Back to the wargames, this time Kasserine by Vance vonBorries and from GMT.

I got into Kasserine in a roundabout way. It started with OCS, from which I went to Vance’s and GMT’s East Front Series (Barbarossa: Army Group South, North, Center). All great games, but each has difficulties. OCS is big, a little fiddly because it’s so versatile, and designed primarily for very lengthy campaign games, and so is hard to set up time to play. Barbarossa has great smaller scenarios and doesn’t require the time investment, but has an inherent problem in that Summer ’41 requires a certain mindset for the Soviet player, a willingness to take abuse that for some people isn’t fun despite the general excellence of the system (which I really hope can go into 1942 at some point, because the system exceeds OCS in some important ways – but not versatility). Then, along came Kasserine – a game based on the East Front Series that incorporates some ideas from OCS and covers a much more balanced situation: Kasserine, or the Battle of the Bulge, the prequel. Many points have a legitimate claim to being the “turning point” of WWII, but if some of the Nazi’s best units and their most legendary commander couldn’t beat an Allied force while the American army was still fledgeling and untried, well, last one out get the lights.

I’ve played Kasserine now maybe a dozen times, although never the campaign game, and I like it a lot – I think this is a very under-appreciated game. It’s about the most complex game I can tolerate for a non-system game (Barbarossa & Invasion: Sicily, although quite similar games, are different enough to require re-learning), but it is very compelling in a lot of ways. Vance has judged where to give the system depth and where to stay high-level well. You’ve got interesting & clean systems for managing the coordination of ground, artillery, and air units, and the advantages of combined arms and mobility – systems that actually model elements of the situation cleanly rather than simply designing for effect, so produce a challenging game. On the other hand, things that weren’t as important to the battle – like supply and air – are quite abstract. I like the air system, it does what it has to with no messing around with where to base air units, no counting ranges, etc., as in OCS. So you get somthing that has a nice feel for the mobile war, the open battlefield channeled by passes, and somthing that – while definitely complex and taking a bit to get into – plays quite cleanly once learned. By my metric of “how many games does it take to play correctly”, Kasserine scores about a 2, playing the medium-sized scenarios. Pretty good for a fairly meaty wargame, if not as good as Ukraine ’43 or Ardennes ’44 (which were .5 or less). And of course Kasserine is a great situation, being so mobile, and yet not quite mobile enough, that it presents both sides with constant, difficult choices.

The combat system is somewhat maligned as being dice heavy (you have to roll to coordinate ground, air, and artillery each if present, then roll to resolve the combat), but please, a typical case of 3 die rolls and one chart lookup is too many? I see this complaint on the net sometimes and find it odd. All the uncertainty gained by the need to coordinate all the different arms gives the combat resolution a great and realistic feel, and is an antidote to the usual factor-counting to get up to 3:1, since the number of factors present is rather variable. In most classic WWII games combat is far too predictable once you’ve pre-figured the exact odds, and games like OCS and Kasserine which give you huge diversity of results are big winners for me (even if they are low-probability); another reason I like Ardennes ’44 and its firefight table. At this level of simulation, real unpredictability in the CRT is a virtual requirement.

The interesting thing about Kasserine is that I find it an extremely immersive game. The complexity always gives me a little pause before starting a game, but once I’m going, I seem to get sucked into it even more than OCS – itself a very immersive game. This is interesting because it’s not the usual “thematic” immersion I find in really good games – here it’s an immersion in hexes and counters and combat factors, that is to say an immersion in the game itself rather than in the simulation or history. When that German Kampfgruppe slices into the British lines in front of Thala, I really have a hard time visualizing what that means historically despite the high level of detail in the OOB (battalions, armor & support companies). That said, at the operational level the game has a solid and very satisfying feel. It’s got the alternation between the choke-points at the passes, whose static defenses must be taken apart with set-piece attacks, and the much more open desert which favors mobility. While the Germans are on the offensive here, the Allies sometimes enjoy local superiority and can counterattack; and because this is not the congested Ardennes, the defense requires more mobility, attention to the flanks, and careful handling rather than just digging in and taking it on the chin. I think this contrast between set-piece and mobile battles is very interesting, and the details of managing the battle succesfully on both offense and defense engage me all the time without becoming fiddly or feeling like micromanagement.

As I’ve been drawn away from OCS a little bit due to the sheer size and difficulty of getting games set up, I’ve definitely been drawn more to these more modest-sized operational games; I find they have a lot going for them and require a lot less work. Kasserine is a bit more complicated to learn than the others I’ve been playing recently, but once learned is not hard to play, and it has a lot going for it. I’ve heard rumblings of more games to follow Kasserine, and I hope they eventually come out.

Anyway, we played the Thala scenario this time. There are three avenues of advance available to the Germans: to the north, through the Brits to Thala; down the middle, through the Americans to Bou Checkba; and down South, through a mixed Franco-American force (mostly French). The Germans are hard-pressed in this one; they’re at the end of their rope, the Allies have amassed enough decent units and are awash in artillery, and more is on the way. The Germans can transfer a handful of units amongst the three axis of advance, but their resources are quite limited by now. In the event, Charles decided to let each force try to make do with what it had, but made the critical decision to send Rommel up north to try to punch through the British line and take the nearest objective, Thala. The southern pincer broke through the mountains, linking up with a detachment of Italians that had swung south after their own breakthrough, but was undone in the end by their huge dangling left flank, which the Americans and French moved into to interdict the supply line and stall out the Germans advance, although only after the French and a few Americans had been severely mauled. In the center, the DAK ran into a huge US artillery concentration and the fairly good-quality 1st Infantry Division, backed up by CCA from the 1st Armored, and lacking the strength to break through satisfied themselves with being threatening and overrunning isolated units, trying to threaten to turn a flank.

The real action was up north, where Rommel and the 10th Panzer tried to batter their way to Thala. This was a see-saw affair, with the Germans taking hills and the British counterattacking. While the mobility and massive numbers of tanks in the British 1st Armored should have made parrying German threats doable if not easy, such was not the case as the Brits blew reaction roll after reaction roll. They made it back though when they managed to call virtually the entire Allied air force in on a critical counter-attack which relieved pressure at a critical juncture. The biggest reinforcements the Allies get are a big chunk of artillery which arrives early in the battle – after erroneously sending it to the center at first, when they arrived to aid the Brits things stabilized and the last German attack on the last turn was repelled, albeit barely.

This is a tough scenario for the Germans, and next time I play we might need to have some sort of balance, perhaps just using the historical weather (all three times I’ve played, the Germans have had trouble with Rain which causes them problems, and all three times they’ve lost – historically they “got lucky” and had at worst clouds).

Often after playing a game of Kasserine I’ll go and break out my copy of Moments in History’s Tunisia ’43, which is almost the exact same area, scale, etc., as Kasserine. Despite a system which has a lot of properties which I should like better than Kasserine, somehow Tunisia ’43 is just on the wrong side of the line. Part of it is the additional complexity that seems too much (T’43 has 28-ish pages of rules vs. Kasserine’s 18-ish), partly the much higher production values at GMT I’m sure, and partly that what you’ve learned in playing Kasserine is modestly portable to Invasion: Sicily or the fairly popular Barbarossa, while Tunisia ’43 is less so. I keep telling myself to give it a chance, but I haven’t yet.

Game Night

Both Scott & I were in a “please, no trick-taking games” mode at first, so we opened up with a game of the classic Modern Art. I actually rarely do well in this game, largely because Kim has won virtually every game of this that I’ve played. I had a killer hand, though, and Kim made a critical mistake by not getting out Krypto (of which she had a ton) early, instead going for the easy money at a time when these things rarely make much difference. On the other hand, everyone played into the strengths of my hand and I had several critical = cards which I got out in round 3 for big money. So I won.

Linda had then requested Fische Fluppen Frikadellen, and we had 8, so we went ahead and did two boards. I really, really, wish this were a better game, but it just isn’t. It’s just too hard, too random, and not balanced enough. Every game of the two-board version I’ve played has been won by one player who racked up everything on one board, then hopped over and played two turns to pick up the missing fetish. Even in the three-board variation, usually two-thrid of the playing time is played on one board. Also, in every game I’ve played, the winner (and second and third place) have come from the table that plays fastest. Valiant try, but hopefully someone will take this game and make a good table-hopping game; this one the cost of switching is just too high, and the advantages/disadvantages of various tables too difficult to tell, and the game is too short and lacks development (in that you just accumulate stuff, the game doesn’t develop or mature as you play it). Still a good experience game for a couple plays with 2-3 (ideally 3) boards, but really just not there as a game. One thing I did wonder, I have been working on the assumption that about 4 players per board is best, but I actually wonder if 3 boards/9 players might work better. There is logic both ways (it lowers the cost of jumping boards, but going from 3-3-3 to 2-4-3 might be perceived to advantage the 2-player board too much). Still, this configuration would definitely be worth trying before going on.

Last was Adel Verpflichtet, the classic bluffing game from Klaus Teuber. It’s actually been a very long time since I played it – I used to play it endlessly back when it first came out in the US, maybe 1992, 1993? This really is a great game, simple, fast, and fun to play, with significant skill but not so much that everyone can’t feel they’re in it. I went with my usual contrarian strategy – people usually focus on art acquisition early, so I try to get minimal exhibits together and just display, display, display and get out to a huge lead. It almost worked, but a couple untimely thieves and the fact that my pieces were all over the place (mostly A, B, E, F) meant I had a hard time keeping an exhibit together and petered out towards the end, when Scott was able to overtake me for the win. I’m glad this great game will be coming back into print soon (although the name – Hoity Toity? – would not have been my first choice).

Leros: Approaching Endgame

We finished something like 8 turns this time, largely because the fighting in Leros finished up and we entered the “calm before the storm” phase as the entire British OOB is in position and just waiting for their attack orders to implement before crashing into our little foothold. Meanwhile, my Fallshcrimjaegers in Portolago continued some inconsequential skirmishing with some remnants of the Irish brigade that was starting to infringe on the future landing zone of the heavy equipment. Fortunately, they were driven off (or eliminated), and the recoilless rifles and mortars arrived without incident.

At which point the game got interesting. I think one of the things that may have been frustrating Milton (the British player) here is that neither side really has a lot of heavy equipment in this game, so it’s a lot of squads taking pot-shots at each other which takes absolutely forever to accomplish anything. Milton has also had bad luck with his artillery. Well, this session demonstrated that in reality (unlike what you might take away from, say, Squad Leader) if you want something done right, what you need is not a bunch of squads but some heavy firepower. The recoilless rifles are a poor substitute for 105mm howitzers, but they’ll do the job. Once you start shooting on the 16+ tables, things start getting interesting. Milton’s luck with his arty also cleared up, much to the dismay of the paratroopers who got seriously whacked.

Anyway, as you may have noticed from my session reports, I move back and forth a bit on TCS. It’s a good enough game, but the real question is does it justify the time commitment. Last couple of sessions, I’ve been leaning a bit more towards “no”, despite the good stuff. For a big game it’s not bad, but it seems the pacing is off. Combat has been described as hours of boredom followed by minutes of terror, and TCS seems to treat these times equally. It seems that sometimes the 20-minute turns need to be a lot more intense – you often read about the “mad minutes” in which every gun on the line is firing with devastating results. You can bring bring massive quantities of firepower on a hex and it’s hard to do more than a step loss (less than a squad) and a suppressed result. And then, you have to play out the 20 minute turns where everyone is mainly realigning and taking low-odds pot-shots with the same detail as the heavy-combat turns. Finally, the command system is really just not quite tight enough. I’ve been referencing the 4.0 beta rules to see how they’re dealing with some of these acknowledged problems, and while generally I like what they’re doing, one thing that definitely worries me is that they are making combat significantly less lethal by generally weakening the area fire table and significantly increasing terrain benefits. This certainly has me concerned.

So I dunno. This is a game I still like the core concepts of a lot, and if you want a system game for the “big picture” of a WWII battlefield, you won’t find better (PanzerLeader? PanzerGrenedier? Please … even Squad Leader is much more fantasy than reality). There is enough good stuff in TCS that I still really want to like it. I’d like to play A Raging Storm or Screaming Eagles, games where both sides have a lot of firepower, before passing final judgment. But I do find myself questioning whether TCS deserves the space it’s taking up on my shelf when stacked up next to OCS, GCACW, Ukraine 43, Barbarossa, etc. Because realistically, I’m still at the point where I have too many games I’ll never play, and while I’m certainly not thinking of liquidating my entire TCS collection anytime soon, some of the weaker games (like Hunters from the Sky or A Frozen Hell) are probably eBay candidates.

One way or the other, this game won’t go on too much longer. Everyone is lined up; as soon as the British attacks press home, things will be decided one way or the other.

Schwarzarbeit, ad acta, Lock ‘n’ Load

Matt was down from San Francisco again, so we rounded up a somewhat brief afternoon of gaming. Matt ended up being slightly delayed, so Rich and I broke out Battleline, a game I was surprised to hear he had never played. I still like the tactics cards, even if random they make for a much more engaging game than Schotten-Totten.

Then when the rest of the guys showed up, we played a round of Schwartzarbeit, which went over pretty well I think. I screwed up by accidentally hiring one of my own illegal workers, which I choose to blame on the fact that two of the game designers (A and V, I think) are actually quite close in color, and I denounced V when I really thought A was the culprit … but V was my illegal employee, of course. Duh. This threw me because I realized it right away, of course, so I lost my focus and my final score would have been negative even without that screw-up (no correct denunciations, the lawyers sent in to defend a guilty party … my sole positive points were from hired workers, most of whom were weekend types). Anyway, I still like this game quite a bit and look forward to playing again, and somewhat more competently. Nice, very different, not too long.

ad acta has been something people had been wanting to play, so it came out as our other game. It’s actually been quite a while since I’ve played – this is another game I like a lot, but it’s a modest brain-burner so it doesn’t come out much. Still, there is a lot to like about it – it’s very unique, it’s challenging without being too long, the downtime is no worse than Attika, and the theme is good for laughs occasionally. The idea is that you are a government bureaucracy trying to get your paperwork filed at the right time in the right place. Everyone has queues of paperwork in their inboxes and outboxes, and basically you are trying to manage all the various queues so that your paperwork pops out at the right time; when it does pop out, it can be either redistributed to new queues (if the paperwork still need to be routed to a new office) or or sent to central filing where it scores. It’s pretty straightforward, and scores big by being just the right length. Don’t play it with anyone who you wouldn’t play Attika with, though. I’ve actually only played it with 3, I think it might be better with 4.

At this point the others had to take off, so it was just Matt and I left, so we got out the Lock ‘n Load. Not much more to say about it this time than last time, except that the Americans won (we wondered if the teaching scenario was really balanced last time we played, it seemed like the US might have a hard time of it). This is a fun game, it plays cleanly with only a few exceptions … but I look forward to playing some of the bigger scenarios, having played the first scenario twice now I don’t think I’ll get that much more out of it. Matt liked it though, so maybe we’ll try a bigger one next time.

Game Night

My gaming seems to have become a bit wargame-heavy recently, so it’s good to get back to some lighter stuff.

We started off with a quick round of Liar’s Dice, in which I’m happy to say I didn’t get trounced. I didn’t win either, but still, I hung in there for most of the game which is better than I have been doing.

Then we played a 5-player game of Mü, a game which I thought the world of early on but somehow have little enthusiasm for anymore. It’s still a pretty good game, and certainly I enjoyed it for quite a while … but I dunno, these days it seems like a lot of effort for more of the same, I wish it were shorter. If you haven’t played it and like classic card games I certainly recommend you do so, but I guess after however many games I played of it (25 at least, probably more) I’m just done … I thought after a break of a few years I could get some of the enthusiasm back, but such has not been the case unfortunately.

So, when we had two more players show, I begged out of the Mü; we decided to do Flaschenteufel. I think after 6 or 7 games I finally rounded the corner on this one and am starting to see the patterns. I still made one boneheaded play (never lead middling yellow trump), but managed to pull it out. The score before the last hand was 87-87-86! We had one very interesting hand when all the low trump came out in a flurry, and it looked like the 7 or 8 might get stuck with the bottle. Very nice game I think. Now that I know what I’m doing more or less, we’ll see how much longer it’s good for. I queried the table as to whether they thought 3 or 4 was better, and I was in the minority at preferring 4. On balance, I did come to appreciate the 3-player game more after this game, so maybe it doesn’t matter that much.

Then we had the obligatory game of Tichu, and the other three of us went to play some Attika. I’ve noted before that this game does have a rather serious problem, but it’s still a decent enough little game. The nasty kingmaker issues don’t come up every game, and 3 players is a significant improvement over 4 in this respect. People have complained about the randomness in the game, which hasn’t bothered me as much as the Kill Dr. Lucky syndrome, but this game I did get bitten by it – if I could have drawn a single hill card in my last 10 or so draws I would have won :). But I couldn’t, so I didn’t. This game has settled into sort of a bipolar rating for me, a 6 or 7 if the game plays cleanly, or a 2 or 3 if the game is decided by a failed block. I don’t want to overstate the point because I did enjoy the first 5 or so games a fair amount, but somehow just getting 5 plays out of a game doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.

They’re Here!

Today’s scenario is They’re Here, from White Dwarf and reprinted in the Best of White Dwarf volume 2, and vaguely based on the scene in The Two Towers movie in which Frodo almost succumbs to the Nazgul. The Orcs are trying to reach and carry off Frodo (who is actually on the bad guys side in this game), while the Gondorians are trying to off 22 Orcs before this happens.

Jeff, Kim, and I played the Orcs while Rich and Matt played the good guys. The Orcs start with an initial force of only 20, facing down some 24 Warriors of Minas Tirith and Rangers of Ithilian, plus Faramir and Damrod. Not good odds, and the reinforcements (a few more orcs, 4 Warg Riders, and that Fell Beast-mounted Nazgul which comes on last) trickle on slowly. The only upside is that the Gondorians have to defend the entire board edge, the bad guys have only to cut a path through to Frodo. Unfortunately, we probably had slightly insufficient terrain on the board, and the Orcs got a severe hammering from the Gondorian archers as they tried to cross the street to come to grips with them. There is also a special rule in this scenario in which giant flying rocks randomly hit people, and we were inordinately hammered by them. To cut a long story short, even once the Wargs were thrown into battle we never were able to get the overwhelming numbers at the point of attack that the Orcs need, and our two Captains were largely ineffective – so we hit our casualty limit pretty quickly and the game didn’t last long enough for the Fell Beast to show up.

Jeff unfortunately had to head out at this point, but the rest of us decided we had to have another go at it (same teams, same sides), because Rich had after all invested a lot of time in painting this Fell Beast and we wanted to see him do some damage. So we set up again, this time with a little more cover for the bad guys. This time the Orcs avoided the archers like the plague, hiding and skulking through the city, and were able to seriously threaten the southern flank. Faramir survived only through good fortune, although we knew he was lucky. While this effort drew Gondorians south, the Wargs then entered in the far north, trying to race through the stripped northern flank to reach and carry off Frodo; they were halted by a scratch force of good guys led by Gollum, of all people. Then … the Fell Beast arrived. It turns out that in this scenario, he functions more as a game timer (like the Balrog in the Moria scenarios) than an actual playing piece; the good guys basically need to kill of half the Orcs before he shows up, because once he’s here there is little that is going to stop him from getting to Frodo. We (the bad guys) lost our 22nd orc while the Nazgul was only one move away.

This is actually a very interesting scenario, although it was slightly disappointing not to see the Fell Beast in actual combat (never fear – he shows up plenty in the Return of the King scenarios). The other big problem is the Bombardment rules, which basically just don’t work. The idea is that you roll a die every turn, with a 1-2 meaning the good guys control the bombardment, a 5-6 meaning the bad guys, and a 3-4 meaning no bombardment. The winner then gets to target a single model, which is struck by a strength 6 hit along with everyone within one inch. Sounds OK, but this ends up being really gamey, with the bombardment being able to unerringly hit captains, Faramir, even the Ringwraith himself (one of the few weapons in the good guy arsenal which can seriously threaten him). This felt wrong, and actually is a big problem for the bad guys – odds are you’re going to lose some 7 models to bombardment alone, and you can only lose 22, so that’s a third of the way there – and unlike most scenarios, here the good guys are expendable and the bad guys are not. Also, the bad guys have to clump for melee given their worthless archers and their generally inferior combat stats, while the good guys with their excellent archers can ping away from range. First game we played, every single turn for the first 5 the bombardment hit the bad guys. Anyway, to come to the point, if I played this again I would delete this rule entirely as I think the game probably favors the good guys and this does seem to hurt the bad guys alot. A shame; what they were trying to do was interesting, but it’s just not quite there.

Other than that, though, this is a fun scenario, especially with nice terrain. I’d play it again, but without the boulders falling from the sky.

Against the Odds, v2#2 – Go Tell the Spartans

If you just want the game review, which is modestly amusing, skip to the end.

I’ve been a subscriber to Against the Odds since issue one, for reasons that are elusive; I never liked Strategy & Tactics. I think the initial logic was that I do like to get new wargames, I often end up never playing them, and if you’re going to go that route it’s best if they’re cheap. While the cover price of Against the Odds is a bit high ($35? Who would pay that?), the subscription rate of about $16.25/issue is fairly reasonable. I almost didn’t resubscribe, but issues #1.3 and #1.4 last year were pretty good – the Kesselschlacht game looked quite interesting (although true to my use case, I haven’t played it), and the articles were actually a pretty good read after rocky starts in #1.1 and #2.1. Nothing to compare with the General in it’s heyday of the mid-80s certainly, but still. And issue #2.1 – North Wind Rain – featured a fascinating topic, an alternate-history Japanese invasion of the Russian far east. So, I resubscribed, and the most recent issue featuring the Go Tell the Spartans game just arrived.

It looks like the ATO folks skipped their meds for this one, as the the issue is positiviely bipolar in character. On the bad side, we have the Simulation Corner column by John Prados, which is essentially just a two page whine about the whole card-driven game thing, wondering if it’s gone too far yet and when designers are going to get back to innovating, which in this case appears to be making more hex-n-counter games. I hesitate to mention that more hex-n-counter games were made last year than the sum total of all card-driven games published ever. This article is full of outright innacuracies (Mark Simonitch was the designer of Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, not Mark Herman) and mischaracterizations. I loved one particular line in which he says, I quote: “There is no real world in which the actor nations would not have the capability (moderated by supply of course, as well as command control and transport considerations) to move all their forces on any occasion the opportunity was available to them.” In other words … the actor nations could never move all their forces at once because there are always other considerations? Isn’t that what the cards abstract? Supply and command and control problems? Stuff that other games singularly fail to deal with? The shame of it is, Mr. Prados does have a reasonably valid point buried in there somewhere – people have been using the card-driven technique without thinking enough – but there almost certainly far too few card-driven games, not too many. Yes, designers should be more innovative, but no, cards as an abstraction of political and “other” considerations still have plenty of life left in them. Mr. Prados could have saved himself some grief by actually reading the designer’s notes on Paths of Glory.

Other very weak articles included two book-related ones. First was an analysis of the recent Gulf War driven by comparison to Victor Davis Hanson’s The Soul of Battle. This is like trying to build a castle in a swamp; The Soul of Battle was a bad book by an ideologue who never met a fact he couldn’t twist to his own purposes, a book that only a hard-core wargamer could love (if you actually buy all that stuff about Patton in The Soul of Battle, may I recommend Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, a vastly superior work?). Another was a review-ish article of another book, Lawrence Keely’s War Before Civilization, which posits that violent conflict is not a property of organized society but somthing that people just do. The author laments that he feels people are unaware of this; one wonders who he is hanging out with. My response was, well duh, anyone who watches Star Trek knows this. Guys, let’s try to stick to stuff that is at least peripherally gaming-related.

After this, though, things start improving significantly.

Bushido Perverted by Peter Schutze is an interesting concept, although it reads like a rough draft that was edited once for spelling and grammer before publication. It mentions a number of interesting factlets but largely wanders and rarely comes to a point. The last page, where he talks about who was punished and who escaped Allied justice and why was eye-opening, however. Better is a write up of the batle of Elouges by Mal Wright which nicely covers this battle, and takes advantage of the wargaming angle to hypothesize about what might have been.

And then, making up for all the weak stuff … we have an excellent, first-class piece by Jon Compton, “Groping for the New Paradigm”, which brilliantly attacks many of the current, and rather serious, ills in the wargaming world – lack of innovation, misguided obsession with simulation, arrogance, and extreme conservatism (and is especially ironic in light of the game included in this issue, an analysis of which is coming up momentarily). This is an excellent read, and should be read by anyone connected with wargaming. This article is spot-on. The only thing I wish he’d mentioned – and this may yet be forthcoming in a future article, as this was the first of 3 – is that those of us who like to actually play games, and the designers who take their craft seriously, may just be irrevocably hosed by simple economics. Between too many people who buy too many games they never play and the publishers who crowd the market with dreck for either ego or love of gaming, regardless of whether or not they make money or produce a quality product, the market for actual, playable games may now be so dysfunctional that we should just take what few good games we get and stop thinking about it.

Having read through this issue, which mixed the excellent and the medicore in such stark contrast such that I just had to write about it, I decided that I was finally going to break out of my rut and actually play an Against the Odds game so I could give you a full review. This issue’s game is Go Tell The Spartans, which covers the battle of Thermopyle and is conveniently both a solitare game and comparatively rules-light, only about 5 pages. The guilty party here is Robert Markham. Instead of doing a usual rundown of systems, rules, etc., let’s walkthrough a play of the game.

Day 1, Round 1: Greeks vs. Medes
The player plays the role of the Greeks, while the system gets the Persians (big mistake on the system’s part). Greeks roll to see which of the Persian contingents is attacking today – in this case the Medes – and then sets up. The wall down the middle of the board looks good, so Hoplites are set up stacked to the max behind it. Some skirmishers are then set up behind them, so they can run out and take some pot-shots if they want. The Medes are then set up one to a hex, as per the rules. So far so good, although we admittedly haven’t done anything yet.

The Medes close. We’ll ignore what happened with the skirmishers for a moment, for reasons that will become clear. The Medes then shoot at the Greeks behind the wall. It turns out that the maximum damage an archer can do if he rolls really well is one point, which is 3 points less than the required minimum to affect the hoplites. The rules prohibit the Persians from massing their fire so as to give them some chance of doing damage. Some 20 die rolls later, net effect is zero (you don’t really need to roll them, though).

The Medes then hit the Greek line. The Greeks have stacked each hex 3 high, so the Medes are attacking at the minimum column for each hex. On that column, the odds of the Medes being eliminated are 100%, and the chances of doing damage to the Greeks is … 0.

Total losses for the Medes are 100%, for the Greeks 0%. Odds of total Medes elimination: 100%. Chance of the Greeks taking any losses: 0. Seemed like a lot of work though. You’d think if you rolled the stupid die 50 times, you’d get more out of it.

So, it’s become clear at this point that this is a “we know our customers are morons” kind of a game. They might be right, because I decided to plunge ahead. First thing, I went back and re-read the rules. It turns out I had in fact made a couple of minor mistakes that had given the Persians something of an unfair advantage, so wondering just how bad bad could get, I played the second encounter of the first day.

Day 1, Round 2: Greeks vs. Immortals

The Immortals are much tougher than the run-of-the-mill Persians, so I figured maybe they wouldn’t face the same mathematical certainty of meaningless destruction.

However, to cut a long, painful, and tedious story short, the situation was much the same the second time round. Missile fire was the same worthless, RSI-inducing exercise, but now the Greek odds of eliminating the Immortals on the first shock is only about 16%. This will force the Greeks to counterattack, and even the maximum column has a 2/3 chance of attacker casualties. So while this counterattack will wipe the Immortals out with 100% certainty, they also are likely to inflict a couple step-losses on the Greeks, and may even flip a few units. Unfortunately, the Persian morale will crack and the Greeks will win after only 2 attacks by the Immortals and one other attack.

With jaw-dropping, show-stopping bugs of this order, it seems almost petty to complain further. Still … it’s worth mentioning that even if these rather major problems were somehow fixed, the rules for Persian movement are still badly broken. Ruling out the mathematical impossibility of it, if the Persians ever did break through the Greek line, holes in the Greek line are immaterial – the Persians just keep on going in a striaght line, riding off into the sunset (or at least until the hit the board edge, when I guess they get a memory violation and crash). An entertaining Greek option might be to simply form up in one huge column, let the Persians rush by, and then turn and attack them from the behind … but this option is far more dangerous to the Greeks than simply letting the Persians impale themselves against the points of Greek spears, so I guess in this case two wrongs do in fact make a right. It should also be mentioned that if the 3rd day is reached, things might get interesting as the Immortals can enter on the flank … but it takes so little to shatter the Persian Army morale, the Greeks should handily win in the second day. Another point is that the rules for the only relevant terrain feature, the wall, are vague and incomplete.

This is an unspeakably bad game, so obviously and utterly broken it’s insulting. Just for yuks, let’s put it into perspective with two recent, utterly horrible games: Nero and Imperium 2k. Of these, I’d say Nero is easily the worst, the reason being that in the case of Go Tell the Spartans and Imperium 2k, I think the experienced gamer is going to be pretty clear that the game is probably going to suck after reading the rules, it’s just a question of how much. That the answer is “a lot” in both cases is unfortunate, but it shouldn’t be a huge surprise necessarily. Plus, it also shouldn’t exactly be a huge shock that Thermopyle was not a tremendous subject matter choice for a game. Nero is worse in my judgement because a) it looks OK, and b) it punishes you for doing anything. I2K and GTtS you at least are forced to do some stuff, even if it’s stupid and pointless. Still, with Nero in the rear-view mirror, Go Tell the Spartans is out to a commanding lead for Worst Game of 2004.