Black Fleet

 

black fleet

Black Fleet addresses the fundamental underlying issue that plagues the overwhelming majority of trade and commerce boardgames: the inability to attack other players and keep their trade goods from reaching market by violent means.

Too often do yokels carrying their goods to market go unmolested by bandits and brigands while castles, churches and industry spring up around them.  Well no more!  Ready the cannons and drop the mainsail, we’re going to be taking those abstract units of commerce by force!

First of all, this game is beautiful and its components are a joy.  Merchant ships and pirate ships are functionally cast in high detailed molds that allow them to carry the resources from port to port, in-game currency is made up of little gold and silver doubloon tokens and the whole thing is stored neatly in a skull & crossbones tray.

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Yarrrr!

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This guy actually painted his minis, and they look great!

Gameplay is quick and very fluid; each player has movement cards which when played determine the number of spaces he or she can move their merchant ship, their pirate ship and one of two navy ships.  The Merchant ships move trade goods from port to port, pirate ships attempt to steal trade goods and bury them, and the two neutral navy ships move about sinking pirate ships.  Each of these actions earns the player money with which they buy various player-specific upgrades that are randomly selected at the start of the game.

It’s great, it’s bloody, it’s violent, it’s exciting.  If you’re tired of your ships in Castles of Burgundy not letting you raid the commerce of other barons or your knights in Catan unable to perform chevauchees through the countryside, Black Fleet is the Trade and Commerce game for you!

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Shadowrun: Crossfire – Better than Bad. It’s Good.

I’m not keen on deck-building games nor am I a big fan of co-operative games.  The former is likely because I’m never familiar enough with the cards and the game’s rules to formulate any actual strategy against the other more experienced players in the card race while the latter comes from the feeling I get from most games that we’re just sitting around, going through the motions and waiting to lose.  So that said, I’m not sure why I’ve been enjoying Shadowrun: Crossfire so much.  I mean, I’m not even a Shadowrun fan!  I have some theories, though…

In some ways, I’d say Shadowrun: Crossfire is like a deck-building Sentinels of the Multiverse: players with their little decks of cards are fighting “obstacles” while adding cards to their decks as they go. While I loved Sentinels of the Multiverse, that love comes more from a combination of the art and story blurbs on the cards than from the actual game play.  Crossfire is not as pretty as Sentinels, as there are necessarily no unique character decks, but the play goes a bit smoother.  This is especially true for new players, as there aren’t all sorts of wacky combos and special abilities one needs to wrap their brain around to play effectively.  Gameplay and strategy are fairly straightforward for everyone playing, and for that alone, I’m willing to invest a bit more time in this than a lot of other games.

So the game works basically like this: there are four colors of damage; each “class” gets 4 plain cards of their primary color and one each of the other three at the start in their “deck” – additional cards with different damage and play abilities are purchased; each player is being attacked by one or more opponents that are defeated by playing cards that match the symbols on their damage tracks.  The team “wins” by completing the mission stages, with each stage growing progressively more difficult in terms of opponents and the situation gradually getting worse the longer it takes to defeat them.  A team can fail the mission but “abort” successfully for a smaller payoff, which brings me to the next part of Shadowrun: Crossfire.

Crossfire is meant to be played as GMless hack & slash RPG.  The book even recommends doing ‘downtime’ sessions.  Completing missions accumulates “Karma Points”, which can be used to buy character perks for the next time you play.  Failing the mission but successfully “aborting” (having at least one character get knocked to “critical”, but avoiding a TPK for at least one subsequent round) gives you some KP, but significantly less than if you win.  They must want you to be in it for the long haul because these character perks are stickers you’re meant to stick to your character sheets.  The game includes some truly nutso high level missions that the book recommends for parties with 70+ KP.

The guy who bought the copy and I went through two separate playthrus of ‘doing it wrong’ with different groups of people (first fighting opponents who were too easy and some other first time mistakes, and the next time fighting opponents who were way harder than the game actually called for), but maybe have the rules down now between the two of us and are still willing to give the game more playtime.

Unlike the Lovecraft games, which people go into all “HURHUR! LOST ALREADY!” as they’re setting up the board, or the beautiful but absolutely awful Mysterium that’s all the rage, in which hours are spent determining minute modifiers on the game’s final all-or-nothing round, there’s a sense that one CAN win or at least hurt things before dying, and the deck-building/card-buying aspect feeds into the reward psychology: I beat a monster, I get to buy a neat thing I’ll use to beat other monsters.  Table discussion was “I can kill this thing”, “I can’t kill this thing, but I can hurt it”, “I can hurt the thing that’s attacking you”, “If everybody hurts the thing in front of him, we can kill it, so he won’t die. Then he can kill this other thing”, “Killing this will get him enough money to buy that, and he can use it next turn to kill something else”, etc. etc.

While it was co-operative, each player was rewarded in a way that was unique to them by way of buying equipment.  There was no built in impetus to backstab or betray like in so many BS co-op games that either have individual scoring (Castle Panic) or individual win conditions (Dead of Winter).  Though the “abort” criteria makes the most sense if playing Crossfire as an ongoing group game, it at least keeps Crossfire, while very difficult, from being one of those games where everyone expects to lose from the moment the lid comes off the box.  There’s enough flexibility in the mission designs that a group could actually come up with several of their own scenarios to keep this game fresh and interesting for some time, were they dedicated Shadowrun fans actually interested in playing this as a campaign.

The game is not without its issues and is certainly not for everyone, but I really enjoyed Crossfire a lot more than I expected to and would be far more excited to play this again than another round of Resistance, Saboteur or (bleh!) Fluxx.

Bull Run Pt. 2

The first part of our playthrough of Avalon Hill’s Bull Run can be found here.

My dad & my first play through of Bull Run is turning into a big flanking battle: we’re each delivering a strong punch from our right as our lefts collapse.  The question is who will deliver the knockout blow first?

We’ve made it into early afternoon and don’t anticipate the battle reaching evening.  Bee and Bartow’s brigades were surrounded and routed from hillock just northeast of New Market, but they managed to slow the Union advance just enough to allow a number of highly beneficial pieces to fall in place for the Rebs.  EK Smith arrived by train in time to ensure that my camp in Manassas won’t be a gimme.  Stuart along with some of Smith’s rear-guard regiments have been able to pick off the union men who got too far ahead of their column.  Meanwhile, Longstreet and “Rolling Thunder”(as he will be known hereafter in this alternate universe) Jackson have been making a coordinated push through the woods towards Centerville as Beauregard has ridden out with Ewell to attack the Union HQ from the East.

Early game, Command Path rules did not seem like a huge deal, especially when regiments were being automatically activated by proximity to enemy units.  Mid game, this turned into a real game changer.  With Confederate troops suddenly eliminated from Henry Hill to Flat Run, the Union commanders suddenly found themselves at a loss for what to do.  McDowell had ridden out back across the river down Warrenton Pike to shepherd a desperately needed relief brigade towards Centerville that had four brigades bearing down on it, leaving the bulk of the Union Army without orders.  McDowell literally spent two hours riding back and forth while three and a half divisions of Union troops sat with virtually nothing between them and Manassas!

My own issues with Command Path seem rather minor in comparison.  With both Jo Johnston and Pete Beauregard respectively leading the charge and flank through the woods south of Centerville, my batteries overlooking Blackburn’s and McLean’s Fords, as well as the infantry guarding the Union Mills Ford, have been left without orders.

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“First Bull Run July 21 am” by Hal Jespersen, cwmaps.com CC by 3.0 via Commons

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Troop movements from morning until early afternoon.  Crosses where Confederate Brigades have been routed.  (original image from BGG).

My dad thinks I’ve won.  I think he may still have a chance to dislodge Smith if plays a hurry-up offence.  I’ve gone for an all or nothing gambit, as there’s no way I can hold that little church (red starred hex, lower portion of 2nd map board from left) for another 10 or so turns.  I’m hoping I have enough numbers I can overcome even the relief forces reaching Centerville, but a series of bad rolls could stall me out.  We’re already talking about setting up Malta next time we get together, so this game will hinge on the next few turns around Centerville I’m guessing.

One last note, It turns out that there’s very little “rallying” going on.  It could just be the way we’ve been playing, but by noon, all of my commanders were too busy driving towards the enemy or too busy being dead/captured/fleeing for their lives to spend a turn rallying a regiment.  The great mid-day stall-out of the Union advance gave my dad a chance to pull a few guys from the Rally-box, but the overwhelming majority of guys who go there are probably gone for good.

Fortress Europa Pt 5

Tonight may be the penultimate session of Fortress Europa.  My dad and I got together last weekend and played while football was on.

We’ve fought to something of a stalemate, but considering this is WWII, that is not a good thing for the Allies.  Like in my last update, I’m several months behind the historical Allied progress.  I’ve finally made it to the Siegfried line, but even weak units are nearly invincible when in a fortress in the mountains and across a river.  It’s do or die time, so I’m forced to make repeated attacks at unfavorable odds.  My dad has opted to sacrifice his armored reinforcements for the rest of the game to take advantage of the Panzer Reserve rule; by withdrawing a little over half a dozen units in mid-fall and forfeiting any tank reinforcements for the rest of the game, on the first December turn, lots of the SS Panzer units I had killed earlier are rebuilt and redeployed.  Even with the massive reinforcements, my dad couldn’t get decent enough odds to launch a ‘Battle of the Bulge’ counterattack.  Which means there are tons of heavy tanks in impregnable fortifications rather than out as sitting ducks in the woods between the Meuse and Moselle.  “Hitler decides against launching a massive Panzer offensive through a dense forest?  Brilliant!”

Imagine how hard it would've been for us to fight through all of those red lines if they hadn't run out of gas in the forests west of the Rhine!

Imagine how hard it would’ve been for us to fight through all of those red lines if they hadn’t run out of gas in the middle of a forest west of the Rhine!

The Brits had been stalling out for some time in their own theatre, and it got to the point where I needed to just land a bunch of Americans in the north to get the job done.  I’ve managed to push through the Low Countries now and my only real chance at winning is by maneuvering around the Germans’ fortified lines and causing a systematic collapse.  My dad has refused his northern flank, but if I can get decent enough weather to fly some ground support missions, I might be able to break through.

Now that we’re reaching the end, I can see and account for all of the mistakes I’ve made.

Partisans – Even though they’re a VERY minor factor, not using my French partisans could’ve swung the game in my dad’s favor.  The Partisans are not actually a combat unit, but can be placed out at the beginning of a turn to disrupt rail movement through one hex so long as they’re not in an enemy zone of control or within so many hexes of an SS unit.

Consolidation – I spent too much time consolidating my forces and securing Brittany.  Even though my delays meant that the German forces in other districts were unable to respond, meaning I could get overwhelming numbers into France against those defenses, it cost me time that would’ve been better spent pushing forward.  The troops I sent into southern France and Italy would’ve been better in the north and central theatres and I should’ve left those areas for the Free French in Africa to handle.

Paratroopers – Most of my paradrops were used to harry German HQs.  I would drop a few elite units behind German lines, get 6-1 odds on OB West or whomever, crush it, and then be overrun by Germans who were making their slow withdraw to the Rhine.  I probably should’ve used them to get better odds against forces on the wrong side of rivers.  The few places where a strategic paradrop would’ve been helpful, either bad weather or bad timing prevented me from making the most of it.

One of the most striking parts of playing Fortress Europa is how different the gameplay is for each player.  My turns as the Allies would be 10-20+ minutes agonizing over my forces, shuffling around trying to get decent odds, tallying the strength points of all the units involved and writing them down so I wouldn’t have to recount all of my pieces for each fight and refigure the odds (because I just can’t keep track of the values of 50 counters and odds for 5-10 attacks in my head).  I’d roll through my attacks, retreat units, and do it all over again (but with reduced movement allowance and no air support) for the second impulse.  Conversely, as the Germans, my dad watches and says “Okay” when the units retreat or “Shit” when they die, then on his turn spends four or five minutes to moves the guys on the frontlines back a few hexes, moves reinforcements from the Homeland, repositions his HQs, and at most makes one attack on an Allied division that somehow got isolated at half-strength in a hex by itself.  He does enjoy playing as the Germans because he’s really good at ‘fighting retreats’, but I can’t help but feel strange that my turns have made up 3/4s of the game time.  On the plus side, it’s given him time to read the Summer 1947 Issue of Planet Stories that I’m loaning him while he takes his turns.

I’ll admit that I can’t recommend Fortress Europa as strongly as some of the other games we’ve played.  Though at a glance, it looks similar to Bar-Lev, the latter feels much more fast paced, and the tit-for-tat combat in which both combatants roll their odds at each engagement is more enjoyable than the Attacker-only combat table rolled on a D6.  There’s way more luck involve in an attack because of the Combat Results table since getting favorable odds is difficult without use of airplanes and even then can result in the awful “Defender Retreat”, and no strategy can make up for consistently rolling bad (unlike a game like Civil War).  It has a degree of nostalgia to it, and it IS neat that it includes division, battalion and platoon counters that correspond to their historical counterparts (there is even a fun but useless 150th SS Panzer Brigade 1 strength Panzer unit that can ignore American ZOC or the Voltron-like British 79th Armoured with combat engineering abilities), but there are probably better WWII games out there.

Fortress Europa pt 3

The Allied push into France may be starting to slow.  I tried to make the most of my early break-outs in Brittany, but now that the shock and awe has passed, the Nazis are beginning to re-trench behind rivers and in numbers that can’t quite so easily deal with.  Odds in Fortress Europa heavily favor the defender, so once the Nazis are able to stack 3 deep in hexes behind a river, it usually takes all of your available air-power (better hope that the weather is nice) to displace them.  This is especially a problem where adjacent zones of control will force you to attack multiple piles, splitting your attack power, at unfavorable odds.  So, I’m surprised that my dad surrendered the Seine.  Still, he’s managed to form an impressive line to slow me down, and, as he pointed out, there’s a lot of ground between Paris and the Rhine he has to work with.

While the Brits keep slowly pushing east across the north of France, the Americans have struck deep into the heartlands; my toughest armored units cut all the way south to the Mediterranean and are coming back up the Rhone/Saone valley.  Hopefully, those guys will be able to disrupt the south flank of the German line.  I’m probably going to just leave a token force behind to keep the Italians from going anywhere.  There’s no point in wasting time on Genoa or Torino, since even though Innsbruck is on the map, you can’t cut through the combat results table* to get to it.  It’s actually a pretty annoying design oversight, as it forces allied troops through funnels and renders nearly ¼ of the map useless.  I’d much prefer to be able to modify my strategy and sneak some elite mountaineer units across the Alps.  I guess I could send an HQ into that little nook and paradrop a couple divisions on the other side of Switzerland, but I don’t know if it would be worth it.

So far, I think the most obnoxious element of the game is the “Defender Retreat” result on the combat table.  In theory, it is a preferable result (achieved by a better roll) than an Exchange (attacker and defender each lose one strength step, defender retreats) or Exchange 2 (attacker loses two strength steps, defender loses one and retreats), but in practice is the “Nazis get away free card”.  Several times, I would have gladly knocked two infantry divisions down to half-strength to knock an SS Panzer division to half strength or to eliminate a fleeing Wehrmacht.  Though the retreat forces the enemy to cede ground, it allows the Nazis to gradually retrench behind advantageous terrain.  The worst thing that can happen is when your once-per-month carpet bombing mission (add +2 to attack roll on one attack at no better than 2-1 odds) yields a “Defender Retreat” result.

Honestly, though, most of the mechanical issues I have (such as ZOC extending across rivers, forcing ‘soak-off’** attack troops to retreat even when stacked with units who “win” their attack, or DR combat results having virtually no downside for the Nazis) are balancing elements to help the German player, who needs all the help he can get.  Early game play is the most interesting, as the Allies have the most options as to where they can invade and what strategy they can pursue.  Midgame ends up being kind of samey, since the Germans can really only pursue the one strategy of forming a line between Normandy/the Low Countries and Switzerland and the Allies don’t have the options to do anything but a frontal assault against said line.  The strategy of trying to land paratroopers in Austria from northern Italy is akin to trying to glitch through a wall.  But it’s interesting, so maybe I’ll mix things up and try it.

Overall, it’s a much quicker paced game than some of the others we’ve played recently, but I think I need to start writing my troop strengths down on scratch paper.  I’ll be having to count upwards of 20 chits in a turn in 3-4 separate engagements to figure odds, and by the time I get around to resolving battles, I’ve forgotten the troop strengths and have to count them each again.  I’m embarrassingly bad at head-math.  Not that I don’t know the math, but while I’m trying to figure out odds in my head for one battle, I’m trying to remember how many guys I have in all of my other piles at the same time.  A part of me almost wants to come up with little cover-counters so you don’t have to recount piles every time.  Lord knows the biggest downside of these games is picking up the pieces every time to count and then accidentally bumping other piles and the next thing you know you have no idea where Army Group West was before you started knocking things over.

*As you can see, this on-map inset takes up an area roughly covering Milan to Venice and the roadways Verona to Innsbruck.pic1041823

**If a stack is in two enemy stacks’ ZOC, at least one other unit must make a screening attack against one enemy stack to attack the other enemy stack.

Civil War pt8 – The South Wins! (Sort of)

I won.  I can’t believe I did it, but somehow I won.

No, I did not win the Civil War as the South; in fact the South lost the war quite badly.*  But the requirements for the North to win the game are brutally stringent to compensate for their overwhelming superiority in numbers, naval capabilities, and near infinite supply and rail capacity.

The final point different at the end of turn 19 was 71; the Union needs 75 more Victory points than the South by the end of the game to get a marginal Union Victory.**  And yes, in the end, all of those points around the margins DID make a huge difference.

Jackson’s late war raids into Tennessee didn’t net any permanent point changes, but kept the bums Grant left in charge from taking any of the Deep South cities that would’ve been freebies.  He did keep my dad from being able to double-score Alabama by taking back Decatur before Rosecrans took Montgomery, which was a huge deal.  Before the end, he was wiped out, as was AS Johnston, both taken as POWs and with the latter the disgrace of losing not one but two whole armies to the Union foe.

The final battles in the east were a bloody mess.  Grant, with a smaller force, attempted to lure Lee away from Richmond, all while wreaking havoc on my already scant supplies, but Lee had to stand against Sherman, who was leading the Army of the Potomac.  Luckily, late war, I had managed to keep the odds against Sherman just narrow enough and was fielding great generals to my max modifier limit so that every attack resulted in a Union defeat. ***

The wildest part is that I can say Earl Van Dorn (historically an inept fool who botched things in my home state pretty badly until he was murdered by a jealous husband) actually won the game for me.  In the last two turns, I managed to eke out a few extra points, with Hindman marching out from the fortress I’d built in Blytheville, AR to take Paducah, KY and AP Hill taking the Florida militia from Pensacola to liberate Meridian, MS.  But the 2 Victory Points worth of cities Van Dorn took in Kentucky late-mid game and his last turn (nearly last move of the game, in fact) move to retake Norfolk and its 3 Victory Points were absolutely the difference between winning and losing.

So, what could my dad have done different to win?  There are so many things that one wants to do in a turn of this game which one may not end up getting the opportunity to do for any number of reasons.  Well, one thing I’m beginning to think after having played this game 3 times in my life now, is that battles between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia tend to be strategically among the least productive moves either side can take: the North should be making marine invasions of the Deep South and the South should be trying to avoid pointless losses, as they get no reinforcements for the second half of the game.  Had Curtis, who had given me so much trouble early-mid game, kept on marching south into the undefended swamps of Florida, there were more than enough victory points to win free for the taking.  I could have never gotten anyone down there to stop even 1 or 2 SP of union troops.  Also, if Rosecrans had sent any of his generals with independent commands to steal up some open cities.  While Armies have their purpose, I think that one of the keys to winning is using one and two star generals to take small forces off in different directions to either lure the larger forces away or simply snatch up unguarded cities.  Even if these small forces get crushed by a large one, they divert command points and attention away from more vital strategic goals.

Final score in the Far West?  2 points for burning down all of New Mexico for me, 4 points for burning down 8 forts in Texas and Oklahoma for my Dad.  And hey, my stupid Mexican banditos finally did something and managed not to raise alarum, allowing them to burn down one of the 4 forts in New Mexico.

I was a bit worried about my current win streak, but my dad took things in stride, largely because it was such a hard fought victory and, I think, because Civil War has so much less to do with chance than many tactical games tend to.  He got to win the war, I got to win the game, so it worked out nicely.  Another amazing things about this game is how there is no “death spiral”.  In games like Bar Lev, there comes a point where it’s clear that things will turn into an out-of-hand massacre, but Civil War, things are down to the wire: the Union cannot stop their full court press and the South cannot take even the smallest victory for granted.  North?  You have a navy and twice the manpower, so why aren’t you in Atlanta RIGHT NOW? GO GO!  South?  You have two great Army generals and a handful of magnificent bastards at the Brigadier and Major General Ranks, so try to keep at least two Confederate States from being burned completely to the ground.  Remember how you kept getting less reinforcement than the Union for the first half of the game?  Enjoy getting no reinforcements for the second!

What are we going to play next?  I’m not sure.  We might play Bismark, but as a boardless naval wargame, if we can’t conveniently play it in a space that doesn’t require hunching over two tables spread across a pair of double beds, we might need to try something else.  Maybe even Dragons of Glory?  I do know that my dad wants to play some more Ogre to cleanse the palate.  My dad will be out of town for a few weeks to have an honorary 33rd Degree conferred on him, so I’ll have some time to study some rules and come up with ideas for our next game.

*The only way the South “wins the war” is if they can keep the point spread to less than 50 by the end of the turn 17; if this occurs, Lincoln has lost his election bid to McClellan’s peace ticket.  Any victory for the South on turn 19 is strictly in game terms. 

**: As mentioned before, the way that victory points are scored are handled in such a way that the South doesn’t get very many, while the Union racks up a lot (because they’re going to be doing most of the conquering).  

***: Remember what I said about low-random probability?  If my dad had bothered to check the combat charts, he would’ve seen that it would have been impossible for me to deliver worse than D3 casualties against him so long as I could keep 10 SP and remain a “large force” unless he managed to get a few column shifts via terrain.  With weak odds, your best bet is to amass commanders with bonuses, who will ensure that your results are good despite your rolls.  My dad never got many leaders with modifiers with his armies, so even on his best rolls, he was getting around 6 or 7, while on my worst rolls, I was getting 7-8.  With Lee’s 3 rerolls per encounter, it generally meant getting between 9-12, (1d6+6 with 3 chances to reroll!)

C – Crossbows and Catapults

It’s really a crime that in an age of Angry Birds everything, Crossbows and Catapults remains out of print.

The main thing I remember about the “rules” was that you were more or less told “make up your own rules or don’t, you have Crossbows and Catapults, why aren’t you making walls and knocking them down RIGHT NOW!?”

Crossbows & Catapults came with two sets of building blocks, “keep” towers, plastic miniatures, hard tokens, Crossbows and Catapults. You’d build your little forts opposite one another and take turns trying to knock them down. Or move your little men across the battlefield to tactical advantage. But mostly knock stuff down.