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.

1024px-First_Bull_Run_July21am

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

Bull run map

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.

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Weekend Haul + Updates (Appendix N Book and Wargame Wednesdays)

I’d been getting better about my book buying, but being in the same town as one of the best flea market book-stores in the state over the weekend meant another stack of paperbacks to add to my To-Read pile.  I’m being a bit more judicious about what I grab, simply because I have so much already, but I did not want to pass some of these up:  Sword of Rhiannon (Brackett), Hiero’s Journey (Lanier), Berserker (Saberhagen), a crumbly Incompleat Enchanter (deCamp) that was thrown in for free on account of being crumbly, as well as a book each by Norman Spinrad and Philip Jose Farmer (I don’t remember the titles offhand).  I passed up a pretty sweet looking Gardner F. Fox book in part because I’ve already got a huge stack of him in unread magazines (including the next story I have to read in the Fall 1945 Planet Stories!), but I may pick it up some other time if I make more headway in my stacks.

One guy at one of the place who has all sorts of cool toys and magazines and stuff (who I got some Astounding from before) continued to posture about how rare and expensive and hard to find Planet Stories was when I asked if he’d seen them (“Oh, some of them go for over a hundred bucks!” “most of the ones I’ve found, I’ve got for $8-$12, and I’ve got about a dozen of them” “Oh, well they must not’a known what they had!”), so if I’m going to keep collecting them, I’m probably going to need to turn to eBay (where they still mostly cost around $8-$12).  Then again, I really need to read all (or some) of what I have first.  These magazines have waited 70 years for me, they can wait until I’ve at least finished half of the stack I’ve got.

I’m about halfway through Sceptre of Morgulan, and I have so many thoughts about it, especially in light of Matthew Ryan’s guest post in which he cites Tolkien as one of his biggest influences.  His own tale is very un-Tolkienien, and while the D&D influence is obvious, the output is much more in line with pre-Shannara fantasy than it is with the sort of ‘pink-slime’ fantasy that normally comes out of D&D + Tolkien.  I am not kidding when I say it’s like “vampire-hunting in Lankhmar”.  Can the process be reversed?  Can Appendix N-like stories be extracted from D&D + Tolkien by someone who has paid careful enough attention to the implicit setting and mechanical minutia of demonology even without the benefit of directly having been influenced by those things literary forebears?  Am I giving Ryan too much or too little credit?  I don’t know, but his books are amazing and a breath of fresh air!

Jeffro’s at one of those stages of “done” with his Appendix N book that is somewhere between “completed” and “finished”, but when it is done done, you can bet I’ll be buying copies for my friends and try to bully local book clubs into reading it.  I’m hoping he will go for multiple formats, including a coffee-table edition with Doug Kovacs or Erol Otis dust jacket for myself and a student’s paperback edition I can snap up a few of for everyone else.

I was going to announce this earlier, but Wednesday came and went and a few hiccups resulted in delays, but everything’s good now.  I’ll be writing an occasional piece at Castalia House for Wargame Wednesdays.  I will not be moving my entire posting series over there, since there is a rotating weekly group of writers, but generally speaking, I’ll be featuring the first of whatever series I’m covering over there and the rest over here.  So, uh.  Avalon Hill’s Bull Run pt. 1 is up!  Part two will go up here tomorrow or Wednesday.

Fortress Europa Wrap-up & Minor Updates

The final nail in the coffin was hammered on the September IV turn.  I managed to make one last heroic strike and was even able to take out SHAEF, but without enough troops to form a line, my few strong piles would get surrounded by Allied troops and would so be unable to escape (units retreating through enemy ZOC are immediately eliminated).

Anti-climactic, I know.  But we will be starting Avalon Hill’s Bull Run this week, which we are both pretty stoked about.  After bagging Fortress Europa, we set up the Order of Battle Cards, were both impressed and perplexed by the granularity of the forces, attempted to extrapolate the system based on the pieces and were delighted as we figured out that some of our guesses were correct.  On the surface, it looks like a far more complicated game than it probably actually is.  I’ll go into that in the first post of our run on that game.

So, time for a few updates.  First, the zine:

I may have found an artist for the first issue of Cirsova.  Once contracts are signed and everything is official, I can make the official announcement.  I’m pretty excited about it.  This week, I’ll be doing a bit more work on adspace; I’ve figured out how much adspace I have, now I just need to get some exact print dimensions so I can provide those specs to potential advertisers.

Now that I may have an artist, I have figured up my costs for this first issue, crunched numbers and have something in the way of rewards tiers planned out.  All rewards will be some combination of “investing” for one copy or many and buying an ad or not buying an ad.  I’m going to try not to harp on this too much, so I don’t burn people out before I get a chance to actually launch the kickstarter, so my next updates prior to launch will simply be to announce the artist, show off the art once it’s done, and to promote the kickstarter.  I’ll include details on those things here, naturally.

Second, Drasmyr Week:

It’s not quite going to be a full-blown Drasmyr week like I did when The Children of Lubrochius came out, but I will have the author Matthew D. Ryan here on Wednesday talking about Tolkien.  Hardback for Sceptre of Morgulan comes out on Lulu tomorrow and you can bet I’ll be ordering it!

Now, the AlisonScam:

I wanted to try to say something about the whole Alison Prime/Steve Polk massive troll, but I can’t really put together anything that doesn’t sound like I’m saying ‘this person is being pilloried and that’s probably a good thing’.  For those who don’t know, Alison Prime was a self-described boob obsessed lesbian gamer girl who was also a cancer survivor and survivor of domestic abuse who was loudly pro-gamergate (though from what I’ve heard, she would mostly derail conversations by bringing up boobs); this person turned out to be a sock-puppet account of some dude named Steve who used pics from a (supposedly dead) friend and other various similar looking women to create a composite fake gamer girl.  Steve’s house burned down and got outed when people were raising money for “Alison Prime” whose house burned down.

I was only vaguely aware of Alison Prime, because I mostly only paid attention to a small handful of streamers whom I had time for (Sargon, Vee, Queeny before she left, Sox and the Honey Badgers.)  Most GG drama is pretty bad for GG, but I don’t know if it will be bad in the long run that everyone in all corners of GG can be united in being pissed off that someone lied about being a cancer and abuse survivor for attention. It also shines a bit of an uncomfortable light on how the internet affects our empathy: many people seemed to love and genuinely care about this weird and kooky person who turned out to never actually exist.  To find out that someone you cared about was not only lying to you but didn’t actually exist must be pretty gutwrenching, and I feel pretty bad for the folks who’ve been affected by it.

Ogresuit Gundam: It’s Coming

I’ve actually found someone interested in playtesting this. Later this month or next (depending on how the posting schedule pans out; more on this later), I’ll have some basic rules ups with everything needed to mess around with some mobile suit battles. It will include stats for Zakus, Doms, Gundams, Guncannons, Guntanks and rules for MS vs MS and MS vs non-MS combat resolution.  If things work out in playtesting, I’ll be expanding the number of mobile suits I will be writing stats for (adding Goufs, GMs, Groundtype Gundams, and Gelgoogs), and also try to include some rules for handling landships (for those wanting to recreate the battle between Ramba Ral and the White Base, maybe even including some scenario recommendations), basically making Ogre a 3 rather than 2 tiered game.

Space ships may be more of an issue, because for some weird reason (probably related to pressure or something) space battleships in the Gundam universe are WAY more fragile than landships.  But still, I’m stoked that one person interested in this project has said they have a copy of Holy War to try out space battles with.

I probably won’t write up a formal ruleset for the conversion, but will certainly have enough written up that players can adapt it as they see fit, eventually compiling my notes into a single post or document.  I know I’m kinda half-assed on my game design follow through (I’m going to finish Broadswords & Battlefields one day!), but something playable is already written up and you WILL see it soon!

I’m mostly writing this post because I want to share this awesome UC Hardgraph art.

Ogresuit gundam

Fortress Europa Take 2 Pt. 2

The important lesson learned in this rather shorter playthrough of Fortress Europa is to not leave Holland a tempting enough invasion site.  If the Allies can be contained here, they will be bottled up worse than any other landing zone with the fewest eligible ports to increase their supply capacity.  On the other hand, if they are able to break-out, there will be no containing them at all and the German forces will be totally unable to form an effective line.

I’ve managed to keep a strongpoint at the north end of the Siegfried line that may very well remain for the rest of the game, but other than serve as a mild distraction, I don’t think they will be able to make a game-changing difference.  As the coastal gunners leave their post and hop on trains back to German, paratroops and commandos have seized both Brittany and the French Riviera, and the Pas de Calais has folded to the massive second wave invasion.  Brussels and Paris have fallen and American mechanized cavalry has nothing but a few volksturm between them and the victory objectives in Germany.

My one stroke of brilliance which gives me something of a sense of victory as I go down in flames: I managed to land some Luftwaffe behind the British lines to take out their main HQ.  The British northern flank around Bremen crumbled in disarray upon news that Bernie Montgomery died in a hail of gunfire as an entire division of Fallschirmjäger landed right in the middle of the 21st Army Group’s command camp.

I’ve been fairly generous in letting my dad move his HQs up to ensure that his troops are in supply if he forgot to move them in the second impulse (family after all), but there was no getting around a dozen British units cut off from any other allied supply.  It let me regain a small foothold in northern Germany, which might buy me time for my September reinforcements (the first substantial that the Germans get) to arrive, but with most of the fortifications gone and southern Germany almost forfeit, it won’t tide me over for another 15+ turns.

Next session will almost certainly be the last.

Tomorrow: Why is a 14+ strong DCC party the most craven group of adventurers I’ve ever been a part of?

Fantasy General

Because Panzer General is freaking hard and turned out to not be relaxing at all, I moved on to something that was a bit more my speed. On Sunday, I started a Fantasy General campaign as the Knight Marshal Calis.

This is the mustache that will lead mankind to freedom from tyranny.

This is the mustache that will lead mankind to freedom from tyranny.

I really need to dig out my cd copy because without the epic soundtrack, it’s hard to get the full experience, but for now tossing on Striborg or Burzum in the background while I play sufficiently fits the tone of pressing across the Ice Continent of Pothia.

Fantasy General was the third game in SSI’s 5-Star General series. After the obnoxious Windows release of Allied General, SSI got their head on straight and put together a game whose interface was usable right out of the box. The most obvious differences between Fantasy General and Panzer General are of course the fact that you’re playing in a gonzo fictional setting with everything from werebears to steam powered automatons instead of Europe and you’re fighting against the dark lord instead of for him. But there are a number of significant mechanical changes. Some were thematic, others are not, but are improvements nonetheless.

Unlike Panzer General, which takes place at operational level, Fantasy General uses a squadron-based scale. Most units represent 15 individuals, though “hero” and “single entity” units represent a single powerful individual worth 10 strength points. The higher strength value of units meant that a single unit might survive two fairly harsh attacks and be able to recover (or at least survive a battle), unlike in Panzer general where losing 3 or 4 SP following a disastrous attack almost certainly means losing that unit to a counter attack on the opponent’s turn. It also introduced a system of tracking losses as either “killed” or “wounded”. This system replaced Panzer General’s distinction between regular and elite replacements. Killed troops could only be replaced by recruits in cities or between missions and would count against a unit’s experience. Wounded strength points could be recovered by resting for a turn or by use of some sort of healing magic. One major advantage of “single entity” units is that they can always heal up to full-strength so long as they’re not in a ZOC. Units in Fantasy General are far more prone to retreating, which in this system has a two-fold effect: survivability of units is improved, since resting outside a ZOC replenishes all “wounded” points, and use of mixed units becomes more important to keep enemies on their toes; it’s often more prudent to not attack a fleeing unit if you can’t finish it off before it’s out of range.

The second major mechanical change, which was a huge improvement that would be carried forward to most successive General games, was the ability to manage your troops in between missions. After each battle, you’re given a chance to upgrade units, fill out your core, distribute magical swag (somewhat similar to assigning ‘named’ commanders to units in later PG games) and allocate your troop research levels. Though early game the cost-leap between some of the lvl 0 and lvl 1 troops can break the bank, at least you’re presented with the opportunity and don’t have to sacrifice an entire turn to upgrade troops and buy new recruits.

The third major change was a shift from the rather opaque initiative rules to a fairly cut and dry system of attack priority. Units in Fantasy General have 3 types of attack: Melee, Skirmish and Missile. The highest attack value is used as a units primary attack. If a Melee unit attacks, the defending unit uses its Melee to calculate damage it does as a defender. If a Skirmisher attacks, unless the defender has Missile or Skirmish, the defender cannot deal damage to the Skirmisher. If a Missile unit attacks, unless the defender has a Missile attack, it cannot deal return damage. What this ends up meaning in practice is that you need to throw your melee troops (heavy infantry and heavy cavalry) in hard against enemy skirmishers or archers to break them up, use your skirmishers (skirmishers, light cavalry and to a lesser extent casters) to soften heavy infantry, pursue stragglers with light infantry, and use archers to provide missile support to exposed troops. PG’s artillery role is split between archers and siege engines; archers will add pre-emptive missile fire to defending units adjacent to them while siege engines will add pre-emptive missile fire to units adjacent to them that are attacking cities.

Now, I said that Fantasy General has something of a gonzo setting. Though the whole ‘united armies of good vs. the evil hordes of the dark lord’ is pretty typical of 90s fantasy, FG at least mixes it up with some pretty weird units. In addition to “mortal” units, there are magic, beast, and mechanical troops. So your Pikemen could very-well be marching in formation with companies of animated armor, lionmen, elephants mounted with steam guns while flying metal barges float overhead ready to drop naptha on the armies of darkness. Upgrades can be pretty silly sometimes, because it’s an everything-and-the-kitchen sink setting. Your Pikemen will eventually upgrade to legionnaires, who will upgrade to Samurai who will upgrade to Heavy Spearmen (take that orientalist primacy!) And while the shadow lord’s forces has its staples of orcs, goblins, trolls, ogres and undead, there are also ratmen, cobramen, mastodon riders, rhino-knights, hydra, serpent riders, and more. There are also some pretty cool (if poorly implemented) evil heroes, like the Leech King or Claw the Assassin (a catman, naturally).

One of the reasons FG was a better choice to relax to than Panzer General is that it has a much slower “ratcheting up” period. While the first mission on the second continent can be something of a wake-up call, the game gives you plenty of time to get the hang of things. The only down-side to this is that sometimes it feels too easy. I can finish most missions with anywhere from 5 to 10 turns to go, rolling across the continents one after another. It’s a game that I wish were revisited and tweaked a bit with more varied units at each grade and with improved enemy AI. I can’t possibly complain about the maps, because there are so many of them and they’re so varied, but it would be nice to see the AI make better use of the terrain to mount their defense. In some ways I almost think that after the brutality of the early games, the computer is a bit nerfed. Still, it feels more like a game in which one is meant to play a campaign rather than a series of set-pieces that would work as individual ‘games’ but do not work as well when played in subsequent order while forced to use surviving units from the previous fights.

There’s so much more I could go into about Fantasy General, but I’ve already gone way long on this post.  If you want more, here’s a pretty nifty faq from almost 20 years ago! Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about Gundam, so will probably talk way too long about that too. More Fortress Europa later this week.

Panzer General

Among all of the other things I need to take care of this week, I’ll be taking care of some zine related stuff, clearing my queue and hopefully be ready to move into phase 2. The stress may have gotten to me, and I was laid out on both Sunday and Monday, but I’m doing a bit better now.

When I was convalescing, I spent my time revisiting a few old SSI favorites. Inspired by playing Fortress Europa with my dad, I downloaded and got Panzer General running on my PC. The 5 Star General series was one of my dad’s favorite gaming franchises, because it brought his favorite style of war gaming to the PC in a way that was recognizable to a classic board gamer, but enhanced with all of the glitz and glam of vidya games. It also had cool play-by-mail features that were much more convenient than writing down a spreadsheet of hex-numbers and checking the daily stock-market for your dice rolls. Now, they were incredibly dumbed down compared to the earlier V For Victory series, which in many ways was one of the most ambitious translation of hex and chit war gaming to PC port ever attempted*, but they definitely scratch an itch for someone who wants real strategy games and not real time strategy games.

Now, when I was a little kid, I sucked at Panzer General. And it turns out I still suck at Panzer General. Why? Because it’s HARD! I always thought my dad was amazing at it, but to my knowledge, even he never “beat” it; the difference between major and minor victories, even in the hypothetical scenarios would usually mean that he’d be set on the defense and have to play though all of the fighting retreat scenarios until managing to force a favorable armistice with the Allied Nations. I don’t know that I ever managed to get past the conquest of France. And it looks like that might still be the case.

Unlike many of the later General games, PG 1 ratchets up the difficulty incredibly quickly, with almost no real ‘tutorial’ warm-up type battles. I mean, sure, there’s Poland, but even those two missions aren’t a cakewalk by any means. If you do well in the battle for Warsaw, you’re put in charge of the forces invading Norway, where you will be getting hammered constantly by the British Navy which you can do almost nothing about. Italy 1943 (Allied conquest of Sicily) is probably the most brutal starting scenario; even when I’ve ‘won’, my forces would always be so wiped out that in the follow-up break-out at Anzio scenario, I’d be overrun in less than five turns.

The biggest issues contributing to difficulty in PG1 are:

  1. Low strength values of the units: early in the franchise history, the 5-Star games used a 10 strength baseline for units; elite units could be (very slowly and at great cost) made overstrength up to 15 (1 SP per grade; good luck having a unit survive long enough to become a 5 star veteran). This often meant units could be wiped out incredibly easily in one unlucky turn. More on that in a bit. Later general games made the unit strength base 15, which meant a much greater chance of front-line units surviving long enough to gain experience and be rebuilt.
  2. No upgrading/overstrengthing in between missions. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of PG 1. Despite promises that doing well in such and such a mission would give high command time to replenish, resupply and retrofit your troops, you never had the opportunity to do so between missions. Therefore, you would have to spend the first turn of any mission upgrading units (because god knows that Panzer IA isn’t going to be useful past 1939) and buying replacements. Again, this is something that later 5-Star games addressed, allowing you to upgrade and purchase core units between battles.
  3. Rugged Defense. This was the equivalent of rolling a 1 on the combat result table. Before you made any attack, the game would display an approximation of the casualties both sides would incur. Due to how initiative and suppression worked in PG1, these numbers were often incorrect, but typically gave one a reasonable idea of whether an attack would be suicide or not without having to check both units hard attack/soft attack and hard defense/soft defense stats. Sometimes, however, you would see a warning message stating “Rugged Defense!” This usually meant that a weaker or understrength unit that you were attacking because the predicted odds were incredibly in your favor could somehow kill half or more of the guys in the attacking unit, which would often be wiped out next turn. This result was always frustrating and disheartening and felt like the game was cheating, since you couldn’t see under the hood.
  4. Lost Cause scenarios. The defensive scenarios very much feel this way. The Allies often have just breathtakingly overwhelming superiority in numbers at times, and their losses do not hurt the way your losses do; unlike the Allies, you are only taking with you whomever survives the battle. Therefore, in a case like the start of the 1943 Italian campaign, when treated as a single scenario, you can fight to the bloody end, with the last of the Panzers heroically stalling the Allied advance into the toe of Italy after having survived both the ground onslaught and constant naval bombardment. But then you go to the next mission with your 6 surviving units and immediately lose because you just cannot make up for that difference in power. It’s like those fighting games that don’t reset BOTH players’ health bar after each KO. You can’t catch up.

Tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll go into Fantasy General, the other game I spent a lot of time this weekend fooling around with (and also ended up enjoying more), but as this has gone on fairly long, I think I’ll wrap up here.
*:The most audacious feature of the V For Victory games was the simultaneous execution of movement, something that would only be possible, especially on the enormous scale these games used, with a computer; players would painstakingly assign each unit’s action for the turn and hope that their opponent’s movements did not somehow muck up whatever they had planned. For instance, an infantry unit could be programmed to be packed up into its trucks and travelling down a road (strategic movement) while an enemy unit is slowly moving perpendicular to it crossing that same road in proper marching formation (tactical movement); depending on where and when the units will cross paths, the infantry in their trucks may end up cut off and not only fail to reach their destination but be ambushed and possibly wiped out by the unit moving in formation; neither player knows what happened until they see how their planned moves resolve.

Minor update: I’m apparently the first person on wordpress to talk about Panzer General since 2013.  How punk rock is that!?