#WargameWednesday – Close to Home: Battle of Ox Hill

IMG_1759Living in the Mid-Atlantic region means we have many historical places from the Colonial, American Revolution, and American Civil War close at hand. This past weekend, we took a short trip to a very local battlefield. After the trip, I pulled out one of my latest gaming acquisitions, Chantilly: Jackson’s Missed Opportunity 1 September 1862 (Decision Games, 2013). As the Historical Background lays out:

The ensuing battle, misnamed Chantilly for a plantation several miles to the west, was a disjointed, inconclusive affray that petered out in a thunderstorm that evening. But it need not have been so. It must rank as one of the great “lost opportunities” of the war; had Jackson got onto Pope’s line of communication, the result might very well have been the destruction of an entire Union army.

My copy of Chantilly is part of the Mini Games series that comes in a ziplock bag.  As the DG site tells us:

The Mini Game Series provides a variety of introductory games that are designed to be played in about an hour. The eras covered are: 19th century, Ancient, WWII and Modern. Each game is an 11 x 17 inch map sheet, 40 counters and a rules sheet. The mini game series takes only minutes to learn and once one game is played, players can immediately play other scenarios with the same standard rules.

The rules for Chantilly are based on DG’s Musket & Saber Quick Play Mini Game System Rules (4 pages) with 2 pages of scenario exclusive rules.

After several rules run-thru and two plays, I must admit I am disappointed with the game.

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Game map covers an almost identical area – though in a much smaller format

Component-wise the game is fine, and at the $9.95 price point is a great value. The rules complexity are a bit above pure introductory-level. BGG rates the complexity for Chantilly at 1.67 out of 5; a rating I agree with.

It is also that very simplicity of the rules that gets the game in trouble. Chantilly obviously uses a cut-version of a larger rules set. This leads to several issues that make gameplay challenging and lessens the gaming experience.

The first item that jumped out to me is F. Lee’s Cavalry Brigade. This unit has a Combat Factor (CF) of (2) – that is – a 2 in parentheses. NOWHERE in the Game System or Scenario rules is this explained. Luckily the question was asked on BGG, and a blessed soul referenced the full-series rules for the answer (“A parenthesized CF is halved when attacking”).

The FLee cavalry counter also confused me because not only did it have the parentheses around the CF, but it didn’t have a Charge Factor as seen on the counter example in 9.1 Cavalry Units. As I was studying 9.0 Cavalry, I read through 9.3 Squares with mounting anger because there were no square markers in the countermix! It was not until you get to the end of scenario rule 12.2 The Scenario that you discover that all the rules study is for nought:

All standard rules apply except 9.0. Treat the lone calvary unit (FLee) like an infantry unit for all purposes. There are no charges or squares.

The next part of the game system that I am unsure of is the combat results. There are six possible combat results:

  • Ar/Dr = Retreat. All units either disrupt or retreat 1-3 hexes.
  • Ac/Dc = Retreat Check. If MC [Morale Check] failed, treat as Ar/Dr. If MC passed, apply parenthesized result.
  • Ax/Dx = Retreat or Loss. If MC passed, unit may take a loss. If MC failed, or if passed and player chooses, all units disrupted and retreat 1-3 hexes.
  • Ex = Exchange. Each side loses step.
  • NE = No Effect.

I’m not going to show the CRT here, but suffice it to say that outright killing a unit (Ex result) is very hard. Indeed, it appears on the CRT only as the parenthesized result of the Ac/Dc – which is a bit counterintuitive to me. Most units have a Morale Rating of 4, meaning they must roll a 4 or less to PASS their morale check. But in the case of the Ac/Dc result, “passing” your morale check is BAD (Step Loss) whereas “failing” your morale check is good (retreat).

One other way to kill a unit is by Standard Rule 7.8 Rout. Basically, if a retreating unit has an Unsafe Line of Retreat (buried in 7.6 Retreats & the SLR [Safe Line of Retreat]) then it routs per rule 7.8.

Even the victory conditions are confusing. The scenario rules for Chantilly have conditions for either a Confederate or Union Major Victory. Scenario rule 14.3 Minor Victory states, ‘If neither player wins a major victory, calculate the VP scored by each. The player with the larger total wins a minor victory.” So I went hunting for how to score VP. Scoring VP is found in the Standard rule 3.4 Winning the Game which states, in part, “Unless otherwise specified in the exclusive rules, each player scores one VP for each enemy unit or leader eliminated, two VP for each enemy unit or leader captured.”

Capturing a leader is found at the end of Standard rule 10.0 Leaders while captured units are buried (again) at the end of 7.6 Retreats & the SLR in the discussion of No Line of Retreat.

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Situation after Second Player (Union) Combat Phase Turn 5 – Ferrero’s Brigade of Reno’s 2nd Division gallantly holds off the Confederate onslaught. Poe’s brigade with two batteries of artillery has retreated out of the picture.

All these rules nuances I discovered over the course of several plays. Yes, the answers in most cases are in the rules – once you find them. In DG’s effort to “standardize” as much as possible, they actually created confusion with poorly cross-referenced or formatted rules. They are not alone in this problem, I pointed outs similar issues with newer games from GMT and C3I such as Plan Orange and South Pacific.

In Scenario rule 16.0 Designer’s Notes, Chris Perello points out:

There were three major design issues that needed to be addressed in this game. First was the omnipresent mud. That was accounted for by reducing the movement allowances for all units, dropping it to four instead of the system-norm of six.

Second was the need to slow the Confederates. If they retain full initiative throughout the game they will steamroll the Federals in the early going.

The “full initiative” reference is to Scenario rule 15.0 Confederate Initiative, which is a mechanic for determining each turn if the Confederates have full movement or half movement. If the result of a d6 roll is less than the turn number, the Confederates have full movement. This rule is needed because of Standard rule 4.3 March Movement which allows a unit that starts and remains at least two hexes away from an enemy unit the entire movement to DOUBLE its movement allowance (meaning that when the Confederates have half-movement, March Movement allows them full movement – got it?). This allows units to fly across the map at a rate faster than rush-hour traffic on I-66 in the same area today. I am not sure Chris actually met his design challenge. I might try a variation where rule 4.3 is suspended just to see what it’s impact is on play is.

All this seems to me a lot to think about and write about a very short and simple game. But that’s my point; what is a short and should be a simple game is actually needlessly complex. I feel that the designer and developer looked at the Battle of Chantilly (nee Ox Hill) and thought that with only a few small changes it could work. It does, to a point less than what they probably hoped. Like the actual battle, Chantilly is a game of lost opportunities because of disjointed rules.

 

#WargameWednesday – Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal First Impressions

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Courtesy BGG

Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – The Pacific 1942 from Academy Games is a 2016 Golden Geek Award Best Wargame Nominee. After reading some of the buzz and looking at comments on BoardGameGeek, I picked this one up in the hope that I could eventually play this with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I like using wargames to teach a bit about what the situation or combat experience was like. In CoH:G what I found was a game of war that challenges many of my perceptions of what I see as a wargame.

CoH:G bills itself as a combined-arms squad-level game. The focus is on the US Marines battles on Guadalcanal from just after the amphibious landing in August 1942 through the arrival of regular Army units in October 1942 (and playable as an expansion). This was my first challenge; I needed to get past my bias for armor over infantry (always a Panzer/88/Armor fan over Squad Leader).

My next challenge was the price; CoH:G retails for $80. Although I saw it in my FLGS I was reluctant to pull the trigger at that price point. Searching online, I found it for less and ordered.

Opening the box, I was stunned at the components. The high quality (huge) counters and mounted mapboard along with full-color glossy books and play-aids and even an organizing insert immediately made me realize that the asking price is actually not unreasonable.

The rulebook is 23 pages which includes many examples. This means that CoH:G is not a complex game. The rules are tied to scenarios (firefights) and use a building-block learning approach to teach players the game mechanics.

What makes CoH:G – and apparently all the Conflict of Heroes series games – interesting is the use of Action Points in Rounds and Turns. Players alternate activating units (or groups of units) and expend Unit or Command Action Points to move or fire. Thus, the classic IGO-UGO turn sequence is overturned. Both players remain engaged through out the entire turn.

Combat is very straight-forward; roll 2d6 and add the Attack Rating of the firing unit. If the AR exceeds the Defense Rating of the unit (modified for terrain) the unit is hit. For each hit a chit is drawn. The chits (about 20) cover everything from no damage to immediate KIA. Once a unit gets a second hit it is eliminated.

Conflict of Heroes also uses cards in play. Command cards, Bonus cards, and various Capability cards bring a bit of randomness and detail flavor to the game. I have written elsewhere about how my perception of Card Driven Games (CDG’s) has changed. CoH is not a CDG, but effectively uses card-driven elements as chrome.

A unique mechanic in CoH:G and not in any other CoH series game is Bushido Points. Bushido Points modify available Command Action Points (CAP) for the Japanese player. Bushido is gained/lost through certain actions. In order to gain Bushido Points (and add to the CAP pool) certain actions must be taken that may not make the most tactical sense, but are in keeping with the “spirit of Bushido.”

In concept the game is very simple; in play the layout is beautiful. I like it…sorta.

The game mechanics are very clean and although I was worried at the chits and markers used in play the board does not get cluttered with the markers. Like in MBT (Second Edition) or Panzer (Second Edition) the markers don’t get in the way. The hit chits actually create a great variety of damage results that make even getting hit interesting. The back-and-forth play keeps the battles moving and demands a players attention at all times.

I am not sure about the Bushido mechanic. I mean, I see what Bushido is supposed to do I’m just not sure I like how I as a player is hamstrung by Bushido. In CoH:G, Bushido is gained/lost for certain actions. Thus, in order to gain/maintain Bushido points (and not always be behind in Command Action Points) certain “sacrifices” must be made. In my several plays to date, the rules specify that Bushido is gained for loss of a Japanese unit is Close or Short range combat. So…to get Bushido the Japanese player has fight – and lose – at very close ranges. This supposedly simulates the Japanese affinity for close assaults.  The player need not make these sacrifices, but doing so gains Bushido points which in turn gives Command Action Points which in turns allows for greater tactical flexibility. The Bushido rues mechanically succeed in making the Japanese player act more is accordance how the Japanese historically acted – I’m just not totally accepting of this loss of “player agency.”

CoH:G is not without a few other challenges. Hexes are VERY hard to see (nee invisible) and with the given countermix (huge counters – but actually very few units) the variety of scenarios is limited.

CoH:G will probably get more plays in the RockyMountainNavy household. As the oldest RMN Boy was leaving, he walked past the board and was immediately taken in by the components. The game is easy enough to teach that I think even the youngest RMN Boy (13 years old) who’ll be able to easily play too.

In the end, I feel that CoH:G is a good game of war. I am a bit reluctant to call it a wargame in my book because the mechanics are so much different than what I usually expect. I am reluctant to totally embrace the Bushido mechanic – it feels like it is forcing me into certain actions. It will get played – it’s too visually stunning not to – but I will tread lightly on using this game to teach the RMN Boys too much of what island combat in the South Pacific was.

Mechanically I guess CoH:G is another step on my path to modernized wargames; I was late to the CDG mechanic, enjoy the COIN series from GMT, and now have exposure to CoH.

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: Explore more; order Storms of Steel: Kursk 1942 (Second Edition) to see what they system is like for armor and without the Bushido mechanic.

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Courtesy BGG

 

#WargameWednesday Retroactive – Hammer’s Slammers (Mayfair Games Inc., 1984)

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Courtesy BGG.com

After looking to create a Hammer’s Slammers hover tank in #CepheusEngine RPG last week, I decided to pull out my “real” Hammer’s Slammers wargame. I kinda remember playing this one several times when it first came out but it never reached the same status in my mind as the Yaquinto Panzer-88-Armor-series that my friends and I played so much. Much to my surprise, this simple game actually packages great depth of gameplay.

Hammer’s Slammers is a true hex-n-counter game using small counters, a thick modular mapboard, and a 2d6 Combat Results Table (CRT). There are four forces provided; Hammer’s Slammers (blue), another Mercenary Force (red), and two Conventional Armies (green and tan). Interestingly, there is no scale designated although units look to be platoon/battery organizations and each hex multiple (?) kilometers.

Hammer’s Slammers is taken straight from the first book. Hover Tanks, Combat Cars, Infantry on hover scooters, and Hover Self-Propelled Artillery. The “Red” Mercenary Force is the same plus optional Large/Small guns (for indirect or direct fire), Howitzers (indirect fire only), or a Self-Propelled Calliope (for Counter Paratrooper or Counter Artillery Fires). Slammers and Mercenary units generally pack more firepower, have better protection, and come with superior speed. Conventional Forces use Tracked Tanks, Armored Cars, Armored Personnel Carriers, Large/Small Guns, Howitzers, Tracked Self-Propelled Artillery, Wheeled Self-Propelled Calliopes, and towed Calliopes. This mix of units lets one recreate many of the battles found in the books where the technologically superior but numerically inferior Slammers fought against other mercenary or conventional units.

The main rulebook is 16 pages long, but the first nine are reprints of the “Interludes” found in the original Hammer’s Slammers book. This leaves seven pages of two-column text and tables for the rules. Every turn each player sequentially resolves their action in the order of Rally (Moving Player) – Paradrop & Counter Paradrop FireMove (Moving Player) – Ranged Combat (All Players – Indirect Artillery & Counter Artillery Fire – Direct Fire) – Close Assaults (All Players). Once all players have gone the next turn begins.

Units that are Disrupted in Combat can Rally. For this each force has a Morale Number that must be rolled above on 2d6. Many scenarios have a variable Morale Number based on increasing losses – the more units lost the harder it becomes to rally a unit. A simple mechanic that doesn’t get in the way of play but adds a nice layer of realism.

I don’t remember any paradrop operations in the original stories so Paradrop & Counter Paradrop Fire seems a bit out of place to me. It does allow a nice way to enter units onto the map quickly.

Movement is again very traditional with each hex having a movement cost to enter. Hover and Conventional units have separate movement charts reflecting the different mobility of hover versus tracked/wheeled. There is not much difference but there is enough to be evocative of the setting.

Ranged Combat is where the differences between forces really stands out beginning with Indirect Fire & Counter Artillery Fire. Indirect Fire attacks the defense factor of the hex, not the units. This makes indirect fire very dangerous because the 8-defense factor Hover Tank in the Clear hex actually has a defense factor of 2 against artillery. To offset this vulnerability, Hover Tanks and Calliopes have the Counter Artillery Fire (CAF) capability which allows each unit to cancel a single artillery barrage in range. Of course, this comes at a cost; units firing CAF cannot fire in the Direct Fire phase.

Direct Fire is very simple; compare Attack Factor to Defense Factor, convert to odds, roll on CRT. Stacked units can combine fire and attack other stacks or individual units. Firing out to twice your range cuts the Attack Factor in half. Terrain Modifiers add to the Defense Factor. Combat results are No Effect, Disrupted (no indirect or direct fire, half movement), Defender Eliminated, or Defender Eliminated with Rubble (adds to movement and defense). There is an optional rule for Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) which allows Mercenary and Slammer Hover Tanks to “jam” conventional units which means the target cannot combine their attack nor spot for an indirect fire unit.

Close Assault takes place when units are in the same hex. All undisrupted units get a positive column shift and infantry fights with doubled Attack Factors. Units in Close Assault cannot leave the hex until all enemy units are eliminated.

There are other rules for Fortresses and Gas Attacks but generally that is it. You can play one of the 14 scenarios or Design Your Own using the point-buy system provided.

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Slammers in Action

I played two scenarios. “Badger Hunt” is the introductory scenario that uses Conventional Forces only. I also played “Slammers” which is a three-way brawl with the Slammers squaring off against the Green Army (lots of long-range artillery and infantry with few mechanized) and the Tan Army (Mechanized and supported by a few Small Guns – no infantry). Each player has six turns to get as many points as possible (points are scored using the Design Your Own Scenario values). I used the Slammers with ECM to get as much high-tech effect as possible.

Hammer’s Slammers plays out much differently than I remember. I kinda remember the CPF and CAF rules and I don’t think I ever actually played with the ECM rules. I sorta remember the game as being very vanilla; simple and bland.

This time it was a much deeper experience. The low rules overhead meant the game could be played with minimal relearning. The differences in forces is just enough that there is no one-size-fits-all approach or best strategy. In the “Slammers” scenario, the Slammers start in the center and must determine how to deal with each force. I painfully learned that the Hover Tanks greatest asset is not its firepower but its CAF capability. The Hover Tanks ended up providing cover for the Combat Cars until they got close enough to dash in and deal with the guns. Of course, nipping at the flanks or blocking the direct route was that pesky tracked armor. This forced a decision; drop the CAF for Direct Fire or cover the force and let the lesser combat cars try to deal with the threat? For the Green or Tan Conventional Armies the key is combined arms and interlocking fields of fire. Artillery is in many ways still the King of the Battle.

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Courtesy BGG.com

As much as Mayfair’s Hammer’s Slammers game captures the flavor the of books, it best replicates battlefield force-on-force situations. There is one scenario, “Hangman,” where a Mercenary force takes on Militia and Buses. It’s a one-sided bloodbath. The game has no real ability to present an asymmetric combat situation. I have to admit the best game I have in my collection for that is actually Tomorrow’s War: Science Fiction Wargaming Rules (Ambush Alley Games/Osprey Publishing 2011). This is a skirmish game played at a much more granular scale than Hammer’s Slammers. In many ways, Tomorrow’s War is a direct competitor to my other HS game, The Hammer’s Slammers Handbook (Pireme Publishing Ltd, 2004) which is a set of miniatures skirmish rules published in the UK which still has its own website.

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Courtesy BGG.com

I also think back to the Hammer’s Slammers sourcebook from Mongoose Publishing for their Mongoose Traveller (1st Edition) RPG. As I have written before that product was a real disaster.

So when I look at the Mayfair Hammer’s Slammers game today I actually see a real gem. The game is a close to an introductory-level game in terms of rules, but the variable forces and modular map make for endless play variations. As simple as the rules are, the designer has actually captured a good deal of the flavor of combat in the Hammerverse. The game also has a very small footprint; the “Slammers” scenario map was playable in an area literally 18’x24″. A 3’x3′ table is more than sufficient for even the largest scenarios!

RockyMountainNavy Verdict: MUST PLAY MORE!

 

 

#WargameWednesday – The Naval SITREP #52 (April 2017)

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Courtesy wargamevault.com

In keeping with my recent Harpoon naval miniatures postings, I picked up the most recent Naval SITREP (Issue #52, April 2017) from Admiralty Trilogy GamesThe Naval SITREP is the “house mag” for the Admiralty Trilogy series and as such it covers not only Harpoon but the other major games in the series, Fear God & Dread Nought (WWI) and Command at Sea (WWII).

The premier article/scenario is for CaS and is “Tactical Problem IV-1937-SR.” Taken from the archives of the Naval War College, this recreation of a fleet problem allows great insight into how Naval officers (led by then-Captain Raymond A. Spruance) were being prepared to fight. This is a large, very detailed scenario.

The next major section is for Harpoon 4 (modern era) and details the the Philippine Navy. It includes Annex A data for ships and Annex B for Aircraft.

Chris Carlson contributes an article on “Coincidence and Stereoscopic Rangefinders in Admiralty Trilogy Games: A Closer Look.” These article are actually of great interest to me because not only do they offer historical research but also show how it relates to the game system.

Larry Bond gets into the action with his articles “Exploring an Idea: The Torpedo Battleship,” “SMARTROC,” and “Austral’s Fix for the LCS.” These articles offer useful variants that can be added to the game to explore history or try alternative shipfits. In this same vein, Christoph Kluxen writes “Designs for The Netherlands 1912-1914” which again offer “alternative history;” in this case an alternate Dutch battlefleet that could have squared off against the Germans in the North Sea of World War I.

“Using SimPlot for Harpoon PBEM” by Kevin Martell offers advice on using the program with play-by-e-mail systems. I don’t think I can load SimPlot on my Mac, nor do I do PBEM so the utility of this article was low to me.

FG&DN Scenario: Obituary for Oz” from Mike Harris is a total fantasy scenario that I agree makes a good tournament game. The small footprint, low ship count, and relatively balanced forces also makes this a good training scenario for new players.

“Chinese Ship Refits” is uncredited but is an absolute requirement for Harpoon 4 players as it details updates to PLAN ships. It also has references to where other PLAN ships have appeared in previous issues.

Andy Doty presents us with “CaS Scenario: Plan Alpha” taken from Newt Gingrich’s book Days of Infamy. The scenario is not only fun alternate history, but also an example of taking inspiration from literature and bringing it to the game table.

The obligatory book reviews are included and seem to focus on the Battle of Jutland (four of five reviews) but by far the most exciting part of this issue was actually on the very first page, “Product Updates.” Since cutting ties with a traditional publisher a few years back, Admiralty Trilogy Games has been gradually converting their catalog to digital, updating products, and establishing a sales presence on wargamevault.com. I am pleased to see ATG moving forward, though I have to admit my wallet will also be lighter!

Which brings me to my one ongoing gripe with ATG products – the layout. The Naval SITREP, like so many of the ATG products, is formatted in the print world of three-column text across a standard-size page. This looks fine in print but I am reading the digital pdf on my iPad. The format makes the text and graphics rather small and more difficult to read. The consistent page count for each SITREP also makes me believe ATG is worried about print copies, not digital. I think ATG needs to decide if their products are focused on print-on-demand or digital delivery. I vote for digital, but I don’t know what ATG thinks.

#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