Monday, August 30, 2010

Charles S. Roberts

Charles S. Roberts, founder of the modern wargame hobby, has dies at age 80, according to an obituary in the Baltimore Sun.

Interestingly, the Sun obituary barely mentions Roberts' association with wargaming and in th portion that does it makes a factual error, claiming that he sold Avalon Hill to Parker Brothers in the 1960s. Actually, of course, as is widely known, Mr. Roberts sold Avalon Hill to one of his creditors, Monarch Printing, which formed Monarch Avalon. Many years later, long after Mr. Robets' time that company was sold to Hasbro, which also owns Parker Brothers, which possibly accounts for the writer's confusion, although as far as I know Avalon Hill and Parker Brothers brands have never been associated under the Hasbro banner.

The bulk of the obituary talks about Mr. Roberts in the context of his expertise on the history of railroads.Evidently he made quite a name for himself in that field. As there are more railroad buffs than wargamers, this is a defensible editorial choice, I suppose.

Still, for wargamers, Mr. Roberts holds a special place, as he was the first to conceive of creating civilian board wargames based on the actual capabilities of military units (in Tactics and Tactics II) and crucially, based on historical battles (Gettysburg, D-Day, Waterloo and Midway). The authenticity of his wargames was naturally a bit crude, given their unprecedented nature and the milited sources available, but even this was a bit of a blessing, as correcting the errors of his games is what inspired other players to satrt designing their new and improved versions of history's greatest battles and created a hobby.

While Mr. Roberts will, of course, be missed most by his family and those friends who knew him personally, he also will be mourned by many who never eben played one on his games, but have enjoyed years of enjoyment from taking part in the hobby he made possible.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Global 1940 greatness

Photo courtesy Glen Cote

Wow. Exhausting.
Playing the global combined Axis & Allies 1940 is definitely the absolute ultimate Axis & Allies experience. We played at Arkham Asylum in Norwich, Conn. While people drifted in and out, at least seven different people got to play at least part of the game.

Everyone had a fantastic time. most of the players were new, but everyone enjoyed themselves, the game got a lot of attention and we had a lot of people express an interest in taking part next time -- which we've already tentatively scheduled for Oct. 2 & 3rd. Yes, TWO days, because it's obvious this is a Looong game. We almost finished 4 turns. (All that was left was the U.S., who probably was going to have rebuilding turn due to a disaster I'll mention below, China, which had a single piece left (the Flying Tiger) and France (two pieces left, one infatry in Africa and a destroyer far from the action.

Like many A&A games featuring mostly inexperienced players there was all sorts of craziness. The Germans were able to grab Britain after decimating the British fleet, although the blundered a bit by leaving Berlin open for a sneak Russian seaborne invasion. Still, the Russian definitely weren't going to keep Berlin (although they were getting quite an infusion of IPCs). The Allies however, were not going to get London back anytime soon, as the Italian (!) navy and air force finished off the rest of the British Atlantic Navy, massacring an American convoy they were protecting. Five US transports and 10 ground units were lost.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific things were going less well for the Japanese, who were a little behind schedule on grabbing territory. On the other hand, all the navies had taken heavy losses so things were not poised to change quickly. The one bright spot for the allies was in China, where the Japanese were thin on the ground and a large British/Anzac army was starting a counteroffensive.

Overall I think the Axis had a slight edge when we finished. The U.S. had been knocked back on their heels, the British and French capitals were captured and the Chinese were dciemated. Only the Anzacs were basically untouched, but there aren't many of them. The biggest question would have been how well the Russians would be able to exploit their windfall -- they had 145 IPC to spend!

For the Axis, Italy was in excellent shape, while the Germans were ready to face the Russians and take Berlin back. Meanwhile the Japanese were facing a challenge holding onto China, but were not in too bad shape for the short term in ocean areas, although the long-term outlook was questionable.

Overall the grander scale of the 1940 game seem to upset some tried and true A&A strategies and the tactical game is more intricate because of the addtional units (mech infantry, tac bombers) and the additional spaces. Everyone agreed that the strategic situation is fascinating.

I expect the next game will play quite differently. For one thing, the coup de main that took London and Berlin won't be easily repeated a gainst more experienced players.

Overall it was a great time and hopefully next time we'll be able to make greater progress. I think the Axis were ahead, but it's my opinion that you can't really judge an A&A game based on the first couple of turns because the Allies have great recuperative powers. In this game the Next Soviet build was going to be 145 and the next US build was going to be almost 90, so depending on how wisely they built the story for turns 5 or 6 might be quite different.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Axis & Allies Europe 1940 peering onto the box

Picked up my copy of Axis & Allies Europe 1940 today in preparation for this weekend's grand Global 1940 game.

No big surprises, component wise. Everything's pretty much the standard established by the A&A Pacific 1940, A&A 50 and A&A 1942. It's clearly going to be massive however. I can't wait to see all four maps laid out.

Of real interest are the political rules, including neutrals, and R&D. Altogether it looks to me that this package brings Axis & Allies to a whole new level. This is not your father's A&A by any means.

For one thing, I suspect that the massive scale of this game will work against the "perfect planitis" that seems to afflict the A&A games. With nine playable powers and twice as many spaces as any previous version of the game, I don't think players will find it easy to come up with "fool-proof" strategies.

The Russo-Japanese dynamic is especially interesting in this game and may affect the heretofore common Japanese Asia First strategy. The Soviets start the game at peace and are restricted in their ability to start fighting in Europe -- but they have a free hand against Japan, should they choose to play it, and fairly substantial forces in the East. The Japanese certainly have an incentive to reach an understanding with the Soviets that doesn't involve a march through China on the way to Moscow. Likewise the Russians have reason to avoid a war with Japan that may bleed off precious resources needed to hold off the Germans.

More than earlier versions of the game there's scope for diplomacy, even between enemies.

Next Axis & Allies miniatures set due in October

Looks like the Counter Offensive set is on track for release in October. This will concentrate on the middle part of the war. Among the 14 countries appearing are Yugoslavia, New Zealand and Hungary. I expect there will be U.S. units this time (the Early War set was the only one that had NO American units in it.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Battle of the Eastern Solomons -- 1942

Today is the anniverasry of the first day of the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the third in the series of carrier battles of 1942 between U.S. and Japanese forces.

Not as well known as the Coral Sea or Midway, it's an interesting battle to wargame because the two sides were pretty evenly matched. Usually counted an American victory, it had little long-term effect but it did continue the process of wearing down the Japanese Navy's elite pre-war cadre of pilots.

One notable image is this one capturing the moment of explosion of a Japanese bomb hit on the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Saturday is Global A&A in Norwich

Just mentioning for those who might be interested that we have a massive game of Axis & Allies Global 1940 (Pacific and Europe 1940 combined planned for Saturday here in Norwich at Arkham Asylum on West Main Street starting at noon.

The game is so massive that I doubt we will get to finish it, but we will make the old college try at least.

Monday, August 16, 2010

News on the next set of War at Sea minis

From Rich Baker's blog we learn:

Time for a War at Sea update. I had a chance to talk War at Sea with several of our devoted fans at GenCon, and it was really great to see the enthusiasm the game still generates. Of course, I shared a few tidbits of information about what’s coming next. We’re on target for a December release of Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures V, as in “V for victory” or just set 5. This makes two AANM sets in 2010, which is very exciting stuff. I’m starting to see a handful of final units crossing my desk as we’re moving into our collation checks. Mons Johnson, who’s doing the checks, says this is the best-looking AANM set so far. Some of the Set V units I mentioned at the show include the Sovyetskiy Soyuz, the Kaga, the Chitose, the Atlantis, the Il-2 Sturmovik, the Blyskawica, a Baltimore-class cruiser, and a pre-Fletcher US destroyer. Now that I’ve had a chance to look over my set list again, I’ll go ahead and add some clarification. The Baltimore-class is USS Quincy (CA 71), and the older US destroyer is USS Bagley (DD 386).

Overall, set V has a strong Baltic theme, with a lot of love for the Russians and the first appearance of the Poles as a navy. Sovyetskiy Soyuz is something of a hypothetical unit, in that it was never finished and didn’t see any action. The hull was about 75% complete when work was stopped late in 1940; she was likely a couple of years from completion in the best of circumstances. If Sovyetskiy Soyuz had been finished, she would have been a 70,000-ton behemoth comparable to Yamato, Montana, or the German H.39 design. Her appearance in AANM provides the Russians with a first-rate battleship that can take a ton of punishment, but doesn’t have quite the firepower it should. The Sturmovik gives the Russians a good attack plane noted for using skip-bombing tactics against naval targets, much like the B-25s in the South Pacific. For the Japanese, Kaga is one more piece of progress toward finishing the Kido Butai, the First Air Fleet of the Imperial Navy. Chitose represents the first appearance of a seaplane tender; it’s a beautiful model, and it has some very interesting mechanics with inherent air squadrons. The German Atlantis is also a new type of unit—a disguised commerce raider with some unique mechanics that let her skulk around the edges of the battle without being caught. The model also stands in for a German merchant ship if you want one for a scenario.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

VJ-Day and the aftermath of war

Today is often considered VJ-Day because it was the day in 1945 that the Japanese surrender was announced, although Sept. 2 was the actual surrender date.

Postwar Cold War strategy required a fairly rapid rehabiliation of Japan, and Gen. Douglas McCarthur found it expedient to take a lenient attitude towards Japanese officials as he rebuilt Japan as a modern democratic state -- successfully.

Still, it's worth remembering that the Japanese World War II record was dismal as far as conduct towards civilians and prisoners were concerned. The record of wartime atrocities is large, but what's not well-known is that the atrocities didn't even end on VJ-Day. Sadly more than 100 POWs were executed AFTER VJ-Day, evidently in an attempt to preclude war crimes prosecutions by eliminating witnesses. The effort failed, as apparently the murders were not comprehensive enough to succeed and a number of Japanese officers were hanged.

No matter how much I learn about World War II there are always surprises as my studies continue.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Long overdue Settlers of Catan experience

Boy, talk about being late to the party.

I first became aware of Settlers of Catan not long after it first came to American shores in the mid 1990s, but somehow I contrived to miss out on the initial wave of popularity. I think I was still too focused on wargames at the time. It wasn't really until I came across Boradgame Geek and then the Meetup groups that I realized how much wider the adult gaming interest was.

In any case, I took advantage of a rare Thursday night off to join a local Meetup gamer group. Like most Meetup gamers, the majority of this group are very casual gamers with little exposure to even the eurogames (let alone something like a wargame. One fellow mentioned how he had played a wargame once -- it was Risk).

Still, the Meetup hostess had promised a Settlers game would be available and I wanted to finally play it. And there's something to be said for not being dropped into a group of experienced Settlers players for your first game. I was familiar with the rules, having studied my own copy, but there are subtle points to the game you're not likely to discover without playing a little.

We had one fellow who had played the game a few times, as had the hostess. I had read the rules and the other three players were newbies. One was the Risk player, one fellow had played a few euros it appears and the last gentleman wasn't used to playing anything other than traditional Ameritrash games like Monopoly.

It was an interesting game, and I felt pretty good about where I ended up, in third place with 7 VPs. The Risk guy actually won it going away, scoring 10 while the experienced fellow was second with 8. The other three players were far behind, with Hostess at 4 (she had the Longest Road), and the two new fellows with 3 each.

I suspect the game may work better with four players than with the 6 players we had using the 5-6 player expansion. Even with the bigger map the board seemed a little too crowded and there was a little too much down time. I think the 4-player version may be better on both counts.

Our game was also a bit on the long side, which is probably attributable to the number of new players we had.

I'm looking forward to trying it again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Battle of Rhode Island -- 1778

Historians have to build readable narratives. It's their craft to tell a story about the past. But actual events and life are seldom so neat that they naturally form a single strand of narrative -- there are usually eddies, backstories and side trips.

For example, most naratives of the the American Revolution follow Washington's army up through the Battle of Monmouth and then turn to the Southern campaigns that eventually led to Yorktown, with just a passing reference to events up north in the meantime.

This often means that the fairly substantial Battle of Rhode Island of late August, 1778, doesn't even get mentioned. It's true that the battle ended up having no decisive impact on events, but that's largely because of an inopportune storm that scattered the British and French fleets just as they were about to fight a potentially decisive naval battle. Had the French won the effects of Yorktown might have been achieved four years early, because a large British army might have been trapped at Newport, R.I. and captured. Instead, with both fleets badly damaged the British army was able to turn the tables on its erstwhile besiegers and launch a counteroffensive that nearly bagged a substantial American army.

On Aug. 28 and Aug. 29 the Americans fought a rearguard action to cover their escape that was notable in part for the participation of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which was a rare all-black regiment in American service (most Continental regiments, especially those from northern colonies, were integrated).

The British, recognizing they had escaped a close call, eventually pulled out of Newport and consolidated their troops in New York and the war went on four more years.

So far as I know the land battles which actually occurred have never been depicted in a wargame, but the naval battle which did NOT happen appears in both Close Action and Flying Colors as a "what-if."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Axis & Allies 1942 newbie strangeness

As a warm-up for a planned global 1940 Axis & Allies game later in the month I organized a play session of the regular Axis & Allies 1942 game at the Arkham Asylum Saturday. Due to a homeowner emergency situation involving a well the game got off to a late start, which was too bad because everyone was having a good time. One player (me, had played this version before and was the game owner. One other player had played an older version some years ago, and the other three players were completely new to the game, although they were pretty experienced Magic players and so were not complete gaming newbies.

Players were allowed to pick their countries, so one new guy took Germany, while his partner as Japan was the fellow who had played an earlier version of the game. Russia and Britain were also new players while I took the USA.

This probably wasn't the best allocation of players, but I was afraid of dominating the action if I took Germany and one of the new players really wanted to play that country, so I went along. Unfortunately for the Axis cause the German player was no where nearly aggressive enough with that country during his first couple of turns and despite a little advice from me and more for Game Store Tony (who had played earlier versions extensively) Germany simply didn't do enough damage to either England or Russia in the early going. This might not have mattered too much as the British player was also pretty passive and ended up handing over Britain to another player around the fourth turn. But the Russian player, while also a new player, understood that the most important thing he could do was build as much infantry every turn as he could afford. He combined that with a judicious sense of when he should counterattack with the end result that he not only withstood the German offensive but was soon counterattacking through German territory.

Meanwhile the Japanese were making some hay in the Pacific, China and in the Pacific portion of Russia but his overall progress was too slow to help his German ally. He had a bad habit of leaving his transports unescorted (despite being reminded of the danger) and also tended to operate his fleets in small packets that the US player was able to overwhelm in detail. The Japanese player was much more comfortable with the land campaign against China.

The US committed enough force in the Pacific to keep the Japanese occupied but put most effort into Europe, sending bombers to England that soon inflicted maximum damage on Germany's factory and launched Operation Torch to start clearing out Africa and wipe out the German Med fleet. The British were able to win a somewhat risky landing in France that recaptured Paris. The Germans had too little force to rake back Paris while defending Rome against the US force in Africa and Berlin against the approaching Russians.

The game was called on account of time, with the Allies ahead with 7 Victory Cities to the Axis 5, although as mentioned the Axis were in imminent danger of losing two more victory cites while there were no Allied victory cities in real danger, so everyone agreed the game seemed to have reached a decisive result. Losing and winning players all said they enjoyed the game and several said they were now planning to take part in the grand global game we have planned for the end of the month. That will involved playing a combined A&A: Pacific 1940 and the brand-new A&A: Europe 1940 game.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The allure of toy soldiers -- plastic beats paper

While the traditional counter-based wargame hobby chugs along with a number of fascinating new titles appearing each year, not to mention a steady diet of games from Strategy & Tactics and Against All Odds, sales and hobby buzz seem to definitely lie in the realm of toy soldiers and their cousins, wooden blocks.

There's little doubt that figure-based wargames such a s Axis & Allies and Memoir '44 have sales figures many times higher than counter-based games. Wooden block games have also seen in creased interest, whether they simply use blocks to replace figures such as in Commands & Colors or they use the Columbia fog-of-war feature, these also seem to generate more enthusiasm.

Consider, for example, Hold the Line vs. Napoleons War. Now HTL is a popualr and well-done hex-and counter game that's seen better-than average success. Indeed, it's physical quality is among the best seen in hex-and-counter games, with a mounted map, German-style box and thick, full-color counters. In some ways Napoleon's War represents a step back, with a nice, but not quite as sturdy box, thinner informational counters and unmounted cardstock maps. But it has figures -- toy soldiers -- and it sold out upon release! Just sayin' ... .

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Battles of Napoleon session report and first impressions

I've had my doubts whether any board game could capture the feel of Napoleonic miniatures wargaming, but I think the impressive Battles of Napoleon: The Eagle and the Lion from Nexus/Fantasy Flight Games has succeeded to a remarkable extent. It really does play like a miniatures game.

As suggested by the rule book, Game Store Tony and I played Scenario 4: Los Arapiles, which depicts an incident during the Battle of Salamanca. This statement illustrates one of the key facets of this game, it's not a whole-battle wargame like Worthington Games' Napoleon's War, but a tactical game with a focus similar to FFG's Tide of Iron World War II game -- the actual point of combat.

Units in Battles of Napoleon usually represent a battalion or so of infantry or a battery of guns, although in some cases they stretch the design up so a unit may represent a regiment. In Napoleon's War in contrast, an infantry unit usually represents a division, although the game may stretch the scale down so that a unit is a brigade.

So as befits a tactical game, Battles of Napoleon considers factors such as morale, formations, facing, command and orders, leadership, ammo supply and the other minutiae of tactical combat, albeit in a somewhat streamlined form compared to your typical miniatures Napoleonic wargame rules.

In this case I commanded the French 5th Division, portraying General de Division Maucone, who was depicted by the "C" level Commanding General card. This apparently represents a mediocre commander, as the supreme commanders provided in the game run from "A" to "C." Only the Duke of Wellington rates an "A" so the "B" level seems to represent better-than average commanders while the C level represents the run-of-the-mill ones. There's room in the system down the food chain so I wouldn't be surprised that some other armies that were notable for poor high leadership may see "D" or "E" level higher commanders. The British commander in this case, Lt. Gen. Leith, is a "B."

In this game, however, which features two of the best Napoleonic armies (French and British), the "D" level starts the series of UGC's or unit commanders, with D being the best and running progressively down the list to J. In addition there are three replacement commanders numbered 1 through 3 who are fair to middling as well. The two French brigades are led by E and F levels, Generals de Brigade Armand and Montfort, respectively, with Armand on the left and Montfort the right. The British leadership is better, with commanders rated D E F and G. Commanders are rated fro their ability to execute changed orders, boost morale in combat and while rallying troops and for span of control.

Cards are also used to represent the units involved, with each "Unit Group" generally containing the same kind of soldiers. Units are rated for morale and any fire or melee bonus. In this case the two French brigades, represented by the squares marked 2 and 3 on the map above, are you standard ordinary French line, with a morale of 4 (which is decidedly mediocre in the game) and no fire or melee bonus. The French force is rounded out with a battery of guns, marked 16 on the map, which have a range of three hexes.

The opposing force included a British heavy cavalry brigade with three understrength (2 instead of 3 figure) regiments with a +3 in melee, which is quite powerful. These are marked 35 on the map.

There are two British brigades marked 20 and 22 on the map. The 20 group is slightly better, with morale of 6 and +1 in melee compared to a morale of 5 and no melee bonus for the 22 group. Both have a fire bonus of +2. The third infantry brigade on the British side, marked 29 on the map, represents Portuguese line infantry, which is equal to the French infantry in every way.

The battle itself took us two sessions to complete, due to interruptions, but by the end of the game things were moving at a brisk pace as we got used to the game system. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the game was the combat results system. Basically every kind of combat and morale check involves totaling up a series of modifiers (the usual sort of thing such as flanking, terrain, ranks, number of troops, any inherent bonuses, etc.) and adding that to a D10 roll. Pretty standard stuff. But then that roll is compared to a CRT on a card drawn from the Event deck, adding a whole new element of randomness to the system. It works quite well. The Event cards also double as, well, events. Players can hold a hand of these cards, each of which also has two actions (an action and a reaction) listed on it that can be played as wanted. The hand size is based on the quality of the commander, with a good leader having a larger hand. And any cards played are replaced each turn. These cards have a variety of game effects, but they basically remove the last bit of certainty from your generalship. You may plan to change your troops from a line into a column in preparation for an assault, but a Skirmisher event may cancel your formation changes when you least expect it.

In our battle my right flank brigade, under Montfort, was able to advance and defeat Pringles' brigade over the course of the 8-turn game, with its advance only slowing right at the end as reinforcements from the other British flank started to arrive. All four of Monfort's battalions were in good order and had lost just one figure in total, while one British battalion was reduced to a remnant, one had run back to the edge of the board before rallying and a third was at half strength.

On the other flank, unfortunately, things didn't go as well as the other three British brigades all concentrated on Arnaud's valiant command. By the end of the battle Arnaud was reduced to huddling with the two-surviving figures of his brigade in a square on the board edge. One British battalion had been destroyed, but otherwise the British force was in good shape, having KO's three French battalion and the artillery.

Still the British attack fell just short of knocking out more than half of the French force and so the game was determined by geographic objectives. The British controlled the two objectives around the former position of Arnaud's brigade, but the French had a solid grip on the third one so the battle ended in a draw. I did, however, consider this somewhat of a moral victory, as the French historically were routed and it appears to me that the British force is stronger.

It was an enjoyable battle and Game Store Tony said he'd like to try again, so I call it a success.