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!

 

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.

 

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.

I am an avid reader of the US Naval Institute’s news website and have read the last few People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) updates that were prepared for Congress. What struck me each time is that China’s shift from a primarily littoral navy has made giant leaps in the last 5 years to become one of the world’s blue water navies in a meaningful way. New investment, retrofitting purchased ships with new technology, and a steady increase in the number of blue water PR missions around the world. In particular, China’s new tone set by Xi Jinping is clear. In November, Xi set forth a combination of strategies and vision statements for China. His vision was clearly articulated by a Chinese proverb, “no distance, not even remote mountains and vast oceans, can ever prevent people with perseverance from reaching their destination.” His strategy was laid bare by quoting Benjamin Franklin, “He who can have patience, can have what he will.” Upon reflection, it’s easy to see this play out in the news as China slowly builds new islets capable of hosting jets, and even naval facilities as the United States and her allies operate Freedom of Navigation cruises in a demonstration of commitment to those allies to the incredible volume of trade flowing through the South China Sea. As a result, I was thrilled to see Compass Games LLC and John Gorkowski release their game covering the topic.

INITIAL THOUGHTS DISCLAIMER:

My thoughts in this article are still forming and I’m certain they will evolve as I continue to play the game. I purchased this game, so this was not provided as a reviewer’s copy. I have only played the game solo at this point which dilutes some of the best elements of the political turns and the negotiation phase of the game.

South China Sea builds upon the strong foundation found in Gorkowski’s Breaking the Chains game. I was not a huge fan of that title and felt like submarines were simply too overpowered given the nature of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capable weapons platforms. At the heart of Gorkowski’s system is the concept that cyber-warfare will reduce the overall Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) environment for the combatant forces. After all, the two superpowers involved have sophisticated space programs and have both demonstrated advanced Electronic Counter-Measures (ECM) technology including some that have the ability to destroy Low Earth Orbit communication and intelligence platforms. Modeling these tools, or the effects of an ELINT rich environment would be far too speculative and therefore I accept Gorkowski’s proposed hand-waving as a designer to make this game more approachable for players.

At first blush, it’s easy to assume that this game simply rips off elements of the Victory Games Fleet Series. While the similarities are striking, the distance between the 1970s and 80s naval warfare and 21st-century platforms represented in South China Sea is as great as World War II technology and that modeled by the Fleet Series. You have stealth capable jets, standoff ranges that exceed their predecessors, better tracking, ASW, fully developed missile defense systems that expand their range further, highly accurate and developed Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs) and much more. The next naval conflict is going to be far costlier than the last at a minimum and with the continued evolution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and drone-based swarm weapons, the next five to ten years will only increase the lethality of naval conflict.

South China Sea’s compromises ensure that the systems and combat weapon systems presented for each combatant nation demonstrates that extreme lethality. Most ships in the game have a missile defense value of between 9 – 11 and an anti-surface (A/S) weapon rating of either 2 or 3. Combat relies on a 2d6 resolution with the weapon system value added to the dice roll compared against the target’s missile defense score. The most common outcome on a 2d6 roll, as you’re likely aware, is 7. That means that right out the gate with a 2 A/S rating, the average roll will be 1 shy of delivering a hit. You have a roughly 41% chance of delivering at least one hit against a ship with 9 missile defense and against US ships which carry a missile defense of 11 typically you’ll have a roughly 28% chance of delivering a hit. Combat is deadly. In fact, you deliver additional damage for the difference between the final attack roll compared to the missile defense roll in A/S combat. Missile Defense of 11, but roll a 13? That ship is likely sunk in that single roll.

So, how does Gorkowski offset this battlefield danger?

First, ships need to focus and identify one another.  Just because they can be found on the map doesn’t guarantee that the ships can successfully pinpoint their target. Each hex, after all, represents the distance to the horizon. The scale is huge, so just knowing someone is within a 40 or 50-mile radius isn’t enough. Weapon platforms from jets to subs and everything between the wind and waves has different ranges to which they can “illuminate” an enemy unit.  As a result, you might have a chance to illuminate a ship 10 hexes away with your jets, but your chances of actually pinpointing the unit are diminished by that extreme range.

Ships have the opportunity to give up the remainder of their actions for the turn in order to evade detection. Evasion is based on three things:

  • A 2d6 roll
  • plus half the distance to the spotting ship (rounded down)
  • plus the target ship’s stealth rating (typically between 1 – 3 for surface ships and 6+ for subs)

Combined, these must be at least an 11. Using the same logic we employed before, ships will typically have a stealth rating of 1 or 2. US ships carry a 3 in some cases like the LCS Freedom. Spotting ranges that match A/S weapon ranges are typically 2 -3 hexes. So, if you want to engage a ship at the maximum range of your A/S weapon systems, then an average die roll then nearly 60% of the time you’re going to evade detection. This can be frustrating and encourage “knife fight” ranges for these vessels which is what you get a chance to see in my photos and video on South China Sea.

So far, it’s worked pretty well. More troubling is that the US doesn’t get the chance to capture the initiative. The default order of nations to act puts China first. That means that the US must either evade or potentially face the deadly wrath of incoming anti-ship missiles. It’s a tricky balancing act that requires the US to use their longer range and superior stealth ratings to their advantage. I just don’t have enough experience at this point to say whether this works or whether it too heavily favors the Chinese. Right now though it feels about right given the tradeoffs.

The last thing I want to touch on in this initial impression is the political phase and the transition to the military phase.

South China Sea starts most scenarios with political turns during which players take turns playing cards, discarding cards, and negotiating with minor powers also included. These nations include Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Typically you have Vietnam siding with the Americans, Malaysia siding with China and the Philippines acting as a neutral that’s up for grabs. Cards might lure in neutral sides or ask them to weigh in on their loyalties for economic sanctions helping to draw the battle lines. Other cards offer players an opportunity to deploy stealthy units as hidden in an ambush waiting to be sprung. The political turns are measured by how they move the victory point track. Victory points move the outcome in a tug of war mechanic between China and the United States. If, at any time, a single card play moves the victory point track by three points in one direction, a military conflict erupts.

As a result, not every scenario will result in a military conflict every time. The temptation is there though and in the few solo times I’ve played with the system, it’s something that should be happening in your games more often than not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s an outlier when you won’t have a military conflict erupt.

This is where my main current critique comes into play. I just don’t think there’s enough oomph from the political phase to drive the action in the military phase. After all, what do the various sides gain? Some of the scenario setups have China away from the Spratly Islands and the minor powers in their major ports with the Americans dawdling somewhere south the Spratlys. Why risk life and limb, treasure and blood, or even the fuel to go and fight? I don’t think the scenario setups effectively answer the player’s  question, “What’s in this for me?” Since the conflict is hypothetical, and one that not a wide audience has watched with anything more than passing interest so far, it can be hard to justify a race to protect national islets or reefs within the Spratlys because the US and China traded economic sanctions with each other.

Further, and more importantly, given Xi’s statements that I outlined at the start of this initial thoughts article why would China risk its image and thus far unblemished naval record in open conflict with a more experienced and modern blue water navy? None of the political phases end with an act that couldn’t be walked back diplomatically. If an EP-3 could be captured, studied, looted, and held like it was back in 2000 without incident then why wouldn’t an accidental firing or boat/jet collision be walked back by the US and China who rely on each other for stability in trade and regional politics.

I can say unequivocally that I have had fun with this game so far and I like it better than I did Breaking the Chains. South China Sea deserves more play and definitely requires opposed play for a fair review, so look forward to that in the coming weeks!

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!

 

Operation Market Garden is a well covered wargaming topic.  Others that rank higher include Bulge, Gettysburg, Normandy, Stalingrad, and Waterloo. As a result, there is a deep roster of fantastic designs at all kinds of scales. Few of those games have been poorly received which makes it even more complicated to place this game in their midst without an encyclopedic knowledge of the other games.  As a result, this review will not attempt to rank or compare other Market Garden games to each other. Instead, I’ll be looking at this game solely based on its own merits.

First, though I think we need to establish what the review criteria are going to be for a Market Garden game. After all, what measuring stick do we use outside of just fun (and it is that) if we don’t pick out a few criteria. The essential questions a Market Garden game must answer for me are:

  1. Does the game capture the scale and fragility of the airborne landings?
  2. Does the game force the allied player to move quicker than they would like with the 30th to get them northward?
  3. Does the game provide the Germans with ample reinforcements of increasing strength over the course of the game?
  4. Does the game have a solution for blown bridges and have a fail-safe that provides for the possibility of success in a worst-case bridge scenario (all bridges blown)?
  5. Does the game model supply (and critically the lack thereof) in a reasonable way that hurts, but doesn’t wholly cripple the allied forces?

There are other criteria for a game to successful as a game, but for a Market Garden game to succeed, it must first check at least these checkboxes for me. So, let’s dive in!

Airborne landings are handled smartly with regard for flexibility of drop zones increasing as time goes on while also increasing the difficulty of contested drops. The scattered mechanic limiting movement and combat factors is a sensible approach that temporarily, and at the regiment’s most critical moment, stings the allied player. German players will be challenged to balance holding/blowing bridges and river crossings while contesting drop zones. Early on, the Germans will have the opportunity to roll and see if the 406th releases which has the quickest route to disrupt the 82nd Airborne’s drop zone and create enough force to stage the first meaningful counter-attack by the Germans. Even this opportunity is handled with care though. There’s only a 50/50 chance the 406th enters in turns 1 – 3. For the Germans this can be a huge boon or a hearty reinforcement in turn 4 that can add to the scheduled reinforcements for the area around Nijmegen.

As the game progresses, protecting the drop zones and retaining airborne supply units is a full time job. This is particularly the case around Arnhem with the British 1st Airborne Division who quickly find themselves surrounded and besieged. At first, these are weak German piecemeal reinforcements, but quickly turn into armored opposition and full strength German regiments ready to tear up the Red Devils. I tried both keeping a large defensive perimeter in the woods northwest of Arnhem and falling back into a small defensive perimeter in  Arnhem and found both problematic. In terms of ensuring a successful reinforcement landing in turn 3, it’s important to hold out near the drop zones or the allied player is likely to suffer S-1 or even the dreaded S-2 drop results meaning scatted with one or two step reductions.

Speaking of step reductions, one of the great bits of chrome for airborne landings in the game is the ability of the airborne units to earn replacement steps based on their drop losses. Each division can only earn 1 replacement step per turn, but they quickly become necessary and the Germans though weak early on can land significant punches of their own with a bad die roll or an ill-advised and overly aggressive allied attack against a city hex.

So, does the game model the fragility and scale of the airborne landings? Without qualification, yes

Before we start looking at how the game models the British 30th Corp, let’s look for a moment at combat and Zones of Control. As with all Simonitch Campaign ‘XX designs the CRT is odds based and punishing. Equally important though is the concept of ZOC Bonds which effectively create barriers through which supply and enemy units cannot travel. ZOC Bonds also work a bit like Three Stooges movies. You might remember how someone would kneel behind an unsuspecting character while they’re startled and fall over backwards in retreat only to get dumped on their butt….The same is true in Simonitch’s ZOC Bonds. If a unit is forced to retreat through a ZOC bond, they are eliminated.

Understanding and using ZOC bonds is key to building an effective defense and to create static lines without requiring hundreds and hundreds of counters to pull it off on the map. They also increase the value of the CRT results which require retreat or give the option for determined defense which is also a significant choice. In certain situations, you may be afforded the opportunity to put up a determined defense which allows you a chance to stand your ground and fight. It is risky, but also can punch the attacker in the nose in a desperate defensive final stand. When faced with a retreat though it can sometimes be the far more attractive option.

It’s decisions like these that characterize the success of the fun in a Simonitch design. Whether it’s The Caucasus Campaign, France ’40, Ukraine ’43, Normandy ’44, or Ardennes ’44 you know that the tension in the history and design will remain because of these core principles that help characterize this ruleset. Further, each game has a great way of fulfilling the historical campaign’s unique flavor without invalidating the underlying ruleset established more than a decade ago.

Combat is risky, dangerous, and punishing for attackers who don’t bring sufficient force to bear. This is particularly evident in the required breakout by the 30th Corps who must race northward at breakneck speed to relieve first the 101st Airborne, then the 82nd Airborne, and finally rescue the Red Devils in Arnhem if they have enough steam left…or the Red Devils are left standing. An option for the 1st Airborne I had no considered is holding out until the airborne reinforcements could be landed and then slipping south to hang with the 82nd in Nijmegen only pushing northward again AFTER the 30th arrives.

That’s putting the cart before the horse though. The 30th starts at the southern end of the map and must breakout across a series of bridges. While I’ll cover bridges a bit more, it’s worthwhile to note that Holland ’44 does an admirable job of creating stress on the German AND allied player with the bridge demolition and rebuilding mechanics. After all, if it were too easy to blow the bridges or repair them for that matter, they wouldn’t be as important. They are, after all, key to the 30th getting northward to relieve the 1st Airborne in Arnhem!

The 30th looks stuck at first glance. A lot of firepower with very little room for maneuver and only a few well defended checkpoints against which they can throw that weight of arms. A mistake I made was screwing around with getting the right units in the right position. Throw your weight around blindly in the first turn. The negative combat modifiers and halving of your firepower are going to happen regardless and optimizing your attacks doesn’t actually get you all that much. Key to the success of the initial 30th assaults will be their artillery which gain extra column shifts in the first turn to help overcome the disadvantages. Use the rule helpers in that first turn or suffer mightily!

In subsequent games, I learned that there’s very little you can do wrong in the first turn other than not be aggressive as the allied player. The German player’s hands are tied as well in that first turn, but what they lack in combat stopping power they make up for in Traffic Marker stopping power. The main highway north is surrounded by woods and polder (a misery inducing terrain nightmare unique to this game) making off-road movement a literal slog. So, when the first three traffic markers hit the road and start their +2 Movement Cost punishment of the allied player, they can be devastating. As with other German “power” in the game, the German player starts with just 3, but grows to earn all 6 Traffic markers only removing one. They become less effective as time goes on so the three to start and six to finish seem appropriately strong throughout. Limits on placement mean you don’t run into them well ahead of your lead units or something awful like that.

So, once the 30th cross the Buccholdt-Terrenfals Canal and enter the Netherlands they need to dash to Eindhoven, their first destination in 3 additional turns. In the three games I played, allied players were not able to make this happen. In the one where I screwed up and was overly cautious, this was obviously not going to work, but even knowing I needed to get cooking didn’t help much. There are simply too many German units waiting in the wings that get dislocated and need to be removed that divert a lot of strength away from the main push and for an overly cautious player…too much strength. Again, it benefits the allied player to move swiftly with the knowledge that these German units are the Amuse Bouche of the German forces that are coming…

As the 30th does finally reach Eindhoven and weave its way north we can effectively answer the second challenge of the game design about the requirements of the 30th. Yes, you MUST move more swiftly than you’re probably comfortable moving. It’s evident why the task was too tall an order and failing some exceptionally good luck on the part of the allies, you’re unlikely to feel like you’re making good enough progress. Don’t get hung up on the deadlines set forth by the turn track though, you can exceed those limits later on depending on how well the Airborne divisions have occupied the “middle sector” of the battlefield which can be a bit gooey to get started.

In every game, I found that the Germans were able to put up a significant roadblock just south of Nijmegen and again in the town of Best or Son depending on where the allies try to make their push. So, the 30th is absolutely needed and siphoning off too many forces ruins any real chance of northerly advance.

This leads us to the third important question of the game: Can the German actually stand up to the onslaught of firepower they face through turns 7 or 8? After all, it’s just a math problem that the 30th will break out and that the Airborne will be able to have their way for a little while with the weak units on the map at the start of the game.  Even the clever hidden units aren’t much more than speed bumps for the allies early on in the game.

While German armor appears in turn 4 of the game, it’s not until turn 7 that the Germans get sufficient forces to start really making a difference.  In particular, the most vulnerable units are the 1st Airborne. I’ve alluded to my struggles with them already and the reason is quite simple. They have the largest and most contested distance between their drop zones and their target of Arnhem. Additionally, they have three separate and heavily trafficked reinforcement zones sitting in close proximity to either their drop zone or their target north of the Lower Rhine.

The Germans quickly establish their reinforcement staging areas from which they can push forward once they build up sufficient combat strength. Nijmegen and Arnhem are the two closest to the majority of the reinforcement areas constituting reinforcement zones F, G, H, I, J, and K. After turn 7 there are no more entries outside of B,C,D, and E for the most part.  I seem to recall there was one loner unit that comes straggling on late, but the entire western side of the map is ignored. Coupled with the 30th’s decision that they need to make around Son on how they’re going to travel north it means there is plenty of time for the Germans to set up.

In my games, Groesbeck became a staging area that was powerful enough to go uncontested, but kept launching bullets into Nijmegen until the 82nd was all but eliminated and just scampering around the map Out of Supply. The Germans only worthy opponent going into the night turn of September 20th was a combination of the 30th and 8th corps. I do have to admit though that I did not follow the AO requirements for the 12th Corps, 30th Corps, and 8th Corps through the 2100 row of hexes as a way to experiment with a faster breakout. I’m clearly not a good player here because it didn’t seem to do a whole lot in terms of racing up to meet the Germans or trying to meet strength with strength. Why would Simonitch include them if not to prevent odd CRT bedfellows?

So, in short answer to the problem of German strength increases as the game progresses the answer is yes. I almost feel like it’s a bit too strong, but then again, most of these German reinforcements are 3-5-3 and so they move a little slow and don’t individually pack a punch. Grouped together and launched as divisions rather than regiments they pack a nasty 1-2 knockout punch.

Let’s take a quick look at bridges now to answer the fourth challenge of the design. Simply put, the bridges are handled perfectly. On turn 1, the Germans are at a significant disadvantage. I was surprised by what a -1 modifier does, but it’s significant. In every single game that -1 modifier proved to be a lifesaver. After all, a missed opportunity for a blown bridge requires that the Germans rewire it.  Rewiring requires allied units not have the bridge in their ZOC. That, turns out, to be exactly the right amount of time to get to specific bridges to save them.

That said, on subsequent turns the sound of explosions can be heard across the countryside. It should be pointed out, since the rule is so early on in the rulebook that there are important fail-safes built into the game. The bridges at Nijmegen, Arnhem, and Westervoot cannot be blown. In each case, this would isolate the 1st Airborne to a degree that would assure their destruction beyond hope within a turn or two.

Bridging units are provided to the allies though and it’s important to keep an eye on where they’re at.  It’s one of the trickier little things to do when playing opposed. While your opponent can inspect stacks at any time, they’re probably not checking for those Bridging units if you bury them. However, if you leave them on top of the stack, then it’s clear where that stack may be headed. This is where the breakdown units can be handy to detach and spread out some stacks to try to conceal the direction of your assault and bridge repair efforts.

Finally, it should be noted that bridges aren’t the only way across water. There are also ferries that have their own pathetically small capacity. If you’ve ever seen A Bridge Too Far, you absolutely understand the risk and speed (or lack thereof) with these crossing types.  With this said, it should be clear that I am again strongly responding that yes, Holland ’44 masters the challenge of making the bridges valuable resources while still providing fail-safes that don’t completely isolate and kill off the 1st Airborne or 82nd Airborne solely because of gamey bridge demolition.

Our last consideration is supply. This is the easiest to answer. The Germans have it and in nearly all cases keep it. The allies need to be constantly worried about it and get cut off from it more regularly (at least in my inept playing). As a result, the importance and fragility of airborne supply is highlighted. Pretty early on, it can be attractive to spread out as far as your supply limits allow as the airborne units. However, it is equally apparent how vulnerable you’re leaving your supply source.

In two of my three games at least one airborne supply source was overrun and had to be reconstituted.  In Holland ’44 that means it arrives back in play the next turn (following a supply phase where everyone is out of supply). Another important note here is that airborne supply only lasts through turn 5.  At that point, and moving forward, they need to be able to trace traditional supply lines adding insanely difficult pressure to the 30th and 8th Corps racing north. Yes, artillery can still be supplied from these depleted supply heads, BUT if your units are at half-strength and can only move 2 hexes at a time, it means the Germans have a field day with your units.

In one particularly memorable playthrough the 82nd was holed up in Nijmegen. They had artillery support on defense and the Germans were assaulting. The odds after everything was said and done was 1:1 and the Germans still suffered an A1/DR result. The German lead unit took down a step which eliminated it and then instead of retreating those plucky All Americans went for the Determined Defense and rolled a 5. However, they had an Elite lead unit and Artillery in defense which made it a 7 and the German attackers were forced to lose ANOTHER step while the Americans held. It was triumphant to say the least.

Supply starts out a concern and grows into a full blown anxiety attack. To that end, I would say that its one of the best modeled components of this game and when taken in conjunction with the rest of Simonitch’s rules for Holland ’44 it becomes the foil for the other mechanisms that put pressure on the race to relieve Arnhem.

Conclusion

Without question, Holland ’44 is one of the best games of 2017. It was my second favorite and only fell to 2nd because I felt like Fields of Despair was more innovative. Holland ’44, however, hits every single I expected to find in a Market Garden game. In fact, the design exceeded my expectations by being approachable and deep. I’m most familiar with Ardennes ’44 from Simonitch and that game, at times, feels like it falls on Bulge narrative crutches. That’s not a bad thing for Ardennes ’44, but I wanted to see how Simonitch would tackle Market Garden.

It is something special and unique. I said I wouldn’t rank it against other Market Garden games, and I won’t, but even if you feel like this is “A Game Too Far” for the subject matter, then you’re robbing yourself of one of the best gaming experiences of 2017. I look forward to getting this one to the table again and Holland ’44 is certainly a game that both designer Mark Simonitch and GMT Games should be proud of given the tall order for making a compelling Market Garden game in such a well covered topic.