Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wings of War: Session and casualty report

One of the pitfalls of a public gaming day is the risk of mishaps, and so it was on a fine July afternoon that my Werner Voss Albatros D.III met its end in its maiden flight. Sigh.

The day's inaugural battle at the redoubtable Arkham Asylum was a small version of my "Lafyatte, We Are Here' scenario. On the Allied side were a rocket-armed Nieuport 16 and a Nieuport 17, both from the Lafyatte Escadrille. On the German side was the above-mentioned Albatros, defending a Balloon with the help of three ground-based machine-gun nests.

As the balloon-busting mission is inherently challenging, I took the two Nieuprots while a rookie player (one of the Magic: The Gathering crowd at Arkham Asylum) took the Albatros.

It was an entertaining battle, as the rookie flew decently enough and I, too, am really a rookie, having just a few game under my belt as well. I'm pretty familiar with the rules, but like a newbie out of flight school I still need some seasoning in battle. In any case I was able to get qute a few shots on the balloon, but not enough to down it. My planes took a few hits, but neither was in danger of going down, barring an unlucky hit. I hadn't been tracking turns, but my guess is that were were close to or slightly past the 12-turn stand when the German player announced this would have to be his last turn. Ah, if only we'd just ended it there. While willing enough, the rookie was rather obviously much more comfortable rifling through cards than handling miniatures gently and there had already been a few close calls when somehow his hand brushed across the table and the Albatros went flying (I didn't see the move). Instinctively he did the wrong thing and stepped back and there was quite a loud crunch as Voss' plane became a compete wreck.

He gallantly offered twice to pay for the model, but I refused. I had invited him to play, after all, and frankly, I blamed myself because I had allowed the model to be too close to the table edge -- it was actually off of the playing mat and should have been replaced with the card, hindsight (and my future practice) tells.

There was a break in the action and when we resumed I ran through a couple of solitaire games with Frank Luke alone in his SPAD 13 against the balloon and its machine guns. The first mssision ended in the first shot as the balloon blew up! Fun, but not really very instructive. So I played through again and managed to down the balloon in just under the 12 turns on the second play through. This is an indication of how challenging the balloon busting mission is -- even unopposed it can be tough.

At left, Frank Luke lines up for a shot at the balloon.

A new rookie pilot, intrigued by the balloon busting (and thankfully much more adept with his hands) took up the challenge of defending the balloon. This time it was Luke and Rickenbacker against a Fokker D.VII. I gave Luke incendiary bullets and made him a bullet-checker, so he'd have less change to jam.

The new rookie, while new to Wings of War, was another experienced Magic player and also has played a few of the other wargames I've brought to the store on occasion. While not a wargamer, he's a smart dude and a quick learner. And, as I found out, the Fokker D.VII is areal nasty foe. Indeed, this was the very first time I'd seen it on the board nad it's shockingly maneuverable. It has several maneuvers that I haven't seen available to any other plane, as matter of fact.

Still, things got off to a decent start. While the Fokker nicked Luke on the way in, he and Captain Eddie were able to get multiple shots on the balloon and start to whittle it down. The ground fire wasn't too bad . I was able to wiggle Luke in through a gap in the anti-aircraft ring and Rickenbacker's direct challenge to a gun resulted in a couple of "0" damage draws. So far so good.

At right, the Fokker just misses a shot at Luke.

Meanwhile the Fokker was able to draw a bead on Rickenbacker for a close range shot. The first card drawn was another "0" but the second was the dreaded explosion! Captain Eddie was gone, just like that. Naturally this cahnged the tnor of the fight considerably. Luke doggedly made passes at the balloon, which stubbornly refused to go down, despite being set on fire a couple of time. Luke managed a couple of passing shots on the Fokker as well, including a few nicely lined up on the tail. (After the battle the German player revealed that all the Fokker hits were "0" or "1." ) Finally Luke scored with an "explosion" card and the balloon was down -- but Luke himself got caught up in the blast and his battered SPAD 13 went down as well. The Fokker was also within the blast zone, but survived with a total of 11 hits.

The nice thing about Wings of War is that it's easy to pick up, and I plan to host another round of battles in a couple of weeks --although with a little more care to prevent real casualties .

The balloons are tough to take out -- I think next time I'll let the Germans try their hand at it. The Fokker D.VII was a shock. It's clearly far better than a SPAD 13. I'll have to throw a Snipe into the mix next time I use those.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Losing faith

Yep, I'm beginning to lose faith that the official published "historical" scenarios got play tested at all.

Our latest challenge to the faith involved one of the two scenarios that came with the North Africa 1940-1943 Map Guide: Operation Battleaxe.

Now, it looked to be a promising scenario as far as entertainment went, with a grand total of 17 AFV between the two sides and three maps to fight over, but even as I collected the tanks needed for the scenario I had my doubts about the German chances.

While, from a point value perspective, the Germans had an edge, 125 points to 100, but the British had Matildas! I strongly suspected that this would be the key fact about the order of battle. As has been my practice, I adjusted the order of battle to reflect that more historically accurate pieces have become available since the scenario was published -- in this case I substituted two DAK infantry men for the listed Wehrmacht Veteran Infantryman units listed. I didn't adjust the British OBeven though the Germans were down 2 points because I didn't think the difference was enough to warrant it. As events played out the differences between the units would not have mattered.

The first game of the match I took the British. The German objective was to either capture the town or have three units on the road at the end of any turn. I judged that the town victory condition was likely to be moot, because if the Germans were strong enough to take the town against resistance then they'd undoubtedly be strong enough to have three units on the road.

So I placed two riflemen in the town to prevent the Germans from simply waltzing in, while the 2-pounder anti-tank gun and the third rifleman prepared to occupy the small knoll southwest of the town. The Matilda troop set up near the town while the Crusader troop was to the East. My basic battle plan was to rush the Crusaders forward to give the Germans pause, but avoid a decisive engagement with them until the Matildas came up. The ATG was going to backstop the defense against any leakers. The Germans set up in line abreast across the bottom south end of of the map, with the tanks on the right.

The ensuing battle went more or less according to plan. The Crusaders did rush forth. The Germans advanced cautiously in the face of a couple of Overwatch markers and soon enough the Matilda troop was up. For the next several turns there was parry and thrust, probe and dance -- with most of the shooting on both sides at long range. The Germans were getting the worse of it, however, generally losing a vehicle a turn. Finally, with the clock running out the fastest German survivors, a halftrack bearing an infantry unit and the armored car, made a dash for the road along the east edge of the map. The British were so lightly prssed that I had been able to reinforce the backstop ATG with wo Crusaders and between them they were able to shoot up the attack. Total British losses were a Crusader destroyed and one Matilda damaged. The Gemrans lost everything except for one Panzer III and a couple of Panzer IVs.

The flip side match went much the same. The British setup was similar, except that the Matlidas and Crsuades were interspersed. I palced the light Germans units on the left, intending on them skulking about in the Wadi while the tanks won their fight. The Panzer IVs and IIIs set up in a group on the right. I planned to advance using the cover of the hill complex on the right side of the map and some strategic placement of smoke from the Panzer IIIs.

Things went more or less by plan, although without success. The smoke helped a nit, but the Overwatch rule still cost the Germans a bit and in the end they still came out the worst in the tank dogfight that developed around the small brush area on the east side of the center map. British losses were somewhat heavier than the first game, with three of the four Crusaders destroyed and the fourth one damaged. With similar losses on the German side, but everything still came down to a last turn rush by German survivors (A Panzer IV, the armored car and a halftrack carrying an infantryman). The British only needed to get one of them to prevent the win and the 2-pounder was up to the task, blowing up the halftrack -- And the three Matildas still hadn't taken their shots.

The Matildas are simply too tough to handle, while the 2 pounder gun on all the British armor and the ATG is adequate against the German armor at battle ranges. The Panzer IIIs and the Crusaders are an even match. While the smoke is useful, it's no more so than the Vanguard special ability which lets the British advance far enough to put pressure on the Germans from the first game turn.

So far I haven't been very impressed with the historical scenarios offered, which is too bad, because they provide a chance to play a different style of game than the straightforward duel of a competitive point-based scenario. Given the obvious mismatches so far, I suspect that there was little play testing done.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It's better to be lucky than good

After a long dry spell, Game Store Tony and I were able to resume our Civil War series of Battle Cry (150th anniversary edition) games.

As usual, he was the Confederates while I took the Union force as we squared off at Oak Grove, Virginia. This was a skirmish just before the beginning of the Seven Days battle. The USA forces were 10 infantry units and three artillery under three generals. (A cavalry unit later appeared as a reinforcement by card play). The CSA side was identical in starting strength. The Federals under Hooker had a hand size of 4 command cards and moved first. The Rebels, under Huger, had a five card hand. d

The biggest handicap for the Federal side is it's small hand of just 4 command cards. The awkward thing about the 4-card hand is that it can feel like a curse if you get a bunch of good cards. You'd like to be able to hold onto them to play at an opportune moment, but you really have to keep cards churning through your hand or you risk being stuck with a dead hand and unable to really act at all for a few turns.

As it so happened, in our game I was blessed with a long string of very useful cards such as a Battle Cry, a Call For Reinforcements, three Leadership, a Bombardment and some others and was not forced to play them too inefficiently. Helping out as well were the dice, which seemed unusually deadly for me in the early going.

The basic outline of the engagement were moderate advances by Robinson's and Grover's brigades on the Union left and center, respectively, while Sickles made a more aggressive push on the right. This was exactly the opposite of the historical result, which saw Sickles being held up while the other Union brigades progressed. Every attempt by the Rebels to advance, in contrast, seemed to wither in the face of heavy fire.

By the late game, although each side was tied at 4 flags apiece, this was misleading because the Confederates had a whole slew of weakened 1- and 2-figure infantry brigades while most of the Union troops were at full strength. The final CSA losses came at the hands of Robinson's infantry on the left and a reinforcing cavalry unit under Sickles on the Union right for a final score of 6-4.

Time wise it was a longer than usual battle, taking more than an hour to play

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Whites of Their Eyes

The redoubtable Mark K. and I had a great game day -- as is so often the case we pretty much traded wins all day long -- split matches of Commands & Colors: Ancients and Hold The Line, he notched a convincing win of Washington's Warm while I eked out an unconvincing win in Richard III. He managed to break the tie with a win in Martian Fluxx though ... .

The Hold the Line game was actually a scenario from Clash for a Continent, the Battle of Bunker Hill. Now, even by the loose standards of HTL this Bunker Hill wasn't very Bunker Hill-like. There's not much resemblance between the order of battle and the layout of the ground between the scenario and the actual event, except in the very broadest sense of some British troops making a frontal assault on a hill held by Americans.

The scenario features some "regular" Americans, some "Light Infantry" and a few cannons!! backed up by some militia along a line of hills and a rail fence. This is quite kind to the American quality level and yet basically ignores the field fortifications the Americans erected. The famous reboudt is nowhere to be seen, for example. The British force seems reasonable, with some elites, some regulars and some light infantry. It appears to me that the scenario isn't meant to represent the entire battle, but is meant to depict the final British assault alone.

For the first game I took the Americans while Mark commanded the British. He endeavored to make his main effort on his left against the right corner of the American ridge, which he managed to take, albeit at some considerable loss. My survivors fell back towards the left. I had meanwhile redeployed the artillery from the American fence to the ridge -- a move that Mark considered ill-advised. While the cannons definitely beefed up the firepower of the main line, it opened up the possibility for a dash for the victory point hexes by the British left flank Light Infantry. Decent shooting at the last moment by a couple of American militia units (taking advantage of flanking fire) cut down the British lights as they crossed the fence -- but it was a very near-run thing indeed and one bad roll would have given the Mark the win. As it turned out, though, the failure of the Lights left the British facing a tough situation and the Americans were able to get the kill they needed for a 6-6 win. (The Briitsh needed 7 VPs to win, the Americans just 6)

When it was my turn with the British I decided to hit the other corner of the American hill line and was able to break into the American line at relatively less cost. At that point I had a choice between turning toward the Victory Point area behind the fence OR trying to roll up the Americans in the other direction. In retrospect, I made the wrong choice. I tried a push for the lucrative VP areas, but Mark had retained the artillery and the high quality infantry on that flank and my British troops did not have the necessary edge to prevail. Had I gone the other way I would have had a numerical and quality edge and that flank was within supporting distance by the British reserves. Instead I "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory" and the game ended with another 6-6 American win.

Overall it seems like a good balanced scenario -- it's just not very authentic, even considering the abstractness of the game.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A little better today

Played a game f Battle Cry at the local store today against one of the game store denizens I've played before. He's generally a Magic: The Gathering player but has played BC before. We played the Oak Grove scenario and overall the game went very well for my side (the CSA) as he was never able to coordinate a sustained drive while I happened to pull a whole bunch of Right Flank cards and was therefore able to launch a multi-turn, multi-unit drive that mostly cleared that side. the final flag score was 6-2 for me.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Not a good showing by me

Played a double of Axis & Allies Miniatures today at the local game shop and got schooled a bit.

We were playing the "Ridge Too Far" scenario from the Axis & Allies Extended rules.

As has been my custom, I modified the printed scenario slightly in order to account for units that have become available since the scenario was printed. In this case the changes were quite minor. I substituted the now-available MG 34 for the scenario's MG-42 because the scenario is set in July 1941, before the service date for the MG-42. In order to balance off the 2-point reduction in the German force's point total I substituted two Soviet Conscript infantry for two of the Moison-Nagants in the printed scenario.

The only other change was purely cosmetic, I proxied a regular Panzer IVD model for the Elite Pz IVD in the scenario while using the older version's stat card.

The map was No. 7 of the larger 3-inch sized series. The main features were five hexes of hills running from north to south just West of the middle of the map. A village was just east of that and a 4-hex patch of woods was northeast of the village. A small pond and some other trees rounded out the terrain. The five hill hexes were the objectives to be held by Turn 6. The Soviet force could set up on the hills, but any units that did so were disrupted. The rest of the Soviets set up within five hexes of the east edge, which meant they could just reach the village. The Germans could start with two infiltrators in the 4-hex patch of wood to the northeast of the town, while the rest of the German task force entered from the west ion Turn 1.

The Soviet force comprised one T-34/76 (real nasty in 1941!) a BT-7, a Commissar, a sniper, an ATR, an SMG squad, a grenadier squad, three Moison-Nagant squads and two conscript squads.

The attacking German force was one SS leader, an SS stormtrooper squad, three Kar 98 squads, one light mortar, one MG-43 team, one elite Pz IV tank and two Pz IIID tanks.

I took the Germans first. I put the MG-34 and the light mortar in the woods where they didn't accomplish much. The MG team was able to disprupt the BT-7 a couple of times but the light mortar died right off. I tired a frontal attack on the 3-hex ridge, whcih the Soviets had kinldy filed with troops (to be disrupted) with a supporting effort through some woods on the north side with the rest of the German foot troops. The Soviets took heavy losses, but the darn ATR got a lucky shot and damaged the elite Pz IV! I compounded the error by pushing one of the Pz III too aggressively onto the ridge where it was close assaulted to death by Soviet infantry.

By Turn 5 the Gernan attack was wrecked, with all three tanks and the majority of the foot troops gone. While the Soviets had taken some serious losses among their infantry, they still had both tanks undamaged and we called the game on account of hopelessness.

On the flip side I did better. I used the "Overwatch" rule for the first time extensively and the threat from the T-34, in particular, really constricted German movement over the first half of the game. The Germans were, however, able to pincer the two Soviet units holding the northern two hillocks (grenadier and SMG) between the MG 34 team and the SS stormtrooper from the woods and the German main body from the west.

My dice were cold in both games, but in the first game I made enough mistakes that I couldn't fairly blame the dice. In the second game, however, the Soviet shooting was abysmal, with multiple fusillades of fire unable to gun down exposed German infantry in the open and missing a Pz III in the open as well. Only the overwhelming firepower of the T-34 was able to score a kill on one Pz III. Gemran return fire was able to disrupt and damage both Soviet tanks eventually, despite being in cover and the Germans edged to a win, with control of two hills compared to control of one for the Soviets.

Overall a disappointing outing because I didn't feel like I put forth my best efforts, especially in the first game. It does appear to be a well-balanced and fair scenario.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy July 4th!!

Today was game day, but not board games. I spent the day on a trip to Fenway Park.

Our Red Sox fell short against the Toronto Blue Jays, but they gave it a good shot at 9-7 after a real shaky start down 7-0 after 3 innings!

It's my first trip to Femway in years and actually my first trip back to Boston in quite a while. The changes never cease to amaze me. I really loved Bosto while I was in college, but the Boston of the mid-1970s was definitely a much dingier place than the city of 2011!

We arrived early enough to take a sightseeing stroll down to Copley Square. Interestingly there was a new statue monument on Commonwealth Avenue. Dedicated in 2003, the Boston Women's Memorial features life-sized bronze statues of Abigail Adams, Phyllis Wheatley and Lucy Stone.

Boston's full of history, and it's not done adding to it!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Conquest of Nerath -- Yep, it's D&D meets A&A

When I saw the promotional materials for the new Wizards of the Coast game Conquest of Nerath my first thought was "looks like Dungeons & Dragons meets Axis & Allies."

Well, first impressions aren't always wrong, after all, and saying Nerath is D&D meets A&A turns out to be a quite fair shorthand description.

It is not fair to say that the Dungeons and Dragons theme has just been slapped on to Axis & Allies, however. It's more accurate to say that the underlying game engine driving A&A has been repurposed to explore new strategic situations ans tactical combinations. A lot will seem familiar to veeram A&A players, but a dragon, for example, is not just a relabeled heavy bomber, but has its own unique tactical interactions.

The stargeic situtaion is completely different, of course, Unconstrained by historical facts or actual geography, the world of Nerath features much more evenly matched combatants. While each "nation" has the same force pool to draw from, each also has a unique deck of cards that provide a different "flavor" for each.

Combat is also unique and provides a D&D flavor by using different polyhedral dice for each kind of troop. The "hit" number is always 6+, but a lowly foot soldier rolls a D6 and therefore has just a 1 in 6 chance of a hit while a fighter rolls a D10 and therefore have a 5 in 10 chance of a hit.

The four nations each have a home area in a corner of the board, but they also have forward outposts in enemy territory. The central island has territory from all four nations on it, so conflict will be immediate.

One part of Conquest of Nerath that has no analog in Axis in Allies is the dungeons. Scattered across the board are dungeon spaces. Each is guarded by one or two hidden monsters that can only be attacked by two types of player units termed heroes: wizards and fighters. Players attack the space with a party of wizards and fighters and fight a battle against the guards. If the guards are defeated then the player can draw a treasure cards. These generally have powerful game effects and provide victory points as well.

Victory in the game is determined by victory points. Conquering an enemy home territory is worth one VP< capturing the enemy capital is worth 5 VP and most treasure cards provide VP as well, usually one or two each. The game can be played as a four-way free-for-all or as two alliances. Game lengths can be varied by setting different levels of victory pints needed.

There's a lot going on in this game, but based on my first play I noticed that the interrelationships between the units ny not be what an A&A player might expect. For example, the "foot soldiers" each side has are not as useful as their A&A analog of infantry. While A&A infantry is more powerful on defense, Nerath foot soldiers are equally worthless on attack and defense. While a fighter only costs twice as much as a foot soldier he is five times more likely to hit, moves twice as fast, can explore dungeons and can fight at sea aboard a ship. While a dragon costs five times as much as a foot soldier, it flies 3 areas each time it moves and it moves twice per turn,it rolls a D20 in its attack, and it takes 2 hits to destroy. The end result is that infantry will be much less common in this game than is typical in A&A, I expect.

A final word on component quality. Everything is the typical high-quality presentation we've seen with WOTC products. Nice cards, well-sculpted miniatures, thick counters, etc. Players may want to beef up the number of dice -- the plethora of dice sizes (D6,D8,D10,D12, D20) means that there aren't that many of each type and as an A&A-0style game you know you'll be throwing fistfuls. And there's just one player aid card summarizing the build costs and combat capabilities of the units. You'll want to make copies. This was not a good decision and is really inexplicbale, as Axis & Allies games have always included such cards for every player's reference during play or put the information on the boards.

Overall, though, a nice product and the table consensus was that this will see a lot of table time.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Slapshot arrives

Well, a quick first impression is that Slapshot isn't really a silly card game at all -- at least not in the same way as Munchkin or or Fluxx. The only thing silly are the names of the "players" (admittedly, those are truly silly: Moby Stick, Friar Puck and Snow Balls for example).

But the game, itself, is a Knizia-like hand-management card game and there's clearly some room for skill. It reminds me a little of Battle Line -- one could call it a sort of chaotic, multi-player Battle Line. The basic idea is the same, where players compare the opposing values of their cards with the higher total generally winning, but with some exceptions.

I'll have to try it a few times but it seems to have potential.

I should mention what's in the game.

First off, it comes in a smaller version of the standard Columbia slipcase style box, which means it comprises a black card-board inner box and a light card-board outer sleeve. So far as I know, this is new packaging for Columbia, but it could obviously be used for other smaller products. It's similar in size to the plastic VHS style box previously used for Wizard Kings and Victory expansions and it's possible this replaces those.

Inside the box are the rules, just four 5- by 8-inch pages, one of which is taken up the player roster. There's an 8.5 by 11-inch folded playing board and a plastic card tray with three bays. Six ordinary Columbia wooden blocks serve as player scoring tokens.

Finally there are the 54 player cards. I don't know how these compare to the Avalon Hill version, because I never owned it, but the cards are playing-card quality (although not expensive playing card quality).

Playing card games generally seem a bit over-packaged to me, because generally the heart of the game is just a deck of cards and rules and the other components are really ancillary. The larger box really seems just to primarily designed to win shelf space and justify a higher purchase price. That said, the presentation is nice and the overall price is still pretty much on the low side for what's available these days.