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Subject: Last Blitzkrieg – Battalion-level Combat in WWII rss

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Darrell Hanning
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or “How strength markers didn't die in the Eighties”

I don’t usually write reviews on wargames. Okay, truth be told, I almost never write reviews on wargames. There are several reasons for this.

For one, I almost never feel truly qualified to write one – it takes a long time to become so familiar with a wargame that I feel I have any, real insight into it. And once I am that familiar with a wargame, it’s probably been around so long that nobody cares for a review, anymore. (Hence the reason I have never written one for Fire in the East.)

Another reason is that wargamers are, by predisposition, focused on detail, and Heaven help the person who states something incorrect about a wargame in reviewing it. (After all, damn-near nobody other than wargamers reads reviews of wargames. And if they did, what would be their frame of reference? If anybody falls in this category, please, enlighten me.)

And the third and final reason is that, frankly, I don’t usually have a clue how to get my brain around a review of a wargame. It’s much easier to write a review of a Euro-style game. You can generally describe the systems for a Euro in three or four paragraphs, leaving the bulk of the review to be filled with whatever creative rhetoric you can pull out of your…head. (This may lead the reader to assume this is the reason for this preliminary tap dance – to try and get my legs under me, before digging in. Assume away.)

Try to treat a wargame the same way, and you end up with a freaking novella. Composition of such (much less non-reimbursed composition of such) seems daunting and unrewarding, if not downright masochistic.

So, when I tell you I was motivated to write a review of Last Blitzkrieg – nay, was downright itching to – take that one of two ways. For me to write this review, Last Blitzkrieg is either one of the absolute worst wargames I’ve ever played (and I felt an ethical obligation to warn the would-be purchaser), or one of the absolute best (in which case this is a warning to your wallet).

For those of you who are just waiting to get to the end of this review, so they can vigorously defend Dean Essig’s latest offspring, go back to whatever you were doing – this isn’t one the absolute worst wargames I’ve ever played.

It is, however, absolutely one of the best.

Which is difficult for me to say, because wargames are all like apples and oranges and apricots and lemons and pears to me – I find it very difficult to say this wargame is unequivocally better than that wargame. (Except when it comes to, uh, Kriegspiel. That’s my go-to for bad wargames.) There’s always something I like about each of them, and often something I don’t like, and they’re all just very different.

And to top that off, I find it incredibly easy to explain what I enjoy most about this game. But I won’t give that away just yet – let’s go through the rigmarole we all expect to see in a game review.

Last Blitzkrieg (superfluous leading article need not apply) is a monster wargame, designed by Dean Essig, and covering what some like to call Germany’s last…well…blitzkrieg of WWII. (Although for me, the air element is completely missing, which makes it more a shadow of a “textbook” blitzkrieg.) It is the first of what is called the “BCS” (Battalion Combat Series) games.

The game is big – the map is about the same size as that found in SPI’s/DG’s Wacht am Rhein, appropriately enough, as the scale is about the same – battalion-level. Four map sheets cover the area, and for anyone familiar with the map graphics work found in the OCS games, the colors and style will be comfortingly familiar. Personally, I find the map in DG’s Wacht am Rhein a great deal more attractive and easier to read (actually, I find it drop-dead gorgeous), and it’s a shame the two can’t be married (WaR’s map and LB’s game), but there it is.

Including the info markers (and there is a passel of them), there are nearly 1700 counters. The average division has about a dozen unit counters (3 regiments of 3 battalions each, plus engineers, support, recon, etc.). The difference here, between the counter mix for LB and WaR II (DR’s version of Wacht am Rhein), is that WaR II broke armored units down into companies, whereas LB does not, so what was 2400 counters in WaR II is only 1700 in LB.

LB categorizes units in some ways that are familiar, and one in particular that is not (at least to me). If you’ve played any of the games in Essig’s OCS (Operational Combat Series) line of games, then a lot of this (but not all) will look familiar to you. But I’m trying to write this for those who don't know OCS, so, you OCS gamers, please bear with me. Most importantly, though, do not mistake Last Blitzkrieg for being a "spin-off" of the OCS games. It most certainly is not. Nor is it the offspring of the SCS games. This system (OCS) is not like either of those two, in any significant respect.

In your typical, operational-level wargame, you’ll usually find combat is resolved in one of two ways – either an odds-based system, or a differential-based system, both of which rely upon a combat factor representing both unit proficiency and size. LB uses what is arguably a variation on the latter, but in this case, uses an Action Rating to represent proficiency, and a strength marker representing the unit’s size (which will be reduced due to losses in combat, and increased due to infusion of replacement troops). This isn’t unique, but it isn’t common either, and is only part of the story, here.

What else differs with the BCS system (among other things) is that different types of units can execute different kinds of attacks, which in turn will use different modifiers and resolution tables. For another, combat is resolved with a roll of 2D6, with the cumulative modifiers (both for and against the attacker and the defender) affecting it positively (in favor of the attacker) or negatively (in favor of the defender). Results can vary dramatically, but since modifiers can go as high as about plus or minus 5 on a roll of 2-12, this gives you what you might consider a somewhat “controllable” outcome. (Yes, I use that word with reservation.)

Most units have two “modes” – mobile and deployed – represented by which side of the counter is face-up. Mobile will give the unit a higher movement rating, but reduce its combat proficiency, while deployed will be the opposite. Before you start moving a unit, you pick which mode it’s going to use.

Your standard infantry unit doesn’t have a combat rating, per se. It does have an Action Rating (as do all combat units in the game), which measures proficiency. The Action Rating (or AR) comparison between the attacker and defender unit (as there will be only one, primary unit for each side) will give a rough idea of what to expect in combat. (A division having battalions with ARs of 5, for example, is going to be one of your “go to” formations during this conflict. Expect them to get things done where lesser units fail.) Add to the attacker’s AR the modifiers an attacker gets for having Armor/AT support, artillery suppression, another unit assisting in the assault, etc. Add to the defender’s AR what the defender gets for having dug in, having its own AT or armor support, terrain, etc. Compare to the two totals. If the attacker’s total is higher, add the difference between the two to the 2D6 roll. If the defender’s total is higher, subtract the difference between the two from the 2D6 roll. That’s infantry assault in a nutshell.

Artillery can bombard, or they can be used during an attack in one of two ways – to suppress (giving the attacker a significant modifier) or barrage (no modifier, but a good chance at inflicting casualties).

Armor units have different kinds of attacks. They can engage (even from a distance) enemy armor/AT up to twice, and they can also engage in “shock” attacks on soft targets. Armor units thus have both a combat value (or “Armor Value”) and an Action Rating. And there are 3 kinds of Armor Value ratings.

“Red” AV units (those with a red number for their AV rating) are the most flexible, capable of providing offensive and defensive firepower coupled with mobility (i.e., tanks). This category has a special sub-category, too – the “breakthrough” unit – heavy tanks than can pretty much thumb their nose at anything short of guns the western Allies did not possess in decent numbers.

“Limited” AV units are those that aren’t as offensively flexible, such as tank-killers. “Standoff” AV units are those that are primarily defensive in nature, such as towed AT guns, but can also be used to provide some offensive support. Limited and standoff AV units are generally relegated to the Support role. This means that their counter sits beneath the HQ counter, but their assets are distributed amongst the other units in the formation, in order to provide Armor/AT support where it may be needed.

And the concept of support is big in this game, because it factors for both the attacker and defender, in combat, so its effect is compounded.

So, if these are our actors, how do they go about their business? Well, activity in LB is a form of an impulse system, based on formation activation. Normally, a formation is a division, but in many cases it’s a regiment or kampfgruppe, where these formations historically operated more or less independent of their parent divisions or corps – either due to mission or geographic separation. Each formation will have a headquarters unit, and the subordinate units. The headquarters is sort of the “control panel” for the formation. It will indicate how much artillery it has at its command, and it will have an effective command radius indicated on it. Kept next to it might be several information markers. Each HQ will always have a Fatigue level marker. The range of Fatigue values is Fresh, 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4. In addition to that, it might have additional artillery assigned to it, represented by one or more markers. If the formation is “dug in”, then a “Prepared Defense” marker will also sit next to the HQ counter. Finally, the players might wish to use the markers provided to indicate what type of support is available to the formation.

The last piece of the formation puzzle is the “supply tail”, which in this game is represented by a Combat Train unit. Like support units, the Combat Train represents more of a concept than an actual unit. Ideally, the Combat Train will sit some distance away from the HQ, on a main road, and thus “feeds” supplies to the HQ, which in turn divvies it out to the formation.

But your Combat Trains don’t always function ideally. Get them too close, or too far away, or move them (which causes them to flip over to their “Ghost” side), and this reduces their effectiveness for a turn. On the positive side, they can’t really get captured – just compromised – so an interruption in supplies can be resolved in a single turn (one day), if you’re lucky.

How a turn proceeds is that players alternate choosing a formation to activate, by selecting that formation’s activation chit, and the HQ for that formation is flipped over to indicate it has been activated. Once you’ve activated a formation, you need to see how effective it’s going to be during this activation. This is determined by the SNAFU roll. The higher the roll, the better. A Fresh formation will allow you to add 1 to the roll, as will a Combat Train being the ideal distance from the HQ. Things that can subtract from your roll are formation fatigue, a ghost Combat Train, and a few factors representing, well, SNAFU. “Crossed streams”, for example, means two or more formations are trying to push supplies up at least a portion of the same route, causing logistical congestion. “Coordination” actually means the opposite of its name – that your HQ was either forced to retreat, or has its command network intermingled with that of another formation.
You’ll roll 2D6 for SNAFU, and generally hope to get a modified roll of “7” or higher. This will give you a “full” activation. A roll of “3” through “6” will give you a partial activation, and a modified roll of 2 or less, and your formation isn’t going to be doing squat. You only get your full movement value and assault options with a “full” result.

When a Headquarters activates, everything in its formation will get to move, attack, bombard, etc. - with a great deal of freedom for the player to direct the sequence of events. And once that formation's activities have been completed, the player will check to see if its Fatigue level has increased (the greater the degree of activity, the more likely Fatigue will increase), and finally, the HQ will have the chance to activate a second time. Each HQ has its own second-activation roll, which on average amounts to being about a 50-50 chance. If the roll is successful, you will get to use that formation again, based on a new SNAFU roll. After that, the formation will not be available again until the next turn of the game.

Now is a good time to explain “Objectives”. Unlike in most other wargames, LB attempts to “focus” the efforts of formations, forcing the player to make some tough decisions. With a full activation, a formation gets 2 Objective markers. With a partial activation, it will get 1 Objective marker.

You must place your Objective marker(s) on enemy units, and what they indicate is a 2-hex radius within which you can conduct attacks. Place both of your markers on the same enemy unit, and you get a bonus modifier during combat, within the 2-hex radius of that hex. (There is a way of getting an additional Objective marker during the activation, and that is using a recon unit to “create” one. In LB, this probably helps the German player more than the US/UK player. )

You can move your units outside of an Objective area, but you can only attack within an Objective area. No more “shotgun” operations, like you see in other wargames, where you can send units hither and yon to attack whatever they can reach. You’d think this concept would make playing the game more difficult, but frankly, I suspect it has the opposite effect, as it reduces the Analysis Paralysis potential in letting a player pick any number of places to attack at a time, sprinkling units out most judiciously, to optimized odds.

But everything isn’t as much of a straitjacket as you might think. The system builds a lot of flexibility within that formation activation. You can move one or two units, attack with them, then move some other units in response to what happened. You can, for instance, move some armor up, conduct an armored engagement in order to take out or suppress the local AT support, then assault with your own supported troops against a defender suddenly bereft of AT defenses. Or, roll up a road with armor, engage enemy armor, push them out of the way, then rush through with infantry on their mobile side. Pound an enemy position with an artillery barrage, then finish them off with an assault, or suppress them during the assault. There is a wide variety of ways and sequences to use a formation.

And this is one of the two things I really love about this system – each formation is like a “toolkit”. And to torture a metaphor, sometimes your toolkit needs to work for a plumbing issue, and other times it’s needed to help with an electrical problem, or a mechanical problem. Sometimes you need pliers to grip and pull something; other times a hammer, or a pry bar, and so on. “Dual units” (units that are capable of both armored engagement and assault) are particularly valuable tools – as valuable as they are scarce. They are also often quite fragile, in having fewer steps of strength than other units, so you will likely try to be careful with them, and not abuse them. (Don’t use your crescent wrench as a hammer, son!)

Once you’ve completed your activation, you get a chance to activate it a second time, as I previously stated.

(I have come to use an alternative, house rule for this, as a friend of mine wasn’t crazy about formations being able to activate twice, back-to-back. When he brought this to my attention, I suggested he do the following. If he succeeds in getting the second activation, he places the formation’s activation chit in a “reserve” pile, and they will get to activate again this turn, but only after all initial activations are completed. I liked the idea so much, myself, that I started using it too.)

Thus, the game becomes an alternating choice of formation use between the players, and from a 5,000-foot perspective, it resembles a game of chess, in this regard - each formation being a "piece" being moved on a larger board.

Down closer to the ground, it becomes more objective-oriented. For the German this means finding critical arteries it can pry from the Allies’ hands, in order to shoot through mechanized units, not only to grab VP locations, but also to disorganize the Allied rear areas, and entrap units. For the Allies (which are 99% U.S. units), the converse is obviously true – hold onto critical arteries, which when distilled to its purest form means hold onto critical junctions.

And on the ground - at the lowest level of scrutiny - the game revolves around what to do within individual formation activations, as each one is somewhat its own, discrete puzzle (albeit one that fits within a bigger picture). Different levels of support, action rating, artillery, etc. make each formation a little bit (or a lot) different from the others, and some are clearly going to be more suitable for certain types of missions than others.

For myself, this has been a complete paradigm shift in my perspective on operational-level combat. Matters become much less about “piling on” to get odds, and much more about timing – about choreographing the right players for the right jobs, at the right time. Is it more realistic than most, conventional-style operational-level games? Yes, I think it must be.

And it is within this choreography that a narrative is created – a colorful, event-rich narrative I have not felt with other games covering this (or, for that matter, much of any other) battle. If I were to write a story about the events in the Breakout Scenario (my current obsession), as they unfold, it would be a hefty, detailed story, and the thing would damn-near write itself.

But the icing on the cake is just how utterly fun it is, too, and on multiple levels. Learning how to best use a formation is fun, figuring out how to get something done with a formation is fun, and learning how to use these formations in concert is fun. (I suspect the simulation value is a bit low due to the vagaries of SNAFU and second-activation rolls, but it probably evens out over the course of the entire campaign. It doesn’t bother me too much, as I’m having too much, damn fun.)

If you play a lot of wargames solo – out on a table in your abode – this will be right up your alley, too. First of all, there are multiple one-map and two-map scenarios, so you can enjoy most of what this game has to offer in a modest footprint. And these aren't "throw-ins" that simply merit existence for the purpose of learning the system, these fascinating puzzles in their own light, deserving multiple plays, and being thoroughly enjoyable the whole time.

Second, the game plays extremely well solo, as you can stop at just about any time, and pick it up later. Since you only use one formation at a time, and with the activation chits kept in separate places - depending on whether they’ve been used or not - you can stop about every ten or fifteen minutes, if you need to, and know what still needs to be done to complete the turn, when you come back to it.

And here are my only complaints about this game (because I would feel like a complete tool, if I didn’t have any.)

While all of the other components are great (good-quality counters, thick player aid sheets, lovely maps, etc.), the rule book is in black-and-white, with lots of examples that really need color and a higher resolution to actually be useful. Yes, you can download the pdf version of the rules, and get the examples in color (which I did), but that’s probably not something most people find acceptable at this price point.

The rules are not very well organized. This probably isn’t all that surprising to veterans of Dean Essig games, particularly in the first edition, or first game in a series. Also, there is occasionally some inconsistency in use of terminology, which doesn’t help. But what’s most irritating is parsing out of the activation rules just what is and what is not possible to do within an activation, and under what circumstances and with what prerequisites. The whole section could use its own player aid (and I’m sorely tempted to create one), as the current arrangement only adds substantially to the learning curve. The game actually isn’t all that complicated (and becomes something of a second nature, after playing through a scenario or two), but initially I found myself repeatedly going back to the rules, to see if I could do what I wanted to do, or to see what was required to make something happen. Part of this is due, no doubt, to it being a system very different from what I’m accustomed to, but not all of it is due to this.

Want to make this simple for newcomers, MMP? Give me a list of what I can and cannot do, with what units and under what circumstances. Cover all possibilities, rather than leaving the reader to try to deduce what seemed obvious to those playtesting the system, talking to the designer and developer the whole time.

A lack of color OOBs has been something I’ve seen griped about. That’s not particularly a big deal to me. You only need an OOB when setting up or getting a reinforcement, so while such a thing would be very attractive, I don’t put a big emphasis on it. I would have liked color examples of the terrain, on the terrain effects chart, however.

All told, though, this game has been damn-near addictive for me, in a way I’m really hard-pressed to compare to anything in my recent wargaming past. I can remember feeling this way about certain games in the seventies or eighties, but nothing since has grabbed me like this has. And the fact that you can get pretty handy with your formation options (after the sometimes frustrating but overall fun, exploratory process of learning those options) means you can start looking at the bigger picture in a whole, new way, compared to most operational-level games.

My first wargame was Avalon Hill’s Battle of the Bulge, shortly after a friend of mine received it for Christmas, in 1965. That was Bulge game number one, obviously, but as many wargamers can attest, Bulge games can become something of an addiction – first for designers, and then for the people who play them.

For some of us, it goes back to Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw, in that dreadful movie released in 1965. (Dreadful, that is, unless you are 9 years old, and not really aware of all the ways in which it was inaccurate.) For others, the episodes of HBO's terrific series Band of Brothers, where Easy Company helps guard Bastogne from the Germans (a more accurate depiction) inspires interest in the battle.

And for all who have studied the conflict itself, there is the attraction of a wargame wherein each side takes a turn at being on offense and defense, and the puzzle that are the roads of the Ardennes. All told, I have played 9 of the games covering this battle, and while each has had its own merit in one or more ways, none previous to this brings the narrative to the forefront the way Last Blitzkrieg does.

Dean wrote, in his designer notes, that he finally has the Battle of the Bulge game he’s always wanted, and I have to agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly, from my perspective of playing them for 50 years. Thank you, Dean, for not giving up on this system over the years it took to work it out – I am having one hell of a time with it, watching this battle take on a whole new life, after too many other Bulge games came close, but failed to do so. I truly look forward this system's application in other battles.
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Russ Massey
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I don't need to write the review I was going to write now. My opinion chimes with yours exactly. And I can't stop playing the bloody thing!
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Jim F
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It's a humdinger. Rarely been happier to spend £120 on something.
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Boomer Wietharn
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Fantastic review! Thanks!
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Rob F
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That was a simply fantastic review for what looks to be a superb game. You should write more reviews. That covered basically everything.

I'm personally waiting for it to be available somewhere for less than £120 in the UK ($154) which is simply insane. I've been reading the rules for the past few weeks.

Now for a bit of a moan.

You addressed one of my main complaints about the game; the terminology. It took me a while to figure out if coordination is good or bad. Dropped support doesn't mean much. Why not Support Suppressed? Ranged Engagement in stead of engagement? I have no idea why the term ”red” artillery is used. And as for "AV”... Why not just armoured? Crossing the streams, what the hell? "Ghost side" why not disrupted?

My gripe is that game mechanisms don't describe what is actually happening or what the mechanic is supposed to represent and there is almost no attempt made to do so.

ASL is difficult enough but could you imagine if first fire was just referred to as "purple fire” because of the text on the counters?

It's so damn annoying I'm tempted to make my own bloody counters and re write some of the rules using alternate phrasing.

Maybe it's just me needing to visualise what is happening, but damn, this game actually has worse terminology than ASL.

Despite all this I get what the game is trying to do and it's beautiful.
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Darrell Hanning
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Well, to be fair, "coordination" is explained near the beginning of the rules, in the Terms section, and it states right off that it's an unfavorable state, and why.

As to "dropped" versus "suppressed", I think either works just fine - neither having an edge in semantic value. "Suppressed", however, is used for a certain type of artillery support in an assault, so I can see where using it again in reference to armor support could be confusing.

As to the red values, that refers to a type of armored unit, and there needed to be some type of unique name for the three classes of armor/anti-tank. Red is the color of the Armor Value ("AV") for tanks, so if not descriptive, at least it's appropriate.
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Brian Train
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Well done Darrell. I generally don't play Bulge games (despite having designed one myself) but there are many, many good ideas in the BCS system, as you describe it, that can be applied outside of the Bulge.
The operational echelon (battalion to brigade) is the one that's hard to get right. Clever things in here.

Brian
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Tonny Wille
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You guys make me feel sick gulp

I have the game for 2 months now and still haven't found the time to read/learn the rules. I just learned the rules of the GCACW series and after playing a few short 1 turn scenarios, I just finished setting up a big one this weekend which takes my entire table space. I know I should stay focused and continue my journey into the GCACW series untill I have mastered it but with all those great comments... part of me just wants to start learning Last blitzkrieg as well
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Roger Hobden
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Very nice review.

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Finest wargame in a long time.

"Its the wargame I always wanted but did not know it." - Me
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Jim Lauffenburger
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Excellent review, for an excellent game. It is quite addicting, and I am playing it as much as I can (and will be for a long time). It has pretty much replaced my "OCS itch".

And I think it is quite easy to teach someone. But, learning it from the rule book is surprisingly difficult; even for a guy like me who loves to learn new game systems. I'm willing to bet that any two people who learn it only from the rule book (and don't look online for clarifications) will play some important rules differently. I'm not sure if that is the rules fault, or the result of simply a totally new system. But, for a totally new system, it really did need a world-class rules book...
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Lynn Brower
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First let me add my congratulations to Darrell Hanning for his excellent review.

Jim, you are not the first person to talk about the difficulty of coming up to speed in LB using the rules alone. Unfortunately I cannot undo 3 years of playing and approach this rules set as a new player. Maybe then I could understand better the problems people are having.

All I can do at this point is encourage people to make the effort to learn BCS/LB because I believe it provides a great gaming experience. After all this time I am still enjoying BCS/LB and still learning to play it better.

The Support Example PDF in the files section and the AAR Henrik Reschreiter and I are posting from our on-going PBEM Campaign game are attempts to show how LB works. On 21 July Randy Strader asked if we could make the AAR into a PDF file as an example of game play. I have just posted another PDF file to this forum. It is a very detailed walk through of one Activation from our AAR. I would appreciate very much if people on this forum would take a look at that file when it goes up on BGG. I would like to know if it is helpful or not. I would appreciate any comments, positive or negative.
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Darrell Hanning
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laufetc wrote:
Excellent review, for an excellent game. It is quite addicting, and I am playing it as much as I can (and will be for a long time). It has pretty much replaced my "OCS itch".

And I think it is quite easy to teach someone. But, learning it from the rule book is surprisingly difficult; even for a guy like me who loves to learn new game systems. I'm willing to bet that any two people who learn it only from the rule book (and don't look online for clarifications) will play some important rules differently. I'm not sure if that is the rules fault, or the result of simply a totally new system. But, for a totally new system, it really did need a world-class rules book...


I think this is a good point, and one that better describes my own feelings about the rules as written - read by two people, the result could easily be slightly different views on what can or cannot be done (or how, or under what circumstances) during an activation.

And examples can be very useful, no doubt, but I do not think the best example in the world can answer quite as many questions as a thorough, concise explanation leaving no holes for the reader to try and fill in. Several examples might do that job, but are ill-suited when playing with someone else, or trying to reference during play.

This system is sufficiently different as to warrant extra care in its explanation.
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