#WargameWednesday – That sinking feeling… #SecondWorldWaratSeaCoralSea (Avalanche Press, 2010)

I love naval games. Just look at my Twitter handle or BoardGameGeek user name – RockyMountainNavy. So it should not be surprising that in the late 1990’s and through the 2000’s I bought many naval games. One of the more prolific publishers was Avalanche Press and their War at Sea-series including the Great War at Sea and the Second World War at Sea. Each game is actually two games in one; an operational campaign game and a tactical battle resolution game.

In 2010, Avalanche Press rolled out Introductory games for each series. Second World War at Sea: Coral Sea is the introductory title supporting that line. As the publisher’s blurb states:

Coral Sea is the new introductory boxed game for the Second World War at Sea series. It covers this key battle and is intended as a gateway for players new to the world’s most popular series of naval boardgames. The Japanese player must establish new bases in New Guinea and at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands; the American player must stop them. Forces are very closely balanced, and victory will rest with the player who can best make use of his or her resources.

The game is rated as 2 out of 5 in complexity with a playing time of “30 minutes to many hours.” I recently pulled out Coral Sea to give it a go. My reaction to the game is decidedly mixed; I like the operational aspects of the game but was reminded just what a chore playing the Second World War at Sea-series really is.

The rules for Coral Sea come in two books; Series Rules (24 pages) and Special Rules (8 pages). Mechanically the game is quite simple. In execution, it becomes long, repetitive, and a bit disinteresting. Back to that in a moment.

Set up for a campaign game, even with the low counter density (45 “long” ship counters and 100 1/2″ squares for ships, aircraft, and markers) should be fast but instead it takes time. I spent a good 30 minutes just setting the game up! Not only did I have to place the counters, but copy the Log Sheets (one for each side) and Data Sheets (five pages). This is NOT a pick-up game.

Each turn in the operational game is four hours of actual time. Each hex is 36nm across. Operational Scenario One covers the time period of 1-10 May 1942. That’s 60 turns! Each turn has the same 12 phases that both players have to step through together. 

After checking the weather and assigning aircraft to Air Patrol missions, both players go to the Orders Phase. This is the first great analysis paralysis opportunity of each turn as the players have to plot movement a various number of turns in advance based the mission of the task force. Task forces with a Bombardment or Transport mission plot their movement for the entire scenario or until six turns in a friendly port are passed. This is especially painful because the fastest ships move three spaces a turn while slow ships (like transports) only move one. Fortunately, in Coral Sea each side has only a few task forces, and in the case of the Japanese player at least two have transports and will therefore preplot their slooooowwwww advance across the ocean.

Once plotting is complete, the Air Search Phase with searches and ASW patrols is carried out. If there is an air strike to be launched, in the Air Mission Assignment Phase the orders are written out. This is followed by Naval Movement, Submarine Attack, and Surface Combat (resolved in a separate Tactical Board). Air Strikes and an administrative Air Readiness Phase follows. Players then execute a Special Operations Phase which is all those activities exclusive of the above. The turn ends with an Air Return Phase and then it all starts again.

Simple and straight-forward. Even a bit realistic (preplotting shows delay in orders execution or pre-planning). It works, as long as one is ready to repeat this process 60 times (or 180 times in the 1-30 May 1942 Operational Scenario Two) for a game.

All that for an Introductory game.

I am not going to go into my dislikes of the tactical combat resolution system. For a taste of my opinion I refer you to an old GeekList where I compared World War I Tactical Naval Combat game systems. With that said, maybe a very simple tactical combat system fits this system because it is already a looooonnnnngggg game.

Remember, this is an Introductory game.

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Courtesy APL

As I get older, I am coming to appreciate the luxury of larger counters. This is not the case in Coral Sea which has awesome 1″ long ship counters but 1/2″ aircraft counters crowded with information in tiny fonts – fonts too tiny for my old grognard eyes to comfortably take in. I could also use a pair of wargame tweezers to move or examine stacks of tiny counters.

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APL

I forced myself to play Operational Scenario One to its conclusion. I took me almost three hours of play time. Thirty minutes of set up and three hours of play.

For an Introductory game.

Looking back, I guess the game makes for an adventurous retelling of the battle but finding that narrative-vibe in-game is hard when slogging through 720 phases across 60 turns.

As an introduction to the Second World War at Sea-series, Coral Sea shows that one needs to be greatly committed to this game system and invest lots of time for little action. For me, it’s going to be a long time until this title – or any other Second World War at Sea-series game – lands on my table again.

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#WargameWednesday – Carrier Battles 4 Guadalcanal for iOS

I honestly don’t like wargames on my iPad. The very small form-factor makes it hard for me to play. I also really like having a nice map to look at and little bits to push around. Then there is the whole social factor of playing F2F….

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Carrier Battles 4 Guadalcanal

I may have to make an exception for Carrier Battle 4 Guadalcanal available in the iTunes store for only $4.99 (base game). Designer Cyril Jarnot (Bladerunner69 on BGG) has implemented “a classic hex-and-counter wargame covering the naval-air battles in the South Pacific in 1942-43” in iOS. Think Flat Top for the iPad!

I could try to explain more, but The Chief at Bonding with Board Games has already done it.

Purchased…learning in progress….

#WargameWednesday – Battles in the Sky

In a previous posting, I discovered that three of my six least-liked wargames are air combat-related. This got me thinking – do I actually dislike air combat games? The answer I discovered is, “No, actually there are many air combat games I do like.” Here are my personal Top 10 Air Combat Wargames.

A comment on ratings: These games are ranked subjectively by me out of my personal collection. As such, this is my Top 10 Air Combat Wargames that I own.

#1 – Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 [My Rating 8.75 / Geek Rating 5.985 / BGG Wargame Rank 140]

At first look I denigrated this game as a side-scroll video game wannabe. WAY WRONG! This unique look at operational air combat just works and clearly brings out the “why” of a dogfight rather than the usual “how.”

#2 – Wing Leader: Supremacy: 1943-1945 [My Rating 8.5 / Geek Rating 5.762 / BGG Wargame Rank 285]

Many people see this as the same as Victories but the late-war combat was different enough from the early war that, although the game system is the same, the play is way different.

#3 – Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 [My Rating 8.5 / Geek Rating 6.099 / BGG Wargame Rank 105]

Operational-level campaigns of modern air warfare. As a former US Navy Squadron Intelligence Officer this is so much like real-life mission planning that I should dislike it as too realistic but I feel just the opposite.

#4 – RAF (West End Games, 1986) [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 6.133/ BGG Wargame Rank 156]

Solitaire, card-driven Battle of Britain. First design with many others to follow that may be more clean mechanically or graphically but unmatched in my collection.

#5 – Buffalo Wings [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.677 / BGG Wargame Rank 506]

Air war over Finland. Technically part of JD Webster’s Fighting Wings series, this one has a cleaner basic game that makes it worthy to be counted as a separate game in my thinking. Detailed air combat that takes a bit of dedication to learn, but once it “clicks” for you it is an easy, fast-paced game that seems realistic yet playable.

#6 – Whistling Death [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.859 / BGG Wargame Rank 200]

Fighting Wings goes to the Pacific. The last real iteration of the Fighting Wings series of games makes it the most refined of the lot and the topic of most interest to me. Maybe too complicated for many but I find it a playable level of realism.

#7 – The Speed of Heat [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.715 / BGG Wargame Rank 505]

JD Webster’s modern air combat game. Second generation of his earlier GDW Air Superiority and Air Strike games. Again, a playable level of realism.

#8 – The Burning Blue [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.979 / BGG Wargame Rank 172]

Another Lee Brimmecombe-Wood operational campaign (see Downtown above). Playing this gives one a whole new respect for the campaign fought out over England in 1940.

#9 – Bloody April, 1917: Air War Over Arras, France [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.740 / BGG Wargame Rank 487]

Another operational-level look at an air campaign. Makes one realize that the grunt work, like artillery spotting and photo-recce, are really important to air campaigns. Dogfights have a role but often in support of the others.

#10 – Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid [My Rating 8.0 / Geek Rating 5.578 / Unranked by BGG Wargames]

A solo wargame that plays out mechanically but, when looking back at what happened, tells a really dramatic story.

Honorable Mentions (all ranked by me at 7.75 or 7.5) but still ones I like:

It should be obvious that there are many air combat games I like, but just as obvious that tactical dogfighting is not my preference. Seven of my Top 10 Air Combat Games are not dogfight games but rather raids or operational-level simulation. Maybe that is the key; dogfighting games, which can be very technical (see Birds of Prey), tend to not catch my attention as much as sweeping campaign systems. This does not necessarily mean the games are bad. Rather, it probably reflects a change in my attitude towards gaming. When I first started in this hobby back in 1979, I think I was a simulationist. It is reflected in my favorite games of that time, Panzer and Star Fleet Battles. I thought that games needed to be technical (and full of chrome) to be “realistic.” These days, I think I seek more “design elegance” (however that is defined!) and desire playability with “just enough” realism.

Featured photo was taken this summer at the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, VA. As a docent there says, “The Smithsonian’s might be prettier, but ours fly!”

#WargameWednesday – Ranking my personal Top 10 #Wargames

This last year, I have have fully embraced my Wargame Revival I first talked about in December 2016. Since the beginning of the year, I have played 34 different games 57 times.

Along the way I taken a deep relook at my BoardGameGeek ratings. I have realigned many ratings, generally shifting more towards a 6.0 (OK – Will play if in the mood) than the 7+ (Good – Usually willing to play) I was at before. This time also afforded me a chance to look at my personal favorites and how they stack up on BGG (ratings/rank as of  08 October 2017):

#1 Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (second edition) [My Rating 9.5 / BGG Rating 8.1 / BGG Wargame Rank 17]

I like this game for the simple game mechanics that still capture the feel of WWII combat. Absolutely unmatched with the Firefight Generator and Solo Missions expansion. CoH is notably my top ranked game, but also the game with a large rating disparity (my 9.5 versus a Geek Rating of 6.891 – a 2.61 overrating by me).

#2 Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection [My Rating 9.0 / BGG Rating 8.0 / BGG Wargame Rank 46]

An incredibly innovative game that in many ways turns the definition of “wargame” on its head. Also apparently overrated by me with against a Geek Rating of 6.492 or a 2.51 overrating.

#3 Harpoon 4 [My Rating 9.0 / BGG Rating 7.4 / BGG Wargame Rank 547]

Modern naval combat. I think this game gets a bad rap; its not really that complicated to play once you get set-up and some planning completed. Apparently I vastly overrate this game against a Geek Rating of 5.682 or a 3.32 overrating by me.

#4 Fear God & Dread Nought [My Rating 9.0 / BGG Rating 7.3 / BGG Wargame Rank 806]

World War II naval combat. Again, I think its underrated although I can see how it might only appeal to diehard grognards. The lowest BGG Wargame rank of my personal Top 10. Of my Top 10, this is the game with the greatest rating disparity against a Geek Rating of 5.626 or an overrating of 3.37 by me!

#5 Flat Top [My Rating 9.0 /BGG Rating 7.3 / BGG Wargame Rank 180]

I have the Battleline first edition from 1977. The oldest game in my Top 10. Another one with wide disparity of ratings with a Geek Rating of 6.206 (2.79 overrated).

#6 Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 [My Rating 9.0 / BGG Rating 8.0 /  BGG Wargame Rank 140]

Actually paired with Wing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 [My Rating 9.0 /  BGG Rating 8.5 / BGG Wargame Rank 286] these games both literally and figuratively changed my perspective of air combat games. Overrated – again – at a Geek Rating of 5.983 or a 2.77 overrate.

#7 Scythe [My Rating 9.0 / BGG Rating 8.3 / BGG Overall Rank 8 / BGG Strategy Rank 7]

The only “non-wargame” in my Top 10, Scythe is not without its detractors but it is a rare game that actually delivers on much of the hype surrounding it.

#8 MBT (second edition) [My Rating 9.0 /  BGG Rating 8.2 / BGG Wargame Rank 458]

Modern armored combat. Streamlined game mechanics make for easy, fun play. I overrate by 2.81 against a Geek Rating of 5.689.

#9 Panzer (second edition) [My Rating 9.0 / BGG Rating 7.8 / BGG Wargame Rank 139]

My first wargame ever was Panzer (first edition) [My Rating 8.0 / BGG Rating 7.3 / BGG Wargame Rank 629]; this is a worthy successor. I overrate by 2.49 against a Geek Rating of 6.006.

#10 Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 [My BGG Rating 9.0 /  BGG Rating 7.8 / BGG Wargame Rank 106]

As an old Navy Squadron Intel Officer, this game is strike planning like I remember it. Not everyone likes the planning nor some of the abstractions, but to me this is realism and playability combined. Of my Top 10, this one has the least ratings disparity with my rating “only” 2.40 over the Geek Rating of 6.098.

So what have I learned? I learned that BoardGameGeek ratings and rankings are virtually useless!

I like games that others don’t – apparently many games that others would say I overrate. Not sure if it really means anything because I feel that the wargamer segment of BGG is underrepresented by users. It’s OK with me; I enjoy my hobby and hope to keep gaming for many years to come!

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Courtesy BGG.com

 

#WargameWednesday – #ConflictofHeroesAwakeningtheBear #FirefightGenerator Night

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Courtesy Academy Games

The RMN Saturday Gaming Adventures (SaGA) continued this past weekend with Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (Academy Games, 2012). This time, we also pulled out the Firefight Generator to help us create the firefight. The Firefight Generator uses two decks of cards (one for the German player, the other for the Soviet) to build the firefight/scenario. Each card has a top section with either a Victory Point condition or Special Event (rules) and a bottom section with units. Depending on the scenario desired, players draw a variable number of cards and alternate playing the cards until the combatants are selected, special rules introduced, and additional victory conditions defined.

For our game, we played the three-player variant with the RMN Boys acting as the two German players and myself as the lone Soviet commander. Each side was dealt eight cards. It quickly became obvious that the Germans wanted to “go heavy” as they selected many armored units. As the Soviet player, my initial unit selection was a bit more “combined arms” meaning I ended up with several infantry and supporting mortar units that, in the long run, were of little value in the armored battle that was coming. I did however, take a modified victory condition which awarded extra VP for destroying a German vehicle or crewed unit.

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BT-7-1 in operations, carrying soldiers – Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The game itself was five rounds long. The Soviets had a control point near their (east) edge that they quickly surrounded in a defensive array using a trio of BT-7 tanks. During the firefight generation, the RMN Boys had taken an option to add a second mapboard to the firefight and chose to enter on that board (the “west board”) away from the Soviet control point (the German second commander could have entered anywhere along the “north” edge of the east or west board – but chose to stay nearer his brother-unit and enter on the west board).

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A rear view of a ZiS-30 and its crew operating it. – Courtesy tanks-encyclopedia.com

The slugfest that followed illustrates the awesome simulation power of the Conflict of Heroes system. Both sides were relatively evenly matched, with Command Action Points (CAP) roughly equal (Soviet 12, German 10). However, the superior tactical training of the Germans quickly shined through. There was no better example than in the tank-vs-tank fight. The Soviet BT-7 needs 5 Action Points (AP) to fire and given the standard 7 AP per unit activation means a tank gets one shot unless CAP is used. The Soviet tank destroyer I had, the ZiS-30, was more likely to get a hit but takes 6 AP to fire! The net impact of the high AP needed to fire meant that each tank could, at best, get ONE HIT in a round, therefore in turn meaning to get a KILL requires multiple hits over multiple rounds (all while hoping the German player does not successfully rally the hit unit, and therefore resetting the hit count).  On the other hand, the German Panzer III and IV take only 2 or 3 AP to fire, meaning an “average” unit will get at least two, possibly three fire opportunities per activation. In terms of hit chances, both sides had under-gunned tanks for the opponent they were facing, but with numerous more opportunities to fire (often before the Soviets could rally and remove a hit) it was only a matter of time before the Germans wore down the Soviet behemoths.

The RMN Boys did themselves proud. Given the trio of BT-7 surrounding the control point, they (correctly) focused on destroying the major threat (the ZiS-30 tank destroyer) using, interestingly, a mortar team to suppress the ZiS and later a PzIII to destroy it.  They also used the mortar team (employing indirect fire) to destroy the Soviet’s lone anti-tank gun. At that point the Germans used their forces’ superior maneuverability to go around the flank of the BT-7 defenders and get to the control point “through the backdoor.”  At the end of the fifth round, the Germans were ahead on units destroyed (seven Soviet versus three German) but given the Soviet player had occupied the Control Point four of five rounds it looked close (German advantage 8-7 VP). However, with the modified VP card played during the firefight setup, the Soviet player got four extra VP to give them a 11-8 VP win.

As the Soviet commander, I am lucky the German second commander did not enter the north edge of the east board as I had little defense in depth there and may not have had time to get the BT-7s in place to defend the control point. If the Germans had occupied the control point just one extra round the VP would have been 10-9…assuming I did not lose any other units!

Does all that sound too gamey? In play it doesn’t feel that way, as the modified VP conditions drive tactics and the special rules throw wrenches into the best-laid plans. The Action Point mechanic of Conflict of Heroes also brilliantly captures so many factors (such as training, discipline, leadership) without cumbersome extra rules. The RMN Boys are neophytes at tactical armored combat although they have lots of Memoir ’44 experience which gives them a good foundation to build upon. The Conflict of Heroes system is easy to learn but a tough teacher. I will certainly have to step up my game in future battles as they both learn more and get more aggressive.

#WargameWednesday – Decision Games Air War Series

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Courtesy BGG

I recently was able to pick up three games in the Air War Series designed by Joseph Miranda and published by Decision Games. These are (in order of publication) Eagle Day: The Battle of Britain (2012), Cactus Air Force: Air War Over the Solomons (2012), and MiG Alley: Air War Over Korea 1951 (2015). The back cover of MiG Alley describes all three games in general:

The game uses the Air Wars series rules. Aircraft are rated according to type. Fuel consumption is factored into the plane types, so a player must manage the available forces to ensure enough combat power is ready when needed. Each player has a unique set of campaign cards generating movement, combat bonuses, historical events, and reinforcements. Playing the right card at the right time is crucial to winning.

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MiG Alley – Courtesy BGG

Each game is packaged in DGs Mini Game Series format. These introductory games come with an 11″x17″ map, 40 (small) die-cut counters, 18 (small) campaign cards, four-page series rules, and two-page scenario rules. Each game is of Very Low complexity and can be played in 1-2 hours.

The timescale is most realistic in Eagle Day (Days-Hours) but more abstracted in Cactus Air Force (Months-Hours(?)) and MiG Alley (Partial Months- Hours). Working past the non-sensical timescale, each turn consists of a Planning Phase (Days/Months/Part Months)  and Operations Phase (expressed in Hours). Each Planning Phase consists of Campaign Card draw (and occasionally play), Replacements, and Reinforcements. In the Operations Phase, players take turns using Campaign Cards, moving, fighting, and bombing.

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Courtesy BGG

Each game is a simple representation of an air campaign, a level of warfare notoriously difficult to game/simulate. In my collection, Eagle Day occupies a similar game space to John Butterfield’s solitaire RAF and Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s The Burning Blue. Eagle Day, and the others, easily falls at the lowest end of the complexity spectrum – like the Mini Games series intends to do.

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Courtesy BGG

Of the three games, I think the abstractions in the Air War series make Eagle Day the weakest game. There is no game mechanic for scrambling aircraft meaning as the Intruder Player the German often can catch British fighters on the ground. In Cactus Air Force, the small unit count (limited by the 40-counter game limit) leads to a very balanced combat situation, and I don’t find the “desperate struggle” like that related in Lundstrom’s The First Team and the Guadalcanal  Campaign or Prados’ Islands of Destiny: The Solomons Campaign and the Eclipse of the Rising Sun. On the other hand, MiG Alley seems to evoke the right feeling of the air campaign with few North Korean and Chinese jets beating up on hapless lumbering B-29s while the new American jets – never in enough numbers – try to take over the bombing campaign.

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Cactus Air Force – Courtesy BGG

Each game is very affordable ($12.99 retail). This is both positive (affordable) and negative (limited components). Decision Games is also what I term these days a “classic” wargame publisher. The Mini Game Series are classic hex-n-counter wargames. The only real innovative feature beyond a “classic” wargame is the use of Campaign Cards to create scenario variability and fog-of-war.

 

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Courtesy wargamecenter

(Which makes me think just how great a candidate these games are for the simple “block” treatment. The game is already two-player, and most counters are double-sided with a generic “Based” on one side (representing the planes on the ground) and the actual aircraft on the other. If the board was enlarged and blocks used it would avoid the inevitable ‘gotta flip the counters to see what I really have there’ syndrome by allowing the counters to be stood on edge with the “Based” side facing the opponent while still allowing the owner to see the aircraft. When flying, the block is placed aircraft face-up. Of course, this would raise the price-point of the game but….)

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Courtesy BGG

As much as I sound negative, I actually am very happy I bought these games. The games will serve as good “filler” or introductory (teaching) games and are small enough to travel easily. If one desires simple, small, easy to learn and short to play classic wargames with just a few “innovations,” the Air War series of Mini Games from Decision Games are good candidates to put on your wish list.

 

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: BUY and PLAY for travel games but manage expectations.

#Wargame Wednesday – Merrill’s Marauders (Decision Games) First Impressions

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Merrill's Marauders: Commandos in Burma 1943-1944, Decision Games, $12.95. Designed by Joseph Miranda. Part of the Commando-series of games. A Decision Games mini-series product which is intended to be introductory-level and playable in an hour or less. Comes with an 11"x17" mapboard, 40 counters, 4 mission cards, 14 event cards, a four-page series rulebook and two-pages of scenario instructions. Play time is rated at 1-2 hours, but this seems to be the time necessary for an entire four-mission campaign as an individual mission can take 30 min or less.

Merrill's Marauders is a solitaire game that covers commando missions behind enemy lines in Burma during World War II. The player is the Allied commandos while the game engine is the OPFOR (opposition force). The commando player has to enter the map area and recover objectives while avoiding ambushes and other patrolling Japanese units. The game comes with four "missions" that can be played separately or strung together to form a campaign. The Mission Cards specify the number of objectives and ambushes to be secretly placed, the mission objectives, how many "operations" (time) is allowed, the force level available to buy, and any leaders. During each operation a stack of units move and event cards are drawn to determine what happens next. Battles are a simple nd6 roll against a Battle Results Table and is bloody.

The rules and game mechanics for Merrill's Maraudersare easy and certainly meet the "introductory-level" criteria of a mini-series game. The map is extremely functional, with almost all the information needed to play on it. Once the rules are learned (not a very steep learning curve to achieve) between the map and the event cards almost all the information needed to play is present. The "Operations" mechanic which counts down the number of operations (actions) available to the commando player is a nice touch that adds a time-crunch element, and winning battles (gaining Operations Points) becomes a key part of the commando players strategy. Although only four missions are included, the variable setup ensures the few missions are not going to be identical, leading to increased replayability.

Although the rules are easy to learn, they also are the weakest part of the game. This is because more than a few of the series-standard rules are superseded by the scenario instructions and the differences can dramatically alter play. For instance, standard rule 16.0 EVENT CARDS specify that when a commando force ends its movement, an Event Card is drawn. If there is an objective marker in the space, one Event Card is drawn normally and implemented, then a second Event Card drawn and implemented. This goes hand-in-hand with 23.0 OBJECTIVE MARKERS which specifies that a marker is not revealed until AFTER the two events are played. However, scenario instruction 38.1 Objective Segments & Real Objectives are revealed before drawing an event card and if an Ambush no Event Card is drawn. Elsewhere, standard rule 22.0 KILLED IN ACTION (KIA) which scores panicked and eliminated units is totally changed by scenario instruction 39.9. This change is welcome, but even with this change the ability for the commando player to score the necessary KIA to win is extremely difficult to achieve.

Despite the rules challenges that require careful reading and cross-referencing the first few times thru, Merrill's Maraudersturns out to be a short, enjoyable game that really captures the flavor of commando actions behind enemy lines. Once the rules are understood, the game becomes a deeply narrative experience that can turn out to be quite immersive.

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: MUST PLAY