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.