Mind the (Fulda) Gap: Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games)

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I was minding my own business, as one does, when I saw mention of a new operational-level wargame on the Fulda Gap, one of the pivotal postulated battles of a thankfully-hypothetical World War III: Less Than 60 Miles by Italy’s Thin Red Line Games. Having a definite predilection towards operational and strategic-level WWIII games, I hesitated for all of fifteen minutes before placing an order, despite not knowing much about the game.

Thanks to the magic of globalized supply chains, less than six days later I had a copy of Less Than 60 Miles in my hands.

Less Than 60 Miles by Thin Red Line Games

The game makes a rather striking initial impression, with a single map (98×55 cm) and six full sheets of 5/8″ counters, plus charts, event cards, dice, and two booklets. The counters have a satin finish to them, what Thin Red Line calls a “plasticized” finish. It’s not unpleasant, and I imagine it will help protect the counters from the ravages of wear. The sheets show good die cut registration, but the layout puts a fair bit of text on the info counters quite near the cuts. After trimming and rounding, the counters should still have all their information, but it looks to be a close run thing.

As for the map, I’m initially uncertain. It looks like Germany from above, no question, but with the riot of terrain types within each hex, my inner UX-critic cringes. The game comes with rules indicating which terrain is to be used in each instance—a unit’s movement mode determines whether it pays the higher or lower cost of terrain in a hex—but in an operational game, that much granularity in a five kilometer wide hex feels excessive.

Less Than 60 Miles by Thin Red Line Games

Though there are a ton of counters, only one and a half sheets are units; the rest of the counters support the game’s order and unit status system. One of the designers, Fabrizio Vianello, noted SPI’s Central Front series (a favorite of mine) and NATO Division Commander as inspirations, and the pedigree of the former shines through clearly in the ability to conduct combat as part of movement and in the attrition/friction system that depicts the gradual degradation of unit capabilities. Attrition markers, as well as move mode and order status counters go under the units, so at least you don’t have to remember which unit is under that welter of status markers.

Just at first glance, it all feels a bit unwieldy. I admire the attempt to track unit status in such depth, and the commitment to an order system, requiring time for order implementation and dissemination, deserves praise. It’s not an easy concept to model, and many games hand-wave command control. Even games that pride themselves on an “order system” like MMP’s Grand Tactical System and its close sibling, Compass Games’ Company Scale System, really just use a combination of a pool of order points and a command radius within which orders can be thrown. Whether manipulating all these counters works ergonomically on the table (as opposed to digitally via VASSAL) remains to be seen.

With its focus on command, Less Than 60 Miles relegates some other wargame mechanisms into the background. Supply is a simple trace used for attrition removal only; no combat supply, ammo, and fuel tracked here. Air power likewise lacks any discrete units, being relegated to points, but it use is tied into the order system, requiring planning to use rather than the point-and-bomb system of many games, even those with individual air unit counters.

On the surface, there’s a lot to like in Less Than 60 Miles. Designers Fabrizio Vianello and Marco Cimmino have a particular focus—the order/feedback loop of modern combat—and they’ve spared little effort in distilling their vision into game form. My ergonomic quibbles aside, there’s much to appreciate in this offering, and I look forward to trying it out.

Doctor Who Project: Genesis of the Daleks

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You are mistaken. It is a Mark III Travel Machine.

After starring in nine stories over eleven seasons, the Daleks had worn their narrative carpet a little threadbare. It’s hard keep your reputation as the supreme intergalactic conquerers when you’re invariably defeated time and again by a do-gooder with a blue box and a pocket full of trinkets; and harder still to remain interesting when your vocabulary doesn’t stretch much beyond “exterminate” and its various cognates. Efforts were made in the Pertwee era to imbue the Daleks with some degree of nuance and personality, giving them a thin range of emotions stretching from pride through to fear, but in the end, they remained much as the First Doctor found them in 1963.

Dalek on the prowl

To polish up the pepperpots for a new generation, Terry Nation’s “Genesis of the Daleks” (Story Production Code 4E) sends the Fourth Doctor, Sarah, and Harry back in time, before the events of “The Daleks,” to the moment of the Daleks’ creation. While the show has revisited plots and villains before, this story marks the first instance of Doctor Who really mining its own history as the basis for a story, as well as representing one of the show’s few actual uses of the time travel conceit as something other than an easy means of changing the stage setting. Does one dare change the future by altering the past?

The latest in Time Lord fashion

The Time Lords snatch our beleaguered time travellers straight out of the transmat beam to Space Station Nerva, not even giving them a chance to change clothes after the last story before sending them back in time to Skaro, sans TARDIS. The Doctor’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is nothing less than the prevention of the Dalek threat before it has a chance to develop. Though they leave the means up to the Doctor, the Time Lords make clear that they will countenance any actions he might take in pursuit of this end. A far cry, indeed, from the Time Lords who banished the Second Doctor for his continued interference in the affairs of the universe, though charitably one can assume that his excoriation of their indifference to evil helped soften their resolve.

The Doctor sees wisdom in the idea of intervening in the Daleks’ creation, possibly by nudging their development towards less aggressive tendencies or by learning some weakness in their essential nature that will allow future generations to defeat them. And yet, in the end, the more intricate and less violent options fall by the wayside, leaving the Doctor with the simple choice: touch two wires together to blow up a nursery of tiny Daleks or allow them to take over the galaxy…

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Doctor Who Project: The Sontaran Experiment

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According to my data, you should not exist.

The pug-headed Sontarans aren’t the only ones tinkering in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Sontaran Experiment” (Story Production Code 4B). This brisk story marks the first time since the sophomore season that Doctor Who has aired a two-episode tale, and surprisingly, the abbreviated format works to some effect. It’s also the very first story to be shot entirely on location, with no studio scenes of any sort. And, alas, it’s the fifty-second story (give or take) to relegate the female companion to being captured and/or screaming a lot. The more things change…

The Sontaran's Experiments!

Baker and Martin skip over quite a bit of exposition, getting our time travellers directly into the action. No sooner have they arrived on a theoretically abandoned Earth, via transmat from Space Station Nerva—continuing where “The Ark in Space” left off—than they all split up. The Doctor sends Sarah and Harry away to let him concentrate on fixing the transmat beacons for Nerva, then Harry falls into a pit, then Sarah tries to find the Doctor for help, but he has been captured, then Harry finds a way out of the pit, then Sarah is herself captured at the pit trying to rescue Harry on her own. (Whew.) And that’s just the first twenty-five minutes. In the Troughton era, that would have taken three episodes.

Granted, there’s not much story on offer. As is tradition, “The Sontaran Experiment” still keeps the titular menace off-screen until the very end of the first episode, and the total elapsed time between the real menace of the Sontaran threat being revealed and the Doctor foiling it measures no more than seven minutes. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor works well within these narrative constraints. His manic mien matches the madcap pace, and as a result, his incessant japes in the face of danger and his emotional non-sequiturs feel more natural, at least to the extent that is possible. As opposed to Tom Baker’s first two stories, where everyone and everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion, here the entire mise en scène works in concert with his frenetic strengths.

Don't mind me down here!

Along the way, we learn that the far-flung human colonies mentioned in the prior story have survived, and indeed thrived, in the centuries since solar flares devastated Earth, spreading out to create an empire. That empire faces invasion from the Sontaran Empire, who, to the Doctor’s estimation, deem human space as a strategic resource in their eternal war against the Rutan. Baker and Martin’s create the illusion of depth with a subtly sketched skien of details, many of which rely on explicit knowledge of the prior story. Indeed, even the revelation of the Sontaran, Field Major Styre, at the end of the first episode hinges, for its emotional impact, on knowledge of the initial Sontaran story, “The Time Warrior,” as Sarah utters the name of the Sontaran she and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor encountered, Linx.
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Broken Escalators: Washington DC’s Metro System in Tom Clancy’s The Division 2

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Video games set in real-world locales often lean on public landmarks to sell the setting. No private entity owns Times Square, for instance, so it’s an easy addition to a game, lending verisimilitude to all the nameless, generic streets running nearby without necessitating rights payments. The soon-to-be-released—and awkwardly named—Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (Ubisoft, 2019) places its open-world third-person “loot shooter” in contemporary Washington, DC, a city replete with a unique and recognizable street structure and tons of public landmarks to help situate the player.

All the big buildings and monuments you’d expect are there, in a very faithful recreation of the city street grid. Having spent some time with the game’s open beta (a glorified demo, more or less), I was pleasantly surprised when I walked—well, ran, being chased by some post-apocalyptic wanna-be with a mohawk—around a corner and saw Pennsylvania Avenue, properly wide and grand and angled, with a vista towards the Capitol I’d seen hundreds of times in real life. The DC of The Division 2 feels right, with the trademark low skyline and restrained architecture of the Federal core recreated as much in detail as in broad strokes. None of the private buildings were real, of course, with far more parking garages than the city actually has, but the public fixtures, the historical markers, the street signs, hew close enough to the real to provide the illusion of the city.

But then I saw this map:

The DC Metro Map in The Division 2

It’s almost an exact replica of the actual WMATA Metro map (.pdf), with the WMATA website listed, the planned Silver Line extension out towards Dulles, even the rush hour routes. There are a few differences, as it looks like they re-drew the map rather than simply pasting it wholesale, but there’s not a resident of the DC area who wouldn’t recognize the map in a second.

Add to that the very faithfully recreated Metro station mezzanines and, as one of my gaming buddies noted, the all-too-familiar broken escalators, and you’re left with the one of the most realistic depictions of a real-life subway system in a video game to date. Only Persona 5 (Altus, 2016) comes close.

To be fair, Metro's escalators don't really break that often

Oddly, the farecard machines are nothing like the real things, none of the stations seem to have names, and the entrances from the street lack the proper pillar signage. These slight variations from the real feel puzzling, given the otherwise painstaking attention to the details of the actual subway system, and actually pull the gamer back out of the scene if she or he knows what the real system is like. As the beta only provided a limited portion of the game to explore, I’m uncertain what the actual platforms look like, but if they’re shown, I would imagine they’ll likewise be a mostly accurate representation.

Minus the graffiti, a near-exact replica of the real thing

The last game set so firmly in Washington, DC, Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008), also featured the Metro system, but it used a highly stylized version of the map that bore little resemblance to the real thing. The station in Georgetown sort of gave it away…

I haven’t been able to discover what, if any, arrangement Ubisoft came to with WMATA for the use of the map and “look and feel” of the subway system. Other city infrastructure and signage comes close to the prototype, but it all stops just short, as with the two stars between bars shown on Washington, DC, flag presented in game; the real thing has three stars atop two bars. Whether Ubisoft feels the Metro system falls sufficiently in the public domain or WMATA granted a license or something in between remains unclear. Given the system’s slightly parlous finances, I do hope there’s at least a bit of a payment involved.

Regardless of how the DC Metro system came to be in The Division 2, I applaud its inclusion. The system’s striking architectural and design aesthetic deserves attention, and this fairly faithful replica honors the real thing. Shame I’m not sold on the gameplay, which feels like yet another open-world Ubisoft game full of map icons to diligently track down, but kudos to the art team at Ubisoft for their sterling efforts here and with the feel of the city as a whole. It’s the rare game world that I can navigate using entirely real-world knowledge.

Doctor Who Project: The Ark in Space

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It might be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species.

After his debut story, tacked as it was onto the end of the Season Eleven recording cycle, Tom Baker’s run as the Fourth Doctor starts in earnest with new script editor Robert Holmes’ “The Ark in Space” (Story Production Code 4C). Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe seemingly have carte blanche to send the Doctor, finally freed from his Earthly exile, off in new directions, and with the first story of the Season Twelve production bloc, they take us…right back to the Second Doctor and a “base under siege” story that Troughton could have played (and often did) in his sleep.

Oh, hello.

To be fair, there’s quite a bit new and flashy on offer here, but it becomes clear that, narratively speaking, Holmes and Hinchcliffe are hanging fresh tinsel on an old tree. In short order, the Doctor and companions accidentally arrive in an isolated locale (here, an apparently abandoned space station in Earth orbit sometime in the future), discover some trouble or other, get blamed for said trouble, then help fend off the real threat. If the formula feels fresh in “The Ark in Space,” it’s only because the Third Doctor had but a single story early on (“Inferno“) that even came close to this model over five seasons, and that one at least involved alternate dimensions.

It’s unlikely any but the most dedicated fans of Doctor Who noticed the pattern at the time, though, because the plot here remains resolutely beside the point. While Terrance Dicks threw Baker a debutante ball in “Robot,” a controlled, almost formal introduction in a comfortable setting, Holmes provides Baker with, well, a full-blown fiesta: far from demure, the Fourth Doctor bursts on the scene in all his alien glory in “The Ark in Space,” upending any lingering sense that there might be even the slightest connection between this Doctor and his forebears.

Almost as significantly, “The Ark in Space” suggests a return to small-cast (and lower budget) stories set in far-off, fantastical locales of which we actually see very little—eight sets total feature in this story, none on location and most dressed in what can only be called futuristic off-white—with a commensurate reliance on prop makers to visually convey the strangeness of the setting and on the writer to imbue the few characters with enough texture, or at least technobabble, to make the world seem fuller than it really is. Robert Holmes does well enough to hold up his end of the bargain, deftly sketching a chilling projection of a technocratic human future through well-chosen details; the prop department, on the other hand, just spray paints some bubble wrap with green paint and calls it a day.

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Winter Offensive 2019 After Action Report

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Whatever fickle spirits guide the weather must have it out for Advanced Squad Leader, because it scarcely fails to threaten snow and rain whenever Winter Offensive, the East Coast’s premier ASL tournament, sets up shop in Bowie, Maryland, and this year proved no different. Perhaps the decision to hold this gaming gathering in January has something to do with the invariability of inclement weather, but no matter, for a brave (and record) crowd of 190 people attended this year’s Winter Offensive.

Hosts Multi-Man Publishing unveiled Red Factories, the long-awaited companion campaign module to Red Barricades, at the tourney, and the very large boxes were much in evidence all weekend long. The smaller scenarios from the module likewise saw a fair amount of play; even with the extra tables MMP brought to the enlarged convention space this year, there would have been scarcely enough room to set up the larger scenarios, for the combined Red Barricades/Red Factories maps take up a substantial amount of table real estate.

Winter Offensive 2019 in full swing

The tournament, the 28th running, also played host to a celebration of MMP’s twenty year anniversary as custodians of the Advanced Squad Leader series, complete with a cake replicating an ASL board. It’s remarkable to think that they have shepherded ASL for longer than Avalon Hill did at this point, and I for one consider the game series to be in exceptional hands. While core modules may occasionally go out of print, MMP faces a delicate balancing act between keeping the large and expensive core modules in print to satisfy new players while still producing new products for the players who already own two copies of everything. By and large, I think two decades of success shows they strike the balance appropriately.

My own WO 2019 experience included far more ASL than I normally play at these events, with two ASL scenarios and one Starter Kit session with a player relatively new to the game. Plus copious amounts of Euro gaming to boot. And maybe a little beer.
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