Doctor Who Project: Robot

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There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.

Our initial outing with the Fourth Doctor shows Tom Baker clearly setting out his stall—mirthful, slapdash, haphazard, alien, and just a bit brutal. It’s a good thing he strives to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Jon Pertwee, as “Robot” (Story Production Code 4A), by longtime Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks, covers much the same ground as several Third Doctor stories. Take one part “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” one part “The Green Death,” one part “Inferno,” file off the serial numbers, and you have Dicks’ tale of a group of fascist technocrats hiding in a bunker, bent on ruling the planet with the help of technology even they can’t control.

A rude awakening

It all feels too familiar, picking up right where “Planet of the Spiders” leaves off, with the newly regenerated Doctor in the Third Doctor’s clothes on the floor of his laboratory, alongside the comforting presence of Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), a newly promoted Warrant Office Benton (John Levene), and the rest of UNIT. The Brigadier has the Doctor sent for observation in the UNIT infirmary, under the care of new arrival Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), whilst he and Sarah Jane casually discuss the recent theft of classified weapon plans and, as a completely unconnected favor to Sarah, arrange for her to be granted access to the top secret Think Tank so she can write an article. It’s there that she encounters—at the traditional first episode cliffhanger, of course—our titular menace, the Robot.

The robot from Robot, the robot K-1

It’s clumsy plotting, but four episodes leaves little time for nuance, particularly when there’s a new Doctor to introduce. Indeed, “Robot” moves with so much pace that the obligatory threat to the planet (nuclear holocaust, this time) is resolved a scant five minutes into the final installment, leaving most of an episode for UNIT to demonstrate once more its utter incompetence as a fighting force (so, again, not much different from any of the Third Doctor’s stories).

Tacked on to the end of the Season Eleven recording block, with Barry Letts still at the production helm and the Doctor dealing with yet another Earth-bound menace, there’s little reason “Robot” should have a different feel. But by the end of of the story, one can see that changes are coming. It’s hard to suggest that any prior seasons would have dressed up the Doctor as a harlequin while referencing both James Bond and King Kong…

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Table for One: Alert Force (Close Simulations) Review

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Most wargames slot the player into a particular job, a particular role: supreme commander, divisional general, platoon leader, even quartermaster. Alert Force, a 1983 “microgame” offering from Wayne Close and his publishing company, Close Simulations, provides gamers the quite unique opportunity to play as a member of the United States Air Force’s Security Police, the alert force guarding the flight line and the nuclear-armed alert bombers parked in readiness thereupon. Opposing the Security Police on this fictionalized depiction of a Strategic Air Command base, the other player takes the role of undifferentiated Terrorists, seeking to destroy the bombers, hamper operations, and even purloin a nuclear device if possible.

On the surface, Alert Force comes in as a simple man-to-man tactical combat game, with a tiny footprint, a thin sheaf of rules, and a quick play time, but some nuances in both scenario design and rules chrome make for a deeper presentation than the meager box might suggest. While not a groundbreaking game in any particular way, Alert Force nevertheless repays its brief time on the table with streamlined gameplay and an interesting, if obscure, premise. Indeed, you might just have to own a game company in order to get a game on this topic published.

Overview

Alert Force
Close Simulations, 1983
Designed by Wayne Close

Alert Force Cover Detail

Alert Force comes in a small cardboard tuck box, measuring slightly more than 4″ x 7″, fitting it squarely in the Microgame size range that was quite popular in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Two sheets of half-inch die cut counters are included, totaling 112 counters. A matte-printed tri-fold map (12″ x 14″), plastic storage bag, and thin saddle-stapled rulebook round out the package.

The counters represent armed individuals not with figures but with icons of the weapon type they carry: machine pistol, assault rifle, or machine gun; additional weapons, such as satchel charges and light anti-tank weapons, have their own counters, as do vehicles and the unarmed aircraft crews. Numbers on the counters indicate defense value and movement points; attack strengths are a function of the weapon type and range, and are listed on a side table.

The artwork is serviceable, clearly conveying needed information though without much in the way of flourish. Informational counters likewise show either unadorned words (damaged, incapacitated) or drawings of effects (craters, flames). Only a few colors are used (two shades of red and green), but again, while not fancy, they get the job done. The game comes entirely from the hand of Wayne Close, who, in addition to design, is credited with cover art, rulebook art, and map and counter graphics.

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Doctor Who Project: Jon Pertwee Retrospective

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In more ways than one, Jon Pertwee brought a touch of color to Doctor Who.

Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor

Beyond the obvious switch to color broadcasting (or, perhaps more properly for the source material, colour broadcasting) in his inaugural season, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor stands as a bright figure, sartorially resplendent in velour overcoats and equally as boisterous in manner, whether under the spotlights of Television Centre or floodlit on location in some quarry. He commands attention, always seeking (and usually claiming) the camera’s eye, earning him a well-deserved reputation as a bit of a ham.

Indeed, once we saw Pertwee wrestle with a tentacle in his very first story, we knew that more had changed than just the black and white filming. This willingness to indulge in the over-the-top, from the wardrobe to the acting to the plots themselves, announces a signal shift in the series, with a more “modern” sensibility.

The first of many gurns

Yet, unlike the rather jarring tonal change from William Hartnell’s bristly First Doctor to Patrick Troughton’s impish Second Doctor, the Third Doctor amalgamates the two prior incarnations seamlessly—he is at once given to brooding and moralizing while still quick with a Venusian karate chop and a cutting bon mot, often simultaneously. He is an old soul in a new-ish body.

As a result, long-time viewers see that the Third Doctor comes directly from this lineage; the character makes sense as a scion, so to speak, of this illustrious Gallifreyan family, even as all else seems to change around him on Doctor Who. So where the shift from Hartnell to Troughton required transitional figures (Polly and Ben) to shepherd the audience into the strange, new regeneration, the Third Doctor arrives alone.

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Table for One: Murmansk 1941 (Decision Games/S&T) After-Action Report

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Murmansk 1941 (Decision Games/Strategy & Tactics 194, 1999)
Scenario One: The First Attack, July, 1941 After-Action Report

Overview

The first of three scenarios in Decision Games’ Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941, titled The First Attack, July, 1941, covers the initial German movement by the 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions from their positions near Petsamo (modern-day Pechenga) towards Soviet defensive positions held by border guard units and the 14th and 52nd Rifle Divisions along the Titovka River. The scenario lasts for twenty-four turns of indeterminate length, but each turn is probably less than a day, most likely twelve hours.

Murmansk 1941, German approach to the Titovka River

Victory in the scenario depends on occupation of two key locations—Titovka and Ura Guba, each worth 10 VP each to the side to last control it—with the Soviets earning an additional 10 VP if the Germans do not manage to cross the Litsa River. The Soviets earn a further 3 VP for each German step reduced, with the Germans earning a single VP for Soviet step reductions and 2 VP for eliminating a Soviet HQ unit.

Two optional rules were used for this playthrough: Formation Effectiveness, which shows the ebb and flow of divisional effectiveness as it engages in combat (usually through die roll modifiers to combat); and Auto-Victory, granting all combats at an odds ratio of 7:1 or better with an automatic elimination of the defender’s units with no losses to the attacker. Both optional rules favor the Germans, and they were used for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Initial Thoughts

Right off the bat, the Soviets hold a 20 VP advantage by controlling the two victory locations. To make matters worse for the German player, even a twenty-four turn scenario provides hardly near enough time to reach the furthest objective, Ura Guba, which sits a full fifty-one hexes from the German start lines. Certainly it’s feasible in theory; at a top speed of twelve hexes per turn, a German bicycle battalion could get there in five turns flat. But there’s the little matter of two Soviet divisions lined up along the length of the road to contend with…

With stacking limited to two units per hex in most cases, the single road threatens to jam up far too quickly for both German divisions, so my thought was to start one German division further south to draw Soviet forces towards them, hopefully thinning out the road defenses a bit. By threatening a Litsa crossing (worth 10 VP denied to the Soviets), they might allow the other division to attack a thinner defense.

Compounding German difficulties, the Combat Results Table threatens to harm the attacker almost as much as the defender, with the attacker susceptible to mandatory step losses on the higher odds columns. Throw in the doubling of losses when as few as six full strength units (attack and defense) participate in a combat and, in conjunction with the far greater VP the Soviets gain for German step losses, it’s a hard row to hoe indeed.

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Table for One: Murmansk 1941 (Decision Games/S&T) Review

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When it comes to wargaming topics, I have a definite soft spot for the obscure and undergamed. Sure, I own a few Bulge and D-Day treatments, and more than my share of games on the Western Front of World War One, but I have a hard time passing up conflict simulations covering battles that have been mostly overlooked by the hobby. Games on these subjects often benefit from being terra incognita for designers, freeing them from worrying about how some other designer has worked out the orders of battle or the terrain problems, and frequently one sees innovative mechanics as a result.

Sometimes, though, battles go underrepresented in the gaming sphere for a reason—there’s just not a lot of game there. At first glance, such is the case for Mike Benninghof’s Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941, from Decision Games. The German attempt to seize the vital Soviet port of Murmansk stands as a potentially war-changing offensive; cutting off that crucial supply lifeline in 1941 would have had significant repercussions for the long war to follow. And yet, the battle itself, at least on the evidence presented in this design, offers up no such momentous cataclysm. The Germans came, the Germans couldn’t conquer, the Germans left, in life as in the game.

Overview

Forgotten Axis: Murmansk 1941
Decision Games, 1999
Strategy & Tactics 194
Designed by Mike Benninghof

Murmansk 1941, Cover Detail

Murmansk 1941 appeared as the issue game in Strategy & Tactics 194 (November/December 1998; published in 1999), with a sheet of 140 die-cut half-inch counters and a single 22″ x 34″ map on matte paper. The first in designer Mike Benninghof’s three-part Forgotten Axis series, this game covers the attempts by the German 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions to take the Arctic port of Murmansk, defended by the Soviet 14th and 52nd Rifle Divisions. The later games in the series cover actions in Finland and Romania.
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Table for One: NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele) Review

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In the variety show that is wargaming, purpose-built solitaire wargames are the plate spinners—sideshow acts compared to the notional stars of the show, the multi-player, face-to-face games. It’s not that these solo games lack flair or substance; indeed, there’s virtuosity on offer, but in almost all cases, the skills and decisions required in these games differ wildly from those called upon in traditional hex and chit wargames. The entertainment in playing a purpose-built solitaire wargame, as in watching a plate spinner, derives from wondering when it will all come crashing down; failure is the expected end point, success a function of failing less badly.

It’s this heavy focus on risk abatement as the primary game decision space that has long caused me to shy away from solitaire wargames, which tend toward rather tedious, process-driven affairs. The player’s decisions revolve around a few choices that add up to little more than different die roll modifiers for the next run through the chart-heavy sequence of play. Fighting a system with the odds stacked against you frankly feels like work.

But subject matter often overcomes hesitation with wargames, and when I heard that Hollandspiele had NATO Air Commander, a solitaire World War III air game, in the works, I knew I had to check it out, even though I am, as is perhaps now obvious, averse to the process-laden solitaire genre. Getting to command wings of A-10s and Alpha Jets against echelons of Warsaw Pact forces? I’m so very there.

Overview

NATO Air Commander: Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III
Hollandspiele, 2018
Designed by Brad Smith

NATO Air Commander, Hollandspiele, 2018

NATO Air Commander follows what appears to be the standard Hollandspiele format, with a small-scale box (11.5″ x 9″), 22″ x 17″ matte map, a sheet of absurdly thick die-cut, double-sided 9/16″ counters, and in this case a deck of cards. Hollandspiele uses a print-on-demand process for components other than the cards, and while the saddle-stapled rulebook pages might be a bit thin, the colors on the map are crisp and the counters show no registration issues at all.
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