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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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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Table for One: Revolt in the East (SPI/S&T) Review

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Many a wargame exists on hypothetical NATO/Warsaw Pact conflicts after the Second World War. Fewer still exist—possibly just one—on a joint NATO and Warsaw Pact conflict against the Soviet Union in that same time period.

Using the freedom afforded by the need to stick a complete game in a magazine every two months, SPI delivered a decidedly fresh take on the Cold War in James F. Dunnigan’s Revolt in the East, postulating a potential NATO intervention in an uprising spreading throughout disaffected Warsaw Pact member nations. Simple in design and streamlined in execution, Revolt in the East manages to provide an engaging game on a decidedly undergamed topic, even if the constraints of the basic SPI game “chassis” get occasionally in the way.

Overview

Revolt in the East: Warsaw Pact Rebellion in the 1970s
Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), 1976
Strategy & Tactics 56
Designed by James F. Dunnigan

Revolt in the East, Cover image

Revolt in the East saw life as a “folio” sized game included in one of SPI’s house magazines, Strategy & Tactics, Issue 56 (May/June 1976). Coming in at an even hundred half-inch mounted counters, matte printed on the front only, and with a simple four-panel matte printed map measuring 22″ x 16″, the folio format severely limited the design space available—and probably helped drive many game development decisions. Other than lacking sufficient informational/mnemonic markers for tracking which Warsaw Pact cities are in revolt, however, the game doesn’t seem to have suffered from the physical restraints imposed upon it.

The counters feature typical Redmond Simonsen discipline, using generic “army man” figures for ground combat units (each representing an army or corps) and top-down aircraft silhouettes (F-4 for NATO, MiG-25 for the Soviet Union). Specific unit designations are provided, with the only other numbers on the counter a combat strength and, for air and airborne units, a range. The color registration on my copy leaves a fair bit to be desired, with about an sixteenth of an inch of offset color on several of the Warsaw Pact and Neutral nation counters. (I suppose it’s too late to write to SPI for replacements…)

Revolt in the East,  Situation in Bulgaria

The accompanying article on the game in Strategy & Tactics goes into detail about the locations of the various units in play, but in practice, the game does set too great a store on which unit sets up in which hex so long as it has the proper nationality and combat strength.

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Table for One: End of Empire (Compass Games) Review

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Daring amphibious assaults, bitter city sieges, near-run coastal evacuations, major offensives cut short by poor winter planning, massive armies made up of multi-national forces fighting side-by-side, and…George Washington?

Compass GamesEnd of Empire: 1744-1782, a grand-operational level wargame covering the various British conflicts in North America, takes gamers beyond the traditional understanding of these wars. Far from a series of skirmishes and set-piece battles, the fight for North America was as much one of maneuver as manpower, of politics as powder, and William M. Marsh manages to bring it all home in an accessible, engaging, and well-mannered monster game.

Dedicated readers of this site will note that I have previously reviewed End of Empire, but with my recent ability to get larger games on my table, combined with a very solitaire-friendly game mechanic, I thought it a fine choice to revisit for the next review in the Table for One project.

Overview

End of Empire: 1744-1782
Compass Games, 2014
CPA 1024
Designed by William M. Marsh

End of Empire, Compass Games, 2014

End of Empire originally saw life as a magazine game in Command Issue 46 back in 1997. The Compass Games edition some seventeen years later builds on the original’s solid bones, coming boxed with four and a half countersheets (5/8″ counters), two standard-sized maps (running lengthwise, for 68″ x 22″ total dimensions), two black-and-white printed rules booklets, a few glossy charts, and a nondescript d6.

Of note, other than informational markers, each of the three main conflicts depicted—King George’s War, the French and Indian War, and the American Revolutionary War— has a separate counter set, with the ARW getting the lion’s share of the counters. There’s a lot of game here, fifteen scenarios in all, though many just provide a shorter version of the main three conflicts by moving the starting date back a year or so or tweaking some variables.

Counter examples from End of Empire

The counters themselves pack in a lot of information, all efficiently presented in the style one has come to expect from Brien J. Miller. The counter color scheme, though, leaves much to be desired. Crucial gameplay elements hinge on differentiating between British regular (burgundy) and provincial (russet brown) units. American forces suffer the same closeness between Continental Army (“darker” blue) and State (“medium” blue) units, with a similar need during play to tell them apart.

To make matters worse, the German mercenaries have three schemes that are close to each other and the Americans as well (navy blue, medium blue, medium green). Even in good light, these counter colors are not readily discernible at a glance, and some variations in printing lead to moments of second-guessing. I understand the desire to theme the units via color; context clues, plus some printed notes, make most of the units’ affiliations decipherable, but some other mnemonic needed to be employed, just for ease of use.

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Table for One: Sinai (SPI) Review

Table for One: Sinai (SPI) Review
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For the inaugural post in the new Table for One project, a series of wargame reviews with an eye towards solitaire suitability, I’m going back to the first wargame I ever played: Sinai (1973), by SPI. Then, as now, I tinkered with this operational level one-mapper on the various Arab-Israeli wars without benefit of an opponent. Unlike the last time, however, I sort of know what I’m doing this time around.

Playing a wargame sans opponent requires an understanding of how wargames work, and some thirty-odd years ago, first confronting this mass of paper and cardboard and rules, I had no idea at all how to proceed. But I was hooked nonetheless, captivated by the possibility of moving these variously colored forces across the stark buff-and-blue map.

Even then, as certainly now, I loved the idea of chrome, and the promise of a US expeditionary Marine force or a Moroccan mechanized battalion entering the fray made me determined to learn how to play wargames. I didn’t really succeed then, but mostly because I didn’t know how to play both sides at the same time.

It’s an acquired skill, this simultaneous solitaire, requiring both an uncanny impartiality and a willful ignorance of what the “other half” of your brain is planning. With years of playing face-to-face against an opponent under my belt, it’s actually rather easy to drop into this dual-mindedness. Sometimes your opponent knows what you’re going to do and will try to oppose it directly; sometimes, he or she doesn’t see it. You can tie yourself into knots trying to guess if your opponent knows what you know—that way leads analysis paralysis, a dreaded gaming disorder. You just have to take your chances to the best of your ability. Wargames are sufficiently complex creatures that you’ll often overlook a good move or clever feint until you switch sides and see clearly what you should have done. That little bit of uncertainty makes solo wargame play possible.

Still, some games provide a better solitaire experience than others, and in Table for One, I hope to look at games from a solo perspective and highlight what aspects of them make for good, or poor, single-player experiences.

Overview

Sinai: The Arab-Israeli Wars, ’56, ’67 and ’73
Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), 1973
Designed by James F. Dunnigan

Sinai (SPI) Flat Pack Cover Sheet

Sinai was released in two versions, as a boxed designer’s edition and in the infamous SPI flat pack with integral counter tray. My copy is the latter, complete with folded rules folio. Everything about the SPI flat pack, down to the cheap, poorly-molded d6, screams cost-savings, and the ability to simply drop in a new cover sheet under the flimsy plastic cover allowed SPI to push an enormous number of games out the door. SPI was nothing if not prolific; the contemporary management notion of “fail fast” seems tailor made for their way of business, leading to some remarkable successes at the price of a few less-than-brilliant games, all sent into the world at a breakneck pace—breakneck, at least, in comparison to today’s wargame publishing market, where most games are subjected to lengthy waits on pre-order lists prior to release.

Sinai (SPI) Flat Pack Counter Tray

Sinai comes in as neither an overwhelming success nor a resounding failure. It’s a fairly bog-standard ’70s wargame, with locking zones of control and an utterly bloodless Combat Results Table. The single standard-sized map is awash in blue and tan, with a slightly confusing road network and terrain roster that variously exists depending on which scenario is being played. The 255 half-inch counters are front-printed only on decently thick cardboard, with crisp printing in a few colors that nevertheless allow for good differentiation between the multiple factions in play. One either deeply appreciates Redmond Simonsen’s Letraset skills or finds them bland; I fall firmly in the former camp. Indeed, the clean lines and contrasting colors of this game’s components, far more than the gameplay itself, helped draw me into this hobby all those years ago.

The counters in my copy suffered just the slightest bit of off-registration printing, leading to some counters with an off-color band on the bottom or side. The die cuts were good and well-centered, however, and the counters look quite tidy after a visit from a 2mm Oregon Laminations Counter Corner Rounder.

Order of battle research seems thin on the Arab side, with only a few units given specific designations; by contrast, the vast majority of pre-1973 Israeli units are delineated and set up in their historical starting locations.
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