Tabletop Happenings

I have taken MBT off the table after reaching the point of being reasonably happy that I had the rules well enough absorbed, and my own house rule experimentation – for command and control and morale – was stuck in a bit of a rut. I much prefer my own systems, but they are not working completely to my satisfaction. So, I will let the challenge simmer away in the background, and if I return to the game again, a fresh perspective may solve the issue.

First replacement on the table was Panzer Battles from MultiMan Publishing. It is one of their Standard Combat Series games, designed by Dean Essig, featuring the 11th Panzer Divisions’s battles near the Chir River in 1942. It’s a classic, well studied campaign of mobile defense and counter attack. The game’s special rules tack on a chit pull activation, but apart from that it is similar to Day of Days and It Never Snows in its scale and slightly tweaked combat processes (artillery in the main).

The game is very playable solitaire, and cracks along at a decent pace. Given the chit pull mechanism, the replayability and tension are both high, though I wonder if the possibility of a blowout – for either side – may be a touch too high. I played through the main scenario once, and it was fun. I seemed to be doing a better job with the Soviets, so probably need to practice a bit more if the contest is to be more even. Good fun.

The next replacement was, and is, Ben Hull‘s Fields of Fire from GMT Games This is a solitaire game where you command an infantry company of the 9th US Infantry (Regiment). There are individual missions in each of three campaigns (WW2, Korea, and Vietnam) where your progression depends on mission success, and building up the experience and expertise of your forces. Part of the challenge is dealing with replacements (who tend to be green troops) and keeping casualties down (and recovering them from the battlefield) so as not to be operating below strength.

The game uses a deck of cards for terrain (one for each campaign), and another deck to resolve all game action. No dice! Units are HQs and squads with individual weapons teams and vehicles.

It is not an easy game to win, but otherwise it would be boring. You have to plan, measure your risks, and rise your luck. Planning, for example, involves deciding what signals will be allocated to the various colored smoke you have at your disposal.

The down side is that the game’s original production was botched, with incomplete rules. There is a second edition which is much improved, but there are still some gaps. A third edition – by all accounts much improved – is due to be released next year with a second edition printing. The fact that it is being reprinted, despite those rules issues, tells you that this game is worth persevering with. It can be frustrating, and the systems are a touch on the clunky side, but it can also be very rewarding. It’s a different experience from the up close and personal action of ASL, but it is nonetheless engrossing and absorbing.

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War in 1987

The box is full...

The box is full…

On the table is Jim Day‘s game MBT, about the Cold War going hot in 1987, published by GMT. It is a tactical game (units are single vehicles or squads, and each hex is 100 meters) using the same core engine as Panzer, Jim’s WW2 tactical game, also from GMT.

I have the same issues with MBT as I do Panzer (see here) but was always going to get the game and try it out.

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I have now played the initial two scenarios several times, using the basic rules, the advanced rules, and then my own mix of basic and advanced rules. I have also tried out some house rules (or variants, if you prefer) to try and fix bits and pieces. I have not come up with any magical solutions, but it is great fun trying things out.

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Back to Waterloo

Thus begins the French assault...

Thus begins the French assault…

The game that has been on the table over the last few weeks is Fallen Eagles, a game on the battle of Waterloo designed by Walter Vejdovsky, and published by Hexasim. It uses hexes representing 200 meters, turns of one hour, and strength points equating to 100 infantry or cavalry or a couple of artillery pieces.

The physical production standards are excellent, being two standard sized maps, a color rulebook, color playbook, 400+ nicely done, oversized counters, 16 thin cards for tactical and strategic variations, and various play aids.

Before playing the game, I thoroughly recommend reading David Hughes‘ article on the game published in Battles magazine, issue 11. David’s analysis helped me understand more quickly what was going on in the game. Overall he liked the system but wondered if the combat results were too bloody. I have played all the scenarios other than the full battle all the way through to completion. I only managed to get half way through the full battle (twice) but definitely had fun, and reservations. In the full battle, the French seem to have the tougher task. Perhaps that is as it should be.

On the plus side, I like the design intent to cut out unnecessary detail, so that the rules are easy to assimilate, and the game can be quick to play – unless you let analysis paralysis take over. There is a neat command system which is simple to implement, and adds just the right level of control without too much rules overhead.

On the down side, I wasn’t that taken with the combat system, especially the regular occurrence of units routing before closing with the enemy. That’s not my recollection of the history. I fixed that by applying a house rule so that routs only happened when adjacent to an enemy unit, and tried that out in the second go at the full battle. That seemed to feel better.

Also on the down side, I am not convinced that the paper-scissors-rock interaction of infantry, cavalry, and artillery comes across strongly enough. You will appreciate that on the one hand I compliment the designer for cutting out detail, and now I complain about missing detail! It depends on the detail, of course.

The cards are available to inject some chaos, but are not especially solitaire friendly. I tried them once, didn’t feel it was worth the effort, and put them away. In a face to face encounter, however, they will undoubtedly spice things up, and I would recommend their use.

While I am not convinced this is the perfect Napoleonic game at this scale, it is a damn fine try. There are supposed to be other battles coming along using the same system, and I may well be tempted. For now, there’s going to be one last attempt to see if I can do better for the French…

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The Last Blitzkrieg

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2nd SS trying to break through the US 75th Infantry Division

On the table is Last Blitzkrieg, a Dean Essig game about the WW2 Battle of the Bulge, published by Multi-Man Publishing. The game, the first in the Battalion Combat Series, covers the action from 16-31 December 1944, using hexes representing 1 km, turns representing a day of real time, and units (funnily enough) mostly of battalion size.

The physical components follow the usual Dean Essig style (which is mostly a plus for me) including four standard maps, six countersheets (1/2″ counters), standard rules, game specific rules, system crib notes, Allied and German Order of Appearance charts and tables, and two double sided cards with the main system tables. I found everything to be relatively clear and functional, the only exceptions being nitpicking nuisances. I’ll mention those later. Continue reading

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Back to 1973

Trouble at Suez

Trouble at Suez

This is not so much On the Table, as Been on the Table a While, and now it’s coming off. It is John Prados‘s game on the Sinai front of the Yom Kippur War, published by GMT Games back in 1995. Only recently have I got past reading the rules, finally managing to play to completion a couple of the scenarios (of the five, plus campaign game, provided).

The physical components are not bad, the highlight being the excellent map by Joe Youst, scaled at 2.5 miles per hex. The 700+ counters are half inch, double sided, and color coded for side and formation. Unit sizes vary from company to brigade, with a good spread of unit types and differentiation. The game aids are reasonably clear, and the rulebook and playbook are above average. That’s not to say the rules are trouble free – they are not – but you can get a handle on the way the game is supposed to play, leaving only some annoying little details to figure out. Game turns are two per 24 hours, with no air activity in the night part.

The sequence of play is lengthy, but straightforward. It starts with a Political Step (for the campaign) to take care of aspects such as intervention, and ceasefire. Daylight turns then have a Maintenance Step, mostly having the players deal with their air units – there is an extensive air system – as well as SAM repair and replacement. The Israeli player will cry as he sees some badly needed air units mandated for service on the Golan front.

There then follows the usual movement and combat, with extra phases for air strikes, bombardment, reserve movement, and exploitation.

The historical campaign featured an Egyptian attack that surprised the Israeli defenders, and established a secure foothold on the east bank of the Suez. Israeli attempts to use overrun style tactics from their 1967 success were bloodily repulsed due to the surprising resilience of the Egyptian soldiers, and their anti-tank missiles and other defenses. The Israeli air force found itself up against an effective SAM umbrella. Over time, with new tactics based on the experience of the early encounters, and with the benefit of USA supplies and rearmament – especially TOW anti-tank missiles – the Israelis managed an effective counterattack, pouncing on a break in the line to cross to the western side of the Suez Canal, and ultimately threaten to eliminate an entire Egyptian Army.

So far as I can tell, based on solitaire plays of a couple of the scenarios, the game system does a good job of portraying these factors (and others) in a playable format. However, some of the rules are clunky, with too many exceptions, and the details can threaten to overwhelm the player. (or at least, this player!) That is why it has taken me so long to actually muster up the courage to play the  game.

I played the Across Suez scenario (the opening attack on 6-7 October) and that ended in a huge Egyptian victory. Then I played The Battle of Chinese Farm (15-17 October) and that ended in a draw.

Overall I had a good time. Here are some likes and dislikes.

Likes

  • Seeing the action on the map gives you a good sense of the situation; for example, at the start of the campaign, the Israeli forces are minuscule. The game shows how thin the margin was between defeat and victory.
  • The system highlights the vulnerability of tanks, and shows the impact of changes in weaponry (TOW) and tactics (combined arms stacks, instead of tank only ones).
  • The crossing of the canal, complete with bridging operations,is detailed enough to be interesting, without being unnecessarily complex.
  • The SAM umbrellas are there in all their glory.
  • There are rules for tank recovery from eliminated tank steps that add something extra, easily.
  • Artillery is important; vulnerable, but important.
  • The scenarios look to give a view across the whole campaign, without having to tackle it all. But if you want to, it’s there.
  • The campaign game starts with the Egyptian player having the initiative, but allows the Israeli player to take the initiative dependent on certain events.
  • The political rules are not overwhelming, but seem fit to deliver a more enthralling experience. For example, players may be faced with tough decisions about breaching a ceasefire to try and secure a bigger win.
  • The notes in the playbook – developer’s, historical commentary, and tactical – are a rich source of material to help you get more out of the game.

Dislikes

  • The Israeli superiority in leadership is reflected by giving them more leaders, rather than better leaders. That seems a bit clunky to me. Maybe it would be a waste to have lots of zero rated Egyptian leaders, though.
  • The rules for hasty attacks are fiddly with too many exceptions.
  • The rules could have been sharper. The errata is essential.
  • There are some counter errors; fairly easily sorted, but annoying.
  • No bibliography.

Neutral

  • Command and control rules work, but have a fair number of exceptions.
  • Ground combat has a SNAFU system that allows things to go wrong. It works, OK, but could have been streamlined.
  • Ground combat is mandatory between adjacent units. I am unsure about this.
  • The air game is detailed, demanding, and tricky. I would have preferred an easier system.

Future

I would have liked to see the same, or a similar system, deal with the Golan front. That will never happen now. But given the paucity of games on the subject, perhaps it might not be too much to dream about an updated version – improved counter graphics, some streamlining of the more clunky rules, perhaps an optional simplified air system, and cleaner rules.

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Back to the Cold War

On the table, BAOR, one of SPI’s Central Front Series.

The dangers of advance after combat

The dangers of advance after combat

I always liked the system used in these games. It essentially combines the friction of combat with the friction of doing anything in wartime, so that units accumulate Friction Points (FP) from both activities. Get too many, and the unit dies. The cool additional feature is that you can activate units multiple times in the same game turn. So, you can push your forces hard, and deciding just how hard is one of the challenges the game gives you.

I recently twice played out the short scenario in this game, which tasks the invading Soviets with the mission of crossing the Weser, or taking Kessel. The defenders are mostly British and West German, with a few Belgian speed bumps for company.

The first time, I screwed up some key rules, and did not give the Soviets the proper benefit of the resources available to them (chemicals, air superiority). Partly this was because I remembered the system as being easier than it actually is. It’s not super complex, but there are some subtle tweaks that can make a big difference. That first effort ended with the Soviet threat being well and truly blunted.

Second time around, the Soviets were significantly more potent, and unsurprisingly more successful.  I’m not sure how easy it would be for the Soviets to win the longer scenario, given the run down in their forces and the growing ranks of the defenders.

It was good to take a trip back to the 1980s with this game. This is from the series that SPI changed horses half way through. It was announced as an ambitious ten game set covering a hypothetical 1980’s Cold War turning hot. The first three games (Hof Gap, Fifth Corps and BAOR) used the same system, even benefiting from a cleaned up second edition rule book. North German Plain and Donau Front belatedly appeared, and were new games almost completely; only the map scale was consistent. The series was never completed with either system. I didn’t take to the latter two games, though much of this may have been driven by my disappointment in the abandonment of the original system. One day, I’ll get them out and give them another try. All I have to do, is find them…

 

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Enemy Action: Ardennes

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Enemy Action: Ardennes is on the table. It’s designed by John Butterfield, published by Compass Games, and gives you three Battle of the Bulge games in one box: Two player, German solitaire, and Allied solitaire. It uses four km hexes, turns of a day, and units at the regiment/brigade level.

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I am starting off with the two player game as that is the recommendation. Each game uses a different map, with the same terrain covered, but different sets of symbols used as part of the card driven artificial intelligence in the solitaire games. The cards are also used in the two player game, offering unit activations, reinforcements, events, and tactics. There are many innovations on show here, but one that stands out is the absence of a combat results table. All combat is resolved by drawing chits from a pool, and applying them according to circumstances. For example, one chit might apply if the attack is at greater than 2:1 odds. Another chit might apply if the attacker has air support. And so on.

The components look beautiful, though there’s a let down because of some minor errata for the map and cards. One day, game companies will master the art of quality control.

I have set up the game, read the rules once, and am now rereading them for comprehension.

John Butterfield’s previous designs have been favorites of mine, and I do not expect to be disappointed here. The fact that this is apparently the first of a series of games with a similar approach is a mouthwatering prospect. I’ll post some more after playing the game.

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Glory, glory, Chickamauga!

[Crossposted from On the table at Consimworld, but updated.]

On the table, Chickamauga from Glory 1. (A Richard Berg design, published by GMT.) Having tried the Gamers’ Barren Victory, and West End’s Chickamauga, I continued my Dave Powell inspired look at the Battle by stepping down another notch in simulation towards playability.

The Glory system is chit pull activation, with three types of combat: artillery fire, charge, and defensive fire. Charge is close combat. Units have a front side and a disordered side. A disordered unit that suffers a disorder is withdrawn off the board. It may then recover – and return on its disordered side, with the possibility of full recovery – or be permanently eliminated.

I used the original activation chits, with the original optional Overall Command Capability rule. (I did not like the Corps level activation shits proposed with the latest rules, as it did not fit my reading of the battle.) Essentially, each division gets two activation chits in the Pool. But each turn, the total number of chits drawn from the Pool for that side which actually activate, is randomly determined. So, you get a good mix of chaos and uncertainty, and excellent solitaire playability.

I have played the first day through to a conclusion, but doubt I will try it again. It’s too bland. The combat system leaves me cold. The activation system makes it a good game – potentially – but I am looking for more than that. I wish I had the space and time to attempt the Regimental level River of Death. When the designer tells you it will take a couple of hours for each game turn, you know you are in for a long game!

I took a look at the Avalanche Press game on Chattanooga and Chickamauga. The division level of the game does not appeal to me, so that will have to wait for another time.

Having finished volume one of Dave Powell’s trilogy, I’ll probably take a break from Chickamauga (unless volume two turns up sooner than expected).

Update

After I posted this on Consimworld, I got some feedback confirming the combat system seemed to give less than acceptable results; basically, unless you get very unlucky with the chit draws, or are caught at a map edge, it is bloodless. In reality, this battle – and most ACW combat, was a bloody grind. I thought the West End game showed that well, though there is some suggestion that it is too easy for units to recover. Well, although I am moving off the battle now, I expect to return. And while I have run out of ready to play games on the battle, I have some mix and match ideas that I would like to try, time and resolve permitting.

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More Chickamauga

Early on the first day, Brannan's Division is set to clobber Pegram (top left), while Bragg gathers his forces for his assault (middle right).

Early on the first day, Brannan’s Division is set to clobber Pegram (middle left), while Bragg gathers his forces for his assault (middle right).

On the table is Chickamauga – about the September 1863 ACW battle of that name – a Jon Southard design, published by West End Games.

Hexes are 275 yards across, turns are 45 minutes, and units are mostly brigades. There are no artillery units, these having been taken account of in rendering the infantry unit strengths.

It is an “I go, you go” system with some command and control limitations popped on top. For example, to get units to move, they either have to be given a command, or have to be in contact. Commands costs CPs, and these are available by random die roll each turn, and a certain potential amount from planning done by the higher level leaders. The effect is to constrain what the players can do, with a certain amount of chaos.

The combat system uses hits – each unit can take 10 – to show the attritional effects. You need to judge when it is time to get units out of danger and allow them to recover. However, recovery takes time, and no unit can completely recover.

I prefer the combat system here to the detail of the Gamers’ Brigade Series, because it is easier to play, there is no bookkeeping, and it gives a realistic impression. The bookkeeping alone would not be a deal breaker, but the Brigade Series has stragglers and casualties, thus complicating matters more than I want. In this game, there is no ‘breaking’ of divisions or Corps Attack Stoppage. However, most players are going to look at a division accumulating too many hits, and do the right thing. OK, I did say ‘most.’

I like the idea behind the command and control system, however I would prefer it were less gamey. For example, in the planning part you can assign points to a future turn to a wing leader. However, you do not need to specify what the points are for. So, at the time of the plan you might be intending to order Division A. But come the time, you might want to give the order to Division B. On Consimworld, I think it was Steve Parker who hinted at a house rule restricting the use of planning points by specifying their use in advance. I have tried that and like it. It still has rough edges, but works OK.

One driver behind getting this and Barren Victory on the table was Dave Powell‘s book, The Chickamauga Campaign: A Mad Irregular Battle. (Highly recommended, but be aware it is only the first volume. I have ordered the second.) Reading the battle history, there are constant descriptions of units and leaders blundering about, not knowing where the enemy were exactly, and not that sure about their own forces, either. Flank attacks happened from chance sometimes. That is difficult to reproduce without adding another layer of complexity, like randomized movement. But I did wonder if a double blind umpired version, especially with a free setup at the start, might get close to it. (Yes, it would be hard work.) Another option might be to use the two map, double blind system from GDW.

I have played through the first day scenario once – a Confederate win – and am restarting because there are a couple of aspects I want to try a different approach with. The hit markers are a bit fiddly, but otherwise the game plays smoothly, and is good fun. The core system promised a bit, though it sadly died out.

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High level gaming

On the table is MMP‘s Battle Above the Clouds, the 8th game of the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War (GCACW) series. This one, designed by Ed Beach and Mike Belles, covers the Chickamauga campaign (August-September 1863) and the Chattanooga campaign (October-November 1863).
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I have some experience with the system, having played the first three or four fairly extensively, but at some point I stopped playing – but kept buying…

On previous forays into my game collection to select something to play, I have been put off this series by the new standard rulebook. More accurately, the ridiculously tiny font used, is a real barrier. Fortunately, somebody at Consimworld made a Word version, so I can read the rules much more easily. That alone has encouraged me to get the game on the table.

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However, that is only part of the story. The other driving force was this:

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I also have Mr Powell”s The Maps of Chickamauga. Both are wonderful resources. I plan on buying his other Chickamauga books.

So, meanwhile I am taking my time here; reading the rules, pushing some counters around, reading the history, trying to get familiar with the territory – the maps are gorgeous – and the situation, and generally enjoying myself. I love this hobby!

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