The week was a bit slow in Casa RockyMountainNavy. This is the first holiday we celebrated in our “new” nuclear family configuration since Eldest RMN Boy is in Tech School for the U.S. Air Farce. It also follows three months with the Mother-in-Law in town and a simultaneous major health challenge for Mrs. RMN (not COVID…but while the vaccine might of protected it appears it brought on other health issues). So we have much to be thankful for. For my part, much of the Christmas shopping is also complete, at least as the major presents for each RMN Boy and especially Mrs. RMN go.
Huzzah Hobbies, my FLGS, had a 50% off sale this weekend. I didn’t make it up there but the RMN Boys did and sent me a photo of the shelves and asked for suggestions. We’ll see if anything shows up under the tree this Christmas.
I recently scored a “veteran” players copy of The Battle of the Bulge by commercial wargaming pioneer Charles S. Roberts and published by The Avalon Hill Co. in 1965. I say “veteran” because the condition of the game is fair at best. The mapboard is still in one piece if not faded and stained in places, the counters are a bit faded with the faces rubbed off ever so slightly (and never been corner clipped), the rule books and play aids are yellowed with coffee staining in places, and the box bottom and top blown in seven of eight corners. Still, the game is complete and playable. So I played, and in doing so opened up a bit of a look into the past. Playing The Battle of the Bulge, one of commercial wargaming earliest titles, is a nostalgic look to the past of our hobby and highlights how early wargames were very much complete systems, as well as showing us how far our hobby has come.
From the Outside Looking In
The Battle of the Bulge comes in a 14x11x1.5-inch flat box. The only real indicator that this is a “wargame” is not found on the cover but on the box edge which which on all four sides has the Avalon Hill logo and the words, “The Battle of the Bulge | World War II Ardennes Battle Game.” The box bottom is plain with no graphics or text. Indeed, without the “battle game” phrase there is actually no indication this is a game, much less a wargame.
The cover art for The Battle of the Bulge is uncredited. The picture is evocative; the olive drab-clad American soldiers clutching their M-1 Garand rifles in the snow while a German tank burns in the background. The text on the box is taken from the letter the Germans sent to Bastogne demanding surrender and the famous “Nuts!” reply.
The components of The Battle of the Bulge are very much what one expects in a classic hex and counter wargame. The 22×28-inch map is mounted using a split quad-fold. Rules are found in an Instruction Folder (8×10, 4 pages) which include the “Basic Game.” A second booklet, the Battle Manual, is a 16-page digest-sized booklet with the “Tournament Game” and “Optional Rules” as well as “Diagrams of Play” and “Historical Commentary.” Counters come in a single die-cut sheet (170 counters total?) in two colors: Grey-Blue for the Americans and Pink for Germans. Interestingly, on the counter sheet the Grey-Blue is labeled “German Order of Battle” and the Pink labeled “Russian Order of Battle.” Also included are two Order of Appearance cards—one for each side— and a Time Record Card.
“…historically correct re-creation…as challenging as Chess only more versatile.”
When reading the Instruction Folder for The Battle of the Bulge is becomes obvious that Mr. Roberts and Avalon Hill took much pride in their games and really saw them as something different. First off, they viewed wargames as highly personal experiences. This personal investment in play comes through in the introduction (emphasis is from original):
YOU are there. YOU are Brigadier General McAuliffe. Your 101st Airborne Division is hopelessly encircled at Bastogne. the German commander demands that you surrender or face complete annihilation.
Your reply note reads, “NUTS—the American Commander.”
Truly one of the most inspiring rebuffs in the annals of military history—the Americans held out.
Now, today, you CAN be there…re-capturing history in a new battle game that was to D-Day what Gettysburg was to the American Civil War.
The Battle of the Bulge, Instruction Folder, p. 1
The Instruction Folder claims The Battle of the Bulge is a “historically correct re-creation of the famous World War II campaign of the same name. To back up this claim, General Anthony C. McAuliffe, USA, (Ret.) is credited with providing technical aid. Yet, even when acknowledging General McAuliffe there is still an emphasis on connecting the player to the game; “But now YOU are in command. YOU get the thrill of leading all of the same Regiments, Brigades and Panzer Units over a realistic topographical map of the actual battle area.”
It is not until the description of the games in The Battle of the Bulge that we finally get to wargame. Here we find a recognition that Avalon Hill understood that wargaming was something new for the gaming hobby when they write, “The BASIC GAME is designed to introduce the beginner to the “new art” of wargaming.” They go on to say, “The TOURNAMENT GAME is designed for the true wargaming aficionado…it is as challenging as Chess only more versatile.” I personally find some humor in how Mr. Roberts and Avalon Hill thought about their players; “If you like to think…if you like to be challenged…like to try your luck and intelligence…play THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE.”
“…a realistic topographical map…”
While claiming The Battle of the Bulge is played on ” a realistic topographical map,” a closer look at the board reveals many abstractions. Some are acknowledged by the designer; “Only the roughest and most densely wooded areas have been reproduced on the board.” Then there is some wonky terminology to deal with when hexes are called squares (“Hereafter, these hexagons shall be called “squares.””). It’s almost as though the rules were written for a pre-hex map…
The Sequence of How to Play
Every turn in The Battle of the Bulge consists of four steps, laid out in a section labeled How to Play. Nowadays, the phrase “Sequence of Play,” or SOP, is far more common. This is another early example of how wargames drew from boardgames and at this point were yet to establish their own terminology. The same can be said of Victory Conditions which in these rules fall under the header How to Win.
Charles S. Roberts used the concept of Zones of Control (ZOC) in his earliest wargames, TACTICS and TACTICS II (Avalon Hill, 1956), and once again it makes an appearance here. The concept of a zone of control is so engrained in wargamers that it is easy to assume you know the rules without reading them. So it was with some surprise that when I carefully read the ZOC rules in The Battle of the Bulge I discovered I was mistaken in my rules assumptions. Specifically, two lines stood out to me:
“A Unit’s zone of control extends across rivers and into dense woods and rough terrain.”
“You automatically cause combat when you move a Unit into any one square of an enemy Unit’s zone of control.”
Surprise! Unlike many wargames where a ZoC does NOT extend across rivers or are stopped by inhospitable terrain like woods and rough, in the Battle of the Bulge they absolutely do reach out. Further, for the longest time I always assumed attacks to be optional…yes, you can approach an enemy (and a ZoC may stop movement) but ultimately the decision to attack is separate from movement. Not so in The Battle of the Bulge; here movement into a ZOC is automatically an attack.
For a battle game the rules for combat in The Battle of the Bulge are actually a bit hard to learn. That’s because the combat rules for The Basic Game are contained in the Zone of Control section, the How to Resolve Battles section, and then on the Basic Game Battle Results Table and How Different Terrain Effects Combat Factors on Defense charts both found on the “Basic Game Battle Results Table” card. The terrain effects chart is tabular rather than graphical, likely a result of the limitations of printing in the day. The rules for Multiple Unit Battles are in the Instruction Folder and in the “Appendix” of the Battle Manual.
Once all the rules for combat in The Battle of the Bulge are found there are few surprises for Grognard wargamers. Combat odds are rounded in favor of the defender and simplified. Combat results are fairly standard with Eliminated, Back (Retreat), Exchange and Engaged results.
“New Art” not Chess or Roll and Move
Several of the movement rules in The Battle of the Bulge specifically call out differences from boardgames in yet more examples of how Charles S. Roberts and Avalon Hill were trying to explain the “new art” of wargaming. There is the seemingly obligatory chess reference: “Unlike chess and checkers you may move all Units you choose to move before resolving any battles.” Soon after is a rule that seems humorous to me but I’m sure it was written very seriously because somebody asked the question: “The die is used only to resolve battle—it has nothing to do with movement.”
Chrome for the “true wargame aficionado”
Charles S. Roberts claims the Tournament Game for The Battle of the Bulge is “designed for the true wargame aficionado.” In the Tournament Game, the Victory Conditions How to Win changes and several rules providing more realism, but some additional rules overhead, are introduced. There are new rules for Fortifications, Fortresses, Isolation and Supply, US Air Supremacy, One-Way Traffic, and a new Battle Results Table. Of these rules, the hardest to play might be the Isolation and Supply rules where a unit is eliminated after six consecutive turns of isolation, yet there is no easy in-game way of noting which units are isolated or for how long the condition has existed.
The “Tournament Game Battle Results Table” also shows some interesting concepts that are seen in later wargames in one manner or another, but not necessarily used in the same way presented here. While the same combat results of Eliminated / Back (Retreat) / Exchange / Engaged are used, two other results, Advance and Contact, are introduced while the rules for Engaged are modified:
The new Advance result allows an attacker to advance, but in a variable fashion and not the usual advance in to the hex vacated by the defender found in so many wargames.
Contact calls for no casualties, no retreat, no advance; the defender in their turn must withdraw or counter-attack.
Whereas an Engaged result in the Basic Game did not allow for reinforcements to be added to the battle, in the Tournament Game players follow a 3-step routine that gives much more agency to players vice the highly restrictive automatic attack rules of the Basic Game.
“…for the player who thrives on…complicated variables…”
The Battle of the Bulge also includes a section of optional rules. I like how the designer introduces them and really throws down the gauntlet to the players:
Optional Rules may or may not be added at your discretion. They add additional realism and complexity for the player who thrives on handling the many complicated variables inherent in true-to-life battle situations.
The Battle of the Bulge, Battle Manual, “Optional Rules”, p. 6
There are seven optional rules in The Battle of the Bulge. When considered with the perspective of a long-time Grognard, these “complicated variables” aren’t really all that difficult to integrate into play:
Strategic Air Power allows the American to attack a single “square” with German units at the least immobilized and at worst eliminated.
Tactical Air Power awards 20 attack factors each turn to the American player to add to ground attacks.
Weather can change…the weather but once it clears is stays that way.
Retreat Through Blocking Terrain may be the trickiest to remember because it “breaks” the movement rules.
Armor in Engagements is another rules exception which exempts armor from Engagement results.
German Supply limits the number of German attacks.
The last optional rule in The Battle of the Bulge, Play-Balance, once again reveals insights into what Avalon Hill thought of their gaming customers. I also find it interesting because it is the opposite of where the wargaming hobby seemed to go in late 1970’s and 1980’s with the rise of numerous “conflict simulations” that hyper-stressed realism often at the expense of playability. In the time of The Battle of the Bulge, Avalon Hill wrote, “We find that many Avalon Hill players are more concerned with play-balance than with historical accuracy.” This may explain in part some of the historical inaccuracies that eventually are at the root of much criticism of the design. One must recall that Avalon Hill intended these battle games to be introductory and, as the quote tells us, no matter how factual the game claimed to be the first priority was given to playability. I’d argue that just 15 years later the pendulum had swung hard the other way with titles like Advanced Squad Leader that, while playable, hyper-stressed realism. Now, over 50 years later, we constantly see designers struggle with balancing “realism” (whatever that word means) and play-balance.
Show Me Your Wargame
The Battle Manual for The Battle of the Bulge devotes three pages to Diagrams of Play. The first page is How to Have Combat and uses three graphics to show two examples. The second page has a single graphic attempting to explain Multiple Units Battles which is a shame since that may be the single most difficult rules concept to grasp. This is followed by two graphics (with two more on page three) devoted to How to Have Combat in the Tournament Game.
Tell Me About Your War
One part of wargames I alway enjoy is the historical commentary, and The Battle of the Bulge is no exception. That said, I feel Avalon Hill missed an opportunity here because, though General McAuliffe, the US commander at Bastogne was a technical advisor, the Historical Commentary does not appear to be written by him. That said, the military historian in me found the account quite balanced, which is not what I really expected to see with the benefit of almost 60 more years of scholarship.
Within the Historical Commentary of The Battle of the Bulge there is also some recommended basic strategy tips for both the Germans and Americans. However, the part I found most interesting, and the one place General McAuliffe’s advice is explicitly recognized, is in the Addendum to the commentary which actually gives us some insight into the design of the game:
Most historical accounts of the Ardennes campaign take the reader into January. Thus, many divisions that took part in the Battle of the Bulge, arriving after December 30th, 1944, naturally are not included in Avalon Hill’s Order of Battle. As pointed out in discussions with General McAuliffe, the overall German timetable hinged on their crossing the Meuse River by approximately December 23rd. Operations beyond the end of December could be classified as nothing more than mop-up campaigns since the German chances of victory beyond this point were quite remote.
The Battle of the Bulge, Battle Manual, “Historical Commentary,” p. 14
When playing The Battle of the Bulge, one aspect of play that really stood out to me was what data was off-boarded and in what format. I use the term “off-boarded” to mean data used in play that is not presented or tracked on the game board. In the case of The Battle of the Bulge the only “data” on the map board is the map (location and terrain), a grid coordinate system, a compass rose, and units when in play. Like many wargames, the combat results tables (here called Battle Results Tables) are kept on a player aid card that is passed between players. Each player has their own order of battle cards displaying at-start forces and reinforcements each turn. The turn track is also kept on an off-board card, but to record the passage of the turn players do not move a chit dow a track but one has to physically mark off each turn using a pen or pencil. This is surely a legacy boardgame mechanism! I’m very happy we got past this way of tracking turns and now often use a track with a counter that moves turn to turn. In some ways the “old art” approach makes for interesting gaming history; in my copy of The Battle of the Bulge I see the record of nine games the shortest of which was five turns.
While The Battle of the Bulge certainly shows its age and there are concerns with the historical accuracy in parts, at the end of the day Charles S. Roberts and Avalon Hill deliver a decent battle game. I am willing to forgive Mr. Roberts a bit given The Battle of the Bulge was very much “new art.” By modern standards, some of the design choices are not the best or even elegant but when considered against contemporary games of the day it is nothing short of incredible. A query of the BoardGameGeek database of games released in 1965 yields a list of just over 200 titles of which only 30-some are ranked. The query results tell us that The Battle of the Bulge burst upon the gaming scene the same year as those classic boardgames Trouble and Operation arrived.
I’ll take The Battle of the Bulge over those games any day of the week, and twice on the weekends!
My copy of The Battle of the Bulge also includes rules for play-by-mail (PBM). PBM requires one to record unit positions and mail them to your opponent. The part I find most interesting is how to resolve a random die roll:
Because of the separation of opponents, combat is not resolved by the roll of the die. Instead – you obtain the results of each battle by consulting the New York Stock Exchange report that is printed daily in the business financial section of your newspaper. You look up the closing quotations for a pre-selected day’s stock transactions. The result of each battle is determined by the last digit of the Sales-in-Hundreds column for the particular stock(s) you have pre-selected.
The Battle of the Bulge, Play-By-Mail Instructions, “How To Record Combat”
Far cry from the random die roll apps of today, eh? And more insight into how Avalon Hill viewed their gamers; everybody would have a daily newspaper and everybody knew how to read stock reports. Was this an early version of gatekeeping?
Cepheus Deluxe is the latest iteration of the Cepheus Engine roleplaying game rules for 2d6 science fiction adventures. These new rules are the latest refinement of a game system that traces its heritage back to Marc Miller’s Classic Traveller RPG from Game Designers’ Workshop in 1977. Cepheus Deluxe increases player agency in generation of larger-than-life characters and delivers more cinematic action but by doing so moves the Cepheus Engine away from play evocative of “ordinary” adventurers and closer to heroic science fiction characters and action taken from today’s pop culture.
Cepheus Deluxe is simultaneously a spiritual successor to the original Traveller RPG (now commonly known as Classic Traveller) as well as a distinctly different game. The major differences (evolution?) in the rules systems are related to the core mechanic, character generation (chargen), and more cinematic combat. Some of the “new” rules were seen in previous versions of Traveller, such as Mongoose Traveller 1st and 2nd Editions, as well as earlier or variant versions of Cepheus Engine. However, their assembly in Cepheus Engine delivers a more “heroic” game.
Core Mechanic – 2d6…plus
The Classic Traveller core mechanic—roll 2d6 8+ for success—generally remains in Cepheus Deluxe but with more modifiers and task difficulty. Whereas in Classic Traveller the only die modifier (DM) to a skill check was from skill levels, in Cepheus Deluxe you have DMs for characteristics and skill levels. along with a host of other environmental and situational modifiers. These extra modifiers appeared in various Traveller and Cepheus Engine versions before now.
The major new addition to character generation in Cepheus Deluxe that heavily influences task throws is Traits. “Traits are unique features of competent and driven characters…each character typically has one Trait…” (p. 41). When using a Trait, players use Advantage, which means one rolls 3d6 and chooses the best two when making a task roll.
Although it is an optional rule, if used Hero Points can dramatically shift the style of play in Cepheus Deluxe. This rule is expressly designed to enable play of “larger-than-life science fiction heroes” (p. 12). Players start each session with 2 Hero Points and share a common pool of points equal to the number of players present. Each time a task throw results in an Effect (difference of roll and target number) of +6 or greater, the individual Hero Pool increases by 1. Each time a task throw has an Effect of -6 or greater, the group Hero Pool increases by 1. Hero Points are used to:
Reroll a single die throw
Force the Referee to reroll a non-player character die roll
Reroll a throw on Trauma Surgery.
It’s MY Character
One of the greatest features (not a bug) of Classic Traveller has always been character generation (chargen). In Classic Traveller, chargen is quite literally a game with lots of wristage; throw to generate stats, throw to enter careers, throw for skill during a term, throw for promotion, throw for survival, throw to reenlist, and throw when mustering out. Cepheus Deluxe attempts to keep the core lifepath development system of Traveller but updates it by giving the players a bit more agency while calling on less wristage. During chargen in Cepheus Deluxe players will:
Roll for characteristics but assign them as desired (long an optional rule)
Choose a Homeworld and associated skills (adopted from previous versions)
Select a career; no enlistment rolls
Pick your own skills during a term; no rolling on tables
Optionally, one can roll 1d6 for the number of years in a term vice using the “standard” 4-year
Promotions automatically occur in certain terms (subject to modification by Career Events)
During a term, one rolls on a Life Events Table and, if necessary, the Injury Table
Roll for aging effects at end of Term 4 (tied to terms, not a specific age)
Roll for Mustering Out Benefits, but a roll can be exchanged for a promotion
Select one Trait for every two terms served (rounded up)
Chargen in Cepheus Deluxe includes optional rules for switching careers. There is another optional rule called “Iron Man!” where one treats any injury as player death—a call-back to Classic Traveller and its famous “you can die in character generation.”
Another major change in Cepheus Deluxe during chargen is the calculation of two new character stats: Stamina and Lifeblood. These stats are used in combat. Stamina, representing “toughness,” is the sum of the player character’s (PC) Endurance characteristic plus Athletics skill. Lifeblood, or “resistance to injury,” is equal to twice their Stamina.
Action for Heroes
Classic Traveller, indeed most version of Traveller or Cepheus Engine, can be very deadly for player characters—after all, the combat system was developed with wargame designer Frank Chadwick! To illustrate both the similarities and differences let’s look at a combat situation. From Classic Traveller we will use the sample character Captain Jamison from pages 24-25 aboard his Type A merchant. Little does he know, pirate captain “Mad Jackie” Botrel from the combat example in Cepheus Deluxe page 93 has snuck aboard and is trying to take over his ship!
Both Jamison and Jackie are waiting to go thru a door when it opens and both see one another. While both are surprised neither has “surprise” by the rules. Since Classic Traveller does not use Initiative rules like those found in Cepheus Deluxe, we will invoke the Cepheus Deluxe optional rule for Simultaneous Combat. As both characters are already at short range Jamison’s “move” is to draw his cutlass followed by an attack. At the same time, Jackie will charge and use her internal cyberblade to attack. So begins this Melee Combat:
Jamison must roll an 8+ to hit and has a DM+1 from his Cutlass-1 skill, a DM-2 for the Synthsilk (Mesh?) armor that Jackie is wearing, and a further DM+2 for short range making his roll 2d6+1.
Jackie charges into close range and must roll Melee Combat/STR 8+ with a DM+2 from the charge. Her strength of 6 grants no modifiers but her Melee Combat-3 skill gives her a DM+3. Usually armor reduces hits but since Jamison uses an older rules set without armor protection detailed, we invoke the optional rule Armor as a Penalty to Hit and give Jackie a further DM-1 for the Cloth Armor Jamison is wearing. Total DM is +5. Because she is using her Internal Cybernetic Blade, she can invoke her Signature Weapon Trait and roll 3d6 and use the best two die.
Jamison rolls a 7 which after DM is an 8—hit!
Jackie rolls 3-4-4 of which she uses 4-4 (8) and DM+5 for a modified roll of 13; hit with Effect +5.
Jamison’s cutlass is 2d6+4 damage; average rolls give it 11 wound points.
Jackie’s Internal Blade is 2d6; average 7 points plus the Effect+5 for 12 wound points.
The wounds to Jamison are randomly determined to hit his Endurance (9) first. This reduces his Endurance to 0 with three remaining points spread against Strength (-1) and Dexterity (-2);Jamison falls unconscious.
The 11 wound points against Jackie are reduced by 8 from her Synthsilk Armor. The remaining 3 points are applied to her Stamina (Endurance + Athletics = 8) which leaves her standing with “a mere flesh wound.”
Of note, in Cepheus Deluxe, once Stamina is exhausted wounds are then applied to Lifeblood (Stamina x2). Game effects from the loss of Lifeblood include:
When Lifeblood > half rating the PC has a Minor Wound and a DM-1 to all actions
When Lifeblood < half rating the PC has a Serious Wound with a DM-2 to all actions and must roll to remain conscious
When Lifeblood reaches zero the PC is Mortally Wounded and will die within an our unless they undergo Trauma Surgery.
Using the assumption that a character has average physical characteristics of 7, and assuming they have at least Combat and Athletics skills of 1 (“Employable”), in Cepheus Deluxe it likely takes something on the order of three or four hits—or more when wearing armor—to incapacitate a PC. While one certainly doesn’t want to hang around in a sustained firefight in Cepheus Deluxe, the combat potential of a PC is reduced at a cinematically slower pace than many previous versions of Traveller or Cepheus Engine (and certainly much slower than Classic Traveller).
“Holding Out for a Hero”
In Classic Traveller and so many later versions of Traveller and Cepheus Engine, character generation delivered what I call “everyday” characters using a somewhat random system. While one may start chargen with a basic character concept, the system sometimes (often times?) delivered a far different result. For myself, I enjoyed taking these “everyday” characters and trying to build a story and adventures around them. The increased player agency in Cepheus Deluxe challenges my basic assumptions at the start of chargen. The increased player agency in chargen from Cepheus Deluxe empowers players to take a character concept and flesh it out. While there is still some randomness and uncertainty it is limited and can challenge, but not derail, the making of a character. The ability to select your own skills and then acquire Traits with their powerful Advantage roll makes characters in Cepheus Engine more heroic than everyday. In some roleplaying games it is a conceit going into the game that players are “heroes” or extraordinary PCs. This was certainly not the conceit in Classic Traveller, but it is more popular in other systems. For example, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) in “Character Creation, Step 2: Abilities” explicitly defines characters as “extraordinary” as compared to non-adventurous ordinary people:
AGE System characters are defined by nine abilities. They’re scored on a numeric scale from -2 (quite poor) to 4 (truly outstanding). A score of 1 is considered average for Player Characters and other extraordinary people. 0 is average for everyday individuals, the sort of folks who avoid having adventures.
The Expanse Roleplaying Game, p. 25
The core mechanic in Cepheus Deluxe, building upon character generation and taken in combination with more cinematic action and the optional Hero Points rules, certainly enables play of “larger-than-life science fiction heroes.” I am very likely in the minority here, but my preferred style of RPG play is decidedly “ordinary” vice “extraordinary.” Looking back over various rule sets in my collection I often enjoy taking an ordinary character and throwing them into extraordinary adventures:
Classic Traveller (GDW, 1977): “Everyday” characters usually living on the edge.
Behind Enemy Lines (FASA, 1982): Everyday GI Joe in combat.
Star Trek (FASA, 1982): While Star Fleet officers are highly trained, they often needed plenty of luck too.
James Bond 007 (Victory Games, 1983): Anybody can be spy, but a 00 has the best gadgets.
Paranoia (West End Games, 1984): Six decidedly average (if not slightly abnormal) clones were never enough.
Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1984): In how many games can one stat themselves out?
Traveller: 2300 aka 2300 AD (GDW, 1986): Hard sci-fi Traveller in an unforgiving universe.
Battlestar Galactica (Margaret Weiss, 2007): Humans on the run from frakking Cylons!
Mongoose Traveller (Mongoose Publishing, 2008): Classic Traveller with an OGL
Serenity/Firefly (Margaret Weiss 2008/2014): “Find a crew, find a job, keep flying.”
Cepheus Engine/Orbital 2100 (Zozer Games, 2016): Hard sublight sci-fi.
Cepheus Engine/Hostile (Zozer Games, 2017): “In space nobody can hear you scream.”
I hear there is a Cowboy Bebop RPG in development; looking forward to Cowboys just trying to catch a bounty to buy birthday presents for their kids and not be hungry for noodles like Spike.
In many ways I should not be surprised by the Cepheus Deluxe authors moving the rules towards a more heroic version of science fiction roleplaying. Thanks to corporate overlords like Marvel, superheroes seem everywhere. If you look at the RPG systems I enjoy, you will notice that most of those games are not superhero or high magic or space fantasy. My sources of inspiration for science fiction roleplaying overlap to some degree with those listed in Cepheus Deluxe, with a notable difference being my lack interest from computer games.
Does all this mean I dislike Cepheus Deluxe? Hardly. Rules like Hero Points are optional, and as you can see with the example above there is a high degree of backwards compatibility baked into the system. There are more than a few rules, like chases in combat or the entire Social Encounter chapter that are vey nice. More likely than not, I’ll probably use a character generation system tailored to a setting I prefer to play in like The Clement Sector or Orbital 2100 or Hostile but use the rules for Cepheus Deluxe in adventure play.
At the end of the day, I will certainly try to play Cepheus Deluxe. I am not sure I will add Hero Points. I feel that the RockyMountainNavy Boys would like the more heroic play. For myself…I just want ordinary PCs in extraordinary adventures. I’ll hold out for my heroes!
Postscript: There is one further discussion I feel need be mentiones and that is the inevitable comparisons of Cepheus Deluxe to Mongoose Traveller 2nd Ed. Yes, the two game systems are very similar, dare I say almost identical. The similarities are not only in the rules but in the layout of the rule books and even similar artwork. I see two major differences: price and licensing. For price one just cannot beat Cepheus Deluxe which at $9.99 for pdf and $16.99 for pdf+ B&W softcover is a real bargain. Mongoose Traveller will set you back $30 for the pdf alone, the most recent version which is an update to the 2nd Edition rules (although called an “update” Mongoose wants you to buy a whole new rulebook). Secondly, there is the licensing issues I alluded to before. Suffice it to say the Cepheus Engine community is open and very welcoming, whereas the MgT community must live with a publishing overlord that takes seizes individual IP just because you might happen to play in “their” sandbox.
This week my “office-al” game was Mark Herman’s Gettysburg (C3i Magazine Nr. 32, 2018). I chose this game partially because of the small footprint (a single 11″x17″ mapsheet) and low counter density. I also chose the game because one of my coworkers is deep into the Battle of Gettysburg as he had several ancestors at the battle.
Seeing that this is a Wargame Wednesday entry you can tell my play of Gettysburg went quickly. The game itself ended in a Union victory. Going into the last turn things looked bleak for the Union but the return of two Blown corps helped stiffen the Union lines and (barely) preserve a win.
More importantly, I got to show off Gettysburg to my coworker. He is NOT a gamer by any measure of the imagination. I stepped him through some of the game mechanisms and he was interested enough to seek out his own copy. No, I didn’t lend him mine because he has a history of “holding onto” loaned books.
“Office-al” Game: Iron Curtain (Ultra Pro/Jolly Roger Games, 2017). Not necessarily a solo game but having to walk away between hands helps one to forget what is there making “two-handed solitaire” doable. Small game also got some big attention from office mates.
Recently, I tested the tolerance of my bosses and took my copy of No Motherland Without: North Korea in Crisis and Cold War by designer Dan Bullock from Compass Games to the office. My job is tangentially related to the game topic, so I figured I could come up with a good cover story to explain why I had it laid out on my desk. During the week I played the solitaire scenario during my lunch times. By the end of the week the game was finished and I had rediscovered the interesting insights No Motherland Without delivers while also showing my office the power of “serious gaming.”
No Motherland Without…another player
While No Motherland Without is technically a two-player game with one side playing North Korea and the other the West, designer Dan Bullock also includes a solitaire scenario. Here, the player plays the North Korean regime and the “solo bot” plays the West. Technically, I’m not sure you can actually call it a “bot” as the solitaire scenario rules lay out some exceptions and a decision flowchart for how to execute the West card play. Fortunately, the rules changes for the solitaire version are not too numerous and are both easy to learn and implement. All told my play of a complete 7-turn solitaire game took about two hours of lunch times.
The solitaire decision flowchart in No Motherland Without very clearly focuses the West on three priorities; place Outages to hinder infrastructure building, placement and movement of Defector Routes and Defectors, and Investment of Action Points for future use. It is a good guide to strategy for West players.
In my solo game of No Motherland Without the single most important event was not a Missile Test (though there were two—both successful) but the event “Thailand Tightens Its Borders.” This card is an Enduring Event meaning it goes on the three-card track and stays in play until three other Enduring Events are played and it gets “pushed” into the discard pile. The game effect is the removal the Defector Routes in Thailand and a prohibition for the West to use Activities to rebuild the route. This forces defectors to use the route through Mongolia which, although shorter than the Thailand route, has a 2-in-3 chance of the defector dying in the desert. In my game “Thailand Tightens Its Borders” came out early in the fifth turn and didn’t get pushed off the Enduring Events track until the last turn. This meant all defector attempts in turns 5-7 had to use the risky Mongolia route (in the last turn by rule all defectors must use the Mongolia route). By the end of the game a majority of the Final Turn (Kim Jong Un-era) generation was dead. Although the West had supported many defectors, through the Enduring Event card North Korea was able to gain favorable treatment from Thailand and it was enough to stem the flow of defectors—and the accumulation of Victory Points–to ensure a North Korean victory even without a final successful Missile Test to raise Prestige.
If one had any thoughts that No Motherland Without may provide some background as to why Korea has been an intractable problem for as long as it has this game offers no real policy insight. That said, No Motherland Without sets itself apart by showing the interrelation of many historical events from a very human perspective as the plight of defectors is prominently showcased. It’s an important perspective, just not very mainstream.
After my recent solo play of No Motherland Without I reconsidered my statement. The core conflict of the game, North Korea building infrastructure versus the West supporting defectors, is a policy statement. While North Korea gets plenty of worldwide attention for its missile and nuclear programs, it still must build a society for its people. On the other side, though support for defectors is usually the realm of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) rather than governments, it still can be a government policy (like is was in South Korea for a long time). This last year-plus of COVID, with it’s closed borders, has limited the flow of defectors. At the same time, North Korea, like many other countries, is trying to build better infrastructure for its populace (look at all the apartment building projects). Although they seemingly are disconnected now, once borders reopen we will see how “happy” the North Korean people are if Kim Jong Un can complete all those buildings, or if they will become his 21st century Ryugyong Hotel that sat unfinished for decades.
During the week my play of No Motherland Without got some attention in the office. At one end of the response spectrum, and by far the largest in number, were those who scoffed at somebody “playing a game” at the office. I responded to these folks by pointing out the history lessons in the game and the interesting perspective of the designer. Generally they seemed to accept my points, but often visibly remained doubtful. This group was also the ones to most often try to compare No Motherland Without to Risk or Monopoly(sigh).
A second smaller group of coworkers was able to look past the “game” of No Motherland Without and see the learning value. Some of these folks would casually flip through the cards and then look at the historical notes. While they learned, several were quick to point out that the randomness of the cards meant events could occur out of historical order, thereby making the game “incorrect.” To that criticism I responded by pointing out it was not the specific events but the situation in many cases that the cards capture, and while the events may happen “out of order” they still capture the essence of the flow of history vice a specific timeline. This group had a few gamers amongst its members, but it quickly became apparent that their preferred gaming was online and not very complex; indeed, more than one marveled at the “obvious” complexity of No Motherland Without.
One last, very small, group of my coworkers understood what No Motherland Without was trying to communicate. For one of them, when I explained the core conflict of infrastructure versus defectors you could see the “eureka” moment as they blinked and said, “Of course!.” With these few I had very serious conversations as to how an Event Card could be played or how the different Activities paid for in Action Points could be spent. One coworker wanted to take the game to their office to play and show their coworkers the insights from the game. Another who is well connected to several NGOs and the North Korean defector community really was interested in the game, although they pointed out that the ability to only play North Korea in the solo game may be “upsetting” to some. This small group was able to see the “serious gaming” potential of No Motherland Without as the designer’s core message is shown through game play.
Next – A Revolutionary Game…of waiting
Overall, I feel my “office-al” gaming was a success. I was planning to take designer Dan Bullock’s latest game, 1979: Revolution in Iran (The Dietz Foundation, 2021), into the office next and play that one. Belatedly I realized it does not have a solo mode! During the Kickstarter campaign Dan was asked about a solo module stretch goal to which he responded:
No Motherland Without features a solitaire scenario in addition to the two-player game. The solitaire scenario only allows you to play the role of the DPRK, but the West opponent is easy to control and challenging. Unfortunately, the event card draft makes 1979 difficult to adapt a solo bot. I tested a short solo scenario leading up to the Islamic Revolution, but ultimately scrapped it because it didn’t feel robust enough.
So, Dan, do y’all think you could share that scenario and let us see how it works? Maybe somebody out there can make it work better, or develop something else that does. Please? I need another title to play during lunch in the office…
The opinions and views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and are presented in a personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of any government or private agency or employer.
Kingdomino: Origins by Bruno Cathala from Blue Orange Games (2021) is the newest version of the Kingdomino family that breathes a welcome freshness into the design without losing the essential fun elements of the game.
Yet, when I first saw the box art for Kingdomino: Origins the game was an auto-buy from that moment. I didn’t even look to see what rules changed…it was a new Kingdomino game and that was enough to sell me.
Kingdomino: Origins is actually three games in one. The first game, Discovery Mode, is classic Kingdomino with the addition of volcanoes that can throw fires. In Origins fires are the “crowns” of earlier versions and how you multiply your regions for scoring. Taking volcanos give you fires to throw to add bonus scoring. For long-time Kingdomino players this shook us up from our staid ways; whereas before we understood that certain tiles were lesser in number but more valuable, now a volcano can take that low-value tile and make it worth much more. A truly new level of strategy originated in this mode of play.
Totem Mode is the second game of Kingdomino: Origins. Here the game uses the volcano rules and adds resources. The player who has the most of a given resource gains a Totem which is an endgame scoring bonus. But watch out; placing those fires from the volcanos destroys resources in that space. This uncovers another level of strategy; placing fires for bonus scoring weighed against destroying a resource that can also be a bonus score. Simple rule change—deep strategic shift.
Tribe Mode in Kingdomino: Origins builds again on the previous two modes and adds tribal members as a bonus. In this mode you have volcanos and resources (but no Totems). The new rule addition is the ability to recruit a caveman by spending resources and placing the caveperson on your hunting ground. Depending on who the caveman is they score you a different bonus depending upon the surrounding tiles. The strategic challenge of the game goes up a (small) step as now you must find places to throw fires, take resources from, and place cavemen to maximize your scoring.
The first RockyMountainNavy family playthru of Kingdomino: Origins was actually three games; one each Discovery, Totem, and Tribe modes played back-to-back-to-back. As experienced Kingdomino players learning the new rules was easy; on the other hand discovering and implementing new strategies was challenging (in a very good way). I can easily imagine Kingdomino: Origins becoming the new “Kingdomino gateway” game for our family and friends as learning/teaching Discovery Mode is not that much more difficult than classic Kingdomino. Totem Mode is not a huge step up, and even going to Tribe Mode is an easy learning curve. Even at full-on Tribe Mode I still feel this game is easier to play than Queendomino. While learning Kingdomino: Origins is easy the new strategy challenges make it very interesting and engaging—both for veteran gamers and novices alike. As an added bonus the graphic art is tremendous fun too.
Fair warning: Kingdomino: Origins cannot be combined with Kingdomino or Queendomino. I have seen criticism of that game design decision. My message to those naysayers—play Kingdomino: Origins, all three modes. I think you’ll discover that there is enough game here that you don’t need to combine it with the earlier versions. Kingdomino: Origins stands on its own—you don’t need to go bigger to have an easy to learn, deep strategic game experience.
When I see a game about World War II in Normandy, my mind first goes to the movie The Longest Day (1962). Indeed, I think for many wargamers the invasion of Normandy is almost always the first thing that comes to mind when talking about a wargame set around D-Day.
The Dark Summer covers D-Day…and a whole lot more. In hindsight, given a game scale of 2.25 miles per hex and weekly (uh, sorry, “one quarter of a month”) turns it should be no surprise the critical invasion days are reduced to just a part of a turn. At first I felt a bit cheated; in The Dark Summer the landings on the beach are often reduced to a single die roll and then an advance inland. It felt so much different from the popular depiction of D-Day that at first I wondered if the landings were being trivialized. However, after playing the entire game (not only the first turn) I discovered that The Dark Summer doesn’t minimize the sacrifices of those who came ashore on D-Day; on the contrary, after play I see how game puts those invasion day efforts into context with the entire campaign. It took me a bit to see the obvious; The Dark Summer is not a game about the invasion of the Normandy beaches, but about the breakout.
Whatever drama The Dark Summer lacks in regards to the invasion of the Normandy beaches, it makes up for in the race that follows. Players have 10 turns to either take back invaded beaches (Germans) or if the Allies to push out and “take the edges” of Cherbourg or Brittany or points to the east on the map. Cherbourg, which is not even on the map, is really the “make or break” victory condition. The Allies can virtually guarantee a win by seizing Cherbourg early but if they wait too long and don’t take the city by the end of turn 7 then it turns into a German Sudden-Death Victory. A close examination of the Victory Point Tables reveals a fundamental conflict—the Allies gain VP for capture of cities or exiting units whereas the Germans earn VP by eliminating certain Allied units and exiting others. The danger each side faces is that an all-out attempt to maximize VP could hand an automatic victory to the opponent. This make The Dark Summer a “race to the edges” of the map, but it must be a managed run that keeps (leaves?) some units behind to prevent automatically awarding victory to your opponent.
I have sung praises to the chit-pull mechanism before and The Dark Summer only reinforces my beliefs. I really enjoy the chit-pull mechanism for how it introduces a pleasant form of randomness into unit movement and combat as well as how it enables solo play. Even the special rules that basically “pre-scripts” the initial invasion round looks far more restrictive on the page than it actually plays out. Of the three Dark Series games I own, I feel The Dark Summer is the most thematically appropriate implementation of the chit-pull mechanism amongst the group.
Brightest of the Dark?
While the three games of the Dark Series share that common chit-pull mechanism, each is a very different game. I have described The Dark Valley as a “playable monster” game and the scope (the entire war in the Soviet Union) takes up far more table space and time than The Dark Summer. Likewise, The Dark Sands, which is more similar to The Dark Summer in that it covers a campaign (North Africa), also has some rules that mechanically make the game more challenging to play (I’m looking at the two-scales of maps here). In The Dark Summer I feel designer Ted Raicer has found a “sweet spot” for the application of his system.
What I enjoy most about The Dark Summer is the extreme playability of the game. Physically the game is relatively small with play on a single 22″x34″ map using less than 400 counters. The 24-page, double-column Rule Book really is only ~17 pages of rules, none of which are overly complex or illogical. Play time is listed as four hours and I found this estimate about right; indeed, my solo games actually played a bit faster. The Dark Summer naturally paces itself as “a bit rushed” in that both players feel the need to work quickly to try to get to their victory objectives before time expires. The combination of a smaller game, easy to digest rules, and a natural thematic “hurry up” makes The Dark Summer a complete—and highly enjoyable—game experience playable in an afternoon.