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.

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.

 

Army Group South

On the table for the first time, almost 25 years after buying the game, is Barbarossa: Army Group South, 1941.

The game, designed by Vance Von Borries and published by GMT Games, features an operational level system that made its debut with Typhoon (about the 1941 attempt to take Moscow). This volume is one of a series about Barbarossa, dubbed the East Front Series (EFS). Continue reading

Solferino

Moving on from Flying Colors, I am playing Risorgimento 1859 and specifically the battle of Solferino. It’s the French and the Piedmontese against the Austrians fighting over the reunification of Italy.

So, I cut out the counters and set up the scenario.

The Austrians are stuck, mainly, in big stacks in reserve with only a few units available to move at the start. The Piedmontese are also in reserve.

On to the map come the French. Slowly. What a traffic jam. The first time I tried this, I forgot the Strategic Move option. After a really messed up turn, I started again and the SM helped, but not by much. While the Austrians sit about for the first couple of turns, the French are trying to get their troops onto the battlefield so they can pick off bits and pieces before the Austrians wake up.

Eventually, the forces collide. At this point, you notice how much of a cookie cutter the forces are; most of the infantry have the same cohesion (6) and that’s the only point of distinction other than the few Jagers, Chasseurs, and Light Infantry. That last set of three can do small arms fire into an adjacent hex. At a maximum of 1 hit per fire, it’s effective roughly 60% of the time. Super skirmishers?

Cavalry are not much use except against other cavalry. But we do get to have light and heavy cavalry.

After properly completing the first three turns – and it was slow – I decided I’d had enough. The game simply wasn’t working for me. It’s hard to pinpoint what doesn’t click because there is a lot that should appeal.

Let’s see.

There are a lot of counters. The scale is a bit strange – battalions, complete with facing rules, in a gunpowder era game with 325 yard sized hexes. All units are equal in combat strength, but their cohesion rating may affect matters as there are modifiers for the side with the higher cohesion.

The game is not complex, but there are several important exceptions. For example, units in cultivated terrain (vineyards?) might have their ZOC restricted. For example, units pay different costs to move adjacent to an enemy unit, depending on type and whether it’s into a ZOC or not, but cavalry can only move adjacent if charging, and charging has its own restrictions.

Combat has each side rolling a die, applying the modifiers, and getting the number of hits inflicted on the enemy from a table. The maximum damage is 3 hits. (Maximum stacking outside of towns is two units or three artillery per hex.) If you want to maximize damage, you need to surround the defenders so they take an extra hit from retreating through a ZOC. Units take hits up to their cohesion level and then are eliminated. (Sort of like the GBOH series for Ancients.)

There is a commendable effort to make casualties count with brigades becoming hors de combat and corps becoming demoralized. Unfortunately, the player aids don’t give you any support in this task, so you are on your own when trying to track this.

Activation has this sort of halfhearted continuity mechanism. You go, you roll to go again. If you succeed, after the two activations play passes to the other side. If you fail, after the first activation play goes to the other side. Why bother? I understand the desire to move away from straightforward “I go, you go” but it didn’t seem worth the effort. Maybe chit pull would have been better. Maybe “I go, you go” would have sufficed.

Too many games are competing for my attention. This one failed to hold it.

All at Sea

Flying Colors, designed by Mike Nagel, was originally a self published design. It’s a game about fleet actions in the age of sail, focusing on the higher level perspective and speeding up play by cutting out a fair amount of lower level detail. GMT published it in 2005, followed by an expansion (Ship of the Line) and two more complete games: Serpents of the Seas (a 2010 release about naval battles of the American Revolution and War of 1812) and Blue Cross White Ensign (a 2014 release about the Imperial Russian Navy).

There was a second edition of Flying Colors released in 2010 and just this year a new third edition. GMT offered an upgrade pack for those who had earlier versions of the game and I duly acquired it.

The upgrade includes all the stuff that was in the Ship of the Line expansion as well as all the scenarios and all the ships and leader counters required to play the campaigns and scenarios that originally were published in C3i magazine. It’s a bumper package nd it inspired me to get the counters cut and the game on the table.

To start off, I played Minorca – the encounter between Admiral John Byng and a French fleet on 20 May 1756 that ultimately led to Byng’s court martial (for failing to press his perceived advantage against the enemy) and death by firing squad.  In my replay, the French secured a win after the British took heavy losses in closing for the kill. (They captured one French ship, but several of their own struck their colors after being dismasted and left to drift.)

As usual, the early turns contained a fair amount of checking the rule book. But, soon enough, I was able to cut down those references to the rules and ran the game mainly from the provided player aid cards. It’s a veritable marker farm – though you can all but eliminate these if you want to use rosters – but there’s plenty of space, and it for sur beats individual logs for each ship. It’s highly playable solitaire, so my powers of replicating schizophrenia were not unduly challenged.

The high level perspective is more than enough to give you a sense of the historical setting and potential strategies and tactics. And there are are a huge number of scenarios with small, medium and large encounters. Also, Serpents of the Seas introduced a duel system that deals with single ship v ship encounters and adds a deck of cards to the mix. That’s less playable solitaire, so I have nothing to say about it beyond that I’d like to give it a try, face-to-face, sometime.

After Minorca, I started and am currently finishing off the battle of Sadras. The real event took place on 17 February 1782 between Admiral Edward Hughes and his British fleet trying to impose their rule over the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal and the French under Admiral Suffren. I think the British are going to win this one.

I like this system a lot. It gives you a sense of the historical time and place and a taste of the challenges facing the respective fleet commanders. It’s not complex, and there’s plenty of scope for house rules for those who want more detail. One of my current top ten wargames and highly recommended if you are at all interested in naval history.

In the air, above Dunkirk

On the table, a Wing Leader – Origins scenario about the 2 June 1940 contribution by the British 611 Squadron towards the protection of the forces attempting to evacuate from Dunkirk. Against their combination of Spitfires and Hurricanes the German raiders have a mix of bombers (Ju 87B-1, He 111H, and Ju 88) escorted by Bf 109E1s and Bf 110C2s. On the ground, there’s a heavy flak unit and the port as targets.

The bombing attacks in this system are a bit of a lottery, so even if the Germans can get through to hit the target, the amount of damage is variable. Playing competitively I can see this as being a bit of a sore point, but in my solitaire excursions it’s all part of the entertaining narrative.

This is a clever system which can take a bit of getting used to. (It’s very different from every other air game I’ve seen.) The detail and the inevitable exceptions to important rules mean that it can take time to be fully comfortable with the rules. However, you can readily see the internal consistency, and once you are – if you will pardon the pun – up to speed, the game flows smoothly.

This expansion pack includes an attractive looking campaign about the air battle over Malta. At first blush it doesn’t look solitaire friendly because there is hidden commitment of forces. Maybe a random allocation can be constructed. However, the other 26 scenarios are more than enough to give you your money’s worth.

Now, back to the air over Dunkirk…

Antietam

On the table, Antietam (Sharpsburg) from Glory III, the Richard Berg designed system for American Civil War battles at the brigade level. Primarily I am playing this because I enjoyed my recent time spent with Glory II and it was an excuse to read up on the battle.

Stephen Sears’ writing about the American Civil War is always highly readable, entertaining, and informative. This is a great retelling of the battle.

In the actual battle, the massively outnumbered Confederates held on by the skin of their teeth because of critical Union command failures: McLellan sent in his Corps piecemeal and threw away the advantage of superior numbers.

The battle has begun – Union I Corps is in contact with the CSA defenses

As gamers, we would never under utilize our forces. Indeed, it’s a recurring theme that many games allow the player to push their cardboard warriors to efforts – and synchronized efforts at that – which would have been impossible. In the opening stages of the battle, for example, one of Hooker’s Divisions badly screwed up on the attack because only one brigade went into action and the other two stood around waiting for orders. That’s difficult to simulate without overburdening the players.  And, as mentioned, the Union forces did not attack as one.

Close up of I Corps in action – not getting things all their own way as the initial attack is repulsed

This system uses chits to activate forces. In Antietam, the Union player starts with only three chits. After the opening couple of turns, the Union player rolls to see if he gets, less, the same, or more chits. It’s frustrating for the Union player, but it’s reasonably accurate and it definitely adds some tension to the game.

One thing that struck me is the irony of playing a game about the bloodiest battle of the war using a game system that, arguably, minimizes the casualties with units able to rout, recover, and return to action. While I’d love to work at some variant, I do enjoy the fast pace at which it is possible to play the game as it stands.

In short, I’m having fun.

Jackson’s Attack

On the table is Glory II: Across the Rappahanock, a Richard Berg game published by GMT and featuring two American Civil War battles: Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

The system emphasizes speed of play over detail, with units representing half a brigade, hexes are 315 yards across, and daytime turns are 75 minutes. While there are artillery and cavalry units, the infantry brigades are the main players. Each has a full strength side and a disrupted side. A unit that is disrupted is withdrawn off the map and may return, disrupted, later. Since disrupted units can recover, the net effect is the appearance of no casualties, or at least less casualties than you might expect. That’s the core simplification that speeds play because you don’t track losses.

On the other hand, the system accurately portrays the superiority of the defense over attack, the need for reserves – fresh troops to stiffen the line or takeover the attack – and due to the chit drawn activation, the chaos on the battlefield. Out-of-the-box, you get a great game. The historicity is not as good as it might be because of two main factors: (a) the usual advantage gamers have of being able to see everything; and (b) the lack of an orders system restricting units so they can react instantly to events (near or far). To be clear, I like the game as it is. Not everybody wants super detail. Further, you can use the game in a learning fashion to illustrate elements of the actual campaign, especially when playing solitaire.

The Fredericksburg situation doesn’t really excite me, but Chancellorsville is full of good stuff. I have previously played the introductory scenarios. This outing, I have been playing (and enjoying) Jackson’s Attack, one of the bigger (but still a one map) scenarios. The short report is that the Rebels are being held back and will not win. The longer version is that while the game tries to recreate Hooker’s command failings on the day, it’s too easy (still) for the Union forces to mass effectively against the weaker Rebels.

There is a 3 map campaign scenario for Chancellorsville which I’d like to try one day. I wonder if it would work in a double-blind umpired fashion?

In preparation for playing the game, I skimmed through the Consimworld folder. It reminded me that while there was talk about doing Gettysburg using the system, it never came to anything. Shame.

On the table catchup

Yes, the lockdown has meant I have done more gaming than usual. Here are some of the games I have had on the table over the last few weeks.

WW2 tactical – my favorite topic. This is Jim Day’s magnum opus with a core game plus four expansions to date. (Of course I have all the expansions.) Finally, I think I am getting to grips with the rules. I am also trying to work out alternatives to the command control and morale rules which I think are a bit clunky.

From Joe Balkoski’s wonderful modern naval conflict series, this is packed full of accessible one map scenarios. This is one of the top series I wish would be updated and republished. Meantime, the game packs a punch.

PanzerGrenadier tactical (platoon level) WW2 combat. I have tried, tried, and tried again to get into the system. This time, I almost made it. However, the leader and activation rules don’t do it for me. Besides, the War Storms series seems to do this so much better. If I get this game (or others in the series) out again, it will be to work on my own house rules. There’s got to be a better way.

Tactical WW3. Yes, I know it doesn’t have morale rules. Yes, I know it doesn’t have command and control rules. Yes, I know the open lines of sight at great distances are unreal. I know all of these things, but it was still fun to play – and a bloodbath. This game is one (of many) I have often thought of going back and fixing to my own requirements. It has an elegant combat system that cries out for use elsewhere.

Ancients battles on a square grid. I set up and played the Granicus scenario, but the setup didn’t match anything I had seen before about the battle. Inevitably, I was more interested in the system. The map graphics are awful, but the rest is of much greater value. There are multiple versions kicking about: the original, the original plus errata, and a BGG gamer’s variant with added bells, whistles, and complexity. This game is one (of many) I have often thought of going back and fixing to my own requirements. (Stop me if you’ve heard that before.)

Finally I got to play a COIN game (a series about counter insurgency conflicts). I managed to follow through the extensive example of play in the box and kept going. However, dealing fairly as a solitaire player with four factions was too much for me and the result too lopsided in favor of one faction. But it was fun. And it was great to understand more of what was going on. The game comes with a paper decision maker for non player factions. However, that really slows the game down, so I’m unlikely to go down that route. On the other hand, I have the COIN game set in the Vietnam War and that’s a subject I would like to dig into a bit more. Andean Abyss was good fun, though, and taught me a lot.

 

Quatre Bras

On the table, Quatre Bras 1815, one of the Eagles series games designed by Walter Vejdovsky and published by Hexasim. Turns are 1 hour, hexes are about 200m, and units are regiment sized with each strength point representing 100 combatants. This is the famous encounter between Ney and Wellington on the road to Waterloo, when the no show by the French forces of D’Erlon materially contributed to the French not winning the battle. Continue reading