In the desert

On the table currently is Brazen Chariots, a game in Dean Essig‘s Battalion Combat Series (BCS) about the 1941 battles around Tobruk. I last played this at ConsimWorld 2019 but fairly recently a new version (2.0) of the rules was produced. I wanted to get up to speed with these as the next game in the BCS is about the battles for Budapest and I am keen to try that out.

The full campaign game is beyond me – I don’t have space for the three maps – but there are plenty of other manageable scenarios that I can make my way through. I’m going to start with the first and keep going until I get bored or otherwise redirected to another game.

Invasion!

On the table has been Salerno, a game in the Variable Combat Series designed by Nathan Kilgore about the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. MMP published it.

It’s an “I go, you go” system with the main wrinkle being the aforementioned variable combat system: bigger units determine their combat strength by drawing from a pool of chits so it becomes that bit more difficult to get the exact combat odds you want. (A really nasty – and therefore worthwhile – option, makes every unit that has a chit redraw it after a certain number of turns. I am unsure how realistic that is, but it’s probably fun.)

The maps (roughly one and a half of them) are split into three areas with tracks allowing movement between them. For example, one covers the landing of the 8th Army, one covers that of the 10th, and so on. Unfortunately, while the mechanics of moving from map to map are easy, the rules were a right royal mess. That was a pain.

Anyway, the invasion starts, the Allied forces land (in special broken down units just for the invasion turns), and then have to battle across the land to secure victory. First, the broken down units reform. That was a pain.

The invading units might get disrupted on landing. The disruption rules were somewhat short and lacking clarity. That was a pain.

The availability of airpower – for both sides – depends on how many airfields the allies capture. OK, got that. But whether your air force turn up or not – on the attack or defense – depends on a die roll. And that si the same for Axis as it is for Allies. I never could get my head around that one. You guessed it; that was a pain.

The annoying thing from my perspective is that I can recognize a ton of work and love went into this. But the rules were not clear enough for key elements, and that was a real barrier to enjoyment. I wanted to like this, but couldn’t. It’s interesting to compare this to games like The Killing Ground and Jaws of Victory (admittedly more complex) which take the same variable system and add some real bite to it, without cocking up the rules.

In a word, disappointing.

The Eleventh Gate – Nancy Kress

This space opera adventure takes place at a time in the future when Earth is a barren ruin, and the star-faring Humans have gone far and wide across the universe thanks to a series of “gates” that permit rapid (faster than speed-of-light) progress between points. Nobody knows who created the gates, or how, but that doesn’t stop them being put to use. Two ruling dynasties are established, trading and commerce blossoms, and all seems good. On the surface.

Into this picture comes one man’s obsession with trying to transcend his existence, and some political maneuvering in each of the dynasties. All of which is shaken up by the appearance of a new gate. What lies beyond?

This is a well told story of society at war; of scheming, plotting, and backstabbing as well as crimes to suit the scale of the universe. If you like space opera, this is worthy of your attention. It’s more of the thoughtful type rather than crash-bang-boom, but it’s richer for that because the author knows how to deliver the story and keep you interested without too much need to resort to violence as the spice of choice. Although Nancy Kress is a leading name in the genre, this is the first of her books I have read. I expect to read more.

Billy Boyle – James R. Benn

Billy Boyle comes from an Irish American Boston family. With a father in the police force, Billy follows that career choice, only for Pearl Harbor to mess up his (relatively) safe life. Well utilized family connections result in the young man’s posting to the UK as part of Eisenhower’s extended staff. From there, an assignment to utilize his police experience at an English country house where the Allies and some Norwegian expats, including the king, are working to overthrow the Nazi regime. Boyle’s investigation soon becomes much more deadly than anything he’s faced before his deployment overseas.

The prose, told from Boyle’s perspective, fairly rattles along, managing to sprinkle several cultural clash moments into the more serious business of murder and espionage. While that character is reasonably well drawn, the supporting cast – perhaps inevitably – are sourced from cardboard. However, Britain in that time of the war is a good backdrop, nicely described, and the plot doesn’t overextend itself.

In short, it’s a pleasant adventure with the main attraction being the main character. The mix of military history and detective novel is fresh and enticing. If there’s something missing it’s the mysterious star quality that the writing just doesn’t have. There are sharply observed moments about war, death, and the futility of it all. But somehow or other, they all too quickly fade and we are back in the mundane and the ordinary. Perhaps that’s the point.

This is a well loved series, though right now I’m unsure about whether I’ll go any further with it. Other readers in the family – Hello Lori! – were much more enthusiastic. So, do try it out for yourself.

The Rhythm Section – Mark Burnell

Most of Stephanie Patrick’s family dies in a plane crash. She descends into a personal hell, ending up as a working girl in Soho, London. Then an investigative reporter tells her the plane crash was no accident, but a terrorist attack. The book tracks her somewhat erratic journey from being collateral damage to a weapon of revenge.

On the plus side, the central character is interesting and challenging. Some of her behavior stretched credulity, but on the whole she made the book. The rest is populated by stereotypical cardboard characters and nothing you haven’t seen before. The backdrops are incidental. But, the pacing is good and there’s a fair old build up of tension.

Overall: not bad. As this was (I think) the author’s first outing, it may be worth looking at seeing if his later books were more mature.

Fun fact: the book has been made into a film. If IMDB is any guide, don’t waste your time watching it.

The Ruin of Kings – Jenn Lyons

Warning: minor plot spoilers ahead!

This is the best fantasy I have read for a while, but it’s no easy read. Why? Well, characters have more than one name. Also, when people die, they can be brought back to life. And, if that weren’t enough for you, there’s at least one successful shapeshifter, several less than friendly nations who might or might not be ready for war, an unhealthy does of racism, souls that are enslaved, several magical amulets, a magical sword, and a gathering of demons and so-called gods fighting it out for power. (Quite how this power is to be attained and maintained is a topic of some misdirection and discussion.) So, there’s a lot to keep track of.

Th story, so far as you need to know, is about an adopted orphan (Kihrin) who – surprise! – may not be the powerless orphan he seems to be. But is he a hero or a villain? Is he destined to save the world or destroy it?

The novel has an amazing energy about it, and that energy can drain you as you follow along, especially with the incredible leaps of fame, fortune, and plot that the author weaves – skillfully it must be said – into the mix. I was exhausted when I finished it. I’m unsure if I have the stamina for the others in the series! I am sure, however, any fan of fantasy fiction will enjoy the book. This is a chunky, meaty slab of entertainment.

Peace – Garry Disher

Quite simply, a cracking piece of (crime) fiction being the second in the series featuring exiled policeman Paul Hirschhausen. (My review of the first in the series is here.)

This time around our hero is getting ready for Christmas, meaning he’s been persuaded to be the small town’s Santa and to ride in on a horse. If that weren’t enough, his round of routine checks is becoming ever greater, and he could have done without one of the locals trying to drive her way into the local pub.

Then things turn nasty.

What you get here is sharply observed writing with a superb backdrop, a smart central character, and excellent plotting and pacing. In short, this is a must read. (But do start with Bitter Wash Road first.)

Trump and Biden

I’ll keep this simple.

The electorate have chosen Biden.

I hope, for the sake of the people of the USA, that Biden does good things for them as a whole.

I also hope, for the sake of the people of  Israel – indeed the whole Middle East – that Biden doesn’t make the same mistakes Obama made. Propping up the kleptocracy that is the Palestinian Authority without true accountability will not lead to peace. Giving in to the Iranian theocratic dictators will not lead to peace.

Good luck America.

Fighting in the Desert

On the table, scenario 5 of Gazala, a game in the Standard Combat Series (SCS) designed by Dean Essig and produced by the Gamers. The scenario is about the British collapse in June 1942 and Rommel’s Afrika Korps’ taking of Tobruk.

As far as I can tell, with competent play, a draw is most likely. The Allies need to get 35 units off the board. To achieve that, they need to strip the Tobruk garrison, allowing the Axis to achieve their goal: the capture of Tobruk. If both sides achieve their goals, it’s a draw. However, that doesn’t mean the game is a bore. Far from it. The SCS can generally be counted on to produce some challenges and that’s what happens here.

SCS games come with a standard rulebook and another specific to the game. So, if you know SCS, you should have little to learn before being able to play any game in the series. Unfortunately, because there are two rulebooks, it also means that you frequently have to check both to see what standard bits remain and what are changed. I prefer a single rulebook. It’s not a major issue, but it’s a pain.

As for the actual system, it’s “I go, you go” with – in this case – an asymmetric sequence of play to reflect tactical and operational differences. Combat is odds based, and the Combat Results Table (CRT) uses 2d6 to provide a range of results. For example, a 3:1 attack on this CRT is likely to succeed, but it is also possible to fail, and badly so. Therefore, each side will typically have crucial combats that go against the grain and from which that side has to recover. That makes games exciting, but the luck element may – not always – seem to be too influential. If that bothers you, don’t play wargames.

I have had fun mucking around and trying to work out a way to get an exclusive win for each side. In that playing, I have come to realize that odds based CRTs may not be fit for purpose.

For instance, if 12 combat factors attack 4, the range of results is the same as if 36 combat factors attacks 12. Doesn’t sound or feel right to me.

Part of my mucking around has been trying out my own fire based CRT, where each unit contributes its attack strength and damage to the enemy is based on a die roll for the column matching the total firepower, with both attacker and defender getting to fire. Going back to my examples, with 12 combat factors on the attack, they are less likely to do as much damage as 36.

The devil is in the detail, however. For example, some of the units have a zero attack strength. What should I do with them? Having them solely as sacrificial lambs doesn’t seem right. Giving such units a nominal firepower of 1 is OK, but perhaps that should only be when defending on their own.

As another example, it’s generally understood that piling in more attackers may not only increase casualties for the defender but also for the attacker. Tricky stuff.

Meantime, until another solution pops up, it’s back to fighting in the desert.