GMT West 2004 – Wrapup & Game Purchases

I enjoyed GMT West this year as much as I have enjoyed any wargame event in recent times, with the possible exception of MonsterCon. The War Room at Origins, and ConQuest and KublaCon’s wargame areas do not exactly provide stiff competition admittedly, but still. I think I can credit this mainly to Roger MacGowan’s hosting skills and general friendliness, as he was bouncing around making sure people had games, but also to the general friendliness of the attendees – this was one of the best wargame crowds I’ve gamed with. I’d still ideally have liked to see Roger doing more, but the fact that there was somebody there at all helping people to get organized was, for me, a big deal.

There were GMT games for sale, and I acquired a copy of The Devil’s Horsemen (which I had ordered via P500) and Alexander the Great (deluxe). Why? I dunno. I am not Richard Berg’s biggest fan, and the Great Battles of History games are, at best, a decidedly mixed bag. But I genuinely liked Cataphract, and The Devil’s Horsemen seemed a game which had more in common with that than with the earlier, more unwieldy games – if nothing else, Cataphract has no skirmishers, which in SPQR seem to be more of a time-wasting device than a game mechanism. Anyway, it’s a neat period and I’d like to give it a go. Alexander was a less defensible choice. It’s the only game in the series I’m missing, but how entertaining is it to see the brilliantly-armed and led Macedonian armies slice through their opponents? I’d say “we shall see”, but this is likely a game that will sit on the shelf for a long time, so we may not. I’m already wondering what I was thinking.

I also picked up the new, deluxe, Paths of Glory map, which is great and finally dispenses with need to tote around plexiglass. I just wish it had come out 4-5 years ago, when I was still playing the game regularly. I suspect I’ll get back to it sometime, because it is a great game, but as it is I haven’t played in well over a year.

Anyway, all in all, I quite enjoyed the event, and can heartily recommend it to fans of GMT’s games. The hotel is a bit overpriced, but I’m told that you can find other better deals within walking distance, so that’s what I’ll do next year myself. If it’s still around next year, I’ll be there.

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.

GMT Weekend West 2004 – Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemplating HomerCon, MonsterCon, and cons in general

HomerCon West, a small local wargame con, is coming up this weekend. Actually, to call it a con is a bit of a stretch; like most wargaming cons these days, it seems to be more a bunch of guys getting together to play pick-up games.

At one time or another, I’ve been to most of the major boardgame conventions in America, with the exception of GenCon: Origins, WBC, The Gathering, ASL Oktoberfest, and MonsterCon. I’ve also been to local cons like ConQuest, HomerCon West, GMT Games Days, and KublaCon. I haven’t tried any miniatures conventions yet; the Games Workshop GamesDays don’t really appeal to me, and I’ve sworn that the Lord of the Rings Tabletop Battle Game is going to be my first and last miniatures game. Being a recent convert to RPGs, I haven’t yet been drawn to a RPG con, although I did some individual events last year at Origins.

At any rate, of all these cons I’ve settled on 4 a year that I’ve been to for the last 3 or 4 years – two cons that I travel to, and two local ones – Origins, MonsterCon, Conquest, and HomerCon West. The Gathering I can take or leave; I get to play eurogames all the time, and somehow I’ve never quite been comfortable with the crowd there, nor do I see most of these games as being worth traveling most of the way across the country to play in and of themselves. Maybe I’d feel differently if I didn’t have such good local game groups. WBC is a good player’s con and well-organized, but just not my speed. ASL Oktoberfest is a great time, but I, ah, don’t play ASL much anymore. So it’s down to four.

I’ve been to Origins for the last 10 or so years, and I always enjoy it even though some of my favorite wargaming events have gone by the wayside as that whole area has more or less imploded – but the other events are great, and I can do RPGs, CCGs, Lord of the Rings minis, and boardgames. Conquest is a great local con too, sort of a mini-origins which I’ve always enjoyed. But the two strictly wargaming cons – MonsterCon and HomerCon West – are definitely “on the bubble”, despite my tremendous fondness for really good wargames. If you want to see one aspect of the problems with the hobby today, you can go over to the MonsterCon signup area: you’ve got 72 people (as of today) signed up to play some 40+ different titles (most all of these are all-weekend type games). How the heck are you supposed to get comfortable with investing several hundred dollars when most people can’t agree on what to play? And some of those games will have no chance of getting half, even a quarter of the way done, like EFS or Guderian’s Blitzkrieg II or Enemy at the Gates. I dunno, I am above all else a gamer, and if you go into a game knowing there is no hope of coming anywhere close to finishing, what does that do to the game? The funny thing is, that it’s a lot better than it used to be. At least some of the really lousy and/or unplayable stuff from the first couple years has fallen by the wayside and players have migrated to some actual games (OCS, to my satisfaction, has grown quite a bit as an event, and von Borries’ East Front System has also done well).

This effect is even more pronounced at HomerCon West, which is why this will be a decisive year for me as to whether I bother going back. It’s a much smaller event, and basically everyone has their list of 10 or 15 games they want to play, and there is a stunning lack of overlap. There is no real con organization per se, so I sent out a list of about 20 titles I’d like to set up a game of, all pretty mainstream stuff, and got not even a single response. Meanwhile, the only games people have admitted to planning to play are Guderian’s Blitzkrieg and This Terrible Sound, which will likely take 20% of the event just to set up & tear down. So it’s an odd state of affairs. I just want to play some Europe Engulfed, maybe some Ardennes ’44, a couple OCS scenarios, EastFront, maybe some Lock ‘n Load or Battlelines as filler – stuff that could be finished in a day to a satisfactory conclusion … but people seem to be irresistibly drawn to the immense stuff. Don’t get me wrong – I can go for immense stuff too, and I’d like to play a game of Enemy at the Gates sometime. But these cons are just 3-4 day events; these games are something you set up in your basement and play with your 5 closest friends twice a month for two years. I’ve tried doing them at cons a couple times, and it’s kind of cool once or twice but ultimately just doesn’t work. Even the smallest “full” OCS campaign (Sicily, probably) can be probably only half-completed in 3 days under your average con conditions (i.e., usually not that favorable).

Me, I’ve got a game of Europe Engulfed set up for Saturday at HomerCon West, and I’m just prepared to head home after that if things are looking dicey. I’d love to do an Ardennes ’44, or a Ukraine ’43, or a Kasserine, or some other big-but-playable game. But I’m way behind in my painting for Return of the King, and the Army of the Dead & the Easterlings should be out this weekend.