Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Out with the old...

The busy month of February is teetering on the brink of Slackerism here in blog land, so I guess a few notes are in order.

My urge to indulge in an entire campaign of ‘Barbarossa’ waned somewhat as I progressed through the early stages of the game. It still produces an entertaining game experience, but there are enough ‘holes’ in the game that I felt time would be better spent if I moved on to something else after wrapping up the 8 turns of the opening Barbarossa scenario.

One thing apparent was the odd structure of the victory conditions. At the conclusion of 1941, basically, a look at the map seemed to tell a tale of woe for the Germans. They had managed to capture Leningrad, but were basically stoned everywhere else and faced a growing Soviet army. They were short of Moscow by several hexes and had just barely managed to squeeze into Kharkov by game’s end – losing an entire Panzer Army in the process. Still, totalling up the Victory Points, the Germans managed to squeeze out a 1-point win. Very strange.

But that one is back up on the shelf. Some new items have arrived in the last few weeks, and one of them has landed on the Big Table. The new $20 small-format game from Avalanche Press, “They Shall Not Pass”, is set up and ready to go. The game covers the first nine days of the German offensive against Verdun in February, 1916. The first snappy here is an overview of the initial setup on the game’s full-size map:

And here’s a detail of the setup along the French center, which gives a pretty good look at the map artwork.

The geographical area covered is the whole sector held by French XXX Corps. Within the constraints of the historical deployments, the German player is pretty much free to set his own agenda for racking up enough VPs to win the game.

Victory in the game is based on what I would call the objectives as the opposing Army / Corps commanders understood them at the time. German local command wasn’t clued in on Falkenhayn’s ‘meat grinder’ strategy. So they really are trying to plaster the French and drive on Verdun.

Only the Germans score VP. They get them for taking towns (1 VP per two towns captured), destroying forts (1 VP per fort) and inflicting higher casualties on the French than they take themselves (0-3 VP – I think – based on the dead-unit ratio at the end of the game). They can also take one division of optional reinforcements for a 1VP penalty. Working from memory here, I think the Germans have to score more than 8 VP to win the game. 5-8 VP is a draw, IIRC. Although it might be 5-7 VP.

Starting soon, with a little luck.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Old and flawed, but still some fun

Sometimes it can be interesting to drag out the wargaming equivalent of a Golden Oldie and take it for a spin on The Big Table just for the heck of it.

This past weekend, in the couple of hours of unstructured time I managed to eke out, I dusted off my old, old copy of SPI’s Barbarossa (2nd edition, 1971) and set up the opening of World War II in the east. The game, which saw it’s first printing in 1969, essentially is the granddaddy of most ‘contemporary’ East Front games. A lot of the design mechanisms gamers take for granted first got their chops in Barbarossa.

The particular copy of the game I’ve got on the table is the second wargame I ever bought – purchased way back in 1974. My first wargame was SPI’s venerable Tank!, which I also purchased in 1974. That was back in the days when you could find SPI games stocking bookstore shelves, and indeed both of those games were bought a few months apart at a Waldenbooks in Altamonte Springs.

I haven’t stopped buying games since, but that’s beside the point.

Today’s photo shows a section of the front before the game kicks off. The deployments are likely far from historical, but this is the area where German Army Groups North and Center operated.

As a game produced entirely before the fall of Soviet Communism opened up a wealth of new material for history researchers, it suffers from a number of flaws in the orders of battle and in the geography of the game map. As one might suspect, later games have ‘done’ many things better – but for some reason this game can still produce a compelling game session every now and then.

Compared to today’s uber-complex designs, it’s quite simple and straightforward. The complexity of the rules, in fact, is probably on a par with Avalanche Press games like Defiant Russia and Red Vengeance. Barbarossa’s assymetrical application of the zone of control rules can take a bit to get used to, and can be a special, nasty surprise for the unwary Russian player.

The attacker-favoring combat results table is also somewhat assymetrical. The game heartily rewards the German player who can catch Russian units in a web of ZOCs and then eliminate them by forcing retreats with relatively low-odds attacks (at 1:1 odds, for example, there is only one ‘negative’ result for an attacker).

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lite, fun and moving right along

After a couple of weeks of pretty intensive play (at least for me) I think I'm about to get enough of Combat Commander for the moment. It's like the kettle corn of wargaming. Entertaining and a tad addictive, but ultimately not quite filling. The variability of the card system gives it a certain just-one-more-turn quality akin to a pulp sci-fi page-turner. Quite often the system works well. Sometimes it doesn't.

Every once in a while some plain goofy crap happens. The cards fall in just the right order to make me feel like I'm fighting a battle on Bizarro World. In one of my weekend games, when the scenario ended about half the map was on fire (nearly ran out of 'Blaze' markers) for no apparent reason.

And then sometimes the cards fall in just the right order to make a very enjoyable game. In a second game, some US units had to cross a machine-gun covered road to attack an objective. As one unit crossed the road, the Germans played a Hidden Minefield card (the Americans survived, but it was a fun moment) and then played a Hidden Wire card as the US troops approached the objective (the Americans took the OBJ but it was another fun moment).

It's all rather random, which is pretty much what you run into with card-driven systems. Very often it's quite a bit of fun, but I think in only one or two of the six games I've played have I finished and thought it had come close to 'simulating' infantry combat. The others were just 'games' – like maybe playing Memoir 44 on steroids.

There's something to be said for a 'lite' wargame, of course – and CC is certainly the least 'lite' of the bunch. But it's not a game that's going to replace ATS or PG in my inventory.