Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Gaming in Brussels

Elaine and I visited our friend, Graham, in Brussels for a long weekend. It has been years since we were last there. Plenty of good food, wine and beer was consumed, and we had a trip out to Ghent as well. On the Saturday, Graham and I sat down to play wargames, whilst Elaine went into town to view some Brueghel’s.

Graham has a gaming room and, what is most impressive, are the pair cabinets he had custom made to accommodate his figures. Each had a footprint of 4’x3’ and a dozen draws sized to fit 15mm figures, plus a few deeper draws for 28mm figures etc. Each draw had been fitted with a steel lined bottoms so magnetised bases can be used. I was most jealous! For the last decade or so, Graham has been into Flames of War (FoW) and he plays competitively, winning many competitions. His figure collection for FoW is extensive, and they are beautifully painted and modelled (again, he has trophies for ‘Best Painted Army’ on his cabinets). I have never really gotten into FoW; I’ve played half a dozen games about 6/7 years ago, didn’t particularly like the rules, so dropped out. I do have the rules and some 2nd-hand codexes etc. (bought mainly for the artwork), but I’m not sure about which edition they relate to. In addition, I’m very much not a competitive gamer, this aspect of the hobby holds little attraction for me. Therefore I was expecting a drubbing, especially because Graham usually beats me whatever game/rules we are using! Graham drew up some army lists (1,750 points?), we diced for which to use, and diced for the scenario etc.

The first game (sorry no photos, I forgot my camera) was an Early War (1940) clash between French (me) versus Italian (Graham). I was the defender in the ‘Fighting Withdrawal’ scenario. My force was a deep(?) recon company with lots of Panhard a/c, a few Hotchiss tanks, some infantry and artillery. Graham had plenty of M-13 tanks(?) (not sure about Italian tank designations), recon m/c and infantry, plus artillery, and most scary, some lightly armoured flamethrower tanks. From Graham’s pre-game chat, it seemed my task was to stay alive because I would have to withdraw platoons from turn 3. If I survived to turn 6 and 7 I could then remove objective markers so long as I controlled them. I understand the basics of FoW but Graham knows the factors by heart, so I relied on him to compute the factors and tell me how many dice to roll and what scores I required. I don’t know the ‘cheesy’ mechanics/rules that arise in competitive play. I decided to focus my thoughts and plans squarely on the objectives of the mission; no rash moves or actions for me! I sat my artillery (good AT factor) on the objective marker on my left flank, and used most of my platoons to defend the 2 other objectives on the other flank. Graham sent his whole force against these 2 objectives. I soon discovered how poorly armoured a Panhard a/c is, and quickly resorted to hiding if possible. Luckily the gun on the Panhard is not bad, so I took out many Italian tanks in return.  The flame tanks did not turn out to be as scary as I first thought, but they did keep me on edge for most of the game. Withdrawing platoons is key and I was fortunate to be able to pull out weakened Panhard platoons before they broke through losses. I resisted an urge to charge one Panhard platoon into the Italian gun-lines and held back (unusual for my normal gaming style). By turn 6, I still held the objectives. I removed the first objective marker just before Graham closed in on it, and got the second marker off as well. Now I just had to stay alive for victory. I moved my depleted forces back towards my secure left flank and away from the onrushing Italians. Foolishly I allowed Graham to get one clear shot at a unit, and any losses could have remove them, breaking my company morale and handing victory to the Italians. The ‘Dice Gods’ saved me! Victory was mine, but that mistake in the final turn could have cost me everything! I was amazed to win, and I think it was down to concentrating solely on the victory conditions of the scenario, and ignoring other attractive, aggressive opportunities.

The next game was Late War, with me playing the Germans versus Graham’s Russian hordes. The scenario was ‘Dust Up’, where objectives/deployment are in opposite quadrants. My force was a very small Panzer/Tiger training company (4 or 5 Tigers, 3 Panthers, 4 PzKfw-III and a couple of weak infantry platoons). Unfortunately the Tigers did not have the ‘Tiger Ace’ bonuses, all the tanks were ‘Unreliable’ and they could not ‘Stormtrooper’ move. I started with only the Tigers and 1 infantry platoon on-table. The Russians had a many more platoons on-table, including a massive artillery unit and a large Valentine tank platoon. On the first turn one of my Tigers suffered from a 6” shell landing on it, and I realised that big tanks were not quite the leviathans I had imagined. I was initially confused about what I should be doing to win the game, and the Russian re-enforcements forced my Tigers to move to defend my own objective markers. The Russian numbers are intimidating, especially when a dozen or more sizable A/T guns towed by APC’s charge your Tigers, backed up by a dozen or more Lee tanks! The Reds also had special forces, dressed in German uniforms, running around, who my troops refused to fire on. My panic subsided as my Tigers resisted and the problem became how quickly I could take out the pesky Red horde before they overwhelmed me. I realised I was focussed on survival, and not really doing anything to bring about a win for myself. I therefore threw my reserve Panthers, PzKwf-III and a sole infantry platoon against the Russian gun-line and supporting Valetines on the other flank. I threatened the first objective marker, but Graham could always move troops to contest it. My true aim was the second, deeper objective. I whittled down the Russian guns and my lone infantry platoon made a Kamikaze charge on the remaining guns. Graham threw poor dice and the gun-line collapsed. My Panthers advanced on to a hill that was sheltering Graham’s Valentines and promptly missed with every shot. Now, Graham began a run of amazing dice rolling (more 6’s than you can believe possible) and KO’d my Panthers with long-range AT from the flank, plus his Valentines, which had also moved to my flank. I thought I had blown it. My infantry was contesting the objective, but Graham could now move his Valentines back to destroy them. Graham now suffered a brainstorm, for some inexplicable reason he moved his C-in-C away from the objective marker. I immediately thought this was a mistake but believed he had some ‘sneaky’ move planned which would win the game. Not so, and at the end of his turn I pointed out that my infantry were now in sole control of the objective – Victory to me (again!). I was stunned; two victories in a row against Graham is unheard of for me, let alone playing FoW!

With the wargaming completed, the rest of the weekend unfolded. We did play some boardgames in the evenings; 2 games of ‘Carcassonne’, a couple of games of ‘Welcome to the Dungeon’ and a game of ‘San Juan’. Carcassonne is a classic and needs no further discussion. I had recently bought ‘Welcome to the Dungeon’ and this was its first outing: It is a filler game with a push-your-luck mechanic, and the theme is almost superfluous. We were not particularly impressed; it was OK but not as gripping as I had hoped. I don’t think this game will have many appearances, but as it only lasts 30 minutes, it may fulfil its role as a filler at the end of a session. Graham had just bought ‘San Juan’, and interestingly I also have the game, bought 2nd-hand but had not yet played it. It is a card-based resource management/construction game. The rules are simple but the strategy more complex. There are different ways to win because of the various buildings you can construct. Graham was the run-away winner due to his clever use of a ‘Bank’ and a ‘Crane’ at optimal points within the game. We all enjoyed the experience and look forward to many more games to explore the intricacies of the design. So, ‘San Juan’ is a definite HIT. We may get it off the shelf when Val and Chris visit in a couple of weeks.

Finally I would like to thank Graham for his great hospitality, and for graciously allowing me to win both games of FoW. Although I enjoyed playing FoW I’m still not convinced about the rules, but maybe I have been a bit too negative about them in the past. The ‘gamey’ aspects of FoW remains a problem for me: I cannot get used to wheel2wheel, track2track deployment of tanks; or packed tanks ‘hiding’ in blind-spots; or large calibre artillery on-table etc. etc. But each-to-their-own, if the game is enjoyable then that’s the main thing.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

AAR trial solo Vietnam games (MCB)

This is a brief report of my first few solo games of Men of Company B (MCB) (RFCM, 2017). Normally I don’t publish my solo trials with new rule sets, but in this case I thought it might be useful to give a flavour of the resulting games. My figures are 20mm individually based but this works fine within the rules; each figure equals a stand. The VC leaders are represented by a NVA figure to clearly distinguish them. I’m also short of SE Asia buildings, so I’ve used ruined stone buildings instead, which works OK. I only have 8/9 cache markers, so I created a quick ‘top man’ marker designed to look like ‘Uncle Ho’s’ birthday cake!
Cache Loop shown at bottom, includes 'Uncle Ho's' birthday cake marker

The first game was a ‘regular’ US platoon with a troop of carriers and an extra infantry stand, versus VC opposition. The VC tried for ‘snipers’ and ‘experienced leader’, but both attempts failed.  The US deployment saw the platoon commander on one side of the table, whilst the 2 squads were located on the opposite edge. The initial turns saw the US squads moving into the nearest building squares and searching (they did find the ‘top-man’ cache). I pushed their luck too far because this frenetic activity resulted in ‘failed’ activations, and this meant the platoon commander failed to move quickly. This was a bad decision! The arriving VC managed to recruit new stands from peripheral buildings and then move against the lone US platoon commander. He took shelter in some jungle but the VC quickly assaulted, forcing the commander into the open, where he was easily eliminated. This early loss in the game was a disaster for the White Star forces: All units lost 2 activation dice due to ‘out of command’; there would be no artillery support, and no Casevac of casualties! At this point the carrier troop arrived, but the VC were able to displace the arrival point by 5 squares! The carriers were isolated and a close by VC unit fired and took one carrier out! The second carrier only had 2 activation dice (-2 for isolation, -3 for KO’d carrier), so moved slowly down the road towards friendly forces. Unfortunately this attracted VC opportunity fire, who promptly threw ‘boxcars’! The carrier failed its save and the unit was kaput! The remaining US squads began taking casualties, failing morale checks which exacerbated their low activation dice pool. They had no choice but to hunker-down as the VC closed in. The game ended and the points tallied up: A Decisive Victory (+39) for the VC!
The basic US forces available in both games

Lesions learnt: The US platoon command squad is very weak (only 2 stands) and it needs to be quickly moved to a central position, protected by other squads. I think it should also go ‘Down’ whenever possible. I’m not sure if a squad leader can be upgraded into a new platoon commander? US forces need to move in a co-ordinated manner, working as a team. They should also aim to move quickly to search as many village/building squares as possible. The VC need to recruit up to 5/6 bases ASAP but should aim to leave 1 or 2 peasant bases for later use. Once a VC unit is reduced to 2 or 3 bases then it will have negligible impact and should bug-out ASAP to be re-cycled.

The second game played was a re-run of the first, again the VC failed to get a ‘sniper’. This time the initial US deployment was much more favourable; the platoon commander was central and had squads either side in village/building squares! By the halfway point in the game the US were well on top; they had searched a good number of villages, found the best caches, moved the carriers unharmed to a central supporting position, and Casevac’d  the few casualties sustained. The VC were struggling, but the US got over-confident and moved a squad into an isolated position. The VC nipped into a bamboo grove and plastered the isolated squad with fire. In the last turns the VC again gambled; They moved squad against the central US platoon commander and, with only 2 remaining activation dice, they fired from close range scoring ‘boxcars’! The US platoon commander responded by throwing ‘snake-eyes’ for his saving throw! The platoon commander bit-the-dust again! The game ended and the points were added up: A ‘Narrow Victory’ (+5) for the White Star forces. The victory could have been better, the dice for the caches was 8-down compared to the expected average result. The US had killed 18 bases of VC, but in the process killed 9 peasant bases. The media was outraged (rolled ‘6’ on the dice for killing more than 4 bases of peasants). With a bit more care and better dice rolling, the White Star forces could easily have achieved a more decisive result.

Lesions learnt: Don’t get ‘cocky’. Stick with a steady approach through to the end of the game. Gamble if you are ‘behind’ in the final turns because the ‘Dice Gods’ seem to appreciate the gesture! The VC should maximise bamboo groves and place then centrally near villages. The US player needs to swap the bamboo so that they are peripheral on the table edges. Once VC get into the bamboo, they are a b****r to shift! Artillery is the best option but deviation can cause peasant and friendly casualties.

Overall, the game moves very fast. The ‘Push the Luck’ mechanism works very well. It is surprising how quickly you pick up the rules and how little you need to refer to either the QRS or rulebook. The main thing I needed to remind myself of was the -2 dice when shooting etc. with the ‘raw’ VC. I have yet to try many of the special options e.g. helicopter gunships and snipers (the VC failed to get these in both games).  Over the next week or so I plan to play again with these options, and also try the NVA game (I will simply use VC figures as NVA). Then, I will look at the supplementary games given at the back of the rules. I very much doubt whether I will manage any opposed games over the next couple of months.

Monday, 6 February 2017

First Impressions of Men of Company B rules

I want to stress these are simply my first impressions of Men of Company B (MCB) (RFCM, 2017) and NOT a detailed review. I have not yet played enough games to even begin to assess how well the rules reflect the historic period. From my initial reading (plus a couple of trial solo games), I am able to give my opinions about the rule/game structure and the type of game experience they should provide.

This is the newly published 2nd version of MCB. It differs completely from the 1st version (RFCM, 1998), so much so, it should be considered as a totally new rule set rather than a development from the old set. The 1st edition had many interesting ideas that I liked: I liked the moveable deployment zones for the VC/NVA player, and the resulting ability to shift units around the gaming area. I liked the feeling of uncertainty imposed on the US/ARVN player, you were never sure of what would happen next. I liked the different levels US activity (Bodycount, Search & Destroy, Hearts & Minds) and the constraints these rules impose. I liked the different geography’s available (Delta, Highland etc.). The 1st edition rules did suffer a few problems: There was a lot going on in terms of mechanics, which made teaching the rules to new players a bit of a nightmare! There was a lot of tactical ‘depth’ and subtly within the rules, which meant that even experienced players needed to play a few games in fairly rapid succession to get their heads around the nuisances of key decisions (I don’t believe I ever managed to ‘master’ these issues!). As a result, I played 1st edition MCB in a batch of games over 4 years ago (and enjoyed the experience), but since then the rules have sat unused on my shelf. I have not got them down because it was too much effort to re-learn the game, and the idea to trying introduce them to new gamers proved too much.

This 2nd edition keeps the focus on platoon-level operations undertaking Search & Destroy missions in a fairly generic geographic setting. The first major change is that the game is played on a gridded 5’x3’ area, divided in to 60 squares (each 6”x6”). Terrain pieces all occupy 2 squares and each player supplies 10 pieces, 8 of which are compulsory, and in addition there is a road covering a 10 square ‘column’ of the table (the road can be removed by the VC/NVA player). The resulting gaming area is terrain ‘heavy’, and will not vary greatly between games; there will always be 6 village/building pieces, with a few paddies, more jungle, a few bamboo groves and may be a rocky hill or two. The VC/NVA player sets up all the terrain and the opponent can swap the position of up to 5 pieces.

A player can select one of three basic ‘White Star’ (US/ARVN) forces and add a limited range of add-ons. The opposing player can either play VC or NVA in the base game, and can choose up to 4 changes (includes removal of the road) but each change costs Victory Points and may not happen. I only have the figures to play the VC option (I need to buy more NVA figures). The rules do allow some additional scenarios (Firebase, Mountain Tribes, and Downed Aircrew) but I have yet to consider these. The deployment rules are simple, and in the VC game, the ‘White Star’ initial deployment is fairly random.

Village/building squares are the key to the game. They are the location of both potential peasants and potential caches (i.e. important VC/NVA supplies). The ‘White Star’ player is aiming to search as many of the potential caches as possible, and hopefully find many valuable supplies (via a ‘Cache Loop’, discussed latter), whilst avoiding booby-traps and not killing any peasants. In contrast the VC player is attempting to prevent this and by moving into un-occupied villages to ‘recruit’ new VC stands from the peasants. The initial VC units are few in number and very weak. They can only expand by converting peasants, whose number is variable in each village/building square.

The ‘core’ engine in the game is a ‘Push the Luck’ mechanic familiar to anyone who plays boardgames. A few other wargame rules utilise a similar mechanic in a limited way e.g. Lion Rampant where failure to activate a unit ends a players turn; or Impetus where units can do multiple activations before they become disordered etc. In MCB the mechanic is much more dominant. An activated unit starts with multiple dice (generally 5-7), actions are undertaken which require at least one of the dice to succeed, actions are graded from simple (3+) to difficult (5+), and following the action the dice pool available to that unit is reduced by one. Failure results in all remaining units yet to be activated having their dice pool reduce to one dice (!), plus one unit being similarly reduced in the next turn. A player is therefore faced with a dilemma, do they ‘Push the Luck’ and undertake many actions, or do they play with caution reducing their activity but avoiding a costly failure? I think this is a brilliant mechanic to employ, particularly in a Vietnam context; a real feeling of do-you-don’t-you especially as your dice pool shrinks e.g. you can get to a village fairly easily but will only have 3 dice remaining, do you try to search (requiring 5+) and risk failure, or do you pass and try next turn?

The other mechanics of the game built on to the activation system are reasonably straight forward. Shooting requires 5+ to hit with variable saves depending on cover, quality etc. Shooting will trigger return fire from the target (6+ to hit), and some movement will trigger opportunity fire. Units can go ‘down’ to reduce casualties. Close Assaults are bloody but a defender can fall-back if they wish, but this can result in some losses. Morale is a key ruling and is only taken if an enemy is in proximity (i.e. the 8 squares surrounding the unit) at the start of a turn. The presence of casualty figures with a unit will increase the number of potential ‘morale failures’, which in turn reduce a unit’s activation dice pool (bad news!). Players can remove casualties either by an action (VC) or Casevac (White Star).  The VC units can also ‘disappear’ off-table if they are put under pressure. Artillery support can be generated and is useful in getting peskie VC out of bamboo groves! But care needs to be taken, particularly near to villages, due to deviation which can take out peasants.

Another interesting mechanism is the use of opposed dice rolls for a range of incidents e.g. entry of reserve units. The high scorer can either ignore the result, or apply the difference in the score to move the entry point that many squares in either direction around the table edge. The same mechanism alters the choice on the ‘Cache Loop’; the VC/NVA players places the caches (high and low value) plus booby-traps and empty spaces on the ‘Cache Loop’; the opposed dice score can shift the White star players choice, resulting a potential boobytrap explosion.

Game length is via a count-down mechanism (common to many RFCM rules) and Victory is determined using a simple table. The White Star player gains randomised points for caches found, destroyed or controlled at the end of the game, plus a few points for killed VC, minus points for killed peasants. The VC player primarily gains points for killed enemy and unsearched potential caches left at the game end. If playing the NVA (rather than the VC) game, then the points awarded are different, and in addition, the deployment and action rules differ.

I think I have given an overview of the prime characteristics of the new 2nd edition version of MCB, which should give a new player an impression of how a game of MCB should pan-out. I really, really like the ‘Push the Luck’ activation mechanism, and cannot wait to trial this on the tabletop. I have a feeling that other games/designs might be tempted to employ such a mechanism in other settings, but I would advise caution against such temptations. In my reviews of other rules, I have often criticised authors for simply lifting-and-shifting mechanics without giving sufficient thought to the new setting. I have applied this criticism to recent rules released by the RFCM team; I was very disappointed in their new Regiment of Foote rules which were just Square Bashing in a different (inappropriate) setting. So I am glad to say that RFCM have found their mojo again by coming up with new, innovative mechanisms focussed on specific historic periods. My next post will look at my trial, solo games using MCB and give my views on how they work on the tabletop. Later I will report on opposed games, but this may be a while coming because my diary is full for the next month or two, and gaming activity will be curtailed.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Review of Pikeman’s Lament

Review of Pikeman’s Lament by Daniel Mersey & Michael Leck (Osprey Publishing #19, 2017).

As to be expected from Osprey, these rules are both well written and beautifully presented. The core mechanic is the same as that which was successfully used in the popular Lion/Dragon Rampant rules (also by Daniel Mersey and published by Osprey). I reviewed Lion Rampant a couple of years ago (June 2015) and, essentially, all my comments there can be applied here. This is my major gripe with Pikeman’s Lament; the rules are basically just Lion Rampant with the text/pictures altered to fit the new historic period. Working from a Lion Rampant document file, I think the author could easily modify it into Pikeman’s Lament in a matter of days. Altering the photo images would again be simple, so much so, the layout of the final publication is a good match to the previous rule set. I imagine the most time consuming aspect for the publication would have been getting the cover art commissioned. There are some tweaks to the unit stat’s, and a few special rules, but these are minor alterations/additions around the edges, which I’m sure resulted from playtesting for the final version. So, although I like the rule mechanisms a lot, I feel the author has been a bit ‘lazy’. I would have liked to ‘feel’ that the author had thought more about unique aspects of the period to distinguish it from the Medieval setting covered in the previous rules. I would have liked more “Oh! That’s different!” moments when reading them; more period flavour maybe? The main ameliorating factor with Pikeman’s Lament is the low price. Paying only £10-12 for a set of rules that does the job of modifying Lion Rampant into a Pike/Shot setting is fine with me. If I had paid £20-30 for this ‘new’ rule set (considering I already have Lion Rampant), then I would have felt miffed and ripped-off!

So, in conclusion, I’m sure Pikeman’s Lament will generate practical, enjoyable games that work on the tabletop. The couple of solo games I have played so far bear this out. But, I’m disappointed because I don’t think a lot of thought has gone into these rules. It is possible that the core mechanics from Lion Rampant are so good they can be transferred across historical/military ages unaltered, but I’m not convinced this is the case. I can fully understand the author’s motivation; you have a ‘winning’ mechanism which you can easily apply to a widening range of periods – so, just do it! Many rule writers have followed this path (e.g. the DBX series, or the Black Powder series etc.), but this can be a cul-de-sac and is a ‘sterile’ approach to game design. When playing large scale skirmish games of the Pike/Shot period, I don’t want to feel that it is just the Medieval Lion Rampant with different figures! The rules might work well but I want to ‘feel’ that I’m playing a different game, a different period, with different mechanics; otherwise where will it all end?

Grump over! I am actually looking forward to trialling Pikeman’s Lament in opposed games and getting my ECW skirmish figures on the table after a long absence. After a few games I will probably write a comparison with other rule sets which aim to cover a similar period at this scale (e.g. Donnybrook, Once Upon a Time in the West Country etc.). I might even get my Highlanders and/or pirates on the table as well!