Winter Offensive 2013 After Action Report

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Sure, it may have been seventy degrees outside, but this past weekend in Bowie, Maryland, it was Winter Offensive 2013 inside, as Multi-Man Publishing‘s annual Advanced Squad Leader tournament and all-around gamefest took place.

A view from the Winter Offensive '13 trenches

Attendance at the East Coast’s premier ASL event initially seemed a bit off from years past (though no complaints from a table-space perspective), perhaps owing to the slightly changed date. Typically, Winter Offensive is held over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, but the proximity of the Presidential Inauguration put paid to those plans this year. Saturday, however, saw a major influx of gamers, bringing the total up to 126 over the course of the event, pipping 2012’s 125 gamers.

The old gang was all in attendance, and, as has become my wont, I managed to play a total of zero games of ASL, though my resistance weakened somewhat when I saw a beautiful scenario featuring bicycle-mounted Japanese troops supported by some of the most obscure tankettes in the game in the Phillipines facing U.S. Army cavalry. Early war, PTO, junky tanks, and bicycles? Yes, please! Time to dust off the ol’ rulebook, I think.

GMT's Bloody AprilI managed to game aplenty, though. After spending much of Thursday catching up with people, I spent the vast majority of Friday playing a huge scenario from GMT’s Bloody April, a World War One grand tactical air game, with my Germans (including von Richtofen himself) facing off against Doug Bush’s British pilots.

Though the Germans tallied far more British flights shot down (the Baron himself had four kills), the Brits were able to accomplish more than enough of their objectives to see them win handily. The system is nice, though a bit cumbersome given the need to track nearly ten variables per flight counter on the map. Still, by the end of fifty turns, we had the climbing, diving, and dogfighting down pat.

Friday evening was given over to GMT’s Twilight Struggle against Chris Chapman, who took the Soviets against my Americans in a replay of the Cold War. Honors were even until the mid-war phase, at which point the Soviets scored quite a few regions. With a +16 VP lead, Chris seemed in control, so I started to play around with DEFCON, but the gamble led to an unfortunate end for the planet when the Soviets were able to push DEFCON to zero owing to my own card play. A rematch has been demanded!

Far too bright and early on Saturday, I faced off against Mike Vogt in MMP’s No Question of Surrender, taking the Italians as they besieged the Free French in their desert fort. This was my first experience with MMP’s Grand Tactical System, a company level, chit-activation wargame. While I like the underlying system—it’s simple to learn but difficult to get all the parts working synergistically—I was underwhelmed by the tactical situation portrayed. The Italians pretty much just crashed like weak waves against the French fort, and Mike was probably getting tired of rolling so much opportunity fire against them. Still, it was nice to see the rules in action, and always a pleasure to match wits with Mike.

By Saturday afternoon, a bit of heavy-gaming fatigue had started to set in, so lighter fare became the norm, and I played through two games of FFG’s Battlestar Galactica. Much to my dismay, I was never a Cylon traitor, though I was accused of such in both games (and even sent to the brig once). The Cylons won the first game without much fuss, but the second saw cagier play by the humans, leading to a narrow escape from the toasters. I’d gladly play this one again, but you need a good-natured group for it—the potential (nay, necessity) for offense in this one requires playing against gamers who enjoy gaming more than they enjoy winning.

Winter Offensive always leaves me drained in the aftermath, but for three days of gaming, I’m ready to put it on the calendar for next year. After I catch up on my sleep, that is.

Rumble in the Jungle: MMP's Angola

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After years of development, Multi-Man Publishing‘s re-make of the Ragnar BrothersAngola has finally arrived, and in fine form.

A meeting of monster columns

This area-move wargame on the Angolan Civil War in the mid-1970s is designed for four players, split into alliances of two players each (one side controlling the FNLA and UNITA forces, the other the FAPLA and MPLA forces that waged war through the Angolan countryside). The game can conceivably be played with fewer than four, but the game strives to model the command-control failures of the various forces and the difficulty they had in coordinating their actions, a difficulty the game emulates in part by prohibiting secret planning. You either tell your partner (and your opponents) that you’re moving to particular town or you don’t say a thing and hope he/she figures it out by the time your forces have arrived. Fewer players means fewer opportunities to mess up a grand sweeping plan, and grand sweeping failures were part of this conflict and an important aspect of the game.

I had the pleasure of playing a four-player session of Angola recently at that finest of local game stores, Labyrinth, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Michael Vogt (UNITA) and I (FNLA) squared off against Pablo Garcia-Silva (MPLA) and Doug Bush (FAPLA) in Labyrinth’s gaming area for a stolen Friday afternoon of fun.

None of us had played this game, originally released in 1988, before, but we’re all grizzled wargaming vets, so we forged ahead full speed. Much of the game is familiar wargame stuff, though the enforced fog-of-war rules and a nifty odds determination system meant that attacks often went in at 1:2 ratios, an almost unheard of occurrence in most games. The game system really wants each player to push, and push hard, even at low odds. The card-driven movement system (with only limited opportunities to move units each turns) forces one to use units whenever possible, and a limited countermix and the subsequent loss of reinforcements if you don’t sufficient counters in your pool helps encourage an attacking mindset. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em, if you will.

Pablo and Doug’s Cuban-backed forces made good gains early on, and the game design self-balances by giving the side that loses territory the opportunity to gain extra forces from their foreign backers (Zaire and South Africa, for UNITA and FNLA).

The siege of Lobito

After a few bad turns, you’ve got a force to be reckoned with, and Michael and I had a few bad turns, enabling us to push back in style. The UNITA stacks coming out of South Africa were monstrous and inflicted some real damage.

By the time we called the game, both sides were tied and looking quite equally matched, force-wise (though Doug did have a giant air force that dwarfed the rest of us). But because of the early losses, the UNITA/FNLA alliance was in a precarious position—another bad turn could have seen the foreign powers remove all aid. The risk/reward balance in the game is quite finely crafted in that respect: you can’t play rope-a-dope until you have a giant army, because you’ll risk losing your sponsors and will probably be too far behind on points (representing accumulated political victories caused by territorial gains).

Combining ease of play (though with much tactical depth) and a wild random set-up feature, Angola is going to be making the rounds at game conventions for years to come. I foresee quite a few late night four-player sessions of this one at Winter Offensive.

My thanks to the crew at Labyrinth for their gracious hosting and to Pablo, Doug, and Michael for a great afternoon of gaming.

Winter Offensive 2012 After Action Report

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For many wargamers on the East Coast, the real holiday is not Christmas, when you never get the games you want anyway, but the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, when Winter Offensive is held in bucolic Bowie, Maryland.

This venerable Advanced Squad Leader tournament, held annually by Multi-Man Publishing, has transformed from a purely ASL tournament to an eclectic gathering of gamers of all stripes. Twenty years ago, a table occupied by a non-ASL game would have been unthinkable, but now, owing in part to MMP’s growing stable of game lines, roughly twenty percent of the creaking, uneven tables in the increasingly crowded conference rooms host other wargames and even a few Euros.

Winter Offensive 2012

In conjunction with the usual band of misfits (Doug Bush, Chris Chapman, and John Slotwinski), I once again managed to play a grand total of zero games of Advanced Squad Leader. My tally for the long weekend includes a loss as the Russians in The Tide at Sunrise (played using the useless optional Naval Rules), a win as the Russians in Storm Over Stalingrad, a loss as the Egyptians in Yom Kippur, and a second place finish in a three player Le Havre using a civic building strategy that lost to the inevitable coal/coke/steel shipping strategy. A four player Space Empires finished inconclusively, though I must say that my Royal Realm of Red Ravagers was well poised to conquer known space . . .

As ever, MMP put on a good show, with a record attendance somewhere north of 120 participants. Any more and they’ll have to open up a third conference room, which would help alleviate some of the space issues. These non-ASL games take up some serious table space.

Winter Offensive 2011 After Action Report

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Every year over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, droves of gamers (well, about a hundred or so) descend upon Bowie, Maryland, for Winter Offensive, the premier East Coast Advanced Squad Leader tournament, sponsored by Multi-Man Publishing, publishers of ASL and other fine games. After a hiatus of several years, I made the pilgrimage to the palatial Comfort Inn Conference Center, home of nineteen of the twenty Winter Offensives, determined not to play any ASL at all.

My relationship with the One True Game™ stretches back to 1996, and my first Winter Offensive was 1997. But ASL is a Lifestyle Game: if you play ASL, you don’t tend to play other games. So many scenarios to play, so many counters to clip, so many rules to internalize—there’s little time to play ASL competently (which is not to say well) and play other games also. In the mid-Aughts, I set the Planos aside to focus on the other, growing piles of games on my shelves, and stopped going to Winter Offensive.

But I hadn’t seen the gang in ages, and this year I decided to get back to Bowie to catch up with everyone. My plan was to start with a scenario from OCS Case Blue. Being a MMP product, Case Blue would allow me to occupy a table at this ASL fest without too many undue stares. Doug Bush, a frequent PBeM opponent of mine, plays a mean game of OCS and took me on in the first scenario, Edge of the World. It was, perhaps, an ambitious idea, and we put in roughly twelve hours of play over the weekend before calling it, with Doug’s Germans a decent percentage of the way to a win over my Russians in Grozny.

And why did we call it? To play nine hours of Advanced Civilization, of course, roping in some fellow crazies (and former Washington, DC gamers).Advanced Civ at WO'11

From left, you have John Slotwinski (Italy), Chris Chapman (Illyria), Scott “Muzzlehead” Calkins (Babylonia) taking in the span of the world, Doug Bush (Egypt), and yours truly (Crete), rocking a new Giroux Flyers jersey. This shot was taken early in the game, before the fatigue had set in, before the stress of trying to trade away a terrible Calamity Card had taken its toll, before the endless recriminations and broken alliances and fractured treaties had dropped a veil of enmity upon the table. Damn, that was a lot of fun . . .

Doug’s Egyptians wound up taking top spot by running to the end of the Archaeological Succession Table with a heady mix of Achievements, followed very closely by Scott’s Babylonians. My Cretans (that joke was funny for the first hour at the table) came in a distant third as we avoided most conflict but also failed to stunt the leaders’ growth, and Chris C.’s Illyrians were just behind me. John had to step out mid-game owing to another obligation.

Chris C. and I also managed to get in a game of Twilight Struggle, with my Soviets taking advantage of a hand full of Scoring Cards in mid-game to gain an advantage I was able to ride to the end.

And, yes, I sort of failed in my determination to play no ASL, as Joe Jackson, an opponent and all around good guy from way back, enticed me into playing a quick scenario in Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit, which utilizes a trimmed version of the full ASL rules. It’s not quite ASL, but it’s close enough, and I was almost tempted to start buying up all the plentiful ASL product on offer at WO. I managed to keep the wallet closed, but it was a close run thing.

In theory, Winter Offensive is a tournament. There’s a winner at the end, records are kept, prizes are handed out. But even when I was deep into the ASL scene, WO was never about the tournament, never about the win-loss record at the end of the weekend. It was always, and remains, about the camaraderie. This is not to say that winning and socializing are incompatible—every gamer wants to win, it’s the one immutable thread in our sub-cultural DNA—but winning is a temporary goal, wins come and go, and there’s always another match around the corner. It’s about the people you game with, the experience you create via dice and counters and choices. If you win a game and can’t tell a good story about it afterwards, you lost. And I had some good stories this past weekend . . .

Counter Culture: Counters as Tools

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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

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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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