Monday, 1 July 2019

REFLECTIONS: ASL Starter Kit #1 - by Ken Dunn (MMP)


This isn't a review, formally speaking, at least not in my usual style – I'm not looking to come to a conclusion on ASL SK #1, yet, I'm not going to give a system overview, and I don't have a thesis statement about what is worth talking about in the game. But I've played SK1 three times – S1 Retaking Vierville, S2 War of the Rats, S3 Simple Equation – with all its core mechanical components and a slight variety of victory conditions, and am moving on to SK2 for now. It seems a fit time to offer some thoughts about SK1. Those thoughts are: frustrated, engaged, disaffected.

What's wrong with it, then? Well, there's a raft of complaints about ASL (and therefore the SK series) that are best second order items: Are the squad stats historically sound (maybe not but that's not the point of tension)? Is the art style outdated and alienating (maybe and no, respectively)? Is even the SK series too full of exceptions and possibilities (not...necessarily)?

There's an aesthetic experience – in the broadest sense of the word aesthetic – involved in ASL which trades on certain design decisions and the art style, and that aesthetic experience is something people buy. I mean they buy it morally as much as physically: the delicate, antiquated, compelling line art on the old-colour counters, the lacklustre firepower and stubborn morale of the British compared to the torrent of American guns backed by indifferent spine, the existence of MMGs. It's a movie and it's a paean to a different era in wargaming. To attempt to ground objective judgements on these issues is to miss the real discussion, I think. The art style is well-rendered and the counter iconography, though imperfect, is perfectly functional; if you don't like it, it's a matter of taste, not beauty. If you want better simulation of weapon kitlists, you want a different game, not a “better” one.

But there is a discussion to have about ASL SK – do the bones support the torso, or not? Is it a good movie and paean? After a little experience with Infantry+SWs (so avowedly not the WHOLE experience), I think this isn't self-evident.

I'll offer two examples of cinematic gameplay that seem to me, finally, to be anti-cinematic, anti-dramatic; I cite them because they are often mentioned in (exciting, enjoyable) AARs.

EXAMPLE ONE: ELR. Field Promotions have a similar effect to this, but a more transparent mechanic, so I'll exclude them. ELR is a pretty central feature of units in ASL SK, because it means every failed MC must be checked against it for the breakdown effect, which itself requires access to hypothetically the whole collection of SMC/MMC for that nationality in this box. As the ELR rating is applied to the modified MC DR, you can't readily eyeball a roll before applying modifiers; if you do, the ELR check is one step later again. Given the relatively high failure rate on MCs (i.e. a 2d6 roll against a usual range of 5-8, modified by IFT results and terrain, often trending to negative modifiers once an MC is actually rolled), this is stuff you have to do a lot.

The upside is this: troops break down in combat, some troops turn out to be more resilient than others, and so forth (and Field Promotion accomplishes the reverse). This is fun. But the mechanic is distancing for me; fiddly, time-consuming, and requiring a larger table footprint (for the various counters potentially needed).

EXAMPLE TWO: Cowering. Simpler than ELR, certainly; if an MMC rolls doubles when firing without Leader Direction, its attack is resolved on the next-left column on the IFT. Great. This represents a unit failing to put its heart into the attack when unsupervised. But this struggles to make sense as a flat effect (thus requiring SSRs to let the stoic British 1st Liners off!), is mechanically flavourless (that is, its flavour effect is nominal at the strictly mechanical level; arbitrary doubles turn into a column shift; no decisions, no special tables, just a flat and arbitrary effect), and is easy to forget in the moment unless one is a very seasoned ASL SK player.

Example One offers us emotionally distancing fiddle, whilst Example Two is weakly-flavoured chrome (to use a mixed metaphor). I'm not against fiddly games; try running through fire combat in Civil War Brigade Series or unit states in Musket and Pike, both of which I love, and you'll see what I mean! Nor am I against chrome. My point is that these examples seem to me to be examples of ASL SK utilising the wrong tools to accomplish its objective as a game. These examples of “cinematic mechanics” tend, for me, to make the game less cinematic and to be somewhat frustrating mechanics, too.

Now I can only assume that to some degree these concerns of mine will multiply with playing SK2-4 (all of which I own). Why torture myself? There are some secondary reasons: it's gaming history repackaged, I already own the games, and it's a cheapish and interesting way to get a wide variety of WW2 squad tactical (including PTO, looking at you Band of Brothers, including tanks, looking at you Combat Commander). But what's the main reason? Well, there's just very plainly something else going on here. It is undoubtedly the case that there is a game underneath the fiddle.

ASL SK is not simply a dirge-like calculation of factors, placement of confusing counters, and forgetting of obscure rules (though at a low point it can feel like that!). It's actually fascinating. The differing unit capabilities, the array of decisions/options (I still need to learn to use Smoke properly), the range of scenario designs within the SK series – all these speak strongly for the series. And it looks and feels good moving the counters, guessing LOS, applying the best of the chrome. It is an often-compelling experience.

It's not my favourite squad tactical, but its mighty pedigree is justified – there is a reason that ASL is a game which has justified five boxed games in a specialist starter series.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

REWIEW: Root - by Cole Wehrle (Leder Games)


Root – by Cole Wehrle, Leder Games
Root is a fantasy-themed card-assisted asymmetric wargame seating 2-4 players (with its first expansion, this shifts to 1-6). It's really quite good, but beyond that there are some specifics which are worth some thought and analysis. Particularly, I'm thinking about (1) asymmetry in design – particularly in wargame design – and (2) the fantasy theme in wargames.

Design Overview
First, it's worth giving the design as a whole an overview. It's not super rules-heavy; BGG gives it a moderate 3.45/5 rules weight, but it's fair to say most of the difficulty experienced is in the asymmetry, not in the rules any one player has to learn to play the game. There are two rulebooks – they use the Fantasy Flight nomenclature to a degree, with one called the “Learning to Play” book, but the second book, the “Law of Root” (aka the rules reference manual) does suggest reading one or the other on the basis of your learning style – the LtP book is programmed instruction in a Euro style, whilst the Law of Root is a case-system wargame manual, with full numbering. The rulebooks are both adequate and I appreciate the dual approach, though the Law lacks contents or index, which is a faux pas for a wargame manual.

The other components are uniformly gorgeous, with decent cardstock counters, linen-finish cards, wonderfully cute screen-printed wooden warrior pieces, and a beautiful double-sided map depicting 12 clearings connected by paths, with each clearing matching one of the suits of cards (Fox, Bunny, Mouse; there's also a Bird suit, which is wild). The aesthetic effect cannot be underestimated – though the design itself is very good, it is made maximally enjoyable via its beauty and tactility.

There are four core factions, each looking to either be the first to score 30 points, or in 3-4 player games alternatively secure a “Dominance Victory” (essentially, fulfil given map control conditions). There are two universal ways to score points – destroying enemy buildings or tokens (but not warriors, the military pieces) and crafting cards from your hand (which can also be special abilities for you to use, or items which you can potentially sell to one specific faction). Each faction also has unique ways to score points. There are also unique ways to score points, which naturally leads us to examine the factions themselves. I'll do so in some detail, partly to win over the hoary grognards amongst my readership by the beauty of the design, and partly to explore the game's asymmetry.

Faction 1: The Marquise de Cat. The Marquise starts in control of all but one of the 13 clearings on the map. She has warriors all over, plus one of each of her three types of building – the sawmill, the recruiting station (or as my buddy has nicknamed it, “the Friendship Barn”), and the workshop. Each of these fulfils a different function; the sawmill produces wood each turn to use in constructing more buildings, the recruiter is where the Marquise places new warriors, whilst the workshop contributes to her ability to craft. She scores points by building more buildings, though each type of building costs increasingly more wood the more she builds (i.e. 1 wood allows you to build the second instance of any type of building and scores 1 or 2 VP depending on type, but the third instance requires 2 wood and scores 2 or 3 VP). Buildings can only go on empty spaces in clearings – of which there will always be a limited number. The Marquise has three actions per turn (with the ability to gain more via discarding wild cards from her hand); this is a low cap but her actions are pretty efficient, with a Move action moving two groups, for instance. The Marquise needs to control territory to get her economic engine going and efficient, including maintaining lines of supply for her wood to be used to build. I've seen the Marquise summed up as a Euro economy faction – but there's far more to it than that, with a fine balance needed of economy, military buildup/action, and secure area control.

Faction 2: The Eyrie Dynasties. These guys used to rule the forest, but are now restricted to one clearing, albeit in strength. The Eyrie is usually the most explicitly “militaristic” faction; most of the time its ability to score from crafting cards is limited, its main way of scoring points is checking how many of its Roost buildings are on the board at the end of each turn (so you need to expand to score higher numbers of points), and its internal politics drive it forward to conquer territory and make war. What do I mean by its internal politics? Oh, just that the only way the Eyrie takes actions on the map itself is via a card-driven programming game, where it must fulfil all the steps in its programme or fall into chaos, and its programme is partly defined by which Leader of the Eyrie currently rules. The Eyrie's programme is called the Decree, which has four consecutive steps: Recruit, Move, Battle, Build. These are parallel to the Marquise's actions, though each instance is less efficient. That's fine, because where the Marquise has that semi-capped 3 actions, the Eyrie can have as many as it can fulfil; you will see functional Decrees with 9 or 10 cards in them, for example. However, you HAVE to add 1 or 2 cards to the Decree every turn, and HAVE to take actions in a clearing matching the “suit” of the particular card. Oh, there are no enemy pieces in a Bunny clearing and you have a Bunny Battle card? Sucks to be you, Eyrie – time to go into Turmoil, lose some points, replace your Leader card, empty your Decree, and lose the rest of your turn. Like the Marquise, the Eyrie wants to build buildings, and it wants to control territory, but it feels utterly different – the Eyrie is made up of aggressive birds of prey who are able to strike with a rapidity and ferocity unknown to the calculating Marquise, but they're also prone to squabbling themselves to defeat. A functional Decree is a scary sight, and is about the most powerful thing in the game, but it's a fine line between a relentless machine of war and an ugly car crash.

Faction 3: The Woodland Alliance. For those familiar with the COIN series, this is the IN faction, with the Marquise and Eyrie acting as CO factions. The Woodland Alliance are the common animals/people of the forest, sick to their eyeteeth of the cats and birds bossing them around. They don't start on the board, or with any ability to undertake military operations; instead, their first few turns will be spent spending cards to spread Sympathy across the Forest, before sparking a Revolt and setting up a Base in a given clearing. They score points via Sympathy tokens, and they can craft cards based on the “suits” of the clearings they have Sympathy in – so Sympathy is a very powerful thing; however, if the CO factions march their troops into a Sympathetic clearing, or destroy a Sympathy token, they have to surrender cards to the Alliance, representing more supporters joining the Alliance in anger at the heavy-handed enforcement. Now, that's the soft war, the hearts-and-minds stuff. The Alliance also have a limited ability to wage war – much more limited than the Marquise or Eyrie, but nonetheless significant. They're more limited because they have fewer warrior pieces than the CO factions (10 Alliance, 15 Eyrie, 25 Marquise), and what's more, to take any military actions they have to set aside some of those warriors as Officers – kept off the map, allowing one military action (Move, Recruit, Battle, and the special Organise action which removes a warrior to place a Sympathy token) per Officer. This means that in a normal situation, they might have only 7 warriors available to put on the map, and 3 actions to do stuff with them. They are also vulnerable to having their operations seriously disrupted if they see their Bases destroyed – they lose cards and Officers in such an event. On the other hand, the game for the Alliance isn't total map control, as they can only build three Bases anyway. The game is spreading Sympathy and crafting, using the Bases as hubs of power to secure Sympathetic pockets, enable Organise actions, and disrupt opponents. By the end of the game the Alliance superficially resemble the Marquise and Eyrie; they have buildings, they have warriors, they have crafted stuff. However, they play completely differently, relying much less on main force and much more on strategic use of soft power.

Faction 4: The Vagabond. To the wargamer, the Vagabond is the most distinct and strange faction. Basically the Vagabond is some little dude wandering round playing their own RPG. The Vagabond only has one piece on the board, representing themselves; they can't be knocked off the board by battle, and they can't control clearings. They do score points for crafting and destroying buildings and tokens, and in a 4 player game can win via a Dominance card – but in the latter case it actually just allows them to ally with a different player and share their victory. How on earth does the Vagabond win, then? They have three unique ways of scoring points: (1) the Aid action, which involves giving cards to other players (potentially in return for Items that player has crafted) – the higher your Friendship rating with a faction, the more points you score, and if you reach the maximum level you can also treat that faction's pieces as your own, moving and battling with them; (2) killing Hostile warriors scores you 1VP per warrior removed – a faction is Hostile after the first time you attack them; and (3) via Quests, which are cards which require you exhaust certain Items in a particular suit of clearing – as the reward of a Quest, you can either draw 2 cards from the main deck, or score VP by the number of Quests you've completed in that suit. If that wasn't distinct enough, the Vagabond undertakes actions not via a default cap, a programme of cards, or a number of Officers, but via using Items. The Vagabond starts with four Items, and gains more either by buying them from other players with Aid actions, Crafting them himself, or exploring the four Ruin markers dotted across the map. There are different types of Items, allowing different actions – for instance Boots allow movement, Swords allow combat, Bags allow you to carry more items, and Hammers allow crafting or Item repair. Item repair is relevant because you take hits in combat by damaging Items. So you have your own little action economy based on having bought/made/discovered specific Items. There are also multiple Vagabond “characters”, one of which you pick before the game, which defines your starting Items and gives you a special ability. The Vagabond may seem the odd faction out, but as the player count rises, the chaos factor they represent, and the value of their friendship – whether in terms of Aid or in terms of them attacking your enemies – can be a decisive element.

Asymmetry and War
Root is an asymmetric wargame. There's a presupposition nested in that statement – that war can be, or is, asymmetric. The main series of wargames that investigates this concept is the COIN series from GMT Games. One game in that series has as its four factions the Colombian government, Marxist guerrillas, right-wing deaths squads, and drug syndicates. Another has the Romano-British military, the Romano-British civilian government, Celtic tribes, and Germanic invaders. You can see how the abilities and objectives of such factions might vary. COIN games do give different factions mechanically distinct options – e.g., Faction 1 can place “troop types” A and B (which can act in slightly different ways) but no special markers, whilst Faction 2 can place troop type B but has access to the special markers. This style obviously suits strategic faction-driven games; some might argue that it applies less well to other types of wargames. I think I'd observe that all wars and all battles are somewhat asymmetric, in a strict if limited sense – troop numbers vary, command ability differs, industrial capacity is higher or lower, and so forth. You do see other fairly “straight” games experiment with this in mechanical terms – for instance, again at a strategic level, The U.S. Civil War by Mark Simonitch provides different victory conditions, point-scoring methods, and recruiting rules for each side. It's far more uncommon for battlefield games to represent actual mechanical asymmetry – the two sides use the same rules, with the asymmetry being numeric within the mechanics – the Old Guard have Morale A, the pike-armed Russian militia have Morale E. Table Battles by Tom Holland does use significantly more asymmetry in its mechanics, though this is arguably due to a significant abstraction – it's not a map-based game, but is at core a dice pool game, with different units (cards you place dice on) having quite distinct abilities.

All these are forms of asymmetry – whether it's serious factional asymmetry as in COIN, or “logistic” asymmetry as in The US Civil War, “numeric” asymmetry as in the typical battle game, or asymmetry-via-abstraction as in Table Battles. It's an obvious point, but a significant reason people play historical wargames over, say, chess or Go is that it represents actual situations, with two or more sides with leaders and troops of different quality and use fighting over terrain that may give each side different advantages. The flavour of historical wargames relies – usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly – on an asymmetry of competence, opportunity, and capacity between the combatants.

Root is a game with as much if not more asymmetry as any COIN game; it is mechanically smooth and comparatively easy to learn; it is compact in terms of time (30-120 minutes, depending on player count) and box size (more important than some think!). Most of all, it's just very good fun. It's fun for the reasons stated – playing a real game of discovery in a relatively short time period with grokkable rules is rare and great – but it's also fun because it's cute and it tells great stories.

Why hasn't it achieved the same sort of success with my fellow “traditional” wargamers as the COIN series? Sure, the latter gets some sniffs from grognards over how like a Euro it seems to them, but that hasn't stopped plenty of greyheads getting into the series, and one need only look at the speed of release of new volumes by GMT to see how commercially viable it's been for them. Root is, in most respects, a “bigger” game – it's already in the BGG top 100, it's gone through three printings, with the latest in five figure numbers, it's got massive industry coverage. Why isn't it more popular with wargamers?

Because it's a fantasy game about cute little animals.

The Fantasy Theme and Wargames
The fantasy theme is not terribly well respected by traditional wargamers. This isn't surprising; if one is interested in history, then fantasy wargames do not cut the mustard. In a way, this is an unanswerable criticism. Fantasy wargames – whether War of the Ring, Wizard Kings, or Root – simulate no actual conflict, offer no actual historical insight.

This probably explains why none of the three games I've just mentioned are hex-and-counter, and scarcely any fantasy wargames are. The most traditional, the most simulatory of subgenres has no place for entirely ahistorical fantasy (though you wouldn't know it based on some of the World War 2 games I've played...).

The best way to frame any argument for grizzled grognards to play fantasy wargames (Root, in this case) is instead, I think, to explain why I enjoy it. It won't convince those most focussed on games-as-history, but it may sway some fence-sitters.

Well, Root is fun, it's not super-weighty, it has a quick playtime (30 minutes per player once players know rules). But it's also, definitively, a wargame – even within the narrower definitions you sometimes get, it involves plenty of direct conflict based on armies. That action is relatively simple and the tactics abstracted (affected chiefly by card-use, both passive and active), but it's a big part of the game. Indeed, it's here that the least wargamey faction, the Vagabond, becomes the MOST wargamey – once he's committed, and is scoring points off killing off warriors from a faction, he becomes the faction who most directly benefits from conflict.

Of course, “involves direct army conflict” is a very limited definition of wargame, and does mean that, yes, Risk is a wargame. More importantly, Root does actually offer light but compelling simulation of a number of wargaming norms, which add up to make it an interesting lens through which to see the hobby's subject. (Also – a non-traumatic lens for some who would find actual war, especially modern war, disturbingly close to home.)

The game offers up one of the cleverest simple supply systems I know. You can only move over a particular connecting path if you control either the clearing you are moving from or the clearing you are moving to. For the Marquise, her supply system of wood to build industrial buildings relies on paths of controlled clearings. As a way to get you thinking about the value of control of space – especially in the context of space with particular connections and routes – this is good. It's a lot simpler than Zucker!

Root also leverages its asymmetry with incredible elegance to model two elements of war which plenty of traditional wargames look at – doctrine and war aims. Doctrine is a nearly universal concern of games at the grand tactical and (for WW2) operational scales. This can be modelled via OOBs, or via special rules for one side or the other, or via the simple expedient of combat strength (Panzer divisions get 5 attack whilst French DCRs get 3, or whatever). Root effectively uses the special rule system, but in a way that is organically determinative of play, which I appreciate but which isn't always the case. The Eyrie are very aggressive, skilled in combat, but not very interested in non-combat tech – their limitations on crafting, the Decree forcing them to fight or Turmoil, and the three of the four leaders who incentivize warfare all not just represent that ludically, but also inform your play. You can play around their limitations, or seek to develop other strengths, but the standard combat doctrine of a nation of falcons and hawks is definitely there – and it's very different from the Marquise, who is mostly aggressive to find space to build (to score points via building and via Crafting) and is otherwise more defensive of her territory, and they're both very different from the Woodland Alliance, who scores points not via territorial control or expansion or combat, but via gaining soft power through Sympathy, with their military bases as a hub from which to spread propaganda.

Which brings us to war aims – though this is chiefly a concern of strategic games in the traditional sphere, it's nonetheless a key area of simulation design. How do you show the player why Germany invaded Russia in the two world wars? Do you, as a designer, simply think it was the “arrogance of princes”, do you think it related to a perceived need for flank security, or do you think it was really about the resources of the Ukraine and the Caucasus? Your design will follow from there. Root does the same, and does it asymmetrically – as mentioned above, each faction scores points differently. The Marquise is concerned with industry and makes war to aid that, the Eyrie has a domestic audience who demands success and expansion, the Woodland Alliance wins by surviving its battles and winning hearts and minds, and the Vagabond defines their own objectives in their wanders through the forest.

Elegant, intelligent pieces of wargame design – here I've considered supply, doctrine, and war aims, though there are other similarly clever things in this game – can give us insight even where they apply to no actual conflict. Modelling a fantasy situation allows us to consider how certain needs or ideas drive both battle and war, without immediately needing to argue out whether it was in fact some bloke called Franz Ferdinand or the grain of the Ukraine that was the real reason for the whole thing. Root presents, at a fairly simple and approachable level, an Ideal form of war, its motives, and its means. It simulates no particular war – and in doing so, I think, gives insight on every war.

Friday, 2 November 2018

REVIEW: Fort Sumter – by Mark Herman (GMT Games)


Mark Herman invented the modern card-driven game (CDG), particularly in its most common formulation – players take turns playing a card from their hand either for the amount of action points denoted at the top of the card, or for the special event described on it. The former is much more flexible, whilst the latter is much more specific but more powerful.

These games range from the former BoardGameGeek #1 Twilight Struggle to the six-player game of diplomacy and warfare Here I Stand. A lot of these games run long – though a few examples might take 2 or 3 hours, some of the big boys like Herman's own Empire of the Sun can run at least 6 hours. Fort Sumter, Herman's latest from GMT, is a CDG that takes 25-40 minutes, and is intended to be played over a single lunchtime. It's a game about the efforts by Unionist and Secessionist politicians to see their side win out leading up to the American Civil War,

Very quick run-down: over three rounds plus a final minigame, two players vie for control of four areas (Public Opinion, Political, Secession, Armaments) on the board, each of which is made up of three spaces. One space is in turn the “Pivotal Space” for that area – control of it allows manipulation of the control tokens in that area at the end of the round, before scoring. Players alternate playing cards, generally to place or remove their tokens or their opponents from the spaces on the board (both action point use and most card events have to do with this). They are trying to control areas at the end of the round, and to control a specific space defined by a secret objective card they drew at the start of the round. They also set aside a card each round to use in the final minigame, the “Final Crisis”, which has three mini-rounds of its own, the result of each of which gives players another chance to manipulate the control of spaces on the board (this is a way in which Fort Sumter is very like 1960: The Making of the President, for those familiar). Each card has a characteristic matching one of three areas of the four you want want to control during the game – if you and your opponent play a matching characteristic in a Final Crisis mini-round, you both remove cubes from that area, if you play different characteristics, you both can place cubes into that area.

There are a couple of garnishes on this fairly simple salad. A bit of saucy drizzle, if you will. There is a Crisis Track, which is where the cubes you use to mark your side's control of a space are stored. This is divided into four zones; as you escalate the crisis by putting more influence into the struggle to win over key constituencies, certain effects come into play. Basically, if you breach Crisis zones before your opponent, you generally receive a penalty. One of the zones involves a VP penalty (but you get more bonus cubes than your opponent will); another lets your opponent play the Peace Commissioner, a piece who blocks placement, movement, or removal of pieces from a particular space. That's the second garnish – the Peace Commissioner lets you lock down a piece of the board, and can be moved by certain cards being played for their event.

It's fun, simple, clean. It's a solid introduction to CDGs, with fairly open interactions which allow you to consider whether you should play a card for points, its event, or put it into the Final Crisis. The order in which you play your cards each turns matters, whether because it masks or exposes your objective card, or because of the roving Peace Commissioner. The Final Crisis itself has some borderline meaningful bluffing and pop psychology involved (“if they have Armaments, when will they play it?!”). It's a lovely little palate cleanser with real content. But.

But it raises for me the complex question – especially with wargames, which this is adjunct to – of the relationship of theme and rules. Yes, the cards are called things like “Frederick Douglass” (a Unionist event who boost Public Opinion for your side) or “Russell of the Times” (a neutral event who lets you convert Public Opinion into Secession or Political influence). There's some slight connection between card theme and area of influence here, yes – Frederick Douglass writes a book which increases Abolitionist sentiment, Russell is an influential journalist who affects local politics. But it's skin-deep, really. The areas are broadly interchangeable, except Politics can't be shifted during the Final Crisis, and the Armaments space Fort Sumter is the tiebreaker space. That's cute, but ultimately bland.

In the strongest Euros – at least those which I engage with best – the theme communicates the rules. In the best wargames, the rules teach you the theme, that is, the history behind the game. There's little of either here. At best, the theme, so far as the cards and map go, can act as a mnemonic to remind you of something – Fort Sumter is the tiebreaker! But that's it. That's not issues, necessarily – if it's a traditional wargame with abtruse rules which aim to simulate the conflict.

But you learn little about the actual events leading up to Secession, either. You might perhaps be prompted to find out why Frederick Douglass might be considered to have swayed public opinion at the time, but the card itself, and its interplay with the game, gives you nothing concrete. The card gives you a set of mathematical options, not an insight into history. It's a prod to learning, but not a form of learning itself.

I think many – though not all – of us wargamers play games to learn history. We don't believe the game is “historically accurate” in some sort of Emperor's Map form – of course it's abstracting everything to one degree or another. But we play games to help us learn and reflect upon aspects of war. OCS or the Campaigns of Napoleon help us comprehend a bit more about logistics, whilst something lighter like Napoleonic 20 gives us a simpler insight into operational manoeuvre.

Fort Sumter does not accomplish that goal. The mechanics of the game do not meaningfully teach me anything about the Secession Crisis. The game may be a spur to education – but the artefact itself teaches the basics of CDGs far better than it teaches American history.


Thursday, 18 January 2018

REVIEW: Cruel Morning: Shiloh 1862 - by Sean Chick (Tiny Battle Publishing)

Cruel Morning Shiloh 1862, designed by Sean Chick, published by Tiny Battle Publishing
The Review Bit
I want to accomplish two things with this review: explain what Cruel Morning: Shiloh 1862 attempts to achieve, and whether it does so; and to use that as a way of connecting wargame design, in a very light way, to auteur theory.

The game is designed by Sean Chick, with art by Jose Ramon Faura. The art is colourful and stylish without being particularly “deep”; it's colourful and the colour prints well, on map and counters. The counterstock is a little dubious, though that has something to do (one imagines) with the price point – this is a very affordable folio game. On the other hand, the counters themselves are individually lasercut, and are a generous size. The map is small (11x17) with large hexes and fairly clear terrain and objective markers.

The situation is a brigade-scale examination of the Battle of Shiloh (6th to 7th April, 1862, in south-eastern Tennessee), during the American Civil War. The Rebels launch a surprise attack on the encamped Federals beside the Tennessee River.

The game in most respects follows typical hex-and-counter conventions: move units, attack with units, roll dice to determine the results. There are three key mechanical distinctives, however, relating to the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th phases of each player's turn – Artillery Bombardment, Activation, and Combat (the other four phases, Initiative, Movement, Recovery, and Victory, are slightly more familiar).

Artillery Bombardment is the first thing to happen after Initiative is rolled – players alternate place and firing with their artillery. Place artillery? Yes – artillery is usually off-map in between turns. Instead, if it's available, it's placed during the Bombardment phase in a hex with a unit from the same formation of troops. It then, aside from Bombarding (which isn't required), supports its hexmates through the turn. Artillery can also be placed by a defender in Combat, if available and if it passes a 50/50 check. After each player has done all their own Movement and Combat, most Artillery is removed from the map, and a six-sided die rolled to determine how many turns it will take for the Artillery to be available again (there are, of course, modifiers to the table based on situation). This makes Artillery flexible and partially fungible – it does not have movement restrictions as artillery in similar games do, and can, with a little luck, dash between different points of crisis. An artillery counter is more abstract than, say, an infantry brigade – it represents several batteries, and its use indicates a particular commitment or effort by some of its constituent units. It is more clearly a “resource counter” than the other unit counters; its use is actually half-way toward the entirely abstracted use of Support Makers in the Fire and Movement system. This is, generally speaking, something I appreciate – not over artillery being a normal unit, but as a different way of discussing the use of artillery in the era.

The Activation Phase is the first part of each player's own little sub-turn – Activation, Movement, Combat. In it, the player checks how many Command Points he has – he starts with a Base CP from the specific scenario, and, if he has an Army Commander on the field, rolls to see if he gets any bonus CP (the better the Army Commander the more likely he is to get a nice bonus). CP are spent in varying denominations to activate either individual counters or whole formations. Two factors influence how this happens – first, whether you want to guarantee activation or just want to gamble on the unit passing a Quality Check. The latter is cheaper! Second, units that are “in command” - that is, within a certain distance of their commander's counter – have an easier time being activated than those outside. Some people hate “Action Point” systems like this – I quite like them. They abstract the general “luck” of command and control in a way that places the decisions squarely in the hands of the player – look, your army isn't going to do loads this turn; some commanders are being sluggish, others are busy scouting, your staff officers are very dispersed. But you get to pick what you focus on. Interesting decisions make for good games.

I've touched on the final distinctive – Combat is chiefly based on a Quality Check. A key feature of the system is that, though units have a Strength value showing how many men there are in it, they also have a Quality value showing how experienced or motivated they are. In combat (which is mandatory; all possible attackers must attack all possible defenders), each side rolls a six-sided die for each of its Units participating in the specific combat being resolved. The die roll is modified by the relative strengths of the two sides – whoever has more troops usually gets a bonus (which is, in this case, a negative value!), which is higher or lower depending on their strength advantage, expressed as an odds ratio. Units are trying to roll equal or lower than their Quality, with a 6 an auto-fail and 1 an auto-pass. If you fail, the unit is damaged. This is a really interesting way of doing things – quality, not numbers, are usually the main determinant, but numbers can eventually tell!

Here comes some criticism, however: the game is incredibly bloody due to the particular interaction of these systems and others in the game. Combat is mandatory, and it can be practically hard to move away from the enemy; there is a 1-in-6 chance for every unit that they will take damage, usually amounting to a 50% loss of their starting strength; and though there is a chance in the Recovery Phase for units destroyed that turn to come back at half-strength, it's a fairly small probability that they will do so, all told (it must pass a Quality Check and must be able to be placed back on the map outside of certain ranges of the enemy, and within 3 hexes of their Division Commander – which given the high leader casualty rates in the game can be impossible!). The net result of this is the wholesale destruction of armies. The rules attempt to model – in an intelligent and creative way – the way in which morale was a massive factor, and ebbed and flowed during battle. But the narrow probability range on a six-sided die and the difficulty of Recovery make it very easy for formations to evaporate. The designer has recognised this as a problem already, and intends to make Recovery more likely in future games using this system; this is an excellent pieces of news, as it will really help improve the system.

There are also some great ways in the game of offering variation and replayability. One is the chance every turn of a random event, like Poor Weather or an Obtuse Commander ruining things. The other is a massive variety of both scenarios and optional reinforcements – 4 scenarios, including two alt-history ones; 3 blocks of optional Confederate reinforcements (one of which may bring in extra Union reinforcements too) and 1 change to normal reinforcement entry; and 7 optional rules or normal reinforcement changes for the Union. This is just excellent and to be learned from by designers of bigger games – how about GBACW or LOB having a Shiloh game with the possibility of a division escaping Donelson, or Charles F. Smith remaining in command of the Army of the Tennessee?

The Designer-as-Auteur Bit
All wargames have a view of history; all wargames offer some sort of interpretation of their history. GBACW, as a series, has always argued that weaponry and troop quality were the key features of the American Civil War – though the latest incarnation adds in chit-pull to handle command-and-control (units activate based on when their chit is pulled out of a cup, broadly speaking). I suppose I don't know if this is what Richard Berg himself thinks about the American Civil War, but the stats used in the game and the weight assigned to them suggest so. Across Five Aprils also uses chit-pull, but implies that the key factor about the troops themselves was their number, with troop quality as a modifier to combat resolution dice rolls; on the other hand, it also emphasizes the incredible difficult of executing tactical planning via its Combat Chit mechanism (combat only happens when Combat Chits comes out of the cup). The relatively simple Battle Cry uses a randomized hand of cards to determine what units you can use each turn, and uses strength as pretty much the sole determinant of combat effectiveness.

Cruel Morning, on the other hand, gives players more control over who does what when Рrather than using randomized chit pull or card draw to determine who moves or who attacks, you get to decide. But you don't know how much you'll be able to do each turn. This makes a different statement about battle: rather than emphasizing chaos, it emphasizes command decision. It has an element of chaos (a die roll), just as the other games let you decide how to manage that chaos Рbut Cruel Morning reflects its designer's stated belief that command problems are better represented via Action Point systems, and indeed that this makes for a better and more interesting game. Cruel Morning also emphasizes troop quality over strength; it is the precise inverse of Across Five Aprils in that way, with strength being the modifier rather than troop quality. Chick is claiming that Рat least in the American Civil War Рélan and experience matter more than numbers.

The massive variety of alt-history options also show the designer's view of that history – history isn't inevitable, at least before it happens! What if some other relatively small thing had happened? Would it have changed history? What if Napoleon had been killed by that pike at Toulon? What if the Valkyrie bomb had done its job? On a smaller scale – what if Buckner had been permitted to finish the break out at Donelson? Sure, Shiloh still happens, as Donelson and Nashville still fall – but Johnston has several thousand extra troops, who have seen combat and, in a sense, triumphed.

The designer's work is not inevitable either – they make decisions. They don't just make decisions about what specific factoids they believe – did the Nth Division take this or that road? Why was the message delayed? They also make statements about how they think whole wars were fought, and ultimately, even how human beings work. All designers live inside a broader tradition – and interpret the history of that tradition as much as the history of their game – but some are bolder, or make different statements. There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone faithfully reproducing the tradition in a sharper form – we need that. But we also need those with a distinct style and willingness to disagree or diverge. Jim Krohn is an obvious designer in this mould, especially with Band of Brothers – “how did WW2 squad tactical battles actually happen, because I don't think they happened like in ASL?” Another might be Carl Paradis - “man, these million-year-long Barbarossa games are ubiquitous and boring, what might be a simple but good simulation and game?” Sean Chick is definitely in this vein. He is willing to abandon hex-and-counter truisms to do with strength and focus very tightly on quality; he wants the ability to explore all sorts of alternate timelines. Of course, one may robustly disagree with Krohn or Paradis or Chick – I do sometimes! - but they have succeeded at making us think, which is for me a key objective in my wargaming. We need “auteur designers” - to push forward the hobby, and to challenge its players.

Conclusion

Cruel Morning is seriously flawed – its combat ends up significantly impinging on its simulation value and its gameplay fun. But the sheer scope of what is offered – in 9 or so pages of rules! - is remarkable and impressive. It's also a genuinely promising system – it has essentially quite clever, fun, and thought-provoking systems, offered on a small footprint at a low price. Its one real flaw is being resolved. This is genuinely a system to get into, if you are into simple-but-good games, or if you're more generally into the American Civil War. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

REVIEW: Musket and Saber QP: Wilson's Creek 1861: Opening Round in the West, 10 August 1861 - by Chris Perello (Decision Games)

Musket & Saber Quickplay - Wilson's Creek: Opening Round in the West, 10 August 1861 – by Chris Perello (Decision Games)
Introduction
I am really interested in “intro games” for the wargaming hobbies – legitimately good, deep games with a short play time and easy-to-learn rules. I like the Commands & Colors system on that basis. I'm looking forward to Mark Herman's Fort Sumter for the same reason (you can pre-order it from GMT Games, people). Having enjoyed Decision Games' Fire and Movement system in its Folio Series representation of the Battle of the Scheldt in World War 2, I picked up several games from another system of theirs – Musket and Saber. My wife enjoyed the Scheldt game, but would prefer to play Napoleonic Wars/American Civil War – the core time period for Musket and Saber. Musket and Saber seemed like a perfect fit on that basis.

Of the games I bought, one was a Folio Series game (Pea Ridge), and three were Mini Series games (Wilson's Creek, Salem Church, and Mansfield). The Folio Series game has 8 pages of core rules for the series, and 4 pages for the specific scenario; the Mini Series has a “Quickplay” version of the rules, with 4 pages of core series rules, and 2 pages for the scenario. The Mini Series games claim a lower-end gametime of 60 minutes, topping out at a high-end gametime of 2 hours, and use around 40 counters total on an 11”x17” map (a gorgeous piece by Joe Youst). These are small games and can be played on a very small playing area. The only thing you'll need to add are two normal six-sided dice.

I've played one so far – Wilson's Creek – and have mixed feedback to offer. For the sake of this review, it'll be useful to, in a sense, discuss the two sets of rules in the ziplock, and ask – are the rules any good? And is the scenario any good?

Are the rules any good?
The core Quick Play rules for Musket and Saber are 4 pages long. Somehow a lot of system fits into that. This is a pretty standard hex-and-counter game in most respects, modelling grand tactical (i.e. whole battles) actions in the 19th century – players take turns moving and attacking with their counters (usually consisting of Leaders, Cavalry, Infantry, and Artillery) on a hexgrid map. After a certain number of turns the game ends and the victor is determined. There are no surprises in the basic flow of the game for players who have any experience in the genre. The rules are fairly simple and clearly laid out.

Items of interest for curious gamer include: (1) Leaders chiefly function as stat buffs for units they are stacked with, if those units share the Leader's formation; (2) super-hard ZOCs (Zones of Control, the six hexes around the hex the unit is in), ending movement in but also restricting movement out to one hex, which cannot be another enemy ZOC; (3) Differential-based combat, where an attacking forces of 9 Strength Points against 3 defending is expressed as +6 rather than 3:1; (4) a simultaneous Combat and Morale roll during combat, with two dice rolled, one representing each; (5) a distinction between Safe, Unsafe, and No Lines of Retreat for units forced to retreat in combat, based on where enemy units are in respect of the retreating units, leading to different secondary results. There are also rules for cavalry and infantry forming square, but these aren't germane to the American Civil War scenarios.

There are some really fun things in the system. It's simple but has a decent amount going on behind the scenes, which is a big thing in its favour. It has the pleasing efficiency of simultaneously rolling the die which will determine the Melee results, whilst also rolling a die to determine any Morale checks which are a result of that Melee. Its approach to ZOCs is evidently an attempt to encourage the use of reserves and of modelling the stickiness of close engagement without resort to extra markers or dice modifiers. Differential-based combat is a satisfying way of providing better granularity (albeit necessarily over a smaller range of unit strength points/combat factors) in combat than odds-based systems.

Not all of it quite works, at least in all situations – the low counter density and generally short length of game (in terms of number of turns in the game) means that the hyperactive effects of ZOCs in the game is exaggerated. In scenarios where the ground scale is 352 yards and each turn covers 1 and a half hours, it feels strange that a regiment or brigade might take a whole 90 minutes to move 352 yards away from an enemy it's been fighting (where a routed unit might take no casualties whilst safely fleeing three times that distance in the face of the enemy). That's not to say they shouldn't be slow in withdrawal – but semi-porous ZOCs, with moving out costing extra movement rather than causing a flat cap, seems like a better bet, and would reward having a Leader stacked with that unit (as his Movement buff could be used to get your troops into the fight elsewhere quickly).

That's the most significant niggle, but in a small footprint, short playtime game it's no big deal. There are other small issues – Leaders are very powerful as unit buffs but not that important for command and control, for instance. However, on the whole, the system does give a sense of the major battlefield concerns of the era (keeping reserves to bolster armies with fragile morale, the complex battlefield logistics of massing forces, holding that terrain which aided contemporary weaponry), with a fairly small rules overhead. However, one vital thing is missing from the core rules – the Combat Results Table (CRT), which is instead customized for each scenario and included in the scenario rulesheet. The CRT is the final test of the system, which if successful gives the player a sense of being at the sharp end in the combat of the specific era; it's a serious litmus test for simulation realism and player engagement. To know how successful that element of the game is, we'll need to look at its iteration in a specific scenario. On that basis, let's turn to Wilson's Creek.

Is the scenario any good?
The types of results available on the CRT are nuanced and show some thought behind the design – for instance, a roll of 4 always leads to all Leaders on both sides in the combat rolling to check if they are wounded or killed. This makes close combat risky for all sides, no matter how otherwise overwhelming one force is – if you get that “middling” result on the CRT, your heroic general may be struck down at the moment of his triumph. The CRT in general emphasizes Morale Checks, which if passed allow you to hold your ground in a tight battle. A few of the results also create a decision space for players – do they withdraw, or stay close but apply a different negative result? It is a relatively bloodless CRT – except for “coincidental” losses to units from unsuccessful Routs, there is only one result (Ex) which guarantees casualties on either side. In the only other result which produces losses (Ax/Dx), the loss is an alternative to retreating which the player may choose if they pass a Morale Check.

Though this doesn't completely model the relative bloodyness of American Civil War battles (which often saw about 3 times as many casualties as in the same-sized battle of the American Revolution), the number of losses for each side in my play of this isn't far off the historical percentage. The Union took 3 step losses out of 15 total steps of infantry and artillery – historically they took about 20% casualties, so that seems right. The Confederates took 2 step losses out of 22 totals steps of mounted infantry, infantry, and artillery, not far from their historical loss rate of 10%. That said, the Confederates are able to “heal” damaged units using a special rule only available to them, so at the end of the game they actually had functionally suffered no step losses. That special rule, however, is pretty insignificant given the real issue with this scenario.

Essentially, given the bloodlessness of the CRT, and the relative possibility of escaping unscathed when Retreating or Routing from combat, the victory condition for the Confederates is next to impossible. For a major victory, they are supposed to eliminate or rout off the map all Union units (except Vedettes, of which more below) whilst also having moved some of their mounted infantry units off the board in pursuit. A minor victory for them still requires them to chase the Union entirely off the board and then score more Victory Points. The Union, to win a major victory, must simply still have a unit on the board at the end of the game, or they must take the Confederate HQ (but why would they even bother to try?).

Now, in one sense, given the time scale represented in the game, this is nearly the historical result – there are 9 turns in the game, running from 5:30am to 5:30pm. The main battle was over earlier in the afternoon, albeit via the Union forces formally withdrawing rather than being routed. However, as described, there are simply not realistically enough combat results forcing losses to do real damage, and even when Routed I was usually able to safely withdraw my Union troops.

This leaves one with the uneasy sense that this scenario was not properly playtested. That's a shame, given a lot of the scenario design is clever or interesting. For instance: Union Vedette units who can't fight but can slow Confederate movement; the Union player choosing where and when to enter the map; the Confederates being initially less able to move their units due to their surprise, and being unable to effectively co-ordinate the two groups that made up their army (Confederate and Arkansas troops and the Missouri State Guard); Confederate mounted riflemen being basically just quick but unwieldy infantry; and various historically elite units being represented nicely (the capable and robust Confederate Army troops under McIntosh and Hebert, the very good but very fragile regular US Army troops which have the highest Combat rating in the game but only one step per unit). Nonetheless, the final impression I took away was of a half-baked design which had been churned out upon demand.

Conclusion

The Musket and Saber Quickplay rules are very functional. I'll need to play them more to get a thorough sense of how they model, at a simple level, ACW battles. However, they do some key things well – for instance, the prevalence of poor drill and discipline, represented by the way Routs and Disruption work. As to the specific scenario, only play it with some kind of “fix” in place for the victory conditions – I've uploaded an alternative on BGG (and Confederate set-up information, as the module as published gives unhistorical set-up positions), which you can find at https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/150312/musket-saber-qp-wilsons-creek-unofficial-alternate.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

REVIEW: Commands and Colors: Ancients - by Richard Borg (GMT Games)

Commands and Colors: Ancients by Richard Borg
Introduction
That Commands & Colors: Ancients is a great game, is a fact (nearly) universally acknowledged; but it ought to interest us why great games are great games. Naturally, the way we usually first respond to games we enjoy is along the following lines: “that mechanic was really fun”, “I enjoyed this decision”, and so forth. For C&C:A, the impressionistic statement that sums up what makes the game great is an unusual one, insomuch as it sounds negative: “why on earth is my hand of cards this bad?!”. However, what that statements represents is this: C&C:A may be the best, most satisfying simulator of command and control issues in warfare on the market.

Summary
First, a summary of the game: in C&C:A, each player controls an army of the ancient world – Romans, Carthaginians, Greeks, and so forth. Their army consists of various units, each of which consists of a number of wooden blocks (4 for infantry, 3 for cavalry, 2 for elephants and chariots, 1 for leaders). These are deployed on a hex-based map, which may be entirely open ground or may have some terrain hexes in place, as per the historical battle being fought. Each player has a hand of cards – more cards if their generals are better – and each turn they will each play one, before drawing a new card. These cards broadly fall into two types: one type activates units in each of the three sectors of the battlefield (Left, Centre, Right); the other activates units based on their formation and weaponry (Light, Heavy, Mounted, etc). Activating a unit allows you to move and attack at range or in close combat; each unit's capabilities in movement and combat are defined in one of the play aids. Light troops are fast, capable of ranged combat, and able to avoid the worst of enemy melee attacks, whilst being pretty bad up close themselves; Heavy troops are slow, can't fire at range, but are lethal in close combat. Essentially the game consists of stringing together moves and attacks from the cards in your hand, so as to destroy the number of enemy units and occupy victory hexes required by the scenario for victory.

You can learn it in just a few minutes with the right teacher, though the rulebook doesn't always make it seem that simple. The niggles there include: terrain effects could be made clearer (as they are with the TEC in the Napoleonics version of the game), and unit special rules could be collated better. Generally, one's induction into the game could be done better in the first few pages of the rulebook. But this is nonetheless all pretty trivial stuff. The components – mounted mapboard, command cards, wooden blocks, stickers – are all of a very high quality. Some players complain about having to affix stickers to the blocks (hundreds of blocks in the core set, 2 stickers each) – frankly I quite enjoy it. Your anal retention mileage may vary on that, of course.

Command and Control
So what about my claim above that the command and control mechanics in this game are amongst the best? Well, for the sense of frustration I described, imagine this: your hardest hitting units are spread on your right and centre. You manage to get moving in the centre, but you're just not getting cards for the right section. You're having to use other cards (Move Heavy Troops, for instance, or a card allowing you to activate a Leader and nearby units) to get anything going there. Your centre units take out some of the enemy, but are shattered in turn. The enemy is just in reach of your right flank units, and it may all come down to what you draw at the end of your turn. If it activates those troops – victory! But if not – disaster.

Is this relying too much on luck? Well, over the course of a game, you should get at least some useful cards, and at any rate, your job at the start of Turn One is to see what strategy you can come up with what's in your starting hand. My experience of over 50 games of C&C:A is that what feels like bad luck in your hand – or on the dice – turns out to be far more nuanced, far more balanced. You always get some good cards and you always get some good dice, but we tend to assign disproportionate weight to those moments we *think* are key, and forget everything else. If nothing else, what goes around comes around. Sure, it seemed like your opponent had all the good cards one game, but watch their face fall in your rematch.

But why am I saying this is so good? Well, the cards themselves and the hand-management sub-game are very successful at creating the effect of “friction”, Clausewitz's concept of the confusion and efficiency degradation inherent on the battlefield. I say they produce the effect, because this is avowedly “design for effect” - the experience you have is a good simulation, but the way you accomplish that is not. You may be surprised to hear this, but real world generals don't manage their armies using cards of hands. Napoleon didn't lose at Waterloo because he couldn't get a card for Grouchy's wing. However, all wargame mechanics have a degree of “design for effect” involved, even at the basic level that gamemaps are tiny-scale 2D representations of real physical space. Abstraction always leads away from “design for cause” to “design for effect”. The fact that – as I'll explain – the cards in C&C:A do the latter so well is worth remarking and studying.

On a battlefield, two key things affecting command and control are the amount of information available to the command and the efficiency of the command and control structures. In C&C:A, the players know exactly where every unit is, they know what the victory conditions are, they know any special rules – but they don't know what units can move at any time. They don't know what choices are available to their opponent (as they can't see their hand of cards), and they don't know what future choices are available to them (as they can't see the ordering of the deck). They can try to guess what their opponent is doing based on what cards they've played, they can try to piece together a strategy of their own from what's in their hand and what they can hope to get from the deck, and those two pieces of speculation are a large part of the skill of the game. This isn't just a fun game element – it does (I'd argue) successfully challenge the player with the real lack of information generals suffer from, and force them to make the sort of speculative decisions necessary on a changing battlefield.

The card mechanic also helps model the effect of friction on the efficiency of command and control structures. The contents of the deck helps players with units spread evenly across the battlefield, but in adjacent groups led by Leader blocks (via its spread of Section and Leadership cards). The size of your hand is affected by the skill of your commanding general, so the number of choices and amount of information available to you is in proportion to your army's command and control capability. As the battle proceeds, and each player's formations begin to break up due to combat and due to only being able to order so many units each turn, command and control becomes harder to exercise. By the end, both players are desperately trying to mass forces at the point of decision via increasingly inefficient cardplays, each looking to strike the final winning blow.

Plenty of very good games don't offer this much simulation of command and control issues. The two previous games I've reviewed here – Fire and Movement: Battle of the Scheldt and BoAR: Monmouth – and three games I'll be reviewing soon – Rommel's War, ASL Starter Kit #1, and Musket and Saber: Wilson's Creek – all have essentially good core systems, but none seriously model command and control, whether at the squad tactical, grand tactical, or operational scale. Most of those games are the same sort of complexity as C&C:A or heavier. For a simple-ish game to so effectively give players the sort of difficulties and confusion proper to a general on a battlefield is, I think, a real success.

Sniffs and Coughs
The Commands and Colors series receives a lot of condescension. Critical grognards may allow that it's “more or less” a wargame, and that possibly it's an alright gateway game, but real wargamers will grow past it. The core of the criticism is about the game's depth – does it simulate at any deep level the way ancient (or Napoleonic, or WW2, or whatever) worked? I'll stick here to discussing how it deals with ancient warfare.

I've already vigorously lauded its command and control mechanics. The most popular approaches to modelling that in the current wargames market, as far as I can see, rely on either chitpull or on Berg-style leader activation (ala Great Battles of History or of the American Civil War). Chit pull is slightly more complex than C&C:A, and the contents of a chit cup or the order of activations can be manipulated in various ways; Berg-style systems are almost by their nature a lot more complex, though they do bring a lot of depth with them. Chit-pull, then, is almost as simple to integrate into a system, though arguably less intuitive to the non-wargamer, and seems easier to granulate. However, the same can be done with Commands and Colors – specific cards can start in player's hands, for instance. One could argue either way as to dramatic value (which chit comes out next, which cards comes out from the deck), but C&C:A's Igo Ugo play probably helps keep the newer player better invested. So, yes, as to command and control, C&C:A is a great beginner game, but – for the reasons offered above – it keeps giving.

Another critique as to depth is as to whether the way unit types act is deep or realistic. Well, it's not deep in detail, and detail can be fun, but it can also be distracting. I have theorized that C&C:A draws inspiration from the DBx series of miniature rules before, and the key innovation there was designer Phil Barker moving from granular equipment-based unit rules in his previous WRG rulesets towards a “battlefield function/activity” system. In the Ancients iteration of the system, for instance, troops with bows might be either Psiloi or Bow, depending upon whether they functioned as skirmishers or as massed missile fire. Psiloi aren't very dangerous but are hard to kill and good at screening other troops; Bow are dangerous but easier to break up in the field. Same weapons, different effect. The same logic is applied to unit types in C&C:A – Heavy Infantry covers heavily armoured, formed troops armed with with pikes, spears, and swords, for instance. This is more abstraction than in DBx, but the same principle is in play – these are your slow-moving, heavy-hitting troops. And on the field the way the rules work for each unit type does make it feel like it. Light Infantry can skip forward and fire a bit (but not always very effectively), before Evading mele attacks and thereby making it harder to kill them. Heavy Infantry move half the speed of Light but once they're in combat they're deadly. Warriors (a special type of Medium Infantry) can move quickly into combat and whilst full-strength and high morale can do loads of damage, but their willingness to fight degrades once they take damage. This is more than enough unit detail for a game that takes an hour to play.

One also hears critique not about whether the behaviour is detailed but whether it is realistic. I can only really see this having much weight in one instance – in the case of the slightly more complex rules for Elephants. Beyond that, I'd argue unit behaviour is realistic to the depth the system goes. Elephants, on the other hand, can be a frustration – not so much with their unique attack dice situation (they attack with whatever their opponent attacks with, so they are much better against Heavy Infantry than Light, which is a fantastic way of modelling their battlefield strengths and weaknesses), but with the propensity for them to be a decisive factor in their army winning or losing, essentially on two or three rolls of the dice. Let's say you line up your Elephants perfectly and release them into the middle of your opponent's Heavy Infantry – there's a perfectly good chance they'll either shatter two or three enemy units, or that they'll do one block of damage and then be instantly killed in return. Of course, that's not entirely untrue to history, but it's an area where the luck involved does not always feel either a leveller or a challenge to be dealt with, but a punishment for one player or the other. However, again, with the weight of much experience of playing this game behind me, things do even out, both within the individual game and over a series of games. Elephants could be improved, certainly, but given that's the worst I have to say about the unit depiction, I think the game's doing pretty well.

Conclusion
Obviously I think this is a really good game. It's one of four games I've given a 10/10 on BGG. I think it's a great introductory game – I've played it with two of my preteen nephews and nieces, I've played it with my non-gamer dad, and I've introduced several other people to wargames via it. Furthermore, those people enjoy it! But it's a game I still enjoy playing, too. The variety of scenarios, the variety of unit types, the tension and challenge inherent in the core card mechanic, all combine to make this eminently playable for the veteran as well as the beginner.

Monday, 10 July 2017

REVIEW: Fire and Movement: Battle of the Scheldt: The Devil's Moat - by Eric R. Harvey and Christopher Cummins (Decision Games)

An Introductory Wargame
So – what makes an ideal introduction to wargames? Well, you'll need to define ideal, introduction, and wargames. I'm cheekily not going to it, but I'm going to say that Battle of the Scheldt: The Devil's Moat by Decision Games is, at least, a very good introduction to hex-and-counter wargames. I say on the basis that my wife played it and enjoyed it. She plays hobby games generally (and successfully), and wargames in amongst that, but her only hex-and-counter experience previously was The US Civil War (GMT Games, designed by Mark Simonitch). She simultaneously enjoyed it and found it bafflingly dense. My current campaign game of Rommel's War both bemuses her and takes up a lot of precious space in the dining room she could probably use better. But this worked.

Battle of the Scheldt, designed by Christopher Cummins and Eric R. Harvey, utilises the Fire & Movement system, one of a number of simple systems Decision Games use in their Folio Game Series. Fire & Movement covers 20th century warfare (where Musket & Saber, for instance, covers 19th century warfare); the main rulebook is 8 pages long, whilst the exclusive rules for this scenario are 4 pages long. The game also includes a 17”x22” map and 100 counters. All components are functional-to-good – the rule are pretty clearly laid out, the counters are alright (with nice national colour schemes), the map by Joe Youst is as simple and attractive as his usual work. But why is it good – at least as an introductory game?

Well, I suppose in one sense it has to be a good game, and we should address mechanics. But there's something about the “feel” - accomplished both by the core mechanics and the scenario chrome – which means that, once it's proven to function as a game proper, it can also function as a way to understand and engage with wargames as history and as conflict simulation (which are slightly different things, I'd argue, without desiring to prove why at this point).

A Short Mechanical Overview
A Fire & Movement game will consist of a number of turns, each of which will consist of one player taking their own turn and then the other player taking theirs. Each player turn consists of 4 phase – Movement, Combat, Mobile Movement, Mobile Combat. All units can move and attack in the first two, as appropriate; units marked as Mobile that have not already acted can move and attack in the Mobile phases. This allows armoured exploitation, which obviously fits the WW2 dynamic. Only one unit (counter) can be in a hex, though movement and retreat through friendly hexes is possible. There are soft zones of control (ie the 6 hexes around a unit), limiting but not blocking enemy movement, and affecting retreats after combat.

Combat is resolved by totalling the attacking units' Attack stats, comparing them with the defender's Defence stat, and then adding Support markers (on which more in a moment) to find a “differential” (the difference between the two totals). The attacking player then rolls a six-sided die and checks the result on a combat result table (CRT), with the column being the differential and the dice result being the row – the better the differential for the attacker, the worse the column's results are for the defender, and so forth. Fire & Movement does something quite clever with the CRT, integrating terrain into the CRT directly. You look at the top of the CRT, where the terrain is listed, find the right terrain row, and read along to the differential; this scales results in favour of the defender in a simple way. Of course that loses some of the delicacy possible with a separate terrain effects chart (TEC) – you can't have one terrain type double defence points whilst another just gives one column shift in favour of the defender.

Support markers replace specific counters for air and artillery assets, and are rated with a number which influences the differential (+2, +7, etc). In Battle of the Scheldt, you randomly draw from your side's pool of facedown counters each turn; in other games in the system your pool is fixed. You return all your counters at the end of each turn and draw again. These are used as part of a bidding mechanic in combat; the attacker gets to put one down first, or not; then the defender; then the attacker again; and finally the defender. There's a bluffing element in here (is he going to put down a marker or not? can I get him to waste a token for minimal cost?); there's a question of resource management (what other combats are going to happen this turn? am I going to attack in my player turn and so need to conserve markers?). This is clever and fun.

The other way you can use them – as part of an attack without an attacking counter, as part of a “bombardment” - is pretty lame. Not inherently, but the lack of restrictions on where bombardments can happen and the fact that if the attackers lose they have to damage their nearest counter (“friendly fire”) mean you'd have to houserule to make this worth the risk in most situations, and to ensure the breach in immersion isn't too extreme. In my two and a half plays, I haven't bothered doing that. No harm is done by leaving them out.

                                                       Initial Setup and Support Markers


The Feel of a Wargame
That question of immersion brings me back to what I in fact think is a great strength of the game and system. A good wargame, for me, isn't simply a good game (though it is that); it's a game which utilises the theme (war – and a specific war or battle) to engage the player in interesting decisions and to help them understand historical situations. Perhaps in a more nuanced sense, it combines the two so that players inhabit something like the historical decision space (or an interpretation of it).

This game achieves that. What's most interesting from a design perspective is that the game offers a relatively small number of big decisions. It offers any number of small decisions and tests of skill, but for the German player there's really only one big decision (seek to hold the Allies short of Beveland for most of the game, or defend the peninsula's neck whilst counterattacking further up the map to mess with the Allies). Indeed, for the Allies there isn't even a decision on that scale – the biggest decisions are about where to stick amphibious landings on a very limited coastal stretch.

But it is by limiting that decision space but making the management of it challenging, and adding in small bits of historical feel, that the game triumphs. The Germans have initially useful reinforcements and can even heal damage from some of their units early in the game – but they have very few counters and very soon their forces are in irretrievable decline. The Allies have a lot of units and a lot of replacement points, as well as useful batches of reinforcements later in the game, but they suffer from very real time pressure which makes every delay infuriating, whilst the need to cycle out weakened brigades and preserve their limited Mobile units means a lot of thoughtful management and manoeuvre. The scenario-specific movement rules and CRT help with this – moving through the ubiquitous Flooded areas is painfully slow, whilst the high likelihood of indecisive combat results in urban areas can make the Germans very hard to shift from their basement bunkers and church spires. Meanwhile, the Canadians landing in the Breskens Pocket in their amphibious vehicles or the special German 88mm Anti-Tank support marker (which can be played as a bonus marker against Allied tanks) are really nice small touches which make the era seem more real – this isn't just a wargame, but a wargame about World War 2. The scenario accurately depicts the superior numbers and firepower of the Allies, whilst also showing what a slog the campaign was – but in an enjoyable and immersive way. It does all this in a simple way, as well, which shows up many more complex systems.

A Primer for Wargaming
The relative obscurity of the battle and the useless Bombardment rule are the only downsides to this system. Those are trivial issues, and as a hex-and-counter to introduce a new player to, this is an attractive proposition. It does many of the things which the subgenre ought to do, and it does them well – from the tactile illusion of moving markers in a battlefield war-room to immersing the player in the nuances of the conflict through the big movement and combat rules and the little historical add-ons. It does them with simple and readable rules, running the same length as or shorter than some popular Eurogame rules (12 pages to Catan's 16 or Pandemic's 8). It can even play to more or less its stated length – 2 hours. No good wargame is, I think, going to be strictly “light”, but the clarity of the rules and the surprising depth of the simulation mean this feels to me like a great primer for people who might be interested in wargames but find them intimidating or inaccessible. There are other very good primers to wargames in other subgenres, but this is my favourite so far in hex-and-counter. Decision Games' Mini Series may be even better; I'll be playing some entries in that soon.

Conclusion

Aside from one rules niggle, and the general issues of sourcing non-GMT wargames outside the USA (Esdevium Games do have Decision in their catalogue, but it's a very spotty selection), this is a solid game, and potentially a very good primer for hex-and-counter wargames.

REFLECTIONS: ASL Starter Kit #1 - by Ken Dunn (MMP)

This isn't a review, formally speaking, at least not in my usual style – I'm not looking to come to a conclusion on ASL SK #1, yet...