Tag: Board Game Review

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The US Civil War-A BoardgamingLife Review

GMT1506Author: Harvey Mossman

Designer: Mark Simonitch

Publisher: GMT games

The American Civil War remains one of the most climactic events in American history and still scars the national psyche. Whereas many other conflicts involving the United States wax and wane in interest, it is safe to say that publishing a game on this topic is usually a “sure bet” with the war gaming public.

As such, The Civil War by Victory Games, at least to my mind, was the epitome of strategic Civil War games and was a derivative of an older Strategy & Tactics magazine game called The American Civil War (also an excellent game but limited by the magazine format) so it was with baited breath that I anticipated the release of GMT’s the US Civil War. I was not disappointed!

Continue reading “The US Civil War-A BoardgamingLife Review”

Days of Battle: Golan Heights – A Board Game Review

By Mitch Freedman

Designer: Frank Chadwick

Publisher: Victory Point Games

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Days of Battle: Golan Heights cover art. Photos used with permission.

The first time you open Golan Heights and lay out the pieces – the starting position for all the counters is marked on the game board – you might be surprised at how simple it looks. There are just seven Israeli counters on the board – six armor battalions and one infantry brigade – to hold off about 20 attacking units. A separate board to hold reinforcements shows what day they come in, and while there are more Israeli reinforcements than Syrians, it looks like the chance of Israel holding off the attackers fits somewhere between slim and none. Continue reading “Days of Battle: Golan Heights – A Board Game Review”

Circus Train (Second Edition) – A Board Game Review

The Omnipresent Magician

By Mitch Freedman

Circus Train Board game review

When you slide Circus Train out of its protective sleeve, the first thing to catch your eye is its garish, poster-bright red cardboard case.

Open it, and you are dazzled by a rainbow of laser-cut cardboard markers that must be  snapped apart to play the game…a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors that will become your clowns and elephants, lions and horses, the human cannonball and the sideshow freaks.

The game is remarkably simple. All you have to do is start your Circus Train out in Canada, then go to different cities Continue reading “Circus Train (Second Edition) – A Board Game Review”

Duel of Eagles: Mars-la-Tour 1870 Board Game Review


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Overview

For the last two weeks, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with Hermann Luttmann’s latest design, Duel of Eagles, which features an August 1870 battle between the French and Prussians during Franco-Prussian War in the vicinity of the town of Mars-La-Tour, France. Two Prussian Corps went up against the entire French Army of the Rhine, commanded by Marshall Francois Bazaine. The Prussians were victorious.
Continue reading “Duel of Eagles: Mars-la-Tour 1870 Board Game Review”

Duel of Eagles: The Battle of Mars-la-Tour – Board Game Preview

Game Preview

“What is certain beyond argument is that the war – and with it the future of Europe – was decided at Mars-la-Tour on 16 August 1870.”

– Otto von Bismarck, Versailles, 18 January 1871

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The Battle of Mars-la-Tour was a critical turning point of not only the Franco-Prussian War, but arguably of European history. The French loss at this battle essentially led to the end of the Second Empire of Napoleon III and helped give birth to the Second Reich of the new German Empire. Why then has it received such scant treatment in the wargaming community? Other than Charles Vasey’s excellent Deathride for ATO and scenario treatments in various miniature gaming systems, this highly important battle has been ignored. Why is that?

For one thing, Mars-la-Tour has a reputation as being “just” a cavalry battle. This is thanks to von Bredow’s famous (and amazingly successful) “Deathride” cavalry charge, along with the huge cavalry battle fought outside the village of Yron at the end of the battle (and which was the last large pure cavalry engagement fought in western Europe). But more importantly, the military situation on the morning of 16 August, 1870 was quite an unusual one.

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The entire French Army of the Rhine, almost 130,000 men and under the command of the newly-appointed Marshal Francois Bazaine, was moving ponderously out of the Metz fortifications toward Verdun. The goal was to escape the swiftly advancing Prussian pincers and join up with French Emperor Napoleon III (who had earlier escaped Metz) and a new army near Chalons. However, Bazaine carried out his task in an inexplicably lethargic manner. He seemed to have been paralyzed by the heft of his new command responsibilities and/or by the looming threat of two pursuing German armies. These burdens were just too much for him to bear and his resulting plan of action was no plan at all – Bazaine simply dawdled and ached for the protection of the fortress walls around Metz. In fact, the Prussian armies had become strung out and, while advancing quickly, were somewhat blindly searching for the location of the French army.

The Prussian command assumed that the French were much farther along, well on their way to Verdun. When Rheinbaben’s 5th Cavalry Division first spotted the French tents early that August morning outside of Vionville, the troopers assumed at first that they had encountered the rearguard of the escaping French army. To their shock, they soon realized that they were instead staring at the van of the entire French force. So what happened next? Well, in typical Teutonic fashion, the Prussians launched an attack! The horse artillerists aimed at the brilliant white French table cloths and polished breakfast china and began firing. Thus began the Battle of Mars-la-Tour and the audacity of the assault intimidated the French into near inactivity. It also highlighted a key advantage the Prussians possessed over their French adversaries throughout the campaign – offensive flexibility and initiative.

This boldness flustered an already desultory Bazaine, who needed to press west to Verdun, but who also refused to become separated from his protective burrow at Metz. The Prussian strategy and superior artillery pummeled the French into indecision and after a bitter and vicious day-long fight (inflicting a total of more than 30,000 casualties to both armies), Bazaine finally ordered a retirement during the evening to better defensive positions nearer Metz. This retreat and redeployment was pursued by the Prussians and resulted in the even bloodier Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat two days later.

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So there existed a situation at Mars-la-Tour that makes, on its face, a difficult battle to simulate properly and a tough subject matter from which to make a challenging game – an intact French army facing the scattered elements of an unsuspecting Prussian advanced guard. The French outnumbered the Prussians 4 to 1 during the opening phases of the battle and should have, by all rights, crushed the Prussians as they force-marched piecemeal onto the field. Any competent French game player would easily destroy the Prussians in this situation. Having full knowledge of their size and deployment and then knowing the reinforcement schedule, the French would simply advance as needed and rout the Prussian forces as they entered the field. Perhaps this is the biggest reason Mars-la-Tour has not been simulated in game form very often: it is not an easy task to create a balanced, entertaining game on this battle.

Nonetheless, while Michael Kennedy of White Dog Games and I were discussing the play testing of his new WWI game, At Neuve Chapelle, the subject of the Franco-Prussian War came up. He asked me if I would be interested in designing a game for WDG on the Battle of Mars-la-Tour and, having a strong interest in this period of history I said that I would be excited to do so. My game design resume to this point includes four rather unconventional designs for Victory Point Games (Gettysburg: The Wheatfield, Dawn of the Zeds, High & Tight and In Magnificent Style) but no traditional hex-and-counter games. I thought that this would be a fun challenge for me to design my first hex-and-counter war game about an unconventional and under-represented, yet important battle.

The resulting game design, Duel of Eagles, is a game of moderate complexity and size. The game board is 22 by 17 inches and there are 176 counters, markers and chits. Each hex represents an area about 500 yards across, each turn is equal to approximately one hour, infantry and cavalry units represent brigades while artillery units are organizational groupings of batteries by weight of gun. As far as hard numbers and military abilities are concerned, the game accounts for unit sizes, equipment and morale in a rather straightforward manner.

The Prussian’s combat factors are inflated a bit to account for their high morale due to their recent victories in the war, their infantry training was second to none and the artillery was equipped with the superior breech-loading Krupp cannons. Prussian leaders also have an advantage in that they are more aggressive and can thus attack much more efficiently than the French. The French, on the other hand, have the edge in small arms firepower, as the Chassepot rifle allows the infantry to fire further and with greater affect. In addition, some French artillery units have Mitrailleuse batteries (a Gatling gun-like weapon) which are deadly at close range. And, finally, there are just a lot more Frenchmen on the field of battle than Prussians.

Obviously a major design problem to overcome was Marshal Bazaine’s bizarre performance as the French commander. The French Army was a well-equipped, brave and otherwise capable force. However, its training regimen had become sub-par and the men were generally demoralized by the spate of early Prussian victories. But they also knew that with proper leadership, direction and inspiration, they could be victorious. Unfortunately for the French, Bazaine was not that leader.

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So, how to reflect the lack of French command and control without making the game feel forced and predictable (and thus not very much fun for the French player)? I didn’t want to just install “idiot rules” for the French player, so my solution was to utilize a chit-pull mechanic – but with a twist. Chits are used in Duel of Eagles to mirror chaos, fog-of-war, the friction of combat, and to activate corps. This latter function of the chit-pull system recreates the slow French reaction at the beginning of the battle by starting the game with one French corps chit and then adding a new French corps chit each turn to the draw pool, gradually increasing the number of French corps that are activated in a turn, and thus simulating a giant slowly awakening from deep slumber.

In addition to corps activation, players draw “event” chits that either side plays immediately or, in some cases, can hold to apply in a future situation. Events are era-specific and model the advantages and disadvantages of each side’s historic weaponry, tactics and leadership. For example, there is a “Beaten Zone” chit that allows the French player to issue immediate fire from an infantry unit (whether activated or not) or hold the chit for a future opportunity fire at a moving Prussian unit. The Prussians have a “Krupp Guns” chit that allows the same abilities but for Prussian artillery units. There are also “fog of war” chits that players can inflict against one another. The Prussian player has a powerful chit named “Bazaine’s Malaise” that allows the Prussian player to possibly force a French corps to skip its activation for a turn. The French have a “Prussian Aggressive Tactics” chit where the French player can move a Prussian infantry unit one half its movement allowance and require it to assault whatever French unit is adjacent. Events like these can frustrate player tactical plan-making but reflect actual events that occurred at this and other Franco-Prussian War battles. The chit system weaves player tactical opportunities with each army’s particular martial character. It attempts to give the game a realistic feel for warfare of this period while creating decision-making challenges for the players that their historical counterparts had to confront.

Both the French and the Prussian player have certain problems that they must overcome in order to win the game. It will not be an easy task for either player to gain a decisive victory. The French player is handicapped by sluggish command and control and poor overall morale but he has the strength to achieve victory if he handles his forces well and takes advantage of his opportunities as they arise. The Prussian player has an edge in the efficiency of his artillery and the morale of his infantry but he is heavily outnumbered and his forces come on in piecemeal fashion. If he has any bad luck or misses an opportunity to strike hard and fast at a surprised and initially vulnerable French army, he may find himself in deep trouble

In summary, Duel of Eagles is hopefully filled with challenging decisions for players to make while also accurately simulating a very important battle in military history and one which certainly deserves to be represented on more gaming tables.

Hermann Luttmann


Got some feedback for us? Email your opinions and comments to Hermann.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue – Review

First Foray into Cooperative Gaming

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue


Overview

Flash Point: Fire Rescue, designed by Kevin Lanzing and published by Indie Boards & Cards in 2011, is a board game for 2 to 6 players, advertised as suitable for ages 10 and older (which I agree is the appropriate minimum age). It’s a family game of low complexity which is usually playable within 45 minutes. Many games claim to be “family” games while really only appealing to a certain age range/gender/mindset. But Flash Point: Fire Rescue truly is a family game. My first game involved four players ranging in age from 16 to 79, with both genders represented. Doesn’t get any more family than that!

Flash Point: Fire Rescue falls under the broad category of “Euro Game”, and the narrower sub-category of “Cooperative Game”. A Cooperative Game generally pits all the players against a “system” of some type. In this case, the players represent firefighters working together to battle the fire (the “system”, in this case) and rescue the people inside. Simple enough, right? We’ll see…


Setting Up

There are two versions of the game: the Family version and the Experienced version. Both versions are relatively simple to play (relative to the kind of games I normally play, that is), but the Experienced version has more options and “chrome” that will appeal to older children and even experienced gamers. The Experienced game adds additional help for the firefighters in the form of Vehicles (Ambulance and Fire Truck) and special abilities for the players (ex: Paramedic, Rescue Specialist, etc.). But it also adds more dangers like hazardous materials (HazMat) and Hot Spots, which make the fire more volatile and uncontrollable.

In keeping with the “family game” theme, Flash Point: Fire Rescue Basic game can be set up and ready to go within minutes. The map board shows a bird’s eye view of a house, as if you’re looking down from above with the roof removed. It is a two-sided map, with one side designed to be more challenging as it has fewer entrances to the house (only 2 external doors vs. 4 on the other map).

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue

A clever “grid” system is used to uniquely identify any square on the map. The rows of the grid all have a red 6-sided die identifier (i.e. 1 through 6) and each column of the grid has a black 8-sided die identifier (1 through 8). When a random space needs to be selected, a player rolls a red 6-sided die and a black 8-sided die and looks at both numbers, tracing along the row (red die) and column (black die) to arrive at the space that meets at the intersection. To make things even easier, each space contains the red/black die number combination that uniquely identifies that space.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Initially there are “Threat” markers placed in set locations within the house. One side of the Threat marker displays “Smoke” and the other side shows “Fire”. The initial 10 Threat markers are placed with the “Fire” side face up, to indicate a fire already raging within the house.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Next, three potential “victims” are placed in different locations in the house. These markers are call “Point of Interest (POI)” markers and are placed face down so no one knows if it’s a real “victim” (person or animal) or a decoy. These victims are the key to victory in Flash Point: Fire Rescue. If 4 or more victims are lost to the fire, your cooperative team will lose the game instantly.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Door markers are placed next, “Closed” side showing, on each of the 8 interior “doorways” in the house. Doors offer limited protection again spreading fire and explosions so it’s best to keep them in the “Closed” position as much as possible. An “Open” door is the same as “no door at all” when it comes to containing the inferno.

Finally, each player assumes the role of a firefighter, takes one of the colored pieces and sets up in the street outside the building.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

There was a sales promotion in effect when I bought my copy of this game. They were offering free“Meeples” with purchase. For those, like me, who do not know a Meeple from a steeple, “Meeple” is a generic term for little wooden figures used in board gaming. So instead of colored bowling-pin-shaped units, I get to play with colored firefighter-shaped units. I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy Meeples, but I’m glad I have them as it adds another touch of flavor to the game. And the kids like them.

Feel free to chat, coordinate your starting locations, and plan strategies. It’s a “cooperative” game, remember? So you all either sink or swim together.

That’s it! You’re ready to play.


Playing the Game

Starting with the youngest firefighter, each player goes through the following “phases”, in the specified order:

  • Take Action – Spend Action Points, moving, putting out fires, chopping down walls and door when necessary and, of course, rescuing victims. What else would a firefighter be doing?
  • Advance Fire – Roll dice to see if the fire spreads. Results can range anywhere from a new “Smoke” marker appearing, to a dangerous explosion and possibly a “ShockWave” and “Flashover”. Trying to keep control of the blaze is how the firefighters earn their pay.
  • Replenish POI Markers – There must be at least 3 POI markers on the board at the beginning of each player’s turn. So, as victims are rescued, identified as decoys, or (gulp) killed, new markers must take their place. Dice are rolled to select random placement spaces for new POI markers.

Each player, in turn, will continue to perform these three steps indefinitely, until the game is either won or lost.

The sequence of events is designed to create suspense and tension in the game, and it succeeds remarkably well. The firefighters move towards the victims, putting out fires along the way, only to have new fires pop up again. The firefighters must perform the right mix of actions to:

  • Prevent the fire from raging out of control.
  • Prevent the collapse of the building.
  • Rescue the victims.

The victory conditions state that the players must successfully rescue 7 victims to score a win.

If more than 3 victims are lost to the fire, they lose.

If the building collapses, they lose.

Success or failure rides on the shoulders of the firefighters and their ability to work as a team, and react to rapdily changing environments.

Firefighters in Action!

Each firefighter is given 4 Action Points to spend on their turn. If they don’t spend them all, they may be retained (up to a maximum of 4 retained AP). Each action the firefighter takes costs X number of AP:

  • Move to a space without Fire: 1 AP
  • Move to a space with Fire: 2 AP
  • Carry a victim to an open space or a space with Smoke: 2 AP
  • Open/Close a Door: 1 AP
  • Extinguish a Fire marker: 2 AP
  • Downgrade Fire marker to Smoke marker: 1 AP
  • Chop with Axe: Place a damage marker on a wall (2 damage markers destroys a wall)

Firefighters can perform their actions in any order they like, up to the maximum amount of AP they have available. Their primary objective is to save the lives of the victims, but how they go about doing that is up to them. It was interesting to watch how different players approached similar problems in a different way. For instance, one of the players just refused to waste any time walking; he just charged straight towards the victims, chopping through any walls that got in his way. His theory was that the time he’d save on the way back (through the chopped walls) while saddled with having to carry a victim would more than make up for the time spent chopping. After all, it was the shortest distance between the victim and the fresh open air. This worked pretty well until a few consecutive explosions finished the job he started, weakening the walls to the point where the building collapsed on top of us. Lesson learned…

Example of Firefighter Actions

In this brief Basic Version example, we have two firefighters (Yellow and Red) at work in the building. Initially firefighter Yellow is located in space Red:4/Black:8, located in the game room. Firefighter Red appears to be trapped in a bedroom with a victim in space Red:6/Black:6.

Firefighter Yellow is planning to reach the potential victim in the kitchen, while firefighter Red has already secured a victim and is hoping to carry her back through the family room (with the piano) and outside to safety. The problem for Red is that, after he entered the bedroom to find the victim and closed the door behind him, a nasty fire broke out in the family room! Because a victim can never enter a hex containing a Fire marker, Red will have to battle his way out. Yellow’s plan is to dash into the kitchen, rescue the victim there, then dash back out the same way she came in.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

But it’s Yellow’s turn first and, although she’d love to be able to assist Red, there’s just no way she can get near him. She decides to proceed with her original plan to save the kitchen victim, and spends her 4 AP as follows:

  • Move forward towards the kitchen – 1 AP
  • Spray the fire to her right and downgrade it to Smoke – 1 AP
  • Open the kitchen door – 1 AP
  • Move forward into the kitchen – 1 AP

The fire in the game room is diminished down to Smoke status, which lessens the danger of explosion a bit. It would have been better to extinguish the Fire entirely, but that would have taken an additional AP which she thought was better spent getting closer to the victim. The door to the kitchen remains open so she’ll be able to make a quick getaway after checking the POI marker (potential victim).

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Now that Yellow has spent all her APs, she will move on to the “Advance Fire” phase of her turn, which will be discussed below.

The “System” Fights Back!

After the player completes all desired actions, the next step is to see how the fire spreads. The black and red die are rolled to select a space on the board. A “Smoke” marker is placed on that space. If the space is empty and not adjacent to a Fire marker, nothing else happens. If that’s not the case then things could get ugly.

For example, if the new Smoke marker is placed on top of an existing Fire marker an Explosion is triggered. Explosions spread fires very quickly and can destroy walls, doors and (gulp, again) victims. An explosion radiates out in all four directions and, if any adjacent space is already on fire, causes a Shockwave that sends fire tearing through the building (and any human beings in its path).

Players must keep in mind that not only the victims, but the building itself is in danger. Small black wooden blocks are used to mark damage to the building’s walls. Most wall-damaging events, like Explosions and firefighters “Chop with Axe” action, cause 1 block to be placed on the wall. When 2 blocks are accumulated, the wall is considered “destroyed”. From that point on, it’s as if the wall is not there. However, there are only 24 blocks. When all 24 are placed on the board, the building is considered to have collapsed, killing everyone inside.

Finally, when all the Explosions and Shockwaves are resolved, any Smoke marker that’s adjacent to a Fire marker is changed to a Fire marker. This operates with a “domino” effect; a string of adjacent Smoke markers will all burst into flames.

Any victim marker that finds itself in a hex with a Fire marker (for any reason) is considered lost and counts against the players’ victory conditions. Firefighters are never killed, but they may be injured and sent back to the Ambulance, essentially putting them out of action until they can get back into the building. When the team is so dependent on every member to stay one step ahead of the blaze, such delays can cost them the game.

We found it a challenge to get the fires under control while simultaneously trying to rescue the victims. But that’s the whole point of the game, isn’t it?

Example of Advance Fire Phase

Continuing with our example from above, it’s now time for Yellow to roll the dice and see how the Fire advances.

Yellow rolls the red and black dice and the result is Red:6/Black:5, which places the target space just outside the bedroom door behind which Green is standing with victim slung over his shoulder! The rules indicate that if the target space already contains a Fire marker, that an Explosion has occurred and must be resolved. We have an Explosion!

An explosion radiates outward in all four directions (never diagonal), spreading Fire until it hits one of the following:

  • An Open or Smoke-Filled Space
  • A Wall
  • A Closed Door

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

So the fire spreads east (from our perspective) into space Red:6/Black:4 where a Fire marker is placed, and stops there. It spreads south, where it encounters an existing Fire marker, thus causing a Shockwave. The Fire will continue through the existing Fire space and slams into the south wall, doing one point of damage. One black block is placed on the wall to signify the damage. If another such hit occurs on that same wall section, it will be considered destroyed.

Most significantly for our example, the Explosion travels west where it runs into the bedroom door. When an Explosion (or resulting Shockwave) hits a closed door, the door is considered completely destroyed and the door marker is removed. However, if Red had not had the foresight to close the door upon entering the bedroom, the blast would have traveled right through the open door, knocking him down and killing the victim he’s carrying. This is a perfect example of how anticipating the worst case scenario can pay big dividends later on.

Next Victim!

There must be 3 POI markers on the game map at the start of any player’s turn. So, as the last step in the player turn sequence, if there are not 3 POI markers on the map, the active player must roll the red/black dice to select a space for placement of a new POI marker with “?” side facing up so that no one knows if it’s a real victim or a decoy.

Sometimes you get lucky and the new POI will be placed in close proximity to one or more of the firefighters, but just as often you’ll find the new POI marker being placed far away from all firefighters. And, if the dice are against you (and they always are), the new POI may land in the midst of a block of Fire markers.

Example of Red’s Turn

We skipped Yellow’s “Replenish POI phase, as we’re just assuming that there are 3 POI markers currently on the board. We can move on to Red’s Action Phase.

Firefighter Red has to make an important decision here:

  • Head for the closest door, which is in the family room (just past the piano; not pictured), fighting fires every step of the way and hoping he does not have to face another explosion.
  • Chop his way through the external wall.
  • Head south, putting out the fire there and moving away from the open door.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Each of these options have positive and negative aspects. Heading into the inferno in the family room, with a helpless victim over his shoulder just doesn’t sound prudent. If there was another firefighter on the other side, maybe it would be workable. But there isn’t. On the other hand, that direction leads to the closest external door and safety…

Chopping through the external wall to the north sounds like a really good option at first. Except that he’d have to use all 4 of his APs to chop through the wall, and would have to wait until next turn to actually move out of his current space. Considering what just happened during Yellow’s Advance Fire phase, I can’t imagine he’s want to stay put and take his chances with the fire raging to his east and south.

So firefighter Red chooses the third option. He snuffs the fire to his south using 2 AP, and then carries the victim into that space with his remaining 2 AP. Now at least he is not directly adjacent to any Fire markers. And, more importantly, he’s now just on the other side of a wall from firefighter Yellow. Yellow can use her APs to chop down the wall, and Red can simply carry the victim through to safety on his turn.

Wrapping up this example, on Red’s “Advance Fire” phase he rolls Red:6/Black:4 and attempts to place a Smoke marker there. But, lo and behold, there is already a Fire marker in that space, so another Explosion occurs! Amazingly, the selected space is right next to the space that Yellow rolled on her turn (although not too amazing since I’m the one creating the example and I’m trying to make a point).

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

This time, when the Shockwave expands to the west, there is no bedroom door to hold it in check, so the flames leap right into the bedroom and into the space where firefighter Red and his victim would have been standing had he chosen to try to chop through the exterior wall. Another disaster averted due to Red’s good judgment!

I hope this brief graphical example has given you an idea of how the game is played, as well as some sense of the decisions that you’ll be faced with when playing Flash Point: Fire Rescue.


The Experienced Game

The Experienced Game takes just a bit longer to set up because there’s a lot more going on. It has three levels of play: RecruitVeteran, and Heroic, with Recruit being similar in difficulty to the Family Game, and “Heroic” being (as you might imagine) very difficult. I played at the Veteran level just to get a good sense of how much more difficult the game becomes.

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

Things become noticeably more difficult right from the setup. You have to randomly place, and then resolve, 3 Explosions. So, the center of my building was already an inferno, with three points of Wall Damage to boot! Add in the placement of 4 Hazardous Materials markers and 6 Hot Spots and you have all the ingredients for a bad day.

With the introduction of HazMat and Hot Spot markers, the “Advance Fire” phase of each player turn now has the potential to create a genuine conflagration!

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

But, on the positive side, the firefighters have enhanced capabilities as well. There is a Fire Engine which is capable of putting out fires in multiple spaces simultaneously. And each firefighter is assigned a “specialty”, by choosing a Specialist Card. The following specialties are available:

  • Paramedic – Can resuscitate a victim.
  • Fire Captain – Can “delegate” 2 AP each turn to another firefighter, essentially commanding that firefighter to move or Open/Close Doors during the Captain’s turn.
  • Imaging Technician – Reveal a POI marker anywhere on the board (detects “dummy” counters).
  • CAFS Firefighter – Gets 3 AP + 3 free Extinguish AP per turn.
  • Hazmat Technician – More efficient at removing HazMat markers (i.e. does not have to carry it like a victim)
  • Generalist – No special abilities but has 5 AP per turn.
  • Rescue Specialist – Get 4 AP + 3 free Movement AP per turn.
  • Driver/Operator – Can drive the fire engine and fire the “Deck Gun” (i.e. water cannon).

More than anything else, the introduction of special abilities puts additional burden on the players to cooperate and utilize their enhanced proficiencies to maximum advantage. The “system” grows exponentially more efficient in the Experienced Game. So too must the players if they hope to win. Having these advanced firefighting capabilities is great but only if used properly.

I would definitely recommend the Experienced version for older kids (13+), adults, or experienced gamers.


Summary

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue Board Game

There’s a lot of random luck (both good and bad) in this game, but performing actions efficiently requires thought and care on the part of the players. Sometimes there’s just a right and a wrong way to do things, and you’ve got to be right more often than you’re wrong. Coordination with your fellow firefighters is critical to the success of the team.

Do you focus initially on putting out the fires, letting the victims wait until the fire is more contained?

Remember that after every player turn, the fire will spread by an unknown amount. It could be just another Smoke space, or it could be an inferno that kills one or more of your helpless victims. So you must strike a balance between containing the fire and getting victims moved to safety.

Do you walk all the way from the game room, through the kitchen, dining room and play room to get to the victim in the small bathroom? Or do you just chop down the shared wall between the game room and the small bathroom?

Every wall you chop and every wall that is damaged by the fire has a cumulative effect on the stability of the building. A building collapse is the worst way to lose because it’s usually the result of bad decisions made earlier in the game.

With each game you play, proper techniques start becoming more apparent. For example, there’s definitely a right way to manage a large block of “Fire” spaces to minimize the repercussions of an Explosion/Shockwave. There are also times when it’s smarter to just move a victim to a safer location, put the victim down, and then return to fighting the fire, rather than charging into a perilous situation in a mad rush for the exit. But we’ll reserve those discussions for a future strategy article.

Bottom Line: The game got mixed reviews from the participants.

The younger ones felt that it could have been more exciting although it appeared to me that they were getting mini-adrenaline rushes here and there, while waiting to see if an Explosion was going to take them, and the hapless victim they carried, off to the afterlife. But I can understand that. Competing with the sensory stimulation of XBox, Playstation or mobile gaming devices is a tall order for a board game designer.

The experienced gamers and adult players found the Family Game a bit too simplistic, but thought the Experienced game was more fun.

Our 79 year old firefighter loved the game, but thought it went on too long (the Experienced game lasted just about 50 minutes). I think he would have considered a 30 minute session to be perfect.

My own opinion is that any game I can share with everyone from my youngest son to my father-in-law deserves high praise indeed. It really grew on me. The very first (Family/Basic) game I played was a bit of a dud as everyone was learning the rules and just kind of sleepwalking through the motions. But, with each subsequent game, I enjoyed it more and more. The firefighters “cooperative” won about half the time, which puts game balance right in the sweet spot. Each game progresses differently. Sometimes, things go so smoothly you just can’t imagine how you could possibly lose. Other times you see just how horribly wrong things can go if the “Advance Fire” rolls go against you. So there’s a sense of urgency in every game that most of us found enjoyable.

This was really my first experience with a “Euro” type game. I’m generally a hard-core hex map wargamer. But I have to say that I enjoyed Flash Point: Fire Rescue enough that I’ll probably try other Indie Boards & Cards games in the future. Congratulations to the designer and publisher on a job well done.

Now if I can get all my nephews to give it the thumbs up, I’ll be really impressed. I’ll write a follow up after they have a chance to play…

Central America: Review

A Close Look at a Neglected Gem

Central America


Overview

Central America, designed by James H. McQuaid and published by Victory Games in 1987, is an operational level war board game simulating historical and hypothetical conflicts in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. The country of Nicaragua is at the center of the conflict in most scenarios, but the game also includes scenarios depicting internal conflicts in El Salvador and secondary conflicts between Honduras and El Salvador. And, of course, potential outside intervention by the United States, Cuba and (to a lesser degree) the Soviet Union, comprises the foundation of this board game.

There are aircraft, helicopter and ground units represented in the game. Since the US has such naval dominance in that part of the world, actual naval units are not used in the game and “carrier groups” are simply map boxes used to hold aircraft. The military units of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Cost Rica, Cuba, United States and the Soviet Union are included, as well as all the various guerilla, insurgency and political factions in the region (FDN, ARDE, FMLN, etc.). There are even special scenario units for Israeli Mossad, Communist International, Libya and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), so we’re talking about a well researched project, not simply a “red units” vs. “blue units” kind of game.

Although designed as a two player game, it expands well to accommodate two additional players (one per side) and is even marginally enjoyable solitaire. The publisher assigns it a complexity level of between 7 and 10 (i.e. “High” to “Very High” complexity), although I disagree with the high end of those ratings. It’s a big game in the sense that there are a lot of units and a lot of rules, but I don’t believe it should be viewed as an extremely complex game, as we’ll discuss in more detail shortly (I find games like Gulf StrikeFlat Top, and Pacific War to be much more complex). The 22″ x 32″ map and other game components are par for the 1980’s. The map is legible, succinct and functional (but could have been made a bit larger).

This article will take a fresh look at Central America, evaluating the major facets of the game and highlighting what I consider to be some of the more salient and interesting features.


The Rules

OK, let’s get this issue out of the way right now. I remember, back when this board game was first published, the initial reactions of a lot of gamers to the magnitude of TRP (Total Rules Pages). Let’s examine this.

Central America Board Game

The rules are broken up into two major categories: Conventional Game Rules and Intervention Game Rules. There are also 16 Scenarios, or predefined game situations, included. Each scenario is designed to be played as either a “Conventional Game Scenario” or an “Intervention Game Scenario”. The Conventional rules contain all standard movement, combat and supply rules and just about half of the 16 scenarios can be played using these rules alone. The rest of the scenarios require the usage of the Intervention Game rules which address the special abilities of American military, the enhanced capabilities of certain units (“Guerrilla Attacks”), and Political rules and restrictions. Finally, there are a set of Optional Rules that enhance the realism of the simulation.

The various documents/booklets are as follows:

  • Conventional Game Rules of Play – 64 pages of rules just for the Conventional (or basic) game.
  • Intervention Game Rules of Play – 40 pages of rules for the Intervention game.
  • We don’t need to mention the 63 page Scenarios Booklet, because that does not need to be read, just referred to prior to setting up a scenario, and afterwards to evaluate the victory conditions.

Now I know this doesn’t exactly sound like anyone’s idea of “light reading”, but once you’ve actually looked at the various books, things seem more manageable.

Central America Board Game
First of all, they are some of the most unambiguous rules I’ve ever read. While they’re intimidating at first glance, you’ll find that the heft is due mainly to the focus on clarity. They probably used twice as many words as were absolutely necessary, just to make sure there were no misunderstandings. While that can be annoying at times, I prefer it to the alternative: too few words and prodigious ambiguity. But you learn to skim over the various sections, drilling down to the small details when something doesn’t click at first glance. There are nearly 6 pages, in the Conventional rule book, containing graphics and descriptions of the unit counters, a glossary, and an abbreviation list. Did we have to know that “PCS” is the abbreviation for the “Salvadoran Communist Party”? No. But it’s in line the with high quality of the product… and, by the way, I do want to know the definition of every abbreviation on the counters.

Secondly, not only is each rule explained in great detail, but almost every rule section contains a companion graphical example. It’s a bit hard to quantify exactly, but I’d say that the Conventional Rules book contains approximately 12 pages of pictures and explanatory text, 1 full page index, and 1 full page Game Information Summary on the back cover. The Intervention Rules have about 8 pages of pictures and explanatory text, 6 pages of historical background text, a 4 page detailed Sequence of Play, and a 1 page Intervention Game Information Summary on the back cover.

Central America Board Game

Scratch the two booklet cover pages and the Conventional Rules table of contents… and you eliminate about 42 pages of rules. So, now you’re left with about 62 pages of rules remaining. Still not “waiting room reading”, but more in line with other games like “Gulf Strike”, “Vietnam: 1965-1975”, “Sixth Fleet”, etc. And, as I mentioned earlier, the rules are quite verbose, using twice as many words as you need to absorb the content. So, if we now divide the remaining 62 pages of hard rules in half… we end up with the equivalent of 31 pages of rules!

OK, so I may have used-car-salesman’d this argument to the degree that I’m losing readers already, but my point is this: the rules are not as difficult as the thickness of the booklets would indicate. I was able to skim the sections, drill down a bit here and there, refer back as necesary while playing the smaller scenarios, and I mastered them in no time. There’s no need to found a university dedicated to the study of Central America rules. Don’t be put off by them. ‘Nuff said.


Game Features

The Combatants

Central America was designed as a two-player game, although it is well suited for team-play. The two top-level combatants are referred to broadly as the Communist player and the Allied player.

Central America Board Game

The bulk of the Communist player’s forces are made up of Nicaraguan national forces, also known as FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front), with strong air support from the Soviet and Cuban air forces. The Communist unconventional warfare capability is formidable, and is composed of the several guerilla groups (most notably the FMLN) operating in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, with the intention of destabilizing the U.S.-allied governments there.

There are several game scenarios that don’t involve significant American forces (other than the omnipresent CIA), but the most interesting scenarios allow for a wide array of U.S. ground forces (mostly rapid reaction types like 82nd Airborne and Marines), Air Forces and Naval Air power. They pack quite a punch, but are also a vulnerability as the victory point penalties in most scenarios are quite stiff for U.S. air and ground units lost in combat.

Central America Board Game

While Nicaraguan ground units are pretty sturdy, only Cuban and Soviet air units can give the American pilots a run for their money. There are no Soviet ground units in the game, but Cuban ground forces are quite powerful. Nicaragua also boasts a decent anti-air and EW capability.

Until American military units intervene, the Allied player is dependent on Honduran and El Salvadoran national armies to contain the sometimes aggressive Nicaraguans. The allied unconventional capability is provided largely by the notorious FDN and ARDE (aka “The Contras”) crossing into Nicaragua from bases in Honduras and Costa Rica to create trouble for the Soviet-inspired government there.

Central America

The various conflicts in Central America since the 1960s have generally been murky affairs, suggesting oversized interference by various world intelligence agencies, with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) preeminent among them. To reflect the CIA’s substantial (and covert) budget for the conduct of operations in the region, the CIA is accorded a powerful set of units including Engineer (ground combat), Entrenchment, Transport/Attack Helicopter, Electronic Warfare (EW) and Anti-Aircraft units. (The CIA probably never had so much firepower on tap again until after September 11, 2001).

Insurgency Units

Central America

One feature of Central America that differs from other “modern” warfare games I’ve played is the emphasis on Insurgency units. There are special placement, movement, disbanding and counterinsurgency rules that make Insurgency units potent, yet fragile, assets. They are weak relative to conventional ground combat units, yet they move fluidly through enemy Zones of Control, can disappear (Disband) and reappear elsewhere shortly afterwards, in a manner that is most frustrating to the conventional forces trying to hunt them down. There is even a specific Air Mission called Aerial Counterinsurgency, dedicated to the destruction of newly placed Insurgency units. You’ve got to learn to manage these units to best effect in order to win this game.

However, I found it a bit surprising when I discovered that, although they occupy a good chunk of the rules, Insurgency units’ only impact on combat is a +1/-1 (attacker/defender) modifier to the combat die roll. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Insurgency units. After all, they probably represent poorly trained recruits with the ability to blend in with the general population. I just thought they’d have a greater impact in combat. But the game design directs that Insurgency units are most effective when doing what they do best: (1) slipping past Zones of Control to help encircle an enemy or penetrate deep into enemy territory, and (2) appearing magically (via the Insurgency Placement procedure) where and when they’re needed most.

Central America

Also, if using the Intervention Ground Rules, Insurgency units may make special Guerilla Attacks against installations or a terrain feature (road, bridge, port, etc.).

So now that I’ve enumerated their capabilities, I guess Insurgency units are effective enough in their own way. They just don’t mean much in a “stand-up” conventional battle. Which is probably what the designer intended. OK, Mr. McQuaid, I think we’re on the same page now regarding Insurgency units…

Helicopters

Due to the generally low intensity nature of the conflict simulated in this game (excepting the horrendously destructive air battles between U.S. and Cuban/Soviet air forces), much emphasis is placed on Helicopter units. Helicopters have their own rules section separate and distinct from the rules for fixed wing aircraft. They are versatile units that provide the players with Bombardment StrikeClose Air SupportGround Combat Support (an operation permitted only to helicopters), Aerial CounterinsurgencyTransfer (Ferry), Transport Strike (Paradrops and Helicopter Assaults) and Escortmissions.

Central America

The Ground Combat Support mission is unique in that a Helicopter can be assigned to the defense of a particular ground unit, and then remain in the hex to support a subsequent counterattack by the same ground unit. Conversely, they can be assigned to offensive Ground Combat Support, and then stick around to defend against a potential enemy counterattack. This attack/defense or defense/attack combination is considered a single mission.

As has been the case since the Vietnam War, Helicopters provide the mobility required of a modern army in the type of inhospitable terrain that exists in the jungles and mountains of Central America. In the larger scenarios, both players are granted a considerable helicopter transport capability.

Fixed Wing Aircraft

Fixed wing air combat units are heavily represented, and the air battles can get quite intense as U.S., Nicaraguan, Soviet and Cuban air units battle to control the skies over Managua, the Carribean Sea, and the Pacific Ocean. Aircraft basing, movement and combat rules are straight-forward and don’t bog the game down as can happen in other “modern” warfare games. When compared to the air rules for one of my other favorite board games, Gulf Strike, at least 3 things immediately come to mind as improvements in Central America:

  • Detection – Rather than making the inactive player roll a die to see if an approaching enemy unit has been detected, Central America rules assume that if the enemy unit has entered friendly detection range, it’s automatically detected. Probably dampens the realism a bit, but it sure makes the game turns move along faster.
  • Air Combat Ratings – This rating applies to the general capabilities of the aircraft (“D” = Defensive, “S” = Slow, “J” = Jet) and determines the ability of air units to engage each other. For example, “S” air units cannot even attempt to intercept “J” units. This adds realism, in my opinion.
  • Movement to Combat – After detecting an enemy air unit in Gulf Strike, interceptors move two hexes, then the “interceptee” moves two hexes, then the interceptors move two more hexes, etc. This can sometimes lead to bizarre chase patterns as attacking air units travel in circles and arcs, attempting to outlast a pursuing aircraft that may have a lower movement allowance. In Central America, if the enemy air unit is in detection range, is within the movement radius of the potential interceptor, and the interceptor has sufficient Air Combat Rating to catch the invader (e.g. an “S” rated intecepter vs a “D” rated attacker), then the interceptor is moved directly to the hex with the attacker and combat ensues. This simulates combat air patrolling and is, in my opinion, superior to the Gulf Strike system (although a subsequent Gulf Strike variant did somewhat address this issue).

Fixed wing Air units are afforded the same wide range of missions as Helicopters, minus the “Ground Combat Support” missions (which simulate a helicopters ability to linger over the battlefield and more effectively influence the battle).

Combat

Both Ground and Air combat are very basic affairs, and the respective combat tables are not particularly bloody. This may be a conscious design decision due to the nature of the combat (I mean, we’re not blitzkrieg’ing here). But it surprised me a bit as I felt it was kind of a dull spot in a typically exciting game system. Most air and ground units can absorb 1 or 2 “Steps” of losses before being eliminated. Since the combat results tables generally dole out hits in “onesies and twosies”, don’t expect to be blowing away stacks of enemy units in your mad assault across the tapering isthmus.

Central America

In ground combat, basic combat odds are calculated in a standard fashion (1-to-1, 2-to-1, 3-to-1, etc.) and then the “Initial Combat Ratio” marker is placed on the proper odds column of the Ground Combat Table, in the row that matches the terrain where the defender is located. Terrain effects are built right into the table. For example, the Initial Combat Ratio marker would be placed in column 11 for a 2-to-1 attack in Clear terrain, but would be placed in column 8 for an attack upon a defender in Jungle terrain. The higher numbered columns yield better results for the attacker, thus demonstrating that a defender’s odds are better in Jungle terrain than Clear.

Once the “Initial Combat Ratio” marker is placed, other factors are checked to see if there will be any column shifts, either to the right (favoring the attacker) or to the left (favoring the defender). Column shifts are granted for various reasons, such as the presence of artillery, engineers, special forces, attack helicopters on Ground Support missions, etc. Combined arms attacks are well rewarded by the column shifts. After all column shifts are determined for both players, the “Current Combat Ratio” marker is placed in the resulting column.

From that point on, Combat resolution is simple. A die is rolled and possibly modified (+ or -) for other factors, such as defenders in fortifications or attackers assaulting across a river, etc. The modified die roll is cross-referenced with the combat ratio column to arrive at the combat result. The number on the left is the number of hits applied to the attacker; the number on the right, hits applied to the defender. If the background is shaded red, the attacker will have to retreat (yes, the attacker retreats in this game) or, if shaded blue, the defender must retreat.

That’s ground combat in a nutshell.

As I said before, there’s no sweeping armor operations happening in this game but, once U.S. ground and air units are fully engaged, you can expect the enemy bodycount to increase dramatically. So, while I may find the combat results tables a tad boring, they’re probably based on realistic assessments of casualty levels that would be expected in a low intensity conflict.

The Air Combat Table is a bit bloodier than the Ground Combat, depending on the Intensity Level. The Intensity Level is determined by the total number of aircraft engaged. The total includes all aircraft, even those without combat capability such as Transports and EW units. This determines the table (Low, Medium or High Intensity) on which the dogfight will be resolved.

Air Combat, in Central America, places great importance on Tactical Air Initiative, which is determined by:

  • Presence of EW/AWACS air units
  • Proximity to EW ground units (or Masaya, which is a huge EW/Radar center for the Communist Player. Kind of like a ground based AWACS.)
  • Proximity to Air Facilities
  • Air Combat Rating (if all “D” units are being attacked, the other player will always have Initiative, for example)

Central America

The player with Tactical Air Initiative gets to choose to be either the Attacker or the Defender in the coming combat. Why, you may ask, would an attacker with total Air Combat Value of 16 prefer to be the Defender against an opponent with total Air Combat Value of 6? Well, as the Attacker, 16 to 6 yields a 2-to-1 combat ratio. But as a defender in a 6 to 16 situation, your opponent would have to attack at 1-to-3 odds. Not an inconsiderable difference.

In Central America, an attacking player who is intercepted may designate, at the moment of interception, aircraft as Escorts to engage interceptors. I find this adds a bit more excitement to the air combat engagements as opposed to the Gulf Strike system where you have to designate your Escorts at mission inception.

Granted, the Gulf Strike system is probably more realistic since aircraft are armed differently depending on the mission assigned to them (e.g. Strike vs Escort). But it’s not unreasonable to expect that an F-18, armed for a strike mission, would have some type of anti-air capability. (Military pilots: please let me know if I’m totally wrong!)

And it sure makes for more interesting air combats, as a player can “re-purpose” aircraft as the situation changes. Keep in mind, however, that once an aircraft is used in combat as an Escort, it can no longer use its Bombardment values for the remainder of the mission.

Air Combat is similar to gound combat in that (1) an odds ratio is calculated, (2) die roll modifiers are applied, (3) losses are apportioned to either attacker or defender (or both). Most die roll modifiers are linked to the presence or proximity of EW units (ground or air) or air facilities.

It’s quick, it’s fun, and it’s a reasonable simulation of the type of air combat that would occur over Nicaragua. That said, it’s also very difficult for the Communist player to make a dent in the U.S. air armada, even with Soviet and Cuban help. That’s the price you pay for a “reasonable simulation”. Suffice it to say that the Communist player must be extremely judicious in his application of air power.

As I mentioned earlier, the rule books are just chock full of helpful examples, both text-based and graphical. Normally I spend a considerable amount of time designing and creating the graphics for game examples. In the case of Central America the examples are so well done that I can use the layout and text descriptions exactly as they appear in the rule book:


Central America Board Game - Ground Combat Example #1

Example of Ground Combat: The Communist player has two Nicaraguan 3-3-4 infantry brigades in hex 3308, two 3-3-4 brigades in hex 3407, and two 3-4-4 brigades in hex 3406. The Allied player has one Honduran 1-2-4 infantry battalion in hex 3207, two 1-2-4 battalions in hex 3307, and one reduced 0-1-4 battalion in hex 3405.

The Communist player could have his two 3-3-4 units in 3308 attack the 1-2-4 battalion in 3207 (6 vs. 2, which is simplified to a ratio of 3 to 1), his two 3-3-4 units in 3407 attack the two 1-2-4 battalions in 3307 (6 vs. 4, simplified in favor of the defender to a ratio of 1 to 1), and the two 3-4-4 units in 3406 attack the 0-1-4 battalion in 3405 (6 vs. 1, or 6 to 1). However, he wants to concentrate his strength against the two 1-2-4 units in 3307.

He decides to attack the 1-2-4 unit in 3207 with one 3-3-4 unit in 3208 (3 vs. 2, simplified to the ratio of 1 to 1) and to attack the 0-1-4 unit in 3405 with one 3-4-4 unit (3 vs. 1, or 3 to 1). He will have one 3-3-4 unit in 3308, the two 3-3-4 units in 3407, and one 3-4-4 unit in 3406 attack the two 1-2-4 battalions in 3307 (12 vs. 4, or 3 to 1). This attack is legal because all adjacent enemy units are being attacked by some Communist unit. The main reason the Communist player chose to attack in this manner was to negate the die roll modifier for river defense against the 1-2-4 units (the FSLN 3-4-4 unit in 3406 is already across the river).


Central America Board Game - Ground Combat example #2 (with Insurgency Units)

Example of Insurgency Units and Combat: A FSLN 1-1-4 insurgency battalion and the FSLN 2-2-4 Simon Bolivar (SB) special forces battalion use insurgency movement to move from hex 2509 to hex 2308, and an Insurgency Reserve marker has been placed on the stack. A Nicaraguan 2-3-4 infantry brigade in hex 2310 is attacking an FDN 1-2-4 infantry battalion in hex 2309; there is an FDN 1-1-4 insurgency battalion in hex 2307.

During the Ground Combat Phase, the Communist player decides to attack the FDN battalion in 2309 with the Nicaraguan brigade and the special forces unit. The combined Attack Value is 4 (2 + 2 = 4), which results in a 2-to-1 combat odds against the FDN unit. The Communist player receives a one-column shift for the special forces unit and a +1 die roll modifier because it is an insurgency unit. The combat results in the FDN being eliminated, and the Nicaraguan brigade pursues into the vacated hex.

The FSLN 1-1-4 insurgency unit must now attack the FDN insurgency battalion in 2307 (all adjacent enemy units must be attacked). The initial combat ratio is 1-to-1. Because both are insurgency units, the Allied player receives a -1 die roll modifier and the Communist player a +1 modifier, which cancel each other out. However, the FSLN unit is attacking across an unbridged river hexside, so a -2 die roll modifier is applied to the combat. The Communist player rolls the die to resolve the combat. In this case, the FSLN unit takes a step loss and is forced to retreat. The Insurgency Reserve marker remains on the special forces battalion because it was not affected negatively by its combat, and it can move one or two hexes during the Reserve Movement Phase.

The Map

The various Terrain Types and Features on the single 22″ x 32″ game map are clearly delineated and/or color-coded. A simple movement cost per terrain type, distinct for Armored units and Infantry units, makes learning the basics of ground unit movement a breeze. If I could make one improvement, it would be to increase the map size by about 20%-25%. Many important pieces of information (objective cities, airfields, national boundaries, Nicaraguan Border Mines, etc.) are printed directly on the map and players will find themselves constantly shifting pieces around to see what’s underneath.

Central America Board Game - Terrain Key

The map already contains 3/4″ hexes, and the units are 1/2″, so obviously someone at Victory Games saw the need for roomy hexes. But I would have gone a step further and made full 1″ hexes.

Some unique and notable map features:

  • Masaya Detection Range Indicators – Rather than having to count hexes to determine if your aircraft are within range of Masaya (the massive Nicaraguan EW/Radar facility), the radar’s range is marked on the map by small triangles. Thanks, Victory Games, I hate counting hexes…
  • Tiger Island – A CIA occupied island right in the middle of the Gulf of Fonseca, which abuts on El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, complete with air strip. Communist units using Boat Transport within 3 hexes of Tiger Island are likely to take a hit if a CIA EW/Engineers unit is present on the island. And one is always present…
  • Nicaraguan Border Mines – Small mine indicators on the map provide a visual cue if the optional Border Mines rule is being used. A real nuisance for Allied units attempting to cross into Nicaragua.
  • Supply Source Hexes – Outlined with a thick green border for easy identification.

Central America Board Game - Detection Ranges

All the combat tables and combat modifiers are shown right on the map, along with the Game Turn TrackVictory Point TrackPhase Track (so players can easily track which Game Turn Phase they’re in), and World Tension Track. All well organized and convenient.

Supply

Supply rules are sufficient to enforce some logistics discipline on both players but are not at all onerous. As expected, it’s the U.S. player that’s most affected by the Supply rules, since they’re the ones operating far from home, but most other units are in their home country and thus don’t really have to go far to draw the day’s rations. Once you become comfortable with the locations of all Supply Source hexes, and nail down the special rules for FSLN Logistics Supply Units (LSU)Supply Depots“Southern Airways Supply” and Hidden Supply Depots, the Supply rules are not much of a burden.


The Scenarios

One of the strongest features of this game is the variety of predefined scenarios, in general, and the Scenario Generation System, in particular.

Granted, the first few scenarios are quite uninspiring. But they are intended to be training scenarios; much like the “Programmed Instruction” method that I prefer. I like learning a new game by actually playing the game!. So the first four Central America scenarios, appropriately labeled “Introductory Scenarios“, ease you into the game system quite nicely. They address the core ground, helicopter and air rules. The most interesting of these is a single game turn scenario called “The SS-20 Incident” that enables the Allied player to unleash the full power of two carrier groups in an attempt to locate and seize an SS-20 nuclear missile the Soviets are attempting to place in Nicaragua.

The next five scenarios are identified as “Intermediate Scenarios“. They address a range of hypothetical conflicts from an all out civil war in El Salvador to an expansionist Nicaragua moving against its neighbors (and the inevitable US counter-invasion). While these scenarios utilize the full set of Conventional and Intervention rules, they are relatively short at 8 to 12 turns. Only one, “Civil War in El Salvador“, is longer, requiring 18 turns. The Intermediates also give us the first taste of the “Diplomacy” aspects of the game. For example, the Communist player is allowed to attempt to have FMLN/ERP (Salvadoran guerillas) insurgency units break their treaty with El Salvador, spends Insurgency Command Points to make the attempt, and then rolls on a “Diplomatic” table to see the results of his effort.

By the time you’ve played through these five scenarios, you’re more than prepared to take on the last, and largest, scenario group: the “Campaign Scenarios“.

The seven “Campaign Scenarios” are what this game is all about. The group starts off with the lone historical situation: “The 1979 Revolution” and then proceeds to the “what might have been” scenarios that suppose a major attack against the Sandinistas by the local insurgent groups (“Christmas War”), and an invasion of Honduras and El Salvador by Nicaragua ostensibly encouraged by the doves in the US government enforcing a strict “hands-off” policy (“The Contadora Intervention”). The final four campaign scenarios are designed for the hard-core gamer. “Operation Big Pine”, “Paper Tiger”, “Missiles of Red October”, and “World War III”. The names of these scenarios alone give you an idea that you’ll be engaging in a long term (20 to 45 game turns) contest for supremacy of either Capitalism or Communism in Central America. Toss in the complete set of optional rules that include Standoff Air AttacksCluster BombsChemical Weapons, and Nicaraguan Torpedo Boats and you’re in war-gaming-hog-heaven, my friends.

But wait. There’s more. Let’s say you spend two years or so, playing the hell out of these great Campaign Scenarios. First of all how many things (that only cost $30, at the time) can you derive two years of continuous enjoyment from? But, to help me make my point, let’s say that it’s been two years and now you’re just starting to get bored with the constraints of the scenarios. Enter the “Scenario Generation System”.

The Scenario Generation System

The Scenario Generation System, designed by Mark Herman and Michael E. Moore, is really the icing on the cake, as far as I’m concerned. It is what makes the political and military aspects of the game mesh to create a unique and engaging gaming experience.

Players can use the Random System, in which die rolls determine forces available and the general intensity of the conflict, or the Player Selection System, which allows the players to select these values. Either of these “generated” systems brings all of the following elements into play:

  • U.S. Doctrine – Non-Intervention, Monroe Doctrine, or Aggressive Support. This “doctrine” can either be chosen by the U.S. player or can be assigned randomly, depending on the System being used (see above).
  • Communist Doctrine – Non-Intervention, Brezhnev Doctrine, or Adventurism. (I know… why are we “Aggressive”, a perfectly acceptable behavior, but they were “Adventurists”, demonstrating a reckless disregard for all humanity?)
  • Preparedness Levels – For the Communist player, the mobilization and general preparedness of his Nicaraguan, Cuban and Soviet forces. For the Allied player, it refers to the preparedness of Honduran, Salvadoran, Costa Rican and FDN/Contra forces (does NOT include Americans).
  • U.S. Intervention Level – A measure of how committed and prepared U.S. forces are for the coming conflict, and how relaxed the rules of engagement will be. This level can be increased and/or decreased during the course of the game.
  • World Tension and World War III – Certain player actions and events can increase World Tension, possibly leading to World War III. For example, the conquest by Communist forces of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, or the first time U.S. and Soviet aircraft engage in combat.
  • The War Powers Act and the Temperament of the U.S. Congress – This critical measure can result in a range of events from Forced U.S. Withdrawal to a U.S. Declaration of War, and thus can have an enormous impact on U.S. operations in the conflict.

Central America Board Game - Scenario Generator

These options create a real-world flow to the game. Imagine an aggressive US player, loaded for bear, attacking a half-mobilized Nicaragua. Not a very competitive situation at first glance. But what if, due to a sitting US Congress determined to enforce the 30-day provision of the War Powers Act, the US player now only has 15 game turns, representing 30 days, from the first appearance of US forces until the time they must withdraw completely?

The game becomes a completely different contest… a much more interesting and balanced one.

It’s impossible to convey all the nuances and interactions of the Scenario Generation system in the small amount of space available for this review. Besides, that’s what the rulebook is for. Click on the image to the left to see a larger view of some of the charts, tables and record-keeping dedicated to Scenario Generation. It will give you a better sense of the type of information that’s being tracked how it interacts (sorry, it’s not a great scan).


Summary

Central America was not very well received when it was released. I can’t quote the sales figures; I’m just talking about the general concensus among my gaming friends at the time. I’m not sure why it didn’t make a better showing, exactly, and I’ve never heard a convincing explanation from an authoritative source. The whole Iran/Contra affair was a really nasty business and the game was released at the tail end of it, yet while it was still fresh in everyone’s mind. This may have soured a lot of gamers on the whole premise. It’s also possible that the word of mouth about the massive rule books put people off (I remember hearing such talk at the time), but there are other successful games with daunting rules. It’s also plausible that I’m in the minority in my belief that it’s an interesting game, and maybe most folks just didn’t enjoy it. In any event, I played this game quite a bit back in the early 1990’s and, while I never enjoyed it as much as some other Victory Games titles from the 1980’s, I do recall being totally engaged by Central America and being disappointed at my inability to entice a larger number of opponents (only had two opponents, one of whom was my father – and we did play the hell out of it over one summer).

No matter how much time has passed, I’ve gotten the “bug” again and will be playing Central America at every opportunity. One of the most wonderful aspects of the board gaming hobby is that there’s no expiration date on the games. A board game that was enjoyable and challenging in 1987 can still be just as enjoyable and challenging today (July 2012, as I write this). In fact many of the nascent games of our pastime depicted battles from decades past, as in the case of the slew of WWII games that appeared in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Central America, in my opinion, earns an additional lease on life due to the fact that the dreaded “Central American conflagration” never actually happened, leaving us free to try different strategies, unencumbered by historical biases. I’ll be prodding all my gaming buddies to give Central America a try and hope to gain enough renewed experience and expertise to write up some helpful strategy articles. If anyone has some experience with this game, and would like to share, we’d enjoy hearing from you.

Long neglected by the war gaming community, Central America deserves another look, and some evaluation time on every war gamer’s table.

First Blood: Second Marne – Review

A review of “First Blood: Second Marne”, published in Strategy & Tactics Magazine #248

First Blood Second Marne Board Game

Overview

First Blood: Second Marne, designed by Ty Bomba and published in Decision Games “Strategy & Tactics” magazine issue #248, is a low complexity, two player, war board game which simulates a World War I assault by combat-tested German troops of the 10th and 36th Infantry divisions against the relatively green 38th Infantry Regiment of the US 3rd Infantry Division. Fought along the Marne river in France in July of 1918, the Germans had to make a contested river crossing to attack the Americans, a clear disadvantage. The Americans, although well trained and led by 56 year old Colonel Ulysses Grant McAlexander, were entirely inexperienced in large scale combat, hence the “First Blood” moniker.

The battle simulated in this game was actually part of one of five large German offensives designed to shatter Allied morale, take the British out of the war, and force the French to negotiate a settlement, before the Americans became engaged in large numbers.

German tacticians no longer gave credence to the orderly pre-20th century belief of advancing on a unified interlocking front, but rather allowed their spearhead forces, known as “storm troopers”, to penetrate deep into enemy territory, disrupting enemy logistics and command. Follow up forces could then reduce bypassed strong points at their leisure. This presaged the “blitzkrieg” offensives of WWII and is replicated in the game by means of special German victory conditions (more below).

Of course, being a World War I simulation, massed artillery attacks are represented in the game. In the actual battle, standard high explosive artillery was employed to good effect, particularly by the Americans who opened up with counter-battery fire against German units on the north side of the Marne River about 10 minutes before the German batteries were scheduled to open fire on the Americans on the south shore. As most of the initial barrages had been pre-sighted, they inflicted much damage on both sides but, as the day continued and communication between front and rear echelon units degraded, artillery became much less effective.

Editor’s Note: Another Ty Bomba/Soldiers inspired game is upcoming in S&T #280 (May 2013) titled “Decision in the Trenches”.

Poison gas rounds, although used extensively by both sides, had become so routine by this stage of the war they were practically ineffective, and the entire 30th Division reported only 70 gas casualties during the entire battle.

So, in the end, the Second Battle of the Marne was an infantry contest, with small unit leadership and tactics the deciding factors of the day. Although outnumbered by the Germans (the companion S&T Magazine story states approx 4,000 Germans vs. 2,800 Americans), the American defense in depth was able (barely) to prevent any significant German breakthroughs until the end of the day, when the Germans were ordered to retreat and regroup. It was, however, a very near thing. Colonel McAlexander had to put “cooks and clerks” up on the firing line to staunch the German advance, but the job got done.

The game recreates this situation well. All German units are infantry units. Of 57 total American units, 48 are standard infantry and the remaining 9 are called “Heavy Weapon Emplacements”, essentially heavy machine guns with extended range, but firepower equal to standard infantry units. Artillery is a factor in the game, but not a decisive one. It can facilitate a breakthrough here and there, but will be less and less effective as the game goes on. The burden of victory falls squarely on the shoulders of the infantry.


Game Rules and Components

First Blood Second Marne

The game components are high quality, nicely rendered and easy on the eyes. The light gray of the German combat units may be a bit too close on the color wheel to the light olive drab of the American units but, surprisingly, I never had any difficulty distinguishing between the two (and it helps that the gray units have pictures of Germans on them while the olive drab units have pictures of American soldiers). The unit counters are also 5/8″ in size which provides a lot more clarity than 1/2″ units.

Each infantry unit has three numeric values: Fire Factors, Movement Allowance and Range. The Range is the maximum distance, in hexes, that a unit can see and effectively target with fire factors. American Heavy Weapon Emplacement units are only slightly different in that they don’t have a Movement Allowance since they are prohibited from moving once placed. They have identical fire power, but much longer Range than standard infantry units.

First Blood Second Marne

All American infantry units have identical values for Fire Factor, Movement and Range (4, 4 and 4), while Fire Factors for German units will range from “1” to “7”. German units are generally pulled randomly from a cup, so even the German player cannot plot to have a unit of a certain strength appear in a pre-designated time. Germans have no unit types other than standard infantry.

First Blood Second Marne

Since the publisher went through the trouble of back-printing the unit counters, I may as well mention that each unit has a “carnage” flip-side that depicts several dead soldiers. The idea is that, when a unit is eliminated, you flip it to its carnage side where it remains for the rest of the game. Carnage units have no purpose and are strictly for adding some World War I “flavor” to the game. I find it a bit goofy and opt to remove units from the map when they’re eliminated. It doesn’t offend me, but I’m just playing a strategy game and don’t really need graphic reminders that thousands of men died in the real battle. Besides, I hate unnecessary map clutter…

The game map is well drawn and uncluttered. All required charts and tables are easily visible and clear. In this game a unit’s defensive strength is drawn from the terrain the unit occupies, not from any value of the unit itself (e.g. “1” strength German units are just as hard to kill as “7” strength units), so a clear, well-defined map greatly facilitates game play.

All German units (with a few possible exceptions due to random events) enter the game by being placed along the southern shore of the Marne River, which is located at the northern end of the map. In general, the German player’s units will be driving south, attempting to engage and destroy the American units while also attempting to exit the south edge of the map. Running north/south down the middle of the map is the Surmelin River Valley, which contains a few small towns and is beset east and west by woods.

Both players should get to know the map well, because proper axes of advance can be the key to victory for the Germans, as can suitable defensive positions for the Americans. As mentioned earlier, terrain provides defensive strength for units under fire. Prepared Position hexes provide the best defense followed by TownWooded HillsMarne River BankRailroadSurmelin River and, weakest of all, Clear hexes.


Setting Up For Play

The Setup

American setup is critically important, as it will influence that player’s ability to react to German movement and assaults. Placing a dozen American units in the middle of the Bois de Conde will likely keep them safe from German fire, but it will certainly preclude them from taking any effective part in the overall American defense!

There are two American setup “zones”; the US Forward Zone and the US Rear Zone. In the first graphic, below, the American Forward Zone is the area highlighted in light green (including the two hexes of Hill 231. A total of 16 US Infantry units and 8 of the 9 Heavy Weapon emplacements must be setup in this zone. Note that the Varennes town hexes are off limits, forcing most of the Heavy Weapon Emplacements to be situated in the vulnerable area north of the Paris-Metz road.

First Blood Second Marne

The remaining 32 American infantry units must be set up in the US Rear Zone which consists of any Wooded Hills hexes or any Town hexes in Crezancy or Paroy. Basically, the bulk of the US units start out too far south to have any impact on the first game turn.

Initial German setup, on the other hand, is very constrained. Thirty units are randomly drawn and placed one at a time in each of the Marne Riverbank hexes. Although he has the advantage of setting up last, the German player cannot concoct any concrete battle plan prior to seeing how the random setup distributes his strong and weak units along the Marne River.

The graphic below shows the initial setup of forces in the northwestern part of the map. A brief sample of the first game turn will plot the course of the action in this sector during the crucial first turn.

First Blood Second Marne - Setup


Victory Conditions

The primary victory objective, for both players, is brutally simple: eliminate every one of your opponent’s units. The German player has an alternate victory condition that may be met by exiting units off a specific section of the south game map edge. The Germans begin near the north edge of the map, so exiting off the south edge means having to run the American gauntlet. In the original version of the game, there is no time limit. The German can take an unlimited number of turns to accomplish his mission. Alternate rules were published that proposed limiting the game to 16 turns.


The Game Turn

The next section is an abbreviated overview of the game turn sequence. Let’s assume that the Americans have decided to hold a tight defensive line along the east/west railroad tracks just south of the Marne River, leaving a small gap east of the town of Mezy, and a larger gap in the northeast. Other American units (not pictured) are set up further east. Two Heavy Weapon Emplacements are placed in the two hexes of Hill 231. Finally, American “Rear Zone” units are placed densely along the northwest edge of the Bois de Conde, to reinforce the north eastern sector. Additional strong groups are placed in the towns of Crezancy and Paroy. These units will be tasked with preventing the Germans from overrunning the weak rail line sector near the town of Mezy in the northeast.

It seems that the luck of the draw has left the northwestern German sector relatively weak. High strength “shock units” (Fire Factors of “5”, “6” or “7”) are few and far between. If the Germans are to make a credible push down the western side of the Surmelin River valley, strong reinforcements will be needed here.

Both sides are now prepared to begin the game turn. All game turns are made up of 12 distinct Phases that are followed in strict sequence:

Random Events Phase

As the name implies, this phase consists of rolling two dice and checking a chart that lists nine “events” which did, or may have, happened in the real battle. Some examples include German Artillery Problems, which makes German artillery less effective for the duration of the game turn, and Intense Poison Gas Attacks which reduces the movement allowance and visibility distance of ground combat units. The events generally favor the German player, with five of them favorable to the Germans and only two specifically favorable to the Americans.

This phase is skipped on game turn 1, so we’ll move along to the next phase.

German Reinforcement Phase

The German player rolls four dice and may bring that number of randomly drawn infantry counters on to the map, starting in the Marne Riverbank hexes near the north edge of the map. This phase is also skipped on game turn 1.

German First Bombardment Phase

There are six Bombardment markers in the game: three “heavy” bombardment and three “light” bombardment. The heavy bombardment markers have attack strength of 6 and the light bombardment markers have only 4 strength. The German player is free to place these markers on any hex occupied by American units that are also within Line of Fire (LOF) (aka “line of sight”) of one or more German units. Remember that each unit has its own LOF range printed on it, but since all German units have the same rating of “4”, it’s not hard to remember.

As the initial German landings along the banks of the Marne took place very early in the morning, special LOF rules apply to game turn 1. Every unit’s LOF is reduced to “2” for the duration of the turn. With this limitation in force, there aren’t a tremendous amount of legal targets for the Germans (at least in the area of the map that this example is focused on). The Germans decide to attempt blowing a hole in the center of the American line along the Surmelin River and place 16 Bombardment factors against the American unit in hex 3326 and 14 Bombardment factors against the enemy in hex 3227.

First Blood Second Marne Board game

Normally, each placed Bombardment marker is checked for “drift” which may ultimately cause it to end up outside the target hex, either on another unit (maybe even your own) or an empty hex. American artillery, in this game, has slightly better odds of remaining on target, but may also drift. Special game turn 1 rules state that drift is not checked on turn 1, assuming that both sides had pre-sighted their artillery tubes for the start of the battle, so we will not check drift in this example.

Bombardment attacks are resolved just like regular fire attacks (which you will see shortly). The total bombardment strength is compared against the defense factors of the terrain in the target hex. Both American units are in Railroad hexes that have a defense factor of “4”. So the first attack is “16” to “4”, which resolves to a 4-to-1. Therefore the German must roll “4” or less on a single die in order to eliminate the target unit. He rolls a “3”, destroying the American unit in hex 3326. The next attack is “14” to “4”, resolved to a 3-to-1 attack. Therefore a “3” or less must be rolled to score a kill. He rolls a “2”, eliminating the enemy unit in 3227 as well.

All attacks in the game follow the same pattern. The total fire factors are compared against the defense factors of the target hex to arrive at a combat ratio. Each unit in the target hex then undergoes an attack using that same ratio.
Since it’s impossible to roll less than a 1 on a six-sided die, odds of less than 1-to-1 are not allowed and, although the rules do not explicitly state it, it would only make sense that odds of 6-to-1 or greater are considered an automatic elimination.

US First Bombardment Phase

The American Bombardment phases are identical to the German Bombardment phase just described. In our example, the American commander is less concerned with his artillery targeting any particular sector, but more focused on targeting the strongest German units within his units’ LOF. He assigns “12” Bombardment factors to the “7” strength enemy unit in hex 2930, “12” factors to the “6” strength unit in hex 3029 and (a longshot) “6” Bombardment factors to another “6” strength unit in hex 3228.

First Blood Second Marne Board Game

Starting with the weakest attack, “6” Bombardment factors against the “4” defense factors of a Marne Riverbank hex, the die roll is “6”, which is higher than the “1” required to score a hit in a 1-to-1 attack. The next two attacks are both 3-to-1 attacks, one of which succeeds (a roll of “2” against the German “7” strength unit) and one which fails (a roll of “4” against the “6” strength unit). The “7” German unit is eliminated.

German Movement Phase

Remaining cognizant of the victory conditions, the German player charges forward, across the board. He will attempt to close with and destroy as many American units as he can, but bypassing them when possible.

First Blood Second Marne

Even though he knows the “US First Fire Phase” is next and he is exposing his units to the full force of American fire power, on the worst defensive terrain possible, the German player decides to press ahead because he wants surviving friendly units adjacent to enemy units where their fire will be more effective. Besides, his reinforcements will be coming next turn, and the next, and the next… so his tolerance for accepting casualties is high.

US First Fire Phase

The US may now fire on any German unit that is within its LOF which, recall, for turn one is limited to 2 hexes. Each American unit may fire at one German target. Units may combine fire factors against one target. Fire may be conducted in any order, as long as no American unit fires more than once, and no German unit is targeted more than once.

The graphic below shows each American firing unit’s target, the odds of each attack, and Xs to indicate successful fire rolls that have eliminated the targeted German unit. If a firing unit is directly adjacent to the target unit, it is considered a Close Assault and the firing unit’s Fire Factors are doubled. In addition, if the target unit is eliminated, one or more firing units may advance into the target hex.

First Blood Second Marne Board Game

I’ll briefly review the fire combats that are taking place, starting from the west and working east:

  • The “7” strength German unit in hex 4127 is targeted by the US infantry in hex 4125. Note that since the turn 1 special rules limit LOF to 2 hexes the Heavy Weapon Emplacement, which normally has a range of 10 hexes, cannot fire at any German units. So “4” American fire factors are compared against the “2” defense strength of the clear terrain occupied by the German unit, yielding odds of 2:1. The American rolls a “1” and eliminates the target unit. As this was not a Close Assault, the Americans do not have the option of advancing.
  • US Infantry in hex 3725 fires at the German unit in hex 3726. Due to adjacency, US fire factors are doubled to “8” and compared against the clear terrain defensive factor of “2”, resolving to a 4:1 ratio. The US rolls a “3” and it’s another dead German unit. This time the American player may advance the firing unit into the vacated hex, but chooses not to, preferring to retain the defensive benefits of the rail road hex it currently occupies.
  • The next attack is a 4:1 from hex 3626 to hex 3627. A die roll of “5” causes a miss and the German “5” strength unit will live to fight another day.
  • US infantry in hex 3526 targets, and eliminates, the German unit in hex 3527.
  • US infantry in hex 3426 fires at, and misses, the target unit in hex 3427.
  • US Heavy Weapon Emplacement in hex 3323 fires at, and misses the target unit in hex 3224.
  • Marne Riverbank hexes have a defensive strength of “4”, so the US assigns three units to fire at the German “6” strength unit in hex 3029. The American player surely wants to take out a powerful unit like that and so assigns the resources necessary to do the job. Two of the US infantry units are adjacent, which doubles their fire factors for a total of “16”. Then adding in the “4” additional fire factors from the infantry unit in hex 3127 brings the total fire factors to “20”, and the combat odds to 5:1. A “2” is rolled and the unit is eliminated.
  • The American in hex 2829 fires into hex 2830 which contains two German units. Both units undergo a separate 4:1 attack. The US player is hot with the dice and eliminates them both.
  • Finally there is one remaining 4:1 attack from hex 2729 to hex 2730, and another powerful “6” strength German unit is taken out.

German casualties are removed and we move on to the next phase.

German First Fire Phase

Although they’ve been more than decimated, the Germans fire back with remaining eligible units, confident in the fact that numbers will tell, and the Americans will run out of riflemen before they do.

First Blood Second Marne Board game

Notice that none of the first four German units on the west side of the map can even fire due to the 2 hex LOF restriction on turn 1. So, the German retaliatory fire is as follows:

  • The two adjacent infantry units join together to target hex 3526. Both units are doubled due to adjacency (i.e. Close Assault) which resolves to a 4:1 attack (8 attacking fire factors doubled vs. railroad defense strength of “4”). The roll is a “2” and the American unit goes down. The German player chooses to advance one of his victorious units into the railroad hex to get the defensive benefit.
  • Two German infantry fire on the US Heavy Weapon Emplacement in hex 3323, generating combat odds of 14:3 (7 attacking fire factors doubled vs. Surmelin River hex defense of “3”) simplified down to 4:1. A roll of “1” eliminates the American and once again the German decides to advance to take advantage of the improved defense value of the river hex.
  • The final attack is a 1:1 attack launched by the “2” strength unit in hex 3128, doubled to “4”, vs. the American unit in hex 3127, with a railroad defense strength of “4”. The German player rolls a “6” and therefore misses.

US Movement Phase

Things have been going very well for him up to this point, but the American player now has a choice to make. Since the very next phase will be another German Fire Phase, should he take advantage of this phase to move his units out of German fire range? This would leave the German player unable to fire at any of his units in the upcoming “German Second Fire Phase”, but will also leave his American units unable to fire at the Germans in the following “US Second Fire Phase”!

First Blood Second Marne Board Game

Another consideration is the fact that, by moving away from the Germans (presumably south), he’ll be giving up vital real estate, as well as the advantageous railroad defensive line.

Our American player chooses to quit while he’s ahead and move out of range of German units where possible, withdrawing into the towns of Mezy and Moulins, as well as falling back to positions along the north/south railroad line. The only units that remain in place are the two infantry in the northeast sector of our example map. The reason those are left in place is because the “1” strength German unit cannot muster enough fire power (even when doubled) to achieve 1:1 odds against the US units on the railroad, so there is no immediate danger.

Note that the US Heavy Weapon Emplacements are not eligible to move… ever. This is a really big American disadvantage in the game.

Finally, there are substantial US units moving north from their setup location in the cities of Crezancy and Paroy. The Paroy units, moving double their movement allowance along the road, are now located just south of the area covered by this example map and will be fully engaged during turn 2.

German Second Fire Phase

As the American player has planned, there are precious few targets for the Germans to fire at. The only target-able US unit is the infantry counter in hex 3125, in the town of Moulins. The “1” strength German unit has a clear, 2-hex range, shot at him. The “6” strength unit in hex 3323 is eligible to shoot because his line of sight runs right along the edge of blocking terrain (the town hex in 3223) and, according to rules, if the LOF runs along the edge of a hex and only one side of the line has blocking terrain, then the line of sight is not blocked.

First Blood Second Marne Board Game

So, the German player takes his one shot, and it’s not a very good one either. The total of attacking fire factors is “7” and the defense strength of the target town hex is “6”, making this a 1:1 attack. The German player comes close, rolling a “2”, but not good enough to register the hit. Play moves on to the next phase.

Again the weak “1” strength German unit in hex 2929, even when doubled, does not generate the minimum 4 fire factors required to target the American infantry unit in hex 2829, and so the German Second Fire Phase ends.

US Second Fire Phase

The US player is now in the same boat as the German player was, except that the defense strength of hex 3323 (Surmelin River hex) is only “3”, allowing the “4” strength US infantry unit in Moulins to attempt a 1:1 attack. He also rolls a “2”, failing to score a hit.

First Blood Second Marne Board game

In addition, the American units in hexes 2829 and 2729 do have enough fire factors to make a credible attack on the German unit in hex 2929. The combat odds will be 3:1 (8 factors for the adjacent US unit + 4 factors for the non-adjacent unit vs. “4” defense strength of the Marne Riverbank hex). The US die roll is “6” which fails to score the hit! This failure will come back to haunt the US player during the Second Bombardment phases, below.

So ends the movement and fire phases for game turn 1. The US strategy of preserving units by avoiding contact has worked. It just remains to be seen if that was a good strategy to pursue in the first place!

German Second Bombardment Phase

Still operating under the restrictive LOF rules for game turn 1, the German can only target what he can “spot” within 2 hexes. This means that he can target the US infantry in the town of Moulins that he’s been trading fire with. Or, due to the American failure to eliminate the weak “1” strength German infantry in hex 2929, he may use that unit to spot, allowing him to target either of the US infantry units near it. He decides to allocate 16 Bombardment factors to the US unit in hex 2829, causing a 4:1 attack, and the remaining 14 Bombardment factors to the US unit in Moulins hex 3123.

First Blood Second Marne

Since there is no possibility of “drift” on game turn 1, the attacks proceed as is. A die roll of “3” eliminates the American unit in hex 3123 and a roll of “1” eliminates the enemy unit in Moulins hex 3123! The Germans end their portion of the turn with a bang!

US Second Bombardment Phase

The elimination of the US infantry unit in Moulins leaves the US player with only one single German unit that can be “spotted” and thus targeted with artillery: the weak “1” strength unit in hex 2929. So, lacking other options, the US player assigns all 30 Bombardment factors to that single German unit. “30” Bombardment factors vs. “4” defense factors for the Marne Riverbank hex nets a 7:1 battle, which is an automatic elimination.

First Blood Second Marne Board Game

The German “1” strength unit is removed and the game turn ends.


End of Turn Assessment

At first glance, you’d be tempted to say the Germans got their clock cleaned as there aren’t many of them remaining on our example sector of the map. 6 American units and 9 German units were eliminated. More importantly, 35 German Fire Factors were wiped out as compared to 24 American Fire Factors. It all sounds very positive from an American point of view until you consider that all German units in the counter mix total 448 Fire Factors while the American total is only 228! 35 to 24 falls considerably short of the 2:1 kill ratio required for the US to outlast the Germans.

Near the start of game turn 2, the Germans will be receiving anywhere from 4 to 24 reinforcement units. That’s units, not Fire Factors. The amount of Fire Factors in 4 to 24 units could potentially range from 4 to 160 Fire Factors, though the average is usually about 14 units with a total of 55 Fire Factors. Even so, a constant stream of 55 Fire Factors per turn (until all German reinforcements are placed) puts tremendous pressure on the US defenders. So, once again, the game system is much more forgiving of German missteps, as the German player has a better chance of recovering from his errors than the American player does.

Finally, take a good look at the American positions in the first graphic (“Initial Setup of Forces”), above, and compare it to the last one in the series (“US Second Bombardment Phase”). This graphically illustrates the deterioration of the American position, and the challenges he’ll face to bring the situation back under control.


Summary

First Blood: Second Marne is the type of game that only takes minutes to learn, but provides countless hours of entertainment while trying new strategies. It usually plays in two to four hours, allowing for a complete game or two in a single sitting.

But no game is perfectly balanced or free of bias, and First Blood: Second Marne is no exception. The game presents an extremely challenging situation for the American player. The Germans have a much easier task to perform, in my opinion. For the German player, the challenge is really more about how badly and quickly you can defeat the Americans rather than if you can beat them.

The absence of any Game Turn limit tips play balance too heavily in favor of the Germans. The real battle lasted a single day, and the Germans had one chance to break through the Surmelin River valley. There could have been tactical adjustments here and there, but there would have been no time to, for example, regroup north of the railroad line and then start again. In the game, the Germans could regroup any number of times, possibly sitting back and letting their artillery work for 15 or 20 turns, then resuming the offensive. It almost makes an American victory impossible. I strongly endorse the optional 16 game turn limit.

The American player must maintain at least a 2:1 kill ratio in order to win the game (without turn limits, that is), and that’s a pretty tall order. And, because a target unit’s defensive strength is derived from the hex in the terrain it occupies, it takes just as much American effort to kill a “1” Fire Factor German unit as it does to kill a “7” Fire Factor German unit.

However, I think it is apparent from the brief example shown above that once the American player becomes competent, opportunities abound for thwarting a German player who does not stay on his toes. It’s really quite a fascinating tactical situation and, while I’ve just scratched the surface of plausible American and German strategies, I see the game becoming surprisingly deep, in an almost chess-like manner. Although recurring patterns develop, there seems to be limitless variety in the way the maneuvers and combat finally resolve. The initial setup options for Americans in the Forward Zone can vary, but those options are exhausted fairly quickly, probably in no more than 6 or 7 play throughs. However, the secondary strategies are what give this game tremendous replay value.

When I say “secondary” strategies, I’m referring to Rear Zone setup and troop utilization for the Americans, and reinforcement placement for the Germans. Do the Americans go for the “defense in depth” that Colonel McAlexander favored? And, if so, can they execute it as masterfully as he did? Or do they opt for defending “with one foot in the river”, laboring to destroy the Germans as they arrive on the south riverbank of the Marne? Crowding all available American firepower forward, in close contact with arriving German reinforcements, will furnish the US with a superior level of killing power vis-a-vis the Germans arriving piecemeal. But let’s not overlook the fact that some Germans will survive… and shoot back! And that they have a nearly 2:1 advantage in overall firepower which will exact a heavy toll on the irreplaceable US troops.

In the final analysis, you can overlook a lot of flaws in a game if you really enjoy playing it. I truly enjoyed playing First Blood: Second Marne, and didn’t think there were that many flaws to overlook! True, it tips more towards the shallow end of the complexity pool (which I consider a minor negative, but you may not!), but it made me think. And it kept me coming back for more.

In the not too distant future, we will be featuring strategy articles on this game. I’m determined to devise the “perfect” American strategy that has thus far eluded me. Even after half a dozen plays, and several months of pondering strategies, I’m not tired of this game yet. And that’s high praise indeed.

Empire of the Sun: Review

A long overdue review of Mark Herman’s Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun Board game review


Overview

Empire of the Sun, designed by Mark Herman and published by GMT Games, is a card driven, strategic level board game of combat in the Pacific theater during World War II. It’s basically a two player game although it plays well as a four player game. The map covers the entire extended theater of operations, from China, Japan and Alaska in the north to Australia and Fiji in the south; from India on the western part of the map to Hawaii on the eastern end. It is a hex-based game which is unusual in that most card driven games tend to be “area movement” type games.

The game contains ground, air and naval units. The ground units are mostly Corps or Army sized units with the occasional division or regimental sized unit thrown in (e.g. US Marines, Japanese special naval infantry units, etc.) Air units represent large formations such as air wings and regional air forces. Naval units may represent either a small mix of capital ships, battleships and carriers (which generally bear the name of a single ship) or larger groups of cruisers, light cruisers, destroyers, etc.

Combat is an interesting game sub-system where luck plays a significant role, but not a dominant one. Proper force composition prevents an unlucky roll of the dice from becoming a disaster. Carriers and ground-based air assets are given the weight they deserve and air Zones of Influence (ZOI) are a key concept to be grasped before this game can be played well.

The number of strategic and tactical options, coupled with a variety of paths to victory, are what give this game its extensive replay value. I’ll address Political Will and victory conditions later in the article.

As I contemplated this review, it was hard to decide where to begin. Each scenario I played revealed another aspect of the game that I wanted to cover in my review. Rather than risk paraphrasing the entire rule book, I decided to focus on elements that a game consumer would want to know about when deciding whether or not to purchase the game. Not a lot of detail but a good, solid overview. Over the next few months, we’ll be following up with articles that address specific facets of the game in more detail.


The Setup

I realize that setup instructions may not be high on every gamer’s priority list, but confusing setup instructions are one of my pet peeves so I have to mention it. I need to know that when I get my newly purchased game home, I can set it up quickly and begin the learning process immediately. Empire of the Sun scores very highly in the setup department. There is a Master Scenario Setup List in the rule book that lists the complete setup locations for each yearly scenario as well as the full campaign scenario. Perfect.


The Rules

When the game was first released, I heard quite a bit of complaining about the rules; how confusing and disorganized they were. My first play of the game was with the version 2.0 rules, so I can’t comment on the early “confusion”. But I must say that some parts of the v2.0 game rules can, with some justification, be considered “fiddly”. Now “fiddly” is an adjective that’s difficult to define… but I know it when I see it. Let’s just say you will find yourself flipping back and forth through the rule book quite a bit until you get fully comfortable with the game system.

Overall, when considering the number of moving parts that must (and mostly do) mesh seamlessly to make the game work, I’d have to say the rules do a decent job of making it all digestible.


The Cards

Empire of the Sun

Each side has its own deck of approximately 80 playing cards which drive the game’s action, hence the “card-driven” moniker. Besides a unique card identification number and a general card “type” (informational), each card displays three important pieces of information:

  • Operations Value
  • Events
  • Intelligence Values

When a card is played to conduct an offensive (the term used in Empire of the Sun for a player action or operation), it may be played as an Event Card (EC) or as an Operations Card (OC).

Operations Value

Empire of the Sun

When played as an OC, the operations number in the upper left corner determines (or partially determines) how many units you may activate and how far they may move. For example, if the U.S. player played a 2 Ops card and designated the ANZAC HQ as the “activating” HQ, he would be able to activate 3 units total: one for the Efficiency Rating of the HQ (1) and two more for the 2 Ops value of the card. The distance these three units could be moved is determined by multiplying the base movement allowance of each unit by the Ops value of the card. So, naval units could move 10 hexes (base movement allowance of 5 x 2 Ops), ground units could spend 2 movement points (base movement allowance of 1 x 2 Ops). All air units have differing ranges and (possibly) extended ranges, both of which would be multiplied by the 2 Ops value to arrive at their final range.

The Ops value of the card played by the offensives player also governs the number of units that the reaction player may be allowed to activate, as well as the movement allowance of reaction units.

Events

If played as an EC, the instructions in the card’s event text drive the action. If it is a Military type event card, the event text may supersede the number of units that can be activated, how far they can move, and may influence the battles themselves. It may also impose other restrictions or grant some type of bonus to the activating player. Political type cards generally instruct the player to perform some type of action not directly related to unit movement or battle activities. Resource type cards will normally provide some unexpected resource or reinforcement. And Reactiontype cards are used by the defender to oppose an action by the offensives player. As in most card driven games, the event text on the card may supersede standard rules.

Intelligence Values

At the core of the Empire of the Sun combat sub-system is the notion of an Intelligence Condition, which may be either Surprise AttackAmbush, or Intercept. The Intelligence Condition has a huge impact on combat resolution. The Surprise Attack condition benefits the attacker, the Ambush condition benefits the defender, and the Intercept condition benefits no one.

The small numbers near the top left of the card (i.e. “OC:2 EC:4”) are the target numbers that the reaction player must roll (e.g. that number or less) in order to change the Intelligence Condition from its default level of “Surprise”. So, for example, if the offensives player plays a card as an OC (for the Operations value) and the card shows “OC:2 EC:4”, the reaction player must roll 2 or less (on a 10-sided die) to change the intelligence condition to “Intercept”. If the offensives player had played the same card as an EC (for the event), the reaction player would have had to roll 4 or less in order to change the intelligence condition.

The underlying idea is that EC offensives are generally larger operations that would be harder to keep secret. In game terms this means that offensives initiated by EC may declare multiple target hexes, whereas those initiated by OC can only have one target hex (or, more properly, Battle Hex).

The only way that a reaction player can achieve an “Ambush” intelligence condition is via reaction card play; it cannot be accomplished via roll of the dice.


Playing the Game

There’s no better way to get the basic feel of a game than to run through a typical game turn or action segment, so here goes…

Empire of the sun

It is the Japanese player’s turn to play a card. He announces an offensive using the Event of card #10, 2nd Operational Phase:Solomon Island Expansion, and identifies the “South Seas” HQ as the activating headquarters. The card title and sub-title are there just for flavor. It does not govern where or when the card can be used. The important information on this card is as follows:

  • Ops Value of 3 – Governs the movement limits for all units, both offensive and reaction. If the card was played as an OC, it would also govern the number of units that could be activated.
  • EC value of 7 – Since the card is being played as an Event, the EC number takes precedence over the OC number, and is the number the Reaction player must roll in order to change the Intelligence Condition to “Intercept” (otherwise it remains at “Surprise Attack”).
  • Activation – Any HQ. Some cards restrict the HQ that can be used to activate units, but not this card.
  • Logistic Value – Add this number (6) to the HQ’s Efficiency Rating of 2. Therefore, up to 8 Japanese units may be activated.

Offensives Player Unit Activation

The 8 units designated for activation are:

  • Eniwetok (hex 4415) – Ryuho CVL and Aoba CA naval units; 1SN Naval Infantry unit.
  • Truk (hex 4017) – Kongo 2 Battleship; Soryu CV
  • Kavieng (hex 4020) – 27th Air
  • Baka (hex 4221) – 27th Air; 19th Army

All of these units are well within the South Seas HQ activation range of 12 hexes. All hexes of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea that are not physically occupied by Japanese units are considered to be US controlled hexes.

Movement

Movement allowance for all naval units, and any ground units being amphibiously transported, will be 15 hexes (5 base movement x 3 for the Ops card value). The Ryuho CVL escorts the Aoba CA, which is allowed to carry the 1SN Naval Infantry unit. They move together to New Georgia (hex 4322). Since the CVL has an Air Zone of Influence (ZOI – a two-hex radius around all ground-based air units and carrier units), it neutralizes the ZOI exerted by the US air units over this hex and its approaches. Without this neutralization, the ground unit would not be allowed to be transported through the US Air ZOI.

The Kongo 2 battleship moves from Truk to Bougainville (hex 4222) and the Soryu CV moves to hex 4219 (where it can provide air support to any battle hex within its 3-hex range).

The 27th Air (on Kavieng) and 22nd Air (on Baka) don’t actually need to move because the hexes they intend to target (not revealed to the US player yet) are already within their movement ranges (numbers on the lower right corner of air units). If they needed to move, their movement allowance would be 3x their printed movement allowance, staging from friendly airbase to friendly airbase. The 3x allowance is, again, due to the 3 Ops card that was played.

The final unit to be accounted for is the 19th Army unit on Baka. This unit performs an Amphibious Assault on Bougainville. There are no actual naval units involved in this move. Instead there are abstract “Amphibious Shipping Points” (ASPs) that are used to transport ground units in this manner. When being transported this way, ground units move like naval units, but must never come under an un-neutralized enemy Air Zone of Influence. The air unit on Baka, as well as the Ryuho CVL now on New Georgia, both provide this neutralization, so the amphib assault proceeds.

Declare Battle Hexes

Since the card was played as an EC, more than one Battle Hex may be declared. The Japanese player declares Gili Gili (4024) and Bougainville (4222) as Battle Hexes. He also declares that Ryuho and Aoba are committed to supporting the landing of the 1SN infantry unit on New Georgia, the Soryu and 22nd Air will support the amphibious assault on Bougainville, and the 27th Air will attack the US fleet at Gili Gili. In other words, he lays out all the battles and the participants in each. Note that since there are no US units on New Georgia (4322), there is no Battle Hex declaration, even though the hex is US controlled. The US player, during reaction, may have an opportunity to intervene and turn it into a Battle Hex, however (called a “Special Reaction Move”, which we won’t cover in this article).

Intelligence Condition Determination

Unless the US player has a special Reaction card that changes the Intelligence Condition (in our example, he does not), he must roll a die to see if he has caught wind of the pending Japanese operation (Intercept) or if it remains undetected (Surprise Attack). The EC # on the card is 7, the US player must roll 7 or less. This roll is modified by -2 since Japanese units did pass within the ZOI of an American air unit during the course of movement. The US player rolls an 8. With the -2 modifier, the net roll is 6 which is sufficient to have the Intelligence Condition changed to Intercept.

“Intercept” essentially means that the combat will be simultaneously. In the “Surprise” condition, the attacker gets to fire and apply hits first. With an “Ambush” condition, the reaction player has that advantage.

Empire of the Sun Board Game

Reaction Move

Because the Intelligence Condition is “Intercept”, the reaction player is allowed Reaction Movement, if there is a friendly HQ within range of any of the Battle Hexes. The US player’s SW Pac HQ fulfills this requirement. The US player may now activate a number of units equal to the HQ’s Efficiency Rating plus the OC value of the offensives player’s strategy card (even if he played it as an EC). In this example, that would mean that 5 American units can react.

Consider the situation here. Bougainville is under attack by a powerful invasion force. The US fleet in Gili Gili is being attacked by a Japanese air group. And the island of New Georgia is being occupied by a smaller invasion force. Any or all of these attacks can be opposed. The only restriction placed on the reacting player is that any unit which is currently being targeted in a declared Battle Hex may not be used to react into another battle. The Japanese player has wisely used his air unit to “pin down” the US fleet, making in ineligible for supporting other battles.

The Reaction player is allowed to use only one Amphibious Shipping Point (ASP), and the US Army corps costs 2 ASP to move. So no ground reinforcements will be coming to help the Marines on Bougainville.

The sole remaining eligible reaction unit is the 11th AF on Guadalcanal. The US player decides to commit it to the defense of Bougainville. Again, the 11th AF unit does not actually need to move, as it’s already within its 2-hex range of Bougainville, but it is verbally identified as being committed to the battle.

Battle

There are potentially two steps to every battle: first, if opposing air or naval units are present, Air & Naval Combat is resolved, followed by Ground Combat if opposing ground units share the hex. Since the US player did not oppose the Japanese 1SN Naval Infantry landing on New Georgia, there will be no battle there and the Japanese player will simply assume control of the island during the Post-Battle Movement phase.

Empire of the Sun Board Game

Let’s do the smaller battle on Gili Gili. The odds are heavily against the Japanese 27th air unit, but he’s done his job of preventing the US fleet from lending aid to the main battle brewing on Bougainville. Air/Naval Combat is resolved like this:

Each side sums up their total Attack Strengths (the number in the lower left corner). The total Attack Strength for the US is 37. Because the Battle Hex is 4 hexes away from the Japanese air unit, forcing it to use Extended Range (the red number 5 near the bottom right corner), the Air unit’s Attack strength of 10 is halved to 5 for this battle.

eots_rv1_ancrt_large

Next, each player determines the Combat Effectiveness of their units by rolling on the Air Naval Combat Results Table. The Japanese player rolls a 6, and there are no modifiers to the die roll, indicating that his combat strength multiplier will be x 1. So, 5 x 1 = 5, and the Japanese may inflect 5 total “hits” on the US units. The US player rolls a 2, which quarters his attack strength to 9.25 which rounds up to 10.

Combat is simultaneous so both players apply hits at the same time. The US compares the number of hits he has earned against the Defense Strength of the Japanese unit(s). He has 10 hits to apply and the Japanese air unit’s Defense Strength is 10, so he flips the air unit to its reduced side. If the US player had scored 20 hits, he’d be able to inflict another hit on the Japanese air unit and eliminate it.

Because the lowest Defensive Strength of any US naval unit is 8 (Northampton) the Japanese player does not have enough hits to do any damage. All US units remain undamaged.

The larger battle on Bougainville has both Air/Naval and Ground elements involved. If the Japanese player wins the Air/Naval portion of the battle, he may proceed with the ground assault. If not, the assault will be turned back.

Empire of the Sun Board Game

As in the last battle, the Attack strengths of the each side’s Air and Naval units (only) are totaled. Don’t forget to include the Soryu CVL because, although it is not directly in the battle hex, the hex is within its range and therefore it can participate in the battle. In this battle, the US has a total attack strength of 16 (11AF = 10, MAW1 = 6), and the Japanese have a total attack strength of 53. The Japanese roll on the Air/Naval CRT is 5 and the US roll is 7. The Japanese 5 roll means that the attacking strength points are reduced to half value (27). The US 7 roll indicates that the US attack strength retains its full value of 16.

The US has 16 hits to apply and decides to apply these hits against the Japanese Kongo 2’s 14 defensive strength. The Kongo 2 is flipped to its reduced side. The remaining 2 hits simply are lost. The Japanese player has 27 hits to inflict. Both air units have a defensive strength of 10 so the first 20 Japanese hits are spent flipping them both to their reduced sides. The rules prohibit you from killing off a unit until all units involved in the battle have been “reduced”, so all 20 hits could not legally be applied to a single air unit. Note that although the US air units have weaker attack strengths on their “reduced” sides, their defensive strength remains at 10, so the remaining 7 Japanese hits are insufficient to do any further damage.

The official procedure for determining the winner is as follows: Each side adds up the attack strengths of all remaining units, and the side with the higher total is the winner. Flipping the Kongo 2 naval unit to its reduced side only lowered its attack strength by 6 points, so the Japanese still have 47 attack strength points (not halved), and the US player now only has 8 attack strength left. Therefore the Japanese player has won the Air/Naval battle, the amphibious assault has not been turned back, and the ground combat may proceed.

Empire of the Sun board game

Ground combat is similar to Air/Naval combat in the sense that a die is rolled, a Ground Combat CRT is consulted to determine the effectiveness of the respective ground units, attack strength points garner hits which are applied against enemy unit defense strengths. So first we consult the Ground CRT for modifiers that need to be applied.

There are two modifiers that apply to the Offensives player…

  • +2 If only the Offensives player has naval units in the battle hex
  • -2 Defender in “Mixed” hex (terrain modifier)

… for a net modifier of zero. The Japanese player rolls a 4 which means that his ground strength will remain at x1 for a total of 18.

Empire of the Sun Board Game

One modifier will be applied to the reaction player’s combat effectiveness die roll…

  • +3 Offensive uses Amphibious Transport

… for a net modifier of +3. The US player rolls a 3 which is modified up to 6. His ground strength will also be x1 for a total of 12.

The Japanese player’s 18 hits are sufficient to inflict a hit on the US Marines defensive strength of 12, but there are insufficient hits remaining to cause the destruction of the Marine division, so the Marine unit is flipped to its reduced side and the remaining 6 hits are lost.

Now it’s the US player’s turn to inflict hits and the Japanese player does not fare so well. First of all, the rules state that an Offensives ground unit that enters a battle hex via amphibious assault has its defense strength halved for calculating hits. Halving the Japanese defensive strength drops it from 12 to 6. The US Marines attack strength is 12, which allows it to inflect two hits on the invader, eliminating it completely.

Between the reaction player’s +3 die roll bonus and the offensive player having to halve his defense strength, you can see why amphibious assaults are a risky proposition and must only be attempted with proper planning and support. The invasion of Bougainville has failed!

Post Battle Movement

The final stage in EOTS combat is Post Battle Movement. This is when ships return to ports, air units fly to friendly airfields (if not already on one), and ground units retreat if necessary. The Japanese player returns Ryuho and Aoba to the port at Eniwetok, although with 15 movement points to spend, they could have gone to Truk or any other friendly port within range. The damaged BB Kongo 2 returns back to Truk. The 22nd Air and damaged 27th Air are both based at friendly airbases, so no movement needs to take place. Finally, the Japanese 1SN Naval Infantry unit on New Georgia remains on the island and a Japanese control marker is placed there.

Empire of the Sun Board Game

As the US won the battle for Bougainville, there is no need to retreat during Post-Battle movement. Although damaged, the 2nd Marine Division and 1st Marine Air Wing remain in possession of Bougainville. The 11th Air Force is also damaged but is based safely on Guadalcanal so no movement is necessary there either.

This concludes the Offensive initiated by the Japanese player playing the “2nd Operational Phase” event card.


Winning the Game

Empire of the Sun Board game

The Empire of the Sun Campaign game has the following victory conditions:

  • If during the Game Turn 12 End of Turn Phase, Japan has been successfully strategically bombed on four consecutive turns, has one or less Resource Hexesand a B29 is in range of Tokyo, the US player wins immediately (The “A-Bomb Victory”).
  • If the US player controls all hexes on the Japanese Home Island of Honshu, the Japanese player surrenders (The “Invasion of Japan Victory”).
  • If the US Political Will marker ever reaches the “Negotiations Box” (level zero), the Japanese player wins immediately.
  • If the US does not win by the conclusion of Game Turn 12, the Japanese player wins.

I’m not going to discuss most of the victory conditions listed above in any detail since I think they’re pretty self-explanatory. They involve the US player controlling territory close enough to the Japanese home islands to allow for a sustained bombing campaign or, failing that, an actual invasion of Japan proper. And, obviously, survival itself is a victory for Japan.

Also, Resource Hexes will not be addressed in detail except to say that they represent locations on the map that Japan requires to secure its supply of oil and other natural resources. The inability of Japan to control all of these hexes will reduce the number of strategy cards that the Japanese player may draw each turn. Not good for the Japanese player.

Where things really start to get interesting is in the tracking of US Political Will. The campaign game begins with US Political Will at 8 (after Pearl Harbor). This level can get higher or lower (but mainly lower, in the early stages of the game). There are a plethora of events and conditions that affect US Political Will:

  • Burma surrenders (-1)
  • Dutch East Indies surrenders (-1)
  • Malaya surrenders (-1)
  • Philippines surrenders (-1)
  • Occupation of Alaska (-1; continuously occupied by Japan for three consecutive turns)
  • Occupation of Hawaii (-1; continuously occupied by Japan for two consecutive turns)
  • India Unstable/Surrenders (-2; if “Unstable” for two consecutive game turns)
  • Chinese Government Collapses (-2)
  • Australia surrenders (-2)
  • US Casualties (if the US, as attacker, loses an entire attacking force of division or corps size)
  • Strategic Naval Situation (no US carriers on the map at end of any Game Turn)
  • Progress of the War (-1 per turn; from Game Turn 4 on, US must recapture a certain number of Japanese controlled hexes each turn)
  • Strategic Warfare (+3 one time; Japan controls 3 or less Resource hexes between turns 5 and 12)
  • Strategic Bombing (+1 per turn; If bombing reduces Japan’s hand by one or more cards)
Note that these same events/conditions accrue Victory Points in the shorter scenarios, rather than using the Political Will Track. But the events described are exactly the same as in the campaign game (i.e. the surrender of the Philippines requires Japanese control of Manila and Davao, no matter which scenario you’re playing, or whether you’re rewarded with Victory Points or changes in Political Will).

This puts you squarely in the military commander’s seat, as you attempt to make the best decisions on how to prosecute the war. You can go after the “big fish”, like Australia, India or China, but bringing about the desired result in those locations is as difficult as you’d expect such feats to be.

Bringing Australia to heel is a straightforward military operation; the Japanese must control specific real estate in the “Land Down Under”. But to do the same for China and India would triple the size of the game. So, some clever abstractions were invented.

China

Empire of the Sun Board Game

There is a whole process that governs the abstract Japanese operations in China, but the basic concept is as follows. The Japanese player is considered to have x number of divisions in China and may conduct Chinese Offensives either via specific event cards, or via OC with play of a 3-Ops card. Each successful Chinese Offensive moves the China marker one space closer to Chinese “Govt Collapse”. The payoff for Chinese Govt Collapse is the loss of 2 US Political Will points. Meanwhile, the focus on China will surely have a deleterious effect on operations elsewhere in the Pacific. Is the prize worth the pain? That’s for you to decide.

Of course, the Japanese player is free to ignore China and trade the abstract divisions in China for real divisions that can be put to work on the main map. Again, your choice.

India

Empire of the Sun Board Game

The Japanese objective for India is to shift the India Status marker into the “India Unrest” box and retain it there for two consecutive National Status Segments, which occur near the end of each Game Turn. Then, the status marker can be moved to the “India Unstable” box where, if it can be retained there for an additional two consecutive turns, will force an Indian Surrender. Shifting the Status marker can be effected by either conquering territory in northern India, or by play of special event cards. Any time the US player regains control of any conquered portion of India, or plays an upsetting India event card, the India Status marker is moved back to the “India Stable” box and the Japanese player must begin the whole cycle again. It can be quite frustrating for the Japanese and quite satisfying for the US player who, tired of getting his slats kicked in on the main map, needs some revenge to balance things (however abstract).

All of the smaller countries and territories have their own triggers for National Surrender; mostly control of certain cities or resource hexes. Standard military conquest is the order of the day for these countries.

Progress of the War

I’m going to mention just one more interesting game mechanic that’s linked to Political Will because it’s my favorite: the Progress of the War directive imposed on the US player. I suppose that, for some US players, there might be a temptation to play it safe. Just hang back, building up an overwhelming military machine while the Japanese run wild in the Pacific. Then unleashing the accumulated might of the US Pacific Fleet in a massive burst of energy. The Progress of the War restriction discourages the American player from doing this. It kicks in on Game Turn 5 (1943, in earth time) and requires the US player to recapture x number of Japanese controlled hexes (named locations, resources, ports or airfields) every turn (where x is equal to 4, or the number of ASPs available to the US after the reinforcement phase). It becomes quite challenging to keep up that pace, and the Japanese often cash in on the mistakes made by an opponent trying to keep up!


Summary

The options and variations just go on and on. I didn’t even touch on the War in Europe abstraction which draws off scheduled reinforcements to go fight in Europe (the European theater always got the lion’s share of men and materiel), or US submarine warfare, or the Burma Road, or the Nationalist Chinese troops, or Inter-Service Rivalry, etc. As I said in the overview, I didn’t want to just re-hash the rule book, but I feel I’m getting dangerously close to doing just that, so I’ll end the feature enumeration right here.

The game is so varied and so wide open that you just don’t know where to start sometimes. You know all the rules, you set up the pieces and then you say, “OK, what do I do now?” Not in the sense that you don’t understand the game’s rules, but in the same way that the actual historical commanders agonized over decisions about assigning means to objectives. I believe you could play this game every day for a year and not see the same situation twice. Mastery of Empire of the Sun is not just the result of repetition and memorization.

When you play EOTS, you are totally engaged, whether you’re the offensives player or the reaction player at the moment. The game system does not allow for slacking off in between turns! The reaction player must constantly evaluate the situation for opportunities to reduce the effectiveness of, or totally preempt, the attacker’s offensive either by card play or judicious Reaction Movement. Both players must stay focused on their game plan but learn to identify, and react to, threats that cannot be ignored.

Mark Herman wrote an article in GMT’s C3I magazine (Issue #17) back in 2005 titled, “Strategy Concepts in Empire of the Sun” that is the definitive strategy article for this game. And may be the best strategy article I’ve ever read. (thanks to Scott de Brestian for providing the link to Mark’s article) After reading it, everything totally clicked. It helped deepen my understanding of the game’s design, and imparted a few essential strategies and tactics that helped advance my EOTS competence. I highly recommend his article to anyone really interested in learning more about this fine game.

Bottom line:

  • Challenging game? …check
  • Play balance? …check
  • Competitive scenarios? …check
  • High replay value? …check
  • Innovative game mechanics? …check
  • Fun to play? …double check

Do yourself a favor; buy this game. You’ll enjoy it for years to come.

Vietnam: 1965-1975 – SVN Politics (How-To)

Discussion of South Vietnamese Politics in Victory Games

Vietnam: 1965-1975

Vietnam Board Game Review


Overview

Besides providing a thoroughly engaging operational and grand operational war game experience, Victory Games’ definitive Vietnam War board game, Vietnam: 1965-1975, also exposes a political dimension. In addition to having responsibility for all tactical and operational decisions, the US/ARVN player must make decisions that I believe would be considered above a theater commander’s pay grade.
Continue reading “Vietnam: 1965-1975 – SVN Politics (How-To)”