Tag Archives: wargame

Chairman of the Bored – Axis & Allies 1941 review

Once again, Stuart “The Judge” Platt steps up to check out another game. This time a copy of the newest version of Axis & Allies landed on his gaming table, but how did his experience of this long-running franchise go down?

I would imagine most in our hobby will be aware of Axis and Allies.  This, along with Risk, is the more mainstream face of area control games, also known as the ‘dudes on a map’ genre.  A&A is a legendary war game with a somewhat fanatical fan-base who analyse each new release and modification of the rules with a passionate scrutiny normally reserved for Games Workshop’s cash cows.  Where would a beginner start? How does a rank amateur with no previous experience get into this legendary series? Well, their 2012 release claims to be a beginner version – let’s see what Wizards of the Coast hype has to say:

1941: THE WORLD IS AT WAR!

Quick and Convenient: Axis & Allies 1941 is designed to be set up and played more quickly than any previous A&A game. In essence, this is a simplified A&A experience that will introduce players to the A&A mechanics and play style. Play time runs between 1.5 to 2 hours.

Set up was pretty easy – once you identify the minimal differences between the miniature boats that are provided for each of the 5 factions (US, UK, Russia, China and Germany are the players in this scene) the board is laid out and ready to go.

Game flow consist of players committing resources to buy troops which will arrive at the end of that turn, then moving every unit on the board.  Firstly those that are fighting leading to a whirlwind of dice and retreat or destruction, then your models who are not fighting will move. Next, reinforcements are added and you hand over to the next country.

Sounds simple enough, and it is – but it’s also very, very, very slow and tedious.

As you have a relatively limited amount of troops and resources, every move you make is vitally important.  Also, because of the irregularities of dice, you feel compelled to over-commit to each combat to make sure you come out on top.  So you’re pretty much doing ONE important thing each turn, and moving the rest of your troops round to defend and you’re finished.  For a very long time.

Insert joke involving wordplay regarding board / bored here.

As everyone else plans out their turn, executes and rolls numerous dice in a tedious, outmoded and luck heavy combat system, you sit and watch and wait and because the board can change so much between one turn to another, any sense of planning your next move is pointless.

In our playtests, people left the room between turns to check on other games, make a drink and read the unabridged Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

I gained NO pleasure from this gaming experience whatsoever.  I wanted to feel like I was playing with toy soldiers within a framework of rules feel fast, fun and fair.  Instead A&A is an antiquated, rigid, boring mess of a system that doesn’t allow fun to come to the surface.

So what’s wrong? Well, gaming has moved on in the last 30 years and no one appears to have told A&A.  The combat system is awkward, fiddly, time consuming and ultimately only marginally better than flipping a coin.  Also, the current trend for the micro-turn appears to have spoiled us.  Modern games (both in the Euro and Ameritrash styles) now lean towards shorter turns and a faster pace.  Axis and Allies is such a dinosaur in this respect.  It neither fulfils a quick, fast, war gaming fix (something that Memoir ’44, for example, does much better) or is deep or strategic enough to satisfy the heavier war gamer crowd.  It just doesn’t work.

Let me help you out, WOTC, and rewrite your hype for you.

1941: THE WORLD AT SNORE!

Slow and Impotent: Axis & Allies 1941 is badly designed to be set up and played more slowly than any game ever.  In essence, this is a tedious A&A experience that will introduce players to the A&A mechanics and play style. Play time runs between forever and the end of existence itself (which may come as a relief.)

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The original Axis & Allies was designed by Larry Harris back in 1981, but the version Stuart looked at was released in 2012 by WOTC. If you’re feeling somewhat masochistic,  Gameslore have it in stock for a shade over £20.

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Love Machine – Neuroshima Hex review

I finally got my hands on a copy of Neuroshima Hex a few weeks ago and was pretty shocked to discover that it was originally released way back in 2006. Based on the long running Polish RPG Neuroshima, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where technology has run amuck leaving humanity trying to live from day to day while avoiding the murderous machines. Think of it a bit like Terminator mixed in with Mad Max and you’ll get the picture.

Neuroshima Hex is a war game abstracted into the extreme where up to four factions strive to defend their HQ for as long as possible while still being as aggressive as possible. The different armies each have their own abilities and skills, The Outpost being the last of the good guys, attempting to keep humanity going through guerrilla attacks. The Hegemony are their flipside, valuing strength and throwing themselves into close combat as they struggle for power. Moloch, the big bad of the piece, is the machine based army responsible for wiping out most of humanity and looking to finish the job, while Borgo is the leader of their mutant offspring that wants to grab power for itself.

Each player begins with a stack of hexagonal tiles, taking their HQ piece and placing it on the board which is made up of nineteen hexes. Around the outside of the board numbers count down from 20, representing the “health” of your base – should this hit zero, you’re out. At the start of each turn, a player draws three tiles from their stack and must immediately discard one. You may then play them or hold on to them for a future turn, but the most you’ll ever have available to you is two per turn.

There are two different overall types of tile – Units and Actions. Units are the ones that will fight on your behalf. All you need to do is place them on the board and wait… Looking through the tiles in your army, you’ll notice that there’s a fair few symbols to get your head around but don’t fear; you’ll understand them pretty quickly. Attacking will either be melee (signified by a short, stumpy triangle) or ranged (a much longer, thinner one). If you see a net on your tile, it immediately stops any tile the net is pointing to from doing anything. A cross means that your unit has toughness and can take more than the usual one hit. There are even some tiles that bestow boosts to adjacent units, but there’s one thing you really need to pay attention to: the all-important Initiative number.

Every unit that’s able to attack has an Initiative rating and once the fighting starts you’ll see how important it is to consider them. Working from the highest number downwards, all units will attack at the same time – all 3s could go first, then 2s and so on until you get to the bases which are ranked at 0. After each Initiative phase, any units that are destroyed are removed from the board immediately – see why you have to pay attention now? A poor placement could mean that your well prepared plan falls apart in no time at all…

The Actions are much simpler to get your head around, being that they’re one off events that you trigger by discarding the tile. Some are unique, but most of the time you’ll see actions that allow you to move units, push them back or – most important of all – start battles. Throwing one of those into the mix will set off the chain of events that will see countless tiles on the board getting removed. You can also start a battle by filling the board up, so don’t get too attached to any units as it’ll be rare that they’ll actually last more than a few turns!

Artistic! (Photo by blakstar from BGG)

Depending on how many people you play with, Neuroshima Hex can feel like totally different games. With two it’s filled with tense, almost chess-like decisions and small moves; everything feels significant and you’re constantly looking for a chink in your opponent’s armour. Three and four player games are much more chaotic and are often joyously ridiculous – when you see that battle tile get flipped and all of a sudden fourteen tiles immediately disappear from the board, you’ll break down into fits of laughter more often than not.

This latest edition has space on the board for the placement of more tiles (perfect if you’re looking to introduce a fifth or even sixth player into the mix – there are expansions that allow for this) and rules for setting up scenarios. There’s a vibrant community online who create whole new groups and set-ups for other players to experience, so be sure to check them out. The game is nicely produced – the only minor downside is that I’d say the art on the tiles is functional rather than gorgeous, but in all honesty you’ll be concentrating on the icons more than anything else. Every faction also gets its own player board detailing exactly what tiles they’ll be getting which is very useful indeed.

Despite being really easy to get into, I have a feeling that Neuroshima Hex isn’t a game for everybody. When there are a lot of tiles in play it can become something of a brain burner as you attempt to work out exactly what Initiative level each unit is at and in what order things will happen on the board. You really need to think ahead as much as you can, reacting to what the other players are up to and thinking as tactically as possible, so if you enjoy that kind of game experience I’d thoroughly recommend it. Just don’t sit around the table to this one if you know the kind of people who get riled when their long-planned strategy doesn’t pay off! You may well see a table get flipped…

Neuroshima Hex was designed by Michal Oracz and works with between two and four players. The English language version is published by Z-Man Games while Portal handle the original Polish version. Games will take a maximum of an hour (and are way shorter with only two players). If you fancy a copy, get on over to Gameslore where you can pick one up for £32.99.

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Be Aggressive – Total Strategy-Z review

When I was a kid in secondary school, there was really only one game available: Chess. On rainy days, you could read some comics, draw or play Chess… and I was terrible at it. Still am, in fact. My worst moment was when I was somehow convinced to attend a tournament to make up numbers and was destroyed by a six year old prodigy. Aside from the occasional foray into iOS play (which I’ve long since abandoned) I’ve barely played it since.

However, there’s one thing I really like about the game and that’s its relative simplicity. Each player has a set amount of pieces, they know how they move, and from there you’ve got an almost infinite amount of options – it’s got a very pure feeling. That’s a very hard thing to get right. It’s like the Three Bears and their porridge. Too simple or too complex and it’s just not as much fun…

Total Strategy-Z is a new release that aims to hit that spot and – for the most part – does pretty well. The designer has tried to make a game that balances strategy with simple play mechanics and… well, it’s not a bad little game. It’s not going to change the world, but it’s certainly a fine way to pass your time. Here’s how it works.

Strictly for two players, Total Strategy-Z sees them take the roles of generals in charge of an army with one aim – to destroy the opposition’s leader. Each army consists of different units, all of which have (according to the rules) “their own strengths and weaknesses”. In reality, this boils down to just three attributes: Attack, Defence and Movement. Each turn, a player must move one of their units around the hex board then (if they end up adjacent to an enemy) can choose to attack.

The twelve different units found in the game. They are so TINY my camera couldn’t focus on them properly.

The way combat is resolved is probably the most interesting part of the game. Everything centres around The Pot, a noble vessel that to the untrained eye may look suspiciously like an eggcup. The players will place beads into the pot determined by their Attack and Defence ratings, then the aggressor closes their eyes and draws out a single bead. If it’s their colour, the defending unit is destroyed and removed from the board. If not, the defender has successfully staved off the attack and lives to fight another day. Sadly, there are no rules in the game for multi-unit fighting – everything is strictly one on one, meaning that you’re getting a slightly less battlefield-orientated experience than you may expect.

It’s a very simple system and one that I think is fun, but it does kind of go against the whole concept that the game is based on strategy. You could be the best commander on earth but still manage to lose every single battle by drawing poorly, and I feel that this will totally infuriate people who demand that any element of luck is factored out of their games. As someone who rather enjoys a bit of chaos in their play, I don’t mind it; after all, even a giant can be brought down with a single lucky shot. Defence can be bolstered by retreating back to marked Fortress areas on the board, but don’t rely on them – eventually you’ll be wiped out by having your opposition picking your units off one by one.

Here’s what’s in the box. Like I said… “functional”.

Next up, this ain’t the prettiest girl at the dance. The whole presentation can probably be best described as “functional”. Unit tokens are marked with simple icons, and the playing area is pretty much a field of green hexes. Players are given tables to help them remember the attributes, but they’re printed on standard paper. Players each receive five tokens for the combat pot but could at some point require six (should a Pikeman hole up in a Fortress, for example). Basically, if you’re looking for incredible production values, this isn’t the game for you.

However, if you’re happy to play a simple little wargame, Total Strategy-Z could well tick enough boxes for you. It’s an entry-level affair, one that would be ideal for people who’ve never played a wargame before but fancy giving them a try at an affordable price. While I don’t believe it’ll tax those who enjoy a more hardcore experience for too long, it’s an entertaining enough way to scratch the itch. Oh, and it’s way more fun pretending an elephant is rampaging through a battlefield than trying to imagine a castle that moves around…

Total Strategy-Z is produced by Total Strategy Games and can be bought directly from their site for £20.

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Pull Shapes: Fighting Formations review

Matt takes on something a bit more hardcore than Dixit for the glory of Little Metal Dog.

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The designer of the acclaimed Combat Commander series must have got sick and tired of being asked where all the tanks were in that game, so often did questions or criticisms along that line pop up on gaming forums. But instead of doing what the rest of us would have done, get angry and type capitalised abuse at his tormentors, Chad Jensen went and designed another tactical-level rules framework. A very different tactical-level framework. Which, incidentally, features tanks. It’s called Fighting Formations and the first iteration in the series, detailing the exploits of the Grossdeutschland Infantry Division on the Eastern front sold out like hot cakes. It’s about to be reprinted and publishers GMT sent me a copy to see what I’d make of it.

At its heart, Fighting Formations clearly builds on a lot of tried and tested tactical war gaming concepts that have been used and gradually refined over decades. Movement costs that vary by terrain, return and opportunity fire, the simulation of “assets” such as artillery through a hand of cards, different attack and defensive values for armour piercing and high-explosive fire, degradation of the standard platoon-level units into squads. If you’re a war gamer of any stripe you’ll have seen all this sorts of stuff before, although not all in the same place, and it’s implemented well here and explained clearly in the daunting but ultimately entirely digestible rulebook. But aside from doing a great job of amalgamating a disparate bunch of design evolutions into one package, what distinguishes the game from its peers are two very innovative mechanics dealing with command and combat.

The first is the command matrix, a mechanic which is far harder to explain on paper than it is to use in practice. This is wedded to two other clever mechanics: command placement and the initiative track. The initiative track see-saws between values of 1-20 for each of the two players: if it’s at any number on your side of the track, you’re the active player. At the start of each turn, ten markers are randomly distributed amongst the ten boxes on the command matrix, and each box has a value from one to ten and an associated order type such as “assault” or “move” or “sniper”. If you’re the active player you remove a marker from it’s box, move the initiative pawn that many spaces down the track toward your opponent and then pay some more initiative to activate some units and issue either the command you just took a marker for, or anything cheaper on the matrix. What you pay depends on whether they’re in command – at any point you can place one of your limited pool of command markers onto the map, and units in the command radius cost nothing extra to activate. One turn later these markers flip over and then anything in command radius costs one, then on the following turn it goes back into your supply. Units out of command cost two. So you may end up moving the initiative marker more spaces. If it’s still on your side of the track, you repeat until it’s not, otherwise your opponent gets to go. And when all the markers on the matrix are gone, the turn ends and you start over.

What the hell is happening here?

I don’t normally like giving detailed rules explanations but here it’s necessary so you can appreciate how this works, how unusual it is and most of all so that I can explain how clever it is. See, it offers the flexibility to allow each player to have totally different command allowances depending on side and scenario. The order matrix has different values for the two sides: a “2” value order is Fire for the Germans, or Move for the Soviets – so the Soviets generally pay less initiative to move, but more to fire and vice-versa, and remember that there are ten spaces on that track, six of which are in different positions on each side, so this translates into a significantly variable experience across the two players. This simply but effectively models in quite fine detail the different command and control doctrines between the two armies. Most of the scenarios also bake in further details by giving one side more command control markers than the other and by giving them a different command radius. It’s very simple. And it works to a very high level of detail. But it’s also very abstract, which seems odd when many other parts of the system clearly strive to be highly realistic. Weirdly I find this abstraction marginally more jarring than, say, the even more abstract concept of “command points” found in the Conflict of Heroes games. Exactly why this is, I can’t say, and I can’t say largely because I don’t care: I’m far more interested in how the game plays than how well it works as a simulation. But it’s the sort of thing that bothers a certain sort of historical gamer so I feel compelled to mention it, just in case.

And in gameplay terms the order matrix certainly delivers the goods. Those three relatively simple mechanics interconnect in any number of mind-boggling ways when you try and plan your turn. If you dump command markers on the map and move, your units may not be in command radius next turn, unless you save one. But if you execute orders without command markers, you’ll pay a huge initiative cost. And then, do you pull out the big stops and activate half your units before handing control to your opponent, or take baby steps and try and retain the initiative for multiple orders of your own? When you pick orders, do you do so on the basis of what you need to do, or do you try and play both sides of the matrix and keep one eye on denying cheap, useful orders to your opponent, resulting in less effective moves for yourself but huge initiative expense for the enemy? There are no easy answers, and tactically speaking it’s an excruciating delight.

The other aspect which offers significant innovation is the combat system. It uses neither the traditional combat resolution table or attack totals versus defence totals but a bizarre amalgamation of both, with knobs on. For artillery and close assaults it uses something that looks a lot like a combat resolution table. For normal fire attacks you start off with two ten-sided dice, but rather than modifying the total according to factors such as range and facing, you modify the dice you roll: up to a pair of d12’s or d20’s or down to d8’s or d6’s. Then, instead of having things like terrain and elevation affect the target’s defense these contribute to a “hindrance” factor and if either dice value drops below this, the shot misses. If it’s an opportunity fire attack and either dice drops below the “rate of fire” factor of the firing unit, it can no longer issue opportunity fire during this order. Finally, if it hits, you add your dice together and add the unit’s attack power to compare against 2d10 plus the target defense value. It’s a fiddly, procedural system which I would be happy to use if I could see some sort of interest or benefit over traditional systems, but unlike the order matrix, I can’t see what it adds either in terms of realism or game play over just rolling dice, adding defensive and offensive factors, and comparing the totals. Perhaps I can’t see what the designers intentions were because I don’t have much background in simulation-heavy war games, but I just don’t see the point in these extra swings and roundabouts.

*cries*

It has to be said that swings and roundabouts are very much the order of the day here. The order matrix is a compelling mechanic, but it presents players with so many options to consider that it slows down the pace of the game considerably. The counters are crowded with information and, irritatingly, have an “inactive” and “active” side with different values, and you often need to know what’s on the “active” side in order to decide what order you’re going to pick, a phase of the game when all your counters will be on the “inactive” side, hiding that information. The resolution of opportunity fire as an interrupt slows the game down as well, and as we’ve discussed the combat mechanic is also somewhat awkward, especially when you have to start consulting tables. A lot of rulebook-thumbing will occur, a lot of markers will be got out of the box, placed and then returned later, a lot of counters will be flipped and a lot of lines of sight checked with a ruler. Again, all of this stuff will be familiar to a certain type of war gamer, and a lot of it is symptomatic of tactical and mechanical depth, but there just seems to be an immense disconnect between what the game is trying to simulate – fast paced, intense firefights – and the actuality of resolution. Not to mention what it does to the play time. For even the smallest scenarios you’re looking at 2-3 hours, with the bigger ones allegedly (I haven’t tried one) clocking in at three times that.

And this is an important thing to be aware of because you need to exercise a little caution in picking a scenario. The playbook contains the obligatory but very interesting historical background but it does something particularly interesting, which is to tell the reader where in the combat history of the unit the various scenarios occurred. This is a great little addition if you have even the vaguest interest in the history, but it does mean that the scenarios are presented in chronological order rather than the more usual order of complexity, which may prove a nasty gotcha for new players. The playbook itself is excellent, stuffed with optional rules for added tension and realism should you want them, and long, detailed and highly readable examples of play to make sure you understand the system.

Ultimately though, however clever the order matrix, however laborious the actuality of playing through the combat system, however well written the play book, what made this game stand out for me was the manner in which it straddled the mechanical and maneuver aspects of play to become something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Most games fall down one side or other of this particular divide. European-style games are all about leveraging the mechanics to give the players interesting strategic and tactical decisions to make. Historically, war games have paradoxically tended to employ often quite complex rules in an effort to put the focus squarely on maneuver and position. But in Fighting Formations successful play manages to tax both at once: you’ll need to work over some optimisation-style decisions to get the order matrix to work for you while at the same time making best use of the units and terrain at your disposal to win the scenario. And what’s utterly brilliant about this is that one manages to influence the other whilst both remain mechanically separate entities that you can consider in isolation.

To be honest, Fighting Formations is a game that I admire, rather than enjoy. It’s particular brand of slow-paced, methodical, demanding play isn’t very well suited to someone like me who has poor impulse control and the attention span of a gnat. Trying to shoe-horn it’s considerable play time into my hectic lifestyle doesn’t help. But I do admire it, and indeed it makes we wish that I did have the patience for it, and it’s a testament to the underlying quality of the design that it’s the first of the slow-and-steady war game brigade I’ve tried that’s made me feel that way.

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Matt Thrower is officially just as creative as the entire history of Western civilization. Follow him on Twitter and be delighted by his musings: @mattthr

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