Hollandspiele was named as the Publisher of the Year for 2018. As a result, I wanted to get a review out for one of their 2018 releases. Today, we’re looking doing a Great Heathen Army review. This is the fourth game in the Shields and Swords II series and covers 9th, 10th, and 11th century warfare in Britain.

What happened to Shields and Swords I?

Great question! I had the very same question when I first saw the series name. Tom created a few games for One Small Step under the series name Shields & Swords. Tom opted to revise the series and publish this evolution of the original rules under the Hollandspiele banner head.

It is important to note, for those hipsters who were into this series before it was cool, that Shields & Swords II is NOT compatible with its predecessor.

Since releasing Shields & Swords II, the following games have been published by Hollandspiele:

  • The Grunwald Swords
  • House of Normandy
  • Battles on the Ice

Getting Medieval

The Shields & Swords II (SnS2 hereafter) features what I would deem a light wing and command mechanic. Medieval armies are portrayed with two critical characteristics: Quality & Unit Type.

Overhead shot of Great Heathen Army
Overhead shot of the game in action

Units are then arranged by wing which varies by scenario and those wings are issued commands in the form of tokens.

Wings perform commands, which can be modified with the use of a special token and the sides take turns issuing and resolving wing commands. In fact, the series could have been called Medieval Wing Commander, but the Kilrathi were far less effective before the 28th Century.

At Your Command

There are 7 main commands in the game, each of which can be modified to achieve different outcomes. They include move, attack, shield wall, fire (ranged attack), horse, and special.

Closeup of Great Heathen Army
Shield Wall Command in action

Each scenario, and likely game, could be endlessly customized around this mechanic with special rules modifying the way the commands work. This provides maximum flexibility for Russell as he develops the game to fit the battles covered in each title.

The tactical game is centered around picking the right moment for the correct wing in order to exploit a weakness that the enemy has presented. Knowing when and how to do that requires a brief discussion of combat.

Once More Into the Breach!

Combat is equally broad strokes, but to great effect. Units compare unit types to determine die roll modifiers, then look at scenario and command adjustments to their quality. Finally, a single 10-sided die is rolled to achieve an outcome.

Crossing the ford - Great Heathen Army
Can the Mercians hold the ford or will the Viking Eovil break through and escape?

Generally, speaking rolling lower as a higher quality unit in a favorable matchup is rewarded.

Combat outcomes include retreats, step losses, unit elimination and the exchange of casualties. Again, this is pretty standard fare when it comes to wargames.

So…what sets this game apart?

A matter of timing

The tension in the game comes from the scarcity of commands. Each scenario provides you with a combination of the various commands, but never more than two of the same command and that is quite rare. Instead, you will need to balance when you move and attack. Not just when you attack, but also with which wing and against what units.

The result is an undulating wave of wings that crash together, withdraw through retreat or command, and then prepare to crash together again. In the midst of this motion, units break off from each other and savvy players will capitalize on these rare openings.

Timing is everything. Wait too long to put up that shield wall, or time a withdrawal incorrectly and your units will be punished.

A Fine But Fickle Force

Each side is usually presented with a small cadre of veteran units. These make up the nobility and leadership. As a result, they are the leaders to whom the Levy units are bound.

Without leadership, the Levies will break (cue Led Zeppelin?). This is evaluated by wing. Keeping units in proximity to thee veteran units seems much easier than it is in practice. After all, your veteran units are the lords of the battlefield in every possible way. Even light cavalry will suffer a penalty facing off against a veteran unit!

So, savvy players will use their setup to prepare for the eventual tearing apart of their wings by constant melee attacks, retreats, and eliminations.

Bonus Time!

The chit that mixes this up is the Bonus command. Paired with any command, it offers a special ability that can be a difference maker. Combined with the attack chit, it allows the wing to fight a “Pitched Battle” adding to each unit’s quality. Use the bonus with a shield wall, and the wing can draw away from an enemy line while retaining the defensive advantage of the shield wall.

The bonus chit helps the viking force race to the ford with double movement!

In short, it’s a difference maker. Timed well, it’s a game changer. This is especially true when considering the movement bonus which allows for a second round of movement. As your wing seizes the advantage by splitting the enemy’s wing into isolated groups you will cackle with glee.

Impressionist Painting

As you have, no doubt, guessed. This game is about broad strokes as a low-complexity game. Don’t be fooled. While simplistic systems are individually easy to teach and play, they fit together in such a way that you are called back to the table for one more turn, or one more scenario.

Look to a series like Men of Iron from GMT Games if you want a more robust handling of medieval tactical combat. Men of Iron inherits much of the Great Battles of History mechanics.

Shields and Swords II, on the other hand, provides a complete feeling game on a rules and time budget. Great Heathen Army makes an outstanding introductory wargame if you can get friends hooked on Netflix’s The Last Kingdom. In fact, you can start them off fighting Ethealdon which is featured in season 1 of the show.

Historical Accuracy

Great Heathen Army has the trappings necessary to suspend disbelief. While the game won’t reveal the subtle realities of medieval combat, you will get a feel for often fickle and routing army elements. Holding a medieval army together was no small task.

I loved the scenario notes that accompanied the game. They provide a level of detail that’s appropriate for understanding each scenario. As a result, the historical flavor of special rules are not lost on players who may be unfamiliar with the combatants or battle.

The King’s Justice…

Great Heathen Army is worthy of a place in your wargaming kingdom. While I’ve not played the other Shields & Swords II series games, I am more likely to do so having played this title. Players will go from box to their first scenario setup in maybe 30 minutes. There’s little need for the rulebook after the first full battle.

Scenarios take anywhere from 35 minutes to a little over an hour to complete. This is a fantastic game to teach someone about wargaming. It’s also a game to bring along to a non-wargaming game night. You may be able to rope someone into playing it. The vibrant counters, pungent Blue Panther scent, and low complexity are a recipe for success.

I highly recommend giving this game a try if you need something on the lighter end in your collection or want a game that you can pull off the shelf and play quickly.

Some games are a flash in the pan. They are exciting, new and give you a rush, but lose their luster over time. Then there are the classics, those games you come back to repeatedly only to find nuance you hadn’t noticed or find comfort in a solidly built game that reminds you what wargaming is all about. A game that falls solidly into the latter category is No Retreat: The Russian Front.

Originally released by Victory Point Games this title was given the deluxe treatment by GMT Games and subsequently released in the “2nd Edition” format that cleans up rules and addresses some the vagaries from the initial version. I am only familiar with the game in both GMT releases. As a result, I am spoiled by the incredible production of one of the best low-complexity eastern front titles ever released.

A Ballet with a CRT

Make no mistake, the low rules density matches the low counter density, but as every player soon discovers into the first few turns of their game…No Retreat: The Russian Front is a demanding game that plays like a complicated ballet. Assembling a coherent defense with brittle Russian units that don’t really come into their own until later in the game against the punishing onslaught of panzers and mechanized infantry the German throw at the Russians for the first two years of the war is intimidating. For the Germans, the problem is overcoming the scarcity of units to keep the drive alive while not giving up the flanks to allow Russian units to sneak behind the lines in order to cut the lengthy supply lines back to Greater Germany.

Casual Players Excel

The other observation about this game is that casual players can quickly excel at this game. The strategy quickly emerges because the rules “get out of the way” within the first few turns. Add to this, the punishing outcomes of bad decisions and it leaves even casual players with a desire to reset the board and try again. Getting a wargamer engaged enough to demand an instant restart to a game is no easy task. Often, wargames can be mentally exhausting in the best possible way.

The other great thing about No Retreat: The Russian Front is that it allows for some of the soft-skills that make face-to-face play enticing. One of the things that I’ve just accepted as a part of wargaming is diving into rulebooks during the game in order to look up a rule or an edge case. That can get in the way of a great conversation. Again, No Retreat: The Russian Front does a superb job of making the time around the game table a lively game and conversation.

Design is a Razor’s Edge

As designer Richard Seymour (of Seymour Powell) says, “Design is removing the irrelevant.” That’s a delicate act! Any game could just be reduced to a die roll with some historical modifiers for an outcome by removing everything. It’s the act of an incredible designer to balance keeping everything the game needs, without keeping a single irrelevant thing. Carl Paradis has achieved this rare goal with No Retreat: The Russian Front. It offers a robust Russian Front experience without anything unnecessary to achieve that goal.

A few of the crowning achievements include:

  • Rail movement without railroad tracks on the board
  • Russian conscript replacement
  • Effects of the Russian Winter
  • Intangible advantages of equipment and doctrine shifting across the 4 years of the conflict
  • Supply that can be reviewed at a glance in almost every situation
  • Luftwaffe support

Things that are emergent include the use of satellite armies like the Romanian, Hungarian, and Italian forces who need to be cared for properly since they fill an odd niche. The satellite armies aren’t strong enough to operate alone, but can help push you up the odds column or can help hold a ZOC linked line. They’re even competent early on holding onto captured cities for the Germans. As a result, players get a chance to explore the various ways to employ these armies which seems to evolve over the course of the game.

The Russians Evolve…Almost Chromeless

The overarching story of the Russian front is always one of the hapless Russian army getting blindsided following the purge of its best leaders. Over the course of a 14 months, they manage bring the industrial and population might to bear against an increasingly fractured and unfocused German invader. By 1943, the tide is solidly turning and those Russian soldiers who needed Commissars to keep the men on the line are now full fledged Russian bears on the hunt. There were almost innumerable ways to explore this. Changing the CRT, swapping out units, providing a column shift, swapping out the deck by era, or providing a year-by-year change to each Russian unit’s stats.

No Retreat: The Russian Front is far more elegant in its approach. Instead, the Russian player slowly upgrades additional units in a progressive series of changes that the German player simply cannot keep up with over time. This has the added benefit of not using cards for the most part (unless the Russian player wants to accelerate this process) and it puts the German player into the state of mind of the German commanders who were suddenly outclassed over a massive series of fronts. The change in the game features both the psychological and statistical changes in a nearly seamless way. While there are special rules to contend with on turn 12, overall the core mechanics are left alone. Since there are few mechanics to begin with, this reinforces my earlier point that the rules get out of the way of the game quickly.

The perfect teaching game

I’ve gilded the lily long enough and it’s time for my final thought.

A lot of time is put into recruiting new wargamers. This is a TOUGH sell. Admittedly, there are a lot of curious boardgamers, particularly who like heavier Eurogames that find the historical focus of wargames appealing. Unfortunately, the length of rules, complicated military vernacular, and two-player count coupled with often 3+ hour play times for even lighter wargames can make recruitment a difficult task. There are now far more games that fill the “teaching” or “introductory” wargame niche.

I contend, however, that No Retreat provides players with a far more accurate representation of the hobby than many other games. While games like Twilight Struggle, COIN series releases, or even lighter releases like W1815, 1775 Rebellion – The American Revolution, or Washington’s War don’t provide a more traditional look at hex & counter wargaming. This doesn’t diminish these excellent games. In fact, it may help sustain new wargamers over the hump. Let’s look at 10 reasons why…

  1. The game is hex & counter and features nearly all of the core concepts of traditional wargames.
  2. The rulebook is light, well written, and there are plenty of videos / player aids available to assist a new wargamer.
  3. The game features a lot of on-map “symbols” that helps players learn the game and remember the rules (very Euro-like).
  4. The game has plenty of scenarios with shorter playing times.
  5. The components are solidly made, easy to read and handle.
  6. The game is well liked by first timers and by veteran wargamers.
  7. The game is the first in a series, and while the other games introduce significantly more complex systems, there’s room to grow into them.
  8. The price-point, when in print is not outrageous.
  9. There is a superb VASSAL module for players who want to try it out digitally if no willing wargamers live nearby.
  10. The game is just plain fun.

As much as anyone might write about this game…that it’s fun often gets left aside to focus on the details. Instead, let me just close out by re-affirming that No Retreat: The Russian Front is one of the most fun wargames to throw on the table ever made. It is a classic for all of the erudite design reasons you can break down from it, but in the end…if a game isn’t fun…why bother?

There are so many American Civil War games on the market it has become almost as crowded as the World War II topics! In 2018 alone Longstreet Attacks, Atlanta is Outs, Roads to Gettysburg II, Battle Hymn Vol. I, and Hood’s Last Gamble have found their way from publishers to gamer’s tables. It truly is an embarrassment of riches given how well received these games have been. Each continues either a current popular series like Great Battles of the American Civil War from Multi-Man Publishing or reinvents one like Battle Hymn from Compass Games has done with the Across Five Aprils release from Victory Games almost 30 years ago. Each game brings a unique look at a battle or campaign with well refined rules and seemingly strong play-testing. Today, we’ll be taking a look at Thunder in the Ozarks a Blind Swords game from Hermann Luttmann and Revolution Games.

I’ve been most impressed with the Blind Swords system that powers Hermann Luttmann’s Longstreet Attacks in 2018 (as well as At Any Cost: Metz 1890 from GMT Games). Instead of starting at the end, I already had Thunder in the Ozarks and Stonewall’s Sword which preceded Longstreet’s release. I have to say that Blind Swords might be the best American Civil War tactical series in terms of sheer fun.

Rules Light’ish

TitO - Cavalry StandoffThe rules are not overwhelming. They do, however, present a lot of nuance that creates some particularly thorny decisions for players. While much has been said about chit-pull mechanic games I have to say that appreciating Blind Swords, and Thunder in the Ozarks (TitO hereafter) requires a closer look.  I enjoy reading American Civil War books and I’m struck by how common it is for the narrative description to invoke the relationship between various units as they move into each other’s proximity. To date, this has been handled by savvy players and rulesets that strongly imply why and when you should move units at the tactical level. Blind Swords, on the other hand, outright provides the requirement.

One example of this is artillery which must move when other units move within 2 hexes of the artillery meaning that you cannot order your artillery to remain in obvious harm’s way in order to get off a dying canister shot because the column shifts are favorable. You can receive a charge, but it must be an attack rather than a reckless defensive sacrifice. Cavalry receives their customary ability to escape, but what I like is that transitioning from mounted to unmounted both offers the adversary a chance at opportunity fire AND the cavalry unit becomes an infantry unit for nearly all purposes. I’m not so sure that these are revolutionary concepts, but taken in whole with the rest of the game they feel substantial and provide meat to a relatively light-to-medium weight wargame.

Combat Brutality

TitO - Disrupted Unit

One of the things I lauded in my review of Battle Hymn Volume I was that combat felt significantly bloody. Your choices carried weight and how you chose to expend units in the pursuit of your objectives was a key tension throughout the game. Thunder in the Ozarks has the same weight to the choices. The low counter density and paucity of “strong” units coupled with solid stacking rules means that players have to adapt their offensive and defensive strategies accordingly.

In my first play, I was most concerned with creating a long “un-flankable” line, but learned quickly that this can be a recipe for defeat in detail. Instead, TitO forces you to adapt to the terrain and read the chokepoints at least semi-competently. I, of course, lack these skills but can certainly appreciate the way the game presents the relationship between terrain and units.

Final Thought About Combat Results

TitO - CRT SnippetThe centerpiece of the system, at least for me, isn’t the chit pull or brutality of the combat. The game is, as a whole, easily recognizable faire, but where I think it truly sets itself apart is in the way the game presents the combat results. I like the idea that you’re not necessarily escaping results, your units are tested to varying degrees of intensity. Further, the differentiation between close combat and fire combat to deal with the various outcomes rather than as a unified outcome that only applies additional column shifts or die roll modifiers makes this a lot more fun.

 

TitO - Cohesion TableThe intensity of the result you must check is then combined with dice rolls that represent your losses and your retreat result. Again, the separation does a lot to make the combat more transparent which is greatly appreciated. I’ll dive into this a bit more in my review (coming soon). Blind Swords is a not just a good system, but a great one and I clearly love this game!

 

GMT Games released Skies Above the Reich in late July 2018. Since then, I’ve had an on-again and off-again relationship with this solitaire game set in furballs of the European air war during World War II. Since I’m still not ready to weigh in with a final review, I’ll share some of my observations after my first campaign.

This game is insanely tough!

There’s no way to put this lightly. Skies Above the Reich is a punishing tour de force for new players. The rules are pretty straightforward, but like many great games, the strategy is emergent. For example, it can be tempting to simply say, “I’m going to come in high and from the sun with my entire squadron!” That’s great, but you’re going to get one solid pass and then things are going to go south, particularly because you can’t reliably control where the allied fighters are going to show up.

So, you try the next best thing and you look for ways to come at the bombers from different directions to gain advantage. That’s great, but often times, even in the early war before the boxed formation takes hold, there are deadly kill-zones. You find out quickly that there are few things more terrifying than a bunch of bombers armed to the teeth and all shooting at you!

Finally, you embrace the chaos and attempt to squeeze advantage where you can score it and get somewhat comfortable with the mechanics of fighting the bombers. You’ve forgotten about those pesky Hurricanes, Spitfires, and Mustangs! Next thing you know, oil is spraying over the canopy and you’re just praying the pilot inside can bail out and live to fight another sortie! 

The game is lengthy

Yes, the rulebook warned you that decisions made during setup ARE in fact playing the game. Like the Sun Tzu says, “Every battle is either won or lost before it is fought.” To some degree, that’s true (see above)! It would be a mistake to think, however, that you can breeze through a campaign with the kind of speed you can with say B-17 Queen of the Skies.

Instead, individual scenarios are like Lays Potato Chips. You can’t play just one. You need to string them together to get the cumulative effects necessary of gaining pilot experience in order to mitigate the horrific dogfight casualty results or the shot you took to the wing as you were pulling away from that fallen bomber.

My first campaign took a few days of playing maybe 80 – 90 minutes a crack. I realize that was my first, but if you’re tracking everything and double-checking rules…that’s probably a pretty fair estimation. I know many of you hotshots will be quick to say, “I played a whole campaign in 3 hours.” Good for you! That was not my experience and I’d LOVE to get to the point where that was the case.

A surprisingly large footprint

Skies Above the Reich requires a surprisingly large footprint. You have 5 decks of cards, room to roll dice, chit pull cups, charts, booklets, and beautifully large mounted “maps.” 

I had hoped to leave this fella set up, but it required the better part of one of those game store style banquet tables.

Is it fun?

That’s why I feel like I need to play another campaign. I’m just not sure at this point. I think fans of aviation and particularly of solitaire aviation games are going to LOVE this game. Without hesitation, if you consider yourself part of that fandom…snag a copy of this game TODAY!

For me, I’m not sure just yet. There’s a lot to be said for the emergent gameplay strategy that only reveals itself over many plays. During those plays though, you’re getting smashed in the face repeatedly by a challenging and chart-heavy solitaire game. There’s definitely something special here, but I’m not sold that it’s MY kind of game just yet.

The Mythical Phoenix Rises!

On August 4, 1998 Monarch sold Avalon Hill to Hasbro and, though there were other wargaming companies publishing great games, it was nonetheless the end of an era for many wargamers who the grew up with the hobby.

It might have been tempting to brush this moment off as another evolution and transition of a hobby that saw many publishers rise and fall during even its height of popularity in the 1970’s. After all, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) closed its doors 11 years prior in 1987 after a similar set of crises of identity created by new owners and outright mismanagement.

So, what does 2018 have to do with 1998 or 1987? 

The hobby has continued healthy growth, under the steady management of a bevy of publishers. This has included publishers of every stripe from niche publishers like Kevin Zucker’s Operational Studies Group (OSG) to big tent companies like GMT Games. Even new publishers in the United States and elsewhere like Hexasim, Hollandspiele, Compass Games, Victory Point Games and Tiny Battle Publishing are finding a foothold, if not rabid following in the hobby.

Gamers have weathered significant price increases over the last decade and the hobby morphed to include a broader range of high-quality games covering conflicts in ways we’ve not experienced on this scale in the past. Series like COIN, Joel Toppen’s First Nations Solo Series, and the Great Leaders series all come to mind from GMT’s catalog alone. Wargamers are being challenged to re-evaluate what it means both to be a wargamer and what they should expect from wargames.

Classic series still abound as well. Advanced Squad Leader recently made the leap to Korea fulfilling a decades-old “promise.” Series like the Operational Combat Series (OCS) and Standard Combat Series (SCS) from The Gamers, though now published under the Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) roof are still going strong with regular releases and increasingly refined rule iterations.

These are all indicators of the hobby’s relative health and stable footing that has been hard-won after a comparative drought of releasing from the late 90’s through maybe 2004 or 2005.

I want to tackle the two biggest drivers of change happening right now…

Game Evolution & Game Reinvention

GMT Games is beginning to ship the leading edge of their self-termed COIN-fest. This includes a massive reprint order of popular COIN titles from throughout the “series” history. As a part of these reprints, though, designers have re-evaluated their titles with the hindsight of eight incredibly successful games from some of wargaming’s best-known and most-respected designers.

Gamers who are new to the series will get to enjoy a premier wargaming series at the peak of its execution with new versions that fix cards, further redefine the automated bot player logic with a more nuanced approach learned after years of competitive play and evolution of the bot development.

COIN Update Kit

GMT could EASILY have asked longtime series owners to shell out another $60 – $80 at P500 prices for these upgrades. Instead, upgrade kits have been offered to ease the transition so that new and existing fans alike will be able to enjoy the games as their designers have evolved the games.

It is incredibly important to note that designers should absolutely be given the leeway to have their games revisited at any time and, in conjunction with any other co-designers they see fit. After all, many of the games that get this evolutionary treatment are ones that have been revered and include a passionate following.

Evolution vs. Reinvention

Evolution is great, as long as upgrade paths allow existing owners, if possible to upgrade to the latest version. In some cases, this may not be possible. For example, when a game has been out of print and circulation for decades and the game is being provided with new artwork, counters, significant rules updates, and maybe even a new publisher. This is, however, more of a game reinvention than a game evolution.

Game evolution is incremental and is handled in timely updates. Game reinvention involves a fresh approach to the at a lower mechanical level. While many of the rules systems may remain unchanged, a reinvention will showcase an overhaul of one or more systems, components, or presentation elements to the point where the game is largely new for even veteran players.

Two examples of reinvention that come to mind are the released Silver Bayonet from GMT Games which included a solo game, a new approach to smaller scenarios, an incredible “new” map and revamped rules completed in conjunction with a new designer supporting the process.  The result was something truly different, though grounded, in the original release’s purpose. Based on anecdotal feedback from owners of the original who purchased the new copy, they were happy to do so!

France 1944 Preorder Cover

The other example is France 1944: The Allied Crusade in Europe which was originally released back in 1986 by Victory Games. This one is being redesigned by Judd Vance and Mark Herman (the original designer) for Compass Games as a part of their efforts to expose and, in some cases, significantly modernize classic games for a new generation of wargamers. Again, the early descriptions coming out from Twitter about this one sound exciting and the partnership between Vance and Herman is an exciting superfan-superdesigner mashup.

Why Reinvent Classics?

Classics are classics for a reason…right?

Sometimes, yes! Sometimes, it’s not about whether the old-guard deems a game a classic and leaves it as a “shelf queen” untouched. Instead, publishers like Compass Games are actively trying to bring these classic games back into production for a generation of gamers who were not around.

Even games from the late seventies and early eighties are now a generation and a half-old. That’s a lot of gaming eyes that have come and gone without access to what the hobby considers “classic” in any meaningful and actively published way. After all, games are costly to publish and expensive to buy, so there seem to be specific “windows” in hobbyist lives where purchasing these games seem to fall (disposable income in high school or more typically college, then again after gamers have an established job, and finally when they become empty nesters again). 

That’s not universally true, but it seems to ring true with many local gamers who report “just getting back into the hobby after dropping it in college” or “now that my kids are moved out I have time to play with regularity.” As a someone who just turned 40, I can see my gaming time shrinking as my child approaches tween-hood given all the activities in which he’s involved. Finding time in the evenings is even difficult with a job in PR and the schedule uncertainty that can bring with it at times. Many other people have different stories that involve increased business travel, promotions that devour additional hours at the office, divorce, or other significant life changes that push wargaming down the totem pole of priorities.

That only underscores the importance of both evolution and reinvention! 

This is a healthy and significant stage in the wargaming hobby that deserves to be applauded rather than scoffed at by hobbyists. YES, there is some additional cost, but these are optional expenses that are definitely not required to remain engaged. Instead, these are opportunities. 

Opportunities for new wargamers to get invested in classic titles that the old-guard hold near and dear.

Opportunities for old designers to mentor new designers through the process of reinventing classic releases for new audiences.

Opportunities for the hobby to showcase the games that spurred its growth for a whole new generation of gamers.

Opportunities for publishers to keep their catalogs fresh and their game sales high so they can take a risk on the next calculated risk. After all…who would have believed that a game about the longest modern civil war taking place in Columbia would start a gaming revolution that would span eight titles and centuries of insurgency-related conflicts from antiquity to modern day Afghanistan?

Opportunities for old wargamers to reintroduce a game to friends, or just to come to the table with new friends who might not otherwise have been interested in that musty smelling orange and pink colored wargame from 1980-something sitting on the shelf.

I applaud the designers, developers, and publishers taking this approach. It’s an important moment in the hobby to find ways to engage new gamers and this is an excellent strategy! 

We are still remembering the tragic loss of millions during the Great War which raged through November of 1918 and my sincere hope is that the centennial celebration of Armistice Day will serve as a moment for world leaders to recommit to peace as the first and only option in diplomacy. Great War Commander (hereafter GWC) was released in 2018 by Hexasim and transports the GMT Games Combat Commander series back in time to World War One. How did the series hold up through the changes required to make this jump? Read on and find out.

First, it is important to understand what this game is trying to achieve. It is a tactical squad-based game with infantry, support weapons such as the Hotchkiss MG, off-board artillery, and yes tanks which make their appearance in late war scenarios. The 12 maps that come with the game are non-geomorphic and therefore cannot be combined to diversify the terrain or create epic-sized battles. In fact, each map could have been bigger, but many of the repetitive game tracks are printed along one edge rather than being printed on a separate player aid card as in Combat Commander.

Players take the role of a commander for the French, American, or Imperial German nations. No British? Correct! My suspicion is that they will be included alongside other missing powers like Italy and Russia in a forthcoming expansion. Players command anywhere from 12 to 30 units taking turns playing a random hand of cards that contain actions, events, and dice rolls.

I won’t get into the mechanics here except where necessary, but they work well. One of the issues many players who didn’t like Combat reported was the lack of necessary actions to do anything meaningful during their action phase which lead to a lot of missed opportunities and discarding cards that could have been valuable in conjunction with coveted move or rally cards. GWC handles this by including fewer so-called dead cards. In the half dozen scenarios I played this was an issue maybe once or twice and was fixed during the first discard and draw I took.

Players use these cards in order to attack or defend (and usually a little bit of both) the five objectives that are pre-printed on the map. What keeps this exciting is the random chit pull for the value of the objectives. Some objectives may be worth just 1 point, but other objective chits increase their value to 3 or 5. Some objectives provide additional value to exiting friendly units off the board. Scenarios define specific objectives that are open to both players to use and see while players randomly draw secret objectives as well which can dramatically shift the balance of victory points.

While we are on the subject of victory points, the system uses a base-zero victory point slider meaning that the armies share the same number of victory points when the victory points total is zero.  When one army has additional victory points then the marker counts up from zero to account for the difference. I like this method because it provides players with an opportunity to see their relative performance rather than an arbitrary victory point score.

Because the game features an incredible amount of. Randomization, I think it is important to note how turns end.  Players draw cards for their hands, the size of which is determined by the scenario and the role that the army is playing. Attackers, for example, get 6 cards while defenders only receive 4. Inside this, there are limits to the number of orders that can be issued per side and how many cards that side can discard at a time. During the meat of the game, players will play cards from their hands and draw cards to both resolve those actions and replenish their hand size. At times there are keywords that trigger random events, snipers, and the turn end.

That means that scenario length can be quite variable, but even replaying scenarios didn’t reveal any shortcomings. It is clear that quality playtesting helped address this when fine-tuning scenarios which rarely were decided by more than 5 points. In fact, the core game mechanics are as strong here as they were in Combat Commander and the adjustments in orders give this game a feel like the stories shared by Rommel in his seminal Infantry Attacks which outlines small unit actions of the First World War.

Strategy Cards

Great War Commander - Strategy Cards

Great War Commander – Strategy Cards

One of the innovations that Great War Commander brings to the Combat Commander formula is the Strategy Card which provides the players with a one-time bonus. This bonus might take the form of a die roll modifier in the attack or defense, or it might grant your forces a special action. Cards are drawn at random from a small pool of Strategy Cards and are a welcome wildcard addition to the game. There’s nothing more disappointing than seeing someone commit to close combat only to have them play a card that effectively gives them the ambush action for that combat. I love this little tweak to the gameplay and find that it gives forces a national identity that doesn’t need to be memorized or cataloged on a player aid card.

So, how about those tanks?

Great War Commander - Tanks On The Move

Great War Commander – Tanks On The Move

Simply put, tanks add some additional complexity to the game and showcase the show-stopping power of these new and frequently faulty war machines. Tanks span two hexes and lumber forward with showstopping power and range. Their two guns give them unparalleled dominance in terms of firepower. That said, the tanks must pass a bog check and upon the destruction of the first tank in the platoon, they must be individually activated and lose the ability to platoon activate making them slower. On top of that, tanks are prone to bogging in the shell holes that litter the maps in which they are featured. As a result, tanks can be stopped not by enemy artillery or mortar fire, but instead because they throw a track or get stuck in some other way.

The range of the tank’s weapons and the fact that a fire command allows them to engage with multiple targets makes their deadly force that much more intimidating on the battlefield. In fact, tanks that bog even part of the way across the no-mans-land of trench warfare scenarios can bring devastating power to bear on the enemy. It’s hard to imagine a force more deadly within the game, but there remains one thing even more fearsome: artillery.

King of the Battlefield

That’s right, the impact of artillery upon World War I cannot be undersold. From the opening madness inside the Belgium forts at Liege to the devastated landscapes familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the conflict artillery literally reshaped modern warfare. The evolution of air combat was, at first, an attempt to bring more accurate artillery to bear on enemy trenches and positions. Aircraft were scouts before they were fighters after all. Artillery is readily accessible, accurate, and deadly in GWC to the point where I have to wonder why were World War I battlefields littered with shell holes if artillery was this effective? The process of laying down a barrage is quite simple:

  1. Play the Artillery Request card
  2. Roll for accuracy
  3. Place the round in the hex where it lands AND the six surrounding hexes
  4. Resolve attacks per the artillery caliber on each of the hexes.

This is a quick, streamlined process that facilitates drama and devastation. It is, however, seemingly too accurate and powerful for something that occurs fairly frequently within the player decks. In fact, I ended up creating a slight adjustment to the rules to make it a little less devastating by using leadership as a modifier for the attacks. Leaders in GWC have a 1, 2, or 3 leadership rating. As a result, I recommend altering the accuracy check to be colored die multiplied by white die MINUS the difference between 3 and the leadership rating of the leader commanding the formation making the attack. This, of course, relies on a few things…the first is that Artillery Requests don’t actually activate a unit or formation they just use a unit as the spotter, so I’m creating some overhead by saying that spotter must be in command range AND that you use the leader who would command that unit for the leadership rating.

In the end, this process altered the chances just enough to make the shots a little more unpredictable which helps units from getting into knife-fight range and then calling down artillery in preparation for an Offensive card play that will overrun an injured enemy. There is enough risk-reward built into the game already and using artillery as a “sure thing” just didn’t sit well with me in my playthroughs. I’m torn in that I recognize the importance of artillery and how it shaped World War I tactics, strategy, and the evolution of aerial combat, but by the same token in terms of the scope of the game it didn’t feel quite right. I will always recommend playing the rules as written to get started, but my variant might help address your concerns if you continue to have them as I did.

Finally, I want to address the maps which are gorgeous works of art in every respect. Unfortunately, GWC adopted the fixed on-map objectives from Combat Commander. The nature of trench warfare, however, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to these fixed objectives and though the scenarios presented are interesting for both sides, there’s little room to build your own scenarios that will be as interesting. One of the things that has generally separated long-term success versus short-term success for tactical games is how active the community is in building content to support the game. In the case of Advanced Squad Leader I have five 3″ binders full of scenarios both official and third-party produced. The steady stream of new content takes advantage of geomorphic maps and the ability to truly customize the game to fit the needs of a specific scenario. In GWC’s case, the maps themselves are a fantastic cross-section of World War I terrain, but the fixed objectives means that similar patterns of gameplay and defensive points will naturally remain the same between scenarios. The random selection of objective values and modifiers changes the pattern, but only slightly.

Take to the Skies

Great War Commander - Map Detail

Great War Commander – Map Detail

I mentioned aircraft and they are in Great War Commander to provide close air support through strafing and bombing runs. There are even little fighter plane tokens to mark your attacks. Ultimately, this felt a little tacked on, but was a fun way to give the game three-dimensions and though the use of air support was never decisive, it was exciting. Planes, depending on the year, can make bombing runs which attacks a single hex, or a strafing run which attacks adjacent hexes. Both attacks have their own combat factors, but the activation of the aircraft never feels like it costs anything. It’s just a bonus to what’s already going on, almost like a random event rather than the calculated arrival of close air support which one might expect at this level. After all, the combat is tactical so the chances that a single plane would suddenly appear at this point and this moment to strafe seems like a matter of convenience here rather than a matter of necessity otherwise it might be more frequent or impactful given the nature of the air war in World War I.

Conclusion

Great War Commander is a ton of fun, but it’s fun that requires you turn off your analytical/historical brain for a moment to revel in the great scenarios and gameplay. The underlying core is exciting and many of the “shortcomings” from Combat Commander have been addressed. The feeling of an empty-hand is all but eliminated and the new elements like artillery, aircraft, and tanks all provide necessary World War I flavor even if they aren’t perfectly implemented. GWC clearly respects its predecessor, but in some ways that may have held it back from truly transforming the Combat Commander system into something spectacular and fresh. New ideas are a great start, and the presentation is top notch, but once the scenarios are played and the game returns to the shelf, it’s hard to imagine pulling it back out until the expansion (if there is one) comes along with new challenges. In the interim, my sincere hope is that the designers rethink both artillery and aircraft to give them a more historic context. Tanks, for all their shortcomings in the games, are incredibly fun and add a new dimension to problem solving on attack and defense. If you’re a World War I buff who needs every World War I game that comes out, then this is your game. If you’re on the fence and love Combat Commander then you might give this one a try before diving in headfirst. It’s a great lightweight World War I skinned game that gets just enough right to keep my interest though.

 

It’s hard to picture what 24 year old Calvin A. Haynes might have imagined when he left his home in what is now East Nassau New York to enlist in the Union Army during the summer of 1862. After all, he had a wife, a daughter, a home, and presumably the comforts of friends and family that you tend to gather over a life spent in one area. What is certain though is that almost a year later, Haynes would describe the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg to his wife by simply saying, “I went over the field; such a sight I wish never to see again. Every conceivable wound that can be thought of was there…It is beyond the power of man to describe a battle field.”

Gettysburg Casualty

Gettysburg Casualty

Wargaming can be an almost clinical look at the tragic suffering of the men and women who fought or were swept up in the battles about which our games simulate. After all, it wasn’t long after Andean Abyss, the first COIN series title, that I was on an interview team for a Colombian who had fled his homeland because of escalating violence and threats by the FARC against his family. Surely, the citizens who witnessed the historical events laid out in the games that make up our hobby bear both physical and mental scars that they will struggle with throughout their lives. For, the citizens of Gettysburg, their homes were turned en masse into hospitals and scenes of the agony of war.

In a hobby crowded with games about Gettysburg, how does Battle Hymn stand out from the crowd? Simply put, it pairs the game with Pea Ridge, considered the “Gettysburg of the West,” and represents combat in as the visceral slaughter it was during this early-industrial revolution era combat. Designer Eric Lee Smith has managed to create a system in Battle  Hymn that both a) redefines how players need to consider the effectiveness of their fighting forces and b) could be one of the best American Civil War combat systems ever devised.

I will provide a few disclaimers here, as I do with most of my reviews. I only played the Gettysburg battle and therefore I can only speak about how it worked, but the system itself is the same in both battles. I am not an American Civil War expert on par with many of you and so you’ll need to draw your own conclusions about the information presented herein. Finally, I only mention component quality if it stands out in some way either good or bad. In this case, I’ll get it out of the way and say that I love the maps for both scenarios as they are spectacular in capturing the look and feel of maps from this era. Beyond that, the components are solid and meet the needs of the game.

In the last ten years (since 2008) there have been 29 Gettysburg games released. Some deal with a specific aspect of the battle like the recently released Longstreet Attacks: The Second Day at Gettysburg, while others are surveys of the whole battle in varying levels of detail ranging from postcard-sized games, those which have received the Rachel Simmons treatment (Guns of Gettysburg), and even the grand tactical level of a monster like The Gamers’ Last Chance for Victory. In each game, the battle remains the same, the order of the battle is there, and the terrain follows the same broad strokes. The phases of Gettysburg are unmistakable.

Battle Hymn Detail

Unions cavalry encounters a steadily growing and overwhelming force of Confederate troops. Just as the cavalry is about to break, the I Corps of the Union Army shows up and stalls the initial Confederate push. As the first day wears on, the Union is forced back through town and on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge. More Confederates arrive and the whole battle seems like it’s going to go the Confederates who are now probing the flanks of the Union army. Miraculously, and overnight, the Union Army gets into place and the bloodiest fighting is found on the 2nd day as the Union reserves plug holes in the fish-hook shaped line they’ve established. When possible, the Union army is able to extend their lines and eventually, the Confederates attempt one last gasp offensive push to break through the Union lines. From there, it’s cleanup.

We’re familiar with this often repeated process and regardless of the scale presented, if you’re maneuvering units in and around Gettysburg the battle is a close fought thing the whole time. It is why I’m so attracted to the topic as a historical wargame! The problem is that each Gettysburg game is somewhat of a “been there done that” experience without something truly fresh and new. The Line of Battle treatment of Gettysburg in Last Chance for Victory provided the best grand tactical look at the game since GMT’s evolutionary release of the original Terrible Swift Sword in their 3rd Edition of Three Days at Gettysburg. That said, the attraction was in the details and calculating the primary weaponry of each side as a part of the combat resolution. For folks who wanted to get into the nuts and bolts (or the bolts and stocks as it were) of Gettysburg could do so in Last Chance for Victory. Guns of Gettysburg stands out as another experience that focused almost exclusively on the variability of the reinforcements and how/where they would enter the battlefield. It was an exciting and fresh take, but one that had dense rules that were difficult to parse and though noteworthy failed to find a rabid broad fanbase.

Eric Lee Smith’s own Across 5 Aprils from Victory Games marches these same fields back in 1992. Since then, Mr. Smith has had plenty of time to hone his understanding of what made that game great and what could be improved upon for Battle Hymn. The counter layout is similar and there are definite links to the prior game in Smith’s Battle Hymn, but the place where I think this game distinguishes itself is by bringing home the visceral nature of combat results in the American Civil War.

It is important to note that units take both manpower and morale damage in this game which combine to make units ineffective first and eliminated second. In game terms, units become shattered where all remaining manpower factors have been demoralized. Units are eliminated when they no longer have manpower factors left. That said combat doesn’t wear down the manpower factors as quickly as it wears down the morale of the units which represents a sort of unit morale and cohesion here. With that background, we can look a little closer at what this means in broad strokes first and then in more detail second.

From the player’s overall perspective this style of combat means that you are thinking about waves of units that must be staged in order to gain ground. Blood will pay for every hex once you make contact and before that with bombardment which steady wears down the morale of the advancing units from as far as 3 hexes away. As a result, the timing of combat is essential.

Battle Hymn relies on a chit pull unit activation system that works perfectly for both opposed and solitaire play. Turns are tense and having the initiative means your side gets to determine when they hold their combat turn rather than through random draw. This is critically important because there are times when you’re crossing your fingers to draw just one more brigade from your side so you can pull off a decisive multi-hex combat only to get your hopes dashed when your opponent pulls their combat chit from the cup. The whole game is dramatic in that way, even from the first turn which most folks can attest (aside from the Avalon Hill Gettysburg ’88 edition) is usually a snooze-fest of first steps onto the battlefield.

Battle Hymn - Chit Draw

Battle Hymn – Chit Draw

Much is abstracted in this game which means both quicker play and that the fluid turn structure keeps both players involved at all times. In some wargames, your opponent could be reading a book, sending some e-mails, or browsing Reddit while you take your turn. Though those games can be rich and full of fun, the downtime is kind of a bummer and is especially so when you’re trying to introduce the game to someone who might not be familiar with wargaming! Battle Hymn is a great way to introduce an American Civil War history buff to tabletop wargaming. They’ll be able to apply their knowledge, see expected outcomes and experience the wrath of poor die rolls and the ecstasy of pulling off a great maneuver and rolling well.

As each player plans their movements, they’re thinking after the first few turns about the fact that it’s pretty common to see your units suffer at least one demoralization increase and potentially even one strength point reduction. This means that each unit is a bit like a timer on the battlefield and you have to read the tea leaves for how long you think they can remain an effective fighting unit. They don’t rally during the day and days are at least 9 turns long with the first day at 11 one-hour turns. The math is as much about fighting effectiveness as it is about firepower.

While I generally don’t like to get into the details of game mechanics, I think since combat is the centerpiece of this review that I should at least give it a high-level overview.

When units move in this game, they are given an approach marker which effectively makes them more difficult to hit but does provide the defender facing them an opportunity to make a preemptive fire combat attempt. In many cases, both units involved in combat will have an approach marker on them. While it’s rare for this to cause massive damage, the initial phases of combat (Bombardment and Approach Fire) are intended to set up the overall effectiveness of the meat of the combat phase. Canons roar first and can only inflict demoralization increases, which in some cases for units defending on the edge can be the difference-maker. In one case, I had a Union I Corps unit defending on Culp’s hill following the retreat through Gettysburg and 6 combat factors of artillery blasted away from two hexes out at the unit. That was 6 die rolls and 2 of them resulted in hits by rolling 1’s. My poor morale checks sent my Union unit to the Shattered box.

Battle Hymn - Combat

Battle Hymn – Combat

Once the opening shots are traded, units make their actual combat checks with the defender’s terrain setting the to-hit number which is subsequently modified by hexside effects and unit types. For example, infantry firing on cavalry or artillery provide different modifiers. After that, all un-demoralized and remaining strength points roll a single d10. Anything equal to or less than the to-hit number lands a hit and the unit is marked with a hit marker to track those hits. In multi-hex combat, the firing unit must split it’s available strength points between the enemy units adjacent to it. This means that those long lines of Confederate and Union forces slamming into one another creates a chaotic rolling line of combat split only by gaps in the line. As such, that combat chit I mentioned before is often the difference maker in who has their forces in place to receive or launch an attack properly. Once hits have been allocated to both sides, the defender (side who didn’t play their combat turn chit) resolves their morale checks first which are modified by their unit’s inherent morale. This number also, equally, modifies the combat roll which is sometimes a negative thing for that unit.

The first failed morale check for fire combat is a loss of a strength point. Subsequent failures increase the demoralization level. As such, tending to the demoralization of units is absolutely key and retreats/retreat planning become essential. It’s possible for retreating units to cause a morale check in units behind the lines simply by being forced to rout through that unit’s hex. This can create a cascade of panic behind the lines if poorly planned.

As a result, when the first night finally arrives, the Union and to a lesser degree the Confederates, must attend to the specific units they need to see combat effective in the coming day. Players are faced with tough choices, do I want the unit who will be great in combat, but perhaps weaker at morale checks or do I want the units who can more easily avoid morale check failures but are weaker in combat? My experience is that a blend of these unit types are necessary to make the most of the forces at your disposal. It gives a great perspective on the battle because casualty management and the morale state of your army are at the forefront of your command decisions at all times. As a result, this is one of the best American Civil War games ever released in my opinion.

Smith’s work here is extraordinary. Though I struggled with the rules at first and am still not 100% certain I have everything figured out exactly, I can solidly say that Smith’s approach to combat and how he chose to create some ambiguity in terms of combat effectiveness is a smooth experience that allows you to play the game rather than fight the rules. The more experienced I get with wargaming the more I appreciate the hobby for its two, sometimes opposed, sides. The side the revels in the glory of minutia. That feeling when you’ve built a great strike force, deployed them well, and outfoxed your opponent based on the tiny details of the rules. You feel like the commander who had to deal with all the variables of combat and you’ve distinguished yourself! The other side of the hobby which is about the enjoyment of the history, fellowship, and measure player strategic thinking against one another in a fast-paced, almost chess-like environment. This game solidly meets the latter’s needs fully, but doesn’t totally ignore the person who wants to dig into the little details because of how the night turns are structured.

During the night turns, units have the option to rally rather than move since rallying consumes the unit’s entire movement. For units on the map, they need to be out of line of sight of an enemy and for units previously shattered this is their opportunity to return to play. That said, Smith made such a great design decision here by both not allowing a unit to ever fully recover since in the context of the compressed timeline that would have been unlikely and to tie how many SPs could return to a non-demoralized state to the unit’s morale. For those keeping score at home, that’s combat resolution, morale checks, and SPs that can rally all tied to the one morale factor on the counter.

Strong design means tackling an aspect of the topic with a clear vision and well-considered rules that get rid of anything that doesn’t pursue the central truth of the designer’s vision. Smith has done this here in his unrelenting presentation of American Civil War combat as a savage, bloody, and horrific event that spares no one and gets at the events Calvin Hayes saw upon that Pennsylvania battlefield nearly 155 years ago. Many American Civil War games have been released and many of those cover Gettysburg, but few leave a lasting impression about the carnage of warfare in the way Battle Hymn does. This is wargaming at its finest. It presents the players with the historical context, a fine game, and critically a lesson about the topic that lasts well beyond the time when the counters have been returned to their trays. Smith and Compass Games have a phenomenal start to a new wargame series on their hands and I cannot recommend this game highly enough.

 

Pendragon Cover

Pendragon Cover

Over the course of roughly fourteen generations, from 43 to 410 AD, the Romans ruled the island of Great Britain. Even they had trouble the unruly ancient Scots, the Picts, which proves a universal point. Nobody will ever understand the Scots. I suspect a combination of Irn-Bru and Buckfast are to blame. All joking aside, this is a complicated time period in the history of Great Britain and the approach that Morgane Gouyon-Rety has taken with Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain to introduce the end of this era is nothing short of perfection in cardboard and wood.

The many invasions of the shores of England prior to the well before the Norman Conquest were wholly unknown to me. I was aware of the Saxons. I was aware of the Romans in England because of Bath. I almost feel like any time someone mentions Bath, a middle-aged women is compelled to say, “It’s just lovely there. You really should go!” I think everyone has some comprehension of Hadrian’s Wall and maybe, to a lesser degree, about the various uprisings that the Romans were responsible for putting down during their 370’ish year rule. To that end, the two hefty booklets that arrive with your purchase of Pendragon include the InsideGMT blog entries that outline the design decisions and history of the era.

COIN games from the beginning have covered topics about which people are aware, but perhaps don’t have the full story. They have taken us from South America, to Asia, to North America and more recently to Europe. This multi-continental, era-independent system, has changed the way that I look at wargames and conflicts. The combination of political and military asymmetry presented in the games gives even well-worn topics like the American Revolutionary War a new feel that allows gamers and armchair historians a valuable new lens through which they can interact with the past. Critically, the COIN series has given us new published lead designers like Morgane Gouyon-Rety and topics that have fallen through the cracks of our hobby long enough.

The history covered in Pendragon provides gamers with an appreciation for the Land of Hope & Glory’s turbulent past. Just as the waves of the North Atlantic lap against its shores creating dramatic and gorgeous coastlines, the waves of invasions in Pendragon etch a no less beautiful narrative. At the macro-level, Pendragon pits the Britons who begin as unified Roman Dux and Civitates against the barbarian hordes of Scotti and Saxon raiders seeking to earn a foothold in the lush landscape of Britain.

Imperium Track

Imperium Track

The constant erosion of that Roman influence, stability, and harmony begins to create a new dynamic represented across the course of the game by Imperium Track which starts at Roman Rule, degrades to Autonomous Rules, and devolves into the complete factional fragmentation. The effects on the game for these changes make each epoch change to be a potential game changer, quite literally speaking. Britain feels like a unified land in the beginning of the game, but as the Dux (Roman) and Civitates (Briton) players race to deal with barbarian incursions, the roads feel like a critical lifeline. When the roads are no longer able to be maintained, the ease and speed of travel change the feel of the game in a profound way.

Eboracum to the Sea

Eboracum to the Sea

Compared to roads and lines of control in prior COIN titles, I have to say that I liked the Pendragon approach here. The roads feel alive and the whack-a-mole style of the early game is served well by their maintenance in the full game. As the roads degrade, the regions feel more isolated and the conflicts more visceral and immediate. It’s no longer the reverse trip of a hen party in ancient York (Eboracum) to the coast for a marriage, it’s a slog through the now entrenched barbarian countryside where it’s more than poor Vodaphone coverage that’s got you down!

It’s details like this that make Pendragon so worthwhile and they seem to sneak up on players around every corner. Pendragon takes the best of what’s come before and builds upon it. One of the best places to see this in the way combat is handled. No longer is the risk-style of trading pieces sufficient to settle an armed dispute. Combat is tactical, a welcome addition to the COIN series, and choices abound. While the initial learning curve for this new style of combat can be cumbersome both the example of play in the Playbook and the brilliantly laid out player aid card covering combat make it a snap.

Effectively there are three phases to combat. The pre-combat phase during which the combatants will determine if they’re going to try to run away or ambush each other. The field battle phase in which the defenders might sneak some of their forces off into the nearest hillfort or stronghold and the true power of the Dux cavalry can be brought to bear. Finally, you have the siege which has its own phases. Follow the flow-chart and the layout of the battle player aid card and you’ll be left wondering what mad genius dreamed up this combat system. The answer, of course, is Morgane Gouyon-Rety who packs what must be years of careful consideration into this mechanic alone.

The game is familiar enough though and contains some nice twists. You get the shared resources of a game like A Distant Plain. The game is more combat focused like Falling Skies. Barbarian forces, and occasionally Britons will plunder wealth which has links back to Cuba Libre. The game features casualty availability and “perma-death” as seen in Fire in the Lake. This game is both a student and a master of the COIN system. All that said, it’s the new additions that make this something special and showcase the incredible flexibility of the underlying COIN framework.

Pendragon Foederati

Pendragon Foederati

In fact, it’s hard not to marvel at the COIN framework when you consider this game both in the context of its predecessors, but also as it stands on its own with its unique stamp on the series. The Imperium Track, Naval invasion and sea patrol, Warband vs. Raider, Defensive Structures, recruiting barbarians to your cause as Foederati, plunder used in multiple ways, and of course the combat system. The funny thing is, everything finds its place and plays just as smoothly as any of the other COIN system games. In some ways, it makes me jealous every time I see someone new play this game for the first time. It’s just that good that experiencing it for the first time is a bit of a revelation.

I’ve gushed about this game quite a bit already. I also promised that my reviews wouldn’t take into account presentation unless it was worthy of specific mention. In this case, GMT Games has produced their most extravagant product to date. From the artwork to the custom castle and raider bits that are included in the game to the outrageous 70+ page full-color Playbook. There isn’t anything to critique about the presentation of the game, the rulebook, or the value at either the P500 discounted price or the full retail $99 price-point. Without question, gamers are soaking up every last cent of value from this game both in terms of gameplay and in terms of sheer production value. This could not have been a simple game to produce with the custom work that went into the pieces, but GMT Games makes it appear effortless.

Let’s talk for a moment about the solo game. I played two solo games in addition to my opposed plays. The bots are as on-point as ever and provide a sincerely difficult challenge. This time around, the bots get more custom rules than we’ve seen before including a massive fold-out two-page chart that includes specific instructions for specific event cards by faction. One of the weaknesses of bots in the past has been that while some guidance was provided for bots and how they would interact with events (usually through some kind of faction icon decoration), the bots didn’t capitalize on other faction weaknesses as aggressively. This has been put to bed. Bots follow the most aggressive pathway possible and, in using the bots for a solo game, you are training yourself to be a better player. This has always been true to some degree with previous COIN games. I would call out Fire in the Lake, for example, as a great showcase for learning to play the game from bots.

If my arm were truly twisted to come up with an area of improvement for this game, I might say that because of all the new sub-systems the game turns can run a little long. As a result, even though the event to epoch ratio seems the same as in prior games, this one feels like its longer between epoch (scoring turn) changes. Since so much of the game relies upon the recalibration of resources, renown, and in this game fundamental rule changes as a result of the rise of barbarians the game can feel like a slog as you begin to anticipate the next epoch card. That said, as soon as you see the epoch card, it is executed. That change is fantastic and appreciated because a game like Andean Abyss allows the players a little wiggle room prior to scoring to shore up any potential negative impacts since unit placement in that game, as in Pendragon, is important for epoch turns.

Overall

If you even need to read this section at this point, I’d be shocked. Frankly, this is the best COIN game released to date. Given the flood of 2nd Edition upgrade kits that just hit GMT Games P500 list, I suspect some of the lessons learned in this game will find their ways into earlier titles to help improve upon an already strong foundation.

GMT Games has extended their COIN empire, not unlike the ancient Romans, and we are witnessing the series at the apex of its power. While we have Gandhi, All Bridges Burning, People Power, and a bunch of 2nd editions on the way it’s without question that GMT and its stable of COIN developers / designers will have a tall task in front of them to equal Pendragon.

My hope is that we’ll see Morgane Gouyon-Rety continue to design games both COIN and otherwise into the future. Her approach and research seems methodical and the fruits of her labor are delicious to see and experience. Without question, Pendragon is already in the running for my 2018 game of the year and it will take a lot to dethrone it which is a big statement to make in the 1st quarter of the year!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been feverishly playing through South China Sea from Compass Games LLC which was designed by John Gorkowski. The game is a descendant, of sorts, from Gorkowski’s previous game Breaking the Chains. That said, South China Sea is its own game and deserves your attention if the subject matter is one that captures your attention with every passing Freedom of Navigation operation like it does mine in this strategically important region.

As with other reviews, I want to offer full disclosure about what this review offers and how it was generated. I pre-ordered this game and it was not provided to me with the expectation of a review. I don’t call out rulebooks, components, or graphic design unless it significantly aids or hinders the gameplay. In effect, if some physical component or representation of the game is within the middle 2 standard deviations, I’m not even going to bother calling it out. There are unboxing videos, photos, and other ways for you to check that out and make a decision for yourself. Instead, I focus on the meat of why we buy and play these games…the gameplay!

Let’s start with a brief overview of the topic before we get started. The South China Sea is perhaps the most strategically important location in the world. According to a 2015 Department of Defense report, over $5 trillion dollars in goods travel through the sea each year. That represents about 30% global trade and even includes the transit of oil.

At the heart of the conflict are a series of disputed islets, islands, and sea area between China, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Specifically, and most contentious right now is the conflict surrounding an island chain called the Spratly Islands. China claims historical territorial rights in the region which would extend their Economic Exclusion Zone and Territorial Waters claims through this critical region. It also would provide access to what US Energy Information Administration in 2013 claimed is no less than 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas and oil. While not a lot from a global perspective, it would nearly double China’s access to territorial natural gas.

Further heightening tensions is a landmark case in 2016 where a tribunal in the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines that largely contested China’s so-called 9-dash line which asserted a territorial claim over a large swath of the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys. China immediately rejected this finding arguing that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to rule in the case since the tribunal was established to weigh in on maritime disputes and not territorial disputes.

China accelerated its process of building islets which could support military bases including runways long enough for non-carrier based aircraft. This is significant because to establish territorial claims, you must have habitable land. It can’t just be some picturesque little slice of paradise you call your own because 500 years ago there were indigenous people there. China has also sidestepped conventional controls by using its coast guard rather than its navy to patrol and maintain a maritime presence in the region even using the coast guard as a less offensive way of denying access to the disputed Jackson Shoal.

South China Sea - PLAN Moves to the Spratlys

The United States has been involved to ensure Freedom of Navigation which allows foreign navies to travel within 12 nautical miles of a territorial claim in the littoral waterways if they do not fire weapons, collect intelligence, and have their submarines surfaced among other requirements. These Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations help reinforce the US commitment to its allies in the region and challenge the territorial claims through naval diplomacy (though one wouldn’t be able to argue this is gunboat diplomacy).

The Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) continues to challenge and oppose flights, FON cruises and argues that these actions by the United States destabilize this already tense region of the world. The causes are old, the tensions are real, and this is a gross oversimplification of a much thornier problem, but it provides the necessary background to enjoy South China Sea and hopefully the remainder of my review.

South China Sea provides an excellent Order of Battle for China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the United States who all operate vessels in this region. Further, the map provides a great view of the region from Hong Kong in the north and east through the northern portion of Malaysia in the south. While ground forces exist, this remains primarily a naval game and as such less attention is paid to each nation’s ground forces. Of note, the order of battle projects a little into the future and, as a result, we have operational Zumwalts and Liaoning with a compliment of the J-15 multirole fighters which are upfitted Sukhoi Su-33s at heart. All in all, it’s a solid representation of the old and the new with Virginia Class SSNs sailing under the waves and the old reliable Arleigh Burke FFGs sailing above.

South China Sea - Partial OOB

South China Sea – Partial OOB

Ships are rated on a handful of weapon systems that broadly define their roles.

  • Anti-Air (AA) – The ability of the platform to counter-attack air attacks. This is only found on aircraft counters.
  • Anti-Surface (A/S) – The traditional missile fleet combat that has characterized naval combat since the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1970s.
  • Anti-Submarine or Underwater in game terms (U) – The ability to fire anti-submarine torpedoes.
  • Anti-Ground (A/G) – The ability of the ship to fire against land-based targets. We’ll talk more about Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM) later.
  • Gun (G) – The shipboard guns useful in visual range combat.
South China Sea Player Aid Card Closeup

South China Sea Player Aid Card Closeup

Further, each ship is provided a movement factor, type (Sea, Ground, or Littoral), and a relative stealth rating typically between 0 – 3 for the surface fleet and 4 – 7 for submarines. In addition, each vessel is equipped with a missile defense rating and a torpedo rating. Of note, is area defense missile defense for systems like the Aegis.

South China Sea needs to make a few assumptions in order to achieve its goal of providing a playable game of a near-future conflict between what amounts to the largest powers in the region. The first and most important assumption must be made that both sides would immediately cripple each other’s satellite capabilities. The second is that some abstraction is necessary in order to provide a playable simulation. Individual weapon systems are not modeled beyond their ratings. Tactical fleet configurations are largely ignored. Tactical nuclear weapons are ruled out as viable weapons given that, in the unlikely state of conflict, the free passage of commerce would likely still need to occur through this region.

Each hex represents about 20 nautical miles from the center of the hex or roughly the distance you can see on a clear day at sea. Given the scale, units must spot each other through a process called illumination. Effectively, the Pacific is a big place and without satellite Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance (ISR) it will be difficult to pin down a ship particularly if it’s not emitting some kind of signal signature. Each platform in the game whether land unit, aircraft, surface or underwater ship has a different range at which they can illuminate a target. Once, illuminated ALL platforms that are within range can take advantage of the situation and fire at the target. There is one last attempt for the target though, they can attempt to evade which is a factor of their stealth, distance from their aggressors and some dice.

Rather than re-hash this process, I have a little video you can watch that I made which shows this off better.

Combat, as you can see, is deadly. Each result higher than the target’s defensive rating is a step loss and outside the largest aircraft carriers, two or three hits are pretty much all she wrote for that platform. That’s one of the things I like most about this game. Every single combat can be devastating for your forces. The loss of a single ship can, at times, mean the difference between putting enough fire downrange to cripple the enemy or not. Changes in weapon range of only 1 hex can be a game changer. Players are forced to know their unit strengths and play toward them.

All the shooting in the world though doesn’t make this a significant change from what we saw in Gorkowski’s Breaking the Chains which covered a wider area and had a subsequent expansion pack that added additional scenarios and units. Instead, and what I think sets this game apart most is the political turns that precede the shooting. These turns might even prevent the shooting because they provide an opportunity in a multi-player setting to both play cards that disadvantage your adversaries or advantage your own position. As that happens, you are able to have actual face-to-face conversations around alignments.

South China Sea - Diplomatic Cards

South China Sea – Diplomatic Cards

Some cards, like economic sanctions, require that one of the minor powers (Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines) must agree with your actions. Some actions can only be taken by major powers and some only by minor powers. Scenarios may immediately invest one smaller player like the Philippines when it comes to Johnson Shoal while others may not. Herein lies my only real critique of the game. If players are unwilling or wholly unfamiliar with the international dynamics of the region so they can interpret what’s in their country’s best interest they may not be willing partners. Further, the scenario setups themselves offer, largely, islet/shoal capture and force destruction as the victory points. Since there is a role-playing aspect to the game, if I feel like the US Navy has sufficient forces to reasonably achieve a limited victory on my behalf without my help…why would I join in? Further, if I’m the Chinese player, why would I risk the detente even if diplomatically I was suddenly losing when I know that my goals, per Xi Jinping, are long-term rather than short-term.

I understand all wargames require some waving of the hand. I’m not saying that what’s being asked here is unreasonable even. What I am suggesting, however, is that I would have liked to have more direction for players in how they operated that hurt them for remaining neutral when it was not in their best interest to do so.  The Philippines, in particular, can exert an insane amount of pressure on the US Navy by remaining neutral given the mechanics for moving units from Guam to the region which is necessary for the “big” scenario of the game entitled “Spratly Missile Crisis.”  In the end, it’s a pretty minor quibble.

The first three scenarios provide players with a step-by-step introduction to the political phase, surface warfare, and submarine operations. The last four scenarios ask you put that knowledge to use. That said, the “main dish” of this product is the fourth scenario which provides the guidance of the Spratly Missile Crisis. This game has the full OOB for the major and minor powers in the game while also exercising the special forces units afforded to each nation namely the Sea Dragons of the PLAN and the US Navy Seals. While this scenario is meaty enough to be replayed many dozens of times, I sort of wanted more. The variant scenario for it was the minor nations standing against China alone, which is sort of a grim warning showcasing how important US involvement with partner nations in the region actually is for stability. The last scenario is a nod to pop culture (00)7 Island of Dr. No. I didn’t actually play that one because I was wrapped up in the Spratly Missile Crisis scenario. I like the layout of the scenarios and the progression of knowledge that allows players to focus on specific aspects of the game prior to tackling a fully featured scenario.

It’s also worthwhile to note that the victory point track included with the game is a tug-of-war. Each scenario typically starts at 10 victory points. As the VP marker increases in value, the Chinese benefit while a move in the other direction benefits the United States. Interestingly, the small movement seen in most of the scenarios tends to benefit the regional minor powers like Malaysia on the Chinese side and Vietnam on the American side. This tug-of-war is also used in the political rounds to determine whether a roll for a military crisis needs to be made. It is entirely possible that a scenario with political turns won’t ever reach the military turns and that owes to smart card play, diplomacy, and more than a little luck. The mechanic works well because it simplifies the need for political engagement tracks for each nation and helps to showcase, again, the limited political victory likely for both the Chinese and American sides should a shooting war erupt.

Conclusion

South China Sea comes at the right moment with solid gameplay making it both topical and fun. The game benefits from an informed audience who comes into it knowing about the various claims in the South China Sea and a baked-in understanding of what is at stake with this region. To that end, I have to wonder if this game will get played in professional settings as a means to showcase the relationships between the political wrangling and potential carnage of an armed conflict around the Spratly islands. I can’t speak to the specific accuracy of the Order of Battle, but it certainly felt like the platforms involved from Patriot SAM batteries and special forces units through the various surface and underwater vessels felt accurate.

If the goal of the game is showcasing how important fleet readiness and strategic deployment will be in a hypothetical South China Sea showdown, this game shines. I am thoroughly impressed and whatever sour taste I had from Breaking the Chains a few years back is surely gone at this point. In fact, I’m considering putting Breaking the Chains back on the table to give it a second chance. South China Sea is undoubtedly my favorite modern hypothetical naval game. That sounds like I’m not saying much given that the Fleet series from Victory Games is nearly 30 years old, but the relative simplicity in the gameplay of South China Sea makes it approachable for a wider audience.

For folks who have any interest in this topic, I can’t think of a reason you wouldn’t want to find someone with the game and play it or buy it yourself to enjoy.