ConsimWorld Expo, Part 3 of 3

Playing EuroFront II (and EastFront) at MonsterCon this year really drove something home to me, and this is the tension between “competitive” and “experience” games.

For me personally, one reason to play a game like EuroFront or Europe Engulfed is to experience the entire war. Each phase has its distinct flavors: the desperate early years for the Allies, the titanic mid-war clash of arms on the Eastern Front, the cat-and-mouse games in the desert, the logistics of the big amphibious assaults, and the Soviet late-war steamroller. If I play a strategic WWII game, I sort of want to experience all these different phases. Even if I just play EastFront, the whole war goes through a lot of different flavors (as I mentioned in my last piece), and I’d like to experience them all.

However, in a game of skill, we expect skillful play to matter, preferably a lot, and we would be disappointed if a brilliantly-executed Barbarossa didn’t convey a decisive advantage, or if mistakes in ’42 didn’t come back to haunt us. Between equally-skilled opponents, a tightly-contested game may well go right to the end, but it is far more likely that our own quality of play will derail the gaming experience at some point: the skillfulness of the game has made it more likely that we won’t be able to “experience” the flavor of the entire historical war.

Compare EastFront or Europe Engulfed to Here I Stand, which is a game that leans heavily towards the experience rather than skill end. In Here I Stand, skillful play is unlikely to pull you ahead because the other players will just beat you back. The system provides opportunities to thread the needle and come out temporarily ahead, but it also provides more than ample opportunity for the luck of the draw and the dice to dominate skill. And so everyone just goes along, hoping to make incremental improvements in their position, experiencing the flavor the game has to offer. A masterful Hapsburg player is not going to derail the experience of the game for everyone else by doing something so unseemly as quickly winning through his masterful play.

Like many of these hypothetical gaming trade-offs, calling it a trade-off is slightly deceptive. One can of course improve simulation value by removing rules and also improving playability, as games like Grant Takes Command and Breakout: Normandy demonstrate. And likewise, there are games that, it seems to me, manage to both provide a competitive environment while still giving you an excellent experience game: Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, Hannibal, Republic of Rome, Middle-Earth: The Wizards – maybe that’s why some of the card-driven games are so highly-coveted.

Regardless, the take-away message for me here was simply to recognize EastFront and EuroFront as the skillful games they are. It seems like such an obvious thing, but so many big or more complicated wargames these days are non-competitive, either because balance was considered secondary to historicity, or because they are definitively experience games, or because playtesting was inadequate, or because they’re so long that very few people can ever really become skillful with them. EastFront, though, is not like these games. So when tackling larger games in the Front system (i.e., trying to play more than 12 months), it’s so easy to be sitting at the end of Summer ’42 and having a desire to experience ’43, but in reality, once you get behind the 8-ball in this game, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you’re done. I think the smartest thing is to take it 6 months at a time. Check the victory points; if it’s close enough to continue (and the ranges in EastFront are usually reasonably generous), press on, otherwise, call it a game. It would be nice if a lot more of these bigger games had checkpoints that you could look up after 4 hours of play time or so and do a sanity check to see if the game has decisively swung one way or the other.

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Origins ’06

Boardgames

My boardgaming was done mostly in the Rio Grande booth, where I played a number of new games:

Thurn & Taxis: This one I liked. It’s similar in feel to Ticket to Ride, but it’s more subtle, more nuanced, and more directly competitive as everyone is competing to fulfill the same goals, and late-comers get fewer points in general. It’s a second-tier type game for me, but it’s fun, compact, and short and gives you lots of decisions. I actually ended up playing this a few times. A buy, although it’s doubtful that it’ll still be played in a year, or even 6 months. There was some discussion over whether Blue Moon City or Thurn and Taxis will win the Spiel des Jahre, and certainly it would be unjust in my opinion if Blue Moon City were passed over in favor of T&T. But there seemed to be some consensus that T&T will prevail, because there is apparently a clause in the SdJ charter barring Reiner Knizia from ever winning. Me, I like to remain optimistic.

Rum & Pirates: Yes, it’s light, and absolutely nothing like earlier alea big-box games like Ra or Taj Mahal. But I enjoyed it. It’s a risk management game, as most things you do will get you points, but you’re making choices about whether to go for more, risker points, or fewer, more reliable points, as well as a variety of resources (gold, rum, and pirates). There is also a tactical game of moving pirates around (which affects which risks are available), and various risks have different synergies, or not. It’s not a taxing game, and thus really needs to be played at a brisk pace, but I found it fun for a light game, and light games usually are not my thing. There is plenty of chaos, but on each turn you feel like you have real choices and what you are doing is going to make a difference; and the large amount of die-rolling is fine with me because there are a variety of different (and fun) dice competitions and you can affect them all with rum tokens. Easily a buy. In all honesty, I think many readers will probably enjoy this one less than I did, but for me it was a throwback to the days of fun games like Merchant of Venus or Gangsters, albeit in a somewhat sanitized, scaled-back, somewhat less-thematic (but less-complicated) German package; but I’ve gotten a kick out of it each time I played it. It would have killed in 1993.

One caveat on the game, though: your first game is very likely to be a touch (at least) on the long side, especially with 5 players. It’s also a game where the playing time will drop off considerably once everyone is familiar with all the options. So if you want your friends to like it, the first time you play it might be wise to play only 4 rounds (or even 3 with 5 players) instead of the normal 5 rounds. Then once everyone has the hang of the game, you can play the “full” game. Otherwise the late game may feel protracted, and in my experience nothing will kill the desire to play again like a protracted endgame.

Masons: I had heard this was a possible win for people who don’t usually like Colovini games, a market segment of which I am a part. It doesn’t have the occasional Colovini contradiction of being a light game with almost unlimited opportunity for analysis paralysis … but nonetheless it did almost nothing for me. I think the bottom line here is that Masons is about managing chaos. Dice determine most everything that happens, and you are trying to use your couple of decision points to gently massage the board to match the scoring cards in your hand, scoring cards which rapidly cycle. I often like managed chaos games, but to work for me they have to have at least a minimally functioning theme for me to engage on (see, say … Rum and Pirates). Masons either has no theme at all, or where it has theme, it makes no sense. Not even close to a buy.

Robber Knights: Since I just anointed Rüdiger Dorn one of my most-reliable designers in my Geek of the Week thread, I figured I better check this one out – even though it was from Queen, which is a hit-and-miss label for me personally (mostly the latter). It was a bit disappointing. It’s a highly tactical, basically abstract game. You lay tiles to a build up a world sort of like Carcassonne (although there are no edge types, so you can play anywhere), but when you play a Castle tile, you can pour Knights onto the board to take control of nearby tiles. It’s a very clean, simple, smoothly-playing game which is not bad, and I’d play again … but it wasn’t really fully engaging either, and was not a buy. Nowhere close to being in the same league as Dorn’s previous games, in large part due to the thematic deficit. Not dissimilar in feel to Domaine, including being about the same length, which is a much more textured and interesting game. It also has a substantial bit of hidden complexity because the tile mix, which you are not likely to have a firm grasp on the first game or two, drives a significant chunk of the game’s tactics.

18Scan: We usually get together with our friend Mark from college sometime over the Origins weekend, and we have often played an 18xx game (since 18xx games were a staple back then). I have a new resolution on this point: no more gamekits. If I’m going to play 18xx, I’ll play 1825, or 1830, or 1853, or 1829 Mainline, but I’m not playing the gamekits anymore. The crux of the problem: the initial auctions. Starting back with 1870, I think that designers gave up entirely on even trying to make the baseline prices of the privates, minors, or whatever else is up for grabs in the start packet auction align with reality, instead relying on the players to properly price them themselves. So in order to make sensible bids, you have to either a) be prescient, or b) have played a couple times. Otherwise you end up with a game that is dumb, as players who get weak offerings are effectively knocked out 5-7 minutes into a 4 hour game. This happened to me, as I was consigned to last early and literally made not a single decision for the last 90 minutes of the game. I am not exaggerating here. Now, I’m not going to tell you that all the 18xx gamekits are bad – while it’s true that none I’ve played have been even close to professional design standards, this is not really surprising, and maybe not even relevant for their market niche. I actually think 18Scan would be appealing to those who play 18xx a lot. But unless you’re going to play it at least 3-5 times, forget it.

That was about it for boardgaming. I wanted to play Cleopatra and the Society of Ancient Architects; despite the negative buzz, I was somewhat optimistic I might like it well enough … but not optimistic enough to buy before trying. For some reason known only to Days of Wonder, however, they had only a single demo copy available of their big new release, and I was never able to get into a game. Confidence was not inspired. I wanted to try Bison from Phalanx/Mayfair, but didn’t find the time. I did end up buying the Paranoia Mandatory Bonus Fun Card Game though, even though I didn’t play it, because I like Paranoia and I thought it sounded cool. It looks like they’ve done a good job, and I’m reasonably optimistic.

I don’t do wargames at Origins anymore, but I picked up my copy of Shifting Sands and the new WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin updated card decks. Shifting Sands looks great, and I look forward to playing. Having the somewhat unhealthy amount of errata for Barbarossa to Berlin incorporated into the cards will almost certainly help that game hit the table more often. I also bought the new MMP reprint of Afrika because it was so cheap ($24), but I wonder if that was a mistake. The supply rules, while simple, are head-scratchingly bizarre. Why even have supply points when letting everyone sit around doing nothing costs exactly the same amount of supply as a full-on offensive? And the use of the rounding rule here is very, very strange (why say that one point can supply a group of ten units, then point out that you can use the rounding rule to round a group of 14 units down to 10, thus meaning that one point can really supply 14 units?). Perhaps play will clarify, or a fan will fill me in in the comments section.

RPGs

I played two RPGs at Origins: Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu. I had signed up for some Star Wars d20 which was a highly-anticipated event for me … but sadly, it was cancelled.

Paranoia: We played a modified version of the first part of Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, a classic adventure from Paranoia Flashbacks. It was fun, and the GM did a good job. But it reminded me that Paranoia is actually tough to do well; you can’t just give people lasers and trust them to generate some fun when they point them at each other. For example, in the traditional hose-job on the way to the briefing room, you can’t just tell them to report to a nonexistent briefing room, you need to also give them some avenues of approach that look promising (although they all are, of course, dead ends), and you also need to make it clear that they will be terminated if they don’t get there on time and don’t have a scapegoat. The scapegoat bit is important. It’ll help if the Computer calls them up frequently to ask how they’re doing. The Paranoia mantra is fear and ignorance, but that means what it says: you need both. Ignorance alone is not that interesting.

It also helps if you can use the opening scenes for players to contact their secret societies to get their own personal missions, which traditionally involve killing or otherwise behaving in an unfriendly manner towards other players. It’s good for the players to have achievable objectives they can set up while being screwed on the way to the briefing room. Things got a little messed up here because we had so many players (9, I think), so the starting 6-pack of pregen characters got duplicated and had all their names changed, so when my secret society missions says “you might want to kill Tex-Y-DBF”, and you look around the table and Tex doesn’t exist, the game has lost something.

Anyway, the first third or so of our adventure (the briefing room hose-job) didn’t work so well and wasn’t terribly entertaining, but after that things got rolling and it was a lot of fun. Clones were terminated; computer property was destroyed, sometimes in spectacular style; Communists were eliminated; treason was committed. Nobody escaped unscathed.

Call of Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu was cool to play because it’s so different from the usual roleplaying games. It’s not about problem-solving or character-building in the traditional sense. It’s all about playing the role of an investigator in an interesting story who is going insane in hopefully entertaining ways, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly. Like all RPGs, I assume Call of Cthulhu comes in many different flavors – more or less distant from the original inspiration – but the genre seems much more about the flavor and ambiance than the usual D&D hack-fest. We had a great group, a very good GM, and a story that was very true to the Lovecraftian spirit. I enjoyed this a lot, and it was my favorite non-CCG event of the con.

A lot of the RPG events at Origins were overbooked both last year and this year, and as a consequence the games Kim and I played in averaged 7+ players. Paranoia had 9, CoC had 7, and Kim’s two D&D events both had 7. If I may venture an opinion, 7 players is too many for any RPG, even Paranoia. Fortunately, it sounds like Amorphous Blob (who runs the RPG events I primarily aim for) agrees and is going to be more strict about capping their games at 6 players, even if Origins over-sells them.

CCGs

Middle-Earth: the Wizards: What more can I say on this game? The one or two sealed-deck Middle Earth events are usually the highlights of Origins for me for a few reasons: a) MECCG is one of my all-time favorite games; b) I enjoy the sealed deck format because I think it really challenges players used to constructed deck, and because I can win reliably; c) the company at these events is usually (not always, but usually) of very high quality; and d) it plays into my fond memories of the tournaments ICE used to run in the mid-90s, which I enjoyed immensely.

True to form, the event was still great fun, and probably even better than it has been in recent years because the numbers of players was respectable, the quality of play was good, and we were avoiding the bizzaro formats (Balrog and Fallen-Wizard sealed deck) of previous years, formats that were good for a go but ultimately too weird. It was ironic that my one and only problematic game at Origins (excessively whining opponent) was in MECCG – but it wasn’t enough to put a damper on the overall experience.

Origins Overall

As for overall impressions of Origins?

Well, for one thing, the dealer room felt flat. Wizards, Decipher, Eagle, Reaper, Games Workshop – none were present, and there were several big holes in the hall where a big vendor would have been in the past. The Fantasy Flight and Days of Wonder demo areas were tiny. Columbia, GMT, and MMP were there, but had no demos. This all is not good. Mayfair and Rio Grande did have respectable areas, though, and it looked like Fantasy Flight might have been running more games in the main boardgame hall.

The CCG hall felt almost vacant. While in previous years it had been teeming with Magic and Lord of the Rings (Decipher) players, this year it was Pokemon and that was about it. That’s still a good number of people, but just a fraction of what it’s been in the past.

RPGs are more or less what they’ve always been since I’ve been watching, and all the games I’ve been in were over-subscribed. I wish there were more “other” games – there were no Iron Heroes or Arcana Evolved games, for instance, Star Wars d20 games were very thin, and I have no great enthusiasm for RPGA – but Kim and I have had no trouble at all getting into high-quality, well-run roleplaying events with excellent fellow players in recent years, and they remain the high points of the con for us.

The Puffing Billy area in the main boardgame room was well-attended, with probably 100 players. Richard Borg had a good slug of folks going with Memoir ’44 for a while, and Mayfair’s Settlers tournament drew well. The miniatures area seemed about as well-attended as always.

CABS’ war room and board room were decently attended, at least by recent historical standards. The board room (for general boardgame play) was up to maybe 50 people when I was stopping by; not bad, but for reference I doubt they out-drew our local Bay Area Games Day (Origins is, after all, supposed to be one of the premier gaming con in the nation). The war room probably had a similar or maybe slightly smaller number, with less fluctuation due to the longer games being played. In a sign of the times, I don’t think I ever saw more than two copies of any individual title being played at once, and many games were left out set up but unplayed, a wargaming ritual I could live without. The splintered nature of boardgames at Origins (the vendor demo areas, the “tabletop” gaming hall, and the CABS area) is a recipe for some confusion.

As an avid boardgamer, I’m not quite sure what to make of the boardgame situation. It seems to me that boardgames at Origins have been holding at a fairly modest level the past 7-8 years, at the same time that boardgaming in general has seen apparently explosive growth. Part of this seems to be the disinterest on the part of the companies themselves in organized play, perhaps because while games are more plentiful now, they also in general seem to be thought of as more disposable? Back in the late 90s, before they got bought out, Avalon Hill would make some effort to put together good events for their games, and as a result I have very fond memories of playing Acquire, Hannibal, and Successors in well-organized events. The CCG folks have always recognized good, well-organized events at cons as their life-blood, and Iron Crown and Wizards always invested a lot of effort in them. For boardgames today, things are left in the hands of fans and independent organizations for the most part (Mayfair being the notable exception), and it seems to me that there is inadequate leadership and the incentives are either nonexistent or have gotten too far out of whack. The clubs are just individuals who don’t always have interests that are well-aligned with either those of the game companies or the attendees, so the results are predictably chaotic, and there is a lack of any accountability. If GMT had been using Avalon Hill’s playbook, they would have had a 2-hour tournament scenario available for Barabarossa to Berlin and run an event to publicize the new release, along with a pre-game teaching session. I would have made time for that event. But they weren’t. Instead, GMT just had one unpunched copy of the new edition lying around, and I didn’t see a single game of Barbarossa to Berlin being played.

I’m not sure what this means, ultimately, other than that I enjoyed the old situation (in which boardgames were more about scheduled, organized events and not just pick-up games) more, and this shift is primarily responsible for the fact that Origins is no longer a boardgame con for me. However, I may be more sensitive to these things because of both the much greater distance I travel to attend, and my more varied interests. I enjoyed playing Thurn and Taxis and Masons and Rum and Pirates and Robber Knights, but for me there is no reason to travel to Origins to play pick-up games. I go to cons to play something interesting, something unusual, something more competitive, something I couldn’t or don’t get to play at home. Origins currently is falling well short of providing this in the euro and wargame area, and is comfortably succeeding only in the area of RPGs and my favorite Middle-Earth CCG events.

ConsimWorld Expo, Part 2 of 3 – EastFront

Having gotten my fill of EuroFront on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I split off on Friday afternoon to play a good, old-fashioned game of straight EastFront. When I play one of the Front games at home, what I’d usually do is play a 6-month scenario – I like Summer ’42, Winter ’42, and Summer ’43, about in that order. These are pretty manageable to play (4 hours or so), are fairly well-balanced, and are all good situations which present both sides with interesting opportunities. They also tend to be pretty stable, in that barring all but the most egregious errors, an interesting game should result.

But this is MonsterCon and time to try something different. In casual play, I’ve always avoided the Summer ’41 scenario, the initial invasion of Russia, because it’s so unbalanced. By this, I mean that the Germans are brutalizing the Soviet armies, and the Soviets will win by escaping complete catastrophe. This just doesn’t seem that appealing. But I’ve now played enough EastFront that the fact that I had never (before yesterday) played Summer ’41 seemed like a hole in my experience of the game, and if you want to play EuroFront in all its grandeur, you need to how to deal with that initial invasion. So we played EastFront starting in Summer ’41, and instead of just playing 6 months, we decided to go until a decision was reached one way or the other.

I ended up enjoying the ’41 scenario more than I expected. It is a much more exacting game than the later scenarios – forgetting to cover a critical hex two spaces behind the front lines can have bad consequences for the Soviets – but it’s not as unforgiving as, say, The Russian Campaign. There is a substantial tactical element, but it’s not as hyper-tactical as most hex-n-counter games. Heck, it’s not even as hyper-tactical as Caylus. It’s still mostly about picking your spots, making sure your headquarters are in the right place at the right time, and using your rail capabilities to get your critical units (tanks and shock armies) where they are needed.

Still, that said, Summer ’41 is still largely driven by the Germans. They will pick objectives (Leningrad, Moscow, the Ukraine) and try to take them. The Soviets will desperately try to oppose them where possible, but mostly just try not to get wiped out. But when you link Summer ’41 to Winter ’41, things get interesting, because in Winter, the Germans are hosed. In Winter ’41, the Germans are especially hosed. Their headquarters are all disrupted and cost extra to build, all their units are slowed to the speed of tanks in mud, and their offensive capabilities are near-zero. Meanwhile, the Soviets are virtually unaffected, and receive an influx of fully-built Shock Armies. For all the abuse the Germans dished out during the Summer, they are now set for a hammering. I’m not sure I’d play either Summer ’41 or Winter ’41 as a standalone, but as a pair, I think they have a nice symmetry, and were pretty entertaining.

In the event, the Germans weren’t able to make decisive progress in ’41, and the winter counter-attack was pretty brutal – not in terms of ground, but in terms of casualties. My big lesson learned was that, as the Germans, nothing you can do in ’41 will be worth it if your tank arm gets mauled. Make sure to keep them safe and mobile over the winter, which means not letting them get tied down in battles. You need to be inflicting enough casualties on the Soviets to keep them off-balance in ’42, but you can’t do that at the cost of suffering too many casualties yourself. Those 70-ish production points won’t go nearly as far as it looked like they would from the safety of Poland, and you cannot afford massive tank replacements.

We called it a game in Summer ’43, when things had cascaded to make things very rough on the Germans. Playing the long game was cool, but in future, I’d recommend using the standard semi-annual scenarios as checkpoints. Each six-month season has a handicap, and you can see who is winning at that point. If one player is ahead by, say, 10 points, I think it’s time to call it and move on to another game. EastFront is a game where small advantages accrue from season to season to become big advantages, and if you start ’43 significantly behind the historical pace, it’s going to be exceptionally hard to win. So rather than sitting down and deciding to play the “whole war”, I think checking every 6 months of every year against the victory conditions until someone gets ahead makes a lot more sense.

Anyway, the Front games remain amongst my very favorites, and playing them intensively for 4 days mainly made me want to get them out more regularly.

ConsimWorld Expo, Part 1 of 3 – EuroFront

You can see my Flickr album of ConsimWorld Expo photos (and some commentary) here.

I got involved with monster games sometime in 2000 with The Gamer’s OCS series, starting with Burma (well, actually, I had played campaign games of ASL’s Red Barricades and Kampfgruppe Peiper well before that, but for some reason they don’t count in my mind as true monster games, perhaps because they seem so clearly within the bounds of sanity). I am not naturally a monster gamer. I like playing lots of different games, and so the huge time commitments required for monster games is generally not avaiable. But I like monster games in theory. To experience the continuity of a whole campaign played out over a long period of time is attractive. And OCS specifically is a great game system.

When this theory ventured out into the cold, harsh world of reality, however, I found my attraction to the “real” monster games to be unworkable in practice. There are just too many obstacles to be overcome: finding the time, finding the players, finding the players you can stand to spend that much time with, and finding the game situation that can plausibly stand up to the amount of attention you are planning to lavish on it. That last one is a particularly tricky bit, considering that one game of Guderian’s Blitzkrieg or Enemy at the Gates, played to completion, would theoretically consume more time than all the games of Puerto Rico I’ve played, ever. By at least a factor of two. This was driven home to me when I played Guderian’s Blitzkrieg at MonsterCon 3 years ago: the game is so freaking huge, you need 6 players just to manage all the counters. But the Germans have only enough supply to keep maybe 1.5 of these players active and engaged. So you end up with a couple folks sitting around most of the weekend with little to do. This is clearly not acceptable. I’m still quite fond of OCS, but when I play anymore I play Burma, Korea, or DAK, the entries in the system which need only two players and have a wealth of good shorter scenarios.

These difficulties were why I was only a sporadic attendee for the first few MonsterCons (I went to 1, 3, and 5). I would get excited about the concept, go, have a mixed experience, take a year off, get excited again… but then last year I felt that enough was enough, I was going to play something practical. So I went with EuroFront, which is one of my all-time favorite games (EastFront) taken to its logical extreme. Arguably, beyond its logical extreme, I suppose. Plus, I got in a side of Europe Engulfed, another tremendous (and playable) game. For the first time, I really had fun at MonsterCon, so I broke my odd-numbered-year tradition and went back again this year.

The con started a day earlier this time, on Tuesday, so the early arrivals (Craig Besinque, the designer, and Tom) started in 1939 without us. When I showed up a day later, on Wednesday, I gave them a hard time for not starting with the Spanish Civil War scenario from MedFront. They seemed unmoved. Joining the game in-progress was fine with me; I don’t find the 1939-40 situation all that interesting to game, so I was happy to take over the east front Germans just as Spring ’41 was kicking off. That said, the game did see some wild and crazy early-war stuff up north: when Germany invaded Denmark, they chose not to invade Norway immediately. This prompted the British to pre-empt them by invading Norway themselves. This, then, resulted in a catastrophic but highly-improbable series of diplomatic die rolls which ended up with Sweden and Finland becoming full-fledged Axis allies, which allowed us to both secure the legendary Swedish Ore and seriously threaten the Murmansk and Archangel lend-lease routes. As I mentioned in last year’s write-up, I really like the NorthFront extension. The battle up there isn’t a lot of blocks, but it can consume significant resources, it makes a real difference in the EuroFront game, and there are meaningful decisions. I’ll be curious to see if the extra map areas adds anything to EastFront or WestFront when played standalone.

After cleaning up Yugoslavia, the make-or-break season for the Germans comes up: Summer ’41. In order to have a legitimate shot at winning the game, the Germans have to have a successful Summer ’41 campaign. If Summer ’41 is a bust, no amount of beating up on the British is going to help you. I decided to go for the full-bore Moscow strategy, pounding down the traditional Napoleonic invasion route and making just a token effort in the Ukraine.

The problem with this strategy, which I realized afterwards, is that is really has to work. If you fail to take Moscow in Summer ’41 (a definite possibility even with good German play), you have little to show for your efforts – just the 1PP in Minsk and Riga. The choice industrial areas are in the south. And the terrain in front of Moscow, a lot of forests and swamps, is lousy for your panzers.

In the end, I came very, very close. I got adjacent to Moscow in the west. Powerful German spearheads occupies Yaroslavl to the northeast of Moscow with the intention of cutting it off. But the landsers never actually entered the historic city, and with the early onset of winter, we simply ran out of time.

What then followed was the most burtal winter counter-attack I’ve ever been subjected to. The Winter ’41 rules for snow weather are very tough on the Germans, as they should be, and the historic winter was, I’m told, particularly bitter. That was definitely my experience. On the random weather turns, we saw the absolute maximum of snow turns, and the German army got beaten remorselessly. I was not pushed that far back, in the end, but the casualties suffered had been prohibitive. In my drive to get Moscow, I had been exposing my panzers to a fair amount of risk, leading with them almost exclusively to get as much punch as possible on the front lines in my headlong dash. This meant that when the bill came due that winter, I just didn’t have enough tanks to make a credible push in Summer ’42. I gamely tried, and took over much of the Ukraine, but it was a losing battle.

The difference-maker here could have been our allies in the north, and in retrospect if I had used the Finns and a German expeditionary force more effectively, things could have been very different. The forces were certainly available to take Leningrad, Murmansk, and Archangel, and this would have been a big chunk of Russian production – comparable in total to completely clearing the Ukraine – but I was never able to marshal and coordinate them, partially at least just because of inexperience with the NorthFront. It probably wouldn’t have been enough to compensate for the tactical error of my somewhat over-aggressive use of the expensive panzers, but it would have made the whole Moscow-first strategy more plausible and the game a lot closer.

By contrast, the MideastFront additions (Turkey, Persia, Syria, etc.) really didn’t seem to make that much difference. I don’t know if there is a plausible MedFront strategy for the Axis which involves bringing in Turkey in ’41 maybe and doing Barbarossa in ’42, or going straight for the oilfields, but in the two EuroFront games I’ve played this year and last, the Mideast has been a non-factor. If I play the axis again next time, maybe I’ll give it a try. If not then, then maybe in 2008.

When this was combined with disaster in North Africa (not my fault!), we called the game an Allied Victory in Spring ’43, and tore things down and set it up again using the historical Summer ’43 start lines, which was a good plan I felt. The Germans got their ’41 offensive, the Allies got some good counter-punches in, the Germans were not going to win at this point, so re-starting in ’43 gave everyone a chance to play an interesting game again. By this point a few more players had arrived, so Tom and I set up our own game of EastFront, while everyone else (most of whom had not played much, if any, of the Front games) played EuroFront. This worked out quite well; I enjoyed my EastFront game (more on this in the next installment), and the new guys had what looked like a really exciting and enjoyable game.

We got to play our game on a pre-production copy of the new versions of the games, and I have to say I like them. The new maps are crisper, cleaner, and significantly clearer (no more puzzling out the terrain in Georgia). I think the new higher-contrast labels are slightly less aesthetic than the originals, but definitely more functional. But the good news for existing EastFront players is that there is no reason to feel forced to upgrade if you don’t want to. The game appears fundamentally unaltered (the only change I noticed is that anomolous mountain hex near Moscow has been replaced with “hills”, a new terrain type), and while you’ll get Finland, most of the VolgaFront map, and an overall functionally superior product if you upgrade, you’ll still be playing the same game as everyone else if you don’t. Anyone who has any aspiration to eventually play EuroFront will probably want to get the new package, though.

All in all, I have very much enjoyed my games of EuroFront these past two years, and this is the sort of monster game I can actually do. It’s playable, there is little downtime, and the whole war can be completed over the long weekend by reasonable players. There are plenty of checkpionts in the game where you can look and call it if things are not going well, and the fact that the game gives you starting points for every summer of the war gives you a wide range of options, and I really liked that we could quit a lost game in ’43, restart with the historical deployments, and still get to experience the whole war without having to start from scratch. The ’42 and ’43 scenarios are quite interesting in and of themselves, and the late-war plays very well with 4 players. And of course the component parts (EastFront, WestFront, and MedFront) are all tremendous games in their own right, and highly playable.

Spiel ’05: Antike

I went to Essen. Specifically, I went to Spiel ’05, which is in Essen.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, and neither am I precisely sure what I got. It was fun. It was big. There were a lot of people there. Most of them appeared to speak a different language. There were a lot of games. For those of you who have been to Origins, it was different largely in terms of magnitude – imagine the dealers’ room there multiplied by oh, say, 10 or 20, and what you get is Spiel ’05. Despite the scale, the mix of stuff was not unlike the dealer’s room at Origins: in addition to the boardgame producers and retailers, you also have the obligatory replica weapons booth, the (huge) Games Workshop stand, Wizards of the Coast hawking their roleplaying books, and so on. It’s just the mix that was different: unlike at Origins, at Essen the boardgames dominate. Also unlike Origins, there is far more breadth. Origins caters to the serious gamer and the mainstream publishers; at Essen, you’ve got not only Hans-im-Glück and Kosmos, but also Haba with their line of kids’ games (including some live-action Foosball tucked away in a corner), Hasbro’s family games, all the micro-press folks trying to make a name for themselves, and so on.

The main downside of Essen (other than the cigarette smoke, which was actually much less than I feared it would be) is that it is, in fact, so huge. One of the high points of going to Origins is getting to meet big-name game designers: I’ve had the great pleasure to meet Reiner Knizia (a couple times), Klaus Teuber, Andreas Seyfarth, Richard Garfield, and Alan R. Moon at Origins; perhaps these people were at Essen too, but if so, it was hard to tell. Maybe that language thing again.

Anyway… on to the games. Writing up everything I played will take at least a week, so let’s get the weakest out of the way first: Antike.

Antike is a new empire-building game from Eggert-Spiele. You may remember them as the publishers of Global Powers, a game so bad I repressed it entirely from my memory when making up my Worst of 2004 list. Normally, when a label makes a game of such dysfunction, they’re off my interest list forever. Antike was getting a little bit of buzz, however. The production values have been greatly improved over Global Powers (for example, the board fits into the box). And I noticed a number of people playing and apparently enjoying it. So my curiosity was piqued. Certainly not enough to do something so rash as to buy it, but I was happy to play a friend’s copy.

It’s more or less the usual thing. Everyone is an empire in the Mediterranean/Mesopotamian area. You’ve got Marble (for improving cities), Iron (for building armies), and Gold (for buying technology). You harvest these resources to improve your civilization and beat the snot out of your neighbors.

Let’s take a minor digression here. There are three major problems that any game of this type has to deal with:

  • The rich get richer problem. If your civilization makes a lot of resources, you can invest them in more growth, which leads to a cycle of compounding interest. Players who get behind early are in trouble. The classic example is Outpost: I get lots of resources early, I invest them in more factories, I make more resources than everyone else, I win. People behind at the halfway point are hosed.
  • The whack-the-leader problem. Everyone goes after whoever is ahead at the time. If everyone has enough firepower to prevent someone else from winning, and can get at them, the game devolves into a late-game go-after-the-leader-fest, with the winner being decided not by skill throughout the game, but late-game positioning and diplomacy (for which you can often read “whining”). Prototypical games with a serious problem here include A Game of Thrones (some discussion here), Vinci, and Sword of Rome; in all cases, you never want to be ahead before the end of the game.
  • The let-you-and-him-fight problem. This is the tendency for combat to exhaust the involved nations, leaving only the uninvolved third parties as winners. This leads to the “turtling” problem I talked about here. Think of the many games of this type in the space colonization genre, like Twilight Imperium.

For an example of how these problems can be approached, look at classic Civilization. The rich-get-richer problem is solved by not allowing you to re-invest resources: the commodities you produce can be used to buy civilization advances, but very few of these have any significant direct effect on future production. Without being able to reinvest, there isn’t much of a compound interest problem. The whack the leader problem is solved by making combat expensive and your reach limited, so the tactical action tends to be border skirmishes fueled by population pressures and need for city sites rather than any full-blown conflict. The full-blown conflict is fought with trade, but since there are huge incentives to trade (and costs to not trading, if the guy in the lead has that last Bronze you need) trade embargoes are impossible to hold together for any length of time. The you-and-him fight problem is then taken care of because the game revolves primarily around trading and the race to acquire civilization cards, so the on-board combat and position can be de-emphasized. The details here are rather interesting and this analysis just scratches the surface, but those are the broad strokes.

So how does Antike cope with these problems? It has really only attacked the whack-the-leader problem, although the solution is clever. When you meet various conditions (holding enough land or sea areas, advancing on the tech chart before others do, sacking temples) you get a VP. These can then never be lost. So you’re still going to hedge against giving the leader any opportunities, but there is little point in going after him.

There are three significant problems with Antike however, of varying degrees of severity.

Firstly, the other two problems mentioned above (that of compound interest and expensive conflict) haven’t been addressed. Resources get plowed back into the economy and the rich get richer, although not to a huge degree. And combat is hugely expensive and attritional (armies simply exchange one-for-one in combat) so when two players fight the real winners are everyone else, except in the relatively rare case of a temple sacking.

Secondly is just that there aren’t any other interesting ideas. The victory point thing is neat, but the rest of the game is by-the-numbers. There is a “roundel” that dictates what actions you can take in what order, and while it is nice in terms of forcing some planning, on balance it isn’t so different from a standard sequence of play or a “choose 2 actions” technique to merit much mention.

Thirdly, and most critically, the victory conditions are broken, at least for three players (the number we played with). You need 12 VPs to win. The game is fairly “damped” for much of the game, that is to say, since combat is so horrendously expensive and attritional, the start positions are fairly balanced with respect to resources, and the number of development choices are extremely limited, nations are going to earn VPs at a roughly equivalent rate. There are 35 VPs available, and you need 12 to win, or just over a third. So far, so good… but 7 of those VPs are available only if your neighbors cooperate by building a temple you can sack. If they don’t build one, or (more likely) build one in their heartland where they are inaccessible without extreme cost, things hit a wall.

In the three-player game, expansion space is readily available and there is little reason to build Temples until late, making the game interminable. You need about 3 VPs worth of temple-sacking to win, so you end up with a full-blown turtling problem, as sacking even a single modestly-defended Temple later on in the game is going lose you 8 armies, or about a quarter of the maximum possible military force available to you (ships and armies combined, so if you’re a strictly land power, we’re talking about half your inventory), leaving your neighbors smiling and you in trouble.

I suspect things will improve at least marginally with more players, as tighter space will result in more incentive to build temples early and perhaps more action and opportunities for a player to actually win (raising the immediate question of why they didn’t borrow Civilization’s partitioned board, shrinking the playing area with fewer players – but that would have meant they would have to have actually thought about the VP levels required for victory instead of apparently just plugging numbers into a formula). But given the dysfunction of the 3-player game, the lack of any really inspiring ideas otherwise, and typical problems with the genre that haven’t gone away, I very much doubt I will find out for sure.

Origins Report – RPGs

Although Kim and I are primarily board gamers, over the past few years the focus of Origins has slowly been shifting to RPGs for us. The good reasons are that we’ve found a group (Amorphous Blob) that generally runs events that we really enjoy and because as we’ve become more experienced we’re enjoying the RPGs more. The unfortunate reason is that the situation with board games (wargames in particular) has been slipping a bit.

This year I had signed up for a record for me of 14 hours of RPGs: two D&D events, one Arcana Unearthed, and one Paranoia. Due to my illness, I was only able to make it to one of the two D&D games and the AU, and was really only able to fully participate in the AU.

P6300034The AU game was the personal highlight of my shortened con, though, as it was being run by Monte Cook, the designer. The adventure he ran was a heavily modified version of The Severed Oath, a module available on his web site. The theme remained similar, and it used the same characters, although the details were altered enough to make it unrecognizable. I played the Mojh Mage Blade Karzagedaren. Kim played the Giant Champion of Life Tor-Gerren.

I had a little trouble working with the Karzagedaren character – he was supposed to be a strong-willed, impatient warrior – but I found it hard to find his zen. I, like others I’ve talked too, have been drawn to the Mage Blade class because it’s the sort of spell-slinging warrior you always wanted but just flat-out can’t do in D&D. But I actually wonder if it’s one of the weaker classes in AU from a roleplaying perspective. Compared to the wonderfully thematic Akashic, Greenbond, Oathsworn, Unfettered, and Champion (just to pick a few) with their easy roleplaying hooks, the Mage Blade is a little generic.

Kim had better luck with her Giant character – Tor-Gerren was a noble sort and had some good roleplaying tie-ins in the adventure, so she was able to really get into the character. It helped that she was devastating in combat, as she had enough Giant racial levels to become Large, which means a longer reach and bigger, more damaging weapons. Of course, when it came to time to sneak around a bit, that’s a bit hard to do when you’re 12 feet tall and wearing Full Plate. And the 20 foot movement was kind of a bummer.

I had a good time with this, and it was a pleasure to meet with Monte Cook (and get him to sign our Arcana Evolved book!). He also introduced us to Tact-Tiles, which are a great alternative to the traditional battle mat. He has his own writeup of Origins on his website, which is a good read.

My other event was a D&D adventure from Amorphous Blob, which was more in the roleplaying/humor vein. A Wizard hires the party (which is all 12th level – I was a Ranger 8/Arcane Archer 4) to rid him of a pesky dragon that has taken up residence in the mountain next door. However, the more the party delves into the problem, the more things are not as they seem. For one, there are large numbers of demons wandering around for some reason. It turns out that this is more in the way of a suburban squabble over a fence than anything else, and the Wizard (who might be a weasel) may have summoned a high-level Demon Prince from the Abyss to kill the Dragon, but there was a miscalculation of size which left the huge demon bound and trapped in a tiny room from which he could not escape, but the gate to the abyss was jammed open, letting smaller demons through. The party had to sort out this mess, eventually convincing the Dragon and Wizard to make up and combine their might to seal the gate and unsummon the Demon.

This was an amusing and very entertaining adventure, and I had the opportunity to play with some very good roleplayers who really got into it. I think there was all of about 1 combat sequence which lasted only a few minutes (it was amusing too … we had to take down two Demons, so all the spellcasters in the party just took a couple rounds to pour every enhancement spell in their arsenal into our Dwarven Warrior, who then single-handedly ran screaming towards them and took them out with a few quick axe blows).

I had to bail on the Paranoia game unfortunately, but Kim played and had a very good time, so she’ll be running a session or two for our local buddies sometime soon.

I didn’t buy any new RPG books at Origins, as GenCon is where most of the new RPGs get debuted it seems, but I did pick up a set of Tact-Tiles, and I added to my collection of Iron Wind Metal’s Arcana Unearthed figures a few minis appropriate for my current game. Iron Heroes, the next “Variant Player’s Handbook” from Malhavoc (Monte Cook’s label) which will be released later this month, looks extremely promising and might be something to move on to in a year or two. But for the moment, between Arcana Unearthed, Paranoia, and D&D, I’m pretty much set.

Origins Report – Wargames

Last year I ranted about the state of wargames at Origins and the fact that CABS seems to be mismanaging them to death, and said I’d run my own events. Which I did. It turned out to be a bit of a saga.

The whole point of this exercise was to get a couple events going that would be differentiated from CABS, so I was disappointed when the prereg program for Origins got screwed up and all the wargames had their descriptions dropped and replaced with “NULL. CABS” (as I mentioned last year, virtually all CABS events are fictional, which I assume most people know at this point). Fortunately the online program was still OK. Fast forward to the event … I arrive Thursday morning with about half an hour to spare. I get in line at the “Game Masters” queue. I stand there for about 15 minutes and, I kid you not, it does not move. Figuring at this rate I was going to be there for hours, and I don’t really need a “Gamemaster” ribbon, I go right to the preregistration queue instead, which takes me under 5 minutes. Dana Lombardy, from L2 Design Group, was behind me in the Gamemasters line … hopefully he had more luck. Anyway, I get the onsite program, and look for my event to see where it’s located. “CABS War Room”. OK … but there is no map in the program indicating which of the many rooms that might actually be. After being misdirected a couple times, I finally find it, virtually unlabeled, in the most obscure corner of the convention center. Every other event type has a front desk with someone who actually cares and coordinates the events, manages table setup, etc., but not CABS, so I just pick a spot by the door.

I give folks about 20 minutes, but nobody shows up for Rommel in the Desert. I didn’t expect a huge turnout, but was a bit disappointed that I got nobody at all. However, given the difficulties, I’m not sure it was a huge shock.

After this, I was ready to just say screw it, I am not dealing with wargames at Origins again. There are tons of other things to do which are not completely screwed up. This year the War Room was even more anemic than last year, with barely enough draw to eclipse the Star Fleet Battles area. I doubt wargames at Origins will recover until they are wrested from CABS (personally, I think the vendors – GMT, MMP, Columbia – are going to have to take charge; I have to assume that the fact that few if any of their games are getting organized play and visibility is not helping sales).

However, I came back for my Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage event the next day, because I knew I had a few pre-reg online signups. We ended up with 6 at start, which worked out quite well. I put the two newbies at one table, then we drew lots for the other two games. As luck would have it, I was the only one in a game that was a mismatch, with my Carthaginians winning early on about the end of turn 7 when the Romans could not remove a PC, but just a little bit after this another player showed up, so I was able to match him up with my opponent. The other two games were quite close – Kim’s game came down to a card play on the last turn (her Romans won due to a last minute Celtiberian defection). The newbie game took quite a long time, so I don’t know how it ended up.

Even though my game was a mismatch, it was still fun and I think my opponent learned a lot (primarily, that the Romans can’t be that aggressive early in the game … things don’t get truly desperate for quite a while). Kim enjoyed her game quite a bit, and I think the new players (one of whom I ran into at our friend Mark’s Carabande game) did OK. So despite my previous vow, I will probably end up running Hannibal again next year.

There were a handful of interesting new releases in the dealers’ room, and I ended up buying:

Triumph of Chaos: This is a new game of the Russian Civil War from Clash of Arms built on the Paths of Glory engine. I’m really trying to not buy these new releases until I get the rules or some early reports, but they had a good convention discount, and despite being burned multiple times I’m still a sucker for these card games, I guess (although I almost certainly would have waited if it was from GMT). The core rules look very sensible, but I am a bit scared of all the special rules for the 18 different factions.

Fire in the Sky: Another game with a minimalist cover (I like it), this new MMP release is interesting in that it’s an import of a popular Japanese game and so may, unlike many games these days it seem, have had some adequate playtesting. Another game I might have held out on, but they had a nice discount. I’m looking forward to playing this one, as it looks interesting and unusual, and the system looks quite clean and professional.

ASL Starter Kit #2: On the scale of wargames these days, the ASL Starter Kits are ludicrously inexpensive (only about $20). I wasn’t hugely excited about the first, infantry-only one, but now with some guns I’d like to give it a spin sometime. I’d like to have a good tactical WWII game that isn’t out of hand, complexity (ASL) or playing-time (TCS) wise, and ASLSK looks reasonably promising. Why no concealment rules, though? That’s a head-scratcher.

Speaking of which, Band of Heroes, the WWII “sequel” to Lock ‘n Load, wasn’t at the con – Mark Walker said sometime around late August. I’m still torn on pre-ordering it. Unfortunately, the graphics and graphic design for the new game weren’t that impressive, which is unfortunate given the now much higher price point. I like Lock ‘n Load quite a bit so I’ll probably end up buying it, but it’s not a done deal.

I passed on GMTs Men of Iron. I’ve liked Cataphract and The Devil’s Horsemen, but the $65 price point on Men of Iron (no convention discount) seemed truly excessive for what, 5 small battles? Most of which are probably unbalanced? I also saw a few folks playing a very nicely produced Gazala game … but then I saw the Avalanche Press logo, so I passed.

So, some good new releases, and with Shifting Sands hopefully being released at WBC, this year could end up being a pretty good year for wargames. But the genre continues its slide towards oblivion at Origins, which is a shame, but there is still WBC and MonsterCon is going strong, so you’ve got some options.