Monday, May 3, 2010

Little Wars

One would think that someone who espouses the value of gaming and loves to play games as much as I do would take better care of this blog than going months upon months without updating it. It isn't that I'm not playing and that I'm not involved in working behind the scenes on some game projects, it's just that blogging keeps falling back to a low priority. I apologize.

A little over a week ago, I was privileged to attend a gaming convention I've always wanted to attend, but used to live far enough away that the travel was prohibitive. I arrived in the Chicago area and let this convention slip past me twice before I finally made it--mostly because the convention organizers changed the date last year from its traditional date. But this year, I made it to "Little Wars," the convention named after H. G. Wells' classic set of rules for playing with "toy soldiers" on table-tops. I've been to GenCon where I've played board games, role-playing games, and wargames with miniatures. At Origins, I've played board games, role-playing games, and miniatures. I've even enjoyed World Boardgame Championships as the most amazing experience in concentrated board wargaming, ever. But this was the first time I've been to Little Wars.

My friend, Don Perrin, goes every year. I've known Don by reputation as a wargamer for years and now, I'm privileged to be in a writer's group with him. I've also read a few of his books. In fact, I saw Don at a great little seminar on designing scenarios specifically for conventions. Imagine how thrilled I was to listen to guys I've only read about like Jim Purky (brilliant figure painter and scenario designer for Seven Years War games like the one he did at Historicon, last year) and Keith Leidy (believed by many to be the grandmaster of hosting Napoleonic games like this one).

I was intrigued by Tod Kershner, author of Pig Wars, the now out-of-print skirmish rules for looting during the Dark Ages, when he quoted Donald Featherstone (the father of our current era of miniatures gaming)as stating, "Never let history get in the way of a good game." And, I was a firm believer in his basic rule of thumb: "By the end of Turn #2, you want everyone to be able to read/understand the charts--you don't need tight command/control rules."

Keith Leidy had a slightly more organized approach. He said that there are four elements to a good game: 1) beautiful aesthetic, 2) playable rules, 3) good players, and 4) a balanced scenario. He further defined the latter as saying that if there are four players on each side, "Every person needs an objective or something that puts them in immediate conflict with someone across the table."

All of the panelists agreed on things to avoid. One shouldn't put unmanageable terrain in the middle of the table because it tends to divide the entire conflict into two very different games. Leidy suggested that if you do have significant terrain features, you need to give at least a 2:1 advantage to the attackers.

Of course, I must confess that I wasn't really at the convention to listen to seminars. I'd done enough of that at a comic book convention the weekend before. I went to play. I met Trent Burg, author of Warbirds in Miniature, and he led a short Pacific Theater WWII scenario using those rules. I hadn't realized that these rules were inspired by an old favorite of mine, GDW's Blue Max. The great thing about these rules (besides playing quite fast and being easy to learn) was that the miniatures were all enhanced with Airestands. These have components representing different heights that can be easily adjusted in increments of 10, 5, 2, and 1 so that you can simulate any given altitude. In addition, they have magnets in the top section so that you can adjust the angle to reflect that of the plane within its given maneuver.

Our particular scenario was going great as our P-40 Warhawks took down a bunch of Japanese Kates. Things were going quite well until I crashed into my own wingman (both of us rolled 7's on simultaneous 2-12 die rolls). One plane immediately exploded and the other three had to limp home. Technically, we thwarted the bombing mission, but at what a cost!

Another game used the Mein Panzer rules for an obscure Russo-Japanese battle (not in the Russo-Japanese War, but in 1939) just prior to WWII. It was called "One Rickety Pontoon Bridge: The Battle of Khalkhin Gol." My Japanese troops (with meager platoon of tanks trapped on the wrong side of the river) managed to hold off Zhukov's units (only a splinter of the bridge was holding everything together at the end of the battle, but it wasn't destroyed). Most impressive was getting to move lead (okay, pewter) alongside the author of the rules, Jonathan Coulter. By the way, he didn't "rules lawyer" even when the referee didn't rule quite as he had intended the rules to work.

Finally, I was reminded that old magazines are still good magazines. Someone had created a miniatures game based on Kamikaze, a magazine game published in Fire & Movement #31, back when Alan Emrich's Diverse Talents, Inc. were publishing it, if I recall correctly. This was the only full game ever published in F&M to my knowledge, but it's a player and a half. Unfortunately, my U.S. convoy was annihilated in the game. Yet, it's a fast-playing game with lots of waves of incoming. If you like lots of die-rolling, you'd love this game.

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