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Subject: Unleash your inner Tom Clancy.... rss

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Giles Dorrington
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Introduction:

Corps Command: Dawn's Early Light (hereafter DEL) is the second in Peter Bogdasarian's 'Corps Command' series, the first being Totensonntag published in 2007.

The Corps Command games are operational level wargames; each counter in DEL representing a battalion. The design philosophy behind them is to produce relatively 'light' wargames, with easy to learn rules, which are capable of being played to conclusion in an evening.

Whereas Totensonntag was firmly set in the perennially popular (at least amongst wargamers) Second World War, DEL takes the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West as its subject matter. The game deals with a hypothetical conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact; specifically a Soviet invasion of Western Europe in 1985.

Considering this is only the second game in a new series the choice of a purely hypothetical conflict; now consigned to the distant past, might seem an odd and even risky choice. However, the fact that the first print run sold out soon after its release would seem to vindicate that choice, indicating that there is indeed an appetite amongst wargamers for the subject matter; something that Lock 'N Load Publishing, with their World at War series, were probably already aware of.

Components:



DEL comes in a fairly sturdy, 11.5 x 9 x 2.25" sized box, unlike the smaller box of its predecessor Totensonntag. While the smaller format gives Totensonntag an undoubted appeal as a truly portable wargame, it does mean that anybody using counter trays or plano boxes for counter storage will be unable to keep them in the box. Also DEL's larger rulebook (although still only sixteen pages) and player aid card might have made the smaller Totensonntag format more difficult to produce. I must admit that, although I adore the 'portability' of Totensonntag, I'm glad that DEL comes in a full sized box.

At this juncture, when talking about the box it's also worth mentioning the quality of Marc von Martial's graphics; a theme that runs throughout DEL's components (all of which are in full colour). The box art; Soviet tanks with Hind gunships overhead, is redolent of the era, and overall the whole box, and indeed the whole product, benefit from wonderful graphics, IMHO some of the best in the wargames industry, if not the games industry as a whole. The map (17 x 22") , like the box, is graphically excellent, and achieves the difficult task of being visually attractive, while clearly delineating the features represented. It also incorporates useful game aids in the shape of a map key, initiative and turn tracks. Unfortunately, the map also gives rise to my only major criticism of the components.



At least on my copy, the printed surface had split slightly along the fold lines; especially in the middle where the fold lines meet. Although this is a potential problem with any folded map, it is quite noticeable on DEL's relatively dark map. Admittedly, a mounted map would have added significantly to the cost and one of DEL's initial attractions (at least to me) was that it was relatively inexpensive. I paid £22 for DEL (by way of comparison here in the UK MMPs A Victory Denied: Crisis at Smolensk, July-September, 1941, which IMHO is roughly similar in terms of components, is £27, and GMTs Men of Iron £23; although as I don't have a copy of this I can't comment on the component quality).

One potential solution suggested has been adopting the type of heavier card map used in Totensonntag, although upon close inspection this suffers from the same problem (it's just not as noticeable as the map is significantly lighter in colour). One possible solution, although I don't know how feasible it would be, are the type of maps used in Avalanche Press's Panzer Grenadier: Elsenborn Ridge. These are, as best as I can describe it, pre-folded before being printed (at least that's what it looks like), and this seems to prevent any such damage to the printed surface from folding. Having said all that, DEL's map doesn't suffer significantly more than any other (apart from perhaps showing the effect more due to the darker colours) and should definitely not deter any potential purchaser.

Conversely, where DEL really shines is its counters. These are 5/8", sturdy, slightly glossy, and gorgeous to behold. Whereas other games may still be content with outlines, NATO symbols, etc. DEL's counters are resplendent with full colour, beautifully detailed representations of the vehicles involved. So well are these executed that it's difficult to resist making 'thwaka-thwaka' noises when bringing the gunships into play! I realise that some people aren't so concerned with graphics but, for me at least, it definitely adds to the sense of immersion.



Graphically splendid counters are something of a Lock 'N Load trademark. However, it must be said that some of their previous games have also been guilty of having counters that, while visually appealing, can be difficult to read. DEL, by dint of only having to show a limited amount of written statistics (i.e. strength, protection, initiative, and regiment/brigade which is only for flavour and unnecessary for game play) and the parent division (important for stacking and indicated by colour), avoids any such problems.

The rulebook, likewise, is clear, concise, easy to read, and full colour as previously mentioned. I won't go into too much detail as I'll be covering the mechanics in more detail in the next section but, broadly speaking, it's sixteen pages long (including the covers) comprising a table of contents; only five and a half pages of actual rules; and five scenarios covering the remaining five and a half pages. There are a couple of very minor typos (an odd indent creeping into one section, and for some reason the scenarios refer to 2nd ACR whereas the unit featured in the game is actually the 13th ACR). My only real criticism is that the rulebook contains one page for notes. I can't imagine anything that would persuade me to write in one of my rulebooks (especially with my handwriting) and I think that the space could have been put to far better use by the provision of another scenario. Another criticism I have seen levelled at the rulebook is the omission of certain information, notably the effects of assets, which only appear on the player aid cards. I actually believe this was a good choice by the designers as the information is only needed at most once per game (depending on the assets in use), and its inclusion on the player aid cards means that its easily accessible when needed, without unnecessarily cluttering up the rulebook. Unfortunately, this approach isn't entirely consistent as, for some reason, the main rules regarding gunships are in the main rulebook, rather than on the player aid cards with the rest of the rules for assets.

The player aid cards (of which you get two) are; like the rulebook, clear, concise, easy to read, and in full colour (they even feature illustrations of the various unit counters identified by type to help prevent any confusion). There are a few subtleties to bear in mind when dealing with the various unit types (such as recon units not getting any defensive fire due to terrain; certain units getting a 'superior arms bonus' for attacking others in unfavourable terrain) and IMHO a slight improvement might have been to include this information in a tabular format on the player aid. However, these special circumstances are by no means overwhelming and quickly become second nature after a couple of games.

As with the rulebook, a couple of very minor typos have crept onto the player aid card (once again 13th ACR is incorrectly referred to as 2nd ACR; road and night movement modifiers are listed under the defensive fire bonus column on the terrain effects chart, although as movement points are clearly specified this is highly unlikely to create any confusion). Finally, I should also point out that DEL comes with two good quality 16mm dice.

In conclusion, based on the component quality alone I feel that DEL represents good value for money. Some may quibble, and not without a certain amount of justfication, about the map. However, as I said before, DEL's price was one of the things that initially attracted me to it. Having no prior experience of the Corps Command Series; operation level wargames; and indeed not that much experience of hex and counter wargames in general, DEL was, for me at least, very much a speculative purchase. If it had been significantly more expensive I might have decided to forego it, and would have missed out on what I consider to be a very good game.

Mechanics:

At the heart of the Corps Command Series is the activation system first seen in Totensonntag. Put simply, each turn represents one day, which is subdivided into five couplets (four day couplets and one night couplet) in which both sides act. At the start of each couplet both sides roll a D6 to decide who should go first, and what units they are able to use.

This deceptively simple system hides a number of subtleties. Firstly, in the case of a tie NATO gets to activate first. Although admittedly in the initial stages of a game going second can give an advantage as it gives the opportunity to react to an opponents plans, for the majority of the game the ability to activate (i.e. move and/or fire) first is a decided advantage. Throughout the rules NATO has a number of subtle (and not so subtle in the case of its armoured units) advantages over the Soviet forces, and these do a good job of replicating NATO's generally superior quality and command and control; countering the Soviet's seemingly overwhelming superiority in numbers. Another NATO advantage occurs in the case of 'broken orders', which occurs when a six is rolled for activation. When this happens, a sizeable portion of that side's forces will usually be unable to activate that turn, and those that do activate will only do so with an activation number of one. Which portion can't activate (based upon divisions for the Soviets, and nationality for NATO) is decided by rolling on a table; for the Soviets, whatever the roll, it is usually bad news. However, if NATO roll a five or six on the table they still get the possibility of activate all their units, and they get to choose their own activation number.

A further effect of the activation number, quite apart from any effects from 'broken orders', is what units are able to activate in that couplet and how far they can move. Each unit in the game has a rating for initiative; from five for fast mobile units such as armour and recon, down to three for units like the Soviet 87th Motor Rifle and American and Canadian mechanised infantry. Only those units whose initiative equals or exceeds its sides activation number can activate that turn, and how far they can actually move is also a function of the activation number (the activation number plus one is equal to the number of movement points). The overall effect of this is that armour and recon often ends up rushing round like the proverbial 'bats out of hell', while the infantry can only lumber along; when they can move at all.

The initiative rating also hides another of the games subtleties. Whereas NATO units, almost without exception IIRC, retain the same initiative irrespective of casualties, the initiative rating of Soviet units drops as soon as they start to suffer casualties. Thus, as casualties begin to mount so fewer and fewer of the Soviet forces are able to activate on a given couplet. This simple mechanism whereby the Soviet momentum starts to ebb away as casualties mount feels exceptionally realistic.

Movement itself is handled very simply and will be familiar to any hex and counter wargamer. The basic activation based movement number can be modified for factors such as moving at night, moving on roads; and difficult (or in DEL parlance 'closed') terrain. Also movement through enemy zones of control is prohibited. Stacking is up to three units per hex, or two if the units are from different divisions in the case of the Soviets.

Stacking is also important for combat as, with the exception of gunships that can attack any unit in a stack and air strikes that attack all, attacks can only be conducted against the top unit in a stack.

Combat, like movement, is handled relatively simply and divided into two types: assault combat conducted by static units, and overrun combat when units move and fire in the same turn. At its most basic two D6 are rolled, to which is added the attacking units strength (which declines as a unit takes casualties) and modifiers such as closed terrain (if the defending unit is infantry or recon); attacking at night; superior arms (when the terrain in the defenders hex is more suited to the attacker, i.e. armour attacking infantry defending an open hex or infantry attacking armour defending a closed hex) etc. This is then compared to the defenders protection factor and if the attackers total equals or exceeds the defenders protection the defending unit takes hits (usually one, although two are taken if the protection is exceed by four or more; three if by eight or more). The first time a unit is hit its counter is flipped to show its reduced strength and, mainly in the case of Soviet units, reduced initiative. Further hits are represented by a hit counter, showing an additional one or two hits, which is placed under the unit in question.

However, combat also includes a further wrinkle which adds greatly to the game. When the attacker rolls certain results, four if the defending unit is Soviet and seven if NATO, the attacker has to take a hit from defensive fire and this hit, which reduces the attack strength, is applied prior to the results of the attack being calculated. The chance of suffering casualties from defensive are further increased, being also triggered on a roll of two or three, if the defending unit is in favourable terrain, i.e. armour in the open or infantry in closed terrain.

The final major game mechanic concerns assets. In DEL these assets represent the higher level resources each side has at its disposal and can comprise various types of reinforcements, such as engineers and airborne units, gunships, airstrikes, artillery strikes, chemical weapons, jamming, and signal interception. When and how many assets are received are decided by the the scenario being played; which assets are received are decided by random chit draw. These assets can, especially if available at the right time, have a major impact on strategy and the game as a whole.

Gameplay:

DEL is a relatively quick game and most of the scenarios can be played to conclusion in a couple of hours once you're familiar with the system. A low counter density also means that set up time is relatively fast.

The game comes with five scenarios, ranging from the all-out slug-fest of the initial Soviet invasion to more 'mission orientated' ones like rescuing isolated units and attacking supply lines. Without going into specific detail about each one I'd say that the scenarios were varied and, with one exception, fairly well balanced; at least initially. I say initially because, at least as far as the slug-fests are concerned, I think that an experienced NATO player has an advantage. Once you've overcome the initial awe at the sheer amount of units the Soviets are able to field and worked out the best defensive tactics the task for the Soviet player becomes much more difficult. The Soviet player is also constrained by the map which, with it's mountains, lakes and rivers, contains a number of choke points which can nullify his numerical superiority when they're exploited to the full by NATO.



Conversely, both players have a number of options before even rolling a dice. Most scenarios give them some leeway in terms of their initial positions; what regiments or brigades to use at the start or as reinforcements; and often, thanks to a wide variety of victory conditions, what targets to aim for. In all the scenarios, choosing which victory conditions are realistically achievable and which aren't is vitally important. It's all to easy to lose by trying to do too much at once, and I'd say one of the keys to victory is deciding on an appropriate strategy beforehand.

The actual game itself plays quickly, thanks to its relatively straightforward rules, and seems reasonably realistic. In all honesty, I don't have the expertise to say whether the results are actually realistic, but IMHO they 'feel' right. The initial Soviet advance, with regiments of armour sweeping across the open plains is awe-inspiring at the start, but all those little advantages reflecting NATOs superior quality start to take their toll. The real advantages become apparent when combat is actually joined, perhaps most obviously in the NATO armoured battalions that, in both attack and defence, are far superior to their Soviet counterparts (if anybodies interested in a more 'blow-by-blow' account of game play I've posted a number of session reports in the forums).

That said I've got a couple of very minor quibbles. Recon units don't seem to be quite as effective as they should be. Although they can add one to the dice roll when supporting an assault on an adjacent unit they can only use this ability if they and the attacking unit aren't moving this turn which limits its effectiveness somewhat. In addition, most NATO infantry units only have an activation of three, which makes them a bit of a 'speed-bump' (by comparison most Soviet mechanised infantry has an activation of four initially). In DEL infantry is definitely the poor relation to armour, but that's in part due to the maps predominantly open terrain which greatly favours the armour.

The other area, which might raise a few eyebrows, is the activation mechanic. Although it can seem a bit 'gamey' when, due to a bad activation roll, a large portion of your forces just effectively sits there for a couple of hours in the context of the game as a whole it feels realistic and reflects some of the vagaries of modern warfare. At least the defensive fire mechanic ensures that your units are not just sitting there like lambs lined up for the slaughter, although it can sometimes feel like it. The fact that these 'SNAFUs' are more likely to affect the Soviets than NATO also feels right.

Despite its simplicity, DEL also offers a fair degree of replayability. Apart from having five scenarios, the flexibility and varied opportunities they present means that most offer a number of potentially different challenges. Also, the changes in fortune that can arise from the game mechanics, such as the assets and activation systems, means that no two games are ever likely to be the same. That said, IMHO some scenarios suffer slightly from railroading the player due to the limitations imposed by the terrain, e.g. a very limited number of river crossings.

After a number of plays, for me it is the more intangible aspects of gameplay where DEL really shines. Despite being a relatively quick and simple game it seems to get that all important 'feel' right. As the Soviet player you're tasked with trying to exploit your often unwieldy numerical superiority before attrition saps your strength and the momentum of your initial advance ebbs away. For NATO it's a case of fighting against seemingly overwhelming odds, relying on your qualitative superiority in men and material to win the day.

There are some other games that just seem to fail to involve the players, and somehow feel dry and sterile. DEL, on the other hand, always seems able to produce a strong narrative from the gameplay. Whether it's a devastating attack; a resolute defence; or the cruel hand of fate, there always seems to be something in a game that stands out and offers that sense of immersion I spoke of earlier. More than component quality or clever mechanics; it's these intangible qualities that I most appreciate about DEL, and that will ensure it often returns to the table.
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matt way
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Excellent review. I was going to do a review, but in the end I was too disappointed to bother. Perhaps its because I loved the tactical World At War series. This is definitely a much more strategic game than that series (and they admit it). Unfortunately once you take away all the tactics of artillery placement, missile setup, close air support, etc., its not replaced with the usual strategic complications like resupply, command radius, or even morale. Nato and Russia only have 2 real unit types (armor and infantry and the occasional 3rd line unit).
You get a little taste of maneuver problems with the Russian stacking limits based on division insignia, but thats about it as far as strategic manuever decisions (no bridging units, no minefields to slow you down, etc.)
Everything is so abstracted that a massive battle simply comes down to watching the Ruskies attack (as your counterattacks are built into the die roll) and the occasional generic air strike. There isn't any penalty for being surrounded or "cut off" so its usually just a matter of placing the Nato units and waiting to see how lucky you are with the dice. Occasionally you get to try to disengage for night time period to improve your odds of resupply/repair.

I also feel the Russians random Airborne units (a potential in most of the scenarios) are too overpowered (not in combat potential but in strategic potential) as their ability to suddenly drop a couple of units onto victory hexes creates a massive headache for Nato defensive setup. It sometimes just comes down to a big gamble, do you set up a good frontline defense (and suddenly lose if the airborne chit is drawn) or man all the victory points and get destroyed for being so spread out.

Certainly the game is sleek and fast moving, but I feel at the expense of too much simplification. I never got beyond the feeling of pushing around generic NATO units and waiting to see if the Russians rolled lucky or not.

Overall its a decent game, but its so streamlined that I lost any sense of connection to the theme (ie. generic units fighting other generic units in an abstracted type of battle). I may be too biased due to my tactical predeliction, but the lack of any distinctiveness that defines any World War 3 game (anti-tank missiles, night vision, FASCAM, etc.) is a big problem for me. In the end I didn't really feel this was any different than playing a decent WW2 game.

Poliorcetes

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Pete Atack
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Quote:
as their ability to suddenly drop a couple of units onto victory hexes creates a massive headache for Nato defensive setup


Ummm... isn't that the point of airborne units?
Quote:

Nato and Russia only have 2 real unit types


Just curious, but what other types are you looking for? Infantry and armor are pretty much the expected combatants for WW3, no?

Quote:
There isn't any penalty for being surrounded or "cut off"


I'd say the penalty is, if your opponent has played it correctly, is that you can't recover unit losses as well when cutoff / surrounded. And over the course of most scenarios, this will prove decisive.

I think the streamlining and simplification is the best part of this game. I seriously doubt this was ever intended to be a detailed look at WW3 and as such, rolled all the stuff you wanted into the unit ratings or the asset chits (which cover air, artillery, chemical weapons, C&C issues, gunships, and reinforcements - pretty much the big stuff you see in the fight, but without dense rules and lots of extra counters).
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Giles Dorrington
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Pete Atack wrote:
I'd say the penalty is, if your opponent has played it correctly, is that you can't recover unit losses as well when cutoff / surrounded. And over the course of most scenarios, this will prove decisive.


Tend to agree here. The effect of losing a unit (especially armour) can be so devastating for NATO that the very possibility provides the added penalty.

Matt makes a very valid point about the lack of manoeuver though. It wasn't such as problem for me as most of my plays have been solo (and I'm such a nice guy that 'me' doesn't mind the downtime waiting for 'me' to take his turn ). Especially in the first couple of scenarios though, once the NATO player has deployed he has very little to do apart from replace units that have suffered heavy casualties and withdraw the odd one for a bit of overnight R&R. However, that's very much the nature of the battles being portrayed.

Overall, it's probably not having the previous exposure to the tactical elements that made it easy for me to accept the abstractions, and I admit that in certain areas (e.g. broken orders and assets) some of those abstractions are very 'gamey'. I still think it does a decent job within it's remit as a quick light wargame. I must admit to a sense that I could have equally (with a couple of minor exceptions) been playing a WW2 game but I suspect at this, admittedly simplified, level any sort of mechanised warfare is going to feel broadly similar.

Overall maybe I can best put it like this: would I buy an expansion for DEL? Almost definitely. Would I buy another game in the series? That, I'm not so sure about unless it offered something significantly different. DEL, while still light and simple, was definitely a step up from Totensonntag in terms of complexity, and I think that's the way I'd like to see the series continue.

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Pete Atack
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Matt makes a very valid point about the lack of manoeuver though


By "lack of maneuver", do you guys just mean you are not moving your NATO units around the map much?

I can see where that could be the case, as the first few times I played I did the same thing. But I think it's a gameplay issue more than a 'forced hand'.

I've played some pretty static matches and ended up with a mixed bag of wins, but typically high NATO losses.

But... when I've gone "mobile" on the Soviets and not chained myself to the terrain, over the long haul, I've found that NATOs superior activations give me the ability to move around and get into / tear off portions of the Soviet position. You should also be able to reclaim key terrain you may have abandoned early on. Naturally it's all about methods of skinning the same cat.

Peter can probably comment - but he can attest to my early penchant for the Forward NATO Defense which always went bad. If you keep back slightly from the Soviet advance, you may be able to avoid the wave of overruns while getting the feel of maneuver you might be currently missing.

Quote:
I must admit to a sense that I could have equally (with a couple of minor exceptions) been playing a WW2 game


at battalion scale, tanks is tanks!!
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Pete Atack
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Oh yeah - since I had not said it yet...

Thanks for doing a review and all the previous battle reports!
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Giles Dorrington
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Pete Atack wrote:
Oh yeah - since I had not said it yet...

Thanks for doing a review and all the previous battle reports!


No problem. I kind of enjoyed doing them...although I'm glad I'm finished as well. Nothing creates down-time in a game like having to take pics and type up the action.

Funny, the three more mobile scenarios are probably the ones I've enjoyed the most; even #4 which is like Kirk to my Khan

I'm not sure how well a mobile approach would work for the big stand-up fight, i.e. #1, though. Aren't you in danger of giving up the natural defensive positions as well as the objectives?
 
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Pete Atack
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Aren't you in danger of giving up the natural defensive positions as well as the objectives?


Yeah - it's a toss up.

I've held tough up front as NATO and been wiped out. I've set up farther back forcing the Sovs to close up on NATO and turned the Commies into lots of wrecks, and I've played the middle and left some NATO infantry in the defensive terrain and used the armor for local counterattacks. The third seems the 'logical' balance, but it came down to the last impulse and both sides were bled white (I think it ended with a NATO victory).

I'm not sure I've tried my 'mobile heavy' tactic in this one, but that may be play #4 of that scenario!
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Giles Dorrington
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I think setting up further back might be one of the key strategies in the early scenarios.

My best has always been adopting pre-prepared defensive positions (or cowering as some might say) behind the river. Let the Soviet armour cross the bridges and into the NATO ZOCs. OK you're going to take some casualties from overruns, but if your deployment is correct they can't attack and make room for more units to cross the bridge in the same couplet. Basically you're forcing them to fight with their backs to the river...and they didn't bring their swimming trunks devil
 
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Edward Wehrenberg
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Very nice review, Giles! This is VERY well written, a great Sunday morning read with toast & coffee for me.

Despite it's small chinks in it's armor, it seems like a pretty cool game, I may indeed pick this up. Thanks again.
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Giles Dorrington
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Thanks Edward. Glad you enjoyed it.
 
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Marc von Martial
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Thanks so much for your praise, made my day when did I read it friday on the train to some friends in Landshut

Would you mind if I pull a quote of this review for my portfolio website?
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Giles Dorrington
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Marcks wrote:
Thanks so much for your praise, made my day when did I read it friday on the train to some friends in Landshut

Would you mind if I pull a quote of this review for my portfolio website?


I'd be honoured Marc. Pls feel free to use it whenever you want.
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Marc von Martial
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gilesdorrington wrote:

I'd be honoured Marc. Pls feel free to use it whenever you want.


Great, thanks
 
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Aaron Silverman
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gilesdorrington wrote:
Admittedly, a mounted map would have added significantly to the cost and one of DEL's initial attractions (at least to me) was that it was relatively inexpensive. I paid £22 for DEL (by way of comparison here in the UK MMPs A Victory Denied: Crisis at Smolensk, July-September, 1941, which IMHO is roughly similar in terms of components, is £27, and GMTs Men of Iron £23; although as I don't have a copy of this I can't comment on the component quality).


Men of Iron has 3 full-sized countersheets and 2 full-sized, backprinted mapsheets, so basically 6 times the counters and 8 times the map. Not really comparable. (To be fair, it's been discounted a fair amount from its original price.)

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Adam Parker
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Great game design makes the complex simple, replayability maximum, and abstraction credible.
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Hi Giles - nice review but your pic of the counters threw me. I had to zoom up close to see that you had painted their edges after trimming!

I like the idea but you should mention that this was needed. Unsure why? (What paint do you use btw?)

Unfortunately I bought this game 2 weeks ago and gave it back a few hours later as the counters were offset. I know Mark would have sent me replacements but I just didn't want to wait this time around.

Sorry to hear about the map too. I agree in that I'd have prefered (and was expecting) the same "mounted" treatment as with Totensonntag. Beautiful quality that one.

Re your comments of typos etc., I would just stress to Mark in his designs as a whole - rules, components, die cutting, consistency - focus on quality. Get that right and then people will buy your quantity.
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Giles Dorrington
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Thanks Adam,

Counters weren't painted; I used felt tips. Unnecessary, but IMHO they look nicer. It takes a while so I'd only consider it on something that had a fairly low counter density.

Agree the way the map's printed is probably DEL's flaw in terms of quality. It's no worse than average, it just that being darker than average it tends to show up more. Having said that, after a couple of turns you don't tend to notice any more.
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