Monday, November 30, 2009

Winter War began 70 years ago today

On Nov. 30, 1939, Soviet troops crossed the border into Finland, beginning an unusual war that pitted small Finland against huge Russia.

I think something often overlooked about the Winter War was the overall context in which it occurred. It's easy to forget now, but 1939 was a year of extraordinary turmoil. The Spanish Civil War ended in January. Japan seized Hainan Island in February, Germany occupied the rump of Czechoslovakia in March, Italy occupied Albania in April and Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, starting World War II -- although in the fall of 1939 it was a Phony War confined to Europe and the high seas and not yet a world war.

So Finland's War with Russia was waged in a very tense international environment. It was co-existent with World War II, but not really a part of it. And even the later "Continuation War" waged in conjunction with the German Barbarossa campaign, was carefully separated from it. Finland was a co-belligerent, but not an ally, of Germany. The United States never did declare war on Finland, and Finnish restraint paid off when the tide turned against the Axis. Finland was the only Axis ally bordering the Soviets Union with was not occupied after the war.

I don't have a large collection of games on the Winter War, but one of my long-term favorites is the Strategy & Tactics game by that name, which I've even played this year. One of the TCS games, A Frozen Hell, depicts a battle from the war and several of my scenario-based wargames include episodes from the war, including Axis & Allies miniatures, Down in Flames and Memoir '44. I also have the GURPS WWII: Frozen Hell module from Steve Jackson Games which is full of interesting data about the war, even though I'm not an active player of thr GURPS RPG.

One aspect of the Winter War that's notable is the moral ambiguity surrounding it. On the one hand, the Finns were supported by Nazi Germany as well as the Western Allies, yet on the other they were opposed by the Soviets, who would be allied with the West against the Germans less than two years later. But the Finns were defending themselves against aggression, so Western and American sympathy was with them and their cooperation with the Germans was excused.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lost Worlds -- quick thoughts

Lost Worlds has been around for a very, very long time. The first books, designed by Alfred Leonardi, were published by Nova Games Designs back in 1983. So I'm definitely a Johnny-come-lately to this party. And it's funny, because I was an early fan of their other combat book game, Ace of Aces, which came out in 1980. It says more about where my interests were at the time. I was moving into a much more exclusively wargame diet around then, after having dabbled a bit in fantasy RPGs.

So it was only a year or so ago that I decided to buy a couple of Lost Worlds Books, prompted by the appearance of hobby stalwart Lou Zocchi as a character in one of the books!

For those unfamiliar with them, the combat books are a patented game play mechanic hat involves two books, one for each player, that have pictures of the opposing player's character/aircraft/dragon as viewed from the player's perspective. Players select a move and through the interaction of a key and their opponents selection end up on new pages that reflect the results of their mutual move. It's really quite clever.

The Lost Worlds books are the fantasy individual combat game using this system, and dozens of books have been published over the years by various publishers that are fully compatible with each other. There's even a Japanese Anime version.

I finally got to play a few rounds over the last few weeks, as Young General and I took a break from BattleLore. The game is easy enough that a 10-year-old can handle it fine, but there are enough decisions to make that it's satisfying no matter what your age. We're both still getting the hang of it, but our contests have been remarkable even, with nearly a 50-50 split. The game is a nice filler that plays quickly. Few battle last more than 15 minutes or so, although I expect they'll last a little longer as we get more practiced at it. Some of out fights have ended very fast.

My only regret is that it took me so long to get around to the game.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Geek of the Week

Yours truly is deeply humbled to be Geek of the Week over at Boardgame Geek. The thread is here, for anyone interested.

To anyone coming here from BGG and browsing the blog for the first time, welcome. Please feel free to comment or follow and thanks for spending some time here.

No Games Workshop IP material on this site!

I count myself fortunate that I've never been a fan of Games Workshop's products, because it appears to have saved me from a lot of grief.

GW has long had a reputation for being, let's say, ornery in its dealings with many folks, including online and brick retailers, but this latest offensive against everyone and anyone posting any material remotely related to their products seems very ill-advised.

I noticed some moths ago that GW was taking a hard line against eBay sellers who attempted to use images of GW products in their ads. Now they've acted against fan sites and Boardgame Geek file posters.

It makes no sense to me to be rude to your biggest fans -- they can always spend their time and dollars elsewhere.

The last time I remember a Big Boy in the hobby acting this badly was TSR and we can see where they are today ... .

Friday, November 27, 2009

BattleLore session report:: Assaulting the Tourelles

Young General and the Old Warrior reached the end of their march through the basic BattleLore scenario book during the Friday After Thanksgiving Day Off From School.

Interestingly, this scenario is a fantastical re-imagining of the battle outside Orleans on October 12, 1428 between the French led by Jean de Dunois (The Bastard of Orleans) and Joan of Arc and the British under the Earl of Salisbury. While the general setup and situation resembles the historical fight, there were no actual goblins, dwarves or giant spiders on the field historically.

In this case, however, the scenario introduces the final bit of the basic game system, the Landmarks that can be associated with different Loremasters. The French side automatically gets a Stronghold (a keep, essentially), while other Landmarks are available if the players' war council include Level 3 Loremasters.

Young General took the English side. He was required to spend 1 level of war council on the Giant Spider, and added 1 level to his Commander to entitle himself to a 5-card hand of Command cards. He spent 3 levels to buy himself a Level 3 Cleric. His Cleric's Healing pool was placed in a hex next to the 2-hex woods in his Center section. Overall I though this was a good selection on his part.

I opted to stick with the 1 Level Commander required under the scenario rules (a choice I regretted) and bought a 2-level Cleric and a Level 3 Rogue. I placed the Rogue's Den between the wood and the hill on the border between my Left and Center sections. While I didn't regret the Rogue, I think i would have been better off making the Commander a Level 2 and the Cleric a Level 1.

The Battle itself was our usual mutual slugfest. Both of us are getting more comfortable with the Lore rules and, while Young General seems to have a knack for collecting Lore, he's losing his aversion to spending it and both of us played quite a few Lore cards. Most were useful, but none had a dramatic effect on the course of things. Command card play was likewise undramatic, as most of the action was fought in the center -- indecisively.

Young General was initially reluctant to make a bid for the Stronghold, but by mid-game he had strong effort going that was being countered with difficulty. The Ramparts failed one French archer unit miserably as it died in one-turn under a card-enhanced attack by a English heavy infantry unit, but the English were not able to follow it up.

Meanwhile the dwarves, as usual, were pretty tough in the center, although they also lost heavily. As usual the weak link in the line was the Goblinoids, and a late game offensive on the left flank was able to eliminate all three Goblin units, resulting in a 6-4 victory for the French. Curiously the Young General never saw fit to use the Giant Spider. He also never got around to using the Healing Pool. I did use the Rogie's Den to send a light infantry unit deep behind his lines, but it had little effect as it turns out. The French Stronghold was never attacked.

So far, after having played all 10 scenarios Young General and Old Warrior are beginning to appreciate the potential for Lore cards. nearly every Lore card played seemed to be worthwhile. Among the non-human races the dwarves seem always useful to have, while the goblins are almost always a weak point in the line. The only creature we've used so far is the Giant Spider, which seems to be a useful piece, but one that must be used carefully.

We're still in the early stages of using War Councils and Loremasters. I'm still going to experiment a little with different configurations, but my inclination is to favor beefing up the Commander in order to have a good hand of Command Cards and concentrating on one Good high-level Loremaster instead of having multiple low-ranking ones.

As usual it was a good and entertaining fight. Next up will be the Goblin Skirmisher expansion.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Axis & Allies Miniatures - Vickers Machine-Gun Team

I'll be posting, on an occasional basis, musings about particular pieces in the Axis & Allies series of miniatures.
The Vickers Machine Gun was a very reliable, although heavy, water-cooled medium machine gun that served throughout both World Wars in various Commonwealth armies. The piece is collector No. 15/48 from the Base Set and No. 7/60 from the 1939-45 set. The model is one of the better weapon sculpts, showing details such as the cloth ammo belt clearly. The figure appears to represent one machine gun team, which comprised a gunner and loader, as shown on the model, plus an additional half dozen ammo and equipment bearers.

Base set figure

Speed: 1
Defense: 4
Cost: 8
Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges: 9 - 8 - 6
Attacks vs vehicles at short-medium-long ranges: 3 - 3 - 2
Special abilities: Double Shot -- This unit can make two attacks in your assault phase. When making a defensive-fire attack, this unit makes two attack rolls against the unit that provoked the attack.
Historical text: The Vickers used in WW II, essentially the same weapon that the British Army used in WW I, was a water-colled .303-caliber gun with a repuation for reliability.

Vickers machine-guns of 2nd Middlesex Regiment, 3rd Division, fire in support of troops crossing the Maas-Schelde Canal, 20 September 1944. The gunners are firing at long-range targets, as shown by the extreme elevation of the barrels.

The unit in history: The Vickers machine gun was developed from the earlier Maxim machine guns in the late Nineteenth Century. Vickers lightened the gun and improved it and it was in service in time for World War I, where it earned a reputation for extreme reliability. A water-filled jacket aroudn the barrel absorbed heat and transferred the steam via a hose to a condenser. The water could then be recycled back to the jacket. The weight of the water and the system made the weapon somewhat less portabel than similar air-cooled weapons, but the water-cooled system enabled the Vickers to maintain a very high rate of fire.

1939-45 set figure

The unit in the game: For a long time this was the only Allied machine gun unit available in the game, so it saw a lot of action on the table, although it's a fairly middling unit stat-wise. Many early scenarios used it as a stand-in for other Allied nation's machineguns. The double-shot special ability is useful and the unit can exert firepower out to 8 hexes, so it can dominate an evenue of approach fairly well. Even at long range it has about a 4 in 10 chance of affecting a targeted common infantry unit in the open. It's anti-vehicle ability is slight, but lightly armored and unarmored vehicles are in some danger if fire upon.

The Games Workshop storm

I've been pointing out for months how ornery Games Workshop has been in their quest to zealously protect their Intellectual Property -- to the point where they prohibit eBay sellers from using images of Games Workshop products they are selling.

But they did themselves one better this week by sending a cease and desist letter to BoardgameGeek that has prompted BGG to remove vast swaths of user-generated fan content from BGG sites related to Games Workshop games and BGG plans to block any future file submissions for those games.

This has provoked an uproar rarely seen on BGG. Here's just one forum on the topic. Hey, everybody understands the need to protect IP, but there are smart ways and dumb ways to do it, and GW seems to be going on the dumb side. Most fan content helps build interest and enthusiasm for something and most game companies have seen the wisdom of encouraging it, stepping in only when someone really gets out of hand.

In this case the GW demand and BGG's response to it seem to have been more like a bomb than surgery, to the point where material that couldn't be considered to be infringement and material that GW doesn't even own the rights for have been trashed.

Now, I've never been a big fan of Games Workshop. Few of their themes grabbed me and I soon heard enough about their business practices to know that I didn't want to be associated with them. While I do primarily select my business on practical considerations such as cost. convenience and the like, there's usually enough choice available that I don't have to spend money with businesses whose practices I despise.

And when it comes to games, there's far more good stuff available than I'll ever have time or money for, so there's no reason to send any of it to ornery folks like Games Workshop.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More Games Workshop jerkiness

Evidently Games Workshop is insisting that any user-generated play aids on Boardgame Geek be removed. This Geeklist documents it.

They are such tools. I'm glad I never got into any of their games.

Cemetery Hill -- Review and strategy

Cemetery Hill, the Blue & Gray quad game treatment of the Battle of Gettysburg, originally published in 1975 by SPI and republished 20 years later by Decision Games in a revised edition in 1995, had long had a reputation as one of the least successful of the series.

Units from both editions, Decision Games (1995) on top, SPI (1975) below,
Union left, Rebel right.
The Union forces are an infantry division, and cavalry and artillery brigades. The Rebel units are the two counters comprising Heth's division and F. Lee's brigade on its "ineffective" side.

Unlike all the other Blue & Gray games, which are at the brigade level, Cemetery Hill is at the division level. This was due to the particular production restrictions of the Quad game format, which allowed for no more than 100 counters. Gettysburg was simply too big a battle to fit using brigades, so the scale was bumped up to division level -- at least for the Union side. The problem with division-level Gettysburg games is that the Confederates didn't have many divisions on the field -- just 9 total -- which really doesn't give them enough maneuver units. The Rebel divisions were generally very large anyway, with 4 or five brigades except for Pickett, who had just 3 present. In contrast all the federal divisions had just 2 or 3 brigades. So in Cemetery Hill the Rebel divisions all get two counters.

Still, doubling or tripling the scale of the game units changes the character of the game considerably compared to the other quad, especially because the stacking limit was not adjusted accordingly, so some very high-factor stacks are possible. In addition there is a lot of terrain that doubles and even triples combat factors, so some hexes can have some pretty impressive totals.

Gettysburg is a very difficult battle to simulate, especially for a simple wargame, although that hasn't stopped many from trying, ever since first history-based wargame, Avalon Hill's Gettysburg. The basic problem with simulating Gettysburg is that the battle was characterized by periods of very intense fighting separated by long periods of inactivity. There were many reasons for this, but they mostly revolved around command and control issues that simple games usually pass over, so most simpler Gettysburg games see a lot more continuous action than the historical battle. Cemetery Hill is no exception.

While limited as a simulation, Cemetery Hill is not a bad game, providing some interesting choices for the game player -- although it is a bit harder for the Rebels.

The game begins at a later point than most Gettysburg games, in the afternoon just before Ewell's attack on the U.S. Eleventh Corps that sent the federal line reeling back to Cemetery Hill. The key for CSA success is to recognize that your side is winning the race to the battlefield -- but will eventually be outnumbered. Relentless aggression is your only hope to prevail. With some luck and skillful play the Confederates can rock the Union army back on its heels and never give it a chance to recover.

Conversely, the Union player is trying to buy time and avoid losing too many units in the early going. Patience will pay off for the federal side. There will be plenty of time to inflict losses on the Confederate side once the whole Union hosts gathers. The victory point awards favor the Union, with each eliminated US factor worth 2 VPs to the CSA and each eliminated Confederate worth 3 to the Union side, so the Union can "Exchange" its way to victory.Map detail from the The SPI edition showing Gettysburg and Seminary Ridge

There are some differences between the original SPI edition and the Decision Games version. As was depressingly common with its re-issued SPI games, Decision Games introduced some errors in the reprint as well as making some changes.

From a rules standpoint, the biggest difference between the two games is the Attacker Effectiveness rule, which is optional in the original SPI version and a standard rule in the Decision Games version. Oddly, the Attacker Effectiveness rule was first introduced in Cemetery Hill, but many players believe it shouldn't be used in Cemetery Hill because it works against the Confederates too much.

My experience is that the Confederates can succeed using the AE rule at about the same rate as they do without it, so I think the pro-Union bias has more to do with the victory conditions and the general game situation. Indeed, I think the Confederate side is the more challenging side to play in all Gettysburg games. While the attacker effectiveness rule does hinder the attacker in some ways, it can also be exploited. Unlike all the other Blue & Gray games there is a high proportion of night turns (when ineffective attackers recover) to day turns. The game begins with 1 and half turns of activity, then a night turn; then four turns of daylight followed by night, then four more turns of daylight and one of night, ending with two turns of daylight. So ineffective units will have up to three opportunities to come back. In all other Blue & Gray games there's at most one chance to come back, and there are many more daylight runs on both sides of the night turn if it exists.

One critical errata to incorporate to make this true, however, is to treat Turn 3 as a Night turn in the Decision Games edition. It's a night turn in the SPI edition and there's no reason to think that it's any different in the DG edition.

There are also some map changes between the SPI version and the Decision Games version. The DG edition adds a new terrain type, "broken," to signify the terrain that triples defenders. The SPI edition rather clumsily simply printed right on the map the words "Defender TRIPLED in this hex" on the affected hexes (Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill, Wolf Hill, Little Round Top and Round Top). This doesn't change play, but is more aesthetic. The DG edition also prints the setup locations of the starting units on the map, which is an aid to set-up.

The DG edition also opens up the map a little on Seminary Ridge and Powers Hill by changing some hexes from Forest-Rough to simply Rough. This reduces the movement cost of the hexes from 6 movement points to 3. The affected hexes are 0908, 0409, 0410, 0901, 0902 and 1516.

The DG also has some other mistakes on the map, one minor and two major. The minor error is that the Roman numerals on two XI Corps units are transposed. The first major error is that the Union 1st Division, III Corps unit is left off the map. As this is a 19-factor unit, the Union will definitely miss it, so be sure to place it in hex 0423. The other major error is that hex 2112 is not indicated as a Union reinforcement hex, which it is.

Detail of the Decision Games map showing the Gettysburg vicinity uses the DG map for its presentation of the game, although it offers the option to play without the Attacker Effectiveness rule as a "Classic" edition of Blue & Gray. This is not an exact replica of the SPI version, though, because it uses the revised DG map.

The other differences between the two editions are cosmetic. The DG map uses superior graphics and the DG edition uses troop icons instead of the anachronistic NATO-style units symbols used in the SPI edition.

The DG edition includes three optional rules -- Strategic Movement, Cavalry Movement and Cavalry Retreat -- that should not be used in Cemetery Hill as they will throw off the game balance significantly. All favor the Union player.

I have a slight preference for the DG edition, as I like the Attacker Effectiveness rule, but I play the game both ways on and own both the DG version and the SPI version as afolio game.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chattanooga -- an atypical ACW battle

Panoramic view of the battlefield looking east past Lookout Mountain

Today is the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Lookout Mountain, the first day of fighting during the Battle of Chattanooga.

Chattanooga an odd duck by Civil War standards. it feel less like the usual Napoleonic style set piece battle seen so often in that war and more like a 20th Century battle. For one thing it was very terrain-centric. It involved a series of engagements and much of the real decision-making seems to have devolved on rather lower-level commanders. Indeed, reading Grant's account of the fight, one definitely gets a sense that he didn't have a tight rein on what was happening.

The battle

It's not a real popular topic for wargames, but it's not ignored. The old SPI quad game, which I've played quite a bit on Hexwar, does a reasonable job of depicting the fight despite it's ancient design techniques. Like many SPI Blue & Gray quads, the design limits the number of pieces the Union player can move each turn -- a crude but effective way of depicting command control problems without a lot of rules.

Hexwar map

Most historical accounts seem to paint a picture of an inevitable Union triumph, but it surely didn't seem that way to those present. I think Grant was confident, but then confidence was probably his defining trait. Despite the fact the federals had elements of three different armies on the field and outnumbered Bragg's troops, the Confederates did have a significant advantage in terrain.

Hexwar units

Aggressive CSA play, combined with a little luck, can see the Federal command restrictions become a game-losing liability, so it's an interesting contest. The game isn't enough of a simulation to be confident it paints an accurate picture of the relative chances of the two sides, but I think it may come surprisingly close to the mark.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Latest design diary from Simmons Games

Worth a read, as always.

Axis & Allies Miniatures Early War set coming out Dec. 15

The next set ( No, 9) of the Axis Allies Miniatures land game is coming out Dec. 15, according to Hasbro. It's called Early War 1939-1941/

One odd thing about the announcement is that it says there are 50 different miniatures in the set, which isn't a number used before. The Basic set was 48, the rest of the smaller-scale sets were 45 per release and the last three releases, using the larger-scale tanks, have had 60 each.

Cruising the Axis & Allies community I see that the word is that this will really be a themed set, with alll but a couple of units with 1939-41 services dates and no units with 1943+ Dates. There will be no American units at all. It appears the Russian will finally get their fighter plane, which they badly need.

Set X will also apparently contain 50 units, not the 60 that had become the standard.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Axis & Allies miniatures - SMLE No. 4

I'll be posting, on an occasional basis, musings about particular pieces in the Axis & Allies series of miniatures.

As is customary in Axis & Allies Miniatures, the basic British infantryman figure is named after his common-issue military long arm, the SMLE No. 4, Lee-Enfield rifle. The piece is collector No. 14/48 from the Base Set and No. 4/60 from the 1939-45 set.

Rarity: Common
Speed: 1
Defense: 4
Cost: 3
Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges: 8 - 6 - none
Attacks vs vehicles at short-medium-long ranges: 2 - none - none
Special abilities: Close Assault 6

Historical text: The No. 4 Short Magazine Lee-Enfield .303 caliber rifle replaced the Mark II family early in the war.

1939-45 set figure

The unit in history: Like most armies, the basic infantry rifle was a bolt-action weapon derived from a late nineteenth century design with some refinements in the early 20th century. The Lee-Enfield first came into service in 1895 and remained in first-line British service until 1957, although it served for much longer in other armies and is actually still the standard issue firearm for the Indian Police.

Like all bolt-action rifles in long service the weapon went through various models that incorporated improvements. The SMLE No. 4 was officially adopted for service in 1941, although it entered service as early as 1939 with some units.
Base set figure

The unit in the game: The SMLE is your standard bolt-action armed infantry figure, of which there are a half-dozen or so different examples among various nations in AAM. The likelihood of the SMLE hitting the tabletop battlefield will depend a lot on the degree of historical restrictions being used, because in most cases there will be another 3-point infantry figure that has a useful special ability. For example, the French MAS 7.5mm Rifle figure will be available for the same years as the SMLE and has a +1 Urban Combat bonus and still costs 3 points, so there's no reason to select the SMLE unless some historical army restrictions are being used.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The abbreviated reign of King Hammursethi of Babylon

The privately published King of Kings is probably best known for one of the truly awful boardgame covers in wargame history, but underlying it was a pretty decent little strategic rule and conquest ancients game. It was by Bill Good, the designer of Ancients and there were rules for using that tactical game to resolve the battles, although every time I've played King of Kings I've used the higher level battle system included with the strategic game.

Turns represnt three month seasons, with various economic, poliutcal and military activities taking place in each turn. While best payed as amultiplayer game, most of the 15 sceanrios can be played solitaire, with the various nonplayer and neutral states acting under s et of straightforward rules.

The game, despite the military elements, is not really a wargame per se, in that military conquests are not the most efficient way to accumulate victory points. There's a good payoff from trade and an even bigger payoff for purchasing "achievements" such as Religion or Roads.

The game was later published by 32W as Imperator as an area-movement game instead of the hexes used in King of Kings, but I preferred the hexes and never bought the later game.

So I hauled out this hoary old veteran for a little amusement the other day and decided to play the first scenario, called Hammurabi, set circa 1700 BCE. As a solitaire game one plays Babylon, with the other potential player poweres (Egypt, Hittities and Larsa being neutrals instead. There are also several other neutral states. Because i was the only active player, all the game action occurred within the few hexes around Babylon and Larsa., shown here:

Year One of the reign of King Hammursethi turned out to be one of the more active of his entire reign. The year started off amidst a trade boom that boosted the treasury by 100 talents, or two years normal income. Tragedy struck later in that same years, though as a devastating plague ripped through the kingdom, decimating the army and completely disrupting trade.

The following year saw court intrigues, no doubt encouraged by the stress of the plague, surrounding the young king with enemies. The economy began to recover from the plague year and a mutually beneficial trade arrangement was made with Larsa where Babylon supplied its neighbor with Wool, while the Larsans downriver supplied Grain.

The next two years passed without incident while King Hammursethi spent lavishly on temples and other aspects of Religion to achieve a wide reputation for piety. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to take advantage of Babylon's depleted treasury, the Elamites over in Susa prepared for war. (Baghdad doesn't exist as yet). Receiving word of the Elamite plans, King Hammursethi mobilized his army and marched out to the river to meet the invaders. The larger. but lower quality Elamite army soon appeared. The core of both armies was made up of about 1,000 chariots and their crews, but the rest of the Elamite force was little more than a mob. some 20,000 light infantry and 4,000 light archers. In contrast the Babylonian army was much better equipped, with 4,000 heavy infantry, 4,000 heavy archers and about 10,000 light troops filling out the ranks.

The ensuing battle was a great victory for our king, who refused one flank while the Elamites charged recklessly and broke again st his best troops. The fighting was hard, with 5,000 Babylonians falling, but 10,000 Elamites were slain, resulting in their rout. The pursuit saw another 12,000 Elamites lost as they retreated back to their city. The Babylonians began a year-long siege of Susa that finally captured the city in the fifth year of Hammursethi's reign.

In the sixth year of his reign, King Hammursethi decided to celebrate his victory with magnificent Monuments and also quiet the discontented faction in his court with a strategic marriage to the middle-aged and fat sister of his leading rival. While annoying spoiled, the woman actually liked young Hammursethi as became a good and loyal friend for the short time he had left.

The next four years also passed quietly, as King Hammursethi amassed a large treasury for his next project. But before he could act, the king died in the 11th year of his reign. Overall it was a reasonably successful, but not extraordinary reign. Hammursethi dies with a larger and richer kingdom than he inherited, and earned a reputation for advancing Religion (helped by his magnificent Monuments), but his 806 victory points were not what he might have had had he lived a little longer. (I earned 226 VPs for talents in my treasury, 30 VPs for the value of my cities Babylon and Susa, and 550 for my achievements Religion and Monuments).

The game

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Axis & Allies game announced -- Pacific 1940

Hasbro just announced as an upcoming release their Axis & Allies Pacific 1940 game.

Here's the box:

This is billed as an updated version of the previously released Axis & Allies Pacific game, but it's also the eastern half of a grand 1940 campaign game that will be playable after the new Axis & Allies Europe 1940 comes out.

Among the interesting points mentioned in the ad blurb are that there will be more Chinese pieces, that the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand) forces will be a new playable ally and that there will be new rules for neutral powers -- which I believe is a first for the A&A series.

This last point implies that this will be a true 1940 game, in that the US and Japan will not start off at war and that Japan's initial conquests will not be assumed. This may bring in some new strategic options. Beefing up China will also address what I think is one of the biggest historical problems in Axis & Allies games, the ease in which Japan can take out China. China's a little tougher in Anniversary edition, but in no version can China hold out even if moderately pressed by Japan. In the actual history, of course, China proved to be much too much for Japan to digest, especially once Japan was fighting the USA and the Commonwealth.

If this new edition fixes that (China should be defeatable -- but it should be hard.) then I'm sold.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fluxx as a game night game

One venue I've found that suits Fluxx well is at game nights with folks who are not hard-core gamers. It moves fast, it's quick to explain and it's not too complex, although many people have trouble wrapping their heads around the chaos at first.

At a game meetup this evening we had another example of that, although the two games of Fluxx we played were at the extreme ends of the possible.

Our first game ended rather quickly, I think it was after about one time around the seven of us playing. This wasn't all that unusual, as Fluxx can end very quickly if the right cards com e up. But our second game turned in to an hour-long epic game of Fluxx, which finally came to an end with one player playing what she thought was the winning combo, only to find out that the player holding the Traitor card was the winner.

A good time was had by all, nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

So what is a wargame, anyway? War(card)games muddy the waters

Every few weeks there's a vigorous -- and sometimes vehement -- debate on Boardgame Geek about the proper definition of a "wargame." Or perhaps more on point, which games should be considered wargames and which ones should not.

There are lax definitions that would include almost anything that has a warlike theme and strict definitions that would exclude anything that doesn't include a rick of the player getting shell shock.

Most definitions are someplace in the middle, of course, but there;s still a wide range of legitimate difference of opinion over how "realistic" or "authentic" a game needs to be in order to be called a wargame. Most of the time the debate revolves around where to draw the line on a continuum of maneuver-oriented games that range from very simple military-themed games such as Stratego or Risk to highly detailed simulations such as Harpoon4 or Advanced Squad Leader. The line seems to be resting somewhere in the vicinity of Memoir '44 or Axis & Allies, which strike some people as too much game to be considered wargames and by others to be too much war not to be considered wargames.

Muddying the waters considerably are wargame-like card games such as Up Front or the Down In Flames series.

On the one hand they're clearly games geared to appeal to wargamers, with considerable detail, numerous intricate rules that reflect real-life considerations, manufactured by wargame publishers and marketed to wargamers. If wargames are "whatever wargamers play" then they certainly qualify as wargames.

On the other hand, as card games (and not card-drive wargames, which still revolve maneuvering on a board) they are necessarily highly abstract. The problems of hand management, deck management and the interactions between cards, players and rules are entertaining, but don't bear much resemblance to the actual activities and decisions of submarine commanders (Attack Sub), sergeants (Up Front), pilots (Down in Flames), generals (Lightning: D-Day) or admirals (Lightning" Midway). They are not simulations.

My inclination is to consider most of them as wargames, but I'll admit that I'm not sure I could come up with a hard and fast rule that would categorise them. I've posted a Geeklist on Boardgame Geek to solicit some opinions on the matter.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Greeneville Game Night II

The group wasn't large for our second family game night at Greeneville Congregational Church, but it was enthusiastic, and in a little more than three hours we got a lot of gaming in.

Cardboard Players Meetup Group member Margaret introduced me to a couple of games I'd never played before, although they're hardly rare -- Pictionary and Bananagrams.

Pictionary is actually how we ended the evening, but I'll discuss it first. It was reasonably amusing, but like Trivial Pursuit or Charades, I don't really consider it a game. There are no real game strategies or anything like that. It's a party activity sort of thing. The game involves one player trying to communicate the meaning of a randomly drawn word by drawing pictures, so it's kind of like charades on paper. But like Trivial Pursuit, there is a game board that serves to regulate the game action somewhat, but all movement on the board is completely random. I can see where it would be good for some groups, but I don't think I'd buy my own copy. I did enjoy winning the game along with my partner, though.

On the other hand I enjoyed Bananagrams a lot. It's kind of like a freeform Scrabble. The game rewards quick anagram-making ability and I actually did quite well, winning both games I played. This definitely goes on the wishlist.

I introduced Oh-Wah-Ree and Senet to some friends at the event. We split the Oh-Wah-Ree games and I lost Senet, but everyone had a great time.

Other games that saw the table included Lost Cities, Sorry and Clue.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

EllisCon XXI report with a Mark Perry Memorial Caesar's Gallic war session

Gamers at Ellis Con XXI playing in Vic Gregoire's Omaha Beachhead game

Ellis Con is a small regional game convention that's been running for more than 20 years at Harvard H. Ellis Technical School in Danielson, Conn., sponsored by the H.H. Ellis Tech Simulation Club. Despite the fact that I've lived less than 30 miles away for the last five years, this Saturday was the first time I haven't had a schedule conflict, so I finally got to go.

It looked to me like around a hundred or so people took part over the course of the day, which seems like a good turnout. The games were an eclectic mix of genres, types and eras. Among the games I saw being played were Magic: The Gathering, Fire & Fury American Civil War miniatures, Drive of Metz, Crokinole, Axis & Allies, Samurai Swords, Axis & Allies: War at Sea and more.

Perhaps the most impressive game visually was Vic Gregoire's fantastic Omaha Beachhead game, shown above and in a detail below:

Among the other notable features was a pretty extensive game auction (several dozen items) and vendors The Time Machine of Manchester, Silver Eagle Wargame Supplies and Ice Imports.

I kibitzed a bit on games of Drive on Metz and A&A: War at Sea but spent a good chunk of the afternoon playing the new Worthington Games' wargame Caesar's Gallic War with Mark Kalina. Mark mentioned that he and our late mutual friend Mark Perry used to play a game every year at Ellis Con, so we agreed to call this game a Mark Perry Memorial Match.

The game is a pretty wild and woolly one, which is no surprise if you no anything at all about the Caesar''s conquest of Gaul. The game is a strategic level block game. Each Roman block represents a single legion, while the various Gallic and German tribes each have from 1 to 3 blocks. The overall game system is similar to Columbia Games' Hammer of the Scots, especially because the Gallic tribes can switch sides.

Troop quality is represented by letter grades, with the A troops fighting before B troops, who, in turn fight before C troops. Each block rolls as many attack dice as its strength in steps, with most blocks hitting on a die roll of 1 or 2, although a couple of elite units like Caesar's Tenth Legion hit on a 1-3. Similar to Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex, each player has a hand of cards. Some cards are random events, most have the name of a tribe and all have a number. The cards can be used to trigger the named random event, automatically recruit the named tribe, conduct a "political action," generate supply or move a number of groups according to the number on the card (which ranges from 1 to 3).

It was a very entertaining game, and although I ended up losing, I would definitely play it again -- hopefully better.

I started off well as the Roman juggernaut swept through central Gaul. Mark later said that he wasn't sure what he'd be able to do to stop me, as it seemed like the Romans were unstoppable. Of course, it only seemed that way, and eventually he won some battles, inflicted some losses (including eliminating one legion for 3 victory points) and the Roman supply ran short.

So around the fourth turn I spent a turn regrouping instead of campaigning. I was able to rebuild the strength of all my remaining legions to a full 4 steps, restock the supply larders to 15 points and had a lucky roll to get the second pair of reinforcement legions at the earliest opportunity. I lost a little ground politically as my 9 controlled tribes fell to 7 and the German-allied tribes grew to about 9, but I was confident I'd be able to repeat my earlier success.

However, when Caesar drew cards for the new year, it turned out to be a very weak hand that had all "1s," severely limiting his options. So I set out with a more limited goal of placing Caesar in the center of Gaul with the intention of wintering there with most of the army and hopefully drawing a more powerful offensive hand the next turn. Mark's Germans had other plans. He played the Massive Revolt Card, which brings in Vercingetorix, flips the allegiance of four tribes and provides the ability to activate three groups! It was a bad turn for the Romans. The Germans ended up in control of 16 tribes, while the Romans were down to 5.

And I never really recovered from that setback. I made some minor progress over the remaining few turns, but the hole was too deep to crawl out of and the final score was 17 VPs for Mark's Germans (dead legion 3 VPs, 14 Vps for tribes under control) and 7 VPs for my Romans, (all for controlled tribes). Definitely a setback for my Caesar complex.

Friday, November 13, 2009

SOPAC Session Report Naval Battle of Guadalcanal I

On this anniversary (Nov. 13) of the 1942 First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal my stepson and I replayed the battle using SOPAC Battle Scenario No. 6.

It looked like a tough job for the Americans, so I gamely volunteered to take their side. After all, there were two posthumous Medals of Honor awarded to the two American admirals killed in the battle.

One thing became apparent during the setup was that the given setup was incorrect. As shown by Morison the American force was in one long column at the outset of the fighting, so it appears that the USN group listed as setting up in C5 is supposed to be in D5, so that's where we put them.

The US starts with the initiative, so the Japanese had to move first. The Battleship group cut to starboard while the Japanese all-destroyer group steamed straight ahead. The Americans took advantage of this opportunity to concentrate against a portion of the Japanese fleet and moved both groups in front of the Japanese force.

The exchange of gunfire was pretty even, with both sides taking an assortment of gun and hull hits, but ominously no torpedo mounts were knocked out. The USN elected not to fire torpedoes at this time, hoping to save them against the battleships, but the Japanese gleefully launched a salvo of 17 factors of Long Lances at the US force -- after all the Japanese had reloads! They also had luck, as each of the three leading US cruisers was hit by two torpedoes. Surviving even one Long Lance is tough, but with 2 it's almost impossible and all three US cruisers -- Portland, San Francisco and Atlanta -- went down. The two US admirals were likely casualties -- but unlikely Medal of Honor recipients under the circumstances.

The US Force at the First Battle of Guadalcanal
Task Group 67.4 (Callaghan, Scott)

On the next impulse the Japanese battleships turned about to try to close on the US force while the Japanese destroyer force pulled back o reload torpedoes. The US fleet took advantage of its initiative to countermarch back towards the Japanese battleship force. The Helena-led force crossed the T of the battleships while the destroyers that had survived cruiser massacre faced the Japanese force broadside. Their prospects were grim because they were also within range of the Japanese destroyer force.

The Japanese force at the First Battle of Guadalcanal
Bombardment Force (Abe)

The gunbattle was again pretty even, as the US was able to do damage to most of the enemy ships fired at, and took some in return. Several US destroyers went down simply because of the volume of fire coming their way. Notably the USS Laffey survived a 14-inch hit that was a dud!

This time the Japanese force fired 22 factors of Long Lances at the US force. This time the Japanese luck wasn't quite so good, as the Helena was missed, as were a couple of destroyers. But three torpedoes clobbered the USS Juneau and the USS Fletcher and USS Monssen each took one. None of these were survivable hits.

The US force managed to get some measure of revenge at this point, firing a total of 7 torpedo factors from the surviving ships at the Hiei. (US torpedo factors are quartered in scenarios set before September 1943). Three hit the Japanese battleship and all three were good solid hits that just managed to sink the Japanese battleship (which had taken a couple of hull hits from the Helena's guns earlier.)

The cheers on the US ships were short-lived. Despite mentioning that the Japanese could retire with honor and victory assured, my stepson was having none of that, and announced his intention to run down the survivors without mercy. Which he did. And it didn't take long, either, just two more impulses as a matter of fact. While the US ships were able to score a few more hits, none were fatal, whereas the Japanese force just blasted away. The last US ship to sink under the waves was the USS Laffey.

The final score was 205 points for the Japanese (US force wiped out). The US got 84 points for sinking the Hiei. Kirishima was untouched. The US also picked up 5 victory points for hull hits on surviving Japanese ships (Nagara, Yukikaze, Asagumo and Inadzuma), for a total of 89 points.

The scenario didn't do a good job of recreating the historical battle. The US gunnery was nowhere as effective as it was historically, with most of the significant damage coming from torpedoes, which were ineffective in history. Likewise the Japanese torpedoes were far too deadly, sinking four of the US cruisers and a couple of destroyers. Japanese gunnery was also overwhelming. This illustrates the limitations of the tactical combat system in the Avalanche Press Second World War at Sea series, which seems overly deadly and allows too much efficiency in allocating fires. The actual battle -- while still the deadliest rumble during the war -- was far more confused and resulted in a much lower toll. Most ships had trouble finding targets, friendly fire was a problem and ships often masked the fire of friendly ships. The tactical system works better for daylight battles where both sides maintain command control, but is too simple to deal with a confused night melee like Guadalcanal I.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Axis & Allies Miniatures -- Royal Engineers

I'll be posting, on an occasional basis, musings about particular pieces in the Axis & Allies series of miniatures.

The Royal Engineers, collector No. 13/48 from the Base Set, is one of the very few Base Set units not to be re-issued as of yet.

Base set
Rarity: Common
Speed: 1
Defense: 4/4
Cost: 10
Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges: 6 - 4 - 0
Attacks vs vehicles at short-medium-long ranges: 2 - 0 - 0

Special abilities:

Close Assault 16 — This unit has an attack value of 16 against Vehicles in its hex. This attack
ignores cover.

Bridge Demolition — This unit may attempt to destroy a bridge or Obstacle in its hex instead of moving or attacking in your assault phase. Roll a die. If you roll a 4 or higher, destroy the bridge
or obstacle. (Units now need to make a movement roll to cross the stream or obstacle, and the road is broken at that point.) *

*revised wording

Historical text: None

Royal Engineers work to disarm a dud bomb

The unit in history: The Corps of Royal Engineers traces its formal history back to 1717, although there had been military engineers in the employ of the King for centuries before that. Like the engineer corps of other European armies, the engineers started as a specialist corps f officers, with labor drawn from various sources as needed, but the increasing complexity of modern warfare by World War II had made all ranks tradesmen and specialists in the engineering field. Military engineering is comprised mostly of mobility, countermobility and protection tasks, and the importance of each has grown each year to the point where modern U.S. Army brigades (three maneuver battalions) have an organic battalion of combat engineers assigned, in contrast to military organizations at the outset of World War I which had a single company per (12-battalion) division.

Royal Engineer troops were found on every battlefield where British soldiers fought, integrated down to the lowest tactical levels.

The unit in the game: If obstacles and bridges played a bigger role in the game, the Royal Engineers would see more action, as there are relatively few tools at hand to blow bridges or eliminate obstacles in the game. As it is the biggest reason to select the Royal Engineers is for its awesome Close Combat ability, which is enough to nearly guarantee destruction or damaging the heaviest armored units in the game. The trick will be living long enough to get into the same hex as the target. At 10 points the unit is a little pricey for its value and later engineer units are cheaper.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day battle - Crysler's Farm Nov. 11, 1813

For Veterans Day Young General and Old Warrior took a break from BattleLore to refight a historical action, in this case the Battle of Crysler's Farm from the For Honor and Glory game, which happened to be on Nov. 11, 1813. It would be anachronistic to refer to this as a Veterans Day fight, but it had the virtue of being a familiar game system for both of us and relatively quick playing.

The set up is as shown below:

The Americans have the advantage in numbers, with eight regular infantry units, a unit of dragoons and an artillery battery, with two leaders. Their main challenge is that they have a low Command level (just a 2, which means they will get to move from 3-5 units per turn, or no more than half their force) and a long way to go to reach most of the victory objectives.

The British are fewer, but have a definite edge in quality, with two leaders, two elite infantry units, two light infantry units, an artillery battery, a band of Indians and a gunboat on the river flank. They also have an advantage in command quality, with a Command level of 4. This will allow for 5-7 units to act per turn, conceivably 100 percent of the force!

Young General, being a true blue Patriot, wanted to play the Americans. He started with a tentative advance, quickly losing a unit to very accurate fire from the light infantry and Indians in the woods. Tempted by the two Victory Points for sinking the gunboat, he also moved up his guns, escorted by the dragoons. He was rewarded with a hit on the gunboat, which prompted the vessel to start pulling back. Rashly, Young General followed and found his gunners under fire from the right flank light infantry, who also proved to be good marksmen as they eliminated the artillery unit in one long-range volley.

All was not lost for Young General, who has the the spirit of Jeb Stuart. Seeing as his dragoons were also in a forward position he made a dash for the victory point objectives along the river, scooping both of them up while taking just one hit on the way. Unfortunately, the brave troopers found their way back from enemy lines blocked and the last of them fell victim to some Elite infantry, although the dragoons inflicted a hit as they died.

At this point the gunboat, now safe from counter fire, moved back towards the riverbank. Young General, meanwhile, became aware that time was starting to run out and he made an effort to start a coordinated push forward with several regulars accompanied by the two leaders. Also playing for time, the British light infantry and Indians fell back to join the Elites defending the remaining pair of Victory hexes.

Time did indeed ran out for Young General, and when regulation play ended on Turn 25 he was locked in firefights with the Elites, lights, Indians and cannons near the objectives. He did manage a lucky shot that took out one of the British commanders, but the final score was 3 victory points for the U.S. (2 objectives and a leader) for 5 for the British (artillery, dragoon and three regulars), so the British won on time.

Young General's blood was up, and he asked that the battle continue to Turn 30. He did manage to inflict some more losses on the British -- one of the British Elites only survived because it made two successful "saving rolls." Two more US regulars were eliminated, while the Indians also left the board, so the additional time didn't bring the Americans more overall success.

It was an interesting fight. Historically the Americans suffered a defeat and the scenario does seem to be pretty challenging for them. The nature of the game system makes it hard to bring superior numbers to bear, especially when they are not well-led.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Axis & Allies miniatures: Stuart series tanks

I will be posting, on an occasional basis, musings about particular pieces in the Axis & Allies series of miniatures.

The armored arm of the American Army went into World War II small and barely equipped, with most of its limited experience being with a series of limited run light tanks. The M3 Stuart tanks were an outgrowth of this program and were placed into widespread production so that the Army would have something to go to war with while more battle-worthy designs were developed.
The Stuart was a credible early war battle tank, with comparable armor and armament to early war tanks such as the British cruiser tanks, the Russian T-26 or the early models of the German Panzer III tanks and it performed well in the wearly campaigns, although soon outclassed in Europoe, although againt the Japanese it was first line equipment. It served throughout the war as a light recon tank, equipping one company in the standard tank battalion.
It's also ubiquitous in the Axis & Allies miniatures game, appearing four times so far. Three models are of the M3 version (Base Set No. 12/48, 1939-45 set No. 31/60, North Africa No. 15/60) while one is the M5A1 (eastern Front No 12/60).
The models are well-done sculpts.

Base set M3


Rarity: Uncommon

Speed: 5

Defense: 4/3

Cost: 15

Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges:


Attacks vs vehicles at short-medium-long ranges:

8-8-6 (M3), 9-9-7 (M5A1)

1939-45 set M3

Special abilities

M3: All Guns Blazing -- After this unit attacks in your assault phase, it cam make one extra attack against a Soldier.

M5A1: Robust —This unit gets +1 on movement rolls. While disrupted, this unit has speed 1.

North Africa setM3

Historical text:

M3: Some versions of the Stuart, which was the standard light tank of the U.S. Army until 1945, carried no fewer than five machine guns. Many Staurts were sold to Britain and saw action in the North African Campaign.

M5A1: Powered by twin Cadillac engines, this improved version of the Stuart light tank performed admirably and was nicknamed "Honey" by the British.

An M3 Stuart on Luzon

The unit in history:

The immediate predecessor f the Stuart was the M2A4, which ahd the same 37mm gun and similar automotive components. The main change with the M3 was some additional armor and a change in the road wheel layout to improve cross-country performance. The long gestation of the light tank series resulted in a vehicle that was notable for its reliability. The M3 entered production in March 1941 and was in combat just a few months later in August. The base set and North Africa set M3s represent Stuarts in Brirtish service and are in desert colors. In the original "heavy" armored division U.S. Army TO&E Stuarts formed one battalion in each armored regiment, in the later "light" TO&E the Staurts made up the fourth "D" company of each armored battalion. Stuarts also proved useful in the Pacific theater, where the opposing Japanses armor was also lightly armored and carried small guns. The 1939-45 set M3 Stuart represents Pacific theater use of the tank by American forces. While M3s served throughout the war, most of the light tanks in the campaign across France were the M5A1 version, which substituted twin Cadillac diesel engines for the radial Continetnal engimne used in the M3s.

Eastern Front M5A1

The unit in the game: The M3 is primarily an anti-soldier weapon. Its speed will allow it to get into action and will help it avoid trouble. It has a decent anti-armor capability as well, so long as its not facing the better late-war German armor. For a fast vehicle it has good armor, but it's still not something to slug it out with. The M5 gives up some anti-soldier capability in favor of a little extra toughness, but it's probably not an even trade.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Operation Torch, Nov. 8, 1942

Today is the anniversary of Operation Torch, Nov. 8 1942. I put together a short Geeklist on Boardgame Geek in honor of the event.