Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble

When there have been a dozen or so games on the exact same topic you need to have something new to say about it if you expect to get any attention. Designer Chris Perello's Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble does take a new look at the often-simulated 1863 Civil War battle.

The issue game in Command Magazine No. 17, LGG physically is the usual high standard expected of XTR in 1992. It has a useful Mark Simonitch map and 1/2-inch counters make a return after several issues of the magazine that had the 5/8-inch counters. The counters use full-color icons of soldiers and cannon with the federal troops on light blue and the confederates in butternut.Units are brigades, each hex represents 1/5-mile and turns represent about 90 minutes during the daytime and four hours at night.

Unusually for a Command Magazine game LGG does not use some variation of the standard wargame mechanics but instead uses a novel game system. Infantry and cavalry units are rated for their ability to survive losses, a combat rating and a morale rating. Artillery units also have morale, but also are rated for range, offensive support and defensive support.

The turn sequence is straightforward, with a command control phase, movement phase and combat phase for each player, with the Confederates moving first.

Every good wargame design focuses on certain key elements of the event that the designer wants to highlight. In LGG Perello looks at three elements of the battle in a new way compared to previous designs.

First are the victory conditions. There are no victory points for holding Cemetery Hill or Little Round Top or other sites. The objective for both armies is to destroy its opponent. The only other way to score points is for Lee's army to exit the army trains off the edge of the map. This prevents the Union from simply sitting on some hill top and letting the rebels march on by. The map also extends further east than is typical for Gettysburg games, including the Low Dutch Road area that saw a cavalry action on July 3. Both players therefore have considerable freedom to experiment with different maneuvers and if fighting tends to develop around places such as Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top and Culp's Hill it's not because the designer forces it, but it's because these locations are "good ground," as Gen. Buford put it in the movie Gettysburg.

The second departure from the usual is the combat system. While there are a lot of modifiers and special rules, the essential feature of the combat system is duels between brigades. In Perello's view there was no way under the tactics of the time for superior numbers to be directly applied to an attack. Instead superior numbers meant there were fresh troops to try again, but each actual fight was a brigade on brigade struggle. An optional (but recommended) rule for counterattacks helps recreate the back-and-forth nature of Civil War firefights.

Rather than using combat factors alone, the system looks at morale as equally important. Larger brigades are less likely to be eliminated, but no more likely to hold a position or take one.

Finally, LGG looks at the pacing of the combat. One of the most common problems in wargames is unreal pace of operations. Because cardboard counters do not get tired, confused or frightened too much tends to happen too fast. Although the battle stretched over three days, Perello points out the actual fighting occurred over just a few hours of that time. In particular, most of the second and third days were quiet time. Perello simulates this by having each army in one of four levels of command control, based on a die roll. At the highest, and most difficult to achieve "attack" state, units can move and attack without restriction. In "restricted" state units cannot move next to enemy units unless there is already a friendly unit adjacent to that enemy. This allows existing attacks to continue but effectively prevents a new one from starting. When the army is in a "passive" state units are not allowed to move next to enemy units at all, although units already adjacent may still attack. Finally, in a "panic" state, in addition to not being allowed to move next to enemy units some units may be controlled by the opposing player! (Think of it as the Sickles rule).

Altogether LGG is enough different that it's worth trying, even if you have other Gettysburg titles.

With 18 pages of rules and a number of novel concepts this qualifies as a complex game, even by wargame standards, unusually so for a magazine wargame.

Despite its complexity and considerable number of turns (12 per day, with three days of battle and a portion of a fourth day possible) the game is still playable in one long sitting. Due to the command control rules many turns will pass with little activity.

Like most Gettysburg games setup time is minimal, as most units start off map. Organizing the reinforcements should take about 20 minutes if the counters are sorted.


(Yes) For Wargamers: An interesting take on the Battle of Gettysburg. Some of the same game concept reappear in a more elaborate form in Fateful Lightning.

(No) For Collectors: Nothing remarkable.

(No) For Euro gamers: Game play is intricate and detailed, even by war game standards, with some novel concepts on top of that.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review: 1918: Storm in the West

Wargame Designer Ted Raicer, best known now for the popular Paths of Glory, has pretty much single-handedly resurrected interest in World War I games with his series of interesting designs depicting various aspects of the Great War.

It started with this game, which appeared in Command Magazine No. 16 in mid-1992. 1918: Storm in the West is a detailed hex-and-counter wargame covering the crucial final campaigns on the Western Front that brought the war to its conclusion. Covering both the German offensives and the final Allied Victory, the game covers one of the most dramatic periods in an otherwise strategically dreary war.

The campaign scenario runs from late March to early November in half-monthly turns and 8-mile hexes. Units are generally corps-sized, with a few smaller specialized units. The large American divisions get a counter each.

The 15-page rule-book is clearly written and outlines a rather standard hex-and-counter wargame system that should be second nature to most experienced players. As usual for Command Magazine games it's the "chrome" that gives the game its flavor. The Mark Simonitch map is attractive, functional and uses oversized hexes.

The counters are the 5/8-inch size that was common in Command during this era. The armies are shown using modified NATO-style symbols in a color-scheme by-now familiar to Command readers: Germans (field gray regulars or black stormtroopers), Commonwealth (brown) French (blue) and USA (olive drab).

Most units are two-step.The game mechanics are standard wargame IGO-HUGO turn sequence with some units eligible for a second "infiltration" movement phase and all units able to take part in a second combat phase. Zones of control stop movement for the turn but do not force combat.

The combat results table is odds-based with numerical results for the attacker and defender. The results can be satisfied by losing steps or retreating units.

Appropriately for World War I there are no results that are bloodless for the attacker and only in poor-odds attacks is there any chance the defender will get off Scott free.

The game revolves around the respective "national morale" levels of each side, which starts at 15 for each. Capturing certain hexes provides morale points for the winning side and debits the losing side an equal amount. If a side's morale is driven to 0 at the end of a turn that side loses immediately. In addition the Germans must make a morale check on Turn 9 and have a level of at least 18 or they lose. This prevents an ahistorical strategy of just sitting back and parrying Allied attacks instead of launching offensives. If the German morale is still above 0 on turn 16 they also win, so the allies are forced to do at least as well as the historical result to win.

Playing the whole 16-turn campaign should take a long evening.

Both sides have free set up with some minor restrictions so set up time is less then 20 minutes.

The game includes an optional "Storm Elsewhere" scenario where the Germans seek victory on other fronts and sit on the defensive in the West. In this scenario there are no stormtroopers and the burden of attack in on the allies. In addition Command No. 19 included a Plan 1919 variant which assumes the Germans held out through the winter and the Allies go for a final victory in 1919 using J.F.C. Fuller's plan. The variant adds new counters for the expanded tank corps for all nations and a bunch of additional US divisions that would have been available. Recommendations(Yes) For Wargamers: A detailed and satisfying simulation that allows both players to attack and defend. (No) For Collectors: Just another wargame.(No) For Euro gamers: Like most hard-core hex-and-counter wargames game play is marked with a lot of detailed rules accounting for the messiness of simulating actual events.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Are modern economies too complicated to game?

Many moons ago, when I was able to wear belts several inches shorter than today, there were some reasonably popular stock trading games out there. One was the prosaically maned The Stock market Game published by Avalon Hill, another was Stocks & Bonds, which was part of the 3M line. The Avalon Hill game, unsurprisingly, featured a bit more authenticity in the details and allowed for more player input into the process of price-setting, but both games seemed fairly successful at capturing the essence of how the markets worked. The Avalon Hill game even had a solitaire version that allowed the player to play against the historical Market Crash of 1929 and see if he could make money in that Bear market.

So the games seemed realistic enough, according to how the stock market worked in the 1960s.

Are there comparable games now? I wonder if modern financial instruments have gotten too complicated to capture in a game format, even in an abstract way. I'm no expert, but it's my understanding that traditional stocks and bonds are just a small part of the whole picture today. Could such a game be designed?

In the abstract one would think so. War, for example, is also a complicated human endeavor and yet there's no shortage of wargames. Or is modern finance even more complicated than warfare?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Will the economic turmoil translate into game industry stress?

As I write this the government is engaged in negotiations over unprecedented measures t stave off a feared economic collapse.

Should they succeed, it seems likely that we're in for a significant downturn. This implies less disposable income, although it's possible that people will be redirecting their entertainment dollars from more expensive fun to boardgaming, which provides a very good value for the buck.

There's a good chance that the structural problems are too severe foe the government to fix at this late stage, however, and we could be in for a full-blown Depression with wide-spread business failures, personal suffering and even homelessness and joblessness on a large scale.

Under those kinds of conditions it's hard to imagine that the game industry will come through unscathed. People may stay home and play more, but they may not buy much. Retail forecasters are predicting a "weak" shopping season and that can't be good news for game makers.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tide of Iron session

Carl and I also played a game of Tide of Iron, the first for both of us.

I decided we'd try the Crusader scenario from Days of the Fox. This is a pure armor battle so we could skip more than half the rules as not applicable, in order to make learning the game a bit easier.

We succeeded in that goal, although I wish I'd made the fighting a little harder for Carl. His British really just chewed my guys up. I ended up being wiped out, losing all seven of my tanks (4 x Pz III and 3 x Pz IV) while only destroying one Crusader and heavily damaging a Matilda. Ouch. Final VP score was 17 to 2.

Oh well, at least I learned a little bit about the game play.

Down in Flames session report

So my old and good friend Carl came by after a long hiatus and we played something old and something new. The old was Down in Flames, which we last played more than four years ago.

Carl's an excellent all-around player, as today demonstrated yet again. Over the years he's been somewhat of an ASL specialist, but he's pretty deadly any time.

We played the Winter War December campaign of Down in Flames, (Rise of the Luftwaffe) with the updated Zero! rules, although in this case it didn't matter much.

The first mission was a bombing run against some ground troops by a four-bomber flight of Soviet SB-2 medium bombers under the the command of Comrade Carl. Carl took the Deceptive Course resource, which shortened the flight time, but that had no effect because his mission was unopposed by Finnish air. Instead I took some extra Flak Guns. The extra guns didn't do much good, however, as just one SB-2 was damaged on the bomb run, although the Soviet accuracy wasn't too good either and just light damage was done.

The second mission really decided the campaign, as both sides went all out. Comrade Carl's mission was to attack a freighter bringing vital war supplies to Finland. This major effort was led by four IL-4 torpedo bombers escorted by a pair of I-16 fighters and a pair of I-153 biplane fighters. The Finns also made a major effort, committing four Fokker D-XXI fighters. A fierce air battle ensued, and three of the Soviet fighters went down and one was damaged, for the loss of one Fokker, but they managed to keep the torpedo bombers unmolested and they had little trouble sinking the freighter. While losses were heavy, a clear victory for the Soviets.

The third fight saw a pair of Fokkers unsuccessfully dueling with a pair of biplanes. Again the two Sb-2 bombers were not bothered as they hit some ground troops. The damage wasn't impressive, but both Fokkers went down.

The final and fourth flight didn't promise much hope for a Finnish turn around and so it proved. While the intercepting pair of Fokkers managed to shoot down a biplane this time and damage the other one, the four SB-2s again attacked with no interference and this time they plastered the ground target, leaving it shattered.

The final score was a net of 59 VPs for the Soviets, an "outstanding performance and just one shy of an "exceptional" one. Likewise the Finns were "miserable" and if one more bomb had hit might very well have been "dismal."

Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures: Task Force

I've nearly collected the whole set. Overall, I'm pleased with the selection and quality, although a few of the sculpts are kind of rough and many of the paint jobs are too heavy.

For wargaming uses, though, everything works well and some of the models are really good. I particularly like the Saratoga.

The mix of units seems well thought out. While corporate bean counters forced a very high number of repaints, they ships selected make sense and Set III will have few repaints so it may very well work out.

If the line goes through Set IV, which seems likely, because I think Set III will sell out, then I think we will end up with a very useful collection for regular naval wargaming as well use with the A&A: WAS rules.

Customer support will, of course, dictate how long this can go on, but I think the history-based collectible games may have more staying power than many others because of the inherent collectibility of the pieces. I think they can probably go as far as a Set V before running into some hard choices about ship selection (mostly because the German Navy isn't big enough to support it.) There are, of course, various what-ifs that could be tried, such as the ships cancelled by the Washington Naval Treaty

On the other hand, the centennial of World War I is approaching, so there may be enough interest to support a Great War line of ships. I could also see a modern line being offered as well, especially if China builds up enough of a navy to provide a credible opponent.

The land game seems to be cranking along OK, too, and there's a new 50th anniversary edition of Axis & Allies coming which will help keep the brand fresh.

I think Hasbro is also being smarter with the pace of expansions in both the land and naval miniatures lines by not pushing them out so often. A new set every six months to a year seems like a good, sustainable pace. By having realistic expectations for the brand, Hasbro may avoid the mistakes that doomed DreamBlade.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pyrrhic Victory

During its early years, Command Magazine on several occasions used extra space on its counter sheets to publish major variants to previously published games. Sometimes this was to indulge in some pretty fantastic alternate history stuff (Tiger of Ethiopia) or looks at a major what-if (Plan 1919) but in a few cases it allowed a completely new historical game (Xenophon, Successors) to be included. Pyrrhic Victory from Command No. 19 is one of these, using a mere 39 additonal counters and six pages of rules to turn I Am Spartacus into a passable simulation of one of the Roman Republic's defining moments, the war against Pyrrhus in 280-275 B.C. It was this war that proved that the Roman military system was superior to the long-established Alexandrian system and paved the way for Rome's rise to world power.

For a description of the basic system, refer to I Am Spartacus. This review will scan the differences.

For Pyrrhic victory the time scale has been changed from the monthly turns of I Am Spartacus to turns representing three months. This has little game effect, but does illustrate the arbitrariness of time and space scales in ancient period wargames. Things moved at a different (and slower) pace than later times.

Because the war with Pyrrhus occurred about two centuries earlier than the events of Spartacus, there are a number of map changes. A number of cities depicted on the Spartacus map didn't exist yet, and some cities important in 280 BC were decidedly less so 200 years later. So all on-map cities are ignored and replaced with eight markers representing the important cities for this war. In addition, the three rebel sanctuaries of Spartacus are ignored.

In Spartcus fleets play a minor role, but in the interstate conflict of Pyrrhic Victory naval forces played a major role, so another three markers and expanded rules add a naval component to the game.

About half of the remaining counters add the new leaders required while the rest add Pyrrhus' army.The Romans use units from the I Am Spartacus counter mix, with legions limited to a maximum strength of 5 (instead of 6-8).

A few of the slave units from Spartacus are used to represent various auxilliary units and the wild tribes outside the civilized zones of Carthage, Syracus, Rome and Epirus. As in the earlier game, units are full color iconic depictions of the warriors.Because it represents a traditional interstate power-politics war rather than a slave revolt, PV has a very different feel from Spartacus, but a familiar one.

The main problem for the Pyrrhus player is his army. On the one hand the units are very powerful. The six phalanxes, Agema and Thessalonian horse and Epirot Royal Foot Guards are all virtually guaranteed to decimate their foes in combat. But at the same time, they are very fragile, with all but the Epirot guard having just two steps. In a fight with a comparable number of legions the Greek troops will lose the battle of attrition with the 5-step Roman legions.

Fortunately for Pyrrhus, he won't necessarily face equal numbers. The Romans start with just four legions and have to raise the rest.

Unlike Spartacus, which depicts the core of a huge empire that extends far off-map, PV shows the adolescent Rome that has just secured its immediate neighborhood and is now looking further afield. Only four areas (Latium, Etruria, Sabina Montes and Campania) start Roman. Each player can raise new units or replenish existing ones each Spring using replacement points earned through control of provinces. Fertile provinces provide two and mountains one, giving Rome seven and Pyrrhus four RPs from their starting territories. Basically the Roman can raise a new legion every year, with some supporting auxilliary units.

Additional special rules cover elephants, sieges, and some special units.Victory is determined by scoring victory points. Most come from controlling provinces, although some can also be acquired by eliminating key units and leaders. As befits a Republic, no Roman leader is vital, and if they all die the Roman player can simply draft new ones from the Spartacus countermix. Only if Rome is captured do the Romans lose immediately. On the other hand, Pyrrhus' war depends on his personal fate, and if he is killed, he loses, no matter what the point score.

Setting up the game will take about 20 minutes and the entire five-year 20-turn war can be played in an evening.


(Yes) For wargamers: If interested in ancient warfare this is an interesting match up between two dissimilar military systems. Both sides are challenging to play.

(No) For collectors: Nothing special.

(No) For Eurogamers: In addition to the normal intricacy of hex-and-counter wargames this is a variant, requiring cross-referencing between two sets of rules and noticing many exceptions and changes.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

FAB Bulge artillery assets -- a good rule

One of my favorite rules in FAB Battle of the Bulge is assets, especially as they relate to artillery support.

This ides has been kicking around for a while. Assets appear in games in the old Victory Games title Korea, as well as in the TSR game Red Storm Rising. Still, the idea seems under used a bit to me.

It works well for artillery and is, I think, more realistic than having artillery units on the battlefield.

For one thing, artillery units are maneuvered on the battlefield in the same way as line units by higher headquarters. Positioning artillery units is a technical, as well as tactical; task, and is generally done as staff work, not command work. In this way it's similar to engineers, logistics and other supporting tasks.

Secondly, whenever artillery units appear as discrete units on a game board you can guarantee they will be misused by the player to hold a part of the line.

Now, it's true that artillery units sometimes find themselves in the front line by accident, and there's a rule covering that eventuality in FAB Bulge, but I'm not aware of cases where artillery battalions were deliberately placed in the line to hold a portion AS artillery. That's not to claim that it never, ever, happened, but it's very very rare and not something that should be available as a routine game tactic. It should only be seen as special rules in historical battles where it did occur.

On occasion, when infantry manpower is in very short supply, an artillery unit may be reorganized into infantry and given a sector. This happened to the 45th AA Brigade in Italy in 1944, when it was reorganized into Task Force 45. The required retraining and re-equipping the unit, and it's notable that it was an AA unit that was selected, not a field artillery unit. Given Allied air superiority the unit was excess to needs, although it's possible German practice in this regard was superior, using AA guns (such as the feared 88) as direct support.

There are a lot of reasons for this, most of which are hard to reflect on a boardgame table.

For one thing, artillery crews are trained technical specialists and very difficult to replace. On occasion an army may have to risk these troops in direct battlefield support roles, for example the World War II Soviets, but most armies are loathe to risk losing these troops even in direct fire support -- so using them as riflemen makes even less sense.

A second factor usually missed by wargame designers is that an artillery battalion can't hold the same amount of ground as an infantry battalion. While a cannon unit has a high firepower value, it has a low manpower value, especially if you're going to man the guns with an adequate crew. Artillery batteries don't have a lot of extra guys to spare to man the perimeter. They're often reasonably well-equipped with machine guns, but they also have a lot of vulnerable targets such as the guns, the ammo and their transport.

Often wargames over estimate the ground-holding ability of artillery units.

Treating them as assets, instead, gets around most of these issues, keeping the guns in their historical supporting role without tempting the player down the road of unhistorical tactics.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hold the Line -- do as the Germans do

I think any objective observer would have to conclude that German game manufacturers make an exceptional product when it comes to sheer physical quality of the games.

One of the real benefits of the eurogame enthusiasm of the last decade or so has been to introduce American audiences to this level of quality. It's also forced American game makers, especially wargame companies to react, in the best free-market way.

I noted with interest that the newest wargame from Worthington Games is actually ?made in Germany."

While some U.S. game companies have imported English editions and even had German-made editions of U.S. games such as This Hallowed Ground, this may be the first time an American wargame company has turned to German production sources for the first run of a bona fide wargame.

I guess if you want German quality, do as the Germans do and make it there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Red Dragon Rising -- breaking from the pack

Magazine wargames are rarely well-regarded compared to their stand-alone peers.

Sometimes this is because they're simply on very obscure topics, although being on obscure topics hasn't hurt standalone games such as Hammer of the Scots, More often the quality is suspect -- compared to standalone products magazine wargames are necessarily much less play tested.

Only a handful of magazine wargames are among the top few hundred rankings on Boardgame Geek, for example -- and the long-time champ among Strategy & Tactics offerings has been Battle For Germany which was published decades ago.

So it's notable that Battle for Germany has been dethroned as the top-ranked magazine wargame by Red Dragon Rising, a game depicting a potential war between the United States and China.

The subject is certainly topical, given the ever-greater heft of China on the world stage, but that seems unlikely to explain RDR's relative popularity. No, the credit seems to lie with its using a variant of the popular War at Sea/Victory in the Pacific game system.

This is borne out with the number of playings RDR has. While not exceptional by BGG standards, the game does have 67 plays logged already, which is far above the typical for magazine wargames. These, if they get played at all, are likely see see numbers such as the ones racked up by recent titles like Barbarossa (10), Cobra (7), First Blood (19), Sea Lords (4) or Civil War in the West (1).

Whether the game represents a serious study of a potential war scenario is hard to say. There are innumerable variables which make this sort of wargame difficult to evaluate anyway, and one could argue that a high degree of abstraction makes as much sense as getting down into detailed weeds that may not be valid anyway.

But there's a lot to be said for using a fun game system like WAS/VITP is you want your what-if game to actually be played. On that ground it appears that RDR may be the most successful magazine wargame to be published in years.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tide of Iron -- just one thing bothers me

Tide of Iron is Fantasy Flight Games' World War II tactical wargame.

It's a stunning production, of excellent overall quality and a good play as well. It's a little more abstract than most tactical combat games, but for the most part I'm comfortable with the level of abstraction.

There is, however, one aspect of the game that feels a little off to me and that is the whole "concentrated" fire vs. "suppressive" fire thing. I'm not sure what the designer is attempting to model here, given the way it's executed.

Suppression effects are, of course, quite common in 20th century combat games. Nearly universal, in fact, as getting the other guys to "put their heads down." is a key tactic under modern conditions.

But generally the suppressive effect is a byproduct of the destructive effect or, if it's an explicit goal of the firer, the firer gets usually gets some added benefit to represent the increased volume of fire. Meanwhile the destructive effect is normally diluted somewhat because the firing units are working to increase the number of bullets headed downrange and not their accuracy.

But in Tide of Iron the difference between destructive, casualty-producing fire and suppressive, morale-reducing fire is based on the intent of the firer, not on any difference at the target end. The same number of successes that would kill a figure will pin a squad instead. The same number that would rout a squad under suppressive would also eliminate it if fired at under concentrated rules. It would seem to me that suffering casualties would tend to pin a squad down, but in Tide of Iron it's an either/or situation. That just doesn't seem accurate to me.

I'm not sure why the designer felt the need to make the distinction this way. It would seem to me more valid to have the morale effects in addition to the casualty effects and if he wanted to model keep-their-head-down effects then units engaged in THAT kind of suppressive fire should get some benefit for giving up their casualty-producing effects.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who thinks this system makes more sense than the typical approach seen in designs as diverse as ASL and Axis & Allies: Miniatures that integrates both effects.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Some musings on team Napoleon's Triumph

When played as a team I suppose folks probably just divvy up the corps evenly and have at it, but it occurs to me that the simulation value might be enhanced a little bit by experimenting with a chain of command based on the historical mess the Russo-Austrian army command structure was.

For the French side, one might have just one experienced player control everybody. Napoleon had a pretty good handle on this fight. All his subordinates were capable and experienced and there were no real command issues. If you have two players one could portray Soult who historically commanded the IV Corps with divisions Saint Hillaire, Vandamme and Legrand while the other one is Napoleon and leads the rest. With three players have one be Soult, have Napoleon just control Bessieres and maybe Murat and have the third player use Bernadotte, Davout and Lannes.

The Russo-Austrian side is more interesting.

Kutusov is the overall army commander and ought to have control of Constantine and Bagration only. To represent Tsar Alexander borrow a kid brother, spouse or distracted player from another nearby table to issue overall instructions that Kutusov is honor-bound to execute, at least partially.

A second player should be Liechtenstein and be in charge of the Austro-Russian columns of Liechtenstein, Kienmayer, Kollowrath and the Russian Miloradovich.

The third player should portray Buxhoewden and be in charge of the Russian I, II and III columns led by Dokhturov, Langeron and Prebyshevsky, respectively.

If there's a fourth player divide up player 2's troops into pairs of Liechtenstein/Kienmayer and Kollowrath/Milaradovich.

If there's a fifth player then make him or her Bagration and leave only Constantine under the overall commander.

If there's an odd number of players the extra one should always be Russo-Austrian. It will be even better if they don't get along well.

Cowboys: The Way of the Gun brief comparison to AH Gunslinger

Cowboys: the Way of the Gun inaugurated Worthington Games' new euro-style production standards last year. It has a nice, sturdy box, thick cardboard counters and boards and a slick rulebook.

The game itself is a very euro-ized conflict game that's somewhat reminiscent of the old Avalon Hill Gunslinger game on the same topic.

Like Gunslinger the game features full color double sides mapboards depicting typical western town and countryside terrain. Both game used cards, although in different ways and both games are focused on the actions of individual characters in a historical Old American West setting flavored with some strong Hollywood elements. Both games even include some of the same historical incidents as scenarios.

Gunslinger, however, was a game published by a wargame company during the height of the most grognard phase of the hobby. The game documents every possible physical action in painstaking detail, tracking events in .4 second increments. The game characters have extensive special abilities and differentiation and, in many ways, Gunslinger is a pseudo-RPG. Because of its detail Gunslinger is a really absorbing game that has many devoted fans to this day, although it's been out of print for decades. But it takes a long time to play. A street gunfight that will be over in half a minute in game time will take a whole evening to play.

Cowboys, in its basic game, strips away all that detail and operates at a very crude level with minimal details. Whereas in Gunslinger a player character could be prone behind a water trough and literally just stick his head out to see, in Cowboys the characters are basically just standing there. In Gunslinger dozens of different firearms are depicted in loving detail with different ammunition types, different impact effects, different reliability and many other distinctions. In Cowboys there are just three kinds of firearms: pistols, rifles and shotguns.

On the other hand, a game of Cowboys will pass by in less than an hour, capturing the quickness of a skirmish better.

While cards were central to Gunslinger, providing both movement control and random events, Cowboys uses dice to resolve firring and the cards basically provide some special abilities.

Gunslinger is strictly focused on the individual gunfighter, and is really best played with each player controlling a single character or maybe two. Cowboys is actually more of a tactical step higher, being primarily concerned with the actions of a whole party. In military terms the Gunslinger player represents the soldier while the Cowboys player represents the fire team or squad leader.

For what it does, Cowboys is successful, providing a very quick-playing man-to-man western gunfight game, but many players will be tempted to add more detail. There are some optional rules in the book and a set of advanced rules that add more detail and options to the game.

I don't think any Gunslinger fans will think that Cowboys replaces the older game, but it provides a good supplement and one that's probably easier to bring to the table in this day and age.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Axis & Allies: War at Sea comprehensive review

Axis & Allies: War at Sea naval miniatures follows on the heels of (Hasbro) Avalon Hill's Axis & Allies: Miniatures. Like the earlier game, aside from the Axis & Allies brand name, there's no similarity between this game and the Larry Harris Axis & Allies designs.

Also, although billed as a miniatures game, this is NOT a traditional Fletcher Pratt/Seapower/Victory at Sea style naval miniatures game. Instead it's a fairly simple nautical themed board wargame that happens to use nice miniatures instead of cardboard tokens or wooden blocks.

Still, the miniatures are the main selling point for the game, and, fundamentally, the rules exist to give you a game to use to play with your miniatures.

Like the A&A land miniatures, the War at Sea miniatures are equally well-suited to being used with any set of traditional naval miniatures (play on the floor) rule set. There are no game-specific bases or other distractions to get in the way of using the miniatures with, for example, Victory at Sea. The one drawback of the miniatures is the nonstandard scale, which is 1:1800 (or 1 inch equals 150 actual feet). This means the miniatures are not compatible with existing lines of pewter wargame models, which are generally of 1:2400 or 1:1200 scale. So long as there was just one set I think this was a factor, but with the appearance of a second set, the promise of a third set and the likelihood of a fourth, this is much less of a factor. The existing line of models is getting close to the offerings of some pewter manufacturers.

The miniatures themselves are mostly pretty good. Unlike the land-based A&A miniatures, the War at Sea line has been consistent in scale and there have been no really bad sculpts. That's not to say that there aren't some models that are better than others, but none are so bad that they can't be used on the same wargame table and all are acceptable quality when eyed from typical wargame playing distances.

There's been a lot of thought put into the selection of models, and with two sets there are at least type representatives for just about every fleet and most of the most wanted models are present. It is important to note, of course, that this is a collectible-style game, which will carry very negative implications for many gamers, but the collectible aspect is quite muted here.

First, the line is not so extensive that a complete set can't be gotten. There are no chase or ultrarare models nor any convention exclusives. Prices compare favorably to unpainted pewter naval models, so expense is even less of a consideration than normal. Compared to a straightforward board game, War at Sea is still pretty expensive, but if a boardgamer were ever going to hold their nose and try a collectible game, War at Sea would probably be their best choice.

The rules for Axis & Allies: War at Sea succeed is presenting an entry-level naval board wargame that captures the essential elements of World War II-era naval combat in an authentic way. In many ways it's more successful than the land game in this regard, because the straightforward nature of naval combat (minimal terrain, limited weapon types) seems well-suited to making an entry-level combat game.

Like the land game, in War at Sea the basic combat routine is to roll a certain number of dice depending on the type of the target and the range and count the number of "successes," which are defined as rolls of 4 or higher. While the chance of a success can sometimes be modified (usually downwards) , a "natural 6" always counts as two successes, which accounts for the chance of critical damage that is so integral part of naval combat.

Another critical aspect of World War II era naval combat is accounting for the effect of armor protection. Instead of using some complicated system comparing armor penetration ability against the armor of a target, like most naval games, War at Sea uses an elegant system that indirectly achieves the same results. Every target has two "armor" ratings and a number of hull hits it can sustain. As a general rule, battleships can take five hits, fleet carriers can take four, cruisers take three hits, destroyers two hits and small combatants like PT boats just one hit. Each ship has an armor rating and if the firing ship achieves that many successes, then the target takes a hit. Under most conditions a destroyer won't roll enough dice to have a mathematical chance of getting enough successes to get a hit on a battleship and it's difficult for a cruiser to do so, while battleships often roll enough dice that they'll have about a 50/50 shot of getting a hit. Meanwhile, while firing at a like-sized target like a destroyer on a destroyer or a cruiser on a cruiser, the chances of effective fire are greater, all while using the same procedure.

On the other hand, each ship is also rated for its "vital armor." If a firing ship achieves enough successes to match THAT number then the target is instantly sunk. There's usually some chance of this instant destruction anytime a ship fires on a like-sized target, but the chances go up a lot when a larger ship fires on smaller one, so a battleship blasting away at a cruiser will probably sink it in short order. Some ships, like the HMS Hood, have lower vital armor ratings than similar-sized ships, and are therefore more vulnerable to catastrophic losses than other ships, while a few ships have higher-than-average ratings and are more likely to die a death piece by piece like the Yamato.

The game also includes rules for torpedoes, anti-aircraft fire and aerial attacks, with combat generally working the same, except for torpedoes, which only hit on a "6 and automatically cause two hits when they do. Aircraft targets are also handled slightly differently, with successes that match the armor rating "aborting" the attacking plane and "vital armor" successes needed to shoot the plane down.

There are few anomalies in the system. Very small ships are, perhaps, a little too easy to target (a common naval wargame problem) with insufficient attention being placed on the difficulty of targeting them in the first place. As written there is no effective difference between "armor" and "vital armor" for ships with just 1 hull point,as they are sunk either way. Perhaps tiny ships ought to be "aborted" like aircraft when their armor is matched.

Like most collectible games, most pieces also have some kind of "spacial ability." In some cases these are strictly historically based, such as "extended range" which lets some modern battleships fire an extra zone or two until they take damage. Others add historical "color" such as the "survivor" special ability of the USS Enterprise, which gives it a saving roll against vital armor destruction or the TBD Devastator's "Draw the CAP" ability which lets it force enemy fighters to attack it instead of some more powerful plane, such as a SBD Dauntless, in the same zone.

The game has been pretty stable, with just one important change so far. As originally published all torpedo fire happened after gunfire. While this might seem more realistic, the game effect was to make torpedo attacks by surface ships almost useless. While the game doesn't explicitly distinguish between daylight combat and night combat (except for a special ability) , it does try to average the overall effectiveness of air power and night surface combat. so the overall game effect was actually off. So the rule was changed and torpedo combat was moved into the gunnery phase with the former torpedo attack phase now limited just to submarine attacks.

The standard scenario is a duel between equally matched fleets on a naval battlefield that measures 8 by 10 squares, offset in a brick-like pattern that is the equivalent to hexes in most respects, with a varying number of islands providing some minor terrain to maneuver around. There is also a convoy scenario, although that one seems too tough for the convoy player in my opinion.

Altogether, I highly recommend Axis & Allies: War at Sea for anyone interested in naval wargaming. It's a good introductory level naval board wargame and also a neat collection of quality, painted naval miniatures usable with your favorite set of traditional naval miniatures rules. While not compatible with pewter ship lines, the existing and promised sets will provide a large enough collection of models for most purposes.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal -- Tribute to The Greatest Generation

Larry Harris may be the most successful wargame designer ever in terms of sales. While industry pioneers such as Charles Roberts and Jim Dunnigan racked up some impressive sales numbers in the hobby's Golden Age in the 60s and 70s, and many designers have been more prolific than Harris, he is the author of Axis & Allies, which may be the single most recognizable wargame tot he general public outside of Risk.

Besides designing the original Axis & Allies more than 20 years ago, and a Revised edition and a soon-to-arrive Anniversary edition, Harris has also designed a whole series of games based on the A&A system. Each of these titles, A&A: Europe; A&A: Pacific; A&A: D-Day; A&A: Battle of the Bulge and A&A: Guadalcanal adds new twists to the game system. (And the D-Day, Bulge and Guadalcanal titles could also be considered tributes to the old AH games of those names). The Axis & Allies: Miniatures and A&A: War at Sea games use the name, but are from a different design team.

Of all of them, though, Harris says "Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal is a very special game to me."

In his designers notes he tells of his father, who served on Guadalcanal. "Guadalcanal is a place where Japanese warships and planes bombarded my father's position."

Harris explains that he considers game design to be an "artistic interpretation of the historical battles they represent." A very different point of view from the operations research inspired approach of Dunnigan, but just as valid, I think.

"I, for one, have learned much about the struggle for the Solomon Islands while designing this game. This has been a personal voyage of discovery as well. Being better informed, I walk away from this project even more proud of my father than I was before," Harris writes.

These notes (the most extensive and personal to appear in any A&A title) struck a chord with me as well. Wargamers are disproportionately made up of Boomers, and for most Boomers World War II was their father's war. When I was growing up my best friend's father was also a veteran of the fighting on Guadalcanal, and when we brought a copy of the old Avalon Hill title into the house it prompted some extra interest. He never spoke much about his time there, but he did talk a little bit about what it was like -- jungle, hearing "washing machine Charlie" fly overhead and the heat.

My own dad was a little too young for World War II, but he served in Korea, which came so stunningly soon after the bigger war and shared its technology and tragedy, although not its fame.

Between those two wars, though, they shaped not just the generation that fought in them, but also their children. I think that interest in the historical wargame hobby is due, in large part, to World War II's effect on Boomers. It was omnipresent in the culture, with movies, TV shows, comics and books all treating the subject, not just games.

It wasn't until Vietnam was well along that some cross currents appeared, and the generation following the Boomers had a different outlook on things -- being rather more attracted to fantasy wars where Good could battle Evil instead of the messy real kind of war.

Boomers, in contrast, were heirs to the legacy of The Good War with its real-life heroes and villains.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Athens & Sparta and the challenge of blunders in wargames

'They were utterly and entirely defeated; their sufferings were on an enormous scale; their losses were, as they say, total; army, navy, everything was destroyed, and, out of many, only few returned. So ended the events in Sicily'
-- Thucydides

So the great Greek historian describes the fruits of Athens' campaign against Syracuse.

Some wars, campaigns or battles are distinctive because they're outcomes were colored so much by some spectacular blunder by one side or the other.

Here I'm not talking about the run-of-the-mill kinds of errors that are unavoidable in war. War is nothing if not an unending catalog of folly and errors. But some events manage to stand out even among this crowd as blunders of epic scope that can change the course of events dramatically.

This kind of blunder creates a serious problem for wargame designers, however. For one thing, players, unlike the actual participants, know how things turned out, and are therefore not likely to repeat the historical blunder. In addition, players necessarily have more information than real-life decision makers, so the misconceptions that hindered them aren't likely to be the same for the player. Players can, of course, supply their own epic blunders -- and we all know we do sometimes -- but they are likely to be new, fresh blunders that won't replicate the historical events.

The very long war between Athens & Sparta portrayed in the Columbia game of that name is a classic matchup between two equally powerful powers, who nevertheless have distinctive strengths and weaknesses. Athens was a democratic, wealthy sea power with imperial ambitions. Sparta was a tradition-bound kingdom renowned for its disciplined troops and primarily a land power. Sparta resisted Athens imperial ambitions, although it was not immune to the idea of expanding its own influence.

In an attempt to break the stalemate between the two sides the Athenians hit upon the notion of attacking Syracuse, the leading city state on the island of Sicily. Syracuse was also a democratic state in the Greek style, and was a neutral power, not aligned with Sparta. The Athenians managed to convince themselves that it was a good plan -- it seemed like a good idea at the time.

But historians and strategists from Thucydides onwards have been close to unanimous that it was an awful blunder, full of risks that even success would hardly justify. As it turned out, of course, the expedition turned out even more disastrously than anyone could imagine and the entire Athenian force -- a large army and most of its fleet, were utterly wiped out.

Every wargame on the Peloponnesian War has to deal with the problem of Sicily.

On the one hand, "idiot rules" which simply force the player to do something stupid because the historical commander was an idiot are never popular.

On the other hand, if one tries to create incentives for the player to do the stupid thing the designer risks creating a historical influences on the decision making. And if the incentive is too powerful, it risks being merely an idiot rule in disguise.

In Athens and Sparta capturing Syracuse is worth 4 towards the goal of 30 BPs (build points) worth of cities. This is a significant reward, but perhaps not enough of one considering the resources required for success. The Athenians can also escape the effects of losing the Hellespont by having Syracuse, although again, the same amount of resources could probably more easily defend the Hellespont in the first place.

There's an optional rule which has each player set aside one card from their initial draw with the total of the two cards being the value of Syracuse. The cards are not revealed until Syracuse is attacked. This is a good rule, adding some nice game play to the process. It also helps capture the effect of Athenian democracy on the decision. In effect, Syracuse is worth a lot because the Athenian public says it is., not because of any intrinsic value.

Typically Syracuse will probably be worth a bit more than 4 BP using this system and it could be worth as much as 10 (if both sides play a 5), and would would mean that the entire game could turn on the outcome of the campaign.

I think the optional rule does a good job of capturing some of the problems the historical blunder creates for the game designer. In effect this is done by putting the decision in the hands of the players, jointly. If both players value the site fairly high then it's likely to play a role close to the historical one. If, on the other hand, both players discount the value then it's quite likely that Sicily may remain a backwater. Of course, the players only know what value they placed on Sicily, so there's a level of uncertainty which creates the kind of opportunity for misdirection and bluff that are the hallmark of block games.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Will FFG's BattleLore be fish or fowl -- or remain a platypus?

Clearly the sale by Days of Wonder of all rights and inventory for the BattleLore game system to FFG won't result in any immediate changes in direction. The next expansion is produced already and existing inventory of the rest of the inventory is apparently adequate.

But DOW seems to have struggled with what direction to take BattleLore, although that struggle hasn't hurt its popularity. But there have been several changes in direction and it's unclear whether a final direction was ever decided on.

On the one hand, BattleLore is a fantasy wargame. The Lore system is the aspect of the game that most distinguishes it from its sister Commands & Colors games.

But on the other hand, it was much like a historical wargame. Creatures made little more than cameo appearances in a few scenarios. There were two non-human races -- goblins and dwarves -- with interesting characteristics, but neither was so far removed that they couldn't stand in for humans in "historical" scenarios.

Indeed, I found the whole faux historical scenario presentation kind of odd. The game seems neither fish nor fowl to me. Not enough fantasy to really be a satisfying fantasy wargame, but way too much for a strictly historical game either. Instead it resembles more of a platypus-like theme, with a strange juxtaposition of elements.

FFG will have a chance to assess the direction the game ought to go from here. The company could take it either way, as it has both history-based and fantasy-themed games in its line already. Or it could leave BattleLore a platypus, I suppose.

My sense is that players want a more fantasy-oriented game, though. There are already several more history-oriented Borg games available with Memoir '44 and C&C: Ancients (plus maybe a Napoleonic one and an updated Battle Cry) so de-emphasizing the medieval elements may be well-received. It certainly wouldn't bother me.

C&C Ancients: The hoplon box

There have been many laudable influences on wargaming from eurogames, among them shorter playing times, a move towards more elegant rules and an overall improvement in graphics.

Pulling out my copy of Command and Colors: Ancients, however, reminds me another one: better game boxes.

I've been a wargamer for almost 40 years now, and played games in general for almost 50. (I'm pretty sure I started with Milton Bradley's Go to the Head of the Class). And one consistent problem with games published by American publishers over those decades was flimsy boxes. It was also something I noticed back in the 1980s when I spent some time in Germany while in the Army. This was before the rise of the Eurogame, but Germans have always been big game fans and companies such as Ravensburger were publishing nice versions of traditional games, and these came in nice sturdy boxes.

The tradition of flimsy boxes pioneered by the lies of Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers was taken up by Avalon Hill, which wanted nothing more than to be considered a serious game company. The classic Avalon Hill box was a "flat box" similar in dimensions to its MB and Parker contemporaries. There was at least one edition of Stalingrad that came in an oversized flat box in a bid for more attention on store shelves.

This brings up the central contradiction in game box design between the interest of the publisher and the interests of the player. For the publisher, the success of the game box is measured by its success in selling the game. For this purpose the flat box is ideal, especially a lightly constructed one. It's big, has a lot of room for attention-grabbing art and for lots of informative ad copy describing all the game's features in nice big type. Being light it's easy to pick up from the shelf and spin around in the consumer's hands while the potential purchaser soaks up the add copy and the pretty pictures.

The player, however, wants a box that will hold all the game's components after the game has been assembled for play, will stand up to being carried around and won't take up an unnecessary amount of storage space in the home.

Until fairly recently, the publisher's interests tended to prevail over the players. Except for the 3M-introduced Bookcase game box (later adopted by Avalon Hill for some, but not all its games) and the corrugated box and sleeve used by Columbia Games and a few others, most wargame publishers, like most American game publishers in general, stuck to flimsy boxes. In some cases the boxes were exceptionally light and would fall apart almost immediately, but every flat box design is a problem for players. They don't hold up well to being transported, they won't fit well on most common bookshelves and sometimes they won't even hold all the game parts.

I, for one, always liked the AH bookcase boxes the best. They held up well to the wear and tear of life. I have more than a half dozen of the 3M games in their original boxes. Over the years I've rarely had to replace any bookcase boxes. On the other hand, I regularly found it necessary to replace flat boxes. I'm on my second Afrika Corps box and my third Midway box. although now, of course, they can't be replaced except by cannibalising from eBay purchases.

One of the first thing I noticed about the eurogames, in contrast is that they almost always come in a nice compact and sturdy box. The Euro-ized edition of A House Divided, for example, while in very large box, is also in a very tough box. Evidently Euro game publishers are more interested in building up goodwill among customers and a reputation for quality than short-term gains from quick sales.

The Columbia-style boxes have their advantages, although the sleeves tend to rip, so I considers it somewhat inferior to bookcase and euro-style boxes, although much better than any others.

So I was pleased to see that GMT has, at least for Commands & Colors: Ancients, gone with a very sturdy box. This was somewhat of a surprise, because GMT isn't averse to going flimsier. While some of their games are in bookcase style boxes they also have used flat box designs.

Some other American game makers are following the Euro lead. The newest games from Worthington are definitively Euro-standard and even many recent Hasbro games are in a more compact and player-friendly square box that takes up less space and is sturdier, although this isn't universal. The Axis & Allies games, in particular, still have too much air in them.

I hope that GMT goes C&C-style for more new titles, along with other gamemakers. I'm tired of split ends.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Dreamblade -- So what felled it?

Dreamblade was meant to be the "next big thing" in collectible/tradeable games.

Undoubtedly Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro conducted enough market research to persuade them it had potential. It had a big roll out, with big money tournaments and extensive Magic:The Gathering-style store support.

It's a pretty good game, with interesting strategies, an appropriate theme that gave players a sense of what the game was about while providing few constraints for designers, and some innovative ideas.

The physical presentation was top-notch, with a well-illustrated and clearly explained rule book. The miniatures were outstanding, with great art, fascinating and clever sculpts and ending up with an extensive line of 300 different figures from the base set and four expansions.

The game seems to have been generally well-received. On BGG it's rating of 7.39 places it at No. 282 among the tens of thousands of game titles rated by the site. This puts it about as popular as Bang! and World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin. It's owned by 617 BGG folks and has been played some 2,301 times by 273 distinct users, which also makes it pretty popular by BoardgameGeek standards. It has 15 pages of images on the site, another sign of some enthusiasm.

Yet, despite all this, the game ended up getting cancelled by WOTC before it's second anniversary.

I think Dreamblade's fate may illustrate the pitfalls of the collectible format for marketing a game. While obviously a great money-maker for a game company if it takes off, going collectible may raise the bar a lot for a game title. It's either all or nothing. Huge success or death. Despite being pretty darn successful by traditional boardgame standards, as a collectible game DreamBlade couldn't make the cut.

Most of the collectible figure games that have been successful seem to be based on some outside theme, not a self-contained one. It may be a fictional setting like HeroClix or Star Wars, a game universe like D&D or Halo or historical like Axis & Allies or Pirates, but figure-based games seem to need an anchor.

There may be some other reasons why DreamBlade faltered as well. I think the pace of the expansions was a bit too aggressive for most players to keep up with. There was a problem with balance with some pieces. Most tournament winning warbands seemed to have three Scarab Warcharms and most featured multiple rares. One piece (Kitsune) had to be banned.

Still, most collectible games have some problems with balance and Dreamblades expansion schedule wasn't more aggressive than HeroClix, so I doubt these were sufficient.

I know for myself, I'm very unlikely to take a chance on another collectible figure game based on a standalone theme.

A&A: Battle of the Bulge -- another bulgeless Bulge game

Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge is definitely a wargame far down on the game-simplicity scale, but many more detailed and complex Battle of the Bulge wargames also have trouble replicating the historical "bulge" for which the battle is named. It's been a problem ever since the original Avalon Hill Battle of the Bulge game and it's been seen in just about every game since.

Many reasons have been offered for this state of affairs, but I think this consistency across time and designs comes from a more fundamental problem, I think, and that's the too-narrow view of the battlefield taken by designers.

Invariably the board starts more or less from the German starting areas (which are never threatened by the U.S.) and runs west to Liege and Namur. In the north it starts around Monschau and ends just south of Martelange.

The problem with this battlefield, especially the northern and southern limits, is that it invariably brings an "edge of the world" problem. The German player is always tempted to go that extra hex or two to the board edge to anchor his flanks. The cost in terms of diluting his main effort a little is more than balanced by not having to garrison his flanks. Even games that allow allied flank attacks rarely have provisions that are enough to discourage this tactic. In A&A:Bulge there isn't even this danger, as Allied reinforcements can only appear behind their own "front line."

In the actual event, of course, there was no edge-of-the-world. The front extended for many mile north and south and pushing in either direction would have direct consequences in weakening the German drive west, while adding no appreciable benefit, because there would always still be a "bulge."

It mystifies me why, after all this time, Battle of the Bulge game designers insist on restricting the battlefield to its historical extent. If they merely added another 10 miles of front north and south they could ensure that there would be a "bulge." Adding another 25%-33% more front would illustrate why the German attack unfolded as it did. If the German player tried to advance across that whole front he would obviously be diluting his attack beyond any hope of a breakthrough.

A&A:Bulge compounds this problem by giving the German player no real incentive to drive as far West as possible. There are 24 victory points of towns within a moderate distance of the start line and a broad front advance that reaches as far as Werbemont and Bastogne will be enough. There's no need to even get as far as Liege, let alone Huy or Namur.

This is not to suggest that the game isn't an interesting game or that the victory conditions don't result in a fair game, but they seem designed to ensure that there won't be a "Bulge" in the Battle of the Bulge on you tabletop. It would be easy to dismiss this as a flaw caused by it being just a simple, entry-level wargame, except for the fact that it's seen in just about every Bulge game ever printed.

A similar problem afflicts Gettysburg games, although on that topic at least a few designers have experimented with expanding the battlefield enough to the east and south that there's enough room to maneuver and try alternative strategies.

I Am Spartacus review

I Am Spartacus is an area movement-and-counter wargame depicting the slave revolt of 73 BC that shook Rome and inspired the Kirk Douglas movie "Sparatcus."

The game, which was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 15, covers the revolt from beginning to end in monthly turns. Units are Roman legions and groups of rebellious slaves of similar size. The counters are the larger 5/8-inch size that Command Magazine often used with full-color iconic warriors. Each unit is rated for its combat strength. Nearly all the slave units and some Roman units are two steps, with a weaker value on the reverse side that is generally half the value. Some units have just one step. Roman legions, on the other hand, have multiple counters each, as each step loss reduces their combat value by just one. This gives the 6- and 8-factor legions considerable staying power.

Based on the earlier Alexandros game, the 13-page rule book describes a game of low to moderate complexity by wargame standards. The colorful Mark Simonitch map is attractive and functional, depicting all of Italy and adjacent areas. Most provinces are clear terrain with some mountain areas, including the five making up the spine of Italy. There is one swamp area around where Venice would appear later in history. In addition there are three in-area rebel sanctuary locations (the Pontine Marsh, Mt. Vesuvius and the Sila Forest) where small groups of rebels can hide.

Unlike Alexandros, I Am Spartacus is a chaotic game where both sides will be forced into opportunistic play. The rebels have to raise rebellion across Italy while avoiding getting caught in a pitched battle with superior Roman forces. The Romans, on the other hand, start with few forces and have to be careful during the early stages of the revolt about getting defeated in detail. The Roman player has an overwhelming amount of force available, eventually, but pays a considerable cost in victory points if he calls on too much of it. The revolt came while Rome was in the midst of some foreign wars and troops recalled to home hurt the war effort abroad.

The biggest change from Alexandros is the combat system. Instead of the odds-based CRT system in its predecessor, I Am Spartacus uses a firepower-based system where each unit rolls a die against its combat strength to score a hit. This means that a full-strength 6-factor Roman legion is guaranteed a hit and also means that the Romans will win any battle of attrition.

Battles are handled schematically, similar to Alexandros, except without the strict division into left, right, center and reserve. Now each player simply lines up his units against their opposite numbers. Units that defeat their opposite numbers can breakthrough and fight at increased effectiveness against enemy units to either side of the breakthrough. This is another advantage for the multi-step Roman legions, as they are the most likely to survive long enough to achieve a break through.

All the major leaders are present, including Spartacus, Pompey and Crassus. The core of the slave army is the 7-factor, four-step Gladiator unit, which is the only Spartacist unit that can recover strength. If eliminated it is gone for good, so naturally it is a prime Roman target. Slaves that revolt start off as 2-factor, one-step slave gangs of limited value. Spartacus can attempt to train up the slave gangs to real fighting men. Trained slaves are replaced with randomly drawn units of slingers or ethnic fighters including Gall-Germans, Greeks and others.

As the slave revolt had little chance of overthrowing the Roman state, the game assesses victory at a more modest level. Essentially, the more extensive and longer-lasting the revolt, the better for Spartacus. The Roman player is trying to suppress the revolt as quickly as possible while using as few troops as he can. Spartacus earns VPs for killing Roman legions and leaders, for slaves who escape off the map (only certain types are eligible) and for having an ongoing rebellion at game end (turn 17). The Romans get points for killing rebels and leaders and lose points for calling on the substantial forces they have available. If Spartacus captures Rome he wins instantly. If the Romans kill Spartacus before turn 17, they win immediately.

The game is playable in one sitting and only takes about a quarter hour to set up. There is just one scenario.

There is also a major variant called "Pyrrhic Victory" from Command No. 19, that uses the same map and many of the same units.


(Yes) For Wargamers: An unusual ancient campaign with a dramatic theme.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

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