John GoodeFalkland Islands
The title is a half-truth. There is a boxload of chaos here. Triumph? Not so much.
Clash of Arms relieved the unwary of $80 back in 2005 for this train wreck. That’s when $80 was real money. Well, realish. And it appears to be coming back from the grave. A revised 2015 edition is threatened on its website (as of May 2015), though with an inactive link and no other details available.
It pains me to have to give this game an F, because it’s the kind of game that pays attention in class, would bring you an apple every Monday morning if it could, and really tries to do its homework. Problem is it tries to get it right by giving you five answers to every question. Five wrong answers.
I cannot imagine any experienced wargamer, if anyone at all, playtested this game. Or if they did, all their recommendations were ignored. You only have to try to get through one game, even just a couple turns, to realize it needs development, editing, clarity, a structural cohesion. As is, it’s just a bunch of mechanics blended together, half-baked and then covered with beautiful icing.
This beautiful icing is the artwork. Graphically this game is a stuner. The box cover is on my top 10 list of best wargame box art of all time. Understated. Elegant even. I hung the map on my wall in a plexiglass frame it’s so gorgeous. But gorgeous isn’t the same as functional. SPI-style maps definitely weren’t gorgeous, but they were very functional. Fine art doesn’t usually make for great graphic design.
It’s actually quite annoying to play on this map. And the uber-cluttered Hobbittown location depictions don’t really give one a feeling for the era. Add the umpteen different hyper-illustrated counters to the map and what you have is essentially an acid trip. After a couple hours staring at this map you start seeing things. Did a leprechaun just dash between those trees? Are those faeries wearing boots? Why is The Police song ‘Too Much Information’ running through my brain? They should include a bottle of Tylenol the way this thing assaults your senses. You will get a headache. But not just from staring at the map.
The real chaos will be in your brain, assuming yours attempts take the data it’s fed and make sense of it. Almost nothing here makes much sense. Or if it does it's well beyond the average human to comprehend how this is supposed to simulate anything other than anarchy. Maybe that's the point. But who would willingly pay $80 for a small box of anarchy?
Let’s look just at the start of each turn, the Political Phase, where you deal with allies. You spend inordinate amounts of time each turn picking cards, which lead to charts, which lead to other cards, which generally amount to a whole lot of nothing. A look at the Faction Control table (below) is worth a thousand words. There are 20 factions to deal with and all manner of niggling details and exceptions and counterexceptions for each. This could in theory actually work and be fun but here neither is the case. Download the 'ToC_example_of_play.pdf' file from the game's file section on BGG and try to follow along if you want a taste of what you're in for.
If you recruit one of the more powerful factions it can just be neutralized again next turn. And everything moves so slow, or is essentially trapped in some small area of the map, that it’s hard to fathom what good it does you. In our game you’d get a faction, try to move it to where the action is, become neutral somewhere along the way, get removed. Rinse. Repeat. After a couple turns we both began really dreading the Politics Phase.
And for all the emphasis on these factions the thinking to me is ultimately flawed. It assumes the same troops would fight for each side when in actuality the portion of the manpower willing to fight would be radically different depending on which side the leadership of that faction threw in with. It’s not like these faction were all state actors with fixed military forces like the U.S.
At any rate, after a dozen hours playing Triumph of Chaos my opponent killed himself.
Not really, but he threatened to give up wargaming, which is the same thing to me. And he did buy Ticket to Ride right afterwards.
My opinion here is based on playing most of one campaign game. During that time I experienced nothing resembling triumph. I did have one minor triumph later: the day I sold this dog.
I’m genuinely hoping it succeeds in its rumored second edition. But beware if it’s just a rules edit. It needs that, but it really needs to be completely decrapified. Less really would be more in this case. Potentially much more.
Triumph of Chaos
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John GoodeFalkland Islands
Apparently this game was an unplayable mess as released. Version 2.0 saw everything except the box, dice and baggies redone. But the new rules still had omissions, so an errata sheet was issued. Oops, still some rather significant things were left out—like that the Maginot Line forts can’t be dismantled and transmogrified into infantry corps—so we’re up to living rules version 2.1 as I write this.
I won’t hold any of that against Supreme Commander. In fact, kudos to GMT for sticking with it. Classic games like Rise and Decline of the Third Reich had a rough start too and what doesn’t kill a game can make it stronger. But where Third Reich had its roots in reality, Supreme Commander could more accurately be called Supreme Sorcerer, as it’s primarily a fantasy game.
Now I’m all for design-for-effect and games that allow you to realistically explore other historical outcomes. The key words here being historical and realistically.
Here are just a few things Supreme Commander would have you believe to be true in Europe circa 1939:
1. The Alps extended along the Rhine from Switzerland up to Luxembourg.
2. No direct railroad link between Italy and Germany existed.
3. Diplomacy was only conducted between countries that physically bordered each other.
4. In the entire area from Bergen in the north to Damascus in the south and from Portugal in the west to Siberia in the east transportation came to a standstill roughly 22% of the year during the “mudsoon” season.
5. Crete was an industrial center with capacity similar to Munich, Milan and Warsaw.
Now all of this can be explained away with some tortured design-for-effect reasoning. But the real issues with Supreme Sorcerer go deeper. It’s safe to say we play wargames because we want to experience some approximation of the situation. To that end, mechanics have to bear some resemblance to what was available and possible at the point in history being ‘simulated.’ A good segue for …
A few more things you have to believe to take SC seriously as a simulation of WW 2 ETO:
1. Every power with a navy could mount corps-sized amphibious invasions every 1.5 months nearly anywhere (a few spaces are off limits seemingly only due to the vagaries of the way the map was drawn). Distance from supply bases or embarkation points are irrelevant, and nevermind that none of the navies had the required landing craft at this time. You can send the boys from Edinburgh, Scotland, directly to invade Venice, Italy, in 1940. Or heck, why not have the Italians grab the Suez Canal? Not to say the landing will hold but the ability is pure fantasy and gets players out of the mindset of the leadership at the time. Did I mention you can do this every turn? You can even launch the Normandy invasion from New York.
2. Britain could not bomb Berlin early in the war (though it did) but it can hammer Belgium and Holland (which it never did, being a political nonstarter).
3. Cities could not be put out of supply. In Sorcerer, Paris becomes a state-of-the-art military fortress, which, along with many other seemingly randomly chosen cities, can never be put out of supply. Minas Tirith, that is to say Paris, can feed an army and two corps in perpetuity. And the French fight to the last man. Capitulation? Jamais! Moi warhammer sil vous plait!
4. Geopolitical events had little effect on alliances. Russian annexations in Finland and Romania have a one-time minor effect on these countries and Russia or the allies declaring war on minors nudges some of their neighbors toward the German camp. But mostly politics in SC is just bribery: shovel gold at each country and roll low or you’re in trouble. I call it the “No Gift Basket, No Nookie Rule.” Three successes and you raise the swastika in Madrid. Which is much easier to do than triggering a pro-Axis coup in Iraq by the way, hmm... Meanwhile, events in Africa have no political effect on Italy. And of course we all know Germany attacked Norway so they could finally talk to Finland.
5. During the above referenced European-wide semi-annual “mudsoon” an army could move no more than about 80 miles in six weeks, even unopposed in its home country. Unless, in the case of Germany, 5% of monthly GDP is spent to move it. Same price whether corps or army—talk about a volume discount! For the Italians it’s greater than 10% of monthly GDP.
Much can be abstracted in a strategic level game but that’s not the same thing as setting it in Bizarro world. And I might, maybe, be able to swallow all this fantasy if it added up to something compelling. But ultimately there are few interesting mechanics. Basically you cast magic missile, which is to say you attack the unit next to you. If you clear the space you advance. Now if you’re at least 10th level, I mean have an armor unit, you can attack and advance again if the sun's shining. That’s it. No matter how light the opposition, you get two spaces. Roll low and you don’t even get that. Given this, you can see where gaminess quickly triumphs reality. The big Russian front encirclements will not happen in SC.
There's no finessing anything in SC, you just bash, bash, bash, your way through a nation's entire army. They then make a last stand in the capital. Once you've eliminated them all you have the capital and the country surrenders. The historical timelines are unachievable in almost all cases for the Germans.
Finally, I have to grouse at the ridiculous combat results table. Note to all designers: Don’t use a non-linear CRT unless there’s a good reason to do so. It makes no sense at this scale. You get into stupid situations where adding combat support worsens your attack. For example on the +5 column if you roll a 1 straight up you get 0/0—no harm, no foul. But wait, commit an entire air wing and with +1 you end up hitting yourself. Not just a small friendly fire incident but an entire corps is eliminated. If a WW 2 game’s lesson is that combined arms are bad tactics it’s time to find another game, Dungeons & Dragons maybe.
In D&D you can play looser with reality, though if you have a rule that characters can only talk to each other if they are physically touching, most would feel that to be unrepresentative of the world we call planet Earth.
Oh, and did I mention a single submarine unit (roughly 40 subs) can Fireball a third or more of all British shipping with one roll?
The Supreme Commander
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John GoodeFalkland Islands
Fire in the Lake has no hexes, named units or even a turn track, but it captures the situation better than any game published on the Vietnam War so far.
It’s counterintuitive to say, but its abstractness actually makes it more realistic. And I’ve played Victory Games monster Vietnam 1965-1975, undoubtedly the most detailed game treatment of the war. I now see that that game was doomed to fail as a simulation as soon as it followed the World War 2 wargaming paradigm: hexes, movement points, hidden VC counters, zones of control, a known time track for when units would come and go and when it would all end. In retrospect it was more like an interactive book than a way to put you into the mindset of the leadership at the time.
FitL beautifully succeeds where Victory’s Vietnam failed: Troops levels are up to you and the more Yanks you send the less happy the folks back in ‘the world’ are; you don’t know exactly when the game will end or when a key point in time will arrive; while the Americans can’t be matched in combat, there’s never enough of them and each U.S. casualty has other consequences.
Because the COIN system is unconventional it’s not everyone’s bowl of rice. I did have some issues with the game.
1. The four-player game is too chaotic for my taste. I realize it’s impossible to get the balance right among four sides with widely varying capabilities but you can screw your ‘ally’ into the ground in this game. What you do often matters far less than what others do to you.
2. Especially as the U.S., if your ally doesn’t cooperate you’ll be hard pressed and frustrated. As a corollary, if your ‘ally’ is clueless strategically (and we’ve all been in multi-player games with people who have the strategic skill of a Whack-A-Mole), your thoughts will turn to strangulation.
3. To stop ridiculous kingmaking there should be a rule that players must try to maximize their faction’s VP on the last turn of the game. As is, a losing player can often pick the winner by what he does on the last turn.
4. The Air Strike special activity is a USAF wet dream. Avoiding the US getting to use it is arguable your number one strategy as the reds. No matter what the question, air strike is usually the answer to what ails you as the U.S. Though it works in context of the game, laser-targeted death ray would be a more realistic name for what it is.
5. Though skill will triumph most of the time, the luck of the draw can foil all your brilliant plans. Now luck is going to play a part in all wargames, but in my 50+ playing of the full campaign an uncanny number have seen long sequences of one side getting the first move.
6. There’s a steep learning curve, though rules are well-written and not overlong.
Fire in the Lake suffers from a not untypical gaming paradox. Its complexity, not in terms of game mechanics but in terms of choices, turns many people off, so they don’t like it after an initial playing. But this complexity of choices, which requires persistence more than intelligence to overcome, is what makes the game great and gives it its replay value. Here’s why this game is a 10 for me:
1. It works great as a 2-player, better than 4-player. The two are entirely different experiences so you’re getting two games in one.
2. Skillful play will overcome luck the vast majority of the time. You may disagree when first learning the ropes but once you get a feel for what is in the deck you’ll be able to mitigate the effects of the big hoser events.
3. The full game is easily doable in a single session. Short game in an hour plus.
4. You can pursue various strategies. You’re not locked into the Westmoreland body count meat grinder (which can work, though not likely against a wily commie opponent).
5. There’s real tension every turn. Once the Pivotal Event cards become active it’s a battle of nerves.
6. It really manages to put you into the mindset of what the leadership of each faction was facing. From the ARVN leadership just wanting stability and to feather their own nests, to the NVA carefully choosing its battles to keep the war alive and wear down U.S. will.
This jewel doesn’t reveal itself after just a couple playings. But it has solo rules (I never tried them) and plays quickly, so stay the course and you will reap the rewards of the best Vietnam simulation to date G.I.
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