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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ambiguous anniversary -- 10 years after Iraq, personal thoughts

Seth In Iraq, April 2003
From early childhood I was always fascinated with the military, the history of war and soldiering. I cannot remember a time when this wasn't so. Before I was out of elementary school I had read every book of military history at my local library. Growing up I always knew what I was going to do when I grew up -- be a soldier.

Along the way I discovered other loves and interests as well, and being a journalist often vied for first place in my heart, but when it came time to apply for college (and there was absolutely no question of a skipping college, as I wanted to be an officer) my selection criteria were two -- that it have a journalism program and that it have ROTC. I had also applied for West Point, and my Congressman, Rep. Hastings Keith, had appointed me as an alternate, but the primary apparently went and I wasn't willing to wait another year.

Now 30+ years of life brings a lot of detours, side trips and changes in perspective and it's not my place here to recount my entire life story. Suffice it to say that I did get the chance to be both a journalist and a soldier, so I did get to be what I wanted to be when I grew up. But the 10 year anniversary being marked today has much more to do with the soldierly part of my personal story, than the journalist part.

Naturally, a military career involves the possibility of going to war and, as it turned out, right up until New Year's Day of 2003, I thought the twists and turns of fate were going to mean that it was my fate to serve a full military career without ever going to war. Sure, there had been plenty of wartime incidents since I earned my commission in 1979 -- Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Kuwait and more. But it always seemed that I was in the wrong place as each happened and I missed out. For example, because I was the Commandant's List graduate at the Field Artillery School, I was offered the opportunity to go on active duty and I had a choice of going to Fort Bragg for the 82d Airborne or going to Germany. Well, I'd always wanted to go to Germany, so that was my selection -- and just as I arrived in Germany Grenada happened!  While there's no guarantee I would gone to Grenada anyway -- possibly a newly arrived lieutenant might not have been deployed -- it's possible I might have. Instead I spent three years serving in Germany in the Cold War that never turned hot.

Likewise I missed the first Gulf War because I was in the Yankee Division at the time and it wasn't activated.

So I watched the gathering war clouds in late 2002 like every other citizen, with little notion that I might personally be affected. When asked, as I was often, I would tell people that it seemed very unlikely that the Army would need or want a broken-down old major from the Individual Ready Reserve.

And then on Jan. 7, 2003, the telegram came.

"Pursuant to Presidential Executive Order of 14 Sept., 2001, you are relieved from your present reserve component status and are ordered to active duty."

My daughter could hear from from the hallway as I employed my soldierly vocabulary rather loudly to express my astonishment.

So on Feb. 2, the day after my 48th birthday, I was off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma and a peculiar adventure.

Through a series of events that are all-to-familiar to anyone who has spent any time in uniform and yet are too banal to be worth memorializing, I found myself watching the start of the Iraq War like most everyone else -- on CNN. In my case, I was watching the opening salvos from a hotel room in Fort Carson, Colo., where I was temporarily parked while I waited for transportation to join my wartime assigned unit -- Joint Special Operations Task Force -- North.

Yeah, in yet another peculiarity of my wartime career, I was on my way to take part in the war in the Kurdish zone up north. Ironically, I would get to earn a combat patch after all -- and that patch would be the Special Forces Patch!!!  I will credit my extensive reading of history to help me handle the capriciousness of wartime fate that brought this result. For it meant, quite frankly, that I had a very easy war, personally.

Joint Special Operations Task Force North was built around the Headquarters, 10th Special Forces Group, and they were on the move, so it took me a while to catch up to them, but finally in early April I did, in Costanza, Romania, after passing through Germany. And so I got to watch the fall of Baghdad, like many of you -- on Fox News, which we had a feed for. Eventually I ended up in Iraq, itself. If you look at the map, below, from the wargame Operation Iraqi Freedom, I landed in hex "I-2" flying in on a C-17 I shared with an M1 tank! We rode into a convoy to Irbil, in hex H-2 on the map, where I spent the next 35 days working in the HQ for JSOFTF-N.  For most of that time I held a position on the staff called "Ground Fires Officer" which essentially meant I was coordinating the artillery in the JSOFTF-N area. This would have been an interesting job -- except for the Turkish parliament. Because Turkey refused to let the 4th Infantry Division invade Iraq via Turkey, they had to go through Kuwait instead -- which meant there was no artillery in JSOFTF-N to coordinate! We had a grand total of six guns of 105mm artillery in the entire area (and that only because the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade insisted on bringing his whole brigade). All our fire support was provide by air, so the Air Force guy sitting next to me was pretty busy, but I had little to do except watch his desk while he went to the latrine and a few other admin tasks.

It was a great ringside seat, however. While much smaller than the Task Force that invaded Iraq from Kuwait, JSOFTF-N was considered a corps-level command under CENTCOM and therefore I got to see the war unfold at a higher level HQ.

Operation Iraqi Freedom. Seth passed through hexes I-2, H-2, H-3 and H-4
A little over a month after arriving in Iraq the 10th SFG handed over control of operations in northern Iraq to the 101st Airborne and pulled out -- European Command wanted their Green Berets back. So we drive through Hex H-3 to hex H-4 (Kirkuk) and flew out, bound for Germany and then Colorado and my war was over, just like that. It took another six months for the Army to finally decide it didn't need me anymore and send me home, but those six months were just spent in casual duty at Ft. Carson and Ft. Sill.

So I had an easy war. Remarkably, we did not suffer a single fatal casualty among American forces in JSOTF-N while I was there. Our job was to tie down Saddam's forces in Northern Iraq so they couldn't intervene  elsewhere. To do that we had an eclectic mix of forces. Numerically, the bulk of the force was represented by about 60,000 Kurdish Peshmerga militia, but the bulk of the combat power was represented by the three battalions of green berets of the 10th Special Forces Group. At various times we also had a battalion of infantry from the 10th Mountain Division, a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade and other stuff. There was air support provided by the USAF, USMC and USN. Oh, and some folks from the "Other Government Agency" were about, here and there.

So here's my ambivalence about the whole experience. I got to go to war, after all, which was a childhood ambition and the culmination of an entire military career. And I'm thankful that I came through it not only physically safe, but spared any real psychological toll from my experience. As I have told people before, it's an oddity of my life that, despite being a "combat vet," that the only place I've been downrange from hostile fire ended up being as a reporter in Brockton, Massachusetts!

And yet, while I am proud of my service, I have come to feel very disillusioned about what that service amounted to. While nothing I did contributed to that outcome, the bottom line is that the war I was in ended up being a huge disaster for my country.

Like most Americans, I was deeply affected by 9/11 and when the Bush administration made its case for war, I was prepared to believe them. I was convinced that they must have secret information that proved that Saddam really had WMD and was ready to use it. Certainly we acted at JSOTF-N as if that were the case. It was a genuine concern throughout combat ops. I would have found it unbelievably cynical to think that the administration was wrong about there being WMD. And I simply assumed that the government would not do something like invade without having a well-thought-out postwar plan.

Well, we know now that I was wrong, of course. Not only were there no WMD, but worse, there was no plan. You know, I can forgive the delusion about the WMD. We were owed better, but they were human and I understand how human failings can lead to a delusion like the WMD fiasco. But I can't forgive the lack of planning for the postwar situation. I mean, there was no possibility we were going to lose the fighting part of the war. Zero, zilch, nada. Long before the end of World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall and his planners started planning for the end of World War II -- and while many mistakes were made in 1945 and 1946, there was a plan and it was carried out and it basically worked. So what's the excuse for the Iraq debacle? There was at least as much time available planning for that postwar world as Marshall had.

So, while we won the initial campaign, we lost the war because we were failed at the highest levels. And I resent it. I resent it that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Franks lost my war.

Those who follow me online at Facebook and elsewhere know that I have been a consistent critic of those who advocate for war with Iran, and I'll make no bones about it, my Iraq War experience drives that criticism. I've since retired from the Army. I, personally, won't be going back to war. (Any scenario that has me toting a  rifle again is so dire that you know we'd in deep doodoo.) But I have had to go to a funeral for someone who died in the war -- a friend of my daughter -- and I have seen the corrosive cost of the Iraq War on our politics, our budget, our civil liberties and our good sense. The bar has been raised, in my view. For at least the second time in my life, I have seen the government get us into an ill-advised war (Vietnam, now Iraq) that it couldn't win.  Third time is not a charm.

So 10 years on, I find myself an older, sadder and, I hope, wiser man. I hope it's also a wiser country.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Guadalcanal Diary -- AAM style

Co. B, 5th Marines, upper right, and Co. L, 5th Marines, lower left, prepare to advance 
As has been my practice, when I recently revisited the official Axis & Allies scenarios GC-1 & GC-2, which I played together as  a combined game, I revised the OB to account for units now available that were proxied in the early scenarios.

The twin scenarios are unusual, as each half of the scenario has the same OB. There was no need to adjust the Japanese OB, which is comprised on one Imperial Sergeant, four Arisaka Rifles, one Type 89 mortar and one Type 92 machine gun per group.

The American side, on the other hand, had a couple of appropriate substitutions. First I substituted Marine Riflemen for the M1 Garand, now that Marines showed up in Contested Skies, which seems appropriate as the two American forces involved are Co. B and Co. L of the 5th Marines. THe North Africa set finally gave us the M1919 MG to replace the Vickers MG that did so much duty as  a proxy for Allied machine guns in so many scenarios. Each company is comprised of six Marine Rifleman squads and one M1919 MG section. Rounding out each company is the one piece that didn't need changing from the originally published scenario -- the Mortar M2 at one per company.

As the Marine Rifleman cost the same as the M1 Garand and the M1919 MG just on emore point than the Vickers, I daw no need to adjust the Japanese OB for balance.

The maps are the basic Able-2, Baker-2, Charlie-2 and Dog-1, but heavily modified by scenario special rule to turn almost the entire map into LOS-blocking, cover roll-providing terrain. While some hills and town hexes remain unchanged, many others and all clear terrain are turned into forest hexes. As the Forest (Jungle) terrain type had not yet appeared when the scenario was published I left the terrain effects unchanged as "Forest," judging that the mobility hindrances of the later terrain type would have made the scenario unplayable.

This unusually close terrain meant that the mortars and machine guns on both sides lost most of their utility as there were few places where they could fire more than one hex away. The same factor robbed the Marine Riflemen of most of their advantage over the Arisaka Rifle units. The game was going to be a knife fight.

The SA of the Marine Riflemen -- Gung Ho -- seemed to have some promise as it might deter some Japanese attempts to close into close combat due to defensive fire.

The marines have to set up first, so I took that side. I set up the L Company on Baker-2 next to the pond, figuring it was the only place where I might get some ranged shots. B Company set up at the edge of the Hill on Charlie-2. One Japanese platoon set up in Matanikau Village on Dog-1, while most of the other platoon setup just east of the edge of Matanikau in the hexes of Charlie-2 that looked like village but were scenario defined as more woods. The only exception was one Type 89, which set up in the march next to the pond to get a first turn pop shot at the Marines across the pond.

The close terrain, limited mobility of both sides and objective-oriented victory conditions meant there wasn't a lot of fancy maneuvering. Both Marine companies advanced to contact, while the Japanese platoons avoided it until Turn 3, except for the Type 89 mortar by the pond, which was quickly eliminated. Turns 4-6 saw the Marines and Japanese in a heavy firefight along the edges of the villages and the Marines slowly attempted to surround it in order to get Enfilade Fire bonuses (We used the Expanded Rules except for the deadly defensive fire option. ). The Marine succeeded in getting the bonuses but didn't succeed in rolling well enough to take advantage of them. One particularly bad turn of fire saw the Marines fail to do any fatal damage at all and I considered this the turning point of the game, as the Japanese slowly won fire superiority.

The last couple of turns saw desperate attempts by the Marines to salvage something but they fell far shot and, as  it turned out, the final outcome as the Marines were left with a  sole surviving Marine Rifleman squad facing three Arisaka Rifle and one Imperial Sergeant at game end.

It was a good scenario and seemed very evenly matched. When I had played it out solitaire a couple of time each side one, so I it appears well balanced.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Exciting news for Tide of Iron

Fantasy Flight Games and a new outfit called 1A Games jointly announced that FFG has licensed the Tide of Irons game system to 1A.

Details here;

This is an interesting development and may do for Tide of Irons what MMP did for ASL, in that 1A has been founded specifically for the Tide of Iron line.

Tide of Iron has been well received, but it did seem to be on hiatus as far as attention from FFG went, and I was wondering if we were ever going to see it move to the Pacific, for example. We still don't know, and it appears that the first 1A product will be based on the fighting at Stalingrad, but a Japanse expansion seems pretty obvious direction to go.
While a new company, the principals ar enot new. Bill Jaffe and Dama Lombardy have already both been involved in Tide of Iron expansions and Mr. Lombardy, in particular, is a real hobby old-timer. He was editor for the first serious competitor of Strategy & Tactics magazine, called Conflict, back in the early 70s.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal -- Review with an eye to art

"Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal and the other games in the Axis & Allies series are what could be called an artistic interpretation of the historical battles they represent. I use the word artistic because I'm a designer and sincerely see games to be an art form. If these games were paintings they would have been painted with a broad brush indeed." -- Larry Harris in the Designer's Notes for A&A: Guadalcanal, 2007

Like many Boomer generation wargamers, I was primed for exposure to "real" wargames by the neat series of American Heritage games published by Milton Bradley in the 1960s that included the titles Battle-Cry, Broadside, Dogfight and Hit the Beach. None of these was anything resembling a "simulation." Only Dogfight  might be considered a very light wargame by today's standards -- the others were war-themed abstracts more than anything else.

While not being simulations they did, however, provoke an emerging interest, sparked not only by the theme and play of the game -- but by the nice little booklet enclosed in each game that discussed the historical events that inspired the game in the first place.  Broadside and Dogfight led to Midway and Afrika Korps, which in turn led to Strategy & Tactics magazine games and Persian Incursion.

For later generations of wargamers I think the various Axis & Allies series games have played  a similar role. While hardly simulations, they still exhibit a respect and even love of history that shines through despite their highly abstract nature.

A&A: Guadalcanal is not the place to go for a detailed study of the order of battle, tactics or chronology of the Solomons Campaign. Indeed, the name of the game is somewhat of  a misnomer, because it doesn't concern itself with just the fighting on Guadalcanal, unlike the earlier Avalon Hill Game. A&A:G is about the entire campaign for the Solomon Islands -- or at least that's the area depicted on the map board.

This is unsurprising, as the fighting on the island alone is hard to design a good wargame for. The Japanese were essentially campaigning on a mistaken premise -- that the Marine garrison was small enough for the Japanese to defeat. In fact the Allied land force was several times larger than the Japanese thought and the Japanese land forces were never really very close to winning. The contests was much closer at sea and in the air and, really, that's where the campaign would be won or lost. Had the Japanese won  air and sea superiority the the size of the Allied garrison would not have mattered.

Like all Axis & Allies series games, the presentation of A&A:G is very high quality. The distinctive trait of an A&A game is the little plastic toy soldiers and weapons used for playing pieces. Each of the sides has models representing infantry, artillery, AA guns, transports, submarines, destroyers, cruisers, battleships, aircraft carrriers, fighters and bombers. While the AA guns are generic sculpts, the others are distinct by nation and based on historical examples, with the Americans in green and the Japanese in orange. There was a production error that switched the cruiser models, so the Japanese sculpt is in American green and the American cruiser in Japanese orange. This has no effect on play, but free replacements were (and maybe still are) available from Hasbro's customer service upon request.

Even the "correct" models aren't historically precise. The American battleship is depicted by an Iowa class , for example, which did not fight in the Solomons -- nor did the Shinano, which is used to represent the Japanese carrier.

Other key elements of the campaign are depicted by die-cut cardboard pieces -- supplies and airfields.

There are also cardboard control makers, a token to show the first player and "advantage tokens" used as an optional rule. Red and grey plastic chips are used to represent additional units of the same type when stacked beneath them, with far more than will be needed in play provided.

There's a very nicely mounted full-color mapboard showing the Solomon Islands chain from Bouganville to Guadalcanal with two small supplementary base cards for the main bases at Rabbaul and New Caledonia which abut the main map. The map is divided into land areas and sea zones. There are six land ares representing islands or groups of islands and 11 sea zones. The two adjoining base cards each add a land area and sea zone as well for a total of 21 possible locations in the game, which is not a large number by wargame standards.

There are two cardboard player aid sheets and a 28-page lavishly illustrated rule book.

There are a dozen black dice and a unique "Battle Box" which is used to hold them. This is probably the most controversial aspect of the game, with players either loving it or hating it. The basic function of the box is to randomize the dice and then assign their outcomes to specific unit types. This is a departure from the usual procedure in Axis & Allies games which allows the unit's owner to assign hits as desired, which protects the more valuable pieces. In A&A:G a single hit might go straight to that carrier or vital transport you were escorting.

Critics question the randomization provided by the box, because it appears too narrow to really allow a good spin and the general awkwardness of manipulating it. Some players have come up with an alternative system that uses 12 differently hued dice instead.

Overall the game is very attractively presented.

Aiding setup, all the starting locations are printed directly on the map, so setting up should be completed within a few minutes.

Each turn is divided into three phases, with each player taking alternating actions throughout, so there is little of the bane of wargames -- downtime. Both players are fully engaged all the time.

The first phases in MOVEMENT, with the First Player and then the Second Player moving in turn, in sequence: Transports, battleship,s, carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, bombers and finally fighters. Players alternate within each sequence, so, for example, the First Player moves his transports, then the Second player moves transports, then First Player moves battleships, and so on. This creates a lot of scope for strategic play.

Phase Two is COMBAT, which is likewise done in an interactive sequence, although this time divided by target: Attack air units, Attack sea units, unload transports and destroyers and finally Attack land units/airfields. Again, a simple system that creates some interesting tactical decisions.

The Third phase is REGROUP, which like the other phases is conducted through a sequence where each player alternates doing the steps: Determine island control, land air units, build airfields, repair/reinforce/deploy, score victory points and finally, pass the First Player marker -- so players alternate being First Player each turn.

Each unit type has unique characteristics. Infantry, for example, costs 1 reinforcement point to build, has no ability to attack air or sea units and has  a "Land Attack" value of "1," which means it adds one die to number of dice rolled when attacking land units.  In comparison, a battleship costs 12 to build, but adds 1 die when attacking air units, three dice against sea units and 2 dice against land units.

Some units, battleships cruisers and artillery, have a range which allows them to fire into an adjacent zone as well.

Units also differ widely in their movement. All sea units can move one sea zone, while land units can't move on their own at all, but have to be transported. Air units have a range (2 for fighters, 3 for bombers) which they get to use twice per turn, once in the movement phase and then again in the Regroup Phase.

Reinforcement points are earned by controlling islands, starting from a base level of 10, with four per controlled island. Here there was another critical error in the published game, which lists the values as 5 and 2, respectively. Errata with the correct value was published online immediately, although the game is playable with the lower values. Presumably both sides would find themselves starved of resources with the lower figures. Besides getting new units, players can spend reinforcement points to buy supply tokens. Supply tokens, which cost 2 reinforcement points each, are the game's real 'currency' and can be spent to build new airfields, repair ships and airfields and deploy sea units closer to the front. Like any good resource management game, A&A:G will never give you enough supply to do everything, and proper attention to logistics is just as critical as battle management for victory.

Victory is achieved by being the first player to score 15 victory points. The most common way to earn VPs is by controlling an undamaged airfield -- one per airfield per turn. Players can also earn VP by sinking enemy capital ships (battleships and carriers - one each). This builds in a de facto time limit of  four, or maybe five, game turns. Each player starts with one airfield and can easily build 2-3 more shortly, so 15 will likely be reached by one or both players by turn 4 or 5. IF players are tied, they play another turn until the tie is broken.

So that's the basics: A very abstract, military themed game -- or is it a wargame?

It's clearly not a "simulation." No time scale is specified or implied. There's no direct correlation between the game pieces and the historical order of battle. The game''s geography is accurate, but highly simplified.

But there's some fidelity to history, nonetheless. There's interplay between services and scope for combined arms tactics. The essence of the land-sea-air campaign and its components are present and interact with each other. A battleship isn't just differently named than a destroyer but is functionally distinct as well -- something many "real" wargames of the SPI era didn't do.

And there's definitely some game, there. Players have real choices to make and strategies to try.

Five years on, the consumer verdict on Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal is in. It wasn't a breakout hit, but clearly it's not a flop. It appears to be out of print -- the few copies on Amazon are listed for more than $100 and it's not seeing a lot of play on eBay, so getting a copy now may be more trouble than it's worth -- but if you already have a copy I think it would be worth pulling it out again, as it appears to be somewhat underrated. It may not have been enough of  a "simulation" to please many wargamers and yet there's far too much wargame there for most non-wargamer tastes, but there is an interesting game there and a good impressionistic take on the Solomons Campaign. I think Harris' characterization of a game as a form of art is a useful context to use.  Just as a photograph and a painting of the same topic can each provide different insights into a subject, so can different styles of wargames.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Up Front facing a bad RNC check it appears

BoardgameGeek thread reports that some additional legal issues (not related to Up Front, itself) have cropped up that are putting the project at risk.

The thread is here but the gist of the situation is that someone who loaned money to Valley Games has sued for repayment and has gotten a judge to agree to attach the assets of Radiant games claiming that VG transferred its assets to Radiant merely to avoid having to legitimately repay him.

Naturally, as a legal matter it's pretty messy and there's no way for me to judge either the merits of the respective arguments or the likely outcome. It's bad news because I had gone ahead and pledged the Kickstarter ... and it will be disappointing to lose the money if it ends up not happening. I guess my existing copies of Up Front may retain their collector's value a bit longer.

I had to say, I did have my doubts as to whether I should do the UF Kickstarter because the legal issues were floating around out there. I finally decided to take the plunge because the Rewards were so good -- but  Kickstarter makes sure to emphasize that there are no guarantees.

I've backed three other KS projects. Two are with pretty well-established outfits -- Columbia Games and Steve Jackson Games and I'm not too worried about them coming through. The third is The Guns of Gettysburg which is from an outfit I have less familiarity with -- Mercury Games, but no storm clouds have been noted. In related news, Bowen Simmons health issues seem to have forced him to discontinue filling orders for Napoleon's Triumph, which is a pity. Hopefully he will get better soon. If I hadn't gotten laid off getting a  second copy of NT was on my to-do list. Hopefully there will still be  a chance to do that in the future.