Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The King is dead; Long live the King

In between work, vacation, chasing the kid, taxes, family visits and – did I mention? – work, I have indeed been fiddling around with a game every now and then.

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).

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