Monday, September 21, 2015

Wargame review — Churchill

Now Where Did I Leave My Cigar?

(Originally published on September 21, 2015)

Designer: Mark Herman
Player count: 1 to 3 (fully soloable)
Publisher: GMT Games

During World War II, leaders from the Soviet Union, Britain and the U.S.A. converged on select locations to hold conferences—23 in total—that would define the allied attacks on Germany and Japan, but also shape the world that would emerge from all that violence.
WWII essentially died giving birth to the Cold War, a reality conveyed in a visceral manner through GMT’s Churchill.

Played on a split board—one half a huge conference table, the other an abstracted map of both Eastern and Western theaters of operation—Churchill was conceived of as a three-player experience. Each participant sits in one of the big chairs: one player takes on the role of the titular British leader, another that of Roosevelt (and eventually Truman), while the third becomes Stalin. Together, they try to steer this unholy trinity towards defeating the Axis powers.

This is accomplished through a clever and novel conference system build on a three-way tug of war. Each conference unfolds in the same manner: players select issues—two apiece—they want to “discuss” during the conference (from war production through to political placement, all the way to D-Day) and place the relevant markers in the center of the conference table. Then, in turn, each player plays a staff card (from several, all with varying values and abilities) to try and advance a specific issue on his own track, towards his leader’s chair. Opponents can attempt to debate the issue and pull it back towards them, and so it goes until all staff cards have been played. Once per conference, the leader himself can stand up and speak instead of one of his minions—to great effect—but each such occurrence comes at the expense of a die roll that may have unintended consequences: Roosevelt may die (vacating his chair for Truman), Churchill may suffer a stroke (rendering him unusable during the next conference), and Stalin may go full-on paranoid, taking each subsequent Soviet staff card down one notch in efficiency.

When the dust settles, whoever has the most issue markers on his own track “wins” the conference (which bestows victory points), and the all issues are then implemented on the battle half of the board. Production markers are allocated to various endeavors (with “allies” sometimes helping each other against their will), resources are dedicated to advancing the many fronts towards Germany and Japan, research is done on the A-bomb (perhaps with the Russians spying on the proceedings), the Western allies possibly storm the beaches of Normandy and Russia might declare war on Japan, and so on.

At the end of 10 conferences, three situations can arise.
  1. Both Axis powers have been defeated, and the player in the lead is less than 16 points ahead of the player in last place. In this case, the player in the lead wins.
  2. Both Axis powers have been defeated, but the player in the lead is 16 or more points ahead of the player in last place. In this case, a die is rolled and the result added to 15. If the player in the lead is less than that new number of points ahead of the player in last place, the player in the lead wins. Otherwise, the player in second place wins.
The rationale here is that a point leader who pulled ahead too much will find himself with the other two powers allied against him in the postwar world. Hence the notion that the player in second place should win—because his situation will be preferable in the New Order.
  1. Either Axis power (or both of them) are undefeated. In that case, the player in first place subtracts 1d6 from his score, the player in 2nd place subtract half a d6 from his score, and the player in last place adds 1d6 to his score. Highest score wins.
Yes, this eventuality comes down to a die roll. But failure to defeat the Axis produces a world in the throes of chaos, and players should expect nothing more at the end of such a disastrous session.

And that’s pretty much it. There are many subtleties at each step of the turn sequence, but the overall system is very simple. Or so it seems—we’ll get back to this later.


WAR PRODUCTION

Churchill is housed in one of GMT’s double-deep boxes, a very sturdy cage of cardboard that could take a beating and still walk home. The cover gives off a Spartan, solemn feel, which is appropriate given the subject matter.
Similarly, the (mounted) board has a very business-like look to it. This is no artsy wargame map, with lovely terrain renderings: it’s a war room map, where abstractions are placed as reminders of what stands where at any given time. Any more would simply not be relevant.

Then come four decks of cards—one for each leader, plus the conference deck—printed on good card stock. Not too thick as to become cumbersome when it’s time to shuffle, but tough enough to keep sleeves at bay and still look great. The equipment also features a variety of thick counters, die-cut à la Eurogame (complete with rounded corners), as well as wooden cubes and assorted bits to represent the belligerents’ influence in both theaters of operations. Some might take offense at the perceived cheapness of the bingo tiddlywinks used to track clandestine networks in relevant countries, but the little transparent discs are frankly the best tool for the job.

Three player aid folders round out the package, highlighting the three most important chunks of info in the whole game: an annotated sequence of play (with roughly 20 steps each turn, you want to make sure you don’t skip anything), the allocation of victory points (26 different cases, easy to overlook), and a detailed description of the three game-end situations. The flowcharts for bots that allow Churchill to run on less than three human brains take up the rest of each player aid.


RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Boiled down to its essential nuts and bolts, Churchill is a very simple game. Yet the rulebook clocks in at 36 pages—but nothing could be further from the truth.
The first seven pages offer a “first look” at the different mechanisms in the game. A gray box at the bottom of page 7 shouts “STOP! At this point you have the basic rules and concepts for playing a game of Churchill.” Now, while it is true that every working part gets touched upon in that initial foray, the following section (10 more pages) explains all the details that make the engine run. So I wouldn’t recommend that three newbies attempt a game of Churchill armed with only the limited knowledge contained in that first, introductory chunk of rules. What that summary does really well, however, is prepare a new opponent (or two) for a game where an experienced player will run the show, without the need for them to actually read the entire rulebook.
Next up are four pages of scenarios, one page on the secret agenda variant (which introduces some uncertainty as to final scores), a one-pager for the solitaire experience (using two of the aforementioned bots), and then various odds and ends, including a glossary, an illustrated example of play, and designer’s notes.

All in all, we’re left with 17 pages of actual rules. And those make for an easy read, which pretty much lines up with the complexity level of 2 that GMT highlights on the back of the box. Except that this will only become true after your first game. And that’s a crucial point. Learning how to pull the various levers found in Churchill is easy. Understanding what those levers will achieve is impossible without at least one session under your gamer belt.

One word on the bots. The game comes with three systems meant to replace human opponents when flesh-and-blood decision makers prove not to be available. They work fine, but the game still requires a human operator to play the bot’s hand to the best of his abilities. So single players hoping to play Churchill by themselves beware: the solo game is very much like playing each of the three hands yourself, albeit with some nudging this way or that from the relevant bot. Just don’t expect an actual AI who can surprise you with a move you failed to anticipate.


FUN FACTOR

The fun I derive from a boardgame can come from a wide variety of sources. In El Grande, I like seizing majority in a region at the last possible moment; in Union Pacific, I relish the tension of not knowing when the next dividend card will pop up; in Combat Commander, I am thrilled by the random events to which both opponents need to adapt. In Churchill? There are many things I enjoy here, to be sure, but I believe the one aspect that entertains me the most is how such a simple set of rules can yield that much gameplay depth. And the fact that player actions couldn’t be simpler—pull on an issue until it’s in your lap—blankets the whole proceedings with some sort of magical aura. You really feel like the leader of a major nation, imposing your will with the mere flick of your silver tongue… all resulting in major (and sometimes catastrophic) consequences.

It’s a lot of fun to look at your available staff (i.e. your hand of cards) at the start of a conference, and try to figure out what issues you think you can get away with. Sometimes the two issues you’ll place on the conference table will be crucial to your strategy, and sometimes you’ll select one as bait so that an opponent will concentrate on that particular issue and leave the other one alone. Other times, you’ll focus on one area and leave a desirable issue off the table in the hope that an opponent will decide to put it in play… and try to hide your smug grin when he does slap it down on the table.

I’m just scratching the surface here, but my point is that the fun of Churchill—and, indeed, the very heart of the game—lies around the conference table. The rest is implementation, where players have very little leeway. It’s a very different game, and I believe that a prospective player expecting something akin to moving pieces on a battle map is setting himself up for first-class disappointment.


PARTING SHOTS

I’m not nearly done exploring everything Churchill has to offer. But I’m hooked: each time I finish a game, I want another dose. Right now, goddam it.

It bears repeating: the “consequential” learning curve (learning not how to use actions in the game, but what those actions will entail) is one of the steepest I’ve seen in a long time. But on the other side of that hill, it’s a very pleasant path. Not a plateau, mind you: the road keeps rising, and therein lies the genuine depth of the game.

Churchill is a new type of game, reminiscent of GMT’s own Twilight Struggle in its treatment of influence over brute force. It’s almost more of a mind game than anything else. And that blows me away. See? Designer Mark Herman wasn’t happy with having invented the card-driven game (CDG). He needed to one-up himself and give birth to yet another new breed of wargame.

So when I heard that Herman was already hard at work on a new incarnation of his system involving Pericles & friends, I thought that maybe my rejection of the Santa Claus myth had been a little on the hasty side.



# # #

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wargame review — Combat Commander: Pacific

Combat Commander is Back, 

and This Time It's Speaking Japanese!

(Originally published on February 26, 2009)

Designers: John Foley, Chad Jensen
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

Part of GMT’s Combat Commander series, Combat Commander: Pacific is a card-driven, scenario-based infantry tactical wargame for two players.
(Great pickup line, isn’t it?)

So you’ve got scenarios covering 12 of the most interesting engagements that took place in the Pacific during WWII. You’ve got maps (double-sided) with big hexagons that depict a variety of terrains. You’ve also got units (5/8”) ranging from lone leaders to squads of men, all armed to the teeth with a handful of stats. And you’ve also got cards, assembled together to form each nation’s Fate Deck—a cardboard heart whose regular beating keeps the game alive from start to finish.

Every Fate Card sports a host of information: an order, an action, an avent, a die roll, a random hex and an event. A Fate Card acts as a microcosm of pretty much the entire game—so we’ll explore CC:P's mechanics through this little but extremely useful pasteboard window.

ORDERS

Each Fate Card features one order.
Orders are the main game function that you can, well, order your units to perform. They range from Move and Fire to Infiltrate and Revive.
Each scenario indicates how many orders either side can play within a turn. The player can stop before that upper limit, though, either by choice of because of lack of playable cards, thus creating a flexible turn structure: you never know exactly when a player’s turn will be over.
Ordering units around is as easy as playing a card for its order and choosing the unit that receives it. If the selected unit is a leader, then it acts as a relay that can transmit the order to all units within his command range (typically one or two hexes).

Move, one of the main orders, has the ordered unit(s) travel across the map according to their movement rating and the type of terrain they encounter.

Fire, another common order, involves at least one unit firing at an enemy. Begin with the firing unit’s firepower (a value usually somewhere between 1 and 6), take into account any relevant modifiers (such as terrain advantage, or an adjacent unit firing at same target) and add a die roll—that is, flip the next Fate Card from your deck and add the value of the two dice in the lower right corner.
Then look up the target’s morale (probably in the 6 to 10 range), factor in relevant modifiers and add a die roll. If the attack total is higher than the defense total, the target unit is broken, i.e. flipped over to reveal lowered stats. A broken unit that’s broken again is eliminated (earning points for the opponent!).

Revive, one of the most beloved orders, allows a player to rally (un-break) units.

Advance, a most sneaky order, has a unit crawl forward one hex on the map, avoiding the opportunity fire a Move order often draws.

Other orders call in artillery fire, bring an airplane into play (gotta love those strafing and bombing runs), have Japanese units charge the enemy… There are 10 orders in all. Plenty to keep you occupied.
  
ACTIONS

On each Fate Card, right under the order, stands an action.
An action acts on an order the same way an adverb acts on a verb: once the order is out there, an action can come in and spice things up.

Hand Grenades is a popular action that’s played on a Fire order to add 2 to the attack total when targeting an adjacent hex.

Smoke Screen is played on a Move order to lay smoke in an attempt to cross territory in a safe manner (of course).

Hidden Mines places mines in the hex the enemy just moved into. Didn’t see those coming…

Fire is an order and an action: it can be played on the opponent’s Move order as opportunity fire. And how about playing another action—Crossfire—on top of that? (Adds +2 when firing at a moving target.) That’ll teach ‘em to stay put.

And so on down the list of available actions. 21 in total, available in the usual flavors: strawberry, chocolate, and sweet revenge.
  
TRIGGERS

Some of the die rolls illustrated in the bottom right corner of each card have a red rectangle around them. That’s a trigger, and it pauses the game while it gets resolved. A Disperse trigger removes one smoke or illumination device (for those night scenarios) from the map. A Sniper trigger requires players to flip the next card in the deck and look up the random hex letter-number identifier, such as “A7” or “F2”. (Break a unit in or adjacent to that hex.) An Event trigger has players flip another card and execute the event found there (more on that in a moment).
As for the Time trigger, well… we’ll keep that for the end, now won’t we?
  
RANDOM HEXES

Various game functions, such as the Air Support event or the Sniper trigger seen above, require a random hex to be determined. In each case, the active player flips the top card of his Fate Deck and simply takes a look at the letter-number identifier. Easier than that and we’d be reloading your BAR for you.
  
EVENTS

In CC:P, thanks to the plethora of Events scattered throughout each Fate Deck, pretty much anything can happen. Whenever an Event trigger pops out, flip the next card and let the good times roll. Some events are good, some not so good, but they almost all change the game in one way or another. Fire might catch in a random hex (flip a card!) or, if already burning, move around and spread devastation in its wake. Units get shell-shocked. Weapons jam or blow up. Mines, wire and smoke pop up in unexpected locations. Reinforcements show up. Better yet—a hero arrives on the scene!

Events are a huge part of what makes the game fun. They create unpredictable situations that both players have to deal with. It’s all about adaptation and flexibility. Your way to the scenario’s main objective has just been cut out by a ferocious blaze. What do you do?
  
GAME END

A CC:P scenario comes to a conclusion in one of three ways. If a player no longer has any units on the map, or if his casualties reach a predetermined total, his opponent wins. But the most interesting end-game mechanism is the time track.
Whenever a Time trigger shows up on a card, or a player’s Fate Deck is exhausted, the relevant deck is reshuffled and the time marker it moved one space forward on its track. When the marker reaches the spot that—according to the current scenario—indicates the game is over, whoever has the most victory points at that moment wins the game. (Players accumulate VPs through securing map objectives, eliminating enemy units and a variety of events.)
So there’s no “game’s over after 12 turns” here. Although players have a good idea of when the game should reach its conclusion, they’re never sure as to when it will end. Makes for a very tense race to the finish.
  
WHITE NOISE

The game’s production is excellent. Unit counters are big and clear, cards are beautiful and sturdy, and while you probably wouldn’t frame one of the maps to hang on your office wall, the artwork is precise and pleasant to look at. I love the oversized hexes that rarely require units to be stacked. (This is also helped by the many scenarios with a low counter density.)

One thing I don’t like is the mostly white background used for everything Japanese. This makes the ordnance weapons—identified with a white bar across the counter—more difficult to recognize than they need to be.
This is also the case with the game’s various tracks, where the white counters tend to get lost on their white tracks. (By comparison, Combat Commander: Europe had tan and khaki tracks that made the markers pop out at a glance.)

But true to its heritage, CC:P has one of the best rulebooks in the business. Despite the many twisted situations that can arise in the heat of a game, the rulebook always seems to have the answer—and has it in a location that’s a breeze to find. Not all rulebooks achieve this, and not many wargame rulebooks even come close.
  
FUN FACTOR

It was true with CC:E, and it’s also true with CC:P—I’ve never had so much visceral fun playing a wargame.

For better or worse, many wargames feel like chess: a heavy, cerebral exercise where everything is calculated turns in advance. In CC:P, you have to go with the flow. Plans are necessary, naturally, but they often require a complete overhaul at a moment’s notice, thanks in large part to the slew of events that will pop up during a typical game. And I just love this roller-coaster ride down the trench lines.

Because of this, truly desperate situations don’t often crop up here. Things may look dire, but there’s always hope—you simply never give up. Unexpected reinforcements may storm in at the last minute, or a well timed Air Support even may just open the corridor you needed to get your men to safety.

CC:P also a short experience—for a wargame—clocking in at an average of two hours per scenario. This makes it very convenient to play on a week night; heck, you can even squeeze in two scenarios if you really feel like letting the lead fly.

Another one of my favorite aspects comes in the form of the random scenario generator included in the game’s playbook. The RSG offers a fast and fun way to randomly create an almost unlimited series of balanced scenarios using only the materials provided in the box.

PAGING CC VETERANS

While CC:P clearly descends from CC:E, there are enough new wrinkles to be found in the newcomer for old hands not to consider Pacific a simple add-on to the basic system. The main engine is certainly the same and you don't feel like you're playing a completely different game; rather, it's like having a conversation with your best friend's brother. You feel right at home, even though you two have never quite met before. (And this guy turns out not to be an annoying creep at all!)

Some of the differences not touched upon so far include the following:
- If an attack roll is more than double the defense roll, the target it eliminated outright.
- The new Japanese sniper multiplies the two dice of his roll instead of adding them together--rather nasty in combination with the previous new rule.
- The Jam trigger is gone!
- The new Asset Denied order allows players to break enemy weapons, radios, and aircraft.
- The Concealment action is a thing of the past. No matter: I'm still scanning my hand for them whenever I get hit with something big. (That tear you see in the corner of my eye is genuine.)
- The Japanese can hold units in reserve and have them pop up on the map later on.
- A new order, Reconnoiter, allows a player to look at the top card of his Fate Deck, and then leave it there, discard it, or take it into hand.


The rulebook lists 46 rules differences between Pacific and Europe. Some of them are minor, others significant. Which makes it all the more difficult for me to decide which of the two games to play.

Wargame review — Combat Commander Battle Pack #2: Stalingrad

Combat Commander Comes to Stalingrad

(Originally published on September 12, 2009)

Designer: Chad Jensen
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

After Combat Commander: Mediterranean and the Paratrooper battle pack, Stalingrad is the third add-on to the basic Combat Commander system.
So, additional maps and supplementary scenarios. More of the same?
Hardly.

CC fans will get their fix, that’s for sure. There are new maps (eight of them) and new scenarios (11 in total) in this battle pack. Maps loaded with huge factory buildings, vertigo-inducing cliffs separated by a rickety bridge at the bottom, and elevations in combinations that boggle the mind; scenarios crammed with untenable situations, crazy missions, and objectives that are too good to be true—you know the drill.
But that’s just skimming the top.

Inside the innocent-looking cardboard folder lies a new network of rules to simulate the particulars of the Stalingrad confrontation. New rules then, but also new counters (!!) and a system for linking scenarios together, effectively creating the first official Combat Commander campaign.

NEW UNITS

You read that right.
Germany gets four new leaders and 10 dreaded Sturm squads (6-4-4, all boxed!).
Mother Russia receives a new weapon (the ampulomet), five leaders (one of them—whom we’ve lovingly called “Limpy”—with a paltry movement rating of 2) and two garrison squads that are pretty good in a fight but can’t move to save their lives.
Even the Italians get three additions to their brass. 

NEW RULES

Factory rules (together with the appropriate maps) introduce vast buildings inside of which fighting can take place with a line of sight to interior targets, at the price of a 3 Hindrance. You can almost hear the echo of shots fired within.

Rubble is a new terrain whose basic move cost and cover value—2 in both cases—get a +1 for each adjacent rubble hex. In addition to rubble that begins the game on the map (per scenario instructions), certain combat situations can create even more rubble, suppressing all units caught under falling debris. Stay out of harm’s way.

Speaking of harm, snipers are of the wicked type in Stalingrad. The Urban Sniper marker is a two-sided token that comes into play whenever a Sniper trigger roll doesn’t hit anything. The player who missed his roll takes the Urban Sniper marker with its +2 face showing. Another missed Sniper roll? Flip that marker to its +4 side. The marker can be surrendered in exchange for the appropriate bonus before any Attack or Melee roll.
A missed Sniper roll by the opponent will flip the marker back to its +2 side or, if it’s already showing +2, return the marker to the counter mix. So make sure you use that counter when you’ve got it.

Many scenarios are peppered with sewer entrances between which Russian units can Advance. Very useful for a sneak attack—except that doubles on a Sewer roll allow the German player to decide where those sewer-crawling units pop up…

Melees are back (were they ever gone?) with a vengeance. In Stalingrad, a melee hex is marked with a Melee marker and the melee is only resolved at the beginning of the German player’s turn. This lets assaulted Russians get out of the melee hex before bayonets start thrusting this way and that. Alternatively, adjacent Russian comrades could join the party and Advance into the soon-to-be bloody hex. Fun times.

Stacking is more flexible—the limit is gone. Each soldier figure over seven in a single hex lowers the local cover by 1. Yes, negative cover bites.  But sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do.

And hey, there’s a new weapon in town! Known as the “molotov projector,” the ampulomet is a 6-6 ordnance weapon that might just set fire to its target hex. If it doesn’t incinerate its user first, that is.
  
THE CAMPAIGN

A heavily modified version of the random scenario generator is used to drive the campaign system in Stalingrad, which takes the form of a tug-of-war unfolding over five possible campaign positions, G2-G1-0-R1-R2, each with an associated map.
The fighting breaks out at 0 and then essentially moves one campaign position toward the German lines or the Russian ones, depending on the side that prevails.
Each faction starts the campaign with a command platoon, and can complement their forces with campaign platoons drawn from a limited pool that’s supposed to last the whole campaign. (Yeah, right.) Reinforcements are also available, in the form of half the units that survived the previous battle. And veterans carry over!

If the Russians win at the German lines (G2) or vice versa, it’s a decisive victory and the campaign is over. If neither side has achieved this by the end of the fifth battle, a Sudden Death roll (using the number of battles fought thus far as the target number) is made. When the roll succeeds—which could take a while!—the side that proved victorious during the last battle of the campaign is declared the winner.

PRODUCTION

As is the case with the entire Combat Commander series, production is top notch. The two-sided paper maps are gorgeous, the counters are large and sturdy, and the rulebook is clear enough to make you go blind and not complain about it.

This said, there are two little things I wish had been done differently with the counters.
First of all—and I assume this is a cost-cutting measure—GMT decided to go with a single, one-size-fits-all counter sheet. The big one.
I can understand that from a business point of view. But the die-hard player in me doesn’t like the fact that the new weapon, the ampulomet, shows up on a unit-sized counter. It doesn’t really change anything in the heat of the battle, but that guy sure looks strange while outfitting himself in the barracks.
Where size does hurt a bit is with the Rubble and Sewer Entrance markers, which are BIG. They take up much more real estate than your standard fortification markers, and that’s a bother.

The second little glitch comes with the look of the Rubble and Sewer Entrance markers. Both use the same palette of colors—which is to say, a few dark dabs on a white background. They look really cool but become hard to distinguish from across the table. And when rubble and sewer entrances are intertwined as in scenario 40: Into the Breach, telling them apart at a glance is, well, not easy. I’m considering taking those little round red stickers you can steal from your office’s supplies and applying one to each of my sewer entrances.

FUN FACTOR

I’m a long-time player of the series who’d tackled every single scenario (including the promo ones) on both sides of the political fence before Stalingrad came out. My expectations were not high: they were orbiting the planet.

So let me say this: the Stalingrad battle pack is a LOT of fun. The new rules are a blast, the new units are great (I love to hate Limpy) and the scenarios are pretty much all I could ask for in a battle pack. Some of the new maps have quickly become favorites of mine (including map 35, with its beautiful English garden in the middle—which gets torn to shreds the minute anyone sets a toe near the damn thing, as anyone worth his weight in lead would expect).

I admit I wish the new melee rules created a bit more “game space;” I suppose I was sort of hoping for a mini-game within the game, where you actually slug it out instead of resorting to a dice roll. But this is a very minor rant lost in a sea of wargaming pleasure.

I haven’t had a chance to try out the campaign rules yet, but that day is not far off. I suspect the real fun of the campaign will be to play all of those battles in sequence, which is not exactly compatible with my current lifestyle—this explains why I like CC so much and how come I play it so often. A campaign can be over after three engagements, but can last much longer if the fighting gets really tight. Still, I anticipate game angst the likes of which we never get enough.

So should you get the Stalingrad battle pack?
Let me put it this way: I’m measuring the time it takes me to write this review in units of Stalingrad gaming I’m not getting done.

Convinced yet?

Wargame review — Enemy Coast Ahead: The Dambuster Raid

All in a Night's Work

(Originally published on December 19, 2014)

Designer: Jeremy White
Player count: 1
Publisher: GMT Games

Sitting comfortably in our early 21st century, we’re used to reading about sprawling military operations from the two World Wars, endeavors that unfolded over the course of weeks, months, indeed years. Yet some of them, despite the incredible complexity involved in planning and execution, only lasted a couple of days. And in the case of Operation Chastise, a mission designed to breach strategic German dams using special bouncing bombs, the whole thing got done in a single night—from May 16 to 17, 1943.

GMT’s Enemy Coast Ahead brings that frantic night to the tabletop, in a package engineered for a solo player. (Multiplayer rules are provided, and while they technically work, they act more like a nice bandage than anything else; the game was built from the ground up for the solo experience.)

Enemy Cost Ahead runs on three interlocking modules: you can play Module 3, or 2 and 3 together, or else 1 and 2 and 3. Number 3 is the Attack module, where scenarios have the player manage several Lancaster bombers (or just one!) as they approach a specific dam and try to adjust both speed and altitude in order to release Upkeep—the special spinning bomb—just right. Essentially, the Attack module boils down to the actual release of Upkeep, with a bunch of positive and negative modifiers poured onto a 2d6 die roll that tries to reach at least 15. And while this is definitely an oversimplification, Enemy Coast Ahead works very much like a push-your-luck game. Because you might get lucky and hit just the right altitude and speed as you begin your approach… but most likely, you’ll just be in the ballpark, requiring major adjustments. (Of course, you could go ahead and drop your bomb anyway, but then you’re relying on a Tooth Fairy-level of belief in your dice rolling skills.)
If you do decide to stay the course in order to make those adjustments—bringing you a little closer to the dam—you’ll have to brave flak and other defenses standing in your way. And if you get hit, you’ll need to decide if you abort or keep going, at the risk of losing your damaged Lancaster, which will adversely affect your performance level come debriefing time. Your gunners will try to take out those defenses, of course, but it ain’t easy work.
Still not good enough? Some dams will allow you to spend a third “step” to try and hit the speed and altitude nails on the head. This means facing more even more danger, naturally, in addition to being potentially too close to the target for an optimal release.
Then, if you do make it all the way to release, pull on the stick and climb (that blasted hill behind the Eder dam is a bitch to avoid!) and pray a nightfighter hasn’t sighted you. Unless attracting attention away from another dam was part of your mission all along…

Then comes the Flight module, which consists in flying those waves of Lancasters from England to their actual target(s). Various problems will plague the aircraft, from not always being able to stay in formation to drawing hazard markers along the way—and the closer to your target, the more hazard markers, naturally. Evasive maneuvers allow you to remove a certain number of those markers before they are resolved. So will you brave the marker whose back tells you for certain that it is flak (maybe all your Lancasters are in good order and you’d rather have a damaged one than risk anything else), or will you get rid of it and take your chance with the marker showing a question mark?
The push-your-luck vibe comes back in the Flight module, where Lancasters that have reached their target may try to “acquire” it (i.e. move into the Attack module). If your planes are in a good order wave, they’ll reach the dam together and launch a cohesive attack. If their formation is compromised, however, individual planes will be delayed in their attack, which gives more time for nightfighters to show up and foil the whole operation. So do you go in with your scattered aircraft anyway, or do you spend one more turn trying to get back in formation, understanding that you’ll need to face a whole new slew of hazards?
It’s a riveting question, and the answer is never easy.

Finally, there’s the Training & Planning module (i.e. the Campaign Game) where you request resources to acquire planes and train pilots. Again, some interesting push-your-luck decisions rear their pointy little heads. You want to order extra training? Just spend your precious resources points and roll the dice—or you might want to hang on to them and just be content with the level of training you’ve achieve thus far. Feel like requisitioning more resources? No problem, except all that personnel and matériel movement might attract some unwanted attention, which could result in heightened defenses when (if?) your precious Lancasters make it to their target.

The game presents more decision points than those I’ve highlighted above, but I think that summary is enough to give readers a fair idea of the choices they’ll face in Enemy Coast Ahead.
  
WAR PRODUCTION

I have to start with the box cover: it’s one of the most dynamic, exciting boxes ever to come out of GMT. It reminds me a lot (appropriately, I guess) of the cover for Bomber Command. Great stuff.

But what’s inside? A thick rulebook, an even thicker scenario book, player aids galore, a healthy dose of tokens in various sizes, four blood-red dice, and a mysterious dark map.
The map immediately appealed to my wargame geek sensibilities, but I was surprised to see other members of my household react positively to it. After all, it’s a black rectangle with a bunch of boxes sprinkled all over. And yet, despite its unusual appearance, everyone thought the map looked “wargamey” and serious—in a very positive way.

The cardboard makers are the usual high-quality GMT fare. I especially enjoyed the oversized Lancaster tokens, which give you a feel for the sheer wingspan of one of those monsters. (And if you haven’t seen a Lancaster in the flesh yet, I urge you to run to your nearest aviation museum and behold the leviathan.)

But the real jewels in Enemy Coast Ahead’s crown are the player aids, which are both numerous and generous. They are, in fact, all you need to play—and indeed learn!—the game. Not convinced? Read on.  

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

The 48-page rulebook might scare away newcomers, and not without reason. Enemy Coast Ahead does not look like a simple game. So I did what I always do when I know I’m about to review a new wargame: I print out the rulebook in advance and make sure I know how to play before the game even arrives. However, in this case, some unforeseen little wrinkle stopped me dead in my tracks: at the top of its second page, the rulebook suggests that new players set up scenario 5 and learn to play the game straight from the player aids. And I decided right there and then that that recommendation was going to be part of my review. Was it really possible to (properly!) learn to play Enemy Coast Ahead from the player aids?

Short answer: yes.
Long answer: hell yes!

The player aids take newbies through every single step of the whole process, starting with the Attack module and working their way back (when you feel ready to progress) to the Flight module, ultimately incorporating the Training module as icing on an already tasty cake. If, at any point, you’re unsure as to some detail or another, the player aid will tell you what paragraph to look up in the rulebook. (And when you come back, you’ll realize that the required info was on the player aid all along.)

That’s the way I learned to play the game, and it works beautifully. (I eventually read the whole rulebook, because that’s what freaks like us enjoy doing, but it wasn’t necessary.) My first play-through of the Attack module took me about one hour, from start to finish. Not bad! By then I had a good idea of the basics, and I honed my newfound skills over a series of attack missions that kept me enthralled for several hours. Then I moved on to the other modules, again with the player aids as my only guides.
  
FUN FACTOR

Many people have labeled Enemy Coast Ahead “procedural,” and it is very much that. That’s what makes it possible for the player aids to do the heavy lifting when it comes to teaching the game. Does it mean that the system devolves into a boring checklist, rail-shooter of a game? Absolutely not.
Decision points abound every step of the way. And while they may not seem very significant when you simply read about them (another good reason to learn the game by playing it), they become tense affairs when, in the thick of things, you need to decide if you unleash your bomb right there and then, or if you go through some more flak to get that final speed adjustment you think might be necessary to succeed.
I never finished a game of Enemy Coast Ahead without wanting to play another one. The box comes with 10 different scenarios, but I’ve lost count of the number of runs I’ve done on scenario 1—they all played out differently. And I’ll be honest: I wasn’t a big fan of The Hunters, another solo game, distributed by GMT last year. It was a fun design, but it left me feeling there wasn’t a lot to actually do, and that set me up to brace myself when I started playing Enemy Coast Ahead. I needn’t have worried, though: the two systems behave quite differently.
  
PARTING SHOTS

If anything is missing from Enemy Coast Ahead, it’s an index. The player aids are great learning (and playing) tools, the rulebook and scenario book are clear and helpful, but I still wish I could go whip out an index when all of a sudden I can’t remember what the Wallis Bonus does.

Other than that, I love how the game tells gripping stories, with the historical introduction and debriefing page acting as compelling bookends.

Oh, and do use the player aids to learn the game!

Wargame review — Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942

Rise to the Occasion

(Originally published on August 21, 2015)

Designer: Lee Brimmicome-Wood
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

Designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood is obsessed with air warfare. From Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi, 1965-1972 to the hot-off-the-press Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942, each game focuses on the challenge, the glory, but also the vagaries of high-powered aircraft confronting each other above the battlefield. The historical research drips from each of Brimmicombe-Wood’s projects, subtly turning the wargame den into an engrossing class room, as educating as it is exciting. This is no small feat, and yet this latest opus manages to pull it off one more time.

The first, striking thing about Wing Leader is that it’s played with a horizontal point of view. So forget all about top-view maps with a hex grid for a hat: this one’s played from the side, with both opponents sitting on the same side of the table. Historically, one of the key factors was altitude, and there’s simply no better way to illustrate—and exploit!—that dimension than looking at it as if you were standing on the ground, watching aircraft evolve on a grid of blue squares.

The game is all about raids, so each of its 23 scenarios features one bombing mission or another. (The occasional recon or transport gig creeps in, but we’re talking rare exceptions, here.) One player flies toward his target, filled with hope and dread, while the other rushes to contact in a resolute attempt to curtail the intrusion. Bombers obey an autopilot of sorts, moving forward two squares each turn without altering their altitude, until they reach their target. Squadrons on an escort or sweep mission behave pretty much the same, while aircraft sent to do an intercept job must reach the position of their vector marker as soon as possible. All that rigidity, of course, disappears the first instant the sky starts to vibrate with enemy threats.

So the first thing players will do is try to get a tally (the eyeball equivalent of a target lock-on) on an enemy aircraft. Weather considerations like clouds or rain will cause headaches as planes jockey for sky dominance, and then most of the action comes down to the angle of attack, or how each player manages to position his aircraft before all hell breaks loose. Climbing is a costly and sometimes lengthy proposition, but the advantage of attacking while in a dive cannot be denied—especially if you managed to jump on your opponent out of the sun.

Once the enemy is engaged, combat is resolved with a series of dice rolls modified by numerous factors. One of them is the nature of the skirmish: who is the attacker? Air combat favors the aggressor, who gets to choose whether battle is resolved using the turn or speed value of each aircraft. So if an interceptor managed to tally one of your bombers and fly into its square, the deck is stacked in your opponent’s favor. However, if your escort reacted in time and wedged itself between the enemy and its quarry, you’ll find yourself with the upper hand.
Other modifiers include the quality of the crew you assigned to each squadron, special equipment mounted on each plane, flying formations, and so on. One roll determines the number of theoretical hits, while another translates those hits into actual losses—which represent individual planes shot out of the squadron. Enough losses and the squadron is toast—but that rarely happens. No, the most dreadful roll of all is the Cohesion Check, where squadrons risk getting so disorganized that their combat effectiveness is all but annulled. Those squadrons limp home, often after a single engagement—an especially disheartening reality when your expert pilot was part of the disgraced formation. Although being the attacker also helps on a Cohesion Check, repeated attacks (through ammo depletion) and mounting losses carry with them a stark modifier. So make each attack count! It might be your only one.

Some missions feature ground units—even planes taking off from carriers!—and/or flak from a refreshing variety of sources. Whether each side accomplishes the task set for them determines the winner, through a differential of victory points.
  
WAR PRODUCTION 

Wing Leader comes with a paper map that consists in a blue grid of squares, with a thin dark green line (meant to represent the ground) at the bottom. It is all at once boringly bland and pregnant with possibilities—a mix that doesn’t fail to attract attention when laid out on a table. The rest of the equipment includes numerous rectangular aircraft counters, representing the mighty squadrons and the more humble flights (seen from the side, of course, which shows off their unique paint jobs), as well as a tall stack of aircraft data cards—really more like thick cardboard tiles, each sporting the game specs of an individual aircraft type. A plethora of player aids round out this foxy package, which GMT decided to wrap in an attractive, action-oriented cover.
The whole box screams “fly me home.”
Oh yes.
  
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT 

With its 48 pages of rules, Wing Leader may create some trepidation in our midst. Fear not: those 48 pages constitute the full game. For the basic system, you need only parse 31 pages of text.
… Which may still seem like a sizeable quantity, until you realize that, while there are a lot of rules, each and every one of them is of the simple-to-grasp variety. So just read through the whole thing without worrying too much, and check back on the sections indicated at each step of the various combat tables during an actual game. You’ll do fine.

The equally chunky scenario book proposes 23 scenarios (!), organized in order of increasing complexity. Indeed, the first three scenarios are essentially training material, with very few aircraft involved and not a whole lot to do. In fact, the first scenario is recommended as a solitaire, introductory introduction to the system. At the other end of the spectrum, scenario 23 pits 23 (how appropriate!) squadrons against each other, plus a slew of naval units to spice things up.
(The biggest of all remains scenario 22, which fires off thirty-one squadrons in a pandemonium of flying steel and tumbling bombs.)

Still not enough? The designer’s own website is host to a variety of support materials, including a scenario creation toolkit, as well as Scenario Supplement 1 (hinting at subsequent ones…) with four additional historical scenarios—bringing the total to 27.

Brimmicombe-Wood may be many things, but ungenerous isn’t one of them.
  
FUN FACTOR 

I was already a Brimmicombe-Wood fan going in.
(You can read my reviews of Nightfigher and Bomber Command.)

But I wasn’t sure about the side-view aspect of Wing Leader. I love trying new stuff and thinking in new ways, but I was leery of abandoning the trappings of air combat and not being able to “move around” enemy aircraft. It turned out, of course, that the designer was right: bombing runs were essentially air convoys where lateral mobility paled in comparison with the massive advantage of altitude. And Wing Leader models that reality in a fun, thrilling way.

A minor caveat is in order. Because bomber squadrons are more resilient than fighter squadrons when it comes to matters of cohesion, a player will occasionally find himself with just bombers left on the map and not much to do: bombers usually fly themselves and react to attacks from intercepting aircraft. But while that reality is not all that exciting, it thankfully never lasts long. When you’re down to just bombers, the scenario is almost over, one way or the other. (Usually the other.)

Now there’s something playful about sitting with your opponent on the same side of the table, as if watching a show together. I love the historical background and aftermath of each scenario (so you know ahead of time that your side is supposed to get clobbered…), just as I enjoy watching the battles unfold in the multi-layered sky. Some clouds—when it’s not contrails or the blasted rain!—may get in the way, but there’s always a solution, a window of opportunity where the target is clear, the action decisive.
Unless the Cohesion Check of Doom™ sends you home with your tails between your legs, of course.
  
PARTING SHOTS 

Although the game may physically look like very different from its brethren, the gameplay feels very much like it’s part of the Brimmicombe-Wood universe. If you’ve played any of his other games, you’ll feel right at home the minute you get started on Wing Leader.

At the rate I’m playing this, I can see myself burning through all the scenarios before too long. (Way before too long…) So it’s no small comfort to see volume 2 of the series already gaining altitude on GMT’s P500 program.

I can start dreaming of a volume 3.