A grand conflict simulation #wargame – Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (@MultiManPub, 2017)

ONE OF THE FIRST WARGAMES I PLAYED OH-SO-LONG AGO WAS AIR ASSAULT ON CRETE/INVASION OF MALTA (Avalon Hill, 1977). Since then, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this battle. So when I saw Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) put Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (2017) on sale I jumped at it. Besides the theme appealing to me, so did the price. As of today the game sells for $172 (!); I bought it on sale for $40!!! So…a bit of a danger sign there. Why would a company sell a game at over 75% off? Is there a problem with the game?

After spending over a week of evenings learning and playing the game, I am torn. In some ways Operation Mercury is perfect for me, but it also presents problems. I really like the fact Operation Mercury is a chit-pull game but I have problems with it being a monster game and chatty rules.

My first Grand Tactical Series (GTS)

Before this sale, the only MMP game I owned was a single title from The Gamers, Dean Essig’s predecessor company. Operation Mercury is therefore my introduction to the Grand Tactical Series (GTS). As the MMP ad copy puts it:

The Grand Tactical Series (GTS) recaptures battles on a grand scale with the color and atmosphere that the great campaigns deserve.  Updating Victory Games’ popular, playable and accurate Panzer Command system, the series is also created with exquisite historical detail and a game system that allows the players to see the great “Whys” and “What Ifs” as the campaigns unfold.

The back of the box tell us the game scale is Company/Platoon at 500 meters per hex and each turn representing about two hours. That’s fine until you realize Operation Mercury is trying to recreate the entire campaign of multiple divisions fighting at the company level across most of the island of Crete:

OPERATION MERCURY maintains the same level of detail and scale as other Grand Tactical Series (GTS) games. Players command divisions and maneuver company-sized units to fight one of the most desperate battles of the war. Using the GTS 2.0 rules, OPERATION MERCURY offers two players or teams a wide range of scenarios ranging from a single small map with a few units on each side to the full battle including up to two German divisions and several Commonwealth and Greek brigades. OPERATION MERCURY covers all the major airdrops and fighting across the island from Heraklion in the east, through Rethymnon, and from Maleme to Suda Bay then south to the Askifou Plain, scene of the last major fight during the withdrawal.

Grand wargame conflict simulation

To fight those divisions and brigades, Operation Mercury is in many ways a monster game. The game box ships with 5x 22″x34″, 2x 17″x22″, and 2x 8.5″x11″ maps. It also comes with 8x countersheets (1568 5/8″ counters). Simply put, I don’t have tabletop space to play the full campaign game. Fortunately, there are 14 scenarios (including a Learning Scenario) of which eight require two maps or less.

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Honey, I need to borrow the hallway for the next few weeks, ok? (Image courtesy @puertoricojoe on Twitter)

The many counters in Operation Mercury also presented me with a problem (literally) right out of the box. It became very clear early on that I would have to organize all the counters if I was to ever find what I need. That’s because Operation Mercury hews much closer to the ‘conflict simulation’ school of wargaming. Of the 1586 counters, about half are markers and half are units. Units are not generic; each has an individual identifier. When setting up a scenario one needs particular units. I spent a lot of time hunting the unpunched countersheets for “1. Geb.Pi 95” (only to discover that the front of the counter is misprinted as “3. Geb.Pi 95.”). Most importantly, this hunting made me realize that before I punch any counters I need an organization scheme unless I want to spend hours (and I do mean hours) hunting for the particular counters needed in a scenario.

“Chatty” rules

I was very surprised when I opened the Grand Tactical Series rule book. My going-in impression of MMP was built around the mythology of Advanced Squad Leader and the SPI-approach to rules (everything  – subbullets and all – numbered). So image my surprise when I opened the rule book to face ‘chatty’ rules. As found in A note about the rules:

There are two sets of rules. The one you are reading now is repetitive and written in a chatty style. It is repetitive because we have duplicated many rules throughout the sections, so you don’t have to flip through the rule book to find the one place where a rule appears. We hope the chatty style makes it easier to read. The tradeoff is longer rules. For those who prefer concise rules (or who find the chatty style irritating), we have included a set of short rules and also tried to put as much useful information as possible on the charts and tables. Experienced gamers should be able to start playing with the short rules and charts and tables. We hop there are no discrepancies between the rules, but this rulebook governs should there be.

First, I dislike chatty. The rules are supposed to communicate how to operate a model; procedures that are best explained procedurally. Second, I find it very hard to find rules in this rule book. Give me an index! The glossary is close but still, an index, please! Finally, the ‘short rules’ is apparently an eight-page Grand Tactical Series 2.0 Rules Summary that is mostly flow charts and again has no cross-references.

What about the rules themselves? Well, there are parts I like and dislike.

Random Chit Activation

LIKE…BUT. I have written before about my new-found love of chit-pull games, especially for solo play. This puts Operation Mercury right in my wheelhouse. That said, learning the rules for activations was not possible in the ‘short rules’ meaning I had to divine them from the chatty.

Movement

HUH? It took me a moment to wrap my head around the concept that a Leg unit using Regular movement pays 2 MP for a Clear hex and 1MP if in Column. A change from the usual (expected?) 1MP/Half-MP model. Once it clicked it clicked but it was unexpected and jarring at first.

Fire Combat

DISLIKE. This is where the chatty-rules totally fails me. When the designer sees fit to provide a one or two-page flow chart in the Rules Summary I become wary. At first I depended on the ‘experienced gamer’ claim and tried to play from the flow charts. FAIL! So I then had to go find the rules in the rule book (after all, they are the authoritative version, right?). I eventually figured it out but it was not that easy.

Learning the Fire Combat rules also uncovered some of the underlying game model to me. In particular, the use of color fire ratings to show the different combat doctrines. As noted here:

Historical note: In contrast to the Germans, Allied infantry companies relied more on Fire Rating and less on shock. In particular, Allied methods depended on an almost indiscriminate use of firepower, featuring the light mortar, which stressed quantity more than quality. The Purple Fire Rating reflects this style of fighting. These units use Direct Fire and hence may attempt Opportunity Fire. They cannot use Indirect Fire like regular (green Fire Rating) mortars do and so their fire does not cause Barrage markers to be placed.

As I look over the counters, I can’t help but notice colors other than purple and green. Indeed, many units in Operation Mercury have white or pink. It took me a while to figure out the color is the Weapon Class and directly tied to the Combat Results Table. At the end of the day I figured it out but for something that was explicitly called out in a historical note the full story got buried deep in the rules.

I also have a hard time understanding why there are so many die rolls during combat in Operation Mercury. In a typical direct fire combat event the following arrangement of rolls is very likely:

  • Assaulter Bravery Check
  • Defender Opportunity Fire
    • Troop Quality Check
    • Combat die roll
  • Defender Direct Fire (x2)
    • Combat die roll
  • Assaulter Direct Fire (x2)
    • Combat die roll
  • (If this was first round of fire a second round is possible)
  • Defender Direct Fire (x2)
  • Assaulter Direct Fire (x2)

That’s as many as 11 die rolls to resolve a ‘single’ combat. And I’m going to fight how many companies in that division? How many die rolls are possible every turn? I don’t understand why so many die rolls are necessary. When your model requires this much effort from me I really want to understand why. Without understanding the rationale I have a hard time accepting this level of effort from me.

Repetitive? Yes. Confusing? Yes.

There are some rules that just plain bug me. Take for instance that Bravery Check to start an Assault combat action:

29.13. Bravery Check

When a unit has to performs an Assault each Assaulting Unit must pass a Troop Quality Check as its Bravery Check. If a Unit fails its Bravery Check, the Unit does not perform the Assault. A Command Point cannot be used to pass a Bravery Check. Note thet [sic] a Bravery Check is performed like a Troop Quality Check but is not the same thing regarding the rules. A Bravery Check will always fail on a roll of 9.

So, same but different? Let’s look at a Troop Quality Check:

29.47. Troop Quality Check

A test a Unit must pass before it can do various things such as Rally when not in command or Opportunity Fire. To make a Troop Quality Check, you roll a die for the Unit. The Unit passes if the die roll is equal to or less than its Troop Quality Rating (as modified by any applicable modifiers). A nine always fails and a zero always succeeds. A Unit may be able to spend a Command Point instead of rolling a die to pass a Troop Quality check, but a player may not do both (roll, and then spend a Command Point).

No mention of the Bravery Check. To find that mention one must look to the next glossary entry:

29.48. Troop Quality Rating

The measure of a Unit’s morale, supply and training….A Command Point may not be spent to pass the Troop Quality Check required for a Bravery Check, Opportunity Fire and Engineer Actions.

Why the needless terminology of Bravery Check? Just call it a Troop Quality Check without the ability to spend a Command Point!

[OK, yes. The use of the term Bravery is certainly more dramatic, but I don’t think too many people are playing Operation Mercury as a ‘narrative’ game.]

A working-class wargame

More so than most any game I acquired in the past few years, Operation Mercury really makes me work to learn it. Although I consider myself an experienced gamer, it appears my definition and MMP’s do not align. After stumbling through the Learning Scenario using the Rules Summary, I went back and started with reading the full rule book. Then I reset the Learning Scenario and tried again. Only after becoming proficient at the Learning Scenario did I attempt Scenario 1. The investment to learn Operation Mercury was easily the most I have spent in at least the last two years.

This in turn also makes me work harder to explain my thoughts on Operation Mercury here. I want to like the game, but at the same time the overhead from executing the rules is onerous at times. Given the designations of units, it is essential from the beginning that player have a plan for organizing counters or many long hours (yes, hours) will be spent setting up a scenario – and I for one do not welcome that sort of stress coming from simply opening the box.

A monster, or two, in little bites

Then there are the scenarios for Operation Mercury. The Exclusive Rules have 14 scenarios including the Learning Scenario. Fortunately, most can be played on one or two maps. But in doing so yet another organizational need was exposed. Of the 14 scenarios, most use the Campaign Counters but the first four are battalion-level scenarios (vice the campaign Regiment/Brigade) that use a different set of counters. In practice this means the first four scenarios are the same, but different, games as compared to campaign scenarios. So confusing!

A lifestyle game

To me, Operation Mercury and the Grand Tactical Series is not so much a wargame conflict simulation as it is a gaming lifestyle. If you are buying a MMP GTS game for anything near retail it is big investment of money. The game physically requires a big investment in space. You must be willing to invest time to organize, time to learn rules, time to set up, and time to play. These investments in many ways outweigh even the not-insignificant monetary cost of the game.

Yet somehow in the end it comes together and works. For the most part. If you have the space and time and patience to play Operation Mercury you should. It took a great deal of effort but I eventually figured the game out. The game mechanics really are not hard and the flow charts help once you understand them. The scenarios present many interesting challenges and decisions. Operation Mercury truly is a grand view of the battle.

I am glad I purchased Operation Mercury as I can explore a bit of MMP’s GTS line up. In the end though, Operation Mercury taught me that GTS is not my thing; the Standard Combat Series is much more suitable to me these days.

 

 

Putting the non-standard into a standard #wargame – Panzer Battles: 11th Panzer on the Chir River (@MultiManPub, Standard Combat Series #19, 2016)

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID ABOUT USING A STANDARD SET OF RULES IN A SERIES. One advantage is moving from game to game in the series is easier because the learning curve is reduced. A disadvantage often is the game starts feeling too generic and loses the essence of each different conflict. My recent look at Brief Border Wars (Compass Games, 2020) showed me how a good set of series rules can work with just a few exclusive rules to make different, interesting games. Recently, I took advantage of a sale by Multi-Man Publishing and picked up a few different games. Amongst the acquisitions were two games in their Standard Combat Series. I was able to get one of them, Panzer Battles: 11th Panzer on the Chir River (MMP, 2016) to the table quickly. I am happy to discover that while the game is ‘standard,’ it also is very unique. More importantly, Panzer Battles teaches us about command and control in warfare; lessons learned over 75 years ago but still applicable today.

MMP describes their Standard Combat Series (SCS) as this:

The Standard Combat Series (SCS) enables both experienced and beginning players to enjoy simple to play and quick to learn games.  Each game is a quick-start, complete simulation:  rules, a detailed color map, 280 counters, and everything else needed to recreate the campaign in question.

With that description in mind I really didn’t have the highest of expectations. I mean, a game that can be played by both experienced and beginner players is a wide range of abilities. Consider too that MMP is the home of Advanced Squad Leader, anything but an uncomplicated game!

When one opens the box, the first impression is a very simple game. In the case of Panzer Battles you get two 22″x34″ mapsheets, one countersheet of 280 1/2″ counters, one Series rule book and one game-specific rule book. Oh yeah – two dice.

The Series rule book is eight (8) pages, with page 8 being totally devoted to Designer’s Notes. For longtime Grognards there is nothing special, unique, or unexpected here. The SCS is bog-standard hex & counter wargame. The Series rules have 13 major sections:

  1. Sequence of Play
  2. Zones of Control (ZOCs)
  3. Movement
  4. Stacking
  5. Reinforcements
  6. Overrun Combat
  7. Combat
  8. Step Losses
  9. Retreats
  10. Advance After Combat
  11. Exploitation
  12. Supply
  13. Hex Control

When you get to the game-specific rule book (12 pages) you start to discover the non-standard of the SCS. In the case of Panzer Battles, designer Dean Essig wanted to capture what made the mobile defensive warfare of the German 11th Panzer Division so special. In Panzer Battles, he showcases the battles fought by 11th Panzer along the Chir River in December, 1942 when they acted as a ‘fire brigade’ against Soviet advances (for details on the battles see here). Basically stated, you have a heavily outnumbered, predominantly infantry force defending with armor in support against a numerically superior, yet doctrinally rigid, mechanized attacker.

Panzer Battles, the wargame, appears to draw it’s title from Panzer Battles, the book, written by Maj. Gen F.W. von Mellenthin (University of Oklahoma Press, 1956). The book even appears to be the origin of the “fire brigade’ phrase. In the 1970’s when the US Army was developing their Air-Land Battle Doctrine, the mobile defensive warfare of General Balck and the 11th Panzer were studied for its application to NATO defense. In 2020 a similar defensive need exists in Poland, Taiwan, or Korea, making the study and understanding of the Chir River battles important even today. It is also relevant to the modern day study of Mission Command, a phrase often used (not always correctly) to describe the command and control philosophy of General Balck – Auftragstaktik.

In order to showcase the Auftragstaktik command and control approach that underpinned 11th Panzer’s actions, Mr. Essig choses to introduce one of my favorite gaming mechanisms, the chit-pull mechanic, into the game. In Panzer Battles, the 11th Panzer Division usually has multiple chits in their draw cup, meaning the force will activate more often. There are a few other game-specific rules (like 1.7 Disorganized Units or 1.10 Barrages) that also capture essential elements of mobile warfare but it is rule 1.8 Activations that is the heart of Panzer Battles.

The end result in Panzer Battles is a wargame that delivers what it promises. The chit-pull activation system shows how the different command and control approach of the 11th Panzer enables it to be that ‘fire brigade’ that rapidly moves about the battlefield to (hopefully) be at the right place at the right time to face the Soviet offensive. It is an excellent case study of Auftragstaktik.

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@Hughwally on BGG understands wargaming….

Panzer Battles is not without it’s drawbacks. In my case the quibbles are minor and center on those small counters. As a graying Grognard, I am challenged to see and handle small 1/2″ counters. Even my wargame tweezers don’t always help. One good part is with only 280 counters, rounding the corners (at 2mm radius) doesn’t take forever! Also, at two maps Panzer Battles has a bigger footprint (44″x34″) than I expected, especially in a game with only 280 counters (speak about low counter density….).

Further, while Panzer Battles illustrates the advantage of Auftragstaktik, it does not give the players insight into how to achieve it. In game terms, the chit-pull mechanic clearly illustrates the impact of Auftragstaktik but not how to create it – it’s ‘baked into’ the chits and simply handed the players.

Overall though, I am impressed with Panzer Battles and look forward to more SCS games. I already own Heights of Courage: The Battle for the Golan Heights, October 1973 (MMP, 2013). In that game the ‘gimmick” is an ability chose a ‘Fast’ or ‘Slow’ optempo. I will keep my eyes open for other MMP sales; the regular price of Panzer Battles is presently $48 – in my opinion a little bit steep, but probably fair in today’s economy, for what you get.

Now, about the Grand Tactical Series game Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (MMP, 2017) and the houseful of maps and counters….

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Courtesy @puertoricojoe on Twitter

Feature image courtesy Multi-Man Publishing

#Coronatine insert game – Lonato by Frederic Bey (@SemperVictor, c3iopscenter.com, Issue Nr. 14, 2002)

F5+jMI+0SwuSEWaspNowDQALTHOUGH I AM A GROGNARD WARGAMER, I am not much of a Napoleonic wargamer. I started out playing in World War II and then went heavy into the modern & science fiction genres of the wargame hobby. I mean, it’s not like I ignored Napoleonic’s, it just was never a major period of interest. In late 2018, I picked up C3i Magazine #32 mostly for Mark Herman’s Gettysburg. Interestingly, there was a second complete game in the issue, Battle of Issy, 1815 by Frederic Bey. Battle of Issy, 1815 introduced me to the Jours de Gloire-series of games; a series I had never heard of before. Most excitingly the Jours de Gloire-series uses a chit-pull activation mechanic. I absolutely love chit-pull games, especially for solo play.

Mr. Herman’s Gettyburg was certainly the wargamer darling of Issue #32, but the truth to me is that Battle of Issy, 1815 is the superior game. Part of it may have to do with the fact that the Jours de Gloire traces a long and distinguished gaming legacy starting with the Triumph & Glory system from Richard Berg. Frederic Bey eventually took over the series and developed it into the Jours de Gloire of today. I mean, you just can’t go wrong having a Frenchman in charge of developing a Napoleonic game!

62fc8e9c-74b2-4b8f-b880-91a20727ee88.jpegFast forwarding to today, I recently traded for a copy of Lonato found in C3i Magazine Issue Nr. 14 from 2002. Lonato was a game insert using the Triumph & Glory system. I got Lonato to the table this weekend and discovered again just how much I enjoy the Jours de Gloire system.

“But wait,” you cry, “you just said Lonato is a Triumph & Glory game. Silly boy, you got your Jours de Gloire confused!”

No, I don’t, and that’s what makes Lonato so good.

As published, Lonato comes with only scenario-specific rules; the series rules need to be found elsewhere. My intention was to play Lonato first using the Triumph & Glory rules then see about finding a conversion to Jours de Gloire. When I opened the Lonato bag, I discovered some good soul had printed a copy of the Triumph & Glory Version 2.0 rules from December, 2001. As I read the T&G rules, they seemed awfully familiar. So I pulled out the Battle of Issy, 1815 Rule Book which has the complete JDG -series rules included and compared them.

Nearly identical. You can clearly see the development of Triumph & Glory into Jours de Gloire. So instead of learning T&G, I played Lonato using the JDG rules to begin with. The Battle of Issy, 1815 also includes a Play Aid Card that has the JDG-series Terrain Effects Chart on one side and the Combat Tables on the other. These can be used in any JDG game.

There are a few differences. Most noticeably the counters in Triumph & Glory carry a Defensive Fire DRM whereas the Jours de Gloire don’t. In this case I have to trust that the Defensive Fire DRM from T&G is covered in the Combat Tables of JDG. Second, the counters in T&G don’t have an Engagement Rating used in JDG. Eyeballing the counters from Battle of Issy, 1815 it appears that in many cases the Engagement Rating is the same as or one off from the Cohesion Rating. I decided that, for the sake of simplicity, the Cohesion Rating in Lonato would also count as the Engagement Rating. Not perfect, but it seems like an acceptable compromise. Finally, rule 8.6 Jaegers in T&G does not appear in the JDG series rules. In the scenario specific rules for Battle of Issy, 1815 there is a rule for Light Companies (compagnies legeres) which is a very different approach to skirmishers. I chose to use rule 8.6 Jaegers from T&G and treat it as a scenario specific rule to cover the Austrian Jaeger units in Lonato.

A very nice aspect of the Lonato game is that in includes five scenarios. The first scenario, First Lonato (July 31, 1796), is very small and is a great introduction (or reintroduction in my case) to the JDG game system. Second Lonato (August 3, 1796) is a step up in complexity but not annoyingly so. The third scenario, First Castiglione (August 3, 1796) can be played using the five-turn Historical Battle or a longer, 10-turn Hypothetical Battle. Then you have Third Lonato (August 4, 1796) which is a hypothetical battle. Finally, the fifth scenario ties it all together with Lonato-Castiglione (August 3, 1796) which is literally Second Lonato and First Castiglione put together in a sort of mini-campaign game.

As I write this, I have just finished up the third scenario, First Castiglione, which is also the third scenario I played today. I think I will have time to play the hypothetical Third Lonato and Lonato-Castiglione before the weekend ends. Five games in two days, all from one simple little magazine insert.

There are several reasons this explosion of Lonato gaming is possible. First, the Jours De Gloire system is very easy to learn and play. Second, the chit-pull mechanic of variable unit activation makes every game interesting – and well suited to solo play. Finally, the game is small footprint; the Lonato map is 22″x16″ and there are only 140 counters in the game (and you don’t use all the units except in the final ‘campaign’ scenario).

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Second Lonato scenario with Lonato components & Jours de Gloire series rules from Battle of Issy, 1815

Most importantly, I really enjoyed my dive into Napoleonic’s with Lonato. I think part of the reason I like the Jours de Gloire system is that it doesn’t get bogged down at the tactical level like so many classic Napoleonic games. The JDG-series is set at the battalion, regiment, or brigade level but the focus is on command & control. Combat is simplified into either Fire (artillery) or Shock (infantry & cavalry) with Cavalry Charge thrown in. Where there is chrome it usually is scenario-specific and present for a good reason. It didn’t hurt that the five scenarios in Lonato built upon one another making it something of a programmed learning system.

I think I will keep an eye out for other titles in the JDG-series and see if I can acquire a few more. If they are packages anything like Lonato, they could prove to be highly enjoyable and replayable games that are a prefect weekend afternoon or rainy day title

Oh yeah, good for Coronatine too!


Feature image “Napoleon at Lonato” courtesy http://www.napoleonicsociety.com/english/Life_Nap_Chap7.htm

#Coronatine #Wargame Arrivals – April 2020

A few new arrivals for the gaming table. With all this Coronatine time they should get to the table quickly.

25575CAF-6D59-449D-A2C9-80652BF2A819Operation Battleaxe: Wavell vs. Rommel, 1941 (Revolution Games, 2013)

This area-impulse design is both easy to learn and plays quickly. I also have enjoyed several of designer Michael Rinella’s other designs, including Counterattack: The Battle of Arras, 1940 and Patton’s Vanguard. I particularly like these Revolution Games titles as they are perfectly sized for a rainy afternoon or a Coronatine day.

62FC8E9C-74B2-4B8F-B880-91A20727EE88Lonato (C3i Magazine #14, 2002)

This is an experiment. I am not a Napoleonic wargamer but I enjoyed Jours de Gloire: Battle of Issy, 1815 in C3i Magazine #32. Although an older title, Lonato should be useable with the Jours de Gloire rules from Issy. It might take some work to kludge it together, but if there is one thing coronatine has delivered it’s time to work projects like this one.

BONUS! The game includes a printed a copy of the Triumph & Glory Rulebook v2 (Dec. 18, 2001) in the bag. Lonato was made expressly as a module for the Triumph & Glory rules which eventually evolved into Jours de Gloire. Looks like I have a very good jumping-off point!


Feature image: “Family respects social distancing while playing board games.” Courtesy msn.com

#Wargame Wednesday – #FirstImpressions of Poland Defiant: The German Invasion, September 1940 (revolutiongames.us, 2019)

I HAVE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH THE CHIT-PULL MECHANIC as well as early World War II games. Poland Defiant (Revolution Games, 2019) hits both of these wants of mine and delivers an interesting, tense battle of the start of World War II in Europe.

When I first saw the advertisement for this game, I jumped right in because of the chit-pull mechanic. Although mechanically based on an earlier Konigsberg game, I never owned or played that title. In Poland Defiant, major formations are activated when their Command Chit is drawn from the pool. In addition to the Command Chits, there are also Special Command Chits representing higher headquarters as well as Action Chits for Random Events and Replacements. The chit-pull mechanic means the turn order is randomized – i.e. friction in warfare. Inevitably, your perfect plan to sequence attacks all along the front are disrupted because one group jumps off too early (their chit comes out first) or the enemy disrupts the offensive (their chits are drawn instead of yours).

Poland Defiant adds another layer of friction given that, depending on the turn (one day of the campaign) each side doesn’t necessarily get all their Command Chits. For instance, on Day 3 (Sept 3) when the Germans have six major formations in the field (6x Command Chits) they only get five activations. This means somebody is not going to get an activation that day. But who? For the Polish player the problem is worse. With seven formations fielded (7x Command Chits) the day starts out with the arrival of another formation (+1 Command Chit) and the Replacement Action Chit (+1 chit) for a total of nine chits in the pool (assuming no headquarters have been lost to date). However, on Sept 3 the Poles were really reeling from the invasion and their command and control (C2) was at their worst, which translates in the game to only four activations FOR THE ENTIRE DAY. At least half the army is not going to move (maybe more if the Replacements Action Chit is amongst the drawn). Edit: Per 2.5 Action Chits, “Action Chits do not count against the number of activated Command Chits drawn per turn.”

I admit that after I quickly jumped and ordered Poland Defiant because of the chit-pull mechanic, I was doubting myself over the topic. I mean, it’s the invasion of Poland! We all “know” this was a cake-walk for the Germans, right? How can a steamroller possibly be interesting, especially for the Polish player getting steamrolled? Well, designer Stefan Ekstrom and developer Roger Miller solved this problem with three simple rules; German Operational Pace, Command Range, and Supply:

  • German Operational Pace – Found in rule 4.2.1, German Operational Pace requires the German player to compare their current VP to the number associated with the turn. If the VP count is equal to or better than no problem (everything is developing according to plan). But…if the VP is “behind the pace” the German player suffers a negative consequence until they can “catch up” to the plan.
  • Command Range – Formations have headquarters and headquarters can only command so far. Get too far ahead of your commander and suffer. This creates opportunities to disrupt your enemy’s plan by attacking their HQ. Very importantly, if you destroy a HQ all those commanded units become “independent” which in the game means other HQs can activate them, but individually and not as a mass formation. They still fight, but far less efficiently!
  • Supply – Nothing special here but a supply line is needed to keep fighting. Striking out cross-country is certainly fun (charge!) but if you don’t protect your supply line one will find themselves going nowhere very quickly (or not).

In Poland Defiant the German player can win an Automatic Victory if they have a unit in supply in any Warsaw hex at the end of a turn. More reasonably, the German player will have to accumulate VP. Up to 14 VP are possible, with 10 VP being equal to the historic result at the end of ten days (Turn 10). Can the Polish player hold the German to less and “beat history?” Play Poland Defiant yourself and find out!

Overall, Poland Defiant has a very small footprint – a 3’x3′ or 1m x 1m table can work. The rule book is an entire 12 pages (one for cover) and the back of the title card acts as a player aid. Poland Defiant is not complex but it delivers a very playable game about a tragic campaign – and makes it interesting and challenging. It’s well worth our investment in time and money.

As dawn breaks on September 1, 1939, Poland stands defiant against the Third Reich (ok…poor lighting for the only picture I took before starting play)

Talking chit in #wargames- or – Eating my words in Operation Cannibal (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1996)

I make no secret of the fact that wargames using the chit-pull mechanic are a new favorite of mine. In the past two years I have acquired awesome games like Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games, 2018 and Runner Up for the Golden Geek Wargame of the Year in 2018) or The Dark Sands (GMT Games, 2018). I also enjoyed the excellent Battle Hymn Vol. 1: Gettysburg & Pea Ridge (Compass Games, 2018) and the small-but-strategic Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019) or Jour de’ Gloire –  The Battle of Issy, 1815 (C3i Magazine, 2018). This past week I took delivery of The Dark Valley: The Russian Campaign 1941-1945 (GMT Games, 2019) and have started exploring that game.

Using the Advanced Search function of BoardGameGeek, I was messing around and randomly decided to look at what Chit-Pull Mechanic games are in my collection. According to BGG I have 18 games with the chit-pull mechanic, ranging from my top ranked Battle Hymn (8.25) to Operational Cannibal: Burma 1942-1943 (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1996) with a paltry 4.0 (Not so good, it doesn’t get me but could be talked into on occasion).

Operation Cannibal? What’s that? So I pulled the game off the shelf and took a look.

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Courtesy BGG

Operation Cannibal is a game about the December 1942 to April 1943 campaign along the west coast of Burma. It is a small game with a single 17″x22″ map where each hex is 4km. Units are Battalions/Companies and shown using 140 counters. There is also an 8-page rulebook that includes four scenarios. Stated game play time is 1-12 hours.

The impulse and chit-pull mechanic in Operation Cannibal is interesting. Every turn, the Japanese player rolls for the weather. The result is the number of impulses in the forthcoming turn ranging from six to zero (Monsoon). The Japanese player will pick a number of impulse chits equal to the weather result MINUS ONE (but never less than three) and adds them to the cup. The British player picks chits equal to the weather result MINUS TWO (but never less than two) and adds them to the cup. Every impulse a chit is drawn from the cup and then executed. Consecutive impulses are allowed but never more than three in a row (14.4). It is possible that in poor weather turns (3 impulses or less) that one player might not get any actions.

Even when an impulse chit is drawn, there is variability. There are four types of action chits; FULL, ATTACK, CHOICE, or HALF. What you can do is dependent upon the type of chit drawn. I seem to recall this part of the game was what I disliked. I vaguely recall confusion and a slowness of play because I was unsure what could, or could not, be done on each action chit. Of course, a simple quick reference card, like that found in the files section of BGG, can make all the difference. I never downloaded that content until now (never had a reason to).

I played the first scenario, Donbiak, to see how Operation Cannibal plays. This is a two-turn scenario that is very useful for learning the game. After playing the short scenario I must admit that I have to reconsider my opinion of Operation Cannibal. The game is not as bad as I remember. I really like the variable number of impulses. With a player aid it is easier to process the different actions available on the different chits.

That is not to say the game will jump to the top of my chit-pull games. Operation Cannibal is fairly easy to play but component-wise it is a bit gaudy and unappealing. The camouflage (Jungle-capable) units are hard to read and the map is very uninviting. The rule book lacks any sort of helpful graphics. There are some good thematic elements (Japanese supply lines being different than British) but in the end the game lacks that “X-Factor” that makes me want to play. More specifically, nothing happens in the game – the battle is B-O-R-I-N-G.

So I will be revising my BGG rating for Operation Cannibal to a 6 (OK – Will play if in the mood) mostly because it can be a smaller game. I worry about the longer scenario; 12 hours for a game this small seems excessive. I note that many of the negative ratings on BGG are not related so much to game play but to the boring topic chosen. I note that the same system in used in MacArthur’s Return (Avalanche Press Ltd., 1994), another game sitting on my shelf.

Postscript

As I hunted the Avalanche Press website for a good link to Operation Cannibal I came across this old page. Very insightful.

We published Operation Cannibal in 1997, alongside Red Steel. I chronicled the misbegotten birth of Red Steel in an earlier piece but the circumstances around Cannibal are far worse. Publishing it was just as bad a decision, but that might have been the least of its problems.

….

After all that, Operation Cannibal turned out to be a weak seller. Its low price point carried it through its first months, but the fact is, the game’s best scenarios are in the 420-piece version. It’s not so much that the game is flawed, it’s that it models its campaign too well: a slow, painstaking British advance through the jungle. It’s the sort of thing we put in our wargames these days for the sake of completeness and as a historical illustration, not because we intend them to be the centerpiece of the game’s play.

I’ll be glad to see this one burn; while I’ve written a sheaf of content for games like Red Steel, Imperium and America Triumphant, when I even think about Operation Cannibal the burning in my guts that had me hospitalized for much of 2000 and 2001 is back. I should never have green-lighted it for production, and I should have made the decision to cut our losses and spike it on the drive back from Ozzie and Harriet’s. Callie’s good deed went for little gain.

“…models its campaign too well…” is a very good description. After my replay I think the publisher is being a bit harsh in wanting to “see this one burn;” the game mechanics are decent they just need a more exciting topic.


Feature image BoardGameGeek

 

 

Are you Chit’ing me? Making a #wargame solo-friendly with the Chit-Pull Mechanism thanks to @gmtgames, @compassgamesllc, & @RBMStudio1

This weekend I took delivery of designer Ted S. Raicer’s newest title, The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018). At the same time, I recently had seen a post somewhere in my wargaming Twitter feed that mentioned that chit-pull games were very solo-friendly. As a wargamer that often plays against my arch-nemesis, “Mr. Solo”, so this got me thinking…

…and it’s true. Chit-pull wargames are a game mechanism that can take a two-player or multi-player wargame and help make it solo-friendly.

Long used in the solitaire gaming world (a great example being Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands, 1982 (White Dog Games, 2017), the chit-pull mechanism is often used by wargame designers to introduce fog-of-war elements* into a game. The chit-pull “randomizer” can also makes non-solitaire wargames more solo-friendly because the game engine guides the player as to what happens next. Now, don’t take my thinking too far; just because a wargame uses chit-pull does not automatically mean it is solo-friendly, just that it is more likely to be. The interaction of other mechanics might make it impossible to play a game solo. That said, chit-pull could be a good indication that you can play the game against your evil twin alter-ego!

I asked myself why I was so slow to realize the advantages of chit-pull. Looking back in my collection, I actually have several Avalanche Press Chitpull Series games; MacArthur’s Return: Leyte 1944 (1994) and Operational Cannibal (1996). I also have Richard Berg’s Battle for North Africa: War in the Desert 1940-42 (GMT Games, 1996). In my game collection, two of these titles, Cannibal and North Africa, are amongst the lowest-rated games (bottom 15%). On BoardGameGeek, Operation Cannibal has a horrible GeekRating of 4.9. In the case of North Africa, rules issues and missing activation markers(!) made the game hard to play out of the box. I think that subconsciously, even after all these years, I had a bias against chit-pull wargames because I had played a few turkeys.

My anti chit-pull bias is now gone. In 2018 I got purchased four wargames that feature the chit-pull activation mechanic, Battle Hymn Vol 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (Compass Games), Battle of Issy 1815, A Jours de Gloire Series Game (RBM Studio)Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games), and the aforementioned Dark Sands. In each, the draw of activation chits is used to randomize the activation of units or, in the case of Cataclysm, to conduct national actions. In each the chit-pull mechanism and the fog-of-war element is what makes the games fun and each turn unpredictable.

Chit-pull; it’s a wargamers friend – especially when there is no friend around to play against.


* According to the BoardGameGeek Wiki, The Chit-Pull System is defined as: “Used in war games to address the problem of simulating simultaneous action on the battlefield and issues of command and control. In such a system the current player randomly draws a chit or counter identifying a group of units which may now be moved. Schemes include moving any units commanded by a particular leader, moving units of a particular quality or activating units not for movement but for fighting. This mechanism is often associated with designer Joseph Miranda who has used it in many of his games.”