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.

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