Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The John Carter Game is Mine at Last

When I was growing up our family friends the Tsocanos had a huge supply of Joe Kubert Tarzan comics. As the old folks remember those magazines also included Korak (son of Tarzan, and I blush to imagine someone might not know that), Carson of Venus, and John Carter of Mars. As a result I grew up assuming that John Carter's adventures were commonly known pop culture, along with Captain Scarlet and the Thunderbirds.

This was not the case.

That being said I ended up reading the John Carter books, buying the John Carter miniatures, and in off moments wondering whether life on mars with a sword in my hand and a princess on my arm might in some ways be more cool that school and cub scouts. At least a John Carter movie would be pretty awesome.

Again, wrong.

Really, It's All Intuitive
All this is a lead in to my recent impulse purchase of a used copy of the John Carter: Warlord of Mars game, published by SPI in 1979. I had always been curious about this game and now as an adult I could own it and play it and try and exorcise those memories of that horrible movie. Plus, it turns out the game was designed by Mark Herman, a very famous and successful designer. Further, it has an introduction from Scott Bizar, the owner of Fantasy Games Unlimited and an old friend, mentor and employer who helped shape my early gaming years. Finally, the family was going to be out of town for a few weeks so I had plenty of time to learn the game and play!

Wrong again!

After five minutes of reading the rules I was left wondering if I had actually played games like this in the past. I could swear I remember playing Squad Leader and Panzerblitz, Arab Israeli Wars, Mordor, CA, Seventh Fleet,  but maybe I just imagined it all. Because these rules are just impenetrable. There are 28 pages of "sections" and "cases" and they're all arranged digitally (ie. case [6.53]). There are also eight pages of charts and tables (at least they have the decency to call it "Charts and Tables" and not a Quick Reference Sheet). There is a Prison Companion Table, an Arena Duel Table, and a Hand of Fate Table. Plus many others.
Counters! 400 of Them

I'm probably laying it on a little thick but I think my capacity for sections and cases has diminished. About 176%. Maybe I was just extremely clever as a teen and now just mildly clever as an adult. That's probably it! Still, it's another one of those "you can't go home again" moments.

Having said that, the Kubert comics are still awesome! Reprints are available.

Another Charlie Don't Surf Playtest

Last night I inflicted miniatures gaming upon my board gaming group at Myriad Games in Salem. Suffice it to say that they were Very Good Sports and that I completely botched any rules explanations and probably left them mystified.

That being said, what lessons were learned?

Did I mention those people were indeed Very Good Sports as well as being Inhumanly Patient? If you like board games and you're in the Salem, NH area then you should absolutely pay the store a visit.

Renee's ambushing troops accumulate some shock
Secondly, while I feel I'm not unclever, I'm still struggling with the TooFatLardies rules. Charlie Don't Surf is not complex in its' foundation but the basic structure begins to fray when various details are addressed. So, for example, squads and platoons move and fire easily enough. The rules concerning them are intuitive in that once you've moved one squad you know the system. Unfortunately there is a somewhat different system for attack helicopters. And snipers. And antiaircraft fire. And artillery. Not vastly different, but different enough that you need to know them as addition sets of rules.

And then there are the modifiers. I understand the justification for modifying die rolls but there are a Lot of modifiers in Charlie Don't Surf. I ended up just ignoring a lot of them during the game and setting an arbitrary target for success in order to speed the game up and cut down on paper cuts as I flipped through the rules.

Helicopter stand in background
So beyond needing a bit of streamlining the rules are still basically sound and do create a nicely realistic Viet Nam conflict experience. The NVA are outgunned but with snipers and bunkers have the ability to slow and blunt the American advance. They do need to stay mobile. If the Americans can pin the NVA in place that's the end of the battle- and that's very period appropriate.

The terrain was also tweaked a bit and is getting closer to where I want it. I've gone through two bottles of Fray Block as I cut up dozens of tiny rice paddies out of towel material. I'm going to need a few more before I'm done.

Hopefully I'll get one more playtest in before Huzzah. Not with the Myriad folks though, they have done their part!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Charlie Don't Surf After Action Report

Last weekend we got a chance to run through the Battle of Hoa Tan using the Charlie Don't Surf rules. For this game we had four platoons of Americans assault the South of the village and the adjacent terraced rice paddies.

I was able to obtain some very nice maps from a Charlie Troop website and it's webmaster, who kindly sent me a copy of the real battle's after action report. These allowed us to have a good order of battle and orient the game. The map shows how two of the platoons proceeded. In our game we also included the other two platoons and told the players they had to sweep the village and also relieve a reaction force on the paddies.

I had envisioned the Americans splitting into two groups to tackle the village and paddies simultaneously. I also imagined the NVA setting up bunkers and snipers to blunt the force of the American advance early on. Of course, neither happened. The Americans swept up the Eastern half of the board en masse and the NVA player committed whole platoons piecemeal into face to face firefights. The encounter was a bit of a rout for the NVA, even more so than in history.

Maneuver with Blinds
Largely I blame my game parameters for the scope of the rout. Next time I'll mandate that the American players split their forces as was done historically. I'm also going to take the NVA players aside and offer some tips that the actual participants would have been aware of. A time limit may also encourage the American player to move more quickly and take some risks.

Captain Shrader in the Air
On the whole we were happy with the rules. They are fundamentally sound. Full strength American squads will completely outgun their opponents in a face to face encounter. The NVA and VC can avoid such encounters and concentrate on ambush, sniping, and fire from cover. Helicopters can be very effective but become bullet magnets and if they are shot down get the NVA huge amounts of political victory points. Overall the rules reward historically accurate behaviour. Further, the political victory points encourage the Americans to limit casualties and evacuate the wounded whenever possible.

My table setup was a fair success as a test of concept. I'll need to mark out field boundaries better and set up the hedges with more space in between. The trees with pins at their bases stood up perfectly. That technique is going to be heavily used in the future. The board now needs to be coloured in varying shades of green, flooded rice paddies added, and the field boundaries marked.  I was able to find some amazing colour photos taken before the battle and they have been invaluable in designing the board.

Perhaps the only real criticism to the event is in relation to how the rules are written. As with many of the Too Fat Lardies products, the concepts are sound but the writing and editing lend themselves to long minutes trying to sort out specifics. I think these rules are the best on the market for the period and scale and I would recommend them to anyone with an interest, but I do wish TFL would bring in an editor.That aside, though, I'm looking forward to finishing the terrain and giving the game another go.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Little Trees, Fresh as a Breeze

My Vietnam game is set in a lush seaside valley full of rice paddies and trees. Most of the trees I own are completely unsuited for south east Asia so it was clearly time to get more terrain. Unfortunately I am struggling to do the project with some kind of financial restraint and a forest of miniature trees can be very expensive.

A Package From China!
As my wife is aware, when confronted with expense, I use schemes I have learned on the internet to save money and finish my projects. That's what I was doing when I used a power sander in the living room on insulation board. I was saving money when I burned through three cans of spray paint in on un-ventilated basement. Thrift was tops in my mind when I used her bread knives to saw through insulation board (a different project, more insulation board though) and her colander to dry lead figures washed in bulk. That being said she was very excited to learn I was going to buy a forest of tiny trees from China via eBay. I had read on The Miniatures Page that this was a good idea and the advice of an anonymous stranger on a web forum is good enough for me!

Amazingly enough my trees arrived quickly and were exactly perfect for the job. The colors are appropriate for Vietnam and at roughly 6-10mm scale the detail is fine. For a week I kept on re-examining them waiting for the punchline. Would they melt? Are they radioactive plastic trees? Illusions? Nope, they were perfect for the project and very affordable.

Awaiting flocking on the trunk base
Happily there was still opportunity for disaster and mess making in the house. The trees were supplied without bases and had to be somehow affixed to the play surface. The trunks are so very tiny that gluing them to bases would not be very durable. The trunks are also too thin to be drilled and have pins placed inside. I came up with a scheme without the internet this time. I took 17mm pins and clamped one end around the bottom of each tree. Now the trees can be pinned into a foam based mat and removed when the game is over. The clamped pin is pretty secure but I am placing a drop of white glue on each and then adding some flock. The result is stronger and the pin will be invisible.

Considering my record of disastrous goof ups and project malfunctions I'm very pleased with my trees. They were cheap, they look good, and they should do the job!

Break Time From Serious Projects

This Valentine's day my wife got my son perhaps the most awesome gift he has ever received. Two wooden catapults that you can build yourself. There are also some stickers and paper targets of evil knights and dragons. The brand here in question is Boy Craft, which while it offends my progressive sensibilities does pretty perfectly describe these cool toys. I had to settle for building bird houses and macaroni pictures as a kid. Or Pinewood Derby cars, which I really botched. If I had been offered catapults I would be one hundred times more crafty today.

My son built the catapults with minimal help from me. The instructions were clear, the pieces all fit together well and with minimal fiddling, and it even included a tube of wood glue. After some time spent waiting for glue to dry and stickers to stick we were ready to start flinging things around the house.

There really is nothing that is not suited as a catapult target. Chairs, books, people's legs. We could fling apple pieces to the chickens. We could fling cookie pieces into each other's mouths. So picking a target is a win-win endeavor. But if you are looking for a particularly fun time, try building a tower out of blocks, stocking it with guards, and then blasting away with small stones. We made our tower as tall as possible, with lots of Astro Guards perched on precarious landings and balconies.

Here we can see the progression of the tumultuous siege of Fortress Astroman. This was a good forty five minutes of stone flinging but in the end the catapults were victorious and the crew headed off for dinner. Of course I forgot to take a picture of the final ruins of the tower, we were too excited at the time. Flinging things around the living room and knocking down towers is an afternoon that's hard to beat.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Vietnam Miniatures Rundown

I'm going to be running several games at Huzzah using 15mm miniatures. At the moment there are a number of good sources of figures but postage and unexpected sales have propelled me towards a few brands.

A local store ran a huge sale on Battlefront miniatures recently following the demise of Flames of War at their site. I picked up some NVA regulars and American airmobile infantry. The American troops are decent. The pack has a good variety of poses and the sculpts are characterful, especially considering the scale. I sped through the painting process in order to generate a platoon quickly and with that level of care the minis still end up looking pretty good.

The NVA regulars, on the other hand, are embarrassing. There's far more flash than a 15mm figure from a major player should have. The poses are odd or unrealistic. Some of the body parts are bizarrely proportioned. And the insignia on the helmets are scaled to look like miner's headlamps. I think these were early works in the line but Battlefront should have pulled them and replaced them with something less horrible.

Finally, I picked up some Battle Honours/Quality Castings 15mm VC. These figures are smaller than the Battlefront types and don't attempt any real facial features. They are also a little more stylized in their poses and remind me of the Peter Pig house style. That being said, they do the job well and look good on the table. I'll be looking for more of these, especially for NVA and VC troops, who should be slighter than their American and ANZAC opponents.

I would have liked to use Peter Pig figures but the postage from the UK is crippling, especially if I'm going to be fielding a company per side. Brookhurst Hobbies carries that line as well but it remains expensive. I will use Peter Pig for civilians as their selection is better than any others. Flashpoint Miniatures carries a Vietnam line but their military figures seem no better than Battlefront's and their civilian selection strays away from straightforward farmers and bystanders.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Search and Destroy for Huzzah!

As both my readers will recall I recently ran a game of Charlie Company with the idea of either starting a campaign or running a game at Huzzah!, or both. That project lurched a bit as I tried to find some way of making squad level action relate to Vietnam specifically. Gaming the period really seems to beg for an entire company being present. With that in mind I started looking for another rule set.

Search and Destroy was published by SPI in 1975. Gamers of a certain age are now getting misty eyed and remembering flimsy flat plastic boxes, counters, and rules headings arranged in helpful numeric form ("[5.36] Under certain optional rules "Killed" or "Wounded" markers representing..."). Good times. But thanks to the modern magic of the interweb and the folks at Board Game Geek the rules and accompanying articles in Moves magazine are still available.

Search and Destroy is a board game in which each counter represents a single squad. Typically two companies will face off. The goal of the game is to score points- the American scores by collecting hidden caches of weapons and records, and by not being decimated in the process. The NVA player wins if they inflict casualties on the Americans and defend the caches.

Analog Game Tools
The designer took those basic criteria and made them period appropriate. Americans score fully if they can confirm the casualties, either being inflicting them at close range or through after action policing. The Americans score less if the casualties are inflicted through air or artillery, and further, the NVA Get points each time air and artillery are used. In essence, the American player can score a military victory with lavish air and artillery and still lose politically- and politics is the currency for victory in this game.

There are some further design tweaks. The NVA operate in blinds and until they are "searched" the American is unsure whether a counter represents decoys, troops, or peasants. NVA can also "hide" which essentially turns a known unit back into a blind. And as one could imagine killing peasants is politically damaging to either side.

The end result is that the Americans command a huge amount of firepower but have to be cautious in how they use it. The NVA can use hit and run tactics but in the end have to defend or distract to protect their weapons caches. The rules include fixed wing and rotary air, helidrops, antiaircraft fire, interrogations, and medics. I'm looking forward to playtesting them and running the game (hopefully) at Huzzah!.

For more information look on Board game Geek for more reviews, lists of related articles in Moves, and some helpful images. Phil Kosnett's article in Moves #23 is pretty essential, and has some critical errata.