War on the Sidelines

This week’s session saw something old and something new.

The old was Sheer repeating his impressive teaching of Great Western Trail to new players: Avri, Azriel, and Ken. The new was Peleg and I trying out Columbia Games’ Combat Patrol.

There’s danger on the trail

I watched the Great Western Trail game from the sidelines and was impressed at how quickly the three newcomers picked up the game mechanics. There were very few rule questions after Sheer had finished his explanation. That having been said, how many of them were playing the game well?

Azriel was struggling a bit with the variety of choices. Also, he misunderstood how the train track victory points (VP) worked, and suffered a 10 VP reduction. Ouch. The inevitable result was that he finished fourth.

Ken seemed quite happy, working away at his strategy. It just turned out not be a very good one… Ken’s best performance was in collecting hazards for VP, but he also had a loss (7 VP) from the train track. Ken finished third.

Sheer was the favorite to win given his playing experience with the game, but Avri performed an amazing feat of game analysis. He not only worked out how to play the game, but also how to crush everyone else at the board. His score was so high that it would have taken Sheer and Ken’s combined score to just beat him! Sheer may have been misdirected from his mission by trying to keep the other players – pardon the expression – on track, but it might also be that Avri found a crack in the design.

I previously thought that the game did a reasonable job of hiding the winner. Avri thought otherwise. He also thought that once a player got in to the lead, it was impossible to catch him – given competent play – and that the lead would grow and grow. His play suggested that was true. I suspect Sheer will want a rematch, and I would like to see that, preferably from the sidelines again, if only to test Avri’s theory.

Everyone did seem to enjoy the game, and in all the circumstances it is likely to end up back on the table again, even though I don’t like it.

Away from GWT, Peleg and I played Combat Patrol for the first time. This is a block game – your forces are hidden from the enemy – on tactical WW2 combat. We played the first scenario which is a beach landing by the American forces (Peleg) against the German defenders (me).

If only I could have seen things from this angle

The rules are not that complex, and although despite that I am sure we made a few mistakes, things seemed to go well. The game plays fast, and we fairly rattled through the seven turns.

At the start, the Americans were held up by the defenders. But once the Americans broke out of the beachhead, it was just a matter of time. Peleg drew well fro his company support units – at least a couple of tanks – and they were effective. My artillery managed to kill two German steps by friendly fire. Not my finest hour on the battlefield.

Lying in wait, but badly outnumbered

Eventually, the Americans had just about cleared the map and I conceded. Well played Peleg. This was fun, and although there were some wrinkles I was not completely happy with, a reread of the rulebook should be enough to sort things out.

Thanks to all who came to make the night so enjoyable.

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Go West

This week’s session was a genuine teaching session as I asked Sheer to teach Peleg and I how to play a new game – new to me and Peleg – Great Western Trail (GWT).

In many respects, GWT is another Terra Mystica: there are several ways to score victory points, there are lots of possible combinations of actions, the choices are difficult, and experienced players will much more readily discern the better route to take – in this game that is a literal route – and which options to exercise and when.

The theme is presented as cowboys driving cattle to Kansas. The cattle are cards and a small sub game in themselves: you start with a set of low value cattle, and you can buy more. You use cattle cards and draw from your pile. There are actions available to discard or remove cards from your deck, and you draw to fill your hand each time you go. So, there is a mini deckbuilding aspect.

Your token must make its way across the trail (route). There can be obstacles – some placed by your fellow players – and opportunities for you to build (settlements?) with action possibilities of their own. For example, a building might let you discard cards for money, or buy a person. There are three types of persons available: one helps you with your train (I will get back to that), one helps you buy cattle, and one helps you build buildings. The trail has some options as to tracks to take, and part of the game involves you trying to place your buldings on the part of the trail that best suits you and least suits your opponents.

Another stream of game activity is the objective cards. You start with one. You have to acquire certain tokens or build certain buildings to get the victroy points (VP) on the objective card. Some actions allow you to gain more objective cards. Most of the objective vards you acquire later come with a penalty in VP if you do not meet their requirements. Some even come with a one off special bonus – like being able to discard three cards – adding to the depth of that part of the game.

As well as your own token trying to get to Kansas – where you cash in your cattle cards for money – there is a train track where you move your own train counter. One action available is to move your train counter along the train track, separately from your cattle journey. Each time you get to Kansas you can place a token alongside the train track up to the point where your train is, or pay a difference. The tokens you play come from your own player board, each of which unlocks more actions and powers.

In summary, a whole lot going on.

In summary, I didn’t greatly enjoy it.

Why?

The theme didn’t work for me, and it seemed like too much hard work.  Too abstract. Too bland. Too bad. That having been said, the game does a good job of hiding the scores until the end, and that’s both unusual and welcome. And as I said to Sheer and Peleg, I would play it again if they wanted to play it, and maybe I would like it more the next time. I do admire the design skill and effort that went into this game.

If you like Terra Mystica and its ilk, this game is for you. It’s not bad to look at, though the icons are not as good as they should be. Thankfully, they are not as bad as Race for the Galaxy, and I may be being over critical since everyone else had no issue with them. It looks as if it will have lots of replay value given the many permutations and different, er, trails to victory.

Thanks to Sheer for the lesson, and Peleg for joining in.

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In the Field of Fire

I recently finished an extended session of Ben Hull‘s excellent solitaire game Fields of Fire. The game puts you in charge of a company of soldiers in one of three different campaigns: WW2, Korea, or Vitenam. You can play one-off scenarios in each of these wars, or a campaign. The campaigns give you the challenge of not only dealing with today’s battle, but managing for the next one: replacing casualties, rotating troops for rest and recovery, building up experience, and so on.

I restarted the WW2 campaign from the beginning because of the release of the second edition – updated rulebook and some components – and thoroughly enjoyed it. Also, by dint of much more preparation, thought, and care, I was able to get through the first four scenarios with wins and my company of soldiers in good order.

The solitaire engine in this game is a good one, so there’s a real sense of satisfaction in the progress made. I am, however, itching to play other games, so this campaign will be temporarily suspended as I move on. I did spot that there is a Vassal (game support) module for this, allowing you to play it on the PC. I am off to investigate that.

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Mystical Lessons

This week’s session allowed Avri and Sheer to teach me Terra Mystica. Yes, I have played it before. But Avri and Sheer have played it much more often, have truly applied themselves to learning the key techniques required for success, and are both fastidious in their planning and execution. I have a laissez-faire attitude to game play most of the time. OK, I can be lazy. So, in the face of their superior game play, I am never going to be successful if I don’t focus and make the effort. This time around, I was so out of my depth I resolved to watch and try and learn so I would be better equipped for the next play of this intricate game.

Early on action

Sheer chose the race that gave him double bonuses from his temple builds. I chose the race that gave me one free build per turn. Avri chose another race, but I am damned if I can remember what its special power was…

Avri and I tried to establish cities early on. Sheer waited until the final turn to do that, when extra bonuses were available.

Avri and Sheer made full use of the turn by turn bonuses, whereas I didn’t.

As expected, Avri and Sheer were way ahead of me when we got to the final rounds. At that point, with me certainly no threat to either, they started to give me good advice. (Too late, guys!) Avri was the clear leader from about half way, getting points – or so it seemed – from everything he did. Sheer was concentrating on the long term investment he was making with his cultists. With the very last victory point calculation, Sheer went into first place for the first time and won by a measly two points. (I think both had scored 150+ so to say it was a narrow in would be an understatement.

Entertaining and educational.

Thanks to Avri and Sheer for the lesson. Watch out you two: next time we play this, I might even score half as many points as you…8)

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Wintergewitter

Recently, Ran and I played the ASL scenario Wintergewitter. It is set in December 1942 with the Russians defending a village, and having at start six squads, two half squads, two leaders, a medium machine gun, two light machine guns, and an anti-tank rifle. On game turn two, three T34-76 tanks arrive. The Germans have three squads, one half squad, two (good) leaders, a medium machine gun, and two light machine guns. But they also have four armored half-tracks and five tanks: two Panzer IV F2s, two Panzer III Js, and one Panzer IIIh.

The Russians win if, at the end of the scenario, within the village limits, they have a good order unit or a tank with its main gun still working. I was the Russians, and Ran was the Germans.

Many ASL games turn on the effectiveness of the setup. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes my setup is OK, and sometimes it is plain wrong. I have not yet mastered the art of analyzing the terrain and the situation the way experienced players can. This time, I got it wrong by trying to defend the whole village. This allowed Ran’s force to apply pressure at each point, and pick off the defenders one at a time. That was crucial. However, that wasn’t the end of the story.

So, the Germans come on and start eliminating the infantry defenders in the village. Ran uses vehicle by-pass sleaze – a very gamey but popular tactic – to freeze the defenders. One tank does this right into the hex with my anti-tank rifle. The anti-tank rifle breaks. Another infantry unit and half squad takes a low firepower shot at a hidden stack of mine. The next thing I know, my medium machine gun is out of action. Oh dear.

Ran sends his two good tanks to either side of the village, to go hull down in the wadi terrain there. That sets them up as tough targets for my tanks when they come on.

How not to set up the Russian defense in Wintergewitter

Ran slowly grinds down the defenders. My three tanks come on and swarm one German tank on the flank. One Russian tank is killed in the exchange, but I get the German defending tank and the road to the village is open.

Ran continues his grind. My two remaining tanks advance on the village, and Ran tries to bring back his other defending tank. Its main gun malfunctions and breaks and off it goes, home.

Next up, I lose one tank to a well positioned defender. My last tank must now get in to the village. Ran swarms it with his mixed bag of remaining tanks, and manages to immobilize it. Game over.

Thanks to Ran for his patience while I tried to work out – in vain – a solution to the rapidly declining fortunes of the Russian defenders.

On the dice and fate front, Ran’s sole experience was that tank gun breaking. I had the anti-tank rifle break, and also several blown sniper shots. Ran did not get a single sniper shot. I had two squads go berserk. This guaranteed their elimination as they charged into the teeth of the awesome German firepower. Heat of Battle? More like Time of Death.

I understand this is a popular tournament scenario, and can see why. It can be quite fast, and is tricky on both sides. Certainly, with a better Russian setup, it would have been more of a challenge for Ran. I still enjoyed it. ASL remains the stellar wargaming experience.

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Holland ’44

Newly arrived, this is Mark Simonitch’s game about the Market-Garden Campaign in WW2. It uses 8 hour turns with units of battalion (and company) size. There are two sheets of counters, one main map and a small extension. Based on a quick flick through of the rulebook, it seems to be about the same complexity level as his previous games Ardennes ’44 and France’40. To me, that makes them about 4 or 5 on a rising complexity scale of 1-10.

It joins the ‘to be played’ queue.

Two points of note.

First, the campaign didn’t take place in Holland. Mark confesses this in the rules, but is comfortable that marketing won out over accuracy in this case. For what it’s worth, I don’t agree, and I dare say if I was from Holland – a part of the Netherlands – I might be more vocal in my opposition.

Second, this is one of the most gamed about topics of the era. So, it will be interesting to see what fresh perspectives Mark brings to bear. I was delighted to see he quoted John Butterfield’s Hells Highway as a landmark design which Mark looked to as a sort of benchmark. Hell’s Highway is one of my all time favorites. I do wish, though, somebody had taken the HH system and rolled it out for other WW2 actions.

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Cards on the table

The forecasted bad weather didn’t prevent Azriel, Susan and me having a Dominion session. We started with Dominion: Prosperity.

Susan hadn’t tried this set before, and I had limited experience. (That’s my excuse, and I am sticking to it!) Azriel, however, knows the cards intimately, and he leveraged that advantage into a significant win.

With Susan retiring early, Azriel and I continued the Dominion theme by adding in Dominion: Dark Ages. I showed Azriel how not to play the game, while Azriel showed me how to play some key combinations. He won.

For the hat trick, I allowed Azriel to beat me at Hero Realms!

It’s amazing how the time flies when you are gaming. A sure sign of the right type of fun. Thanks Azriel.

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Struggling for Power

This week’s session allowed Avri to introduce Azriel, Peleg, Sheer, and me to Power Struggle, a cynical worker placement game with some interesting twists. The theme is corporate advancement. You are trying to be the first player to get to four victory points. You get VPs by excelling in certain areas – for example, shares held, influence, corruption (told you it was cynical) and so on – and you achieve this by maneuvering your workers into positions of power in the various company departments or the board of directors.

There’s corruption because each divisional head (and the chairman of the board) has a unique power they can use. In your turn, one possible action is to offer a bribe to the holder of that power. The person offering the bribe gets a corruption point. If it’s accepted, the power changes hands and the person taking the bribe is also corrupted. If the bribe is not accepted, the person offering the bribe exacts retribution by firing one of the other person’s workers. Brutal.

Managers and workers hard at, er, play?

The game round has a unique flavour. Each round, the head of communications is dealt a batch of cards including the mandatory Bonus card (payout to all players) and Board Meeting card (end of the round with a board meeting). The head of communications can order the cards as he wishes. And, he can therefore set the length of the round – after a minimum of four cards – and hopefully profit from the knowledge of what is coming up when.

Most cards adjust the company’s reputation (standing?) and that affects bonus powers. Bonus powers are what you get when you bribe the basic power away from the original holder, allowing enhanced hiring, firing, bonuses, and share purchases.

Finally, each player has a secret nemesis (it can be yourself!) and secret goals. If you beat your nemesis in three specified categories, that is one VP – 25% of what is needed for a win. There is only a winner; no second prizes. Oh, and if your nemesis is yourself, I think you get the extra VP for being ahead of everybody in two categories.

As to our play, first we had Avri explain the rules as only he knew it. There’s a lot to take in, but we managed and were off and scheming after half an hour. Of course, we made mistakes. I managed to screw myself by allowing the play of a card that affected the divisional head and not, as I thought, the holder of the relevant special power. I made tons of mistakes, but as usual was more interested in seeing the game play than working out how to win. For sure, it’s a bit of a puzzle.

Everything looked rosy from the boardroom

Avri, being experienced in the game, did fine. Sheer, as usual, went for the kill mercilessly, although he did try and pretend he was struggling by asking some questions! Azriel and Peleg played along, though I am not sure either of them was doing any better than me, at least at the beginning. In the later rounds, Peleg and Azriel raced away from me, though Sheer and Avri were clearly further ahead. A well timed board coup by Sheer was the killer blow, and so he won.

It’s interesting to compare this to Caylus. Power Struggle is less complex, but still has a lot going on. That may be one reason I preferred it, though I would not go as far as to say I liked the game. Another reason I found it better than Caylus may be that the Power Struggle theme fits better. You can almost see the plotting going on. Ultimately, it’s a question of personal taste.

One thing  I was less keen on, was the luck element. (Avri disagrees there is luck.) This is a meaty game – not overly long – and there seemed too much luck to me. For example, the length of the round is dependent on one player’s selection. So, a strategy that needs more turns than are played gets burned. Further, the cards turned face over at the start of each round can affect the efficiency of your chosen action. Again, you have no control over this. And I don’t think it’s enough to say you can reduce the lack of knowledge by acquiring the post of head of communications, because that only works for one player. In addition, the bribe mechanism leaves you at the mercy of other players’ choices. The amount of the bribe given may be too high or too low, thus giving an advantage to one player or another, with no way of you legitimately influencing that decision.

So, in short, while I enjoyed playing the game, and I like it better than Caylus, it’s not going to be one of my favorites.

I will try and write up my thoughts about the whole scenario of euros, complexity, luck, and personal enjoyment.

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Why, why, why?

Avri, Azriel, Sheer, and I played Caylus in this week’s regular gaming session. This is an old, but venerated game. (Avri calls the two player version ‘better than chess’ so he is clearly a fan.) It uses worker placement and a combination of different resources and converters (stuff that uses the resources to generate better resources, victory points, and so on) to give you a game where there are a lot of choices, but never enough time. And those pesky things called opponents keep getting in the way.

I had played the game a long, long time ago, and I wasn’t that taken with it. But Avri’s enthusiasm appealed to Azriel and Sheer, and I was willing to go along for the ride.

Avri’s explanation of the rules was good, as attested to by the fact we had very few questions during the game, and got just about everything right. Of course, the one thing I didn’t get right was my strategy, but no surprise there.

Avri’s familiarity with the game inevitably led to him winning. But Azriel’s ferocious building program gave him a wee fright, and Sheer came even closer by dint of his usual powerful analysis. Unsurprisingly, having made all the wrong choices, I was in last place. And I still didn’t like the game.

So, why don’t I like the game? That’s for another post.

Meantime, note that I still enjoyed the night. It gives me pleasure seeing gamers having a good time.

 

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First Cristot

Ran and I played the ASL scenario First Cristot, a June 1944 encounter between the British and the Germans. I was the German player, and Ran the British.

The British infantry start at one end of the board – eight squads, two leaders, a hero, three LMGs, and a PIAT – and have to break through the German line to climb the hilly terrain at the other end of the board to claim victory. The Germans have two SS squads, three SS half squads, a couple of leaders, a medium machine-gun, a panzerschreck, and a 50mm anti-tank gun.

Both sides have tanks. The British tanks – four Shermans and a Firefly – have advanced too far ahead of their infantry and are sitting close to where the infantry have to reach. The German tanks – two Panthers – enter on the first turn to face up to the British tanks.

The scenario – played in wet weather conditions – has one quirky rule: the British player has to choose in each turn if he will move his tanks or his infantry. Since his infantry need to get across the baord, they should get most of the movement opportunities, leaving the British tanks as sitting ducks. That simply means the British tanks have to set up well, and Ran managed it in his typically skillful way.

The scenario began with a weather roll that worsened the rain. That didn’t really affect the outcome. If it had changed by having the rain stopped, that would have hevaily favored the attacker since they could then use their smoke capability to mask their advances.

Unfortunately for me, Ran’s twin pronged approach breached my thin line on one side of the board. Led by his PIAT toting hero, he had soon cleared enough room so that the victory area was in sight.

Worse, one of my tanks had its gun malfunction. Things went from bad to worse. The Firefly killed the gun capable tank, then the other gun broke completely and it had to be recalled.

By then, the British forces were well on top and I conceded.

The next day, after checking, Ran was a gentleman and told me that his overachieving hero should have died. (It was wounded and wounded again.) That did have a major impact in cracking my defense open, but given the dreadful state of the tanks’ performance, I doubt it would have made a difference.

The posted results of the scenario favor the Germans, but I think we agreed the setup challenge for the Germans is a hard one.

As usual, I learned a lot from the game. If only I could remember it…

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