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!

The other guy's welcome

Hi there! My name is Randy Shipp, and I'm the other half of the Two Guys Gaming blog. I want to take a few minutes to introduce myself and talk about my hopes and dreams for TwoGG (yeah, I'm already pronouncing this thing TWOG). I hope that our readers, however many there end up being, will go easy on me at the beginning. I'm not an experienced, veteran blogger. My personal blog never really was able to get off the ground, so I'm counting on peer pressure in the form of Tim's great success at posting his session reports promptly to get me to stay on top of this. Your feedback will also go a long way toward keeping me on track.

I've played games in various forms since the early 1980s, including some wargames, roleplaying games, CCGs, console video games, computer games, Euro-style boardgames, and God knows what else. Perhaps as a result of all that gaming time, I'm a bit of a late bloomer, career-wise. I just graduated in December from the University of North Texas with a bachelor's degree in history and a minor in archaeology at the young age of 37. I'm currently preparing to go into an alternative teacher certification program here in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area to teach middle-school or high-school history and social studies. It's kind of nice to be doing this blog experiment with Tim, since he and I can fill some of the spaces between games with discussions of our parallel paths toward the teaching profession.

I want to thank Tim for inviting me to do this. After coming back to North Texas from Oregon, Tim talked about how he missed the Two Sides to the Coin blog that he'd done there. Since he and I often talked about playing more two-player games, it seemed a good idea to try to resurrect the concept here. There are challenges: he lives a fair distance from me (about a 35 minute drive), and his place is often the best place to play. He has a small child, after all. But so far we've had good discussions about the direction we'll take, the games we'll play, and the ground rules, and this past weekend a quickly e-mailed "Let's get this thing started!" was all it took to get us together across a table for a great afternoon of platoon-level WWII goodness, as you'll soon be able to read about.

Hopefully, you'll find something interesting in these musings on various two-player games. I suspect that much of what you'll find here will be in the area of conflict simulation, but I strongly suspect there will be forays into train games, Euro-games, abstracts, CCGs, and others. We're here to have fun and broaden our horizons, and we hope you enjoy the ride along with us. Thanks for reading.


TwoGG 1: And they're off!

Saturday, January 10, 2009 - Approximately 1:30-6:30 PM

Saturday was our inaugural meeting for TwoGG after several weeks of talking about it and being delayed by the holidays. We got the day started right by meeting for lunch. Originally, we were to to eat at a new location of a hip burger joint, Twisted Root Burger Co., but it seems that rumors of their new North Dallas location being open already were greatly exaggerated (or we just couldn't find it!). Instead, we stopped in at a busy Jersey Mike's Subs for sandwiches (I had the chipotle cheese steak) with Tim's wife, Carrie, and baby Steffan before heading back with full stomachs to Chez Isakson for games. If you know Tim and me, you know that going out to eat competes with games for our favorite social activity, so this was truly an auspicious beginning.

Then it was time to settle in for an afternoon of gaming. Tim had won the opening coin toss a few days earlier and was offered the chance to nominate the first game, and he chose the hot new Phalanx title, Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! - Russia 1941-1942. With a few days to download and read the rules, I was able to ascertain that the game would play pretty quickly, and saw an opportunity to make it a themed gaming day, so I e-mailed Tim and said, "It's going to be all platoon-level WWII, all the time!" Then I made sure I was ready to teach and play old-school Squad Leader. The stage was set!

First up was Conflict of Heroes. Physically, the game is good, if somewhat uneven. The box is the large, polished presentation we've come to expect from Phalanx Games, and the contents were also impressive. The counters are large, with big, clear numbers. The pictures on the unit counters, while nice-looking up close, weren't quite so distinctive from across the table, so I did find myself having to take a closer look several times to be sure I knew where the German machine guns were. The mapboards were thick cardboard and the printing was nice, but the raw edges of the game boards was a little unattractive and at least one of them was already dinged and delaminating a little bit. The artwork on the mapboards was bright and colorful, but some unfortunate graphical choices were made there. First, the numbering system for the hexes, important in the setup of each firefight (as CoH calls its scenarios), was odd, with the hex rows numbered rather than lettered. so, instead of a straight line of A1-A2-A3-...-A15, you had a straight line of A1-B1-C1, etc. For some reason, this threw me off. But it would have been no problem had the hex designations been a little clearer to read. On the light colored hexes, such as open ground, the numbers were clear enough, if a bit small. But on the dark colored hexes, such as the numerous, dark green, heavy woods hexes, the black numbers simply disappeared against the background, which led to some slight difficulty in setting up. Similarly, each hex is marked by a central dot that is key in tracing line of sight for fire combat. Probably motivated by the same desire not to mar the pretty map art that led to small, excessively unobtrusive hex numbers, Phalanx made these centrol dots so small and faint that we had to concentrate to trace line of sight several times. These were minor annoyances, but they did reflect a slight imbalance between the "pretty" and "functional" halves of this game's graphic personality. The cards, interestingly, did not seem to come from the same graphic designers. They were pretty plain, without rich, original art. I didn't notice it, but after the game Tim commented that he might sleeve the cards as he thought the cardstock was a little thin. So, while the large hexes, large counters, and map art are pretty and the thick, sturdy counters were a pleasure to handle, there are some usability and durability issues with the map numbering, LOS dots, and cardstock. Overall, I give the game a B for components.

The rulebook, with an odd, square layout that made the pages a teeny bit wide for convenient flipping, was breezy and attractive. I had no problem absorbing the rules for the first two firefights. Having had some experience with Squad Leader (and, to a similarly small extent, Magic Realm) in the past, I was very pleased to see that Conflict of Heroes employs a programmed instruction technique for presenting its rules. Simply put, the game gives you only as many rules in the first section as you need to play the first (and simplest) scenario. You read a small part of the rules and then go have fun shooting your buddy before coming back to learn the next little bit and playing a different scenario. For games like this that have a lot more rules than, say, Axis & Allies, this is brilliant way to ease people into the game. Games like Squad Leader are commonly thought to be rules-heavy beasts with scores of pages of rules, and they are. But they ease you into all those scores of pages of rules, and you have fun along the way. Before you know it, you know a really rather complex game and you didn't have to digest a fifty page rulebook all at once to get there. Conflict of Heroes doesn't have scores of pages of rules, but since I think it's marketed to the "light wargame" crowd, the programmed instruction method still makes a lot of sense for introducing its dozen or so pages of rules. Unfortunately, we did run into a few ambiguous cases in the game for which we quickly agreed on rulings, but I thought they should have been clearer from the rules. It's possible that too much emphasis was placed on streamlining the rules when extra verbage might have helped. All in all, however, there was no problem getting up to speed quickly with the game, since there were helpful player aids -- I wish they'd included two copies of each! -- and we'd both read the rules in advance.

If you've read this far hoping for my detailed, blow-by-blow analysis of each game, I'm afraid I'm probably going to disappoint you. I didn't take detailed notes on the progress of each scenario and since I don't own the game I don't have access to the maps and counters to jog my memory now, 24 hours later. I'll do my best.

We played through three firefights of Conflict of Heroes. The first firefight is a simple meeting engagement between Soviet and German forces near a road junction between two stands of woods. I took control of the Soviets and immediately had some apprehension when I looked over the force lists. The Soviet troops are inferior in most ways to their German counterparts -- they are less efficient shooters, and their machine guns are both more cumbersome and less deadly than the Germans --but we started with pretty much equal numbers of squads. Since the forces seemed asymmetrical and I couldn't detect any Soviet advantage in terrain or victory conditions, I was concerned that I was going to have a hard time of it. This indeed proved to be the case in the first firefight. I set up across from the dense woods that screened the German approach and essentially waited for their arrival. When they came and took up positions across from me, the shooting began in earnest. It quickly became clear that trading blows at range with the Germans was a losing proposition. I spent many CAPs (Command Action Points, a sort of common pool of action points that are used to augment each unit's inherent 7 APs) early on to take extra actions and to improve my firepower, but not leaving enough to help rally shaken troops proved fatal, and I conceded fairly early after being reduced to two units to Tim's four, and grumbled a bit about the questionable balance of the scenario.

Interested to see whether that had been a fluke, we set up Firefight 1 again and I randomly ended up with the Soviets again. Determined to do something different to try to eke out an advantage, I planned to rush the German positions, especially any unaccompanied LMGs, and defeat them in close combat if possible. I lost focus a little bit in the first turn, which is sort of a common thing for me in games. After Tim's first activation led to a lone machine gun crew holed up in the woods, I failed to charge with my submachinegun squad, who would have been particularly well-suited to close quarters battle. Instead, I had to wait until my next activation to get my plan back on track and send a Soviet rifle platoon rushing at the machine gun nest. After surviving their fire as they closed in, the rifle squad overran the machine gun and easily dispatched them. Soon, however, they found themselves shaken and surrounded by Germans. A confused attempt to flee only delayed the inevitable and probably cost the doomed squad the chance to take another unit with them in close combat. Had I played it better (and had dice rolls that were, you know, occasionally above average)I might have been able to establish myself in the woods and used close combat to level the playing field a bit. As it was, my successes were short-lived and I conceded again soon thereafter. I freely admit that I'm no expert on wargames in general or on WWII infantry tactics in particular, but I was left scratching my head as to how the Russians could hope to do well in this scenario. I'll definitely look around for others' comments on the scenario's balance.

After my two stinging defeats, Tim very nicely offered for us to do something else in case I wasn't enjoying myself -- it's possible I was allowing some bitterness over my dice luck and my inability to find a solution to the Firefight 1 puzzle to bleed through. I quickly said no, since we'd read the rules for two firefights and there was plenty of day left. So we set up for Firefight 2. Here, a group of poorly trained Russians (6 CAPs per turn) -- try to hang onto a stone building in the face of four well-trained (10 CAPs per turn) German squads with LMGs. The bulk of the Germans' VPs come from taking the stone building early, while the Russians can earn lots if they hold the building late. The trick is that they can set up some of their units hidden, and therein probably lies the Soviets' best chance. Again faced by an opponent that simply outclasses them in a straight-up shootout, the Russians need to either set up ambushes to damage the Germans and/or slow down their advance long enough to deny the Germans the big bonus VPs for early occupation of the stone house. Tim read the German victory conditions incorrectly, I believe, saying that the Germans got a VP at the end of every turn if they had a clear LOS to the stone house. I believe now that the Germans need a clear line of sight to one of the road hexes on the far side of the village. Knowing this would have made for a more interesting game, since he might have been more likely to split forces off to the Russian left, where there is a good scouting position, rather than making a strong attack down the middle and right. As it is, the Russians hid two rifle squads in the woods near the German starting position. The theory was that reducing the Germans' strength with an ambush might provide the chance the Russians needed. The Russian MMG sat, largely ineffective, in the stone house, while a lone rifle squad on the right got shot up at range by the German LMGs. Two German squads, believing they were making good time moving through a clearing behind cover of the woods, moved toward the left and I sprang the trap. Two hidden Soviet rifle squads leapt out from their cover, attacking the unsuspecting Germans and then sweeping around their flank to spray them with fire from behind, ultimately wiping out several German units with a few "barely good enough" die rolls. Things were looking up! The Germans made headway on the right and neared the objective, a rifle squad and LMG crew taking up a very dangerous position across the street from the MMG in the stone house. Again, though my die rolls had been miserable much of the afternoon, I got an 8 or 9 while firing on that stack with the MMG, and managed to get a KIA on the rifle squad just as Russian reinforcements arrived from the rear. With the LMG on the verge of becoming surrounded and a reinforcing German pioneer unit still a turn away, Tim conceded.

So, what did I think? Well, though some think it heresy to say it, I enjoyed Conflict of Heroes a heck of a lot more than I enjoyed Combat Commander: Europe. The medium-weight gameplay was snappy and the constant interaction and management of CAPs was tense and fun. There were fewer "What the hell?" random events than I experienced playing CC:E (though the first turn flipping of my MMG with a "Mark as Used" card could have used a little more retrospect, I think the ammo loader must have been out behind the stone house, relieving himself of some cheap vodka from the night before). Luck played a large part in the game. The fairly high defense values (say 14 or so for a squad in dense woods) combined with low firepower (3 for the fearsome Russian Maxim MMG...hah!), leads to rolls that are VERY tough to hit. Even +1 for a second unit in the fire group or +1 or +2 doesn't help as much as a lucky roll. Still, playing with rules that penalize moving in the open, for instance, helped make results reflect the tactics used. Overall, I thought the luck was considerable, but not to the point of totally overshadowing skill. Also, there were a couple of things that left me scratching my head. I'm no expert, but it surprised me that the Russian SMG troops had a longer effective range than either German or Russian rifle squads, and I wasn't sure that the Russian MMG, no matter how bad it might have been, could have been as toothless as in this game. I've sort of gotten the impression that machine guns really helped shape the battlefield, so to speak, making areas in their line of fire a type of difficult terrain to be avoided, but with only 3 firepower and the ability to only fire twice in an activation (3 APs to fire), I wasn't sure I'd let them bother me too much as the Germans. And as I mentioned, I'll be checking to see what others think of the scenario balance. But these were minor complaints. Ultimately I don't know that Conflict of Heroes breaks a bunch of new ground. It's not so much more elegant than something like Squad Leader or Lock 'N Load: Band of Heroes, so I certainly wouldn't feel the need to switch to this if you're already comfortable with one of those kinds of systems. But if you're new to platoon-level WWII infantry combat, or just want a change, I don't think you'd go wrong giving Conflict of Heroes a try. I rated it a 7 on BoardGameGeek and would be happy to play it again. That said, I did want us compare this newest of games on the subject with one of the oldest...

With about an hour and a half remaining until I had to leave for a hockey practice, and despite Tim's worry that we might not have time to finish, I laid Squad Leader on the table and went into a lightning teaching session. Having just finished playing several hours of Conflict of Heroes, all the concepts were fresh in our minds, so this wasn't really very hard. I estimate that it wasn't more than twenty minutes of rules before we began playing. The scenario in play was part of Alan Yngwe's Tactical Training Series (TTS). Basically, while Squad Leader originally presented its rules in "programmed instruction" fashion, much like Conflict of Heroes, and did an OK job of teaching the game's rules to the player in a manageable fashion, Yngwe felt the early scenarios did a lousy job of actually teaching the player how to manage a company of infantry and vehicles in common combat situation. The scenarios of the TTS therefore start out in the countryside instead of in urban fighting situations, where normal rules of maneuver, fire, mass, etc. might be modified.

Tim and I were playing TTS Alpha Zero: Forced March. In this scenario, eleven Russian rifle squads, led by a mediocre leader -- get used to that as the Russian! -- have orders to cross the map to rejoin their comrades somewhere beyond. They have five turns simply to exit five squads off the map within a certain range of hexes. To win, the Germans need only prevent the Russian fulfilling his orders, and he has five rifle squads and two leaders. We only needed to cover the sequence of play, fire combat, movement, and morale to get going.

Unlike Conflict of Heroes, Squad Leader has separate counters to represent leaders, and they can be pretty important to the healthy functioning of the company. Most important in this scenario, at least for the Russians, is the fact that infantry squads have a movement allowance of 4 movement points, but gain 2 movement points if they spend the entire activation stacked with a leader. This is a race to the exit area, so those extra two movement points are a big deal. Additionally, units that break under fire can only rally in the presence of a leader, so if your troops get into trouble, they'll never recover without a friendly leader nearby. Finally, good leaders, like the ones the Germans get in TTS Alpha Zero, can positively impact their troops' fire attempts, rally attempts, etc. As the Russians (we'd decided to just continue with the trend), I opted for the quickest route to the exit area, and my lone leader was going to help the first stack get there on the double.

On Turn 1, I sent one fire group of three squads into the woods in the H through J hexrows to sort of give the Germans something to think about other than just blowing my escaping troops to pieces. This was not a sure-fire plan. With only 8 of my 11 squads actually putting themselves in a position to escape, it wouldn't take many losses to make the mission unachievable. The other Russians, including the maneuver group led by my leader, made a beeline down behind the cover of those woods, hoping to swing into the exit area from the east while the fire group in the central woods harassed the approaching Germans. The Germans, meanwhile, hot-footed it down the road, ending their movement in Q2, R2, and T2 (the leaderless pair of rifle squads lagging behind). During the Advancing Fire Phase, the phasing player has the option to fire with any troops who did not fire prior to movement in the Prep Fire Phase. Those units who moved during the Movement Phase have their firepower halved for the attack. Tim saw that his senior leader, the 9-2 leader behind the hedge at Q2, had a line of sight to the woods at F4 where the Russian leader crouched, ready to dash across the road towards the exit area. The combined 8 firepower of his two squads was halved to 4 for moving fire and halved again for long range fire, for only 2 firepower. But the leaders -2 modifier to the die roll offset the terrain bonus of the woods and then some. Tim rolled well and forced a morale check on the stack. The Russian leader made his check, but was no help for two of his three squads, who dug down into available cover, broken and unwilling to advance further. The Germans then advanced near the end of the turn into the wooden house at P1, open ground at Q3, and the shellholes at S3. (Units move up to their movement allowance during the Movement Phase, then all unbroken units may advance one hex during the Advance Phase.)

The Rally Phase is the first phase of each turn, and is one of the three phases of the turn that both phasing and non-phasing player participate in. At the beginning of Turn 2, the Russian leader succeeded in rallying one of his broken squads, though I realize now that that should have been a far harder task than the way we played it: units that have been fired on since the last Rally Phase are supposed to receive a Desperation Morale marker, lowering their morale by 4. This obviously makes sustained suppressing fire on a broken unit pretty worthwhile. Sorry I screwed that up in my haste. Anyway, the Soviet leader stayed in the woods with his one broken squad while his other troops safely scurried across the road, out of sight of German opportunity fire. This, I think was the critical moment in the game. Had Tim moved and advanced during the first turn into Q4 and R3, he would have had three squads who could have at least attempted to shoot Russians as they moved across the road. A target moving in the open brings a hefty -2 to the die roll, and one of the stacks would have had a -1 leader with them, so this would have forced me to either accept the risk of moving through the German field of fire or move more slowly to the east, out of range of the Germans. Either way, it would have complicated the Russians' mission. Instead, the Russian maneuver happened almost completely screened from German view. The Russian fire team established itself in the woods at J4, ready to try to blunt the coming German attack.

The Germans' Turn 2 saw the superior leader advance through the woods, arriving at the exit area at about the same time as the lead elements of the Russians. In another critical moment, the German junior officer led his two rifle squads in a mad dash across open ground in view of the Russians at J4. Though their firepower was halved for the long-range fire, they rolled well. Combined with the penalty for moving in the open, the NCO and his men were devastated and scattered, a KIA result. It would now be up to the 9-2 officer and three squads to attempt to hold the line against a mostly healthy Russian force. The next turn saw one Russian stack survive an attack and advance off the board, while the final two squads were poised to do the same. The German fire base, now three squads strong, an impressive 12 firepower with a great leader, had one shot to slow them down before they'd dash off the board for the win...but the dice were not with Tim, and the game was mine!

So, what to say about Squad Leader? Well, for one thing, I think the game works pretty well, at least at this early stage in the rules. The turn sequence is logical with just one weird spot worth mentioning. You'll have deduced from my description that the game has a series of phases that you go through on a player turn. So the Russian player does all of his turn, and then the German takes his turn, and then it becomes Turn 2, and so on. This "I go, you go" structure is considered by a lot of people to be antique, I think. This game attempts to inject a bit of interactivity and simultaneity by having a Defensive Fire Phase, during which the non-phasing player's unit can fire on any unit that was in their line of sight at any time during the preceding Movement Phase. That sounds simple in theory, but in practice it's handled in a slightly weird way. In order to prevent gamey tactics that might occur if opportunity file happened as an "interrupt" (moving a less valuable unit through a hex first to draw fire, then blithely skipping through afterward with other, more valuable units), Squad Leader has all movement take place, with the non-phasing player able to mark any hex that was moved through with a crosshair marker. Once all movement is finished, each unit or group that Defensive Fires can "rewind" things and call all units that passed through the target hex back to face the music. If they break, they'll stay in that hex, otherwise they continue on to their destination(s). A little weird, but it seems to work well enough in practice. It might become cumbersome when many units moved and it becomes unclear who moved along which path. Other than that, the turn sequence is logical and quick to run through. The basic mechanics of the game are solid, and at a "guys and guns" level, there are very few overly fiddly or complex elements. I can well imagine that using all the rules for a combined arms city fight at night in the snow, etc., etc. could be lots more complex, but if the rules are learned over time in these bite-sized chunks, and if the scenarios along the way are fun, I don't really see that being an unattainable goal for me.

Regarding the TTS Alpha Zero scenario, I'll admit that it's a little stripped-down. With such simple forces, lack of support weapons or other chrome, and the simplicity of the mission and victory conditions, the scenario might seem a little bland. But I know from reading others' session reports and playing through the scenario solo several times that there are a number of quite different Russian approaches to fulfilling their victory conditions, and I believe the Germans would have to respond differently and correctly to each one, so I think the tactical problems are richer than you might think. And I know the scenario is pretty balanced. According to Advance Phase, the Squad Leader site that hosts the TTS scenarios, over the course of 204 reported playings of TTS Alpha Zero, 53.4% were won by the Germans. TTS Alpha One, the next stage in the programmed instruction, gives the Germans machineguns and the Russians an extra leader and six more squads. There, 146 reported plays resulted in a 51.4% Russian success rate.

For whatever reason, Squad Leader feels good to me. It has a few rough edges and old-fashioned notes, but newer games in the same space largely seem to solve problems with Squad Leader that weren't bothering me in the first place. I've rated Squad Leader an 8 on BoardGameGeek. As Tim and I reflected after the game, though, Squad Leader and Conflict of Heroes had slightly different flavors, and there's really no reason why each game couldn't hit the table in the (possibly near) future.

On that note: one of the things I think Tim and I hope to do is play stuff that's new to us, identify which of it is good, and actually play it again to see how it holds up. I'm very hopeful that we can learn and play the rest of the scenarios of both Conflict of Heroes and Squad Leader. Tactical World War II games grab me from a theme point of view, so I'm hopeful we'll get to spend more time fighting it out in these kinds of games. (Don't be surprised to see a certain iconic WWII card game show up here, either, kids.)

So, there you go! Our first session. Great success! There was bitterness over dice, bitterness over our crappy tactical leadership, sub sandwiches, and now, our inaugural blog entry. I feel like this went really long, and my editing has been minimal, so I'll definitely want feedback on what you think of my first effort. I will definitely be accepting constructive criticism gladly.

I am told that the baton has been passed to me and that I am to nominate the game for next time, as well as take the lead on scheduling our next meeting. Since my wife's birthday and a common friend's birthday fall on the next several weekends, I'm going to nominate Saturday, February 7 as the next meeting of TwoGG. That's the easy part. Choosing the game is much harder. On the one hand, I've been learning the rules for GMT's Musket & Pike Battle System (This Accursed Civil War in particular) and doing some solo VASSAL work with it. If I can find someone who owns a paper copy in the Dallas area and will lend it to me, that's very tempting. On the other hand, as I mentioned above, there's also a real desire to stick with games for a while and see how they mature with us. If I choose that approach (or if I can't score a copy of This Accursed Civil War, Sweden Fights On, Under the Lily Banners, or Gustav Adolf the Great: With God and Victorious Arms), you would probably see us try to play more Conflict of Heroes, Squad Leader, and perhaps that Up Front that I hinted at earlier, just to stick with the theme. Since it's going to be a little while before that session, I'm going to throw this open to comments. Which of these things are you more interested in reading about?

Thanks for reading and get those comments in!


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Intro and Welcome

I’ll introduce myself first – I’m Tim, and this is a blogging project inspired by a blog I used to write while I was living in Portland, Oregon called Two Sides to the Coin. One of my gaming cohorts Eric and I started that blog (mainly at Eric’s initiative) in part to give ourselves the impetus to play more two-player games – by logging our sessions, we did find that we made more of an effort to ensure the sessions occurred. It’s still being maintained, by the way – although, since I moved back to Texas, Mike has occupied the seat opposite Eric. I had a lot of fun with Two Sides to the Coin – mainly thanks to the pleasure of gaming with Eric and being exposed to a few games I might not have otherwise played – and thought it would be fun to get back to it now that I’ve moved (back) to Dallas, Texas. That called for a new outlet ...

That brings me to this blog – Two Guys Gaming – which we’re kicking off this weekend (posts on our games forthcoming shortly). Myself, and Randy, plan to use this as a place to write about our gaming sessions – primarily two-player games, although we're not limiting ourselves entirely. Our focus is reporting on our sessions of games we play together. This means we won’t be writing, at least most of the time, about games we play with our regular gaming group (although we may occasionally).

The structure is pretty loose at this point – we’re going schedule a gaming session every couple of weeks, likely on the weekend. So far, Saturday’s have worked well, although as I have a young child, scheduling will need to be kept pretty flexible. We’re going to alternate choosing the games we play (I got the first choice, although as you’ll see in the first session report, Randy managed to get some influence in as well). We’re mainly going to focus on shorter games – those that can be played in 3 hours or less are our primary candidates, although with our flexible schedule there may (likely will) be an opportunity for some longer games.

This blog will be the home of our session reports. We're setting the following ground rules:

1. Primarily session reports will be posted. Posts could contain other information such as reviews, comparisons, and whatnot, but the primary focus of every post is a session report.
2. We will both be writing about every session, and we will not be reading the other's entry before posting.
3. Our intent is to have posts up two days following the session being recorded.
4. At least the next upcoming game will be listed so you can plan ahead.
5. If we don't game that week, a post will appear stating such.
6. If we manage to both play in the same game elsewhere, we may post about that within a couple of days of playing.

Our first posts will be up shortly, as we had the inaugural session earlier today.

Welcome – we both hope you enjoy the blog, and we welcome polite commentary! Happy gaming!

Tim Isakson and Randy Shipp