Friday, December 28, 2007

Eisenbach Gap: A closer look

Time to revisit the topic of World at War: Eisenbach Gap. I’ve managed to get in a few games of this over the holidays, so I’m able to comment about it intelligently.

The nutshell version is that I like this game quite a bit. It’s not very fiddly, plays quickly, has some interesting hooks and delivers plausible results. The physical production is a pleasant enough package, the rules are fairly well written and the game’s tabletop footprint is manageable without feeling restricted.

In a way it’s what I would call a “brave” design because of the combat mechanism. There is no combat results table. This game uses what I’ll call a little buckets o’dice system for combat. “Little” because players are never rolling more than four or five dice at a time.

It’s a design element that took some guts to include because games that use any form of buckets o’dice (BOD) resolution always seem to get a mixed reaction from the wargaming community. Maybe it’s a bias against the mechanism because it’s used in a number of miniatures games? I don’t know. If a designer does his math well, combat probabilities can be modelled just fine using BOD.

More likely, some gamers dislike BOD because the mechanism does introduce a higher element of randomness into combat resolution – or at least a greater perception of randomness. Odds- or differential- based combat results tables are frequently designed to contain randomness. It’s very rare to find a CRT that offers wild swings of fortune within a single odds or differential ‘column’. (Advanced Tobruk is a system that comes to mind, and that CRT has taken it’s share of flak.)

Sometimes that sort of ‘chaos control’ is used to compress the range of possible results and make game outcomes more “predictable.” Lack of a farily narrow predictability puts many gamers out of their comfort range – thus the knee-jerk negatives concerning BOD.

But I digress. In Eisenbach Gap, to be certain, there can be some swings of fortune. But I like that combat in the game avoids the Proving Ground Syndrome of 80 percent kills at 2000 meters. Sometimes a platoon of Abrams will fire on a platoon of T-72s and completely flub. Other times they’ll turn the whole lot of them into smoking junk. The odds favor the latter result (or something in between), but the lack of narrow predictability is a key component to the game.

In some other ‘modern’ tactical games, maneuver is generally undertaken only at great sacrifice. While it’s true that modern weapons systems are very lethal, I think under most circumstances it’s highly unlikely that they will ALWAYS achieve complete mission kills against enemy units.

I think Eisenbach Gap models this notion pretty well. Stupid tricks will get you hammered pretty quickly and exposing your units to enemy fire is a very risky proposition – but I think the game achieves the right chaotic balance (is there such a thing?) and provides a highly enjoyable gaming experience.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The great electrical conspiracy

One question I have (that will obviously never be answered) is this: Since AA and AAA batteries are all packaged in even numbers (2, 4, 8, 24 to a package) why do so many toys now require THREE batteries instead of two or four? WTF up with that?

Personally, I think it’s a kickback scheme cooked up by the battery manufacturers in order to reduce the usefulness of rechargeable batteries. Why? Think about it. Battery chargers typically hold four AA or AAA batteries. If you use batteries in threes, you’ve then got an odd battery flopping around that you’ll either lose or can’t keep charged properly. Oh, sure, you can buy (and charge) 12 batteries (that will give you four sets of three) – but then you’ve bought 12 friggin rechargeable batteries when what you really need is just six.

One of the toys the kid got uses (the Geotrax train set from his godparents) three AAA batteries in the train engine and three AA batteries in the remote control. Why not all AA batteries or all AAA batteries?

It’s a friggin conspiracy, I tell you.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Changing the day after Christmas

Five or six years ago, Christmas around my house was quite a bit different.

For starters, I lived in a different house. Smaller, with just me living in it. In the morning I’d visit my parents in nearby Leesburg, exchange gifts and eat lunch. Depending on the year and scheduling sometimes I watched football with them and stayed for dinner. Other times I packed up my gear after lunch and drove into the office to make the next day’s newspaper. Somewhere in there I’d work in a stopover visit with the lady who eventually became The Missus.

I mention this as a way of noting that in the not-too-distant past, the day after Christmas was a time for me to dig in to a stack of several new games.

My goodness, how things have changed. No more post-Christmas ‘out of the wrapper’ tidbits from this old gamer.

Nowadays Christmas is all about Junior Destructo Man 2.5 and, more generally, bringing the family together to celebrate. Having a toddler zooming around the house on Christmas day certainly gives me cause to live the holidays as a brand-new experience.

Yesterday was spent primarily on three activities: 1) Watching the kid play with his stuff, 2) playing with the kid and his stuff, and 3) eating. It could scarcely have been a better time for all involved.

Hey, it only took 40-some years for me to finally get stuff figured out. Pretty good, all things considered.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Nothing like a good shoot-em-up

Whoa. Sorry. Had to take some time off after expending all of that energy on philosophizing and digesting holiday goodies. But now it’s December and – what the Hell – it’s time to stutter along some more about wargaming.

One of my last remaining game pre-orders arrived last week. Many months ago I gave up on the practice of pre-ordering, but some of these things take that long (at least) to work their way through production. I think I may have one or two pre-orders out there from over a year ago. Heck, over the summer I cancelled a bunch of pre-order ‘Pledges’ from Decision Games – all of which had been in place for over three years. That’s a crisp production schedule indeed.

Anyway, a World at War: Eisenbach Gap showed up last week. Between the usual holiday goings-on and the long-awaited completion of the Bethlehem Battlefield project (more on that in a day or two) it’s taken me this long to getting around to some kind of assessment.

In a nutshell: Pretty cool.

The game is designed by Mark Walker, so I figured going in it would be a game with a hearty emphasis on playability – which is a hallmark of his squad-level Lock ‘n’ Load system. This game is a platoon-level treatment of a subject that’s entirely hypothetical: The NATO-Soviet World War Three that never happened.

The components are well done, although the counters indeed have a bunch of numbers on them (11 for the biggest and baddest). So they’re a little squinty, but not too difficult to read.

Why are the counters so packed with info? Mainly because the game uses a combat results mechanism that’s drawn primarily from territory more familiar to miniatures gamers. There is no combat results table in this game – all of the info you need to resolve combat is printed right on the counters.

Eisenbach Gap uses a chit-pull activation system, which lends itself to high replay value. There are other little bits of chrome here and there, but for the most part it’s a straight-forward design that’s light on the rules weight.

Many non-wargamers (and more than a few grognards) wonder a bit at the appeal of the subject matter. Certainly it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, as many players generally prefer to stick to history. The weapons, formations and doctrines the game is based upon were never tested (as it were) in a head-to-head environment so there’s a lot of speculation involved.

But for some there’s that gnawing fascination with the great conflagration that never occurred. There’s the ‘what if?’ surrounding the great and desperate battle quite a few of my generation trained for but never had to fight.

I’ve pushed it around a little bit and it seems pretty darned solid. More on it in a few days once I get the hang of things.