Monday, December 2, 2013

Designer Edition OGRE user review

Up until now most of the reviews posted online have concentrated on the massive physical size of the Designer Edition OGRE package. There's no doubt it is enormous. Words really can't do it justice. Even the videos don't. Until you actually have it in hand, you really quite tell how huge it is.

Yes, the $2.95 OGRE sure grew up. (Well, except for the $2.95 Pocket OGRE!), but is there enough game in there to justify the hype?

First, I think it's fair to note that, while billed as the 6th Edition of OGRE, the Designer Edition is a lot more than OGRE. In fact, not even counting all the special counter sheets that were created for the Kickstarter, the basic Designer's Edition includes every single other OGRE product that's been published except for GURPS Ogre. There are PDF Downloads of The OGRE Book, OGRE Scenario Book 1 and OGRE Miniatures. It includes all the units, scenarios and maps from G.E.V. and Shockwave. Many of these items have been out of print for years and hard to get.

So DE OGRE is really DE Ogre/G.E.V./Shockwave/OGRE Miniatures PLUS.

How does it play? Well, OGRE is, at heart, a very basic 1970s style hex-and-counter wargame. It has a IGO-HUGO turn sequence, a CRT, Hexes, a Terrain Effects Chart and all the other accoutrements of your typical 1970s wargame. Steven Jackson made no concessions to advances in the state of the art of wargame design over the last 30 or so years. There are so interactive player phases. No card-driven mechanics. All the dice are D6.

While a monster in size, this is not a "Monster Game" that will take hours to play. Even the more involved scenarios are well within the typical hour or two expected for modern tastes. One of the reasons why Ogre has aged relatively well is that the design anticipated many of the trends we see in today's games. It's highly customizable, plays quickly and has streamlined mechanics.

While the basic OGRE scenario sees one of the massive cyber-tanks facing an array of conventional forces, the other scenarios included in DE provide a nice mix of battles and objectives, many not even including Ogres.

The 1970s saw tactical combat games fall into two general presentation styles that have endured through the subsequent years.

On the one hand are tactical games that feature set scenarios with mostly predetermined forces, often with specific set up locations. Panzerblitz was this type of game, as was Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader. Recent examples of this type include Borg's Commands & Colors games, Tide of Iron and the various Lock N Load series games.  Games in this presentation style tend to feature very large numbers of scenarios -- sometimes hundreds. They are often allegedly "historical" (although most of the time there's quite a bit of fudging to improve play balance and interest) and calim a certain amount of realism because real commanders seldom have the freedom to select the units comprising their task force. True. On the other hand, real commanders seldom have exact knowledge of what the enemy force is, either.

The second presentation style is the "Design Your Own" (DYO) approach, where the player selects his forces according to some point-based system or other formula. To the best of my knowledge the first time this was used was as a variant for Panzerblitz by Tom Oleson in THE GENERAL Vol. 8. No. 1 called "Situation 13."  Squad Leader and Up Front included it as variants and number of other games followed over the years. It's the main way that Collectible Miniatures games are played, for example. OGRE is part of this presentation style. Typically this style has just a few basic scenarios and most of the replayability is expected to come from the interaction of player force-mix choices. The benefit of this style is that it mirrors the uncertainty that a tactical level commander has over what his opponent's forces will be made up of. A drawback is that the games often have meta-game problems and unless very carefully designed, there may turn out to be otpimal lines of play that cause some units or tactics to be favored or disfavored unduly. Often realistic constraints and tactical realities are weakly reflected and everybody end sup fielding Tiger tanks or flying squadrons made up of all aces.

In OGRE this isn't a huge problem because the pieces are well-balanced against each other and the future-history setting excuses a lot. This is another are whee the game's inherent simplicity serves it well. There are really only a handful of relevant  characteristics invloved for every unit and so it's pretty easy to keep them in equilibrium. The game has been out and play-tested for more than 36 years and the bugs have generally been worked out. A couple of significant changes were made after the very first edition, but for the most part  the design has been very stable since 1978.

So, while the game isn't the latest "thing" as far as cutting edge design goes, players can be assured that they have a fair chance to win, luck won't play too big a role and the scenarios will generally turn on the soundness of their tactics and not on how well they have mastered an arcane rule book. As much as I enjoy the standard OGRE scenarios, I epect thta I'll be spending a lot more time exploring the aspects of the game I had missed out on before now such as Cruise Missiles and the terrain configurations. At EllisCon recently, after a Mark III scenario, we went straight into a couple of Breakthrough and Train scenarios and had a blast. With luck I'll get in a few more games before the end of the year.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It's Big, It's Bruising, It's OGRE!

So the Boxes arrived!
Dominion box for scale

The long-awaited Kickstarter Edition of OGRE:

It's enormous!

Inside were 40 sheets of counters!
It took me 2 days to punch everything out
And there were maps galore.
GEV and Shockwave shown
And all of it fit into a bag ready for deployment!
Maybe this weekend at EllisCon
Not to be forgotten, there was also a copy of Pocket OGRE, in honor of the game that started it all, back in 1977.
Just $2.95! Just like in 1977.
The contents of the Pocket Ogre were minimalist in style, making quite the contrast with the maximalist apporach of Designer's Edition.
The Pocket edition won't be available for general sale until 2014.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Test of Fire Review

I rather like Test of Fire better than most, it seems. I rated it a “9” on BoardGame Geek while the game’s average rating doesn’t break a “seven.”

This is a fairly wide difference of opinion, which prompted some consideration of how it came about that a game that I think is a clever, elegant and enjoyable little wargame doesn’t garner more than mediocre ratings overall.

I think it’s one of those cases where one man’s feature is another man’s bug. The same elements that I think make the game of a success as a reasonably authentic introductory level wargame detract from its appeal to the more hardcore wargamer who is likely to be motivated to acquire a game about the American Civil War Battle of First Bull Run .
“Elegant” is one of those hard-to-define terms that’s become popular among gamers and prompted a lot of threads to debate what, exactly, it means. I’m not going to define an exact meaning here, but I what the term generally seems to encompass in my view are games that have a large payoff in fun, simulation or some other aspect from a small investment in rules or work. It’s a common feature of the best-regarded euro-style games and may even be their most salient characteristic.

In contrast, wargames are often criticized for being “fiddly,” another term widely sued despite some contention over what, exactly, it means. Again, I’m not going to try to define it here, but generally I think it refers to game functions or mechanics that involve a lot of rules or work for relatively small payoffs. These are often justified in the wargame community on historical or realism grounds. Wargamers often value the details, non-wargamers often scratch their heads over it.

Test of Fire definitely eschews detail. It has just eight to ten pages of actual rules – and they’re not large pages and it’s not small type. There are just three kinds of playing pieces and, a handful of terrain effects. And yet it manages to capture the essential elements of the historical action rather well while providing interesting strategies and considerable replay value .

What it doesn’t have are detailed orders of battle or explicit depictions of period tactics. The players are placed firmly in the role of army commanders McDowell and Beauregard/Johnston . You dpon’t sweat the small stuff. You’re making big strategic decisions and the dice and cards do the rest.

The essential game mechanic is that on a player’s turn three (CSA) or four (USA) dice are rolled and the player’s allowable actions are controlled by the dice. For every “1” rolled a player can draw a card, which have various game effects and are discussed below. For every “2” or “3” rolled a player can “fire” one of his two artillery units against an adjacent enemy occupied area. This isn’t a high probability event. Typically a roll of a “5” or “6” is needed to a “hit.” If there’s a hit then a subsequent die roll is made, with a “6” damaging an infantry target and a 1-5 forcing it to retreat. For every “4” or “5”rolled the player is entitled to move a group of 1-3 pieces (infantry, artillery or leaders) from one area to an adjacent area. The number of pieces allowed to cross an area boundary is usually “2,” with difficult terrain such as woods or stream reducing it to 1 or 0 while areas traversed by roads can have three units. For every “6” rolled the player can exercise a choice among the other three options.

Combat is function of movement and this brings up one of the elegant aspects of the design. While a player’s choices are constrained by the dice, the order of execution is up to him and this can create all sorts of interesting game choices.

Combat is relatively bloodless, at least at first. When infantry units enter an enemy-occupied area a combat is fought, either immediately or at the end of the turn, at the moving player’s option. Each defending infantry unit rolls two dice, with every 5-6 being a “hit” and 1-4 being misses. For every hit a subsequent die roll is made, with 1-3 meaning an enemy unit retreats, a 4-6 causing damage. After the defender fires, any surviving attacking units get to roll, also at 2 dice per unit, with the same results. In both cases the maximum number of dice allowed is six.

Damage is depicted by flipping an infantry unit counter to the other side. This doesn’t reduce it’s combat ability, but a second damage result eliminates it. As there is no way to flip a unit back in the game the general trend is for both sides to weaken and become more fragile as the battle progresses.

Each side has its own deck of cards which are slightly different in composition. Cards can be played at any appropriate time as needed. Cards common to both sides are Move cards, which basically act as additional die rolls; Hold and Retreat cards which modify combat results; Artillery, Firepower and Friendly Fire Cards which modify the number of dice rolled in the various kinds of fighting; Lost Order which cancels an enemy die roll and Rout, which is one of the ways to end the game. When a Rout card is played the player gets to roll two dice and if the result is equal to or less than the number of enemy infantry units eliminated then the player wins immediately. Most games will probably end through the play of a Rout card, which is appropriate as that was the historical outcome.

Each side also has some unique cards. The Confederates have a couple of Cavalry Cards which essentially allow a free combat against a federal –occupied area on the Rebel side of Bull Run. This is evocative of the event depicted on the game box cover, when Stuart’s cavalry charged a unit of Zoauves.

The Federals, meanwhile get a Ford card, which represents the discovery of a new ford across the river, another key event of the actual battle. For play-balance purposes an optional rule allows the Federal Player to ensure the Ford is in the top half of the deck, but one could certainly make an argument for playing it straight/. By definition this was an unknowable event and maybe player McDowell shouldn’t be able to make a battle plan relying on information the historical McDowell could never have known.

There are, of course, some minor exceptions and variations for all of this – it is a wargame after all – but this brief outline captures the major points. Both sides are given an incentive to attack – they win if they occupy the enemy base. This incentive is needed to replicate the historical situation which saw both armies making plans to attack. The Federal side is given an additional way to win by occupying any two of three areas marked with stars on the south side of Bull Run. This signals that the burden of attack in on McDowell.

Leaders and artillery have some special characteristics as well, but the infantry is the star of the show and makes up the bulk of both armies. Infantry counters do not represent specific units and seem to represent about 1,000 soldiers, more or less.

It’s probable that I’ve just used more words to describe the game than appear in the rules of play. It’s really that simple. Yet it still plays out as a Bull Run game. The theme is not some paste-on. It’s the driving force behind every element of the game design. In this way, despite the very euro-style presentation, Test of Fire is clearly a wargame. While many wargame designers follow the James Dunnigan paradigm of designing a game system to depict a certain level or warfare and then modifying that system as needed to depict a specific battle, Martin Wallace’s designs always seem to be unique treatments. Even when they bear some superficial resemblances such as his Gettysburg and Waterloo games, they’re really more different than alike. Test of Fire is a stand-alone design that doesn’t seem like it could spawn a system of games at all. It’s very specific to the peculiar conditions of First Bull Run where two very green armies fought over a specific battlefield.

And you can play it in an hour or less.

It’s not the last word in simulations, but it does succeed in capturing important elements of the battle in an easy-to-play format and some elements, such as the Ford and Rout cards, arguably make it more authentic than some more detailed traditional hex-and-counter treatments of the battle.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Wilfred Owen

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Our Katarina wasn't quite so cute, but we had a good time as Katarina the Outlaw (Nate), The Scarlet Shadow (Kenn) and Brother Marcus (Seth) battled the Dreamweaver to save the town of Shadowbrook.

We played the game cooperatively, which made the villain tougher, but our heroes were up for the challenge.

The death toll was actually pretty low, all things considered. There were no cries of "murder" in the countryside. Three of the town elders were killed by the Dreamweaver -- Lord and Lady Handbrook, as well as Magistrate Kroft. Sophie the Midwife was turned to Sophie the Vixen and fought in the showdown alongside the Dreamweaver. Reverend Harding and Doctor Manning joined our three heroes and a body of militia for the final showdown, which the heroes were able to win while only losing the good pastor. Not bad.

The key to the heroes success was that they drew a large number of useful event cards that came in handy during the final showdown while the Dreamweaver's minions never arrive din large numbers and most of the ones that did arrive were dispatched easily. The only hero who spent some time KO's was the Scarlet Shadow.

Every hero was able to contribute a lot to the eventual victory through good cooperation and a little bit of luck. The Dreamweaver villain is from The Coast expansion. Her minions were not too dangerous and her own Dream Attacks were rarely able to be enough of a setback.

Katarina is from the base A Touch of Evil game, Brother Marcus is from the Something Wicked expansion and The Scarlet Shadow comes from Hero Pack One.

I liked Brother Marcus, it was a little annoying not to be able to use a gun, but it had little effect on combat because he can use his high "spirit" to fight instead.

There was a positive response, so another game will probably be scheduled before long.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Napoleon 4th Edition order of battle compared to 2nd Edition

I plan to take a closer look at the differences in the orders of battle between all the editions, but first let's look at the changes between the Avalon Hill edition and the new 4th Edition.

While there aren't as many blocks as the 3rd Edition, which had over 80, there are more blocks in the new edition of the game. (They're also bigger blocks -- the larger size used in most Columbia Games these days.) There's more wood.

In the old AH version of the game the French army was comprised of seven infantry blocks (three @ 3CV and four @ 4CV), six cavalry blocks (three each 2Cv and 3CV) three artillery (one 2CV and two 3Cv) and a pair of 2 CV horse artillery for total of 18 blocks.

Now there is one Napoleon leader block (1CV), one Guard Infantry (4 CV), Two Guard Artillery (3CV ea), one Guard Cavalry (3CV). eight regular infantry (two 4CV, 5 3CV and one 2CV) four regular cavalry (two 3CV and two 2CV) five artillery (three 3CV and two 2CV) and the pair of 2 CV horse artillery). The combat power of these blocks is different from the original game because of changes in firepower, but I'll look at that in a future post. In raw numbers there are now 24 French blocks -- a increase of one third but only 66 CV compared to the old game's 53 CV, a lesser increase.

The Prussians grow from 16 blocks with 40 CV to 18 blocks with 58 CV, so the number of blocks just edges up but there is a huge jump in the number of CV. The Anglo-Allied force goes from 14 blocks/39 CV to 16 blocks/49 CV, not quite as big an increase as the Prussians but still notable.

So the total CV ratio changes from 53 French CV vs. P-A-A 79 (1.49 to 1) to 66 French CV vs. P-A-A 107 or a 1.62 to 1 ratio. At first glance it appears the French job has gotten a bit harder.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Unboxing thoughts on Napoleon 4th Edition

The long-anticipated 4th Edition of Napoleon arrived at my door just before the weekend. More elaborate judgement will have to await a chance to actually play the game, but my initial impressions were positive.

The physical presentation is good, if not outstanding. The box is the standard Columbia Games slipcase format, although with all-new art for the box cover. Gone is the silvery rendition of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David used in the 2nd and 3rd editions. Now we have a 2004 painting by Howard David Johnson of "Napoleon at Waterloo." Clearly more thematic.

There's also all-new art for the mapboard, which is mounted, although it feels slightly thinner and lighter than what i have seen in some recent games such as Shenandoah and Crusader Rex. Not just bigger in physical dimensions, the new mapboard expands the campaign field by a town in some directions, so that critical locations such a Liege and Ghent are no longer on the board edge.

The game clearly descends more from the 2nd Edition than the 3rd edition in scope, but does import many of the better details from the 3rd edition. Overall there are many small and large changes from the earlier editions and it will take some playings to assess the impact of all of them. Some changes are just refinements, such as the elimination of the useless final Allied night turn on June 22. Some things are more significant changes. For example the "square" and "terrain" rules that had originally been mentioned as optional rules during the Kickstarter campaign are now fully integrated into the base game mechanics.

Instead of being die-cut counters, which I believe the Kickstarter had originally said, the Square and Terrain markers are now stickers going on green blocks. I think most players will prefer this presentation. The blocks are the larger size that we've tended to see in most recent Columbia Games, with Blue for the French, Red for the Anglo-Allied and Black for the Prussians, as well as the green ones mentioned before. The 'foil" style stickers look pretty nice, although I don't think it matters all that much. The iconography is clear and functional and will be familiar to anyone who has seen Columbia's recent games. There have been a lot of changes to combat values, however, and I'm not sure how it will affect game-play. My initial impression is that the French have been weakened, somewhat, compared to the P-A-A, but I'll have to take a more detailed look to be sure. The game also includes colored dice for each side (four each red, blue and black), two rulebooks, two battle boards and one set up chart for each side showing the historical deployment. There is one sticker set, which is one area I wish Columbia would follow the lead of other block game manufacturers and include a set of spares. Unlike Shenandoah, the stickers in Napoleon are pretty easy to remove and apply, so few players will need a spare. Still, it would be nice. Mistakes do happen.

As far as the game system goes, there is a lot that will be familiar to both players of the classic Avalon Hill version of the game and the newer Third Edition.

Perhaps the most significant change over Earle editions is the revised victory conditions, which reduce the opportunities for the Allies to play "rope-a-dope" at the end of the game. While the French still have to defeat both enemy armies before the end of the game, they also can win by holding two of the three supply cities. One obvious consequence of this is that the Allies can't simply stick the Prussian up by Liege and leave the Anglo-Allied army to fend for itself. In earlier editions of the game the french could wipe out the Anglo-Allies and then have to rush across the board in a race against time to defeat the Prussians. Judicious expenditure of delaying cavalry units could often leave the French a unit or two short of defeating Prussia when the clock ran out. Besides being a 'gamey' and unhistorical strategy, it wasn't much fun to play.

Skirmishes have also been changed in what seems likely to be an important way. Now all skirmishes (battles that involve fewer than three units on either side) last just one round, after which the side with fewer blocks has to retreat (attacker retreats if tied). Cavalry type units are advantaged over infantry and foot artillery in skirmishes as well and the larger side doesn't have to reveal any more than four units. There are other changes, but until I get to play a game or two I am not sure of their impact so I think I'll wait a bit before commenting further.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

First opposed play of Guns of Gettysburg

I got to try out The Guns of Gettysburg in my first opposed play through (in contrast to solitaire playings). I'm pretty sure we made a number of mistakes so I'm not really going to get into details of how it went. I'm more certain we played the reinforcement rules more or less correctly and I thin they definitely create an interesting dynamic. Chances are against replicating the historical arrival schedule but chances are very good at replicating the dynamics of a meeting engagement! I'll note that the Confederates, under my control, were able to win by following a strategy of relentless attacking over the first day and into the next morning, but the number of artillery tokens was getting dangerously low and I can see where this might not work as well against a more experienced Union player. I'm looking forward to trying it again, hopefully against someone who has also studied the rules a bit.

Monday, July 1, 2013

50 years of Gettysburg games -- From Charles Roberts to Bowen Simmons

I haven't had the chance to play Bowen Simmons' new The Guns of Gettysburg against anyone yet, but I did go through a solitaire play through last night.

Like Simmons earlier games, Bonaparte at Marengo and Napleon's Triumph, The Guns of Gettysburg doesn't owe much to the traditional hex-and-counter style of wargame that can trace its lineage back to Charles Roberts original Gettysburg from 1964 (Although that game actually used squares, not hexagons,  it was a grid). It's probably easier for nonwargamers to learn Simmons games because thee is less to unlearn

Still, laying the two games out side by side provides an interesting contrast. The older game was a seminal work in the development of the historical board wargaming hobby. Roberts first design -- Tactics -- was a purely fictional clash between identical armies, which had been the approach of all earlier wargames as well.

50 years of Gettysburg wargames
Roberts' breakthrough was the inspiration of modeling a historical battle. The appeal of fictional military exercises proved limited -- mostly to professional military men seeking training. The appeal of "You In Command" however, proved much more commercially viable and the board wargaming hobby was born.

Roberts' Gettysburg therefore holds an esteemed place in the annals of wargaming -- but, in truth, the game itself has not aged particularly well. While Roberts was blazing a new trail, being a pioneer has many drawbacks. You're mot likely to hack the best path through the woods on your first pass, after all. It's not a very sophisticated design and the terrain analysis, especially, is pretty simplistic. There's not benefit to the roads, for example. Still, it was a start. The Guns of Gettysburg, in contrast, is nothing if not a sophisticated look at the battle, with the map and the terrain analysis a key part of the game design. It's also a very nice looking game.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

And now for something completely different .. Wallace's Gettysburg

Martin Wallace's Gettysburg is a special limited edition (1,500 copies) euro-style wargame about America's most famous Civil War battle.

Wallace explicitly denies any simulation intent, but I think he may be too modest, as it's at least as reasonable facsimile of the battle as many games with pretensions of simulation authenticity.

What Wallace's Gettysburg doesn't have is a strict adherence to scale in either units, geography or time. Units are not measured in or called "brigades" for example, although the pieces typically seem to represent 1-2 brigades of infantry for example. Likewise the turns are not measured in "hours," although each cycle of player acts seems to depict something akin to a half hour's worth of action.

In perhaps the most controversial aspect of the game's presentation, the military units are represented with "meeple" style wooden figures vaguely shaped like marching infantrymen, kneeling cavalry troops and cannons. The CSA side is the traditional gray, except for elite infantry which is in black. The Union side is a little more varied, with blue for the regular infantry and artillery, a darker blue for cavalry, one bright red unit for the elite "Iron Brigade" and orange for the lesser quality troops of XIth Corps.

In a very "euro" style touch, casualties are marked with color coded tiny wooden cubes that match the color of the wounded infantry or cavalry unit and there are additional wooden pieces in a variety of shapes for other game functions.

Among those are some larger blocks numbered 2 through 5 in sets of eight in blue and in gray and corresponding gray and blue discs that are used to mark orders (along with some black discs for Union forced passes), These represent the heart of the game system, depicting the command and control problems of a civil war army in a paperless way.

The basic outline of a player's turn is as follows: Placing an available block (numbered 2, 3, 4 or 5) and then placing an order disc with a block, not exceeding the number on that block. (And not necessarily the block just placed.) That disc entitles the player to activate units in the same area as the block, or sometimes adjacent areas and do things with them. After the activity is done, the player can pick up a previously placed block -- and any discs that it has and return them to his stock.

The most common activity is to move one or two units into an adjacent area (up to four of there's a road). If the area is enemy occupied the move is an "assault" which is comprised of a number of steps involving fire and morale checks by both sides. Losses are marked with the various color-coded blocks and if a unit accumulates a sufficient number of those blocks (usually six) it is removed from the board.

There are other activities such as firing artillery at long range, removing disruption markers and other activities.

A period ends when the Union player has exhausted all his discs in a time period. Various housekeeping activities ensure and the stock of order discs is replenished for the next period. Note that discs remain on the board until their associated block is picked up, so there's an important resource-management aspect tot he game system, in another common euro-game touch.

Reinforcements arrive by a set, historical schedule. The burden of attack is on the Confederate side, but they also have more discs. Victory is assessed at the end of each day, with the CSA winning if he controls two "starred" areas marked on the board that roughly correspond to the historical Union "Fishhook" position. The CSA can also win a sort of "sudden death" victory by occupying the Little Round Top area at the end of any period.

Overall the game manages to reflect the overall course of the battle reasonably well -- it feels like Gettysburg. The pressure is clearly on the CSA to push hard in order to win, but the federals, carefully played, can manage to hold on.

The game mechanics are a refreshing change of pace for wargamers, who won't find a lot of overlap with the traditional hex-and-counter model. It may appeal to non-wargamer euro players who like relatively intricate games. Compared to most wargames it's not very intricate, but it's on the high side for the euros I have seen.

It's definitely playable in a single evening -- possibly even match play suitable for a longish evening -- and until The Guns of Gettysburg came out I'd have considered this my primary Gettysburg game for playing on the battle's anniversary. I think I'll still try to get in a game of it on July 1st - 3rd. There's only one "scenario" -- the entire battle -- and the area depicted is limited to the actual battlefield so it's not much use for exploring what-ifs. But it is a suitable commemoration of the battle and it appears to be scrupulously fair to both players with neither side having an obvious edge. Neither side can afford to be lackadaisical in their play, however, and it should be a tense contest throughout.

Overall I recommend this game as a very nice, entertaining Gettysburg wargame that is more game than simulation but still shouldn't offend the sensibility of the historically inclined.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A good thing it's called Cemetery Hill, because it sure ain't Gettysburg

Starting setup for the Decision Games edition
The Blue & Gray system was a passably authentic depiction of civil war battles at the introductory level that was very popular in the 1970s under SPI and was updated with some changes by Decision Games a couple of decades later.

Originally published as folios and quad games, the system operated under some severe constraints as far as components went, but it really wasn't half bad most of the time and most of the time a judicious use of special rules and set ups would provide something remotely close to the actual event.

The conventional wisdom is that Cemetery Hill represented the weakest entry in the series and in this case the conventional wisdom is correct. Many were surprised when Decision games redid the Blue & Gray quad that the battle they dropped in order to make room for the Bull Run battles  was Antietam instead of Cemetery Hill.

At the root of Cemetery Hill's problems was the ill-advised decision to depict the order of battle at the division scale (or half-division in the case of the Rebels) instead of the brigade level used for every other Blue & Gray game. While this was perhaps an understandable, if incorrect, decision when SPI published it as a folio, kit was a very poor decision when Decision Games re-issued the game in a boxed edition where the same constraints did not apply. Gettysburg was a large battle -- the largest ever fought in North America, actually, and a B&G treatment of it at the brigade level might have been interesting.

Instead we have a clunky division level game with huge combat factors.

Compounding the problem is a peculiar treatment of terrain. Urban combat was very rare in the Civil War, and the few times it did occur, such as at Gettysburg, provided no evidence that defending a town represented much of an advantage. But Cemetery Hill makes the Town of Gettysb urg into an inportant fortress-like defensive position that will always figure in the Union player's plans.

Likewise the game provides triple defense for defenders of Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill and the Round tops -- an astounding upgrade of some pretty unspectacular elevations a few dozen meters above the surrounding countryside.

Finally, the game starts at a strange time for a Gettysburg game -- around 2 p.m. on July 1st just as Ewell;s corps was about to rout the hapless XI Corps. One suspects that this was done to finesse that the game couldn't really cope with the swirling action of the morning and early afternoon of July 1st as designed.

So what we're left with is a game that fails to develop in an authentically plausible way to depict the Battle of Gettysburg with very little chance of the historic "fishhook" developing or events resembling Longstreet's offensives.

This might have been acceptable if the result was at least an interesting game, but here, too, Cemetery Hill falls short. The online game site provides Win-Loss stats for Cemetery Hill along with other games it offers and those statistics reveal that the game is severely imbalanced in favor of the Union side, with the Blue beating the Gray almost 2-1. Interestingly it doesn't matter whether the game is played with the classic SPI-era rules or the modified Decision Games version (with the "attacker ineffectiveness" rules),

As of late June, 2013, the Union players won 2,002 of the 3,080 games played under the new rules, for a winning percentage of 65%. This is essentially the same as the classic rules, where Union players won 977 of 1,559 games played, or 63%.

The outcome of the game depends enormously on how well the first couple of CSA attacks go against the federal XI Corps. If they go well, then the South can have a shot at victory, but if they go badly, one might as well just start over, with suggests that the better design choice would have been to start the game even later and just give Lee credit for beating Howard.

With a number of new games out depicting the Battle of Gettysburg as its 150th anniversary approaches there's little reason to revisit Cemetery Hill as part of your commemorations. It's very appropriate that it was called Cemetery Hill, because it isn't much of a Battle of Gettysburg game. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Is it a gamble because there are dice? Lee's Greatest Gamble

Set up for Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble
The approach of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the appearance of some games explicitly tied to that commemoration such as The Guns of Gettysburg and Gettysburg 150 prompted me to re-look at some of my old collection before I tackled the new stuff.

Interestingly, Gettysburg: Lee's Greatest Gamble pioneered one of the notable mechanics of The Guns of Gettysburg, army postures.

Based on the army's "posture," the ability of units to move and fight are affected to some degree or other. The motivation behind this regimen is to account for the peculiar fact that -- although the battle occurred over three days that July -- nearly all the fighting was concentrated within a few violent hours on each day. Indeed, it's a very notable aspect of the battle, especially on its second and third days. It took most of July 2nd for Longstreet to organize his flank attack and the arrival of nightfall did as much to end its chances of success as the arrival of Union reserves.

Lee's Greatest Gamble was one of the first games that made a serious effort to graphic with that problem and most serious wargames about the battle since then have tried to find some way to model the large periods of inactivity that marked the fight.

In The Guns of Gettysburg the armies choose between Attack, Hold and Withdrawal general orders, which generally have the effects you'd expect from their names. In Lee's Greatest Gamble there are four postures, Attack, Restricted, Passive and Panic which are, perhaps, a little less intuitively named but similarly affect what the player can do. The main difference between the two approaches is that The Guns of Gettysburg game places the army status under player control and gives a player incentives for choosing each while LGG makes it subject to the vagaries of the die. This die-based approach has the advantage of making one of the results "Panic" which provides a possibility of the opposing player taking temporary control of part of the army. This rather neatly accounts for some of the bad battlefield decisions of the actual fight such as Barlow's advance to Barlow's Knoll and Sickle's advance of III Corps.

A drawback of the die-based approach, besides the obvious reduction in player control, is that a bad series of die rolls can prevent the two armies from fighting at all. Errata mitigated it to some extent, but it's still a possibility even after the errata. This is a significant drawback to game with the time investment of LGG and enough to keep me from being willing to make that investment.

I'm not sure whether Bowen Simmons, designer of The Guns of Gettysburg, is familiar with LGG or whether he derived any inspiration from the earlier game, but I think his implementation is superior in concept. As a general rule, I dislike "idiot rules" that force players to do or not do things instead of providing them incentives. It's both more realistic and more satisfying from a player's point of view to give him a reason to delay making an attack than simply banning him from the act. In the actual event there were reasons why thing occurred as they did and while it may not be possible to recapture all those reasons, it's superior to have a reason for things to happen or not happen.

Still, LGG broke some fascinating new ground and it was interesting to look at it again as I pondered whether any old titles needed to be re-evaluated as the 150th anniversary neared.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Has it just been 25 years?! Gettysburg 125th Anniversary Edition reviewed

The 125th anniversary of something isn't usually a big deal, but Avalon Hill decided it was enough of a hook to latch onto for the 1988 update of the venerable Gettysburg title. The resulting Gettysburg 125th Anniversary Edition didn't bear much resemblance to its predecessor -- a good thing as it turns out.

While remaining an introductory level wargame, the 1988 version of Gettysburg introduced a new basic game engine that eventually became known as the "Smithsonian" series, which was applied to a diverse group of titles, most updates of of classic AH titles such as Midway, D-Day and Battle of the Bulge.

The essential element of the "Smithsonian" series was a combat system that eschewed the old CRT for a competitive D10 die roll modified by units strengths and other factors. Based on how much the winner won by, the loser suffered certain results.

While this worked pretty well in Gettysburg 1988, I didn't care for it as much in the other Smithsonian games, although I ended up buying and playing all of theme before I finally decided I didn't like it.

The only survivor of the bunch in my collection is Gettysburg 1988. The system seems to work reasonably well in this case.

Probably the biggest limitation of the system is that it's prone to more extreme results when there are smaller numbers of units involved. A 1-7 fighting another 1-7 can more easily double the result of its foe than a 10 factor stack fighting a 10-factor stack.

At start positions
Like the original Gettysburg, Gettysburg 1988 depicts the order of battle for both sides at the divisional level for infantry, with cavalry brigades and artillery battalions.  Unlike the older game, all the artillery battalions appear, so the Union has the proper edge in artillery strength. There's more differentiation between the infantry\ divisions than the 1964 game had, which helps the CSA a bit. The CSA player is, however, still vulnerable to bad luck because he has only nine infantry units. Eveyr loss will be keenly felt.

The victory conditions award significant points for holding specific points of geography, so the federal player will have to fight forward. A common problem with Gettysburg games is trying to properly capture the pace of the battle, and like most earlier efforts this version of Gettysburg doesn't grapple with that problem. While the actual battle saw extensive lulls in the action on July 2 and July 3, in Gettysburg 1988 that's not likely to happen and the game will therefore tend to be relatively more bloody than the real thing.

Mitigatuing that a bit is the game's option for starting on July 2 and on July 3, so that even though a full July 1st start game probably won;t see anything like Longstreet's two charges, players can still expereince them with the later start times.

Like many Gettysburg games, the 1988 edition brings the cavalry onto the main battlefield even though they really fought off map. An issue of The General included a map extension that lets players include the eastern cavalry field for those who have it.

Overall the game is a decent little introductory game, but comes off second best to some of the most recent forays that cover the battle with similar playing time but more interesting player decisions. As far as simulation value goes, it's fairly mediocre because of the lack of attention to command control and pacing alluded to.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Gettysburg 1964 -- just a curio now

Starting units Gettysburg 64
The approaching 150th anniversary of the battle has re-kindled my interest in things Gettysburg, especially with the arrival of The Guns of Gettysburg this week, so I thought I'd take a relook at some of the older games, including this granddaddy.

If anything, I think my 2007 review was overly kind, because I see little reason to play this as either a game or as a simulation these days.

There are a lot of problems with the game as a competitive exercise, but the lack of any geographic objectives may the be the biggest one. The victory conditions put the burden of attack on the CSA player, but with no reason to defend the Cemetery Hill area the USA player will generally just hang out in the southern hills which are close to his reinforcement arrival zones and far from the Confederate arrival ones. This leaves the CSA trying to attack a stronger enemy on doubling terrain with any attrition results favoring the Union.

My re-look also revealed a scale mismatch that I think also hinders the game. After comparing the historical deployments with the game it occurred to me that the game's divisional pieces were too small for the map scale. The size of the squares would better match the historical frontages of brigades. This also has the effect of penalizing the CSA divisions. While they are stronger than the US divisions (typically they are 4-2 and the US divisions are 3-2 factor units) this actually understates the differential between the two. Eight of the nine CSA divisions on the field had 4 or 5 brigades, while all the US divisions had just 2 or 3. On the other hands, the odd OB would lead you to believe that the CSA had more artillery present, because it depicts the six corps artillery battalions but ignores the divisional artillery on the CSA side. Meanwhile the Army of the Potomac's corps artillery is ignored and only the five brigades of the artillery reserve show up.
Altogether there's really nothing left from a game play perspective to make this worth hitting the table and it's just a curio now.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A nice full day of gaming -- Hold the Line, CCA, Midway and more

My Bay State friend Mark K. came down to visit for a nice full day of gaming -- our second in a monTH!

It's a long drive, so we try to make it worth his while by getting in a bunch of games.

We started off with a match of Hold the Line, one of our staples. We've played a couple dozen scenarios now. This time it was the Battle of Harlem Heights from 1776, which is one of the lesser-known battles of the war -- remarkably so, considering that it was one of the rare American victories.

Game Two of HOTL
History repeated itself, as Mark and I each won as the Americans in turn. It looks to be a tough scenario for the British, frankly. While they have an impressive looking force on the map edge it's hard to see how they'll play a significant role in the battle, which sees the whole American army basically fighting the three elite British foot and two light infantry units of the advanced guard.

Mark and  I tired very different approaches as the British, but neither worked. I tired to be aggressive with the high quality light and elite troops to pick off some American militia while trying to bring up some of the supports from the British main body. This didn't work out at all well and the Americans were able to destory most of the British front line and take two fo the 3 VP hexes for the win.

When it was Mark's turn as the British he tried to fade back, but that didn't work either as the Americans were able to advance in strength and overwhelm the British by the fences.

One bright spot was that this broke my losing streak against Mark. Last time we played a few weeks ago I was 0-7 on the games we played that day. 

We then played the Battle of 300 Champions scenario from the Commands & Colors" Ancients expansion The Spartan Army.

One aspect of the Borg game system (Memoir '44, Commands & Colors, Battle Cry, etc) I really like is the evocative color. It's not high simulation, but it really makes the history come alive. In the case of the Battle of the 300 Champions, it's mostly a legendary affair, which little relaibly known from this 6th Centruy BC battle between the Argives and the Spartans. The game starts with a special "Battle of 300 Champions" roll-off between eight Medium Hoplite blocks on each side, with the survivors beefoing up their respective armies and winning the initiative.

End of Game 1
Both armies are essentially just medium hoplite masses. The Spartan army is comprised of five Spartan units with 5-6 blocks each and two allied units with 4 blocks. The Argives have a couple of units of Auxiliary Infantry at 4 blocks each and nine units with 4-5 blocks of Medium Hoplite infantry. Each army ahs three leaders.

Both battles saw me win the early advantage with the Battle of Champions but unable to turn that into a win. As so often happens in Commands & Colors the fickle fortunes of war can turn in an instants and the second game, especially, saw a very promising start for the Argives fall apart at the end.

The nice thing about both Hokld the Line and CC:A is that the play rather quickly and we got in all four battles in a little over two hours. The next two games took somewhat longer.

Near the end
First, we played GMT's rather abstract battle game Maneouver. Mark was willing to label it a "wargame." I have a fairly liberal definition myself (I'll call Memoir '44 a wargame, for example) but Maneouver falls outside my definition. I think it's a war-themed abstract. It's very chess-like, actually, even down to the 64-square battle area.  While I can see being interested in the game, I felt it was a little plodding for my taste and it came off my "to-buy" list based on this playing. The game itself ended up being very close, ending in a Nightfall Victory for Mark's British by one point (11 to 10).

We ended with a real classic -- Avalon Hill's Midway, which was my first ever wargame back in 1969. It holds up well. Mark had played it back in the day, but said he hadn't tried it in a couple of decades. While I haven't played it anywhere near as much as I'd like,. I have played  it within the last few years and my greater experience showed.

The big raid on the US Fleet
I took the Japanese and I basically followed a modified Combined Fleet strategy. I threw out some screening cruisers to try to avoid any early American surprises and I detached the Hiryu with a  small escort in an attempt to ambush mark's Americans if he found my main fleet. As it turned out he wasn't able to spot either Japanese carrier force, although he did pick off a CL. On the second day I was able to find and strike the US fleet (which was all together) without a return strike. I only had three carriers worth of aircraft (Hiryu was out of position) but was still able to sink two US carriers.

The rest of the game was somewhat anticlimactic from that point on, as the surviving US airpower wasn't enough to threaten Japanese fleets and he had to content himself with picking off isolated cruisers.

Follow up strikes by the Japanese sank some more US cruisers and started softening up Midway. With little choice the US Fleet make a suicide run at the Invasion force at Midway which comprised the Atago, two other cruisers and the four Kongo-class battleships. After a valiant effort the last of the US ships went down, taking down two Japanese cruisers and almost the Kongo -- it has one hit box left.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kickstarter news!

Wow! Just check out that layout for Ogre! Steve Jackson Games is planning to ship Ogre on Oct. 21.

Meanwhile The Guns of Gettysburg is shipping this week!  Yes, that's right. This fantastic game is not only going to be out well before the 150th anniversary of the battle, it's going to be in hand before another seven days is out. To my surprise it even looks like it's going to beat Columbia's 4th Edition Napoleon to my mailbox.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Speaking of anticipation -- then there's OGRE

This photo from the Ogre Kickstarter is too good not to share.

Besides showing off the super awesomeness of the new Ogre it also illustrates how Steve Jackson Games is able to afford to do Ogre for $100.

As the KS site points out, the 22 Munchkin Games retail for $24.95 each, so 22 Munchkin games equals  $548.90 retail value. Now some might make the comparison as an argument about relative value. I think that misses the point. Quite obviously many people have gone ahead and laid out the $25 for a small Munchkin Box with a couple hundred cards, four pages of rules and a die, Over and over again as a matter of fact. It's objectively true that -- despite having some detractors -- Munchkin has been an enormously successful product as far as sales go.

And SJG has explicitly said that Munchkin is helping pay for Ogre because there's no way they could offer it for the price otherwise.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Anticipating -- Napoleon 4th Edition. Some thoughts on the new box

We appear to be just days away from having the new, 4th Edition of Napoleon in our hands. An eagerly anticipated development, to be sure.

Today Columbia Games revealed the new box art -- and I have mixed feeling, to tell the truth.

New Cover
 It's not that there's anything wrong with the new box art, although it doesn't knock me out, it is more consistent with the style of more recent Columbia box art.

And it's not that the old box art was great. Indeed,

AH edition
the image used most previous editions of Napoleon is actually a pretty odd one to use for a game about the Hundred Days campaign, which was Napoleon in the twilight of his career. The painting used as the basis for the earlier Napoleon games shows the very young General Bonaparte at the very beginning of his career. Painted by Jacques-Louis David in five versions between 1800 and 1805, it shows Napoleon Crossing The Alps. It's quite the famous painting, but it rather obviously has nothing to do with the Waterloo campaign.

Still, it's a very dramatic and well-known image and has been associated with the game for more than 30 years, so the change is kind of surprising.

Jacque-Louis David: Napoleon Crossing the Alps
4th Edition
The new image is similar to the portrait style covers we have seen in many recent Columbia titles such as Crusader Rex and Richard III and not one of the the the "battle scene" covers that have also been pretty common in CG offerings of late such as Julius Caesar. Nearly all recent Columbia Games have emphasized the "Great man" at the center of the game's theme and when older games such as Napoleon and Quebec 1759 have been updated the trend has been to add leaders to the order of battle when they didn't exist before. One of the major design elements of the 3rd Edition which was retained for the 4th Edition are leader blocks for Napoleon, Blucher and Wellington.

I'm enough of a traditionalist that I think I would have preferred to see the old, iconic if anachronistic, Napoleon cover retained for the new edition, but I don't think the idea of a change is unwarranted. That said, the new cover doesn't really win me over, either and if there had to be achange I would have preferred something a little more dynamic.

Thursday, May 30, 2013


The local game Meetup has discovered Dominant Species, the hit GMT game that's gone into multiple printings.

We played the first game half wrong and still had a good time and our second game was a real eye-opener as the one person in the group who had not played in the first game ran away with a convincing win due to his near sweep of the end-of-game scoring round.

I'll have to play this quite a few more time before I can give anything resembling a  review, but the bottom line is that this is a fascinating game with a vast number of strategies available. I really felt like I was just scratching the surface of what the game had to offer. It's like some the best of the deep euros like Stone Age where every turn you are presented with about a dozen things you need to do and you can only do three or four of them.

The basic theme of the game is six competing animals vying for dominance in a hexagonal world that is slowly expanding and also slowly being overtaken by an ice age. Points are basically scored for having more "species" (blocks) on specific spaces during a scoring opportunity, but there are also various bonus scoring opportunities as well. Animals can compete directly and indirectly in many ways and there's therefore a lot of player interaction.

Given how enthusiastic the group was I expect this will hit the table a few more times over the summer.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Not good enough to win a Two on One yet

For our second game I wanted to play something quick (we had less than an hour) and still use some toys I hadn't played with yet so I set up a 2 on 1 fight with myself controlling a Fokker E.III and my opponents working together with a Morane-Saulnier Type N and an Airco DH-2. I erroneously told the French pilot his plane didn't have an Immelman T
Lining up a shot
urn card, which affected his play until he found, late int he the game, that he did have the card after all. Fat lot of good it did me.

My basic plan was to fient towards the DH-2, gte him to react and then swing around and deal with the French plane. Because I though he did not have the Immelman available I planned to use an Immelman myself to pull in behind him.

The plan sort of worked, but was basically mooted by the fact that one of the first hits on my plane by the Morane-Saulnier started a fire. This is always bad news, but the fragile Fokker was especially vulnerable. As it turned out, the damage cards I drew for the fire were not too damaging -- except for the last one. Meanwhile we traded shots. I almost caught a big break when the two Allied planes collided! But it turned out to be a mere brush by, as the French plane took no damage at all and the Britisher just a few points.

The inevitable happened on the final fire card draw which was a 5. I only had one point left so that was more than enough to end my flight and my fight. The DH-2 ended up with a half-dozen points of damage while the French plane was actually unscathed.

Everyone was ready for more action, so there will be more Wings of War/Wings of Glory this summer.

One afternoon over Italy in 1917 ... a Wings of War/Glory session report

Baracca's SPAD lines up for an early shot
At the local game shop played a couple of quick games of Wings of War/Glory. Turns out there are some interested players so i hope to get a few more sessions in over the summer.

The first game was an excuse to try out the big Bomber models and rules. I gave myself an Italian CA-3 heavy bomber with a SPAD XIII escort against a c
ouple of Austro-Hungarian Albatros D.III fighters, each controlled by one other player..

This was my very first time even trying the bombing rules, so I considered the mission a success if I managed to get any hits at all on the bridge target near the map's center.

As the bomber my plan was pretty straightforward, I was going to head straight for the target, dropping down from altitude 4 to altitude 1 to increase accuracy. There was no anti-aircraft defense at the bridge and I figured the altitude change might throw off the inexperienced AH pilots a little as well. My SPAD was going to take a quick pass at the left hand enemy plane and then turn on the other one. The t
Close call
wo Austrian pilots closed, with the one on the right trying to swing wide around the bomber for a rear shot.

The SPAD got in an early shot and swept past the Albatros as planned and then the Allies got a break. The very first shot by the rear gunner exploded the Red Albatros! I had considered taking the explosion cards out of the deck, but I figured "what are the odds ..?" As a wargamer, I really should know better. The odds were virtually certain.
Bomb run

Well, in any case, this was not an acceptable outcome so early,
as it left me with two planes and one of the opponents with none, so he was reincarnated as the Italian SPAD pilot and we played on.

As it turned out, in my inexperience I misjudged the bombing approach and had to come around again, which gave the surviving Albatros a few opportunities for more shots. There was little damage to the CA-3, however, and it successfully dropped the bombs for half damage and few off. Meanwhile the SPAD and Albatros tangled a bit. No one was downed, but the Albatros was worse off at game end.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Magicking of wargames

I played a couple of games of Wings of War and had a blast -- but also found myself with a nagging touch of dissatisfaction because of how hard it was to craft a historically realistic scenario with the tools at hand.

That's not because of excessive abstraction or some flaw in the game design. Far from it. Wings if War is like  a number of wargame products today, with an odd mix of realism and fantasy.  The game has reasonably accurate mechanics and seems well researched. The planes are mostly in the livery of famous aces. A lot of interesting planes are included. There are fascinating scenarios in the box. But there's the rub, really. The scenarios are, actually historically quite odd. There's little attempt to craft battles that could plausibly occur. For one thing, there's no attempt to avoid anachronisms, so planes that were not actual contemporaries can still fly together and fly against each other.

But even more, almost every scenario involves mixed groups of planes, often mixed nationalities.  A typical scenario might have a SPAD XIII and a Sopwith Camel against a Fokker Dr I and a Albatross DV. An interesting game, perhaps, but not a likely dogfight. Mixed air formations are rare because of the problems of coordinating aircraft with widely divergent performance. But this is the norm in Wings of War.

And not just in Wings of War. The same strangeness affects Axis & Allies Air Force Miniatures and the A&A land miniatures game. You can see it in games like Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations, ASL and in Tide of Iron.

In a game setting there is often a synergy to be had from combining disparate elements. It could be called the Magic: The Gathering Combo effect. A lot of "wargames" use design-your-own mechanics that likewise reward creating combos that work off each other in interesting ways but real-life militaries avoid because of the coordination problems.

Games like Wings of War and A&A have a lot of educational potential, but one wonders if some misleading impressions aren't also being passed along.  It might be an interesting matchup to pit a Me-109 and a Saeta against a Hurricane and a Typhoon but it's not likely any such matchup occurred.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Merchant's & Marauders -- a wargamer review

Merchants & Marauders is an unusual game in many ways. It's very heavily themed, based on historical events and features fairly intricate game procedures. In other words, it's a lot like your typical war

On the other hand, it doesn't hew close enough to historical fact to be considered anything remotely like a
simulation, most of the game's chrome is obviously designed for play balance purposes, there's no player elimination, a lot of resource management and it uses a lot of special card decks. In other words, it's a lot like many of the more popular euros.

It is, in fact, a hybrid that manages to combine some of the best features of its respective genres to create a big hit that can appeal to a wide variety of game interests.

Game in progress
As a long-time wargamer, I've come to appreciate many euros for the fun and strategic challenge they often provide, but I'm often left feeling like it's pretty light fare in many ways. Most euros have a very passing relationship to their themes, which is OK, but it can actually lead one astray if you think too hard about the theme while you are making game decisions.

Merchants & Marauders manages to be a very competitive game without completely mangling the essence of the historical context. Sure, there are a lot of very historically problematical aspects to the game -- for example, there may have been a female pirate/merchant captain or two in history, but I think it's fair to say that they didn't amount to almost a fifth of the pool like they do in the game.

Still, in broad outlines the game captures the era where the four major maritime powers of the age vied for influence and trade in the Caribbean. The ports are in the right places and there's an interesting dynamic between peaceful pursuits and piratical ones. The game seems slightly easier for merchant players, especially when less experienced, but piracy is a lot of fun and will tempt many players with the lure of quick rewards.

There seem to be many viable routes to victory in the game. The most straightforward is a merchantman's strategy of just trading smart. In that sense it can be the sort of resource management game that many euro players are comfortable with. On the other hand, there is conflict built into the game. Some captains make natural pirates and a well-handled pirate sloop can terrorize the more peaceful players effectively. There are real tactics involved and the wargamer will find his niche can be rewarding as well. There's also a certain amount of Adventure Game influence as well. There are Rumor Cards and Mission cards which can provide important benefits if successfully completed. I haven't seen anyone try that as their main approach yet, but it seems like it could be a third way to win.

Probably the biggest mistake a player can make, however, is to be too wedded to one particular strategy. There may be a time when even the most successful and peace-loving merchant may want to take a turn at piracy -- especially if he upgrades to a fine frigate and even the most blood-thirsty pirate is well-advised to stay on good terms with somebody so they have some safe harbors.

The Age of Piracy isn't one of my areas of historical interest -- most of what I know about the era comes from Treasure Island and the Pirates of the Caribbean like everyone else, so I can't vouch for its historical authenticity. The places on the map seem to belong to the appropriate powers and ships seem to behave like ships ought to, but so many of the port abilities, captain's talents and crew abilities are obvious game artifacts that no one could seriously imagine it's historical.

That said, there's an awful lot going on in this game -- enough so that a wargamer may feel right at home. In my opinion many euro gamers are not used to games with a lot of intricate detail. They often find wargames daunting because there are so many details to track, and I think Merchants & Marauders is wargame-like in that way. There is a lot of hidden information during the course of the game, due to cards and chits. There are a lot of procedurally involved game tasks involving various modifiers that may not always be immediately apparent. And there's a considerable degree of luck, not only in the dice-driven combat system, but also in the interaction between all the different decks of cards. There are Cargo, Event, Glory, Mission and Rumor card decks being drawn from constantly. This is a game that rewards thinking on your feat -- not long involved plans.

There's enough meat in it for wargamer to sink his teeth in -- so I'd recommend trying it out.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rahman Noodles

Played the El Alamein Rahman Track scenario at the weekly game noght.

As per my usual practice, I adjusted the OB to take advantage of the units available in the newer sets, but this was one of the last official scenarios published, so few cahnges were required.

On the Axis side I substituted two DAK Infantry for the Mauser 98K and Wehrmacht Veteran infantryman of the original scenario. The points were the same and using the actual DAK was an obvious choice now that they are available.

On the Allied side changes were likewise minimal. I replaced one of the Grant I tanks with another M4A1 Sherman because I only have one Grant model and I prefer not to use proxies if they can be avoided. As it happens, the 9th Armored Brigade comprised a mix of Shermans, Grants and Crusaders, so the change was historically justified. The small difference in point value was ignored.

The British deply first, so I placed the Crusaders on the right flank planning to scoot them foward while the Grant and Sherman would go up the middle.

The Axis placed all three infantry units on their left flank where they could advance through the brush while the 88 and two Italian ATG's deployed in the center. THe Axis were planning to advance the ATGs and therefore they were not under cover at first, which proved to be unfortunate. THe 88 was on a small knoll, however, and could benefit from cover rolls.

Things went poorly for the Axis in the initial going. Poor shooting all around meant that the 88 was able to damage the Grant and one Crusader was destroyed by the 47s, but all three anti-tank guns were also lost. The infantry was able to hunker down in the brush successfully.

When the Axis armor arrived on Turn four it found itself badly outnumbered -- the Allies still had three of their original AFV and five more showed up on Turn four.

The Axis decided to mass on the left flank and try to distract Allied fire by moving the infantry out, but the British were able to win a couple of key initiative rolls which allowed them to set up fields of fire that limited the number of Axis shots while nearly all the Allies got a clear shot at something.

Turns 5 and 6 saw a fierce exchange of fire that left the Axis all but wiped out and Allied losses manageable. When the final Panzer II died on Turn 7 the massacre was complete.

The Entire Axis force was destroyed. British losses were three Crusaders destroyed and one Sherman and the Grant damaged.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

USS Thresher -- and the risks of service

April 10 will mark the 50th anniversary of the loss of the the USS Thresher.

I remember when the news bulletin came on the TV. I was 9 and they still did "news bulletins" in those ancient days. Naturally I don't recall the details and I am not sure there even were many details until much later.

The Thresher was the first nuclear submarine lost at sea, but there had been many submarine disasters before that. A submarine, by nature, puts itself at risk every time it submerges, and even in peacetime they don't always come back up.

Which is why it's appropriate to remember that military service is inherently dangerous, and some sorts of service even more so. One reason why I've never been able to join in the Left's mockery of George Bush's Air National Guard service is that I recognize that there's no such thing as being a 'safe' jet fighter pilot -- especially when you are talking about 1960s-era jet fighters. The damn things crashed quite a lot, actually. Now, that's not to imply that some legitimate questions can't be raised about some aspects of Bush's service, but overall I think he deserves credit. There are many safer billets in the military than flying F-106s, even when they are not being shot at.

Similarly, anybody who goes off the sea in a submarine deserves just a little extra respect. The USN seems very serious about safety, and we have been fortunate that the Thresher and the USS Scorpion in 1968 have been our only two losses in the nuclear era, but we have also had some close calls. It's really a miracle, for example, that the 2005 collision of the USS San Francisco with an undersea mountain didn't result in the loss of the boat.

The USS Thresher was not saved by a miracle, however, and 129 men were lost.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shot down in the Gap -- session report

Played another session of Axis & Allies miniatures, once again playing an updated version of one of the the old official scenarios. In this case it was Shoot the Gap, from the North African Campaign, NA-3.

Aside from using the V2 models and cards for those pieces that were re-issued in the later sets instead of the ones from the original V1 set, the only change I made from the published OB was substituting Grants for M3 Less now that the historically correct Grant is available. As it's essentially the same as the M3 Lee there was no need to adjust the scenario for balance and it was basically played straight from the book.

It's a pretty straightforward scenario. A British tank-pure force comprised of two Grants, two Shermans and a Crusader have seven turns to fight their way across maps Able-1, Charlie-2, Dog-1 and exit. Opposing them are two German Panzer IVs supported by a trio of Italian Carro Armoato and a single German Pak 38 ATG.

To win the British had to eliminate 4 tanks and exit two. If they failed to do both, the Axis would win, otherwise it was a  draw.

The Axis player sent the three Italian tanks up the north flank, where they were opposed by the Crusader, while my four British mediums dueled with the German units on the southern side.  I'm not usually one to blame the dice, but I really have to say that they failed me this time. Even though I achieved my goal of concentrating my mediums against the German tanks the British simply could not shoot worth a damn.  Specifically, one of the Panzer IVs survived almost three turns under the concentrated fire of all four British  mediums before finally being destroyed. Meanwhile the Crusader also failed to do any more than make an even trade with the Italians.  The only bright spot was that a Grant erased the Pak 38 quickly before it could do any damage.

It soon became evident victory had slipped out of the British grasp, and even a draw was  soon taken off the table when the surviving Axis vehicles pulled out of the line of fire on the last turn after winning the initiative.

At game end the Axis still had a running Panzer IV and an M13 while the Allies were reduced to two damaged Sherman tanks.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Bandit's High first impression

I had a chance to pick up a Starter for the new Bandit's High Starter set for Axis & Allies Air Force miniatures.

Unlike my practice while I was employed, there's a real question in my mind whether I'll be able to collect a full set of these miniatures. Funds are tight and I suspect time is against me as well. As it is, I never filled out the Angels 20 set, being two short -- I never got a FW 190A Wurger or a P-51C Escort and neither is readily available as singles now.

I'm going to have an even harder time picking up sets from Bandits High and I suspect that the run may not be all that large, either.  And I don't see it likely I'll have the money for a case.

Which is too bad, because there are a lot of interesting planes in the new set.

In particular, the new set introduces quite a few aircraft from the minor powers.  Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Australia, Canada and Poland all get at least one plane.  The French and Italians get filled out a bit while the Germans and Russians get some useful additions as well -- including some ground attack craft.  The set is supposedly Pacific War themed -- and so we do have some iconic American and Japanese aircraft. The key ones, I think, are the P-38 for the US and the Oscar for the Japanese, both of which were common and important.

More once I get a chance to play  a little.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

4th edition Napoleon -- Familiar newness

Columbia Games' Napoleon has been around in some form for almost four decades. While originally published around 1974 by Gamma Two games, the best-known and most widely sold edition was the 1977 Avalon Hill version that appeared in 1977.

In many ways, a non-hex-and-counter design like Napoleon was ahead of its time, and the last 10 years or so have seen a huge increase in the popularity of so-called block game as their shorter players time, enjoyable tactile mechanics and handsome appearance seem to be more in tune with contemporary tastes.

The AH version of Napoleon was an excellent example of all these traits. The game could easily be played to a satisfying conclusion in 90 minutes, it was fun and it looked real fine with its embossed blocks. Some lack of clarity in the rules  and a confusingly laid out battle board hindered the game  a bit, but gamers looking for a good strategy game made it popular and it featured in several strategy articles in the Avalon Hill General. Eventually AH let it go out of print and the right reverted to Columbia Games (Gamma Two's successor).

When he decided to publish a new, Third Edition of the game in 1993, designer Tom Dalgliesh opted to boost the number of blocks and telescope the view down a level. Whereas the 2nd Edition did not formally indentify the blocks and each block represented about half a corps worth of troops, the Third Edition assigned  a historical ID to each block -- generally a division. This almost doubled the number of blocks in play, and at the same time some important adjustments were made in the relative proportions of each arm -- infantry, cavalry and artillery and also the relationship between the size of the French and the two allies. For one example, whereas in the AH edition the Anglo-Allied and Prussian armies were the same size  as measured by "Combat Values" (CV) at 39 each, in the THird Edition the Prussian Army was notably larger, with a CV of 72 compared to the Anglo-Allied 57.

Similarly, the new Third Edition improved on the historical accuracy of the order of battle, for example, the amount of Prussian strength accounted for by the cavalry and the artillery was reduced, proportionately.

Some news things were added to the Third Edition, such as the army leaders Napoleon Blucher and Wellington and a streamlined battle board procedure and some things taken away -- like the horse artillery. Being a much larger game another thing lost was the short playing time.

Opinions were mixed on the net effect of these changes. For many of us, the new version of Napoleon was really an entirely new game that didn't supplant the old one at all -- and it has its own entry in BoardGame Geek.

The changes were, overall, less than successful, in my opinion. While worthwhile individually, in sum they changed the game dynamic fundamentally. While not resulting in a bad game, the changes did result in a very different one. I attirbute this to a fundamental reshaping of the maneuver dynamic of the game -- which is not a small thing, as the essence of Napoleon in Maneuver, not the combat system.

This happened because the size of the map and the ability of troops to move on  it increased only slightly, while the number of blocks nearly doubled. For example  the French Army went from having 18 blocks to having 38 blocks, more than doubling -- but the maximum road capacity of a primary road only increased by a quarter, from 8 blocks to 10 blocks. Also, the number of orders available to each side did not increase in proportion. In the old AGH game each side had TWO orders and the Allies had to split their two orders to just one each. IN the new edition everybody got one additional order, but this meant the French increased by 50 % while having twice as many blocks to move on a road net that was only 25% more capable. Meanwhile the Allies got Twice as many orders as before to move 70% more units.

The net effect was that the French, which used to have a more agile and mobile army than the Allies, now had the more ponderous one, by a substantial margin. This made it difficult for the French to force the P-AA into action within the time limit of the game.

Some approved of the changes, but I think it's safe to say that most fans of the original, Avalon Hill version were not persuaded all the changes represented improvements, so it was good news when Columbia announced that a new edition of Napoleon was planned and that it would be more like the AH version than the 3rd Edition.

As it turns out, I'd rate this as partially true. In size, the game definitely resembles the AH edition more. According to the Beta version of the proposed OB sent to me by Columbia there will be 23 French blocks. This is much more comparable to the 18 blocks in the AG edition than the 38 in the Third Edition. Likewise, the Prussians are slightly bigger now, with 17 blocks instead of the AH 16 blocks and nothing like the 25 in 3rd Edition. The Anglo-Allied army is actually smaller, this time with just 13 blocks instead of 14, although the CV is slightly higher. There were 19 in Third Edition.

While the blocks again represent roughly half a corps each, like the AH game, there are some significant adjustments to the OB and some of those changes resemble things we saw in Third Edition. For one thing, the leaders are still there -- Napoleon, Blucher and Wellington are all 1CV units that also have some movement and morale benefits.

In a refinement borrowed from other Columbia block games, units now have Firepower Ratings ranging from F1 (hitting a die roll of 1 only) to F3 (hits on rolls of 1 through 3) Im earlier editions all troops of the same branch were the same. In the Avalon Hill edition the Imperial Guard was just another 4CV infantry block, no different in the game than the German troops in the Anglo-Allied Reserve Corps. Now the Old Guard is F# while the Landwehr is just F1.

While the number of blocks is similar to the AH version the CV values in the 4th Edition are much higher.  In the Avalon Hill edition there were no Prussian units with a CV of 4, now there are 8. Conversely the old AH edition gave the Prussians 9 units with a CV of 2, now there are just four. Similar boost apply to the other armies so that the average CV per block has generally increased.

The horse artillery is back, but only for the French, who have one block.

How all this hangs together is not clear. The new map is little larger than the original AH map but the maximum road limits are back to 8. Yet the two sides keep their 3rd Edition allotment of orders -- 3 for Napoleon and two each for Blucher and Wellington so I expect that all three armies will have agile styles more similar to the Avalon Hill version than the Third Edition. The P-AA retain their heightened mobility from the Third Edition, but an important change to the victory conditions limits how much of a rope-a-dope strategy they can employ. In every earlier edition the burden of victory is on the French -- and it mostly still is -- except that if the French can occupy all three Allied home bases at the end of the game they can also win. This would seem to negate the common anti-French gambit of a late game retreat if at least one Allied army could make sure it didn't reach its break point. This gambit was hard to pull off in the AH edition because of the French mobility edge, but in Third Edition it was a real problem and a big reason why I only played with the historical setup. A free set up made it too easy for the Allies.

In the new edition, each block carries an historical ID, although only by corps, not at the divisional level like 3rd Edition.

The tentative OB is as follows:

Napoleon CV1 F1
Guard infantry CV4 F3
Guard Cavalry CV3 F3
Guard artillery CV3 F3 & CV2 F3
I Corps infantry CV3 F2 times two
I Corps artillery CV2 F2
II Corps infantry CV4 F2 & CV3 F2
II Corps artillery CV2 F2
III Corps infantry CV3 F2 & CV2 F2
III Corps artillery CV2 F2
IV Corps infantry CV4 F2
VI Corps infantry CV3 F2
VI Corps artillery CV2 F1
Cavalry Corps cavalry Two @ CV3 F3, one CV4 F2 & one CV3 F2
Cavalry Corps horse artillery CV2 F2

Wellington CV1 F1
Reserve Corps infantry one CV3 F3 and one CV3 F1
Reserve corps artillery CV2 F2
I Corps infantry one CV4 F2 & one CV4 F1
I Corps artillery CV 2 F2
II Corps infantry one CV4 F2 & one CV3 F1
II Corps artillery CV2 F2
Cavalry Corps CV4 F2, CV2 F3 & CV2 F1

Blucher CV1 F2
I Corps infantry two @ CV4 F2
I corps cavalry CV2 F1
I Corps artillery CV4 F2
II Corps infantry one CV4 F2 & one CV4 F1
II Corps cavalry CV3 F2
II Corps artillery CV3 F2
III Corps infantry one CV3 F2 & one CV3 F1
III Corps cavalry CV2 F2
III Corps artillery CV2 F2
IV Corps infantry two @ CV4 F1
IV Corps cavalry CV2 F2
IV Corps artillery CV 4 F2

As always, these are subject to change in the final published edition.