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Subject: Skin deep: a negative comparison to the VPG version. rss

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"But sir, it's called the `deluxe' version of the 98% lean burger because it's slathered with mayonnaise. Many people like it that way."

This review is mostly irritable bitching a comparison between the Victory Point Games (VPG) and the GMT editions of No Retreat!, plus some background information for people who aren't familiar with the game at all. For me, the VPG edition is superior, but I hope to explain why well enough to make this useful to people whose tastes differ from mine. You mayonnaise-suckin' freaks.

To begin with: No Retreat! is a great game, and if you haven't played it, you should. Apart from the novelty of gaming the largest military campaign in history with 20 units per side, it's fast, fun, tense, and relatively simple, with several innovative systems, and with victory conditions which reward devious & aggressive play. It has cards, but it's not card-driven; the cards just introduce uncertainty about the opponent's capabilities. And any card can be discarded to pay for rail movement, replacements, etc., so there's no such thing as a bad hand: if you draw a bunch of events you can't use, that just means you've got other options. Low unit density and low stacking limits also help keep it playable. The designer has done a great job of supporting the game on BGG, too.

However, the VPG version has never been called pretty. It looks like it was printed on a color inkjet printer, and it has a cover only a game designer's mother could love. But that doesn't matter because most wargamers have been trained for decades by wargame publishers, including GMT, to disregard pretty components as the least important aspect of a game.

On the surface, the GMT version seems to take a great game and add great components: a mounted map, oversize counters cut with rounded corners, full-color card backs, Soviet units which are red instead of pink... wow. Never again will people look at the map and stammer, "well, that looks... functional..." But once you wipe away the tears of joy, you see baffling graphic design choices, a rulebook riddled with errors, and quite a few additional rules which (for me) don't improve the game.

Let's start with the change which bugs me the most.


The map

In the VPG version, the Axis player sits on the west edge; the Soviet player sits on the east edge; various holding boxes are on the north edge; and the turn track, VP track, and terrain effects chart are on a separate sheet which you can set above the north edge, or upside down below the south edge--whatever's most convenient. No text is upside-down for either player. (The image at right does not include the Na Berlin! expansion map, which is included in the GMT version.)

In the GMT version, the rules still say that's the way you should sit... but if you actually look at the map, the charts are on the east & west edges, and they're upside down to the Soviet player... the combat results tables and rail movement boxes are rotated as if the players are supposed to sit along the north & south edges, but that puts the terrain effects chart upside-down to the Soviet player... it's like the person who laid out the map didn't actually plan to play the game on it! It doesn't make sense, and it's just not as good as the VPG layout, no matter where you sit. I don't understand what they were thinking.

(In addition to Na Berlin!, the GMT map does have a couple more rows of hexes on the eastern edge, which seem like they could be nice--I know in EastFront I wasn't impressed with the idea of VolgaFront until I tried it.)

The cards

Each card has an Axis event and a Soviet event, and when a card is played for its event (instead of being discarded for other purposes), the event which is used depends on which player played the card.

One of the ways the game models the changes in the side's capabilities over the course of the war is to make some events playable only during the first half of the game, some playable only during the second half of the game, and the rest always playable. (Again, even if an event is not playable, the card can still be used for other things.) Symbols on the cards indicate which category they fall into, and you use those symbols every turn, all game long.

Some cards also have symbols indicating that they should be added to or removed from the deck if the game continues into 1945. You use these symbols once, in some campaign games.

Guess which set of symbols is more prominently displayed on the GMT cards, and is visible when you fan them out.

As far as substantial changes to the content of the cards--there are a lot more of them in the GMT version--I don't have a strong opinion. It's not clear to me that they improve the game; I guess more variety is better, but some of the new cards seem to be poorly integrated into the game. For example, the tournament scenario says not to use the Cadre rules (which were optional in the VPG version), but some of the new cards refer to those units, and there's nothing in that scenario setup, or in the section on cards in general, which says whether those are intended to be dead cards, or removed from the game, or discarded & replaced when drawn. (The difference between those last two is whether the opponent's event is still in the game.)

And although the scenario booklet includes a copy of each card's text, it doesn't include any notes clarifying the ambiguous ones. (e.g. Summer Campaign and Major Offensive: what the heck? Hedgehogs: this is instead of a normal attack, or before? etc.)

The rules

As mentioned above, there are quite a few new rules (some of which were optional in the VPG version). My feeling about most of the additional rules is that they each add a small amount of complexity without improving the quality of the game (or, in some places, the simulation), and that therefore their overall effect is negative. Some examples:

Variable weather

In the VPG version, the turn chart tells you what each turn's weather will be, with weather having various effects on movement & combat. So, every time you play, the Sept/Oct '41 turn will be Mud, the Nov/Dec '41 turn will be Snow, etc. In the GMT version, the turn chart is the same, plus there are some new markers which show the actual weather (which might differ from what's on the turn chart), plus some new event cards which tell you to fiddle with those markers.

OK, variable weather sounds like a neat way to shake things up after your first few plays, but the GMT approach is to add those rules to the base game, and add optional rules for ignoring them! (And a warning that the base rules "could sometimes have a significant impact on play," so they're not recommended for competitive games!)

Fine, fine, you'd like to start off playing the game the way GMT intended, and only add optional rules when you're ready to move beyond the base game. In which of these places do you expect to find the rules explaining how to set up the variable weather markers for your first play?
- 13.1, Weather.
- The Scenario Set Up Procedure, which says where to put the Game Turn marker, the round and square Victory Point markers, and every other marker except for the variable weather markers.
- 14.0, Special Units/Rules.
Your first two guesses were wrong, so let's check the index on the back page of the rulebook. It refers you to 14.13... but 14.13 isn't about weather. Ahh, it's at the bottom of that page, 14.14, just a minor error in the index. Here we are, 14.14.1, Set Up: "Be sure to include cards #32-35 in the deck (as per 3.1 in this rule book)." Wait a minute... there is no 3.1. Come on, guys.

Long Winter

This is also new in the GMT version. If you have two or more consecutive turns of Snow, then those later turns are Long Winter instead of Snow. What's the difference? No armor bonus in combat, no multi-hex advance (both of which are Mud effects), and the Axis only gets three attacks per turn instead of five. (That last one isn't in the terrain effects chart, so it's one more thing to remember.)

To support that minor additional detail, you've got a special marker to place "somewhere" on the map to remind you when it's Long Winter instead of Snow; an extra row on the terrain effects chart, and an extra color there & on the turn chart; a couple more paragraphs of text in the rulebook to explain that stuff; and a search through the rules forum to resolve yet another error in that text. Is it worth it? I expect it will be to some people, but to me, different grades of snow seem out of place--and not necessarily more realistic--in a game with two-month turns. (And there's already a special rule to simulate the Germans' unpreparedness during the first winter.)

The CB (Counterblow) combat result

This is a new combat result which (mostly) replaces some of the "no effect" results in the CRTs. (Really? The old CRTs were so broken that they had to be fixed?!) It causes a marker to be placed on one of the active player's participating units; if enemy units are adjacent to that hex during the opposing player's next combat phase, it must be attacked. It's nice in that it mostly uses an existing concept from the game, but I'm not sure it makes sense at this scale, or that it improves the game.

For example, suppose a CB result places a counterblow marker on a strong Axis stack next to a Soviet city. If the Soviet player doesn't move out of the city, he's required to attack: it's a "partial advance made by the attacker, that will force the other player to either retreat, or deal with the threat by attacking it"--or by spending the combat phase hiding in the rail movement box, whatever--and as the rulebook notes, this can be a big decision.

However, compare that to the "no effect" result which the same die roll gave in the VPG version: the Soviet player still had to decide whether or not to flee the city, but instead of just the odds on the CRT and the overall situation, he also had to weigh the chances that the Axis player would burn a card to provoke an attack (the "counterblow" concept on which the CB result is based). So the CB result isn't adding more decisions here, or better decisions; it's just giving different decisions, at a cost of a few additional paragraphs of rules. To me that's a net loss, not a win.

(Incidentally, the CB result also replaces the lone crazy Defender Retreat result in the VPG version's Soviet 1:3 column, which would cause the Axis player to tug uncomfortably at his collar when considering a strong counterblow against a weak Soviet position. Most likely the result would be a German counterattack with good odds of driving the Soviets back, but there was that slim chance of disaster, and that's gone now. It also eliminates the faint sliver of hope the Soviets might have had in deliberately launching a desperate attack at terrible 1:3 odds, so in that case the change removes decisions. Maybe both of those effects are more realistic, though; I don't know.)

City supply paths

This is one change (mentioned for the VPG version by the designer here) which I actually like (and which I initially resisted). The VPG rules didn't explicitly say this, but supply could only be traced through friendly hexes, which meant you needed to keep track of hex control (or use something I believe the designer called "common sense," but none of my opponents knew where we could find some).

In the GMT version, it's a little more restrictive, but simpler: the supply paths for cities can only be traced west/northwest/southwest for the Axis, and east/northeast/southeast for the Soviets. (This is accompanied by a similar change to the rules for where units can unload from trains.) Although it's faster during play, it's hard to say it's less realistic; presumably those empty hexes are swirling with plenty of units grappling below the scale of the armies & army groups represented in the game, and 100km hexes are big enough that both sides could be moving supplies through them.

So, simpler, faster, no less realistic or fun--that to me is an improvement.

Other stuff

In the GMT version, I'm repeatedly struck by the disconnect between the rulebook & the other components, or indeed between any one page of the rulebook and the next. (I don't know how many rules references are right, but I sure keep stumbling across references which are wrong.) "The Cadre units (those with an underlined turn of entry) are not used, disregard rule 14.11." Uhh... 14.11 is Volkssturm Units. "The Axis player shuffles the deck of cards, minus the 13 cards with the Green-circled `45'..." Uhh... I only have 10 of those, so I guess I'd better spend some time checking the card manifest? "Take their remaining square units and place them on the map as shown..." Wait a minute, why do I have two identical Bryansk armies??

None of these omissions or errors are game-breaking; they just add unnecessary frustration to play, and most could have been caught simply by proofreading. In that respect, the GMT version has one of the worst rulebooks I've ever seen.

Yeah, thanks for the tip, Clippy... now wrap it up.

Despite my disappointment, the GMT version isn't broken or unplayable; it's just pointlessly irritating in minor ways. If that's the version you have, play it and love it. If you have the VPG version, and you & your opponents hold the traditional wargaming view that high-quality components are for Eurogamers, children, and the feeble-minded, then keep playing & loving the version you have. And if you don't have either version yet, then hopefully this has helped you decide which version to buy first.
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Hannes Riener
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Thanks - was enlightening and even more: fun to read too!

Some points you listed sound very familiar (interesting chart arrangement on the mapboard) ... as I have used the living rules from the very beginning, I think that all rulebook-mistakes you mentioned are corrected therein, I guess.

Good to know, that the victory rules - where I am still not sure whether I understand it meanwhile - seem to be unchanged, so no need to 'downgrade'
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Carl Paradis
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Hannes wrote:
Thanks - was enlightening and even more: fun to read too!

Some points you listed sound very familiar (interesting chart arrangement on the mapboard) ... as I have used the living rules from the very beginning, I think that all rulebook-mistakes you mentioned are corrected therein, I guess.

Good to know, that the victory rules - where I am still not sure whether I understand it meanwhile - seem to be unchanged, so no need to 'downgrade'

Yes indeed, sorry about the rulebook, most of the small mistakes are corrected in the Errata sheet, and the living rules will be also available next November. In the new rulebooks some of my original text was changed a bit. Don't know how it happened. Sorry about that.

As for the map orientation, GMT was adamant that it would be better with a North-South orientation. This is not the way I wanted it and fought tooth-and-nail to have it East-West. But they did have a point that most game tables would not accommodate a map on a long axis set-up. As a compromise I made them print two player aid sheets with the chart and tables on: this way you can still sit in the different way. modest

Here is a rough draft of what I initially proposed to GMT as the Layout for the map

BTW the VPG UGLY map pictured in the mini-review above is the ancient graphic style, if has been upgraded to what is pictured below (without the extra charts, and I have collated the two maps together).

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Carl Paradis
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Ah yes, some minor play-balance issues were addressed in the GMT version, there are also quite a few new event cards.

I like the new "CB" combat result a lot, IMHO it makes for a better game, there was a bit too many "No Effect" results in the old tables.

There is a slew of other small changes, like the way the Axis minor units get in on the map, the stacking rules are a bit different too (you mostly go in the shattered box if overstacked), etc...

The "basic" VPG version (without the two expansions) is a much more simple affair. I do like both versions, but if only for the extra event cards and supply rules, I prefer the GMT edition.

And sorry about the rules, they were proofed by about 10 people. The error was probably that most of them did also play the old edition, so were perhaps too familiar with the game. As for me, well, I'm an horrible proofer, since I'm French-speaking (i don't think in English, and have to translate everything in my head twice! LOL!).
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Carl Paradis
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Hannes wrote:
Good to know, that the victory rules - where I am still not sure whether I understand it meanwhile - seem to be unchanged, so no need to 'downgrade'

Well, the victory rules were changed A BIT. To the better I think.

- The core victory rules are about the same. I did doctor the "Sudden Death" Victory point totals a bit for better play-balance.

- The conditions for continuing the game in 1945 are a bit different.

- ALSO NOW, when the initiative shifts to the Soviets, the German player then needs to capture 4 Objectives to win outright, instead of 3.
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Matthew Bysouth
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licinius wrote:


As for the map orientation, GMT was adamant that it would be better with a North-South orientation.

One of the things I found a little bit disconcerting in the GMT rulebook and scenario book is that all the examples show the counters orientated to be read from the south - which looks a little odd to my eyes.
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Mick Mickelsen
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Rusty,

I'm a big fan of this game and I enjoyed the review. However, I can't resist adding my two cents.

With respect to the orientation of the CRTs on the map, I would have preferred that they had not been orientated North and South. Nevertheless, I can see the case for orientating that way. I think sometimes I will play with the opponents sitting East and West, and sometime North and South.

With respect to the cards, since I keep the 45 cards in a separate baggy, (and have never had a game last until 1945), the fact that the 45 cards are marked on the upper left side is really a non-issue. I tend to think the new cards in 1941-44 deck are a good thing because they make it a little less likely that the Axis will get the super-powerful cards in 1941. I find that the Axis often blow out the Soviets in 1941-42, and anything to weaken them a bit to be a plus. Conversely, I have found the Soviets tend to blow out the Axis in 1943-44. I tend to think limiting the Soviets to five voluntary attacks will be an important change.

With respect to the rules, I will usually play with the variable weather just to keep the games playing out differently. I can see the case for making variable weather part of the basic game. With that being said, I can see why in more competitive play one would want to play without variable weather. I, like another poster, am concerned the Axis in 1941 are unstoppable without a mud turn in turn 3.

With respect to errata, I think you are being a little harsh. Bowen Simmons some how manages to write rules without errata, but almost no one else does. I think it is a really difficult task. I imagine most of the proof reading is done on a volunteer basis, and unpaid proof readers, (and perhaps paid), often will fail to check every citation, etc. At least the rules have an index and Carl is fantastic about being responsive to rule questions. If this is one of the worst rule books you have ever seen, it strikes me that you have a remarkable knack for avoiding games with terribly written rules. Have you tried digesting the rule books for Up Front or Fields of Fire, just to name a few notorious examples?

I think I like the new CRT with the CB result, although you make an interesting point about the effect of a lucky Soviet roll on 1-3 odds making the Axis player take pause before launching some aggressive attacks.

I think No Retreat is a great wargame, a classic. It's beauty lies in its chess like play, something that is only achievable with limited counters. Whereas there are other games with few pieces, such as the Nappy 20 series, none of them that I have played come close to giving rise to the consistently interesting decisions that No Retreat provides.
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Carl Paradis
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mickmick wrote:
I tend to think the new cards in 1941-44 deck are a good thing because they make it a little less likely that the Axis will get the super-powerful cards in 1941.

Indeed. This is the other reason why I added more cards (Von Manstein, Guderian and the Siege Artillery will get less plays), the first being of course the added variety.

I think that all in all the new deck helps the Soviets a bit more.

As for the removed DR on the Soviet 1-3 attacks, I did this for historical reasons. I did not find credible examples in the real campaign where the Soviets were able to make the Germans retreat at those attack odds.
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licinius wrote:
As for the map orientation, GMT was adamant that it would be better with a North-South orientation. This is not the way I wanted it and fought tooth-and-nail to have it East-West. But they did have a point that most game tables would not accommodate a map on a long axis set-up.
They're on glue--who plays wargames on a table which is less than 34" across? Napoleon's Triumph is 34" across, and I think EastFront II is 36"!

Apart from that, the board is 22" by 34", and the playable area on the map is 25.5" at its widest point; lose the two rows of hexes which weren't in the VPG version & make that one mostly-Adriadic hex a half-hex, and you're at 23"; shrink the whole thing by 5%, and you're at 22", which you rotate to fit on the short axis. That gives you the east-west orientation you want, GMT has the short-axis-between-players they want, and there's plenty of space to the north or south for all of the charts & tables, with nothing upside-down to either player.

(As I would obviously be a valuable addition to the GMT team, of course I sent them my C.V., but they were unwilling to budge on what I considered a reasonable requirement: my own parking space. For my zeppelin.)

mickmick wrote:
With respect to the orientation of the CRTs on the map, I would have preferred that they had not been orientated North and South.
(I would have preferred that they not be on the map at all--unless they were printed twice--since you'll have to use the player aid to see your opponent's CRT anyway.)

mickmick wrote:
With respect to errata, I think you are being a little harsh. Bowen Simmons some how manages to write rules without errata, but almost no one else does. I think it is a really difficult task.
Welllll... I will concede that I have plenty of rulebooks with corrections scribbled in, but I don't agree that proofreading is difficult; it's just time-consuming, and it's clear that A) they didn't bother to spend that time once they were done making changes, or B) some big, effort-negating mistake was made, like sending the wrong file to the printer. (The reason I mention that is, when the correction included in the box was found by a dedicated & unusually handsome fan within hours of the rules being posted, Carl said the error hadn't been in the version he'd seen.)

mickmick wrote:
If this is one of the worst rule books you have ever seen, it strikes me that you have a remarkable knack for avoiding games with terribly written rules. Have you tried digesting the rule books for Up Front or Fields of Fire, just to name a few notorious examples?
I have no complaints about its organization (I save that for other GMT offerings, ha ha) or its ability to explain the game's concepts; I was just saying it's one of the worst rulebooks I've seen as far as proofreading goes.

Yeah, other games have errors, but it seemed like I was finding one error after another every time I went back to the rulebook while setting up my first game. Not just broken rules references (I thought they had computers for stuff like that!) or contradictions with the other components, but sentences missing words--stuff even a Eurogamer could have found. It gave the impression of a really careless job, which is not fair to Carl.
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Carl Paradis
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kuhrusty wrote:
It gave the impression of a really careless job, which is not fair to Carl.

I didn't do the Rulebook layout, but I take full responsiblility for the foul-up.

Now that I know how things work at GMT in terms of game production, I'll make sure that things are done differently if there is a next time. soblue
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Miguel [working on TENNISmind]
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I think the rulebook editing problem is more one of organization. I have contributed to the proof-reading of the latest Commands & Colors: Ancients products, and sometimes things that had been spotted "go through" to printer.

I think there should be one final person with full responsibility of the editing (sometimes the final version comes from the designer, sometimes from one of the producers, sometimes there might be different versions going around...). And, most importantly, select a reduced circle of proof-readers for a final check of the version including everybody's corrections, which sometimes interfere.

Ah, and proof-reading is difficult. Well, or is easier for some people used to read and spot errors. I do it quite often at work, and spot many that have gone through many pairs of eyes! I have a special ability for spotting unimportant details in general...
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Carl Paradis
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franchi wrote:
I think there should be one final person with full responsibility of the editing

mhhh... In my "Real World" Engineering Job we call this a "Single Point of Failure", and it's not an industry ISO 9000 best practice...
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Mark Crane
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The nice thing about GMT is that they release updated and improved versions of their rulebooks online, so perhaps that will be the case here.
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Carl Paradis
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craniac wrote:
The nice thing about GMT is that they release updated and improved versions of their rulebooks online, so perhaps that will be the case here.

Absolutely. The new edition will be available in November.

It could not be done sooner because the GMT employee doing the rules layout is not available right now; and the software they use for rules editing is incompatible with my own "Mac/Apple" computers at home: If it was, I would have gladly done the job for them.

Sorry about the delay. soblue
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Mark Crane
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licinius wrote:
craniac wrote:
The nice thing about GMT is that they release updated and improved versions of their rulebooks online, so perhaps that will be the case here.

Absolutely. The new edition will be available in November.

It could not be done sooner because the GMT employee doing the rules layout is not available right now; and the software they use for rules editing is incompatible with my own "Mac/Apple" computers at home: If it was, I would have gladly done the job for them.

Sorry about the delay. :soblue:

Carl, you are a great example of a designer who participates awesomely in threads. When you say "new edition" you are talking about the rules, not anything else, right? Regardless, I am getting whipped into a frenzy about this game.
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Carl Paradis
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craniac wrote:

Carl, you are a great example of a designer who participates awesomely in threads. When you say "new edition" you are talking about the rules, not anything else, right? Regardless, I am getting whipped into a frenzy about this game.

Yes, just a corrected version of the rules.
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Richard Boyes
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It bugs me to have to burn out half of an expensive printer cartridge to get the corrected rules. I'll wait an extra month so the corrected rules will be corrected, then I print them!

As far as map orientation goes, it seems as though game maps are often set up for the VASSAL player's ease instead of the face-to-face player/purchaser's ease.

.......What other gripes can I come up with?......

But in the end, I'll still enjoy the games!
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eltorosailor wrote:
It bugs me to have to burn out half of an expensive printer cartridge to get the corrected rules.

Errr... The new "Corrected rules" are not available yet. You probably just reprinted the original rules!
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Michael Sosa
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GMT chart orientation on its maps are also bugging me. The same situation is present in Washington's War. The map is made so players sit East-West, but all the charts are oriented North South so that the Southern charts are upside down to both players. Illogical.
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Mark Crane
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Quote:
If you have the VPG version, and you & your opponents hold the traditional wargaming view that high-quality components are for Eurogamers, children, and the feeble-minded, then keep playing & loving the version you have.

Just curious, but what are your thoughts on the deluxe version of Twilight Struggle?
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craniac wrote:
Just curious, but what are your thoughts on the deluxe version of Twilight Struggle?
Well, none; I played it a couple times & it didn't grab me, so I wasn't interested in the deluxe version.
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mickmick wrote:
With respect to errata, I think you are being a little harsh. Bowen Simmons some how manages to write rules without errata, but almost no one else does. I think it is a really difficult task.
I've been thinking about this--an interesting comparison is, how many errors were in the VPG version? I never saw the VPG version 1.0 rules; if they were as lousy as GMT's, then you're right. But if VPG was able to do the same game first with a higher level of quality, then that reflects poorly on GMT.
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Chris Buhl
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Leeds
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As usual, this is a well thought out and very well written review. Really, game companies should probably think about hiring you to write some of the rule books that make it out the door.

Without ever having seen, touched, or played the VPG version, I'm going to go out on a limb and disagree with you about one bit of your opinion - counterblows. I'm actually surprised to read that you're negative about them, although I don't have to non-CB version to compare it to. In my thinking, they're a very cool addition to the game. It's not clear to me at all how they don't create more decisions. If you're in a tight spot, and really need to hold on to a city or a good defensive position, that's surrounded by enemies, that might be a good time to burn a card (or two) to force the enemy to siphon off some attack strength. But wait, I've only got three cards, and they're all pretty potent events that I'll really need to shore up another front after this battle is resolved, or to save my powerful but OOS panzer unit. I could see CB's not creating more decisions in regards to the single battle, as you say; I just can't see how over the course of the game they don't add to the brain burn.

The rest of your stuff was really informative. The map layout bugged me immediately (as I see it did the designer). The rules inconsistencies are somewhat annoying, but I can imagine how easy it was to let a bunch of them slip through in a conversion to a new version.

I wholeheartedly agree with you about one other item - this is a great game! I am only starting to learn and play it, but I was immediately impressed with how elegantly the rules handled a game on this scale, with so few counters, in such a fun and engaging manner.

I wonder though, if I ever get a chance to play the VPG version, can I use the GMT CRT to keep my beloved CB result? kiss
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Carl Paradis
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fatgreta wrote:
I wonder though, if I ever get a chance to play the VPG version, can I use the GMT CRT to keep my beloved CB result?

Absolutely you can.

In fact in the VPG solitaire module included as a free download with the GMT version, This is what I suggest you can do.
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