Space Infantry: Mission Setup

So. How does this Space Infantry thing actually play? With a little luck and self-discipline, over the next few blog posts I’m going to write up a serialized After Action Report of a real, live game. A little creative license may be involved in some of the reporting — the goal being entertainment, after all — but the entire narrative will be generated by in-game actions.

Seriously, if a science-fiction game can’t get your imagination going, somebody needs to check your pulse.

Here’s the setup.

Cybers. I hate these guys.

Cybers. I hate these guys.

This is the third scenario in a campaign game. In the SI rulebook, it’s the first campaign, “Jovvian War Prelude,” which comprises both surface and hive missions. I have yet to play the second campaign, which is all hive missions. The Advanced rules are in play, but I’m not using any of the Optionals.

With a couple of combat missions already under their belts, our valiant squaddies have accumulated some experience. Both Fire Teams, Assault Team A and the Close Combat grunt have all acquired Veteran status. They’ve also collected Talents, as has the Squad Leader.

As I’ll get to in the next blog post, one of the Veteran units, Fire Team A with its “Eagle Eye” Talent, is staying behind on this mission. Sarge has decided to drag along a Shotgunner for some extra close-range firepower this time out.

The mission map is Surface 2, a desert area the squad must traverse in their Pilum APC in order to find and rescue some scientists who are hiding out in widely separated cave complexes. The desert is populated by giant sand worms with bad attitudes, and the enemy selected for the mission is the Cybers — heavily armored robots that favor ranged fire attacks.

Looks like our squaddies have their work cut out for them.

Spaced Out

OK. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m really bad about sticking to my plans.

According to my grand vision around January 1, this was supposed to be Opportunity Fire’s “year of the Pacific.” My plan was to hammer on the games I’ve got in the Game Closet that cover World War II’s PTO.

Oh. Ooops. Pffft. Never mind. Rather, this is My Year of Blogging Horribly. All I’m going to say about that is “Stuff happens.”

Let’s just say right now, I’m spaced out. There weren’t many game arrivals over the summer. The few items that did manage to land on my doorstep here in the swamp include GMT’s new “Space Empires” and Lock N Load’s “Space Infantry.” The latter item is currently getting a workout on the Big Table.

Space Infantry in action on the Big Table.

Space Infantry in action on the Big Table.

Designed by Gottardo Zancani, Space Infantry is a clever solitaire game of combat on the far-flung worlds of the future. The player takes on the role of squad leader. Your job is to select a group of combat teams and specialists, then lead them into battle.

The game uses random number chits, rather than dice, to determine the results of various actions. The chits probably wear out more quickly than dice (doh!), but they do a better job of controlling probability distribution in the context of the game. Their use also speeds up game play quite a bit. Instead of making a lengthy series of dice rolls (and recording the results), you typically draw all of the chits for the same type of action for all units in play at the same time.

Combat results, for example, are based on a comparison between a unit’s relevant skill (Fire or Melee) and a random number (which represents “Action Points”). Divide the Action Points by the skill, drop fractions, and the result is the number of successes the unit scores. In a combat phase, you draw random numbers for all of the units involved — on both sides — in the same sequence. Quick and easy.

Graphically, Space Infantry is produced to Lock N Load’s typically high production standards. Artwork is colorful and crisp, and the die-cutting is very clean. Most of the counters are 5/8-inch, but a few — including the angry-looking squad counters — are 1-inch. Surface mission maps are 8 1/2 by 11 inches and use a point-to-point design. “Hive” mission map tiles measure 3 7/8 inches square and are printed on the same stock as the game’s cards.

The future is bald, brothers!

The future is bald, brothers!

The game cards, which carry information on squad personnel, are neatly done and feature little portraits of your troops. Those cards, by the way, put a song in my heart. Every face in every portrait is topped by a perfectly clean, hairless pate. That’s right: In the grim darkness of the future, there is only … BALD. That rawks.

Space Infantry isn’t a “roll-and-cuss” type of solitaire game; it has a lot more player input than many solo designs I’ve played. In the style pioneered by Dan Verssen’s “Leader” series of solitaire games, task organization — selecting the units and resources for each mission — plays an extremely important role in your ability to succeed.

Each mission map features different terrain types and technical challenges. Each type of enemy (there are six) has its own strengths and weaknesses. Correctly customizing your squad to meet each mission’s specific requirements is the heart of the game.

You assemble a squad by “buying” component teams with squad points. The teams typically represent one or two grunts, or a single specialist — and you have a range of different team types to choose from. You also get to load up your squad with an array of items like grenades, extra ammo, demo charges and medical kits.

There are both basic and advanced sections in the rulebook. The advanced rules are worth incorporating into play as soon as possible because they add considerable depth to combat resolution. The rules for the campaign games — two campaigns are included — add in an experience system that greatly enhances the metagame of task organization and personnel management.

The rules, including campaign rules and optionals, run to only 21 pages. You can play stand-alone surface missions with just the basic rules, which end on page 11.

Pounding dirt in the Falklands

“Where There Is Discord” obviously focuses on the naval and air activities of the British campaign in the South Atlantic, but the efforts of the men who eventually took and held the ground are not entirely over-looked. The game’s victory conditions are based on how many landing zones the player holds by the end of the game – but what happens ashore represents much more than simply securing a coastal enclave.

The game concludes after 28 turns – May 28 in ‘game time’. Anyone with passing knowledge of the campaign knows that the fighting on land was just getting started by that date (the battle for Goose Green stretched across May 28-29). So what’s going on with all of the onshore fireworks in WTID?

Beginning with the May 21 turn (this date historically chosen for the start of landing operations, “Operation Sutton”), Argentine ground combat units begin showing up to contest the San Carlos landing boxes. While this puts a lot of time pressure on the player, it’s obviously a kludge. Argentine land forces on the Falklands had absolutely no intention of trying to contest the landing zones in any way. They lacked both the initiative and, more importantly, the transport needed to move out of their defensive positions.

What you get in the last 8-10 turns of play is, simply, a game artiface created to force the player into choices about the risks of keeping naval and air assets operating in San Carlos during the greatest period of Argentine air activity. You can’t just dump your well-trained ground troops ashore and scuttle back to the relative safety of the Task Force. You have to keep warships, troops ships and landing ships at risk in the confines of San Carlos Water in order to give your ground forces the best chance of success.

Men of 40 Commando hoist the flag in Port Howard.

The warships provide both air defense (although limited) and naval gunfire support to the troops ashore. The unarmed troop and landing ships are needed to get troops ashore in the first place.

The game system forces the issue by deploying Argentine troops to threaten the success of the ground campaign. While a seriously contested landing was, in hindsight, a historical impossibility, no player in his right mind wants to face such a prospect when he can avoid it. So you’re pressured to begin landing troops as early as possible. This forces the Argentine units, when they arrive, into the much more risky “counter-attack” posture.

In a way, WTID compresses the entire campaign into its 28 turns. One of the Event cards, for example, gives you the option of staging a side operation in order to recapture South Georgia island. South Georgia was recaptured on April 25 – a week before the game starts – but there you have it. Also note that the game’s order of battle includes the Argentine Type 209 submarine Santa Fe, which was shot up by a helicopter and forced aground during the South Georgia operation.

So it’s no surprise that the ground fighting is squeezed into the 28 turns as well. When I first climbed into the game I’ll admit to a brief “WTF?” moment concerning the action ashore, but that was quickly overcome as I began to appreciate the designer’s attempt to capture the essence of the entire campaign in a time-limited game.

As the player, you get to skip a bit. There’s none of the famous ‘yomp’ across the island. You don’t have to wrestle with the supply problems triggered when most of the heavy lift helicopters were lost along with MV Atlantic Conveyor. You don’t even really have to ‘plan’ much in the way of a ground campaign.

But in order for the overall campaign to succeed, the Task Force has to do much more than simply put boots on the ground. They have to go all-out to support the Paras, Royal Marines and Guardsmen on the island or the entire effort is very likely to end in failure.

Destination: South Atlantic

Some weeks ago, I mentioned that I had added the game “Where There Is Discord” to my small array of solitaire wargames. I even managed a follow-up post concerning the 1982 conflict between the UK and Argentina in the South Atlantic.

D-Day at Omaha Beach is off into the Game Closet, and the Big Table has been cleared for action in the misty southern waters.

When I write “cleared”, I really mean it. WTID is a physically big game, with a large footprint on the tabletop. The two-piece hard-mounted game board is big enough on its own, but you also have to make space to keep almost all of the game components within easy reach at all times. And you’ve got to have room enough somewhere to make a copious number of die rolls without whanging the dice into all of the counters, markers and cards.

That’s not a knock on the game, mind you. WTID’s graphic design is very impressive. The rulebook is a bit blah-blah-blah, but all of the other components are very snappy indeed.

Also please note that I’m choosing to refer to it as a “game board”, rather than a map. The geographical illustration of the Argentine coastline serves simply as a base layer for all of the boxes where your cardboard forces deploy and where various markers and cards are laid out. “Movement” and “location” in WTID are both abstracted in the game’s mechanisms.

If you’re looking for a detailed historical simulation of the British Task Force’s actions in the Falklands, well, this ain’t it. As the designer, Dan Hodges, points out, such attempts are best left to detailed naval warfare sims like the Harpoon game system. Rather, Where There Is Discord is more what I would characterize as ‘historical impressionism’. As the player, you face a series of decisions and situations that are broadly analogous to those encountered by various historical actors during the brief conflict in the South Atlantic. The goal of the design, then, is to give some insights into the difficulties of conducting such a remote and politically-complex campaign.

Throughout the game, the player is cast in a number of different roles. Most often you are the Task Force commander, concerned with the campaign’s thorny military planning and execution. However, a large number of the cards in the angry little Events deck will force you into the perspective of a more distant political leader or diplomat. Do you accept a 24-hour ceasefire or hazard a decline in world opinion? Intercept a clandestine shipment of Exocets bound for Argentina at the risk of international outrage if your operation is uncovered?

It’s a complex mix of decisions which, fortuitously, lead every game in a different direction. Many solitaire games risk falling into some sort of broad script. WTID seems to avoid that through a combination of numerous operational variables and difficult ‘higher level’ decision points.

The sequence of play has more steps than does the assembly of a nuclear weapon, but at its core the game is not complex. Most detection and combat actions succeed – simply – on a die roll of ’1′, with the variable being the die type used for the activity. The game includes d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12 – plus some actions that require a sum of 2d6. A few activities require a d10 roll against a set target number. Anti-air combat uses the dice a bit differently, but that’s not complicated either.

I will, however, offer the opinion that in creating the game’s statistical model the designer either had a stroke of genius or a moment of insanity.

Personally, I enjoy games that model systems like radar, sonar and missile weaponry with something less than their ‘proving ground’ efficiency. Things go FUBAR in this game a lot. Most detection attempts and most attacks fail miserably. There’s a lot of tension and anticipation in the buildup, the launch officer pushes the button and … the fire control computer starts singing “Daisy”. Welcome to the age of remote-control warfare, circa 1982.

From beach to hedgerows

As I hinted in a previous post, once the action shifts beyond the beaches and begins to move inland, game play in D-Day at Omaha Beach takes on an entirely different character.

In the game’s first 16 turns, your objectives are obvious: Knock out German WN positions and try to open at least one draw in each divisional sector. German forces are generally static, so planning actions against them is a more certain process. Once those early objectives have been met – or nearly so, at least – and your troops begin operating on the high ground, you’ll likely find yourself facing a giant leap into the unknown.

Slow going for the 29th Division.

Slow going for the 29th Division.

Typically at least a few German reinforcements will be scattered around positions on the high ground by the time the game’s turn structure shifts with the arrival of Turn 17. If you’re really unlucky there will be a lot of reinforcements in place. In a way, this makes planning a bit easier – but it also means there will be hell to pay for every VP hex that needs to be captured.

When there are still plenty of German reinforcements available in the off-map boxes, I think a map full of unoccupied reinforcement positions on Turn 17 presents a more daunting situation. The ‘hidden’ nature of the German forces – I literally have no idea where they’re going to pop up next – forces me to use less ‘game think’ and plan activities with a set of concerns closer to what a real-world commander might face.

I like that aspect of the game a lot, by the way. The game system does an excellent job of building some aggravating mobility into the German force scheme.

Lots of open country; not enough guys.

Lots of open country; not enough guys.

German reinforcement positions are liberally placed around the map, so there’s no gamey plan available to avoid them. And because of the German orders that come into play, unoccupied positions are nearly as dangerous to approach as are occupied positions. I particularly dread the ‘Ambush’ order, which may cause an unoccupied position to inflict a step loss on the nearest US unit. I can’t ‘plan’ around something like that – even apparently ‘empty’ terrain can be dangerous.

Until the engineer bases back on the beach have had enough time to expand their engineering zones – which also garrison unoccupied WN positions – there’s also a very real threat that a German ‘Reoccupy’ order will cause a previously defeated WN to come back to life and completely screw up efforts to expand the beach head. So inland operations have to be conducted with an eye toward either occupying defeated positions (which ties up troops) or keeping the positions out of German communications (which restricts any advance dramatically until follow-on troops begin to move inland).

The game emphasizes not just taking ground, but holding it. Unoccupied reinforcement positions that are still in German communications can suddenly turn hostile with the appearance of a German unit and a depth marker. Having a couple of reinforcements beam-in ‘behind’ advancing US units is a true, gigantic pain in the butt.  Positions that project fire zones into the crucial draws are extremely valuable bits of terrain, so I’m pretty neurotic about trying to keep them under US control once I’ve cleared them.

Another turn past midnight

If you’ve played wargames for more than a year or two, then at some time you’ve probably suffered from the “Just One More Turn” Syndrome.

You know how it works: A compelling situation on the table, an interesting narrative unfolding or a major decision point at hand turns what was a good game into an acute addiction that you suddenly can’t force yourself to put aside for the night – at least not until you realize that it’s 1 a.m. and your alarm clock will sound at 0630 no matter what happens in the game.

In several playings (so far) of D-Day at Omaha Beach I’ve suffered two episodes of JOMTS. Each time, ‘one more turn’ has stretched into several before my drooping eyelids have reminded me that I’ve got to be at work the next morning.

After 16 turns, the action shifts inland.

After 16 turns, the action shifts inland.

I blame the game’s interesting approach to the beach landings for this little problem. Once I get a few US units moving in the right direction and laying down attacks on the beach’s defensive positions I have the uncontrollable urge to see those little gray counters (the German units) vanish from the map before I can call it a night.

Clearly, it’s been quite some time since I’ve played a solitaire game so compelling. All of the various game elements – rules, physical systems, play sequence – are so well integrated that my decisions and the game ‘actions’ flow together to create a game narrative that unfolds easily without the need for constant reference to charts, tables or paragraphs of dense type. The ratio of play-to-reference time in the basic game (the first 16 turns) is outstanding.

Dutch Cota finally gets his boys moving.

Dutch Cota finally gets his boys moving.

D-Day at Omaha Beach is completely ‘diceless’ and uses a deterministic, matrix-based mechanism for combat resolution. Even so it manages to avoid many of the replayability issues that have bedeviled previous solitaire games.

Through several playings of the introductory and landing scenarios, I’ve not seen any game’s narrative unfold the same as any other. There are, to be sure, a few common ‘threads’. Early activity on the beach, for example, tends to concentrate on the eastern ends of the landing zones because the landing table results lean heavily toward the historical (eastward) drift patterns.

On top of that, when the action shifts ‘beyond the beach’ into the second half of the game – the player faces an entirely different set of problems. In fact, I’ve discovered that there’s quite a bit of difference in what I want to accomplish during the landing phase (first 16 turns), depending on whether I’m playing just the landing scenario or the full, 32-turn scenario.

Set to clobber pesky German reinforcements.

Set to clobber pesky German reinforcements.

In the short scenario, there’s plenty of incentive to use your scarce leaders to drive inland with whatever they can gather around to capture or control VP positions. That’s still a temptation in the ‘long’ game if I’ve got a shot at the elusive ‘instant’ victory (collecting 25 VP by the end of turn 16) – but if I don’t reach 25 VP and all of my leaders are inland, then the masses of reinforcements that land beginning on turn 16 will take a long time to get off the beach and into the action.

Each division has limited leadership. One ‘general’ (the deputy division commanders) and one headquarters for each RCT. Once the battle starts to move inland, that makes for some very difficult US decisions.

Great stuff.