Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 gaming year in retrospect

Marengo scenario setup from Napoleon's War Volume II: The Gates of Moscow, one of my 2011 purchases.

2011 is almost over and what an unusual gaming year it was for me. The biggest development of the year was being laid off from my job. While having a considerable negative effect on my finances, perversely it was a boon gaming wise.

Nothing like having an awful of of time on your hands to inspire a lot of game-buying, and as near as I can tell I acquired about three dozen new games over the twelve months, about half new 2011 titles and the rest from previous years. In addition, I picked up expansions and bought a couple of cases worth of War at Sea naval miniatures as well. My back of the envelope calculations indicate this probably cost me somewhere around $1,800. Mitigating this shocking expense, however, was a very active year on eBay which grossed me around $1,900 from game and miniatures sales. After taking into account shipping costs and fees, the total out-of-pocket impact on my budget was just a few hundred dollars. More than half of the eBay income came from selling off two major collections (My TCS series games and my Lord of the Rings Tradeable Miniatures) which were painstakingly assembled over long periods of time and unlikely to be repeatable in 2012. As a result I'm going to have to severely curtail new game purchases -- at least until I find a job!

On the other hand, this was an exceptionally good playing year. This, again, was part of the fallout from losing my job. My biggest gaming constraint for years was the mismatch between my schedule and most potential opponents because I worked an evening shift. While I had most weekends off, they were so crowded with other life activities that my gaming opportunities were limited. Being laid off sure freed up my time! Also helping was getting involved in several local Meetup groups, being able to attend the Central Connecticut wargamers occasionally and a lot of activity at the local game shop Arkham Asyklum. All-in-all I played quite a few face-to-face games this year -- perhaps the most in decades.

As far as those acquisitions went, quite a few were continuations, expansions and sequels to various series I've enjoyed, such as Napoleon's War, Fluxx, Munchkin, Small World and Commands & Colors. There were also a fair number of notable new game such as Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Conquest of Nerath and Test of Fire.

Personally, my newest enthusiasm was for cooperative style games (and their semi-cooperative kin) represented by the Fly Frog Productions line of games such as Last Night on Earth and Fortune and Glory and similar tiles such as the Dungeons & Dragons adventuring games, Star Trek: Expeditions and Forbidden Island.

This also continued a trend towards lighter fare among my purchases. While I did pick up some hard-core simulations such as Persian Incursion and Lock n Load: Day of Heroes, the vast majority of the year's acquisitions were more along the lines of Test of Fire, Shenandoah and Napoleon's War -- definitely wargames, but not really simulations.

It's not hard to trace the origin of this trend -- it's just hard to get simulation games on the table. Opponents are scarce and time is precious these days for that sort of game, which tends to be time consuming -- and not just in table time. To get the most out of a good simulation game it really helps if both players are reasonably familiar with the game rules beforehand, which adds to the imnvestment in time compared to euro games and other lighter genres.

I've pretty much given up on worrying about it. While I occasionally break down and pick up an old school wargame such as Four Roads to Moscow, Falklands Showdown or Marengo: Morning Defeat, Afternoon Victory, I usually take a pass these days no matter how tempted I am. Every time I feel the urge I just ask myself the question: And just WHEN will that get played? Unless I can justify it despite the likely answer of "Never," I probably won't buy it.

Also helping me exercise some future purchasing discipline is the likely end of the line for my only active collectible game: Axis & Allies: War at Sea. While there's some slight glimmer of hope that another set may appear, it probably won't be in 2012. In any case, I won't start another collectible game. While I don't have the same heartburn many do about the limitations of the format, there is the serious problem of what happens when the game gets canceled. Experience has shown that even a very good game such as Dreamblade or Navia Dratp becomes almost impossible to get on the table once official support dries up. The Axis & Allies Miniatures (both land and sea) and the D&D miniatures lines have some utility outside of the official game rules, but the basic problem remains that the collectible format really relies on a stream of new material to work. Once the stream dries up the lake will inevitably dry up and vanish.

While I did acquire around three dozen games, which is a lot, the good news is that I had a very successful time getting the new games on the table -- playing at least 21 of them at least once. This is important because my experience has been that if I don't get a game played within the first year of owning it, there's a very good chance I'll never play it. Several of the not-played yet were late 2011 acquisitions such as Sheandoah, Merchants & Marauders and Julius Caesar which I fully expect to get played soon. Some others were solitaire or solitaire-capable games such as Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations and the D&D adventures games that I can always get around to playing someday. There's just a handful of games like When Lions Sailed and Four Roads to Moscow that have dubious prospects for future table time.

Job prospects for the coming year are hard to predict, but it seems very unlikely I'll ever work at a newspaper again, with the evening hours that usually requires, so I expect that I'll continue to see a fair opportunity for game playing in 2012. I expect game purchases to slow down a lot, though. I've already cut down on my pre-orders (just Commands & Colors titles and Wizard Kings expansions currently) and, as I said, I am done with collectible games. Or so I say. Time will tell!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Rich Baker starts a blog

War at Sea designer Rich Baker has started a new blog which I'l be keeping a close eye on. With luck we will find out that War at Sea isn't quite dead yet.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Took the new Crusader Rex out for a spin



Game Store Tony provided the willing Guinea Pig for a play through of the newest version of Crusader Rex. While he'd played block games before, he'd never played this game or its earlier versions. Your truly had played the earlier versions a couple of times, but this was the first outing for the new edition.

Overall, my impression of the new game is that it plays well and seems more strategic in a good sense. Now that most of the units can return if eliminated (only the military orders and Saladin's family are permanently dead) there's not the severe unit shortages that could occur in the old version.

Well, at least, there's not inherently unit shortages. In our particular game Tony's Crusaders lost two early battles with devastating losses and this put his side down for the count early. He made a valiant effort to come back and did manage to conquer Egypt briefly and dispatch two of Saladin's relatives, but before long the green blocks seemed to be everywhere. Frederick Barbarossa showed up, but we called the game before playing the final year because it was obvious the westerners had no hope of success. The Muslim's held six of the seven victory cities and were in enough strength up north that there was little chance of Barbarossa taking even one -- and every chance he might lose the one he guarded.

My aim is to get it back on the table in early 2012 and see how I cna do with the Outremers.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sticker Shock


No, not for the price (although at $59.99, $89.99 with a mounted map Shenandoah is a little on the pricey side), but for the new, tougher stickers that come with the game.

Fortunately Columbia took the precaution of including in the box a little note warning purchasers that they've switched to a new and stronger adhesive, but let me reinforce that warning. These are not your father's stickers any more. I've never had a lot of trouble with stickers coming off my earlier Columbia games with the exception of an old edition of Rommel in the Desert where it was a real problem, but it does happen occasionally. But I have seen complaints online so obviously it has been a problem, so it appears that Columbia has taken heed.

But take heed of their warning as well. You WILL need a razor or thin knife to take up the stickers neatly. Trying to peel them up with your fingers risks damage to the sticker edges. Likewise, take special care in applying the stickers because you will have a hard time repositioning a misapplied sticker without leaving some adhesive behind.

The need to apply stickers has always been one of the drawbacks for block games because it usually means you can't just play it out of the box (an issue at, for example, a convention) but the new adhesive will mean this is especially true. Columbia has been pretty good on customer service but I predict they will have to replace an unusually large number of sticker sheets for customers who end up damaging their stickers. As a matter of fact, it probably would have been a good idea to include a double set of the stickers to provide spares (much like GMT's practice)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Very bad news for Axis & Allies and D&D fans

Lead D&D and A&A miniatures designer Rich Baker just posted that he's been let go from Wizards of the Coast!

This is, of course, awful personal news for him. Being laid off a week before Christmas sucks. Actually, speaking from experience, being laid off at any time sucks pretty bad, but the holidays is even worse.

It also throws the entire future of D&D and Axis & Allies miniatures products into doubt. WOTC has already indicated it was backing out of the painted miniature category. It appears that Pathfinder may have eaten in to D&D's market share a bit, but I'm inclined to think it's bigger than just one line's market share issues. I've suspected that the "Golden Era" of boxes full of plastic and painted collectible miniatures we have enjoyed over the last decade or so was an artifact of some temporary economic conditions (specifically the price differential between China and USA) and was coming to a close.

I'm not sure what WOTC's plans are for the D&D stuff. They were working on a new set of skirmish rules, but I don't know if that's going to see daylight now.

As far as the Axis & Allies miniatures line go, Baker said that his layoff did not mean any miniatures lines were being canceled and he seemed to offer some hope that he'd be able to work on some projects on a freelance basis. Realistically, I've thjought that the land miniatures line was all but certainly dead already and that the hoped-for Late War set was never happening. There was just too long a break since the last set and it would basically mean restarting the line. I also think Angels 20 (the new air game) is a dead duck. Whatever is already paid for in the pipeline will come out, but I doubt very much there's bee anything new started. I suppose there's a small bit of hope for a Set VII for War at Sea, but it's a slender one.

I think we can also lay to rest any thoughts of a reborn Heroscape. Among the other layoffs was the brand manager for the Avalon Hill and Axis & Allies lines, so even the future of the board games may now be in doubt. I know there was some talk about an exapnsion for Battle Cry and Larry Harris was working on a final set of rules for 1940 Global Axis & Allies. Without someone to guide these along I have my doubts. The sort of intensive attention wargames/RPGs need was never a good fit for Hasbro/WOTC anyway -- they're certainly no GMT!

Overall, a very sad day for fans of a number of popular games.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lest you think I'm always a loser ... .




While I got my head handed to me at Piepsk earlier in the day, I was able to make agood showing in TWO games of Acquire that night, coming out on top in both four-player games. I've only played the game a few times before, but I am starting to get a feel for the strategy.

As a side note, there are some odd gaps in my game experience Acquire has been out for decades but I only recently started playing it -- which is too bad because it really is a great classic game.

Both game developed quite differently. The first game saw a large, dominant corporation quickly get safe status and take over half the board while the other corporations did what they could with the rest. One of the seven corporations never made it onto the board at all. I was able to win because I had acquired a good position in that dominating company early on and ended up being the majority shareholder and decent positions in many nof the others. Still, it was a close game and I only won by less than $2 grand.

The second game, in contrast, shown at top. was much more free wheeling with all seven corporations making early appearances. There were even a few times players would have like dto have started new corporations but there were none available. This game was a little more decisive, as I was more than $5,00 ahead of the next player.

I'm still learning this game, but it seems important to keep money flowing and try to be at least a participant in most of the corporations. A couple f the players found themselves cash poor because they were heavily invested in some safe corps and unable to generate funds to take advantage of opportunities as they appeared. Because of this I was able to get majority or minority shareholder bonuses on the cheap by having one of a handful of shares in taken-over corporations for a nice return on the money. In afour-player game having 8 or 9 shares was often enough to control a safe corporation and even a single share might turn a tidy profit when a small chain gets taken over if no one had the money to invest in it. I hope to get this on the table a few more times over the next few months.

The massacre at Piepsk

The Russians make an early move with some Berserkers.


Well, the scenraio is actually called The Hedgehog of Piepsk, which old school wargamers will recognize was the fourth scenario in the original Squad Leader.

I hauled out the old warhorse for some old school wargaming with Game Store Tony. I haven't played the scenario in 10 or 20 years, myself, so things were more even than they may appear, especially because one of Tony's more notable qualities is that he's a quick study.

I took the Germans in the interest of saving setup time, because I could plan a clever defense ahead of time. Well, I thought it was at least solid, if not clever. I placed four LMG-equipped squads in the four buildings in the center of town to form the main position. Covering the left flank was the MMG with a squad and 9-1 leader while the right flank was coverered by the HMG with a squad and the 9-2 leader. The 8-0 and radio were also posted on the left as the lines of sight seemed better. Finally the other 9-1 and two squads were posted in reserve behind the town in the center to react to the Soviet advance.

Tony's plan was a simple, wide front advance evenly spread around the board, with the LMGs, MMG and leaders seeded throughout the force.

Things got off to a decent start as the first few defensive fires from the German machine gun teams cut down Soviet stacks like wheat. A full dozen Soviet squads were KIA'd before the first German loss. I have to say, though, that I don't really like playing the Germans in SL because it seems like they're always relying on a few key units -- so long as they're doing their job the Germans are tough, but a moment of bad luck can be very costly. I actually prefer the Soviet and US forces which are more homogeneous.

Sure enough, a bad morale check on a fairly low odds attack cleared the left flank MMG and the Russians surged forward. Bad luck with the initial artillery placement and an ineffective FFE foiled my back up plan and the 8-0 was overrun.

After this point things went down hill as Tony was able to swarm the town. German ffire groups, even massive ones with 20+ FP were not able to finish off Soviet targets. Throw in some berserk Russians, some bloody close combats and the end came swiftly. The Germans losses in the second half of the game actually exceeded Soviet.

While I felt my battle plan had legitimate promise, the fact of the matter is that Tony wiped out the Gemran force to a man and captured all five buildings in just 8 turns of the 10-turn scenario -- not a result that could be termed "close."

The Grim Finale!

Nope. I just got owned, simple as that. Still, it was fun to bring the old game to the table again after so long.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Napoleon's War II: The Gates of Moscow review

Battle of Austerlitz


The dueling Napoleonic game systems of GMT (Commands & Colors Napoleonics) and Worthington Games (Napoleon's War) continue their epic matchup with a new round of games. (No word on when, or if, there will be another entry in the third Napoleonic battle game system that came out last year, the Battles of Napoleon).

Once again Worthington Games beat GMT to the punch. While GMT will probably ship the second CC:N game this month (The Spanish Army) Worthington's Napoleon's War II: The Gates of Moscow has been out for a couple of months already.

Physically, the new game is familiar stuff -- two double-sided full-color cardstock mapboards depicting four Napoleonic battles (in this case Marengo, Aspern-Essling, Austerlitz and Borodino), a cardstock player aid card, an 8-page rule book, counters, three dice and 120 plastic figures. Once again the figures are the infantry, cavalry and cannon figures from the game Viktory II, repurposed quite well to serve here. The French are blue, as they were in the first game, with white for the Austrians and Green for the Russians -- an unsurprising and appropriate color scheme.

The rules have been streamlined a bit from the first game, with some small but significant changes. Perhaps the most important is that infantry firepower at 2-hex range has been reduced to just 1 die (hitting on a 6) instead of the previous 3-dice. This is a big improvement, as it encourages the infantry to get in close instead of engaging in ahistorical long-range firefights.

Another change which could be significant is that the Advanced Skirmisher rules have been eliminated. I say "could be" because it's an entire, lengthy section cut from the rules -- but I wouldn't know because I never tired using them. They seemed far more intricate and involved than waranted by the complexity level of the rest of the game system. Evidently many agreed. In any case, it's gone.

Artillery cannot be targeted by ranged fire until any cavalry or infantry unit in the hex is eliminated.

A few other changes and clarifications were added, all conveniently listed at the end of the rulebook for experienced players. A new optional rule for drawing the AP randomly through chits has been added, although I'm not really tempted to use it. It seems to draw out laying time and add a level of randomness to a system that's already pretty luck-driven.

The fundamentals of the game system are the same. Each turn a player rolls a D3 and adds the result to his base number to get an action point allowance for the turn, typically 4-7 CAP. Most game actions such as moving and firing cost one AP per unit, although a couple of special actions such as shock attacks cost 2. Combat typically involves rolling three dice (sometimes cut down to 2 dice for terrain) looking for a 6 to hit. Artillery and units engaged in shock combat can hit on a 5 or 6 or sometimes even a 4-6.

The four scenarios depict some of the iconic battles involving the Austrians, Russians and French and I fully expect to see a "battle pack" giving us more.

One change that I don't care for is that the setup locations are mo longer printed on the map, now players have to refer to the scenario card. This makes set up a little more work than it used to be and I don't think the small font used in earlier maps detracted from the look at all.

On the other hand, all the scenarios now include some territorial victory points for at least one side, which discourages the unhistorical gamey tactics that marred some of the first game's scenarios such as Ligny and Wavre. Now both players have to stand and fight.

The first scenario, chronologically, is Marengo, and in a first for the game system this has a free setup for one side as the standard scenario. While the French setup is fixed, the Austrian player can set up freely within a specified area. There are a lot of ways the battle can play out, depending upon the Austrian setup and this is probably one of the most replayable battle sin the whole game system. It's a pretty even match, too, as the infantry on both sides is depicted by 3-figure units.

The French start with six infantry, three cavalry and two artillery on the map, with one of each of the infantry and cavalry units being elite. The whole lot is led by Napoleon +3 (then actually Bonaparte). Coming in on turn 10 or after is the +2 leader Desaix with an elite infantry, a regular infantry, a cavalry and an artillery. The total French army is therefore 15 units with 42 figures.

The entire Austrian force starts on the map. Led by +2 Melas and +1 Zach, the Austrians have six regular and one elite infantry, 4 cavalry and 4 artillery for a total of also 15 units and 38 figures. Both sides are trying to get 7 victory points, with the Austrians having prize objective sworth 2 and 3 VPs on the French map edge.

Both sides are relatively well led. The French start with a base of just 3 CAP but jump up to 5 when the reinforcements arrive, while the Austrians have 4 CAP throughout. The scenario manages to capture the back and forth of the historical battle reasonably well.

The second scenario chronologically is Austerlitz. The Allied side uses both the white figures and the green figures, for the Austrians and Russians respectively. The Austrians are definitely weak links, however, with just 2 figures per infantry unit and no elites. The Russians will have to do most of the heavy lifting. The Austrian army totals six units with just 12 figures, while the Russians have 12 units and 32 figures. The allied leadership is abysmal, with Tsar Alexander +1 and Kaiser Francis II +1. The Allied base CAP is just 3.

Napoleon is present again, with his +3 self. He starts with 12 units and 36 figures and gets +2 Davout and four more units with 12 more figures on turn 5.

This is a long and bloody battle with a VP goal of 9 for both sides. The burden of attack in on the Allies, however, and the ensuing fight will usually bear at least a passing resemblance to the historical fight.

The third scenario is the weak sister of the bunch. At Asspern-Essling the Austrians are on their own with their 2-figure infantry and I don't see a realistic path to victory for them. It's just too easy for the French to rack up VP by killing Austrian infantry units There are territorial VP available for both sides, but they seem unlikely to come into play.

The Austrian force is comprised of 19 units but just 38 figures. Charles is a +2 leader but his assistant is just a +1. Both sides have a base of just 3 CAP, but the burden of attack is on the Austrians and their larger number of weaker units mean it is hard for them to do what they have to do with the CAP available.

Napoleon is, of course, on the field again, aided by +1 Massena. He starts with 13 units and 33 figures and potentially gets three more units with 7 figures as reinforcements. Unlike the battles of Marengo and Austerlitz, these reinforcements are not as vital to the French plans. The Austrians can spend AP to try to destroy the bridge the reinforcements need to enter, but it hardly seems worth the CAP expense.

The Austrians need to get 7 VP while the French need 8 or to avoid an Austrian victory.

The final scenario is Borodino (or Bordino as it's spelled on the scenario card!). This is, as one would expect for Borodino, a knock-down drag-out wrestling match between two evenly matched forces. The Russians have THREE leaders, Kutusov +2 and two +1 leaders. They have 15 units with 42 figures well deployed in redoubts and behind rivers.

Napoleon, on the field yet again, at +3 , has a +2 Davout and a +1 Ney to help. His 16 units have 45 figures and therefor a slight numerical edge, but it will be a challenging slog into the teeth of the Russian host. Good stuff. Both sides are striving for 8 VP, with the burden of attack on the French to win in 30 turns.

Overall, I think this game is a big success. The system has been cleaned up a bit and the scenarios seem well-selected. Games should still take aoiut an hour from opening the box, which seems to be the goal these days. There's plenty of luck to provide drama but players still seem in control of their fate a bit more than the card-driven system of CC:N. The CAP system guarantees some variability but the base CAP means that each player can count on a certain minimum level of activity every turn.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ill health gets in the way of blogging

I've had a nasty bout of the flu which crimped my style pretty hard. I hope to be back to active blogging shortly.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Test of Fire -- Union strategies

Test of Fire has been unexpected hit among my more hard-core wargaming crew. Unexpected, because it's a fairly simple game, really, and counter-pushers are used to more intricate fare. But not a surprise, because if there's one thing I've come to appreciate, it's Martin Wallace's talent as a game designer. So for every wargame of his I have tried, starting with Waterloo, continuing with Gettysburg and culminating now with Test of Fire, has been a startlingly great game (and a reasonable wargame as well).

It's the test of table generalship which, in the end, brings us back to the table for yet another try. A wargame that fails to truly engage the player-general's brain may see a play or two out of historical curiosity or study, but then it sits on a dusty shelf to be admired until meeting its fate on eBay.

But the ones that get the player-general's mental juices flowing hit the tbale again and again and prompt great debates over strategy and what-I-should-have -done and demands for rematches. Test of Fire is showing potential for growing into a classic.

One friend has already figured that he has the CSA locked and dares challenges ... .

Well, I am impressed enough with Wallace's design already to doubt very thoroughly whether either side has any sort of lock on victory, so I would never claim that there's a fool-proof Federal battle plan. But neither would I sit behind Bull Run expecting victory in due course -- not against an experienced opponent.

Now, clearly, the burden of attack falls on the federal player and Union players who dawdle or fail to carefully set the stage for a successful crossing are likely to find themselves either desperately racing the clock after marshaling their imposing host OR getting battered so heavily as they try to push their way across the river quickly that they lose due to Rout.

For now I'm going to assume the fixed historical set-up, although the semi-free set-up will definitely complicate things for a over-confident CSA player. One rule that can't really be optional for a serious competitive game is the Ford Card Placement rule. Having the Ford show up too close to the end (or maybe not even at all) is too big of a handicap for the Union. Using the optional rule means that the Ford Card will be available somewhere in the top half of the Federal deck and able to play a useful role.

I think the first thing that the Union player has to keep in kind is that his biggest advantage over the Rebels is not numbers (the numerical edge is actually quite slight 29 tp 25) but in flexibility. The edge is action dice is more significant at 4 to 3. The Rebels have four specific points they have to defend -- and they can't afford to give up more than one of those. So the Union player's job is to put the pressure on, stress the Rebel line along it's length and wait for it to fracture someplace -- while not losing so much time that the cards runs out or troops that Rout happens.

It's mandatory that the Federals make the most out their initial setup. They've got the Rebels outflanked and there's no sense in not striking while the iron is hot. McDowell needs to be on that flank to start so that the USA can use any 6's as extra movement rolls. A strong flanking push can often take Henry House Hill before the Rebels can react, but otherwise they need to be in position to threaten it early because it's important to get the Rebels to commit (and maybe over-commit) significant forces that way.

As soon as the initial Henry House Hill foray is settled, McDowell needs to move to the cneter of the battlefield for the next phase, which is to start pressuring all along Bull Run's crossing and potential crossing looking for a weak spot. The Ford card should be in hand, now, waiting for an opportunity. If the rebel is not careful and has not watched after the security of his base, it can bea nasty trick to wait until you've saved a move card or two and get a good turn of move rolls and rush a couple or three infantry units across the 0-rated crossing on the eastern end of Bull Run and scoot down the Orange & Alexandria RR to Manassas Junction for the win. Even a garrison of two units is vulnerable to being bum-rushed. (Centreville likewise bears watching, but simple precautions should suffice to make that a real long-shot for the Rebels and I'd even encourage an aggressive Rebel opponent to try it.)

Typically the Ford card will be more useful boosting a 1-rated crossing to a 2-rated one. Whichever one is best will depend on the tactical situation, but the odds of a successful crossing can be boosted considerably by laying the proper groundwork. While the Ford is still unplayed every likely crossing needs to be beefed up to be a credible threat. Consider moving the guns to Lewis Ford if Ball's Ford is too heavily defended. Try to build up a full hand of "good" cards for winning a tough crossing (Artillery, Move, Hold are best, Firepower, Friendly Fire and Retreat also useful). The Union should never hold onto Rout cards, in my opinion.

Once you're ready, drop the Ford and go for the win. If the South committed so many troops to defend Henry House Hill that you never ended up taking it, then thye should be so weak along the river that there's a good chance you can take the other two stars and/or Manassas Junction. Otherwise, you should have Henry House Hill already and the rebels can afford to lose NONE of the remaining points.

Is there a "perfect plan" for the Union? Absolutely not. You could easily do all this and still fall short, especially if the Rebel player plays prudently. But so far the games I have seen have been far from a cakewalk for the Rebels.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Grody Brody



Well, it was a near-run thing as they like to say, but my Germans fell one victory medal short in a game against Game Store Tony in our new campaign refighting Barbarossa from Campaign Book 1.

Things got off to a decent enough start, but the Russian Cavalry was unusually deadly in its charges and the German Heroic Leader had an off day, so it ended up being a 5-4 Russian victory. So far Army Group Center got off to a gangbusters start while Army Group North is pretty well stalled. Brody is the first battle in the Army Group South series. The next battle will require the Germans to do very well and win by at least THREE medals in order to win the scenario for campaign purposes, so we shall see ... .

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Here be dragons

My eldest daughter is sending me a copy of this abstract strategy game called Dragon face that she thought I'd like.

And while the game doesn't contain dragons (the name apparently refers to the art on the "emperor" piece), it did get me thinking about how much of a fan of dragons I am. There may be no easier way to get me to cough up a few bucks than to make sure your game design includes a few dragons! And I'm not even that much of a fantasy gamer, really, but I have a soft spot for dragons.

There are, of course, dragons prominently featured in all the Dungeons and Dragons branded games and I have dragons in D&D Miniatures, D&D Conquest of Nerath, D&D Castle Ravenloft, D&D The Legend of Drizzt, D&D The Wrath of Ashardalon (Arshadalon is the dragon) and the Heroscape system D&D Underdark game. And there are dragon in the main Heroscape game, too. I have a drake among my Lost Worlds books and there are dragons scattered among the various Magic: The Gathering decks, but I also got the duel deck that features dragons vs. knights. There are dragons in Dreamblade, Wizard Kings and Small World. Most of my dragons are the western concept ones (with wings) but I do have a couple of really handsome painted Chinese style one for Arcane Legions. The game is middling but the dragons look great. I even have a ship named Dragon in Axis & Allies War at Sea! That is, however, actually named after the type of mounted soldier called a dragoon in English.

Still, few things will spice up things than a large, awesome dragon. In some games, such as Small World, the dragons are just bit players, but they have a more properly dragon-like prominence in Conquest of Nerath and the other D&D games and I always try to get one in my army when I'm playing Wizard Kings. Oddly enough, the one fantasy game where dragons don't play much of a role is the War of the Ring. While Smaug famously was central in The Hobbit, Tolkien didn't depict any dragons taking part in the Lord of the Ring events (although the Fell beasts were somewhat draco-like) which is one small disappointment I had with the work. There's no indication in Tolkien that dragons were extinct or that Smaug was the last one, but it appears they stood aloof from the contest. Still, it would have been nice to have one make a cameo!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Test of Fire -- a review and recommendation



Test of Fire is one of the more delightful little games to come around in the last few years.

Designed by the notable Martin Wallace, probably best known to Geekdom for Liberte, Brass and Steam, Test of Fire is an elegant, entertaining and economical wargame depicting the first major battle of the American Civil War -- The Battle of First Bull Run (Or First Manassas) in 1861. This is billed as being the first in a series of 150th Anniversary Civil War games to come out over the next few years.

This is not Wallace's first foray into wargames, he's published a few others over the past few years -- each showing a fresh approach that eschews many wargame conventions while still delivering historically satisfying and challenging games. Compared to Waterloo, Gettysburg or a Few Acres of Snow, Test of Fire is much simpler, with a near-Zen like paucity of rules. Only the barest essential needed to make the game work are included, and it's quite likely this review will be longer than the game rules!

When teaching the game I normally start by explaining the victory conditions. Like many euro games, there are multiple ways to win in Test of Fire. The most direct is to capture the enemy base. If the federals take Manassas Junction they win, if the Rebels grab Centerville they win. This is an instantaneous and decisive victory, but prudent play should preclude this path. (Not everyone plays prudently, though, and I have won that way!)

The second way to win is possibly the most controversial, as it is a little bit on the dicey side. Each side has a deck of action cards that include some called "Rout" which give the player an opportunity for an instant win by taking two D6 rolling them -- if the total is equal to or less than the number of enemy units eliminated at that point the enemy army routs and you win! Naturally there's no chance of winning this way until at least 2 enemy units are destroyed but the chances of winning escalate rapidly with each additional casualty. There will be many that don't like this sort of victory condition -- but in it's favor is the inconvenient fact that this is exactly what happened! Test of Fire is not the first game on this battle to resort to this sort of mechanic. In the Decision Games Blue & Gray quad version, for example, there is a victory roll each turn that is also based on lost and disrupted units.

The final, and standard way of winning is based on the Union progress in capturing significant territory on the Rebel side of the river. While there's no turn track, there is a time limit. When one player's deck of action cards runs out, the next time they are forced to draw a card the game ends at the completion of the Rebel turn. At that point the status of three starred locations on the rebel side of the board are checked, if the Federals control at least 2 of three three, they win, otherwise the CSA wins.

The components are top-notch, euro style and seem to be a good value for the $29 MSRP. There's sturdy box, a full-color mounted map board depicting the Bull Run area divided into areas, thick counters in blue and gray for the respective armies, a ford marker, a couple of card board command cards for each army, 12 dice in blue and gray, two decks of cards and a full-color 16-page rule book with examples of play and historical notes. The Union army is the larger, with 29 infantry units, two artillery units and a leader while the opposing Confederates have 24 infantry units, two artillery units and one (or optionally two) leaders.

A player's turn starts by rolling dice -- four for the Union, three for the Confederates -- and sorting them according to the command card. For every 1 rolled, the player can draw a card from their deck. For every 2 or 3 rolled they can conduct one artillery fire. For every 4 or 5 they can make one move and for every 6 they have a choice between drawing a card, firing an artillery unit in the same are as a leader or conducting a move in the same area as a leader. Players can execute the dice moves and play any suitable cards in any order and a big part of the game is the proper sequencing of actions.

Artillery fire consists of rolling one die looking for a 5 or a 6 to hit. If a hit is scored, a subsequent roll determines the effect. A 6 damages a unit, flipping a full-strength infantry unit to its reduced side or eliminating a reduced unit. Otherwise the targeted player has to retreat a unit from the area.

Regular infantry combat is a function of movement. Each move order can move 1-3 units into an adjacent area, depending on the boundary crossed. The default is 2 units, with woods and portions of the river reducing it to 1 and roads increasing it to 3 units. At a few spots the crossing value is 0 and so the river is impassible. At other spots the boundary is marked 2/1, meaning two units can cross if the opposite bank is unoccupied by the enemy, otherwise just 1 unit can cross per move.

While moving into an enemy-occupied area will trigger combat, it does not trigger it immediately, so the moving player has an opportunity to reinforce an attack or even launch multiple waves of attackers. -- Civil War style. For an example, if a player had three moves available, they could use them to move two units into an adjacent space with one move, then move two more units in with a second move and then fight a battle at that point. If repulsed they could use the third move to send in two more units (or the same units from the first wave if they survived) and fight a second battle.

Infantry combat is more deadly than artillery fire. each defending infantry unit gets to roll two dice (whether at full strength or reduced, to a maximum of 6 dice) with every 5 or 6 resulting in a hit (or a 4-6 if defending a hill area). For every hit rolled a subsequent roll is made for effect, with a 4-6 causing damage while a 1-3 forces a retreat. As with artillery fire, the owning player apportions the damage and retreats. Combat is just one round, and if the attacker fails to clear the area of defenders, then the attacker retreats. Leaders and artillery units retreat if left alone in an area with enemy infantry.

A key element of the design are the action decks, which are asymmetrical. Both decks contain some of the same cards, although often in different proportions -- and the Federal Deck is larger than the CSA deck, 29 to 26. All cars can be played at any time appropriate for their effects and take effect immediately.

Both armies have the previously mentioned Rout cards (3 for the USA, 4 for the CSA) which allow for a roll to win if 2 or more enemy units have been eliminated. Both also have Move cards, which allow for a free bonus Move under the same rules as die-ordered move. The USA deck has more of these (6) than the CSA (I2) as befits their role as the aggressor. Each side can enhance the fire of its artillery by playing an Artillery card (6 Union, 3 Confederate) which allows an extra die when making an artillery shot. The effects of hits can be enhanced by playing Retreat cards (4 Union, 3 Rebel) to force a retreating unit to retreat an extra area. Conversely a Hold card (2 USA, 5 CSA) can be played to cancel a retreat. Both sides can play a Lost Orders card (3 each) to cancel one order die result, which can be very powerful at the right moment. Both sides also have access to some cards that affect an infantry battle. A Friendly Fire card (1 each) causes an player to roll one to-hit die against his own unit during a battle, while Firepower cards (3 each) give an extra die in battle (to the usual maximum of 6, total).

Each army also has a few unique cards. For the Confederate side, these come in the form of two Cavalry cards that give a free 3-die or 5-die attack agansit a Union-occupied area south of Bull Run. For the Union side the unique card is a Ford, whoich allows the Union player to place the ford marker on any one river boundary, increasing its crossing allowance by 1. So this powerful card can make an impassible 0 area into a 1, boost a 1 to a 2 or a 2/1 to a 3/1.

Players can have no more than 5 cards in their hand at the end of their turn, discouraging card hoarding.

Both sides have a wide range of strategies to follow, despite the fixed historical set up, which encouarges a Union flanking attack, but does not require it. Indeed, if the Union commits too much to the flanking attack, they may find it stalling well short of victory as the Confederates mass against it. The Union player is better off posing credible threats all along Bull Run in order to keep the defenders spread out.

The nature of the game turns, with short impulses of movement and combat passing back and forth between the players provides something close to the illusion of simultaneous movement without the usual headaches of a simove system. Players act in turn, but it's very hard to stael a march on the enemy that they can't react to.

The game is rated at 45 minutes, which seems very accurate for experienced player, but even newbies can be taught the game from scratch and see it finished in less than 90 minutes, tops.

And it's a very fun system, highly interactive and full of strategic choices. The Rout mechanic may bother some, but it seems reasonable given the history and it provides some entertaining tension while rewarding aggressive play. The short playing time means that even if a Rout card "robs" you of a victory, there's time for an immediate rematch.

Overall, this is one of the best introductory level wargames to come along in a long time and it looks to be an instant classic. Recommended.

Some other new stuff come in





A few other new arrivals of note:

Victoria Cross II (shown above). This is a redo of the venerable (and inaugural) Worthington Games title. Major difference sin presentation include an overhead view of the Rorke's Drifty battlefield (instead of the perspective view used before ) and cardboard counters in place of the wood block. sticker combo of the earlier version. Major content differences include the addition of the complete Battle of Isandlwana as wella s the original battle of Rorke's Drift. I played the Isandlwana battle and got crushed as the British! Very historical, I'll need further plays to assess whether the British have a decent chance or I just played very badly the first time!

Napoleon's War II: The Gates of Moscow. Been awaiting this one and I expect to try it it next week. No surprises in the presentation.

Got some custom dice for Twilight Struggle and for Labyrinth. No special reason aside from the fact that they look cool.

Two cases of War at Sea's newest expansion, Surface Action. This was a very successful case purchase, as I got all 16 rares between the two cases. Some intersting models and intersting additions to the game system. The game badly needs some additional "official" scenarios that will play off some of the new special abilities and units. Right now the Standard dueling force scenario is really the only one well supported. THe Convoy scenario is still broken and virtaully unwinnable for the convoy player. Fixing that scenario and adding one for amphibious landings would be a big boost.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Stuff! Some handsome arrivals.

As usual, good stuff seems to come in bunches. Today Fortune & Glory: The Cliffhanger Game arrived at the local game shop and Star Trek: Fleet Captains showed up on the porch, courtesy of the Post Office.

My first impression of both games was "wow." They're both really great looking.

I've seen a number of complaints on BoardGame Geek about the Star Trek game, which seem to fall into tow general categories -- broken ship models and cheap components for the price. As far as the first, I didn't have much of a problem. Just two ships were broken, and each was easily repaired with a dab of super glue. As far as value goes, it seemed to be around what I expect a $100 game to contain. It may be that I'm just used to the somewhat inflated prices of wargames compared to euro games, but the game contains a large full-color mounted board, 24 clix-based detailed starship models, a bag full of die-cut counters, a thick stack of map tiles (thin, but easy to shuffle because of that), full-color rulebook and a couple hundred linen playing cards in several decks. There's a well-designed insert that holds everything and a huge box. About the only thing that's clearly cheese are the two dice included in the game, which are some of the sorriest little dice I've ever seen in a board game. Those will have to be replaced.

Fortune & Glory has few complaints about component quality as far as I can see. Like other Flying Frog games it's full of neat stuff -- lots of cards, mounted board, fistfuls of miniature figures, counters,etc. There have been a few complaints about the kind of game it is, and those have, i think, more validity in that you definitely have to understand that this is a very heavy themed Ameritrash game, not a euro. There's very high random element in the game, players will sometimes find themselves in a tough spot through no fault of their own and there's little variety in moves. Again, as a wargamer, I'm kind of inured to the Fates and I enjoy games with strong narratives, so Fly Frog's games are just my cup of tea. For those born and raised on Knizia euros, Fortune & Glory may well seem like a chaotic mess that too often fails to reward good play. Point taken, but I don't really care. The game's got Nazis! Mobsters and a freakin' Zeppelin! Yeah. About the only thing that concerns me about getting this on the table more often is that it's clearly a longer-playing game that the other Flying Frog games with a listed playing time of 90-180 minutes. It's been my experience that games can easily take twice the listed time with rookies, so that takes it out of the random game night appearance and means it will be better as the featured game for a planned game day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jena revisited -- a battle anniversary session report

Battle of Jena set up


Any day now I expect to get the new game in Worthington's Napoleon's War series, but they've already posted the rules online so I thought I'd take advantage of today's 205th anniversary of the Battle of Jena to see how the changes in the rules affect things.

There are a number of changes and clarifications in the rules listed on the last page of the new rule book, which I appreciate. In most cases the changes are fairly minor or make thing more clear.

One very significant change, however, reduces infantry;s long-range firepower and this had an immediately noticeable affect on today's game. As originally published, Infantry units rolled 3 dice at a range of 1 or 2 hexes, hitting on a 6. Shock Combat increased the effectiveness of infantry to hitting on a 5 or 6 when adjacent, but at a cost of 2 action points instead of the 1 AP cost of regular fire. What this tended to do was encourage infantry units to hang around at 2 hex range and shoot at each other and only risk Shock Combat when a particular position really needed to be taken. This wasn't really very authentic for combat using smoothbore muskets.

Now infantry firing at a range of 2 hexes only rolls ONE die instead of 3, making a long-range firefight a pretty inefficient way to kill units (just one D6 roll for every AP expended, a profligate expenditure of a valuable resource that tends to be in short supply in the game. This encourages infantry to close in and also reduces the risk of the approach march as well.

Heavy combat in the center as the Prussian Guard (black) challenges the French Guard (white) and line (blue) as the rest of the Prussian Army (grey) looks on.

In our replay of Jena we saw this, as both sides brought their infantry in close. My French ended up prevailing because of the fragility of the 2-figure Prussian Line Infantry, but the Prussian Guard (represented by the black figures) was able to go into the teeth of the French position, and while surrounded by French Guard (white figures) and line troops (blue figures) and live long-enough to fight it's way out again.

Overall, the rule change seems to be an improvement, and I'm looking forward to trying some of the new battles.

10 worst games of all time

Reader Rose King lists 10 real howlers here. It's hard to argue that any of them are good games, that's for sure. I remember Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex -- published by a wargame company, no less! Really odd.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Time flies!

I haven't had a chance to do much blogging these past couple of weeks, but it's not because I haven't had some game-related news to report.

I just took over the New London County Board Games meetup up after the original organizer had to step down.

You can check it out here

I've schedule a meetup for next week for Settlers of Catan and on Oct. 22 we will be playing Axis & Allies 1940 Global.

Speaking of Axis & Allies, we're just a week away from getting a couple of cases of the new Surface Action set. more on that later.

Some other notable recent acquisitions include Test of Fire and the new edition of Crusader Rex.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Looks like a second Campaign Book is on the way for Memoir '44!

Days of Wonder's site has a link to order a new campaign book. It says there are 11 different campaigns involved, which is similar tot he number that were in the first campaign book. There's no mention of any "Grand Campaign" rules however and the breadth of campaigns mentioned int he write-up would seem to preclude the kind of links seen in the first book.

This looks like a nice product and it's definitely on my list.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Polarizing

Test of Fire -- action around Henry House Hill


It's not just politics that seem to be becoming more polarized -- my tastes in games are going in two different directions as well.

As I get older I find I'm appreciating games on the far ends of the realism/playability spectrum and losing interest in the much that's in the middle.

On the one hand, I'm really enjoying games such as Test of Fire. It is, by no stretch, a simulation. But it does manage to capture the overall flavor of the Battle of First Bull Run with an elegantly spare set of rules -- practically a Japanese rock garden as far as wargame rules go -- that's also a lot of fun and extremely quick to play (45 minutes to an hour).

And on the other hand, when I really want to understand the "what-ifs" of History I find myself drawn to games such as Command at Sea or Persian Incursion.

The problem is that medium complexity wargames no longer hit a "sweet spot" for me. They're generally too lengthy and work-intensive and yet I've lost faith that the work leads to a significantly more accurate simulation. Some of the newer designs I've come across sometimes seem to do things differently simply for the sake of doing things differently. And some design abstractions seem to be inadequately justified to me. I'm often left wondering why things are done a certain way and the designer doesn't enlighten. There are exceptions, of course, but that's the trend I'm seeing. Now there's no question that a game like Harpoon 4 is a lot of work, but at the end of the day you see what the work is for and its explicit nature makes it easy for you to modify as you see fit. As soon as the designer starts abstracting things, a certain opaqueness descends on the design. Even if you tiker with it, you can't be sure you're having the desired effect on realism. If you add an artillery unit that's missing from the OB are you really making the game more realistic. Maybe the designer already factored it into the strength of another unit -- or maybe you're over-estimating the effect of the unit and the designer was justified in leaving it out.

On the other end, a game like Test of Fire isn't about that sort of thing anyway. It's about providing an entertaining game narrative that captures the overall flavor of the battle without worrying overmuch about any details. And it only takes an hour.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

This is too cool



About 50 or so re-enactors gathered to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon this week.

2011 is, of course the actual 2,500th year since the battle of 490 BC because there's no "Year Zero" in the calendar system we use.

I didn't have the ability to travel to Greece this year, but I did commemorate the anniversary a few weeks ago with an Epic game of Marathon using Commands & Colors -- which the Greeks won, although perhaps not quite so decisively has they did historically.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Test of Fire -- testing, testing




It's ideal when you can open a box with a game that came in the mail and less than 24 hours later see it hit the table, but that happy circumstance came about with Mayfair's new Test of Fire.

Originally this was supposed to some out in time for the 150th anniversary of the battle, but, as such things tend to do in the wargame hobby, the release date slipped a bit and ity just arrived in September. Well, at least it's still the 150th anniversary year.

Test of Fire is an introductory historical wargame by noted euro game designer Martin Wallace. While not his first historical wargame, Wallace is definitely much better known as a euro designer and he's been careful to state that his wargames are not simulations in any way. I think he's being a little too humble, though, because no introductory warggame is going to manage to be much of a simulation and Wallace's games so far have shown a reasonable level of historical fidelity considering their scope. I think they compare very favorably to more traditional wargames. About the only thing Wallace designs definitely avoid it's being tied down to any particular unit or time scale. While units are differentiated by type, as appropriate, they're not labeled in any way. So, while we know that the Red Elite Federal unit in Gdettysburg is the "Iron Brigade," the figure doesn't say that.

Likewise in Test of Fire we don't see any unit identifications. The vast bulk of both armies is formed of infantry units, which seem to represent about 1,000 troops. Each army has two artillery units, which seem to represent nothing more than an aggregatuon of firepower in a sectoir. Both armies historically divided their artillery units up into a number of separate batteries. Each army has a commanding general (or, optionally, two commanding generals for the CSA). The presence of Stuart's cavalry is represented by a card ad the federal horsemen present are ignored altogether.

The mounted mapbaord is divided into areas representing the battlefield at Bull Run. Some area boundaries are marked with a number that shows how many units can be moved acroiss the boundary at once, with the default for unmarked ares being 2. Roads allow 3 units, woods just one. Along the river the values range from 0 to 2.

In addition to their on-board troops, each side has access to its own deck of cards which provide various bonuses and special events.

Game play is straightforward. Each player in his turn rolls a number of D6 (4 for the Union, 3 for the CSA) with the die results controlling which actions the player can take. For every 1 rolled the player can draw a card. For every 2 or 3 rolled an artillery unit can fire at an adjacent area with a 5 or 6 being a "hit." A subsequent roll determines the effect, with a 6 causing damage to a unit while a 1-5 forces a unit to retreat. For every 4 or 5 rolled a player can move one group of units from one area to an adjacent area, subject to the boundary limits. Finally, a 6 allows a player a choice between firing an artillery unit with a general, condcuting a move with units in the same are as a general or drawing a card.

Combat is also very simple and straightforward. Units use move actions to enter an enemy occupied area. As the timing of actions is under player control, more than one move action can be taken before a battle is fought. Infantry units roll 2 dice per unit involved, up to a maximum of 6 dice worth, with the defender firing first. Eacgh 5 or 6 is a hit (4-6 if defending a hill) with a subsequent roll resolving the hit effect: 1-3 is a retreat, 4-6 is damage. Damage flips an infanrty unit or destorys an alaready flipped unit. Artillery and leaders don't take direct part in the combat and have to retreat if left alone in the space with an enemy infantry unit. The attackers has one round of combat to clear the defenders from the space, otherwise the attacking units retreat.

Victory is assessed several possible ways. Most basically, if a side captures the enemy home base (Centerville or Manassas) then it wins, but barring very reckless play this shouldn't happen. When the cards run out, the next time a card would ahve to be drawn then the game ends on the completion of the Confederate turn. If the federals have two of the three starred areas on the Rebel side of Bull Run, then they win, otherwise the Confederates prevail. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, each side has a number of "Rout" cards they can play. each entitles the player to roll 2D6 and if the total is equal two or less than the number of enemy infantry units lost then that side wins. This obviously makes the game potentially very dicey, with a sudden death victory possible as soon as 2 enemy units are lost.

About the most that can be said for this is that's basically what happened historically, and a similar idea is seen in the Decision Games Blue & Gray First Bull Run quad. The game moves very fast, so there will generally be time to pick up and start again if a quick end happens.

The basic situation is familiar, the federal army is heavily weighted to its right flank as it prepares to march around the flank of the rebel army, which is, in turn, strongest on its own right.

Our first game took a bit over an hour, which seems good for a virgin out-of-the-box play. I can see experienced payers cooking through the game in the advertised 45 minutes easy.

Like all of Wallace's wargames, Test of Fire manages to skin the cat in a very different way from the traditional hex-and-counter game while being at least as historical and fun. The situation's historical constraints make this less wide-open than most euros, of course, but players do seem to have several viable approaches besides the strict historical plans.

The MSRP is under $30 so overall I'd rate this as a good value.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Opening Salvos preview -- 8 ships revealed!!


USS Montana

Rich Baker's blog revealed 8 sip images with data cards that will likely be the 8 ships in his Opening Salvos for Set VI -- and an interesting bunch it is, too.

The big boys are the USS Montana, weighing in at 80 points with absolutely monstrous stats and a new version of the Yamato.

For cruisers we have the Sheffield from the Bismarck hunt and an Italian fast light cruiser.

For carriers we have the Japanese Taiho, which was expected and the British Eagle, which was not.

And for support units there's a common LST and a German minesweeper! All good stuff.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Brazil in World War II



It's not well-known, but Brazilian troops saw ground combat in Europe in World War II. As a matter of fact, the Italian campaign was the first in history to include troops from every inhabited continent -- with North American, South American, African, Asian and ANZAC troops as well as Europeans taking part.

Back in the 1980s my first contribution to Strategy & Tactics magaizne was an article about "The Other BEF," referring to the Brazilian Expeditionary Force that fought in Italy. Now, it wasn't exactly a secret to wargamers that Brazil fought in Italy -- there's a counter for the Brazilian Division in Anzio -- but I think my article was the first one in a wargaming publication to go into any detail about it.

My main source was the account of the division's operation written by its commander, a copy of which was in the library of the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill where I was student at the time. I supplemented the account with some American sources as well, especially the IV Corps report. These were what I had available at the time, which was, naturally, less than satisfying.

So I was intrigued when I saw that Osprey was publishing a book on the topic by Brazilian authors which could take advantage of Brazilian accounts. I was relieved to find that my account was correct in general, although I naturally didn't have much of the unit-level detail and battle accounts that the Osprey book features.

The Brazilian's biggest contribution to the war effort was making it's geographical position available to the Allies for air ferry missions to Africa and anti-submarine work against U-boats. It took a lot of time to ready the Brazilian Division for ground combat given the lack of domestic military equipment and experience. Still, the Brazilains arrived at an opportune time for the Italian front, as troop shortages had become acute in that secondary theater. (To the point that a neighboring unit was Task Force 45, a brigade-sized group of anti-aircraft artillerymen pressed into service as infantry!)

The Brazilians had hard-won experience against German troops over the winter but played major role in the final breakout and pursuit across Northern Italy that resulted in the first mass capitulation of Axis troops in Europe. In addition to the Brazilian Division, that country also contributed a squadron of fighter pilots that also served in Italy as well as some support formations.

It's an interesting story and I'm glad it's been told.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gale Force Nine license for Axis & Allies products lapsed.

I don't know if this has been mentioned elsewhere, but I didn't see it at first glance: Gale Force Nine reports that there license for Axis & Allies products has lapsed so they can no longer produce or sell those items.

this means that the vinyl War at Sea map, the tokens and the stands for the ships are all gone. I liked the map, especially, and I'm sorry that's gone. I used the tokens for both AAM and WAS but I believe Litko has tokens that are usable substitutes. I never tried the stands.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Weather effects

As we start to batten down the hatches in preparation for the arrival of Mean Irene, it prmpted some pondering on the effect of weather in wargame -- or more precisely, the effect of extreme weather.

For the most part, until fairly recently in history, any sort of severe weather pretty much brought a halt to military proceedings. It was challenging enough to feed, clothe and move troops during normal times in the ancient era and most of the black powder era, without trying to do it in bad weather. The cases of major battles or campaign fought in extreme weather conditions or notable in part because they were so rare -- such as Washington's crossing of the Delaware.

Often bad weather caused battles to be postponed or even canceled. This all began to change as the Industrial Revolution gained steam and it became easier to supply armies and the general wealth increased. Railroads and steamships reduced the impact of bad weather on movements and fighting through poor campaign seasons and in the face of bad weatehr became more common.

By the 20th century warfare had reached the point where ideas such as "winter quarters" were obsolete and fighting continued year round through the seasons. It also expanded geographically into cold weather climates, jungles and deserts and other extreme locales.

One offshoot of this evolution is that modern-era wargames often have to take weather into account -- whereas it's an exceptional thing in ancient and black powder era games. But there's bad weather and then there's bad weather, and when we are talking about monstrous storms such as Irene, then there's no question of trying to represent tactical combat -- fighting would be impossible. But the time scale covered by most larger scale operational and strategic games doesn't lend itself to dealing with transient events such as hurricanes. A strategic level wargame depicting the entire US east Coast would probably involve turns covering a week or a month or more, whereas the entire hurricane event will be over in a week.

Here and there a game will through in a severe weather rule (Columbia Game's Pacific Victory and typhoons, for example) but generally it's ignored unless it's part of a larger climate. This does mean tha some historically significant storm events (such as the storm that aborted the probable Battle of Newport in the American Revolution) can't get an adequate representation.

Some new design techniques such as card-driven games may provide a way around that, though.



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hauled out an old-timer today



Yes, I hauled out one of my all-time favorite game -- a set of miniatures rules from the 1980s called The Complete Brigadier.

Covering the heart of the black power era, from 1680 to 1880, The Complete Brigadier is a very tactical game ruthlessly focus on the perspective of a brigade-level commander.

My miniatures for this set of rules are from Flaying Pan & Blanket Amalgamated, 20 mm scale American Revolution figures. It just so happened that a couple of decades ago I often had staff duty officer while stationed in Germany. And because we were a nuclear-capable missile unit, we had secret message traffic all night long, so the SDO could not nap. As a consequence I had quite a bit of time on mu hands on a weekly basis and I used it to paint up a few hundred figures. I haven't had that kind of time since.

I won't say that they are well-painted, but they;re passable for wargame purposes.

I like the rules because they're very straightforward and while reasonably complex, they are intuitive. The rules concentrate on formations and orders and are deterministic when it comes to fireing and melee. There are enough modifiers that the outcome of combats is not overly predictable.

I ran a demo of the game at the local game shop today. I commanded a British force comprised of two regular foot battalions, a small converged grenadier battalion, an even smaller squadron of dragoons, a full-sized artillery battery and some Indians. Deployed off to one flank across a stream were three large battalions of Hessians, but unknown to the American player this was just a distraction force. The Hessians didn't know the stream was fordable and would therefore not take part in the attack.

The American player -- experienced with board games and Magic: The Gathering but not historical miniatures -- had a force comprised of a battalion of Continetnal Line, a battalion of militia, small battalions of light infantry and riflemen, a troop of dragoons and a small artillery battery. His missionw as to defend the hill, specifically the mansion near the top.

Because the opposing player was a newbie, a treated this as demo game, without a focus on victory for one side or the other. That said, it was an interesting and well-fought battle.

The Americans basically deployed in two lines of units -- with the first line made up of the militia, the Continentals and the light infantry, while the dragoons, rifles and artillery formed the second line.

For my part I placed the Indians on the far left, with an eye towards having them sweep on a wide flanking move though some woods. On the right I placed the lights and the dragoons, whose mission was to fix the Americans in front of them. In a compact mass in the center I placed the grenadiers and foot, with the artillery lined up in column on the road. I hoped to outflank the main American line with fire support form the guns.

The battle more or less followed the plan, with the inevitable adjustments due to the enemy's vote. On the right the lights advanced into firing range of both the American light infantry and the rifles while the dragoons attracted the attention of the gunners. There ensued a long exchange of fire that the lights and dragoons eventually lost. The good news is that this tied up half the American force for most of the battle, but the bad news was that it was costly.

The American player was not content to passively accept the attack and moved the Continentals and the dragoon troop up to meet the main British attack. The dragoons and the light infantry were pushed back by the advancing British foot units and as the game ended due to time on Turn 10 the British grenadiers and the Buffs were about to take the house. The American dragoons with the rebel general attached were last seen sabering the fleeing remnants of the other British foot unit but were out of the battle. Likewise the Continentals could not resist the opportunity to charge the British guns just as they were about to unlimber -- chasing them back and eventually capturing the whole lot. This also, however, removed the only regular formed Ameircan unit fromt he critical point.

Left holding the bag were the hapless militia, who were hit on both flanks. On one side was the Buffs, while on the other side were the Indians, who had completed their sweeping move and were now in the American rear area. The militia dissolved in a quick rout.

Overall, with two turns left, the Americans had no formed troops left in position to contest the objective, but the game ended due to time before the final moves could be made.

Still, it was a hard-fought battle, with the British side suffering more heavily. Of the American units the Continentals, the light infantry and the artillery were all unscathed., while the rifles had 9 of 12 left and the dragoons 5 of 6 figures left. Only the militia unit was completely destroyed.

On the British side, in contrast, the light infantry, dragoons on one foot unit had all routed off the field and the artillery battery were prisoners! The grenadiers had 10of 12 left while the Buffs had 22 of 24 figures left. Only the Indians had avoided loss.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Perhaps I was too hard on Archibald

My first impression of the Archibald, the human cannonball hero in Invasion From Outr Space was that he was a hard hero to use effectively. His talent of "Fire Me!" would likely see him stuck in the middle of a bunch of angry Martians every time it was used and he'd die a quick death without accomplishing much.

Well, he proved me wrong Friday at a game session of the Central Connecticut Wargamers.

We were playing a four-player scenario of Abduction. Two opposing players handled the Martians, while Mark Kalina had Angelica the bearded lady and R.J. Flanagan, the ringmaster. I started with Lucrezia the contortionist and Cassidy the trick shooter.

The first half of the game went passably well for the heroes, as the novice Martian players had some trouble marshaling their resources effectively and the initial board configuration was favorable to the heroes with four of the six allies in a clump on the Ferris Wheel/Trapeze Tent board. The Purple Martian player also had early bad luck in getting his troops beamed down.

Eventually the Martians started to get their act together and the heroes became hard-pressed. Bosley the elephant and Jimmy the stable boy were off by themselves and picked off by the Martians, although Cassidy did pick off a few Martians headed for Jimmy. Soon it became clear that the Heroes had to concentrate their forces to protect the clump, though, as the Martians gathered a large force, including the Zard beast, nearby.

Despite some heroism that saw Lucrezia defeat the Zard Beast in hand-to-hand combat and blast a full back of Martians with a bomb, overwhelming Martian numbers finally told. A Saucer blast took out poor Cassidy. While this brought in Jo Jo, the dancing bear was too far away to be an immediate help. And immediate help was what the Heroes needed as Lucrezia finally fell to an assault by a full Martian pack led by the newly arrived Martian Leader. The full back was stacked with two of the remaining allies (the twins and Doc Mesmer) and was just two squares (one move by the Martian Leader pack) from a saucer. Neither Angelica nor RJ was in a position to intervene. It was basically game over on the next Martian move barring some amazing turn of luck -- as the Martian players noted gloatingly.

Well, that amazing luck arrived in the form of Archibald, who arrived nearby. He rolled just enough to movement to make it to the cannon that's next tot he trapeze tent, climbed in and fired himself through the tent (oh, and that part of it was on fire) to land on top of the Martian leader's pack. Bam! All three regular Martians were killed and the Leader was wounded -- and Archibald promptly boxed him into oblivion as well. RJ and Angelica also had good turns knocking off Martians and suddenly the worm had turned.

The Martian regrouped and brought in a new wave and redirected their efforts against the Ferris Wheel, where Texas Jack and the Fuji Merman were hiding out. JoJo came to the rescue here, battling back the Martians, for a few turns. Angelica and RJ, who were guarding the twins and Mesmer, were trapped by fire covering both exits of the Trapeze Tent at a critical moment, and suddenly it looked like Jo Jo was about to be overwhelmed by a new Martian Leader-led full pack. Archibald rolled up a Power Token and dashed to another nearby cannon. Again he fired himself through the Ferris Wheel and right into the Martian Leader's pack. Bam! Three dead regular Martians and a wounded Martian Leader were the result. And once again Archibald boxed the dazed Martian Leader out!

Now time was running out for the Martians -- with just a couple of turns left they couldn't abduct allies in time so they had to concentrate on killing heroes instead. Poor Archibald's number came up and the big galoot of a Hero fell in a barrage of ray gun fire. Hannah the fire breather rushed onto the scene, but she was on the other side of the board and there simply wasn't time for her to reach the action.

It came down to a final turn's assault on Jo Jo, the dancing bear, by five Martians, including a full pack in the bear's square. The ray gun blasts left Jo Jo hanging on by a thread -- one more wound and the Martians would win! In a card-enhanced 4-die to 2-die fight JoJo rolled a 6 and with the bear's talent and a power token to boost it to a seven and the game was saved. (In the Hero turn JoJo would simply step back out of range so there wouldn't be a fight in the Hero turn.)

While they didn't survive, Lucrezia and, especially, Archibald were clearly the heroes of the fight. Archibald took out two Martian leaders and two full packs and several other Martians as well. Lucrezia killed the Zard beast and a full pack as well as a couple of other stray Martians. Cassidy did quite a bit of damage before she fell as well, taking out pairs of Martians three or four times. Jo Jo was also devastating. Angelica was effective when she finally got into the fight, but she had a lot of low movement rolls. RJ Flanagan did his thing, although he's not much of a fighter. Hannah is normally a powerful Hero, but she showed up on the next-to-last turn this time and played no part in the outcome.

Everyone agreed that it was a highly entertaining story -- and that the Martians had the game in the bag until Archibald's timely appearance and amazing heroics. It was very B-movie cinematic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

No new OGRE until at least (?!) 2012

1977 OGRE


Wow, this news from Steve Jackson is a real bummer.

Jackson:

I haven't done a good enough job recently of communicating the status of Ogre 6th Edition. The status is: Still planned, still the super-fancy as per the prototypes you can see on that page (and which I expect will show up in the display case at PAX in a couple of weeks) . . .

And definitely still not on track for 2011. I warned everyone in May that it might not happen in 2011, and now I can say it definitely won't. I knew that at the end of June, before I took July off, and I should have shared.

He goes on to note that he gets more mail about this project than any other one -- to say this is highly anticipated would be an understatement.

An undercurrent to Jackson's announced plans is a hint that this may be the last edition of Ogre, ever. The base game has been out of print for a very long time despite a high level of demand, so clearly demand is not the only factor at play here.

I wonder if there isn;t some emotional attachment involved as well. Ogre was Jackson's first design -- and it was/is a big hit. It started out as a very inexpensive, bare-bones wargame and it looks like it may go out in a super deluxe version that could fairly be described as a collector's edition. It's supposed to include most of the content from GEV and Shcokwave as well, which pretty much guarantees there will not be any expansion of follow-up products. He said that there will be just the one print run and he'll let the after market fight over it from then on.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Cute cooperative game -- Forbidden Island



Tried out a recent cooperative game called Forbidden Island at the local game shop and liked it enough that I brought it home, where it proved to be a hit with the kids as well.

The basic idea is a party of advaneturers searching for clues on a slowly sinking island that will lead them to four treasures -- which they have to find and take off the island.

The components in the Gamewright edition are nice. Everything comes in a tin with a well-designed plastic insert, There's a small, full-color rule book, a cardboard water level tarck with a plastic slider, six wooden pawns to represent the adventurers, four failry large palstic miniatures representing the four treasures, 24 double-sided cardboard tiles to represent the island and a deck of 58 cards. 24 of those are "flood cards" one for each isand tile adn six are character cards, one for each pawn. the remaining 28 cards make up the treasure deck.

The game starts by randomly laying out the island tiles in 6 rows of 2, 4, 6, 6, 4 and 2 tiles each, forming a rough diamond shape. Players randomly pick a character from the six available, each of which has a special ability and a specific starting tile.

Six cards from the flood deck are selected, flipping the named tiles to their flooded tile. If a flooded tile gets flooded again, it "sinks into the abyss" and is removed from the game, along with it's card.

On a player's turn he can take three actions with his pawn. The available options are to move to an adjacent tile, but not diagonally, to "shore up" and adjacent tile by flipping a flooded tile back to its dry side, give a treasure card to anotehr player on the same tile or "capture a Treasure" by turning in four cards that match the treasure on one of two tiles that bear the image of that treasure. Players can repeat the same action, so a player could move three tiles, flip three tiles or trade three cards or any combination of those.

After a player has completed all actions he draws two cards from the treasure deck. Most of these are simple treasure cards, five for each treasure figurine. They have no game effect aside from needing to discard four of them while on an appropriate tile to claim the treasure. There are two helpful treasure cards -- sandbags, which allow the flipping of a flooded tile anywhere on the board without costing an action and Helicopter Lift, which allows moving any or all pawns from one tile to any other tile. You also need a Helicopter Lift at the end of the game to win. After gathering all four figurines, the explorers much gather at the helicopter landing zone called tile (Fool's Landing) and leave via the play of a Helicopter Lift card. There are also three Water Rises cards, which move the water mater up one tick on the meter.

Complicating this is the last part of a player's turn, where he draws Flood Cards to see which tiles get flipped or sink into the abyss. The number of cards drawn depends on the current state of the water meter, but ranges from 2 to 5 per player turn. As a tile that gets flipped twice disappears the island can rapidly turn into a tough place to move around. No dawdling!

The difficulty level of the game is adjusted by changing the starting level of the water meter. At Novice or Normal levels the Flood Card draw starts at 2, while at the Elite and Legendary levels it starts at 3.

The two plays today were at Novice Level and the players won each time, but they caught some lucky breaks in the set up and I can see how it would get tougher at the more difficult levels.

Playing time is rated at about 30 minutes and that seems about right, which probably puts it in the category of a supplementary game for a night's entertainment, rather than the main course. It also works a s a kid's game.

It's a good value for the money as well. I paid just $20 for my copy at the game store and I've seen it online for less.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Memoir '44 Grand Campaign finished

Finished my first Grand Campaign from the Campaign book against Game Store Tony. It was a very near run thing, but Tony's Germans managed to prevail with a pretty convincing 6-3 win in the final game. This game him a 2 point Major Victory in the campaign and a 4-2 overall Grand Campaign victory.

It all did come down to the last game, though and had the medal count been reversed the Allies would have won a Minor campaign victory, worth 1 point, and therefore edged out a 3-2 Grand Campaign win. Nicely balanced.

Next we're moving on to the Russian front for a Grand Campaign of Barbarossa. Unlike the Normandy Campaign set up, where the outcomes of different battles would direct the Grand Campaign down different Campaign paths, in the Barbarossa Grand Campaign there are just some small variations among the battles played, but all three Campaigns get played -- one each for Army Group North, Center and South. The twist is that you play the first half of all three Campaigns first and then go back and play the send half of the campaigns. This seems like it will make it hard to gauge overall progress toward victory in the early going.

The battles will also be interesting. All will be played with the Red Army Commissar rule, which basically forces the Soviet player to play his command cards a turn behind the action. He plays his command card under the Commissar and then executes it the next turn (with certain exceptions such as Ambush and Counterattack). Game Store Tony has volunteered to play the Soviet side for this campaign.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A few more thoughts on Invasion From Outer Space



I think it's worth pointing out that Invasion, while a skirmish-level "wargame," doesn't get into any nitty gritty details about what your character is doing in the sens of tracking postures, facing or the like. You character is simply in a space, carrying one or two items. About the only detail that's tracked is whether it's a 2-handed item, in which case you can just carry one. This is much less detail than, for example, Munchkin.

This opens up the possibility for some house rules if you want to create a stronger narrative for the game, at the cost of slowing it down. Still, I could see importing some rules from more detailed skirmish-level games without too much trouble. This would work especially well if you have just one hero per player. If there's a drawback to the game it is that it might be too simple for the more hard-core gamer types if they're only handling one character.

I also think that inexperienced hero teams should probably be given an extra "life" or two, as the learning curve is really quite steep. In a game the other night the Heroes got off to a real strong start in am "Invasion" scenario, killing 16 Martians without a loss -- and then they lost two heroes in the same turn and were done. Perhaps a group with no experienced players should be given two extra heroes in the Invasion scenario (and they really have no business playing any of the other scenarios at all). If a set of Heroes has half or more inexperienced players they should get one extra hero life. In this case I'd define an inexperienced player as someone who has never played, has only played the Invasion scenario or hasn't played in a year or more.

As I mentioned, there are two scenarios (Blow 'em Out of the Sky and Unleashed) that are really for experienced players only and I don't think they can afford to have any inexperienced players to have a chance, but should they insist they probably should also get extra chances with dead heroes.

Another balancing mechanic would be to give players an extra hero card or two, but I think more replacement heroes is probably more helpful. Using the cards properly requires some undertsanding of the game and probably won't help a newbie much, while being able to survive a run of bad luck that leaves your hero dead is the sort of break a newbie can use.