Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Mark H. Walker's Lock 'n Load Band of Heroes

I was a fan of Mark Walker's previous Lock 'n Load game, Mark H. Walker's Lock 'n Load Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam, so I ultimately bought Band of Heroes, although I vacillated a bit. The price point was higher than I would have liked (especially given the component quality), and I'm a bit tired of hearing about the U.S. Paratroopers these days, sort of like I'm tired of hearing about how smart they are over at Google. I mean, I'm sure the Paras were brave and skilled, but weren't there some other units in the U.S. Army we could talk about sometime? Like maybe some of the units that weren't all-volunteer who fought with distinction in the Bulge or Huertgen Forest? Or maybe we could, just for yuks, acknowledge the contribution of British and Canadian forces on D-Day? I mean, all Saving Private Ryan had to say about the British and Canadians keeping the powerful and murderous SS armored divisions away from the Americans was Ted Danson calling Montgomery overrated.

With that rant out of the way, on to the game.

Although I have enjoyed playing Band of Heroes, as I've played the system more I've become a bit less enamored of it than I was of the previous game in the system, Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam. On the one hand, I do like a lot about the game system: I like the simple, chart-light combat resolution system, I like how it uses small back-and-forth impulses instead of regimented turns, and I like the spotting rules, whereby it's actually kind of hard to find stuff. I like that the scenarios play quickly.

But let's drill down a bit on one specific design challenge for interactive tactical games: how to solve the "human wave" problem.

The problem is this: units in defensive positions can fire on units that are rushing them, or trying to infiltrate their way through the front lines to victory locations. The general heuristic with these games is that units get to fire once, so the defender has to make choices about which encroaching units to shoot at. The problem with the everyone-shoots-once rule is that an attacker, who has a player's-eye-view of the board, can see which units have fired and which haven't, and once the defenders have exhausted their fire, he can run around the board with wild (and rather unrealistic) abandon.

This was a bit of a problem in Avalon Hill's 1977 classic Squad Leader. For those who remember that game, John Hill tried to solve the problem with defensive fire rules that ended up being totally unworkable in practice: the attacker had to move all his units, and as he did so the defender could mark "defensive fire opportunities", which he could then choose to take after everyone had moved; so he could theoretically ask the attacker to unwind every single move he had made to take the perfect defensive fire shots. This was clearly a bit out of hand; nobody I know played this way, they just took their shots as they came up – but this, obviously, lead to the above issue.

When Squad Leader became ASL, Avalon Hill took these problems by the horns and came up with solutions that are, in my opinion, brilliant, and the best elements of ASL (which is why most of them have made it into the Starter Kits). The rules for residual fire, rate of fire, fire lanes, and subsequent defensive fires made it very hard to predict how much defensive fire could be laid down, gave the option to the defender to put down more fire by taking chances with the equipment or with unit morale, and were overall far more realistic portrayals of how machine-guns could influence the battlefield – and all was achieved at a very low cost in terms of real complexity. It was still about drawing out the defenders' fire, but it was no longer such a stark, black-and-white situation, and this particular combination of making some elements more abstract (like machine-gun rates of fire) and some elements more concrete to reflect how the weapons were really used (fire lanes, residual fire), is a perfect mix.

Back to Band of Heroes ... compared to the ASL Starter Kits, I think this issue of how defensive fire is handled is the biggest gap in the Lock 'n Load games, both in terms of simulation and of making an interesting game. Because Lock 'n Load has gone back to a "one unit, one shot" model, it has become very much about drawing out all the defending units' fire capabilities, and then doing whatever you want with the rest of your guys. This is compounded a bit by the problem that attackers can force close combat at any time, which makes it much harder for defenders to pass up opportunities to fire on nearby units, and therefore easier to nail down the defenders.

In some scenarios, the effects of this will be worse than others, obviously. This issue hardly ever bugged me in Forgotten Heroes, but perhaps the higher unit morales and tougher terrain (stone buildings instead of bamboo huts), combined with longer sighting ranges and shorter unit fire ranges in Band of Heroes made it more obvious.

I'm not sure what all this means. I like Lock 'n Load. But at the end of the day, it is a bit "retro", a throwback to the days of Squad Leader and Panzerblitz. That definitely has a certain appeal, and I like that a design goal was to keep it simple and playable, which is a huge win – the ASL Starter Kits do appear to me to be a bit more complicated. But at least in its WWII incarnation, I think Lock 'n Load could have benefitted significantly from a bit more work on how to handle this particular issue.

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