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!

My son’s teacher emails families to give them a heads up on what students will learn each week. Last week, we learned that my son would be diving into the American Revolutionary War. He is well aware of my wargame collection since it spans most of the shelving in the house upstairs. His first question was, “Dad! Can we try out Washington’s War once I learn about it at school?”

I firmly said, “NO! These are NOT toys. They are complex historical simulations not intended for the FEEBLE MINDS of children. In fact, he shouldn’t even make eye contact with the boxes again.”

Of course that’s an out right lie. I was delighted and promised we could start playing it that weekend. Well, as the week wore on he remained interested (tough at age 10) and this past weekend we played our first games of Washington’s War from GMT Games.

Teaching To Children

Start with the end in mind.

In this case, that means teaching what winning looks like for both the Americans AND the British. Learners, regardless of age need to know the expected outcome they are to achieve before diving into the rules. I’ve been explained a lot of games where 20 – 30 minutes into the rules discussion I still have no idea how to win.

WaWar Colony Tracker
This little chart is life.

Be incremental

The jargony phrase here would be to “scaffold the instruction.” In effect, you need to sequence what you teach so that it builds up to the next concept and builds upon the last one covered.

Here’s a brief outline you can use with Washington’s War (Keep in mind this is NOT comprehensive and that’s a good thing…as you’ll see in a moment)

  1. Teach the objective of the game for both sides.
  2. Show the political control markers and then have the child practice making legal placements and seeing their options.
  3. Teach the abbreviation of PC for these markers and teach isolation. Have the child set up an isolation.
  4. Introduce Generals and talk about who they were and what generals did for armies historically. (The context here is important because it helps explain their features and some of the rules)
  5. Teach children about combat units and their abbreviation (CU’s).\
  6. Run through a made up sample combat and remind them that the goal is not necessarily to defeat your opponent militarily. That’s only a means to an end.
  7. Talk through the various roll modifiers and teach the abbreviation of drm. Again, the history here will help a little.
  8. Teach the child about the Continental Congress and what it means if the British disperse the Continental Congress.
  9. Show the various card types and talk through each with the child:
    • War End Date Card
    • British & American combat strategy card
    • British & American event strategy card
  10. Take some time to go through the deck and explain some of these cards and what the implications might be when played. Then randomly place some PCs on the board and let the child work through some of the event cards and re-fight a battle so you can keep them rolling dice and engaged.
  11. Show the child the 1,2, & 3 Ops cards and talk through the options one at a time, letting the child actually do the task.
  12. Talk about playing an opponent’s event strategy card as a 1 PC with limits action.
  13. Talk through how a turn works and show them how the charts on the board and their player aid card are all laid out so they can refer to them when needed.
  14. Go through the game setup with the child taking the Americans so they can control General Washington and place the Committees of Correspondence. Make the child talk through their logic and help them see their options while respecting their choices. This shouldn’t be aided solo-play!!!!
  15. Talk through the turn sequence and remind them how all the pieces you’ve covered fit together.

Questions, Questions, Questions

You can take the next step in a variety of ways. A lot depends on how the child you’re teaching has responded to the information you’ve shared to this point. I advocate playing with an open hand for the first turn so you can talk through what you’re thinking and how you will use your cards just as you should encourage the child to do so.

This gives them the opportunity to see and understand the logic.

Ask LOTS of questions of the child as they play to help them gain confidence. Here were a few I asked repeatedly?

  • What do you (American player child) ask me as the British player at the start of each turn?
  • What happens if this general doesn’t end its turn in Winter Quarters?
  • Why do you want to fight in ports when you’re the British?
  • Why are you placing the PC marker there instead of somewhere else?
  • A 3 Ops card is a big deal, talk me through why you’re using it that way!

The questions are intended to have the child express their thinking and logic. You need to be overwhelmingly supportive of their choices while also gently giving some things to consider. Remember, as the adult, the child you’re teaching is going to value your input perhaps more highly than their own which might overly influence what they’re doing. Instead of teaching the child, you’re effectively playing for them and that’s not going to be any fun for the kiddo. Praise the good choices and let the questionable ones stand as-is as long as there’s logic behind it.

Depth Over Time

Cover the rules for things like the French as they become more important. The child needs to understand why the French are valuable and how the French track works. That said, they don’t need to understand the nuance of French reinforcements, generals, and naval blockades just yet!

WaWar - Greene Protects Philly

Give the depth of the game to the child over time. That’s done by talking through why you’re doing something. Reinforce the objective of the game repeatedly. It can be SO tempting for kids to want to get rid of that +1 British Regular advantage through combat early on when the British are sporting 20 CUs on the map and the Americans are squeaking by with like 6 or 7.

Instead, remind the child that the Americans need to retain their political power. Philadelphia is the heart of that power. Building PC networks that are adaptable and can link up, particularly along the coast, is hugely important for the Americans.

Children aren’t morons…usually

When my son started chess, I had no idea what to expect. He quickly advanced and learned the rules, strategies, and could talk-the-talk. He’s 10 and he’s easily my equal in chess (I’m not very good for my age and he’s very good for his having won a few local tournaments).

We don’t “talk chess” at my house. It’s his thing and we also don’t typically “talk wargaming” because that’s kinda my thing. Consequently, I was impressed by his thought process and in cases where I’ve played Euro-games with my son and his friends their thinking as well.

It can be easy to misinterpret being a child for being slower on the uptake with games and rules. Don’t fall into that trap. Kiddos are crazy smart and will surprise you with how cleverly they approach problems. Their willingness to take risks and their adaptability are unmatched.

Give the child credit and make every lesson additive to their knowledge. It can be easy to say “You should have done this!” Instead, flip that and ask, “What do you think might have happened if you had tried this instead?” Make THEM solve the problem.

Put Fun First

My son loves all things active. Even on the basketball court he’s constantly in motion. The kid just has to move! He tires pretty quickly of repetitive tasks and, to some degree, wargames can feel that way with their prescribed turn sequences and deja vu moments.

The other thing that wargames have going for them is that they use dice. You can’t, as much as you might want, fudge the dice coming out of the tower on a critical roll for the child you’re teaching. Disappointment and heartache are part of gaming and being a good gamer across the table.

That means sometimes taking a break to clear your head. Get a drink of water, a snack, or just take some time to do something else for a little while. While Washington’s War is fairly short, there’s nothing wrong with breaking up the game into two or three sessions to keep the child interested.

WaWar - Near the end of the first game

Putting fun first ALSO means celebrating great choices and positive outcomes. When Washington gets his first victory, high five it up! When the French join in on the side of the patriots…make french sounding noises. Use the milestones that mark success to reinforce the good feeling the child already has with tangible external encouragement! This is even easier if the child you’re teaching is your own.

Warning: Your Mileage May Vary

This is just a reminder that should go without saying. No two kids are alike. There are some universal teaching models and strategics (constructivist pedagogy) that will help you put your best foot forward. However, your mileage may vary!

My son is into chess. He is NOT typically into wargames. We have tried to play some games in the past and he’s just not into it. That’s 100% okay. I’d rather we find things to do together that we both like than me forcing him into my hobby. I’m 100% okay with him not having the same interests as much as I’d love that.

The time you spend across the table teaching a child to play is sacred. Whether it’s your child or another, you’re getting an opportunity to make an impression about our hobby that may last a lifetime even if the hobby doesn’t for them. You may end up being the only ambassador that the child ever has for our hobby and that’s a pretty cool responsibility.

Hopefully the information in this article will help you ease a child into Washington’s War and give you a framework for working with other games as you introduce them to kiddos!

WaWar - Son Tries Again
My son decided we needed to play again … he wanted revenge as the Brits this time…

Triumph & Tragedy is a triumph and a tragedy. Sorry. I had to get that out of my system. Today we’re looking at the GMT Games release Triumph & Tragedy which has been described as, among other things, a World War II sandbox. Consequently, I’m going to break down some early thoughts about the game and share some experiences I had recently playing this game.

Dateline 1936

It’s 1936 and the world has not yet exploded…unless of course you live in China and well…this game doesn’t care about you because it only covers from the eastern half of the United States in the far west to India in the east. I like a game that knows what it’s about.

Triumph & Tragedy Start
Getting started…

Russia, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain stand ready to slug it out. Sort of. They each have cadres of military units huddled close to their capital cities and on some of the frontiers to discourage gamey opening moves by a savvy Russian or German player in particular. The German player is responsible for the Italians while the English and Russian players just need to fend for themselves.

Players take turns, in random order, managing their economy by building their industrial base, securing diplomatic contracts, negotiating with their frenemies, building units, and acquiring technologies. Nations can also mobilize their units and attempt to take land areas by force.

Everything is pretty straight forward and the layout of the game facilitates a rules overview prior to play. During the game turn, the decisions aren’t often brain burners, but there’s definitely some strategy that must be employed. It’s far more likely to get bogged down in player negotiation and feeling out the strategic priorities of each country rather than what to build or how to improve your economy.

One does not simply Win World War II meme

One does not simply win WW2…

The game is won in one of three ways:

  1. Economic Victory – You have a peace dividend victory point total and industrial capacity of at least 25 at the start of a turn.
  2. Military Victory – You have captured 2 of an enemy’s capital locations.
  3. Technological Victory – You escape earth. Wait..that’s civilization, but it’s pretty similar here. You need to build an A-bomb which happens through research and you need 4 different stages. You will build the F-Bomb pretty early on given the combat model.

These straightforward objectives make the game focused and give players distinctive pathways in the various systems that make up the game’s design.

In Four Part Harmony

Rather than going through a play-by-play of the game I played, I will instead share some strategic thoughts about the various phases of the game. There are essentially four distinct phases to any game of Triumph & Tragedy.

  1. The Pre-War
  2. The Early War
  3. The First Loser
  4. The Endgame

These phases can be derailed by a runaway leader or as I like to call the cunning advantage provided by good luck with dice, cards, or oblivious opponents. Thankfully, that last one shouldn’t happen too often, even in a first play through! The game is straightforward enough that the possibility of a player creating some kind of devastating charade are next to nothing.

Pre-War Considerations

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die
in your sleep

Kenny Rogers “The Gambler”

The pre-war phase can’t win you the war to come, but it can certainly lose it for you. That ultimately comes down to your willingness to adapt your strategy to the cards that keep coming your way.

Diplomacy

It’s in Germany’s best interest to try and lock up countries as satellites early on through diplomacy because it can create walls between Russia and the Great Britain. Further complicating Germany’s predicament is rampant diplomatic success by either Great Britain or the Soviets. Germany is easy pickings in the middle of the map, so they need to find a way to create enough pressure to sue for peace with one of the other powers. Diplomacy can be a great way to do that.

Triumph & Tragedy Austria
The Austrian satellite emerges

Technological Investment & the Eastern Front

One of the things that can be tricky, especially early on, is technological investment. It limits your hand size by one which doesn’t necessarily hurt you until later, but it can limit your options of what cards to carry between turns. This is painful as you need to keep cards that counter your opponents handy. Russia is a great example of a country that needs to keep their options open. After all, they have access to the Middle East and Southern Asi…they don’t NEED Great Britain if they can strike a deal with the Germans. Putting together an early tech that makes them punch a little harder might be a convincing way to negotiate with the Germans.

Big Sticks should be on your shopping list

The other strategic consideration here is how quickly to build units. This was a KEY mistake in the game I played. There’s so much other exciting stuff going on like building up your industrial capacity (“Just Do It!”) and diplomacy that you can forget that you’re going to need to carry a big stick if you want to speak softly with your potential allies or enemies. Again, Germany is the lynchpin to the whole thing and in order for the diplomatic strength to sway to either Great Britain or Russian, Germany has to be willing to deal.

Ultimately, you need to be improving existing units or buying new ones. How you want to approach that depends on how you want to apply diplomatic pressure to your two opponents.

Dollar Tree Aircraft Carriers!

I only point this out because I think it’s worth noting. While I completely understand buying an Aircraft Carrier is a different scale than raising an Army or a Corps it still “feels” odd that everything costs a single resource point. Blocks definitely limit what you’re able to do so there are limits on what you can build and in how much quantity, the potential for abuse (I’ve not landed on this just yet) seems to exist. Surely playtesters knocked this thing around BECAUSE it seems so ripe for exploitation, but you can use the “everything’s a buck” to your advantage. Don’t be intimidated by taking a naval strategy or increasing your airpower (more on this later).

Nobody is Anybody’s Somebody

This is the most confusing way to simply remind players that there are no pre-enforced diplomatic or military relationships. It’s not a given that the Germans will ally with Spain or that Russia won’t simply swoop down into India and throw the Brits out while the Brits invade Finland. The game is the Wild Wild EuroFront.

The Early War

In order to increase population, a step necessary to deal with sustaining a wartime economy, it’s important to make those neutral nations not so neutral any longer.

The good news is that beating up on say Czechoslovakia won’t inherently take you to war with another major power. Consequently, it’s important to know when you’ve exhausted useful diplomacy and can transition into spreading your military wings to fly.

A word on combat

Combat is handled in this game a lot like Axis & Allies in that units take turns rolling and everything is weapon system dependent. This is, honestly, something I expected to hate but ended up enjoying. I know that might not float everyone’s boat and they might want some additional depth to their game, but is a game like Triumph & Tragedy well served by a complex combat system?

Triumph and Tragedy Finland
Finland is Finished…

The answer, of course, is no. The famous film critic Roger Ebert and I rarely saw eye-to-eye on every movie. Ebert famously advocated, however, that movies should be taken for what they are. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective isn’t trying to be Casablanca and viewing it with the same lens as you might view Casablanca will not only leave you disappointed, but missing the intent of the movie. This is an assessment where I whole-heartedly agree with Ebert.

Combat is just one area where this game can quickly get a “bum-rap.” The reality is that this game isn’t trying to be anything more than a light fast-playing sandbox that occurs during the WW2 era. Any critiques I make, I’ve tried to make them targeted to the game in its own context. Consequently, I can’t fault the combat and it serves the overall design well.

The First Loser

Ultimately, the early war phase will go on even through the opening hostilities however they might shake out. The next thing that everyone is going to try to work for is securing the “first loser.” This isn’t the runner-up who must step in for the overall winner in case they cannot live up to their esteemed duties.

Instead, Triumph & Tragedy rewards players who act like sharks. When there is blood in the water, it’s time to roll your eyes back and go all-in to eliminate the player who bleeds first.

One of the things I like most about this game is the delicate dance of diplomacy mechanics, face-to-face negotiation, and combat. The discussions are often about what you CAN do since a lot of what might normally be held close to the chest in international negotiations is largely known by the other players. I always advocate for the strategy of never threatening anything I cannot deliver. Sometimes that means force, but sometimes that I can mean helping your negotiation partner against a common enemy.

As we played, I was struck by the idea that someone might try to bluff! After all, the map is, in many cases, is knife-fight close. It is even more so once the navy has opened up sea lanes for strategic movement if you’re Great Britain. The result is swift retribution against someone who is revealed to be a liar. Sometimes, avoiding being the first-loser is the difference between bluffing and making your truths feel more powerful than they are for another player.

Once the first player is eliminated…then it’s a pretty straightforward race to the endgame.

The Endgame

Like the Avengers…all things must come to an end…presumably. The endgame of Triumph & Tragedy is one where the final conflict between the now two-relevant powers will be determined by dice rolling and what’s still on the board.

That seems like the most “well duh” statement ever, but the endgame is almost entirely reliant upon who suffered the least during the first-loser phase of the game. Consequently, it’s essential to find ways to help your short-term opponent while preventing their overall victory AND remaining powerful enough to finish up the game.

A power can get beat up badly, but if they manage to steal enough capitals or, more likely, they manage to be hanging onto 5 – 6 Peace Dividends AND have an industrial capacity of ~20 then you can STILL lose.

Peace Dividends

I want to take a brief aside here to talk about Peace Dividends. There are 24 of them in the game (IIRC) and 12 are value zero while the remaining are split between 8 one-point chits and 4 two-point chits. The rulebook says for you to imagine that your opponents are earning roughly .6 Peace Dividends per turn.

That’s of course a gross oversimplification. Instead, I like to consider best and worst case and give those a small range of possibilities.

Keeping your frenemies aware of who holds how many tokens and using that unknown in negotiation is a powerful strategy. Especially as the game moves into the first-loser phase it can be critical to getting a little blood in the water in fact! The peace dividends may be one of the best concepts to come out of this game because they add a great variety of the timing of an overall winner.

Those who don’t pay attention to peace dividends are condemned to lose on account of them!

Back to the endgame

As the final two powers circle each other, flexibility and mobility are going to be the key to the endgame. While infantry units are the backbone of the land forces, more combats are swung by smart placement and use of air forces and naval transport than you might imagine.

After all, your opponent cannot be everywhere at once!

Finding your opponent’s “soft underbelly” and gutting them from there is the key. It’s another component of Triumph & Tragedy’s design that shines. You cannot build an all-powerful army. You can only accomplish, at best, a temporarily superior force in one area to carry out an offensive. Therefore, your flexibility and force composition are critically important.

Overall View

The Germans head south…

I can’t possibly pass judgement on this game without a lot more plays. Suffice it to say, however, that I think this game is solidly designed when viewed in the context of what it is. This is not Advanced Third Reich, Cataclysm, A World At War, Totaler Krieg! or other grand strategic approaches to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in WW2! Evaluating it alongside these titles misses the point completely.

Instead, Triumph & Tragedy has accomplished a noble design task. Make an ETO game that provides a little more strategic depth and consideration than something like Axis & Allies. The table-talk and fun that this game generates in a SIGNIFICANTLY shorter period of time is well worth the investment of an afternoon.

Triumph & Tragedy is more triumph than tragedy even with some rough edges.

There are an (over?) abundance of World War II tactical games. Make no mistake, the last 20 years have given us new content and series like:

  • Advanced Squad Leader
  • Advanced Tobruk
  • Band of Brothers
  • Combat Commander
  • Combat Infantry
  • Company Scale System
  • Conflict of Heroes
  • Fields of Fire
  • Fighting Formations
  • Grand Tactical Series
  • Lock ‘N Load Tactical
  • Old School Tactical
  • Panzer
  • Panzer Grenadier
  • Platoon Commander
  • Sergeants
  • Tactical Combat Series
  • Valor & Victory
  • War Storm Series

There are probably some others I’ve forgotten, but these are the series that jump off the page at me when I consider tactical (some grand tactical) and World War II.

The question we’ll be tackling today about tactical WWII games is why some of these games thrive (continue with years of releases and new content) and why some fade away. In future articles, I’ll get into the various merits of the systems and how/why folks might choose these systems.

Why is tactical appealing?

I think the first thing we need to discuss is why tactical world war ii games are so more prevalent than any other tactical game genre with the exception of fantasy tactical (Gloomhaven, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.).

I think there are really three main reasons for this:

Kelly's Heroes Movie Still
  1. They allow players to “take part” in the war movies they’ve seen. War movies are RARELY solely about the operational or strategic decisions that get made. Instead, they focus on a human drama that happens to be set against a backdrop of war. Given that World War II occupies this “just cause” moral fiber, telling stories of heroism, depravity, and redemption are magnified by the stakes and setting. Tactical World War II allows us to relive these moments and feel the punches land in a personal way that broader scopes struggle to conjure in our imagination.
  2. Tactical games deliver faster shots of dopamine to the brain. According to an article from the Harvard Graduate School of Science & Arts, our brains crave a steady diet of dopamine. In the article, smartphone apps are created in such a way to optimize the predictive centers of the brain with an outcome in order to engage and maximize the pleasure/reward sensation of a dopamine release. Tactical games offer this steady diet of dopamine. Generally speaking, tactical WWII games put die rolling on charts at the forefront of the resolution of nearly everything imaginable and then pace those die rolls across a turn in such a way that you remain engaged. Consequently, you brain is getting a faster and more steady dopamine injection when “the dice are rolling your way.”
  3. The barrier to understanding what’s happening is much lower than operational or strategic level games. This isn’t to suggest that these games are less complex. I only need to point to the frustration of learning Advanced Squad Leader or Fields of Fire to trigger a negative response from at least part of the reading audience! In fact, this point is related to the first point I made. Anyone who has ever played a First Person Shooter game will understand the dynamics of movement, shooting, cover, and objectives. The skills learned playing a game like Call of Duty or Battlefield ARE transferable to tactical WWII games. This has only become more evident as the first person shooter genre adds greater depth and complexity to the choices required by players.

All Tactical Games Aren’t Created Equally

If the above justifications for the relative popularity of tactical WWII games have left you questioning why everyone isn’t enamored with these games the reasons are many. In fact, too many to list here. Don’t misunderstand my point and think I’m suggesting there is a universal appeal. I only bring up the points above to provide a framework for understanding why there’s a glut of these game systems on the market. In fact, that leads me to my next point…if these games are so great…why aren’t they ALL popular.

Clearly, if tactical WWII games are triggering dopamine reactions and are so easily relatable then it must just boil down to personal preference! You are right…from a certain point of view. Simply ask wargamers which WWII tactical system they prefer and you’re likely to get impassioned pleas from the fanatics of each series. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that some games are thriving while others are not.

What does a thriving game look like?

In order to understand why a game thrives, we must first understand what “thriving” means in the context of this article. Here are some criteria for a thriving game:

  1. The game system receives active updates from its publisher. This means new games, expansions, articles, scenarios, and maybe sponsored tournaments.
  2. The game system is actively discussed across multiple major venues. While most game systems will have their niche haven for conversation, I’m talking about a game system that receives conversation on what I’ll call the “big 3” for wargaming (BoardGameGeek, ConSimWorld, and maybe a generalist Facebook group).
  3. The game system is actively supported by fans. This means new expansions, unofficial scenarios, fan sponsored tournaments, and game nights/clubs dedicated to the game.
  4. The series has demonstrated longevity of support in at least one of the other categories. A game that hasn’t had active development that still receives discussion is the Tank Leader series from West End Games (and soon Compass Games). Plenty of active discussions over the 30 years since release. Another, would clearly be Advanced Squad Leader and Advanced Tobruk which have had plenty of releases in the last 20 years to demonstrate a serious commitment to longevity.

This framework works well for older and newer games because a healthy pipeline of products is a good indicator of future support. In the case of Combat Commander which has been wildly successful, I would suggest that without some “new blood” in the system…it will begin to fade away no matter how frequently the core game is demanded in reprint.

A thriving game isn’t exclusively measured by sales. It’s measured in how actively played the game is in both casual AND competitive play. How many resources are dedicated to supporting the game well after release by the publisher AND by the community. We have a lot of newbies on the list like Old School Tactical, Lock ‘N Load Tactical 5.0, and even Platoon Commander or Combat Infantry which took their first steps in 2019 and 2018 respectively.

Framework Evaluated

Now that I’ve said my piece let’s evaluate a few popular titles and see if they meet this definition of thriving or not! These results are ENTIRELY up for debate because they’re solely from my perspective, but hopefully you’ll find merit in the evaluation. They should, at a minimum, appear even handed.

Advanced Squad Leader – Thriving

This one is almost impossible to dispute. The game is releasing new content from first and third party publishers all the time. There are tournaments on every continent annually and the game has sustained it’s following for 34 years at this point.

Advanced Tobruk – Not Thriving

ATS Cover

This one SEEMS to meet a lot of the criteria. There was a new rulebook in 2014, Critical Hit seems to unload a boatload of content (more on that in a moment) and there are definitely people who play it casually. That said, a lot of the “new content” is really just rehashed old content that was either produced specifically for Advanced Squad Leader or that had a different name a decade ago that has now been re-released at a significantly higher price-point to make it APPEAR to be something it is not. This is the opposite of the North Carolina state motto “To be rather than to seem.”

Band of Brothers – Not Thriving

Again, this title seems to check a lot of the boxes above. That said, the product support has been pretty sparse. The last meaningful release for this game was in 2016 with Texas Arrows. Band of Brothers is an excellent system, but it seems like the gameplay follows in waves after the release as new players discover it and existing players work through the scenarios. I can’t recall a tournament setting for this one, but that may be a result of my limited convention expertise.

Combat Commander – Thriving

Combat Commander Europe Cover

Here’s where we see how a game can have a lackluster ongoing publication schedule, but a ton of tournament and casual play to keep it thriving. The last release was the 2015 Tournament Battle Pack, but the game, although slipping, has a substantial following still that exceeds that of most other tactical WW2 games.

Fields of Fire – Not Thriving

As much as my bias wants to prevent this…Fields of Fire is not thriving. There was a lengthy playtesting for the new version and it keeps getting kicked down the road. The original release scared people away with a confusing rulebook and a very different approach to tactical WW2 combat. Consequently, Fields of Fire has become something of a cult product rather than a thriving tactical WW2 system. Maybe the new release will help turn that around?

Conclusion

You can get a sense of how I’m considering what is thriving and what is not. I would say that my system is pretty charitable, if not overly so. In the next article, we will look at how a few tactical WW2 systems have found a niche and why they seem to thrive.

Until then, share what your favorite system is and whether or not you think it’s thriving in the comments below!

There’s nothing sweeter than getting the roll you need to eliminate an enemy unit. That is, of course, unless you can immediately advance after combat into the hex or area that the enemy vacated! Advance after combat has been with the hobby for as long as I can remember and provides players with an immediate, time-bound tactical decision.

Today we’re going to look at Advance After Combat and when and how you can exploit it in your games.

The Basics

Advance After Combat (AAC hereafter) allows one, or more, attacking units to advance into the hex or area vacated by a defeated enemy in nearly every case. There are variations of this rule, but the most common flavors include:

  • AAC after elimination – this usually allows one or more to move into the vacated hex immediately.
  • AAC after retreat – this usually allows one or more, with some restriction, to move into the vacated hex immediately.
  • AAC by armor – this usually provides some exception to the rules allowing armored units to penetrate 1 or more hexes beyond the vacated hex.

Consequently, knowing how your game handles AAC is essential to ensuring a breakout.

Why Advance?

It may be self-apparent why you would want to advance to some and equally questionable to others. This will, of course, come down to your risk tolerance. Instead of weighing the risks, let’s look at why you would want to advance DESPITE the inherent risks of extending your line or creating a “bulge” that could collapse.

Think back to our article about Zones of Control and one of the biggest advantages for AAC should become apparent. Many ZOC rules will block further movement in a turn. As a result, AAC offers an attractive alternative to extend your firepower advantage deeper into enemy lines. Since ZOCs are ALSO used for things like tracing supply or interdicting those supply lines, punching through an enemy’s front line is hugely important.

You will also want to keep in mind that retreating units (covered in an upcoming Mechanic Monday) are frequently penalized for retreating or routing through an enemy ZOC. That means your breakthrough, especially if you can sequence your attacks properly, could provide a SIGNIFICANT cascading effect on future combats.

Why hold instead of advance?

That’s pretty convincing! Usually, you will want to AAC. In some cases, however, you will be smarter to hold back and a lot of that is situational and depends on the game rules. You don’t want to create a fragile bubble in the line that might isolate some of your strongest units. If you penetrate too deeply beyond the frontlines, you could quickly find yourself without some of your most effective units.

Instead, look at how your reserves can full the front line gap, keep your ZOC in tact for supply checks, and how you can support an initial victory that results in an AAC!

You want to sequence attacks in such a way that you maximize the effects of a prior AAC to either create additional enemy losses in retreat, or to begin to open up a breach in the enemy’s lines. If you cannot do that, or you are worried about the upcoming success (maybe the dice just aren’t rolling your way this turn!) then hold back a little.

Aggressive vs. Conservative Play

My greatest fault as a player is that I’m overly conservative. AAC rewards players who are bold enough to take advantage and maximize their successes. In some regards, you must be audacious and throw everything you can at the enemy in order to make the most of an AAC.

Aggressive play will be rewarded, especially if you understand how combat works and can shift the outcomes generally in your favor for a turn or two. Conservative play, on the other hand, is unlikely to give you what you need.

The best example I can give is seen in nearly every eastern front wargame. If you sit down across from a timid German player in the opening months of Barbarossa. You will assuredly win as the Russians. Conservative play will not yield the early results and breakouts are essential to sustaining your forward progress.

Aggressive vs. Conservative play is too broad and philosophical for an article like this. Suffice it to say that you will need to make the most of the offensive actions in order to realize the advantages provided to the attacker with AAC.

Minimizing the effectiveness of AAC

Defense in depth. Learn it and live it well if you expect to combat AAC in any meaningful way. This doesn’t necessarily mean interlocking ZOC behind all your front line units. In fact, this may do more harm than good since you’ll make a series of fragile lines through which the opponent will cruise rather than putting up a still defense.

Instead, consider the effectiveness of where you place your reserve forces. This comes down to knowing the supply and ZOC rules of the game you’re playing. You can place reserve units at road hubs, cities, supply centers, etc. in order to maximize their responsiveness and to protect soft rear-area targets of opportunity. The last thing your opponent wants to see is an effective counter-attack AFTER they’ve completed their AAC!

This can also mean knowing when to collapse backward as a line is compromised. Sometimes, you can trade hexes for defense, especially if you can keep the pressure up on the front line aggressors. A fabian strategy. Be careful though as many savvy game designers guard against this style of ahistorical play by creating severe penalties for moving out of an enemy’s ZOC.

Finally, you can look for a weakness if an AAC unit leaves behind a bad angle or weak point. That advanced unit needs supply and support. If they don’t get it, you have a chance to prune the incursion before it turns into a full fledged hole in your line!

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has given you a VERY basic overview of the interactions between ZOC and AAC. Now you’re familiar with the jargon, some common moves, and have some thoughts to get you started as you encounter these common wargaming concepts in your next game!

Your Thoughts?

What are your favorite tips and tricks with AAC? Share them in the comments below!