Sunday, 13 November 2016

Quick Looks: Next War Taiwan

If there is a series for hex and counter hipsters at the moment it is Next War games by Mitch Land and Gene Billingsley. Kev Sharp's been blogging it 1, 3MA have been talking about it 2, these drunken reprobates have been playing it 3, two of my friends have picked up Next War India Pakistan 4, one of whom as his first hex and counter game. When I first saw the GMT Next War series with Next War Korea a few years back, I passed on it because it was pricey and I thought future wars were boring. I thought these things because I was a fool. I'm not entirely sure why the series has become popular, as speculative future wars seems like a hard sell but the continued releases (now three soon four) and the quality of the product seem to have carried it into the wargamer consciousness if not the popular.
Initial Taiwanese deployment around Taichung, not as well defended as it first looked.

Next War Taiwan depicts an invasion of Taiwan by mainland China sometime in the near future. I say sometime because the game has no fluff text paragraphs, opting instead to insert a few choice quotes from diplomats here and there, stylish but if you want your background narrative to the internet with you.

The PRC have a lot of planes

This is an AIR,SEA LAND battle to use the unimaginative military jargon terms and it might be the only recent game of its kind. Mechanically the game has a quasi Igougo sequence of play with a clever initiative system driven by victory point acquisition that allows players to first send in their special forces, then fight for air superiority, then cruise missile and air strike, then move and attack with ground and naval units. All this is followed by a few book keeping phases, and in between the initiative player gets a few bonus moves/strikes. It all sounds very complex, and it sort of is in the advanced game at least.

Detection begets airstrikes on the PRC navy. Stealth fighters are good..

Most aspects of the game are fairly traditional and simple of themselves, special forces equate to assigning each token to a mission and rolling on a chart, air superiority combat is three rounds of dicing off on a CRT with modifiers, the land game is move and attack with column shifts and a ton of modifiers on the CRT. What makes the game especially interesting, where most of the complexity lies is in how all the different elements interact.

Perhaps you want to chopper in the 45th Chinese Airborne in the flat ground near Jhongli city with your four airborne transport points. Well unless you have used your special forces and cruise missiles to whittle down the Taiwanese air detection and SAM tracks you are probably just going to get shot down or aborted, unless you have dominated the sea and forced the allied navies out of the Taiwanese straights you wont be able to get supply to any ports you might capture and unless you have air superiority and escort fighters you might get intercepted. Then once you have landed you can consider the Tai army. Next War Taiwan forces you to think through your combined operations and spend your limited fighter jets, transport points and cruise missiles wisely. In this sense it is a fantastic operational game and a vivid picture of modern warfare.

Foggy camera over foggy battle, Taichung has fallen.

Being an invasion game Next War Taiwan offers early strategic choices followed by a developing narrative. Initially the Chinese have to choose an invasion site, or sites, and then hit as hard as they can hoping to secure a beach head, then a port (preferably a big one) and city hexes. In addition to this they need to consider whether snatching either the Penghu or Ryukyu islands is worth the victory points. The Taiwanese must cling on defending as many critical assets as they can whilst trying to exploit any Chinese weakness, most of all however they must hope help arrives sooner rather than later. When the international posture matrix allows, the US and perhaps Japan or even Vietnam may intervene. For the US it is largely a question of strategic push your luck. If they hold on at range until they are sure of air and naval supremacy there's a good chance the Chinese will have already forced a victory. The US can use their superior pilots at range for a while but sooner or alter they will have to go all in and try seize the Straits of Taiwan. I suspect many games will be decided on this dicey moment.

5 turns in, the PRC still have air superiority.

I've spent some ten hours with this game and it has been a really immersive fulfilling experience and for me, on this play, totally worth it despite a lot of flipping between the two rule books and frequent miscounting of combat factors. It educated me on the terrible effectiveness of SAM systems and the importance of special forces as a counter to them, its given me great stories on the fall of Taichung and the battle of the Straits but I've had to work for it. Not that the game bit by bit is complex but an inevitable consequence of detailed Air Sea Land battle is the whole is more sophisticated than the parts. If I was to play opposed, I'd be inclined to stick to the basic rules (which are actually fairly accessible) and almost certainly drop the advanced air rules. This is a good game, and a good series but it is juggling a lot of balls and keeping them all in the air is rather tricky.


Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Chosin Few, a Post Mortem

Pete and I ran our megagame on the Chosin campaign this weekend and things went well for the most part. Here are some post-mortem thoughts

 - we lost about 30% of our bookings in the week running up to the game. From our experiences across Pennine Megagames this year, this seams to be about par for the course. There is a good reason that many Megagames have reserve lists, unfortunately the Chosin Reservoir campaign in North Korea was not quite a big enough draw to warrant a reserve list.

- The game itself ran pretty smoothly, relatively simple mechanics, good game materials and a very experienced control team facilitated this.

- Having fewer players actually benefited the game, the UN players lost all but one of their executive officers (XOs) meaning that it was one player per Marine regimental team. This actually helped as the game was streamlined enough that two players were not really required to write 3 sets of orders. The Chinese Commissars had a bit more latitude but even this was a weakness in the game. With this experience I would say that one player can easily handle a dozen or so units or 3-5 orders a turn if the system is easily understood. Only in games where players are restricted from talking to each other or some players are required to go to a main map are multi-person teams really necessary at this level.

- The combat system worked. We took the OPCOM system by Jim Wallman and modified it heavily for this game. I had two main worries; first, that it would be either too deadly or not deadly enough, or second that it would be too complex for control to resolve in time. The both sides suffered somewhere in the region of 50-70% casualties. The Chinese suffered more (and in terms of actual men, a lot more) but given that the historical casualty ratio was in the region of 15-25 to 1 this felt reasonable. Neither side ran out of men at 1pm and both sides were able to have a major impact on the game. That being said it could have been improved, the Chinese divisions did loose their potency a little fast for my liking, whilst the UN could still hit quite hard late on due to their air support. Control did an incredible job turning out turn 1 through 9s orders within the 15 minutes allotted. Late on we did over run by 5 minutes on a few turns, but this wasn't an issue as the game had some time to spare at the end. If I were to run a bigger game with more units, or try and reduce the number of control the system would need further simplification, but around 20 order sheets for 6 control was workable in 15 minutes.

- things I would improve:

  • I tried to keep a company level game fairly abstract on the map. This benefited the UN a little as they were able to dig in a little easier than they were historically. I kept things simple for control by only allowing digging in (read take defensive position) anywhere which wasn't at the bottom of a valley/road/pass. In reality the Marines were able to heavily defend certain key hills and points. I did consider covering the map in strong point markers but decided against it as I didn't have the terrain mapping to find all such locations, perhaps I could have given different zones a defense rating or something that would have been a halfway house.
  • The Chinese briefings were probably a little light. In part this is due to a lack of sources, but I could have given out more game pertinent information. For the Chinese there is a race against the weather as their troops are heavily attritioned from frost bite. Whilst the players historical counter parts did not anticipate this, keeping the players in the dark here added a bit of confusion. As such many Chinese divisions waited a little to long before launching really heavy attacks. As such they had already lost 10-30% of their strength already and had less impact than expected. There is always a difficult dilemma for the megagame designer on how much information to give the players. Too much and it becomes a calculated boardgame rather than an immersive experience, too little and it becomes a guessing game that can feel rather random and unfair.
  • The mini map could have covered Wonsan. Once we put Hamhung on the main map it was always likely that the Chinese would try and take it, so we made a second smaller map zoomed in on Hamhung for city fighting. This worked really well and the Chinese 58th battled the US 3rd Infantry around the city. But given the close proximity of Wonsan I could have added it to this map and potentially even had a battle over the UN beachhead/port.
  • One Chinese Commissar suggested that he should have a spy network, given the allegiance of North Koreans to the communist cause. This was an excellent idea, it gave the PLA an intel capability to rival the UN air recon and created a great interactive side game. Pete drew up lists of informants and rated them for reliability, loyalty eagerness etc and had them submit conflicting reports to the Chinese. We both agree that this added a lot to the game and would considered adding something like it in future games.
  • As already stated, I would have each bottom level command team ran by one player and either increase the number of teams or have the support players have other problems to solve in addition to assisting in planning.

Ms Higgins made a short appearance in the game as she interviewed the unflappable Oliver P Smith around turn 9.

- In general the players seem really engaged. Interesting strategies were played out, gambits were taken and great stories generated. There didn't seem to be much of a lull in the game and everyone seemed happy at the pub afterwards.

Monday, 26 September 2016

6th Fleet: A quick look

I might be a Balkowski fan boi. There are things he does in his designs that just seem to work for me. I like good tables printed on the map, that are loaded with possibility, I like irregular turn sequences that don't use chit pulls, and I like the way he front loads his games with tense challenging decisions. He creates those smokey room nail brighter moments. 

In 6th fleet this is done with your airforce. At the start of each three turn day you have to decide how many planes to allocate to strategic air missions and to which air zones they will be sent. Both players do this in secret. It is a mental game of chicken, as you need those fighters for CAP (combat air patrol) over your carriers and airbases but you also want to clear the Black Sea so your recon planes don't get downed by MIGs, but your opponent only has limited interceptors too, what will he or she do?

It's a game about guessing and gambling and then watching the dice roll as a T16 bombers attempt to knock out the Nimtz. This game is a good Sandy Woodward simulator, how cautious should I be?

If you are looking for a spec for this game, its about middle weight in rules, with several scenarios that can be played within 3 hours. The advanced game will take a bit of grokking but I found the regular rules easy enough to process. You get a ton of 80s mil tech hardware to play with. Weirdly, Russian subs seem to be a bit weak compared with USN, but other than that its great.

The Chosin Few, a Mega-game

Pete and I (of are putting on a Megagame in Leeds UK next month! 15th October at the Swathmore centre. So I haven't been posting much recently, busy with that, busy with work etc. Hope to post more soon though.

It is a double blind game, written to be accessible for non-military types whilst still having the depth for more experienced wargamers. 

Already we've learned a few lessons from prepping this game. Coming up with the idea, the design, the map and rules is all a lot easier than actually putting the game on. We are attracting a good number of players right now, but a month back we were really struggling. It seems the market for wargames is quite small compared with diplomacy/risk style games unfortunately, even if there is more game beneath the hood. 

Sunday, 10 July 2016


A run down of the COIN games I have played

COIN (COunter INsurgency) is a series of games that GMT started publishing back in 2012 with Volko Runke's Andean Abyss. The first four games all focused on modern insurgency wars but in the past year the series has branched out into Republican Rome and the American Revolution.

I've played a fair bit of COIN at this stage and thought a run down of my experiences with the series so far might be informative.

First off, what of the series as a whole? Which one is should you buy? How hard are they to play? And other profound questions...

The two foreign factions make good use of their domestic allies.

The main strength of the series is their ability to naturally bring out the murky alliances and the shifting nature of factional relationships in these conflicts. Each game has four factions, usually one represents the government, one or two armed insurgents, one criminal syndicate or trade based faction, and sometimes one or more foreign military powers.

Each player has an objective that is diametrically opposed to at least one of the other players. Perhaps their faction needs to win the hearts and minds of the populace, perhaps they need military control of a region, or perhaps they just need to make as much money as possible from exporting drugs.

Coupled with this each faction usually has a natural ally, the NATO forces that prop up the government, or the leftist guerrillas that distract the authorities from the cartels operations. It might seem like a straight team game, and the Vietnam game Fire in the Lake can appear that way at moments, but there can only be one winner. As such these are games of negotiation where the Karzai is seeking the support western forces one turn and striking a deal with the warlords the next. The changing player order, the ability to short change another player out a proper turn, the event cards and the limited set of actions each player can perform all feed these plots.

Their biggest weakness is probably their tendency to generate false endings. COIN can be viewed as four factions playing tug of war over a tea towel with victory is only counted when special 'coup' cards are drawn. Whilst no one knows exactly when this will happen usually one player will drag the leader back from the brink just before it counts. Whilst thematic this can lead to games going on a bit and sometimes be anti-climatic.

Which to buy?

COIN games sell out pretty fast with most going out of stock in the UK within three months of arrival. GMT are pretty good at doing reprints but you are still looking at a two year wait, so the best advice is probably just to buy what is available.

From what I have seen, there isn't really a dud game, nor a true standout so given a choice buy the topic that appeals to you most. I believe that all the games in the series have had Volko in an advisory role, whilst this adds consistency it possibly reduces variety, as such unless you are real enthusiast I wouldn't own more than one. There are fewer differences between titles than there are in the CDG or block families of wargames.

Hard to play?

I often play them with boardgamers as opposed to wargamers and they are pretty easy to teach. Each game comes with a tutorial that helps you learn the system. The only downside is that some of the rules can read a little like computer code, a statement followed by lists of clauses and exceptions. Expect to have to put some effort in but you won't need a diploma.


Andean Abyss - The first game in the series focuses on the Columbian Governments fight against the FARC, drug cartels and AUC guerillias. It plays in about 3-4 hours fairly consistently, possibly the best simulation of the series and presents the widest array of strategic options to the guerillia factions in my view. The main downside is that the Government and the FARC are clearly the two A side factions with more pieces and more things to do than either the AUC or the cartels. The later can still be fun to play but some might feel short changed.

photo courtesy of Lucas Brooks (AAC guild)

A Distant Plain - Mechanically this is almost identical to Andean Abyss, but there is more information to track and the introduction of the NATO military faction shakes things up a little. Western nations will not tolerate casualties so keeping them low becomes integral to victory for NATO. The main selling point is the familiarity of the conflict, in most other respects I slightly favour Andean Abyss, though this title does feel more even handed between its factions. Plays in 4-5 hours.

Cuba Libre - Not played this one, but I am told it is the shortest and simplest of the series.

Fire in the Lake - This entry has a different dynamic from its sister games. The players are split into two teams with the dilemma being that if they do not work together they will both lose but if they help their team mate too much they will hand the game over to them. Casting Vietnam as a four faction game has been somewhat controversial, whilst I am no expert on this conflict I felt the games namesake book made a reasonable case for this view. As military game this one is clearly the most interest and the least attritional. Each player has a very powerful one use only event card, like Tet, that can swing the game in their favour if used judiciously. This is my pick of the series, but there are some downsides. You lose the shifting alliances and negotiation that defines the series to an extent, equally there is a greater rules weight with the added military complexity. The short scenario runs around 3 hours, but the proper game is somewhere between 4-7.

Liberty or Death - Pass, not played, although my friend Simon liked it and I've been told its a great conversion of the system to the American revolution.

Falling Sky - I have only played this once and the game was cut short. We played 3 hours and saw one winter (coup) card which made this the slowest COIN game I have played by some margin. The game does a better job of converting a system designed for modern conflicts to the ancient world than I had expected. For instance, rather than using inactive 'hidden' troops as a way of infiltrating territories or avoiding combat they are used to determine whether one side can ambush another and receive a heavy advantage in combat. Combat itself is much easier to achieve, no longer must a player move in, sweep to expose hidden troops and then assault across three turns, as simple move attack will suffice.  This entry in the series also probably has one of the better faction spreads, the Belgae get their German Allies, the Arverni can employ scorched earth tactics, Caesar fulfills the foreign military role and the Aedui the trader faction.

Pax Pamir - Not a COIN game from GMT, but I am inclined to agree with Chris Farrell's notion that if you want COIN short and light this is it. The shifting alliances, area control and randomly drawn victory determination cards are all there, though make no mistake there are differences. This is a card game about building up a tableau and denying resources to your opponents. It plays in about 30-90 minutes but can be a rather unstable game with one side winning as if by mistake on the first 'coup' card.

Image courtesy of Cole Wehrle (game designer)

Monday, 4 July 2016

Megagame Mapping with Inkscape. Tutorial 1

I'm putting together some mapping tutorials for the Pennine Megagamers. Here a link to the first pdf.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Jena Campaign - Debrief - Lessons learned.

On the last Saturday of this past June I enjoyed one of the best learning experiences I have had in wargaming to put a positive spin on it. The day did not start well in character as General von Ruchel I arrived to the field 3 hours late having boarded the wrong train. When I arrived I discovered that my colleagues had spread our forces in a long thin line between the Fulda gap and Gera with no reserve.

Control's game map

The Jena campaign megagame, designed by Rupert Clamp was devised as a double blind map game. Each side of 10-15 players wrote orders for each division ordering it about a large map of central Germany. When battle was joined a divisional commander collected his regimental level counters and played a simple face to face tactical game.

A step up the chain of command it was the army commanders (generals) role to devise the overall strategy for then the divisional/corps commanders and their chiefs of staff teams to implement.

Or if you were on the Prussian team being a general consisted of arguing with your fellow generals. I made sure that all my fellow generals were abundantly clear on views on every aspect of the campaign.

For me this was a game of three arguments, two that I won and should have lost and one that I lost and should have won.

The field of battle

First because we had no reserve we could not counter Marshal Davout when he brushed Blucher aside north of the Fulda Gap. My friend Paul argued that he should  march after Davout and fight him once he tired, I argued that he would not catch the French (they had a higher movement rate) and that he would probably lose a one on one fight if he did catch him. Rather we should accept that Davout would reach Halle and cut our supplies in around 3 days and we should focus on trying to fight the pivotal battle against the rest of the french before that clock timed out.

What I didn't know was that Davout had essentially no moral left in his force as he had forced marched them day and night to reach his present position. In fact he never did reach Halle before the game ended despite the open road. If Paul had fought him, we might not have lost.

Team planning map

Second, convinced that the game should come down to a climatic battle, like all Napoleonic campaigns did I continually argued that we should concentrate our forces and strike at one point delivering a pivotal blow to the French. In some respects this was not a terrible view to take, Napoleons objective in every historical campaign was to defeat the enemy in detail in a major battle as this would allow him to end to the discussion as to who had supremacy over Europe.

However this was not in Pete's (the thief of Europe!) mind, rather he decided that the best approach for the French was to employ Fabian tactics in the centre whilst running two corps around either flank to try and seize Halle and Leipzig cutting us from our supplies. As such by arguing that we should concentrate in the centre and smash the French in a major battle I opened up our flanks. For a long time my divisional commander Simon and I had made a case for taking one of your divisions off the southern flank and moving it into the centre as a reserve. We got our way but in doing so we could no longer effectively defend the approaches to Leipzig.

The final argument revolved around how to finish the campaign. We had done pretty well in our field battles but the French had taken Leipzig and we would lose our communications with Halle soon. What to do. I argued that no Napolonic army ever surrender because it had lost supplies for a few days and that we should fight out of our encirclement towards Berlin. In the end the presiding view was that we should concentrate on Jena and await a French attack as this would be the most fun and fitting end to the game. Another idea was that we should push out towards Leipzig and try to retake it (which wasn't the worst idea in some respects but you really do need supply for a siege).

In the event Napoleon not being a fool simply ignored us and sat on our supplies and the game ended with the Prussians in a rather compromising position rather than with a head start on the road to Berlin.

My excellent divisional commanders, far more competent than I was

The game was a good lesson in assumptions for me. I had underestimated the effect of marching on moral and assumed that a pivotal battle was necessary. In the longer term it would have been, since armies did not tend to surrender on home territory for lack of the supplies, the worst case scenario was a disbandment and humiliating surrender. Whilst this might seem like a total victory Napoleon always tried to force a major battle so that he would not have to return the following year to re-establish his supremacy to the now reorganized opposition. In short we had done far better than our historical counter parts but we had not radically changed history.

My friend Pete (Napoleon) wrote up his thoughts on the game here;

Overall I was impressed with Rupert's design, it had the right tempo for a Napoelonic game and generally felt historical in play. The double blind aspects generated plenty of tension and control did an excellent job of feeding the right amount of intelligence out to the players. The only thing I would challenge was the notion that the loss of Halle and Leipzig being a victory condition. After all the Russians accepted the loss of Moscow and for a brief time the Austrians Vienna, the only nation to bottle at the loss of their key city was in fact the French.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Wilderness War is probably the best CDG (review)

One attribute of a good war game is that it opens up rather than narrows down the more you play it. Each time you play you see there is more strategic depth than you thought there was. When I first started playing Wilderness War, a card driven wargame design (CDG) on the French Indian War by Volko Runke, I thought it was simply a case of the British building a large kill stack and marching it up the Hudson and the French trying to get enough victory points (vps) from raiding to win before the inevitable. The outcome would likely be decided by card play and who got the reinforcement cards when they needed them.

The game is afoot. 

Four games later I have realised that this is not the case. Yes the British will sometimes win by marching a big army up the Hudson and sieging out Montreal, but a lot of the time things will play out quite differently. Maybe the French strike first, perhaps the British realise that going up the Hudson is going to be a slog try another route. Either way the players of both sides start looking around the board for things beyond the obvious. I think it was in our third game that we realized that the French could grab about half or more the VPs they need by capturing or destroying the border forts and stockades on the oft poorly defended Maryland and Virginia frontier. Suddenly using your irregular troops as an actual independent military force starts to look like it's not such a bad idea.
Native American allies of the French pour across the frontier

At this stage the options for both sides in this game feel greater than ever, there are more ways to thrust and counter thrust than I thought possible. The game also overcomes the key card deck issues I have had with CDGs in the past. The card deck does not tell you where to go. In Empire of the Sun if you draw an event card for the Invasion of New Guinea you should probably postpone your planning invasion of Burma and do what the cards tell you. This is a brilliant way of simulating the over bearing hand of superiors and subordinates on Pacific command but it can give you the impression that the game is playing you rather than vice versa. In Wilderness War the cards simply determine your resources. They limit your troops, marching resources, Indians (Native Americans), combat bonuses and commander availability. Actual historical events are limited to a few naval actions and the ability to attack Louisburg. The game also avoids the Twilight Struggle pitfall of making the player choose between history and not history at ever card.

Finally the game has about the right amount of randomness in it. It is not like Hannibal Rome vs Carthage where a single bad die roll can put you at the pointy end of the spear neither does it quite feel like Amateurs to Arms which often forces you into long odds or attrition combats. The combat can be random and rather cruel but you are rarely quite out of it and often in with a better chance than you might think. Equally I am convinced this game has a relative low amount of luck in the card draw. Reinforcement cards are not the panacea many might think. If they are not in your hand something else that might be more useful will be. This is a game that requires a bit of creative thought and the willingness to take some risks.

The assault on Louisburg stalls

It passes the history test too. I have only read one book on the subject, The Battle for Quebeck 1759 by Matthew C. Ward (recommended). Within the frame work of a medium complexity CDG it does a good job of simulating the kind of conflict described in the book without being overly reliant on event cards to tell the story. The sloth of some of the senior British commanders, the vagaries of French support for the war and the harshness of the winter and the pox are all in there, It certainly does a better job of the interesting yet not entirely convincing A Few Acres of Snow ( a game by Martin Wallace).
My opponent celebrates after my pincer movement through the Lakes and Louisburg falls but inches short on each front.

If you are a fan of CDGs I recommend picking this up and If you are looking for an entry into the genre or even wargames as a whole this isn't a bad starting point. We play the short scenario and it takes us about two the two and  half ours in the pub with a beer. The rules are marginally more complex than Hannibal Rome vs Carthage. This would be a step up from some games usually recommended to new wargamers but its not insurmountable. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Jena Campaign Huddersfield (UK) 25th June

More Megagaming! It's been a while since I've actually played having been on the control team for the last few games.

Rupert Clamp is running his game on the Jena campaign. It's a double blind campaign map game, a bit like a structured Kriegspiel but with his own system.

It also has a face to face battle system, that takes place during campaign time, so a legitimate strategy is to tie an opposing division or corps down on a battle map whilst your allies march to the sound of the guns.

In my view these are the best megagames. The more pure political megagames can go 'I do what I want because I say roleplaying'. By facing the players with the unknown of a hidden map and the harsh consequences of war people start to do something incredible, they think. You can pull of gambits that never work in open map games, and the chain of command and inter-team rivalry creates a whole lot of political fiasco on the side.

The game starts fairly early in the campaign (French still at Wurtzberg. As such it can go in a lot of different directions. Do the French go over the hill? or via the Fulda Gap?

These sorts of games are quite open and allow for some genuine strategic insight, bluff and operational planning debate.

If you are interested hit the above link.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Quick Looks April II: Dien Bien Phu, The Final Gamble

This is a game for people who value narrative content over anything else in a wargame and will pay any price to get it. I can best illustrate this with a comparison between the French supply systems in this game against the supply system in the Operational Combat Series from Multiman publishing.

To determine the amount of generic supply counters you get in in an OCS game you roll 2 dice and consult a chart and put that many tokens on the map at your supply point hex. These counters are then used to pay for ammo, artillery shells, aircraft refueling and sometimes food. They are generic abstracted supply, the detail is in how they are moved around the map.
Gabrielle has fallen, this helps maintain the Vietminh moral for a few more turns.

In Dien Bien Phu artillery ammo, food, fuel and medicine are all recorded on separate tracks. You spend meds to heal injured units and to keep malaria at bay, you spend ammo for each arty strike you carry out, you loose 4 food a turn or suffer for it, and if you run out of fuel you cannot do much in the way of strategic movement. Halfway through each turn you will reduce each of these tracks. You then get to take little ammo, medicine, food etc tokens and load them on to slots in a supply drop matrix. The number of spaces in the matrix goes down with bad weather and the encroachment of Vietminh trenches. You then roll a die and this tells you how many supply drops are aborted (it will be between 1 and 9). If you roll 9 you will roll two dice nine times cross referring the matrix each time to discard a supply drop. You then re-adjust the tracks back up based on what supplies you gained. Seeing the effect of malaria, the loss of drop sites and the whittling down of food and fuel supplies adds a lot to the story but fairly little in terms of decision making.

Starting setup
Kim de Kanger has shown some strokes of genius in this design on Dien Bien Phu, it is essentially a question of who will break first so he has loaded his rules density on to the French supply and the Vietminh moral. A lot of the real decision making falls around when to push and how hard. Do you take your foot of the gas and conserve or do you pump the accelerator and throw in a risky counter attack? I prefer games of manoeuvre to games of resource management, with Dien Bien Phu having a bias to the latter.
Combat has defensive fire and then assaults, quite a few counters can get stacked up.
Dien Bien Phu the final gamble does what it does very well, it has a cool artillery system, nice components, it produces a good story but it takes a lot of mental investment. Whether there will be a payoff for you depends on how much you get out of narrative detail.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Quick looks April / May 2016 - Legion Games part I: Quatre Batailles en Espagne

Personally I think the term 'review' should only really be used if you have played a game through several times, ideally opposed, and feel qualified to make some comment on the games balance. Most games that don't work for me are never going to get played multiple times. In fact I probably won't play them right through even once if they are a lot of work. Over the past couple of weeks I have been playing two titles from Legion Games, Dien Bien Phu the Final Gamble and Quatre Batailles en Espagne. I really like Quatre Batailles but I didn't really get in to Dien Bien Phu.

I going to start doing this new quick looks format for games I have only spent a few hours with and only played once. It allows me to give a general impression to the read of what the game is trying to do but falls short of a full review.

Quatre Batailles en Espagne

I played the Salamnque battle and it took me about 3-4 hours with just the base ruleset. The system plays a lot like La Bataille light (La Bat being a series from Marshall Enterprises and Clash of Arms games) the key different being this game as 30 minute rather than 15 minute turns. In effect the turn length produces very decisive results to actions giving the game a very action orientated feel. A cavalry charge will produce bedlam, an infantry melee will mostly result in one side breaking and artillery at close range really knocks holes in the regimental formations.

I am probably going to stick with this series for my Napoleonic fix it gives me a convincing simulation but with a shorter rule book than some of its competitors. It also plays rather quickly with the basic rules. The advance rules at a read seem a bit ambiguous in some areas, but not in a way that particularly bothers me. They will raise the realism, particularly in terms of command and control IN the base rules you can do whatever you want and it results in a short battle as both sides can get the attacks they want committed.

Visually, the maps are attractive and in the Legion style. The counters have some small numbers on them, and quite a few different numbers too. They are elongated and you flip them depending on whether  a unit is in line or column giving the game a nice visual effect.

My main criticism at this stage would be the casualty chart. You can use counters to track hits, but this adds to counter density and they could easily be confused with disruption counters. The game comes with a chart listing each unit and its casualty hits. If the boxes were bigger they could hold a cube, as it is you really need to photocopy it and use a marker pen. Its a shame a booklet of paper copies was not included. The only other issue I see some folks having is the setup rules can be a little vague. You get instructions like setup X division halfway between this land mark the south map edge. You can work it out but I could see ultra competitive types making an argument out of it.

Monday, 25 April 2016

1776 The American Revolution review

The American Revolution (rebellion!) isn't really covered by the curriculum over here in o'l blighty, in fact I've never seen a documentary on it, nor a book on the shelf of a local library. In some respects this isn't unusual as you don't hear a lot about things that aren't Waterloo, World War 1&2, Henry the 8th's wives or the Romans in the UK. But it is  a significant piece of world history and a major blind spot for me, so when I saw a copy of 1776 going cheap on the geek I picked it up.

Sometimes the notion gets kicked around that modern games are great, and old games are rather bad and best left to the collectors shelves. 1776 tells me that War game design was as good in back in 1974 as it is today.

The pitch is roughly thus; The rebel scum need to be put down, every few turns for the first year you will get a fresh skill stack of troops landing along the coast. You must engage the enemy where you find him and spread out your forces to occupy at least 20 (out of 24 I think) key strategic towns by the close of the game (5 years hence). The catch for the Brits is, you must occupy these towns with British regulars, the locals are far from reliable, and you get very few replacements after 1776.

and so it begins

For the Patriots this is an exercise in the fleet army in being. You get one decent size army (Washington I presume) at game start and will be quickly out numbered four or five to one by the Imperialist tyrants. Not only this but each winter any concentration of force will be hammered by attrition. On the plus side you get replacements in areas where British control is sparse.

Some British regulars aboard ship sighted off the eastern sea board.

The game is pretty simple too, there are beginner and scenario rules (even simpler) but the campaign is where it is at. You move, then attack and both are standard wargame material, crts, movement rates and terrain etc. There is a lashing of chrome for building river boats, fortress sieges, naval combat, and supplies. All of it is simple and effective, it creates difficult decisions that are easy to understand.

Washington doubles back on himself with a forced march down the Hudson.

What makes the game both historically eye opening and a tense experience are the forced march and territorial control rules. I am amazed that such a good forced march system existed in '74. And almost equally as amazed that many more modern games have more complex and weaker systems (Trajan). You simply call the number of additional hexes you want to march and roll a die. Call high and roll badly and you might lose half your army, roll well and you may move 14 rather than the normal 7 hexes and catch you opponent in the nip.

This opens up a lot of strategy as you are almost always in range of a very risky forced march, but out of immediate contact. Thus a large part of the game is forcing your opponent with to make risky marches to stop you from stealing key cities like New York. It's a great risk reward system.

The British start to take control of the northern colonies.

Every quarter year for each of the four areas in the game you total up British controlled cities, the presence of patriot regular,s and a couple of other criteria. You then adjust the number of militia, patriot replacements, and Tory militia in each region. This bit of book keeping buys the British player a real nightmare; how to keep a lid of numbers of rebel troops. You want to lock down a region, but lose one city and rebel militia and regulars start appearing all over the place. For the patriot player, British control has a severe impact on your winter attrition. Consequently the British are forced to split up their kill stacks and spread themselves thin and if the patriots can just kick them out of one city all will be for naught.

It's a tough game for both sides and taught me a few things about the war. The Patriots don't really need to win many battles. If they can keep a decent sized army or two in the field they can keep dodging the hammer and liberating enough cities to keep the revolution alive. For the Brits, you want to catch those slippery colonials who have one more movement point than you but after year one your resources are always dwindling. It's tough for both sides, if the Patriots get caught by the Brits early they could be clinging on til the french arrive (if they do), however I think the British will have a hard time winning the full campaign.

What the game doesn't do is tell me a great deal about Washington, Howe or any character in the war. There is a more modern ruleset that does add leader counters, but they don't get much more than a rating. So I've learnt something but perhaps not as much as I could. What the game gains in simplicity it looses in colour. This is a strategic over view of the military problems both sides faced not a historical narrative or a campaign study.

I am interested in learning more about the Revolution, what books do people recommend? I tend to prefer readable academic books to page turner history.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Eastfront vs Blocks in the East

This is sort of similar to Shark vs Tornado or Batman vs Superman but with board wargames...

Having played both Blocks in the East (BITE) and Eastfront, i thought I'd give a very brief comparison:

> I love Eastfront, I did not like BITE.

> Eastfront is design for effect game. It limits its rule complexity and trims down the number of components by rolling air power and supply all into HQ strength steps and brings out the severity of the conflict through its weather rules and map design.

> BITE on the other hand goes the other way and has a more is more philosophy with more smaller hexes, probably three times the number of blocks and both air power and supply represented explicitly

> The base rules for Eastfront are marginally more complex however in practice its much easier to play than BITE. BITES core rules could be mistaken for an Axis and Allies evolution but it layers on a tonne of chrome and lots of resource management with the advanced rules. The final effect is a lot of work.

> In play I found i spent much less time hunting for units or counting things in Eastfront and much more time considering the merits of a break through to Moscow over piling more forces into Leningrad.

> Both feel like epic eastern front games.

> Eastfront has better map art.

> For me these two games taught me something about myself as a Wargamer. For a while I though that deep orders of battle and explicit simulation of oil supply were important to me. With BITE I found that they were better in my minds eye than in practice. I realise now I prefer games that make me think with clever mechanics and economy of components.

> In general I am far less inclined to put down cash on a game with more than 500 counters than I used to be. Sorting counters or blocks is becoming more effort than its worth.

> Kev over at the prefers BITE, and he knows his stuff. Check out his vids and posts if you want to muddy the waters, as there is no consensus opinion.

Eastfront AAR: "From the Desk of the Man of Steel"

It’s EastFront a 1991 Craig Besinque block game about the war on the EastFront and this is the winter of 1941. My friend Pete of played the role of Uncle Joe, and my friend James of  turned into Hitler. I played STAVKA and OKH interpreting their orders and soloing the game. Every few turns I sent both a photo and awaited strategic direction.

Turn 1

From Der Fuhrer
Guten morgen from the Fuhrer's headquarter.

The Fuhrer is satisfied to hear that the invasion is going to plan and congratulates you on your progress so far.

Your objectives are simple: Moswcow and Leningrad must fall. You will divert a portion of your forces to push towards Tula from the south to draw the Soviets away from the main thrust of the attack, which will come from the north. Do not waste the Fuhrer's best units on this diversionary attack - once the Fuhrer's armour is seen on the streets of Moscow the USSR will surely collapse.

Remember, the Fuhrer will not accept failure or excuses."

From Stalin

The fascist invaders will soon learn that their capitalist oppression will be no match for the power of the proletarian working classes properly led. Now as they start to freeze in their stalled attack on Moscow, force well trained and equipped from the Far Eastern military districts are arriving to deal a counter blow.

From the latest Stavka meeting it has been decided. With the infantry spread between them. The armoured corps together with a mechanized and Shock corp is to form a reserve east of Moscow. 1 mechanized, 1 shock and one Cavalry Corp is to form a reserve South East of Moscow. The three remaining Cavalry Corps are to be positioned East of Rostov as a reserve there.

For the Motherland.”

I as both OKH and STAVKA deployed my forces roughly as instructed. The result was a main Nazi thrust northwards heavily at the expense of the south. The Russians countered with a low hook to army group centre.

The Russians move first in winter (snow) turns and they do not suffer having all of their HQs disrupted as the Nazis do. As such the Communists were able to get their infantry and shock armies moving around the German south flank, due south east of Smolensk. 

The Germans on the other hand attacked into the forests of the north, this makes it harder to concentrate forces and gives the defender double defence.  Whilst this was expensive on HQ logistics they did manage to concentrate a large force around Leningrad and start the siege.

Turn 3

From der Fuhrer

The Fuhrer is concerned that perhaps he has not made himself clear. Your instructions were to make a diversionary attack on Tula from south yet he sees that you have instead besieged Sevastapol and are now concerned that the Soviet forces around Tula are threatening our drive on Moscow. Perhaps the Fuhrer should relieve you of your position and take command personally?

Do not allow Leningrad to be relieved and do not allow the siege to drag on - finish the job, commander."

From Stalin
From the desk of the Man of Steel:

1) The hook from the south should continue. Counterattack due North into the units that have broken through.

2) Instill in the RKKA the will to succeed of the proletariat worker. 

3) Check train time table to see when the Siberian units will arrive from the Far Eastern Military District.”

I probably over spent on my HQs for both sides in the first two turns as things slowed down as the Winter dragged on. The Russians continued their drive from the south into army group centre with slow but steady success. Both sides rushed troops to weak points. Leningrad was starved out through the turns 1, 2 and 3 reducing it down to one block. So as the Germans flung everything and the kitchen sink at the city they managed to over come the triple defense and defeat the last block. 

Turns 5-6

“From the desk of the Man of Steel:

1) Keep the pressure in the centre.

2) Be ready to redeploy if necessary to meet the expected counter attack from the south.

3) Win at Rostov.”

Der Furher was a little quiet over the final turns, so OKH pressed on.  The snow was replaced by mud slowing everyone to a crawl. Despite the weather effects the Russian shock forces counter attack managed more or less wipe out army group centre. The German hook from the north got bogged down in the forest and causalities rapidly rose on both sides in a series of attritional battles.

The End Result

The final score was +12 to the Russians, a minor victory, as the high casualties the Germans sustained out weighted the capture of Leningrad. This was end game was mostly due to the effects of snow on the Germans. Aside from this, attacking through the south and centre is much easier than in the north.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Mega-Game Mapping: 1 Map Size

This blog has been pretty dry for the past few months. A new job with long hours and a lot of mega-game mapping. So lets talk shop mega-game mapping.

I've started doing maps for the Pennine Mega-gamers, a group formed last year that intends to run about 5 mega-gamers a year. You can find us here

I've done one map for Sengoku;

Liberated from my friend  Pete Sizer's blog:
I am currently just rounding off the map for a Very British Civil War, and I am working on map for the Jena Campaign and will soon start work on an update to the Urban Nightmare game map. I have also more or less completed the map for a Chosin Reservoir campaign game Pete and I will run later on this year. Starting with this one I'm going to throw together a couple of posts of the things I have learned from doing these maps.

1. Size

Mega-games are mega. The maps have to be pretty big, bigger than I expected in fact. I, despite being a geographer, am not very good seeing size in my minds eye. That Sengoku map in the above image is 1.5m across and about twice that length long. I originally designed it to be 4A0. We then found a printer that would do vinyl banners for slightly cheaper at 1.5m wide so we switched to that. 4A0 is about half the size I thought it was. This turned out to be ok for Sengoku, we only had around 20-25 players and only 7-10 around the map at any time and a 4A0 map can handle around 8 players but it would have been too small for a game with 40 or 50 players. The map for a Very British Civil War will be two maps each the size of Sengoku. I would say that a game centered around one map, with 10-20 players at or around the map should be around 8xA0 in size. I think that is roughly the size of the D-Dodgers and Don't Panic megagame maps. The only downside with this size is that its quite a stretch to reach the middle which is a limiting factor. If you have a double blind game, Jena, Chosin Reservoir it can be smaller because you will have fewer than 10 control players moving units.

The other key thing to consider with map size is the size of the units. In Sengoku the military units were square wooden tokens about 5cm by 5cm. We needed to fit the at least two stacks of these units into the smallest territories. I sized the map with that in mind and the above was the result. For Jena and Very British Civil War the designers requested Hexes and I have sized these hexes to hold the counter sizes they have asked for.

2. Working with Size

Large maps require a lot of computational power to draw. I did Sengoku with 8gb of RAM, a Geforce 680 and an Intel I5-25k. This managed with a 4A0 map but it was a struggle. I have since blugged in another 16bg of Ram to bring me up to 24. This has helped, alot, but it still not exactly smooth, particularly with my current method of doing hex grids. I've also had to learn Inkscape as raster graphics takes way too much memory to handle these sizes at any reasonable resolution. Sengoku was printed at 200dpi, which looks fine for a poster print. To draw a map of that size you have to use vector graphics (google vector vs raster graphics for an explanation). Inkscape is a good bit of freeware software and whilst it handles bigger maps better than GIMP it can still be rather power hungry. In short if you want to design graphically complex large maps you are going to need to learn some good vector software and have a machine that can handle the load. I may talk more about software in a later post, but for now this will do.