Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Up Front, Behind Schedule

It's been too long, I acknowledge that. Schoolwork, a new job training program, geography, and lack of discipline have kept me away from the blog, but we were only sleeping, not dead! A recent Tuesday night game group meeting had a headcount and game selections such that Tim and I decided to split off and do our own thing for the evening. We played one or two other things, but we're here today to talk about Up Front, Courtney F. Allen's unique take on the WWII tactical combat genre, published in 1983 by Avalon Hill. This is the same guy who designed Storm over Arnhem, the very influential area-impulse game that spawned Breakout: Normandy and a host of other games. As different as the area-impulse games are from the hex-and-counter games that preceded them, it's no surprise to learn that Allen's treatment of WWII tactical combat would be groundbreaking, too.

Unlike 99.9% of all other such games, Up Front has no board, instead relying on a deck of multi-function playing cards to represent, well, most of the stuff in the game. In various ways, the main deck of cards represents the terrain over which the combatants fight, environmental effects like wind, all kinds of morale effects, command and control limitations, sniper attacks, and much more, as well as acting as a sort of "deck of dice." If you've played games like Glory to Rome, you'll be familiar with this sort of situation where a card is different things at different times; San Juan / Race for the Galaxy come to mind, too, with cards sometime representing "bucks." The result of all this in Up Front is that there's a lot of information packed onto these somewhat undersized playing cards, and it looks pretty damned confusing at first. The rulebook, as was the custom, has been translated from English into Avalonhillese, an arcane dialect of Lawyerish. That's a little bit of hyperbole, I suppose. The rules aren't a total disaster, but their Avalon Hill style, along with the decidedly unconventional mechanisms of the game, make this a tough one to learn on your own. Many, many times you'll hear someone say, "The best way to learn Up Front is to have someone who knows the game teach it to you," and they're probably right. Still, it's doable, and Tim and I did.

Each player gets a hand of cards: six for the resourceful Americans, five for the well-led Germans, and four for the stout Russians. These can be Fire cards, representing opportunities to attack, Move cards, cards representing beneficial terrain such as Woods or Buildings, cards to lay Smoke, cards to Rally troops, and others. There are also some nasty cards that can be discarded on one's opponent, such as hindering terrain like Wire or Streams, or Sniper attacks, plus the dreaded Cower card, which does nothing but eat a slot in your hand until you're able to discard it. Having the correct card(s) in hand is critical to remaining flexible and moving towards your goal, so it follows that having too many of one kind of card, even an otherwise great card, is not good. So playing cards and refilling your hand to keep cards flowing is important, as is discarding. The Germans are the only nationality that get to do useful stuff and discard a card on the same turn, so they rarely pause long for a break. Both the Russians and the Americans must forgo taking any actions on a turn in which they want to discard (the Americans can discard two cards in that situation, the Russian as many as he wants). This affects the Allies' ability to discard hindering terrain on the opponent's group and to attack with Snipers. This is only a taste of the game's mechanisms, but I think it illustrates the sometimes subtle ways that things like national differences are modeled in this game.

Now, we'd played the game before, about once every eighteen months or so, but we still needed a few minutes to refresh our memories about the game before diving into Scenario A: Meeting of Patrols. I didn't know at the time that we'd be writing about this game, so I wasn't really taking notes during the action, so forgive my sketchy recollection of the sequence of events. Basically, this is a sandbox style battle between roughly equal forces, and the victory conditions – either advance a group of at least four men four "spaces" across the "board" and have them occupy defensive terrain, or win on victory points when time runs out, which mainly means advancing men up the field and causing more enemy casualties than you sustain yourself – encourage aggression and forward movement rather than turtling.

Acting somewhat randomly, I split my force of twelve men down the middle and proceeded to march one group off toward the German lines. The German fire group spent much of the early part of the game – well, OK, much of the game – mired in a Stream into which they'd stumbled. Eventually, the two Stream cards, really quite nasty to wind up in, since they offer no cover and are difficult to get out of – showed up a total of three times, slowing things up a bit. There was a middle part to the game where we each discarded and cycled cards looking for the magic card we needed...a Ford movement card for Tim to help his guys out of the stream bed, and a Fire card for me to allow me to meaningfully return fire against the Germans I crept ever closer towards. Near the end, my maneuver group got to Range Chit 4, quite close to the Germans opposite them (behind the German fire group, actually), and then promptly withered under a hail of close-range German gunfire. I had caused some German casualties, though, including his precious machine gunner (or was it just the Squad Leader?), but with the instant victory condition now out of reach, I thought I was cooked; Tim had simply caused more casualties. When the game ended after our third pass through the deck, we counted up victory points was a tie. I had managed, on a very late turn, to advance my fire group a bit, and was rewarded with enough VPs for "aggressive action" that I avoided defeat. Night fell, the two patrols moved back to their own lines, and nothing was decided.

What was decided was that this is fun. Anyone who's read my comments about Combat Commander must think I'm schizophrenic if I like this very abstracted game, and they might be right. I can't explain why the seemingly random appearance of a stream in the path of a moving group of men doesn't bother me as much as having a unit resurrect on the map in CC:E. I suspect that it has to do with the level of abstraction: in Combat Commander, there's still a map and the turns are rigid enough that there's a sense of a constant, regular division of time, so things that seem "unrealistic" grate on me. In Up Front, everything's a blur: time is measured in cards and decks, the battlefield is a hazy abstraction. I don't just is different for me. I'll ask my therapist for help resolving this issue. In any case, I'm hopeful we'll get to play again soon so we don't forget all the rules we just relearned. And hey, maybe we'll actually move on to Scenario B!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Up Front: Battle to a Standstill

Randy and I pulled out an old school game last Tuesday - Up Front, a long OOP Avalon Hill card game that represents, on some level (I hesitate to say simulates, although it may do that) conflicts between squads of individuals. At more advanced points in the game, those "individuals" can include vehicles like tanks and other armor, although we played the most basic scenario, A Meeting of Patrols, with nothing but infantry and some support weapons. Randy and I have played Up Front previously, but there is almost always many months between playings, and while the game isn't complex (at this level), it has lots of small details that can be hard to keep to mind when playing. In fact, we messed up on rule - in the scenario we played, the first five buildings should have been treated as Cower cards (useless cards that clog up your hand). This didn't have a major effect on the events of the evening, though - we just hand-waved that we were in a more built up area than initially thought. The objective of this particular scenario is simply to move up to close range with you opponent, and occupy good terrain with at least four of your guys ready to fight (i.e. not pinned or otherwise disabled). The range rules of Up Front are NOT as complicated as they sound on initial reading, although the rules certainly make them seem quite complicated.

I think we randomized who was going to be who, but in any case I ended up as the Germans - the main thing with the Germans is they have pretty good quality troops, but not many of them, AND they have the ability to regularly churn through at least a card a turn even while doing other actions. Most other nationalities must spend an entire turn discarding OR doing actions, while the Germans have the ability to do both, although they only discard a single card. Randy ended up with the Americans, who have more guys (he had 12 guys to my 10) and some more advanced weapons, like a BAR (essentially a very light machine gun that requires only a single guy to operate). The game starts with each player having the option to play any terrain cards they may have started with, either on themselves OR on their opponent - I started the game with a stream card, one of the worst possible terrains to be caught in, and promptly put that on Randy's Squad A, otherwise I don't think much in the way of Terrain happened initially. As it turned out, starting Randy in that stream had a major effect, in that Randy spent the entire game with his first squad at far range, only moving up one increment at the very end. The main difficulty with streams is getting out of them - they make it harder for you to shoot, and make it easier for opponents to shoot you, and to get out you either need to draw a particular card (a movement marked as a ford) OR succeed at a roughly 50% change on a regular lateral movement, rather than using movement to advance on the enemy. It took Randy's Americans a good long while to get out of the stream I'd stuck him with, which turned out to be critical for the end results.

The Germans were not having much luck advancing (I couldn't draw movement cards, despite discarding every turn), and the Americans came up quickly on one flank (Squad B, the one that hadn't started out in a stream). They made it to one shy of the range they needed to win, and we settled in for a fairly long period of back and forth firing. The biggest event here was the American's making short worth of the MG squad, including removing Sgt. Diettinger (at this point, I can't remember if he routed - ran away - or was killed out right, but either way he wasn't around). Also, by this mid-point in the game the American's had managed to get out of the stream, and apparently Randy managed to draw both of the stream cards, as when I was finally able to get a movement card, he dumped a stream on me. And every time I tried to move (probably 4-5 times, for the rest of the game) I failed the 50% success check to get out of the stream. Then, I finally tried moving the other squad, and he dumped ANOTHER stream on them. Apparently, there are only two stream cards in the entire deck, and for a good bit of the latter part of the game, I had both of them on my squads.

The Americans finally made a big push for the victory, closing in to the correct range, but I had saved a Marsh (a fairly bad terrain in it's own right, though not as awful as a stream), and discarded that to be his new location. He refused this, giving up his advance, which kept me in the game. About this time, the Germans came into some very powerful fire cards, and managed to pour a steady stream of fire down on the American squad, eventually eliminating all but one squad member, who remained pinned for the remainder of the game. We were rapidly approaching a timed end of the game (in this particular scenario, three times through the deck), so we both wanted to advance as far as we could, but do so in such a way as to keep our guys intact (only intact guys score points at game end, as well as points being available for routing/killing opponents). I pushed hard to get to the end, as I was pretty sure I was ahead, with all the kills from Baker squad.

So, at the point the game ended (with the final draw from the third time through the deck), we counted up the scores. I had 17 points, mainly from kills and routs, with a few points from advancing (I ended up with both squads at range 1 or 2, which is to say they hadn't advanced much at all). Randy counted his points, and he ALSO ended up with 17 points, although in his case it was mainly from having advanced his units to a good range (he had one squad of 6 at range 2, which was worth 12 points all by itself). So, after a hard fought battle over the fields and villages of France (or, that's what I'm going with at this point), we ended up with an inconclusive encouter between two patrols. An entire American squad had been eliminated, and the Germans had taken some fairly heavy casualties as well.

So, what did I think? I enjoyed the experience quite a bit, although I will admit that it felt like the game dragged quite a bit in the middle, when both Randy and I were mainly discarding trying to find decent cards - me to get out of the streams, Randy (I think) looking for fire cards and rally cards to unpin his guys. The fact that the game ended up in a tie doesn't bother me in the slightest - I had a lot of fun playing, and I can definitely develop a narrative to the game in my head, which is pretty important for me, at least in war games. If you get a chance to play this, don't be daunted by the reputation of impenaterable rules - although if you can get someone to teach you, it'll be easier, the rules aren't THAT bad - not good, mind you, just not as bad as they have the reputation of being. Give Up Front a chance - it's a lot of fun (although fairly hard to come by, sadly).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Not dead yet

OK, it's been awhile since either Randy or I posted, so I thought I'd post an update about where we're at, and what's happened - I think we both intend to go forward with this, but the last month or so has been troublesome for both of us.

Randy has had car troubles, which, needless to say, makes it tough to get together for gaming (especially since we live a good way apart - essentially on opposite sides of Dallas). I've had classes on most weekends, and am now preparing for a test I need to take in mid-April (teacher certification for High School Math - needless to say, I'm accessing memory banks that haven't been used in awhile).

Also, I'm off to the Gathering of Friends the first week of April, so that complicates scheduling further (although I'm definitely not complaining).

None of this is to offer excuses, just explanation - I'm hopeful that we'll be able to get things restarted after making it through April (hopefully surprise free for both of us).

I've got a couple of new-ish games I'd love to try - MMP/The Gamers Bastogne (part of their SCS series), GMT's Unhappy King Charles and The Halls of Montezuma. And, of course, I'd love to get in another few scenarios (or firefights) of Conflict of Heroes.

Anyway, I hope those few readers we attracted will keep us in your feeds, and read our posts when we're able to get back to regular gaming and posting!

Thanks for your patience, and happy gaming . . .

Friday, February 13, 2009

TwoGG 2: Wives included!

First off, sorry for this taking so long to get posted. The latest gaming session at Tim's place was a bit unconventional (though how much "convention" can we really say we've established after just one TwoGG session?) so I've had a tough time figuring out how to present it. I think I've now decided that the whole reason for writing about it at all is to remind ourselves and our subscribers that this is something we're actually going to try to continue, so just getting anything posted should suffice. Enough meta-blogging, and on to the session report.

This past Saturday, Tim, his wife Carrie, my wife Marissa, and I got together over at Chez Isakson for some fun couples gaming. We had very little plan going into the afternoon – I'd packed Squad Leader and Up Front just in case it turned into a "boys in one room, girls in the other" situation – so we played it by ear. When it became apparent that it was social time, the four of us got around the table and started playing. First up was the old Pressman title, Siege of the Citadel, set in the quite cool Mutant Chronicles universe. Though it has little to do with the actual gameplay, I'll just let you know that this is our solar system several hundred years in the future. A handful of powerful megacorporations stand in for governments, and were happily squabbling amongst themselves when an object was detected near the orbit of Pluto. This turned out to be an alien artifact that a human expedition upset, opening a rift to a demonic other plane, releasing the Dark Legion upon humanity. These powers include fearsome combinations of demon and machine and are generally bad news.

In Siege of the Citadel, players take on the role of a pair of characters each from the megacorporations Mishima, Capitol, Bauhaus, Cybertronic, or Imperial, while one player controls the Dark Legion. In many ways the game is like Space Hulk in that there are floor tiles that can be rearranged to set up highly varied scenarios into which players send their characters. The locations of the bad guys are only vaguely known at first and the composition of their forces is up to a turn of the card. Tim had mentioned to watch out for the conflict resolution mechanic as the designer is Richard Borg, of Command & Colors: Ancients fame. I saw what he meant, as one rolls a number of dice for each attack, and each die has either a hit or a blank on it. Simply count the number of hits and see if you exceeded the target's armor. I won't go into too much detail other than that. The game played very quickly, and never bogged down even for a moment...well, we bogged down just a wee bit at the beginning trying to figure out our starting equipment, but never after. And the gameplay was fun enough, but I actually thought it was considerably lighter than it should have been. With so few rules and chrome, I could detect very little difference between my Imperial characters and Carrie's Cybertronic heroes. The only difference between my two characters was that one carried a gun and the other carried (unwisely, I thought) a sword. I could have stood another level of detail, with characters possessing their own stats and skills, a bit more variety in combat (situational modifiers, interesting terrain), and just more actual Mutant Chronicles flavor. I rated the game a 5 on BoardGameGeek and would much rather play Space Hulk or even Warzone, the Mutant Chronicles tabletop miniatures game in the future. (I wonder whether the new Mutant Chronicles miniatures game from Fantasy Flight is in the bargain bins yet, and whether it's worth playing...)

After that, the four of us got in a couple of games of Pandemic. Going into this session, I would have said that I was pretty lukewarm on this game. It's not that I think Pandemic is a bad game. In fact, I think it's among the better cooperative games I've seen. It's just that I think a really good cooperative game hasn't been released yet. In fact, rather than describe our two games of Pandemic (both VERY narrow losses!), I'll give you a little bit of my cooperative game rant. I think the first time I thought about cooperative boardgames was in 1999 or 2000 when Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings game came out. There was a ton of hype about the game, which included snapshots of the incredibly beautiful boards. I was such a sucker for the idea of the game and the art that I ordered a copy from overseas. Suffice it to say that I have enough German text in that box (which I still have!) to give me practice material for at least two or three semesters of college German! But I did eventually get to play the game in its English incarnation and it didn't take too many plays for me to stop and think, "Wait, I thought this was a cooperative game...but it's a puzzle!"

What had happened? Well, I'd noticed a pattern in how the games of Lord of the Rings went. The game poses challenges that the Fellowship must overcome as they seek to take the One Ring to Mount Doom for a quick lava bath. Each challenge requires the expenditure of cards of different types – combat cards, stealth cards, etc. – in certain combinations. These cards can come from any of the hobbits' hands. And this is where the problem lies. The question that's being asked is not, "It's Frodo's turn...does Frodo have three combat cards?" it's, "It's Frodo's turn, does the Fellowship have three combat cards?" Thus, it isn't Frodo's player who answers the game's question, it's all the players. So everyone talks a bit about what cards they have, hemming and hawing before everyone finally realizes, "Hey, we could just lay our hands face up and figure this out quicker!" And from that realization comes, "We're not really playing individual hands, we're sort of playing one big group hand," and from that, "This is really more a multi-player puzzle than a game." The problem is that we aren't playing a game where we make moves to try to set up each player to individually make plays toward a common goal, we're just communally making moves, and that's very unsatisfying to me, especially when I can envision a better way.

My vision involves players having their own resources and abilities pursuing a group victory. In the Lord of the Rings example, there might very well be combat or stealth cards, but each player would have to have the correct combination to play for themselves. If not, they fall short. The game then becomes how players can help and support one another while also making their own moves. Many of these games include some way of trading cards, for instance, which is great, but I'd like to see a little more skill to that. Perhaps members of the Fellowship would get an opportunity to pass a card to a friend whose board position suggests he'll be fighting you pass a sword. But you don't just say, "Whatcha need?" I'm thinking of the kind of decision one might make in a partnership card game, like the passing of animals between partners in Frank's Zoo.

Perhaps a different theme or style would lend itself more to my dream cooperative game. Both team sports and some wargame themes (man-level WWII infantry, WWI aerial dogfighting) suggest the idea of each team member bringing something unique to a situation, facing their own challenges, supporting teammates, and pursuing a common goal. Hopefully some talented game designer (rather than a hack game complainer) can look to advance the state of the cooperative game art soon.

As for Pandemic, I think it's fun, challenging, and generally among the best of the cooperative games out there. That said, it still has awkward moments where players do these verbal gymnastics like, "Well, I'm REALLY close to finding a cure to the red disease " instead of just saying, "Fine, give me one more red so I can go to Tehran on my next turn and cure red." Moves are made largely, if not completely, by committee and, for me at least, the whole thing is still more group puzzle than group game. This particular one has lots of theme and is pretty entertaining, so I rated it a 6.75 on BoardGameGeek, but it doesn't keep me from wishing for something better.

Finally, we did play a game of TransAmerica. This is so light it barely registers on my radar, and in the original version there were so few difficult or interesting decisions that I largely thought it wasn't worth the (admittedly very short) time it took to play. Playing with the expansion, which includes track segments in each player's color that only that player can use, improved the game somewhat and moved it squarely into "inoffensive" territory for me. That's a pretty big win for the game, which I usually had to grit my teeth to play. Now I'll be happy to spend that fifteen or twenty minutes, especially when I know that Carrie likes it so much! I rated TransAmerica a 4.5 on BoardGameGeek with the expansion, which is probably just a little low.

So, there it is. Family game night at the Isakson's! Keep watching this space, folks. Pretty soon Tim and I should be back at it with two-player games. My guess is that World War II squad- and company-level infantry will be back next, with the English Civil War perhaps lurking just over the horizon. As always, please leave feedback to remind me that someone other than me is reading this. Take care.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dateline: Atlanta


Atlanta, USA
CDC Prediction and Simulation Working Group
Outbreak Response Simulation Exercises

The CDC has been tracking the 2008-12-FLU outbreak since January, and has recently discovered some disturbing news - the prime strain of the disease has mutated, and four different strains are spreading throughout different regions of the world. 2009-1-BLK is primarily contained in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia. 2009-1-BLU is primarily contained in North America and Western Europe. 2009-1-RED is primarily limited to the Far East, and 2009-1-YLW is contained in the tropics - Central and South Africa and South America. Note that these regional limitations are not expected to be maintained over the longer term - it is expected that each strain will spread along multiple vectors without geographic restrictions (other than those that influence traffic and population flows).

The decision was reached to run two simulations of potential responses to the pandemic, and the results are not encouraging - both simulations resulted in (simulated) widespread loss of life and major infrastructure breakdowns, seriously hampering our ability to deliver medical supplies, share information on the diseases and treatments discovered, and so on. If these simulations are accurate predictions of the outcome of this pandemic, major modifications in our approach are definitely in order.

The simulations randomized the initial outbreak locations, and also the spread and growth of each of the strains, and provided resources similar to those available to the CDC to address the spread of the diseases and the search for cures for each strain. In analysis of the simulation after the fact, it has been found that there was a data problem with the disease randomization function, such that it is possible that the outbreaks were more virulent than they might be expected to be in actuality - we hope that this is the case, as the outcome of these runs of the simulations were quite discouraging.

The one note of encouragement I can take from these two simulation exercises is that, both times, our team was very close to finding cures for each of the four stains and delivering them to the populations under threat. With some improvement to our approach to the disease outbreaks, I am confident that we will be able to use the experience from these simulations to improve our decision making and triage decisions in the real world. In both runs of the simulation, the team was very close to overcoming the mutating strains of the disease - with modifications to our approach, and a tweaking of the data model to more closely model the spread we are seeing in the real world, we expect to be able to continue to improve our response to the continuing pandemic.


Forgive me my chance to practice a little story-telling there, but Randy and I got together Saturday night for a gaming session - this time, our wives were included, so we played several multi-player games rather than two-player as is our normal intent. We got in one mission of Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, two games of Pandemic, and a game of TransAmerica with the Vexation expansion included. This session report, as may be obvious from the lead-in, is going to focus on Pandemic only, as I don't know that we gave Siege of the Citadel enough of a chance, and TransAmerica, while quite enjoyable, is also quite light and there wouldn't be much to report.

We broke out Pandemic, as I was relatively confident that Carrie & Marissa (mine and Randy's wives, respectively) would enjoy the game - I think I was correct in my estimation, although I'll be interested to hear for certain what they thought. I'm not going to go into too much detail about how the game plays, but I will note that this is a cooperative game, meaning it's the players working together against the game system. As you might have gleaned from the flavor text above, we were not able to win in either of our outings - although both times we were probably within a single turn of pulling out the victory. I know for certain we were in the first game - if the outbreaks had come out in a different order, on the next player turn we would have had the fourth cure, and hence the win. The second game we lost due to time running out - when the player draw deck is drawn out, the game is lost. I think we were very close to a win there as well, but not close enough. Also, worth mentioning is that both our games were on the "easy" setting for the game - it scales up to "normal" and "hard" as well, although it may be awhile before we feel the need to do so!

The feel of Pandemic is quite interesting to me - it felt something like a well-run meeting, although one much more focused than most real meetings I've attended (and also more fun). While each player has a role in the game, and also some collection of information and resources that they control, it really is more of a group exercise in trying to solve the problem that the game system puts in front of you. I can see where in some groups this might be a problem - if a dominant personality were to monopolize play, for instance, making other players feel like they weren't so much playing as watching. Luckily, in our case, that didn't turn out to be a problem - we discussed our moves as a group, and generally followed through on consensus decisions, but didn't get into any arguments about who was driving the discussion, and it didn't feel (to me) as though any one of us was dominating the discussion more than anyone else.

Pandemic's feel is unique in the coop games I've played up to this point - which includes Scotland Yard, Lord of the Rings, Shadows over Camelot, Ghost Stories and now Pandemic. I have yet to play the newest, Battlestar Galactica, although I'd like to give it a shot. Pandemic really did have something of the feel of a steering committee, pouring over a map of the world with markers for resources and tracking disease outbreaks. In a movie, it would likely be a hologram or network operations center (NOC) or something of the sort.

On a tangential but related note, this past Thanksgiving, I took my copy of Pandemic with me to our family gathering, and taught a bunch of non-gamers how to play - and they all enjoyed it. One element there that was interesting was how fun it was to watch and kibitz, even though I wasn't playing. How many games can you describe the experience of NOT playing as almost as much fun as playing?

This outing of Pandemic was very enjoyable - and I felt like it was successful with the group we played it with. Those who require competition should probably stay far away (but then, they likely would do so when told this was a coop game to begin with), and I would also not suggest playing this game with a group that is prone to allowing one player to dominate the proceedings. One other limiting factor is that the game plays with a maximum of four players. I would expect it to scale to lower numbers fine, but it tops out at four. If none of these problems are an issue, then I can wholeheartedly recommend Pandemic, as I've enjoyed it every time I've played it.

Worth noting - in one of our games, we had the experience of having an Outbreak BEFORE the first player turn, due to there being a duplicate city card. Apparently, there was a collation issue with the cards, as there are only supposed to be one of each city in the deck. I've yet to contact Z-man, but I'm confident it will be made right - but this is the data anomaly that I mention in the "flavor text".

I think the next "session" for Randy and I is going to be an online attempt to play Squad Leader - we'll let you know how that works out in a couple of weeks.

So, with that, thanks for reading, and happy gaming!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

TwoGG 1: What do the other blogs say?

I'm kind of going off the script here so, Tim, correct me if you don't think this is a good idea for our blog. I thought it might be interesting for our readers if we linked to similar observations on the games we've just played by other players. Since I was over at Two Sides to the Coin and noticed they'd played Conflict of Heroes, I thought people might like to see how their experience compared to ours. In order to help readers correlate these posts with the TwoGG session they go with, I'll be naming all my posts serially with a number, as you see above.

So, what did Mike and Eric over at Two Sides to the Coin think? Go see for yourself:

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Tactical Decision

For our first session, I was given the opportunity to choose our game. I'd received Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! (which I'll refer to as CoH for the remainder of this post) for Christmas, and was hankering to get it on the table, so that was my selection. Not to be outdone for the inaugural session, Randy also brought a tactical WWII game along, although it was something a bit more old-school - Squad Leader. Hopefully next session I'll remember to use my digital camera, but for this time prose is going to have to suffice.

I had played CoH once previously with a fellow gamer in the DFW area (howdy, Mick!), and really enjoyed it - it seems to have much of the same decision making as other tactical games I've played, but distilled down into an elegant system that was simple to understand without being simplisitic. Mick and I had managed to get in two or three different scenarios in just a couple of hours, so it also fit the time frame that I tend to prefer. While I'm not one of those "must be shorter than an hour" gamers, some games can overstay their welcome - CoH didn't seem to do that in my previous playing, so I wanted to try it out again. I also wanted to introduce it to Randy, who had heard of it but not yet played.

Randy had read the rules through section two, which covers the rules needed for the first two scenarios - that provided plenty of fodder for our first session. First up, we played Firefight 1 - Partisans, with Randy taking on the role of the Soviet partisans and myself taking on the Germans. This uses the simplest map in the game - a crossroads amongst a small scattering of woods and light woods. The partisans are set up in the central woods on the first map, preparing to ambush a supply column that is on it's way. The Germans have been tracking this group of partisans for some time, and has learned from informants about the planned ambush - and intend to catch the partisans unawares. Essentially, the crossroads is the target for both groups, and holding control is the major source of VPs beyond simply eliminating opposing forces.

I honestly don't recall a lot of details of our first attempt at this scenario - I pressed fairly agressively as the Germans, and occupied the woods along the road on my side of the map very quickly. Randy was relatively conservative, but that didn't work out well for him at all - I had most of his forces eliminated very quickly, and he conceded quickly, suggesting we move on (which was fine with me).

I offered to switch sides, as the Soviets definitely seem to have a tougher time coming through this firefight with a win. Randy demurred, though, wanting a rematch. I'm still not certain I see how the Soviets manage to win this firefight, but our second attempt probably gave some ideas - Randy was much more aggressive this time, rushing Soviet rifle squads right up to my units, especially before they were able to get through the woods and get line of sight (LOS) on them. The Soviets managed to eliminate one of the German LMGs very early on, in close combat IIRC, and that made things more difficult, but once the German Pioneers squad showed up, things fell apart for him again. I think it was definitely the right decision on Randy's part to play more aggressively - espcially going for close combat, where his units had an advantage over mine. Perhaps with some better luck he might have been able to pull out the win. As it was, the second time through was much more interesting - there was much more tension as the fight over the woods happened, and with the Germans losing one of their two LMGs early, I felt pressed. Not pressed enough to stop attacking, but it made the decisions much more interesting. That being said, I think this scenario is pretty difficult for the Soviets.

As we were still enjoying CoH, we decided to attempt Firefight 2 - The Gap, using both Map 1 and Map 2. This scenario has a German scouting force scouting a village, and attempting to determine if Soviet forces are present (and eliminate them if possible). The Soviets need to hold their ground, as there are reinforcements coming (on turn 3 of 5). The Soviets start with a machine gun occupying the lone stone building in the village (in my minds-eye this was a silo), and they have a couple of other rifle squads that start out on the map. The Soviets also start with two rifle squads that begin the game hidden, one of the new rules added in section two of the rules (CoH uses the "programmed" rules method, where they teach you rules in relatively digestible chunks and then use them in a scenario or two). As the Germans, I started with four squads, each a combined LMG/Rifle squad (two units, stacked together), all located on the road on the western edge of Map 1. This time around, the Soviets were much more successful, especially as Randy made good use of his hidden units. Initially, I pressed straight forward, and if I had kept with that thought I'd likely have done much better. As it was, I split my forces (probably a big mistake), sending two squds straight forward, and two squads south in an attempt to flank the visible Soviet rifle squad in the woods. I'll refer to each combo of LMG/Rifles as a squad here, as they stayed grouped for the entire game (also likely not ideal, at least once the lead started flying). I pushed 1st squad forward through the woods, and from that position managed to drive one of the visible Soviet rifle squads behind the copse of woods they had been hiding in. This opened up the entire central clearing, and I rushed 2nd squad through, right up to the copse that the Soviets had been occupying. I didn't want to advance into it, as the close combat experience earlier in the day hadn't been good (even if this time I had a squad with the LMG to help fight back). Then, my fatal mistake, I sent 3rd squad south to probe the forest there - and in so doing, found myself face-to-face with a previously hidden Soviet rifle squad. With some good luck on Randy's part, he managed to roll just what he needed in order to eliminate both the LMG and the Rifles in 3rd squad, putting my in a tough position. Rather than using the knowledge that the squad was south, and going another direction (like, perhaps, straight forward), I sent 4th Squad south to try and eliminate the newly revealed Soviet rifles. I succeeded, but then fell victim to the other hidden Soviet squad. At this point, I knew I was in trouble, but I fought it out for another turn, but Randy managed to skillfully maneuver his rifle squads and eliminate all but 2nd squad, which had advanced into the woods in the middle of the village, within sight of the Soviet MMG in the stone silo. At this point, the Soviet reinforcements showed up, and I conceded defeat.

I definitely learned some important things in this 2nd lesson - group moves may be more efficient, but they are also riskier, as keeping units stacked together in the same hex makes them much easier to attack (spread out, if possible). Also, with forces this small, it probably makes more sense to keep somewhat together in order to have overlapping defenses, rather than splitting up and letting the opponent handle each of my units piecemeal. I'm looking forward to a rematch of this particular scenarios, and I expect to continue exploring CoH - especially into some of the firefights that include armor and other vehicles.

However, we weren't quite done for the day - there's a bonus here at the end for the hardy souls who've kept with me this far. After our three games of CoH, Randy brought out his copy of Avalon Hill's Squad Leader - one of the oldest of the old-school tactical war games. The scenario he suggested we play was one called Alpha-Zero, from a series of scenarios designed by fans long after the initial publication of the game as better teaching scenarios than the larger first scenario (The Guards Attack) of the original game. I think I'm glad that we went with a simple scenario, as while the rules are simple enough, there seemed to be quite a lot going on. After a brief overview by Randy as to how the rules to SL work, we dived right in. Alpha-Zero has a Soviet unit attempting to run across some agricultural fields with light woods, and attempting to avoid being intercepted by a German unit that starts quite a ways down the road. Both sides have challenges - the Soviets have to move cross-wise across the map, and then sideways some in order to make it to the exit hexes (winning if they exit 5 units from the map), while the Germans need to move (quickly) sideways to positions that will allow them to block the Soviet exit (winning only by eliminating enough Soviet units as to make victory impossible). Randy managed to eliminate one of the German squads very quickly, which pretty much insured the win - however we played it out until he got there, but my major mistake was running in open ground within range of one of his squads. Needless to say, cover and manuver are the keys here as well.

It was quite interesting to play an old school tactical wargame right after CoH, as while the situations were similar, the way the rules worked were quite different (30 years of development of game design will do that to you). While SL is by no means overly complex, it seemed to have a few more moving parts than CoH did. I'm going to hold off forming a solid opinion of SL, as I've only played one scenario, and haven't actually read the rules (although I'm not a fan of the AH style of rules writing from that time), but as it stands, I think CoH accomplishes much the same feel as SL, and does so in a more elegant and easier to understand fashion.

I really enjoyed getting a chance to play both of these games - the company was good, as always, and the games were also both quite enjoyable. The brash youngster, CoH, seemed to my mind to be clearer and easier to understand than the old school style of Squad Leader, but the complexity levels are probably not all that far apart. I'll know more once I've managed to read the SL rules myself.

I don't know what our next game will be - it's Randy's choice, so hopefully he'll clue us all in on his session report post. Until next time, happy gaming!