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.