KublaCon Day 1 – Wargames

KublaCon (great name) is a large-ish yearly con in the San Francisco Bay Area which I had somehow never made it to before; usually Memorial Day weekend we’re on vacation, or have family or guests in town, or I’ve been going to MonsterCon in Arizona. This year, though, we were around and I went.

My friend Paul was running a Europe Engulfed game, so I did that first. We played the Tournament scenario. I would now like to make an attempt to disabuse people of a few things:

Firstly, I’m glad Europe Engulfed has been successful, but its high profile for a wargame seems to be drawing people who are sort of poking at it rather than taking it seriously. We saw a bit of this with Paths of Glory; many people heard it was great and wanted to try it, but weren’t willing to learn the rules or put in the non-trivial effort necessary to learn what is a fairly serious and challenging game. We had several people show up for this event wanting to play, but never having even looked at the rules. This is not the way to go. Europe Engulfed is an absolutely great game, so I recommend that if you want to play, read the rules ahead of time (they’re online) and take it seriously. You won’t regret it; as I say, it’s a fantastic game, and really just not that hard to learn in the main. But you’ll get a heck of a lot more out of it by being prepared.

Secondly, I’d also like to desperately try to convince people that the way to learn the game is to start in 1942. People want to start in 1939 their first game, but the drama here is in 1942 when the heavily armed major powers are locked in total war, not when the veteran German army is blasting through outclassed and outnumbered opponents in a race to get the most factors on the Soviet border, or bring an unprepared Great Britain to her knees. The early war provides interesting options for players who know what they are doing, but in order to get there, you’re going to need to learn to play 1942 first so you know where you’re headed and how all the bits of the game interact. Europe Engulfed is a game first and foremost (a good thing, by the way), and it has sufficient subtlety that you need to tackle something reasonably constrained first.

I played the Soviets in this game, which was kind of cool because I somehow have managed to never play them before. The German player became obsessed with Stalingrad to a level that might have driven even Hitler to say “you know, you might want to back off a bit”. He was still shipping troops to the shore of the Caspian Sea well after a gigantic hole was ripped in his line near Tula. This resulted in 80% of the entire German Army (every unit in Russia) being eliminated OOS in early 43. Mildly amusing, but probably not worth the effort.

A final rant, my last I promise, I know the uncertainty of the blocks also drives some players to take a “risk it all now” approach to the game. “I don’t know if I’m going to win or lose, but I’m going to wager it all on one throw while I still have the initiative”. I see this occasionally, and I think it’s somewhat unsportsmanlike – it leads to a not very interesting game, as it ends before the initiative passes – but I also think it’s bad play. In most games between competent opponents, you’re playing for the marginal levels of victory, and going with a decisive-or-nothing push is not going to be a winner. Block games are games of player morale, and you have to keep your cool. The horde or Soviet units in Europe Engulfed can be particularly imposing.

Despite a slightly troubled game, my opinion of Europe Engulfed has not slipped.

Continuing on …

Next game up was Up Front, in the hour or so I had left before the flea market. We played Germans vs. British, A Meeting of Patrols (scenario A). If you follow my posts on BoardgameGeek, you know that while I used to be a huge fan of this game, I’ve been trying to lean against the high average ratings it gets, as I’m of the opinion that it was great in its day but now rather dated. After this game, I admit I wondered what I ever saw in it. Two games, both less than 15 minutes, saw my squad basically erased on the start line as I rarely drew any cards that enabled me to do anything at all, and every time I did try to do something I ended up in a stream or under wire (and I’m no Up Front slouch; I’ve played hundreds of games and was always pretty good, I know how to cycle and count cards). Them’s the breaks, it’s a chaotic game, you might say; and when I first played Up Front 20 years ago, when abstraction like this was a novel idea, I might have said you were right. Today, though, I’m not so sure. Up Front is a non-trivially complicated game, and it has a lot of fiddly little rules details (malfunctions, retrograde movement, many things associated with vehicles, etc.), and it does often take more time than you might expect to play. In fact, the reason that my Up Front play originally tailed off quite a bit was that scenarios were starting to take over an hour, while I think Up Front really wants to be a 20-30 minute game. And half as complex as it currently is. So I dunno. I really loved the game in its time, but playing again made me want to go back to play some more Battlelines, which in comparison may be better than I give it credit for. This experience certainly inspired me to get my copy of Desert War (Up Front French & Italians, nationalities that are monumentally non-entertaining to play) onto eBay.

A quick trip to the flea market netted a backup copy of Rommel in the Desert at a very nice price, and a copy of Desert Steel. At these smaller local cons, always check out the flea market. There is usually one real deal to be had (a cheap copy of Hannibal, or Rommel, or Civilization or something) if you are fast enough, although for me they are otherwise usually pretty thin.

Last was Memoir ’44, the new Battle Cry derivative game from Days of Wonder. They had demos at KublaCon, although copies are not available for a week or so yet. Fans of Battle Cry are going to love this one, because it fixes a few of the issues with the card deck (like the All-Out Offensive card, and the general card imbalance), is significantly more varied in the scenarios and game texture, is generally better-balanced, and comes in a more sensible package size while still being well-produced. All that said, it’s still Battle Cry – if you don’t get the cards, you’ll lose and the game will be boring, and while short, probably not short enough. It still has the flaw of being unable to cycle cards except by playing them, so generally your hand shrinks and shrinks as you accumulate more unusable or only marginally useful cards, until your options become minimal. This is a game with a good fun factor, but it’s hard not to wish that it had just one more touch, the one more idea to make it really good. Some way to cycle cards would be very helpful, I think, or some trade-off involved with the better cards. This problem here is that the cards are still strictly hierarchical – i.e., the “move 3 units on the right flank” cards are just better than the “move 2 units on the right flank” cards – and it would be nice if there were more tradeoffs. There are still cards that are totally useless. Still, all told, I liked this significantly better than Battle Cry, and I think this will be a buy for me as I keep looking for decent light wargames. But it’s a close call.

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