Saturday 21 August 2021

RAF: The Battle of Britain 1940 (Decision Games)

 September 6 1940

A hectic day with half a dozen raids, mostly focused on John's gaming shed near Canterbury. The Luftwaffe has been gunning for that shed since the start of their attempt to grind the RAF into the ground and pave the way for Operation Sealion. It was a good day for the RAF. Losses were low and enemy losses were high. And the shed was still standing despite a month of attempts to bomb it.

September 7 1940

My campaign was over. It had been hard fought, especially in the beginning, but the might of the Luftwaffe had been thrown back by the heroic pilots of Fighter Command just a few days after the Luftwaffe terror campaign had begun. In this version of reality, there was no Blitz. London was never even attacked. Kent was the real focus of the Luftwaffe's ire. I've no idea why I drew so many target cards for Kent, unless it really all was about the gaming shed after all.

I used to own the original version of this game many years ago, about the time it first came out. I played it a bit but never finished the whole campaign, and can only assume that I sold it somewhere along the way, although it is possible my mother's dog ate it, like it did to my copy of Hornet Leader. With the new version of the game in hand, and more time for gaming, I sat down a week ago to first learn the rules and then to play the campaign from the perspective of Fighter Command.

The rules were easy to follow, and it was simple to set the game up and learn by following the sequence of play. I then set up again to try the shorter campaign covering the first four raid days of the campaign (days on which raids happened). Things were looking bad after just those few raids but not hopeless, so I decided to continue the full campaign. As I gained experience with the game, things started getting better. I stopped trying to stop every raid, and started focusing on those where I thought I might do most damage. The Luftwaffe started getting worn down and my new approach paid dividends in fewer of my own planes getting shot down. Suddenly, the two factors led to a snowballing of victory points and on September 6th 1940, I reached the critical victory point score. I had won the game. This took me about a week and ten raid days.

The game is quite repetitive in that you draw a target card and roll to see whether this is a real raid, a minor raid or a major raid. Then you dice to see what warning you get of the raid and how accurate that warning is. The point at which you deploy your fighters and find out what the raid consists of depends upon what level of warning you get. Which of your fighters you can deploy depends upon how early the warning is. It is possible to get no warning, where only fighters actually on patrol on the raid's flight path can deploy against it, to very early warning so you can call in the fighters from all the surrounding airfields.

With both fighters deployed and the raiding aircraft identified, you have to fight your way through the fighter screen before you can attack the bombers. There are random raid events along the way and much of the narrative is driven by card draws for events on the approach, at the target and at the end of each day. With the raid outcome determined for good or ill, you start all over again with the same process, only this time some or all of your pilots could be refuelling and rearming their planes and unable to respond. It is also possible to have multiple raids happening at the same time, either as follow-up raids or in different areas. I think my record in this campaign was four follow-up raids on John's gaming shed, or RAF Hornchurch as the cards called it. By the end of all this action in the one place, I had no fighters left able to respond from any of the surrounding areas and the bombs were falling thick and fast around the shed.

I've seen some complain about the sheer repetitiveness of the game but I found that it was not an issue. I played a raid day or two every night and was soon looking forward to returning to the table and seeing what would happen next. The relentness repetitiveness of the raids was what built the tension in the game as I tried to work out where the next attack would be and which fighters I needed to send up on patrol. If I sent the wrong ones up now, they would not be available in an hour's time if there were a raid over their sector then instead. Likewise, do I send supporting fighters from a neighbouring sector, or will I need them for the next raid? It's very much a resource and risk management game, and I enjoyed it a lot.

I also like that the new edition allows you to play as the Luftwaffe and to play it as a two-player game. I don't particularly have any desire to play the Luftwaffe in this, having grown up thrilling to the sound of Spitfires and Hurricanes at air shows and on a diet of movies like The Battle of Britain and Angels One Five, but I do like having the option. The two-player option offers an interesting challenge too, because a human player is unlikely to manage resources in the same way as the game's AI.

Saturday 14 August 2021

Heroes of Telemark (Decision Games)

I remember watching The Heroes of Telemark on the TV many years ago. It wasn't a movie that really stayed with me, just another in a long line of WW2 movies that formed a large part of my diet as a child. Still, I remembered it enough that I was reminded of it in 2020 when I moved to Stavanger. It turned out that my flat would be next to the graveyard where the dead from Operation Freshman were buried. This made me reflect on the movie and on the reality of this period, although I don't have any great insights to offer. It's just a purely personal reflection on the morality of wargaming generally, my relationship to the past, and my reasons for not usually gaming anything more recent than WW2 these days. If you want more depth and discussion of these topics, I recommend the Polemarch blog instead. The discussions about the morality and philosophy of wargaming there are very interesting.

Eiganes cemetery in Stavanger is home to more than just the members of Operation Freshman. Solveig Bergslien, a member of the Norwegian resistance who died in a Gestapo cell, has her grave here, and there are the graves of Soviet soldiers who died in Rogaland, as well as the Norwegian war dead. Visiting the cemetery really does make you think, but that's not the point of this post.

I picked up Decision Games' Heroes of Telemark, Commando Raids in Norway, 1942-43 recently as part of my quest for more solitaire wargames. I felt a bit weird about it because of my proximity to the dead from one of the raids depicted in the game, but pushed past that and tried it out. It's an interesting game with only four pages of core rules and two of game-specific rules. Knowing the core rules makes other games in this series more accessible because you only need to take on board the game specific rules then.

The game itself has a small footprint (about A3 but actually one of those funny American paper sizes). This makes it ideal for the space-challenged. The map depicts Telemark (if I have done it right, this link should show you the map area on Google Maps), where the heavy water plant was.

The game offers four scenarios that can be played in turn: Operations Grouse, Freshman, Gunnerside and Tinnsjo. Played in order, these set up the narrative of the WW2 operations, but they can also be played in a random order if you just want a slightly different campaign. Success in one operation will increase your chance of encountering Germans in later operations, so the difficulty of each game ramps up through the campaign. You can replay operations if you lose them, but if you lose two operations, the campaign is over and you have failed.

Game length is determined by the number of event cards in a deck. This number is set by the scenario but can go up or down as you encounter and defeat or lose to German patrols. You draw one card each turn and the game is over when the last card is drawn.

Each scenario also gives you recruit points to buy troops and gear. These start in Britain and arrive on the map either by glider landing or parachute according to what type of troops they are. Then you have to move to the various objectives and reveal them. Once revealed, you can capture some of them, destroy others, or find that you have been ambushed and must fight. Operation Grouse requires you to scout the objectives. The other operations are about capturing plutonium or destroying heavy water plants and resources.

In my first game, my entire force was wiped out by an encounter with a massive German patrol. I then moved on to the campaign, having worked out the rules. I succeeded easily in Operation Grouse, encountering little resistance and dodging an ambush by scouting an objective from an adjacent space with my Commandos. Unfortunately, I lost most of my troops to an enemy encounter in Operation Freshman but still managed to win the operation. My engineers all died when my gliders crashed in Operation Gunnerside; they did not even make it onto the map, in a repeat of the historical Operation Freshman. My second try at this operation was a success and I moved on to Operation Tinnsjo, which I lost because of massive hostile activity, and thus I lost the campaign.

Despite my being a bit weirded out by being too close to elements of this game's subject matter, this is an interesting game. It is very random in that your encounters with the Germans can be overwhelming if you roll high for the number of Germans present or they can be a walkover if you roll low. The random distribution of your base and the objectives will also affect how easy or difficult your game is.  However, this just means that you need to manage your risks as best you can and the meaningful choices in the game are made around that risk management, while the pressure to push your luck is provided by drawing the event cards and counting down to the end of the game. The combination of these elements and the short playing time for each operation make the game highly replayable, although I would not want to play it exclusively.

For me, it is a good filler game for when I don't want to, or don't have the time to, sit down for a couple of hours with something meatier. The main down side of this game is that I found the rules a little messy. Despite being short, or perhaps because of that, it took me a little while to piece together how to play.

I have two more of Decision Games' solitaire games: Vikings: Scourge of the North and Border War: Angola Raiders. I expect more of the same from each of these, and look forward to trying them out in the future.

Sunday 8 August 2021

Babysitting duty (Five Parsecs from Home)

Location: Zircon/Jewell

Date: 001/1105

I rolled for the planet's attributes twice and got a Fuel Refinery result and a Gloom result. The former means that travel only costs 3Cr and the latter that visibility will be 1d6+6". I interpreted the fuel refinery as meaning there was a scout base in system. For the latter, I decided it either meant a tainted or an exotic atmosphere. I picked the Jewell subsector to check for a suitable planet first, because it is at the border of Zhodani and Imperial space. I have a vague idea that conflict along the border will be part of any future campaign, although that could change according to whatever whim takes my fancy. So, looking through the systems with scout bases, I noted that Zircon has a dense tainted atmosphere and a scout base. Perfect. Whatever taints the atmosphere causes reduced visibility. It's a non-industrial planet so I think the taint must be natural and may be dust because of the planet's low hydrographic index. At this period in the history of the Spinward Marches Zircon is a non-aligned planet.

The team had dropped in at the scout base for a cheap refuel and Eshtovr went off to see the local commander while the others ran errands. Shelby was in the local market playing dice and doing rather well. Weeb was nearby dickering with a trader and arranging delivery of some trade goods to their ship. Just as he was raking in his latest winnings, Shelby's comms rang.

"Gotta mission," announced Eshtovr, "Some kind of drop being made. I need you to escort the VIP to a data terminal downtown where they will need to access it. Hostiles are likely to be limited in number, but don't take any chances. Seems we could be looking at Cyclan involvement. You and Weeb get over there. We'll follow up as quick as we can. Remember that all weapons are illegal here, so be careful. If you must take that cannon of yours with you, don't let the local cops catch you. Sending coordinates for pick-up and drop off to your comm now."

Sector government (one of the team's patrons) assigned a protection mission. It involves getting the target to the centre of the board for a full turn. The enemy is Converted which I am interpreting as Cyclan, based on E. C. Tubb's Dumarest Saga. I only rolled one enemy, but will be using random events, so let's see how it goes.

Weeb and Shelby met up with the VIP quickly and set off at full speed for the data terminal. The area was not too busy at this time of day, so Shelby powered up his jump belt and hopped onto the roof of the Penneys Building. He took cover behind an air processing unit directly above the objective. Weeb moved quickly up the opposite pavement but paused when finding a data stick in the mouth of an alley he passed. The bot grabbed it, thinking it might have something useful on it. The VIP followed as close behind them as she could. There was no sign of any enemy presence yet.

The team got the drop on the enemy and made a full move before the enemy got to move. On top of that, I rolled low enough that both of my crew were able to act in the quick actions phase. Woohoo. That got Shelby into position while Weeb was able to pick up documentation that would give the team a quest rumour. Who knows where that will lead? The enemy figure advanced at full speed, but did not get into line of sight yet.

Weeb advanced to the corner of the Penneys Building. The bot's sensors quickly detected a suspicious figure moving quickly into cover behind a parked car. It's suspicions were confirmed when the figure pulled an assault rifle out from under it's duster coat and fired at Shelby on the roof. Shelby yelled and pitched over, dropping his rifle. Weeb groaned mechanically as it heard Shelby fall, and again when two ROUS crawled out of a nearby vent. It pinged Eshtovr and told her to hurry up as it raced across the street to get a clear shot at the Cyclan infiltrator. Weeb blasted the infiltrator with both barrels. It would not be getting up again. Now to deal with the ROUS that was launching itself at it. The ROUS's claws were sharp but failed to damage Weeb's plasteel shell. Weeb's shotgun, however, crushed the vermin's skull. One down, one to go, as the other ROUS raced as fast as it could towards the bot. The VIP raced past the bot and the ROUS, reaching the data terminal. Hopefully, she could do whatever she needed to do before anything else could go wrong.

The hostile managed to roll the 6 needed to hit Shelby, taking him out of the fight. I only remembered about using story points later on so I let this result stand. Weeb got to act and moved to a spot where the hostile could not count as in cover. It blasted the infiltrator before being attacked in a brawl by one of the ROUS (vent crawlers). The two brawlers tied but Weeb rolled high enough to kill the ROUS while the ROUS rolled a 1 and did not hurt Weeb. I used giant rats as the vent crawlers because that is what I had to hand.

Weeb quickly pumped the action of its shotgun and let the second ROUS have it right in the face. Two solid hits and the ROUS practically disintegrated. Meanwhile, Eshtovr and Garth had finally arrived! Out of breath, they raced towards the ongoing fight. When they arrived, the VIP was done with their task and disappeared into the crowd. The crew quickly recovered Shelby and looted the corpse of the infiltrator before merging into the crowds that were gathering and then disappearing back to the Saucy Sue where they found that Shelby was just winded. His jump belt had taken the full brunt of the shot and been destroyed in the process.

 The crew earned 9 Credits for this mission, including danger pay and bonuses for completing it quickly. They also gained a Military Rifle and a Blade, and a CredCard that they were able to cash in for 3 Credits.

Shelby was not hurt but lost a random item of equipment.

At this point I awarded experience and moved on to other post-battle activities. No character had enough experience to spend the points yet, and I did not have enough credits to invest in advanced training. I did decide to spend 6 Credits to get a roll on the Gear table and a roll on the Gadget table. The crew snagged a set of Combat Armour and a Repair Bot. With law levels in mind, and the thought that I can introduce the police as a programmed problem in some scenarios, I also spent 2 Credits on Hand Guns for those worlds where rifles are illegal and 3 Credits on Blades for those worlds where even Hand Guns are illegal. I foresee issues where the bad guys pay no heed to the law, but I'll deal with that when the time comes. To offset the cost, I sold a spare shotgun.

The help I gave the VIP has led to making friends among the locals (+1 story point). I suspect we are no involved in some attempt to free the planet from its extra-system rulers.

Shelby and Eshtovr had a heart to heart after his near death experience and Eshtovr was able to both guide and encourage him (+1 XP each). Meanwhile Weeb cracked the data stick and the team gained a Quest Rumour.

And so the crew of the Saucy Sue has been blooded. They took down their first bad guy and made some progress on something bigger than themselves. With the events that have happened, they will stay on this planet and see what opportunities occur. I'll let the dice decide it, but it may be that the planet is being targeted by the Converted and we have to do something about it. I like that idea, but I'm sure the dice will have something else in mind for me. Unfortunately, the next game will have to be when I return home at Christmas as I am now back at work and separated from my figures by the North Sea.

One thought I had before setting up this game was that I really should add civilians to the table and a system for moving the cars. I chose not to for simplicity's sake this time around. I justified this decision by assuming it was very early morning and all the cars were parked, but it feels wrong to have games in an urban environment without moving cars and civilians that we have to watch out for. I might borrow the 'flock of seagulls' rule from TwoHourWargames for pedestrians where they will panic and run in random directions and random distances. The cars will probably just move along the roads at a fixed rate, stopping at junctions if other cars are in their way. I might also dice to see if they crash because of shots fired near them or figures running in front of them.