Thursday, July 21, 2016

Interview with a Blogger: Aaron from Here's No Great Matter

One of my favorite gaming blogs is Here's No Great Matter, written by a good friend of mine named Aaron. Whereas I tend to focus on hex and counter moderns, Aaron has an eclectic taste that runs from ancients all the way up to present day.

Like me, Aaron is an ex-pat who has settled down in Japan. Sadly, we live too far from each other to meet up and game but we have played out some Sixth Fleet by email before and had great fun. Besides blogging, he somehow manages to have a full-time job and be a dad too. The guy has lots of energy and talent.

Aaron demonstrates his war face for the camera.

One of my favorite posts from Aaron's blog is the tale of trying to track down two parcels of games after returning from a vacation and...well, you'll just have to read it yourself. The story is so funny and so quintessentially Japanese that I became an immediate subscriber to Aaron's blog after reading it.

I wrote a small blurb about Aaron's blog (and several others) years ago in an article titled "The Blogs of War"for Line of Fire issue 12. Since then, I always wanted to do his blog more justice by giving it the attention it deserves with a good interview. So without further delay, here's my chat with Aaron about Here's No Great Matter:

HaH: Can you give me a little background about "Here's No Great Matter"?  Why did you start it and how has it changed over time?

HNGM: First off, thank you for sending these questions my way, Brad. I enjoy your posts and attitude to the hobby so it's a real pleasure to be approached for comment.

I started the blog back in 2010 as a sort of wargaming diary. I like to record the games I play and it's easier to document them online than it is to document them in a notebook. Since I mostly game with miniatures, I also hoped that the need to post photographs would force me to improve my painting skills and increase the painting output. I've had mixed results!

How has the blog changed? I don't go back and re-read old posts very much, but I suppose you develop different interests and have periods when you are 'on' and periods when you are 'off'. I'm probably a little less focused on game reports than I used to be. There are only so many times you can re-fight Cannae before you run out of new and interesting things to say.

HaH: I've noticed you like to play lots of ancients. What in particular attracts you to that genre?

HNGM: I love the ancient texts: Caesar, Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, Arrian, Tacitus and so on. The people and events are fascinating, and the social and political issues the ancients were faced with are similar to the kinds of things that we are faced with today. There also happen to be some very good games on the ancient period: Pax Romana, Commands & Colors: Ancients and Lost Battles, for starters. The era lends itself well to solo play, and the effect of massed 15mm ancient armies on the table is satisfying. There is also, through the Society of Ancients, the opportunity to write articles on things of interest, which is a good way to keep the old writing/researching/blathering-about-obscure-topics hand in.

Aaron has some very cool Command & Colors AARs on his blog.

HaH: Tell me about a game you love and a game you love to hate and why. 

HNGM: I have an abiding passion for A Victory Lost, by Tetsuya Nakamura. It's on Operation Saturn and von Manstein's backhand blow, and it's the tensest thing I've ever found in a two-player wargame. It's brilliant for play-by-email, and is one of those "I can't sleep because I keep going over my last move in my head trying to reassure myself I haven't made a mistake" types of games. I love to hate chess. As a kid I fancied myself a chess player but the reality is I'm crap. I'll occasionally have a few drinks and play online, either doing really well and feeling inordinately pleased, or else losing embarrassingly badly and getting extremely annoyed with myself. A legacy of playing against my old man is that I am always very polite when losing. I may be seething and contemplating throwing something against the wall because of a mistake I've made but I'll always finish with a bright and cheerful 'good game'..

von Manstein's 'Backhand blow' in A Victory Lost

HaH:What would your 3 main pieces of advice be for anyone who is looking to get into miniature wargaming as a hobby?

HNGM:Try and find a fellow player somewhere nearby. Collect armies because you like them, not because they are on special. Take the time to learn a few games very well, and make sure at least one of them works well solo.

HaH: What are the big differences/challenges/good points of being a gamer in Japan?

HNGM:I've only started gaming seriously since I've been here, so I can't compare to back home. The biggest thing has been having the disposable income to afford games and figures. You can buy board wargames locally through yahoo auctions, but if you want to play historical miniatures you have to buy from overseas, so it can get a bit pricey. Luckily, I got into it when shipping was still relatively reasonable, the yen was quite strong, and the kids were young. I picked up a lot of my figures years ago and have enough to keep me going for a while. Another point is that Japan is a country that embraces hobbies of all kinds and has the population to support manufacturers, so paint, brushes, varnish and everything else you need is produced locally, which over here means the quality is high, the cost is fairly low, and the availability is excellent.

If I were back home in New Zealand I would probably still be playing music and social sports and would not have got into wargaming at all.

HaH: How has this hobby changed your life?

HNGM: I wouldn't say it's changed my life, but it gives me something to do in the evenings, and I've met a few good people I wouldn't have met otherwise.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Hunt for Red October - Arctic Patrol

The first scenario from The Hunt for Red October pits two NATO submarines against three Soviet subs. In this tense battle beneath the waves during the early days of World War III, which side will come out ahead?

The objective is to sink as many enemy subs as possible and also to get your subs within five spaces of the enemy base.  In this case, the NATO base is Iceland while the Soviet base is Kola. To flesh things out a bit, both sides get ASW aircraft. NATO has a P-3 stationed in Iceland while the Russkies get two IL-38s in Kola.

Soviet ASW planes stationed in Kola

The Soviets are first to set up their subs within three spaces of Kola.  NATO then places their own subs within three spaces of Iceland. The Soviets can place up to 2 subs in one space. NATO can place only one in each space.

Despite the two subs per space allowance, the Russians place their subs alone in the deep water spaces just off the coast of Norway in the Norwegian Sea. NATO opts for coverage and places each sub three spaces apart just to the north of Iceland.

Soviet and NATO player set up. Soviet subs are to the right. NATO subs are on the left.

The classes of the three Soviet subs are: Alfa, Victor, and Tango. The two NATO subs are a US Navy Los Angeles-class attack sub and a British Trafalgar-class SSN.

Los Angeles class attack sub reporting for duty. Detection rating 6. Attack rating 4.
We start off with 2 detection markers for each side. The Soviets roll a d6 to determine additional DMs while the NATO player gets to roll a d10. We get a 6 for the Russians (total of 8 DMs) and a 9 for NATO (a whopping 11 DMs). This gives NATO the initiative.  The NATO player lets the Soviets move first.

The Soviets move their subs cautiously towards Iceland, avoiding areas with NATO subs.

Soviet subs move towards Iceland.

The NATO player decides to move both of his submarines into the nearest space with a Soviet sub. The Soviet player gets to choose whether or not to play a detection marker and declines. By doing this, he is hoping to stay hidden until the Battle step when he can bring in his ASW aircraft to help out. In the Aircraft Movement Phase, both players bring their ASW aircraft into the same spot.

Aircraft Movement Phase - Turn 1

Both sides play 3 detection markers since each unit in the space is allowed to play one detection marker.

NATO and Soviets both play 3 detection markers.

The Tango sub is detected while both NATO subs are undetected. All units move to the Battle Board to resolve combat.

All units are placed on the Battle Board

Because both NATO subs are undetected, they roll a d6 instead of d10 for their attack die. At the end of the step, the subs will become detected and whoever is in the Attack Second box can attack. I'm still learning the system a bit and make a bad decision by putting the Tango in the Attack First box. Oh well.

It doesn't matter anyways. The Tango will not survive the firt round of attacks. Both NATO subs roll equal to or under their attack ratings of 4 and the Tango is sunk. Submarines are sunk after only one hit in this game.

NATO subs score hits on the Tango submarine
Turn 2:

All unused detection markers for both sides are tossed out and 2 new ones are assigned to both sides. We reroll again for initiative and NATO gets 9 DMs while the Soviets get 3. If there were more units in this scenario, this would probably be a really big deal as one side would have to think carefully about when to play these markers. However, it's not enough to really change much in this scenario.

Rolls and DMs for both sides. NATO - blue, Russians - red.

Both sides have 2 subs left each so the odds are evened up a bit. NATO lets the Soviets go again. The Soviets move into the Los Angeles' hex. The NATO player declines to play a detection marker and play passes over to NATO. The NATO player brings the Trafalgar into the same space. The Soviets decline to play a DM and again the ASW aircraft are brought to bear. The Soviets have more units in the space (2 ASW aircraft and 2 subs) so they get to play 4 detection markers. NATO has only three units there (the P3 Orion and the two NATO subs) so they play their maximum three DMs.

Both Soviet subs are detected. The NATO player has a bit of an advantage because the Soviets get a -2 detection rating when trying to detect NATO subs so they need to roll a 2 or less to detect. One of the IL38s manages a roll of 2 and the Trafalgar is detected. 

Sub battle brewing - Soviets play 4 detection markers and NATO plays 3.

On the Battle Board, I decide that the Soviets will just go for a shot at the Trafalgar instead of hoping to survive past the first attack round and shooting at the Los Angeles so I place the Soviet units in the Attack First box again.

The NATO subs attack first. The Trafalgar rolls on a d10 since it is detected but the Los Angeles rolls a d6 since it is undetected. The Trafalgar goes for the Alfa and misses but the Los Angeles hits the Victor.

Trafalgar rolls over its attack rating while Los Angeles scores a hit.
The Victor is sunk but it still gets to attack before it goes down. Both Soviet subs roll a d10 to hit the Trafalgar.  The Alfa rolls a 4 and the Victor rolls a 2. Both shots hit and the Trafalgar is sunk. The second hit is overkill but that's okay with me.

Both detected Soviet subs manage a hit on the Trafalgar.
Now the surviving boats are placed back on the board and we go to Turn 3.

Tense! The end of Turn 2.
Turn 3:

Both sides roll for DMs as usual and roll '1's. Both sides have 3 DMs for the turn. Since the DM numbers are equal, the Soviets have initiative. No one moves or plays detection markers. We go straight to Aircraft Movement. The same old thing happens this turn - the ASW aircraft move into the space. This turn, NATO can play 2 DMs while the Soviets place 3 DMs.

The P3 detects the Soviet Alfa class submarine and the Soviets fail to detect the American sub at all. We move to the Battle Board. The NATO player places his sub on the Attack First space while the Soviet player, hoping for the best, puts the Alfa in the Attack Second space. The NATO player need only roll a 4 or less on either of two dice to sink the Alfa and win the game.

Nope! The NATO player rolls a '7' (on a d10)  for the P3 Orion and a '6' (on a d6) for the Los Angeles submarine. The Alfa survives the initial heat and fires back at the now detected American submarine.

We roll a '1' and the Los Angeles class sub is sunk!

Soviet Alfa-class sub fires back at Los Angeles class submarine
At the end of the turn, the Soviets had the only submarine on the board and were declared the winner with 7 VPs (2 enemy subs sunk x 2 VP + 3 VP for sub within 5 spaces of enemy airbase) while NATO had 4 VPs (2 enemy subs sunk x 2 VP).

The Alfa class submarine slips away under the cold waves of the Norwegian Sea.

This was a really fun first scenario and well-aimed at teaching the basics of movement, detection, and combat. As I mentioned in my first impressions, this is really a game of knowing when to play your detection markers. It is extremely light but has a very solid theme and enough uncertainty built into the system that you're always guessing and hoping for the best. It ain't exactly 2nd Fleet by a longshot but if you are looking for a nice beer and pretzels game or a dad and son/daughter game, this might do the trick.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Hunt for Red October - First Impressions

In 1988, TSR published "The Hunt for Red October", a boardgame based on Tom Clancy's 1984 debut novel of the same name.

The Hunt for Red October boardgame from TSR (1988)

The book was a tense thriller set in the late Cold War period. It focused on a Soviet submarine captain's attempts to defect to the United States. Clancy clearly showed a talent for explaining the complex topic of submarine detection and warfare in layman's terms without condescending to the reader.

The book that started it all.

The book not only spawned a boardgame, but also a computer game, as well as a movie starring the irrepressible Sean Connery as Captain Ramius and Alec Baldwin cast as the main protagonist, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Clancy went on to write dozens of novels and several non-fiction books dealing with the military before his death in 2013. All of that - the movies, games, and TV series - began with this one novel. So looking at this boardgame as one of the starting pieces of Tom Clancy's hugely successful career feels a bit odd. As a fan of the novel and the movie, I was always curious about how the boardgame fit into the overall Clancy legacy. Was it an early cash-in or was there some quality here that rubbed off from having the Tom Clancy name attached to it? I wasn't sure.

Connery as Ramius: "Shome thingsh in here don't react well to bulletsh."

The game comes with several high quality components for its time. There's a 29 page rulebook filled with examples of play, diagrams, and flavorful descriptions of various ships and aircraft of both the NATO and Warsaw Pact. The book has 8 scenarios ranging from short submarine duels to all-out battles of World War III with carriers, fighter planes, subs, and surface ships like frigates and destroyers. Of course, scenario 2 provides the players with the chance to recreate Captain Ramius' defection as depicted in the novel. One player plays the role of Ramius and secretly plots Red October's path while the other player uses the entire Soviet navy to try and track him down and prevent him from reaching the Americans.

The board is beautiful and features a map of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea between North America and Europe. The SOSUS lines are indicated on the map with NATO symbols. Shallow and deep waters are colored differently and airbases for both sides are clearly shown. In addition to the map, there aretwo task force boards (one for each player) so as to avoid crowding on the main playing surface. There is also a 'battle board' that allows players to place their units according to when they will attack (first or second) in the battle phase and where each piece falls in the composition of the task force (ASW, anti-air, etc.). I was surprised by how good these looked and how large they were. For its time, this game had some very nice components.

The pieces of the game include the naval and air units. The naval units are two-sided. On one side is the name and class of the ship with its detection and attack ratings. On the other is simply the NATO or Warsaw Pact symbol so as to keep the enemy player in the dark about what exactly is out there until successfully detecting the enemy. The game comes with two 10-sided die and two six-sided die.

Los Angeles class SSN ready for action.

Learning the game required a bit of head-scratching due to the poor rules organization. It's clear though that this was a good attempt at building a fun family game that tries to model the very basics of naval warfare. For those looking for anything more than beer and pretzels depth, this game will be a disappointment. Anyone who just likes the theme of the game and an afternoon of moving around cardboard submarines and ships is probably going to have a good time.

Each turn is broken down into 6 steps. First, both players roll initiative by determining how many detection markers they get beyond the basic allotment of two each. Detection markers are played at various times during the turn to try and detect the enemy's units. The NATO player gets d10 worth of detection markers while the poor Soviets get only d6 detection markers. Whoever has more detection markers has the initiative.

Soviets roll to get 3 detection markers compared to NATO's *gulp* 9.

After that, the player with initiative decides who will move their ships first. If a ship moves into the same space as an enemy ship, the enemy has the choice of whether or not to play a detection marker to try and detect the enemy unit. If the opposing player decides not to play a detection marker, the moving player can just keep moving. However, if he does play a detection marker, the moving player can then play his detection markers too. If one or both sides detect the other, naval battle may ensue. Players have to decide whether their units will attack first or second as there are different benefits and drawbacks for each choice.

The battle board - here's where you make those decisions you live to regret...

The air movement phase comes next. If you want to launch your ASW aircraft or conduct an air raid against an enemy force, this is your chance to get those aircraft on to the board. In the final step, the battle phase, the players get another chance to play detection markers and fight it out again if they so wish. As you can see, much of the game is spent moving, rolling dice, and playing detection markers.

All in! Aircraft and subs go for broke during the Combat step.

It's deceptively simple but somehow it ends up being more than just the sum of its parts. I'm not sure if its the branding or the optional rules that allow for a more nuanced game (these optional rules include SSM missile defense, anti-aircraft doctrine, decoy submarines, SAMs and jamming to name a few). Judging from the rulebook and the amount of effort that went into designing a simple but fun and playable game of modern naval combat, I don't get the impression that this was a weak cash-in but rather a nicely put together board game that was primarily aimed at the dad-son crowd much more than a serious simulation of sorts.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Interview with a Designer: Mark H. Walker's 'Sticks & Stones'

Earlier this month, I played through the three scenarios in the Sticks and Stones module called "Poland Strikes!" from Yaah! magazine issue 4. This is a modern platoon-level tactical combat game from Mark H. Walker, the same designer of the World at War series, which had a similar theme.
As I noted in my previous playthroughs, the design of Sticks and Stones is quite a departure from the World at War series in a number of ways. Having enjoyed playing both series, I wondered what brought Mr. Walker back to this genre again and what his plans were for this new series. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Mark!

HaH: What drew you to this particular theme? What is it about modern combat that catches your imagination?

MHW:  I wish I knew the answer myself. LOL. Or maybe it’s that I do know the answer/s and there are just too many of them. Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War is what sparked my initial interest. To be honest, I thought the political aspects of the book were dull--well written and beautifully conceived, but just not my cup of tea. On the other hand, I ate the combat scenes with a spoon, rereading them multiple times.

Then I found Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee. I remember reading the book in one sitting. I was duty officer at EOD Mobile Unit  Three, it was a slow night, and I just sat and read, mesmerized. Probably should have been making rounds or something.

There’s also something about the balance and disparity of forces that makes for great gaming. By 1985 America’s military was recovering from the post-Vietnam gutting and becoming a well-trained, well-equipped force. Analysts believed that on defense an American battle group could handle one three times its size. It’s exciting to command a few, elite cardboard warriors as they fight the Russian hordes. That said, I believe first line Russian tankers would have fought well, and the T-80 and T-64 are not the slouch tanks that Iraq’s export T-72s were.

Finally. Madonna. The mid-eighties were just a great time. Girls wore bustiers to nightclubs, Mike Schmidt played third base, and no one judged you when you downed two cheeseburgers and a large fries.

Bottom line, I just like the era… and throw in paranormal (which Sticks and Stones doesn’t have) and it’s like catnip/scotch/whatever your addiction is. In fact, I *think* the next module of ’65 will be titled Dark War, take place in 1985, and include not only Abrams, M203s, and Soviet T-80s, but also the characters from Dark War: Retribution. The power system, card-driven play, and importance of heroes make the ’65 tactical system a natural for getting characters such as Katarina and Mike Hudson into the gaming mix. Uh… sorry for the self-promo, but not really.

HaH:  What can you tell us about any other planned expansions or modules for the Sticks & Stones/Platoon Commander series?

MHW:  A friend of mine, David van Hoose (his daughter edited both my Revelation and Retribution novels) is almost finished with a Platoon Commander Indo-Pakistan module. Counter art is complete, scenarios are designed; we just need map and card art and testing.

Right now, I’m jazzed about designing a Night of Man/Platoon Commander mashup for Yaah! #7. It
will be a Platoon Commander mini-module based in the Night of Man universe. The Earth Militia will have platoons of Abrams, M113s, Bradleys, infantry and TOWs pitted against troops of plasma-firing alien tanks, power-armored infantry, and Spider Bots; it’s the kind of stuff that gets my heart pumping. I love mixing games, genres, and universes.

Those are in the immediate future, but I’m always thinking about the system. Sticks and Stones is Tiny Battle’s bestseller and Korea 1950 is in the top five, so I think folks like pushing Platoon Commander counters around. I’d love to take it to the West Front WW2, and there are a lot of 1987ish battles left to fight. To be honest, if I had a real strong idea of what people wanted to see next, that’s what I would design, but that type of input is difficult to get.

HaH: What was the inspiration behind covering a conflict between Poland and Hungary?

MHW: That is a strange combination/confrontation, isn’t it? If I remember correctly, I didn’t want to do the standard West German vs Soviet thing and I was searching for other European grudge matches, so to speak. I asked my friend, Ania Ziolkowska, and she pointed out that Poland and Hungary have a bit of a feud, so Poland Strikes was born. Perhaps we would have been served better with  more traditional opponents, but it’s worked out okay. Yaah! #4 remains our best-selling issue.