Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pardon my addiction

My investigation of Bombarossa has been interrupted a bit this past week or so, and it’s entirely my fault. Bear with me as I explain, because today’s content is a lot like confessing that you’re a crack addict.

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

Bombarossa: Shut Up and Play

Instead of charging pell-mell into the rest of Bombarossa, I’ve replayed the opening a couple of times to make sure I’m not being an idiot. There’s some chatter on the Bombarossa thread on CSW about the Germans having a tough time but – as with RSR – I’m chalking most of it up to guys being too lazy to figure out how to run the Germans correctly. I’m satisfied that the only deep, dark secret to running the Germans is managing movement so that it minimizes opportunities for the Soviet mandatory attacks to do damage.

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

Bombarossa: The Cardboard Invasion Begins

After another read-through of the rules I got my first game of Bombarossa going last night. Owing to various distractions I managed just the first turn of the game, but it was a pretty enjoyable session.

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

Bombarossa: War in the East

A new month means it’s time to turn my Sesame Street attention span to a new game. Accordingly, the Big Table has been cleared of the enjoyable Island of Death and replaced with one of the newer offerings from Decision Games, Ty Bomba’s “Barbarossa” – which appears in Decision’s equally new “World at War” magazine as the first edition game.

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.