Two Minutes Seems Like Almost 50 Years – First Impressions of 2 Minutes to Midnight – Coming soon to @Kickstarter from Plague Island Games #wargame #boardgame @stuarttonge

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.

2 Minutes to Midnight – Box Cover

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.

2 Minutes to Midnight – Box Back

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.

Scenario Set Up Cards

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.

Technology and Balance

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.

Cards (Courtesy Plague Island Games)

“OK,” you say. “So in 2 Minutes 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.

A Thermonuclear-sized Game

…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.

The Kickstarter campaign for 2 Minutes to Midnight opens June 14. So please show Stuart some love and check out the campaign and support it if you can.


1 Stuart assures me this is a pre-production issue and the final version will have a box of sufficient depth!

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82 (Sept/Oct 1980) -or- Grognard nostalgia (with a mention of @markherman54)

I recently acquired Jim Dunnigan’s wargame Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82/SPI, Sept/Oct 1980) in a trade. This is the magazine version which came in the subject issue. As I was reading the rules for the game (still stapled inside the magazine) I started thumbing though the rest of the issue. Very quickly I found myself waxing nostalgic at much of the content. I stopped thumbing and started reading.

In late 1980 I was in 7th grade. I had been playing wargames for less than a year at this point and was heavy into my very first wargame, Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing (1979). By this point I probably had the second game in the series, ’88’ (1980). I also surely had started playing the pocket edition of Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979). This was also the start of my “serious’ military history reading, especially since my neighbor worked for Ballantine Books and monthly would throw a box of history books over the back fence into my yard. So when I open the pages of this issue of Strategy & Tactics it brings back many great hobby memories.

At the time this issue was published, I was just starting to read wargaming magazines. The $5.00 cover price for the issue was a bit steep for me. It would be another few years until I started making enough of my own money in chores that I could afford luxuries like an issue of Strategy & Tactics.

Full page ad on page 3 for Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game. Was this really a thing? I was huge into (now Classic) Traveller RPG but what was SPI thinking?

The feature article in this issue is “The Central Front: The Status of Forces in Europe and the Potential for Conflict by Charles T. Kamps, Jr. Mr. Kamps wrote more than a few articles for wargame magazines back in the day and I always thought they were well researched. The main article is rather short (four pages) but the added text boxes that follow are awesome and include:

  • Skeleton Order of Battle, Fulda Gap Battle Area
  • The Airborne Threat
  • Air Support (with an interesting aircraft readiness chart…boy those high-tech F-15s were difficult to maintain!)
  • The Big Picture: A Scenario for Invasion
  • The Miracle Weapons (TOW, other ATGMs, FASCAM)
  • Nuclear & Chemical Operations
  • The Prophets (with a shout out to Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, August 1985 which I read religiously)

The last text call out box is “The Wargames” where Mr. Kamps relates results from “professional” wargames. The author lets us know what he thinks of these wargames when he concludes:

Having participated in Command Post Exercises in Europe wherein general officers and senior field grade officers accomplished their objectives by fraud, (e.g., map movement of mechanized units through impassable terrain; ignoring or defying umpire rulings on combat resolution; etc.), the author issues a caution to regard all “official” results with a degree of circumspection.

Charles T. Kamps Jr., “The Wargames,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 14

Hof Gap: The Nurnburg Pincer, Volume 2 of the Central Front series for only $9.95!

On page 17 is Volume 1, Number 1 of “For Your Information: A Wide Ranging Survey of Historical Data and Analysis.” This column would be one of my favorite parts of S&T in the future. These little factoids, an early version of a wargaming wiki, were awesome for me to read and store away. “FYI” contributed much to my military history historical knowledge.

I can almost remember looking at ads like the full-page spread on page 21 with wargames shown. To this day I still want to find a copy of NATO Division Commander: Leadership Under Fire (Jim Dunnigan, SPI, 1980). I would end up with a copy of Air War: Modern Tactical Air Combat by David C. Isby but it would be the 1983 TSR version. Likewise, the full-page spread of SPI science fiction/fantasy games also brings back memories, like playing my friend’s copy of Greg Costikyan’s 1979 game The Creature that Ate Sheboygan (near where my father grew up). I also see Commando (SPI, 1979) and StarSoldier (SPI, 1977) listed on these pages, both of which ended up in my game collection around this time too. Jim Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook is also available for only $7.95.

I was surprised, but not surprised, to see the secondary feature article, “Across Suez: The Battle of Chinese Farm, October 15, 1973” was written by Col. Trevor Dupuy, USA, Ret.. Dupuy founded The Dupuy Institute and is the paragon of an operations research specialist. I would read several of Dupuy’s books through the years but I was not aware of this connection with SPI. In retrospect, it should be obvious to me. Christopher Lawrence, who worked at The Dupuy Institute with Col Dupuy, writes in War By Numbers (Potomac Books, 2017) about Dupuy and combat models in the 1970s:

By the early 1970s the models were being used to war game a potential war in Europe for the sake of seeing who would win, for the sake of determining how we could structure our forces better, and for the sake of determine what supplies and other support were needed to sustain this force on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

This development of models created a need to understand the quantitative aspects of warfare. While this was not a new concept, the United States suddenly found itself with combat modeling structures that were desperately in need of hard data on how combat actually worked. Surprisingly, even after 3,300 years of recorded military history, these data were sparse.

It was this lack of hard data on which to base operational analysis and combat modeling that led to the growth of organizations run by Trevor N. Dupuy, such as the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization (HERO). They attempted to fill the gap between modeling communities’ need for hard data on combat operations and the actual data recorded in unit records of the combatants, which required some time and skill to extract. It was an effort to integrate the work of historians with these newly developed complex models of combat.

Lawrence, War By Numbers, p. ix-x

Interestingly, the advertisement for the related wargame, Across Suez: The Battle of Chinese Farm October 15, 1975, shows it is designed by some guy named Mark Herman. I have to wonder what sort of conversations Mark had with Col Dupuy when designing this game. Seeing how Mr. Herman went on to lead a major defense contractor’s wargaming effort (not to mention all the wonderful games he has designed) I am interested as to the degree of influence the Colonel had on him.

I really enjoyed the “Gossip” column and all the name dropping. There is talk of the new and amazing Ace of Aces (Gameshop, 1980) with “no counters and no map.” I remember this game very fondly as my friends and I would play endless rounds on the school bus going to to/from middle school. Star Fleet Battles also gets a mention along with the forthcoming Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) which I would purchase.

Then there is this little snippet—”In the role-playing corner of the world, Chaosium is working on a role-playing game on H.P. Lovecraft’s work.” How little did we all know that Call of Cthulhu would still be going strong 40 years later!

I even found some early Satanic Panic reporting in this issue:

“These books are filled with things that are not fantasy but area actual in the real demon world and can be very dangerous for anyone involved in the game because it leaves them open to Satanic spirits.” Guess what they are talking about. Right. Dungeons & Dragons. It seems there is trouble in Heber, Utah. The Mormons are in an uproar over the game and, in fact, the state legislature is debating banning the game. “D&D banned in Utah” read the headlines next week, and up will go sales again. It is also rumored that a Christian organization forced a Phoenix store to withdraw D&D from sale. Something about it coming from Satan and working with the Anti-Christ. It’s probably all a Communist plot anyway. Oh, they said that too?

“Gossip,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 35

I was surprised to find David C. Isby reviewed Warship Commander 1967-1987: Present Day Tactical Naval Combat and Sea Command: Present-Day Naval-Air and Anti-Submarine Warfare. Both games were by Ken Smigelski and published by Enola Games in 1979 and 1980, respectively. I have these two books and for a while they were a direct competitor to Harpoon (now from Admiralty Trilogy Games) in my collection. I like how Dave Isby characterizes Warship Commander; “This book presents a study of modern naval surface combat set up in the format of wargame rules, aimed primarily at miniatures play but easily adaptable to boardgame format.” He goes on to say, “The book is a thorough, detailed simulation of a fascinating subject, and is worthy of comparison with the best boardgames.” On Sea Command he states, “Sea Command is an eduction in modern naval combat in wargame form.” Yes, I know!

Looking across the “Games Rating Chart” I find several games I either owned or would own in the next few years:. As much as we talk about the Golden Age of Wargaming being dominated by SPI or Avalon Hill I see more than a few other companies listed here with Yaquinto being a personal favorite:

The back page of this issue has an advertisement for For Your Eyes Only, a military affairs newsletter I actually subscribed to for a while. There is also an advertisement for a new bi-weekly newsletter by a guy named Richard Berg who was starting a new publication, Richard Berg’s Reviews of Games.

In many ways I feel lucky to find this particular issue of Strategy & Tactics. There were so many great games talked about within these pages that I am personally associated with. It’s great to see where the wargming hobby was in late 1980 when my hobby journey was just starting.

How wrong is @sowronggames about Talon (GMT Games, 2016)?

ziyx3sp8_400x400If you have not listened to the boys from So Very Wrong About Games you certainly need to. Like the title of their podcasts says, they relish in pointing out what they like, and especially what they don’t about boardgames. They are not shy about offering their opinion, which is what makes SVWAG a worthy listen. Be warned though; if you have your own opinions and cannot listen to your games taking criticism then you will not be happy. Further, if you are a wargamer, you could become agitated as one of the hosts, Mike Walker, is not a wargamer and openly (at least on the show) despises wargames. On the other hand, co-host Mark Bigney is a wargamer, and apparently an old-school wargamer at that.

Given this split in the interests of the hosts, I was mildly surprised to hear their review of Talon (GMT Games, 2016) on their podcast recently. Like the hosts themselves, what I basically heard it come down to was an old Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau, 1979+) player versus a new Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (Fantasy Flight Games, 2012+) player. One wanted fast “pew pew” starfighter play with ships dashing across the board while the other relished (anguished) over the decision points brought out by the “ponderous” movement of behemoths in space. My first reaction was like that of the old school Bigney – Talon is a spiritual successor to Star Fleet Battles only Talon does the resource management in a much more playable manner. To Walker on the other hand, the game was just too slow with not enough action.

Neither of them are right, and neither of them are wrong.

If you are looking for a manual videogame version of the Star Wars universe and enjoy competition play through buying ships, adding “power-ups,” and then throwing miniatures down on a mat then X-Wing is definitely your game. This is game Walker wants; Talon is not going to give it to him.

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Courtesy GMT Games

But…if you want another view of starship combat, one where managing resources (power) is interesting to you, then you may want to look at Talon. This is the game Bigney relishes; a game of tight resources and decision points.

For myself, I think I have made it clear before that Talon is more my preference. Sure, there is an element of “chits on the table” in Talon like Walker complains about but in this game it all fits thematically. In my more recent plays, I have also come to more deeply appreciate the ingenuity of the dry-erase ship markings and how they portray information that before was consigned to ship data sheets and the like. To me, Talon delivers an experience of starship combat through a game whereas X-Wing delivers, well, just a game.

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Courtesy BGG.com

One problem with Talon may be it’s age. Designer Jim Krohn has offered up a very modern interpretation of “I need more power, Scotty” science fiction battles. To us grognards, Talon is a refreshing look at an issue that was first tackled nearly 40 years ago in a little pocket folio game from Task Force Games. But what started out as as just over 100 counters and about a dozen ships blossomed into Master Rulebook of over 460 pages.  Even with that you still need pages and pages (and binders and binders) more of ships and scenarios to play. Although the core game mechanic of energy allocation was reimplemented and much streamlined in Federation Commander, the fact remains that to play these games requires a major investment of money for materials and time to learn, and play, the games. Talon on the other hand returns to a much simpler implementation of the core mechanic using a different streamlined approach and mixes it with graphics right on the counters to help convey the information quickly and enable speedy play on the table. But how do you explain all this design beauty to a generation of gamers that grew up on Star Wars and barrel rolls in space and never had to fill out an Energy Allocation Form, or as some call it, Accountants in Space?

I doff my cap to the Boys at So Very Wrong About Games for talking about Talon even though it was clearly “not in the wheelhouse” of one of the hosts. In the end though, Mike and Mark actually do science fiction boardgamers/wargamers a great service. The real take-away message from the podcast is that games come in many different forms. The only wrong message one could take away from their them is that there is not a game for you out there. On the contrary, So Very Wrong About Games shows us why the industry is so right; we are very lucky that we can have both X-Wing and Talon.

…But I can’t help but wonder how they would handle Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, 2018) with its AVID displays and 3D vector movement in space. For sure I think Walker would have a meltdown….

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Squadron Strike: Traveller AVID (courtesy Ad Astra Games)


Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek

Strategy & Tactics Quarterly Issue #1 (Spring 2018 Premier Issue) – Caesar: Veni – Vidi – Vici

stq1-2
Courtesy Strategy & Tactics Press

In my experience, wargaming magazines have been a hit-or-miss affair. Many times the magazines are nothing more than “house rags” – publications devoted to a single publisher and focused exclusively (or near-exclusively) on their games. The old Avalon Hill The General was much like this, as was C3i Ops from GMT Games (now RBM Studio).

And then there were the wargame magazines. Publications like Strategy & Tactics. Magazines with games in them! Taking about those games will be another post for today I want to focus on the newest S&T publication, a brand new magazine called Strategy & Tactics Quarterly.

In the premier issue, the publisher has added the following note:

Welcome to the launch of a new magazine with a new format. This magazine is a stepping stone for military history magazine readers who are interested in going beyond stories to examine and understand the how and why of military history. We analyze the actual operations and maneuvers as well as alternative plans and possibilities. A Lessons Learned section summarizes how the topic and outcome influenced later events and why certain principles and techniques are still important today. Each in-depth issue focuses on one topic by a single author and includes over 20 detailed maps plus one large map poster. We also include an annotated bibliography for further reading as well as an overview of other media and games on the topic. – Christopher ‘Doc’ Cummins

The premier issue focuses on Julius Caesar. The issue author is Joseph Miranda, a longtime associate of Strategy & Tactics. Weighing in at a meaty 112 pages, the issue is divided into three major sections; I Caeser’s World, II Caesar Conquers, and III Caesar Triumphant.

Inside one finds lavish illustrations, images, the usual high-quality S&T maps. I especially like the addition of a timeline along many pages to help me track the many events as I read about them. The level of detail is not enough to make a wargame scenario, but it can provide deeper background to an existing game. The pull-out poster is double sided with one side being a map and the other a description of forces with lots of text. Makes it easy to decide which side to show when hanging….

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Poster Map for S&T Quarterly Issue #1 – Caesar

The writing is pretty good but I see nothing dramatically “revisionist” or “new” in the analysis. In some ways I am disappointed; a cursory look at the sources reveal very few “modern sources” – that is – unless Osprey Publishing books from the mid 2000’s counts as “recent.” Maybe this is not a real negative because the target audience is a more pedestrian reader. I know that the presentation draws my high school and early college boys to read the magazine. That is certainly one definition of success….

I am a bit disappointed that the only wargames mentioned are all S&T products, but I guess that is expected as this is an S&T publication.

According to the back of this issue, future topics include, “America in WWI, Battle of Stalingrad, World War III What-ifs, and the French Foreign Legion.” An interesting selection of topics; one standard (Stalingrad), one tied to a historical anniversary (100th Anniversary of WWI ending), one hypothetical (WWIII) and one narrow (French Foreign Legion). A print subscription is $44.99 for 1 year/4 issues or $79.99 for 2 years/8 issues. That’s a lot of value for $10-11 an issue (and a small savings off the $14.99 cover price). S&T Press also offers a digital option at $14.99 for 2 issues / $29.99 for 4 issues. I tried the digital subscription for S&T Magazine before and didn’t like it because it was too hard to read all those great maps!

In the end I will probably keep buying S&T Quarterly if for no other reason than breezy historical reading and sharing with the RMN Boys.

#WargameWednesday – #TheBattleofWakefield (C3i Magazine Nr. 31)

The Battle of Wakefield, the insert game in C3i Magazine Nr. 31 (published by RBM Studios) recreates the War of the Roses battle of 30 December 1460 battle. Although this time period is not my preference for gaming, this Richard Berg-design is the near-perfect magazine wargame being easy to learn, fun to play, and interesting me further in the GMT Games Men of Iron-series.

My preferred time period for wargames is World War II, especially naval and tactical armored combat. Recently, I dipped into 18th century combat with the American Revolution Tri-Pack, again from GMT Games. The Battle of Wakefield is a step further back in time to the age of mounted knights and longbows. The complimentary articles in C3i Nr31 provide excellent commentary and educated me just enough to make we want to get the game to the table right away.

For a magazine wargame, The Battle of Wakefield hits all the items I feel are important. The map easily fits on my 3’x3′ sitting table with room to spare for the various tracking card and player aids. The counter-density is low (116 counters total) making the battle easy to solo and playtime a very manageable 2 hours for my learning game. The rulebook, all 12 pages of it, obviously traces its lineage to an established set of rules (i.e. the most egregious errata has already been corrected).

As a longtime grognard, I am interested in how wargames model battle. The Battle of Wakefield uses very interesting Activation & Continuity rules. A player can have multiple Battles (an organizational unit of a medieval army) and can activate one at a time. Once a Battle has been activated, if the player wants to “continue his ‘turn'” another Battle must roll for Continuity. There are mechanisms for Seizing Continuity using Seizure Opportunity or Seizure Negation. I enjoyed these rules that helped me to imagine the ever changing flow of battle without imposing an iconoclastic (and unimaginative) I-GO-U-GO or similar initiative mechanic.

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The Yorkist Army nearly surrounded as Wiltshire’s Battle comes up from behind (author’s photo)

The game is not perfect. I had (have?) a hard time wrapping my head around the difference between 12.0 Shock and 13.0 Charging & Counter-Charging. The note at the end of para 13.0 that states, “It helps to remember that Charge is just another form of shock that uses a different Combat Results Table” seems insufficient to explain why Shock and Charging & Counter-Charging both have 4-5 columns of rules! My rules confusion should not be seen as a showstopper to any potential buyers; I worked my way through the rules and after my first play I “think” I understand it. Again, I credit this to the roots of the game coming from an established rules system.

After my first play of The Battle of Wakefield, I want to try more scenarios in this era using these rules. When the game arrived I was not really interested in medieval combat but after playing this enjoyable game with it’s Activation & Continuity mechanics I want to try more. In this way, The Battle of Wakefield has succeeded; not only is it an entertaining game it has also driven me to search out more games in the Men of Iron-series.

#WargameWednesday – That sinking feeling… #SecondWorldWaratSeaCoralSea (Avalanche Press, 2010)

I love naval games. Just look at my Twitter handle or BoardGameGeek user name – RockyMountainNavy. So it should not be surprising that in the late 1990’s and through the 2000’s I bought many naval games. One of the more prolific publishers was Avalanche Press and their War at Sea-series including the Great War at Sea and the Second World War at Sea. Each game is actually two games in one; an operational campaign game and a tactical battle resolution game.

In 2010, Avalanche Press rolled out Introductory games for each series. Second World War at Sea: Coral Sea is the introductory title supporting that line. As the publisher’s blurb states:

Coral Sea is the new introductory boxed game for the Second World War at Sea series. It covers this key battle and is intended as a gateway for players new to the world’s most popular series of naval boardgames. The Japanese player must establish new bases in New Guinea and at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands; the American player must stop them. Forces are very closely balanced, and victory will rest with the player who can best make use of his or her resources.

The game is rated as 2 out of 5 in complexity with a playing time of “30 minutes to many hours.” I recently pulled out Coral Sea to give it a go. My reaction to the game is decidedly mixed; I like the operational aspects of the game but was reminded just what a chore playing the Second World War at Sea-series really is.

The rules for Coral Sea come in two books; Series Rules (24 pages) and Special Rules (8 pages). Mechanically the game is quite simple. In execution, it becomes long, repetitive, and a bit disinteresting. Back to that in a moment.

Set up for a campaign game, even with the low counter density (45 “long” ship counters and 100 1/2″ squares for ships, aircraft, and markers) should be fast but instead it takes time. I spent a good 30 minutes just setting the game up! Not only did I have to place the counters, but copy the Log Sheets (one for each side) and Data Sheets (five pages). This is NOT a pick-up game.

Each turn in the operational game is four hours of actual time. Each hex is 36nm across. Operational Scenario One covers the time period of 1-10 May 1942. That’s 60 turns! Each turn has the same 12 phases that both players have to step through together. 

After checking the weather and assigning aircraft to Air Patrol missions, both players go to the Orders Phase. This is the first great analysis paralysis opportunity of each turn as the players have to plot movement a various number of turns in advance based the mission of the task force. Task forces with a Bombardment or Transport mission plot their movement for the entire scenario or until six turns in a friendly port are passed. This is especially painful because the fastest ships move three spaces a turn while slow ships (like transports) only move one. Fortunately, in Coral Sea each side has only a few task forces, and in the case of the Japanese player at least two have transports and will therefore preplot their slooooowwwww advance across the ocean.

Once plotting is complete, the Air Search Phase with searches and ASW patrols is carried out. If there is an air strike to be launched, in the Air Mission Assignment Phase the orders are written out. This is followed by Naval Movement, Submarine Attack, and Surface Combat (resolved in a separate Tactical Board). Air Strikes and an administrative Air Readiness Phase follows. Players then execute a Special Operations Phase which is all those activities exclusive of the above. The turn ends with an Air Return Phase and then it all starts again.

Simple and straight-forward. Even a bit realistic (preplotting shows delay in orders execution or pre-planning). It works, as long as one is ready to repeat this process 60 times (or 180 times in the 1-30 May 1942 Operational Scenario Two) for a game.

All that for an Introductory game.

I am not going to go into my dislikes of the tactical combat resolution system. For a taste of my opinion I refer you to an old GeekList where I compared World War I Tactical Naval Combat game systems. With that said, maybe a very simple tactical combat system fits this system because it is already a looooonnnnngggg game.

Remember, this is an Introductory game.

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Courtesy APL

As I get older, I am coming to appreciate the luxury of larger counters. This is not the case in Coral Sea which has awesome 1″ long ship counters but 1/2″ aircraft counters crowded with information in tiny fonts – fonts too tiny for my old grognard eyes to comfortably take in. I could also use a pair of wargame tweezers to move or examine stacks of tiny counters.

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APL

I forced myself to play Operational Scenario One to its conclusion. I took me almost three hours of play time. Thirty minutes of set up and three hours of play.

For an Introductory game.

Looking back, I guess the game makes for an adventurous retelling of the battle but finding that narrative-vibe in-game is hard when slogging through 720 phases across 60 turns.

As an introduction to the Second World War at Sea-series, Coral Sea shows that one needs to be greatly committed to this game system and invest lots of time for little action. For me, it’s going to be a long time until this title – or any other Second World War at Sea-series game – lands on my table again.

#WargameWednesday – A Conventional Revolution #AmericanRevolutionTriPack (GMT Games, 2017) #FirstImpressions

As much as I am an Old Grognard, I missed out on more than a few games over the past 38 years. After moving to the East Coast of the US, I took an interest in the American Revolution. So last year when I saw that GMT Games was going to publish the American Revolution Tri Pack with the battles of Saratoga, Brandywine, and Guilford I jumped on the P500. It recently delivered and I have started playing the games. My first impression of the game series is that it is a welcome conventional hex-‘n-counter wargame that is simple and fast playing.

The American Revolution Tri Pack (TriPack) is actually four battles. It updates Saratoga (first published 1998), Brandywine (first published 2000), and Guilford (first published 2002) that includes the bonus Battle of Eutaw Springs. TriPack has two 22″x34″ double-sided mounted mapboards for the four battlefields with each battle getting one counter sheet (176 chits). There is a Series rulebook and each battle gets an Exclusive rulebook and player aid card. This really is four games in one box! First impressions are important, and out-of-the-box TriPack is impressive; the high quality of the components is ready apparent.

The heart of TriPack is a good ol’fashion hex-‘n-counter wargame. Initiative, morale, movement, and fire combat mechanics will be very familiar to many veteran warmers. The Series rulebook is easy to follow and understandable. It incorporates nearly 20 years of errata making the game mechanics pretty tight. Tight, but relatively uncomplicated. GMT rates TriPack as “Medium” complexity in exactly the middle of their scale. For the Series rules alone, I would rate it a bit below center as the game mechanics are logical and very straight forward. Where it may creep up a bit in the complexity scale is the many die roll modifiers (DRM) in various combat actions, but the player aid cards have them all captured making it easy to step thru combat resolution. If anything, TriPack suffers from the lack of a Series player aid card; each battle gets a card but some of the Series-generic rules (like combat effects) are only found in the rulebook. Battlecards add tactical flavor and are a welcome additional mechanic that is layered in without harsh rules overhead.

The Exclusive rules for each battle add nice flavor, but without major rules overhead. I look forward to playing the Brandywine Intelligence rules (“Muddying the Waters of Brandywine Creek”) and I really enjoyed the Looting rules in Eutaw Springs. These battle-specific rules really bring out the distinct character of each battle. It also doesn’t hurt that each Exclusive rulebook has very good historical notes making reading about the battle more than half the fun.

At first I was worried that the mapboards were too large for the battles. For each countersheet only about 1/2 are actual combatants, split amongst the two sides (Guilford/Eutaw Springs use only a half-sheet for each game or 88 counters). Thus, each player “gets” really no more than ~20-40 units each. Even in larger battles, with up to 80 units on the board, stacking rules will allow some to occupy the same hex. For each battle, the major area of combat seemed confined to about a third of the board. I was worried that the games would devolve into a long, boring approach battle with a major action confined to a small space. Fortunately, in play I found the balance between scale of units, distance, and time work out well and the approach battle goes quickly (and interestingly) with the major battle not always where one expects it.

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Battle of Eutaw Springs

The smaller counter density enables faster playing games. I played the Battle of Eutaw Springs for my first solo/rules exploration experience partially because the counter density looked to be the smallest. From set-up to finish was less than 2.5 hours. The simple rules and handy player aid cards made stepping through turns quick and efficient. In the RockyMountainNavy household, table space is a bit limited so getting a game down, played, and put away in an afternoon (or evening) is most welcome. TriPack meets this desired requirement quite well.

Although I consider the RockyMountainNavy Boys to be gamers, I am shy to play the more “grognard” games in my collection. They are quite happy with “light” wargames like Memoir ’44 or 1775 – Rebellion. We do play Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (second edition) but it is a medium-complexity wargame using many “modern” game mechanics making it a less-than-conventional hex-‘n-counter wargame.  TriPack, with its easy rules, lower counter density, and handy player aids may just be the hex-‘n-counter “gateway” game to move them towards the more grognard part of my collection.

 

#GuestPosting – #ConflictofHeroesAwakeningtheBear (@Academy_Games)

Youngest RockyMountainNavy Boy continues his writing exercises. This week he wrote about what is one of his favorite wargames, Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (Second Edition) from Academy Games. We also play with Firefight Generator to make our own scenarios. As before, what follows is his lightly edited essay. I really like getting his perspective on gaming and enjoy reading what works – or doesn’t – for him.


Overall, I think the game Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! with the Firefight Generator is fun and interesting. This game is based off the Russian Front during World War II. The players in the game are commanding either the Germans or the Soviets.

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Courtesy BGG

The appearance of the game is interesting because of the counters and the map. The counters are easy to read and all the information needed to play is right on the counter. The map is geomorphic meaning all the maps fit together in different ways.

The Action Points in the game show the difference between the Soviets and the Germans. For example, a German tank gets two or three shots while a Soviet tank only gets one shot each turn. This shows the differences in training and leadership between the Soviets and the Germans. Action Points can also make you think about what you have to do and what you can do. Also, Actin Points can give you a lot or a little flexibility in the game.

Finally, the Firefight Generator makes the game fun because you get to make your own battle. You get to pick your own troops. You get to pick the battlefield and the conditions on the battlefield.

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Courtesy Academy Games

Overall, I think the game Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! with the Firefight Generator is fun and interesting.

 

Why Navies Fight – #PacificFuryGuadalcanal1942 (Revolution Games, 2016)

One of the smaller games I got last year was Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal 1942 from Revolution Games. After my first play thru I took issue with the historical accuracy of the game but generally liked it. This past weekend I pulled the game out again and ran thru the campaign again. This time I payed more attention to the rules. After this second play thru, I see a lot more depth in the game and like this particular design a lot more!

Pacific Fury simulates the naval battles off Guadalcanal in late 1942. Each turn is a month, and each player must allocate his forces to up to seven Operations each month. Once Operations are allocated, the forces can only enter in that order. But operations can be more than just a Sortie to enter the board; to move and fight also takes Operations. Every Operation is a choice – enter more forces or execute an action with a deployed force. This is one layer of depth that makes Pacific Fury an interesting game; the timing of forces entering and (usually combat) actions. How long do you allow for the carriers to clear the area? Will that bombardment mission disrupt Henderson Field and allow a follow-on landing? Do I have a strong enough force to hold Ironbottom Sound? what about the Tokyo Express?

Another layer of depth – and one I misplayed my first play thru – is Hits and Sunk ships. The combat system is very simple – for each “firing” unit roll d6; if the number is less than or equal to the Combat Factor THAT NUMBER OF HITS is scored. Hits are then apportioned by the attacker with the number of hits allocated to each target compared to the Defense Factor. There are two possible results: Sunk (removed from game) or Hit (moved to Turn Record Track to return later).

The practical impact of this game mechanic to strategy is very important – although sinking ships is good to simply “damage” the ships might be more effective. The Japanese player can return ships two turns later meaning a ship damaged in Turn 3 will not return before Turn 4. In contrast, American ships with better damage control and closer repair facilities return the next turn. Thus, like the real battle it portrays, Pacific Fury becomes a furious battle of attrition.

Another design decision in Pacific Fury that makes it very interesting is the victory conditions. There is only one way to win this game; control Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. This may seem like blasphemy to a naval gamer – many of whom only think in terms of sunk ships – but it actually reflects the reality of the battles fought from August to November 1942.

As I recognize how these game mechanics reflect aspects of the campaign often overlooked (or glossed over) in other games both my respect and enjoyment of Pacific Fury has increased. In my most recent campaign play the result was a draw. Actual losses on both sides were small; the Japanese lost Zuikaku, Shokaku, Ryujo, Nagato, and Nachi while the Americans lost Saratoga, Wasp, South Dakota, North Carolina, San Francisco, and Chicago.

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End of Game Condition

The Americans were actually a bit lucky that they were able to even get the draw. On Turn 3 (October 1942) the Japanese had retaken Henderson Field but at a cost a many damaged ships – ships now effectively “out of the game.” In the Event Phase of Turn 4, the Americans rolled IJN Overestimated which returned a “destroyed” carrier to the battle (incidentally, a carrier originally destroyed in the Event Phase of Turn 2 when the Japanese rolled three (!) Torpedo Hits and elected to sink that carrier). With the Hornet back, the Americans were able to use airpower to destroy the Japanese force patrolling Ironbottom Sound and get a bombardment force in to disrupt Henderson Field just in time for an amphibious force to land in the very last Operation of the game.

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Courtesy  goodreads.com

Pacific Fury reminds me that it is not enough to just “learn the rules” but it is also important to step back and understand the “why” of a game mechanic or rule. Usually these are hinted at in Designer’s Notes but in Pacific Fury such notes are lacking probably because the original game was published in Japanese. So in this case I had do do a bit of (enjoyable) discovery on my own. I am glad I pulled this game out again as I have deepened my understanding of not just the game but of the entire naval campaign for Guadalcanal. Pacific Fury is actually great compliment to what has to be one of the best books on the subject, James D. Hornfischer’s Neptune’s Inferno. Enough so that I need to stop typing away here and resume my reread of that book….

#FirstImpressions #TheExpanseBoardGame (WizKids, 2017)

From the publisher’s blurb:

The Expanse, a board game based on the Syfy television series of the same name, focuses on politics, conquest and intrigue similar to the board game Twilight Struggle, although with a shorter playing time. The card-driven game uses key images from the show, along with action points and events that allow players to move and place “Fleets” and “Influence”. (BGG)

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Authors collection

It is not often that a publisher’s blurb captures a game so completely as WizKids has done for The Expanse Board Game (TEBG). After purchasing the game and playing it a bit, I am torn in my feelings for the game. To me, TEBG feels very much like a “classic” Eurogame – in a negative connotation of the definition; great mechanics with a pasted on theme.

The BoardGameGeek Wiki defines Eurogames as follows:

“Eurogames (or alternatively, Designer Board Games or German-Style Board Games) are a classification of board games that are very popular on Board Game Geek (BGG). Though not all eurogames are European and not all of them are board games, they share a set of similar characteristics. A game need not fit ALL the criteria to be considered a Eurogame.

Most Eurogames share the following elements:

  • Player conflict is indirect and usually involves competition over resources or points. Combat is extremely rare.
  • Players are never eliminated from the game (All players are still playing when the game ends.)
  • There is very little randomness or luck. Randomness that is there is mitigated by having the player decide what to do after a random event happens rather than before. Dice are rare, but not unheard of, in a Euro.
  • The Designer of the game is listed on the game’s box cover. Though this is not particular to Euros, the Eurogame movement seems to have started this trend. This is why some gamers and designers call this genre of games Designer Games.
  • Much attention is paid to the artwork and components. Plastic and metal are rare, more often pieces are made of wood.
  • Eurogames have a definite theme, however, the theme most often has very little to do with the gameplay. The focus instead is on the mechanics; for example, a game about space may play the same as a game about ancient Rome.”

TEBG hits all of these points, but with mixed results.

TEBG does a good job of capturing the feel (theme) of The Expanse TV series. Using Eurogame mechanics the players place influence (tracked using small wooden cubes) on various bases throughout the Solar System. To place influence usually requires a fleet in the orbital above the base. Although the game mechanics are simple, each player/faction has unique asymmetric abilities which allow them to “break the rules” in thematically appropriate ways. For instance, while is usually cost 1 Control Point (CP) to take the second action card, the United Nations (UN) player has Planning as their initial Technology which means the first two action card slots cost 0 CP. As the game progresses, more thematically-appropriate technologies are gained by each faction.

“Combat” in TEBG consists of removing influence or fleets (which can be rebuilt). This is not a cooperative game; ruthlessly building your influence while reducing your opponents is the real core mechanic.

TEBG uses much artwork from The Expanse TV Series. Although this makes the game appear like The Expanse, some of the artwork does not have a clear connection to gameplay. For instance, the action card Scopuli can be used for 2 Action Points or as an Event by the Martian Congressional Republic (MCR) or UN. The Event states, “Place 1 influence on each Saturn Base where you do not have influence.” I do not see how this is related to the Scopuli in the TV series which is [SPOILER ALERT]:

…a Martian light transport freighter from Eros that was in service to the OPA. One of its crew was Julie Mao and it was attacked by the Stealth Ship Anubis. It was later used as a lure in the ambush and destruction of the Canterbury.

To me this is a thematic disconnect. I think Scopuli should be used as an Event to the advantage of the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) or ProtoGen. Granted, most of the action cards have a picture that ties well to the event described, but I think to make the connection one must be a real fanboy. If a player is not knowledgeable of The Expanse the immersion into the game will not be served by the graphics.

The full impact of all these design and graphics decisions is an area control game that looks like The Expanse. The game comes across as very functional; simple game mechanics with some asymmetric differences in a kinda staid, plain package.

Finally, I have an issue with the component quality in TEBG. The board uses a non-glossy finish that, while good for pictures, has already shown rubs and scratches after just two plays. I also have a major problem with the Quick Start Rules which use white text on a semi-transparent background over a starscape page. The font, smaller than that used in the main rule book and the third layer of printing has lost all its edges and is nearly impossible to read.

It is going to be interesting when The Expanse Board Game lands on the Family Game Night table. All of the RockyMountainNavy Boys know a bit about The Expanse, but none are fanboys, Thus, the success of this game will stand not on theme alone (which appears to be much of the buzz around the game) but on its ability to blend graphics and gameplay into a enjoyable gaming experience.