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For The People - Civil War Classic Long Endures

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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There are few conflicts that interest me less than the American Civil War. The only one that comes immediately to mind is the war on drugs in Columbia, i.e. Andean Abyss. The ACW just always seemed like the most foregone of conclusions and most games on it tend to focus on the meatgrinder aspects. GDW’s A House Divided was an exception, but as a simulation it's in the same class as War at Sea.

This is why I ignored the well-received The Civil War from Victory Games. And I would have ignored For the People too if a friend hadn’t wanted to play it so much he bought me a copy. Gaming etiquette therefore demanded I play it with him. Damn gaming etiquette! Grudgingly, I plowed through the rules, never feeling that little tingle you get in your stomach when a game seems like it will be particularly fun.

But it was a Mark Herman design, for my money the best in the business. And it had already gone through its trial by fire with a previously published edition. I’d received the first edition of FTP published by GMT and released in 2000 (FTP was originally released by Avalon Hill the day after Avalon Hill was sold to Hasbro in 1998).

Our experience was typical of first edition FTP play: We were largely stumped by the clunky in the extreme river crossing rules, and the CSA ran roughshod over the border states and crossed into Ohio. The CSA won, though through political means not military conquest.

In our second playing we found ways to defend against Panzer Division Robert E. Lee but still the CSA seemed a bit too powerful with its ability to park in border states and clobber the USA’s strategic will. The game seemed a trifle unbalanced in the CSA’s favor in its 2000 edition, though not overwhelmingly so. But FTP was a big seller and GMT republished it in 2006 with some significant rules changes, one being that border states no longer ding US strategic will.

Fixing issues with a game when reprinting should be a no-brainer, but it's a lesson lost on many companies -- yea I'm looking at you Decision Games.

The takeaway here being to make sure you are using the current living rules when playing FtP, not the rules printed with the 2000 edition. If you do that you’re in for a real treat.

FTP uses the simpler version of the card-driven mechanic, a la Hannibal. The cards can only be used as the event or for ops. Reinforcements are largely fixed and this where the Union manpower advantage manifests itself.

Though it’s a ‘parts bin’ game with all its major elements coming from previous titles, the whole thing just meshes. It completely erased my prejudice against the ACW as a wargaming topic. Not to say I’m jonesing for a go at Terrible Swift Sword, but FTP hits the table at least once a year now.

It appears your chances of agreeing with me that FTP is an A-grade game are inversely proportional to how much you think you know about the war of the rebellion/war of northern aggression (take your pick).

Translating a four year war into something playable in a day is going to require ample judgment calls and much condensing of information and events. The haters seem to have real issues with the former. Even 150+ years later some folks are still fighting over some of this stuff and take great offense if you don't agree with their interpretation. It's a bit of a minefield for any designer.

So if you find any of the following terribly misguided you may be an FTP hater and may want to avoid the game.

1. Grant and Lee are complete equals militarily, though Grant appears a year later, in the Spring of 1963 (historically during the Vicksburg campaign). CSA’s Forrest and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson are also militarily equal to Lee/Grant.

2. Attackers win ties, which happen frequently, unless battling for a key objective, when they don’t. This tends to send the Rebs a runnin' more often than the Yanks.

3. General casualties can only happen during very successful combats.

4. Both sides could have reassigned their key generals to any theater without restriction, and further they would have performed similarly to their historical effort.

Since I came to FTP with a high school level knowledge of the ACW, point #1 didn’t bother me and #4 didn’t even cross my mind. Points #2 and #3 I can write off to design-for-effect, of which Mark Herman is a master.

FTP is certainly more game than definitive simulation. But it gives you all the interesting bits in the proper proportion. It’s also very well balanced, having gone through two full editions of playtesting by the gaming public.

Now haters are gonna hate, but unless you’re a card carrying member of the James and Walter Kennedy Fan Club, odds are that you’re gonna like FTP. It's in my top 20 of all time and induced me to reading several ACW books, including Grant's classic memoirs.




GMT is releasing this game again in 2015 with a mounted map. It also won the 1998 Charles S. Roberts Best Pre-World War II Board Game Winner, though that's the AH edition which is a fair bit different.

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For the People
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Thu Jul 2, 2015 8:11 pm
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Strike of the Eagle -- A Pole, a Russian and a Ukranian Walk Into a War

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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Board Game: Strike of the Eagle



Wooden blocks for fog of war and unit strength … Check!

Full-size cards to drive game and for historical events … Check!

Mounted map for mass market appeal … Check!

Full-color illustrated rulebooks for Euro feel … Check!

Wooden cubes because? I have no idea why … Check!

Kitchen sink … I couldn’t find it but it’s probably in the box somewhere.

Academy Games offers up a big box of game component goodness in Strike of the Eagle. With a street price below $40, pound-for-pound it may be the best wargaming value you can find today. And this game won the 2011 Charles Roberts Award for best historical boardgame.

But, though many Euro fans would argue, snazzy and ample componentry do not by themselves make a game worth buying. Once you meet a minimum component quality standard it’s up to the game to prove itself worthy.

And SotE does, sorta, mostly, kinda, maybe.

It’s the type of game that lends itself to a list of virtues and vices. On the virtue side:

1. The rules, while dense, are complete and we never ran into a question we could not answer. Granted the answers are not always where logic would dictate.

2. The basic system – each side places a limited number of order counters on the map and these are sequentially revealed to move units, reconnoiter, dig in, regroup or entrain – is sound and appropriate to the time.

3. Excellent quality and nicely designed components all around, especially for the price.

4. Interesting and not overdone topic – Russo-Polish War of 1919-1920.

But, ultimately, it left me wanting more. Its vices:

1. Wooden blocks not really a plus here. I know this is a revision of The Eagle and the Star but it seems to have been decided to make a wooden block game first and then the topic was chosen. While standard counter and hex games grant players too much information, wooden blocks conceal too much. Both armies had reconnaissance and intelligence assets. Both had a fairly good idea what was in front of them. Everything being a mystery makes game play less interesting and more cumbersome. Front line troops, especially if engaged previously, should probably be revealed, while behind the lines troops are concealed.

2. Nature of conflict. This is a lot of head-bashing, World War 1 style. Infantry moves 1 space, cavalry 2, with a +1 bonus if you force march. It’s a long way to Warsaw and much stands in your way. And there are many preexisting forts on the map which take time to invest.

3. Lack of interesting scenarios. Most of the scenarios are half-map 1-2 turn affairs that end before they get interesting. The one meaty scenario, the full campaign, is a lot to tackle. So we played the short scenarios, which piqued our interest, and built up to the campaign game, which was a month-long once-a-week affair in our case. But then you’re done with the game. I have no desire to replay any of the scenarios again. They’re just not interesting enough.

4. Operational pace. This seems to move slower than the actual campaign. You only get one free move on each of the two fronts. Additional moves require a leader or an Ops card play. Especially in the scenarios, you need to use your cards for ops to get anything going. But then you can't use them for their historical events, reactions, battle bonuses, reinforcements etc. The card events add flavor but you really can't afford to play them as such.

5. PBEM unfriendly. There’s too much back-and-forth for this to work on PBEM. I played one scenarios this way and we both agreed it was too cumbersome.

After just one go at the campaign game it's too early to make a call on play balance but it seems tough on the Poles. The push on Warsaw developed in our case, though not reaching the city's outskirts, but there’s just not enough time for the Polish counterstroke.

SotE is an odd mix for me: a high quality game, with a solid system on an interesting topic, that’s fun to play, yet not one I'm keen to revisit. It’s like a Tom Clancy novel, interesting once but not literature and ultimately forgettable. Though worth the price of admission, it's unlikely to be the kind of game you'll be talking about the following day or thinking about between sessions.

Oh, and the wooden cubes are just to keep track of reinforcements you will receive, something a track or even side record would of made much easier and simpler.


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Strike of the Eagle
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Wed Jun 17, 2015 1:51 pm
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WW 2: Barbarossa To Berlin -- The Game of Life. Mad Max Edition

John Goode
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It’s a given in our culture that if something is wildly successful there will be a sequel. Inevitably, the sequel won’t be as good, either because it’s a rehash of the same thing rushed to market, or because it applies the formula in a way that’s a rough fit. WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin suffers a little from both.

Ted Raicer’s Paths of Glory was the runaway hit of the 1990s. The card-driven mechanic came into its own with this game. Each turn you have to choose among activating units, mustering replacements, strategically redeploying or triggering a historical event. You have to play six cards each turn and you only have seven so tough choices are a constant.

The system fit World War I like a LEGO, getting the tempo of the conflict just right. It actually made gaming World War I interesting at the strategic level, something no other game had managed and many had failed at. When I now think about the dozens of hours spent fiddling with the static lines in Guns of August I question my sanity.

Money talks and in this case it screamed for GMT to port the system over to the best-selling genre in wargaming by a wide margin: World War 2. Mr. Raicer went to work and three years later WW 2: Barbarossa to Berlin hit the streets. It sold like herring at a seal convention.

At this time I was over the moon about CDGs and purchased just about every one. The mechanic allows easy PBEM and is perfect for those of us who don’t have live bodies nearby willing to spend every waking hour gaming. Still, I didn’t buy BtB at this time. I demoed the game at a convention and it immediately struck me less as a worthy sequel to PoG and more like one of those choose-your-path adventure books.

Of course eventually I succumbed, after it won the CSR Award for best WW2 game in 2002, garnered countless ecstatic reviews and saw heavy ACTS play. Once the first print run sold out I had to have a copy. So my history with the game starts in 2008 and I’ve only played it half a dozen times.

The reason for the low number of playings is that whenever the choice comes up to start a new game, face-to-face or PBEM, BtB just doesn’t make the cut. And not because it’s a bad game, quite the contrary, it may actually be too good a game. Experience counts here. Noobs beware.

With its predictable card flow, limited choices and optional-in-theory-only events you move along somewhat like playing the Mad Max version of The Game of Life. There's a fixed path, with a few branches, and you land on a fixed number of spaces in your journey to a defined endpoint. Sure there are choices to be made along the way, but their scope is narrow.

This scripted nature of the game is the main knock on it, but it’s also a plus. This repeatability makes for great competitive play. It's reasonably balanced (in tourneys both sides are bid for) and you can’t stray into alternate history territory: The Germans will get next to Moscow. The Wallies will be banging into Germany by game end. And the Italians will desert their sauerkraut-obsessed friends to the north. You really can’t prevent any of that.

And this was obviously a conscious design decision, one you have to accept if you’re going to like it. Paradoxically, it’s a strategic level game that’s not interesting at the strategic level.

But it shines at the operational level. How you attack, maximize terrain, time event plays and where you commit units does determine whether you win or lose. It’s not scripted to the point that the end is predetermined, though the endgame is: the Germans will weaken no matter what you do, the Russians will build their steamroller, and the Americans will poke you in the rear. At the end of the game the board position will not look that different after your 5th play or your 50th. The devil is entirely in the operational details in BtB.

And it’s unquestionably a fun game. I can’t think of a better strategic level World War 2 game that covers the entire ETO and is playable in a normal working day. Granted, that’s a small club.

From the outside looking in, it appears BtB exists mainly because it was as close to printing money as you can get in wargame publishing. Take PoG system, add World War 2, season with Mr. Raicer’s name on the box and stand back as sweaty-palmed gamers hunt-and-peck their credit card numbers into your website to grab a copy at $55 a pop.

But the PoG system isn’t really a good fit for World War 2. The operational tempo is wrong. If you measured the total ground gained by all the armies in WW1 versus WW2 it wouldn’t even be close. So forcing PoGs sedate pace into a WW2 framework was going to require some accommodation.

Given this, Mr. Raicer demonstrated why he is among the hobby’s leading lights by designing an entertaining, historically palpable and challenging game. Historical plausability wasn’t going to be possible unless players were kept on a tight leash.

Make it easy for the Turks, Spaniards or Swedes to enter the war, or amphibiously invade Venice, or any number of highly improbable things and soon the crazy train is debarking Rommel in Baghdad. If a game allowed that it might quickly be mocked into obscurity. Hewing to the historical line was the safe bet.

You can make a good argument that BtB erred too much in the safe direction. But I think it was the better alternative. I’ll always go for a good game that gives me fewer choices over a chaotic mess where anything goes. Ideally BtB would have been more strategically flexible, but that would have taken more development time. The CDG trend was hot at the turn of the century and like a panzer corps spotting a gap in the Russian lines, it had to be exploited. Mach schnell!

BtB won’t get much more play from me going forward as there are more interesting titles beckoning, but I can see why a large contingent rate this game a 10 and continue to play it 13 years after its debut.




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World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin
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Wed Jun 10, 2015 7:24 pm
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Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage -- Insert Clever Punic Here

John Goode
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Hannibal: Rome Vs. Carthage doesn’t need me to sing its praises. Going on 4000 people have rated it on BGG, and even with the normal Chorus of the Clueless downgrading it because they can’t figure out how to apply die roll modifiers, read a table, or have attention spans measured in seconds, it still manages an average rating north of 7.8. It’s the eight highest rated wargame. And while BGG ratings have no external statistical validity, numbers like this should make anyone looking for a great game take notice.

I started thinking about Hannibal again after reviewing Hellenes. Though set in roughly similar periods, one is a classic that I loved from the first time playing it, while the other I would not sit through again without financial incentive. What makes one compelling and the other fall flat? Here’s a Top 10 list of why Hannibal is a classic game:

1. It puts you into the mindset of the side you’re playing. Though the play sequence is symmetrical, the Carthos and the Romans feel very different here. Though you have other generals, as the Carthos you feel like Hannibal. He is you and you are driving the game with your every action. As the Romans you feel more like the senate. You tolerate the current crop of generals and hope they don’t do something stupid, like get their army routed. You can always call up more troops, but you fear the political consequences of a major defeat.

2. It’s well balanced. There is no absolute balance since it’s a cards and dice game but I’ve had many games go down to the last turn. However, we play with one house: The ‘Messenger Intercepted’ card can be a hoser. We require the person playing it to discard a card at the end of their turn and don't allow it to be played for the event on the last turn of the game.

3. It’s playable in an afternoon: around three hours usually does it, so you can switch sides if you have all day. A good length for a classic game. Titles that take less than an hour tend to seem too trivial and you’re more inclined to take stupid risks since you can just lose and start over. Titles that take more than a full day tend not to get played enough to become classics.

4. Complexity is commensurate with what you’re simulating. As the overall commander of a nation in a three hour game I don’t want to be deciding what the horses are eating, what our march formations look like, or how much we are paying the blacksmiths.

5. Multiple options each turn, but not so many that it gets confusing or arbitrary. In Hannibal you usually have three: play the event, expand political control, or move an army (usually Hannibal hisownself).

6. Mechanics interact in a logical and interesting way. Victory requires winning hearts and minds. You can do this by buying their love or kicking Roman arse. The people love to see a good arse kicking. They’re not really that particular about the arse being kicked though. They just love a winner. The peasantry tends to be a fickle lot. You gotta love ‘em, or at least pretend to.

7. Components are well designed, functional and ideally, pretty. To feel part of the world being simulated you can’t have a hand-drawn map with white numbered chits. The original Avalon Hill Hannibal is the one to get. The map is theme appropriate, though I could do without the random sketches that serve no purpose. But since it was printed in 1996 the cards are not full color. Still, primitive works for a game set in primitive times. The current Valley Games edition isn't as period appropriate. Gone is the simple elegance, replaced by what looks like the result of a violent collision between a boardgame and a video game. The Cartho die now has Punic characters. That sounds cool, but constantly having to look up what each friggin’ crooked line equates to gets annoying fast. I seem to have gotten too old to remember six new characters. Which kinda P's me O.

8. Victory conditions are clear and the path to reach them apparent and within your control. You’d think this was a no-brainer, but many Euros fail this test. Sometimes the victory conditions are the most complex part of those games. Count the number of loaves in the oven, divide by pregnant teenagers and add the metric volume of barley in your barn etc … Here you just have to control more provinces than your opponent. There are only 18 so it’s readily apparent who’s ahead.

9. It introduces something new or uses existing mechanics in a novel way. Hannibal is the second title to use the card driven mechanic we all know and love today. It’s an evolution of Mark Herman’s We The People. It’s the first time the cards had Action/Command Points in addition to a historical event.

10. It balances replay value with historicity. Make it too historically limiting and you’re on rails, with every game following the same path. Make it too loose and you have Caesar discovering America. Hannibal doesn’t drift too far from history so the games tend to be similar, though not the same.

A not insignificant number of Hannibal players seem to detest the combat card mechanic. I find this baffling. It’s perfect for the game, though more time-consuming than rolling a die. The first game I can recall having anything similar was 1776, but you only played one card for the whole battle in that game. The implementation is much better here. Each time you have a battle you draw a varying amount of combat cards depending on how many troops you have, how good your general is, how many allies you can summon, and a few other odds and ends, such as if you successfully deployed your elephants. The attacker plays a card and the defender must match it (there are 5 types of attacks) or lose the battle. If the defender matches it, he can try to become the attacker. The attacker then plays the first card etc. until one side can’t match and panics, retreating from the battle. Both sides take some attrition casualties but only the loser takes retreat casualties. If you panic the opposing army by playing a Double Envelopment attack there’s a chance the whole army will be destroyed, as happened to the Romans at Cannae.

It’s simple and gives you some control over the battles, not to mention it’s often darn exciting. If you really hate it, someone has come up with a dice based combat resolution system.The game will play faster but definitely not better.

If you’re new to Hannibal, just remember the Romans can lose every battle and win the game. And sometimes you want to purposely lose quickly if your hand is bad, to minimize attrition casualties and avoid getting DEed.

Hannibal is on the clock. He has to invade, win the battles and the hearts and minds. It’s a tough balancing act. The Romans are on the strategic defensive for the game's first half, but once Pronconsul Scipio Africanus shows up the game shifts gears and things blow wide open. It never ceases to be exciting.


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Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage
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Mon Jun 1, 2015 1:43 pm
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Hellenes -- There Is No Spear

John Goode
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I played Hellenes for most of two consecutive days. It was boring, derivative and seemed to have the history Scotch-taped on. Exactly the kind of game there should be less off, i.e. titles lacking anything new, loaded with done-to-death mechanics and simulating nothing so much as a cardboard door stop.

Why does this game exist? What does it add to the hobby? Answers: A: Five-hundred people prepurchased it to cover the production tab and B: Nothing. This is the dark side of the GMT P500 and similar subscription programs. You just need a sales pitch that 500 people will buy into to launch a game, resulting in many marginal products that often trickle down to us non-subscribers via the bargain bin.

I realize I’m the fool here, but I can’t seem to resist the siren call of the bargain cardboard box with alleged game inside. And the secondary market suffers no fools. You touch it, you own it, usually for a looong time. Given this fact, I expect to die with Hellenes in my possession.

That is too bad because I’ve had the Hellenes experience when it was called Crusader Rex, Julius Caesar, Hammer of the Scots or even Wizard Kings, among many others. The ABC combat system—units deal damage in alphabetical order, with elite or ranged units usually ‘A,’ and standard infantry generally ‘C’— isn’t so wonderful that it alone can carry a game—and certainly not after a dozen other titles have already used it. And just filing off the edges with a 'prestige' rule isn't enough.

If Hellenes is your first ABC game, you may like it well enough. It is a fun and often tense way to resolve combat. Further, it seems well suited to quickly resolve warfare from ancient times up to medieval. Though you won't be using it frequently here as it's difficult to maneuver and your armies are disbanding constantly. Sparta is only 3 straight ahead spaces from Athens so no one is going to be surprised or outflanked.

The engine that drives Hellenes is, you guessed it, a deck of cards that dole out action points. You spend action points to move, recruit and replace casualties. Sound like that Seinfeld episode you’ve seen 14 times? Events can also be triggered, and you can guess what they are: Add a leader, plague in city, civil war, tribal uprising, partridge in a pear tree ...

I, thankfully, came to this game after the rules were revised from those in the box. Judging by the amount of blue type in the living rules (signifying changes, additions etc.), the originals left much to the imagination. They glow in the dark there's so much blue. We're talking night light here. Make sure you download the living rules if you decide to play this game.

Now it’s not a bad looking game, but neither is it going to cause any jaws to drop. Actually, when I first put the map on the table I thought maybe mold had grown on it. It’s mostly a mossy green blob. And of course it has that stone-chiseled-looking font in case you forgot this is supposed to be ANCIENT Greece. But it’s functional enough, though the supporting charts and tables are on very lightweight paper. Methinks it was sourced to meet a low price point.

Rating this game has me conflicted. Conflicted in the "it's not you, it's me" sense. Judging by the high BGG ratings, obviously many like Hellenes, at least some aspect of it. But one can only evaluate a game in the context of what one has played/experienced. And while it is necessary to take a step back to evaluate a title on its own terms, ultimately I can’t unknow what I know. Reviewing is in a way an attempt to legitimize your prejudices with words.

And my prejudices make me an anti-Hellenesite. Mainly because it adds nothing that I haven’t already experienced multiple times. I can step sufficiently far back to imagine myself liking this just for the combat mechanic and asymmetrical sides, but then I’m sitting on a cloud peering down the skylight into my game room. Imagine if they remade The Matrix for the fifth time and the main character is now called "Theo" and "Perseus" tries to get him to understand that "there is no spear." Great once, okay twice, but enough already.

Though what ultimately tips the balance against Hellenes is that it offers exactly zero insight. As in bupkis. Ancient history is always as much guess as fact when it comes to the details, but Hellenes doesn’t even make a guess. The hidden wooden block mechanic doesn't seem to fit here. It's telling us that the Peloponnesian Wars were essentially the same as the Roman campaigns or Crusades and there wasn't anything unique to them beyond a different map. The closest we get is one piece of random chrome. That would be the “Olympians” rule. Appeal to a god and you get a second chance at something that didn’t go well for you. For example, unit recruitment draws, which are random. Kinda 'meh,' eh?

As leader of either side in Hellenes you can order new military units be formed and end up with a boat. The deepest insight I got from this game is that I would not want to be the guy to show the king a boat when he ordered a phalanx. I think I already knew that.

I may have enjoyed Hellenes if it was my first wargame. In the 1970s SPI crapped out games like a corn-fed chicken and we enthusiastically played them. Games much worse than this. And we liked them. We genuinely liked them. From the tedious, like The Punic Wars; to the unplayable, like Fall of Rome; to the just godawful, like Tito (you know the one with the map that looks like an alien eye chart, and found at every wargame auction ever held), we played them all with little complaining.

But that’s no longer the case. Today the hobby is mature and I think you have to judge in context to what’s out there now and what’s come before. In that context there's not much to like here, except the price. The secondary market is flooded with copies of this game. After our gaming weekend my opponent and I both put our copies out to pasture.

Since I harbor no nostalgia for tired retreads, when it comes time to decide what hits the table Hellenes will never be 'the one.' That ranks it a ...


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Hellenes: Campaigns of the Peloponnesian War

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The Napoleonic Wars --This Is How The Little Corporal Rolls

John Goode
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Board Game: The Napoleonic Wars (Second Edition)


We affectionately call it ‘Nappy,’ because its official, legal-type name, The Napoleonic Wars, just seems too buttoned-up for this casual dice-fest with Napoleonic overtones.

Not to say that it has no simulation value, but when you marry the card-driven movement/action scheme to the Yahtzee combat mechanic—roll a 6, zap a battalion—it’s a bit of a climb to realism. Season with free-for-all diplomacy rules and at times you enter that place between light and shadow, The Twilight Zone. Once I had the Danes kicking the Russians out of Moscow, a smoking Rod Serling visible in a Kremlin window.

But Nappy passes the minimum test for being a simulation: it’s possible, and in fact not unlikely, for the game to play out roughly along historical lines.

Grand strategic games, especially those involving free-for-all diplomacy rules, seem to be impossible to get right the first time and TNW is no exception. There are just too many alliance iterations to cover in a short rulebook, resulting in many questions and much confusion among first edition players. Minor nations and alliances weren’t the only thing that perplexed early adopters but they were the main thing. I have a list of FAQs longer than the original rulebook.

But Nappy was, and is, playable right out of the box in its first or second editions. Unfortunately, the second edition isn’t just an update, it’s a little bit of a different game. GMT opted to change some aspects instead of just fixing what was broken. A bad call.

The most controversial aspect of Nappy is the Peace Die Roll. The game can end at the end of any turn, even turn 1. The end of turn 1 almost always has the French ahead. Each player can draw one less card on the next turn in order to affect this die roll. But players are greedy and in the vast majority of the games I’ve played the Coalition players prefer to take their chances. Then a 5 or 6 is rolled and the French win after 1 turn. No one is happy. Not even the French really, unless the game was for money.

I really like this uncertain game-end mechanic but players should probably be forced to act more like the governments they represent. The Napoleonic era was all about biding your time for the right moment to jump back into the fray. Game players, however, are not so keen to sit out a year or two of game time biding.

And this affects how a typical game develops. With a roughly even number of cards between the Imperials and Coalition, Russia rushes to Austria’s aid. Making for a standoff in front of Vienna. Unless the French drew a killer hand, Napoleon often can’t quite take on the combined Austro-Russians. But since the French are ahead in key cities, le petit caporal is content to sit in front of Vienna and wait them out. Events then often diverge wildly from history with the French trying to recruit the Prussians or Turks, or even go after Britain if Trafalgar turned out more favorably. The invasion of Russia doesn’t often happen under this scenario. However, if you can pull off an Austerlitz and thrash the Austro-Russian army things tend to curve back to historical.

The other thing that can widely skew history is the combat system. Sometimes you roll 20 dice without a single 6. Sometimes you roll 5 dice and they are all 5s or 6s. In the world of Nappy, sometimes Napoleon gets bare-ass spanked. This tends to change history. But, no single defeat is usually the end of the world for you, with the possible exception of the times the French sink the entire British navy. Very hard for the Brits to come back from that, but it is a rare thing.

Nappy is ideally a four-player game, though three works fine too. I’ve avoided two-player. And five-player means someone has to be the Prussians. They sit out the entire first turn, and after that neutrality is often the preferred option for the second turn as well. It’s basically a good side for the player least interested in the game.

So why is second edition inferior? I think the designer took the wrong lesson away from the success of the first edition. We didn’t love the game because of its whammy cards. We loved it in spite of the whammy cards. We didn’t love it because one side could go on a tear and annihilate everything in its path. We loved it because of the rare possibility that you could work your nation to that point.

The three main reasons I like second edition less:

1. Though it adds 20 additional cards, these come at the expense of the ‘Reserves’ cards. Reserves were fixed cards each nation received at the start of each turn. The mechanic still exists in second edition but now you don’t have cards, you have to keep track of Reserves separately on your headquarters display. They don’t count as cards in your hand, making card play and preemption opportunities less interesting.

2. The new cards skew high on number of command points and whammy potential (more than half are fives and sixes and nine are red dot, so are triggered by minors). Several can be real hosers: Kingdom Of Naples, Capitulation, even Mud in the early going.

3. But the winner in the worst new mechanic retrofit into a good existing game category is ... getting a chance to draw a resource whenever you route an army. Getting routed is usually enough of a disaster without adding serious insult to the injury. A resource is sort of a card on steroids, also being a victory point and turn extender. A couple good rolls late in a turn and this can wildly swing a game. Not usually what you want.

In le grande scheme of things though, Nappy is among my favorite, light, low brain-drain, wargames. You can even play it with non-gamers if they have an interest in the period. And you can join a multi-player game most any time on ACTS.

TNW has a large following and been going strong for nearly 15 years. It has spawned two sort-of sequels. Wellington, an outright disaster so full of whammy cards that nothing you do matters so much as your opponent drawing the card that effectively reads: “Ha, ha … You lose _______”(Fill in the blank):
A. The Battle
B. The Game
C: Your Sanity

And Kutuzov, which I haven’t played, but was in the GMT bargain bin for many years. Never a good sign.

Nappy is a game I’d play most any time with most anybody. High praise given the number of options in the light wargame category. It’s currently rather pricey (May 2015) as it’s between printings and its P500 numbers aren’t making the cut.



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The Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars (Second Edition)
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Rommel in the Desert -- Yahtzee Meets Wargaming

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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A true classic wargame about the North African campaign in World War 2 has proven elusive. And not for lack of trying. Type ‘Rommel’ into the BGG search box and you’ll get a screen full of titles.

That’s a bit odd since you’d think World War 2 in North Africa would make good grist for the wargaming mill: roughly even forces, wide open spaces, heroic stands, bold moves and countermoves, various nationalities. How can this not add up to something enduring?

The problem, it seems, is that the hex/counter/odds-based-combat-results-table paradigm that works so well in mainland Europe doesn’t really capture the quintessence of war in North Africa. The positive aspects of gaming North Africa cited above are seriously dragged down by the fact that there’s one hardtop road and few objectives of any value or significance in the entire theater. And the ever present heat means the operational tempo is going to vary from sluggish to languid, with brief bouts of hurried.

Rommel in the Desert
manages to make the most of this situation. It succeeds, at least partially, because it doesn’t follow the paradigm. Its fairly simple mechanics strip away the micromanagement aspects of many games on North Africa and concentrate on putting you in the mindset of the top commanders in the field. Let a staff officer worry about exactly how a position will be attacked or where the airfields will be established. Your focus is on bigger things.

You are forced to take stock of your supply situation—represented by randomly drawn cards—and use it to operationally maximize your board position. You can never do everything you want and rarely know exactly what’s facing you: pretty much the N. Africa conundrum in a nutshell.

RitD is dismissed by some wargamers since it uses wooden blocks to represent combat units and abstracts many of the tropes wargamers expect in ‘combat simulation games.’ You don’t even move units individually, but rather use various types of ‘group’ moves. Combat is of the Yahtzee variety, i.e. roll a 6 score a hit, with a side of rock-paper-scissors for the various unit types. Replacement points don’t follow any historical schedule, being just the roll of two dice. On paper it doesn’t sound like it would amount to much of a simulation, but it transcends these simple mechanics.

Historical results are achievable, likely even, but far from guaranteed. With enough supply, nerve, and ample 6s, Rommel can capture Alexandria. If Monty gets the better of you, the Germans will be Bee-lining to el Agheila, hoping to run the clock out on the Allies. A game can be finished in a couple hours. Setup takes five minutes, 10 if you just dumped everything into the box last time you played.

But is RitD a simulation really? Unarguably, it’s a great game. And I’d call it a damn good simulation as well. It’s a different animal because in addition to inserting you into the situation at one specific command level it also strips everything down to its bare essentials. Where most wargames put you in the role of various people in the same campaign, deciding tactical minutiae along with operation logistics and even strategic planning, RitD’s focus on a single role is actually a big step towards realism.

In other North Africa games are you really gaining more realism with a lot more rules? There’s the old, but best-selling, Tobruk. In it, you’re the overall CiC, various company commanders and the leader of each individual tank. You have to roll two dice 35 times every time a Bofors AA gun fires at an acquired hex. And the practical result of all this work towards realism is that at scenario’s end everyone’s vehicles are immobilized. Realism? Tactically maybe, but operationally it has no greater claim than RitD.

Or on a larger scale take Shifting Sands. Card-driven, historical events galore, and much less abstraction, but it arrives at its historical conclusions—more often than not the same ones RitD reaches—mainly because it’s as scripted as an Egyptian newscast. It’s undoubtedly a fun game, but more history book than history lesson. Again, the sense of added realism seems mostly illusionary. Methinks abstract often gets you to the heart of the matter faster than a separate matrix for every gun size and armor thickness combination.

RitD was well ahead of its time when it was released in 1982 and it’s still in print after nearly on 35 years. That’s not a typo. How many wargames can you say that about? I got my copy in 1985, have played it nearly every year since then, 75+ games overall easily, and I’ll die with it. It's hard to argue with success like that.

My only minor gripe, and with Columbia Games in general, is that the box art looks like something from a junior high school art show. As an adult you sometimes have to justify your obsession with games—no not video games mom—to other adults. The box cover of RitD second printing, by far the most commonly encountered, doesn’t exactly say, “Hello, I’m a serious simulation of the war in North Africa in 1941.” More like, “Dude, check out what I drew during English class.”

Regardless, Rommel is a game every wargamer should own. Despite what the box and components look like, don’t put it in the same mental category as Euros like Memoir ’44, which have only the thinnest veneer of simulation value. RitD is a legit wargame.

Lastly, Patrick Ward, of Sheffield, England, professionally reworked the RitD map and made it available as a free download (with permission). The existing map is great but if yours is damaged or you want a change of scenery it’s worth checking it out: www.boardgamegeek.com/filepage/73071/rommel-desert-map-redux

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Rommel in the Desert
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Sun May 24, 2015 5:01 pm
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Onward, Christian Soldiers -- Punked By King Richard

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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I’ve rarely hated a collection of paper as much as Onward Christian Soldiers. "Collection of paper" because there is no game here, at best a ‘playtest kit.’ Game implies things like rules consistency, a modicum of playtesting performed, and somewhat balanced sides. Not a hint of any of that is to be found in this box.

Actual box text: “[rules are] presented in two separate but complete rulebooks, with no need to switch from one to the other during play.” That sentence is the definition of bad fiction. “Quick-Start rules get players into the game right away.” This is true only if ‘right away’ means six years after publication when a fan rewrote and edited the rules into something the average human not on hallucinogenics could enjoy (see below).

I plodded through the shorter ‘historical’ second crusade scenario solo, more confused than involved. I ignored the made-up ‘What If Barbarossa Lived’ alternate history nonsense. But I did manage to get three other wargamers together for an all-day gamefest for the first crusade scenario. Unfortunately, after working our way through this mess—you don’t play this game, you work on it—we all stared at each other in exhausted disbelief. It’s as if we just spent the last 10 hours trying to solve a mathematical theorem using Klingon calculators and all came up with the number 42: you know it’s wrong, you feel stupid, and there’s the creeping realization you’ve been punked.

I make sure these reviews don’t become personal and I don’t blame Richard Berg, though his name is prominently on the box. More power to him if he can rehash nearly 30-year old leftovers and sell it to a gullible publisher. It’s not like this entrée was good the first time around when it was an unhappy meal called The Crusades and came in Strategy & Tactics magazine.

Though my memory is cloudy of the one time playing The Crusades, I recall giant stacks of leader counters shuffling around the Levant, until, inevitably, Sir Bologna of Provolone or somesuch randomly expired. Lots of tedious recordkeeping was the game’s main mechanic, including keeping track how long each stack parked in each space if it didn’t move. Like most magazine games it was maybe worth one playing.

And Onward is a step backwards from The Crusades since it takes much longer to work through, and isn’t any more historically credible (unless you believe march attrition is the sine qua non of the crusades). Cards are added, though they contribute little. And the rules are now spread out among several rulebooks/playbook. These often contradict each other, not to mention sucker punch logic square in the kidney. Your turn is mostly a junior high algebra and word search exercise.

Why was this raised from the dead? I don’t know but I’m willing to guess

1. Freelance submission? Idle suggestion on the phone? Since it was hacked together quickly, both are realistic possibilities. “I’ll have it to you on Monday, boss.”

2. Cheap to produce. No resources, such as an editor, needed to be employed.

3. Card-driven games were hot, hot, hot in 2006 and this was marketed as such, though it isn’t.

4. Free artwork—most poached from master illustrator Gustav Dore, though credited to Roger MacGowan.


The miscredited artwork bothers me to this day. Seeing Dore’s beautiful illustrations bastardized, colorized, and credited to someone who had no part in their creation just feels thoroughly wrong. In case of the box cover a Christian cross, a sun and some spears were added into the background of Dore’s ‘Richard the Lion-Heart and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf.’ Can I put a zit on the Mona Lisa and claim it as my work? Legally, probably yes. But why do such a thing?

My only reason in revisiting this thankfully dead and buried old bowser is because even after eight years it still gets my blood pressure up thinking about it. After our game I put it out in the garage, not even wanting it to potentially funk up anything else in my house. Hey, you never know.

If BGG forums are to be believed there is a small—very small—group of people who believe there’s a gem buried among this rubbish pile of incoherence. One has even edited the rules into a single, allegedly coherent, whole. It’s available in the download section now. But to me that’s like changing the shoes on your mule to get it ready for the Preakness: It’s fundamentally the wrong thing for what you’re trying to accomplish, if what you’re trying to accomplish is to play an entertaining game or gain an understanding of the how’s and why’s of the early crusades. Hint: religious fervor drove these armies, though you won’t find the word religion even once in the rules. At no point was a decision based on whether the force would lose 37.85% or 48.32% of its strength if it marched to the next location. It wasn’t Grant in Mississippi with crossbows as OCS would have you believe.

This was a bit of a diatribe, sorry. But thanks for listening. I’m closer to closure now. Though ultimately I may have to urinate on the box before I can completely make my peace with this insult to gamers, the hobby and cardboard in general.

Anybody got a spare copy laying around? I’d be doing you favor.

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Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Crusades
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Normandy '44 -- There's Beauty in this Beast

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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Board Game: Normandy '44


You wouldn’t think another divisional scale Overlord/Normandy game is what wargamers are clamoring for, but you’d be wrong. Normandy ’44 sold out its first edition, with second-hand copies going for north of $75 late in 2014: and hard to find at that.

A little surprising, but since board wargaming has until recently been primarily an American thing, there’s no shortage of games on Overlord and The Bulge, campaigns in which the U.S. Army played a major part. Though the result of neither was much in doubt after a few tense days, the mythology of the fair fight has triumphed reality in the popular narrative. To its credit N44 doesn’t play to the narrative.

The Germans can’t shoot the landing to pieces on the beaches, allowing instead for only a small variance of the historical results with separate CRT’s for Omaha, Utah and the British beaches. You can only face any real setback at Omaha.

Given historical weather the Allies come on like chicks at a biker bar, often and with great mass. If you play the First Edition even semi-competently the Allies will win.

A few important provisos here:

1. Given historical weather. The weather roll is the single most important roll you’ll make each turn. If you roll storms early and/or often the Allies will have no chance. Instead, just use the historical weather. We all demand historical fidelity on our maps and combat units but for some reason we’ll gladly sabotage a game’s simulation value by randomly changing the weather, the weather usually being much more important to how events turned out than exactly what division manned a specific part of the line.

2. If you play First Edition. Don’t do that! The game has benefited greatly from the people who initially purchased it and effectively playtested it for GMT. Second Edition is what the game should always have been. If you have a First Edition copy go to this link to update your copy, mostly, to get it current and balanced: http://www.insidegmt.com/?p=1550

The changes are technically small but huge in game terms. Pay special attention to these changes:

1. ‘No Effect’ results become A1. Helps the Germans.

2. You can retreat through EZOC without loss. Helps the Germans.

3. No more +1 or -1 on Weather Table. Helps the game from becoming a slaughter for either side.

4. The 12SS are stronger than on the original counters. There are new counters available. Helps the Germans, ‘natch.

5. Allied auto victory essentially no longer possible. Helps the Germans.

If you have Second Edition, or once you’ve updated, you’ll have a great looking, fun, game. It has among the most gorgeous Vassal module of any game I’ve played. It’s a joy to play on this map and the graphic design overall really works to draw you in. It’s fun just to stare at this game, that’s how pretty it is.

But there are some clouds:

1. The replacement rules are too liberal in general … You never have to pull anyone out of the line. A unit reduced to half or even a third strength buffs right back up, right under the sometimes massive guns of the enemy. No HQ, nothing, required.

2. … And border on silly in the specific. Once you cut-off the peninsula and isolate Cherbourg it doesn’t stop new units from forming there, not just walking-wounded type units but potentially good units. You can teleport a battalion of Tiger tanks into a very isolated Cherbourg for example.

3. The turns immediately after the landing are interesting but the game quickly turn into World War I, with long static fronts developing where gains are measured in single hexes per turn. Can't really blame the design for that. As is the U.S. can usually better their historical achievement.

4. The combat mechanic feels wrong. It solves the ‘piling on’ tactics allowed in most wargames but creates a new issue at least as great as the one it seeks to address.

The Main Assault Force combat mechanic allows only 18 factors to attack any one space, anything above that is ignored. This solves the unrealistic “throw in everything and the kitchen sink for best results” approach allowed in most wargames. Problem is, the defender knows this, so has no reason to defend anything with more than 10 factors since the attacker can only get 1-1 odds against that. You move up the CRT mainly by adding artillery and air. How you apportion that is the main factor determining whether you’ll win or lose the game. Is that more realistic?

N44 isn’t a classic. I doubt it’ll be seeing much play two years from now. But it’s absolutely worth playing now. I’m through three complete campaign games, two under first edition (though with the upgraded SS counters), one under second. All were Allied victories though the last one was in doubt to the end.

I wouldn’t hesitate to give N44 another go, but it will be a “been there, done that” experience and so it will likely spend the rest of its time with me on the shelf.

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Normandy '44
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Pursuit of Glory -- Beating Paths to Your Door

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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Board Game: Pursuit of Glory


I can’t wrap my head around why this game works because it shouldn’t. Pursuit of Folly should be its name.

Get this: You’re fighting on up to five fronts simultaneously: defending one some, attacking on others, happy with sitzkrieg on still others. At any time you can be blindsided with incredibly good fortune or bitchslapped by the hand of fate, hard and repeatedly (depending in what order certain cards or die rolls fall). As the Allies, roughly half your troops will disappear from the map, but you can’t be sure when. The Turks are a ticking bomb set to implode once their manpower pool runs dry. It’s a giant, chaotic mess of a balancing act. And there’s no way it should work.

PuG originally struck me like the type of game that passed through the limited playtesting current wargames seem to get, i.e. not much. And that it would blow up in spectacular fashion once it hit the wider population. The wider population, you see, contains sharks just looking for ways to break silly games like this. But that hasn’t happened.

There’s been an annual tournament of PuG for at least the last five years on ACTS and I’ve had a Cyberboard or Vassal games going nearly every month since its release in 2008, and the game won’t die. Killer strategies have emerged, both sides have been declared as play balance favored, ‘broken’ tactics have been discovered and unbroken: PuG has weathered it all. The game just works. It’s not an arguable point, regardless of what you read on BGG ratings from guys who played it once, if at all.

So why doesn’t this game get the respect it deserves. Here’s why I think that’s the case:

1. On the chrome scale it’s a Chevy Bel Air, very shiny.

2. The rules are long, see number 1.

3. The false expectation that it will be as straight-forward strategy wise as its sister, Paths of Glory.

4. Very bad things can happen to you very quickly, triggering the “unfair,” “game is broken” knee jerk common among gamers.

5. Strategy paralysis due to few players being familiar with these campaigns. Did the Turkish army really charge through the Negev desert to the Suez Canal and get its ass handed to it by a couple hundred odd Gurkhas? That doesn’t sound like a good idea to do in the game. Hint: but it is.

Addressing each point:

1. PuG starts off with all the rules from Paths of Glory. If you know how to play that game you already know half of this one. Then it adds another Paths of Glory length game to that. Not really too much to take on for something you’ll be playing for years. And all the chrome equals great replay value.

2. No argument. But no pain, no gain rings true here and the payoff is there. Better to learn a good game with long rules than three mediocre games with short rules.

3. Strategically it’s much deeper than PoG. There are more fronts and more options. You have to appreciate that or this is not the game for you. If you liked PoG because on most turns there’s only two or three things you really need to do, PuG may overwhelm your brain. There’s no shame in that.

4. There are so many potential ‘lottery ticket’ cards for both sides in PuG that somehow it just evens out. Many players argue that an early Parvus (the card that starts the Russian revolution and results in half the allied manpower vanishing for points north) dooms the allies. But official keeper of PuG records and rules, Phil Thomas, has records of 200+ games showing this not true. If bad things happen, you adjust. It’s rare for the whole game to go pear-shaped on you. If it does, you will lose. Tell yourself that you learn more from one loss than a hundred wins, get over it, and start a new game.

5. This point is actually a plus for me. I enjoy playing campaigns where I don’t know how they historically developed. I’ve read dozens of books because I played an interesting wargame on the topic first. Even if you don’t play PuG but are interested in these campaigns read “The Berlin to Baghdad Express.” It’s fascinating in a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of way and covers many of the events in the game.

I’ve played PuG so often I think I’ve wrung out all its secrets. And just as when finishing a great book I’m kinda sorry it’s over but happy I made the trip. I don’t recall what I paid for it but it’s among the best bang for the buck of any wargame I’ve ever bought, and I’ve bought many hundreds.
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Pursuit of Glory
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Tue May 19, 2015 2:04 pm
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