Solitary Enjoyment

So, four years (what!?) after my original post, I am finally getting round to playing some more of this game and adding the information here.

One of the reasons for the passage of time is the combat system. When I first played it, I fairly quickly became disenchanted by how combats are resolved. (By way of reminder, there is no combat results table. You draw chits from a random pool and, depending on whether they match the situation, they inflict hits. For example, a chit might say that at 4:1 odds, the defender suffers two hits and the attacker suffers one. Another chit might say that if the attacker has artillery, the defender suffers one hit, and so on.) What seemed to happen to me was that in too many combats, despite often overwhelming odds, nothing happened. So, I gave up on the game and put it away.

In the current lockdown situation, where we are to stay at home, I decided that I would put a solitaire game on the table. In the intervening years, almost every comment I have seen about the game has been favorable. (And I generally adore John Butterfield’s work.) So, I chose this game and went for the German solo version. I play the Germans, and the system handles the Allies.

I played through the first couple of days and reset because I was making too many mistakes. Now I am having another shot.

In no particular order, here are my comments:

  • I still don’t like the combat system. Let’s say I am enduring it.
  • The solitaire activation system for the Allies is excellent. It’s well crafted, deep, fairly straightforward to implement, and is a real challenge to the opposing live player. It’s not fast, however.
  • Considering the complexity of the processes, the rulebook is pretty damn good. Yes, there is errata, but it’s more than within acceptable limits.
  • As well as a clever solitaire system, the system the active player uses is equally sharp. Essentially you have a set of cards – each, in general, with several options to choose from – and you decide how to use them. You may have to give up a juicy combat tactic for the sake of activating a formation, or bringing in reinforcements. Decisions! Decisions!
  • The downside of all this high level of decision making is that it can cause paralysis analysis. Playing solo, that’s probably to be expected anyway. Just be aware that this is not a beer and pretzels fast blast through the Ardennes.
  • The play aids are excellent.
  • Because of the card activation – on both sides – there’s a lot of replayability.

The game comes with several scenarios. I’m aiming to properly play through the short (three-day) scenario twice to try and become more immersed in the game. Yes, I’ll have to grit my teeth and endure combat resolution. But it should be worth it. Besides, there’s another in the series due out this year, this time set in the Eastern Front. Kharkov. I think. Should be good.

 

Quatre Batailles en Espagne

I finally got to play this game, one of the series by Didier Rouy of Napoleonic battles. In this box you get Ocana, Salamanca, Vitoria, and Sauren.

I have played through Ocana to a resolution a few times, and am now on my umpteenth attempt at Salamanca.

The strength of the series is that you get good maps (though the absence of hex numbers is a pain), good looking counters, and a system that at its core, works. The main drawback is that to get historical results, you need to use the command and control rules. And these are not presented as a package, but us a menu of options. Without them, for example, the superior manpower (not quality) of the anti-French forces in Ocana, means the French are unlikely to repeat their historical success. However, the command rules don’t give you the starting orders for each side meaning you have to do some legwork before you can start playing – unless you want to just line them up and let them have it.

I managed to get Ocana to work (I think).

With Salamanca, I went down a different route. I said elsewhere that I really liked the Gamers’ Napoleonic Battles Series system. The scales are similar, but NBS is much faster to play because it does away with infantry fire other than for skirmishers. In particular, NBS allows the quality of the troops to have a real impact on close combat. In this system, numbers give you the edge. So, I have been trying to fit the close combat stuff from NBS into these battles, starting with Salamanca. Let’s just say, it’s not easy. But it is fun. I have been inspired to do more reading up on the subject, and each time come back to the table with something new to try out. It’s probably a case of me enjoying the journey, because I’ll probably never get to a decent finish.

It does also make me curious about how others play these games. But that’s a post for another time.

Aspern-Essling

This is the Gamers Napoleonic Brigade Series version of the 1809 encounter between Napoleon and the Archduke Charles. I am using version 3.0 of the rules. I even made the effort of making my own counters to deal with the few later corrections made to the OOB. (There are not many games I would do that for.)

I know from past experience that doing one of the longer scenarios will not go well, because the staff work – with the orders – becomes too much of a drag. So, I have been playing the (relatively) short first day scenario.

The Austrian 6th Corps tries to take Aspern and, after several rounds of bloody fighting, fails its Attack Stoppage roll, and is thrown back.

The Austrian 1st Corps joins in just as 6th Corps is about to snap, the former keeping a wary eye on the French cavalry beginning to mass to the east. Eventually, the French cavalry attack. A couple of repulsed charges sees the Austrians about to gain the upper hand with progress in the fight for Aspern when the 1st Corps also fails its Attack Stoppage roll. And back they go, too.

Then, just two turns into their attack, the newly arrived 2nd Corps also comes to a halt.

The Austrian 4th Corps do not do so badly, and are still in reasonable shape, but the French defenders, courtesy of some rapid orders from Napoleon, form a solid enough line and the Austrian’s don’t make it to first base, aka Gross Enzersdorf.

By the time the Austrian high command have sorted out the mess, it’s too late for further action and the battle ends with the French bloodied, but still in position.

Here are my random thoughts on the experience:

  • There’s a lot to admire in the 3.0 rules. I particularly like the way close combat and infantry fire is dealt with, speeding up play considerably.
  • Checking the roster sheets is a huge drain on time. I would prefer if the A, B, and C strength ratings were ditched in favor of a simple single combat strength.
  • The orders system – and all the command and control paraphernalia – brings about a good result, but it’s clunky. For example, leaders are restricted in how many orders they can issue according to their quality. That abstraction works but it doesn’t feel right. In any event, the lower quality leaders are penalized twice – once for order writing ability and once in the order acceptance calculation.

I understand the creators of version 3.0 are working on a new system. It remains to be seen if that will ever see the light of day. Until then, this system is likely to see more time on the table. But it is not without its competitors. Basically, I’m spoiled for choice.

 

The reign in Spain…

On the table, (after Eylau) Talavera from the twinpack (Talavera and Albuera) of Spanish Eagles with the updated Eagles of the Empire series rules.

The series rules are a decent lot and the special stuff for Talavera is not too much to swallow. There’s still some annoying errata, but it’s at the ‘Who moved my cheese?’ end of the spectrum and hasn’t stopped me racing through the game.

I still hate the bucket of dice combat system. OK, ‘hate’ may be too strong, but I truly do not like it.

As for these battles, just like Eylau, I needed to do some reading up to fill in the background. I had some material lying around about Talavera from when I played the Gamers’ NBS game on the same battle and, amazingly, I hadn’t forgotten it all.  But Albuera was largely unknown to me beyond the briefing in the game.

The advantage of this level of game, is that the focus is high up the command chain and largely stays that way. You do not get ground down by low level combat and decision making. So, in general, the narrative flows quickly. However, the loss of detail is also a loss of color (or flavor or atmosphere) and that means the experience is awfully like playing a game that could be set anytime in the horse and musket era. Those parts that make it distinctive are not that distinctive.

On the plus side, the terrain analysis is impressive, and you do get the challenges of command without being burdened by a written orders system. It is frustrating – and realistic – to have your formations ignore your orders!

Glad this eventually got to the table, though.

Eylau

Division level combat in the age of Napoleon, using area movement, lots of step reduction, and buckets of dice for its combat. There’s a command system layered on top which gives a decent impression of the real thing (as I assume it to have been) and little touches of chaos. For example, engaged formations risk not being able to activate in the next turn. And each side’s turn to activate uses a die roll to determine how many formations they must activate. So, perfect planning soon falls apart.

Eylau has scenarios for the opening encounter, the main day of battle, or a two day all out effort. I have been playing the opening encounter scenario through again and again to familiarize myself with the rules – they are not complex, just different – and work out some tactical approaches.

Of course, it also set me off on a mission to read up on the battle…

Death Valley

This is a bumper package in the GBACW series now on my table. It features the battles in the Shenandoah Valley of 1862 and 1864. So far, I have played 1st Kernstown and 1st Winchester. Smallish scenarios that are good fun.  I’ll never make it all the way through the battles provided, but I am impressed at the quality and quantity of the content in the box.

One sad aspect is that the designer of the core system, Richard Berg, recently passed away. It’s a tribute to the strength of the design and the interest in the topic that GMT can see a continuing market for developments of the system and more battles. And kudos to Greg Laubach, the credited designer here, who seems to have done a terrific job of making a top notch product.

 

The Little Land

Having dipped my toe into the water trying out Saipan, a game in Adam Starkweather’s Company Scale System published by Compass Games set in the Pacific, I jumped at the chance of this new east front release, The Little Land. This covers the battle for Novorossiysk, a key port held by the Germans since September 1942, which the Russians decided to invade in 1943 as part of their attempts to unhinge the German defense of the Caucasus. The Russian campaign was not a successful one, and the game gives you the opportunity to try and do better. (Good luck!)

The game has two maps – but most of the scenarios, save the campaign game, are one-mappers – a rulebook and scenario book, a ton of gorgeous counters and plenty of play aids. Combat units are companies, hexes are 500m, and daylight turns are 2 hours long. Activation is by chit, with divisions and (in general) their subordinate formations having their own chits. There is a command system which generates a mix of points restricting how often these chits are available, and offering the opportunity for bonus actions and direct intervention. Combat is by fire and assault, with progressive levels of disorganization leading to unit elimination. The whole thing is a development of Adam Starkweather’s Grand Tactical Series published by Multi-Man Publishing.

I like:

    • Level of complexity – it’s not too complex, and very playable
    • Easy to play solitaire
    • Tactically challenging – it’s not about just piling up units with big combat strengths
    • System shows the durability of company level units, until they begin to wrack up the effects of being in action and start to fall apart
    • While it’s a difficult balancing act, the level of chrome is just about perfect for me

What don’t I like?

    • Absence of range effects for direct fire
    • It’s a marker farm; inevitable, but it can get tiresome
    • Sometimes it’s all about who can roll the most zeroes
    • Absence of unit icon explanation
    • Sloppy rules editing

I have my doubts about how you balance scenarios when the order of the chit draw can materially affect the outcome, but balance is not an issue for me. I’m more interested in seeing the history on show and trying to understand how accurate that appears to be. I need to do more reading to come to an informed view, and that’s not going to happen for this battle. But it’s still fun to play.

So, not a perfect system, but a good one and very enjoyable.

The next release is supposed to be Fulda Gap (WW3 in Germany), and although its four maps are way too big for my game table, the topic seals it for me. (I cannot explain why, and I’m disinclined to try and analyze this.)

Moravian Sun

Moravian Sun, designed by Enrico Acerbi and produced by Acies, is a wargame about the battle of Austerlitz, the decisive encounter of the Third Coalition in the Napoleonic Wars. The scales are hourly turns, brigade sized units, and hexes of 450-500 meters.

The system is a step above the basic – or classic – wargame standard, though it does use odds based combat and traditional zones of control. The command system elevates it, though not as far as I would like. Essentially, each formation (a corps, with provision for creating smaller detachments) gets an order, and that order determines what units can and must do.

For example, the Advance order obliges at least three units to move at least one hex closer to the enemy. The Attack order obliges all units to move at least one hex closer to the enemy, and so on. There are exceptions, but the rules are supported by a good table summary, and do a fair job of imposing some form of command and control realism.

This is helped by adding a priority system. Each side must prioritize its formations – order of activation – though there are separate priorities for the main and the support orders. When your side goes, you have to activate the next formation in priority order, but you can choose between those with main and support orders. One of the support orders is a neat Pursue option which allows (so far as I can tell) that formation to immediately react to an enemy retreat. Cool idea!

Orders can be issued and changed, though fate can intervene which is just the ticket for some true battlefield chaos and winning opportunities.

The part that it’s missing, for me, is the lack of a destination. In other words, I as the player can advance closer to the enemy to my front. But, if I decide the chaps off to the left are a better target, I can simply change the direction of movement. (The Eagles of France series designed by Walter Vejdovsky and published by Hexasim includes a destination hex as part of its orders system.) It’s simple enough to add a geographical restriction, and that produces good results for a modest overhead.

But don’t let that minor carp get in the way of seeing this for the interesting game it is as it stands. The graphics are good, the rules are OK considering their non-native English speaker origin – and supported with living rules – and the thing is playable. Eminently so. For my tastes, there is a decent amount of chrome – cavalry charges, squares, march columns, and weather – but not too much. And with one map and less than 500 counters, about half of which are markers, it’s a relatively compact game.

I have played through several turns of the battle scenario (you get that plus a campaign scenario starting on the previous day) twice to a reasonable conclusion with one victory apiece. I worry that the orders give the Allies more flexibility to counter Napoleon, but have certainly not played the game extensively enough to offer an authoritative opinion. I have enjoyed having this game on the table.

Reports, what reports?

I don’t know why, but I find it difficult to write up gaming reports. This is especially true of my ASL games. But the important thing is that I am actually playing – and loving – the game. (This despite my woeful record.) ASL delivers the most intense gaming experience. I can sit at the game table for hours at end, engrossed, totally enthralled. The closest similar experiences have come from my monster gaming sessions at the various ConsimWorld gatherings in Tempe, Arizona. ASL thrills. But you’ll have to exercise your imagination until I figure out how to motivate myself to write some reports!

Bloody 110

This, from 1989, is the first of Dean Essig’s Tactical Combat Series (TCS). Units are platoons of infantry, mortar and machine gun sections, individual tanks and guns. Hexes are 125 yards and turns – during the day – are 20 minutes. The action covered is the role played by elements of the US 28th Infantry Division in holding up the German Bulge Offensive heading towards Bastogne.

I was getting sick and tired of looking at all the TCS games on my shelves that weren’t getting played because I repeatedly found the latest iteration of the system too much of a slog. (I like it when I read it, but not when I’m playing it.) I decided to start trying out some house rules/variants to see if I could cobble together stuff that worked for me.

I started with a quick run through the tank and infantry learning scenarios, and have now moved on to the 1st day battle scenario.

I have used and rejected several ideas, and while at times it is frustrating, it’s also a fun challenge. And when I think something is getting there…

Oh, and I also enjoyed – as a change from today’s multi-colored environment – going back to the old-style counter graphics. Quaint!