HomerCon West 2004, Day 2

Fresh from my defeat last night at Europe Engulfed, and having re-read the rules, I was ready to have at it again, once again the ’42 Tournament scenario. The last game I tried fighting in Russia, but this was a disaster as I got swamped by a sea of Soviet units. Figuring I wasn’t going to go through that again, I went with an anti-Western Allied strategy and a holding action in the East. The plan was to take no offensive action in the East but just to dig in, meanwhile taking Malta and driving on Cairo in North Africa and seriously bulking up my air defenses. This actually worked out pretty well – Malta fell, and the panzers ended up all the way in Baku, albeit very briefly. This was, however, aided and abetted by some serious Allied tactical errors – failures to hold the line and properly cover and garrison Moscow and Stalingrad allowed me to run in and raid them temporarily, denying the Allies points; the Americans failed to invade Morocco as the Western Allies became obsessed with situation in Egypt; the Western Allies built up hordes of ground units they couldn’t use instead of maxing out heir bomber force; and a premature Allied cross-channel invasion was crushed in reaction. Obviously, the Western Allied player had never played before and I think was not quite grasping the game, so I couldn’t really credit my win to great skill. However, it does seem that the defensive eastern front/all-out in the Med strategy is possible; I’ve actually come to favor such a strategy in Barbarossa to Berlin, which obviously colored my strategy here – the whole historical Case Blue (drive on Stalingrad) thing seems so insane against Soviets who aren’t going to make the historical mistakes. Anyway, despite some difficulties, I enjoyed this game and was ready to try again with some Allied players who perhaps had a better grasp of the whole wargaming thing.

Before that, though, it was over to Monty’s Gamble. Karl had been in the GBII game, but they were playing all of it with only 2 players, and this leads to some downtime; most people play side games of some description. So Karl and I did some Monty’s Gamble. I’ve somehow never managed to play the Germans in this game, so I took them now and Karl had the Allies. Things were going well, until on Day 2 Karl made a critical mistake in not refitting some units in Arnhem. This let the SS Panzer units up there roll into town and easily erase them, with the remainder of the division racing down to Nijmegen ahead of XXX Corps. Not good. Unfortunately, we missed a few rules that might have helped the Brits a bit – pretty minor stuff, but still. It had been a while since I had played, and since I hadn’t been planning to play this weekend I hadn’t brushed up on the rules in advance and I hadn’t played quite enough to get everything down. Breakout: Normandy is a slightly complex game, but the great player aid sheets help a lot. Monty’s Gamble is a similarly slightly complex game with lousy or no player aids, and it’s amazing how much difference it makes. Fortunately, MMP has seen fit to produce a couple that are OK, which I shall download and print out so hopefully next time this won’t be an issue. At any rate, Karl (and Paul, one of my opponents in two of the EE games) are gamers after my own heart and I enjoyed gaming with them.

Then, back to EE, this time with players who knew how to play at both the Russians and the Western Allies, and me playing the Germans once again. Once again, I disdained action in Russia in favor of beating on the Western Allies. This time, I was unable to take Cairo, but the huge drain on the Allied resources defending it sucked down much of their navy simply keeping it supplied once Malta fell. The Italians built up their own navy and inflicted several local reverses on the British (it’s a lost cause in the long run, but sinking British Fleets is about the height of what Italy can hope to accomplish). I never achieved any decisive victory in the Med, but it did prevent the British & Americans from achieving any of their victory-point objectives, and did gain me one by stalling out the strategic bombing campaign. In the East, basically nothing happened for the first year, as both sides built up. Then, once the Soviet juggernaut got going, he more or less drove me out of Russia, but I managed to hold on to one region (denying the Soviets a VP) and a last-turn counterattack isolated much of the Russian army and did some very serious damage. This was not productive in terms of winning the game, but it did feel impressive and it was nice to see that the Germans could inflict serious reverses in the east. Unfortunately, this was done at the expense of the West, where an Anglo-American landing at Normandy was badly mauled, but two steps of British managed to just barely hold on to their beachhead. In retrospect, it would have made far more sense to spend a Special Action sealing the fate of the Brits (which would have netted me a VP) than mauling the Soviets, which felt good but did not have any impact on the score. Always a serious hazard of cutting off the scenarios at arbitrary points in mid-war, and why I never liked any of the smaller scenarios in Paths of Glory.

I came away very impressed with Europe Engulfed – I enjoyed the game quite a bit. I’m sure it won’t be infinitely replayable just due to the situation – how many ways are there really to skin this particular cat? – but it’s a lot of fun. If the strategic choices are somewhat limited, there are lots of very significant “operational” choices in terms of objectives, operational tempo, force allocations, and so on, and there is a lot to the economic side of the game. Both sides are presented with constant tough choices. The game is involved but not overly complicated, it should take only a playing or two of the fairly playable Tournament scenario to get comfortable with the game. The Special Action chits are so simple and seem so natural, it’s hard to believe that someone hasn’t done exactly this before. The scale is just right – every block is important, the Germans are always scrabbling to find units, and there are enough units to give you options but not so many units that it feels like micromanagement instead of a strategic game (my big complaint about Third Reich was always that it felt like a tactical game played on a strategic scale). Production is always very tight, and you have lots of choices in this respect – lots of WWI games let you buy way too much infantry, especially in the late game, but here the Germans seem strapped for troops, as it was historically. The Strategic Warfare system is about the best I’ve seen, and is fast and clean to boot. And the blocks work great here, there is always a lot of uncertainty about enemy strength and what the right move is. All this, and the game plays cleanly and quickly and doesn’t get bogged down. A lot to like. I’m looking forward to playing this more. Definitely a keeper.

After I got home (I left Sunday morning), I set up the Tournament scenario to solitaire for a few turns to see how an all-out German offensive into Russia would work; after my first game, I just couldn’t see how the Germans could pull off the historical ’42 summer offensive (setting aside for the moment the question of whether it was a good idea). Now with a chance to seriously study the Order of Battle and check out the situation from the Soviet side, it’s clear that if the Germans mass all their armor (I never suitably concentrated mine into one thrust) and are willing to spend all their Special Actions (I was not thinking aggressively enough), they can do a lot of damage and probably take either Moscow or Stalingrad, if they can pick the more lightly-defended one. The question is at what cost, both in terms of resources expended in the east and of letting the Western Allies go nuts. Obviously, this sort of balancing act is what makes the game interesting.

I should also comment that starting in ’42 anyway, this game worked much better 3-player than I expected. I didn’t think there would be enough stuff to keep the Western Allies fully engaged in the mid war, compared to the Soviets & Germans (a big problem with the combined EuroFront game). However, their position is subtle and requires a lot of planning and management. There still isn’t as much going on as there is on the Eastern Front, but it seems like it’s enough. All 3 games I played were 3-player, and it worked out quite well. But I should mention also that I play quickly and I always had reasonable opponents in this regard; one guy at another board playing the Allies was taking absolutely forever to finish his move (we’d play like two full turns at our table before he had finished just his portion of one move). But this is hardly a problem specific to Europe Engulfed.

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