#WargameWednesday – Need More Power, Scotty! (Federation Commander, Amarillo Design Bureau)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

Although I don’t talk about it here that much, the biggest wargame of my younger years was Star Fleet Battles (SFB). I started out with the original Task Force Games baggie and kept going through the Captain’s Edition. For the longest time, the Star Fleet Universe (SFU) was my version of Star Trek.

SFB is all about starship duels in the SFU. The core mechanic of gameplay is Energy Allocation; ships produce a finite amount of power and to do anything – from firing to movement to shields – takes power. Some people accuse SFB of being “accountants in space” because it all comes down to how much power a ship has and how it gets used. SFB also suffered from tremendous rules and errata bloat making critics call it “Advanced Squad Leader in Space.” None of this stopped my friends and I from getting EVERY SFB product produced. One of my friends had his ship design published. We even bought into the Starline 2400-line of miniatures and played giant battles on an old ping-pong table in my basement. SFB was THE wargame of our youth. We fully embraced the complex rules because they modeled so well the interaction between different ships with different capabilities and limitations. Though SFB we learned how to really analyze a system and make it work in our favor.

As the years passed we all went our separate ways. I faithfully carried my SFB collection in a giant tub container through college and 20 years of military moves. As the RockyMountainNavy Boys grew, I wanted to pull out SFB but was always hesitant because I know how complicated it is and how much dedication it takes to learn to play, much less become anything near proficient.

In the mid-2000’s Amarillo Design Bureau rolled out a companion version of SFB called Federation Commander (FC). As their own website says:

The game system is based on energy. You count how much energy your starship generates at the start of each turn, and pay for a “baseline speed”. The rest of your energy is spent during the turn to fire weapons, operate systems (tractor beams, transporters), to speed up, to slow down, or to reinforce your shields. During each of the eight impulses of each turn, ships move (up to four times at the highest speed) and you have the opportunity to fire weapons or operate systems.

Ships are presented in two scales; Fleet Scale is “half the size” of Squadron Scale and can be used to resolve larger battles in less time.

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Courtesy BGG

FC is a simplified, faster playing version of SFB. The core mechanic – energy allocation – remains but that energy allocation takes place throughout the turn vice a pre-plot for SFB. Each turn in FC is divided into 8 impulses vice 32 in SFB. These changes speed up the game considerably.

Speaking at breakfast last week, Little RMN was asking about different games and we got into discussing what I call “manual video games.” He asked about different starship combat games and I reminisced about SFB. He was interested, and asked to play. Instead of SFB we pulled out FC.

It was interesting.

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Courtesy BGG

We played a 2v2 ship battle of roughly equal point value. I still find the energy allocation mechanic to be very thematic. The RMN Boys are not big Trekkies so they don’t have the same appreciation of that aspect of the game. They found the interplay of movement-weapons-defenses interesting but lamented the SLOOOOOW pace of the game. The Impulse Movement steps are intended to avoid the IGOUGO problem of a ship dancing around an opponent without fear of harm. I embrace this design solution; the boys find it ponderous.

FC is a highly thematic and detailed approach to depicting starship combat in the Star Fleet Universe. I know it is not as detailed as SFB, but my boys will probably never learn that. We will play FC again when the mood strikes us; but that mood has to be a desire to deeply explore the interaction of different capabilities and design doctrines.

Reawakening X-Wing (Star Wars: X-Wing Minis – Force Awakens Core Set)

“Outnumbered and outgunned, a cunning star fighter pilot leads his enemies into a minefield. Will it be enough to turn the tide of battle, or will superior numbers prevail?” From Mission F1: Ambush, Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game – The Force Awakens Core Set, Mission Guide

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Initial Setup
Mission F1 pits a Resistance T-70 X-Wing flown by Blue Squadron Novice (24 pts) against a pair of TIE/FO fighters (Epsilon Sqdn Pilot – 15 pts/Zeta Sqdn Pilot – 16 pts). The squadron point build imbalance is offset by the presence of three mine tokens in the battle space controlled by the Resistance player.

 

 

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Sweeping In
Swinging to the left, he tried to draw the TIEs across the minefield but they didn’t take the bait, instead sweeping to their left while keeping out of the lethal radius of the mines. Reversing hard into a tight turn, he raced through the minefield to get into position. His first shot was lucky and hit the trailing TIE which accelerated to get out of range while the second one turned to attack.

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Death of Epsilon
Ignoring a TIE that executed a Segnor’s Loop almost in front of him, he blasted one TIE away. Dangerously, he cut in front of the other TIE, just avoiding blasts of lethal energy. Boosting away, he extended the range as the other TIE followed. Dashing around the asteroid field, the TIE came just close enough to a mine to detonate it. His sensors told him the shields on the TIE were down. “That’s one chink in the armor,” he thought.

 

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Stressed Out and Still Too Close
As he continued around an asteroid, the TIE tried to cut the corner. Unfortunately, it came a bit too close to another mine and set it off. Sensors said it was damaged!

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Splash Two!
Stressing his T-70, he reversed hard into the TIE. He quickly lined up his shot. With a sharp intake of breath he watched his energy bolts hit the TIE. He exhaled slowly as it exploded. He muttered to himself, “The Force was with me.”

 

It has been a long time since I played X-Wing. I had picked up Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game – The Force Awakens Core Set a while back and it has sat on my shelf – unopened – for several months. The RockyMountainNavy boys seem to have passed their initial fascination with X-Wing and in many ways it was replaced with Wings of Glory.  I pulled it out for a somewhat rare weeknight gaming session.

Having not played in a while I didn’t use many optional rules. The fighters were all stock with no modifications. Relearning gameplay was quick (X-Wing is not complicated). Although the gameplay is not complex, there were more than a few “tactical errors” committed since the ships were new to us and their capabilities and limitations unexplored. Most significantly, near the end the Zeta TIE could have used their Action to Barrel Roll away from the mine and stay out of the lethal radius instead of looking ahead to  the T-70 threat and placing an Evade token to try to avoid any hits.

Playing X-Wing reminded me that this is one of the games in my collection that I classify as a “Manual Videogame.” The concept of Squadron Builds, Modifications, and Actions (special abilities) all are common with video games. That is not to say I dislike X-Wing; rather, I see it for what it is. The RockyMountainNavy boys, especially Little I, love the Manual Videogame-style of gaming. Pulling out X-Wing reminded us all that this is a lite, fun game that is highly thematic and “pulls you into” the story. It deserves to be on the table more.

#WargameWednesday – Back to the Past and into the Future with Panzer

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Courtesy RBM Design Studio via BoardGameGeek

After getting Jim Day’s MBT for Christmas 2016, I wrote that I wanted to get the new version of Panzer. It arrived this week. I remember opening my first Panzer box at Christmas in 1979. I eventually got the entire Yaquinto First Edition series all of which I still own.

Now in 2017 I am opening the new box, but this time I sat on the floor with Little RMN. He is into Tanks: Panther vs Sherman as I recently showed. When we got to the scenario book, he asked about recreating the same battles in Tanks. This is a good sign that he wants to play more. It also tells me that it is probably time to teach him Panzer too!

#ModelMonday – Tanks Camouflaged

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Tiger I, Tanks Card, and Osprey 

Little I got Tanks: Panther vs Sherman (Gale Force 9) for Christmas. For his birthday, Brother T got him the Tiger I expansion. In a wonderful show of brotherly love, T not only gave him the model, but then built it and painted it up!

Little I is very excited as his collection is getting much more personalized. T also has shown a natural ability to paint miniatures. I have several old Mongoose Publishing Starship Troopers Miniatures Game sets that I know I won’t get around too…maybe it’s time to turn them over to T and see what he can do!

#WargameWednesday Retrospective – Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977 Second Edition)

pic188896_mdVictory in the Pacific (VITP) is one of the oldest games in my collection. Originally published in 1977, it won the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Strategic Game that year. My copy is a Second Edition with a 1988 Avalon Hill Game Company catalog inside. For many years the game sat on my shelf partially because – as itself states – it is an Introductory-level wargame and my personal tastes run to other difficulty levels. However, with the RMN boys now getting into more wargaming, I pulled VITP out to see if it would make a good game for them. What I discovered is that VITP is a “diamond in the rough.” The game itself (mechanics and gameplay) are wonderful, but the game suffers from early wargame publishing issues that present challenges.

1.0 Rules

pic669500_md1.01 The rulebook for VITP is short but difficult to understand. It is laid out in the old SPI style (numbered paragraphs) that should make it easy to cross reference. However, the arrangement of the rules is not intuitively easy to follow; finding even basic game concepts like the Sequence of Play or the Combat Round Action Sequence [my term] is very difficult. It’s all there, but buried within walls of text with little real cross-reference or even logical order. I do not want to turn this game over to the RMN boys “as-is” because the rules will likely create confusion. Even if I was to introduce the game to them, I eventually will need to let them go it alone; the rules as written are not very supportive of that course of action.

Mapboard

pic669499_mdThe mapboard is functional. The colors are very 1970’s – not totally hideous but abstract in a classic Monopoly sort of way. The mapboard is in some ways too big; there is some real estate around the edges that could possibly be used for port holding boxes (like Yokosuka or Truk or Ceylon or Pearl Harbor). This would certainly help with stacking counters on the map!

Counters

pic175059_mdSpeaking of counters, they are nice and big. This makes them easy to stack or sort. The counters themselves are a great example of functional simplicity with easy-to-read factors. The color palate is a bit bland, but once again it was the 1970’s!

Game Mechanics

Reinforcements – Movement – Combat – Control. Speed Rolls can be a bit confusing because the Speed Factor on the counter is not a “speed” in terms of areas moved but number that must be rolled under to move an additional area. Combat resolution is from the school of “Yahtzee combat”; roll a number of d6 equal to your Attack Factor and try to get 6’s (or 5-6 if the firing unit has an Attack Bonus). A 5 Disables, a 6 is a Hit with another d6 rolled for the amount of Damage. When Damage exceeds the Armor Factor (defense rating) a ship is Sunk (removed from the game) or an air unit/amphib destroyed (to return two turns later). Doesn’t really get much simpler.

Now that I look at it, I see that movement is “roll low” but combat is “roll high.” Another rules area of potential confusion?

Gameplay

Although VITP is an Introductory-level game, I was pleasantly surprised (and delighted) with the “historical feel” of the game. At the strategic level, the Japanese start out dominating in force but must husband ships for the long conflict. This is neatly in contrast to the Allies who over the course of several turns build up huge forces. Thus, the Allies will likely favor a longer view of battle (i.e. the Allies must be patient and not rush for a quick victory). This in turn drives a strategy that is very historical where the Japanese player pushes out to establish a defensive perimeter and then tries to attrite the Allied player as they start the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific. Having the US move second in each phase also is a nice nod to the historical intelligence advantage the US possessed.

At the operational level, the choice of Patroller or Raider makes for an interesting dynamic. Patrollers move first and can control an area at the end of the turn. Raiders move later in the turn (after Patrollers have been set) but cannot control an area. Like at the strategic level, having the Allies move second is a nice nod to the operational advantage intelligence gave Allied commanders.

At the tactical level the choice of Day (air strikes) or Night (surface gunnery) actions is evocative of the era. Even the use of a simple Attack Bonus creates the feel more capable/better trained/elite forces.

All that said, it is indicative of just how “game changing” the Japanese battle plan for the opening of the war was that it requires special rules to handle. The Turn 1 Pearl Harbor Air Raid and Indonesia rules actually “break” the game to force a more historical opening. I look forward to playing where the Japanese forego the Pearl Harbor Air Raid and see how that war develops.

Metagaming

pic207078_mdIf I had to pick a weakness of the game, I would point to the Order of Appearance charts. Not that they are ahistorical, but I wonder if they give too much information to the players. The Japanese player can easily see that the forces they start with are pretty much going to be it for the war, whereas the Allied player will see his forces grow turn after turn. This potentially creates a metagame situation for the players; does knowing what reinforcements are coming unduly influence player decisions? I understand that this is addressed by the Japanese player bidding Points of Control at the beginning of the game, but this is a mechanic to balance between players and in effect recognizes that the game (like the historical situation?) is not balanced. In effect, VITP is “play with what you get” not necessarily “what you need.” Does this make it a failed game? No, but it explains other strategic Pacific War games that introduce resources and variable reinforcements. It certainly gives me a new appreciation of the Card Driven Game (CDG) mechanic used in games like Mark Herman’s Empire of the Sun (GMT Games, 2005) which has, to borrow an RPG term, more player agency (and complexity).

Conclusion

Even given its warts, VITP is a good introductory-level wargame. Like I did for GDW’s Mayday game before, I come back to my “simply complex” characterization; the game is simple in mechanics but complex in the depth of gameplay. That said, on the scale of game vs. simulation VITP certainly falls on the game side of the spectrum. That doesn’t make it bad, but highlights to me how I need to frame any “history lesson” that my boys may derive from play. I will eventually hand VITP over to the boys, but not before I search grognard.com or ConSimWorld for some player aids to help “smooth the edges” of this great game.

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All images courtesy BoardGameGeek

#WargameWednesday -Finding the CDG Pathway in Paths of Glory (GMT Games, 1999)

My recent acquisition and play of Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games, Reprint Ed. 2016) as well as Plan Orange: Pacific War 1930-1935 (C3I Magazine Nr. 29) and South Pacific: Breaking the Bismarck Barrier 1942-1943 (C3I Magazine Nr. 30) got me to relook at the Card Driven Game (CDG) mechanic. These recent CDGs have captured my attention – and imagination – because each player holds cards in their hands that can be played in many different ways, often in some form of Event, Operation, or Resupply.

pic93623I actually have two much older CDGs; For the People (GMT Games, 1998) and Paths of Glory (GMT Games, 1999). Given Little RMN is studying World War I in school right now, I pulled out PoG and gave it a whirl. In doing so, I rediscovered a gem.

I must admit that when I first got PoG nearly two decades ago I was not very enamored with the game. At the time, I (stupidly) saw the CDG mechanic as hindering my self-initiative. Why should I let a card tell me, ME(!), what I can or cannot do. If I want to conduct an offensive at Verdun, then I can conduct an offensive at Verdun and I don’t need a stupid card to tell me how many units I can use. Sure, the historical Events are interesting, but all of that is just chrome that distracts from the battlefield.

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Central Power Cards
How wrong I was.

Many of us who play wargames see ourselves as students of history. The difference between regular students and us grognards is that we grognards play out recreations of the battle in an attempt to learn more. To try and make the game more “historical,” the common approach was to create a special rule. What I now see is that CDGs bake many of these special rules into the cards. Whereas 20 years I saw CDGs as limiting, I now see how they are great teaching tools that subtly recreate historical limitations and opportunities.

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The “Guns of August” Event Card in Play
For my game, I played the Introductory Scenario. The first turn was a bit rough as I stepped thru many rules mechanics. Turns 2 and 3 were much more strategy and less rules mechanics.

 

And it was fun.

The Mobilization Deck is very interesting; lots of chances to bring more troops into the fight (Reinforcements) and many Events to play. The end of the scenario is really just the beginning as the next phase is Limited War, with may other nations drawn into the conflict. 

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HMS Barnham (Pintrest)
As an old Navy guy, I still wish there was more naval play in this game. As a strategic game it seems criminal to me that the naval side is glossed over like it is. But PoG stands well even without the naval aspects of the war. I’m really glad I dusted this old game off and look forward to playing out the full war.


All images courtesy BoardGameGeek except where noted.

Ted S. Racier’s Paths of Glory, GMT Games LLC (1st Edition, 1999)

 

#WargameWednesday -Liberating Thoughts on Liberty or Death (GMT 2nd Ed, 2016)

pic2960799_mdPlayed through the Middle Years scenario of Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection. This is part of GMT’s counterinsurgency or COIN series. LoD is not my usual “wargame” because this is not a game of a “war” as much an exploration of the politics of the time. Conflict is here, but it is just one “tool” in a faction’s kitbag of options.

I have read on BGG where some people find the rulebook a real mess. I disagree! Maybe it is my grognard background and years of Star Fleet Battles or Squad Leader or any number of Richard Berg games that clouds my thinking. That’s not to say the critics are stupid; the game is difficult to grasp at first because – as I see it – LoD is not a pure Eurogame nor is it a pure wargame. To play takes a different thought process.

Playing my first game was a bit of a challenge. In the first year of play I had to constantly refer to the Rulebook and the Playbook for clarification. By the second year of play I started to find the rhythm of the game, and by the third (and final) year I actually started “playing” the game; that is, I started making moves based on some form of strategy. The winners and losers of my game are not worth mentioning since so much was played without a coherent strategy behind the moves. Next time will be different.

LoD, being a different game, has captured my imagination. I want to try to win as not just the Patriots, but see what it takes for the British, or French, or even the Indians to win. We grognards often say that wargames can teach us history, but LoD goes beyond a simple battlefield experience and brings the politics and confrontations of Empires and Colonies and Frontier together in a beautifully packaged experience.