#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

 

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#WargameWednesday – Reconsidering The Fires of Midway

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Courtesy history.com

After sitting on my shelf for over a year, this past weekend I played a game of The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 (Clash of Arms, 2010). Billed as the War is Hell Series Card Game 2, TFoM is not your usual carrier duel game. TFoM delivers a card game evocative of carrier duels in the early years of the Pacific War but the level of abstraction makes it only a fair simulation of actual carrier battles.

After selecting a scenario, both sides “search” a grid of cards to find the enemy fleet. Along the way, the maneuver map is populated with weather conditions and the starting hand of Combat Cards is built. As the Design Note states:

The Search Phase represents the efforts of dozens of planes, ships, and individuals attempting to locate the enemy in the vastness of the Pacific. The U.S. Navy edge in pre-battle intelligence is accounted for by always allowing the Americans to search first.

Depending on the search results, one side gets the advantage of placing their fleets and a VP bonus. The Search Phase plays quickly and evokes a cat-and-mouse feeling of trying to desperately find your opponent’s fleets in the vast broad oceans.

Play then progresses to what I find the strangely named Strategy Phase. Strange because what the players do is not as much strategy as it is operational orders. In the Strategy Phase, a number of Action Cards equal to the number of carriers are randomly dealt between the players. Each Action Card has a precedence number which determines the order in which the turn will happen. The advantaged player, called the Confident Player, has the ability to “steal” – or trade – an Action Card before strikes are revealed. This simple initiative determination mechanic captures the mad scramble of aircraft as strikes are launched again in a seemingly  realistic manner.

Following initiative determination, carriers are moved on the map. The map is very small, consisting of 18 irregularly-shaped areas. As noted in the Design Note:

The Maneuver Map is an abstraction of the relative positions of carriers in a large expanse of ocean, and not meant to be an exact replica of any one naval battlefield. Each Map Area represents hundreds of square miles of potential hiding places.

Some may find this level of abstraction a bit jarring, but in a game where so much is being abstracted the maneuver map ends up being one of the most “grognard” parts of the game.

Play now proceeds to the Carrier Turn. In the Carrier Turn, each carrier has one phase of action in their order of initiative.

In the Sortie Phase, carriers can launch strikes. The Action Card dictates how many squadrons can be in the strike package. Depending on the range, a number of Search or Destroy (SoD) Cards are drawn and fuel used is determined. The amount of fuel used is compared to the Fuel Rating of each aircraft; if too much fuel is used the planes arrive is a “smoking” condition. The Design Note comments,

Even if you know approximately where an enemy carrier is, finding a moving target is another matter. Strike Groups had a habit of getting lost and burning precious fuel in futile searches for enemy carriers even if the flattops had been sighted shortly before takeoff.

I wish the designer had chosen a word other than “smoking ” to describe fuel-starved aircraft. The word, and the accompanying card art, look more like battle damage and not a plane running out of gas.

Once the strikes arrive at the carrier, a Spotting Roll is conducted to determine if CAP will be ready or if the strikes go straight in to the carriers.

In the Engagement Phase, spotted strikes resolve combat against the CAP. In a CAP battle, fighters take on escorting fighters or bombers. This is where the player’s hand of cards starts counting. Players have the choice of adding a Cockpit Card to their battling aircraft for an enhanced combat effect or to cancel out an opponents Combat Card. Combat is resolved in a very simple, straight-forward manner that is the same for air combat or bomber strikes; both sides roll a variable number of d6 die and compare the results. Whichever side has the single-highest die roll wins. In the CAP battle, the winning aircraft  then rolls a number of d6 equal to the number of Bullet Icons and the results are compared to the Damage Track across the bottom of the target airplanes card. Destroyed aircraft are sent to “The Watery Grave.”

The Engagement Phase also shows how the abstractions in TFoM start creating ahistorical results. Escorting fighters automatically shield the bombers from the CAP. Not until later scenarios where more than one plane can be on CAP is their a chance for the CAP to get past the fighters and to the bombers.

The Bomber Phase follows engagements. In the Bomber Phase, striking aircraft, be it dive-bombers or torpedo planes, attack the carriers. As each bomber starts their Attack Run, Combat Cards are again selected. Striking bombers can chose a Bomber Card whereas the carrier gets to use a Carrier Card. As with Engagements, the Combat Card may offer an advantage to the player. The Bomber Dice Test pits the bombers against the anti-aircraft guns of the carrier. If the carrier wins, damage is assessed against the bomber. If the bomber wins, the carrier is struck.

The Resolution Phase immediately follows. CAP is landed or turned over to their smoking side, and the return strike determines if they make it back to the carrier. Play then proceeds to the Admiral’s Phase. Each Admiral can take one of three actions; Reload their hand of Combat Cards, Recover CAP and replace if desired, or Restore which spends Repair Points for damage control.

Once each carrier has had their action, the End Phase is conducted. Here progressive damage is assessed against carriers see if they sink. Depending on the damage, VP is awarded. Additionally, VP is gained depending on how many squadrons of aircraft are in The Watery Grave. A decision to continue the battle or retreat and end the game is then made. If the game continues the next turn begins with a new Strategy Phase.

TFoM does a decent job of reflecting the widely varied capabilities of combat aircraft of the day. As the Design Note points out:

When it comes to hitting power the Japanese have the advantage with excellent long-range aircraft. The Americans were hindered by “flying coffins” such as the Devastator and the mistaken notion among admirals of the time that the early American torpedoes were good weapons, they were not.

Where I find the abstraction of TFoM most distracting is in the Carrier Turn. Nowhere are the mass strikes of the Japanese carriers allowed. In TFoM a carrier duel is reduced to a sequential I-go, U-go of each carrier individually resolving their strike.

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Courtesy BGG

The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 is an easy and relatively fast-playing game. It adequately replicates the broad brushes of the subject matter. Play this game for fun and understand that what you learn about the history of carrier duels in 1942 will not be too in-depth. For myself, I will be playing with the younger RockyMountainNavy and using it to (gently) explore the very basics carrier combat in World War II.

#Wargames AAR: The Fires of Midway – Exploring a Wake Island Disaster

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Courtesy BGG

The Fires of Midway: The Carrier Battles of 1942 (Clash of Arms, 2010) is a Steven Cunliffe designed game that recreates carrier battles in the early days of the Pacific War in World War II. This card driven game (CDG) uses a hand management mechanic where players have Action Cards that can add to fighter combat, bomber strikes, or carrier defense.

Although the game is focused on the great carrier battles of 1942 (Coral Sea, Midway, Eastern Solomons or Santa Cruz) there is also an alternative scenario which postulates US carriers attempting to relieve Wake Island at the end of 1941. This smaller scenario pits an American Task Force consisting of Lexington and Saratoga going against the Japanese Hiryu and Soryu.

The American fleet is led by Admiral Fletcher. The Admiral Card for Fletcher is Torpedo Doctrine meaning he must always send a torpedo bomber in any strike. Unfortunately, the US Navy is using the Devestator – an old, slow, limited range airplane. Additionally, the Lex is carrying Buffalo fighters – another old, less effective aircraft. On the plus side, the US task force has nine (9!) squadrons of Dauntless dive bombers. Indeed, the Americans have an abundance of aircraft with two Buffalo fighters, two Wildcat fighters, and three Devastator torpedo bombers to go along with the aforementioned nine dive bomber squadrons.

The Japanese fleet is led by Admiral Nagumo. The Admiral Card for Nagumo reflects his cautious attitude meaning he can never “steal” the #1 Action Card. The Japanese carriers each carry two Zero fighters, two Val dive bombers, and two Kate torpedo bomber squadrons.

The game began with the Search Phase. Each side explores a grid arrangement of Search Cards attempting to locate the opponents fleet. Along the way, the players build their Action Card hand. The Japanese proved much luckier than the Americans and built a stronger hand before the last fleet was located.

In the first Strategy Phase, the order to Carrier Turns was US-Japan-Japan-US.

  1. US strike from Saratoga. Due to the longer range strike the entire strike group arrives “smoking” from fuel spent. The Japanese do not spot the strikers and there is no CAP launched. Attacking Hiryu, the strike group losses a Devastator and heavily hits the carrier.
  2. Hiryu launches its own strike package. This group runs into the CAP (Wildcat, Buffalo) and ends up downing the Buffalo but misses the Wildcat. The strike hits Lexington with great damage inflicted.
  3. Soryu launches her strike. Again, the CAP engages, but both fighters survive. The strike package hits Saratoga, but with only minor damage.
  4. Lexington launches her own strike. The range means the strike arrives “smoking” which also means the Japanese player gets to pick the target. Seeking to protect Hiryu, the Soryu is struck and, like Saratoga, there is only minor damage inflicted.

In the Admiral Phase, seeing that both sides have exhausted their Action Cards, seek to reload their hand in preparation for another round of combat. In the End Phase of Turn 1, after Carrier Carnage and Explosion Tests have been administered, both Lexington and Hiryu are sunk.

At this point both players look at their situation. The scenario Intensity is 7, meaning 7 VP are needed for victory. The Japanese player is leading 6 VP to the Americans 5 VP. Although both sides have a carrier, Japanese air fleet is half the size (six squadrons) it started with whereas the Americans still have over half their original airpower. To retreat is to give victory to one’s opponent, and the Japanese player elects to fight on. The American gladly obliges him.

In the second turn, the Japanese player steams into an area with low clouds. This means that even if the American player moves closer, the weather will make it more likely his planes will arrive in a smoking condition. In the Strategy Phase, the Americans win the first strike and take it. Although the planes do arrive smoking, they still wreck devastation on Soryu. The smaller Soryu strike gets lucky; the Americans fail to spot the strike and the CAP does not get to jump the the incoming bombers. Although the Americans mount a heroic defense, Saratoga is hit hard. Once again, Carrier Carnage and Explosion Tests are made, and although the Americans have superior damage control and can reroll Explosion Tests hoping for a better result it is all for naught. Both Soryu and Saratoga are sunk.

In the final VP calculation, the Japanese have 10 VP to the American 9 VP. The winning margin is the extra VP scored by the Japanese for locating the last fleet in the Search Phase.

Lessons Learned

One major lesson learned is the importance of damage control. Neither side really used any Repair Points and as a result the progressive damage of fires and floods made passing Explosion Tests impossible. Additionally, although the Americans have an advantage in aircraft, too many were old relics (Buffalo and Devastator) and to be effective the American carriers had to close – too close to – the Japanese carriers.

prd333620In John B. Lundstrom’s book The First Team there is a passage where the great naval historian Samuel Elliott Morison criticizes Fletcher. Following the recall order after the fall of Wake Island, Morison cites an unidentified cruiser captain who said, “Frank Jack should have placed the telescope to his blind eye like Nelson.” (Lundstrom, p. 44) This little scenario shows just how any carrier battle in these early days of the Pacific War could of gone very badly for the Americans. The Fires of Midway, although a seemingly unconventional carrier duel game using a CDG mechanic instead of traditional hex searches across the vast ocean, succeeds in bringing key points of history alive. For that reason above all else this game is recommended.

#Wargame AAR – Panzer Grenadier Vol 1 Scenario 1: Bogdanovo (Jan 8, 1942)

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Soviet Infantry (historyimages.blogspot.com)

From the scenario setup:

ARMY GROUP CENTER, 8 January 1942: After the failure of the Führer Escort Battalion to take the village of Bogdanovo, the 6th Panzer Division took over the task.

This is a single-board scenario with a relatively low counter density. Pretty good for learning (or relearning) the Panzer Grenadier (PG) system. The scenario portrays 4 hours (16 turns) starting at the 0800 Day turn.

The Germans start on the east edge. The approach to the town of Bogdanovo is dominated by a hill about a third of the way to the town edge. The Germans decided to send the majority of their force north of the small hill with only a small force swinging around the south. The mortars set up on the hill, and a truck-mounted reaction force waited – out of sight – behind the hills ready to race and exploit any successful entry not the town.

The Soviets dug entrenchments both north and south of the town and placed their 45mm Anti-tank (AT) guns roughly evenly across the front. The mortars deployed just behind the city and the full-strength infantry strung out between the guns with reduced units deeper in the town ready to move as reinforcements.

The German north advance was led by the Panzers with infantry close behind. Right away, the tanks were engaged by the AT guns but with little effect. The tanks spent the first hour cautiously approaching the town and trying to blast out the defenders at the town edge. The defenders, taking advantage of entrenchments, digging in, and the defensive bonus of being in the town, proved stubborn and unmoving.

To the south, the small German infantry force pushed ahead the best they could, but an into a crossfire between entrenched Soviet units and others dug in at the town edge. This small force, led by a fairly competent Lieutenant, proved fragile with several units being disrupted, demoralized, and even fleeing. The Lieutenant himself failed a morale check and was not able to rally his troops in a timely manner.

As the second hour of the attack began (Turn 5), and with the southern advance bogging down, the northern group changed tactics. The Panzers fearlessly charged into the city without infantry support, getting into pitched assault battles with dug-in and entrenched infantry. Fortunately for the tankers, the infantry was able to quickly join the fight and the Soviets were pushed back into the town.

The later morning proved to be a real slog, with lots of close-quarters combat within the town. The Soviets fought stubbornly, but the Germans kept pushing them back.

At the end of the 16 turns, the Soviets were greatly reduced but there was still a lone unit in Bogdanovo. This lone reduced sub-mashing gun platoon was enough to give the Soviets victory. But even if the SMG platoon had been eliminated, the blood 6th Panzer had paid was enough to cost them the victory (losing more than 7 steps of units).

Observations

Leaders: The Germans needed all six of their leaders to keep the advance going. The Soviets were a bit luckier; being on the defensive and being pushed back into a collapsing pocket actually simplified their command and control issues. In the past, I had often looked at the PG command rules as needless chrome, but these days I have a much greater appreciation – and respect – for what they try to simulate. What I had forgotten was the great impact of morale in PG. Units die, but units are disrupted or demoralized a whole lot more.

Anti-Tank: It is very hard for units without AT guns to have any effect on armor. In PG, armor units are immune to Direct Fire. Indeed, armor can only be attacked by a unit with an Anti-Tank Fire value of when in Assault combat [i.e. close assault – same hex]. In this scenario, the only Soviets units with an Anti-Tank Fire value were three 45mm AT guns.

Markers: I like that markers are used as an easy way to denote unit status, but as the battle starts going the stacks can get very high with units individually tracking their morale status as well as Moved/Fired.

Self Criticism: By the time the German reinforcements came up, precious time had been lost. If the force had been committed to the north they could of assisted in forcing the entry to the town. Doing so may have destroyed Soviet units before they could retreat into the city and avoided the slow grind of close assaults. Committing them early to the southern assault may have allowed a second entry on this town edge. Doing so may have forced the Soviets to defend two axis of advance, with doubtful success in doing so.

#BtC Breaking the Chains Out of Box

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Courtesy bgg.com

Having been heavily focused on RPGs for a long while, I am trying this summer to get back into my wargaming groove. Always having a soft-spot in my heart for naval games, I recently acquired the 2013 Compass Games’ Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea. Taken directly from today’s headlines, BtC explores the naval battles that could take place in the named area.

My favorite operational-level naval conflict series is the old Victory Games Fleet Series (starting with Sixth Fleet in 1985). The scale of both BtC and the Fleet Series is very similar (i.e. time and distance). The combat mechanic is updated and in many ways simplified in BtC with a near-exclusive focus on missiles.

The Fleet Series featured a very diverse selection of combatants whereas BtC is much more limited. There are also just a few scenarios included in BtC. In any given Fleet Series game one got a very large selection of scenarios or campaign games to play out.

I have read the BtC rulebook, and like the many detailed examples of play. Should help with the first run-thru of the game.

#FLGS @GameParlor Closing

They don’t have an real robust social media presence but let it be known that Game Parlor (@GameParlor) in Chantilly, VA is closing. I had the day off today and planned to drop by, but was very surprised to see that the store will be closing by Thanksgiving. Having been in business for 24 years, the owners want to be closer to their daughter who doesn’t live in the local area.

It is always sad to see a FLGS close. I admit that I provided a mixed level of support for Game Parlor; on one hand I liked the owners (always friendly and willing to help) but some of the staff occasionally irritated me. In the last few years, the shelves would be stocked with just a few of the latest items, and many older items (like PC video games on 5 1/2″ disks) remained unsold with faded covers. Although they won’t blame online retailers or big merchants, I have had a few conversations with the owners that relate disappointment and apprehension at the way the games industry does business. The rise of digital retailers like DriveThruRPG have put a dent in RPG sales, and deals like FFG had to sell Star Wars-related games exclusively on Sept 4 (weeks before small merchants could even order items) make it hard on the small merchant who watches money that used to be destined for them go another way. This has been happening for a while now. I remember conversations at Petries Family Games (@PetriesFG) in Colorado Springs back when TableTop got their exclusive Target deal and took business away. The FLGS is in danger and won’t survive unless they get our support.

As Game Parlor closes out, the owners are having an inventory clearance sale with progressively greater discounts the closer to closing they get. Today I went ahead and got a few items before they disappear. Sorta felt bad because I was going to buy several things…eventually.

As gamers, we can help our FLGS by making it a point to support them. It doesn’t have to be much; anything is better than nothing. If we don’t, the FLGS will go the way of the Dodo bird – and that would be really stupid!

Sainte-Mere-Eglise Anniversary Battle (Memoir ’44)

Fitting that the boys and I played the Memoir ’44 Battle of Sainte-Mere-Eglise on the anniversary of the battle. The scenario map and setup can be found on the Days of Wonder site. I played the Germans who are trying to hold the town against the paratroopers of the 505th Parachute Regiment.

Per the special rules, the boys called for a random paradrop of four additional American paratrooper units. Luckily for the boys, three units landed on the map, all in the center area, with one actually in the town adjacent to my defending infantry unit. The boys were able to rapidly destroy this defending unit and occupy every part of the town.

My counterattack began to the south (Fouvile) where the infantry tried to move out and clear the way for the Panzers behind. At the same time, a weak advance (low Command Cards) pushed the units to the north (Neuville-au-Plain) towards the lone American infantry unit holding the only hill on the map.

Lady Luck did not shine on me for this battle.

At several points the game, my command cards (4) consisted of two or three cards ordering units in the center – where I had been pushed out. The few command cards I did have seemingly favored the Fouvile side of the board, but never in sufficient numbers. My units were forced to move up piecemeal and slowly while getting ground down by the Americans holding Sainte-Mere-Eglise. An attempt to use the Panzers to sweep around the town and cut off retreat routes was left unsupported by the infantry (to few units ordered by Command Cards). The Americans in town dug in (sandbag fortifications) which made digging them out even harder. The (very) few Command Cards drawn for the Neuville-Au-Plain side of the battle only succeeded in slowly pushing units towards the hill but again never in sufficient numbers for a useful attack. Neither could the few units even try to slide by – command on this flank appeared paralyzed.

In the end, the Americans won (4 Victory Medals to 2 Victory Medals) by destroying three units (including the Panzer) on the one flank and one at the base of the hill.

Like the historical battle, the American troopers on the high ground fought the Germans to a standstill. The real defeat came in the south where the Germans were committed – and destroyed – piecemeal.

Tactically, the game seemed to capture the realities of warfare in WWII; armor needs infantry support, a well-timed airstrike slowed progress, and command & control paralysis can upset your plans.