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?

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! 

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!

Flying Colors from Mike Nagel and GMT Games has been out now for over a decade.  Released in 2005, a later “deluxe” 2nd edition added thicker counters to the game and included errata fixes. The game covers fleet actions from the late 18th century into the very early 19th century and attempts to capture the feel of fleet actions in that time period. Subsequent expansions have added more ships, the War of 1812 and Imperial Russian naval actions against Sweden and Turkey. There are more commanders and ships than you could use in a lifetime!

I like to ask a few critical questions of games in my reviews rather than meander through each review. I don’t care too much about components, rulebooks, packaging, unless it prohibits enjoyment of the game. If you want to see what comes in the box, there are plenty of videos, pictures, and descriptions around the web to satiate your appetite. Flying Colors poses several problems that must be addressed to qualify it as a solid age of sail naval wargame.

The central question is whether or not the game encourages period appropriate fleet tactics. Does it discourage boarding, does it encourage the French to shoot for the rigging? Are there incentives for British to pound away between the wind and the waves? Does the game encourage battles to stay “line” battles or to strategically break the line when the moment is right? Does the game reflect the appropriate timing for a ship to strike and how is boarding handled?

It’s a tall order for any boardgame to touch upon each of these points. In fact, there are many games that cover this time period and topic. Few of those games, however, match the scope of the battles. For example, Wooden Ships & Iron Men is intended to provide a more tactical game of ship to ship combat with pre-plotted movement as a central gameplay mechanic. Close Action from Clash of Arms provides a more detailed version of Wooden Ships & Iron Men for those who want to dive even further into running your own ship. Fleet action games exist, but aren’t always from the right period. Nagel, for example, drew heavily upon the work of War Galley, a game from the Great Battles of History series, to get the feel of fleet actions. Frigate, a 1974 release from SPI, might be the closest in terms of scope and intent.

If we’re to seriously examine this game, then we need to first ask, “What constitutes a fleet level action from a ship-to-ship game?” After all, if I can cobble enough miniatures and people together I could use Wooden Ships & Iron Men to play out the Glorious First of June! True, and it is something that happens with Close Action. There is currently a game with 70 players who each control a ship going on that I’m a little bummed I missed out on this time. So, we can’t look at the number of ships involved as the sole determining factor. Flying Colors, after all, published rules and a map for ship-to-ship duels in the Serpents of the Seas expansion. The same is true of Frigate from SPI that has introductory scenarios that feature a handful of ships.

For me, the difference comes down to the way the rules enforce line combat. Flying Colors addresses this in two specific ways. The first is through the use of commanders placed aboard specific flagships in each scenario. The commanders have ratings for quality and command radius. While quality modifies initiative, which can be the difference between life and death in Flying Colors at times, it is command radius that matters more.

Command radius determines how big an area the commander can exert his influence in the battle. While ships remain in the line, the command radius can travel from ship to ship to help preserve the cohesion of the fleet. When the battle inevitably breaks down into chaotic action as one fleet attempts to break the other’s line, command radius helps reinforce the need to protect the flagship. Central to this is the concept of Formation Commands and ships acting out of command.

Tactical games don’t have a need for these concepts because one player is effectively controlling each ship as an independent captain would command it. In some fleet actions, this was very much the key to success. After all, one of Lord Nelson’s more enduring leadership lessons was to instill subordinates with the capacity to act according to his combat wishes. Summed up so well in the famous quote, “…in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” However, this independent action is not Nelson’s first priority as you can see in the quote. That initiative and guns blazing recommendation is, “…in case the signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood….”

Commands allow players to control many ships at once in Flying Colors. This is a massive advantage to controlling ships individually as command phases pass back and forth across the game. After all, if I can use one Formation Command to put six 74-gun broadsides into your ships, I’m nearly guaranteed victory. There’s no guarantee a ship can even act if it’s out of command. Each out of command ship must first roll against the fleet’s Audacity Rating to determine whether it may act. As you might imagine, the trick is how to ensure that your one or maybe two commanders have the range to retain their influence.

This is one of the best points of the game. It helps ensure that you keep your ships of the line in the line as long as possible. It also works to encourage the side without the weather gauge, in some scenarios, to work toward breaking the line. One of the best things about the game, however, is that it discourages “bumper boats.” In Wooden Ships & Iron Men, the rules seem to encourage a fair degree of banging ships together and boarding. This bumper boat style of play suits the kind of swashbuckling low-complexity approach to the topic that has made it so fun over the years. Historically speaking, it’s inaccurate. While boarding helped to secure prizes both merchant and military in nature, the approaches were carefully considered. After all, going bow first would just result in an uncomfortable tenure under bow raking fire sure to decimate any ship. Further, the bow of a ship in the 18th and early 19th century is its weakest point because of the joinery necessary to achieve the bow’s unique shape.

There are, of course, still rules, but it’s not without risk. In Flying Colors that means that the odds for a successful boarding aren’t as great as they are in Wooden Ships & Iron Men, but also because it’s no guarantee that you won’t foul the rigging and be able to cut away when you desire. The larger the ships involved, the more likely the ships are to become fouled.  Further, the ships must ensure they are successfully grappled together. There is an opportunity for the target ship to evade such an attempt, but once engaged in melee combat it’s a matter of an opposed roll based on the Marine values and rates of each ship.

I do want to take a moment here and say that the level of detail included in Flying Colors for something like grappling, evasion, collusion/fouled rigging, and melee combat is in odd contrast to the intent of retaining a fleet level combat game. It’s here, in these nooks and crannies of the rules that I think people begin to forget that the intent is to provide reasonable odds and systems for the handful of ships that might engage in melee combat rather than encouraging tangled fleets trying out “Nelson’s Patent Bridge” between three ships.

On the subject of combat and tactics, I am particularly fond of how Flying Colors handles gunnery. In order to resolve combat, the rules only require that you determine the firepower which is a combination of the range to the target and the firing ships rate and roll on a hit result table. The system, once you remember the modifiers of course, is straight forward and quickly managed. It’s one of the great joys of the game. There are hits for the rigging and for the hull as you might expect from a game like this.  The French are encouraged to fire at the rigging as they did historically and the British are encouraged to fire at the hull for similar reasons. The roll of the ship is managed by whether the shot is windward or leeward which adds bonuses and in most scenarios the French and British are aligned with their strengths already as they were historically.

My main critique of the game falls here. The French did historically try to take out the rigging of the British. It was not, however, for the reasons found within Flying Colors. It was to avoid or escape an engagement. If a squadron of ships found themselves being pursued and were somehow overtaken, it was advantageous for them to escape as quickly as possible. Knocking out rigging would afford them that opportunity and deny the British the ability to bring another supporting squadron into the battle. The scenarios in Flying Colors, however, provide that battle has been joined already. Rigging hits are staggeringly powerful in game terms.

A ship must strike its colors (surrender) if it meets either criteria below:

  • It has been dismasted and is within 5 hexes of an enemy ship.
  • It has fewer than three hull hits remaining due to damage.

Once the criteria are met, they will roll on the “Strike Table” which says that a ship rolling because of hull damage only needs 4 or more while a ship rolling because of rigging damage only needs a 6 or more. This is also where the commander comes into play and the fleet’s Audacity rating which acts as a de facto commander rating on non-flagships because both the Command Quality of the commander and the fleet audacity are subtracted from the roll. In most scenarios, Audacity is between 1 and 3. So the average ship, once dismasted has a fairly good chance of striking. This is further exacerbated by the Hit Results Table which makes it easier to get rigging damage than hull damage for good reason.

I’m not sure what the solution to this would be. When 750 pounds of shot come scorching through the air above the decks, that lead will rip holes and tear cordage! As the British player, it can feel unfair on an emotional level. That said, I’m not convinced that it influences scenario outcomes. It may be specific instances where a British ship has failed to stay in command or lay down enough weight in shot at their target first. Rigging hits slow a ship down, but hull hits reduce a ship’s rate which lowers the damage they do AND makes them more vulnerable to capture.

This is a lot of detail, but what does it all mean about Flying Colors and its expansions?

Flying Colors is, without question, my favorite age of sail boardgame. The game’s map can get cluttered at time with chits and markers. However, you can use separate tracking sheets rather than putting the tokens on the map. Some people even play with miniatures. The record-keeping nonsense aside, nothing gives me a more authentic feel than this game has over the past 7 years since I first got my copy. I am looking forward to GMT Games next expansion for the series called Under a Southern Cross which takes us to South American AND…where we get to see Jack Aubrey himself in action! Well, not quite Jack Aubrey, but the real life gentleman upon whom the character was based, Thomas Cochrane.  Here I am next to Cochrane’s uniform and personal effects in Edinborough from July 2017.

Lord Cochrane and Me!

Lord Cochrane and Me!

 

GMT Games released Holland ’44 on September 21, 2017 after shattering the P500 goal earning over 1,700 pre-orders.  Holland ’44 is available for $55 USD.  The latest design from Mark Simonitch provides players an opportunity to relive the dramatic Operation Market-Garden from the British, German, and American sides.  The outstanding response on the P500 system sets this as one of the hottest fall releases from GMT Games.