Off the Radar Reviews

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Off the Radar Reviews
There Will Be Games

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As you probably all know I make periodic statistical checks on games that are highly rated amongst players in the Ameritrash community. For these numbers to have any meaning, inevitably I have to have a cut-off point, a sample size, a minimum number of gamers who've chosen to play that game and make their opinions on it know. With this in mind I thought it might be fun, and useful, to run through and review five games that were well respected by those who had played them but which missed the cut, in the assumption that these were all games the wider AT crowd might enjoy if they had a bit more exposure. Given the cross pollination we share with wargamers it is entirely unsurprising that the majority of these are wargames, but if you're not at all Grognard minded there's still a couple of games in here to interest you.

First up we've got is the card-driven wargame Here I Stand. You may or may not be aware that this little gem has proved popular enough with the site community that we're actually on to our third PBEM game of F:AT members only. HiS is a hybrid political wargame which covers the events of the reformation: the religious conflict that swept over Europe in the sixteenth century and resulted in the split between Protestantism and Catholicism. It's a clever subject for a wargame because there's a lot of rich history intertwined with this plot: the motivation behind Henry VIII and his proclivity for beheading wives and marrying a new one, the wars between England and France and between Austria and the Ottoman Empire and more. And one of the finest things about the game is the manner in which it captures this history, aided magnificently by its event cards. But there's a price: the game is complex and very, very long. If you're familiar with the wider application of the CDG "system", utilised as it is in games like Successors or Unhappy King Charles the game won't present too steep a learning curve but there's still a lot of special rules for each one of the six powers in the game to digest. But the play time is a killer: you're looking at an hour per player at an absolute minimum, and the game really needs a full complement to shine. Fortunately it adapts well to PBEM but those games drag on into months. Aside from the historical integration and unusual subject matter the real selling point on this game is the diplomatic edge: it's one of a very few games other than Diplomacy which presents the players with a situation in which they have to rely on degrees of trust and co-operation with other powers in order to succeed. It tones down on the backstabbing a bit which actually results in a more interesting and engrossing game, as it allows tactical and strategic play to take its place alongside the negotiation. An excellent game but not one, unfortunately, that many people are going to be able to find the time to play, and that forces it down to a four out of five rating from me.

Next up is a semi-wargame and, indeed a semi-game, the various Memoir 44 expansions. I reviewed the Eastern Front expansion a while back and you may recall that I gave it high praise. Well it turns out that basically all of the major Memoir expansions are fan favourites with the Ameritrash crowd. Aside from Eastern Front I've played another two. The first is the Pacific Theatre expansion. Now I didn't expect much of it: I find the war in Europe rather more interesting than the war in the remote Pacific, and I didn't think there was any way it could, strategically, improve on the excellent Eastern Front expansion. And I was right, it doesn't. But what it does manage to bring to the table is a very unique feel, making the games distinctly different to those on offer from the base set alone or indeed the Easter Front scenarios. It manages this with some very simple rules. The Japanese army refuses to retreat and is horribly powerful in close combat, a devastating combination which accurately reflects their mentality at the time and which forces new and original tactics from the Japan player. The USMC on the other hand effectively gets extra orders, which come in extremely handy when trying to keep those IJA units at arms length so they can be cut down from a distance. Simple, but unique, and supported by some good scenarios too. Not something I can quite give a carte blanche thumbs up too, because for most gamers the possibility of the base set and the Russian expansion ought to be enough to keep them going, but this should certainly be of interest to Memoir aficionados or those interested in the war in the Pacific and earns four out of five. The other expansion which is well-liked by Ameritrash gamers is the Terrain Pack. This only comes with a few scenarios, the idea being that you can use the pieces and rules supplied to make more, or to utilise some of the fan-made scenarios on the DoW website. Whilst it does open up a quite absurd number of scenarios for you to play, I can't really recommend this. There's too much barely-used stuff included in it, and the scenarios I have played which utilise this expansion haven't been top-notch stuff. Nevertheless, it'll be interesting to see whether it's worth it for the scenarios that use it in the new-and-shiny Memoir '44 campaign book. I was hoping to review that for you sometime after DoW promised me a copy, but nothing has shown up yet. Keep your fingers crossed!

We'll move on to another wargame now, A Victory Lost. You've probably heard of the battle of Stalingrad: but unless you're something of a Grognard you might well not be familiar with what happened afterward, a strategic retreat by the German army followed by a stunning counterattack to force the Russians onto the back foot. That's the subject matter of this game, which has been widely lauded for bringing home an awful lot of historical detail and strategic depth on the back of 8 pages of some pretty simple rules. And I can't deny it succeeds in this regard: it absolutely hits the sweet spot for wargames in terms of complexity versus accuracy. But in spite of this considerable charm, I can't recommend this game. The German player has to spend most of the game retreating in good order which is tactically demanding but simply rather dull. I want to be leading from the front, organising daring raids into the Soviet lines, not orchestrating the logistics of a plodding retreat. Other games, such as Storm over Stalingrad have managed to make defending and retreating fun, but AVL does not. It's not a short game either, taking some six hours if it runs the entire length of the scenario and it has horrendous downtime issues because once each turn the Soviet player gets to move every unit on the board, and that's a hell of a lot of units. But what I found ultimately irritating about this game was how the mechanics encourage fiddly micromanagement and gamey tactics. The idea is that HQs get activated in turn and each HQ activates units within its command range, regardless of whether those units have already been activated this turn. This transforms the game from a strategic wargame into a resource management exercise where the position of counters in relation to each other and the HQs needs to be checked and double-checked in order to get the maximum number of activations. Six hours of micromanagement? No thanks. Two out of five.

I'm going to do an abstract next. Yes, it pains me to have to inform you that an abstract is narrowly missing being in the list of AT gamers' favourite games. You should be ashamed. I'll tell you now that that game is YINSH so you can all go play it and downgrade your opinion accordingly. Now, with the exception of Backgammon, I don't like abstracts. I find nothing engaging about them, they lack anything to hook me, pull me in, make me want to play more. And I don't like YINSH. But to be fair I can see what it is about this game which has succeeded in charming so many people. It's kind of like Othello - you move rings around the board, leaving markers of your colour behind, and if your ring moves over any existing markers it flips them over to the opposite colour - whether that's your colour or that of your opponent - and attempt to make chains of five markers. But it's rather easier to learn and play than Othello (I always have trouble figuring out exactly what gets flipped when in that game) and is rather more engrossing because it's much faster and more fluid. It has a built in balancing mechanism whereby every time you score a row of five, you loose a ring, one of your aggressive pieces. It's something I can imagine non-gamers liking: everyone has a passing familiarity with abstracts and this one is quick to learn and play and offers a lot of depth without being a serious brain burner.  If I liked abstracts, this would probably be an abstract that I liked. But I don't. So, two out of five and it should count itself lucky.

I've saved the best til last, and it's another wargame but a wargame unlike most others: Napoleon's Triumph. It is in fact so unlike most others that what ought to be a relatively simple game with a modest eight pages of rules is in fact quite a struggle to learn because it presents you with so many unfamiliar concepts and offers no guidance on how to translate them into effective play. But don't be put off by those jagged edges: this is a first class game which not only plays well but looks a million dollars too with its minimalist-yet-stunning design which leaves you feeling like you're really a Napoleonic general pushing unit markers around a map while sat in a tent on a hill overlooking the battlefield. The designer claimed he was looking for a game experience that combined that of chess with that of poker, and he got it. All your units start the game concealed from your opponent and during attacks it's quite common for only a couple to be revealed on each side. So you start the game moving your units around in a startlingly heavyweight game of grand manoeuvre (that's the chess) but once combat is joined you're sweating over what might be arrayed over the other side of the board against you and struggling to bluff your opponent into thinking that he's facing a guards division instead of some irregular Cossacks (that's the poker). This uncertainty means that the diceless combat system works perfectly well: your attempt to predict what has taken the field against you simply replaces your attempt to predict the probabilities of the dice. A lot of wargames don't actually manage to capture the bluff element inherent in strategic warfare but this does, and yet alongside it it also manages to truly reward commanders who can come up with a creative battle plan and implement it whilst remaining flexible to the demands of the changing situation. In other words it manages to be a great game, a great historical mirror and a great military simulation all at the same time. I can imagine that like many wargames the limitations of the scenario might start to show in time, but the hidden units, the second, longer scenario and the team play option should help keep things fresh. It's a little heavy for my tastes, but I've not yet tried that compelling and unique team play approach which promises to capture some of the real pressures of command. And if it pays off as well as I think it might, this could well be a five out of five title and make it straight into my top ten.

So that's your lot. Remember that the opinions I've presented here are very much mine and mine alone: whatever I think, these games have all been highly lauded by a number of your peers. Hope I've whetted your appetite for some more games in these dark days of recession and purchasing embargos: if you get round to checking some of them out, be sure to let me know what you think.

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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