Sunday Summary – Too busy to play but NEVER too busy to dream about new #wargame & #boardgame arrivals @FoundationDietz @msiggins @HABA_usa @compassgamesllc @gmtgames @Academy_Games @LeeBWood @Hobiecat18 @SchilMil @Bublublock

Like the title says, didn’t get much gaming in this week as I return to basically full-time in the office. After a year of semi-telework it’s a bit of a shock to the system but, honestly, I love to be back at the grind.

Wargaming

Ended up doing a deep-dive of Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Jim Dunnigan, Strategy & Tactics Nr.. 82, Sept/Oct 1980). There is alot of “professional” in this “hobby” title! I also had a real fun trip down memory lane with the accompanying magazine.

Boardgaming

Supercharged (Mike Siggins, Dietz Foundation, 2021) raced to the table. Also gifted (and taught) Dragons Breath: The Hatching (HABA, 2019).

Incoming!

It’s been awhile since I looked at my preorders. I presently am tracking 27 titles in my preorder GeekList. Here are some highlights:

Kickstarter

After complaining a few weeks back about the sheer number of Kickstarter campaigns and their costs I have not been doing a very good job controlling myself since. So far this month I added:

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82 (Sept/Oct 1980) -or- Grognard nostalgia (with a mention of @markherman54)

I recently acquired Jim Dunnigan’s wargame Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82/SPI, Sept/Oct 1980) in a trade. This is the magazine version which came in the subject issue. As I was reading the rules for the game (still stapled inside the magazine) I started thumbing though the rest of the issue. Very quickly I found myself waxing nostalgic at much of the content. I stopped thumbing and started reading.

In late 1980 I was in 7th grade. I had been playing wargames for less than a year at this point and was heavy into my very first wargame, Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing (1979). By this point I probably had the second game in the series, ’88’ (1980). I also surely had started playing the pocket edition of Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979). This was also the start of my “serious’ military history reading, especially since my neighbor worked for Ballantine Books and monthly would throw a box of history books over the back fence into my yard. So when I open the pages of this issue of Strategy & Tactics it brings back many great hobby memories.

At the time this issue was published, I was just starting to read wargaming magazines. The $5.00 cover price for the issue was a bit steep for me. It would be another few years until I started making enough of my own money in chores that I could afford luxuries like an issue of Strategy & Tactics.

Full page ad on page 3 for Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game. Was this really a thing? I was huge into (now Classic) Traveller RPG but what was SPI thinking?

The feature article in this issue is “The Central Front: The Status of Forces in Europe and the Potential for Conflict by Charles T. Kamps, Jr. Mr. Kamps wrote more than a few articles for wargame magazines back in the day and I always thought they were well researched. The main article is rather short (four pages) but the added text boxes that follow are awesome and include:

  • Skeleton Order of Battle, Fulda Gap Battle Area
  • The Airborne Threat
  • Air Support (with an interesting aircraft readiness chart…boy those high-tech F-15s were difficult to maintain!)
  • The Big Picture: A Scenario for Invasion
  • The Miracle Weapons (TOW, other ATGMs, FASCAM)
  • Nuclear & Chemical Operations
  • The Prophets (with a shout out to Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, August 1985 which I read religiously)

The last text call out box is “The Wargames” where Mr. Kamps relates results from “professional” wargames. The author lets us know what he thinks of these wargames when he concludes:

Having participated in Command Post Exercises in Europe wherein general officers and senior field grade officers accomplished their objectives by fraud, (e.g., map movement of mechanized units through impassable terrain; ignoring or defying umpire rulings on combat resolution; etc.), the author issues a caution to regard all “official” results with a degree of circumspection.

Charles T. Kamps Jr., “The Wargames,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 14

Hof Gap: The Nurnburg Pincer, Volume 2 of the Central Front series for only $9.95!

On page 17 is Volume 1, Number 1 of “For Your Information: A Wide Ranging Survey of Historical Data and Analysis.” This column would be one of my favorite parts of S&T in the future. These little factoids, an early version of a wargaming wiki, were awesome for me to read and store away. “FYI” contributed much to my military history historical knowledge.

I can almost remember looking at ads like the full-page spread on page 21 with wargames shown. To this day I still want to find a copy of NATO Division Commander: Leadership Under Fire (Jim Dunnigan, SPI, 1980). I would end up with a copy of Air War: Modern Tactical Air Combat by David C. Isby but it would be the 1983 TSR version. Likewise, the full-page spread of SPI science fiction/fantasy games also brings back memories, like playing my friend’s copy of Greg Costikyan’s 1979 game The Creature that Ate Sheboygan (near where my father grew up). I also see Commando (SPI, 1979) and StarSoldier (SPI, 1977) listed on these pages, both of which ended up in my game collection around this time too. Jim Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook is also available for only $7.95.

I was surprised, but not surprised, to see the secondary feature article, “Across Suez: The Battle of Chinese Farm, October 15, 1973” was written by Col. Trevor Dupuy, USA, Ret.. Dupuy founded The Dupuy Institute and is the paragon of an operations research specialist. I would read several of Dupuy’s books through the years but I was not aware of this connection with SPI. In retrospect, it should be obvious to me. Christopher Lawrence, who worked at The Dupuy Institute with Col Dupuy, writes in War By Numbers (Potomac Books, 2017) about Dupuy and combat models in the 1970s:

By the early 1970s the models were being used to war game a potential war in Europe for the sake of seeing who would win, for the sake of determining how we could structure our forces better, and for the sake of determine what supplies and other support were needed to sustain this force on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

This development of models created a need to understand the quantitative aspects of warfare. While this was not a new concept, the United States suddenly found itself with combat modeling structures that were desperately in need of hard data on how combat actually worked. Surprisingly, even after 3,300 years of recorded military history, these data were sparse.

It was this lack of hard data on which to base operational analysis and combat modeling that led to the growth of organizations run by Trevor N. Dupuy, such as the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization (HERO). They attempted to fill the gap between modeling communities’ need for hard data on combat operations and the actual data recorded in unit records of the combatants, which required some time and skill to extract. It was an effort to integrate the work of historians with these newly developed complex models of combat.

Lawrence, War By Numbers, p. ix-x

Interestingly, the advertisement for the related wargame, Across Suez: The Battle of Chinese Farm October 15, 1975, shows it is designed by some guy named Mark Herman. I have to wonder what sort of conversations Mark had with Col Dupuy when designing this game. Seeing how Mr. Herman went on to lead a major defense contractor’s wargaming effort (not to mention all the wonderful games he has designed) I am interested as to the degree of influence the Colonel had on him.

I really enjoyed the “Gossip” column and all the name dropping. There is talk of the new and amazing Ace of Aces (Gameshop, 1980) with “no counters and no map.” I remember this game very fondly as my friends and I would play endless rounds on the school bus going to to/from middle school. Star Fleet Battles also gets a mention along with the forthcoming Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) which I would purchase.

Then there is this little snippet—”In the role-playing corner of the world, Chaosium is working on a role-playing game on H.P. Lovecraft’s work.” How little did we all know that Call of Cthulhu would still be going strong 40 years later!

I even found some early Satanic Panic reporting in this issue:

“These books are filled with things that are not fantasy but area actual in the real demon world and can be very dangerous for anyone involved in the game because it leaves them open to Satanic spirits.” Guess what they are talking about. Right. Dungeons & Dragons. It seems there is trouble in Heber, Utah. The Mormons are in an uproar over the game and, in fact, the state legislature is debating banning the game. “D&D banned in Utah” read the headlines next week, and up will go sales again. It is also rumored that a Christian organization forced a Phoenix store to withdraw D&D from sale. Something about it coming from Satan and working with the Anti-Christ. It’s probably all a Communist plot anyway. Oh, they said that too?

“Gossip,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 35

I was surprised to find David C. Isby reviewed Warship Commander 1967-1987: Present Day Tactical Naval Combat and Sea Command: Present-Day Naval-Air and Anti-Submarine Warfare. Both games were by Ken Smigelski and published by Enola Games in 1979 and 1980, respectively. I have these two books and for a while they were a direct competitor to Harpoon (now from Admiralty Trilogy Games) in my collection. I like how Dave Isby characterizes Warship Commander; “This book presents a study of modern naval surface combat set up in the format of wargame rules, aimed primarily at miniatures play but easily adaptable to boardgame format.” He goes on to say, “The book is a thorough, detailed simulation of a fascinating subject, and is worthy of comparison with the best boardgames.” On Sea Command he states, “Sea Command is an eduction in modern naval combat in wargame form.” Yes, I know!

Looking across the “Games Rating Chart” I find several games I either owned or would own in the next few years:. As much as we talk about the Golden Age of Wargaming being dominated by SPI or Avalon Hill I see more than a few other companies listed here with Yaquinto being a personal favorite:

The back page of this issue has an advertisement for For Your Eyes Only, a military affairs newsletter I actually subscribed to for a while. There is also an advertisement for a new bi-weekly newsletter by a guy named Richard Berg who was starting a new publication, Richard Berg’s Reviews of Games.

In many ways I feel lucky to find this particular issue of Strategy & Tactics. There were so many great games talked about within these pages that I am personally associated with. It’s great to see where the wargming hobby was in late 1980 when my hobby journey was just starting.

Sunday Summary – Starting with ASL Starter Kit #1 (@MultiManPub) and first go with Fifth Corps (Strategy & Tactics/SPI) while getting Supercharged (@DietzFoundation) and Gundam modeling #wargame #boardgame #SDGundam

Wargames

This week I leaned hard into learning Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2004+). Kind of amazing (embarrassing?) that after playing wargames for 42 years I finally played Advanced Squad Leader for the first time. I found some good points and some bad. I’m working up a post that you should see in a few weeks!

Another game I got through a trade is Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980). I obviously have the magazine version which is a very small package with 16-pages of rules (8 series, 8 exclusive), a single 22″x34″ map, and 200 counters. I’m experimenting with the game now but my early impressions are “Wow!”

Boardgames

My Kickstarter for Supercharged from the Deitz Foundation fulfilled and arrived. In the RockyMountainNavy Family Game Collection we have a few racing games. My earliest is Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1979) which has counters so worn they are almost white. We also have Formula De (Asmodee, 1997) which is good but a bit long as well as PitchCar (Ferti, 2003) which is a blast at family parties. Supercharged is stacking up to be a great addition to the collection.

Books

I was very busy at work this week so my evening reading fell off. That said, I had way too much fun reading Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, the magazine that Fifth Corps was included in. There were more than a few articles that triggered nostalgic thoughts and others that were plain interesting, especially when read with 40 years of hindsight added in. Hmm…I sense a “Rocky Reads for Wargames” column is almost writing itself….

Models

Mrs. RMN and I gave RockyMountainNavy T an airbrush for his birthday and both he and his brother have been learning how to use it. I may even have to get in on the fun as I have way too many 1/144th scale aircraft that I need to complete!

RockyMountainNavy Jr. has been bitten by the Gundam bug, specifically the SD Gunpla variant. He picked up a few kits for assembly during Spring Break and already has added several others. We even got the young girl we tutor into building a few Petit’gguy bears….

#FourthofJuly2019 – #Wargaming the American Revolution with @HBuchanan2, @markherman54, & @tomandmary with @gmtgames, @hollandspiele, & @Decisiongames

ONE DISADVANTAGE OF ALWAYS GETTING UP EARLY is that my body doesn’t understand holidays. So my Fourth of July 2019 started at O’Dark Early. Not that it is a bad thing; it means I got a jumpstart on my Fourth of July wargaming.

First was to finish my Campaigns of 1777 (Strategy & Tactics/Decision Games, 2019). I had started the game the night before against my usual opponent, “Mr. Solo,” and now I finished it up. The British used a “Howe goes North” strategy which worked at first. That is, until the British realized they needed to get Philadelphia and time was running out. The British eventually took Philadelphia but Washington with lots of militia support retook Albany and Fort Montgomery. The British tried to used their seapower to reposition their troops but that was when the High Winds played havoc with the Royal Navy, delaying the transfer of troops. PATRIOT VICTORY.

Second game of the day was Washington’s War (GMT Games, 2010). This was a really fast game that ended in 1779. The Declaration of Independence was never played but Washington and Greene proved too slippery for the British ever to catch. The Americans adopted a Southern Strategy which forced the British to move lots down south. The Americans then placed lots of Political Control in the Northern Colonies. With the early end of the war the Americans were ahead 10 colonies to four. AMERICAN VICTORY.

Trying to get another game in before the guests arrived, Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 (Hollandspiele, 2017) hit the table. I should of known better than to rush the game as I ended up making several fatal mistakes for the Patriot’s and had to call on rule 13.4 Concession in 1778. CROWN VICTORY.

With the gaming done it was onto the BBQ and fireworks. The RockyMountainNavy Boys want to get 1775: Rebellion (Academy Games, 2013) to the table for the regular Weekly Family Game Night. We shall see if I can get any other “revolutionary” games in this weekend….

April #Wargame #Boardgame Drought?

What do they say? “April showers bring spring May flowers?” Well, my gaming April was a drought.

IMG_0237April was also a very busy month outside of gaming. For the first time in a few years we took a family Spring Break vacation. Sorry friends, spending a week at DisneyWorld, even when not playing games, is quite the mental health break the family needed.

Not that the month was a total loss. I got three very exciting plays of Harold Buchanan’s excellent Campaigns of 1777 (Decision Games/Strategy & Tactics 316). After playing the full campaign first I went back and played the shorter scenarios. I strongly recommend that one play the shorter scenarios first and then jump into the campaign; the locations and strategy decisions come easier and make more sense leading to a deeper game experience.

I was also very pleasantly surprised by WW2 Deluxe: The European Theater (Canvas Temple Publishing, 2018). What looks to be a too-simple game is actually a very neat classical hex & counter wargame with enough fresh innovation to keep it from appearing stale. WW2 Deluxe exceeded my expectations!

The RockyMountainNavy Boys continue their fascination with Quarriors! (WizKids, 2012). This month they dug into their own pockets and bought two expansions for the game.

I have been a bad Kickstarter boy this month. First it was Terraforming Mars: Turmoil that ended a very abbreviated campaign with over $13 MILLION(!!) raised with over 26,000 backers. Here’s hoping the game delivers on the hype. I also caved and pledged for the Traveller 5.10 roleplaying game campaign. Hey Marc! Don’t fail me, please!

After two years of waiting (at least for me) it appears that the new edition of Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel! – Kursk 1943 (Academy Games) is getting real close (finally).  According to a May 01 production update:

Production for ‘Conflict of Heroes – Storms of Steel 3rd Ed’ and ‘Conflict of Heroes – Awakening the Bear 3rd Ed’ is nearing completion! The Map Boards printed by Ludofact in Germany have arrived on the coast in Norfolk, VA and are working their way through customs. Once cleared, they will be shipped on to Ludofact USA to await the arrival of the rest of ‘Conflict of Heroes’ components being produced in China for final assembly.

The Chinese printer has completed production on the three (3!) individual Game Trayz that will be included in each game, dice, and cards. We just received final proofs for the unit counters, rule books, track sheets, etc. and have given approval for final production. We are implementing final tweaks to the SoS3 Mission book.

Our printer knows how important it is that we receive these games for early June release, so they are working diligently to get everything shipped soon. We are estimating they will be finished printing within the next two weeks for shipment to Ludofact USA for final assembly with the map boards. We are currently estimating we will receive the games for fulfillment by mid-June.

We had a lot of fun showing off the new maps and game system at Little Wars last weekend. Thanks for all of your great comments and those of you who kept coming back to play even more of the 3rd Ed Missions!

We want to thank everyone for their support, great suggestions, and feedback on the 3rd Ed Conflict of Heroes system.

If all goes well, it looks like May/June/July could be a busy month for the postman it’s possible to see delivery of not only Storms of Steel but (maybe) Agents of Mayhem (Academy Games), Hold the Line: The American Civil War (Worthington), Tranquility Base/Soviet Moon (History in Action Games), Castle Itter (with Pavlov’s House) (DVG), Nights of Fire: Battle for Budapest (Might Boards), and Memoir ’44: New Flight Plan (Days of Wonder). Hopefully it makes my summer gaming interesting!

 

#Wargame First Impression – Campaigns of 1777 (@HBuchanan2 in Decision Games. Strategy & Tactics 316, May-June 2019)

Harold Buchanan already has earned my respect with his entry in the GMT Game COIN -series. Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (2017) is in some ways a revisionist look at the American Revolution. I really enjoy the game; it is amongst the top 10 titles in my collection. So when I heard that Harold was getting another American Revolution game published I waited impatiently for it’s release. Campaigns of 1777 finally arrived in Strategy & Tactics 316. Although Campaigns of 1777 will never replace Liberty or Death (nor was it intended to) in my pantheon of games, the title will get played because it is an enjoyable, challenging exploration of the 1777 campaign year.

Campaigns of 1777 is a classic campaign battle game, but with a few innovative twists to make it fresh. It is not hex-and-counter but uses point-to-point movement. The game also uses a chit-pull mechanic for activation of leaders. Those leaders are most important because, once activated, they use their leadership rating to execute actions. The leader chit-pull mechanic and action points thematically portray many campaign issues. The chit-pull mechanic also makes the game solo-friendly. In his video review, marnanudo even went so far as to characterize Campaigns of 1777 as a near-hybrid of wargame and eurogame mechanisms. I agree; Harold Buchanan has drawn from a toolkit of several varieties and assembled a very interesting game.

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Courtesy BGG

As rich as the game is thematically and mechanically, it also has excellent components. The map by Terry Leeds is beautiful; I also really appreciate that many of the charts and tables are on the map for it saves flipping through the rulebook. The 1/2″ counters are easy to distinguish and cut well. They really look good once the corners get clipped!

Unlike so many magazine games, so far I have found Campaigns of 1777 to be “well baked.” The rules are pretty tight and gameplay executes in a fluid fashion.

If I have one (little) complaint it is that I worry about replayability. Campaigns of 1777 comes with three scenarios; the “historical” campaign and two short scenarios. In the historical scenario victory is determined by British control of Philadelphia and five other spaces. That is it. On the other hand, when I think about it the single historical and two shorter scenarios they are not all that bad if you use the game for a group game night or convention play. The simple, straight-forward scenarios and victory conditions in many ways make the game simpler to teach and play.

Hmmm….

Invasion Taipei -or- TAIPEI: The Communist Invasion of Taiwan, 2000 -or- Taipei: China Invades (Decision Games, Strategy & Tactics 202, 2000)

What’s in a name? Apparently, when Decision Games went to publish Joseph Miranda’s operational-level simulation of a hypothetical mainland Chinese invasion of Taiwan they couldn’t decide on a title. Invasion Taipei appears on the cover. TAIPEI: The Communist Invasion of Taiwan, 2000 was on the rule book. Taipei: China Invades is the BoardGameGeek listing. After looking at the over, with two of three photos showing naval action, my comments on the game posted to BGG showed further confusion:

This is a game of GROUND combat on Taiwan. Three other (major) factors of the battle are abstracted: Information Warfare, Air Warfare, and Naval Warfare. IO is treated as an operational overview using IW points. The air module is something akin to Crisis: Korea 1995 or the Fleet series. Naval warfare is TOTALLY abstracted out. For me, these three components are even MORE important than the land battle, hence my lower rating for inappropriate focus.

This week I relooked at Taipei and have some different thoughts.

In [1.0] INTRODUCTION, the claim is made that “The game simulates the full range of modern operational level warfare, including land, air and information operations.” Note the lack of naval. There are naval aspects to the game but they are heavily abstracted. The focus of the game is the fighting ashore in Taiwan. Combat focuses on ground and air units. For the most part, this campaign is presented using a somewhat standard hex & counter wargame approach.

The real difference in Taipei is the Information Warfare rules. IW in the game comes in two flavors, C4I and Information Warfare. First, certain units are given a C4I Rating. Units with a C4I rating can execute Infiltration Movement (move from one enemy Zone of Control – ZOC – to another ZOC). They also have a choice of which Combat Results Table (CRT) they want to use (there are three in the game). Most powerfully, units with a C4I Rating and “In Command” gain a second impulse to move and fight.

The Advanced Rules Game includes [25.0] INFORMATION WARFARE. This form of IW takes two forms; missions (such as EW, PSYOPS, or OPSEC) – what the military commonly calls EW & Cyber today –  and the Information Warfare Index. The IW Index is a balance of world opinion, political support, and media access for both sides. Executing IW missions affects units on the battlefield. The IW Index is shifted based on Direct Action; a shifting of points up or down the index based on battlefield actions and results. Each player strives for IW Dominance which add Political Points.

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IW Attack Table and Direct Action Effects Chart

Political Points leads to the victory conditions and probably one of the most confusing parts of the game for me to grasp. In concept it looks simple. To start with there are no Victory Points to track. Instead, there are two types of victory in Taipei; military and political. A Military Victory is straight-forward – occupy both Taipei city hexes AND at east three other city hexes AND at least two port towns. A Political Victory is a bit more complicated. A Political Victory occurs if, at the end of the game, one player has at least twice as many Political Points as their opponent. Political Points are earned by adding the cost taken in the Scenario Options PLUS 50 points for IW Dominance. Grokking the interaction between Political Points and Scenario Options and the IW Index takes a bit of work. Not helping is the fact the IW Index is not included in any table or on the map. My IW Index was found on Grognard.com.

The “game thesis” of Taipei appears to be a simulation of the then-current thinking about the Revolution in Military Affairs. In this case, Miranda focused on the advantages a C4I-enabled force would bring to the battlefield. Thus, the US forces have a C4I advantage while only a few allied units can fully integrate. The Chinese forces, on the other hand, are far more numerous but, with very few exceptions, lack the C4I to compete with the Coalition. Outside of Information Warfare, Miranda approached the battle in very conservative, conventional terms. The third CRT is names the AirLand Battle CRT – clearly a throwback to the 1980’s AirLand Battle concept from Europe and executed in the 1990’s in DESERT STORM. Taipei does not take on the then-emerging concept of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) – the naval campaign just to get to Taiwan.

Looking at Taipei through this narrower lens, in this case as only a simulation of a C4I-enabled force fighting a non-C4I enemy, the game makes more sense. After one play I am not sure one can draw too many lessons from the game. Given its age, that may be too much to ask. Then again, AirLand Battle is making a bit of a comeback. Instead, I probably need to accept Taipei for what is is; a time capsule of then-contemporary thinking of the impact of information warfare on the battlefield.

 

Retroplaying an early waro – Manchu: The Taiping Rebellion 1852-1868 (3W / Strategy & Tactics Issue 116, Dec 1987)

Manchu: The Taiping Rebellion 1852-1868 (3W / Strategy & Tactics Issue 116, Dec 1987) is an ambitious game on an obscure topic. As designer Richard Berg writes in the accompanying article, The Dragon and the Cross: The Taiping Rebellion in China, 1850-1868:

Above all, the Taiping Rebellion was a massive and bloody conflict. Although fought for the most part with primitive (for that era) weapons – small-arms were mostly 18th-century muskets of dubious reliability, as well as swords and pikes, while small contingents of artillery often used cannon from the Ming dynasty, over 200 years before! – it was the most costly war in terms of human lives up to that time (and exceeded in history only by World War II). Approximately 30 million Chinese lost their lives (three times the casualty rate of WWI) and all of this sprang from the perceptive but unstable mind of a Hakka peasant, Hung Hsiu-ch’uan. (p.16)

Manchu simulates the war years of 1852-1868 where the Taiping Player tries to overthrow the Ch’ing (or Manchu) dynasty. the Manchu Player must overcome disinterest and eventually commit to fighting the uprising. (1.0 INTRODUCTION).

Presentation

If the topic of the game draws one in, the first look at the map will scare them away. The map colors are garish and a real turn-off. I realize that the graphic artist was striving to differentiate between provinces (important to many rules) and was likely working with a limited color print palette but, my goodness, it just doesn’t work!

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It’s…colorful

Another issue I have is the orientation of the map. Again, limits of printing presses likely drove the north-south orientation but the map ends up sitting strangely on my game table. The counters themselves are plain and simple, but the red ones don’t pop enough against the pink hexes and the blue ones don’t stand out against the blue rivers – important since most blue chits are junks that sit on the water!

The lower quarter of the map sheet is taken up by various gaming tables. This is in addition to many charts and tables in the rules on two facing pages. Although the map tables are laid out in a somewhat sensical manner, the rule book layout is crowded and very confusing. Both could use a good relook and fresh approach to presentation to make them more player-friendly.

Playability

Manchu is a slow-playing game, rated at 240 minutes (4 hours) on BoardGameGeek. The game in part plays slow because learning (and using) the rules is clumsy. The rules are written in a classic wargame format of numbered paragraphs. The net result of reading the rules is a very proceduralized view of a game turn with many references to tables and charts and rules look-ups. Again, the limitations of cost and the printer for a magazine game likely drove many graphic design decisions, but a few play aids (or even a Play Book like many modern games have) could probably enhance the learning experience and get the focus back on play, not rules.

Mechanics

Each turn in Manchu revolves around Operations (6.0 OPERATIONS) in which, “each player can move his troops, engage in combat, raise more troops, etc….” The heart of Operations is the Turn Continuation Table:

Before performing any Operation the player must consult the Turn Continuation Table (TCT) to determine if his Player Segment will continue, allowing him to perform the desired Operation, or if he must Pass control to the opposing player, or if his game-turn is finished (6.0 OPERATIONS, General Rule)

This cycle of Operations makes for interesting game turns. Both players must decide what needs to be done and try to sequence Operations to accomplish their goals before the game turn concludes. Combat is certainly an important Operation, but other Operations like “Raising Troops” are just as essential.

Another mechanic that is essential but adds complexity is the fact every combat unit has two ratings: Strength Points and Manpower Steps. This concept, important to combat and recruiting, is deeply buried in 11.0 COMBAT as rule [11.12]:

Strength points are the measure of a unit’s combat prowess regardless of the number of troops it may represent. For example, a 1 manpower step Mongolian cavalry units has a combat rating of 5 strength points, while a 1 manpower Chinese Banner unit has a strength point rating of 1.

Both Strength Points and Manpower Points are used differently:

“[11.13] A unit’s strength points are used solely to determine the odds/ratio between attacker and defender (see 11.31).”

“[11.14] A unit’s manpower steps are used to take losses. All combat are taken in manpower steps, not in strength points.”

The concepts of Manpower Points is closely tied to 14.0 RAISING TROOPS; so much so it makes me question why the concept is buried in the combat section. With time a good developer could reorganize the rules to make core concepts such as this one stand out in an appropriate place of the rules rather than being buried.

The rules for leaders (12.0 LEADERS) are perhaps the second-most important set of rules (right after Operations). Leaders are also an important part of the theme of the game; the Manchu start with inefficient Imperial Commissioners which are eventually supplanted by Provincial Army Commanders that in turn grow into quasi-warlords.

Historical Flavor

Getting past the poor presentation and the complexity of the rules, Manchu actually delivers a compelling game thesis. It captures the theme of an unwieldy central power slow to recognize a rising rebellion and then not having the ability to deal with that challenge as that government cedes power to warlords to carry the fight. Rules for “barbarians” (aka foreigners such as the British) are also included as well as Bandits. All make Manchu “feel” thematically correct.

Support

Virtually non-existent. There is an entry on BGG for errata but it is quite dated. Nobody has taken up the mantle of trying to redo player aids or the like. This is likely because many wargamers probably don’t see a “real” wargame here.

Bottom Line

If one is able to look past a hideous game presentation and parse through a complex set of wargaming rules, one might discover that Manchu is a compelling game of a classic rebellion. The rebels (Taiping) start with almost nothing but rise up against the unwary Manchu. The real “battle” is in the ability of the Taiping Player to raise troops and conquer territory faster than the Manchu can respond. As the Taiping rebellion grows, the nature of the response changes from an unwieldy central power to more agile Provincial Army Commanders that eventually grow into warlords.

As a game I don’t think Manchu is a lost cause. The core of a good game is here but it could certainly use a more modern games approach that takes elements of Eurogaming and mixes it with a wargame – especially when it come to game presentation in the map and player aids. A reading of the Editorial by Keith Poulter in the accompanying Strategy & Tactics Issue 116 reveals that he recognized the need to improve their games:

However, as mentioned in another recent editorial, this is soon to change. Later this year, Ty Bomba will be joining us as our first full-time game developer. Paul Dangel has also recently taken on responsibility for the development of several games a year. By the middle of 1988 we shall have a core of half a dozen developers, all tried and tested, who will undertake our development work. During the course of the year we shall be working on further improvements in rules layout, though it will take until sometime in 1989  for this process to complete, as we work through the pipeline. (p. 6)

It would have been interesting to see if Manchu was any different if it was a year later and had a bit more development (and new art) given to it.

More recently, Designer Brian Train was interviewed on the Harold on Games podcast (episode 12) and hinted at a new COIN-series game tentatively titled Thunder Out of China. Although covering a later period of Chinese history it might be interesting to see  a COIN-like approach to the Taiping Rebellion if a redone Manchu is indeed beyond hope.

Featured image courtesy BGG.com.

Relooking at an older Train (war)game

I AM ASHAMED. Ashamed to admit that I have only one game by designer Brian Train in my collection. Mr. Train is a very prolific designer, having published games and/or historical articles with BTR Games, Compass Games, Decision Games, Fiery Dragon Productions, Flying Pig Games, GMT Games, Hollandspiele, Lock n’ Load, Microgame Design Group, Modern Combat Studies Group, Nestorgames, One Small Step Games, Schutze Games, Simulations Workshop, Strategy Gaming Society, Steambubble Graphics, Tiny Battle Publishing and XTR Corp. He often focuses on irregular warfare, “pol-mil” games, and asymmetric games (his webpage is here). I recently played a Brian Train game and was very impressed by the narrative it created.

The one Brian Train game I have in my collection is Reichswehr & Freikorps: If the Red Army Invaded Germany, 1920 (Strategy & Tactics 273, Mar-Apr 2012, Decision Games).  When I first got this game in 2012 I didn’t like it. This weekend, I pulled it off the shelf, set it up, and played. I was curious to see if I had missed something.

In 2012 I was very much a simulationist wargamer; that is, a wargamer deeply focused on the hardware. Hence my love for games like the Admiralty Trilogy-series from Admiralty Trilogy Games, the Panzer-series from GMT Games, or the Fighting Wings-series from J.D. WebsterRWFK is none of that. RWFK is, “a low-complexity, strategic-level, alternative history wargame of the conflict that would’ve resulted had the Poles been defeated by the invading Red Army in the summer of 1920.”

I am not the wargamer I was in 2012. Indeed, I am not the gamer I was in 2012. These days I play many boardgames (non-wargames) as well as wargames. One consequence of playing a wider variety of games is that I have grown to appreciate game mechanics like I never did before. An appreciation of mechanics has, in turn, allowed me to see many more games as “narratives” that teach me much as I explore them.

When I first looked at RWFK in 2012, the “low-complexity” and abstractions made in the game (Railhead Markers? With no railroads?) turned me off.  Playing it this weekend I discovered a game that is a actually a tense race-against-the-clock with a neat mechanic to model decreasing Red Army effectiveness. The game neatly creates a narrative of a large, cumbersome Red Army trying to suppress the smaller, more agile German forces before time runs out.

Looking at the map, the first thing one sees is a big map apparently with low counter density. The map is 17×24 hexes for 176 counters of which only around 125 are actually units. I can still remember in 2012 being fixated on the stacking rule which allows the Germans to stack up to seven (7) divisions in each hex (8.4 German Stacking Limit). The Red Army gets to stack all units from the same army in a hex (8.5 Red Army Stacking Limit). I seem to remember my 2012 game as a series of large stacks blowing across the map and the war quickly ending with the Red Army capturing Berlin. I put the game away and rated it a mere 5.5 (little better than Mediocre – Take It or Leave It) on BoardGameGeek.

In 2018, I now see I did not give enough consideration to rules 4.0 HOW TO WIN & RED ARMY MORALE, 5.0 THE TURN SEQUENCE, and 7.0 SUPPLY & GERMAN RAILROAD MOVEMENT.

As 4.1 On to Berlin states, “The Red Army player is generally on the offensive during the game, attempting to run a campaign that will, ideally, culminate with his force’s entry into Berlin.” This ties neatly with 4.4 Winning & Losing on Victory Points which states, “In general, the player who has managed to accumulate the greatest number of victory points…is declared the winner.” Rules 4.2 City & Town Hex Control and 4.3 Red Army Southern Front Reinforcements both describe how VP are gained and lost. These rules are very straight-forward and very much what my simulationist grognard mind expects.

The rule I didn’t give enough consideration to before is 4.7 Red Army Morale. This rules is actually a “core mechanic” of the game – maybe even the most important rule. Red Army Morale (RAM) can be High, normal, or Low. When the RAM is High, all combats (offensive & defensive) gain a one-column shift in the Red Army favor. Movement factors are also increased. Conversely, when the RAM is Low, all combats suffer a one-column shift against the Red Army, and movement factors are decreased. If the RAM ever drops below zero, the Red Army is said to have “collapsed” and the German player automatically wins (4.8 Ram Collapse).

RAM is automatically reduced by 2 at the beginning of every turn. RAM is gained or lost based on the capture of Towns & Cities, as well as from the arrival or defeat of various Red Army formations. In order to maintain effectiveness, the Red Army player must go on the offensive and stay there. If the German player can stymie his actions, the Red Army will quickly lose morale and combat effectiveness. This is a neat built-in timer to pressure the Red Army player to act. In effect, RAM acts as the “game clock” in a manner possibly more effective than the Turn Record Track.

Rule 5.2 Game Turns & Player Turn Procedures is the second leg of the core mechanic. After the 5.4 Mutual Railhead Adjustment Phase conducted by both players, the game proceeds to II. Red Army Player Turn. Using a chit-pull, different Red Army Fronts are activated to conduct a Reinforcement & Movement Phase followed by a Combat Phase. At any point during a Reinforcement & Movement Phase or Combat Phase, the German player can interrupt the Red Army player and conduct his own Railroad Movement, Regular Movement, or Combat Phase. The German player only gets one of each phase in every Red Army turn so the challenge is to decide when (and in what order) the phases should be played. This mechanic neatly shows a superior German command & control ability as well as avoids an IGO-UGO turn sequence. It makes the chit-pull agonizing for the Red Army (I really need to get the Southwest Front moving!) while forcing the German player to carefully determine when is the best time in the Red Army turn to interrupt and take his action (Gotta go now before they move away!).

The third leg of game is the supply rules. 7.4 Tracing Supply Lines details what a supply line is with the most important factor being it cannot be longer than eight hexes in length. The supply line uses a mix of railhead supply sources and “ultimate” supply source hexes. The rule ties neatly with 5.4 The Mutual Railhead Adjustment Phase in which each player can place one (and only one) railhead marker in any one city or town they control that does not presently have a marker. Units don’t want to fight when out of supply (OOS) because when they are OOS movement and combat factors are halved! (7.6 Effect of Being OOS).

The combined impact of these three core mechanics is that the Red Army MUST attack while the German player has more flexibility in his campaign. The Red Army is also in a race to win before they lose combat effectiveness as symbolized by their RAM. Finally, in order to stay on that offensive, the Red Army must build supply lines deep into enemy territory. To build supply lines takes time; time the Red Army has precious little of.

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Example of near mid-game situation

But what about those stacking rules? One certainly can have large stacks race around the board, but to do so means few VP gained (to offset automatically dropping RAM) and a tenuous supply line at best. Better to spread the armies out, take more cities and towns, and build a supply net to support troops forward. The stacking rule is actually not that important as the game model encourages players to act in other ways!

In the end, RWFK is a very narrative game. Can the Red Army overcome with more units (but generally lower quality and losing effectiness over time) a smaller but more flexible German Army? To really enjoy RWFK one must embrace the abstractions. In 2012 as a simulationist wargamer I was not ready to embrace the narrative. These days I am, and I enjoy the narrative of games. My previous rating on BGG was too low and a result of a lack of appreciation for the game model. Both the rating and myself have changed. I enjoyed RWFK this weekend, and am going to seek out more games by Mr. Train. Publishers of Mr. Train’s work need to be ready because I feel a few purchases are in order!

Featured image courtesy boardgamegeek.com.

#FirstImpressions – Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing LLC, 2017)

Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing LLC, 2017) is a rules-lite, family-friendly, area control wargame. Well, sort of area control. Maybe too rules lite. Regardless, Enemies of Rome is a simple wargame that looks to be a fun shorter game that engages the entire family.

I missed out on the Kickstarter campaign in early 2017 that raised $17,000 against a $10,000 goal. The game is now reaching retail distribution where I got it. My interest comes thanks to a series of videos that @PastorJoelT posted on Twitter.

Components

The map has a very theme-appropriate presentation. The back of the Event/Action cards are a bit cartoonish as compared to the map but remain loyal to the theme. The card faces are easy to read and understand. The many cubes look overwhelming at first but once separated into color groups and matched with the few cardboard tokens they also support immersion into the theme.

Rules-Lite

The rulebook for Enemies of Rome is eight (8) pages. Actually, it is seven pages as page 8 is a simplified map. The mechanics of the game is very straight-forward; place reinforcements, play “Intrigue Talents” (special bonuses earned during play), play either an Event or Action card to move and maybe battle, then draw your hand back up to two cards. Victory points, called Glory Points here, are earned by conquering a territory and lost if you lose a battle against another player. Total play time is rated at 120 minutes, but even our first game was over in 90.

As simple as the rules are, the rulebook could of used a bit more work. Looking at the names of the designers and play testers, Enemies of Rome looks to be mostly a family affair. That is not bad, but I feel that if an outsider or a professional technical editor had looked at these rules they could be much clearer. Having grown up as a grognard with rigid SPI rules formatting (1. / 1.1/ 1.11, etc.) I find it helpful in breaking down a rule and making them easy to follow or cross-reference. I totally understand that this “rules lawyer” format is not popular with some, especially those who want to read a more “natural language” text.

Who are the “Enemies of Rome”

Enemies of Rome is for 2-5 players, making it high suitable for group or family gaming. What makes this game work is the presence in every game of a non-player, the “Enemies of Rome.” Enemies occupy every territory the players do not. During a players turn, some Event and Action cards allow the player to move the Enemies. This simple mechanic introduces a subtle element of strategy that quickly becomes a focus of all players – do I move my own Legions or do I move the Enemies? This makes for interesting dilemma’s – how do I move/battle the Enemies to my advantage?

Area Control – Sorta

On the surface, Enemies of Rome appears to be an area control game. Indeed, at game end the players with the most territories gains a Glory Point bonus. However, a closer look at the rules reveals that Glory Points are won/lost in battle. If at the end of a battle the player is in sole possession of a territory, a Glory Point is won. If the player battles another player (not the Enemies) and loses, Glory Points are lost. The subtlety of this rule can be lost on beginners. In the RockyMountainNavy family first game, as Red I had the least territories but fought a number of good-odds battles towards the end and tied Blue who had the most Legions and territories. In the tie-breaker I lost to the more numerous Blue Legions. The RockyMountainNavy Boys were a bit confused at first until they realized its the battles won, not the number of territories, that count for Glory Points. A quick glance through the forums at BoardgameGeek seemingly indicate this is not a popular way of determining victory with several alternate VP conditions being bantered about.

Similarities

What struck me after the first play was the similarity of Enemies of Rome to the very popular Academy Games Birth of America-series. This especially applies to the first game in the series, 1775 Rebellion: The American Revolution. The RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself have many plays of the Birth of America series and the similar 878 Vikings: Invasions of England which are team-play, area control games. Indeed, @PastorJoelT mentioned in one of his videos that he saw Enemies of Rome and 1775 Rebellion as similar games. His comment is actually what triggered me to buy the game!

In my opinion, although superficially similar to Enemies of Rome, there are enough differences with the Enemies of Rome and the Glory Point scoring mechanics that these games are just that – superficially similar. I view Enemies of Rome as the simpler game of the two.

Collection Worthy?

Although Enemies of Rome is a simple game with a scoring mechanic that is a bit opaque, that does not mean it is not good enough for a gaming collection. If you look closely at the featured image of this post, you will see several Rick Riordan books in the upper right corner of the image. The RockyMountainNavy Boys pulled these out because the geography in the books was also found in Enemies of Rome. The Boys also found my copy of Decision Games’ Strategy & Tactics Quarterly #1 – Caesar. The Boys are making what Mrs. RockyMountainNavy refers to as “connections.” They are studying the map, reading the history on the Event cards, and learning.

Enemies of Rome promotes learning while having fun at the same time. That’s a winning combination in the RockyMountainNavy stronghold. Even if you are not into learning, the simplistic nature of the game, combined with subtle strategy, make Enemies of Rome a good group game, especially when introducing new gamers to wargames.