Rocky Reads for #Wargame – From Submarine 2nd Edition (Avalon Hill, 1981) to Star Fleet Battles (@ADBinc_Amarillo, 1979) with The Enemy Below by Cdr. D.A. Rayner (Henry Holt & Company, 1957)

I recently pulled my copy of the novel The Enemy Below by Commander D. A. Rayner off my bookshelf for rereading. I am fortunate to have a first edition, second printing hardcover version (sans dust jacket) from 1957 published by Henry Holt and Company. This book was originally my father’s and although the dust jacket is gone the interior flaps of the jacket were preserved in the front of the book. Growing up, I think I read the book before I saw the 1957 movie on syndicated TV. As good as the movie is, I am very much in the camp of “book over movie” critics.

Action Stations!

When I started wargaming, one of the earliest games I acquired was Submarine designed by Steve Peek from the Avalon Hill Game Company. My copy is a 1981 Second Edition which I bought brand new soon after release. Even today, I recall sitting down and learning the rules to Submarine with The Enemy Below at my side. Back then, and even today, I judge the “realism” of Submarine on the basis of how well it can recreate situations in The Enemy Below. The book is ripe for a wargame setting as communicated on the dust jacket:

Then, for forty merciless hours, it was depth charge vs. torpedo, destroyer vs. submarine, crew vs. crew, and, ultimately, Captain vs. Kapitan. Attack after attack, the stratagems of the two masters cancelled each other out. Each hour the U-121 drew closer to its rendezvous and, sensing the fact, the Captain radioed for reinforcements. But before the Cecilie or fleet destroyers could influence the outcome, the absolute battle between absolute equals was played out to a startling conclusion….

The Enemy Below, Dust Jacket

Compare this to the introduction for Submarine:

One of the few remaining campaigns of World War II yet to be covered on a tactical level has been the submarine war against commerce shipping and naval fleets. It was a war of no fronts; of hit and run tactics; a one-on-one duel reminiscent of the air war of World War I, complete with aces and acts of chivalry. But it was also fought with no holds barred, a struggle in which a second’s hesitation or lapse in concentration meant the difference between death and survival….

Submarine is a tactical recreation of the submarine war. A player assumes the role of either a submarine or escort captain. He can launch torpedoes at convoys or combat ships or hunt down submarines with depth charge runs.

Submarine, 1.0 Introduction

Looking at those words, is there any real wonder how one could not link The Enemy Below and Submarine together?

Pop History?

In retrospect, I sorta laugh at myself when I think about how I judge Submarine. After all, I studied to be a historian so I should be looking at any wargame critically from a historical perspective, not through the lens of popular culture. It’s akin to gamers today who play the videogame Call of Duty and praise it for being “realistic.” Then again, The Enemy Below is popular not for being a techno-thriller (ala The Hunt for Red October) but for being a deeply human story. Which makes me admire The Enemy Below even more; the book simultaneously captures the human and technical with a proper balance between the two of them. When I play Submarine, it is the influence of The Enemy Below that helps me remember the human side battle which barely gets a nod in the game system (see rule 49.0 Crew Quality).

Interestingly, I have a second submarine-themed wargame designed during this era. Up Scope! Tactical Submarine Warfare in the 20th Century was designed by Joe Balkoski for SPI in 1977. I’ve owned this game since the early 1980s but have never played it (and only rarely opened it) in part because the Designer’s Notes make reference to it being a counterpart to Air War (SPI, 1977) and placing realism over playability. With regards to The Enemy Below, Up Scope! has even less human connection. That design approach, and lack of connection to the book, can explain why Up Scope! rarely (or never) hit my gaming table over the years.

The Enemy Below…the Stars

I also must thank The Enemy Below for its influence on another wargame from my early years. In 1966 the Star Trek original TV series Season 1 episode “Balance of Terror” featured the USS Enterprise hunting a Romulan Bird of Prey equipped with a cloaking device. It’s easy to see how the writers for this episode adapted The Enemy Below story. Romulan warships equipped with cloaking devices appear in the wargame Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979) which uses Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) as canon for the setting. I spent many, many hours of my youth playing Star Fleet Battles and always enjoyed the challenge of hunting a Romulan under cloak.

“All game, no history.” Really? Musings on why I play #wargames

Recently on Twitter, the following tweet was reupped for comments:

The Tactical Painter @PainterTactical ·

Goodbye #advancedsquadleader Won 2 Australian tournaments, played 100s of games but had a damascene moment designing scenarios when I realised ASL had actually taught me little about WWII and nor could it. Play the rules, not the period. All game, no history.

I was added to the thread for my thoughts. Sorta hard to condense it into one short tweet but I tried:

Mountain Navy @Mountain_Navy · 
Thinking about what a #wargame means to me. Went to the tomes of Dunnigan, Perla, & Sabin as well as Zones of Control book for thoughts. My Answer: A wargame is an interactive model to explore conflict; it doesn’t define it. I use wargames for fun (to game) & inspire learning.

Complexity as Realism…or Not?

First, a disclaimer. I am not an active Advanced Squad Leader player. I played long ago but my ASL-like game was actually Star Fleet Battles (SFB). Like ASL, SFB is also accused of being overly complex. But when I was reading through Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, MIT Press, 2016) I was drawn to Chapter 10, “Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader” by J.R. Tracy. Tracy starts out by stating:

Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly thirty years old, it is still going strong, with a large, ardent fan base and a smaller, but no less ardent body of detractors. More a game system than a game, ASL is both respected and reviled as representing the best and worst aspects of wargaming. ASL itself is considered a benchmark of complexity and comprehensiveness, while its player possess a devotion bordering on fanaticism. Though its roots are firmly in the “design-for-effect” philosophy, it is viewed by many as the paragon of realism with respect to tactical World War II combat. This is born of a misguided equation of complexity and verisimilitude – ASL is at its heart more game than simulation, but it is a richly rewarding game, offering dramatic, cinematic narrative as well as competitive experience. (p. 113)

Mr. Tracy goes on to point out that Squad Leader designer John Hill was, “striving for an impressionistic depiction of combat…based on his interpretation of eyewitness accounts and recollections” (p. 113). He goes on to say, “For Hill, ‘Realism is in the stress and snap decisions of small unit combat’….” (p. 113).

“Realism is in the stress and snap decisions….” More than anything else that line captures for me why I play wargames. For the longest time I was caught up in that ASL-like versimiltude of equating complexity with realism. My favorite games were the likes of Harpoon, the Fighting Wings Series, or Panzer. Those games all bordered more on simulation than games.

Or so I thought.

Wargames as Insight

Years later I have acquired a more nuanced approach to gaming. These days I recognize that all games are models – and models are often imperfect. I now approach games more in line with the thinking of designer Mark Herman who tell us, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (ZoC, p. 133)

My undergraduate degree is in History and I always have viewed myself as an amateur historian. Starting in my youth, I used wargames to help me explore history. Robert M. Citrino, in his Zones of Control contribution “Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian,” gives us three ways wargames augment the study of history:

  • Wargames are a visual and tactile representation of the real-life event.
  • Wargames help illustrate the various levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic.
  • Wargames are the ultimate “Jomini-Clausewitz conundrum.”
    • Wargames are Jominian at their core; they quantify, order, and prescribe military activity.
    • Wargames incorporate a Clausewitz artifact – the die as a randomizer

I find Citrino’s conclusion most powerful:

Beyond the informational content or fun quotient, however, wargames offer the operational military historian a means to interpret past events, to unpack the calculations that go into planning a campaign and then to analyze the reasons for success or failure. Wargames allow for compelling analysis of time, space, and force dilemmas; they clearly delineate the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war; and they allow the player to appreciate the truths inherent in both Jomini and Clausewitz, rather than choosing one and rejecting the other. In the end, war itself is a violent, bloody, and unpredictable game, with time-honored Jominian principles serving as the “rules” and Clausewitzian Zufall interfering as the randomizer. (ZoC, p. 445)

Games, Not Simulations

Remember when I said that I loved all those more “simulation games?” I didn’t really understand why I thought this, but Robert MacDougall and Lisa Faden in “Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom” (Zones of Control, Chapter 37) helped me understand maybe why I feel this way.

MacDougall and Faden make the case that simulations are often used to model social phenomenon. “They try to distinguish between dependent and independent variables, to make generalizations that will be applicable in many places and times, and ultimately, to uncover the laws of human behavior” (ZoC, p. 450). Games, however, are different, especially with respect to decisions:

Game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” In a historical simulation game, the players take on the roles of those who made interesting decisions. The rules of the game define the structure that constrained those decisions. “Play can be defined as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules,” writes Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011, 18). Play, in other words, explores the boundaries of agency and structure – and the “ability to make interesting decisions” is about as succinct a definition of historical agency as we are likely to find.

…But Fun

Wargames make for interesting decisions. When I started wargaming, I thought for th elongest time that complexity led to more intereting decisions. These days, I find that it is often the simplest games, with less decisions, that are the most fun. Games like Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing), 878 Vikings (Academy Games), or Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games) will never be held up as detailed models of conflict, but each is fun and offer up interesting decision spaces. They do teach, at least in broad strokes of history, and that is part of what makes them interesting too. But in the end, I play most wargames these days for fun.

I still play the more complex games, but my approach to them has changed. While I still use them to explore conflict, I also try to enjoy it. My attitude these days is one of wanting to game a conflict, not simulate it. I think many designers and publishers get this. This is why the new Harpoon V from Admiralty Trilogy Games is more player-friendly. It’s why Buffalo Wings 2 (Against the Odds) is having a successful Kickstarter. And yes, it’s why even Advanced Squad Leader is still a money-maker for Multi-Man Publishing (especially when one looks at the face-to-face tournament play aspect).

All of which is to say I play wargames for the fun of learning and making interesting decisions. They don’t teach me history, but they offer a pathway to further insight.

“All game, no history.” Not true for me.


Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek.

My Inexpensive #Wargame Storage Solution

WITH CORONATINE KEEPING US AT HOME FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME, many are turning to a hobby to keep themselves from going insane. This is especially true for myself as I generally eschew television. Fortunately, I have my wargame/boardgame hobby to keep me going. Between occasional games against the family and plenty of solo play I keep myself busy.

Boxed In

But there is another side of hobby gaming, and it involves organization. There are more than a few games with many components, be it bits or bobs or cards or Meeples or what. In the boardgame world this need to organize has created a whole pocket industry of insert organizers. I am not immune; I invested in Folded Space organizers for Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games, 2016) and Scythe (Stonemaier Games, 2016).

 

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Folded Space insert for Scythe – Level 1. Second level compartments to side ready to fit in.

The wargaming world is usually simpler. Traditional hex & counter wargames usually come with flat paper components and cardboard chits (counters). Some games have so few counters that they can just be dropped in the box. In older days many games came with storage trays. These days a few still do (like the custom Game Trayz that Academy Games included in Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019). Some publishers, like GMT Games, sell trays. Many wargame publishers usually include at least a few small plastic baggies in the box.

Plastic baggies work well for organizing wargames. I go a step further and buy resealable zip close bags from Michaels. Depending on the day, some of these bags even have an area for marking the content making figuring out what bits go back where that much easier after play.

For many gamers, a game tray or box for storage of counters becomes essential. Some folks, like the gents at 2HalfSquads, have very detailed solutions. Although I can identify with these hyper-organizing wargamers (and I was one of them myself in my Star Fleet Battles/Federation & Empire-playing days) I tend to shy away from those larger boxed solutions. That said, some games just beg for an organized solution. This is especially true when you have many different types of units or organizations.

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Courtesy 2HalfSquads

936D74EB-64C6-4D92-A6D2-BE31D855A40DWhenever possible, I like to see all components of a game stay within the box. This is a major reason baggies remain a staple of my collection. That said, I recently found some small boxes at my local Dollar Tree store. These boxes are 7.125″ x 4.875″ x 0.87″ and have 11 compartments (10 standard, 1x double-width). These small containers have rounded sections making it easier for clumsy, more arthritic fingers like mine to dig counters out. They also stack nicely. I have found I can stack these 2-deep in a 2-inch game box and still have room at the top for flat products. If the map is mounted getting the box to totally close is a challenge, but with unmounted games it works well.

 

The first game I organized using these boxes was The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018). The boxes worked out quite well as each I divided the counters into two boxes (British and Axis) with markers shared between. This arrangement really speeds game set up – just give the right box to each side and go!

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Notice the unused roll of baggies….

In practice I end up using a combination of trays and baggies. This weekend I organized my copy of Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games, 2019). For the 1,176 counters, I used four (4) boxes for all the units (each formation in one compartment) and smaller-count markers. As it worked out, there is one box for all the NATO formations, two boxes for the Warsaw Pact, and one box of markers. I put all the Posture, Time, and Attrition Markers in three separate larger bags. The box for Less Than 60 Miles is a bit larger (European) sized box so I was able to fit four boxes (double stacked), cards, and markers with space left for the folded map, player aids, and rule books. There is just the slightest of lift on the lid.

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4x boxes in 2x stacks with cards to the side; larger bags (recycled from Scythe?) for large-count markers

I use a similar solution for Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019). Here the box is smaller (American) sized and I found if I used four storage trays then the cards could not fit. So I use three boxes (1x US, 1x Soviets, 1x NATO) and some additional baggies. Not as neat a solution but it works. The lid closes with the slightest of lift.

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The 2x decks of cards forced me to use only 3x boxes and more smaller bags for markers. Not as neat but it still works….

The Dollar Tree storage box also work very well for organizing smaller folio games. I use a single box for Poland Defiant, The German Invasion, September 1939  (Revolution Games, 2019). In this case the single box separates formations and markers. I can either lay this flat on a shelf or store upright with the game taking up less than 1″ of lateral shelf space.

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Most formations in own compartment with more numerous shared markers in double-width compartment

Of course, the best part aspect of these boxes is the price. Literally $1 per box. There is a Dollar Tree in my neighborhood and every time I go there I always check to see if there are a few in stock. With the larger games recently organized my “reserve” is down to two boxes – I like to have four on hand “just to be ready.”

What organizing solution do you use?

 

 

How wrong is @sowronggames about Talon (GMT Games, 2016)?

ziyx3sp8_400x400If you have not listened to the boys from So Very Wrong About Games you certainly need to. Like the title of their podcasts says, they relish in pointing out what they like, and especially what they don’t about boardgames. They are not shy about offering their opinion, which is what makes SVWAG a worthy listen. Be warned though; if you have your own opinions and cannot listen to your games taking criticism then you will not be happy. Further, if you are a wargamer, you could become agitated as one of the hosts, Mike Walker, is not a wargamer and openly (at least on the show) despises wargames. On the other hand, co-host Mark Bigney is a wargamer, and apparently an old-school wargamer at that.

Given this split in the interests of the hosts, I was mildly surprised to hear their review of Talon (GMT Games, 2016) on their podcast recently. Like the hosts themselves, what I basically heard it come down to was an old Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau, 1979+) player versus a new Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (Fantasy Flight Games, 2012+) player. One wanted fast “pew pew” starfighter play with ships dashing across the board while the other relished (anguished) over the decision points brought out by the “ponderous” movement of behemoths in space. My first reaction was like that of the old school Bigney – Talon is a spiritual successor to Star Fleet Battles only Talon does the resource management in a much more playable manner. To Walker on the other hand, the game was just too slow with not enough action.

Neither of them are right, and neither of them are wrong.

If you are looking for a manual videogame version of the Star Wars universe and enjoy competition play through buying ships, adding “power-ups,” and then throwing miniatures down on a mat then X-Wing is definitely your game. This is game Walker wants; Talon is not going to give it to him.

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Courtesy GMT Games

But…if you want another view of starship combat, one where managing resources (power) is interesting to you, then you may want to look at Talon. This is the game Bigney relishes; a game of tight resources and decision points.

For myself, I think I have made it clear before that Talon is more my preference. Sure, there is an element of “chits on the table” in Talon like Walker complains about but in this game it all fits thematically. In my more recent plays, I have also come to more deeply appreciate the ingenuity of the dry-erase ship markings and how they portray information that before was consigned to ship data sheets and the like. To me, Talon delivers an experience of starship combat through a game whereas X-Wing delivers, well, just a game.

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Courtesy BGG.com

One problem with Talon may be it’s age. Designer Jim Krohn has offered up a very modern interpretation of “I need more power, Scotty” science fiction battles. To us grognards, Talon is a refreshing look at an issue that was first tackled nearly 40 years ago in a little pocket folio game from Task Force Games. But what started out as as just over 100 counters and about a dozen ships blossomed into Master Rulebook of over 460 pages.  Even with that you still need pages and pages (and binders and binders) more of ships and scenarios to play. Although the core game mechanic of energy allocation was reimplemented and much streamlined in Federation Commander, the fact remains that to play these games requires a major investment of money for materials and time to learn, and play, the games. Talon on the other hand returns to a much simpler implementation of the core mechanic using a different streamlined approach and mixes it with graphics right on the counters to help convey the information quickly and enable speedy play on the table. But how do you explain all this design beauty to a generation of gamers that grew up on Star Wars and barrel rolls in space and never had to fill out an Energy Allocation Form, or as some call it, Accountants in Space?

I doff my cap to the Boys at So Very Wrong About Games for talking about Talon even though it was clearly “not in the wheelhouse” of one of the hosts. In the end though, Mike and Mark actually do science fiction boardgamers/wargamers a great service. The real take-away message from the podcast is that games come in many different forms. The only wrong message one could take away from their them is that there is not a game for you out there. On the contrary, So Very Wrong About Games shows us why the industry is so right; we are very lucky that we can have both X-Wing and Talon.

…But I can’t help but wonder how they would handle Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, 2018) with its AVID displays and 3D vector movement in space. For sure I think Walker would have a meltdown….

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Squadron Strike: Traveller AVID (courtesy Ad Astra Games)


Feature image courtesy BoardGameGeek

“You’re using Star Wars and physics in the same sentence….”

I had an unusual exchange on Twitter the other day. Unusual because I (frankly) was a bit of a jerk to @beltalowda_ and unusual because I let popular sci-fi get under my skin.

First, the exchange:

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I cut off my response because I was a bit of a jerk and talked down to @beltalowda_ (hey, if you’re reading this, sorry!).

The main point I was trying to make (on Twitter? I must be crazy!) is that science fiction and science fact don’t mix well, especially in the realm of gaming. Star Wars is nominally science fiction (I would argue it is more science fantasy but that is another, fruitless, discussion) and the games related to the franchise reflect that origin. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game today is ranked as the #63 game overall on BoardGameGeek as well as the #7 Customizable Game (interestingly, Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures – The Force Awakens Core Set is ranked #4 in the Customizable Game category). These games use what gamers often refer to as “cinematic movement,” i.e. they fly about in space like airplanes. This is far different from what space combat will likely look like. Atomic Rockets, IMNSHO one of the best sites on the internet, devotes a whole section to Space War and what is closer to reality. For me, one of the hallmarks of a hard sci-fi game is the use of vector movement, ala (loosely) The Expanse.

Overall, The Expanse is better at hard sci-fi than many shows but even here there is a good deal of “handwavium” involved. Scott Manley on YouTube has made one of the better explanations so far:

My personal gaming experience has shown the same conflict between hard and popular sci-fi. I have bounced between hard (realistic?) sci-fi and more cinematic portrayals. Here is a list of a few games in my collection and how they looked at space combat:

Finding the right balance between popular sci-fi and hard sci-fi gaming is tricky. For myself, games like Star Fleet Battles and its derivatives are fun because of the theme since when playing these games I am choosing theme over mechanics. Some of the more hard sci-fi games are fun with a bit or realism thrown in (like Mayday) but some go too far (Squadron Strike: Traveller) where the fun has a hard time overcoming the difficulty of rules and play.

The upside of all this is that the gaming scene is broad enough that either preference, cinematic or vector, can be accommodated. It’s a matter of choice, and the game industry is healthy enough to give us that choice. Even if I am choosing not to play.

Hattip to @TableTopBill who commented on my tweet with the title of this post.

Gaming Grumbles – March 18, 2018

(A collection of random gaming thoughts – possibly negative. You have been warned)

I can’t figure out how to link to a Twitter video, but go look at the March 16 tweets by @koreaboardgames. Maybe if Toys R Us in the US did events like these kids game days they would still be around rather than dumping Di$ney $tar War$ crap Hasbro toys on the market.

Amarillo Design Bureau has released Captain’s Log #45 on places like Wargame Vault. When I was a huge Star Fleet Battles player, I literally raced to the game store to buy the latest Captain’s Log. I usually enjoyed the fiction, loved the “history,” and played the ‘eck out of the new ships and scenarios. But $19.95 for a digital download? For a product that was originally released in 2012 – and not updated? That works out to something like $.13/page – a bit rich for my wallet.

My Incredibly Negative Kickstarter Experience continues (no) thanks to Ken Burnside and Ad Astra Games with Squadron Strike: Traveller. This campaign funded in March 2016 with 290 backers pledging $23,339 against a goal of $5000. At the time it looked promising as the campaign claimed:

At the time we launched this Kickstarter, the setting-and-scenario booklet was edited, the tutorial booklet was in final edits, and the SSD booklet had been laid out. The countershafts have been laid out, and the folio cover and box wrap are laid out and ready to send to the printer.

On the first business day after this project reaches its funding goal, I’ll send the print job to the printers to minimize delay in shipping games to backers.

I pledged for the boxed game; no minis. In late February 2018 some backers who purchased minis finally started receiving their ships but the game is still not ready. In an update on March 17 backers were told that the SSD book is in layout because it needed “re-designing,” tutorial scenarios are being written/rewritten, and…I really don’t give a damn about your excuses anymore! Where is my frakking game!

 

 

Dull Claws in Game of the Week – Talon 2nd Printing (@GMTGames, 2017).

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Courtesy GMT Games

The current Game of the Week is Talon 2nd Printing (GMT Games, 2017). This game is highly rated on BoardGameGeek scoring a solid 7.7 with nearly 400 ratings. It is also ranked as the 167th War game on the site. For myself, I find Talon mechanically strong but the lack of deep theme makes it less interesting for me to play. In other words, the lack of a strong theme in Talon fails to draw me deeper into the game.

All things considered, I can see that I have become pickier over the years when it comes to space battle games. I first started out with Star Fleet Battles. Beyond the fact it is closely related to the Star Trek IP, the real “theme” in SFB is taken from the ever-famous quote from the series, “Scotty, I need more power!” In SFB everything is about Energy Allocation. This theme carries over to the new generation game, Federation Commander.

Over the years, I tried other tactical starship combat games. I like Full Thrust (Jon Tuffley at Ground Zero Games) which is a generic set of rules. To be honest, I actually like two implementations of Full Thrust, those being the the version in The Earthforce Sourcebook for The Babylon Project RPG, and Power Projection: Fleet, a set of rules set in the Traveller RPG universe. Both of these I like because the game rules implement a version of the given setting that seems thematically appropriate. I also have played around with Starmada: The Admiralty Edition, another generic set of rules that one can use to make their own setting. I find the included setting boring, and have never found a another setting that grabbed my attention. The RockyMountainNavy Boys and I play the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game but I see it as an (expensive) manual video game.

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Courtesy BGG.com

From a game mechanics standpoint, Talon corrects many issues I have with older games. It does not implement vector movement (though I happen to love vector-movement games) and instead goes for a more cinematic approach. It still has power considerations, but the use of the Power Curve makes it much easier to manage and avoids “accountants in space.” But as much as I love the game, I just cannot get into the setting. Ships move no more than a speed of 6 each turn, and combat is at ranges of 4 hexes or less. I just don’t get that grandiose feeling of giant starship battles in space. In part this may also be driven by the limited counter mix out of the box. The scenarios themselves also seem wrong, with major battles defending the Earth having only six units per side – a factor driven by the few counters included. When putting it all together I get a sense of cognitive dissonance; a game that works so well mechanically just seems wrong thematically.

GMT Games is offering Talon 1000on their P500 program. The draw for me is that it will include over 130 new ships. Given a greater fleet size, or at least a wider variety of ships, maybe the game will be more “thematically correct.” The danger, I fear, is that adding too many more ships will take the great mechanics of the game and overload it. This forces me to turn to the scenarios, and with 1000 new scenarios I would hope to find some interesting ones in there.

Talon, my Game of the Week, once again shows me how much I have changed as a gamer. I find it hard to enjoy a mechanically complex game like Star Fleet Battles, but need a good theme to keep my interest. Talon shows promise, but it has yet to meet its full potential.

Game of the Week for 12 March 2018 – Talon Reprint Edition (@GMTGames, 2017)

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Courtesy GMT Games

I have my own shelf of shame and one of the games that is sitting on it is Talon Reprint Edition (GMT Games, 2015/17). I wrote a First Impressions post last September but the game has languished, unloved, since. My past few Game of the Week have been older games; this week change that and try a newer game.

The Talon Play Book has a Tutorial scenario so that seems like a good place to start. If I can get a chance with the RockyMountainNavy boys, we might try Scenario 1 – War is Upon Us during the week. The scenario looks to be a good learning game with few ships on two evenly-matched sides duking it out. If all goes well, Scenario 3 – The First Fleet Engagement looks like a good Game Night event.

Like I wrote in my First Impressions, I see Talon as a sci-fi fleet combat game to replace Star Fleet Battles (Amarillo Design Bureau) in my collection. I tried Federation Commander (Amarillo Design Bureau) but found it wanting. I think this is because the RMN Boys are simply not Trekkies. [I know, I have failed as a Geek Father – sue me] More directly to my point, they are not well acquainted with the thematic elements behind SFB and FC, and therefore the complexity of the games push them away. I also see Talon as an inexpensive alternative to Star Wars: Armada (Fantasy Flight Games). In the case  of Armada I dislike the theme (I am very anti-Di$ney Star Wars these days) and cringe at the cost of all those miniatures in a game that is another unappealing manual video game.

To be fair, I actually have another fleet combat game in my collection. Full Thrust (Ground Zero Games) and the very similar Power Projection: Fleet (BITS UK) are probably my favorite sci-fi fleet combat games. FT is a generic set of rules whereas PP:F is tailored for the Traveller RPG universe. The problem is that both are miniatures games and I never made that investment (although with modern desktop publishing software and home printers it is possible to make custom counters and tokens).

I am also very happy to get Talon to the table in part because another sci-fi combat game I bought in 2016 has yet to arrive. I made the mistake of backing Squadron Strike: Traveller by Ken Burnside and Ad Astra Games on Kickstarter. Allegedly, the miniatures for the game started shipping late February, but for backers like me who didn’t buy minis and am waiting for my boxed set it appears that all I am going to get is a beta-version of the pdf. All of which makes me look forward to Talon that much more because its a lot easier to have fun with a game when its actually on your table and not vaporware!

#Wargame #GameNight with #TheFiresofMidway (Clash of Arms, 2010)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

This week’s Game Night saw the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself playing a 3-player scenarios of The Fires of Midway (Clash of Arms, 2010). The Fires of Midway (TFoM) is a card game of carrier battles in the Pacific during 1942. Although the featured game is the Battle of Midway, we played the Battle of Santa Cruz scenario.

 

Little RMN took the two American carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. The Japanese fleet command was divided with Middle RMN sailing carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku while I sailed light carriers Zuiho and Junyo.

TFoM starts with a both sides searching for the other. This is how the initial hand of Combat Cards is built and determines advantage – the first to find the third carrier gets the first VP. Advantage in turn drives the use of doctrine; the Confident side (leading VP) has to follow their Admiral’s Doctrine while the Desperate side (behind in VP) gets more Combat Cards and doesn’t have to follow doctrine.

At the end of the search phase the Japanese were Confident and the Americans Desperate. This means the US player could have 9 Combat Cards in his hand but the Japanese were limited to 7 – divided between the two players. This in turn meant Middle RMN had 4 cards while I only had three.

With the fleets located the battle switched into launching airstrikes. TFoM uses Action Cards to help determine the order with each carrier being dealt an Action Card. One turned face-up, the Confident player can “steal” one of the opponents cards and switch them. Each Action Card allows for one of three actions – launch full airstrike, launch a partial airstrike and make repairs, or repairs only. Cards earlier in the action order go first but don’t have as many actin points as later cards. This means earlier cards allow for the “first strike” but later cards might create “the heavy blow.” As luck would have it, my carriers drew Action slots 1 & 2, the Americans got 4 & 5, and Middle RMN with the heavy Japanese carriers drew 5 & 6.

Zuiho and Junyo both launches strikes. The American carriers tried to hide in an area of Low Clouds which adds range to strike movement. Even with the challenge, both strikes arrived over the American carriers in a Fueled status. In the resulting battles, the American CAP and Anti-Aircraft fire proved mostly effective and only a lone hit on Hornet resulted. The American airstrikes focused on the light carriers and damaged Junyo. The later Japanese strikes from the heavy carriers succeeded in hitting Hornet once more.

In the second turn, the carriers generally held range, but this time the Japanese heavies and the Americans had the top 4 slots of the Action Order. By the time the round was over, Junyo and Hornet were sunk. With that, the Americans withdrew and the Japanese side was the winner. Close to the historical result, but a bit of a let-down to play.

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A Kate torpedo plane seen dropping a torpedo (Courtesy maritimequest.com)

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

TFoM is a very formulaic game. Each carrier in the Action Order follows a strict turn sequence. In a two-player game this works just fine but in a three-player (or maybe four-player?) scenario there is lots of downtime for the third player. On the plus side, combat is very easy; first compare a pool of combat dice (highest SINGLE die wins) then roll for damage against a damage track found on different cards.

Our gameplay experience was a bit blah. I generally knew the rules but had not played in a while making the first round a bit slow as it was necessary to reference the rulebook several times. Play was faster on the second round, but the formulaic sequence of play made the game feel more like a checklist then a narrative experience. We finished the game but the RMN Boys are not anxious for a replay.

When I first started wargaming nearly 40 years ago I was in it for the simulation. I was unabashedly a simulationist – the more “real” the game was the more I liked it! Looking back, I now realize that the best games I ever played (i.e. the ones of remember) featured great narrative moments (like the one time in Star Fleet Battles I spectacularly lost the battle when I failed my High Energy Turn and tumbled my ship). These days, I seek a more narrative experience in the battle. I have really discovered this with the start of our family game nights; the RMN Boys and I connect better when a game builds a narrative and is not simply a simulation. This may be why games like Conflict of Heroes or Scythe or 1775 – Rebellion are landing on the game night table repeatedly; the gameplay itself builds an enjoyable narrative experience.

The Fires of Midway is not a bad game. Given the level of abstraction represented by the cards and simple map it can hardly be called simulatonist. But the formulaic gameplay makes finding the narrative experience difficult. Maybe if we play it with only two-players and are fully familiar with the rules we might find that narrative experience. Until then there are other games to play.

Fangs Out!* #FirstImpressions of #Talon (@gmtgames)

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Courtesy BGG

Way back in the day I was a Star Fleet Battles (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1979+) player. My first game was the pocket edition in the half-size plastic baggie. In junior high and high school my friends and I obsessed with SFB. One of my friends designed the original TK5 destroyer. I even got into the strategic game, Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) that eventually evolved into Federation & Empire (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1986+). When I pack all my SFB stuff together it overflows a medium-cube moving box (that’s 3 cubic feet of stuff).

But time changes things. Whereas in my younger years I absolutely loved the excessive energy management required in SFB, and the long scenario play times, I gradually moved away from the game. I tried other games, like the FASA Star Trek: Starship Tactical Simulator (1983) or Agent of Gaming’s Babylon 5 Wars (1997). In the mid 2000’s, I tried to get into Federation Commander (Amarillo Design Bureau, 2005), the SFB successor, but it just didn’t click. Indeed, my game of choice for starship battles became Ground Zero Games’ Full Thrust (1992) or a derivative.

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Courtesy BGG

In 2017, GMT Games offered a reprint edition of Talon, originally published in 2015. My interest was peaked by a series of post in the Castiliahouse blog where they were playing Talon. So I pulled the trigger on the P500. The second edition game delivered not long ago.

Upon unboxing, the first thing that struck me was the large, coated counters and the wet-erase markers. You mean I am going to write on my counters? Then I started digging into the rulebook.

And I am in love.

The basic rulebook is a slim 16 pages. The game mechanics are very straight-forward and explained in just 9-pages of Basic Rules. What I love is that energy management still is important, but instead of allocating everything (aka SFB) or several things (FC), in Talon one chooses “power curves” which are in effect “presets” for Power/Speed/Turn Radius. As a general rule, as a ship’s speed increases, the Turn Radius likewise increases while Power decreases.

Simple…Fast…and Fun!

Moving away from the SFB Power Allocation sheet, or the FC Ship Status Display, to info on the counter also helps with the fun. This makes the game easy to teach, an important consideration these days as I my main gaming partners are the RockyMountainNavy Boys.

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Courtesy BGG

My plan is to get Talon to the table, probably in the next few weeks, using the Advanced Rules (just gotta have rule 15 THE BIG GUNS). I think the RMN Boys will like Talon; they like Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game and I know this will be a step up in complexity, but not nearly as much as Federation Commander or (shudder) Star Fleet Battles. Maybe someday I will play those games with them, but I am not so sure it will ever really happen. My taste in gaming has changed in nearly 40 years (go figure). In my early days my craving for simulationism was fulfilled by games like Star Fleet Battles. These days a more player-friendly game, like Talon, is welcome on the gaming table.

*Fangs Out:  Aviator-speak for when a pilot is really hot for a dogfight.