#WargameWednesday – #FirstImpression of Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, 2018)

pic514176The Little Black Book version of the Traveller roleplaying game was my first RPG I ever played way back in 1979. Traveller has always had a starship combat element in it and has spawned many games over the years. From the abstract High Guard (1980) to GDW’s simple Mayday (1983) to the more complex Brilliant Lances (1993) to the Full Thrust-derivative Power Projection: Fleet (BITS, 2003), all have tried to model vector-movement starship combat in the Traveller Universe. In 2016, designer Ken Burnside (SpaceGamer on BoardGameGeek) launched a Kickstarter for Squadron Strike: Traveller, based on his Squadron Strike-series of games. Late in 2018, Squadron Strike: Traveller finally delivered over two years late.

What sets Squadron Strike apart from other starship combat games is that it attempts to be a “fast-playing tactical engine that includes full 3D maneuver and firing arcs.” Indeed, Squadron Strike: Traveller was billed as the, “Maneuver-centric ship-to-ship minis game of space combat in the Traveller RPG setting.” It the Kickstarter campaign claims, “Squadron Strike: Traveller uses fully Newtonian movement, including displacement for constant thrust, something that has never appeared in a Traveller game.”

Presentation

Squadron Strike: Traveller is a big game. First off, the box is big at 13.25 x 9.75 x 2.50 inches. There is alot of stuff, well, stuffed into the box. So much so that Mr. Burnside made a “boxing” video to show the fans:

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Ship “Box”

My thoughts on components:

  • Maps – Full color and huge (two 34 x 22 in map sheets); I need a larger game table to set this game up.
  • Reference Cards – Laminated cards with most everything needed, especially the Vector Consolidation rules (another brain-hurting concept).
  • AVID Cards – See comments below.
  • Counter Sheets – Thin; I didn’t spring for the extra box stiffeners – maybe I should of. Once the ship boxes are put together I don’t want to disassemble them…meaning I am going t need another box like I would for a miniatures game.
  • Weapon Reference Tables – Tailored to the setting. Everything else was laminated but not these. The ink almost feel like its going to rub off. Going to put these in page protectors!
  • Introduction to the Third Imperium – 56 page booklet with the obligatory Traveller setting background. Focuses on the era of the Fifth Frontier War and the Third Imperium, Zhodani, and Aslan Empires. The scenarios (11) are also here and form a loose story although there is no campaign rules to expressly link them together. There is also no real ‘do-it-yourself’ scenario guidance.
  • SSD Book – 64 page booklet with both 2D and 3D versions of ships. The back page shows that there are 16 different classes of ships, almost all with multiple variants. Note that most of the 2D versions of the variants are not included in the SSD Book but available for download.
  • Tutorial – This is actually the most important of the text material; there is virtually no chance of really learning the game without this book. The first two tutorials are 2D, the last two 3D. According to the sidebar on p. 3, all that is needed is in the tutorial. I strongly recommend you use the tutorial as-is; no referencing the series Rule Book helps avoid added “confusion.”
  • Squadron Strike Rule BookSquadron Strike 2nd Edition series rules. My copy is copyright 2015 but with changes and additions through 03 Oct 2018.
  • Tilt Blocks & Stacking Tiles – Plastic bits.
  • 4D10 (Red, 2x Black, Blue) – Important for combat resolution.

The scenarios are loosely tied together with some fiction. The writing is acceptable, but nothing to…(wait for it), write home about.

Playability

Squadron Strike: Traveller has a very steep learning curve. I have played through the Tutorial book once and I need to play it again because I am still not sure of myself. There is an Actual Play & Explanations video online but it clocks in at nearly 3 HOURS!

Suffice it to say that, despite the name, Squadron Strike is more suitable for low ship-count battles. I don’t think I am really going to get beyond single ship duels for a while. In the Kickstarter campaign blurb, the time to play was stated this way:

Once you’re fluid with the game, turns take six to ten minutes each, and complete games can be done in ten to fifteen turns. In playtest, we have had the “classic meson gun shot” happen more than once: sometimes, meson guns one-shot kill intact ships.

Mechanics

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AVID (Courtesy Ad Astra)

The heart of Squadron Strike: Traveller is the AVID, or the Attitude Vector Information Display. The entire game revolves around the AVID, and wrapping your head around how it works is the hardest part of learning the game. As the Rule Book states, “The key concept of the AVID is that it’s a top-down view of a sphere, divided into windows that are color-coded rings (amber, blue, green and purple), showing how far away from the equator you are.” (Series Rule Book, p. 5).

Several years back, Ad Astra ran a Kickstarter campaign for the AVID Assistant, a computerized version of the AVID. Ken recommends you use it. I have it and have tried but this old grognard dog needs to figure out the old-fashioned analog version first before I mess around with the new tech.

The game can be played in 2D or 3D mode and both use vector movement for ships. The Tutorial properly starts you playing in 2D mode to learn the very basics.

Outside of the AVID and vector movement (and altitude if playing 3D), Squadron Strike: Traveller is a pretty pedestrian starship combat wargame. The Sequence of Play is PlottingMovementCombatCrew Actions. The color-coded dice come in handy because you can determine Accuracy (Hit), Penetration, and Hit Location all in one throw.

Historical Flavor

Being a game of combat in the Far Future, there is no “historical” flavor in the game. However, after 40 years of development, Marc Miller and his legions of fans have certain expectations of Traveller ship combat.

In a July 2017 update to backers, Mr. Burnside discussed some of the more challenging design issues the Traveller legacy was presenting him. After all, he was trying to take an existing game engine (Squadron Strike) and adopt it for the Traveller universe. Suffice it to say that Ken eventually had go all-in with the “design for effect” school of game design. Some Traveller purist may not be happy (it doesn’t work that way!) but in the end the play of the game won out over “historical accuracy.”

Support

Each Ad Astra game comes with a unique serial number that can be used to register on the company website to access supporting material. Honestly, there is not alot there and most finds it way to BoardGameGeek eventually. I don’t see Mr. Burnside very active in many forums but, now that the Kickstarter campaign has mostly fulfilled, he responds to email better than before.

Bottom Line

I am sure that someday Squadron Strike: Traveller will be a fun game to play. I just have to learn it.

And play it.

Regularly.

Or risk forgetting what I have learned.

Using the AVID is a skill that needs to be exercised regularly to maintain proficiency. I have enough interest in the theme and if the play satisfies then I may make the effort to keep that proficiency.

But I’ve got to learn the game first.

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A Glorious Little #Wargame – Frederic Bey’s Battle of Issy 1815 – a Jours de Gloire series game (C3i Magazine Nr 32, @RBMStudio1, 2018)

Issue Nr 32 of C3i Magazine contains two feature games. Gettysburg, by designer Mark Herman, is getting most of the attention from grognards, including myself. This is a bit of a shame because the other feature game, Battle of Issy 1815, deserves praise too.

1UtDUJJeR2GUj0S4xssKkwIn the introduction to the Specific Rules & Set Up for Issy 1815, it notes that, “Issy 1815 is the 44th battle in the Jours de Gloire series.”  Now, I have never really been a Napoleonic-era wargamer so I am not familiar with the series, but with 44 games published I would of thought I had heard of it before. I had not; to my eternal shame. The Battle of Issy 1815 by designer Frédéric Bey and published in C3iMagazine Nr 32 (RBM Studio Publications, 2018) shows me that it is possible to make a set of Napoelonic wargame rules in a small package that simultaneously delivers challenging decisions and immersive theme.

Issy 1815 is a small wargame with a 16-page Rule Book (series and battle-specific rules), an 11″x17″ map, a Player Aid card, and ~120 counters. The Jours de Gloire-series rules take up the first 10 pages of the Rule Book. Scales are described in 0.1 Scales:

The games of the series are at the scale of the battalion, the regiment (demi-brigade for the period of the Republic) or the brigade. A strength point represents about 200 infantry or 150 cavalry if each unit represents a regiment and 400 infantry or 300 cavalry if each represents a brigade. A strength point of artillery represents from two to four cannon depending on their calibers.

The scaling is not a hard-and-fast standard. In Issy 1815 each turn is 90 minutes, one hex is ~350 meters, and it uses the battalion scale for infantry (~200 soldiers) and regiment scale for cavalry (~150 horse) (Issy 1815 Specific Rules, 0.1 – Scales).

To represent the Fog of War and command & control challenges of the era, Jours de Gloire calls for placing orders and using a chit-pull mechanism for activation of formations. The combination of these rules immediately create theme and make player decisions important from the start.

In the Orders Phase, players place Received Orders (Ordres Reçus) or No Orders (Sans Ordres) markers. Every Formation or Tactical Group gets one or the other, but the number of Ordres Reçus is limited to the Order Rating of the Commanders-in-Chief. Units with orders have more tactical flexibility while units without orders are much more limited – unless they want to try to use the formation leader’s initiative and try and do more. To do so they have to make a test against the initiative number on the Activation Marker (AM) drawn. Each formation has two AM and the initiative may, or may not be, the same on each. Further, the Die Roll Modifier (DRM) of the Commanders-in-Chief is a negative modifier to the die roll so a strong C-in-C (like Napoleon?) is harder to “override.” Even if one is able to override the lack of orders, in many cases to attack will also require an Engagement Test (ET) against the Engagement Rating of units. The Engagement Rating is an easy, uncomplicated way to portray the training of a unit (morale is covered by the Cohesion Rating which I will discuss later).

Those Activation Markers are important in the Activation Phase. All formations have their AM placed in a cup and drawn out randomly. The player with STRATEGIC INITIATIVE gets to keep one AM out of the cup and starts the turn with that Formation. An activated formation has its order status revealed and then can take actions (artillery fire, movement, shock combat and charges, and rally) depending on the order status or initiative of the formation commander. The draw of AM is repeated until there is only one AM left in the cup, at which point the turn ends! This can lead to interesting situations. In Turn 1 of my first solo game, the main Prussian formation, Steinmetz, did not draw its first AM until the next-to-the-last chit. Thus, the formation had only one Activation Phase and the second was forfeit. Game play-wise this was not a great way to start the battle, but thematically it seemed to represent the inability for the formation to get started at 0300 hrs in the early morning!

OiDKqLxTRD2h7tdoloVWjwThe Jours de Gloire-series uses traditional Zones of Control (ZoC) around units but the nice wrinkle is in unit facing. Unlike most wargames where units face a hexside, in Jours de Gloire games units face a hex vertex. Thus, units have two front hexes and four rear hexes. Given the scale of the game, facing has no effect on movement but it does have an effect on combat. This simple change from “standard” creates greater tactical decision space at the very small rules cost of not facing a hexside.

The Jours de Gloire-series does not use a classic Combat Results Table (CRT) for combat resolution. In ARTILLERY FIRE, 1d10 is rolled and modified by a Firer Mod (generally the Strength Point of the unit), a Target Mod (mostly terrain effects or massed/stacked formations or if in square formation), and a Range Mod. If high enough, the Modified Die Roll results in either Rout (retreat), Disorder (counter flipped), or a Cohesion Test (CT). A CT is one of the principle tests in the game. In a CT, a unit rolls 1d10 with any modifiers against their Cohesion Rating. Pass the CT you are fine; fail and it becomes “challenging.” In ARTILLERY FIRE, a failed CT is a DisorderRout‘ or even elimination depending on what status the unit started in. Again, the rules deliver a very thematic effect as artillery didn’t necessarily “kill” units but affected their orderliness.

Infantry and cavalry attack using SHOCK COMBAT (cavalry also can do the CAVALRY CHARGE). Much like ARTILLERY FIRE, combat resolution in SHOCK COMBAT uses a 1d10 with modifiers. The list of modifiers is a bit more extensive than with ARTILLERY FIRE but the table on the Player Aid can be stepped through quickly. SHOCK and CHARGE results apply to both the attacker and defender. Possible results are Recoil (one hex back), Disorder, Rout, the Cohesion Test, as well as Pursuit, Counter-shock, or Breakthrough. Again, and in keeping with the era, units are rarely destroyed in combat, but instead tend to “come apart” through a lack of morale or “cohesion.” Yet again, uncomplicated rules giving thematically appropriate combat results.

In the Battle of Issy 1815 Specific Rules, there is a nice extra rule for Light Companies. Basically, each formation has a light company marker. Each turn, the player can place some on their related formation and place others in the activation cup. The light company have no ZoC, no Strength Points, no Movement Points, and do not affect rally attempts by adjacent units. What they can do is, when the player wants, force an adjacent enemy unit to make a Cohesion Test. The markers represent the use of skirmishers (voltiguers) by the parent formation. Yet again, Mr. Bey uses a simple, low rules overhead way to represent a capability in a thematically relevant way.

All of the above has been a long winded way of me saying that Battle of Issy 1815 and the Jours de Gloire-series is a small, relatively rules-lite, wargame that is easy to learn, quick to play, and delivers a highly thematic experience. If you have C3i Magazine Issue Nr 32 and have not tried this game (instead focusing on Gettysburg) take the time to learn and play through Issy. If you have never played a Jours de Gloire game before try to find one and give it a shot, even if you are not a huge Napoleonic warfare fan. Battle of Issy 1815 has been a pleasant surprise to me; I think it could be the same for most wargamers.

“History Distilled to Its Essence” – #FirstImpression of @markherman54’s Gettysburg (@RBMStudio1, 2018) in C3i Magazine Issue Nr 32 (with a s/o to @tomandmary too)

I was quite taken with the thing. I think it plays to the strengths of the small game format while avoiding the pitfalls, and I highly recommend it. (Tom Russell, Hollandazed Blog for 21 Dec 2018)

I have to agree with Tom Russell (@tomandmary from Hollandspiele Games). Gettysburg, the first in what looks to be a new series of simple wargames published by RBM Studio in their flagship C3i Magazine is a small footprint, rules-lite product that delivers tremendously challenging choices. It might be a small looking game, but it is large on making decisions interesting.

At first glance, Gettysburg seems to have little to offer. You play on a single 11″x17″ map with only 26(!) counters. Rules are in a large-font 12-page Rule Book. [Take out the cover, Player Aid on the back cover, and three pages of graphics and one is left with seven (7!) pages of actual rules.] There are only six turns, each representing a half-day. However, after playing Gettysburg one quickly discovers that designer Mark Herman (@markherman54) was not exaggerating when he subtitled the Rule Book as Gettysburg: History Distilled to Its Essence.

Mr. Herman accomplishes this design feat by focusing on few tried-and-true wargame mechanisms while adding several innovative(?) wrinkles. The first wargame trope Mr. Herman relies upon is the Zone of Control (ZoC). In Gettysburg, every unit exerts a ZoC into the six hexes around it. Like most wargames, when a unit enters an enemy ZoC it must stop and cannot move any further during the Movement Phase. To any traditional wargamer this is old hat; dare I say “boring?”

The interesting wrinkle introduced is the concept of Zone of Influence (ZoI). A ZoI is all hexes within two of the unit. Now, I am sure ZoI has been used in other games but in Gettysburg the effect of ZoI makes me take notice. Units starting the Movement Phase outside of an enemy ZoC or ZoI are turned to their speedier March Formation side. Units can move at their March Formation speed until they enter an enemy ZoI – at which point they have to flip to their much slower Battle Formation side. Now movement is interesting; there is no dashing right up to the enemy!

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Game in progress

At the same time he uses ZoC and ZoI, Mr. Herman mixes in another old school gaming trope, I go, you go (IGO UGO), but turns it on its head. As expected, players alternate taking actions in the Movement or Attack Phase until one player passes. But, instead of letting the second player continue until they finally want to pass, the non-passing player rolls a die and adds the number of friendly units outside of an enemy ZoC. The modified result is the number of remaining Move Actions that player has. Similarly, in the Attack Phase, once a player passes, an unmodified die roll is made with the result being the remaining number of attacks possible. The passing die roll reasonably reflects the problems of Command & Control in the days of the American Civil War. Sometimes commanders get what they want; other times the fickle hand of fate interferes.

In the Attack Phase, Gettysburg becomes a bit less traditional. First , there is no Combat Results Table (CRT) in the game. Instead, players make a series of competitive die rolls with the modified difference creating the combat result. Modifiers to combat are few and easy to remember; Artillery Support is a +2, Defensible Terrain is +2, any stars on the unit counter are a positive modifier, and if attacking with more than two units in the defender’s ZoC there is another +2. After rolling dice and applying modifies, the difference can range from Stalemate to Retreat to Blown (off the map to possibly return two turns later) to Eliminated. Although the combat resolution is not traditional, the simple rules capture the essence (where have I seen that word?) of combat results in the American Civil War.

The interaction of the basic ZoC, the extended ZoI, and a “traditional” IGO UGO turn sequence with an different “passing” mechanism combines with easy no-CRT combat resolution mean the “simple” rules of Gettysburg create huge decision space. As Tom Russell relates in his blog post:

The moment one of the players passes is a hinge point upon which the tempo of the phase turns. Suddenly the order in which I move my dudes matters. Because the Union position is largely defensive, I find that they’re more likely to pass first, which creates a situation in which the hitherto orderly Confederates are suddenly forced to improvise. What I had intended to be coordinated assaults all up and down the line become hodge-podge little affairs.

Gettysburg the battle was a huge affair. As Bruce Catton wrote in the Encounter at Gettysburg chapter of his book Never Call Retreat (Phoenix Press, 1965),

The commanding generals never meant to fight at Gettysburg. The armies met there by accident, led together by the turns of the roads they followed. When they touched, they began to fight, because the tension was so high the first contact snapped it, and once begun the fight was uncontrollable. What the generals intended ceased to matter; each man had to cope with what he got, which was the most momentous battle of the war. (p. 178-179).

Gettysburg the game delivers what it promises; a simple wargame that captures the essence of the battle – those hodge-podge little affairs that the generals never wanted but which you the player need to cope with. In Gettysburg Mr. Herman has distilled the battle to its essentials, and the resulting game is a master-class example of making a small, streamlined title that delivers an outsized, replayable experience.

Taking Command – First Impressions of NATO Air Commander (@Hollandspiele, 2018)

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Courtesy BGG.com

I am a Cold Warrior. I came of age in the 1980’s in the Reagan-era of the Cold War. I read Red Storm Rising or Team Yankee. In my wargames I fought the Red Bear at sea using Harpoon (Adventure Games, 1981/GDW 1987), fought them in the air in Air Superiority (GDW, 1987), and on the battlefields of Europe when playing Assault: Tactical Combat in Europe – 1985 (GDW, 1983). I even played the Twilight: 2000 RPG (GDW, 1984). In the late 1980’s, I joined the US Navy and we trained for the Big One – going toe-to-toe with the Russkies.

Fortunately, that war never came. Which makes NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a sort of alternate-history game. I acquired NATO Air Commander during the 2018 Hollandays Sale and took it out for a few sorties. NATO Air Commander is another “wargame” in my collection that challenges the classic hex-&-counter definition of a wargame. Instead, NATO Air Commander is yet another waro in my collection; a wargame using Eurogame mechanics in a highly thematic game.

Presentation

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Courtesy BGG.com

NATO Air Commander has a very small footprint. The map by Ania B. Ziolkowska looks just like so many air charts of the day with simple, believable graphics superimposed. The entire mapsheet layout is easy to understand. I do wish the Basing box was a bit bigger; at the size given one ends up with a big stack of aircraft piled high. The counters are typical Hollandspiele/Blue Panther; thick and punch cleanly with simple, easy-to-understand graphics.

Playability

NATO Air Commander is a solitaire game and like most solitaire games the rules are very procedural. The rules are 12 double-column pages and step the players through the turn sequentially. The rules themselves are not difficult to learn; I personally rate them  a 2- Medium Light on BoardGameGeek. After just a few plays all that is needed to reference is the Player Aid on the last page of the rule book.

Mechanics

At it’s heart, NATO Air Commander is a card game. Players draw Objective Cards that reflect their commander’s needs for the turn. The players then allocate their precious (and dwindling) air forces (resources) to Raids. Each Raid is resolved using Resolution Cards and the advance, or (very occasionally) retreat of Warsaw Pact forces along six Thrust Lines (Avenues of Advance) is determined. The success of missions and advance of forces affects the number of Resource Points (RP) available to repair or replace lost aircraft or “purchase” needed upgrades like Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs).

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Courtesy BGG.com

NATO Air Commander is also a dice-less game; instead everything is resolved using the Resolution Cards. Typically, the player compares the relevant factor to the card factor modified by a track. If the factor is greater than the modified card number it is a success. Once the player is familiar with what track modifies what card factor resolving an event becomes easy and almost instantaneous.

Historical Flavor

Starting with the map, the game feels very period-thematic. Although the different aircraft types are not marked, if one knows a bit of aircraft recognition it is easy to see. Some folks on BoardGameGeek forums have groused about aircraft ratings. I am with the designer here when he says if you don’t like it, change it yourself!

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Courtesy BGG.com

Speaking of the BGG forums, some folks have complained about the number of acronyms used in the game. Sure, the rules could probably use a glossary but the use of those terms actually help become more immersed in the play. Except for one acronym – DEAD. As defined in NAC this is “Destruction of Air Defenses” which I learned as SEAD (Suppression of Air Defenses). It make absolutely no difference to play, just makes me grin as I move the track marker.

Overall, NATO Air Commander immerses the player in the period. The map, the aircraft, the relentless Soviet hordes, all make for a very tense game experience. There is also just the right amount of chrome. For instance, there is one (1!) Stealth bomber unit and never enough Precision Guided Munitions.

Support

Both publisher Tom Russell (BGG user tomrussell) and designer Brad Smith (enragedbees on BGG) are very active on BoardGameGeek forums. Questions are usually answered very quickly.

As a repeat customer of Hollandspiele games I also feel the need to address the “stinky” issue. Hollandspiele games are printed by Blue Panther in a form of print-on-demand publishing. The inks used by Blue Panther give off a smell that Steve has assured is not dangerous. Yes, the odor can be strong when the box is first opened. I find that if I keep the box open for a day or two in a lesser used portion of the house the odor goes away.

Bottom Line

NATO Air Commander almost feels like a game module for a larger game. Indeed, in approach this “air war module” is not that different from systems used in the Fleet-series (Victory Games) or the Next War-series (GMT Games).

Some commenters have stated that the puzzle of NATO Air Commander lends itself to an optimal strategy. Well, yes, there likely is an “optimal” way to use your air force. However, the fickle hand of fate, as embodied in the Resolution Cards, will most assuredly throw wrenches into your “optimal” strategy. Those wrenches are a feature, not a bug. NATO Air Commander forces one to think about allocating precious resources against sometime impossible needs to turn back a relentless horde. If there is one lesson that NATO Air Commander teaches its that defeating the Warsaw Pact invaders was not going to be easy and there was going to be steep losses. Those thematic lessons make for a very tense, stressful game that NATO Air Commander allows one to play with minimal rules overhead and a quick, diceless resolution mechanic.

Featured image courtesy Hollandspiele

Dining on #wargames – First Impressions of Table Battles (@Hollandspiele, 2017)

Truth be told, I am a 20th century or modern-era wargamer. Most of the wargames in my collection are World War II or later. Knowing that factoid it would seem that Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 2017) should not interest me since the battles range from The Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 to The Battle of Brooklyn Heights in 1776. More importantly, the publisher’s blurb makes Table Battles not even really come across as a wargame:

Here is something new and exciting, something completely unlike any other game on your table. Table Battles is a thinky filler, a light dice game that nevertheless will have you scratching your chin and agonizing over your decisions. It reduces armed conflict to its essentials, to the absolute universal truths behind all battles: the threat of force and its application. It’s about leverage, about feints and counterfeints, threats and counterthreats, about creating openings and then going for the jugular, about leaving openings and springing a trap.

I picked up Table Battles in the 2018 Hollandays Sale and I am very glad I did. What designer Tom Russell claims to be a simple “thinky filler” and “light dice game” is actually a very fun, yet thematic, wargame of older battles that looks good on the table, is easy to learn and play, delivers a believable history of the battle, and makes you think really hard!

Presentation

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Set Up for The Battle of Marston Moor (2 July 1644) – Royalist in Blue and Parliamentarians in Red

To an old hex & counter grognard like myself, Table Battles appears heretical. I mean, it uses cards for formations, little wooden sticks for unit strength, and to attack you place dice on those Formation Cards instead of rolling them against a Combat Results Table. It doesn’t even use a map – you literally play on your tabletop. This os not a wargame, but a new-age wargame-Eurogame (weuro?).

Playability

The rules for Table Battles take up a whole four-pages of double-column type. The rules are easy to learn; most of what is needed is already on the cards. The rule book explains the Flow of Play (or Sequence of Play to this old grognard) and the definitions of what the iconography or text on the cards mean. The game can literally be taught in five minutes or less. Each game takes 20 minutes – or less – to play.

Mechanics

Mechanically, Table Battles has two parts each turn. In the Action Phase, a single unit (one Formation Card) can Attack. This might cause an automatic Reaction. Some units can take a special action, such as Bombard or Retire. For any formation to do anything, though, it needs to “be readied” with dice.

The “light dice game” is actually the heart of the game. Each side has six dice. In the Roll Phase players roll dice and can add them to Formation Cards. Each Formation Card has a Dice Area that show what dice can be added. Players can only add dice to one Formation Card in each wing (usually one or two wings).

As that old grognard I was looking for combat ratings and it took me a while to parse what the Dice Area means. It is truly amazing how designer Tom Russell uses the Dice Area to show how capable different units are. In Marston Moor, Cromwell can use Any dice to load up, but other units (often artillery) need a “Straight 4” – or four dice showing sequential numbers – to become readied. Obviously, this means it is much easier to get Cromwell ready while the artillery takes longer!

Once the unit is readied it can attack, but only certain other units. Once a unit is reduced (losses all their sticks-of-strength) it becomes Routed. When units Rout the player losses one of their precious Morale Cubes to the other player. If a player losses all their Morale Cubes, or enough of the enemy units have Routed that they do not have a formation able to attack any of your units, that player wins. Simple. Direct.

Historical Flavor

If one is looking for in depth analysis of warfare in this era then Table Battles will disappoint. However, if one is looking for a simple look at the units involved, their relative strengths and weaknesses, and a somewhat high-level take on a battle, then Table Battles will more than suffice.

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Royalist defeat at Marston Moor. An earlier Bombard by Parliamentarian Artillery took one Morale Cube and the Rout of the Whitecoats- brought up from Reserve when Tiller’s Right had to Retire – by Manchester completes the victory.

Like the historical Battle of Marston Moor my game resulted a Royalist defeat. Although my game ended pretty much as history did, I also see great replay potential in each game. Just because the battle goes one way does not mean it will always go the same, if for no other reason than the Dice Gods will play havoc with the rolls in the next game.

Support

Hollandspiele has two expansions for Table Battles for sale, Table Battles Expansion No. 1: War of the Roses and Table Battles Expansion No. 2: Age of Alexander. If you have the inclination, the base game and expansions are also available as print-n-play through WargameVault.com. Tom is also very active on the BoardGameGeek forums for Table Battles and questions are usually answered very quickly.

Bottom Line

Although designer Tom Russell likes to call Table Battles a light-thinky-filler-dice game he actually has designed a very simple, yet elegant, small waro/weuro that challenges players to focus on the fundamentals of combat. Although some might call the dice mechanic too swingy, it actually fairly represents the fog of war and reflects the different efforts it takes to get units into battle. Yes, Table Battles uses dice. Yes, Table Battles plays in as short “filler” amount of time. But Table Battles is very “thinky” and a legitimately challenging wargame for grognards old and new.

(Very) Initial Reactions to Pandemic: Fall of Rome (Z-Man Games, 2018)

Designer Matt Leacock’s Pandemic (Z-Man Games, 2008) is a popular game in the RockyMountainNavy house. This is a bit surprising because we really are more wargamers than Eurogamers. Over the years, we have played a few epic Pandemic games and we love playing the title because every game is a narrative adventure. The RockyMountainNavy Boys also like Ancient Rome; indeed Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 2017) is the most-played wargame in the house this year. So when I saw the match of the Pandemic-mechanics with the Rome theme, Pandemic: Fall of Rome (Z-Man Games, 2018) was an autobuy.

zgLVeSk8Tn+CXkchMq7sMwHaving arrived this week, Pandemic: Fall of Rome had to land on the table for an early Game Night. Early because the oldest RMN Boy wanted to play and he usually works Saturday nights. Our first-ever game of Pandemic: Fall of Rome was a four-player adventure with Middle RMN as Consul, Youngest RMN as Mercator, Oldest RMN as Praefectus Fabrum, and myself as Magister Militum.

The base game comes with seven different Roles. There is not easy direct translation from the classic Pandemic Roles to Fall of Rome so it takes a bit more to figure out (and remember) what all special abilities each Role has. A real starting challenge that will surely get easier as more plays build familiarity.

There are now eight different Actions to chose from. March, Sail, Plot, and Forge Alliance are easily translated from Pandemic but Fortify, Recruit Army, Battle(!) and Enlist Barbarians are much different. When taken in combination with the two or three special ability Actions each Role has this means new players must figure out how to select from a menu of 10-11 Actions each turn. Add into that each Role’s special effect in Battle. I know that at least once I could of used my special ability if I had remembered to look at it.

Another layer of complexity are the Event Cards. When played, Event Cards do not count against the player’s 4 Action limit each turn (they do count against the Hand Limit though). Each Event Card has a standard option and a corrupt option which, when used, is powerful but progresses the Decline Marker another step towards defeat. I personally liked this choice; do the standard for OK effect or risk defeat for a more powerful effect.

The rules for Revolts and Invade Cities in Fall of Rome are not difficult but the spread of the barbarians is much different than the spread of infection in classic Pandemic. Different enough that this section requires a much closer reading than I gave it.

Being a wargaming family we really were looking forward to the Battle Action in Fall of Rome. The Action turned out to not quite be what we expected. When battling, you have to be ready to lose Legions. There are several ways to build Legions (Recruit Army or Enlist Barbarians) and using these Actions will be needed to raise forces to stem the advancing hordes.

Thematically, all the game elements come together and do a good job of creating the feel of a declining Rome. Although I am a historian by education, I was pleased to see the designers making a point that Fall of Rome is not a historical game.  Amusingly, they make that point in the Historical Notes on p. 11:

Pandemic: Fall of Rome is inspired by the historical events surrounding the fall of the western Roman Empire….

Although a strong attempt has been made to pair game mechanics with some level of historical backing, the game is not attempting to be considered as a historical simulation….When a design choice was required between simulation and gameplay, gameplay received preference.

We lost our first game of Pandemic: Fall of Rome. Like really lost. Rome was sacked when we only had two of the five needed alliances. We will play again, but next time we will be much smarter because we now clearly see that although Fall of Rome is a Pandemicstyle game, it is not a Pandemic clone. Fall of Rome is a much different strategic challenge than Pandemic. Thematically, Fall of Rome also delivers on the title; there are times when one feels helpless against the never-ending invading hordes. Few boardgames really deliver on theme (Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game (Fantasy Flight Games, 2008) is the best exception) and Pandemic: Fall of Rome is one of them. For that reason alone the game will land on the table again – only next time we will all be smarter and more prepared to face the tough challenge.

Featured image courtesy thehistorynetwork.org

#Zombies & #Cthulhu are not my usual thing but for #AuZtralia (@StrongholdGames, 2018) I will make an exception

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Cthulhu (courtesy BGG.com)

In the boardgame community zombies are probably the most overused theme for a game. Right up there with Cthulhu. While many gamers obviously like these themes (based on how many games are made – and purchased) I don’t. Horror stories just don’t grab my attention and horror gaming even less so. Given my attitude, I never should have pre-ordered designer Martin Wallace’s AuZtralia: The Great Designers Series #11 (SchilMil Games/Stronghold Games, 2018). After all, the game has both zombies and Cthulhu! However, after listening to several podcasts discussing the game I succumbed to the Cult of the New and ordered it. I am very glad I did because AuZtralia is a good game that smartly uses a mixture of game mechanics to bring a theme I have no real interest in to life. It does such a good job that I find myself wanting to play AuZtralia despite my negative attitude towards the theme.

AuZtralia is thematically linked to an earlier Martin Wallace title, A Study In Emerald. ASiE is a game I will probably never play if for no other reason than both the theme and core mechanic (deck-building) do not appeal to me at all. AuZtralia, on the other hand, was described as something near a waro, a category of gaming I positively love. After getting the game in hand, I discovered that AuZtralia is not a waro because there is no player-vs-player combat possible. Instead, BoardGameGeek describes AuZtralia as an adventure/exploration game. The game actually mixes multiple game mechanics together. Using the BGG description I see the following game mechanics in play:

  • Resource Management – Build a port, construct railways, mine and farm for food.
  • Time Management – Everything you do in the game costs time, which is one of AuZtralia’s most valued resources.
  • Opponent AI – At a point in time, the Old Ones will wake up and become an active player. They begin to reveal themselves and move, with potentially devastating outcomes.
  • Semi-Cooperative -You’ll need to prepare wisely for the awakening and may have to co-operate with others to defeat the most dangerous Old Ones.
  • Combat/Hand Management – Military units will help you to locate, fight and defend against the nightmarish beings that may be lurking on your doorstep. As well as hardware, you’ll need to recruit some Personalities who have the skills and resources to help you.

Although I was expecting a waro I am happy with the game nonetheless. AuZtralia’s mix of game mechanics delivers a relatively quick-playing game that builds a play narrative that in turn fits the theme perfectly.

Time, the most precious of resources, is constantly ticking away. Actions cost not only resources (money, commodities) but most importantly time. The time track is used to not only show who goes next but also serves as a countdown timer for the game. This simple mechanic puts pressure on the players and both literally and figuratively builds towards a climatic showdown.

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Old Ones Card  (prototype courtesy BGG.com)

One of the most interesting mechanics in AuZtralia is the Old Ones AI. A set of 40 Old Ones Cards is used for movement and combat. Being a wargamer, I focused in on the combat mechanic. There are no dice used for combat in AuZtralia; instead, the Old Ones Cards are used to allocate hits. The combat results feel plausible and build a narrative of desperate battles.

Even the solo version of AuZtralia is not really solo since the Old Ones are controlled by an AI. In my first solo game, I lost to the Old Ones by a large margin, mostly because I didn’t understand the strategy needed and the Scoring rules made me pay for it. In my second solo play, I barely eeked out a victory (52-49) even though I lost my Port and all my farms were blighted. The difference between victory or defeat was my Solo Objective Card which gave me a bonus 20 points for being a Railroader (place all Railroads on the board by game end). As the game was winding down I really felt the pressure of losing time and made the decision to forego protecting my farms and concentrated on building the last of my railroads. I placed my last railroad the turn before I lost my Port. The game made me feel like a heartless railroad tycoon absolutely determined to get the last rail of track laid regardless of the insanity happening around me. All very dramatic.

The RockyMountainNavy Boys have watched me as I played several games of AuZtralia solo. I think this game will be a perfect fit for our Game Night. AuZtralia is a game that should be playable in a few short hours but more importantly delivers a compelling narrative of play without a difficult set of rules to parse. AuZtralia really is an adventure/exploration game built on a solid foundation of mixed game mechanics that fit the theme and make it interesting to play.

Featured image courtesy Stronghold Games.