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

Typhoon on the Table

Now this is a little cracker. It’s about the Soviet winter offensive of 1942 with nine game turns to determine the winner by killing enemy units or grabbing victory point objectives. (There’s also a sudden death victory which seems unlikely for either side.) The German units are divisions, the Soviets are corps and divisions. The situation is that the Soviet steamroller is about to start, and the onus of attacking is on them. The Germans have to trade territory and try to avoid being encircled, focusing on delay, delay, and more delay.

First and foremost, this game is very easy to play. The eight page rulebook – yes, eight! – has only five pages of rules. Amazing! And yet in that content the designer and developer have manged to produce enough variety and tweaking to make this a breath of fresh air.

It’s “I go, you go” with a twist. Each turn, each side gets a number of Activation Points (AP). You have to use an AP to move a formation. You have to use an AP to fight with a formation. (German Panzer units get to fight for free. Whether they will is another matter!) And you never have enough AP!  Part of the challenge is deciding whether to spend AP in the current turn or save them. It’s a terrific mechanism, neatly showing the limited capabilities of real life campaigns: it’s not possible to keep every unit moving and fighting all the time.

Watch those flanks!

The system has sticky zones of control (ZOC) and a combat results table that means if you want to kill the enemy, you have to surround them with ZOCs and get them to retreat to their death. Old school, and effective.

The twist here is that the attacker does all the retreats. A nice touch. (And it makes for easier play using Vassal.)

Supply is straightforward and surprisingly of limited effect. If the defender is isolated from supply, the attacker gets a bonus. That’s it.

The dead pile at an early stage in the proceedings.

The Soviets have a Shock Army – a massive 20 combat strength unit – that they should withdraw at the end of turn four. They can put off that withdrawal at a cost in VPs.

The Soviets also have partisan units – that pop up in rear areas – and one parachute capable reinforcement.

I have played it solitaire several times. There are no real obstacles to solitaire play, though face to face games may well show other strategies.  So far, it’s been Soviet wins. That’s not to suggest the game is unbalanced. It’s probably that my defensive play and sense of timing is less than stellar. Knowing when to withdraw is crucial to success for the Germans. German play is likely to feature few attacks; it’s all about maintaining a coherent defense and avoiding being flanked. Oh, and trying to hold on to VP objectives.

The single (standard sized) map is gorgeous. Joe Youst does great work. The rules are great. There was only one clarification required and no errata so far as I know. (The clarification is that friendly units do not negate enemy ZOCs for the purpose of retreats.) The 200 half-inch sized counters are clear, crisp, and present no challenges to use. There is one cavalry unit with an infantry logo, but that’s scarcely noticeable and of no effect.

The game was originally published in Japan. It was designed by Shigeru Hirano and developed by Roger Miller for release by Revolution.

If you want an easy to play, fun, challenging wargame, this is it. Highly recommended.

 

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…