Tiger Leader Review

Solitaire wargames occupy a special place in our hobby. On the one hand, being able to sit down away from the noise of modern life to escape into a tabletop game experience, whether narrative, systems focused, or even just an examination of history, can be a relaxing and almost meditative experience. On the other hand, I know plenty of wargamers who are turned off by the transparency of the randomness of a lot of solitaire games, or who don’t enjoy some of the contraints placed on players to make engaging against an artificial opponent more of a challenge.

When it comes to reviewing a solitaire only game I try to come at it from at least three angles. First, will solitaire wargamers like this? Second, will this do anything to change the minds of those who dont? Finally, what about those who have never tried one? Is it friendly enough to newcomers?

Tiger Leader, from Dan Verssen Games, is my first exposure to the ‘Leader’ system of solitaire wargames and is definitely a good first impression, even if there are some systemic foibles and strange errors that irked me as I played. But what of the three types of gamers above? Who is Tiger Leader for? Let’s dig in, shall we?

What Kind of Game is Tiger Leader?

Tiger Leader is a solitaire wargame in which the player takes control of a Wehrmacht kampfgruppe and leads them through a campaign of World War Two. After selecting a campaign and performing some initial set up, the gameplay loop of Tiger Leader sees players building a kamfgruppe including infantry, AFVs, and artillery, recruiting officers to lead these units, and then committing them to battles on a weekly basis to overcome enemy brigades. After the set number of weeks, the campaign ends (barring an auto fail) and the total score of the player’s victories are added up to see how well they’ve done.

Throughout the weeks of a campaign players will have to manage the spending of campaign points, deal with the abstract movements of enemy units, fight tactical battles on a hexagonal map, and manage the stress and experience points of officers. It’s a detailed system without being overwhelming, and it keeps players on their toes from start to finish. I quickly became fond of how the different systems of combat and management come together to offer an entertaining roleplaying wargame experience.

To break it down, the real focus of the game is managing your kampfgruppe. After selecting the campaign and mission(setting the parameters for the battles of that campaign) players are given a set of resource points to spend on officers, units, and extras like trucks and scouting capabilities. There are a ton a vehicles in the base game, so I always felt like I was spoiled for choice. Playing through the Poland campaign for instance, I was happy to be able to choose a 38(t), a Panzer II, and a Stug to support my infantry.

Each unit has its own stats for anti-personnel and anti-armour attacks, defense, movement, special rules governing movement, attacking, and stress. These stats interact with the stats of the officers that lead them. Officers begin with different skill levels ranging from recruit to legendary. Each level has different modifiers for firing, speed of action, stress thresholds, and special rules (more on those later).

Each week players divide their forces into smaller groups to attack some number of enemy brigades. Resources will be stretched very thin, and more often than not players will have to throw their units against numerically superior forces. You are the tip of the spear after all. Battles are time limited, and victory only really comes from destroying the enemy brigade.

COMBAT! and MANAGEMENT!

During Each week’s battles, a randomized set of terrain hexes are laid out to represent the battlefield. In the base game these tiles are either clear or contain soft or hard cover. There is a lot of variety, with different tiles representing Europe, north Africa, or the Russian winter. I appreciate that battles can have wildly different layouts that will obviously impact tactics as players are going to be spending a lot of time on these maps. An issue I encountered was that the manual indicated that terrain should have a visual indicator as to which level of cover a hex provides, but none of that existed on my hexes. I decided to go with ‘forests’ as light cover and ‘built up areas’ as heavy cover.

Combat itself is an interesting puzzle. Players only have five turns (unless scouts are purchased to add a turn) to destroy enough enemy units to remove the brigade from the campaign. Enemy Brigades have a threshold of damage they can take before they become understrength, offering up some victory points and reducing their capabilities. A second threshold, denoting a destroyed status, gives up the rest of the points and eliminates them from the game. Making sure your forces can do enough damage in five turns to reduce or destroy a brigade is a difficult prospect, as each brigade will have its own spread of units and its own special rules, and players will have to take on multiple brigades a week to keep up with the campaign’s demands.

Combat basics involve getting in range, rolling dice, and inflicting casualties when hits are scored and defenses overcome. Player forces will be overwhelmed, but this is balanced somewhat by how damage is modeled. Every time a friendly unit takes a hit, a random chit is pulled from a cup with some type of damage (or rarely, a miss) printed on it. Enemies go down in one successful hit. The damage that friendly units receive persist and must be taken care of in between battles by spending points or using officer abilities.

Enemies act according to a chart that breaks down units into groups and has them move according to a die roll and their options. Tanks are more likely to charge forward into combat range while mortars are content to stay back and support with indirect fire. I found the system believable and fun. A good enemy roll would see them aggressively take ground, but after they had suffered significant damage, the dice were more likely to force a cautious withdrawal to covered positions. Being able to model this with one dice roll is great, as anything that reduces overhead while playing solitaire is good in my books.

Your own units are interesting to manage. Often less skilled units will have penalties to defense, or add significant stress when forced to move and fire. Deciding when to take these hits to do an aggressive push of your own is a fun challenge. But exposing troops to enemy fire can be deadly, especially for officers.

Officers are a core part of the game’s strategy. They add special rules to the units they lead, add modifiers, and sometimes allow units to move before the enemy. They can be wounded, killed, or acquire stress as the result of enemy hits, but making it through a mission also offers experience points that see your officers grow from mission to mission, leveling up and changing their stats. It’s a great bit of progression that makes the campaigns come alive, and make it hurt even more when an officer dies to a single hit, forcing you to cross out their names on the ledger and bring in a low level replacement. Such is war.

It’s not perfect though, some officers have literally useless skills. An infantry officer that gives indirect fire to a unit will never be applicable, as the only infantry unit with more than one hex firing range already has an indirect fire rule, for example. It’s little things like this that make me think a bit more playtesting and proofreading should have gone into Tiger Leader.

Final Thoughts

Tiger Leader is fun. A lot of fun, actually. It manages to cram a lot of interesting decisions into almost every segment of a campaign’s gameplay, from spending on units, assigning forces to combats, carrying out those combats, and how to spend precious resources to recoup after combat. There’s enough content and different campaigns, missions, special events, and units to offer plenty of replayability. The core system is easy to learn, and the game doesn’t take up too much tablespace.

Component quality is also quite nice, with the map, cards, counters and hex map pieces all sturdy, easy to read, and easy to organize. Once a campaign is up and running, there is very little overhead, and I love that.

That being said. It’s not perfect. There are a lot of little errors here and there in the manual and in how units and officers interact. A lot more playtesting and proofreading could have done away with these issues. Tiger Leader is also not a simulation, as I hope you gathered from the above descriptions. It is much more a puzzle and narrative experience wrapped in a fun military setting. You’ll have a lot more fun charting the progress of your officers, repairing vehicles, watching infantry upgrade from raw to veteran, and seeing how the game reacts to your decisions than you will trying to properly replicate blitzkrieg actions. I feel solitaire wargamers will appreciate the way the systems interact to provide a engaging experience, but I’m not sure it will win over players who aren’t into the idea of a solitaire game. I would encourage those who haven’t tried solitaire games to give this one a go. It was much easier to get into than some others I’ve played.

What About Solitaire?

I said I would include these sections for every game, but yes, Tiger Leader is a pretty great solitaire experience. I bet if would even work coop, if the player spending is divided and two players each build up a portion of the kampfgruppe to send into actions. In fact, I might try to do a game like that with my wife at some point.

Will Tiger Leader Stay On My Shelf?

Yes! The problems I had with the game rarely detract from the actual play of it, and I find it creates the sort of narrative solitaire experiences I like. While I will dig out GMT’s Fields of Fire periodically, I see Tiger Leader getting more table time because it manages to deliver narratively without being quite so involved. It’s the action movie, not the documentary.

When deciding if Tiger Leader will be something you’re interested in, you’ll have to understand that it isn’t perfect, isn’t a simulation, and has some sloppy editing and playtesting. But beyond those issues, Tiger leader is a fun, easy going, narrative puzzle game that will see you sighing in relief as your favourite officer gets off with only a wound, and cursing as your Panzer IV goes up in smoke after a single lucky shell.

THANK YOU to DVG for sending Let’s Talk About Wargames a copy of Tiger Leader for review!

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Valor & Victory Digital Review

As mentioned before, Valor & Victory is my current favourite squad level board wargame. It’s basically Squad Leader’s laid back and easy going little brother, and I’m finding myself more and more drawn to that kind of game when it comes to an afternoon of wargaming with friends. Maybe it’s the pandemic? Who knows?

In Valor & Victory, there are only a handful of rules to hammer down before diving in, but the system is robust enough to capture the fire and movement feel of WWII squad level tactics: Machine guns can wreak havoc and create fire lanes, pinning is essential on the assault, tanks can provide amazing support but can also fall victim to close infantry attack and AT guns. It’s not the most detailed game, and not the most accurate simulation, but it manages to convey what it should in games that take around 45 minutes for the experienced player. So, you know my feelings going in. That said, I’m not 100% sold on the digital version.

Valor & Victory Basics

Valor & Victory is a tactical game in which both players control leaders, squads, teams, AT Guns, and vehicles from the US, UK, and Germany fighting over geomorphic hexagonal boards representing Northern France. Each nation has a few types of squads at their disposal. The US for example has infantry, Rangers, and Airborne, each with slightly different profiles. Squads and teams can be equipped with heavy weapons and explosives that further specialize units.

Each scenario has one of three objectives: Capture key hexes, eliminate enemy units, or exit units from the board at certain spaces. The variety is there and its nice to see how far the game can take these victory conditions. But keep them in mind, they’ll become important to my frustrations with Valor & Victory.

On a given turn, one side performs a suite of actions before the opponent does the same. The command phase allows for rallying, joining and breaking down of squads, and the transfer of equipment. The Fire phase is for firing, and precludes later movement. Then movement, which can be interrupted by enemy reaction fire. Then enemy defensive fire, in which units that didn’t react fire can shoot. Then there is a final assault-move phase in which every friendly unit can move one hex. If this brings them into an occupied hex, an assault occurs.

Whether or not fire hits comes down to the roll of two dice. The total firepower of all the selected units in a hex is calculated, the dice are rolled, and the result is cross referenced to see how many casualties are taken. One casualty can be converted into a pin, but the rest need to be taken as losses.

Overall its a great system, especially on the tabletop. The simple calculation works to keep the game flowing, and there is just enough granularity to make interesting tactical choices the name of the game. On the PC though, the simplicity hurts the overall package, highlighting some of Valor & Victory’s biggest problems.

Valor & Victory Digital is…Good…If You All Make it Good.

There is a lot to like about the system, and the digital adaptation has promise, but the issue is that it depends entirely on how the community reacts to the launch, and how committed they are to mutliplayer and to scenario creation.

Here’s Valor & Victory’s goods:

The game is authentic. If you want a digital, multiplayer version of Valor & Victory that lets you play with friends across the country. You’re in luck. It does that and does it perfectly. The included scenarios are fun with friends and overarching system does what the V&V does, but it does automate some things like casualty application and defensive fire that some might want control over.

The scenario editor is great. Really, it’s fast, intuitive, and you’ll be cranking out modified ASL scenarios in no time. If the community steps up we could have a treasure trove of interesting scenarios in no time. Editors can set victory conditions, add history, deploy units and equipment, and choose from all of the included map boards in a variety of layouts.

Here are the not goods:

The AI is not great. In multiple games that I played, they barely moved. Or when they moved they did so haphazardly, dancing back and forth between positions. When the AI is tasked with taking objectives, they very rarely make decisive efforts to cross open ground, preferring to stand in cover and fire. Reasonable move to make, I suppose, but not when doing so will lose you the game. The AI is also a little wonky with its target selection. You can very easily bait anti-tank weapons to fire at infantry if they’re closer/more exposed than tanks.

The AI is better at defense, when the game becomes an exercise is how best to minimize casualties as you push towards objectives. The AI lacks a good deal of the reactive ability of a human opponent, and while I get it, AI is difficult, I was still saddened to see them put up such light resistance.

Valorous, Not Quite a Victory

The core is good! Really! If you’re going to play with friends, and if you’re going to engage with the scenario creator, Valor & Victory is great. If you’re looking for a single player board game experience, its not stellar. There is potential for updates, I believe, but I’m very optimistic to see what fans of the game will do with the resources available to them when they get their hands on it.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Valor & Victory has a solid foundation built upon a great boardgame, and the included multiplayer and scenario editor are worth checking out. The AI is not great, which limits single player enjoyment.

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At the Height of Battle: Quick Rules Review

A little while ago my wife and I actually managed to get our new miniatures from MT Miniatures onto the tabletop for a little skirmish. We haven’t really had the time to do any proper research into any historical engagements during the Imjin War, so we stuck with the tried and true method of dividing our forces and going in for the kill.

At the Height of Battle is a relatively simple rule set covering naval actions in East Asian waters in the middle ages. The starter kit that we purchased (unboxing here, painting here) had ships for the Imjin War, Japan’s fateful attempt to invade China through the Korean Peninsula.

I love simple, easy to play rulesets. I find that I have more fun when I have to worry less about granular details, especially given how busy I am these days. So bear in mind that I have that bias going into the explanation.

At the beginning of each turn both players work out the command phase, which handles morale, sinking ships, and other housekeeping. Then its on to the activations. At the Height of Battle uses a set of three cards per side that act as an initiative deck.

When your side’s card is drawn, you are free to move and fire with each unit under your control. Units are divided into squadrons with a flagship. There are rules to keep squadrons together, which help keep games looking fairly accurate, and highlight the chaos when a flagship is taken out of the action. Movement is either done by sail or oar, (or in some special cases by paddle) and is a simple system of pivoting by degrees and moving in inches. The wind must be taken into account when using sail movement, but we found that it was often more economical to use oars.

When it comes to shooting, ships have both heavy artillery, representing major armaments like catapults and cannons, and light artillery representing small arms. Each ship can fire its heavy artillery only once a turn, but can fire small arms each activation. Both have different bonuses to the opposed die that makes up combat, and successes will deal different amounts of damage, with heavy artillery more likely to deal significant damage.

It’s a good system, but we ran into one snag during our test games. Ships took “crew casualties” far too often. After the first “crew casualties” result, which halves boarding ability, further “crew casualties” results don’t do anything. So we found that almost every ship took this initial hit and then slapped at each other with boarding actions until one side took the win at the opposed die roll. Our proposed house rule is to continue halving boarding ability, rounding down, until it hits zero, for each subsequent “crew casualties” result.

When a fleet has taken half casualties, they roll for morale, given the rating of their commander, and might be forced to flee. There are plenty of other rules for ground batteries, shallow waters, capturing enemy vessels, etc. Everything you’d like to see in a quick play naval rule set.

Overall we had fun, and with the minor adjustment to crew casualties, we think we’ll be playing this one again in the future. Now I just need to do some research, and go back for more ships!

Joe

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Good, clean ruleset that offers a fun and light wargaming experience, with some minor tweeks to make it work better for us. As a complete package, At the Height of Battle is a great buy to dip your toes in miniature naval wargaming.

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Field of Glory 2: Medieval: Reconquista Review

The 11th Century to the 13th Century. A very tumultuous time in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa, as Christians and Muslims fight each other tooth and nail for the lands that now make up Spain and Portugal. Elsewhere, the Byzantine Empire expands its influence to Italy, battling the Papal States and other, smaller kingdoms in a bid to “reconquer” what had been Roman land, and that the Byzantines view as their own. Simultaneously, Norman adventurers, harkening upon their Viking heritage, arrive in Italy, looking to make fortunes and claim titles for themselves. 

Field of Glory 2 is, as we’ve talked about before, an excellent turn-based wargame, pitting mid-medieval era units against each other in big bloody battles that seem to always turn into hellish melees. While this is not always the case for the period, it’s very fun to play! And delightfully, Reconquista gives us more to play with in the period. Mentioned above are the hotspots featured in the DLC, but what’s particularly exciting (other than the fact that I get to play as the Byzantine army, who are incredibly cool in the period) is that there are a whole 20 new nations and 45 new army lists in this DLC. Holy crap, Slitherine!

You can find the full list of army lists on the Steam page, but there are several army lists here that have may differences from their northwestern European counterparts. For starters, yes, heavy cavalry is still king, but you see more variances on it than you would up north. Several of the Arab tribes have access to camelry (yes that is the real word) units, which are excellent anti-cavalry units, because as we all know, horses are terrified of camels. As a fun effect, the camels can also disorder friendly cavalry units as well, so any camelry heavy armies should make sure to keep their dromedaries and their horses a healthy distance from each other.

The Arab armies also typically have access to massed archer units, which can rain down much larger quantities of arrows than their Christian counterparts. Curiously, some of the Arab spearmen units had a description saying “mix of spearmen and archers” but the unit was 100% spearmen with no ranged element. I’m not sure whether this is intentional, to represent the cooperative nature of the Arab archer elements in the army, or if it was an oversight. A bit disappointing, as the Byzantines do have infantry units with ranged elements built in. You can quickly see why my army of choice was so feared in the period, with units typically able to whittle down their opponents a fair amount before any engagement even occurs, though the fact that half the unit has the “bow-capability” tag means that they aren’t the best in prolonged engagements.

I could continue to talk about the Byzantine army list for the rest of this review, but I would be doing the DLC a disservice if I didn’t bring up the new campaigns and battles. There are 4 new campaigns and 8 new battles in the Reconquista DLC, seeing action in Iberia and Italy, with loads of different combatants. The campaigns follow the careers of El Cid (Spanish for “The Cid”), Frederick II Hohenstaufen (the Holy Romans loved invading Italy), Muhammad II of Granada (founder of the last Muslim state in Spain), and the Norman de Hauteville clan (the aforementioned Norman adventurers). I haven’t played through each campaign yet, but there is a lot of variety with what scenarios you encounter and the maps you see.

I still have a particular fondness for the dynamic campaign tool of FOG2M, as it enables the player to follow a narrative and make decisions in between battles, and it continues as my favorite piece of Reconquista. As far as i can tell, Reconquista did nothing to change it other than to add some biomes and the army lists from the DLC, but being able to set up a 9 battle campaign where you take your Byzantine army against Andalusians and fight off Lombard reinforcements from seizing a fort you took on the previous campaign step is some marvelous gameplay. Especially nice is the fact that the new army lists also play nice with the time warp lists, so you can have your 550 BC Achaemenid Persians fight your 1200 AD Byzantines for the glory of Asia Minor.

So, should you get this DLC? Definitely. Reconquista adds a lot to the base game of Field of Glory 2 Medieval. None of the base components of the game are changed, but that’s perfectly fine; if it ain’t broke, etc. $20 for an expansion can seem a bit steep, but with the sheer amount of content in the DLC, you will definitely find something in here that tickles your fancy if you’re a fan of the base game. Do yourself a favor and grab this.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull

Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad

I’ve been putting off this review for a long time. The fact of the matter is that this reviewer gets no pleasure from writing poor reviews. All the more so when it’s a game I really should have liked. A bit like Operation Blue itself, somewhere along the operation Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad loses its way.

I remember playing the original Cauldrons of War “concept”. It was barely even a tech demo. You set the stance of your various fronts, clicked next turn and somehow it turned into one of the most convincing portrayals of the Eastern Front I’d played. 

Fast forward, past Cauldrons of War: Barbarossa, and we are presented with Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad. It really should be a match made in heaven. The Red Army is no longer the Stumbling Colossus of 1941 and cracks are beginning to show in the Wehrmacht. Over 1942 perhaps one of the greatest military dramas of all time will play out across the Eastern Front. Glimmers of that drama shine through in Stalingrad’s portrayal of the fighting, that they remain only glimmers.

For the uninitiated, Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad portrays the Eastern Front at the strategic level with a scope equivalent to Gary Grigsby’s: War in the East. The player commands all frontline forces and directs the operations of Army Groups, smaller operational groups and fronts. Eschewing hex grids, Cauldrons of War focusses upon the big picture, creating an Eastern Front made up of various regions that change as the frontlines ebb and flow. Units are assigned to those regions answering to the higher command in charge of that area. Each HQ, whether it be an Army Group or front, has a limited amount of command points that it uses to direct the units below it. This limitation means that players must be very careful in choosing what units will do what.

These fundamentals are a strong base for Cauldrons of War. The limited command points lead to some very careful thinking on the player’s part. Furthermore, it also keeps the game moving. Too often information overload make these games very difficult to learn. The limited ability of the player to give orders in Cauldrons however means that the game moves quickly and focusses the decision-making to a few crucial orders rather than busywork.

So far, so good, unfortunately Cauldrons of War’s lightning advance through the fundamentals begins to falter as it heads deeper into the actual gameplay. For a start, the game’s writing does it no favours. It might seem like a small thing, but in such an abstract game writing is a critical part of how one becomes immersed in the unfolding story. The quite crude English only serves to remind you that you’re playing a game, rather than the gaming equivalent of a serious but approachable history book. It’s altogether a shame.

Then there’s the gameplay itself. The tutorial is adequate – at best – and if you miss or forget something the in-game wiki is quite unfit for purpose. Time and again I would try to find out what a “Grand Offensive” or a “Breakthrough” was. To me it seemed like another kind of attack.  All I seemed to do however was take away a command point for no gain. Eventually, I worked out it represents the overarching plan that your units will follow. It makes sense; but mixed up with all the other options – many of which also were along the lines of “attack” – it simply became annoying.

Fighting the interface is something of a theme with Cauldrons. Its issues run deeper than just game knowledge. With how limited command points are and how your units are assigned to different regions, making your decisions straightforward and transparent is vital. Cauldrons fails here, with the regions your units are assigned to difficult to identify through the interface. Your only option is to continuously click between the map and the HQ you are giving orders to make sure your units are going where they supposed to. For the Germans, who have less HQs than the Soviets, this is a particular problem, with Army Group South having up to a dozen regions under its direction. I want to fight the fascists/commies, not the interface.

The final weakness of Cauldrons however is one of perspective. When playing Fall Blau from either side, whose role am I playing? Am I equivalent to the Stavka or the OKW or one of the dictators themselves? Time and again I found myself asking these questions as one of the many pre-scripted decisions and events appeared at the beginning of a turn. It made little sense, with next to no resources available to the Stalingrad Front to commence its attack, for Zhukov should turn up with a wagonload of command points and a single extra army to begin operations. It’s true that many, often futile, attacks were launched on the flanks of the 6th Army’s push toward Stalingrad during the period – but it strikes me that that should be the player’s decision to cock up, rather than a scripted event. The way HQ command points are handled are equally irritating. I, as commander of all forces on the Eastern Front, able to launch night attacks on a whim, have no ability to influence what resources a HQ has available to it. Likewise, not all HQ actions are created equal. Stalingrad Front, whose fellow fronts are ordering entire armies to make massive assaults outside Moscow, will instead use all its resources for the week ferrying two divisions across the Volga. It would not be unreasonable for the Volga flotilla to use up all the week’s resources pushing two divisions across the Volga – but an entire front?

Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad is a fine achievement and, in many areas, plausibly and skilfully abstracts the enormous complexity of the Eastern Front. It is clear that the developer has done his homework and I especially enjoyed reading his explanations for many of the design decisions within the game. Many aspects work well and it was a nail-biting pleasure to see my panzers reach the Caspian Sea, even as their flanks collapsed around them. Unfortunately, abstraction is a double-edged sword. Time and again I felt I wasn’t fighting the enemy so much as the game. It is a problem Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad does not recover from.

-Charles Ellis

Unity of Command II – Barbarossa Review

Ah, Unity of Command 2, my old friend. I’ve written about Unity of Command 2 before, as well about Unity of Command 2’s first DLC, Blitzkrieg, and I was very pleased for the chance to play more of this excellent WW2 turn-based wargame. Bottom line up front: if you didn’t like Unity of Command 2, there’s nothing new here that would change your mind (unless you’re a really big Wehraboo, gross). If you did like Unity of Command 2, you should definitely check out Barbarossa, as it’s a better realized German experience than Blitzkrieg, while still delivering a similar style of action to what fans are used to.

Barbarossa’s premise is familiar to any WW2 gamer at this point: the Germans launched the largest land invasion in history into the USSR, using surprise blitzkrieg tactics to punch holes through Soviet forces with the goal of reaching and seizing Moscow (as well as other key points) before winter came around. Barbarossa follows the historical path here, with the goal in the most of scenarios you face being to push hard against the defenses of the Red Army and seize key logistical points, generally by exploiting weaknesses in their lines and shoving mechanized units through the gaps.

Unity of Command’s logistical system is the star of the game, and that continues to be the case in Barbarossa, even moreso than in the base game, I’d argue. So many of the cities and other objectives you need to capture are very, very far from your forces at the start of the scenario. Your forces need to maintain a supply network in order to remain fighting capable through their stampede across Eastern Europe, and to do so, need to seize rail lines across the maps. I really can’t emphasize enough how important this is, keeping the railways open, because the terrain is not conducive to supplying units far from the railways, and you don’t have time to waste. Many of the maps are designed that it can be extremely difficult to get infantry units to the end objectives by the time limit, even without fortified enemies to slow them down. You’ll depend on your armored units smashing paths clear, and your infantry running behind them to keep things clear and finish off encircled opponents.

This gameplay loop is very satisfying, and the maps are designed in such a way to encourage envelopments of enemy forces, with many natural chokepoints enabling a sneaky general to cut off the enemy’s supply easily… but you can also get cut off easily yourself. Like I said, maintaining the supply lines is vital, so you’ll frequently find yourself playing maneuver games with enemy forces on rail lines, both of you trying to keep it open for your side. Managing to overcome an enemy armored division to complete the encirclement of an enemy army is one of digital wargaming’s best feelings in recent years, and that is Unity of Command 2 distilled.

On the campaign layer, Barbarossa plays largely similarly to the Blitzkrieg campaign, albeit with much more army groups than I remember in Blitzkrieg. You’ll end up juggling points between seven different Army HQs, all of which need investment to achieve peak efficiency. The HQs are slow, and should be prioritized to increase range for your units, given the size of the maps and the speed of your armored columns. There’s another big wrinkle in the addition of the new “Blitzkrieg Command” card, which refreshes the command points for an HQ on a turn. Handy if you’ve invested in your HQs, but it’s easy to overlook them and to have largely ineffectual HQs.

This can be a bother after the initial scenarios, and particularly on any ahistorical scenarios; these tend to be more difficult than the historical scenarios, and it’s somewhat easy to achieve bonus objectives that unlock the harder scenarios in the early missions. However, going down these routes, you will then end up facing some really tough situations, in my opinion. The ahistorical routes, as in the other campaign, provide stiff challenges to the player. I recommend sticking to the historical route on your first play of any Unity of Command 2 campaign, Barbarossa included.

I don’t actually have any negative things to say about Barbarossa, any reservations I have about the game are limitations from Unity of Command 2’s engine. My chief complaint is that units are still unable to travel via rail, which would be realistic and provide infantry units a way to catch up to the quickly advancing armor columns. This small gripe, however, is the only thing that bothers me about Unity of Command 2. The game and its DLCs (Barbarossa included) continue to be some of the best and most accessible games for the wargaming crowd of late. If you like turn-based strategic games, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull

Warplan: Pacific Review

Often when I talk about digital wargames I think about how can I classify them to help give readers a quick sense of what to expect. Sometimes trying to pinpoint the right word or phrase is difficult, sometimes I have no trouble at all. Warplan: Pacific falls into the latter camp. This is a digital board wargame. Think of everything you like and don’t like about pulling out your favourite larger than average board wargame and Warplan: Pacific has it. All of it.

Ok, It’s A Boardgame, But Really What Is It?

Warplan: Pacific is an operational level wargame covering the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. This includes every major nation involved from December 1941 to September 1945. There is also a good Second Sino-Japanese War scenario that ends where the Pacific War begins. The map is large, with 80km per hex, and units generally at the division level. The object of the game is as grand as its scale. The Allies must force Japan to surrender, and Japan must hold on until the clock runs out.

With a game of this scale players are covering pretty much everything, from island hopping, to trade interdiction, to jungle fighting in Burma, and the massive slog across China. There are a number of generic units for each land, sea, and air, with the ability to customize some as the game goes on, giving units engineering or dedicated anti-tank attachments, for example.

On each turn, players will be spending their unit’s operation points to move and fight, track trade routes and logistics, and manage resources to build new units for later in the war. Battles can happen on land, in the air, or at sea and the factors that influence combat are fairly straight forward, and an odds calculator helps keep things in perspective.

Warplan: Pacific has pretty much everything I expect a game like this to have, but for some reason, it just didn’t really click with me. When playing for this review, I found myself doing a few turns and then saving and quitting. There was nothing overtly wrong or uncomfortable with the game. In fact I like most of its systems. But for some reason the spark was just never really there. I’ll try to get into it below. But be assured that I spent a long time thinking about why that might be for me personally, and it may not apply to you.

Warplan: Pacific Is Good, But Maybe Not Great?

First and probably most importantly for something reading this and considering picking Warplan: Pacific up. It is a good game, and an understandable one, but it requires work.

There is no proper tutorial in Warplan: Pacific, instead the Second Sino-Japanese War scenario doubles as an intro scenario. But the truth is, this is a game for which the manual is required reading. No reasonable amount of play will allow you to divine that attacks under 4:1 odds are risky, that DD units placed on convoy routes have a 12 hex radius for protection, or the tricky system for committing and supporting naval landings. I know I’m not a genius tactician by any stretch, but it took me three restarts at the Second Sino-Japanese War scenario, reading the manual to figure things out as I went, before I was comfortable with jumping into the main scenario. I don’t really think that is a good intro to any game.

Now that isn’t to say that Warplan: Pacific is needlessly obtuse. Once you learn what everything means and how it interacts (again, a lot of front-loaded reading) almost everything is there in game for your consideration. The information on each token is digestible. There are a variety of settings for what information is displayed on counters. The Build, Convoy, Report, and Combat Log tabs have pretty much everything you’ll need to understand what’s happening on a given turn. The map is readable, and moving units and attacking is a piece of cake. I even think that Warplan: Pacific has one of the nicer systems for visually displaying enemy movement and combats in the previous turn, supplemented by the very handy Combat Log.

The AI is competent, at least on the defensive. The game recommends playing the full campaign as the allies because the AI struggles to manage all the Allies’ units late in the war. While I have encountered the AI make some overly aggressive plays, like throwing tons of units into my entrenched and supported units along the Irrawaddy or getting their subs sunk in well protected convoys, for the most part they are a worthy adversary. They try to make encirclements and cut supply lines on land at least, and know when to push against tiring or weakening units along the line. I’m perfectly content playing against it, at any rate.

The boardgame qualities shine through with the simplicity of the overall system and what players can do on a turn. There is no counter stacking, HQ units automatically give a bonus to friendly units. Naval counters are just organized by their lead ship type (so a CV counter instead of counters for each ship that would normally accompany a carrier) and aircraft can be on either Mission mode or Support mode. Supply and Logisitics are just as important, but they function like boardgame supply, with units tracing a line that is reduced over rough terrain back to a supply zone. This means a turn is completeable in a decent amount of time. No three hour turn one here. Things are abstracted yes, but not in a way that I feel hurts the game.

So…What’s my problem? Why doesn’t it click for me? I love the setting, I have several actual boardgames that cover this period. It just… doesn’t do it for me. It’s good. It does everything I want a game like it to do. I was nonplussed that I had to read the entire manual cover to cover to feel like I could make the most of the game, but that generally ends up happening for most wargames these days still. (Still don’t think it should!)

I think Warplan: Pacific is exactly the right game for some. Perhaps I need to give it another shot after some time away, but for now I’ll be taking a break from Warplan: Pacific. I think it’s good. I really do. Maybe you’ll think it’s great?

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Warplan: Pacific is a solid operational wargame with a good boardgame-like feel. There is a lot of required reading, but afterwards the game flows well and players have a lot to work with. It’s definitely a good game.

-Joe Fonseca

Slitherine provided a review copy of Warplan: Pacific. You can find the game here: Warplan: Pacific. LTAW earns nothing if you buy Warplan: Pacific from this link.

Blitzkrieg 1940: Hannut et Stonne Review

This was my first wargame magazine purchase a few years ago. my FLGS had a slightly dinged up box in the clearance section for a very good price, and as I was just getting into board wargames, I thought I’d take the plunge. It took quite a while to actually get the game on the table, and a little longer to figure out how to even play it correctly, but it served as a functional entry point to chit pull systems and some of the basics of wargaming like command, counter reduction, and CRTs.

Now that I’m on a reviewing quest its time to go back, give the magazine another glance, and give Blitzkrieg 1940 a couple plays to see if it will make the cut and earn a permanent space on the shelf.

What Kind of Game is Blitzkrieg 1940?

I spoiled it a little above, but Blitzkrieg 1940 is a two player chit pull wargame covering the Battle of Hannut and the Battle of Stonne in Belgium and France in 1940. The emphasis is on tank versus tank combat and gives the French some much deserved attention.

This is a very straight forward small counter wargame, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you just want a good old fashioned simulation, and this is the kind of game Blitzkrieg 1940 tries to be. Units have attack values, armour/defense values, movement values, and range values printed on their counters, and instead of NATO symbols there are pictorial representations of the leading element of a unit. I prefer this to NATO in almost everything but massive table hogs where recognizing units at a glance is easier with the symbols, but I understand where the preference for universal symbols comes from.

On a given turn players pull chits associated with different formations from a cup, but there are some fun little things that change up the formula. A replay token allows a formation to act a second time at the cost of exhaustion, and a general token allowed for the use of multiple units if some activation tokens were held in reserve. Artillery and air support, where applicable, was also in the cup ready to be drawn at the most opportune moment.

Combat, both firing and close assault were simple to work out, with combat in general being less deadly and more about suppressing and forcing retreats. The stars of each force are the tank units of course, and there are little shifts to the combat resolution when tanks have to deal with moving along through rough ground. There are a lot of little touches like this in Blitzkrieg 1940 that I like. I appreciate that using road movement for vehicles required sacrificing combat power by forcing tank units into a column.

So, Is It fun?

In general, yes. My wife and I enjoyed playing Blitzkrieg 1940. The mechanics are straight forward, the chit pull system simulates some battlefield chaos but allows for potential to control that chaos, and each battle offers a different type of game.

There’s really not much to say about it. I wish units were slightly more effective at destroying one another, in Stonne especially control of the town went back and forth repeatedly (which I admit is historically accurate and probably fine for 90% of players), and I wish the rules were laid out a little nicer. That’s it. I don’t have anything really earth shattering to reveal about Blitzkrieg 1940. I think it falls into the ‘more fun’ side of magazine games that I’ve managed to take a look at, but it really didn’t do anything so spectacularly that I feel the need to brag about it here. It’s a perfectly fine wargame. I bet someone who is especially interested in the period will get a bigger kick out of it, but for the rest, it’s perfectly playable.

I think the biggest issue is one that troubles a lot of smaller simulation games. Once you’ve played through each scenario once or twice, you’ve seen pretty much everything that Blitzkrieg has to offer. It does what it says on the tin but I don’t think that is enough for my wife and I to keep it in our regular rotation of wargames. It’s fun sure, but so are a lot of other games and I really don’t see anything spectacular here.

What About Solitaire?

Chit pull automatically makes a game more solitaire friendly, and since there is no hidden information I believe Blitzkrieg 1940 would work reasonably well as a solitaire game. The only issue comes from the ability to hold forces in reserve once they’re drawn from the cup. Setting up for killer combos will still be mitigated by the randomness of the cup draw, but the ability to manipulate how you use what comes out of the cup, while awesome for head to head, is kind of diminished in solitaire. Since everything else is perfectly serviceable, I feel the best case solitaire experience would be setting up one of the games, sitting down with a nice drink and the magazine, reading through the accompanying article, and then playing a game as a historical exercise. Absolutely a good time, but it feels like something that can only happen twice, once per scenario.

Will Blitzkrieg 1940 Stay on the Shelf?

No, unfortunately. The game is fun, but the lack of enduring replayability means that, in the verdant field that is my overstuffed shelf, this one really doesn’t have a place. It’s unfortunate, because I don’t think this is a bad game at all. It’s just a game that probably wont see much more table time, and for that reason I think it’s time to pass it on to someone else who might enjoy the scenarios at least a couple of times.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Perfectly serviceable chit draw wargame covering some less popular engagements. Great for a game or two, but by then everything to be discovered will be discovered.

Joe Fonseca

LTAW did not receive a review copy of this game. This was purchased. I cannot find a solid link to where to purchase it. My best guess would be through boardgamegeek’s Geek Market. Again, no affiliation. Or honestly just drop us a line and we can work something out if you really want a copy.

Stellaris: Nemesis Review

3.0 already? Stellaris has only been out for a few years, but we’ve just hit another large milestone, as the official third full version of the game released with a new DLC, as is Paradox’s wont. Nemesis brings some new and, in my opinion, greatly needed, changes to the late game, but there aren’t unfortunately many changes to the early game.

The free 3.0 update that came alongside Nemesis added, among other features, a new espionage system, somewhat similar to the system in Hearts of Iron 4. Essentially, an empire will know vague details about other empires in terms of scientific advancement, military strength, etc., based on the “Intel” level the empire has on them. Various things can give you more intel on other empires, but the main way to do so is to assign an envoy to an empire. That’s all in the free update.

Spooky business.

What Nemesis adds is the ability to use the envoy as a spy in the target empire. Based on the amount of time they’re placed in the other empire, the spy can embark on several missions against the other empire, varying from relatively harmless intelligence gathering to active sabotage of buildings and infrastructure. These missions all have difficulty levels, which is based on the encryption level of each empire involved, and you can use “assets” gained through missions or over time to help increase a mission’s success chance… there’s a fair amount of depth to this minigame.

Unfortunately though, as interesting as it is, it’s somewhat lackluster and a hassle to engage in. Most empires only have a few envoys, and the utility of using an envoy for espionage rather than to increase diplomatic weight or to bolster a Federation seems, to me, to be lesser. I want to note that I tend to play in larger, more crowded games, with many empires, so the effect of a single spy on one of 15-20 other empires isn’t as impactful as it might be for a player in smaller galaxies. It’s a shame because I like the system, but the reward for putting time and resources into it doesn’t measure up to what you’re missing out on. 

Space Geckos are always the equivalent to Civ’s Gandhi. Hate these dudes.

The other main features of Nemesis, however, are quite good. The “Become the crisis” or the Galactic Custodian role both deal with the end-game of Stellaris, and heavily change what that can look like through playthroughs. First: the “Become the Crisis” option. This option allows empires to take the place of the normal end-game crisis themselves. By taking one of the ascendancy perks through the Unity tree (which needs some TLC but that’s a discussion for another time), you can start down your own path to megalomaniacal interstellar supervillainy. Fun! The long and short of it is that you get “Menace” points for doing various dickish, bastardly, and otherwise evil acts, and with these points, you unlock various benefits over time, somewhat like the Federation tree, but for evil guys. Which you will be, if you follow this tree.

Being the crisis culminates in the player getting ships that can destroy stars, which they use to fuel a certain kind of doomsday weapon. If they charge it up, they win. This drives an interesting form of end-game conflict, where players would normally fight intergalactic hordes of eyeballs, evil robots, or ascendant empires, other empires (or you!) will now be the end-game Big Bad. It’s reminiscent of the very good “realm divide” feature from Total War: Shogun 2, where everyone hates you when you get strong enough. And you will indeed be strong if you follow this path successfully, as the empires that build up Menace get various bonuses that let them perform space genocide/ imperialism more efficiently. It’s a fitting climax to a game, and makes me wish other Paradox games had this kind of climax to campaigns. As a brief aside: I haven’t been able to play many full games of Stellaris since the release of the DLC, so I can’t comment on how likely the non-player empires are to take this path, but I had heard they might not be super likely to at this time, so keep that in mind.

Image shamelessly stolen from Stellaris Dev Diary 199 because I hate playing the bad guy.

The other big option is that of Galactic Custodian, sort of the “good guy” counterpart to becoming the crisis. Essentially, much like how the Galactic Community can elect Council Members, so too can the Galactic Community can nominate a Council Member to be Galactic Custodian. What this does is turn that empire into a super Council Member, or, as my nerdy historian brain likes to think of it, into a Cincinnatus. A temporary dictator, meant to directly counter crises (and indeed, AI are more likely to vote for someone to fill this spot during a crisis), and is given extra privileges to be able to do so. At first, this is limited to the ability to manipulate the voting period of the Galactic Community and the ability to build a Galactic Defense Force, which is like a Federation fleet but draws from the entire Community, rather than a single Federation. However, the Custodian can pass measures to increase their power and term limit, eventually making their seat indefinite. 

But why stop there? The Custodian can then proclaim a Galactic Imperium, with themselves as the head. This measure, if passed, grants many privileges to the now Emperor, who will become in many ways, the top dog of the Galaxy. All empires in the Galactic Community are still nominally independent, but the Emperor can propose strict laws on what relations member empires can have with each other. Of course, unhappy member empires can, with the new espionage tool, attempt to undermine imperial authority and spark a civil war over the Imperium, with the Galactic Community returning to the spotlight should the rebels succeed.
This kind of flavor is huge in spicing up the mid-late game of Stellaris matches, giving players more to either strive for, or be wary of. It promotes large, climactic, end-game conflicts that can tell a great story, and that is the driving factor of what makes grand strategy games so interesting: the stories told by the rise and fall of empires. With Nemesis, there are far more options than before for empires to both rise and fall. If you like freedom in your Stellaris games, get Nemesis.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull

Bloody Mohawk: The French and Indian War Review

Bloody Mohawk had the potential to fill an open space on my wargaming shelf permanently. As a small footprint, low counter density, rules light game covering the French and Indian War, it fulfills the beer and pretzels requirement to be the kind of game my wife and I keep around to fit in the filler game section of our collection. We formed quite the sophisticated (read: overly complicated) system of filler games versus main event games as part of this whole downsizing quest, and there are spaces that need filling as we like to change up the Fillers almost every time. Despite that, it seems as if Bloody Mohawk is doomed to be sold on. It was tough to arrive at this conclusion, but we did, and I’ll explain below.

How Does Bloody Mohawk Play?

Bloody Mohawk is an introductory wargame from Bill Molyneaux and published by Lock ‘n Load Publishing. Players control either the British or the French and their Native American allies as they complete a whopping twelve scenarios covering important and even legendary engagements from the French and Indian War.

Bloody Mohawk is an IGO/UGO system with phases. The first player will move, the second will fire defensively, the first will fire offensively, then switch. I appreciate the defensive fire/offensive fire system as it makes for more tactical decisions on both sides when maneuvering forces. It matters what targets you’re giving to your enemy before being able to shoot, and I like that.

Counters are diverse, from British grenadiers to French Courier de Bois, and some have special rules that add to the tactical depth of the game. A lot of French units, for example, have a green ‘F’ printed on their counter giving them free movement through woods. Native American allies are also given special rules to reflect their combat prowess. On the offensive, when the enemy is not behind defensive works, they are allowed to throw two dice and choose the best result. To offset this and represent less traditional drill, their reduced side has significantly less power.

Combat is simply a matter of throwing a 10 sided die for the unit attacking, adding and subtracting modifiers like terrain, leaders, scenario modifiers like rain, and in the case of cannons, range. Fall within the unit’s combat power range and a hit is scored. If a leader is present with the suffering unit, they have a 50% chance of going down with the hit, making the correct application of leaders something else interesting to think about. There are also rules for retreating after taking damage, and following up. All pretty basic wargaming stuff, but that makes sense considering this is meant to be a basic wargame, and it was a basic wargaming I was looking for when I picked it up way back.

So What’s my Problem?

The last time my wife and I sat down to play Bloody Mohawk, we went through scenarios one to six. (It is a fast playing game) Unfortunately, we found that only in two of the six scenarios did we really feel there was much of any game to be played.

The first scenario, for an example, is basically won in one turn with the roll of a single die. If the French unit survives the first turn attack, it has a chance of escaping. If not, it dies. Now I understand that this is a tutorial scenario to get complete non-wargamers used to the rules, but it carries on from there. The scenario involving the rescue of a child is also decided by one die roll. If her family is eliminated, the French can easily walk her off the map before the reinforcements have any opportunity to do anything. Similarly the inability of the French to fire on the first turn of the Sideling Hill scenario means that they will receive overwhelming fire before the French player can actually do anything.

I have no problem with lopsided scenarios. They’re a staple of interesting wargaming. I do have a problem with scenarios that don’t allow for one side or another to act. After doing some investigating it seems like the designer, Bill Molyneaux encourages players to alter scenarios however they like, and perhaps Bloody Mohawk’s many short scenarios would be better if I took the time to do that, but I just really don’t have the patience to rebalance a scenario to make it playable. I do understand that this is an intro level game meant in part for parents and children to play after discovering it on a trip to a local heritage site, but I question the validity of the scenarios that will leave on side doing very little thinking, or even dice rolling. Where a bit more decision making could have both sides playing the game, here a parent will basically have to sit back and let their child play the favoured side, or else risk a ‘Why bother? I don’t even get to act before you win.’

It’s a shame, because the larger scenarios can be fun. When there are enough units on both sides and the maps are large enough to allow for maneuver, there’s a fun beer and pretzels wargame here. But it’s less than half of the scenarios given in the book. If I just wanted to play Bloody Mohawk’s Plains of Abraham scenario (a fun one) I feel I’d be better served finding a game that does only that, but better.

Production Woes

Some of my major complaints however, come from the questionable production quality. On the surface, Bloody Mohawk looks great. The counters are clear and nicely illustrated. The maps have beautiful art, and the components in the published version are thick card and good quality chits. But that’s where it ends.

There are typos everywhere. Simple grammatical errors litter the rules and scenarios. There are errors in some scenario descriptions including a scenario objective to burn a camp with no hexes indicated and no visual on the map representing a camp. (We guessed it was the three clear hexes, but who knows?) Finally, for some reason, a unit’s combat value is listed as 1/x. 1/7 for French Line, for example. I could not figure out what the 1 was for. There was nothing about it in the rulebook. It turns out, after looking on BGG, that it represents the range on the die that indicates a hit. Apparently there was an issue for new gamers seeing a single digit and not understanding that one must roll beneath that number for a hit. Fair enough, that’s a perfectly valid reason to change the counters. But I cannot understand why it is not then written 1-7 instead of 1/7. Perhaps that is nitpicky, but I had to go look it up and that felt unnatural. It’s just a little sad again given this is a game meant to draw people into our hobby, that anyone paying for this will see some shoddy copy editing and strange design choices.

Solitaire Suitability?

Bloody Mohawk is a clean IGO/UGO system with no hidden information and dice based combat. It’s the perfect example of a nice light solitaire ruleset that anyone can lay out and crank out scenarios in a short time, if they have the mind to play both sides without any AI support. But, all of my balance and scenario issues stand, though I can understand that lopsided games, even if they are lopsided to the point of one side barely doing anything, are more fun solo. Playing solitaire can also give an opportunity to test out altering scenarios and devising house rules unhindered. Perhaps this really will shine as a solitaire experience if one goes in knowing there’s work to be done. It’s not my type, but I can see it.

Final Thoughts/Will it Stay on my Shelf?

Since I’m no longer comfortable buying Lock ‘n Load Publishing games, Bloody Mohawk might have ended up my only remaining game from them, but I think it’s tragic that a lot of the problems I have with the game comes from its unfortunately shoddy production, less so its content. Some real copy editing, some proper playtesting, and a few passes by quality control could have done a lot to make this game more enjoyable in the long term. I don’t want to fight a game or house rule things to make them work, but I can understand that some people greatly enjoy that aspect of the hobby and for them there is a nice canvas in Bloody Mohawk.

There is probably a fun game in there for a carefully curated attempt to get non-wargamers into the hobby, and I love the fact that this was developed for that audience and to be distributed at heritage sites to help get a younger generation into the idea of experiencing history though games. I’m just disappointed that it doesn’t feel like enough work went into making the product the best it could be. This is the first game I’ve reviewed for this little quest that I won’t be keeping, and I’m kind of sad I’m saying that. I’m sure it’s a great game for some people out there, but its definitely not for us in the long run.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Simple, clean wargaming hindered by shoddy production, poorly playtested scenarios, and heaps of typos. There is some fun in there, but with less than half of the scenarios providing a good gaming experience, the price, and the time required to house rule it, should be taken into consideration.

Joe Fonseca

I purchased Bloody Mohawk on my own with a discount. No review copy was provided. Here is a link to the game’s store page. LTAW makes nothing if you buy it. Bloody Mohawk from LnL