#Wargame Wednesday – Bonding clearly with stress free shifts determined to breakthrough narratives in Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June-December 1942 (@gmtgames, 2019)

This past week I played Stalingrad ’42: Southern Russia, June- December 1942 as my Game of the Week. Stalingrad ’42 is a wargame designed by Mark Simonitch and published by GMT Games in 2019. It is part of Mark’s ZoC Bond Series of wargames, named in part to their unique version of Zone of Control (ZoC) rules so often used in wargames. Due to time challenges I was only able to play the eight-turn, one month Fall Blau scenario. Along the way I discovered much more about Mark’s ZoC Bond system and wargame narratives.

Bond, ZoC Bond

The unique game mechanism in Stalingrad ’42 is the ZoC Bond. In addition to the classic ZoC (all six hexes surrounding a Combat Unit) that has the usual game effects of affecting movement, those same Combat Units can also form ZoC Bonds:

7.1 How to form a ZOC Bond

Any Combat Unit in Good Order can form a ZOC Bond….When two such units (or stacks) are two hexes apart (with one vacant intervening hex) they create a bond between them that no enemy unit may enter or cross. Due to the pattern of a hex grid there are two types of ZOC Bonds—Hex Bonds and Hexside Bonds.

Stalingrad ’42, Rules of Play

ZoC Bonds have tremendous game effects in Stalingrad ’42. Units may not enter or cross a bond during movement, if forced to retreat across a bond the unit is eliminated, attacking units cannot Advance After Combat across a bond, nor can supply ever be traced into or across a bond. Thus, it is important for both players to pay close attention to where bonds exist, or don’t, and plan accordingly.

Weather, or Not

Like one would expect in a game on the Russian front, weather can have a huge impact on movement in Stalingrad ’42. However, the rules specify that the weather is automatically Clear on Turn 1-16 (late June through late August) (see rule 3.0 A. Weather Phase). This means that Minor Rivers can be crossed at no extra cost. In turn, this means that in the Fall Blau scenario Major Rivers are the primary obstacles to movement.

Interestingly, in Stalingrad ’42 all Minor River Hexsides don’t cost extra movement to cross (unless Rain) but they ALWAYS double a defender’s Defense Factors. Minor River Hexsides also halve an attackers Attack Factors if all the attackers are attacking across a Minor River Hexside while also not allowing a Tank Shift (see below).

20-40 EZ

I was surprised to see Stalingrad ’42 impose a limit of 20 Defense Factors or 40 Attack Factors in a given combat (see 8.5 Maximum Attack and Defense Factors). The designer admits in the “Design Notes” within the Play Book that, “This will be the most controversial part of the design.” Mark goes on to explain:

Some players don’t like caps, but I find them very helpful for stress-free gaming. I don’t like it when players (or myself) spend an extensive amount of time trying to find those extra few factors to increase the odds by one more column. It’s not what wargaming should be about. And there is more comfort in knowing that 7 factors in a hex will guarantee that your opponent cannot get 10-1 odds against it, and placing two 3-5-3 rifle divisions in a Stalingrad city hex is enough to prevent the Axis player getting 5-1 odds against it.

Play Book, “Design Notes,” p. 17-18

Yes, it’s controversial in my mind. Maybe Mark and I have very different definitions of “stress?” Personally, I see the hunting around for a few extra factors not stress, but a part of the game. I would argue that not imposing a limit actually encourages one to pay more careful attention to movement and organization of your force as it moves into combat. Many times I enjoy the “analysis paralysis” in a wargame, more so when its coming from an opponent who is struggling against your plan.

Tanks for the Shift

One of the most powerful combat modifiers in Stalingrad ’42 is the Tank Shift (see rule 9.2 Tank Shifts). If one or more “black dot” Tank Units participate in a combat, the owner shifts an entire column on the Combat Results Table (CRT). Elite Tank Units (“red dot”) get a 2-column shift! There are a few exceptions to the rule, but generally the game effect of this rule is that tanks act much like they historically did by bolstering the offense or defense simply by their presence. I like it!

Mark tells us that in playtesting Stalingrad ’42 the German mechanized units were too weak to reach Stalingrad. Adding extra combat strength made them too strong in cities and mountains. So instead, “I gave them an additional tank shift (the red dot)” (Play Book, p. 17). I am happy to see a simple solution to what appears was thorny problem to Mark.

Determined Defense

One of my favorite rules in Holland ’44, and found again here in Stalingrad ’42, is Determined Defense. This rule allows defenders an attempt to cancel retreat results. In Stalingrad ’42, rule 11.1.2 Not One Step Back! goes hand-in-hand with Determined Defense. This simple bit of flavor helps create a narratively dramatic first few turns as only Soviet NKVD units have access to a Determined Defense in the Fall Blau scenario (at least until Turn 8).

My Breakthrough Breakthrough

Earlier this year when playing Heights of Courage (MultiMan Publishing, 20XX), I talked about Overrun Combat and how it took me a while to truly understand the implications of even that “basic” rule. The Stalingrad ’42 counterpart to that learning experience is rule 15.0 Breakthrough Combat. This rule builds upon rule 14.0 Advance After Combat but with a twist:

Any Regular Combat that achieves an Advance After Combat of 2-4 hexes allows units that participated in that attack to conduct Breakthrough Combat. Breakthrough Combat allows units to attack during their Advance After Combat.

15.1 [Breakthrough Combat] In General

Much like Overrun and Exploitation Combat in Multi-Man Publishing’s Standard Combat Series, in Stalingrad ’42 the rules for 12.0 Retreats, 14.0 Advance After Combat, and 15.0 Breakthrough Combat combine to create a powerful effect that deliver a very “blitzkrieg” feeling in play. Indeed, in a scenario like Fall Blau where the German player has little time (8 turns) to try and grab 8 Victory Points there is great “motivation” to not slowly grind against a defense but to find a weak point, breakthrough, and rapidly exploit the opening. On the other side, the Soviet player needs to cut off those racing German units and counterattacking by striking deep at supply lines is a viable strategy as opposed to a straight-up fight.

Bring a Mask?

I want to also call out a rule found in the Campaign Game, for Stalingrad ’42—rule 34.0 Maskirovka. This rule allows the Soviet player to secretly place Reserve Armies arriving on Turn 21 of the 36-turn Campaign Game. This rule is obviously not usable in a two-handed solo game, but when playing a live opponent the implications are huge in exchange for limited rules overhead.

Fall Blau – The Narrative

I was able to play the Fall Blau scenario for Stalingrad ’42 as part of my Game of the Week series. Fall Blau is the first scenario covering eight turns and using only Map A (roughly Voronehz to Rostov). To win, the Axis player must have at least 8 VP in any Victory Determination Phase. The Soviets win if the Axis player fails.

As much as I was looking for a quick blitzkrieg, the reality of terrain, especially the Minor River Hexsides and Fortified Hexes, made movement and combat on the first turns slower than I expected. I also thought the Special Rule limiting Axis Combat Units to Tactical Movement (2 hexes) only would have a slowing effect but given so many units “start in contact” the impact was less than I expected.

What actually surprised me the most about my play of Stalingrad ’42 was the seeming lack of combat. I first noticed this in the Example of Play in the Play Book but thought that was an artificial by-product of the need to build and EoP and not a true reflection of the game. As I played, I found that although the front was long and many units were present, on each turn there seemed to be focus areas with relatively few units in action on both sides. At first I thought, “Hey, this is hardly an offensive with all these little raids going on.” As the game progressed more units were gradually sucked into battles but, on the whole, it still felt like the actual number of units fighting was small. This didn’t feel like a Russia Campaign game to me at all.

Feeling like the game was becoming boring, I started to think about the narrative that Stalingrad ’42 was delivering. I kept playing and thinking and, gradually, came to realize that my expectation of this wargame was incorrect. I went into playing Stalingrad ’42 and the Fall Blau scenario expecting a sweeping grand offensive with Panzers advancing from North to South across the steppes of Mother Russia. Instead I had a few units fighting, and many more just sitting there. It was then I realized that the narrative Stalingrad ’42 delivers is focused much differently than I expected. At this scale (Brigades, 10 miles per hex, 4-day turns) the fighting depicted in Stalingrad ’42 is not ALL the fighting, just the “most important.” I had to tell myself that although two units may be facing off against each other and no dice are rolled, that doesn’t mean they are “doing nothing.”

Once I made the mental shift that Stalingrad ’42 was showing me the “critical” parts of the battle the entire game sped up in my mind. Whereas before I felt that the game was ponderous and slow with little action, the simple shift in my mental attitude led to a dramatic shift in my enjoyment of the game. Instead of focusing on the “do-nothings” I focused instead on the “action.” The game immediately became much more interesting.

It was at this point the major game mechanics also snapped together into a story. Visualizing the ZoC Bonds became essential in planning both offensive and defensive actions. Rivers became “phase lines” or “defensive lines.” Instead of hunting around for all the combat power possible it became sufficient to get “just enough” to make the effort. Mechanized units with their Tank Shifts became vital on offense or defense, and it became a real game to decide when a Determined Defense was needed or when it was time to turn that Advance After Combat into a Breakthrough. Through the lens of these decisions, a narrative of the battle emerged in play.

Such is the power of narratives in wargames. The story a wargame tells in actually very important to my enjoyment of the game. Too often I feel I get caught up in the mechanics of a game and lose the story. That’s when a game can become too procedural—and boring. This is why I very often personally fail to connect with many Eurogames; the prioritization of game mechanics over theme often means to me that I execute game mechanics but with no motivation beyond optimizing a game engine. I place my workers there to collect something I need, not to raid the enemy. It makes the game boring to me because I start to feel like I’m solving a puzzle, not playing a strategy.

On the whole, I think wargames get shortchanged when it comes to narrative. I mean, many people expect a wargame to tell a story, but so often that story is just an alternate retelling of history. What I think many people miss is a possible narrative about not only how history can change, but why. Not every wargame can do this, but I think more can then we give credit to.

Stalingrad ’42 taught me that putting Panzers on the wide open steppes of Russia and letting them run was not as simple as it sounds. Although the Eastern Front was long and many units fought there, it really was action in key areas with a rather select set of units that made the difference.

I really need to get the other scenarios of Stalingrad ’42 to the table. Problem is it never happens soon enough.

Solo #Wargame Hunting in Coronatine – Conflict of Heroes: Eastern Front Solo Expansion (@Academy_Games, 2015)

IF YOU FOLLOW MY BLOG AND TWITTER THIS WEEK you can see that I am on something of a Conflict of Heroes streak. Having played two scenarios from Storms of Steel 3rd Edition and Price of Honour (again using 3rd Edition rules) it was time to pull out the Eastern Front Solo Expansion (Academy Games, 2015). This expansion is designed for use with Awakening the Bear 2nd Edition and (technically) Storms of Steel 1st Edition.

AwakeningTheBearSoloExpansion
Courtesy Academy Games

Unlike many other solo wargame systems, The Solo Expansion using a series of cards for the enemy AI. Academy Games describes the Athena AI this way:

A player will be able to play Awakening the Bear against a highly reactive game AI. This AI is based on the most modern Emergent Behavior and Agent Based Logic programming systems. AI units are not individually programmed like in past solo games. Instead, each situation is evaluated and the best course of action using available AI resources and unit assets is implemented. This is a radical and groundbreaking implementation of advanced computer programming by Academy Games for their Conflict of Heroes series. Players will be surprised by the AI strategy and actions that emerge as a result of the player’s own battle tactics. This may force even veteran players to hone and adapt their own playing styles in order to overcome the AI.

The Athena AI cards determine the passage of time in a scenario and then present a series of Priority and Tactical Orders. On the AI turn, the solo player draws a card, moves time if appropriate, then works down the list of orders finding the first one that can be executed and does so. If necessary, another card is drawn for the necessary Spent Check of the AI unit acting. On the players turn, the cards are used for a Spent Check at the end of an Action to see if the unit remains Fresh.

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(Sleeved cards appear more faded then they are live)

Although very simple in concept, the orders on the Athena AI cards sometime require careful consideration. If one plays this game irregularly then this constant relearning curve may slow play. Personally, I found the examples in the rule book most helpful and after a few slow cards the terminology ‘clicked’ and play proceeded rapidly.

Playing with the Athena AI makes for a very different Conflict of Heroes experience. For my game I played ‘Solo Mission 3 – Hunting Chernov” where I led elements of the German 4th Panzer Division against the Soviet 141st Reinforced Tank Brigade on October 1, 1941. This is a large CoH scenario using four maps. Scattered across the map are 21 wrecks from the Wrecks & Destruction expansion and 16 Rumored Enemy. Those Rumored Enemy (RE) is what makes the solo game so fun; as the solo player you see the RE on the board. They move and maybe even attack. When they do attack (or are attacked) they can be revealed (real piece drawn from the Rumored Enemy Cup).

The “Hunting Chernov” scenario also adds a nice element of personalization. One of the Soviet KV1 tanks represents the Soviet Commander. Not only does is this tank worth more Victory Points – and an auto scenario end condition if destroyed – it also directly changes the AI. Once Chernov is revealed, the scenario directs the player to remove Order Cards 1-12 (of 1-43) and replace them with Order Cards 44-55. The result is a more aggressive Soviet AI!

In my game, the Soviet AI got the best of my forces. It didn’t really help that some of the first RE revealed turned out to be both KV1s and a T-35. The heavier, and now more aggressive, Soviet tanks made short work of the best German tanks, a Panzer III Ausf.E and Panzer 38t. The T-35 was lost but the remaining pair of short-barrel Panzer IV Ausf.E and trio of Panzer II Ausf.F couldn’t carry the fight.

Many people rave about the ‘Bots in the GMT Games COIN series of games. Personally, I find them interesting if not a bit boring. In play they feel too logical. I don’t have this same feeling with the Athena AI. Although one must logically work through an Orders Card, the resultant action feels more naturally emergent rather than simply logical. This creates a very challenging game. That may be the Athena AI’s greatest achievement; creating a logical game system that delivers a dynamic input to the game state.

Using The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany, Vol. 1 by John Erickson to enlighten The Dark Valley: The East Front Campaign, 1941-45, Deluxe Ed. (@GMTGames, 2018)

HAVING RECENTLY PLAYED Pavlov’s House: The Battle of Stalingrad (Dan Verssen Games, 2018) I pledged to learn more about the Eastern Front in World War II. Although I have long studied and played wargames about WWII, I previously focused on various naval campaigns, tactical armored combat, air warfare, and the Western and African fronts. Before playing Pavlov’s House, the closest I really got to getting ‘into’ the Eastern Front was playing Panzer 1st Ed (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979), Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear, 1941 – Operation Barbarossa 2nd Ed. (Academy Games, 2012), Panzer 2nd Ed. (GMT Games, 2012), and Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel – Kursk 1943 3rd Ed. (Academy Games, 2019). I had dabbled in the naval conflict using the Baltic Arena scenario book for Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 20XX) and in the air war using the campaign game found in Wing Leader: Blitz, 1939-1942 (Wing Leader Expansion Nr 1) (GMT Games, 2018). What I have not done in the past is look at the Eastern Front at a theater or campaign perspective.

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Courtesy goodreads.com

The first step in my ‘education’ was to look at my bookshelf. I discovered that, like my wargame collection, my book selection was also lacking in a similar manner. Looking to rectify the situation, I payed a visit to McKay’s Used Books (Manassas, VA). I was very fortunate to find a classic of military history, The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany, Vol. 1 by John Erickson in paperback for less than $3. The book is a bit dated (original copyright 1975) but my version was printed in 1999 and includes an updated preface dated 1993. I see many comments that this telling of history, from the Soviet perspective, has not changed much even in the past 20 years. For myself, it is a good first ‘deep read’ into the Eastern Front. However, it is not without some issues. The foremost issue that I have with the book is a lack of maps. Maybe it’s the wargamer in me but I really need to see the battlefield. In the case of The Road to Stalingrad I have only a minimal familiarity with the geography meaning if I am to make any real sense out of narrative I must have a map!

 

Now, I could easily go online and find a map, but I am a wargamer and in 2019 I acquired Ted Raicer’s The Dark Valley: The East Front Campaign, 1941-45 Deluxe Ed. (GMT Games, 2018). The game uses two 22″x34″ maps to depict the Eastern Front. So, I laid out the map to ‘follow along’ with my reading. As is usual, one thing led to another.

Book I in The Road to Stalingrad is “On Preparedness: Military and Political Developments, Spring 1941.” This ‘book’ covers the Soviet preparations from 1940 to the start of Operation Barbarossa. As I read the book and was locating place names on the map I also found different units referenced. At this point it made sense to grab the unit counter and place it on the board just ‘to get an idea’ of what was where. When I reached the end of Book I the mapboard looked much like the set-up for Scenario 17.1 – Operation Barbarossa. Not exactly, but close.

Close enough that I can play. Hmm….

Book II of the Road to Stalingrad is “Halting the Blitzkrieg, 22 June 1941 – 19 November 1942.” This corresponds nicely to the Operation Barbarossa and Fall Blau scenarios of The Dark Valley, covering Game Turns 1-17. My intention at this point is to read a chapter in the book then play the corresponding turns of the wargame. Roughly speaking, each chapter is one or two (usually 2) game turns. At least, I’ll start out this way because I know that my game will diverge from history. I think it will be an interesting experiment and I wonder how much I am ‘contaminating’ the experiment by ‘reading ahead.’ Will reading ahead help to avoid the mistakes of history, or will the same situations happen because they were inevitable?

I aim to find out.


Feature image courtesy GMT Games

 

 

Looking at the operational #wargame of Pavlov’s House: The Battle of Stalingrad (@danverssengames, 2018)

The second game in my 2020 RockyMountainNavy Solo Boardgame Challenge is Pavlov’s House (Dan Verssen Games, 2018, Second Edition 2019). While playing the game for my challenge I was struck by elements of play that actually teach the operational art of war. While it is easy to look at Pavlov’s House as simply a tactical battle to defend a building, the operational aspects of the game teach the lesson that defending even a single house takes an entire army.

The Game Board in Pavlov’s House consists of three zones, each one depicting a different view of the battlefield. You have the super-tactical Pavlov’s House view of the building interior, the tactical depiction of 9 January Square around the house, and The Volga giving you the operational area picture. Each map has unit symbology on it showing the location of different organizations and echelons of command. More importantly, the actions of these different units are reflected in the Soviet Cards.

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Pavlov’s House setup (courtesy BGG)

The Soviet Cards are the heart of the Soviet Card Phase which are, as the rule book puts it, “the operational-level actions taken by elements of the Soviet 62nd Army during the Battle of Stalingrad that contributed to the successful defense of Pavlov’s House.” In my latest play it finally struck me just how much detail is abstracted into the Soviet Cards and what they really represent:

  • 62nd Army Command Post – Can stage Resupply of materials or order a Storm Group to gain extra VP (representing battlefield success beyond just defending Pavlov’s House)
  • 13th Guards Rifle Division Command Post – This is your supply source for additional troops and weapons (Send Reinforcements)
  • 8th Guards Sapper Battalion – Used to Buttress or add Field Defenses beyond the walls of Pavlov’s House
  • 139th Signal Battalion – Can add to your command options by using Tactical Decision to rid your hand of a Fog of War Card or give you an extra action through Improved Communications
  • 32nd Guards Artillery Regiment – Your artillery support (Ready Artillery)
  • 267th Separate Anti-Aircraft Battalion / 1083rd Anti-Aircraft Regiment – Both these units can Ready Anti-aircraft to defend all the units supporting Pavlov’s House defenders from the Luftwaffe Bomb Stalingrad
  • Volga Military Flotilla – Arguably the most important supporting unit as this organization literally has to Load and Deliver Supplies to Pavlov’s House; without the Flotilla absolutely no defense is possible.

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Wehrmacht and Soviet Cards (via BGG)

Once players are familiar with the play of Pavlov’s House I strongly recommend the introduction of variant 7.1 Operational Support Cards. This adds the Operational Support action for the 62nd Army Command Post. The Operational Support actions represent other key battleground activities around Stalingrad that, if successfully accomplished, gain Soviet VP but at the cost of leaving the defenders of Pavlov’s House more vulnerable as limited resources are spent elsewhere. This simple, abstracted game mechanic very clearly illustrates that Pavlov’s House was part of a larger battle and sometimes higher HQ has different priorities. For the player, it boils down to what can be an agonizing risk versus gain decision.

The operational-level elements of Pavlov’s House, implemented using simple, abstracted game mechanics in the Soviet Cards, form a major part of the game and arguably are the decisions of most importance. Although it is easy to focus on the tactical battle by the defenders, the Soviet Cards and their associated actions remind you that before you can fight you need not only soldiers but beans and bullets too. The defenders of  Pavlov’s House, the 7th Rifle Company and 3rd Machine Gun Company of the 3rd Rifle Battalion, 42nd Guards Rifle Regiment, 13th Guards Division, 62nd Army were but the tip of the spear supported by numerous other 62nd Army elements. Victory in Pavlov’s House only comes when all that support is coordinated in the most efficient manner.


In the course of doing some reading for this post I picked up a book on my shelf, Looking Down on War: Intelligence Images From the Eastern Front by Colonel Roy M. Stanley II, USAF (Ret.) (Pen & Sword Aviation, 2016). Colonel Stanley worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and came across a stash of images the Allies seized at the end of World War II from the Luftwaffe. These aerial images of the war are fascinating. In his book, Chapter VII is devoted to Stalingrad. When I compared several images to the map, I was struck by how the maps accurately portray the location yet fail to capture the utter destruction of the battle.

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Pavlov’s House & 9 January Square. View rotated so ‘up’ is roughly North

 

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The tactical map in Pavlov’s House is a fairly accurate portrayal of the location. However, I think it captures the house near the beginning of the battle because, as you can see, by the end of August the entire area was actually quite desolate with few structures intact.

The Operational Map in Pavlov’s House is fairly accurate, except again for some infrastructure. For instance, the railway clearly depicted on the map is actually in much worse shape by August.

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Pavlov’s House Operational Map

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Feature image courtesy Dan Verssen Games

 

After #SpringBreak Di$ney it’s time to get back to #wargames

I have not played a wargame or boardgame in over a week now. Not because I have stopped playing; instead I have been off playing with the RockyMountainNavy Family at DisneyWorld. Now fully recharged I am ready to get back to the gaming table!

ZQXOtLiRS4yH9j7lKgkrigBefore Spring Break, I had several opportunities to play @HBuchanan2‘s Campaigns of 1777. These days I am becoming a sucker for the chit-pull mechanic in games as they make the game very solo-friendly even without a dedicated solitaire version. I am also a sucker for wargames the American Revolution era. After driving from Virginia to Florida and passing by several Revolutionary War sites, I really hope he goes ahead with southern campaign version too!

sru0+D2iRSaTaHyp5osoWwAround the same time Campaigns of 1777 arrived I also too delivery of my GMT Games P500 order of @tdraicer‘s The Dark Valley Deluxe Edition. This is in many ways a modern monster game covering the complete Eastern Front campaign in World War II. I bought into the game based (once again) on the chit-pull mechanism that I enjoyed in the previous Ted Racier/GMT Games title, The Dark Sands. I have to admit that I want to get this one to the table soon; as I was inspecting the game and had the board laid out Youngest RMN and I started looking at the geography and talking in general terms about Operation Barbarossa and Eastern Front. Historically I have avoided anything above tactical-level games about the Eastern Front; looking to change that with The Dark Valley!

Y0BIfKqBQvWvDsPxZeosHgFinally, on the day before we travelled, a relatively new publisher, Canvas Temple Publishing, delivered their Kickstarter for WW2 Deluxe. This is supposed to be a game where one can play the European Theater (or Western Front) in World War II in an evening. First pass through the rulebook and components looks promising!

We actually took a few boardgames with us on vacation but were lucky and had not bad weather days so the games remained unplayed. The RMN Boys did play a few games of Ticket to Ride or Battlelore or 1775: Rebellion on the iPad but I didn’t get to play (something about driving and playing at the same time just doesn’t work!). We had considered taking Villainous with us but thought that would be too much Disney. So, with vacation behind me and now emotionally recharged, it’s time to get back to wargaming and boardgaming.