#Wargame Wednesday: West of South China – Game of the Week Impressions of Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

My Game of the Week was Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II by John Gorkowski from Compass Games. This is the second (more practically the third) game in the South China Sea-series that traces it’s lineage back to John’s original South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) and a closely-related-but-predecessor design, Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea (Compass Games, 2014). I really love the South China Sea design, especially it’s treatment of operational/tactical naval warfare and even the mixture of politics.

As the name of the game foreshadows, Indian Ocean Region: South China Sea Vol. II leaves the South China Sea “home waters” and moves to the Indian Ocean. China and the United States are still the two Global Powers, but now there are many more regional actors. The largest is, of course, India. For players that are US-centric (‘Merica!) the game might create a challenge because the “big kid” on this block is not the United States.

In no particular order, here are some thoughts on Indian Ocean Region that struck me during my Game of the Week experiences.

Fall Out!

The counters for Indian Ocean Region are nice. They came shrink-wrapped which was a good thing because once the wrap came off the counters literally fell out of the sprue. They are so neatly cut I don’t think I need to corner-clip them. If this is the “new” standard from Compass Games I like it but beware—you need a plan to organize your counters before opening the shrink wrap because once opened the counters are falling randomly. Sorting will be from a random pile on the table not neatly out of the tree.

I had to put a few rows back for this picture. Can you find the misprints?

Color Counts

I do wish the colors of the counters in Indian Ocean Region had been a bit more distinct between nations. The camouflage pattern on the counters in this case actually works against them as various counters start “blending” into one another. In some wargaming forums, much has been made about several misprinted counters in Indian Ocean Region. My copy suffers from this problem where three USA ship counters are misprinted with the background for Oman. Truth be told, if I hadn’t seen the postings online I may have actually missed it because the USA-gray and Oman-blue-gray are very similar. It is indicative of quality control issues? Maybe…I believe the error crept in during the graphics layout where the challenge of differentiating so many similar colors inevitably led to a small oversight. Do the misprinted counters make the game unplayable? No. Do I wish Compass Games had caught the mistake before printing? Yes. Will I never buy another Compass Game? NO!

That’s a Big Ocean

Indian Ocean Region covers a vast area both geographically and physically with the game. With a map scale of 45 miles per hex and larger counters, there are three 22.5″x28″ mapsheets that, if laid out together, need a table over 5 feet wide. Alas, my normal gaming table is 3’x4′ which means I can easily get a one- or two-map game laid out but the full three-map scenarios require a different gaming space. I see some people talk about linking Indian Ocean Region and South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) maps together but that would take the dining room table or more.

(Off) the gaming table….

Yes, I know I’m talking about a first-world wargamer problem, but for somebody like myself who has reached, uh, “agreements” with CINC-HOUSE* over table space this can make gaming difficult. It also drives some game purchase decisions. As much as I am interested in the new version of NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot! (Compass Games, forthcoming in 2021) I think I’ll keep my original edition with its single 22″x34″ map and pass on the enlarged version in the new Designer’s Signature Edition.

Where You Sit is Where You Fight

One of the core mechanisms in Indian Ocean Region is a regulated turn order. The game assumes five major factions can be in play. The default turn order in either a Political or Military Turn is 1) Asymmetric, 2) China, 3) Indo-Am, 4) Symmetric Bay States, and 5) Symmetric Gulf States or ACIBG. There are two Global Powers of USA and China and three other smaller Regional Powers. It is the arrangement of those Global and Regional Powers that raises my PoliSci eyebrow. As defined in the rule book:

  • Asymmetric includes nations that rely heavily on unconventional strategies and tactics, including terrorism….” (Iran, Pakistan, Qatar (?), Somalia, Yemen)
  • China uses central control to guide action in ‘free’ markets.” – China, The String of Pearls
  • Indo-Am represents the established free market/democratic world order.” (Bahrain, India, USA, Diego Garcia, Australia, Britain)
  • Symmetric Bay states want Chinese investment, but are weary [wary?] of too much subordination to Beijing.” (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri-Lanka)
  • Symmetric Gulf States are free traders with a long history of western engagement.” (Djibouti, Oman, United Arab Emirates).

Setting aside for a moment the mixture of geographical and political divisions, the fixed political alignment of the factions in Indian Ocean Region shows some strange bedfellows that may not be a current, or maybe even accurate, reflection of reality. I especially question the inclusion of Qatar in the “terrorist” Asymmetric States but maybe that is just a quibble over definitions. Also, The String of Pearls rule makes huge assumptions as to the success of Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative in the region—assumptions that are yet to play out and might better be used as an “option” or “variant” rule to more fully explore its impact on the political and military actions of the powers.

Example of Play

I realize that making an Example of Play is difficult. I know it takes time and careful planning as a good EoP will showcase game mechanisms in a way that teaches and reinforces. I am happy to see an extensive Example of Play in IOR—I am disappointed that it is taken from the previous game, South China Sea. Yes, the EoP explains core game mechanics, but by not basing it on the game in front of the reader a major learning opportunity is lost. Reading an EoP can only deliver so much understanding; if I am able to set up the EoP and push the counters around like in the example the combination of reading, seeing, and even feeling (the “tactile”) reinforces and accelerates learning.

I don’t want to say this is lazy but….

Those Bi-Polar Days Are Over

Scoring in Indian Ocean Region is along a Victory Point Track that has the Indo-Am faction at one end and China at the other. In between sit the three other factions. I’m not sure what the score really tells me. The two “extreme” winners, China and the Indo-Am, are obvious, but why is a score of 14 points (just shy of China) an Asymmetric States (aka “Terrorist”) win? I feel that the score track needs a third dimension to capture the nuance of the regional powers and how they influence, but don’t necessarily “win” against the Global Powers. Then again, if your viewpoint is that the China-USA “competition” is a new Cold War, then this scoring viewpoint fits.

Full Steam Ahead

In the end, I find that Indian Ocean Region does what I expected it to do—deliver a fun, medium-low complexity gaming experience of modern naval warfare. The political alignment using the rules as written may be a bit wonky but there is nothing that says one cannot shift Regional Powers amongst the factions. It is especially interesting to split the Indians away from the Indo-Am faction and see how they might act if more “independent.” Indeed, it is the set up (or playing out) of the political game that creates the best opportunity for experimentation. Once battle is joined, the operational/tactical rules flow nicely and again deliver just enough flavor to make it interesting while not overwhelming one with too many details.

Next Generation SCSX

I don’t know what the future of the South China Sea series of wargames is but Indian Ocean Region shows how the design can be exported to other areas. I hope that John Gorkowski and Compass Games can do a Mediterranean or Black Sea or Baltic edition in the future. Both require the entry of a new Global Power—Russia. I can imagine a very interesting Baltic design with the USA and Russia as Global Powers and Old NATO and New NATO/Aspiring factions and even Neutrals. Such a game alsos need more land-based units that reach out into the littoral areas.

* CINC-HOUSE = “Commander in Chief – House.” If you don’t understand who occupies this position you are sorely out of touch with reality.

#Wargame Wednesday – First Impressions of Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (@Hollandspiele, 2021)

For the longest time I have been a naval wargamer. It goes back to my early days of wargaming with titles like Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967 though I own the 1974 Second Edition) and Flat Top (Battleline First Edition, 1977) as well as my Harpoon series of games from Admiralty Trilogy Games. So when I saw that Hollandspiele was publishing a game that covers the naval conflict in the Pacific at the start of World War I it was an auto-buy for me. Now that Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (Hollandspiele, 2021) has landed on my gaming table what do I really think about it?

Spoiler Alert: I like it but the message is mixed….

The Telescoping Game

Empire at Sunrise: The Great War in Asia, 1914 (hereafter simply Empire at Sunrise) is designed by John Gorkowski and illustrated by Jose R. Faura. The ad copy for Empire at Sunrise claims it, “depicts the struggle for control of Pacific sea lanes during the opening months of World War I.”

Well, not exactly. I mean, “Yes, but….”

Although the naval struggles makes up a large portion of Empire at Sunrise, there is also the land battle around Tsingtao (all the placenames are drawn from the period). Thus, the game becomes one that is more about the downfall of the Pacific Empire of Imperial Germany as they struggle to defend their possessions in the Far East in the opening weeks of World War I than simply a “struggle for control of the Pacific sea lanes.”

To deliver this Pacific-wide view of the conflict, Empire at Sunrise uses three different “telescoping scales.” The game is played across three maps that depict, “the area around Tsingtao at six miles per hex, the fight over the Asian Pacific at 240 miles per hex, and the entire Pacific Ocean at 1440 miles per zone.” Game turns are weekly and the 19 game turns represent the time from August through December 1914. Both land and naval units are depicted.

Three Maps, Two Games?

At first glance, Empire at Sunrise looks like it is actually two games in one; a land combat game centered on Tsingtao played on the Kiautschou Insert – KI map and a second naval game played out on the Asia Pacific Map (APM) and Pacific Chart (PC). The three-map telescoping design of Empire at Sunrise creates two immediate design challenges: First is a mechanical challenge to ensure the game “flows” between the three maps and the second is to depict the impact of the wide ranging conflict that spans both land and sea yet connects them in a manner that creates a set of meaningful decision points for the players.

Mechanically, the solution to the flow between the maps is very simple with easy to understand movement rules and only minor changes to combat. The solution to the second challenge is just as simple – Victory Conditions.

Keep Your Eye on the Target

A close study of the Victory Conditions in Empire at Sunrise shows that it creates both tension and hard decisions for each player throughout the game. Victory Points (VP) are scored both during and at the end of the game. During game play, the Germans score VP for:

  • +3 if the Australian Troop Convoy is Delayed or Destroyed (but it doesn’t enter until Turn 12)
  • +1 per Allied (“Anglo-Japanese Alliance – AJA”) Land Unit step Eliminated
  • +1 per AJA Naval Unit Destroyed
  • +1 if the British call any or all of their Atlantic Units into play
  • +1 per successful Commerce Raid (limit one per Turn)
  • +1 for each step of Naval Units in PC Zone F11 (enroute to the Falklands)

At the end of the game the AJA score VP as follows:

  • -5 if they control Tsingtao
  • -3 if NeuPommern controlled
  • -2 if Samoa controlled
  • -1 for each of the German possessions at Ladrone, Lamotrek, Palau, Yap, Truk or Wolea controlled

If the VP score is negative the AJA wins otherwise Germany wins. The maximum score for the AJA is 16 points meaning if the German scores 16 VP or more they will automatically win.

Hopefully you can see the immediate conflict in objectives for each player in Empire at Sunrise. For Germany to win they need to try to maintain their possessions but if they can’t (and given their lack of Land Units they almost certainly can’t) then they need to resort to naval warfare to gain VP by sinking enemy ships while not getting sunk and raiding commerce while at the same time they are trying to escape. Also, the most “valuable” German possession is also the one furthest from where the naval squadrons need to go to get points. On the other hand, the AJA player needs to grab possessions but also avoid losing too many ships as they hunt down the German fleet units.

Put together, what may be the greatest challenge in Empire at Sunrise is for player to manage their time. The Germans need to hang onto possessions as long as possible and sell them dearly but avoid becoming bogged down or cut off from escape. They need to take advantage of the turns before the Japanese enter to score a reserve of VP. They need to get to Cape Horn on the eastern Pacific but it may be worthwhile to also be near Australia when the troop convoy sails. For the AJA player seizing the German Pacific possessions is easy but it takes time; time to move on the Pacific Chart and time to actually take a possession. At 19 turns Empire at Sunrise looks like a long game but once you start playing you quickly discover that time is precious and never enough. The game is full of tensions that forces players to tie their play of both the land and naval game together and not bi-furcate their efforts by weighing one too heavily at the expense of the other.

New Age of Warfare? Hardly….

The rules for Empire at Sunrise are what I describe as “simply complex.” The rules mechanically are easy to learn and simple to play but the strategy you need to execute with those rules is a whole other level of complexity.

Take for example Naval Movement in Empire at Sunrise. Naval Movement is different on the three maps but moving from one map to another follows a very simple set of rules. The most important aspect of Naval Movement is actually Naval Interception. Phasing Units (i.e. on your turn) need to be in the same hex on the APM or zone on the PC to intercept. However, when you are the non-Phasing Player you can try to intercept a moving group of enemy ships every time it enters a new hex or zone if you already have ships there. As simple as that sounds it creates a wonderful tension as it behooves the German player to “escape” from the APM where they risk intercept every hex into the larger PC where they chance intercept only once on during their opponent’s turn (unless they enter a zone with enemy ships during their own turn).

Naval Combat in Empire at Sunrise is also simple but not what many longtime naval Grognards may expect. Here ships are not rated simply for “weight of fire” like so many ships of the day were judged, but instead ships with longer ranged, heavier batteries get to fire first. Thus, the Japanese 3-10-7 (Firepower – Resilience – Movement) Kongo BC fires first and damage is assessed before the British 2-9-7 Good Hope CA can return fire. Combat itself is very simple – roll 2d6 and beat the target’s Resilience with each hit causing a step loss. If you score a hit and roll doubles while you’re at it that scores two hits and sinks the enemy ship outright.

[This event specifically lead to one of the more spectacular moments in my first game. While destroyers are below the level of detail depicted by naval units, designer John Gorkowski put the German S90 Destroyer in the game since it historically scored a luck torpedo kill on the Japanese coastal defense ship Takachiho. In my game, S90 was trying to break out of Tsingtao just as the fortress was falling but was intercepted by a British Task Force led by the British pre-dreadnought HMS Triumph. The S-90, rated 4*-7-8 (the * means torpedoes only against ships) took on the 2-9-6 Triumph and, being rated 4, fired first. In order to score a hit a 10, 11, or 12 on 2d6 was required. Sure enough, S90 rolled “double boxcars” and not only got a hit, but the lucky two hits that sunk Triumph outright. To add insult to injury, none of the other ships in the British Task Force proved capable of hitting the elusive S90 and it escaped to live another day. Speak about a real narrative moment!]

Commerce Raiding in Empire at Sunrise is another deliciously simple rule that has an outsized impact on a players strategy. The rule is very simple; at the end of movement if a German Naval Unit is south of the Tropic of Cancer it can roll to destroy commerce. Each ship rolls 2d6 and ADDS the number of movement points expended in the turn; if the result is 16 or greater than 1 VP is scored (limited to once per turn). Thus, it again behooves the AJA player to hunt down every German naval unit and don’t give away free points.

The land battles in Empire at Sunrise are just as simple. Counter density is very low so stacking rarely becomes an issue. There are no zone of control rules; to attack one just needs to be adjacent. Seeing as this was the era of defensive supremacy it should come as no surprise that the few rules for trenches or Fortifications heavily favor the defender. The Japanese player does have Siege Artillery which destroys trenches and Fortifications but it is slow moving and takes time to relocate. Thus, the “Battle of Tsingtao” plays out much like one expects a World War I battle should – slow and cumbersome with strong defenses being difficult to dislodge.

An Untold Story

The most educational aspect of Empire at Sunrise is admittedly what the designer does not include. Empire at Sunrise, like it’s name tells us, shows the huge contribution that Imperial Japan made towards the defeat of Imperial Germany. Try playing this game without the Japanese forces and see what happens. The designer makes no explicit statement about the affects of Japanese contribution after the war; the players are given the game’s title and then left to discover it for themselves outside the game. For me, a wargamer who has battled back and forth across the Pacific of the 1940’s (and occasionally the 1920’s or 30’s), the geography was familiar but the situation was much different.

In many ways, Empire at Sunrise is a a good “bookend” game to use to see the rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy across the Pacific. Then place it against Victory in the Pacific (Avalon Hill, 1977) to see the other “bookend,” or downfall of the Imperial Japanese Empire across the Pacific. Together they make a good story.

Saturday night landscaping in Four Gardens (@kbgpublishing, 2020)

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.

A beautiful pagoda focus players in Four Gardens (Photo by RMN)

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.

Prelude to Rebellion – #Boardgame first impressions of Star Wars: Rebellion (@FFGames, 2016)

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.

Feature image courtesy Fantasy Flight Games

That’s One Small Step for me, one giant leap for #boardgames – First Impressions of One Small Step (@Academy_Games, 2020)

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.

Nicely laid out One Small Step game from Academy Games (because I can’t take as nice a picture)

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.

Multi-use Event Cards in One Small Step. Development Card cost and reward on right and first row below image. Worker Action Space is second row showing which worker can use and the action.

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.

It looks complicated but once you learn there is a certain logic to it all.

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.

Wooden meeples and chits on the left, plastic on the right. It’s a matter of taste but for me the plastic looks too “toy-like” and actually hinders the game experience.

“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!

#Wargame #FirstImpressions of Campaigns of the #AmericanRevolution Vol. 4: Philadelphia 1777 (@worth2004, 2020)

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.

Moving About

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.

Battle Blocks

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.

Cornwallis attacking Washington across a river….

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.

Philadelphia 1777 is my first introduction to the Campaigns of the American Revolution Series and I like what I see. This low-complexity wargame covers a difficult campaign and is playable is two hours or less. Perfect for boardgame night. I see that I can get the first three volumes (New York 1776, Trenton 1776, and Saratoga 1777) at a nice discount….

Feature image courtesy Worthington Publishing

Cool #Wargame #FirstImpressions – The Mannerheim Line Campaign (Counterfact Magazine #12, ossgames.com, 2020)

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 Combat OR 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.

Final Thoughts

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!

#Wargame #FirstImpression – War at Sea goes 1898 in Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898 (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

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.

Dawn of Empire: The Spanish-American Atlantic Naval War, 1898. Designed by Stephen Newberg. Published by Compass Games, 2020. Complexity – Medium-Low. Time Scale – 1 Turn = 11 Days. Map Scale: Strategic Areas of Varied Sizes. Unit Scale – Individual Warships. Number of Players – 2. Solitaire Suitability – Medium. Average Time to Play – 2-3 hours.

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 more pass 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:

  1. Search Resolution Segment
  2. Port Attack Resolution Segment
  3. Battle Line Resolution Segment
  4. 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 iterations  of 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.

Setting Sail

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.

Battle Report

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

(Alternate) History to #Wargame – Apr to June 1947 Flight Log of Hauptmann B – or – #FirstImpressions of Amerika Bomber: Evil Queen of the Skies (@compassgamesllc, 2020)

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.

Game Statistics

  • 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
  • Fighter Kills: Ventral Gunner-5, Tail Gunner-4, Flight Engineer-1
  • 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.

Courtesy Compass Games

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.

NarrativeAmerika 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.

10912135Alternate 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.

Feature image courtesy Compass Games


#Coronapocalypse #Boardgaming #FirstImpression – Summer starts early with Azul: Summer Pavilion (nextmovegames.com, 2019)

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.

The game I settled upon is Azul: Summer Pavilion (Next Move Games, 2019). Why Azul? Well, it aligns well with her (limited) gaming interests:

  • It’s colorful
  • It’s an abstract game (Qwirkle is a favorite)
  • It’s easy to learn.

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.