Friday, August 29, 2008

Forged in Fire -- quick review

The first block wargame was Quebec 1759 way back in 1972, so the type isn't much younger than the hex-and-counter style of wargame. But for a long time block wargames were pretty much the exclusive domain of its originator, eventually known as Columbia Games. In fact. it's really only since the rise of the Eurogames in 1995 that other game makers seemed to take a fresh look at the potential of block wargames and in the last decade or so Columbia has finally gotten some company.

Most of the other publishers who have experimented with the block games have tried to put their own stamp on the genre, so their games, while bearing some resemblance to Columbia's line have also developed some distinctive elements. Examples include GMT's Europe Engulfed and Simmons Games' Bonaparte at Marengo.

One company that has done both is Worthington Games, which has some wooden block designs that owe little to the typical Columbia game such as Clash of a Continent, but has also been willing to publish some titles that are classic Columbia. One of these is Forged in Fire, a strategic-level game that depicts the Peninsular Campaign of the American Civil War.

The game even resembles the usual Columbia physical presentation, with stickers on wooden blocks, heavy card-stock maps and a plain, but sturdy corrugated box with a sleeve.

The game play also strongly resembles the traditional Columbia approach for black powder era subjects, with point-to-point movement and a tactical battle board for resolving battles, which are fought over multiple rounds. The game system makes functional distinctions between infantry, cavalry and artillery. Instead of dividing the tactical battlefield into a left, center and right Forged in Fire's battle is divided into four sectors, a right center and left center with flanks on either side. Infantry units and leaders can use the flanking sectors in an attempt to game a favorable position against the center positions.

Like most block games, the number of units that can be moved in a turn is limited by the rules. In this case, activating a corps or independent unit costs a command point or two, depending on the kind of move. Each side is guaranteed three commands and can roll for a fourth, with success depending on the quality of the overall commander. Generally the CSA has the edge here, with Johnston better than McClellan and Lee better than both.

The game includes some atypical and special rules to reflect the particular situation. Supply plays an important role, especially for the federal army. Cavalry units have some special screening and scouting powers, but can't take part in ordinary battles. The CSS Virginia is represented and complicates Union amphibious movement until it's sunk or Norfolk is captured. The Union forces have a powerful tool with amphibious movement, which makes it impossible for the Rebels to make a permanent stand anyplace short of the fortified lines of Richmond.

The key to the game is the McClellan Confidence track, which represents Little Mac's own confidence and the confidence that Lincoln had in the American Napoleon. Success, represented by winning battles and closing on Richmond increases Mac' confidence and makes it easier for him to roll to increase the number of commands he has available. If successful enough he can be better than Lee. On the other hand, reverses tend to depress Mac's confidence, and, being Mac, it's easier to depress him than cheer him up.

Victory conditions depend on capturing Richmond and/or pushing Mac's confidence level up or down to specific levels.

Besides a grand campaign game, there are three shorter scenarios covering the initial Union advance, Johnston's attack at Fair Oaks and the start of Lee's Seven Days Battles campaign that finally drove the Union army away from Richmond.

Overall, if you like Columbia's block games you're going to like Forged in Fire. It's very similar in style and approach, but deals with a topic at a scale that Columbia hasn't tried yet, so it still breaks some new ground.

It's worth nothing that the last couple of games from Worthington have taken a more Euro style of presentation, so the company may be leaving its Columbia-inspired style behind.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Game Review -- Chaco

Two ill-equipped, poorly-supplied, barely trained Third-World armies scrapping over a wasteland few have ever heard of using World War I tactics.

It doesn’t sound like a very promising topic for a “top 10” placement on the geek list. No surprise, it isn't. Chaco is a hard-core hex-and-counter wargame about this little-known, if very bloody, interwar conflict in South America between Bolivia and Paraguay. It was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 12 in 1991.

Covering the entire war from September 1932 to June 1935 in monthly turns and 15 kilometer hexes, the two armies use units of roughly battalion size to fight over the Gran Chaco desert. The game uses fairly conventional hex-and-counter wargame mechanics, for example the units use NATO-style unit symbols and have the usual attack factor-defense factor-movement allowance numerical layout across the bottom. The Bolivian units are olive green with blue inside the unit boxes. The army of Paraguay is shown in light brown, with green inside the unit symbols. The 16-page rulebook describes a moderate to high complexity game by wargame standards.

Playing time for the entire campaign is lengthy, probably taking more than one sitting, although there are several shorter scenarios covering portions of the war.

The turn sequence is interactive with the non-phasing player having a reaction movement and combat capability during the phasing player’s turn. There are extensive supply rules, rules for fortifications and command control. With just a handful of trucks, tanks and planes available, neither side has much capability for mobile warfare, especially given limited supply. Water is critical and most of the fighting will revolve around one of the few well sites on the map.

Combat is odd-based, but losses are taken as percentages of the troops engaged, requiring some calculation.

The victory conditions are based on victory points for territory captured, eliminated units and a few other game events. Generally speaking the Bolivians will tend to have the advantage of numbers and somewhat better equipment (they have a few tanks and more planes) while the Paraguayans have superior leadership.

The game only takes about 15 minutes to set up as neither side begins with many units on the map.

The entire effect is a game that will only appeal to the most grognard of grognard wargamers. The kind of player who enjoys detailed mechanics simulating in considerable detail the ins and outs of a historical campaign. Most other players will probably find the game tedious and will have a hard time caring too much about the topic. Unlike many Command Magazine games, this system did not inspire any similar designs and the game was never all that popular with the readership.

Recommendations(Conditional No) For Wargamers: As noted before, this is a game for real aficionados who are really into the history behind a simulation and not too concerned about sizzle or competitiveness.

(No) For Collectors: No special value as a collectible.

(No) For Euro gamers: Absolutely not.For more reviews check out my game blog at

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Axis & Allies Miniatures -- a comprehensive review

Few game announcements excited me more than when I heard Hasbro (in the guise of Avalon Hill) was actually going to produce a line of historical military miniatures.

I mean, it was a cool idea anyway, but the fact that the second-biggest toy maker in the U.S. (and probably its biggest gamemaker) would produce a line of historically accurate military miniatures seemed to me to be an auspicious sign for the health of the wargame hobby. I trace my own heightened interest in military topics and wargames in particular to the old Milton Bradley (now also part of Hasbro) to the American Heritage line of simple history-themed games such as Broadside, Battle-Cry, Hit the Beach and especially Dogfight! These definitely prepped me for the more serious wargames such as Midway and Stalingrad that I discovered a few years later. You can't start with ASL.

In an age when orcs, clone troopers and superheroes get all the shelf space it was gratifying to think that at least some folks would have the opportunity to have their interest piqued in history by coming across Shermans, Panthers and T-34s. I was under no illusions that historical military minis would really compete for attention with sci fi or fantasy, but I thought it might hold its own. And apparently it has, because A&A minis is on it's seventh set with an eighth in the wings -- as well as two sets for the similar A&A Naval Miniatures. So it outlasted DreamBlade.

Perhaps the biggest potential turn-off for many potential players is that it's a "collectible" game, in the same way as Magic:The Gathering or DreamBlade. This format irritates many players, although I think several factors mitigate the effect here.

First, the collectibility isn't extreme. The number of different models is not so high that a determined collector can't accumulate all of them fairly easy. There are no ultra-rare models, no "chase" models and no convention exclusive models so a complete collection is available to anyone willing to make the effort and spend the money.

Second, there are no overpowering combos or units. Because the game is historically based it's constrained by the laws of physics and historical realities. There are pieces that are more cost-effective than others and some small rules adjustments have been necessary (I'll discuss that more later) but even a Veteran Tiger tank or group of Rangers is not necessarily a game winner alone. On the ground tactics matter at least as much as which pieces you have in your army and there are always countermeasures available. Even the Veteran Tiger tank can be taken out any number of ways.

Thirdly, the collectible aspect of the game has the subtle advantage of preventing staleness and introducing players to possibilities they might not otherwise consider. Unconstrained, players will predictably stock up of Panthers, King Tigers and Stalin tanks. Anybody who's played traditional military miniatures games knows that the SS or Napoleon's Old Guard show up on far more table top battlefields than historical facts would support. The collectible aspect of the game means that Hungarian Turan tanks and Japanese-allied Azad Hind infantry and other obscure but fascinating aspects of World War II can get some attention.

The point of the game is having some rules to play with for your collection of miniatures, so it's appropriate to consider the miniatures first.

Overall, considering that they are mass produced by a toy company rather than a model maker, the general quality is pretty good, with a few exceptions which I'll discuss later.

The paint jobs are adequate, with a lot of wash used to bring out mold details, although most models don't have a lot of the fine detailing a modeler would probably include. They are very functional wargaming models, however, made out of sturdy plastic that holds up well under wargame table conditions.

Axis & Allies: Miniatures can be considered to have come out in two groups. The first group of sets includes the Base Set, with 48 different models, and Set II, D-Day, Contested Skies and Reserves sets. These first five sets were designed around the same time and only some limited changes could be made between the sets.

The biggest problem with the first group was the inconsistent scaling of the vehicles. While billed as "15mm" miniatures, in fact most of the vehicle and heavy weapons were somewhat undersized. While not a problem for game play, it did disappoint many purchasers who had expected the models to be compatible with other 15mm models. Instead, most of the A&A vehicles seemed to be about 10-15% too small.

The troops, on the other hand, did seem to be properly scaled for the most part. As plastic models they tended to be "lighter" framed than metal miniatures, but this is pretty much universal and speaks more to the limitations of metal molds than it does to any problems with A&A, which is actually more anatomically accurate.

Another irritant in the first sets was that there were some quality control problems. It seemed like each set had at least one really awful model. In the Base Set, for example, there was the mis-scaled M18 Hellcat tank Destroyer, which was the one model that actually was close to true 15mm scale, but was too wide. Set II had the worst sculpted model of the entire line, the 3-inch M3 antitank gun, which was a mishapen lump of plastic closer in size to a machinegun than an artillery piece and too embarrassingly bad to actually place on a table. And who can forget the infamous "MesserSpit" of the D-Day set, where a factory error resulted in the Spitfire being represented by a Me-109 sculpt painted in Spitfire colors.

Despite these missteps, however, the overall line succeeded. Many of the models were really nice, such as the IS-2, the King Tiger and most of the planes. There were a lot of really interesting units as well, such as the Higgins Boat, the DD Sherman and the AVRE.

Hasbro corrected many of the biggest issues with the second group of sets, which started with the "1939-1945" set and continued with "North Africa". An Eastern Front-themed set is coming out shortly and at least one more set is committed for. The newer sets are coming out at a slower pace than the first sets, but each now had 60 different models instead of the 45 of earlier sets, so coming out more slowly would help collectors keep up.

Most of the infantry and heavy weapons sculpts are re-issues of pieces seen in the earlier sets. While the heavy weapons have at least as many scaling issues as thew vehicles did, there's been few complaints on that score and it doesn't seem to bother players as much. The planes, which are not 15mm scale, are also unchanged except for paint schemes.

The most noticeable change is with the vehicles, which have all been redone in a truer 15mm scale and are now about as compatible with other 15mm scales as any other. (There are always slight difference between manufacturers anyway, and rarely perfect compatibility) Hasbro took advantage of the larger sculpts to improve the paint schemes as well, and the new models are really quite nice for the most part with more detailing touches. Some models have been corrected as well, notably the M4 Sherman, which has had the turret moved forward a bit into its proper spot.

So what about the rules?

First, it's important to note that you don't have to use the Axis & Allies: Miniatures rules to get full use of the figures and models. Unlike games such as HeroClix or DreamBlade, there's no game-specific information cluttering up the bases. Vehicles have no bases and the troop and weapon unit bases are plain. so the pieces can easily be used with any suitable rules. Plenty of people use the minis to play Flames of War, for example, at a considerable savings in time and money over FOW minis.

But if you do use the A&A rules, you have a nice, simple tactical wargame that captures a lot of the flavor of World War II tactical combat without a lot of fuss.

The game includes the usual sorts of terrain effects and turn sequencing seen in tactical wargames over the last 30+ years.

Combat is handled somewhat unusually, however, compared to most tactical wargames. There are no combat results tables or the like. Instead each unit is rated for its ability to fire on vehicle or "soldier" (all non-vehicular) targets at close (0-1 hex) medium ( 2-4 hex) or long (5-8 hex) range. For example, an M4A1 Sherman has a rating of "14" against tanks at close range or a "6" against soldiers. That rating entitles the firing unit to roll that many dice, so the Sherman can roll 14 dice when firing at a Panzer IV at closer range. Every roll of 4 or higher is a "success" and the number of successes is compared to the target's defense. In the case of the Panzer IV, if it's fired at from the front it's defense is a 5, lower from the flank. If the number of successes is less than the defense, nothing happens. If it exactly matches the defense then it scores one "hit." If it exceeds the defense it scores two hits and if it doubles the defense it scores three hits.

Hits in the same phase accumulate. The first hit disrupts a unit, reducing it's defense against subsequent attacks and stopping it from moving. It also reduces the effectiveness of the disrupted unit's attacks by one, so only 5s and 6s count as successes when it fires. A second hit damages a vehicle, which basically means it suffers the effect of disruption for attack and defense permanently and cuts its movement in half. A second hit on a soldier unit destroy it, as does the third hit on a vehicle unit.

Most units have some sort of special ability. Some of these are historical, such as the Tiger's "Extended Range 10" which lest it fire out to a range of 10 hexes with its large and powerful gun. Some are not strictly historical, but do add some color to the game, such as the Italian soldier's "Bravado 2" ability, which lets him roll two extra attack dice so long as his side hasn't lost any units.

The Expanded Rules that came out simultaneously with the second group of sets made a few minor changes to the game, but did make some changes to the standard battle scenarios and the point system used to draft armies. The game also switched from the 2-inch hexes used on early maps to 3-inch hexes in order to fit the larger vehicle models.

Axis & Allies: Miniatures can be played in two formats, according to the interests of its fan base.

It can be played as a regular scenario-based tactical World War II miniatures game, similar to ASL or Tide of Iron. There are dozens of scenarios on the Hasbro Web site and the Expanded Rules includes 8 scenarios. These provide many fascinating historically inspired battles to fight. The drawback to this format is that many players, especially beginning ones, will not have all the units they need, unlike a game such as Tide of Iron which has everything you need in the box. Many of the early scenarios were criticized for having too many of the Rare units (one required 10 copies of the same rare tank!) but the more recent ones seem to be more careful not to require more than one or two of a particular model.

The other common way to play is tournament style, with each player having so many points available to construct an army using the point values printed on the card. The difficulty with this format is that the battles tend toward straightforward slug fests and revolve more around the metagame of army construction than good tactics. This problem is endemic to collectible games, and A&A is not immune. Some pretty odd or impossible historical armies can be seen on battlefield in this format.

The game rules provide some ways to mitigate this. Players can agree on historical army limits so you don't have German and Japanese troops in the same Axis army or date limits so you have to use the less-powerful early war weapons. If all the units in the army are from the same nationality you can use more points, which provides some incentive to use some of the less effective armies like the French, Romanians or Nationalist Chinese. The Expanded rules also added "formations" which are pre-set "platoons" that allow a player to field set units at a lower cost and provide other advantages.

As an expandable, collectible and scenario-based wargame, there's really no limit on the playability. The collectibility means the game is more expensive to get into than typical boardgames, but if compared to otter miniatures-absed game the game is not very expensive at all, especially considering that the models are pre-painted and ready to play from the box. For the cost of one unpainted traditional tank model you can get a booster with one or two vehicles and three or four soldier units.

Overall, I think it's a good value. I've built up an extensive inventory of models that I expect will be useful for years of play, while also being a nice collection.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bonaparte at Marengo -- a review

One of the hardest mental challenges there can be is to abandon our pre-conceived notions about something and look at a topic from the ground up.

Sure, generally it's best to build on the achievements of those who have gone before, but every so often someone needs to challenge the status quo.

The vast majority of wargames build on the foundation laid by Charles Roberts a half-century ago, but now and then somebody surveys a new lot.

Bonaparte at Marengo is a game like that.

Inside a standard bookcase-style box is a handsome mounted mapboard, about 80 wooden red and blue blocks, two copies of the rules and three plastic markers. That's it. From these minimal -- although high-quality -- materials designer Bowen Simmons crafts an elegant and absorbing strategy wargame. There are no dice, no charts or stacks of markers.

But there is a "look." Players who want the full story can check out Simmons' excellent Web site at but the story, briefly, is this: Inspired by old battle maps that showed the armies deployed in red and blue lines, Simmons wanted to capture the same look in a wargame. Achieving this goal meant rethinking wargaming conventions from the ground up.

The units are depicted as elongated wooden blocks which can be placed on their sides for fog of war. Unlike other block games, which rotated their square blocks in order to show losses, in BaM losses are shown by replacing a block with a weaker one, but the overall effect is similar.

The heart of the game system is the map, and the innovative way movement on the map is handled. The board is divided into "locales" depending upon the lay of the land, and each locale has several "approaches." Pieces can be in "reserve" in a locale or occupying one of its "approaches."

If opposing pieces are in facing approaches there can be an "assault," which is usually very costly for the attacker, but may be the only way to carry a position. Most losses come from "maneuver attacks" which are attempts to move into a locale occupied by the enemy. Pieces in reserve can move to "block" the approach, perhaps setting up an assault in a subsequent turn, but if the enemy retreats or doesn't have a reserve unit available for blocking duties the maneuver attacking piece can move into the locale, forcing a retreat. Cavalry units in reserve can retreat without loss but all other pieces will take losses. Outmaneuvering the other side is therefore the focus of activities, supported by occasional assaults as needed.

Each side is limited in how many units it can move. Each army has three "commands" available. A command is expended to move one or more units that follow the exact same path. Primary roads provide additional "free" commands for units that move along the roads.

Every strength point lost translates into a one-point drop in morale. If an army's morale drops to Zero it will generally lose. If neither army's morale drops to zero -- or both do -- then the game is decided on territorial victory conditions, but this rarely happens.

The entire feel of the game is very chess-like, in my opinion. It's very much move and counter move. There are many little intricacies and subtleties in the rules.

It's not a complex game, but it can be a hard one to grasp. In part this is because it's so different from any other wargame that previous wargame experience is of little help. In part it's also because of the minimalist style of Simmons' rules. Many key aspects of play are implied by the rules rather than spelled out explicitly. Since the game came out the forums have been filled with questions. In almost all cases the answers are there, in the rules, but aren't always obvious.

It's one of the most absorbing and intriguing wargames I've ever played and tops my list of favorites. It does have a few shortcomings, however.

Play does tend to be stereotyped. The general line of play involves the Austrian army gathering in front of Marengo and forcing a breach in the French line, followed by a retreat and a final showdown near the victory objective stars on the board edge. If the French player times it right the Austrian player will fall a turn or loss factor short of victory. Games often come down to a 1-point or 1-turn margin.

This wouldn't be a big problem, except that it also means that the historical course of the battle is rarely replicated. The French have no incentive to launch a late-game counter attack to break the morale of the Austrian army and salvage a victory from defeat. If the French are in a position to launch such a counterattack they're almost certainly also in a position to win the game anyway by standing on the defense.

Simmons Games later title Napoleon's Triumph uses a similar system that succeeds in being closer to history while also providing many more strategic options and is, overall, a better game that BaM, but BaM does deserve credit for being first.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Flying Colors and command and control in the Age of Sail

Flying Colors is GMT's attempt to make a workable two-player fleet action game for the age of sail.

There can be little doubt that the most satisfying way to play any tactical naval game is with as many individual ship captains as possible. Even in the data-linked modern era of Harpoon or the TBS-equipped World War II era it's better to have each ship controlled by one player, or at least have each player control no more than a couple of ships. It's the best way to explore the command and control issues involved.

But you can't always get a bunch of folks together for a multi-commander game of Close Action, so Flying Colors attempts to mimic the command and control of age of sail fleets with two rules. One is a simple command span rule, which lets players move ships freely so long as they are within the command range of a leader. This is a tried-and-true wargame rule. Except for a few rare and talented folks (such as Nelson, Hood and de Grasse) this range is inadequate to control the whole fleet. That brings in the second rule, formations, which allows an admiral to command all the ships that face the same direction and are within 4 hexes of at least one other ship in the same formation. This would seem to encourage historical formations. Is it enough? I haven't played enough to judge, but I'd be interested in hearing from those who have.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Monsters Menace America -- a wargamer's view

I have a bit of a split personality when it comes to wargames. While my main interest is and has always been historical wargames, I have an undeniable weakness for parody and humor games as well.

So, as a long-time owner of Nuclear War and The Awful Green Things From Outer Space, it's probably no surprise that I have a copy of Monsters Menace America. I probably would have picked up the AH version (Monsters Ravage America) except that its publication occurred during a lull in my game-buying. Still, I think I like the newer version anyway as its production values seem more attractive to non-wargamers and it looks like it stripped out some of the "fiddly" elements.

The game uses an idea occasionally seen before in wargaming to handle the problem of asymmetric situations by having each player play both sides, In this case, each player controls one monster but also controls one branch of the Armed services trying to stop the rampage (Army, Navy, Marine Corps of Air Force). This cleverly gives everyone plenty to do and especially lets everyone have fun stomping around the country as a monster.

The game is very Hollywood cinematic in its theme, and as a matter of fact, Hollywood is one of the places monster can end up. Monsters gather strength by chomping cities and accumulating powers through mutation, while the armed forces try to chip away at the monsters strength. Once enough place have been stomped the game moves into a final showdown phase where the monsters duel until one remains standing.

There's been a fair amount of criticism about this final showdown, with many players suggesting the first part of the game hardly matters and everything comes down to the how the dice fall at the end. To the extent that winning through skill is important to a player, I think they will tend to dislike this mechanism. On the other hand, I can't help that feel that sort of serious player really isn't the target audience here. All parody games seem to have a high random element to them and have rules that are simply unfair. Just the other day I was eliminated from a game of Nuclear War during the opening play of Secrets/Top Secrets before I even ha d chance to play a card. Players of Munchkin know that player skill is no match for lucky cards and the fate of the stalwart crew of the Znutar in Awful Green Things depends an awful lot on the draw of weapon chits.

No, for a parody game the point is to have fun during play, have many entertaining twists and turns, hopefully with plenty of opportunity for mocking, jokes and sound effects. Final victory is just an excuse to end the game at some point and start a new one. One aspect that's common in these sort of games is a short playing time. At 90 minutes, Monsters Menace America is at the longish end of the scale for this sort of thing, but still short enough that a group can plan to play at least twice in an evening.

There's no player elimination, so everybody gets a chance to play the whole game and the final showdown will only take a few minutes, so even the losers don't have too much down time.

There are different strategies available, so players are not merely pawns at the mercy of the dice, and players can affect their final chances, so it's not just Snakes and Ladders. But it's also not chess or Bonaparte at Marengo, either. Luck will play a major role in the outcome. Personally, though, I think just playing with Zorb of Toxicor is cool enough that it really doesn't matter if they get thwacked in the final showdown.

It's a good game for what it is. You don't go to watch Godzilla expecting high concept, so you shouldn't expect it in MMA, either.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friedrich -- Review and comment

Friedrich is a historical wargame.

Friedrich is a historically themed euro game.

Can both statements be true?

Histogames' Friedrich, designed by Richard Sivel is clearly a wargame. Markers representing generals, armies and supply trains march back and forth across a map of eighteenth century central Europe fighting battles, conquering territory and enduring historical events.

Friedrich is clearly a themed euro game. The heart of the game system is a clever combat system using decks of standard playing cards (minus Aces) keyed to locations on the map. This system provides a unique and interesting way to resolve conflicts between the players with a lot of strategy -- but it bears no discernible relationship to actual battle tactics or conditions.

A note on the cards: While bearing Friedrich-specific artwork, the cards are basically a standard deck, less the aces.

Freidrich is a really different game design and one that's hard to pigeonhole. While it includes a handful of elements that have been seen before such as point-to-point movement and random event cards, it bears little resemblance to wargames designed over the last 50 years in the Charles Roberts tradition. There are no zones of control, hexes, squares, CRTs, blocks or even dice.

Like many euros it seems to be designed around an interesting game mechanic, in this case an elegant card-based combat system keyed to map areas that provides tremendous scope for bluff, strategy and resource management with a minimum of fuss. I couldn't come up with any explanation for how that mechanic might related to actual battlefield events except in the most tenuous and abstract way.

Another euro-like touch is the provision for players to take over minor powers as their major powers drop out of the war against Frederick. While there's country elimination in Friedrich, there's no player elimination. I'm not sure how often players parlay a minor power into a winning position, but there's at least the prospect.

It's a very charming game design, overall, whether considered as a wargame or a euro game.

Twilight's Last Gleaming 2 -- review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 21, 2008

BattleLore sold to Fantasy Flight Games

Pretty big news for BattleLore fans:

Crusader Rex review

Crusader Rex is in the family of Columbia Games titles related to its very popular Hammer of the Scots. There are enough significant differences between the two that you couldn't call them sister games or part of a system, but they're at least cousins.

This is hardly surprising, as lead CR designer Jerry Taylor also designed HOTS. It's not a straight copy however. While both games are set in the Middle Ages, there are important differences in geography, culture and the historical situation that result in a very different game environment. Whee the games are most similar is in basic game procedures for movement and combat.

Crusader Rex is a block wargame, which means it uses wooden blocks to represent the combat units. The blocks are usually on the map placed on edge, so the owning player can see the current strength while the opposing player simply sees a block, Stratego-style. This provides a lot of scope for bluff and fog of war, especially because the strength of the opposing pieces can vary from 1 to 4 in combat value, depending upon which edge of the block is uppermost.

This elegant combination of fog-of-war and step reduction is the distinguishing feature of the block wargame genre and Crusader Rex makes good use of it. The combat ability of the block can vary considerably and both armies have much more territory to cover than troops available t do it properly, so there's a lot of scope for strategy.

The engine driving the game turn are event and move cards. Each turn six are dealt to every player and players use those cards to order moves by 1-3 groups of units from point to point. When friendly and opposing units occupy the same place there's a battle (or sometimes a siege) that involves up to four rounds of combat where units battle against each other.

There are significant differences between the rules in their currents state and the rules originally included with the game. Columbia Games is a big believer in "living rules" and the most up-to-date version of the rules for every game is available online as a free download. While overall a benefit to the player, one sometimes wonders if game companies using this policy aren't tempted to skimp a bit on the playtesting, figuring they can always fix it later.

In the case of Crusader Rex there have been major changes in the rules, especially as they relate to Saracen deployment. For both sides the majority of units are now permanently eliminated from the game when they lose their last step, which is a change from before when only select elite units were gone for good. The number of "nomad" Saracen units drawn at start has also been changed-- now 4, before it was 6.

These adjustments seems to have solved some early play balance problems, so they are welcome, although it would have been better to have discovered it before.

These changes also suggest how tenuous many design decisions may be in wargames. Many key game elements come about purely for gameplay reasons, not because of history. There may be good historical reasons to make units permanently eliminated or subject to being drawn again, but evidently they didn't come into play here. History-minded players should keep in mind the compromises that game play may require before getting too dogm,atic about what's "realistic" in a wargame and what is not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

For Honor and Glory -- a review

For Honor and Glory is the War of 1812 edition of Worthington Games' Wars for America series.

These games have more than a passing resemblance to Borg';s Commands & Colors system.

Some of the differences are really just in style. For example, In FHAG firing units roll the same number of dice no matter what the range is, but with a reduced chance of hitting per die, in C&C the chance of hitting remains the same, but longer range fire uses fewer dice. The end results are similar.

Other differences are more substantive. While both game systems limit the number of units a player can order. C&C does it using cards that are usually keyed to a portion of the battlefield, while FHAG uses a die roll that determines how many "Action Points" the player has to activate units, but those action points can be spent anywhere on the map.

In both games the physical presentation of the units serves to disguise their real nature, which is as entities which firing and move characteristics varying by type and possessing the ability to take 1-4 hits.

The game is fairly straightforward and of low complexity. During his turn a player uses action points to activate units to perform movement and combat activities. Most activities cost one AP, although there are a few special actions such as close combat that cost 2 AP. All combat is handled the same way. The attacking unit rolls dice (generally three) with hits occurring depending on the range and the type of firing unit. For example, an artillery unit firing at an adjacent unit hits on a 4,5 or 6. An infantry unit firing at a range of 2 hexes hits only on a 6. Terrain effects can reduce the hit numbers and some have movement effects.

Like the C&C games, FHAG is a scenario based system with battlefields constructed using terrain tiles added to the plain map. Victory is usually measured in VPs, with one VP earned per eliminated unit (similar to the "flags" of C&C-series games) or for holding terrain (also similar to many C&C games)

Physically the game is roughly similar in presentation to the Columbia Games standard, which is usually considered pretty good by wargame standards, although it's worth noting that Worthington Games has raised the bar significantly with its latest War of America series game (Hold the Line) which is made in Germany to euro standards.

For Honor and Glory includes four card-stock maps (two land and two ocean) that create a 9 by 13 (land) or 11 by 13 (sea) playing surface, although some battles modify this further. Terrain tiles are a thin card stock.

The rules and scenarios are contained in three booklets, all printed in two colors.

The playing pieces are wooden block with stickers affixed. Unlike Columbia-style block games, the wooden blocks are not used to create any fog-of-war, instead they basically create thick, sturdy counters. Pieces are used laying flat on the map and are turned around and/or flipped to represent step losses.

Units are mostly regular and elite infantry, with militia, light infantry, marines, Indian warbands, artillery and dragoons making an appearance.

There are 10 well-chosen scenarios depicting most of the war's major battles and providing a good mix of different game experiences.

The game also includes a naval system and 11 scenarios for that, but this portion of the system is definitely very simplistic. Ships are rated for firepower and ability to take hits. Boarding actions are fought between marine contingents, also with a hit-based combat system. Movement is ordered using order markers (specially marked regular infantry units doing double-duty) with wind direction having a minor effect. The naval scenarios comprise a mix of single-ship duels, some 2- and 3-1 gang ups and two squadron actions based on two of the big Lake battles (Erie and Champlain).

Overall I rate For Honor and Glory as a success as land warfare game, prov ding an entertaining game while being reasonably historically accurate . The naval game is too simplistic, however.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Target: Arnhem, the difficult subject

Target: Arnhem is an interesting little game, although some who have played it more than I have suggest it has some balance issues.

The larger problem facing Target: Arnhem and other games on the topic is something I'll call "scriptedness," for lack of a better term.

It's a pretty common problem in wargames, actually, and perhaps inherently so.

"Scriptedness" occurs when a game follows certain well-trodden paths regardless of player decisions. An example is chess openings, in which some clearly defined opening lines tend to dominate play and many potential openings are never used by anyone other than novices. The creative aspects emerge in the middle game as players depart from the openings.

In wargames the openings and even middle and end games can be much more explicitly seen as scripted. Sometimes the rules explicitly require certain activities. It's very common for there to be defined setups and often events such as weather and reinforcement occurs on a set schedule. Usually this straight jacket is defended on historical grounds, although this is also the source of the dilemma.

The actual, historical participants, of course, were unaware of any "script" for their campaign. The impenetrable fog of the future meant they were unaware of the proper lines of play. The fog of war meant they had no way of knowing the enemy OB or reinforcement schedule. Indeed, details of their own OB and reinforcements were often lacking.

A more "realistic" portrayal of the action might give players many options to choose from. The problem here, of course, is that players have the benefit of hindsight and a design would have to include many events that didn't occur and possible paths not taken in order to capture the environment faced by the actual participants.

The rub is player acceptance. A game that departs too dramatically from the historical "script," especially in a well-known battle such as Arnhem, will probably be criticized as unrealistic.

And it very well might be, unless the designer goes to great lengths to depict the reasons why certain decisions were made. For example, in the Arnhem operation, given a choice, player might opt to use one of the American airborne divisions for the Arnhem bridge drop and would probably make sure that drop, of all of them, gets sufficient airlift to be completed in one day.

But there were good political and operational reasons for the historical drop plan and those need to be reflected if any change is allowed. And, of course, the Allies were ignorant of the deployment of the SS units near Arnhem, while the player is not.

Target: Arnhem has a defined set-up for the German forces, but gives the Allies the choice on where to drop their units, although when they are dropped follows the historical schedule. Because it's a simple game, there are no rules that might reflect the nuances behind the historical choices, so it's an open question whether giving the Allies this much choice is appropriate.

It does make Target: Arnhem a bit less scripted than many other games on the topic, although it's still very scripted by most other standards.

Unless players are willing to be more open-minded about the potential lines history could follow, "scriptedness" is likely to continue being a common characteristic in wargames, especially wargames about Market-Garden.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pimp: The Backhanding, funny, but who can I play it with?

I have a weakness for parody games, having several in my collection.

Most of my parody games are based on pretty grim subjects, if you think about it.

Nuclear War, of course, is perhaps the grimmest of all, but Junta isn't exactly a walk in the park, with street rioters being gunned down and returning politicos facing the firing squad. The entire Munchkin series parodies the looting and murdering ways of RPG adventure parties, while The Awful Green Things From Outer Space sees the crew of a spaceship fighting for their lives in a battle where even a victory will undoubtedly be a tragedy.

Bur none of those gives me as much pause as Pimp: The Backhanding. It's really the kind of game that you can only play in the right company, but I'm not sure I keep that sort of company any more. Gee, if only I had some college dorm buddies to play it with. Sadly, the game comes out about a quarter-century too late for that. Looks like shelf-bait from here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lost Worlds -- OK, I broke down and bought it

I've toyed with picking up a couple of Lost Worlds books for years, literally.

I was a big fan of Aces of Aces and eventually got the whole set of those, including all the World War I books, the Wingleader World War II set and the Jet Eagles modern set.

I once had the Bounty Hunter book, but somewhere along the line that got misplaced.

Anyway, I've long thought about picking up a couple of Lost Worlds books but never did, until this weekend at the World Boardgame Championships when I stopped by the Flying Buffalo Inc. book. FBI and I go back a long way as well, I was an early player of Rick Loomis' computer moderated Play By Mail games of Nuclear Destruction and Battle Plan and have picked up all the Nuclear War series of games, too,

(Later, while waiting for the Nuclear War tournament to start, Loomis told us at the table about how he had tracked down Nuclear War design Doug Malewicki in 1975 using a Los Angeles phone book in order to buy the rights. To this day Malewicki gets royalty checks from Loomis.)

So when I spotted the Azlana Darque book I was very tempted. There's nothing like a hot babe with a broadsword to catch the eye!

Apparently Ms. Darque is a model with her own Web Site and, judging from a quick look at the site, somewhat of a free-spirited sort, unsurprisingly. Here's her site:

Still, you have to have two books in order to play the game and most of the stuff I'd already seen before and had passed up buying many times in the past.

But there was another new (2007) book in the pile and that sealed the deal.

There was Zocchi the Magician!

Now Lou Zocchi was one of the very first "names" I learned in the hobby, back around 1969 or 1970. One of my first non-Avalon Hill "war games" was a Star Trek-based miniatures-style starship combat game he published. It was a good game for the time and the miniatures were very good as well.

Zocchi was also famous for his multi-sided dice, and patented a design for a 100-sided die, too. So it's no surprise that his weapon of choice is a dice bag filled with magic dice.
Well, "The Ancient One" was even harder to pass by than the Babe With Broadsword (actually a two-handed sword, but I prefer alliteration over accuracy in this case), so I finally bought a coy of Lost Worlds more than two decades after I first became aware of it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

WBC report: First impressions

Well, first off, I didn't win any trophies -- not that I expected I would.

I really hoped to get a chance to play some stuff that I've been wanting to play and haven't gotten to for various reasons. In that quest the WBC was an enormous success. I got to play Acquire, Napoleon's Triumph, Memoir '44, Battle Line, Nuclear War, For Honor & Glory and Axis & Allies: War at Sea. I only managed to eke out a victory in one game of Battle Line and the game of For Honor & Glory.

I was close to a second victory in Battle Line but my winning claim was thwarted by two consecutive Tactics Cards (they were using the rule that you could only claim at the beginning of your turn, giving the opponent a chance to affect the outcome with a Tactics card.)

Napoleon's Triumph as a learning game and I see today on re-reading the rules that we played at least one key rule wrong, so that loss can be chalked up to experience. A lack of experience also pretty much doomed my chances in both Memoir '44 and Acquire, but in both cases I learned a lot from the defeats and feel my play will improve.

The Axis & Allies battle was pretty close but I can definitely attribute my defeat to poor unit selection. Note to self: Never buy PT Boats!

The Nuclear War tournament was surprisingly frustrating. The game is, by nature, a real crap shoot anyway, but I definitely got more than my share of crappy card draws and other bad fortune. I played four rounds and in the first three I was either the first or second player eliminated. In the first round my initial population draw (seven cards in a 5 player game) netted me less than 20 million people! Needless to say it didn't take long for that to go away. The third game was the worst one, as I didn't even get to play a turn. I got hit with one of those 25 million people Top Secret cards and I had exactly 25 million and was out before I got to even play a card! The tournament was saved from being a totally sour experience by the fourth game where I managed to be battling for the win and fell victim to a propaganda card during a brief interlude of peace.

The con, as always, was well organized. By this time Greenwood's got a workable system in place and many of the attendees have been there enough times that everyone pretty much knows what to do. The same veteran faces were there. Damn! We're all getting old.

There's definitely a changing of the guard under way, though. The euro-style games are becoming ever more prominent and wargames less so, although there are still quite a few wargames in evidence.

The wargaming crowd has pretty much moved en masse to the card-driven style games first made popular by We The People, although some of the most popular games of that genre are not even wargames -- Twilight Struggle and Making of the President 1960!

The other real growth area among players was Borg's Commands & Colors system, which saw well-attended competition of all four of his games (C&C: Ancients, Battle Cry, Memoir '44 and BattleLore).

It still made me feel good to see some old standbys still going pretty strong and when I got there Friday the final rounds of such stalwarts as Waterloo, Afrika Korps, PanzerBlitz and Battle of the Bulge '81 were wrapping up.

There really wasn't a lot of buzz about new games as far as I could see, although there were a few new ones out. I think it's fair to say that the Hot New Game of the convention was the one that was barely there. There was a demo copy of Agricola in the Open Gaming tent that got constant play and I spotted a couple of other copies that folks had managed to get, although at least one of those was the Germ edition. Z-Man games was there and I overheard them being asked about the status of the game -- completely sold out -- with a new shipment expected later this summer. All their copies were sent out in preorders and they had none left to sell at the WBC.

It does look like an interesting game, in the euro way. As to whether it will live up to the hype and be the new Tigris and Euphrates, Puerto Rico or Ra I can't say. On the other hand, all those games' events were well populated, along with the Ticket to Ride and the other titles.

The rise of the Euro has also affected the demographics of the attendees substantially. While there are plenty of us classic old wargamer types still wandering about -- bellies and beards included -- the WBC now also features notable numbers of younger and female players as well. While it's nice, of course, to see more women gamers, the most hopeful sign of the WBC for me was the large number of younger players. Many are, no doubt, attending because of gamer Dad, but overheard snippets of conversation in the cafe, bar, corridors and game rooms showed that at least some of the attendees are members of gaming groups that are sprouting up around the country. At least some are probably getting organized using the Meetup Internet services.

Overall, it was a good time. My goal next year is to win a little more, though.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Heading off to the WBC

I'm heading to the World Boardgame Championships convention in Lancaster, PA tomorrow, so posts will be sparse for a few days.

Monday, August 4, 2008

"Engrish" tanslations in Memoir'44

Memoir' 44 is a great game, and generally speaking I've like what Days of Wonder have done with it. It's not a rigorous simulation, it's true, but it's a good light wargame and a great introduction to military history, too.

That said, it's therefore distressing when avoidable errors creep into the production process, especially because there's obviously been a lot of thought given to making the presentation attractive. On more than one occasion, though, the effect is marred because what's so nicely presented is a mistake. A pretty mistake is still a mistake.

In this global era there's a lot of incentive to offer products in multiple languages and to likewise take advantage of the global community to add rich content. Many of the euro-influenced wargames of late have made a point of including content and ad copy in one of more languages besides English. Notable examples include Wings of War. War of the Ring, Commands & Colors: Ancients and Axis & Allies: Miniatures.

One necessary step that some company's skip is making sure that some native speaker proofreads the copy to make sure it's right. I would be surprised if this is a problem confined to English language content, but it's the language I'm able to comment on.

A good example of this is the "Po Valley" scenario (Med 8) contained in the handsome Air Pack rules and scenario book.

Evidently the scenario was designed in a language other than English and translated. But just as clearly it wasn't proofread properly.

In some parts the wording is merely awkward. For example reading "919 meters over the sea level" which isn't the usual expression in English: "919 meters above sea level"

In some cases the wrong word is used: "morphology" when the word wanted is "topography"

And in other cases it's simply factually incorrect, such as when it calls the Brazilian troops involved the "Brazilian Shipment Unit?!" This is perilously close to being "Engrish" and is evidently a literal but bad translation of the actual name of the unit. Oddly, the correct translation is easy to see right there on the page, as it's not a big leap from Forca Expedicionaria Brasileria to "Brazilian Expeditionary Force!"

Indeed, a note should be sent to all would-be translators into English: The term "Unit" as part of a proper name is almost never correct. In military English, "Unit" is a generic and general term that can be applied to almost any sized force, especially smaller ones. Divisions, brigades, regiments, companies, platoons and squads are all "units." So the 14th German Infantry Unit is an incorrect designation. As a matter of fact, it was the German 14th Army.

It would be nice to see game companies take advantage of their international resources to make sure these kids of mistakes don't occur.