Thursday, January 1, 2009

Game review: Mason-Dixon

Mason-Dixon is an unusual what-if hex-and-counter wargame that assumes the Confederacy won the Civil War in 1863. The game background postulates that the two countries remain hostile and fight three more wars in 1917, 1940 and 1990, using technology comparable to actual history's World War I, World War II and Gulf War.

In a departure for XTR, the game does not use some variation of its standard wargame mechanics, but introduces a unique design. The game designer, Chris Perello, said he felt this was necessary because of the immense distances involved. Perello points out that the campaign area consists of more territory than the Eastern Front of the World Wars without anything like the unit density seen in Europe. This creates a situation more mobile than seen in each war (although the 1917 scenario is less mobile than 1940 or 1990).

Every month is divided into three player turns, each with a movement and combat phase. So far, so ordinary, but there are many unusual touches in those movement and combat phases which make for a very different game.

For example, one unique rule is entitled "Positional Advantage," which allows victorious attacking units to enter the defender's hex and acquire a positional advantage counter. In their next turn the defenders can leave or must counterattack. If the attacking units are still in the hex with a positional advantage marker on their next movement phase that positional advantage is converted into a "pocket" and the defenders are considered surrounded.

Another other unique rule is combat. While using an odds-based CRT, the combat resolution system is very different from the usual Command approach. First off, the number of dice rolled by the attacker varies from 1-3 depending on the amount of preparation and support. The fewer the dice, the better for the attacker. Many of the better results can only be achieved if the attacker is using one of two dice. The number of dice depends on things such as supply and artillery support.

The combat results are also different, especially the various kinds of exchanges (AX: Attacker Exchange; HX: Half Exchange; EX: Exchange; LX: Low Exchange and SX: Super Exchange -- all of which together probably set some record for the number of different kinds of exchanges in a wargame.) Besides the five different kinds of exchanges there are six other possible results, including No Effect.The exchange resolution system proved to be hard for many players to wrap their heads around, because counter intuitively, many times one side or the other might not actually lose anything. The key thing is to recognize that a force has to lose the most it can under the result, but never more than the result requires. So, for example, if two weak (2-factor) units defending in a hex suffer a LX (Low Exchange) they are both eliminated ("the defender loses one step from each participating unit") but if the attacking force was a pair of 5-factor attackers, they would have no loss. )"the attacker must lose steps whole total strength is less than or equal to half the defender's combat strength") Because both attackers are 5s they could not lose a step without it being MORE than half the defender's loss -- so the attacker loses nothing! If, on the other hand, the attackers had consisted of two 4-factor units and a 2-factor unit, then the attacker would have lost the 2-factor piece. Some players can have trouble believing what the rules say because it's so different from usual wargame practices. Basically the effect of the rule is to protect stronger units from exchanges they would suffer under more typical systems.

The heart of the game is the three different scenarios. Units are different for all three scenarios, although one annoying aspect is that many units are backprinted with units from different scenarios, sometimes even units from the other side! This makes it just about impossible to rationally sort the pieces. This will increase set-up time.

How long the game goes depends on the scenario, The 1995 scenario lasts 15 or 16 turns (every turn represents 2-days in the 1990s only). The 1917 and 1940 scenarios last until the "economy" of one side or the other is reduced to zero. The economy, which supplies resource points to mobilize new units and replaced eliminated ones, is recorded on a track. Losing cities costs points as does the passage of time. On die roll of a 1-4 one point is lost on the track to do war weariness. This is one rule I would recommend changing, as the effect is to shorten the game to the point where it's not possible to mobilize most of each army. The experience of the 20th Century was that war weariness in a major war does not set in for several years. In the First World War the French and Russians fought on until 1917 until mutiny and revolution occurred. The Germans didn't lose heart until 1918. In World War II only the Italians surrendered short of conquest. I think the game is more interesting if you don't start the war weariness loss until the second year of fighting, at least. The game includes such an interesting order of battle, most players are going to want the chance to play with most of it. In addition, the fronts are so vast that both sides will need some time for their strategies to mature.


(Yes) for Wargamers: An interesting game in both topic and strategic possibilities. Even jaded wargamers will find this a fresh experience.

(Yes) for Collectors: Unique

(No, no) for Eurogamers: Too complicated, really.

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