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At Any Cost: Metz 1870» Forums » Reviews

Subject: The masterpiece a forgotten era deserved rss

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Gael Fatou
France
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Disclaimer : this is my first review so please don’t bite. I tried to put into it what I usually don’t find in reviews (system analysis mainly) but I must admit being unskilled in the field. I was sufficiently impressed by this game to feel compelled to write my bit about it.


At Any Cost is a game about the major battle of a seldom-known conflict : the war of 1870 between the second French Empire and the Prussian-led German alliance, which led to the collapse of the former and the creation of the modern, unitary state of Germany.
The theme is quite fascinating : an interesting mix between the napoleonic era and the first world war : brightly clad lines of soldiers will walk with their one-shot guns (but rifled and rapidly reloading) toward machine-guns nests. Very intriguing.


The scale is grand tactical with brigade-sized counters, 500 yards per hex and 1 hour per turn.


The game is very well presented : the books are illustrated by gorgeous period paintings and the counter art is very tasteful. The writing is excellent : rules are presented in a concise, well-organized and precise way and the historical commentary is very interesting.


The system used is “Blind Swords”, powering a Civil War series of game as well as Duel of Eagles, the precursor to At Any Cost. This system is designed to emphasize the three “f” (fog, friction and fortune) of war. Here are its major features :


Initiative :
this is a chit-pull system at corps-level : chit representing individual corps are put into a cup and randomly drawn. Each time a chit is pulled, all the brigades belonging to the corps can play. This result in a certain amount of uncertainty :

* The individual player has no degree of choice in which corps will be next activated. If you need one of them at once to take a hill so as to cut the retreat path of a fleeing enemy division, you have to live with the random outcome of the chit-pulling, whether good or bad.

* It is impossible to even know which player will play next : the cup is shared, the same player can play twice or thrice or more (though the odds are low) in a row.

All in all, I must admit I usually don’t like this kind of system : it makes it impossible to coordinate your army (e.g. attack simultaneously with two adjacent units of two different corps or delay the action of a corps the time for another to reach a position etc.). That said, I usually play ww2 games and these scale and era actually have notable differences :

* There is no radio, once orders are given (and delivered by a courier), individual generals must act : there is no real time coordination of large units.

* There is a tradition of very large autonomy of individual corps, acting as small, independent armies (at one point in the battle, General Canrobert’s 6th corps stood idly watching another one engaging the enemy, Canrobert just didn’t feel concerned).

After giving some thought to this, I realized that this activation system actually made a lot of sense in the context of this battle : it actually is more faithful to how corps historically behaved. One must always keep in mind the context that a system tries to model. Moreover, it keeps a high level of suspense throughout the game : everything can change if bloody Canrobert can get his lazy bottom to act (i.e. his chit is pulled).
Another quality of this system is its high degree of interactivity, as an OCS player, I can tell you this is quite a change not having to wait a few hours for the opponent to finish his turn (this is not a criticism of OCS, as explained before, I don’t care for random chit-pulling in the age of mechanized, centrally-commanded large formations).


Random events :
in a very clever move, the author decided not to have random events decided by rolling on a table each turn : random events are chits in the same cup than the activation ones. When a chit is drawn, you never know if a group of units will be prompted to act or if a random event will happen. This decuples the interest of random events : they are not the systematic (sometimes lackluster) generic happenstances decided in a repetitive way in a dedicated phase of the turn. They are dynamic :
* Their effect will depend on the current situation of the turn.
* Not only are they random, their triggering is also random : you don’t control when an event will pop-up.

I must admit being fond of this approach to random events : it adds a lot of tension and makes individual events more important. Moreover the events are well designed : they are generally not generic bonuses or penalties but interesting ways of altering the course of battle.


Command, orders and formation :
a lot of effort has apparently been made here to streamline the system so as to enhance fluidity without losing too much tactical complexity. There are no “formations” for the individuals troops, instead, upon activation, a corps HQ must choose a “posture” : defensive or aggressive. This posture will determine what actions can and cannot be performed. Road movement bonuses for instance are only available to a corps in defensive posture (simulating road march columns) while assaults are only available to aggressively postured units.

As for effective command, HQs have a command radius and units out of this radius are classically considered “out of command”. But there is twist here, and this is my personal favorite rule : they are not just forbidden to act (as in most game) : an OoC chit is pulled and placed, faces down, upon the counter, at the end of the turn, the chit is turned over and the kind of action it described is performed by the unit. This is brilliant : you cannot count upon your out of command brigades to do nothing : the local general will probably act, maybe in the general idea of your plan but maybe upon his local appreciation of the situation, which might be a terrible idea. It’s like having an AI taking over the unit, this adds a lot of life : you can praise or hate the local commander for his independent action.

In the end I feel this is a brilliant way of simulating a command structure : it is extremely simple yet powerful. The game is quick and unencumbered by lots of rules lawyering.


Phasing : quite classical, though it begins with fire combat step, followed by move then assault. (usually fire is after move). Defensive fire is automatically triggered by enemy units entering an adjacent hex.
This is a bit of a disappointment : after so much cleverness and originality we are here with all the classical flaws of tactical wargames :
* assaulting units enter a temporal phase during which they can fight but others don’t act. Giving them what is basically “free time”.

* defensive fire has no limitation : if a unit circles another, the first one will fire six times while another one, not encountering enemy activity, will only fire in the fire combat phase. If it is not bothered by the enemy then why does it fire less?

* a unit can’t move, then fire, or fire twice if not moving : if they want to keep a position they will just act less (“commander, the fire segment is over! We must do nothing while the other units move now, except if the enemy come near us : then we can spam defensive fire without limit”).

As often with tactical wargames, not much thought is here given to the temporal coherence of units. Some seem to be able to perform multiple turns at once while other, similar ones, seem to do nothing for no real reason. I do prefer action points (and some impulse systems) which guarantee that each unit will act at about the same rate.

This is not so bad in this grand engagement. This problem, while critical in small tactical wargames, the temporal discrepancy being there too unrealistic and some natural small scale actions being impossible (“But we can’t hit and run sergeant! once movement is over, we shoot and then can’t move again.”), is here mitigated by the large scale nature of the battle. Most of the discrepancies will average themselves (and a cumulative penalty to defensive fire eventually nullifies it). This is just fairly unrealistic but not critically so and, in any case, a very classic system. So this point is average : not terrible, not great either. Certainly not a deal-breaker though.


Combat resolution : two CRTs are used : one for fire combat and another one for assault combat. A D10 is rolled while another is used for possible morale tests coming from the obtained result. This is a fairly typical and unrealistic wargame system where best and worst results are put at each end of the table and results are linearly scaled between them while a single die provides equal probabilities for best, worse and average result. This is unrealistic because reality is not linear, it is gaussian : average results are considerably more probable than utterly extreme ones. This problem is compounded by the already random nature of the game (with chit pulling and events), upsetting the balance between “unpredictability” and “randomness”

Fortunately it is easily solved by using 2D10 (see my alternative CRTs proposal in the files sections) which allows to see the qualities of these tables : with well thought-out modifiers and interesting interplay of events. Moreover, the effect of combat in this era is well rendered : relative importance of morale and casualties (with an interesting double track damage system) and the low lethality of weaponry (the battle had an important death toll but this happened after several days of constant fighting : ww2 units just shooting at each other in brightly clothed ranks would have been much more destructive) is accurately portrayed. I find myself able to correlate the loss system to the writings of Ardant du Picq (and that is always a good thing). 


chrome :
extremely well done, just the right balance. There are few special rules which do not overload the system but give a real feeling of what the battle was like. Having a charge of uhlans in a machine gun emplacement is just so cool. The very idiosyncratic nature of this war is perfectly rendered.



Conclusion : I gave this game an 8 because of the single die and the traditional phasing. The game deserves 9 if you use alternative CRTs (phasing is not easily solved but not horrible either). Everything else is near-perfect : this a wonderful game. The rules are elegant and well streamlined : making for a fluid playing experience in a reasonable amount of time. The aforementioned “three f” are effectively simulated giving a certain degree of uncertainty without frustrating too much the player. While no game can be perfect, this is the best one I’ve seen in this scale and era, a very fun game to play and certainly a must have. Other games are in preparation : All are brothers (about the battle of Solferino) which is currently in pre-order and a game about the battle of Koniggratz currently being developed. I can’t wait to get them but in the meantime, this means I’ve got more time to play At Any Cost, which is always good news.
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John C
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Thanks for the thorough review!
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SIMONE DONNINI
Italy
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Great review
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Cezary Domalski
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Good review, especially showing weak points of the design. Phasing and combat resolution seems major flaws to me. Thanks for pointing it out.
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HERMANN LUTTMANN
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Thank you, Gael! Well written and very fair review. Thanks for taking the time and glad you enjoyed the system! Your critiques will be taken under consideration for the next game.

Herm
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Gael Fatou
France
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clownPL wrote:
Good review, especially showing weak points of the design. Phasing and combat resolution seems major flaws to me. Thanks for pointing it out.


Of course Cezary, everyone has his own estimation of priorities. To me the game is fantastic even with these as the qualities far surpass the flaws. As I pointed the CRT is easily corrected and the phasing... well I don't know many wargames treating it differently (and they are all on a small tactical scale, larger scales like aAC tend to average these problems).

I tried not make a review in the hagiographic style usually found, where everything is perfect. I think everything must be higlighted in a thorough review : notably finer mechanical points that can be corrected. This game is not perfect but it is excellent anyway and the best I've seen in these era and scale.
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Cole Dano
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Very well written and researched first review.

Interesting thoughts on some units doing more than others issue, which is somewhat unrealistic I agree. For the most part I just take it as you do, it all averages out in the end.

What I've come to really like about this game as I start to get into it is the lack of fiddlyness. At the end of the day a more procedural system is often just as unrealistic and at the same time looses the joy of playing the game, so I'm good with the compromises that are made here.

With the die, I'm going to try using 2 d10 and just divide the result in half so there's no need to bother with another chart.

For me, AAC is a huge improvement in playability over the other Blind Swords system game I have, Stonewall's Sword.
At first I was excited by the 1-66 chart and then the 2nd chart for results, but I soon felt that all the extra rolling and charts just weren't worth it, and that in the end put me off SS, however AAC is brilliant in it's simplicity.
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Luke Hughes

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Insightful review. Given some of your comments about tactical (opfire) and WWII I'd be interested if any games you *would* point to favorably in that regard.

And congrats Hermann,
Luke
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Gael Fatou
France
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HorizonMan wrote:
Very well written and researched first review.

Interesting thoughts on some units doing more than others issue, which is somewhat unrealistic I agree. For the most part I just take it as you do, it all averages out in the end.

What I've come to really like about this game as I start to get into it is the lack of fiddlyness. At the end of the day a more procedural system is often just as unrealistic and at the same time looses the joy of playing the game, so I'm good with the compromises that are made here.

With the die, I'm going to try using 2 d10 and just divide the result in half so there's no need to bother with another chart.

For me, AAC is a huge improvement in playability over the other Blind Swords system game I have, Stonewall's Sword.
At first I was excited by the 1-66 chart and then the 2nd chart for results, but I soon felt that all the extra rolling and charts just weren't worth it, and that in the end put me off SS, however AAC is brilliant in it's simplicity.


I didn't play the previous ones but, indeed, fluidity and streamlining of usually process-heavy rules is a hallmark of the game.

For the dice, rolling two dice and dividing is the same as what I do (I just directly wrote the result of two dice added up with a pencil on the player aid cards, this saves time during play). Whatever works for you though.
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Gael Fatou
France
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lhughes41 wrote:
Insightful review. Given some of your comments about tactical (opfire) and WWII I'd be interested if any games you *would* point to favorably in that regard.

And congrats Hermann,
Luke

That's the catch : it's the main reason I usually play at operational level on tabletop (where phasing makes sense : concentration of forces during several days then schwerpunkt action, rinse, repeat), I usually don't like small scale (e.g. squad level) tabletop tactical games for this reason (computer games are usually action points based). I've always been frustrated by WW2 tactical wargames.

That's the reason why I bought at Any Cost : I wanted a grand tactical game for the phasing problems to average themselves. I searched a game with good rules in an interesting theme, aAC was the best I could find.


One of the best games I've seen has nothing to do with ww2 : it's Talon, a space combat game with the best initiative system I've seen (a streamlined version of the nightmarishly complex system of Starfleet Battles). In this game individual units will activate several times a turn, breaking down movement and fire in several steps, greatly simulating real time engagement (and allowing hit and run like no phasing system can).

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Paul Borchers
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Thanks for the comments about the game. Unlike some other reviews, I actually understand some of the detail of game play, and what you liked and disliked about it.
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Jim Ransom
United States
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"The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools." -- Thucydides, 5th century BC
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A well thought out review that is also nicely written. I like that you describe what you like about the game as well as the thing you don’t like.

Well done!
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Joe R

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HorizonMan wrote:
Very well written and researched first review.

With the die, I'm going to try using 2 d10 and just divide the result in half so there's no need to bother with another chart.



The more I think about this simple suggestion, the more I think this is actually pretty brilliant. Yes, "reality" tends to be Gaussian as the OP points out and that makes most CRTs kind of wonky. Fair point and shame on the rest of us (me included) for not thinking of this before.

Otoh, rolling two dice solves this nicely and with little to no overhead. (Assuming dividing by 2 is not a challenge! devil) Brilliant!
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Wendell
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That random events mixed with unit activation is a really cool idea. Nice review!
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Roger Hobden
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Very nice review.

Thank you for doing this.

Added to my Wishlist.
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andrea pagni
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rolling 2 die from 1 to 10, summing them up and then dividing by 2 won't produce a correct gaussian table as the probabilities will be shifted.

assuming that you round down, here is what you get:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
3 7 11 15 19 17 13 9 5 1


 
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Peter Talbot
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ykonoclast wrote:
Disclaimer : this is my first review so please don’t bite. I tried to put into it what I usually don’t find in reviews (system analysis mainly) but I must admit being unskilled in the field. I was sufficiently impressed by this game to feel compelled to write my bit about it.


Sir, this review, the details, the situational quotes, are all magnificent. If I could, I'd employ you.

Cheers, and please continue doing what you do.
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Adrien Zanelli
Netherlands
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I completely share your view Gael, great system with a lot of replayability value, not to mention the Blind Swords system makes it solitaire-friendly.

You mentionned "All are Brothers" about the Italian Campaign as being in pre-order, but I haven't found anything on this ? Maybe Hermann can share some timeline ?
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HERMANN LUTTMANN
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Sorry for the silence all, but I was at Origins all week with all sorts of travel delays going there and coming back ..... very tired.

Thanks Adrien - All Are Brothers: Solferino 1859 is actually a Bryan Armor design and on Legion Wargames pre-order list. Hopefully it will get a nice boost and we'll see it published in the near future.

Herm
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Adrien Zanelli
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Thanks Hermann, I have now joined the ranks of the pre-order list
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