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.

ConsimWorld Expo 5.0 – Part 3 of 3 – Europe Engulfed

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a big Europe Engulfed fan; it was my top pick of the wargames of 2004(ish), and has made it on to my Top 20 All-Time list. But I’ve never played the full campaign game, 1939-45; I’ve always started in ’41 or ’42. Part of this is practical; I’ve played a lot of games with inexperienced players, and in that case, ’42 is the place to start. Also, if you start in ’41 or ’42, everyone gets to play in a 3-player game; if you start in ’39, the Soviet player may just sit around for 2 hours before Britain is conquered (or the German player massively chokes Poland & France), and he hasn’t exactly gotten a great return on his time investment. Part of it is also aesthetic; how much fun is it, really, to clobber the French, Poles, Yugoslavians, etc.? Better to start just as the clash of titans is kicking off. And, of course, EE is a long game, so trimming off 10 turns or so makes it more managable.

At CSW Expo, though, time is not a major concern. Rick Young wanted to show me that the whole thing could be done in one day, assuming the German player knows what he’s doing. And after a bit of an EE drought, I realized I’d been missing it and was eager to get back in. I was the US/UK.

First note: if you are the Germans, build those subs. In the ’41 game, Germany does not start with a huge U-Boat fleet (only 22), so your options are somewhat limited in this regard. If you start in ’39, though, you can get the subs up to 60 in fairly short order, and this is absolutely murder on the British. It’s hard to get anything done on 5 (or fewer) WERPS a turn. My general rustiness did not help things here, but the biggest problem I’ve run into in defending Germany in the late war is the US/UK running amok. If you combine the subs with the optional US production rule, this makes things much tougher on the Western Allies. This is a good thing, I think.

Second note: It’s interesting the level to which having just played EuroFront lead me astray. In the Front games, you can run an offensive and make progress, even decisive progress, without substantial overall force superiority. With an appropriately pointy spear and judicious blitzing, you can rip apart front lines and force back a defender that outnumbers you, if you’ve got tanks and mech. This is not the case in EE; if you want to win here, mainly you just need a larger club, and defensive positions like river lines and entrenchments are very tough. Obvious, you might say, but I’m often an instinctive player, and my instincts needed some recalibration here. We ended up having an almost identical situation in the desert war in my EuroFront and Europe Engulfed games: equal numbers of Axis and British blocks staring at each other across the Nile. In EuroFront, I could run a British offensive under these conditions and win. In EE, such an attempt resulted in disaster.

Digression: It’s very interesting to compare the order of battle for the US in EuroFront vs. Europe Engulfed. Both are roughly the same scale – a block is a Corps. But their portrayal of the US is radically different. In EuroFront, US units trickle in: one block in October ’42, one in November ’42, the Paratroopers in April ’43, then half-a-dozen units in the first half of ’44, then another 8 or so through the end of ’44. By comparison, in EE the US can be launching Torch in late ’42 and easily fighting in North Africa with half-a-dozen or more blocks. EuroFront’s buildup schedule is obviously a lot more realistic; the US could never have deployed as much force as EE allows them regardless of how much cash they were not spending on convoy escorts or bombers. On the other hand, in a game, having more options is rarely less appealing and the US budget will be stretched thin early if you play with the recommended optionals.

We played through early ’45 – almost, but not quite, to the end in 14 hours. Part of this was because my Soviet ally vehemently vetoed using the chart that allows you to substitue a 3d6 roll for various multiples of 12d6. As my friend Rich once said, “it’s that chart that makes the game playable” (or something like that) given the colossal numbers of dice sometimes involved on the eastern front and in France. Get some dice with pointy corners (so they don’t twirl endlessly) and use the chart and you can probably trim at least an hour off the game’s playtime. Seriously. Part of it was also that we had some intersted onlookers to whom we were explaining bits of the game as we played. But overall, this result was not unexpected … unless you’re the designer or otherwise have mastered playing the Axis, this isn’t a game you’re going to finish in a day. Two reasonable-length sessions should do, though, and the game is not hard to record. What can I say? There aren’t very many games, wargames or otherwise, that I could sit down and play for 14 hours more-or-less straight in one day anymore; EuroFront and Europe Engulfed are both compelling and playable enough to enjoy for such a long time. It helped too that Rick, as you might expect from his dedicated, helpful, and friendly support for his game in the various online forums, is a great guy to game with.

Was playing ’39-’41 worth the extra couple hours? At the end of the day, I’m ambivalent. It lets the Germans go into Russia with the forces they want instead of the ones that were historically built; they can juggle the composition of the army, or put more emphasis on U-Boats and air defense. I’m not sure the effort really pays off though, especially if you have 3 players. If you have only two players, I think it’s somewhat more compelling, simply because oddball but fun-to-contemplate German strategies (Sea Lion, Spain/Gibralter, or Malta/North Africa) aren’t going to potentially leave one player twiddling his thumbs for an extended period and/or feeling like he only partially participated at the end. Overall, the early war years are handled well by the system, they do play quickly, and can give you more of a sense of scope and ultimate closure. But to my mind, they simply aren’t as fun as ’41-’44. Given the overall length of the game, I think cutting an hour or two off the beginning is a good deal. But try it once if you get the chance.

And build those U-Boats.

Europe Engulfed

My Europe Engulfed play tailed off a bit in the second half of 2004 unfortunately. It’s a big game, and so hard to schedule. But I was tracked down by Clark, a local guy (well, “local” by Bay Area standards anyway) on BGG. We decided to play the 1941 scenario and see if we could get it done in a full day of excessive gaming. I’ve played from ’42 a fair amount – either the one-mapper, or the tournament match, or playing the tournament game until the Germans throw in the towel – so I was glad to try something a bit different. We also threw in all the balance-neutral “designer” optionals. I was the Germans.

When starting the game, I imagine my thoughts were similar to many gamers: the Germans had trouble focussing, and spread their efforts too thin amongst too many objectives; with just a couple more panzer corps, maybe they get to Moscow and maybe they have a chance. So that’s what I did – I sacrificed U-Boats and interceptors to build more ground units and hammer on the Soviets.

This produced gratifying results in the short term. The Soviets reeled from the invasion, and lost Moscow to the opening assault, with many unit losses; the Summer ’42 start line was similar to the historical one, but included Moscow as a bonus. The Summer ’42 offensive mauled the Soviets again, and had the Germans doing their shopping for fall fashions in Gorky, although, at the end of the campaigning seasons they returned to the ’42 kickoff line satisfied with another large count of eliminated units (including the destruction of two of the valuable Soviet elite infantry).

While this was going on, the British were revelling in the lack of U-Boat action, and maxing out their fleet builds. For reference, in the ’42 scenario the Good Guys start with some 8 fleets (5 Atlantic, 3 Med), same as they start with in ’41. By ’42 in our game, the Allies had over 12, which gave them great flexibility and made the Med completely untenable for the Axis. In fairness, I’m not sure how the Axis could limit the Allies to 8 fleets in ’42 – they get two in Jan ’42 when the US arrives, so Britain and the US would have to build no fleets and the Italians would have to somehow manage to eliminate 2 to match the “historical” situation. At any rate, a note to future Axis players: letting the allies have this much economic leeway is bad. What’s generally keeping the Allies from seriously considering Overlord in ’43 is fleet capacity, it seems. Ground units are pretty cheap when your baseline budget is 50-60 WERPs. Without pressure on their economy and SRs from U-Boats, they will run amok.

In our game, this meant a powerful invasion of Italy, and a premature Italian collapse. This diverted a significant number of German units from the Eastern Front, and started to really thin the German defenses. The crisis then came when the Allies invaded the Balkans (side note: the method that they used – a paradrop into Albania followed by pouring in reinforcements by a breakthrough op-move – turned out to be illegal, as you can’t paradrop into rough. However, almost exactly the same effect could have been fairly easily achieved with an amphibious assault on Salonika, which was not heavily garrisoned).

As usual, when this sort of thing happens the Germans are between a rock and a hard place. SR their guys out of Russia to crush the landing, and then get reamed by the Soviets as you’re out of special actions? Or try to contain the landings with more conservative special action expenditure? It was especially tough because at the time I had a pretty devastating offensive all set up in Russia. I ended up splitting it down the middle, launching a smaller offensive in Russia (which did eliminate a gratifying number of units, but was nowhere near what I hoped) while sending what turned out to be an inadequate conterattack force to the beachhead. Ironic, that. My only defense is that the last time I played, I got burned by over-reacting to Allied invasions (last time I was the Germans in the late-war, the Allies did like 4 amphibious assaults in Western Europe, all of which but the last were brutally crushed).

This resulted in a nightmarish Balkans campaign in which 2 British units wandered around taking out minor allies, which was especially painful given the Rumanians were basically holding the southernmost portion of the line in Russia all by themselves, which opened up a huge hole which the Soviets were more than willing to exploit. I then failed to take into consideration that even cut off and with no hope of reestablishing a supply line, the Brits could still move and capture territory, territory that has to be physically recaptured even once the units in are long gone, since isolated territory doesn’t convert. The last gasp of the British was to move one out-of-supply unit into an ungarrisoned Ploesti (the Rumanians having just surrendered).

These are the sorts of mistakes you only make once. Or at least, one hopes.

I’m not sure what the takeaway message here is. I think it’s to make sure Thessalonika is adequately garrisoned, preferably with two decent units (similar to Trondheim). I think the Athens beach is too far south and too bottled in to worry about too much, but Salonika could be trouble if you leave it to a 2 CV Bulgarian.

While all this was going on, and despite the severe mauling they received in ’41 and ’42, the Soviet steamroller was becoming recognizable again. It seems unless you knock them out entirely (winning the game), the Soviets just keep coming back. No other WWII game I’ve played has ever really given the Soviets their due the way Europe Engulfed does. By ’43 the Soviets were again quite dangerous, and with the Germans now down a special action and having to cope with the Americans and British, the best you can hope for is a delaying action. When the critical minor allied filler disappeared, there just weren’t enough guys to hold the line; the Germans seem really hard-pressed to scrape up enough units, another thing I like about EE compared to other strategic WWII games.

We ended up making it from Summer ’41 through Winter ’43, when I conceded, in about 10 hours.

So that was my first trip backwards in time from 1942. At the time, it was great fun for the first 8 hours but then to have it end in a slightly weird-feeling Balkan campaign was frustrating. On the other hand it was a great learning experience, and after I had gotten over the exhaustion of gaming for 10 hours straight, I was able to analyze my mistakes and was left craving more Europe Engulfed.

Couple last things: one thing I came away with here is that a third player really helps late in the war. We made pretty good time through the first couple years, but the Allied player has a lot of very diverse activities to manage. Secondly, we used the playbalance-neutral optionals, and I liked them a lot (I usually resist optionals until I have a handle on the game). Next time I’m planning to upgrade to using all of the “designers'” optionals.

GMT West – Day 4

After playing a full day of Europe Engulfed yesterday, today I went in for a play of the one-year, one-map tournament scenario (you can find it on BoardGameGeek). This is a great learning and quick-playing scenario.

I played the Soviets. To be honest, I have not yet figured this one out as the Germans. Taking two objectives is extremely difficult, but so is holding the front line – although you have an initial tank advantage, the Soviets out-produce you. You need to strike hard and early to have any chance at all, but between the rivers and heavy fortifications, this is easier said than done. My German opponent was comparatively inexperienced and had a very tough time – he attacked on turn one but made little headway, and had to shift to a defensive posture right away. After that, it was only a matter of time before the shock armies started moving on the Ukraine.

I’m going to have to solitaire the first few turns of 1942 as the Germans to figure out how to do it right.

After this, I went on to chat with some folks playing The Napoleonic Wars. This game is still going quite well, with some 6 or 7 games played over the weekend, second only to Sword of Rome probably. The guys were having a blast with it, and it convinced me to give the game another look sometime, although you have to get the right crowd I think (and I do somewhat suspect I might not be a member of that crowd). The game does have some crippling problems, of course, which haven’t gone away – but there is a certain fun factor to it also.

Clash of Giants is Ted Racier’s World War I “operational”-level game, covering the pivotal battles of Tannenberg and The Marne. The game is quite low-complexity, and has been something I’ve been wanting to try since it first came out, but have never gotten around to (being partly deterred by Mr Racier’s contemporary and not quite successful Reds!, perhaps). So I was happy to give it a spin. We played Tannenberg.

At it’s core, this is basically a classic, low-complexity, hex-ZOC-CRT game, with some interesting chrome for movement (Russian movement allowances are highly variable – you roll a die for each Army to see how far its component units can move – and reflect the uncertain nature of the Russian command). It was interesting to go back to classic “sticky” (movement-halting) ZOCs, because they felt surprisingly klunky. After playing a fair amount of Ardennes ’44 (which has ZOC bonds, unintuitive at first but rather clever and they’ve grown on me a lot) and The Gamer’s OCS games (which have very weak ZOCs that really only affect trucks), Clash of Giants’ rules felt somehow inelegant.

The combat resolution is rather clever, though. Each unit effectively has a strength and saving throw number, representing tactical skill. Combat is resolved by each unit involved making a saving throw. Those that fail get step-reduced. Odds give modifiers to the saving throws, and in extreme cases, limit the number of units that have to save. I’m not sure it quite works for me, but it is interesting and different, and definitely a big improvement over the classic straight d6 CRTs of the old days.

All in all, I liked Clash of Giants well enough. I was easily able to resist buying a copy after playing, but I’m still glad I was able to give it a try, and Rick B was a good opponent so I enjoyed the game. But at this level of complexity, I have to admit I like the block games, Wizard Kings, Gettysburg, Liberty, or Worthington Games’ Victoria Cross. The hex and counter stuff seems to not quite make it for me until you get into the moderate level of complexity of an Ardennes ’44 or OCS Korea or Burma, when it starts becoming semi-reasonable simulations.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what was the problem, you ask?

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

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

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

KublaCon Day 1 – Wargames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing on …

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

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

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