Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Gaming milestones: Waddington's Campaign

Back, back in the mists of time, one of the first board games I started playing, and possibly what could be blamed for my fascination with board games of a more esoteric nature today, was Waddington's Campaign. My father is to be blamed for buying it, but he and I then indulged in many long hours of playing it when we were living in the Middle East. This was before my brothers were really old enough to be roped into serious board gaming.

Campaign was a highly abstracted simulation of the Napoleonic Wars. The board was split into six grids, each representing a different realm - France, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Spain and Italy. The countries were arranged in a 2 x 3 grid. One of these - Prussia - was only playable in the three player game, and occupied one of the middle spaces. Italy - the other middle country opposite Prussia - was always a non-player country, to be stampeded over by the others, not far from historical reality during that period!

Movement was determined by dice, but the pieces looked very like chess men. You had a general, cavalry and infantry units. The general acted like a chess queen, being able to move in straight and diagonal lines, while infantry were limited to diagonal moves. The key was to be able to eliminate enemy units by bringing enough force to bear on their square. New units could be added to the army by capturing cities.

To win the game, you had to capture the enemy capital. I used to while away hours of my school holidays directing both sides of what then seemed like monster campaigns. In reality, it was a simple and fairly abstract strategy game that a nine year old brain could get involved in quite quickly. But it took me from playing chess to playing something a little more complex, and set me on the road towards even more sophisticated fare.

It is sadly out of print now, although I doubt it could hold its own now against newer strategy games of this kind of a similar complexity level. For example, as a teen I played a lot of Stratego, which, in the final analysis, I'd consider superior to Campaign.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Book of the month: Matterhorn

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, is a hefty work of fiction depicting a short period in the life of a fictional US Marine company in Vietnam. Marlantes himself is a decorated Marine combat veteran who served in Vietnam as an officer and won the Navy Cross and the Bronze Star as well as two Purple Hearts.

Matterhorn is a big, sprawling, rain and blood-soaked epic that looks deep inside the heads of members of a US Marine company, as well as some more senior officers at battalion and division level, as they seek to engage and interdict North Vietnamese forces in the I Corps area of operations in South Vietnam. The unit is tasked with establishing Matterhorn, the latest in a chain of fire support bases intended to provide artillery for Marine operations against NVA infiltrating across the border from Laos. The date is unspecific, but could be 1969, which is when Marlantes himself was in-country.

The company depicted is an entirely fictional one, but the book obviously draws heavily on Marlantes' own experiences in the mountainous jungle terrain of this border area. Most of the action takes place during the monsoon season, and as the Marines are operating at altitude, low cloud and heavy rain play havoc with their efforts to make use of air support the air resupply/medevacs, leading to situations of extreme privation.

I won't spoil the plot, but typical scenes include an attempt to keep a Marine inflicted with cerebral malaria alive by immersing him a fast-flowing jungle stream. It is a highly emotional depiction, and because of Marlantes' own experience, the reader always wonders which elements of the book are really just thinly-disguised fact.

In another case, a Marine officer whose unit has gone without food or sleep for four days while marching through dense jungle terrain raves at the perfidious English after he discovers British Red Cross supplies in an NVA ammo cache. Another Marine sends off for a samurai sword via mail order to better equip himself for close quarters fighting with the Vietnamese in the jungle. It's awesome stuff.

Marlantes does a great job of bringing the monsoon weather and the soaring terrain to life, as well as amply illustrating the difficulties encountered by the average grunt on the ground, many of them more to do with the environment or racial tensions than anything the NVA can throw at them. On top of this, the officers themselves are constantly engaged in the political double dealing at battalion level, as ambitious career officers hunt for their general's stars, even at the cost of the lives of the men on the ground (shades here of the 1914-18 war).

Although a work of fiction, this one earns its place on my Vietnam book shelf next to the likes of Robert Mason's Chickenhawk and Hal Moore's We Were Soldiers Once. Epic stuff.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Trust of Arnor - Fellowship of the Ring

"But this was a task far beyond the power of the Dunedain; and maybe it would still have proved so even if their captain, Aragorn, had been with them.  But he was away to the north, upon the East Road, near Bree; and the hearts even of the Dunedain misgave them."
The Hunt for the Ring - Unfinished Tales

This is the second scenario in the Fellowship of the Ring Journey Book from Games Workshop, and again it involves the Nazgul and the Dunedain. In this case, the Dunedain set up with some of the rangers already on the board, defending the Shire against the Ringwraiths, while the other rangers and the Nazgul begin moving onto the board from the first turn.

Ringwraiths try to probe the flanks of the rangers' position

The objective of the ranger player is to prevent at least five of the wraiths from making it into the Shire. The Evil player again has the Witch King and this time all of the Nine at his command. He does not get Cry of the Nazgul for this scenario, which in retrospect might have balanced things out a bit.

Ringwraiths ponder a mysterious ley line...

Kelvin again opted for the Nazgul, keen to avenge his defeat in the last game. He was aware now that he needed to avoid getting into a melee with the rangers, as this would burn up Will and lead to his Ringwraiths dissipating. He also avoided using any supernatural powers for almost the entire game.

The last pair of Nazgul entering the bottom of the picture

It is another tough scenario for the Nazgul this one. A great deal depends on good Priority rolls combined with fending off the rangers early in the game. More rangers enter the game in pursuit of the Nazgul and the Good player gets to recycle lost Dunedain, but once they arrive they will tend to be trailing the Nazgul.

Two Nazgul get mugged by rangers - the d20 tracks Will points.

In the end not enough Ringwraiths got free. We estimated two, may be three at least would definitely make it into the Shire and onto the trail of Baggins. But with five wraiths down we declared it another victory for the forces of light. It seems the hearts of the Dunedain did not 'misgive' them, as they get to re-roll their Courage 5 in this scenario - a tough one to beat.

A screen of brave Dunedain protect the Shire.

A good, quick game this one. Kelvin complains that the Dark Riders are simply too vulnerable in a fight of this nature, and the Priority rolls make a much bigger difference in a smaller game like this with very specific victory conditions than they did in some of our larger battles in the Orc's Drift campaign. Mind you, he did roll appallingly on his Priority, making it that bit easier for the Dunedain in the end. I'd suggest adding Cry of the Nazgul and dropping the Courage re-roll special rule for this one, to even it out a bit.

Next time: Sam and Frodo begin their journey.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Point Blank WW2

This Sunday Kelvin and I got together to play some WW2. It has been a long, long time since I played WW2. Getting on for nearly two years. We played Point Blank, which is a derivative of Disposable Heroes from Iron Ivan Games, which I've played a couple of times. PB uses the DH mechanics, but zeroes in from platoon level to squad level, where you have to activate your soldiers on a man-by-man basis.

In PB each squad has an assigned number of activation counters based on the Guts score of their squad leader - usually a sergeant. This gets eroded as the squad takes losses. Each counter can be used once per turn to give a soldier three action points which can be used to move, shoot, climb walls, throw grenades, etc., in any combination. You can even activate the same soldier more than once.

We played with two squads each, Germans (Kelvin) versus Soviets (me), Eastern Front 1945 (some of the Germans were toting StG 44s). I've managed to expand my urban battlefield, and it was looking pretty nifty. Could easily be the suburbs of Berlin, April 1945.

The scenario was loosely based on one in the rule book, transplanted from Normandy to Berlin. Five buildings were nominated as tactical objectives. Units scored +5 VPs for each. Two were relatively easy for each side to claim, with the remaining trio in a contested zone. We would also score VPs for inflicting losses on the other side.

Battlefield at start - from the German side

Kelvin was fast out of the stocks, running one of his squads across an open square to seize one of the central buildings before I could get to it. This was a sound move. A Soviet LMG managed to set up on a roof top and demonstrated what can happen to soldiers in the open in a WW2 game, killing one German and scattering the squad.

Germans making a dash for the target building.

By this stage the Germans had claimed one building, while the Russians had two. I then went on to occupy a third, but this was really my high point in the game. I only had one soldier in this building, and I was having constant problems keeping my men inside the zone of command of the NCOs. You don't have enough tokens in this game to do everything, and you need some to help rally shaken troops (remove pin counters) and bring up additional men.

Germans on the roof facing one Russian squad

The Germans used a side alley to sneak up on one of the Russian-held buildings and got a lucky hit on the defender, before storming in. After that, they held on grimly. I finally decided to storm the building - mainly to test out the close combat rules - which proved pretty deadly. I lost both soldiers in the storming party, including the squad leader, with two Germans KIA as well.

A Russian tries to lay down covering fire.

On the other side of the table, two Russians had managed to get across a street next to the central target building held by the Germans. However, at this point Kelvin took the critical decision to site one of his MG42s on the roof of the house, laying down heavy fire and preventing any more Russians from crossing the street. This was so potent that both my squad leaders on this side of the board were hit. The Soviets simply could not get any more men over to support the two privates and so they had to storm the building on their own.

Close quarter fighting - a Russian corporal makes a bid for his Order of Lenin.

In close quarters combat the bolt action Mosin Nagant rifle is nowhere near as good as an StG 44 handled by a German corporal.

"Knock, knock! Anybody home?"

By this stage in the game I was running out of options. Both Russian squad leaders were dead/wounded. The Germans were ensconced in two buildings, with an MG42 in each. I had one activation counter per turn for one squad, and three for the other, so in terms of momentum they were pretty well spent. We had set a 10 turn limit for the game and this seemed to work fairly well. Kelvin won the game 26-14. I have to say I suck at WW2 games - I have yet to be on the winning side for one.


Point Blank plays very similarly to DH, and anyone who knows their DH will find much that is familiar with PB. We both found grenades to be very ineffective in this game. Soldiers were regularly lobbing grenades into buildings and getting hardly any result from it. Because we were fighting in a built up area, most soldiers in buildings had high cover modifiers that could soak up suppression results, and even made MG fire relatively useless. A full round of firing from a Soviet LMG against an enemy occupied house would equal 12d10 and you'd be lucky to get a suppression result out of that.

Soviet rifle squad moves into position.

Most of the casualties suffered came when soldiers were out in the open, frequently as the result of opportunity fire. You need to stay alert in this game, as you have to be aware of where your fire lanes are and when enemy soldiers cross them, so that you can Snap Fire them. I think a house rule should be introduced that once a move is declared you can't take it back - i.e. if an enemy declares Snap Fire as you move a soldier, you can't change your mind and reduce his move/change direction. Fighting in built up areas is inherently risky, and that's part of the risk.

My other Soviet squad.

We played an infantry only game, as I didn't want to make it too complicated. I wonder whether tanks and/or off-table artillery would make a difference? One can be tempted to simply park LMGs in good positions and then spend the rest of the game blasting away in the hopes of getting a lucky shot. Storming a house directly seems to be the way forwards in urban battles, but also bloody. You need to gather enough troops together to do it - one or two is not enough. At this level, you probably get one chance per squad to storm one building in a game.

PB introduces differences in training and experience, which don't exist in regular DH. We played with trained squads on both sides, so there weren't major differences here.

The only other thing I'd say is that PB probably should be restricted to one squad per player if you want a fast game. We had time to spend almost five hours on it, but with one squad a piece it is playable in less - say two hours if you are familiar with the game? I might play it again with one squad per side. You could also play it as a multi-player game, with each player controlling a single squad.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Hunt Begins - Fellowship of the Ring

Having been warned not to travel to London unless it was absolutely essential - the small matter of the Olympics being expected to clog up the city's transport network - I've been able to get a bit of war gaming done in the quiet of the Sussex gloom. It was an opportunity this week to see if I can jump-start an epic campaign of Lord of the Rings.

"To tell you the truth, I believe that hitherto - hitherto, mark you - he has entirely overlooked the existence of hobbits. You should be thankful. But your safety has passed. He does not need you - he has many more useful servants - but he won't forget you again. And hobbits as miserable slaves would please him far more than hobbits happy and free. There is such a thing as malice and revenge."

Gandalf - The Shadow of the Past (The Fellowship of the Ring)

I'm using the excellent Fellowship of the Ring campaign supplement from Games Workshop, specifically the first scenario, The Hunt Begins. In this game, a trio of Black Riders try to get into the Shire to seek out Baggins and the One Ring, but a small and determined posse of Dunedain ambush them. The wraiths must cross the board and at least two must escape into the Shire lands. Each turn they are attacked in H2H, they lose Will. One of them is the Witch King himself, with 10 Will, while the other two have seven.

A trio of shadowy figures try to sneak into the Shire!

I played this with Kelvin, using the usual Lord of the Rings rules. Having played a large Zulu War game with similar mechanics last week, which took us seven hours - including set up - this one was remarkably quick, being completed in an hour. It is a small game, mind you, but it did demonstrate how much faster this game plays when you have less than a dozen actives per side. It further reinforces my decision to use War of the Ring for bigger battles (i.e. more than 30-40 figures per side).

But they are spotted! Rangers lie in wait for intruders.

This is a tough mission for the Nazgul. Speed is of the essence. They do have some useful supernatural powers, like Compel and Cry of the Nazgul, and their high Defence scores make it very hard for the rangers to stop them, but the Good player only needs to keep attacking them to wear down their Will scores and force them to dissipate. Good Priority rolls are needed if the Evil player is to succeed.

The Witch King makes a break for it.

With no Might scores to speak of in this scenario, the Nazgul are particularly vulnerable. They are far from Mordor and the watchful Eye of their master. Hence, they can be worn down.

One down, two to go. The Dunedain close in.

My impression of this scenario is that the Evil player needs to think carefully about where to start off his Nazgul. Kelvin clumped two of his together, which made it easier for me to focus six rangers on them, working in concert. Archery was - as ever - relatively useless. The Dunedain also managed to score a kill on one of the wraiths on the final turn of the game, while the other two simply ran out of Will. Four Dunedain were slain.

Game over! More time is bought for Frodo and Sam.

With the Nazgul now on the loose in the Shire, there is still a chance for the rangers to hunt them down. Next up: the Trust of Arnor!