Wednesday, December 15, 2010
DOC DECISION VERSUS THE KP MONSTER
ROYALISTS & ROUNDHEADS, The Battles of Justice Mills, Kilsyth, Naseby and Marston Moor; by ROB MARKHAM
from 3W GAMES
One 22" x 34" backprinted map; 400 counters; Rules Book, Chart, 1 6-sided die. Published by 3W Inc., POB 155, Cambria CA 93428; $25.
CROPREDY BRIDGE, by DR. MICHAEL GRACE
from S&T Magazine, #148, published by DECISION GAMES
One 22" x 33" map; 200 counters; Rules Insert. Published by Decision Games, POB 4049, Lancaster CA 93539; $10 for a single issue..
Reviewed by Richard H. Berg
It's been a long time since we had any sort of attention, other than haphazard lip-service, paid to pre-Napoleonic warfare. But in the space of 18 months we've seen a pre-18th century explosion, mostly in the ancient/classical area. Serendipitously, it has now spread to the 17th century, and we have no less than two, new systems covering the English Civil War. Grab your pikes, boys, the tercio will rise again.
The English Civil War was a tangential field of battle for The Thirty Years War, the one in which Protestants and Catholics decided to settle their minor differences by totally destroying Germany. This travelling horror show, surely a low point in mankind's inhumanity to itself, was also the Dawn of Modern Warfare. At Breitenfeld, in 1632, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, one of history's great military geniuses, unveiled an army and a tactical system so fast and deadly that, after they'd figured out what had hit them, his opponents took virtually no time at all in adapting and adopting. Gustavus' army had contained a large number of Scots, who, upon returning to England, lost similarly little time in letting everyone know what was happening. The results of all these changes were quickly put on display a decade later when the English decided to emulate their continental brethren and bash each other into oblivion. As is their wont, the Brits did produce some rip-roaring battles, led by some remarkably dense commanders (a situation the English seem to have trademarked, pace Marlborough). And now we lucky gamers can start reliving those glorious days of gore.
Royalists & Roundheads is a Rob Markham-designed quad game on four battles in the English Civil War, all from 1644-45. It comes in a rather attractive, one-inch box that uses a cover illustration from the Osprey series of military books. The components are good, with well-done Rick Pavek counters (featuring ye-olde silhouettes along with pictures of the leaders) and an acceptable, if not entirely satisfactory, set of maps from Ted Koller, whose diminishing talents may have much to do with his proximity to Disneyworld. The mapsheet comes with two game-maps on each side, so it helps to get your exacto knife and cut them down the middle, an easy enough task but one which brings to mind Keith's ever-burgeoning desire to save a penny here and there. There is also a short, readable rules-booklet and a separate scenario folder.
One would think that four games on English Civil War battles would be about three too many, but this is not the case. Quite simply, this is one of the more delightful surprises of the year; a neat little game that is eminently playable and a lot of fun. Markham, who appears to be working on more projects than the Pentagon, has adapted some of the mechanics from his 1862/1863 games, to which he has added a layer of Commands - a variety of orders under which a leader and his troops must operate - and CRT's that reflect the difficulties that era had in effectively combining musket and pike.
R&R uses an Igo-Hugo sequence of play fairly similar to Cropredy's, except that the latter Rallies first, while R&R places separate rally phases at the end of teach player sequence. Other than that, it's Move, Fire and Fight, and the general game flow is fairly similar to, albeit simpler than, the aforementioned 1863. At 175 yards per hex, the R&R games are somewhat less tactically-oriented than Cropredy; then again, it is an easier game to play - even though the Orders of Battle are pretty much at the same level. In R&R, we have two types of infantry (pikemen, usually with musket-provided fire capability) and "clansmen", the fierce Scots, many of whom do not have firearms. There are also detachments of musketeers and bowmen (!!). Interestingly - and realistically - the latter are more effective than the former. (The Welsh longbow had far greater range and penetrating power than a 17th century musket. However, it took years to train a bowman; it took weeks to teach someone to shoot a gun.) And of course, we get some artillery and the famous English cavalry, including lancers. At Cropredy, dragoons appear to have replaced lancers as the "mounted units of chrome".
Both games depend heavily on leaders and command. Markham's command system, however, is much less restrictive than Grace's and, even if not exactly historical, far more interesting. As a matter of fact, the R&R Command and Orders system is the game's "hook". All leaders have to be operating under one of six possible "Commands": Attack, Advance, Stand, Retreat, Reserve and Muster. Each allows that leader's troops to do certain things, and they restrict them from doing others. Changing these commands is often a rather haphazard undertaking, providing much flavor and fun for the system. How realistic and historic all of this is is somewhat dubious. In my, admittedly minimal, readings in this area, I never got the impression that the English Command system was that sophisticated, or that most of its practitioners were capable of doing anything other than acting rashly, dumbly or not at all. Moreover, while the differences between some of the commands are quite subtle, certain obvious maneuvers - one's that units could easily perform at the behest of, say, a sergeant-major - are not available when operating under certain "Orders". On the other hand, one should never underestimate how little units will actually do while in battle. A certain amount of "house-ruling" is recommended here, and, while I feel that the system is a lot of fun, it is more suited to the era of, say, Marlborough, than Rupert and Waller.
Combat - both fire and melee - produces few, instant results. No fire capability has more than a 1/3 chance of rendering even the least harmful of results, and, for melee, you have to get about 16 SP's involved (usually 3+ units) before you can even hope for some sort of definitive result. All of this reflects Markham's theory that combat was a rather unending affair in which superiority was achieved only after a lot of heavy eyeballing. Add to this that only certain Commands allow units to leave an enemy ZOC, and you have some pretty extended fighting.
The usual combat result - when you can get one - is a Morale Check. Morale is an area in which R&R is clearly superior, in terms of system, to Cropredy. Aside from the fact that Markham's 2-12 dice possibilities are far more "definitive" than Grace's old-fashioned six-sided system, Markham uses Morale as a combat result - not as a modifier, as Grace does in Cropredy. While unit morale may have some effect on how a unit does in combat, it is more effectively represented in gaming terms by how a unit reacts to combat. To use morale as a CRT column shift is to put the cart before the horse, and in rather inelegant harness, to boot. Then again, R&R does not purport to be as definitive a simulation as Cropredy - and it isn't. It surely doesn't attempt to answer, or even portray, many of the tactical questions that Cropredy addresses. It's just a good, fun game with a nice, battle-level feel for the era. The two, lesser-known battles - Justice Mills and, especially, Kilsyth, with its bleak, rolling Scottish moors - present more opportunity for maneuver than the two, set-piece big-namers, Marston Moor and Naseby. But all of them have an exceptionally high level of playability.
That's not to say R&R is without flaws. The game has the usual Poulter trademark: pas de development. Some of the misprints and typos are easily spottable (arrows with a range of 1700+ yards??!!), and none of the usual errata is insurmountable. However, the hexgrain for Marston Moor and Naseby is wrong. As I said last issue (in my review of Quatre Bras), if your battle flows north to south, your grain MUST run east to west if facing is an issue. This is simply a basic tool of professional game design; I'm somewhat amazed that a designer as knowledgeable as Rob M committed this basic no-no. (He, in turn, tossed that hot potato into KP's lap, where it, most likely, deserves to reside.) And virtually all the R&R battles waste HUGE amounts of map space, space that could have been used to enlarge the battlefield (at Marston Moor, for example, where the flank is the map edge), use bigger hexes for play ease, or even reduce the scale for more incisive effect.
Cropredy Bridge has somewhat of the same problem: lots of unused map space. However, at least in CB there is a possibility of going elsewhere. Not that it will matter much, and therein lies CB's drawback.
Whereas R&R has the feel of 1863 redux, CB appears to be - or at least to have originally been - an attempt to use a system along the lines of the pre-TCT "Great Battles of the American Civil War". The scale is 100 yards a hex and 50 men per SP (or about half that of R&R). Even within these differences, comparisons between the two games reveal some interesting numerical anomalies. Whereas, in Cropredy, heavy artillery can fire at a range of 900 yards maximum, R&R enables their guns to reach almost a mile. Perhaps we are dealing with "effective" range (a more realistic approach) vs. possible range, as artillery has little (16%) chance of doing even minimal damage at 1700+ yards in R&R. Both are more apropos than Dave Ritchie's old Cromwell's Victory, which gave artillery unlimited range! Cropredy, curiously, allows cavalry to fire (their pistols, I assume) at a range of 100-200 yards (two hexes), even though the "effective" range of these weapons was rarely over 30-50 yards!!
All of this is actually numbers "piffle", because Cropredy Bridge is the most impressive game the Cumminsian S&T group has produced. The map is attractive, effective and helpfully chart-laden, even if one of those charts - the Target Density Chart - appears to serve no useful purpose (and has no rule, other than a passing mention, explaining it's use or application). Given the fact that the present unit strengths render the chart pretty much non-applicable, I assume that this is a leftover from the original Grace design. I say that with some foreknowledge, as I happen to have a draft copy of the early game system (which Dr. Grace so kindly sent me, and which applies, interestingly enough, to Marston Moor). There we had the separate musket and pike counters the designer discusses in his notes, and, when you stacked them, you achieved the density to which the rule applied. All that seems to have been swept beneath the developer's rug.
The counters are most curious. They are not unattractive; the leader portraits are a nice touch, and some of the silhouettes are rather inventive. However, the Royalist counters are a bit rough on the eyes (the use of a white border for the black type, all set against the basic red of the counter, creates an interesting "wobble") and some of those same silhouettes are truly difficult to comprehend. It took me fully half the game to realize that the picture on the cavalry counters was a "head-on charge" shot, and the dismounted dragoons look nothing less than a mini-poster for New Kids on the Block. On the other side of the ledger, the markers are clear and very informative/helpful (even with the typos). Even more important, the magazine, itself, actually looks good! Let's hope the infusion of Keith Schlesinger (tester and stacking maven non pareil), John Kisner and Beth Queman (welcome back, Beth!) keep this going.
Cropredy is more successful as a simulation than a game. The system has few surprises for those who have played tactical games, other than a rather elaborate set of cavalry charge rules - sort of a horsey-set, but interesting, version of Opportunity Fire. Although the fact that the Melee CRT is asymmetrical - which means that, although the chances of getting a better result with greater odds are still there, it does not necessarily mean that the greater odds for the same dieroll will be better - is somewhat annoying (because it is an unnecessary affectation), the game does have a nice tactical flavor. Most of this comes from Grace's wrestling with the combined arms problem of muskets and pikes and how the units work. His solutions, in terms of combat results, are quite effective. Fire, for the most part, causes "hits" (which, in turn, become Melee CRT modifiers!) and/or actual Losses, which reduce either Fire or Melee strength on the spot - target's choice. (I find this method - target's choice - of deciding who gets hit a rather unsatisfactory and somewhat design-lazy way of apportioning casualties; it's been with us so long, though, that it's almost unavoidable.) Melee causes disorganization, with a few "L's" thrown in (again, asymmetrically) for luck. The effect is a nice "soften 'em up with muskets and then charge em with pikes/cavalry" effect. This is further complicated by the fact that most of the units are cavalry, which tend to range far ahead of their infantry support. This creates some realistically tricky problems for the opposing commanders/players.
Unfortunately, over all of this is a layer of Command control the mechanics and application of which I found to be unsatisfactory. The basic problem is that no unit outside Command Range can move - at all - and even units with a subordinate leader cannot do anything unless those lesser lights are within range of their General Officer. This creates some remarkably unrealistic situations in which commanded units far away from the actual combat simply stop moving. Granted, the short leader ranges effectively represent a set of commanders almost legend for their inability. But, in Cropredy, the command system portrays this in such a simplistic format that the resultant effect on play is unsatisfactory. The very real frustrations of control and lack thereof are welcome additions to any system, but there ought to be some rule which allows units a certain distance from the enemy to simply keep moving forward; the laws of inertia certainly take a beating here.
Cropredy's worst problem, though, is the fact that it is just not a very interesting situation to game. The short scenario is pretty much impossible for the Parliamentarians to win, and the victory conditions for the "whole battle" game virtually beg players to play for a draw. The basic problem, here, is that the Hays Bridge objective, to the north and rear of the Royalist lines, is an unattainable Parliamentarian objective, unless the Royalist player simply doesn't move for about 4-6 turns at a time. And if the Roundheads decide to commit enough troops to even try to take the bridge they leave Cropredy Bridge - the Royalist objective - open for an easy thrust. The end result is that, other than you paid good money and you might as well throw a few dice, there is no reason to do anything! Just because some third-rater. English commander (here, Waller) thought a headlong charge against a defended position might be the thing to do is no reason for a game player to emulate such silly conduct.
Both games would also benefit from using a 10-sided die, which is proving to be the "weapon of choice" for tactical designs. It's not that the ten-sider is any more "reliable" in reproducing statistical accuracy than the old six-sider. It's just that using a ten-sider enables you to expand the types of ratings you need in tactical games to a much subtler, more evocative level.
The English Civil War has produced far too few tactical games, if we (gratefully) exclude those generic abominations that pop up in such disguises as Musket and Pike. And while Royalists & Roundheads and Cropredy Bridge are not the ultimate answer in this area both have a lot to recommend them. Already, Markham and Poulter have an R&RII in the offing. It should be interesting to see how (and if) both systems develop.
Physical Quality: Both games are visually attractive, with Cropredy having the better map but R&R the better counters.
Playability: Both games are quite playable (especially solitaire), although R&R, being much less tactically involved, is easier to get into and play. CB does have some "rules-searching", what-are-we-supposed-to-be-doing-here problems.
Historicity: Cropredy is a pretty fair simulation of some of the tactical problems of the era, although not quite as definitive or satisfactory as one might wish. R&R, although more of a "game", still has a nice flavor. Both games take off-the-wall stabs at the problems of command.
Playing Time: Any of the R&R games can be completed in one sitting. Cropredy plays a little longer, especially with the complete battle game. However, it won't take long for players to realize, after a while, that there's little to do at Cropredy.
Comparisons: R&R is virtually the same scale as Dave Ritchie's Cromwell's Victory (Marston Moor, S&T #101).While Ritchie does little to address the tactical problems, gives us artillery with unlimited range (?!?), and a general system that smacks of "Blue & Gray Goes to London", he does have a fairly nice smoke/visibility rule. Aside from that, there's nothing to recommend CV over R&R. As for Royalists vs. Cropredy, the latter has a much more analytical, rewarding system. Despite it's oddities, it does tackle tactical problems interestingly. R&R, however, is a lot more fun, and any of its four battles is far more interesting - and fun - than the Mexican Standoff that passes for an engagement at Cropredy Bridge. On the other hand, Grace's system has the potential for producing a far better simulation/game.
Overall: Two interesting, enjoyable, albeit flawed games. Both are well worth the effort, although you'll get far more "replay" value from Royalists.
Friday, December 10, 2010
OH BROTHER . . . AND WHY BOTHER
THE CIVIL WAR, THE WAR THAT PITTED BROTHER AGAINST BROTHER, Foisted on the public by MIKE CRANE
from FRESNO GAMES ASSOCIATED (RMW Division, no less)
Three 22" x 34" maps, 960 counters, one Rules/History Book, 14 Play-Aid Cards, one die. From FGA Games, 228 S. Lind Ave., Fresno CA 93727; $40.
Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG
I'm not going to waste too much of your time - and my editorial space - with extensive FGA Bashing. It's too easy, like kicking a very dead and overly putrefied horse. Pure and simple, this is A Very Bad Game. Paying money to buy Brother vs Brother is akin to throwing it into a trash bin - even if you get it back, the stench of decay hovers about it.
Some brief notes of obituarial interest. That the map is pretty much a direct adaptation of the Terry Hardy/SPI War Between the States map is well known. There are, though, a few interesting changes (some of which are for the better) together with some placement and proofing errors which lead one to believe that final copy was reviewed by Stevie Wonder. Most illuminating, though, is the use of the WBTS road network on the SW map for a rail network on the corresponding BvB map! Further proof that Plagiarism need not be sullied by Intelligence.
Yet again, FGA is doing the box before they have the design. (Then again, word has it that design work on BvB did not start in earnest until fall, 1991 - about 11 hours before they shipped it to the printer.) The Box Blurb insists there are two 11"x17" maps along with the other three. Search in vain, my friends. Further proof that Advertising need not be sullied by Truth.
The game has one - ONE!! - scenario: the entire war, starting in early April, 1861. Heaven forbid you should not have the several weeks it would take to play this thing (which, incorrectly, assumes it is playable). If you want to game, say, 1862, you're dumb out of luck - which is what you are in the first place if you paid for the game. Of course, starting the war in April, 1861, thus eliminating scenarios, means you don't have to go slogging through books to find out who was where with how many men. Further proof that Publishing need not be sullied by Work.
The system for using leaders in combat is actually quite interesting; they actually had the germ of a workable idea there. That it is not fully explained, and that some of the leader ratings have all the historical efficacy of one of Bomba's "Surf Nazis Go to Dubuque" games, obliterates the one (grantedly slim) chance FGA had for any sort of historical insight.
And, speaking of history, fully half the Rules Book is taken up by a purportedly "historical" article on the war by Mike Crane, a writer of such minimal talent that you pray he gets a government-supported position somewhere; something, one hopes, where skill has nothing to do with earning power. I have been informed that one Famous Game Designer, an historian/writer of no little note, had to be restrained from violence upon reading it. I, fortunately, was in a commuter train when my Perusal of Doom occurred. Luckily, the crew was knowledgeable in CPR, or my apoplectic Conniption Fit could have been fatal.
Did you know that the Battle of Chancellorsville was won when Jeb Stuart's cavalry destroyed the Union left wing? No? Well, that's just one of the Amazing Cranic Revelations one comes upon in the back pages of the BvB Book. Or how about such statements as, " . . . I can't recall of [sic] a single instance in which Confederate failure in battle was attributed to a lack of powder." [Hmmm . . . one wonders whether the reference is to gunpowder or Max Factor. With FGA you never can be sure.] Or, " . . . when was the last time you heard or read of someone arguing that a particular battle was lost by the Confederacy because the soldiers had no weapons?" Perhaps literally true - but NOT the point. You don't "Lose" a battle from lack of supply - you don't "Engage" in battle because of that dearth. To wit, (from "Confederate Supply", by Richard Goff, page 208):
As the campaigning progressed through 1863, supply problems, particularly logistics, had . . . become a determining factor in the inception and conduct of military operations [my emphasis] . . . . only Lee had been blessed with enough freedom from supply worries to base his movements primarily on strategic considerations. . . . By the autumn . . . Lee's supply problems had crippled his activities and by the winter he found himself bound to his railroad supply line and, thanks in part to Davis's fondness of laissez-faire railroad transportation, almost starved.
The effect of supply, in terms of the South's "winning/losing", was not whether they could put a gun and a biscuit in someone's hands; the effect of the Confederacy's supply problems is what reduced availability, difficult logistics, and concomitant organizational problems can do to a War Effort. I sincerely doubt Crane got within five miles of Goff's book or any of the recent, cogent works of Archer Jones and his compatriots. It will come as no surprise, therefore, to find that the game has NO supply rules. Further proof that Insight need not be sullied by Research.
Brother Against Brother is so worthless and stone-stupid that a career could be spent covering its failures, its ineptitudes, and the unmitigated gall it exudes. That the game is a thinly disguised effort to make money off what FGA perceives (and perceives wrongly, it turns out) as a gullible public is monumentally evident from the sheer lack of work put into it. Rob Markham, in "Volunteers" magazine, summed it up quite succinctly when he said that the game took away his breath - much the same as did his last asthma attack. He fervently hopes he never re-experiences either one again. Amen to that, brother.
Only One: Don't buy it. And if you have, ask for your money back on the Implied Warranty that the damn thing was supposed to be playable - because it ain't.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Here's a forgotten game...
RAID ON RICHMOND, by KEITH POULTER
from 3W GAMES
Two 22" x 24" maps, 300 counters; Rules Book, 1 6-sided die; 3W, POB 157, Cambria CA 93428; $25.
Reviewed by Richard H. Berg
You know, it may be unkind of me to say this, but some people laugh at Keith Poulter. I am not one of them. Oh, I have often chuckled at several of the weirder/shadier things he has done, some of which border on legend - like the Eylau Redux issue he tossed over his shoulder as he headed out the back door at S&T, bags of cash in hand. And I do not operate under the delusion that he is a tightly controlled, highly organized, business genius. What I also do not do is underestimate him, because, unlike several people in this industry, Keith truly loves both wargames and history. He's also a very knowledgeable, observant, witty and likeable man. Just don't lend him any money .
After KP dumped the debt-ridden "Strategy & Tactics" into the laps of Clan Cummins in a deal which made any self-respecting S&L owner green with envy, instead of fading into oblivion Poulter decided to retire to his estate in the shadow of Hearst's San Simeon and continue to write that 375-volume Civil War epic novel he has been working on since about a week after Appomatox. But the lure of wargaming - and its sales - was like the Voice of the Siren. No sooner had he exited stage left as Magazine Publisher then he appeared, in the best Charles Ludlum fashion, stage right, as Boxed Game Publisher Extraordinaire. Well, if KP does qualify as extraordinaire, the several games he had at Origins 91 - The Defense of Rorke's Drift (which included a Fisher-Faust special on the Boer War), an item entitled 2WW (I think), plus some off-the-wall science fiction disaster - were anything but. Word was that if he hadn't had the inimitable presence of La Powell selling his games, 3W's would have been The Booth That Never Was.
Was Poulter kidding? Was he really going to produce 6-8 games a year? Who would buy them, especially after the dreary debut of those first few, complete with drab 70's graphics and a visual impact something less than that of a bale of cardboard. As I said, never underestimate KP, for his next two games, if not spectacular successes, should go a long way towards dispelling the snickering.
The most intriguing of the two is Raid on Richmond, a game unlike anything I've ever seen. The subject, itself, is unusual and obscure: the brilliantly-conceived, but cravenly aborted, Kilpatrick cavalry strike against the Confederate capital in early 1864. The city was poorly defended, even though it housed virtually all of the South's politicians and was "home" to several war prisons, including the infamous Belle Isle and Libby Prisons. That the raid never actually occurred is more a tribute to the ineptness and sheer gutlessness on the part of Kilpatrick than anything else. However, the possibilities of what might have occurred had Old "Kill Cavalry" had more backbone than a slug make for some interesting, "alternate history" gaming.
The first thing that strikes you about Raid is that the gameboard has no hexes, squares or any of the usual movement regulators. The rather large (2' x 4') map is a nicely done (by the now-ubiquitous Mark Simonitch), literal, evocative and accurate birds-eye rendering of the city of Richmond in 1864. The counters are workmanlike, but eminently readable; they also stand out nicely against the basic yellowosity of the map. Unlike the somewhat clumsy system used in S&T's Baton Rouge, city movement is by street/block and intersection; open areas use tufts of grass (I kid you not) to gauge distance. It all sounds obscure, but it works. And it works with minimal anomalies, which is more than you can say for some of the other rules.
In several places Raid is quite a creative, little game. And if you keep in mind the fact that, in spite of its overlaid historicity - the accurate map and OoB - this is truly a "game", you are in for a lot of fun. The short rules - five pages in all - start out with an unusual Sequence of Play. Essentially, there are 7 markers, each representing a command. For the Union it is either Kilpatrick's or the ill-fated Dahlgren's brigades; for the CSA it refers to units that either start on the map or come on from a specific direction. The chits are picked randomly each turn, and each "command" moves and fights before picking a new chit. Players therefore rarely know who is going to do what, when - an always interesting mechanic. And while the Union has only two command markers to the Confederate's five, the Union has the advantage of being able to move large, cohesive groups of strong units, while the CSA player is often reduced - especially in the first five or six turns - to shooting elephants with peashooters.
What happens, for the most part, is that those two, massive Union cavalry brigades come galloping into the city to loot, maim, burn, destroy and wreak havoc, all activities dear to the heart of every gamer. In addition, the Union player has to free his POW's plus as many local slaves as he can gather and escort out of town. The Confederate, blissfully unaware that any of this is about to happen, has to then try to staunch a hundred spurting arteries, seemingly at once. Eventually, he will gather enough worthwhile troops to be able to fight the federals on even terms. Unfortunately, by that time, the Union player may have blown enough of the bridges and kept moving eastward through the city fast enough to both accomplish his aims and get out of town. All of this serves to create a very fluid, very dynamic situation just made for the phrase "Beer & Pretzels". (I actually prefer Crystal Lite and Chili, or perhaps a nice, robust beaujolais nouveau with a velvety cassoulet . . . .)
The game is so easy to assimilate it will take about ten minutes to get going - and then the fun starts, in every sense of the word. The first thing you notice is that cavalry, infantry and militia - even POW's - all move at the same rate. The locals (called "white civilians" in the Politically Incorrect move of the year), when rousted from their hearth and home, seem to move at about one-fourth the military rate. Slaves do not appear to have any movement rate (or at least not one I could readily ascertain). What these folks do is follow their Federal raider brethren through the streets of Richmond in an immense conga-like line. (My opponent for this playtest, the otherwise estimable and PC-aware David Fox, whistled "Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it's off to work we go . . ." every time he had to move the slaves. Somewhat insensitive, perhaps, but visually applicable - and rather in the goofy mood we had reached by this time.)
One important group seems to have no movement allowance: Confederate politicians, here, meaning Jeff Davis, Prison-camp honcho, General Winder, and the entire Confederate Cabinet. They start the game stuck in a bunch of buildings awfully close to the in-rushing Union cavalry, with no effective military support to stop them from being grabbed in the first 3 or 4 turns. There is no rule to indicate that they would, or could, move out of harm's way. Perhaps, as someone suggested, there should be a counter for Jeff Davis' wife's wardrobe, enabling him, through cross-dressing, to attempt to escape (as he did at the end of the war). House Rules are in bad need here. Unfortunately, by the time you discover they are needed Davis and his cabinet are splattered all over the sidewalk, Winder is on his way to an appearance on America's Most Wanted, and, for all intents and purposes, the raid is over. (Unless you're an Alexander Stephens man, in which case you can declare a CSA victory.) By the time this all happened, though, we didn't care; we were having too much fun burning, looting and shufflin' off to Buffalo.
Then there's the game's combat system, which is truly non compis mento . There is no separate "fire" and "melee"; units simply "fire" at each other at a range of five MP's or less. Makes no difference whether you're cavalry or infantry, whether two hexes distant or five
. . . the result is the same (depending on how many strength points are fired, of course, and whether the target is inside, outside, on a bridge, or whatever.) The number of sheer goofball situations this produces borders on the legendary. Picture this one: 150 mounted federal horse soldiers enter an urban building (neat trick), at which point they become totally impervious to all the one-point militia units with which the CSA player is burdened. You get this vision of about all these mounted troops, both horse and rider, relaxing in a local men's club, oblivious to the hail of shot whistling around them. Then, having repulsed the foolhardy militia attack, they all down their last shot glass, pay the tab, ride out the door, and blow away the foolish locals. All still on their horses. (To be fair, one could assume they got off their horses before they entered the building, but that assumption would not be in the true "Alphonse and Gaston" spirit the game conveys.)
There are actually LOS and facing rules, most of which we ignored - they got in the way of the fun, and nothing else in the combat system bore any resemblance to reality, so why should this aspect rear its ugly head? There are also barricades, bucket brigades (for burning buildings), wind direction (which changes so often you'd think that all you have to do to leave town is click your red shoes together), a saloon rule (the possibilities for which are nowhere near mined in any depth) and a victory rule which insists players play with a sense of honor. (Granted, few players I have met have anything approaching this, but, it seems, in Raid on Richmond, you can't leave the sick and infirm behind, and you can't use slaves as shields - unless you're Southern, of course, in which case a set of African Armor IS a badge of honor.)
Speaking of victory, the somewhat artificial conditions imposed on the players bear only passing resemblance to reality. If the raiders kill Davis and a slew of local politicos, grab Winder for trial, and steal all the Confederate records - all relatively easy feats given the rules in their present state - but they don't burn any buildings or otherwise create any picturesque havoc, they lose! However, in purely "gaming" terms, RoR's victory requirements do make for one exciting race to the finish. I wasn't quite sure why the Union player doesn't get any points for escorting the cast of The Chorus Line off the map before turn 17, but that rather arbitrary restriction didn't seem any stranger than a lot of the other rules. I was also somewhat disappointed that you couldn't (purposely) allow people trapped in burning buildings to become Rye Krisp. (I tried that in Blackbeard, too, but those Grundy-like Bowdlerizers in Baltimore excised that gleeful bit of grand guignol. "Such blatant cruelty has no place in a family-oriented game," they said. Whereas, machine-gunning Banzai-shouting Japanese does, I suppose.) I mean, gimme a break . . . according to the rules, the Confederate player, if forced to choose between a Union target and a group of slaves, has to fire on the slaves. Why can't he just shove them into the nearest barbecue?
About two-thirds through the game we realized we had uttered the phrase, "Is He Kidding?", about a dozen times. We realized he wasn't - and, perhaps, he was, all at the same time. And that's when the fun really began.
Raid on Richmond is a game that must be approached with a rather expansive sense of humor. It exudes a high level of gutsy, albeit demented, creativity. It also has not benefitted from anything even remotely approaching "development"; in other words, a quintessential Poulter product. It's also like one of those ads for what you immediately know will be a Grade-Q movie; you know, the ones where they show you a row of pictures of the "stars" (usually someone who gets fifth billing in "Matlock") with subtitles like "The Killer; he killed in vain", "The Dentist; he drilled in vein", "The Agent; he shilled in vain", etc. The ads then go on with copy like, "You'll Laugh! You'll Cry! You'll Shout With Glee!" (I always wondered, what if "Glee" wasn't there?). Well, you get to do all those egregious things with Raid on Richmond. Somewhat tangentially, you also get at least some insight into a pretty-much forgotten incident. And I'll say one thing, I had a ball playing it. I haven't laughed so hard in years - at least not since Decision Games sent me their last contract offer.
Physical Quality: Good. Interesting, unusual and well-executed - albeit colorless - map, with readable, if unspectacular, counters.
Playability: Easy to get into, lot's of fun to get through. Don't waste time looking up rules which are probably not there. Just go with the flow. It's playable solitaire, with some minor adjustments, but it's really meant to be played face-to-face.
Historicity: Lots of historicity, very little realism.
Playing Time: Easy one-evening, four-hour special.
Comparisons: S&T's recent Baton Rouge had street-fighting (and a great map), but the approach was different, more serious (it's a GBACW game) and not as efficacious. The recent, Rob Markham/XTR Wahoo is the reverse-mirror image of RoR: there we have a fictitious attack on Washington by Lee's ANV, victorious at Gettsysburg. Wahoo is rather more coherent, in terms of rules, with a somewhat larger scale. (All in all, it's rather a nice little game!) Both are lots of fun to play - although RoR is unwittingly funnier (Wahoo tries too hard in that department) and a bit more creative - and if you enjoyed one you'll like the other.
Overall: Truly one of the loopiest - and daring - designs in past memory. Long on bravura, short on execution. But, if you don't approach it as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls, and if you're looking for a lot of laughs (and a tough game to win), this is a worthwhile purchase. As my opponent commented while executing the Roots Rumba down Broad Street, "You know, this is the type of game Avalon Hill used to do. Wonder why they don't do this stuff any more?" Interesting point.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Dated . . . but still fun . . .
IT'S THAT TIME . . .
THE 1991 "LITTLE MAC" AWARDS
Our awards for dubious achievement in the gaming industry, named in honor of George B. McClellan - for obvious reasons - once again grace the page, albeit with little grace. After almost a decade in mothballs, Little Mac has returned, and he's meaner than a pitbull on crack. Which is probably as good an excuse as any for the (well-earned) approbriums rendered below. This year we think we got everybody at least once. (Well ,we did leave out Don Greenwood, but he was too busy honing his accuracy-in-sales-forecasting skills to disturb.)
THE ALI HAKIM, PEDDLER OF THE YEAR TROPHY . . . to Robert Mossiman, Canadian entrepreneur extraordinaire, and purchaser of virtually every out-of-print (and rightfully so) game he could get his hands on. He scoured the four corners of the world buying unsalable games. Couldn't sell it when it first came out? Mossiman would buy it. Excalibre, Phoenix . . . you name it. If it bombed, the Moss Man bought it. For emptying out every dusty, cobwebbed warehouse in N. America, we give Bankrupt Bob a front row seat at any 3-card Monte game on lower 5th Avenue., along with two slices of pie-in-the-sky.
THE OSCAR WILDE AWARD FOR FELICITIOUSLY WITTY TURNS OF PHRASE . . . to Ty Bomba, for actually saying, in print, "Be There or Be Square". Guess you lost your trip-tik, Ty.
A SIGNED PHOTOGRAPH OF JOSEPH GOEBBELS . . . to Terry Shrum, for the following quote (attributed to him by a well-placed, but presently-in-hiding source): "Development is a redundant step in the proven (FGA) design/playtesting process". Actually, the word should have been "oxymoronic", Terry, not "redundant".
A FADED TAPE OF "CITIZEN KANE" . . . for the crack editorial staff at Decision Games. Actually, they have managed quite a feat. They've taken three of the cornerstone magazines of wargaming - S&T, F&M and Moves - and so thoroughly trashed them through mismanagement and lack of creative talent that the sheer scope of their "achievement" boggles the mind . . . if there was ever a boggleable mind to being with, which we doubt. Ole Doc' Decision wouldn't have it any other way.
THE JAMES WATTS MEMORIAL PLAQUE FOR ACHIEVEMENT IN MEDIA COMMUNICATIONS . . . to Ed Wimble (Clash of Arms) for this scintillating, Christmas-time radio interview (only partially paraphrased):
Rep: Tell us, Mr Wamble, just what is a wargame or, as you called it, a conflict simulation?
EW: (in his best Bill Stern imitation possible): Well, suppose Napoleon took the road to Mons instead of the road to Brussels . . .
Rep: Ahhhh . . . OK, but would you tell our listeners what is that point of playing a wargame?
EW: Suppose Napoleon took the road to Mons instead of the road to Brussels . . . . .
Rep: Well, uh, OK, and thank you, Mr Womble of Clash of Arms Wargames . . . . and now this word from Preparation "H". . . .
The Wargame Industry thanks you, Ed.
A TAPE OF RONNY HOWARD SINGING, "OH THE WELLS FARGO WAGON IS A COMIN" . . . to Simulation Design, Inc., for pre-pub selling three games and a set of new Cedar Creek counters, none of which they ever published!! Prof. Harold Hill would have been proud.
A GUEST APPEARANCE IN "CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH, II" . . . to Keith Poulter, for, yet again, having his Origins booth "manned" by the formerly nubile, but now glaringly Rubenesque, Melinda Powell. Lookin' tight in white, selling Boers to boors. You drool on it, you bought it. Melinda, ya broke my heart.
SIX POUNDS OF EX-LAX . . . for Jim Dunnigan and his (and GEnie's) magnum opus non-aroundus, the computerized epic on the 100 Years Wars. Maybe the title refers to the design schedule. Is it soup yet??
A SPECIAL, JIM McKAY, "AGONY OF DA FEET" AWARD . . . to Rodger MacGowan, for attempting to do a half gaynor, 6.4 degree of difficulty, off the mountain, back of his house. Way to go, Rog . . . . He recuperated by watching "My Left Foot".
THE OLIVER STONE, "HISTORY AS FICTION - FICTION AS HISTORY" AWARD . . . to Command Magazine, #13, for putting Godzilla, Death Rays and a Nazi panzer brigade into their "Desert Storm" game. Jonathon Winters plays Stormin Norman, with a guest appearance by Larry Baggett as Gojiro (as they say on Honshu). I demand to see the sources for this!!!
SIX HUNDRED COPIES OF THE WEST END AD FOR "DRUID" . . . to Gene Billingsley, for running the same ad for "Hornet Leader" over, and over, and over, and over . . . lending depth to the phrase ad nauseum and not once putting a word in print for any of GMT's other games. We know things are bad on Mad Ave, Gene, but those chimps in the basement have to go.
AND A SPECIAL SCREENING PF ‘take the money and run” . . . . for Roger Whitney, late of Fresno Games, for his unusual method of dissolving the partnership. According to rumor, he simply withdrew $10,000 from the company till and walked away. He’s scheduled to appear on “America’s Least Wanted”.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
THE INVASION'S NEW CLOTHES
D-DAY, by S.CRAIG TAYLOR
from THE AVALON HILL GAME COMPANY
One 14" x 22" mounted gameboard; 110 counters; one rules sheet, one Manual Book; two OB Charts; two ten-sided die; boxed. $21
Mini-review by RICHARD H. BERG
One of AH's best marketing ideas in decades, other than using my picture on the front of the Blackbeard game, was hooking up with the Smithsonian Institute for this series of what amounts to redesigns of all their old, classic, titles that have anything to do with America at war. The first in the series was last summer's Battle of the Bulge. Now we get a brand-new D-Day.
Craig Taylor's 1992 version is pretty much a complete overhaul of the old, "classic" D-Day, which was one of my favorite AH'ers. Invasion games are, by nature, always fun; you can change your plan in any number of ways, and few games ever play the same way. And there's always the chance of getting that "rush" from completely outwitting your opponent.
The Smithsonian Series games come in big boxes, almost as big as the ones that GDW recently unveiled for Tet Offensive and Stand and Die, with a cover by George Parrish that appears to throw in a little something for everybody. If there's a visual symbol of WWII that's been omitted, it was probably through oversight. Unfortunately, while production is infinitely more colorful than the old edition it is to less effect. The now, full-color, mounted map is, for some reason, 1/2 the size of the original. It also covers about twice as much of Europe: the old map gave us France and the Low Countries; the new one runs all the way to Vienna, Prague and Berlin. This is a strange design decision, as the victory conditions are still for the Allies to get across the Rhine, not to vacation with the Hapsburgs. The result is that about 40% of an already small surface is somewhat unnecessary.
Gone are the old "pink-and-blue" counters; now we have "green-and-grays", with a few other identifying color schemes thrown in. We also get several different shapes and sizes: combat units are the standard-size markers, while armor HQ's, air units and markers are Panzerblitz size; and the optional Supreme HQ units are round! Not exactly XTR glitz, but certainly up-to-date and readable. Along with the change in map scale comes a concurrent revision in unit scale; our combat units - and there are only 70 of them - are now, mostly, corps - not divisions. The Basic rules are on a single, two-sided sheet which probably has more information than the old rules folder. There are a few optional and advanced rules (6 out of a total of 36 pages) in the nicely done "Battle Manual". The manual also contains a brief Bibliography, the usual, good Craig Taylor essay, some pictures, a few charts, etc.
Given the Smithsonian tie-in, D-Day 1992 is obviously a package aimed at a wider audience than your average wargamer. The usual AH ad/folder that accompanies the game seems to reinforce that theory, including, as it does, four "blurbs", two of which are from Singapore and South Africa (Singapore has a really great wargame store, by the way; they have one copy of "everything!") and one from the Pearl Buck Foundation - an unusual source of plugs at best. At the same time, the game is not quite as easy (or simple) as the old D-Day. While more historically "chromey" - there are optional rules for Mulberries, air rules that are more or less an expansion of the old game's optional Strategic Air Power rule, etc. - the reason for this appears to be more a desire to get away from the old game's style and time-honored, 3-1 AH CRT. The combat system, in fact, is the biggest change in the game - aside from the scale and scope.
The Sequence of Play, while retaining the mold of the old Igo-Hugo system, throws in an interesting overlay of logistics. Under the rather confusing term, "Moves", each player gets a certain number of points which he may use to activate units for movement and attack. In the basic game each player receives a set number of Moves per turn; the optional rules allow them to be acquired based on control of supply sources, HQ's, etc. Playing with those optional rules actually changes the thrust of the game somewhat.
Along with a more logistical feel, the new D-Day comes with a totally different method of resolving combat. There is no CRT! Players total their SP's and add to (or subtract from) their total a variety of terrain modifiers. To this total they then add a dieroll number, with the higher total "winning". If the victory total exceeds the loser's by 4+ points losses (in steps) are taken. This is a rather nice, neat little system, easy to grasp and implement,which will probably appeal to novices more than "classics" aficionados, who tend to be a rather conservative bunch. Craig Taylor, one of gaming's greats, can always be counted on to provide something different and inventive in even the most mundane of games.
And, despite the game's new, spiffy set of togs, this is a pretty mundane affair. It reminds me of one of those mini-items Frank Chadwick at GDW is always coming up with at convention time to try to suck unsuspecting outsiders into the hobby. And D-Day 1992 is really a mini-game, with an applicable playing surface not much more than an 8x11 sheet of paper. It moves along kind of quickly (there are only 12 turns in a game), and there's plenty of action - mostly because putting 50+ combat units into about 200 hexes produces that sort of feel. Balance is pretty dependent on where you invade and where you defend. I ran through it using a pretty historical set-up and found that the Allies could win handily (they got way more than 20 units across the Rhine), but that this "break-thru" occurred only in the 10th turn, after an almost complete Axis collapse.
This is not a game that will appeal very greatly to regular gamers, for whom it will not be enough, or to the "classicists", for whom the changes will be too much. On the other hand, I can't see any reason why someone new to the hobby might not find it interesting. AH's best hope is that the chachka store at the Smithsonian displays it prominently.
Physical Quality: High, if a bit on the garish side. Information very accessible.
Playability: A simple game that is easy to learn (maybe five minutes) with a few twists that raise it somewhat above "introductory" level. A good solitaire game, although I don't know why anyone would want to do that.
Historicity: Not much, but not a major issue here. Some of the chrome does lend a bit of the feel for the campaign.
Playing Time: Couple of hours. You can probably play two games in one night.
Comparisons: As "simple", but not as accessible or as interesting as the old D-Day, and not as much fun as the Smithsonian Bulge game. Atlantic Wall or The Longest Day it ain't.
Overall: While this may be a good game to get for your young nephew/niece, and it does have some interesting logistical overlay, this will not be a "classic".
Saturday, December 4, 2010
THE LEGEND BEGINS, by MARK SIMONITCH
from RHINO GAME COMPANY
One 17" x 22", one 11" x 17", and one 10" x 17" map; 400 counters; 8 charts and tables cards; one Rules booklet; zip-lock bagged. $22
Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG
Used to be, the best "map-men" in the business were Larry Catalano and Ted Koller. Their time has past, though, and we now have some new names (and faces) to whom we look with pleasure: Dave Fuller, Kevin Boylan and gaming's new Man for All Seasons, Mark Simonitch. (Although FGA's maps are greeted with much enthusiasm, I have not been that impressed. Then again, I have not seen their two latest ventures into The Art of the Shill.) Simonitch, however, not content to sit at his drawing board, has ventured into the rough waters of game design and publishing. Obviously, he didn't ask around.
The Legend Begins covers a familiar, and popular, subject: WWII in No. Africa, this time limited to 1941. There have been innumerable games on this subject, many of them quite good. They always sell fairly well, not an unimportant consideration when opening one's design doors. It is also well-documented, even if several of the sources do seem to have many differences of opinion. The campaign has lots of movement, lots of tanks, relatively few units, and Rommel . . . a game designer's paradise. And into this veritable Eden wanders our leafless hero, about to take a bite out of that big apple.
Ignoring the fact that the game comes in a zip-lock bag - a marketing choice obviously drawn from a Cracker Jack box - the game is of excellent graphic quality. The maps, which come in three somewhat unusual shapes to account for the unusual coastline Libya and Egypt provide, sport Simonitch's trademark shades of brown and yellow. (It's hard to bring to mind one of Mark's maps that isn't predominantly tan, or beige, or sand, or something quite similar. He always seems to end up in the desert: viz. Chaco, Rio Grande, Trajan, etc. Funny, he doesn't look Bedouin.) Granted, there's not much one can do with this area in terms of visual appeal. The maps are, therefore, more utilitarian than exciting. They do sport some interesting visual solutions to some old problems, such as the desert areas to the south. MS dispenses with the hexes, replacing them with dots. This is a "six-of-one, half-dozen of-the-other" solution, and "The Wargamer" did it with their von Borries game, Drive on Damascus, some 10 years ago. But it does convey, in a modest way, the trackless and unmapped nature of the terrain. It also conveys the impression that there is a mind at work.
To counter-balance the "blandness" of the map, Rhino gives us some nice counters. The colors are fairly primary (and the Indians are lavender, which is a curious choice), but the print is clear and the information is well organized. The rules book is excellent, and the various charts and tables provide some needed organizational help. Rhino has followed all of this up with a well-printed errata sheet, in the format of a Q&A, and then, in its house newsletter (which should have been entitled "The Rhino's Charge", "The Rhino Horn o' Plenty", or something in that catchy vein), they even come up with a great, quick-play, one-map scenario on Battleaxe. In all, considering this is an initial effort, a very nice job indeed, especially in the area of product support. True, a box would have made it infinitely more enticing to consumers, and would have added, maybe, $4-5 to an already low price. Rhino has learned this marketing lesson, and all its subsequent games will be in boxes.
Given the number of desert games available - and, never fear, there will be more - together with the wide variety of design theories evolved for them, what has Simonitch done that is different from his predecessors? The answers is that Simonitch appears to be a talent who bears watching, for he uses some unusual approaches to answer a variety of old questions.
One of the major problems in simulating desert warfare is its remarkable fluidity. This virtually precludes the standard play sequence of, say, Afrika Korps. Legend's Play Sequence uses a somewhat unusual "Operations Phase," of which there are two per weekly turn. There are six "chits", three for each player, labelled "Primary", "Secondary" and "Tertiary". These refer to the different movement possibilities available: in the "Primary", all units may move with their full MA's, and players can undertake Sea, rail and air movement, build fortifications, etc.; in the "Secondary", MA's are halved, rounded up; and in the "Tertiary" segment they are halved, rounding down. The beauty of this system is that, at the start of each Op Phase, all six chits are placed in a cup and drawn one at a time to indicate who goes, using which segment. No player can undertake more than two consecutive segments, and only five chits (not all six) are drawn per Phase! This not only creates a high level of uncertainty, but it also makes solitaire play an enjoyable undertaking.
The drawback is Simonitch's violation of one of the major Dunnigan Maxims of Wargame Designs: "Always Have the Illusion of Movement." (Yes, there is a certain amount of dogmatic catholicism in all of that, but this one happens to be apt.) All Legend foot units have an MA of '3', and none can ever move more than two hexes in any segment. Even in the Primary phase they don't seem to be going anywhere; in the other phases, it's Turtle Time in old Libya. In half the turns, because of terrain costs and other factors, they cannot move at all! While this is, overall, an accurate portrayal of how inefficient - and useless - non-motorized infantry was in what was essentially a mobile war, it is not a "play-oriented" answer, especially in the Perceived Reality world of gamers. Perhaps the solution would have been to use, instead of the eight phases a month (with weekly turns), a ten-day cycle, and six phases a month . . . or some other, such idea. The result of this anti-Dunniganical thinking is that parts of the game sort of lurch in fits and starts. True, the mech and motorized units have MA's of 7-9, enabling them to fairly race from one place to another, but I'm not sure that, in practice, these units should be capable of moving by road 12+ times farther than their walking brethren. Movement allowances are not just a mathematical representation of how fast you can go from point 'a' to point 'z'; they also express the realities of tactical doctrine, logistics, and a whole host of other impediments to their progress. However, given the success of the rest of the game, this is a minor contrivance at worst. If one is going to err, erring on the side of reality is always a healthy sign.
The rest of the game is quite good. It eliminates the air war, which, historically, didn't have much effect until 1942, and keeps the logistics simple (or at least relatively so - after all, this was rge quintessential supply-oriented campaign) but effective. As for combat, each combat unit has a certain number of steps, ranging from 1 to 4 (which information is printed on the counter so you don't lose track of which step you're working with). The CRT's only result is step losses, with the "loser" being disrupted and having to retreat. I wasn't entirely happy with this system. Aside from the clumsy simplicity of the "determine the victor" rules, the method precludes taking greater losses but staying in place. While this allows the CRT to remain accessible, it removes results that would - and do - occur at the ends of the "Bell Curve". There are modifiers for armor superiority and artillery, the latter handled through HQ's. Given the relatively uncomplicated level of play, while these may not offer the deepest insight into armored warfare they do work in terms of playability. There is also a rather nice method - and table - for accounting for the different scales of combat, from skirmish to monster battle.
Even with the desire to produce a simple, playable game there is a lot of detail here. There are shipping rules, Malta rules, some nicely handled tank repair and upgrade mechanics, trucks, fairly extensive fortress and minefield capabilities, etc. On the negative side, despite an afterthought/option which is unhappy at best, there is no effective rule for unit training and morale. An Italian SP is the same as a British SP, is the same as a South African SP, etc. In the Advanced rules there is an adjustment for Italians in combat, but even this does not take into account the wide variety of capability between units within the Italian army. Given the elegant ways in which Simonitch found solutions for other design problems, I was surprised he didn't tackle this one cleanly.
As far as the "game" goes, it's pretty tough to design an Africa game that is not fun to play (a barrier which I appear to have surmounted a decade ago with CNA). Legend is no different from the rest, and perhaps more fun than most. While there are a lot of chrome add-ons and variants to keep your eye on, they don't detract too much from the basic flow of play, which is fast-paced and within acceptable parameters of "accuracy". The Chief Rhino has supplied five scenarios (six, if you count the Battleaxe game provided in "Horn of the Rhino"), ranging from one-map, one turn quickies to a full "campaign" game which runs from Rommel's arrival until the end of December. Granted, the latter has sort of an "end-of-the-world" mentality. Then again, that will disappear when the 1942 package is published, a purchase I heartily recommend.
The arrival of Legend and its designer, Mr Simonitch, is a welcome sight in what has been a fairly disastrous second half of 1991. As a game - and especially for the price - Legend could easily be the Best Bet of the past year.
Physical Quality: Despite the zip-lock bag, very good. Major points for exceptionally crisp and clear print fonts.
Playability: High. There is a fair amount of chrome, but the basic mechanics are easily assimilated. Only drawback is low movement rates, which create a somewhat sluggish effect at times.
Historicity: Despite some personal quibbles with a couple of unit strengths, etc., surprisingly good and evocative of the campaign.
Playing Time: Short scenarios, such as Tobruk and Battleaxe, can be completed several times in one evening. The Campaign Game is a weekend affair, at best. (And a weekend affair is always best . . . . ta dum.)
Comparisons: My God, there are umpteen hundred Africa games out there. This one is at about the same complexity/playability level as Desert Fox, and probably just as good (or better). I would say its head and shoulders above such entries as the Quarterdeck/van Borries Rommel's War or the similar effort from OSG, whose title escapes me. If you've been majoring in Afrika Korps or Panzerarmee Afrika, you're probably not ready for the heady aroma of historicity yet. And if you've been playing CNA, well, my sympathies. It's also not as complex as the upcoming Victory Games' Blood & Sand. However, the most recent comparison would be to FGA's Operation Crusader. Legend does with 15 counters what OC can't do with 500 - provide creativity, fun and historical insight.
Overall: This is a game well worth the few bucks it costs, and one which you will surely play more than once. While not the definitive simulation of the war in Africa, it has enough historicity and chrome to satisfy most gamers. Mr. Simonitch is a designer to watch.
Friday, December 3, 2010
PACIFIC WAR CLASSICS, Vol.1: The Island Battles of Tarawa and Saipan; adapted by MIKE CRANE, with TERRY SHRUM
from FRESNO GAMING ASSOCIATION
Two 22" x 33" maps, one 17" x 22" map; 960 counters; One Rules /Scenario/Commentary Booklet; 5 Player-aid Cards; 1 10-sided die; $30
Reviewed by PAUL DANGEL
Ever notice how apartment builders always designate everything they rent out as a "luxury " apartment? The appellation is slapped onto anything that could vaguely qualify as habitable, as if no one would ever bother to show up at the leasing office if the 12' x 15' plasterboard box they're about to be shown were to be given any other designation. After about a decade or so of this, I automatically assume that any dwelling that has "luxury" attached to it immediately qualifies as architectural shoddy. The folks at FGA seem to be intent on doing the same for "classics".
Although FGA made its debut only last July (at ORIGINS '91) it quickly set two, new publishing standards: dazzling (and sometimes overwhelming) game graphics, and uniformly incomprehensible game rules. Both accomplishments quickly entitled FGA games to be dubbed the "Dumb Blondes" of the hobby; they're nice to look at, but don't expect any rewarding intellectual interaction with them. Unfortunately, their latest magnum dopus, Pacific War Classics, Vol. I (and one can only pray that that Roman numeral is more of a threat than a promise) doesn't do anything to challenge both aspects of this reputation. That, however, is not surprising since, apparently, FGA doesn't think it's doing anything wrong.
Let's start with the first thing you see. The PWC-I box is a perfect example of the glitzy, computer-enhanced confusion that comes out of FGA. On the front we have a bright map and colored counter depicting some part of the game or historical situation. That's probably what got you to notice the box in the first place. It's on the back of the box where the mystery begins. Right off, there's a blurb informing you that PWC-I uses a "system similar to the one Mike Crane and Terry Shrum developed for GMT's Operation Shoestring...". Hey, must be a good game! The rest of the copy goes on to describe the battle at Tarawa Atoll. Wait a second . . . what about Saipan, you ask? The title on the front says "Saipan". Well, there is a "contents" list that tells you that there are 2.5 maps, over 1400 counters, plus rules and history booklets. With that many maps and counters, a Saipan game must be in the box.
You read on . . . and your eyes bug out farther than Barbara Bush's in a bear-hug. when you see that the map scale is 35 yards per hex and a turn represents two hours! Oohmigosh . . . Saipan at 35 yards per hex and two hours per turn? The real battle took almost a month to complete. . . hmm, let's see, that's somewhere around 720 turns!!! Are they kidding? You're confused (or ought to be) . . . and if you're smart you'll put that box down faster than a heckler at a Don Rickles concert. I normally consider box covers irrelevant to a game review, but PWC's instantly exemplifies how marvelously consistent FGA is in their scatterbrained, public-be-damned approach to all aspects of game production.
Assuming you go against (y)our better judgement and buy PWC-I, your spirits will be lifted when you see the excellent quality of the maps and counters. There are one and half maps for Tarawa and one map for Saipan (yes, Virginia, there is a Saipan). Saipan on one map at 35 yards per hex?? Well, not exactly . . . the Saipan map scale is actually 1.8 miles per hex. The 35 yards per hex mentioned on the box is, of course, for the Tarawa game. The Tarawa map is excellent. Depicted are coastal gun emplacements, buildings, rifle pits, bunkers, pillboxes, palm trees, the sea wall, piers and several terrain features I haven't stumbled upon yet. The Saipan map looks almost mundane compared to Tarawa's (actually Betio Island), but it still ranks as superior when compared to the industry norm. It is mostly open, with splotches of rough terrain, jungles, swamps, towns, airfields and such, so if Tarawa's congestion bogs you down you can always hit the "wide open" spaces of Saipan.
In this beauty contest the maps get only the "runner-up" prize. The "glitz" crown has to go to the counters, which are by far the best FGA has done. They not only satisfy all normal gaming demands for clarity and function, but they are a joy to just gaze upon (which, all things considered, is the recommended course of action here). The aircraft counters, in particular, stand out. They are overhead views of U.S. and Japanese fighters, bombers and flying boats done in previously-unseen graphic detail on one-half inch counters. Panel lines, canopy frames, camouflage patterns and national insignias are correct and distinct. (Say, is that Amelia Earhart???) Ain't computers wonderful! The naval units are still done in silhouettes but at least they're done with the correct silhouettes. While the land units are more colorful than what you would expect for WWII armies, they are not quite as garish as those in FGA's Operation Crusader. We do, however, note one of those "mystery embellishments" that dot the FGA landscape, like auto wrecks in a Mad Max movie. The box states that there are over 1400, back-printed counters inside; actually, there are only 960. Given FGA's philosophy to design "games" as opposed to "simulations", that comes as something of a relief. Misinformation, however, seems to be a quasi-Stalinist way of life at FGA. No arguing with how great they look, though. If the extent of your involvement in this hobby is to set up a game just for its visual impact, you won't be disappointed with PWC-I. If playing is part of your repertoire, that's a different story altogether.
One final comment about the components. There is supposed to be an Historical Commentary included with PWC-I. The only thing resembling this is a rambling account of the Pacific War's early stages, and a mostly anecdotal description of the fighting on Tarawa. There is no hard data worth reading; no explanation of forces, tactics, or plans, and absolutely nothing on the Saipan campaign. There's as much usable history here as on the ingredients list for Marshmallow Fluff. Perhaps it was simply a typo: they meant "hysterical", not "historical". The word from Fresno is that their "historian", Mike Crane, is or was (or wanted to be) a professor of history; he's more of a living argument against tenure.
TARAWA is billed as an introductory level game using something called STS (Simple Tactical System). Hmm, having read the box cover, I thought it was supposed to use GMT's Operation Shoestring system. Oh, well. Anyway, STS is nothing more than a rudimentary form of the Turn-Continuation (TCT) system pioneered by Richard Berg back in 1987. Like TCT, an STS game turn consists of each player alternately performing movement and combat actions, subject only to the turn ending. That happens only when the players decide they don't want to do anything else, or when a player rolls a "10" combat result followed immediately by an "End Turn Check" die roll of a "9" or "10", a 2% probability rate. Thus, like TCT the players can never tell how long a turn will last or what they'll be able to achieve during it. Unlike TCT, actions are performed strictly alternately; a player never gets to perform two consecutive actions unless his opponent passes. Also, unlike most TCT-style games, there are no random events - which is neither good nor bad, simply worth mentioning.
STS is successful, in that it gives the game a chess-like feel. Also handled well are beach landing procedures, which in other silmulations are often a game within a game. Units can enter enemy occupied hexes but must pass a "Proficiency Check" to do so. (Ah, at least there's something from the Shoestring game.) Combat can take the form of fire, or assault when opposing units occupy the same hex, resolved by a ten-sided dieroll result heavily modified for terrain and weapon-types. The American player gets an unlimited number of naval/air bombardment attacks per turn, and there are special rules for Japanese defense installations (bunkers, pillboxes, condos, etc.), American LTV's, and Japanese banzai charges.
STS does have its drawbacks, however; most particularly with the somewhat annoying "Opportunity Fire", a mechanic that requires players - if successful - to retrace movement paths that can sometimes stretch up to 8-10 hexes. It also seems silly for a stack of units that loses half its strength from an opportunity fire hit to continue on to its destination as though nothing happened!
All in all, the ST System works quite well. It's fast, the dieroll modifiers are quickly assimilated, and,
except for opportunity fire, the general feel of play is good. So why is TARAWA another "Dumb Blonde"?
Because, like most creatures of that ilk, the game is so exasperating that it takes all the fun out of the evening. The umpteen rules errors and omissions are so outlandish as to be inexcusable. For instance:
•• Even though the rules state that "each hex will contain only one type of predominate (sic) terrain" many hexes DO contain more than one type. Nowhere will you learn if terrain costs are cumulative where terrain is mixed in a hex.
•• One sentence tells you that, when several dieroll modifiers apply to a combat, use the one most favorable to the defender. Yet all the charts state that all such DRM's are cumulative!
•• On the firing unit vs target unit modifier chart there are some unit types missing and others not explained. (I guess you have to guess.)
•• The rules introduction does say that " . . . the rules sections are written in an outline manner and are further defined in the Examples of Play section of the Appendix." Excuse me! What the hell am I paying for here. Let's go back to Business Practices 1a: "Consumer Pays the Bucks, Producer Does the Work." You guys miss that class? (Ed. They probably cut to do research . . . .) In any case, don't bother
looking for those helpful little hints, because someone has performed an appendectomy on the rules book. Seems they called the wrong specialist; what they really needed was a lobotomist.
If you have the time and determination (and the Maalox) to fill in the rules gaps you'll find that TARAWA is an enjoyable game (which only further fuels my anger at FGA's slipshod development effort). Initial set-up, however, is another hurdle you have to overcome, and a rather lengthy obstacle at that. The Japanese player deploys about 200 infantry, light armor and weapons units sections. To optimize their placement and fields of fire, this takes considerable time. The Japanese weapons inventory rivals that of our local Jamaican drug posse, with everything from 13mm machine guns to 8" naval guns. (Wait a second, didn't the box cover say TARAWA was an "introductory game"?? I guess they also cut the "Truth in Advertising" lecture, too.) To assault this fortress the American player has several hundred marine platoons, artillery, engineer, armor and LVT units. His problem is not firepower; it's time. He has 26 turns to clear the island of every Japanese defender, without eradicating American forces equivalent to the population of Chicago in the
process. The Japanese player simply has to hold out to win a decisive victory. This applies even if the only unit left represents a one-eyed sushi chef armed with Ginsu knives. Tres bushido.
Despite being in the same game-box, SAIPAN, an operational level treatment of the U.S. land, air
and naval campaign against the Japanese island in June/July, 1943, uses a very different system! Instead of the STS that TARAWA sports, SAIPAN's turn sequence follows the tried-and-true, "Igo, Hugo" method for the land portion, with an air/naval phase tacked onto the beginning of the game turn. In one of those unintentionally hilarious statements that are rapidly becoming an FGA trademark, the introduction to the rules says that if you've played FGA's Operation Crusader you'll have no trouble playing SAIPAN. Given that OC featured one of the most disastrously opaque set of rules this hobby has seen in decades (cf. BROG #1), this premise can serve only to strike fear into the hearts of the previously initiated.
As it turns out, the only similarity shared by SAIPAN and OC is the combat resolution method, and even that is stretching it more than a tad. I guess that FGA took the only parts of OC that they could figure out themselves (which eliminated much) and pasted them into SAIPAN. There are no supply units, no supply lines, no fortifications, no unit remnants, no special unit type rules, etc. . . . Even though the land game rules encompass only two pages, those two pages still leave sufficient room for some remarkably aggravating contradictions! For instance, the assault combat rules say that "Proficiency checks are NOT made . . .". Yet, on the same page, the point is made that proficiency checks are made in Maneuver and Assault combat. Does anyone at FGA read this stuff? Does anyone at FGA care?
Having run the gauntlet of the land rules, the air/naval rules will then take you to a level of frustration
where no gamer has gone before. As near as I can figure from the sequence of play, each player can move his naval/air units to adjacent sea zones, conduct searches for enemy units, and launch attacks. You'd think that the mechanics for the search procedure, the most crucial aspect of a carrier/naval game, would be sufficiently, if not lavishly, explained and illustrated. FGA, in its infinite lack of wisdom, dispenses with that sort of unnecessary piffle. Explanations, bah. Examples? Why bother? FGA covers it all in two sentences, supported by a table the use of which is never explained!
Air to air combat is resolved by pairing off opposing air units in the same sea zone. How this pairing is to be done is left up to your own imagination (which is probably infinitely more fertile than theirs, so, perhaps, they ARE taking the right approach). Which player gets to decide what air units get paired against each other? The rules certainly won't tell you. Maybe you have to send in for their "Oracle at Delphi" Newsletter (and that'll be $10 please). But the rules do refer to "holding boxes"; too bad none exist on the sea zone chart. Then again, you will find a "Ground Attack" box in each sea zone . . . but what are you suppose to do with them, since all the ground units are on the Saipan Island map? We are now entering The Twilight Zone of game design.
I did managed to play two turns of SAIPAN, a feat made possible (if not enjoyable) by making up my own rules as I went along. I gave up on the third turn, when the EverReady Rabbit, wearing a samurai sword, came drumming across the map. The joke, it seems, was on me.
Who should buy PWC-I, or any FGA product for that matter? If you're the kind a gamer who loves to tinker with every game you get - even if it's the perfection of design, development, and production (of which this game is the antithesis) - then FGA was created for you. They probably had you in mind. . . because they certainly had little else up there in that creative vacuum. As for the rest of you, if you
think you're looking for a good game or a decent simulation for $30, spend your money elsewhere. Oops, I used the word "simulation" and FGA makes a big "to do" about not creating "simulations". They do "games", instead. Could have fooled me (which is their intention, it seems). PWC-I makes distinctions between Japanese "Zeke" and "Oscar" fighters for the SAIPAN operational level design, and provides different counters for mountain guns and field guns for TARAWA, even when there are no mountains in which to use such distinctions. These, along with a counter-mix that would cause heart murmers in a Europa addict, are the marks of a simulation, dear reader, not a game. But no matter, FGA can't design games either. The only designs they have are on your wallet.
Physical Quality: Excellent; far and away, the best in the industry.
Playability: Depends on whose rules you use. If you use their's, the blonde turns real ugly. Be prepared to do your own development work if you want to play this do-it-yourself
Historicity: Hard to say because the rules are so bad you never know if you're playing the game as designed. Then again, FGA says it's a game, not a simulation, so perhaps this is not supposed to matter.
Comparisons: Decision Games' recent Tarawa: Red Beach One (S&T 142) is the antithesis of FGA's rendition, i.e. physically blah but generally (if not that enjoyably) playable. The old S&T (#92) Iwo Jima, a solitaire game of infinitely greater complexity, is a lot more interesting, and almost as colorful! (Ed. the designers of IJ, Rohde & Gillette, are fairly major movers and shakers in the baseball stat industry these days.) And then there's Roger Nord's Okinawa (Wargamer #55), of which little is remembered. The old SPI Pacific Battles Quad, although certainly not a raging success, was probably more along the lines of what FGA is looking to do.
Overall: Playing Pacific War Classics, Vol. I is like an evening with Madonna.
It looks great. . . and (but?) you're sure to get screwed.