As the Worm Turns: Dune (Avalon Hill)

Bene Gesserit troops by the score charged into Sietch Tabr, representing the entire military might of this coven of hypnotic witches, all to evict the Fremen holed up there, in hopes that the sisterhood’s allies in the Atredies might be able to take advantage of the suicidal raid. Using their weirding ways, they commanded the Fremen to drop their guard, while prescient Paul Atredies peeked into the future of the combat. Success, but at a devastating cost to the victors, who were wiped out as well!

Beware the Bene Gesserit!

And that was just one player’s turn in Dune, Avalon Hill’s revolutionary 1979 proto-Euro game based on the Frank Herbert novel. I had wanted to play this game for ages, and my good gaming buddies Doug Bush, Mike Vogt, Joe Jackson, and Neil and Dan Stanhagen happily agreed to my request. It’s a strange and simple game, with the potential to last from thirty minutes to seven hours, depending on how the cards and combats play out. Luck plays almost no role beyond the variability introduced by card draws; no dice, and the incredibly bloody combat system often leaves the victor as depleted as the vanquished.

Players take the roles of the six main factions vying for the hypnogogic Spice that comes only from this desert planet: the spacing Guild, which uses Spice to fold space and travel between the stars; the Emperor, who rules all and controls the economy of the galaxy; the cunning Harkonnen, who excel at treacherous actions; the witchy Bene Gesserit, who can bend lesser minds to their will; the native Fremen, keepers of the planet and riders of the giant Worms that prowl the sands; and the Atredies, who claim the planet and have in their clan one who can see into the future. Each, of course, has game breaking powers, with the asymmetry between the factions driving play.

Arrakis, near the end.

A standard victory comes from occupying a number of strongholds based on the number of people in an alliance (if any), with several stalemate/end game victories possible as well if the conquest condition does not occur. The Bene Gesserit have an additional path to victory: should they predict, before the game starts, the turn on which a specific faction claims a non-end game victory, they win, and not the faction that triggered the victory. Beware the help of the witches, even if they are in your alliance!

Indeed, all the factions prove to be unstable allies, and the prospect of a solo victory, attained with the erstwhile help of once-allies, can often prove too tempting. Like any good Euro, there are wheels within wheels of decisions, and that’s not even counting the Combat Wheels that are used to secretly dial up committed strength for military enagements.

Fans of the novel and its associated world building will find the book’s background nicely integrated into the game’s play, with traitorous leaders (often in the employ of the Harkonnen), ghola tanks for reviving dead troops, and the dreaded Worm surfacing on Spice blows to consume all the forces gathered to harvest the rare commodity. While the essential game play could be (and has been) transferred to a different theme, the team at Eon (contracted by AH to produce the game) melded theme and mechanic beautifully here.

Dune proves hard to come by on the secondary market, and a flourishing cottage industry of DIY/print-and-play kits (of dubious copyright propriety) exists in the game’s considerable fandom. I can understand the urge to own a copy of this game. With the right group (and the guys who played with me certainly fit that), the mix of treachery, alliance, combat, and cunning proves to be quite compelling. It’s a worthy addition to any collection.

After the wasteful Bene Gesserit raid (and, full disclosure, that was me), the Fremen/Guild alliance (the Stanhagens) managed to fend off further assaults on their territory, using the Guild’s ability to preempt other players’ movement and the generous Fremen movement allowances to decisive effect. They took enough of the Strongholds to claim the desert planet. And, alas, I didn’t predict it…

Counter Culture: Cards Up My Sleeves

Maps? Under plexiglass. Counters? Punched, neatly clipped, and sorted. Rules? Appended with the latest errata from online. Cards? Er, cards?

Cards in wargames are nothing new, of course. As far back as 1974, Avalon Hill released a pair of games, 1776 and Kingmaker, that used cards to control battle tactics or introduce variability and randomness. Our friends in Baltimore also brought us the first of the “card-driven” games, 1994’s We the People. The “card-driven” mechanic, whereby players select cards from a hand to enable actions or trigger events, has spawned hundreds of imitators and innovators. Still other wargames are more than just card-driven—they’re functionally card games, like Avalon Hill’s Up Front (1983) and Attack Sub (1991).

So what’s a gamer to do with all these cards? Why, sleeve them in plastic, of course.

All Sleeved Up

But why does one sleeve cards?

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Counter Culture: Counters as Tools

In our continuing examination of the physical culture of wargaming, we should stop and consider the typical wargame counter:

Unit Counters

It is a representation, a stand-in. It denotes a particular kind of force or unit or grouping manipulable by the player. People argue all day, in places where such things matter, about using representational figures or NATO symbols or made-up icons to depict different types of units, about whether the first number on a counter should be attack value or armor thickness or movement points.

Or perhaps the counter is a status marker, a chit that provides information about the state of the game—broken, suppressed, mired, impassable, out of ammo, out of control. Here be there trenches, dug into the map:

Status Counters

Standard semiotics stuff. Counters are signifiers. This is not a half-inch square of cardboard—this is a platoon of T-64s that has suffered damage but remains battle-ready. Nothing new here.

But in some games, counters also serve as tools to enhance gameplay beyond merely standing in for some object or state that the game wishes to portray.

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Counter Culture: In the Kingdom of the Board

Any ludological taxonomy that classifies games by physical features will contain an order, or perhaps a phylum, based on the presence of a pre-defined playing surface—a play mat, a tableaux, or, more simply, a board. Consider it Gamerus non-computericum meepleopile boardiferous. Indeed, boards give their name to this part of the gaming hobby as a whole, boardgaming, even when said games form their “boards” via tile or card placement.

For many people, particularly non-gamers, the board in a boardgame is literally a board, a thick piece of cardboard, usually with a single fold down the middle, with a paper playing surface glued or, less often, printed on top of it. The expectation when opening a boardgame is that you will find such a playing surface.

For wargamers, particularly contemporary wargamers—and wargaming is a genus within boardgaming—the opposite holds true: our boards tend to be printed directly onto heavy stock paper, not mounted to a board. (Wargamers tend to refer to boards as maps, as they most often depict terrain, either actual or abstract.)

Back in board wargaming’s first turn, though, Avalon Hill, the Standard Oil of wargaming, prided itself on producing wargames with mounted maps, only late in their existence switching to paper maps for some games. By contrast, their main competitors in the 1970’s and 1980’s, SPI and GDW, produced games almost exclusively with paper maps. Economically, paper maps are cheaper to print, lighter to ship, less bulky to package, and eliminate the tricky mounting process. As wargaming became more and more a niche market into the 1990’s, mounted wargame maps all but disappeared, showing up in the slow trickle of Advanced Squad Leader modules and not much else.

Modern printing methods and the much-debated resurgence of the wargaming hobby have seen contemporary wargamers spoiled for choice, with three types of maps available—paper, “deluxe,” and mounted:

Paper, deluxe, or mounted?

How do these three types of maps stack up?

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Counter Culture: Clipping Counters

Continuing our examination of the physical culture of wargaming, we turn to counter clipping, that near-ritual compulsion some gamers have with trimming the nibs and bits off the sides of their counters to create a semblance of neatness and uniformity.

Before and After

Even though die cutting has become much more precise in recent years, with sharp blades and clean cuts leading to some publishers shipping games that have counters literally falling off the trees before the game is even opened for the first time, almost all counters still have some connective material remaining after they are punched or cut from the countersheet. Removing this connective material is the goal of counter clipping.

Ideally, these “sprues” are situated on the counter corners, as in the example above, where they can be easily removed, and most publishers today use this method. Some publishers, though, still insist on diecutting in such a way that the sprues are located at counter centers, making for a difficult removal process. The late and lamented Avalon Hill’s countersheets were typically center mounted in this way—though they occasionally were sufficiently misaligned that the diecuts wound up on the corner anyway.

Given the costs associated with purchasing dies, or the need to use whatever the contract die cutter has on hand, I can understand why some publishers remain with a center cut, but I feel that such cuts detract from the finished product. You can always tell where a center cut nib once was, even if you do manage to remove it somehow.

And why do people clip counters?

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Single Player: B-29 Superfortress

It’s something of Air Combat Week here at Movement Point, as we take a first look at Khyber Pass Games‘ newly published solitaire wargame, B-29 Superfortress: Bombers over Japan, 1944-1945 (2008).

Following solidly in the footsteps (airstream?) of Avalon Hill’s B-17: Queen of the Skies (1983; originally from On Target Games, 1981) solitaire game of bomber missions over Axis-occupied Europe, KPG’s B-29 challenges the solo gamer with the task of shepherding a Superfortress and its crew on 35 missions against Imperial Japanese targets in the Pacific. And just as the B-29 was a far more complex beast than the B-17, so too does this new game add to the complexities of its antecedent. The chart and tables book comes in at forty pages, covering such minutia as celestial navigation and engineer instrument damage tables. B-17, by contrast, contains fewer than ten pages of charts and tables.

Cross-reference, check, roll, apply, and move on.

Complexity in a wargame can be a double-edged sword. There are people who live for chrome in their rules, but quite often, games that add layer upon layer of complexity wind up as “shelf queens,” destined to gather dust and the occasional comment from a visiting gamer friend to the effect of, “Oh, yeah, I have that game, too. Never did play it. Looks cool, though!”

However, in a solitaire game, complexity can often mask, or at least minimize, the sense that you’re merely rolling dice to see what happens. One of the real knocks against B-17 is that the limited number of decision points the solo player encounters reduce the game to a dice rolling exercise—you might as well just roll the dice once: 2-6, you win; 7-9, you draw; 10-12 you lose.

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