Sunday, February 28, 2010

Head-to-head competition

One of the interesting phenomenon seen in wargaming is the creation of directly competing designs -- games that depict the same topic, at the same scale, with similar complexity levels and pricing. This is something seen much less often in euro games. For example, the publication of Pandemic didn't inspire other companies to come out with their own plaque-fighting games. But there's no shortage of strategic level Eastern Front games, regimental Battle of the Bulge Games, World War II carrier battle games, platoon-level combat games, etc. This dates back to the early rivalry between Avalon Hill and SPI where both companies seemed to enjoy matching each other's titles. Often they would come out close enough that there could be dueling reviews, for example, SPI's Descent on Crete and AH' Air Assault on Crete were both reviewed in the same issue of F&M.

So it's interesting to see that GMT and Worthington Games will each be coming out with similar Napoleonic battle wargames this year. The GMT game will be Commands & Colors: Napoleonics based, naturally, on the Commands & Colors system that gave us Battle Cry, Memoir '44, Battlelore and C&C: Ancients. Worthington's game will be Napoleon's War: The Hundred Days, based on their popular Wars for America series, seen most recently in Hold the Line.

The game systems are similar in scale and style, while differing just enough in important details that one can't be seen as a clone of the other. Up until now the two systems have avoided covering the same topic. Borg's games have run a wide gamut, from ancient warfare, fantasy battles, the Civil War and World War II. Worthington's comparable games have been much more limited in scope, being focuses on the small wars of North America between 1758 and 1815 so far.

So the upcoming games represent the first head-to-head direct competition between the two game systems, which may present fans of both with some interesting choices. Should they buy both? Would owning both be redundant?

The Worthington title may be the first one out the gate, as it's been offered for pre-order with the promise of production with the next 3-4 months. C&C:Napoleonics has also just been offered on the GMT pre-order list but there are several games ahead of it in the pipeline, so I don't expect to see it until summer.

Worthington is going with plastic figures, which has generally been a popular choice, although the figures do not appear to be nationality authentic in uniform details, being merely color-coded for side. The first set has blue French, Red Anglo-allied and Grey Prussians.

C&C:N will likely uses wooden blocks with stickers, similar to C&C:A. This will allow the use of authentic uniform illustrations and the wooden blocks have also been well-received in the past.

It's not clear how the other components will stack up. Both companies have produced some very nice stuff lately, so it's hard top give the edge to one or the other at this point.

I plan to get the first one of each line, but I doubt I can afford to maintain a steady stream of purchases for both. My inclination is towards C&C:N, largely because I expect it to be wildly popular and therefore easy to get on the table. But I'm willing to give the Worthington games title a shot, especially because the initial game covers the Waterloo campaign. After that it will be time to choose.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Axis & Allies miniatures M3 Lee/Grant medium tanks

I'll be posting on an occasional basis reviews of the figures in the Axis & Allies miniatures game.

M3 Lee from the Base Set

The United States found itself facing an imminent war with barely any combat-worthy tanks. Combat experience in Europe and North Africa demonstrated that medium tanks needed heavier gun than the 37mm previously thought to be adequate, but U.S. tank manufacturers were still designing the larger turret needed for the 75mm-gun armed M4 medium tank and a stop-gap was needed for immediate use. The result was the M3 series tank, which used the chassis of the M4 tank, mounted a 37mm gun in a rotating turret and held a hull-mounted 75mm gun. The hull mounting was understood to be suboptimal, but using it meant shaving several critical months off the fielding of the gun. The resulting tank saw use with the British in North Africa, with U.S. troops in their first campaigns, Lend-lease service with the Soviets and even soldiered on later in the war in secondary theaters such as Burma. This varied service is reflected in the appearance of M3-series tanks four times in the game: As the (USA) M3 Lee in the Base Set (20/48); the Soviet M3 Lee in the Reserves Set (11/45); the (UK) Grant I in the North Africa Set (14/60) and the (USA) M3A5 Lee in the Eastern Front Set (10/60).

Soviet M3 Lee from the Reserves Set

* Officially revised by the downloadable cards

Rarity: Rare
Speed: 3
Defense: 5/4
Cost: 32* (M3 lee); 30 (Soviet M3 Lee); 28 (Grant I & M3A5 Lee)
Attacks vs. troops at close-medium-long range: 9-9-7
Attacks vs. vehicles at close-medium-long range: 9-7-5
(This represents the turret mounted 37mm gun)

Special Abilities:

Strike and Fade 1 -- In your assault phase, this unit can move at speed 1 after attacking. (M3 Lee only)

Exposed Transport* -- This unit can carry one Soldier. That Soldier can be attacked while it's boarded on this transport. (Soviet M3 Lee only)

Additional Hull-Mounted Cannon -- In your assault phase, this unit can make an extra attack at 12/10/8. The target must be a Vehicle in front of this unit. (all)

Tall Silhouette -- This unit fails cover rolls. (M3 Lee, Soviet M3 Lee & M3A5 Lee)

Large Silhouette -- This unit gets -1 on cover rolls. (Grant I)

Grant I from the North Africa Set

Historical Text:

M3 Lee -- The awkward location of the Lee's sponson-mounted 75mm gun was a serious tactical drawback.

Soviet M3 Lee -- While the Soviets received over 1,300 M3 version tanks on lend-lease from America, Soviet crews hated them, calling the tank a "grave for seven brothers."

Grant I -- The British requested American M3 tanks, such as the Grant I, with modified turrets that were lower and could contain radio equipment.

M3A5 Lee -- Over 5,000 M3s were made in various versions. After Sherman tanks went into mass production, the Lees were sent to the Pacific theater and performed well there.

Crewmen practice bailing out of an M3 Lee

The unit in history: The first orders for the M3 were placed before the factory that would make them was even built, illustrating the time pressures involved as the United States struggled to field battle-worthy armor after its late start. Production ran from April 1941 to August 1942, with about 5,000 being made. The tank had a successful combat debut at Gazala where, despite its shortcomings and awkward layout, its powerful 75 mm gun finally gave the British a tank gun that could match German armor. While also seeing some combat use with U.S. troops in North Africa, the tank was replaced in Western frontline service as soon as M4 Shermans became available. The M3 series tanks saw extended service in the Pacific where they outclassed the light armor fielded by the Japanese. Many were also sent to the Soviets, who used them reluctantly, justifiably considering them inferior to the T-34.

M3A5 Lee from the Eastern Front Set

The unit in the game: The tank wasn't popular at first, being overpriced, although this has been corrected in the revised cards. Overall it's a useful tank in 1942 scenarios, with good armor protection, adequate mobility and good firepower. The Strike and Fade ability of the M3 Lee is useful, the Exposed Transport SA of the Soviet M3 Lee is less so. The key special ability, of course, is the Additional Hull-Mounted Cannon, which compares very well to 1942 German armor and Japanese armor of any year. The Tall Silhouette special (dis)ability spares the player from having to skulk around in cover. The Grant I's slightly lower, cupola-less turret gives it a chance at cover rolls with the Large Silhouette, but probably not enough to make a difference -- as is suggested by the fact it doesn't get any point cost change compared to the M3A5 Lee.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Old Warrior gets pwned by the Young General at Battlelore

Well, Old Warrior got his head handed to him tonight by the Young General and frankly, he's not even sure how it happened.

The scenario was Riding Down the Spear Bearers, with Old Warrior handling the Goblin-based Pennant army while Young Warrior took the dwarf/human Standard army. Old Warrior picked Level 2 commander and a Level 3 Wizard while Young general announced he was going to spread his Lore master choices around taking Level 1 commander, wizard, cleric and warrior and a Level 2 Rogue. The sixth level was the Spider. I was dubious, thinking that he might have been spreading himself too thin and was passing up having very many cards (Just 4 Command and 3 Lore max), but he argued that this way he'd be able to play any card at face value in Lore cost. I thought that having a larger hand size (5 Command and up to 4 Lore) would be superior. Events did not tend to support my position.

The battle itself got off to a slow start, and it wasn't until around Turn 9 that any flags were captured. I wanted to gather my Goblins in the center to set up a good Goblin Rush, but I drew too few Center cards to pull that off. Meanwhile the Young general made his main efforts on the flanks.

As usual it turned into a battle of minor tactics, as Young General has little interest in grand sweeping maneuvers and Old Warrior once again couldn't draw the cards he needed to support his grand designs.

This might not have been a problem except that Old Warrior's units couldn't seem to come out on top in their duels with Young General's units. As usual the Dwarves were very tough and the Goblinoids generally disappointing, but it would be too easy to blame the Goblins because only two of the six units lost were Goblinoid. Three were Human and the sixth was, yet again, the Spider, which died, yet again, in it's first fight. Argh!

The final score was 6-2, as Old Warrior managed to kill off one Dwarf and one Heavy Horse that ventured too far forward. Overall it was a convincing win for the Young General.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Zocchi roars back from the edge of the abyss -- A Lost Worlds Session

Lou Zocchi is one of the most legendary figures in the wargame hobby, one of its founding members, in fact. He was active enough in the earliest days of Avalon Hill gaming to have a river named after him the the game Blitzkrieg. He established one of the first independent wargame companies and over the years became famous for his quality dice, particularly of the mutli-side sort. Indeed, without Zocchi's ground breaking dice (which included a 100-sided die!) , Dungeons & Dragons probably would have developed quite differently.

Meanwhile, I had eyed the Lost Worlds combat books for a long time, being a fan of the Ace of Aces series, but never taking the plunge -- until I spotted a Lost Worlds book starring Zocchi at the WBCa couple of years ago! That broke my resistance and I took the plunge into the game system with Zocchi: Magician With Dice Bag and Azlana Darque: Sorceress With Broadsword as his his first opponent.

I knew that Zocchi was an accomplished showman, which was clear from his famous videos about dice, but it wasn't until I got this book that I realized that he's also evidently an accomplished magician was well. The Zocchi Lost Worlds book might have started as a little vanity press project, but it resulted in an interesting and amusing Lost Worlds character.

So here our favorite magician (played by your truly) encounters Kharis the Royal Mummy (played by Young General):

Zocchi the Magnificent considered the probabilities. He could take his chances with this accursed cursed mummy or cut his losses with a time consuming retreat. Bah! He plucked an exploding die from his bag and wound up to toss it at his foe.

In a flash the Mummy was on him and Zocchi the Great saw stars, heard whistles and chirps and felt himself on the knife's edge of consciousness as the mummy landed an extremely powerful body blow on the legendary prestidigitator. (-11 hit! Just 1 Body point left!).

Zocchi the Stupendous perceived through the fog of pain that he'd be unable to perform the intricate movements required to cast spells -- it would all come down to the dice! Zocchi was, however, a luckmaster, of course, and the mummy's blow was luckily so hard that the mummy lost his grip on his magical mace and was disarmed!

The nearly dead magician and the undead corpse dodged and weaved around as the mummy kept trying to retrieve his mace and Zocchi tossed exploding dice in his direction. None of the dice landed true, but the mummy never got his mace back into his grasp. With a roar the frustrated mummy tried to head-butt Zocchi the Fantastic, but the white-haired wonder had anticipated the move and whapped the mummy with his magic dice bag. A terrifying screech signalled success. (-8 hit).

Expecting the mummy to retreat for a moment, Zocchi the Wondrous hopped back as well and took a swig from his Healing Herb potion (+5 body restored). He wasn't fully fit, but he was at least healthier than the undead guy! (Zocchi had 6 left, Kharis had 4).

Abandoning his attempts to recover the mace, the mummy charged headfirst at Zocchi the Splendorous, right into a strong swipe by the deadly dice bag. (-8 hit, leaving Kharis at -4 and KO'd).

Zocchi the Chastened staggered away, satisfied that his dice luck had held once again, but vowing to be a little less complacent next time.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Commemorating the Iwo Jima flag raising

There's precious little that words can add to that iconic photo. Here's a 1945 postage stamp honoring the Marines:

Monday, February 22, 2010

FFG interview has serious implications for the future of Battlelore

This interview on FFG's site clarifies a lot about the company's plans for Battlelore and what the Battle of Westeros game means to the franchise.

A couple of takeaways:

"We acquired BattleLore to be our core brand for medieval tactical warfare games (in the scale represented in the classic BattleLore game). The BattleLore name is not necessarily tied to Richard’s “Command and Colors” system."

So basically BattleLore is being treated similar to the way Hasbro is treating Axis & Allies -- as a brand that is not necessarily associated with a particular game system. I'm glad we've cleared that up.

This, set against the overall backdrop of an already steeply escalating cost in game manufacturing, has made the core game a serious issue. Reprinting the core game “as is,” would essentially result in a near $150 retail price point, which is obviously unacceptable.


We were concerned that the classic BattleLore base game, as had been created by Days of Wonder (“DOW”), was going to be troublesome on a production level. We did not, to be honest, expect it to essentially be non-manufacturable, as is the case.

This is much more serious as it basically means any future "base sets" for Battlelore will be much less attractive to new players. There was an awful lot in that box. Hasbro has similarly had to retreat a bit on the initial high-value Master Set for Heroscape, but being a bigger company they probably had more room to work with on costs.

Despite FFG's promises to support Battlelore, I'd say that the game's long-term prospects have dimmed. I think this also has implications for any other game products that have relied on the availability of cheap plastic figures from China.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Units of Hold the Line

Hold the Line, along with its French and Indian War expansion and the very similar predecessor Clash for a Continent uses a relatively small number of disparate unit types to recreate a large number of battles in North America during the 1758 to 1781 period. It will be interesting what adjustments the system will see as it moves into the more complex Napoleonic era later this year.

Warfare in North America in the latter half of the eighteenth century was very much a foot soldier's fight due to the challenges of the wilderness and its distance from European bases of supply. In Hold the Line and its sister games a lot of the interest provided by the battles is in the interaction between the orders of battle and the terrain. This makes the more flexible command system it uses seem more appropriate to its setting than the more formal left-center-right breakdown used in Borg's game system would be. That seems better suited to the more formal nature of European warfare.

Still, it's the units that decide the action, so here they are. In each case the order is, from left, British, American and, when present, French:

Regular Line Infantry -- These are the ubiquitous, core element of the game, appearing on at least one side in every single scenario. Most of the time the infantry has a morale point (MP) strength of 4, but occasionally understrength units appear with an MP of 3. The forte of these units is staying power. Except in rare cases, they cannot be destroyed by a single volley and most of the time will have to be whittled down by repeated attacks. At full strength they will probably succeed in making a Close Combat morale check. Likewise they will probably hold their position when facing a Close Combat attack.

Elite Infantry -- Only the British and Americans have these units. They're pretty common in British armies, appearing 21 times in the 33 scenarios of Hold the Line, HTL French and Indian War expansion and Clash for a Continent. The Americans get elite infantry in just four scenarios. In most cases the "Elite" infantry doesn't represent formal elite units such as Grenadiers (although they can represent them sometimes) but merely regular line units that distinguished themselves in the particular fight. Elite infantry shares all the characteristics of Regular Line Infantry with some additional benefits. One of the more important benefits is that they get a +1 bonus on all morale check rolls, which means that they are very likely to stick around for Close Combat. Their most useful characteristic is that they get a saving roll whenever they might lose their last step and half the time they don't. While certainly not something to build a battle plan around, their refusal to die can be very annoying to your opponent and a source of good cheer to you. The advanced/optional rules give them an additional benefit -- at full strength they roll 4 dice when attacking. The British counter appears to depict fusiliers.

Light Infantry -- Their forte is movement -- moving twice as fast as line troops, while having equal firepower. They have slightly less staying power than most line troops with a maximum strength of 3, but their biggest foible is simply numbers. While they show up fairly often (there are just 12 scenarios where they don't appear on at least one side), it's never in large numbers. The most any side will ever have is two in its order of battle, making them just supporting units.

Militia Infantry -- They have no forte, aside from existence. They show up a lot, there are only 13 scenarios where they don't appear. Unlike the Light Infantry, there's often a lot of Militia Infantry. On the positive side, they fire as effectively as the regulars, but with just 2 MP they are always just one bad roll away from sudden disappearance. It's rarely worth spending action points to rally them so the best thing to do with a damaged militia unit is pull it out of the line, if you can. There are no French militia in the countermix, they use the Tory militia

Indians -- While sharing the vulnerability to fire and bad morale of Militia Infantry, Indians have some special abilities which go a long way towards making them useful units. For one thing, they can move and fire or, perhaps more importantly, fire and then move, making them good at harassing enemy troops while being tough to come to grips with. Combined with the fact that they do NOT have to stop when passing through woods hexes and they become quite dangerous. There are a a half dozen scenarios that involve a large number of Indians such as the Battle on Snowshoes, Bloody Bridge, Fort Dusquesne, Lake George, Oriskany and Bushy Run, but the other four times they show up only one or two appear, making them bit players. There are only two battles, Lake George and Oriskany, where Indians appear on both sides in a scenario. Interestingly, the Indian "flag" on the counter is the flag of the Iroquois Confederation. The different colors are used to tell the units apart on the few occasions where Indians were on both sides.

Rangers -- Definitely the best units in the game, they have the mobility of the Indians and the firepower and benefits of being Elite troops. Their only drawbacks are their MP of 2 and the fact they are exceedingly rare, appearing in just the five scenarios of the French and Indian War expansion. And except for the Battle for Snowshoes, where they represent the entire force, they have just one or two units present, making them another supporting unit. They only fight on the British side, although they are colonials. Oddly, the Ranger counter is double-length, even though they're only a 2 MP unit. They are the only such unit in the system. All other 2MP units are square, while all the other double-length counters have maximum MPs of 3 or 4.

Dragoons -- Unlike European warfare of the era, fighting in North America rarely involved more than a handful of mounted troops. Often the dragoon unit in a HTL scenario represents as few as 20 or so troopers, which would be a negligible number on a European battlefield. Their very rarity could give them an impact far outside of their numbers in North American fighting, as many troops (militia, Indians) had no training at all in anti-cavalry techniques and even the line troops could be caught by surprise. The Dragoon units are speedy, moving up to three hexes, and have the ability to move and attack, although less effectively than infantry. They cannot Close Combat, which seems a little odd, frankly. They also have a maximum strength of 2, which means they won't take much punishment. They don't appear very often, in just 14 scenarios. In just two cases (Brandywine and Cowpens) are there enough dragoon units on both sides that anything like a cavalry battle might occur. In nearly every other case there's just one of two dragoon units present, often only on one side. There are no French dragoons in the counter mix. The British Dragoon shown is from Tarleton's Legion.

Artillery -- If North America wasn't good cavalry country, it was even worse for gunners. If using the optional/advanced rules, artillery units are nearly useless against troops in woods, and in any case they will find the terrain in many scenarios working against their forte -- range. Artillery units have the longest range of units in the game, although it's not much of an edge -- just 3 hexes compared to the 2 hexes of infantry units. The artillery fires a little more effectively than infantry, but doesn't have the option of Close Combat. With a strength of just 2, the guns are subject to quick silencing by good rolls. They do appear often, however. There are just 6 scenarios with no guns at all, and in most of the other scenarios there are 2-3 gun units on at least one side.

Leaders -- Personal leadership plays a big role in the game, so leaders appear in all scenarios, generally two per side. Leaders provide many direct benefits -- the ability to rally units to replace losses, morale benefits for attack and defense, increased movement and, if using the advanced/optional rules, more dice in close combat. Their drawback is that they can be killed while providing these benefits, giving the enemy a VP. The game mechanic for this (potential hits on a die roll of 1, followed up by another die roll of 1) basically give the attacker an extra bite at the apple when it comes to scoring VPs in an attack, so players need to carefully consider the risks and benefits of leading from the front. Hold the Line introduced leaders with additional combat value and hit values. All the leaders in Clash for a Continent were, in effect 1/1 leaders, which means they added 1 die in combat or +1 to morale and dies when taking a single hit. In HTL and the French and Indian War expansion there are 2/1, 1/2 and even 2/2 leaders. A 2/1 leader adds an important combat benefit, a +2 is a big deal in this game system, but at high risk because a single hit will take the leader out of the game for a VP. Examples of 2/1 leaders are guys like Wolfe, Levis, Murray, Rahl, Kyphausen, Arnold, Campbell, Ferguson and Marion -- inspirational who sometimes took a bullet. Slightly less common are 1/2 leaders. These men, who include Dumas, Fraser, Howe, Greene, Williams, Clinton and Shelby, can be risked at the front a little more freely because they'll get a chance to pull out if they get hit once. The 2/2 leaders are, of course, definitely worth putting in charge of your main effort, providing robust and powerful leadership. The leaders getting this honor include some of the most legendary figures of the wars such as Rogers, Wolfe, Pontiac, Washington, Cornwallis, Rawdon and Mawhood. Leaders move 3 hexes and have combat value of their own, but enhance friendly units.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Axis & Allies miniatures -- M18 Hellcat GMC

I'll be posting, on an occasional basis, musing about the pieces of Axis & Allies miniatures.

It seemed like every set of Axis & Allies miniatures had one really awful sculpt. The hobbyists' introduction to this unfortunate AAM "tradition" was the Base Set's M18 Hellcat tank destroyer (collector No. 19/48). This model was grossly out-of-scale compared to the other vehicular models and alerted gamers to the fact that there were scaling problems with the vehicles. As it turned out, gamers quickly determined that it was the majority of other vehicles that were not in a true 15mm scale, being about 15% too small in relation to the troops. Unfortunately, collectors were not comforted by the fact that at least one model (the M18 Hellcat) was the proper size because it also turned out that the proportions of that vehicle model were wrong. Interestingly, when reissued as part of the new 1939-1945 Set, the piece (No. 29/60) underwent a name change, to the M18 GMC (gun motor carriage).

A size comparison from BoardGame Geek between the 1939-1945 set M18 GMC (top) and the Base Set M18 Hellcat (bottom)


* Officially revised stats

Rarity: Rare

Speed: 5

Defense: 3/2

Cost: 24*

Attacks vs. troops at close-medium-long ranges: 6-6-4

Attacks vs. vehicles at close-medium-long ranges: 14-12-10

Base Set

Special Abilities:

High Gear 2 -- If this unit makes its entire move along a road, it gets +2 speed.

Strike and Fade 1 -- In your assault phase, this unit can move at speed 1 after attacking* (Originally appeared only on 1939-1945 Set card, revision adds it to the Base Set)

Flanking Attack -- This unit rolls one extra attack die when attacking a Vehicle's rear.* (Originally appeared only on the Base Set card, revision adds it to the 1939-45 card)

1939-1945 Set

Historical text:

Base Set -- With a top speed of 55 mph, the Hellcat was the fastest armored fighting vehicle of the war.

1939-45 Set -- The M18 had a 400hp engine on a relatively light body. It was perhaps the fastest and most maneuverable tank of the war.

The unit in history: Of the four self-propelled tank destroyers fielded by the U.S. Army in World War II, the M18 was the only one that wasn't adapted from another vehicle. As the Army's only purpose-built TD the Hellcat was the epitome of tank destroyer doctrine, combining a powerful gun with an extremely maneuverable chassis with the aim of using hit-and-run tactics and ambush against enemy tanks. When tactical circumstances forced it to stand and fight, however, the M18s very light armor was inadequate. The 76mm gun was also too weak to penetrate the frontal armor of the Panther and Tiger tanks. Still, there were several instances of M18-equipped TD units achieving high kill ratios against Panther and Tiger tank units by using their high speed to achieve flanking shots and avoiding fire from the slowly traversing German tank turrets. About 2,500 M18s were built, with most serving in Europe.

The unit in the game: The M18 is the prototypical tank destroyer, with a powerful enough punch to take out most Axis AFVs and extreme speed that means it will have many opportunities to use that Flanking Attack SA. With High Speed 2 it can speed around as fast as a jeep! It can't take being shot at, however, but judicious positioning will let it use Strike and Fade to avoid return fire.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sometimes you need to fill a gap

I enjoy Axis & Allies War at Sea naval miniatures as a game in its own right, as well as a good source for painted ships suitable for other naval wargames, including Larry Bond's Command at Sea system, represented in my collection by Atlantic Navies. But Bond's game is not for the faint-hearted or casual gamer. What I really lacked was something in between the two.

Or, more accurately, something in-between them that I'd likely get someone to play. My previous gap fillers comprised Panzerschiffes TG-2 and ArmourSoft's Shipbase III computer-assisted rules -- both of which are now really obscure. The Shipbase III game is a DOS-based computer program that's awkward to try using on newer machines. And Panzerschiffes replaced the dice-based TG-2 with a card-based TG-3 some time ago. I got a lot of good gaming out of both titles, but they're out-dated now. I also have some "antique" naval rules, Fletcher Pratt's and a set called "Victory at Sea" from 1971, but neither is playable by current standards.

So I picked up Mongoose Publishing's Victory at Sea (no relation to the 1971 game of the same name) which seems to hit around the same spot as far as complexity goes while being reasonably popular these days. I'm aware of some criticism on realism grounds, but it seems pretty passable on that score. If needed I'm sure I can borrow a rule or two from Command at Sea, but if I need a detailed simulation I'll use Bond's game anyway.

A&A War at Sea is really a board game that uses miniature ships, so it doesn't really fill the need for a real naval miniatures game (although the model ships do). So I decided Victory at Sea was my best choice among the similar titles out there. Now I need to play it a couple of times to see if I'm right.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

So where is this generation's "Grunt?"

Back in 1971, while combat operations still raged in Vietnam, Strategy & tactics magazine published a groundbreaking design called Grunt. This game included a number of firsts. It was the first commercial squad-level wargame. It was S&T's first game with die-cut counters. It was one of the very first simulation games published about a conflict during that conflict.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be little interest in designing such a game dealing with today's conflicts. I can understand a certain reluctance to try designing a game dealing with the strategy or politics of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq -- everybody seems to be having a hard time wrapping their minds around what forces are really at work.

But at the tactical level it's not so complicated. One would think there's be some interest in depicting a G.I.-level view of the fighting, but there's little there and nothing yet in any of the wargame magazines, so far as I know. Why not? Is it the controversial subject? Hard to see that it cold be, after all, Vietnam was surely even more controversial when Grunt was published.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Sounds of Water -- A Battlelore double session report

Young General and Old Warrior have now started moving on to the Battlelore expansions, with the Goblin Skirmisher pack up first. This expansion introduces some Goblinoid slingers (the sort of agile skirmishers you'd expect), Hobgoblin spears (a red banner heavy fighting unit) and the odd Goblin band! The band is the sort of curious, fun unit that you can include in a fantasy game that doesn't really have a counterpart in more reality grounded games such as Commands & Colors: Ancients or Memoir'44. The band provides morale support to any unit within its section, which is a handy ability indeed, given the touchy morale of the Goblinoids.

We now have a few games under our belts using the Lore rules and now some meta-strategic considerations are beginning to be made.

First, here's the map, showing the initial setup.

It's not mentioned in any errata so far as I know, but there appears to be an error in the set up for the Standard army, as there's a crossbow unit shown but it's not indicated as being Dwarven. As no human crossbows are in the game as of this expansion I decided that must be an error and so I fielded the unit as Iron Dwarves. I was also suspicious of the third unit on the central hills, between the two Dwarven units, but I decided that, seeing as it could have been a human unit, I'd leave it as such.

I drew the Standard army first. One War Council slot was already taken up by the Spider. So far it's an open question in my mind whether the Spider is worth a level on the War Council, but I had no choice. I'm pretty sure having the largest possible hand of Command Cards is important, so I decided to go with a Level 3 Commander, which would give me a 6-card hand and a Stronghold to boot. I expected Young General to go heavy on the Lore Masters, so I decided to use my last two levels primarily to dilute the impact of his choice. I selected a Level 1 Cleric and a Level 1 Rogue as I thought those were the one he was least likely to choose.

As expected, Young General did go for a big Lore Master, picking a Level 3 Wizard and having just a Level 1 Commander. His last two levels went to a Level 1 Warrior and a Level 1 Cleric, so my strategy succeeded. His 8 cards of Wizard Lore were buried in a Lore deck that had 30 cards of other Lore masters. As it turned out, I don't think he ever drew a useful Wizard Lore card. Nearly all the Lore he did play was Clerical. His Pentagram meant he had plenty of Lore to spend, he just had trouble drawing the cards.

The actual battle was our usual poking at each other affair. Young General's 4-card hand prevented him from organizing a plan and my substandard draws through much of the game meant the same for me despite my 6-card hands. We traded units until near the end when I was able to send a unit of Berserk Dwarves crashing into the Goblin Band to get my sixth flag. The Spider was useless, dying from a critical hit from a battle-back in its first fight. The final score was 6-5.

The band and the dense Goblinoid setup meant they were much sturdier fighters than we had experienced before and as a matter of fact there was not a single Goblin Run in either of the battles in the match!

For the switch battle I decided to go with a Level 3 Commander again, with a Level 3 Warrior assistant. My plan was to use the Training camp to train up the right flank blue banner horse to red banner status and rampage against the Young General's flank.

Young General, meanwhile, decided to forego having any landmarks and spread his levels around, with Level 1 Commander, Wizard and Cleric, a Level 2 Warrior and, of course, the Spider. Neither of us had a Rogue.

And my plan worked out -- at first. I was able to train up the horse unit, but this attracted the Young General's attention and he just swarmed it with three cavalry units of his own. As a matter of fact, he jumped out to a 3-1 lead, as my army was only able to kill one unit -- the Spider, naturally.

Still, one has to be flexible when playing a Borg game and I had built up a pretty powerful hand of both useful Command cards and Warrior Lore. In particular, I had started with two Mounted Charge cards and later drew a third. So on three consecutive turns I launched mounted charges, some enhanced by Warrior Lore, that smashed up four of Young Generals' units while only losing one of my own. So the score was 5-4. At that point I spent my hoarded Lore and cast the Hills Rumble Lore. It was expensive at 14 Lore because I didn't have the proper Cleric Lore master but it reduced a front-line enemy unit to 1 figure. And that figure was picked off by a Goblin Skirmisher for a 6-4 win.

Young General remarked that he was going to have to start working on having more of a strategy next time, so there's something stirring.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Operation Cerebus --Feb. 12, 1942

The Bismarck is probably the best-known German warship of World War II, but I think a case can be made that the most storied career was experienced by the Battlecruiser Scharnhorst, usually in company with its sister ship, Gneisenau.
The Scharnhorst has an amazing run as an Atlantic raider, carrier killer and dueler with battleships. One of its most dramatic escapades was the "Channel Dash" or Operation Cerebus. Starting late on Feb. 11 and completed by Feb. 13, the key day for the operation was Feb. 12, 1942. The length of the voyage meant that the German ships would have to endure at least one day's daylight hours within close range of British airpower. The audacity of the German move served them well, however, and the British were unable to effectively mobilize against the German task force, which comprised the two battlecruisers, the heavy cruiser Pinz Eugen, a half dozen destroyers, 14 torpedo boats (small destroyers) and 26 S-boats (PT boats).
The Scharnhorst miniature from Axis & Allies War at Sea.
Despite its fame, Operation Cerebus isn't featured in many wargames, but it is a scenario in the new Atlantic Navies game from Clash of Arms, vol. VII in its Command at Sea series. The tactical scenario depicts the torpedo attack by five British destroyers from the Harwich force. The historical result was a defeat for the British, as they achieved no hits and ad one destroyer very badly damaged. Given the disparity in force, the British seem to have done well.
Good fortune smiled on the Germans for the most part, although the Scharnhorst was damaged by a mine. Overall the episode was a humiliating defeat for the British and a propaganda coup for the Germans, but in the grand scheme of things it didn't have a big impact. It may have even simplified the strategic situation for the British by removing the threat of a sortie from Brest into the shipping lanes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Battle anniversary -- Krasni Bor, 1943

Today and tomorrow mark the 67th anniversary of the Battle of Krasni Bor, immortalized in wargaming by the Tactical Combat Series Game "Black Wednesday."

The battle is notable for the participation of the Spanish "Blue Division" comprised of Spanish fascist volunteers fighting against the Soviet Union. Spanish rightist enthusiasm for the fighting is probably best understood in the context of the recently concluded Spanish Civil War, where the Russians had provided strong support for the Republican side.

Still, it's more than a little surprising that Franco allowed such overt participation in the Axis war effort -- and that Spain paid little price for it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Axis and Allies miniatures -- M1 Garand

I'll be posting on an occasional basis musings about pieces in the Axis & Allies miniatures game.

As with the other basic infantrymen in Axis & Allies miniatures, the American GI is introduced to the game via his most common personal weapon, in this case the M-1 Garand semi-automatic rifle. The figure is No. 18 of 48 in the Base Set and No. 28 of 60 in the 1939-1945 set.

Base Set figure


Rarity: Common

Speed: 1
Defense: 4/4
Cost: 4

Attacks vs troops at short-medium-long ranges: 8-7-0
Attacks vs. vehicles at short-medium-long ranges: 2-0-0

1939-1945 set figure

Special abilities:

Close Assault 7: This unit has an attack value of 7 against Vehicles in its hex. This attack ignores cover.

Stars & Stripes: This unit rolls one extra attack die while adjacent to a friendly Commander.

Historical text: The US M1 .30 caliber rifle was a semiautomatic weapon and outclassed the bolt-action rifles used by the Axis forces.

The unit in history: The M-1 Garand was the first successful general-issue semi-automatic rifle, which gave American soldiers an edge in firepower over their bolt-action rifle armed opponents. Unfortunately, close infantry combat was becoming dominated by fully automatic weapons such as submachine guns, light machine guns and assault rifles, making even a good long rifle obsolescent.

The unit in the game: The basic American rifleman is 33% more expensive than the usual for all other nationalities, but he is rewarded with generally higher stats and useful special abilities.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Are sneak attacks all they're cracked up to be?

What prompts this question is today's anniversary of the famous surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in 1904, which famously foreshadowed the bigger surprise attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The Port Arthur attack was not the first time the Japanese has started a war that way, they had also started their 1894 war with China without a formal declaration of war.

The value of surprise in battle is well-established, of course, and it's a desirable state to achieve, although not uniquely so. It's just one factor that can give advantage, right along with superior quality training and equipment, numbers, etc.

But a surprise attack that starts a war brings additional costs into consideration. Before the modern era of warfare it was very hard to pull off a strategically significant "sneak attack." In the last 200 years or so, concerns about "out-of-the-blue" surprise attacks have grown, especially in the context of nuclear weapons.

But overall I think the track record for "sneak attacks" is rather poor. At Pearl Harbor, of course, the Japanese did a lot of damage, but it's generally considered to be a grand strategic blunder than ensured Japan would lose the war.

The outcome for Japan in the 1904-05 war was positive, but it's hard to give much credit to the sneak Japanese torpedo boat attack that started the conflict. Only three major Russian ships were damaged, none fatally. The Russian inaction in the face of the Japanese fleet was a failure of leadership, not material -- as demonstrated when Admiral Markoff arrived on the scene.

When used in a carefully targeted way, in ways that keep the conflict strictly limited, a surprise strike may work out well. But a misjudgment on this score is very dangerous, and if the war fails to stay limited, a surprise attack may cost more than it gains.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Encounter on the low road -- a Lost Worlds session

Arcanthus regretted taking the coast road. Not only had its twisty path not saved him any time over the King Pass route, but now he was being accosted by a ruffian - some pirate from the looks of him.

The sage prepared casting a spell to clear the thug away, but his incantations were interrupted by a large bang, a cloud of smoke, and the whistle of a pistol ball past his ear!

Arcanthus brushed aside his brief glimpse of mortality and focused. No time for that now. No doubt the robber would want to reload, obviously being the sort of coward who feared close combat, so now was the time to close and strike.

Sure enough, the blade of Arcanthus caught the pirate squarely as he attempted to stuff wad and ball down the barrel. (-5 hit).

As the pirate staggered back, Arcanthus had time to finish casting his interrupted spell. He kicked his foot out and a rainbow colored blast of light erupted from Khalyde's Kick to strike the pirate hard. (-3 hit).

The battered pirate dodged another swing from Arcanthus, and managed to reload his pistol finally, but a follow-on swing from the sage clipped the ruffian's side. (-2 hit).

Time to finish this affair. Arcanthus judged that the pirate would again pause to attempt to get off a shot, so a strong swinging blow would probably catch him. And so it came to pass (-3, KO).

The man's wounds did not appear necessarily fatal. Arcanthus never took a life without need, no matter how worthless it seemed. And so he gathered his discarded bags and continued his journey, leaving the would-be robber's fate in the hands of whoever should next pass down the road.

Friday, February 5, 2010

BattleLore -- FFG improves on DOW packaging

The ol' mailman dropped a package on the doorstep yesterday -- the new Heroes expansion for Battlelore. Naturally it's too early to say much about the game play, but I thought the upgrading in packaging was worth noting off the bat.

When Battlelore was published by Days of Wonder it used a distinctive packaging system for most of its expansions (and for Memoir '44 as well) that used a clear plastic "box" with a light cardboard sleeve around it.

I always had mixed feelings about this packaging as it compares to more traditional cardboard boxes. I don't know how it compares from a cost standpoint for the company, but from a player and consumer point of view the main feature of the plastic box was its ability to provide storage that conformed to the shape of the components, especially figures. This provided protection for the figures as well as a way to keep them organized.

On the other hand, I thought the packaging had some drawbacks. For one thing, it's very bulky. An expansion with a dozen or so figures takes up a fairly substantial amount of space for the size of the miniatures it contains. My biggest concern, though, is about durability. The light plastic used by Days of Wonder was already splitting in some cases, despite the fact that my game hasn't had anything like hard usage. Likewise the cardboard sleeves in some cases are already fraying along edges or threatening to split. In a few cases the tolerances between different parts seem a little too snug, making it hard to separate.

This new expansion, Heroes, is the first completely produced by Fantasy Flight Games since they bought Battlelore (they had previously issued expansions prepared by DoW). I was curious if they'd keep the DoW style packaging or switch to something more like what they had done before with other games.

The answer seems to be to remain consistent with the Battlelore look, but make some small, but important, improvements. The Heroes expansion uses a slightly thicker and more robust plastic with tolerances that allow the parts to slide over each other easily while still providing no danger of pieces falling out. The sleeve likewise uses a slightly thicker, textured, cardboard that appears likely to be more durable, although perhaps still too light for hard use.

The art is, of course, completely compatible with Battlelore's established look, with only the FFG logo to distinguish it from the earlier Days of Wonder product.

I'm still ambivalent about the entire packaging strategy, but FFG's execution is clearly better. Many players probably have hit on their own storage solutions anyway and don't bother with the original packaging, but I prefer to retain original packaging when practicable. There is some virtue in keeping the same look, once it's been established, so I can't criticize FFG's call.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I'm looking forward to this one

Serpents of the Seas is charging and should be shipping in a month or so. I'm looking forward to this one.

It also means I need to get cracking on my next installment of the "replay" of the Chesapeake and Shannon fight. Next up will be Close Action because I plan to cap the series with the Serpents of the Seas review.