Long ago, in a beautiful Eastern kingdom, a queen and her people pleased their Gods by building a mystical pagoda. The pagoda housed the four Gods and towered strong over the magnificent kingdom. As time passed, the queen fell ill and she summoned her people to compete for her crown. The crown would be passed on to the person who could build the most pristine garden around the pagoda. The heir would be chosen by the four Gods themselves.
Introduction, Four Gardens, Korea Board Games, 2020
Three contestants came forward, the first was the village elder who had much experience. The second was a son who was renowned for his ability to see patterns in the wilderness. The third was the youngest but had fought in many battles often emerging victorious.
The contest started slowly as the three worked to learn the rules of the Gods. It’s not that the rules were difficult, for they were not, but the mystical pagoda that they could manipulate to appeal to the Gods for materials to build their gardens was an always-moving puzzle that took time to consider.
The elder was the first to complete a panorama, but the youngest warrior quickly followed. As the contestants mastered the simple rules of the contest they started building faster. The elder almost won, but a small mistake stopped him short of victory. The second son noticed the patterns and announced the warrior was going to win. Sure enough, the battle soon ended. As the Gods judged the contest, the second son and warrior were surprised to discover that the Gods favored them equally. It fell to counting who had the most panoramas, and here the warrior was ahead, and thus he emerged victorious yet again.
The three held council and discussed their contest. All three agreed the Gods had favored them all with such a beautiful Pagoda and a simple contest that created such beautiful Gardens. They agreed that this Four Gardens contest was worthy of repeated attempts, vowing to compete again and further to share the contest with others.
So went our first play of Four Gardens (Korea Board Games, 2020). Our copy arrived courtesy of my favorite niece in Korea for the game is not yet available in the US. I was drawn to the game for several reasons, amongst them the fact it is published in Korea and it has a beautiful table presence thanks the the four-story, rotating pagoda. The game includes instructions in both Korean and English so there is no language barrier!
From the moment you look at the box of Four Gardens, you know that this is a game of beautiful components. From the incredible box cover to the pagoda to the two-sided cards with watercolor landscapes to nice little wooden resources, this is a game that will look beautiful on any game table.
In Four Gardens, players work to convert cards from Groundwork into Landscapes. These Landscapes in turn build Panoramas to score points. Each turn, players can take three Actions. They can play a card Groundwork side up from their hand to their Garden (tableau). Some cards can be discarded from their hand to Take a Wild resource and play it to their Planning Tile (storage) or directly onto a Groundwork card. The players can also discard a Handcart to Reallocate Resources, moving their resources from the Planning Tile to a Groundwork card. Finally, they can discard a card to Rotate & Collect which rotates a floor of the pagoda after which they collect resources as directed. When all the necessary resources on a Groundwork card are collected, the resources are returned to the supply and the card turned Landscape side up to become part of a Panorama, scoring points for the player. The first player to complete a number of Landscapes based on the number of players triggers the end game after which points are totaled. Highest score is the winner!
With few exceptions, the paragraph above pretty much covers all the basic rules of Four Gardens. The game rules are dead simple. The challenge is in determining what order to play your cards and collecting and moving resources.
The pagoda in Four Gardens itself creates a nice spatial puzzle. Each of the four floors is one resource and the sides are 0-1-2-3 of each. When players Rotate & Collect, the card tells the player which level can be rotated 90 degrees either way and then which order (top to bottom or bottom to top) resources are collected. At first figuring out what was happening when the pagoda moved was a challenge, but very quickly we figured out how it all works. By the end of the game I was actually able to visualize the movement of the pagoda and there was much less analysis paralysis. Our first game took about 90 minutes, double the game box play time, but we all agree that future games will go quicker because we now understand the core mechanics.
Game nights in the RockyMountainNavy household tend to run to wargames or strategy games with lots of conflict. Four Gardens is a welcome change from our norm, in no small part because it just looks so dang beautiful on the table. The pagoda rightly serves as the centerpiece of the game and the puzzle it delivers is challenging but not overbearing. The fact that the pagoda can be stacked differently each game means every game will be different, if for no other reason than the shuffle of the cards and the different stack of the pagoda.
I am very pleased that Four Gardens has joined the RockyMountainNavy game collection. It is an excellent family game with beautiful components and relatively simple game play. I wouldn’t use it as a gateway boardgames, but it certainly can be the “next step” amongst family and friends who want to step up from something like Catan or Ticket to Ride. I am confident that Four Gardens will make many more appearances during out Saturday Family Game Nights.
My relationship to the Star Wars franchise is complicated these days. On one hand I came-of-age with the original trilogy of Star Wars movies, and on the other hand came to hate what the franchise turned into after the first three movies. This complicated relationship tends to carry over into any gaming that involves the franchise; I like games that I can relate to the original trilogy but others I tend to sour on. Thus, Star Wars: Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016) should be solidly in my wheelhouse…and it is. Being a few years old and based on a very popular IP, plenty has been said about the game. Even so, it is actually new to me this month. Here is my attempt at a reluctant Star Wars fanboy look at the game.
What is Star Wars: Rebellion?
Star Wars: Rebellion is two games in one. In one game, the Galactic Empire player must track down and destroy the Rebel Alliance by finding and destroying its secret base. This is accomplished through area control and intelligence. At the same time, the Imperial player builds a massive military to control the various systems, even developing and deploying superweapons like the Death Star. The Rebel Alliance player must play a cat & mouse(droid?) game to keep their Reputation ahead of time. If the Game Turn Marker ever reaches the Reputation Marker the game ends – and only if the Secret Rebel Base has not been found the Rebel Alliance wins.
Making a Rebellion
On one level, Star Wars: Rebellion is a super Axis & Allies-type of game. Both sides manage an economy to build forces that is financed by different systems they control through Loyalty or Subjugation. But that game, one of fancy weapons and grunt soldiers, is actually secondary to the real game.
The real story in Star Wars: Rebellion, like the original trilogy it is based on, is the actions of Leaders. Both sides have leaders with different abilities who every turn can be sent on Missions to enhance your cause. Every leader has a set of skills and tactical abilities. From Mon Mothma with 1x Logistics, 3x Diplomacy skills but no Tactical Abilities at all to Emperor Palapatine with 2x Intel, 3x Diplomacy skills and Space Tactics 3 / Ground Tactics 2 Tactical Abilities, each Leader is different and brings their unique collection of powers to their cause. Players use their Leaders to execute Missions that can either advance their cause or “complicate” their opponent’s plans. Sometimes, player don’t want to send Leaders on Missions, instead holding them back to use to move forces (Activate a System) or to oppose other Leaders.
It’s a Big Galaxy
The interaction of the economy and Leaders in Star Wars: Rebellion is both it’s thematic strength and game play weakness. Thematically it is brilliant; Leaders and forces (including superweapons) move across the board seeding or stamping out rebellion, play whack-a-mole with rebel bases, and try to turn opponents to their side. The Rebel Alliance tries to build Loyalty to their cause amongst planets, while the Empire also builds loyalty, or simply subjugates a planet and rapes its resources. The broad sweep of rebellion, from small beginnings to galaxy-wide, can be played out on the board.
The broad sweep of rebellion is also the weakness of Star Wars: Rebellion. Players initially start out with only a few planets and Leaders. The few forces and Leaders can only do so much. The game starts out manageable, but like a real rebellion as it grows chaos imposes itself on the system. In this case, more planets leads to more economy leading to more units and planning. More Leaders leads to potentially many more missions or activated systems. It is quite easy to reach game turn 10 and have eight (or more) Leaders and five building cycles of forces on the board. At this point the time required for each turn becomes long as players have many more factors to account for in the Assignment Phase (alternating assignment of Leaders), more interactions in the Command Phase (execute Missions or Activating Systems opposed by Leaders or fighting combat as necessary) and a Refresh Phase that adds even more forces. At this point Star Wars: Rebellion becomes less Saturday Morning Serial and more Tom Clancy at his worst – too many viewpoint characters and too many gadgets.
The physical size of the game is also good/bad. One can never accuse Fantasy Flight Games of not making a good-looking game. Beyond the obvious access to the IP for artwork, the game really looks like Star Wars. Nowhere is this more evident than the ‘toy factor.” The small (and I do mean small) figures for forces are really nice. One part this is not small is the game footprint. In keeping with a game that covers a galaxy far, far away the need closer to home is a large gaming table. The game can be played on a 3’x5’ table but its a really tight squeeze if you do it. This is a game that demands the dining room table for longer hours.
There’s No “I” in Team – But There are Officers
In the RockyMountainNavy household we occasionally struggle on game night to find a title that works with three players – our usual player count. Star Wars: Rebellion has rules for a Team Game that can handle up to four players. In the Team Game each side is divided into two “commands;” the Admiral and the General. Both commands operate as a separate player following the usual Assign/Command/Refresh sequence of play but each also has different responsibilities in play. The Admiral handles recruiting, space battles, and building and deploying units. The General controls the hand of Mission Cards and has final say on assignment of Leaders to Missions. The General also fights ground battles and handles the Probes searching for the Secret Rebel Base. For the Rebel Alliance the General also handles the Objective Cards to keep the Alliance Reputation ahead of the Empire.
The Team Game is a nice split of duties, but it also adds more time to the game as decisions are now divided amongst players who must collaborate (or not). I do like the Communication rule which allows players on the same side to share information, but it must all be done in the presence of their opponents. It can be done in code or whispers, but they cannot leave the room!
Rebellion: A Star Wars Story
In the end, I have to admit that the tightly woven theme of Star Wars: Rebellion executed with this collection of game mechanics (as ponderous as they can become) actually works. Playing a game of Star Wars: Rebellion is like writing our own Star Wars saga. In one early game, Princess Leia led a mission to Incite Rebellion in a subjugated system. Grand Moff Tarkin moved to oppose her and defeated the uprising. At this point Darth Vader swept in to try and Capture Rebel Operative. Although the dice off was 4x Empire versus 2x Rebel dice, Princess Leia succeeded in avoiding capture. These dramatic moments make every game of Star Wars: Rebellion a unique story.
If only the pace of the plot moved along a bit quicker.
Worker placement games are really not my thing. The Advanced Search function in BoardGameGeek tells me I only own two these days; Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 2017) and One Small Step (Academy Games, 2020). A while back I owned Raiders of the North Sea (Garphill Games, 2015) but traded it away because it felt like “COO of the North Sea.” So why even back the game?
One big reason: I trust Gunter and Uwe Eickert of Academy Games. The good news is that One Small Step didn’t let me down. Indeed, it may just be the giant leap I needed to jump into more worker placement games.
This is how the publisher describes One Small Step:
Command the United States or Soviet Union Space Agency in this engine building, worker placement Eurogame for 2 to 4 players.
Place two kinds of workers – Engineers and Administrators – to gather resources, draft cards, and launch unmanned and manned missions all in an effort to be the first to achieve a Moon landing!!
Coordinate your actions with your teammate in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks. Gain upgrades to your space program, but be aware that your rival may also gain those same upgrades with every success you achieve.
Blast into space and have fun learning about the development of the United States space program. One Small Step as also perfect for a US History curriculum at home or in the classroom.
Mercury – A Quick Race
I feel that One Small Step is a medium-light Eurogame. Most important to the RockyMountainNavy home, the game can be played in two hours or less; making it perfect for our Saturday Night Family Game Night. It’s not that the game is too short; it really is a race. The first team to move six Moon Path Spaces wins. Six moves! The game forces you to take risks to stay ahead of your opponent. You know, like the real Space Race!
Gemini – Team Worker Placement
I already mentioned that we are not really into worker placement games. One Small Step challenges our prejudices in a very good way by delivering a different kind of worker placement game – team worker placement. The team aspect is very important to the RMN home because we usually play three-players on Saturday Nights. In One Small Step there are two teams each with an Administrator and an Engineer. A side can be played by one – or two – players. Workers placed on an Earth Space or a Card Draft space each use the space differently (and sometimes they can’t use the space at all). At first I was worried that the game would exacerbate the Alpha Gamer problem but with players that understand the social contract of the game it really proves to be no problem. Indeed, looking at one player trying to play both workers can be entertaining as they try to use both in the best possible way but always seem to come up short with too much to do. Two players, on the other hand, allows each player to concentrate (and negotiate with their partner) to optimize their move.
Apollo – System Engine(ering) Your Way to the Moon
Much like the Apollo missions, One Small Step is uses game mechanics that build upon one another. In addition to the worker placement where Administrators and Engineers use the Earth Spaces and Card Draft spaces differently, the Event Cards themselves have many different uses. When in the Card Draft space they become another area for your worker to, uh, work. When in your hand you use them as a Development Card to gain a bonus. Certain cards are Personnel Cards reflecting those special individuals that make an outsized contribution to your agency. The multi-use cards make every card worthwhile; it can be frustrating seeing a Development Card you need in the Card Draft area where you can use only the action space.
The Event Cards are not the only cards in One Small Step. I really enjoyed reading the history of each Satellite and Crewed Mission card. More practically, I also was impressed by how the designers related the history of the cards to the resources needed to complete the mission. The same can be said about the Hazard and Advancement Cards – they each just make sense and fit the thematic narrative of the game.
I said before that the first to the Moon wins in One Small Step. That’s not strictly true; the first to the Moon triggers the end of the game. Victory in One Small Step is scored in Victory Points that one gains in many different ways. While focusing on VP seems easy, the truth is that the Media is probably the most important track in the game. The Media Track determines initiative; a higher Media Track means that agency moves first in the different Phases. But one cannot stay at the top forever. Eventually an agency gets too high on the Media Track and has to take a Media Bonus that 1) awards a one-time bonus but 2) reduces the agency’s position on the track. It’s a simple mechanic that accentuates another great thematic element of the game.
Sputnik – Seeing Red
While learning One Small Step is not that difficult, one challenge that must be conquered early on is interpreting the extensive symbology of the game. At first I was overwhelmed; indeed I think Gunter and Uwe knew this could be a challenge since they included two Summary Sheets in the game and the back of the rule book is a Symbol Reference. Early plays can come to a crawl as players struggle to understand the symbology and then decide if the action/event serves them well. That said, the symbology in the game does have a certain logic to it and once you catch onto the basics of the “language” it becomes surprisingly rich in the information communicated.
A major part of the Deluxe version of One Small Step is the many plastic miniatures. Honestly, they don’t do anything for me. The wooden worker meeples, chits, and cubes look perfectly fine on the table. I actually think the simpler approach of chits and cubes makes the game more understandable as too many little “gadgets” get too fiddly on the board.
“We choose to go the moon….”
One Small Step has earned itself a spot in the Saturday Night Family Game Night rotation. It is in many ways a perfect game for that occasion; it plays fast enough for three or four players, it is fairly easy to learn and teach, and it teaches history (an important point that Mrs. RMN likes to see when a game lands on the table). We have not tried the Mission Command or Hidden Figures expansions yet. I’m sure they will add interesting elements to the game without needlessly complicating the mechanics.
It’s true; in my house it’s One Small Step for boardgaming, one giant leap for fun!
LIKE MANY HISTORIANS, I FIND THE CAMPAIGNS OF 1777 in the American Revolution fascinating. On one hand you have the great American victory at the Battle of Saratoga, and on the other hand you have American defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown and the loss of the capital, Philadelphia. Philadelphia 1777 (Worthington Publishing, 2020) focuses on the defense of Philadelphia, starting with the British landed at Head of Elk, Maryland and marching forth. Philadelphia 1777 is a low complexity wargame that captures the essence of the campaign that is easy to learn and fun to play while retaining sufficient historical flavor to provide insight into the decisions Generals Washington and Howe faced during this short month-long campaign. Philadelphia 1777 is Volume 4 in the Worthington Publishing Campaigns of the American Revolution Series. This is my first title in the series and my introduction to the rules.
‘Squarely’ a Wargame
Worthington Publishing in one of the leading publishers to use blocks for their wargames, and Philadelphia 1777 is yet the latest in a string of block games. There are four different types of units represented by the blocks; Leaders, Regular Infantry, Artillery, and American Militia Infantry. Like most block games, you must apply the sticker to the blocks before your first play. In the cases of infantry and artillery the blocks are rotated as they absorb hits to ‘count down’ remaining Strength Points (SP).
The square map in Philadelphia 1777 depicts those portions of the mid-Atlantic colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey over which the campaign was fought. The game uses point-to-point movement along roads with points often being those key crossroads or towns that acted as natural stopping points. Rivers and creeks, like Brandywine, are also identified and can become a key factor in movement and battles. The map also has several convenient holding boxes for you larger armies as well as the turn track, Action Point (AP) track, and a Weather track. There is also a separate 8.5″x11″ Battle Board.
Between the simple blocks and somewhat bland map, the table presence of Philadelphia 1777 appears a bit subdued. While the components don’t scream with bling, they are far more than functional; the blocks are wide enough not to easily fall over and the roads and points on the map are easy to see with those rivers and creeks being obvious too. In other words, the components deliver the information they need to and don’t get in the way of play.
History as a Wargame
I was fortunate enough that as Philadelphia 1777 arrived I was reading John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford UP, 2007). Chapter 8 “Choices, 1777” and chapter 10 “‘We Rallied and Broke’ – The Campaign for Philadelphia, September – December 1777” provide excellent background and a short, comprehensive narrative of the campaign as it unfolded. It is quite possible to use Philadelphia 1777 as a sand table to set up and follow the campaign. More importantly, it allows you to play out alternatives.
While Howe had his choice of where to land his British and Hessian force, Philadelphia 1777 starts with the historical landing at Head of Elk, Maryland. America forces are initially arrayed pretty much as they were in late August 1777 with Washington around Pawlett, PA, Sterling around Concord, PA, Greene near Wilmington, DE and Sullivan in Philadelphia. American state militia (ten units) are also present on the map with no more than one per location.
Action Point Action
Like many Worthington Publishing games, in Philadelphia 1777 both sides gain Action Points (AP) every turn to show the friction of war. Every turn (there are 20 in the game) starts with both sides determining how many AP they have. Both start with 2 AP and can gain as many as three more for the turn. Moving a unit requires the expenditure of an AP. Leaders have a group limit rating which is the number of units that can move with that leader. Obviously, with the few AP on hand each turn, Leaders become important to the maneuver of forces across the map.
As already mentioned, Philadelphia 1777 uses a point-to-point map. Movement rules are quite simple with individual Regular Infantry and Artillery possessing one Movement Point (MP) per turn. Individual American Militia Infantry possess 2 MP, and Leaders have MP depending on who they are (usually 1 MP with a few having 2 MP). There is no limit to how many SP of troops can move along a road unless you cross a river when attacking where only 10 SP can cross in a turn. Units crossing a river must also stop at the next location even if they have MP remaining.
Every turn there is a 1 in 6 chance of poor weather. Poor weather reduces movement.
Combat in Philadelphia 1777 is insanely simple. When the active player moves into a location with enemy blocks a mandatory battle occurs. Battles take one of three forms:
Over Run: If three or more attacking units battle in a location with less than three defenders, the battle is an Over Run. All defending units lose 1 SP and must retreat. The attacker can continue movement if they have any remaining.
Skirmish: If the attacker has less than three units, then a Skirmish is fought. Using the Battle Board, all units are placed in the Center battlefield portion. American Militia unit that are forced to flee move to the Reserve but cannot renter the battle (more on flee later).
Larger Battles: In battles with three or more units on both sides are involved, then all locations (Left, Right, Center, and Reserve) on the Battle Board are used.
When fighting, a unit rolls a number of d6 equal to its current strength. Infantry (and Leaders) hit on a roll of 6; artillery hits on a roll of 5 or 6. The only time a block rolls less than its SP is when attacking across a river or against a fort when the unit rolls one die less than it’s SP for the first round. Additionally, anytime a British or Hessian unit rolls a 1 against an American Militia Infantry, the militia unit flees the battle. The militia unit is placed into the Reserve but cannot rejoin the battle.
Battles are fought until one player decides to voluntarily retreat, is forced to retreat, or is eliminated. In every round of combat, a unit can attack or move to a different location on the Battle Board.
If one side want to voluntarily retreat they remove all forces from the Battle Board and the non-retreating side gets one die roll for each infantry unit on the battlefield (not in the Reserve) as one last attack against the rearguards.
If one section of the Battle Board (Left, Right, or Center) is unoccupied then that side is forced to retreat. However, in the case of an involuntary retreat, all non-retreating infantry in battlefield positions get a final attack using their current SP.
Low Complexity but Deep Teach
Taken as a whole, the few movement and combat rules in Philadelphia 1777, while simple, are quite illustrative of warfare in the American Revolution. Rivers and creeks, as natural barriers, were prominent factors in battle locations. The Battle of Brandywine, part of the Philadelphia campaign, is a great example.
The special militia rules in Philadelphia 1777 are also highly illustrative. While militia start with less firepower than regulars, they have the advantage of greater mobility. In combat they tend to be fragile units and just as easily run away as they stand. Indeed, even with the regular combat rules one quickly discovers that staying in the battle until the bitter end is not worth the cost; better to run away when you can and fight another day.
Philadelphia 1777 also uses a set of simple supply rules. British and Hessian units must be able to trace a supply path free of enemy units to a port location. American units must be able to trace a supply path to any of four towns along their board edge. Units not in supply must take a Supply Reduction where each unit is reduced 1 SP up to a maximum of 10 SP for the turn.
Victory in Philadelphia
Winning in Philadelphia 1777 is straight forward. The British win if they occupy Philadelphia for two consecutive turns while in supply. Since British supply must be traced to any port location on the map, in effect this means the British must not only hold Philadelphia but also create a supply line to the city or seize Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River. The British also win if the American army drops below 20 SP (they start with around 60 (~40 Regular and ~20 Militia). On the other hand, the Americans win if they prevent the seizure of Philadelphia at the end of 20 turns or reduce the British/Hessian force to less than 25 SP (they start with ~85 SP).
Like history, it is difficult for the Americans to win in Philadelphia 1777. Not impossible, but difficult. Like Washington, the American player has a numerically inferior army with a large, sometimes undependable, militia element. Like Washington, they must slow down and wear down the British while not losing too many of their own force. The British, on the other hand again, must not lose focus of their objective and strike hard for Philadelphia while maintaining a supply line against those pesky militia and avoid being overwhelmed in any single battle against regulars.
ALL TOO OFTEN, MAGAZINE WARGAMES MISS MORE THAN THEY HIT. I think it’s the crunch of publication timelines where a game MUST get published even though it may lack the final ‘touch’ that can make the difference between a good game and a turkey. This past year, I took a chance and started buying Counterfact Magazine published by Jon Compton of One Small Step. Part of the reason was price (it was generally more affordable than so many other subscriptions) and the second was because Counterfact uses an “as ready” publication model meaning they try to get out four issues a year but that’s not a guarantee. Issue 12, with the feature game The Mannerheim Line Campaign designed by Ty Bomba arrived this week. The Mannerheim Line Campaign (MLC) describes itself as a “low-intermediate complexity two player historical wargame that’s also easily adaptable for solitaire play.” The marketing slug is right on target; MLC is in many ways a perfect Coronatine wargame – easy to learn, smaller footprint, and solo friendly.
Building the Line
The components for MLC are above average for what I expect from a magazine wargame. The map is a simple, yet gorgeous piece of art by Ilya Kudriashov. It certainly looks winter-like but still remains highly functional. It’s very easy to tell what hex is what. If I have one complaint it’s the orientation of the charts and tables along the short, east edge of the map. Given the players will likely sit across from each other north and south, the charts as printed are upside down to the players.
Reading the rule book for MLC, I laughed a bit when I read, “After reading these rules at least once, carefully punch out the counters. Trimming off the “dog ears” from their corners with a fingernail clipper will facilitate easier handling and stacking during play and enhances their appearance.” Well, Mr. Bomba, you obviously had little faith in Jon Compton and Lisé Patterson who took care of Counters & Production. I don’t know who OSS uses for their die cut counters, but these both stayed in the sheet fine during shipment while at the same time almost effortlessly punched out. Further, instead of being attached to the sheet at the corners, these counters attach in the middle of the top or bottom edge and when they drop put the corners are crisp and there is only the slightest of nubs along the edge. Bottom line – NO corner rounding needed!
The rule book for MLC is a 12-page insert in the magazine. The rules themselves actually only take up nine pages with one more for the cover and two for charts and tables. The charts and tables are actually not needed in the rule book as they are duplicated on the map sheet. To be honest, the layout of the rule book charts are a bit prettier than the map, but the map charts & tables match the color palette of the map.
The rule book for MLC could be a bit clearer. It’s not that the rules are necessarily confusing, but the long-winded wording in places is, well, long winded. There is some errata but nothing that appears to be a showstopper (though I still cannot find the rule that definitively says when to place Soviet Static Constabulary Units).
Sniping the Game System
If there is a hallmark of the design from Mr. Bomba in MLC, it’s simplicity yet elegance. For example, the Turn Sequence at first looks very straight-forward, even ‘vanilla.” Every turn starts with the Soviet Player Turn which consists of a First Combat Phase, a First Movement Phase, and then a third phase which can be either a Second CombatOR a Second Movement Phase. The same turn structure applies to the Finnish player. That choice of a second combat or movement phase creates a very interesting turn dynamic. Additionally, Finnish reinforcements can enter during ANY movement phase, Soviet or Finnish. Now that makes for some really interesting decisions!
In keeping with the low-intermediate complexity, movement in MLC is straight forward with mechanized units having 12 movement factors and all other non-static units having eight (8). Combat is a straight odds system using an uncomplicated Combat Results Table with losses expressed in Steps. Different terrain gives column shifts on the CRT. There are some wrinkles in the combat model; Soviet artillery does not appear on the map but rather as Soviet Artillery Support Markers that can be used once per turn in either Combat Phase for the Soviet player. The Soviets can form Mobile Attack Groups that, depending on the roll of a die, may have double the firepower – or only half.
Although the counter density in MLC is rather low, ‘sticky Zone of Control” rules help capture the slower mobility of the combatants. In MLC once a unit enters a ZoC they must stop. Further, if a unit wants to leave a ZoC, the first hex moved into cannot be an enemy ZoC (hence the ‘stickiness’). This sticky ZoC ensures that units cannot just blow past an enemy unit, especially if defenders help each other by maintaining interlocking ZoCs. Simple rule – dramatic (and proper) game effect.
Soviet Supply in MLC is another easy to use, but highly impactful, rule. Soviet units have to maintain a supply line; if they don’t they lose half their movement and half their combat strength.
Victory in MLC is of four flavors; Soviet Major, Soviet Substantive, Soviet Minor, and Finnish Sudden Death. A Soviet Major (or Soviet Sudden Death) occurs the instant the Soviet player controls both hexes of Viipuri and can trace a proper supply line using roads back to a supply source. A Soviet Substantive victory occurs if the Soviets reach certain map edge hexes. Interestingly, at this point the Soviet player can forsake the Substantive victory and declare they will keep going but if that choice is made the Substantive and Minor victories are no longer available – it’s a Soviet Major victory or nothing! A Soviet Minor victory occurs if the Soviet player occupies all six Finnish towns and has at least one unit adjacent to Viipuri. This was the historical end condition.
Putting it on the line
For myself, MLC came in the afternoon mail. I read the rules in about an hour then set up the game. I played solo after dinner with the six turn campaign taking a bit under two hours. For a low-intermediate complexity game the strategic challenges and choices were very interesting. The Finnish player has a great static defensive line that the Soviets have to break thru, and once they do the Finnish mobile units have to use their ‘sticky ZoCs” to slow the Soviets down. Facing the Soviets in a straight-up battle is bound to lead to attrition and loss of units. The Finnish player needs to decide when and where units are going to be sacrificed (better yet, where units have the best chance of lasting the longest before they are sacrificed). The Soviet player must constantly try to get rid of the Finnish “gum” that is slowing them down and bring sufficient combat power to bear to keep the offensive going – all in only six turns.
No, really. I Read it for the Articles….
I probably should mention here that this issue of Counterfact Magazine that includes MLC has several related articles. The feature article, “The Mannerheim Line Campaign, 1939-1940” is written by Ty Bomba and tries to stir up some controversy when discussing the world reaction to the war:
The global reaction was shock at the weakness displayed by the Red Army. Western newspapers were filled with caricatures of the top Soviet leaders along with analyses of the USSR’s lack of readiness for war. The first and loudest reports of the poor Soviet performance in Finland came from newspapers funded by Stalin. From there, the general belief soon arose and persisted among Western military men, analysts, historians and politicians the Red Army had demonstrated in Finland a lack of capacity t wage war at that time. Stalin was content with creating that impression in order that the West’s focus move from his aggressions back to Hitler.
Looked at more dispassionately from our vantage point in this century, however, we can see the Red Army’s performance in the Winter War didn’t demonstrate weakness. Rather, it exhibited tremendous strength.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide if MLC delivers that lesson.
The second article in the magazine is a closer look at the “T-28: Stalin’s First Super Tank.” The article draws exclusively from Russian sources making it an interesting look at the monster T-28 from the Russian viewpoint.
Two other major articles, one about cyber warfare (ho-hum) and “The Surcouf: France’s World War II Super-Sub” round out the issue. There is also a two-page article with many statistical graphics on “The Evolution of the Red Army, 1930-1940.” I appreciate that most of the articles are related to the feature game.
The Mannerheim Line Campaign lives up to its advertisement – it’s a good low-intermediate complexity game that allows one to explore the Winter War in a short evening. Building on classic wargame mechanics, Mr. Bomba has assembled an easy-to-learn game with many interesting decision points and just enough chrome to be evocative of the campaign depicted. All topped off by beautiful components that make the game feel far more luxurious than the price paid.
Too Bad it’s the Last
I read on BoardGameGeek (though I can’t find the posting right now) that this is the last physical issue of Counterfact Magazine. Whether that means OSS is moving to a print & play model I don’t know. I know that more than a few people grumbled over the years at the quality of some of the Counterfact games. The Mannerheim Line Campaign is a great example of what a magazine wargame can (should?) be. I guess if Counterfact is going to go out on top, this was a good way to do it!
A fresh take on an under-gamed naval war. Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 delivers an uncomplicated, ahistorical version of war at sea in 1898 with luxurious components and just enough period chrome rules to evoke the era. Built off a proven game engine, one should expect the rules to be polished, but instead it suffers from a rulebook that is annoying inconsistent.
War at Sea Goes 19th Century
Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898 (Compass Games, 2020) doesn’t try to hide its heritage. In the Introduction, designer Stephen Newberg acknowledges that the game, “…owes its original inspiration to War at Sea, designed and published by John Edwards of Jedko and developed later by Don Greenwood for publication by The Avalon Hill Game Company….” That said, Mr. Newberg goes on to state:
Dawn of Empire borrows a number of concepts from this earlier game as a starting point, such as area movement, individual capital ships, battle line resolution, and rolling sixes to hit. It then diverges in other areas to reflect the Spanish-American War situation.
All of this makes Dawn of Empire both familiar to older Grognard wargamers while remaining fresh for a new generation of players.
Rigging the (Game) Ship
Component-wise, Dawn of Empire comes with a nicely-sized 22”x34” mounted mapboard, 216 5/8” counters, two (2) Player Aid Cards, one Battle Mat, the Rulebook, and four dice. All the components are physically of top quality; indeed, this game looks like a luxurious Eurogame in terms of physical production standards.
The mapboard for Dawn of Empire is of a mounted split-fold design. Mine came out of the box with just a hint of warping but after sitting out for one night it laid fine. The board covers from the US Atlantic and Gulf Coasts across the Caribbean into the Atlantic. Compass Games chose to use a matte-finish on the board which, while certainly reducing glare, also has a bad habit of showing scuff marks. Oh yeah, it looks like there was a layout error too. In the Search Matrix Box there is some extraneous text oriented the wrong way. To be honest though it took me two days to notice it.
I don’t own War at Sea (Jedko, 1975) or its successors but I do own Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977), a very close cousin. One issue I have with Victory in the Pacific that Dawn of Empire doesn’t fix is the lack of holding boxes on the map. It’s not like there is not enough map area, just look at the large land area along the edge in the US or at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. A missed opportunity.
The counters in Dawn of Empire are very nice. Here, Compass Games elected to use what I term Eurogame-style counters; thick and rounded off the sheet. This results in a higher degree of wastage on the sheet but the counters are beautiful to play with immediately after punching.
The rulebook for Dawn of Empire is the game’s weakest point. Like so many rulebooks these days, it needed another set of eyes and one morepass to work out some of the layout issues. Most noticeably, the last sentence of 7.3 Combat Resolution is lost under the graphic at the top of the page. Unfortunately, this small layout mistake is far from the only issue.
In an example of a simple rule that turns out to be more complicated than it should be, even the seating rule for Dawn of Empire makes me pause. Looking at the map, the continental US is along the north and west edges whereas the Spanish start in the Caribbean and Atlantic to the south and east. However, rule 9.6 Set Up directs, “The Spanish player should sit on the West side of the map while the US player sits on the opposite side, looking in from the continental US and Gulf of Mexico.” I think this is a simple East-West confusion but how can I be sure? Further, the recommended seating places the players along the short edge of the map. From a strictly ergonomic point of view, would it not make sense to be seated along the long edges of the board with less reach needed? Sure, one side has to read upside down but….
The rulebook for Dawn of Empire also lacks a consistency of styling which makes understanding it difficult in places. For instance, occasionally red text is used. However, it is difficult to discern if the red text is intended to highlight a key rule or an easily overlooked rule or to distinguish a design comment. I can’t tell because the red text is used for all three!
Another issue I have with the rulebook for Dawn of Empire concerns the placement of certain rules. I don’t understand why the game set up instructions are found at 9.6 Set Up under the major rule 9.0 Area Control and Victory Points. I personally feel it would be better situation at the end of 3.0 Components and before 4.0 Sequence of Play.
Sometimes the most basic of rules in Dawn of Empire are needlessly complicated by the use of alternate terminology. An example of this is Defense Strength and Damage. Rule 3.41 Ship Units calls the relevant factor “Defense.” The counter guide printed on the map uses the term “Defense Strength.” When you get to 7.0 Combat you have to make the jump from Defense/Defense Strength to “Damage.” The result is needlessly complicated and clumsy rules like 7.32 Results that introduces yet another term, “Defense Value” (note also the use of red text):
Roll again for each 6 hit and the result of the roll is the number of damage points taken by the target, including for any units which received both hit and disabled results. Put damage markers on each damaged unit to represent the amount of damage taken. Similarly mark each disabled unit with a disabled marker for return to a friendly Port at the end of the current round of combat. Units that accumulate damage greater than their defense value are sunk and should be noted to be removed at the end of the current round of combat.
Given the provenance of the game, one might think the rules in Dawn of Empire are tightly conceived. Alas, the rules are far from being so. I am not sure if it’s just format errors or oversight, but some of the rules just don’t make sense as written. For example, the Combat Phase of the Sequence of Play in both the rulebook and on the Player Aid Card clearly states:
The resolution of combat within each area follows this sequence:
Search Resolution Segment
Port Attack Resolution Segment
Battle Line Resolution Segment
Disengagement Resolution Segment
However, rule 7.5 Port Attack Resolution states, “When opposing squadrons…are still in the area after(my emphasis) any other combat has concluded for the turn, they must make a Port Attack.” Additionally, a close reading of Turn 1 of the Detailed Sample of Play indicates the Port Attack Resolution comes AFTER all other combat. SO WHY IS THE RULEBOOK AND PLAYER AID CARD SO WRONG?
Familiar Yet Original
Mechanically, Dawn of Empire derives much of its game system from War at Sea. Players will find familiar phases like New Forces (Reinforcements), Movement, Combat, Area Control and Victory Points, and Repairs. For those familiar with the War at Sea family learning Dawn of Empire should be that much easier.
But Dawn of Empire is not a straight rehash of War at Sea. Designer Stephen Newberg tries to capture essential themes of naval warfare at the end of the 19th century without excessive rules overhead. Mr. Newberg explains his design goals in his Design Notes:
As with my prior extension of the War at Sea family of design concepts to cover the Age of Sail, this design pushes the basic ideas a good deal. Fuel considerations were, at this point in naval history, a hugely important and the logistics of keeping fleets going with constant supplies of coal had not not yet been fully worked out. Half a dozen year later in the Russo-Japanese War, a lot of these kinks were gone and coaling much less of a constraint. By the time of the Great War, another decade on, all of the major powers had solved the logistics involved and systems were in place to make keeping fueled a much less central consideration.
Additionally, Spanish-American War era fleets had gotten smaller as the Age of Sail closed, but had not really started their growth into the huge groupings of warships that would typify the First World War. As a result, searching for and, after finding, coming to grips with opposing squadrons or warships was not yet as systematized or reliable as it would become heading into the Great War.
Two [sic] reflect these two really large breaks with the general concepts of War at Sea family ideas, new systems had to be developed. Specifically, these are the Orders systems and the iterationsof these orders with search and then engagement. Both of these new structures take some getting used to. In effect, they produce a form of sequencing where the players must think ahead, turn wise, to make sure they have the maximum possible units in the right places at the right times and with the right orders to have the best chance of both finding and then fighting the opposing forces.
Order at Sea
Dawn of Empire sets itself apart from other War at Sea games by the use of an Orders Phase. In this phase at the start of every turn both players secretly assign orders to squadrons (stacks) of warships. Each order (Anchor, Blockade, Coal, Patrol, Raid, Sortie, or Transit) limits not only what the squadron can do in that turn, but also has a significant impact on the potential for combat. Individual ships also have orders, but are limited to a lesser selection. Certain orders must also be followed by other orders, meaning what you do this turn matters into the future. The orders also have a major impact on the chances of meeting in combat for even when opposing squadrons are in the same area they don’t automatically find each other. Depending on their orders, the chances of meeting vary greatly. Few meetings are automatic; at best you might have a 2-in-3 chance of meeting, but often the chances are more like 1-in-2 or even 1-in-3. These easy rules capture the essence of naval combat at the end of the 19th century.
Bucket of Dice
One note on combat. Like all the War at Sea family, combat in Dawn of Empire uses the “bucket of dice” approach with a single d6 rolled for every Attack Factor (or is it Attack Strength?). Each 5 rolled is a Disabled (leave the battle) and each 6 rolled is a hit – which must be rolled again to determine damage. This is a very simple combat resolution method, but with the game only coming with four (4) dice players will have to find many more dice else they may develop Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from all the die rolling!
But I Thought the US Won Easily…
Even the most casual of students of naval history may question if the Spanish-American War can make a good subject for a balanced game. Mr. Newberg acknowledges, “In the historical events, the US Navy simply wiped the Spanish forces off the map.” He goes on to make his case for alternate history with, “The reasons for this are varied, but they were no certainty.” Dawn of Empire presents the players with a very alternate view of the history. Mr. Newberg explains:
On paper, the Spanish looked to be a very serious threat. And from a strategic standpoint, they could have been. A huge concern for the US command was the vulnerability of the Eastern seaboard of the nation to raid, particularly considering the light defensive infrastructure of the two main naval bases at Key West and Hampton Roads. The Spanish never forced the US to do more than be concerned, however, and this was a serious strategic error on their parts. In the game the Spanish player is fully able to correct this, and the US player must be on guard for it. Additionally, in the Caribbean, the Spanish did little to attempt to consolidate their forces at sea, instead concentrating in ports. This enabled the US to maintain loose blockades by rotating watchers and, when a sortie did happen, to apply full force. In the game, the Spanish player need not be so cooperative in their own destruction.
For the Spanish player, the first play, and maybe even every play, of Dawn of Empire can be daunting and frustrating, but maybe also the best challenge. Unlike history, the Spanish player in Dawn of Empire does not have ships that were inadequately supplied, out of repair, and poorly manned. Historically, the Spanish fleet was vastly outgunned. Mr. Newberg tries to help by giving the Spanish their battleship Pelayo even though that ship historically was in France for a refit and not available. Using comparisons of the period, the Spanish sail 24 ships against 35 American. The disparity of guns (Attack Factors) in the game is even more lopsided, with the Americans carrying 73 against 41. This matchup is extremely ahistorical as six of the Spanish ships (11 Attack Factors) are actually extra warships that did not participate in the historical campaign (the six ships are presented as an optional rule for the players to try if they want).
Scoring in Dawn of Empire is through control of Sea Areas at the end of a turn. Different Sea Areas award different VP amounts. For the Spanish, the most lucrative Sea Areas are the US East Coast at 4VP and the Gulf of Mexico for 3VP (the American player gets 0VP for control of either area). If the Spanish player adopts the historical approach of Rear Admiral Cervera (who in Dawn of Empire is NOT the best Spanish leader) and allows themselves to be blockaded in port with occasional sorties to contest the seas, the Spanish will likely lose, and lose big. However, if the Spanish player can take advantage of their better-than-historical logistics to conduct raids and contest valuable Sea Areas while remaining mobile the outcome may not be so preordained. Interesting? Yes. Historical? Hardly…but to even try to make Dawn of Empire anything near balanced one must accept ahistorical conditions.
After all my harping on the rules and ahistorical setup you might think I hate this game. Well, as annoying as the rulebook might be (and honestly, its annoying but not that annoying) I was happy, if not a bit surprised, to find the gameplay very enjoyable. Dawn of Empire is not a complicated game, and the use of Orders challenges the players with good strategic choices in play. Im my first play (two-sided solo – thanks Coronatine) I tried to play the Americans closer to history but went asymmetric with the Spanish and focused on Raids from the Atlantic. The result was a clear Spanish victory. What Dawn of Empire lacks in historical grounding it makes up for in creating an interesting, even challenging, match-up.
Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Naval War, 1898 is a fresh, very alternative view, of an under-gamed naval war depicted using a classic and proven wargame engine with a few modern tweaks. Dawn of Empire delivers an uncomplicated, rather straight-forward version of war at sea in 1898 with luxurious components and just enough period chrome rules to evoke the era. Built off a proven game engine, it adds innovative rules to capture the essence of naval combat in the late 1890’s. Unfortunately, the rulebook lacks consistency that, while playable, makes learning the game more annoying than it should be.
The following is a lightly edited transcription of the Flight Logs of Hauptmann B, assigned to KG 300 in the Azores. Hauptmann B was part of the first group of Amerika Bombers that flew missions against the continental United States starting in April, 1947….
April 2, 1947. First mission today! I have a brand new Heinkel 277 bomber to take us to Amerika. Target is a brass factory in Connecticut. Fought 2x P-80 fighters just before bomb run; no damage taken. Light AA into target area, good bombing [30%] but Medium AA on way out causes much damage and light wound to Flight Engineer. No fighters on way home. Landed safely but repairs will take a week to fix.
April 17, 1947. Anxious to get back in air. Target is Chrysler in Detroit. Amerikans are more awake now; encounter 2x F8F over water shortly after launch but escape with no damage. 2x P-80s find us as we near target but they are driven off without damage. On bomb run 2x P-80 try to interrupt but are driven off again. Our electronics and chaff protects us from AA in target area. Good bombs on target [20%]. On way out Tail Gunner shoots down a P-80; first kill by the aircrew! Rest of way home uneventful and land safely.
April 24, 1947. Another trip to Detroit to hit General Motors. Lose Engine #1 shortly after take-off but press on. Looks like we surprised the Amerikans today as no fighters find us on way to target. Medium AA on bomb run but Bombardier says not sure we really hit target [0%]. On way home jumped by 2x F8F but Ventral Gunner gets two (!) of them. Safe landing again. We also get good news that from now on we will be flying with an Improved Lofte Bomb Sight.
May 1, 1947. May Day visit to Corning Glass Works in Corning, NY. Fought 4x F8F enroute to mainland; Ventral Gunner shot down one. Nearing target tangled with 3x P-80; all shot down (Ventral Gunner-1, Tail Gunner-1, Flight Engineer in Top Turret-1). Medium AA to target, no damage. Bombardier reports very good conditions and good hits [91%]. Egress AA was heavy. Bombardier severely wounded. Encountered 2x P-80 just after feet-wet; fire in Engine #1 put out. Safe landing but Bombardier will be out for maybe 8 weeks. Repairs to airplane means no mission next week. Kills to date: Ventral Gunner-4, Tail Gunner-2, Flight Engineer (Top Front Turret)-1.
May 13, 1947. Today we visited Westinghouse Electric in Philadelphia. The Amerikans are getting lazy as we found no fighters until target area. Ventral Gunner shot down a P-80 for his 5th kill – he’s an Ace now! AA in target area bad, lots of damage. Dropped bombs but Bombardier not sure they hit [10%]. Chased off 2x F8F on way home but landed safely. Bad news is we will have to sit out next week’s mission for repairs. Good news is aircraft will be fitted with new, Improved Kettenhund 3 AA Jammer.
June 1, 1947. Glad to be back in the air again. Target for today is Colt Manufacturing in Hartford. I always have preferred my trusty Mauser! Shortly after launch got jumped by 2x F8F but Tail Gunner shot down one. As we neared Newfoundland 2x F8F got the jump on us from above. Their bullets caused a leak in Fuel Tank 3 and we were getting ready to turn back when a last burst jammed the bomb bay doors anyway. After landing maintenance officer tell us that the Amerikan bombing campaign that Goering claims cannot hit the Fatherland has somehow managed to cut off our supply of spare parts.
June 22, 1947 – Barbarossa Day. Target folder is for Heinz Foods in Pittsburg. No opposition enroute to target area. Jumped by 2x P-80 as we near target; Tail Gunner gets another (1 more and he’s an ace). Heavy AA at target; Bombardier severely wounded but heroically dropped bombs [30%]. Worried about all the hits to the airframe. Almost home- jumped by 2x F8F. Bailing out….
Army Air Corps Intelligence Comment: Flight Log of Hauptmann B found on dead body by PBY Catalina aircrew floating west of Azores early on 23 June 1947. Uniform included an Iron Cross, 2nd Class and Amerika Shield patch on shoulder.
Aircraft Flown: He 277
Tech Advancements: Improved Lofte Bombe Site, May 1947 / Improved Kettenhund 3 AA Jammer, June 1947
Six missions [181% Bombing] in 12 weeks / Best – Corning Glass 91% / Worst – GM Detroit 0% / Colt Mfg aborted before bombing due to jammed Bomb Bay Doors
Crew Status after Bail Out: Pilot KIA (Game Over), CoPilot KIA, Flight Engineer Rescued by U-Boat, Ventral Gunner KIA, Tail Gunner Rescued by U-Boat (Light Wound), Navigator KIA, Bombardier KIA on Bail Out, EW Officer KIA, (Original Bombardier 8 wks convalescence after Severe Wound on May 1, 1947)
So ended my first Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies (Compass Games, 2020) campaign game. For true grognards, designer Gregory M. Smith cheerfully admits that the game is a ripoff of B-17: Queen of the Skies (Avalon Hill, 1981) but from the other side. As the Compass Games ad copy states:
Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies is a solitaire, tactical level game which places you in command of a hypothetical, yet historically-based bomber aircraft during a frightening look at what might have been in World War II. Each turn consists of one sortie, during which the player will fly a mission to bomb the mainland of the United States. As the player progresses, he may choose to upgrade to even more advanced bombers in this alternate history game. Amerika Bomber is based on the popular, action-packed B17: Queen of the Skies system and pays homage to Glen Frank’s original system, but with streamlined routines and a few twists. It builds a strong narrative around the pilot as you look to earn skills, rise in rank through promotion, receive awards and survive a dangerous year above America.
Components – Functional. Counters are simple and mostly used as information markers. I wish the boards were on slightly heavier cardstock given the amount of handling they take during a game. I note that two charts, B1 Interception and B7 Landing Chart were updated on BGG due to layout errors. I also wish a few charts were laid out a bit differently. For instance, chart B2 Position Chart has the Friendly Fighter Cover and To Hit (fighter or bomber) tables placed third and fourth whereas you need to roll on these tables before the Damage to Fighters by Bomber Defensive firepower (FP) table which is placed above them on the chart.
Game Mechanics – Having never played B-17: Queen of the Skies or any other Gregory Smith solo air games I cannot compare them to one another. I did find the rules in Amerika Bomber flowed well. After the first few plays there is little need to consult the rule book. That said there are occasions where the game gets in the way of itself. For instance, on Chart B9 Landing in Water or Bailout Over Water (2d6) one modifier is, “-4DRM if radio inoperative (no mayday call.” As I looked at my aircraft display, I couldn’t find the radio until I realized the “FuG 29 R/T” is the “FuG 29 Radio” listed in B4 Aircraft Damage Listings. Consistency, please! Which lead me to…
Errata – I’m the sort of grognard that plays the game out-of-the-box first; I usually don’t look at BGG or YouTube for aids until after I play using the rules-as-written. After play I discovered an official errata/clarifications file available on BoardGameGeek. Most of the “issues” seem to do with proofing. None of the issues make the game unplayable; it’s just really annoying.*
Playing Time – A full campaign game will carry the player from April 1947 thru March 1948. That’s 12 months and potentially 48 missions! Truth is the player will fly fewer (assuming they survive that long) but I cannot see how this is a 2-4 hour game. Maybe I am too casual a gamer because each ‘turn’ or sortie takes me about 10-15 minutes to play – or about one month of game time every 40-60 minutes.
Narrative – Amerika Bomber builds a story within every sortie mission. I mean, look at the AAR above – the game writes the story (although if you want to record it you take more time playing). Over time, you can get promoted, get new aircraft, skills, and technology. This is helpful because it breaks up the repetitiveness of executing each sortie.
Alternate History – The Designer’s Notes in Amerika Bomber is followed by An Alternate History Leading Up to Amerika Bomber written by Frederick Ellsesser. As a piece of alternate history fiction it is OK, but I feel that a more historically focused article would be more educational to the reader. Yes, I’m funny in that way; I like my wargames to teach as they engage me. In this case an opportunity to discuss the real Luftwaffe Amerika Bomber program was missed. I have a book on my shelf, Target: America – Hitler’s Plan to Attack the United States by James P. Duffy that provides very relevant background to the game. A short summation of Chapter 3: The Plan to Bomb America and Chapter 4: The Race to Build the America Bomber would in my opinion fit this need. If this topic really interests you and you want to read the history and not the fiction, then this book is a must-read!
Fit in Collection – I think Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies will land on my gaming table in monthly chunks. Execute a month of missions then take good notes and come back to the game later. I just can’t see playing this game beginning-to-end in one session. That’s not as negative as it sounds; Amerika Bomber in many ways acts as a ‘filler wargame’ that allows me to play in smaller chunks of time.
*I know many of you will tell me, “It’s a Compass Games product! What do you expect!” Yes, I expect better from them which is why I usually avoid buying direct at full price and look for pre-order discounts, sales, or discounted retailers. I also humbly offer my services pre-publication, not that I have any special qualifications.
I guess I got lucky in that I got an order from Miniatures Market in before the #Coronapocalypse shutdown kicked in really hard. Although I am a Grognard wargamer, I also want to play family boardgames. As much as the RockyMountainNavy family plays games, Mrs. RMN is a reluctant gamer. Sure, she encourages others to play, but she is reluctant to play herself. So I decided to try a new game that would (hopefully) attract her to the table.
To date I have had limited success. I have yet to get Mrs. RMN to play even though we are now being detained ordered by the Governor to Stay at Home. However, the RMN Boys and I have played a few times. Our general reaction is that the game is more “thinky” than we expected. If your fellow gamers are prone to Analysis Paralysis this may NOT be the game to bring to the table if time is essential to you. I mean, the game is not hard to learn (the rules are rather simple) but the choices to make can be challenging. If you are really into puzzle games then Azul: Summer Pavilion will be right up your alley.
I have not given up yet on Mrs. RMN. I think that once she plays she will enjoy the game. Even if she doesn’t, the game is a good candidate for her older students. The ease of learning in many ways makes this a gateway game, however the strategy challenges makes it a lite-medium weight game.
Regardless of Mrs RMN plays, Azul: Summer Pavilion will stay on the gaming shelf (and table) in our Medium Gateway category.
THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY continues to fascinate me. I think in the pantheon of naval wargames Midway is akin to the Bulge or Waterloo for land gamers – its the World War II naval battle game that everybody does. It’s been done so many times that one can feel that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ when a new game rolls out. Fury at Midway (Revolution Games, 2020) by designer Yasushi Nakaguro thankfully foils this thinking by delivering a wargame that is both a classic, yet modern version of the iconic battle.
Fury at Midway was originally published in Japan by Bonsai Games. Roger Miller of Revolution Games took the game and made a few changes:
Changes in this Revolution Games version include making it a two map game, one for each player, which makes for an increased degree of hidden information regarding air strikes, damage, and combat air patrol. Four additional event cards were added to better cover the range of historical events of the battle. Anti-aircraft fire was reduced and rules for hitting the wrong carrier force were introduced. The map areas were expanded a hex row and the counter art was redone as well as many other small changes.
Here is how Roger Miller, developer and publisher of the game, describes Fury at Midway:
The game system is primarily one of air operations. When to strike and with what planes is the primary question of the game. This is balanced by how you defend your own fleet and the island of Midway for the Americans or the invasion fleet for the Japanese. The Japanese have to either take Midway or win the carrier battle to win the game and having two objectives really challenges the Japanese player to make a good plan while the American situation is simpler but his forces are not as well trained and errors in navigation, strike coordination, escort, etc can take a toll. Surface forces are not shown in the game except in their effects in AAA, bombardment, or the slight chance of an abstract night surface battle. This is a simple yet pretty accurate version of Midway that was a lot of fun during testing.
Fury at Midway uses a classic ‘carrier ready’ approach to air operations. Aircraft move on the Carrier Display between the Hanger, Deck/Runway, and Combat Air Patrol (CAP). Only aircraft on the Deck/Runway can launch an Air Strike. Those strikes move across a hex map to attack using a simple resolution mechanic; roll 1d6 per Step with rolls equal-to or less-than the unit Strength scoring a Hit. There are very few modifiers to the roll possible. Yes, it’s a form of ‘Yahtzee dice’ combat but it’s dead simple – and it works.
The ‘modern’ twists in Fury at Midway are Concealment, Air Operations, and the Event Cards. Concealment is a key game mechanic as players ‘see’ the location of other fleets on their board but further enemy information, like aircraft on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) or formed up in approaching strike groups or even actual damage to carriers is kept hidden on the other player’s board. Air Operations recreates the ‘optempo’ of each force; the US has a Search advantage and will likely get more Air Operations in each turn. Event Cards represent the intangibles of war. There are 13 Event Cards in the game divided between US-only, Japanese-only, and both player types. All card draws are from a common deck making it quite possible to draw a card you cannot use. This is a great feature, not a bug, for as the rules put it:
If the US player draws an event card that can only be used by the Japanese forces (or vice versa), that card cannot be used. Drawing such an event keeps it out of the hands of your opponent and give you knowledge it won’t be played later.
I am impressed that even the very small rule book (12 pages double column) brings out the doctrinal differences of the fleets. For instance, a Strike Group is composed of aircraft launched from a single carrier. However, to reflect Japanese training of the time, the Japanese player can use Midair Assembly to combine strike groups from different carriers if all are launched in the same Air Operation. Another example is dive bombers which gain +1 Strength when attacking a carrier with aircraft on Deck. If the Japanese attack with a Strike Group composed of both D3A dive bombers and B5N torpedo bombers, the torpedo strikers gain +1 Strength to reflect the practice they had delivering a combined strike. There are a few more examples but my point is Fury at Midway uses simple game mechanics to deliver a very rich game experience.
My first few games show that Fury at Midway can deliver both historical and a-historic outcomes. I am a bit concerned that a Japanese player committed to the historical sequence of strikes (i.e. hit Midway first) is at a disadvantage. A better strategy might be to search for the US fleet first, strike it, then turn to reducing Midway. In Fury at Midway this may be the default basic strategy because, unlike the Japanese admirals at Midway almost 80 years ago, the Japanese player knows there are three US carriers out there. Fortunately, the game plays fast enough that players probably can play more than one game in an evening creating the opportunity to try out different strategies for yourself. Try the historic way and see if you can do better!
Fury at Midway is a light, fresh take on the Battle of Midway. I appreciate the quick play yet depth of decisions packed into this small footprint wargame. One can play the game solo but doing so loses the element of surprise – and the surprise of discovering for yourself what strikes are inbound, or where the CAP is, and which carrier has planes on deck is the best part of the game.
SOLITAIRE WARGAMES OFTEN HAVE A PROBLEM. That problem arises from the nature of solitaire play wherein the player not only ‘plays’ the game but often has to ‘run the game engine’ at the same time. Many times this leads to procedural play which can grow repetitive and uninteresting. To me, the key to breaking out of this game design cul-de-sac is to build great narrative moments into game play. Solo wargames like Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2017) play out in ‘acts’ with each one telling a part of the story. In NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2019) one is always drawing cards but planning and executing your raids is full of nail-biting moments. At first look, Castle Itter: The Strangest Battle of WWII (Dan Verssen Games, 2019) comes across as very procedural and even a bit uninteresting. However, after a few plays, and as familiarity with the rules grows, a rich and exciting story emerges from play.
I backed Castle Itter on Kickstarter and recently took delivery of the game (I also picked up Pavlov’s House, 2nd Edition, but more on that later). The combination of critical praise for Pavlov’s House and the theme of the Battle of Castle Itter drew me in.
My first play thru of Castle Itter was…flat. The game is not very complex; each turn the Defender gets five Actions followed by three SS Cards being drawn and resolved. Lather, rinse, repeat. Simple yet very procedural and repetitive. I was so disappointed that I was sure I had messed up the rules somehow I reset the game and played again. I could do this in part because the game plays quickly in around 60 minutes.
That’s when the magic started to happen.
Mechanically, Castle Itter is both literally and figuratively a classic ‘castle defense’ game. Although some wargamers claim it has roots all the way back to Up Front (Avalon Hill Game Co, 1983) I never had that game so I can’t make a comparison. What I do see is shades of Castle Panic (Fireside Games, 2012) where the monsters are descending on the castle or even Pandemic: Fall of Rome (Z-Man Games, 2018) where you not only have to defend Rome but accomplish your goals before the card deck runs out (in Castle Itter you have to survive until relieved which happens when the deck is exhausted). All of which is to say that mechanically Castle Itter feels not much like a wargame. Once I got that thought into my head the narrative portion of the game exploded.
In play, Castle Itter builds an exciting narrative. Every action the rag-tag, motley crew of defenders takes becomes an agonizing decision. How do you organize a defense with an SS Officer (maybe the best leader?), an American tank crew, low-morale Wehrmacht soldiers, French prisoners, and an Austrian resistance fighter? How do you withstand hordes of SS riflemen, machine guns, mortars, and (worse) artillery?
By my third play the mechanically procedural play of Castle Itter had faded to the background and the story of the battle started emerging. I won one game (barely) and lost another (on the last two cards). In every game the tension was palpable.
I am not usually a solitaire wargamer. Although I do play solo (often against my nemesis Mr. Solo) the very nature of solitaire games often puts me off. Castle Itter is definitely an exception and will get out to the gaming table more often because not only can it be an evening ‘filler game’ taking 60 minutes or less to play but it is – at heart – an exciting story.