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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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.

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.

Consimworld Expo 5.0 – Part 2 of 3 – EuroFront II

P6090005Craig Besinque (he’s the one on the far lower left) was kind enough to bring 2 pre-production copies of the EuroFront map set and North/MidEast Front expansion to MonsterCon, and I was excited to give them a try. I’ve never actually played an entire game of EuroFront – I’ve done the 42/43 scenario once at ConQuest, and I’ve played a bunch of East and WestFront. EuroFront is a monster, but it’s a playable monster; I think you could do the whole war, 1939-45, in under 35 hours. That may sound like a lot, but compare to World in Flames and it’s a walk in the park, and while it’s definitely longer than A World at War, it’s not vastly longer, and it does have a quite a lot fewer rules than either. While it’s true that there are a lot of details for the various standard political issues (if you ever run into a game with clean rules for the Vichy French, let me know), on the other hand the core EastFront system is quite clean, and the diplomatic event rules for things like bringing in the Axis minors, unrest in the Middle East, and reforming the Soviet Army all work simply and cleanly.

I played the Western Allies. For me personally, the good news was how comparatively easy it was to go from being quite comfortable with EastFront to playing EuroFront. The MasterFront rules are scarily longer than EastFront, and while there are more details to track, it’s no worse than you might expect and not overwhelming. It’s a lot of “look-up” rules that you check out when relevant: when the MedFront opens up, you read about allocating production and shipping losses and it’s pretty straightforward. When things are grim in France, you look up the surrender rules. The same tactical techniques you learn in the East apply pretty well to defending France and fighting the Desert War, and while the margin for error for the Brits in 40-41 and the Soviets in 41 is small, it’s also not so exacting a game that you can’t just play. Since you don’t deal with U-Boats or other strategic warfare, it’s not the nightmare that playing the Brits can be in Europe Engulfed in the ’40 timeframe. Despite very limited experience with the Desert War and no experience with the Fall of France, I was able to slip into the game quite comfortably.

P6090008The new NorthFront map allows you to play out the invasions of Finland and Norway that are abstracted by Diplomatic Events in basic EuroFront. These are almost micro-games within the main game, as players decide how many units to commit (typically no more than a handful) and then send them off. I actually decided not to intervene in the Norway campaign, but it was a nearly-run thing. As always with the British, everything is a trade-off: you can keep the lend-lease routes open and harass the Germans, or you can save your guys for the desert. The desert seemed a more critical area to me, so I saved. But Norway offers some cheap options for making the German’s life rather difficult, mainly by interdicting the Swedish ore, and if you can actually keep the Germans from conquering it, you will gain permanent Naval Supremacy, a huge albeit rather unlikely win. I thought NorthFront was a nice and interesting little expansion, and since the Germans are more or less obliged to invade Norway, it’ll always see play and present the Allied player with options, while the Diplomatic Event route of the basic games seems to make things a little pointless for the Allies. Nothing earthshattering, but as I say, a nice micro-game, and if I was going to go the effort of playing EuroFront, I’d want to have it. Plus, it gives the Soviets some blocks to push around in the early war as they fight the Finns instead of just waiting and waiting for the Germans to invade. I should say too it was nice to see all the far northern locations included in the game – you can actually walk from Oslo to Archangel through hexes and transit boxes. It’s so far away it even feels cold.

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I was able to hold out in France through mid-1940, which was a bonus, and was able to do so while keeping the BEF basically intact. This bode well for the Desert War. A lot of that work was undone, however, by the fickle dice. The Desert War is a wacky business. First, you have to pre-allocate your limited production to the theatre. The Brits have about 24PP total. They have to decide how many of these (usually 10 or 15) to allocate to the Desert, an allocation that can then be changed only at intervals and/or with some pain. Secondly, that production doesn’t even automatically arrive: shipping losses mean you only get to roll one die per 5 points sent, and that’s how much you get (not to exceed the amount sent). This, combined with the greatly increased costs of building and maintaining guys there, makes for a fluid situation (I should say, I think all this is a good thing). A little bit more fluid than I would have liked, because I proceeded to get absolutely hammered on my shipping losses for the first few turns, while the Axis rolled quite well. As a consequence, the Western Desert Force was pushed back to the Nile. There they stayed, however, as the fact that British losses in France had been so light began to tell. I think there was an opportunity early for the Germans to push on to Cairo if they had been willing to commit heavily (including, crucially, more armor) and take some risks, but once it passed the rapid British build-up made things tough. Eventually, my counterattack devastated the Afrika Corps.

P6100030Meanwhile, things were not going so well in the East. I don’t know if I can take any credit – if it was ultimately the large amount of cash sucked down by the desert for little purpose that made the difference – but the German push into Russia was not strong enough in ’41. The Winter ’41 counterattack was nasty, but nothing compared to the encirclements of German units that occurred the following Summer. I think the Germans made the mistake of spreading their effort to broadly instead of packing their armor into one powerful stroke. Regardless, things did not end well for the Wermacht, and it went south pretty quickly. Like in Europe Engulfed, the Germans have to have a laser-like focus to get stuff done.

Our game did not see any action on the NearEast front board, but I was tantalized by the possibilities. Now, unless the Germans try a Mediterranean strategy, the board won’t see play. On the other hand, the options down there are rather tempting. You can foment revolt in the British and French colonies, go after the big oil points, and potentially bring in Turkey and take a shot at the Soviet “back door”. None of this is going to happen a lot, but if you really focus on it, it seems like you could make a serious game of it. I think our German player had some of these options in mind, but if you’re going to go this way, you can’t mess around – you’ve got to go all out, taking out the Balkans right away to enable the various near-east diplomatic events (I should mention as an aside here, I like how the Greek events work – as happened historically, the Axis are likely to be forced to deal with Greece, rather than the elective conquest they work out to be in most games).

Although our game was a bit short, ending in German collapse in ’42, I enjoyed it. The action is a bit less dense than in Europe Engulfed; you spend more time waiting for your turn or waiting for your front to open, and EuroFront really requires 3 players (and 4 would be ideal in 43-45) – one of whom is not going to be fully engaged for chunks of time in the early war. But the win is that you get a much more interesting set of political events, somewhat greater latitude to try different things, and of course the Front system is to me tactically and operationally much richer. Due to the time investment, Europe Engulfed is a game I can at least play semi-regularly while EuroFront is always going to be an occasional indulgence. Luckily, the component games are tremendous and playable games in their own right, so you can play EuroFront only occasionally and still play competantly. Having now played once, I’m looking forward to trying it again.

I should say too, it was a great pleasure to meet Craig Besinque. A nicer guy you could not ask to game with. In a hobby that seems to draw more than its fair share of wingnuts, it’s always great to run into the genuinely nice guys. In fact, it was in general a very good crowd for EuroFront, and this was by far the most successful monster game I’ve played at MonsterCon. I’ve been only an every-other-year attendee, in large part just because of the great difficulties in pulling off such huge and involved games. Now, though, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back next year.

Consimworld Expo 5.0 – Part 1 of 3

Consimworld Expo is an annual wargame convention run by John Kranz in Tempe, Arizona (that’s Phoenix to most of us). As one might expect from its more familiar moniker of MonsterCon or MonsterGame.con, the emphasis tends to be on big games. Really big games. Freaking huge games, in fact. In addition to the classic monster games like OCS, Wacht Am Rhein, or the run of questionable old SPI titles, many designers make an appearance with prototypes or playtest games.

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If I had to flag a single trend about MonsterCon, it would be a general migration from the unplayable to the playable. The first year I was there (the first year the con existed, 2001), the emphasis seemed to be on nostalgia games, old games like Korsun Pocket, a few of which are arguably playable. As the years have gone by, these old games (which I tend to hold in very low esteem) have fallen away and been replaced by games like EuroFront and Europe Engulfed, both extremely popular this year and amongst the best-subscribed (I played both). The only other game that was comparable in terms of sign-ups was Wacht Am Rhein, but I didn’t see as many people playing it as were signed up, while both EE and EuroFront ended up drawing more. Other solid performers included the comparatively playable OCS (two tables of DAK, one of Korea, one of a Case Blue playtest) and the excellent and highly playable Great Campaigns of the American Civil War which had a huge setup (with all the maps and half-a-dozen players going at it all weekend. Empires in Arms had one table that was going strong for a while, although I guess they had players swapping in and out. Vance vonBorries was there, and his EFS game had a decent contingent (including a playtest map of th

e gap between the disjoint Army Group South maps), if somewhat diminished from previous years. Alesia had a couple boards playing. Ardennes ’44 always had a couple players, although Ukraine ’43 didn’t get any play this year that I could tell. There were even a few ASL die-hards playing what looked like a completely insane D-Day game; ASL has never drawn that well at MonsterCon, I assume because it is so well-served by other events, so that was nice to see. If they did a Kampfgruppe Pieper campaign some year, I might actually be tempted.
Mark Simonitch and Rick Young

P6100017There were a few games in various states of playtest: Rick Young had brought a new quick(ish)-playing block game of the Battle of the Bulge, MMP had their Devil’s Cauldron (apparently the rules are still a moving target, so I wouldn’t expect it anytime in 2005), the aforementioned OCS Case Blue playtest, and the D-Day expansion for The Killing Ground (I really, really need to play that game sometime) all seemed to be getting some playtime. Many of the other playtest games looked a little sad as they sat there unplayed though.

But the biggest swing was towards open gaming, with probably a third of the attendees doing non-monster and/or pickup gaming. Empire of the Sun was quite popular, and I must have seen at least half a dozen games. Every time I had a chance to talk to someone who had played, I quizzed them on what they thought of it. No raves, although most people liked it well enough – but most had not played to the end. I only got one vote for “broken”. Sword of Rome also had quite a few games played, and I saw Wray Ferrell had brought a prototype of the Carthage expansion, although I didn’t talk to anyone who had played it. Friedrich got a couple plays. Wilderness War came out, as did For the People and Paths of Glory. Rommel in the Desert made an appearance. Down in Flames had folks playing all weekend.

Consimworld is not a game-release kind of convention, but there were a few companies hawking their wares: Fiery Dragon was pushing their line of Microgame reprints in tins (while I have no interest in those games, it was an amusing coincidence that I am in the midst of prepping Plague of Dreams, one of their Arcana Unearthed RPG products, for play. I didn’t mention this to any of the other attendees). What looked like the just-released Lightning: War on Terror was also there, and I have to say, that sounded to me like just about the most unappealing game concept imaginable. Maybe they’re trying to take advantage of the Homeland Security Bubble. Regardless, Lightning War: Midway has gotten some fairly poor reviews from my friends who have played, so I remain unmoved in terms of trying it out. Rdoxx, Inc (you know, the counter sled guys – if you can find a live link, let me know) finally have 5/8″ counter sleds, so I will be sorely tempted to give them a try with Paths of Glory. It might re-energize that very fine but played-out game. L2 had a great convention discount, so I picked up a copy of Russia Besieged, and Pacific Rim Games had copies of the Terran Games edition of The Legend Begins, an old Mark Simonitch game I was unable to resist. There is also a flea market table, but there were few deals to be had – I bought a comparatively cheap copy of Caesar in Alexandria to fill out my GBOH collection, but there was nothing else even remotely tempting.

Next up, Part II: The new maps for EuroFront, including NorthFront and MideastFront. Does EuroFront really work? Do the expansion modules add anything? How playable is a monster Front game? And how does it compare to Europe Engulfed?

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.