War of the Ring: First Play

February 28, 2012

After reading numerous reviews on the War of the Ring, I decided I really wanted it. I loved the books, so I was already sold on the theme. I know people who also love the story. The mechanics intrigued me. The style was impressive. Kudos to Ares Games on the second edition. It also seemed like a long game that would be hard to get to the table.

The Setup

I talked my wife into trying this game. She even read most of the rulebook, which is fairly intense (48 heavily illustrated pages). We played the game last week in around 4.5-5 hours over the course of three nights. This included a 3 hour session to start (including more than a couple rule lookups on my part), We left it out on our dining table between game sessions.

The War

Rohan fell in the early going. Saruman used his voice (and generous muster action dice) to raise a massive army of Wargs and Uruk-Hai. The invasion was swift, and Helm’s Deep fell before Edoras learned that it was at war. Edoras fell next. “Tom Bombadil” defended the Shire.

My wife was starting to run into a combo of good reinforcement cards and action dice that allowed her to strengthen the Elven nation and Gondor even before they went to war. Gandalf emerged in Fangorn forest.  Aragorn left the fellowship for Gondor. Pippin was seperated by a successful hunt, but met back up with Aragorn in Minas Tirith.

Gondor could finally declare war when the Witchking attacked Osgiliath. In the same turn, an army from Moria and Dol Gulder under the leadership of two ringwraiths converged on the realm of Lorien, laying siege. Massive Dark Forces marched on Gondor from the Black Gate, Minas Morgul, and Harad. Peligir was abandoned in the face of Oliphants. Aragorn made a tactical withdrawal to Dol Amroth just before the Witchking laid siege to Minas Tirith. I played the “Folly of Denethor” on the table to prevent my wife from playing cards in battle for the duration of the siege. On my next action I used the card “Grond, Hammer of the Underworld.” The forces of Mordor bled (I needed all three rounds from Grond), but the city fell. Not really surprising that the defenses wilted after their King abandoned them . . . I guess he did leave Pippin and Denethor behind to die heriocally.

Gandalf did little to aid the Free peoples. He did send Treebeard to war, but the poor Ents were repulsed by a fully garrisoned Orthanc. I attribute this to a beginner playing the Free Peoples. Gandalf would have been very useful for negating my Nazgul swarm as it went from citadel to citadel. It was the safe play. By keeping him out of the fight, my wife was protecting that precious extra action die. Companions without armies cannot be harmed.

She played a “Power too Great” to shield the elves, but I paid the high cost to discard this effect (a die and 2 cards!) The Nazgul descended on Lorien and cast “Dreadful Spells” to soften (2 hits) the defense. After a few assaults were beaten back, the “Black Breath” brought Lord Celeborn to his knees during the final assault. 7 VP (10 VP for a shadow win) Gandalf was still smoking his pipe in Fanghorn. Treebeard was probably “entertaining” him with some anecdote about the Entwives.

Gandalf does not concern himself with the troubles of others . . .

The Witchking then took a few Nazgul with him to take the lead of my hopefully game winning offensive in the north. The “Hordes from the East” had arrived, and I had an army where I needed it. We burned Dale, and moved on the Woodland Realm, laying siege. Everything was going well, but I was beginning to feel nervous about the ring. There were reports of spies from Minas Morgul. My eye(s) turned to Mordor, where fate of Middle Earth would be decided.

The Fellowship

The Fellowship was moved very quickly from the start. My wife was rolling two or three character dice per turn. I was terrible with hunt rolls and tile pulls. Each movement in a single turn is progressively more dangerous. Even as the rolls became better than 50/50 I failed to reveal the fellowship. (Stupid blind wraiths!) Even my play of the Balrog was unable to stop the Fellowship, though Gandalf did not make it to Lorien as my wife used him as a meat shield for a “3” hunt tile pull for the Balrog.

The Fellowship continued to make good pace despite more successful hunts. Merry was taken alive and when the fellowship was revealed in North Ithilen. My wife thought she had made it to Minas Morgul and was thwarted by “Cruel Weather” which found the Fellowship backtracking to Osgiliath which was teeming with Nazgul and Orcs.  This bought me at least one additional turn for my campaigns against the elves.

By the time the passed through Minas Morgul; Gimli, Legolas and Boromir still protected Frodo and Sam. Not good.  The good part was that the large fellowship allowed for better hunt damage. I was maxing out my die allotment (one for each companion). In Mordor (on the Mordor track), a hunt tile is pulled every move (no more rolling). I had added some powerful tiles to the mix, but none were being pulled. There were a lot of deadly tiles. An eye, for example would have done 4-5 damage on these moves. Gimli died in Mordor, but I was failing to draw eye tiles! I was not drawing stop tiles either.

Then my wife advanced the ring two times each turn of the last two turns in Mordor. I finally hit her with one of the deadly stop tiles, but she used her on the table fellowship card “Mithril Coat and Sting” which allowed her to make me pull a replacement tile.  The replacement tile caused only ONE damage. The fellowships corruption was at 9 (12 is the limit at which Frodo claims the ring for himself). Boromir and Legolas high fived amidst the lava before the eagles swooped down to the rescue. I lost.

Recap

I had 9 VPs at game end, and the siege on the woodland realm was going well. My wife did not do anything offensive as the Free Peoples. She dedicated herself to the fellowship. I feel like it will be more typical for the free peoples to pay more attention to an active defense. It was brutal (and apparently common) of me to descend on Rohan before we had really done anything. I think that I should have reacted more to the rapid advance of the ring bearers.

The tiles on top were drawn, the bottom 10 were the remaining hunt pool

We had a lot of fun and we learned a lot from this play. In fact, we had a second game played within a week. The BGG posters are awesome at responding to rules clarifications too.


Inside the Box: Commands & Colors: Napoloenics: The Spanish Army

February 27, 2012

Inside the Box is an in-depth look at the contents of a board game. It covers the quality, quantity, and aesthetic value of what is found inside the game box.

Commands & Colors: Napoloenics: The Spanish Army is the first expansion in the latest iteration of Richard Borg‘s C & C system. Published by GMT, it retails for $55, but can often be found between $30-35 through the usual online sellers.

As with all GMT games put out in the past two years, the box is sturdy and colorful. The cover painting, a group of beleaguered Spanish troops around a battery of cannons, really catches the eye. The back boasts a playing time of 1 hour, which is, I think, rather optimistic. The only eyesore is a graphic of Napoleon with a transparent bicorn hat on his head. Whoops.

Opening up the box, you’ll find a bag of 210 unit blocks, colored blue for the French and a dirty yellow for the Spanish. You also get 3 sheets of unit sticks, a rulebook with 18 new scenarios, 2 National Unit reference cards (one with all the Coalition forces, one with the French forces), 2 unit reference cards in a new style, and 1 sheet of terrain hexes. (Secretly, I was hoping for a correction for the card “Give Them the Cold Steal,” but no such luck.)

The contents of this expansion.

All together, the components are a step down from the Napoleonics core game, unfortunately. There are three reasons for this. First, the muddy yellow color for the Spanish blocks was a poor choice. Compared to the rich brown of the Portugeuse, the bright red of the British, and the royal blue of the French, the Spanish army looks…well, pretty bad. Even a few more coats of yellow would have worked, but it looks like the paint is so thinly applied that the dark grain of the wood comes out and the effect is not pleasant.

Spanish and French blocks.

Second, a decision was made to include small identification symbols on some unit types. Grenadiers now have a silhouette of a bomb, heavy cavalry have a trooper’s helmet, and light infantry have a bugle. This seems to me unnecessary–each unit already has its name printed at the bottom of each block–and from a distance, these symbols look like smudges. Worst of all, in scenarios that combine the base and expansion sets, you’ll now have some units with symbols and some without, which will probably just cause confusion.

Third, the terrain tiles, square track, guerilla tokens, and victory banners, which all come from one cardboard sheet, are incredibly thin. GMT has stated this was a mistake on the printer’s part, one that they decided not to rectify. The result is some components that feel very cheap when you’re handling them.

The new terrain tiles (left) v.s. the old terrain tiles (right).

While these three definitely detract from the over quality of the product, I think the uniqueness of the Spanish army still shines through. Just glancing over the rules, I could tell these guys would be very fragile in the field and yet powerful because of the guerilla special ability. I am also very happy that GMT made the choice to include two kinds of player aids: I do not like the original style (which you still get here) because of all the flipping you need to do to get some basic information. The new style, however, is excellent. The new handout is just 1 double-sided sheet, and actually easier to navigate than the larger one.

The new charts (left) v.s. the old charts (right).

Overall, I’m feeling a bit iffy on this expansion from a components perspective. Unfortunately, it feels like a rushed product when you consider the cardboard thickness, the paint quality, and the strange unit symbols. The system is still great, however, and Mr. Borg’s design is strong. It’s just that the execution on GMT’s part leaves much to be desired here. Let’s hope they get the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian expansions right.


C & C: Napoleonics: River Coa Scenario

February 20, 2012

Last Sunday I taught my brother the ins and outs of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics. He and I played a fair amount of Ancients between 2006-2008, so this was just a new twist on an old favorite for him. True to my vow to never return to a scenario until I had played through all of them once, I picked the next on my list, the Battle of River Coa. While this is a small scenario, it’s still fascinating; the British can exit units off the map via the bridge over the River Kwai Coa for victory banners if they choose. Also, each player only has four cards in his hand, so forming square drops your hand size by 25%! After a brief rules explanation, we were off and running.

Early Battle
I knew I had to drive hard to catch Mike’s units before they exited the map, but my cavalry started far away from his units. With few cards to move my cavalry, I instead advanced my infantry in the center, intent on knocking out his Portuguese light infantry before they could exit. (Also, the French infantry in the center start in range of the British artillery, so your only options are to retreat out or range or close and do damage.) Along the way, my units took some hits, but I was successful in knocking out one enemy unit.

The French center advances. The exit bridge is to the left.

However, in my haste to catch some of his units furthest away from the bridge, I advanced some unsupported light cavalry on my right, intent on catching his Rifles napping. Mike quickly formed square and sent some line infantry sailing in to drive my cavalry back and inflict heavy losses. Later on I attempted to bring in some infantry support, but they never really got in the fight.

Mid Battle
As the battle progressed, I worked to cycle out hurt units in the center and replace them with fresh troops. This worked well, and I actually managed to destroy a few British artillery units at the same time. Meanwhile, a few more British units exited the map and we were tied 3-3. Eventually the card draws started working in my favor, and I was able to move some heavy cavalry up my left flank. In a moment of daring, they vaulted over the breastworks of the beleaguered Portuguese light infantry, who were promptly cut down.

My heavy cavalry decimated the Portuguese cazadores. 

Set back on his heels a bit, my brother did what any good board game general would do–he suggested we sample some beer! I was ahead, 5-4.

General Mike distracts me with beer: Widmer Brothers’ IPA, to be exact.

Late Battle
After the break for beer, the few remaining British units set up in the most defensive posture possible on the hills in the center and on my right flank. I took my time, cycled in fresh troops, and brought up more heavy cavalry to fully block off the approach to the bridge over the River Kwai Coa. I focused on my goal and used the the tactical advice I received from a recently-arrived comrade, fresh from a rejuvenating nap:

Getting some help from my military advisor, Colonel Sweetpea.

The British tried to end it all in a grand charge of heavy cavalry, but my seasoned grenadiers took them out and thus ended the battle. The French won, 6-4.
My brother’s “losing face.”

This was a simple, short, and exciting scenario. The overwhelming size of the French force is mitigated by the distance they have to cover before the British slip away, and the small hand size makes every decision to “form square!” agony. I look forward to playing this again once I’ve played through the entire scenario book once. If I play the British in the future, I plan on moving my crack rifles into the fortifications that protect the approach to the bridge. From there,  they can pick off any French troops trying to cut off the Allies’ only exit.


When It Rains It Pours

February 13, 2012

Much like John, I was also clamoring to get back into some gaming over the holidays. I thought I would get a great day of gaming in on Black Friday as my wife and I were hosting a game day for all those people who didn’t go shopping. Unfortunately a stomach flu affected me, my wife and my oldest daughter so the gaming plans were scrapped. This lead to a drought of gaming in the early part of winter due to my #1 gaming partner, my wife, busy baking and crafting various things for Christmas.

But the long holiday weekends over Christmas and New Years started a gaming binge that lasted a couple of months! Below are some of the highlights:

Blokus: I gave my parents a copy of this game so now when I visit we usually get a game of this in. My sister’s family was in state to celebrate Christmas and I was able to get a few games in with of my nieces and nephew. After our first game, which I won, I made the mistake of letting them know I had never lost a game of Blokus before. I was immediately destroyed in the next game… and the next game after that. That will teach me to keep my mouth shut.

7 Wonders: My 4 siblings and I draw names for buying Christmas gifts for each other each year. This year I drew my younger sister’s name. She’s been getting into board gaming and I thought she would enjoy 7 Wonders. We let her open this gift the night before the others so that I could teach her (and other family members) how to play the game. I think I lost some people while explaining the rules, but I assured them that once you start playing it’s actually a simple game. After the first game we played again and it was a hit. I played several more games of this over New Years when my sister stayed at our place for a few days. I find myself really liking this game: quick playing, always involved and you get to create a civilization in just 18 card plays.

Zooloretto: As Jon mentioned, my wife and I were finally able to host that game day. We were rescheduled for Martin Luther King Jr Day since I had the day off from work. Our Priest was able to make the game day and my daughters and I were able to get in a couple of games of Zooloretto with him. It was nice to hang out with Fr. Mike outside of church – I think the girls especially enjoyed that. I don’t remember the scores, but we all had a great time creating our zoos.

Age of Conan: Later in the month Joe, Russ and I sat down to capture treasure and women and slay some monsters. Russ and I spread our armies across the board and were scoring points for the first age. Joe didn’t score a single point, but his emissarries were out filling his coffers. After the second age Joe got on the board, but still lagged in points. However, he was moving Conan effectively and was able to crown him king. That swing in points along with some military progress in the third age catapulted him into first place by the end.

The gaming binge culminated this past weekend with another game day. This time it was the Minnepolis Board Game Madness on Saturday. This is a monthly meet-up of local gamers to spend a weekend doing what we love. With the kids at my parents house it gave my wife Jess, and I the opporunity to play.

St. Petersburg: Our first game of that day was St. Petersburg with Greg and Trish. Greg was new to the game so I was explaining the rules. After hitting all the points, I finished by telling him how the game ends: when one of the decks runs out the game ends after that phase. Trish stopped me and told me differently – we finish all of the phases of that round. She was certain and after a rules check I realized she was right! Jess glared at me. I’m pretty sure a few of the recent games where I had bested her would have been different had we been playing it right… I think we’ll be getting this to the table again soon to play it correctly. The game finished with Trish scoring huge bonus points with 9 aristocrats to give her the win.

Cuba: After lunch Jess and I were joined by Brian and Nadine for a few games. One that I taught was Cuba – I kept the rules close just in case! I got off to a good start using my Large Branch Office to ship plenty of products. But my wife was able to get a Distillery and Rum Cafe together to churn out VP. Brian and Nadine got their little plantation engines going as well. At the end of the final turn we paid our final taxes and duties and awarded the bonus points for buildings. The final score was 71VP to Nadine, Brian and Jess finished with 72VP and I eeked out a victory with 73VP. A very exciting finish to a close game.

I’m sure I’ve averged at least a game per day over the last couple of months and it’s been a blast. I’ve learned new games and played some old favorites. I played with family, friends and complete strangers and had fun the entire time. Hopefully I can keep up a steady number of plays through out 2012.

Now I need to get back to the Kremlin to plot my next move…


Twilight Struggle Session Report: The American Perspective, Early War

February 13, 2012

A few months after Rick and I concluded our Washington’s War play-by-email showdown, I got the itch to match wits once more. But flintlocks weren’t enough; ICBMs were needed. So we started a game of Twilight Struggle using ACTS and VASSAL in early January. And while I won’t give every last gory detail, I will be providing some commentary about our play styles and what we learned.

Setup
A coin toss determined sides; I settled into the virtual Oval Office as President Ron Jojers, while Chairman Rickatov moved his family to the Kremlin. We elected to play with the optional cards included in the third edition, but not with the “Chinese Civil War” variant. The initial card draw yielded the following hand:

U.S. Hand: 4/US & Japan Mutual Defense Pact*, 3/Warsaw Pact Formed*, 3/Duck and Cover, 1/Captured Nazi Scientist*, 2/Korean War*, 1/CIA Created*, 2/Defectors, 2/Olympic Games

Not bad! I like getting one-time Soviet cards out of the way early if possible.

Rick’s initial placement is standard: 3 influence points (ip) into both Finland and Poland. I counter with my standard placement: 4 ip into West Germany and 3 in Italy.

Turn 1
Man, I love Defectors as a headline. I immediately cancel Socialist Governments, which I think takes the wind out of the Soviet sails right away. We see the usual successful coup in Iran, but Rick uses Marshal Plan to do that, so I get early influence in Europe. I gamble and make my coup attempt in Iran, and actually manage to eliminate Rick’s influence there. He keeps placing influence around the Middle East, so I engage in more regime change and take Iran back for good. I am also lucky enough to get into Libya (this can be shut down by the play of Nasser, and it will get me in the back door in Africa later). Rick does have Middle East Scoring, and I use some Captured Nazi Scientist[s] to get ahead in the space race. Turn 1 ends with the US up by 5 victory points (VP).

The board at the end of turn 1 (click for a larger image).

Turn 2
U.S. Hand: 
2/ Formosan Resolution*, 2/Decolonization, 4/Red Scare/Purge, 2/Cambridge Five, 3/NORAD, 0/Asia Scoring, 1/Nasser, 2/Korean War, 4/China Card

Again, I’m feeling pretty good. The China Card got passed to me in turn 1, and I have Asia scoring. I held onto Korean War last turn, and I’m hoping to play it once I mitigate its effects by taking some of the nearby countries. The turn starts with Rick driving hard for Western Europe; he headlines DeGaulle Leads France, follows it up with influence to gain control, and seals the deal with Europe Scoring. We’re now at US +4 VP. Meanwhile, I try to mask my intentions by playing ip into Europe and Asia, splitting each card. I pick up India and Thailand before playing Asia Scoring. This nets me 6 more VP, for a total of US +10. Rick starts a weak coup in Thailand after I score the region, and I start a successful coup in Iraq, thinking ahead to the next turn’s reshuffle. Unfortunately, Fidel shows up and the Russians are now in Central America.

The board at the end of turn 2 (click for a larger image).

Turn 3
U.S. Hand: 
4/NATO*, 2/Olympic Games, 4/US & Japan Mutual Defense Pact*, 3/Eastern European Unrest, 2/Decolonization, 1/Nasser*, 2/Special Relationship, 3/De-Stalinization*

This is the turn where you shuffle the discards back in, and unfortunately, I received no scoring cards so I have little idea of what’s coming. Rick sees his chance and headlines Indo-Pakistani War, which fails, while I incite some Eastern European Unrest. I gamble again with a phase one coup, trying to drive Fidel out of Cuba, but it fails miserably! (Maybe I would have been better to re-align.) We each spread influence around the world; I get into Africa via Libya, while Rick starts uses De-Stalinzation to get influence into Mexico and Venezuela. We see no more scoring cards, but…gosh, I’m embarassed to admit this, but…Rick plays Blockade and I don’t have anything to counter. Whoops. Guess the Berliners starve, the President backs down, and the Soviets are all up in West Germany. Hmm…that’s a problem. However, the only VP change goes my way (“We have a Special Relationship with the Brits, don’tcha know”), and I get out of the Early War with a comfortable 12 point lead.

The board at the end of turn 3 (click for a larger image).

We’re in the thick of the mid-war turns now, so expect an update in a few weeks!


Commands and Colors: Napoleonics: A Few Basic Tricks on the Attack

February 6, 2012

I’ve been trying to get C & C: Napoleonics back to the table lately, as it falls has several characteristics that I find appealing, including quick playing time, simple rules, and a familiar system. (If you’re interested in playing, let me know!) After ten or so plays in the past year, I’ve built up a set of basic tactics and ideas that I think everyone should know when sitting down to play this game for the first time.

Hand Management: This is critically important in Napoleonics, more so, I believe, than in any other Richard Borg game I’m familiar with. Why? Because this game is brutal; your little block men will get murdered by enemy fire if you don’t know what you’re doing. Spend some time building up a strong hand, by which I mean 3-4 cards that will let you activate a decisive number of troops in a given section of the map. Then you’re free to push for an objective for two or three consecutive turns. On a related note, try to keep as many units as possible on hexes that “straddle” two sections so you can activate them more often. No more of this “ah heck, let’s just rush ’em” mentality you picked up from playing Ancients.

Beneficial Terrain: Again, this game is brutal. Ranged fire has the potential to seriously disrupt any attack you launch, so use whatever terrain you can. It may not seem like the -1 die modifier you get from sitting in a forest hex is all that useful, but it’s often the difference between losing two blocks or one. Also learn which terrain types block line of sight, and marshal forces behind these barriers to stop artillery and other ranged fire.

The Hammer and Anvil: This is an ancient concept in warfare, but a useful one. Whenever possible, attack the enemy with both cavalry and infantry, using the infantry to pin an enemy unit (anvil) and the cavalry to maneuver for the kill (hammer). Light cavalry works especially well, as these units are speedy and can cover ground quickly. Imagine you have one enemy infantry unit stranded in a hex. Just a “probe” card might let you activate one of your own infantry currently two hexes away from the enemy, and one light cavalry unit three hexes away from them. Close to melee range with both, and declare the cavalry attack first. This forces your opponent to make a terrible choice: form square and likely stave off the cavalry attack but be punished by the infantry, or stay in line and get decimated by the cavalry? I would argue the risk to you is quite low either way, while the chances of eliminating the enemy unit are quite high. If your opponent forms square, he’ll be powerless in the face of your infantry. If he doesn’t, chances are your cavalry will score a retreat flag and get a bonus attack.

If these French infantry close to melee range, these Brits are goners.

These probably seem like basic tips for most experienced wargamers, but Napoleonics is a gateway game, and I think there are plenty of newcomers to wargaming who need to hear this. (And if you want to have me teach you the game, I’ll always mention these three things before we play!)

And now, please be sure to watch the first 56 seconds of this movie (Scots at Waterloo) to enjoy the Black Watch advancing with kilts, guns, and pipes at Waterloo. Magnificent!