Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Been under the weather

Hence the sparse posts of late. With luck it will back to full steam ahead shortly

Friday, December 26, 2008

Reviewing collectible games from a wargamer's perspective: INWO

Illuminati: New World Order is an odd fish in many ways, starting with the theme, of course.

The basic premise is that all those tinfoil-wearing conspiracy theorists are right and there really are unseen powerful secret groups manipulating world events.

In the game this manifests itself with players constructing decks made up of two basic kinds of cards: Groups, which the player is trying to control or destroy, and Plots, which are the tools used to help get control, destroy or defend groups.

The game is heavily satirical and explicitly not Politically Correct, although all groups, ideologies and cultures are mocked equally.

Also making the game an odd duck is its status. Is it dead, alive or something in between?

On the one hand, it's a member of the Class of 1995 first wave of CCG's that came out after Magic: The Gathering was recognized as having created a whole new genre of games. Only a handful of games from that era survive, although M:TG is going strong.

On the other hand, INWO is still available from Steve Jackson Games, the original publisher, which would seem to qualify it as "alive."

But on yet another hand, there hasn't been anything new published for about a decade, which implies a certain like of vitality, to say the least.

However you characterize it, the current state of INWO means that it avoids some of the more annoying aspects of CCGs. No cards have become obsolete. There is a finite set to collect and yet there's always the possibility some new cards will show up.

The M:TG-style collectibility is further undermined by Steve Jackson's less than wholehearted support of the concept. Yes, he admittedly jumped on the bandwagon, by his own account, but never went whole hog. There were very few promo cards and no ultra rares. There are at least two ways to buy into the game while by-passing the whole collectible aspect. SJG offers a "One-with-everything factory set" that includes all the first edition cards. There is also the INWO Subgenius (which is even more weird than INWO) which is a completely standalone 100-card INWO game but also fully compatible with the regular INWO.

Players build a conspiracy structure based on their particular variety of Illuminati (UFOs, Bemuda Triangle, Bavarian Illuminati, etc.) trying to meet their goal. This can involve controlling a certain number of groups, but can also involve destroying groups or meeting other special victory conditions. The available groups run the gamut from personalities such as Bill Clinton, countries such as Canada, organizations such as the CIA or even loose groups of like-minded folks like wargamers!.

As a multi-player game INWO is best played with a group, but the off-beat theme may make it hard to find a group that are all interested in playing it. I think a wargaming group may be willing to try it, it is after all, a game of conquest, but is is not really a game of maneuver. There's a lot of strategy in it but it tends to be more Sun Tzu or Machiavelli than Clausewitz or Napoleon.

The game is, as I noted, still available from Steve Jackson Games, but players can also pick up cards off of eBay on a regular basis. Casual players who want to try the game out can either buy the Subgenius expansion or the regular Illuminati non-collectible card game, which plays much the same.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rare night out eurogaming

Due to my job I rarely have a weekday evening off, and when I do have one off it's usually for some non-gaming reason, so I don't normally have an opportunity to game with the nice folks down New Haven who "Fell Like A Kid Again" in their Meetup Group.

But yesterday I did have such an opportunity and I had a grand old time.

I had the chance to play two games I've had my eye on for some time, but it's been my policy lately to avoid buying games until I've had a chance to play them, with a few exceptions.

We started off the evening playing Winning Circle, which is sort of a Reiner Knizia version of Win, Place & Show, which is to say that it captures most of the best parts of the older game while being a far more elegant and efficient design. I managed to avoid coming in dead last in the 6-player game, but I did have a lot of fun and I resolved to pick up a copy when I get the chance. My kids like Win, Place & Show but it's a little complicated for them and it takes a pretty long time to play. While Winning Circle certainly has sufficient strategy for them to grow into, the basic structure is simple enough that they can still enjoy playing even if they haven't yet developed a sense of strategy. It also plays considerably faster.

Our second game was another one I've been thinking about for a while: Jamaica. In this case the name of the game is a big selling point, given my deep connections with that island. On the other hand, while a Caribbean pirate-themed game, it doesn't really have much to do with pirates and even less to do with the actual island of Jamaica. It's really another race game, although like Winning Circle it s extremely nicely done and involves rather more strategy than one might suppose. I did come in dead last in this one in a three-player game. While I enjoyed it, I'm less certain about buying a copy of this one, mostly because it's really a game for grownups without as much appeal for the kids. If my schedule starts to allow some regular gaming with bigger folks I'd consider having a copy, but in the meantime I'll probably hold off.

Still, the entire evening was exceptionally enjoyable. Everyone was very friendly and the venue, a small retail store, a perfect site.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Reviweing collectible games from a wargamer's perspective: Redemption

Redemption is a case of a collectible game that has some of the trappings of a military conflict game, but is really of limited interest to wargamers.

This bible-based card game was part of the first major wave of collectible games to hit the market in 1995 after Magic:The Gathering pioneered the concept. Unlike most of those 1995 games, however, Redemption has managed to stay in print all these years. While not a bad game, by any means, the relative success and longevity of Redemption has more to do with its appeal to a particular niche of the market -- the Christian (especially evangelical) market. While the game is non-denominational enough to appeal to any Christian belief and, indeed, could appeal to many secular-minded people as well, it's main reason for existing is the reality that there's a market for Christian themed products of all sorts for people who feel the wider secular popular culture has a lot of problematic elements from a moral stand point. There's an entire subculture of books, magazines, music, plays, television programs, movies and many other products oriented towards Christians that are largely invisible to the wider public.

While Magic: The Gathering was wildly popular, it posed a problem for Christian parents and teens because its full of topics most Christians find highly suspect, such as magic, evil characters placed on the same level as good, sacrifice and abominations of all sorts. So to provide an alternative that provided a more wholesome message while providing many of the same gaming experiences as M:TG Redemption was created.

The basic premise of the game is that heroes are being sent into the land of bondage to rescue lost souls. These heroes are opposed in their quest by Evil Characters. The Heroes and Evil Characters engage in a test of strength, comparing attack and defense strengths (in a diceless system similar to Magic: The Gathering). Both sides can be enhanced with cards and, as one might expect, there are various special cards that can be played as well. The cards are very attractive, with Biblical passages related to the card's theme and quality illustrations.

All the cards are based on events, people and themes from the Bible and it turns out to be a surprisingly rich source. There are even dragons!

Even though the game does include many warlike or military-sounding things such as bow and arrow, buckler and David's Sling there are also many decidedly unwarlike enhancements as well such as Gentleness, Joy, Shoes of Peace and the Submissiveness of Mary.

From a wargamer's point of view, the game is of limited interest, having little to do with military tactics and strategy. As with most CCG's card-playing skills such as hand-management and combo-building are more important than skills based on the traditional principles of war.

On the other hand, it's an accessible game that succeeds in providing an entertaining Christian-themed CCG. It's a somewhat easier game than Magic: The Gathering, making it easier to teach to non-gamers and younger children, but I think there's sufficient detail that deck building will still be interesting for experienced players. New expansions for the game come out about every two years or so, so the game is nowhere near the money sink that M:TG is. The company's Web site provides tournament materials, but there's little evidence of a strong tournament scene for the game.

I don't think most wargamers would seek this out, but if you happen to be a wargamer who also has an interest in Biblical themed games then I think you may find it of some interest.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rommel at Gazala review

This is the issue game in Command Magazine No. 34 (which also included the Death & Destruction expansion for Proud Monster).

Dwarfed by the D&D expansion, Rommel at Gazala would be easy to miss, with less than 100 5/8-inch counters.

The game uses the system that debuted in Budapest '45, which uses unit rosters to track step losses. Compared to other step-loss games, the units here have a large number of steps, often 20 or more. The rosters list the attack and defense factors of the unit. Movement allowances are determined by unit type. The only information on the counter itself, aside from from its nationality color and NATO unit symbol, is the unit's historical ID. The unit rosters and step losses are less work in Rommel than they were in Budapest because of the extremely low unit density. There are just a dozen Axis units, and less than two dozen Allied ones. Axis units are divisions, except for two Italian regiments and one German brigade. Allied units are brigades.

With so few units the placement of each one becomes critical. As in Budapest '45, when units are not in combat they are kept face down. In Rommel, because there are so few units, this limited intelligence will have little effect, especially for the British. The lion's share of the Axis offensive power is contained in the three German mobile divisions, which the Allied player should have no problem tracking from memory (the rules prohibit taking notes) There's a little more scope for deception on the Allied side, although most brigades have comparable factors. The Axis can detach a recon battalion from each German mobile division to help cover more ground, but these one- or two-step units are very fragile and cannot be replaced if eliminated.

As in Budapest '45 the turn sequence is asymmetric. After a mutual supply check phase the Axis move their mechanized units. They conduct a combat phase and then all Axis units can move and clear mines.The British player turn consists of a combat phase followed by the movement/mine clearing phase, so just as the Soviets were in the earlier game the British are forced to set up their attacks the turn before executing them.

The map is based on the terrain analysis of the Moments in History wargame Triumphant Fox. Each hex is 3.5 kilometers, every turn is a day. The small unit scale for a divisional-level game is responsible for the inclusion of a zone of control rule, which is most unusual for XTR games. Units are forced to stop by enemy ZOCs and cannot move through them. They may, however, leave an enemy ZOC and combat is not required. Combat is odds based with step losses, as is usual in XTR games. Besides ZOCs there are very extensive minefields on the map, which also channel movement. Both sides can clear enemy minefield hexes during their general movement phases.

The winner is determined by victory points, with every eliminated step worth 1 VP, except for eliminated Italians, who net the British 2 VPs each. Should the German be so careless as to allow the British into hex 1200 (the coast road leading off to the West) they'll be giving up 50 VP.

The primary Axis objective is to capture Tobruk, which is worth a variable number of victory points, depending on the turn. The longer it takes the Germans to capture the port, the fewer VPs it's worth. On May 27, Turn 1 (an impossibility) it's worth 130 points. By June 21, Turn 26, it's worth 0 VP. If sufficiently ahead on points the British can declare a withdrawal, conceding Tobruk as of that turn, but escaping with all supplied forces and denying the Germans those VPs. As both sides keep their exact losses a secret, the British cannot slice this too closely or they could just cost themselves the game.

Set up time is minimal, with just a couple dozen pieces. The game is easily playable in a single session and fast movers can probably complete a two-game match in an evening.


(Yes) for Wargamers: Especially for players who want to try out the Budapest'45 system.

(No) for collectors: Nothing notable here.

(Conditional no) for Eurogamers. If you're interested in checking out a hex-and-counter wargame this is meaty enough to be a good representative while the low unit density helps keep it manageable.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reviewing collectible games from a wargaming perspective: Echelons of Fury

Like it's sister game, Echelons of Fire, the 1995 collectible game Echelons of Fury was an obvious imitator of Magic: The Gathering, with a similar sequence of play, combat mechanism and overall approach.

From a wargamer's perspective the World War II-themed Echelons of Fury may have a little more interest than the modern-themed Fire version of the game, but the game is still afflicted with the same flawed card selection and underdeveloped rules as the modern game and will generally be as frustrating.

As with the Fire game, Fury is a quite dead, so acquiring cards will tend to be fairly easy and inexpensive, if one is so inclined. Drafting decks from a common collection can create some interest and playing a game won't take all that long in most cases. The game allows for varying the deck size and the resulting level of headquarters damage needed for victory, but I think the game is best played with the minimum 40-card and 20 point HQ. Under those conditions the game plays quickly and you can get a whole series of games completed in a short period of time. Restricting the deck so severely makes the card choices more intense.

My particular collection happens to have a "brothel" card, which is not only amusing but shows where the designer missed an opportunity to differentiate his game from Magic: The Gathering and prospered. A big problem with the Echelons game sis that they are, frankly, kind of dull and dry. Throughout the game there's evidence that keeping costs down was a priority but I think this came at the cost of its long-time viability.

The "Brothel" card adds some spice to the game but also indicates how the game could have kept interest fresh by mining some of the rich history of the vast conflict. For example, the game as printed suffers from an excess of identical common cards. Anyone who acquires more than a few decks worth will have far more regular infantry squads, light machine guns and bazookas than they could ever hope to use. But by simply labeling the cards with the names and histories of famous fighting units the collectibility and historical interest of the game could have been heightened. Perhaps a Squad from the Big Red One 1st Infantry Division and one from the Bloody Bucket 28th Infantry Division would have been the same in game terms, but they would have given players less reason to feel cheated when they opened a booster pack and got yet another coupe of common squads.

Likewise many more flavorful special events could have been brought into play with more creative cards like the Brothel card hinted at. World War II was full of strange and unusual events that could provide fodder for cool cards.

As it turned out, the collectible game market is fiercely competitive and there appears to only be room for a handful of hot titles at any given time. Without a hook that could help it stand out in the crowd Echelons of Fury joined Echelons of Fire in the bargain bins.

Had the game lasted longer it might have had time to work out some of the kinks in the game design. It's easy to forget today that many of the early Magic sets had some real problem cards and rules that led to some significant changes and left a legacy of banned and restricted cards. It's been a few years since Magic had to ban a card in play and I think this reflects the intense development process the company uses.

Players of Echelons of Fury will have to make their own fixes, but considering that all play will be among friends in casual play this should not be difficult.

Overall, I think Echelons of Fury is a mildly amusing light war-themed card game that would be worth getting on the cheap if you get the chance, but not anything you'll particularly miss if it passes you by.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dollar slide may affect global gaming community

The dollar lost significant ground against the euro and yuan today: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4460aa54-cc6f-11dd-acbd-000077b07658.html

This may impact the gaming world, especially U.S. gamers who like euro games and/or nice bits.
On the other hand, European gamers may find US products a bargain for a while, so long as they don't include too many Chinese-made parts.

I wonder if they'll be any repeats of anything like Axis & Allies: Anniversary Edition anytime soon. I'd expect a price increase for things like Axis & Allies miniatures or BattleLore as well.

Buying products from Europe is likely to become especially expensive as the dollar to euro ratio moves towards 2 for 1. Will people pay twice as much for a German game as they do now? On the other hand there may be some nice bargains the other way.

Reviewing collectible games from a wargaming perspective: Echelons of Fire

I've reviewed Echelons of Fire in greater detail elsewhere, http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/315273, but to recap, Echelons of Fire was one of the first wave of collectible card games to appear once Magic : The Gathering made its big splash. It's theme is modern era tactical level combat. Most of the cards are either United States Army or from the Soviet-style N.D.G. (I call them the No Darn Goods). The second edition added some British and Serbian units. The only dragons in this game are a U.S. anti-tank missile.

Echelons was a closer imitator of Magic than most. If it wasn't a clone, it was at the very least a half-sibling, sharing the same sequence of play and many of the same concepts, even including ante. Like Magic the game is won by reducing the enemy player (headquarters) from its initial 20 points down to zero points.

Echelons does have some differences from Magic that extend beyond mere names. Unlike Magic, for example, there is a limited form of maneuver in Echelons of Fire, as attacking units must use a maneuver card (left, center or right) to pass through a terrain card (woods, town, hills, open, city, bridge, river) on their way to the target headquarters.

Also somewhat different from Magic is the role of the supporting supply (mana) cards. In Echelons you not only have to pay the unit's cost in ammunition and fuel points to deploy it initially, you must keep paying it very turn. This is similar to the concept of "upkeep" in Magic, but it's a standard feature, not a special ability.

More so than Magic ,the fighting in Echelons revolves around the units (creatures in MTG terms) as there are relatively few ways to directly attack an enemy headquarters.

For a wargamer the theme in Echelons of Fire is obviously much more attractive than MTG. As Echelons is a "dead" game, there is no convention or tournament scene so casual play is the only available venue. Because the game is no longer in print there is a finite size to the collection and cards are inexpensive to obtain on eBay and still generally available.

There are some rules holes and "degeneracy" problems in the game that may have to be house ruled if you play a lot, but they probably won't come up among casual players with limited collections very often.

The quality of the cards is a notch below Magic and the breakdown between common, uncommon and rare cards is poorly done. Players will have vast numbers of common fire teams and infantry weapons in excess of any need. If you build up any sized collection at all you will even have plenty of the rare cards, which are much less overpowered than similar cards are in Magic.

My overall recommendation is that Echelons of Fire may be of mild interest to a wargamer. It allows you to explore some of the deck construction metagame of Magic without the expense and the frustration of facing players who have much more resources. Indeed, as you're not likely to find an opponent with his own cards, you'll probably be drafting both decks from your own collection.

It is still, fundamentally, a card game in mechanics and card-game skills will play a bigger role than the usual principles-of-war based maneuvering typical in board wargames. That said, it does adhere to the theme strongly, and wargamers will probably find it a more comfortable theme than Magic: The Gathering.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reviewing collectible games from a wargaming perspective: Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering is one of the seminal games of the gaming hobby, right up there with Tactics, Diplomacy, Panzerblitz, Dungeons & Dragons and Settlers of Catan. It created an entirely new category of gaming, collectible games, when it came out in 1993, as as such, it's worth at least having a passing acquaintance with for any gamer.

And it has been very successful, being one of the few game designs to make it's designer a fortune. Although it's now more than 15 years old and and spawned several imitators and inspiring many other collectible games, it's never really been surpassed.

I think this is a testament to a very sound basic game structure that has proven to be very robust.

For those who don't know, the basic sequence of play is straightforward.

After starting with an administrative "upkeep" phase, a player draws a card and then plays cards during the "main phase." There are literally thousands of different cards, but two of the most common are "lands" and "creatures." A player can place one land into play per turn and then "tap" (use) that land and any previously played lands to generate points of "mana," which is the currency of the game. Mana comes in five colors and playing non-land "spell" cards costs varying amounts of mana in color specified on the card. One of the most common kinds of spells is one that summons various creatures. If a creature summoning spell makes it into play (there are cards that can head it off) then it becomes a creature with an attack and defense value. During the main phase a player can dispatch any creatures that have not just appeared to attack the opposing player. The defender can send his previously played creatures to block the attackers. Each fight is resolved by comparing the each attacking value to each defending value. No dice are involved. Unblocked creatures attack the opposing player costing him or her one point of "life" for every attacking point. Players start with 20 life points and are defeated when reduced to zero. After combat concludes, the main phase resumes, allowing the phasing player to play more spells, if desired.

All of these activities can be affected, modified, cancelled, enhanced, disrupted, etc., etc. and etc. by various cards and the timely playing of the cards is a big part of the game. Perhaps an even bigger part of the game is the pre-game deck-building activity, as a player selects from his available cards to create the most effective fighting force.

Because the game explicitly features combat between dueling foes, it bears a resemblance to wargames and might be expected to appeal to wargamers, or at least those open to non-historical themes.

There are, however, significant obstacles for wargamers who might think about dipping into the pool of Magic: The Gathering players.

Magic: The Gathering is more than just a game. It's a deeply absorbing hobby in itself. Indeed, in order to be a serious Magic player there's really little time, money or energy left for anything else. A wargamer who made a serious effort to get into Magic: The Gathering would, by definition, cease being a wargamer and would become a Magic player.

It's similar to the problem casual chess players face whenever they ponder getting "into" the serious chess world. The fact of the matter is that becoming a mediocre rated player, let alone a master-level chess player, takes dedicated effort and e=intense study. Magic is the same, but with an added dimension of cost. One simple illustration is looking at the top-rated tournament decks listed on the wizards.com Web site. Looking at several dozen of them one sees that there's hardly a basic land card in the bunch. Nearly all of them feature 20 or so specialty land cards which are more efficient in play, but also are in limited supply as rare cards. Acquiring the cards alone means buying many boosters or purchasing the cards as singles at a premium from dealers.

Fortunately there is an option for those who might want to try the game out without going crazy. Wizards of the Coast generally offers pre-constructed decks. For example, currently there is a duel set that pits two set pre-constructed decks against each other in one $20 package. This provides a way to have a fair game between two players and is roughly comparable in price and value to standalone non-collectible card games. While not usable for tournament play,. these decks can serve as a useful primer. Similarly, a more casual player can take part in the tournament scene by playing in "sealed draft" tournaments, where all the players have access to the same boosters and they draft cards to build their decks. Experienced players still have a significant edge in this format, of course, because of their better understanding of the game, but it's less pronounced than in constructed deck play.

One major advantage of Magic: The Gathering is that it is very popular and well-supported, so finding opponents is easy. There's hardly a burg big enough to have a post office that doesn't have a store offering Magic: The Gathering organized play within an easy drive.

Still, while I can see value in a wargamer picking up a couple of decks to try the game out, I can't recommend going much further than that. Playing Magic: The Gathering to a satisfying level of success will require such a big commitment that a player will probably have little time for anything else.

While featuring play that resembles combat, any prior wargame experience won't be all that useful because Magic is, at root, a card game, not a combat game. Knowing the Principles of War and being skilled at maneuvers or planning will be of little use. The hand-management skills of a good Poker player are much more relevant.

My overall recommendation is to dabble in Magic: The Gathering if you can restrain yourself from getting sucked into the maelstrom of organized play. It is a good game, basically, and worth having a couple of decks on hand for casual play when the mood strikes. If you're a competitive player , however, be forewarned that success requires going whole hog. You may have fun, but you'll be an ex-wargamer.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The pros and cons of collectible game - a wargaming view

Over the next few weeks I plan to review some of the collectible games I'm familiar with from a wargaming hobby point of view.

By definition these will all be collectible games or have collectible-like features so rather than repeating this discussion for every review I thought it might be better to address the pros and cons of the collectibilty concept as it applies to the whole class.

I think there are several ways that collectibility affects a game system that will be important to the typical wargamer, who will generally have had little exposure to the concept unless he also has general game interests.

Wargames have heavily used the idea of expansions and expandability, of course. One of the very first SPI projects was the Blitzkrieg Expansion Module, which added all sorts of bells and whistles to Avalon Hill's Blitzkrieg and required possession of the original game in order to play.

The idea of a metagame involving army building goes back to at least PanzerBlitz and its optional point-based scenarios and competitive tournament play has always been a part of the board wargaming hobby since it reached a critical mass big enough to support conventions. And, of course, wargaming has always been a wallet-stripping hobby where there's persistent temptation to spend money on gaming stuff that you'll never end up actually playing.

Still, these various elements, which are peripheral to wargaming, all play a significantly enhanced role in the collectible game hobby experience.

For example, the money sink. As long as a collectible game is "alive," serious players are really required to sink a lot of money into that particular gaming line. While individual booster packs are relatively low priced in real terms (usually $10-$15, about the cost of a fast-food meal for two or a DVD) in the aggregate they add up to a significantly more expensive way to game than board wargaming and can even exceed the cost of a typical traditional miniature wargamer's budget. While $100 is a lot by board wargame standards and will usually buy you a big game like Axis & Allies: Anniversary edition, Tide of Iron or War of the Ring or let you buy a base game and at least one expansion like Memoir'44 or Combat Commander, for most collectible games it's just the down payment on a minimally competitive set.

In addition, "living" collectible games almost always have planned obsolescence for components as older sets get "retired" from official sanctioned play.

These aspects of collectible games generally make them unattractive to wargamers. Typically being a serious player of a collectible game will easily take up the entire game budget for most people. Buying just one or two boosters per week will add up to an annual cost of $700-$1,000. Spending much less than that will mean you can't expect to be competitive in sanctioned play.

There are, of course, ways to ease the financial strain, but no way to eliminate it. The simplest is to simply wait until the game "dies." While, in theory, a collectible game that goes out of print should remain just as playable as it was before, in practice going out of print generally means an end to sanctioned official play and a loss of interest among players. On the other hand, however, it usually means game elements are available for less in the secondary market and often mean the game will be in "bargain bins" in stores. It can be also be cheaper to fill out your constructed decks and warbands by purchasing the elements you need from online retailers, although the most desirable elements can be prohibitively expensive.

The whole collectibility concept is built around competitive play and the resulting metagame. This is not necessarily a drawback. The most active competitive playing venues in gaming are built around collectible games, with sanctioned tournaments every week in most areas. By contrast, competitive play for most board wargames is restricted to a couple of national conventions and a handful of regional cons. I don't think competitive play is a large motivation for wargamers, but for that smaller subset that wants it collectible games provide it in spades.

Even of it were not so expensive in money, collectible games are expensive in time. The largest part of the gamer's energy is expended in deck or warband construction. Building a competitive army will take a lot of thinking, studying and experimenting. This is, again, not necessarily a negative thing. If one counts the hours spent plotting, studying and thinking as part of the "playing" time than collectible games are not so expensive after all in entertainment value. This aspect of collectible games may be the most attractive to wargamers, who often enjoy that kind of "offline" game experience anyway. Most wargames are played solitaire, after all, with wargamers often studying their games intensely outside of playing time against an opponent.

To some extent all collectible games share these three characteristics: Cost, competition and consuming of time. For many wargamers any or all of these may make any collectible game a non-starter for them. But if not, then it's worth looking at the specific characteristics of a particular game to see if it's of potential interest for wargamers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Death and Destruction module review

Death & Destruction is not a standalone wargame but an expansion module for Proud Monster, Ty Bomba's magnus opus divisional level Barbarossa game. D&D covers the next two years of the war, until the Spring of 1944.As a module, no fundamental changes are made to the game system and the 15-page rule book is all special rules to account for order of battle changes and other developments as the war moves out of its initial phases.

The counters include various later war reinforcements for both sides, although the Soviets naturally benefit the most as new, more powerful units appear such as more than 100 Guards units, mechanized corps, tank corps and sundry other good stuff to allow the Soviet side some fun kicking German panzers around after having been manhandled in 1941.

The largest group of German counters actually represents a decline in quality as all the infantry divisions go through a universal downgrade in 1943.

For Germans tempted by the allure of Caucasus oil there is an expansion Map C which is added if the Germans head in that direction.

The expansion also includes two turn record cards. a German Replacement Army roster and a card with other charts and tables related to the expanded game such as a guards conversion table and even a "Game Turn to Remember List." With as many as 68 turns of play possible, it's easy to see how that might be handy.

With this expansion, PM/D&D become a true "monster game." While with just two maps it's not physically the biggest Eastern Front wargame, but it may be one of the more playable. As an expansion, D&D does add some set-up time. If one plays the whole campaign it can obviously be a very long game, taking up more than 60 hours of playing time.

The game will not necessarily go the distance however. On certain specified turns the Germans check to see how many victory points (awarded for geographic objectives) they have. If it's within a certain range the game goes on, if it falls outside of it one side or the other loses.

UNLESS, of course, the players want to go on (which given the investment they have made in time and effort, would be tempting). In that case the winning side gets "forgiveness points" they can use later to score later.

The Germans also have an opportunity twice to bring the game to an early end by launching go-for-broke efforts for victory. One of these occurs in the Proud Monster portion and is discussed there. But in 1943 the Germans can declare "Manstein's Gambit." This gives them extra units but requires a victory on points by the time the weather turns bad that year, or the Soviets win.
One unusual rule in D&D is "mechanized upgrades" otherwise called "stuffers." These are counters representing extra steps that can be added to mechanized units. The unit's combat values are unaffected, but it can lose the extra steps before taking actual step reductions. This adds considerable staying power to the units so blessed.


(Yes) for Wargamers: If you have Proud Monster

(Yes) for Collectors: Only if you have Proud Monster

(No) for Eurogamers: Why would you have Proud Monster?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Great War in Europe review

A lot of ideas that appear in Ted Raicer's popular Paths of Glory make an appearance here, with the game's chit random event system. Perhaps the most monstrous of the "mini-monsters" published in Command Magazine, The Great War in Europe, from issue No. 33, covers the major fronts of World War I on the divisional scale. Most turns are one or two months, except for August and September, 1914, where each turn is just two weeks. Each hex on the western and Italian fronts represents 9.5 miles, every hex on the Russian front is 22.5 miles. The different ground scales are handled by doubling every unit's movement allowance on the western front (so a 2-4 French infantry division is really a 2-8.).

Units are the standard attack-defense-movement factor layout. Where the attack and defense factors are the same -- as in the aforementioned French division -- a single combat factor is listed.

The core of the system (supply, movement and combat) only take up five pages of the 22-page rule book. Most of the rest is devoted to all the myriad of special rules needed for the chits and other special for neutrals, strategic moves, etc.

The most notable facet of the game, aside from the chit pull, is the initiative system, where whoever has the initiative on one front has to give it up on the other. For example, at the start of the game the Germans have the initiative in France (Italy is not yet active) while the Russians have it in the East.

After every two or three operational turns there is a strategic turn where victory conditions are checked, reinforcements arrive and new chits are added to the pool.

Physically the game is XTR standard. There are two full-sized Beth Queman maps. The west map has the French and Italian fronts, while the east map depicts the Eastern Front from St. Peterburg to Constantinople. There are more than 800 units from 13 countries included in the game.

The 1/2-inch counters use XTR standard colors for the major powers (French blue, Russian green, British red, German field grey, Austo-Hungarian grey, American olive) and a rainbow of other colors for the various other countries.

Raicer's stated design intent was to eliminated the benefit of hindsight as much as possible. The effect of this is to essentially force the players into refighting the whole war. There is very little scope for winning some kind of decisive victory or doing anything far outside the scope of what happened historically. For example, if the Allies decide to try an amphibious assault on Constantinople they MUST land at Gallipoli, even though the accompanying magazine article points out there were other (perhaps superior) beaches they could have chosen. Even the chits, for the most part, are mechanism for introducing historical events, rather than exploring many things that might have been.

This is a long game. Setting it up by itself will take more than an hour, assuming you've sorted the counters ahead of time. The game could continue for as many as 51 operational turns (to Jun 1919), so it is clearly a multi-session project. Play length for this sort of game is highly dependent on the style of the group, but a total of 40-50 hours is a good start for planning purposes.

Victory is achieved by capturing victory hexes. If the Central Powers capture enough there is a chance they can cause a collapse of Western morale for a sudden death victory. This seems unlikely to occur, however. Even less likely is an Allied sudden death victory, which comes from capturing Berlin or the Ruhr. So most games will turn on the Central Powers attempts to capture 20 victory hexes and hold them during a victory check phase. Every Central Powers city held by the allies reduced the victory hex total by one.

If the game makes it to June 1919 without the Germans getting to 20 then the game ends in a draw. The historical result was the Central Powers player conceding defeat after the October turn as the front disintegrated making the position hopeless.


(Conditional Yes) for Wargamers: IF you have to have hexes and counters and want to get into a lot of detail, that is. Otherwise you might be better off with Paths of Glory.

(Yes) for Collectors: Unique treatment of the war at this scale and unlikely to be repeated.

(No) for Eurogamers: Like really, really "No."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Brief session report: Drive on Metz

Mark K and I wrapped up a full day of gaming with a match of the Jim Dunnigan Drive on Metz game, using the Victory Point Games edition.

While the flow of both games was quite different, in neithe rcase did the American side come close to victory. When I played the U.S> Mark was able to bog me down quite thoroughly and my troops never even got to the Moselle River. Mark didn't rack up a lot of points because he was pretty reluctant to release his mobile units to other fronts, but seeing as I didn't earn ANY victory points it hardly mattered that he didn't earn many.

The switch game was a bit wilder, with the Americans managing to fight their way into Thionville and reach the river, but also allowing the Germans to scoot the 106th Panzer Brigade off the map. In addition the Germans were able to spare a couple of panzergrenadier regiments in the early fighting. Between the different exiting units the Germans amassed a large lead in points, which was garnished with VPs for destroying the CCR unit in a surrounded attack, and the Americans again fell substantially short of anything resembling success.

Despite our universal lack of succes as the Americans neither of us was willing to call the game imbalanced, but felt more study was needed in order to uncover the best way to play that side.

Hold the Line session

Mark K. and I continued our full day of gaming with Hold the Line, which uses the same system as Clash for a Continent with some changes in physical components and minor rules changes.

We played the Battle on Snowshoes battle, which is rather interesting because it really pits extreme quality against quantity.

This battle finds a small force of Rogers Rangers led by Rogers himself defending a wooded hill against a larger force of French and Indians in an incident from the French and Indian war.

The Rangers are top-notch troops. They have the movement bonuses of Indians while also counting as Elite troops for morale and other purposes. They are led by Rogers, who is an excellent leader who can add as many as 2 dice to a melee and takes two hits to kill. He's also responsible for giving them a 3 +D3 command action point allowance. A tough buzzard indeed. The only weakness they Rangers have is numbers. There are just five 2-strength units. On the other hand, with 4-6 CAP per turn there's a very good chance that Rodger will be able to act with all or nearly all of his force every single turn.

In contrast the French force, while large, is cumbersome and poorly led. Five of the units are militia, barely worth committing to action. Another five are Indians, mobile through the woods but likely to come out second best in a fight with the Rangers. Finally the French have three 4-strength regulars. These can go toe-to-toe with the Rangers but are slow.

Our first battle can be summed up in one word. Disaster. I had the French and was able to actually coordinate a joint advance with the Indians, the regulars and some militia. It all came to nought, however, as the Rangers were able to deftly dance between the flanks dispersing Indians and then face-off against the French regulars. A musket ball took down the only French leader and before long the French force was completely defeated.

Out switch match was a near-run thing for me, this time as the Rangers. In this case the Indians turned out to be dead shots and the Rangers unable to make their Elite saving rolls and I ended up with two dead Rangers early on. This created a very hairy situation indeed. The Rangers were eventually able to do a lot of damage to the Indians but eventually found themselves pressed against the wall (and the map-edge victory hexes) by the French regulars. The French simply ran out of time and came out a turn short of victory.

Given the fact that almost everything that could go wrong for the Rangers did go wrong and they still manged to win, and the fact that the first battle was a blowout, I have to call this one as having a strong Ranger bias.

Brief session report: Clash for a Continent

Mark K and I had the opportunity to get in a very full day of gaming. Among our achievements was a match of Clash for a Continent, the Fort Dusquene scenario.

Fort Duquesne is Braddock's famous defeat by a French and Indian ambush in the French and Indian War.

Being more experienced in the game system, I took Braddock for the first game. We used most of the optional rules, but did keep the Command Action Point allowance at the Historical 1 + d3 roll for Braddock compared to the 3 + D3 die roll for the French. This meant that my force would have between 1-4 CAPs while Mark's had 4-6 per turn.

Recognizing that maneuver would be difficult, my basic plan was to push against the French and Indians facing the left front of my column while spending the absolute minimum elsewhere. This worked as well as one might hope, actually, as Braddock and some British regulars was able to do some significant damage to the Indians in his neighborhood and proved nearly invulnerable to fire while on the hilltop near the river. Unfortunately young George Washington caught a bullet, decreasing my already meager CAP state (as well as prompting some discussion about how events a generation later would have been different without the "indispensable" man.

In the end the French and Indians were able to get their six VPs in lost Anglo-Americans while just losing a few themselves.

We switched sides, but this time gave Mark's Braddock the same 3 + D3 CAP allowance as the French.

In this case I decided I needed to take my time because I knew I wouldn't have a CAP edge over Mark. I did, however, still have a maneuver edge, due to the Indians speed in wooded terrain and I followed a policy of retreating any Indian that took a loss. I likewise pulled the French back after they took a few losses. Mark, meanwhile, was less willing to pull troops out of the fight and this resulted in several of his units being eliminated. After spending a few turns rallying Frenchmen and Indians, the restored Franco-Indian force returned to the fray and got the last couple of losses needed for victory.

This battle took longer to win without the CAP edge, but overall the awkward tactical position of the ambushed British column was too much for either of us to overcome, although I do think that the battle is winnable for the British player. Still, in the historical event they did lose, and this scenario reflects that rather well.

Brief session report: Winter War

Had the chance to play this SPI classic this weekend after many years in the closet, courtesy Mark K.

In order to maximize the playing time I volunteered to take the Russians so Mark could have the game set up before we started.

In my opinion the game tends to favor the Russians slightly, if played carefully. It's pretty easy to mess up as the Russians, though and hard to recover from a disaster.

My basic plan was to threaten Petsamo, in the north, mess around the Finnish center to distract them and make probes against the Lodoga Line and the Mannheim Line while biding my time for a serious offensive.

Mark deployed the standard 4-division Mannheim line defense, the rest of his 6-6-2 divisions on the Ladoga front, backed by a smattering of units.

His central front had the 4-4-2 division and most of the rest of his army while he entrusted the defense of Petsamo to a single regiment and a battalion. This force proved inadequate and I was able to fight my way into Petsamo at the cost of a couple of exchanges. As we were not using any of the optional rules, I had to keep at least seven units up in the Petsamo/Murmansk area for the rest of the game on garrison duty.

Things went much better for Mark along the rest of the front. My one 1-1 probe against the Mannheim line was AE'd and my initial advances in the center were pretty badly cut-up by the mobile Finns, costing me two divisions and several regiments for no gain.

Only the Ladoga front started off a little better, as I was able to cause some casualties among the Finnish defenders. Mark quickly reinforced that front, however, and I had to call off the offensive.

Mark's Finns then got a little feisty and made a major effort to cut the Russian rail lines leading to Murmansk. Inside Russia, however, the Finns lose most of their advantages and I was able to counterattack his force and, while costly, manages to destroy the better part of it. The Finnish survivors fell back to Finland, confident that there was insufficient time for any Russian followup to amount to anything.

Likewise things were stalemated on the Ladoga front, with neither side willing to test the other's defenses in any meaningful way.

Things improved for the Russians on the Mannheim line, as the turn 3 & 4 reinforcements allowed some decent attacks at 3-1 and 2-1 odds. Again the Russians paid dearly for their success with exchanges (as usual the Russian must be stoic in the face of losses) but the Finns could ill afford to lose the divisions in the exchanges and the Russians started to grind forward. The Finns rushed all available troops to the front and were able to prevent a breakthrough, but the Russians did capture the entire Mannheim line and the city of Vipuri. Retaining Petsamo as well, the Russians were able to achieve a substantive victory.

Overall it was a satisfying game, taking about three hours to play. Overall I was satisfied with my play for the most part, although I did suffer some unnecessary loses in the center and I would play that portion differently next time. Mark was a gracious opponent and put up an good defense, although I think perhaps one a tad more aggressive than warranted. While he killed a lot of Russians, venturing into Russia ended up costing him quite a few Finnish troops as well and I think the Finns missed theirs more.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Budapest '45 review

Budapest '45 introduced a new game system to readers of Command Magazine, one that would become XTR's alternative standard system to the classic system used in most of its 20th Century designs. While Budapest '45 still uses the attack-defense factor-movement factor system to quantify units, these values don't appear on the counters. Instead movement factors are based on unit type and appear in the rules, while the attack and defense values are tracked on a roster sheet. The Zone of Control makes a comeback to XTR in these designs, which feaure a lower unit density than usual for the scale. For example, in Budapest 45 the hex scale is only 2.5 miles per hex, which generally means regiments and battalions in most wargames, but in this game most units are divisions.

Each turn represents two days, except for the first turn, which is one day.
Most units have a half-dozen or more steps, which gives them more staying power than most games. Eliminating a unit typically takes several turns of fighting.

The components are crisp and functional. The Beth Queman map looks good and has no terrain ambiguities. The counters are the 5/8-inch size favored by XTR. Here they contain just the unit type and size using NATO-style symbols and a historical designation in large print.

On the Soviet side the non-mechanized units are red, mechanized units yellow and Romanian allies light red. On the Axis side most non-mechanized German troops are field gray and German mech are black. The single Hungarian mechanized unit is green, while the non-mechanized Hungarians are blue. In besieged Budapest all the Axis garrsion units are grey.

The turn sequence is asymetric. The Soviet movement phase follows their combat phase, which means they have to set up all their attacks the turn before. This is little handicap in the city fighting where neither side has room to move around, but is a major handicap in the mobile fighting elsewhere.

The Germans, on the other hand, move and then attack, with a mechanized movement phase following the combat phase. This makes the Germans nimble indeed. Their major problem is too few units to do everything that needs to be done.

The German Panzer divisions can detach their recon battalions to help hold some ground, but this just mitigates the unit shortage a little, it doesn't solve it.

The game situtaion is interesting and unusual. Some 20 Soviet units surround 8 Axis inside the city. Meanwhile another two dozen Soviet units try to hold off a Panzer Army trying to break the siege before the city falls. This provides that satisfying wargame situation where both players get to attack and defend.

As usual in XTR games, various "chrome" rules are used to impart the historical factors affecting the battle. Three times the Germans get to benefit from a "surprise" turn with enhanced attacks. The Soviets have two artillery units which will help them blast into the city. The Germans also have some "heavy support units" (an engineer brigade and two Tiger tank battalions) to add power to their spearpoints.

The Germans win by breaking through to the city, the Soviets win by capturing all of it by turn 14. If neither side reaches their sudden death goal, then the game result is adjudicated on victory points at the end of turn 14. Both sides get VPs for eliminating enemy steps or putting them out of supply at game end. The Soviets can score points by exiting the west map edge, while the Germans can score points if they manage to hold onto some part of Pest (the city hexes east of the Danube river).

The game takes about 20 minutes to set up and will take a full evening to play, on average.


(Yes) for Wargamers: Interesting design covering an interesting battle.

(No) for Collectors: Nothing special

(No) for Eurogamers: Constantly referring to a unit roster is not the kind of game mechanic you'll have patience for.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Across the Potomac game review

Across the Potomac, the issue game in Command No. 30, is a variation of designer Ben Knight's popular Victory in Normandy system.

The salient aspects of Knight's system are daily turns, a very restricted number of "Command Points" and a D10 "firepower-based" combat resolution system.

The daily turns mean that his games have a very large number of turns, compared to what's typically found in wargames. While many other wargames have 10 turns or so, and a few may have up to 20, Across the Potomac has up to 50, covering the period 3 June to 22 July 1863.
Mitigating the large number of turns is the very restricted amount a player can do in each of them, and Across the Potomac is one of the most restricted in the entire series. Essentially units can only move or attack if activated with a "command point." The Union player has just one command point at start (to share among at least a dozen eligible hexes of units). Once Meade replaces Hooker (driven by certain events) the union player gains a second CP. The Union player gains another CP once the Confederates enter northern territory. The Confederates start with two CP and gain a third when they cross into the North as well. At start they only have 10 hexes of units vying for the CPs. This simple differential allocation of a limited resource easily hands the game initiative to the Confederates, and elegantly captures the Napoleonic maxim that mass times speed equals impact. Although seriously outnumbered, it's the rebels who will be dictating the action.

Finally, the combat system is a variation on the line-them-up-and-fire system seen in such disparate games as Alexandros, Victory in the Pacific and Columbia's Block games. Here the system uses a 10-sided die. With the majority of the units having less than a 50% chance of a hit, multi-day battle are likely.

One unusual aspect of the game is the optional double-blind movement system. While slowing the game somewhat, it's an interesting exercise that tends to help the Rebels even more, as the Federals struggle to use their limited CPs to react to multiple threats. The low counter density allows the double blind system to work better here than it did in most land combat games where it's been tried.

Physically the game is fairly standard XTR fare, with the large 5/8-inch iconic counters often used in Command Magazine. The game is simpler than the 14-page rule book implies. It takes less than 15 minutes to set up and the game is easily playable in an evening double blind. It may be possible to play a two-game match in an evening if you play on one map.

That map represents a transition for XTR. For several years up to that point Command Magazine maps had been done by Mark Simonitch (perhaps best known now for the map used in Europe Engulfed) which were attractive, functional yet understated. With Across the Potomac XTR switches to maps done by Beth Queman. While certainly still functional (by which I mean no terrain ambiguities and everything affecting play is clear and legible) the map is less attractive than Simonith's work in my opinion. The colors are strong and the artwork is very obviously computer generated. No one will be tempted to frame it.


(Yes) for Wargamers: A good treatment of the campaign at a level not usually seen. Allows a nervy Federal to try Hooker's "trading queens" strategy of reacting to a Rebel invasion by invading the South.

(conditional Yes) for Collectors: One of the very few double-blind land warfare games.

(conditional No) for Eurogamers: Less "fiddley" than usual for a hex-and-counter wargame with intuitive game mechanics. If interested in the topic, this might be a good game to check out.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

1914: Glory's End review

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. The evolution of his design philosophy continued with the issue game in Command Magazine No. 29 in 1994 with 1914: Glory's End. Published on the 80th anniversary of the opening campaign of World War I, 1914: Glory's End is a moderate-to-high complexity hex-and-counter wargame, as attested to by its 18-page rule book. The game covers the opening three months of the war with 3-day turns, corps-level units and 9.5-mile hexes.

As usual for Command Magazine games, it takes standard wargame mechanics and adds several layers of "chrome" that give 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 departure from the usual XTR color scheme, all German units are white on black, the British are white on red, the French are red on light blue and the Belgians are yellow on green.

The game mechanics are standard wargame IGO-HUGO turn sequence with units moveing and fighting "march" combats during the movement phase, followed by a prepared combat phase.
The combat results table is odds-based with numerical results for the attacker and defender. The results are satisfied by losing steps. Unlike most Command games retreats cannot be used to satisfy part of the combat result, and some results mandate a retreat.

Victory is achieved by accumulating victory points for geographical objectives. Achieve enough points during a turn and a side can earn an immediate win. Otherwise victory is checked at the end of game turn 30, where certain "conditional" victory point hexes now come into play.
The allied player also has special VP awards and penalties. Eliminated Belgian unist cost the Allies points, as does failure to carry out at laest seven "Plan 17" attacks into Germany. The Allies earn a bonus of 15 VP for the Eatsern Front at game end, 20 if the Germans elect not to withdraw the two corps that historically were sent East.

A draw is possible, although not likely, if both sides end up with the same VP total.
The initial set up is important, with both sides plotting their starting positions, making the setup part of the game strategy itself. There is a historical camapign, where Belgian neutrality is violated and each side must set up in the same general location as their historical armies and a free set-up scenario.

The Germans have a range of strategic options and are not locked into the historical course of action. They are not required to violate Belgian neutrality in the free set-up scenario, for example.

It is possible for the Germans to attempt to pierce the French front in Alsace, instead, counting on superior numbers and troop quality (typical French active corps are 5-4-4 while German active corps are typically 6-7-4 in attack, defense, movement values) to win.
If Belgium neutrality is not violated the BEF doesn't appear until and unless the Germans get to 20 VP.

The campaign's general course will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the war. Unless the Germans try to barge through the middle of the French fortified border, they will be sweeping through Belgium in a wide flanking manuever. The French, after making their mandatory Plan 17 attacks, will be scrambling to redeploy, while the British and some French units slow down the German juggernaut. Meanwhile the Belgians will hide in Antwerp.

Sometime around the middle of the game a decisive clash will happen near Paris. If it goes will for the Germans they will seize the French capital. Its 30 points will probably be enough to win a decisive victory then and there. If it goes poorly for the Germans there will be a "race to the sea" as each side tries to secure the conditional VPs for various citeis in Flanders and Calais.
Including set-up, playing the whole 30-turn campaign will probably take more than one evening, although it is playable in a Saturday afternoon.


(Yes) For Wargamers: A detailed and satisfying simulation of this key campaign.

(No) For Collectors: Just another wargame.

(No) For Euro gamers: A hard-core hex-and-counter wargame with detailed game mechanics.