July 1863

Ahead of the 158th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, I have been indulging in the heady mix of gaming and reading that brings history to life.

On the games table:

This game, part of the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series, includes three campaigns:

  • Here Come the Rebels – 1862 Antietam Campaign
  • Roads to Gettysburg – 1863 Gettysburg Campaign
  • Rebels in the White House – Early’s 1864 Raid on Washington

Each has several basic game scenarios and one or more advanced game scenarios. I am playing the basic game of the 1863 set which runs from June 30 to July 3, allowing me to see the situation before the great battle and how it developed.

To help put everything into context, I have been reading this alongside my game playing:

It’s well written and quick thorough, but – so far – avoiding putting too much detail before the reader so as to blur the overall picture.

Although I am fairly well read about the battle, there are always fresh perspectives; there’s always something new to learn. In addition, it’s fun and educational to compare a serious historical narrative with how the situation is expressed in the game.

For example, in the real campaign, each side only had the roughest idea about the location of the main enemy forces. The battle happened almost by accident, starting as a small encounter that mushroomed. Because the game doesn’t give you that lack of knowledge, it has to use other techniques to try and recreate the situation. For now, let’s say that they work, and although the game that arises is enjoyable, there’s a sliver of a sensation that an umpired version of the game with full fog of war is what we need. Till then, gaming and reading are pretty damn good as they are.

Sixth Fleet

Just got this off my table.

I played through all the basic scenarios to get the rules sorted, then one of the intermediate scenarios.

The strategic air allocation is the most challenging part for the solo player, but that apart it’s a breeze.

It was fun. I’d forgotten how much fun.

And now the other Fleet Series games are calling to me.

Doomsday

This is part of the Operational System Series designed by Adam Starkweather and published by Compass. The particular game is about hypothetical Cold War going hot in the 1980s.

The game comes with three standard sized maps and one small add-on for Berlin, a mountain of play-aid cards, over a thousand 9/16″ glorious counters, as well as a rule book and scenario book.

There’s a lot to like here. Continue reading

Pocket on the Table

On the table, a meaty game called Jaws of Victory about the WW2 campaign around Korsun and Cherkassy in early 1944.

It’s designed by Milt Janosky and published by New England Simulations.

Here’s an overall view of the first scenario (on one of the two maps) dealing with the Soviet encirclement.

And here’s a closeup showing where the breakthrough is going to be attempted.

Those red counters are Soviet barrage concentrations. Nasty stuff.

The game features turns of a day, hexes that are two miles across, and units ranging from battalion sized to division. It’s “I go, you go” with some reaction allowed and the creation and utilization of reserves. Other points in no particular order:

  • Airpower uses a simple but effective system so it doesn’t take up disproportionate time. (OCS, I’m looking at you.)
  • Extensive use of artillery on attack and defense.
  • Supply uses points and depots, but is streamlined and easy – no magical tricks as to when to supply units. (OCS…)
  • Easy and evocative armor rules dealing with superiority and taking losses.
  • Stacking is not too bad – 3 units maximum – but there are exceptions and restrictions to learn.
  • Combat is odds based with chunky shifts for terrain, artillery and air support, combined arms, armor, and so on.
  • Most units take losses in steps, with different size and quality catered for by different classes (types) of step loss chit.

The physical components are good quality with only a few small, irritating counter errors. The rulebook and playbook are well done with ‘living’ versions maintained on the publisher’s website.

As usual, putting the game on the table has triggered a flurry of reading (and book buying) so I can have a good grasp of the historical context. Some of the source material quoted by the designer is hard to get or expensive, but there’s other material around that should at least provide the basics.

This is wargaming at its finest for me: a meaty, good-looking game that oozes history and makes me want to learn more. I could probably play nothing but this game for the next year, but of course I’m too much of a gaming butterfly to do that. While it’s on the table, though, I’ll enjoy every minute.

 

More Fields of Fire

Hogging the table for a good few weeks, Fields of Fire 2. It’s a solitaire game – second in the series – where you command a company of USA troops (in this case, from the 5th Marines) and work your way through campaigns consisting of several consecutive missions. There are campaigns for WW2, Korea, and Vietnam. (I have played the first in the series.)

I have been focusing on the WW2 campaign which is against the Japanese forces on Peleliu.

The missions are, in general, tough. (If it were too easy, that would be no fun and no achievement to win.) You constantly have to think about force conservation – which is a good thing – instead of simply satisfying the victory conditions for the current mission.

The game is very different from typical wargames: the map is a display of cards, troops need orders to do anything, and the different technical aspects of weapons are restricted to only a few categories, with a few more tweaks for vehicles. Troop quality is important. Your soldiers die all too easily, and green replacements often don’t last long. Grittily realistic is how I would describe it. It’s also engrossing, though sometimes frustrating as the system can kick you when you are down. But what do you do except try again.

The major strike against the game is the completeness of the rules. The second edition rules are an improvement, but still – apparently – managed to retain some errata. More important is that the rules are not comprehensive enough. There are too many situations that are not explicitly covered. And in some instances, as I found out thanks to some feedback on BoardGameGeek, essential information is hidden away in highlighted notes.

I should stress that the game is playable as it stands, but there are several events that may arise which are not covered and you have to use your own judgement. For example, in a couple of the Peleliu missions, the table that determines where enemy units appear in a certain row of the ‘map’ will never produce usable results. The table doesn’t take account of the fact that there is no other beyond which enemy units can be located. So, I had to make up my own table.

What makes the whole situation more annoying is that GMT appear to be ignoring any and all rules queries. They have stopped supporting the game. This is most unlike them.

I’m going to continue to play the game and use that old fashioned system of resolution known as ‘making it up’ as and when required. But I do hope that at some point GMT will return to the game system and give us the rulebook we need. And deserve.

UPDATE: In last week’s GMT news email, they announced a new development team for the game and a new module. It’s not been explicitly said that there will be an improved rulebook, but we can live in hope.

On the Table Catchup

After finishing off the first scenario of Brazen Chariots (it was a draw) I decided I wanted to play something else. I opted for Ukraine ’43 (first edition), a GMT game designed by Mark Simonitch. I played this against the designer back in 2015 and this was an opportunity to refresh the experience.

There are a lot of Soviet troops out there

The campaign is a puzzle for the Germans: how do you stop the Soviets who have overwhelming superiority and seemingly endless numbers of troops? While many gamers have a tendency to over think their play, this type of game requires it. If you put a unit one hex out of place, or fail to cover the area where the enemy breaks through, you will lose.

Somebody’s about to be encircled

One of the aspects that is worth highlighting is that the game provides a Victory Point level that has to be attained to avoid defeat. This translates into a measure of success – for both sides. It also encouraged me to play the short scenario, reset the game and try it all over again.

Good fun.

In the desert

On the table currently is Brazen Chariots, a game in Dean Essig‘s Battalion Combat Series (BCS) about the 1941 battles around Tobruk. I last played this at ConsimWorld 2019 but fairly recently a new version (2.0) of the rules was produced. I wanted to get up to speed with these as the next game in the BCS is about the battles for Budapest and I am keen to try that out.

The full campaign game is beyond me – I don’t have space for the three maps – but there are plenty of other manageable scenarios that I can make my way through. I’m going to start with the first and keep going until I get bored or otherwise redirected to another game.

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