Game of the Week – Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal, 1942 (Revolution Games, 2015) – Theme & Game Mechanics

I love war-games on naval warfare. The Admiralty Trilogy Games (Fear God & Dread Nought, Rising Sun, Harpoon) are amongst my favorite wargames of all time. I tend to like the more tactical-level of naval combat but always am on the lookout for games about other levels of war. I have most of the Avalanche Press Great War at Sea / Second World War at Sea series in my collection that try very hard to marry tactical combat resolution with an operational-level campaign game – and ends up doing neither very well. Thus, it was with both hope and trepidation that I picked up Pacific Fury: Guadalcanal, 1942 (Bonsai-Games/Revolution Games, 2015) a little over a year ago. I need not have worried; Pacific Fury delivers a highly thematic game using a set of game mechanics that doesn’t emphasize combat, but planning. If that sounds boring to you and you skip this title then you actually are missing out on a great game that is not only fun to play, but provides a unique view into a pivotal naval campaign in the South Pacific in late 1942.

Pacific Fury is played out over four turns with each turn composed of five phases. The simple sequence of play builds a strong campaign narrative each turn through the interaction of four key rules:

  • 8.2 Form Task Forces
  • 9.7 Counting Operations
  • 10.7 Applying Hits
  • 10.8 Return to Base (Forced Return)

8.2 Form Task Forces

This rule is really the heart of every turn. In this step players have to plan their turn – everything after this is execution, not planning. Players plan their turn by forming either Amphibious, Bombardment, or Carrier Task Forces (the Japanese can also form the special Tokyo Express). Each Task Force (TF) is placed in one of seven Operations Boxes. The Operations Boxes are the order in which the units can enter the map (9.1 Sortie) during the turn. Need a carrier? Better hope it’s the next up on the track!

9.7 Counting Operations

In every Operations Phase a TF can “Sortie” to enter the map. The TF in the lowest numbered box on the Operations Track enters the map. Other possible actions, “Move,” “Landing,” Naval Bombardment,” or “Air Strike” can only be used by TF already on the map. When taking an action other than Sortie, every TF in the current Operations Box is “bumped” up the track. It is possible to actually “bump” TF off the end of the Operations Track, meaning they won’t ever get a chance to enter the map (Sortie) that turn! This simple mechanic of Counting Operations creates a compelling dilemma for players; do you enter/sortie a TF or use one already on the map? Is the one on the map the right one needed for the mission? Do you lose time getting the right one in position? Or do you fight and maybe never get the right one into the battle?

10.7 Applying Hits / 10.8 Return to Base (Forced Return)

These two rules go hand in hand. 10.7 specifies that any ship hit but not sunk is “damaged” and placed on the Turn Track to return later as a reinforcement. This removal of the unit from battle occurs after each round of combat. With only four turns, damaged ships may, or may not, return in time for a later turn.

The Forced Return rule is also very important. Under Forced Return, the attacking TF MUST return to base after the second round of combat or after the first round if there are no targets. This means attacking TF never hold ground. A defending TF that suffers no hits in either round of combat may remain. However, if the defending TF suffers even one hit in combat it MUST return to base. Combat in Pacific Fury becomes a game of damaging, not sinking, ships. Sure, sinking a ship is best (it cannot return) but often times it is enough simply to damage a ship and force a TF to return to base.

These four rules make Pacific Fury a much different naval combat game from many others. The game mechanics do a very credible job of reflecting the theme of planning a months-worth of operations by forcing the player to sequence the arrival of their forces. The challenge is not only to sequence their arrival, but to do so while trying to ensure the right units are available when needed. It is very easy to build one mega-TF with all the carriers together that will sweep the sea areas early in the turn…but once it attacks it returns to base and leaves the map – potentially depriving another TF of vitally needed cover.

In Pacific Fury choices really matter. The choice of what ships go into what TF, the choice of which Operations Box a TF is placed, the choice of what action to take, the choice to engage in combat – every choice matters. By emphasizing planning, the real objective of the campaign is brought to the front. The game highlights quite clearly that it is not the number of ships sunk that matters, but only who controls Henderson Field at the end of the game. The winner in Pacific Fury will be the player who plans the use of their dwindling forces the best.

Game of the Week – Silver Bayonet: The First Team in Vietnam, 1965 – 25th Anniversary Edition (GMT Games, 2016) – Theme

I have very few Vietnam-topic wargames in my collection. As sorted by BoardGameGeek, the three wargames beside Silver Bayonet that I own are Firepower (Avalon Hill Games, 1984), The Speed of Heat (Clash of Arms Games, 1992), and Downtown: The Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 (GMT Games, 2004). Nor do I have many operational-level ground combat games having focused more on the tactical or strategic level of war, and then mostly on naval/maritime or air campaigns. Thus, Silver Bayonet occupies a rare part of my collection.

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Courtesy BGG

When I first started wargaming in 1979, the Vietnam War was still fresh in the public’s memory. That memory was also a bit raw given how divided the country was over the war. Thus, I encountered very few wargames on the topic; the only one I remember playing was Operation Pegasus (Task Force Games, 1980**). Even come the 1990s there still were few games making the first edition of Silver Bayonet published in 1990 special even then.

In 2015, when designer Gene Billingsley went to update Silver Bayonet, he wrote in the Inside GMT Blog:

A recommended book. The “We Were Soldiers Once and Young” book came out in late 1992, and the movie a decade later, and Americans began to learn about the bitter struggle ofPleikuBook Hal Moore’s troopers in the shadow of the Chu Pong at LZ X-Ray. But even now, little has been written on the broader campaign in October and November of 1965, a campaign that stopped, attritted, and later routed a tough North Vietnamese Division poised to overrun the Special Forces camps and meager fortifications around Pleiku in just over a month of campaigning. Considering that airmobility was mostly “an idea” at that point, and that the unblooded 1st Cavalry troopers that implemented new strategies and tactics were about as familiar with the area of operations as they were the face of the moon, what they achieved was quite remarkable. And, of course, terribly costly. To this day, I know of no better book – if you want to read up on this campaign – that dissects the entire campaign, than J.D. Coleman’s “Pleiku,” a book that was my primary source for constructing the game’s scenarios way back in 1990. To be sure, we have more information today, and some of that will make its way into the updated edition of the game, but this book remains a tremendous resource, written by a gifted writer, with enough precise detail that it almost reads like an after action report (though much more interesting.) If you’re interested in the topic, read (or re-read) this book.

Having both read the book and watched the movie, the game Silver Bayonet is extremely evocative of the topic. This is GMT Games at its finest; a respectful treatment of the subject with little oh-rah and a very fair representation of the capabilities and motivations of both combatants.

Featured image courtesy GMT Games.

** Operation Pegasus is available as a digital download from the successor to Task Force Games, Amarillo Design Bureau, at wargamevault.com.

Race for Your Life – Retroplaying Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980)

Following last week’s retroplay of Wooden Ships & Iron Men, this weekend I pulled out another old game from the shelf to play at the weekend RockyMountainNavy Family Game Night. Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980) is a game of chariot racing in ancient Rome. The game, a mix of race and combat, was once again a great hit.

Before the RockyMountainNavy Boys and I started playing, I pulled up a few YouTube videos of the 1959 movie Ben Hur. In particular, I pulled up the Parade of the Charioteers and The Chariot Race.

Unexpectedly, the RMN Boys focused on the cinematic aspects of the film. They were awed by the grand sets, spectacular costumes, and real racing. The epic scene captivated them and helped them understand the theme of the game to follow.

If you are not familiar with Circus Maximus, the publisher’s blurb tells you the whole story:

Violent and bloody, Circus Maximus details the chariot races that occurred in ancient Rome. Eight teams race around the track three times to determine victory. Players prepare for the race by selecting the composition of their team of horses, their rider’s skills, and the type of chariot that will be driven. Once the race begins the players are free to do as they wish to hamper the other racers including whipping the rider, ramming chariots with scythed wheels, smashing into horses, and running over crashed opponents. A campaign game of multiple races, in which players have to manage their teams and can increase their income by betting on races, is also possible. (BGG)

For our race we randomly set up six chariots. We quickly generated our chariots according to the rules for the Basic Game and were off!

The Boys were hesitant going down the first stretch, staying in their lanes with only me moving towards the inside. In an attempt to “get into the spirit” of the game I tried to Lash a Driver as I passed one of the Youngest RMN Boy’s chariots and, just like in the movie, lost my whip! Going into the first turn, I could see the Boys having a bit of some difficulty understanding the rules for Corner Strain, so I made sure at least one of my chariots was a bit quick to show them how the rules work. As it was, we all passed our Corner Strain rolls the first part of the turn, and for myself I got a bit overconfident. With my purple chariot still in the corner, I plotted a bit of a fast speed to try and get a good lead coming out of the turn. Instead, I rolled poorly (17 on 3d6) and even with my measly +1 Current Driver Modifier (in this case subtracted to make the roll a 16) I Flipped my chariot leaving a wreck behind.

[In the Advanced Game, one determines if the driver is dragged behind the horses and able to cut themselves loose. Once loose, he has to run off the track before getting trampled under the hooves of another team. We didn’t play this part but I explained it to the Boys.]

Now the Boys started understanding the game. The yellow chariot of the Youngest RMN was a real speed demon (Extra Endurance with a Fast Team) and pulled out ahead of the pack. My brown chariot was a Light Chariot with a Fast Team and tried to keep up. The other three chariots fell behind.

This is where the chaotic nature of the game started to really show. The yellow chariot was not fast enough to pull away from my brown chariot. If the yellow chit draw came first, he was safe; if the brown chit pull came first I was able to get close. Luck seemed to be with yellow, and I only got a few chances to attack. When I got close I went after his horses in an effort to slow him down. The results were mixed as my Light Chariot was at a disadvantage in inflicting damage. I hurt his horses a bit and slowed him down some, but not nearly enough. The race was decided on the last chit pull; if brown was pulled first I was positioned for another attack that could slow him down just enough to maybe lose. If yellow was pulled first and he Whipped his Horses using Strain he could probably just make the finish line. The first chit of the turn was pulled…and was yellow! He immediately used his whip and got just enough extra speed for the win!

We all shook hands and congratulated each other on a great race. The Youngest RMN Boy asked me if I had played the game a lot when I was younger. I pointed to the well-worn counters and asked him what he thought. At this point, Mrs. RMN arrived home and saw the game. She said it looked very old. I checked the date and told them it was a 1980 game meaning I played it when I was 13 years old. At this moment the Youngest RMN Boy and I looked at each and both realized the same thing – he is 13 years old right now. It sounds silly to say, but at that moment there was a bond between us.

The Youngest RMN Boy asked if there was a newer version and I told him there was not. He wondered why not, and I answered that a new game would likely be very expensive as modern gamers would demand miniatures or the like. I even ruefully wondered out loud if someone would change the spirit of the game by making a cooperative version or how the Campaign Game would be rebranded as a Legacy Edition.

I have to admit the look and feel of the game is dated. The very simple two-tone board with track and game charts could not pass in todays market where components and theme are so important. Looking at Circus Maximus reminds me that theme is more important than the look of a game. The Boys stated that as they were playing they very vividly could imagine themselves in the race. The game let them see themselves on that track in Ben Hur. It is a real testimony to the game designers that they were able to capture the glamor chariot racing so well with a game that looks so plain. We looked through some of the photos on BoardGameGeek and both Boys asked if they could find miniatures, paint them, and make a race board like many others have. Something we will have to look into to, though I feel the Lego board in the basement may be repurposed in the very near future!

The RockyMountainNavy Boys want to play Circus Maximus again, next time with the Advanced Rules. I get the feeling the next race will be a bit less gentlemanly and a lot more destructive. We have a few racing games on the shelf, such as PitchCar and Formula Dè, but these don’t get played that often because, like skirmish miniatures games such as Star Wars: Imperial Assault, the theme just doesn’t seem to resonate with us. Circus Maximus, with its delicious mix of racing and combat, hits a sweet spot in between the two. I am looking forward to many more years of enjoying this fine game.

 

Narrowing #TheExpanseBoardGame – or – Expecting too much from theme

IMG_2055My first impressions of The Expanse Board Game (WizKids, 2017) were less-than-favorable. In the few weeks since I have been able to sit back and reappraise my feelings towards the game. I now see that I focused too much on theme and not enough on game play. If I remove many of my feelings about the theme, the game that emerges is a good influence-placement game using the theme of the The Expanse TV series.

I will be the first to admit I am not a hardcore fanboy of The Expanse, but I do like the TV series (Seasons 1 & 2) and have enjoyed the first few books. I came to the franchise backwards, seeing the TV series before I started reading the books. In several ways my perception of theme is colored by the TV series. The Expanse Board Game draws almost exclusively from the TV series, so in my first impressions I inevitably compared the two. In my first impressions I didn’t like the game because I kept trying to see the game as a replay (or version of) the TV series. The Expanse Board Game, though based on the TV series, is actually a very different look at the franchise. I should have paid more attention to the front matter in the rule book:

The Expanse is a game of politics, conquest, and intrigue for two to four players. Players spread their influence through the solar system onto important Bases using characters and events in the Expanse Universe, and must make clever use of their special faction abilities to gain an edge.

But even this summary is a bit misleading as I believe there is little “politics,” no real “conquest,” and very limited “intrigue” in the game. What The Expanse Board Game does deliver is a (sorta) asymmetrical influence-placement game based on The Expanse Universe.

Politics – When I see a political game I expect negotiation or a focus on indirect warfare (the Diplomatic, Intelligence, or Economic factors). The Expanse Board Game has no real negotiation element, a bare nod to diplomatic (i.e. the UN Diplomat cubes) and only a limited nod to economic (each factions key resources).

Conquest – Unless one conflates the definitions of conquest and influence there is no real conquest in The Expanse Board Game. Even when there is “confrontation” the result is limited to removal of fleets or influence cubes. Sure, fleets must be rebuilt but the relatively non-violent nature of the confrontation does not make it feel like a conquest to me.

Intrigue – Intrigue to me comes across as some form of secret plans or the like. Certainly, there is an element of secrecy in The Expanse Board Game but even that element is minimized as the game has almost no hidden information. Indeed, the game is mostly open information with cards on the Action Track visible to all and Kept Events remaining face-up in front of the players.

Asymmetrical Abilities – What The Expanse Board Game does well is using theme in the asymmetric abilities of the factions. From the UN being able to use superior planning to take the second card on the Action Track at no cost to the Martian battleships and the like, the use of theme to differentiate the factions is the most successful part of the game. This trend continues to a degree in the Faction Special Tech Cards that enter after different scoring rounds. These special abilities all are keyed to the placement – or
removal – of influence.

Influence – What The Expanse Board Game comes down to is influence. The game
is actually very simple; have the most influence at the right time for Scoring. Influence has two elements – orbital control and bases. Given the somewhat secret element of Bonus Sector selection, the players are challenged to have the right influence at the right times in the game. Players may find they need to “shift” influence around during the game as they try to guess (or manipulate) where the next Bonus Sector will be scored.

cqb_main
Courtesy syfy.com

Rocinante – The Rocinante was actually the part of the theme I had the most trouble wrapping my head around. In the TV series the Rocinante and crew are the focus; the narrative element through which the story is told. In The Expanse Board Game the Rocinante has a far different role. With control of Rocinante going to the faction with the lowest Control Points, the ship becomes more of a pawn than a true protagonist. It is a bit disconcerting (disconnected from theme?) to see the ship only be used as a fleet (albeit one that can’t be removed) with special abilities that only come into play during Scoring. The special abilities also still very limited. Of the four, I actually find the Amos Burton ability the most powerful (“Remove 1 opposing fleet in the Rocinante Orbital for each friendly fleet there (including the Rocinante)”) which, to me, again doesn’t quite square with the TV Series where James Holden (special ability – “Place 1 influence anywhere”) comes across as the central character. I also have a bit of thematic dissonance when the Rocinante is controlled by the Protogen faction. So great is this dissonance that I have to rationalize the situation by telling myself that the Rocinante was not really being “controlled” by Protogen but more properly is being “manipulated” by the corporation.

Reappraising The Expanse Board Game

By reducing my expectations of theme, my respect for The Expanse Board Game has actually grown. The game is about placing influence – and little else. It uses the theme of The Expanse Universe to derive the asymmetric abilities of the factions. The Rocinante – a ship and crew with a key role in the TV series and books – has a lesser role in this game. In the end, The Expanse Board Game delivers what it promises – an Expanse-themed influence-placement game playable in around 60 minutes.