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.