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

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Courtesy BGG

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

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

It was interesting.

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Courtesy BGG

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

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

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

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Courtesy RBM Design Studio via BoardGameGeek

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

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

#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.

 

#WargameWednesday – Napoleon at Ligny

img_1359Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815; Avalon Hill Second Edition, 1977.

June 15, 1815. Napoleon has massed his Army du Nord from Soire to Phillipeville. The Prussians are aggressively deployed with parts of the army as far forward as Charleroi. The British are much more conservative, arrayed from Renaix and Oudenaarde to Brussels and Wavre.

Our first game in almost forever. I played against my boys many years ago and they have come a long way as wargamers since then. Little I is the British, and has started in a rearward, somewhat passive defense. T is more aggressive and is set up far forward; literally daring the French to come. As the French, I take the center like Napoleon did. None of our set ups are ideal as we are learning the game for the first time or once again after many years.

June 16-17: As the French move towards Charleroi, the Prussians fall back to the east. The French catch a small force at Ligny. Both sides trade a small amount of fire and the Prussians withdraw. After their passive start, the British push aggressively out of Brussels. The French turn to oblige Wellington and the two sides clash at Waterloo. After a long exchange, the British lose an infantry corps and withdraw.

After starting out in a very forward deployment, T gets very defensive and keeps falling back as the consolidating French army pushes across the Belgium border. It is the rearward deployed British who come out to contest the French, but seemingly lose their nerve in battle and retreat.

June 18-19: The Prussians are massing their forces, but the French try to consolidate forces in the face of the now rapidly massing British. Seeing a chance to attrite the Prussians, the  French cavalry go on a long raid and enter Liege with a strong cavalry force. They leave behind a small infantry force that took casualties at Waterloo. The British attack this group at Quattre Bras. Declining battle, the French retreat, but in the pursuit battle all three corps are lost! Although the Prussians have supply problems (losing a corps with Liege occupied), Blucher fails to take the bait and instead moves against the French main body massed at Ligny. The French recall their calvary force and they race to rejoin Napoleon.

Although feeling time pressure, the French (me) fails to act aggressively and instead I wait for one of the Allied players to make a mistake. The cavalry raid is intended to draw off the Prussians (T) and allow the French to take on the British (Little I) alone. The Prussians don’t take the bait, and instead the British catch a wounded detachment and in the pursuit battle get extremely lucky destroying all the units. This alone gets the Allies 1/3 of the way to victory. Now the French must fight!

June 20: In the morning light, the French in Ligny sight a strong British force  of eight corps approaching from Quattre Bras while another six Prussian corps marches from Gembloux. The French decide to stand and the Second Battle of Ligny begins. In the course of the day, the British will lose six corps and quit the battlefield. However, the Prussians stand and the battle rages on. The entire French cavalry is committed on the right, but the Prussians stubbornly stand. In the end, it is the French left that crumbles, and with the loss of a ninth corps, Napoleon surrenders.

Going into the battle the French need to destroy six British corps and four Prussian corps to win. The Allies need to destroy five French corps. At the Second Battle of Ligny, the French concentrate on the British to try and knock them out of the war. There was also extremely poor die-rolling for my French; at one point on the right wing six French cavalry corps fail to destroy a single weakened Prussian infantry corps. If the optional Command Control rule had been used the Allied attack could not have taken place like it did. Regardless, the battle ends with the British defeated, but a defiant Prussian army completing the job and forcing Napoleon’s surrender.


Comments

Napoleon plays much better than I remember. The game is rated Introductory for the rules but the strategy is demanding! Battles on the Battle Board capture the essence of Napoleonic combat. The blocks are a simple – yet effective – fog of war mechanism. Road movement limits from town to town means each General must organize their forces and ensure they have sufficient mass for battle and nearby reinforcements. We messed up the Battles rules in the first engagement, but got better as the game progressed.

The Victory Conditions build great tension. The French are racing against the clock and must defeat the Allied armies before the end of the game. The French are stronger than each individual Allied army, but inferior if the Allies mass together. The Allies really just have to survive, but the Logistics rules can force them to fight or slowly waste away if the French get to one or more of the supply hubs.

Playing a three-way game was most exciting. Both boys had their own army (relatively similar in size and power) and neither felt that they had taken the “weaker” side. Game play also keeps players engaged; in a 90 min game we got through 16 turns which included three major battles and two smaller engagements.

The RockyMountainNavy boys loved the game and challenged each other to another round the next day. Little I is already reading up on the Battle of Waterloo and wants to learn more. Although this game is 40 years old, it has stood the test of time well and still makes for a fun campaign.

RockyMountainNavy Family play verdict – WINNER!

#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.