It looks like the boardgame/wargame publishing industry is coming back, but at a bit of a slower pace. Let’s look at my forecast and then discuss the reality.
One Small Step (Academy Games, 2020) – Kickstarter Boardgame. An update from mid-May stated that shipping in July was expected. I have not seen an update since. Academy Games does not have the best track record for keeping to timelines but that negative is more than compensated by the top-quality game that usually ends up being delivered. UPDATE from July 8 – “August 11, 2020 Arrival Date: Jacksonville, FL, USA. Note, that shipping to Florida takes 10 days longer than to our normal shipping destination in Cleveland. To Cleveland, the product is shipped to Seattle, WA and then transported by rail to Cleveland. Whereas to Florida, the ship needs to steam to Panama, cross through the Panama Canal, and them make its way up to Florida. USA and Canadian pledges will be shipped from Quartermaster Logistics, which is based in Orlando, FL.”
Philadelphia 1777 (Worthington Games, 2020) – Kickstarter Wargame. A late June update reported the game is arriving at the freight-forwarder and Worthington expects to take possession early in July and start shipping immediately. UPDATE: Delivered July 17.
The Shores of Tripoli (Fort Circle Games, 2020) – Kickstarter Waro. Coronavirus delays have pushed this one back from April, but it looks like July is seriously in play. UPDATE from July 21 – “My post-pandemic expectation was that our print run would be ready to ship from China in early July. Because of a bottleneck at one of the factories (our manufacturer, Panda, uses three different factories for our game – one for the dice, one for the wood pieces and one for the printing and final assembly), the games will not be ready to ship from China until mid-August. The slow boat from China takes five to six weeks, so I am looking at alternatives – mainly, having enough copies airmailed to our distribution points (we are using Quartermaster Logistics and their overseas partners) so we can ship to all of our backers before the end of August. If it is not cost-prohibitive, that is the plan. But if it is cost-prohibitive, then we are looking at delivery in late September. Ugh, I do not even want to contemplate that. As I know more, I will keep all of you updated.”
Heights of Courage: The Battle for the Golan Heights, October 1973 (MMP, 2013) – Sale Wargame. Bought as part of an amazing MMP sale in June. Having never ordered before from MMP I don’t know how fast they usually fulfill orders and realize coronavirus restrictions may be slowing them down. I had hoped to have these games in hand before July but it looks like they will not arrive until after the new month starts. DELIVERED JUNE 30.
It appears to me that shipping, not actual production of games, is a new long pole in the tent. Not surprising given the lack of air transportation worldwide. I know that many games are not airshipped, but the maritime shipping, rail, and truck industries are picking up other cargoes that air shipping used to handle leading in turn to a general slow down of those transportation modes. If you look close even Amazon Prime is sometimes backordered.
How about the look ahead to August? Here are what games may be in play (pun fully intended).
First, my Preorder & Kickstarter GeekListsits at 23 games. Of the three carry-overs from July (One Small Step, Shores of Tripoli, and Undaunted: North Africa) there is a good chance that all but Shores of Tripoli will deliver in August. Of the remaining 20 games:
French & Indian War 1757-1759 (Worthington Publishing): Kickstarter Wargame. From a July 29 Update– “The ship carrying both CRUSADER KINGDOMS and FRENCH & INDIAN WAR will hit the port in New York Auugust 13. We should expect for us to receive the games within 2 weeks of that barring a customs snag. Thats means it is possible we may be shipping the last week of August, and if not then the first week of September!!!”
Looking ahead to the end of the year, it is possible that as many as eight or nine of the games on my current Preorder & Kickstarter GeekList could deliver. Like I said before, that would not only be good for me, but more importantly good for the gaming industry.
After spending over a week of evenings learning and playing the game, I am torn. In some ways Operation Mercury is perfect for me, but it also presents problems. I really like the fact Operation Mercury is a chit-pull game but I have problems with it being a monster game and chatty rules.
My first Grand Tactical Series (GTS)
Before this sale, the only MMP game I owned was a single title from The Gamers, Dean Essig’s predecessor company. Operation Mercury is therefore my introduction to the Grand Tactical Series (GTS). As the MMP ad copy puts it:
The Grand Tactical Series (GTS) recaptures battles on a grand scale with the color and atmosphere that the great campaigns deserve. Updating Victory Games’ popular, playable and accurate Panzer Command system, the series is also created with exquisite historical detail and a game system that allows the players to see the great “Whys” and “What Ifs” as the campaigns unfold.
The back of the box tell us the game scale is Company/Platoon at 500 meters per hex and each turn representing about two hours. That’s fine until you realize Operation Mercury is trying to recreate the entire campaign of multiple divisions fighting at the company level across most of the island of Crete:
OPERATION MERCURY maintains the same level of detail and scale as other Grand Tactical Series (GTS) games. Players command divisions and maneuver company-sized units to fight one of the most desperate battles of the war. Using the GTS 2.0 rules, OPERATION MERCURY offers two players or teams a wide range of scenarios ranging from a single small map with a few units on each side to the full battle including up to two German divisions and several Commonwealth and Greek brigades. OPERATION MERCURY covers all the major airdrops and fighting across the island from Heraklion in the east, through Rethymnon, and from Maleme to Suda Bay then south to the Askifou Plain, scene of the last major fight during the withdrawal.
Grand wargame conflict simulation
To fight those divisions and brigades, Operation Mercury is in many ways a monster game. The game box ships with 5x 22″x34″, 2x 17″x22″, and 2x 8.5″x11″ maps. It also comes with 8x countersheets (1568 5/8″ counters). Simply put, I don’t have tabletop space to play the full campaign game. Fortunately, there are 14 scenarios (including a Learning Scenario) of which eight require two maps or less.
The many counters in Operation Mercury also presented me with a problem (literally) right out of the box. It became very clear early on that I would have to organize all the counters if I was to ever find what I need. That’s because Operation Mercury hews much closer to the ‘conflict simulation’ school of wargaming. Of the 1586 counters, about half are markers and half are units. Units are not generic; each has an individual identifier. When setting up a scenario one needs particular units. I spent a lot of time hunting the unpunched countersheets for “1. Geb.Pi 95” (only to discover that the front of the counter is misprinted as “3. Geb.Pi 95.”). Most importantly, this hunting made me realize that before I punch any counters I need an organization scheme unless I want to spend hours (and I do mean hours) hunting for the particular counters needed in a scenario.
I was very surprised when I opened the Grand Tactical Series rule book. My going-in impression of MMP was built around the mythology of Advanced Squad Leader and the SPI-approach to rules (everything – subbullets and all – numbered). So image my surprise when I opened the rule book to face ‘chatty’ rules. As found in A note about the rules:
There are two sets of rules. The one you are reading now is repetitive and written in a chatty style. It is repetitive because we have duplicated many rules throughout the sections, so you don’t have to flip through the rule book to find the one place where a rule appears. We hope the chatty style makes it easier to read. The tradeoff is longer rules. For those who prefer concise rules (or who find the chatty style irritating), we have included a set of short rules and also tried to put as much useful information as possible on the charts and tables. Experienced gamers should be able to start playing with the short rules and charts and tables. We hop there are no discrepancies between the rules, but this rulebook governs should there be.
First, I dislike chatty. The rules are supposed to communicate how to operate a model; procedures that are best explained procedurally. Second, I find it very hard to find rules in this rule book. Give me an index! The glossary is close but still, an index, please! Finally, the ‘short rules’ is apparently an eight-page Grand Tactical Series 2.0 Rules Summary that is mostly flow charts and again has no cross-references.
What about the rules themselves? Well, there are parts I like and dislike.
HUH? It took me a moment to wrap my head around the concept that a Leg unit using Regular movement pays 2 MP for a Clear hex and 1MP if in Column. A change from the usual (expected?) 1MP/Half-MP model. Once it clicked it clicked but it was unexpected and jarring at first.
DISLIKE. This is where the chatty-rules totally fails me. When the designer sees fit to provide a one or two-page flow chart in the Rules Summary I become wary. At first I depended on the ‘experienced gamer’ claim and tried to play from the flow charts. FAIL! So I then had to go find the rules in the rule book (after all, they are the authoritative version, right?). I eventually figured it out but it was not that easy.
Learning the Fire Combat rules also uncovered some of the underlying game model to me. In particular, the use of color fire ratings to show the different combat doctrines. As noted here:
Historical note: In contrast to the Germans, Allied infantry companies relied more on Fire Rating and less on shock. In particular, Allied methods depended on an almost indiscriminate use of firepower, featuring the light mortar, which stressed quantity more than quality. The Purple Fire Rating reflects this style of fighting. These units use Direct Fire and hence may attempt Opportunity Fire. They cannot use Indirect Fire like regular (green Fire Rating) mortars do and so their fire does not cause Barrage markers to be placed.
As I look over the counters, I can’t help but notice colors other than purple and green. Indeed, many units in Operation Mercury have white or pink. It took me a while to figure out the color is the Weapon Class and directly tied to the Combat Results Table. At the end of the day I figured it out but for something that was explicitly called out in a historical note the full story got buried deep in the rules.
I also have a hard time understanding why there are so many die rolls during combat in Operation Mercury. In a typical direct fire combat event the following arrangement of rolls is very likely:
Assaulter Bravery Check
Defender Opportunity Fire
Troop Quality Check
Combat die roll
Defender Direct Fire (x2)
Combat die roll
Assaulter Direct Fire (x2)
Combat die roll
(If this was first round of fire a second round is possible)
Defender Direct Fire (x2)
Assaulter Direct Fire (x2)
That’s as many as 11 die rolls to resolve a ‘single’ combat. And I’m going to fight how many companies in that division? How many die rolls are possible every turn? I don’t understand why so many die rolls are necessary. When your model requires this much effort from me I really want to understand why. Without understanding the rationale I have a hard time accepting this level of effort from me.
Repetitive? Yes. Confusing? Yes.
There are some rules that just plain bug me. Take for instance that Bravery Check to start an Assault combat action:
29.13. Bravery Check
When a unit has to performs an Assault each Assaulting Unit must pass a Troop Quality Check as its Bravery Check. If a Unit fails its Bravery Check, the Unit does not perform the Assault. A Command Point cannot be used to pass a Bravery Check. Note thet [sic] a Bravery Check is performed like a Troop Quality Check but is not the same thing regarding the rules. A Bravery Check will always fail on a roll of 9.
So, same but different? Let’s look at a Troop Quality Check:
29.47. Troop Quality Check
A test a Unit must pass before it can do various things such as Rally when not in command or Opportunity Fire. To make a Troop Quality Check, you roll a die for the Unit. The Unit passes if the die roll is equal to or less than its Troop Quality Rating (as modified by any applicable modifiers). A nine always fails and a zero always succeeds. A Unit may be able to spend a Command Point instead of rolling a die to pass a Troop Quality check, but a player may not do both (roll, and then spend a Command Point).
No mention of the Bravery Check. To find that mention one must look to the next glossary entry:
29.48. Troop Quality Rating
The measure of a Unit’s morale, supply and training….A Command Point may not be spent to pass the Troop Quality Check required for a Bravery Check, Opportunity Fire and Engineer Actions.
Why the needless terminology of Bravery Check? Just call it a Troop Quality Check without the ability to spend a Command Point!
[OK, yes. The use of the term Bravery is certainly more dramatic, but I don’t think too many people are playing Operation Mercury as a ‘narrative’ game.]
A working-class wargame
More so than most any game I acquired in the past few years, Operation Mercury really makes me work to learn it. Although I consider myself an experienced gamer, it appears my definition and MMP’s do not align. After stumbling through the Learning Scenario using the Rules Summary, I went back and started with reading the full rule book. Then I reset the Learning Scenario and tried again. Only after becoming proficient at the Learning Scenario did I attempt Scenario 1. The investment to learn Operation Mercury was easily the most I have spent in at least the last two years.
This in turn also makes me work harder to explain my thoughts on Operation Mercury here. I want to like the game, but at the same time the overhead from executing the rules is onerous at times. Given the designations of units, it is essential from the beginning that player have a plan for organizing counters or many long hours (yes, hours) will be spent setting up a scenario – and I for one do not welcome that sort of stress coming from simply opening the box.
A monster, or two, in little bites
Then there are the scenarios for Operation Mercury. The Exclusive Rules have 14 scenarios including the Learning Scenario. Fortunately, most can be played on one or two maps. But in doing so yet another organizational need was exposed. Of the 14 scenarios, most use the Campaign Counters but the first four are battalion-level scenarios (vice the campaign Regiment/Brigade) that use a different set of counters. In practice this means the first four scenarios are the same, but different, games as compared to campaign scenarios. So confusing!
A lifestyle game
To me, Operation Mercury and the Grand Tactical Series is not so much a wargame conflict simulation as it is a gaming lifestyle. If you are buying a MMP GTS game for anything near retail it is big investment of money. The game physically requires a big investment in space. You must be willing to invest time to organize, time to learn rules, time to set up, and time to play. These investments in many ways outweigh even the not-insignificant monetary cost of the game.
Yet somehow in the end it comes together and works. For the most part. If you have the space and time and patience to play Operation Mercury you should. It took a great deal of effort but I eventually figured the game out. The game mechanics really are not hard and the flow charts help once you understand them. The scenarios present many interesting challenges and decisions. Operation Mercury truly is a grand view of the battle.
THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID ABOUT USING A STANDARD SET OF RULES IN A SERIES. One advantage is moving from game to game in the series is easier because the learning curve is reduced. A disadvantage often is the game starts feeling too generic and loses the essence of each different conflict. My recent look at Brief Border Wars (Compass Games, 2020) showed me how a good set of series rules can work with just a few exclusive rules to make different, interesting games. Recently, I took advantage of a sale by Multi-Man Publishing and picked up a few different games. Amongst the acquisitions were two games in their Standard Combat Series. I was able to get one of them, Panzer Battles: 11th Panzer on the Chir River (MMP, 2016) to the table quickly. I am happy to discover that while the game is ‘standard,’ it also is very unique. More importantly, Panzer Battles teaches us about command and control in warfare; lessons learned over 75 years ago but still applicable today.
MMP describes their Standard Combat Series (SCS) as this:
The Standard Combat Series (SCS) enables both experienced and beginning players to enjoy simple to play and quick to learn games. Each game is a quick-start, complete simulation: rules, a detailed color map, 280 counters, and everything else needed to recreate the campaign in question.
With that description in mind I really didn’t have the highest of expectations. I mean, a game that can be played by both experienced and beginner players is a wide range of abilities. Consider too that MMP is the home of Advanced Squad Leader, anything but an uncomplicated game!
When one opens the box, the first impression is a very simple game. In the case of Panzer Battles you get two 22″x34″ mapsheets, one countersheet of 280 1/2″ counters, one Series rule book and one game-specific rule book. Oh yeah – two dice.
The Series rule book is eight (8) pages, with page 8 being totally devoted to Designer’s Notes. For longtime Grognards there is nothing special, unique, or unexpected here. The SCS is bog-standard hex & counter wargame. The Series rules have 13 major sections:
Sequence of Play
Zones of Control (ZOCs)
Advance After Combat
When you get to the game-specific rule book (12 pages) you start to discover the non-standard of the SCS. In the case of Panzer Battles, designer Dean Essig wanted to capture what made the mobile defensive warfare of the German 11th Panzer Division so special. In Panzer Battles, he showcases the battles fought by 11th Panzer along the Chir River in December, 1942 when they acted as a ‘fire brigade’ against Soviet advances (for details on the battles see here). Basically stated, you have a heavily outnumbered, predominantly infantry force defending with armor in support against a numerically superior, yet doctrinally rigid, mechanized attacker.
In order to showcase the Auftragstaktik command and control approach that underpinned 11th Panzer’s actions, Mr. Essig choses to introduce one of my favorite gaming mechanisms, the chit-pull mechanic, into the game. In Panzer Battles, the 11th Panzer Division usually has multiple chits in their draw cup, meaning the force will activate more often. There are a few other game-specific rules (like 1.7 Disorganized Units or 1.10 Barrages) that also capture essential elements of mobile warfare but it is rule 1.8 Activations that is the heart of Panzer Battles.
The end result in Panzer Battles is a wargame that delivers what it promises. The chit-pull activation system shows how the different command and control approach of the 11th Panzer enables it to be that ‘fire brigade’ that rapidly moves about the battlefield to (hopefully) be at the right place at the right time to face the Soviet offensive. It is an excellent case study of Auftragstaktik.
Panzer Battles is not without it’s drawbacks. In my case the quibbles are minor and center on those small counters. As a graying Grognard, I am challenged to see and handle small 1/2″ counters. Even my wargame tweezers don’t always help. One good part is with only 280 counters, rounding the corners (at 2mm radius) doesn’t take forever! Also, at two maps Panzer Battles has a bigger footprint (44″x34″) than I expected, especially in a game with only 280 counters (speak about low counter density….).
Further, while Panzer Battles illustrates the advantage of Auftragstaktik, it does not give the players insight into how to achieve it. In game terms, the chit-pull mechanic clearly illustrates the impact of Auftragstaktik but not how to create it – it’s ‘baked into’ the chits and simply handed the players.
Overall though, I am impressed with Panzer Battles and look forward to more SCS games. I already own Heights of Courage: The Battle for the Golan Heights, October 1973 (MMP, 2013). In that game the ‘gimmick” is an ability chose a ‘Fast’ or ‘Slow’ optempo. I will keep my eyes open for other MMP sales; the regular price of Panzer Battles is presently $48 – in my opinion a little bit steep, but probably fair in today’s economy, for what you get.
IT IS PAINFULLY OBVIOUS THAT CORONAVIRUS ADVERSELY AFFECTED THE HOBBY GAMING INDUSTRY. I have yet to hear of a game company that has gone under but it’s easy to see the stress many are operating under. As the economy starts recovering from coronavirus shutdowns more game production is coming back. Looking at my Preorder & Kickstarter Roll on BoardGameGeek, it looks like July may be a VERY good month for a return to gaming!
Of the 27 games I list on 28 June, there is a better-than-even chance that as many as nine (9), or 33%, could deliver or otherwise fulfill in July. These include:
One Small Step (Academy Games, 2020) – Kickstarter Boardgame. An update from mid-May stated that shipping in July was expected. I have not seen an update since. Academy Games does not have the best track record for keeping to timelines but that negative is more than compensated by the top-quality game that usually ends up being delivered.
Philadelphia 1777 (Worthington Games, 2020) – Kickstarter Wargame. A late June update reported the game is arriving at the freight-forwarder and Worthington expects to take possession early in July and start shipping immediately.
Heights of Courage: The Battle for the Golan Heights, October 1973 (MMP, 2013) – Sale Wargame. Bought as part of an amazing MMP sale in June. Having never ordered before from MMP I don’t know how fast they usually fulfill orders and realize coronavirus restrictions may be slowing them down. I had hoped to have these games in hand before July but it looks like they will not arrive until after the new month starts.
Looking ahead to the end of the year, it is possible that as many as half of the games on my current Preorder & Kickstarter list could deliver. That would not only be good for me, but more importantly good for the gaming industry.