Reviews of Obscure but Interesting Games VII – Knights of the Air

knights-of-the-airBefore becoming predominantly age of sail naval gamer, and found the joyful 6mm ancients and napoleonic rules, I was avid aviation gamer. Before that I also dipped my toes about knee deep in Epic 40k but that is another story.

My long journey to the aviation games started from three games. One that really got me into it was as unlikely candidate that could be, Avalon Hill’s Knights of the Air. A game little seen or heard, and which remarkably enough I still do own but have not played in years (once I collect it from rather distant warehouse, I will promise myself to bring it on table). Once upon a time I thought about giving it away, or selling it, but over the years I’ve started to appreciate the decision to keep it. Knights of the Air is a genuinely interesting game system, something that you would not come by every day – or even every other day.

First, at the time it was published, it was really pretty. It is still today delight to watch. Second, it was about WWI, and had nice mixture of planes of all types. Even single large Zeppelin was included, couple of bombers and nice scenarios that pitted few planes against each other. It meant that board was never too crowded nor too busy.

There were peculiarities though. Each plane had it’s own sheet for record keeping, and altitude system that could have been better. Maneuvers were executed by playing cards, and there were mechanisms in play to make game more interactive. Spotting rules made life interesting because seeing your enemy was not automatic. All in all, there were features that gave you feeling that you were actually flying ages old, underpowered but otherwise well performing biplane. It was vast improvement over Richthoven’s War.

Flight mechanics were solid. Briefly, you went step by step to get right speed, power, altitude etc. and then off you went to do maneuvering which your opponent could intercept under certain conditions, perform maneuver in between and so on. What dictated your ability to perform maneuvers were your own ability, your planes capability and that wether you actually had any enemies in sight. Not simple by any means but very, oh so very rewarding once you managed to place yourself in right angle to your opponent. After hard maneuvering, you finally had a shot, jammed your only gun and then spend few furious turns trying to get it back in line again while evading enemy fighters that were trying to shoot you off the sky.

Nostalgic as it might be, Knights of the Air was then as it is today somewhat complicated game and hard to master, but by no means a bad one. Will to get through the rules and understanding the mechanics offered countless hours of fun. Rare as it may be, it worked even one-to-one fights, and for solo missions against bombers, balloons and Zeppelin (and that was really tough one…). Finally, when there were more pilots in the air at the same time? That was a bliss. No radio control to coordinate maneuvers or anything else, it was each man for himself.

Unfortunately, Knights of the Air has fallen into obscurity – if it never really was out of there.

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Reviews of Obscure but Interesting Games VI – Infernal Machines

Infernal Machines.pngI always thought that Landships was an unique game about topic that interested only few people when originally published. I was one of the few. Originally it was my friend and ASL opponent who found the game accidentally. I thought few years before buying my own copy in a spout of interest in WWI matters. Some years later -I acquired Infernal Machines expansion that completely changed the Landships.

I really do not know what to think of Infernal Machines. I really like most of the concepts that are introduced in the module, but the representation and rules are something only players of Arkham Horror would appreciate.

To this day I do not understand half of the rules (and the other half, I probably do not even have desire to understand) that came with Infernal Machines (or infernal machinations it became known in our circles) but as usual, there was something good in the supplement. In fact, the good part is so good that it really puts one in schizophrenic state and I started to question myself if the bad things were after all so bad. Infernal indeed.

In all it’s profound deficits in the rules writing department – like it’s parent game, Infernal Machines supplement have very, very interesting selection of scenarios. In fact, they are such that I would beg anyone to redo the whole in coherent, understandable and playable manner. Perry Moore will probably never see this, nor there is huge petition elsewhere but there is someone in the world that could fix the problem. I might be turning into thinking that one individual, Arnauld Della Siega, designer of “No Mans Land, Trench Warfare 1914-1918” could ask to convert the scenarios to his system. It could be interesting.

Alternatively, one could write new game for the components, only to play the scenarios provided. One of my favorites was an Enemy Within – such a fantastically interesting situation that any wargamer could appreciate. Germans fighting minor interwar war against communist uprising with A7V tank and other interesting things. How much fun can that be? Even with all the rules mess, the scenario was playable, and proved excellent couple of hours. Time well spent then.

But there are many, many more – most obscure opponents, in most obscure corners of the world, and some really obscure what ifs to pull more fun. Perry Moore may not be a good rulebook writer – or he should have aide-de-camp to assist him in that department, he does have knack for scenarios that are tense, interesting, educational and enticing.

 

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Acquisition and terrain plans

Sharp PracticeI mentioned desire to join Sharp Practice II and have done something to move towards that end. Besides of starting to think about the terrain that I would like to build for 10mm French Indian War (hills, streams, meadows and elevation changes among other things), I’ve made very small and very basic acquisition from Pendraken.

A few regulars (Colonial, French and British regulars, Highlanders to name a few) and irregulars from both sides (Rangers and Courier du Bois) are expected to enlist, to have adequate forces to pit against each other in the northern wild. And of course, the irregulars of the irregulars – indians. Sharp Practice does not require whole lot of figures, and were talking tens, not hundreds of them which is a nice thing. Basing plan is, well – open at the moment.


Now, what is really left to bug me a bit is that I need to build trees (I would need to build them anyway, but just a bit different scale, hence my hesitation over 6mm or 10mm) – magnetized (as suggested by Dagger & Brush – good grief I’d like to do trees as he does…) individual ones that would sit on the hillsides, and/or small clumps of two to four would be nice.

In fact, I need to build a whole lot of them and they should be substantial enough to make the terrain look realistic, but at the same time they should not tower everything else. Somehow it is easier with 6mm, when you know that the real scale is in no scale with the figures whatsoever. In skirmish scale of 10mm, 16m tree would be somewhere around 100mm tall. Double that for a big one (now, Sequoia do not count). Thinking of that, I am inclined to stay in 100-150mm range at the moment but then again, trees have never been my strong point.

For the landscape I think I should take a walk in a forest. Visualizing is one thing but looking potential landscape could give an idea of the volume forest should take in the battlefield. Too bad Monongahela is somewhat far but luckily I have some idea of how the region looks like.

Would be good target to have troopers and terrain ready by the summer campaign season and with slight bit of autumn colors it would look splendid.

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Basic Impetus 2.0

basic-impetus-2-0Well well, we are finally reaching the time when Basic Impetus 2.0 is about to land. Today is the day that it is published and I will of course get digital copy – and then as soon as able, bring the new system onto field for review.

One of the reason for ancients painting hiatus was the fact that some, if not most of the armies are altered in new Basic Impetus, and it is likely that I will need to revise some of the existing armies, amend few and change others.

BI2.0 has been a long waited indeed – and I do have high expectations.

More details: http://dadiepiombo.it/english-basic.html

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Reviews of Obscure but Interesting Games V – Pacific War

pacific-warIn a series of obscure but interesting games, it is turn for Mark Herman design, Pacific War, published by Victory Games in 1985. There are few reasons to wake this monster game from the obscurity it dwells in.

Pacific War had the honor of being the game that was for a longest time a game of choice for any events that occurred in Pacific. It was a fine design with very, very long and comprehensive campaign system that encompassed whole Pacific War.

First noticeable thing about Pacific War was that the box was packed with stuff. Among with them two rather ascetic (by modern standards) paper maps with dense hex layout. Second thing that occurred – after seeing the counter mix and the whole map was realization that existing table space was not going to be half as much as needed. Screens and Army & Task Force holding boxes would take another chunk of the table size of the map. So, when thinking that Pacific War was a decently priced acquisition, one soon realized that it meant another acquisition to be played. A flat or house with an extra room.

Pacific War has smaller alternative scenarios though – they would only take one pretty big dining table instead of two – but on the good side, you could have dinner after several hours of gaming and eventual deconstruction of the setup. Scenario book does have quite vast amount of scenarios ranging from simple combat situations to short strategic scenarios so all points for that. In fact, without those, one would be hopelessly lost. It is not only good thing for of the playability of the system, but also because if one is about to experience the whole campaign, it is essential to understand how each of the subsystem functions as a part of the whole. Without this rather crucial understanding you may find yourself first spending a day or two setting up the campaign, get it going and then get some crucial bit wrong and start over again. Shorter scenarios are quite all right, and some provide excellent fun for limited time. However, it must also be said that some of the system shortcomings become already apparent in the smaller scenarios.

The campaign has been designed well, and as usual, there is no practical way that Japan would ever win military victory over US. Acknowledging that helps the play quite bit – if one expects differently, the campaign play becomes pointless exercise of futility. However, there are design options that do work, but may not work as intended.

Goodies

Pacific War is comprehensive. There are details from strategic level all the way down to minor details of operational and battle considerations. Interesting design choice is to have each level as essentially separate subsystem which has the phase progress tracked in specific display. It really helps a lot to keep track of the progress.

The flow – especially smaller strategic/operational scenarios (such as Guadalcanal) is very good, and game flows nicely. Hidden deployment, decoy Task Forces, air search capacities are all very nice features that put lots of tension in the game. Deploying eyes – long race search planes – is the single most important task that will eventually dictate wether one is going to win or loose the game. If you cannot spot the enemy, you cannot attack the enemy.

Strikes (even simultaneous) are build up with tension and in battle it really feels that you are doing your utmost. Every carrier lost hurts really bad.

Shortcomings

The biggest shortcoming of Pacific War is the length of the game. Considering that it requires dedicated time, dedicated place and enough patience to go through most of the smaller scenarios, the whole campaign is not going to be played in a weekend. For us it tool three months to go to early 1944 when US finally conceded to the Japanese peace terms. It was very, very long fight. All in all, interesting? Yes, but…

Second major concern is that Pacific War attempts to be too much. It has aspects that go from strategic (logistics, command point system to activate task forces, armies and such), construction, oil logistics, strategic submarine warfare, commercial fleet escort maintenance down to operational such as fleet management down to each Task Force composition and then all the way down to almost deciding the air strike composition and deck operations.

In this level of game, it is too much management, too much remembering where all hidden units are without losing track. Purely strategic aspect with heavy weight of logistics would have been brilliant. Multi level game as Pacific War, would have perhaps benefitted layers where multiple people play various levels, sharing the playtime requirements and detail management. In any case games would be long, and perhaps it would’ve been hard to find players to fill the roles, but then again, Pacific War campaign game is not a something casual player can tackle anyway.

I never liked the air strike/combat system too much. Always though it to be fatal, but more I thought about it, more I came into conclusion that it is excessively so. A big carrier may have 6 steps of planes. Take two losses and you do not get to do the strike but will pull out. that is 30% of permanent losses for aborted strike in early game and that was rather easy to achieve. Later casualties were much more severe and they could have been pilots of top Japanese training. It is not that there are no replenishments coming along, but all too often carrier air groups would become completely depleted – and when war advanced, it was nearly impossible to dent American aerial defense (including AA alone). Nothing wrong with that, as such, but the quantity of losses in AA looked like Mariana Turkey Shoot – almost every time.

So, there were remarkable amount of empty carriers around while in reality earlier Japanese aviation aircraft losses were due to losing the whole carriers, planes with them. Something like replenishing one step for the losses after the strike could have remedied a lot for both sides (aborted and damaged but returned planes).

Conclusion

Pacific War is interesting take on the subject, but unfortunately it is quite unwieldy. Space and time requirements for full campaign will force most people back from it and the smaller scenarios, while quite playable and fun are not real beef of the game. Other systems have – and will tackle the challenges perhaps better than Pacific War – even if the system has unique and eloquent methods to handle certain operational situations.

Pacific War misses the key feature of the war somewhat. It concentrates, and forces players to concentrate too much in the minor details of the war – or perhaps even the war itself. Most decision points hover around thinking of where to attack next, not because there is strategic need to do so, but because – well, it is nice to cover ground. Realistically, because Japan has no way to win military victory over US, the entire focus should be in the strategic aspects instead. Logistics, resources, denial of advance and eventually slowing down the inevitable Japanese defeat.

I think there are better ways to execute the Pacific War in grande scale – in truly strategic manner, but I shall get back to that in later time and check something completely different – and have comparison.

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Beast from the past – ASL

aslWell, should have seen that coming. Or rather, has been around for a long, long while but there has been a gap of many years due to reasons revolving around lacking opponents and other stuff. ASL is such a package in wargaming that it is hard to say where to start really but somehow it seems to be having a new life again – especially after the starter kits came along and leveled the unseeingly high barrier called The Binder.

ASL has always divided opinions, not only because of the feared Binder, but also because counter and map art are something that today’s standards may look dull or even horrible – depending how super realistic terrain one wishes to see on game boards. Nevertheless, at least in my opinion, they serve their purpose perfectly and in time one starts to appreciate their somewhat ascetic look and information filled beauty. Then at the end one has to admit that deluxe ASL boards are something that are as functional as boards ever can be.

ASL is odd beast. It is interesting game but not because of the reasons that people usually get tangled with. It hardly serves purpose as simulation of conflict in my opinion. There are all too important things missing in that regard. While I played ASL actively quite few years and most of the time I preferred situations that were borderline suicidal, and always preferred minor nations over others I came to appreciate ASL from different angle. Besides of the strangely satisfying feeling that one gets by trying clog the unstoppable advance with troops that are clearly not up to the task, there is more depth that is probably more a kin to model building than wargaming.

After all the years of ASL, came break and I went off to play monster war-games for a while, then card driven games, then miniatures, and other stuff. And now I am longing back to the old friend that was acquired many years ago. It is easy to form an opinion about ASL – probably everyone has one, regardless of having played it or not. It is said to be monster, detail oriented game system for nitpicks and rule binder that is unmanageable etc. It would be easy to agree and dismiss the game but then again after thinking it over the years I have come into conclusion that ASL is after all quite simple, tested and eloquent system that does have lots of options, but most of them are not in use all the time.

That said, ASL is not a system that tries to model command structure, logistics, or aspects of combat that are fundamental to the outcome of battle. What ASL does is something entirely different. In fact, it guides you through evolution of weapons systems through WWII. ASL really concentrates on the interaction of various weapons systems, use and their development. And for that, every reference, rule and counter provides massive amount of details. Almost every conceivable weapon that was used in the war can be found, tried, and learned about.

To achieve that learning experience, scenario is laid out with situation, and then there is some, usually limited weapon system, or combination that can be tried to be used to break the opposition. It can be anti-tank rifle, demolition charge, single tank, flamethrower, AA-gun, some weird armored car, jeep, etc but the speciality is highlighted by the limited quantity and specific way of use.

What that produces, is not simulation, but rather situation analysis. Sounds perhaps dull, but far from it. I have seldom seen in any game such epic situations rising from the fact that one particular weapon is placed in one particular position, or heroic deeds by single individuals in desperate situations. All of it just click in most intricate way.

Perhaps one downside in ASL is that it has vast amount of modules, additional scenarios, historical modules and other material and acquiring all would need a really deep pockets and event the basics required to play the game are far from cheap (starter kits excluded). However, what the game system offers in replay value is immense. I barely scratched the surface and we did play almost every weekend for many years. Some scenarios were just so brilliant that they saw table time over and over again.

That said, I am not very good in ASL – especially if I have to attack. I am much better in desperate defensive positioning, but even my rather abysmal performance and frequent losses, I enjoyed ASL immensely – also when losing. It is one of the game systems where journey is far more enticing and interesting that the outcome – and that is not a bad thing but apparently alien to many who play to win. Also, best scenarios were done for until you were down to the last bits of time.

So, if one has an opportunity to ever give ASL a try, it is something that one should do. Not because of the system is famous, complex, or anything like that, but because of the incredible journey that one can embark even with the most simple of scenarios.

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Second Battle of Cape Finsterre (1747)

Second Battle of Cape Finsterre was a moderately sized naval action in the Western Approaches, taking place during War of Austrian Succession, 25 October 1747 between the naval forces of France and England. In brief, battle took place between French outbound supply convoy and British blockading force. Much can be said about the goals, successes or failures on both sides, but the situation is interesting, because of the force compositions that can be seen similar in total strength but with disparity in numbers.

Because of the 6 ship disparity, there is little meaning to establish straight forward slugging fest and see who wins the day. Outcome is evident given the force compositions. However, adjusting the victory conditions, seemingly impossible match may highlight the goals of the opposing forces. French have two goals, protect the convoy and make sure it has sufficient time to run from the British, and in the same token preserve as much of the covering fleet as possible.

British on the other hand are in for total destruction of French, and to do so as quickly as possible to reach the convoy before it scatters into four winds. Incentive to press the attack rests therefore with British.


Scenario

French Victory conditions: Escape with 6 or more ships (including Frigate Castor) in any state, and have disabled or dismasted at least 2 British vessels. If no lost HDC/RDC on any French ship until the end of game, French win.

British Victory conditions: Disable, or capture at least 6 vessels before the end of game and have at least eight British ships in good fighting order (<3 HDC/RDC damage). Each game turn not played after French yield and withdraw gains 1 VP to the British.

Game length: 30+2d6

Notes: British forces were commanded by Rear Admiral sir Edward Hawke, and on the French side Desherbiers de l’Etenduere. Because of French mistake in identifying inbound ships, French cannot signal in first 2 turns. Victory point count is used if immediate victory conditions are not met.

British Sloop Weazel (16) acts as a signal repeater and may be deployed off the map or leeward side of the British fleet.

French Castor (26) acts as a signal repeater and are  deployed on windward side of the French fleet. Frigate counts against the ships escaping if it does so.

British line starts from the lee side in full sails, French have easy sails and cannot begin to rise sail before game turn 10. French must delay British at least until turn 20 after which French may disengage and flee.

Assuming that all ship’s companies are Good on both sides and that French ships are in better state, British vessels therefore Average and French Good.


Force Composition

British fleet, line ahead chasing position on a rear and leeward of the French distance of 500mm between closest ships. Assuming start to be before Hawke ordered general chase.

Devonshire 64 [Flag]
Kent 74
Edinburgh 70
Yarmouth 64
Monmouth 64
Princess Louisa 60
Windsor 60
Lion 60
Tilbury 60
Nottingham 60 
Defiance 60
Eagle 60
Gloucester 50
Portland 50
Weazel 16

French fleet, sailing close hauled, easy sails, formed line ahead.

Tonnant 80 [Flag]
Intrépide 74 
Terrible 74 
Monarque 74 
Neptune 74 
Trident 64 
Fougueux 64 
Content 64 
Severn 56 
Castor 26
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