Thursday, June 16, 2005

Consimworld Expo 5.0 - Part 2 of 3 - EuroFront II

production copies of the EuroFront map set and North/MidEast Front expansion to MonsterCon, and I was excited to give them a try. I've never actually played an entire game of EuroFront – I've done the 42/43 scenario once at ConQuest, and I've played a bunch of East and WestFront. EuroFront is a monster, but it's a playable monster; I think you could do the whole war, 1939-45, in under 35 hours. That may sound like a lot, but compare to World in Flames and it's a walk in the park, and while it's definitely longer than A World at War, it's not vastly longer, and it does have a quite a lot fewer rules than either. While it's true that there are a lot of details for the various standard political issues (if you ever run into a game with clean rules for the Vichy French, let me know), on the other hand the core EastFront system is quite clean, and the diplomatic event rules for things like bringing in the Axis minors, unrest in the Middle East, and reforming the Soviet Army all work simply and cleanly.

I played the Western Allies. For me personally, the good news was how comparatively easy it was to go from being quite comfortable with EastFront to playing EuroFront. The MasterFront rules are scarily longer than EastFront, and while there are more details to track, it's no worse than you might expect and not overwhelming. It's a lot of "look-up" rules that you check out when relevant: when the MedFront opens up, you read about allocating production and shipping losses and it's pretty straightforward. When things are grim in France, you look up the surrender rules. The same tactical techniques you learn in the East apply pretty well to defending France and fighting the Desert War, and while the margin for error for the Brits in 40-41 and the Soviets in 41 is small, it's also not so exacting a game that you can't just play. Since you don't deal with U-Boats or other strategic warfare, it's not the nightmare that playing the Brits can be in Europe Engulfed in the '40 timeframe. Despite very limited experience with the Desert War and no experience with the Fall of France, I was able to slip into the game quite comfortably. 

The new NorthFront map allows you to play out the invasions of Finland and Norway that are abstracted by Diplomatic Events in basic EuroFront. These are almost micro-games within the main game, as players decide how many units to commit (typically no more than a handful) and then send them off. I actually decided not to intervene in the Norway campaign, but it was a nearly-run thing. As always with the British, everything is a trade-off: you can keep the lend-lease routes open and harass the Germans, or you can save your guys for the desert. The desert seemed a more critical area to me, so I saved. But Norway offers some cheap options for making the German's life rather difficult, mainly by interdicting the Swedish ore, and if you can actually keep the Germans from conquering it, you will gain permanent Naval Supremacy, a huge albeit rather unlikely win. I thought NorthFront was a nice and interesting little expansion, and since the Germans are more or less obliged to invade Norway, it'll always see play and present the Allied player with options, while the Diplomatic Event route of the basic games seems to make things a little pointless for the Allies. Nothing earthshattering, but as I say, a nice micro-game, and if I was going to go the effort of playing EuroFront, I'd want to have it. Plus, it gives the Soviets some blocks to push around in the early war as they fight the Finns instead of just waiting and waiting for the Germans to invade. I should say too it was nice to see all the far northern locations included in the game - you can actually walk from Oslo to Archangel through hexes and transit boxes. It's so far away it even feels cold.

I was able to hold out in France through mid-1940, which was a bonus, and was able to do so while keeping the BEF basically intact. This bode well for the Desert War. A lot of that work was undone, however, by the fickle dice. The Desert War is a wacky business. First, you have to pre-allocate your limited production to the theatre. The Brits have about 24PP total. They have to decide how many of these (usually 10 or 15) to allocate to the Desert, an allocation that can then be changed only at intervals and/or with some pain. Secondly, that production doesn't even automatically arrive: shipping losses mean you only get to roll one die per 5 points sent, and that's how much you get (not to exceed the amount sent). This, combined with the greatly increased costs of building and maintaining guys there, makes for a fluid situation (I should say, I think all this is a good thing). A little bit more fluid than I would have liked, because I proceeded to get absolutely hammered on my shipping losses for the first few turns, while the Axis rolled quite well. As a consequence, the Western Desert Force was pushed back to the Nile. There they stayed, however, as the fact that British losses in France had been so light began to tell. I think there was an opportunity early for the Germans to push on to Cairo if they had been willing to commit heavily (including, crucially, more armor) and take some risks, but once it passed the rapid British build-up made things tough. Eventually, my counterattack devastated the Afrika Corps.

Meanwhile, things were not going so well in the East. I don't know if I can take any credit – if it was ultimately the large amount of cash sucked down by the desert for little purpose that made the difference – but the German push into Russia was not strong enough in '41. The Winter '41 counterattack was nasty, but nothing compared to the encirclements of German units that occurred the following Summer. I think the Germans made the mistake of spreading their effort to broadly instead of packing their armor into one powerful stroke. Regardless, things did not end well for the Wermacht, and it went south pretty quickly. Like in Europe Engulfed, the Germans have to have a laser-like focus to get stuff done.

Our game did not see any action on the NearEast front board, but I was tantalized by the possibilities. Now, unless the Germans try a Mediterranean strategy, the board won't see play. On the other hand, the options down there are rather tempting. You can foment revolt in the British and French colonies, go after the big oil points, and potentially bring in Turkey and take a shot at the Soviet "back door". None of this is going to happen a lot, but if you really focus on it, it seems like you could make a serious game of it. I think our German player had some of these options in mind, but if you're going to go this way, you can't mess around – you've got to go all out, taking out the Balkans right away to enable the various near-east diplomatic events (I should mention as an aside here, I like how the Greek events work – as happened historically, the Axis are likely to be forced to deal with Greece, rather than the elective conquest they work out to be in most games).

Although our game was a bit short, ending in German collapse in '42, I enjoyed it. The action is a bit less dense than in Europe Engulfed; you spend more time waiting for your turn or waiting for your front to open, and EuroFront really requires 3 players (and 4 would be ideal in 43-45) – one of whom is not going to be fully engaged for chunks of time in the early war. But the win is that you get a much more interesting set of political events, somewhat greater latitude to try different things, and of course the Front system is to me tactically and operationally much richer. Due to the time investment, Europe Engulfed is a game I can at least play semi-regularly while EuroFront is always going to be an occasional indulgence. Luckily, the component games are tremendous and playable games in their own right, so you can play EuroFront only occasionally and still play competantly. Having now played once, I'm looking forward to trying it again.

I should say too, it was a great pleasure to meet Craig Besinque. A nicer guy you could not ask to game with. In a hobby that seems to draw more than its fair share of wingnuts, it's always great to run into the genuinely nice guys. In fact, it was in general a very good crowd for EuroFront, and this was by far the most successful monster game I've played at MonsterCon. I've been only an every-other-year attendee, in large part just because of the great difficulties in pulling off such huge and involved games. Now, though, I'm pretty sure I'll be back next year.

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