Saturday, October 31, 2015

Unconditional Surrender - The Main Event: Part 2

September 1940 marked the end of the favorable weather so the Germans did what they could to consolidate their gains over the past year. With Italy having recently fallen, the Germans sent some infantry down to Rome to claim the city while a panzer army was transferred off east from the Italian front. Using the extensive rail system for Strategic Movement, the panzers arrived just west of the frontlines in northern Russia, near Latvia. The Yugoslavs fell back under the pressure of the combined German, Hungarian, and Bulgarian army. Split was captured and the Yugoslav Will slipped. The Soviets sent masses of infantry to push back the German incursions, using assault tactics rather than mobile attacks. The rolls just were not there, however, and the Soviets made no gains. That was fine. Time was on their side.

End of Sept. 1940: Yugoslavia falls and the east falls into stalemate.

October 1940:  As predicted, severe weather in the Cold Zone ends up helping the Soviets immensely this turn. The Germans successfully take down Yugoslavia after capturing Sarajevo and the Romanians and Bulgarians rush east to help hold the German line in Russia. The Soviets group together their units into assaults and manage to win some key battles that force the Germans back. A considerable hole in the middle of the German line looks inviting for the Russians after the operations phase ends. No cities are recaptured but the Germans are now losing ground and the Russian winter is yet to begin in earnest.

October 1940: The Russians begin to push back against the Germans.

November 1940 is surprisingly mild and the Cold Zone has only Poor weather while the Mild Zone actually has Fair weather. The Germans declare war on Greece and attempt to consolidate their hold on southeastern Europe. On the Russian front, the Germans take a gamble in the northern sector and fare poorly. An attempt to dislodge a pesky infantry unit does not pay off and this leaves the entire German flank vulnerable. In the south, things go considerably better for the Germans. They use their panzers to push back a Soviet infantry unit near Odessa and then isolate another Soviet unit before eliminating it. During the Soviet turn, more Russian units arrive in the south to plug the gaps in the line while a couple of infantry units in the north maneuver around the Germans and threaten to cut off two or three armies from supply. The Germans will have their work cut out for them next turn, especially considering that the Russian Winter event is due to begin then.

November 1940: Germans declare war on Greece. The Germans' northern flank along the eastern front in peril.

December 1940 arrives and with it the Russian Winter. The weather for the Cold Zone is designated Severe but, for the Russians, it is treated as Poor for combat purposes. This gives them a considerable advantage in their attacks. The Germans start off by using submarines for strategic warfare and they score a hit against the Russians. A German and Bulgarian army isolate a Greek unit in Salonika and take the city, pushing the Greek will down to 1. The road to Athens is open. The Germans, realizing they are in trouble on the eastern front, try to deal with the situation by being realistic. They shift forces around a bit to protect vital supply lines and conduct a couple of retreats in the south. The Soviets eliminate two German army units in the north and manage to push back the Bulgarians and Romanians in the south but the expected disastrous blow to the Germans does not come. The Germans mobilize three armies, which should help keep the Soviets at bay for just a bit longer. More significantly, the Germans score a Political Success and bring Turkey to a Pro-Axis standpoint. If Turkey can be persuaded to enter the war on the Axis side, it could transform the eastern front from stalemate back to German favor once again.

December 1940: Soviets make some gains against Germans. Greece about to fall. Turkey goes pro-Axis.

January 1941 and the new year begins with severe weather throughout Europe. The Germans make a play for Greece by attacking Athens but don't get anywhere. Along the eastern front, German units are pulled back and Minsk and Odessa are given up without a fight. Finally, the defensive line has stabilized a bit more and it looks like the Russians might be kept out of eastern Europe. The Soviets take both cities for a gain of 4 national will but the follow up attacks on the German line are of no use in this weather despite the help of the Partisans event marker. With Turkey making pro-Axis rumblings, the Soviets send some units south to help forestall any possible future invasion. The Germans mobilize three more units this turn. With success so far out of reach on the eastern front, the German player starts to dream of a quick victory against France.

January 1941: The eastern front line begins to stabilize. Belgium activates. The Germans think about the future.

February 1941 and no surprises with the weather this time. It is severe in the cold zone and poor in the mild and warm zone. Greece falls after the Germans take Athens. Albania goes Pro-Axis. The Germans have a number of mobilized units from the end of last turn. They mostly head west towards the French border. There are no German offensives on the eastern front. The whole affair has become bogged down with massive numbers of Soviets and terrible weather. The Russians push back against the Romanians this time but there are no major gains elsewhere. The turn ends with the Germans pulling a Political Failure out of the cup and Turkey is no longer Pro-Axis. The Soviets breathe a sigh of relief. Their southern border is safe.

March 1941 should mark the beginning of spring weather but nope! There is severe weather in both the Cold and Mild zone. This turn, the Germans start to get their act together a bit on the eastern front. They recoup some of their earlier losses by taking some chances with mobile attacks. In the south, Odessa is retaken and a Soviet army is eliminated. The Germans are not laying down just yet. They also start putting a few more armies along the French border with Germany and Italy. In the Soviet operations phase, we get a few lucky breaks too. Although Odessa is still in German hands, the makings of a potential Soviet breakthrough are building up just to the north of the city. The Soviets are frustrated elsewhere and unable to make any real headway against the Germans and Latvians way up in the north.

March 1941: The Germans strike back on the eastern front.

April 1941 and the spring weather begins. The Germans declare war on the Western faction. The eastern offensive is pretty much a lost cause and the western powers are only growing stronger with each passing month. Using a skeleton invasion force, Germany manages to take both Holland and Belgium as well as the city of Sedan in northern France.  Germany also charges into southern France through Italy, threatening Marseilles with a mobile unit by the end of the turn. In the east, the Germans manage to take Minsk, pushing the Soviets back a bit in the center a bit. The Soviets retake Odessa and attempt to push the minor nations units back but get carried away and end up with a unit out of supply (and so reduced) by the end of the turn. France settles in for a defensive campaign. The war has begun in the west.

May 1941. The weather is fair in all zones. The Germans get to work in their invasion of France, making a little headway, pushing back a couple of French units from the border and even reducing a couple of other French units.  But nothing of any real value is captured except down south where Marseilles has been taken by a German mobile army. French airpower has been helpful in negating the German attacks. On the eastern front, we have a different story. The Germans are desperate and begin making daring attacks around Kiev that start to pay off. By the end of the turn, the Germans have retaken Odessa and eliminated four Soviet units. The Soviets hustle some of their rearguard to make up a new defensive line. The Soviets attempt counterattacks but don't do much except knock Latvia out of the war. The French use an elite mobile unit to sweep a German army south towards the coastal road and then use the maneuvering room to walk into Italy and take a couple of cities that have been left undefended. The British and French also manage to take back former Italian-owned cities that were ceded to Germany after its win over the Italians. Things look grim for the Germans.

May 1941: The French get a bit cheeky and enter Italy. Renewed fighting along the eastern front.

June 1941. The Germans have lost the initiative on the west front. A series of successive attacks on Lille end up with German attrition. The French take no losses. The Germans do not have enough production to keep things going on both fronts. In the east, the Germans do manage to make some headway in the south but at the end of the turn, five Soviet armies mobilize, undoing most of the turn's success for the Axis. The only good news for the Germans is that they have managed to move a panzer and infantry unit into Italy, which is enough to convince the French that having a mobile unit running around in the German rear is probably not a good idea. They move their units behind the Rhone river and hold their positions. Can this be salvaged? I feel the answer is probably "no" for the Germans. They have one month more to try and turn the situation around and then the Soviets will be mobilizing massive forces later in the year. The French seem to have weathered the shock of the initial German invasion and are dealing well defensively.

German invasion of France gets bogged down in the poor weather.

June 1941: Germans make some gains in the south along the eastern front.

July 1941: The German invasion of France stalls out but the French are unable to hit back effectively for the most part. Fighting in the Soviet Union turns into pockets of back and forth localized battles rather than the static front of only a few months ago. The Germans launch a big offensive aimed at isolating a Russian unit in Kiev and are not quite successful. Overextended in the south, the Germans watch as the Russians take back Odessa. The Germans make a play for Lille in France, which is stubbornly held by an infantry unit. Instead of attacking directly, the German panzers and infantry attempt to surround the city but the attacks run out of steam and a German panzer army finds itself out of supplies and cut off. The French take advantage and manage to destroy the enemy unit. In the south of France, the Germans have moved up their units towards the Rhone while the French pull their elite mobile units back up north to hit back at the Germans while at the same time shifting some of their infantry down south to defend in the rough terrain near the Rhone. By the end of the turn, the Soviets have made marginal gains while the French and Germans seem to be in for a long fight.

July '41: French defense stiffens while the Soviets make some gains.
July ' 41: A closer look at the eastern front. Kiev in trouble. Odessa retaken by the Soviets.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Unconditional Surrender! The Main Event - Part 1

I've got a campaign game of Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe going right now. This is my first attempt at the game in a long time. Before this, I had played through most of the learning scenarios a few times and I thought I had a good handle on the basic rules of combat, movement, supply, etc. I tried the campaign game after that and liked it very much, even after some pretty major mistakes that dealt with the conditional events. Several months later, I have the game back on my table and I'm ready to try again. I have likely made some mistakes again with this playthrough but I'm learning each time I play and, most importantly, enjoying myself in the process. Up 'til now, I've made it one year in and I'm at September 1940 so I'll give a basic rundown of what has happened.

The game started off in September of 1939 with a variable start to the war. A 3 is rolled and the Germans have decided to go with an East First strategy. War is declared on the Soviet faction and Poland. German panzers and infantry roll east and push back the Poles. With the Polish national will on the brink of exhaustion, a good defensive roll keeps the Germans out of Krakow. It looks like the Poles might actually last the month. Some great rolls by the German player in an attack on Warsaw results in the Germans capturing the Polish capital and the Pole national will drops below zero. The country is conquered.  The German player places a Pro-Axis marker in Hungary, hoping to start drumming up allies in Eastern Europe for an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union.

Germany takes Poland by the end of September 1939.

In the Diplomatic Phase, the Germans pull a Political Failure chit and the Soviets gain a friend in Italy, placing a pro-Soviet marker on the country. The Soviets manage a Political Success on their chit pull and the Italians go over to the Soviet side. I was shocked. Did that really happen?  Did I play that right?  The Germans who had so confidently smashed the Poles to the east now had almost no units in Germany proper to face down an Italian invasion from the south.

In October, the Italians come streaming up from the south to threaten Germany. Five divisions cross the mountainous border region and the Germans throw a few divisions to keep them at bay. In the meantime,the Soviets decide to keep the Germans in Poland tied up by invading west. The Germans fall back towards Warsaw and form a defensive line. Despite the poor weather, German air support manages to hold back the Soviets.  The Germans are now facing a two-front war.  During the Diplomatic Phase, the Germans manage a Political Success and turn Hungary to a Pro-Axis ally.

Italians march north into southern Germany as Hungarians activate and rush to the rescue. (those Italians to the east should be out of Supply but oh well...)

During the winter months, the Germans manage to slowly push the Italians back south. The Hungarians have helped to reinforce the German left flank. The weather is severe for the most part, forcing units into Assaults rather than mobile attacks. Stalemate is the norm in the east against the Soviets while a grueling battle in the mountains against Italy slowly turns the tide in favor of the Germans.

By the time April finally rolls around, the Italian army is back near their border while the Soviets are getting nowhere. The weather clears up in April and the Germans finally get their full DRMs going with their planes and tanks. The Soviets get hammered and the German army nears the Soviet border but stops short of an invasion. A Diplomatic chit pull results in the Romanians siding with the Germans and their troops are placed near the Soviet border, poised for an invasion into the USSR next month.

May comes and winter's thaw has fully receded. We get mild weather in both Cold and Mild zones. The invasion of the USSR begins and the Germans eliminate three Soviet units near the border with Eastern Poland and then send two armies deep to the Soviet rear to exploit the breakthrough. The Soviets are aghast and emergency mobilize five ground units and an air unit. The Partisans and Russian Winter markers are placed on the turn track. Despite not having enough men on the eastern front due to the battle with Italy, the Germans seem to be doing well enough for now. Just when everything sort of looks like it might be in control, the German player pulls a Political Failure out of the Diplomatic cup and the Soviets get another Political Success, swinging Yugoslavia into the war on their side.

May 1940: Italians (yellow units) are slowly pushed south towards Italy while Germany tries a mini-Barbarossa.

In June 1940, the Italians are pushed right back across their own border but Poor weather in the Warm Zone basically stops them from being routed. The Germans score some major successes in Russia. They take Brest and Lvov after eliminating three Soviet units. Four entire German armies are pressing along the northern invasion corridor, ready to push east. Down south, some nice teamwork between a German panzer and infantry army and some Romanians helps to push back the Soviet forces.

Near the end of the turn, the Soviets mobilize 9 entire armies and the odds don't look so bad for the Russkies anymore. The Yugoslavs try a half-hearted invasion of Romania but it gets nowhere. Right now, the Romanians are threatening the German armies just south of the Italian border, which is their real contribution to the anti-German effort. By the end of the turn, the Germans have scored a diplomatic success in Bulgaria. Eastern Europe is now a big alphabet soup of mixed alliances.  Who knows what will happen next?  This is starting to look more like World War I than World War II.

In July, the Germans kept making inroads in Russia in both the north and south. The Germans rolled through Lithuania easily and Latvia got a Pro-Axis marker. Minsk and Odessa fell to the Germans, which were both huge losses for the Soviets. On the other hand, the Russians were able to mobilize four full divisions and it looks like they may be able to stop the bleeding soon. Despite losing Venice and Milan, the fighting in Italy seems to have wound down again thanks to the mountainous terrain in central Italy. The Yugoslavians are still trying to find a way into the war. One full army invaded Romania and beat back an enemy army. With the Germans, Hungarians, and Romanians set up defensively, the Yugoslavs can do little else. On the other hand, it is just one more spanner to throw in the works to slow down the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Five German armies and a fighter squadron are committed to the battle in southern Europe. These represent a massive amount of manpower that could otherwise be skating through the Soviet Union.

August rolls around and we have what will presumably be the last of the good weather so the Germans try to make it count. They go all in with the battle for Italy, taking Milan, Genoa, and Bologna with a last-ditch effort at Turin that pays off. The Italian will is broken and the country collapses. On the eastern front, the Germans make few gains, basically halting their forces to form a defensive line against the massive number of Soviets coming along. The Germans are also waiting for reinforcements to come from the Italian front.  The Romanians and Hungarians work together to keep the Yugoslavs held back to their own borders.  In the Diplomatic Phase, the Germans score a political success and turn Bulgaria to an ally. The country activates and it looks like the Yugoslavs are in real trouble now.  I will update as further events unfold.

End of August, 1940.

Friday, October 16, 2015

An Interview with Mark H. Walker

There is a lot of buzz out there about two newer game publishers that started up in the last year or so; Flying Pig Games and Tiny Battle Publishing, both creations of Mark H. Walker.

FPG flew onto gamers' radars late last year when Mark eschewed the P500 route for the company's first big release, Night of Man. Instead, he put the game up on Kickstarter and it quickly hit its funding and stretch goals.

Flying Pig Games has also raised eyebrows with its publication of Yaah! Magazine, which is now into its fourth issue. The magazine has taken a broad approach to gaming, featuring articles on everything from Victory Games hex and counter classics to newer miniatures games such as Rivet Wars.

Tiny Battle Publishing, owned by Mark H. Walker and headed by Mary Holland-Russell, has so far garnered positive attention by releasing lower-cost games on a wide variety of themes and topics. These range from Invaders from Dimension X! a solitaire game inspired by '50s-era B-movie UFO invasion flicks, right up to Mark's return to platoon-level '80s combat between the Americans and Soviets in his design, Sticks and Stones.

Mark was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule to answer my questions about his design philosophy, how the new company is growing in the past year, and the direction it is headed.

HaH:  First off, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?

MHW: Ha, good one. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of either. Both have done songs I like, but I’ve never purchased an album from either group. I’m more of a Plimsouls (Million Miles Away) and Garbage (I’m Only Happy When it Rains) kind of guy, but I do love me some bluegrass (Sierra Hull) too.

HaH: It has been almost a year now since you started Flying Pig Games. What would you say are the main pros and cons of being a smaller publisher in the gaming business these days?

MHW: Well, I’ve seen both sides. When I sold LNLP we had something like 60 products on the shelves. That many products equated to equal parts excitement and aggravation. I promised myself two things when I started FPG. 1. I would never return to that 7/24 ordeal, and 2. That I would never get back into the P500 loop. I’m uncomfortable owing folks for copies of Old School Tactical and Night of Man, let alone placing more games on a P500. It takes almost nothing to make a P500 page. Publishing a game is somewhat more difficult.

HaH: One of FPG’s first releases was Night of Man, which you used Kickstarter to fund. How did you find the experience of using Kickstarter to fund a game? Was it a headache or do you think this is the way forward for many game companies?  What did you learn about using it?

MHW: Kickstarter is great. It simplifies the pre-order process. We intend to use it for our squad-level Vietnam game, titled ’65. Stretch Goals are the problem. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the campaign and promise the moon to the folks who pledge. Unfortunately, the moon takes a very, very long time to draw, assemble, test, print, correct, publish and ship. If I had held both Night of Man and Old School Tactical to either the base game, or very simple stretch goals, everyone would already have them on their table. We will do ’65 differently. We might not even have stretch goals. The bonus I’ll offer gamers is that I will get it on their tables in three months.

HaH: Old School Tactical seemed to garner a lot of pre-orders very very quickly. Were you surprised by this? What is it about this kind of game that you think appeals so much to gamers?

MHW: I was very pleased, but not totally surprised. Shayne has designed a fun, yet accessible game. Of course, you can’t really tell that from the Kickstarter campaign. I think the setting and the art helped sell it. The maps are simply gorgeous.

HaH: What themes or eras appeal most to you as a designer?  Who or what would you say are your main inspirations for design?  What advice would you give an aspiring game designer these days?

MHW: Military horror and survival horror are genres/themes that I love. Movies like Dog Soldiers, books like Adam Baker’s Juggernaut, games like Level 7 or Invaders from Dimension X. I like science fiction ground combat too. Alternate history is also a lot of fun. Historical themes? Modern day ground combat, Vietnam forward. Advice? Design. Just do it. Sit at a computer, get out a pen and paper, write in the dirt. As soon as you start, you are no longer an aspiring game designer, you are a game designer, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

Second piece of advice. Play a lot of games. If you want to design a strategic WW2 game, play all the strategic WW2 games out there. Third piece of advice. Throw all your war games away. You want to become a better designer? Put those hex and counters away and broaden your horizons, play Euros, play Ameritrash, play Exploding Kittens. Then think, “How can I use this in my WW2 game?” Fourth piece of advice? Burn all your board games. Play video games, play miniatures games. Then think, “How can…” Well, you get the point.

HaH: Flying Pig Games has released the first four issues of Yaah! Magazine. Are there any plans to do more magazines?

MHW: Yes, there are plans, I just need to find the right editors. Tom Russell is magnificent. Far and away the best editor I’ve ever worked with.  I have feelers out to locate the miniature-gaming equivalent of Tom. As soon as I do, we’ll be in the miniatures gaming magazine business too.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review of Into The Pocket! from Yaah! magazine

Mark Stille designed a really nice game about Von Manstein's attempt to relieve Friedrich Paulus' 6th Army trapped near Stalingrad from 12 - 23 December of 1942.  The game is included in Yaah! issue number 3 and I really enjoyed it.

"Stalingrad. This city bears the name of the Boss!"

The unit scale is division/brigade/battalion/regiment with each hex on the map representing about 5 kilometers.  The German player controls the key German divisions attempting to open a corridor to Paulus' 6th Army.  If he can open a corridor to the hexes on the bottom right area of the map (northeast) and get a relief convoy adjacent to these hexes, he will probably gain enough VPs to win the game. Of course, it is the Soviet player's job to prevent this from happening.
Cover of Yaah! magazine Issue 3

The game rules are very simple and straightforward, which is a very good thing for a magazine game. The German player performs a movement, attack, and exploitation phase and then the Soviet player gets to go. The interesting thing here is that the order of the Soviet phase is reversed, with the exploitation phase coming first then the attack phase and ending off with movement. I thought this worked really well because the game seemed to flow really nicely for me. It really does feel like both sides are moving and reacting to each other as best as they can simultaneously.

The Germans advance as Soviet reinforcements rush on to the right edge of the map. 

Combat is decided by a six sided die roll with results from an odds-based CRTs. Players can shift the column by giving artillery support to their troops. There is also a favorable column shift for players who use an entire division for a single attack. There are also die roll modifiers given for air support and armor bonuses.

The Germans get lots of artillery and air support while the Soviets only have a small amount of each, which really influences how each player fights. The Germans can usually try low odds attacks and enhance them with column shifts and DRMs while the Soviet player is left to try and overwhelm the Germans with troop strength alone.  Each turn, however, has a weather condition that may prevent both sides from using their air support.

Terrain can provide defensive modifiers. The villages that dot the map provide a favorable defensive benefit, which can be vital for the Soviets. There are also several major rivers running the length of the map. Crossing these is tough for motorized units and quickly saps movement points. Of course, these rivers provide defensive column shifts for the defenders. There are lots of little places on the map to "make a stand" to try and halt the advancing Germans.

Movement is handled very cleanly with motorized units given the special ability to move during the movement phase and an exploitation phase if they start off free of an enemy ZOC. Units can also conduct attacks while on the move by declaring an overrun. This gives the Germans a big advantage at the start of the game since most of their units are motorized while the Soviets depend quite a bit on foot soldiers.  Road movement allows units to move through a hex for 1/2 MP on turns where the roads are marked passable. Otherwise, the icy roads offer no movement bonus.

Into the Pocket! plays nicely and looks good too.

The map is beautifully drawn and illustrated. Ania B. Ziolkowska did the art for this game and it is really nice. Clear hexes have a sort of "dirty snow" look that shows off the bleak and expansive Russian landscape. Names of villages and setup areas are very clearly marked off and easy to read. The counters are simple and functional but they look nice on the map and the colors chosen are appropriate, and help with gameplay information. I am red-green colorblind so I always appreciate it when artists use map and counter colors that are easy to distinguish from each other.

I have played the game several times now and I can say that it really is a race for the Germans. The Germans player is constantly forced to decide between speed and security. In my first game, I pushed too far too fast and had my supplies easily cut off by flanking from the Soviet mechanized divisions. In my most recent game, I slowed down too much and tried to fight every Soviet unit on the way north. Although my early attacks wiped out the Soviet opposition, the Germans faced overwhelming numbers of enemy reinforcements by Turn 7.

The German advance runs out of steam as Soviet reinforcements prove too much to push through on Turn 7.

The Soviets have their own problems. Not all of the Soviet units on the map can be moved right away. Several divisions are set up and kept in a reserve until they are released on a certain turn or when specific conditions in the game happen. The Soviet player can expect to feel frustration during the early turns as the Germans make quick headway north while several Russian divisions sit there and do nothing. It is also hard to cope with all the nice toys (artillery and air support) that the Germans possess while you are forced to think hard about where to commit your meager rocket artillery and +1 air support DRM.

My impression from these plays is that the game is well-balanced and quite fun.  Into the Pocket! Operation Winter Storm really hits that sweet spot for magazine games in that it is engaging, interesting, and easy to pick up and play after a quick read of the rules. One thing I should mention is that there are Fog of War rules that limit what each player can see in the other's stack. Although I played this game solitaire, I can see this adding quite a bit to the game as the Soviet player might never be sure where exactly the German Relief Convoy is located, resulting in a cool little shell game inside the larger wargame.

If you're interested in more information about the game, check out the design notes here.