A Game of Maria

Maria is one of those games that have rather interesting flow and some interesting mechanics. The beef of the game is military conquest spiced up with walk on a diplomatic slackline. Our first three player outing turned out to be rather long, but eventful and interesting. Beginning was slow because of the acclimatization on the board, pieces, the politics and their long term implications. Initially none of the powers were particularly aggressive, albeit it was pretty evident what needed to be done to accomplish victory – it was just hard to figure out how to grab the enemy cities without compromising own territory and armies.

Maria first war - 1

Everyone was way too afraid of overextension – a thing which kicks back in military themed games usually pretty badly. To prevent overextension, everybody tried to do two things at the same time – protect own domains, and skirmish on the front lines without realizing that the best opportunity to play out the game of attrition is at the beginning. Few turns in, and it becomes increasingly difficult to fight battles with favorable odds. Several turns more and the Franco-Prussian inactivity shows and Austrian hand becomes so strong that it can do two things, draft armies in numbers unmatched by opposition and have hand sufficiently strong to strike decisive blow first in one front and then with gracious help of interior lines, before another power can pull coup d’état.

Late in game Pragmatic faction decided to have non-aggression pact with France to slow down the Austrian juggernaut. This was however too little too late, the squabble between the west had already dented both sides and was especially hard on France in their war of two fronts. Prussia on the other hand tried war of limited gains until Austria kicked Saxony out of the alliance pushing Fredrik into ill fated rampage. So, result was outstanding Victory for Maria Theresa who by now concentrated her efforts for the only thing that was necessary – not losing battles she could not possibly lose.

Posted in AAR, Boardgames, War of Austrian Succession | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Reviews of Obscure but Interesting Games XVII – Buffalo Wings

Buffalo Wings.png

While waiting for the release of JD Webster’s Wings of the Motherland, Against the Odds published magazine game about the Finnish aviation under name of Buffalo Wings.

This little minigame is more of a return to the relative simplicity of the Against the Reich and Achtung! Spitfire than expansion to the evolved system introduced in the Whistling Death. Wings of the Motherland will follow the path of the Whistling Death. However, Buffalo Wing’s simplified flight system is interesting.

Buffalo Wings offer a quick peek to the world of the Fighting Wings system, not unlike ASL SK series. It is accomplished without burdening players with all the load that the whole system carries. Rulebook of Buffalo Wings – only few pages long covers all the necessary bits and pieces needed for entertaining and decent aerial combat. Counters and map are very nice quality and the plane data sheets are written in sight of the full system and they are fully exchangeable. Additionally, the magazine including the game contains several interesting articles that treat the subject matter and give depth to the game. All in all, Against the Odds have done very good job there.

Subject matter is obscure and rarely touched in the aviation wargaming. It is interesting to see it happening and coverage is quite comprehensive. Planes available for both sides provide good mix to fight over, ranging from dogfights to bombing raids.

The modeling of the flight – if you are used to the Fighting Wings system is somewhat counterintuitive and requires a bit of learning curve to unlearn everything and then do it in a way that the very basic set of rules say. Turning allowed to single direction during the turn, inhibited banking requirements and completely different pitch determination system make the experience taxing if gotten used to the full system. They are also much more restrictive if compared to the rules edition that came with Whistling Death. By no means Buffalo Wings rules are even close to the middle ground. I can’t help thinking that too much was simplified.

Buffalo Wings offer nice entry to the Fighting Wings system for anyone that is afraid (unjustifiably or justifiably) that the full system is too complex or too hard to learn or visualize. If, however already familiar with the system it is probably easier just to use the newest ruleset and go with that. All the components support either approach. In either case, Buffalo Wings has offered interesting situations to play over the northern skies and shed light to the aerial conflict that is not well known.

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Reviews of Obscure but Interesting Games XVI – Desert Steel

desert-steelOn the series of Obscure but Interesting Games it is time to have a look towards North Africa, and stay firmly on sand. Admittedly, because I missed the era of PanzerBlitz by some unacceptable margin (of course I played PanzerBlitz few times, so it is not that I would be entirely out of touch). GMT’s Panzer, another take on the similar level is a story untold. I always wanted to have a game that would concentrate on the armored combat in North Africa, and went out and got myself a copy of West End Games Desert Steel. That said, I do have ASL tuck up somewhere now with the North African stuff, but that does not really count – besides ASL is hardly obscure game.

Decision to acquire Desert Steel was influenced by the owner of said PanzerBlitz – a game that I found quite interesting but could not get at the time. Of course, same individual happened to be also one of few opponents in Desert Steel and I seem to recall that he was not entirely against the system.

So, once I got the copy, it saw disproportional table time and almost escapes my why that was so. Then I realized that this title was, by far, one of the more interesting of West End Games offerings, and I would lie if I would say that I didn’t like it. Incredibly fast pace of the game provided good investment/fun. There were some, minor issues with the art department – especially the British side of things (some of the artwork was borderline terrible, and some counter art was outright unreadable). As far as unique systems were concerned, Tank Leader – and especially Desert Steel was concerned were backed with unique – at least at the time.

First of all, Desert Steel was a fast paced game, secondly if was much more about command and control than many of the other period games – a feature that I like, or dislike greatly depending the way of execution. In desert steel the command and control was precisely the thing that kept the whole afloat. Unlike some other adaptations of CCC, it did not stall the game. Command and control was in fact, such strong part of the game that several battles started to go out of hand almost immediately. Of course, these were nearly always self made issues. It was a very nice system that flowed fluently and many times I thought that the biggest problem with the game was that the scenarios were too short.

Good grief, how many times has that thought coming up when playing at least moderately serious wargames?

Desert Steel may well be one of the titles that would be interesting to see surface once more in complete remake (yes, the art needs updating, and remade counters are available but some of the rules need updating too). I would like to see complete remake and not only because my copy of the game was lost during the Great Purge – a time when many games found their way out of my bookshelf.

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What would life be without…

asl pocketYou may have guessed right the latest acquisition. Or not. ASL pocket edition is book for people with very large pockets and long journeys. Unfortunately my own three ring binder is separated from my current location by more than thousand miles, along with rest of the ASL stuff. Some of which is remarkably rare these days.

Talking of which, since recovery flight would be much cheaper than replacing them, I should probably embark to the journey to save my ASL. Anyway. Since I have not heard the place being drowned underwater, nor burned to ground I could assume with some margin that it is safe. Only spiders may have kept company to the counters – I hope.

So, since ASL has sneaked it’s way to my table after over decade of slumber, I found it necessary to refresh my memory. Admittedly I do remember more than I thought that I do, but still there are few things here and there that require refreshing. Not really into buying another three ring binder, I thought to be sneaky and have just the lightest rulebook available and sit on someone else’s table. Good news are that there are always lack of opponents for ASL. Proportionally more people have the system and no opponents in vicinity than those that do not have the system that would like to play.

So, while waiting to get my own copies back, I can hone my skills and have some reading along the way. I think that not bad deal. That said, I could have the book only as a statement of the power of the Index.

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Reviews of Obscure but Interesting Games XV – Bomb Alley

bomb-alleySecond World War at Sea: Bomb Alley is a game that had interesting mechanics and even more interesting subject, but unfortunately fell into victim to unthinkably bad execution. Perhaps the odd square based map instead of hexes should have ring a warning bell in my head but it did not (regardless of what people say, there is no benefit in the chosen way map reference grid is made, it is just visually odd). Map art was dull, while counters were actually quite nice.

System relies on plotted secret movement, much like Flat Top, and include search, chase, and aviation. So the elements are there. Additionally rules were quite simple, and scenario book comprehensive.

Several attempts were made to play the game, and while most of them ended up in proper conclusion, there seemed to be more beef in the scenarios than in the game itself. Situations that scenarios represent were interesting, but somehow the execution of scenario did not meet the reality when pieces were put on table. We pondered for a moment that maybe we played something wrong, or we were just so inept on the secretly plotted movements, but that was not the case. The system is just broken – at least partially.

What we figured out was that the system is flawed by design and it tries to add complexity where there should be none. First is the whole circumstances. Mediterranean is filled with potential bases for aircraft and surface ships such as Battleships really did not contribute much besides of standing AA batteries in harbours. So, why is it that the game has incredibly record keeping heavy surface battle system that is neither realistic, not fast enough to have satisfactory results?

Then, there is the question of air operations – good, or borderline fantastic ideas there, but then the air operations are so inefficient that there are too many occasions (if your german air ops even get off the ground) that the whole air operation has no power to punch enemy even theoretically. So all the effort and time spent in plotting most undetectable course over the Mediterranean just turned into action of pointless futility because there were at the end no realistic ground of fear from the opposition.

Might have as well sailed through the ‘gauntlet’ with all lights lit in perfect daylight without any fear of harm coming to the ships.

Bomb Alley would need to figure out what it actually attempts to accomplish. Currently there are good and interesting mechanics that are bogged down by ill design choices that add nothing else but bookkeeping. Air strike management, limited fuel, day/night, pre-plotted movement, search, submarine, minefield and all those are very good things.

Surface battle is way too cumbersome and hard to manage and does not produce accurate nor realistic results and air strike procedure is so impotent that title does not live up to it’s name.

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ASL Day – Under the Noel Trees

One of the classic scenarios, Under the Noel Trees features hidden, emplaced US tank destroyers facing German Stug III and Pz IV tanks that are attempting to cross open terrain. To make matters worse (or better as it turned out), the last line of defense was US paratroopers armed with Bazookas.

My opponent decided to place the TD:s in the half hex forest bits on the edges for maximum coverage (update: later found out that it is not allowed to use the half-hexes for setup. Something I had a faint recollection of at the time). Clever and very much unanticipated move. Infantry stood back close the exit, occupying the forest and giving pretty good last stand Bazooka screen. Ordinarily the scenario becomes dice fest where the US RoF luck declares the result once the Panzers are neatly in the open. Hidden initial placement, emplaced and capable of keeping the concealment, they are incredibly tough to hit and kill (even though they are OT, and would be subject to infantry fire as well as ordnance). However, as German (and known all too well how fast the attacking tanks can be destroyed), I attempted to probe to find out where the emplaced enemy tank destroyers were before general advance.

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Three tanks down, one dashing to the exit. Three others milling around to avoid US TD fire. Found infantry on both sides rather useless (because the US cowardice?).

Operation to find them cost me two tanks. Third one was lost in gun duel just before one of the enemy TD:s had it’s MA out of action. A bit of feinting moves to keep the remaining four tanks alive, my opponent then decided to fire nearby infantry with a result of the second TD gun getting malfunction as well. That itself was a relief, but in rally phases, both guns were gone for good. This event then opened interesting opportunity, given that the Bazookas were all packed in the other side of the board.

Because infantry had just finished their long walk to catch my third feint (or factually indecision where to go, but let’s call it feint because it sounds better), the opposing end was rather thin on suitable defense and my opponent conceded. On that note, It was to take me full available turns to perform the daring escape. All in all it turned out to be interesting scenario where both sides appeared in various times to be winning and then suddenly losing again.

I admit that I would have been surely toast would my opponent have a bit better luck (and if he would have set up Bazooka guys a bit differently from the start). What I should have done, is to screen the tank advance with infantry, and clear the suspect locations before entering under fire. In hindsight, especially when the US TD:s were factually without infantry screen.

Posted in AAR, ASL, Boardgames, WWII | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Reviews of Obscure but Interesting Games XIV – Flat Top

Flat Top.pngAvalon Hill’s Flat Top was a game I always wanted to like. So unique, so incredibly realistic design. As close to Carrier operations I ever envisioned. I checked every detail of the game in advance, read about it and got into the system in great depth.

Throughly appreciated the double blind design philosophy and that most of the information was secret. Game was essentially weather assisted hide and seek, hour by hour. Just what I expected.

I saved up a bit and got my hands on the game, a hefty package of maps, counters, and sheets of paper. Read the rules, checked inventory and was quite satisfied with what I got. And then, as soon as first play was several hours in – it all fell flat.

I went out to think for a bit, thought that I must have gotten some rules wrong because it did not feel right. Then, I read them again and found nothing wrong with my rules reading and was left perplexed for years. Then, we tried few more times with same results. Nothing changed, it was still the same, and then I just gave up. My dream of ultimate Carrier operations game died.

First, the system feels genuinely interesting when you read the rules. All the elements that very good operational level WWII naval game should have are there, and more. Hunting the hidden enemy fleets in variable weather is more enticing than anything one has ever experienced in other games. The thrill of finding the long lost contact, and then scrambling the planes up and organizing deck operations in nick of time to repel the enemy strike appearing from nowhere.

But the cost for all that? Administrative overhead was overwhelming and game was long but that did not explain it at all. Pacific War campaign is a tremendously long game, and has it’s share of administration but we got through it in very playable manner. Flat Top counter and map art were borderline depressing, but the same was true to many others during the time so that does not explain why it faltered.

I have long thought about why the game I so much waited for eventually came crashing down. Maybe it was the bias that overwhelmed me, and the To Hit tables that were not really realistic. Or, simply the fact that at the time I played Flat Top, VASSAL was not really functional option as it is today. If any game, Flat Top is the one that really needed it.vFlat Top was already somewhat outdated when I got my copy, but it would benefit complete and proper overhaul. modern game developments could remedy some of the issues that plagued the design. Many of the mechanisms and innovations can be found alive and well today – in fact games such as Burning Blue come to mind with far better execution (different, but in some respects similar).

If there is boardgame that would greatly benefit from computer assistance, Flat Top would be the prime sample. It is hard to think why anyone would play Flat Top without assistance from VASSAL, umpired or not.

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