ASL Saturday – Commando Sehenke

Going through the ASL classics, what could be better than Commando Sehenke sometime after Comissar’s House. ¬†Again, it is a setting of very intense, very bloody city fight and my opponent elected to be the attacking Germans. I was left with Russians and my first tactical decision was to replace my best commander with Political Commissar. Having only two leaders, I thought it would make a big difference. Last stand morale boost provided by the Commissar is, regardless of the ill effects – eg. rally casualty reductions if really unlucky.

Commando Schenke - 1

German defensive layout. Dummies stacked in the right.

Very early in the game my 10-0 Commissar battle hardened, but I did not remember that if already as good as it can get, it would become Fanatic. In any case, commissar proved out to be absolutely crucial resource. Inside building (building bonus 1-, increased morale +1), baseline rally check of 1st line trooper would be 9 or less – not bad at all…

Commando Schenke - 2

German initial push.

I decided to set up some portion of the forces and another leader up front to slow down the attack – fully aware of the fact that storming the fortified location is anything but easy. They were to fall back and die in the progress. Additionally couple of dummy stacks suggested Germans to channel their advance precisely where I needed them – amongst intricate structure of fire lanes and residual fire. Additionally, I intended to discourage envelopment that would have spelled doom to the fortified building. As I hoped, he did fall into it. As a result, he did not deploy some of the more important tools in his arsenal to restrict my movements and bound some units in false caution.

Commando Schenke - 3

Russian Residual defensive strategy.

Knowing the that the combat engineers with smoke making capacity of 5, it would be hard to put good fire against them and I started delaying action that relied entirely on residual fire and fire lanes. Residual fire ignores smoke and other hindrance, but they would not cause huge losses. However they would force caution – caution that cost time. And time, time was my ally.

Commando Schenke - 4

More residual… ūüėČ

I have to admit that rather stupid loss of my second leader and related stack+LMG did hurt, but on the other hand they did manage to buy one turn of time. German assault finally came in with support of flamethrowers, combat engineers and massive firepower. I withdrew from the most deadly locations but kept tap on the most likely avenues, and laid again set of fire lanes and residual fire to hinder German movement.

Commando Schenke - 5

German troops getting onto position. Way too late.

Combined with change in luck Рquite few DR under 5 against FFNAM units finally began to tell. Running through modest residual of 2 became deadly affair. Two turns to the end, and not getting the DC in place, not even mention successful breach, he abdicated. Without break it was simply not possible to clear the now throughly occupied building in given time.

Commando Schenke - 6

Protective belt of Residual FP around the Fortified building. Not much got through.

I knew it from the Comissar’s house that Fortified buildings are terrible. Almost impossible to reduce if one has no time. One cannot just simply walk into Mor… err…, to the building locations through advance phase if occupied by opposition. Every single location needs to be cleansed by purifying fire…

And that building has 18 possible locations to hold out. What a deployment possibilities for a defense to the last man.

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Mad Saturday

An opportunity came about to play 2nd ed Mansions of Madness again – actually, truth to be told, several times already between the posts, and for the second time we journeyed second time to the Sentient Hill. Not to give out too much spoilers but it was refreshing to find out that the layout was completely different than last time around.

This time it was also much harder, and frankly all but last minute of the game we thought that we’re not going to make it. Not that everybody did. We didn’t – sort of. My character was first to see the end for the greater good in desperate charge against one of the monstrosities spawning from the swamp not so soon followed by another investigator dying on misery of insanity – considering that my character was insane, but dead, he apparently also completed his goals. However, only if the last of us could put up a fight against the horror that walked on the hills…sentient hill - 1

As it happened, after throwing stick of dynamite to soften the abomination up a bit, it was engulfed in a fire, ignorant of the pending doom (considering the creatures anatomical aspects, I was less surprised than I probably should have been. A benefit of being dead I presume). Coming Mythos turn last one of us, was then struck by a lightning. Should never stand on a hill during thunderstorm – except, as it happens, when chased down by abomination in a shape of a meatball from someplace nobody dares to watch. Grass around her was lit on fire at the moment the abomination raged in – only to perish in the engulfing fire.

Stupid creature.

That said, I thought that while I don’t really like the bendyplastic(tm) miniatures, I thought that I could put some paint to the investigator characters. Not bothering to use the monster figures anyway – they’re too poor quality.

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ASL Sunday – Birds of Prey

It was a time for our semi regular ASL weekend game, and this time my opponent decided for Birds of Pray (ASL #11), scenario from Doomed Battalions (Originally Last Hurrah). Briefly, German paratroopers are under fierce attack by Belgian Carabiniers and as a last resort  are to be relieved by Luftwaffe Stuka dive bombers.

I have played the scenario before as Belgians, and nobody got even close to the bridge before being moved down. Hardly unusual outcome according to ROAR data and I thought that since the last time decade ago my skills have improved marginally, I would give the Belgians second try. ASL Birds of Prey - 1

Yes, they have about 2:1 force ratio, total of 16 squads, 2 50mm mortars, three leaders and single MMG to haul around. German forces are, well not a whole lot, but very good quality. A bit of extra punch in a form of two Stukas appear later. I do sort of like the small calibre mortars, especially the variety with ROF of 3 in any scenario which has mostly forest for cover. Unfortunately these were not the kind. Having ROF of 2 they are light but modest tools. Anyway, my regular luck worsens proportionally to the firepower increase, so it may not be as bad as it looks. ASL Birds of Prey - 2

First, I deployed couple of half squads to take care of the mortars and MG. No point to do it in any other way. Mortars were placed on the only elevated location in the starting positions and intent was to keep constant harassment around. In the middle opening was a good destination for the MG – it would dominate the majority of the German defensive perimeter, and as a small bonus, it would cut any defense in half. Rest of the forces were divided to the right, to look for opportunity to cross the grain field and to prevent Germans from vacating the close proximity of the bridge, while another more substantial force would flank the positions from the right.ASL Birds of Prey - 3

I got going quite well – actually event the mortars filled their task, and by turn two when the German planes arrived to the sky, I had troops in safety of forests and buildings – the best possible ground to remain undetected.ASL Birds of Prey - 4

Well, then the hilarious thing happened, for all the four turns German planes were present, not only did they miss every single bomb and shot, but second plane could not even drop the bomb because it did not spot anything. Well. that was interesting. Considering that the whole point of the scenario is the air support, thanks to the blunder of the Luftwaffe, the task of German soldiers got just a tad bit closer to being impossible.  Considering the last time, when Stukas destroyed pretty much any chance of getting to the bridge, it was interesting to see how much that single event changed the game.ASL Birds of Prey - 5

So, after the air support accomplished absolutely nothing whatsoever, the Belgian assault went in and in no time they were occupying the forest near the bridge. Situation was overwhelming, German forces defending the perimeter were one LMG and three good order squads agains modest number of about 12 squads and half squads close enough to CX to the bridge and claim control.ASL Birds of Prey - 6

Just at the eve of that final drive, my opponent understandingly conceded the game. There just were no practical way the defenders could have kept the bridge clear with the firepower they could muster.

Of course it last moment suicide dash to the bridge with massed infantry sounds, well, a bit gamey, but I could probably have been able to do that and severely maul the defenders before that moment. So, Belgians won Рno by skill or talent, but because the worst blunder of  Lufwaffe since placing Herman Göring in charge.

What about the little Belgian mortars then? Oh yes, they did well indeed. One squad killed outright and at least two routed & reduced. Not bad considering about 25% of the German forces falling victim to them.

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Fire in the Sky – second American disaster

We had another opportunity to play excellent Fire in the Sky. I was to take Americans again – however this time I was ready and had a much better idea of how to work the infinite forces that the industry pushed forward. ūüėČFitS second take - 1FitS second take - 2

However, my opponent also had much better idea of how to use the Japanese forces and it showed. This time however it was not so straight forward endeavor to push towards Australia unopposed, nor it was so easy to take Singapore – or Wake. Both eventually fell, but British put up a tough resistance in Rangoon, and the barrier held. At least for the time being.FitS second take - 3FitS second take - 4

Early war British attempt to relieve Rangoon met nasty drawback when HMS Indomitable was torpedoed and ended up at the bottom of he sea. And that was her first outing. Meanwhile, Doomed defenders of Wake saw a big carrier battle almost turning the tide permanently since Japanese suffered a loss of CV’s Kaga and Akagi along with CVL – however, joy was premature because they were only slightly damaged and returned later to revenge the fate of CVL Hosho. All this at cost of Lexington, permanent loss. A bit later, it was another big battle in the vicinity of Guadalcanal, where Americans saw an opportunity to snatch a Carrier or two – Shokaku and Zuikaku being harbored in Rabaul. of course Japanese reacted, but with way more than just those two. In fact, three other smaller carriers joined in, and Japanese mustered total of 16! air steps against my 8. Comfortable advantage that entailed a huge disaster for Americans.¬†It was to be one of the first serious setbacks that showed the wounded dragon could yet bite back.FitS second take - 5FitS second take - 6

It was a lot of work for AAA crews to cut the Japanese strike down to 3 and 5 respectively. Other carries survived without a hit, and other – well, a bit of repair time but nothing excess. My strike then? It aborted due to enemy fighters and heavy AAA. Nobody got through. It was a gamble and did not pay off at least on the short term. Shortly after Port Moresby fell. Now, only Guadalcanal stands on a way of Japanese wave that can flush over the southeast Pacific.FitS second take - 7FitS second take - 8

It was not to happen though. Japanese were now stranded by the oil shortages, and mounting US reinforcements made it possible to set covering forces to keep any serious attempt to gain foot in Guadalcanal. Rabaul on the other hand was build to become fortress. Initially 2 step, and later 8 step infantry, and covering air force made any landing prospect difficult, considering that Leyte held Japanese reactionary force sufficient to beat any modest landing attempt.FitS second take - 9FitS second take - 10

After beating head on the Rabaul fortress for too long, and seeing how Manilla and leyte become fortifications of massive magnitude, change of plans was in oder – next target: An express way through Marshalls, Palu, Marianas and finally poorly defended Kure. All was well initially, but once in response range of Kure task forces, it was evident that wounded Japanese navy was deadly dangerous. After losing quite few ships in various operations, mounting sufficient strength that would guarantee superiority was both costly and slow.

FitS second take - 11

Task force of maximum extermination. And how much did that cost? Too much considering that it was a failure.

FitS second take - 12

Closer I advanced towards Japan, and the oil fields of south,  Japanese options to utilize interior lines increased dramatically. Further I needed to deploy my forces for reaction and operations. Unlimited fuel does not help if you are not able to move things around fast enough.FitS second take - 13FitS second take - 14

After British lost both carriers, they became inept and there were little progress towards Singapore and generally they were content to keep the Japanese at bay and tie up some air, naval and ground forces. After repulsed a few times in Palau it was evident that Japan would not surrender easily, and when VP count hovered around 9-10 when there were only three turns left, I had to call it.FitS second take - 15FitS second take - 16

When force of four carriers (16 air points!), and associated other crafts made attempt to Palau, and then soundly defeated, it had DEFEAT written all over.

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Mansions of Madness, second scenario

There was an opportunity to play the second scenario in the revised Mansions of Madness, and this time the evident goal was to escape from Innsmouth. Not to go terribly deep into details, all three of us failed miserably, albeit two were nearly successful due to insanity that was setting in. At the end I no longer cared of leaving the town, but rather collect as much stuff that I could – and to that end, a fellow player was taking on monsters a tad too much. To my luck, it happened to be the one player with most of the stuff :D.

MoM-2nd-2nd scenario - 1

Early going, found the first cultist.

So, he died in the harbour, just within my grasp, fighting a angry mob and some other creatures of late. I was hiding and waiting for his demise to dash in to get his possessions but just when that was about to happen, the mob destroyed our way out and the scenario ended. So close, yet so far. I thought that I should have gone into the fry and give a kick or two to my fellow player to expedite his demise, but then I decided discarded the idea. Next time I will not be so kind, should the opportunity rise. ūüėČ

Overall, escape scenario was interesting, albeit we could not quite figure out the way out – mostly because of divided attention of players. There is certain need for co-operation and when one out of three elects to do things his way and not much of co-operate, then well… there goes. Especially when instead of looking for glues, he wanted to beat every monster in the the hopes of the monsters running out. Knowing the time limit built into the system, other two attempted to figure out as much as possible before running out of time. Unfortunately these two operating modes did not really go well together. Especially when we had no weapons.


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Review: Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror.pngArkham Horror is a strange beast intended to set in Lovecraftian world of horrors. It has been on a table now more than enough now and despite many fanatic followers – like the cult of Cthulhu itself, game fails epically where it should not. Fully cooperative games are rarity even today since they are remarkably hard to execute well. I think that I am done with AH.

First impressions – if there is any previous exposure to FFG is the obnoxious sight of small cards and other clutter. However, to Arkham Horror’s credit, it is probably the game starting the small card clutter setup which so many others followed and expanded. Immediately after reading the rules, it is quite evident that in order to play at all, errata & errata of errata equal to the length of the original rulebook need to be incorporated to the game to make it playable (alternatively one may go with very liberal disregard of the rules – and this means most of the rules). On the positive side, ¬†there are no rubbish miniatures, so that can be given a plus. Too many games nowadays feature very low quality “bendyplastic” miniatures, without real purpose besides of inflating production cost, and therefore cost to the consumer.

For playing experience it is notable that Arkham Horror is a game that moves along in glacial speed, yet being random as natural selection. It is a game where everything is measured in geological timescale and if one or more players are inclined to stall – well, you’d better prepare for a long and tedious session indeed. Don’t take it wrong, first half of the first game it was moderately interesting but then the rinse and repeat aspect took over. Move to the gate, close the gate, move to another, rinse and repeat (ad infinitum).

Author claims that the playtime is between 120/240 minutes. In practical terms this would mean that every person in 8 player game would invest 15-30 minutes in the whole game, including setup time and choosing of the characters. Apparently calculation is based on that every player do their turn (much) under one minute. Normally, the game times can be safely doubled, but in case of AH, 4 times the given time is closer to reality, given that all the necessary components are kept neatly ready for play. Unless of course the group has particularly fast players. It is still very long game by any standards, but manageable.

First game was almost okay (afterwards, checking the errata and the errata for the errata, found out number of things that were done wrong because the owner of the game was not well aware of the rules and related corrections). The next one was very tedious and long – albeit shorter than the first, and from the third onwards, well… I don’t know how many times I tried to like the system but it just grew worse every step along the way. There are no surprises, nothing new that would be even a long distance call from interesting. There is nothing Lovecraftian in the setting or theme. Absolutely none. Just same old, over and over again. Variation is superficial, and the narrative is hair thin. Too often, one can feel the effects of aging coming along when opponent is optimizing trivial matters, or just stalling. However, even when playing Arkham Horror even in relatively good speed, one may actually witness the erosion leveling mountains, and continents moving. In short, now, as unfortunate as it is, Arkham Horror has become most¬†arduous and boring not-immediately-broken game I have played.

Yes, I know many people who love the game, and could maybe understand why from the theme point of view, but what strikes me is the amount of fanatic followers of this pseudo-co-op game that is essentially solo game for many people. Now I am inclined to think that it is the blind devotion of FFG which forces people to like everything that they release, regardless.

Sad conclusion is that the theme offers interesting possibilities, but the execution is terrible. In all honesty, the co-op system really does not work. Very liberal interpretation of rules is required even with errata.

Partly the reason why the co-op thing does not work very well is the rules and their liberal application. Playing many solo games over the years, the core of the engine is the rulebook, and if done well, it is necessary to both follow, and limit the possible interpretations to as close to 1 as possible.

In short, complete overhaul of the system, especially the core governing the co-op aspect, and the game engine is needed (in fact, moving backwards to Betrayal at¬†the¬†House on the Hill would be better choice…). Dramatic reduction of clutter and along with it, playtime is also necessary. Currently most of the cards and other things serve no purpose what so ever, except at complications and playtime. For actual result they have very little, or no effect. Because there is currently practically zero interaction between players, every delay multiplies and causes significant downtime and wait. In 6 player setting half an hour wait between turns is on the low side, and many games would easily fit in as fillers. Being co-op game, one should have right to expect that players are required to cooperate in order to win, and not do so just superficially. It is not hard to devise set of rules that govern the co-operation and do get it done in meaningful way.

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Thoughts about Age of Sail

I have thought for some time the reason why it is hard to create Age of Sail game that would be fast to play, rather simple and rewarding. After testing out quite few light and heavy rulesets I have found out one common problem shared by almost all systems that claim to be simple.

Sometimes I wonder if the game designers have any understanding of the evolution of sailing war ships and related tactics at all – not to mention the sailing itself.

Sailing model


Fight of the Poursuivante against the British ship Hercules, 28 June 1803. Oil of canvas, 1819. Louis-Philippe Crépin (1772 Р1851). (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Necessary disclaimer: I have to admit that my sailing experience with square rigger is rather limited, but I have spend some summers sailing with a yawl and should therefore qualify to have experience greater than zero :).

That said, on can say that competent seaman is quite able to say with certain precision the possible positions of three masted square rigger in next three to five minutes. Viewing some of the modern era Tall Ship Race ships maneuver in harbor with sails only gives some idea about more or less concerted movements. Knowing the alignment to the wind, and course, move of such ship are predictable, and necessarily so. Evolutions of sailing ship maneuvers may take a long time. Which brings to a point:

Most of the Age of Sail games assume that the battle starts when the ships from both sides are already in relative positions and pay little heed to how the positions were gained. What is left, is little else to do but to slug it out. What would be needed is a system that allows the ponderous approach and positioning to be played out in quick mode.

However, it is not that sailing model should be excessively complex, in fact very simple one may work much better – at least one has opportunity to complete the games.



The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo (source: Wikimedia Commons)

When someone looks at the real casualty figures, dead and wounded in a naval combat, it is quite evident that the numbers that were inflicted were by no means prohibitively heavy. Many authors describe a heavy casualties when total toll was in their tens in a ship with complement of well over a hundred (there are of course notable exceptions, but that is another matter). It was also pointed out curiously enough that seamen were considered lucky because of the much lower chance of being killed in action than their land lobbing counterparts. Disease and other discomforts existed of course, but they were no alien to common soldiers either.

So, that leads to interesting observation. Most simple games appear to have their weapon systems stolen from much later era while preserving bits of Age of Sail. Interestingly in simple games ships tend to sink, explode or burn all the time while in reality it was ship surrendering well before any of the others happened – if even that. Most curious occurrence was certain very light game where single shot caused three ships out of six to explode or sink after first shot.

Monsoon seasWhen damage that is caused by fire is such that no vessel can take it for more than few shots (common argument is that the firing resembles multiple shots) it renders any attempt to perform reasonable maneuvers invalid (Common maneuver of wearing together for instance to match enemy course and tack would be borderline impossible). While this makes certainly faster games, it is doubtful if it makes the game interesting, or playable in historical context.

How would one preserve the durability of the ship, yet resign from tedious record keeping and at the same time maintain reasonable resemblance of the period rate of fire? How to account the smoke resulting black powder gunnery? Crew fatigue and other considerations without making a game too complex and tedious?

So gunnery is a major issue in many games that claim to be fast. It is just much too effective, or too little effective, but in a wrong way.

Command and Control

SCA.FPSo it rises question what is the interesting and rewarding aspect in Age of Sail? Over the years I’ve come to think that it is the command and control challenge and maneuvering in the tactical setting, more than the micromanagement of every single ship of the fleet.

Command system is absent in most games, and if implemented, it is only superficial, far too generous, considering that the players have option to see everything happening in the map. A capacity that most admirals would have greatly appreciated.

There are some systems – namely Signal Close Action that has paid significant amount of detail in the command and control system. Admittedly it is the most complex part of the rules, but it does give pretty good concepts of fixed signal book, message delivery, message relaying and limited freedom to act within the constraints of the signal. It does of course mean that players have to play in gentlemanly manner and respect the intention of the signals, but also it does give immense depth to the subject.

SCAWhen playing the game without signals, every ship has capability to do whatever they like to do. However, with signals, the story is wholly different. Now entire fleet is subservient to single commanding officer that sets out the grand strategy through means of extremely limited signaling system. One can of course address whole fleet, or just single ship, but doing that means that everyone else is left to act upon the previous signal – usually continue on same course and sail settings.

Relaying messages causes delays in the signal delivery and every signal has possibility of failure. It may be that when ships are engaged, there is no more practical means for receiving signal (or acknowledge it). In short, you lose the control at the moment the fleets are engaged. Precisely on the moment you’d need that hand of god.

Age of Sail command and control system is a reminiscent of ancients battles, where strategy may have been formed, and once units engaged, there were nothing that could be done, but to fight it out.

However, while signaling system is a crucial part of Age of Sail, there is still something that no game system has done well. Bringing in the point of…

Forgotten detail: Fleet PreservationClose Action

It sounds insignificant detail, but it is not. Fleet morale rules dictate the time when fleets are either forced to separate, or officers are losing heart. Too many otherwise fine games assume, quite wrongly, that engagements would rage on until there are no opposing ships afloat.

However, historically it was very rarely the case – and game wise it is rather stupid assumption.

When Suffren fought in India, no ships changed hands, yet it is the most active era of French navy. In general before the Napoleonic era (eg. before the revolutionaries decided to decimate the officer core) it was rare occasions that battles ended up with only one side remaining. It was rare even in the most decisive battles.

There are few things to consider, and these are not minor details, but dictate even some foundation assumptions in Age of Sail. Any fleet that has lost few ships will have hard time keeping up the fighting spirits, while opposing side would see every struck enemy vessel as a fuel to fight even harder, because it was known to landslide. Finding the critical point when the avalanche of losses becomes unbearable is quite difficult. Yet the overall fragility of the fleet would contribute to the preferred tack, and also to some extend the gunnery. Considering the options, fleet prone to low morale, or non-combat escort mission would more likely opt to disable enemy to continue with the mission, rather than capture or force surrender.

Rebel seasFor example, wind cage may be preferred because, if executed right, it allows one side to decide the point of attack, especially if sailing by the wind in parallel lines. However, one could see leeward side as better opportunity for escape, should battle go awry. Having significant rigging damage, it becomes hard to withdraw from the windward tack, therefore choosing leeward side may therefore be fully intentional. Additionally, in heavy seas, leeward side may allow lower deck gunnery more readily.

There it is then. So far, a Fleet Preservation has been elusive rule. I have not seen it executed well in any game, and therefore it has been necessary to make gentleman agreement on the conditions when fleets should separate. Some house rules have been attempted, but unfortunately they have not turned out to be satisfactory.

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