Sunday, January 11, 2009

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!



  1. Great write up Randy. Looking forward to more.

  2. Good write-up - sounds like we were pretty much on the same page. Although I still think you're wrong about Combat Commander (although it does have wacky events).

    As to what to play next - I'd be fine with continuing on with WWII Platoon level stuff, more CoH and Squad Leader. My other thought would be Unhappy King Charles!.

    7th-Feb should be do-able - I'll confirm as we get closer.

    Yee-hah - we got started, now we just not to keep going!

  3. Fair enough. I'll try CC:E again someday, though I'm not picking it for our next game day! I'll let you know soon what I decide to do.

  4. I think the events in Combat Commander make a lot more sense if you picture your game as part of a larger whole as opposed to an isolated occurrence.

    So, those sniper attacks that keep showing up in a quiet part of the map might actually be overshooting from a neighboring sector.

    Just a thought.

  5. Fair enough, and that's a comment I hear pretty often in response to criticism of CC:E's events. Still, I don't really want to have to spend too much energy coming up with some tortured, convoluted explanation for why some seemingly outlandish thing just happened. I want the game to provide that flavor and story for me, or at least help me. The fact that the commonest responses to these criticisms all leave me cold probably is just confirmation that, bad game or not, CC's just not going to scratch the itch for me. Thankfully, I'm finding old Squad Leader to be very satisfying, and I'm very hopeful about CoH, as well. So we'll all have games we love!

    Thanks for coming by and commenting! I just turned "backlinks" on in our Blogger settings so I can see when other blogs link to us...I don't know if you might find it interesting to see that as well by enabling it on TSotC.