The youngest RMN Boy needs to work a bit on his writing, so we ask him to write a short item on weekends. This weekend, he wrote about the new game arrival, Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games, 2016). What follows is his short essay (very lightly edited by me). Note that when he refers to the “game mat” he is taking about the Player Boards.
Overall, I think the game Terraforming Mars is a great game because of the cards and game mat, but I wish the game mat was more 3D-like.
The cards in Terraforming Mars are one of the reasons I like this game. The cards are what helps build your Corporation. Cards can also help or hurt fellow players. Cards help get money or resources or sometimes both. Finally, there is a variety of cards, over 200.
The game mat is another reason why I think this is a great game. The game mat is very easy to read and nice looking. The game mat works well with the money and it makes you feel rich with all the gold cubes!
I do wish the game mat was more 3D-like, like the game mat in Scythe. The Scythe game mat has holes to hold the cubes. The game mat in Terraforming Mars is too flat and if you accidentally hit the table, the cubes will move.
For all these reasons; the cards and the game mat, and even though I wish the game mat was more 3D-like, I still think Terraforming Mars is a great game.
RMN Dad’s Comment: I wish he talked more about the game play in Terraforming Marsbut that will come with time. We have already looked at GamerTrayz and we may be making an order in the near future.
With regards to the game itself, Terraforming Marsis actually a text-dense game; although there is much symbology used on the Project Cards they ultimately must be resolved through a careful reading of the card. This can be challenging considering the RMN Boys are a middle-schooler or on the Autism Spectrum with a reading disability. It is a testimony to the careful editing of the text on the cards that we all found them easy to understand and implement, although the strategic application of the cards will take many plays to grasp!
Last week I gave you my Personal Top 10 Games. This week I am looking at the wargames I least like in my collection. This does not automatically mean they are bad games. The truth to the matter is these games have either not aged well or I have a very hard time connecting to them.
Ground Rules – I only have six games on my list. These are all games that I give a BoardGameGeek rating of 4.0. To arrange these in the order below, I compared my ranking to the BGG Geek Rating and arranged the list in decreasing order of the difference.
Billing itself as “The most realistic non-computerized flight simulator on the market” may be genius marketing, but I feel so stupid when I try to play this game. I tried to learn this one several times and just can’t wrap my head around it. Seemingly lots of promise that I am unable to connect to.
A two-player wargame covering the Taiping Rebellion in Manchu China between 1850 and 1868. Insert game in Strategy & Tactics magazine #116. A Richard H. Berg design means it “should” be decent (if not maybe a bit pedestrian). Maybe it was the messy rules that keeps me from enjoying this one.
A real granddaddy of aerial combat games. Bought more for collection than to really play. Surpassed by more modern games (though Birds of Preyshows how one can go too far). The BGG Rating is 4.9…not that different from my 4.0.
Another air combat game? Maybe I rank these too harshly? Or is it that making a good air combat game is hard? Realism vs. playability? Difficulty learning? I long saw Air War as realistic but very difficult to learn making it near-unplayable.
I find it interesting that three of my six least liked games are air combat games. Maybe I expect too much of aerial combat wargames?
Three of the games are from the 70’s (I count Air War as 1977 based on the SPI edition) and probably suffer from being “early” designs.
The presence of Manchu is not totally a surprise to me; I recently have been going through older magazine games in my collection – and not liking what I am discovering. Manchu could be joined by a few more titles in the near-future….
Little RMN took the two American carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. The Japanese fleet command was divided with Middle RMN sailing carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku while I sailed light carriers Zuiho and Junyo.
TFoM starts with a both sides searching for the other. This is how the initial hand of Combat Cards is built and determines advantage – the first to find the third carrier gets the first VP. Advantage in turn drives the use of doctrine; the Confident side (leading VP) has to follow their Admiral’s Doctrine while the Desperate side (behind in VP) gets more Combat Cards and doesn’t have to follow doctrine.
At the end of the search phase the Japanese were Confident and the Americans Desperate. This means the US player could have 9 Combat Cards in his hand but the Japanese were limited to 7 – divided between the two players. This in turn meant Middle RMN had 4 cards while I only had three.
With the fleets located the battle switched into launching airstrikes. TFoM uses Action Cards to help determine the order with each carrier being dealt an Action Card. One turned face-up, the Confident player can “steal” one of the opponents cards and switch them. Each Action Card allows for one of three actions – launch full airstrike, launch a partial airstrike and make repairs, or repairs only. Cards earlier in the action order go first but don’t have as many actin points as later cards. This means earlier cards allow for the “first strike” but later cards might create “the heavy blow.” As luck would have it, my carriers drew Action slots 1 & 2, the Americans got 4 & 5, and Middle RMN with the heavy Japanese carriers drew 5 & 6.
Zuiho and Junyo both launches strikes. The American carriers tried to hide in an area of Low Clouds which adds range to strike movement. Even with the challenge, both strikes arrived over the American carriers in a Fueled status. In the resulting battles, the American CAP and Anti-Aircraft fire proved mostly effective and only a lone hit on Hornet resulted. The American airstrikes focused on the light carriers and damaged Junyo. The later Japanese strikes from the heavy carriers succeeded in hitting Hornet once more.
In the second turn, the carriers generally held range, but this time the Japanese heavies and the Americans had the top 4 slots of the Action Order. By the time the round was over, Junyo and Hornet were sunk. With that, the Americans withdrew and the Japanese side was the winner. Close to the historical result, but a bit of a let-down to play.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
TFoM is a very formulaic game. Each carrier in the Action Order follows a strict turn sequence. In a two-player game this works just fine but in a three-player (or maybe four-player?) scenario there is lots of downtime for the third player. On the plus side, combat is very easy; first compare a pool of combat dice (highest SINGLE die wins) then roll for damage against a damage track found on different cards.
Our gameplay experience was a bit blah. I generally knew the rules but had not played in a while making the first round a bit slow as it was necessary to reference the rulebook several times. Play was faster on the second round, but the formulaic sequence of play made the game feel more like a checklist then a narrative experience. We finished the game but the RMN Boys are not anxious for a replay.
When I first started wargaming nearly 40 years ago I was in it for the simulation. I was unabashedly a simulationist – the more “real” the game was the more I liked it! Looking back, I now realize that the best games I ever played (i.e. the ones of remember) featured great narrative moments (like the one time in Star Fleet Battles I spectacularly lost the battle when I failed my High Energy Turn and tumbled my ship). These days, I seek a more narrative experience in the battle. I have really discovered this with the start of our family game nights; the RMN Boys and I connect better when a game builds a narrative and is not simply a simulation. This may be why games like Conflict of Heroes or Scythe or 1775 – Rebellionare landing on the game night table repeatedly; the gameplay itself builds an enjoyable narrative experience.
The Fires of Midway is not a bad game. Given the level of abstraction represented by the cards and simple map it can hardly be called simulatonist. But the formulaic gameplay makes finding the narrative experience difficult. Maybe if we play it with only two-players and are fully familiar with the rules we might find that narrative experience. Until then there are other games to play.
Let me be clear up front – I generally like South China Sea but wish it was better. I honestly have little room to complain as I was a marginal participant in the open playtest designer John Gorkowski ran. I did a pass through the original rules draft and provided comments to John. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay involved. So in a sense I had my chance to influence the game before publication and failed. I should be happy with what the product is; and like I said I generally am. That said, I still have conflicts!
South China Sea(hereafter SCS) is a combination of two games played out in Political Turns and Military Turns. Political Turns represent 3-7 weeks of international action. If (when?) conflict erupts, the game transitions to Military Turns representing several hours of combat operations.
This is SCS‘s first conflict; is it a political or military game? Political Turns are played using a deck of cards. Some cards are playable only by Global Powers (US and China) while others can only be played by the Regional Powers (Malaysia, Vietnam, The Philippines). Card play moves the Victory Point Track which starts at 10VP. Moving down the track (minus VP) is good for the US, while moving up the track (positive VP) is good for China. So for the US to win they have to have less VP. [Forgive me for being an American, but having less VP seems counterintuitive to me.]
My second conflict with SCS is Armed Conflict, specifically how it happens. Certain cards call for a Roll for Armed Conflict which, if failed, moves the game to Military Turns. Now, I guess I can see how (few) cards affect the initial set-up, but it is few. I am not sure the balance between the Political Turns and Military Turns in really there; the Roll for Armed Conflict seems to be a rush to get the “forces to sea” and start the fight.
My third conflict with SCS is the Military Turns themselves. I am conflicted here because I actually really like the Military Turn Sequence and how it uses rules for Situational Awareness. Although units on the map are “spotted,” they must be Illuminated to be targeted. Evasion is how units escape Illumination, and Hiding is avoiding Illumination. These rules are a simple way to portray the battle to locate the other side. Combined with a very simple Strike mechanic (2d6 + Weapon System Score +/- Modifiers vs Defense Score or Missile Defense) combat is resolved quickly. The Air/Sea Engagement Sequence captures the order of Strikes with Stealth Rating vitally important as most Strikes are resolved in descending order of Stealth Rating. Thus, the Stealth Rating (3) F-35 fires first against the Stealth Rating (2) J-31. Simple mechanics makes for simple combat resolution while maintaining the feel of modern naval combat.
My fourth conflict in SCS are the game components, specifically the map and counters. The counters feel a bit “thin” for my taste and are graphically very crowded. Having all the information needed to play on the counter face is very helpful but I and not sure you want to risk any corner clippers with these! The map is more problematic. Look below:
Although hard to see there are actually two map sheets. They do not butt against each other, but actually overlap by 5 hexes. Why? None of the scenarios are single mappers…so why the large overlap? Note also the littoral and sea hexes to the west of Myanmar. Why? Bangkok is not used in any scenario (Thailand is not a playable country) so is this for a future expansion? Another part that bothers me is the placement of the Guam and Okinawa Transit Tracks…on the northwest part of the map or away from where the US player is likely to sit (for it seems to me the logical seating would be PRC to the north, US to the south, Vietnam west, The Philippines to the northeast, and Malaysia to the southeast). Thus the Transit Tracks are about as far away from the US player as they could be. To my untrained eye it seems to me that west edge of the map could be five hexes closer and added to the east edge giving space to move the Transit Tracks to the same side of the map as the entry hexes.
I played a solo game to experiment with the rules and learn the game system. Although the Political Turns are not really soloable, in my effort to experiment with the system I played through a sample game assuming that:
China’s overarching goal was to assert sovereignty in the SCS
The US opposed China and wanted Freedom of Navigation
Malaysia generally supported the Chinese
Vietnam generally supported the US
The Philippines was focused inward (but leaned to the US)
After the cards were dealt I “played” out the first round. The Chinese led by publishing a negative Human Rights Report on the US but it didn’t shift world opinion. US companies in the meanwhile made a major Gas/Oil Find in the SCS and gained 2VP while avoiding armed conflict. Embassy Demonstrations in Malaysia were ignored, and a Humanitarian Disaster in Vietnam allowed the US to place one Arleigh Burke DDG near Cam Rahn Bay. The Philippines tried appeal for ASEAN Solidarity and when supported by Vietnam pushed the VP further to the US side. Of note, the VP Track starts at 10 VP with less VP good for the US and more VP favoring China. At the end of the first Political Turn the VP had moved 4VP towards the US (6VP on the track). In the Political Negotiation Phase, I simulated the give-n-take by trading cards since the Global Powers had cards they could not play and vice-versa for the Regional Powers.
In the second Political Turn the Chinese led off with a High Level Visit to Malaysia but again failed to move the Victory Track. The US played Economic Sanctions and, with the support of Vietnam and The Philippines, shifted the VP again (now at 5VP). Malaysia invited China for a Combined Military Exercise but it backfired and shifted world opinion further towards the US (VP track now at 4VP!). Not wanting to risk a conflict while things were going well for their patron, both Vietnam and The Philippines passed (discard). In the Political Negotiation Phase a few more cards were traded.
Trying to get something back, the Chinese declared a major Gas/Oil Find and shifted 2VP in their favor while avoiding armed conflict. The US played a High Level Visit that fizzled (no change in VP) and Malaysia passed (discard) while trying to avoid igniting a conflict. The Vietnamese instigated a Embassy Demonstration outside the of the PRC consulate but again the world ignored. The Philippines then tried to buy arms (Arms Sales) from the US, which agreed, and moved the VP marker to 2VP. However, the roll for armed conflict failed and the game moved to Military Turns.
Of note, playing strictly by the RAW and with 5-players and factoring in Analysis Paralysis, this card play portion of the game might of been 45 minutes or more. That’s assuming 2-minutes per card play and the 10-minute Negotiation Phase at the end of each 5-card round. All this interaction placed exactly one unit on the map in my game.
The scenario being played was Scenario 1: Clash of the Flattops. This pits a US Carrier Strike Group (CVN with F-35s escorted by DDG and a Virginia SSN in loose company) versus two Chinese CV with J-31 and J-15 navalized fighters and escorts supported by a Song/Yuan SS. The scenario calls for six Military Turns.
Combat was…quick. By the end of the third Military Turn the Chinese strike against the US carrier group had failed and the Americans refused to enter the range of SSMs on Hainan. One Chinese CV and both naval fighter squadrons were destroyed at the cost of one Vietnamese fighter squadron. Seeing no way to win, I declared a cease-fire in the Military Negotiation Phase at the end of the third Military Turn. The total play time for the Military Turns was maybe 30 minutes.
As a longtime fan, collector, and player of Victory Games’ Fleet Series, it is inevitable that I compare SCS to the Fleet Series. SCS, with its simple Strike resolution mechanic and superior Air/Sea Engagement Sequence is a faster playing, more streamlined game than the Fleet Series that also seemingly better captures the feel of modern naval combat. But SCS – at least this first iteration – seems to lack the some of the depth that the Fleet Series has. I admit that more depth may mean more “chrome” on the game and more rules overhead and time to play. I think it may be worth it as the “bones” of SCS (Situational Awareness, Strike, and the Air/Sea Engagement Sequence) are strong.
Finally, there are two other (very) small quibbles I have with SCS. The first is the subtitle and the reference to “South Pacific.” I’m sorry – when I think of the South Pacific I think of it in terms of World War II and the South China Sea is NOT part of that definition. Second, there is this section of the publisher’s blurb,
Most important, SCS allows naval units to move more than one hex in a single turn, but includes a mechanism, based on stealth, that enables the other side to “check” multi-hex moves to create a more dynamic, variable, and volatile environment. This last adjustment allows quick moves at a distance, but prevents close-in ships from “jumping” through the beaten zone of modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), 290 nmi in some cases.
In all my time as a naval grognard and while on active duty as a naval officer I never heard the term “beaten zone” used with ASCMs. “Engagement Zone” maybe, but not beaten zone. In my mind I associate beaten zone with artillery and the Army. Maybe I’m behind the times….
Military science fiction is often a hit-or-miss proposition to me, even more so with space combat which is often so “fantastical” that it becomes unbearable. But I am also a longtime fan of Frank Chadwick’s games (see his BoardGameGeek Ludography) and seeing how his latest book, Chain of Command, is being published by @BaenBooks (whose military science fiction I tolerate more so than other publishers) I gave it a try. It also didn’t hurt that I listened to the Bane Free Radio Hour (Episode 2017 09 29) where Mr. Chadwick discussed his book.
What really drew me to this book was Mr. Chadwick’s inspiration. As he writes in the Historical Note at the end of Chain of Command:
The inspiration for this novel grew from James D. Hornfischer’s stirring and detailed account of the naval campaign in the Solomon Islands (including Guadalcanal) in the second half of 1942–Neptune’s Inferno, but I never intended to shift the events of that campaign wholesale into deep space. A few incidents may be familiar to students of the historical battles, but my main interest was in how officers and sailors–as well as the admirals who lead them into battle with varying degrees of success–responded to a war which took them unaware and psychologically unprepared.
Mr. Chadwick goes on to list several books that further influenced the story. I was very happy to see Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea listed for I had thought nobody actually read these books anymore.
With all that in mind one could be forgiven for worrying that Chain of Command is just another “WW2 in space” story but I am happy to report that the book successfully overcomes that challenge. The science fiction technology tends a bit more towards the “hard science-fi” edge with just enough handwavium to explain away the science fiction. In many ways, the fantastical technology in the book traces its lineage to today’s technology which makes it all the more believable and relatable.
If military science fiction is your thing and you have even a passing interest in World War II naval combat, then Chain of Command could make a good addition to your reading list.
Along the way I taken a deep relook at my BoardGameGeek ratings. I have realigned many ratings, generally shifting more towards a 6.0 (OK – Will play if in the mood) than the 7+ (Good – Usually willing to play) I was at before. This time also afforded me a chance to look at my personal favorites and how they stack up on BGG (ratings/rank as of 08 October 2017):
I like this game for the simple game mechanics that still capture the feel of WWII combat. Absolutely unmatched with the Firefight Generator and Solo Missions expansion. CoH is notably my top ranked game, but also the game with a large rating disparity (my 9.5 versus a Geek Rating of 6.891 – a 2.61 overrating by me).
Modern naval combat. I think this game gets a bad rap; its not really that complicated to play once you get set-up and some planning completed. Apparently I vastly overrate this game against a Geek Rating of 5.682 or a 3.32 overrating by me.
World War II naval combat. Again, I think its underrated although I can see how it might only appeal to diehard grognards. The lowest BGG Wargame rank of my personal Top 10. Of my Top 10, this is the game with the greatest rating disparity against a Geek Rating of 5.626 or an overrating of 3.37 by me!
Actually paired with Wing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 [My Rating 9.0 / BGG Rating 8.5 / BGG Wargame Rank 286] these games both literally and figuratively changed my perspective of air combat games. Overrated – again – at a Geek Rating of 5.983 or a 2.77 overrate.
As an old Navy Squadron Intel Officer, this game is strike planning like I remember it. Not everyone likes the planning nor some of the abstractions, but to me this is realism and playability combined. Of my Top 10, this one has the least ratings disparity with my rating “only” 2.40 over the Geek Rating of 6.098.
So what have I learned? I learned that BoardGameGeek ratings and rankings are virtually useless!
I like games that others don’t – apparently many games that others would say I overrate. Not sure if it really means anything because I feel that the wargamer segment of BGG is underrepresented by users. It’s OK with me; I enjoy my hobby and hope to keep gaming for many years to come!
With the long holiday weekend here in the States, the RockyMountainNavy Boys asked for another game night. The Middle RMN Boy was the first to nominate a game so we went with his proposal: Nexus Ops.We had played Nexus Ops just a few weeks back and I wrote about my reservations. Tonight, I think the Middle RMN Boy made the right choice of game; we wanted a shorter game with easier rules – in ways a sorta “middle-length filler” experience.
We played the three-player version again. Little RMN got lucky and got many mines near his home base while I ended up with many fewer. Seeing my disadvantage, I jumped out early and grabbed the Monolith and started collecting Energizer Cards. Meanwhile, Middle RMN slowly built up an impressive force. Little RMN and I sparred over the Monolith, and I held on for awhile but at the cost of several Energizer Cards. Eventually, attrition took its toll and I lost the Monolith, forcing me to go totally defensive.
Little RMN was ahead of me, 7 VP to 3VP with Middle RMN at 0 VP. The Red Horde of Middle RM started its inexorable trek towards the Monolith and assured victory.
And then something incredible happened.
Litle RMN had a Rubium Dragon on the Monolith. Just as the Red Horde was going to attack the Dragon jumped…into the Middle RMN home base. Winning the battle, Little RMN laid down two Secret Mission cards for 5 VP…and the win.
I can’t be mad at his victory for he used the Dragon’s asymmetrical capability at exactly the right time and in exactly the right manner. Middle RMN was stunned. I was worried that he might explode, but after a few moments he “got it” that Little RMN had taken a high-risk chance – that worked – and got the victory.
This is the second game of Nexus Ops where the Middle RMN Boy ended up in last place. I was a bit worried that he might be getting turned off to the game. But I needn’t worry for after he accepted the loss to his brother he showed us all the Secret Mission cards he had ready. Suffice it to say that given one or no more than two more turns he probably would of swept us both away and easily secured the victory.
This game has raised my personal respect for Nexus Ops a bit for tonight we found some narrative in the gameplay. I don’t think its going to change my BGG Rating (6.0 or solidly in my average) but it will make it more likely to land on the table again given the right conditions.