Rommel in the Desert

I am hoping to run a Rommel in the Desert event at Origins. Well, I am running an event, I just hope people show up after the snafu with the printed program. I needed a short scenario, so I chose Battleaxe, which was apparently designed for the tournament at Origins ’87. Only problem: I had never played that scenario (I was unaware of it until it was added to the rulebook in the 2004 version of the game). So I’ve been trying to find opportunities to do so.

My first chance was at Bay Area GamesDay XXXVIII. My opponent was a new player. I played the Germans.

Battleaxe starts both sides fairly short on supply, but the Germans particularly (only 4 cards to the Allied 8). I drew 4 blanks. “Isn’t there a mulligan rule in this game? I think there is a mulligan. Can I redraw?” (The mulligan rule was located later in the evening – you can redraw once, after which you are stuck with it). OK … 4 more blanks. Ouch.

For those unfamiliar with Rommel in the Desert, the game is driven by a deck of supply cards. Each card can be either one unit of supply, or not. Two-thirds of the deck is supply. Supply is required to do absolutely anything in the game, other than defending in place or running away from the enemy in terror. If you have supply, you can attack, counterattack, reinforce, or rearrange your defensive lines. If you have a bit more supply, you can launch larger offensives. If you have a lot of supply, you can attempt blitzkrieg-style breakthroughs. If you have no supply, you can withdraw.

I’ve had to play the game short supply, which is not easy, but is a lot easier as the Germans, since they concentrate a lot of hitting power into a few units, have better mobility, and are generally less fragile. You can use your fast recon units to sort of weave and dodge, and the Germans have a much easier time putting together nasty local counterattacks on short supply. I’ve never had to face down an opponent with 8 (admittedly unknown) supply cards while I had none, though.

I think if my opponent had more experience, it would have been a lot tougher; but the Allies are tricky to play. You can’t play this the way you would approach EastFront or Hammer of the Scots, because unlike in those games, one side’s units (the Axis here, unfortunately for the good guys) are simply better. A lot better, at least until the Grants and Shermans arrive. So for the Allies, the hexside attack limits make it harder to get force superiority; and the better Axis mobility makes it hard to outflank them. So you really need to leverage your supply advantage to unleash major hammer blows, rather than spending a supply here, a supply there – again, because the German units are so much better, if you’re in a move/counter-move situation, they’re always going to come out ahead.

Bottom line, if you can’t create a crisis, or at least an opportunity to tie them down in a major slugfest that will allow you to trade losses step-for-step, you’re better off waiting and building up your supply reserve. Of course, that judgment is tricky because you don’t know just how much supply your opponent has, or whether things are going to get much better. I think the British also have to be more sensitive to when to call off operations that are losing their momentum. If you’ve pushed hard, you aren’t getting results, and your stockpile is running low, it’s time to pull back rather than pushing the offensive until you simply run out of supply.

As our game played out, my recon units were able to screen my main body for the first turn, slowing down the Brits. I used withdrawl moves to yield a couple hexes. The first buildup saw one supply point come my way, which I resisted the temptation to use and simply fell back a bit more; the British had gotten themselves a bit mired in a couple battles to which they had brought insufficient force. The next buildup netted two more supply; at this point, I was able to spend one on a big counterattack, which stalled the British and stabilized a large part of the line. When I then had adequate supply on turn 5 or so, and the British had overextended themselves, and I was able to go over to the offensive and decisively maul their spearheads.

Like EastFront, Rommel is to a large degree about the efficient usage of scarce supply options – scarce supply has to be spent on concerted action and not frittered away. But Rommel is a much more dramatic game than EastFront, for a few reasons. Firstly, the German units are strong enough that the Axis can be fairly assertive. Secondly, you can run through your supply much more rapidly. In EastFront, the number of supply steps you can spend in a turn is limited, as is your ability to stockpile. In Rommel, you can spend vast amounts of supply on a lot of activity in a short amount of time, and you can also stockpile a very large reserve.

Every time I play Rommel in the Desert, I am reminded how much I like the game. Too bad I don’t get to play it more often; this is amongst the best of the best, especially since it plays in such a comparatively short time.

Liberty

I got a chance to play Liberty again.

At the end of the day, I like all of the games in Columbia’s line, with the possible exception of Victory. There are two, however – Pacific Victory and Liberty – that will always be plagued in my mind with serious questions about how balanced they are.

In the case of Pacific Victory, somehow it doesn’t bother me. Pacific Victory is such a fascinating little game system, that I’m happy to play it a couple times a year even though the Japanese are in an extraordinarily difficult position. There are a couple suggested fixes to the problem, but somehow I’ve never tried them. I think it’s just a matter of re-jigging the number of VPs required for victory, but I’ve never gotten enough experience to know what those values should be. But I’ve still always enjoyed Pacific Victory quite a bit, because the game is engrossing and the Japanese always feel like they might win until you look up the scores at the end.

Liberty, though, I just have no sense of how the British are ever even supposed to feel like they might win.

In the past, I’ve played a “southern” strategy as the British. The Americans are concentrated in the North early, so you use your sea movement advantage to rapidly switch forces south, clean up Charleston and vicinity, and head towards Delaware. The problem with this strategy is that there are simply so many small towns to garrison, you end up very short of troops and it’s almost impossible to take the last few cities you need with just a handful of guys. That, plus the long coastline and dispersed garrisons are very vulnerable to French landings once they show up. I’ve never had any success with this approach.

So this time, I went for the heartland of the rebellion – New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, places where a lot of victory points can be gained with a few cities. This turned out to be no easier. On turn three I lost 4 good units (including both B2s) in an assault on Ticonderoga to some hot American dice (8 hits in 9 shots in the opening round). Since I then proceeded to draw no supply cards for the next 4 years (we were playing with the optional that you could force a prisoner exchange with a Supply card), I couldn’t get those units back, and was playing short-handed. I could never get an offensive off the ground, and a victory in the game never even appeared a remote possibility.

Now, part of this was that I felt I played a bit sub-optimally. I had drawn some mistaken lessons from previous games – I think the British should probably build out their force pool to the max right away before embarking on major offensive operations since they have a big unit advantage early, something I did not do. And my best unit (the Guards, a C4) was mis-allocated and idle for the first couple years. And I had some bad luck, both with the dice and with the cards.

But still … I’ve played about 5 times now and I’ve never seen the British even close, which is unfortunate, because if I had any sense that the balance were reasonable I think I’d like this better even than Hammer of the Scots. It’s a great game system, one filled with tough and interesting choices, both strategic and tactical, but of very low complexity (for a wargame). But even my friends who are much smarter than I am haven’t been able to come close to winning with the Brits.

It’s quite possible that there are simply some techniques that we’re missing, and BoardGameGeek does seem to have quite a few high ratings from people who seem to know what they’re talking about. So I think I’ll maybe cruise around Consimworld and Columbia’s discussion forums and see what people have to say about this. Until I find some answers, though, it’s likely Liberty will continue to have a reputation for balance problems around here and be infrequently-played.

Hammer of the Scots

For some reason, I’ve never quite engaged on Hammer, and I’m not precisely sure why. It’s a game I certainly think is good, but somehow it’s just not my game. Part of it is probably that the English get most of their useful units wiped out at the end of the turn and reallocated at random, so it’s hard to bring much strategy to the table. Part of it is probably the extreme bottlenecking of the narrow front and constrictive terrain. It also seems a little more subject to the whims of fate than many Columbia games. And almost certainly another factor is that I’ve never been very good at it. So despite the fact that the card play works nicely, it gets good mileage out of the blocks, it’s a nice period piece, the complexity is refreshingly low for an involving game, and the overall system balance is good, I find it’s a game I personally just can’t get that excited about, unlike so many Columbia games.

My sense is that a lot of folks feel the game is pro-English, but to be honest, we’ve never felt this was a problem. The game can certainly be upset by good or bad luck early (an English Sea Move on turn one, for example, is fundamentally game-altering), and both sides take a bit to really get a feel for, but once you get past the learning games I’ve felt this is pretty well-balanced. We use the Schiltroms optional by default, which is a minor but significant boost for the Scots – possibly too much actually, but it also adds some interesting tactics – but we’ve never felt any particular need for the other pro-Scottish optionals:

  • Muster: This is a particularly bad rule that doesn’t seem very well thought out and has a couple nasty loopholes. It’s also extremely pro-Scottish unless you allow the English to muster across the English/Scottish border (something not covered – logically it should be prohibited, but by the letter of the rule it’s legal). This one is not recommended.
  • Hit Allocation: This is an interesting rule that should be balance-neutral-ish, but I’m not sure that the game needs more chaos. The possibility of a stunning elimination of Wallace, the King, or Edward on a lucky 4-hit roll hardly seems worth it.
  • Moray: Wow. Only use this one if you’re playing an opponent who needs a huge handicap.
  • Norse: I actually kinda like this one. It both tones down the Irish a little bit so that the English don’t have to commit such large forces to garrisons, but on the other hand makes them more useful by not counting against stacking. I’ll use this one in future, as it seems mildly pro-English and so might balance out the Schiltroms.

At any rate, I enjoyed our game and this was one of the closest games I’ve seen – the Scots won by one noble on the very last turn, after

Gettysburg: Badges of Courage

Gettysburg: Badges of Courage is a game that although I like, I’ve developed a few reservations about. On the one hand, it’s an absolutely great system, simple, yet it does a good job of emphasizing command and control, and it produces a lot of excitement. On the other hand, there were always a few details that didn’t seem to work quite right – the way the Confederacy could get hung up in Gettysburg, but once they broke through the Union had a heck of a time setting up a viable defense line on the hills which provided so little cover. Or the unrealistic way artillery was always being brought up to the front lines for point-blank fire.

Fortunately, Columbia has tried to address these issues with a simple set of “experimental” rules, rules that slightly increase the defensive value of hills, make artillery a little more vulnerable at close range, and weaken the defensive value of Gettysburg by weakening the streams. It all works very cleanly and it seems like just the level of change required to bring the game into line.

In our game, I played the Union, Charles the Confederates.

Buford had his usual bad luck defending Seminary Ridge, with lucky shots shattering both cavalry brigades at only a minimal slowdown to the Confederates. The Iron Brigade deployed into Gettysburg, but as expected the terrain was much less favorable and their flank was quickly turned and they were forced to retreat to Cemetery Ridge. A Union counterattack on the Confederate right flank threatened to annihilate a couple isolated brigades and artillery, but was stalled out not so much due to resistance as to sheer incompetence – of the 24 dice thrown over three turns of action needing a 1 or a 2 to hit, only one hit was scored. 6 precious command steps down the drain. One of the big changes in the new rules is that artillery that is too close to enemy infantry can be directly targeted by fire, which is extremely dangerous, but only if you occasionally roll hits.

On balance, the first day progressed much as it always does – the Union getting disorganized and driven back, while Confederate units drive hard and take only incremental casualties – but it did so in a more satisfying manner. The Union is still hard-pressed, but they have a substantially more viable defense line at the ridge. The Confederates can still drive hard, but they can’t wheel their plentiful and powerful artillery up to point-blank range with impunity as they could before. The Union will still be hard-pressed to actually win (as will the Confederates – the game was really designed to be played for two full game-days), but they have an outside shot – I was sitting on 4VPs as late as 7PM.

As I say, I have always liked Gettysburg, even if it couldn’t quite deliver on the outstanding early impression, and it seems like the rules tweaks might really help with a few of the technical issues. Assuming they do, the main remaining obstacle is just how long it takes to play, 6-8 hours probably for the two days to get a really satisfying game, which to me means two sessions. I still wish Columbia could provide some sensible victory conditions for the one-day game so you aren’t more or less forced to continue to the second day. I’d suggest that if you split the difference (7VP is a draw, more or less is a Confederate or Union victory), that feels about right with the new rules. Previously, the Union was desperate just to keep the VP count below 10 on the first day; now it seems like things are a bit more reasonable.

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.

Bay Area Games Day XXXIII

Dos Rios: I got this game for a couple reasons. Firstly, it is unique, which always is worth a try for me. Secondly, nobody else was buying it. Thirdly, I had a discount coupon from Fine Games. Probably the first two would not have been enough but for the third, given the price point. Anyway. Dos Rios is a bit hard to explain because it is, in fact, pretty unique, but here goes. It’s basically an abstract positioning game masquerading as an economic game. You have pieces you move on the map each turn, trying to get them in position to score. Each turn, some types of terrain will score for the pieces occupying them if they are fed by the river. Unfortunately, the river is a moving target – as players build dams, the course of the river can change. Obviously, there is a bit more to it than that, but that’s the broad outline. There is a good review here.

The main complaint is that it’s a bit dry (ha ha), and the fact that you can do a lot on your turn and there is little strategy or planning for future turns means it can drag at times – not a game to place in the hands of your local victim of analysis paralysis. It is somewhat reminiscent of Tikal, not only for these reasons but also because Dos Rios features a Hacienda that is very reminiscent of the Tikal’s Base Camps, with similar trade-offs (up-river positions are better, but harder to get to, like the deep-jungle positions in Tikal, and you can use your Hacienda/Base Camp as a teleporter).

Dos Rios was decent I thought. Not much better than that, and I’m not sure I’m that thrilled with my purchase – I certainly don’t think I could recommend it at the $50 retail in good conscience. I did enjoy it well enough, and it’s certainly worth a play or a few plays if someone else in your group has bought it, but I have a hard time seeing it getting the 5-10 plays I hope for out of a big game and it didn’t seem to quite capture the mix of being unique and interesting to keep on the shelf even if played infrequently (like, say, a Mammoth Hunters or a Bohn Hansa are for me).

La Strada: I am of somewhat mixed minds on this one, having now played it twice. On the one hand, it is quite short and pretty neat. It boils down the low-end railroad games to the fundamentals of competing to connect cities. You’ve got choices, and there are strategy elements. It’s nice filler. The only question is, then, is it really filler? It’s about 20, maybe 30 minutes, but even there it might be just a touch long for a lightweight game. And it’s just a bit on the expensive side too. So I’m not sure. It’s not as engaging as Ticket to Ride, and Ticket to Ride is not that much longer. On the other hand, having bought both Dos Rios and La Strada, I am definitely happier with the latter purchase.

Middle-Earth CCG: I love MECCG as one of the best medium-complexity games ever made, and certainly the best collectible game, but I eventually wandered away from it. Part of it was that the later sets (particularly Against the Shadow and even more so The White Hand) suffered from significant quality lapses and degenerate deck archetypes, but part of it was that while I always looked forward to new expansions, eventually the weight of the large card set caused significant problems.

The problem was that the constructed deck play environment shifted from emphasizing balanced decks and skilled play to less interactive, massive-combo decks. I saw decks that could score lots of marshaling points if the cards came out in the right order, but would rarely chance the opponent’s hazard deck. This leads to what is for me a much less entertaining game.

Still, I’ll rarely turn down a chance to play, so when I got an email from a fellow-fan the day before games day I threw a couple pre-constructed challenge decks into the game box. My opponent wanted to play a constructed Minion deck, which I thought would be fine, so I pulled out my Indur minion Challenge deck (I’ve always preferred like-alignment matchups). Unfortunately, my opponent was playing a deck built around amassing a huge, untouchable company of 6-7 Ringwraiths, which would then go to Bag End and play a bunch of point cards in one turn then run them all the way back to Barad-Dur the next, all with essentially zero risk. I think less than 10 hazards in total were played all game, for me because there wasn’t much point, for him because (I’m guessing) he was too busy hoarding the massive numbers of resources required to try to pull this off.

I still enjoyed the game – but different people and different groups have different play styles. I am much more of a gamer, I want to make the strategic and tactical choices and manage the resources, while some people love looking for the ultimate power-combination that makes tactics irrelevant. I’m not sure these play styles are entirely compatible, so if you’re looking to get into MECCG, look for someone who shares your outlook. Fortunately, with the sets still available these days (The Wizards, The Dragons, Dark Minions) it’s not much of an issue.

I’ve actually never played two of Columbia’s games, War of 1812 and Quebec. So I was glad to finally take 1812 out for a spin. We decided to use the optional simultaneous move-plotting rules, which I can now recommend, as they add tension and are a big time-saver. I liked the game, although I was not blown away. It’s very simple, highly playable, and short. It’s got a very nice historical flavor for a low-end game, and it cleanly portrays how much things were driven by control of the lakes. It’s perhaps a touch heavy on the bluff and guess at the expense of tactics, which can be fun but usually caps the replay value. However, there were definitely enough strategic options that I would play again, I enjoyed the game, and – did I mention this? – it’s short. So not one of Columbia’s best, but an impressive design for 1972 and a win, on balance.

Memoir ’44: Not truly great, but fast and fun. It is an improvement on Battle Cry in a few ways, including a number of minor but successful tweaks to the action card deck, and critically a vastly improved historical flavor. The elite units, the interesting interactions between artillery, infantry, and tanks and occasional need for combined arms, and the more interesting and varied terrain all add up to a much more flavorful game than Battle Cry, which was in truth rather bland. The overall design of the card deck is still very retro, something out of the 70s or 80s rather than the post-Hannibal, post-CCG enlightenment, but can live with it. Sure, the game is still awfully random – maybe even unhealthily random – but it’s clearly a significant improvement over Battle Cry in this respect, there are reasonable choices, it’s tense, it’s got a fun factor, and did I mention it’s short?

Gettysburg

After our last game, one thing I was slightly uneasy about was the relative mobility of artillery units. It seemed like artillery was too easy to use as short-range infantry gun type weapons, wheeling them right up to the front line to blast enemy positions, with no reason to use them as the long-range support that was their historical role. Fortunately, there is an optional rule for “column movement” that sounded like it should correct this minor issue, so Carl & I decided to use it this time. Since I had the Union last time, I got the Confederates this time.

As a word of advice to players playing this game for the first time, you really should play the game without this rule. I think it does help give the game a more historical feel, but it also changes the game dramatically and does make movement decisions a lot more complicated. Generally, it now is a lot harder to reposition troops. While in our first game the attacking Confederates could comparatively easily turn flanks and redeploy across the battlefield, it’s a much more painstaking and time-consuming process when they have to switch between line and column formations and can’t stack in column. Another big difference is that Buford’s cavalry has a much more meaningful chance to delay the Confederate onslaught long enough for the Union to set up strong defensive positions in Gettysburg itself.

Which is what happened in our game. The off-road terrain in the north-west corner of the battlefield is tough going, so Hill’s advance on Gettysburg can be rather slow if Buford opts to delay. Meanwhile, the Iron Brigade and others from the first batch of reinforcements were piling into Gettysburg, which is a strong position (due more to the streams & woods than to the city itself). Faced with the unappealing prospect of blasting through the city itself, and with reinforcements arriving later along the north board edge, I extended the flank to the east towards Benner Hill. This worked reasonably well in terms of extending the Union line, but in terms of winning the game, this is not the way to go. There is only one VP that can reasonably be taken to the East – Benner Hill – while in the South you’ve got the gimme at the Peach Orchard which I never took, plus then 3 more that you can threaten.

You need 5 VP to not lose the first day as the Confederates. This means you realistically need the Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg itself, plus either the Peach Orchard or Benner Hill and to inflict one more shattered unit than you lose. While Benner Hill is attractive, in the end I think the Peach Orchard is the better extra VP to go for since it has easy access to more VPs than Benner Hill. The column rules make it very tough, though. It’s a long march to the Peach Orchard, and the Union is much more likely to beat you to Gettysburg in force, requiring a massive assault to evict him.

The real strength of the Confederates, though, is their ability to do those massive assaults. Because of their monolithic command structure, they are more or less incapable of doing smaller, more scattered division-level offensives. I found this out when I detached a single division to move south; it’s attack stalled out almost immediately and the Corps commander (Hill) was too preoccupied with the situation at Gettysburg to get the attack restarted. The Union, with their much smaller Corps, are much better at these small actions. So if you’re going to attack as the Confederates, make it a big one.

The bottom line on why my Confederates came up short, though, was that I didn’t pay enough attention to keeping low-strength units out of the firing line and rebuilding them. As a result, I lost at least one extra shattered unit which was the difference. The 1VP for losing a unit is very, very big, as I said last time, and you have to be careful because these lost VPs realistically cannot be made up by taking more terrain. I might also complain about my final assault on Benner Hill which by rights really should have shattered at least two Union units, but came up appallingly short on the dice – but like most of these games, there are a lot of dice, and you win some and you lose some in that respect. Nothing I could have done about that, but I definitely lost at least one unit I shouldn’t have, and that was the margin. As the Confederates it seems you need to have that elusive, Montgomery-esque combination of aggressiveness and risk-aversion. The dice are going to go south occasionally, and you have to be careful not to put yourself in a position where that’s going to cost you a unit or two.

OK, last thing, and having played twice now my only gripe about the game is the graphics on the mapboard. We had a heck of a time figuring out when the woods are or are not supposed to be hexside terrain. When it goes right up to the hexside? When it’s clearly on both sides? The rules are mum on this point and there is significant ambiguity at times. I had originally gone with the “clearly on both sides” interpretation, but I think it retrospect that the “goes right up to the edge” is correct. Nothing players can’t work out, and it’s going to crop up at worst only occasionally – but this is a significant oversight in the rules and the board should be better.

So anyway, I quite enjoyed the game again, and still like it. Despite not being complicated, it’s still a big, substantial game and is going to take a while to play. Nice for a change from the the more modest-length stuff Columbia has been doing of late, but if you’re a Hammer fan bear in mind that this will take twice as long to play just the first day. It’s worth it though. I’ll be curious to see what the playing time settles down to on this one. We’ve been doing about 6 hours for one day, which is a bit on the high side I think, it would be nice to do one day in 2-3 hours. I’m not sure how practical that target is, though.