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Hell’s Gate Review


If you’re in the habit of picking through lists of board and video games about World War 2, you’ll see a lot of names you recognise from deeply-buried folk memories and history classes. Normandy and the Bulge, El Alamein and Monte Cassino, Stalingrad and Kursk. But there’s one battle which seems to attract considerably more interest from game designers than it does the general public: the Korsun Pocket. And that’s what Hell’s Gate is all about.

It has an interesting pedigree, this game. Originally designed by an university lecturer as a means of demonstrating the dynamics of encirclement operations in-class, it found its way into the academic literature and from there to Victory Point Games who’ve produced this lovely print. The soot-besmirched counters that result from their laser cutting process might bother some people, but there’s no doubting the durability of the thick card or the evocatively polar board art. You can almost hear the icy winds sweeping across the steppe as you play.

But how does it play? Well, it’s a masterclass in how the tried and tested foundations of hex and counter gaming can result in startlingly unusual games as a result of very simple tweaks. The need to fit it into university classes ensures it’s fast playing and easy to lean, especially if you’ve got any experience of the genre at all. However, several of the single scenario’s eight turns have their own unique special rules which are a pain to internalize and apply.

The first things veterans will probably notice is that you attack and then move, rather than the more traditional sequence of move and attack. This is partly an accessibility issue because it removes the need for additional rules to cover breakthrough movement after successful attacks. Which would, in truth, have been absurdly cumbersome for a game with so few hexes and units.

The other key oddity on display is the retreat rules. Normally retreat is something enforced onto defending units as the result of an attack. But in Hell’s Gate, the defender can choose to retreat to avoid taking a step loss, as long as the combat result doesn’t do more damage than the unit has steps. And given that the combat resolution table mostly deals in one or two damage, and most units have two steps, retreat tends to be a viable option to save your troops.

That’s hugely unrealistic, of course. There isn’t a commander in history who wouldn’t have given a limb for the opportunity to choose whether his troops stood and fought to the last man or fell back. But realism at that level isn’t the point of the game. Its function is to demonstrate the logistics of an encirclement, the command decisions faced by the aggressors and the trapped, and in that respect it succeeds admirably.


The Russian player starts with some powerful tank units to the north and south of the board, and some temptingly weak links in the Germans lines to launch them at. But right away there are choice and compromises that need to be made. While a southern breakthrough is all but assured, the north is a harder prospect. The game allows attackers to sacrifice a unit step to improve the results, but doing so makes a German counterattack more likely. Or a weaker attack against truly feeble opposition in the northeast is a possibility, but it would leave less troops cut off.

Eventually, the German units are almost certain to be cut off, although the amount of time this takes can have a significant impact on how the game plays out. Then the challenge is for the Germans to try and extract as many troops as possible. Early on, actually breaking the encirclement and re-establishing supply lines is a realistic possibility. Later it becomes a matter of pushing to get the trapped units and their would-be relievers as close to each other as possible to make the most of a last-turn “breakout” special rule (with important errata) which can rescue units without combat.

The reason for this special rule seems largely to be the result of that odd retreat mechanic. The fact retreating is always an option makes it near-impossible for the Germans to actually penetrate the Soviet lines beyond the first couple of turns. This is, I suspect, an academic decision: the game is supposed to teach about encirclement and not daring (and ahistorical) rescue missions. But it can be pretty anti-climactic, especially for the German player who is left with little to do in the mid to late game.

Fortunately the game plays well solo. Indeed I actually think that’s probably how it’s best enjoyed. There are other minor niggles for two players, chief amongst them a tendency for unlucky dice roll results to have catastrophic effects. There’s a 1 in 3 chance each turn, for instance, for the weather to turn from snow to mud which is an enormous hindrance to whoever is on the offensive at the time (usually the Russians) and the combat resolution table can also throw up anomalies.

But as a solitaire exercise in teaching yourself about encirclement, and particularly about the encirclement of Korsun, it works very well. While the small scale and single scenario obviously limit replay value there’s a surprising amount of variety to explore. I’ve seen games that conform to the history but others where the Russians slowly built an impenetrable wall, where the Germans made continual south-western breakthroughs, where there was no encirclement and the Axis smashed a red army reinforcement pool to pieces. In other words, it serves it’s stated purpose very well indeed.


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.

If You Want Peace, Prepare to Wargame

Wargames viewed from different angles

One of the things I love about NoHighScores is the fact that it’s a game site on which staff and users remember that the word “games” has a much, much wider reach than your nearest computing device. But since starting to scuff my shoes here on a regular basis, there’s at least one major genre that seems to be missing from the coverage, and that’s historical wargames.

That’s not entirely surprising. Although wargames are one of the most easily-defined sub-genres of the board game world they have pretty much zero penetration into the wider hobby consciousness. The cartoon at the top says it all in terms of misconceptions about this sector of the hobby. And the hobbyists don’t help themselves either. Wargamers put an emphasis on simulation in their designs and that often means games that are two-player only, immensely complex and long-playing with huge downtime. The infamous Campaign For North Africa is the ultimate example of this trend, with a three volume rulebook, 1800 counters and a 1500 hour play-time. Given the focus on re-fighting historical battles a desire for simulation is perhaps understandable. What’s less so is the apparently conservative mindset of a lot of wargamers who started out on the hobby in the 70’s and seem to want to see endless minor variations on world-war 2 eastern front “panzer pusher” games and who insist on using impenetrable military and historical jargon that’ll put off experienced board gamers from other spheres who might feel qualified to tackle the rules sets these things demand. For evidence you need look no further than the primary internet gathering place for wargamers, Consimworld, which uses an interface so arcane that even people who braved the bulletin boards and newsgroups of the very early web find it hard to navigate.

And yet none of this really need be the case. The manner in which this hobby segment actively turns off new recruits is long recognised and lamented by the more forward-thinking designers and commentators in the sector and there has been an active, and growing movement over the past ten years to learn some design lessons from other sectors of the hobby and push out some clever and innovative designs that extract maximum simulation value from minimum rules and play time alongside the traditional eastern front fare. Indeed, given the relatively stagnant state of European-style game design right now, and the manner in which American-style design is dominated by a very small number of big publishers, I’d say that modern wargames are currently at the cutting edge of game design. If you don’t dip your toe into this market from time to time, you’ll be missing out on some seriously interesting games.

So if you’re going to take the plunge into this sticky and potentially impervious morass, what’s a good place to start? Well the first thing to say is that a big part of the pleasure in playing wargames is in picking titles that represent some history that interests you, and that should be your first winnowing point. If you want to re-live the sort of personal stories of modern warfare that make up the bulk of TV and films about war then you’ll want to pick a small-scale (tactical) level game about a 20th century conflict. If you’re in to cable TV documentaries about ancient generals then take a look a mid-scale (operational) games set in the ancient world. If books about economic and social history during warfare sound more your thing then you’ll probably want a top scale (strategic) game, perhaps from the Napoleonic or American Civil War era. Partly thanks to the manner in which one designer can invent a mechanical basis for a wargame, and others can adapt it to battles that interest them from roughly the same period the palette of potential wargames is huge.

Given this advice and the enormous diversity of games on offer, it’d be hypocritical of me to say I can offer you a basket of catch-all introductory wargames to suit all-comers. Rather I’m just going to focus on a small handful that are both suitable for new players and belong in that small basket of highly innovative designs that I mentioned earlier in the article. You should be able to teach and play most of these games to completion in a 2-4 hour session, and all but one allow for multiple players in addition to the more traditional two.

My first pick is the Conflict of Heroes series from Academy games, and its first on the list not only because it’s brilliant but because it was tailor made as an entry point into the hobby. It’s a tactical level game played on a traditional hex map with traditional counters representing a squad, a tank or a weapon team but there’s nothing traditional about the component quality. Instead of the paper maps and flimsy two-tone counters you’ll find in most wargames, all these games have mounted boards and big, thick, ready-punched counters lavished in glorious 3D artwork. The rules may look daunting at first but they’re introduced piecemeal for easy digestion and you can jump in and play several of the scenarios after just the first few pages. It’s also worth remembering that tactical games are usually fairly complex due to the level of detail they need to represent and Conflict of Heroes does an excellent job of jettisoning all the extraneous rubbish and focusing down on a system that is exciting, challenging and which strikes an enviably brilliant balance between randomness and depth. Again, unlike usually plodding pace of tactical games, which stands in stark contrast to the adrenaline-fueled action they purport to depict, these games are very fast playing with minimal down time. Currently there are two editions of this game, set in different times on the Eastern Front, but more are planned across several fronts of World War 2, and possibly extending to other modern warfare theatres as well.

Napoleon's TriumphNext up we have a game that I once stated was the best-looking game in the world, ever, thanks to the manner in which it mimics the map layout of a battle that you might see in the tent of an eighteenth century general, Napoleon’s Triumph from Simmons Games. This title also gets another top accolade from me, as I reckon it, and it’s younger sibling Bonaparte at Marengo are possibly the most innovative games I’ve ever seen. They share a basic concept of having units printed on wooden blocks that you can then turn away from the enemy to create a fog-of-war effect with a large number of other, more venerable wargames but other than that I have difficulty spotting where designer Bowen Simmons could possibly have got the rest of his ideas from. Indeed it’s such an unusual system that I’m going to cop out and not even attempt to describe how it works: suffice to say that it’s a completely non-random and truly fiendish combination of chess and poker that leverages the hidden information of what units are where to create a fantastically deep game that’s nevertheless filled with nerve-wracking bluffs and evasions. It also manages to elegantly model the slow breakdown in command and control that was such a feature of pre-radio warfare. But that level of invention also works against the game: it’s not complex by any means but it remains tough to learn due to a lack of familiar concepts to latch on to. However, to miss out on a game of such startling brilliance over that small hurdle would be a tragedy. If you don’t fancy the Napoleonic theme the designer has a new American Civil War game based on the same system, Guns of Gettysburg, out later this year.

I wasn’t able to completely ignore two player titles for this little list but Washington’s War is the only 2-player game I felt Washington's Warcompelled to add. It belongs to a popular sub-genre called card-driven games (CDG’s) which also contains my favourite game of all time, Twilight Struggle (which is arguably not a wargame and so didn’t make the list on its own right). Indeed Washington’s War is a redevelopment of the very first CDG that kicked off the whole shebang, We The People, long out of print and now a collectors item. Both are probably best understood as political control games with a warfare element in which players vie to spread their influence across the map, using generals to force their way through choke points where the population doesn’t agree with them. That’s partly what makes it suitable for new players. Another thing is the incredible 90 minute play time which is virtually unheard of for any kind of meaningful wargame. And in those ninety minutes you have the pleasure of endless strategic puzzles as the game state slips around wildly before you, and you worry about whether or not now is the right time to launch that offensive, or play that powerful event, or whether you wait and see if it’ll be your opponent trying to dictate the play in any given round. The game is much less prone to scripting and pre-tried patterns of play than most other CDGs and also benefits from being massively asymmetrical, with the ponderous but tremendously powerful professional British armies trying to pin down and destroy the weak but nimble American patriots. That asymmetry requires some rules weight, and the rule book isn’t the best, but if you spend the time with this one not only will you have gained the knowledge of how to play one of the best wargames ever made, but it’ll put you in good stead for most of the other titles in this genre, many of which are outstanding. If you want a bit more on this one, I reviewed it over at the Fortress last year.

Last but not least is a pair of relatively obscure games covering especially obscure bits of already obscure wars, Friedrich and Maria. I feel compelled to talk about them both not only because they’re closely related mechanically and from the same designer but because Fredrich, the only one I’ve played, is now out of print and hard to find so I offer Maria which I admittedly know a whole lot less about, as a possible replacement. One of the interesting things about both these games is that unlike a lot of wargames that accommodate multiple players almost as an afterthought, in these two it’s the crux around which the game is built. In Friedrich this takes the form of a 3-4 player game in which one player takes Austria and the others are placed in the interesting position of needing to collaborate to defeat him whilst struggling for an individual win, setting up some deliciously treacherous dynamics. Maria on the other hand is three player only but comes with a highly acclaimed diplomatic system to govern diplomacy. The other particularly interesting thing about these games is their combat system which revolves around ordinary decks of playing cards, with local terrain determining what suite needs to be used for the battle resulting in a fascinating interplay between on-board maneuver and hand management.

This is already a long article, likely to be of interest to a limited number of readers so I’ll avoid a lengthy conclusion. Suffice to say that the board gamers amongst you owe it to yourselves to try at least one of these games. And if none of the suggestions appeal in terms of subject matter, well, do feel free to ask for more.

Through These Fields of Destruction

Brothers In Arms: Earned in Blood Firefight

I am the veteran of a thousand battlefields across all of time and space. From the Halo ring to the remnants of Silverspring my guns have sung their dirges of destruction and my swords and axes have bathed in gore. I have seen wonders beyond belief: the jeweled skies of Na Pali reflected in the shimmering surface of Tarydium crystals, spectral monks flitting through snow shrouded ruins on the coast of Ireland, blossoming fire from an interstellar bombardment enveloping the Strogg citadel. Across the dimensions I have endured horrors unimaginable and left unnumbered dead in my wake.

And yet, as I brood now in the gathering gloom of my obsolesce, there is nothing I can recall quite so clearly as Normandy, Earth in 1944.

I, who stood before the cyber-satan of Mars and laughed my mocking laugh, lay prostrate with terror behind a pile of logs as the combined fire of a German platoon tore up the wood behind my back and span through the air so close above my head that I could feel the heat of the tracers. Smoke and cordite hung in the air, mixing with churned earth and chipped sawdust that stuck in the nose and choked the throat. There was no way I could even raise my head above cover to shoot back without taking a bullet in the brain.

Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Trying to compose my fraught nerves and to make myself heard above the griding din of mechanised warfare, I started to bark out instructions to the two squads under my command. One work to the left, lay down some suppressing fire to give squad two the chance to dash a little nearer. Then vice-versa so that they slowly began to inch their way toward the enemy positions where one, I hoped, could outflank a squad or a machine-gun emplacement, and destroy it.

Those were my instructions. But once those boys had gone, I couldn’t see them any more. I had to hang tight and pray that they could follow my instructions and manage not to get themselves killed in the process. It was a nerve-racking few minutes crouched behind my flimsy cover and listening to them shout and yell to one another whilst rapid crack of their semi automatic M1 rifles mixed with the lower rumbles of the bolt-action German models. But eventually the volume of fire on my position began to lessen. After a couple more minutes I was able to risk a look to try and ascertain where the remnants of the enemy were, then to dash out myself and sneak round behind where my troopers had pinned the last few stragglers and finish them off myself.

With all the myriad of memories that I have of gunfights in the far-flung reaches of space, why do I remember this so clearly? I remember it because it was a moment which was utterly unique. I’d commanded soldiers before but they were just mindless cannon-fodder that charged into the fray at my back, to be mown down like dry grass in the wind. Here, they were my salvation, and I needed to flex some proper tactical muscles instead of just physical ones to triumph over my enemies. There is nothing – nothing – in all my long years of warfare that can compare.

I remember more, too. I remember the cold terror of charging into a bank of mist and engaging German paratroopers in blind, desperate hand-to-hand fighting. I remember directing my men to defend the bombed out shell of a Cathedral as I sat in the spire, sniping at the enemy soldiers through a scope, worrying about their safety and consumed with the creeping fear that armour might show up and blow us out of our fortified positions with heavy weapons. I remember the awe of inching across the desolate landscapes of ruined St. Sauveur under a storm-laden sky, filled with foreboding in case the artillery that caused such destruction was still zeroed in and primed to fire. I remember all this because there was genuine fear in knowing that a single bullet would mean the end and having to start over. I remember it because it was so terrifyingly real, to the point that I could recognise portions of the landscape from photos I’d seen in history books. I remember it because, unlike all the other fantastic places I’d wielded a weapon and killed my enemies, it actually happened.

I have these memories thanks to the Brothers in Arms games Road to Hill 30 and Earned in Blood, about my favourite video games ever. They were hardly flawless. Tactical shooters such as these, especially ones that put such a weight on the behaviour of friendly units, live and die on the strength of their AI and that of the BIA games weren’t quite up to the enormous load that the game model put on them, although I’m not sure even modern hardware and software could quite measure up to that challenge, so what we got back then was truly outstanding by the standards of the time. But ultimately I can’t really disagree with the critical consensus that weaknesses in the AI made the game occasionally frustrating in the extreme. It’s pretty hard to watch as you order a fire team into cover, observe two of your men follow your orders to the letter showing that your command has been understood, while the third stands bolt upright in the open and promptly gets his head blown off. It’s harder still to watch this performance repeated over and over again as you try and replay that section of the game.

But in the end the game was easily – easily – absorbing and original enough to compensate. Nearly every other game in the “tactical shooter” genre with which BIA got lumped involves creeping through unlit, unpopulated corridors for ten minutes and then waiting behind a pillar for a further ten minutes to try and understand the movement patterns of the guards before someone spots you and cuts you down in a hail of gunfire. Not entirely my idea of fun. But in BIA you got a seamless blend of furious FPS action with a real-time tactics game that simultaneously challenged you to twitch like a demon and think like a general.

Brothers in arms Sherman firefightThat would have been enough to make it a brilliant game, but what lifted it into the realms of the extraordinary was the attention that developers Gearbox gave to authenticity. Many of the missions from the game were lifted direct from history, and many of the environments painstakingly re-created from actual historical photographs. If you know any world war 2 history, hell, if you’ve ever watched Band of Brothers (which the developers clearly did and had) you’ll feel an ominous sense of dread and recognition as you approach the town of Carentan or the Battle of Bloody Gulch. The game exudes detail and atmosphere from every pore: artillery pieces you’ll plant charges on and tanks you’ll ride on are perfect replicas of the real thing, and they even remembered to include the characteristic “ping” noise that M1 rifles gave off when their clips were empty, to let the user know it was time to reload. It was built into the mechanics too: you couldn’t aim accurately unless you stood still, and under fire your gun would wobble precariously to simulate the stress, so you absolutely had to leverage the tactical element of the game in order to succeed. Most brutal of all was the injury model where even a couple of wounds could kill you, and a sparse save-point pattern which discouraged risk-taking and came the closest that a game perhaps ever could to making the player genuinely fearful about the prospect of being killed. The combination of intense, challenging game-play and authentic atmosphere lead, for me, to a truly unequalled sense of immersion in the game world.

Of the two games, I think I loved Earned in Blood the most, even though it got lower critical scores. People rubbished it a little because game-play wise it was identical to it’s predecessor and they felt it should have been released as an expansion rather than a stand-alone game. But I didn’t care: it had better AI, a more compelling story, a free-play sandbox mode for multi-player or bots and more historical weapons and missions, more of all the stuff that made the franchise so engrossing in the first place. Sadly I don’t own a current generation console (shock! horror!) so I’ve not managed to play the sequel Hell’s Highway which looks excellent but abandons a little of the realism of the earlier games in favour of a more casual and exciting model which probably has slightly wider appeal for the majority of gamers: still, it’d certainly be the very first game I purchased for a new console should I acquire one. I’m still hoping there might be another sequel set in the Battle of the Bulge, although there the series will have to reach its conclusion in terms of story arc, since that was the last major action the 101st airborne fought. But it was also, arguably, the most difficult, the most heroic and the most likely to make for an astonishing story and experience. If they do choose to do it, I hope to God that they get it right.