Trouble in the Workers’ Paradise

Next War: Korea has received its fair share of cyber-ink in play reports on both CSW and BGG lately. I’ve tinkered around with the game off and on since its release. I used to be quite keen on keeping up with the military situation on the Korean peninsula, but my attention to the subject lapsed about 10 years ago. I’m probably still not back up to speed entirely — but, hey, that won’t stop me from forming an opinion about the game.

Up front, I think it’s an interesting design and a tense play. But with that said, I think the game makes certain assumptions (which is what games have to do, so I don’t mean that negatively) that limits its usefulness as a tool for predicting the course of any near-future conflict. It’s a snapshot of one specific course the conflict could take, which I suppose is about the best a fairly standard board wargame can accomplish.

Once you get past the standard game rules, NW:K becomes a very complex beast. In and of itself, complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in this instance I think the complexity is focused in the wrong direction. The various rules layers of the game system drill ever deeper into the mechanical complexities of modern warfare — something that I’ll call for the moment “operational complexity”. It focuses on the interplay between various warfighting systems in particular. By layering on rules, the player can conduct the operational air campaign, for instance, or gain a more detailed look at the utility of the US deep battlefield doctrine.

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Short Take on the Bulge

What the wargaming world really needs is another game on the Battle of the Bulge.

Over the last half-century of commercial wargame production, the Nazis’ winter offensive into the Ardennes has been the subject of enough games to fill an entire closet. But somebody’s always out to design a better mousetrap, thus the continuing need for Bulge games.

I’ve got my fair share of Bulge-oid games, and I’ve bought, played and sold off an even fairer share. The Bulge-centric portion of my game collection includes older titles like SPI’s Ardennes quad, newer stuff like the recent 2nd Edition of GMT’s Ardennes ’44 and modules for tactical game systems like ATS Darkest December. Because no old wargamer can ever have enough Bulge games, during my recent binge of “off brand” game purchases I decided to pick up a copy of “Battles of the Bulge: Celles”, published by Revolution Games. Continue reading

Sergeants on the Table

During a brief fit of insanity a few weeks back, I decided that beyond a doubt I needed to take yet another miniatures game for a test drive. I don’t know what it is about “figure gaming” that appeals to me, but sometimes I see a game or read about it and I realize that I’m not going to get it out of my head until I give it a whirl.

So I sucked up my retail courage and bought “Day of Days”, the starter box set for the Sergeants Miniatures Game published by Lost Battalion.

When I ordered it, I understood that it wasn’t your normal miniatures game. It’s part of a gaming sub-genre that’s a cross between a miniatures game and a board wargame. Some of the elements of the game are familiar to every miniatures gamer: 20mm figures, pre-fabricated bases and a ruler for measuring distance. In place of a large tabletop strewn with model terrain, however, the game is played on a highly stylized board and uses cards — no dice — to drive the action and resolve combat. Continue reading

Guns Along the Narva

In between assorted adventures in reality, lately I’ve been on a small binge of experimenting with off-brand wargames. By “off brand” I mean games produced by companies other than the usual alphabetical suspects like GMT, MMP, LNL, ATO or DG. It’s taken a while to get these new games onto the table, but I’m finally starting to make some progress.

And I haven’t even needed therapy.

The first of the batch to get seriously de-boxed and deployed beneath the plexiglass is a short-run production from Three Crowns Games in Sweden called “Army Group Narwa” — or “Narva” as I learned it in my distant and misspent youth.

Army Group Narva setup

AG Narwa - setup around the city.

It’s not one of the better known campaigns on the East Front, but it’s pretty interesting. What’s a Narva? It’s a city — located on the Narva River — on the border between Estonia and (nowadays) Russia. After the Leningrad-Novgorod offensive of January 1944, Stalin wanted the Red Army to overrun Estonia as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for the Soviet Leningrad Front, the Germans were pretty good at defending marshy, mucky rivers and “as quickly as possible” turned out to be more on the order of seven months. Continue reading

Missing Inaction

Contrary to what it may appear, I ain’t dead — and neither is this blog.

Anybody see a pattern? It never fails. Things are rolling along, I’ve got a bunch of blogging irons in the fire and then poof! Real life interference blows the whole thing to hell and gone and it’s two months before I manage to remember that I have a blog.

In this instance, the real life interference is entirely my own doing. All of the blog damage is completely self-inflicted.

Some of you may have been thinking that one of the graphic artists or designers I panned in my ‘geometry’ post back in April showed up at my door with an old Macbook and clubbed me to death. Nope. I just decided to wander off and fiddle with something else for a while. It’s how I roll. Continue reading

Geometry Is a Harsh Mistress

Tactical wargaming is probably my favorite gaming genre, at least judging by the amount of playing time and money I have invested in the stuff. For my purposes of looking at usability in wargame design “tactical” includes unit scales that range from fire teams up to platoons, mainly because games set at those scales tend to try to accomplish many of the same things regardless of the specific design mechanisms. “Skirmish” scale games — where the game pieces represent individuals — are a bit of a different beast, so they lie below my definition today.

One of the things that strikes me about graphic design in tactical games is how little things have changed in more than 40 years. Compare the counter layout in 1970′s PanzerBlitz to the counter layout in a more modern game like PanzerGrenadier, World at War or Conflict of Heroes. Looky there; numbers in the corners, artwork in the middle. Is that one of those unwritten game design “standards”? I’d think it is, especially considering that one of those contemporary games — World at War — is so loath to part from the standard that it actually screws up usability by cramming too much information into too little space.

World at War counter

World at War: 11 values? Count 'em. And squint.

Note that I’m not advocating sticking values in the middle of a counter. But I will point out that the geometrical judgement is fairly harsh: Cramming 10 values into four corners is simply not a recipe for great usability. I like the World at War system quite a bit, but I don’t get it on the table as often as some other games (or buy as many of the add-ons, to make an economic point) simply because of the usability issues.

Within the limitations of a square counter format, how many practical options are available for a designer to experiment with alternative, useful locations to place information? Some designers have experimented with alternative locations that weren’t so useful — the teensy values for command range or whatever they were (it’s been a few years) on some of the Fortress Berlin counters come to mind here — but are there any realistic options for the format? Continue reading