John GoodeFalkland Islands
It was a dark and possibly stormy night in game designer Craig Besinque’s game room. On a bottom shelf a brawny, worn-around-the-edges, has-been was feeling frisky. Mr. Axis and Allies had seen a lot of action, though most of it three decades ago. Sure he was overweight, but he had timeless moves, well-sculpted physical features and could show you a good time if you weren’t too much into book learning and had the wrists to go the distance.
A shelf above, Ms. EuroFront was playing coy in her tight fitting tube top. She knew she was a lot to handle and that her parts didn’t exactly mesh seamlessly. But as long as her paramour didn’t focus too much down south he tended to like what she had to offer. And of course she was into older men. Almost exclusively.
We’ll never know exactly how things played out that evening but I just finished another game of their resultant lovechild: Triumph & Tragedy.
T&T is GMT’s 3-player strategic level World War 2 ETO game released in 2015 and already sold out and in the que for a reprint. It looks and feels like a Columbia game with a paper map (to be upgraded to mounted in 2nd edition), stickers, wooden blocks, cards, rules with notes in the margin and lots of 6-sided dice.
As a simulation T&T starts and ends with the map, a functional, arbitrary, area-movement representation of the western hemisphere. Small countries are one space, pre-war Germany is three, while Turkey has six spaces and Russia 25. Many spaces give the controlling player population and/or resources, though not in any realistic way. Czechoslovakia only grants population though it was relatively resource rich. I’m not aware of any strategic resources Denmark delivered (milk?) but in T&T it’s equal to Norway or all of Northern England/Scotland.
Each nationalities' units act exactly the same, though some German, UK and USA units can be built up one step larger. Every unit type from armor to aircraft carriers cost the same to build. In combat some types fire before others and the target number to get a hit varies slightly (armor needs 2 or less, infantry 3 or less): all fairly generic block-game stuff. T&T’s mechanics aren’t going bowl anyone over and if you’re a wargamer of any experience you’ve played this game before.
At least as far as the ground game goes. Where T&T gets interesting is in the diplomatic game. In addition to using your yearly resources to build your armed forces you can also buy Investment and/or Action/Diplomacy cards. The former increase your production or grant your military units special benefits. The later are required to move your armies or can be used to buy influence in neutral countries. If you can get three influence in a neutral it will ally with you permanently. Always a good thing.
This resource management aspect is tricky and a greater determinant in what side wins than the military sphere. Granted, if your armies overrun all before them a military win is still the shortest distance to point B: victory. But conflict voraciously eats both belligerents production and the combat system tends towards stalemate. Considering that all but the most casualty-free attack will mainly benefit the side not fighting and that you get a random amount of victory points (0-2) each year you don’t fight at all and T&T looks more like an argument for pacifism.
And that’s a valid argument. But it results in the insurmountable problem with three-player wargames: you’re not the master of your destiny. What you do often matters much less than what your opponents do. If you get attacked you lose the peace dividend that year. Nothing you can do about this. Once the peace is broken the nation still at peace is in a powerful position. Since this will often be the Soviets they have little incentive to do anything but collect peace dividends while building up the army and possibly investing in VP-granting technology.
The Axis can’t really sustain a two-front war, leaving the West in the odd situation of having to declare war on the Soviets, lest they win via sitzkrieg. Unless they can gobble up large tracts of land, or the West is grabbing too much Axis territory, the Soviets have no incentive to join the fray.
It all quickly and frequently goes Twilight Zone. But it can be fun. It can also be horribly lopsided. And too often you are not the master of your domain, such as when one of your rivals opts to do something random, ill-advised, or spiteful. I frequently got the feeling when playing T&T that I'm along for the ride more than leading anything.
The appeal of games like T&T is not lost on me though I’m alarmed by the trend towards ever thinner veneers of history in wargames. T&T isn’t in the category of Twilight Struggle or Churchill—games so devoid of any simulation cred they could just as easily be about dominating a landscape of confections or becoming the best fed hippopotamus—but it’s definitely a case of truth being the first casualty: historical truth. And why play a historical game if it's not at all historical? Because it can still be a good game I suppose.
Taken for what it is, T&T is a light, fun game and one very much in tune with what the current generation of wargamers seem to want. For me it’s just too light, too free-for-all and too random. Replay value is also not as high as it would seem after the first couple of plays.
Triumph & Tragedy: European Balance of Power 1936-1945
So Many Games ... So Little Time
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After playing several unsatisfying strategic level World War 2 games within the last year – Unconditional Surrender and Supreme Commander – which have very different interpretations of the war in the west in 1940, I got to thinking about games that have successfully made this one-sided campaign interesting. And there aren’t many. I can think of at least a half-dozen games I’ve played on this campaign that have missed the mark (by rank of awfulness):
1. Strange Defeat. The Fall of France 1940. Strangest thing about this title is how something this ugly and half-baked ever got published. If trained gibbons and a mimeograph machine were involved that would explain it, otherwise there’s no excuse.
2. The Game of France, 1940. Avalon Hill’s SPI-designed relic from another era. Among the last kids picked even at a time when we only had half a dozen kids on the ‘playground.’
3. 1940. GDW 120 Series game that abstracts everything to the point of pointlessness in order to meet a price point and fit into the cute little box.
4. Blitzkrieg 1940. A typical Command magazine game. Which is to say fun to play once or twice and not much concerned with history.
5. The Fall of France. GDW’s Europa series title. A quagmire of stacked counters that I recall taking longer than the actual campaign to complete. Great for its time but that time is long gone.
6. Case Yellow, 1940. Ted Racier’s take on the campaign. Long playing time, much of it uninteresting. Chromey in a not good way. The best of this bunch by far though.
The crux of the issue is that if you make the French behave too historically it’s a German romp. Unhinge them from their historical command and doctrinal problems and you often end up with Superfrench who hold on for months or even years past their expiration date.
At the time the French-Allied forces looked more than sufficient to stop the Germans. With roughly equal numbers of men, more tanks and artillery and on the defensive, the Allies seemingly had the tools to contain any German attack and then dig-in for another bout of trench warfare. Qualitatively the Allies weren’t outclassed either as more than half the panzers in the French campaign were model 1 and 2s. So it really came down to doctrine and leadership along with some German innovations, like close air support and widespread use of radios.
For my money the operational game that best manages to simulate this situation is GMT’s France ’40. Designed by Mark Simonitch and similar (though not identical) to the system used in Ukraine ’43, Ardennes '44, and Normandy ’44, France ’40 contains two games in one box (some shared pieces but separate map for each).
The Dynamo game, about crushing the Dunkirk bridgehead, is uninteresting and really more of a solitaire exercise. But the main invasion game, Sickle Cut, is a tense and fun affair.
You start with a smaller but much more mobile German force facing a French army with a large front to cover and that has dispersed its armor, preferring to parcel it out to support individual infantry divisions.
French leadership and initiative failures are represented by GQG markers, which the German gets to place every turn (starting with 6 but declining as the game goes on). Stacks suffering from Grand Quartier General meddling don’t attack and move only 2 spaces. This allows the German player to target key areas of the defense (the effect also represents air interdiction) for weakening.
Still, fighting your way through the French lines is not easy. Though you can exploit gaps, it quickly gets lonely behind enemy lines. And you need a supply line stretching the length of the map to win. Out of supply penalties are soft: You can exist out of supply for a time but can’t do much offensively. It takes Guderian-size cojones to charge past the mass of French divisions on your flanks and head to the coast.
I’ve only played Sickle Cut twice (one German, one Allied win) and Dynamo once (Allied win) so do not have a strong opinion on play balance. The Germans certainly require more finesse to get right and I have a nagging fear that this game may fall more on the side of Superfrench once you figure out optimal strategies. Then again, if the French had acted optimally, they likely would have been able to contain the German onslaught.
A point not often discussed in wargaming is that certain campaigns are more realistically simulated with inexperienced commanders. Command control rules are a way to artificially introduce that element, but it may be best simulated by players who are new to the game. Ideally you've played other games in the series so you have the rules down pat, but your first play of France '40 is the one that will most realistically put you in the role of the actual commanders.
France ’40 is what you hope to, and should, get when plunking down $40-$50 for a wargame. It checks all the boxes: solid textual presentation; graphically attractive; playtested to achieve a semblance of play balance; and overall entertainment value for the money.
There’s nothing innovative or new enough here to rank it an A but it’s the very definition of a solid B wargame. I'd play it again any time.
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Stalin’s War is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, rushed out the door in a cardboard box.
An enigma because you have to wonder how something this underdeveloped was ever released. But unless you are new to wargaming you’re not wondering all that much, as GMT releases a fair number of half-baked turkeys every year. And I say that with love in my heart and gravy on my shirt.
The suckers who purchased the first run copies of Stalin’s War received poultry so unbalanced its legs were pointing firmly skyward, muffled gobbles emanating from the shrinkwrap. Truth in advertising should have mandated a title change to Hitler’s Wet Dream. And this time it’s not just my opinion.
As evidence just look at how much the Wehrmacht was emasculated in the "second edition" (basically the same components with modified/living rules). To wit:
1. Soviets now choose any card from the deck to start the game with.
2. Axis play of reinforcement events or for replacements does not reset the operations track on first four turns (this is HUGE).
3. Soviets get 3 free replacement points on turns 2 and 3.
4. Axis lose the game if they don’t have 10 VP at end of Summer 1943.
5. Soviet reinforcements can now appear in towns (this turns out to be a big deal).
Wow! Any two of these would be major, but five kicks straight to the Axis groinal region just to gain a semblance of balance?
Was anyone who has ever played an East front wargame involved in playtesting? Was there any playtesting? I mean the very first time you play SW using the printed rules the Germans are skiing in the Urals, and Dolf is doing his little Nazi macarena in the Kremlin.
It didn’t take long after SW was released—say a month—before it was outed as the rabid gobbler it was. Seems, as is becoming the fairly standard GMT modus, that the initial purchasers were used as unwitting playtesters, with the real game emerging a year or so later with the living rules.
But giving the devil his due, the fixes have served Stalin’s War well. Though—sadly—they seem a bit slap-dash and create some new problems.
Case in point: requiring the Germans to have 10 VP at the end of Summer ’43 was presumably added so the Germans don’t unhistorically retreat to better defensive positions after they can no longer achieve automatic victory. Problem is, there are several events that subtract VP. So even if the Germans are doing well—better than historically even—they can arbitrarily instantly lose if the Soviets draw the right cards.
And that my friends, is chuck-the-whole-thing-in-the-garbage frustrating. Save yourself the potential grief and change this from requiring 10 VP to requiring the historical six Russian VP cities.
I’m a big fan of the operations track in SW, whereby each time you consecutively play a card for operations it’s worth fewer points: play two in a row and the second is worth one fewer ops, play three in a row and the third is worth two fewer ops, etc. Even armies gotta rest after all. It’s an elegant way to control the operational pace and temper those banzai krauts from making a hell-be-damned charge to Siberia.
But SW also recycles the Nordlicht/Taifun/Blau event mechanic from Barbarossa to Berlin, which served to tame the operational pace in that game. Add to this the second edition prohibition about resetting the ops track during early reinforcement or replacement plays and the Germans can find themselves not just tamed, but declawed and missing the family jewels. I was half expecting to see a Russian event titled I Neutered My German Invaders.
Adding insult to injury, the above referenced cards are 4 Ops events that must be played before the Axis can attack Leningrad/Moscow/Stalingrad-Caucasus respectively. For the Axis player they effectively read: “Permanently lose a turn and a 4 Ops card.” In the early war deck there are only five 4 Ops cards. And you really can’t kick off Barbarossa with a bang unless you play a big ops card. So you often have no choice but to play one or more of these events for ops. They are also the best replacement cards.
I won’t argue that the Germans just didn’t have the resources to tackle all three objectives and the cards represent laying the logistical groundwork to attack them. But along with the other prohibitions this is a bit of throttling overkill in the early game. And I really dislike the side effect of the Russians magically knowing they can lightly garrison these cities until the event is played. And once one of these hits the discard pile the Russians know the city is safe for several turns even with a German horde nearby.
When played as events these cards should grant 1 op that can only be used to attack the relevant space. That would keep the Soviets honest at least.
In addition to being enigmatic, Stalin’s War is also a riddle that challenges you to figure it out. As a simulation it’s not that interesting. The game’s narrative is shallow and as scripted as a Hogan’s Heroes episode. And you never really feel like you’re a commander on the Eastern Front like you do in say Russian Front or even The Russian Campaign.
But there’s definitely a puzzle here. I’ve had a lot of fun figuring it out. Play can get downright Chess like. And like Chess, the mechanics aren’t difficult but play is subtle. It’s the mechanics that engage you here not so much the situation or history.
Also like a riddle though, once you figure it out it loses much of its appeal. After five games I’m done with SW. But I’ve gotten my $20 worth.
The first edition of Stalin’s War ranks an F for complete lack of play balance. Too bad the second edition was used as a triage opportunity more than a way to take it to the next level. Still, it's worth playing a couple times, especially if you favor tactical gameplay over period feel and simulation value.
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I just spent two days in the wargaming equivalent of the land of Oz, also known as GMT’s Unconditional Surrender Europe. And just like in the classic film it looked grand from a distance. And all the rumors spoke of its magical properties. Here was the place you could go to have your wish of an innovative new strategic level World War 2 ETO game fulfilled.
All you needed was a brain, some heart and the courage to have a go at it. Having a little of the first, enough of the second and plenty of the third, I dove into the mini game Case Blue, included in C3i magazine to introduce players to the USE system. This was followed by playing a couple of the scenarios from the main game.
After a few turns it quickly became apparent I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or in Europe for that matter. The “S” word should not be used when describing USE unless you’re talking about it simulating the carnival ride bumper cars. That’s what armies essential are in this game. Think of it as the military expansion to Ricochet Robots and you won't be far off.
You pay one or two production points to move a unit. Units move individually and “attack” by spending movement points to bash into enemy units. The most likely result, particularly if the attacker is the Germans, will be that the enemy retreats one space. Then you can spend more movement to bash into him again. Repeat for every unit you have, with armor being particularly good at bump-and-grab. Both sides roll in each combat and if you seriously outroll your opponent the defender may flip and retreat or the attacker may lose all his remaining movement points. That is essentially what you spend hours doing. And don’t even think about defense in depth. Having a friendly army covering your backside is the fastest way to get yourself unconditionally dead.
There’s some tactical, though generally obvious, finesse involved in bumping through enemy lines in order to isolate units that will be subsequently attacked. But don’t think about making large pockets of isolated defenders, you are only isolated if you are not adjacent to another friendly unit or city so only a single army can ever be isolated at any one time. Supply is checked at the end of your own move so surrounded pockets don’t suffer from being out of supply and can ‘bump’ back at full strength on their turn.
You don’t alternate moving units so be prepared to sit through a good long time of your opponent bumping your lines out of shape. Then it’s your turn to form a new line, hammer your old line back into shape if you can, or at least bump off the enemy units that stuck their necks out too far. Your not so much a general as a blacksmith.
The supply rules are bizarre and seem to have come from history books not available to the general public. Completely encircled cities not only supply armies in this game, you can build entire armies in them behind enemy lines. This even though no army-size unit was ever built in a surrounded city behind enemy lines. Not in World War 2, not in World War 1, not in the American Civil War. Never.
The point of surrounding armies was that it made them less effective and impossible to sustain in the field. Once this happened there were only two results: surrender/dissolution or a breakout/break in. They never got larger. They never organized entire new armies. Never. It’s not the first game to allow this, but it’s particularly dopey here.
That's because in USE the smallest units are armies, as in 100,000 to 150,000 men. Army scale makes for low counter density but it also means if you want to garrison a city you will have to use 100,000-plus soldiers to do it. This matters, for example, in Case Blue where you simply don’t have enough pieces on the map as the Axis to take and hold your victory cities without the Russians playing Twister on your supply lines. Oddly, Case Blue is an introductory game that’s essentially unwinable by one of the sides. Not the way to go methinks.
Overall USE is among the most process heavy games in recent memory. Take a peek below at the Fortranesque flow chart of what just the Action Phase involves. This is for each unit.
Every combat allows each player to secretly commit extra assets to it (using a go, no-go, style bidding mechanic) — either air power or event chits. That’s fine but eats up time way out of proportion to game effect. After the 50th time you start ignoring the hidden commitment mechanic and just say you’re adding/not adding to your attack.
Diplomacy and National Will have been abstracted to the point of near pointlessness. Much time is wasted on this as well as strategic warfare for very little meaningful effect. Diplomacy in particular is clunky and random. It’s neither fun nor generates realistic results.
A good example of the much-process-for-little-effect problem is the production system. Production is often at the core of strategic level games since it allows success to reinforce itself and allows swings of momentum.
In USE many major cities contain a factory and each nation has production equal to a multiple of the factories it controls, usually two times. This number is what you can spend to activate your units, purchase replacements and purchase random acts of diplomacy. Okay so far, except the points don’t accumulate and you have so many (except in Case Blue where the Germans don't have enough) that the vast majority of the time you can move everything and build back everything you lost in combat. Like much of the ancillary stuff in USE, it’s a lot of fuss for very little variance. Maybe this begins to matter in the later stages of the full campaign. I don't know, but I hope so.
At first USE is somewhat fun. But like munchkin karoke, it quickly gets mind-numbing. So after enjoying a few turns of Fall Blau, I quickly found myself wanting to do nothing so much as stop after a few turns into the scenarios. Thankfully, my opponent felt the same way. It just all felt so fiddly-wrong and it could have been set on Barsoom for all the World War 2 feel it has. It was work to play this: blue collar work, outside, with a shovel, and no gloves, facing hard ground, on a 100 degree day, with only dirty water to drink.
The feeling wasn't unlike what I get when playing a made-to-be-played-solitaire game, these always fill me with nihilistic dread. Except here you have to wait for your opponent. And you need an opponent.
Still, if one enjoys process heavy, solitaire games like Patton's Best, or the more recent The Hunters, they may find something to like here. Many people apparently do.
But do yourself a favor before laying down the substantial green this game is going to cost you and try it out with Case Blue. That will allow you to pull back the curtain. You may see a wizard artfully conjuring up magical mechanics that blend into a state-of-the-art WW 2 simulation, or, like me, all you see is some bumper cars and a couple of 40+-page instruction manuals on how to drive them.
The rules are comprehensive and well written, the designer seems to go above and beyond in supporting the game and it certainly brings something new to the table, so it's not an F in my book. But I'd rather find myself aboard a hot air balloon in a tornado than have to spend another day with USE.
Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe
Unconditional Surrender! Case Blue
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There are few conflicts that interest me less than the American Civil War. The only one that comes immediately to mind is the war on drugs in Columbia, i.e. Andean Abyss. The ACW just always seemed like the most foregone of conclusions and most games on it tend to focus on the meatgrinder aspects. GDW’s A House Divided was an exception, but as a simulation it's in the same class as War at Sea.
This is why I ignored the well-received The Civil War from Victory Games. And I would have ignored For the People too if a friend hadn’t wanted to play it so much he bought me a copy. Gaming etiquette therefore demanded I play it with him. Damn gaming etiquette! Grudgingly, I plowed through the rules, never feeling that little tingle you get in your stomach when a game seems like it will be particularly fun.
But it was a Mark Herman design, for my money the best in the business. And it had already gone through its trial by fire with a previously published edition. I’d received the first edition of FTP published by GMT and released in 2000 (FTP was originally released by Avalon Hill the day after Avalon Hill was sold to Hasbro in 1998).
Our experience was typical of first edition FTP play: We were largely stumped by the clunky in the extreme river crossing rules, and the CSA ran roughshod over the border states and crossed into Ohio. The CSA won, though through political means not military conquest.
In our second playing we found ways to defend against Panzer Division Robert E. Lee but still the CSA seemed a bit too powerful with its ability to park in border states and clobber the USA’s strategic will. The game seemed a trifle unbalanced in the CSA’s favor in its 2000 edition, though not overwhelmingly so. But FTP was a big seller and GMT republished it in 2006 with some significant rules changes, one being that border states no longer ding US strategic will.
Fixing issues with a game when reprinting should be a no-brainer, but it's a lesson lost on many companies -- yea I'm looking at you Decision Games.
The takeaway here being to make sure you are using the current living rules when playing FtP, not the rules printed with the 2000 edition. If you do that you’re in for a real treat.
FTP uses the simpler version of the card-driven mechanic, a la Hannibal. The cards can only be used as the event or for ops. Reinforcements are largely fixed and this where the Union manpower advantage manifests itself.
Though it’s a ‘parts bin’ game with all its major elements coming from previous titles, the whole thing just meshes. It completely erased my prejudice against the ACW as a wargaming topic. Not to say I’m jonesing for a go at Terrible Swift Sword, but FTP hits the table at least once a year now.
It appears your chances of agreeing with me that FTP is an A-grade game are inversely proportional to how much you think you know about the war of the rebellion/war of northern aggression (take your pick).
Translating a four year war into something playable in a day is going to require ample judgment calls and much condensing of information and events. The haters seem to have real issues with the former. Even 150+ years later some folks are still fighting over some of this stuff and take great offense if you don't agree with their interpretation. It's a bit of a minefield for any designer.
So if you find any of the following terribly misguided you may be an FTP hater and may want to avoid the game.
1. Grant and Lee are complete equals militarily, though Grant appears a year later, in the Spring of 1963 (historically during the Vicksburg campaign). CSA’s Forrest and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson are also militarily equal to Lee/Grant.
2. Attackers win ties, which happen frequently, unless battling for a key objective, when they don’t. This tends to send the Rebs a runnin' more often than the Yanks.
3. General casualties can only happen during very successful combats.
4. Both sides could have reassigned their key generals to any theater without restriction, and further they would have performed similarly to their historical effort.
Since I came to FTP with a high school level knowledge of the ACW, point #1 didn’t bother me and #4 didn’t even cross my mind. Points #2 and #3 I can write off to design-for-effect, of which Mark Herman is a master.
FTP is certainly more game than definitive simulation. But it gives you all the interesting bits in the proper proportion. It’s also very well balanced, having gone through two full editions of playtesting by the gaming public.
Now haters are gonna hate, but unless you’re a card carrying member of the James and Walter Kennedy Fan Club, odds are that you’re gonna like FTP. It's in my top 20 of all time and induced me to reading several ACW books, including Grant's classic memoirs.
GMT is releasing this game again in 2015 with a mounted map. It also won the 1998 Charles S. Roberts Best Pre-World War II Board Game Winner, though that's the AH edition which is a fair bit different.
For the People
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Wooden blocks for fog of war and unit strength … Check!
Full-size cards to drive game and for historical events … Check!
Mounted map for mass market appeal … Check!
Full-color illustrated rulebooks for Euro feel … Check!
Wooden cubes because? I have no idea why … Check!
Kitchen sink … I couldn’t find it but it’s probably in the box somewhere.
Academy Games offers up a big box of game component goodness in Strike of the Eagle. With a street price below $40, pound-for-pound it may be the best wargaming value you can find today. And this game won the 2011 Charles Roberts Award for best historical boardgame.
But, though many Euro fans would argue, snazzy and ample componentry do not by themselves make a game worth buying. Once you meet a minimum component quality standard it’s up to the game to prove itself worthy.
And SotE does, sorta, mostly, kinda, maybe.
It’s the type of game that lends itself to a list of virtues and vices. On the virtue side:
1. The rules, while dense, are complete and we never ran into a question we could not answer. Granted the answers are not always where logic would dictate.
2. The basic system – each side places a limited number of order counters on the map and these are sequentially revealed to move units, reconnoiter, dig in, regroup or entrain – is sound and appropriate to the time.
3. Excellent quality and nicely designed components all around, especially for the price.
4. Interesting and not overdone topic – Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920.
But, ultimately, it left me wanting more. Its vices:
1. Wooden blocks not really a plus here. I know this is a revision of The Eagle and the Star but it seems to have been decided to make a wooden block game first and then the topic was chosen. While standard counter and hex games grant players too much information, wooden blocks conceal too much. Both armies had reconnaissance and intelligence assets. Both had a fairly good idea what was in front of them. Everything being a mystery makes game play less interesting and more cumbersome. Front line troops, especially if engaged previously, should probably be revealed, while behind the lines troops are concealed.
2. Nature of conflict. This is a lot of head-bashing, World War 1 style. Infantry moves 1 space, cavalry 2, with a +1 bonus if you force march. It’s a long way to Warsaw and much stands in your way. And there are many preexisting forts on the map which take time to invest.
3. Lack of interesting scenarios. Most of the scenarios are half-map 1-2 turn affairs that end before they get interesting. The one meaty scenario, the full campaign, is a lot to tackle. So we played the short scenarios, which piqued our interest, and built up to the campaign game, which was a month-long once-a-week affair in our case. But then you’re done with the game. I have no desire to replay any of the scenarios again. They’re just not interesting enough.
4. Operational pace. This seems to move slower than the actual campaign. You only get one free move on each of the two fronts. Additional moves require a leader or an Ops card play. Especially in the scenarios, you need to use your cards for ops to get anything going. But then you can't use them for their historical events, reactions, battle bonuses, reinforcements etc. The card events add flavor but you really can't afford to play them as such.
5. PBEM unfriendly. There’s too much back-and-forth for this to work on PBEM. I played one scenarios this way and we both agreed it was too cumbersome.
After just one go at the campaign game it's too early to make a call on play balance but it seems tough on the Poles. The push on Warsaw developed in our case, though not reaching the city's outskirts, but there’s just not enough time for the Polish counterstroke.
SotE is an odd mix for me: a high quality game, with a solid system on an interesting topic, that’s fun to play, yet not one I'm keen to revisit. It’s like a Tom Clancy novel, interesting once but not literature and ultimately forgettable. Though worth the price of admission, it's unlikely to be the kind of game you'll be talking about the following day or thinking about between sessions.
Oh, and the wooden cubes are just to keep track of reinforcements you will receive, something a track or even side record would of made much easier and simpler.
Strike of the Eagle
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It’s a given in our culture that if something is wildly successful there will be a sequel. Inevitably, the sequel won’t be as good, either because it’s a rehash of the same thing rushed to market, or because it applies the formula in a way that’s a rough fit. WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin suffers a little from both.
Ted Raicer’s Paths of Glory was the runaway hit of the 1990s. The card-driven mechanic came into its own with this game. Each turn you have to choose among activating units, mustering replacements, strategically redeploying or triggering a historical event. You have to play six cards each turn and you only have seven so tough choices are a constant.
The system fit World War I like a LEGO, getting the tempo of the conflict just right. It actually made gaming World War I interesting at the strategic level, something no other game had managed and many had failed at. When I now think about the dozens of hours spent fiddling with the static lines in Guns of August I question my sanity.
Money talks and in this case it screamed for GMT to port the system over to the best-selling genre in wargaming by a wide margin: World War 2. Mr. Raicer went to work and three years later WW 2: Barbarossa to Berlin hit the streets. It sold like herring at a seal convention.
At this time I was over the moon about CDGs and purchased just about every one. The mechanic allows easy PBEM and is perfect for those of us who don’t have live bodies nearby willing to spend every waking hour gaming. Still, I didn’t buy BtB at this time. I demoed the game at a convention and it immediately struck me less as a worthy sequel to PoG and more like one of those choose-your-path adventure books.
Of course eventually I succumbed, after it won the CSR Award for best WW2 game in 2002, garnered countless ecstatic reviews and saw heavy ACTS play. Once the first print run sold out I had to have a copy. So my history with the game starts in 2008 and I’ve only played it half a dozen times.
The reason for the low number of playings is that whenever the choice comes up to start a new game, face-to-face or PBEM, BtB just doesn’t make the cut. And not because it’s a bad game, quite the contrary, it may actually be too good a game. Experience counts here. Noobs beware.
With its predictable card flow, limited choices and optional-in-theory-only events you move along somewhat like playing the Mad Max version of The Game of Life. There's a fixed path, with a few branches, and you land on a fixed number of spaces in your journey to a defined endpoint. Sure there are choices to be made along the way, but their scope is narrow.
This scripted nature of the game is the main knock on it, but it’s also a plus. This repeatability makes for great competitive play. It's reasonably balanced (in tourneys both sides are bid for) and you can’t stray into alternate history territory: The Germans will get next to Moscow. The Wallies will be banging into Germany by game end. And the Italians will desert their sauerkraut-obsessed friends to the north. You really can’t prevent any of that.
And this was obviously a conscious design decision, one you have to accept if you’re going to like it. Paradoxically, it’s a strategic level game that’s not interesting at the strategic level.
But it shines at the operational level. How you attack, maximize terrain, time event plays and where you commit units does determine whether you win or lose. It’s not scripted to the point that the end is predetermined, though the endgame is: the Germans will weaken no matter what you do, the Russians will build their steamroller, and the Americans will poke you in the rear. At the end of the game the board position will not look that different after your 5th play or your 50th. The devil is entirely in the operational details in BtB.
And it’s unquestionably a fun game. I can’t think of a better strategic level World War 2 game that covers the entire ETO and is playable in a normal working day. Granted, that’s a small club.
From the outside looking in, it appears BtB exists mainly because it was as close to printing money as you can get in wargame publishing. Take PoG system, add World War 2, season with Mr. Raicer’s name on the box and stand back as sweaty-palmed gamers hunt-and-peck their credit card numbers into your website to grab a copy at $55 a pop.
But the PoG system isn’t really a good fit for World War 2. The operational tempo is wrong. If you measured the total ground gained by all the armies in WW1 versus WW2 it wouldn’t even be close. So forcing PoGs sedate pace into a WW2 framework was going to require some accommodation.
Given this, Mr. Raicer demonstrated why he is among the hobby’s leading lights by designing an entertaining, historically palpable and challenging game. Historical plausability wasn’t going to be possible unless players were kept on a tight leash.
Make it easy for the Turks, Spaniards or Swedes to enter the war, or amphibiously invade Venice, or any number of highly improbable things and soon the crazy train is debarking Rommel in Baghdad. If a game allowed that it might quickly be mocked into obscurity. Hewing to the historical line was the safe bet.
You can make a good argument that BtB erred too much in the safe direction. But I think it was the better alternative. I’ll always go for a good game that gives me fewer choices over a chaotic mess where anything goes. Ideally BtB would have been more strategically flexible, but that would have taken more development time. The CDG trend was hot at the turn of the century and like a panzer corps spotting a gap in the Russian lines, it had to be exploited. Mach schnell!
BtB won’t get much more play from me going forward as there are more interesting titles beckoning, but I can see why a large contingent rate this game a 10 and continue to play it 13 years after its debut.
World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin
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Hannibal: Rome Vs. Carthage doesn’t need me to sing its praises. Going on 4000 people have rated it on BGG, and even with the normal Chorus of the Clueless downgrading it because they can’t figure out how to apply die roll modifiers, read a table, or have attention spans measured in seconds, it still manages an average rating north of 7.8. It’s the eight highest rated wargame. And while BGG ratings have no external statistical validity, numbers like this should make anyone looking for a great game take notice.
I started thinking about Hannibal again after reviewing Hellenes. Though set in roughly similar periods, one is a classic that I loved from the first time playing it, while the other I would not sit through again without financial incentive. What makes one compelling and the other fall flat? Here’s a Top 10 list of why Hannibal is a classic game:
1. It puts you into the mindset of the side you’re playing. Though the play sequence is symmetrical, the Carthos and the Romans feel very different here. Though you have other generals, as the Carthos you feel like Hannibal. He is you and you are driving the game with your every action. As the Romans you feel more like the senate. You tolerate the current crop of generals and hope they don’t do something stupid, like get their army routed. You can always call up more troops, but you fear the political consequences of a major defeat.
2. It’s well balanced. There is no absolute balance since it’s a cards and dice game but I’ve had many games go down to the last turn. However, we play with one house: The ‘Messenger Intercepted’ card can be a hoser. We require the person playing it to discard a card at the end of their turn and don't allow it to be played for the event on the last turn of the game.
3. It’s playable in an afternoon: around three hours usually does it, so you can switch sides if you have all day. A good length for a classic game. Titles that take less than an hour tend to seem too trivial and you’re more inclined to take stupid risks since you can just lose and start over. Titles that take more than a full day tend not to get played enough to become classics.
4. Complexity is commensurate with what you’re simulating. As the overall commander of a nation in a three hour game I don’t want to be deciding what the horses are eating, what our march formations look like, or how much we are paying the blacksmiths.
5. Multiple options each turn, but not so many that it gets confusing or arbitrary. In Hannibal you usually have three: play the event, expand political control, or move an army (usually Hannibal hisownself).
6. Mechanics interact in a logical and interesting way. Victory requires winning hearts and minds. You can do this by buying their love or kicking Roman arse. The people love to see a good arse kicking. They’re not really that particular about the arse being kicked though. They just love a winner. The peasantry tends to be a fickle lot. You gotta love ‘em, or at least pretend to.
7. Components are well designed, functional and ideally, pretty. To feel part of the world being simulated you can’t have a hand-drawn map with white numbered chits. The original Avalon Hill Hannibal is the one to get. The map is theme appropriate, though I could do without the random sketches that serve no purpose. But since it was printed in 1996 the cards are not full color. Still, primitive works for a game set in primitive times. The current Valley Games edition isn't as period appropriate. Gone is the simple elegance, replaced by what looks like the result of a violent collision between a boardgame and a video game. The Cartho die now has Punic characters. That sounds cool, but constantly having to look up what each friggin’ crooked line equates to gets annoying fast. I seem to have gotten too old to remember six new characters. Which kinda P's me O.
8. Victory conditions are clear and the path to reach them apparent and within your control. You’d think this was a no-brainer, but many Euros fail this test. Sometimes the victory conditions are the most complex part of those games. Count the number of loaves in the oven, divide by pregnant teenagers and add the metric volume of barley in your barn etc … Here you just have to control more provinces than your opponent. There are only 18 so it’s readily apparent who’s ahead.
9. It introduces something new or uses existing mechanics in a novel way. Hannibal is the second title to use the card driven mechanic we all know and love today. It’s an evolution of Mark Herman’s We The People. It’s the first time the cards had Action/Command Points in addition to a historical event.
10. It balances replay value with historicity. Make it too historically limiting and you’re on rails, with every game following the same path. Make it too loose and you have Caesar discovering America. Hannibal doesn’t drift too far from history so the games tend to be similar, though not the same.
A not insignificant number of Hannibal players seem to detest the combat card mechanic. I find this baffling. It’s perfect for the game, though more time-consuming than rolling a die. The first game I can recall having anything similar was 1776, but you only played one card for the whole battle in that game. The implementation is much better here. Each time you have a battle you draw a varying amount of combat cards depending on how many troops you have, how good your general is, how many allies you can summon, and a few other odds and ends, such as if you successfully deployed your elephants. The attacker plays a card and the defender must match it (there are 5 types of attacks) or lose the battle. If the defender matches it, he can try to become the attacker. The attacker then plays the first card etc. until one side can’t match and panics, retreating from the battle. Both sides take some attrition casualties but only the loser takes retreat casualties. If you panic the opposing army by playing a Double Envelopment attack there’s a chance the whole army will be destroyed, as happened to the Romans at Cannae.
It’s simple and gives you some control over the battles, not to mention it’s often darn exciting. If you really hate it, someone has come up with a dice based combat resolution system.The game will play faster but definitely not better.
If you’re new to Hannibal, just remember the Romans can lose every battle and win the game. And sometimes you want to purposely lose quickly if your hand is bad, to minimize attrition casualties and avoid getting DEed.
Hannibal is on the clock. He has to invade, win the battles and the hearts and minds. It’s a tough balancing act. The Romans are on the strategic defensive for the game's first half, but once Pronconsul Scipio Africanus shows up the game shifts gears and things blow wide open. It never ceases to be exciting.
Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage
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I played Hellenes for most of two consecutive days. It was boring, derivative and seemed to have the history Scotch-taped on. Exactly the kind of game there should be less off, i.e. titles lacking anything new, loaded with done-to-death mechanics and simulating nothing so much as a cardboard door stop.
Why does this game exist? What does it add to the hobby? Answers: A: Five-hundred people prepurchased it to cover the production tab and B: Nothing. This is the dark side of the GMT P500 and similar subscription programs. You just need a sales pitch that 500 people will buy into to launch a game, resulting in many marginal products that often trickle down to us non-subscribers via the bargain bin.
I realize I’m the fool here, but I can’t seem to resist the siren call of the bargain cardboard box with alleged game inside. And the secondary market suffers no fools. You touch it, you own it, usually for a looong time. Given this fact, I expect to die with Hellenes in my possession.
That is too bad because I’ve had the Hellenes experience when it was called Crusader Rex, Julius Caesar, Hammer of the Scots or even Wizard Kings, among many others. The ABC combat system—units deal damage in alphabetical order, with elite or ranged units usually ‘A,’ and standard infantry generally ‘C’— isn’t so wonderful that it alone can carry a game—and certainly not after a dozen other titles have already used it. And just filing off the edges with a 'prestige' rule isn't enough.
If Hellenes is your first ABC game, you may like it well enough. It is a fun and often tense way to resolve combat. Further, it seems well suited to quickly resolve warfare from ancient times up to medieval. Though you won't be using it frequently here as it's difficult to maneuver and your armies are disbanding constantly. Sparta is only 3 straight ahead spaces from Athens so no one is going to be surprised or outflanked.
The engine that drives Hellenes is, you guessed it, a deck of cards that dole out action points. You spend action points to move, recruit and replace casualties. Sound like that Seinfeld episode you’ve seen 14 times? Events can also be triggered, and you can guess what they are: Add a leader, plague in city, civil war, tribal uprising, partridge in a pear tree ...
I, thankfully, came to this game after the rules were revised from those in the box. Judging by the amount of blue type in the living rules (signifying changes, additions etc.), the originals left much to the imagination. They glow in the dark there's so much blue. We're talking night light here. Make sure you download the living rules if you decide to play this game.
Now it’s not a bad looking game, but neither is it going to cause any jaws to drop. Actually, when I first put the map on the table I thought maybe mold had grown on it. It’s mostly a mossy green blob. And of course it has that stone-chiseled-looking font in case you forgot this is supposed to be ANCIENT Greece. But it’s functional enough, though the supporting charts and tables are on very lightweight paper. Methinks it was sourced to meet a low price point.
Rating this game has me conflicted. Conflicted in the "it's not you, it's me" sense. Judging by the high BGG ratings, obviously many like Hellenes, at least some aspect of it. But one can only evaluate a game in the context of what one has played/experienced. And while it is necessary to take a step back to evaluate a title on its own terms, ultimately I can’t unknow what I know. Reviewing is in a way an attempt to legitimize your prejudices with words.
And my prejudices make me an anti-Hellenesite. Mainly because it adds nothing that I haven’t already experienced multiple times. I can step sufficiently far back to imagine myself liking this just for the combat mechanic and asymmetrical sides, but then I’m sitting on a cloud peering down the skylight into my game room. Imagine if they remade The Matrix for the fifth time and the main character is now called "Theo" and "Perseus" tries to get him to understand that "there is no spear." Great once, okay twice, but enough already.
Though what ultimately tips the balance against Hellenes is that it offers exactly zero insight. As in bupkis. Ancient history is always as much guess as fact when it comes to the details, but Hellenes doesn’t even make a guess. The hidden wooden block mechanic doesn't seem to fit here. It's telling us that the Peloponnesian Wars were essentially the same as the Roman campaigns or Crusades and there wasn't anything unique to them beyond a different map. The closest we get is one piece of random chrome. That would be the “Olympians” rule. Appeal to a god and you get a second chance at something that didn’t go well for you. For example, unit recruitment draws, which are random. Kinda 'meh,' eh?
As leader of either side in Hellenes you can order new military units be formed and end up with a boat. The deepest insight I got from this game is that I would not want to be the guy to show the king a boat when he ordered a phalanx. I think I already knew that.
I may have enjoyed Hellenes if it was my first wargame. In the 1970s SPI crapped out games like a corn-fed chicken and we enthusiastically played them. Games much worse than this. And we liked them. We genuinely liked them. From the tedious, like The Punic Wars; to the unplayable, like Fall of Rome; to the just godawful, like Tito (you know the one with the map that looks like an alien eye chart, and found at every wargame auction ever held), we played them all with little complaining.
But that’s no longer the case. Today the hobby is mature and I think you have to judge in context to what’s out there now and what’s come before. In that context there's not much to like here, except the price. The secondary market is flooded with copies of this game. After our gaming weekend my opponent and I both put our copies out to pasture.
Since I harbor no nostalgia for tired retreads, when it comes time to decide what hits the table Hellenes will never be 'the one.' That ranks it a ...
Hellenes: Campaigns of the Peloponnesian War
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We affectionately call it ‘Nappy,’ because its official, legal-type name, The Napoleonic Wars, just seems too buttoned-up for this casual dice-fest with Napoleonic overtones.
Not to say that it has no simulation value, but when you marry the card-driven movement/action scheme to the Yahtzee combat mechanic—roll a 6, zap a battalion—it’s a bit of a climb to realism. Season with free-for-all diplomacy rules and at times you enter that place between light and shadow, The Twilight Zone. Once I had the Danes kicking the Russians out of Moscow, a smoking Rod Serling visible in a Kremlin window.
But Nappy passes the minimum test for being a simulation: it’s possible, and in fact not unlikely, for the game to play out roughly along historical lines.
Grand strategic games, especially those involving free-for-all diplomacy rules, seem to be impossible to get right the first time and TNW is no exception. There are just too many alliance iterations to cover in a short rulebook, resulting in many questions and much confusion among first edition players. Minor nations and alliances weren’t the only thing that perplexed early adopters but they were the main thing. I have a list of FAQs longer than the original rulebook.
But Nappy was, and is, playable right out of the box in its first or second editions. Unfortunately, the second edition isn’t just an update, it’s a little bit of a different game. GMT opted to change some aspects instead of just fixing what was broken. A bad call.
The most controversial aspect of Nappy is the Peace Die Roll. The game can end at the end of any turn, even turn 1. The end of turn 1 almost always has the French ahead. Each player can draw one less card on the next turn in order to affect this die roll. But players are greedy and in the vast majority of the games I’ve played the Coalition players prefer to take their chances. Then a 5 or 6 is rolled and the French win after 1 turn. No one is happy. Not even the French really, unless the game was for money.
I really like this uncertain game-end mechanic but players should probably be forced to act more like the governments they represent. The Napoleonic era was all about biding your time for the right moment to jump back into the fray. Game players, however, are not so keen to sit out a year or two of game time biding.
And this affects how a typical game develops. With a roughly even number of cards between the Imperials and Coalition, Russia rushes to Austria’s aid. Making for a standoff in front of Vienna. Unless the French drew a killer hand, Napoleon often can’t quite take on the combined Austro-Russians. But since the French are ahead in key cities, le petit caporal is content to sit in front of Vienna and wait them out. Events then often diverge wildly from history with the French trying to recruit the Prussians or Turks, or even go after Britain if Trafalgar turned out more favorably. The invasion of Russia doesn’t often happen under this scenario. However, if you can pull off an Austerlitz and thrash the Austro-Russian army things tend to curve back to historical.
The other thing that can widely skew history is the combat system. Sometimes you roll 20 dice without a single 6. Sometimes you roll 5 dice and they are all 5s or 6s. In the world of Nappy, sometimes Napoleon gets bare-ass spanked. This tends to change history. But, no single defeat is usually the end of the world for you, with the possible exception of the times the French sink the entire British navy. Very hard for the Brits to come back from that, but it is a rare thing.
Nappy is ideally a four-player game, though three works fine too. I’ve avoided two-player. And five-player means someone has to be the Prussians. They sit out the entire first turn, and after that neutrality is often the preferred option for the second turn as well. It’s basically a good side for the player least interested in the game.
So why is second edition inferior? I think the designer took the wrong lesson away from the success of the first edition. We didn’t love the game because of its whammy cards. We loved it in spite of the whammy cards. We didn’t love it because one side could go on a tear and annihilate everything in its path. We loved it because of the rare possibility that you could work your nation to that point.
The three main reasons I like second edition less:
1. Though it adds 20 additional cards, these come at the expense of the ‘Reserves’ cards. Reserves were fixed cards each nation received at the start of each turn. The mechanic still exists in second edition but now you don’t have cards, you have to keep track of Reserves separately on your headquarters display. They don’t count as cards in your hand, making card play and preemption opportunities less interesting.
2. The new cards skew high on number of command points and whammy potential (more than half are fives and sixes and nine are red dot, so are triggered by minors). Several can be real hosers: Kingdom Of Naples, Capitulation, even Mud in the early going.
3. But the winner in the worst new mechanic retrofit into a good existing game category is ... getting a chance to draw a resource whenever you route an army. Getting routed is usually enough of a disaster without adding serious insult to the injury. A resource is sort of a card on steroids, also being a victory point and turn extender. A couple good rolls late in a turn and this can wildly swing a game. Not usually what you want.
In le grande scheme of things though, Nappy is among my favorite, light, low brain-drain, wargames. You can even play it with non-gamers if they have an interest in the period. And you can join a multi-player game most any time on ACTS.
TNW has a large following and been going strong for nearly 15 years. It has spawned two sort-of sequels. Wellington, an outright disaster so full of whammy cards that nothing you do matters so much as your opponent drawing the card that effectively reads: “Ha, ha … You lose _______”(Fill in the blank):
A. The Battle
B. The Game
C: Your Sanity
And Kutuzov, which I haven’t played, but was in the GMT bargain bin for many years. Never a good sign.
Nappy is a game I’d play most any time with most anybody. High praise given the number of options in the light wargame category. It’s currently rather pricey (May 2015) as it’s between printings and its P500 numbers aren’t making the cut.
The Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars (Second Edition)
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