The Pope is Dead – or – a #wargame Grognard has made his final muster. Richard H Berg (1943-2019)

THE WARGAMING WORLD HAS LOST A GIANT OF A MAN. But even from beyond the grave, he still manages to teach me something.

Wargame designer Richard H. Berg passed away on 26 July. Mr. Berg was an important member of the wargame community before even I got into gaming in 1979. Mr. Berg was a prolific game designer; a quick search of BGG reveals he is listed as a “designer” on nearly 200 titles.

As much as I knew about Mr. Berg, I actually own very few of his games. Maybe this is because he focused more on the ancient or medieval and middle ages periods. That said, he won early popularity for his American Civil War games; another time period I avoided in the 1980’s in favor or the modern era.

When I heard of Mr. Berg’s death one of the things I did was check my BGG collection to see what titles of his I own. I only own six.

My Richard Berg game collection

My most highly rated game from Mr. Berg is from a recent issue of C3i Magazine. The Battle of Wakefield: Yorkshire, England 30 December 1460 was my introduction to the Men in Iron-series of games. I liked it although this era is not my usual cup of tea.

A poorly rated game I own is Battle for North Africa: War in the Desert, 1940-1942 (GMT Games, 1996). Amazingly, the game is still for sale on the GMT website! Here is my comment about the game I wrote somewhere around 2006 when I first rated the game on BGG:

Covers the entire NA Campaign…but the rules are challenging. Must be a real Grognard and a Richard Berg fan to get through this one.

Rereading my comment, I asked myself if I was being unfair to Mr. Berg. So, with some trepidation, I pulled Battle of North Africa (BNA) out and took a look at it. Immediately, I was confused. Reading the back of the box the publisher’s blurb was nothing I remembered:

Battle for North Africa takes GMT’s Gameplayer Series into the modern era, allowing players to fight one of the hobby’s favorite campaigns with a totally new and fresh approach that emphasizes ease of play. The randomized features of the innovative Activation Marker system allow gamers to combine logistics, command and use of reserves into one, simple mechanic; one that still provides a maximum amount of uncertainty, tension and fun. The scale of BNA also allows players to recreate the sweeping maneuvers of the desert war with scenarios that can be played in one sitting or that cover the entire two years of fighting.

Battle for North Africa, back of the box

After reading the blurb I just had to look at the rulebook. All 20 pages of it. As I looked at it, I had a nagging feeling I had seen this before. So I pulled out Ted S. Raicer’s The Dark Sands: War in North Africa, 1940-42 (GMT Games, 2018), my “other” chit-pull mechanic North Africa Campaign wargame. The similarities are most striking:

  • Both use a chit-pull mechanic
  • Both have a unit scale of Battalion to Division
  • Ground scale in BNA is 8.5 miles per hex; TDS uses two map scales ranging from 4.5 to 9 miles per hex
  • Game turns in BNA are monthly; TDS turns are 1-2 months
  • Both games use the concept of assets to attach support to fighting formations.

The major rules difference between BNA and TDS is the concept of Resources in BNA. In BNA, Resource Points (RPs), “…cover a variety of actions: supply, construction, air support, refitting troops, anything that requires an influx and use of men and materiel” (9.1 Resource Points). In TDS logistics is abstracted into the chit system.

With my interest now totally piqued, I just had to play a scenario. The one-map Rommel Arrives scenario stood out because it, “…lasts 3 turns and can be finished in about 2-3 hours.” So I gave it a shot. My game of BNA ended up taking closer to 4.5 hours as I was learning the game system (the errata from BGG was also helpful). It was not too hard; my recent infatuation with chit-pull games in general, and TDS in particular put me ahead on the learning curve. Looking back to my original comment, what I discovered was:

  • “Covers the entire NA campaign….” Yes, it certainly can.
  • “…but the rules are challenging.” Uh…not really.
  • “Must be a real Grognard and Richard Berg fan to get through this one.” GMT made it clear in the introduction that, “…the emphasis is on accessibility and playability, with as much historical flavor as we can muster. Given choice between playability and historiticity, we have tended to err on the side of the former.”

So, does Battle for North Africa really deserve a 5.0 (Mediocre – Take it or leave it) rating from me. Certainly not.

The passing of Richard Berg, however sad, has brought joy to my life. I think Mr. Berg is smiling in heaven when he sees that his game from nearly 20 years ago can make someone think. Even one of his lesser titles, Battle for North Africa, still brings learning and wonderment to this little man.

That is the mark of a giant. RIP, Mr. Berg.

A Battle of Opportunities – The Battle of Wakefield (C3i Magazine Nr 31, 2017)

Saturday was a very rainy day, and with the RockyMountainNavy Boys still on travel I got several solo plays in. The first was Line of Battle (Second Edition, Omega Games, 2006) and the second was The Battle of Wakefield: Yorkshire, England 30 December 1460 published by RBM Studio in C3i Magazine Nr. 31 in 2017. After I finished my play, I realized that both @playersaid and @PastorJoelT also played Wakefield on Saturday. It looks like the game is popular, and with good reason. The Battle of Wakefield uses a relatively straight-forward combat system driven by an interesting initiative mechanic using Free Activations and Continuity. The most important decisions players make are not how to combat, but making the best of opportunities.

The core mechanic of The Battle of Wakefield is rule 6.0 ACTIVATION & CONTINUITYAn Activation is, “All the Moving, Firing, and Attacks of one Battle, during which some of the opponents may react” (2.4 Definitions & Abbreviations). The player can also select to activate the Standard (“the rallying point for units of an army,” think rally point or action) or Pass. Passing can be beneficial as it may speed reinforcement arrival and (indirectly) triggers a Loss Check.

Once a player has acted, the Active player can attempt to continue their turn by using Continuity; that is, pass the initiative to another Battle in the army. The selected Battle must pass a Continuation die roll (DR) which is a roll against the Battle leader’s Activation Rating. If the Continuation DR is the same as or less than the Activation Rating, the Battle is Activated (6.2 Continuity). This “continuity passing” can continue indefinitely, though each successive Continuation DR gets a progressively larger modifier. Once the Continuation DR is failed, or the player passes, the other player starts their turn with a Free Activation.

At the start of the game, each player places their eight Seizure Counters into a cup and draws three. These Seizure Counters can now be used in the game for Seizing Continuity (6.3 Seizing Continuity). Before the active player makes their Continuation DR, the non-active player can try a Seizure Opportunity to take the initiative. Another Seizure Counter is Seizure Negation which counters the Seizure Opportunity play. Some other Seizure Counters have combat effects. By randomly drawing three of eight each game, this simple game mechanic ensures that no two games will ever be identical.

Which is why Free Activations becomes so important. A Free Activation is:

A non-Continuity/non-Seized Activation. It is a Free Activation if your opponent Passes, your opponent fails a Continuity roll, fails a Seizure roll, or if it is the first Activation of the game (2.4).

In The Battle of Wakefield, Free Activations is the most important type of activation because:

  • It is the only activation that can activate a Standard (6.1 Activation – Standard)
    • Standards can “rally” Retired units to a Disordered state, which in turn gives them chance to return to full combat status (15.0 RALLYING UNITS).
  • It can trigger reinforcements (LANCASTRIAN REINFORCEMENTS on Set-Up card)
    • In Wakefield, at the start of every Free Activation the Lancastarian player makes a DR plus the number of their past Free Activations. If the DR exceeds 12 or 14 certain reinforcements arrive.
  • At the end of every Free Activation there is a Loss Check to determine if the game ends (3.0 VICTORY).

In my game, I did not do a very good job of tracking Free Activations for each side. I think I missed at least one reinforcement roll opportunity and maybe even a Loss Check. What might help this game is a token that has “Free Activation” on one side and “Continuity” on the other to help remind players which type of activation they are in. It also could serve as a great symbol of the “passing of initiative” as the token is passed between players when one passes or seized opportunity.

Even without the token, The Battle of Wakefield is a nice, tight game. The challenge comes from the need for the outnumbered, yet qualitatively superior York to defeat a numerically superior Lancaster army that arrives on the battlefield piecemeal. York must defeat elements of the Lancaster army in turn before a sheer weight of numbers overwhelms it. To win, each player must use their Free Activations and Continuity to the best possible effect. Each player has opportunities to disrupt Continuity and seize the initiative making, or taking, the opportunities that arise in the chaos of the battlefield. This battle of opportunities is what The Battle of Wakefield shows best.

#WargameWednesday – #TheBattleofWakefield (C3i Magazine Nr. 31)

The Battle of Wakefield, the insert game in C3i Magazine Nr. 31 (published by RBM Studios) recreates the War of the Roses battle of 30 December 1460 battle. Although this time period is not my preference for gaming, this Richard Berg-design is the near-perfect magazine wargame being easy to learn, fun to play, and interesting me further in the GMT Games Men of Iron-series.

My preferred time period for wargames is World War II, especially naval and tactical armored combat. Recently, I dipped into 18th century combat with the American Revolution Tri-Pack, again from GMT Games. The Battle of Wakefield is a step further back in time to the age of mounted knights and longbows. The complimentary articles in C3i Nr31 provide excellent commentary and educated me just enough to make we want to get the game to the table right away.

For a magazine wargame, The Battle of Wakefield hits all the items I feel are important. The map easily fits on my 3’x3′ sitting table with room to spare for the various tracking card and player aids. The counter-density is low (116 counters total) making the battle easy to solo and playtime a very manageable 2 hours for my learning game. The rulebook, all 12 pages of it, obviously traces its lineage to an established set of rules (i.e. the most egregious errata has already been corrected).

As a longtime grognard, I am interested in how wargames model battle. The Battle of Wakefield uses very interesting Activation & Continuity rules. A player can have multiple Battles (an organizational unit of a medieval army) and can activate one at a time. Once a Battle has been activated, if the player wants to “continue his ‘turn'” another Battle must roll for Continuity. There are mechanisms for Seizing Continuity using Seizure Opportunity or Seizure Negation. I enjoyed these rules that helped me to imagine the ever changing flow of battle without imposing an iconoclastic (and unimaginative) I-GO-U-GO or similar initiative mechanic.

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The Yorkist Army nearly surrounded as Wiltshire’s Battle comes up from behind (author’s photo)

The game is not perfect. I had (have?) a hard time wrapping my head around the difference between 12.0 Shock and 13.0 Charging & Counter-Charging. The note at the end of para 13.0 that states, “It helps to remember that Charge is just another form of shock that uses a different Combat Results Table” seems insufficient to explain why Shock and Charging & Counter-Charging both have 4-5 columns of rules! My rules confusion should not be seen as a showstopper to any potential buyers; I worked my way through the rules and after my first play I “think” I understand it. Again, I credit this to the roots of the game coming from an established rules system.

After my first play of The Battle of Wakefield, I want to try more scenarios in this era using these rules. When the game arrived I was not really interested in medieval combat but after playing this enjoyable game with it’s Activation & Continuity mechanics I want to try more. In this way, The Battle of Wakefield has succeeded; not only is it an entertaining game it has also driven me to search out more games in the Men of Iron-series.