Monday, May 30, 2016

Groovy


Physical media for sound recordings have a long and distinguished history, from 1857's phonautograph (which could record sound as a squiggly line on a piece of paper, but not reproduce any of it), all the way to the utter disappearance of any and all physical manifestations of musical data. My personal favorite is the Danish telegraphone, a device hatched during the final moments of the 19th century, where stainless steel wire was used to magnetically record and play back sound.

Of course, my birth in 1973 meant that I was a bit too late to the party: wire recorders fell from grace a good decade before I showed up. However, thanks to a musically inclined stepfather, I had access to a reel-to-reel tape recorder through which I experimented with sound and music for months on end. I also got to enjoy the occasional 8-track road trip whenever an uncleor an older cousin—took me for a ride in their big, living-room-sized automobiles. But in the end, as Fate would have it, I mainly grew up with cassette tapes and vinyl records.

Cassettes represented the cheap, nigh indestructible bearers of music. They could fit in your back pocket (and even survive in the event of your sitting down without a preliminary extraction) get thrown across the room with little to no consequences for the precious music they harbored, and were the perfect loaning vehicle. (How many of those little musical ships have you sent out into the world, confident that they would return at the end of a long voyage across the musical seas? Yeah, me too.) Cassettes could also be used to record, enablingamong other cultural phenomenathe ascent of the quintessential gesture of love or undying friendship, and the ultimate proclamation of the Self: the mixtape. And, perhaps above all, cassettes were also portable, making possible the hitherto unattainable dream of carrying your musical identity with you. Whether it be through the self-affirming boombox or the more respectful Walkman, music would nevermore leave your sideas long as the batteries didn't die on you.

By comparison, vinyls were older, bulkier, and somewhat more deserving of our care. In their own way, they commanded respect. Asking those arcane discs to work their sonic magic required a specific procedure, almost a ritual. With cassettes, you just popped the deck open, slammed down the next bundle of songs and hit Play. Not so with a record. The artifact needed removal from two sleevesone paper (or plastic), the other cardboardand a gentle cradling all the way to the turntable, where it would rest comfortably on a circular altar. Then the scepter would be brought forth, lowered to the spinning crown of the king, and the initial pops and crackles would signify that we were about to be granted an audience.
Records were more fragile and overall less practical than their caged, magnetic counterparts. And yet people developed a particular attachment to them, perhaps precisely because they looked and felt much less disposable than cassettes. DJs were an exception, but then again DJs were godsand gods were allowed, indeed expected, to manhandle kings in order to fill the world with wonders. To the rest of us, records were something we needed to nurture, for the simple reason that they would not last forever.

And that is what I miss from time to time when I'm using modern contraptions to reproduce sounds from around the world and across time. The destructibility of music. The knowledge that each time I listened to a particular piece of music, my action would leave a mark. The magnetic patterns would fall apart a bit more, or the groove would erode and lose a little of its sharpness. I loved the mystical feeling that the more the music engrained itself into my brain (and soul), the more it disappeared from its physical medium. It was an alchemical process, a wondrous transference through which notes and harmonies and rhythms were bestowed upon me at the quantifiable rate of 33 or 45 rpm.
The first law of thermodynamics expressed in drum fills and power chords.

Digital music comes with its own set of endearing qualities, one of which is its ubiquity. That stuff is beyond portable: wherever you go, you music is already there, waiting for you. There's a sense of exhilaration to this, a feeling that my MP3 of FLAC file is running through that great player in the sky, connecting me to every other music enthusiast in a planet-wide celebration. Something very much alive, throbbing.

So I enjoy and profoundly benefit from music's unstoppable march towards the future. But all those newfangled gizmos belong to Eternity, while I learned to understand and love music through a technology in which I could recognize myself: a physical medium built to decline through use and ultimately vanish.
Maybe that's why I decided to have children, so that I could pass on that passion before my groove finally gives out and my very last magnetic particles go back to the stars.

[The archival life of magnetic tape is generally expected to be 30 years; I am happy to notice that I have exceeded that estimate.]

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Wargame review — The Kaiser's Pirates

Pirates to the Left of Me, Kaisers to the Right...

(Originally published on August 30, 2009)

Designer: James M. Day
Player count: 1 to 4
Publisher: GMT Games

During the first World War, many German warships and raiders attacked and pillaged merchantmen crossing the wrong sea at the wrong time. The British navy did what it could to stop them, but at a price.

The Kaiser’s Pirates invites players to play both parts at once, and try to make the best of what each side had going for it. Whoever manages to best defend his own ships—while sinking as many opposing vessels as possible—will emerge victorious.

The game doesn’t require a lot to stay afloat: inside the box are four decks of cards, a handful of small wooden cubes and a bag of polyhedral dice used to resolve combat. Throw in a rulebook and a reference card, and skippers are ready to leave port.

Each player is dealt three German ships and three merchant ships (that can belong to a variety of nations), plus a hand of six action cards. On his turn, a player commits as many action cards as he wants by placing them face down in front of him. Action cards are then resolved in any order desired.

There are always two uses to an action card: an intercept (which is an abstraction of the British navy) and an actual action described on the card. Placement of the card—horizontally or vertically—indicates how the acting player wants to use it.

When the actual action is the intended use, the action card is simply read aloud and its result applied, from limiting enemy supplies to scuttling one’s own ship before it’s captured.

An action card played as an intercept presents two alternatives. By itself, the card becomes an attack by the British navy on an enemy German ship, whereas an action card played as an Intercept on one of the acting player’s own German ships represents a German attack against one enemy merchant ship. In both cases, appropriate dice—showed as attack dice on the action card (for a British intercept) or on the triggered ship (for a German intercept) are rolled, with only the highest single number being retained. Defense dice (as indicated on the target ship, be it German or a merchantmen) are rolled in turn, again with only the highest single number being retained.
If the attack is higher than the defense, a red damage cube is placed on the target ship and will hinder that ship’s future actions. If the attack is at least double the defense, the target ship is sunk and its value added to the acting player’s victory total.

Some action cards—sporting a green background—are “assist” cards played to modify one’s own action. Boarding Party, for instance, lets a player attempt to capture an enemy ship instead of sinking it.
Other action cards—this time with a blue background—are “reaction” cards used in response to an opponent’s action or intercept. Those allow target ships to evade their attackers and generate some unexpected havoc for opposing ships.

After his turn, a player draws one—and only one—action card, meaning it’s not always a good idea to play multiple cards on the same turn.

The round is over when the last action card is drawn. Victory points are tallied, with the player in last place earning one round point, the next one in line two points, and so on all the way to the top (which would be four points in a four-handed game).

Players then start over for a new round, after three of which the points from all rounds are added up. Highest total wins.

ALONE ON DECK

Included in the box is a solitaire deck that makes is possible for a lone gamer to play against a “phantom player.” The game is set up just like a two-player match, except that each of the phantom’s plays is decided by a card flip and a die roll. The resulting action (as well as defensive rolls against the live player) might benefit from assist or reaction cards—all decided by turning over the top card of the solitaire deck and following the indications there.

TWO IF BY SEA

Four-handed games can also unfold as a team affair. This essentially boils down to combining team-members’ scores at the end of the game, although a couple of action cards were designed to specifically affect the proceedings in a team game.

WAR PRODUCTION

We’re talking cards here, so two factors overrule all others: cardstock and clarity.
Cardstock is not a problem, nor is the finish. My cards handle well, shuffle well, and I expect them to last a good long time. What’s more, the ship illustrations are all very nice and historically accurate, making for a nice display on the table top.

On the other hand, clarity is, well, a bit opaque. Dice used for attack, defense and the resolution of many action cards can be a d4, a d6, a d8 or a d10 (dice combinations are also pretty common). Those are illustrated on the relevant ships and action cards. Each die has its color which should normally help players figure out what’s needed at a glance, even when looking at ships on the far side of the table. But size is a problem: the dice icons are way too small. At a distance of a few feet and under good lighting conditions, even the red d4 and white d6 become difficult to identify in a snap—so the distinction between green d8 and blue d10 becomes a blur. Strangely, the available real estate on each card would have made it possible for the dice icons to be three or four times their current size, yet GMT didn’t decide to take advantage of this.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

This is an easy game with simple rules. The basic concepts are pretty straightforward, and most of the action cards are self-explanatory (the included player aid provides detailed explanations for each card). The rules themselves are rather clear and to the point, except that they are presented out of logical sequence. For instance, the setup section of the rules explains in detail (one full page) how to assign points at the end of a round and how to proceed to the next round. Then the rulebook seems to get back on track and starts to explain that players must commit action cards before they can be used… and moves on to exposing combat rules. What of the action cards? Their use is explained in the very last section of the basic rules, 3.2.8, under “Using action cards.”

This unfortunate sequencing results in a rule set that’s a bit difficult to grasp when it should it be very simple. After reading the rules a few times and actually playing the game, it appears that an easier rules reading sequence would be as follows (give it a shot if you feel lost):
1.0 to 2.2
3.0 to 3.1.2
3.2 to 3.2.2
3.2.8
3.2.3 to 3.2.7
3.1.3 to 3.1.10
2.3 to 2.5

The rulebook does provide a couple of detailed examples of play (including one for the solitaire game) that are very well done and shed a welcome light on the game’s mechanics.

FUN FACTOR

The Kaiser’s Pirates is a light, fun game that will not disappoint unless it’s taken too seriously. This is by no means a meaty endeavor: it works better as an evening closer between wargaming friends. And as such, the game delivers what it promises: action, interesting decisions and a generous helping of take that sure to keep competitive gamers healthy.

However, since the game doesn’t evolve during a session—the ending plays exactly like the opening did—it ought not to overstay its welcome. The rules suggest using a 40-card action deck for two players, and that feels about right. But with more players, I’d recommend shedding some more cards than what the rulebook proposes. 80 action cards for four players make a game clock in at something like 90 minutes, which is way too long for what it is. Same thing with the three-player, 60-card action deck. I found that ditching 20 more cards in each case resulted in a playing time more tailored to the depth of the game.

The solitaire game works really well. In fact, I would venture to say that it’s the most rewarding solitaire experience I’ve had with a boardgame so far, full of twists and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat. The game is worth it for the solitaire engine alone, even if you never get to play it against a human opponent.

The team rules are fine but don’t add a whole lot to the overall experience. The optional rules found at the back of the rulebook, however, infuse the gameplay with some more historical flavor and a few finer points that make some decisions a little trickier. Do try them out once you’re familiar with the basic game.



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Wargame review — The Halls of Montezuma

Welcome to Mexico. Now Get the Hell Out!

(Originally published on June 9, 2009)

Designers: David A. Fox, Michael Welker
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

For Mexico, the 1845 annexation of Texas by the United States of America meant war. Both nations exchanged acts of defiance for a few months before Mexico, though politically unstable as it was, came down on a U.S. patrol of 63 men (led by Thornton, hence the Thornton Affair) in the contested territory north of the Rio Grande with a cavalry force no less than 2,000 strong.
This led President Polk to declare war on Mexico, a struggle that was to last until 1848.

In The Halls of Montezuma, players reenact this conflict starting before the declaration of war, when diplomacy was still supposed to serve its purpose. The war might run its course and end “historically” in the spring of 1848, but it may very well come to an abrupt conclusion before that if either side achieves its victory conditions.

Montezuma is a Card-Driven Game—often called a CDG—inspired by a few predecessors, most notably Wilderness War (from which the raid mechanics were borrowed). Traditionally, the cards in a CDG are referred to as strategy cards and can be played, one per turn, to perform a variety of functions. One way to play a strategy card is to implement the event described on it; you can do this only if the event pertains to your nation. In other words, the Mexican player can only play Mexican or dual-nation events, never American ones.
The other way to play a strategy card is to use the number in its upper left corner, called the Operations (OPS) Value. Depending on its OPS Value, a strategy card used in this manner allows the player to activate a leader (and, most probably, a force attached to him), receive replacements, build fortifications, perform a naval operation (such as an amphibious landing or seizing a port), place control markers (essential to maintaining supply lines and reaching victory conditions) or execute raids against strategic locations.
Players alternate playing strategy cards until both have run out (or kept one), at which point play moves on to the next turn.

The game unfolds on a map of Mexico and the southern portion of Texas, where units move from space to space along connecting lines. Some terrain is more difficult to enter, while some spaces are inherently easier to defend, such as the Vera Cruz and Mejico fortresses.
When two opposing forces find themselves in the same space, combat occurs. A variety of familiar modifiers are computed, and each side then cross-references its firepower together with a die roll. The result indicates losses inflicted upon the other side, which in turn regulate the necessity of a retreat for the losing side.
One set of modifiers that are not of the familiar variety is the requirement for each side to designate a lead unit, and the option to commit one or two units (depending on the leader involved and the quality of said units). When calculating total firepower, the leading unit is counted at its full FP and each committed unit at twice its FP, while each of the other units is counted as adding one to the sum. Battle events—found on strategy cards—can also be played to alter the outcome.

Both sides can achieve “sudden death” victory through the control of key locations in enemy territory. Otherwise, the game ends at the conclusion of a turn on the successful roll of a die, starting with turn 6 (summer of 1847) and where the odds of the game coming to a close rise with each passing turn—culminating in an automatic end on turn 10. In that case, Mexico wins unless the victory marker currently stands in the US zone.

NEW IN TOWN

In Montezuma, strategy cards offer two additional twists.
Firstly, the pool of strategy cards is split in two halves: Crisis cards, which are used from the beginning, and War cards, shuffled into the deck when the US declares war on its neighbor (which can happen in a few different manners). Crisis and War cards offer different options at different moments while altering the overall taste of the game, a subtlety players of Twilight Struggle will be familiar with.

Secondly, some strategy cards (too many of them—or at least that’s the way it feels when your supply line is stretched to the limit…) sport a supply icon. When one of those cards is played, a die is rolled, and a result equal to or less than the card’s OPS Value triggers a supply check, with all that bad stuff for out-of-supply units: movement attrition, firepower penalties, and inability to build fortifications or receive replacements.

But wait! There’s another stack of cards begging for some attention: the Action Deck, which dispenses four random events—two for each side—at the start of every turn. You may get reinforcements, a heat wave may hit the battlefield, Santa Anna may unexpectedly return from exile, or better/worse (depending on which side you’re playing, of course).
In addition, each card in the Action Deck serves as a movement enabler. Whenever a unit (or group of units) attempts to move, the top card of the Action Deck is flipped and the leader’s strategy rating looked up on the little movement table that’s printed—with different values every time—at the bottom of each strategy card. This yields a movement allowance that the active unit or group must conform to. An underlined MA indicates movement attrition (and yes, all types of attrition are cumulative…).

As someone else might say, reinforcements in Montezuma are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get. Units allotted for reinforcements are drawn blindly from a cup. Keep drawing until you get your fill, and make do with what Chance handed you.

WAR PRODUCTION

Some of the recent GMT game boxes have been quite something to glance at, but The Halls of Montezuma looks spectacularly good on the wargame shelf. The game map is also one of the most beautiful to grace my table in recent memory. I was worried that the monochromatic approach might turn the map into a visual quagmire, but the board remains highly readable throughout the game.

The unit tokens are standard wargame fare and do a good job. The other markers are also adequate, although the Civic State and State Control markers are somewhat perplexing. Several colors are used for those, and while the setup instructions make no mention of this, we are led to assume that Civic/Control markers are supposed to go in State Status boxes of more or less the same colors. Except that those colors don’t quite match up between the counters and the map. Might have been easier to simply go with one color for all the Civic/Control markers, especially since the different hues have no effect on gameplay.

Both card decks are printed on good cardstock with a fine layout and a pleasing design, but confusing nomenclature. The deck that contains the strategy cards is referred to as Strategy Deck in the rules; yet each card therein says “Event Deck” on its back. On the other side of the fence, the Action Deck generates random events at the beginning of each game turn… although strategy cards are played during each action phase of a turn to, well, implement an action of one type or another. Not a big problem once you’re up and running, but this is something that could have been ironed out.
The card backs of both decks were also printed in three different shades. Three slightly different shades of blue for the Strategy/Event Deck, and three slightly different shades of gold for the Action Deck. Again, not a deal breaker—unless your regular opponent is an obsessive card-counting colorist—but a glitch that I’ve rarely encountered.
Lastly, arm yourself with a sharpie: the faces of two of the strategy cards are missing their blue Response labels at the top.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

While certain concepts require some deeper study (Battle in a Zone comes to mind), for the most part the rules are relatively easy to grasp and flow logically. The full-page index at the back of the rulebook—although incomplete—is quite welcome, as is the very detailed player aid (in two copies in the box). A Quick Start Sheet is also provided, which makes for easy reference while learning the game.
For some reason, GMT decided to print a “Set Up Card” on the back of the Quick Start Sheet. This features all the setup information, information that is not repeated in the rulebook proper. The problem is that one crucial sentence is missing at the bottom of the first paragraph on the Set Up Card:
“Blindly and randomly place one Political Will marker in each PW city and Alta California.”
The missing information is readily available online—and many a gamer will eventually come to the conclusion that they have to setup the PW markers in just that manner—but as a result of this little omission, the game is unfortunately unplayable right out of the box.
A sprinkling of typos throughout the rules and some mistakes in the example of play further confuse matters. Which is not to say that Montezuma is impossible to decipher; far from it. But it will take a couple of games as well as a good look at the FAQ for everything to connect into your (and your opponent’s) brain.
Once that light bulb goes on, though, hang on: you’re in for one exciting ride.

One final note on the rulebook: it contains one of my favorite features—card histories! Each strategy card’s event is described in one concise paragraph. Instant education for those who knew little on the game’s topic to begin with. (“Guilty, your Honor!”)

FUN FACTOR

I was never a big fan of Wilderness War, one of the godfathers of Montezuma. It felt too static to me, and a bit scripted at times. Not true here.

Thanks to the Action Deck, movement is a LOT of fun (who would have guessed?), with just the right amount of uncertainty thrown in to keep players double-guessing their mobilization plans.
Start-of-turn events provide more controlled chaos: since the number of different such events is limited, players soon learn to anticipate what may befall their forces.

I love the combat system, both very effective and quite simple. The little battle diagram on the board may look like nothing, but it really helps newcomers learn the system, and makes sure old hands keep everything straight.

The designers did a great job of making a Mexican win possible. It’s a question of holding out long enough for the American player not to achieve his victory conditions until time runs out. Of course, invading Texas might also help the Mexicans earn a victory, not to mention revel in the pure pleasure derived from the looks of anxiety the American players generally casts about in such a situation.

Still, in a period rife with scenario-based wargames, where we’re getting used to each new game being necessarily different from its predecessor, how would Montezuma’s one and only scenario hold up? Very well, I’d say. All of the cogs found in the box combine to create a dynamic machine that feels fresh every time it’s fired up.



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Boardgame review — Giants

One Giant Step

(Originally published on March 19, 2009)

Designer: Fabrice Besson
Player count: 3 to 5
Publisher: Asmodée

There’s no place like home. Especially if home is Easter Island.

In Giants, each player controls a tribe that strives to sculpt, transport and then erect Moais—those gigantic, distinctive stone statues—all around Easter Island. In every one of the tribes, the chief, sorcerer and workers labor together to achieve this goal. Whoever does it best will score the most prestige points and win the game.

The game is played on a lovely board that offers a bird’s eye view of  Easter Island. The island itself is divided into connected hexagons, some of them plain spaces, others special spots where the sorcerer can work his magic. There is one quarry at each end of the island: one where the Moais start out, and the other where the headdresses (a.k.a. stone hats) come from. And on the perimeter of the island lay the Ahus, stone platforms where the Moais (and possibly their hats!) will get erected.

As the game begins, each tribe is composed of a sorcerer, a chief, a worker and two tribe markers safely hidden behind their player screen. Each turn, dice are rolled to determine the quantity and the sizes of the Moais that will be available (between one and five Moais in three different sizes).
Then players blind bid—at once—tribe markers for the order in which they’ll pick Moais, and tribesmen for the size of the Moai(s) they’ll be able to “sculpt.” So the more markers they bid, the earlier they’ll choose a Moai from those available, and the more tribesmen they bid, the bigger that Moai will be. But all those markers and tribesmen will not be available for the rest of the turn, which presents its own set of problems.

Then comes the placement phase, during which players take turns putting their remaining tribesmen on the board in an attempt to build chains that will allow for transportation of Moais and headdresses, from their respective quarries to the intended stone platforms all around the island.
A lowly worker has a “transport capacity” of 1, while a chief sports a capacity of 3. So if two workers end up in the same hexagon, for instance, a size-2 Moai will be allowed to go through that space, because the two workers together can muster enough strength. Now they don’t need to belong to the same tribe: rival tribesmen can work together (i.e. coexist in hexagons) without any problem.
It is also during this phase that the sorcerer can be placed on a special space to generate a variety of resources: logs (that increase transport capacity), a stone headdress, or an additional worker or tribe marker.

When all players are satisfied with the placement of their tribesmen, actual transport commences. In turn order, each player moves one of his Moais or headdresses, from their respective quarries through to… well, as far as they can take them. Many tribesmen chains won’t extend all the way to a stone platform. A size-3 Moai requires a transport capacity of 3 to be present in all the hexagons it will go through: a dubious proposition at best. So what to do if a Moai or headdress doesn’t reach its target? The player can use one of his tribe markers (if any are left!) to mark the Moai or headdress and save it for the following turn.
When the Moai or headdress <i>does</i> reach a platform, points are scored. The farther away from the Moai or headdress quarry the platform stands, the more points are earned when the piece is finally erected there. If a player required the help of an opponent’s tribesmen to cross certain hexagons, compensation—in prestige points—must be paid. In this way, players who spend a turn without a new Moai or headdress of their own can still earn points by using their tribesmen to set up a transport path that will prove tempting to their rivals.

At the end of the turn during which a player has erected his quota of Moais (which varies depending on the number of players), the game ends. Whoever has the most prestige points wins.

PRODUCTION

Everything looks great. From the game board to the tribesmen figures to the Moais themselves, every single element makes for a stunning display and helps anchor the gameplay deep into the theme.

Which is not to say that there are no—minor—production problems. The most nagging is the fact that tribe markers won’t “clip” on top of most Moais. This can become a problem when you’ve got several Moais left on the board between turns, and the markers—that identify which tribe controls what Moais—keep falling off. (I’ve heard of some people having similar problems with the headdresses, but this didn’t turn out to be a problem at all with my copy of the game).
Also, while the little logs are extremely cute to look at, they prove difficult to use because of their diminutive size.
Finally, the “pass” marker players are supposed to attach to their screen to indicate that they’re done for the turn is impossible to use as intended without damaging the screen or the marker (or both). We ended up simply placing them in front of our screens.
Problem solved.

RULES

Giants is not a complicated game, but a few of the novel mechanics do create something of a learning curve. The double-bidding at the beginning of every turn, as well as the creation of mixed transport chains, are unusual ideas that may stump some players at first. But once those concepts are integrated, the game flows naturally and without a hitch.

The rulebook is not as user-friendly as it could be, though. In addition to leaving a few stones unturned (about which the designer released a FAQ you can access here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/file/download/44oghrz0zo/giants_faq.pdf), it’s way too busy, leaving next to no breathing room for the readers’ eyes on every single page.
To its credit, the booklet is crammed with examples and clarifying notes; it even features a complete turn example and a short history of Easter Island.
I just wish they’d let the text overflow on one or two additional pages instead of keeping it locked up within eight pages.

One giant plus (if you’ll pardon the pun) is that it comes with rules in three languages: English, German and French.

FUN FACTOR

The game may look rather dry from a straight reading of the rules, but Giants turns out to be very fun. There’s great pleasure to be found in expanding your tribe, sculpting Moais and then transporting them to their platforms, and finally capping them—if you can!—with stone headdresses.

Learning to work with your rivals (and not always against them) is also great fun and takes a couple of games getting into. You try to spread the wealth instead of patronizing a single player… but sometimes that lone player is offering you a quick path to a bunch of points that’s hard to resist.

And while the initial game takes a while to get going—essentially because of the original game mechanics that take some getting used to—it soon reaches a comfortable cruising speed that brings everyone to a satisfying conclusion in about 90 minutes (despite the box announcing a 60-minute running time).



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Wargame review — Iron & Oak

Iron Maidens

(Originally published on June 3, 2013)

Designer: James M. Day
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

The American Civil War was witness to many land battles, but also to the first clash of ironclads—ships armored with metal plates so as to make them less vulnerable to fire and explosive damage. The previous decade had seen developments such as steam-powered ships, explosive shells and metal hulls, but the ironclad was the first machine to bring them all together. And in 1862, at the battle of Hampton Roads, history was made as ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia met in battle for the very first time.

Iron and Oak brings those metal behemoths to the table top in a tight and simple package. The game is a purely tactical affair, with the board depicting a five by five tableau of blue grid boxes on which ships maneuver to get into advantageous positions.

Scenarios assign a varying number of ships to each opponent (usually between one to four ships per side), distribute special abilities or hindrances, and lay out board elements such as reefs, current, wind, and the occasional mine field.

Each active ship is assigned an order card upon the start of the owning player’s turn. In addition to allowing movement from one box to another, orders range from Anchor and Refloat to Crossing the T and ramming and torpedo attacks! Order cards are revealed one at a time, in any sequence of the player’s choosing.

Once a ship has moved, it can open fire. Depending on the attacking ship’s armament, the player rolls one or more polyhedral dice and retains the single highest number. (For instance, the CSS Richmond attacks with a d10, a d8 and a d4.) A yellow d8 is also rolled to determine hit location. The target gets to roll defensive dice for said location, and also retains the single highest number. (For instance, the USS Indianola rolls a d10 and a d4 to defend its amidships section.) If the attack number is equal or less than the defense number, it’s a miss. But damage is dealt in increasing dosage if the attack number is more than, or double, or triple (!) the defense number.
The clever twist here is that the very first hit on a given ship section doesn’t inflict damage. It effectively makes a dent in the hull—one which the next hit will exploit. Each further hit also increases the number of “dents” on that section, making subsequent damage all the more devastating.
Now an attack that triples the defense number inflicts a critical hit, which requires a roll on the dreaded Critical Hit Table. The captain might die, or the boiler might explode, or the engine or the rudder might be damaged… Some of those are repairable, while others you’ll just have to learn to live with. A particularly vicious hit might cause a fire to break out on one of your ships, forcing you to use part of your crew to fight the inferno, thus hindering your ability to maneuver and fight.
Enough hits will sink a ship, which might be enough to earn the opponent a win, depending on the victory conditions of the specific scenario being played.

Scenario instructions also have each player dealt a hand of Action Cards (between six and 12, depending on the battle). Those are special actions or modifiers that can be played during movement or combat. But that hand is all you get: you do not gain additional cards during the game. The best a player can do is set aside a card and draw a replacement—but only one per turn, only if he hasn’t played any cards on his turn, and only up to half his starting hand. Once you hit that limit, you have to deal with whatever Fate gave you.

A game ends whenever victory conditions for the chosen scenario are achieved. Those generally involve sinking a portion (or the entirety!) of the opponent’s ships, or escorting one specific ship to safety.

WAR PRODUCTION

As is usually the case with a GMT product, the quality of the components is excellent. The cards are printed on good stock, the counters look pretty (I especially like the oblong ones for the ships), and the paper map does what it does best: lay flat.

I do have three minor production gripes with Iron and Oak, and the map is one of them. The thing is, it doesn’t just lay flat—it looks flat as well. It’s essentially a grid of blue boxes, with a turn track at one end. In all honesty, though, I’m at a loss as to what I would have done differently: there’s only so much dressing up you can achieve with rows and columns of blue rectangles. But there’s no denying that it’s not a map that screams excitement.

The second thing that bugs me is the subtle variation in color on some of the order cards. This means that an opponent who pays close attention might notice that your Maneuver 1/2 card is the one with a slightly different back. I doubt very much it’ll cause any real trouble during play, but my OCD reflex always kicks in when material used for a secret selection mechanism does not look exactly the same from one piece to the next.

My last rant has to do with the shield tokens, placed on each ship location as it gets chipped away. There’s simply no room for them on the ship cards: the tokens end up covering some bit of necessary information no matter what. Perhaps a smaller ship silhouette would have left enough room on the ship card for larger location boxes which, in turn, could have accommodated shield tokens more readily.

On a different note, I really like the cover. Somewhat subdued, in a palette I usually don’t see on wargames. Well done.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Without the campaign and optional rules, the rulebook takes up only 18 pages. Short enough to read it twice on the bus ride to work. The workings of the game are easy to decipher, although a couple of odd omissions unnecessarily obfuscate some parts. For instance, the way order cards are distributed at set-up is never expressed clearly. It becomes fairly obvious when playing the game that each ship gets its own set of four cards, but the rulebook needs a line that spells it out. The rules also don’t say what happens to a played order card. Does it get discarded? Picked up and reused? Players quickly figure it out on the battlefield, but the rulebook never addresses this directly.

As for the rest, everything’s peachy! The rulebook, short as it is, sports a solid index (one of my favorite features) and is structured in a way that makes it quick and painless to find a rule during play. The player-aid cards help a lot here: I find myself reaching for the actual rulebook only for critical hit descriptions.
(One warning about the player-aid card: there’s a mention of current modifiers in the Maneuver Response Chart, and it doesn’t belong there. Those modifiers only apply to the Maneuver Roll itself. That little glitch really threw us for a loop during our first game.)

Campaign rules bump surviving vessels to the next battle (in a sequence of at least five, and probably less than 10 engagements), with both players struggling to repair maimed ships and replace killed crew before the cannonballs start flying again.

The 35-page playbook includes short designer notes and a brief example of play, along with 11 scenarios, plus guidelines to generate single scenarios as well as campaign games. Those offer a nice variety of engagements, involving anywhere between three and 20 ships—sometimes even forts! Current and wind conditions change from one battle to the next, and shoals and mines may very well bar your way.

FUN FACTOR

I’m having a lot of fun with Iron and Oak. Part of it is the game length: with most battles taking between 60 and 90 minutes, I can easily play two or three engagements in an evening. The other part is the sheer fun of ship-to-ship combat. On occasion, you may end up in a tactical cul-de-sac: you’ve played all of your action cards and either you can’t maneuver anymore or else you already occupy the sweet spot, and you just shell away at the opponent until something breaks. But most of the time, you’re trying to negotiate a mine field (or a grid box that might be just a tad too shallow…) while fighting a fire that threatens to sink you without outside help. Now take your best shot at the approaching ironclad that looks like it’s aiming to ram what’s left of your wooden beauty.
What’s not to like?

PARTING SHOTS

There is a simplicity and a directness to Iron and Oak that please me. It’s a very fun tactical wargame that provides a nice breather in a gaming space (the American Civil War) usually filled with zoomed-out strategy titles.

I was worried about replayability at first, but the package guarantees 22 sessions to start with (11 scenarios played to and fro), plus a scenario generator—and that’s not counting the campaign scenario generator. So I think I’m covered for the near future.

GMT’s other naval ACW title, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas, is a strategy game with rules that link to Iron and Oak as a means of resolving combat. I haven’t had a chance to try Rebel Raiders yet, but I already know that its “alternate combat rules” are right up my alley.



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Wargame review — Cuba Libre

A Fistful of Pesos

(Originally published on October 29, 2013)

Designers: Jeff Grossman, Volko Ruhnke
Player count: 1 to 4 (fully soloable)
Publisher: GMT Games

From 1953 to 1959, the natives were restless on the island of Cuba. The revolution had brewed long enough and was finally boiling over. In real life, Fidel Castro and his 26th of July movement successfully kicked Fulgencio Batista away from the president’s chair, but GMT is offering a chance for budding revolutionaries to change history, one event at a time.

Cuba Libre is the second volume in the COIN (Counter Insurgencies) series of games, and sits up to four players, with represented factions being Batista’s government, the 26th of July, the Directorio and the Syndicate. A four-handed game is the ideal situation, although clever AI algorithms allow for as few as one player to rev the engine and enjoy the ride.

Said engine is the event deck, a genius idea that propels the game forward by allowing up to two factions to act on each turn. At the top of each card are the four faction colors, in a row whose order changes from card to card. On any given card, the first faction in the row gets the option to act first, performing either the card’s historical event or one of its own actions. If the faction decides to pass (or if it’s unavailable because it’s acted on the previous turn), then the next faction in the row gets a shot—and so on until up to two factions have acted.

Several remarks are vital here. First, some cards feature two different events, with effects that are usually opposite from one another. Only one faction may play an event, and then only one of the two. Second, for each card, the action of the first faction dictates the options left open for the second faction; generally, if a faction plays the event, then the following faction will have to perform one of its actions, and vice-versa. Third, some actions are different from faction to faction, while others are the same. Those include such evocative names as Kidnap, Assassinate, Bribe, Muscle, Infiltrate, and more.

A typical turn will have factions deploying guerrilas to the board and/or moving them around, building bases (or opening casinos in the case of the Syndicate!), attacking other players’ guerrilas or bases, sabotaging economic centers, stirring patriotic support of fomenting revolutionary opposition, terrorizing whole populations, ordering air strikes…

The deck sports 52 cards, four of which trigger a Propaganda Round which is essentially a housekeeping round. Some factions have to redeploy their forces, others can spend resources (the game’s abstracted currency) to turn one aspect of the game or another in their favor, and each faction receives a number of resources based on individual conditions. For instance, the 26th of July receives resources equal to the number of bases it has in play, while the Directorio gets resources equal to the number of spaces where it has pieces.
Then, if no faction has attained its own, individual set of winning conditions, the game keeps going. If nobody has yet claimed victory after the fourth and final propaganda card (shuffled somewhere in the fourth quarter of the deck), the one faction closest to its goal is declared winner.

WAR PRODUCTION

There’s a lot of material in Cuba Libre. The game ships in GMT’s now famous “reinforced double deep” box—the sort of stuff you could build a house with. Inside is a metric ton of wooden components (the bases and guerrilas for each faction), as well as a host of thick control markers of various kinds, plus the card deck printed on fine cardstock. On top of everything sit one rulebook (20 pages), one playbook (36 pages), and a bunch of full-size player aid cards, from turn sequence to detailed AI charts for the non-player factions.

And then there’s the board depicting the troubled island, fully mounted—but much smaller than that of the other games in the series! This gives everyone less room in which to maneuver, but makes the action tense from the get-go.
I’m not sure exactly why, but I find all the COIN game boards rather bland, and the one in Cuba Libre is no exception. There’s something about the general look that doesn’t push the right buttons for me. In any case, while that makes for a board that I don’t find exciting per se, it doesn’t mean the object is not functional. On the contrary: everything’s got a spot and a use, and the board is a big part of what makes the game flow the way it does. (Especially when it comes to the Sequence of Play track.)

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Cuba Libre (or any entry in the COIN series, for that matter) is not complicated, but reading the rules can be overwhelming. Get this: the standard four-player game requires new players to read a grand total of ten pages. TEN. Ah, but the heart of the document is a list of actions, many of them presenting only slight differences in implementation from one faction to another—and all of them at times complicated to visualize without the actual board and pieces in front of your eyes.
So I recommend that you read through the rules once without bothering to memorize anything, and then set up the game and start playing. Everything will soon make sense, and turn out to be much easier than at first sight. Or you could jump right into the 13-page tutorial that takes you through the first few turns of a game, including the first propaganda round.

The player aids are a tremendous help during the learning process. Not only because they contain pretty much everything you need to play the game, but also because they highlight the specifics of each faction’s action in the faction’s color. For instance, both the Directorio and the Syndicate can execute a Rally action, but not exactly in the same way. Thus, on the player aids, the subtle differences are highlighted in yellow for the Directorio and in green for the Syndicate, making it dead easy to compare the two.

The full complement of players is four, but the game also works with less. For each missing human, the system provides an algorithm to play the orphaned faction, all the way down to a totally solo game experience. (In a head-to-head match, players can also handle two factions apiece, making the game less reliant on automated mechanisms, but requiring more brain power from each player in order to maximize synergy between paired factions—ultimately making the game a bit longer, in my experience.)
Now the AI gears mesh really well and create a believable enough narrative, but they’re a lot of work to operate. Each algorithm is essentially a big flow chart, and things can get heavy pretty fast. I’m okay using them to simulate one or two factions, but the full solo game is not for me. Although it does work, it requires too much effort for me to truly enjoy the process.

FUN FACTOR

Cuba Libre operates on a tug-of-war or see-saw feeling reminiscent of GMT’s own Twilight Struggle and 1989, or Z-Man’s 1960: The Making of the President. You’re spending a lot of time and energy adding some of your own forces to the board and removing those of your opponents. But the key here is to find a way to make it more costly or time-consuming for your opponent to rebuild than it was for you to destroy.
And I find that fascinating. Especially with four belligerents, where the tug-of-war is much more muddy than it would be in a two-player situation. The asymmetrical resource systems and victory conditions add a layer of ownness that very few other games out there can generate: you want your faction to win, using your tools to meet your goals. Sometimes your tools and goals will align with those of an opponent, and temporary alliances will coalesce, only to dissolve a couple of turns later.
Strange bedfellows galore.

PARTING SHOTS

Cuba Libre is currently the most accessible game in the COIN series. The rules are admittedly just as simple as those of any other COIN title, but the reduced board space makes them easier to put into action. Plus, the smaller card deck (52 cards instead of 70+ in the other two titles) brings the play time down by about a third.
Because of all this, I’m tempted to say that Cuba Libre is the “learning game” for the COIN series, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it doesn’t make for a deep and engaging experience—because it does. It’s a thrill-a-minute, gnaw-off-your-whole-arm affair, full of theme and history.
If you’re into solid four-player confrontations that are playable in three hours, look no further. Cuba awaits.


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