Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brilliant beginnings and feeble finales

More than 2 years ago and full in the flush of my 2-year haul through Richard Borg's Memoir'44, I wrote 'another hymn of praise to cardplay', in which I listed some geeky stuff the reading or playing of which had most affected me. Looking back at that list I now realise that I inadvertently forgot where some of it began, namely the late lamented Avalon Hill's Squad Leader. That's a shame really, because it was with John Hill's masterpiece that I perfected the grub-and-gaming trick to get a regular WW2 boardgaming session going. And it was about Squaddie that I wrote, in a Top-10 (sadly no longer available) this was "the first game I knew I always wanted to play."

Like I said, it's a shame that I left Squad Leader off a list upon which it really deserves its place. Why? Because my experience so far of the new Conflict of Heroes- Awakening the Bear! has pushed me over an edge on the brink of which I've teetered for months, thanks, naturally enough, to Combat Commander. What am I talking about? About the fact that I have a still horrible feeling that I might never play son of Squaddie, a.k.a. Advanced Squad Leader, ever again. So it's a shame that this landmark game didn't enjoy its pride of place in that wee list of mine before better games came along definitively to render it a museum piece for this gamer.

You'll've gathered then that Tony and I really enjoyed playing CoH on Saturday. We played 2 games of Firefight 1- Partisans, a really well-considered introductory scenario: the barest minimum of pieces- 5 on each side; an objective the control of which will typically be the key to victory for either side- generating 5VP/game at 1 VP/turn, it starts under Soviet control; and simple setup variations meaning that each side faces a distinct tactical situation- the Soviets hold the field against Germans entering with immediate strength of numbers and superior firepower.

My Germans mauled Tony's Soviets 8-2, then my Soviets won 7-4, a bit of a comeback for Tony, especially since he had a great 'hail mary' play for a draw, but chance fell just the wrong side of mean for him at that crucial moment. Those scores also hide the fact that I only killed 1 more unit than Tony- if any- because 4 out of 8 of my Germans' VP were down to the objective, whereas my Russians held the objective for at least 4 turns out of 5. And it turns out that we'd been bringing the German reinforcements in in the wrong place too- they come in behind the Soviets, which would've made the firefight a whole new kettle of fish.

The simplicity and flexibility of the core AP/CAP system was what had been most striking to me last time, before I'd played CoH. What excites me most now is the realisation that CoH does something which I believe is unique in squad-scale, company/battalion-level WW2 tacsims- it handles absolutely all combat by the same single set of rules. This is such a bland statement that its significance might be lost on some people, so let me expand.

ASL has 3 different core combat systems, which are based on infantry and armour being defined by quite distinct statlines:
  • Fire attacks resolved on the Infantry Fire Table.
  • Fire attacks resolved on the AP To Kill table.
  • Close Combat.
These 3 systems each come with their own lengthy lists of DRM's.

Even Combat Commander has 2 core combat systems:
  • Fire attacks.
  • Close combat.
You could say that this is actually 1½ core combat systems, since the attack rolls are functionally identical in each case in CC.

In any event, units in CoH, be they infantry, ordnance, or vehicles- soft or armoured, all use the same statlines. This sample armour unit shows the full statline, with the typical 7 stats plus facing indicator. These are the same for infantry as they are for trucks as they are for horse-drawn units (some units have less stats because they lack the abilities those stats represent, eg. horses and carts have no FP). Different coloured stats are used to mark the differences between the key aspects of the various units:
  • Target type, ie. soft target or hard target.
  • Munitions, ie. AP or HE.
  • Movement type, ie. foot, wheeled, or tracked.
These sample foot units show some of these variations. The way the different colours of FP and DR work to give the effects of AP and HE is devilishly simple: red FP versus blue DR is halved, and vice versa. The AT gun shows the sort of neat effect this rule creates, with the blue- armoured- front DR to represent the effect of the gun shield, the single most elegant implementation of this I have seen (you should see the lengths ASL goes to to handle this detail).

And there's more. Not only do all units in CoH use the same statline, resulting in a single combat system, but the combat system involves just 1 dice roll per attack- 2d6- and a tiny handful of modifiers. Part of this is because damage is handled by chit draws, so that extra dice rolls aren't needed to determine the success and/or the effect of attacks. The simplicity of this means that you can make quick, easy and meaningful assessments of your chances in any given attack, which is a great help to a player's tactical appreciation of the situation, as you can well imagine.

The effect of all this is amazing as you leaf through the scenarios book, looking at the huge 2-4 player scenarios, using perhaps 6 or 7 times as many units on 3 or 4 boards, and you realise that all of these are done with the same, single set of combat rules which are just a delight to use. For example, a neighbour popped in for a quick visit. This guy's no gamer, though he knows another grognard, and is curious about these games. I had CoH out on the table. I showed him a map and a playing piece. He was instantly fascinated, and was soon telling me that he felt like Rommel as he pored over the scenarios and the rules. He was really excited. I was quite boggled.

That's it for CoH just now. Expect to hear more.

Tony: 0
Me: 2

Meanwhile, elsewhere... Ack!
Our recent long run of Descent came to a close on Sunday. Regular readers will probably remember that it had fallen to us to save the world after our previous heroic victory had delivered it, neatly wrapped, to another common-or-garden megavillain with the usual plans of total domination of what remained after the all-too-familiar mass carnage. I'd expected Andy to want to take his chance to win a heroic victory himself, but he had other ideas.

The result doesn't bear much examination, if only because our efforts were so feeble. Our brave party of heroes took the wrong turning, with the result that we attacked some very strong monsters with the minimum of loot (you might remember I talked a couple of weeks ago about the levelling-up effect inherent in the different grades of treasure). Andy pulled some fancy footwork to get past our fighters to attack the weaker heroes, and we were trashed without getting past the 1st room. So much for saving the world then.

We're going to take a break from Descent for a wee while now, but we'll be back.

Andy: 1
Useless no-marks: 0

We finished off with this old favourite: Dave had never played before; and Andy was interested in seeing how it worked with more than 4 players. Dave took to Settlers as quickly as he'd taken to Descent, and he made a good showing too, which just goes to show that the game's merits aren't overrated even as it becomes as achingly familiar to adventure gamers as family boardgamers are to the general public. It wasn't going to be Dave's day for a newb's upset though.

It wasn't going to be my day though. Left with a tricky choice of regions I just couldn't find a fit I liked the look of, and ended up with one which was somehow worse than what I'd imagined it could be- I had neither sheep nor grain in my initial setup. I didn't expect to get far, and I expectations were fulfilled.

Tony meanwhile followed a by now familiar tactic of going for a quick city; Andy followed his example; and Donald grabbed the longest road which he held onto despite Dave's best efforts (and my dashed hopes). As the midgame drew to a close, the other 4 were poised neck and neck around 7 while I trailed, hoping to pull off a coup with both the longest road and the largest army to surprise everyone. It was not to be though. Tony hit 8VP, enabling me to explain to Dave the importance of an all-out trade embargo, as you do. But before it could bite, Tony stole the longest road, to win with an unexpected 2VP leap. Gutted! But a good show by Tony.

Tony: 1
The other mugs: 0

Over the weekend
Andy: 1
Dave: 0
Donald: 0
Tony: 1
Me: 2

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