Defensive Fire in wargames: Mark H. Walker’s Lock ‘n Load: Band of Heroes

I was a fan of Mark Walker’s previous Lock ‘n Load game, Mark H. Walker’s Lock ‘n Load Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam, so I ultimately bought Band of Heroes, although I vacillated a bit. The price point was higher than I would have liked (especially given the component quality), and I’m a bit tired of hearing about the U.S. Paratroopers these days, sort of like I’m tired of hearing about how smart they are over at Google. I mean, I’m sure the Paras were brave and skilled, but weren’t there some other units in the U.S. Army we could talk about sometime? Like maybe some of the units that weren’t all-volunteer who fought with distinction in the Bulge or Huertgen Forest? Or maybe we could, just for yuks, acknowledge the contribution of British and Canadian forces on D-Day? I mean, all Saving Private Ryan had to say about the British and Canadians keeping the powerful and murderous SS armored divisions away from the Americans was Ted Danson calling Montgomery overrated.

With that rant out of the way, on to the game.

Although I have enjoyed playing Band of Heroes, as I’ve played the system more I’ve become a bit less enamored of it than I was of the previous game in the system, Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam. On the one hand, I do like a lot about the game system: I like the simple, chart-light combat resolution system, I like how it uses small back-and-forth impulses instead of regimented turns, and I like the spotting rules, whereby it’s actually kind of hard to find stuff. I like that the scenarios play quickly.

But let’s drill down a bit on one specific design challenge for interactive tactical games: how to solve the “human wave” problem.

The problem is this: units in defensive positions can fire on units that are rushing them, or trying to infiltrate their way through the front lines to victory locations. The general heuristic with these games is that units get to fire once, so the defender has to make choices about which encroaching units to shoot at. The problem with the everyone-shoots-once rule is that an attacker, who has a player’s-eye-view of the board, can see which units have fired and which haven’t, and once the defenders have exhausted their fire, he can run around the board with wild (and rather unrealistic) abandon.

This was a bit of a problem in Avalon Hill’s 1977 classic Squad Leader. For those who remember that game, John Hill tried to solve the problem with defensive fire rules that ended up being totally unworkable in practice: the attacker had to move all his units, and as he did so the defender could mark “defensive fire opportunities”, which he could then choose to take after everyone had moved; so he could theoretically ask the attacker to unwind every single move he had made to take the perfect defensive fire shots. This was clearly a bit out of hand; nobody I know played this way, they just took their shots as they came up – but this, obviously, lead to the above issue.

When Squad Leader became ASL, Avalon Hill took these problems by the horns and came up with solutions that are, in my opinion, brilliant, and the best elements of ASL (which is why most of them have made it into the Starter Kits). The rules for residual fire, rate of fire, fire lanes, and subsequent defensive fires made it very hard to predict how much defensive fire could be laid down, gave the option to the defender to put down more fire by taking chances with the equipment or with unit morale, and were overall far more realistic portrayals of how machine-guns could influence the battlefield – and all was achieved at a very low cost in terms of real complexity. It was still about drawing out the defenders’ fire, but it was no longer such a stark, black-and-white situation, and this particular combination of making some elements more abstract (like machine-gun rates of fire) and some elements more concrete to reflect how the weapons were really used (fire lanes, residual fire), is a perfect mix.

Back to Band of Heroes … compared to the ASL Starter Kits, I think this issue of how defensive fire is handled is the biggest gap in the Lock ‘n Load games, both in terms of simulation and of making an interesting game. Because Lock ‘n Load has gone back to a “one unit, one shot” model, it has become very much about drawing out all the defending units’ fire capabilities, and then doing whatever you want with the rest of your guys. This is compounded a bit by the problem that attackers can force close combat at any time, which makes it much harder for defenders to pass up opportunities to fire on nearby units, and therefore easier to nail down the defenders.

In some scenarios, the effects of this will be worse than others, obviously. This issue hardly ever bugged me in Forgotten Heroes, but perhaps the higher unit morales and tougher terrain (stone buildings instead of bamboo huts), combined with longer sighting ranges and shorter unit fire ranges in Band of Heroes made it more obvious.

I’m not sure what all this means. I like Lock ‘n Load. But at the end of the day, it is a bit “retro”, a throwback to the days of Squad Leader and Panzerblitz. That definitely has a certain appeal, and I like that a design goal was to keep it simple and playable, which is a huge win – the ASL Starter Kits do appear to me to be a bit more complicated. But at least in its WWII incarnation, I think Lock ‘n Load could have benefitted significantly from a bit more work on how to handle this particular issue.

Lock ‘n Load — Undeniable Courage

Although I have never seen the book or read the movie, this engagement apparently is the one featured in We Were Soldiers Once….

The scenario features a small American contingent with some Claymore mines holding a hill. Dave and I actually chose this scenario because we were on a time limit, and with the attacking NVA not exceeding the defending US in size by much, it looked small-ish. But things rapidly escalated, as the secret event paragraphs brought in more troops, and the US had to rapidly shift to parry different thrusts as they eventually become seriously outnumbered. All this added up to the most interesting scenario of Lock ‘n Load that I have yet played, with a fair amount of maneuver and the defenders hard-pressed to hold on. It all came down to a last-turn melee on the top of the hill, with a squad of US troops desperately kicking the NVA off of their hard-won position.

A couple notes on Lock ‘n Load in general after this game:

Firstly, I like it more and more after each play. That’s good. This game was fun, exciting, and fast-paced. The special events were used really well in this scenario, with the US having to move to counter unexpected threats. It probably wouldn’t be as exciting to play the US a second time, but that’s OK I think, there are now plenty of scenarios with the expansion.

Secondly, it bears mentioning that like the original Squad Leader, there is a lot of luck in Lock ‘n Load. Using sound tactics gives you a shot to win, but sometimes despite your brilliantly-executed plan that 105mm high explosive lands on your head, and you’re hosed. I suppose in reflection of the proliferation of firepower since WWII, Lock ‘n Load seems to subject you to the whims of fate a bit more than Squad Leader. For me, that’s part of the appeal of the game, and it is rather short. But for some of you out there, you’ve been warned.

Thirdly, a tactical tip: Most of the games I’ve played give the attacker plenty of time, and you need to use it. Even more than WWII games, Lock ‘n Load is about firepower, avoiding it, concentrating it, and blasting people with it. Back in my ASL-playing days, one of my failures as a player was being aggressive as an attacker even without tanks or artillery or the usual tools that let you strike quickly. If the scenario card says there are 12 turns, and the pace of your attack is going to get you to the building/hill/bridge/whatever in 6, that’s probably not good. When attacking, time is a resource along with troops and firepower, so use it wisely.

Lastly, what was not so good was the increasingly glaring problems with Lock ‘n Load’s rules as the scenarios I’ve been playing have been getting more complex. The rules to this game are poorly-organized, frequently frustratingly-written, vague in spots, and in general a significant disappointment. It’s often difficult to find stuff as it’s not in the right place (it took me ages to figure out where the heck the rules for Claymores were). At the end of the day, we had only one question we couldn’t resolve (do Claymores get the +2 for point-blank fire?), and some questions about opportunity fire and melee, and firing into a melee, that we weren’t quite sure we understood because it didn’t feel right; but we spent too long puzzling through the rules. This really is a great (and really not complex) game that deserves a better rulebook, and it almost convinced me to take a crack at rewriting it myself and sending it in to Shrapnel. Two recent wargames that I’ve actually quite liked (this and Battlelines) have been good games with poor rulebooks. I think Lock ‘n Load’s problems are not as severe as Battleline’s, and in the end I’ve been able to puzzle most everything out. But still, frustrating.

Lock ‘n Load

After Matt & I had our successful play of this game a couple weeks ago, we decided to move on to a bigger scenario, Unexpected Visitors (the second in the “programmed instructions” ordering, in that it contains no extra rules over the “intro” scenario). This one features a company or so of Americans attacking some NVA holed up in a village with a big honkin’ machine gun in a second story window. The Americans have to contend with the fact that they simply don’t have any weapons capable of dealing with said MG until they close the range, which has to be done over at least some open ground; and even after the range is closed, they are dueling with roughly firepower parity but with much less cover. To make matters worse, the NVA squads are actually slightly superior to their US counterparts, and the US has only a slight numerical advantage (9:7). So it’s an uphill battle; the Americans have to make the most of the fact that they are able to concentrate their firepower at one point on the NVA perimeter and open up the odds early before the NVA can concentrate, and just hope that MG doesn’t do too much damage. All in all, a tough one on the US, I think; but then again, I thought the same for the first scenario first time out, but the second playing the US won handily.

This was another scenario with some pretty dramatic events (if you play this, note that there is a glitch on the scenario card – there is an event “D” on the flipside of the scenario which you’ll need to set up also. It’s easy to miss). They are fun and spice up the scenario quite a bit, although they do make it pretty unpredictable and in this case, will definitely affect the replay value; more than that I won’t say, so you can experience it if you play.

I like the “special powers” for the Heroes in this game. I think they add a nice bit of personality to your guys, and give the game some flavor. Matt picked up a Sniper who was an incredible pain, and a Hero with supposedly Eagle Eyes … who was never able to actually spot anything. On the other hand, the rules for Medics are definitely rather odd. I had a Hero (a pathfinder who reduced movement in the jungle … quite helpful) who kept getting shot, and the Medic would just come up, patch him up a bit, and send him back to the front good as new. While I sympathize with the desire to acknowledge the heroics of combat medics, I think they are out of place in this game – I don’t think medics generally decided who to treat for tactical reasons (I’ve got a bunch of wounded guys here, but over there is a much more important wounded 7-1 leader). In ASL-ese, a tactical unit with a great combat medic really ought to just get an ELR boost or something.

All in all, a fun game, and I look forward to our next match.

Schwarzarbeit, ad acta, Lock ‘n’ Load

Matt was down from San Francisco again, so we rounded up a somewhat brief afternoon of gaming. Matt ended up being slightly delayed, so Rich and I broke out Battleline, a game I was surprised to hear he had never played. I still like the tactics cards, even if random they make for a much more engaging game than Schotten-Totten.

Then when the rest of the guys showed up, we played a round of Schwartzarbeit, which went over pretty well I think. I screwed up by accidentally hiring one of my own illegal workers, which I choose to blame on the fact that two of the game designers (A and V, I think) are actually quite close in color, and I denounced V when I really thought A was the culprit … but V was my illegal employee, of course. Duh. This threw me because I realized it right away, of course, so I lost my focus and my final score would have been negative even without that screw-up (no correct denunciations, the lawyers sent in to defend a guilty party … my sole positive points were from hired workers, most of whom were weekend types). Anyway, I still like this game quite a bit and look forward to playing again, and somewhat more competently. Nice, very different, not too long.

ad acta has been something people had been wanting to play, so it came out as our other game. It’s actually been quite a while since I’ve played – this is another game I like a lot, but it’s a modest brain-burner so it doesn’t come out much. Still, there is a lot to like about it – it’s very unique, it’s challenging without being too long, the downtime is no worse than Attika, and the theme is good for laughs occasionally. The idea is that you are a government bureaucracy trying to get your paperwork filed at the right time in the right place. Everyone has queues of paperwork in their inboxes and outboxes, and basically you are trying to manage all the various queues so that your paperwork pops out at the right time; when it does pop out, it can be either redistributed to new queues (if the paperwork still need to be routed to a new office) or or sent to central filing where it scores. It’s pretty straightforward, and scores big by being just the right length. Don’t play it with anyone who you wouldn’t play Attika with, though. I’ve actually only played it with 3, I think it might be better with 4.

At this point the others had to take off, so it was just Matt and I left, so we got out the Lock ‘n Load. Not much more to say about it this time than last time, except that the Americans won (we wondered if the teaching scenario was really balanced last time we played, it seemed like the US might have a hard time of it). This is a fun game, it plays cleanly with only a few exceptions … but I look forward to playing some of the bigger scenarios, having played the first scenario twice now I don’t think I’ll get that much more out of it. Matt liked it though, so maybe we’ll try a bigger one next time.