Sunday, June 18, 2006

ConsimWorld Expo, Part 2 of 3 - EastFront

Having gotten my fill of EuroFront on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I split off on Friday afternoon to play a good, old-fashioned game of straight EastFront. When I play one of the Front games at home, what I'd usually do is play a 6-month scenario – I like Summer '42, Winter '42, and Summer '43, about in that order. These are pretty manageable to play (4 hours or so), are fairly well-balanced, and are all good situations which present both sides with interesting opportunities. They also tend to be pretty stable, in that barring all but the most egregious errors, an interesting game should result.

But this is MonsterCon and time to try something different. In casual play, I've always avoided the Summer '41 scenario, the initial invasion of Russia, because it's so unbalanced. By this, I mean that the Germans are brutalizing the Soviet armies, and the Soviets will win by escaping complete catastrophe. This just doesn't seem that appealing. But I've now played enough EastFront that the fact that I had never (before yesterday) played Summer '41 seemed like a hole in my experience of the game, and if you want to play EuroFront in all its grandeur, you need to how to deal with that initial invasion. So we played EastFront starting in Summer '41, and instead of just playing 6 months, we decided to go until a decision was reached one way or the other.

I ended up enjoying the '41 scenario more than I expected. It is a much more exacting game than the later scenarios – forgetting to cover a critical hex two spaces behind the front lines can have bad consequences for the Soviets – but it's not as unforgiving as, say, The Russian Campaign. There is a substantial tactical element, but it's not as hyper-tactical as most hex-n-counter games. Heck, it's not even as hyper-tactical as Caylus. It's still mostly about picking your spots, making sure your headquarters are in the right place at the right time, and using your rail capabilities to get your critical units (tanks and shock armies) where they are needed.

Still, that said, Summer '41 is still largely driven by the Germans. They will pick objectives (Leningrad, Moscow, the Ukraine) and try to take them. The Soviets will desperately try to oppose them where possible, but mostly just try not to get wiped out. But when you link Summer '41 to Winter '41, things get interesting, because in Winter, the Germans are hosed. In Winter '41, the Germans are especially hosed. Their headquarters are all disrupted and cost extra to build, all their units are slowed to the speed of tanks in mud, and their offensive capabilities are near-zero. Meanwhile, the Soviets are virtually unaffected, and receive an influx of fully-built Shock Armies. For all the abuse the Germans dished out during the Summer, they are now set for a hammering. I'm not sure I'd play either Summer '41 or Winter '41 as a standalone, but as a pair, I think they have a nice symmetry, and were pretty entertaining.

In the event, the Germans weren't able to make decisive progress in '41, and the winter counter-attack was pretty brutal – not in terms of ground, but in terms of casualties. My big lesson learned was that, as the Germans, nothing you can do in '41 will be worth it if your tank arm gets mauled. Make sure to keep them safe and mobile over the winter, which means not letting them get tied down in battles. You need to be inflicting enough casualties on the Soviets to keep them off-balance in '42, but you can't do that at the cost of suffering too many casualties yourself. Those 70-ish production points won't go nearly as far as it looked like they would from the safety of Poland, and you cannot afford massive tank replacements.

We called it a game in Summer '43, when things had cascaded to make things very rough on the Germans. Playing the long game was cool, but in future, I'd recommend using the standard semi-annual scenarios as checkpoints. Each six-month season has a handicap, and you can see who is winning at that point. If one player is ahead by, say, 10 points, I think it's time to call it and move on to another game. EastFront is a game where small advantages accrue from season to season to become big advantages, and if you start '43 significantly behind the historical pace, it's going to be exceptionally hard to win. So rather than sitting down and deciding to play the "whole war", I think checking every 6 months of every year against the victory conditions until someone gets ahead makes a lot more sense.

Anyway, the Front games remain amongst my very favorites, and playing them intensively for 4 days mainly made me want to get them out more regularly.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

ConsimWorld Expo, Part 1 of 3 - EuroFront

I got involved with monster games sometime in 2000 with The Gamer's OCS series, starting with Burma (well, actually, I had played campaign games of ASL's Red Barricades and Kampfgruppe Peiper well before that, but for some reason they don't count in my mind as true monster games, perhaps because they seem so clearly within the bounds of sanity). I am not naturally a monster gamer. I like playing lots of different games, and so the huge time commitments required for monster games is generally not avaiable. But I like monster games in theory. To experience the continuity of a whole campaign played out over a long period of time is attractive. And OCS specifically is a great game system.

When this theory ventured out into the cold, harsh world of reality, however, I found my attraction to the "real" monster games to be unworkable in practice. There are just too many obstacles to be overcome: finding the time, finding the players, finding the players you can stand to spend that much time with, and finding the game situation that can plausibly stand up to the amount of attention you are planning to lavish on it. That last one is a particularly tricky bit, considering that one game of Guderian's Blitzkrieg or Enemy at the Gates, played to completion, would theoretically consume more time than all the games of Puerto Rico I've played, ever. By at least a factor of two. This was driven home to me when I played Guderian's Blitzkrieg at MonsterCon 3 years ago: the game is so freaking huge, you need 6 players just to manage all the counters. But the Germans have only enough supply to keep maybe 1.5 of these players active and engaged. So you end up with a couple folks sitting around most of the weekend with little to do. This is clearly not acceptable. I'm still quite fond of OCS, but when I play anymore I play Burma, Korea, or DAK, the entries in the system which need only two players and have a wealth of good shorter scenarios.

These difficulties were why I was only a sporadic attendee for the first few MonsterCons (I went to 1, 3, and 5). I would get excited about the concept, go, have a mixed experience, take a year off, get excited again... but then last year I felt that enough was enough, I was going to play something practical. So I went with EuroFront, which is one of my all-time favorite games (EastFront) taken to its logical extreme. Arguably, beyond its logical extreme, I suppose. Plus, I got in a side of Europe Engulfed, another tremendous (and playable) game. For the first time, I really had fun at MonsterCon, so I broke my odd-numbered-year tradition and went back again this year.

The con started a day earlier this time, on Tuesday, so the early arrivals (Craig Besinque, the designer, and Tom) started in 1939 without us. When I showed up a day later, on Wednesday, I gave them a hard time for not starting with the Spanish Civil War scenario from MedFront. They seemed unmoved. Joining the game in-progress was fine with me; I don't find the 1939-40 situation all that interesting to game, so I was happy to take over the east front Germans just as Spring '41 was kicking off. That said, the game did see some wild and crazy early-war stuff up north: when Germany invaded Denmark, they chose not to invade Norway immediately. This prompted the British to pre-empt them by invading Norway themselves. This, then, resulted in a catastrophic but highly-improbable series of diplomatic die rolls which ended up with Sweden and Finland becoming full-fledged Axis allies, which allowed us to both secure the legendary Swedish Ore and seriously threaten the Murmansk and Archangel lend-lease routes. As I mentioned in last year's write-up, I really like the NorthFront extension. The battle up there isn't a lot of blocks, but it can consume significant resources, it makes a real difference in the EuroFront game, and there are meaningful decisions. I'll be curious to see if the extra map areas adds anything to EastFront or WestFront when played standalone.

After cleaning up Yugoslavia, the make-or-break season for the Germans comes up: Summer '41. In order to have a legitimate shot at winning the game, the Germans have to have a successful Summer '41 campaign. If Summer '41 is a bust, no amount of beating up on the British is going to help you. I decided to go for the full-bore Moscow strategy, pounding down the traditional Napoleonic invasion route and making just a token effort in the Ukraine.

The problem with this strategy, which I realized afterwards, is that is really has to work. If you fail to take Moscow in Summer '41 (a definite possibility even with good German play), you have little to show for your efforts - just the 1PP in Minsk and Riga. The choice industrial areas are in the south. And the terrain in front of Moscow, a lot of forests and swamps, is lousy for your panzers.

In the end, I came very, very close. I got adjacent to Moscow in the west. Powerful German spearheads occupies Yaroslavl to the northeast of Moscow with the intention of cutting it off. But the landsers never actually entered the historic city, and with the early onset of winter, we simply ran out of time.

What then followed was the most burtal winter counter-attack I've ever been subjected to. The Winter '41 rules for snow weather are very tough on the Germans, as they should be, and the historic winter was, I'm told, particularly bitter. That was definitely my experience. On the random weather turns, we saw the absolute maximum of snow turns, and the German army got beaten remorselessly. I was not pushed that far back, in the end, but the casualties suffered had been prohibitive. In my drive to get Moscow, I had been exposing my panzers to a fair amount of risk, leading with them almost exclusively to get as much punch as possible on the front lines in my headlong dash. This meant that when the bill came due that winter, I just didn't have enough tanks to make a credible push in Summer '42. I gamely tried, and took over much of the Ukraine, but it was a losing battle.

The difference-maker here could have been our allies in the north, and in retrospect if I had used the Finns and a German expeditionary force more effectively, things could have been very different. The forces were certainly available to take Leningrad, Murmansk, and Archangel, and this would have been a big chunk of Russian production - comparable in total to completely clearing the Ukraine - but I was never able to marshal and coordinate them, partially at least just because of inexperience with the NorthFront. It probably wouldn't have been enough to compensate for the tactical error of my somewhat over-aggressive use of the expensive panzers, but it would have made the whole Moscow-first strategy more plausible and the game a lot closer.

By contrast, the MideastFront additions (Turkey, Persia, Syria, etc.) really didn't seem to make that much difference. I don't know if there is a plausible MedFront strategy for the Axis which involves bringing in Turkey in '41 maybe and doing Barbarossa in '42, or going straight for the oilfields, but in the two EuroFront games I've played this year and last, the Mideast has been a non-factor. If I play the axis again next time, maybe I'll give it a try. If not then, then maybe in 2008.

When this was combined with disaster in North Africa (not my fault!), we called the game an Allied Victory in Spring '43, and tore things down and set it up again using the historical Summer '43 start lines, which was a good plan I felt. The Germans got their '41 offensive, the Allies got some good counter-punches in, the Germans were not going to win at this point, so re-starting in '43 gave everyone a chance to play an interesting game again. By this point a few more players had arrived, so Tom and I set up our own game of EastFront, while everyone else (most of whom had not played much, if any, of the Front games) played EuroFront. This worked out quite well; I enjoyed my EastFront game (more on this in the next installment), and the new guys had what looked like a really exciting and enjoyable game.

We got to play our game on a pre-production copy of the new versions of the games, and I have to say I like them. The new maps are crisper, cleaner, and significantly clearer (no more puzzling out the terrain in Georgia). I think the new higher-contrast labels are slightly less aesthetic than the originals, but definitely more functional. But the good news for existing EastFront players is that there is no reason to feel forced to upgrade if you don't want to. The game appears fundamentally unaltered (the only change I noticed is that anomolous mountain hex near Moscow has been replaced with "hills", a new terrain type), and while you'll get Finland, most of the VolgaFront map, and an overall functionally superior product if you upgrade, you'll still be playing the same game as everyone else if you don't. Anyone who has any aspiration to eventually play EuroFront will probably want to get the new package, though.

All in all, I have very much enjoyed my games of EuroFront these past two years, and this is the sort of monster game I can actually do. It's playable, there is little downtime, and the whole war can be completed over the long weekend by reasonable players. There are plenty of checkpionts in the game where you can look and call it if things are not going well, and the fact that the game gives you starting points for every summer of the war gives you a wide range of options, and I really liked that we could quit a lost game in '43, restart with the historical deployments, and still get to experience the whole war without having to start from scratch. The '42 and '43 scenarios are quite interesting in and of themselves, and the late-war plays very well with 4 players. And of course the component parts (EastFront, WestFront, and MedFront) are all tremendous games in their own right, and highly playable.