May 2017 – My Geek Hobby Year-to-Date

Traditionally, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer for the RockyMountainNavy family. That is until we moved to the East Coast. Now school for the RMN Boys goes until mid-June. However, I still want to use this occasion to look back on my geek hobby year-to-date.

Wargaming

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Courtesy BGG.com

According to my BGG profile, I played 10 games in January, four in February, four more in March, none in April, and only two in May. For a year that I wanted to play more I certainly have dropped off! Summer may change as I have several new games inbound. Arriving tomorrow is Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – The Pacific 1942 (Academy Games, 2016). I also may be getting closer to my Kickstarter delivery of Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, ??) which after many delays (unwarranted and unacceptable in my opinion) finally opened the BackerKit this week. I also pledged for Worthington Publishing’s Mars Wars – but it cancelled. This month I pledged to support Compass Games’ new Richard Borg title Command & Colors: Tricorne – The American Revolution. To be honest, I am buying this title as much for myself as for the RMN Boys – which is both a blessing and a curse. I am certainly blessed in that I have boys who love gaming, but cursed in that they are not a hard grognard like their old man. The titles also reflect a change in my gaming interests as I struggle with the closure of many FLGS and the movement of my purchasing online or (shudder) to Kickstarter. I also have several games on P500 at GMT Games and hope to see that production schedule move forward this year.

Role Playing Games

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Courtesy RPGGeek

Whereas my grognard-fu has been weakening, my RPG play has been one of steady growth. Mostly this has revolved around the Cepheus Engine RPG system and products from Gypsy Knights Games and their The Clement Sector setting or products from Samardan Press, Zozer Games (especially their SOLO supplement), and Moon Toad Publishing. I have to tip my hat to these third party publishers which are doing so much to breathe life into my RPG adventures. For this summer, I also have a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Fantasy Flight Games) campaign at-the-ready. Here too I have dipped deeper into Kickstarter and pledged support to Cam Banks’, Magic Vacuum Studio’s Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game.

Books

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Courtesy Amazon.com

I started off at Christmas with a good collection of books that I am whittling down at a much slower pace than I wish. This is not because I have ignored them; on the contrary, I am probably reading more than I did last year – just not reading off my list! Science fiction books have taken up much of my reading time. I have found myself lost in rereading the Charles E. Gannon’s Caine Riordan series from Baen Books. I also turned to Kickstarter again for content, this time in the form of Cirsova 2017 (Issues 5&6) and its short stories.

Plastic Models

I didn’t get time to build much but the RMN boys got many kits completed. We even found a YouTube channel that we love, Andy’s Hobby Headquarters. He not only shows great models, but the boys are studying his techniques for better building.

Education Support

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Courtesy goodreads.com

I also have to do the Dad-thing and boast a bit about my youngest RMN Boy. This past quarter he was studying World War II and had a project to complete. The project supposed the student had found items in the attic from grandparents accumulated during World War II. The student had to put together a scrapbook of a newspaper article relating a battle (writing assignment), a letter from a soldier/sailor to home describing another battle (writing assignment), a letter from home describing the home front (writing assignment), a letter from the mayor to a local boys club thanking them for supporting the war effort (another writing assignment), notes from Grandmother about key personalities (short biographies), and a propaganda poster (art assignment). We had fun doing this project as together the youngest RMN boy and I prowled my shelves for sources, watched movies and documentaries online, and even pulled out a few games to better visualize the battles. A very proud moment for this father as the New Media and my book and game collection came together to teach a young man history.


Feature image courtesy 365barrington.com

#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.

 

Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT, 2016)- Challenging Perspectives

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Courtesy GMT Games

I am late to the COIN series of games. The COIN (Counter Insurgency) series from GMT Games usually focuses on modern insurgencies using a unique card driven mechanic. The games are somewhat “Euro-like” often with area movement and tokens or other markers vice a traditional hex-n-chit wargame. I initially passed on the COIN series because, a) they were a subject I was not very interested in, b) the game mechanics didn’t appeal to me, and c) I was unsure they were even wargames.

After moving to the East Coast of the US a few years back, I started studying the American Revolution more. So when GMT offered Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (LoD) as a P500 second printing option, I took a chance that the game subject alone could overcome my doubts as to game mechanics or “wargaminess.”

I am so glad I did.

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Courtesy GoodReads

LoD is not only a subject I am interested in, but it made me (finally) challenge much of my stubbornness as to what I define as a “wargame.” What LoD offers is a unique view of the American Revolution, one that certainly looks beyond the military-only, battlefield-perspective that dominates “wargames.” As luck would have it, the first book I knocked off my 2017 reading list – and finished just days before LoD arrived – was Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. As the dust jacket puts it:

…Revolution builds like a ground fire field by local conditions, destructive, hard to quell. Conflict ignited on the frontier, where settlers clamored to push west into Indian lands against British restrictions, and in seaboard cities, where commercial elites mobilized riots and boycotts to resist British tax policies. When war erupted, Patriot crowds harassed Loyalists and nonpartisans into compliance with their cause. Brutal guerrilla violence flared all along the frontier from New York to the Carolinas, fed by internal divisions as well as the clash with Britain. Taylor skillfully draws France, Spain, and native powers into a comprehensive narrative of the war that delivers the major battles, generals, and common soldiers with insight and power.

LoD is the perfect compliment to American Revolutions. In LoD you have the four major factions; the British, the Patriots, the French, and the American Indians. Each has their own objectives. LoD brings life to the conflicts Taylor lays out in American Revolutions and the game greatly enhances one’s understanding of many of the issues surrounding the birth of the United States.

Part of the way LoD brings the American Revolution to life is through its game mechanics. Although I have had several card-driven games (CDG) in my collection since the late 1990’s, I have only recently become a true believer and convert to the game concepts that CDGs offer. For the longest time I looked at CDGs as being restrictive on my game play; i.e. what should I be subject to the whims of a card? I can create my own strategy!  I now appreciate how a good CDG mixes historical drivers and player flexibility. Do I play the card as an Event (often associated or derived from a historical situation) or do I play it as an Operation (player strategy choice)? Often times, the cards also deal fate in ways unexpected or that reflect uncertainty (like the semi-randomness of Winter Quarters in LoD when a campaign season – one turn – ends). The cards also inspire more learning because many reference people or events. Some are known, some are lesser recognized. All were chosen for a reason, and all have an impact (that is, if the designer did a good job).

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

What this old grognard discovered is that “wargame” requires a fluid definition. LoD is the catalyst of a revolution in my perspective of wargaming. LoD is a “wargame” of the American Revolution that captures more than a battlefield or military-only situation. This change in perspective should not be a real surprise to me; my perspective of tabletop roleplaying games has also changed over the years and I started wargaming and RPGs at the same time (proud grognard since 1979!). But it is still a nice revelation, and one that will ensure that games like LoD don’t get (imprudently) pushed off but rather explored for what they offer. I play wargames not only to simulate or replay history, but I also use wargames to explore the past. LoD offers a powerful exploration of the American Revolution and is a shining example of gaming as a teacher of history.

#WargameWednesday – MBT (2nd Ed) Scenario 1 Playthru

pic1444385_mdJim Day’s Panzer by Yaquinto Publishing was my first ever wargame, coming as a Christmas gift in 1979. I liked the game so much that I picked up the rest of the series, ’88’ and Armor as soon as they were published. These games are touchstones of my young gaming life; they were how I cut my teeth in the wargaming hobby.

Last year I ordered GMT’s MBT (2nd Edition). I have heard great things about the Panzer and MBT system over the years, but had drifted away over the decades. I am glad I came back to Jim Day’s tactical armored combat games!

pic2958247_mdI played Scenario 1 – First Clash Pt 1 using the Basic Game Rules with the addition of Advanced Game Rule 6.2 Advanced Game Command Phase and 7.43 Command Span. I actually started play with just the Basic Rules, but quickly discovered the Soviets were running amok. I reset the game and introduced the advanced command rules to bring some sanity back to the situation.

The battle went in ebbs and flows, with the Soviets initially gaining the upper hand. The Soviets entered from the left side of the board which is generally more open than the other edge. One platoon in the center of the battlefield caught a US platoon in the open and decimated it. After that the Americans were more cautious in the advance seeking cover where available. The Soviets rapidly seized the center bridge crossing and were advancing for cover when it was ambushed from their flank by a US platoon that had gotten relatively close using cover. On the bottom edge, two Soviet platoons took on an advancing US platoon protected by overwatch fire. In a real bloodbath, the US lost a platoon but destroyed both Soviet platoons in return. 

I was really glad I reset the game and used the advanced command rules. The Soviets have a single Company HQ tank that has to orchestrate their entire battle. This forced the Soviets to concentrate on the center and one flank. The Americans have two Company HQ  tanks so they were able to split their force and remain effective. About mid-battle, the Soviet commander attempted to displace forward because his advancing platoons were actually exceeding his Command Span causing a lose of control. A US M-60 in Overwatch was able to get a lucky shot and destroy him. This crippled the Soviets as they were now severely limited in command actions. As a result, the Americans were able to roll up the Soviet’s flank  and eventually eject them totally.

At first, I was worried that the extensive use of chits for marking spotting, command, and various other admin was going to crowd the map too much. I was very pleased that my fears are unfounded. The game flows very naturally and the chits do not get in the way. Very important to me, the game play and results feel realistic and not forced or contrived.

I previously told myself that the MBT core game was going to be sufficient to scratch the itch of my modern armor combat and I don’t need any expansions. I told myself that I have the old Panzer series for WWII armored combat and I don’t need the new one. Unfortunately for me (but fortunate for Jim Day and GMT) one day’s play of MBT has totally changed my mind.

Now where’s my wallet?


All images courtesy BoardGame Geek.

Extended Playthru Thoughts on Plan Orange: Pacific War, 1930-1935 (C3i Magazine Nr 29)

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Which game is it? 1930-1935 or 1932-1935?

On the last day of my winter vacation I got Mark Herman’s Plan Orange: Pacific War, 1930-1935 published by RBM Studio in C3i Magazine Nr 29 on the table. Unlike the first time I played (which was really more a learning game to get familiar with the rules) this time I tried the campaign scenario. By the time I was finished, I found I (equally?) liked and disliked the game.

I really like the Plan Orange situation. The game gives players an interesting look at the strategic challenges facing both Japan and the United States. The game brings to life Edward Miller’s War Plan Orange: The US Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945 as well as Hector Bywater’s The Great Pacific War: A History of the American-Japanese Campaign of 1931-33. In the 1930’s, aviation (especially naval aviation) is still in its infancy and not the dominating power it would be only a decade later. Plan Orange reflects this situation by keeping naval power supreme over air. I also really like the use of the CDG-mechanic because it give players challenging decisions to decide not only what they want to do, but how to use the cards to make it happen. I appreciate the CDG mechanic because it represents the planning and execution of plans that don’t always perfectly match the commander’s desires.

Plan Orange is also best described as a version of Empire of the Sun (GMT Games). The rules for Plan Orange appear to be almost a cut-n-paste version of EotS:

PLAY NOTE: In several places in the rules it will state that a particular section or step is ignored or left blank in Plan Orange. These are sections that have rules in the parent design Empire of the Sun and I wanted to avoid creating a new numbering scheme that might confuse players if and when they are playing the original design upon which this is based. – Plan Orange 1.21 Inventory.

Which brings me to the part I disliked. I don’t own – and never played – EotS so I came into Plan Orange depending totally on the rule book provided. Unfortunately, the rules are very confusing in places, or totally lacking. For example, I cannot find the rule for when to reshuffle the player deck! I wonder if this is because the Plan Orange version is cut down too much or if this was an oversight in the original rules. I hope it is the former, because to repeat a mistake 10 years later is unacceptable!

For my play thru, I was able to complete five turns (out of the six-turn campaign) before I had to pack the game away. Plan Orange is fun, though I find I am still reaching for the rulebook often and spending much time searching for a rule or trying to interpret it. I feel the game system should be easy, but the rule book keeps tripping me up. I want to get to the point the I know the rules enough to focus more on game strategy than “the system.” Unfortunately, the rule book is not being the most helpful.

Verdict: Keeper Worth Exploring More. 

Mark Herman’s Plan Orange: Pacific War, 1930-1935, ©2015 Mark Herman/Studiolo Designs and RBM Studio/Rodger B. MacGowan.