Origins Report – Wargames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Good Games with Bad Rules

Since I posted my rhetorical question, “How many really good (war)games have had really lousy rulebooks?”, there have been some suggestions. Some good ones, but nothing I’m quite prepared to back off my position for.

Note, I wasn’t asking for good (war)games with mediocre rulebooks. I was asking for really good games with really bad rulebooks. Here are some of the candidates that have been presented:

Breakout: Normandy: I’m not sure how this got a reputation for bad rules. I actually think they are pretty good. Dense, sure, but well-organized, complete, and precise. Rules can be optimized for learning or referencing. Breakout: Normandy errs in favor of referencing, i.e., not expecting you to learn everything on your first read-through, but being able to easily find stuff when you need it for the first few plays. For this kind of game, I think that decision is eminently sensible.

The Napoleonic Wars: Yes, I agree the rules here would qualify as wretched (worse than Empire of the Sun, probably). While this game has its fans and I sort of get why people like it – I decided I might even give it another chance sometime – I don’t think it’s in danger of entering the top tier.

Republic of Rome, Up Front: These are great games. Well, Republic of Rome is anyway, Up Front was a great game but may not be anymore. Regardless, while the rules are difficult, I think they largely just reflect the inherent complexity of the game. They are also reflective of the fact that they both have a “chromy” complexity, i.e., lots of little details wrapped around a lot of different systems. Altercations with recent GMT rulesets like The Napoleonic Wars, Grand Illusion, and Empire of the Sun have actually given me nostalgia for these rules. Sure, they were involved, but they did tell you how to play and you could figure out where stuff was. You could argue that the games really ought be simpler, but given that things are as they are, the rules do a pretty good job.

Rommel in the Desert (1st Edition): Yes, the rulebook was weak, and yes, the game is great. But the rulebook certainly wasn’t awful. I was up and playing with a minimum of fuss, using the short rulebook and 1 page of erratta/Q&A. There is only so much damage you can do if you have a clean system and only 12 pages rules and can remain basically coherent throughout. But I do know folks who have had more trouble with these rules than I did.

Anyway, it’s important to take my point in the right way. It’s not a question really of whether you can do a good or poor job of writing rules for a good game. The point is that if not enough effort has been spent on the most critical part of the game – the rules – what are the odds that substantially greater rigor went into the design process? Really bad rules, like we’ve seen from GMT in Thirty Year’s War, The Napoleonic Wars, and now Grand Illusion and Empire of the Sun, are more than likely just the tip of the iceberg. People say (with respect to Empire of the Sun) that they know there is a good game in there somewhere; I think there is clearly a good idea in there, but there is a lot of evidence it needed another year to gestate – almost identical to Mr. Herman’s previous For the People. In cases like this, the P500 system may be a real problem for GMT, in that it makes customers impatient (since they feel like they’ve already paid) and aligns a lot of forces on them to release a product before its time.

I am still looking forward to playing some more Empire of the Sun, playing the 1942-1943 time period, because I think that the game’s biggest problems are in 1941 and 1944-45. I am actually pretty optimistic that this will work and within those constraints, the game might be fun. But I am still not happy overall with the quality of this product and am irritated with GMT and the developer (Stephen Newberg) for not saying “no” and, at the absolute minimum, sending the rules back for a re-write and getting the player aids right. Having paid money for a game that has some obvious problems is a bummer; but even more aggravating is knowing an opportunity for a great game has been missed and can’t be taken back. When GMT has a sure-fire seller like this (big name, very popular “system”) they might do well to do it as a “regular” release.

As a postscript, I apologize for beating up on GMT here, because they do make quite a lot of rather good games and some of their rulebooks are also good (anything by Vance vonBorries or Mark Simonitch, Europe Engulfed, Downtown, Paths of Glory). I’ll still P500 anything vonBorries or Simonitch puts on the list. Decision and Avalanche are much more worthy of scorn, but since they rarely make anything worth playing in the first place, there seems to be little point in chastising them.

Rommel in the Desert

I am hoping to run a Rommel in the Desert event at Origins. Well, I am running an event, I just hope people show up after the snafu with the printed program. I needed a short scenario, so I chose Battleaxe, which was apparently designed for the tournament at Origins ’87. Only problem: I had never played that scenario (I was unaware of it until it was added to the rulebook in the 2004 version of the game). So I’ve been trying to find opportunities to do so.

My first chance was at Bay Area GamesDay XXXVIII. My opponent was a new player. I played the Germans.

Battleaxe starts both sides fairly short on supply, but the Germans particularly (only 4 cards to the Allied 8). I drew 4 blanks. “Isn’t there a mulligan rule in this game? I think there is a mulligan. Can I redraw?” (The mulligan rule was located later in the evening – you can redraw once, after which you are stuck with it). OK … 4 more blanks. Ouch.

For those unfamiliar with Rommel in the Desert, the game is driven by a deck of supply cards. Each card can be either one unit of supply, or not. Two-thirds of the deck is supply. Supply is required to do absolutely anything in the game, other than defending in place or running away from the enemy in terror. If you have supply, you can attack, counterattack, reinforce, or rearrange your defensive lines. If you have a bit more supply, you can launch larger offensives. If you have a lot of supply, you can attempt blitzkrieg-style breakthroughs. If you have no supply, you can withdraw.

I’ve had to play the game short supply, which is not easy, but is a lot easier as the Germans, since they concentrate a lot of hitting power into a few units, have better mobility, and are generally less fragile. You can use your fast recon units to sort of weave and dodge, and the Germans have a much easier time putting together nasty local counterattacks on short supply. I’ve never had to face down an opponent with 8 (admittedly unknown) supply cards while I had none, though.

I think if my opponent had more experience, it would have been a lot tougher; but the Allies are tricky to play. You can’t play this the way you would approach EastFront or Hammer of the Scots, because unlike in those games, one side’s units (the Axis here, unfortunately for the good guys) are simply better. A lot better, at least until the Grants and Shermans arrive. So for the Allies, the hexside attack limits make it harder to get force superiority; and the better Axis mobility makes it hard to outflank them. So you really need to leverage your supply advantage to unleash major hammer blows, rather than spending a supply here, a supply there – again, because the German units are so much better, if you’re in a move/counter-move situation, they’re always going to come out ahead.

Bottom line, if you can’t create a crisis, or at least an opportunity to tie them down in a major slugfest that will allow you to trade losses step-for-step, you’re better off waiting and building up your supply reserve. Of course, that judgment is tricky because you don’t know just how much supply your opponent has, or whether things are going to get much better. I think the British also have to be more sensitive to when to call off operations that are losing their momentum. If you’ve pushed hard, you aren’t getting results, and your stockpile is running low, it’s time to pull back rather than pushing the offensive until you simply run out of supply.

As our game played out, my recon units were able to screen my main body for the first turn, slowing down the Brits. I used withdrawl moves to yield a couple hexes. The first buildup saw one supply point come my way, which I resisted the temptation to use and simply fell back a bit more; the British had gotten themselves a bit mired in a couple battles to which they had brought insufficient force. The next buildup netted two more supply; at this point, I was able to spend one on a big counterattack, which stalled the British and stabilized a large part of the line. When I then had adequate supply on turn 5 or so, and the British had overextended themselves, and I was able to go over to the offensive and decisively maul their spearheads.

Like EastFront, Rommel is to a large degree about the efficient usage of scarce supply options – scarce supply has to be spent on concerted action and not frittered away. But Rommel is a much more dramatic game than EastFront, for a few reasons. Firstly, the German units are strong enough that the Axis can be fairly assertive. Secondly, you can run through your supply much more rapidly. In EastFront, the number of supply steps you can spend in a turn is limited, as is your ability to stockpile. In Rommel, you can spend vast amounts of supply on a lot of activity in a short amount of time, and you can also stockpile a very large reserve.

Every time I play Rommel in the Desert, I am reminded how much I like the game. Too bad I don’t get to play it more often; this is amongst the best of the best, especially since it plays in such a comparatively short time.

Rommel in the Desert

Carl came by again for our semi-regular Columbia game get-together, this time a return to Rommel in the Desert.

We actually played two games. First game was the 1941 campaign. I’ve played a fair amount of the meatier scenarios (Crusader, Gazala), but I’ve actually never managed to get any of the longer games in, as much as I’ve wanted to. Well, the first game didn’t turn out to be very long. Even though the Axis get only 10 units and only 3 Germans, those units are so devastatingly superior to anything in the British arsenal, trying to stand up to them is unwise. All you can do is fall back. In this case, I tried too hard to delay, and ended up getting cut off (for 4 units, there was no Escape from Derna).

So, with extreme supply line caution and respect for the Axis OOB now firmly drilled into my brain, along with a reminder to always count out the hexes your opponent can move to, we set up again (same scenario, same sides) and had another go at it. This time, the results were better. Instead of aggressively delaying, minimal delaying forces were deployed to the coast road, and a token unit was deployed to the Oasis near El Agehla to threaten the Axis base. This provoked a nice response, and the Axis was delayed somewhat tracking down this unit. The delaying action on the coast road went a lot better this time, and while the unit there was lost it slowed things down nicely and no extra units were risked. The units around Tobruk did not get stuck too far out. I even managed a minor counterattack which dented several German units at reasonable cost.

In the end, though, the German forces are overwhelming early. So there was nothing for it but to leave a maximal garrison in Tobruk (5 units) and fall back to Egypt, with an eye towards setting up a Crusader-style counterattack with the late-year reinforcements since I had accumulated a very large supply surplus (some 10 units).

Carl ended up deciding to bypass Tobruk, not even attempting to take it. Tough call there; it’s a bear to take, but then again, taking it gives you a positional victory and cleans up a big mess in your rear areas. He ended up trying to do a very aggressive, risky, end run around the British to cut off the coast road … and failed the required force-march die rolls, which was catastrophic. This lead to the destruction of all 3 recon units and two big German Armor/Mech units, or it would have if Carl hadn’t conceded at that point. I think the position was probably still playable, but it was a big setback definitely, and Kim and I had an appointment with the Two Towers Extended Edition in the theatre. So it was a convenient time to call it a day. What would have happened if he hadn’t choked the force-march die rolls, or at least gotten average luck? Hard to say. I had a huge supply reserve (as 11:3 advantage at that point, as it turns out) that I would have used to Blitz and try to break the blockade and re-set up the defensive lines, so I don’t think it would have been fatal unless he had maxed out the dice – and it’s possible that he would have been so strung out at that point that the units in Tobruk could have broken out and cut off the whole German army in return. Regardless, it would have been a challenge do deal with, certainly, and possibly a game-loser. But it’s a bit hard to say, we didn’t really have time to do any serious post-game analysis.

Rommel in the Desert is a game I have now played off-and-on for quite some time, and while I think quite highly of it, I’ve never been able to really sit down and play it a intensively over a period of time. While this can be an unforgiving game, playing this longer game certainly solidified my opinion of it as one of the all-time greats. The war in North Africa has been called not really a mechanized war, but actually a set of glorified cavalry actions – I think this is true, and Rommel in the Desert certainly gives a wonderful feel for this. It gets great mileage out of the blocks and supply cards, and has a real sense of bluff and deception, one of the best of any of the block games. This really is what a low-end wargame should be, in my opinion.

Hammer of the Scots, Rommel in the Desert

Carl came by again for one of our occasional Columbia game sessions.

First was Hammer of the Scots. The Scots have actually been on quite the roll recently with the new “South First” strategy. Wallace moves out of Fife and into Mentieth to secure the center of the board to link up with Bruce in the south, who hopefully never falls. Wallace then turns the whole south of Scotland into a quagmire for the English while Moray slowly cleans up the north over many years. Well, I was now the first to lose with this strategy (in games I’ve been involved in, anyway). Part of this was two serious tactical errors: firstly, I was entirely too anxious to link up with Bruce, and bypassed a significant English force in Argyll, which combined with a sea move snuck back to retake the critical Mentieth area leaving Wallace cut off at a very bad time. Secondly was pushing too hard in the north too early. Moray and the infantry block in the north assaulted Buchan and were bloodily repulsed through very bad luck. This wasn’t the bad move; the bad move was then trying again before building up enough, which when he lost again resulted in Moray being too weak and he was attacked, surrounded, and eliminated. The English nobles up there can’t do too much, but they can still be potent if given the chance to gang up and kill someone who can’t retreat.

I must admit that I feel I can blame at least some small part of this 2-turn fiasco on the dice … Wallace was egregiously incompetent in this game, managing to score some 2 hits in his first 20 or so shots. This was huge I felt, because Wallace and his A3 is desperately needed to actually inflict some casualties on the English nobles early, otherwise they just retreat before you come to grips with them. The other problem was that for the two turns and change we played, my hand was remarkably homogenous – all 2s and one 3. This sounds cool, but the Scots really don’t need that many activations – they really want to be moving last, and as it worked out I was often moving first, which actually caused a lot of problems.

My opinion of Hammer has been fluctuating a bit. I was down on it somewhat for a while when it seemed there was an optimal Scottish strategy. I still think there is (the South First is the only thing that seems remotely plausible, every other alternative has failed spectacularly), but it’s certainly not a script the Scots can follow. There are still tough operational and tactical choices, and sloppy play is punished. This is good, and I’m feeling better about playing the game again, although it still ranks only about 5th on my list of favorite Columbia games.

After this disaster, we broke out Rommel in the Desert, the Crusader scenario (it’s short – only 3 turns, and due to the supply situation it plays more like 1.5). Now we’re talking. The dice that had abandoned me in the first game came back with a vengeance in this time. Carl attacked 3 hexes, all of which contained a single recon unit (I felt proud of this), all of whom retreated without loss. My German reserves then proceeded to crush one intrusion, obliterating 5 British units at the cost of one (double) step. For Carl, it was downhill from this point. This is a tough game to play the first time, and my experience was decidedly more recent than Carl’s, so I’m sure he’ll return the favor next time. Plus, the Brits are tough to play in this particular scenario I think – forced to attack with a supply advantage but a decidedly inferior army. And those dice … I would have preferred a little more balance, but you take what you can get. Every time I play this game I tell myself I gotta play it more often. This is an awesome game, really, really tense – even after mauling these British units, I was always worried about the amount of supply I had spent to do it and was scared I had not kept enough in reserve to counter British threats – the German supply situation is very tight. At one point I was down to 2 supply while Carl had 6 cards in hand, but he didn’t have enough.