Archive for the 'Game playing' Category

Time Out at Waterloo: a W1815 session report

W1815 – the components (plus dice shaker and tray!)

As a way of relaxing from game design, I decided to play my newly acquired W1815, using Jim McNaughton’s solo rules, 7th Coalition Bot for Solo Games. In this version, the solo player is Napoleon and all the allied turns are handled by the bot.

  • For the events in the game I’ll use this notation: Action followed by dice roll with any mods followed by effects.

The set-up

Napoleon (me!) believes there’s only a few thousand weak Anglo-allied troops in front of us, so we shall sweep them away with no trouble!

I decide on the conventional artillery bombardment to soften up the enemy line. It’s how the master started the battle, so who am I to argue? With no French infantry or cavalry attacking, Wellington’s lads will just have to take it – the allies actions are to put Prussians on the field.

  • Grand Battery 3 1AM
  • Blücher 3 1PD
  • Grand Battery 4 1AM
  • Blücher 1+1 1NE
  • Grand Battery 4 1AM
  • Blücher 3+1 1PD
  • Grand Battery 5 1AC
  • Blücher 3+2 1PD

It seems the ground has dried out pretty well, as the Grand Battery does better than average. Over 4 turns allied morale is down from 10 to 7, and Orange’s Corps has taken a loss. I guess Perponcher’s Dutch-Belgians took a bit of a pasting at Quatre Bras and couldn’t take any more. The Prussians have marched 3 divisions onto the battlefield over this time, so there is a threat to Plancenoit, but we should see off this ragtag army before they can interfere. Besides, Grouchy will surely be along shortly.

I figure it is now time to force Hill’s corps into square and then exploit Kellerman’s cuirassier counter-attack (+1 to the roll) when Hill inevitably re-deploys into line…

  • Kellerman 6 Ney

…but Ney has misinterpreted the order and launched all the cavalry! This is a tad premature even for le brave des braves! C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.

I didn’t mean ALL the cavalry!

  • Blücher 4+3 1FM 1PD

The Prussians are getting pesky, but I cannot react while the French cavalry are doing their stuff.

  • KL-NEY 4 1AM 1FC
  • Blücher 6+4 plancenoit captured

That fellow Blücher is a thorn in the side. Plancenoit has fallen, and still the cuirassier ride at the British squares.

Plancenoit has fallen!

  • KL-NEY 4-1 1AM 1FM 1FC 1FM (Kellerman’s Corps gone)

Kellerman’s cavalry corps lost

  • Blücher 5+4 1FC 1FM

Kellerman’s corps is used up and French morale is down to 6. The only plus is that our casualties are relatively low.

  • KL-NEY 4-2 1AM rally

Mon Dieu, the cavalry has rallied and there’s still some left! Also, the allied line looks shaken. Hill has to reform his line, but we have none of Kellerman’s cavalry to exploit. Time for d’Erlon to redeem himself from his abject failure to engage at Ligny!

The cavalry rallies!

  • Hill forms line
  • D’Erlon 5 2AC 1FC

A very rash cavalry charge!

  • Uxbridge 1 2AC 1FC
  • Rout test FR 1 BR 1 All OK

C’est bon! 1st Corps has delivered a splendid attack, and together with our artillery we have crushed the impetuous British Guard cavalry. Both armies look fragile, but as we go into the afternoon, the French have more esprit.

START OF AFTERNOON TURN

The major problem is the Prussians in Plancenoit. Should I deal with that threat first? I think not. It is time to risk all and trust my veteran Guards! I shall lead them myself! We’ll hit the Prince of Orange’s Corps, right where the artillery and d’Erlon’s attack fell earlier. It’s about 3 o’clock, and it could all be over by 4.

  • Napoleon: Guard v Orange 2 or 4; take the 4; 1AC 1AM 1FM

Les Grognards!

  • Rout test BR 3+1=4 > allied morale 3 so FR win.

The Old Guard went through the left of Orange’s Corps like a knife through butter. Despite the enemy’s unexpected remaining numbers, their morale collapsed, and we are victorious. On to Brussels!

Pursuit: 41 for the French. 9 for the Allies.

What can we learn from this?

The model portrays the fine balance of the battle. Either side could have collapsed during the British cavalry charge. And the final rout test could have gone either way reflecting the actual and potential performance of the French Guard. I would have preferred a 2AC result there, because that would have portrayed more clearly a collapse of the Anglo-allied I Corps by removing its last division.

The broad plan of this play of the battle follows what I see as Napoleon’s tactics against an army whose size and quality he underestimated. Reille’s Corps was to pin the allied right and attempt to take Hougoumont. Meanwhile, the massed artillery were to demoralise the allied centre and then d’Erlon’s I Corps (best in size and quality except for the Guard) supported with cavalry would attack and rout the remainder, forcing them from the field and enabling a strong pursuit to Brussels and beyond. Lobau and the Guard stay in reserve for the unexpected.

When the Prussians start to appear, the plan cannot fundamentally change, because Napoleon needs a victory. Therefore, I threw in the Guard, but noticeably earlier than the historical battle, which worked for 3 reasons: (i) the French cavalry had caused more loss of allied morale than historically, and (ii) didn’t spend all the cavalry, and (iii) d’Erlon’s attack was much more effective than the real one.

The solo mode makes it easier than a human opponent. Wellington is not so flexible! No reserves were used. These are critical parts of the allied battle management.

I like the “Ney’s cavalry charge” mechanism. It means you cannot calculate everything, and reflects the command and communications problem of the real thing. Knowing the historical outcome, no player would choose to do it, but here you may have to.

The cards show the potential variability of outcome in specific tactical options. I think they can form a good starting point for discussions about the reality of tactical options and their results. For example, Uxbridge’s counter-attack automatically doubles the adverse effects on d’Erlon, but can vary between destruction of the British cavalry or destruction of the whole Grand Battery.

I think the game can help to address the question: did Napoleon underestimate the size of the Anglo-allied army? His deployment and plan give the French a very good chance of a major victory against a significantly smaller army, even with a Prussian threat. The plan, which includes a long wait for the ground to dry out, and quite a long time for the artillery to pound away, is very risky against a large army and a skilled opponent. Especially when it becomes clear early in the battle that Grouchy is in the wrong place.

Back to game design tomorrow!

Hell on Wheels 2: Frome Big Game for May 2019

Our Frome Big Game for May 2019 was a second version of the Mission Command: Normandy game we ran at Salute – All Hell (on Wheels) Broke Out. It was set in the area south of St Lo on 27 July 1944 during Operation Cobra, the American breakout
from Normandy. The scenario is mostly historical, but simplified for ease of play. The US aim for this stage of Operation Cobra was to break through the German positions south-west and south of St Lo, then strike to Coutances and the coast, thereby cutting off the majority of the German 7th Army and opening the way to Brittany. The German aim was to prevent the breakthrough, and later, to escape the encirclement. In the previous 2 days in the area of the front for the scenario, US 30th Infantry Division had cleared the way for the armoured advance, and the CCA of 2d Armored Division (Hell on Wheels) had broken through due south to Canisy. Now, CCB must create an angle of advance to the south-west and the roads to Cérences and the coast. The scenario starts in the morning of 27 July with leading units of US 2d Armored Division’s CCB advancing from Canisy.

The purpose of the scenario was to set the American players the problem of co-ordinating their forces quickly against a much smaller German force. Historically, CCB more-or-less brushed aside the mixed force of Panzer Lehr that the Germans pushed desperately at them here, then motored forward encountering little resistance for the rest of the day. For our purposes, we modelled the Advance Guard of CCB/2d Armored Division, consisting of a couple of tank companies, supported by 2 companies of armored infantry, 1 of tank destroyers, plus some reconnaissance and self-propelled artillery. It also had fighter-bomber support from P-47 Thunderbolts. To make a game of it, we boosted the Germans a little from their historical forces and gave them a day to dig in – so, only simple entrenchments and a small number of alternative positions. The Americans win if they can exit 3 companies (including 1 of tanks) off the German end of the table within 12 turns (2 hours of game time). This is effectively a 4 kilometre+ advance through the last German resistance and then off into open country.

For the Salute game, the Germans had a few tank obstacles, which had the effect of funnelling the American vehicles. This led to a bottleneck that enabled the Germans to focus their defence. With masterful play from Richard, one of our best MC:N players, the Americans failed to complete their conversion of the breakthrough to a quick exploitation. Holding up CCB would have meant that other components of 2d and 3d US Armored Divisions would have had more work to do. However, the purpose of the Salute demonstration game was to show off the MC:N system and that worked very well.

At Frome, we removed the rather unhistorical tank obstacles, widened the table a bit and modified both sides forces slightly. The Americans gained the rest of the tank battalion – as 2d Armored Div was a ‘heavy’ version, this consisted of a company of Stuarts – and the rest of the Field Artillery Regiment. The Germans gained a StuGIII element.

We had 6 American players, 2 German and myself as umpire. A few players had played at Salute, so knew the scenario. In fact, Richard switched sides to become the American C-in-C, while Lloyd flipped from American to German.

AmericanSetup2

American setup

North is at the top of the board for simplicity! The Americans took note of the cramped nature of their development in the previous game, so their setup involved an infantry and tank company (in MC:N, ‘joint activation’) in the south, a second such grouping in the north, with recce supplied across the full length of the stream, with the Stuarts concentrated also in the north. A second echelon was to be provided by the tank destroyers and various assets of HQ units.

Artillery firepower was concentrated in a regimental force, for smoke (initially) and then for pounding various targets. Though it didn’t cause many casualties during the day, this was because the Germans were not forced to defend in static positions – and the artillery fire did make them move once they had been discovered.

The American recce was extremely unlucky. The Germans had put troops well forward, including their tanks, so some recce were hit as they crossed the stream. Unfortunately, each separate recce group managed to fail their morale tests, so they were largely thrown back and unable to report on the situation till the follow-up troops had already crossed. In fact, this joint infantry and tank group in the north should really have been delayed, owing to lack of the recce information, but it was hit almost immediately by flanking tank fire, so it started to lose Shermans. Therefore, it launched its attack despite the recce failure.

Standing orders from the American players for these experienced troops was always to have significant elements in overwatch to respond to fire. This worked very well and the Germans quickly lost most of their tanks in forward positions… leaving some StuGs as their sole remaining armour component.

Note the knocked out armoured car element in the stream above. In the distance is a knocked out Panzer IV element that had been giving flank fire onto the Shermans, defiladed from attack by the southern group. It was destroyed by the northern group’s overwatching units.

The northern companies ran into entrenched panzerfausts in a patch of brush. Although they inflicted losses, the Germans were relatively quickly overwhelmed. The yellow cubes are suppression markers. Note the empty entrenchment marker next to the panzerfaust element – an HMG element has just legged it, as it could do very little against the armour. The tank destroyer second echelon is just crossing the stream.

DSC_0220

Southern companies advance by bounds

The southern companies advanced swiftly and by bounds against little opposition. The German tanks in the way were fixed on the northern advance and were dealt with by them, leaving the southern units with a relatively clear route.

In the picture above, the 2 leading Sherman elements (representing half a company) have taken up a position on the ridge – they will go into overwatch so the other elements of the companies can pass through to the village just out of shot to the south. Note the mortar elements at the back ready to give support by smoke or HE.

PoundingLeSault

Pounding Le Sault

This is one of my own iPhone pictures to show an overview of the early part of the American advance. Note the good spacing of the tanks in the bottom right of the shot, contrasting with the necessarily bunched up vehicles near the road. If the Germans had had medium artillery, this bunching would have been a problem for the Americans.

The StuG towards the top of the picture has engaged the Shermans with opportunity fire. IIRC, return fire was inhibited, because of the shoulder of the woods. Hence, the importance of supporting artillery and air power – Thunderbolts were used to try to shift the Germans. Although the aircraft didn’t do much damage, they were a concern for the Germans, as it proved difficult to impossible for them to hold their positions. Without time to dig in properly, the Germans were to find it a very hard day.

The village of Le Sault above was being pounded by US artillery. Meanwhile the leading infantry of the southern group was hit by mortar fire – red cube is a casualty, yellows are suppressions. This was a well coordinated advance. If there *had* been opposition here, the Americans were well prepared.

DSC_0232

Another advantage the Americans had was the ever-present Piper Cub spotter plane for the artillery. It was used primarily to continue to report the whereabouts of the StuGs, which therefore had to keep moving (largely back) to avoid reprisals from aircraft or artillery. Under MC:N rules, the spotter plane can stay in the air for 6 turns, so this was half of the game. It would have been vulnerable to antiaircraft fire, but in this scenario the Germans only had MGs and preferred to remain concealed. 2cm auto-cannons would have probably discouraged this brazen Piper Cub.

DSC_0236

Taking the center

Part of the northern group of companies flooded over the raised ground in the centre, accepting some light casualties, primarily from mortar fire. Personally, I would have been a little more circumspect, but fortunately the Germans were unable to respond with an artillery strike (they had only 1 battery of Wespe, and limited ammunition).

DSC_0237

The final ridge

The final ridge contained the main concentrated German infantry force – a single coherent element (in MC:N, this type has integrated MG and panzerfaust – this unit also has a command function).  An attempt to overrun it with half-tracks failed. It might have been better to have simply shot it to bits, but as speed was of the essence, I think an overrun attempt wasn’t a terrible idea. Note that it has now been suppressed thoroughly; each suppression is -1 on its chance to hit. As it is surrounded, it’s likely to surrender (in MC:N, if an element is forced to retire or retreat with no clear route, and enemy is within 5cm (100 metres), then it surrenders).

DSC_0242

Smoke at the enemy position

This smoke (above) was used to prevent the StuGs from engaging the Americans in the centre. It’s good practice to put the smoke close to the enemy position, to minimise their field of fire.

FinalAdvance

Final position

By the end of the game, the American infantry and tank companies in the south had exited to the left (west), to continue the exploitation with no resistance ahead of them. They were quickly joined by the tank destroyer company to confirm the American victory. Only mopping up remains to be done, while the StuGs will pull back north and west to try to fight another day. Note the empty abandoned entrenchments over the battlefield.

The last action of the game was a massive bombardment of the woods to the bottom left of the picture. As luck would have it, this was the exact position of the German kampfgruppe. They managed to flee with only light casualties; it could have been much worse.

For a more historical version of this game, keep the Americans as indicated, but remove the German’s StuG element, give them no alternative positions and no proper tank positions. It’s important then to focus very much on American command control. We now prefer to separate the C-in-Cs from the tabletop, so they have rely on subordinates to tell them what’s going on.

Pictures: mainly from Neil Ford’s excellent work.

It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

What wargamers know – 2

WW2: It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

This one has been debunked across the internet, so why do I include it? Well, it still forms a backdrop to many wargamers appreciation of the Normandy battle and later in the war, encapsulated in the overall statement “German tanks were superior to Allied tanks”.

However, other similar comparisons in WW2 should lead to questioning of this whole approach. For me, a good counter-example is the comparatively poor quality of German tanks in the early part of the war, particularly in 1940 but also extending to mid-1941. We don’t ask the question, for example, “How many Panzer IIs do you need to kill a Char B1?”

It’s something of a truism that the Germans had relatively inferior tanks, in both quality and quantity, to the French in the early war and it was their use of radio, their combined arms doctrine, high level of training and leadership that helped the Germans to win the 1940 campaign. So, a more useful approach to these tank versus tank questions is to take a look at how the tanks were used in combat.

Interesting questions to look at include:

  • Deployment – tanks were not deployed singly, but sometimes in squadrons/platoons of 3 to 5, or more usually in companies of a dozen to just over 20.  In fact, most armoured doctrines specified “mass”, which meant division-sized formations at least. This means you’ll very rarely find a combat between x Shermans and a single Tiger, whatever Brad Pitt might make you think.
  • Training – Fighting successfully in tanks was very difficult. Fighting in a Tiger tank was extremely difficult – just starting the engine and moving it required a very high level of expertise and care, because of its engineering complexity. Shermans were technically easier and more reliable. For a good example of the importance of training, see accounts of the Battle of Arracourt (September 1944), when the highly effective US 4th Armoured Division met relatively untrained 111th and 113th Panzer Brigades (Shermans v Panthers).
  • Leadership
  • Methods of fighting – by which I mean both formal doctrine and actual practice. Shermans very rarely met Tigers, but then again “every tank was a Tiger”, so there was a massive perception problem (probably caused by early German successes such as Villers-Bocage). What was the Allied reaction to encountering German tanks, and how did they cope?

I’m hopeful that some of our wargaming encounters in Mission Command can help with a useful perspective on these types of question.

Uncombined arms

Dateline: 1 Feb 2018. A Mission Command scenario to test a strong infantry attack against a (weak?) combined defence.

The scene was an area 75cm x 100cm, so quite small, merely 1.5km x 2km. The scenario was designed to take 2 – 3 hours with 1-2 German players versus 1-2 British players. In this game Pete was Brits, I was Germans.

terrain

British attacking from the north (bottom of pic). Mission: push in the German outpost in and around the village, so that the area can be used to assemble troops for a major attack on the main German position to the SW – the large slope in the top right leads to the main German position. The stream is fordable along its entire length, the orange patch is a small hill, and the woods are open to the south, but dense on a rocky outcropping to the north. There’s a sizeable patch of bocage before we reach the village.

It’s a couple of hours before dusk, and the Divisional commander wants this outpost cleared before nightfall. The Brits have an infantry battalion and (off-table) a couple of batteries of 25 pounders. British recce suggests the Germans have only a company, but probably with some limited supports, possibly including AFVs.

fire in the bocage.JPG

Fire in the bocage!

Rather inaccurate British artillery opened the engagement to cover the advance of the troops. It was quickly corrected by Forward Observation Officers and was moved forward to the crest over a couple of turns.

B_company.JPG

B Company advanced – rightmost 7 elements, with C Company to the left. Each of the 4 companies had 2x integrated (rifle+LMG) elements, a command element with jeep, plus light supports of PIAT, LMG and 2″ mortar. 2 companies have an additional PIAT element attached from Support Company. 3″ mortars are giving support with the artillery from off-map. 2″ mortars of each company are dishing out limited smoke.

D_company.JPG

D Company advanced on the other side of the stream. Half out of shot is a Sherman with the FOO for the off-map battery of Sextons.

advance.JPG

The full battalion en avant! Note the 6 pounders from Support Company deployed in the centre.

unfortunateAT.JPG

On turn 3 German artillery picked on the 6 pounder position, having been easily spotted by Germans on the crest of the bocage ridge before the smoke and barrage intervened. It took a while for the transmission of orders to the battery of Wespes off table, and it was to an extent a lucky shot (1/3 chance of being on target using predicted fire). 1 6 pounder model destroyed, the other moved away.

B_company_continues_advancing.JPG

B Company (nearest) continued its advance protecting the left flank of C Company attacking directly into the bocage, C level with A Company on the right. Things were very murky in the bocage at this point, because the barrage reduced visibility by one state – partially obscuring terrain becomes obscuring, so it was very hard for the attackers to see what was in front.

However, the 3″ mortar fire in front of B Company wasn’t enough to prevent Germans not in the bocage from seeing them coming.

overrun1.jpg

A dug in StuG Zug used opportunity fire on the lead element of B Company, then overran it. Surprised, having taken a few casualties and with only relatively distant PIATs immediately available to deal with the assault guns, B Company reeled back, many of their riflemen being captured.

You can also see at the top of the picture that C Company were taking fire from panzergrenadiers around the ridge line in the bocage. The Germans were suffering greatly from the artillery, so the effect of their fire was keeping British heads down rather than causing casualties.

overrun_aftermath.JPG

The aftermath of the overrun was that the British left wing had gone. The remaining 6 pounders – still limbered up from the earlier move away from the Wespe fire – was hastily unlimbered, but (shoot then move!) the StuGs had the initiative and quickly shot them up. The StuG’s orders did not include a lone Zug attacking a battalion, so they disappeared back to their secondary position out of sight.bocage_cleared.JPG

Meanwhile A and C Companies’ fire and the supporting indirect fire had driven the German defenders out of the bocage with considerable losses. D Company were established on the undefended ridge on the far side of the stream, ready to push on towards the village from the north west.

This was the situation after 90 minutes of play and game time (the objective for Mission Command is that real time and game time should be about the same). With the StuGs somewhere around the ridges at the bottom of this picture, further Germans undoubtedly not yet discovered directly defending the village, and only 30 minutes of daylight left, it would be a tall order for the British to clear the village before nightfall. Unfortunately we had run out of time – our Thursday sessions are only 2 hours at the moment. I would have liked to have run the remaining bits, but real life can get in the way!

The purpose of this brief scenario was to investigate the difficulty of attacking a combined arms force without armoured support in the late war period. Although this was not a scientific approach and was only one game, I think it is an example of how a few AFVs in a defensive position can strengthen a numerically weakly held position, if the attackers have no armoured support themselves.

With only towed AT guns, rather than armoured tank destroyers or tanks, it’s difficult to co-ordinate against a potential limited counter-attack, while maintaining a decent pace to the attack. With 20-20 hindsight it might have been better for the British to deploy as follows:

  1. Set up the 6 pounders as 2 batteries, 1 on each flank, in overwatch, so they could deal with any armoured forays from the village, from either ridge or the bocage, then move them up to the slopes on each side when captured.
  2. Put PIATs and LMGs on overwatch during the advance, moving forward by bounds, rather than continuously. Then, if there’s a counter-attack or indeed German op fire, the British have an immediate response.

Having said that, it’s still difficult to co-ordinate, because the movement forward of the AT guns will require time, and that’s very limited in this scenario. The British have enough artillery and mortars to suppress the German infantry and thereby support their own infantry onto the position and through to the village. But the German armour changes the nature of the engagement completely. It’s no longer a classic fire and movement situation, but contains a more complex set of problems coordinating anti-tank weapons against armour as well.

Many thanks to Pete P for accepting the short straw of being the attacker!

 

Conference of Wargamers 2013: MySummary

The Conference of Wargamers is a group of about 100 wargamers of long standing (for which read ‘oldies’) that get together at Knuston Hall in Northamptonshire for a long weekend every year to play experimental, innovative and above all enjoyable wargames developed by the participants. For how it all started in the mists of time, see the Wargame Developments website, or alternatively just buy John Curry a drink.

This year’s gathering (5 to 7 July 2013) started with a plenary ice-breaker session run by Mike Young about the oldest war: Homo Sapiens vs Neanderthals. This involved much running around and ‘ughing’; there were two mechanics: the lower browed brethren were permitted to communicate only via grunts, whereas the intellectual side had full language. Combat did not involve clubbing each other to death – though optional inflatable clubs were carried by some. Simple numerical comparison at the point of combat drives back the inferior side. The Homo Sapiens had to kill off the Neanderthal babies by crossing off a space on plastic sheets placed around the site, while the grunters had to use their superior numbers to beat off the sapient raiders. So a simple genocide game really. Good fun on a warm (!) July eve, followed by beer and chewing the cud with folks I’d not met since my last attendance here in 2010.

I managed to sneak into Graham Evans’ talk on the Xian Terracotta Warriors. He gave a very informative and fun presentation on his recent trip to China, focusing on an in-depth review of his visit to the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor. Some very good photos brought the thing to life (as it were).

Saturday also dawned fine and began with the excellent Knuston Hall breakfast – good enough to last beyond lunch, except that in their fine tradition our hosts also provided mid-morning coffee and biscuits and a hearty lunch too. Good food and plenty of it is part of the CoW experience.

My first session was with Graham Evans again – and once again in China, but now at the time of the Taiping Rebellion. We fought a Brits v Chinese battle of 1860, using his EDNA (Ever Decreasing Numerical Allowance) based rules. They fitted the period very well, despite the contrasting fortunes of myself and Mike – in a game with dice, such vagaries are bound to happen. Though the Brits duly won the battle (EDNA d12s for true Brits, d10s for Indians, versus the Chinese d6s and Manchus d8s), there were parliamentary questions about the losses. The movement system was based on squared off terrain, which caused the odd difficulty with diagonals, resolved easily with goodwill on all sides, but I suspect might cause rather more difficult with pernickety rules lawyer types.

After lunch I played Sue Laflin-Barker’s Gentlemen Go By game, largely because it seemed rather too hot to play the War of Freedonian Succession outside, and there seemed an imbalance of players. As it happened, we managed 4 smugglers and 2 Revenue players. As a player of many Eurogame board games, this had a definite Eurogame collect-and-deliver feel, though played with minis. It worked OK, but I suspect more development and balancing is required. This type of game is a tough call.

In the evening was the first of my own two offerings: Carrier Strike! I’d run an earlier version at CoW 2010, which, though rather hand-to-mouth, had gone down quite well (thank you particularly to John Salt and Alex Kleanthous for comments back then). This new version was more fully developed with actual written down rules and even some 1/3000 scale figures. Many thanks to Chris Ager, John Armatys and Bob Plumb for being willing victims. After an explanation somewhat coloured by [state=after-dinner] the players got stuck into combat. The intro scenario is effectively ‘first blood’ on the enemy carrier. Chris and John as Blue managed to sneak a recce patrol through the inexperienced Japanese (sorry, Red) fighter screen, to spot the location of the enemy CV group. They launched a full-scale attack with 2x strike and 1x escort squadrons, which forced a hurried re-arming from Bob. He was in time to intercept with 3 CAP squadrons, which forced the escorts and one strike squadron to break off. The final strike aircraft pushed on regardless, braving heavy flak as well as CAP – 3 aircraft made it through and in a careless disregard of death smacked a bomb on one of the carriers. Although the yanks lost a few more aircraft than the japs, they’d managed to snatch a minor victory by damaging the enemy carriers while maintaining their own intact. More importantly, feedback on the current design was very positive – I look forward to measured critique in the Nugget!

Sunday morning I ran Mission Command, requiring a double-slot. Those brave enough for a complicated WW2 game early on the final day were John Salt and Rob Doel, and thanks too to Phil Barker for stalwart ‘observer status’ in the first half. It was a lively session with many a divergent conversation into the art of code names, artillery doctrine, and even French philosophy (particular thanks to John!); I learned much in many unexpected (and some expected) directions. From my point of view at least, the game worked, which was a relief, as I’m always afraid of a bomb in such august (or at least July) company. John has even volunteered to supply more info and sources on national artillery doctrines, which should be very helpful. I’ll be writing up a description of the game itself later on. Suffice it to say that the players’ party (British paras) dealt with the Hun pretty well, even though one company got caught in a kill zone.

The final session was John Curry’s entertaining Random Tales from the History of Wargaming Project, always fun with some of the ‘historical’ characters in the room!

Thanks also to all those who purchased the bring-and-buy material I brought along. I went away with nothing left.

Systems Thinking Through Playing Strategy Games

The title of this blog post is also the title of a two-day workshop at the School of Transformative Leadership, the Palacky University, Olomouc, that I delivered recently, ably aided and abetted by Gary Hampson and Charlie Paull. A major reason for doing this workshop was that Charlie and I could continue on from the Essen games fair to Olomouc in the Czech Republic. ‘Essen’ (as it is known to the gaming cognoscenti) is the largest game playing and selling festival in the world – the ‘Spiel’ (Internationale Spieltage) is an annual 4-day gamefest involving around 150,000 people, and Charlie and I trek out there every year under our Surprised Stare Games hats. This year, Spiel ’12, was a great show for us, as we sold out of our new board game Snowdonia.

A second major reason was that it combined two great interests of mine – systems thinking and playing games. The systems thinking derives from a healthy dose of Open University courses that Charlie and I pursued over 20 years ago. We’ve been using these techniques in our working lives since then, and they’ve strongly influenced my game design habits too.

And a third major reason was that I was invited to do it by Gary, a gaming friend who had fairly recently obtained a research post at the University in Olomouc, so it was an opportunity to catch up. Coincidentally we were also able to celebrate Gary’s birthday the day after the workshop before we had to endure the 1,000 mile drive back to the motherland.

Fortunately it was OK to deliver the workshop in English, as I know no Czech. We had 23 participants from a wide variety of courses, ranging from Philosophy, Education and Film to Chemistry. The workshop was an ‘elective’ one, so to a great extent the students attended by choice, having a number of such ‘extra curricula’ workshops to select from. The workshop was run under the auspices of the School of Transformative Leadership is part of an EU funded project, the University 4 The Future, an innovative new model of how to set up and run a university.

Setting up

Our focus for the workshop was on the learners learning about systems thinking. We intended to introduce how to play and think about the games through systems thinking techniques and vice versa

We alternated between playing the games and covering the theory illustrated by the games. We started by having plenary sessions for the theory, but found that getting responses from the whole group was difficult, as individuals were reluctant to speak. Therefore we switched to individual and group tasks, followed by discussions in which we could ask individuals to respond for the group. This worked very well.

Essential systems thinking concepts that we covered were:

  • Holism
  • Interconnectedness and relationships
  • Perspective
  • Purpose
  • Boundary
  • Emergent properties
  • Closed mechanical systems vs open living systems

And we introduced the following techniques:

  • Systems maps
  • Sign-graph diagrams
  • Control model diagrams
  • Very basic process model diagram
  • Systems model diagrams
  • Rich pictures

Game components

Characteristics of illustrative games in this workshop we wanted were:

  • To include strategic elements – preferably with easily discernible different strategies
  • Accessible (easy to teach and to learn)
  • Attractive
  • Easily identifiable systems and sub-systems
  • Available
  • Manageable or predictable length of play
  • Specific illustrative characteristics relevant to systems thinking

We decided on using the following games:

Kingdom Builder – this is very easy to teach in large groups, has got predictable play length if you pick the cards and boards, and it’s readily available. It has easily discernible sub-systems and elements of both strategic and tactical play. Additionally I was able to get 6 copies from Queen Games at Essen Spiel ’12 for a small discount, owing to our educational use (thanks to Queen Games for that).

Fzzzt! – also quite easy to teach and predictable play length with strategic and tactical play. We were able to use SSG copies for this, brought over as surplus from Essen.

Seven Wonders – more difficult to teach, as it has a significant learning curve for non-gamers, and requires single game teaching really. However, it can take up to 7 players and is highly engaging with strategic and tactical features; it’s not too difficult to play once you’ve grasped the basics. It looks very complex, though this can be deceptive, so good for teaching ideas of complexity without being too daunting.

Ticket To Ride: We had thought that Ticket To Ride would be another candidate, but in the end we were less confident of the play length, particularly as we had numerous expansions, rather than base copies, which meant that teaching across groups would have been more difficult. In the end we used it as a ‘final play’ game, rather than a particular teaching aid.

Snowdonia – used as one of our complex games, primarily because we’d been teaching it a lot at Essen, as it was our 2012 SSG release.

Hamburgum – the other complex game, a favourite of Gary’s, this one went down very well.

Sequence of Play

The structure of each day was 4 sessions: 09:00 start, break at around 11:00, 11:20 to 12:30/13:00; then lunch, then two afternoon sessions with a break at around 15:00. We were flexible about timing of breaks, so that we could get to coherent start and end points. This was really helped by having in-room refreshments – coffee, tea, juice, biscuits – and excellent support from the venue; we were in the Ibis Olomouc.

Day one

At the start of day one, we introduced ourselves, the concept of a strategy game, and what we meant by systems thinking. Then we went straight into Kingdom Builder.

Playing the game: Kingdom Builder

Our teaching method for the games was for me to address the whole class, with Gary and Charlie answering questions, checking groups and firefighting. The exposition had to be very slow and careful to ensure each group was up to speed at each stage of the explanation. As English was their second (and in one case third!) language, for both game concepts and systems concepts, we had to keep the terminology simple, and also repeat concepts with different words, and get some response from our audience to know we were succeeding. This was difficult in the first morning until we got used to it. We needed to sound them out and work out what level of language complexity was possible.

Playing Kingdom Builder

After playing Kingdom Builder we launched into some basic systems concepts: systems components (systems maps); boundaries; holism; relationships; emergent properties; closed mechanical systems versus open living systems; the games as a sub-system and containing sub-systems. We drew up a collective systems map of playing Kingdom Builder as an illustration of all the concepts. Trying to get them to think outside the game box (to think of systems outside the game) was difficult, until Charlie prompted with some examples. We covered a lot of ground, including an extensive explanation of emergent properties, including examples with regards strategies as emergent properties of games. We were then able to build on this idea; to develop or change strategies during game play, is an example of both game playing and wider application. We also started on control models, in particular the feedback control model.

Playing the game: Fzzzt!

Our afternoon session was Fzzzt!, a very successful card game that we had published three years before. Using this as an example, we were able to illustrate the ‘rich get richer’ phenomenon (positive feedback loops) and contrast with negative feedback loops. We decided it was easier to engage them with individual A4 systems maps of the Fzzzt! session, than to have a plenary discussion. This was a good ‘hands on’ starter.

One of our main techniques, and it worked very well, was to draw up diagrams using the games as examples, and post these around the room. By the end of the workshop most of the available wall space was papered with diagrams, about half of them produced by the students.

Day two

For day 2 we revised our plan taking into account our day 1 experiences. First we littered the walls with all our diagrams from day 1, including the systems map for Kingdom Builder, a generic systems map, systems definition, control models, communications model, emergent properties, positive feedback and Story So Far. Our intention for day 2 was to focus on activities to engage them, followed by discussion and feedback, as a handle for the explanation of the points we wanted them to grasp. The central things we wanted to cover in day 2 were: complexity (difficult versus messy problems) and how to use systems thinking to address it. Techniques: rich pictures, generic systems model mapping, plus the basics of soft systems methodology to pull it all together. Finally we would get them to play their choice of game at the end.

We could have translated this as: “we’re going to throw you in at the deep end, and then give you some techniques to cope with this”!

Playing the game: Complex games

After a recap of what we’d completed on day 1, we asked our students to form a line by their perceived level of confidence in playing the games. This took only a few minutes, and it worked very well – it had a major positive impact on the rest of the day. We were then able to pick off the most confident 5 students to be taught to play Hamburgum (the most demanding game) with Gary, the least confident 7 to be taught Seven Wonders (the easiest game) by Alan, and the remainder to be taught Snowdonia by Charlie. This session was interesting, because we had variable abilities and variable game lengths. Hamburgum looked to be the longest game, but we found that it was within 10 to 15 minutes of Snowdonia length. We fitted two Seven Wonders games into the slot.

Playing Hamburgum

The purpose of this session was to introduce more complex and challenging games. Quite properly some players found this difficult, which is the experience we were looking for. More confident players helped them through, and this enabled more group bonding, which was good for the next session.

We now introduced ‘messy’ problems and contrasted them with ‘difficulties’, using game examples and those from real life, including environmental and wider planning problems, and personal situations regarding further study and employment. This was important, because we wanted to relate the systems thinking increasingly to their own circumstances.

We retained them in their gaming groups (combining the Snowdonia players into one group) and set them the task of drawing a rich picture of their experiences in the previous session and the wider workshop. Charlie had drawn up an example of a rich picture the previous evening, so we were able to demonstrate the technique to an extent. The example was of day one and stressing the non-material elements.

This part of the day needed a lot of individual hand-holding, prompting and thinking time. It proved to be very important to give each group the space and time to get to grips with the task. We covered the games tables with 4 or 6 large Post-It flip chart pages and gave them coloured markers and pens to use. We gave them about 40 minutes to do this exercise – and there was much scratching of heads. With individual guidance we triggered the initial ‘marks on the paper’, and by the last 15 minutes almost all were actively participating and some very creative and insightful pieces of work were added.

Ideally, we would have had more coloured pencils or even crayons for this. Never give them yellow felt-tips – the marks don’t show up!

Once we felt they had achieved enough, we rotated the groups and asked them to review each others rich pictures for 5 minutes (done twice, so each group looked at all of them). Then we called for questions and some discussion ensued. The best method we found for stimulating discussion was to ask for an individual representing a group to explain how the rich picture emerged – individuals were less inhibited in responding when talking on behalf of their group, rather than for themselves.

Rich Picture

We rounded off the session by explaining how to draw out themes from the rich pictures that would help to address problem areas systemically.

We put all the rich pictures on the wall. On each one there were elements representing initial confusion followed by (eventual) ‘happy faces’ and understanding. This was very significant illustration of their journey (shown on the Snowdonia one as a train journey).

A generic systems model

In this session I explained the generic systems model and how to map other proto-systems to it. The explanation was taken slowly stage by stage, with reference to real world and game system examples at each stage.

The final exercise was for each individual to do an A4 sized map of the system “A system for understanding systems thinking through playing and discussing strategy games” using the generic systems model as a template. We nursed some of them through this, while others found it plain sailing. This exercise needed more careful explanation as some students did not understand that they were to use the generic model and started their own fresh diagram or used a different system more directly to do with the game. However, the central purpose was to get them to think systemically, which was achieved.

Victory conditions

In the final session we gave a brief overview of the soft systems methodology (a lot of which they had now been through), using a hand-drawn diagram on an overhead. A number of the students found this very useful, as it gave a real world way of using systems thinking for specific purposes.

Reflecting on this, it might have been better to present this overview earlier, because we do want to show the efficacy, purpose or point of the approach earlier in the day.

Soft Systems Methodology

We finished off the day with playing their choice of games from those already played, or learning Ticket To Ride as an alternative. We had very good feedback from students, an example being: “Nice combination of theoretical things and practical playing. Teachers were very friendly and they knew what they were talking about. Thumb [sic] up for this course!”

Krisis in Kharkov: Megablitz, 9 June 2012

Megablitz megagame

As Jim Wallman said after the event “I say megagame because it fulfills the criteria – “teams of players with a hierachy of teams”. ” Krisis at Kharkov was by no means my first megagame (though the first in a loooong while), but it was my first experience of Tim Gow’s Megablitz wargame system – I’m pretty sure Tim would hate me calling it that, as it’s also been described as ‘kriegspiel with a few rules thrown in’! This blog post doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story, most of which I remain blissfully ignorant of. It’s a few disparate notes and pix of my own perspective.

As one of quite a few Megablitz virgins at this large game (nearly 20 attendees), my highly experienced CO (Martin Rapier) gave me the Rumanian 2 Mountain Infantry division to play with. This unit was described loosely as a ‘weak Rumanian division’, in comparison with yer average Rumanian division, which is necessarily ‘weak’. So double ‘weak’ then. At least expectations were lowered! Then the Russians deployed – something of a confirmation of low expectations.

Russian Steamroller

Russian Steamroller

At the front

I think that’s most of SW Front’s 28th Army on the left. Needless to say the 2 Mtn Div was shortly an ex-Division, and Martin re-deployed me briefly to the Rumanian Division to the right.

Megablitz is an operational level game in which each stand is a battalion or equivalent. With such a large scale it’s possible to do very large games – in Krisis at Kharkov we had 3 Soviet Armies versus two German Army Corps, one of which was a Panzer Corps. With Tim pushing the game on superbly, and all the players providing the right spirit and approach, we were able to complete 3 days of play (turns are 2 hours of game time long) between about 10:45 and 15:30, with 45 minutes for an excellent lunch (thanks to Keira). Players, especially senior commanders, are encouraged to ‘think big’, and each side duly obliged with sweeping breakthrough and encircling manoeuvres. As I was not directly involved in these, I simply applauded from afar and focused on my PBI.

My last action as the Rumanian commander was to report back to Corps HQ that the Russians were pouring through the gap on my left and racing forward towards the river line in our rear. This was completely in accord with the German plan for victory, which relied on luring the Russians towards Kharkov and into our trap. Of course as a Rumanian commander, I had absolute faith that the destruction of the Rumanian army would lead to a glorious victory for the Axis powers.

Day Two – the German sector

A switch to the German 11 Infantry Division showed the difference between the two Axis units. While Rumanian battalions were lucky to stretch to 2 Strength Points (SP) and had mostly 1s, the Germans had 3s! SPs represent combat capability – they give the number of dice rolled and are lost when hits occur. Combat happens mainly when stands are in physical contact, at which point you add up the SPs of the bunch of stands in contact plus its supporting artillery, tanks and so on. You give this number of d6 dice to your opponent to roll. The dice are rolled in a shielded combat box, so that you don’t know the details of the damage done to the opposing forces. Do this for the defending units too. Then cross-reference the stance of your troops with the stance of the enemy on a simple look-up table to arrive at a chance to hit for each die. A typical Attack versus Static (immobile defence) combat will yield each side a 5 or 6 to hit. When a unit reaches 0SP, it’s still in being, but cannot attack, and if it takes a further hit, it’s removed from play.

Combat Boxes and 10km rule

Combat Boxes and 10km rule

Fortunately for us in 11 Div and 19 Div, we were dug in, which allows infantry battalions to absorb the first hit. I say fortunately, because the Russian supporting artillery alone was adding about 12 dice to the point of main effort! In this game artillery was the big killer of infantry. The Soviet attacking infantry was not so lucky, and most of 28 Army infantry was written down by persistent pinning attacks on the German lines. All, I’m sure, in accord with Stalin’s grand design!

Most Of The Artillery Survived

Most Of The Artillery Survived

Day Three – Victory?

At dawn Army Command asked me to withdraw a division from the line to move or attack towards the left of our current position, in order to secure supply lines to the Panzer Korps, one division of which would be attacking from the north to link up with us. Tricky, given the number of Russian stands in front of us, but since we knew that most of the Russian battalions had already been hammered, we  reckoned they were too weak to break through our largely undamaged 19 Division. A re-shuffling of 11 Div to the left ensued, and I was able to commit about 6 battalions to a hasty defence of an unoccupied settlement and part of the original Rumanian trench line on the right hand side of the table I’d occupied at the start of the game. These troops were committed piecemeal, but the biggest difficulty was the Soviet Tank Corps to the rear of the new position. Their tanks arrived before ours, and while I like to think that a small pocket of Germans held out in the church till the panzers arrived, I fear that in reality the tanks were too late. Most of this portion of 11 Div was destroyed, but I’m sure the panzers linked up on day four.

11 Div End Game

11 Div End Game. You can just see the grey of the church tower top left-middle. The brown strip is a German minefield on the road. All the vehicles are Soviet!

19 Division’s position was intact. We had at least maintained the one remaining bridge over the river as a German supply line. With one Panzer Div returning to link up with 11 Div, the German position was secure, and the Russians doomed (at least that’s what they told me after the war was over!).

19 Div End Game

19 Div End Game

Thanks: Tim for running the game, Tom for the venue (DCC, Shrivenham) and the excellent tour afterwards, Keira for lunch, and all the players for a fun day, particularly to the experienced players who were happy to fill in us newbies with the technical details.

Operation Io – 10 July 1944

Operation Io is my title for our WW2 miniatures wargame played on 2 June 2012 at Abbey Wood Irregulars in Frome. It used 15mm models and our new Mission Command ruleset.

Dramatis Personae

Pete Connew and myself as umpires. 2 German players (Jerry and John) and 3 British players (James, Matt and Michael). Generous thanks to all participants, and also to Ken Natt, who’s Operation Jupiter Battlefront scenario was used as the basis of our offering.

Scenario: Operation Jupiter is the name of Monty’s latest attempt to break out of the Normandy bridgehead. Caen has fallen a month after D-Day – not exactly as planned – and the British are held up by German occupation of Hill 112, a relatively small but important piece of higher ground overlooking the British positions towards the beaches. An attempt to take it has already failed at the end of June, but now a bigger push is planned. Our little satellite game takes place just to the east of Hill 112, with the 5th Dorsets supporting the main attack by pushing through Les Duanes and Chateau de Fontaine to the Eterville Road.

Pete and I had planned this game as a relatively small one, so that players could learn the now re-written rules, and so we could take into account desertions caused by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The game set the British the simple task of pushing up the 6’x4′ table without worrying about flanks, and the Germans the simple task of stopping them. Game length was set at 12 turns, to end with the British in theory formed up on the Eterville Road for phase 2.

Forces

Forces were not quite historically accurate, but fairly close. The Brits had 5 Dorset – a pretty much standard British Infantry Battalion, plus B Squadron, 9th Royal Tank Regiment in Churchill VI tanks, plus 3 regiments of 25 pounders, representing most of 43 Wessex Division’s divisional artillery – we gave them 112 regiment for ‘free usage’, with the other two regiments performing a rolling barrage during turns 1 to 6. The Germans had 2 companies of Panzergrenadiers from 22 Panzergrenadier Regiment (ostensibly SS, but Wehrmacht in our representation), with most of a panzergrenadier heavy company in support, together with a battery of Hummels and one of Wespes. Unfortunately for the British we *did* include a Heavy Tank company as a reinforcement.

Briefing

Starting at about 09:30 on the day, we had an extensive briefing on the rules, the table and the forces. Then both teams ran through their plans and marked up positions on their sketch maps. We were pushing troops around by 11:15. I was grateful for the extensive time for briefings, because I wanted both teams to be comfortable with the new action sequence we were introducing. Players carry out actions by company, selecting two actions for each element in the active company and completing that company before moving on to the next. We found that this gave a good game flow, with choices of how to sequence the elements in each company that were important tactically. With the limitation of only two actions, a single element cannot move, shoot and communicate (for example provide reports or receive orders) all at once, which introduces realistic delays in the transmission of changes of plan. This is particularly important when trying to co-ordinate artillery strikes – the British had a few near blue-on-blue situations with 25 pdr shots falling short, and the Germans managed to finish off one of their own shattered companies with a misplaced strike. So, some realism and fog of war there.

The game was intended to last 12 turns, representing the time between 05:00 and 07:00. By the end the British were supposed to have a couple of companies ready on the Eterville Road start line, or alternatively the Germans were to have stopped them short.

South East to Chateau de Fontaine

South East to Chateau de Fontaine, D Coy in foreground. Les Duanes burns middle left.

Action overview

The battle started with a rolling barrage from two British 25 pdr regiments of Divisional Artillery – this was pre-plotted for turns 1 to 6, and we gave the British some flexibility about where to put it. They decided to steam-roller the Horseshoe Wood (no doubt influenced by reports that it was an important German position), so the HE and smoke barrage rolled across it and back, then forward again to good effect. The 112th Regiment of artillery was available for pre-planned or on call strikes. The British used it to stomp Les Duanes into the ground – and the farm was fairly quickly demolished (our rules for structural damage proving easily up to the task).

The British plan of attack called for D Coy plus AT guns to advance on the right (west of Les Duanes) to the ridge and hold at that point. This was intended to command the open ground beyond. Meanwhile A and C Coys, supported on the left by B Coy, from the rear by HQ and with direct support in the line from Churchills, were to advance on a broad front to the east of Les Duanes, the right-most Coy ear-marked to prod any remaining Germans in the farm. These Coys would then exploit through Chateau de Fontaine to the road beyond. As B Coy moved up to extend the battalion line, the eastern attack turned into a three company frontage advance with Churchills supporting immediately to the east of the farm.

D Coy Advances

D Coy Advances

D Company’s advance is easily narrated. Unknown to the British, who neglected immediate battlefield reconnaissance, the Germans had deployed the whole of 5th Panzergrenadier company dug in on the forward edge of the ridgeline (despite umpire recommendations to go for a defence of the reverse slope in some depth). In addition there was a minefield immediately to the west of Les Duanes, fortuitously avoided by the advancing infantry. When the small amount of covering smoke cleared, the Germans had a clear view of the advancing infantry and of the limbered 6 pdr battery (too close, too close!). The latter were quickly put out of action and the infantry very roughly handled. An HMG and mortar skilfully positioned behind the minefield gave the Germans some cross-fire, and the remains of the company pulled back to their start line and took no further part in the proceedings.

Remains of the D

Remains of the D

The main British attack ran into half of the other Panzergrenadier company (6th), also deployed and dug in on the forward edge of the ridge. Supporting elements were back in the Horseshoe Wood, about to suffer under the barrage. However, the British infantry had the Churchills and mortars in support. A Coy was quickly engaged by the main German trench line and suffered significant losses. B Coy on the right advanced carefully into the ruins of Les Duanes, supported by the tanks, thereby outflanking the German trench line. The Panzergrenadiers opted to bug out and retired back into the woods, expecting the artillery barrage to continue southwards. However, it was programmed to roll back north, and it duly did so, breaking the company. In accordance with their own plan, German artillery struck Horseshoe Wood as the British advanced into it, but the shells fell short, catching the survivors of the broken company and narrowly missing 22 Battalion’s HQ. The immediate result of the main attack was that the German defenders were lost, but one British company had taken very significant casualties, and another had suffered a little.

Occupying Les Duanes and the Ridge

Occupying Les Duanes and the Ridge

Significantly at this stage, just as the British barrage fell silent, the German artillery had the range of the British line at Horseshoe Wood – the British never located the German FOs, deployed at each end of the ridge. Seeking to maintain this position and use it as a springboard for further advance, C Coy stayed there under fire, when perhaps pulling back would have been a safer option. 112 Artillery regiment, having been shelling Chateau de Fontaine successfully, was switched to counter-battery action and effectively silenced the Wespe battery.

The Churchills now ranged forward to and beyond Chateau de Fontaine, leaving B Coy to advance along the road into Chateau de Fontaine, supported on their left by the remains of A and C Coys. It looked as if the British, despite heavy losses, might win the day.

Not so. We’d given the Germans a chance to gain the help of a company of 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion. These tanks had refueled in double-quick time and took up blocking positions on the bocage on the Eterville Road due south of the Chateau de Fontaine. They revealed their position by shooting up a reconnoitering Bren carrier, but the Churchills were already too far forward to pull back easily. Smoke became their friend, and realistically, they would have withdrawn at this point. Instead the commander decided to have a go at the Tigers, and demonstrated how ineffective the 75mm/L40 gun is against their frontal armour. It didn’t help that one of the Tigers moved round the flank of the Churchills’ position, so rather than the Churchills getting the Tigers in the flank, it was the other way round.

Churchills Meet Tigers

Churchills Meet Tigers

As the Tigers were deploying to stop the Churchills, 5th Kompanie moved back towards Chateau de Fontaine. This movement coincided with the advance of B Coy, the two units separated by the hedges of the main road. The Germans were quickest to react and successfully engaged the head of B Coy, which broke and fell back towards Les Duanes.

Denouement

The 5th Ko Panzergrenadier counterattack and the stop line of the Tigers were decisive. All British companies had been damaged or written down, and only a single Churchill element survived the encounter with the Tigers – an unfair fight in any event. However, as 22 Panzergrenadier had suffered the loss of two companies (the heavy weapons of 8 Ko having largely been lost to 25 pdr fire), it was unlikely that the Germans could retake the ridge line, even if anxious British calls for SP antitank guns were being made to Brigade at 07:00.

The British attack this day had failed, but the Germans had suffered irreplaceable losses of manpower. The result was roughly in line with the historical results of the overall attack in the area of Hill 112, though the British had pushed on to the next village before the Tigers hit them – we took a bit of historical licence to introduce the Tigers early.

Critique

It’s interesting to note what might have happened if either side had fought the battle in accordance with expected doctrine, versus the actual actions of their opponent.

The expected British attack mode would have been a ‘two up and two back’ approach following in on the barrage, with Churchills supporting and the two rear companies ready to exploit through the other two. Deploying and operating in this fashion to the east of Les Duanes would have caught the forward German deployment in the barrage, at least suppressing it. Bearing in mind that this German company (6th) bugged out even without the barrage, I would strongly argue that it would have been destroyed quickly (as happened historically to the forward German outposts in the historical battle). Pounding Les Duanes was a good idea in any event, as this unhinges the German line. The British would then have been unopposed except for artillery fire on the way to Chateau de Fontaine, as 5 Ko was out of position beyond the farm. A British company as a right flank block for this advance would have prevented any further intervention from 5 Ko, and it’s not impossible to believe that the Churchills, with perhaps some Bren carrier borne infantry might have made it to the Eterville Road start line before the arrival of the Tigers. Interestingly it was their own barrage playing back and forth over Horseshoe Wood for several turns that held up the British. With a more conventional approach, their advance should have been more swift.

The expected German defence was a reverse slope defence in depth centred on strong points, particularly at Les Duanes, Horseshoe Wood and Chateau de Fontaine. Digging in within the buildings would have given them more protection from artillery fire, though troops in Les Duanes would probably have been doomed. In this circumstance the main fight would have been at Chateau de Fontaine, more defensible than elsewhere, while carefully positioned hidden elements behind the ridge or hedge lines could have given some cross-fire from flanks and rear to slow down the British. The Churchills would have found it much more difficult to range forward, because the German Panzerschreck teams could have been used – the Panzerschrecks were unable to engage the Churchills in the game. Unfortunately the efficiency of the Tigers, the surprise attack of 5 Ko on B Coy and the great width of the British attack meant that the weaknesses of the German defences could not be explored.

Thanks to all the players for a very enjoyable day, and a good exercise for our rules.

Essence of a wargame – V

…part V and the concluding part of a two-part series…

For the others in this series, see: Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV.

In this series I’ve been attempting to examine qualitative excellence under these headings:

  • Convincing portrayal of topic
  • Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context
  • Excellent fit of mechanics to topic
  • Appropriate level of challenge

This post draws some vague and unscientific conclusions from what’s gone before.

Excellence may be purely comparative; perhaps an ‘excellent’ game has to be outstanding or extremely good merely in comparison with other offerings. This may mean that an ‘excellent’ game under one paradigm might be only ‘good’ under another. For example, what do we think of La Grande Armee, a traditional hex-and-counter SPI game with an unmounted, minimalist board and very little chrome, compared with a new extravaganza like The Eagle and The Lion? Perhaps BoardGameGeek might supply a little help here, as it does have ratings for board games, so we can get an idea of what BGGers at least think of board wargames past and present.

A quick and dirty review of the top 100 wargames on BGG by rating gives the following frequency results by 5 year date bands (these dates being publication dates):

  • Before 1980:  5
  • 1980 – 84:  9
  • 1985 – 89:  6
  • 1990 – 94:  6
  • 1995 – 99:  4
  • 2000-04: 15
  • 2005-10: 55

As expected perhaps, the majority of the games listed were published in the last five years, but it’s noticeable that 20% are over 20 years old and 5% are even older. There are fewer from the 1990s than the 1980s, reflecting the demise of SPI and Avalon Hill presumably. Both Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader figure high up in the list, as does Britannia, even though these could be considered as more ‘old style traditional’ than exhibiting more recent design features. So we can perhaps conclude that ‘older paradigm’ wargames can stand the test of time.

I’ll now try to review the 4 headings I dreamt up, by looking across each of my three examples for any threads that seem relevant.

Convincing portrayal of topic

I think that the essence of this aspect is covered by the level of detail of the game, the quality and effectiveness of the chrome used, how the game is placed in its context, and the games’s historical or thematic authenticity. All these elements must gel together to convince the players that the topic is covered well. I don’t mean that the game has to have a lot of detail, or over-developed colourful pieces, excessive background or extraordinary adherence to historical reality. The design should cover all of these elements at an appropriate degree for the aim of the design. This will be different for a tactical game versus a strategic game, a short game versus a ‘monster’ game.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

Players should feel that they are making relevant and believable decisions within realistic restrictions. There is a game design problem here, in that there will sometimes have to be a compromise between historicity and competitive game play; for example World War I and II games tend not to reflect accurately the vast allied resource superiority, nor the political intricacies and personality clashes of the personnel involved. Most wargames are two player zero sum games, so there tend to be monolithic, single points of command (one player) and the advantages of the bird’s eye view (total or near total knowledge).  However, the game should present players with appropriate strategic or tactical decision-making points.

Victory in the game doesn’t have to equate to historical victory, and departure from the historical approach can be appropriate in the interests of game play; on the other hand, I recall the Kasserine Pass scenario in Desert Steel, which imposes historical deployments and historical victory conditions on both sides, making it extraordinarily difficult for the Germans to win (even though they did historically, which looks like a very against-the-odds result) – an important lesson perhaps that sometimes you’re given a task well beyond your means, and soldiers often have to just get on with it – and can sometimes succeed against all expectations. Finally the actions of the players should write a believable historical or thematic story.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

Here I think the game has to encourage, not just enable, appropriate game play within period or theme. It must also simulate one or more aspects of the topic extremely well or provide exemplary flavour or both. The game play should have an appropriate tempo for the type of game and its theme. The mechanics should succeed in presenting relevant and appropriate effects during the story, for example by punishing a-historic action, rather than laying down the law, or through other subtle constraint on the players, for example through sequence of play (see Unhappy King Charles for some good examples of this practice). In some cases, games have to use proxies for some of the variables, a typical example being the use of dice for fog of war or chance in combat. For a game to achieve excellence, proxies must have been carefully chosen, so that they do not introduce unwelcome side effects. For example the cards used in Commands and Colors are a proxie for various command control issues; however, they can have the side effect of randomly crippling one side, because there is no way to remedy bad card draws.

Appropriate level of challenge

For excellence a board wargame needs to be a competitive game with a significant element of skill. How the luck to skill balance is handled is very much a matter of approach and style. I would rateNapoleon’s Triumph – no luck – very highly, but also games like Paths of Glory, where there is an element of luck in the order in which cards are drawn and also dice-based Combat Results Table. My preference is for more skill and less luck, but the balance depends on topic. For more complex games with a steep or long learning curve it is useful to provide introductory scenarios or graded challenges to help beginners. Play balance is important in the interests of fairness, though in many games, if the experience is sufficiently good then somewhat surprisingly this may not be vital.

I’ve come to the end of this rather longer than expected series. I’m still not certain of the validity of the insights here, but I think it gives an idea of my own thinking along these lines.

Dutch border, January 1814

2 April 2011 was another Saturday Frome miniatures game. This time a Napoleonic outing on the Dutch – French border (hah, Belgium doesn’t exist yet!) in January 1814. The Prussians and Russians (Pete and James) are invading mother France (Mike, Richard and myself). We appoint Mike CinC on the grounds that neither of us want the loneliness of command. Rules are 2nd edition General de Brigade (complete with the appallingly bad proof-reading errors – I hadn’t realised that this included misplaced pages and no page numbers; and yet the rules were still published and sold to customers! That publisher will not be getting my custom.)

Stephen (our umpire) gives both sides a fairly minimal briefing – at least we both have the identical difficulty there! Our objective is to push back the Allies towards their side of the board (north), or at the very least stop them advancing. Later, we learn that the Allied objective is to get forces off the southern edge of the board.

Early morning mist obscures the Allied advance, but the French can hear hooves and general movement from the north. We’re deployed well back from the halfway mark with ‘Defend’ and ‘Hold’ orders. The 2 brigades of my 2nd Div are on the left and centre (one supporting 2 batteries of artillery). The centre consists of the aforementioned artillery and a 2 battalion brigade to its right. Our right flank rests on a village and fortress (!) and consists of the 6 battalions of 1st Div plus 2 batteries in the fortress. Since our objective is to attack, we first have to change our orders. This takes 4 turns, owing to crappy command dice rolls, even though the CinC is right next to the 2 Div commander and lead Brigade commander. In my view this is a major rules problem.

By the time we get our orders changed, the mist is lifting – we can now see what we’re up against, and it’s not a pretty sight. The enemy has had time not only to deploy well forward, but to swing virtually their entire force against our left and centre, avoiding our 6 battalions and 2 batteries on the right. As we haven’t been able to change our orders, the 1st Div on the right will take much of the rest of the battle getting into position on the enemy’s left flank. It’s my 2nd Division (7 battalions including 2 of conscripts, plus 2 batteries of 8 pdrs), ostensibly our attacking force, that will have to take the brunt of the enemy attack – 14 battalions of their 18, plus 4 cavalry units (including 2 cossacks). And I have attack orders!

The lead cossacks withdraw and the first lines of enemy infantry advance into effective range of our batteries. First shot of the first battery is 1 and 1 : result is ‘low on ammo, half effect for rest of game’. What a great start! We have ammo caissons in the fortress, but that’s on the right flank and these aren’t going to help in time. The second battery gets a 6 + 6, and the enemy’s brigade commander’s horse bolts to our lines – captured!

My lead brigade has to advance a little, because it has Engage orders now. I’ve deployed in mixed order with 3 up and 1 back, supporting with 2nd brigade from the rear. Eventually the reserve brigade in the centre will get orders to support the artillery batteries (300 metres away!), but our command rolls are still terrible, and this takes far too long.

Enemy dragoons on the left flank cannot charge my leftmost battalion, owing to a useful patch of icy ground, so I anchor the left on this position. The other 3 battalions advance as slowly as possible within my order restrictions. The dragoons charge our skirmishers, who evade behind the main line, and the left battalion of conscripts (having been brought up from the brigade’s second line) manages to form square in response. It rolls to stand; another 1 + 1, which means the battalion retreats! Fortunately the dragoons haven’t got the momentum to reach them, and the rest of the first line is on ice, which prevents cavalry charges. We’re taking casualties from enemy jaeger with rifles and then fight the lead battalions of line infantry. One battalion is forced to retreat, and I manage to extricate the other one (conscripts) in column of divisions, because enemy infantry columns on the flank attack my guns and not the infantry.

Third round of battery firing, my second battery also rolls 1 + 1, so now the whole concentrated artillery brigade is firing at half effect. This does not discourage the advancing Prussians and Russians. We manage to beat off two attacks and support from the flank with a light infantry battalion of the 2nd brigade, but both batteries are overrun. The brigade supporting from the right is stopped by direct attack from 2 more enemy columns, and is also threatened by enemy cavalry to the flank. Fortunately our own cavalry manage a fairly dubious charge in column which disperses an enemy battalion column, and the enemy cavalry fails its morale roll and has to retreat.

On the left flank I manage to change the lead brigade’s orders to Move and the Div orders to Defend for the last turn of the game, while the 2nd brigade is on Assault and re-takes half of the gun position (guns already spiked though). On the right, Richard’s troops are now starting to punish the Russians and will soon threaten to outflank their artillery on a hill in the centre.

So by the end of the game the Russians are in position to get *some* troops off the table, but we’ve forced the Allies to re-think their attack and are threatening to close off this gap and to outflank their left. Stephen says that technically the French have won marginally, having done a bit better than the French on the day. It doesn’t feel like a victory to us – pretty much honours even – both sides could claim a marginal victory I think.

It was a very enjoyable game, though the French felt unduly ham-strung by crippled artillery and very poor command rolls. The Allies were affected quite a lot by having to start their light cavalry at the back of their columns (this was a historical affectation apparently), so that hampered the speed of their advance.

Essence of a wargame – IV

…part IV of a two-part series…

SPI’s La Grande Armee

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/9077/la-grande-armee

Convincing portrayal of topic

This game is an old hex-and-counter strategic game. It’s one of the better SPI strategic games with some good but simple mechanics for army movement (breaking large units down to divisions, then stacking and recombining for combat; d6 with possible strength point loss for forced marches), supply (separate attackable supply units and depots), and Combat Results Table combat resolution. Nowadays it’d have lots of cards and funny dice, but probably to no better effect. It gives a good feel for Napoleonic strategy, with the French having to do a heck of a lot to win – 1805, 06, 07 and 09 scenarios (from memory). Stacking and unstacking restrictions and simple combat and movement strength variations give players the opportunity to use the armies in a way that feels historical. High score in this department, despite its lack of modern colour.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

French divisions – in game and in history – could march long and fast, then combine to form very powerful stacks modified positively by the French marshals, so sweeping Napoleonic manoeuvres were definitely not only possible in both, but also necessary for the French to achieve their decisive victories. For the Austrians, Russians and Prussians there are the strategic choices about whether to rush reserves up to support relatively weak forward forces or to march more circumspectly but risk being beaten in detail. Playing the French with caution or the Prussians with elan can be punished.

Victory conditions are carefully worked out to reflect the undoubted power of the French and the weakness of its ancien regime opponents. For example the Prussians don’t have to hold a lot to win the 1806 campaign! You could win the game, even if to all intents and purposes you lost the campaign, as long as you don’t lose too badly. And making good use of the excellent Prussian cavalry could potentially save you – something the Prussians historically were unable to do.

The game system encourages the telling of the historic story.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

I think that the simple design captures the essence of the topic well. A more modern game might have added more chrome (or heaven forbid, a tactical sub-system), but this game demonstrates the relatively straightforward strategic choices available, and allows players to concentrate on the more complex planning and implementation. For example, depots produce a supply unit every turn, so you can arrange a string of such units to supply your armies in position or in response to a slow advance. Concentrated armies need more supplies, dispersed ones can live off the land to an extent (dice rolling for potential losses). However, a rapid or forced march will outstrip the movement of the supply units, so you have to make alternative arrangements, perhaps using up supplies to force march other supply units, altering supply routes, creating new depots (a slow process), or just fighting less powerfully with less supplies (a battle generally consumes a supply unit, or you fight with less strength). This simple mechanical sub-system covers:

  • Basic logistics of static armies
  • The problem of supplying rapidly moving forces
  • How to ensure that armies engaged in combat are supplied
  • The extra logistical problems of switching the direction of attack
  • Supply problems caused by divergent lines of attack
  • The importance of defending lines of supply and vulnerable depots

As I recall, the game is significantly weaker in terms of command control rules, but in general the mechanics are an excellent fit.

Appropriate level of challenge

As I’ve mentioned, the victory conditions are set so that the French don’t merely have to win, but have to win each campaign decisively to win the game. This gives the players an appropriate level of challenge. It means that if you win a decisive tactical victory, but in the wrong place or at the wrong time, then you could still lose the game – it is the strategic situation that determines the outcome. Experienced players would develop delaying tactics for the weaker Austrian and Prussian forces, limiting French forced marches through astute use of cavalry, and perhaps sending outlying forces on wide flanking manoeuvres to threaten supplies. Keeping large armies in fortresses might be an appropriate method (fortresses have their own supplies), but you also need to know the victory conditions – besieged fortresses are automatically taken at the end of the scenario, yielding only half the victory points for the city, so the Austrians or Prussians might be able to win by only losing to a siege, rather than battling in the open field.

Having played many games of La Grande Armee I would say that it provides a good level of challenge.

Next: some conclusions?, https://benthamfish2.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/essence-of-a-wargame-%E2%80%93-v/

Commands & Colours: Ancients – a few random thoughts about luck in games

I played this game a few times a while back – I believe in an online competition – and I didn’t much like it. There seemed far too much luck in it to make it a viable tactical game.

I’ve returned to it recently (online again on Vassal) as a break from playing more complex games like Paths of Glory and Through The Ages, and this experience has clarified why I don’t like it. Normally I wouldn’t post negative comments, but I think this one sheds light on why I got into game design in the first place, many moons ago.

CC:A’s rules explain the purpose behind the game:

“The Commands & Colors: Ancients game system allows players to effectively portray epic engagements of ancient history. The battles, showcased in the scenario section, focus on the historical deployment of forces and important terrain features on the scale of the game system…The Command card system drives movement, creates ‘fog of war’, and presents players with many interesting challenges and opportunities, while the battle dice resolve combat quickly and efficiently. The battlefield tactics you will need to execute to gain victory conform remarkably well to the strengths and limitations of the various ancient unit types, their weapons, the terrain, and history.”

That’s quite a series of claims in my view and may be purely marketing speak, so I’m not intending to critique the game on simulation grounds. However, the central tenet portrays CC:A as a tactical system in which you can make effective tactical decisions in a historical setting. In fact, the game system contains two major features in which luck plays an overriding role. One is the fog-of-war-creating command card system, and the other is the battle dice system.

My view of the command card system in CC:A is that the luck factor overwhelms the decisions that players must make for the management of a tactical engagement. Typically the cards restrict your tactical options as a poor proxy for ‘fog of war’. In fact, the cards can easily result in a complete inability to execute a perfectly plausible battle plan; for example I have played as Hannibal at Lake Trasimene and had no cards that allowed me to move the troops that were deployed to ambush the Romans until the very last turn of the game, in my view a perverse result. As you draw cards through the game, your best laid plans can come unstuck through simply failing to draw cards that support your battle plan or indeed any coherent battle plan at all. This means that the game degenerates into attempting to pick off any enemy units that happen to be vulnerable, while hoping that your’s aren’t so picked off, and occasionally carrying out simple combos to maximise the effectiveness of a power card, like Line Command or Darken the Skies.

I’ve always held to a basic tenet of game design that luck as a major factor must be deployed carefully, and a game system should preferably have not more than one major mechanic that is luck-based. In CC:A there’s the luck of the card drawing and also the luck of the battle dice. Troop types are differentiated by the battle dice they use (and also by movement), but with 6-sided dice, you’re basically at the mercy of the 1 in 6 limit – you cannot have a hit chance of less than 1 in 6. This means that poor troops can occasionally (note: occasionally, not rarely) be miraculously effective, and elite troops can occasionally be totally screwed. The variability of results in buckets of 6-sided dice are such that this can overwhelm your tactical planning.

Why have I brought this up? When I started gaming way back the late ’60s, pretty much all the games that I came into contact with relied on dice or random card draws for luck, and there were few well-developed game mechanisms compared to the current gaming scene, both wargames and board games. During the early ’70s when I was a relatively intelligent teenager, I was frustrated by this reliance on luck and worked on a few ideas of my own for injecting more skill and possibly a bit more historical realism into gaming, particularly wargaming, developing my own wargames rules and the occasional simple board game. Then, like many other gamers, I discovered SPI and some early published wargame rule sets, and quickly learned that there was more to gaming than rolling a bunch of dice and drawing from a common card pool; other mechanisms could be created.

Which brings me back to CC:A. I have the same frustrations with this game system that I had with the old systems of the ’60s and early ’70s. An over-reliance on luck and a game system that only pretends to provide the players with historical tactical choices, or indeed any real tactical choices at all. It has the merit of being a short game, so it’s over quickly. But this type of game is not what it’s dressed up to be. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why myself and a bunch of colleagues are working on a 21st century rule set based on the old 1973 Wargames Research Group WW2 rules, and why I keep returning to board wargame design.

Stabcon weekend

Managed to play the following games, unless I’ve missed a few:

  • Totemo
  • Dominant Species
  • 7 Wonders several times
  • Dixit
  • Vasco da Gama
  • Antics
  • Adventurers
  • CatASTROphe
  • Workshop of the World
  • Braggart

Thanks to Hammy and all the organisers for an excellent weekend.

Dominant Species

4-player game with 2 newbie players, plus Charlie and myself who’ve played it once complete 2-player.  When teaching D’Species I use the teaching script from BGG, which works well I think.  Maybe this is something that should be developed for all new complex games; noting that Richard Breese did this very effectively on the Geek for Key Market.  The game took 5 hours including explanation and will be quicker with players who know it.  I like this game a lot (and not just because I spent a lot of money on it!).  I’ve only started to scratch the surface of strategies – for example, my birds retreated to a Tundra and beyond domination strategy, owing to the ability to migrate to regions others couldn’t reach – and there are some excellent possibilities for tactical play, because of the large number of actions and action combinations that are available.  I believe it will be important to get out of the micro-management mindset and into strategic thinking for this game.

Seven Wonders

This has turned into the filler or short game of choice.  It’s particularly strong for this because it is very accessible, predictable in duration and can run with 3 to 7 with equal satisfaction (and has a 2-player variant I’ve not yet played).  In addition it’s not too demanding and seems not to permit the ‘expert’ player to dominate overly.

Dixit

We played Dixit a couple of times, then loaned it out for almost the whole weekend.  Possibly the most accessible and fun game for some while, and it appeals to a wide audience, including both casual and serious gamers.  The influence of the artwork alone in Dixit cannot be underestimated.

Vasco da Gama

We had a learning game of this with Paul and Hammy.  The initiative system is the core, and in my view it’s genius; I may have to nick that mechanism.  Hammy compared VdG to Caylus, and where I can see the similarities, I’d have to say I much prefer VdG, especially for its strategic aspects, which are absent from the older game.

Antics

90 minutes on the box, rather longer in real life for our first game!  Antics is much heavier than it looks, owing to the planning element.  I’d have to say, this was less fun and more serious than expected.  I’d want to play it with experienced and quick players I feel.  Please please, never ever write rules with puns and other non-essential stuff integrated into the body of the rules; it doesn’t help clarity or conciseness, and the joke wears off pretty much immediately.

Adventurers

Indiana Jones pure and simple.  Very well executed ‘temple robbing’ archaeology game, this was great fun for the start of Saturday morning; so much so that we played it twice.  There was some satisfaction from the other players in seeing Geoff’s character, loaded down with a winning amount of treasure and running for the exit, only to be crushed by the massive boulder because he failed to get a 1 or a 2 in the final 5-dice boulder movement roll!  Recommended.

CatASTROphe

A play test of one of SSG’s newest designs, still very much a work in progress.  More later on this.

Workshop of the World

Ragnar Brothers version of Brass / Age of Industry.  Not sure what I think of this one; more thought required.  I enjoyed it, but I’ll have to work out a comparison with other similar fare.

Braggart

A brilliant filler, not to be taken seriously!  Recommended.  And Vic did the artwork!

Games weekend – 3-5 December 2010

First weekend of December is our regular post-Essen Games Weekend, when we get to play that large pile of games acquired at Spiel with as many of our friends as we can fit in the house.  I’m never sure of the numbers, but it’s usually around 30 people at one time or another from Friday evening to Sunday evening.  Unfortunately by the time I get to write up a blog post, it’s all getting to be a bit of a blur, owing to lack of sleep (not to mention excess of food and drink).  This time’s been no different.

I can only write from a personal perspective, so if I’ve missed out some of the significant events, many apologies, I’ve either forgotten them, or wasn’t a participant.  I’m also missing out any personal commentary on individuals to protect the guilty (except me) and indeed the innocent.

We had the best turnout on Friday evening that we’ve ever had.  Despite weather warnings, somewhat ameliorated by our emailed comment that there was little snow in Stroud (a situation that changed overnight), 9 or 10 people made it to Forest Green on Friday.  We decided to leave the meatier games till Saturday, so contented ourselves with 7 Wonders and Braggart mainly.  7 Wonders was almost never back in its box for the whole weekend, so gains the award for ‘Most Popular Game Of The Weekend’.

I managed to persuade an unsuspecting victim (sorry Bart) to play test Quatre Bras, my version of the battle of that name using Martin Wallace’s Waterloo system.  I reckon it went pretty well, though it was a bit longer than expected, owing to the unreasonable resistance of the Allies to the inexorable advance of the French – who advanced inexorably till about the 6pm game turn, then found the last mile a bit too difficult, ending up retreating in a more or less historical outcome; it’s always good if such a game can end with a believable result.  As Bart is Dutch, I’d have to say that the Dutch fought well, except for the Dutch cavalry, who were historically accurate.  Only one small tweak was necessary as a result of the play test, and I now feel it’s finished, subject to a few more games.  “Best Unpublished Wargame Of The Weekend”.

On Saturday we (well, I really) planned to play one or both of the major lengthy games purchased at Essen, High Frontier and Dominant Species.  However, prior to the arrival of all those who wanted to partake of those delights, we had time for a quick outbreak of cockney accents, in the playing of London, another Martin Wallace game.  Two of us had played before and the other two hadn’t, so it was something of a learning game – though when one of the newbies is Richard Breese, it’s going to be a challenge anyway.  I started off by expanding my city stacks to 7, which I didn’t think was excessive, except that everyone else retrenched to about 5, so the poor flocked to my bit of London, mostly south of the river.  We failed to invest in Street Lights or Sewers, so by the end of the game my poverty level cost me 30 points.  Despite 2 Undergrounds, the train system south of London and various high profile buildings, I was third out of four players in VPs, unable to overcome the overcrowding.  An enjoyable game, though there was some criticism of the rather anti-climactic end game, which lacks the pace of the rest of the game.  London was played another couple of times, so London probably takes the “Most Popular Board Game Of The Weekend”.

High Frontier: finally it hit the table in a 5-player extravaganza of high tech science and engineering.  The game that *is* rocket science!  In space no-one can hear you say “WTF?!?”  Personally the game was everything I thought it was going to be: complicated, complex, unforgiving, dense, deep and supremely challenging.  It was also very frustrating, that aspect partly generated by my hostly duties that ate into my thinking time (getting my excuses in early!) – next outing will have to be a pre-planned and dedicated HF time.  We played the basic (sic) game with the quick (sic) start rules that mean you start with 3 cards in your ‘where you put your hand of cards area’ [this is a game where your cards in hand have to be displayed next to your play mat not in kept in hand, where you burn water for fuel, where you can use water tanks to upload software upgrades and where only the Chinese can do nefarious actions].  I’m not going to attempt a rules explanation or review here; see http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/580382/up-in-space-without-a-warp-drive-a-review-of-high for my review on BGG.  Suffice it to say that there seemed to be considerable range in the speed with which players picked up the game, and I wasn’t at the top of the range.  My initial operations were to claim some areas away from the competition, but unfortunately that meant that my areas were time consuming to get to, whereas perhaps the more popular Martian landscape might have been easier.  By the end of the game I think we’d all created at least one factory and its product, so as a learning game we’d achieved the objective of getting our heads around the basics.  Rules were consulted many times, as expected, but things will go much more smoothly in the second game.  Won’t they?

Apparently not for me, because we had a second go early on Sunday, and I made a pig’s ear out of a mission to Mercury, then a further part of a pig out of a plan to go to Venus.  Bart seemed to get the hang of it pretty quickly though.  High Frontier’s definitely “Most Unforgiving Game Of The Decade”.

But I’m slightly ahead of myself.  Saturday evening, after a memorable pork roast (thanks, Charlie), four of us unpacked Merkator, Uwe Rosenberg’s latest offering and another one on my must play list this weekend.  It’s a lot shorter and, I feel, more accessible than either Agricola or Le Havre.  The game revolves around picking up goods and fulfilling contracts at various European locations from the perspective of Hamburg merchants during the period of the 30 Years War.  I’m not sure why the game has a 30 Years War theme, because it doesn’t really impact on the game at all, other than that the final card in the game is the Peace of Westphalia (and quite why that’s a contract card is a mystery). I guess the theme has been pasted on over the top of a pretty good game system – the game works, so I’m not unhappy.  Goods are coloured cubes (there’s novelty), but each colour represents one of two kinds, determined when received.  Most contracts require specific goods, or for the more expensive ones, a number of goods from a group of types, for example ‘4 types of food’, which could be satisfied by wine, livestock, grain and plums.  Play Merkator and see the world – well, a bit of Europe anyway; travel is the central mechanic.  You gain or lose time counters depending on the location you choose to go to, broadly the further away from Hamburg the more difficult.  Importantly any other player can pay you time counters in order to accompany you on your journey, and though only the active player can pick up the stock of goods there, accompanying players can still gain bonuses and fulfil contracts.  This little mechanic can give you almost another whole turn for relatively little cost, if your opponent is going to a location that’s key for you.  The pace of the game is steady, with thinking time taking place primarily in other player’s turns.  Progression is via the neat mechanic that rewards players who fulfil contracts with a further contract of the next level up.  So you can progress from the starting contracts with values of 2 to 5, through 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, all of which have more difficult conditions but gain you more VPs.  The final contract is the Peace of Westphalia (14 points), awarded to the first player to fulfil a 10 value contract.  VPs are gained from the value of your best 5 contracts, the others being only half their value, with additions from special buildings that give VPs for specific conditions.  I enjoyed the game a lot; recommended for those who like solid and interesting resource management Eurogames.

Final game late on Saturday was Der Ausreisser, which was fun as always.  “Most Fun Game With Counters.”

Sunday, after a disastrous replay of High Frontier, three of us took up the Dominant Species challenge.  Another biggie, possibly the biggest heft factor since Die Macher.  Each player, for example, gets 50 cubes representing the species in his or her group of animals (ours were Mammals, Reptiles and Birds), plus 6 action pawns, quite a few cones to mark domination, and there are innumerable tiles, markers and cards, plus a very large and well-designed board.  I would put the complexity at roughly the same as Die Macher, but the subject matter (Darwinian survival of the fittest before the onset of an Ice Age) more accessible.  There are lots of pros to DS; firstly it has the best laid out and best written rules I’ve seen.  We occasionally had to look things up, but I don’t recall us having any actual problems with rules interpretation.  Most of the information is on well laid out player mats, or on a clear top left to bottom right action placement and action sequence section of the board.  This is another pro, and is where the complexity arises, because the actions interlock and affect in various ways how your animals survive and prosper.  Illustrating this:

  • I want to Adapt, because my creatures will match environmental elements (bugs, sun, carrion, seeds, water for example) better, and can then dominate terrain tiles.
  • I want Abundance, because I can put more of the relevant environmental elements on the board and then dominate more terrain tiles.
  • I want to be in charge of Glaciation, so that I put the advancing tundra tiles (the Ice Age remember?) where I choose, so that my domination of terrain tiles isn’t threatened.
  • I want to do the Wanderlust action, because I can put new terrain tiles down, so my creatures can expand into and dominate them.
  • I want to Migrate, so that I can move my creatures to more suitable terrain tiles and away from the advancing tundra.
  • I want to Speciate, because that means I put more cubes on the board; a cube equals another species, more cubes means I get points if the tile scores.
  • I want to Compete and eliminate species of the other players, so that I can dominate terrain tiles.
  • But most of all I want to Dominate, so I can score terrain tiles that I’ve got most cubes on and that I also dominate.  Then I get VPs, and I can play one of the very powerful Dominant Species cards, one of the five visible cards who’s effects I’ve been drooling about since the start of the turn.

That’s not all of the actions I could carry out, but most of them.  And I’ve only got 6 action pawns in the 3-player game.  So I’ll have to make difficult life and death choices; each of my cubes is a whole species, and some are going down to extinction, never to return (except of course through play of a Dominant Species card).  Scoring varies dependent on the terrain tile, with the player having most cubes getting most points, BUT the player with the best adapted (dominant) species picks a Dominant Species card to play; domination can come with as few as one cube.

We played about half a game, then decided to call it, as it was getting late in the day.  I think we’d all cottoned on to the flow of the mechanics, though not yet to actual strategies.  I felt I had enough to work with, I could see how the game fitted together and would welcome many more plays to see how the strategies themselves evolved.  I think the other two players were perhaps less clear about how the mechanics meshed, but would certainly play again.  From my point of view, a good experience and starting point on what I hope will be a longer journey of Dominant Species enjoyment.  “Heaviest Heft Of The Weekend”.

Our final game was with Pete Burley and son, Fred, a play test of Pete’s new game Space Hockey, an abstract two player football-like game, set in space.  As this was a play test, I’ll probably write more on it another time.  Suffice to say, it worked extremely well, I liked it a lot, and I’m looking forward to playing again.

In conclusion I had a great time over the whole weekend, and it certainly looked as if everyone else did too.  My thanks go out to all who made it through the ice and snow to make it such an enjoyable gaming experience.

Roll Through The Ages Yucata Tournie

I only decided to do this because it’s a nice quick game! However, Spiel des Jahres nominee, very accessible game and creditable online implementation has led to very large demand. Over 500 gamers had registered an interest in this online tournament several days prior to the advertised closing date. So it’s all kicked off early with yours truly as one of the many. And a few more games than expected. Lesson: read the tournie rules before signing up.

Ah well. I’ve won the first of 7 games.