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

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.

A Taste of 1989 at Labyrinth

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in a demo session of GMT‘s recently released 1989: The Dawn of Freedom, hosted by one of the co-designers, Jason Matthews. Held at the finest game store in Washington, DC (and indeed, the entire metro region), Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, as part of their “A Taste of…” series of game demos, the event filled the store’s back gaming space with players eager to recreate the struggle for democratic change in the countries of Eastern Europe during the tumultuous late ’80s.

Jason Matthews provided a nice overview of card driven games in general, spoke to his design process and the challenges of creating (and publishing) innovative designs in an increasingly crowdfunded market, and also worked through the rules for the game. It’s always a pleasure to be able to ask rules questions of the person who designed them.

Using a similar card-driven armature as Twilight Struggle, which Jason Matthews also co-designed, 1989 pits two players in the roles of Communists—attempting to keep control of the social and political structures of Poland, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia—and Democrats, striving to gain control of the same. Players familiar with Twilight Struggle can jump right in, as the basic dilemma of using cards for either operations (to take actions on the map representing efforts to gain or wrest control) or events (representing significant moments from history) remains in place.

1989 The Dawn of Freedom via of Labyrinth Games and Puzzles

New to the system, the Power Struggle sub-game comes into play when overall control of a country must be assessed due to play of a Scoring Card. The Power Struggle—essentially a suit matching contest using cards apportioned via relative control of the country—adds quite a bit of uncertainty into what was, in Twilight Struggle, a very cut-and-dry calculation. You can go into the Power Struggle with an edge in country control and leave with no control at all. Some might find that variability unsettling, but I like what it adds to the game. There are no guaranteed victory points in this game.

As with most event-based card driven games, once you know the events and their placement in the game’s “storyboard,” much of the sense of wonder and discovery vanishes; I’ve played Twilight Struggle enough times to know which cards open me up to late game traps if I play them and which cards are mandatory plays as soon as they appear in my hand, certainly a strategic benefit, but I’ve also lost the thrill of watching the history unfold via the cards. While I don’t think 1989 will ultimately escape that fate (and it’s not a terrible one, for the basic game play is still quite satisfying), it’s nice to have another game in this vein where the gameplay is somewhat seat-of-the-pants, not knowing how one action will reverberate into another, as ultimately I game for wonder as much as winning.

My thanks to Jason Matthews and the always awesome crew at Labyrinth for hosting this demo session. It prompted me to pick up a copy of 1989, which I’m sure will see a fair bit of play.

(Picture via Labyrinth Games and Puzzles)

Winter Offensive 2013 After Action Report

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.

Winter Offensive 2011 After Action Report

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: 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: 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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