GMT West Weekend 2004 – Day 2 – Europe Engulfed

My original goal was to play the whole campaign game of Europe Engulfed at GMT West, which I have still not done. I easily found a couple opponents (one of whom was in my Sword of Rome game), but they hadn’t played much at all, so I thought 1942-45 would be a more interesting game.

I had been playing the US/UK and Soviets a lot of late, so I stumped for the Germans. The situation facing the Germans in 1942 is daunting. If you’re going to take Stalingrad or Moscow, you really have only one turn to do it. If you don’t do serious damage with your first move, it’ll be back to the Don and a whole lot of entrenching.

My Soviet opponent had loaded up Moscow, so Stalingrad/Baku seemed to be the way to go since it was comparatively weak. But I didn’t play that first turn very well. The Soviets used their special action (SA) to evacuate the Don River Basin, which surprised me a bit (I usually see the Soviets spending their SA to pour in reinforcements to this entrenched position). I think the right thing to do then would have been to spend the first SA to redeploy 7 more infantry units into the spot, another SA to breach the river, then leaving two more SAs to reduce the defenders and/or redeploy. But I instead spent the SAs to press on with the forces on hand, which was a loser. I got over the river but didn’t kill enough Soviet units, and my position ended up too weak. So I had to withdraw.

This in and of itself this wasn’t a game-loser. I’ve won the 1942 scenario just by digging in behind the Don after taking Tula and the Don River Basin. But it’s not a promising start.

I then proceeded to concentrate on building up my defenses. I spent some money on interceptors, built fortifications, and maxed out the German force pool. The US/UK player attempted a gutsy 1942 invasion of Calais, which was brutally crushed; I then briefly considered a Mediterranean campaign, but with the US landing in Morocco right away, this wasn’t going to be viable. Instead, I just focused on beefing up the defense of the Italian mainland, including building an Italian fleet.

The following year was rough on the US/UK, while little happened on the Eastern Front as both of us simply built up. Another invasion into Denmark was crushed, and a major invasion of Italy was successful but just barely, and with massive casualties. With a some fighter builds, the bombers (which the US/UK never built aggressively) were kept in check and never got critical mass.

The problem was that all this activity was consuming a lot of special actions, as forces were constantly being shuttled back and forth between east and west. If you don’t eradicate them on the beach, you need several SAs: during your normal SR phase, you bring in the troops; then 1 SA to move operationally into the contested beachhead, and a second to actually do the counter-assault; then maybe another SA to redeploy the counterattacking forces back the Eastern Front. I think I over-relied on using the SAs for this purpose, as I got clobbered by the Soviets on a couple turns after I had to spend several SAs to redeploy guys near a beachhead and then counterattack; I probably committed too many guys, thinking “hey, I can just burn a SA to redeploy them back to Russia”, but that then left me with too few SAs for the inevitable reinforcements and counterattacks. The Germans get used to burning SAs somewhat freely when they’ve got four and are really only facing the Soviets, but when they fall down to 3 and have to seriously deal with the US/UK, things get very tight indeed.

Things then started getting really, really ugly. The first major Soviet counteroffensive, when I was sitting on 3 SAs, suffered a major reverse as reinforcements and counterattacks wiped out the attackers, keeping the river line and fortifications intact. After that, the Soviets very carefully picked their spots when I had not saved enough SAs (from dealing with a US/UK landing), and started eviscerating the eastern armies.

I got to fire off some V-1s, but I only held out until early 1945. The US/UK finally got it right about the fifth time, landing a ton of guys in France. I didn’t deal with that landing very well, and with my supply of SAs again exhausted, the German army was too battered to hold out.

I think ultimately the two major mistakes I made were: a) not doing enough damage to the Soviets in the early turns, and b) reacting too strongly to the various dinky Allied landings, which left me with not enough SAs in reserve. I think otherwise my position was reasonably strong, and I was generally not unhappy. But I’m still learning the techniques of the mobile defense, something I’ve never been terribly good at.

Anyway, I look forward to giving this a try again. Defending the Reich definitely seems very tricky after 1943, but I think I’ll do better next time.

GeekSpeak

Scott Alden and Derk Solko were kind enough to invite me to be a guest on their GeekSpeak game-related internet radio show, and I think the session worked out pretty well. We talked mainly about wargames, but the topics also ranged to German-style games, and even a few moments on RPGs. It wasn’t perfect – the Skype internet phone software we used has some inherent delay which meant we were occasionally stepping on each other. And I had some bursts of static on my end, so I was piecing together a couple of the call-in questions. But the Skype connection was overall clearer than my cell phone, so chalk it up as a win.

I thought I might offer a few minor follow-up comments:

Iain’s call: Iain’s blog, inconsequential ruminations, is here. The RPG content on my own blog has been thin of late, and I am going to try to get more back in. My monthly D&D session has still been going, so the material is there.

Robert E. Lee: This question was interesting, but really not something I could go into great detail on given the main focus of the program. For reference, here is the background for Alan’s question, and I think I’ve said about all I’m going to say about the issue on that GeekList.

Favorite Game Designer: An interesting slip-up on my part: I refer to Mark Simonitch as a game “author.” I generally don’t like the term “author” in this context, much preferring the traditional “designer.” Also, I should say that my fondness for Herr Knizia is obviously based on more than just his versatility, but also the incredible professionalism he brings to game design and the amazing elegance and subtlety to his bigger games.

Quebec 1759 being “less complicated than Puerto Rico”, this may have seemed an odd comment – Quebec is actually a lot less complicated than Puerto Rico, I think – but somehow PR has become the bar. If I perceive a wargame as the same order-of-magnitude complexity as Puerto Rico, I feel comfortable recommending it to people who play mainly German-style games, otherwise I hesitate.

Top 5 lists: The 5 games I threw out for wargames and German games as being my favorite were obviously all what I consider excellent games, but were ultimately somewhat random. For a list to which I have applied more thought, see my Top 20 list, which contains all kinds of games. That list still doesn’t include Wizard Kings for some reason, though.

That last question: Yeah, I know, my response to Josh’s (known online more popularly as Mr. Cranky) question was pretty lame. My only excuse was that I got a burst of static right in the middle – first he’s mentioning something about Aristotle and Philip which I still don’t get, and then he’s on to asking about Kim. But Kim got a kick out of it, so that’s cool.

I had a great time doing the show, and I hope you guys enjoyed listening to it. Kim has to fly down to Johnson Space Center in Texas on work every so often, so maybe I’ll see what I can do about helping out Derk with Europe Engulfed sometime.

GMT Weekend West 2004 – Day 1

I finally had a chance to get a play of Sword of Rome in. It’s a pretty substantial game, with a lot of stuff going on, so given this was my first play you will again get sort of a mish-mash of first impressions here. I promise to get back to more focussed blogging sometime.

The game is the newest Hannibal-derivative from GMT, this time for four players, each of whom takes the role of one of the major powers in ancient Italy – Rome, the Greeks, the Gauls, and the Samnites and Etruscans (the last two get rolled into one). The game is extremely similar to Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage rules-wise, with a few large elements removed (the battle cards have been replaced by dice) and a few added (there is now a whole subsystem tracking the loyalty of the various cities on the map, of which there are now quite a few more). On balance, this will be a very easy game for anyone at all familiar with Hannibal to learn. For those who haven’t played Hannibal, this is to my mind the most straightforward of all of GMT’s card-driven wargames, and also the one that is at the most sensible and comfortable level of complexity. It’s also definitely a simpler and cleaner game than Successors, a game to which it is directly comparable.

The play feels very different from Hannibal, though, despite the tremendous rules similarities. While you still use cards to place PCs or move forces, the political control game is much reduced in importance and there is no equivalent of Hannibal’s provinces, control of which drives much of that game. Instead, much of the game revolves around the various cities on the map, which are rated for loyalty. This loyalty can be increased by using the number value on cards, and the results of battles can increase or decrease city loyalty. More loyal cities are harder to siege and take over, although unless garrisoned with scarce combat units, city loyalty tends to be shaky at best.

I quite enjoyed the game. The first 5 hours of the 7-hour playing time flew past. Each player has an individual card deck, and they seemed very nicely flavorful, and there are plenty of powerful events that make the game interesting and exciting – a big improvement over the somewhat weak event mix in The Napoleonic Wars, although it seemed not quite as dramatic as the card play in Successors. For the first 6 turns anyway, each player has strengths and weaknesses that make them interesting to play. Each position seems small enough that the game moves along at a good clip, but big enough to always have interesting options. And the rules seem very well under control, with very little excess chrome. It’s not a simple game, but neither is it needlessly complex – most games from GMT you can find a couple rules (at least!) that leave you scratching your head, wondering what possible purpose they could serve. Sword of Rome doesn’t seem to have this problem.

Still, there was also some stuff that didn’t quite work for me. I’m not particularly enamored of the combat result system (which involves each side rolling 3 dice, high dice plus modifiers winning, with the results of individual dice inflicting casualties), which doesn’t scale particularly well – the expected total casualties are the same if 10 units face 9, or 3 face 1, or 10 face 2. Also, the minor nations – particularly Carthage – seem to be ruthlessly abused for extremely short-term player gain; units were routinely sent on suicide missions to marginally inconvenience another player, since the costs of using them are basically zero, and if you don’t someone else will send them after you. This felt awkward.

My only really serious complaint, though, is on length. The 9 turn game is probably 7+ hours to play, and I’m not entirely sure the game carries itself that well past turn 6 and hour 5. It seems that after turn 6, the Gauls and Romans are really the only players with viable shots to win, as the Greeks and Etruscans/Samnites get really run down in the first 6 turns and don’t have the VP generation capabilities of the Gauls or the recuperative strength of the Romans. Fortunately, there is a 6-turn game option, which I will try next time in the hopes of a slightly more sensible playing time and a somewhat more satisfying experience for all 4 players.

The bottom line, though, is that I enjoyed the game and look forward to playing the 6-turn version sometime soon.

Light(ish) 2-player game roundup

In the process of picking out games to sell at the ConQuest flea market, Kim and I made an attempt to play through some of our 2-player games that have been sitting on the shelves, to see if they merited keeping or if they should go. We didn’t make it very far before ConQuest.

Lord of the Rings Tradable Miniatures Game: A day late and a dollar short, you say; well, you get what you pay for. I picked up several of these about a year ago, on fondness for the LotR theme and because I like Games Workshop’s LotR miniatures line, on which this game is based. We played a handful of times, and I have to say I liked it a lot more than the usual “clickie” games. It’s a game with very simple rules, but it gives you enough real tactical choices to keep you engaged. Every character has an allocation of Action Points, which you can use for many purposes (improving combat results is the usual use case, but they also can be used for movement and many characters also have special powers), and while you have enough to have options, you never have as many as you’d like, and there seems to be a very nice tension there. On the other hand, the costs of the figures can add up, and I’m not sure it’s that good a game. Somehow while I quite liked the tactical boardgame, it hasn’t quite drawn me in to do the effort to do army building yet. One problem may be that the variety in the figures (outside of the Rares and Ultra-rares) isn’t huge. There have really only been two games that have sucked me in enough to enjoy spending real time doing “deckbuilding” – Magic and Middle-Earth: The Wizards. I can’t really put my finger on what these two games have that others don’t.

At the end of the day, given that I have some figures for this game, I’ll keep them – and they are good-looking. But I might not buy them again, given that players aren’t exactly coming out of the woodwork.

Speaking of customizable decks, we also played some Settlers of Catan Card Game and Blue Moon. I like both a lot, but neither game has inspired any deckbuilding either. It seems like Settlers should be a great deck-building game since it has a lot of the properties of Magic – diverse and powerful buildings, plus multiple roads to victory – but, like Blue Moon, it may just be too well-balanced out of the box to merit the effort. We haven’t gotten to the point with either that they are demanding more variety of play.

On the other hand, we have been enjoying building dice mixes for Dicemaster. I think in the end that it’s just not that complicated – you can throw together a plausible dice mix in 10 minutes or less – so it doesn’t seem like the investment of serious deckbuilding. And your options are somewhat constrained – you need enough magic and monsters, you need safe movement, you need rings, you need a few improvised weapon dice – so it ends up being mostly a balancing act. Still, getting your dice mix well-tuned makes a significant difference, so I like the game. It’s definitely a bit longer than I’d ideally like – we’ve had trouble bringing it down below the 2-hour mark – but it’s got tensions and challenge to make up for it. And it’s unique – there is nothing else good in this category of heavy-strategy dice games.

Balloon Cup is a classic “eh” game. This was exactly on the line between keeping and selling. It’s random, there is little strategy, and it has an unfortunate tendency to railroad you by reducing your options to almost zero if the game gets into a bad state. The few games we played seem to indicate the game is unstable; when it plays cleanly it’s fun enough, but when the game flirts with lock-up it can be annoying. It’s also a bit longer than the content would seem to indicate. On the other hand, it’s simple and not that long. Ultimately, we kept it. Largely because it’s small.

This was actually the first time I had played Odin’s Ravens with the correct Magic Way rules. Is it great? No. But we found it a significant step up from Balloon Cup, and a keeper. It’s solidly in the middle tier of the Kosmos 2-player games – interesting, not terribly deep (which can be an asset, as long as there is enough there to be minimally engaging), but short.

GMT Games Day West

I’ll be heading down to GMT Games Day West tomorrow evening, so if you’ll be there and would like to play some Europe Engulfed, Ardennes ’44, Kasserine, or Ukraine ’43, drop me an email. Looks like there should be plenty of Sword of Rome action, so I’ll hope to play that at least once. I’ll also have War of the Ring and some Columbia titles for some shorter games, if anyone is so inclined.

War of the Ring

Here are some more random thoughts on War of the Ring, after one more play. As you will soon find out, my opinion is still not quite settled, so this takes the form of impressions rather than an actual (p)review.

After my Origins pre-release play, I had more or less decided not to acquire War of the Ring when it came out. I didn’t anticipate it being bad, but I thought I might let someone else step up for the risk this time. But it blindsided me. I wasn’t expecting it to be in, but there it was on the shelves at my local game shop. I had a discount coupon. And, apparently, less willpower than one might hope when it comes to games. With a rationalization along the lines of “get, there’ll be plenty of demand on the secondary market”, I brought it home. And had a chance to play the very next day.

So, which rules did the Origins demo guy screw up (there’s always something, usually major)? Turns out, only one. We had been playing that subsequent moves in a turn by the Fellowship grant the Shadow player an extra die roll when rolling to hunt, but the reality is that it is instead a +1 to all the dice. This does not alter the feel of the game that much (the Fellowship’s trek to Mordor is very abstract and little more than a clock, and with the usual small numbers of dice the statistics aren’t that different), but it does make moving more than once or twice in a turn rather difficult.

I played the Free Peoples, Carl played the Shadow. I took a “run straight for Mordor” strategy, with only Gandalf leaving the Fellowship for Edoras once Moria had been crossed – everyone else stayed with the Ringbearer as he barrelled towards Mount Doom. Sauron’s first army of Orcs was hacked up a bit on the gates of Minas Tirith, but the second wave cleaned out the defenders nicely. Saruman had a hard time getting going; the first Siege of Helm’s Deep was thrown back, but the Second Siege was more successful, overrunning the defenders. After Minas Tirith fell, the Mordorians were too mauled to take on Dol Amroth, so Carl had to spend a few actions bringing the Southrons into play and making the long, painful trek from Far Harad. They then crushed the Knights of the Prince in short order. While tidying up the conquest of Gondor and Rohan, forces were being built up in Moria and Dol Guldor for the final battle at Lothlorien.

Meanwhile, the Fellowship gets to the Dead Marshes more or less intact. Then, companions start falling. Boromir tries to sieze the Ring, so Aragorn slices him up. Aragorn then considers heading south to Dol Amroth to be crowned King (and receive an extra action die), but thinks better of it when he counts out the regions and the size of the Southron army investing the city. He then turns around and is killed thirty seconds later. Merry and Pippin get to Minas Morgul before thinking to themselves “you know, I think we made a mistake in leaving the Shire”, whereupon they set up camp there and refuse to enter Mordor. So Frodo, Sam, Legolas and Gimli embark upon the final trek. Gimli gets whacked first. Then Legolas buys it. As the battle for Lothlorien begins, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are crawling up the slopes of Mount Doom.

The force pool of the Galahdrim defenders is somewhat odd. All the armies have elite and regular units. Elite units, when hit, are degraded to regulars. However, there are counter limits, and alone among the significant powers, the Elves have a preponderance of elite units … which leaves them few regulars to replace a hit elite. I was defending Lothlorian with 5 elites, which should theoretically mean I could take 5 hits before losing a die in combat. However, there was only one regular available in the mix at the time (I had made the mistake of mustering a few regulars earlier in the game), so that meant every two hits lost me a die (I should say, the rules are silent on exactly what happens if a replacement regular is lacking in either the reserve or deadpile when one is required; we played the elite was simply eliminated). This felt rather awkward, but I guess once you realize it it’s just another part of the game.

So Lothlorien was overrun as on the last turn of the game, I rolled no character actions to push the Fellowship, and so could only watch helplessly as the Golden Wood acquired a new landlord. Hard luck, but a very closely-run affair – I likely would have won in the next two Free People’s impulses. I also felt I made a number of mistakes in the game. For the Fellowship player, spending actions on the Northerners or Dwarves (or even the Elves) seems a waste unless the Shadow Player is negligent, or unless you are really going to go for the good guy Military Victory. I also never got Aragorn’s bonus die into play, which is obviously a big deal – I think getting both bonus Free Peoples dice is critical to success. And the Shadow player had a card which allowed him to cycle event cards which I was much too slow in eliminating, as I had badly miscalculated how much longer the game would go; when Frodo got to Mordor, I was in excellent shape, but the final leg of the trek is fairly tough, and my character actions dried up.

When I wrote about this game before, I said it was somewhere between a 4 and an 8. I think we can now safely narrow it down to something in the neighborhood of a 7, with some potential to move up or down a point. It’s definitely an interesting game – you’ve got interesting choices, the cards are somewhat flavorful even if not terrific, and the dice are a neat twist. Credit where credit is due, I think this is a successful remix of the We The People format, made a bit more straightforward for a broader audience. Managing fairly powerful action cards and spending limited activations wisely is key to the game, so it gives a very similar feel, albeit without quite the depth of those serious-gamer classics. The action cards are not quite as varied, and many actions are usually fairly obvious, so it seems to never quite rises to the level of real nail-grinding tension you get in those games sometimes. But it’s still good.

As I noted in my Origins writeup, I still think it feels fundamentally a bit abstract, again in a sort of Paths of Glory kind of way. While the good guys are busy in the south, the Dwarves are glued to their chairs; the strategy dice which drive the game (like the cards in Paths of Glory) are not actually grounded in anything rational, they’re just a game device designed to force you into arguably somewhat arbitrary tough choices. The whole Fellowship track is a useful device, but the rules for it are somewhat klunky (the least successful aspect of the game, in my opinion), and it is very abstract, really little different from The Queen’s Gambit’s Anakin track. Otherwise, there is flavor in the game, it’s nice, but it’s more euro-style “themeing” than it is really visceral in classic American games like Dune, Repulic of Rome, Hannibal, or Rommel in the Desert. And I fear the game may be a little long for the content. You spend a bit more time than would seem ideal moving up reinforcing armies, fiddling the political track, and trekking towards the enemy – activities that just aren’t very interesting.

Ultimately, I think, this game has been done a disservice by the raving hype on BoardGameGeek. Why? Because War of the Ring is definitely a good game. It’s professional (with one huge, glaring, exception that I am coming to), it’s well-executed, it’s got decent balance and good turn angst, interesting decisions to make, and solid flavor even if the theme doesn’t run very deep. It’s comparatively simple enough to be exciting. But in my opinion it just never had a chance to live up to the excessive pre-release pumping it’s been getting from the playtesters. It’s not a game that generates a “wow, this is awesome!”. It’s more of a “that was fun, I’d definitely play it again” kind of game, but with significant nervousness about mid-to-long-term replayability. So a 7, that might flip up to an 8 (if it holds on well) or down to a 6 (if it doesn’t).

Ultimately, the bottom line is, I enjoyed the game. I’m not unhappy with my purchase.

I have, until now, glossed over War of the Ring’s one major weakness, because ultimately I don’t think it will be that big a purchasing decision point to most people. Except perhaps for those with poor eyesight, for whom War of the Ring may be unplayable. War of the Ring is an impressive-looking game. But …

Cities, towns, and forifications on the board are virtually indistinguishable, if they are visible at all through the crowd of units in an area. Since you are always packing huge armies into tiny areas – most critical areas can only hold maybe 3 small figures or one large one, out of the 10 or so the Shadow Player is usually pushing around – critical impassible terrain boundries are almost always completely obscured. Both Carl and I were hosed by mountains we couldn’t even see. The Nazgul pieces, while impressive-looking, are huge – especially given the tiny areas – and very hard to use. The choices of icons to use often seems questionable (the “stop movement” icon, for example, is a sword, circled and with a slash through it. What’s wrong with the universal “stop” sign? You end up thinking, “well, this colored splotch means one thing, …”). The font size on the action cards is tiny and difficult to read at any distance. In many cases, the game uses intricate designs that are very hard to distinguish until you know what you are looking for – the nation counters on the political track, the elite Free Peoples units (you almost have to get in there and check out the heraldry on their tiny shields).

While these are all problems of varying degrees of irritation, I think the killer is going to be the bit with the inadequate mountain terrain symbols, and the unusably small play areas in many areas of the map (like, Gondor and Rohan).

I don’t want to end on a sour note, because I think most people who are interested in this game will work around these problems adequately, and so I don’t judge them to be seriously compromising, and under them is a game that is pretty interesting. But they are nonetheless somewhat galling, and this sort of thing drives some people berserk, so you have been warned.

Good RPG Column – Walt Ciechanowski

I enjoy RPGs, but of late, I’ve been laboring with them. A lot.

The problem is that being the GM is just so bloody difficult, especially for me, the perfectionist. I want the module to have fascinating plot, good character development, a theme, riveting battles, interesting NPCs, and be more like Tolkien or Donaldson than George R R Martin or Kevin J Anderson. Plus, I want it to be a great game, given all my experience with German-style games.

As a consequence, after my first (recent) somewhat unsatisfactory outing as a GM, I’ve been laboring excessively over my next attempt. For, like, almost a year now, on and off (in fairness, mostly off, as the task has been somewhat irrationally daunting).

What I have been trying to find is the Mike Siggins of RPGs. Someone who can write and give me some good tips. Some sourcebooks have some good, practical GMing advice (like the Star Wars d20 Galactic Campaign Guide), but most systems give you too little to go on. The D&D tips in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are particularly unenlightening in the end. And the internet has not been yielding much.

Most of RPG.net’s columns are … well, not that great, and the ones that are good tend not to be from the perspective of a GM. But I recently discovered Walt’s column, which is absolutely awesome (links to previous installments are at the bottom of the page). This is great stuff, good, practical advice you can use, which I think has finally gotten me over the hump. Maybe I can finally finish this thing up.

If anyone else knows of good stuff like this, please forward it along. I’ll add a link to my blog.