Sunday, October 31, 2010

Martin Wallace's Gettysburg Take 3 and Take 4

Mid-game, courtesy of Glen Cote. The Union line is taking shape along the Fishhook, with key positions already fortified.

Courtesy of Glen Cote I got in my third and fourth games of Martin Wallace's Gettysburg.

First off, let me say that it's an enjoyable system to play. Not too fiddly, reasonably intuitive, full of dramatic flourishes.

One fairly amusing episode reminded me of the famous (or infamous) "Guard Militia" that made frequent appearances in my old gaming group from 20 years ago. We had a running joke in our group about the "Guard Militia" because it invariably seemed like our elite units underperformed in battle (Panther tanks brewing up, critical hits sinking battleships, Imperial Guard routs, etc.) while some unpromising "low-quality" unit would be the hero of the day, hence the "Guard" Militia.

In this case it was an impromptu counterattack by a single "inferior" Union infantry unit which managed to eliminate four (admittedly damaged) confederate units including one elite over the course of two assaults. While I wouldn't call it a game changer (the CSA offensive was stalling already) it definitely closed down CSA options in that side of the field and pretty much forced Glen into the forlorn hope frontal assaults against Cemetery Hill he alluded to in his Facebook summary.

After four games I'm beginning to feel like I'm wrapping my head around the game system. Like Bowen Simmons' games, Martin Wallace's games are really different from traditional hex-and-counter wargames. After some 40 years of playing hex-and-counter games I have to I'd pretty comfortable picking up almost any of them, new or old, without feeling completely at sea over what to do.

The Simmons and Wallace approaches are nice change of pace. It's a real break from the same-old, same-old. Can't wait to play again.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An incident over Kent in 1940 -- Check Your 6! session

Once again yours truly came up short against Game Store Tony, who is turning into a budding wargamer before our eyes.

The occasion today was a little dustup over England during the Battle of Britain in the fall of 1940.

The situation was a wayward ace-piloted J-87 being shepherded home by a pair of Me-110s (veteran and skilled) when the group is jumped by four Spitfires (veteran, two skilled and a green pilot) coming from 6 O'clock high. Coming to the rescue was an element of Me-109s piloted by another ace and a skilled wingman. The final participant in the aerial drama was a fifth Spitfire, this one also piloted by an ace. Game Store Tony took the Germans, I took the Brits.

The ace-piloted Stuka proved to be a difficult target for the Spitfires, who found their number cut by one almost immediately when the heavy trigger finger of one skilled pilot emptied his magazines. With no ability to hurt the enemy he dove out of the action, Unfortunately he was the element leader for the green pilot who ended up lurking around the edge of the furball -- unwilling to mix it up but also unable to tempt any Germans into chasing him.

The Me-110s bled off most of their speed performing a loop and spent most of the rest of the battle catching up. They did force the other skilled Spitfire to dive away out of the fight when they ended up behind him.

The Me-109s had more of an impact and were able to interfere with the Ace and veteran Spitfires as they popped away at the Stuka. The vet Spitfire was able to damage the Stuka but moments later fell to a well-placed shot by the Me-109 ace. The ace Spitfire found himself unable to line up a quick shot to finish off the Stuka and with four Messerschmidts stacked up behind him he also was forced to exercise the discretion to leave.

All-in-all a credible performance by Tony, although in my defense I'll note it's only my third or fourth game as well and I'm still learning the flying ropes. The final score was one downed Spitfire and a damaged Stuka.
The battle was played using Axis & Allies miniatures planes on a Hotz Mat and took a little over 2 hours to play 9 turns.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Agincourt anniversary - sort of

Today is the anniversary of Agincourt -- sort of. It was fought on Oct. 25, 1415, St. Crispin's Day, famously, but that was under the Old Style calendar that was becoming inconveniently out of sync with the seasons. Under the current (New Style) calendar it was Nov. 3. So from the point of view of the participants the day was Oct. 25, but counting back from our day it's a few days short of 595 years ago.

In any case, I'm not a big fan of Medieval era wargames and therefore don't have much in the way of games covering it except for Battlelore, which sort of does accidentally. Here's the BattleLore set up.

One of the interesting things about the BattleLore scenario is that it doesn't reflect the traditional 6-1 advantage in French numbers accepted by most historians. Interestingly, it turns out that some historicans have been re-assessing those numbers and one has even claimed that the true ratio was only4-3 in the French favor, not all that off from the 10-9 shown in the BattleLore setup above. While that extreme number hasn't been accepted, a consensus seems to be forming that the French actually engaged probably only outnumbered the English by something like 2-1 or so. (The French army had all sorts of non-combatant and semi-combatant hangers on that could give a chronicler an excuse for inflated numbers if he wanted.)
Could it be that the wargame suggests an implausibility for the traditional numbers? And interesting notion.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

King Philip's War first session report

Finally had the chance to get KPW on the table with the help of long-time friend and all-around excellent player Carl N. That Carl is, indeed an excellent player is demonstrated b how close this game was, being decided by a single point on the last turn. While neither of us had played before, I owned the game so I had the opportunity to study the rules and fool around with it solitaire. Carl came in stone cold.

I took the Indians for the first go around because I figured it would give him a turn or two to get into the game system. I think the Indians can't survive a bad start.

My general plan was to spend the first few turns causing as much havoc as I could in Plymouth and Rhode Island and then ship Philip out west to rampage in the Connecticut River valley while using the powerful Narragansetts to form a buffer. And this was pretty nuch how the game played out, although with some twists and turns along the way.

The first twist was a really miserable initial turn by Philip. Between canceled battles and other bad die rolls only one English settlement was razed. This meant Philp wouldn't eb able to recruit any more tribes to his cause on Turn 2. Among the disappointing attacks was completely unsuccessful raid on Edgartown oN Marth's Vineyard. The English reacted by summoning help from Connecticut by sea to make Edgartown too tough to take. Meanwhile Massachusetts Bay sent substantial forces south into Plymouth as well.

Over the balance of the Summer and Fall it became clear that the English strategy was going to be classic force on force fighting to eliminate as many Indian units as possible. Aside from devastating the Pocassets the English generally battled Indian stacks rather than targeting villages. In contrast the Indians generally avoided troops when they could, concentrating on razing settlements. Rhode Island came under severe early pressure, lsoing 3 of its five settlements before winter and one of the remaining was raided. Only Pawtuxet was untouched, largely because that was where the Rhode Island Captain and his company were stacked. While the gentleman was good at defending his home town, his 1675 attempts at offesnsive action all came to naught for one reason or another.

The English also caught a break when Church entered the game on Turn 2, so they barely had to deal with all the pre-Church restrictions. About the only thing Church didn't do is bring many Allied Indians with him.The English policy of generally leaving villages alone meant the potential allies were unimpressed.

Just before Winter Philip moved out West to recruit the Nipmucks and open a new front. Western Massachusetts and Connecticut were vulnerable with most of both Connecticut and Massachusetts troops campaigning in Plymouth. The surviving Indians in the Plymoutha nd Rhode Island areas were finding themselves hemmed in by large numbers of colonists. The surviving Pocassets took refuge in Montaup Fort and Wampanoags and Sakonnets generally stood on the defensive. Taunton and Swansea were the only razed settlements in Plymouth at this point. The Indians were ahead on victory points but not by much. Winter attrition sent home 5 Colonial units and one Indian.

The year 1676 saw Philip pretty much running wild out West, recruiting the Niantics, the Pocumtucks, the Abenakis and finally the Narragansetts into the war. Trying to bring in the Mohawks didn't seem worthwhile as the Indians already had more than five active powerful warbands available. The Abenaki effort north of Boston wasn't all that successful, on;y managing to raze Gloucester while losing an Abenaki village and a warrior to the Connecticut Company and some Massachusetts troops.

With no captains out West the colonists were pretty much stuck on the defensive, but the Colonial companies in Rhode Island and Plymouth were closing in on substantial Inidan parties and racked up significant victory points when Montaup fell and during the Sakonnet's last stand at Edgartown (which was at least razed the second time the Sakonnets went for it.

By the end of Indian combat on Turn 9 there was hardly a structure lefts standing in New England west of Lancaster/Marlborough aside from Hartford and Middletown. The last few turns Philip and Cononchet concentrated on Connecticut hoping to make th New York-Connecticut border war a sure thing. They fell a tad short, but the 5/6 chance was enough with a die roll of 3 and the Indians had 3 very important victory points. A last stab at victory on the English final turn netted 4 victory points but it wasn't enough and the final score was 28 to 27.

The different approaches taken by the two sides were reflected in the breakdown of how the points were scored. Philip's side scored three points for the New York war and one point for an eliminated English unit. The other 24 points all cane from razed settlements! The English only scored 10 points for razed villages and the other 17 points came from eliminated warriors and Sachems. No Key Leaders on either side were lost. The only fort even attacked was Montaup and it took three turns of effort by large English forces to finally fall.

Overall it was a very enjoyable game and both of us were interested in another go sometime. It too a little under three hours to play, including reading the rules.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trafalgar Day

Wargame admirals habitually fight very sanguinary naval battles. It's not uncommon to find one surviving battered hulk pounding away at an equally wrecked opponent in a bid for final victory.

In contrast, if there's any characteristic that seems to define a real life admiral, it's his circumspection. Sensitive to the smallest disadvantage, the real admiral, who unlike his game counterpart, could face a dip in the drink and invariably controls a significant investment of national treasure, will endeavor to avoid that disadvantage at almost any cost. The end result is that the naval battles of history are often remarkably tentative, indecisive and bloodless. The French admiral Suffren and British admiral Hughes fought four squadron-sized naval battles in 1782-1783 without either side losing a ship in action. It goes without saying that a wargame campaign recreating that campaign will not have the same result.

But every so often there was a truly decisive naval battle. And when they occurred they illustrate the stakes of a naval battle, the potential cost and help explain why real admirals feared allowing their opponent any advantage at all. Battles such as Tsushima, Surigao Strait, Manila, Santiago, the Nile and Narvik demonstrate the danger of being caught with your pants down at sea.

Trafalgar, fought on this date 205 years ago, was one of the most decisive battles of history. While the Napoleonic Wars would continue for 10 more years, they went on with England essentially invulnerable to French direct attack. England would be the pre-eminent naval power for the next century, only facing a serious challenge after 1905.

The two sides were fairly evenly matched in numbers. Nelson's British fleet had 27 ships of the line, the combined Franco-Spanish fleet had 33. Neither side was under any illusions, however, that the two sides were evenly matched in combat power. Both sides recognized that the British had a clear advantage on a ship-to-ship level. So long as the Allied fleet maintained an unbroken formation it might lose a battle, but wouldn't lose too many ships. This had been demonstrated as recently as Calder's Action on July 22, 1805, which involved many of the same ships that would fight at Trafalgar. Calder's 15 British ships of the line defeated the 20-strong Franco-Spanish fleet, but did not destroy it. Just 2 Spanish ships were lost.

Nelson's genius was employing a plan that allowed the British fleet to break up the Allied formation and the courage to take the risk involved in doing so. He took the risk after making the calculation that the ill-trained Allied ships wouldn't be able to take advantage of his vulnerable approach. Events proved him right and the British were able to concentrate all their force on about 2/3 of the Allied fleet. The British destroyed 18 of the 33 ships in the Allied fleet and a subsequent action on Nov. 2 eliminated 4 more. The surviving Allied ships were blockaded and never again able to mount a dangerous coordinated campaign.

Compared to most fleet actions, then, wargaming Trafalgar is more likely than usual to result in a battle resembling its historical antecedent. Nelson was willing to risk his life, the lives of his men and a substantial part of England's wealth in search of decisive victory. In the end he did lose his own life, but British losses otherwise were relatively light, less than 10 percent of the men engaged and no ships. As much as admirals admire Nelson's example and may wish to emulate him, the fate of his opponent Villeneuve is never far from their minds. He also eventually paid for his loss with his life, with the added penalty of disgrace and the knowledge that he had cost two nations their navies.

Among the games depicting Trafalgar are Flying Colors, Wooden Ships & Iron Men and 1805 Sea of Glory

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

China-US trade war and its impact on gaming

Of course any China-U.S. trade war would have immense impacts outside the small world of gaming, but this is a gaming blog so that's our focus here.

Over at the Desert News Jeff Thredgold makes this point: "However, there is an important and positive by-product of that undervalued yuan. Goods produced in China are more affordable to Americans, whether shopping at Walmart or Target or Forever 21 or other retailers.
The Chinese currency manipulation allows greater U.S. household purchasing power for Chinese-made goods … good news for U.S. households that are already under tremendous pressure from a very damaging recession and a weak U.S. economic recovery."

Bloomberg News reports:
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said China is headed for a “trade conflict” with the U.S. and other western countries as tensions rise about how to rebalance the global economy.

“What China is doing is functionally equivalent to having large export subsidies and large import tariffs,” Krugman, 57, said in a speech in the Free University in Berlin. “If it were doing that in the normal way, it would automatically be subject to large countervailing duties. And I think that’s going to happen at the rate we’re going.”

For quite some time I've thought that gamers were going to have to adjust their expectations on how much bling was in their games. The decade of the aughts brought us all sorts of terrific games packed to the gills with stuff such as Battlelore, War of the Ring, Tide of Iron and many more. It was also a decade that brought us highly detailed and already painted collectible miniatures in vast numbers used in everything from Dungeons & Dragons and Heroclix to Axis & Allies Miniatures and Heroscape.

As much as a 40% increase in the value of the Chinese currency to the US dollar might help the US in macro terms, let there be no mistaking its effect on game bits - there won't be many, any more. Indeed, some product line may simply become unaffordable to produce and others will ave to scale back considerably. I think collectible painted miniatures, in particular, may become obsolete.

We're already seeing some hints of the coming reality. Fantasy Flight Games is still struggling with finding a way to bring the Battlelore Core Set back to market at an economically doable price. It's latest stopgap is to "repurpose" excess inventory of French-language copies for the English-language market. A welcome development but obviously a stopgap.

We're also seeing plastic being replaced by cardboard in more games. In the latest versions of Axis & Allies, for example, the industrial sites and anti-aircraft guns have been changed to counters.

The bottom line is that players who like a box chock full of plastic are going to find the future very disappointing as China "rebalances" the value of its currency with the rest of the world.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Franco-Italian showdown Part II -- Using Axis & Allies War at Sea

Pulling together a quick game of Axis & Allies War at Sea at the local game shop I decidced to save time by using the same ships I'd already pulled fort he Victory at Sea battle a week or so ago.

This time I took the French, while a couple of Game Store denizens took the Italians. Toadd a little variety and showcase the rules a little bit I added a sub to each side and gave each side 5 planes. The Italian side got a higher point value in planes, one Falco, one Stuka, two SM-79s and a seaplane. The French had less to choose from and got two fighters and three Vinidcators. One Italian player commanded the planes while the other took the ships.

The battle itself didn't suprise me much. The Italian ship admiral has a definite tendency to treat all tactical problems as having one solution -- charge! And so the Italain fleet gallantly closed the range at full speed, while the air force commander did his best to provide judicous support.

As is the case so often in War at Sea there was a general slaugter all around, but the Italians came out on the short end of it, eventually losing all their surface ships and three units of aircraft (the SM-79s survived). My French fleet lost both destroyers, the Richelieu and the Provence as well as the cruiser Suffren. Two of the Vindicators also perished. Each side claimed one objective, but the disparate ship/aircraft losses gave the French side a lopsided victory. The game ended with the Casabianca just one move way from collecting its bonus victory points, which I would have liked to see for the first time. The point score could have been much closer because the crippled Vitorio Veneto was sitting on the third objective but a good attack by the last Vindicator sunk the VV!

It's surprising how often combats in War at Sea can turn on a single point. I think the Richelieu was hit by at least a half dozen Italian shots that fell one success short of cauing damage. In the Victory at Sea game the Italian fleet concentrated on the French battlecruisers first, reducing the enemy's number of gun tubes as rapidly as possible. In this battle the Richelieu was a shell magnet for the Italians, who fired on her at every opportunity, which spared the twin battlecruisers from much attention. Indeed, the Strasbourg was unscathed while the Dunquerque has just a single point of damage -- and that came from an SM-79!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Interesting discovery

The ram of an ancient warship discovered recently near Sicily could help establish where the famous last battle of the first Punic War took place. Credit: RPM Nautical Foundation

An interesting discovery was recently made off Sicily that may have pinpointed the site of a naval battle from the First Punic War, according to this article.

So far three rams have been found from the area. According to the article one was inscribed in Latin and was therefore definitely Roman, but the other two, includingt he latest, were plaina nd showed signs of being hastily made, pointing to a probable Carthagenian origin.

The article isn't clear, but it seems to refer to the Battle of the Aegates Islands, which is a scenario in War Galley and a notable Roman victory. This was the famous occasion where the Roamns constructed a fleet of 200 war galleys through patriotic efforts by wealthy citizens and groups of the less wealthy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Battle of Jena-Auerstadt anniversary

Re-enactors from the 2006 commemoration of the battle

Today is the 204th anniversary of the double battles of Jena and Auerstadt which destroyed the old Prussian army of Frederick the Great and led to the birth of the Prussian army of von Clausewitz and Moltke that would dominate warfare on the European continent over the subsequent 150 years or so.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Today is the 10th anniversary of the USS Cole attack

Ten years ago today a small suicide craft nearly sank the USS Cole, by any measure a major warship. Like the earlier atatck on the USS Stark, the fact that the ship wasn't lost is a testimony to the skill and training of the US Navy in damage control and no reflection of the devastating nature of the damage done.

It's worth noting that similar damage during active comabt operations would definitely result in a "mission kill."

17 sailors were killed in the attack.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Franco-Italian showdown using Victory at Sea rules

Another recent session at Arkham Asylum involved a hypothetical battle fleet clash using the Victory at Sea naval rules (and Axis & Allies War at Sea miniatures).

This scenario assumed that the outbreak of World War II was delayed a bit but that France and Italy did fight a naval war around 1941. The opposing battle fleets were comprised of roughly equal forces. For the French the battleship Richelieu, battle cruisers Strasbourg and Dunquerque, the old battleship Provence, the heavy cruiser Suffren, light cruiser Gloire and two Le Fantasque fast destroyers. The Italin fleet had the new battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, the old (but extensively rebuilt) battleships Gulio Cesare and Comte di Cavour, the heavy cruisers Trento and Bolzano and one Navigatori-class destroyer. The two forces were exactly the same in War at Sea points, which I used a s quick and dirty balancing mechanic.

The scenario assumed an encounter just before dark to encourage aggressive play and yet end the battle within the time available. The only experienced player was myself, so I took the lesser half of the Italian fleet. The Italian CinC was a veteran wargamer, albeit new to Victory at Sea while the French fleet was controlled by a game store vet (in other words, a Magic; The Gathering player) who had played Victory at Sea once before. Game Store Tony provided tactical advice as "chief of staff."

The French fleet was basically in a line abreast (searching?) formation while the Italian fleet was in a "mob." The French commander took advantage of the peculiar French capital ship layout (all main guns in front) to close aggressively at high speed in what was essentially a cavalry charge. I formed my three-ship division into a line ahead while the rest of the Italian fleet milled around. The poor Navigatori class destroyer attracted a deluge of battleship fire and was overkilled. This aided the Italians, however, as it gave them first blood in the battleship duels.

As dusk fell the Littorio exploded with a magazine explosion, but it was, in truth, about to sink anyway, but the rest of the Italian fleet was (except for the destroyer, of course) either unscathed or very lightly damaged. Meanwhile both French battle cruisers were sunk and both destroyers crippled, while the Provence was 25% damaged. The Richelieu had a few scratches and the two cruisers were unhit, but overall it was clear that the Italians had a big edge with three fresh battleships against one.

The Victory at Sea system, while not the last word in simulations, certainly provides and entertaining and fast-playing way to play decent-sized naval battles. The whole battle took less than three hours to play.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blundering on a Global Scale

So our second game of Global Axis & Allies 1940 at Arkham Asylum was another success, although certainly marked by some inexpert play -- especially on my part.

I took Germany because I felt that too much of the game rides on a sufficiently aggressive German player to give it to a complete newbie. The other two Axis powers were controlled by a new player, while another young Arkham denizen controlled all the Allies at first -- although he was eventually joined by a player experienced in other versions of the game who took overt he US -- which had a big impact on the outcome of the game, as will be seen.

The Axis got off to a bad start because I misjudged how much force I would need to ensure that France fell -- and then proceeded to roll pretty badly as well and so France DID NOT FALL on Turn 1! This through off my timing enough that I wasn't quite ready to invade Russia by Turn 4 and the Russians actually declared war on Germany. Meanwhile the war with the British was more or less inconclusive, although the Italians made some decent progress in the Med area. Nothing spectacular, but probably sufficient in a normal game.

Where things went worse for the Axis was in the Pacific. The Japanese player's initial intention was to concentrate on China but on Turn 2 he changed his mind and rashly attacked everything in sight. He was tempted by a chance to pull a Pearl Harbor on the US fleet in Hawaii and did so, but it was rather costly> He also attacked Russia and the British, though, which had the effect of dispersing his efforts too much. China, meanwhile, was unsubdued.

The worst effect was to give the US a couple extra turns of Bonus production which they used to good effect building another huge fleet. And on Turn 5 the US made their move, sending a huge naval force to meet the Japanese main fleet in Japanese waters. Unfortunately for the Axis, the Japanese had neglected to leave a garrison on the home islands and the US sent a small invasion force. Victory in the Sea battle would mean the Fall of Japan!

The battle was pretty even, but the US had just enough extra firepower to prevail in the end and Japan fell.

We called the game at that point. While Japan would probably be able to retake the homeland, it would do so only by essentially abandoning China. Meanwhile the US had 137 IPC to spend on building a new invasion fleet while Japan would have trouble beefing up its defenses. (A key rule in 1940 is that a captured Major Industrial Site is reduced to a minor site, which would limit Japan to building just 3 units in Japan until it was upgraded. It's doubtful Japan would have either the time or the money to do that before the US was back.

If the European Axis had been doing better it might have been worth playing on, but as noted the Germans were just starting to get into it with Russia and overall the European Axis situation was, at best, mediocre.

Everyone involved enjoyed themselves and there were calls for a rematch, so I will try to schedule a Round 3 for the Global A&A 1940 before year's end. I think I may try to schedule a warmup 1942 game the week before the global 1940 game to build up player expertise in the system a little bit. Ideally the German, Japanese, Russian, American and British players should be experienced, I think. I think ANZAC, China, France and Italy provide good entry-level commands for new players.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Scrabble for the Kindle

The Kindle is a device optimized for reading, so if you're looking for lots of snazzy video game stuff it's not the toy for you.

That said, Hasbro Electronic Arts has created a really nice Scrabble game application for the Kindle that works exceptionally well. So far I've only played it solitaire against the built-in AI, but the game does have the option for playing with up to four other people in a sort of "hot seat" mode (I assume you'd just pass it around.)

The AI at "Normal" level isn't too hard to beat. It knows a lot of strange words, but it doesn't play very strategically. I found it's style to be a very frustrating defensive style that seems most interested in blocking YOUR moves rather than trying to set itself up for high-scoring plays of its own. I have found that this makes it vulnerable to a steady counter play that concentrates on scoring moderately well every turn (10-15 points) rather than looking for Bingos or other big plays.

It plays using all the usual standard Scrabble rules.

The interface is very easy to use, and is based off the "5-way" controller on the Kindle, making it pretty intuitive. My only concern is whether the 5-way is designed to take that much use over the long haul. Normally, while reading, you don't use it all that much.

Still, it works well so far and the price is very affordable, just $4.99, making it just about the least expensive Scrabble game available. Overall I like it and I think it's almost a "must-have" for a Kindle owner.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Favorite anti-war poem

There's a very interesting thread over at Boardgame Geek with many worthy nominations, but my personal favorite is this classic:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all? -
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen