threads on BoardGame Geek a lot of people like to make their own copies of games. This can be a problem for the designer. Even someone without such a hobby and minimal talent can still create their own functional copy of an abstract strategy game.

The solution, long known to publishers of public domain games such as chess, backgammon and go, is to have really nice components that the typical player doesn't have the time, talent or funds to replicate.

Hive is a good example of that, especially with the latest edition, with bakelite pieces. They are attractive, substantial and pleasing to handle and more than enough of an inducement to actually purchase a game that would be easy enough to make.

Abstract strategy games are a popular endeavor for would-be game designers, but many don't make the extra effort needed to make their games worth buying by paying attention to presentation as well as gameplay.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Leyte Gulf

Beyond a doubt, one of the coolest games in my collection is the Leyte Gulf edition of the Second World War at Sea series.

It contains two of the most massive naval battles of history, the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf.

An interesting aspect of the Pacific War was the continuing faith of the Japanese that it would be decided by a Decisive Battle which would bring them victory. Indeed, their naval strategy was geared around bringing about such a Decisive Battle.

Ironically, they succeeded! As a matter of fact, they brought about Three Decisive Battles: Midway, Philippine Sea and Leyte. They simply refused to accept the verdict!

The flaw in their reasoning was an apparent belief that only the (weak) Americans would be affected by losing a Decisive Battle and would sue for peace. In the actual event, I rather doubt the U.S. could have been defeated by a Decisive Battle. We'll never know, because the Americans in fact WON all three Decisive Battles. This despite the fact that in all three battles the Japanese did actually arrange the battle largely as they had planned beforehand.

I can understand how the Japanese fought on after Midway, even though it was truly decisive in hindsight. At the time it must have seemed like a fluke. But the Philippine Sea clearly showed that victory was not possible for Japan and the rational course of action would have been to sue for peace. Leyte merely ratified that outcome.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Solving the balance problem in Pacific Victory

Pacific Victory is Columbia Games' block game about the Pacific War in World War II.

It's a development of the system used in Victory: The Blocks of War, with changes due to the time and distance scales. Every turn, for example, represents three months of time.

It's an entertaining and interesting game, but it suffers from a perception of imbalance. Specifically, it appears it's very hard for the Japanese to win the campaign game if the Allies take a patient approach. The economic imbalance is simply too great. While it may be argued this is realistic, it's a problem from a player's standpoint.

It also encourages an unhistorical line of play by the Allies. In the actual event, the Allies did not behave as if they had all the time in the world. Domestic politics ensured that the war would end as soon as possible and victory, even if certain, would not be delayed. The allies, for example, could have simply blockaded Japan into starvation instead of dropping the atom bomb, but that would have taken much longer, been less certain and caused even more suffering.

One suggestion has been to change the victory awards and give the Japanese a victory if they get 16 VPs instead of needing 20. While adding some drama to the game, it raises as many problems as it solves. Now the Japanese can win an early knockout victory too easily by taking India. While damaging to the Allied cause, this would hardly have represented a real win. It also doesn't solve the long-game problem. If the Allies manage to hold the Japanese off from 16 then their eventual economic dominance will still come into play.

There may be another option that's in keeping with Columbia Games precedent. In Bobby Lee and Sam Grant the confederates get a bonus VP every so often, which provides an incentive for the U.S. to keep pushing every year instead of just sitting back and accumulating a huge edge in resources. A similar mechanism could also be used in Pacific Victory, giving the Japanese bonus VPs for holding out (although these would count for victory only and not bring additional resources.) Playtesting would be needed to figure out the best pace, but I think a good place to start would be 1 VP for every Monsoon season.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The first rush of the New Avalon Hill

For more than 40 years the premier adult gaming company was Avalon Hill. While most famous for its wargames, the Baltimore-based AH was always more than that. Perhaps ahead of its time, it always realized that games were not just for kids. Right from its start under Charles Roberts, AH always had a balanced line, with at least as many family and adult games as wargames. This continued throughout the Dott ownership.

When the Dotts finally tired of the game business and sold the Avalon Hill name and line to Hasbro, gamers everywhere lost quite a bit. But change is inevitable, after all, and we all have to just get on with it. Gamers wondered what Hasbro had in mind for AH, and it doesn't appear that Hasbro had any deeply thought-out strategy. Hasbro has been making it a policy to buy up adventure game outfits of late, most notably the Wizards of the Coast, and some, at least, thought it was merely a ploy to win more shelf space.

So it was with considerable interest that gamers watched the relaunch of the Avalon Hill brand by Hasbro in 2000. The first seven games of the new line ran the gamut of genres, titles, and age, but they all had one notable thing in common - not a single one was a "real" Avalon Hill game, in the sense of a game designed and marketed by the Baltimore crowd.

The First Seven were:

Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit -- An original design taking advantage of Hasbro's Star Wars licensing. A light wargame featuring 160 plastic pieces, it's a title that would never have appeared in the old AH line.

Cosmic Encounter -- Previously published by several different companies -- but not AH -- this was a reissue returning the game to its simpler roots with nicer components.

Battle Cry -- An original wargame, although a very stripped down and simple one. I've seen accounts that suggested the old AH was planning to publish the game before it went out of business. I'm not sure what that would have looked like, but I doubt it would have involved plastic figures or wooden blocks.

Stratego Legends -- A fantasy-themed version of the long-time Milton Bradley (also now owned by Hasbro) game Stratego. Obviously this would never have been in the old AH line.

Axis & Allies: Europe -- A refocused version of the Axis & Allies wargame published by Milton Bradley. Obviously not a candidate for the old AH line, it would have been too "light" for their customers.

Diplomacy -- A new, very nice edition of the classic diplomatic game that has been published by many companies, and was a prominent part of the old Avalon Hill line, although designed elsewhere. As a matter of fact, Allan Calhamer and Charles Roberts were working on their games around the same time.

Acquire -- Also a new edition of a timeless classic game, in this case designed by Sid Sackson. Originally a part of the 3M game line, it was bought by AH and a favorite part of their lineup until the end.

So, while the initial offering of the new AH resembled its predecessor with a balance of wargames and non-wargames and even included a few familiar titles, overall it was a much lighter group than the old Avalon Hill line. It did provide a good indication of where Hasbro was going with the Avalon Hill line, however. The rights for real hard-core wargames were mostly transferred to Multi-Man Publishing if AH-owned. Many of the other games, whose designers had retained rights, have reappeared with different publishers.

The more recent AH/Hasbro offerings have resembled the first batch, with most of the wargames also bearing the Axis & Allies brand in addition to AH. Except for Diplomacy and Acquire, which are being reissued again in new versions, the only New AH game that is a re-issue of a prior AH title is Monsters Menace America.

It seems evident that there will be no resurrecting of the hard-core historical Avalon Hill wargame under Hasbro. Only games light enough to merit the Axis & Allies label will show up, although some of those such as the A&A miniatures line and A&A:Bulge are definitely real wargames.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Battle Cry Chancellorsville

Chancellorsville is unique among the published scenarios in Battle Cry in that neither army has a presence in all three sections of the battlefield. Indeed, the Federals, except for one unit, are all concentrated in the center section.

Hooker's boys also labor under the handicap of having Hooker as the boss, so they have only a three-card hand, compared to the Rebel 5-card hand. As a matter of fact, the only real advantage the Union forces have is numbers, with 12 units compared to the Rebel eight. But even here, the federals have a disadvantage because their army is not well-balanced, having no cavalry unit.

The bottom line of all this is that, at the start of the game, fully 32 of the 60 cards in the deck are completely useless or will result in a single unit being able to move. On the plus side, there are five cards that can be really devastating for the Federals to play if they get them, the All-Out Offensive and, almost as good, the two Force March cards. The Fore and Hold Position is also pretty powerful. All five of these cards will allow all, or nearly all, of the Federal units to battle in a single turn.

The problem for the Union player is, with a mere 3-card-hand, chances aren't all that good you'll get one of those five cards (1/12th of the deck) while it's almost certain you'll have one or more cards that you can't use. Even the Counter-attack card may not help, because the Confederate player can be careful to only activate units in a section where the Federals don't have a presence.

While the Rebels start with 14 cards they can't use (12 Center Section Probe, Attack or Skirmish orders and the two Hit and Run cards) they can afford, with a 5-card-hand, to hold onto any center cards for a few turns until they have the need to move into the center section. So there's really just two unusable cards for them in the whole deck.

Given all this, what approach gives the Union player the best chance for a victory?

Battle Cry, like all the Commands & Colors games, doesn't lend itself to "perfect plans." The luck of the card draw means that no plan can be sure of execution, and sometimes the other side may get lucky. A Rebel player at Chancellorsville who confidently starts enveloping the Union force may get a very rude awakening if the Federal player happens to have two of this five killer cards.

But on average the Rebel player is going to be able to be very active, able to dance around with his 8 units, picking at a federal force that may not even have a single usable card in his hand.

From a card management perspective, there's little the federal player can do except play 'em as he draws 'em. If not pressed too hard, the union can "play" a worthless card just to get it out of the hand, but most of the time the critical need will be to act as often as possible. I think the Union player does have an opportunity, if he's single-minded enough to act on it, and that is to concentrate on Stuart's portion of the Confederate army.

There are exactly six flags available on that side of the field (general, artillery and four infantry) and there is one federal unit that starts on the sector boundary and therefore has 10 more cards available than the rest of the Union force. There's a chance, if the cards cooperate, to concentrate all 12 federal units against the five Rebels.

It still looks like a challenging scenario for the Union troops, but I think this approach gives the best shot. Critiques welcome.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Battle Line theme-enhanced

I know that Reiner Knizia's games are just clever abstract's not simulations, but I do think that a good theme helps the game.

Battle Line is just a card game about building sets of cards, not all that different from Lost Cities, but the ancient battles themes works really well, making the game more approachable for the literal-minded such as myself.

That it's not a simulation is proved by the fact that the most powerful card is the "chariot," which was well past its prime as a weapon system by Alexander the Great's era.

But arranging formations of historically named cards and leaders does make it a little more real, a little easier to remember.

I know euro gamers aren't as theme-dependent as wargamers, but I think games like Battle Line demonstrate it's not unimportant, after all.

Friday, June 13, 2008

War Galley -- Do the command control rules go far enough?

Perhaps the hardest thing for wargames to replicate (aside from the fear of death, naturally) are the problems of command and control. By nature the little cardboard counters, blocks or toy soldiers do as they are told. Where they are is generally pretty clear and their overall status known.

In addition, the wargamer has a bird's eye or map's eye view of the action in real time.

This isn't too big a problem for 20th and 21st Century wargames, outside the very tactical level. Even fairly low-level commanders at battalion and regimental levels are often fighting their battles on the map, as it were. The modern battlefield is often far too expansive for anyone other than a company commander to see his whole fight. At sea and in the air the same is true. The captain fights his ship from the computer screens in the Combat Information Center, not from the salt-sprayed bridge. The fighter pilot relies on his head-up display at least as much as his eyes.

Even in the black powder era, top level commanders were familiar with maps and probably imagined their battle plans from that perspective, although exercising anything other than the most general command was difficult. A lot depends on the man on the spot. The problems of command at sea were similar, with flag signals being a very crude level of control, barely adequate with the stately pace of sailing warships and breaking down completely under the quickened pace of steamships. The wireless set came not a moment too soon.

But in ancient times maps were few and crude and there's little evidence they were used much by leaders. Everything was seen from ground level. There's not a lot of evidence for exactly how commands were transmitted, but couriers, musical instruments and visual signals were probably used.

War Galley makes stab at reflecting the problems of command control, and deserves kudos for the attempt, but battles in the game system usually degenerate into a confused melee. This is a problem in other games, too such as the age of sail wargame Close Action.

The wargamer, able to look down from above, is much more aware of the tactical possibilities than any real-life captain could have been from his sea-level vantage point. The turn-based temporal system of wargames also provides opportunities that wouldn't occur in the swirling midst of battle.

In any era, the thing commanders fear most of all is disorder, but this fear was particularly salient in earlier times. In ancient warfare the first army or fleet to fall into disorder was usually defeated and in the wake of defeat the slaughter would begin.

It's unreasonable to ask gamers in the heat of battle to forgo tactical advantages, but there needs to be a greater incentive for keeping formation. Perhaps all ships not facing the same way as the flagship should be considered "independent squadrons." It's hard to imagine a squadron commander coordinating the actions of a dozen triremes in the middle of a melee from the deck of his own ship that's busy dodging rams.

Tigris & Euphrates, a wargamey euro?

Of late I've renewed my interest in non-wargames.

While I'm primarily a waragmer, I've never been exclusively so. Back in my teen years my friends and I played a lot of non-wargames as well. The Stock Market, Stock & Bonds, Feudal, Football Strategy, Baseball Strategy, Regatta, Win,Place & Show, Ploy, Evade, Oh Wah Ree and a number of other titles hit the game table back then.

Unfortunately non-war games for grownups never really took off back then, but I've never lost my interest in them.

So the recent rise of the euros is an altogether positive thing for me.

Still, there's enough of the wargamer embedded in me that some of my euros involve some conflict and of all the popular euros I think Tigris & Euphrates might appeal to wargamers as a sort of cross-over game. It sure looks like there's some warfare going on.

Of course, Reiner Knizia is primarily a very talented game designer, not an expert in some historical period attempting to model some actual event. All three of his games that I happen to own are dressed up in very nice historical clothing -- T&E, Battle Line and Lost Cities -- but none are simulations in any sense of the word. No, they are really clever games, first and foremost.

But T&E does look like it involves wars and rebellions with its "external" and "internal" conflicts.

So is it a wargame?

No, not really. Not all conflict is war.

The classic principles of war, for example, such as surprise, security, mass, maneuver, objective, unity of command and offensive apply very spottily. The way one wins the game is very unwargame-like, because it emphasizes the need to be well-balanced. Winning by having the best "low" score is an intriguing, brilliant game mechanic, but not one that's easy to translate into military terms.

Indeed, the usual objective of military fighting is to achieve an overwhelming advantage in some key facet of power and leverage that into overall victory. Athens was clearly the better balanced civilization, but it still suffered defeat in its war with Sparta.

But Athens did, in the end, prevail. It's influence did not cease with defeat and it retained its role as the center of Greek culture, while Sparta declined into insignificance. So Tigris & Euphrates is better viewed as a rough model of the clash of cultures, not unlike the old Avalon Hill game Civilization, which was another pseudo-wargame. Like Civilization, fighting is as often as not a distraction in T&E and too aggressive a posture is unwise.

Viewed from the perspective of culture, rather than military might, judging victory on the basis of the weakest link may make sense. No, T&E is not a simulation and I assume Knizia used the unusual victory condition purely for its game interest. But it does fit the theme well-enough to satisfy my wargamer's urge for things to make some sense.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A rule I find unfair

I've played Lost Cities quite a bit over the years. It's really a great game, a real classic. But there's one rule I find a wee bit annoying, the rule who goes first.

It says that the oldest player always starts. You know, in all the games I've played I've always gone first! And as the years pass it seems my chances of ever going second in a match are declining declining rather swiftly.


Edited to reflect one of the other pitfalls of getting older- brain farts!

Tile Chess -- quick review

Chess variants seem to come in two main flavors. In the first, new pieces, rules or squares are added to create a chess-like game that expands the decision-making tree. I haven't done a survey, but this seems to be the most common kind of variant.

The second type of variant takes the familiar pieces of chess and places them in some new environment. This usually creates a game that isn't very chess-like at all, although it can fool you at first. I think the game effect is to create a feeling of delight as you get to see something familiar in a different light. Bosworth (reviewed earlier) is that sort of a game, and so is Tile Chess.

Tile chess appears to dispense with the game board, as players lay down tiles bearing the image of the standard chess pieces and then, once all have been placed, move them in accordance with the standard rules of chess, with once exception. Pawns in Tile Chess can move one space orthogonally in all four directions and capture diagonally in all four directions, instead of just "forward" as in standard chess.

I say "appears" to dispense with the board, because it's really still there, just "virtual." Tile Chess can be played with no changes on a visible grid, and the designer even suggests people do so if it helps them visualize things. Indeed, this might be a use for those unwanted copies of Warmaster Chess 2000!

The actual fundamental rule of Tile Chess is the Unity Rule, which requires that every piece must end its move adjacent to some other piece orthogonally or diagonally and no piece can move in such a way as to break the chain of pieces of stranding a piece. Most of the rest of the rules in the game deal with the implications and complications of this rule.

What you end up with is a game that resembles a knife fight between opponents tied at the wrist. Unlike standard chess, which unfolds with a development phase and involves maneuvering for advantage over the course of several turns while building combinations of supporting pieces, Tile Chess is a bloody close-quarters brawl. Players start fully intertwined and pieces will fly off the playing surface at a rapid clip. The game can be played with up to six players, which will make chess-style long-range planning nearly impossible.

The rules include a few variants for set-up and play, including rules for combining Tile Chess with Knightmare Chess for those who need their chaos squared.

Tile Chess is a wild game. It's really too chaotic to develop much in the way of game theory, particularly in multi-player versions, but it's a fun filler. Games will tend to end quickly and decisively because a player who captures an enemy king can add the surviving pieces from that army to his own, meaning that it's possible to swiftly acquire a dominating board position with a well-timed capture.

About the only caveat I have about the game is that purchasers may find the components a little on the cheap side for the price. All the game is comprised of is a four-page rule book and 96 rather thin tiles with chess icons contained in a thin box. While the $9.995 price isn't steep, it still seems that the components don't justify the price tag. I would have preferred more substantial, euro-style tiles that could stand up to repeated playings.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nude boardgaming

Playing backgammon in the nude!

Nude boardgaming

Playing backgammon in the nude!

Warmaster Chess 2000, review of the most hated wargame ever

Warmaster Chess 2000 is probably the most despised wargame ever published.

But it's a chess variant, not a wargame, you protest.


Warmaster Chess 2000 was the issue game in Command No. 49. Evidently the wargame planned for that issue fell through, so editor Ty Bomba, in an epic miscalculation, decided to go ahead and publish anyway, relying on Warmaster Chess 2000, which had been planned to be a mere supplementary bonus game, to carry the whole load. To characterize the reactions of the subscribers as negative would put it mildly. Command, which had established itself as the magazine-with-a-wargame-in-it that actually came out on a strict schedule (As opposed to S&T and Counterattack), had seen that reputation seriously damaged in 1998 as cash flow and printer problems disrupted its publication schedule. Undoubtedly this played a role in Bomba's anxiousness to get an issue out.

Cash flow problems are dangerous for any business, but small businesses are especially vulnerable. It's possible that Command wouldn't have recovered in any case, but the timing of the Warmaster Chess debacle could hardly have been worse. Command had burst onto the scene dramatically with a free issue mailed to thousands of wargamers. Many were impressed enough to subscribe starting with issue No. 2, so issue No. 49 represented a decision point for many who had been loyally resubscribing in 6- and 12-issue increments. I'm not aware of any figures being released, but the fact is that Command limped along with a very irregular and sparse publication schedule from that point forward. It finally expired with Issue No. 54 in 2001.

Warmaster Chess 2000 might have found a receptive audience if published in a general interest gaming magazine or among chess players, but a wargame audience expecting a real wargame was appalled.

(Vol. 1) Issue 49

And. in truth, the initial outing in the Warmaster Chess series was pretty lame. The essential feature of the variant was expanding the playing surface four squares in every direction, ending up with a 16 by 16 grid (256 squares of standard chess' 8x8 64-square grid. That's it. Later there were new pieces, discussed below, but the initial offering was simply a bigger board and a few rules for using it. If some of the later ideas had been included off the bat perhaps the game would have had a chance, but I suspect many, if not most subscribers, were so angry that they never even looked at the later iterations of Warmaster Chess.

The four variants presented in the first volume were "Deep Battle," "Mongol," "East Front" and "Victor Charlie."

Deep Battle Chess is merely standard chess with a standard setup in the middle of the expanded board. This naturally creates a more free-wheeling game because the pieces no longer have to wait for pawn development to open up lines of attack.

Mongol Chess is the same, except only one side (the "Mongol") can move in the "outer" board. If it does, it's "Khan" (king) is immobilized as long as any pieces are on the outer board. Pawns are not eligible for promotion in this variant. The idea seems to be to encourage short flanking moves by the Mongol player.

East Front Chess replaces every piece except the king and the pawns with queens. This naturally makes the game even more free-wheeling. Pawns also can't be promoted in this variant. This one is for those players who always want to play with King Tiger tanks in wargames.

Victor Charlie chess takes advantage of the fact the pieces are counters rather than actual chess pieces to introduce a hidden movement variant where all the pieces inverted, but otherwise act normally. Each player sets up in the same spaces as the standard set up, but can vary which piece goes where. There's no "check" or "checkmate" in this variant and players lose when their king is captured.

Interim grade "F" -- Mildly interesting chess variants presented in a completely off-putting way to a wargame audience. Inadequate value. Some of the ideas presented later (see below) should have been included in this initial outing. Doing so might have salvaged something.

Vol. 2 (Issue 50)

This was a supplementary game in Issue 50, which included a real wargame again (the prescient Back to Iraq 2nd ed.)

Each of the subsequent volumes of Warmaster Chess included the expanded map and enough pieces to play all the variants presented in that issue, so there was no need to have the earlier edition. Still, considering the negative reaction that Warmaster Chess had already engendered, it's amazing that Bomba forged ahead with the project.

Volume two introduced 'Wide & Deep Battle Chess" which took the next logical step of simply doubling all the pieces (except the king and queen) and making a bigger chess game that way. Unlike standard chess, the opposing battle lines didn't quite reach the edge of the board, so there was still room for flanking movements and less corresponding need for pawn development.

Vol. 2 also introduced variants adding a couple of new pieces and a few new rules for existing pieces. The new pieces were the "catapult" which operates similarly to the cannon in Chinese chess and the "Longrider" -- a sort of longer-raged knight. Fairly conventional chess variants. The new rules added a "Rook Charges" which allows a rook to move through a friendly pawn (killing it) on its way to make a capture and "Ricochet Bishop" which allows bishops to "ricochet" off the board edge pool-style. Both of these rules are standard chess variants but are useful in the expanded board of Warmaster Chess. The final rule adds additional movement power to the Queen to create a "Princess" "Empress" or "Amazon." The "Princess" moves as either a bishop or a knight and the "Empress" moves as the rook and the knight, both of which actually reduces the power of the queen, especially on the bigger board used in Warmaster. On the other hand, the "Amazon" moves as a Queen but adds the ability to move as a knight, too, creating a very powerful piece.

Second interim grade "D" -- Somewhat more interesting, although not departing from the usual chess variants. If these rules had been included in the initial version maybe people wouldn't have been quite so mad.

Vol. 3 (Issue 51 - real wargame the Fire Next Time)

This version is mostly about adding new pieces and some odd new rules.

The new pieces include the "Wazir/Sapper" which is a somewhat more powerful pawn and mine remover (see below) and the Uhlan, which can move in just one direction like a rook or change facing. Some new counters that are not pieces are "Mountains" which basically create an impassible square and "Land Mines" which create four potentially "mined" squares. each player places four mines (two real and two dummy) and they will destroy any piece that lands on a real mine.

New rules include "Suicide" which allows player once per game to remove one of his own pieces; "Hop-Skip which allows a once-per-game jump by a bishop or rook over another piece and "Atomic Pawn" which allows a once-per-game suicide blast by a pawn that destroys itself and all adjacent pieces. Some folks may find this piece overpowered and distasteful, given the prevalence of suicide bombers today. Fortunately this rule, like all the rules in Warmaster Chess, are completely optional and can be mixed and matched in any way desired.

Finally there is "Mutually Assured Destruction." With this rule each player secretly picks a counter bearing the name of a type of piece (such as Rook). If the opposing player makes a capture with that piece type the player can expend the MAD counter to destroy the capturing piece, too.

This volume also adds three new ways to play Warmaster: Meeting Engagement -- starting at the board edge; Deep Battle Chess Kriegspiel -- using three sets and an umpire for hidden movement; and Deep Battle Bughouse using two sets for team play.

Third Interim Grade "C" -- Finally introducing some worthwhile and interesting variants. this was far too late.

Variants (Issue 52 & 53 which were published jointly)

This final iteration of the Warmaster Chess 2000 series was the star of the bunch, introducing some very interesting variants and new ways to play. If only this had been first ... .

The first variant is called "Chess Battle" which actually isn't a Warmaster Chess variant at all, but a 1933 Soviet chess variant that translated 20th century military units into chess-like pieces. The game includes Infantry, Tank, Field Gun, Machinegun, Cavalry, Fighter-bomber and headquarters pieces. The HQ is basically a chess king. The fighter-bomber (one per side) is a queen with the additional power of being able to jump over one friendly piece per move. Tanks (one per side) are rooks, but can move just 2 squares. Field guns (2 per side) move as kings but can "bombard" an enemy piece up to five squares away so long as there is no intervening piece. Machineguns (2 per side) also move like kings and can also remove an enemy piece by fire like a field gun, except only three squares away. Cavalry (2 per side) is knight-like in its moves, except it can vary the move from 2 to 6 squares. Infantry ( 15 per side) moves like kings.

The second rule section adds an "airpower module" to Warmaster Chess 2000. This adds four F-22 fighters to each side which have tremendous movement abilities, two altituides and the ability to "strike" enemy pieces (except for the king). Regular pieces have the ability to fire "flak" at passing planes with varying chance s of success based on a d6 die roll. Adding planes to the mix changes the entire nature of the game . Basically, the game will hinge on the outcome of the air superiority battle and nothing much is likely to happen until that's determined. If one side achieve air superiority it will have a powerful tool to set up a winning move later on.

The final section adds five more variant pieces to Deep Battle Chess: Air Cavalry; Bulldozer, Grappler, Phalanx and Mimic. The Air Cav piece can move and capture within two squares of its position in varying combinations that can include capturing two pieces in one turn. It's a powerful piece within its limited range. The bulldozer moves like a queen but doesn't capture. Instead it pushes pieces one square, possibly an entire chain of pieces, making it an interesting support piece. The grappler also moves like a Queen but also has no capturing power. Instead, it immobilizes any enemy pieces that start their move net to the grappler. A grappler can be captured by an enemy piece that starts its move more than one square away, though, so it's fairly easy to counter. A Phalanx moves one square forward or sideways, but any distance to the "rear." It's invulnerable to capture from its front. The final new piece is the "Mimic" which copies the move of the last enemy piece moved.

Interim grade: "B" -- This is, by far, the best offering in the series. If it had been first, especially with "Chess Battle" it could have been sold as at least somewhat wargame-related. Instead it was last and I doubt many subscribers gave it a second glance.

Overall grade: "D" -- Despite finishing strong, initial impressions counted the most and Warmaster Chess 2000 has to go down in wargame history as one of its biggest failures. For players willing to give it a fair shot -- and who have an interest in chess variants -- there's some value in the game. For wargamers -- and they were the audience that counted for a wargame magazine -- there's nothing worthwhile and their disappointment and anger is understandable.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Victory, 10th anniversary review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bosworth has been out 10 years already

I picked up Bosworth just last year, but I've seen it around for a while.

I finally decided to pick it up after reading a few remarks about it on BoardGame Geek.

I'm a fairly indifferent chess player, being unwilling to spend the time and effort required to get good at it, although I like the game and play it fairly often on a purely casual basis. Being a casual chess player, I'm attracted to chess variants. Real chess players generally seem devoted to playing the game as it is, not messing with it.

I figure my best chance of beating a real chess player would be while playing some variant that disrupts his/her advantage.

Bosworth is an especially disruptive chess variant. While the pieces generally move just like chess pieces (the main difference being pawns, which gain a small, but significant improvement in mobility) the constricted 4x4 square battlefield and semi-random deployment of pieces make it seem a bloody as the first day of the Somme and nearly as chaotic.

Consider that, in a 4-player game, as many as 64 pieces are going to be introduced to that 4x4 battlefield (plus 16 more spaces of "camp" that eventually disappear). Further considering that the board situation will change three times between each player's move and you have a game that's opportunistic to the extreme. So the entire character of the game is different from chess, which rewards careful planning, combinations and the ability to "see" several moves in advance. In Bosworth none of these factors are important. Planning is almost impossible. Combinations are rare and unstable. And, especially in 3- and 4-player games, it's really not possible to "see" past your next move -- and maybe not even that.

It's fun, wild and woolly, but not much like chess!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Krim comprehensive review

Krim is an excellent example of why it's hard to interest Eurogame players in classic hex-and-counter wargames.

This Ty Bomba design from Command Magazine No. 6 depicts the German campaign in 1941-42 in the Crimea (Krim in German). While of moderate complexity by wargame standards it is still a detailed game from a Eurogame player's viewpoint.

In Bomba's designer's notes he says "The geography is cramped and objectives obvious, with little room to vary strategies for either player. That's why the O.B. is as detailed and thoroughly researched as it is -- I felt I had to make what was lacking in strategic options with tactical/operational variety." What a wargamer considers little more than an annoyance (a lack of strategic options) a Eurogamer would consider a fatal flaw and a "broken" game. Of course, the reason for this is inescapable.

The wargame designer is attempting, even in a low complexity wargame, to model a historical situation with some degree of fidelity to the actual event. This normally forces all sorts of design compromises that get in the way of a clean, elegant game design. As a minor example, in Krim the Soviets get a single parachute battalion which has a 1 in 6 chance of surviving its landing and entering the game. A nearly pointless exercise requiring another 210 words of rules, and thoroughly unjustified by any standard of elegant game design. But, inconveniently, the unit DID drop historically and it could have had some effect on the campaign, so Bomba includes it in the design, with the approval of the wargame public.

So, although Krim, with its 12 pages of rules, 150 counters and single small map, is a fairly accessible and low-to-moderate complexity wargame -- it might as well be Advanced Squad Leader as far as it may interest the typical board gamer.

The campaign scenario runs from October 1941 to July 1942 over 15 turns, which represent 15-30 days, depending on the weather. The Mark Simonitch map covers the southern Crimea from Sevastapol to Kerch at 12 km per hex. German and Rumanian units are generally divisions, with some regiment and special battalions. Romanian units are dark green and most German units are feldgrau. Mechanized units are white on black and Luftwaffe units are light blue.

The Soviet units are divisions, brigades and regiments - and that ill-fated parachute battalion. Nearly all are white on red, except for a few rocket artillery units in red on white.

The game is another of Ty Bomba's eastern front system first seen in The Tigers Are Burning and Blitzkrieg '41. The 12-page rule-book is clearly written although like most magazine games it could use more examples of play. With attack factor-defense factor-movement factor units and a modified IGO-HUGO turn sequence, the game will be as familiar as an old tennis shoe for most experienced hex-and-counter wargamers. Because of its small size and the popular Eastern front topic, the game was well-liked by subscribers and generally saw a lot of play.

Victory is unusually straightforward for a hex-and-counter wargame. If the German player clears the map of all Soviet units he wins, otherwise he loses.

No draw is possible. The game can be played in an evening and will only take about 10 minutes to set up.


(Yes) For Wargamers: A satisfying simulation that allows both players to attack and defend and depicts the campaign accurately.

(No) For Collectors: Nothing remarkable.(No)

For Euro gamers: No, for all the reasons cited above.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Grenada's Scrappy Little Army

First published in Command Magazine No. 46, December 1997. With slight edits.

Grenada’s Scrappy Little Army

The US invasion of Grenada in 1983 provided a welcome foreign policy vic­tory for the Reagan Administration, even as the dust settled from the deadly bombing of the Marine bar­racks in Lebanon.

Government and media reports at the time emphasized the involvement of the Cubans on the island and downplayed the Grenadian role. The invasion — Operation Urgent Fury — was officially termed a “rescue mission” to liberate hostage American medical students and free the Grena­dian people from communist domina­tion.

But a close look at the fighting that took place reveals a more complex story, and shows the main and dead­liest opponent the Americans faced was not the Cubans, but the small Grenadian armed forces.

A Marxist and good friend of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, Grenada’s leader ear­ly in 1983, was a truly popular politi­cian. While he had attempted to make over Grenada into a communist state with Cuban and Soviet help, he’d been careful not to push his people too far, too fast. But that caution then proved his undoing, when his doctrinaire and dour second-in-command, Bernard Coard, became impatient with the in­cremental pace of change and jealous of Bishop’s “cult of personality.”

The simmering feud within Grena­da’s ruling circle erupted in October, when Coard led the more radical ele­ments of the New Jewel Party in a coup that removed Bishop from power, jail­ing bum and his allies on the 13th.

Coard misjudged the people’s temper, however, and a few days later, on the 19th, Bishop and his colleagues were freed from prison by a massive crowd of civilians. Coard’s faction counterat­tacked using three armored personnel carriers and troops. Scores of people were killed and Bishop was recap­tured. Shortly thereafter, he and sev­en of his associates were cut down by a firing squad’s machinegun in the courtyard of Fort Rupert, in St. George’s, the island’s capital.

The U.S. administration was, of course, concerned with the new com­munist state evolving in the Carib­bean. The build up of the Grenadian military and the growing influence of the Cubans bothered many in Wash­ington. Of particular concern was the construction of a 9,000-foot runway near St. Georges. Ostensibly created to boost tourism, the facility had obvious strategic potential, and captured doc­uments later revealed the Soviets and Cubans did indeed have plans for its military use.

Bishop’s execution, then, and the revulsion it caused across the Carib­bean, gave the United States the op­portunity to move to rid the island of its communist regime. An invasion force was quickly gathered.
The Grenadians, well aware of the growing US enmity, had also been con­sidering how best to use their small army to defend their island. Their hope was to hold out long enough for world opinion to come to the rescue, forcing a premature halt to any at­tack.

The largest part of their armed forces was the People’s Militia, several thousand strong. Besides filling six in­fantry battalions, the militia men and women were also to bolster several of the regular army units. But that ap­proach had to be scrapped when the fighting at the jail and Bishop’s execu­tion deflated the regime’s popular support. Fewer than 250 militia even­tually reported for duty.

Another blow to the Grenadian com­munists’ cause was the generally pas­sive stance adopted by the Cuban con­struction troops and military advisors. Since Bishop had been a personal friend as well as a political ally of Cas­tro, the Cuban dictator was appalled by his murder. He also foresaw the US was soon thereafter likely to intervene and there was little he could do to stop it. For political reasons Castro couldn’t openly abandon a socialist ally state, but he had no stomach for throwing more resources into a lost cause.

The only reinforcement Castro sent was a lone officer to take charge of the Cuban mission on Grenada. He was given orders to “uphold the honor of Cuban arms,” but nothing more. The Cuban construction troops and mili­tary advisory mission, about 700 troops in all, were ordered to defend their encampment but not to fire un­less fired on. So the single largest body of troops on the island were thus put under orders to merely defend them­selves and not to cooperate in any de­fensive schemes put forward by the Grenadians.

The major combat element of the Grenadian army was the Permanent Battalion, which consisted of four companies and some platoon-sized support elements, totaling 475 men and women. Spread around St. Georges and other sites in small de­tachments was the Security Company, under command of Capt. Lester Red­head, who had played a lead role in Bish­op’s death. Also manning positions around the town were the regulars of the Anti-Aircraft Company and some militia, under Lt. Cecil Prime. The Peo­ple’s Revolutionary Army Reserve was massed at Fort Frederick, and comprised the Motorized Company, orga­nized into two platoons with BTR-60 armored personnel carriers and another truck-mounted platoon. There was also the Mobile Company, with yet another three truck-mounted pla­toons. Both the Mobile and Motorized Companies were under command of Lt. Raeburn Nelson. Rounding out the force were 80 of the militia who did re­port for duty. They were formed into the Rapid Mobilization Company un­der Lt, Iman Abdullah.

Nineteen Americans died in combat during the invasion. About half per­ished in combat accidents and friend­ly fire incidents, but nearly all the rest were done in by fire from Grenadian defenders. Several of the most notable fights solely involved Grenadian de­fenders.

One of the initial objectives of the invasion force was the Richmond Hill Prison in the capital. Five UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were supposed to land there carrying Delta Force cornmandos whose mission was to liberate the political prisoners being kept in­side. Driven off by heavy fire from the anti-aircraft guns sited around the prison, the Black Hawks made a second attempt that resulted in one chopper going down, killing the pilot and wounding 11 other soldiers. The pris­on wasn’t liberated for more than a day.

Another special forces target in the initial assault was Government House, home of British Gov. Gen. Sir Paul Scoon, who was to form the post-inva­sion government. While the Navy SEALs succeeded in reaching him, they were then pinned down by Grenadian fire and unable to leave. It was only af­ter Marines, led by tanks, approached the next day that the siege was broken. One of the elements called in to help the beleaguered SEAL team consisted of a pair of Marine Cobra helicopter gunships. Anti-aircraft fire from the Fort Frederick battery succeeded in downing both of them, killing three of the four crewmen.

A third special forces target was the transmitter station at Beausejour. While the commando team succeeded in capturing their objective, they were soon faced with a counterattack by a scratch force led by Prime and con­sisting of one BTR-60, and 82mm mor­tar and a 20 man platoon from the Mobile Company. Prime’s men drove off the Americans but didn’t kill any.

The decisive fight was at the Point Salinas airfield. Two battalions of U.S. Army Ran­gers dropped from dangerously low altitude to capture the facility and at­tack the nearby Cuban encampment. Although no Rangers were killed in the ini­tial drop, one man later died in the fighting to expand the airhead. Both Grenadian and Cuban troops were in the area, so it’s unclear who fired the fatal bullet.

The main Cuban position was in the hills north of the airfield, and it was soon brought under attack by ele­ments of the US 82nd Airborne Divi­sion, who’d flown in to reinforce the Rangers. One officer was killed during a night-time reconnaissance of the Cuban lines, and he was the only fatality known for certain to have been caused by those forces. The Cuban camp was finally taken in a violent as­sault the next day. Sixteen of those de­fenders were left dead, but no more Americans were killed.

The biggest combat disaster for the Americans came during the afternoon of the first day, when a five-man, jeep-borne recon team of Rangers got lost while scouting a road leading from the airfield. They drove into an ambush set by the militia of the Rapid Mobi­lization Company in which four of the Rangers were killed.
The largest counterattack launched against the Americans was conducted by a BTR-60 platoon from the Motor­ized Company. All three vehicles were quickly destroyed by light anti-tank weapons and gunship fire. It was, in the words of one US soldier who ob­served it, a “valiant, heroic, but stupid move.”

By noon of the second day it was clear the Americans had arrived in overwhelming force. The Cubans had surrendered and soon the still-surviving elements of the Grenadian army simply began melting away, trying to blend in among the populace. While the Americans reported occasional sniper fire for days afterward, no more invaders were killed by enemy fire.

The small Grenadian army had man­aged to kill in action at least eight Americans, wounded scores more and shot down several helicopters. Despite their limited resources, they also man­aged to launch several counterattacks, including one that temporarily suc­ceeded. Looked at another way, if Saddam Hussein’s army had been propor­tionately as effective in 1991, the Coal­ition would have suffered tens of thousands of casualties, rather than hundreds, in Operation Desert Storm. And in contrast, though they received most of the press attention, the 700 Cubans on Grenada killed just one or two Americans.

— Seth Owen


Adkin, Mark. Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada. London: Leo Cooper Books, 1989.

Bolger, Damel P. Americans at War Novato Calif., Presidio Press 1988

Russell. Lee & M Albert Mendez Grenada 1983 Osprey Men at Arms Series No. 139 London Osprey 1985