EastFront

A fellow-gamer from Silicon Valley Boardgamers was looking to learn to play EastFront. EastFront being one of my favorite games, I was willing to help out.

Usually when I teach EastFront, I’m playing with people who have wargaming experience, so I’d start with the Summer or Winter 1942 scenarios, which are pretty well-balanced, interesting for both sides, and show off the game more than the more minimalistic Edelweiss intro scenario. But they are also pretty big, and since Dave hadn’t played much in the way of wargames, I went back to the rulebook and checked out Edelweiss, which I actually had never played.

It looked OK – it’s the push to the Caucuses by Army Group A in Summer 1942, alongside 6th Army’s ill-fated trip to Stalingrad. It’s got only one “combat” HQ and one “supreme” HQ per side, and a handful of units; but it does cover much of what you need to know. It’s got most of the terrain (including a river, the most important terrain type), it’s got all the important unit types, it’s got weather, the Germans have some blitz opportunities on turn one, the rail net is awkward out there so you have to worry about supply a bit, and there are enough production points involved to make things interesting.

It played OK too, even if it’s not going to really “sell” the game the way a great introductory scenario should. The Soviets lack any teeth in this scenario, so they’re just holding on – the Germans have all the firepower. With only one “real” HQ per side, your options are rather limited compared to the bigger scenarios, especially 1942 and 1943 where there are real titanic clashes. And I may be influenced by the fact that I played the Soviets and lost, but I really don’t see how they have any chance to win this scenario. The Germans just have to take exactly one city, Rostov (which is right on their start line, and the Soviets are anemically weak at start), then not lose any units (not an issue given that the Soviets have exactly one shock army – not even in play at start – and no armor) to force a draw. It seems like the Germans might need a bit more of a handicap in this one, although it was my first play of the scenario and I may have missed something.

Critically, though, we played in only about 2 hours, including talking through rules. OK, so the scenario isn’t great, but it does convey a pretty good feel for the system, and it plays quickly. So I think it works. But move on to 1942.

Every time I play EastFront, I am impressed by the game. It’s such an incredibly clean system for a medium-complexity wargame; having played Europe Engulfed just a couple days ago, a game that I quite like but can be a touch fiddly, the more streamlined play of EastFront stood out. Maybe EastFront doesn’t quite have quite the compact design elegance of Rommel in the Desert, but EastFront is also a grander, more dramatic game.

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Europe Engulfed: A play of 1942-45 scenario reveals a problem

I’ve played the 1942 scenario of Europe Engulfed quite a few times, and while I like it a lot for being an interesting situation, the end of the world syndrome in late ’43 always seemed a little unsatisfying. So we decided to start in 1942, but play through 1945 – or as long as time allowed, anyway.

I was the Soviets. The Germans made an attempt on Moscow, which ultimately failed, but didn’t result in catastrophe as attempting to take Stalingrad and Baku often does; so the Germans fell back, and the Soviets started building up their army.

I’ve been trying to determine if building the Elite units serves any purpose for the Soviets. For the Germans, elite units of both types make a lot of sense, mainly because they’re cheap to SR (a factor I had not previously weighted enough), but also because they are easy to counterattack and reinforce with. Post-1942, though, it’s not clear that either of these is much of a factor for the Soviets, and maybe they should simply go with mass. I actually built a Soviet Elite Tank unit just because I had never seen it done, but I’m not clear it’s a good idea.

In our game, the Germans actually held on for quite a while in Russia, as Matt never let his army get mauled, so I was hard pressed to create a real breakthrough as in previous games playing against more aggressive German players. In fact, by 1945, the Germans still had not been completely evicted from Russia. The bad news, from the German perspective, is that the money spent in Russia meant the Western Allies had an easier time of it in Italy, and when they finally invaded France in 1944, the western defense were very thin.

We had to call it in 45 due to time, and it was actually still a fairly close game, although I think the Allies were in pretty good shape with the situation in France.

So what was the problem, you ask?

While some of my friends have quite enjoyed Europe Engulfed, it hasn’t quite caught on around here to the point that I get to play as much as I’d like. Part of it is certainly the complexity, perceived and actual. While I don’t think of EE as being in the same high-complexity ballpark as many of GMT’s games, and while it’s a lot simpler than competing games like World in Flames or Advanced Third Reich, it’s still not a simple game – and I think the lack of decent player aids is a significant problem. Compared with the very nice aids in Barbarossa to Berlin, Europe Engulfed’s one-page reference sheet is almost worthless, being mostly consumed with the neutral power setup and a table for figuring out percentages for U-Boat losses. Given the non-trivial amount of fiddly complexity in EE, a decent reference sheet would, I think, make this game much more accessible.

I was trying to think of good games that have actually been killed by the lack of decent reference cards, and the only one I could come up with was Moments in History/Critical Hit’s Royal Tank Corps – although admittedly player aids were only a fraction of that otherwise decent game’s production problems. There are certainly plenty of good games that have been damaged by a lack of good aids, though, including Monty’s Gamble: Market-Garden, Battlelines, and even Storm over Arnhem. GMT has generally been quite good about this, but I think it’s certainly a significant omission here. For medium-complexity games like Grant Takes Command, OCS, Barbarossa: Army Group North, Kasserine, and Ukraine ’43, the good player aids make a big difference. It’s tough to keep all that stuff in your head, especially if you’re just trying to play and haven’t made a study of the game yet.

So I’ve added making up a decent one-page player aid for this game to my list of projects.

1825

I used to play the various 18xx games a lot back in college, when time was cheap, good games comparatively few, and good short games even less common than that. The first one I played was 1830, which was a big departure from the games I played predominantly before that (Civilization, Diplomacy, Star Fleet Battles, and Avalon Hill wargames like Squad Leader, Third Reich, MBT, and Arab-Israeli Wars). But it caught on right away – shorter than Civilization, with less downtime and fewer problems with kingmaking and destabilization with poor and/or vindictive play, it still had a lot of depth and was engrossing.

The Achillies heel of 18xx, though, is replayability – they all eventually play out. There is little randomness not introduced by the players, and after a certain number of plays you figure out that no, starting the CP on the first turn really is not a good idea, the C&A should sell for $320, and so on. So the hunt was on for more 18xx titles – 1853 and 1829 at first, but then slowly more were published, including 1835, 2038, 1870, 1856, and the many gamekits. 1856 was easily the best of the 1830-style games – the rest played through even quicker than 1830, or, like 1839 (now known as 1841 I think), were basically unplayable at all.

Today, with so much pressure from great, substantive, but hugely playable games like Taj Mahal or Amun-Re or Puerto Rico or Goa, the days of big 18xx games seem to be past. Fortunately, 1825 fills a very nice niche as a middle ground between the big, old-style 18xx games and the German game revolution. 1825 can be played, with rules explanation, in under 2.5 hours by 3-4 people. It manages to convey a lot of the tactical depth of 1830 in a smaller package. And it is a more even, euro-style game that relies on consistantly making a lot of good, meaningful, smaller decisions rather than having a couple big, major win/lose type events surrounded by filler (for example, it could be argued that in 1830, the game is about owning two companies and getting each of them a permanent train, with the rest being somewhat peripheral).

Even though the 1829 branch of the 18xx family (including 1825, 1829, and 1853) has a reputation for being for the “engineers” (i.e., route-builders), as opposed to 1830’s (including 1856 and 1870) “financiers” (share manipulators), 1825 strikes me as a much truer investment game. Each turn you have to take stock of each of the companies, figure out which ones have the best prospects, and invest your money wisely – dumping the losers and buying the winners. In 1830, by contrast, minority shareholders can get stuck personally paying a company’s unpaid bills if the president bails out, so once people figure out how dangerous it is to own stock in a company whose president also runs some other company, the game seems much more about running your railway, getting the right permanent trains, and so on – stuff 1825 is also still good at. While I used to love 1830, today 1825 seems the more solid fundamental game. Plus, 1825 can be played and enjoyed even if you only play occasionally, because it has the lowest rules overhead and is the most intuitive as tactics don’t revolve so much around funky train-swapping that you couldn’t possibly figure out without playing a few times.

As a final bonus, 1825 does a great job of solving the variability problem with a bunch of expansion kits that you can use to change the company, train, and track mix, or lengthen the game into something a bit meatier.

All in all, 1825 is more successful for me than similar “heavyweight” euros like Power Grid or Age of Steam. Maybe it’s just my long history with 18xx games, although perhaps the true fans of 1830 and 1870 will never be converts. But it has a lot of good stuff for the eurogamer looking for something heavier, so check it out if you get a chance.

Gaming The War of the Ring

Being a fan of Lord of the Rings and a gamer, a War of the Ring game that captures the drama of the epic battles of the late Third Age is something of a holy grail. Of late, though, I’ve come to believe it can’t be done. I’ve long been convinced that despite several attempts, the Pellanor Fields is ungameable at the grand tactical level, except in the sense that you can make a game that simply follows the events of the book, if you wanted to – but whether or not that’s really a game is arguable. You just can’t game the dramatic arrival of the Rohirrim or the facedown between Eowyn and the Witch-King.

The entire War of the Ring has similar problems. The book is a novel, in which things happen for reasons of story and drama, not probability or logic. So at every level you have huge problems. How do you get the Sauron player into the right mindset, how do you put the fear and uncertainty of the Ring into his mind? How do you convey the task of the Fellowship as being appropriately desperate? How to you impart the drama of the climactic events without scripting them into the game, and thus depriving them of the drama you are attempting to capture? How do you incorporate elements of the book without railroading the game down the course of the book? Is it even appropriate to talk about game balance – do you think that when Aragorn, Gandalf, and Elrond embarked on this task, they felt that they had about a 50-50 chance of success?

I’ve seen a number of attempts to do this, from ICE’s facinating but grievously flawed Fellowship of the Ring to SPI’s borderline War of the Ring to the new modestly promising but not groundbreaking War of the Ring from Nexus. None of them has been great – although obviously the jury is still out on Nexus’ effort from the game perspective, as far as conveying the real drama of War of the Ring I’m pretty confident in saying that while it’ll do better than any previous effort, it still isn’t quite there. But who knows, maybe I’ll have to eat my words on that. We’ll find out in a month or two.

One of my friends has been tempted by the challenge, and we do agree on one thing – if there is a system that could possibly serve as the baseline for such a game, Wizard Kings is it. It’s got flexibility, it’s got built-in uncertainty, it’s quite simple, and it’s got the capacity to deliver great flavor. The above-mentioned fundamental obstacles of porting the underlying logic of a novel to the logic of a game still have to be overcome, however. And they aren’t insignificant.

Lock ‘n Load — Undeniable Courage

Although I have never seen the book or read the movie, this engagement apparently is the one featured in We Were Soldiers Once….

The scenario features a small American contingent with some Claymore mines holding a hill. Dave and I actually chose this scenario because we were on a time limit, and with the attacking NVA not exceeding the defending US in size by much, it looked small-ish. But things rapidly escalated, as the secret event paragraphs brought in more troops, and the US had to rapidly shift to parry different thrusts as they eventually become seriously outnumbered. All this added up to the most interesting scenario of Lock ‘n Load that I have yet played, with a fair amount of maneuver and the defenders hard-pressed to hold on. It all came down to a last-turn melee on the top of the hill, with a squad of US troops desperately kicking the NVA off of their hard-won position.

A couple notes on Lock ‘n Load in general after this game:

Firstly, I like it more and more after each play. That’s good. This game was fun, exciting, and fast-paced. The special events were used really well in this scenario, with the US having to move to counter unexpected threats. It probably wouldn’t be as exciting to play the US a second time, but that’s OK I think, there are now plenty of scenarios with the expansion.

Secondly, it bears mentioning that like the original Squad Leader, there is a lot of luck in Lock ‘n Load. Using sound tactics gives you a shot to win, but sometimes despite your brilliantly-executed plan that 105mm high explosive lands on your head, and you’re hosed. I suppose in reflection of the proliferation of firepower since WWII, Lock ‘n Load seems to subject you to the whims of fate a bit more than Squad Leader. For me, that’s part of the appeal of the game, and it is rather short. But for some of you out there, you’ve been warned.

Thirdly, a tactical tip: Most of the games I’ve played give the attacker plenty of time, and you need to use it. Even more than WWII games, Lock ‘n Load is about firepower, avoiding it, concentrating it, and blasting people with it. Back in my ASL-playing days, one of my failures as a player was being aggressive as an attacker even without tanks or artillery or the usual tools that let you strike quickly. If the scenario card says there are 12 turns, and the pace of your attack is going to get you to the building/hill/bridge/whatever in 6, that’s probably not good. When attacking, time is a resource along with troops and firepower, so use it wisely.

Lastly, what was not so good was the increasingly glaring problems with Lock ‘n Load’s rules as the scenarios I’ve been playing have been getting more complex. The rules to this game are poorly-organized, frequently frustratingly-written, vague in spots, and in general a significant disappointment. It’s often difficult to find stuff as it’s not in the right place (it took me ages to figure out where the heck the rules for Claymores were). At the end of the day, we had only one question we couldn’t resolve (do Claymores get the +2 for point-blank fire?), and some questions about opportunity fire and melee, and firing into a melee, that we weren’t quite sure we understood because it didn’t feel right; but we spent too long puzzling through the rules. This really is a great (and really not complex) game that deserves a better rulebook, and it almost convinced me to take a crack at rewriting it myself and sending it in to Shrapnel. Two recent wargames that I’ve actually quite liked (this and Battlelines) have been good games with poor rulebooks. I think Lock ‘n Load’s problems are not as severe as Battleline’s, and in the end I’ve been able to puzzle most everything out. But still, frustrating.

The Siege of Minas Tirith

The Siege of Gondor siege-type scenarios are quite different in character than the ones from Helm’s deep. Saruman’s Uruk-Hai fielded only one piece of siege equipment (the Ballista) and it was largely a glorified paperweight. The Uruk-Hai relied on their martial prowess and ladders, and the occasional explosive, while the defenders depended a lot on the various heroes, shielding, and pushing down ladders.

The Orcs – even the “elite” Morannon Orcs Sauron fields in this scenario – are no Uruk-Hai. To counter that, they’ve got siege towers, catapults, and bolt-throwers. Unfortunately, the defenders are also similarly-equipped. The Gondorians are, however, much less numerous. I played the bad guys.

Crossing the beaten zone in front of the walls is a harrowing experience. The trebuchets threw rock after rock at the siege towers, but were only able to damage one of them before the doors opened and the Orcs poured out. Swirling melees developed near both towers, with the side that had to deal with Gandalf doing much more poorly. Gothmog, meanwhile, established a secure bridgehead on the right flank and started to push towards the gate. The left flank cleared up a bit when we decided to have the catapult drop a rock right into the middle of the melee, which got about 3 Orcs for every two Gondorians, but that seemed a fair trade to us. The Orcs carrying the battering ram rapidly determined that their odds of actually breaking into the fortress were so low, they split up and grabbed some ladders instead. Under heavy bow fire, only one actually made it to the top before being dispatched.

A big problem for us was the ineffectiveness of our heavy troops. The Trolls got blasted by defending bolt-throwers and did little more than push the towers. Due to some bad luck, the Witch-King did little more than disable on trebuchet – quite helpful, but you expect a little more for your 200 point investment.

In the end, though, the mass of decent-quality Morannon Orcs backed up by the leadership of Gothmog was enough. Just barely – it came down to the last die roll on the last turn – but enough.

I was generally pretty happy with the scenario, with one exception – the Gondorian bolt-throwers are an incredible pain. The siege equipment in general is a bit of a pain to resolve – roll a die for scatter, a die to hit, a die to wound, then a die to batter, with possible another die for an obstructed target – but the bolt-throwers just shoot so many times (requiring another die roll to determine the number of shots), every time you shoot one you’re rolling like 15 times. It’s just too much of a pain, and they are ungodly powerful for a paltry 70 points. I have also come to dislike the Games Workshop banner rules, which require a lot of re-rolling and so are a bit fiddly.

So the Gondorian bolt-thrower has been added to my list of units that need a house rule. In general, I’ve been extremely happy with how well-done the rules for the game are, but there is a short list of stuff which for me doesn’t work to varying degrees: Boromir’s horn, Anduril, banners, and now the bolt-thrower. I’ve also been considering adding Aragorn’s free might per turn to the list, which is incredibly powerful. So I’ll have to see what I can come up with.