The Battle of Waterloo scenario is the last scenario presented in the base game of Commands & Colors Napoleonics. Like Quatre Bras before it, the scenario is large with a wide variety of forces. This makes setting up the game interesting as I paused at times to “pass in review” new units to ensure I understood their unique characteristics. After all, I want to make sure the Old Guard is used properly!
One reason I like most Commands & Colors-series games is that even the “big” scenarios like Waterloo are still playable in about an hour. My game took ~75 minutes and it was a see-saw battle the whole way. The battle developed in a classic Commands & Colors way complete with elation and frustration.
Specifically, elation and frustration is about the only way to explain how the game went for the French. Elation came early with the French advancing on both flanks and taking the Victory Banner towns of Hougoumont on the left and Papelotte on the right. Then the frustration set in it became almost impossible for the French to draw a Command Card for the center. Even then, there were some highly thematic moments like when the French drew the La Grande Manouevre card and made a bold move to retake the initiative in the center. However, it was not enough, and in the end the British were the first to the requisite eight Victory Banners (final score 8-6).
Grognard is also a slang term used by the tabletop role playing and wargaming community to refer to older, long term players of such games. The usage started with Napoleonic miniature war gaming, and originally referred to those who would seek out minor details that were wrong with another’s painting or modeling, mostly in terms of historical accuracy. Various online forums have popularized the usage among the tabletop role playing and war gaming community.
As a wargamer, there are a few battles one can count on to be the subject of a wargame. The number of Battle of the Bulge wargames is uncountable and, in a similar way, the Battle of Gettysburg has been getting the wargame royalty treatment since the Avalon Hill Game Co. published Gettysburg by the Father of Wargaming, Charles S. Roberts, way back in 1958. The book world is much the same—it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Gettysburg may be one of the most written about battles in American history. Which means that picking up any Gettysburg book, or wargame, runs the risk of of it simply being a rehash of the old.
Much of the criticism emanated from Lincoln’s notion that Lee’s army, somehow, could have been destroyed if Meade had only vigorously pursued the enemy then blindly attacked it when the Army of the Potomac came face to face with it on 13 July. Incredibly, no civilian official from inside Lincoln’s administration ever gave Meade credit for out-generaling General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and thereby delivering the first victory of the Army of the Potomac since its formation in November 1861. Few historians have done so either.
“Epilogue”, p. 371
In Meade at Gettysburg, Kent Masterson Brown uses published and unpublished papers as well as diaries, letters, and memoirs to try and gain a better understanding of Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg. He does so by looking at Meade in four phases: From assuming command on 28 June 1863 through the advance to Gettysburg on 1 July, his tactical actions on 2 July, his decisions on 3 July, and the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army after the battle.
In wargames, we take the mapboard for granted. Indeed, a mapboard is often a necessity by defintion for a wargame. It is amazing to me that Meade and many of his generals fought the Gettysburg campaign without a decent map. As Brown tells us, “What Meade could not discern from the maps were any topographical features such as hill and ridges. Meade was using what were called residential maps, and they did not include such topographical features, although the Frederick County, Maryland and Adam County, Pennsylvania, maps provided outlines of the South Mountain range, but nothing more” (p. 57). Further, not only did Meade lack detailed maps, but he had a hard time understanding where his own forces were, much less that of the enemy. To use more modern terms, the Union generals in the field had no “common operating picture.” Indeed, Meade’s understanding of both the terrain and location of his own forces was so poor that on 1 July he ordered his corps commanders to sketch “their respective corps, their artillery, infantry, and trains” and to share this sketch with the army headquarters (p. 208).
The lack of maps and hidden force location is hard to duplicate in a wargame which all-too-often delivers a “God’s-Eye,” information-rich view of the battlefield. For example, Roads to Gettysburg II is played on a map with lots of information—far more than either army commander had at hand at the time.
There are ways that a poor map can be duplicated in a game, but the cost in playability is astronomical. Maybe a computerized version can simulate the gradual “discovery” of map details as units move and scouts operate, but I prefer tabletop wargames not screens. The reality is the lack of maps, topographical knowledge, and “common operating picture” that Meade faced at Gettysburg is not easily duplicated in a wargame.
What Year Did You Graduate West Point?
Whether one wants to admit it or not, whenever you play a historical wargame you almost always, inevitably, benefit from hindsight. Nobody wants to be like Sickles’ Third Corps and push out ahead only to be shattered by Longstreet. Often times players do things “differently” than in the past because they “know” what works…and doesn’t (didn’t?). On the other hand, sometimes players want to “try to get it right” and do one-better than history. After reading Meade at Gettysburg I found just such a moment in Meade’s orders to Reynolds’ First and Eleventh Corps: “Meade’s directive that the First Corps, followed by the Eleventh Corps, ‘advance on Gettysburg’ was not an order directing Reynolds to occupy the town or hold a position near there; rather, Meade intended for the presence of the First Corps along the turnpike axis to cause the enemy to coalesce and show its intentions” (p. 99).
Kent Masterson Brown in Meade at Gettysburg demonstrates the power of understanding not what we know today, but what the historical participants understood when describing Reynold’s mission as assigned by Meade on 30 June:
To force the enemy to concentrate and deploy so as to reveal its intentions was what Meade ordered Reynolds and his First Corps—followed by the Eleventh Corps—to do; it is identified as one of the most dangerous tasks in mid-nineteenth century warfare. Th strategy requires using an “Advance Guard,” according to Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of military and civil engineering and the science of war at West Point. Mahan published a book on the use of an advance guard in 1847, entitled An Elementary Treatise on Advance-Guard, Out-Post and Detachment Service of Troops and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in the Presence of an Enemy. Mahan taught military science to Generals Meade, Reynolds, Slocum, Sedgwick, Hancock, Howard, and many others in the Army of the Potomac when they were West Point cadets. General Reynolds and Mahan had in fact taught strategy and tactics together at West Point just before the war. Likewise, many of Lee’s lieutenants studie under Mahan at Wet Point, and Lee was superintendent of West Point during Mahan’s tenure. Much of what Mahan taught was incorporated in the Revised Regulations of the Army of the United States of 1861.
“Force Him to Show His Hand”, p. 101-102
One of the key requirements of a leader is to understand the commander’s intent. As wargamers, we don’t always have a professional military education and, if we do, it more often than not the military science of today and not that of the past. In Meade at Gettysburg, author Kent Masterson Brown explains Meade’s intent as his fellow generals likely understood it. After reading the book, now I understand it too. This new understanding totally changes how I would play out a 1 July scenario in a Battle of Gettysburg wargame.
The Tactical General
The Army of the Potomac was about to enter the struggle of its life. What happened on 1 July was difficult enough. Now, the insubordination of a corps commander had placed not only his own Third Corps but the entire army at risk. No cavalry screened the army’s left flank. The troops would have to fight as they had never done before, and even that might not be enough, given the sheer magnitude of the attack the enemy was about to unleash on Meade’s left. Although Meade was the operational commander of the army, he was about to take tactical command of the fighting on 2 July.
“I Wish to God You Could, Sir”, p. 228
While Meade at Gettysburg focuses on the operational campaign, for 2 and 3 July it digs into the tactical level. That’s because Meade personally took command on the battlefield. This situation is most often what wargamers experience—direct tactical command of the pieces on the board. Here is your chance to “out-general” General Lee (or Rob, your longtime wargame partner). As a wargamer, this part of Meade at Gettysburg was what I could most easily relate to. It was also very disappointing. That’s because I suddenly felt “railroaded” by certain wargames.
Take for instance Mark Herman’s Gettysburg. The game starts on 1 July with Buford’s cavalry to the northwest of Gettysburg as they were historically. The Union First and Eleventh Corps enter on turn 1 from the south again like history. It is at this point the game diverges from history.
Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is played for up to six turns (three days) and victory is determined as follows:
The game usually ends at the conclusion of game turn 6. However, if at the end of any turn the Confederate player can trace a continuous road path from Entry Point A to any one or combination of Entry Points I, J, or K, uninterrupted by Union units or Zones of Control, not Influence, they win the game. If this condition does not occur by the conclusion of turn 6, then the player with the higher VP total wins. Each player receives 1 VP for each eliminated enemy unit. The Union player wins ties.
C3i Magazine – Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 – Rules of Play, p. 11
In other words, Mark Herman’s Gettysburg assumes that Meade wanted the battle to be fought at Gettysburg and not at Big Pipe Creek like he planned and Kent Masterson Brown explains in Meade at Gettysburg. Mark Herman’s entire game is predicated on the assumption that the player will be like Sickles and violate his commander’s intent and bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. Sure, it makes for a nice wargame, but at this point is it even really historical, or just another counterfactual?
[Don’t take the above part wrong—Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is a very well designed wargame from the perspective of mechanics and does a great job for what is designed to do—”distilling history to it’s essence.”. It’s just that this game, like many other Gettysburg wargames, is designed to play the battle as it historically occurred—not as it was planned—and in the process makes several assumptions as to how the battle developed and the decisions of non-player commanders.]
In many ways, Meade at Gettysburg is a good primer for wargamers playing almost any Gettysburg game. Here you, the player, nominally are the commander at the head of the Army of the Potomac (like Meade). However, you often also assume the role of a corps or division commander, and depending on the game you might even devolve down to the brigade level. This “sliding command perspective” is part-and-parcel of wargames. Meade made it work; can you?
Let’s Play Operation!
Reading Meade at Gettysburg not only provided an interesting look at the campaign around the Battle of Gettysburg, but it also helped me understand more about my taste in wargames in general. Meade at Gettysburg reminded me that it is the operational level of war that is the most fascinating to me. Now, I certainly like tactical games and getting down to the nuts & bolts of battle. There is a certain joy at employing a weapon system in such a way to outfight your enemy, but to out-campaign an opponent is truly another level of achievement.
I understand that when a wargamer picks up a Battle of Gettysburg wargame they kinda expect to fight a battle at Gettysburg and not someplace else. Meade at Gettysburg shows readers—and wargamers—that fate is fickle and what one calls history is sometimes accidental and far from what the participants intended.
But what if….
What if you could do as good as Meade did? Wargames let us be like General Henry Jackson Hunt, Meade’s Chief of Artillery, who was not a fan of Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg. Yet, in 1888, he saw the battle in a new light:
Meade was suddenly placed in command. From that moment on all his acts and intentions, as I can judge of them, were just what they ought to have been, except perhaps in his order to attack at Falling Waters on the morning of the 13th, and especially on the 14th of July, when his Corps Commanders reported against it, and I was then in favor of the attack, so I can’t blame him. He was right in his orders as to Pipe Creek, right in his determination under certain circumstances to fall back to it; right in pushing up to Gettysburg after the battle commenced; right in remaining there; right in making his battle a purely defensive one; right, therefore in taking the line he did; right in not attempting a counter attack at any stage of the battle; right as to his pursuit of Lee. Rarely has more skill, vigor, or wisdom been shown under such circumstances as he was placed in, and it would, I think, belittle his grand record of that campaign by a formal defense against his detractors, who will surely go under as will this show story.
First, this is a grand battle with a full compliment of troops deployed on both sides. One needs nine (9) Victory Banners to win which means this scenario is also one of the longer ones published in the game.
My play of Commands & Color Napoleonics featured several moments that make a wargame memorable. Like early in the battle when the French right led by Bachelu pushed ahead but ran headlong into British rifle troops under Picton. The hazards of leading from the front were clearly demonstrated here with Bachelu falling in nearly the first volley of the battle.
(In Commands & Colors Napoleonics, when a unit with a leader is attacked and a hit is scored a second roll is required to determine a Leader Casualty. The roll requires “crossed sabers” on two dice—a 1-in-36 chance. Guess what happened here….)
Neither Ney or Wellington seemed able to get their center moving and the battle switched from left to right and back again. The French took the low hills on the right only to be thrown off, and on the left the British allied troops surged ahead. It took Kellerman and his French cuiarassier’s to push them back, and once they got started even infantry in squares seemed unable to stop them. By the end of the day Ney had ejected Wellington from the battlefield and was close to securing the crossroads.
As big as this Commands & Colors Napoleonics scenario was it still played in less than 90 minutes. Next, on to Waterloo!
It’s been a while since I picked up any new Traveller RPG materials. With summer in full swing I decided to rectify that situation and picked up four ship books from Independence Games. These ships all are part of their The Clement Sector/Earth Sector settings where the former is a personal favorite of mine. As I noted before, The Clement Sector is a “small ship” universe. Thanks to the limitations of the Zimm Drive (The Clement Sector version of the Jump Drive), ships over 2,500-dTons risk bad things using their Zimm Drive. In The Clement Sector, the TL10-12 Zimm Drives effectively cap ships at 4,999-dTons. That said, these latest books show a creep towards larger designs. Which really means I need to go back and reread Tech Update: 2350 and refresh myself on larger ships in Earth Sector.
(Update –Earth Sector has rules for TL13 Zimm Drives that boosts ship sizes.)
The Copeline-class merchant vessel is quickly becoming the most popular ship in Earth Sector! Created in 2348 by Corolys Shipbuilding Company, the ship has overtaken such venerable designs as the Rucker and Atlas among merchants in Earth Sector.
The Copeline is a 300-tonne ship with modules which can be switched out to make the ship into a freighter, a passenger liner, a scout, or a combination of all of those! This versatility has made it the chosen ship for independent operators and small shipping corporations.
Introduced into service in 2330, the Opportunity-class was Corolys Shipbuilding Company’s entry into the light trader market. The designers of the ship focused on high thrust in-system drive and maximizing the cargo space in the smallest starship hull size available.
The Opportunity is a 100-tonne light trader which is found throughout Earth Sector. This book contains all seven variants of the ship including the Maximus-class (with greater cargo capacity), the Dispatch-class (which is used as a fast courier), and the Star Reach-class (which has enough fuel for two transits).
Designed to provide heavy support for independent cruiser squadrons, act as cruiser squadron flagships, to undertake escort duties and to engage in commerce raiding, the Lion-class battlecruisers of the Royal Navy are recognized as being the most modern capital ships in service with any national navy.
Taking advantage of TL13 innovations in Earth Sector, the 5000 tonne Lion-class battlecruiser is massive and armed to the teeth. This large ship stands ready to defend the British colonies and take the battle to those who would threaten their holdings.
Ad copy, Lion-class Battlecruiser
This book draws features several new weapons systems; specifically, “the British Space Systems Type 15 Voidswarm Capital Ship Torpedo and the British Space Systems Type 21 Voidlance Capital Ship Torpedo”.
The latest book published just this week is Atlanta-class Carrier.
One of the largest ships in Earth Sector, the Atlanta-class carrier is the main capital ship of the Southern Alliance Navy. The Atlanta-class carriers are often the centerpiece of a strike group and stand ready to launch their fighters.
The Atlanta-class carrier is a 3800 tonne vessel which is heavily armed and armored. The Atlanta also carries 50 F-40B Tomcat fighters and 15 B-44A Archangel strike craft. In short, the Atlanta is prepared for action.
Ad copy, Atlanta-class Carrier
This book also has rules for small craft weapons such as missiles, rapid fire railguns, lasers, and particle beams.
As you can tell, there is a wide variety of ships here. From a very nice “adventuring” 100-dTon ship to a 300-dTon merchant for trading there are many story possibilities. The larger military ships are very suitable as backdrops to adventure.
Speaking of adventure, I also took the opportunity to pick up a couple of free adventure modules from Zozer Games set in their HOSTILE universe. For HOSTILE, think Aliens meets Blade Runner meets Outland. HOSTILE is more of a gritty, hard sci-fi setting. These HOSTILE Situation Reports are free one-page RPG NPCs or adventures seeds that can be added to your game.
Ghost Ship– “A mayday signal draws the PCs to a lonely gas giant, and a starship in an extremely low, atmosphere-grazing orbit. There’s no response … can the crew be saved? Are they even still alive?”
Snakehead – “Meet Baosheng, a veteran Snakehead operating in the Off-World colonies. His syndicate specialises in techno-crime and the theft of shuttle craft. He has a job you might like … it’s just a pity you’re a deniable asset and he is posing as a legit businessman. What could go wrong?”
I am very interested in getting Wing Leader: Legends to the table as it includes the “Decision Over Kursk” campaign system. Some readers may recall several “My Kursk Kampaign” postings from earlier this spring where I dove in-depth into that battle. At the time I wanted to explore the air war more:
As I start this exploration, my copy of Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) is “At the Printer” meaning it may deliver sometime in mid-2021. If it delivers in time I would certainly like to play the campaign system which focuses on the air battles supporting the Battle of Kursk. I really want to explore a point Glantz makes on page 63 in his book; “Red aircraft might be inferior to their German counterparts, but they were certainly sufficient in numbers to deny the Luftwaffe undisputed command of the air.”
Although you can’t see it in the photo of The Dark Summer, I am, frankly, a bit surprised the game shipped in a 1.5″ deep box. One can interpret this as a sign that the game is smaller, and with a single 22″x34″ map and two countersheets that appears true. I guess I thought a Normandy campaign game just “has to be” big but this one-mapper is already challenging my preconceptions.
Game of the Week
Now that I’m back to a pretty regular work schedule (office is basically 100% reconstituted) I need to work on getting back to a “regular” gaming schedule. Thus, I will be starting a “Game of the Week” approach to play. Basically, the Game of the Week approach gives me seven days to unbox, learn, play, and consider a game. I have a rough idea of how a week might progress:
Sunday – Unbox new game, start rules learning/review
Monday – Rules learning/review, set up first play
Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday – Play
Friday – (Skip Day)
Saturday – Considerations/Clean up (Family Game Night?)
I have a backlog of games on the “To Play” shelf that I need to get to over the next few weeks of summer before getting to Wing Leader: Legends and The Dark Summer: I’m trying to play games in the order of their arrival:
While playing games I also am also committed to reading more. When possible, I like to mix a book with the Game of the Week but that’s not always possible as I have other books on the “To Read” pile. I finished up Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2021) and it will be the subject of this coming week’s “Rocky Reads for Wargame” column. I am pretty sure that 2034: A Novel of the Next War by Eliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis will likely be read in conjunction with Indian Ocean Region when it is up for Game of the Week.
One of my favorite online sources for plastic models closed due to bankruptcy late in 2020. Thanks to a new owner, www. squadron.com is back. The reopening has not been the smoothest, but they are trying to work out the kinks. Given how few good plastic model retailers there are online I hope they make it!
The RockyMountainNavy family tried a new-to-us restaurant this week. The Capital Burger bills itself as purveyors of “luxe” burgers. They use a proprietary blend of beef to make their burgers; I never imagined it could make a difference—but it does. Their Kung Pao Brussel Sprouts are my new favorite and a great replacement for french fries. Oh yeah, it all pairs well with a good ale….
I’ll admit it—I am a collector of wargames. According to my BoardGameGeek collection I “own” 728 games and a further 230 expansions. Of the games, 353 are categorized as a “Wargame” by BGG. Suffice it to say I have lots of game boxes I need to shelve if I want to see my collection. But how do I shelve them?
To date, I organized my wargame shelf by Publisher-Stock Number. I also put several series games together at the end of the collection, in particular Victory Games Fleet Series and Panzer/MBT and Wing Leader from GMT Games. With my focus more on War Engine Games (see “Rev’ing My War Engine”) I think I need to relook at my organization.
Being a History major from college, I tend to organize my thoughts in historical order. Although keeping games arranged by publisher gives the look of a more organized shelf, it also scatters many topically related games about. So I feel I need to return to some sort of historical chronology.
As it gets really hot outside I think I will take advantage of working in the basement and reorganize the wargame collection. I’ll let you know what I end up doing when I figure it out.
BLUF – A nicely twisted CDG where you might know your history, but to win you’re going to have to out-DIME your opponent to influence the restless people of the world.
Memories of a Cold Warrior
In many ways I am a child of the Cold War. I came of age in the 1980’s and fully remember the “Evil Empire,” “Star Wars” missile defense, the shoot down of KAL007, and the movie The Day After. When I joined the navy we studied all about the “Big Bad Bear” because those darn Soviets were the epitome of evil. I also remember Cold War wargames/boardgames, like Ultimatum: A Game of Nuclear Confrontation (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979) and of course Supremacy: The Game of Superpowers (Supremacy Games, 1984). Even role playing games were all-in with titles like Twilight: 2000 (GDW, 1984). It’s really hard to explain the (irrational?) fear of a nuclear war that was part of everyday life back then. It was something I grew up with and accepted.
The Year of COVID Gives Us a Cold War Plague
Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a “Cold War Gone Hot” trope has grown popular in wargaming. I personally have enjoyed several newer titles like Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (MultiMan Publishing, 2020) or Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019). Arriving soon to Kickstarter is a new historical strategy game, 2 Minutes to Midnight by designer Stuart Tonge and his new game company, Plague Island Games.
Stuart was kind enough to send me a preview copy of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Although the design is not final, the game as I played it is very near what you will see in the Kickstarter.
When one first looks at the box and components of 2 Minutes to Midnight, there are inevitable comparisons to the iconic Twilight Strugglefrom GMT Games. After all, both games cover the Cold War, both use cards, and both push cubes around a map of the world. More than a few potential players are likely to pass on 2 Minutes to Midnight because they think they’ve “been there—done that.” That’s very unfortunate because 2 Minutes to Midnight is an easy to learn (but not easy strategy), highly thematic game that forces you to consider all the levers of power a nation has from diplomatic to intelligence to military to economic. All used to fight a tension you might not expect.
As I played the game, there were several “a-ha” moments that help make the game enjoyable and memorable for me. So let me step you through some background to the game, the card mechanics, the thematic cards, and the subtle tension of a play of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Put together, 2 Minutes to Midnight delivers an easy to learn but tense game of deep decisions using history you know, but not as you know it.
From Blue Water to Cold War
2 Minutes to Midnight, is not the first design by Stuart Tonge. That’s a personal favorite of mine I already mentioned, the Cold War at sea Blue Water Navy. Stuart decided to open his own game company and 2 Minutes to Midnight is his inaugural production. The game is certainly ambitious, as Mr. Tonge lays out in the Historical Introduction:
2 Minutes to Midnight is a playable simulation (or historical game if you prefer) of the Cold War from the end of World War Two to the early 90’s when historically the Soviet Union dissolved.
Your task as the American player is to paint the world in red, white, and blue — ensuring Europe remains free, and spreading democracy into every corner of the world — but especially the bits with lots of oil and significant economies.
As the Soviets you must win the Cold War outright or hold on long enough to try to eke out a win by clinging to power. The fall of the USSR was not inevitable. Maybe it was likely that it would fall, but without Gorbachev — the great progressive — a harsher regime could have held on to power for longer and perhaps even evolved into China-style communism with strong trading ties to the international community.
Alternatively, a harsher regime might have held on grimly in relative poverty for another decade while brutalizing the people and threatening annihilation… Let us see if you can do better than history!
2 Minutes to Midnight, Historical Introduction
Like the Cold War, 2 Minutes to Midnight is a bi-polar, uh, two-player game though a solo play mode is also provided. According to the box, a full game of nine turns covering 1946 to 1991 could take up to six hours. Fortunately for us with time constraints, shorter scenarios rated for 2-4 hours are provided.
What’s Your Marshall Plan?
On the surface, playing a turn in 2 Minutes to Midnight is very easy. Assemble the proper deck of cards for that turn and start flipping ‘em over to resolve actions. Each card has an event or allows for actions that usually will result in placement or removal of influence in various countries around the globe. One can also foment and resolve coups, create a crisis, and fight small wars—or even major ones.
2 Minutes to Midnight also features a robust technology tree. Developing your superpower economy and maintaining (or gaining) strategic advantage is just as important as what countries you control.
Your goal in 2 Minutes to Midnight it to control other countries. If you have influence, the country is the right government type, and is not in a civil war you move along the Victory Progress Track. If your marker arrives at the end of the track, you gain a Star (for the USA) or a Hammer & Sickle (for the Soviets). It’s also possible to lose a star/hammer & sickle by losing influence over countries. Whoever has the most stars or hammer & sickles at the end of the game wins, though there is a sudden death condition which triggers if one side is three or more ahead of the other at the end of turn 4 or any turn thereafter.
Don’t be fooled; the relatively simple rules of 2 Minutes to Midnight open up many complex player decisions. These decisions are driven by the cards. Here is where the inevitable comparison to Twilight Struggle begins. Rest assured though, 2 Minutes to Midnight is NOT a reskinned Twilight Struggle because the cards, though delivering similar game effects, here act as powerful narrative builders.
It’s in the Cards – Mechanics to Theme
If you are a player of many card driven games (CDG) you probably are well versed in the “Ops-Event” card format. Usually speaking, on any given card players have the choice of executing the event (which often results in the card being discarded from gameplay) or play it for “Ops” points—some sort of action. The cards in 2 Minutes to Midnight in many ways play out the same as many standard CDGs, but with a nice mechanical twist that is also the heart of thematic play.
At the start of each turn in 2 Minutes to Midnight, players construct a unique deck which is a combination of historical events associated with that 5-year period and a set of “standard” cards. On Turn 1 this makes a deck of 14 historical events added to the 16 standard cards. Historical event cards are usually resolved but they can cycle into the next turn under certain conditions (more on that later). These are the “event” cards of the common CDG design. On the other hand, standard cards are used to trigger actions and will “cycle” into the next turns deck. This mix of by-turn “event” cards and constantly cycling “standard” cards delivers the same Event-Ops Points decisions as your standard CDG.
“OK,” you say. “So in 2Minutes to Midnight the designer split the standard CDG one-card design format into two separate cards. All that does is drive up the price of the game because of more cards. Big deal!” Yes, it is a big deal because by splitting the cards Mr. Tonge was able to dig deep into the theme of the Cold War and deliver us a retelling of history that is at once familiar, but also unpredictable.
Those unique event cards in every turn of 2 Minutes to Midnight are the thematic heart of the game. The cards take you through major events of the Cold War in 5-year increments. But watch out; you might think you know what will happen, but our past may not, literally, be “in the cards” as you play. You might think you know what historical event is coming, but the deck is shuffled so events happen sometime during the turn but almost certainly not in historical order. Furthermore, each event does not automatically resolve like it did in our timeline. The Bay of Pigs? There’s a chance it doesn’t happen, as well as a chance the US goes “all in” unlike the historical result. The event may even be delayed, cycled into next turn’s deck. The Soviet crackdown on Solidarity didn’t have to happen in 1980….
It Takes DIME to Deal With All That Unrest
In a not-so-subtle way, 2 Minutes to Midnight is a supercharged DIME game. DIME is an acronym for Diplomatic-Intelligence-Military-Economic and used to describe the levers of power available to nation-states.
When a card is flipped in 2 Minutes to Midnight, players will try to place influence. Sometimes that influence is diplomatic and other times it is economic (investments). Spies are powerful intelligence tools that can suppress unrest or steal (or protect) technology or interfere with trade. Technology, like your military, is important as it becomes die roll modifiers leading to success—or failure. You might need to resort to your military to resolve aggressions or even occupy a country. Placement of influence can also trigger other events, from unrest causing coups to civil war.
During my early plays of 2 Minutes to Midnight I focused on placing influence as I tried to out-DIME my opponent. As the turns progressed I came to be annoyed by the constant unrest and coups and uprisings that I had to keep swatting down. There were times when there was even unrest in my homeland that hindered my choice of actions. Gradually, it dawned on me that the constant unrest is a feature and not a bug of the game design. While the cards and actions in 2 Minuted to Midnight are your DIME toolkit, there is another power in play – unrest.
The way I see it, part of the gameplay narrative of 2 Minutes to Midnight is the a reminder that the Cold War, while commonly seen as a bi-polar conflict (like 2 players in a boardgame) was actually composed of many smaller conflicts that included not just other nations, but other people. The constant unrest in 2 Minutes to Midnight is as though the “third world” (player?) or opposition political party at home is constantly reminding the superpowers (or you as the “party in power”) that they too have needs and concerns that you must respect (or at least deal with) if you want them to be in your sphere of influence and not actively oppose you.
As much as I personally am a wargamer and never am one to pass an opportunity for a good battle, in 2 Minutes to Midnight I found that unrest was my best friend for influence. If a country was already friendly I had to use all the DIME tools I could to keep the unrest down. Conversely, I could use unrest to disrupt my opponent. It’s subtle, but the tension between influence and unrest is what makes so many decisions during play generate a narrative that has real meaning and importance.
It’s the End of the World As We Know It
One thing I remember from my plays of Supremacy were all the little mushroom clouds placed around the world as nuclear armageddon unfolded in front of you. If you are looking for a game of superpower nuclear armageddon then 2 Minutes to Midnight lives up to it’s name—close but not quite. Stuart points out that, “There is no strategic nuclear exchange modeled in the game — it would be quite unlikely that anyone involved in such a thing would consider themselves a ‘winner’, so I made an early design decision that would not happen.” Which is fine. I don’t want a game of the end of the world, but enjoy the tension of being “that close.”
Cold War, Burning Memories
Playing 2 Minutes to Midnight for me is a bit of a nostalgia trip. When an event occurs, I see in my mind the news reports or talking with my friends about it. In some cases I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise and tingle as I relive the fear of what could have been. For myself, playing 2 Minutes to Midnight is my chance to “do it right” and try to win while avoiding the ultimate game ending event.
When playing 2 Minutes to Midnight with a group of non-Cold Warriors, you will likely all find yourself starting to follow the story, paying particular attention to placing influence for causing (or defending) unrest. The narrative of play that develops is very enlightening. My boys said they couldn’t understand how America could possibly drop into unrest until we started talking about the Vietnam War at home and the Oil Shock of the 1970’s. These conversations caused them to look at many of the events in a new light. They started to realize that all-too-often what happens “over there” really does have an impact “back here.” They also started looking closer at the Soviet system and how it seemed rigged for failure and the huge efforts it took, sometime demanding humbleness on the world stage, for it to have any chance of thriving. 2 Minutes to Midnight also exposes the easy way of the military option, or literally “Peace Through Superior Firepower.” It’s easy to go for the military option and forget that you could invest in a bit more DIME.
Making the Cold War Tangible
One final comment on the components of 2 Minutes to Midnight. Although I had the privilege of playing a preview copy and I know all the components are not final, I really like how Stuart has creatively used different bits to help you understand, at a glance, what is going on on the board. From traditional cubes to cardboard chits to translucent bingo chips, all the components physically on the board are easy to understand, tell apart, and more importantly help tell YOU what is happening. I will mention that the preview box was literally, and I mean literally, bursting at the seams as it was not deep enough for all the components once separated and bagged.1 Not only does 2 Minutes to Midnight generate a compelling narrative, in play it also looks compelling on the table. By the way, you will need the dining room table for this game; fully laid out 2 Minutes to Midnight was hanging over the edges of my usual 3’x5’ gaming table. This is game not only with a big theme, but with big physical demands.
…Then the Wall Fell…Maybe
The Cold War was fought out over a relatively long time—nearly 50 years. Getting to the end of a game of 2 Minutes to Midnight is simultaneously exhausting (so much has happened) yet very fulfilling. The best satisfaction comes from achieving a peaceful world. Even if that does not happen and one side has collapsed in unrest, or lives crushed under a jack-heeled boot, the story you create with the cards in 2 Minutes to Midnight makes the entire Cold War come alive on your table. Which is exactly why 2 Minutes to Midnight deserves to be a gaming collection—it both teaches and tells the story of the Cold War in a highly interactive manner and shows that what happened maybe was destined to happen…or maybe it was just luck (or misfortune) that things turned out the way they did.
Peak decibels recorded in the backyard this week was 79.5. That’s supposedly the equivalent of a small chainsaw or loud conversation. Maybe, but the incessant nature of the noise makes it sound so much louder (and bothersome) than it is! I also know that I really have only one tree that a brood exploded (yes, I mean that literally) from under so my backyard is one of the quieter ones around. It also doesn’t help that the bugs are poor flyers and seem to have taken up the sport of bouncing off Mrs. RockyMountainNavy at every opportunity—some of her shrieks have been MUCH more than 80 db!
As a forever wargamer, I often find myself removed from the whole Eurogame-Ameritrash conflicts and instead find the fault-lines of my gaming collection falling along that of boardgame versus wargame. I mean, I understand the whole mechanism versus theme arguments, I just don’t really care. That is, until I see it up close and personal in my game collection.
Tiny Epic Defenders is another entry in the Tiny Epic series of games designed by Scott Almes. These game traditionally come in small boxes (7″x4.5″x1.5″) and are known for their small footprint but deep play. Tiny Epic Defenders is a cooperative game set in the world of a previous Tiny Epic game, Tiny Epic Kingdoms (Gamelyn Games, 2014 – and also part of the package deal). In Tiny Epic Defenders, 1-4 players must work together in a card-based game to defend the capital city against hordes of enemy attackers. Along the way you can use allies and ancient artifacts to help.
Samurai Spirit is also a cooperative game where between 1-7 players are samurai that must defend the village against raiders. In this card-based game, the samurai must choose between confronting raiders or defending against them while managing the barricades of the village and protecting the villagers. If you can’t already tell, Samurai Spirit is based on the movie Seven Samurai with the major difference being that in the game the samurai unleash a “beast mode” when wounded enough.
Both Tiny Epic Defenders and Samurai Spirit are variants of a tower defense game. In both games the players are defending a territory against invaders. Another tower defense game, Castle Panic (Fireside Games, 2009), is a family favorite.
Both Tiny Epic Defenders and Samurai Spirit play loose with the definition of a “defensive structure.” In both of these games “defensive structures” are characters which, through game actions, act to block, impede, attack, or destroy enemies. That said, though both Samurai Spirit and Tiny Epic Defenders are tower defense games and both even use cards, they are not identical in the game mechanisms used in gameplay.
Given how closely related Tiny Epic Defenders and Samurai Spirit are mechanically, how do I separate them? That is where theme come in. This is a pure matter of personal preference. For me, the theme of Samurai Spirit, derived as it is from the movie Seven Samurai, is the hands-down winner. I realize that there are some players out there that love everything Scott Almes touches and therefore will faithfully play anything related to Tiny Epic, but I am not one of them.
While Samurai Spirit leans hard into the theme of Seven Samurai, it does so with a nice family twist. That twist is the beast mode which unlocks not only a nicely illustrated side of the character board, but also provides a game mechanism that simultaneously is used to “refresh” a player for later rounds as well as pace the game to face the major foe. I also realize the theme of Samurai Spirit is far more likely to appeal to the RockyMountainNavy Boys who, taking after their wargamer Dad, often use the theme of a boardgame to help them assess if a game should be played. This is not to say Tiny Epic Defenders will be left to collect dust in the collection or be sold off quickly. The small footprint and portability of a Tiny Epic game makes it a good choice to pack when going on vacation.
In the modern world, a naval commander has at his disposal a vast array of intelligence tools. Strategically, that enterprise is devoted to delivering the commander knowledge of the enemies capabilities and (hopefully) intentions. At the operational and tactical levels, the burning intelligence question is often, “Where is the enemy?” In the Age of Nelson the operational question was often the most important, and where intelligence made the greatest contribution towards victory.
In Most Secret and Confidential the reader learns that there really was no national intelligence organization in the early 19th century. For a military organization like the Royal Navy, intelligence had a role but it was organized far differently from what many are familiar with today:
Without doubt, the collection, assessment, dissemination, and use of intelligence information was present throughout the fleet. Equally clear is that, subordinate to the Admiralty at whatever operational level one cares to consider, the most senior officer present on a given station was de facto the local premier intelligence officer. No other person had the time, availability, access to information, responsibility, qualifications, experience, or overview. Finally, no senior officer had anything resembling adequate staff support to even partially share such important responsibilities….
Most Secret and Confidential, p. 281
Wargaming Operational Intelligence in the Age of Nelson
1805: Sea of Glory places you in command of the Royal Navy or the allied fleets of France and Spain. You direct your far flung forces, raid enemy ports, and bring your wooden warships into combat with the enemy. Key ports must be protected and enemy harbors blockaded. With a constant eye to wind and weather, your ships must cross the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the West Indies. Your opponent will not know the composition of your forces until combat is joined. The fog of war complicates every decision. The fate of nations will once again be determined by wooden ships and iron men.
The cat and mouse game of breakout and pursuit has begun.
1805: Sea of Glory, publisher’s ad copy
After reading Most Secret and Confidential and as I started pulling out 1805: Sea of Glory, I expected that the “God’s Eye” wargaming view of the battle space would mean wargame mechanisms and the reality of intelligence in those days would not be compatible. What I discovered is that, while an imperfect simulation of intelligence, 1805: Sea of Glory actually captures the essence of the intelligence problems of the day and is much closer to replicating intelligence challenges described in Most Secret and Confidential than I expected.
Wargaming the “Nelson Touch”
From the intelligence perspective, a player of 1805: Sea of Glory is thrust into a very similar role to an operational naval commander of the Age of Nelson. To begin, with the player is their own intelligence officer and, though one could argue about qualifications, is solely responsible for all intelligence operations.
Like Nelson, players in Sea of Glory do not always know their enemy’s objectives but, through careful analysis and deduction from what they can see they may be able to divine their intention.
For naval commanders in the Age of Nelson the major question in their day—and any game of 1805: Sea of Glory—is how to find the enemy. At first I looked at the blocks, used to represent fleets, transports, and frigates in Sea of Glory, I thought they revealed too much information. Although I couldn’t see exactly what the block was, I could see it on the map, seemingly an advantage over naval commanders of the day. Further, in 1805: Sea of Glory when a French or Spanish fleet sorties from port a destination is often secretly selected based on the secret objectives of the game. This turns Sea of Glory into that cat and mouse pursuit game.
After reading Most Secret and Confidential I reconsidered my opinion and now see that the use of blocks is actually very appropriate to the actual intelligence revealed. As Most Secret and Confidential tells us, commanders often had fair intelligence as to the composition of the enemies forces and especially what ports they used. The presence of blocks reflects the collection and analysis of intelligence from a myriad of sources like passing merchant ships or intercepted coastal semaphore and even newspapers. To get more details the player must resort to similar tactics of their real historical counterparts like sending ships closer inshore to “count masts.” For fleets that sortie, players—like commanders in Most Secret and Confidential—must start looking for clues as to where the enemy could be going and then use their forces (like blockades, fleets, or frigates) to search the oceans to gain contact and bring them to battle. Even though players can “see” the block on the map it may not be enough to find the fleet as weather and chance play a role in the game—just like reality.
At the end of the day, to win in 1805: Sea of Glory the players really do need to be a bit like Nelson. In Most Secret and Confidential, author Steven Maffeo quotes C.S. Forester, the author of the Horatio Hornblower series, on why Nelson was a great intelligence officer and along the way also tells us what being a player in 1805: Sea of Glory really means:
It is hard to decide what to admire most: the accuracy of the deduction, the self-confidence which believed in it, or the force of mind with which he brought himself to [expose] England’s most valuable colonial possessions solely on deductions made from a series of individually conclusive facts.
C.S. Forester as cited in Most Secret and Confidential, p. 287
Maffeo concludes Most Secret and Confidential with a challenge that is appropriate to any wargamer and a reminder that, regardless of the era or game, intelligence has a role:
Whatever the specific case, in the final analysis the degree to which the naval commander uses, or fails to use, available intelligence in the decision-making process is crucial. Indeed, the commander’s possession and use of intelligence have been decisive in history, they are decisive now, and they will be decisive in the future.