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.