Friday, April 30, 2010

Marathon unbiased by historical knowledge

Played a game of Commands & Colors: Ancients the other day at a local game shop. Naturally it was good game, as the game system is great fun and the young man who played against me, an experienced player of collectible and RPGs, played well despite no prior experience in the game system.

It ended up being a very long fight, as I made it a practice to pull back any of my Perisan units that got knocked down to 1 or 2 figures. By the end of the game I had quite a collection of them. I was rather surprised that it turned out that way, because usually in Marathon battles the Greeks will close for decisive action. Now my opponent was hardly passive -- The Persians lost four complete units and only five unit are undamaged at game end (which is how many Greek units were also unhurt). But the Greek army did not make the customary charge.

As it turns out, this was, due, in large part, to the fact that my opponent was completely unfamiliar with the Battle of Marathon.

I find it hard to fault him, as he's clearly an intelligent fellow, well-spoken, is taking college classes, has no trouble understanding complex game with little instruction and is an avid player of some pretty complicated nonwargames.

Yet he didn't have the first inkling about Marathon or what had happened there. I teased him a little, saying he must have forgotten about it, but in truth, upon reflection, I wonder about that.

While Marathon and the story behind it was a staple of Western education, I wonder these days how much classical history gets taught outside of AP classes. Thinking back on it, I remembered that even in my day back in the dark ages of the 1960s there wasn't an awful lot of World History taught. I suspect most of what I know about classical history I picked up on my own. What emphasis on history there is seems to be on U.S. History, like America popped up out of nowhere.
This one reason why I'm now a big fan of the Axis & Allies games, despite all the shortcoming any wargamer can see. Sure, they're simplistic. But they put the history OUT there. That's why I'm still thrilled about the A&A miniatures lines. It's very, very likely that for many people their very first exposure to World War II, to Sherman tanks, to the USS Enterprise is from an A&A branded game. And I'm even more thrilled at some of the more recent developments. In the new A&A Pacific 1940 version of the main Axis & Allies line players get to see that it was a lot more than just the US vs. Japan with the ANZACs, British and Chinese portrayed and French and Dutch territory depicted.

The land miniatures and naval miniatures games both seem to have gone out of there way to include a lot of obscure and unusual pieces of limited utility in game terms, but a real gold mine for sparking historical curiosity. I am thinking of unit such as Mongolian cavalry, Azad Hind infantry and D0-219 fighters. In the upcoming Condition Zebra set there is going to be a Greek armoured cruiser and a Finnish coast defense ship. Neither saw a lot of combat, but both seem likely to prompt "I didn't know that!" responses among purchasers.

While I've been bringing some of my fantasy and sci fi games to the store, I have to admit I've been pleasantly surprised by the interest shown in the history-themed games I've brought in such as A&A land and naval minis and now C&C ancients. I think I'll bring Memoir '44 next week.

While I still think people should learn about Marathon in school, I don't mind wargames being a back up plan.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kicking Some Goblin Ass

Young General made an atypical choice in this latest episode of BattleLore, choosing to take the Goblin side in the Goblin Riders scenario from the Goblin Marauders expansion.

There was no mystery in this selection, because as much as Young General doesn't care for Goblins, he absolutely loves playing Mounted Charge cards and there was a lot more potential for that sort of thing with the cavalry heavy Goblin army than the mount-starved Dwarven-Human force.

As is his practice, Young General selected a balanced war council with Level 1 lore masters all around and a Level 2 Commander. Old Warrior followed his standard strategy of picking a Level 3 lore master, in this case the Warrior and a Level 3 Commander. The Stronghold and the Training Camp were set up om the right edge of the center and the right flank respectively. Old Warrior planned to use the Training camp to upgrade his blue banner dwarf unit on the right to a red banner and use the Stronghold as a sniper post for some archers.

Young General's been successful enough that Old Warrior felt comfortable inflicting some strategy on the youngster. Old Warrior noted that capturing the bridge was worth 2 victory banners but suspected that if he didn't seize the bridge right away he might be able to spring a sudden victory on the Goblins.

Old Warrior opened the action with some attacks that cleared a path to the bridge but held back from actually capturing it. Meanwhile Young General not only started the game with a Mounted Charge in hand but soon draw a second one, as well as some other useful cards and pressed hard against the center of the Standard Army, even managing to capture the Stronghold!

As usual, however, the Dwarves were deadly in the close combat and kept the game close, with the Victory Banners being 4 for the Goblin-Human Pennant Army of Young General and 3 for the Old Warrior's Human-Dwarf Standard. At this moment Old Warrior unleashed his trap, with an Assault Lore card that allowed a general advance and the seizure of the bridge., bringing the Standard Army within one banner of victory The odds were that the Standard army's attacks would succeed somewhere, and so it proved with the promoted Red banner Dwarf unit finishing off a Goblinoid rider for the win.

A hard-fought victory, and a glance at Young general's face revealed that he wouldn't be caught by a trick like that again!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Army Without Hope? The KMT in A&A Miniatures

For a nation that managed to hold out virtually alone for years against Japan, China never has gotten much respect in any Axis & Allies game, whether it's a Larry Harris design or A&A miniatures.

A few months back I proposed a "100-point" standard game order of battle that I thought might be competitive against the 1939 Japanese. Constructed under the latest rules, using formations and fortification limits, single-army bonus and 1939 year restrictions, it looked like this: One KMT infantry company (1 KMT officer, 10 KMT riflemen, 1 KMT MG team) eight more KMT MG teams, 1 more officer and 1 more rifleman, 1 T-26 tank, a headquarters, a pill box, six barbed wire and four minefields for a total of 110 points. (In historical terms this is an infantry company, a machine gun company and a few supports)

It took a long time to get this to the table, but I finally got a chance to play it. I constructed the following Japanese force, which was not very exotic at all: Two Japanese infantry platoons (1 imperial sergeant, 5 Arisaka rifles, 1 knee mortar) two Type 89 Chi-Ro "medium" tanks, one imperial sniper, one MG team, 1 70mm gun, 1 SNLF Fanatic and a Zero for 110 points. The Japanese player was a total A&A newbie, although an experienced gamer.

We battled over Map No. 1 of the 3-inch hexes (village), with the Japanese starting on the more open side, while the Chinese had a bit more woods cover. The mines and wire were set up to force the Japanese into a narrow approach to the objective. Not that it made much difference.

The Japanese player made a straightforward, competent frontal assault with the sergeants and riflemen, accompanied by the tanks, while the mortars, machine gun, sniper and infantry gun provided covering fire. The Zero took pot shots at long range until the end game when most of the KMT machine guns were gone. KMT fire was reasonably effective and, if anything, the KMT made more than its share of cover rolls. The Japanese lost both tanks, the infantry gun and about 5 riflemen. The Chinese were wiped out to a man in five turns.

While I might try to tinker around the edges with this OB, perhaps subbing more pillboxes for the barbed wire and/ or mines, the Chinese have too limited a selection of units to be competitive right now. Unfortunately there's little historical basis for giving them much more. A cannon would be nice, and maybe some better quality infantry would help, but the main things that made China such a hard nut for Japan to crack are really outside the scope of a tactical wargame.

Friday, April 23, 2010

70th anniversary of a fight you never heard of

One of the neat things about Larry Bond's Admiralty series of games is the exhaustive research that goes into them, to the point that wargamers can, if they are so inclined, recreate some truly obscure incidents.

One such episode was an early morning encounter on April 23, 1940 between three French destroyers and a small German mine-laying force comprised of two mine ships and two patrol boats off the coast of Denmark. The actual incident itself resulted in no damage to either side, although shots were fired. It's a scenario in the La Guerre Navale book in Atlantic Navies, Vol. VII of the Command at Sea series of naval games by Clash of Arms.

Before dismissing this out of hand as uninteresting, I think that this sort of scenario reminds us that it's not all grand battles and important campaigns in wartime. Indeed, most of it consists of unsung routine duty that nevertheless carries danger. A sailor is just as dead whether he dies in a famous fleet action or in some forgotten naval skirmish that will hardly rate a mention in history. I think it's certain that this small action in the Skagerrak has never appeared in a wargame before and nearly as certain that it will never appear again.

But it's nice to see that it appeared at least once, and that the French and German seaman who risked their lives that morning are not forgotten entirely.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Memoir '44 as a war memorial

We are in the midst of a new round of remembrances as the 70th anniversaries of various World War II events have started occurring since Sept. 1 of last year. In a few weeks we'll see the 70th anniversary of the campaign that resulted in the Fall of France in 1940, for example.

It just so happens that there are quite a few scenarios from that campaign represented among the official scenarios of Memoir '44, including a campaign in the Campaign Book and as I pondered that fact it occurred to me that Memoir '44 is, in many ways, a war memorial in game form.

Among grognards there's a lot of debate about whether Memoir '44 is a "true" wargame and while I think it qualifies, I admit that critics do have some legitimate points. It's clearly not much of a simulation. It has a highly abstract game system, a very ambiguous treatment of scale and some debatable design decisions on the interactions between weapons and troop types.

But looked at from another point of view, Memoir '44 succeeds immensely as a memorial to that war, being one of most played wargames on Boardgame Geek and widely popular even among players who don't otherwise play wargames. The name of the game, itself, hints at the game's true purpose of being a memorial or memoir of the war. Indeed, the game was first published in conjunction with the "Mission for the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings & Liberation of France."

So long as there have been wars there's been the need to memorialize the fallen. The loss is always felt so profoundly and every era and culture use whatever forms of cultural expression available to it to remember those losses. Norse sagas, Assyrian base reliefs, equestrian statues in the local park and Saving Private Ryan all speak to the same impulse. I think Memoir '44 is, perhaps, more akin to Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers or The Pacific than might be realized. If your typical wargame is similar to a History Channel documentary, then the analogy may very well hold up. Memoir '44 is a work of fiction, but like a good work of fiction it may reveal truth more powerfully than a straightforward history.

It's a truism that World War II was fought by "The Greatest Generation," but like many truisms it's also a fiction. It takes nothing away from the sacrifices of the World War II generation to observe that they were ordinary men and women, no greater or lesser than every generation's soldiers. World War II is likely to stand as the "Greatest" war in history, because in a nuclear-armed world there can never again be a battle of survival between the great powers of the age. Should a war between nuclear powers occur it will undoubtedly be the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind, but it will stll not be the greatest war. It will be over in minutes, or at best hours, and then the Rider of the Red Horse will say "my work is done here" and turn the rst of the work over to Famine, Pestilence and Death. There will be no general mobilization of populations and industry, no vast fleets or enormous armies battling ferociously across every continent and in every climate. World War II will stand as the greatest war of that sort.

And for that reason World War II is an appropriate stand-in for every war in history and Memoir '44 an appropriate memorial in game form for all those combatants who have suffered and died in every war. The game is remarkable eclectic in its presentation. Sure, the main combatants such as Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy, the United States and the British Commonwealth are well-represented. But there are also scenarios depicting France's brief war and its long Resistance. Smaller powers such as Brazil, Finland and the Philippines make an appearance and the game system is flexible enough that any country can and probably will get a chance to have its moment in the sun.

So as the 70th anniversaries come up I know I'll be taking out Memoir '44 more than once.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Patriot's Day Pounding

The redoubtable Mark K. and I celebrated Patriot's Day with a couple of appropriately themed American Revolution games, the new Washington's War from GMT and Liberty, the block game from Columbia Games.

Each game covers about the same ground, although Liberty is much more strongly focused on the military campaigning while Washington's War's card-driven allows it to include more political effects.
In both games I took the British, so history was well-served by Mark's eventual double victory.

Each game was marred a bit by inexperienced play and some rule errors, so I won't go into a lot of detail, but both games went the distance, ending in 1783. The British came within 1 victory point of getting a draw in Liberty, but that didn't reflect that the British cause unraveled relatively early and benefited from a late French entry. The Washington's War game, on the other hand, seemed t me to be somewhat close than the final result indicated. There was one critical victory by Benedict Arnold in North Carolina that had far-reaching effect as the was a real chance that Arnold and the entire southern Continental army would be captured which would have resulted in a solid loyalist South with little chance for a Patriot counteroffensive. Instead Arnold stuck around to cause more trouble and by the time the British secured the South they were too short on time and resources to take the North back.

Both games were enjoyable, however, and rematches are eagerly awaited.

Before tackling those two new games, Mark K. and I continued our Hold the Line series, playing the Battle of Ste. Foy from the French and Indian War. Until I got the French & Indian War expansion to HTL I had never even heard of this battle. Accounts of the Quebec campaign always concentrate on the Plains of Abraham battle and give the impression that it ended the campaign. But there was an additional battle the following year that the French even managed to win but the arrival of the British fleet shortly afterwards meant that the city of Quebec would remain in British hands.

While the French won the historical battle, in our match the British won each time. In the first go, Mark K. took the British while I took the French. The French have an advantage in numbers and quality, although the numerical advantage is largely made up by near-worthless militia and a matter of fact, on neither case did the militia take part in the battle. Looming larger was the French having starting values of 4 while the British were all 3s.

On the other hand the British had a major advantage in artillery and the French a disadvantage in time, with just 20 turns. Rounding out the British order of battle was a unit of useful colonial rangers while the French had a couple of allied Indian units.

Mark tried standing and fighting for a bit, with the intention of retreating after the early volleys. This didn't work out as he intended as he found it hard to withdraw under fire and the French jumped out to an early lead in victory points. In the middle game, however, the tide began to turn as the surviving British pulled back and the French began to straggle as they tried to stay within range,. Before too long the British outnumbered the French at the point of contact and they began to rack up points in turn. One French Indian unit made it to one hex of Quebec where it scooped up a VP marker, but it was eventually destroyed. The final score ended up being 7-6 in favor of the British,.

The second fight was more one-sided as I consistently retreated my British units which prevented the French from massing their army. Instead they ended up being strung out and caught outnumbered at the actual point of contact. The final score ended up being 7-4 for the British.

We agreed that this appeared to be a tough scenario for the French to win given the time pressure. Given that both of us have played quite a few games of Hold the Line by now, we felt that the level of play was reasonably good and the outcome was a good reflection of the scenario's balance.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

And now for something completely different ...

My wife and I attended a game Meetup right here in Norwich last night which was a lot of fun.

It's easy for gamers, especially wargamers, to lose sight of how specialized a niche hobby gamers occupy in the universe. Our hostess was a woman who was a self-described game addict who had a fairly extensive collection (several dozens) of games of the sort you'll find in mass market retailers. Many party-type games, trivia games, card games, Scrabble, Apples to Apples, and more of that sort. She had recently played a game of Puerto Rico at another meetup but wasn't really aware that the game represented a doorway to the whole "euro" game scene. She'd never heard of Acquire or Settlers of Catan, let alone something like Cosmic Encounter or Small World that I had also brought along.

She had heard of Fluxx, however, having an edition of the game from 1998, so we played that, largely because it was quick and easy to get into and we were expecting a fifth player to show up any moment and Fluxx is one of the few games you can join in progress. The fourth player was another woman who had recently joined the game Meetup but wasn't yet a "gamer" in the hobbyist sense. Player No. 5 arrived midway through our first game and he jumped right in.

The game was a big success, as it has been every time I've introduced it to a group, and we played three complete games of it. I then suggested we try Martian Fluxx, which was even more popular than the basic Fluxx game. It is slightly more involved, though, so I think it's good to break in novice players on a game or two of the basic game before playing Martian Fluxx.

We played two games of Martian Fluxx (did I mention that Fluxx is quick?) before moving on to something I had never seen before called Sequence. It's not a new game, being around since the 1980s. This is a board game using four decks of cards and some chits. The board depicts two standard decks of cards less jokers and jacks laid out in a grid pattern, with each card shown twice. A play consists of revealing a card and placing a chit in the space showing that card with the objective of getting five chits in a row, rather like Pente. one-eyed Jacks, when played, allow a player to remove an opponent;s chit from anywhere on the board. A two-eyed Jack is a wild card, allowing the play of a chit anywhere. Naturally these powerful and relatively rare cards are the main strategic tools in the game.

I remarked during the game that the main difference between Euro games and traditional American games is that usually in Euros a player is faced with a whole bunch of things he'd like to do but the game forces him to make a choice, while in American games the pattern is more like you have many things you;d like to do and the game won;t let you do any of them. Or another way to look at it is that euros force you to choose between attractive options while in American games you're often stuck without any good moves.

Sequence definitely fell into that category. It's a pretty intense game of strategy, but ultimately rather frustrating because it's pretty easy to be stuck with no good moves. We played twice and the second game turned into a real epic that exhausted the draw deck and was well on its way to exhausting the deck again before someone finally won.

Still, it was an interesting game and while I doubt I'd buy a copy, I would be willing to play it again.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A better article on the King Philip's War game

The Associated Press contributed a much superior article today on the "controversy" over the upcoming MMP wargame on King Philip's War. I use the word advisedly because there's really nothing controversial about the game itself, which is a wargame well within the mainstream of such topics. It's basically a media-generated controversy caused by a reporter calling up a bunch of people who have probably never heard about wargames and asking them what they thought about a game that depicted the near-destruction of their people a few hundred years ago.

The whole affair reminds me of the old controversy in the 1970s when the German mayor of Wurzburg found out there was an SPI wargame named after his city that depicted it being subject to being hit by tactical nuclear weapons.

I do hope the game gets published because it provides a real opportunity for some teaching moments about wargames and a neglected part of history. King Philip's War was undoubtedly the closest the English colonists ever got to being driven out of the New World by force of arms.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lincoln was assassinated today

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on this day in 1865, one of the most profound tragedies of the entire tragic episode of the U.S. Civil War.

It's hard to know for sure what would have happened had Lincoln lived, of course, but it's reasonable to believe that things would have been significantly better for the country.

For one thing, Lincoln was altogether a much more admirable person than Andrew Johnson. Indeed, Johnson was one of the most disagreeable people to ever occupy the White House. Johnson was completely inadequate for the challenge he faced, whereas Lincoln had already proven himself. And Lincoln would have had the legitimacy to see through his vision of the postwar rebuilding and reconciliation.

Instead the process got off to a bad start and went downhill from there. In the end it took another century before the promise of the Civil War began to be fulfilled and more than 150 years later the process is incomplete, as illustrated by the recent controversy in Virginia.

Sadly, the assassin often achieves his goal.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Audacity Part II -- Second Battle of Narvik

British Audacity was on display again for the Second Battle of Narvik 70 years ago today when they sent a battleship deep inside of a Norwegian fjord to lead a task force to attack the German destroyers that survived the First Battle of Narvik on April 10.

Unlike the first battle, which saw an outnumbered British destroyer squadron attacking the more numerous and larger Germans, in this battle the weight of effort was clearly on the British side.

Leading the task force was the HMS Warspite, a modernized veteran of the World War I Battle of Jutland with eight 15-inch guns. Accompanying it were 9 destroyers. The German destroyers, most of which had been damaged in the earlier fight.

The outcome was unsurprising, as the entire German force was annihilated, including a sub sunk by Warspite's floatplane. Three of the British destroyers were damaged, including the HMS Eskimo, which had its bow blown off by a German torpedo. The Eskimo survived to return to England despite the heavy damage. She was rebuilt and fought throughout the war, surviving it.

All-in-all, the naval battles of Narvik were a good illustration of the boldness that made the Royal Navy such a formidable opponent.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Some initial impressions of the Dwarven Battalion

After a couple of plays I've drawn some tentative impressions of the new units contained in the Dwarven Battalion expansion pack for Battlelore.

The most unusual unit is definitely the Iron Dwarves Bagpipers. I'll confess that they didn't p;ay a big role in either of the fights I've seen them in so far, but that's largely because I deliberately targeted them for early destruction because I feared their power. While only able to inflict retreats, they roll more dice than any other ranged unit (up to four dice for the Red bagpipers) and are particularly dangerous for Goblins who have the fear the effects of a Goblin Run. I would definitely consider adding them to an army as a specialist.

The Iron Dwarves Spear Bearers are another fearsome unit. Spear units shine when the battle back and as dwarves these guys will always get to battle back. Their battle back strength deters engagement, especially by green or blue units, so they tend to divert an enemy attack into other sectors. Another very useful unit.

The Iron Dwarves Axe Swingers, on the other hand, are fairly ordinary. It's true that they are slightly better than the blue Dwarven swordsmen, but their special ability bonus won't come up often enough to make a big difference in most games. I suspect they'll only be selected as specialists when there aren't other choices as they don't really bring anything unusual to the table.

Iron Dwarf Ambush! Battlelore session

Old Warrior's Human/Goblin Pennant army on top, Young General's Dwarven/Human Standard army below

Young General and Old Warrior continued their long-running series of battles, marching through the Dwarven Battalion expansion at the moment.

Young General has developed a distinct distaste for the Goblinoids and prefers not to play that side of the matches these days, so Old Warrior seems destined to find a way to win with the green-skinned goons.

This battle wasn't going to be the start of that, however.
The Young General's Standard army was well organized and poised to strike at scenario start. As as been his recent policy, he spread his Lore masters evenly around the War Council with Level 1s occupying the Cleric, Rogue, Warrior and Wizard chairs and a Level 2 overall commander.
I want to believe that this vanilla strategy is flawed but in reality it has seemed to work well enough for him. The drawback to this approach are plain enough. He has a small hand of just 2 Lore cards, gives up having any Landmarks and forgoes taking advantage of any level bonuses that cards might provide. On the other hand, he can play ANY card without paying extra lore for it and having so many Lore masters dilutes the impact of a high level master on the other side. The total Lore deck will comprise at least 38 cards of which only 14 will belong to the Level 3 guy on the other side, whereas going with a Level 3 guy himself could result in a Lore Deck that has just 26 Lore Cards with perhaps only 8 that belong to the opponent's guy if the two sides pick different lore masters.
Old Warrior went with his usual Level 2, Commander, Level 1 Warrior and Level 3 other lore master, in this case the Rogue. This still seems like a reasonable selection in my view, providing a large hand of both Command and Lore cards, taking advantage of the many useful Warrior Lore cards and providing a Landmark. On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that this posture came up short yet again.
In this case the Pennant army started off with some decent cards and made some potentially good moves, but seemed to come out on the wrong side of the dice too often. As usual, the Dwarven units were quite dangerous due to their frequent battlebacks. Young General's tactical savvy continues to grow as he took advantage of some fortunate flag results to voluntarily retreat some Bold units that were under attack by multiple units into positions where the second attack was no longer possible.
It ended up being a hard-fought brawl, with the Dwarves coming out on top with a 6-4 flag ratio.
This seems like a more interesting scenario than the Axe and Spear scenario on the flip side of the scenario chart that came with the expansion.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

First Battle of Narvik -- British Audacity on display

The First Battle of Narvik was fought 70 years ago today, although it's somewhat of a misnomer to call it the First Battle of Narvik, as the day before the Norwegians had fought a one-sided battle against the invading German force.

That said, the engagement on April 10 went down in history as the First Battle of Narvik.

Simply said, it involved a squadron of five British H-class destroyers that sailed up the long fjord that leads to Narvik and they attacked the 10 German destroyers in and around the port. They sank two of them and damaged several others and completely disrupted the German force so that the entire group was trapped in the fjord and eventually destroyed.

The odds were even more lopsided than they might appear at first glance, as all 10 German destroyers were considerably larger than the British ones and more heavily armed. The British DDs had 4 guns of just 4.7-inch size while the German DDs had five guns that were 5-inch in size.

But the ensuing action was a perfect illustration of the edge the Royal Navy has had over most of its opponents for several centuries. The British reaction to the German landing was to act quickly and decisively. The five British destroyers steamed into the teeth of the enemy and attacked! This audacious move was obviously unexpected by the Germans and they were caught out of position with two ships refueling and the others laying about here and there.

When it was all over two Germans destroyers were sunk and four were damaged badly enough to be unseaworthy. This cost the British two destroyers sunk and one damaged. The British could afford the loss of a couple of destroyers. Eventually all 10 German destroyers were lost, which represented about half of their entire destroyer fleet at the time. This led to a shortage of these key escorts for future operations.

Narvik would prove to be a harbinger of many similar episodes during the war where inferior British forces would face down superior enemy forces. Many times they would win the fight, but even their defeats would often leave their enemies intimidated and settling for less than they should have accomplished given the resources available.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Phoney War gets real

70 years ago today (April 9) the Phoney War period of World War II started to come to an end.

In the early morning there was the first capital ship battle of the war, as the British battlescruiser Renown skirmished with the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Genisenau off the coast of Norway during very stormy weather that rendered the escorting eight British destroyers almost impotent. Both sides scored some hits but the weather did nearly as much damage and the two forces disengaged before any crippling damage was done.

A short time later the Norwegian coast defense ships Norge and Eidsvold (shown above) were sunk resiting the German invasion at Narvik by a regiment of mountain troops being landed from 8 destroyers. More than 300 Norwegian sailors were kiled while the Germans lost no one. The German troops were able to occupy the port unoposed becasue the local Norwegian troops were led by a Quisling officer. The term Quisling, for traitor, was coined around this time because of the disloyal actions of the Norwegian politician Vidkun Quisling, who aided the Nazis.

The fighting was the big news for about a month until overshadowed by the much larger campaign in France in May. While the Allies were making progress in their campaign to recapture Narvik, the disaster in France caused them to evacuate their troops from Norway in late May.

The Norwegian campaign proved to be a costly ine for the German, especially at Narvik where the Germans lost all 8 destroyers present, which represented a substantial portion of their entire navy.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Is Dungeons & Dragons the salvation of Heroscape?

The new master set for Heroscape that merges the Dungeons & Dragons universe with Heroscape seems to be revitalizing the Heroscape franchise.

Unlike the Heroscape Marvel master set, which fell flat, the D&D themed set has been flying off the shelves, I'm hearing from retalers and the first expansion also seems to be selling briskly.

It's likely to be a moneymaker for Hasbro, too, because they are repurposing figures that have already appeared in the Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures game. There have been something like 20 sets of D&D minies so far, each with 50+ figures so there are well over a thousand miniatures available for possible Heroscape expansions.

The long-term future of the main Heroscape line is a little more questionable. While there have awlays been some classic fantasy figures in Heroscape, a lot of the figures are also based on sci fi and historical themes which lie outside the scope of D&D, so it would seem like there will still be a need for new figures if Hasbro wants to keep the main line alive.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Grant's flaw

I'm a big fan of Ulysses Grant. I think he was truly the outstanding general of the U.S. Civil War and a good case could be made that he literally saved his country.

I think he was the one general who really understood the changed nature of warfare during the Civil War, especially that battles had lost their ability to decide campaigns in one fell swoop. Instead he treated battles as the incidental consequences of his maneuvers, which had higher strategic goals. For a long time I don't think he got his due, especially in comparison to Robert E. lee, who during his lifetime and after was beloved and revered. Grant had the misfortune to live long enough to have a second, rather less successful career as president -- although here, too, I detect a re-appraisal under way that is elevating his reputation a bit.

And Grant seems to have been a thoroughly decent man with personally admirable qualities.

But, like all men, he did have his flaws. And I think his most singular flaw was being an abysmal judge of men. This most famously got him into trouble as president, but it also marred his generalship as well. Grant seemed to have difficulty separating his personal affections from his professional judgments.

He was a big fan and great friend to Sherman, for example. While I don't think Sherman was a bad general, by any means, I think the evidence for him being a great general is slim. While he was able to capture Atlanta, for example, he did have both a substantial numerical advantage as well as a qualitative edge. His truly noteworthy campaign was his March to the Sea and he deserves full credit for that, but his opponents were unable to mount a credible defense against it.

On the other hand, Grant seemed to have a dislike for George Thomas that's hard to fathom. On the one hand, Thomas was slow to act, but that hardly set him apart from the vast majority of Federal commanders. Indeed, one of the undoubted talents of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan was their relative alacrity. But those three aside, most of the top generals on both sides were pretty slow. (Speed was the secret to Stonewall Jackson's success and reputation as well, so it wasn't just a Union thing). And Thomas was clearly an effective and successful general, yet reading Grant's memoirs one definitely sees that Grant was no fan of the man and came close to relieving him of command more than once. Meanwhile dolts such as Butler, Burnside and Sigel were allowed by Grant to stay in command and were given important tasks to fulfill.

So yes, Grant was a great general, but he was also a flawed one.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Shiloh -- a Lesson in Second Chances

The Battle of Shiloh, which began on this day in 1862, is a fascinating battle, not only for what did happen, but for what did not happen.

What did not happen was Grant and Sherman being cashiered out of the service. Grant was largely saved by two things. First, and most importantly, he managed to eke out a narrow win despite the disaster on the first day. Secondly, and nearly as importantly, his stock was still high because of his stunning victories at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry. Absent both of these facts he would have joined the long list of failed Union generals. Sherman's fate was tied to Grant's and without Grant there's little chance he'd have gotten his high commands.

Given how important Grant was for the successful outcome of the war, it's a reasonable question to ask if the Union would have been saved without him. It wasn't just Grant's field leadership, which resulted in the capture of THREE rebel field armies, but his strategic vision which coordinated ALL the Union armies in 1864 and 1865 to achieve ultimate victory.

Yet it all could have come to a sorry and quick end that April day at Pittsburgh Landing. The survival of Grant's reputation wasn't the only thing at risk. Grant's personal survival was also an open question. Quite a few generals fell on that field, including the opposing army commander.

One can play the what-if game with any battle of course, but there are some battles that seem to have turned on the twists of fate in a particularly profound way. Suppose a French cannon ball had taken Wellington's leg at on the field of Waterloo instead of Lord Uxbridge? Suppose the Enterprise's dive bombers had missed finding the Japanese carriers at Midway like the Hornet's? Suppose the HMS Hood had lasted another 15 minutes in its battle with the Bismarck?

And so I think Shiloh's real story is the second chance that it gave Grant. He lived through the first day -- which he screwed up royally -- and barely held the field. He was then able to drive the worn-out CSA army away. This is not to disparage Grant's personal qualities. Almost alone among top Federal commanders he had the moral strength to recover from a disaster -- but it was a disaster.

I don't have too many games on the battle. There's a scenario in Battle Cry depicting the fight around The Hornet's Nest, I have the Dixie: Shiloh collectible card game and the Blue & Gray quad game on Shiloh. While none are definitive simulations, they do provide some flavor of the drama around the battle and all have hit the table.

Monday, April 5, 2010

I broke down and finally got it.

I witnessed the initial wave of excitement over The Settlers of Catan back in 1995, but dismissed it as a passing fad. It seemed to me that the excitement over collectible card games led by Magic: The Gathering that was reaching its initial peak in 1995 was the bigger deal.

Time has proven that collectible games were, for the most part, a dead end. Aside from Magic: The Gathering and a handful of other collectible-type games, the genre didn't prove to be a lasting success. The collectible game genre has more shipwrecks than the Bermuda Triangle.

In the meantime Settlers of Catan has spawned a couple dozen expansions, been mainstreamed to the point of appearing in mass market outlets and inspired a whole host of other "euro" games.

And I took part in none of it. Well, I went ahead and traded away my copy of Carcassone: The City (a handsome game I've never been able to get on the table) for a copy of Settlers which I know will hit the table as I already have opponents lined up. Better late than never, I suppose.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Battlelore session report -- Axe and Spear

Young General and Old Warrior turned their attentions to the Dwarven Battalion expansion, where Young Warrior started off with the Dwarven-dominated army and Old Warrior took a mostly human horde flavored with a few Goblinoids.

Young General continued his War Council policy of spreading the Loremasters around with four Level 1s, although this time he did beef up his Commander to a Level 2 and therefore had a 5-card hand. I'm beginning to have my doubts about this approach. While it does allow the use of any lore cards without additional cost. it also means forgoing the chance to have a Stronghold, take advantage of any Level bonuses or have a large hand of Lore cards. This last point is perhaps the most important. With the top lore master being a Level 1 then the player will never have more than 2 cards to choose from, making it hard to get the cards you want or put together a plan.

Old Warrior once again selected a war council that included a Level 2 Commander, a Level 1 Warrior and a Level 3 lore master of another type -- in this case a Wizard. I like this particular mix for the following reasons: The Level 2 Commander means there will be a 5-card hand of Command Cards, which generally provides enough choices to avoid a dead hand. I like the Level 1 Warrior because many of the Warrior Lore cards are useful and only one of them has a Level Bonus, so 95% of the benefit of picking a Warrior lore master is satisfied by the first level.

As far as a Level 3 lore master goes, I think each of the remaining ones, Wizard, Cleric and Rogue, has enough good points to consider selecting. I decided to go with the Wizard this time mostly as a change of pace. As it turns out I didn't get that much use out of the Wizard's spells, with my best one -- Portal -- dispelled. The best lore card I played was the Assault, which is a Warrior card.

The battle itself, as is our style, mostly involved small maneuvers, rather than grand sweeps. Young General concentrated most of his troops in the center sector, traying to take advantage if the dwarves' toughness. Old Warrior sent the Goblin Lizard riders on around the right but they were bloodily repulsed, barely escaping with one rider left each.

Overall the Goblins did well, being amply supported they were generally bold and the few times there was Goblin Run they didn't lose anyone. The Dwarven bagpipers got little play, and were among the units that fell during a 6-4 victory for the Old Warrior's Human-Goblin force.

Neither of us was impressed with the scenario, which really seemed like a pretty boring set-piece fight, so we may not bother switching sides, especially because Young General is no fan of the Goblins.

As far as the new units introduced in this expansion, the Dwarven spear bearers are pretty decent. Being dwarves they will usually get to battle back, making the spear special ability useful. The Axe unit was, in contrast, fairly ordinary. The jury is still out on the bagpipers. Young General made little attempt to use them and they were among the first units taken out so they only got to use their special ability once or twice and it had no effect.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Warfare the old-fashioned way -- The Falklands, 1982

It was 28 years ago today that Argentinian troops landed on and captured the Falkland Islands, launching the 74-day Falklands War.

The Falklands War was unusual in many ways. It was relatively quick, for one thing, and was largely a naval-air campaign, which is always uncommon but has been especially so since 1945.

In many ways it's kind of a throwback to an earlier sort of war, the conventional state vs. state war that wargamers are comfortable with, but that has been rather uncommon since World War II. Sure, the have been a few major state vs. state wars since 1945 involving Israel and its neighbors, three between India and Pakistan, Korea, Iraq, Kuwait and Iraq-Iran come to mind. But most of the combat that the world has seen since WW2 has been much messier insurgencies, terrorism and genocides. Even many of the state vs. state wars have involved a lot of irregular warfare such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc. Ideology and ethnic tensions have featured prominently in most of those wars, and those passions have added an ugly element to most of them.

The 1982 Falklands War was much more old-fashioned. It was a contest between states, over national interests, and conducted largely in accordance with the recognized rules of war. Both countries involved were "western" in culture, although the Argentine regime was not democratic. As mentioned, the war was largely decided by the naval-air campaign, although there was some serious ground fighting.

It was an odd war for the era, because it was largely outside the Cold War framework. While the United Kingdom was part of NATO, the Argentinian aggression fell outside of the NATO treaty as understood at the time. Argentina was unfriendly to the Soviets and an ally to the United States, which put the US in the awkward position of watching two allies fight. The Ar gentians, badly misjudging their situation, apparently thought the US would come down on their side, a monumental delusion of the sort that closed regimes seem especially prone to. While the US kept officially neutral, there was little doubt where American sympathies lie, and Washington apparently provided discreet aid to the British.

The fact that the war could occur at all was only due to the sufferance of the U.S., which had naval supremacy in the Atlantic.

There were a lot of lessons derived from the conflict. not the least of which is that there is a huge gap in actual military capability between a First World power such as the U.K. and a Second World military power such as Argentina. While Argentina's air force and naval pilots showed exceptional valor and skill and gave the British a run for their money, there was no contest at sea or on land. Argentina's navy, while impressive on paper, had critical weaknesses compared to Britain's Royal Navy, especially in the skill and daring of its higher leadership. One wonders if any Argentinian admiral had ever given serious thought to how me might actually use his fleet in battle.

The land fighting showed an even bigger gap in capability. While Argentina's air and naval forces showed considerable professionalism, the land elements were completely outmatched. The British have centuries of tradition and experience in expeditionary campaigns of this sort and committed most of its most elite units (commandos, paras, Gurkhas, guards, etc.) to the affair. In contrast the Argentinian command withdrew its best units, which were used in the initial landings and replaced them with raw conscripts.

There haven't been an awful lot of games published on the episode, but among those that have been published is the South Atlantic War campaign book for Harpoon published by Clash of Arms Games in 2002 (2d edition) and earlier in 1990 by Game Designer's Workshop. The South Atlantic War is a very comprehensive treatment of the war, including sources from both sides, that depicts every significant incident of the war from the initial landings at Port Stanley on April 2 to the final battle, also at Port Stanley, on June 14.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Check Your 6! Review

Check Your 6! is a popular set of rules for refighting World War II dogfights published by Skirmish Campaigns.

Let me start off by disclosing that my copy was a review copy sent to me by my friend Mark Fastoso, who designed the Flying Tigers mini-campaign included in the core rules as well as the Guadalcanal: Cactus Air Force expansion book.

The fundamental design principle in Check Your 6! is that it's the man who counts most, not the aircraft, so the game emphasizes the effect of pilot quality more than the attributes of the planes, although it doesn't ignore those characteristics, either.

Pilots are rated, in increasing order of effectiveness, green, skilled, veteran or ace. Better pilot quality provides at least a three-fold advantage.

Most importantly, the less-effective pilots are forced to move before the better pilots, for an obvious edge to the better men. In addition, the difference in pilot quality (green is 0, skilled is +1, veteran is +2 and ace is +3) becomes a combat modifier, both offensively and defensively. Finally, better quality pilots can modify their planned moves, which plays into the initiative advantage mentioned earlier.

The other interesting concept in Check Your 6! is that dogfights generally took place within a fairly restricted amount of airspace, with planes that left that box basically removing themselves from the fight. This sounds historically plausible and it's a good rule to keep scenarios well bounded.

The basic game mechanics are pretty straightforward, with planes plotting their moves ona hex grid from a menu of options depending upon agility and speed. Planes roll 2 d6 to hit, modified for geometry, pilot skill, distance and other factors. Once hit, damage is determined by rolling dice based on the type of weapon firing. Each machine gan, for example, rolls a D6 while each cannon rolls a D10. Finally, the toughness of the target may allow it to make a saving roll that cancels the damage.

It all moves smoothly and quickly enough that novice players can easily handle 3-4 aircraft each and experienced players can control dozens. Some of the scenarios are quite large, with 20+ aircraft.

There's a minimum of special equipment required. Special stands can be purchased to track speed and altitude, but because each is tracked on a 1-6 scale you can also use dice instead.

I like the rules because they're easily adapted for use with my aircraft from Axis & Allies Miniatures, but it also makes a good convention game. Like many other recent wargames, the Check Your 6! books are also interesting histories in their own right, illustrating many little-known aspects of World War II in the air.

Overall I highly recommend these rules.