Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The Hall of Mirrors, War and Warfare in the 20th century: a review

I found this a difficult book to read. The topic is central to a lot of my own reading and research for wargaming and for personal interest, “war and warfare in the twentieth century”. The blurb presents it as a work of analysis, a “deep look at war and warfare” in the period. It didn’t feel like that to me.

The Hall of Mirrors

The author, Jim Storr, is Professor of War Studies at the Norwegian Military Academy. However, the book contains surprisingly few footnotes and many unsubstantiated categorical declarations. For analysis, I would expect statements to be backed by reasoned arguments and supporting evidence. For much of the book, these are lacking.

For example, the claim that Lloyd George’s memoirs “almost single-handedly destroyed the reputation of several other people, particularly Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig” surely needs some supporting evidence, even if true (others were also critical of Haig, for example Churchill, though less vitriolic). One of the most egregious examples is the following breathtaking quote (p267): “The Luftwaffe stalled its aircraft development in the middle years of the war and ended up with a generation of aircraft which were little better than those of 1939”. This overlooks at least 4 major advances pioneered and used with effect by the Germans late in the war: the Messerschmitt Me 262 (the first operational jet fighter), various helicopters and autogiros operational from 1944, the V1 flying bomb and the V2 rocket. This short list omits less successful aircraft like the Me 163 rocket-powered interceptor and the Heinkel 177 heavy bomber.

I suspect that the author made some statements simply to be polemical. He caricatures the popular conception of the Great War – “a bad war fought by bad men for no purpose; nothing but pointless slaughter” as a rhetorical starting point for arguing against that view. However, the opposing view has been pretty much mainstream academic opinion within military history and war studies for decades, and I have several books in my own shelves to support that view. Knocking over a caricature is hardly deep analysis. Another example refers to the May 1940 campaign in France to claim that it wasn’t Guderian’s or Rommel’s attacks that unhinged the French Army, but rather Kempf’s 6th Panzer Division’s advance to Moncornet. “The dominant narrative for this operation comes from Guderian’s memoirs. Rommel’s activities also attract historians’ attention”, he says (p128). “Studying the map displays a different picture.” However, reading Guderian’s memoirs reveals a different picture too: far from ignoring Kempf’s achievements, Guderian describes arriving at Moncornet and discussing the situation with Kempf, who was later awarded the Knights Cross for his achievements.

The first half of the book strays into narrative occasionally, which threw me off the argument many times. Perhaps there could have been more explicit sub-headings to break up sections with different purposes?

Elements of the book are well-written and convincing. I like the short, snappy sentence style, and I found the unexpected “what if” scenarios entertaining and useful illustrations of the issues addressed. From the chapter called “March and Fight”, possibly because these sections touch on Professor Storr’s practical experience as a soldier, the reasoning settles down to step-by-step argument. “We lack a good, simple, clear understanding of how violence can be used to obtain tactical success; and then how tactical success can be used to obtain operational success”. I agree and would suggest that this is partly because the organised application of violence is very complex; furthermore, I suspect that a good, simple, clear understanding is not a practical proposition because of its complexity. On the other hand, I do agree with Professor Storr’s main contentions in this regard, especially the importance of linking the tactical to the operational to the strategic. I found it instructive that the essence of the argument, far from being a radical analysis, represents more-or-less German Army doctrine as expounded in the 1933-4 Truppenfuhrung and the concepts around “auftragstaktik” (mission command). As the author’s focus is on the British experience in the 20th century, perhaps this needed to be re-formulated.

He makes some very pertinent, if perhaps overly strident, comments against the idea of independent air forces. While I would agree that there is at least an argument to be had about independent, so-called “strategic” bombing, as carried out in the Combined Bomber Offensive in World War 2, I would have preferred a more cautious and evidence-based approach. Although he describes the Battle of Britain, he fails to explain how Britain might have won this battle without an independent air force. In addition, in a rare quotation of other sources, he reproduces part of a table of information on the effect of bombing on German production, as supporting evidence to show the ineffectiveness of bombing, because German tank production in particular increased during the bombing. He omits to refer to supporting text in that source (Adam Tooze “The Wages of Destruction”) that states that it was the bombing that decisively curtailed the continued expansion of production and that this was a major concern for those in charge in Germany.

In conclusion, while this book has some interesting sections, it’s flaws prevent me from recommending it. It looks like a missed opportunity.


A Wolfe at the Door

Before you read any further, I’ll say straight away that I like most of Martin Wallace’s games. I’ve also helped with play testing a few of them, including A Few Acres of Snow. I play wargames, board wargames, Euros and any other kind of board or card game I can get my hands on. I’ll happily play long, complex games like Through The Ages, Die Macher or Dominant Species, and I’ll happily play Dominion, 7 Wonders, or Parade. Heck, I’ll even play High Frontier! Up Front, 7th Fleet, Panzerarmee Afrika, Paths of Glory, SPI Quad Games, Napoleon’s Triumph – bring ’em on.

Having said that, there are few games that will hit the table frequently, and fewer still that will stand the test of time. Games that I will play more than a dozen times a year are rare. If I’ve play tested a game, I’ll often not play it again on release, because it’s already old hat. This has happened with Key Market and Automobile for example. But I’ve already played A Few Acres of Snow more than a dozen times since it was published (and 2 more times this weekend). I’ve increased the pool of opponents by teaching it to half-a-dozen friends or more, some wargamers, some not. And I found myself teaching it again to someone I met over breakfast at The Cast Are Dice a couple of weeks ago. Let’s just say, it’s had a bit of an impact.

Topical application

The topic looks like one of those ‘can you make a good game out of this’ challenges. God’s Playground anyone? It’s the long conflict between the French and the British for control of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So the coverage isn’t any particular war – and there were several, with periods of uneasy peace and localised outbreaks of hostilities when there was no European conflict. The game doesn’t model political realities; there’s no return of captured colonies in exchange for more valuable real estate in the Caribbean or India, for instance. Neither is there any attempt to portray military organisation or tactical considerations. If you thought Waterloo was abstract, then this is an even deeper level of abstraction. You won’t get a sense of the economic or social aspects of the period either.

A Few Acres of Snow has distilled the essence of the struggle for North America. It has captured the fundamentals of the strategic situation of both sides in a way that lets players carry out typical actions that feel right for the theme, describing enough detail to put you into the flow of the historical story from a military perspective. At the same time the game system has highly developed and well balanced mechanisms to enable the British player and the French player to create challenges for each other, to experiment with periods of relatively peaceful development and periods of intense conflict, and to discover novel strategic approaches to victory.

Dominion over Canada

As Martin admits in the Designer’s Notes, the main mechanic is similar to the deck building of Dominion, a mechanic that was also used in Fzzzt!, a recent game from my company, Surprised Stare Games, but in a very different context. Never let a good game mechanism pass you by, I say. AFAoS executes this brilliantly.

Players have two types of card. Location cards, one for each node on the map that can be occupied by that side, and Empire cards, which include military forces of several broad types, cards to manage your deck, and various specialist additions, including Native Americans. Location cards go into your collection when you take control of a spot on the board. Empire cards can be purchased for money from your very limited money supply (important note: although this is a Martin Wallace game, you get no loans!).

On your turn you use up cards from your hand to take actions, two per turn except for the first turn, when you only get one action. At the end of your go, you draw back to five cards in hand. All gained or used cards go into your discard pile, and when your deck runs out, you shuffle your discards to form a new draw deck. So new and used cards will usually flow through your discard pile, back into your deck and return to your hand in a subsequent turn when you draw more cards. The primary effect of this mechanism is that you won’t normally have access to new cards or locations you’ve just captured until some time later in the game. As cards representing military forces are also discarded when used – siege warfare is the primary type of conflict – these will also take a while to return to your hand for re-use. The effect of the mechanism is to vary the tempo of the game significantly, because there will be periods when you’re waiting for the right combination of cards to appear to enable you to carry out a successful attack, to develop a location or to get your people moving to the next settlement site.

There are some clever mechanisms that players can use to overcome the limitations of this basic flow of cards. The major one is the Reserve. As an action a single card in hand can be placed into your Reserve, up to a limit of five cards in total. These cards are no longer in your hand or deck, so they don’t clog up your flow of cards. You can retrieve them during your turn as a ‘free action’, an action that doesn’t count against your two action limit, but you must pay money to get them back, one per card. However, it’s an all or nothing deal; you either buy back all of them or none, so the bigger your Reserve the more expensive it is to retrieve it, and you have to buy back the ones you don’t want as well as the ones you do.

Both sides can discard cards. The first discard is free, but if you want to discard more than one card in one action, each subsequent card costs one money. Both sides also have a Governor card that can be used to remove one or two cards back to the stock of Empire or Location cards, taking them out of your ‘live’ collection entirely, effectively thinning your deck.

Both sides also have the powerful Home Support card, the Ancestral Recall of A Few Acres of Snow. Draw three cards as a free action – no down side! Finally the French have the Intendant, a very useful guy who can retrieve a single card from the discard pile.

Asymmetric Warfare

Another distinctive feature of the game is its asymmetry. The decks are asymmetric, as are the starting positions on the board. The British start with more money, fewer cards, an exclusively coastal position and more ships. The French have more military forces – they start with the only free-to-purchase military, a Regular Infantry card – and many more victory points, but with only one card they can use for settling, they have less potential for expansion and developing villages into towns. The British have the potential for more military power than the French, but they’ll have to buy those cards. They can use the powerful Merchant action to earn revenue, combining a ship card with money-earning locations. The main method for the French to get money is by trading furs, using the combination of Trader and locations with a fur symbol.

It’s a wargame, stupid

A Few Acres of Snow is a wargame, and most games will be decided by military activity, even if it’s only purchase of military cards to thwart your opponent’s ambitions. As befits the period, the main regular military activity is the siege of villages and towns, often fortified. Sieges are represented abstractly, and each side can commit to only one attack at a time. You win a siege only when your commitment of troops exceeds your opponent’s by three at the start of [b]your [/b]turn, modified in some cases by fortification or garrisons. So military activity can boil down to using up actions to save a location, or to force your opponent to save a location. Sieges can be protracted, and curiously it can pay both sides to leave their military engaged, as this will ensure that military cards – useless outside a siege – do not clog up the deck.

While besieging places is basically a conquest strategy, the game enables players to indulge in a raiding strategy too. Native Americans can be recruited by both sides to ambush unsuspecting military forces and to raid enemy locations. Native Americans and a limited number of other cards can also block enemy raids, so raiding can become a to and fro affair.

Strategic card play

Winning the game comes in two main ways. Automatic victory can be achieved for the British by taking Quebec, or for the French by taking Boston or New York. Alternatively you can try for more victory points when one of the end game triggers happens. Victory points are awarded for control of important locations, doubled if these are upgraded from villages to towns, and for capture of enemy locations. The end of the game is triggered by placing all your villages or towns, or by acquiring 12 or more points from captures.

The asymmetric starting positions point the way to some very different strategies for each side. With more revenue potential and settlers, the British could commit to developing their coastal villages, while expanding into victory point rich new territory. This might also restrict French expansion. Alternatively they could build their military power and try to push into the St Lawrence aiming for the historically important locations at Port Royal and Louisburg, on the road to Quebec. The French, with their existing lead in VPs, might be tempted to buy more settlers and push for expansion and development, in a race for the end game condition of using up all town or village markers. However, there’s the temptation of a quick attack via Pemaquid to Boston, the fall of which would be an automatic French win.

Whatever initial strategies are chosen, it will be very important to keep an eye on your opponent’s purchases. Falling behind in military potential could lead to loss of key locations by sieges. Having a large deck with a high proportion of inefficient cards – too many unimportant location cards for example – will help your opponent to an advantage in settling or access to military strength.

Mapping the wilderness

There has been some criticism (see other threads) of the game, largely because the relationships between locations for settling and raiding are not spelled out clearly in a small number of cases. However, these have now been entirely clarified by a couple of downloadable maps. These are only minor criticisms and mostly in corner cases. As in most games, an attentive reading of the rules and cards (a lost art amongst a high proportion of gamers!) will resolve the vast majority of difficulties.

Top of the Pops

Current rankings of A Few Acres of Snow on BGG tell a good story:

Board Game Rank: 213
War Game Rank: 20
Strategy Game Rank: 76

And the trend is still up. Even taking into account a tendency amongst some wargamers on BGG towards hyperbole, it’s difficult to gainsay these figures. My own view, having played A Few Acres of Snow regularly against a variety of experienced and inexperienced opponents, is that it deserves these high ratings and sets a new standard for innovation and replayability in board wargaming.

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.

Essence of a wargame – IV

…part IV of a two-part series…

SPI’s 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?,

Essence of a wargame – III

continuing with part III of a two-part series…

Paths Of Glory

Convincing portrayal of topic

Definitely. The cards and rules restrictions give huge amounts of colour in that they are all derived from historical circumstances, and they strongly encourage political background actions to reflect this.

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

The game restricts players to only 6 card plays per quarter of a year. So only important operations and events can be carried out. The players don’t represent a specific role, but rather a collective command view from either an Allied or Central Powers perspective.  This permits greater co-operation between fronts than would have been possible, and perhaps an air of unreality or ‘gaminess’ in the play. Certainly believable actions are possible, particularly attritional offensives. It seems much less likely to get to some of the hoped-for results that high command had, so players can become insulated from the expectations of success that pervaded high commands at times. There is also the problem that the VPs on the Turkish and Italian fronts make these more important than they actually were. These aspects may be necessary to make PoG into a more interesting game, but they do represent a compromise.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

The game has had some criticism because of its draconic approach to supply lines. If armies are cut off, then they are destroyed at the end of the turn, and have no attack capability in the meantime. I don’t agree with this criticism, preferring to see this as a way enforcing a more realistic approach to continuous front warfare.

I particularly like the rules that stacks cannot both move and attack, but only one or the other, and that moving units cannot end stacked with other units designated to attack. These rules ensure that there is no blitzkrieg possibility, and deployment of vast bodies of troops is necessarily cumbersome.

Appropriate level of challenge

PoG has a steep learning curve. It has a whole list of exceptions to the normal rules, in order to include or preclude a-historical events. For example German armies cannot end movement in the Channel Ports early in the game. These exceptions get in the way of a clean game system, but they add historical flavour and make the flow of the game feel right. So I give PoG the benefit of the doubt in this department.

Play balance has also been criticised by some. The primary scenario has a historical set-up and the nature of the strategic choices give the CP less chance of victory in a long game. This can be corrected; for example in tournament play auctioning using VPs will often mean a player spends 2 or 3 VPs in order to play the Allies.

Next: SPI’s La Grande Armee,

Essence of a wargame – II

Being the second part of a mini-series (probably of 2) about what makes a great wargame.

In Part One I suggested 4 points that a great wargame needs to address:

  • 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

Assessment of games against these criteria is difficult to do in an objective way. While it might be possible to create some form of rating system with defined levels that seems a bit of a heavy weight tool and a lot of work. Instead I’ve taken more of a comparative and qualitative approach, which is probably indefensible scientically – but then again, this is a blog, so what the heck!

Now it might be a good idea to look for some examples of games that meet these criteria. What follows is of course my view based on necessarily limited experience despite over 40 years of wargaming. Ahem. Let’s start by considering the three games I’ve mentioned already: Up Front, Paths of Glory and La Grande Armee.

Up Front

the first of three assessed on these criteria (suggesting this series might be 4 or 5 posts).

Convincing portrayal of topic

This game is about WW2 infantry section combat. It has individual soldiers differentiated by their own characteristics for morale, and whether or not they have NCO rank. The focus on what happens to individual soldiers, and a high level of differentiation between weapons, including tanks and anti-tank guns, as well as a wide variety of scenarios and nationally characterised troops, make this a convincing portrayal in my view.  The use of individual cards rather than counters makes the troops feel more like real soldiers.

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

Player actions are centred on a group structure (from 2 to 4 groups). Although this may not reflect historical doctrine, it permits the player to make fire or movement decisions that feel like believable decisions in the context of the game, as it is important to weigh up tactical circumstances against the possibilities presented by cards in hand and the state of one’s own and the enemy’s troops.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

Game mechanics for Up Front are designed to create short player turns with few decisions, so that action is fast and furious, interspersed with periods of inactivity, as players search for the right balance of cards for the next operation. In my view it is this aspect that portrays the ‘hurry up and wait’ nature of infantry operations.

Appropriate level of challenge

Up Front teaches the the game by gradually introducing more terrain and troop types as players progress through the rules. While this makes the rules difficult as a reference set, it improves the learning aspects. There is a mix of scenarios at all levels of complexity, and also a campaign system with points assigned to individual soldiers who can increase expertise through successes in scenarios. For those who want a tough challenge, try a parachute landing!

Next time : Paths of Glory,

Up in space without a warp drive: a review of High Frontier

The Basics

This is a very complex game.  On the scale of ‘fun’ to ‘serious’, it’s definitely well over to the dour side.  High Frontier’s theme is “realistic” space exploration in the near future, in which all the technologies in the game are presented as close to the scientific and engineering horizons. Brief checking on the internet – Wikipedia’s always right, isn’t it? – suggests they are too.  An interesting feature of the game is the interpersing of scientific and engineering information as footnotes throughout the rules, culminating in ten pages of patent descriptions. We may all learn some astro-physics from this game!

Meet The Factions

The basic premise is that there are competing blocs on Earth – the UN, NASA, Shimizu Research, ESA Powersat and Chinese Territorial Claims – that are investing in space exploration, not so that they can gather resources, but for the exotic products that can be made there.  Phil Eklund, the designer, makes a convincing case for the idea, at least to this layman.  Unfortunately it seems impossible to resist acronymitis in this particular genre, and it starts here with “basal societal unit” or BSU as a description of a faction.

Each player represents one of the factions and has a starting Crew card and an advantage. For example NASA gains a water tank in low earth orbit whenever any faction “boosts” equipment into low earth orbit.  In addition to Crew, there are cards for Thrusters, Robonauts and Refineries.  Thrusters are required to make the rockets that are essential for exploration.  Robonauts are what you’d expect – robotic astronauts; they have the ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) required for prospecting extraterrestrial sites.  Refineries make the space products that will bring you fame and glory.


Each turn players will carry out operations to further their dreams of galactic domination – well, solar system domination actually, because we’re not going beyond the asteroids until we get to the expansion game (not covered in this review).  Through operations you will get new Thrusters, Robonauts and Refineries, you will create rockets in low earth orbit, prospect sites out in space and create extraterrestrial factories and produce whizzy and terribly scientific interstellar tech stuff (WHATSITS… only kidding, I made that one up).  You’ll also need lots of water, which is held in low earth orbit in Water Tanks (WT) – these are the propellants for your rockets, and the scarcity of water in space is a primary reason for prospecting, lest your rockets get stranded.  Fortunately some places (Mars for example) have water in relative abundance, at least compared to its absolute absence in most of space.

Don’t get too carried away though.  Phil Eklund has managed to cram a lot of complexity into very few components that players can realistically get their hands on.  Typically you’ll only have one rocket with a small payload of one or two cards, a hand of not more than 4 research items, and a very few extraterrestrial bases.  The game ends when only a handful of factories are built.

If you need more stuff, you can always negotiate with the other players, and they’re likely to be equally needy, so I believe that player interaction may be an important part of successful play and a happy experience.

Blast Off!

A major complexity is moving your rocket.  The game has a workable, if not particularly friendly, movement system based on real physics.  Your movement rate will depend on the dry mass of your rocket including its payload, coupled with the thrust rating of the engine, modified by certain other conditions related to the type of rocket.  So you’ll need some fuel (water tanks), which will increase the total mass (or “wet mass”) of your rocket, resulting in a final acceleration figure that equals the number of burns your rocket can make in a single turn.  I hope you’re still with me; we have a way to go yet.

A rocket with robonaut and refinery payload

A rocket with robonaut and refinery payload

However, as each burn costs fuel, a very limited commodity owing to its mass, you’ll have to be very careful to consider the efficiency of your engine in relation to the wet mass of your rocket before you set off, or you’ll stop halfway to your goal.

While not having an insane vector movement system that some SF miniatures games have attempted, the game board is a bewildering 2D map of the near solar system, not unlike a deranged London Underground map (including the new Circle Line).  The lines on the map may go from side to side, as Pink Floyd said, but they also go round and round, and intertwine in a way that would have made the Great Cthulhu proud.  The lines are routes that space craft can travel along, complete with intersections for changing direction, and points at which you have to burn fuel (or more correctly, use your water propellant).  There are also planets, moons and asteroids, the targets of your journey.  Happily the designer has painted the most efficient routes in bold colours and labelled them with the number of burns required, so for example I can see how to get from LEO (low earth orbit, remember?) to Mars, and that it will cost me 3 burns.  Inexperienced space entrepreneurs are recommended to stick to these motorways and not to deviate onto the sideroads.

High Frontier: map section

High Frontier: map section showing Earth

Brace, Brace!

Ok, so now you know how to get to your destination. There is also the tricky question of landing.  If you don’t have large and efficient engines, landing can cost you huge amounts of fuel, which of course increases the mass of your rocket, lengthens the time it takes to get anywhere and restricts the payload.  But without a satisfactory landing strategy your rocket will be, as the game euphemistically puts it, “decommissioned”.  A lot of time and effort can be wasted by involuntary decommissioning.  Mercifully I leave the technicalities of “crash hazards” and “aerobrake hazards” to the imagination.

In short, before you even consider lift-off, make sure mission control has a Really Good Plan.

Rocket in Mars low orbit

Rocket in Mars low orbit

Darkness Descends

I had received mixed messages about High Frontier prior to acquiring a copy.  I’m now glad I have it, because it covers that niche of highly complex games that won’t hit the table frequently, but will be intensely enjoyable when it does, particularly in the company of experienced astronauts.  It has the admirable advantage of a script on the back page of the rulebook that you can read out to new players as an easy introduction.  And if their eyes glaze over after that, you can break out 7 Wonders instead.

High Frontier will not appeal to players who want an accessible, easily playable and fun game. Neither will it be of short duration, and the learning curve is steep.  For those who like an extreme challenge, planning in detail, and doing desperate deals with other players who can help you out with an extra water tank or that essential piece of kit you inadvertently left behind on Mars, then High Frontier is an excellent choice.

My favourite rule: “It is felonious to voluntarily decommission crew anywhere except at your ET factory or Low Earth Orbit”.

Published by: Sierra Madre Games
Designer: Phil Eklund
Players: 2-5 (1-5 with the expansion)
Age: 12+
Duration: 2-3 hours