Friday, December 05, 2008
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Tuesday, November 11, 2008
After his discharge from the hospital (and from the Army) some months later, “Red” (so nicknamed because of his thick, red hair) didn’t immediately head back east to his hometown of Ashland, Kentucky. He was a brother or two down the totem pole from taking over the family farm, jobs were scarce back home in the post-war wind-down and, besides, there was an influenza epidemic raging that he figured somebody with gas-damaged lungs should probably try to avoid.
Kansas and neighboring states still offered plenty of opportunity to work in the wide-open spaces, so Red knocked around a bit working farm jobs, punching cows and mending fences. A lot of Great War veterans did essentially the same thing – just with different details in different parts of the country – because it was difficult for them to settle in to work-a-day America after what they had just been through.
War has never been a pleasant experience for those on the pointy end, but World War I was warfare as men had never before seen. The tools and systems of industrialization enabled slaughter on an unimaginable scale. Mass conscription kept the technological abattoir freshly stocked, and simultaneously insured that tens of thousands of survivors were exposed to war’s most soul-shattering horrors.
In 1919 they didn’t call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but many veterans wrestled with the horror just the same. Fortunately Red had a good religious grounding and a common-sense understanding of human nature that helped him cope. He knew other men who weren’t so fortunate, however, so until his dying day he thanked God that he always had the ability to face his wartime experience and not allow it to dominate his life.
Red had a gal back home, but he wasn’t able to lure her westwards. When the American Rolling Mill Company announced construction of a new plant in Ashland in 1920, Red headed back home to take both a steady job and a wife.
By the time I came along, my granddad Edwards was already 70 or thereabouts and long-retired from Armco Steel. “Papaw” always carried a bit of the war around with him – although no one else in his family would really ever know it.
Except for me, anyway. He had plenty of grand-children (6, I think), but I guess of them all I was the best listener. I wonder to this day if he thought I understood what he was talking about all those afternoons we spent sitting on that old concrete culvert down on the back of his property. My guess is that he knew, at least a little bit, his experiences would help shape my view of the world.
So today, as on every Veteran’s Day, it’s with a mixture of awe and sadness that I think about my Papaw Edwards and all of the veterans who stood for their country during the Great War and in every American war since.
I am awed by their courage and their sacrifice. And I am saddened that the War to End All Wars… wasn’t – and that none of the wars since then have been, either.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Columbia has produced some very good games over the years. Their game “East Front” remains one of my favorite titles on World War II in th East. But GMT’s entry into the niche has brought in some welcome new ideas. I think Europe Engulfed was their first block game, followed more recently by Asia Engulfed. They’ve also produced Fast Action Battles: Bulge and the very successful Command & Colors: Ancients series.
Thanks to GMT’s recent half-price sale (for P500 buyers), I now have all four of those games. FAB: Bulge and CC:A arrived last week – and I’m quite impressed by both of them.
It’s weird. Both games cover topics of interest and I enjoy block games quite a bit but I never got around to buying either one of them. They couldn’t quite manage to make it to the top of my game list. Maybe because they made a big splash when they were first released and I am by nature a contrarian? After seeing them both up close, now I feel kind of dopey.
Typically, the use of blocks makes for a game format that’s very friendly to limited intelligence rules (your opponent can’t see ‘your’ side of the block) and to easy step reduction (each edge of the block representing a different strength). CC:A is the exception – it uses blocks for units where other Richard Borg-designed games (Memoir 44 and Battlelore, for example) use plastic miniatures.
There’s a tactile ‘something’ about playing block games that scratches some indescribable gaming itch for me. Maybe it’s because I started playing block games 15 or so years before the industry started producing all of those fancy-pants plastic miniatures, but I think I prefer blocks over miniatures. Or maybe in my addled little pea-brain I equate blocks with ‘serious’ wargaming and plastic minis with ‘lite’ wargaming.
Also of note, as with the other Borg-designed games Command & Colors: Ancients is also a ‘franchise’ system with a number of expansion packs available that add new forces to the original game. The various expansions available (three to date) probably triple the number of blocks available in the system. Catchy idea.
Friday, October 31, 2008
Earlier in the day we had completed the last bits of paperwork and tendered final payment for the processing of our son’s immigration packet – a receipt hastily scribbled on note paper said as much. We were all a bit aggravated and apprehensive because the embassy employees seemed to being devoting much more time to decorating for a Halloween party than they were to anything else. In fact during our adoption process we had encountered enough seemingly random embassy re-scheduling that I firmly believed they were going to chase us all out and close for the party before issuing our visa – which would have really been a problem because it was a Friday and our flight home was scheduled the following day.
It’s difficult to join in the merriment or laugh at people in silly costumes when your main thought is that they’re screwing off instead of helping you get your child back home to America.
Can I have a moment to be grumpy? Thanks.
Over the last couple of years I know that immigration has been a hot topic for political discussion. Here’s the deal: If you have never been through the process of dealing with US Immigraton – please shut right the hell up, because you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
Just in case you think a US Embassy is a shining beacon of freedom and democracy to both citizens and those wishing to legally become citizens, I’ve got a little reality check for you. A US Embassy is a fortress of bureaucracy, surrounded by razor wire, full of bureaucrats, working on their own schedule to do whatever suits them whenever they choose to do it. Period.
The only embassies that get US Marine guards are the ‘prestige’ embassies and those in the movies. The rest of them get locally-hired, unfriendly, unhelpful, shotgun-toting Whackenhut security guards who think nothing of keeping a mother and her 7-month old infant standing in the rain for an hour at 8 in the morning.
On the whole, our process was easy compared to what the average immigration applicant from Guatemala endured. It only took us about 5 months of dealing with the Guatemalan and US governments to bring our son home. You want to know why so many people resort to illegal immigration? How about this: An embassy waiting room full of families dressed up in their finest clothes, ready for the 5-minute immigration interview that they have been waiting TEN YEARS to get.
Is that a no-shit, life-changing moment? You’re a skilled worker and this is your one shot to immigrate with your family to a country where you can find a decent job and make a living for them. Good luck, screwhead. Hope you don’t blow the interview or catch your immigration agent on one of those ‘headache’ days.
Whatever happened to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”? See, the crap you get taught in school isn’t always the way the real world works. I probably wouldn’t be such a lefty on the topic, except that I understand that Guatemala is one of those central American countries that we’ve screwed with (just for fun) for over 50 years, sucking away their resources and wrecking their economy.
Anyway, it seemed a minor miracle at the time – but the embassy issued our son’s visa that afternoon. I’d like to think it was just an efficient moment, but I also know that a coordinated phone-call campaign from family back home had generated ‘concerned faxes’ from the offices of our US Representative AND one of Florida’s US Senators. Never hurts to twang the strings of power every once in a while.
Democracy in action, right?
So. Forgive me if I have a slightly different attitude toward Halloween than a lot of other people. It’s a day of special memories for our family – and a day that serves to remind me how much better America can become.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Eastern Front games typically rate high on my list of favorites. War for the Motherland/Red Star Rising tops them all, I think, but various PanzerGrenadier and ATS modules set amidst the titanic struggle aren’t far behind. Other favorites from the period include GMT’s Ukraine ’43 and most of the East Front games in the Operational Combat Series (MMP/The Gamers).
I have all of the games in the EFS, with the exception of Typhoon (which was more of a fore-runner to the ‘series’). It’s been a couple of years since I’ve messed with any of them (Army Group North most recently) so picking up on all of the changes to the rules isn’t that difficult because I basically don’t remember any of the ‘old’ rules. One of the advantages of being an old, bald guy I suppose.
While the series is built around a map scale similar to OCS (5 miles per hex), there are few similarities beyond that. I find it rather interesting to play both systems and compare the different treatments given to operational combat in the same theater at the same ground scale.
EFS has a number of mechanisms that are slightly more abstract, which means it plays a bit more quickly on the tabletop (or in Cyberboard, whatever). What it sacrifices is flexibility. The system is highly tailored to the situation found at the opening of the war on the eastern front. The sequence of play is assymetrical and favors coordination on the part of the Germans, while it also imposes headquarters-bound restraints on the Soviets that their counterparts do not face.
OCS, on the other hand, is a system flexible enough to be used across theaters and time-frames – although it can get a bit complicated in spots. I also happen to believe that OCS works best for the games set on the eastern front and begins to break down a little bit when applied to theaters with either low density or high positional attrition.
But my point today isn’t to compare the two systems. I really just want to observe and report that Kiev-to-Rostov appears to be a worthy addition to the series. Half a bazillion counters and four well-done maps continue eastward with the action from Army Group South. The box also includes a couple of ‘mini’ maps printed on cardstock that reproduce small slices of the main maps for use with the game’s introductory scenarios.
I want to dwell for a moment on the mini-maps. It’s a concept that I can’t praise highly enough. It’s a single 8.5 x 11 inch bit of cardstock, each side printed with a different mini-map AND the setup charts needed to play the scenario. The scenarios cover fairly small areas, use small forces and are 3-4 turns long. The mini-maps couldn’t make setup or gameplay any simpler. They seem the perfect setting for a manageable introduction to a fairly complex, sprawling game system.
Maybe in future ‘monster’ games we’ll see some more of the same. Hope springs eternal, etc.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I have the original Arctic Front supplement, but the ‘Deluxe’ version certainly appears to be well-worth the $15 I paid for it. It includes more scenarios than the first version (and all of them are tooled for the new mappage), bigger scenarios and two identical half-sheets of counters for the Finns.
This supplement appears much more accessible than East of Suez, primarily because it doesn’t require ownership of a $200 monster game. Most of the scenarios can be played with ownership of only East Front Deluxe, the system’s core game. Scenarios range from small 1-mappers to several 4-mappers with lots of counters.
All three main episodes of Finnish involvement in the war are represented. Scenarios cover the Winter War, what the Finns call the Continuation War and the final fighting in Finland in 1944 (both against the Soviets initially, then against the Germans in a few instances).
The scenarios set in the different ‘episodes’ provide an interesting view of the progression of the Soviet army through the war years. The Finns are fairly consistent throughout the course of the war – skilled, motivated, well-led but always short on heavy hardware. The Soviets, however, change considerably over the course of the module’s scenarios.
In the Winter War, they are stumbling goobs with low-average morale and a dearth of leadership – certainly not well-suited to offensive operations in strange territory. The Continuation War sees their troops become a bit more motivated (and on the defensive), but leadership is still weak and it’s still obviously a bastard theater of operations with low priority for the good hardware. Then fast-forward to the Soviet offensives in 1944 that convinced Finland to seek an armistace. The Soviet formations involved in the attacks weren’t the tip of the Red Army’s spear (it was still sort of a bastard theater), but the troops are better, leadership is more plentiful and considerably improved and they bring a good deal of nasty hardware to the battle. It’s easy to see how the Finns were initially overwhelmed during the opening days of the offensive.
Historical commentary in the supplement is less plentiful than it is in East of Suez. More space is devoted to the scenarios. Still, you can read the historical notes and come to a good understanding of the underpinnings of the Finnish army and find a good basic primer on Finland’s military involvements during the war years.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
In response to the owner’s “help me stay in business” posting, I ordered a couple of APL game supplements. Stuff I’ve been putting off because while interesting, they weren’t eating in a hole in my brain. But since John at Bunker Hill has always done an excellent job by me over the years, I thought I should kick in a little something, even if I didn’t want to spring for a ‘boxed’ title.
So I got both PG: Arctic Front Deluxe and SWWAS: East of Suez. I cracked into the naval book last night as I sat grumping about the rain-soaked World Series baseball game (which should never have started in that crummy weather, BTW).
East of Suez is a very nice supplement with two half-sheets of counters – mostly British, but some Dutch, Japanese and various others mixed in. The first thing about it that hit me, though, was that it seems a lot of effort for something that’s actually kind of dopey. By that I mean none of the scenarios in the book are playable unless you own SWWAS: Leyte Gulf.
I don’t know what sales of Leyte have been, but I can’t help but wonder if they didn’t print more supplements than they did monster games. I imagine a number of guys don’t care – they just want to fondle the counters and see the stats – but at the very least it had to be something of a trap for retailers. I couldn’t help but notice that Bunker Hill (he posts stock levels in his item details) had 43 of the damned supplements in stock. I’ll bet he hasn’t sold that many copies of Leyte, and I notice he has just 1 copy of the monster in stock (at $175).
Count me as one of the zany bunch who bought Leyte Gulf (at some or another terrific discount during one of APL’s big sales). So for me, nearly everything in the supplement is playable (except anything requiring Strike South, which I don’t have).
Anyway, it reads like a supplement that the boss wanted to print (as opposed to one that marketing wanted to sell). Some very nice historical articles, including probably the most extensive discussion of the Dutch navy that I think I’ve ever seen in a wargame. A number of large-ish operational scenarios that span a range from ‘really happened’ to ‘almost happened’ to ‘Churchill’s wet dreams’.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
First, I have to say that the three initial publications under 5th Edition (which I’ll call 5E from now on) are taking the game’s resources in an interesting direction. The new rulebook, the Black Reach ‘Getting Started’ book and the 5E Marine codex all contain quite a bit of ‘fluff’, or background for the 40k universe. That’s not a bad thing, but notable nevertheless.
The new codex, in fact, is very fluff-heavy. It’s 144 pages, but the unit descriptions, stats and the army list – the ‘hard’ info in the codex – takes up less space than it did in the 4E Marine codex.
The change is primarily due to the elimination of 4E’s ‘chapter variations’ – which gave SM players the ability to create ‘custom’ armies based on a set of give-and-take options. You could, for example, select options that allowed your squads to take a second assault weapon (instead of a heavy weapon), balanced by a negative option (for example) that eliminated an Elite slot from their force organization. [Note: That’s an outta-my-butt example because I don’t have the 4E codex handy and I never used the deviations anyway. So don’t go digging through the book to check my work, geek.]
I don’t hang around any of the 40k forums on Teh Intrarwebs, but I imagine the deviations have been eliminated for the sake of clarity and sanity. I think they increased the pre-game, rules-related fiddle factor and likely drove more than one tournament organizer to the edge of insanity. Eliminating the rules-based deviations puts home-grown chapter creation back where it belongs – in the player’s imagination – and returns more focus to tabletop play.
Eliminating the deviations doesn’t mean all Marine forces will now look alike, however. The codex is far from being a straightjacket for “Codex Chapters”. A quick look through the unit descriptions and various tables shows that there are now more unit types available to Marine players, and that each of those unit types now has more ‘gear’ options than were previously available.
I’ll shortly be busting into my bitz box, for example, to arm both of my Assault Squads with the newly-available flamer option. Stompy squads with a 12-inch move AND a template weapon? Got to git me summa dat.
From what I’ve read in it so far, I like the new 5E codex a lot. Its content bodes well for the notion of increasing focus on the tabletop. Future codices (for other factions) will likely follow the same pattern. I’d bet that the concept of ‘Doctrines’ introduced in the 4E Imperial Guard codex will get the chop.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
MSRP is $60. That’s pricier (by $10, IIRC) than the previous starter box (“Battle for Macragge) – but for the money it provides a much broader look into how the game plays. In fact, it’s interesting to compare the different approaches taken by the two sets.
The 4th Edition starter box, Battle for Macragge, contained only enough figures to build a couple of small ‘demo’ forces. 10 Space Marines and a pilot (who is more of an objective than anything else) compose one force. They contest the field against a minor swarm of Tyranids: 10 gaunts, 6 genestealers and 8 spore mines. The plastic in the box was rounded out by a nice ‘crashed shuttle’ piece of terrain and a few flimsy doodads the Marines use as an electronic fence of sorts. The set also includes a small-format rulebook (with just rules, no fluff), a Getting Started booklet, dice and templates.
The new 5th Edition starter includes enough figures to build a couple of forces that are more along the lines of real ‘starter’ armies. There’s the ubiquitous 10-man Space Marine tactical squad, but it includes a Veteran Sergeant figure. The Marines also get a Captain (independent character), a 5-man squad of Terminators and a Dreadnought (walker-vehicle). Their opponents are a force of Orks: a Warboss (independent character), 20 boyz, 5 nobz and a squadron of three Deffkopters (vehicles). Plus the same furniture as the Macragge set – including a stripped-down rule book (5th Edition, of course).
Black Reach packs a lot more plastic into the box, and the Getting Started booklet takes a completely different approach. The Macragge booklet presented several scenarios that form a narrative and bring in various rules complexities as they progress, almost a ‘programmed’ approach. It’s simple infantry-on-infantry fare – but it is an instructional approach. That said, once you got past those intro scenarios you didn’t have much of an army in hand to play anything else.
The Black Reach intro book is descriptive but it lacks the scenario-based ‘game’ content. It contains information about the figures and how they relate to their game statistics, how to paint them, how a typical game sets up and lots of fluff on the 40k setting in general. But the only thing that approaches a ‘scenario’ is basically a diagram (albeit a very nice diagram) of how to set up some Marines and Orks 12 inches apart with the encouragement to have a go at it. Oh, and buy the army codices to discover the special rules and buy the full rulebook to read about the different scenario setups.
I would like to have seen a couple of scenarios in the Black Reach booklet because the rest of the ‘Getting Started’ content is quite appealing. If you’re brand-new to figure gaming, however, it does leave you casting about a bit for what to do ‘next’.
Generally, though, the Black Reach box set is far superior to its predecessor as a starter kit. Not only are the forces included more robust, but the figures themselves are well done. The sculpts on the Marines and Orks are more lively (the sculpts on the Macragge Marines reminded me a lot of the clone-like figures that came in the 2nd Edition box). Even more of a surprise, the vehicles almost – almost – fit together. You don’t have to be an expert with modeling putty in order to build a credible Dreaddie.
I also give credit to GW for using ‘basic’ factions for BOTH starter box armies. Space Marines vs. Orks are one of 40k’s classic matchups. A Space Marine tac squad (with flamer and missile launcher) has appeared in each starter box from 2nd edition on out. 2nd edition’s starter also featured Orks (and Grots) – but the ‘OPFOR’ selections for 3rd and 4th editions were both marketing misfires, IMHO. 3rd edition’s boxed starter included the newly-introduced Dark Eldar. Unfortunately, the Dark Eldar were (and remain) a ‘finesse’ faction that’s difficult for beginners to handle. The Tyranids in 4th edition’s Macragge box are also a specialty faction which, in addition to everything else, require some skill to paint up properly.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
It’s interesting in that at the beginning of the scenario, the Americans have no answer to the German Stugs. The M8 armored cars have an A-T attack of 2, the Stugs’ armor is 4. Absent a cross-fire modifier, that’s pretty hopeless. And, of course, being armored cars the M8s have puny armor.
The scenario is set on Map 24, inverted. There’s a big blop of woods to the north, a fairly good size town (maybe 8 or 9 town hexes) just above the fold and a 1-hex town sitting on a ridge to the south. The large town (St. Vith, I guess) has both east-west and north-south roads running through it.
The US deploys anywhere in towns or on hills, or anywhere else on or west of the north-south road. The Germans enter from the east edge of the map, which means they’ve got maybe 6 hexes of open terrain to cross to get at the town.
I think the armored cav will be best served by hiding in the town and whacking the German grunts with artillery as they approach the town. The US has a decent amount of artillery considerring the size of the forces involved – 1 x 24, 3 x 18 – while the Germans counter with 2 x 16. Leadership is 1 x CAPT, 1 x LT for the US and 1 x CAP, 2 x LT for the Germans.
The Americans generally get a LOT of artillery in this game. In some of the scenarios set later in the battle, they also benefit from the introduction of V-T proximity fuzing – which gives all US artillery an automatic 3-column bonus shift against infantry in the open. That’s a shift in addition to anything else. My St. Vith scenario doesn’t use the rule, but it’s something that looks like it could be pretty devastating against a careless German player.
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
I’m not playing it right now. Bwahahahaha. It’s my table and I can do what I want.
Since last we met there have been, in no particular order: Sinus infection, vacation cruise, a couple of games of Day of Heroes and the extreme baseball distraction of the Rays winning their division and advancing in the playoffs.
In the middle of all of that, I lost the urge for more squad-level gaming – finding it replaced by the urge for some platoon-level gaming. Therefore, I am now in the middle of punching and trimming the counters for PanzerGrenadier: Bulge II Elsenborn Ridge.
Last week was consumed by a 5-night cruise that hit highlights in Key West, Cozumel and Belize City. I took along a few bits of wargaming rulebookishness to peruse during the trip, but of course I didn’t touch any of it. That I even bother to lug the stuff along is proof indeed that ‘hope springs eternal’ . That was our fifth cruise. Every time we cruise I lug along game reading. Never have I struck a lick at any of it. Duh. Still, it’s better to travel prepared. You just never know when you’ll need to look up something in the rule book for ASL SK-3.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
I’ve been fascinated by this battle for a long time – no doubt in part because it was precisely so lop-sided. Truthfully, I think I’ve been less interested in the ‘daily log’ of the battle and more keen on what led the French to commit such an incredible strategic and operational blunder. And, of course, there are always the consequences of the French defeat to reckon with as nothing impacted the US in the second half of the last century nearly as much as the conflict in Vietnam.
Years ago – my junior or senior year in high school – I bought one of those Ballantine books on the battle of Dien Bien Phu. From there I moved quickly into finding and reading Bernard Fall’s two masterworks on the conflict in Indochina, “Hell in a Small Place” and “Street Without Joy”.
I’ve often wondered if America’s leadership at the time (both books were published before Fall was killed by a Vietcong landmine in 1964) read either of his works. Subsequent political decisions would argue that they had not – with the possible exception of the FBI director, who apparently had Fall under surveillance as a possible subversive.
But I digress. I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of the ‘average’ soldier to perform heroically in the midst of the most colossal leadership failures. And Dien Bien Phu is certainly an instance of just such an event.
Predictably, over the years there haven’t been very many games published that cover the battle. The most notable probably has been “Citadel”, published by GDW more than 30 years ago. Against The Odds magazine published an area-movement game on the battle a couple years back that I really wanted to like, but it carried enough errata and other baggage with it that in the end it was too much like work to engage with it.
As a grand-tactical exercise, Dien Bien Phu isn’t very interesting without the inclusion of some rather improbable hypothetical events (like a massive US bombing intervention). The affair was decided the moment the first shots were fired and the French realized that the PAVN had managed to bring a large concentration of artillery to bear on the under-fortified defenses.
However, isolated parts of the battlefield were contested fiercely and with great heroism. At the tactical level, the fighting for some of the individual fortifications were truly tales of near-insane gallantry on both sides. To bring the discussion full circle, this is what ATS Dien Bien Phu concentrates on: The fighting for the “Elaine” complex of fortifications.
In game terms, nothing that happens stands a chance of reversing the overall outcome of the battle. The French may win a scenario and hold this trench or that for another day – but Dien Bien Phu will fall no matter what. But that’s generally the point of a wargame anyway, isn’t it? You ‘win’ if you can do better than your historical counterpart – even when winning only means surviving long enough to lose tomorrow.
In your spare time do you ever sit around and wonder what would happen if a shooting war broke out between the US Navy and the Chinese a couple of decades from now? If you do, then this is the game for you. And even if you’re not obsessed with naval affairs of the near future – you just might find an enjoyable game inside this package.
Fleets is ‘semi’ desktop published. The components are (good) desktop quality, with the addition of the counters being mounted, pressed and die-cut. At $22.95, component-wise at least, as game prices go these days there’s a fair amount of ‘stuff’ in the ziplock. 80 counters, 11 x 17 map, 60 (smallish) cards, play aids and rules.
As far as play value goes, Fleets 2025 is excellent. Period.
I couldn’t be more impressed with a simple (5 pages of rules) game system. The cards throw in enough variability that no two games ever play alike – but they don’t overwhelm the rest of the game.
There’s no ‘history’ to measure by, as they game’s topic is a very hypothetical limited naval war between China and the US in the East China Sea and Pacific near Taiwan and southern Japan. Events on Taiwan are the ostensible rationale, but the ‘why’ of the situation hardly matters . In a couple of the scenarios some victory points are awarded one way or another depending on who does what to the three Taiwanese ‘city’ hexes, but that’s about it.
Above all, it’s a clever little game about maneuver, detection and planning. It plays very quickly, yet the decision-making involved is far from trivial. I suppose it wouldn’t play so quickly with an opponent in the throes of analysis paralysis, but I usually managed to squeeze an entire game into a 1.5 – 2 hour gaming session – even less than that a couple of times when early action went wildly against one side or the other.
I’ll confess that in the 6 or 7 scenarios I played, I never truly grasped an effective approach for the Chinese to take. It seems they really need to rely on ‘quantity as quality’ and hope for early success in putting some US ships out of action.
Since the game is entirely hypothetical, there’s really not much point in debating or haggling about the various unit ratings in the game. The US clearly has a qualitative advantage (longer ranges, higher combat factors). That’s the basic balance of the game – quantity (China) vs quality (USN).
Still, I’ve got a quibble. Yeah, the US already seems to have enough going in its favor in the game – but the combat ratings of the US aircraft are consistently lower than the Chinese aircraft. What’s up with that? The US “F35” strikefighters get a bonus in air-to-air that give them a leg-up on the Chinese. But their naval strike capability flat stinks. By 2025 the US Navy will have been operating carrier aviation for nearly a century – and they get strike units rated a stinking ‘1’, while the Chinese (who don’t even have a carrier yet) aircraft are rated ‘2’.
Overall game balance probably tips a little in the US favor, so it’s not an issue that impacts game play (I don’t think, anyway) – but the game’s designer shouldn’t be surprised if a disgruntled naval aviator poops on his doorstep some night.
That trivial issue aside, though, I don’t have very many games in my closet that I’ve enjoyed playing more than Fleets 2025. Lots of them offer greater ‘simulation value’ – but few are more fun to just sit and play.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Since our last episode, we’ve gotten Junior Destructo Man enrolled in a pre-K3 program. Half-day, twice a week. The whole whirlwind of the kid’s first time in school was a major focus of energy toward the end of last month and the beginning of this month.
Of course, when your kid goes off to a school environment for the first time it’s a given that he’s going to bring back all of those fun first-week-of-school germs. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was for the germs to raise merry hell with mom and dad while the three-year-old gets off with a case of the sniffles.
Ugh. Kids these days and their germs. He gets a runny nose and whatever he brings home whacks me like the Black Plague. Two weeks later and I still have a mild case of the cruds that I can’t quite seem to shake.
Mixed in amongst all of that fun stuff was a little bit of gaming. I temporarily put aside Day of Heroes when a new game arrived. I devoted a couple of weeks to playing the new “Fleets 2025” from Victory Point Games. Small footprint, low number of counters and an interesting little system made it a pleasure to fiddle with. Unfortunately, while I had it deployed to the table I couldn’t muster the additional mental energy needed to give it a blog write-up. In a couple of cases, truthfully, scenarios played so quickly and easily that I finished them in one sitting and didn’t give a second thought to yakking about them here. At some point in the future I may devote some additional blogenergy to it, but in the meantime I’ll just say that it’s a game that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in a quick-playing and fun ‘modern’ naval game.
After I finished with Fleets 2025, Day of Heroes went back onto the table for another go. It’s one of the more interesting games in the LNL series, primarily because it plays differently than its brethern. Throughout most of the series, western troops (US and British mostly, but the ANZACs in Vietnam too) favor stand-off firepower over melee combat. Melee is usually one of the great equalizers in the system.
But that’s not the case in Day of Heroes. In the mean streets of The Mog, melee combat is the favored mode of combat for Rangers.
Oh yeah, no doubt they’ve got a ton of stand-off firepower. The main problem is that they don’t have much time to use it. They have to move quickly to reach objectives and maneuver deftly in order to avoid large numbers of militia units. Better to use their morale advantage to get into melee, where their superior up-close firepower can lead to some very lopsided results.
I’ll probably play one more scenario of Day of Heroes before moving along to something else. PanzerGrenadier: Bulge 2 – Elsenborn Ridge and ATS Dien Bien Phu are both in the house and awaiting some attention. Almost time to move along.
Friday, August 08, 2008
My final assessment of Bombarossa is “not bad”. There’s nothing really extraordinary about the game, especially if you’re familiar with other Bomba games like Proud Monster. Bombarossa has a neat one-map footprint, good physical quality and rules that work just fine (even if they are a tad fiddly). The game plays fairly fast and features numerous cycles through the dead pile for lots of units. It wouldn’t be one of my ‘desert island’ games, but it’s OK for a short-ish playing panzer-pusher.
Great. Now what about the new game?
It’s been a while since I’ve played anything at the squad level, so it’s time to return to one of my favorite game scales. The new game on the Big Table is “Day of Heroes”, which uses the Lock N Load game system to address the October, 1993 fighting in Mogadishu.
Physical production values are fine, although I don’t think the graphic design decisions in Day of Heroes are on a par with those in other system modules. The map is quite nice, but the counters suffer from a color palette that has the unfortunate effect of causing them to blend in to the map, rather than stand out from it. And the white-on-gray print scheme for the Somali units makes much of the numbering on them quite difficult to read at times.
The module rules adapt the core system to the peculiarities of urban fighting, and they don’t do a half-bad job. The most notable change is the switch to a square grid on the map (as opposed to the usual hexagonal grid). There are also a number of special rules to account for the civilian-filled, urban environment – items like flaming roadblocks and angry mobs are key components.
The US order of battle is long on firepower, but it’s man-carried firepower for the most part because of the setting. Ranger squads and Delta teams both have relatively high inherent firepower, and the Rangers tote quite a bit of additional punch in the form of support weapons like the M249, M60, LAW rocket launcher and 40mm grenade launchers.
Somali militia appear as squads and half-squads with low firepower, but there are a lot of them. And they can dodge in and out of the civilian mobs – and fire through them without giving up victory points. The US, on the other hand, gives a VP to the Somali player each time a US unit fires into a mob. I will note that Somali militia units never suffer a ‘shaken’ result; any adverse combat result against them causes a casualty reduction (squad to half-squad, half-squad eliminated).
Today’s snappies feature the setup for the recommended intro scenario, “Chalk 2’s Run”. The US player has a couple of Ranger half-squads, two heroes, a medic, and a leader (the guys of Chalk 2). On the other side of a wall of hostile Somalis is the crash site of Super 61, with the chopper’s immobile crew and a Delta sniper team. The scenario is six turns, and the US has to hold the crash site with minimum casualties at the end of the game.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
The new edition rulebook for Warhammer 40k was recently released, and I’ve lately been giving myself a daily miniatures fix by pawing through the 300-plus page hard-cover book. That’s right. I play Warhammer 40k. Whatcha gonna do about it, you heretical spawn of the Warp?
I started on 40k about 7 or 8 years ago, not long after the publication of the 40k Third Edition rules set. That was back in my single days when I had an entire house to myself, complete with two gaming tables – a four-by-four foot table and a four-by-eight foot table. That’s right. I said “eight”.
Yeah, well, times have changed (for the better in all respects, except for the lack of table space). But back in those days I had ample room to pursue some heavy-duty miniatures gaming. The eight-foot table was almost constantly occupied by games of 40k, Battlefleet Gothic or Epic 40k (in the pre-Epic Armageddon era).
I collected a vast array of miniatures from a number of different ‘armies’ in the 40k universe. As my painting was not so profligate as my purchasing, many of them have since been sold into better care and many others remain in storage tubs to this day, awaiting their fate.
Basically, I have enough miniatures that I could probably paint two hours a day for the next five years and not run out. So it’s fairly cost-effective these days to maintain contact with 40k gaming because I only have to keep abreast of the new rules and any changes to the various army codices.
It doesn’t seem that long ago, but the Fourth Edition rules were indeed published in 2004. I didn’t buy any new minis then, and I don’t foresee buying any new minis now. I think in the last four years I’ve spent maybe $60 on new 40k plastic – one of the new Imperial building kits and the Space Marine Commander box.
My ‘house’ armies are a home-grown chapter of Space Marines (the Iron Templars) and Orks. Since they came with the Third Edition boxed set I briefly farted around with Dark Eldar, but sold them all years ago. The Tyranids that launched Fourth Edition’s “Battle for Macragge” intro set never saw the first drop of paint – after just very brief consideration they went up on Ebay. Some years ago (2003?) I sprang for a Chaos Space Marines boxed army, but it remains untouched and will likely go the Ebay route. I also have far too much unpainted Imperial Guard plastic sitting around, but I do some day intend to build a force of guards, so I’ll be hanging onto it a bit longer.
So far, what I’ve read of the new rules I like. There are quite a few changes from the Fourth Edition rules. Some changes are subtle, others more radical. Overall I think it will produce games that play quicker and are less fiddly. I intend to take it for a spin in the near future, but right now the challenge is to read CAREFULLY through the rulebook. Since I’m pretty familiar with 4th Edition rules, I’ve caught myself a couple of time skipping paragraphs of rules – a bad idea, considering the number of changes.
More mention of this at a later date. We now return to our regularly-scheduled invasion of Mother Russia.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
This brings up an interesting point, though. What, exactly, do gamers expect from the opening turns of an East Front campaign game? Surely not a total German cakewalk for the opening momths. A super-powered race against time and Russian speedbumps before a sudden wall of reinforcements and foul weather put the brakes on everything? I hope not.
The German Wehrmacht’s initial accomplishments during Barbarossa were impressive, no doubt. But I’m of the opinion that the results were actually somewhat extraordinary and gamers should have to work – hard – to match the historical accomplishment. They should have to work even harder (or encounter perhaps an even more inept opponent) to exceed the historical result.
I am not of the school of thought that the German accomplishments were a “given.” But it appears that many other gamers are. Why do so many gamers expect a low-casualty, magic carpet ride to the gates of Moscow?
To an extent, I blame wargaming classics like Jedko/Avalon Hill’s “The Russian Campaign” and (to a lesser degree) SPI’s original “Barbarossa”. Early in those game the German player spends a lot of time not worrying about Soviet attacks. The Reds are outnumbered and offensively incompetent versus rather high German defense strengths – and the combat results tables are constructed so that what meager odds the Soviets can muster won’t do anything more than force an unlucky German unit or two to retreat a hex.
So what you get is an 800-pound gorilla trying to lumber into Moscow before he either loses his good footing or runs out of bananas. Pathetic Russian attackers bounce off of him like so many tennis balls.
Of course I understand that the 800-pound gorilla was the prevailing view of Barbarossa held by Western historians (or pop history, at least) for many years. Given the lack of Russian-language source material that persisted until the fall of Communism, I suppose it’s forgiveable that so many people held the memoirs of the German Generals in such high esteem for so long – even though a careful examination of German-language unit histories and returns told a slightly different story.
Some of the more recent East Front games to see print are more representative of the situation, IMHO. To an extent, some of this is due to advances in the art of game design. But the major influence is the improvement in the historical record that has occurred over the last 15 or so years.
Columbia’s “East Front”, while not exactly a recent design, captured the essence of the Wehrmacht’s supply problems. It didn’t really address the Soviet attacks launched early in the war, but I think it is still quite clever and a top-shelf wargame.
Masahiro Yamazaki’s “War for the Motherland” is far and away my favorite large-scale design on the East Front. Not the mugged-up version published by Rampart, mind you, but the excellent treatment that appeared in Six Angles magazines. MMP’s redux of the game, “Red Star Rising”, is a worthy, English-language update of the game.
As the new kid on the East Front, Bombarossa appears clever and interesting. I like that it doesn’t hand the German player an 800-pound gorilla – rather, if he wants an 800-pound gorilla, he has to make it himself.
Whether or not it’s a concept that works for the long game I’ll know better after I’ve had more of a chance to, er, monkey around with it.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
As with most games that cover the opening of the war in the east, I’m sure there’s a bit of a learning curve that I’ll have to conquer. Running the opening German operation involves a bit of art – and probably more daring than I’m willing to exhibit on a first playing.
Looking at the starting German forces and then looking at the starting Soviet forces induced a brief “WTF?” moment – which it almost always does. There are lots of Russians on that map. The Germans have ample(ish) infantry, but those panzer corps look pretty thin compared to all of that space. But that’s the essence of the whole campaign, isn’t it? WTF? What friggin nutcase decided an invasion the Soviet Union was a good idea?
I think my German opening went OK. Not great, but not horrible. The game passes one crucial milestone – the “Minsk Test”. Can the Germans take Minsk on the first turn of the game? Yes. It’s definitely possible. My particular German army didn’t, but that’s just me being (probably) too cautious. Instead of charging ahead and trying to run a Mobile Assault against Minsk with some of my AGC panzers, I opted instead to use them to MA and mop up a moderately strong Soviet stack they had just surrounded to put out of supply.
No doubt I’m being a little too paranoid about those mandatory Soviet attacks, but after playing lots of games of War for the Motherland and Red Star Rising I’m probably too sensitive to the possibility of German step losses early in the game.
Army Group Center performed pretty much as expected and blew big holes in things. Army Group North captured Riga. Army Group South didn’t make a lot of progress, but I expect things there will pick up a bit in Turn 2 as the Axis guys that setup in Romania get into the action – the Russian southern flank is a bit loose.
Opening turn casualties? The Russians have lost 9 or 10 steps, three or four of which were the replaceable ‘new model’ Rifle Armies (the remainder were some of Stalin’s Expendables). The Germans lost three steps (two Inf, one Arm), two of which will return via replacements on Turn 2.
My plan is to get in a few more turns tonight. And maybe some digisnaps too, as the camera (and my family) will be returning from the beach today.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
The game began life as a redesign of Jim Dunnigan’s original “Barbarossa” from way back in the early 70s. Truth be told, SPI’s old Barbarossa was the second wargame I ever purchased (SPI’s “Tank!” was the first).
However, one quick look at this game tells me that the two designs have very little in common. Not much beyond the subject matter. In fact, this new game strikes me mainly as every arrow in Bomba’s East Front design quiver all shot into the same target at the same time. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But it definitely is not the old Barbarossa somehow remade.
So just to keep things clear, I’m going to refer to this game as “Bombarossa”, mainly because it is entirely and obviously a ‘classic’ Bomba design. It uses nearly every mechanism, feature and sub-system that has appeared in any of his East Front games over the last umpteen years.
No zones of control. Variable game-turn sequence (fight-move or move-fight). Trace supply with no transport lines on the map. Single step units. Bloody combat with lots of reinforcements and replacements. Sudden death victory conditions to drive the action. If you can think of a favorite design element from any of Bomba’s games in the last decade or so, chances are that it’s in this game.
Again, not that any of this is necessarily bad. In fact, reading the rules to Bombarossa was like reading a long letter from an old friend who lives some place where things never change. There’s a lot of chrome in the game and a touch of fiddliness about the victory conditions, but the core mechanics are so simple that none of it is difficult to keep up with.
I have the game set up now on the Big Table – everything on the map or sorted as reinforcements onto the Turn Record Track – so I should get going with it over the next couple of evenings. I may even get some digisnaps of it in progress once my camera returns from the beach (along with the rest of my family) later this week.
Monday, June 30, 2008
Because of all the variability built into the game’s opening mechanisms, it has an incredible amount of replayability. Owing to a couple of table-top escapades by Sam the Cat, I’ve now gone through the opening day of the hypothetical invasion of Malta three times. And the starting positions delivered by the amphibious landing and air drop mechanisms have been quite different on each re-start.
[A quick note about the cat. He’s still alive, despite his depredations of the sacred hexgrid. He only assaults the Big Table when he gets locked in my office for the day and, unfortunately, I managed to lock him in twice before figuring out where he had established his new hiding place. The second time he came very close to expending another cat-life, but then I discovered the four missing counters on the seat of my office chair. Not quite sure how they got there in unchewed condition, but there you have it.]
In solitaire play, the beach landing zones and air drop zones are chosen pretty much at random. Selection is weighted toward a couple of favored spots, but otherwise it’s tough for the defenders to outguess the dice in their opening deployment.
Unless the Luftwaffe and the Regia Marina are wildly successful in knocking out coastal guns on the first turn, the two Italian infantry divisions that hit the beaches are going to take fairly heavy casualties. The assaulting companies have to survive the coastal guns, and then each company that lands has to make a Landing Loss roll and then survive any Waterline Combat initiated by adjacent Allied units. It’s potentially bloody business.
Each division has six infantry battalions, and they’re generally going to attempt to get three or four of those ashore in the initial landings. The Italians also have six companies of marines that can be assigned to either division. Plus they need to get their divisional HQ ashore fairly rapidly. Potentially, the Italians can put 30 steps ashore in the initial landings. If 20 of those land safely, I think they’re doing pretty well.
The airdrops are even more wildly variable. The solitaire drop table has five target hexes, basically spread at intervals east-west across the island. Each airborne formation targets one of those hexes, then more-or-less randomizes the location of their Drop Zone Marker by using the air drop scatter table.
Quite frankly, when you start rolling on the scatter table – crap goes everywhere. Some of the battalion-sized serials land intact and pretty close to the DZ. Others scatter into individual companies that get dumped all over the map. Including into the drink, which is very bad for the Axis.
The results of the air drops, in particular, are critical for the Axis. Their parachute troops are the primary bad-asses they need to take the island. Italian paratroops typically have a +2 morale advantage over the Allies, and the German guys have a +3 advantage. In a game where each point of morale advantage translates into a column shift on the CRT, those are pretty important guys not to dump into the Med.
My three starts of the game have each yielded different Axis loss results. In one of them, they took just 15 steps of losses. In another, they lost 17 steps. In my latest they had some particular problems with air transport navigation (apparently) and lost 21 steps before the beginning of the Allied response.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
The Big Table is currently occupied by one of the newest releases from Avalanche Press, “Island of Death”. It’s a battalion / company level game covering a hypothetical invasion of Malta by the Axis. As a sometimes-fan of “hypothetical” games – and aren’t most wargames somewhat hypothetical anyway? – I find it an interesting and overlooked topic. I’m also a big fan of the game system (more on that in another post), so at basically $20 this game was a lock for me to buy. So far, I have not been disappointed.
Since actually playing the thing is on my mind right now, I’m going to dispense with the introductions and jump right into getting it set up.
In this version of 1942, Malta is defended by a mish-mash of British and Maltese units. Except for coastal defense artillery, the island is weak on artillery support – a single arty battalion. Coastal batteries are plentiful, but they can only fire on Italian warships and on units that are landing amphibiously.
The attackers are primarily Italian troops. Two infantry divisions constitute the amphibious component of the attack, supported by the Folgore parachute division and the Ramcke brigade of German fallschirmjaeger. A third Italian division stands by to land by glider at captured airfields. Add to that a few odds-n-ends (like Italian Marine companies). A number of Italian warships are also on the scene to provide support and suppress the coastal batteries.
The Allied combat battalions, security companies and AA units deploy in ‘historical’ locations. I noticed a couple of oddities about the deployment locations. In a couple of spots Allied units are deployed in open terrain within a hex or two of a fortress, but nothing is deployed IN the fortress. I’m a little curious about that, especially in a couple of cases where British companies are near, but not in, a fortress. It may be something to quiz the developer about, should a motivated mood strike me.
After the fixed setup, the Allies then free-deploy their eight Strongpoint units and their buttload of coastal guns. As I’m playing this one out solitaire, I’ll be using the various solitaire landing tables provided in the game. Some landing locations are more likely than others, so that figures a bit into the setup.
The amphibious landing table makes it most likely that the Italians will land on the North and West beach zones. The areas most easily covered by the Regia Marina, I guess. You roll a d6 to set the landing zone for each Italian division. 1-2 is West, 3-4 is North, 5 is East and 6 is South. The East and South zones are closer to a lot of airfields and such, but they’re also straight in the teeth of the Allied deployment. Two Italian divisions land amphibiously (4th and 20th Infantry). After a couple of die rolls, the 4th is coming ashore in the West, the 20th in the North.
The airdrop location table scatters five drop zone points pretty much evenly spaced across the East-West axis of the island. After you roll up an initial hex, you then go through the scatter routine to place the final drop zone marker. The individual drop serials will scatter from that point. There are two drop zones: One for the Folgore division and one for the Ramcke brigade.
After some more dice rolling the ‘plan’ actually worked out to be interesting. The amphib divisions are coming ashore in the West and North. The Folgore division is dropping in the southwest corner of the island, where they can link up with the 4th Division and drive eastward. The Ramcke Brigade gets the tough job of dropping in the middle of all of the airfields and defenses in the eastern part of the island, ostensibly to tie-up the Allied response while the three Italian divisions get established. The danger is that a badly scattered drop (less likely with the Germans) will give the Allies a chance to chop the Germans to bits in the first couple of turns.
The setup lets the Allies place their coastal guns anywhere on the island, with a restriction that they must place at least 8 of the batteries within 2 hexes of the port of Valletta. So I’ve setup quite a few of the coastal guns farther inland, where they can still hammer the beaches but will be out of range of most of the Italian warships. Of course, that means they generally won’t be able to fire on the warships – but my plan is for them to ignore the warships and blast away at the landing waves as they come ashore.
I tried to site most of the guns inland to cover multiple beaches. Considering the landing areas chosen, most of the guns on the eastern half of the island are kind of useless now. The guns around Valletta can cover a couple hexes of the northern landing zone.
After I rolled for the landing beaches it occurred to me that I probably hadn’t covered the western zone as well as I thought – but then it’s also the beach zone farthest from any important locations. The northern beaches are set to get hammered, though.
The Axis want to take a couple of airfields as early as possible so they can start landing more of their guys. The third Italian division (some glider guys) can only arrive at airfields.
With any luck, I’ll get the amphib landings going and resolve the air drops in the next day or two. It will be interesting to see what happens when the dice start rolling.
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
As part of my ‘old games’ wandering, a few weeks back I began poking around at the old SPI classic Mech War 2: Red Star/White Star. Aside from bringing back a bunch of late 70s-early 80s gaming memories, the episode caused me to engage in some re-evaluation.
Mech War 2 is a fairly complicated game, and the exclusive rules to RS/WS add to that considerably with items like chemical warfare and tactical nuclear weapons. The core rules demand quite a bit of chart-flipping. It’s also one of those games from SPI’s later era that featured extensive amounts of ‘these rules are really complex, so evaluate their usefulness yourself’ and ‘this scenario is fun is you’re not worried about balance’ sort of stuff.
The smaller scenarios are by no means unplayable, but the ‘campaign size’ scenario is a monster of epic proportions. And the chemical and nuclear rules that take up so much book space pretty much break the game in the sense that make playing out any action moderately pointless.
It’s a game that has stuck in my head for so long largely because the topic material has been ignored during the intervening years. Now-defunct GDW approached it with it’s “Assault” series of games and, later, with some of its First Battle games (like Team Yankee). There was also West End Games’ brilliant “Fire Team”, but that was set at the even-more-ignored (for ‘moderns’) squad level.
I’ve still got my old Assault games, but it was never all that satisfying – mostly because I always felt it was difficult to keep up with who had (or had not) done what in the course of a game turn. I also still have Fire Team (but that’s another story). Since those games, however, I can’t think of any publisher who has seriously touched the subject matter.
That is, until recently. World at War: Eisenbach Gap is a recent release from Lock n Load Publishing, along with its close-following sequel, Death of the First Panzer. The subject matter of those games post-dates MW2 by a few years – the M1 tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicle had not yet entered service in MW2 – but the setting is still the Cold War turned hot.
World at War’s graphics are considerably improved (as attested in the accompanying photos), but the salient difference is the new game’s complete and absolute accessibility. It is, as they say, A Player. MW2, while the Alpha Dog of its day, was more of an exercise in keeping up with charts and minutiae.
WaW manages to deliver a large dose of the ‘tread head’ experience without all of the math and rules engineering. It has no combat results tables, for example – as all of the combat data needed is printed right on the counter. What it lacks in sheer geekery, it makes up for in playability.
Scenarios can be completed in a manageable amount of time, which usually means you’ve finished a battle when you put things back in the box. Never underestimate the satisfaction gained when you have a sense of closure about a gaming session. With MW2, sessions frequently ended at 1 a.m. in the middle of a game-turn – an event common to many complex games, but it plays merry hell with trying to fashion an entertaining game narrative in your head.
As I may have mentioned when I first started pushing around WaW, because of the combat mechanism in the design the game ‘feels’ a lot like quite a few of the miniatures games I’ve played. Anybody familiar with the roll-to-hit, roll-to-save combat in Warhammer, Warhammer 40K, Flames of War, Epic Armageddon and Blitzkrieg/Cold War Commander will be instantly at home with World at War. It makes for generally fast-paced play, which in turn helps generate an enjoyable game narrative.
One of the key differences between wargaming and other forms of complex games (some of the Euros, for example) is that the gamers – especially the history-buff gamers – actively seek a satisfying narrative as part of their gaming experience. They’re not ‘just’ engaged in a mental wrestling match with an opponent; they are, in addition, ‘simulating’ (to an extent) a military event or operation.
On top of that, WaW is a ‘live’ system – actively supported by the publisher and growing in depth with the production of follow-on modules and other publications.
So, move over Mech War 2. There’s a new sheriff in town (well, on the table, anyway).
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
In a wargaming context, when does “hypothetical” go too far?
That’s a question likely to reveal quite a bit about the person answering it. Me? I’ll have to say I can’t define ‘too far’ through a set of solid guidelines – but I know what it looks like when I see it.
Some gamers draw the line at sci-fi theme games. Others can’t stomach “alternate history” – which might seem strange at first, as a wargame that allows you to create an outcome other than the historical is “alternate history” almost by definition.
But I understand that the line separating the passable from the indefensible is usually pretty fuzzy and very personal.
My personal tastes are a perfect example of the confusion. I’m a big fan of ‘moderns’ – games featuring Cold War-era tactical combat, mostly in
Alt-history Hot War games like NATO, The Next War, Central Front Series and World War Three have all graced The Big Table at some point over the last 25 years or so.
Yet there are a number of alt-history games that I have no appreciation for whatsoever. Why? Usually for one of two reasons: either their premise is grounded in a near-history that seems impossible to me or the topic seems gratuitously goofy to me to the point that I feel the publisher is trying to make a quick buck instead of a quality gaming experience.
Truthfully, most publishers are smart enough to avoid impossible near-history. But many of them have published games that display gratuitous goofiness. The key, for me at least, is the orientation of the goofiness (is it humorous?) and, ultimately, the quality of the game play.
The current target for my ‘hypothetical’ grumpiness is “Cone of Fire” from Avalanche Press. As has been noted elsewhere in this blog, I’m a fan of both GWAS and SWWAS – but in general their ‘Plan’ games and, now, Cone of Fire, simply rub me the wrong way. Cone of Fire, I’ll grant, includes some historical scenarios but – frankly – for the price tag it sports it needs to offer more than a couple of ‘real’ battles in combination with a number of South American maritime wet dreams which feature ships that the great naval powers like Chile and Argentina COULD have bought, but didn’t.
Of the ‘Plan’ games, only US Navy Plan Orange seems even remotely plausible as alt-history. A 30s-era Pacific War was improbable, granted. Plan
Plan Red (and its replacement,
Grump, grump, grump.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Last night I sat around and poked at the old SPI game World War I. I also spent some time in the Wayback Machine, flipping through the pages of the magazine it accompanied, S&T 51.
It’s an oddball little ‘time machine’ sensation to page around an S&T published in 1975. Capsule reviews of games I don’t remember from publishers I only vaguely remember (if at all). Advertisements for ‘new’ SPI boxed games (‘Fast Carriers’ was the flavor of the month). Feedback proposals for more games – some that were published, others that weren’t, and others still that were published later in a different form.
The ‘Outgoing Mail’ written by Dunnigan is interesting only in hindsight. Most of his commentary for the issue centers on SPI’s pricing, and how that had been impacted by both the ‘oil shortage’ and the recession. He vows to hold the line on subscription pricing and to keep price increases on their flatpacks to one dollar. One dollar. So that put single-map flatpacks in the $7 to $9 range, depending on the number of counters. They hadn’t started doing ‘monsters’ (or had they? I know Terrible Swift Sword was just around the corner), but I think I saw a bigger game – don’t remember the title – priced at $12.
Normally a discussion of pricing would be pretty dull, and this is too, sort of. But part of the historical context is that there was apparently quite a bit of disagreement about pricing at SPI. A number of the gaming ‘names’ that scattered when SPI exploded place considerable blame for the collapse on the company’s ‘underpricing’. It would have been a tough call, I admit, given the state of the economy at the time.
It occurs to me that maybe – just maybe – SPI might have been able to survive (to a degree) if the Internet had been available to them as a marketing tool. They made a great effort to promote what these days are called ‘direct sales’, but the only tools they had for that were their magazines and other mailed materials.
Plenty of grognards remember (and many probably still have one or two) the old SPI brochure-style ‘catalogs’ that they used to promote mail and phone orders. It generated a good chunk of business for them, but there just wasn’t the communication system in place that they needed to enable direct sales to completely replace sales through the retail distribution channel.
Of course, I’m under no illusion that they would still be producing games today. The industry went through so much of a shake-out in the late 80s and early 90s that none of the ‘starter companies’ survived in anything approaching their original form. Think about that for a minute, too, in the context of SPI exploding. Where have their contemporaries gone? GDW, Avalon Hill, Victory Games,
In a strange bit of irony, I think computers – once identified as the destroyers of board wargaming – are really the main force in keeping the hobby alive. Computer gaming certainly chopped the market for cardboard-and-paper games, but in a strange twist it’s the development of the Internet that has allowed the industry to survive and prosper.
One of the primary reasons companies like Victory Games and West End Games couldn’t make headway is simply this: Not enough wargamers knew about their games. I was as geeky a gamer as they get, but I was distant from major urban areas and large game stores. I didn’t discover many of their published titles until I started tooling around on Ebay some 15 or 20 years after their demise. Truthfully, ditto for some of the games from ‘mainstream’ publishers like GDW and TSR. None of those publishers had a communications method as fast, complete and inexpensive as the Internet.
Many modern game publishers, for instance, absolutely depend upon pre-orders (pioneered by GMT’s P-500) to cover production costs. I think GMT is financially beyond P-500 as an absolute requirement, but many publishers are not. Most publishers depend on Internet direct sales to the point that they keep a very low profile in the distribution channels. Remember when The Gamers pulled completely out of retail distribution in the mid-90s? A lot of gamers thought Dean Essig was crazy. (Well, he is, but not for that reason.) Cutting the costs of the retail channel and selling direct to gamers kept his business alive. While few companies have completely abandoned retail, many of them indeed have minimal retail presence. DTP and low-volume publishers typically sell only through their own web site or via limited presence on discounter web sites.
Hmm. All of that from flipping through one old copy of S&T. Somebody stop me.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Even now that he’s dead, I would not presume to debate William F. Buckley Jr. His intellectual training was much superior to my own. My daddy wasn’t a depression-era multi-millionaire who sent me to some of the finest schools – although, notably, not to American public schools.
Neither would I presume to attempt authoritative commentary on the man’s life. But his passing does bring occasion for me to share some personal opinions about some of Bill Buckley’s political thinking, and the modern conservative movement that he helped shape.
First, let me set the record straight: I am a conservative in remission. After 30 years fancying my own politics as those of an ‘Eisenhower Republican’, I have given up on the Grand Old Party. In a way, Buckley’s movement to eliminate Eisenhower’s brand of moderate politics from the Republican establishment is responsible for this. If the Bush years – with their rampant corruption, moral relativism, arrogant elitism, boundless administrative incompetence and complete disregard for the American Constitution – are the highest expression of Modern Republicanism, then I want nothing to do with it.
So, with that out of the way I’d like to examine an issue or two.
In the finest traditions of intellectualism, Buckley and his publication National Review had the luxury of not having to be ‘right’. Lawmakers and government institutions have a burden to get things ‘right’ – else the people will suffer unnecessarily – but intellectuals do not. Which is probably why intellectuals (of every political stripe) so often get things wrong.
Buckley was erudite, clever and charming. And, often, wrong. Some of his opinions were, in fact, not just wrong (as proven by history), but wrong-headed and mean-spirited. That he in later years subsequently reversed many of his ‘wrong’ opinions is of little consequence. It’s easy to switch opinions once history has written its judgements. It is much, much more difficult to be ‘right’ on the first pass.
I believe getting it ‘right’ is indicative of the central moral premise and the intellectual honesty of any given political philosophy. By this I do not mean the morality they purport to espouse; I mean the real morality of which their actions speak most loudly. Just off the top of my head:
Bill Buckley supported Joe McCarthy and his witch-hunts.
He opposed desegregation in the South.
He opposed civil rights legislation.
He supported Barry Goldwater for president. Twice.
He supported the Strategic Defense Initiative
He supported Pat Buchanan for president.
He supported the invasion of
While it’s laudable that he had the wherewithal to come around (at a later date) to the ‘right’ opinion on most of those issues (save the SDI and Goldwater), in the moment when the opinion counted most – at history’s tipping point in each case – Buckley’s conservatism was wrong.
(Now, I realize that many conservatives will argue that support for the invasion of
Granted, as the years passed Buckley and his National Review were wrong less often – but this is largely due to a reduction in hard-core stands on matters of national policy. He supported individuals (notably Ronald Reagan), anything that opposed the
Truthfully, I haven’t kept up with Buckley’s writings to the degree that I can assess his influence on the current state of affairs. In many instances, I fail to see how he could reconcile his brand of almost libertarian conservatism with the Big Brother brand of quasi-fascism engineered by the Bush administration.
And that, I believe, points to the central fallacy of the conservative movement that Buckley helped shape. He purported to act upon the direction of a strong, personal moral compass. Modern conservatism purports the same moral values. In both cases, however, it appears to me that the true motivation was more in the nature of self-serving expediency. The results appear to me, largely, the product of de facto moral bankruptcy.
Of course, your mileage may vary.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Gaming flashbacks. What causes them? The advance of old age? Weird February weather? A side-effect of pushing too much cardboard around over the years?
I don’t know, but whatever the reason it looks like February is a good month for flashbacks. First there was the trip to the old FLGS in
SPI’s old “Mechwar 77” is a game that, somehow, I managed to miss on the first orbit around Game Planet. In the SPI production cycle, it sits between “Red Star, White Star” (1973) and the imaginatively named “Red Star, White Star 2” (1979).
Mechwar 77 was published in 1975 and used the same game system as their “Panzer 44” game. The system was extended and improved in the Strategy & Tactics issue game “October War” (1977). I consider October War pretty much the pinnacle of tactical moderns development under SPI because, unfortunately, “Red Star, White Star 2” bodgered the whole thing with some very over-the-top and needless design complexity.
But back to my recent acquisition, Mechwar 77. I owned and played all of the above-listed games – except MW 77. It (and Panzer 44) are exactly the kinds of games I was devouring in the 70s, so I have no idea how I overlooked them. Probably because I never saw them in a store anywhere. Remember, this was the 70s and there was no Internet. Maybe I missed the ads for them in Strategy & Tactics. Maybe I was just too busy playing the games I did own to scout around very much for new ones.
The copy of the game I bought (for cheap) was bare bones – the flatpack and box-cover were long gone. The counters were punched, although some were still ‘strip punched’ in threes and fours. The map is in good shape, the rules are a bit ‘used’ but not bad.
While they were punched, the counters were not
So my ‘new’ Mechwar 77 counters had to be trimmed. That’s when the real flashbacks started. SPI had an identifiable graphic ‘style’ in the production of their maps and counters, so it brought back quite a few memories to sit there and fiddle around with counters that were printed in the wayback before I graduated from high school. I still have a few SPI flatpack games (and old issues of S&T) sitting around the game closet – including the first two wargames I ever bought – but the close encounter of trimming was a process entirely different from, say, playing a game of my old “Barbarossa” (see an earlier post on this).
Flashbacks included some of the games of October War and the“Modern Battles” quads that I played in college. Game-mastering double-blind games of SPI’s “Fulda Gap” that were played by officers attending the old
Funny. Those silly cardboard counters can sometimes be very cheap substitutes for a time machine.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
The other day I had the opportunity to make one of my rare (apparently bi-annual) visits to my old Friendly Local Game Store –
As I’ve probably written before, they’ve really cut back on the old-school gaming stuff. Most wargaming minis are gone. They carry the relatively new-fangled World War II Flames of War miniatures, but I noticed this trip that they’re not stocking as much as they used to. FoW is pricey, so maybe sales are tanking. Pride of place still goes to their Games Workshop minis, but they also stock tons of fantasy minis and lots of the ‘hot’ lines of almost-a-wargame type miniatures (Warmachine, Hordes, AT-43).
As with most game stores these days, I’m sure they do a lot of business in the various Collectible Card Games and Collectible Miniatures Games. But I’m a wargamer, so that that’s what I look for.
The Big Box ‘lite’ wargames – Memoir 44, Tide of Iron, Axis & Allies, Battlelore – get a lot of space, along with all of the popular new lots-of-plastic-minis-in-the-box crossover games like Dust, World of Warcraft (the boardgame), Twilight Imperium and whatnot. Those all have retail prices in the $60-plus range, by the way.
Last time I was there, ‘regular’ wargames still occupied about 80 percent of one aisle. This trip it was all compressed into about 15 percent, max. Oddly, they still carry nearly a full line of Osprey-style reference books (mostly used by miniaturists). But all that’s left is a few of the top titles from GMT, a few games from Avalanche and some titles from Decision. It looks to me like they may not be re-stocking the APL stuff.
Sad, in a way, I guess. But those games can’t really compete with all of the ‘lite’ wargames that are being produced with zillions of shiny plastic bits in every box. Tide of Iron, for example, is a really impressive package. And, truthfully, it probably is a better playing wargame than SPI’s old “Tank!”, which was my introduction to the hobby over 30 years ago. Not the feeling of ‘hard’ simulation data in the box, but definitely a lot more bling and good play value.
So what am I bitching about? I dunno, dammit. When I was a boy, we didn’t have those fancy double-sided geomorphic mounted boards and those minis and color rules and cards and crap. We had a hexgrid on paper and some cardboard chits all printed in three colors, with a rules folder and a Si-Move pad. And we were thankful.
Of course, we didn’t pay $80 for a game, either. But when you consider a largely disposable video game cartridge sells for around $60 these days, not so bad I suppose.
$7 in 1974 money would be how much today? OK, I found an inflation calculator and answered that myself. $32.33. I think $7 is what I paid for “Tank!” at a bookstore in the Altamonte Mall in 1974.
Hey, now there’s a flashback for you.
Friday, February 08, 2008
The SWWAS supplement Black Sea Fleets arrived yesterday. Personally, I think Avalanche Press using FedEx for all of their shipping is a bit of overkill – especially for shipping single supplements – but there you have it.
Nice book if you’re interested in Commies, Turks and Greeks. It uses the Bomb Alley maps and counters, although a couple of 1946 ‘what if’ scenarios use British units from East of Suez and
Two half-sheets of counters in the package, which make it a pretty good deal for the price tag. One sheet of long ship counters, one sheet of mostly aircraft with a few destroyer escorts thrown in.
The Soviet Black Sea Fleet is an interesting assortment of old battlecruisers, a few heavy cruisers, some not-quite-state-of-the-art light cruisers and a whole bunch of destroyers, most of which are very, very fast. Only a few Soviet ‘hypothetical’ units are included – one of each of the three classes of aircraft carriers they tinkered with (but never got close to finishing) and a rather powerful battleship that was laid down but never got off the slipways.
There’s a mob of Soviet land-based air, along with a few units of carrier air for their hypotheticals. Some more Italian stuff, some more Greek stuff and what passed for the Turkish navy and their naval air support. The Turkish units feature the refitted German battlecruiser SMS Goeben (Yavuz in Turkish service) – which remained in commission until 1950 and wasn’t scrapped until 1973.
Of course, I have loads of time to play this.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
In one of the blog threads that I follow over on Consimworld, we were having a little discussion about personal gaming history. The idea was to name the game that ‘got’ you back into gaming again – provided, of course, you had strayed from the True Path to begin with.
I noticed a number of the guys who responded fell out of wargaming either during or right after college. Many others put gaming on hold during that mid-20s-plus stretch when they were building careers and families. That got me to thinking (always a dangerous thing).
I never really stopped gaming at any point in my life, although I did go through a period of significant slow-down during the late 80s and early 90s. That corresponds roughly with what was for other folks their ‘family building’ phase. But not in my case. My main issues were career-building – and the general malaise in wargaming that struck after the fall of SPI.
As an official member of the Living Life Backwards Club (i.e. starting a family in my late 40s), the wife-and-kid issues weren’t in play. Rather, during the mid-80s (before the arrival of the Internet now, mind you) the place where I was living and working was a good 2-hour drive from ‘my’ FLGS and any kind of gaming scene.
And – adding to the problem – that distant FLGS was carrying an ever-shrinking line of what appeared at the time to be ever-growing games (like GDW’s Europa stuff) or TSR recycled flubs of classic SPI titles. I still had storage shelves stacked with old flatbox (and soapbox) titles from SPI – this was also before Ebay – but the new stuff just wasn’t very exciting for me. S&T Magazine was heading into its sub-par encounter with 3W ownership. It flat sucked being a wargamer holed-up in a backwater swamp who worked nights and weekends.
The industry itself caught some new energy in the early 90s, IMHO. I was very interested when Command Magazine started publishing in 1989. Ty Bomba’s mag produced a number of very interesting and playable games, and I think to an extent his XTR publishing venture played a role in reinvigorating the wargaming business.
The Internet, such as it was at the time, certainly helped re-engage some of us backwater gamers. Gaming bulletin boards and, shortly thereafter, Genie groups and the like started putting some of us grognards back into communications with our brethern. Jim Dunnigan served his short second tenure in charge of (then struggling) Strategy & Tactics, and those early incarnations of digital communications actually gave me an opportunity to do some editing work for him.
In 1992 I paid a visit to my buddy Keith up in
Complete ‘re-engagement’ (and the shedding of much cash) I blame on the modern Internet. Without e-commerce, Yahoo Groups, Consimworld and company web sites, where would wargaming be? The same FLGS is still over two hours away. Most gamers I know are even more distant. Maybe with those Internet discounters hanging around a truly local FLGS might be feasible, but it’s hard to say. But it’s interesting how things work out, isn’t it?
20 years ago, who would’a thunk it?