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Cracked LCD- Ars Victor in Review

arsvictor box

Making a claim that it is “the one hour wargame”, Ars Victor doesn’t make a very convincing case for itself with its tagline. It’s almost like advertising a title as “the wargame with chits” at this point in the genre’s evolution. There are tons of one hour tactical wargames ranging from any of the Commands and Colours titles to Jeff Horger’s Manoeuvre to Conflict of Heroes to the Pocket Battles series and on through to lesser lights like the Mythic Battles line. This class of game has been very popular over the past ten years and, for many game players, it’s also a class that has become redundant. So Ars Victor, designed by the very enthusiastic Stephen DeBaun, has its work cut out for itself. It needs to prove that it can stand next to some of the one-hour titans, it has to evidence differentiators that set it apart from the pack and if it’s going to be eligible to be considered THE one hour wargame- it’s got to be awesome.

The good news is that Mr. DeBaun mostly pulls it off because Ars Victor is a very, very good one hour wargame and I think it does have some appreciable differences beginning with setup. Out of the box, Ars Victor is not scenario-based like most of its peers and constructing an army is part of the game- but this process isn’t nearly as tedious as figuring out where to put all of those little men with a two turn life expectancy down and putting a banner on them like in a Battlelore game, for example. Units are depicted on a single chit, and these are put on a larger banner chit that shows which “suit” they are. More on that after the next paragraph. The big, modular terrain tiles provide a different battlefield for each outing. The hex-based terrain is fixed, so there are no terrain tiles to change things up. But they are reversable, so there is plenty of variety.

Depending on the size of the game, players have up to 80 “Glory” points to spend on units. But you don’t necessarily want to spend all of them, because the remainder goes with you into the game. There are three control points between the players, and if a player has a unit on one it “bleeds” Glory from the other player each turn that it is occupied. Lose a unit, and you also lose however much glory they are worth. If you have your HQ unit on the board but the opponent does not, they bleed glory until they can field their HQ. Run out of glory, and you lose. If your HQ unit gets killed, you can lose that way too.

Now, the suits. There are four suits in two colors. These suits key to the card-driven command system. Each turn you play a card for between two to seven command points to spend on ordering units around. If you order a unit of the same suit, it costs one CP to just move (which may include a bonus for moving without attacking) or two CPs to activate a unit to move and attack. Units of the same color but in the other suit can also be activated with +1CP added to their cost. It’s very rare that you’ll feel screwed by the cards and unable to act effectively. What’s more, not every unit starts the game on the board- you only put four “vanguard” units out- and the rest come on later. You get to decide which suit they’re going to be.

Combat is based on three colors of dice- red, white and blue. The blues are the most dangerous. A unit like an artillery piece may have a tremendous ranged roll, but no melee roll- thus leaving it vulnerable for the lizard-riding cavalry. There are two varieties of hits, a hollow skull and a full skull, and some units shrug off the former. There are also push results, which force a unit to vacate a hex and allows the attacking unit to gain ground if they are adjacent. If the pushed unit can’t make a full retreat, they take a hit and a little number counter is put on the unit to show damage. There seems to be a lot of pushing overall, and scoring hits on units feels much less common than incurring retreats. This means that the game is very much about tussling over those three command spots, pushing forces back until they rush back in to push you off. I kind of like that it’s a big deal to finally off a unit in contrast to other games where your fragile armies are off the map in a quarter of the time it takes to set them up.

As for the combatants themselves, well, let’s just say that they are awfully close to unit types in a very popular science fiction miniatures game. One set included in the box are, um, “Imperial” humans and the other are “elder” space elves. There’s a surprising range of units available with diverse melee, ranged and movement abilities that offer a tremendous range of squad composition potential. For those who might be worried about building an army before each game, bear in mind that you may only be bringing seven or eight units into a game. It all depends on how much Glory you want to play with.


A point of contention with some players may be these units- either some will decry Mr. DeBaun for not really doing a whole lot to mask their inspiration, or they will dislike the cartoonish artwork. I’ll go on record as stating that I actually really like the comic look of the units, it separates the game from hordes of “grim future” games and focuses the look toward a more GW-by-way-of-Adventure Time aesthetic. The visual design is simple overall, easy to parse and intuitive. It’s a very clean looking game.

Overall, Ars Victor is very approachable and familiar but it still manages to feel different than other one hour wargames. I think there’s actually more meat here than you might expect with the wide range of squad builds possible and the smart command system that never railroads you into making crummy decisions. There’s more of a free-form feeling in comparison to the more regimented play of something like Memoir ’44. I would like to see more units- including armor and air units- as well as more terrain types. But out of the box, I think there’s a lot of game here and it’s definitely a contender in its class.

Fast playing and fun, Ars Victor is mostly a victory. Sadly, I think the game is going to have an uphill battle against some well-entrenched and well-supported games that have been around for much longer, and convincing players to give this one a chance may be quite a challenge. But I think those that do give it a shot are going to find that this one could be a new favorite.

Cracked LCD- Battle of the Bulge (IOS) in Review

I’ve only had the game for a couple of days, but after playing it almost constantly through the week I’m already prepared to tell you that Shenandoah Studio’s Battle of the Bulge is the new standard as far as IOS boardgaming goes. Unlike the many ports we’ve seen of popular tabletop games or downscaled PC-style wargames like Battle Academy, Battle of the Bulge is a ground-up tabletop design by veteran designer John Butterfield that just happens to be on your iPad instead of rendered in cardboard chits. It’s a digital-only, low complexity area impulse wargame in the classical sense, and it is just about the most accessible and immediately appealing one in any format I’ve played in many years. This is it folks, this is the flashpoint game that makes wargaming a very modern, very real proposition for the tablet generation.

A large part of what makes this game so successful and so innovative is its presentation. I don’t know that I’ve ever played any wargame that was so accommodating, welcoming, and beautifully presented. Everything from the the user interface to the multimedia elements and right on down to the font choices are tasteful and impeccably modern. The usual graphic design traps that usually result in wargames looking like something for your grandpa are avoided, but more importantly this game barrels right through pretty much every barrier to entry the wargaming hobby has ever had.

The first time you start it up, you’re immediately shown a set of “basics” slides that show you all you need to know to get started. Newcomers will feel immediately comfortable with classical, time-honored conflict simulation mechanics. Veteran wargamers will feel like they’re coming home for Christmas- a Christmas spent fighting one of World War II’s most gamed battles. There’s also a comprehensive tutorial that actually isn’t irritating or overly didactic, and if that doesn’t satisfy you there’s a full rulebook complete with- get this- all of the tables and CRTs for total rules transparency.

Two Bulge scenarios are included, one of which is a three-day, abbreviated version of the full game wherein the Axis just needs to get to the Meuse river to win. You can play this in fifteen minutes. The longer game offers more objectives and victory point opportunities as well as more time to maneuver and really experience what the game’s quite challenging AI has to offer. Both scenarios allow you to command either Axis or Allies in opposition to one of the other side’s two commanders, each of which plays with a different personality.

I’m not going to recount the whys and wherefores of the Battle of the Bulge and I sure as hell am not going to give you the order of battle in the space of a review. If you want historical background, the game has a generous section filled with a succinct history lesson complete with a glossary and description of the arms and armor used. All you need to know right now is that this is a game of the Axis pushing hard with their Panzers and Fallschrimjagers against a reactive defense, racing against time to gain ground while trying to maintain a supply line. You want artillery? It’s there. You want narrative events and historical detail? They’re there. Terrain effects? Yep, they’re there too. Pretty much everything you could want in a high-level wargame is present, and it’s all executed masterfully in a no-bullshit fashion.

The interface is as smooth, sensible, and well-thought out as any I’ve seen in an IOS board game, and there are some brilliant ways of presenting information that make everything easy to understand. Attack a unit getting a terrain bonus and you’ll see in the combat resolution how one of your hits- a bullet hole- is absorbed by the terrain icon. Battles can be previewed and a graphic is shown that represents the likelihood of hits or retreats. Odds don’t look so good? Hit undo and try it again.

The gameplay is addictive and challenging. The time pressure is brutal for the Axis player, particularly in the short scenario where you’ve got to make the best use of roads and armor breakthroughs if you’re going to make it to Bastogne for the draw or the Meuse for the win. I love that the passage of time is variable, which means that a turn could take anywhere from zero to 120 minutes. Coordinating forces and getting decent stacks of three units (the stack limit) to the front and in position to smash the lines- or hold them- is just as compelling as it is any tabletop hex-and-counter wargame.

If the AI can’t beat you- but I think it will- there are hotseat and async Gamecenter multiplayer options, and they are both fantastic. I expect to see this game getting a lot of action into the new year with folks on my friend list. I’m really interested to see how different folks play the attack or defense differently.

I’m completely blown away by this game. It does some things that even the best IOS board games and titles like Battle Academy haven’t been able to do. It’s completely nailed the right ways to present a tabletop game in a digital format with absolutely no compromise, and in a way that anyone can enjoy. It does all of the things that digital board games should do, removing the administrative and logistical burden inherent in physical games and allowing the players to have fun with and really engage the mechanics. It’s such a no-nonsense design, almost effortless in its mastery of the traditional wargame form but with an eye toward the future of the hobby.

The easiest criticism about it is that it’s yet another Bulge game, another World War II game. But I think it needed to be something this familiar and well-tread to succeed. If this were a tabletop game, I don’t know that I’d be that interested in it because of the subject matter and the mountains of games available on it. But on the iPad, it’s fresh and innovative enough to be considered groundbreaking.

So the word is out to other publishers working on IOS wargames. Battle of the Bulge is the one to beat. At least until Shenandoah graces us with another $10 miracle- notice that it’s billed as volume one of “Crisis in Command”. Highest recommendation, and a Game of the Year candidate on every level.


Commands & Colours: Napoleonics Review

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics - the latest iteration of this famous series from GMT games

You may recall that at the start of last weeks’ Commands & Colors: Ancients review I stated that there were a number of games based on the system, and that wargame publisher GMT had sent me a big box of stuff related to it? Well, next in the spotlight is the recent Commands & Colors: Napoleonics game, which transplants the action to the fields of early 19th century Europe and the famed conflict between England and France. This is a particularly interesting one to talk about because rumour has it that designer Richard Borg originally designed the Commands & Colors system from Napoleonic warfare. If that’s true then it’s taken a surprisingly long time for the actual game on the subject to appear.

If you missed that review last week but are reading this one, here’s a brief recap of the basic rules system that underpins all the Commands & Colors systems. The board is divided into three areas, left, right and center, and each player has a hand of cards most of which will allow the movement and attack of a certain number of units across one or more of those areas. So, one card might say three units in the center for example, another might be one unit in each area and so on. One card is played each turn. This is a very simple and intuitive way to model the chaos of command and control in real-life battle situations where your subordinates might well be unaware of or unable to comply with your orders for reasons beyond your control. Usefully it also offers some interesting tactical and strategic decisions, both on board and in terms of hand management, for the board game player. This model still makes pretty good sense in the pre-radio era of Napoleonic warfare. Each unit is made up of a variable number of blocks which are removed as the unit accumulates damage in the dice-based combat system until all the blocks are gone and the unit is destroyed.

A lot of the rules framework seems to have been borrowed from GMTs earlier and extremely popular implementation of the system for Ancient warfare. There are still a lot of unit types most of which have small, annoying but critically important deviations from the basic rules structure such as the number of dice they roll or the number of blocks in a unit. This has lead to some curious artefacts, such as the fact that Leader blocks carry with them a substantial amount of extra rules weight in spite of the fact that, although useful, they’re nowhere near as critical as they are in Ancients. But if you’re familiar with that particular game, you shouldn’t need to expend a whole lot of effort to pick up the rules for this one.

As in other Commands & Colors games from GMT, there are a lot of blocks to sticker
So what’s changed? There are two key differences that distinguish Commands & Colors: Napoleonics from its peers in the system. The first is a set of rules specifically designed to mimic Napoleonic tactics, specifically the ability to cavalry to run away from infantry attacks, for infantry to form square against cavalry charges and for artillery to combined their attack dice with infantry or cavalry assaults in a combined arms attack. The other is that in this game, and this game alone, the number of dice a unit rolls in combat is related to how many blocks there are still in the unit. This is a very curious change because the fact that units fought at full strength regardless of damage until destroyed was a major source of criticism for all the early Commands & Colors games. The given reason was that large-scale military units often do function reasonably effectively until attrition in morale or numbers makes them suddenly collapse is not entirely unreasonable, but I could see no good reason why the same logic should not apply to Napoleonic warfare. Why was this chosen to be different?

My initial, cynical, assumption was that this had been done simply to differentiate a new product from its predecessors in what’s becoming a fairly bloated product range. I am pleased to say that actually playing the game proved me to be wholly wrong. The combination of attritional damage and the Napoleonics-ear specific rules together is what gives the game its authentic, realistic age of rifles flavour. Infantry advancing across open ground will likely be severely depleted before they can return fire, and the job of you as the commander is to utilise other unit types, terrain and lucky command cards to ameliorate this effect as much as possible. Without the dice-per-block rule, it’d be trivially easy to advance and then assault at full strength. The new rules do not only give the system a properly Napoleonic feel, but make the required strategies and tactics for success subtle and well differentiated from other Commands & Colors games. Gamers well versed in previous iterations of the series should still find plenty of challenge here.
Commands & Colors: Napoleonics features some new rules, such as the ability of infantry to form square against cavalry attacks
I am, however, left wondering why exactly they’d want to bother looking. Whilst certainly a good and interesting game, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics suffers from a very unfortunate problem of simply not being quite up to scratch when compared with other Commands & Colors games, even from a variety of different angles. It isn’t quite as deep and satisfyingly realistic as the Ancients game, but it has the same issues with the substantial weight of rules feeling a little too much for the chaotic system that underpins it to bear properly. It isn’t as quick playing, lightweight and exciting and Memoir ‘44 but it has the same considerable set-up time because (unlike Ancients) terrain plays a vital role, and all the scenarios have plenty of hexes to add to the board. It’s neither one thing nor the other, and I can’t see all that many circumstances where I would pick this over one of those two games.

This is unfortunate. There’s a quality game in this package, one that I enjoyed, and one that designer and developers clearly worked hard on to give it the necessary Napoleonic flavour, and for the most part succeeded: it’s just that in the process they also created a game that fell into the valley between two peaks. I’m certain now of something I have only suspected before, which is that the world now has enough Commands & Colors games and their associated expansions. It’ll be interesting to see if other gamers hit the same burnout with the upcoming Samurai battles iteration. In the meantime, if you’re a particular aficionado of the system, or of Napoleonic warfare, this is well worth your time and money to check out. For the everyone else, the existing games in the lineup should prove sufficient.

Commands & Colours: Ancients Review

Commands and Colors: Ancients allows you to re-fight the punic wars between Rome and Carthage

If you google Commands and Colors, you’ll get a startling array of results all of which are connected to a simple game system for modelling warfare that’s become so wildly popular with board gamers that it’s spawned a mass of iterations across historical and even fantastical settings. However, ask most experienced gamers what the best of these titles is and they’ll tell you it’s Commands & Colors: Ancients from GMT games, which deals for the most part with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. That publisher recently sent me a big box of various Commands & Colors material for review and, given that an iOS implementation is due from Playdek some time this year, Ancients seemed a good place to start.

All the Commands & Colors games operate on the same basic mechanical principles. The board is divided into three areas, left, right and center, and each player has a hand of cards most of which will allow the movement and attack of a certain number of units across one or more of those areas. So, one card might say three units in the center for example, another might be one unit in each area and so on. One card is played each turn. This is a very simple and intuitive way to model the chaos of command and control in real-life battle situations where your subordinates might well be unaware of or unable to comply with your orders for reasons beyond your control. Usefully it also offers some interesting tactical and strategic decisions, both on board and in terms of hand management, for the board game player. One of the reasons that Ancients is so feted amongst all the games that use this system is because the era is so peculiarly well suited to this model. In more recent warfare, order relays have been improved by things such as flag signalling and more recently radio, increasing exponentially the ability of a commander to command effectively. Back in the ancient days though, there was nothing but runners to communicate orders down the line and things could and did become exceptionally confused.

All Commands & Colours games also add more complex card effects into the deck and Ancients makes full use of these to maximise its model of ancient warfare for minimal overhead. A lot of cards allow you to give orders to units depending on their adjacency either to other units, or to leader units so you’re encouraged to fall in with ancient battle doctrine and try and keep your units in a line, with leaders at vital points of control. Again, usefully for the board game player, it also gives you a lot of tactical and strategic headaches to deal with in terms of trying to keep a cohesive front in the face of a system that naturally tries to split things between three areas of the board, the sorts of headaches that real-life ancient commanders would have had to deal with in trying to keep the flanks of their forces coordinated with the center. The simple and easy manner in which the mechanics put you in the right frame of mind for warfare of the era without you even realising it is just a joy to behold, especially when compared with the wealth of historical simulation games that hit the players with a ton more rules to considerably less effect.

Your forces in Commands & Colors: Ancients will often start in linear formation, but they usually don't stay that way for long!
Sadly, while you do get an awful lot of strategic and simulation value from a relatively meagre 18 pages of rules, the game still suffers a bit from detail overload. There are a lot of different unit types in Ancients – 14 to be precise – all of which require very slightly different rules and have very slightly different stats. That’s a lot to take on board. The need for good leader positioning and line cohesion give you a lot to chew over in terms of decision making. And yet the essence of the Commands & Colours system is very much controlled chaos: combat is dice based and maneuver is card based and no matter how much effort to put into learning those rules and planning those moves, your entire game can still be completely screwed over by one unlucky turn. Ancients plays in about an hour, and set-up time, which is typically significant in its peers, is relatively quick thanks to minimal battlefield terrain, so this is largely forgivable. But I still find myself hanging back from a completely wholehearted recommendation on this game because of these issues: it’s simply that the Commands & Colours system feels like it’s better suited to lighter rules and faster, more immediately exciting play than Ancients can deliver, whatever it gives you in terms of simulation value and depth in return.

Which isn’t to say that the game isn’t exciting, more that it’s a slow burning thing that gradually builds towards a crescendo. You’ll start off struggling to keep your line in place whilst moving toward the enemy, and additionally co-ordinating missile attacks from light troops and flanking maneuvers from your more mobile cavalry and chariots. You’ll curse the dice, and you’ll curse the cards more. Then, at some point, one player decides he’s got the momentum and the cards to pull off the big charge, the light infantry will melt away, and a big part of the lines will clash for a grand melee and suddenly the tension is at fever pitch because in Commands & Colors: Ancients, enemy units you don’t kill or rout get to strike back at full strength and that means that in the space of minutes, it’s possible to go from being in the ascendancy to being ignominiously torn apart by the very enemy you’d thought to conquer. Thrilling? Absolutely. Frustrating? Sometimes, and doubly so when you’ve put in the effort to learn the rules and work through the strategies. That’s pretty much the highs and the lows of the entire game experience in one neat package.

There are a lot of blocks in Commands & Colors: Ancients - there are over twice as many stickers to apply to them
I don’t normally pass much comment on components nowadays: if a game is good it’s worth playing even if it looks awful, but there are two things you need to know about what’s in the Commands & Colours: Ancients box. Firstly, wargame publishers are not known for quality components and while GMT are know as a frequent exception to this rule, they’ve outdone themselves here. The board is mounted, the cards thick and well finished and the artwork both functional and striking. Secondly, units in the game consist of wooden blocks to which you apply stickers denoting the unit type. There are several hundred blocks. There are double the amount of stickers. Getting this game ready for play therefore requires a very considerable amount of time and effort. You can do a lot of it while you’re half-watching the TV or, better yet, just having a good chat but if the idea of carefully applying many hundreds of stickers to small bits of wood has you running for cover, avoid this game like the plague.

Even though I have minor reservations about the game play in Commands & Colors: Ancients and can’t therefore join the unadulterated love-in that it enjoys in some gaming circles, I have no dispute with the popular opinion that as a single, stand alone game, it’s the best of the entire Commands & Colors series. When you add in expansions things become more complicated but it’s still right up at the top as a contender. The effortless manner in which it draws players unwittingly into its simulation elements and the uneasy yet strangely addictive balance between luck and strategy that it achieves make sure of that. If you’ve never played a Commands & Colors game but have room in your life for a short military simulation for two, you owe it to yourself to try one, and the one you should try first is very probably this one. Hopefully, Playdek will work their magic and that opportunity will also come within reach of anyone who might otherwise balk at paying the asking price for a physical copy, or stickering all those blocks.

Battle Academy IOS in Review

Battle Academy, a $20 iPad app from Slitherine raises eyebrows not just because of its premium price, but also because it is a fully featured pop wargame in the vein of Panzer General. Unlike many original App Store strategy offerings like UniWar, Great Little Wargame or Ravenmark, Battle Academy is a direct port of a fairly recent PC game with virtually no loss in content. Visual quality takes something of a hit in the translation, but you’d be hard pressed to find a richer, more satisfying turn-based wargame on the platform. It sets a precedent for bot this kind of game on IOS as well as for the availability of more niche, complex titles- trends that other developers will hopefully follow.

The feature list is impressive. You could buy 20 single mechanic physics games with funny animals or you could buy this game with something like 100 different World War II units, 30 campaign missions that offer plenty of replayability as you try to meet specific criteria in each to earn stars, asynchronous multiplayer, skirmish modes, and even a kind of horde/survival mode. You can even download- for free- 10 user-created maps from the PC game. If you exhaust all of that, the game also has three $10 IAPs that will give you another whopping 27 missions.

On top of all that raw content, which could account for literally hundreds of hours of gameplay, you’re buying a detailed- yet accessible- conflict simulation . Battle Academy takes into account everything from wargame basics such as line of sight, terrain, cover, fog of war, and artillery to more detailed concepts such as morale, suppression, ambushes, armor deflection, portage, and infiltration.

It’s actually a little overwhelming on the iPad, if only because it’s so unexpected and out of character on platform mostly known for casual, mainstream games. The tutorial levels are decent and playing through the campaigns in sequence (starting with North Africa) help, but I would have liked to have seen more in-line help available. Slitherine’s Web site has a lot of useful information, but some more tool tips and more transparency regarding what is going mechanically would have been appreciated. I get it that shooting at a fast-moving target reduces my chance to hit. But how much?

Like Panzer General, the game is user friendly and you can take a look at your chances to hit or kill a unit taking into account cover and other factors before issuing a fire order. It’s an action point system, so budgeting enough points to move, shoot, hunt, turn, or disembark is important. You don’t want those Rangers to run out of steam while standing out in a gap in the bocage or that blasted British anti-tank unit with the rear-facing gun to get stuck pointed away from the Panzers. The touch interface you’ll use to marshal the troops mostly works well, but with all the double-tapping and pop-up icons it’s pretty easy to screw up and send the Bren gunners down the hill by mistake.

Every mission gives you plenty to think about from spending points to choose additional units on through deployment and execution. Objectives vary from seizing control points, sieging fortified areas, and holding territory under assault. Some of the larger scenarios can be quite daunting and time-consuming, if not frustrating. This is not Advance Wars.

It may not be a cartoon, but the game’s interstitial mission briefings and typesetting is all smartly comic book-styled, with multi-panel comics pages outlining the objectives for each mission. It’s a very cool look straight out of a Sgt. Rock book, and it gives the game another layer of approachability that stock photographs or grognardy Osprey illustrations wouldn’t afford.

Other visual assets don’t fare so well. The terrain textures are muddy whether it’s the beaches of Normandy, the snows at the Bulge, or the North African desert. Units are likewise dull-looking and low resolution. The game offers a fully scaleable, rotatable 3D view or a top-down one that’s frankly easier to use. I found myself wishing that the game offered a truly old school cardboard counter-style visual option. A recent update adds support for the new iPad’s Retina display, but I’ve not seen it for myself to comment.

I received a review code for Battle Academy from the publisher, but had I bought it for $20 I think it would represent a tremendous value and an absolute must-have for anyone interested in wargaming on the iPad. It’s easy to furrow the brow over the price, but the jump in quality and type of content is apparent throughout the package. It’s likely that diehard PC strategy gamers might be less impressed by the game with more options available on that platform, but speaking as a player that hasn’t had a gaming PC in the past five years I’m thrilled to have this kind of game on the iPad.