This past weekend, I wrote a blog post about GMT Games’, now removed, P500 title “Scramble for Africa.” In it, I bemoaned the poor marketing copy and highlighted concerns based on the combination of topic and game description. I further suggested that GMT Games consider the Hollandspiele approach to rolling out games on difficult topics as they did so well with This Guilty Land. Within 12 hours of the publication of that article, GMT Games issued a statement that addressed people’s concerns and restarted their core values as a company. While I encouraged people to both give space for such a statement AND to accept an earnest apology…the storm continues unabated.

That’s all I have to say about the conversations, whodunnit, whataboutism, and vitriol being spewed by the most opinionated on all sides of this issue. I will, however, dedicate this article to a broader and more deeply troubling theme that has emerged during the conversation about “Scramble for Africa.” It’s one that the United States, and many other countries for that matter, have been grappling with for some time. I don’t anticipate resolving anything, but I want to at least make the case for civility.

Who gets to control the identity of the past?

To quote Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, profound speech on race while addressing the city’s removal of Civil War general statues:

There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

Mitch Landrieu

I think this summarizes perfectly the work of historical wargamers and of our hobby as a whole. The abject mischaracterization of a game as a glorification of a troubling episode in colonial history doesn’t suggest a moral shortcoming on the part of the designer, developer, publisher, or people who want to purchase such a game. Remembrance is allowed and cannot be shut out.

It’s a far different cry to celebrate the era through nostalgic eyes for some bygone colonial myth self-told to generations of Europeans who felt that colonial territories were somehow their land as much as the native soil under the empire’s capital. Historical wargaming does not in any way, shape, or form intend to glorify, gloss over, or revere historical tragedy or horror.

This misunderstanding seems to be at the heart of the conflict around Scramble for Africa since some people felt as though insufficient information was provided to fully pass judgement given the weak marketing copy while others felt that it pointed toward a celebration of colonialism in Africa that ignored indigenous populations.

History is Complex & Horrible

History is rarely a serene river flowing and carrying humanity along its gentle currents. Instead, it is a raging and untamed exploration of some wholly dark episodes punctuated by bright beacons of achievement. Even those achievements are often won on the backs of others who were broken to achieve it either figuratively or quite literally. So, where does that place the hobby?

We owe it to designers and publishers to trust their core values. Don’t mistake this trust with blind trust. When a company or designer needs constructive critique, it should be freely offered and accepted. Though, the offering doesn’t imply any obligation on the part of the designer or publisher to accept such critique. It merely suggests a sentiment that may exist. Our hobby, after all, tackles morally difficult terrain and for people who want to explore their history more completely, then there are awesome rewards to be gained.

For people who want to take simple-minded and moral absolutist positions, there is no room in the hobby for that kind of attitude. We are constantly learning, unlearning, and reshaping the lens through which history is viewed. But, that’s the point…history exists in a dual dimension. The current view and the historical era’s view. Publishers, designers, and gamers need to recognize the interplay and non-binary roles these two dimensions play at all times.

German Armor in World War II

Let’s take a look at German armor in World War II as a quick example. The German Tiger lived up to its fearsome reputation on the battlefields of World War II. As such, historical wargames have given the armored fighting vehicle the respect it is due. To some, this sounds like the glorification of Hitler’s war machine and it is a symbol of Nazi reverence. This couldn’t be further from the truth and such a simplistic interpretation unmasks a person’s single-minded obsession with simply making a point that conveniently fits their perspective.

Instead, we must on the one hand acknowledge the loathsome way in which these war machines were employed while still remaining detached (like a historian) to make an unemotional evaluation of them. This ability to understand and respect history while simultaneously being interested in the unique analysis and “simulation” of it is at the heart of the hobby. You can’t have one without the other. To do so would come off as hollow or too simplistic to be worthy of exploration.

In a hex and counter wargame, we need to know that the Tiger’s main armament was superior to that of the Sherman. We need to know factors like optics, armor composition, and gun stabilization were important components that made the Tiger a formidable enemy. This provides even more context on the bravery of those who would look down the sights of an anti-armor vehicle or weapon facing the Tiger. It provides an opportunity to understand history and see that sometimes things aren’t easily digested or black and white.

Reality regularly fails to conform with our expectations.

Tanks Schmanks… What about colonial oppression?

You can’t deny the factors that made the Tiger tank uniquely powerful. Similarly, you can’t deny that colonial oppression occurred and that human rights violations were par for the course as a part of that oppression. There is, however, a vast difference between a game focused on mechanics that asks, “How strong is a Tiger tank?” versus something as complex as “How can I embody a colonial power and exploit the resources and land of an indigenous people?”

These things are simply not equivalent. That said, they are BOTH valid historical topics that are worthy as gaming topics.

To understand why, it’s important first to differentiate games designed solely for fun from games for learning and understanding. A game of Apples to Apples with friends is intended to be lighthearted and social. That’s it’s core design and output. Based on sales, I’d say that it did a great job of that! Hollandspiele’s game A Guilty Land, on the other hand, is designed to ask questions and present an experience that challenges the players. It too should be fun, but that’s a byproduct of the learning and experience not its sole intent.

A core question about these kinds of games is whether you’re the kind of person who derives fun from an “a ha!” moment about history or not!

It’s okay to be on either end of that spectrum or anywhere in between. However, when we talk about historical wargames…we’re typically leaning pretty heavily toward the end of the spectrum of folks who find fun in the exploration and deeper understanding of history. That’s one of the best parts of the hobby. I’ve learned so much from opponents about every imaginable historical topic. Not a day goes by on my Twitter feed where a wargamer isn’t sharing an interesting historical article, video, or book recommendation. Wargamers are deeply curious about the past.

With this groundwork laid, then, it’s important to recognize that historical wargames aren’t intended to be marketed like other boardgames. People are going to read the history and bring a wealth of context to the game. As such, it’s critical that the game facilitates gameplay that is equal the gravity of the subject matter. It is unreasonable to expect that people will approach wargame topics as they did 30 or 40 years ago. The world has changed. It’s equally unreasonable to suggest that people can’t enjoy difficult or complex topics that grapple with unpleasant history or social norms.

That’s not a reverence of the past…it’s a remembrance when done well!

A game covering the historical Scramble for Africa deserves to be made. There’s a wealth of ground to cover that remains undiscovered because the history can be inaccessible or intentionally repressed because of the shocking nature of it. When researching my last article, I learned an awful lot and my hope would be that others get to do the same thing. Games can absolutely do that. Look at Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror from GMT Games.

Not only did this game explain some of the power dynamics in the Global War on Terror, but it also successfully modeled why Pakistan and Indonesia were critical centers of terrorism. Had people simply dismissed it by saying, “You can’t make a game about this because of 9/11 and the widespread deaths of Iraqis following the US Invasion of Iraq in 2003.” then we would have lost an important way to engage with recent history. We would have lost an opportunity to explore contemporary problems. We would have lost the many rich observations and difficult truths uncovered by this game.

The difference between GMT’s Scramble for Africa and Labyrinth?

Marketing.

Let’s not forget that Volko spent many frustrating hours providing direct support for this title. People disagreed with him on fundamental issues in the way the Global War on Terror was portrayed in the game. Instead of shying away from the complexity, it was brought to the forefront and defended. Gamers either moved on and dismissed the title or gained a greater understanding of the deep respect and scholarship that Volko brought to the title that might not have been evident at first blush.

The Ruhnke-Russell equivalency.

This equivalency says that the more complex or sensitive the game topic is, the more time that must be invested in the pre-publication, and post-publication support. An equal amount of direct market support and care in the wordsmithing and support of a game will be required in these instances.

Obvious right?

Not so fast… The complication here is that you need to know how controversial the game will be PRIOR to any marketing taking place. It’s more art than science unfortunately.

Market Misbehavior

I think it’s also important to note that while GMT Games made a business decision based on whatever their behind the scenes calculus looks like to determine how a games gets onto and stays on the P500…the market misbehaved in a way that’s somewhat unique to the past 3 – 5 years.

Outrage culture reigns

You may think…Hey…didn’t you write an article blasting Scramble for Africa?

I wrote an article that blasted the marketing copy for Scramble for Africa and I presented an example of how it could have been better handled. I also presented three concrete recommendations for GMT Games that didn’t include outright pulling the game. So, please lower your torches and pitchforks.

What I witnessed, and why I wrote the article are critically important to understand. I felt like GMT Games was:

  • not getting the space to make a statement
  • going to get even more negative coverage regardless of what they said next
  • in a difficult position with a game that was still in development
  • getting wildly unfair treatment

Boardgamegeek’s forums were a mess to be generous about it. At one point, a poster suggested that because two photos of the playtest kit being played by the developer and his wife along with another couple showed only white people playing the game that it was clear evidence of the game’s racist intent. That’s an unreasonable and unfair allegation. On Twitter, because the developer noted that his wife also enjoyed playing the game, that was taken as an indication that GMT Games was misogynistic. The arguments quickly derailed into ad hominem attacks on GMT Games fans, designers, and even on Gene himself.

Apology Not Accepted

After GMT Games published their response and removed Scramble for Africa from the P500 list…people were still incensed about the game. Supporters of the game felt betrayed and began attacking anyone who said a sideways word (myself included). Understand that GMT Games is not controlled by an angry mob, twitter feedback, bgg forum posters, or bloggers. Instead, they make their own business decisions and can weigh for themselves whether it’s a good business decision to keep a game on the market. To paraphrase The Godfather … it’s not personal…it’s business.

The world IS difficult.

Put another way…the world is a complex and difficult place.

Affording that complexity a modicum of respect and the expectation of both giving and receiving the benefit of the doubt underpins civil society. To judge absolutely is to KNOW absolutely and I hardly think anyone is in a place to do that… Honest critique is open to both being proven wrong and not taking a stance that is unsupported. What happened with the outrage following the P500 of Scramble for Africa demonstrated none of that charity or an attempt to come to understanding or even the space to issue an apology that was respectfully heard.

What is even more disheartening is the deafening silence from the most vocal critics to either applaud GMT Games for doing what they perceived to be the right thing or to simply apologize for the borderline slanderous commentary they spewed.

Back to the beginning

Historical wargames must always aim to remember rather than revere. That is the work of honest historians who see the layered complexity of the past. That’s is the joy of wargamers who revel in the nugget of truth being presented to them in a pseudo-simulation. This remembrance takes the good with the bad in equal measure as appropriate.

The entire Scramble for Africa episode revealed a passion that I suspect GMT Games had not envisioned. They said as much in their missive regarding removing the game from P500. The good news is that there is clearly a hunger for a complex game that tackles the colonial race to claim the interior of the African continent. It is an essential history to understand as the new race for Africa has already begun with new players this time around including an globally expansive Chinese empire.

My sincere hope is that people can move forward and if (when?) this game is brought back to market…give it an honest chance. Give the designer and developer an opportunity to cure what they’re interested in to the degree that they’re interested. Give GMT Games the space to provide a pro-active marketing campaign that helps to address concerns before conjecture and name-calling dominate the discussion. Finally, my hope is that publishers use this as an opportunity to recognize the ugly side of social media for what it is and calibrate games to their core values.

Strong Values = Strong Following

This article is a bit of a mishmash of thoughts at this point so I’ll throw in one last nugget.

Every business, wargaming publishers included, must operate first and foremost from a their core values. The stronger these core values are, the better the company will perform and connect with their followers.

  • Apple Computers value design simplicity and, in the words of Steve Jobs, an interface that “just works.”
  • Coca-Cola sells a soft-drink that evokes good times, nostalgia, and personal connections.
  • Ford Motor Company sells cars that work as hard as the people who drive them.

How do I know this? Their advertising, product focus, and the way they communicate expresses this over and over again. You may hate these products and love Dell, Pepsi, and GM more than the examples here. They too operate from core values that connected with you and converted you into a follower!

GMT Games should be applauded, loudly I might add, for sticking to their core values when they pulled Scramble for Africa from P500. They admitted there was a misalignment there and hopefully they can work behind the scenes to correct that. That’s what core values are all about. That’s what makes businesses strong.

I’ve seen plenty of folks saying, “I’ll never buy another GMT Games release again because they were cowards and caved!” Great. Don’t. You are 100% a customer than they can afford to lose because you aren’t buying into their core values and you don’t respect it when they stick to their core values. These are not customer conversions that are going to happen for GMT by chasing the values of people on EITHER side of the issue around Scramble for Africa. The only winning move is to stick to the values that built the company.

For GMT Games…that core value seems to be:

We make high quality, opinionated games, with a focus on helping our customers understand the history of the world.

That opinionated games part is critically important because it highlights the complexity that GMT Games has to struggle with every time they put a game on the P500. There are going to be times when they get it wrong and have to re-evaluate. Aside from Mike Nagel, I don’t think anyone was as bummed about Captain’s Sea getting dismissed from GMT Games P500 as I was. I didn’t “abandon ship” and leave GMT Games! I respected their decision and continued to buy into their core values as a company.

Ultimately, this episode was pretty ugly on all sides of the issue. Though a strong core group continued to debate the historical merit and approaches, the lengthier the debate the less related to the actual marketing copy that existed. As such, it diverged from informed debate well into the territory of pure speculation. There’s a passion here that’s been revealed and hopefully it will lead to a game about the Scramble for Africa that people seem keenly interested in based on the productive parts of public conversation.


THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN SUPERSEDED AT THIS POINT AND I WOULD RECOMMEND YOU CHECK OUT THE LAST ARTICLE I’LL BE WRITING ON THIS TOPIC: https://wargamehq.com/scramble-for-identity-the-struggle-to-control-the-past/

UPDATE:

GMT Games issued a statement today (4/7/19) that indicated they would remove Scramble for Africa from the P500 program. Their response provided a framework for respecting the designer/developer team while also recommitting themselves to their core values. They admitted to the concerns expressed and acknowledged the constructive conversation (though there were many who were not…) both publicly and privately.

KUDOS to GMT GAMES!

The Belgians mutilated the bodies of the Congolese, largely slaves or slaves in everything but name, who couldn’t keep up with King Leopold II’s rubber demands. How did Leopold II manage to secure Belgian Congolese interests? You probably remember the quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Well, that was said by Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh explorer thrust into fame when he found David Livingstone a Scottish missionary and Victorian era hero whose motto “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization” are now remembered on his statue at Victoria Falls. Livingstone would make a few missions to Africa and famously, at least by hobby gamer standards, was his try to find “the source of the Nile.” Later, this expedition would inspire a game by Avalon Hill that drew upon many elements of these Victorian expeditions into the heart of Africa. A similar game from Legion Wargames has been on their Customer Pre-Order (CPO) called “Heart of Darkness” which focuses on the single explorer experience like “Source of the Nile.”

More recently, GMT Games has thrown their hat into the ring with a Victorian era game about Africa called “Scramble for Africa.” As the website indicates, players:

explore, build, and compete economically in Africa from around 1850 to 1900. In this game, you will take the role of one of six European powers with an eye toward exploring the unknown interior of Africa, discovering land and natural resources, and building economic infrastructure to rival and exceed that of your fellow players.

https://www.gmtgames.com/p-746-scramble-for-africa.aspx

Where “Source of the Nile” focused on enriching yourself as an explorer by leveraging exploration strategies that might include cooperating with local guides, “Scramble for Africa” focuses on European colonial exploitation of Africa. As you can imagine, stories about the atrocities of this period were quickly remembered by the gaming community at large. After all, photos of children with their hands cut off, or the heartbreaking photo of a father staring at his daughters hands which had been chopped off for not meeting rubber production are potent reminders of the savagery of colonialism in the not too distant past. The hurt remains contemporaneously accessible in our 21st Century. After all, it was only 2005 when the Belgian government formally called by the British House of Commons to recognize the atrocities of the Congo Free State as genocidal and to issue a formal apology.

What Went Wrong?

Given the backdrop of a colonial multifaceted race to exploit a continent, how can a “game” be sensitive to this topic?

Frankly, I’m not entirely sure I can. That said, I know I could do a better job than what’s going on with this title at GMT Games right now.

  • Don’t minimize genocide, human rights abuses, and a dark unethical colonial past with marketing copy like “The random events include penalties for atrocities and rewards for discovering natural wonders and ending slavery.”
    • A few points here, because this needs to unpacked a bit. First, this game minimizes the Berlin Conference’s slavery suppression mandate to a random event despite the fact that it was included in the conference because it was clear that European powers were raiding central Africa for slave labor well past when many of their nations had outlawed slavery. Second, atrocities are something that “just happens” in this game. This implies that atrocities were somehow deterministic in their occurrence. This is revisionist hogwash that effectively takes the possibility of trying to play morally out of the player’s hands.
  • Another bad piece of copy here that misses an opportunity to live up to the “Scramble for Africa” game title is ” You may also have your Explorers build facilities on an explored terrain tile, thus claiming control over that part of Africa.”
    • Again, even a cursory review of the era would establish the actual historical setting and context for how powers would secure rights. These were hugely exploitative and were intended to carve up Africa while minimizing continental tensions. This method implies that if you build it, you bought it.
    • What might you build? According to the site, ” Like your late-19th Century counterparts, you have the strategic choice between exploring for mineral wealth (gold, diamonds, or copper), and building plantations (cocoa, coffee, rubber).” So, effectively, you must recommit the crimes of the past to gain points in a whitewashed “economic success” final victory condition.
  • The Designer Diary that was recently posted adds more context to the native African population’s options, ” The active player pays money to the bank and then rolls a die to see if they can place a Revolt on an opposing player’s tile. If successful, the opposing player removes ALL facilities built on that tile! To help prevent revolts, players may want to use a Build Action to put Garrisons on their tiles.”
    • So, this game doubles down on exploitation by implying that tribes would be used as weapons against other colonial powers, but their success can only even be so limited that it never gains any form of independence. This also doesn’t remotely jive with the history. Ethiopia was able to drive Italy out and self-rule with the exception of 1936-43. This was self-led, as were other coordinated and organized revolts across Africa.

These are only a handful of the concerns I have. Others have posted concerns on the Developer Diary, Board Game Geek game page, and Twitter.

The Hollandspiele Model

Unfortunately, GMT Games has done nothing to respond despite ample opportunity. Neither the developer, designer, nor anyone from GMT Games themselves have commented in any of these public venues about the game’s initial reception. This is a far cry from the way that Hollandspiele handled the pre-release diaries and marketing communication for their game “This Guilty Land.” That game pits players against each other as abstract ideas of justice and oppression. The marketing copy is clear and to the point.

In this game, each player acts on behalf of an abstract idea – Justice and Oppression – with one player working for abolition and the other working against it. It seeks to treat the subject matter with sensitivity and respect. There is no piece that represents a human being – no action that replicates the horrors and the lived experience of slavery. Instead, this is about the framework that allowed that evil to exist, and the moral cowardice that enabled it to continue to exist.

https://hollandspiele.com/products/this-guilty-land

Tom Russell even did a lengthy interview about the game with the Low Player Count podcast on September 3rd, 2018. In this interview, he lays out the struggle to design with compassion and nuance. Russell presents the game in the context in which he wants it to be seen and gives far greater credit to gamers for being able to “game” such a serious and complex moral subject. The heart of Russell’s work is compassion.

A Way Forward I Presume?

It’s this compassion that’s so dearly missing from the GMT Games pre-release of “Scramble for Africa.” Instead of nuance, the copy on the website reads like the giddy marketing-speak on the back of a 1950’s Milton Bradley game. It’s tone deaf at just the wrong time on the wrong subject. Instead of finding a way to create a complex and nuanced way to experience history, we’re being given a simplified colonial fairy-tale intended to whitewash (or at least ignore) the actual painful history of European colonization in Africa. That’s not what GMT Games is known for and, bluntly put, I expect a whole lot more of them out of this situation both in terms of clarifying and in terms of taking common-sense steps to correct the first-impression people are getting.

Everyone deserves the right of an honest acceptance of an apology or clarification. Good faith must be granted, especially for a game so early in its marketing cycle. The P500 system exists to test the waters. I have deleted my P500 order for this game after some additional thought. I back nearly everything GMT offers as soon as it goes on P500 and own close to 200 of their games and expansions. I cannot, in good conscience lend my support to “Scramble for Africa” in its current state though. What is sad, is that this game has more P500 orders (297 for Scramble) than St. Omer to St. Crispin: Tactical Battles of the Hundred Years War from designer Mike Nagel which is sitting at 281 after much longer on the P500 list. Nagel is a proven designer with some of the best Age of Sail fleet combat games on the market to his name (Flying Colors). I know what you’re saying, “Keith, that’s a wargame…and a niche one at that. Scramble for Africa is more of a strategy game.” I would say…great! Then why does “Mystery Wizard” a capture the flag fantasy battle game ALSO not have as many pre-orders? In effect, it’s not just that “Scramble for Africa” is a lighter game that makes it more attractive.

So, what are some common-sense next steps for GMT Games?

  • Encourage the designer to get out there and defend his work.
  • Revise the marketing copy if there is a more nuanced game here than is being represented currently.
  • Defend your choice of placing this game on the P500 and explain how it fits in with GMT Games’ view of topics that it wants to publish.

More Information

For those of you who would like more information on this time period, I suggest looking at the following resources:

I offered to help a new Boardgamegeek user a month or so ago with selling his collection. The first step was creating a market valuation for his games. Today, we’re going to be looking at how I created a wargame collection valuation and what we can learn about the perceived versus actual value of the games on our shelves.

Wargames are not investments

Repeat after me: Wargames are not investments!

Seriously, the market tends to fluctuate and just in the past year we’ve seen many longstanding “grail” titles with outrageous prices show a steep decline in value. Notably, the reprints from Compass Games LLC for the Fleet series and 1985: Under an Iron Sky helped drive down prices on the Victory Games Fleet series and Next War titles.

Hobby prices always fluctuate and collectibles, unless truly rare with decades of established value tend not to retain their longtime value. This is particularly true for nostalgia based hobbies. Things like Watt Pottery and many collectible toy lines have all had dramatic price inflation and sudden deflation over the years.

Consequently, it’s important to separate what we WANT these games to be worth from what they’re actually worth in the marketplace.

But I see a copy going for $100!

Far too frequently people evaluate the value of a game based on how many are for sale and for what price they are listed. While this provides a general sense for how many copies are in the market (supply) it does not evaluate demand in any way shape or form.

Demand is reflected most easily in how desirable the game actually is right now. There are many factors that drive the price of games down related to this desirability:

  • New versions getting released
  • People who wanted the game already have it
  • Prices have chased people out of the market for that title
  • New game with a similar topic is available and better liked

These are, of course, just a few of the factors. Critically, there is no way to underestimate the influence that desirability has on the market value of a game. Other factors might include condition, edition, publisher, or even whether the owner was a smoker or non-smoker!

What did it actually sell for?

While there may be a game that’s on the market for $100 or even a few others hovering right around that price, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Games can easily be worth $100, $200, or even significantly more. That the prices in the marketplace advertise these rates does not signify their value!

Instead, we have to look at what the games actually sold for and there are many ways to do this.

BoardGameGeek offers buyers and sellers a look at the price history of a game in the marketplace. This serves a few purposes such as showing when the lost copies were purchased (desireability), how many are currently for sale and at what price, and finally what the price range was for sold copies. I frequently see games that sell for half of the price that marketplace sellers are trying to get. Many of these sellers have abandoned their listings. New sellers, not investigating this, simply list their games for slightly less than what they see thinking they’re being competitive.

eBay, offers the ability to see SOLD listings as well. This serves as a potent negotiation tool and should be used in conjunction with BGG’s tool to calibrate pricing for the savvy boardgame buyer market and for the general boardgame population who may be more or less informed than your average BGG user.

How motivated are you?

The next question a seller has to ask themselves is how motivated they are to sell. They can, of course, undercut the price on every game in order to unload games quickly. This works surprisingly well on BGG and generally results in sales times of less than 30 days in my experience. That said, you aren’t going to get what the game is actually worth.

Instead, consider floating a starting price and and including quality photos. People like to see what they’re buying and will often pay more for a game they’ve seen the condition of from a reputable seller. This is a great way to create a market differentiation or advantage for yourself when selling.

Sales ARE a function of valuation

Games on your shelf have only the sentimental value you place on them until someone else hands over cash. That’s just how it works. Your motivation and sales strategy are as much a part of your collection valuation as the games you’re selling. This won’t upset the value of games, but it has maybe a 20% effect overall on your sales strategy and total collection value.

In my case, I’m willing to take 20% less in some cases for tough to sell games in order to get them into the hands of someone else. In other cases, I like to hold firm on high value games that are in demand right now. Either way, I’m making a judgment call on each title that will affect the total collection valuation.

The same is also true of bundling games for sale. You can pair a game that’s less desirable with a more desirable game or attract a certain type of buyer (vintage collector, publisher fanboy, etc.) using this strategy. Be creative in the way you look at how you want to sell your games in order to find buyers for tough-to-sell games and to maximize profits on the true gems of your collection.

So…what does this look like in action?

Here is a basic collection valuation I did for Michael on BGG after he provided me with the games he had to sell.

As you can see, this collection is about 50 games. The total value of Michael’s collection is about $1,300. So, roughly $26 per game. That’s probably about right. The problem, however, is that many of Michael’s games have low desirability from the standpoint of demand. There are a few gems in there to be sure, but overall this is a collection that’s going to appeal most to a vintage wargame collector.

The valuation notes I provided, give Michael a sense of what he might do and the ranges in which these games are most likely to sell.

A word on insurance riders…

You can work with your insurance company to get an insurance rider for a valuable collection. There’s even some dude selling his own insurance for wargame collections I believe. The biggest thing you need to do whether or not you actually buy such an insurance rider is document your collection.

You will want to get photographs of the games, condition, any proof of ownership (something showing you own the game compared to just snagging a photo from the web). You can do this in a variety of ways, but you want to do it however your insurance agent provides! Make sure you speak with your insurance to get the right kind of documentation and that this documentation is safely stored.

My only final thought here is that our wargame collections mean a lot to us. They don’t define who we are, but our hobbies are an important part of our leisure time. The value of your collection should never be solely about the dollars and cents that they represent either in the amounts you paid or the value the games hold now. Instead, it’s the memories and time spent with friends, books, or alone enjoying the games that matters most. There’s no way to put a price on that!

Ever since George Lucas tinkered with the iconic original Star Wars trilogy, fans have asked one complex question. Should Lucas, or 20th Century Fox, have altered the movies? This question can be applied more broadly to other topics. Today, we’re asking: Should wargames ever be finished?

Ownership

The first question that you have to consider is one of ownership. Who actually owns a wargame once it has been published. Now, the legal answer is a little more straightforward than the concept of ownership as fans might see it. After all, fans invest significant time in playing, modifying, talking about, supporting, and enjoying the game.

The Sharks

As David Dockter once said on his excellent podcast Guns, Dice & Butter designers greatly benefit from the “sharks” as Dockter calls them. These are the players who take the mantle of providing peer-to-peer support, hosting tournaments, talking about the game, and ensuring the longevity of the title well past the normal cycle of any game’s active interest. Couple with this, the relatively quick engagement cycle for board wargamers today and these “sharks” in many ways are taking on a great deal of ownership for a game.

The Jets?

I wanted to make this whole West Side Story thing work…but let’s be honest there’s no Jets vs. Sharks in this equation. The relationship between designers and their fans is far more symbiotic. Ideally, a healthy relationship between publisher, designer, and fans will create a meaningful feedback loop in which the designer remains engaged as an active advocate for their game.

I have no idea how designers with lots of games under their belt stay sane. Fans can be needy, obtuse, and unfair. Those are just a few of my traits…there are others of course that distract and critique. Fans do offer solid suggestions and insights that the best designers take to heart and try to incorporate into future games or co-opt for their design toolkit.

Designers are, however, only human and the creative process is a deeply personal undertaking. The creative projects of my career or any multi-year project that I’ve “given birth to” over the years have been insanely personal. All of those projects are for the benefit of others. Consequently, I have some insight into a designer’s interest to tinker.

“MY” Game

The result is a game where fans and designers feel ownership. The problem, of course, is that fans see different things they like about the game from the designers at times. This means changes are either going to be wholly embraced or viewed with skepticism. Rarely will the fans outright reject a “2nd Edition” as they did in the case of the Star Wars original trilogy changes.

The stakes are high, but they aren’t so high that fans should feel alienated. There are cases, however, where that is the case. I’ll be walking you through my own game tinkering alienation case study below. A good place to look at why “my” game is so varied just take a look at a game with lots of reviews like Combat Commander. There are 44 reviews of the game between 2006 and January 17, 2019 of Combat Commander: Europe.

While the reviews follow a central conclusion (well liked) and a few common likes (tense scenario design) and dislikes (variations on concerns about randomness), they are all slightly different. In the re-appropriated words of Mark Herman “It takes a village.” People approach different games and why they like them for all kinds of reasons. Consequently, it stands to reason that even seemingly minor changes or evolution to rules or game components can cause people to feel uncomfortable with the change.

Case Study: Conflict of Heroes

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear came out in 2008. I was thrilled and quickly bought a copy, as well as Storms of Steel when it was released. I was a fan of the artwork, complexity, and approach to tactical WW2 games. I printed every scenario I could find, laminated player aid cards, organized and built every imaginable fan addon you can think of for the game.

I was a huge fan!

Then, I found out that a 2nd Edition was coming. I was willing to give it a shot, but held off. What did me in was that the game components had altered from the original. While I could still thoroughly enjoy the game I loved, I would need to re-purchase everything in order to keep up with the series and move along with it as new expansions were released. At the time, First Men In and Guadalcanal felt like they were right around the corner rather than nearly a decade away.

I was dejected and sold my copy. I swore never to go back…I caved recently and I’m all in once again because I do enjoy the series.

Lessons Learned

I think I learned a few lessons from these 5 or so years:

  1. Designers who have a signature series to their name ARE going to tweak it and continue to evolve it.
  2. Don’t believe the hype for new editions until its released and you have a chance to fully explore.
  3. Don’t believe Academy Games release dates. lol! (Tongue in cheek of course…but not really)
  4. Customers need an upgrade pathway.

Upgrade pathways

You may disagree with me here if you’re a publisher or a designer. I understand your business premise. I don’t understand your customer service stance…

Edition changes that alter components NEED an upgrade pathway for existing customers. If you don’t do this…you are both lazy and greedy. That’s a bold claim, but there’s really no excuse for it. I certainly respect the need to make money and think upgrades CAN make money! Further, I understand the need to minimize warehousing and overprinting products.

Here are a few ways to fix that problem:

  • Promote the upgrade kit alongside the announcement of the new edition.
  • Offer the upgrade kit on a pre-order only basis. Only “overprint” maybe an additional 10% of your ACTUAL sales during the pre-order period.
  • Upgrade your distribution chain’s old edition copies with the upgrade kit and sell those copies as a new product with a pricepoint that seems to make the most sense for the now combined products.

In effect, service your existing customers with an opportunity. You’re already printing the new components after all! Make it clear that this is a limited time opportunity and that once the stock is gone, that’s it. While this is unlikely to sell more than about 20% of your prior edition copies that should convince you that a) you want to preach to the choir or lose them and b) that you’re not talking about a massive run of these upgrade kits which will already (for the most part) be paid for when they get shipped.

Back to Ownership

Customers want the “best” version of a game. Designers, even veteran ones, continue to hone their craft and see design problems in new ways. This means that subsequent versions that a designer convinces a publisher to sell will be better on the whole. While some exceptions are likely to occur…nobody is burning those copies Fahrenheit 451 style!

Designers should be the ultimate say in what their game says, how it plays, and how fans interact with it over the course of its lifetime. Gamers have the final say in how the game is played at their table of course. If they want to disregard the changes, make their own house rules, or disregard the rules and just chuck counters at their cat…they can certainly feel free to do so…psychopaths that they are!

Say it!

Designs are never finished. They’re just left in a state where designers feel they’re ready at the time.

I’m good with that and support it. Long live the 2nd…3rd…4th? edition of some of the hobby’s best games!

I was listening to the excellent Harold on Games podcast a few weeks ago and heard Harold’s interview with Jack Greene. Jack mentioned that he used to get more wound-up about wargame unit ratings when he was younger. Greene also pointed out that beloved topics, such as World War II or the American Civil War tend to elicit strong opinions about unit ratings from a broader audience.

This got me thinking about unit values and what they actually mean or represent. Today, I’m going to provide a few thoughts on a sprawling topic that could, in and of itself, fill a book on its own. I am only coming to the topic from the perspective of a fan and not from the perspective of a designer who has had to wrestle both with the decisions and their fallout.

The Three Things…

Rather than hide this in the text, I’ll provide the three things I think of when considering unit evaluation right at the frontend so you can agree or disagree with me right away!

  1. Designers have opinions….and those opinions actually DO carry more weight than a player’s opinion.
  2. Numbers are meaningless on their own. They only carry context in relation to other unit ratings.
  3. People are going to be angry no matter what. The designer’s logic being sound is all that matters.

Let’s keep it simple and start right at the top of the list.

Designers Opinions Matter More Than Yours!

Games need to say something, first and foremost, about their topic. A game without an opinion or a unique approach doesn’t need to be made. Consequently, by the time a game makes it to a player, the designer’s opinion has had to carry the thing from idea to pitch to design and finally to production. That oversimplification belies all the debates and effort that go into each step along the way.

The designer isn’t trying to appease a gamer’s personal or widely held belief about a unit, nationality, or conflict. We’ll limit the discourse of this article, of course, to just unit ratings and say that what a single historian or widely held popular belief was about a leader or unit may not stand up to further historical research or testing.

Historians debate these things all the time, why shouldn’t that debate exist in wargames!

Instead, designers are looking at outcomes in the sense of the narrative context they have created for the game. In an American Civil War game, it’s not necessary to worship at the feet of John Reynolds giving him godlike powers had he only survived Gettysburg. Similarly, those Russian T34/76 units seemed to do pretty well on the eastern front from a logistics standpoint so maybe their ratings in a game that favors mechanical reliability does rate them better than their German counterparts.

Trust the designer if the ratings adhere to the logic of the case the designer is making with the game’s rules in short.

Numbers are Relative

We tend to base our games on pretty low numbers. They’re easier to do the math with in our heads and lend themselves well to simple charts. The closer we can get to binary evaluation as humans the better we are at making quick value judgements. This speeds play, helps foster deeper understanding, and won’t turn off the non-numerically proficient amongst us!

We’re talking about a 17% difference when a commander is rated as a 5 instead of a 6. Distilling a leader’s effect down to a number is already borderline idiotic, but it is in the service of a game so we accept it whole cloth. Were leaders ACTUALLY under 20% different from each other?

The answer is, of course, perhaps. What matters more is the context of how and why that rating was determined. Over the course of a game where players are expected to roll the dice 100 times and use that value, on its own (rare…if ever) then we’d only see this ratings difference in action roughly 9 times if players have a 50/50 chance of success on an unmodified die roll. I’m basing this on the following equation (100 chances x (.50 x .17))…so take that as you may since it’s essentially what is the probability of you NOT making the roll in 100 chances if you’re 17% deficient)

I go into this, essentially, to say that you need to do the following equation in your head before getting “wound up” as Jack Greene put it:

(Probability that the improper rating is actually breaking the game x Probability that your rage is misplaced)

As you might imagine, the actual results of this highly scientific formula and approach bear out what Jack Greene was saying. Effectively, there is no “perfect” system for ratings. The result is that people will find fault with individual values. There’s not stopping that part of a game’s critique.

Logic is how you Mean It!

Instead, the designer’s logic should be what demonstrates the validity of the rating. Jack Greene provided a few minutes of detail on how he developed gunnery ratings for Bismarck Second Edition. I had a few takeaways from that description:

  1. There is an immense amount of thought that a designer can invest in building the basic mathematical model underneath the game itself. When this is done well, it’s transparent and intuitive. When it’s noticeable…the designer probably needed some more time working through it with a developer.
  2. There is a strong parallel between the work of developing a rating and how SABRmetricians develop summary ratings like WAR for Major League Baseball players.
  3. No rating is immune from further tinkering. There comes a time when the rating and design are done, but that doesn’t come with any slammed shut dusty tome. Designers learn and evolve, so their logic has to stand the test of time for THAT design.

Designers need to make the case for their logic in the intuitiveness and broad acceptance of their conclusions. When that fails to happen, they should be including some kind of designer note that acknowledges a change from a widely (perhaps even incorrectly) held belief about the relative rating of a leader or unit.

Wrapping it Up

Designers are no infallible, but ratings are not mistakes. They must be meant when committed to cardboard. The work that goes into developing them is immense and fiercely opinionated. Consequently, players need to evaluate the logic of WHY and think about whether that one point different REALLY means anything.

In the long run, games are rarely made or broken by unit ratings. That’s why we see so many accepted combinations. There are more games with 3-3 or 4-4 units as the base value than I care to recall. However, what separates a good designer and game from a great designer and game is the logic behind the ratings. They need to mean something.

Fire in the Lake Cover
Fire in the Lake Cover

Fire in the Lake was released in 2014 and has remained one of the most popular COIN titles. Mark Herman and Volko Ruhnke managed to cram the everything that made the Vietnam conflict such a quagmire into 3″ GMT Games depth box. The COIN series is stretched in interesting ways here because of the novel concepts like a bot that responds to US leadership, a year-based deck, and the unique concept of “The Trail” covering the status of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

I’ve played Fire in the Lake now on 6 separate occasions. Consequently, I’m no more qualified to pass judgment on the game than I am to offer nuclear fission advice to that teenager who managed to split an atom in his parent’s Tennessee basement. That said, I do feel like I have enough feel for the game in solo (3 plays) 2-player (2 plays) and 4-player (1 play) to offer some thoughts on Fire in the Lake.

It’s not that I’m not fond of doing reviews. I have posted more than a few on the site in the past year. Instead, I think these topical reflections on the game allow me to offer greater insight without seeming to pass judgment on a game entirely. They offer a more pointed look at a few aspects rather than trying to be a generalist in all aspects. Hopefully, you’ll agree that these are useful in helping to generate conversation and stoke some thoughts on the games where I don’t offer a full-blown review.

Solo Mode

Solo Mode in COIN games is satisfying. I’m not surprising anyone here with this insight. That said, the bots are imperfect and I can’t imagine die-hard multiplayer fans or designers are keen to have their COIN title judged solely on the merits of the game that emerges from bot play.

Mekong support grows

Fire in the Lake is more event driven than many of the other COIN titles. I say that because the events in Fire in the Lake have a higher frequency of providing players with tempting capabilities, one-time actions, momentum, and punishing consequences for allowing the other side to take the event. While all COIN games share this at times, Fire in the Lake amplifies the frequency of these decisions to the point where players can be tempted to over-commit to events in lieu of solid operational play. We’ll look at that more later.

I bring it up here, however, to reveal that bots GET those actions and no amount of play prevents a bot from taking the juiciest of events. In some ways, this is a solid training tool to demonstrate the relative power of events. In other ways, however, it’s a random or missed opportunity when operationally the bot player could have capitalized on a “partner” faction’s last turn. In the context of a solitaire game, this is a great compromise and keeps the human faction honest. It should not, however, be confused with solid training for opposed play.

The solitaire mode is great for learning the mechanics, exploring the factions, the interactions of the factions, and for a game when you just can’t round up anyone to take on that ARVN player slot! Be wary of applying the strategies you develop against the bots broad cloth to an opposed game.

Double the Players = Double the Fun!

The two-player (2P hereafter) variant is actually truly enjoyable in Fire in the Lake. In some cases, the 2P version just isn’t all that satisfying. I’m thinking here mainly about Cuba Libre where the Syndicate faction wins or loses based on their ability to negotiate with other players. In the end, Cuba Libre excels when there’s a full table and even succeeds to a greater extent than Fire in the Lake when playing solo. Fire in the Lake, however, is EXCELLENT as a two-player game.

First, there are baked in rules for the amount of resources that can be traded between the insurgent forces. This helps even out the competing objectives for the NVA and VC. Though not formalized, the 2P version of the game creates an interesting dynamic for the Governmental player.

Since scoring is measured based on the lowest score of the two factions that a player controls, there’s not really a good way to “screw” one faction in order to get a shortcut to victory. While it’s easier in the 2P variant to push the ARVN over the finish line, or to withdraw all the US forces and jack up the available forces score, there’s a massive cost.

VC Ops to take LOC

I think this balance and scoring mechanic make the 2P version of Fire in the Lake shine. While not specifically designated for two players, the balance and tradeoffs that must be negotiated by each player are equally difficult. That sounds simple and almost self-evident, but I challenge you to find multi-player games on BoardGameGeek that transition as elegantly between two players and four players. There just aren’t that many. In fact, it’s part of the reason why BGG allows users to score the “ideal” number of players.

Fire in the Lake player count

Two players is the second most popular “Best” recommendation. I would wholeheartedly agree. I think the “recommended” is a little high on the one player, but I completely understand the rating and think that the nearly 20% of the folks saying that one player is NOT recommended helps support my case. Another interesting thing to note is that a full third of the respondents felt like three player is the worst way to play the game. I would agree here as well.

This is a remarkable achievement in game design. You have THREE viable player counts and two that truly shine!

Four Player Perfection

That game, as you can imagine, is perfect with four players. Every last lever, inter-player tension, faction rivalry, and opposed operation is finely tuned. I had a chance to play my first four-player version of the game on Sunday and we have already agreed to get back to the table to do it again soon! Consequently, I need to share a few observations about the four player version that may not (or maybe they are and I’m just slow on the uptake) to folks who haven’t tackled the four player game.

Cards are a nightmare

Fire in the Lake shoots meaningful event choices at players like an M60 unloading into a treeline. They’re loud, hard to ignore, and will tear you up if you don’t know how to react to them.

VC takes Hue

It can be so tempting to take events or overthink how the next faction on the card will use the event that every decision is wrought from the moment a card is revealed. While the difficulty of decision-making and the mental checklist of considerations is long for all COIN games, Fire in the Lake has high stakes for bad decisions in a way that I’m not sold all the other games do (though its true in many).

Complicating this even more is that you now have a partner player who is adding their two-cents to the debate and you KNOW FULL WELL they’re coming from a place of only halfhearted support. They have their own faction goals and getting you to commit to an event might be in THEIR best interest, but perhaps not so much in your best interest. I played as the ARVN player and between the US player and I we managed to out-think ourselves in terms of the number of events we took early on that gave operational tempo dominance to the Insurgent players!

Be careful with the events…you are going to have to take a hit sooner or later…learn which punches you can absorb…

Your “Teammate”

You are your own team in the two-player variant. Consequently, you are forced to be an active partner and participant strategizing with your teammate in the four-player version. It reminded me, in some ways, of discussions we would have in Model United Nations (MUN) when I was in high school.

Support in the Mekong

This means you have a very specific goal in mind. You cannot fully influence your allies. Critically, you have to give in order to get. So you need to figure out what costs you the least and gets you the most. You’re not required in every transaction to “win” that equation, but you need to do it more frequently than not in order to be successful. In short, the diplomacy with your allied faction is much like a negotiation with a belligerent faction at its heart even though you loosely co-benefit from each other’s goals.

It can be easy to discount the importance of these discussions and negotiations, but in reality they may be a co-equal partner in achieving victory for the non-traditional powers (VC & ARVN) in Fire in the Lake.

There is still a war!

It can be tempting to ignore the fact that Fire in the Lake portrays an active and deadly war. While the NVA and VC are provided with lots of tools to cause chaos, the US and ARVN are efficient at dealing with the “whack-a-mole” opportunities that arise.

Remembering to counter those NVA and VC incursions is critically important even if it means slowing down your race to your objectives. This is amplified in the four-player game because two brains are better than one! You are facing off against the best strategy that two people can see on the board at any given time. Knowing the NEXT card that will come into play can lead to some interesting conversation as war planning gets a little foresight that may not have existed historically.

NVA Red Wave overwhelms the US and ARVN

The game is stronger for it, but the job of both sides is still to execute the war. Failure to do so will quickly lead to a mountain of NVA units that can be insurmountable to remove without some lucky card draws for the US and ARVN player. That was exactly the situation we found ourselves in during a recent play in fact! There is still very much a war going on and no matter how many COIN controlled provinces and cities you hold, or how happy the population might be…there is PLENTY of room for the NVA to delegitimize the South Vietnamese regime and win the game while the US and ARVN players do good things.

A final word about fun

COIN games present notoriously difficult choices. Maybe not every turn, but frequently enough that having an ally on your side is a huge boon to the fun you’ll have around the table. This is especially true if everyone has roughly the same experience and skill level with the game.

Mistakes will be made, the wording is at times difficult to parse in every situation, but is generally clear enough. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because in the end it’s all about having a fun afternoon trying to expose the South’s corruption or to stall the first domino from falling in Southeastern Asia.

In our game we let the NVA player get units on the board more quickly than we probably should have and then didn’t do anything to try to deal with those units. It doesn’t take too long before the ramifications of that error were felt. That said, it certainly didn’t stop anyone from enjoying themselves and we were all just as eager (if not more) to get back to the table and play this one again.

The benefits of camaraderie far outweigh the “aww shucks” of realizing a mistake too late and the COIN system is resilient enough that a few bad mistakes CAN be overcome by solid play. Celebrate the fun and forget all the rest…Fire in the Lake remains a classic design in the COIN series and deserves every bit of praise heaped on it over the years from folks far smarter than this wargamer!

There are a few battles and operations on the eastern front of World War II that are guaranteed to get some kind of reaction. The first, of course, is Stalingrad. The second is the opening of Operation Barbarossa. The “battle of Kursk” or really back-to-back operations Citadel (German offensive) and Kutusov (Russian couner-offensive) is the third in this trilogy of eastern front heavy hitters. Consequently, it’s no surprise that when Platoon Commander made the jump to World War II that it might land on Kursk. We are going to review Platoon Commander Deluxe: Kursk today on WargameHQ!

Game Overview

Platoon Commander Deluxe Kursk Cover

The Platoon Commander series is one that’s been to Korea, the far future, and is headed back to the near past. It is a malleable tactical land combat game that incorporates a lot of what you expect from such a title and only offers a few new twists.

This is intended to stand alongside games like Band of Brothers as a low-complexity broad-strokes quick-playing WW2 tactical game. It is well conceived, like Band of Brothers, and will certainly scratch that itch if someone has it.

Fire & Movement

Tactical wargames are made up of fire and movement at the granular level of a battle. In this case, we’re looking at fire and movement of the eponymous platoons and individual tank groups.

Disrupted units from fire combat
Disrupted units

Units are provided with a basic movement point allowance that is consumed over the course of hex-to-hex movement by the terrain crossed. There are no surprises on the rolling hills and small cities of the eastern front. This is meat and potatoes terrains for wargamers including open, hills, cities, towns, rivers and forests.

The scale of the game ensures that the design doesn’t get literally or figuratively bogged in the minutiae of river crossings, currents, or other terrain related details. Instead, the game opts for the lightest possible rules overhead in all instances.

Line of Sight

A good example of where the game exerts this simplicity is in the way Line of Sight (LOS) is handled. Units draw a line from roughly center of the firing hext to the target hex. Things that make sense to block LOS like hills, trees, or cities do so. In cases where a hex-spine is used, so long as both sides of the LOS string don’t touch blocking terrain it is clear.

Line of Sight blocked by woods
The woods disrupt line of sight here

The end result is a visual check handles most LOS questions and a quick pull of a retractable badge holder is more than enough to settle any disputes. There’s no ASL-esque terrain depiction blocking on a bulging little hedge.

Fire Combat

Like nearly everything Mark H. Walker has put his name on over the years this design is fond of rolling dice. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this method. I actually liked its implementation here only because it means gameplay is quick.

The attacker selects their lead attacking unit (using either Armor Piercing or High Explosive combat values depending on the target), subtracts the target’s armor value, and then applies any positive column shifts. Negative column shifts are applied last for terrain or other considerations like armor rating and a single d10 is rolled. This determines the number of potential hits which are then rolled individually.

In most cases, an attacker will score between 3 – 5 potential hits and a corresponding number of dice are rolled. This is compared against the unit’s morale. Rolling low is preferable in all cases in this game.

Cards!

Showing a few of the cards in the game
Some cards from PC Deluxe Kursk

The game features cards that further streamline complicated systems that overburden other tactical WW2 systems. Cards represent opportunities for initiative swings, artillery bombardment, air strikes, and even inter-player event cancellation cards.

They add some dynamic elements to the game, but it’s pretty clear they add systems like bombardment and airpower without the overhead. Instead, the cards kind of feel tacked onto the design even though they’re a core element of gameplay that will be used each turn. I realize how dumb that sounds!

How can they be both CORE and TACKED-ON?

Essentially, the cards offer a design convenience. What’s not clear, however, is whether their presence is meaningful from a tactical level. After all, what you draw is random and a good string of cards is more powerful than solid tactical play. Consequently, the choices players make are always on the verge of being upset by random forces well outside their control.

I think cards increase the carnage of the game and this game most certainly has that hectic feel of movement and combat happening all the time. You’re challenged to make decisions quickly and react to movement and counter-movement tactics within the course of a single turn.

Focus & Aid Mechanics

The one unique feature here is the ability of players to place Aid (allows 1 or 2 re-rolls of morale when checking hits) and Focus (allows 1 or 2 re-rolls of combat or initiative).

This is a nice way to represent leadership capacity on the battlefield. It SHOULD provide players a bit of a thinker as to where to place these tokens and how to use them. Instead, the game’s simplicity often means that the choices are blatantly obvious to even casual players.

Focus marker showing the single-die re-roll side.

The other oddity here is that these chits don’t seem to be affected by event cards which might have made for more interesting questions of timing. I think my biggest concern is that these don’t feel like powerful tools. Instead, they feel very reactive with the exception of placing a focus marker on the turn record track try to re-roll initiative for the next turn. I was pretty underwhelmed by their influence on the game and while they tackle a little of what leaders in ASL provide, I had hoped they might strike a balance between something akin to the command points of Conflict of Heroes Series or the super-power of multi-unit activation in the Combat Commander Series.

Is it fun?

I had an okay time with the game. It’s a pretty straightforward affair and I don’t think it brings anything novel or new to the table in the way Combat Commander, Conflict of Heroes, Old School Tactical, or Band of Brothers did. I think this could be a matter of expectation and preference more than this simply being a “bad” or “sub-par” game.

The burden of any game to be fun isn’t just in the person across the table. There’s a load to be carried by the game itself. To that end, I don’t think this game offers players frequent enough difficult choices, interesting tactical situations, or a particularly compelling narrative when playing.

The oversimplification of equipment differences across Unit Specific Modifiers and morale just felt odd. Morale especially felt strange to me since it’s supposed to account for both equipment quality and crew training.

The game is solid. It has moments of fun, but not enough that I would argue it’s better than any of the many other predecessors with the same rules overhead or slightly more like Conflict of Heroes from Academy Games.

Instead, the game just sort of exists. Everything about the execution is pretty solid. The biggest gripe I have with the game is that it doesn’t seem to add anything new to tactical World War 2 games and it’s no so much easier than the jump to a meatier one might not be possible.

Morale & Hits

The Russian basic morale is a 3 in the game and the Germans is a 5. I don’t disagree necessarily with their relative ratings. That said, morale values are used to resolve hits.

The workhorse armor in this game is the T34/75 vs the Panzer IV. These tanks, by most accounts, were roughly equal and certainly equal enough in what Platoon Commander is trying to accomplish to justify the equal ratings. The Panzer IV is given a -1 Unit Specific Modifier (USM) to reflect the equipment’s actual performance on the battlefield.

Again, I’m okay so far.

The problem, however, is that though the Russians are likely to score 1 – 2 more successful potential hits on average than the Germans that’s only going to account for, at best 1 more landed hit. Here’s where my problem comes…

The German morale is 5 and we’re rolling D10s where the zero counts as a zero and not a 10. So, there is a 6 in 10 chance that the Germans brush off the potential hit. This is, if unmodified, 1/3rd better than the Russian morale. The -1 USM that results in 1 – 2 more hits (on average) ONLY helps the Russians if they can score greater than 1/3rd more potential hits than the Germans.

In effect, bad luck is amplified to a greater degree for the Russians than it is for the Germans and it’s not entirely clear why that’s the case in this game.

Bad Decisions?

I don’t think this is a bad decision necessarily. The reasoning didn’t land with me and given the already broad strokes the game uses, why not make the morale equal in more of the scenarios? After all, the Germans were on the offensive in Citadel. The Russians had the Germans on the run in two counter-offensives during what generally constitutes the Kursk salient fighting.

Final Thought

There is a place for this game on your shelf if you are keen to try a World War II tactical wargame and you need something light. So many of the complicated and in the weeds details of other similar games are missing. That’s a huge boon if you’re keen to introduce your love of World War II tactical gaming to a friend.

An effort to take a hill.
To take that hill…

The components, game, design, and decisions are solid in the context of what they are.

For a tactical World War II gamer who has played and enjoyed Band of Brothers, Old School Tactical, Conflict of Heroes, Combat Commander, Tactical Combat Series, Panzer Grenadier, Combat Infantry, or any of the other litany of this ilk…you’ve played this game and you’ve probably played one with only a little more overhead and a lot more payoff.

Consequently, I just didn’t find the game all that engaging. It has some great out of the box appeal. You can get it to the table quickly, learn and teach it, and for the first 5 or 6 plays…the game holds together well.

After you repeat a scenario or two a few times, or analyze how the sausage is made in the game…it starts to lose its shine.

Today we’re going to take a quick look (literally) at Platoon Commander: Kursk. I created these three Platoon Commander playthrough videos over the weekend working through the scenarios included in the base game.

You’re going to see some sub-optimal play in order to facilitate the Turn 2 combat focus and to show off parts of the game system in a more easily digestible format. I try to stay out of the weeds (there are very few in this low-complexity game) to make the videos easier to watch.

The first video introduces the scenario and some basic information about the units and objectives. You’ll get a chance to check out the Germans taking the initiative and making their first move forward.

In the second video, you’ll get a chance to see the Russian units and their advance into knife fighting range.

Turn 2

Let’s try out some combat and compress the time down a bit.

My review of this game is incoming Friday….stay tuned!