Monday, January 10, 2011

2 Spartacon Games Reviewed

A quick review of the games I played at Spartacon...

First Session: Battle of MidwayGamemasters: Rod & Aaron CainRules: Modified Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures

This game is based around a great modification of the Axis & Allies Naval Minis rules. The standard rules are simple enough to learn in an afternoon (I think everyone at the game table understood the rules after the first turn, and I could have run the game well enough if I really needed to), but carry enough definition that ships of even the same classes feel different. While it might not be the most realistic, there is something fun about running into the USS Laffy ("The Ship that Would Not Die"), which can crippled-but-not-destroyed by bombs.

The gimmick here, though, is that you don't have a "God's Eye View" of everything; instead, it's a double-blind game where you plot moves on a dry-erase board and the GM determines when the two forces spot each other. This is great, because the planning really focuses on finding the enemy force and keeping track of position rather than simply knowing where they are and bombing the hell out of 'em.

It is on this that the scenario is able to work at all; the scenario is not only played with the historical forces, but the relief force and the invasion force for the Japanese. The Americans are hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned in a stand-up fight, but their numbers allow them to hide in the large spaces around Midway, while the Japanese are much, much easier to find. They also have the advantage of having particularly good, dedicated spotter aircraft, which makes finding targets even easier. So the Japanese are left with the option of splitting their planes in a number of ways, from spreading them out in an effort to find the Americans quick, concentrating them so they can attack if they actually find anything, or saving their aircraft to defend against excellent American dive-bombers.

As for the actual game, I played as the Japanese and we managed to catch the Americans really quickly. The problem was due to American AA, we couldn't mount an effective assault and ended up losing a lot of our attack aircraft early on. The Americans managed to get a few of our carriers, but largely missed most of our force and was stymied by our experienced Zero pilots. We got through a surprising number of turns and the game was relatively painless, outside some of the players not paying attention to what is going on.

The game was great and well-balanced, but if there was a disappointment it was that there was no real Naval engagement; like the actual battle, it was all done with aircraft flying from carriers and attacking whatever they could find. The game itself makes me want to play some of the Iron Bottom Sound battles, with perhaps some modified spotting rules to take into account the night fighting. But credit for making a game where it still feels like the historical battle, but doesn't feel like it's a forgone conclusion. This is especially true with Midway, where the Japanese forces could easily overwhelm the Americans without the double-blind.

Rules Grade: A. Well-written, and the modifications really made the game.
Scenario Grade: B. The scenario is great, but I wish we got to use more of our forces in an active (rather than defensive) manner.
GM Grade: A. The best GMs are congenial, know their rules (or at least can make quick and consistent on-the-spot decisions), and have the players running the game early on. I haven't had a Rod Cain game where I didn't see one of these reached.
Overall Grade: A. The most interesting and enjoyable Naval game of any era I've ever played. The fun of having a double-blind can not be overstated.

Second Session: A Very English Mexican RevolutionGamemasters: Bob and Rob Beattie  
Rules: Iron Ivan's Disposable Heroes: Coffin for Seven Brothers
One of the most dangerous things a convention game can do is opt for style over substance. Yes, conventions are for showing off all the cool stuff you wrote down, built, and painted. It's not enough to just show up with the cool stuff on the table; you have to execute. This game had a lot of potential and a great concept, but it needed a lot more thought and planning.

The setting is a combination of Harry Turtledove's Universe-191 and Iron Ivan's A Very English Civil War: the South won the Civil War, pushing them into a Triple Alliance with France and Britain while the Union sides with Germany. After the bizarro-Great War, the English have a coronation crises with Edward (a known fascist) not wanting to abdicate and Parliament refusing to seat a government. Thus, Edward allows one of his own fascist friends to create a government, breaking England apart and putting England into chaos between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. A similar thing is happening in Mexico: the former Mexican government (Which was supported by the Confederates, British, and French) had been unseated by a socialistic Republican government. This freaks out the Confederacy, since the Republicans are much friendlier with the Union and that would put them between two enemies when the next war (Which is rapidly approaching) comes about. They, with the help of disgruntled Mexican military officers, put together a Junta which seizes power, and now we are into a new Mexican Revolution. The Junta (with Confederate "advisers") is now being attacked by American Volunteers, some German Marines, and Mexican insurgents while the Texas National Guard, French Marines, and a British Expeditionary Force arrive to assist.

That's a lot of background, but it does help make things interesting. The rules themselves seem to carry a bit of detail as well. All figures have a Guts (morale), Accuracy, and Close Combat rating. Along with this, movement rates modify how effective your fire is, and you can only ever fire half your squad at any given time (you can never bring everything to bear). The armor system looks nice; you acquire, fire, hit a spot, and then you go to a curved armor penetration table to see what you get (which weights penetration in an interesting way). If there is a problem, it seems like rifles fire too quick and too far to really be at a disadvantage versus rapid-fire weapons. The amount of fire you can bring down can really massacre squads.

Herein lies one of the first problems of the scenario's design: Everyone is way too accurate. Even with some cover, the accuracy ratings were basically assuring a 40% chance of hitting and killing. Accuracy needs to be brought down to levels so that casualties are much rarer, but fire can keep people pinned (I'd also suggest lowering their Guts ratings so that there is more of a chance of actually being pinned). Along with, the squads were big (8 man squads, and I had one with 12) and unwieldy. Forces needed to be smaller.

Along with this, there was really very few differences between the forces. A few of us had vehicles, but overall all the soldiers fought just like each other. There was no difference between a German Marine, an American Volunteer, and a Texas National Guardsman. Maybe there doesn't need to be a difference statwise, but maybe a special rule or two which makes them fight differently against different troops. Their organization could be a bit better defined and unique as well; we all similar bunches of rifles, SMGs, and MGs. Even howitzers essentially counted as MGs, which is really lame; big guns should be unique and feel different, which they didn't. We didn't even use the proper vehicle rules, which is sad. Less vehicles (Which weren't really vehicles), more specialization of forces, and smaller forces overall would have given things a much better result. More cover (which should block line of sight) would also have helped.

The scenario itself needed more thought. It was essentially a race to the middle, which doesn't work when everyone is going to be shooting on the first turn. When you aren't always going to be fighting, you can start people off near one-another, but when you are doing a straight-up fighting scenario, you have to put some distance and maneuver room between them. This was a problem for the British and Union forces, which nailed each other right off the bat. We only played with 6 players; I can only imagine what would have happened if we had the full 8.

The final problem was the GMing. I have no problem with the GMs personally, but they weren't ready for this game. If you are going to use vehicles, have the vehicle rules ready. We had previously played with them, and I didn't have any problem figuring them out. Not only that, but there were multiple GM ruling that were not consistent (shooting from vehicles stands out), while some choices were simply poorly thought out (No offroad movement for vehicles). Turns moved, but could have gone faster and smoother. Everything looked really nice, but the problems were in the actual gameplay.

Overall, I think it shows how much planning and preparation really matters. There was a cool concept here, we never really get that in the gameplay.
Rules Grade: B/C-. I have some problems with the rules, but I think the rules overall probably aren't that bad. The B is for what the rules probably are, C- is for what we got out of them, mostly for the vehicle stuff and the lack of a range modifier.
Scenario Grade: D+. There needed to be a lot more put into making this scenario work. The forces needed to be better balanced, and the map and start positions needed a serious reworking. Make the force compositions unique so that everyone has something special about them, rather than just a change of clothes. This was partly done with cavalry and the vehicles, but not at the right balance and the infantry were basically the same across the map.
GM Grade: C-. Nice guys, but when you GM you need to have an excellent knowledge of the rules. That just wasn't there, and inconsistency in rules judgments were frustrating.
Overall Grade: C-. There was a lot of potential, but the work wasn't there to see it realized. We did have a bit of a talking session afterwards about these problems, so hopefully they won't be for the next game.

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