GDW’s Road to the Rhine

Markus and I caught up for another Road to the Rhine scenario (you can read about our last effort here). The more that I play this the more I like it. The Allies can do anything, but not everything. The key mechanisms are Maneuver Supply Points (MSPs), which you need to move your units effectively. Units that have a movement factor of more than 15 (most Allied units) need to spend an MSP to move their full allowance and engage in combat. MSPs are also needed to fly air missions.

The other is a really clever mechanism where a player’s game turn consists of a series of impulses. Each turn is a week, and each impulse could be a few hours to a couple of days. In your turn, you move the units that you want and attack. Your opponent then moves and attacks with any units in reserve. A unit can only activate during one impulse per turn, and if you want to react to your opponent’s moves in their turn, you have to place units in Reserve (which also costs MSPs) in your own turn. Impulses continue until the phasing player decides to call a halt – the reacting player *doesn’t* get a reaction in the final impulse.

So you *can* play it Igo-Hugo and move everyone in a single impulse, but if you try it you’ll probably have your head handed to you on a plate. You have to think about the sequencing of your attacks, keeping a reasonable reserve for your opponent’s turn, and so on. It’s a game that was really ahead of its time.

It’s not perfect, of course. The GDW rulebook has some ambiguities, most of which can be nutted out, but there is still a bit of errata. Basically, it’s not always easy to find what you need. The CRT is very attacker-friendly, so much so that even at 1:1 the attacker has a 1/3 chance of forcing the enemy out of its hex. But it also does make limited local counterattacks easier, and except at very high odds the attacker will often take losses as well.

This game was the Market Garden Battle Scenario, which is just the Allied portion of the September III turn, and just uses the north map. I had the Allies, and we began with 22 MSPs, which seemed a lot compared with the 4 German MSPs. But during play I found my MSPs draining away like wine at a wedding, with me footing the bill. To win a strategic victory I had to get a supplied unit across the Rhine. Getting across the Waal or the Roer would give me a tactical victory, and the would Germans win if I couldn’t manage any of these.

Of course, I also had my paratroopers – the US 82nd and 101st Airborne, the British 1st Para and the 52nd glider division, plus the 1st Polish Parachute brigade. I had to pre-plot the hexes they would land in, but I could choose the impulse to land them during the game. Very useful if the weather is poor.

I decided to drop them around Utrecht rather than where they were dropped historically. But I thought that I’d make my initial drive on the ground towards Nijmegen before dropping my paratroopers and hopefully pull some of the German reserves away from my intended target.

One of the things that we both found was that the game scale made it obvious why Montgomery was able to convince Eisenhower to go ahead with Operation Market Garden. Most games that concentrate on Market Garden itself have units parachuting in, and XXX Corps desperately fighting through difficult terrain along a narrow front to link up with them, and possibly you wonder why they went with such an awful plan. But they don’t show you the prize had they succeeded.

Even had Patton breached the West Wall, there was still the Rhine and a lot of difficult terrain to slug through. Getting into Holland would have basically put the Allies on the North German plain, and would have made the consolidation of Antwerp easier (those MSPs grow for the Allies as they secure harbours). In the new year they could have been in a position to encircle the Ruhr and cut it off from the rest of Germany.

The U.S 1st army (incorrectly labelled as the 2nd) and the Canadian 1st army both have quite lengthy fronts to maintain. The British 2nd army by contrast has a short front and lots of punch.

Road to the Rhine - setup

In this scenario, the prevailing weather is ‘rain’, which means that there is a 1/3 chance that my aircraft will be grounded on any given impulse. Naturally, it rained first up. Still, I attached near the hinge of the British and U.S armies and managed to begin pushing my way towards Nijmegen. The Germans shuttled some reserves into Arnhem to protect. Ha! Falling into my cunning trap!

Road to the Rhine - end of 1st impulse

The skies clear for the second impulse, but I want to draw more defenders out of my drop area. I bring on more reinforcements and activate the Polish armoured division.

Road to the Rhine - 2nd impulse activations

The Poles drive across the Maas and the newcomers take their place in the line. The German lines in Holland as reserves rush to protect the Arnhem crossings. However, although the situation on the ground looks promising, the allies have already used 12 of their 22 MSPs.

The clouds roll in again for the third impulse, again removing the paratroopers from play. Th German defences in front of Utrecht are now dangerously thin, allowing the British to smash their way over the Rhine and seize the city.

Road to the Rhine - 3rd impulse - Utrecht falls

However, the Germans still have reserves available, and the SS are thrown into the attack. Their opponents retire in reasonable order, but the Germans have managed to cut the British spearheads off from the remainder of the 2nd army.

Road to the Rhine - 4th impulse - German counterattack

On the fifth impulse the skies clear again, and with the Allies’ supply situation becoming critical, it’s now or never. The paratroopers jump.

Road to the Rhine - 5th impulse - The paratroopers land.

The Allied planners had, as the photo shows, planned a drop on Utrecht itself, but as parachute drops can’t be made in a major city, they were placed in an adjacent hex north of the Rhine. The Utrecht bridgehead is reinforced, but the Germans blocking the progress of XXX remain in place.

The Allies have nothing left in the tank. They must declare another impulse because they can’t declare their last impulse when they make a parachute drop. Some units rush north, but without MSPs there are no attacks. However, a supplied division remains north of the Waal. The Germans have to dislodge it to prevent an Allied tactical victory. Alas for them, there are no reserves nearby. The Allies declare the final impulse and the game ends in an Allied tactical victory.

Road to the Rhine - 6th impulse - the game ends.

Road to the Rhine - game's end.

One of the reasons that the hook of Holland was so weakly defended is that in the campaign game the Germans can open the dykes, which will flood the country and cost precious MSPs. There’s no such penalty in this scenario though, and there should be some sort of penalty for the Allies if they do the same thing that I did. Nevertheless, we both enjoyed it immensely. Colour me very impressed indeed.

Talisman 4th edition

Our RPG group took a break from its Mutants and Masterminds campaign last night to play Talisman 4th edition. The 1st edition was published by Games Workshop in 1983 and, apart from the updated graphics, the current edition feels much the same as the original.

Each player controls a unique character type, each of which is rated for strength and craft, the two main combat attributes. Characters also have fate points (which allow you to re-roll dice), gold (to purchase items) and life points. Each tie a character loses a fight they lose 1 life point. Lose all of them and that character is killed. A player can then start again with a brand new character.

I had a gladiator, which had strength 4, craft 3, fate 1, gold 1, life points 3. In addition, he starts with a sword, which adds 1 to his strength, and a helmet, which may deflect a blow that otherwise could have caused him to lose life points. Each character aslo has one or more special abilities. The gladiator is allowed to use any followers he attracts to fight for him (each follower adds 1 to his strength).

The board is divided into 3 circular track. The outer track, where characters begin, is the easiest to navigate. The next track is more challenging, and the inner track is very tough indeed. The aim of the game is to get to the centre most space on the board and claim the Crown of Command.

Players take turns in rolling a dice and moving their character that many spaces around the track. There are decks of cards that players randomly draw from when they land on a space. The card might be a monster, which must be fought, or an item (weapons, magical items and so forth), or other beings which might be potential followers, traders and so on. Additionally, there are spaces  like the Temple where characters can go for healing, or one might consult the village mystic and be given a blessing (or a curse).

Essentially, play continues with characters collecting items and getting more powerful until they feel strong enough to move into the centre board spaces, which contain very challenging encounters. Players get stronger by defeating monsters. Each one is rated for strength or craft. Both roll a D6 and add their relevant abilities, the highest roller wins (a tie means that neither is defeated and the monster remains in the space). If the monster is defeated, the player collects the card. Collect monsters worth 7 of any attribute (so seven monsters with the strength of 1, one of 3 and one of 4, and so on) and you cash them in and raise that ability by one.

There is more detail, but this is the game in essence. I had played earlier editions of Talisman years ago and wasn’t impressed, and sadly my impressions were confirmed. The issue is one of time. The random nature of movement and of card distribution means that if you get poor cards, you’re unlikely to do well in the game. For example, a character that’s high in strength might keep running into creatures with craft as their attribute, and have trouble beating them. In a game of 1 or 2 hours, that’s OK. You can grin and bear it, and hope for better next time. Our game lasted for 5 hours for about 1/2 that game it was a show-down between 2 of the 5 players. At this point the game became an exercise in tedium.

The other thing that left me less than impressed was that there is little interaction between the characters. One can attack a character if you land on another character’s square, but the rewards for doing so are quite small in proportion to the difficulty in doing so. In practice, the game is a solitaire game played by several people at once.

We played with two of the expansions, which add variety on monster and treasure types, but probably serve so simply make the game longer. There are rules for shorter games and had we used these my opinion might have been different. It was entertaining for the first hour or two, and if it can be kept to that you might find it worth persevering with. Young adults who are interested in fantasy-themed games, but balk at miniatures or pen-and-paper-style RPGs might also find this to their taste. I run D&D sessions for my youngest step-son and his friends roughly once a month and I think they would enjoy this. I may get a copy to try out with them.

Lash of the Turk mini-review

A game thats quick, pretty and a good model of a historical situation should be popular. The kicker might be the topic. Fortunately for me, Lash of the Turk ranks highly on that score. And it’s certainly quick. Our play of the first scenario (The Year of Mohacs) came in at the two hour mark. It’s pretty enough, as these counters will attest (original image uploaded to boardgamegeek by Marc Figueras).

A portion of the countersheet

Many of the counters are back-printed, with a 16th century and a 17th century version of the unit. But apart from the leaders, the Transylvanians (who can swap sides) and one artillery unit, the values for these are exactly the same. The only difference is the icon. Not a big annoyance, but it felt… odd because it was so unnecessary.

We’ll begin with a brief AAR. I commanded the Turks, and Markus Stumptner the Hungarians. The Hungarian armies, led by Louis II begin concentrated around the fortress of Buda, ready to march south along the Danube. Their Transylvanian allies led by John Zapolya were mostly around Sibu. Suleiman’s Turks started their campaign at Belgrade.

The Turks have nine turns to take the fortresses of Eszer, Peterwardein (the map spells it ‘Peterwardien) and Buda. That means that they need to get a wriggle on. The Turkish army starts within two hexes of Peterwardein, but their siege artillery train is blocked by swamps. So Suleiman decides to march around the swamp with his train. Unfortunately for him, their is a lot of rain early on. It’s not until GT4 that the Turks take the fortress of Eszer. Suleiman detaches a small force of raiders that harry the area around Banjaluka, with mixed success, and with some losses.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim (Suleiman’s 2iC) crosses the Danube at Belgrade and begins raiding. Zapolya moves up to oppose the Turks, and Ibrahim wins a victory over him at Temesvar. Finally, Louis, and his general Tomori slowly move their army south.

Having driven off the Transylvanians, Ibrahim ditheres. Though the raiding continues, he was in no position to aid his master. However, he also fails to exploit his victory to capture some Transylvanian fortresses. Meanwhile, having taken Eszer, Suleiman finally moves to capture Peterwardein. Unfortunately for him, the Hungarian host arrives outside Eszer and, despite a reasonably strong garrison it’s taken by assault.

Taking Peterwardein, Suleiman masks the strong Hungarian at Eszer. He marches to meet Louis in battle. The dice are not kind to him, and though losses are minimal for both sides (two units each), the Hungarians hold the field. Towards the battle, Suleiman is badly wounded when his Janissaries come under attack towards the day’s end. Carried back to his tent, he succumbs to his wounds during the night. His Pashas proclaim his infant son Selim as sultan, and they appoint a guardian. While messengers are dispatched to find Ibrahim’s army, the survivors begin their march back to to the relative safety of Belgrade.

The unravelling of the Turkish campaign was mostly down to strategic errors on my part. The weather rolls went against me, but I should have sent Ibrahim with Suleiman, where his troops would have made a difference. A small number of light troops could have has the same result, and it would have taken time for Zaploya to effect a junction with the Hungarians.

So what worked? Much of the body worked reasonably well. The sequence of play is igo-ugo; both sides check attrition and recieve reinforcements and replacements. The Ottoman player then do their movement, combat and raiding phases, followed by the Hungarian. There is some interactivity in that a leader stacked with raiders (mostly light cavalry units) can intercept units that move within 1/2 of the intercepting unit’s movement allowance. Supply is 5 hexes to any friendly unbesieged fortress, or a Danube river hex that flows to the appropriate board edge, or to a supplied supply train. Units that are beseiged (and, from GT 3 all units exept fortress garrisons) check for attrition. Raiding cavalry with the army (presumably gathering supplies), forts and towns mitigate these effects, rain and mud (and the Janisarries) worsen it.

So far, so good. Sieges are a nice sub-game; a besieging army rolls to reduce the fort’s effectiveness level (which is used to modify the combat roll), then the defender rolls to see whether they undo the siegeworks. One annoying wrinkle is that new units come in at any friendly fortress. So a unit that dies from attrition far from the front can be re-built at a more convenient spot. What saves this game from being really very good indeed is the antiquated combat system. The old ‘defender retreat’, ‘attacker retreat’, ‘exchange’ might work in some situations. But not here.

In this scenario (assuming roughly equal levels of attrition) the main Turkish army can at best muster a 3:1 to field against the main Hungarian army. There is a 5/6 chance that the Turks will win. There is a 1/2 chance that the Hungarians will lose 1 or 2 units, and a 1/3 chance that they will simply retreat. There is a 1/6 chance of an exchange, where on average each side will lose 2-3 units.

More frequently, the odds will be 3-2 or 2:1, where the reults are less decisive, but the Turks have a lesser chance of winning (1/2 at 3:2, 2/3 at 2:1). This of course assumes no die roll modifiers for leadership. But Suleiman and Louis both have the same leadership rating, so they cancel each other out.

How does this compare with Mohacs? Historically, about 55 000 Turks faced 35 to 40 000 Hungarians (so about 3:2 odds). The Hungarians lost some 14 000 to 20 000 men. The Turks, around 1500. It was a stunning victory for the Ottoman empire. Now, I know that different pieces will represent different numbers of men. But this result simply can’t be reproduced, except by large armies against much smaller ones, which Mohacs was not. Yes, the Turks can win victories, but they will tend to be less decisive.

It’s not that the game should lead to a Mohacs-type decisive battle. But it cannot, and it’s a shame. It really could have been very good indeed.

Getting Rid of Games – Part 1

I’ve always thought of myself as a game player, rather than as a collector. But, with years of game buying, and a shortage of room I’ve decided it’s time to trim the collection. Being a librarian, I value having a collection that reflects what I play (and read), and tastes change, and therefore so does the game (and book) collection). So there has been a lot of ‘weeding’, as we library-folk say. In general, if a game hasn’t been played within 5 years then it’s a candidate for weeding. I’ve already cut the boxed game collection, and so it’ s now time to get into the magazines.

So on occasion I’ll post on some of the titles that I’ve culled (and some that I haven’t). I was interested in the posts over at Map and Counters and thought I’d offer my own take on some of the games that were commented on. First cab off the rank is the venerable USN from Strategy and Tactics 29,  which was an ambitious 1-map attempt to portray the Asia/Pacific theatre in WW2 from 1941-43. The map covers Burma to Hawaii and Hokkaido to northern Tasmania at 200 miles/hex, so a lot of territory is covered. Units represent individual aircraft carriers, task forces, infantry divisions and more besides.

I’d played it years ago (though not in 1971, when it was released) and kept a soft spot for it. What really lets it down today is a lack of fog-of-war (especially important in this campaign) and what seems to be a lack of counters necessary to play out the full campaign game. It is a remarkably complex game for its size, and it was ground-breaking in its day. But it won’t really work now without lots of modifications, of which there is no shortage. But being time-strapped, games that need a lot of modification won’t get played a lot. And if it’s not going to be played, it’s time for it to go.

Next is Flying Circus in S&T 31 (I’ve never owned Combat Commander in issue 30, so it’s not a candidate). Now, I’m not really a fan of individual air combat games, so the fact that I bought it told me that I was becoming a collector. I played Richthofen’s War a fair bit at school, and to me it was a bit of a crap shoot  because movement was sequential, not simultaneous. But it was fun for a high school kid, and the map was lovely and there was a good selection of planes. Even so, it was a game that got the heave-ho a while ago. A game that doesn’t really model WW1 dogfights very well, with poor graphics and a limited selection of planes means it’s hit the ‘3 strikes and you’re out!’ zone. One of the few games that I’ve had and gotten rid of without trying to play.

Rough at Raphia

Chris Harding and I recently tried GDWs venerable The Battle of Raphia, published in 1977.  One of GDW’s 120 Series (in theory that’s how many minutes a game in this series would take to play), this one actually takes less than the advertised time. Really, you should be able to get through a game in a bit over an hour.

Raphia was an enormous engagement (at what is today Rafah in southern Gaza) between Ptolemy IV of Egypt and Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid monarch. Both sides fielded over 60 000 infantry, more than 5 000 cavalry and many elephants. A victory for Ptolemy, the battle was notable partly because Ptolemy trained a native Egyptian phalanx which took part alongside their Macedonian and Greek overlords.

The game has an  interesting stacking mechanism where all units of the same type may stack together at beginning of the game. Units may then leave the stack, but may not re-enter. What his does is give you a sense of formations becoming increasingly brittle as the game progresses. In the rules as written, there are no limits as to numbers. There is errata listed on boardgame geek and at web grognards which limits stacking for phalanx units to five per hex. There’s no indication as to whether this is /was ‘official’ or not, so we played with the rules as written.

The game is then played over 12 turns. Well, really six, as each ‘turn’ is a single player turn. Both sides dice for initiative, high roller goes first. One player moves, then fights, then it’s a new turn. Phalanx units ‘face’ their front 2 hexes, all others have all-round facing. Phalanxes must move into one of their front hexes. They also have the option to pivot one hex vertex at the cost of all their movement points. So you have to think carefully when you set up because it’s hard to correct once battle’s joined.

Units must stop when they reach a unit’s front hex. Combat is voluntary. The top unit(s) in a hex fight, with additional units in the stack adding +1 to the stack’s combat strength. result are some combination of morale check or unit elimination.

It all sounds simple, and it is. Morale is handed nicely. The combat results table only has losses for the defending unit, which doesn’t seem right, and seems to encourage reckless assaults. BUT if a stack attacks at a numerical disadvantage, units attacking must take a morale test, and failure causes the testing unit(s) to rout. So you still need to choose your attacks carefully.

There are also some nice touches of chrome, particularly with the elephants. Elephants rout in random directions, and cause morale tests for each stack that they pass through. They can be decisive, but you need to make sure they are not likely to cause your own troops too much harm. Another is the handling of the Egyptian phalangites, which must dice for morle when they first go into combat. They may either prove to be the worst troops on the board (being new recruits), or the toughest (defending their homeland),

There are some problems though. The rules are the usual GDW full-of-holes fare. It took two experienced gamers a while to figure out whether routing units keep retreating in the movement phase (which they do). More serious is game balance. Historically Ptolemy carried the day. Each infantry units has a number of spear illustrations (phalanxes 3, hypaspists 2, peltasts 1). The side with the greatest number of good order spear units on the board at the end of the game wins. Now, Ptolemy starts with 122 spears, Antiochus with 92. Cavalry and elephants don’t count at all in calculating victory. This is where Antiochus has a clear advantage, and if the Seleucid player is to win this advantage needs to be pressed home. I suspect that usually this won’t be enough.

In our game, I took the Seleucids and set up two big phalanxes with my best units on top to try overpowering Chris’s phalanxes, which had fewer units but covered more territory. I anchored my elephants on the seaward flank and my cavalry were all posed on the other, with my other infantry covering the gap between the phalanx and cavalry. My cavalry initially drove his off, but made little impression on his phalanx, though it was usually hitting its flank. My elephants were also relatively ineffective. Nevertheless, the final total was 103 Chris and 88 for me. Certainly a favourable casualty count, but not enough to win.

The lack of cavalry effectiveness points to another beef I have. different units are more effective against some types than others. Few are effective against a phalanx, which is right, if they are attacking it head-on. If it’s hit from the flank it should be in serious trouble. Unfortunately there are no favorable modifiers for hitting a flank (except for elephants, which can’t attack a phalanx except in the flank).

I’m not really sure that the stacking rules quite work, and the errata limits of 5 units in a phalanx certainly sounds sensible. Playing with the rues as written, I think the sensible thing for both sides is to have their most powerful phalanx unit heading one phalanx each. This would give Ptolemy four phalanxes versus two for the Seleucids.

The game also needs some work on balance. I don’t think that the Seleucid cavalry is generally going to cause enough mayhem to tip the balance. The designer recognises this and gives players the option to forego the 4 powerful Egyptian units (not all scholars believe that these were present). I think that giving units a positive modifier for flank attacks would be a better solution though.

With those caveats I quite enjoyed it. There are a lot of variants on boardgame geek for it that may be worth trying. Charles Vasey also nicked bits of it for his Flodden game which I’m very keen to try (if anyone has a copy they’d like to sell please let me know…). At worst, you could probably get through two games in an evening, so you can just swap sides. It’s aged rather well over its 30+ years.

All Dice on the Western Front

Quite a few Thursdays ago, Chris Harding and I sat down to Clash of Empires: August 1914. This was in fact our second go at this title, with our first attempt back in early August.

This Kerry Anderson title has 2 iterations. The first was during the final issues of Wargamer Magazine (number 58 back in 1986). The second was with the now-defunct Microgame Design Group in the early years of the 21st century. Our first game used the Wargamer-issue map with home brew counters courtesy of Chris. I urge you, should you try this game (and you should, it’s good fun) do NOT use the counters that came with Wargamer, especially should you play the Western Allies. The French counters in particular (black on dark blue) should come with an OHS&W warning label due to the potential damage to your eyes. They are diabolical, folks, and we pronounce anathema upon them!

The Wargamer map, though also difficult to read is at least pleasant to look at and we found it serviceable. The MDG map is certainly clearer, but has little carto-aesthetic appeal. What we did in the second game was use the MDG counters on the Wargamer map, which worked out reasonably well (though you will need to use the fortress markers from the original game should you do this).

Clash of Empires employs a point-to-point map along which units are moved, the nodes of which are cities, towns and fortresses. Sometimes referred to rail lines, they really represent transport routes. Rail movement does indeed exist for both sides – a discrete number of units per side can be railed anywhere within France (for the Allies) or Germany (for the Central Powers), but then it’s time to hop out and employ the shoe leather. This really works rather nicely. The Germans in particular (who advanced the farthest) found that troops and supplies could be moved rapidly to their railheads, but then had to be marched to where the action was.

Units may move from one node to another in a single turn, or two for units with equine auxiliars (that’s cavalry to you). Not a glacial pace, as each turn is about three days, but you get a sense of reserves and replacements being left behind as the advance gathers pace (should you get your units to do so).

The turn structure itself is quite simple: move your units (stopping them when you enter an enemy-held node), and engage in combat where opposing units share a node. Units have 1-4 steps, with the old one-dice-per-step-and-six-to-hit resolution (which, by the way I think is a perfectly valid alternative to a CRT). Some terrain types cause units to reduce their dice, one (slopes, for example those in front of Verdun) allow the defender to inflict losses first (losses are simultaneous otherwise).

Fortresses (the map is dotted with them) both reduce dice for attackers, and allow defenders to hunker down and thus avoid fighting in the open. These take time to wear down and can slow down an attacker considerably.

There are no stacking limits, so you could in theory place everyone in a single city, though I would suggest this would not be a game-winning strategy. Lest you recoil in horror at the buckets of dice that two armies colliding into each other would produce, the game takes mercy on our poor wrists by allowing only three units from both sides to take part, and there is but a single combat round. If neither side is eliminated, the attacker must first decide to stand or return from whence he came. If the attacker stays, the defender my then choose to stay (in which both sides remain in contact), or withdraw to another adjacent node. Should the defender stay (and don’t in their own turn move out) then they must in turn attack.

Units need to trace lines of supply along lines of communications free of enemy units back to to a valid supply source, with pretty hefty penalties for failure to do so (each unit that cannot loses a step). However, lest this be thought too harsh, supply can be traced through contested areas. For the French these are cities along the east edge of the map (Orleans, Chartres and so on), and for the Germans the cities of the Rhine.

So far, nothing unusual and nothing to make you sit up and take notice. What makes the game shine for me is that it tries to avoid as far as possible the hindsight inevitable in any historical game. We know that the Schlieffen Plan was unlikely to succeed (particularly once von Moltke the Younger got his maws on it). We know that We know that Plan 17 was likely to fail on the firepower of German machineguns. But the generals of 1914 knew no such thing. So anything that can lessen this for me is A God Thing.

The first thing is that units are inverted, so you don’t know whether that unit coming down the road is a German Guards division or a second-line Landwehr formation. Both sides also have unit holding boxes, so that single unit could be just that, or it could be a 12-division juggernaut. So there is a certain amount of guesswork, and you can do things like use your cavalry as probes (they can retreat before combat, so move them into an area and you’ll get an indication of what’s there).

The second thing is the chits (or cards in the MDG version) that both sides draw at the game’s start (5 for the Central Powers, 4 for the Allies). Neither side knew that machine-guns would be so murderously effective on the defence. The British were not necessarily going to intervene in a continental war (unless Belgian neutrality was violated). The German High Command feared that there would be Russian troops sent to aid the French. These and other possibilities are built into the cards/chits. For example, both sides have a ‘Machine Gun Defensive Tactics’ option. If this is pulled and played, then the defender (for the side that pulled it) hits on a 5-6, which then applies to all defenders three turns later.

So all sorts of things may or may not happen. If neither side draws MG tactics, they don’t occur. The Russians may appear. The British may turn up, even without the beastly Hun invading Belgium (and their troops may not have the professionalism that they did historically). So both sides are a bit in the dark about how the war may proceed.

The chits/cards also affect victory conditions. Players gain victory points for holding large cities and cities (not necessarily fortresses – Verdun,  being only a town, is worth no VPs). They are lost for chits/cards played. Most are 1 or 2 VPs and need to be played if you have them. However, some like the Russian Reinforcement and British Intervention chits are worth quite a few VPs and players may have to think about whether these should be played.

So the game plays like a pair of boxers wobbling across the canvas, neither quite sure of what to expect. What we can expect is that the Germans will be on the offensive (with superiority in combat strength points this is not surprising). The only question is where.

I played the Central Powers in our first game and tried to replicate the Schlieffen Plan with even less success than Moltke the Younger. Though I had both the Fortress Capitulates (allowing me to take Liege on turn 1) and Fortress Artillery chits (giving me the big fortress-busting guns) movement through Belgium proved painfully slow (Brussels eventually fell, but Antwerp never did).

For our rematch I defended la Republique against les Boches and thought that it would be fun to try Plan 17. I left a screen of units in the north to slow any German thrust through Belgium, and left a reserve to either send north to defend, or east into Germany as the situation dictated. Otherwise the big divisions were piled up against the German frontier.

I also drew the Russian Intervention, British Professionalism and British Armoured Car chits. I wanted to avoid using the former, but thought that the latter two would certainly be handy should Belgium be invaded.

Chris, dastardly fellow that he is, decided on a thrust though and south of the Ardennes 1940-style. I was taken rather by surprise (it was the weakest point in my line) but of course shouldn’t have been. It was, after all where the Prussians came through in 1870.

So Luxembourg was taken in short order. I was surprised that the Germans also invaded Belgium, but his play of the Fortress Artillery chit meant that Liege was in trouble. My planned invasion (nay, liberation) of Alsace-Lorraine hit a stumbling block with the MG Tactics chit coming up. Merde! My troops got a right hosing, scotching Plan 17 on the spot.

What resulted was a limited German push through Belgium, and a rather better German push in the south than managed historically. Verdun, for example came under heavy German attack (at one point surrounded) and at the end of the game still in danger.

Two things helped stem the tide. One was that the British troops that arrived proved to be as professional as their historical counterparts, but also had an armoured car unit. Though only 2 strength points it fires first in any combat. The second was that the Russians arrived, and not before time as at one point a large hole was ripped in the front near Sedan.

We ended the game on the Sept 22 turn (game turn 14) giving the Allies (that’s me – yay!!!!) a close victory. The end of game positions:

Final Positions - North

Front line – north

frnt sth

Front line – south

The two salients were the positions around an almost cut-off Verdun (tracing supply through a contested node).

While very clever the game is a little long for a single evening (we got through about half the game in 3 hours). The buckets o’dice don’t help, and I wonder whether the engine would work with less polyhedral propulsion? I also wonder about the loss rates. In just over a month the Allies had about 38 divisions hors de combat, the Germans a similar number. If we reckon that a strength point is roughly a battalion, then both sides had about 65 battalions along the western front after about 39 days action. This means that the Allies lost about 125 battalions and the Germans about 80. This seems a little high though this could simply reflect our individual playing styles (I was much less inclined to give ground than perhaps I ought to have been, leading me into a couple of costly counter-attacks).

According to the designer fortresses in the original were rather too powerful (we played the Warg’s version because we both had it), and I would be interested in seeing how game play changed between editions. On the whole, quite clever, and fun for makers of cunning plans.

Two for Turenne with Bonaparte on the Bench

Having had a hiatus from writing, it’s time to work back from most recent to the more distant. Last Friday I caught up with Markus after my D&D session was cancelled (an event that ought to have been a surprise but alas it was not). After a brief exchange of e-mails, Markus and I decided upon Turenne: Campagne d’Alsace de 1674. A product of the French magazine Cassus Belli, it was a title that I’d not heard of. My knowledge of the period sadly lacking I nevertheless looked forward to it. I have seen the great man’s tomb in Les Invalides, an indication of the regard that his generalship was held in. He was not a young man during this campaign, being in his 74th year, and he was to die in the following year at the Battle of Salzbach.

The game has a mere three pages of rules, and the map is long and relatively  thin, featuring the Rhine valley along The Palatinate/French border. Two cities, Mulhausen and Strasbourg, and a portion of Basel are neutral independent entities. The units are generic strength point markers placed under flags to indicate armies (no leaders as such, so that the great man himself does not appear on the map). Both sides also gain a number of dummy markers (illustrated by a rather cute duck) with which the enemy may be foxed.

The game sequence is rather simple. Both sides roll a dice and add to that their current VP level, the higher result goes first. All units for one side are moved, combat is had, the other side has their turn and thus the campaign continues.

Armies have ZOCs which force opponents to cease movement, and there is no provision for overruns. The CRT is differential, with reasonable returns for the attacker at around the +6 mark. The narrow terrain allows the canny player to send out swarms of dummies that will be handily spotted but nevertheless holding up the enemy (perhaps they represent small flying detachments). Units have 8 movement points, and with a relatively extensive road network which costs 1/2 MP per hex, units zip around the map hither and yon.

There are three scenarios of varying length, from 9 game turns to 24 game turns. Victory is based on points, which are gained for eliminating enemy strength points and capturing enemy cities. Players also get points for entering neutral cities. Now this is not something that’s easy to do. The hopeful army moves adjacent, and in its next turn asks permission. In scenario 1, the hopeful army must roll a ‘1’, the size of the army being irrelevant. In scenario 2 the bigger the army the greater chance of success. Presumably the bigger army has in its train a series of trained diplomats that can haggle with the city’s parliament.

The victory points for being the first to enter these are quite large, so a lucky initial die roll may be the difference between victory and defeat, particularly as the request for entry is a single-shot attempt. Fail and the good burghers close their gates to you indefinitely. A mitigating circumstance is that the games are typically short. The first nine-turn scenario took about half an hour. The second scenario of 24 turns took about the same length of time (though we ended it on turn 14).

In all scenarios the French are outnumbered, if not initially then by the game’s end. They have to therefore zip about the map concentrating against one foe before concentrating against another. Their chief problem is that their enemies can do the same. The notes (according to Markus, whose French is light-years in advance of mine) indicate that Turenne manouvered against enemy supply trains in order to force battle. There are however no supply considerations, and armies have no real centre of gravity. One does pick up points for taking enemy cities, but this impacts on the field armies not at all. If the enemy is taking your cities, well then you can simply take his, and the merry dance can continue while we have game turns in us.

The siege rules are also interesting. One must surround the enemy with ZOCs, and once begun it will take three (I think) complete game turns for the fortress to capitulate. A nice piece of Vaubanesque exactitude, though I prefer a spot more randomness with my sieges, thank you very much. A superiority in strengh poins is necessary to maintain the siege. As far as we could tell, the besieged cannot fight the besiegers at all, so one has to be careful about when to accept siege.

With a mere 2 pages of actual rules (the charts take up the third page) a few things could have stood better explanation, but we managed to sort things out (we think). I played the French in both scenarios, and given that I lost rather handily in both it’s clear that I am no Turenne (though my hair is suitably long, I cannot imagine the Marshal in a flanellette shirt). The French need to find a force and pick on it quickly, with killing units off that cannot retreat due to being surrounded by ZOCs a premium. In time the weight of enemy reinforcements makes itself felt. I might have won the second. I could have bagged a force in Strasbourg but was tardy in setting the siege and relief armies poured over the Rhine before it fell. Oh well. It was good to have played it, but it frankly felt a little bland. With time and a few goodly tomes under one’s belt it might be worth tinkering with.

We had time for a third game and cast about for suitable candidates. One that Markus has had for a while was the Columbia edition of Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign.  It’s a typical Columbia block game, with hidden strength points, but without the HQ activations that you see in other titles. The map is a reasonably well done point-to-point rendition of the Belgian countryside.

The Avalon Hill edition I remember as being fun to play, but then I was in high school and would play anything that had a board. It was however difficult to get the historical rate of Allied concentration. Markus tells me that it ws impossible, but let’s stick with difficult. The French could move 2 stacks, the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies 1 each.

Columbia have added a lot of extra blocks (according to Boardgame Geek 84 blocks compared to 48), so that the units are divisions, more or less. The French can now move 3 stacks, and the respective Allied armies 2 each. The road limits are more generous, and bridges only halve movement allowances if crossing them to get into battle. There are now 4 turns per day, rather than the previous 3, so the campaign should move at a pace commensurate with the added level of granularity. The 3 army commanders also make an appearance, and offer some bonuses in force-marching and morale. he Allied ability to concentrate has been improved markedly.

Physically, the new map is no bigger than the old, so the initial French set-up leaves one with the impression that Belgium is to be invaded by several enormous ziggurats. What seemed of great moment however was simply disappointing fluff. Loking at the maps of the 2 editions I find that the area around Charleroi is unchanged, whereas I while playing truly thought that additional towns had been added to the Belgian border region. The reason that I thought this was that it seemed impossible for the French to achieve their historical concentration at Charleroi, and I remember many games of the earlier edition with the French in Charleroi by the end of turn 1.

One reason that the concentration didn’t take place in hindsight was player error. Cavalry could have been fed across the river, a battle forced and infantry fed in as reinforcements. The big problem facing the French though is that the river severely limits the ability of the French to bring troops to bear because the crossings are contested, and thus halved. True, the French can force-march troops, but this still doesn’t address the congestion issue. Essentially, the amount that can move along a major road has gone up 25% (from 8 to 10), but the number of actual units in play has almost doubled. The going for the French is simply slower.

What we found therefore was that the Allies could get into position early and the French late. The climatic Battle of Charleroi featured the combined Anglo-Prussian armies attacking Napoleon’s Grande Armee from Quatre Bras and Ligny respectively. We called the game at that point (and thankfully I was the Anglo-Prussian commander so I got to win something).

I suspect that while an approach up the centre could be better done, it’s not I think a viable strategy in this edition. True, there are other approaches one could take, so this does not necessarily detract from the game simply as a game. But if it cannot model the approaches that the historical actors took (and even if we want to discount Blucher, presumably Wellington and Bonaparte had good reasons for the approaches that they took) then it is of no interest to me, and yet again a game falls off my radar.  So disappointing, but at least I won something, and helped Markus increase the percentage of his game collection played, o generous soul that I am.

Next, we stay in similar areas geographically, but move forward 99 years.

Vietnam: A Short Decisive Campaign

Having just written about print-and-play games, I thought that I’d use the opportunity offered by a relatively late night watching cricket (Australians versusEngland – yay!!) to try a solitaire game. I decided upon Solitaire Caesar. Having seen that I had neglected to print the counters for it, the Emperor Iohannus I decided to abandon the Pax Romanum to the barbarians, with the court relocating to mid-ninteen sixties Vietnam (and not much pax here either).

This was Vietnam Solitaire, designed by David Kershaw. At $4 U.S, it seemed a good bet, with little lost should the game disappoint. The components themselves amounted to a 7-page rulebook (including a page of optional rules and some designer notes), an A4 map and some tiny counters with barely visible illustrations (but are perfectly serviceable).

South Vietnam is divided into 5 regions (Hue, Central Highlands, Cu Chi, Saigon and the Mekong). Each of these regions is sub-divided into 4 areas, each of a particular terrain type. For example, the Central Highlands have 3 jungle areas and 1 of rice paddies, Saigon one of rice paddies and 3 urban (this being a complete list of the terrain types).

The designer argues in his notes that the U.S/ARVN will lose eventually. The player therefore has the task of holding on for longer than was done historically. There’s no unit scale for the units, and each turn is a year.

The engine is the Political Point (PP) track. The track starts at 1, and things during the turn such as U.S/ARVN recruits (and losses), attacking the Ho Chi Minh trail and napalm use drive the PP track up. At the end of the turn, any region with NVA/VC units that doesn’t contain U.S/ARVN units adds to to the track, an area without NVA?VC units subtracts one from the track. If the PP track is 14+, the game ends with the collapse of South Vietnam.

Each turn begins to see how far the Ho Chi Minh trail expands. There are 6 regions adjacent to South Vietnam: Haiphong, Hanoi, north Laos, south Laos, north Cambodia, south Cambodia (each numbered 1-6. Each of these can contain a trail marker, and each such region with a trail will produce an NVA unit. The trail starts in Hanoi and Haiphong, and 2D6 are rolled to see which regions gain a marker (no marker is laid in an area already containing a marker). Some years therefore will see the trail leap ahead, and others where it remains somnolent. Each trail area points to a corresponding South Vietnam region, to which NVA recruits are directed.

The U.S player can then attack these with B52s or Green Berets. The Green Berets are more discreet (costing but a single PP each, and there are 2 of these available), but less effective, with the trail removed on a 1-2. The B52 is noisy and costs 2 PP, but removes the trail on a 1-4. Hanoi and Haiphong can only be attacked by B52s, but as both areas point at poor little Hue, it’s worth considering attacking these early to relieve pressure in the north.

The U.S. player then takes units and places them on the map. Again, the only limit is how much the player wants to ramp up the PP track. ARVN units cost a single PP, US infantry/marines cost 2, the U.S air cavalry cost 3. Naturally the higher cost units perform better on the battlefield.

The U.S player may then launch napalm attacks against NVA/VC units (which are eliminated on 1-4, regardless of terrain, but at a cost of 1 PP per use). The U.S. player then launches attacks with any units that occupy the same areas as NVA/VC units. Each unit rolls a D6 and if it rolls the indicated number for the terrain type it causes a hit. The ARVN for example cause a hit 1-2 in urban or rice paddy terrain, but a 1 in jungle. VC units are the reverse of this, and NVA units hit on a 1-2 regardless of terrain. U.S. ground troops hit on a 1-3 and the mighty air cav hit on a 1-4.

Combat continues until either only 1 side remains in an area, or until one sides retreats to another area within the same region. NVA and VC reinforcements may then arrive (randomly determined, and more combat may take place if they arrive in an area with U.S/ARVN units). Finallythe player rolls a D6 on the PP table, which may mean that the next turn is played as normal, or the U.S may lost the ability to lose/recruit certain units. The higher the PP level, the more likely is the latter.

There is a surprising amount inside this package. The U.S player has to decide whether to escalate the conflict quickly and clear the insurgents from the map. This they can certainly do, though there will be a PP cost, partly offset if they can clear the NVA/VC from areas and thus cause the PP track to decrease.  On the other hand one can try a “softly, softly” approach which will keep the PP track relatively low, but allow the NVA/VC to quickly multiply. The player is thus cast on the horns of an interesting choice.

In my first game I tried the latter approach. In 1963, the Ho Chi Minh trail extended into northern Laos. The U.S authorised the use of Green Beret units to interdict the supply of men and materiel south, but to no effect (2 GB units rolled 2 sixes – curses!). The Saigon government 3 ARVN units. One was sent to the Central Hghlandsa to contest the VC presence there, and one to reinforce the Hue and Cu Chi regions. In addition, the U.S sent an air cav team to reinforce the ARVN drive in the Central highlands (this took the PP track to 9).

The decision was made to not employ napalm. The US/ARVN drove out the VC with no loss. Perhaps due to the success of this drive, no VC cadre were recruited. However, a nerve was touched in Hanoi, and 2 NVA units crossed the into the Hue region. These quickly invested a lightly-garrisoned Hue and took it without loss (the eliminated ARVN unit took the PP track to 10). The air cav redeployed to Hue in order to ensure that it was re-taken from the North Vietnamese sometime in 1964.

The PP track fell to 9 due to the pacificatiobb of the central highlands. Rolling on the PP table, a ‘5’ meant that in 1964 no U.S units could be recruited.

It was decided that 1964 should see an escalation in the war as far as practicable. Obviously the North Vietnamese felt the same way, as the Ho chi Minh trail made its way into southern Laos and southern Cambodia. Green Berets were sent into Cambodia, again without effect. B52s in southern Laos were successful in interdicting the trail, but those in the north of the country were not (this poor result saw the PP track move to 15!).

ARVN ground troops attacked VC cadre in all regions exept the Central Highlands, with the hope that they could pacify most areas and drive the PP index down. The air cav aided the assault on Hue, which succeeded without loss. Hoever, the ARVN drives in the Saigon and Mekong regions were driven back (both units in these regions were eliminated, with the PP index to 17). The writing was on the wall. NVA reinforcements appeared in the Mekong and Hue. Though the Central Highlands remained pacified, the Mekong and Saigon were in the hands of the enemy. The government of South Vietnam dissolved, and Ho Chi Minh lived to see Vietnam re-unified.

The game played quite well (and quickly – it was over in about 1/2 an hour). A full game shouldn’t take more than an hour or so. One thing is that the US player has to use napalm. It has a high chance of killing enemy units at a relatively low cost. I suspect that escalation from the word go will be necessary. If done well, with a little luck there may be a couple of years of relative quiet that will drive the PP index down. This is not a game to play if you want to have absolute control over things. There will be games where the dice will beat you, and no amount of good play will help. If you can stand that, then this should be worth the effort to assemble. You may get a half-dozen games or so out of it, but at about $0.75 U.S per game this would seem to be excellent value indeed.

Print and Play Boardgames

I’ve bought a couple of items from Wargame Downloads in the past, but have not had the chance to try most of them. Unternehmung 25 and Malaya (both freebies) seem rather good for postcard-type games. I’m keen to try Solitaire Caesar (because of the topic, and to compare with Fall of Rome). I also have Vietnam Solitaire, Switzerland Must be Swallowed and Baptism at Bardia. Markus Stumptner and Chris Harding have tried the latter and tell me that it’s probably not worth the effort. There are a number of Schultze Games titles for download (Fall of France and one I hadn’t seem before – Eureka Stockade – the first wargame set in Australia?).

The quality of the game that is downloaded is of course unknown, but then it’s the same for anything that you buy off the shelf (though some judicious checking of the BGG ratings may help).  In theory the commercially-published game should be better tested, much seems to get released that is decidedly under-cooked.

I was trawling through Drivethru RPG looking for some traveller RPG material when I found a number of pleasant surprises. Amongst the Traveller stuff are four boardgames available for download: Fifth Frontier War, Dark Nebula, Azhanti High Lightning and Imperium. The first and last of these I own, and AHL I remember fondly playing in high school. Into the cart it popped and I continued browsing the e-aisles.

Noticing that ‘board games’ were offered undr product type, I soon abandoned my Traveller-looking operations and wandeed to different pastures. Much of the material proved to be from Guild of Blades (and thus of poor quality) or from Lock ‘n Load (which may or may not be fine but at this point not of interest). I was surprised therefore when GDW’s Russo-Japanese War (which includes both their Port Arthur and Tsushima titles). Into the cart it went too. Also among the boardgames lurked Belter. Of less interest, it remained out of the cart (though looking on BGG I see that there are solitaire rules for it…. hmmmm).

Sadly the work of printing components and mounting the counters mean that these tend to move continually to the back of the play cue. Hopefully some of these will appear on the table in the near future.