#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.

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Game of the Week – Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal, 1942 (Revolution Games, 2015) – Out of the Bag Impression

Almost exactly a year before this post, I wrote my thoughts on Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal, 1942 (Bonsai-Games/Revolution Games, 2015). In the time since, the game has landed on my table four times, including three times in the past two days. Every time I play the game I fall more in love with the simple design and totally enjoy the campaign narrative every game delivers.

At first glance, the game doesn’t look like much. Pacific Fury is a simple folio (bagged) game with a paper 11’x17″ map, 50 counters, an eight page rule book (double columns), and a cover sheet.

Map

Nicely done, save for a few spelling errors and holding boxes that are too small. That is not a problem, as stukajoe  was kind enough to upload a print-it-yourself replacement.

Counters

Apparently, I have the published version with “Japanese” counters where the ends of the ships are cut off. Personally, I am not sure one really needs the full-length ships given how small the counters are. What Pacific Fury really needs are blocks instead of counters!

Rule Book

According to 12.0 CREDITS, Scott Muldoon, recently famous as co-designer of Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games, 2018) did the rules translation. As good a job as he did, certain sections of the rules, like 10.0 COMBAT, require a very careful reading to catch all the nuances. To help myself when playing, I turned the eight pages of rules into seven flowcharts that step me thru the turn and each combat type. I probably could use an eighth page to extract the Opposed Landing Table for 9.6 Tokyo Express and the Sunk Table in 10.7 Applying Hits but seeing as those are the only two tables not on the map it seems like overkill to add an extra page!

Playing Time

According to the publisher and BoardGameGeek, Pacific Fury is rated at 60-120 minutes. In my plays I tend towards the low end of that number, and when playing against my arch-nemesis “Mr. Solo” and using my flowcharts I can get the game down to as little as 30 minutes. This means I can try (and retry) many different strategies. As I will discuss in a later post on Game Mechanics, it is the simple operational planning aspects of the design that really make the game shine.

Pacific Fury has become a must-pack game when I travel. I totally enjoy pulling the game out in the evening and running through a campaign. This works because the game has a small footprint but builds a large battle narrative. More about that in a near-future post!

Game of the Week – Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 – 25th Anniversary Edition (GMT Games, 2016) – Theme

I have very few Vietnam-topic wargames in my collection. As sorted by BoardGameGeek, the three wargames beside Silver Bayonet that I own are Firepower (Avalon Hill Games, 1984), The Speed of Heat (Clash of Arms Games, 1992), and Downtown: The Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 (GMT Games, 2004). Nor do I have many operational-level ground combat games having focused more on the tactical or strategic level of war, and then mostly on naval/maritime or air campaigns. Thus, Silver Bayonet occupies a rare part of my collection.

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Courtesy BGG

When I first started wargaming in 1979, the Vietnam War was still fresh in the public’s memory. That memory was also a bit raw given how divided the country was over the war. Thus, I encountered very few wargames on the topic; the only one I remember playing was Operation Pegasus (Task Force Games, 1980**). Even come the 1990s there still were few games making the first edition of Silver Bayonet published in 1990 special even then.

In 2015, when designer Gene Billingsley went to update Silver Bayonet, he wrote in the Inside GMT Blog:

A recommended book. The “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” book came out in late 1992, and the movie a decade later, and Americans began to learn about the bitter struggle ofPleikuBook Hal Moore’s troopers in the shadow of the Chu Pong at LZ X-Ray. But even now, little has been written on the broader campaign in October and November of 1965, a campaign that stopped, attritted, and later routed a tough North Vietnamese Division poised to overrun the Special Forces camps and meager fortifications around Pleiku in just over a month of campaigning. Considering that airmobility was mostly “an idea” at that point, and that the unblooded 1st Cavalry troopers that implemented new strategies and tactics were about as familiar with the area of operations as they were the face of the moon, what they achieved was quite remarkable. And, of course, terribly costly. To this day, I know of no better book – if you want to read up on this campaign – that dissects the entire campaign, than J.D. Coleman’s “Pleiku,” a book that was my primary source for constructing the game’s scenarios way back in 1990. To be sure, we have more information today, and some of that will make its way into the updated edition of the game, but this book remains a tremendous resource, written by a gifted writer, with enough precise detail that it almost reads like an after action report (though much more interesting.) If you’re interested in the topic, read (or re-read) this book.

Having both read the book and watched the movie, the game Silver Bayonet is extremely evocative of the topic. This is GMT Games at its finest; a respectful treatment of the subject with little oh-rah and a very fair representation of the capabilities and motivations of both combatants.

Featured image courtesy GMT Games.

** Operation Pegasus is available as a digital download from the successor to Task Force Games, Amarillo Design Bureau, at wargamevault.com.

Game of the Week – Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 – 25th Anniversary Edition (GMT Games, 2016) – Out of the Box Impressions

My GMT Games 2018 Sale purchase was Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 – 25th Anniversary Edition by designers Gene Billingsley & Mitchell Land. According to the publisher’s blurb:

Silver Bayonet recreates the pivotal November 1965 battle between a full North Vietnamese Army Division and the US 1st Air Cavalry Division in the Ia Drang Valley. NVA expertise in lure and ambush tactics resulted in significant US casualties. US mobility and the ability to bring massive amounts of firepower to bear quickly virtually destroyed the attacking NVA division and forced a change in NVA tactics.

This re-issue of GMT Games’ 1990 CSR Award winning title that started it all keeps the original operational system, but streamlines to it to include innovative combat resolution integrating maneuver combat, close assault, artillery bombardment, and support from gunships and air sorties.

Increased accessibility to primary and secondary source material has made it possible to make changes to more accurately represent both sides’ unique capabilities without significantly altering or breaking the base game system. The major changes involve patrols, ambushes, landing zones, and the 1st Cav Brigade HQ, while minor changes tweak movement, combat, and coordination game mechanics to showcase radically different strengths and weaknesses the FWA and NVA force brought to the battles in the Ia Drang Valley.

I have a related game in my collection; Operations Shoestring: The Guadalcanal Campaign, 1942 (GMT Games, 1990). Although I recently played that title, the game mechanics in Silver Bayonet are significantly upgraded, enough to make the 25th Anniversary Edition a near-total new system.

Out of the Box Impressions

The component list for Silver Bayonet given on the GMT website does not inspire.

COMPONENTS

  • 1.5 countersheets with 9/16″ counters
  • 22×34 inch mounted map
  • Two 11×17 inch divider screens
  • Rules & Play Book
  • 15 Player Aid Cards
  • One 10-sided die
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Silver Bayonet unpacked (courtesy GMT Games)

Opening an actual box is a totally different, and very satisfying, experience. It starts even before you open the box with a famous picture of Lt. Rick Rescorla. [If you don’t recognize the name follow the link or google it; after you are done cleaning the dust out of your eyes you can continue reading here.]

Those “1.5 countersheets” works out to 351 counters with only 14 blanks. The reality is most scenarios use a subset of the counters. Scenario #1 – Breaking the Siege (Duc Co) uses only 31 counters. Nor is the entire nicely mounted map used every game; Scenario #3 – The Drang River Valley (LZ Mary) uses a 5×4 hex subset of the map (and nine counters). The map in the 25th Anniversary Edition is mounted making it look really nice on the table.

The Rules & Play Book is colorful, two column, and only 40 pages. The Standard rules cover 1.0 thru 12.0 and span 16 pages. The Campaign Scenario rules cover 13.0 thru 18.0 and are delivered in 10 pages. The balance is a short reference to the Scenarios, Designer’s Notes, and a very useful Example of Play. I really appreciate the use of color tone boxes throughout the rules; yellow for historical quotes, blue for Design Notes, and brown for Play Notes. The smart use of color certainly helps with deciphering the rules.

The 15 Player Aid Cards include eight for the 11 scenarios, a Standard Sequence of Play, a Campaign Sequence of Play, the Battle Board, two cards (one for each player) for holding units off map or in hiding, and two double-fold combat charts cards. As an added bonus, there are two player screens included. Both are nice but beyond the PAVN player using theirs to hide the Hidden Movement card I am not sure of the usefulness. Seems more like a Kickstarter stretch goal than a needed component. But the art is nice and inspirational so they will definitely stay!

New counters, a new map, a well laid out Rule Book, use of Player Aid cards and tables on the mounted map make this a very visually stunning game. Taken together, the 25th Anniversary Edition of Silver Bayonet is one of the best organized wargames in my collection.

Featured image courtesy GMT Games.

#FirstImpressions of #Villainous (@wonderforge, 2018)

Let’s get this straight first; Disney Villainous: The Worst Takes it All (Wonderforge Games, 2018) is NOT a family game. Although it sports the Disney brand name and is rated for ages 10+, this asymmetric powers, hand-management, and (being a bit evil) take that game is not for youngsters. Villainous is actually a good game for adult gamers but may wear out its welcome a bit earlier than one may like.

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Courtesy wonderforge.com

Out of the Box Impressions

When I first walked the aisle in Target to find the game, I thought I had found an opened copy. Villainous does not come shrink-wrapped but is sealed using four tape tabs. The one copy on the shelf already had some scuffs on the matte finish box. I still bought it, but wonder just how much “shelf life” was lost even before my purchase.

The artwork in Villainous is very impressive as one expects from Disney. The color palette is a bit muted for my taste but is in keeping with the “darker” theme of the game. Appropriate quotes and card art goes a long way towards building the atmosphere of the game; a bit sinister but not horror.

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Hook rocks back….

My initial impression of component quality is less-than-impressive. The player boards seem a bit thin while the Villain Movers (pawns) are chunky with some unsightly flash. In my game Captain Hook seems unbalanced and is always falling over backwards. The cards in the Villain and Fate Decks seem ok with great art but I worry that the finish might not last; is sleeving necessary? The Tokens seem about the right weight but the Cauldron is a thinner plastic than I expected. I really worry about the folded Villain Guides because they seem so fragile being printed on glossy paper not cardstock; not sure how long they really will last.

Gameplay

Villainous is in many ways a set of solo mini-games with shared game mechanics and just a few chances for player interaction thrown in. Every turn you move your Villain Mover (geez, just call it a pawn!) to a new Location in your Realm (player Board). Then one executes as many of the Actions at that Location that you can pay for with Power Tokens or Villain Cards. Sometimes, your opposing players will draw from your Fate Deck and reveal Heroes to hinder your progress. If one pays close attention to the Villain Cards in their hand there may also be opportunities to play Villain Cards during another player’s turn.

While each Villain will generally use the same shared game mechanics, each has a unique Objective they must accomplish to win the game. This means players must discover the right strategy and play-style for each Villain; what works for Prince John may not work for the Queen of Hearts. In our first game, I played Jafar and failed to carefully read my Villain Guide as I was too busy trying to teach the game to the RockyMountainNavy Boys. As a result, I did not optimally sequence my strategy and failed to even come close to accomplishing my Objective before the Middle RockyMountainNavy Boy won as Captain Hook.

What Others Say

As of the date of writing this post, there are five reviews of Villainous in the BoardGameGeek.com forums for this game. I read some of the comments there with amusement:

  • Loophus continually points out how much trouble kids may have with this game. (HINT – Just because it’s Disney does not mean it is a kids game! Accept that Villainous is an “adult” game by Disney!)
  • LonoXIII believes the game lacks replayability – “One complaint, however, is that the game only comes with six villains; each villain only ever has one goal, and once you’ve beaten the game with them, there’s little replay with that character. Once a player has won with all six villains, the replayability drops notably, and I could see the game ending up shelved after a while.” (Since when does winning a game once make it “solved?” The random shuffle of the Villain and Fate Decks alone will ensure that no two games are identical. Sure, once you learn the necessary strategy it becomes easier (faster?) to execute play but by no means is it “solved.”)
  • TheHumanTim points out – “The only part of the physical game production that felt poorly designed was the box insert.” (Yeah, the insert doesn’t hold its shape well but at least they tried….)
  • Dismas gets the theme – “The theme comes through very well in this game. Yes, what it boils down to is your gathering power to play certain cards to win the game, but it feels like so much more. It feels like you are actually trying to rewrite the script to the movie. I think that is what I like best about this game. It would have been so easy (and lazy) to make this a game about “misunderstood” villains who aren’t actually evil. No, this game you are evil and you are trying to succeed in your plot.” (As the box back states, “Be a Villain…Defeat the Heroes…Enact Your Evil Scheme!”)
  • mattlowder also gets it – “I have to begin the review by saying this is not a light game. Do not be fooled. This is a richly complex games that will not click with you immediately. Strategy blooms in this one as each character you play has different goals, despite the mechanisms of triggering actions and movement being mostly identical for each player. They feel different, have asymmetrical powers, and the experience wholly satisfying if you are willing to grasp it and understand that this is not a light and fluffy game.” (“Richly complex may be overstating it but agree it is not a light and fluffy game.)

RockyMountainNavy Verdict

While I am not thrilled with the component quality of Villainous, I am generally pleased and greatly impressed with how well the theme integrates with art and play. Then again, for the $35 price-point the game is actually a bargain; just how many $35 games have this great art and chunky pawns to go with a better-than-average game mechanic?

Like LonoXIII, I too worry about replayability but not for the same reasons. To me, it is not the number of Villains but the strategy for each that limits replayability. A cursory look at each Villain Guide reveals an “optimal” strategy. Once this strategy is “known” the only difference in each game becomes how well the cards allow you to execute that strategy. If Villainous is played too often this could make the game challenge seem stale.

Finally, games like Villainous are not necessarily in the RockyMountainNavy Boy’s wheelhouse (preference being to lite wargames). Nonetheless, the combination of theme and game play makes Villainous enjoyable on the table and will get played. After all, we all want to misbehave once in a while!

 

“Hey! I’m walking here!” – First Impression of Ticket to Ride: New York (@days_of_wonder, 2018)

BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT: DEFINITE BUY FOR ALL GAMERS!

IN THE RockyMountainNavy household, the Ticket to Ride series of train games has proven popular over the years.  Not only was it a gateway game into the boardgame hobby for the RMN Kids, it has proven popular with other family members as well. Alas, over the years these games have been “demoted” from our first-tier gaming selection and usually called upon only when we are playing with younger players or trying to introduce new gamers to the hobby.

With that background in mind, the newest game in the series, Ticket to Ride: New York would seem an unnecessary addition to the game collection. After all, it is a smaller version of TTR that plays in 10-15 minutes. Most egregiously it has taxis instead of trains!

It may just be the best version yet.

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Courtesy Days of Wonder

What Ticket to Ride: New York lacks in size it makes up for in gameplay. While some may deride this game as simply an “intro” or “stripped-down” version of the original, the pleasant reality is that by reducing the game to the barebones the true genius of the design comes through.

 

Ticket to Ride: New York focuses on the core mechanics (set collection & hand management) by reducing the mapboard, the “fleet” of taxis, and Destination Tickets. As experienced TTR players we can get close to that 10 minute playtime but we actually take our time when playing because it is such an enjoyable experience. The RMN Boys are already deciding which of Mrs. RMN’s students will be introduced to the game. The game will also likely become our “gateway to the gateway” game in the Ticket to Ride-series.

It really doesn’t matter what type of gamer you may be. This easy, filler game deserves to be in every gamer’s collection. If there is a negative, it’s that there is no version of the most famous New York taxi movie scene in the game:

#FirstImpressions of Washington’s War (GMT Games, 2nd Printing, 2015)

I was fortunate to pick up Washington’s War by designer Mark Herman (@markherman54 on Twitter) during GMT Games 4th of July special sale. They had three games on sale at a deep discount; I already own Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection by Harold Buchanan and The American Revolution Tri-Pack so I rounded out my collection. I’m fortunate because GMT Games is now out-of-stock for Washington’s War.

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Guess we won’t see this for a while (Courtesy GMT Games via BGG.com)

I am ashamed to say I am late to the party, for Washington’s War has all the elements of a great game that meets many RockyMountainNavy Family Game Values; an awesome mix of mechanics and theme that teaches as much as it entertains and is playable in an evening.

Washington’s War (WW) is the GMT Games update of the Avalon Hill’s We the People (by…Mark Herman!). For many years I passed on We the People, and WW, because they are Card Driven Games (CDG) and CDG is just not my cuppa tea. I think this is because CDG’s are hard to play solo. However, my gaming tastes have changed over the past two years and the RockyMountainNavy Boys are my game group. As such, we don’t usually go for classic hex & counter wargames favoring instead more varied mechanics. So WW looks like it could be a good addition to the game collection.

Now, my first impressions are not the greatest because the RMN Boys are traveling this month and I have no built-in game group. So my impressions are based on several solo walkthrus of the rules and game mechanics.

Components

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Courtesy BGG.com

The game board is functional and thematic but not to the degree that Liberty or Death or Supply Lines of the American Revolution is. Artist Charles Kibler and a supporting cast delivered a very good game board that not only has the map of the area in question but also many game-related spaces for cards or counters or the like. The result is a good balance of theme and functionality. Of the counters, I really like the oversize, tall standees for the Generals. The gives WW a very “Kriegsspiel” look and feel.

The rules are in two books; a Rulebook and Playbook. The rules are not overly complex and contained in the nice 24-page rulebook. There are lots of nice color illustrations and examples of play and a handy index, meaning the rules themselves are actually quite short and succinct. I also think as this is the Second Reprint of a 2009 game based on a title first published in 1993 the rules have been criticized and torn apart and reworked and generally exist now in a very good state.

Game Play

Now, I said above that CDGs have not been my thing, but I see beauty in the mechanics of WW and this game could exist without CDG. The choice of Event Cards or Ops Cards (with different values) makes for a ton of choices. Developer Joel Toppen (@PastorJoelT on Twitter) also makes this important observation in the Player’s Notes:

Like the American Revolution that the game models, Washington’s War, is both a political conflict as well as a military conflict. In my opinion, the biggest challenge that the players will face in this game is balancing political initiatives with military action.

So, as I write this blog post, I am asking myself, “Do I dislike CDG because its not solo-friendly, or is it that I have been too in love with just hex & counter wargames?”

I am more than just a grognard!

Washington’s War has arrived at a time of gaming change for me, and I now see that as much as I love hex & counter, that very love has blinded me to some really great games. As my wargaming has evolved into boardgaming, and especially family boardgames. I am embracing games with a much broader set of mechanics than hexes and a CRT. Game mechanics that turned me off years ago (CDG!) I now recognize are actually wonderful, playable games/models that teach me (and the RMN Boys) more than a hex & counter military simulation can deliver.

So thank you Mark Herman, and GMT Games, and all the other game publishers out there that keep advancing the hobby and delivering quality gaming for not only die-hard grognards (guilty as charged) but also family strategy boardgamers.

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Courtesy nohighscores.com…but I’ve seen this many places around the interwebs