Cincinnati or Bust: 1846 (GMT Games)

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Once upon a time, GMT Games produced wargames and nothing but. Luckily for the gaming public at large, they’ve long since diversified their product line with games on everything from lemmings to stock cars, including their first foray into the niche realm of 18XX railroad games, Tom Lehmann’s 1846: The Race for the Midwest.

1846 GMT Games Edition

Originally (and still) available through Deep Thought Games, a bespoke 18XX producer with a several year waiting list, 1846 serves as a relatively simple (yet still cutthroat) introduction to the 18XX family of games. GMT’s lavishly produced and reasonably priced edition offers this game series to a wide audience, hopefully converting some new fans to the financial skullduggery of these railroad games.

I recently had the opportunity to play through much of a game of 1846 with my good gaming friends Mike and Jess at Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC. Neither of them had much experience with the series, but they both picked up on the fundamentals quickly and we criss-crossed the Midwest with rails before long.

Unlike the most well known of the 18XX games, 1830, 1846 has a streamlined process for launching corporations and also gives them the ability to deal in their own stocks. I launched a single corporation while Mike and Jess each launched a pair. My B&O focused on Cincinnati and environs; Jess tried to get into Chicago from the east and south; and Mike worked the routes around Lake Erie. Forced train purchases (caused by technological progress in the game, resulting in old trains being removed) pretty much drove all three of us into bankruptcy, as we hadn’t optimized our track purchases—or much of anything else—leaving us without enough funding for new trains. Though player bankruptcy doesn’t end the game, we decided to call it while the game was still in the third of five phases and while we still had some dignity left.

We all want to come back to it, though. There’s something about 1846, and indeed 18XX in general, that speaks to that part of the brain that wants to get an economic engine ticking just so—all while fending off the predations of others seeking to profit off of your every miscue. Brutal games indeed, and brilliant for it.

Game Preview: Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 (GMT Games)

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Near the end of the Cold War, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact fielded impressively large and varied air forces that, thankfully, never contested the skies over Europe. Where the Warsaw Pact relied on larger numbers of robust but technologically-limited fighters and bombers, NATO offered up qualitatively superior but numerically inferior forces, making any conflict between the two sides one of doctrine as well as ideology.

Forthcoming from GMT Games and designer Doug Bush, Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987, seeks to model this potential conflict by enhancing the time-tested operational system originally designed by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood for his seminal work on the air war in Vietnam, Downtown. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Red Storm from the early playtest phase, and as a long-time admirer of both Downtown and its follow-on game, Elusive Victory, I find that Red Storm neatly brings the system’s strengths to the quite unique situation over Central Germany while addressing the complexities of the modern air battlespace.

Banner for Red Storm via GMT Games

As the playtest counter art shows, players will have at their disposal aircraft from several nations: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium, and Canada. And what a varied assortment of aircraft it is. From the top-of-the-line F-15s and MiG-29s through to the lowly Su-17s and puttering Alpha Jets, nearly every fighter and bomber that could have seen service in the Central German front makes an appearance. Doug has meticulously differentiated the airplanes, so that each flies, and fights, quite differently. Gamers who take the time to dig through the aircraft notes and make use of differences in radar, altitude performance, and weapon loadouts will be rewarded for their efforts.

Of particular note to me, the Su-25 Frogfoot close attack plane earns a few counter slots—it’s my personal mission as a wargamer to play every game that features this delightfully ungainly craft.

Playtest Art for Red Storm via GMT Games

Complicating both players’ plans, the electronic warfare support and anti-air missiles on each side make the mere act of flying hazardous. Going in on the deck might keep one safe from the SAMs, but then there are the copious low-level infra-red missiles and flak batteries to deal with. Successful ingress and egress require quite a few difficult choices. Making the initial flight plans could be a game in itself, and while players are never “on rails,” that initial planning does guide proceedings to a large extent, a hallmark of the system as a whole.

Planned scenarios range from contested bombing missions on both sides through to SAM-busting missions, rear echelon interdiction strikes, and escorting special forces on behind-the-lines infiltrations. One and two map scenarios will be included.

Red Storm promises to be both a worthy addition to the Downtown system and a signal accomplishment in air combat gaming in itself. Discussion of the game as it moves through development is taking place on ConsimWorld, and any gamer with interest in this hypothetical air conflict is welcome to head over there to follow along and participate.

(Playtest images and banner via GMT Games.)

Compu-Krushchev: Twilight Struggle Digital Edition (GMT Games/Playdek)

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If you think it’s hard to get your friends to play your complicated wargames with you, try getting a computer to do it. Playdek and GMT Games have given it a try with their digital edition of Twilight Struggle, a card-driven conflict simulation of the Cold War, originally released in 2005, that just happens to be one of GMT’s very best sellers of all time and a cross-over hit with non-wargamers.

I’ve had a chance to spend some time with the early access version of the game, which I received by virtue of backing the game during its 2014 Kickstarter campaign. I’m certainly no pro at Twilight Struggle, but while I was able to win my first two games (via Final Scoring, once each as the USA and USSR), I was pleased with the amount of resistance the Artificial Intelligence put up. The designers have provided a nice look at their efforts to teach the game to the AI, and I found the AI’s unpredictability to be its greatest asset.

Usually, against my regular Twilight Struggle opponents, I have a rough sense of their thinking process and can broadly figure out what’s coming next. Against the AI, I had zero idea why, for instance, there were influence plays into Central and South America in Turn One. (They are regions that do not score until Turn Four at the earliest, making them low priorities.) That unpredictability nicely encapsulates the experience both governments had of not entirely understanding their opponent’s intentions during the Cold War, I suppose, and I needed to play, quite happily, a much different game than usual because of it. Further iterations of the AI can only increase its strength and gameplay.

The interface gave me more of a challenge than the AI, I must admit.

Early Access Twilight Struggle Digital Edition Interface

Twilight Struggle involves quite a bit of information for the player to keep track of, and to its credit, the interface keeps most of it accessible to the player at all times. The top row of information feels cramped, though, and for a player not familiar with all of the cards, the lack of immediate information about their powers could be off-putting. There’s a real mishmash of fonts as well that can be a bit jarring. I’d have preferred a cleaner, more consistent aesthetic, using the font from the cards themselves as often as possible. The interface feel is of a tablet/phone game—understandable, as that’s the target market here. The Mac/PC port plays well enough, particularly when taking advantage of the larger screen space allowed. Too, this is still early access software, so hopefully changes will be made to clean up the interface a bit.

Not a bad scoring play

Overall, my qualms about the presentation aside, it’s nice to have a version of Twilight Struggle playable on computer and against a computer opponent. Throw in the ability for online play and there’s the real possibility that, thanks to this digital edition, Twilight Struggle will remain one of my most played games of all time.

Triple Threat: Churchill (GMT Games)

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Three players is an odd number. Well, literally, of course, but also in terms of finding a good game. Some games play well with three, but the purpose-built three player game tends to be a rarer beast, particularly with wargames. One of GMT Games’ latest offerings, Churchill: Big Three Struggle for Peace, by Mark Herman, fits the bill with an intriguing blend of office politics and abstracted grand strategic combat.

Players take the role of one of the three leaders of the Allies during World War II: the eponymous Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin. While nominally a co-operative game wherein the players allocate resources to various theaters of war against the Axis powers, it’s co-operative only in the sense that while everyone loses together, only one person really wins. And balancing that desire for a non-lose state (surrender of both Axis powers by the end of the game) against an individual win (most victory points without going too far above your opponents) provides the game’s essential tension.

Churchill: European Front

The conference system sits the heart of Churchill’s gameplay. Cards representing cabinet-level assistants are played to debate various agenda items during one of the war’s ten conferences, corresponding to historic meetings of the leaders and their teams during the war. Winning an agenda item through debate, be it resources for combat or political shifts in conquered Europe and Asia, gives you the ability to shape the outcome of the war. But, as long-time gaming buddies Doug Bush and Mike Vogt and I found during our initial playthrough at the first ever WashingCon last month, just because you win the debate doesn’t mean you win the war.

Doug took the Soviet side and painted almost all of Eastern Europe red on the road to taking Berlin, giving him a big VP lead, but because Mike’s Americans and my British failed to muster enough strength to knock Japan out of the war—caused mostly by our attempts to counter Doug’s clandestine machinations—at end game, we wound up with a group loss. The system played smoothly, and we managed to finish the five turn Tournament scenario in about four hours. Dice do play a role (no pun intended), but proper planning (and resource allocation) can overcome almost all luck-dependent situations.

The Churchill box comes filled with bits, mostly of the wooden variety, to justify its price tag. Counters take he form of GMT’s deluxe “rounded” counters, with individual counter die-cutting rather than die-cut strips, and the fifty-odd cards are of typical size and with a nice finish. The mounted map has a good matte finish and works ergonomically for the most part. A note to the sticker-averse, however: some of the wooden blocks do require stickering. Thankfully GMT provides extra stickers and blocks in case your manual dexterity just isn’t what it used to be.

Churchill fits a good niche: a grand strategic World War II game designed for three players that focuses on the conduct of the war more than combat. There’s no real panzer pushing here, just perilous politicking over production. Charts included with the game allow one or more sides to be run via flowchart in the event that you have fewer than three players, but the deal-making (and deal-breaking) at the heart of the game make Churchill best with three. Churchill occupies a prime spot on my very short list of games I’ll bring out when three players are on hand.

Side-Scrolling Spitfires: Wing Leader (GMT Games)

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The art of design involves knowing what to remove as well as what to add. So I find what Lee Brimmicombe-Wood has done with Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 (GMT Games, 2015) rather appealing: he’s created an air combat game, at squadron scale, that eliminates an entire dimension, portraying the combat interactions of fighters and bombers from a side-on perspective. By focusing his game of Second World War air combat at the point of contact between the opposing sides, the need to maneuver squadrons to their destination has been eliminated, and with it, the need for that Z dimension on the plot. Wing Leader provides the sharp end of the stick, as it were, without the rest of the stick.

Wing Leader: Blenheims in Trouble

Similarly, the differences between aircraft types have been smoothed down to a small range, demonstrating the broad similarities between aircraft of the same generation. There are certainly contrasts between, say, a Spitfire and a Me-109, but they come out in very subtle ways that require the player to use the planes to their proper, and historical, advantage. Which is not to say the game lacks chrome, as Wing Leader includes forty beautifully drawn aircraft types (with data presented on nice cardboard cards) from Great Britain, the United States, Japan, Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. I defy any discerning gamer to resist playing a scenario involving Regia Aeronautica CR.42 biplanes against RAF Hurricanes over Malta.

As can be seen in Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s earlier large-scale air combat game, Downtown, once fighters start mixing it up in Wing Leader, they quickly become ineffective in combat, not from losses per se but from progressive disorganization. Squadrons deteriorate slowly and then very suddenly in this game, and a single dogfight can reduce a fresh set of planes to a leaderless gaggle over a game turn or two. Loss, morale, and status tracking takes place on a set of charts, using counters for various states. The ergonomics work well, as though there are quite a few variables tracked, the counters mostly flip when needed to the next state, and ammo is only broadly traced. It’s not fiddly, the bane of many a game that uses charts and counters for tracking.

Wing Leader: Wing Tracking Chart

I had the opportunity to try the system recently with regular gaming opponent Mike Vogt at the District of Columbia’s finest game store, Labyrinth Games. We played a scenario set during the Sedan campaign in 1940 that features both sides escorting bombing missions. It was a fairly hefty scenario, with seven to eight squadrons per side, but we gamed through it in a decent time frame, perhaps four hours tops, and came away with a good sense of why you don’t let Stukas reach their targets.

As with Downtown, once the fighters lost cohesion and headed for home, the end of the game dragged slightly, with little to do but roll up the final bombing raids and flak attacks, but the overall experience remained solid. The game flowed quickly, with a fairly simple sequence of play that allows for focus on tactics rather than rules. Proper usage of squadrons was rewarded, and poor usage penalized. (Mike won a German victory by four VP, helped by some abysmal British bombing, if anyone is keeping score at home.)

Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942 stands as the first in a series of games exploring the development of air combat during the Second World War. The second volume is already under development, promising to bring more aircraft from later in the war into the system, and I’m keenly following its progress. Not, of course, that I need much more in this life than a game that gives me Gloster Gladiators and Fairey Battles in the same box.

Game Preview: Next War: India-Pakistan (GMT Games)

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Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to help playtest the forthcoming third entry in GMT Games’ Next War series, Next War: India-Pakistan, an operational level wargame covering a hypothetical conflict between the two South Asian neighbors. The testing has been done mostly online via VASSAL, but no matter how convenient computer-mediated wargames can be, nothing replaces pushing physical counters on a map. So recently, I sat down with the game’s research designer, Doug Bush, over a paper playtest copy of Next War: India-Pakistan at Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC.

Playtest images from Next War: India-Pakistan; not final graphics

Please note that all components are playtest versions; the final components will be spiffed up to GMT’s usual stellar standards, not that these don’t look fairly sharp in their current iteration. Pakistani forces are in light khaki, while Indian forces are in dark brown.

The game, a one-mapper, plays rather quickly in person, as the counter densities are very manageable. Even with potential superpower intervention—there are rules, and counters, for bringing Russian, Chinese, and U.S. forces into play, including some great aircraft counters—one never loses the map in a sea of counters. Consequently, solid fronts don’t develop, forcing both players to watch flanks with a wary eye. Feints and counter-thrusts become the order of the day. The mostly open terrain is criss-crossed with major rivers and canals, slowing movement and making bridges very important to hold (or to destroy). Marshes dominate the center of the map near major population centers, posing a barrier to armored units, and the mountainous region of Kashmir is also modeled, complete with rules for mountain troops.

Doug and the NW:IP team have done a very nice job differentiating between the relatively balanced forces of India and Pakistan, and Doug has posted some detailed design notes on ConsimWorld on the decisions behind various unit strengths. The air matchup provides a wonderful cornucopia of planes, with indigenous Indian Tejas fighters squaring off against the U.S. supplied F-16s of Pakistan. (Don’t mind the air display from an earlier game in the series, used for playtest purposes only.)

Playtest images from Next War: India-Pakistan; not final graphics

Various scenarios in the game posit both Indian and Pakistani offensives, including some smaller scenarios that only use portions of the map. Next War: India-Pakistan promises to be a definitive treatment of any possible conflict between these two proud and strong nations. The game is currently on GMT’s P500 pre-order list, hopefully to be published in 2015. I’m looking forward to having the finished product on my shelf.