The costs of the #wargame #boardgame hobby

Looks like the hobby boardgame and wargame industry could be hit by tariffs on games and parts made in China. Dependably, hobby gamers on BoardGameGeek and Twitter are all abuzz.

“A 25% tariff is going to make games unaffordable!” Maybe. Roger Miller, President of Revolution Games points out:

Its a tariff on the production cost of games, not the list price. Production as a percentage of list price is usually between 12%-20%. So an increase in total price of 5% would cover the entire tariff.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2204314/lot-games-are-going-get-more-expensive

A 5% increase in game prices is not great, but it’s not the end of the world either.

Other BGG users are lamenting the “inevitable” decrease in quality by not printing in China:

I have had several publishers tell me that they can’t get the quality as good printing in the US as they get printing in China. I don’t know whether that’s true of all types of games or just the games those designers publish. But it’s a mistake to assume the only reason to print in China is price. It’s possible that tariffs could lead to quality dropping as more games are printed in the US.

BGG User Eric Brocius

I think Uwe Eickert of @AcademyGames might have a different opinion:

“…and today we are going to talk about quality issues we are seeing from China.”

Fortunately, I have options. The US-based print-on-demand publishing model of Hollandspiele (@Hollandspiele) is looking mighty appealing right now. Games like Brave Little Belgium (in the header image) are quite likely going to bubble to the top of the purchase queue….

All this drama is going to have to play out. To me, the bottom line is that I will likely have to pay more for games. The question is, “how much?” I believe the increase “should” be less than 25% but I am not sure many companies in the very cottage-like boardgame industry are prepared. So I expect prices to go up by at least 25% and maybe more.

Yes, this means I will have to get pickier on what I buy. But…if companies want to keep chasing my wallet they need to be diligent about controlling their costs and only passing on to me what is fair and proper. To be clear – I am perfectly willing to pay a premium price for a good game; I am not willing to pay premium dollars to a company unable to control their cost AND quality. Just because you can’t control YOUR costs doesn’t mean I automatically accept you passing that problem to ME (close to what I used to hear in the military, “Your stupidity is NOT my emergency!”).

Hey, here’s and idea! Let’s play the games we already got! Maybe tariffs will slow down the spread of the Cult of the New or be the antidote to the viral Fear of Missing Out. For myself I am behind on my 2019 challenges to play all the Charles S. Roberts and Golden Geek and Origins Award winners I have in my collection. That’s over 50 games to play this year! Or maybe I go ahead and pull the trigger on Scythe: The Rise of Fenris and start a campaign. Or I get the latest FREE Cepheus Engine: Faster than Light rules and start that RPG campaign the RockyMountainNavy Boys have been hounding me about.

If anything, I probably need to invest in those expansions or published-but-unpurchased games NOW before people slow down buying “new” games and turn their dollars towards that segment of the market and drive prices up. That’s what I’m going to tell Mrs. RockyMountainNavy to explain the bills. It’s sure to work….


Feature image Brave Little Belgium from Hollandspiele. A “towering” figure in the hobby boardgame industry tried to besmirch this game; don’t “vasel-ate”, just buy it and enjoy a great game!

#Wargamer vs #Boardgamer – My commentary on when best of intentions go wrong (and not helped by an obnoxious attitude)

I WAS MORE than a little curious when one of my favorite wargame designers, Tom Russell of Hollandspiele, made this tweet.

I was lucky and my google-fu was working and I quickly located the video in question. It was painful to watch. Tom was right; the reviewer had absolutely NO interest in the game and their comments reflected that. It was obnoxious and personally offensive. Not in what was said, but in how it was said.

When I viewed the video it had 25 “Likes” and 65 “Dislikes” (I was number 66). Fortunately for Tom, the comments were running heavily in his favor. I guess I was lucky because within an hour of my viewing the user had deleted the video. While I am happy the user deleted the video, I am sad that it happened in the first place. It would not have happened if the user had stopped a moment and found some ethical grounding for what they do.

Somewhere I vaguely recollect that the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) was looking at codifying ethics for content creators, but in the present absence of those I think hobby gaming content creators could look to food critics for an example of proper behavior. The Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) posts their Code of Ethics online. They start with five core principles:

  1. We take pride in our work, and respect the work of others.
  2. We do not abuse our position.
  3. We avoid conflicts of interest.
  4. We recognize and respect diversity.
  5. We are committed to transparency in our work.

Before you jump ahead and claim “reviewers are not journalists,” I will point to the AFJ Code of Ethics that states, “Reviewers should subscribe to the same accepted standards of professional responsibility as other journalists.” The AFJ also talks specifically about negative reviews. There are many hobby gaming content creators that could learn from these words:

Negative reviews are fine, as long as they’re fair and accurate. Critics must always be conscious they are dealing with people’s livelihoods. Negative reviews, especially, should be based on multiple visits and a broad exploration of the restaurant’s menu. Following a consistent reviewing policy without deviation may protect a critic from charges of bias or favoritism, while providing a platform from which to defend the review.

In this situation, I strongly believe the content creator clearly failed to respect the work of Tom. The video was very dismissive of the game, even stating, “I don’t know why someone sent this to me.” I could make an argument that the content creator abused their position.

I earnestly want to make the argument that the content creator failed to respect diversity. Not because of Tom’s race, but because Tom is a wargame designer. From the beginning, Tom knew not to send this particular creator a wargame because they not only dislike wargames, they openly hate them. As a personal position I am fine with that, I am not going to tell someone else what to think. The problem I have is that this content creator has monetized their opinions which, in my mind, means a higher ethical standard is needed.

iu
Courtesy BoardGameGeek

Finally, I question the judgement of the content creator. Why did they make the unboxing video in the first place? Do they unbox every game without any sort of prescreen? If the reaction was that emotionally negative, did they not pause to ponder if their video was “fair and accurate” or just a visceral outpouring of their biases against a genre of gaming? There was obviously no thought. Just imagine what could of happened if the creator had contacted Tom and politely stated he was declining to post his video because “it’s not in my wheelhouse.” The ensuing conversation would of likely been good for both sides.


Feature image Brave Little Belgium. See my impressions here.

#Boardgamer or #Wargamer? Let’s throw in a little Kickstarter rant too

I was listening to designer Tom Russell in his interview on 5 Games for Doomsday. Tom talks about how he didn’t play games with his family growing up. This got me thinking about how I got into hobby gaming and where I am today.

I got seriously into gaming in 1979 when I was in middle school and discovered Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing. In the years prior to that my parents had a few games around but we barely played them. The titles I recall are Monopoly, Clue, Othello, and Waterworks in addition to Chinese Checkers. The only games I really remember playing are Chinese Checkers and Othello.

Gulo Gulo BoxFrom 1979 until the early 2000’s I was a pure wargamer. I also dabbled in roleplaying games but wargames were my real hobby. It was not until the RockyMountainNavy Kids grew up a bit that I tried some family games like Gulo Gulo (still a favorite).

In 2016 my hobby took on a new direction with the real discovery of hobby boardgames. At the recommendation of Uwe Eickert of Academy Games I picked up Scythe – and discovered a whole new world of gaming. In 2017 and 2018 I went overboard with rediscovered wargaming and boardgaming. Too far overboard – at the start of 2019 Mrs. RockyMountainNavy asked that I look hard at my gaming budget and think about some restraint.

So in 2019 I have tried to restrain myself. In doing so, I have thought about my game buying habits in 2017 and 2018. I continuously told myself that I was not a member of the Cult of the New or susceptible to the Fear of Missing Out.

Wrong. Not only was I a CotN member, but I was fully infected with FoMO.

In 2019 I initiated a series of gaming challenges (CSR, Origins, Golden Geek) that have forced me (willingly) to explore older games in my collection. I have found some bad ones, but many good ones. It has been a great reminder that I have good games in my collection and they deserve some love.

Dk_yqCEWsAki4_HIn 2019 I have tried to find my roots. As I look across the boardgaming world I find fewer and fewer titles that appeal to me. If there is one area that I am really interested in, it’s hybrid games like Root (wargame or strategy game?) or several Hollandspiele titles like the Supply Lines of the American Revolution series.

Another part of the hobby I am less-than-satisfied with is Kickstarter. I respect companies that use Kickstarter to bring games to print that would otherwise never see the light of day. But more and more I see companies using Kickstarter as a glorified pre-order system. I understand that many companies like the fact that the risk is moved from them to the consumer. They may like it but I am not as appreciative. What I see in many cases is that I am advancing the company a loan – without interest.

Now, I don’t necessarily define “interest” as money. A Kickstarter campaign that offers exclusives or stretch goals that area only available to backers is one form. But more and more I see companies not offering stretch goals or campaign exclusives – what you get in the campaign is what you can buy at retail.

I also dislike the risk that I am assuming in the enjoyment of the game. Kickstarter demands you pledge to support a game based upon only a few known, and many unknown, factors. Maybe that designer has a history of good games but I am sure there are a few turkeys in there. That company has its own history too. But what about the game? How does the game really play? This forces a dependency on hobby content providers at a time when “critical” reviews are fewer and fewer. Nobody watches a 30 minute video review of a 2 hour movie; why should we be forced to watch a lengthy video for a game? No.

So I have returned to being a wargamer first and a boardgamer second. I have several good titles in my collection. Scythe will remain. Terraforming Mars (minus several expansions) will stay in the rotation. Firefly: The Board Game will get played but Star Wars: Outer Rim is likely a pass. I’m going to finish up my challenges for the year.

And I’m going to enjoy every game played.

#FirstImpressions – #BraveLittleBelgium (@Hollandspiele, 2019)

Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019) is the newest wargame to land on the RockyMountainNavy gaming table. Here is the publisher’s blurb:

In the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a complex web of interlocking treaties led to powers both great and small taking sides in the Great War. Belgium, however, declared its neutrality. German war plans against France called for an invasion through Belgium, and they demanded free passage. When the Belgians refused, the Germans invaded…

Brave Little Belgium recreates this dramatic early campaign of the First World War in a lightning-quick introductory wargame with plenty of challenges for both sides. As the German Player, you must smash through the enemy’s defenses as quickly as possible, relentlessly advancing. But push your men too hard, and they might commit atrocities that will rally world opinion against you. As the Entente Player, you must stage a desperate defense against overwhelming odds. When and where to fall back, and where to take a stand, are decisions of vital importance.

Combat is fast and streamlined, while a clever take on chit-pull activations creates moments of tension and uncertainty. The result is an engaging wargame for new recruits and grognards alike from first-time designers and longtime friends Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw.

I recently have been very taken with chit-activation wargames which was part of the reason I picked up this game. In my first solo play the chit-pull mechanic certainly made it solo friendly, but that same mechanic also introduced a classic friction and fog-of-war into the campaign. A little bit of a push-your-luck mechanism also fit the theme to a tee.

Let me be clear from the beginning; Brave Little Belgium is an excellent game. I tip my hat to designers Ryan Heilman (@ryanheilman) and Dave Shaw for taking a single 22″x17″ map, 88 counters, and an eight-page (actually just over six) rule book and making a very tense and exciting game.

Knowing the history and looking at the set up, this looks like it will be a cake-walk for the Germans.

rVPALjKUQ12wTsRP9AguWA
Set Up

However, once the first movement comes those little lines between boxes suddenly become so restrictive. The straight lines cost 1 MP, the squiggly (“difficult”) cost 2 MP. Infantry can only move two and cavalry four. But it should be alright because the Germans are simply going to sweep across the board, just like the staff planning maps say, right?

IX0AUm7hR5yjkYIOqPhg4w
End Turn 1 – Liege under siege

This is where the chit-draw mechanic comes in. German armies can move when their chit is drawn. If the three Turn End chits are drawn before all the armies move there is an opportunity for each army to move, but at the risk of an Atrocity – too many atrocities and world opinion hardens against the Kaiser.

seQGmscERmysB1uqagIJnA
German offensive slows

In my game, in the early turns the Turn End chits came out early. In order to keep the offensive going, the Germans had to risk Atrocities.

8IdELoeqTtCjIWAqZ5NE%w
Liege almost reduced but other German armies fail to advance

In order to win, the Germans must reduce the forts of Liege and Namur and get an infantry unit across the victory line to the west.

GjbDnqeOSCag3TVHuKt3GQ
Germans still stuck at Liege and Namur

In the mid-game the chit-draws started favoring the Germans. Liege was being ground down while Namur was invested. The German First Army made a dash for Ghent.

5alHMQmOQMuITsANplESpg
German threaten Ghent but the British move to defend

The fortresses of Liege and Namur proved very formidable and the Germans threw themselves against the forts with little success. One of the German chits is Big Bertha that deals an automatic hit to a fort. It can be used by an army if it has already been pulled. In a fine example of timing not working right, many times the Big Bertha event was drawn after a sieging army was activated, thus rendering the event near-worthless.

ZWQRCtMISQybLQYWpypuUQ
Liege falls, but is it too late for the Germans?

Eventually, Liege fell but at the cost of effectively destroying the German 2nd Army. Namur held stubbornly. In the north, the German 1st Army attacked the British in Ghent but were repulsed although most of the British Army was destroyed.

k7nf9+gyR8a2FTvxrDUJBA
Germans race against time to reach Ghent and reduce Namur

The chit pulls again created an interesting flow of events. Before the German 1st Army could attack out of Brussels the British and Belgium armies moved with the Belgiums assuming the defense of Ghent.

ZB634K8tQriUF2c7ReDGiw
The war will be long but at least the Entente started off strong

In the end, the Germans simply ran out of chits and time. Namur held and the German First Army was unable to break the defenses at Ghent. Brave Little Belgium held!

Gameplay

The rules for Brave Little Belgium are super-easy to digest. This is a game that can be learned, or taught, very quickly. In my first game, I needed to reread the siege rules the first time through to capture a few nuances but it didn’t derail the game or cause a reset. My playthrough above certainly was not anything close to an “optimal” play but it was a wonderful exploration of the core gameplay elements.

The chit-pull mechanic really shines in this game. It creates tension every turn and moments of elation when the right chit comes out, as well as dejection when the chits aren’t pulled in the preferred order (I can’t count how many times Big Bertha came available after the siege combat has occurred).

Combat? Well, if you don’t like dice-chuckers then Brave Little Belgium is not your game. But the simple combat keeps the game moving without distraction from the tension of the chit-pulls.

Components

Look at that map! It looks like a canvas map that a field commander would be using. Really helps with the immersive experience. Maybe next Christmas Hollandspiele will offer this one in a canvas map – AUTO BUY!

I have to admit it was a bit disconcerting at first to see dice faces printed on combat counters. What is this, a game? Luckily, any feelings of thematic disorientation quickly fade away as the dice on counters feeds the quick combat resolution system. Sure, putting a number would have worked too but the dice face makes sorting for combat go quicker. In Brave Little Belgium the design choice fits the ease-of-play approach well.

Verdict

Some historical purist may accuse Brave Little Belgium of being “ahistorical” because, we all just know the Belgiums never stood a chance. Or did they? In Brave Little Belgium the Entente play wins if they delay the Germans, not defeat them. This is a great theme for a wargame to explore – victory is doing better than history, not necessarily changing it.

The hype is right; Brave Little Belgium is a great game for wargame newcomers or grognards alike. I wouldn’t call it a filler game but it plays really quickly and each turn and decision is engaging for both sides.


All images by self

RockyMountainNavy’s 2019 most anticipated #wargames & #boardgames featuring @Academy_Games @danverssengames @GMTGames @Hollandspiele @mighty_boards

THIS IS THE TIME of the year that many folks look back on on the past year and forward into the next. This is a forward look at my most anticipated games in 2019. Note the use of the plural. There are so many games out there that it is impossible for me to declare a single one as my most anticipated! Instead, I compiled a list of games scheduled to be published in 2019 that highly interest me. It will surprise nobody that as a wargamer most all of the games on this list are, well, wargames or waros.

Amongst the many interesting games to be published in 2019, the ones of most interest to me are:

nof_packshotNights of Fire: Battle of Budapest (Mighty Board Games): This title, co-designed by Brian Train, almost snuck under my radar. I totally missed the Kickstarter and it was not until Mr. Train pointed it out to me that I took notice. I am very glad I did. I am very intrigued by the mix of game mechanics (Revolutionaries using hidden blocks, Soviets using a hand-building mechanism). The different player counts also intrigues me (Coop vs AI, 2v1, Solo). The topic may be obscure but the game takes that obscurity and shines a light on it with a very innovative approach.

pic439690_mdConflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel! Kursk – 1943 (3rd Edition) (Academy Games): The Conflict of Heroes series is my favorite World War II tactical combat game (right up there with Panzer from GMT Games for armored combat). I participated in the ProofHQ for the new rules. Some folks complain about the new rules (especially the Spent Die); personally I like them and look forward to fighting on the steppes of Russia.

pic4431242Wings of the Motherland (Clash of Arms): This will be Volume 4 in J.D. Webster’s Fighting Wings system. It covers World War II on the Russian front from Operation BARBAROSSA thru the fall of Berlin. It looks to be a huge game (with a huge price tag too) but will have over 250 scenarios using 48 new aircraft not found in previous series games. The Fighting Wings system is definitely at the higher end of the complexity curve of wargaming, but once you grasp the basic flow of the game and key concepts it plays quick and delivers an incredible narrative for the dogfight. For me, the love affair with JD Webster’s air games goes all the way back to 1987 and his Air Superiority (GDW) title.

castle20itter20box20top20MOCKUP_largeCastle Itter: The Strangest Battle of WW II (Dan Verssen Games): I missed Pavlov’s House, the first in the now-called Valiant Defender’s series. This is a solitaire game and I usually don’t go for solitaire systems but once again the combination of interesting topic and innovative game design draws my attention. Like Nights of Fire above, these different games taking an unusual approach to the topic are popping tall on my radar this year.

dc_medium-1District Commander: Maracas (Hollandspiele): More Brian Train designs. I am happy to see my favorite little game publisher, Hollandspiele, bringing this games to print in 2019. For a while, Mr. Train is offering a free PnP version of the first game here. These are diceless games covering counter-insurgency in the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet again, a different game design approach to the topic.

img_0154Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (GMT Games): This is a card-based game for 1-8 players that is supposed to be fast-paced. I hope this will be a great pick-up game for the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself. If nothing else the artwork in the game looks to be incredible and immersive.

I could keep going but I will stop here and end with this comment. I notice a lack of hobby boardgames in this list. Although I turned hard into hobby gaming in 2017 and early 2018 my interest in that segment of the hobby has dropped off. Other than Root (my Game of the Year in 2018) my more recent hobby boardgame acquisitions have been a bit flat. This past week, a new Kickstarter came to my attention: War of the Worlds: The New Wave Game (Grey Fox Games). I was very tempted to pull the trigger and pledge but I hesitated. Although the price is great ($39 basic pledge) I am not sold on deck-building games in general. It is also only a 2-player game; these days I prefer boardgames that support 3- or 4-players so it can be a family event. I think I’ll pass on this one, but am trying to stay hopeful and see what else pops up in the coming year.

#Wargame for Train Coups & Nukes – Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (@GMTGames, 2017)

548
Courtesy GMT Games

What do you get when you mix designer Brian Train, COIN in Algeria, and nukes? I’m going to find out soon!

I recently acquired a new-in-shrink copy of Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (GMT Games, 2017). This is my second COIN-series game (the other being Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, GMT Games, 2016). This is also my third owned game by designer Brian Train.

x2bfoxasrekrid%ht0pofa
Event 66

I never really thought I would be interested in the French-Algerian War, but curiosity is sometimes born in unusual places. In my case, it was an article I ran across recently. A “Nuclear Coup”? France, the Algerian War and the April 1961 Nuclear Test is a paper that details the days before an April 1961 French nuclear test in the Algerian desert. The test takes place at the same time there is a coup by French generals in Algeria against DeGaulle. That event is captured on Event Card 66 – Coup d’Etat, and reflects the “General’s Putsch” to seize power. Nuclear tests do not appear in any of the event cards in Colonial Twilight so one cannot play out the scenario of the rebels getting a device. Granted, that situation exceeds the design focus of the game but it’s an interesting thought experiment. Hopefully by playing Colonial Twilight I will get a better sense of the background and the general situation in Algeria during that time.

I also am looking forward to playing this game because of the designer. I always find Brian Train’s games interesting to play and educational. He certainly picks topics that are not the usual. I have played his Reichswehr & Freikorps (Strategy & Tactics, 2012) and more recently his Finnish Civil War (Compass Games, Paper Wars, 2017) – both games of civil wars. I am very happy to finally own Colonial Twilight as I believe Mr. Train is one of the foremost designers on “civil war” and counter-insurgency games and look forward to what his design can teach me. It also doesn’t hurt that Colonial Twilight is also a 2-player version of the COIN-series; a player-count that I want to explore more.

dc_medium
Courtesy Hollandspiele

I am also looking forward to Mr. Train’s collaboration with Hollandspiele in his new District Commander-series coming this year. As Hollandspiele’s Tom Russell describes it:

“One more series we’re proud to be launching is Brian Train’s District Commander. These four diceless games for two players cover counter-insurgency operations in the twenty and twenty-first century. Our plan is to release the first two games (Maracas and Bin Dinh) in 2019, with the other two games seeing your table in 2020. Brian is one of our favorite designers – there’s a reason why one of his designs got our very first hex number – so we’re very pleased to be working with him on this project.”

(Darn it, Tom! Now I am going to have to get The Scheldt Campaign!)

Wargames; they’re not only for fun, but educational too.

“History Distilled to Its Essence” – #FirstImpression of @markherman54’s Gettysburg (@RBMStudio1, 2018) in C3i Magazine Issue Nr 32 (with a s/o to @tomandmary too)

I was quite taken with the thing. I think it plays to the strengths of the small game format while avoiding the pitfalls, and I highly recommend it. (Tom Russell, Hollandazed Blog for 21 Dec 2018)

I have to agree with Tom Russell (@tomandmary from Hollandspiele Games). Gettysburg, the first in what looks to be a new series of simple wargames published by RBM Studio in their flagship C3i Magazine is a small footprint, rules-lite product that delivers tremendously challenging choices. It might be a small looking game, but it is large on making decisions interesting.

At first glance, Gettysburg seems to have little to offer. You play on a single 11″x17″ map with only 26(!) counters. Rules are in a large-font 12-page Rule Book. [Take out the cover, Player Aid on the back cover, and three pages of graphics and one is left with seven (7!) pages of actual rules.] There are only six turns, each representing a half-day. However, after playing Gettysburg one quickly discovers that designer Mark Herman (@markherman54) was not exaggerating when he subtitled the Rule Book as Gettysburg: History Distilled to Its Essence.

Mr. Herman accomplishes this design feat by focusing on few tried-and-true wargame mechanisms while adding several innovative(?) wrinkles. The first wargame trope Mr. Herman relies upon is the Zone of Control (ZoC). In Gettysburg, every unit exerts a ZoC into the six hexes around it. Like most wargames, when a unit enters an enemy ZoC it must stop and cannot move any further during the Movement Phase. To any traditional wargamer this is old hat; dare I say “boring?”

The interesting wrinkle introduced is the concept of Zone of Influence (ZoI). A ZoI is all hexes within two of the unit. Now, I am sure ZoI has been used in other games but in Gettysburg the effect of ZoI makes me take notice. Units starting the Movement Phase outside of an enemy ZoC or ZoI are turned to their speedier March Formation side. Units can move at their March Formation speed until they enter an enemy ZoI – at which point they have to flip to their much slower Battle Formation side. Now movement is interesting; there is no dashing right up to the enemy!

WLB8PIpRS16rlHTufg0fng
Game in progress

At the same time he uses ZoC and ZoI, Mr. Herman mixes in another old school gaming trope, I go, you go (IGO UGO), but turns it on its head. As expected, players alternate taking actions in the Movement or Attack Phase until one player passes. But, instead of letting the second player continue until they finally want to pass, the non-passing player rolls a die and adds the number of friendly units outside of an enemy ZoC. The modified result is the number of remaining Move Actions that player has. Similarly, in the Attack Phase, once a player passes, an unmodified die roll is made with the result being the remaining number of attacks possible. The passing die roll reasonably reflects the problems of Command & Control in the days of the American Civil War. Sometimes commanders get what they want; other times the fickle hand of fate interferes.

In the Attack Phase, Gettysburg becomes a bit less traditional. First , there is no Combat Results Table (CRT) in the game. Instead, players make a series of competitive die rolls with the modified difference creating the combat result. Modifiers to combat are few and easy to remember; Artillery Support is a +2, Defensible Terrain is +2, any stars on the unit counter are a positive modifier, and if attacking with more than two units in the defender’s ZoC there is another +2. After rolling dice and applying modifies, the difference can range from Stalemate to Retreat to Blown (off the map to possibly return two turns later) to Eliminated. Although the combat resolution is not traditional, the simple rules capture the essence (where have I seen that word?) of combat results in the American Civil War.

The interaction of the basic ZoC, the extended ZoI, and a “traditional” IGO UGO turn sequence with an different “passing” mechanism combines with easy no-CRT combat resolution mean the “simple” rules of Gettysburg create huge decision space. As Tom Russell relates in his blog post:

The moment one of the players passes is a hinge point upon which the tempo of the phase turns. Suddenly the order in which I move my dudes matters. Because the Union position is largely defensive, I find that they’re more likely to pass first, which creates a situation in which the hitherto orderly Confederates are suddenly forced to improvise. What I had intended to be coordinated assaults all up and down the line become hodge-podge little affairs.

Gettysburg the battle was a huge affair. As Bruce Catton wrote in the Encounter at Gettysburg chapter of his book Never Call Retreat (Phoenix Press, 1965),

The commanding generals never meant to fight at Gettysburg. The armies met there by accident, led together by the turns of the roads they followed. When they touched, they began to fight, because the tension was so high the first contact snapped it, and once begun the fight was uncontrollable. What the generals intended ceased to matter; each man had to cope with what he got, which was the most momentous battle of the war. (p. 178-179).

Gettysburg the game delivers what it promises; a simple wargame that captures the essence of the battle – those hodge-podge little affairs that the generals never wanted but which you the player need to cope with. In Gettysburg Mr. Herman has distilled the battle to its essentials, and the resulting game is a master-class example of making a small, streamlined title that delivers an outsized, replayable experience.

Winter #Wargaming – or – When the Cold War went hot playing NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018)

NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) bills itself as, “…the game of solitaire strategic air command in World War III.” Well, really it’s “operational” air command (go look at Joint Pub 1 page I-7) but I can forgive that mistake because NATO Air Commander is a very enjoyable solitaire wargame.

Part of the “charm” of NATO Air Commander is that it is very thematic. From the map that looks like so many charts I looked at back in the day, to all the acronyms, the game oozes 80’s Cold War theme. Last night in my game I discovered another thematic feature – nukes.

In this particular case, it’s rule 13.4 Nuclear Escalation Step. Simply put, during the Turn End Phase if the Warsaw Pact (WP) player has 20 or more Victory Points you draw a Resolution Card. If the card number is less than the VP amount, the game ends as your superiors have decided to employ nuclear weapons. Rightly so, the rule ends with, “Boo!”

IMG_0108So did my game end on Turn 6. It was a nasty battle with the WP getting heavy reinforcements on nearly every Thrust Line on Turn 1. So much reinforcements that I was not able to turn back the juggernaut. That, and the Major Effort Objective Card calling for seven Raids when my air forces have already taken a beating; well, defeat was almost inevitable.

I also really appreciate that NATO Air Commander has a very small footprint – it’s really a small coffee table game – meaning it an be set up nearly anywhere. Right now my regular gaming area has been replaced by the Christmas present wrapping station so I have to game on “borrowed” real estate elsewhere in the house. The diceless resolution mechanic also means it’s a quiet game – no rattling of dice on a table makes it a great for late-night play when the Significant Other is already asleep.

When evil is good – great wargaming with Table Battles (@Hollandspiele, 2017)

uzYnpkZgTZOXhUpmAh6N2ASaturday morning is not the usual time a wargame hits the table in the RockyMountainNavy house. This past Saturday was a bit different as the Youngest RockyMountainNavy was studying for a math quiz and the Middle RockyMountainNavy Boy was a bit bored waiting for his brother to finish. So I challenged him to a game of Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 2017).

This was Middle RMN Boy’s first time playing. We set up The Battle of White Mountain (Thirty Years War, 1620) and he took the Imperial & Catholic League. Game play proceeded a bit slowly as I had to be patient as he absorbed the game rules. My Middle RMN Boy is on the Autism Spectrum and he sometimes struggles with multi-step rules or too many choices. It’s not that he suffers from Analysis Paralysis (AP) while gaming, he just takes a bit longer to process his thoughts. Table Battles turned out to be a good game for him; simple enough rules and procedures with just enough depth of to create a challenging (but not insurmountable) array of choices.

In Table Battles, Special Formations are usually the most powerful, and therefore the hardest to “ready.” Middle RMN had The Twelve Apostles (historically the twelve biggest cannons) as his Special Formation and to “ready” it takes a “Straight 4;” rolling a sequence of four consecutive numbers on the dice. As the Special Formation card is harder to load, it also can be easy to miss when rolling.

Me – “OK, go ahead and roll.”

RMN Boy – [Rolls five dice as one formation already has a die placed]

Me – “Well, you could….”

RMN Boy – “I rolled a 2, 3, 4, 5. I can load this card, right?”

Me – “Uh, sure….”

RMN Boy  – [Smiling & laughing evilly as he adds a cube to the Special Formation]

That pretty much describes the battle. The end came down to two last formations, each almost reduced and ready to Rout. After I rolled and failed to get the needed Triplet to ready my formation I thought I would have another chance as his formation was totally unready with no dice placed.

Me – “OK, roll your dice.”

RMN Boy – “I really need a triple to load my card.” [Rolls dice – 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 6]

Me – [Deep sigh]

RMN Boy – “So I move these here. Dad, you sure you don’t want to surrender now?”

Even though I lost it was a great game. While the Youngest RMN Boy has proclaimed Table Battles as a “favorite game” I think it is Middle RMN Boy who will enjoy this game more. Kudos to designer Tom Russell (@tomandmary) for making a simple, yet deep wargame that I can enjoy with all my boys.

Featured image – Battle of White Mountain, oil on canvas by Pieter Snayers (courtesy wikipedia). You can practically see the Table Battles formation cards in the scene….

Taking Command – First Impressions of NATO Air Commander (@Hollandspiele, 2018)

pic194368_t
Courtesy BGG.com

I am a Cold Warrior. I came of age in the 1980’s in the Reagan-era of the Cold War. I read Red Storm Rising or Team Yankee. In my wargames I fought the Red Bear at sea using Harpoon (Adventure Games, 1981/GDW 1987), fought them in the air in Air Superiority (GDW, 1987), and on the battlefields of Europe when playing Assault: Tactical Combat in Europe – 1985 (GDW, 1983). I even played the Twilight: 2000 RPG (GDW, 1984). In the late 1980’s, I joined the US Navy and we trained for the Big One – going toe-to-toe with the Russkies.

Fortunately, that war never came. Which makes NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a sort of alternate-history game. I acquired NATO Air Commander during the 2018 Hollandays Sale and took it out for a few sorties. NATO Air Commander is another “wargame” in my collection that challenges the classic hex-&-counter definition of a wargame. Instead, NATO Air Commander is yet another waro in my collection; a wargame using Eurogame mechanics in a highly thematic game.

Presentation

pic4348455
Courtesy BGG.com

NATO Air Commander has a very small footprint. The map by Ania B. Ziolkowska looks just like so many air charts of the day with simple, believable graphics superimposed. The entire mapsheet layout is easy to understand. I do wish the Basing box was a bit bigger; at the size given one ends up with a big stack of aircraft piled high. The counters are typical Hollandspiele/Blue Panther; thick and punch cleanly with simple, easy-to-understand graphics.

Playability

NATO Air Commander is a solitaire game and like most solitaire games the rules are very procedural. The rules are 12 double-column pages and step the players through the turn sequentially. The rules themselves are not difficult to learn; I personally rate them  a 2- Medium Light on BoardGameGeek. After just a few plays all that is needed to reference is the Player Aid on the last page of the rule book.

Mechanics

At it’s heart, NATO Air Commander is a card game. Players draw Objective Cards that reflect their commander’s needs for the turn. The players then allocate their precious (and dwindling) air forces (resources) to Raids. Each Raid is resolved using Resolution Cards and the advance, or (very occasionally) retreat of Warsaw Pact forces along six Thrust Lines (Avenues of Advance) is determined. The success of missions and advance of forces affects the number of Resource Points (RP) available to repair or replace lost aircraft or “purchase” needed upgrades like Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs).

pic4348460
Courtesy BGG.com

NATO Air Commander is also a dice-less game; instead everything is resolved using the Resolution Cards. Typically, the player compares the relevant factor to the card factor modified by a track. If the factor is greater than the modified card number it is a success. Once the player is familiar with what track modifies what card factor resolving an event becomes easy and almost instantaneous.

Historical Flavor

Starting with the map, the game feels very period-thematic. Although the different aircraft types are not marked, if one knows a bit of aircraft recognition it is easy to see. Some folks on BoardGameGeek forums have groused about aircraft ratings. I am with the designer here when he says if you don’t like it, change it yourself!

pic4456534
Courtesy BGG.com

Speaking of the BGG forums, some folks have complained about the number of acronyms used in the game. Sure, the rules could probably use a glossary but the use of those terms actually help become more immersed in the play. Except for one acronym – DEAD. As defined in NAC this is “Destruction of Air Defenses” which I learned as SEAD (Suppression of Air Defenses). It make absolutely no difference to play, just makes me grin as I move the track marker.

Overall, NATO Air Commander immerses the player in the period. The map, the aircraft, the relentless Soviet hordes, all make for a very tense game experience. There is also just the right amount of chrome. For instance, there is one (1!) Stealth bomber unit and never enough Precision Guided Munitions.

Support

Both publisher Tom Russell (BGG user tomrussell) and designer Brad Smith (enragedbees on BGG) are very active on BoardGameGeek forums. Questions are usually answered very quickly.

As a repeat customer of Hollandspiele games I also feel the need to address the “stinky” issue. Hollandspiele games are printed by Blue Panther in a form of print-on-demand publishing. The inks used by Blue Panther give off a smell that Steve has assured is not dangerous. Yes, the odor can be strong when the box is first opened. I find that if I keep the box open for a day or two in a lesser used portion of the house the odor goes away.

Bottom Line

NATO Air Commander almost feels like a game module for a larger game. Indeed, in approach this “air war module” is not that different from systems used in the Fleet-series (Victory Games) or the Next War-series (GMT Games).

Some commenters have stated that the puzzle of NATO Air Commander lends itself to an optimal strategy. Well, yes, there likely is an “optimal” way to use your air force. However, the fickle hand of fate, as embodied in the Resolution Cards, will most assuredly throw wrenches into your “optimal” strategy. Those wrenches are a feature, not a bug. NATO Air Commander forces one to think about allocating precious resources against sometime impossible needs to turn back a relentless horde. If there is one lesson that NATO Air Commander teaches its that defeating the Warsaw Pact invaders was not going to be easy and there was going to be steep losses. Those thematic lessons make for a very tense, stressful game that NATO Air Commander allows one to play with minimal rules overhead and a quick, diceless resolution mechanic.

Featured image courtesy Hollandspiele