Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wow, that's a lot of fighting! (Rommel in the Desert, Wilderness War, AirWar: Pacific!, Duel of Ages)

As it happens, both Kozure and myself had a week off at the same time, so we decided to get together for a day of wargames!

Rommel in the Desert

I played the allies, and Kozure played the Axis. We tried the "Crusader" scenario, as the playing time is 1-2 hours. Neither one of us had played a full game before, so we knew extra time would be needed.

Rommel in the Desert is a Columbia Games block game about the war in North Africa during WW2. The system stresses the importance of supply and the psychological effect of imperfect information. The rulebook seemed intimidating at first (21 pages + scenarios), but in practice the game flows very smoothly once the system is understood. Besides, many of those pages could have been eliminated if some of the repetition was eliminated!

The starting conditions for this scenario are quite wide open. Each player has more than 20 units and have very few limitations on initial setup (Axis start anywhere in Lybia and Allies start anywhere in Egypt + up to 5 units in Tobruk). As inexperienced players, the flexibility was a bit intimidating (and very different from the wholely prescribed starting conditions of Wilderness War... the only other war game I've played). Predictably, we both setup a wall of units facing each other at the border, with a few behind the wall as fallback. As the allies, the burden of action rests on me... the winning conditions of outnumbering the ennemy or holding Tobruk unbeseiged both favour the axis.

It became quickly apparent that the Allies are absolutely outclassed. The elite german tanks, infantry and artillery were blowing holes into every offensive I launched! The entire Libyian border was under fire, but I was gaining no ground. I switched my attention to Tobruk. It was well beseiged at the beginning, but forces were draining away to help reinforce the front line. With no units further west than Acroma, Kozure had left me an opportunity to disrupt his entire supply line (more on this later). I initiated a number of battles in the areas surrounding Tobruk, faring reasonably well against the weaker units which were left there. Meanwhile, I was trying to get my forces to surround the Axis by working south through the Jarabub Oasis and then back up to Bir Hacheim. With a much smaller are to work in, the Axis were continuously able to send just the right units to key battles and I was taking casualties like they were going out of style. As the months advanced, I had absolutely NO WAY of achieving any of the winning conditions under normal circumstances. I renewed my efforts to break out of Tobruk (besides, my advance from the south and longstanding battles south and east of Ft. Maddalena seemed to be working as distractions. That and Kozure was sending most of his forces to Bardia for reasons I didn't understand)

Supply was the downfall of the axis. Whereas I had been accumulating a large number of "real" cards for a final blowout at the end, Kozure's hand was depleted. I spent my final 5 cards doing battle in Acroma and on the final roll I broke through. With Gazala controlled by the Allies, supply was cut to the Axis and the whole army was eliminated at the end of the month.

...that's when I saw the puzzled look on Kozure's face.

It turns out my ploy wasn't clever at all. Kozure wasn't "distracted" or falling for my ploy, he simply hadn't understood the ramifications of the loss of supply to his entire force. Ah well, that's the kind of thing that can happen in a learning game!

I have to say that I had a really great time. The tension created by the block system, the supply cards and the unforgiving nature of the system is real. The system is quite elegant for a wargame, and a big plus for me is that setup and take down is very rapid. I am curious to see if the scenario is as heavily stacked against the allies as it seems (if the winning conditions had been better understood, this session would have resulted in a crushing defeat for me).

Wilderness War

Next up was our third game of Wilderness War. In our earlier games, the French won each time at the end of the first year with 11 victory points. Kozure was set on playing the English again and regaining his honour with a win.

From the very first rounds, it was obvious things wouldn't be easy for the French. Kozure was blocking all the holes I had exploited in earlier sessions. Dumas and the Indians had to be content to gaze upon the English stockades from their newly built fortification in the mountains as Loudoun sat and waited in Woodstock. I made aggressive moves down the Hudson with Montcalm, Villier, Levy, etc. Rigaud took a band of Indians and one drilled unit to the South Green Mountains, in order to threaten the stockades in Charlestown and Hoosic (and, ultimately, the Fortress in Boston). Unfortunately, the british were receiving forces quickly, but a "Reluctant British Assembly" helped me immensely when I needed it. Kozure maintained just enough pesence in all key areas to keep me from advancing, though.

Blocked at every path, I made a risky attack on Hudson Carry South. The British holed up in their fort and waited for reinforcements. Their attack failed, and the beseiged fort was quickly assaulted. Bolstered by the unlikely victory, I made a second risky move... I combined the remaining forces in Hudson Carry South with those in Ticonderoga and attacked the fort in Hudson Carry North. The odds were much better this time (excellent, even), but in the unlikely event that the attack failed my entire contingent of drilled troops would be eliminated as they had nowhere to retreat to (the fortress in Hudson Carry South was "under construction" since I had just won it).

Wouldn't you know it. The attack failed. With only auxilleries left on the table, I conceeded the game and the British won.
(for reference, the odds were 1 in 36 that I would fail. I needed to roll a 1, and he needed to roll a 6. That's what happened.)
Yet another game which doesn't make it past 1757!

I can't really blame luck, though. A more careful commander would not have put his entire force at risk like that. I guess that's why I command armies in wargames, rather than in real life! In my defense, it's my opinion at this early stage that the french can only win in the first year. If the game goes into 1758, the French are just going to struggle to survive, hoping to acheive the default French win at the end of 1759. Maybe next time I'll play conservative and see if I can make that work. It would be interesting just to see what happens when more than 36 cards get played! It was interesting that the Indians had virtually no involvement in this game, having dominated much of the action in the earlier sessions.

I had a great time playing again and hope to play again soon.

AirWar: Pacific!

Next up was a quick game of Air War!, a card game about air combat between the Americans and the Japanese in World War 2. This feels very similar to Magic the Gathering in the way that resources are placed on the table and exhausted to support the units you want to activate (it is NOT a CCG, though). Players each play "Airbases" and occasionaly "Carriers" in order to increase their capacities to send waves of fighters and bombers against their opponent. I enjoyed the general "feel" of the game as it moved quickly and cleanly, and the mechanics worked well to emulate the subject matter (the waves of planes, the counter attacks, etc). the "instant" type cards are kept to a minimum, lowering the chaos inherent in much of these systems (that's not necessarily good or bad. Either way can work, but in this case I think the choice was a good one). There were 2 things that bothered me, though: 1) there is no attempt at balancing the cards. Some planes are simply better than others (i.e. the better planes don't cost more to activate, etc, as would happen in a game like Magic). This means that luck of the draw has a bigger impact on the game than it normally would. 2) There is something lacking in the mechanics for attacking air bases and carriers. First, in our game it seemed futile to destroy one since another was inevitably drawn shortly thereafter, and second because the planes there are simply returned to the player's hand! You would assume that some, or all, of them would be destroyed in the process. Either way, I think some attention should be paid in that area to improve the incentive to try that avenue of play. In our session, Kozure had the upper hand for the entire game and won handily. A reasonably fun game, but not great either.

Duel of Ages

We setup a random board of three platters and the 4 basic labyrinths and drew 7 characters each. The result was a landscape dominated by mesas and some rough, with the Future and Ancient labyrinths on one end of the board and the Modern and Colonial ones at the other. The characters were:

Arkin Ironshanks
Mandibled Plasmoid
Bog Haunt
Sir Gawain

Jerry Gillis
Mick the Lion
Joshua Jordan
Hamid Al-Duri
Minx and Jinx

Things started out normally enough, with various characters making a run for the labyrinths to gather equipment. However, Jerry Gillis, who starts the game with 8 pieces of equipment (!) was suddenly assaulted by Zygoid and the Mandabled Plasmoid. Jerry was killed, but before any equipment could be gathered the Shifter and Beowulf entered the fray. Beowulf was eventually killed as well, but anyone who is familiar with the Shifter and the Mandabled Plasmoid can guess how their battle went.... it lasted the entire game! Meanwhile, Kozure and I each achieved a lead in 2 labyrinths. Three-U used his ability to force other characters to drop their equipment and be banished to good effect. He sat and protected the entrance to the labyrinths I had a lead in, teleporting no less than 3 characters in the process. As our 1 hour and 45 minute game came to a close, the Mandabled Plasmoid had reduced the (now enormously powerful) shifter to 1 health but was on the verge of death himself. He escaped the battle to hide behind Spartacus. In order to tie the game, Kozure HAD to kill one of my characters so he pursued the plasmoid and faced it and spartacus for one last round. The shifter did kill the plasmoid, but Spartacus used his Spear of Implosion (or something) to kill the shifter in the same round. I still had the lead in characters and won the game 3-2. I still very much enjoy this game, especially when the mix of characters leads to a game which involvs more than just running to the labyrinths over and over. I only wish the rest of our group liked it more!

A fabuous day of gaming. Thanks Kozure!


  1. Anonymous8:22 AM

    You didn't tell him that supply means the world in this game, did you? "Oh, ignore the last third of the rules, let's just slug it out. "

    About being outclassed, what I've found is that the Germans are way too good to go head to head against, as all they need is a supply card or two to smash a large hole in your lines and then pocket a pile of your attackers. I'm no RitD expert, but given that the Germans are always starved for supply cards, they simply must do this. You made it easy for them, but it sounds like you opponent was just responding to your attacks and not taking the initiative. Against an experienced player, like perhaps Chris Farrell, I'm guessing the Panzers would have pounced on you at a most inconvenient time.

    Anyway, I'm blathering on just because this sounds a heck of a lot like my first game. The problem was, my opponent DID understand the supply rules, bounced back my first attack, and used weak recon units to choke my overextended army to death.

  2. heh heh,

    I did tell him about the victory conditions and the effects (and importance) of supply, but in any new game some things are absorbed and others are not...

    I think that deep down he DID know, even in the end, but he hadn't made the full connection between cause and effect (i.e., he may have realized his supply was in danger of being cut, but did not think it mattered much since the game was ending... who cares if his units were disrupted? We hadn't seen any disrupted units get eliminated in earlier months, so that aspect was probably the missing link)

  3. Anonymous8:23 AM

    agent easy wrote:
    As the allies, the burden of action rests on me... the winning conditions of outnumbering the ennemy or holding Tobruk unbeseiged both favour the axis.

    Actually the burden rests on the Axis player. Here an earlier post of mine:
    agent easy wrote:
    Let's break it down:

    Operation Crusader

    Condition 1: Strategic Victory by controlling enemy base or exiting enemy border. Doesn't seem possible in most games unless playing with newbies (no honor in that).

    Condition 2: Decisive Victory by having twice as many unit as the enemy. Possible, but not probable.
    Condition 3: Positional Victory by Holding Tobruk. Void if contact with enemy, as you pointed out.

    Condition 4: Attrition Victory by having more units than the enemy.

    Okay, Axis player starts out with 28.5 units; Brits, 28. However, Brits get reinforcement of four units on month 10, and the Axis player has no reinforcement. Brits fullfill Condition 4 by default. Your British player may have won without knowing it, or have been pressed into costly attacks under false impression. For the Germans, conquering Tobruk is almost impossible and gaining a positive kill count of 4 unit is no better. The Brits are the winner by default and the pressure of attacking is on the Germans.

    I suggest changing the rules to:
    Condition 3: Positional Victory by Holding Tobruk. Void if Tobruk does not have land supply. (I.e., the Brits must relieve Tobruk).
    Condition 4: Attrition Victory. Remove.

    See, the Brits were in a bad mood by '41 on not being able to cleanse the desert of Germans. They launched 2 unsuccessful operations and the theater commander Wavell was sacked for the failure of Battleaxe. Winston Churchill did not care that they were enjoying the strategic upper hand, he wanted Rommel purged or, in the least, Tobruk relieved. Crusader was an overkill. Reinforcement meant for Singapore was redirected to Egypt via Cape Good Hope, Winston wanted no more surprises, indirectly causing the fall of that island fortress in early '42. The operation itself was a success, driving Rommel all the way to Aghela.

  4. Very interesting!

    See, neither one of us had noticed that the allies received reinforcements, so that changes the equation to some extent. Still, I'm not sure things have changed considerably.

    Your post was a copy/paste from some other discussion, therefore I can't fully understand the context without finding the other thread. Let me restate the winning conditions for discussion:

    Condition 1: Strategic Victory by controlling enemy base or exiting enemy border. *Agreed that under normal conditions this shouldn't happen.

    Condition 2: Decisive Victory by having twice as many unit as the enemy. *I haven't played enough to know for sure, but this only seems possible for the axis (not likely, but possible)

    Condition 3: Positional Victory by Holding Tobruk. *In this particular scenario, it seems extremely unlikely for both sides. With a free minefield, Tobruk is extremely easy to defend, and the axis can likewise easily spare enough forces to keep Tobruk beseiged on at least a few hexes until the end.

    Condition 4: Attrition Victory by having more units than the enemy. *So it comes down to this. The starting units are tied (virtually). The allies have better supply and reinforcements on the way. The axis have superior forces. Again, I haven't played enough to know, but since the axis doesn't exactly start STARVED for supply, it would seem like things are easier for the them (the allies would have to spend the entire game running from battle in order to maintain their slim numerical advantage, and we both know that the system is not kind to withdrawals from combat...).

    So, in my (inexperienced) view of the scenario, it seems like the majority of the objectives are either unachievable by either side, or that they still favour the axis in the long run. I guess the statement "the burden of action rests on the allies" is inaccurate given the reinforcements which come later on, but it's the allies that need to come up with a fancy plan to win, whereas the germans just needed to start pummelling.

    I find your alternative win conditions interesting. I do wish that the winning conditions had been more scenario specific... Releiving Tobruk seems like a very appropriate goal given the start position. By contrast, holding Tobruk unbeseiged seems like the kind of thing that would have been more important at one point of the war than another, so making it a scenario INDEPENDENT winning condition feels odd to me (I could be wrong, I don't know the history). Since you are proposing this as an Allied only win condition, is there an equivalent for the axis? (I don't really see the need for one, but I'm curious). I think I might slot that in as Condition 3.5 (not as good as holding it unbeseiged, but better than the numerical advantage).

    Thanks for your input!

  5. OK, a few clarifications: I did understand the danger of being out of supply. I did not expect Tobruk to be able to be reinforced and break out as effectively or as quickly as Easy managed.

    I was also out of position in a few instances, concentrating most of my forces on the defence.

    I did, in fact make a few counter-attacks, not merely responding to Allied attacks, but between bottling up Tobruk and blunting the eastern offensive, I didn't feel I had the forces for an effective massing of forces to put him in jeopardy. Easy's strategy of a wide-front offensive prevented him from massing enough forces to break through, but also prevented me flanking his forces and cutting him off from supply.

    Also, Easy's sudden break out from Tobruk (which, in my opinion, would have been cleaned up in a turn or two) caused the immediate cut-off of supply along the road, which would've resulted in some disruption, but as it was the end of a season (or whatever the terminology was) all the disrupted units were eliminated. Before this strangely sudden destruction of forces (which felt somewhat arbitrary, even knowing how important supply is to modern armies), I was inflicting casualties on Allied forces at a much higher rate - definitely enough to win by attrition. I think I had eliminated something like 8 or more units before game end versus my loss of 1 or 2 - well on the road to attrition-based victory. Only the ignomous removal of a dozen or more units due to supply elimination caused a higher unit loss for me.

    My other handicap was that, knowing a bit about the battle already, I had played a game of the same battle in the computer game "The Operational Art of War" a few months ago and had found the supply rules to be much less restrictive (in that game) so I did not expect such a sudden decimation of my forces because a highway was cut for such a short period.

    It's a bit of sour grapes on my part; I didn't really feel that Easy's victory "felt right" - hence my puzzled look - but he did manage to do it according to the rules. I just found myself thinking - OK, a few beat-up infantry units stagger out of Tobruk and sit on some roads for the last round of a turn (I think he managed to do it with the last two cards in his hand) and suddenly the entire Afrika Korps collapses. It felt gamey, I guess, which is what elicited my response.

    So - lessons learned: Don't screw up with the forces you use to protect Torbuk. Keep that highway well out of danger. Counter-attack where feasible. AND know the supply rules inside out - especially if you are the Germans.

  6. Kozure,

    Apparently, I missinterpreted your reaction. I absolutely agree that the way I won felt "Gamey"... Had my breakout happened a few turns earlier you would have suffered a minor inconvenience instead of loosing the game. Oh, and by the way, my forces broke out with the last die roll of the 2nd last card (I needed the last card to move the forces into position to disrupt supply). It couldn`t have been closer!

    I didn`t mean to imply that you weren`t defending your post at Tobruk. In fact, you seemed to have the ability to defend yourself adequately on both fronts I was attacking AND send troops to Bardia! Clearly, your experience with wargames was serving you well.

    I am curious why disrupted units are eliminated at the end of a month. Particularly the disruption has just occurred, it doesn`t feel right. That, and some scenario specific win conditions, would be interesting to examine.

    Stil, I did like the game quite a bit. Hopefully we can try again soon.