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Summer Lightning: The Invasion of Poland 1939» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Review after Five Solo Plays rss

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Tom Russell
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Summer Lightning: The Invasion of Poland, 1939 is, as the title suggests, an operational-level game covering the campaign that kicked off the Second World War. It was designed by Brian Train and published by Lock 'N Load Publishing, LLC. (In the spirit of full disclosure, and also self-promotion, I must reveal that Lock 'N Load is publishing my game Blood on the Alma, and that I received an autographed copy from the designer in a trade.)

The game is nicely produced. The map is beautiful and functional. The 1/2 inch counters are easy to read, cleanly laid out, and attractive. The rules are fairly clear; I had a couple of questions that I asked here on the 'Geek, and which the designer answered very promptly. These questions were more in the line of, "I'm pretty sure it's this way and just wanted to double-check" rather than "What the...?", and should say more about my own doubt regarding my level of reading comprehension than any flaws in the text. There are a couple of places in which I think the rules could've been more helpful-- hex-numbers for set-up/reinforcement cities/towns, for example, or the clarification that city names are written in all-caps and town names with lowercase letters following the initial letter in lettercase-- but these are just quibbles really.

The game averaged about 4 hours to play (and played faster as I got more experienced). I've heard people complain about a long set-up time, but that wasn't my experience at all. The set-up information lists types of units (for example, this area gets three 4-3 infantry units), plus the historical designation of units, but there's no need to actually track down this particular 4-3 unit over that one: any 4-3 infantry unit will do. The HQ units can activate any units within their radius, so the historical designation has no impact whatsoever on play.

The game's flashiest feature is probably its ZOC-less, nearly diceless combat system. When an attack is made, the attacking player secretly chooses one of four Attack Missions (Blitzkrieg, Balanced Attack, Frontal Attack, and Infiltrate) and the defending player one of six Defense Missions (Standfast, Balanced Defense, Defense in Depth, Counter-Attack, Delay, and Withdrawl). These are revealed simultaneously and cross-referenced on a Matrix to discover who advances, who retreats, and who must make a casualty check (and a modifier for that check).

I'm not usually a fan of double-blind bluffing psych-you-out things-- but that's not really what's going on here, in my experience, as each Mission has a "best" use. I know for example that the Withdrawl defense doesn't inflict any casualties unless the attacker chooses Blitzkrieg, and that the Blitz can only be played when there's an armor unit in the mix. So, if there are no tanks involved, and I have three hexes where I can retreat, Withdrawl is always a safe bet and can be the Polish player's best friend. So for me it seemed less rock-paper-scissors and more, This is the situation, these are my best options, etc.

For solitaire play, there is a variant in which the Defense Missions are chosen somewhat randomly. The problem with that is there were situations in which one player, usually the Poles, had really only one viable option, and it doesn't make sense for that option to be ignored because of the luck of the roll. If, after the first turn (in which Polish Defenses are always random), I want to Withdrawl and consolidate Polish defenses around Warsaw, the solo variant gives me less control over that; if I have built a good defensive position, I don't want to "randomly" make a Counter-Attack that negates the advantage I've worked hard to put into place. Also, with six Missions to choose from, compared to the (usually) three Attack Missions, the defense decision provides more possibilities and requires more thought. From my second game onwards, I chose the Defense Missions and then randomly selected one of the Attack chits. (Sometimes I narrowed the pool down from three or four choices to two, and sometimes, when Blitz was in the offing, I just blitzed.)

As for the actual Casualty Checks: checks equal to the number of full-strength division on the enemy side are made on a d10 (0=10) against a Casualty Check Number. That number is determined by summing the combat factors of the opposing units and various modifiers (terrain, flanking, quality of checking units, etc.). Most Axis units have a Combat Factor of 4, so a stack of say three of them gives you a check of 12-- meaning that no die is rolled and the Poles automatically takes a casualty. In my experience, most Axis attacks result in these sort of automatic casualties, and for under-powered or crucial attacks, the Axis player can use Air Supply Points to get the number up to or near 10. The Poles have to work a lot harder to get automatic casualties, as most of their units have Combat Factors of 2 or 3. The Axis can afford to make attack-after-attack, but when the Polish Player goes on the attack, it's best to choose their battles carefully. They need some decent modifiers and some units to take the probable casualties from the other side.

My copy of the game came with an errata sheet that mentions two variant rules, both of which pertain to combat. One is w/r/t the Outflanked modifier. In the game's published rules, you get +1 to the Check Number for each instance of outflanking (up to 3). In the variant, only 1 is added, no matter how many instances of outflanking are present. Getting even a +2 for outflanking is hard, let alone a +3, but the published rule can be of some help to the Poles. It doesn't really help the Axis as much because, again, in most of the Axis attacks, pure Combat Factors and the Combat Mission Matrix modifier were enough to get a 10+ Casualty Check Number.

The other variant addresses ZOCs. The game, in general, has no ZOCs-- units never have to stop when they come adjacent. This took a little getting used to, and the first turn I played was a disaster for the Poles because I had set up a spread-out line of defense that was suited for ZOC-style play and left each unit vulnerable instead of keeping stacks together to maximize their Combat Factors/defense capabilities.

However, in the standard rules, when retreating one cannot come adjacent to enemy units-- so, ZOCs come into play for retreating only. In the variant, this ZOC-like effect is not in place-- you're only required to retreat from the attacking units (if you don't, you suffer step losses). I played my first game with the standard rule and the second game onwards with the variant and found that I liked the variant better-- it makes flanking more powerful (because a flanked unit cannot retreat when required to do so, and is going to take a step-loss per unit) and keeps its ZOCless promise.

The variant also makes the game slightly easier for the Poles. By that I don't mean that the game is easy, or even winnable for the Polish side. It's still pretty close to mathematically impossible with this variant, but it's a "fun", challenging, and desperate impossible. The retreat-only ZOCs make it much, much harder to the Poles, and believe me, the Poles don't really need the handicap. :-)

There are other variants to the game, which make the game more balanced or less for one side or the other. I haven't tried them, because frankly the appeal of the game for me is the historical scenario. This scenario gives a strong sense of narrative and a strong historical flavor. While the Poles aren't going to win, it's not a walk in the park for the Axis, either, and well-timed and targetted Polish attacks can be devastating. It's particularly fruitful for the Poles to go after HQ units-- which are numerous enough on the Axis side (usually an advantage for the Axis) that you might happen upon one that's not defended-- and tanks-- armor units are not rebuilt, and provide 1 VP for reducing them and 2 more VP for eliminating. A clever and lucky Polish commander can pull off a Draw if he defends well and attacks carefully.

I've played the game solitaire and will likely continue to do so-- most of my wargaming is solitaire-- but my missus has been interested in the game for about as long as I have, so I think once I can get her moving from block games to hex-and-counters I'll have more to report. I think as a two-player game it will be interesting for both sides-- the Polish Player has the desperate position, and the Axis Player gets to clobber 'em with tanks: everybody wins.
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Brian Train
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Thanks very much for your account of your plays-through of the game.

Setup instructions: I added the historical unit designations in the setup instructions because
a) I had the information to hand from my research and
b) if I hadn't done it, some people would have asked me why I didn't.

It seems to trip people up anyway. You can't win.
And yes, hex numbers for towns would have been useful - the game I handed in to LnL did not have hex numbers on the map, they were added later and we just didn't edit the hex numbers into the setup instructions, as they were done at different times by different people. So it goes.

Selection of missions and solitaire play: I think most wargames are played solitaire, even if they are better played with two - and that most wargamers are quite capable of looking at a situation and choosing what would be "best" for it, and playing accordingly. It's not necessary to always have one side or the other choose its mission randomly; it is meant to mirror the confusion or lack of control an army or corps commander would have over a division's attack going in. But that bugs some gamers too.

In designing this game, I was not about to portray it as something it wasn't historically - the Poles were doomed, even more thoroughly so after the USSR rolled over the eastern border in the final act of the play. But neither is it the half-turn walkover that some games put in as "training scenarios" to teach the game's system. The variations are there to alter things slightly one way or the other, to explore some alternatives that were not too outrageous.

Brian
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Mike Willner
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I've played this game several times, both solitaire as well as face-to-face. The set up time is a factor if you want to dig out the exact matching formation rather than the generic equiv. Of course I wanted to, but that was my choice.

All the games I played were interesting and engaging ... I really like the game system and all the nuance you hilite nicely in your review. It seems a shame that we don't see this system re-used in other games.

All my solo plays were Axis romps. My face-to-face opponent is a VERY skilled wargamer (she's an acknowledged master of the complex OCS system). She fought like hell and even so I won ... and I'm not that skilled a wargamer in general.

We agreed that the historical version is best for solitaire and historical learning. We hope some of the variants make it more of a game for the Poles, but I don't really see it. Guess I'll have to try.

I think the solitaire component is brilliant, and would love to see it expanded. Maybe it could drive some of the Axis strategy (where the schwerpunkt will be, etc.). A thought.

I had a few quibbles, like the close fitting hexes around the tall stacks of thin-ish counters ... but LnL can't be blamed for my fat fingers. Brian has been great answering questions, but with all due respect I still feel the rules are a bit fuzzy and need explaining.

All in all, this game is a keeper. It will hit my solitaire table again at home, and more than likely the game tables at Metropolitan Wargamers of NYC a few more time.
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Brian Train
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Thanks Mike! I appreciate the time you've taken with the game and am glad you feel it has been well spent.

This almost-diceless combat system first appeared in Autumn Mist: The Battle of the Bulge in 2005 and will be appearing again in Balkan Gambit, due to be published this year. Neither game is a German romp, and there are plenty of decisions for players to make.

If you have any other questions about the game or system in general, please let me know.

Brian
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