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.